Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd19/02/2019
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
As we begin our proceedings this afternoon, it's appropriate that we remember the contribution of the Member of Parliament Paul Flynn to the political life of both Newport and Wales. A likeable and kind man, who was faithful to his country and to this Senedd, with independence of thought and strength of principle marking his political life. We remember him well and extend our sympathies to all his family and friends.
That brings us therefore to our first item of business for this afternoon, which is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Dai Lloyd.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on planned school closures in Swansea? OAQ53443
Wel, diolch yn fawr, Llywydd, and, with your permission, I'll just echo a few of the words that you've just expressed in relation to Paul Flynn. A huge servant of the city of Newport, a remarkable speaker in the House of Commons and on stages elsewhere in Wales, but someone who I think will be remembered most for speaking up on behalf of people and causes where little popular support existed at the time, and that included devolution at the start of his own career. Some in our trade are skilled at spotting a tide that is already on its way in and are able to ride it to the shore. I think Paul Flynn's integrity and courage was to be willing to speak for those things where that tide had yet begun to run and then to make others more willing to follow in its wake. He will be hugely missed, as you said, Llywydd, by family and by friends, but long remembered by us all too.
So, just to turn to the first question, and to say that Swansea City and County Council has published notices to close Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Felindre and Craigcefnparc Primary School. The objection period ended for both proposals on 6 February. The council’s cabinet must now decide whether to approve or reject the proposals. I am unable to comment on proposals that may subsequently be referred to Welsh Ministers.
Thank you for that response. On the romantic, isolated slopes of the Big Parcel stands the village of Felindre, and the Welsh-medium primary school in Felindre, which is located in a naturally Welsh-speaking area to the north of Swansea, is listed among the small rural schools that would be protected by the Welsh Government code. Although the process of closing the school started before this code came into existence, Swansea Council said that they would adhere to the spirit and principles of that code. But, despite that pledge, the local community is extremely disappointed because a decision's been taken to close the school rather than federate with another school or look at other options. That was the council's response to the public consultation. If this is the situation in the rest of Wales, then this code will be a huge disappointment in trying to safeguard Welsh-medium rural schools.
Some 600 children go to each of the nearby urban Welsh-medium schools, such as Lôn Las and Pontybrenin, but in the more rural areas we need an alternative solution. So, First Minister, will you look into this particular case—I hear what you had to say, but this is a crucially important issue—and do everything in your ability to ensure that the community of Felindre and similar communities elsewhere are given fair play according to your own code?
Thank you very much to Dai Lloyd for those important points, and I hear all of them, but, as I said in my original response, the decision is still in the hands of the City and County of Swansea Council, and I'm sure that the Member has made those points to the council—the things that he has said to us as a Government today. They are still on record, and if the decision comes to Ministers, then we will be able to look again at the points that he has made today.
Well, as you say, residents, teachers and pupils have been fighting Swansea Council's decision to close Craigcefnparc Primary School as well, and I've been very proud to support them in that fight. As part of the fight for both schools, actually, I've asked the Children's Commissioner for Wales and the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales about how and when their expectations should be included in the processes that councils follow when considering school closures. Because it's not just a matter of the school code now; there are other things to be taken into account. I appreciate that you can't comment on individual cases, but can you say whether Welsh Government has a role in advising councils on what weight they should give to commissioners' guidance, or are you content to let that be a matter for the courts?
Llywydd, the Welsh Government school organisation code sets out the requirements that Welsh Ministers provide to local authorities, governing bodies and others in this matter. The code, as Suzy Davies says, is not the only matter that is at play. But each set of circumstances has to be considered on its own merits, and the other obligations that organisations who have to make these decisions need to take into account are, I think, best understood in that local context and are for them to weigh up.
I'm used to parents complaining about having mixed-age classes and demanding that their children are taught with children in the same year group as them. And I believe that at below a certain size of school, education suffers, and more than two year groups taught together in primary school disadvantages the learner—the reason why we have education. And secondary schools need to be above a certain size to be able to fulfil the national curriculum. Will the Welsh Government publish guidance on minimum primary and secondary school sizes, so that people know exactly how many pupils they need to get in? I understand that at least one school is down to just over single figures.
I thank Mike Hedges for that supplementary question. He will be aware, I know, that our former colleague Huw Lewis, when he was the education Minister, asked Estyn—the inspectorate—to look particularly at this issue of whether there was a minimum size of school that ought to be observed. I think the facts are that the report that Estyn published in December 2013 found that there were other factors that were more relevant to the success of a school than size. And, indeed, I'm very used to hearing the Member make very persuasively the case he makes in relation to local authorities, where he generally takes the view that size is not the key determining factor in whether a local authority can be a success or not. The work of Estyn took the same view in relation to schools, saying the quality of leadership, for example, was more significant than size in whether a school was performing well or not. But the issue that the Member raises is an important one and will certainly be kept under review by the Welsh Government.
2. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the rollout of universal credit? OAQ53458
I thank the Member for the question. Welsh Ministers have frequently expressed our deep concerns to the UK Government about the fundamental design flaws of universal credit and its impact on the most vulnerable people in Wales. We will continue to do exactly that.
I'm sure, First Minister, you would have read the figures from the Trussell Trust, like I have, that show a nationwide increase of 52 per cent in the use of food banks where universal credit has been in place for a year or more, compared to 13 per cent in areas where that is not the case. Amber Rudd, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, did acknowledge that this increase was partly down to problems in the roll-out of universal credit, and that it has resulted in food insecurity for thousands of individuals and families across the country. And yet we see the UK Government determined to continue to press ahead with this roll-out despite these facts. So, can I urge you, First Minister, if you will continue to hold talks—urgent talks—with the UK Government on this matter, and actually call on them to halt the roll-out of what is a disastrous system and a flawed benefit?
Can I thank Joyce Watson for those points? It is absolutely shocking that the UK Minister responsible for this system should be on the record as saying that the policy that her Government has pursued lies behind the increase in people forced to resort to food banks to feed children here in the United Kingdom. The UK Government needs to take a grip of universal credit and recognise that tinkering around the edges with it will not make the difference that is needed. They do need to halt the roll-out, as Joyce Watson has said. They need to take seriously the campaign that the Trussell Trust are mounting. I'm looking forward to meeting the Trussell Trust myself in the next few weeks. They are running a campaign, as Members here will know, to cut the five-week wait for universal credit before people can get a first payment—the #5WeeksTooLong campaign—because that, amongst other issues, is why we see the increased use in food banks and the impact that that has on children trying to learn in our schools.
Every year, the councils in Wales receive discretionary housing payment money from the Department for Work and Pensions, and, last year, Merthyr Tydfil, Rhondda Cynon Taf and Anglesey were criticised for handing money back that should have gone to people who receive housing benefit or universal credit and need extra help with rent or housing costs. Commenting on this, Merthyr Tydfil said that,
'Sending this money back is not a bad thing for us. Our benefits numbers are shrinking—the applications are approximately half of what they were last year.'
How, therefore, do you respond to concern expressed this week by Community Housing Cymru that support for housing costs is now included within the universal credit payment, there is no longer a need for interaction with the local authority in order to claim mainstream benefits, and this makes it less likely for claimants to access local authorities benefits they might be entitled to, such as discretionary housing payments or council tax reduction or free school meals? They call on the Welsh Government and Welsh local authorities to work with Jobcentre Plus in Wales to co-locate services and enable applications for local authority benefits to be made at the same time as the first appointment for universal credit.
Well, Llywydd, there are a number of important points in what the Member has raised. Let me begin by agreeing with what he said about the importance of discretionary housing payments and my hope that all local authorities in Wales use that fund to the maximum possible extent to assist those of their residents who are so badly affected by the interaction of universal credit and housing costs.
The point I think the Member is trying to get to is that his Government has decided to stop paying local authorities to be able to advise claimants of universal credit and, instead, are intending to fund the citizens advice bureaux for one single meeting with claimants in order to assist them with the universal credit maze that they face. This will lead, I believe, to additional difficulties for claimants, additional difficulties for housing providers, and will place some advice agencies in a really invidious position where they know that it will not be possible to solve the complexities of some universal credit claims in a single advice session.
So, while I understand what Community Housing Cymru has said this week, the real problems are not in the hands of local authorities or housing providers; they are inherent in the flawed benefit that is being rolled out and in the way that the UK Government seeks to move responsibility for providing decent and sustained advice to people who need it in order to make sure that their basic rights to a decent place to live and enough money to eat from are sustained.
Universal credit, along with other benefits introduced at Westminster, have been an unmitigated disaster for Wales. I'm sure everyone would agree with that, perhaps with the exception of those over there. My office has heard so many examples of really degrading experiences. Now, because of Welsh Government's inertia over devolving the administration of benefits, people are unprotected against the callous policies of the Tories. In contrast, in Scotland they've successfully seen the devolution of the administration of the benefits system there, and they will be able to protect citizens better. The Scottish Government announced just this week that they are banning private firms from carrying out benefits assessments in order to try to create a more compassionate system. So, I'd like to go one step further. I'd like to scrap universal credit altogether. First Minister, do you plan now to make up for lost time and go all out to push for the devolution of the administration of benefits, so that we here in Wales, too, could treat people with the compassion that they deserve, rather than the cruelty that they are currently experiencing? You can do something about this, First Minister: will you do it?
Well, Llywydd, the problem that the Member points to is one that I agree we have to do our best to address and to solve. What I have said is that I want the case for the devolution of the administration of welfare benefits to be properly and thoroughly considered. I want us to take the advice of Assembly committees in that regard, and I intend to explore in the next week or so, with the Welsh Centre for Public Policy, whether this is a job that they could do on our behalf.
But I don't think that it is something that we can immediately sign up to until we are properly aware of what the complexities would be and what the costs would be. Scotland spent £16 million in taking on this responsibility. Now, it may be that when we investigate it, that would be £16 million that is well spent, and I'm absolutely open to that being the conclusion, but we don't have £16 million sitting doing nothing in the Welsh Government's budget, or anything like that. So, if we take on new responsibilities, we'd have to be properly funded to do them, and the exploration that I want to see happen will look at that and the other cases that exist for the devolution of administration of welfare benefits.
Questions now from the party leaders. Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Llywydd, with your permission, can I also take this opportunity to pay tribute to Paul Flynn and, on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives, offer our condolences to his family, friends, and to the Labour movement? He was a first-class parliamentarian who always stood up for what he believed in. There is no doubt that he loved his constituency, and he was a proud Welshman who always promoted the Welsh language at every opportunity. It's quite clear that the House of Commons will be much poorer without him.
First Minister, do you believe that Healthcare Inspectorate Wales is fit for purpose?
I think Healthcare Inspectorate Wales does a very fine job on behalf of patients here in Wales. We review its progress. We have proposals that we intend to bring forward for strengthening the work that it does.
Well, I think from that answer, First Minister, it seems to me that you believe that it is fit for purpose. So, there is a clear disconnect, I think, First Minister, in your perception of 'fit for purpose' and mine. Despite HIW’s vital function of ensuring our health services in Wales meet standards of care, it is the only inspectorate body of its kind in the UK that is not fully independent of the Government it is supposed to be monitoring. Can you not see the contradiction here, First Minister?
We have seen a number of high-profile cases of serious failings in care at health boards in NHS Wales, from the Kris Wade scandal at Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board to the serious safety concerns at maternity services at Cwm Taf, and the horrific failings at Tawel Fan. Even though HIW raised concerns about all of these terrible failings, it did not have the power to intervene when it needed to without first seeking permission from your Minister. Therefore, it is not independent from your Government. Will you therefore commit today, First Minister, to strengthening HIW’s independence and to providing the inspectorate with enforcement powers by making it a truly independent body, like Estyn, for example?
Well, Llywydd, I’ve already said that the Welsh Government is committed to bringing forward a Bill that will deal with a number of these matters, including the role that is played by HIW in Welsh health services.
I don't accept for a moment, though, what the Member said about the independence of HIW being compromised by its relationship with the Welsh Government. When I was the health Minister, I could not recollect then, and I cannot recollect since, a single example when HIW were not able to do whatever they said they wanted to do, to report on whatever they wanted to report on, to follow up those reports in whichever way they chose. The operational independence of HIW is an important strength of the Welsh NHS, and it has never been compromised by any lack of independence.
You know quite well, First Minister, that they cannot intervene without your Government's permission and, therefore, it is not truly independent. Your Government's policy seems to be to underfund HIW as well, to the point where it has no capacity or resources to hold our health services to account. These underfunding issues are not new. Back in the last Assembly, we heard from the Marks review that HIW was failing to keep people safe in hospitals, and was unable to carry out enough inspections because it had to monitor too many services. Despite this, your Government has chosen to consistently reduce its funding. And you cannot seek to pin this on austerity, First Minister. The decision to slash HIW's funding is clear. Whilst Estyn receives £11.3 million each year, and Care Inspectorate Wales receives £13 million a year for 2018-19, HIW's annual budget has reduced to £3.5 million, and is set to receive another £190,000 reduction the following year. Why do you not want to support this body that plays such an important role in ensuring that our health services are delivering safe and accountable services?
Llywydd, the very first question the Member asked me was whether I supported HIW, and I quite certainly do, and I support it in a practical way rather than the rhetorical way in which the Member has tried to this afternoon. It is nonsense for him—absolute nonsense for him—to act as though the reduced budgets that the Welsh Government faces have no impact on our ability to fund many important functions that are carried out on behalf of our Government. Nonetheless, my colleague the Minister for Health and Social Services has diverted money from his budget into HIW in order to support it in the important work that it does. Instead of just trying to find reasons for casting doubt on the important work that HIW does, it would be better if the Member were to recognise the importance of that work, and to support them in their activities.
Leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price.
Thank you, Llywydd. May I also extend my sympathies to the family and friends of Paul Flynn and say this: I had the pleasure of serving alongside him in that other Parliament in Westminster for some years, and he was always very willing to provide advice and support, even though we came from different parties. He occasionally would pull me up when he thought I could perform better. He was one of those rare animals who could move from grave to humorous, and back and forth. And despite being the incarnation of passion, that never hardened into bitterness or hatred at any point, and he is an example to us all in that regard.
Is the First Minister able to share with us the Welsh Government's assessment of the potential impact in terms of jobs on supplier firms in Wales of Honda's announcement today? Can he confirm that that may affect up to a dozen major suppliers, such as G-Tekt in Tredegar and Mitsui in my own constituency, as well as many more second tier and third tier suppliers? The Welsh automotive sector is one of our major industries, and yet we saw with coal and steel, didn't we, how that position can unravel very quickly with disastrous long-term consequences? Given that we've already seen 600 job losses announced at Ford and Schaeffler, and Chatham House has confirmed that Wales has seen the sharpest reduction in foreign direct investment since the referendum of all the nations and regions of the UK, does he agree that membership of the single market is absolutely critical to the survival of the Welsh automotive sector, and the health of the wider Welsh economy? Given that the only realistic path now to securing that is through a people's vote, is he able today to pledge his unequivocal, unalloyed support for that policy?
I thank the Member for what he said in his introduction, and for drawing attention to the impact that the news from Honda today will have on the Welsh economy, as well as the economy in Swindon. Wales-based suppliers to the Honda Swindon facility will, of course, be affected by this news.
My colleague Ken Skates's officials are in London today speaking with officials in the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy who work in the automotive area, and that is part of our immediate effort to identify where vulnerabilities to the Welsh economy and to the Welsh automotive sector will come as a result of that very concerning announcement. And of course, Adam Price is absolutely right to point to the significance of the automotive sector here in Wales—around 150 companies employing around 19,000 people.
And Brexit is there in the background to this succession of announcements that we have seen in recent times. When I met, with Ken Skates, with the most senior officers of the Ford motor company here in the United Kingdom, they pointed to the importance of the single market and to non-tariff and tariff barriers. They pointed even more, Llywydd, to the impact of Brexit on the movement of workers and their ability to move staff easily and quickly across borders.
In the general point that the Member makes, the position of the Welsh Government remains that which was voted for on the floor of this Assembly only a small number of weeks ago, that the House of Commons must continue to find a deal that could be supported, that would support the Welsh economy and Welsh jobs. If the House of Commons is unable to do that, and the weeks are seeping rapidly away, then we say that in a situation of deadlock the decision must go, as Adam Price said, back to the people. And, because that option must not be ruled out simply because preparations have not been made for it, then we also say that preparations to enable that to happen, should it be needed, must begin at once.
First Minister, on 22 January, you told this Chamber,
'the debate in Parliament over the next week is the last opportunity to rally around that form of Brexit...based around continued participation in the single market and a customs union...if that cannot be done,...the only option that...remains is a...public vote to break the deadlock.'
Now, that was widely interpreted as you saying that there was a deadline of seven days. Parliament failed to reach the deadline that you set, and here we are several weeks later. So, my question to you is very simple: what is your new deadline? Is it eight days' time to 27 February? Is it the end of this month? Is it in March? Or is it 10.59 p.m. on 29 March?
Well, Llywydd, one of the things we surely all have learnt is that deadlines that the House of Commons appears to set and that the Government appears to set, when those days arrive, those deadlines are capable of evaporation and new deadlines being set. Now, I regret that. I regret very much indeed that the Prime Minister didn't take the advice of the document that we published jointly between Labour and Plaid Cymru here in the Assembly more than two years ago. Had she done that, then we would be in a very different position, I believe, in relation to our relations with the European Union. Nevertheless, to our frustration, the House of Commons continues to grapple with this matter, and deadlock, I believe, has not yet been reached. And we just have to be willing to hold our nerve to allow that opportunity to happen, always with our clear statement that if it cannot be resolved in that way, then the only democratically feasible answer that we have been able to identify is that the decision must go back to those who made it in the first instance.
First Minister, I accept what you say about the going round in circles that we're seeing in Westminster, but the deadline that I asked you about was the one that you set for yourself, in terms of deciding when we need to move on and unequivocally say that the only way forward is a people's vote. And one of the criticisms I've heard you make of Theresa May's Government is that they're unwilling to listen to you, but is your own Labour frontbench in Westminster listening to you? Despite the vote that you referred to in this Assembly for preparations to begin immediately, Jeremy Corbyn's letter to Theresa May on 6 February omitted to mention a people's vote at all. As one of your AMs Alun Davies said, when the letter was published,
'It appears that Jeremy Corbyn and UK Labour have dumped our policy on a referendum in the first paragraph.'
Tonia Antoniazzi, the MP for Gower said,
'Nice to be briefed about this @UKLabour @WelshLabour—if at ANY point you would like to consult MPs and also take the Labour Party conference motion into consideration...Just let me know...Cheers...'
MPs and AMs weren't briefed. The question is: were you? Did you agree that the letter shouldn't contain reference to the people's vote that had been supported here? Do you know what Jeremy Corbyn is saying now as he addresses the Engineering Employers' Federation? Our future in Europe is among the most pressing concerns facing our nation. Don't you feel just a small touch of shame at your party's failure to strike a clear stance? And is it any surprise at all that so many now are abandoning it?
Well, the policy of the Labour Party, Llywydd, is clear. It is the one set out in the September conference resolution, and it's the policy that I have supported ever since. I am in the fortunate position of being able to discuss these matters with Labour front-bench spokespeople: Sir Keir Starmer, who was here in Cardiff within the last two weeks; I was able to discuss it with Jeremy Corbyn when I was in London last week. I welcome his letter of 6 February. It was widely welcomed in Brussels as well as being an important contribution that had a chance, given a Government that was prepared to carry out genuine discussions and negotiations with others on the floor of the House of Commons. That letter offered a way to an agreement that could be struck, that could command a majority in the House of Commons and that could be supported at the European Union level as well. That's what my party wants to get out of all of this. It's only if the Government that is responsible for all of this, which has been in charge of all of this ever since the referendum—. It's only if they fail to move in a direction where a majority in the House of Commons can be secured that we will then have to do, as the Member has said—and I have agreed with him now for the third time this afternoon that, in those circumstances, the decision would have to return to the people who made it in the first instance.
The leader of the UKIP group, Gareth Bennett.
Diolch, Llywydd. Can I also add my condolences to the family of Paul Flynn? Although he was identified with Newport for many years, he was originally, by birth and upbringing, a Cardiffian, so both cities do lay some claim to him. I did contact Paul Flynn during the early stages of the referendum campaign. As he was a genuinely independently minded politician, I was interested, actually, where he stood on that, and I was very grateful for the e-mail I received back from him. I was not publicly known at the time, so I was quite chuffed to get his response, and he clarified his position. We were on opposite sides of the fence, as it turned out, but I was grateful for his response, and I know he has at least one person here who worked for him in the past, and, of course, as you mentioned, he was a supporter of devolution, so his legacy, in many ways, does live on.
First Minister, a fortnight ago, you answered questions here in the Chamber from the Conservative leader, Paul Davies, in which you expressed the wishes of the Welsh Government to address the issues of Holocaust denial and the growing prevalence within society of anti-Semitism. Will you reiterate that those wishes still form your outlook and that the Welsh Labour Government is still genuinely committed to tackling these problems?
Llywydd, the Welsh Government is committed to challenging stigma wherever that takes place, to protecting the rights of all members of our society, whatever their faith or culture. That is absolutely the case in relation to anti-Semitism, but it is true in relation to forms of abuse that other communities in Wales have experienced, and we are committed to that right across the board.
Okay. Thank you, First Minister, for that commitment. I'm not sure that the Labour Party is likely to be an effective vehicle from which to tackle the specific problem of anti-Semitism, though. We saw yesterday that seven Labour MPs felt moved to leave the Labour Party. One of the reasons they cited being the increasing prevalence of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party. Indeed, one of them said that the Labour Party is now institutionally anti-Semitic. Now, we had a Welsh Government statement on this 18 months ago, which talked about training for officials to make them more aware of anti-Semitism and working with Victim Support Cymru to identify instances of this. Given that the problem appears to be increasing, does the Welsh Government now need to do more?
I think awareness training is very important and it is essential that, as new challenges emerge, people keep that up to date. And that is true not simply of people who work for the Welsh Government, it's true for people who work in the Welsh Government, and, Llywydd, I would say that it is true of any Member of this Assembly as well.
Yes, I agree with your sentiments, First Minister. I do think you need to look closely at your own party. There has been one investigation by Shami Chakrabarti—[Interrupution.] There has been one investigation by Shami Chakrabarti, which was rather undermined when she immediately joined the Labour Party. Then, within weeks of finishing the so-called inquiry, she was given a Labour frontbench seat in the House of Lords. Hers was clearly a whitewash rather than a genuine inquiry. We now have another inquiry going on in which your party's general secretary refuses to reveal how many complaints of anti-Semitism within the Labour Party she has received, because the truth is just too embarrassing. First Minister, how long can your Welsh Government go on pretending to be against this form of racism when your party is utterly riddled with this problem from top to bottom?
Llywydd, it is like arriving in a parallel universe to receive questions from the party that embraces Tommy Robinson and the creed that he is prepared to advocate, and then asks for other parties to account for themselves. Let me be clear, Llywydd: there is absolutely no place in my party or anywhere else in Wales for prejudice against people of other races or religions. And that does not simply include those that the Member has referred to today, but all those others that, in the past, he has been prepared to attack in the position that he now occupies.
3. Will the First Minister provide an update on the current undertakings of the community council review panel? OAQ53452
I thank the Member for that question. The independent review panel provided its final report to the Welsh Government on 3 October 2018. In November of that year, a written statement set out actions to be taken in this calendar year and beyond in response to that report.
Thank you, First Minister. And, of course, it was during your tenure as the local government Cabinet Secretary that you did set up that panel. The independent review panel, having presented its final report on the future roles of these councils, did think it very important that councils are to be held accountable for the public money they spend, and that they are managed well in terms of financial probity. The report by the auditor general, of course, has also highlighted the fact that the number of qualified audit opinions has doubled in 2017-18, and we now have 340 councils that that applies to. There are many recommendations in that report. In Aberconwy, we've currently got a situation of dismay that a community council in Penmaenmawr has spent over £100,000-worth of reserves over a three-year period, causing much concern, especially when some of the councillors on that council don't know how this money is being spent.
Will you state, please, by when you will act on the recommendations of the independent review panel? And will you also explain how you, as the First Minister of Wales now, will take steps to strengthen robust financial practices and transparency in the spend of council tax in terms of this, its precept? Because this particular council in Penmaenmawr had a 21 per cent precept a couple of years ago, and residents are now very, very concerned that councillors themselves don't know how this £100,000 has been spent. There are community councils across Wales, where, simply, they don't have any audit practices in place, and financial accountability is very poor. So, will you please look into this as a matter of some priority so that that independent review panel and its work become meaningful rather than meaningless?
Well, I thank the Member for that and for the interest that I know she showed in the review itself. I know from my discussions with her that she wants to see a community and town council sector that is strong and that will stand up to scrutiny as well. I share the auditor general's concern at the continuing high number of community councils that have received qualified audit opinions. Now, the Member referred to 340 of them, and I think it's fair to say, as I'm sure she will acknowledge, that the majority of those are relatively minor infractions of submissions being made a few days beyond the deadline and sometimes the correct form not being used and so on. But there are examples where the difficulty goes beyond that and where there are public interest reports that the auditor general has had to publish because of his concern at probity in the way the public money has been used, and that is completely unacceptable.
Now, the auditor general has now agreed that he will review the adequacy and effectiveness of the current audit arrangements to ensure that they are fit for this purpose, and that review will give us an opportunity to make sure that we have a regime in place that guarantees the community councils are independently accountable and that when they use public money, they do so in a way that is robust, that is defensible and that stands up to scrutiny from those outside the membership of those councils.
The First Minister will recall that one of the recommendations in the review was for the Government to explore how a pool of qualified clerks could be made available to support town and community councils in Wales. I'm very well aware that some of the smaller community councils in Mid and West Wales, the region I represent, sometimes struggle to find the right person to support their work, and that, of course, is crucial with regard to some of the issues that Janet Finch-Saunders has already raised. This issue of good governance and accountability can depend on having the right member of staff in place. Many of them are councillors who are doing this on a very, very part-time basis, unremunerated, giving a lot to their community, but they can't necessarily be expected to have as individuals that level of expertise, so they need that professional support. Can the First Minister tell us what steps the Government is taking to help support the supply of suitably qualified and experienced clerks for community councils?
I thank Helen Mary Jones for that important point. She's quite right in saying that the report did put an emphasis on the availability to community councils of qualified and independent advice from their clerks. I spent last evening, Llywydd, at the meeting of Pentyrch community council in my constituency. I visit it once every year, and it's a very successful community council. Part of its success is that it makes sure that it devotes some resource to sending its clerk on the most up-to-date training courses, making sure that person is really well equipped to provide them with the advice that they need. As a Government, we are putting some additional funding into assisting local community councils to be able to access those training courses for their staff, and we will work through One Voice Wales, the umbrella organisation for town and community councils, to try to encourage more councils to take up the offer that is now there for them.
4. What progress is being made to improve Welsh rail services over the next five years? OAQ53445
I thank the Member for that question. Over the next five years, Welsh rail services will see improved and additional services, new and better trains, wide-ranging station upgrades, ticketing and information improvements and increased parking and interchange facilities for passengers.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. Unlike the UK Government, which reneged on a promise to electrify the south Wales main line to Swansea and who have delivered a paltry 1 per cent of UK rail infrastructure funding to Wales, Welsh Labour has invested in our rail network. First Minister, could you tell me what improvements that passengers can expect to see over the next two years?
I thank the Member for that question and for the work, of course, that he did in ensuring that we are in a position to bring about these improvements here in Wales. Over the next couple of years, Transport for Wales will introduce additional rolling stock. In this year, those additional trains will be used to relieve crowding and to introduce new services. That will be a precursor to new trains that we will be introducing over the next couple of years. We will act to make sure that the physical facilities at our stations are improved in this calendar year by an enhanced deep-cleaning programme in place throughout Wales. From December of this year, there will be a 22 per cent increase in Sunday mileage and additional services for passengers on those days. There will be work done to make sure that passengers are better informed about the services that are being provided. We are dealing with a new ticketing regime that will see 3,000 new advance fares to reduce the cost of travel for long-distance journeys. These are just some of the things that we will be doing here in Wales to make sure that people in Wales have a service that they deserve and will be proud of into the future.
First Minister, you'll be aware that Carno residents have been campaigning for a new station in Carno for many years. They have been frustrated that the stage 2 appraisal process did seem to take longer than was expected, but I'm grateful to Helen Mary Jones, who asked your colleague a question last week, to know that that stage 2 process is indeed coming to an end and stage 3 is about to begin. Now, I do understand that there is already a commitment to take forward two new stations in north Wales, at Deeside and in Wrexham, but can you confirm how that fits into this three-stage process when the third stage hasn't yet begun? Can you confirm that the Welsh Government's appraisal process for new station development is a fair process?
Well, the WelTAG process, Llywydd, is a fair process. It is, as the Member says, a three-stage process in which proposals for new initiatives have to be tested through the different stages. The Carno station appraisal is coming towards the end of stage 2. Our ability to take forward proposals at stage 3 is dependent upon us having the resources in order to do so, and there are, as ever in this area—as the others we have discussed this afternoon—places where we would like to be able to do more and where we would do more, provided the funding comes to Wales in order to allow us to do so.
On my five-hour journey from Bangor to Cardiff yesterday evening, I looked at a map of the Welsh rail network and it reminded me that this isn't a network created for Wales, if truth be told. We need investment in expanding the network in order to connect Wales. We need to invest across the west coast line of Wales. But investment in the rail network is expensive, of course. We need to think carefully about those investments. But there is one investment that we could make immediately, a relatively small investment, which would enhance the network, and that is to reopen the line already there between Gaerwen and Amlwch in the north of Anglesey. Does the First Minister agree with me that we should make progress with that as a matter of urgency now, particularly given the economic circumstances facing that part of Anglesey?
Well, thank you very much to the Member for the question. I can confirm that the example that he has referred to is part of the programme that we're working on at the moment. In general, of course, what Rhun ap Iorwerth says is true: the system that we have at the moment isn't one that was devised for the needs that we have in Wales, but now, with some of the responsibilities that are now in our hands, we can do more to prepare for the needs of the future.
5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to encourage young people to use public transport? OAQ53476
Llywydd, from 1 March, any young person aged between 16 and 21 will be able to apply for discounted bus travel in Wales. From January of next year, Transport for Wales will extend free rail travel to under-11-year-olds. Both of these initiatives will help create the public transport users of the future.
Diolch. Thank you, First Minister. The transport and economy Minister, Ken Skates, joined students in Wrexham last week to celebrate the announcement of the popular mytravelpass young person's discount scheme. Since the scheme began in 2014, there have been a total of 20,953 pass holders and an estimated 1,344,000 discounted journeys in 2017-18. First Minister, can you inform me when we can ascertain the participation levels in Islwyn itself and how, in the future, the Welsh Government can further enhance the reach of this important and highly positive initiative?
I thank the Member for that supplementary question and for pointing to those quite remarkable figures that she mentioned—the over 1,300,000 discounted journeys that took place as a result of the mytravelpass initiative in 2017-18. In the few days since the launch by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport last week of applications for the new and extended pass, over 500 applications have been received, and I will be sure that my colleague will look at ways in which we will be able to disaggregate that data and let Members around the Chamber know of how the pass is being used in their own constituencies.
Finally, Darren Millar.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, back in 2017, my party put forward some very clear proposals for free bus travel, not generous bus travel in the way that you're proposing, which is just a discount, but a much more generous scheme to enable those between 16 and 24 to travel free of charge on the bus network. You at that time described it as 'fantasy, fag-packet economics', but the reality is, of course, that the policy was adopted by the UK Labour Party shortly afterwards, and they are now advocates of the scheme. Given that this is a programme that is fully costed, good for young people, good for public transport and good for the environment, won't you take another look at our scheme and our proposals, which also extend discounts to the rail network as well for those 16 to 24-year-olds, many of whom have no other alternative other than to use the buses because of the rising costs of insurance premiums on their motor vehicles?
Well, Llywydd, I'd be prepared to look at the Member's proposals provided he can do two things: first of all that he will provide costs that are reasonable and reliable, and secondly that he will tell me where in the Welsh Government he proposes I take the money from in order to pay for his new idea.
I thank the First Minister.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip, Jane Hutt, and the first question comes from Hefin David.
1. Will the Deputy Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for the voluntary sector? OAQ53472
A strong and independent voluntary sector is critical to the well-being of Wales and our communities. A sustainable relationship with the voluntary sector through our third sector scheme and our third sector Support Wales grant provides the infrastructure on which the sector can thrive.
Diolch. I'd like to take this opportunity to welcome the Deputy Minister to her post. I'm sure she'll pick it up very quickly. [Laughter.] But to my question: there are many voluntary groups in my constituency, almost too many to mention, but I do want to mention three. One is the Caerphilly Miners Centre for the Community, which is now a thriving social enterprise—a hub in the community. It was actually originally the hospital in which I was born and has been transformed by volunteers. The Aber Valley Heritage Group—they are instrumental in setting up the Welsh National Mining Memorial in Senghenydd. It was the site where Wales's worst mining disaster happened in 1913. And also the Senghenydd Youth Drop In Centre, or SYDIC, which connects young people to the local community and builds a sense of cohesion there—hugely important in Senghenydd. Will the Deputy Minister commit to continued Welsh Government support for these projects and projects like them?
Well, can I thank Hefin David for his kind words and his question? You've highlighted the work of local organisations that are rooted in the heritage and history of your community. Of course, they're also supporting social needs and enhancing well-being. So, I can just say, as a response to the question, that volunteering, of course, remains at the heart of communities across Wales and the Welsh Government values volunteering as an important expression of citizenship and a central component of democracy, and we are providing core funding for not only the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, of course, but those county voluntary councils across Wales to deliver third sector support.
I'd also like to welcome the Deputy Minister to her role. I was pleased to see the Llanelli charity Threshold DAS, formerly known as Llanelli Women's Aid, had been given a grant of £1.5 million to deliver a Wales-wide programme that will offer support to women and girls affected by domestic abuse and violence. Does the Deputy Minister agree with me that particularly domestic and sexual violence services are best provided by local third sector groups, led by service users themselves? And what steps can the Deputy Minister and Welsh Government take to reverse the trend of many of those services being lost through tendering processes to big, multinational companies who really do not understand the communities that they're supposed to be serving, let alone the victims that they're supposed to be supporting?
I thank Helen Mary Jones for that question and also do recognise that services, in terms of tackling violence against women and domestic abuse, of course, started in the third sector—started with Welsh Women's Aid, and the setting up of Cardiff Women's Aid was by women in their local community. And what is important as well, of course, in terms of domestic abuse services, is the strong move towards enabling survivors to help shape the services that are so important and, of course, helping us shape our response and our proactive action in terms of delivering on the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015.
Minister, can you tell me what support you're giving to faith communities to support their voluntary sector engagements? You'll be aware that there was a piece of research that was completed last year into the impact of Wales's pentecostal denominations—the three main pentecostal denominations the Assemblies of God, Elim and the Apostolic Church—and that research found that there are over 2,700 volunteers contributing 5,000 hours worth of voluntary work each week just in those three denominations, contributing over £3 million to the Welsh economy in doing so. That's volunteer work that is not self-serving those particular organisations but actually serving their communities. I'm sure you'll want us to celebrate that, but what work are you doing to engage with the faith sector more widely in order to promote this sort of work so that we can get more value out of it?
Well, of course, as you say, Darren Millar, the faith groups do provide a very important role in their communities through volunteers, through church groups, and we know, for example, that many of our food banks are run by, and with, churches and chapels across Wales. And we know that, of course, also the Muslim Welfare Association has a role to play as well in terms of that kind of voluntary activity. It is very important, through our inter-faith forum and the work that we do to support the third sector, that we look closely at those needs, which, of course, are enhanced, also, by other grant schemes like the Welsh Church Act 1914, like, also, the fact that they can access third sector funding, not just locally, but on a Wales-wide basis as well.
2. What discussions had the Deputy Minister had with the Minister for Economy and Transport on the economic impact of inequalities in light of the Chwarae Teg report, State of the Nation 2019? OAQ53473
Thank you very much. I will meet with the Minister for Economy and Transport on 6 March to discuss the gender equality report. The employability plan, the economic contract and the Fair Work Commission will all have an important role to play in tackling the issues of equality that Chwarae Teg's report discusses.
Thank you very much, and congratulations on using Welsh in the Siambr. Now, one vital challenge will be supporting more women into work, but of course childcare continues to be a barrier. Women are four times more likely than men to mention caring for their family or the home as a reason for not working. So, what assessment has the Welsh Government done of the impact of the new childcare offer on parents' employability, and will consideration be given to changing the criteria if the evaluation shows that change is needed?
Well, diolch yn fawr, Siân Gwenllian. I think the 'State of the Nation 2019' report by Chwarae Teg was very valuable in that it looked at women in the economy, women's representation, and women at risk, and, as you say, the statistics from their report showed very clearly that women are more likely to be economically inactive because they are looking after a family and home. And it's clear that we need to take account of this, as we are in our childcare offer.
Now, the childcare offer is made up, as you know, of an existing minimum 10 hours of foundation phase nursery provision, up to 20 hours of childcare with a registered provider, and it's very welcome that capital grant is now being made available to ensure that there are sufficient high-quality childcare places available to enable all eligible children to access the provision. But, of course, evaluation is critical, as you say, in terms of early implementation—many positive findings from that—but also looking at ways in which we can support not only working parents but remove barriers to employment that parents face. So, encouraging findings from that result, from the evaluation, but also a chance to look at this in terms of ways in which we can ensure that the childcare offer is delivering, so it can reduce those barriers to women who are entering and participating in employment.
I don't think that the childcare offer, in and of itself, can explain the disparity in the gender pay gap between different local authority areas in Wales. At one end of the spectrum, we've got Anglesey, with a 25.5 per cent gender pay gap for the residents in its catchment area there, followed closely by the Vale of Glamorgan, your own constituency—23.4 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, we've got Gwynedd with a -0.2 gap, and Conwy with a -8.7 gap. What will you be asking the economy Minister to consider when deciding on the support it gives to different types of businesses, which might help address this disparity?
Well, I'm very glad, Suzy Davies, that you have drawn attention to that lack of consistency in terms of implementation of the actions to tackle the gender pay gap, which has decreased slightly in 2018, but the gender pay gap in Welsh Government is around 8 per cent. That's not acceptable. We need to ensure that we drive this through, and I will be meeting the Minister, as you said, in terms of driving this through the employability plan, and also, through the economic contract. The employability plan, of course, is crucial, because we need to ensure that that looks at the gender pay gap. If we analyse the gender pay gap information, if we look at companies who employ over 250 people, we need to encourage companies to, for example, pay the real living wage and monitor all our programmes, particularly the economic ones, to ensure gender equality is at the heart of the action. So, that will be very much the focus of my meeting with Ken Skates in the next couple of weeks.
Before I ask my question, with the Llywydd's permission, I'd like to add my words to the tributes to Paul Flynn. He was both a wonderful friend and mentor to me personally. And Paul was a passionate devolutionist, a champion for the Welsh language, and he was incredibly proud to see the setablishment of this Senedd. He loved Newport, and I know he was humbled that the people of Newport West kept faith with him and put their trust in him for over 30 years. And I'd also like to thank the Llywydd for allowing me to make a brief statement in tribute to him tomorrow. Our thoughts and love are with his wife, Sam, and his family.
Moving on to my question:
3. What is the Welsh Government doing to raise awareness of coercive control? OAQ53474
Well, can I start by thanking Jayne Bryant for your tribute to your very dear mentor and friend the inspirational Paul Flynn? I was fortunate to know and work and learn from Paul way back when I was a community worker in Pill, and he was a Labour councillor. We have heard many great tributes across this Chamber, and of course, our thoughts and deep sympathies are with his family.
In response to your question, I launched the ‘This is not love. This is Control’ campaign in January. This is a year-long campaign raising awareness of coercive control, domestic abuse and sexual violence. We will also continue to support the public sector workforce to be able to identify coercive control through our national training framework.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. I very much welcome the Welsh Government's 'This is not love. This is Control' campaign, which was launched in Newport last month by yourself. And among those who spoke at the launch in the Riverfront Theatre was Luke Hart, whose mother and sister were murdered by his father following years of abuse. Luke and his brother Ryan have since started a project called CoCo Awareness. Educating people about the signs of abuse is crucial, as is ensuring that people experiencing abuse know that they will be heard and listened to when they seek help. Can the Deputy Minister outline how the Welsh Government campaign will work with survivors, the police and other organisations who have a crucially important role in raising awareness of coercive control and enabling people to report it?
I thank Jayne Bryant for that question. I was fortunate to be at the launch of this campaign, and to hear from Luke Hart from CoCo Awareness a very powerful account of his experience. And he and his brother have committed their lives now to raise awareness of coercive control, which led to the death of their mother and their sister. So, this campaign is important for us in taking forward our raising awareness of the treacherous, cumulative nature of coercive control. And it will encourage victims to recognise that what they are experiencing is coercive, controlling behaviour—it's wrong and abusive, and they can seek support. It's a year-long campaign, and, clearly, it will be delivered as a result of the engagement of all those partners who are part of our national strategy as a result of the violence against women legislation. And just finally to say on this point, very importantly in terms of the public sector, over 135,000 professionals have been trained through our national training framework for violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Since December 2015, coercive control has been an offence, and it is recognised now as a form of domestic abuse. Perpetrators, though, are particularly adept at covering their tracks, at gaslighting and evading justice—and I know this only too well from my experience of working with Welsh Women's Aid. As it is an offence, it requires police officers to be well trained, in order to ensure that those experiencing it can receive justice. Research conducted by Plaid Cymru last year showed that many police officers in Wales had not received that training, and those figures showed that our biggest police force, South Wales Police, had the lowest proportion of trained officers in Wales to deal with coercive control. In the absence of direct responsibility and powers over the criminal justice system, what more can be done to raise awareness of this crime, especially amongst the police, to ensure that perpetrators—all of them—are brought to justice?
I thank Leanne Wood for that important question. Interestingly, yesterday, I was at the policing board, chaired by the First Minister, where chief constables and police and crime commissioners were talking about crime in their communities. And, in fact, domestic abuse and violence against women were raised by chief constables as an issue that they were very concerned about, in terms of their priorities. It is vital that the police force do undertake this training, which is now available under our national training framework, but also that we look at ways in which we can ensure that people understand that coercive control is a crime—as you say, a criminal offence—in England and Wales, a specific criminal offence as part of the Serious Crime Act 2015. And, in fact, there were over 9,000 offences of coercive control recorded by the police in 2018. So we have to ensure—and I saw that yesterday at the policing board—that the police are at the forefront of our campaign against coercive control.
4. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding improving community safety in Wales? OAQ53448
We do work with the UK Government on matters of mutual interest, in order to make communities safer, including the implementation of the Home Office serious organised crime and serious violence strategies. The safer communities programme I recently chaired includes representation from both Welsh Government and UK Government.
I thank you for that response. But one way of making sure that community safety in Wales works is the funding by the Welsh Assembly of the 500 community support officers across Wales, to help with that improvement. However, I'm sure, like me, that you are concerned about the Police Federation of England and Wales survey that showed that 90 per cent of police officers believe their force is understaffed, and that, since 2010, there's been a decrease of 21,000, in real terms, of officers across England and Wales, as a direct result of funding cuts. And due to those staff shortages, officers are now reporting having to go out on their own, and that, clearly, isn't a safe place for them, and it isn't an ideal situation for them to keep their communities safe. So, Deputy Minister, what discussions have you had with the UK Government regarding the drop in police numbers and how it's going to be resolved, to ensure that the health and safety of both police officers, but also the general public, is maintained?
Well, I'm grateful to Joyce Watson for raising this question and particularly for drawing attention to the survey last week, undertaken by the Police Federation of England and Wales. Not only were they suggesting that 90 per cent of officers believe that there are not enough of them to do their job properly, they see that that also puts the people that they want to serve in their communities at risk.
I have mentioned the fact that we have a policing board, which the First Minister chaired yesterday, and these issues were raised in that meeting. It is good that despite austerity, despite reductions to our budget by the UK Government, we have protected investment in 500 Welsh Government-funded community support officers, and that, of course, is crucial to that work in the community. But it is something that I will be discussing with UK Government Ministers, because it does mean that, in terms of community safety and the fact that police forces in Wales are concerned about ensuring that they can, as they said yesterday, focus on prevention and early intervention, diversionary support, working with young people and communities—. Indeed, yesterday, we also addressed the need for the inter-agency work of our public services boards, and they need to have the backing and the UK Government needs to give it to them.
The Welsh Local Government Association website states that, involving councils, police, as well as fire and rescue, health boards and probation services, community safety partnerships work to offer an effective multi-agency approach. But other than referring to working with councils and communities, there is no reference to the third sector. However, the Welsh Government, in its document 'Working Together for Safer Communities: A Welsh Government review of community safety partnership working in Wales' published in December 2017, said that third sector agencies are increasingly providing a wide range of community safety services from victim support through to perpetrator programmes and anti-social behaviour diversion schemes through to counter-radicalisation activity, but respondents from third sector agencies had reported that statutory agencies often pay lip service to notions of involvement and co-production with them.
What action have you taken, or will the Welsh Government take, therefore, on its statement in that report that your vision is a Wales in which
'The shared responsibility of government, public and third sector agencies is to work together with the communities they serve and the private sector to address activity or behaviour that is unlawful, anti-social, harmful to individuals and society and to the environment'
'Strengthening the role and status of third sector organisations within community safety partnership working'
Well, Mark Isherwood, you will be aware of, as you have already reported, the community safety review task and finish group resulted in the safer communities programme board being established. In fact, it was established by the former Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, and it's working very closely—now set up—with the Home Office. It's working closely with local government and the third sector and, in fact, I chaired a recent meeting. It meets quarterly; it has Welsh Government, Home Office, Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service, Welsh Local Government Association, police and crime commissioners—. Of course, it has a shared vision, which is about partnership, that every community is strong, safe and confident, and, importantly, as far as I'm concerned, and I am sure you as well, Mark Isherwood, that it provides equality of opportunity and social justice, resilience and sustainability for all. But—crucially important—it is a shared responsibility of Government, the third sector and the public sector to work together.
Thank you, Deputy Minister.
The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make the statement, Rebecca Evans.
There are two changes to this week's business. The First Minister will make a statement shortly on latest developments in the UK Government's Brexit negotiations, and the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs will make a statement later this afternoon on the warm homes programme. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Trefnydd, can I call for two statements, please? The first is from the Minister for Health and Social Services in relation to the delivery of the diabetes delivery plan in north Wales. I received a copy of an e-mail today from Dai Williams, the national director of Diabetes UK Cymru, which was sent to Gary Doherty, the chief executive of the health board in north Wales. According to that e-mail, there are 42,605 individuals in north Wales, in the Betsi Cadwaladr area, who suffer from diabetes, and £136 million is the price tag that is attached to that in terms of dealing with the consequences of the health outcomes for those individuals. And the e-mail suggests that 80 per cent of those costs are largely avoidable.
But what’s of great concern to me is that Dai Williams refers to a recent meeting of the diabetes planning and delivery group, at which the chair didn’t know who the executive lead was at the health board in respect of the diabetes delivery plan. He then goes on to say that he has been attending the meetings for 10 years and has only ever seen the executive lead on one single occasion. Nobody knows who that is at present, and this clearly shouts out of a huge gap between clinicians and senior managers at the board. He describes stakeholders saying that it’s embarrassing and that they are amazed at this lack of clarity.
He concludes by saying that the time for excuses is over and that we need some real leadership on that board to be able to tackle this problem. Now, of course, this is a health board that is in special measures—the Welsh Government is intervening in this health board for all sorts of different reasons. I think that this is another issue that clearly needs some attention. I know that the system is much better in some other health boards, and I think we do need a statement to give some confidence to people in north Wales that appropriate action is being taken by the Government to address it.
Can I also call for a statement on GP training in north Wales? I was very alarmed to see that 50 per cent of eligible applicants for GP training in north Wales were actually turned away in the past two years, according to the local medical committee in north Wales. Of course, this is at a time when there is a GP shortage in the region. We’ve seen a number of GP practices close. In fact, we’ve seen three GP practices close, four are deemed to be at risk, four are deemed to be at risk according to informal criteria, and 14 are currently being managed by the health board directly in that region. And yet, in spite of this, in spite of people being eligible to access the training if extra places were made available, no extra places were actually put on. In Bangor, 24 individuals applied, 16 met the criteria, but only 12 individuals were actually offered a training place. In Wrexham, a place that has seen GP services close and surgeries close, there were 11 who met the eligibility criteria, but only seven were offered a place, and this is a pattern that has been repeated over a couple of years. I can see that the health Minister is concerned about this. I wonder what you can do to actually address this so that we can meet this shortfall in the number of GPs, so that people aren't having to travel miles to surgeries and aren’t having the sorts of difficulties that they're having at the moment in terms of accessing a GP appointment. We need a statement on this as soon as possible, please.
Thank you very much for raising those two issues. They were both detailed questions that I think do warrant detailed answers. So, on the first, it would be helpful if you would share with us a copy of the letter that you received regarding the diabetes delivery plan, and we’ll certainly make inquiries and ensure that you have a substantive response.
And on the second, the Minister will be bringing forward a statement on GP recruitment in April of this year.
Trefnydd, on 4 October last year, I wrote to the then Cabinet Secretary for planning requesting that the Welsh Government call in a planned waste incinerator in the Llansamlet area of Swansea. The application to develop a waste incinerator in Llansamlet is, understandably, causing significant concern locally, given that it would be a few hundred metres only from a residential estate and close to Ysgol Gynradd Gymraeg Lôn Las and its 600 pupils. There are clear concerns with regard to the proposed 24-hour burning at the site and the impact on air quality locally, particularly to nearby residential properties and schoolchildren. The application, I believe, flies in the face of the Welsh Government’s Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and air quality policies, and raises issues of national importance in terms of proximity of incinerators to schools and residential dwellings. This is why Plaid Cymru is calling on the Welsh Government to call in this application.
Now, as well as the clear concerns with regard to air quality impacts on residents and schoolchildren in Llansamlet—and you will recall my short debate last week on air pollution—it simply does not make sense to build yet another carbon-emitting power station along the M4 corridor, which is an area that already suffers from high pollution levels. We need to be developing non-polluting power sources in Wales, and it is important that the Welsh Government steps in, provides national direction and ensures that the principles contained within its well-being of future generations legislation and air quality policies are strongly adhered to. However, what is particularly disappointing is that, four months on from my original request, the Welsh Government has still not made a decision on the call-in. Will the Welsh Government now commit to making a decision on this important matter and provide the direction that local people in Llansamlet are calling out for?
Thank you for raising this issue. You'll appreciate that it would be impossible today to make a statement on the call-in request. However, it will be under consideration by Welsh Government and a decision will be with you as soon as possible.
I also call for the Llansamlet incinerator to be called in, as I believe Suzy Davies also did. There's no political argument over the fact that we're all opposed to this incinerator being built there.
I've got two questions apart from that. On the first one, I'd like to ask for a statement. As school budgets are being set, the increased cost of employers' contribution to teachers' pensions is causing concern. I am asking for a Welsh Government statement on the funding of the increased cost of teachers' pensions and what discussions with the Westminster Treasury are taking place regarding additional funding to meet this increase.
The other statement I'm asking for is on the Government's plan to support the building of council houses. We know that the only time since the second world war that sufficient housing was built to meet housing demand was when large-scale council house building was undertaken by Labour and Conservative Governments in the 1950s and 1960s. I'd like to return to that in terms of getting people into adequate houses, rather than sleeping on the streets or in inadequate accommodation. So, can I ask for a statement on how we're going to get more council houses, or council houses built at scale in the near future?
Thank you very much for raising this. The issue of school budgets has been one that has been well rehearsed in this Chamber, as has been our frustration with the lack of information forthcoming from the Treasury. Earlier this month, the First Minister wrote jointly with local government leaders to escalate the issue of the increased cost of teachers' pensions directly to the Chancellor, and we have only now had a response to our request for clarity around the UK Government's pension changes and funding for these costs in Wales, following requests that actually date back to last October.
So, the UK Government's response is very late in the day, just as public sector bodies are trying to set their budgets for 2019-20, and I had the opportunity to raise this directly with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when I met her last Friday. In my discussions with her, she did agree to provide me with some further detail. I am awaiting this, but expect it shortly. When we have that final detail, we'll be able to work through what it means for our public sector bodies, and I hope to provide them with as much clarity as possible as soon as possible. But I would confirm that, as previously indicated, my intention to passport on any funding we receive for this purpose to public sector bodies in Wales to assist them with these costs remains.
I share your ambition for local authorities to be building council houses at scale and at pace, and you'll be aware that, as part of our housing pact with Community Housing Cymru, and as part of our efforts to meet the 20,000 affordable homes target, local authorities are expected to deliver around 1,000 of those new homes. I look forward very much to hearing about the outcomes of the affordable housing review, which will also look at how we can support local authorities to start building at scale and pace.
I know Mike Hedges has raised the issue of the borrowing cap several times in the Chamber, and I'm pleased to confirm that officials have been in contact with our local authorities, and all 11 local authorities who were subsequently subject to the voluntary agreements that enabled them to exit the former housing revenue account subsidy system have now agreed that they would like those voluntary agreements to be terminated. So, I'm very much looking forward to local authorities starting to build at scale and pace.
Minister, may I ask for a statement from the Minister for Economy and Transport on the implications for Welsh suppliers of the announcement of Honda that they are to close their factory in Swindon? According to the Welsh Automotive Forum, there are about 12 companies in Wales that could potentially be affected, including Kasai in Merthyr Tydfil, my region. Although the plant is not due to be closed until 2021, please can we have a statement from the Minister on what measures he will consider implementing to support Welsh car industry suppliers adversely impacted by this announcement? Thank you.
Thank you very much for raising this. You will have heard the First Minister's response to the concerns regarding Honda's plans to close its Swindon factory, with the loss of 3,500 jobs by 2021, during First Minister's questions earlier this afternoon, and, obviously, this is devastating news to the workers and their families, but also we know that there will be Wales-based suppliers to that Swindon facility who will, of course, be impacted by the news. Together with the Welsh Automotive Forum and the UK Government's business, enterprise and industrial strategy department, Ken Skates's officials will be working with these companies, utilising all available resources to identify and facilitate mitigating strategies where possible. And you will have heard the First Minister say that Welsh Government officials are in London today having those discussions to explore how we can best support the businesses involved.
I recently received a letter from headteachers in the Rhondda outlining the impact of this year's budget cuts on schools. Now, I've heard Ministers deny that schools are facing cuts. Well, they are facing cuts, and the situation is justifiably described as a crisis that is already having a detrimental effect on pupils. The letter lays out that schools have no choice in some cases other than to set deficit budgets, and that means larger class sizes, fewer support staff and the cutting of extra-curricular activities. They tell me that the most vulnerable pupils are being put at risk. Can we expect continued denial about this crisis in our education system, affecting the life chances of so many? Or can we instead have an action plan from the Government that includes demonstrating how the almost £0.5 billion—almost a fifth of all spending that has been allocated to schools—gets nowhere near the front line because it's retained by local authorities and consortia? Can we have the Government Minister to provide some answers to Members on this at the earliest opportunity, please?
I recently asked you to provide a Government strategy on the future of care and care homes, and you told me to raise it in questions with the health Minister. I will do that, but the care situation in my constituency, and in many other places, has now reached a point of urgency. New regulations to improve care home accommodation are providing a challenge for many care home providers, not least local authorities. As a result, many local authorities are looking to outsource this provision to the private sector. I'm sure the Minister will agree with me about the desirability of a mixed economy of care—it's vital that this is a service that local councils continue to provide, and many of my constituents affected by this are deeply concerned about how many care home beds and day centre places will be available for them to access in the future. The provision of care is as important as the provision of health, yet the two are not given parity. Will the health Minister bring before the Senedd a comprehensive care strategy outlining how we can ensure all need is met in the future and that we don't lose more care beds?
The collapse of three private community rehabilitation companies last week put the tin hat on the disastrous ideological privatisation of the probation service by the Tories. Given that, within two years' time, much of the community rehabilitation company operation is to be brought back into the public sector, why not take action now to reunify the probation service in the public sector now, today? Let's not wait. To put another private provider in charge in the interim would serve no purpose whatsoever. So, can we see urgent Government action on this, please?
And I would like to give some well-earned congratulations and respect to the young people in Wales who went on strike and took to the streets to protest about the climate crisis last Friday. Climate change is one of the biggest challenges, if not the biggest challenge faced by countries across the globe, and not enough is being done to tackle it. And your Government is no exception, with your own 10-year target on cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 set to be missed. Unlike many of the Westminster critics, I applaud the energy, determination and proactiveness of every single member of the youth climate change strike last Friday, and I would like to see more of this activity in the future. So, will you agree with me that political activity by young people should be encouraged? And will you also agree with me and them that now is the time to declare a climate emergency, but also that words are not enough; you need to act accordingly, too? So, will you?
I'll begin with your first point, which was on the school budgets, and, of course, UK Government's sustained austerity agenda has led to a cut of nearly £1 billion in Wales's overall budgets, but we will continue to call for additional funding to be spent on our public services, including our schools. I will say, with regard to the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru open letter on school funding, that we simply do not recognise the figure of £450 million referred to in the letter. Officials will be meeting with ASCL later this week to discuss the points that they have made with regard to local authorities and consortia.
Insofar as care home provision is concerned, of course we already have a joint health and care strategy in 'A Healthier Wales', which was our response to the parliamentary review. But, as you say, you will be raising your further questions directly with the health Minister in due course. The Minister will have heard your comments on the probation service, and I perhaps will ask for a written response to come forward to you on that.
Certainly, we are very keen to hear the voices of children and young people insofar as the challenge of climate change is concerned, because we know that young people clearly will be very, very much at the forefront of the impacts of climate change, and young people can certainly participate in shaping this dialogue with schools, Welsh Government and others in order to bring about the actions that strengthen our response to climate change. We support many activities that provide opportunities for young people to contribute to tackling climate change, including our eco-schools programme, which operates in 95 per cent of schools in Wales. That's one of the highest participation rates in similar projects in the world, and ultimately of course we want all of our young people to be ethical, informed, valued members of society, and these are the very same principles that are guiding our development of the new school curriculum.
Trefnydd, I had hoped to raise with the First Minister earlier the progress of the Well-Being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and how the Welsh Government has embedded it in its various departments. In terms of legislation, I believe the Act to be one of Welsh Government's proudest achievements, because it challenges you to think and do differently.
We are now reaching three years since the Act became law, and there are lots of organisations across Wales that are doing some fantastic work, including Coleg Cambria in my own constituency. They have created their own future generations plan even though they don't have to. I think they clearly recognise the importance of the Act and the opportunities it presents. So, firstly, Trefnydd, would you welcome the developments made by Coleg Cambria and others? And, secondly, I'd like to request that all Ministers give oral updates within this Chamber on what each department is doing to implement the Act as part of their work.
Finally, on a slightly different topic, I think it's only right that I do bring up the results on Saturday of Connah's Quay Nomads, where they progressed to the final of the Irn Bru Cup. So, will you join me in saying 'da iawn' to the club, 'congratulations' and wishing them the best of luck in the final in Scotland, where they will represent the whole of Wales in March? Diolch.
Thank you very much for raising those issues. With regard to the first question on the well-being of future generations Act, clearly this is something that we are all immensely proud of achieving here in Wales. And I am really delighted that Coleg Cambria and others have very much taken on board the spirit of that Act. Even though they're not subject necessarily to the Act themselves, they are taking steps to work within the ways of working of that Act to ensure that what they do has a positive impact for the generations that will follow.
In my portfolio, I'm certainly keen to work very closely with the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales. I'm meeting her shortly to discuss the setting of budgets within Welsh Government. After the second supplementary budget, we intend to have a round-table event, a kind of stock-take, really, to look at what lessons might be learned about the budget-setting process across the year.
I would certainly join you in saying 'Da iawn a phob lwc i Connah's Quay Nomads' for their upcoming match.
I have to say that my taxi driver who lives in Connah's Quay actually raised the match as well with me, so I was keeping an eager eye on it. I was actually in Coleg Cambria yesterday for a community event—a Vision Support Flintshire sight-loss event—and some of your colleagues and friends were there as well, so I support your comments in that respect.
I call for a single statement on local authority reserves. The councillor's workbook on local government finance states that earmarked reserves
'are restricted by local agreement to fund certain types of expenditure but can be reconsidered or released if the council's future plans and priorities change.'
In the Welsh Government's local government settlement, Cardiff, with total usable reserves of £109.6 million, is having a 0.9 per cent rise; Rhondda Cynon Taf, with reserves of £152.1 million, is having a 0.8 per cent rise; Newport, with reserves of £102.3 million, is having a 0.6 per cent rise; Swansea, with reserves of £95.1 million, is having a 0.5 per cent rise. But councils with the largest cuts of -0.3 per cent include Flintshire with reserves of £49.4 million, Conwy with just £22.7 million, and Anglesey with £24.1 million.
Now, as you're aware, in Anglesey, economic output per person, prosperity, is just under half of that in Cardiff, at just £13,935 per person—the lowest in Wales. Anglesey and Conwy are amongst five Welsh local authorities only where 30 per cent or more of workers are paid less than the voluntary living wage. Yesterday, the finance chief on Anglesey council was reported in the Daily Post as warning that if the council didn't put more cash into its reserves, the authority could go the same way as Northamptonshire, which was unable to balance its books and became effectively insolvent last year. Given these points, I hope we can have a Welsh Government statement with minimum blame laying and maximum focus on how we've got to this position within the available cake in Wales, and how on earth we're going to get out of it so that councils like Anglesey don't have to consider going the same way as Northamptonshire.
Thank you very much for raising this issue. Clearly, Welsh Government has strived to give local authorities the best possible settlement that we could, but we are under no illusion that it is a very difficult period for local authorities, nine years in, as it is, to the Conservative Government's austerity agenda. I recall that the previous Minister did make a written statement on local government reserves recently, but I will explore with the current Minister whether there is more to add on this issue at this particular time.
You will know that I've asked several times in the Chamber about the expectations of the Government in terms of our health boards, and how transparent and open they are in their operations. You'll also know that I feel that Betsi Cadwaladr health board, which is under your control, of course, because they are in special measures, are trying to make important decisions about services by the back door. Now, the health Minister has said that that isn't happening, but it was a great surprise then to find this week that the board won't be meeting next week. If you go to the website, you will see that the meeting has been cancelled—'Meeting stood down' is what the website says. Now, I was going to attend that meeting next week—that's why I was looking for the details—because in that meeting there was going to be a discussion about the three-year plan for the health board, which was going to talk about important changes to local services. But the meeting has disappeared. I'd like to ask whether it has been cancelled in its entirety to the public, or whether it's cancelled for the public only. So, we need to know, and why it has been cancelled.
I also understand that the board hasn't confirmed a u-turn that would have meant losing emergency vascular services from Ysbyty Gwynedd—something that concerns a great many of my constituents. We've heard from the board that this u-turn has happened, but the board hasn't confirmed it, so I would like some clarity, urgently, on what's happening with that service as well.
Thank you very much. With regard to vascular services in north Wales, not only has the reorganisation of the vascular service benefited from investment of nearly £2.3 million of funding from Welsh Government, more importantly it has proved crucial in attracting staff who are essential for the delivery of excellent clinical outcomes to be sustainable.
Whilst its reorganisation was publicly consulted on and agreed a few years ago, following extensive public and stakeholder engagement in developing the proposal, the health board has continued, during the implementation phase, to work with professional bodies, staff and other interested groups, to ensure that the service provided is in the best interests of patient safety. Welsh Government supports the effort made by the health board to meet Vascular Society guidelines and ensure that aneurysm screening in Wales is in line with quality standards. The people of Wales deserve the best services we can provide, and it's unhelpful to continue questioning the model, which is weeks away from final implementation, and so perpetuate fears about patient safety.
On the issue of why the meeting has been cancelled or whether it's been postponed, I would suggest that's taken up directly with the health board, but you could also write to the health Minister for further information.
Organiser, could I have several statements, please? The first is in relation to the cystic fibrosis unit at Llandough hospital. I appreciate that there's a business case that has gone into the health Minister from the health board, but speaking to local practitioners in the cystic fibrosis unit there, there is concern that progress isn't as speedy as it should be. There's been great work going on at the site there, huge improvements in patient outcomes, and it would be a welcome boost to the outcomes for patients and the clinicians who work on that site if a road map now could be laid out as to when the unit's improvements could be completed, and hopefully that will be in the not-too-distant future.
Secondly, could we have an update from the Deputy Minister who's responsible for transport in relation to the eastern distributor road here in Cardiff? Or the Rover Way improvement—it has many titles attached to it. That's the last missing link of the ring road around Cardiff, and anyone who travels that piece of road realises that the congestion is at virtually any time of the day, to be honest with you, at that pinch point in the transport network around Cardiff. And an update on progress—I understand Welsh Government did undertake a feasibility study along with Cardiff city council, and the outcome of that feasibility study will be greatly appreciated to understand will the Welsh Government be in a position to take any work forward in improving that real pinch point now in the transport artery around Cardiff.
And also, could I ask for a statement from the economy Minister in relation to air passenger duty? I do think it is vital. I cannot find a coherent argument why—and I'm criticising my own Government here—passenger duty is not devolved here to Cardiff so that, obviously, that can be used for the benefit of Cardiff Airport. I do believe there's a real opportunity. It's a long-standing position I've taken, when the Silk commission was meeting as well, and it was a recommendation of the Silk commission. And I do believe, rather than reading about this in the press, as we read yesterday, a statement on the floor of the Senedd would be more appreciated—certainly by myself, but I'm sure other Members—so that we can actually understand why these roadblocks exist.
And, in a lighthearted way, could I also draw the Assembly's attention to the main rugby match that's happening on Saturday, the Assembly rugby team playing the House of Commons and the House of Lords? I promise to keep my shirt on; I think I frightened so many people when I took my shirt off a few years ago, thinking I had to swap it. But I know Rhun, who's one of the Members who participates, Hefin David—we're playing in his constituency in Caerphilly—and Huw Irranca have been great supporters of what the club has tried to achieve over the last 12 months. It has raised over £35,000 for Bowel Cancer UK and other charities since its inception back in, I think, 2005/2006. And if any Members who are hearing this want to turn up on Saturday to play, or to, obviously, just support the team, I know everyone would be greatly appreciative of that. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much for raising those issues. I'll start on the issue of the cystic fibrosis unit at Llandough. The health Minister has confirmed to me that he is awaiting that business case, and I would hope that it would be with him before too long.
On the eastern distributor road, I'll certainly ask the Minister to provide you with an update on that work.
And I know that you've had long-held views regarding air passenger duty, which are very much in sync with the Welsh Government's views on air passenger duty. I had the opportunity to raise the issue specifically with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury at our meeting last Friday. I made all of the arguments that you have made and that others have made, and there just seems to be no reason why this would not be devolved to Wales. It's certainly something that we will continue to pursue. I look forward to giving evidence to the Welsh Affairs Committee in due course on this particular issue as well.
And, of course, the most important game on Saturday, we're all looking forward to it and we all wish the Assembly rugby team the very best.
We are not here next week, because of recess, but it's Eating Disorders Awareness Week and there's a campaign, 'I'm socking it to eating disorders', where they're asking people to wear snazzy, coloured socks and post this on social media. Assuming that AMs have snazzy, coloured socks, I would encourage people to support Eating Disorders Awareness Week by taking part in that social media activity. I'm also requesting an update from the Government on the review of the framework for eating disorders. I am pleased that the Minister has been working positively with the sector in this review process. Can we have details as to the progress on that? I have been critical of Government on many things, but I would like to thank the Government for embracing the concept of working with sufferers and their families in renewing this framework so that we can get the best deal for those with eating disorders in Wales.
My second question is something I've raised many times now in relation to the situation of the Kurds here in Wales and further afield. A demonstration was held in Newport over the weekend. I've seen pictures of the police actually being forthright towards campaigners who were simply protesting, i.e. protesting peacefully, walking along the street, wanting to raise concerns about imprisoned Kurdish politicians that have been imprisoned by the Turkish authoritarian regime. I'm dismayed at the way that the police in this country have treated protestors. I do believe that we need to have a debate on community cohesion, because I've also seen some comments on social media by people from Wales saying, 'Well, if they want to campaign on these issues, they should go to Turkey to do so.' Do they not realise that, if they went to Turkey, many of those, especially if they were women, would be imprisoned and beaten on the streets of Turkey because of standing up for the rights of Kurdish people and the politicians? So, I would urge you to give us a statement here on what the police can do to have positive relations with the Kurdish community here in Wales, of which there are many, so that we can ensure that we come to a peaceful political settlement. We know that there may be an imminent attack by Turkey on the Syrian-Turkish border and we really do have to support the people not only in this country, but show solidarity to those in Turkey who are from the Kurdish community and continue to do so.
Thank you very much. I'll take that last point first. Just to confirm, the Minister for international relations recently met with the Turkish ambassador and did raise this particular issue directly with him. Your point about community cohesion is an important one and a timely one. I think that we're all concerned about what we've heard about the increase in attacks on people for various reasons following the Brexit vote. Certainly, it's something that we're very aware of as we prepare to leave the European Union. I'll certainly talk to my colleague to explore the best way to update on Welsh Government's actions in that area.
On Eating Disorders Awareness Week, thank you very much for your comments about how Welsh Government has engaged with the review. I understand that the report has been received and is currently being considered and the Minister will provide a response to that in due course. Of course, I'd be happy to support your snazzy socks Eating Disorders Awareness Week event. I look forward to seeing colleagues' snazzy socks.
Last week, it was reported that Lucy Bagnall was struck off from being a social worker with immediate effect. She was found guilty on all counts by Social Care Wales. It transpired that Bagnall had lied about my constituents and it's also alleged that a third party was told that a disputed care order will remain in place and the family will never see their children again. I'm calling for an immediate review and investigation by Bridgend county council into the case, but I want a Government statement about what the Welsh Government can do to help vulnerable families falsely accused in children's services reports. What mechanism allows families to seek recourse and correction of errors? Because I'm not aware of one that exists in Wales.
Thank you for raising this issue. Obviously, as you say, you'll be raising this specific case directly with Bridgend county council. I'll certainly suggest in the first instance that you write to the Minister with regard to your concerns regarding what support there might be for families who find themselves in situations such as the one that you describe.
Trefnydd, my constituents in Chepstow could only look on enviously last week as news reports of the newly opened Newtown bypass filled their tv screens, ably supported with interviews from Ken Skates, Russell George and others, and, of course, we all welcome the opening of that bypass. It's been a long time in the making. However, as those news reports circulated, Chepstow was totally clogged up with traffic at that very point in time: a result of poorly planned roadworks on the M48 and the Severn bridge. The latter due to the toll removal following the abolition of the tolls.
Could I make my usual plea for a statement, an update, on where we are in terms of achieving a Chepstow bypass, much needed for the town? But also, could I add to that the need for far greater co-operation between the highway authorities in Wales and across the border in England? Those roadworks could have been better co-ordinated cross-border. We saw a lot of traffic leaving Chepstow and clogging up the minor roads because of the closure for roadworks on the M48 and the bridge at the same time. So, I think that there was a way around that confusion last week. But if we could solve those problems in future, I know that my constituents in Chepstow would much appreciate it. So, I look forward to statements from the relevant Minister.
Thank you very much and, of course, the Deputy Minister will have heard your concern regarding a Chepstow bypass. But on the issue of far greater co-operation across borders, I think that that is an important point that warrants some further discussion between Welsh Government and the UK Government in terms of how we can best ensure that traffic moves slowly and that lack of co-ordination and communication doesn't prevent that.
Thank you, Trefnydd.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the First Minister on the latest developments in the UK Government's Brexit negotiations. I call on the First Minister to make the statement—Mark Drakeford.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. With 38 days now to go until the UK leaves the European Union, we are no closer to a solution to the most pressing issue of our time. Last week, the UK Government failed to carry even a bland motion in the House of Commons because of the fanatical insistence of the hardline Brexiteers that no deal is an acceptable outcome. That revealed again how deeply dangerous and misguided the Prime Minister’s policy is of relying on the one group in the House of Commons who are prepared to see this country go over the Brexit cliff edge. Their support, even if it could be secured, will never provide the reliable majority needed to take a deal and all its accompanying legislation through the parliamentary process. The Prime Minister's ill-fated approach further dissipates potential support at home and squanders the meagre residue of goodwill towards the UK in the rest of the EU. It is surely clear that the Prime Minister must now switch to find a majority, which I believe is there to be found, for the sort of Brexit set out in the proposals we and Plaid Cymru published over two years ago, and which was reflected in the letter sent by the leader of the opposition to the Prime Minister last week.
Llywydd, not one of the objections of the hardliners to the sort of economic relationship that we propose stands up to proper examination. First of all, the Conservative Party European Research Group say that they cannot contemplate membership of a customs union with the European Union, but a customs union is not an existential threat, it is a pragmatic necessity to preserve our capability to trade effectively on a global stage. Secondly, we're told that an arrangement of the sort we advocate would frustrate the UK’s ability to strike new trade deals around the globe. Well, Llywydd, I set on one side the Government’s own economic analysis that even on the most optimistic assumptions, such deals would have only a marginal effect on our economy, and I don’t even point to the abject failure to secure continued access to the 40 trade deals with 70 other European countries, which we enjoy today through our membership of the European Union, let alone the new deals with Japan, Australia, New Zealand and Chile, which the EU has been negotiating while we are preoccupied by Brexit. Our approach, Llywydd, does not end the ambition for the UK to enter new trade deals. As has already been set out by organisations such as the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, there is an opportunity, if sufficient flexibility can be shown, to enable the UK to negotiate new trade deals alongside the EU. The alternative is the unfolding catastrophe of a 'no deal' exit, and I chose that word deliberately, Llywydd. The chaos has already begun, with investors pulling out and cancelling plans. This will get worse every day the uncertainty is allowed to continue. If we drop off the Brexit cliff edge, we risk not just the short-term shock it will bring, but the long-term undermining of our economic futures.
Last week, we learnt that in the event of a 'no deal', Ford would consider the future of its UK operations. This echoed the comments from Airbus last month. Today, we have the announcement from Honda, following Nissan's cancelled investment announced last week. What more does it take, Llywydd, to demonstrate the failure of this Government to maintain a stable environment for international investment with the consequences that follow? We can no longer talk about the potential for Brexit to damage our economy—the damage is here, the damage is now, and every day of uncertainty further erodes the confidence of business investors, with the results passed on into the lives of working families here in Wales.
Llywydd, you only have to talk to organisations that represent smaller businesses to hear that the fear of closure is on every high street and on every industrial estate and in every part of Wales and the United Kingdom. The British Chambers of Commerce has accused the UK Government of leaving them hung out to dry in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit. And as the clock runs down, the jobs that are being lost are being lost now. Investment has slumped and that despite the fact that many companies are stockpiling for the future. For the sake of that future, let the Prime Minister take the advice of this National Assembly—take no deal off the table, seek an extension to article 50, and fashion an agreement that puts the needs of jobs, livelihoods and our economy first. The Prime Minister has every obligation to rule out no deal, and she should do that immediately. It is irresponsible too to continue to claim that the withdrawal process, which includes hugely important primary legislation to embed the withdrawal agreement in law, even if a meaningful vote can be passed—that that can all be concluded in six weeks. It simply cannot be done. And leaving a request to the European Union longer simply increases the risk that such an extension cannot be agreed. Now, Llywydd, if the UK Government fails to act in the national interest, then Parliament must do so, and if Parliament itself is deadlocked, then, as we discussed earlier this afternoon, the decision must return to the people.
In the meantime, and since this matter was last discussed here, the Welsh Government goes on relentlessly representing our national interest at every opportunity. In the last few weeks, I myself have met with the Prime Minister, the First Minister of Scotland, the leader of the opposition, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Labour's Brexit spokesperson, Sir Keir Starmer, the chair of the House of Commons Brexit committee and many others. I have attended the UK Government's Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit preparation in London, and I will go to London again to do so tomorrow. I'm grateful to the leader of the opposition here for finding time to meet me on terms where I could share information from those meetings with him and to seek his views in return.
My Cabinet colleagues too remain focused on this essential agenda. In the last week, the Counsel General has attended both meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee on Europe and on European negotiations. He's been in Edinburgh to attend a ministerial forum on EU negotiations, and he has been in London attending the UK Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit preparations. On Friday last, the finance Minister hosted the finance Ministers' quadrilateral, as you've heard, here in Cardiff. Eluned Morgan attended a ministerial quadrilateral on international trade yesterday in London, and Lesley Griffiths took part yesterday in an environment Ministers' quadrilateral. Here in the Assembly, Ministers have appeared before the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee and other subject committees to report on our actions and to be scrutinised upon them. Beyond the Assembly, we remain in close contact with the widest range of partners here in Wales. Last week, Ken Skates chaired a meeting of the Council for Economic Development to discuss Brexit preparation, and, just today, the health Minister has chaired a meeting of the health European stakeholder group.
Llywydd, the Welsh Government is committed to doing all we can to help prepare and mitigate the impact of leaving the European Union. The report of the auditor general, published earlier this morning, points to the lead role the Welsh Government has taken in identifying and managing national and strategic risks, working with others inside and outside Wales to do so. The stark truth remains, Llywydd, that leaving the European Union without a deal poses a risk that cannot be mitigated, but can be avoided. The Prime Minister must change course before it is too late for that to happen.
Can I thank you, First Minister, for your statement this afternoon? Of course, it's absolutely critical that regular and productive engagement takes place in this Parliament to help prepare Wales in the, hopefully unlikely, event that we leave the EU without a deal. Therefore, it's vitally important, as I've said before, that Wales's leaders set aside their political differences and leave no stone unturned when it comes to preparing Wales for life after 29 March, and that's why I did accept your invitation to meet to discuss the implications of Brexit some weeks ago.
Now, in your statement today, First Minister, you criticise hardliners in the Conservative Party. Well, you won't be surprised that I'm not going to take any lessons from you and your party on hardliners and disagreements, given that we saw only yesterday a new independent group being formed of seven disillusioned Labour MPs, who could not serve under Jeremy Corbyn. They couldn't stay in a party with such uncertainty over the Labour Party stance on Brexit, and, indeed, on so many other issues. And this hardly shows a united party. Now, I'd like to reaffirm the commitment—[Interruption.] Now, I'd like to reaffirm the commitment that the Prime Minister has made regarding continuing to work hard with all parties to try and secure agreement, so we can leave the EU with a deal that will work for everyone. And I'm now pleased that, at long last, the leader of the Labour Party has met with the Prime Minister and is engaging in this process.
Now, I know that you'd like to see a 'no deal' scenario off the table, First Minister. As I've told you before, I also want to leave the EU with a deal, but the only way you can ensure a deal is to encourage your colleagues to support a deal. So, can you confirm today that, if the Prime Minister is successful in seeking changes to the current deal, you would therefore encourage your colleagues in Westminster to seek to lend their support to that deal, to ensure we don't leave the EU without a deal?
Of course, I'm very concerned to hear that businesses are worried about Brexit's uncertainty. Naturally, like you, First Minister, I'm devastated to hear that Honda will be closing its plant in Swindon, and the huge effect that that will have on Welsh suppliers. However, Honda has said that the decision was due to global changes in the car industry, so we have to be very, very careful, when we use examples, that companies' decisions are reported accurately. Now, all the businesses I speak to want a deal so they can plan for future years, and we owe it to businesses to work together and secure a deal. Now, First Minister, you'll be aware that the Prime Minister has negotiated a particular deal with the EU that does include a 21-month implementation period, when all trading rules would remain in place. This would give clarity to businesses, and this needs to happen.
I know you will again be meeting the Prime Minister tomorrow to hold further discussions. So, therefore, can you reassure us that you will represent businesses appropriately and accurately, given that many businesses have continuously supported the Prime Minister's current deal?
Now, I remain concerned that there appears to be little progress made since the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee published its report regarding preparing for Brexit, a year ago. There was a clear direction from the committee in their findings that the Welsh Government needed to improve its communication with individual organisations, through improved encouragement of representative bodies to share information with all the related organisations. And it's hugely important that public services in Wales receive more information to effectively prepare for Brexit, and, First Minister, you told me last time I asked you about this that a lot of work has been done. However, the Wales Audit Office report into Brexit, which is referred to in today's statement, confirms that only a minority of councils have clear plans to deal with the risks that they have identified. In this report, concerns have actually been expressed about a lack of capacity in public services to manage Brexit, which is also having a significant knock-on impact on other service areas. In the circumstances, how do you as a Government respond to these specific concerns, and what measures are you now putting in place to support these vital services, going forward?
And therefore, in closing, Llywydd, can I thank the First Minister for his statement today? Time is, of course, now of the essence, and so can I reiterate once again that my colleagues and I are committed to working, where we can, with both the UK Government and the Welsh Government on behalf of the people of Wales?
Llywydd, I thank the Member for those comments, and for the questions.
The reason why we decided to bring forward this statement today was because we didn't want the Assembly not to have an opportunity to discuss these vitally important matters in advance of the recess. And I acknowledge what the Member said in opening about the need to make sure that there is full engagement here in this Parliament. I disagree with the Member on a number of points, and I'll deal with those briefly, before going on to deal with some of the things where I think there is agreement between us.
First of all, I think the time has long gone when keeping a 'no deal' outcome on the table was of any use to the Prime Minister in her negotiations with the European Union. Maybe—I doubted it then, but I would at least have been prepared to accept the theoretical possibility early on that keeping that on the table might have been useful. But, as the weeks have seeped by, the idea that that gives the Prime Minister any leverage at all in her discussions elsewhere has long, long evaporated. Instead, it is now an inhibition to getting the sort of agreement that we rely upon our European partners to come to the table and help us to agree. It would help the Prime Minister to secure the majority she needs on the floor of the House of Commons if she were simply to take that possibility away. And the leader of the opposition met the Prime Minister because the House of Commons had passed a resolution ruling out 'no deal', and he had said to her all along that that was one of the conditions on which he would meet her. When the House of Commons voted in favour of that proposition, he immediately agreed to meet, and the sort of arrangements for Brexit that were set out in his letter, as I said earlier, were widely welcomed in the European Union as forming the basis for the sort of deal that could command a majority in the House of Commons and would be able to be negotiated with them.
Now, Llywydd, I don't doubt for a single moment the sincerity of the leader of the opposition when he expresses his concerns for the economic consequences of decisions that are being made that affect the lives of people here in Wales. I don't believe that Brexit played no part in Honda's decision. I agree that it was a background rather than a foreground decision, and the foreground decisions are the ones that the company has pointed to in relation to international changes in the automotive industry. But, when I met Ford with Ken Skates last week, what they said to us was that the challenges that face them are not caused primarily by Brexit, but they are compounded by Brexit. Brexit is there in the background and is making life for all these major manufacturers more difficult than it otherwise would be. Of course, I welcome the fact that the Prime Minister has agreed to an extension, a transition period, if her deal can be secured, because we argued for that from the very first meeting we held with members of the UK Government after the referendum of June 2016. And I will certainly represent the views of Welsh businesses. It's amongst the most powerful things that I'm able to do in meetings with UK Ministers: to pass on to them the views that Welsh businesses have directly passed to us.
In relation to the final questions the Member raised arising from the auditor general's report, well, he will have seen the report that said that the Welsh Government has taken positive steps to engage public service leaders through the partnership council. We had a special meeting of it on Brexit in January. We continue to engage with local government leaders and others. I have some sympathy for them, Llywydd. Here they are, hard-pressed, as we hear around this Chamber week after week, with Members here wanting more to be spent on front-line services, as do we, and now being asked to take money away from those services to prepare for an eventuality that they bitterly hope will not take place, and that's an invidious position for any local authority leader to be in. Nevertheless, we go on working with them, providing funding to them as well, in order to assist them in the work that we will need them to undertake should a 'no deal' Brexit actually take place.
I'm grateful to the First Minister for seeing his statement in advance. You state in the statement that the proposals set out in 'Securing Wales' Future' were reflected in Jeremy Corbyn's letter to Theresa May last week. But that isn't exactly the case, is it? I quote 'Securing Wales' Future':
'The EU Customs Union delivers benefits for Welsh business.... We believe at this stage that remaining part of the EU Customs Union, including for primary agricultural and fisheries products, remains the best position for Welsh and UK business.'
What Jeremy Corbyn calls for is a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union that would include alignment with the union customs code, a common external tariff and agreement on commercial policy that includes a UK say on future EU trade deals. Now, that's not the EU customs union as we understand it, certainly, and, indeed, that proposal is currently impossible legally under EU treaty law. So, would he accept—? On the single market as well, the agreement that we negotiated between our two parties was—. We preferred membership, you preferred participation, but, essentially, it was remaining part of the single market, whereas only this afternoon Jeremy Corbyn, asked specifically about that, said that he rejects that idea and what he wants is a tariff-free trade arrangement. So, would he at least accept that actually what Jeremy Corbyn is advancing is not the same as we negotiated between our two parties?
On the question of the backstop, it remains to me one of the more curious elements of the Labour Party frontbench position in Westminster that they continue to express their concerns about the backstop, despite different comments that have been made by Labour Party representatives here. The shadow Brexit Secretary still says there are difficulties with it and there are echoes here of what the DUP and some of the wider fringes of the Conservative Party are saying.
Finally, to focus on the core issue really, 38 days away from crashing out, as you said, we're clear that there is only one means possible now realistically of avoiding this and that's the people's vote. I was going to castigate you for actually leaving that out completely of your statement. I re-read it. It wasn't in the written statement, was it? It was added in in response to First Minister's questions. So, it's true, they aren't a complete waste of time. You're almost like Jeremy Corbyn in reverse. He had a reference to the people's vote in the first draft of the letter and it was taken out. You didn't have a reference to the people's vote in your written draft and you put it in. But I rejoice at that. There was a rowing back, and, suddenly, a small step in the right direction.
But, you know, when are we going to have progress? You talk about the importance of 'no deal', but no progress is at least as toxic to where we are. So, when will we finally have an unequivocal statement from you, First Minister, in favour of calling for a people’s vote now?
Jeremy Corbyn actually said this afternoon that he supported a popular decision at the end of the process. I’ve no idea what that means. Perhaps you can elucidate further. Does it mean a final-say referendum at the end of the transition period—a position that’s been advanced previously by Mick Antoniw? Does it mean that the Labour frontbench are going to support the Kyle-Wilson amendment? Apparently, John McDonnell says they’re going to make a decision this week on that, on a confirmatory referendum. Did you discuss that in Cabinet this morning? Are you able to tell us what the position is?
You referred, finally, to your meeting that you had with the leader of the opposition. Well, here’s a genuine offer: why don’t we meet together to start the preparations—the immediate preparations that we’ve called for—for the people’s vote? Why don’t you and I meet together to start the preparations, not just for calling for that referendum, but holding it and winning it here in Wales?
Well, Llywydd, I always try to be careful in what I say on the floor of the Assembly, and what I said was that the document that was drawn up between Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party here was reflected in the letter sent by the leader of the opposition. I didn’t say that it was replicated. I said that it was reflected. And I chose that word deliberately, because I think—[Interruption.] No, I understand that Members would rather not have precision in the way we talk about things, but when I used the word ‘reflected’, I used it because the broad thrust of the things that we discussed here I think are reflected in that letter. It’s not a replication; it doesn’t cover it in every detail, but we said here that membership of a customs union was vital to Welsh businesses, and a customs union is confirmed in the letter that was sent by the leader of the opposition. We have said that full and unfettered access to the single market is important. I believe that that is reflected in the letter sent by the leader of the opposition as well.
So, you know, I think it is better that when we see steps being taken in the direction that we would like to see things taken, we welcome those things and we try and find ways of assisting in that process, rather than, as I sometimes think we see, a sort of exegetical fascination with trying to find minor gaps between what is said in one statement and another, what is contained in one letter and a document. It’s completely lost on anybody outside this Chamber, believe me. Absolutely nobody would be interested in the points that the leader of Plaid Cymru made to me this afternoon. Far, far better if we were to continue trying to do what we have been trying to do, which is to agree the broad thrust of the things that we think are important and then putting our shoulders together to that wheel. And that is an effort that I’m certainly prepared to go on making, and I’m prepared to make it with people whenever, in this Chamber, they have an interest in securing an outcome that would be right for Wales.
I’m always happy to debate the issues of Brexit in this Chamber, but it would have been quite easy for the First Minister to come today and make a much shorter statement than the one he did. He could simply have said, ‘There have been no developments in the last few months’, and that is because, I agree with him, we’re no closer to a solution, and that’s because the Prime Minister is not asking the right questions. And right from the beginning, she has wanted to cobble together some kind of a deal that has in substance kept us inside the EU whilst nominally looking as though we’ve left it. And that is something that is doomed to failure, because, obviously, the EU are never going to accept that kind of arrangement. For them, you either have to be in or out. So, we’ve wasted the last two and a half years, and we can all criticise the Government for the uncertainty, or extra uncertainty, that this has caused, and it’s a highly justifiable criticism that the United Kingdom Government has not made adequate preparations, or indeed any preparations so far as we can see that are of any great substance, for leaving without a deal. And that, I think, is one of the major problems that we've got to contend with.
The language in the statement doesn't help, of course—
'fanatical insistince of hardline Brexiteers that no deal is an acceptable outcome.'
Of course, there's the fanatical insistence of hardline remainers that we should do everything possible to undermine the referendum result. That sort of language doesn't really get us anywhere, but the reason why we have these fanatical insisters on both sides of the argument is that nobody trusts the Prime Minister. Half the argument is that they fear that she is going to take us out of the European Union without a deal, and the other half is fearful that we're actually going to be kept inside the EU. It's the deliberate, calculated obscurity of the Prime Minister in her language that has produced this outcome, and which is the most toxic element in this mix. So, to that extent, I can accept what the First Minister has said today.
But continued access to 40 trade deals is not going to be vital to our future as a nation. What are these trade deals that the EU has managed in its 50-odd year history to negotiate? San Marino, Andorra, the Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Jersey, Monaco, and now we've got Serbia, Montenegro and Albania, Moldova, Georgia. Well, these are all worthy deals that could be done, but apart from Mexico, with whom the EU agreed a deal some years ago, and most recently Japan only this year, Canada and so on, then the EU—[Interruption.] It'll be far easier for us than for the EU, because the EU is a protectionist conspiracy, whereas we are not.
And free trade deals are actually a dart that is aimed right at the heart of the EU, as the decision of Japanese car companies recently proved, because one of the elements in Honda's decision has been that with a free trade deal with the EU, they can now have tariff-free access to the EU markets, but they don't actually need to produce inside the EU. So, that's shut them all up a bit over there, hasn't it? So, yes, free trade deals are an important part of Britain's future outside the EU, which is why membership of the customs union is incompatible with it.
Now, from the First Minister's statement today, you would think that the whole British economy is, to use his phrase, going over a cliff. But latest Office for National Statistics market data published this week show that in the last quarter of 2018, 167,000 more people have been employed; that's 440,000 more people in work in the United Kingdom in the course of the calendar year 2018. The employment rate is therefore the highest ever—60,000 fewer people in zero-hours contracts, the lowest unemployment since 1974—unemployment fell 100,000 in 2018. Wages have gone up by 3.4 per cent, 1.3 per cent in real terms, and yet when the referendum result was announced and, indeed, before it, the predictions were that the whole economy was going into a black pit. And the predictions of the Treasury at the time were that unemployment in Britain would be 500,000 to 800,000 higher than it was in May 2018. So much for the Treasury forecasts, which are no more than political propaganda by our arch-remainer Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Another interesting development in the last few days is that Italy is now seeking a separate Brexit deal with Britain, because they recognise the importance to them of a 'no deal' Brexit from the EU. FoodDrinkEurope have said that
'The exit of the UK from the EU without a deal will constitute a lose-lose situation for the entire agri-food chain.'
The impact will be immediate and harsh. There are two sides to this argument, of course—the EU and the UK. The UK has said right at the start and, indeed, Mr Tusk said right at the start that he wanted to offer a free trade deal with the UK. The Prime Minister has refused to take up that option, and the intransigence of Juncker and Barnier on the other hand has kept this solution away from the negotiating table. That is the way forward for Britain.
There is a world outside the EU. The EU is only 15 per cent of the world economy compared with 30 per cent 30 years ago, and it will be half that again in 30 years' time. The growth in the world is occurring in those parts of the world to which the car companies are now relocating, and not only from Britain, because Honda is closing its Honda Civic production line in Turkey, and may actually close its entire operations there. And Turkey is inside the customs union. Donald Trump is talking about imposing a 25 per cent tariff on EU exporters of cars to the United States because we insist on having a 10 per cent tariff against American cars, whereas they have only a 2.5 per cent tariff in return. The German car industry will certainly feel the wind of change if that happens, and as Britain buys one in seven of every vehicle that is made in Germany, a 'no deal' Brexit will also be a severe difficulty for them as the German economy has now been in recession for two quarters—something that they've not experienced for a great many years—whereas Britain remains open for business to the growth industries of the future. A £400 million tech fund was established this week in London by the Abu Dhabi state investor Mubadala Investment Company and Softbank, because the UK is the global capital of technical innovation. These are the industries of the future that we should be concentrating on. These are the opportunities that open up to us after Brexit. I don't want a 'no deal' Brexit—I want to have a free trade agreement with the European Union, I always have—but the failure to talk turkey about these issues is now something which is going to be a big problem for us.
The other big problem for the car industry, of course, is diesel. And it's the EU's and the United Kingdom and the Welsh Government's policy on emissions that is one of the biggest problems for the European car manufacturers. That's one of the major reasons behind Nissan's reason for abandoning production in Sunderland—because nobody is going to want diesel cars in a very short time, and yet these are the current production lines.
So, I do wish that the First Minister would be more balanced in his statements. Yes, there are going to be problems of transition from leaving the EU. Even more so with a 'no deal'—the fault for which, I believe, lies first and foremost in 10 Downing Street. But there are opportunities there as well, and continually talking down the British economy is not the way forward, and certainly not the way forward if you have an interest in the well-being of the Welsh people.
The Member said that the Prime Minister's strategy was one of deliberate obscurity. I wish I could believe that it was as planned as that. I think we have the obscurity without the deliberation, really—we just have a movement between factions as she is battered, day by day, by the fissures inside her own party.
The Member read out some of the 40 countries with which we have deals. These are the very deals that he and people like him were lauding to us in the run-up to the referendum. This is Dr Fox's infamous Tipp-Ex solution, you remember, when he said that these would be the easiest deals done in the history of trade. All it required was a bottle of Tipp-Ex in which you would Tipp-Ex out the initials 'EU' and ink in the initials 'UK'. What has he managed so far? Well, we've struck a deal with Switzerland, so our supply of cuckoo clocks is secure after Brexit, and we've done a deal with the Faroe Islands. So, anybody keen on a woolly jumper to keep warm in the Brexit chill will find that they've been looked after as well.
The Member said that free trade deals are incompatible with a customs union. He said that just after he had outlined the free trade deals that the EU have struck in recent weeks, while, as I recall, still being in a customs union. He said as well that everything in the UK economy is going swimmingly, despite the fact that the Bank of England figures suggest that the UK economy is 2 per cent smaller today than it would have been if we hadn't had a referendum, and that families in Wales are each £800 worse off as a result of that decision.
He strikes me, as ever, Llywydd, as the captain of the Titanic. We set sail as fast as we can towards the iceberg, pointing out that there will be some problems on collision, but the iceberg will be jolly sorry—that the European Union will be sorry for the harm that all this is doing to them. We hear we'll be members of Buccaneering Britain, the fantasy land of the Brexiteers, in which, free of the restraints that have caused the European Union economy to be such a success for 40 years, we will be able to go it alone and cut it alone. It simply does not bear any relation to the realities of a globally integrated economy and harks back to a set of circumstances that simply don't pertain today and certainly will not pertain if we crash out of the European Union.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item is a statement by the Minister of Health and Social Services: an update on the transformation fund. I call on the Minister, therefore—Vaughan Gething.
Diolch, Llywydd. In 2016, the four party groups in this Assembly agreed to establish a parliamentary review of health and social care in Wales. The report of the parliamentary review was published in January 2018. That report acknowledged our world-leading legislative framework, the organisational structures that underpin it, and the dedication of our health and care workforce. But it also contained some tough messages for us, setting for us the challenge to transform health and social care in Wales. The simple message at the heart of the parliamentary review was that our current system of health and social care is not fit for the future. Change is not simply desirable. Change is essential.
The Welsh Government has embraced the review recommendations. Throughout spring of last year, we worked with stakeholders and partners in health, local government, the voluntary sector and housing to develop our response. And I published 'A Healthier Wales', our first plan for health and social care, in June last year. Summarised in 40 actions, it sets out the steps that we will take as a Government and those that our partners need to take with us and, crucially, the steps that our partners agree need to be taken to deliver a whole-system approach to reform and transform health and social care in Wales.
Within weeks of publishing 'A Healthier Wales', I announced the establishment of a transformation programme—a key recommendation from the review. That programme is supported by the £100 million transformation fund, and the fund is intended to act as a catalyst to speed up the scaling up of new models of care that have the potential to fundamentally change how we deliver healthcare and social care in Wales. And that change is not simply a financial equation. We have to deliver greater value in how each partner uses their resources to improve the quality of care. Better outcomes and better experiences with and for our people are what drive this programme for change.
We know that the demand for health and social care will continue to increase. That is driven partly by changes in how we live our lives, in life expectancy, in technology, in the socioeconomic context and changing expectations of what modern health and care should be able to deliver. I am regularly reminded that, despite nearly a decade of austerity, the public and indeed politicians have not reduced their expectations of our national health service. New models must not only take into account new healthcare procedures, new medicines, new technology-enabled social care, but also what matters to people—the people who seek social care or healthcare and the people who deliver it. At some point in our lives, this is everyone.
It is essential that new models for care are cohesive and affordable. We want to connect and streamline services at regional level, so regional partnership boards are essential in making this happen. I welcome the way that partners have worked together through regional partnership boards in developing proposals for the transformation fund at pace. The models supported through the fund are designed to shift the delivery of care closer to home, joining up health and social care services, with more emphasis on prevention.
We all recognise that transforming an entire system is not a quick or easy task but that we are facing big challenges. The fund cannot resolve all of these concerns, but it can help to demonstrate how we can do things differently and how we can do things better. To date, I have approved seven proposals from regional partnership boards across Wales. These will be supported by up to £41.2 million over the next two years for those plans currently approved. I expect to receive further proposals for my consideration imminently. This is a significant investment. I expect to see real progress in how services work together to deliver more efficient and effective services that make it easier for people to access and, of course, to deliver better outcomes.
I am encouraged by the proposals that we have received so far. Every regional partnership has brought forward ideas and commitment to transformation. We have portfolio proposals from Cardiff and Vale, west Wales, and north Wales, spanning a range of services from preventative to non-scheduled, to post-hospital care. We have proposals from Gwent and Western Bay, north Wales and Cardiff and Vale, with a focus on moving care out of hospitals and closer to home, and from west Wales, looking to utilise assistive technology, community assets and intergenerational support across communities.
The first round of proposals shows a vigorous and confident response from our regional partnerships. They draw together partners from across health and social care and start to shape the transformation that 'A Healthier Wales' describes. We are seeing efforts to share good practice beyond regional boundaries and encouragingly, there are common themes in what change looks like. There is a strong emphasis on bridging gaps and reshaping how people access healthcare and social services. Workforce development is a strong theme in the proposals, reflecting the focus on people that runs through 'A Healthier Wales', including the quadruple aim. Without the dedication of people working in front-line health and social care services and in the third sector, we cannot achieve the essential transformation that is required.
To ensure that we stay on course, we are evaluating and challenging ourselves as the transformation programme develops. A recent rapid review that we commissioned into the scale and spread of the proposals that we have funded through the transformation fund has been encouraging. It is important that emerging new models are evaluated as they develop so that the most promising approaches can be scaled up for wider adoption across Wales. We are working with partners to develop a set of national indicators that will support this aim. I'm confident that with the continued support and goodwill of our partners, we can deliver the change that we all recognise is needed, and needed now. Our challenge is to ensure that there is real transformation and that we avoid the temptation to focus only on the most pressing needs.
Looking beyond immediate and pressing needs requires extra effort, and it can only be achieved if we work in partnership. So, the role of regional partnerships will continue to be crucial, as they provide the vehicle for leaders in health and social care to work together with others to plan and deliver services that meet the needs of local populations.
Just over a year after the parliamentary review was published, our transformation fund is already making a difference. Each new model that is supported could help to shape and transform health and social care in Wales. What is even more important is that we have begun to see change and improved relationships across health and social care, with a greater sense of shared ambition. That goes well beyond the transformation fund and it will require both goodwill and leadership to maintain that approach and deliver the change that is needed. We still have much to do.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Can I thank you, Minister, for an advanced copy of your statement this afternoon? I'm very pleased to see that cash is being invested in transforming our health services here in Wales. We know that we are behind, in some respects, some other parts of the UK in terms of taking forward particularly closer working between health and social care. But it is encouraging that we're finally investing in these newer models of care in order to get improved outcomes for our patients. The cash, though, that's been spent so far is a bit of a drop in the ocean as far as the overall health budget is concerned, as we all know. So, I think the expectation that you have about this being a catalyst for significant change over the course of this Assembly perhaps is a little bit too ambitious.
Now, I note that you said that you have already approved seven proposals, and I think that that's good. I think in the last statement, only two had been actually confirmed at that time. Can you tell us: have all of these now commenced? You've referred to the fact that they are proposals that reflect all parts of Wales, that there's something operating in each individual regional partnership area, but you've given us precious little detail other than two or three sentences about what is particularly going on in different places. And nor have you given us a breakdown as to where the £41.2 million is actually being spent. So, can I ask you in which health board areas and which regional partnership board areas is that £41.2 million being spent? Is it being spent equally in all parts of Wales, or are some benefiting more than others?
I also wonder, in particular, what is new about the cash that's being invested, because from what you describe—for example, the use of assistive technology, community assets, intergenerational activity, some of the preventative work that's going on, non-scheduled post-hospital care—a lot of that is going on anyway in our health board areas, and quite rightly. They ought to be investing in these sorts of things because there's a saving to be made further down the line. So, how can you be sure that these are projects that are adding value to the work that's already going on in our health board areas and not simply supporting those health boards, who perhaps may be a little bit lazy about transforming the services in their own areas?
You've mentioned workforce planning, or workforce development, being a strong theme. Pleased to hear that, because we know that we've been abysmal here in Wales when it comes to workforce planning, whether that's the nursing workforce, the midwifery workforce, the GP workforce. I mean, I raised earlier on the fact that you're turning people away who want to train as GPs and come to work in Wales. I mean, it's absolutely barmy, to be honest, that you're not simply just creating more training places to fulfil the need that we have in Wales in terms of the shortages that we've got in some of these disciplines. Can you tell us precisely how many additional staff you expect might be recruited and developed as a result of the proposals that are currently being implemented?
You haven't either given us any indication as to what the split of investment is between social care, community care, primary care, secondary care. I mean, we know that when you invest in primary care and community services, that tends to take the pressure off secondary care, which can often be more expensive. So, where is this cash aimed at? Is it in the hospital end of care, or is it in that primary and community care, which I think is where it may need to be focused?
You made reference to the rapid review, which you've undertaken, into the scale and spread of the proposals. You said that the outcome of that rapid review was encouraging. Can you publish the details of the review? Can you tell us a little bit about how you went about conducting the review, to test what was going on on the ground? I know it's early days for some of these projects, but some have been going for quite a while now, and I think we ought to be able to see pretty quickly whether they are going to be things that have legs or not, and which can be spread in terms of their practice across Wales.
You also made reference to the goodwill of partners in delivering the change that is needed. Now, I know that there's been some good and very positive engagement with partners like St John Ambulance and the British Red Cross of late, and that's work that I applaud, which has been going on in different parts of Wales. Can you tell us whether these partners, particularly third sector partners, are actually engaged in any of these projects, and if so, in what way? Because I think it would be good to know whether you're building on what clearly has been, certainly from my impression, a great deal of success with the British Red Cross up in north Wales.
I think that they're all the questions that I have for the moment, Deputy Llywydd, but I do want to say that we welcome this investment. We do welcome the shift in the right direction. But I do think we have to make sure that this is investment that is being put in the right places and not simply replacing investment that should be in place already, and work that should be under way already in our health board areas.
Thank you for the largely constructive approach to the, I think, six or seven areas of questioning. On your first point, saying we are behind some UK areas in health and social care working together—we're actually ahead of others as well. It was a fact that was acknowledged by Stephen Dorrell—a former Conservative health Minister, now the chair of the NHS Confederation—when he came to the Welsh NHS Confederation dinner. He acknowledged that the NHS England plan talks about needing to have that much greater, more integrated relationship, but he acknowledged that we're further ahead in that journey here in Wales. We're not always very good at getting, if you like, network news acknowledgement of what we're actually up to here in Wales.
Across health and social care within the UK, there is real interest in what we're doing, and I want there to be a genuinely open and two-way process, where we're interested in not just selling and telling the rest of the UK what we're doing, but actually looking at what the rest of the UK is doing as well. It has to be a genuinely rounded approach. That was actually at the centre of the speech that I gave to the NHS England confederation conference in Liverpool about 18 months ago.
In terms of where we are with the bids, well, we've confirmed each of those seven areas and it's now for partnership boards to deliver against the bids that they have submitted. In terms of where they are, Cardiff and Vale, Gwent regional partnership board—north Wales regional partnership board had two bids approved. Western Bay, which is soon to become Swansea bay university health board area, they've had two bids approved, and west Wales has had one. I'm expecting to have bids from other areas for me to consider—some this week and more in the pipeline. Now, overall, they make up £41.2 million. When we've made each announcement, we've highlighted what those sums of money are. For example, west Wales is over £11 million in the bid that I've recently approved; Gwent, the headline was £13 million—they're looking to reprofile that, but not to remove the scale or shape of the ambition—and others of varying amounts.
Now, the point is that I don't want people to get lost in money, as if this is only being allocated on a fair-share basis for each area, because the money for each of those bids is predicated on what they contain and what's required for each of them. So, your point about staff numbers—well, the bids are not predicated on staff numbers to be supported by the bids; it's how we transform the model of what we're delivering rather than talking about staff numbers. So, the spend depends on the agreed bids, and the staff numbers depend on agreed bids as well. But, crucially, this is about how you transform what comes. So, it's about what comes at the end of each bid, because this is a limited programme in the sense that there is a time frame to it, and what we're looking for is a clear strategy to understand, to evaluate, does it work, and then, if it does work, how is it scaled up and then how do actually those partners spend their core resource, rather than looking for additional money from the Welsh Government. So, that's important about how it adds value.
The one part of your series of questions that made me wince a bit was when you talked about making sure this isn't supporting health boards that may be a bit lazy about transformation. I don't think that's a fair or a helpful description of any particular health board, or indeed the regional partners, and we've deliberately set this out as bids that have to be supported by the whole regional partnership board. So, it isn't just a health-led transformation programme, it is genuinely about health and social care together. So, health, local government and their partners in the third sector sit around those regional partnership board tables, and, within the period of a few weeks, housing will be there on a regular basis as well. And the point is that they have to follow the design principles that we have set out in guidance, and so that does look at how you add value. It must be about being genuinely transformative and having a real potential to be scaleable, rather than a micro project that everyone who lives around there will talk about but has no prospect of working across the whole system. I previously made it clear that the primary level and the partnership between health and social care is the area where I see this fund making the biggest difference. So, I'm not looking for projects to transform within hospital-based services. It doesn't rule out or say that no hospital-based service may apply, but the biggest aim and value and gain to be made is in that partnership with primary care and the partnership with social care.
In terms of the review, it's an independently commissioned review. It's been shared with the transformation panel. It was a range of external actors outside Government as well. It's got points about what we can do to improve where we are, as well as the areas where we're working well. I'm happy to share key messages on that. It may be helpful if I write to Members, as we get through having made the next round of announcements, to give some of the headlines about that independent review—and I recognise that the Chair of the health committee and others are in the room—and to share those key messages with members of the committee and some of the points about where we are currently in the transformation fund and more broadly on delivering 'A Healthier Wales' as well. I'm fully expecting to be invited to the committee at some point to explain where we are and where we're not.
On third sector involvement, that is for regional partners to determine. I'm not going through each bid and saying that I expect a certain sum to be allocated to a third sector partner. I am well aware that, on a range of the bids delivered, it will involve the third sector not just in agreeing what happens, not just the third sector partner around a regional partnership board table, but more broadly than that, actually, the delivery of it will require the third sector and that will vary from each partnership board, depending on the bid that it is and the area of transformation they're looking to deliver.
I'd like to welcome the Minister's statement and to reiterate my party's support for the transformation fund. It is a bit like taking one tugboat to try and turn around the Titanic, but the Minister has acknowledged that, and it is all about identifying good practice. I was also encouraged to hear the Minister say at the end of his statement that we still have much to do, because I think we all know that, but there is potential here in some of the projects that I'm personally aware of that have been put forward by some of the regional partnership boards in my own region—some of them quite simple ideas, but ideas that needed resource to put them into practice and that could make a tremendous difference. The Minister is right, of course, when he says that it is a challenge to service providers, especially in difficult times, to look beyond immediate and pressing need, and the transformation fund, I do accept, has given them an opportunity to do this and to look at working together in a new way.
I'd like to ask the Minister some specific questions. The first one is about how much of the £100 million has actually been committed up to now. The Minister mentions £41.2 million in his statement to us today. It's my understanding, in the papers that have gone to—very grateful to the Welsh Government for providing papers—the health committee, that a figure of £65 million has been mentioned. Now, it may be that those are projects that refer to—. That may refer to projects that the Minister is expecting to sign off—as he's already mentioned—later this week, but it would be useful to have some clarification there. I have to say that, if it is the £65 million, I'm very pleased to hear that, because I think the Minister would be right to believe that the faster we get the money out of the door, the faster we get the projects in action, the faster we can learn from them. But I would welcome that clarification.
Now, it's clear from the Minister's responses to Darren Millar that we haven't yet had bids from all the regional partnership boards. Again, the health committee papers refer specifically to nothing yet being agreed for Powys. Now, obviously, as one of Powys's representatives in the Assembly, this is something of a concern for me. So, I wonder if the Minister can tell us a little bit more this afternoon about what steps he and his officials are taking to make sure that there are bids in from boards all over Wales. I completely understand the points that he's made to Darren Millar that this is not some sort of tick-box exercise, that it doesn't mean to say, 'We spend this much money here and this much money there and this much money there.' That wasn't the intention of this fund, and we all supported that, but I would personally be very disappointed if we reached a point when there wasn't at least one potential project everywhere in Wales. And I would associate myself with what the Minister has said: I'm sure that those working hard to deliver our services and working in the regional partnership boards do want to really use this money to the best effect, but it would be a great pity if there was any community in Wales that didn't have some potential benefit.
If I can refer, then, to the regional partnership boards as, obviously, they're going to continue to be crucial in rolling this work out, can I ask the Minister to tell us a little bit more about how he and his officials monitor the performance of the regional partnership boards? I've had particular concerns raised with me about accountability because, obviously, you have people from all these different bodies coming together. How are they accountable back into the communities that they represent? So, I'd be interested to hear a little bit more from the Minister today about the guidance that's provided to boards in terms of how they relate to their local communities.
If I can refer, then, again, to the whole area of scaling up the projects, the Minister has referred in his statement and has said a little bit more in response to Darren Millar about the rapid review. I was pleased to hear that that was independent and I look forward to the Minister writing to us with some more details about what that found, but, at the same time, the Minister's statement talks about developing a set of national indicators. So, could the Minister tell us today a little bit about what were the criteria used by the rapid review? If we haven't yet got the national indicators—and I very much welcome the fact that partners are being involved in this process—on what basis was the rapid review making its judgments about what has been achieved so far?
The £100 million is very welcome, as I've said, but it's a very small sum compared with the £7.5 billion total health and care budget. I hope the Minister would acknowledge that we have historically in Wales suffered a little bit from 'projectitis'—that we have good ideas that are tested, that they prove to work, and then get lost when the grant funding ends. Now, I know it's not the Minister's intention that this should happen with regard to projects funded by the transformation fund, but can the Minister tell us a bit more about how he intends to ensure that this 'projectitis'—the good project that disappears when the money is gone—is not going to be the fate of some of the very positive work that can be funded by the transformation fund? And can he outline for us today the process he will use to ensure that the successful projects this time are actually scaled up and that we don't find ourselves again in five years' time saying, 'We know that worked very well, but, for whatever reason, we didn't make that work across Wales'? We are, of course, a country of very varied communities. Things won't always work from one place to another, but the whole purpose, as I understand it, of the transformation fund is to provide good practice that can be scaled up, and I think it's crucial that this Chamber understands how the Minister is going to make that happen.
Thank you for the questions across a range of areas. The £41.2 million is the figure for the seven bids that I have referred to. The larger amount that you refer to is the potential in the bids that have already been received that I am looking forward to reviewing—over this week is my ambition; I would like to make choices on those to allow people to get on with delivery. There are other bids in the pipeline, and I'm happy to reassure the Member and the Chamber, and anyone watching, that I confidently expect every single regional partnership board within the country to have a bid within it. Absolutely. That includes Powys, it also includes Cwm Taf—their bids are in discussion with officials. So, they are at an advanced stage, as opposed to a thinking, pondering and considering stage. And, actually, being in a position to start making announcements, as I was in the autumn, was helpful about generating pace in other parts of the country—nobody wants to be seen to be left behind—but also about the sharing of the information in the areas that are being covered as well at the outset. And, more than that, our plan is to share evaluation and learning through this process as well. So, as we go through, the learning will be iterative as well, and I want to make sure that is deliberately plugged in. So, part of the point about having the rapid review is to make sure that we can understand both against, obviously, the evaluation priorities within each bid, but also the policy priorities within 'A Healthier Wales' and the design principles that we set out, to make sure that we're actually—in having an external review, whether they're actually approving bids that actually are true to the policy priorities and the other design principles that we've set out.
On partnership boards and their links to local communities, I think we're straying slightly from the transformation fund, but, of course, local government members have their own mandate and their own democratic mandates to undertake their functions. We agreed in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 to create regional partnership boards to try to draw people together. So, we decided, as a national institution, to create that structure, and some of our challenge now is about how we recognise the different partnerships that we have and making proper use of them. So, they're a forum for people to make sure they agree on what they should do and then to go ahead and deliver it. And we have varying local, regional and national accountability mechanisms for that, including, of course, the conversation we are having in this Chamber today.
The transformation fund, as I set out on a regular basis, is not so much about the use of the £100 million. I really do try to avoid getting drawn into the shares for different parts of the country. The £100 million is a catalyst; it is a way to design and deliver the future—to draw together the best ideas to have the most transformative impact. And it's at least as much about having our health and social care system see together a level of ambition and to recognise what they can do. So, if there is not a transformation fund, then we've created the sort of culture and environment where, actually, those partners can, together, continue to transform health and social care. Because we won't do everything that we need to do in the next two years and the lifetime of the fund. So, it is about the impact that transforms the use of the current approximate £9 billion of shared resource that health and social care have that is the objective of the transformation fund, not about how we can spend the £100 million itself.
And in terms of how we're going to be able to do that and how we're going to be able to demonstrate and evaluate the impact of the fund, well, there'll be an evaluation at the end of each project. But, more than that, it's about what we then see being delivered in the joint plans of partners, about having joint health and social care plans that people buy into, and that, if there is a successful project, that then that partnership will be able to take that up, and, actually, how successful we are in scaling that up on a national level. So, there's a role for individual partners within that. There's a role for regional partnerships, and, of course, there's a role for the Government as well. For example, when we approve the integrated medium-term plans of health boards will we see, and will there be an expectation—if I am in post, you can expect there would be—that successful ideas are scaled up and you see a progressive way that they're going to be implemented within health board areas that start them, but also those health board areas that are not growing those particular bids? So, I expect to see real national input. And a good example would be, for example, the transformation in Gwent on children's services and a more preventative approach to mental health. Well, actually, that's part of what they're looking at. Now, if that works in Gwent, I would need to be persuaded that you could not and should not want to see that scaled up in other parts of the country, and we have different mechanisms as to how we could look to do that.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 5 is a statement by the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs on the Warm Homes programme, and I call on the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs—Lesley Griffiths.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Last week, and in observance of National Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, National Energy Action Wales, with support from SSE, hosted this year’s fuel poverty conference entitled ‘Tackling Fuel Poverty & Inequality: The Road Ahead’. It provided an opportunity for Government, Ofgem and key partners representing the energy and third sectors to come together to share successes and identify challenges, but more importantly to consider how best we can work together in partnership to support people in our society whose lives continue to be blighted by living in a cold home. Today, I would like to take this opportunity to reaffirm this Government’s commitment to tackling fuel poverty and improving the energy efficiency of our housing, whilst being good global citizens by reducing our carbon footprint and reducing the share of the world’s resources we take for our own needs.
Everyone should live in a decent home. Decent homes create decent communities in which everyone can play a part. Warm and affordable houses prevent ill health, they help our children do well in school and ensure some of our most vulnerable people feel more secure. This is why our focus on creating decent homes and tackling fuel poverty is so important. Since its launch almost 10 years ago, our Warm Homes programme, which includes the demand-led Nest scheme and the area-based Arbed scheme, has provided energy efficiency advice to more than 112,000 people and has improved more than 50,000 homes by installing home energy efficiency measures. Without this assistance, we estimate that more than 80,000 homes would have been facing the unmanageable burden of keeping warm this winter. Extending this programme until 2021 should enable us to improve up to a further 25,000 homes.
The investment of £248 million, which we've delivered through our Warm Homes programme up to the end of March 2018, has been in addition to support offered by the UK Government through the energy company obligation scheme. The new ECO scheme now has a greater emphasis on people living on lower incomes. This will better enable larger energy companies to play their part in making more affordable warmth a reality.
The investment made in improving the energy efficiency of Welsh homes, together with our ongoing investment to implement the Welsh quality housing standard in the social housing sector, has had a positive impact. The result of the latest Welsh housing conditions survey reports the average energy performance certificate rating of homes in Wales in this latest survey is at band D, compared to the average band E rating in 2008. However, despite our efforts, the number of people struggling to maintain a safe and warm home during the winter remains stubbornly high. More than one in five households, unfortunately, continues to live in fuel poverty.
Our health conditions pilot, introduced in 2017, is designed to support our efforts to reduce the levels of illness and premature winter deaths, made worse from living in a cold home. The pilot extends eligibility to enable our Nest scheme to support people living on lower incomes, not in receipt of income-related benefits, living with a chronic respiratory or similar health condition. I have agreed to extend this pilot for a further year. This will ensure the people most at risk of respiratory and associated conditions can continue to receive the help and support they need and will contribute to reducing winter pressures on our health services.
This winter, I have also agreed to make funding available to provide support for our most vulnerable citizens who are living in a cold home for the sake of the cost of a call-out charge needed to repair a broken central heating boiler. Supporting people to restore heating in their homes, especially for homes with children, older people and disabled people, must be one of our shared priorities.
Turning to the future, my intention is to publish our new plan for tackling fuel poverty at next year’s fuel poverty awareness conference, following a public consultation in the autumn. The new plan will include outcome-focused objectives that are aspirational. However, we must take care our aspirations are deliverable in the short, medium and longer term, and are clearly aligned to our wider decarbonisation agenda. On that basis, the Welsh Government is keen to work with the energy sector, our stakeholders in the public and third sectors, the UK Government and the energy regulator, to ensure we develop and deliver a plan that achieves our mutually shared ambitions. If we are to live up to our principled approach, balancing the need to tackle fuel poverty, whilst at the same time reducing carbon emissions from the 1.4 million homes in Wales, must remain core to our future plans.
Thanks for your statement, and you began again by referring to last Thursday's National Energy Action Wales conference, 'Tackling Fuel Poverty & Inequality: The Road Ahead', ahead of Friday's Fuel Poverty Awareness Day, and I also spoke at that event in the afternoon, and set on a question panel as we moved on.
Now, as you know, according to the latest estimate, although some years out of date now, 291,000 households in Wales—23 per cent—are in fuel poverty. Can you tell us when you expect the updated figures to be published? We understand that the Welsh Government is likely to do that this spring.
The National Energy Action fuel poverty monitor 2017-18 referred to the Welsh Government's 2010 target to eradicate fuel poverty by December 2018, and said there had
'yet to be clear tangible steps towards setting a new fuel poverty commitment that can drive strategic action on fuel poverty reduction locally and nationally.'
And that there was
'consensus that a new fuel poverty strategy and action plan, which should include ambitious targets to improve homes to a minimum energy efficiency standard, should be developed in collaboration with stakeholders.'
But in your statement, you confirmed your intention to publish a new plan for tackling fuel poverty at next year's conference, presumably another 12 months away, and that you're keen to work with the sector. How do you propose to work with the sector prior to the consultation you also referred to, to ensure that that really is developed in collaboration with stakeholders, because, as you know, there are many different ways that can be achieved, some more effective than others, in order to drive a national strategic plan with ambitious targets?
Clearly, that can include things like better insulation, smarter lighting and appliances, smarter heating systems, all of which can save householders money. But also, as NEA Cymru said a couple of months ago, whilst we know that energy inefficiency is a contributing factor to fuel poverty, this alone won't solve the problem. A new strategy is needed, outlining a more joined-up approach by Welsh Government, local authorities, housing associations, advice and health services, as well as other public and voluntary organisations in society.
That links in to my previous question, but how will you ensure that this plan or strategy that goes forward isn't simply focused on energy efficiency, although that's important, but on that broader social justice agenda?
Following the Welsh Government's 2010 strategy, excess winter deaths in Wales in 2011-12 were 1,250. However ONS data released last November showed that the number of excess winter deaths in Wales had reached 3,400 in 2017-18, with increases in all English regions and Wales, but Wales having the highest regional index.
Last autumn, you told the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency that you'd be developing a cold weather plan in conjunction with Public Health Wales. And this is reflecting the call in the NEA fuel poverty monitor for Welsh Government to develop a cold weather plan, similar to the plan in England produced by Public Health England. It also called for the devolved nations to adopt the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guideline, and corresponding quality standard on cold-related ill health and excess winter deaths.
How do you respond to those particular calls—for many years now, they've been calling for the adoption of the NICE guideline, not just the NEA, but the broader fuel poverty coalition in Wales—and to their call in the context of the work carried out by Public Health England across the border?
The Welsh Government, according to the fuel poverty monitor, could protect vulnerable households with a crisis fund for emergency heating when their health is at risk. Are you considering or will you consider a crisis fund to meet, again, the call that's been sounding for many years? And they also call for investment to improve the energy efficiency of existing housing stock in Wales needing to be urgently expanded. We know that Wales has the greatest proportion of older housing in Wales that's least adaptable to modern energy efficiency measures. So, how do you respond to proposals in our last manifesto for a retrofit toolkit based upon a whole-building approach, which had been endorsed by the Sustainable Traditional Building Alliance, to recognise that key issue?
Two final points. You'll be aware of the Flintshire affordable warmth scheme that was launched in 2013, which did include a crisis fund for people who couldn't afford to heat their homes and needed immediate support. But last year, the key third sector partner in that, the North Wales Energy Advice Centre, which had actually been the impetus behind it, lost their main funding. And they wrote to me saying the affordable warmth scheme in Flintshire should be a flagship project to be emulated across Wales and the UK as an affordable way to provide real, practical and effective help to those most in need, but looks now most likely to be abandoned. So, again, given the comments earlier about the need to work with stakeholders, how can we ensure that good practice like that isn't lost, but is developed in real partnership with the key stakeholders?
And finally, at last Thursday's event, one of the people on the panel with us was the policy and campaigns manager for Age Cymru. She reminded us that last winter's Age Alliance Wales newsletter said that third sector representatives on regional partnership boards had reported feeling excluded and that the third sector is being seen as a bit player with little or no strategic involvement in planning. And she said her first priority in putting fuel poverty at the heart of the agenda in Wales would be to address that and ensure that the third sector had real teeth and engagement in regional partnership boards. Again, do you agree with her? And if so, how, a year further down the road, will you work with colleagues to make that happen?
Thank you, Mark Isherwood, for the series of questions. You ask about when we will be publishing the new figures and my understating too is spring, which I know probably covers several months of the year, but I will write to the Member to say exactly when I think those figures will be published by us.
As Mark Isherwood said, I attended the fuel poverty cross-party group, which I think you chair, I think, towards the end of last year, and, certainly, I found it very beneficial to have that conversation with so many enthusiastic stakeholders. And, I think, going forward, we talked about the new strategy, and I've asked officials to start working with stakeholders. I think we do need to find a way of making sure they have a meaningful response to the way we take this new fuel poverty strategy forward, and I'll certainly look at whether we need some form of round-table or some form of group to help us bring that strategy forward. I don't think it should be too big—I think you reeled off quite a few different organisations, and sometimes it's a bit difficult to have too many around a table. But, certainly, the expertise they have, I think, will be needed.
As you referred to, I mentioned in my opening statement that we are now starting to look to develop a new fuel poverty strategy to come in in 2020—probably around this time next year. I'm hoping to announce it at the conference. We'll go out to consultation in the autumn, so that groundwork needs to be done from spring onwards, to make sure we're ready to have that public consultation in the autumn that will then develop the new plan to be published in early 2020. I mentioned it's really important that our objectives are ambitious but achievable. They must be deliverable going forward.
In relation to the cold weather plan, certainly, I was pressed very hard, I think, at the cross-party group, around a cold weather plan, and I did ask my officials, as I said, to develop a cold weather plan as part of the new tackling fuel poverty plan that we announced last week. I think the focus of the plan needs to be how best we safeguard vulnerable people from living in a cold home during the winter months. As an interim measure for this winter, which I accept has been a particularly mild winter, I made arrangements to ensure that measures were put into place to safeguard vulnerable people as part of our resilience plan for winter, which is drawn up by my colleague Julie James, and I mentioned that I put some additional funding forward to ensure that, if people were unable to meet the cost of a call-out, because some people found that a huge barrier, we supported that. And that's being delivered through the discretionary assistance fund, which the Member will be very well aware of, and I know it has been used. Then, once the call-out is done and the boiler can't be repaired, emergency heating can be provided. And, again, referral to Nest for additional support can be made.
The Member asked about crisis funding, so I just referred to the call-out charge. I could look at a crisis fund, but, obviously, the funding would have to come from somewhere else, so I would have to look at where I could get that funding from, but I think, certainly, when we look at developing the new fuel poverty strategy, it's something we can look at.
Mark Isherwood mentioned the Flintshire scheme, which I am aware of because of, obviously, being in north Wales. I think it is important that we don't lose that good practice. So, again, I'd be very happy to hear other experiences and, again, maybe as we develop the strategy they could come on board with that.