National Assembly for Wales

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Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

02/07/2019

The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item on our agenda today is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Neil Hamilton.

The Latest PISA Results

1. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's response to the latest published PISA results? OAQ54169

Llywydd, the last available Programme for International Student Assessment results were published in 2016. Since that time, the Welsh Government has put in place an ambitious programme of education reform, designed to raise standards, reduce the attainment gap and improve educational performance.

Well, last time, the PISA results in Wales were worse than any other part of the United Kingdom, and that was the fourth time in succession that that dismal position was reached. The results will be out later in the year. Will the First Minister join me in confidently predicting that nothing much has changed? Last week, Lee Waters, in a moment of refreshing candour, said that the Labour Government has no real idea what it's doing with the economy. The state of the health service proves it has no idea what it's doing in health, and the state of the education service means that it has no idea what it's doing in education either.

Llywydd, I think the question was whether I would join the Member in speculating about the results. I won't do that. The results will be available later in the autumn, and we look forward to debating them then.

First Minister, like it or not, the PISA results are a well-recognised measure of Wales's performance on education—recognised across the world. Within Wales, we are still uncertain as to how illuminating the new framework for measuring school performance will be and how it will be read in the context of the international comparators. What research has the Government done on whether our PISA results impact on overseas investors' decisions to commit to Wales, and do we know yet whether pupils in Wales will still be invited—randomly—to sit the PISA tests when the new curriculum is introduced?

Llywydd, I know of no research that refers to the Member's first question, and I'm not surprised at that, because the tenuous link between the two propositions didn't seem to me, at first glance, to merit research. As to the second point the Member makes, well, of course, PISA is an Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development measure, and the OECD say that we are doing the right things here in Wales. I have seen nothing that suggests to me that the PISA methodology would not be used here in Wales when the new curriculum is in operation.

Supporting High Streets In Wales

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government supports high streets in Wales? OAQ54147

I thank Jack Sargeant for that, Llywydd. Supporting our town centres and high streets is a major part of our regeneration effort. Taking into account levered-in funding, by the time our current programme is complete, over £800 million will have been invested in our town centres since 2014.

Can I thank the First Minister for that response? You will know, as Members will know across the Chamber, that a big impact on our high streets across Wales has been the closure of banks, which has been particularly damaging in Buckley in my constituency. Assembly research shows that more than 200 banks have shut in Wales since 2008. Llywydd, this presents a huge challenge for many, including the elderly and our most vulnerable people, who often rely on face-to-face services. Llywydd, I was very pleased to read the First Minister's response to me on this issue, to a letter I wrote to him recently. So, would the First Minister agree with me that we need to prioritise the idea of a community bank for Wales, ensure that pilot areas are strategically located, and that we must restore these much-needed and valued services?

Llywydd, I thank Jack Sargeant for that. When he quotes the figure of 200 banks having closed in Wales in recent times, that illustrates the point he made about the way in which this touches almost every constituency and every Member here in the Chamber. That is why we are committed to doing everything possible to support and test the feasibility of creating a community bank for Wales. And the Welsh Government is actively involved with a number of stakeholders in this area. We're taking expert advice through those organisations that have already began this journey. There are challenges, as I explained in my correspondence with the Member. You have to have regulatory approval, through some quite complex machinery, and we will need help with that, and you need to secure the support of local populations in order that a community bank will have customers and people who are willing to deposit with them. In that regard, it's been very good to see Banc Cambria establish itself here in Wales. It held a special general meeting on 28 June in Llandrindod. I understand it was well attended and successful, and, working with community-based organisations, as part of our efforts to create the bank, will, we believe, be part of the recipe that will make it successful.   

13:35

The departure of the banks from our high streets does leave a gap that needs to be filled, and there are a number of examples of businesses taking over bank premises, whilst we are also looking at ways to bring financial services back into our town centres. But there is the case of one business in my constituency that is trying to invest in turning a bank into a business in the leisure sector. There was some grant funding supposed to be available from Government to help them in that regard. The pot of money that was to be used was empty by the time the application arrived. Can the First Minister give us an assurance that all opportunities will be sought to ensure that these pots of funding are sufficient for businesses such as this one, and is he willing to look into what happened in this particular case?

Well, of course, Llywydd,  I’m happy to look into the case that the Member has raised. We know that, when funds are available, there’s a great deal of interest the length and breadth of Wales among businesses who want to establish and to grow. So, I can see why, when some people do turn to certain funds, there is nothing left, but I will be happy to look into the case that Rhun ap Iorwerth has raised.

Jack Sargeant has raised an important question regarding banks, First Minister, and we know that there have been a spate of closures across Wales, which have caused concern for local people. In my own area, the town of Usk lost all its banks in quick succession and then the post office—the only financial service that was left—was also under threat. That's been saved through joint action taken by the council and other groups to move it into the local community hub. I imagine that is happening elsewhere. If not, it's possibly good practice that can be used in other towns across Wales to make sure that, when towns do lose their banks and the post office is under threat, there is still access to all-important financial services for vulnerable people who need them. 

Well, I thank Nick Ramsay for making that important point. The Welsh Government has long supported post offices right across Wales, and we absolutely see the point that the Member makes. And, in answering Jack Sargeant's question, I should maybe have said that, in developing the idea of a community bank for Wales, we are absolutely determined that it must be a complementary part of that wider set of financial services, whether that is credit unions, whether it is post offices, or, at the other end of the spectrum, the Development Bank of Wales. We want a community bank that fills a proper space in the range of financial services we have, and the ongoing contribution that post offices make in many communities in Wales is one that we recognise. 

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

We now turn to questions from party leaders. The leader of Plaid Cymru, Adam Price.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, the ministerial code says Ministers should apologise if they say something that is wrong. Why should your Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport have to apologise for saying something that is right? [Laughter.]

Well, Llywydd, I don't believe that to be the case. 

Which bit? Are you denying—? The BBC is reporting that the economy Minister apologises for his comments about the Welsh economy. I must say, reading the report—reading Ken Skates re-interpreting for us what Lee Waters really meant—was a bit like reading that famous tweet by Andrew Adonis extolling the virtues of Jeremy Corbyn's Brexit policy. Now, I can understand your difficulty with the first part of Lee Water's statement,

'For 20 years we've pretended we know what we're doing on the economy—and the truth is we don't',

though I think he is absolutely right that conventional thinking has failed, and it's failed here in Wales more clearly than anywhere else. But the second part of his statement in simply a statement of fact that you've achieved static gross domestic product, in relative terms, over 20 years. The Government in which you were a senior adviser set a target of achieving 90 per cent of UK income per head. In fact, we're now in the low 70s—exactly where we were, as Lee Waters says, 20 years ago. Surely it should be the Welsh Government as a whole that should be apologising for that, not your deputy economy Minister for simply pointing it out? 

Well, Llywydd, let me put the record straight here. When Lee Waters was reported, he was speaking in an unscripted way in a discussion with an audience, and I want Ministers in a Welsh Government who are able to debate issues with others and who are able to provide challenge to Government itself in the way that our policies are carried out. The truth about the Welsh economy over that 20 years is that we end it with the highest levels of employment we have ever had. We end it with the lowest levels of economic inactivity we have ever had. We end it with one of the highest levels of business growth that we have ever had. We have the best regional performance in creating jobs through inward investment of any part of the United Kingdom. We have exports rising in Wales again last year, by 7.5 per cent. These are the facts of the Welsh economy, and I was very pleased to meet Ieuan Wyn Jones again last night and to hear him talk about the time that he was in charge of the Welsh economy and the policies that he pursued there. I noticed that when the Member, as he does, casts his wide glance across 20 years, he never reminds us of the fact that his party was in charge of the economy during the time that he just told me everything was failing throughout. I don't agree with him. It wasn't failing then. It hasn't failed through the 20 years either. Where Lee Waters was absolutely correct was to point to the fact that, in an economy that is challenged by austerity, that is challenged by Brexit, that is challenged by automation, that is challenged by globalisation, the ways in which all Governments have responded to economic challenges over the last 20 years will not themselves be sufficient for the next 20 years, and therefore we will need new solutions, new experimentation, different ways of addressing these challenges, and, in that, he was absolutely correct.

13:40

Look, if you are saying you welcome, actually, critical challenge for Ministers and going off script, why has he been asked or has he felt it necessary to issue an apology? Talking about automation, the last thing we want is Ministers that act like robots. Lee Waters is correct in his analysis, and actually, as you mention Ieuan Wyn Jones, Ieuan, when he was Minister, published an economic strategy that said the economic model, emphasising foreign direct investment over indigenous investment, emphasising grants over loans, was the wrong model. Ieuan was right then; Lee Waters is right now. Unfortunately, policy has not changed, and that's the reality that I think has been laid bare by Lee Waters's comments. Now, one of the consequences of this, as the Wales Governance Centre points out today, is the fiscal gap between the revenue raised in Wales and public expenditure. Do you think that closing that gap and, by implication, the income gap between Wales and the rest of the UK, should be an explicit goal of your Government? Will you set a target this time that you will endeavour actually to achieve?

Well, I think closing the fiscal gap is a proper ambition for any Welsh Government. It would certainly have to be an ambition for a Government led by the Member that seeks to take Wales out of the United Kingdom, because then he will have to find a way of explaining to the Welsh electorate how the £13 billion that is spent in Wales above that which is raised in taxes here in Wales is to be filled by his Government when that £13 billion is no longer available to spend on public services here in Wales. So, yes, the Member makes an important point, but the importance of the point really is—for any party that seeks to take Wales out of the United Kingdom and then to ask the question—how will people in Wales manage then, when they have not just a bit of a gap, but £13 billion-worth of a gap that his party would have to find a way to fill? And they can't, and they know they can't, and they will have to explain it.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, can you give us an update on maternity services at Withybush hospital? 

Services at Withybush hospital continue to be based on a midwife-led unit. I've seen reports in the press that suggest that that midwife-led unit is somehow not to be part of the service provided by Withybush in the future. My understanding is that that is not the case—that discussions go on with staff in Withybush on how better to integrate the midwife-led unit with community midwife services. That seems to me to be a sensible ambition for the health board—to make the best use of the staff it has and to offer the best services to the people who need them. In all of that, there is no suggestion that the midwife-led unit will not continue to be available 24 hours every day.

13:45

First Minister, senior management at Hywel Dda University Health Board have made it absolutely clear in comments today to the press that they are planning to change maternity services at the hospital, and it is a disgrace that the maternity services are being reduced to an on-call, out-of-hours service despite your previous comments that they weren't. Let me remind you what you said to me in March in this very Chamber, and I quote: 

'there are no proposals of any sort to make a change in the service provided there.'

This is just symptomatic of your Government's approach, isn't it, to our Welsh NHS? You tell us one thing in this Chamber but what you actually do is completely different. So far in our exchanges we've spoken about Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board being in special measures for more than four years, and Cwm Taf Health Board entering special measures, and now we see, in the last few days, Swansea Bay University Health Board in the news. The former chair, who I think you know quite well, First Minister, Andrew Davies, has been scathing at the micromanaging of the health board by your Government. Do you agree with him that the degree of scrutiny is not actually helping the health board sort out its problems?

Llywydd, the Member asked me a first question about the detail of a single unit in a single hospital in one part of Wales, and expected me, as I'm keen to do, to be able to answer that question. He then wants to accuse the Welsh Government of micromanaging the health service in Wales. He really cannot have it both ways. The Welsh Government quite rightly takes a proper interest in the discharge of health board responsibilities, and when health boards face challenges, as, for example, the Swansea Bay health board faced challenges over this last winter in making sure that there was access to emergency services for patients in that area, it is absolutely right and proper that the Welsh Government takes a direct interest in that, and we do so in the winter in particular because we are able to assist health boards in making sure that patients can be directed to that part of the health service where facilities are most immediately available to them. 

So, I don't have any apology to make for the fact that the Welsh Government takes that direct interest. We do so on behalf of patients in Wales. But it's impossible, Llywydd, for the Member to assert on the one hand that it is wrong for the Welsh Government to take an interest in what health boards do and then expect to ask questions here about very detailed matters that are, in the end, the responsibility of that health board. 

Well, this is another health board, First Minister, which is not doing very well, because the accident and emergency waiting times for the health board are 19 per cent below your target—once again, one that has never been met—and complaints about the health board have risen by 29 per cent in 2018. What I find shocking, First Minister, is that Andrew Davies talks about the constant focus on short-term targets, micromanaging by Welsh Government officials, with, as Mr Davies puts it, a degree of scrutiny that is

'not actually helping them get on sorting out the problem'.

Now, in our previous discussions, your health Minister has dismissed the idea of setting targets to get Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board out of special measures, and he's made clear that he won't set arbitrary targets to improve services for local people. So, why, First Minister, is your Government micromanaging one health board but letting another one struggle on? Is it the case that your Deputy Minister for Economy was correct—your Government doesn't know what it's doing?

Llywydd, the health Minister was 100 per cent correct when he said that we will not set arbitrary targets. Why would we possibly do that? We set targets that we think make sense for the clinical benefit of patients, and if I had answered the Member in the winter, when he asked me questions about ambulances waiting at Morriston Hospital, by saying that this Government is not interested in short-term targets, I can imagine what he would have said about that. That’s the reason why the Welsh Government took a strong interest in the performance of the then Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board over the winter. That’s why we were engaged on the telephone making sure that everything that could be done was being done, to make sure that there was flow through that hospital, that patients were able to be discharged out of ambulances into the A&E department, seen in a timely fashion, discharged home wherever possible. Those are proper targets. Those are targets that are not arbitrary. Those are targets that focus on the clinical needs of patients, and the Government will never step back from doing what we can do to assist health boards to discharge those targets and to help them to make sure that they are focused on meeting them for patients’ benefit.

13:50

Last week, the Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language belatedly issued a statement on a visit to Dublin. She said:

'The main focus of my visit was a one-to-one meeting with the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney.'

She goes on:

'In all my meetings with Irish government'

there was

'continued incredulity that Wales could have voted the way it did in 2016.'

First Minister, isn’t that deeply inappropriate? How would people in Ireland feel if UK Ministers expressed incredulity about Ireland having voted for independence? Shouldn’t we instead be telling Ireland that if they want to avoid 'no deal', they need to move on the backstop?

Llywydd, on the one hand the Member complains because the Minister for international relations reports what she was told by senior members of the Government in the Republic, and then he wants me to instruct that same Government about attitudes that they should take to the backstop. The things that the Minister reported are the things that we know are said day in and day out about the attitude that the UK Government has taken to the whole Brexit negotiations and about its failure to recognise the significance of the border on the island of Ireland. I was lucky enough, Llywydd, to be able to discuss these matters with the Taoiseach at the British-Irish Council last week. These are really serious matters that affect the peace of communities on the island of Ireland, and simply to dismiss them and to tell another Government how they should approach this matter really does not measure up to the seriousness of those matters at all.

So, First Minister, you claim to want to avoid 'no deal', but the only measure that has passed the House of Commons has been one that the backstop should be replaced with alternative arrangements. And whatever your own views, surely you recognise that it is that backstop that is a massive barrier to reaching and passing an agreement that would allow us to leave the EU with a deal rather than without a deal. And there is nowhere more than Ireland, as well as parts of the United Kingdom—at least in the near term—that will have significant challenges if there is no deal. If we want to avoid that, surely instead of expressing incredulity about how our own country voted, we should be supporting the case for us to agree sensible arrangements, instead of a backstop that locks us into the customs union and single market unless they give us permission to leave that we cannot agree.

So, I see the Foreign Office have now extended its policy of making you travel by bus in Brussels to the Scottish Government, following the First Minister there promoting independence on a trip to the United States with Foreign Office facilities. First Minister, you talked just now of the £13 billion fiscal gap we would face if we were independent in Wales, yet you pal up with the SNP as if you lead a Government that wants to break up the United Kingdom in a country that voted 'remain'. [Interruption.] But you don’t, and we didn’t. First Minister, do you recognise that hundreds of thousands of people, who used to vote Labour, voted 'leave'? First Minister, haven’t you now betrayed them as a party of 'remain'?

Llywydd, let me try and find three points from what the Member has said to which I could try and make a reply. First of all, it is absolutely incumbent upon those people who talk about alternative arrangements on the border on the island of Ireland to come and explain to us how those alternative arrangements are to operate. It's no use just saying there are other ways in which this could be done. Those people who believe that have to come forward with a credible plan as to how that can be achieved. Nothing that I have read or seen or heard from the Member or anybody else who makes that assertion leads me to believe that there is a genuinely detailed, workable set of proposals that would allow the backstop simply to be evaporated at this point in the negotiations. If there are, people should bring those ideas forward. Mrs May asked, I know, time and again, to those Members on her own side who proposed that these things could be done to give her the information that would allow her to make that proposal credibly. They couldn't, she couldn't, and the Member here certainly can't.

Let me deal with the point that he made about the Foreign Office, because it leads to his point about the union. The Foreign Office's actions in relation to the Welsh and Scottish Governments have been crass in the extreme. I never go abroad to criticise the UK Government; I go to make the points that are made in this Chamber and that I make on behalf of Wales. If the Foreign Office believed for a moment that I would not say the things that I think are important to say on behalf of Wales by saying that I couldn't have a lift in one of their cars—a lift, by the way, that we pay for; it's not a free lift, we pay for it every time we use it. If they thought that that would lead me to change my mind, then that tells you just how detached that department has become from the realities of the way the United Kingdom operates.

That matters to me, Llywydd, because I believe in the United Kingdom. I want the United Kingdom to be a success, and I want Wales to be a successful part of a successful United Kingdom. But when the Foreign Office acts in that high-handed sort of way, then it simply hands a public relations coup over to those people who have a different idea of the future. And in the end, it is the unionists who pose the greatest threat to the union, because they will not take these matters seriously and they act in those foolish sorts of provocative ways. The Welsh Labour Government will go on making the case for the way that the United Kingdom can operate successfully the other side of Brexit, were that to happen, and it would be fantastic, wouldn't it, if those people who speak up as though they owned the union were prepared to take part in that sort of conversation?

13:55
The Armed Forces

3. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government support for the armed forces? OAQ54157

The Welsh Government's armed forces covenant annual report, published in May, sets out the actions we are taking to support veterans in Wales, in employment, education, health and in housing. 

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. I welcome the publication of that report and the action that's been taken by the Welsh Government to date. As you will know, it was Armed Forces Day on Saturday and there were communities across the UK and, indeed, across Wales that were celebrating and commemorating the contribution of the armed forces to the nation. And on Monday last week, I held an event to commemorate and mark reservists in the armed forces community, many of whom work in the Welsh Government and other public sector organisations. I was very pleased that the Welsh Government's Minister for the armed forces attended that event.

Will you join me in commemorating and thanking the men and women of the armed forces here in Wales for the contribution that they make, and can you tell us whether any further progress has been made by your Government on promoting the opportunities that being part of the reserved forces can bring to their employers, and in addition give us an update on your consideration of a guaranteed interview scheme for veterans in the future?

I thank the Member for those important points. I thank him for his recognition of the actions that the Welsh Government has taken and for the continued interest that he takes always in these matters. Of course, Llywydd, I recognise the contribution that reservists make to our armed forces. Many of us will know people who take part in the reserve forces. I have, in my own office, somebody who has time given to them to go and help in the way that they do. So, very good to see the event that was held here—glad that the Welsh Government was represented at it, and very pleased to add my thanks to those people who give their time and their commitment to being reservists for the armed forces. 

As far as the guaranteed interview scheme is concerned, and I know the Member raised this with me some weeks ago, he'll be pleased, I know, to know that a number of local authorities in Wales—Newport and Torfaen, for example—have already implemented a guaranteed interview scheme. I expect to have legal and other advice on this matter before the end of this Assembly term, as a result of the conversation we had here some weeks ago. As soon as I've had a chance to consider that advice, and if there are any further moves that we can make in that direction, I'll make sure that I write to the Member to give him an update on those matters. 

14:00

First Minister, while I commend your Government's commitment to the armed forces covenant, Wales still continues to let down its veterans. One of my constituents has been refused access to a rehabilitation centre in England specifically designed to deal with his losing a limb, along with his post-traumatic stress disorder, during active service. So, First Minister, will you ensure that our veterans receive the best available treatment—regardless of where the service is provided in the UK—that best meets their needs? Diolch.

Well, Llywydd, that is exactly what we would expect to happen, but clinicians make these decisions, not politicians, and it is right that clinicians provide that advice to individuals as to where, in exactly the way that Caroline Jones has said, individuals are able to receive the best treatment for their needs. I don't, of course, know the details of the individual case, but I am absolutely certain that the decisions, which ought to be in line with the policy that was outlined, are made by people who have the necessary clinical expertise to provide the right advice to patients, wherever those patients come from and whatever their backgrounds. 

Air Quality

4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that air quality in Islwyn continues to improve? OAQ54191

I thank the Member for that. Improving air quality to support health, biodiversity and environmental improvements in Islwyn and across Wales is a priority for the Welsh Government. This autumn, we will consult on a draft clean air plan for Wales, and that plan will set out cross-Government and sectoral actions required to reduce air pollution.

Thank you. As the Assembly Member for Islwyn, can I welcome the determined, hard work of both the Welsh Labour Government and the Welsh Labour-run county borough in working together to combat the negative effects of nitrogen dioxide pollution on the A472 at Hafodyrynys? Only recently, a resident of the affected street, Mr Martin Brown, visited one of my advice surgeries with the local Labour councillor for Crumlin, Carl Thomas, to hear the latest news. So, First Minister, can you outline for the people of Islwyn further how the Welsh Labour Government's clean air budget and its strong commitment to ensuring that Islwyn residents enjoy healthy levels of air quality has enabled the Government to work with the local council and, in doing so, ensure that residents living in the worst-affected houses on Woodside Terrace will be duly compensated for their properties to ensure that they do not suffer any financial hardship as a result of the actions that need to be taken? And, finally, First Minister, what does this action say about how close partnership working between Welsh and local government can transform people's lives as we continue the fight against the ever-negative impacts of pollution?

Llywydd, I want to thank Rhianon Passmore. She, of course, is speaking on behalf of her residents at Hafodyrynys and at Woodside Terrace. This is well-known as an area where air-quality improvement is urgently needed. The Member will be pleased, I know, to hear that Caerphilly County Borough Council submitted, in line with the timescale set out by my colleague, Lesley Griffiths, their plan for dealing with the negative effects of nitrogen dioxide pollution at that location. The plan of the county borough council is now with the Welsh Government. We will follow the path that we have set out with the county council; that is to say that their plan will be submitted to an independent scrutiny panel. That panel will report to the Minister before the end of this month and, in line with the letter that the Minister sent to Caerphilly County Borough Council on 9 April, we repeat our commitment that, if the measures proposed by the county council stand up to that scrutiny, then we will make adequate funding available to the county borough council to enable them to implement their plan. And that funding will come from the £20 million clean air fund that this Government has established.

14:05

First Minister, just further to Rhianon Passmore's question, I would fully support the decision by Caerphilly council to buy 23 of the homes worst affected by the air pollution in Hafodyrynys. However, only a few short weeks ago, the council rejected plans to demolish the houses and, instead, pinned their hopes for tackling air pollution on cars getting cleaner and greener in the coming years. Does the First Minister share my concern at the delay in making a decision to demolish these properties caused by Caerphilly council abdicating its responsibilities to people living in this community? Thank you. 

Llywydd, I haven't seen the detail of the county council's proposals, but there's been no delay in the sense that they were submitted according to the timetable that the Minister had set out, and we have immediately moved to have those plans independently scrutinised. So, we will wait to see what the plans say. We will wait to see what the scrutiny arrangements have to advise us on the quality of those plans, but I wanted to give the local Member—and I give the same assurance to Mohammad Asghar—that, provided those plans do stand up to scrutiny, then funding will not be the barrier to their implementation. 

Planning Consent and Change of Building Use

5. Will the First Minister make a statement regarding planning consent and change of building use? OAQ54189

I thank the Member for that. Planning consent is generally required for the material change of building use except where it is already allowed by the use classes Order and permitted development Order. Any application for planning permission must be determined in accordance with the local development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Thank you. The area I'm interested in is pub closures. We were talking earlier about the issue of bank closures in Wales; another problem afflicting the high street is pub closures. We have had a quarter of pubs closing in Wales in the last 20 years. Now, they have taken some legislative measures relating to this in England with the Localism Act 2011. I have asked questions here before about what plans the Welsh Government has in this area, but I don't appear—or we as a Chamber don't appear—to have heard anything since I last raised the issue in February last year. So, I would be grateful for an update on your thinking.  

I thank the Member. I hope I've got some relatively good news for him in relation to his question. As he will know, the Welsh Government commissioned a report from the University of the West of England looking to see whether current use class Orders remain fit for purpose. The report concluded that while in general the Orders continue to discharge the functions for which they have been put in place, there are a number of improvements that could be made to them—in particular, in amending the consolidated use class Order and the permitted development Order. One of the changes that we intend to bring forward next year will be to provide greater protection for pubs.

Now, the proposals will seek to ensure that no public house can change its use or be demolished without first obtaining planning permission. And that is a change, because it will mean that there will be a greater level of scrutiny where development proposals would otherwise result in the permanent loss of a community asset, and many of our pubs are very important community assets in towns and villages in Wales.

There are a number of other proposals that derive from the work carried out by the University of the West of England. We will bring them together as part of a wider consolidation of planning legislation, and intend to come to the floor of the Chamber next year in order to make those changes to the legislation.   

First Minister, we need to take great care with our most precious buildings. You may have heard that plans are now being considered—I don't expect you to comment on these, but plans are being considered for the development of the Howells store. And they're very interesting, in fairness. They deserve good examination. And, if we turn to Newman's great book on the buildings of Glamorgan, he says of the Howells addition by Percy Thomas in 1928, I quote:

'This is a brilliant exposition of American Beaux-Arts classicism.'

And other writers have said it's a slice of Chicago in Cardiff. But a later addition swallowed up the Bethany Baptist chapel, and I note that this may now be released again. But the lesson here is that we need to adapt buildings so that they can be used in each generation, but to do it with great care, because what was done in the 1960s to Bethany chapel was not an example of best practice.

14:10

Well, I thank the Member for that and I agree entirely with what he said. And this has been a bit of a theme on the floor of the Assembly over the last few weeks. I had some work set in hand for me following Nick Ramsay's question a couple of weeks ago about Troy House. Now, from that work, I think we already know that, in any planning proposal, there is a statutory requirement to have special regard to the desirability of preserving buildings where those buildings have a particular status of the sort that David Melding has made reference to this afternoon. So, I agree with what the Member says. We are looking to see whether the current planning arrangements support that outcome in the way that we would want it to. The statutory requirement is an important defence that we already have in the way our planning law operates, but I have asked officials to give me advice as to whether there are any other ways in which that could be strengthened to make sure that, when proposals come forward, they pay absolutely proper regard to the historic nature and significance of buildings, but that those buildings need a future as well as a past and that we have to find ways of making sure that there are viable ways in which those buildings can go on having a living purpose.

When, First Minister, will we see the Welsh Government introducing new rules that will make it a requirement to have planning consent to turn a residential home into a holiday home?

Well, I am, naturally, familiar with the argument that lies behind your question. Our officials have looked in detail at the information available in the field to see whether the regulations we have at present are equitable to all or whether a gap has appeared, or a loophole has appeared, in the regulations where we need to return to do something differently. We are dependent on the information that comes in from the local authorities, and we have received some information from Gwynedd, for example, about the impact that they believe they are seeing in their local area. We are not at present certain that that is actually making us come to the conclusion that changing the regulations is the best way of resolving the situation, if there is a problem to resolve, but we are open to all arguments and we are collecting information on this and, if it is proven that there is a case, then we are open to do something else to change the regulations.

Reducing Child Poverty

6. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's plans to reduce child poverty? OAQ54190

I thank Lynne Neagle for that. It's unacceptable for a child’s life chances to be determined by their social or economic circumstances. The Minister for Housing and Local Government is leading a review of the Welsh Government funding programmes to ensure that they have maximum impact on the lives of children living in poverty.

Thank you, First Minister. Last month, following an individual Member's debate, led by my colleague John Griffiths, AMs voted in favour of Welsh Government bringing forward a new strategy to tackle poverty together with a detailed budget and action plan for implementation. Given the clear cross-party support there is for more action in this area, when will the strategy be forthcoming? And what assurances can you give that it will be accompanied by clear targets, transparent budgets and strong ministerial leadership?

Well, Llywydd, of course we continue to consider the motion passed here on the floor of the Assembly. I'm in favour of what the Member said in the earlier part of her supplementary question. I'm in favour of action that makes a difference in the lives of children here in Wales. I'm in favour of building on the record that successive Governments have laid down where we institute policies and programmes here in Wales that mean that money is left in the pockets of families who otherwise would have to pay out money for services.

So, the fact that we have £244 million in our council tax relief scheme means that those families who otherwise—and across our border—would be paying out every week for council tax have that money left in their pocket here in Wales, and that means there is money that they have to spend on the welfare of children. When you abolish prescription charges, when you have the most generous childcare offer in Wales, when you fund new free school meals when they're not funded in England, when you have free breakfasts in primary schools, when we have the only national programme of school holiday enrichment—all of that, Llywydd, adds up to nearly £0.5 billion, and if it were not being provided by the programmes that successive Governments here have built up, families would be left paying for those things out of their own pockets. That leaves, in the pockets of families in Wales, anywhere between £1,000 and £2,000 every year. That's the sort of practical action that I think lies in the hands of Welsh public authorities.

I agree very much with what Lynne Neagle said about the need to take further actions so that families have money that they can spend to meet the needs of their children and their wider families. We will look to see what more can be done. We will look at it in the context of the motion that was passed here on the floor of the Assembly. But you will know—Members here will know—that the criticism of the National Assembly often is that we are a strategy factory and that those strategies do not always bite into the lives of families in the way that we would have wanted to see. I'm interested in the things that we can do that make a difference and make a difference in the lives of children who otherwise would be living in poverty, and that's what we will be focused on.

14:15

I fully endorse Lynne Neagle's call and would ask you to revisit that, bearing in mind that the Children’s Commissioner for Wales in March called for a new child poverty delivery plan in Wales. [Interruption.] Is there a sound problem?

If you can—. Your microphone wasn't—. No, don't move it. That's the worst thing to do. Your microphone wasn't on at the start of the question. I apologise for that. If you can repeat your question so the First Minister can hear. 

Okay. I voted with Lynne Neagle in the debate she referred to. I fully endorse her call and would ask you to reconsider the specific point that she raised where the Children’s Commissioner for Wales in March called on the Welsh Government for a new child poverty delivery plan.

Even before the financial crash, Wales had the highest child poverty levels in the UK: 29 per cent in 2007, 32 per cent in 2008—even before the crash. In 2012, 'Child Poverty Snapshots' from Save the Children said that Wales has the highest poverty and severe child poverty rates of any nation in the UK. In May, the End Child Poverty Network reported that Wales was the only UK nation to see a rise in child poverty last year.

Well, this is actually National Co-production Week, as the Carnegie Trust reminded some of us yesterday. How, therefore, do you respond to the statement in Children in Wales's 'Child and Family Poverty in Wales: Results from the Child and Family Survey 2018'? It asked respondents, people in our communities, what they thought the Welsh Government should be doing to reduce child and family poverty, and the first comment quoted was to

'Invest in local communities—engage with local people and work with bottom up approaches to regeneration programmes'. 

Despite the rhetoric, despite the billions spent, this hasn't happened, isn't happening, and must happen within the strategy if we're going to finally tackle this outrage.

Well, Llywydd, I'm absolutely in favour of child poverty policies being shaped in a dialogue with those people who are on the receiving end of policies. When I talk to families in my constituency who are at the sharp end of child poverty, then the things that they talk to me about are the fact that their benefits have been frozen since the year 2015, that they have to pay the bedroom tax for the privilege of having somewhere where grandchildren can come and stay with them, and where, if you're family with more than three children, you are penalised by the Conservative Government's child cap. So, the story of child poverty during devolution, Llywydd, is that for the first 10 years, child poverty in Wales fell year on year, and in the second decade, we will end the decade with 50,000 more children in poverty than when we began. Of course we need to design our responses alongside those people who are on the receiving end of those policies, but those are the policies that have caused child poverty. They have done so deliberately and knowingly, and it's time that parties in this Chamber who have responsibility for those policies owned up to that.

14:20
The Quality of NHS Management

7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the quality of NHS management? OAQ54188

The Health and Social Care (Quality and Engagement) (Wales) Bill will support a system-wide approach to quality in the NHS, with NHS management being required to deliver a culture of openness and honesty, and improved and continual public engagement in the design and delivery of integrated health and social services. 

I'm grateful to the First Minister for his answer, but does he acknowledge that there's widespread concern about the capacity for certain sections of NHS management in Wales to deal effectively, particularly with the handling of complaints and concerns and with whistleblowing? And does the First Minister agree with me that, in addition to the legislation that he's mentioned, we now need a national values-based set of core competencies for our managers in the NHS in Wales, and that those managers should need to be on a national register, where they have to prove that they continue to be competent, just as our doctors and nurses do, to avoid a situation where people can move around the system? When they've failed in one place, they can pop up somewhere else. We do know that that happens.

I thank the Member for that and look forward to hearing her set out at greater length her ideas in this area tomorrow. It is an important area for debate, and I think tomorrow will be a valuable contribution to that. There will be a set, as she knows, I'm sure, of complex questions that will lie behind the headlines: the need to be able to define what we mean by a 'manager' in legislative terms, to learn from some of the experiences we've had in the social care sector, where we've had competing regulatory frameworks, for example, for care home managers who are also registered as nurses. Which of the two systems under which they operate are they to be held accountable? How, within a managerial workforce would you distinguish, for example, between someone who has responsibilities for the workforce and somebody who is responsible for managing the budget of a health body? So, I think it's an important debate, but I think it's a complex debate as well, and I look forward to hearing what the Member says tomorrow. In the meantime, the Bill that the Government will bring forward, I think, will make some significant inroads into the general issues that Helen Mary Jones began her question with, and that, too, will be scrutinised through the Assembly and no doubt improved as a result.

My colleague for Mid and West Wales has made some very good points, but leaving it for a debate tomorrow, for thought over the next few months, the next few years, I don't think gets to the nub of the current crisis we have.

First Minister, you know as well as I do we have a number of health boards that are in a dire state. We've got a lack of fresh blood, we have the same team going around, with chairs being reappointed to new health boards who've been in existence in already struggling health boards. We've got chief executives, we've got whole management teams, we have a health Minister who you absolutely have faith in and you say that the problem is not with him. Well, if the problem with our NHS does not rest with you, your Government, your health Minister, the rest of your Cabinet colleagues, then surely it rests with the senior management of the NHS, because they are paid the big bucks to deliver the services our patients require, and they are paid the big bucks to be accountable.

What I would like to understand, through this question, is what accountability and quality measures are there currently in place, not what might come down the road in months and years to come, but now, today, so that we know we've got the best team working at it. Because when you look at the postbags that we all have coming through our doors, we don't see the evidence on the front line.

14:25

Well, Llywydd, here is the Welsh NHS, which, at the end of March, at the end of the annual cycle of reporting, had the lowest waiting times since 2013, fewer people waiting more than 26 weeks than for the last five years, a health service in which 30 per cent more people are treated within waiting times for cancer than they were five years ago, and where survival rates are better than ever before at one year and five years, a health service in which delayed transfers of care, in 2017 and 2018, were the two lowest years since those figures were ever collected. This is the health service that the Member wishes to describe as being in a dire state. It is simply not true. It simply does not reflect the state of the service that millions of people, year in and year out, get from the Welsh NHS. Caricaturing it in the way that the Member does does nothing to bring about the—[Interruption.]—nothing to bring about the improvements that we and she would wish to see. And those improvements that I have outlined are partly the result of the efforts that managers in the NHS make, as well as clinicians and others. We want a clear accountability system and we want to make sure that we have a system focused on quality. We already have one; we want to improve it further. That's why we're bringing forward legislation, and the legislation needs to be based on the facts of the health service in Wales, not a sort of general attempt to denigrate its reputation, where the evidence for that simply isn't available.

The Childcare Offer in Ogmore

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on the progress of the childcare offer in Ogmore? OAQ54142

This Government’s ambitious childcare offer has been available to parents in Ogmore since the end of April this year. In that time, over 300 families have taken up the offer, with more applications coming in every week.

It's really great news that the childcare offer is not only on schedule but ahead of schedule, because it allows us to think, now, what might come next in a more joined-up approach to early years provision as well. We've got time to think now. But it is really good news. Could I ask—and I thank the Minister for discussions we've had already—that the officials behind the iteration within Bridgend make sure that they have a good discussion with Bridgend County Borough Council? The reason being that historically they've overprovided the foundation phase to the tune of around 25 to 30 hours per child. Now, this is well ahead, in advance, of many other local authority areas in Wales, but it's before we started on the childcare offer. So, I wonder whether, working with the excellent Minister we have for the childcare offer and her officials, we could make sure that we do engage with Bridgend, not to throw the baby out with the bath water. Sorry—not that there are any babies involved in this at all. But to make sure that the children who are already provided with excellent foundation phase early years education are still provided for, going on, as it morphs into the new scheme. 

I thank the Member for both those points and thank him for reminding us that the roll-out of the childcare offer in Wales is ahead of schedule and now available in all parts of Wales. Thinking of Lynne Neagle's earlier question, 88 per cent of families who take part in the childcare offer report that they have more money left in their pockets for other purposes at the end of every single week. 

On the other point that Huw Irranca-Davies made about Bridgend-specific issues, he'll be glad to know that Julie Morgan, the Deputy Minister, is meeting Councillor Huw David, the leader of Bridgend council, on 9 July, next week. That meeting is set up to discuss childcare and wider opportunities to work collaboratively on early years work in Bridgend, and I'm sure the matters that the local Member has raised this afternoon will be part of that agenda.

2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item is the business statement and announcement. I call the Trefnydd to make the statement—Rebecca Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to today's agenda and that is that the statement on the economic action plan and economic development measures has been withdrawn. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the papers available to Members electronically.

I couldn't hear the Trefnydd there. If we can conduct proceedings in a bit more silence, that would help. But I'm assuming she said something quite similar to what was in the business statement this morning, so we'll carry on. I won't ask you to repeat it. Janet Finch-Saunders.

14:30

Thank you, Llywydd. Trefnydd, last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting three care homes in north-west Wales. My experience confirmed what I stated here in the Senedd last month—that we are heading towards a very serious care home crisis. What I saw was care providers doing their very best to ensure that they provide high-quality care. However, they are having to do this whilst fighting to stay afloat, because of unfair funding from local authorities, and especially the north Wales health board. This brings me to the shocking facts that I want you all to be aware of.

On 26 June 2019, Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board issued an e-mail to care providers, stating that they have just now approved the continuing healthcare fees for 2018-19. What this means in reality is that care homes are receiving patients from hospitals, and they only found out last week what they will be paid for care provided from 1 April. We are now in July. So, in one instance, this meant that a home did not know how much money they're being paid in relation to what is around 50 per cent of their clients. It is impossible to properly manage a business—and that's what care home providers are doing: they are running a very vital, much needed business as well—with such major budgetary uncertainties. So I really do believe that we are on the precipice of losing 1,500 beds in Wales by 2024. That is the figure that has been predicted by those in the care sector. BCUHB is damaging the care home sector, which does so much to help it.

Will you ask the Minister for Health and Social Services to commit to making a statement on the CHC fees, and undertake an investigation so as to ascertain why care providers are only now being advised how much they will be paid for the wonderful services that they provide? It is no way for any company to run a business. One that actually looks after and provides treatment, care and support for the most vulnerable in our society has a right to know how they can map out their own financial requirements. So I believe this is not only a failure of the health board, but I think it's a weakness of your Government. So I'm very, very interested that you take this matter very seriously, please. Thank you.

Well, Llywydd, the health Minister has been here to listen to Janet Finch-Saunders's concerns, but perhaps if she puts the detail of those particular concerns in some correspondence to the health Minister, he'll be able to look at it in more depth.

Trefnydd, the development of a feasibility study into a Swansea bay and western Valleys metro was something that was agreed between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government as part of the 2017 budget. Since that time, with Swansea Council leading on the regional piece of work, we have heard the UK Government announce that it supports the development of a west Wales parkway rail station, on land at Felindre, Swansea. I've been consistent in stating that east-west rail improvements cannot be looked at, however, in isolation, and that the Swansea bay and western Valleys metro, as well as seeing services to Swansea and Neath stations protected, also needs to bring in other routes being brought back into use—the Aman and Swansea valley rail route, for instance—and ensuring quality transport links to the Neath, Dulais and Afan valleys. I believe that the Welsh Government needs to be providing leadership and vision on this issue. And back in February, I asked the Minister for Economy and Transport to bring forward a statement on how he sees the west Wales parkway interlinking with the wider challenge of developing further rail and tram infrastructure within the region, as part of the Swansea bay metro. You stated that the Minister would be prepared to do so, but as of yet no time has been allocated for this. Could I again ask, therefore—nearly five months on—whether time will now be given for a statement on this important issue in this Chamber?

Thank you for raising this issue. And of course, Welsh Government has been very clear that any parkway station cannot be at the expense of Swansea city centre, and I think that that statement was made very clearly by Welsh Government. We do have a debate tomorrow that looks at the future of Transport for Wales, so that might be an opportunity to raise these particular concerns with the transport Minister. But I will ask him to write to you with the latest on this particular issue.

Minister, can I ask for two statements? The first one relates to the announcement with regard to the NHS England long-term plan that some 14 NHS gambling centres are to be set up, part funded by the Gambling Commission. It seems to me this is an area that we should actually be taking action on ourselves, and I wonder if we could get a statement as to what approaches have been made for funding from the Gambling Commission to ensure that the inadequate moneys that are raised, by way of a voluntary levy for the Gambling Commission, are also equally shared throughout the UK, so the resources are also available for us to deal with this matter, as identified within the chief medical officer's report last year.

And can I also ask for a statement in respect of the position with the Ford workers in Bridgend—200 of whom live within my constituency? One constituent wrote to me and said, 'The company has offered me a redundancy package, including a deferred pension to be taken at 55. I am 46.' The point he raises is, because of UK Government changes in the pension age, it means effectively he stands to lose some £50,000 to £60,000. It seems to me this is a gross anomaly in the treatment of Ford workers, and certainly should be a matter that I know the unions will almost certainly be raising, but that we could also raise, in terms of the fairness with which Welsh workers are being treated in this matter. 

14:35

I thank Mick Antoniw for raising both of these issues. On the first, which relates to the issue of gambling, I know that health officials are having some discussions to explore what, if any, funding might be forthcoming for Welsh Government with regard to gambling, because, as Mick identified, the chief medical officer's report specifically looked at a chapter on gambling, and, since then, there have been some significant improvements. So, questions on gambling have been added to the health behaviour in school-age children and school health research network survey during 2017-18, and questions on frequency, participation and attitudes to gambling will be included in the national survey for the first time in 2020-21. I know that these are both things that Mick has been particularly pressing for for a long time.

The chief medical officer has had discussions with GambleAware and the directors of public health in Wales to explore how existing services, such as mental health support services, can be used to support problem gamblers, and, of course, on 1 July a new national citizens advice bureau programme was launched with two new support hubs based in Denbighshire and Rhondda Cynon Taf, and those will be able to provide outreach training to third parties to ensure that front-line workers are equipped with the relevant skills to recognise and support people with problem gambling. And I know Mick has a question to the Minister for Health and Social Services on this topic tomorrow, so he'll be able to provide further detail on the progress that has been made since the chief medical officer's report.

On the issue of pensions, clearly, what Mick described is very much of a concern, and we would obviously urge Ford to put the best deal possible to their loyal workers. Mick's point reminds us, of course, that there are Ford workers across the length and breadth of Wales, particularly in south Wales, and they will certainly need Welsh Government and their unions to be putting a strong message forward that fairness absolutely has to be at the heart of any deal. 

The taskforce people work stream, in conjunction with Ford, the trade unions and the pensions regulator, will consider the provision of appropriate independent advice for the workforce as they plan their financial futures, but the case study, which Mick has brought forward, I will ensure is brought to the attention of that taskforce. 

Minister, please, could I ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip on transgender hate crimes in Wales? Figures obtained by the BBC from police forces in Wales show that the number of recorded transgender hate crimes has more than doubled in the last two years. While some of this increase may be put down to past under-reporting and more people now being willing to come forward to report their experiences, these figures clearly show that abuse or violence directed at people on the basis of transgender is on the rise. Please, could we have a statement from the Deputy Minister on what more can be done to protect transgender people and to increase awareness and understanding of transgender issues in the wider community in Wales? Thank you. 

I'm very grateful for this point being raised in the Chamber. Hate crime in all its manifestations is clearly of deep concern to us. And it is very concerning that the number of people coming forward as victims of transgender hate crime has increased. If it's the case that people feel more comfortable coming forward, then that in itself is a positive thing, but nonetheless any hate crime of this sort is clearly something that we have to work across party to tackle, but I will be sure that the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip provides the latest update on what the Welsh Government is doing in this particular area.FootnoteLink

14:40

Last weekend, I spent the evening in Swansea with a group of volunteers who go out every Sunday evening with food, toiletries, warm clothing et cetera for homeless people. Some of the people I spoke to had absolutely nothing, and they were very grateful for the food and the provisions, and they shared with us some of their experiences. I heard from a number of people how they or their friends had been arrested under the Vagrancy Act. Now, the Vagrancy Act was brought in in 1824. It's antiquated. It was introduced to tackle homelessness caused by veterans returning from the Napoleonic wars. It specifically criminalises rough sleeping and begging—you can be arrested for either. One young woman told me on Sunday night, 'It's illegal to be homeless, yet it's not illegal to make someone homeless,' and I thought that was quite a profound statement. She told us how the police regularly clear out the streets, arresting people and removing their belongings, despite the fact that the First Minister told me last week that this was not Government policy. Wales is largely powerless to do anything about the Vagrancy Act, due to our lack of criminal justice powers. In Scotland and in the north of Ireland, the Act has already been repealed. For me, that provides yet another example as to why we need to see the devolution of the criminal justice system. It's yet another practical example of what those powers could do for us. We should be offering assistance to people who are forced to live on the streets. We should not be criminalising them. It's time you as a Government said enough is enough, and I would be grateful if you would be prepared to allow a debate, in Government time, favouring the devolution of criminal justice powers with a view to repealing the Vagrancy Act.

Thank you for raising the issue and for giving me the opportunity to also share your admiration for the work that the volunteers do in Swansea, day in, day out, to support people who are rough sleepers. The Minister for Housing and Local Government has recently set up her new taskforce to explore support for homeless people, but particularly those on the very sharp end of homelessness, and it of course is being led by the head of Crisis, which I'm sure you would welcome, and she will ask the task group to look specifically at this. But the Welsh Government have been very clear in our opposition to the Vagrancy Act, which is completely outdated. It's completely inappropriate to criminalise people for what is often a case of finding themselves in situations that we can't even imagine having to deal with ourselves. So, I know that the Minister is also liaising very closely with the police and crime commissioners to ensure that they deal appropriately and in a trauma-informed way with people who find themselves in the situation of rough sleeping.

Organiser, could I seek a statement, please, off the health Minister, in light of yesterday's inspectorate report into the accident and emergency department at the Heath hospital? This isn't a politician saying this; this is obviously the inspectorate themselves in their report identifying how patients were moved from beds into chairs so that the health board could be compliant with health waiting targets. The First Minister himself in First Minister's questions said that the Government will not stand back from helping health boards discharge these targets. He said these targets are of clear clinical benefit and that's why they're in place. I'm sure most patients who got moved out of beds and into chairs and having 20-hour waits don't see that as a clinical benefit, to be honest with you. We've learnt today, from my namesake Andrew Davies who is the chair of Swansea health board, that there are three to four calls a day going into health boards. I find it incomprehensible to think that Welsh Government were not aware of this situation in the assessment unit and the emergency department, if such a level of interaction was going on on waiting times. That's why I do believe it is critical that the health Minister does make a statement—hopefully an oral statement—so that we can seek answers to some of the questions. I represent a region that has only just had the tragedy of the maternity services in Cwm Taf, where senior management professed they were unaware of what was going on in that maternity department. Here, you have the health inspectorate itself identifying deliberate acts to try and become compliant with waiting times that I would suggest, and I'm sure most clinicians would suggest, put patients' outcomes at risk, and that cannot be tolerated. It cannot be good enough that, maybe in six or 12 months' time, we turn round because action wasn't taken to address this and find out who was making these decisions, because it wouldn't be the hard-pressed staff in those departments, because we know the inspectorate have highlighted how staff rotas were going unfilled, despite Welsh Government having legislation in place that says staff rotas should be filled to a certain minimum level. The law dictates that, and yet the inspectorate have highlighted that in their report, and so I think the seriousness of this report warrants at least an oral statement from the Minister on the floor of Plenary so that we can ask the questions that, not unreasonably, our constituents and people who work in these departments are asking us. 

14:45

Well, the health Minister has obviously been here to hear your request, and I've certainly read the report to which you refer. I know the health Minister will also have done so. We were disappointed to read it, and we would expect of course that all patients who access care in an assessment unit to be treated in a timely way in order to optimise their experience and outcomes. But it should be noted, I think, that, also in the report, the majority of patients questioned did praise staff for being kind and sensitive, and I think it's important that we recognise the good work of staff, too.

We've allocated funding recently to Cardiff and the Vale health board specifically to support improvement in experience and delivery at the front door, and this includes an extension of the successful emergency department well-being and home safe service, and to enable the health board to become an early adopter of the national quality and delivery framework for emergency departments project. Both of those projects seek to improve the experience and outcomes for people accessing emergency care services. We know that HIW has now accepted the health board's plan for improvement and will obviously be monitoring the progress closely. 

I've asked on about three or four occasions now for an update on the eating disorders framework. I'm glad the health Minister is here, because I had the cross-party group on eating disorders last week, and some of the sufferers even said they felt that they saw no point in taking part in the consultation process because it's been eight months now waiting for an idea as to what is going to happen. Everybody took part in that consultation in good faith, wanting to help change the eating disorders situation here in Wales, so I'm urging the health Minister to bring a statement forward so that we can look at the framework anew and see how services will be improved with that regeneration of a framework. At the end of the day, we have improved services here, but we have some place to go, and those on the cross-party group, from sufferers to carers to charities, want to hear that there's action on the table now. 

Thank you for raising this issue. The health Minister, I know, is due to discuss this issue with officials this week. I understand it is a large report and a great deal of evidence has gone into it, and it obviously requires thorough consideration, but as soon as the health Minister's had advice, which I understand will be in the coming weeks, then he will provide the update that you're seeking. 

Trefnydd, I'd like to ask the Minister for Health and Social Services—I'm pleased to see he's here today—to consider making perhaps a written statement about the situation with regard to the midwifery-led unit at Withybush General Hospital. You'll be aware, and he'll be aware, that there is concern that we're going to face a situation where, if women need services at night, they're going to be expected to phone the community midwife to arrange themselves for that midwife to be present. Now, in responding to Paul Davies, the First Minister gave this Chamber some assurance that that is not, in fact, the case. But the Minister will be very well aware of the concerns that this would happen when the service went from a consultant-led service to a midwifery-led service, because it has happened elsewhere. So, could I ask the Minister to make a statement, if he's able to do so, reassuring the public in the area that this is not going to happen, that they're not going to lose their 24-hour service, and outlining what discussions he or his officials have had with the health board to ensure that the First Minister is correct and that this service is not going to be further reduced. 

As the First Minister was able to say in his question session this afternoon, there have been discussions on the options to improve the efficiency of the staffing model by achieving a greater integration of its community-based midwives and staff based in the midwife-led unit. But he was very clear that this will not reduce patient access, which will remain open to women in Pembrokeshire 24/7.

I understand that discussions are ongoing with staff about how to better integrate MLU and community midwifery staff, and the health board can't confirm its future staffing arrangements yet because, clearly, no decisions have been made. But it has, however, assured all pregnant mums-to-be that staffing support will continue to be available on a 24/7 basis, and its priority remains the safe care and overall experience of those women.

14:50

Thank you, Llywydd. I’ve looked at the business statement that you’ve published today, and I don’t see any intention on the part of Government for us to have an oral statement from the Minister for environment and rural affairs on the Government’s intention now to proceed with ‘Brexit and our land’ proposals. You will know as well as I do that this will be one of the most significant announcements that this Government will make. It will certainly lead to some of the most far-reaching changes that the agricultural sector and rural communities have seen in generations, and I would like to understand why you don’t feel that an oral statement to this Chamber is necessary, because the Minister has made it entirely clear that it will be declared before the Royal Welsh Show in a few weeks’ time. Am I right in thinking that it is the Government’s intention to release this as a written statement? Some cynics might suggest that you would do that in the last days of term in order to avoid the scrutiny that could take place as a result of doing it earlier. So, can you give us an assurance that it is the intention to have an oral statement in this place, because that is what such a significant statement deserves?

I will, Llywydd, speak to the environment Minister, in terms of the plans for releasing the ‘Brexit and our land’ consultation.

3. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: The Task and Finish Group on Critical Care—Report

The next item, therefore, is the statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on the task and finish group on critical care, and I call on the Minister to make the statement—Vaughan Gething.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

Diolch, Llywydd. Members will recall that, in 2016, we created a parliamentary review of independent experts to examine health and social care in Wales, and that review, of course, had cross-party support. The report of the parliamentary review described the increasing demands and new challenges that face health and social care in Wales. These include greater care needs as more of us can expect to grow older, and increasing public expectations of new and emerging medical advances. These challenges have been acutely felt by critical care services in recent years. It is clear that there is a significant strain within critical care services, and this has been increasing in recent years. Despite this, people who require critical illness support continue to receive high standards of critical care, thanks to the dedication of the many expert members of staff who are working in what is a highly pressurised environment.

As set out in 'A Healthier Wales', hospital-based services such as critical care remain an essential and visible part of our future health and care system. As with other healthcare systems, we need to speed up the pace of change within critical care, including the model of provision across Wales, to ensure that we have the right services in the right place for those who are critically ill. That is why, in July last year, I issued a written statement announcing a nationally directed programme to look strategically at the issues and challenges for our critical care services. In that statement, I said that our approach to critical care will build on the work already being taken forward with the implementation of the delivery plan for the critically ill. We are now taking a more central hand in directing this work at a national level. I established a task and finish group, which was chaired by Professor Chris Jones, the deputy chief medical officer. It comprised seven work streams looking at: the mapping of service models, demand and capacity; workforce requirements; outreach; post-anaesthesia care units; long-term ventilation; patient transfers; and performance measures.

Following the recommendations of these work streams, immediate progress has been made. This includes: critical care becoming a strand within the 'Train. Work. Live.' recruitment campaign; highlighting the existing opportunities to work in critical care in Wales; and critical care activity now being included within the unscheduled care performance dashboard. This helps health boards to manage their services more effectively.

I am pleased today to publish the task and finish group's final report. The report is honest about the challenges facing critical care, and provides a strategic view on the steps necessary to ensure services for people who are critically ill are fit for the future. In addition to the main report, the reports from each work stream have been published as annexes, setting out more detailed recommendations. The report concludes that, unless admission and referral practices change, which the group felt there was little scope for, the increased future demand can only be met by an increase in total critical care capacity. The task and finish group are clear that Wales does need additional capacity. However, this must be in combination with improvements in critical care pathways, such as post-anaesthesia care units, otherwise known in the service as PACUs, long-term ventilation, critical care outreach teams, and improved efficiencies, including reducing delayed transfers from critical care and utilising the skill mix of our staff more effectively.

We do need to address existing workforce issues of skill mix, recruitment, retention and training, as well as increasing the numbers of appropriately skilled healthcare professionals to meet both current and future need. The task and finish group acknowledges the national programme is ambitious but, if fully implemented, will help to ensure that Wales has a critical care service on a par with the best in the UK. Critical care staff throughout Wales work in a highly pressurised environment, and the lack of capacity across the system has exacerbated this. The task and finish group hopes that both staff and patients will see this as a clear commitment, backed up by robust recommendations and additional funding to help deliver a phased improvement programme.

To help implement the task and finish group's report, I have already announced that an additional £15 million of recurrent funding will be provided. The funding will be used to support a number of national priorities. such as the establishment of a transfer service for critically ill adults and a long-term ventilation unit. Local priorities, including increasing critical care capacity, workforce, outreach and the establishment of post-anaesthesia care units, are also being supported.

We need to be clear that this additional funding must have a significant positive impact on the service and that our systems improve as a consequence of the investment and service redesign. To support this, a new set of performance measures linked to the investment will be implemented and we will track performance on delayed transfers of care. This nationally directed work has important links to other developing areas of specialist services. These include major trauma, treatment following an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest, and vascular surgery. It is important that this investment is seen in that wider context.

Finally, I want to end this statement by expressing my gratitude to the members of the task and finish group as well as the healthcare professionals and managers who are working, and working together, to bring real and meaningful transformation to our critical care services.

14:55

Minister, thank you very much for bringing forward your statement on this report. I think this report is very good. I was really pleased to see that it's clear, it's concise, it's got a very well defined set of objectives, and it actually talks about how we can monitor it and measure the outcomes. It is a rare jewel, and I'm delighted to be able to ask you a few questions on this. 

It talks about the fact that we have the lowest number of critical care beds per head of population in relation to most other areas, and I wondered if you could perhaps outline how you see the development of those additional critical care beds and how will you ring-fence them so they don't become post-operative anaeth—. I can't say the word; I'll just call them PACU beds. Because I notice that it's quite clear about how many beds should go to what area, which health board, but, again, it's about making sure it actually happens. If I was to read this whole report, very simply I would say, 'Great report, really good analysis, but how will we make sure it actually gets delivered, when we know the health boards are under immense pressure and when we know that targets and objectives are shifted around, are moved about, and that statistics can say pretty much anything?' Because, if this could be made to happen, it would be an enormous step forward. 

I note that the task and finish group have suggested that, once this comes to being and it moves forward, they should step down and that it should be left to the critical illness implementation group to measure. But, of course, one of the great criticisms of the critical illness implementation group in 2016 was the fact that they were struggling to offer sustainable solutions, and that they hadn't brought into the whole system the organisational commitment that's required. So, I'd like to know what you will do to ensure that the make-up of the critical illness implementation group is capable of monitoring this ongoing work, because I think it's just telling that we've had to have a task and finish group to tell them what they should do, when, to be frank, they should have been able to come up with this under their own steam. 

Will you please just give us a quick overview of where you see the money sitting, because it says very clearly here that funding will be allocated to health boards in their capacity as commissioners, and yet they need to then immediately go and use that money to start building these additional beds, to start putting together the adult emergency transfer system that they're talking about? How will they apply for that, and who will make the decision whether or not their business plan is actually fit enough to be awarded the money to carry on and try and achieve these objectives?

Is there going to be an element of ring-fencing around it? Transparent reporting of critical care outcome measures with robust escalation arrangements: will you, as the health Minister, also be keeping a weather eye on this, or will you be pushing this out to the critical care implementation group to monitor? Because I'd like to think that, actually, this report doesn't just disappear into the ether, but actually you keep, or the Government keeps, tabs on it to make sure that these things happen. My overwhelming fear is that a lot of these really, really excellent recommendations simply will not happen because either the funding isn't in the right place, the skills aren't in the right place, the right people who know how to make change happen, and make change happen successfully, will not be able to carry this out, particularly at a time when we're asking health boards to try to transform the entire way they operate, to follow through on the vision for health, which I think is a particularly good way forward.

I think my final question will be about how the remaining funding is split between Aneurin Bevan, Betsi, Cwm Taf, Hywel Dda and Swansea Bay. It talks about areas of agreed priority for critical care services, and, again, who will have the final say on what those agreed priorities are and whether or not the business case then stacks up. 

15:00

Thank you for the series of questions, some of which I think have overlapping themes. I would say I think there's a central point that you're making about whether the report will be delivered and whether the money will deliver against the objectives and how that will be tracked and monitored. Well, I've been clear that the suggested allocation of resource comes from the task and finish group and it's something that we've endorsed. The Wales critical care and trauma network will be involved in looking at the delivery plans from health boards, because it isn't simply a question of saying, 'Please go ahead and do this' to health boards. Actually, we'll need to see those delivery plans to deliver against the increases in capacity that the report has suggested we need to make. So, the money is there, but they need to have proper delivery plans for that to come in. And that will be overseen. The Wales critical care and trauma network will have a view on that as well, the Government will take a view, and it will be on the basis of those delivery plans that the money will actually be released to health boards to deliver against that increase in capacity. So, there is going to be a more central hand. I announced, when I issued a statement last year, that this would be a centrally directed programme of activity, and now we're still making sure that that will be the case. So, it won't disappear into the ether. It will be something where there will be performance measures and outcome measures to understand what's really happening. And, yes, I do expect that the Government will be informed on what is happening there and it won't simply be left to health boards to, if you like, mark their own homework.

And when it comes to the point about whether the money will really get to deliver against the objectives, well, I've been clear in the past, when we've had sums of money that have been earmarked for a particular purpose, that it does need to deliver against that purpose. If you take the example of the performance funds we've had in the last few years, where health boards haven't delivered against the plans they've provided, I've been prepared to claw that money back. So, I am clear that this money will be used for the purpose, and not disappear into a general pot of money. It must be used for the purpose. 

And some of the building of capacity is, of course, in staff, so the work around workforce is important not just to understand what we need know, but also in the future. The recruitment activities are already ongoing, the further advice from Healthcare Inspectorate Wales about the groups of staff we'll need, because, actually, the biggest limitation in increasing capacity isn't the bed itself—it's all the staff around it for the different tiers of service that are required—because at the highest level of care, we're talking about one-to-one nursing care and the rest of the team around that person as well. So, staff, actually, are what we do need to invest in in terms of training and upskilling, as well, of course, as the numbers of staff to deliver the additional capacity that the task and fish group recommend and I've accepted we want to try and create. 

When it comes to the point about transfers, though, that is something that will go into the emergency ambulance services committee mechanism, working together with—[Inaudible.]—to look at the experience that already exists there. So, you will have an oversight there about what's being commissioned, how it's going to be done, and, again, a specific sum of money to go into delivering that improvement, because if we improve the delayed transfers of care it won't simply be that I or the Deputy Minister will be able to stand up and say, 'Look, delayed transfers of care have improved', but, actually, have a much better and efficient use of our resources across the system. It means that people that no longer need to be in critical care can be moved down to where they need to be, and that will often be closer to home, especially if they move from one of our tertiary centres. But it will also mean that somebody that does need to have that place in critical care will be more likely to be rapidly in the right place, because we do recognise not having the flexibility, the efficiency and the capacity does mean that some people are not in the optimal place for their care. So, it's the whole system. The delayed transfers make a difference to the top level of care, but also to people moving through in the right direction, whether they're up or down in the system. So, I do think we have the right sort of recommendations so that it will now be about the delivery.

15:05

I'd like to thank the Minister for his statement and for the additional information he's provided in response to Angela Burns. Like Angela Burns, I was struck by the very high quality of this report and, as the Minister and others have said, we're very grateful to the task and finish group for all the work that they've put in and, indeed, for the staff who work in very high-pressured environments, as the Minister has said. 

If I can return to the questions about the budget—this is an additional £15 million, very welcome, but not a great deal to tackle what are obviously some big issues that need to be tackled. Can the Minister let us know today from where that £15 million has come? Is that additional money into the health budget from somewhere else, or has it been reallocated from somewhere within his current budget, because these are obviously very difficult priority decisions to be made, and I think it would be helpful for us to know where that money has come from, particularly? 

I'm very interested in the points he made in response to Angela Burns about delivery plans, but he didn't quite answer her question about whether or not the funding will be ring-fenced. And our experience is that the Minister can sometimes have expectations of local health boards that they don't always fulfil, so I'd like to press him a little harder on what the consequences will be if they take this money and spend it on something else. I'm not suggesting for a moment that they will, and the report is really clear and it sets out what needs to be done so they shouldn't feel the need to do that. But I am concerned, because this is a very specific amount of money to do a very specific job, that we wouldn't want it to get lost. 

In the context of the investment issue, what discussions has the Minister or his officials had about specific investments in services in the north, where we know some of the biggest problems lie—an ongoing poor A&E performance that knocks on into a lot of other parts of the system, too many critical care cases that are actually outsourced from Wales altogether, including to Stoke, and that's not long-term acceptable, and it's not long-term good use of resources either? So, can the Minister tell us today what specific investment will go into the north to address the issues that the report highlights?

Can the Minister say a little bit more about how confident he is about the success of the recruitment campaign, basing that perhaps on how the previous campaigns have gone for other specialities? I'm really pleased to see that this is going to be included now, and it will be interesting to hear what sort of expectations the Minister has of its outcomes.

A slightly specific question: the group's report has highlighted how changes to pension and tax arrangements have created some challenges for workforce planning in this area and, no doubt, how it affects other departments too. Can the Minister tell us a bit more about how he proposes to ensure that health boards respond to those challenges, because they're clearly not going to go away?

And finally, could I just ask the Minister for some clarity around the time frame, the timescales for the implementation? I did take it from what he said that there's a certain amount of urgency in this work and that he expects the health boards to respond quickly, but I'd like to know when he feels he may be able to report back to this Chamber as to the progress that's been delivered against the report's aspirations.

15:10

Thank you for the series of questions. In terms of the new resource, it is a central resource. It's not about reallocating budgets that already existed within health boards, but there is something about how health boards use the resources they already have available to them as well. This isn't simply saying that extra capacity will only be provided by additional money from the centre, but the £15 million is money from the centre, and Members will recall that the Faculty of Intensive Care Medicine expressed concerns about critical care capacity last year, and I asked the chief executive of NHS Wales to meet them, and that's helped to inform some of the work that we have actually undertaken since then, and members of the faculty have, of course, been involved in the task and finish group. And that comes back to the point you later made about north Wales. The additional capacity we're talking about—seven extra beds—comes from work streams that they've endorsed as well. That's the additional capacity that the finance should release, but it is on the basis that there are proper plans about how they'll do that, how they'll scale that up and make sure that the capacity is there to deliver. But that, in itself, as I've said in response to Angela Burns, must come together with more efficient use of resources and, in particular, as I said in my statement, delayed transfers of care, an area where we could make better use of what we already have as well as the additional capacity that we're looking to create.

I think I dealt with the point about what will happen if people try to spend money in a different way. I've been clear that money can be clawed back in other areas. Health boards will be managed. In this area, it's a nationally directed programme, and I expect the money to be spent that way, and health boards won't be able to find a different way to spend money inappropriately. The set of recommendations are relatively tight and clear as to how money will be spent, so there aren't lots of opportunities for money to leak into other areas of the service.

On your point about what will happen with recruitment activity, well, we actually have a good record through ‘Train. Work. Live.’, and it's come on the back of working with service areas, working with representative groups within that service area, about what is currently attractive for the way in which we deliver our service and what would make that service more attractive. And, actually, having a view on the longer term future for the service is something that staff should find attractive. And, of course, this is informed by the recommendations from a group of clinicians working in this service area at present who recognise the pressures that exist but also how there could be a better service to deliver both for our patients but also, of course, for our staff—a better place for them to do their job. And we have success in terms of psychiatry, GP training places, pharmacy, nurses and therapists in the ‘Train. Work. Live.’ programme, so we have got some reasons to be optimistic about our ability to do more in this area as well.

I expect to have plans provided in the autumn, and I expect to see progress within the next 12 months or so. But some of this, as I see it, is about skilling up the staff we currently have as well as the additional staff we need to bring in to deliver the capacity that we want to deliver. So, I'm not going to pretend that this will be a quick fix. We do have clarity about how the money should be spent and the benefits that should be gained.

Thank you for your statement, Minister, and for providing us with a copy of the task and finish group's final report. I would also like to thank members of the task and finish group for their work in helping us transform health services for the critically ill in Wales.

The conclusions of the report are welcome, with the objectives being clear and concise, along with excellent recommendations. As the group rightly points out and the Minister acknowledges, there is considerable strain being placed upon critical care services and how this strain will intensify in future years due to demographic changes. And, as stated, it is important, as with other healthcare services, that we speed up the pace of change within critical care, including the model of provision across Wales, to ensure the right services are in the right place for those who are critically ill at that time. Workforce issues appear to be the biggest barrier to increasing critical care services, and recruitment and retention of staff are still major factors across the NHS.

Minister, the task and finish group point to the impact recent pension changes are having, given the reliance on consultants doing additional sessions. So, what discussions have you had with the UK Government regarding the impact tax and pension changes are having on our NHS? I've been told that recent changes are discouraging more and more doctors from conducting extra sessions across the NHS. It is clear that we need to recruit more staff for our critical care service, but these personnel will not appear overnight, and, therefore, Minister, what steps are you taking to ensure critical care services do not deteriorate further until we have sufficient staff to meet current and future demand? Importantly, Minister, is funding ring-fenced?

Minister, I welcome your national approach to critical care. Given the roll-out of the major trauma network, what steps are you taking to ensure we have sufficient patient transfer capacity going forward?

Finally, Minister, I also welcome the emphasis given to reducing delayed transfers from critical care. However, we still have issues of delayed transfers throughout the system and I recently learnt of an instance of an elderly stroke patient being sent home without any care package in place. What discussions have you had with colleagues in local government about increasing social care capacity, given the impact this has upon services such as critical care? Because this 85-year-old gentleman waited nine hours in A&E for a bed, how will you, therefore, ensure there are sufficient beds for people, as his local hospital was also full to capacity? Thank you, once again, Minister, and I look forward to working with you to improve critical care services for patients in Wales.

15:15

Thank you. On workforce, of course, in terms of stabilisation of the workforce now, we invested £5 million in this particular area over the last winter and that was deliberately to try to stabilise this particular part of the service whilst we're looking to the future. On your point about delayed transfers, it's quite interesting, actually, because, when I've gone through a range of different hospitals across the country, as every health Minister gets the opportunity to do throughout the year and in particular through winter, our emergency medicine consultants are actually quite an honest bunch, and they'll tell you what they think works and what they think doesn't work. What's been really interesting for me is that they have not made a bid for an extra amount of beds within the hospital in general. And we often argue about bed numbers in this place, in saying, 'You've cut too many bed numbers out of the system over a long period of time', but, actually, their bigger ask is for there to be greater capacity in social care. I had a very interesting couple of conversations through the winter where they said, 'We've got a challenge at present, but I don't think having an extra 20 or 30 beds in the hospital over and above what we already have is the answer'. They were saying, 'We want there to be more capacity in social care to release people out of the hospital', because they all knew of the large numbers of medically fit people who existed within the hospital, and that was the challenge about the whole system not being able to move people around to where they needed to go.

I have raised these issues and have discussions with health boards and local government together on delayed transfers. I've recently concluded a series of meetings with each regional partnership board, health and local government leadership, and I've always, since—. Well, following my first discussions about delayed transfers of care, where I talked individually to local authorities and then their health board and finding out that they broadly said it was the partner who wasn't in the room who was responsible, I've always had joint meetings. It's been a much better way of understanding what progress could and should look like. And everyone understands this is a priority for the Government, but, equally for them as well, whether in health or local government, and we are in a much better position with delayed transfers at historic record lows, whereas, in England, the position is going in the other direction. So, we're getting some things right, but it's about how much more we need to do.

And then your point about pension changes: well, this is a big challenge for the health service, not just in this area, but a much broader challenge, and it's not just a challenge for Wales. It affects every single UK nation, every single partner of the national health service, and it is poisoning the well of goodwill that exists from our staff who are prepared to do additional work within the national health service, including waiting list initiatives in evenings and weekends, and they're now finding significant and unexpected tax bills arriving on their doorstep. It's a problem that's been created through a change in Treasury rules and the risk is that we will drive NHS workers out of the health service—not just doctors, but other staff too—and we'll then have to buy those services and it will cost us as much if not more than what we would otherwise pay to NHS staff. The other risk is, of course, that, if we drive high earners out of the NHS pension scheme, then we potentially undermine the scheme for the future. So, I've already had correspondence with the UK Government on this point; there is due to be a formal consultation in the imminent future. But I do hope that the Treasury are prepared to listen to every part of the national health service and to do the right thing by our NHS, or we'll all pay a price if they refuse to do so.

15:20
4. Statement by the Minister for Economy and Transport: The Economic Action Plan—Economic Development Measures
5. Statement by the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services: Improving Outcomes for Looked-after Children

Item 5 is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services on improving outcomes for looked-after children, and I call on the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services, Julie Morgan.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Our vision for children's services is clearly set out in our programme for government, 'Taking Wales Forward', and our national strategy, 'Prosperity for All'. I believe there is a strong cross-party consensus amongst Members of this Chamber that we all have collective responsibility to ensure that care-experienced children are provided with the best care and support available to allow them to flourish in a safe environment and to enjoy the same opportunities as any other child would expect. 

I think there is also consensus that, where possible, children should be supported to stay with their birth families. Our First Minister has highlighted the increasing numbers of looked-after children in Wales as a priority area for preventative action. The First Minister has asked for clear reduction expectations to be set to reduce the numbers of children in care, reduce the number of children placed out of county, reduce the number of children placed out of Wales, and reduce the number of children removed from parents with a learning disability.

Latest statistics show that, at 31 March 2018, there were 6,405 looked-after children in Wales. Over the last 15 years, we've seen the number of looked-after children in Wales increase by 34 per cent. A recent report from the Wales Centre for Public Policy notes that this rise cannot be attributed to austerity alone. The rate of looked-after children per 10,000 population in Wales is 102. However, there is significant variation across Welsh authorities, ranging from 50 per 10,000 population at the lowest, to 191 per 10,000 population at the highest, and, although deprivation is an important factor in this variation, there are also variations in practice. This variation between areas and the general upward trajectory is unsustainable, and local authorities themselves have acknowledged the pressure being placed on children's services and the family courts.

Almost 25 per cent of looked-after children are placed out of county and 5 per cent are placed outside Wales. While there'll often be good reasons for them to be placed out of the area—for example, the need for specialist placements or with wider families and friends—we want to explore as to whether a proportion of these children could be placed more appropriately closer to home. Proposed reduction expectations will span the course of three years, with regular evaluation and monitoring, both quarterly and at the end of each year.

I acknowledge that this is a challenging agenda. However, given the pressures being placed on local authorities and the family courts in an era of dwindling resources, we must take action that will help safely reduce the number of looked-after children in Wales, enabling resources to be re-invested in prevention and in supporting positive outcomes for care-experienced children in Wales. I've been absolutely clear that, if we take a safety-first approach here in Wales, nothing overrides the need to protect children from abuse or neglect. And I've committed to work co-productively with local authorities to develop reduction expectations that are bespoke to each local authority, tailored to their populations and demography.

This approach has been welcomed by the Wales Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru, who have committed to work with us on this agenda. Working co-productively, a technical group was established, with senior representatives from local government and the third sector. A conversation framework and reporting template was developed ahead of a visit by a small looked-after children engagement team to each of the 22 local authorities in Wales. The framework helped set the agenda and ensure a consistent discussion was had in each local authority, focusing on how they manage their service, their approach to risk, and management of entrance and exits from care. All 22 visits were completed in April and May. The engagement team were very impressed by the scale of work being undertaken throughout Wales to support children and families and to avoid the need for statutory intervention, and discussions held with local authorities were well received.

Conversations focused on the need for collective responsibility for children’s services at a corporate level to support improved outcomes for children. Local authorities were encouraged to demonstrate how they manage the business of children’s services, including information about the practice framework they operate, data about the services provided to children and families, performance monitoring and tracking. Local authorities were encouraged to be aspirational and ambitious in developing their reduction expectation plans. A clear message was given of the need for action to rebalance the system, focusing on prevention and early intervention to support the best interests of children and families. As the officials went around Wales, concerns were raised about potential consequences of not meeting expectations. Local authorities were reassured that penalties were not being considered.

There are clear consequences of not taking action, however. Whilst official statistics on the numbers of looked-after children will not be available for 2018-19 until November, local authorities reported early figures, as of March 2019, which show another potential increase in the number of looked-after children of around 470, leading to a rate of 109 per 10,000 population. To compare this with other UK nations, in Northern Ireland, for example, the rate is much lower, at 71 per 10,000, despite it being more deprived overall than Wales. Based on existing trends, if we were not to take any action, numbers will continue to increase by an average of 6 per cent per year.

Following the visits, all local authorities returned reduction expectation plans by 31 May. Sixteen local authorities have set targets to reduce their looked-after population, representing an average reduction of 4 per cent in each of the next three years. Conversations are under way with those authorities that have yet to commit to reductions. Further visits were being planned to support those authorities in the development of their reduction expectations. Clarification is also required on the plans submitted for out of county, out of Wales and children removed from parents with a learning disability. Whilst local authorities have told us that children are being appropriately placed, authorities are being encouraged to demonstrate their plans for bringing children closer to home.   

Local authorities have consistently highlighted that the judiciary, the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service Cymru and health boards also have a key role in supporting reduction expectation plans. We are concerned, for example, that the number of children placed with parents under a care order has increased significantly over the last three years. Further work will be undertaken with the judiciary and CAFCASS Cymru to understand a perceived reluctance in the use of supervision orders, section 76 and the application of the no order principle.

Local authorities and key partners will be invited to a national learning and peer support event in October to learn about the key messages from this work. Local authorities will be encouraged to work together and share best practice that will help reduce the variance in numbers across Wales. This exercise is aligned with the activity continuing under the Improving Outcomes for Children programme and its ministerial advisory group, ably and successfully chaired by David Melding AM, particularly the focus of work stream 1, around prevention and early intervention and safely reducing the need for care. Together, this demonstrates our firm commitment to rebalancing the looked-after children system so that the right support can be provided to enable families to support their own children, and outcomes for those children in care are maximised.

15:25

I thank the Deputy Minister for the statement, and also to confirm belief that, you're quite right, there is strong cross-party consensus amongst Members of this Chamber that we all have a collective responsibility to ensure that care that children experience is actually of the best quality. However, you have the levers of power, so it was with significant interest that I read your statement. Urgent measures are needed, because Wales has seen a 34 per cent increase in the number of looked-after children over the past 15 years. In 2017, 23 care and support plans were put in place by children's services every single day. On average, a child or a young person was brought into the care system in Wales every four hours. So, as I'm sure you will agree, it is alarming that the number of looked-after children in Wales has reached a rate of 109 per 10,000 population here, falling behind other UK nations.

So, question 1. Twenty-five per cent of children are placed out of county, and 5 per cent outside of Wales. Now, you have stated that you want to explore whether a proportion of these could be placed closer to home. So, therefore, will you clarify what steps you are taking to achieve this, and will you set a target and a time frame, so that we see a reduction in numbers?

Question 2. You have committed to working with local authorities to develop reduction expectations, tailored to their populations and demography. However, only 16 authorities out of the 22 have set targets to reduce their looked-after population. So, I suppose the question is: why is this, and when should we expect to see targets set for the other six local authorities? As I hope you will agree, we need to see all councils working towards reduction, and if there is no target, I am left wondering how successful the reduction expectation plans will be.

And my final question, Deputy Minister. We know that local authorities are key to addressing the looked-after-child crisis here in Wales. Social services departments are under huge financial pressures. For example, last week, it was reported that Ynys Môn council children's services department overspent its 2018-19 budget by £1.83 million, largely because of a spike in the number of children taken into care, and then expensive out-of-county placements. Therefore, will you commit to providing extra financial support to our local authorities, who report finance issues being the barrier to reducing the number of looked-after children? And would you clarify to me how many additional children you do expect to come under the remit of the already struggling care system? And also, at a time when we see such a crisis in our looked-after children, and lots of pressures on our social care departments, is there really a case for the defence of reasonable chastisement to be removed?

15:30

I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for those questions. We are bringing this statement here to this Chamber today because we are very concerned about the rise in the number of children in care, and I think I've gone through the ways that we hope to address it. She is right; there's been a 34 per cent increase over the last 15 years, and we just cannot let this go on. We can't let it go on for the sake of the children, and that is the whole reason that we are doing this—we are putting the children first. And we know that, wherever possible, we want the children to remain in their own homes. So that is the reason behind us doing this.

In terms of 25 per cent being out of county, and some of them being out of country as well, it obviously is much better for children if they can be placed nearer their families, and near their network of local services. The contact that I've had with children who are in care—one of the main things that they say is that they want to keep contact, particularly with their siblings. They just want to see their brothers and sisters. And if you put them a long way away, that is very difficult. So, we are encouraging local authorities to develop facilities within their own areas, on a regional basis, so some of these children who go outside Wales, with very expensive placements, are able to be placed within the country—this country, within Wales. There have been some very good developments on that. The regional partnership boards are actually doing that at the moment, and we have provided them with particular sums of money to do that. So, we are moving in that direction.

Why only 16 authorities? Twenty-two authorities have agreed with our aims. Twenty-two authorities are supportive of the agenda that we have set, but only 16 authorities have actually come up with the reduction that they'd like to bring about. And we're very pleased that those authorities have responded in the way that they have with very sensible well-thought-out ways of preventing children coming into care and rehabilitating children in a very, very positive way. As for the ones that haven't done that, we're still in conversation with them. So, that discussion is still going on.

I think there is an understandable nervousness amongst local authorities about putting forward the numbers that they would be able to reduce, because I think we can all understand that there is a nervousness about putting targets, and so I absolutely understand how the local authorities feel. But we are working with them, and we hope that the other six will be able to come forward, and we can work with them to support a stabilisation of the number of children that are coming into care. Because we have to take some action, and one of the best ways of doing it is for us to work with the local authorities to bring those numbers down. So, we're continuing to work with the six local authorities that, as yet, haven't actually given any numbers.

Absolutely, local authorities are under great financial pressure, and one of the huge pressures, which I think Janet Finch-Saunders referred to, is the huge amount of money they have to pay for some of these out of county placements. So, one of the ways of bringing down the impact on them is to help them to keep the children at home, nearer home, and that is one of the reasons why we've obviously given particular sums of money for the edge of care services. So, every local authority now in Wales has an edge of care service. So, I can assure her that we are very aware of the austerity programme. We've had a big debate about that in First Minister's questions today, and we know that there's a great deal of hardship being caused by some of the welfare reforms that have been brought in. But I really think that we cannot leave this situation to continue. So, we are working very hard at it for the sake of the children. 

15:35

I'd like to thank the Minister very much for her statement. As Janet Finch-Saunders has said, I'd just like to reassure her that the cross-party consensus around putting our children first, around these looked-after children being, in a sense, our children as a National Assembly and a national Parliament—that we feel an individual responsibility for them in line with the local corporate parenting agenda. But the Deputy Minister will also be aware that there are some of us who are concerned about playing a numbers game with this particular issue. 

I'd like to begin by asking the Deputy Minister a little bit more about preventative services. You described the way the engagement team went out and have been impressed by what they've seen, but the comments that I'm receiving from the sector and from children and young people themselves suggest that some of those preventative services are very variable. There is an edge of care service in every local authority now, which is obviously to be welcomed, but I'd like to hear a bit more today, Deputy Minister, about what the Government is doing to ensure consistency in those services, how families get access to those services, the kinds of support that they need. I'm not suggesting you need to impose some sort of national model, because what's appropriate in Gwynedd might not be appropriate in Blaenau Gwent, but we do need to have that consistency. 

Because I would put it to you, Deputy Minister, that, in a sense, there's a risk of putting the cart before the horse here; that you're wanting local authorities to agree targets for reducing numbers, but without necessarily having national expectations around the kinds of preventative services, the amount of preventative services that are needed to make that reduction meaningful. Because while I am hugely reassured to hear you say that the Government is taking a safety-first approach, I take that to mean—and perhaps you can confirm that to us—that you would never expect a local authority not to take a child into care simply because they were going to spoil their targets if they did such a thing. But I wonder if you'd acknowledge, Deputy Minister, that there's a risk of putting perverse incentives into the system. We know that people do what is counted, do we not? And if numbers of children or percentage against the population—or however it's measured—is what's being counted, and not the number of children that get effective access to edge of care services, then surely the risk is that there will be people who will do what is counted, and if only the numbers of children—. 

I am worried about those marginal cases, if I'm honest, Deputy Minister. I am worried that there may be pressure on front-line social workers. We've both worked in the field, we both know what it can be like when you've got managers saying to you, 'Well, you know, is it really that serious?' because this service is full, or 'We haven't got an allocation for this.' So, I'd seek some reassurance—and this is your opportunity to repeat, perhaps, what you've already said—that you would never expect a local authority not to protect an individual child because it was going to mess up the figures. I'm sure that that isn't your expectation at all, but I hope you'll acknowledge that there's that pressure.

I was pleased to hear you say in your statement that you would be taking into account the county's population and demography. For example, I'm not sure—and it would be interesting to know—do counties that are smaller geographically end up with more out-of-county placements? It may be easier to find an in-county placement if you're a social worker in Rhondda Cynon Taf than it is if you're a social worker in Merthyr Tydfil, just because of the size of the population that you're dealing with. So, I'm relieved to hear you say that consideration will be given to the different challenges the different local authorities face. You will be aware, through those conversations, and, I'm sure, through direct representations, that some of the local authorities in the north, for example, have real issues with transitory populations—that families will turn up who are already in really serious trouble, and they may not have time to give them the opportunity to have the preventative work in time. So, I'd just like you to reassure us that those kinds of individual issues for local authorities will be taken into account, if you are set on following these targets.

I'd also like to ask what additional resources might be available to local authorities, particularly for preventative services. It is incredibly hard times, and somebody once said to me—and I wish it were not true—there are few votes in looked-after children. There are not many people, when they're making their decision of who to vote for in a local authority election, who are thinking first and foremost about how much the authority is spending on preventative services for children. So, I wonder if you could give some consideration, longer term in the budgeting process, to perhaps some protected resources for this particular area of work—for the preventative, the edge of care, and one step back.

I'm very grateful to the Deputy Presiding Officer for her indulgence. I just want to raise a couple of points really briefly. She's looking at me over her glasses in that way, and we all know we're in trouble when that happens to us.

15:40

I would like to hear the Minister's views today about how we can ensure that the broader public services, not just social services, take their responsibility to looked-after children seriously. I'm thinking of the health service, education services—we know there are still some real issues with looked-after children being discriminated against in schools—and housing. Does the Minister feel that it may be a time to look at legislating around the corporate parenting agenda? I'm aware this is something that is being considered by the Ministerial advisory group, but sometimes we do need to be really firm with organisations around what we expect. 

I have a concern, and I'm sure you do too, Deputy Minister, about children who are in care in Wales from outside Wales, in a very large and increasing number of private children's homes. Now, obviously, those children are not our children in the way that our own looked-after children are, but while they're with us they're our responsibility. I have a real worry about the quality of services provided in some of those homes, and I wonder if the Minister would agree with me that it might be worth considering making the provision of a visiting advocacy service to each one of those homes a condition of those homes being registered, so that we could have some reassurance that an independent individual was going into those homes, seeing how the children were getting on, and being there to be a voice for those children if need be—a proactive advocacy offer. And finally, can the Minister assure us that throughout all of this work she will be paying very careful attention to young people currently in the system and to care-experienced voices? Thank you again, Deputy Presiding Officer.

I thank Helen Mary Jones for that extensive list of questions. I'll try and cover some of them at least. I just want to come up with the most important one, which is that of course we do not expect any child not to be taken into care if they are at risk of neglect or abuse. We want to do this safely, and we want to do it, as I've said already, for the benefit of the children, and that is the reason behind this statement today.

The other point is that no-one is imposing any targets. The local authorities will come up with their own targets. So, if they come up with the targets, they will consider the geography, the size, and will come forward with targets. And as I say, those that have come forward with targets have come forward with very well-thought-out ways that they can actually reduce the numbers, and have got planning for preventing a certain number of children coming in, and reunification for other children where they see it may be possible. I think 16 out of 22 is quite a good number, actually, for those that have come forward with these very well-thought-out targets. But it won't be us imposing it or giving penalties; it's just trying to put some overall structure in trying to stop this escalation of children coming into care, which I'm sure we all agree cannot be the right way to go. So we've got to do something to try to stop it, and trying to do this in a way that is working in co-production, working with the local authorities in order to give what help we can to help them achieve—that is the reason we're doing it.

So I don't think the Member should worry about the use of figures, because it's not a way of forcing local authorities to come up with a number of figures. That's not the way we're doing it. It's giving them the opportunity to come forward with the figures that they think they could safely reduce, and working with them and trying to help them achieve it. So I think that's the most important thing out of all that she's said, because I understand, because as she said, I worked in the field as well, and so I know what pressures there are on local authorities. But there is certainly no possible way that any child should be left not in safety for this reason. So I think that was the main point, so I want to reassure and try and convince her on that.

On the other points, just very swiftly, in terms of the variation around the country, yes, I think that is something that we need to look at, because as I say, the edge of care services, we've given £5 million recurrent investment to the edge of care services, and so far over 3,600 children have been supported to remain within the family unit. Those were the figures for 2017-18. So that is good progress, and obviously there are many other ways that we are giving support, through Families First, through Flying Start, but of course that is only to a limited number of areas, and we certainly see this as a priority area. This is what the First Minister has put as one of his main priorities, and I think it's really commendable that the First Minister has put this at the top of his agenda: let's try and reduce the number of children in care, and let's give them the opportunity to live with their families, if we can put in that extra bit of help. So this is all geared towards that in order to improve the chances of children's lives.

Then I'll just pick up the last point you made, about the worry about a private establishment where there are a lot of children from outside Wales placed. Again, I think that's a huge matter of concern, because although we're responsible for our children who live in Wales, those children are placed a long way away from their families, so they don't have those sort of checks on what's happening. So I certainly think we could have a further discussion about what we could do to try to look at those establishments.

15:45

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Last week I visited, along with the rest of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, the young offenders unit at Parc prison, and to be told that 40 per cent of the young people there were formerly looked after was a salutary reminder, if ever one was needed, of the way that we have to go to improve the outcomes for looked-after children. So, I'm sure that is something that we all very much buy into in this Chamber.

I have to say, though, that I am deeply uneasy with the idea of setting targets or expectations of reduction, or whatever you want to call them, in this field, for the reasons that Helen Mary Jones has just said, really. I think there is always a risk of perverse incentives and of measuring what is being counted. The 2018 UK-wide care crisis review found that there was no simple explanation for the rising numbers of looked-after children, so I think it is fair to say that I and the committee are also concerned that there is unlikely to be any simple answer either, and that's why the committee has written to the First Minister, to ADSS and to the children's commissioner expressing some concerns and probing this issue further.

I do have some specific questions that I would like to ask you. The first is to ask about the recently published Care Inspectorate Wales thematic report on looked-after children, which did not find evidence of children becoming looked after who should not have done so. So, I'd be interested to know what account you have taken of that work in taking this forward. The committee has written to you, as I said, and I won't ask all the questions that were in the letter, because we'll await a written response from the First Minister. But I would ask again the question about who is actually responsible for risk assessing these targets. The onus is being put on local authorities, who also have the statutory duty to keep children safe, and I don't think there's a head of children's services in the country that gets up in the morning and thinks, 'Let’s bring more children into care.' So, I'd like to ask you, specifically, about that and what the role of Welsh Government will be in monitoring those targets or whatever they are to be called.

I welcome what you've said about co-production, although what I would say is, from what I've seen so far, the approach in this does not smack of co-production in the dealings of some of the authorities, and that is a concern and something that I will be wanting to follow. You referred to this being a prime commitment of the First Minister. I'd like to ask whether there’s been a child rights impact assessment done on this commitment, and if so, whether that will be published.

And just finally, on the out-of-county, out-of-country placements, again, nobody wants to see children placed far away from their homes and their communities, but as far as I understand the situation, we just don't have the alternative placements for some of these children. We don't have enough secure placements, we don't have enough low-secure, or enough support for children and young people with emotional problems. And this cannot just be an issue for local authorities; this is something that has to be led by Government, because they cannot plan this on their own. So, I would like to know what the Welsh Government is doing. And we questioned the health Minister on this last week in the Children, Young People and Education Committee. What is Welsh Government doing to make sure that those places are available, to avoid children having to be sent so far from their homes? Thank you.

15:50

I thank Lynne Neagle for those questions. I've also visited the young offenders unit at Parc prison, and I think the fact that 40 per cent of those young people placed there have been formerly looked after is an absolute reason why we have to do something about this. And that’s why we're taking action, for that very sort of reason, because that is the consequence of the care system as we've been running it so far. So, I feel deeply committed to trying to stop that sort of thing happening. And, really, that’s why we're doing what we're doing.

I know Lynne Neagle says that she’s uneasy about the setting of targets or expectation of reductions—whatever expression we use. And again, as I did with Helen Mary Jones, I'd like to reassure her that this setting of targets is being done by the local authorities—they are setting their own targets. We are going along to support them and discuss it with them. And the whole purpose of doing it is to do it in a co-productive way. I think further along in her statement she said she felt that it hadn't been done in a co-productive way, so I'd be really interested if she could perhaps explain that to me in more detail, because, certainly, the intention has been for the officials from Welsh Government to work with the local authorities in a co-productive way to come forward with something that is jointly accepted. And with the majority of local authorities, that has happened. So, I'd be grateful if she would discuss that with me.

In the care crisis report, yes, absolutely, I know that there is no one simple explanation as to why there had been this big rise in children coming into care. And I think we'd all agree that it’s a whole mass of reasons, including austerity and poverty and many, many things that you can't pin down to one thing. There isn't, as she says, a simple answer. So, what we can do is do our best to prevent that happening by doing what we can to prevent those children coming into care, stop them coming in, and to help some of the other children to be reunited with their families, to prevent the re-entering of care. For example, in terms of extra resources—which I think she mentioned further on—we have put this £2.3 million into the adoption services, which is tremendously important and has been so welcomed by the sector, acknowledging the huge need there is for support to be given after adoption actually takes place in order to prevent re-entry into the care system, which does sometimes happen when adoptive parents take on very difficult, damaged children. So, I think that's a huge step that this has finally been acknowledged and money has gone in and that money is to support the adoption services.

To go on further with her questions, who was responsible for the risk assessing, well, the local authorities are risk assessing while they're doing things all the time. We are not trying to take away anything from local authorities; we want to help support them to achieve the Wales-wide aim of trying to reduce the number of children who are coming in. We have agreed that there would be regular visits and regular monitoring by the Welsh Government. I repeat the co-production. Perhaps I could have a discussion with her about how she would see children’s rights impact assessments and how she would see those operating in these sorts of circumstances.

And, absolutely, local authorities are placing children out of county and out of country because the places are absolutely not available in Wales. One of the things that we are doing is trying to get the children's agenda on the agenda for the regional partnership boards in order to develop facilities within Wales, and also the ICF fund, which is also being used to develop facilities. Some regions have got plans that have been agreed in order to try to fill in the gaps that undoubtedly exist. She's absolutely right: we have to put more resources in. We are providing resources via those boards. Some regions have already started them.

So, I don't think we should get really too hung up on the numbers thing. It's an overall effort that we want to try to reduce the numbers of children in care and I think what we must do is look at it in an overall way in terms of trying to get a movement in this field, which as I say is rapidly escalating.

15:55

We welcome this statement made here today. Things clearly need to change. As said in previous other statements, the number of children under the supervision of local authorities seems to rise every year, and I am interested to know what you think the reasons are for this worrying increase. You've already cited austerity and poverty, but there are many, many other questions that need to be asked. Is it a sign, for instance, of a lack of parenting skills? Are parents getting younger and can't cope? Or is it that we expect higher standards of parents than we did, say, 15 to 20 years ago? My understanding is that this increase is evident across the UK and not just here in Wales. I would welcome your thoughts on that point.

We are where we are, and in terms of those children already being looked after, they will have suffered abuse or neglect and will probably have particular needs that need to be addressed in terms of education, development and emotional support. And they may also possibly have further to go and more to do to get to the same place as their peers from traditional family backgrounds. Any foster parents or prospective adoptive parents will also need a lot of support to make the placement a success. Is that support in place and does it work? It must be heartbreaking for the child and the family if a placement breaks down. Are there any figures available on children returning to a care setting after a placement with a family?

I completely agree that the focus must now be on prevention and local authorities must move from reacting to prevention and early intervention. I congratulate you and our social services on this change of approach. However, every week in this Chamber we hear how hard-pressed, underfunded and under-resourced our local authorities are. Are you confident that the professional staff have the capacity and support that they need to make this change happen, and the numbers of staff, support staff and also the emotional support they need to deal with some difficult issues? I have real concerns that we may be expecting too much in too short a time and end up not getting the outcomes we need for the children concerned, and that has to be the focus.

Finally, I'd like to raise the matter of special guardianship orders. Have you any figures on whether the use of these is increasing? Are the children subject to these orders still classed as 'looked after'? If not, how are their outcomes recorded? Thank you, Minister. 

16:00

Yes, well, the Member is obviously absolutely right about the numbers rising every year and, yes, this is something that is certainly happening in England and Wales. It is an upward trend. And the reasons behind it I think are very complex. I think it does include poverty and deprivation, and the impact of the UK Government's austerity programme—I don't think we can discount that having an effect on our most vulnerable families, but I don't think it's the whole picture.

There's no doubt that local authorities are under pressure. The family court system is under considerable pressure and, certainly, some of the practices that have arisen in the family courts have increased the number of children who are staying in care. I did mention earlier in the statement about quite a trend, an upward trend, of giving care orders and placing the children at home. So, the children are under a care order but they're placed at home, and I believe we've got about 1,000 children like that in Wales, who are living with their families but actually are under a care order. But I want to pay tribute to what the local authorities are doing under great pressure, because they're doing a tremendous job and they are safeguarding vulnerable children and they are supporting families. But the reasons are very complex, I think, as Lynne Neagle said. There's a wide range of reasons, and we have got to try to work at them as we can. 

We certainly do need to give help to foster parents and adoptive parents, because they're absolutely key in this system. I mentioned earlier about this £2.3 million that we have given to the adoption service, and that is in order to help support adoptive parents so that we try to avoid the re-entry into care, because with children who are so damaged and have been through such difficult periods, whatever the adoptive parent does, there is additional help often needed. And so that is there, now, as a matter of right, the post-adoptive service. So I think that's a big step in progress. 

I don't think that we can say that we're expecting too much of the local authorities, because it's the lives of our children in Wales that are at stake. So, I think we have to aspire and we have to help them aspire. We could say all the time, 'It's austerity, we're all too pressed, we can't do anything, more and more children will come into care.' But you've got to try and do something, and I think it's right we have to try and do something on a governmental level. So, that's what we're trying to do by taking this forward.

The Minister has been kind enough to refer to my role as chair of the ministerial advisory group, and I remind Members now of my position there. 

Deputy Minister, I think it is important—we've heard really insightful questions and comments, and inevitably they've looked at the challenges, but we should remind everyone that outcomes are good when we get care right, and there are foster carers, there are people running residential homes, there are social workers and there are people involved in the system in health and in the councils as well, politically, that are really taking some good decisions and delivering high-quality care as well as, obviously, this general situation we're in. And I don't think we can ignore the fact that, in the 20 years of devolution, we have roughly doubled the number of children we take into care. And we've not done that in a planned way—it has happened. Members have already said it's happened in other parts of the UK as well, but we do need to look at the current balance and whether we're getting it right—do we shift more to educare and even earlier in the cycle, where families need that early intervention and support with parenting skills, for instance, as Mandy referred to earlier? 

I think another key thing that has to be looked at is the lack of consistency across the local authorities. Now, local authorities with roughly the same socioeconomic position should be in a band that is comparable to others in terms of the proportion of children they're taking into care. And if there's a very significant difference between like counties, then I think that needs explanation. There may be an explanation, but we do need to ask for it.

I think there needs to be more co-operation with the courts. That's clearly part of the dynamic at play here, and that comes also into professional practice, the right social worker being in the court when the case is heard—all these things need to be done if we're going to get a more balanced outcome and appropriate interventions. 

I was also pleased—. I think it was Helen Mary that raised the issue of corporate parenting. This is all agencies; you've referred to the public—I can't remember what they're called now—the boards, anyway—the new regional public boards. That is an important, I think, forum for us, and it's all the agencies, the courts, the police, health, education, housing—all these agencies need to come together. But the political dimension needs to be there—what we are doing, but also our colleagues at local government level, both the chair of the key scrutiny committees and the cabinet members, and we need to draw all the politicians active in this area, I think, into some sort of network.

Can I finally just inform Members, really, that the Public Accounts Committee's done some excellent work looking at the current situation of looked-after children? And they have said that the ministerial advisory group should be more public-facing and, indeed, we are doing that in terms of the reports that we've produced and our minutes becoming available on the website. But also, I was pleased that you agree that we should commit to issuing an annual report and having an annual debate in the Assembly, because I do think that's going to be a key part of ensuring that this important subject remains central in the priorities of all the political parties here, and all have said that this is not an issue that divides us—it has consensus—but it needs an application as well.  

16:05

I thank David Melding very much for his contribution, and I'd like to reiterate my thanks for all the work that he has always done over many years, and is doing now on the MAG. So, thank you very much for that.

I think he's absolutely right that the outcomes are good when they get care right, when we've exhausted every possibility for the children staying at home, and then we want to provide them with the best care that they possibly can have. And if we get it right, we know that the outcomes will be good, and we know that we need to put in extra things to make sure that that happens. But I have absolutely no doubt that he's right about that.

The fact that the number has doubled in 20 years, I think, again, that is something that is concerning, because I don't think we really understand why it's doubled in 20 years. As we've said here today, in all the very good contributions there have been, there is absolutely no one way of saying, 'This is why that has happened.' So, I think that is something that we need to look at very closely.

I think he's right that we do need more help with parenting skills, and I think that that's something we are actually looking at quite closely in looking at removing the defence of reasonable punishment. That's something that we are considering and looking at across the whole of Wales to see where there are gaps in terms of helping with parenting skills. But I think one of the good developments, which I know that David Melding has been involved with, is the development of the reflect programme, and I understand there is a reflect project in every region in Wales now, which is for a woman who's had one child taken into care and now is having a chance to have help and reflect, and following that, taking the child into care. I think that's a very good development. The lack of consistency in different local authorities and why there are differences between them is, again, something that should be looked at.

Finally, this issue about politicians—yes, I think it is all our responsibility as politicians. Political leaders in local authorities are seen as the corporate parents, and I know that one of my predecessors in this job, Gwenda Thomas, who certainly has got a reputation to follow—. I was told, when I went into one local authority, that Gwenda Thomas said, when she went into that local authority, that she expected the officers to know the name of every child who was being looked after in that authority. And I think we have a role as politicians, and I know that David Melding has often said that perhaps we're the grandparents of them, the corporate grandparents of the children who we're looking after. And I think we do need to have this awareness and responsibility as politicians that these children are our children in Wales, and that's why I think it's so admirable, really, that the First Minister has put this right on the top of his agenda, which means that the work that David Melding is doing and the work that I'm doing is of absolute crucial importance. So, thank you for those comments, and we'll continue to work together.  

16:10

I'm not going to repeat anything that's already been said. We know that the numbers of looked-after children are rising steadfastly, and there are many, many reasons for that. But one of the numbers that does sort of stand out a little bit is Powys, where there's been a 50 per cent increase from April 2017. So, it was 160 children and now, in March, it's 244. Now, that's a fair escalation, and I'm sure there were reasons behind that. The reason I picked that particular one out, apart from it being in my area, is that there was a damning report by Care Inspectorate Wales in 2017, and it said that the children in the county were being placed 'at risk'.

Now, I know that this week they've announced a new framework and that framework is going to be underpinned by more money, because part of the issue clearly was a lack of spending and, therefore, lack of priority in this area. So, that's good news—and I'm going to be positive here—that that was recognised, even if it wasn't Powys council who recognised it themselves. So, I suppose the question here is: how are we going to know, in advance, not after things have gone wrong, that looked-after children are high up, not just this agenda but the agenda of local authorities and other people who are supposed to be delivering those changes positively for them? And could I suggest that, if we insisted that local authorities had to make a declaration or an announcement within their given authority annually and that that report had to become public, at least people would have sight of it and perhaps the council would take some ownership of it, because it would have to be comprehensive and they would have to say how much money they were spending on it. And it might also help focus the minds of all those councillors and those corporate parents in those areas about the importance of looking after looked-after children.

Just finally, it's a really, really good move here from the Assembly that looked-after children who leave care don't have to pay any council tax. So, it's a move in the right direction and, hopefully, it will help some to not end up back in care.

I thank Joyce Watson for those comments and for her comments about Powys, where there has been this rise that she's illustrated. She refers to the care inspectorate report, and I can assure her that we have been meeting with Powys and reinforcing the importance of having this new framework, and I think that that is what is progressing at the moment. But I think she's right about trying to emphasise that the safety of children and the importance of looked-after children should be high up and on the top of the agenda of local authorities, and I would be happy to discuss with her any way that she thinks that this could actually be done. And I'm very glad that she mentioned the council tax, because, obviously, that is another positive move forward, as there have been quite a few positive moves forward that have been carried out by David Melding's group. And just to say, in terms of a response about special guardianship, which I didn't reply to, the numbers of special guardianships have gone up, yes.

16:15

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister—Deputy Minister—I'm really pleased to hear you talking about reducing the number of children in care. The fact that there's been a 34 per cent increase in 15 years is really, really concerning. I'd like to know more about the variations that you're talking about. If there are areas of Wales where the rate of looked-after children is almost three times higher than in the north of Ireland, then I think we really need to know why.

I'm really concerned about the privatisation of looking after children. There are private companies in Wales that don't welcome scrutiny, they don't want councillors to visit the homes—in fact, they refuse visits—and there is a complete lack of transparency and a huge—a huge—profit motive. I've got a case on my books where the child is begging to go back home—begging—but that child is worth certainly £300,000 a year, and it could even be £0.5 million; they won't confirm it, because of the client confidentiality. And so that care home is never going to let that child go—never. I can't go to the children's commissioner, because it's an individual case; I can't go to you—I've tried, but it's an individual case, and—. Maybe the Youth Parliament can help, because these children need a voice. And the case I'm talking about—. Being an independent, I was lucky to have a bigger budget; I was able to employ a really experienced social worker full-time, and it took two months of work to find the paperwork to find that, basically, the child should never have been taken into care. Errors were made and information was not passed across. That case is still ongoing.

But, just to go back to the profit motive, I think it's scandalous. It's pleasing that the president of the family court is making this issue his No. 1 priority. For me, it's disappointing that six local authorities have not given targets, so I was wondering which local authorities they were.

I want to mention as well parental alienation. It affects so many mothers, fathers, grandparents and also parents of children in care. Again, we're back to the profit motive. Lots of people do a tremendous job, but I think that we cannot ignore the fact that these children in some circumstances represent bags of money, and I have parents knocking on my office door telling me that they're being alienated from their children. This issue really does need to be looked at.

In closing, I do want to emphasise I'm really concerned about the lack of scrutiny, the lack of transparency, with private companies making an absolute fortune. If we are the corporate grandparents, give us the opportunity to look after those children and to look after their interests. As it stands now, it's very, very difficult, and we're met with extreme hostility and, indeed, complaints.

I thank Neil McEvoy for those comments. In terms of him asking who are the six local authorities, I don't think it would be appropriate for me to say who those local authorities were, because one of the things we're trying to do is to work in co-production with the local authorities and I want us to work together. So, I think it wouldn't be very helpful for me to name any local authority here today, so I've got no intention of doing that.

In terms of the variations, there are some quite considerable variations between different local authorities and that's one of the things that we're hoping to find out more about in the visits that we're doing, and particularly in the second round of visits. And I think that we will be able to ascertain whether there are particular issues in particular local authorities, which there may very well be. So, we are approaching it in that sort of way. I know that he mentioned the president of the family court, that he was pleased that Sir Andrew McFarlane was taking this very seriously, because I understand that he has said on record that it's his No. 1 priority to understand the rise in the number of care cases. And, although we've had no direct contact with him yet, the Welsh Government intends to liaise with Sir Andrew McFarlane to try to work and get try and get down to the bottom of this rise in cases.

In terms of private provision, what we're trying to do is to try to encourage provision by the local authorities directly and non-profit bodies—voluntary sector—to provide provision. But I do know that in some counties—I believe, actually, in Powys, which Joyce Watson may know—there are—. I believe it's true that there are 13 private establishments there and that there aren't any local children in those establishments. I believe that's correct, but, obviously, this is a situation that we need to look at.

16:20
6. Legislative Consent Motion on the Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill

Item 6 on our agenda this afternoon is the legislative consent motion on the Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill, and therefore I call on the Minister for Finance and the Trefnydd to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM7105 Rebecca Evans

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6 agrees that provisions in the Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales, should be considered by the UK Parliament.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm pleased to have the opportunity to explain the background to this legislative consent motion in relation to the Census (Return Particulars and Removal of Penalties) Bill. The census provides a snapshot of the population in the United Kingdom every 10 years. It provides us with information about people, including their education, religion, ethnic background, working life and language, for example. National and local governments, community groups, charities and businesses use this information to make decisions to help them better serve communities and individuals in Wales.

The 2021 census White Paper, 'Help Shape our Future: The 2021 Census of Population and Housing in England and Wales' was laid before the National Assembly for Wales in December last year. The White Paper sets out the recommendations from the UK Statistics Authority for the content and conduct of the 2021 census. This included the proposal to ask new questions on sexual orientation and gender identity for those who are aged 16 or over. The purpose of the Bill, which extends to England, Wales and Northern Ireland, is to include sexual orientation and gender identity as particulars that may be required in the census and to make the provision of this information voluntary. Collecting information about sexual orientation and gender identity will help us and others monitor service provision in line with the Equality Act 2010. It will also be important data for public bodies to support them in their duties under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 to produce assessments of well-being in the future.

It's important to note, however, that nobody will need to answer the questions about their sexual orientation or gender identity if they don't want to. I would like to thank both the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee for their work and their agreement with making the provisions for Wales through this Bill. I ask Members to support the motion today, as collecting this information on a voluntary basis will help us progress towards a more equal Wales and a Wales of cohesive communities. I move the motion.

The Llywydd took the Chair.

I call on the Chair of the Equalities, Local Government and Communities Committee, John Griffiths.

Diolch, Llywydd. Just to very much welcome this LCM and restate what the committee said in its report, that we do believe that the LCM is the appropriate way of taking these measures forward as they relate to Wales. And can I say as Chair, Llywydd, that I very much welcome the ability to include those questions on sexual orientation and gender identity on a voluntary basis, as the Minister said? Because it's obviously very important that people in minorities in terms of their sexual orientation and gender identity have services delivered appropriate to their needs, and that greater degree of information that will be available to service providers is very significant and entirely in keeping with, I believe, the equality policy and the view on equality that this Assembly and this Welsh Government takes.

Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw.

Thank you, Llywydd. We considered the Welsh Government's legislative consent motion in respect of the Bill at our meeting on 10 June, and we laid our report before the Assembly on 24 June. We have noted the Welsh Government's reasons as to why, in its view, making provision for Wales in a UK Bill is appropriate, and we are content. Additionally, we welcome the fact that the Bill, for the first time, provides for voluntary questions on sexual orientation and gender identity to be included in future censuses.

Normally, the committee would only comment on the probity of a legislative consent motion and constitutional issues relating to it, but we do recognise that this is a major step forward in being able to identify issues relevant not just to sex equality, but also to issues relating to sexual orientation and gender equality. This is a very important equality measure, and the committee are very supportive of this policy.

16:25

Diolch, Llywydd. As both Chairs have said there, this really is a major step forward in terms of allowing us to have better quality information on the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender populations here in Wales in order to monitor inequalities and inform the delivery of public services and support for these groups of people in future. The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 has increased our need for high-quality data to support local assessments of well-being and the census will provide that local area data on the composition and characteristics of LGBT populations to help inform decisions about where services should be provided. And, of course, importantly, it will also allow those populations to be able to clearly represent their own personal identity on the census form for the first time. I'm grateful to both committees for their work. Diolch yn fawr.

The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

7. Debate on Air Passenger Duty: The case for devolution

The next item is the debate on the air passenger duty, the case for devolution, and I call on the Minister for Finance to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.

Motion NDM7107 Rebecca Evans, Darren Millar, Rhun ap Iorwerth

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

1. Notes the report of the Welsh Affairs Committee, Devolution of Air Passenger Duty to Wales.

2. Welcomes the unanimous recommendation by the Welsh Affairs Committee that Air Passenger Duty should be devolved to the National Assembly for Wales.

3. Notes the consistent cross party support that exists for the devolution of Air Passenger Duty across this Assembly, including the position set out in the Finance Committee’s submission to the Welsh Affairs Committee report.

4. Calls on the UK Government to respond to the report by:

a) setting out proposals to devolve Air Passenger Duty to the Welsh Assembly; and

b) fully devolve Air Passenger Duty by 2021.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd. I'm pleased to open this debate today. On 11 June, the Welsh Affairs Committee published the findings of its inquiry into the devolution of air passenger duty to Wales. We wholeheartedly welcome the unanimous recommendation of the Welsh Affairs Committee that APD should be fully devolved to Wales.

From the outset, the committee recognised that the Welsh Government has been calling on the UK Government to devolve APD and that the UK Government has made clear its reluctance to change existing arrangements. As a result, the inquiry naturally focused on considering the arguments for and against APD devolution. The Welsh Government's written evidence submitted to the committee highlighted the strength of support across this Chamber and across the business, tourism and aviation sectors in Wales for devolving APD, and this support is also reflected in today's joint motion.

The devolution of air passenger duty has been a long-running issue and a point of consternation for all of us. The recommendation to devolve APD to Wales featured in the Holtham commission's first report on funding arrangements for Wales, published 10 years ago this week. Devolution of APD also remains the only significant recommendation of the Silk commission yet to be fulfilled by the UK Government. A decade on from Holtham, decisions on how much income tax Welsh taxpayers pay are made here in Wales, with decisions on rates being made by the Welsh Government every year, which are then ratified by the National Assembly. The introduction of Welsh rates of income tax follows the introduction last year of the first new Welsh taxes in over 800 years—land transaction tax and landfill disposals tax. Together with local taxes collected by local authorities, which have been devolved since 1999—council tax and non-domestic rates—Welsh taxes are now raising some £5 billion each year for our public services. And yet APD, with current revenues generated in Wales of less than £10 million each year, is still a reserved tax and remains within the gift of the UK Government.

The intransigence of the UK Government's stance on devolving APD is further compounded by its previous decisions to devolve APD to both Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is no justification for Wales being treated less favourably and I welcome the committee's specific recognition of the current inequity in the devolution settlement. And this speaks to a wider issue: when asserting whether a power should be devolved, it's the merits of devolution itself that should be the concern of the UK Government and Parliament, not speculative judgments on any future policy decisions Welsh Ministers may or may not make. It's clear to me that devolving APD would be entirely consistent with the UK Government's approach to devolving taxes within existing areas of devolved competence, yet the UK Government's evidence to the inquiry highlighted its concerns that Bristol Airport would be significantly impacted if Welsh Government were to reduce or abolish APD, despite independent peer-reviewed evidence to the contrary. This is clearly not a sufficient or appropriate basis to limit the devolution of powers to Wales, which would be of benefit to our citizens.

In coming to its conclusion, I would like to thank the committee for remaining focused on the evidential and constitutional grounds for devolution of APD to Wales, rather than a premature assessment of potential future policy decisions. And to be clear, there has been no change in the Welsh Government's position.

16:30

Can the Minister confirm whether it is still Welsh Government policy, outlined by the previous First Minister, that if the power was devolved, you would cut APD to zero from Cardiff Airport?

I'm shortly coming on to the Welsh Government's position, and I intend also to address, at some point during the debate, the issues about the environmental concerns, which I know are very much at the uppermost of all of our thoughts at the moment. But as I say, there has been no change in the Welsh Government's position. In the event it is devolved to Wales, our intention is to use APD to secure optimal growth for the airport and for Wales, working with the other levers available to us.

There is compelling evidence for the economic benefits of devolving APD. Enhancing connectivity between Wales and the rest of the UK, and the wider world, is a central strand of our economic action plan. Control over APD would enable us to make decisions in Wales for Wales, opening up new opportunities for trade and tourism, and enabling growth in the aviation sector and wider economy. It would give us the power to deliver one of the most important messages as we look ahead to the UK's exit from the EU: that Wales is open for business. But of course, any policy decisions on APD can only be made once we have the powers, and in the context of what is devolved and the circumstances at the time of devolution.

Any proposals for APD would be subject to full consultation with businesses and the people of Wales, and would be thoroughly assessed to ensure full compliance with the well-being of future generations Act and our statutory decarbonisation targets and associated carbon budgets required under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. Therefore, we urge the UK Government to recognise the strong cross-party support that exists for the devolution of APD across this Assembly, and respond to the recommendations of the parliamentary committee in agreeing to fully devolve APD to Wales without further delay.

Can I thank the Minister for her comments? As you said, there is a fair amount of consensus across this Chamber for the devolution of this tax, and it's a discussion that has gone on for as long as I can remember being in this Chamber. You probably feel the same way. It clearly has risen up the agenda over recent months and years, with the devolution of the other pieces of the tax jigsaw in Wales, and there are now increasingly questions being asked with regard to if we can have income tax powers here and if we can have stamp duty and the other gamut of taxes, then why should there be a block placed on this one, if I can put it like that. 

The Welsh Conservatives are happy to co-submit this motion along with the Minister. Can I welcome the spirit with which you've brought the debate forward? This is, in essence, about keeping the spotlight on the devolution of the tax, first and foremost. Yes, of course, you only devolve taxes to either put them up, lower them, or keep them in the middle somewhere, but those are of course subsequent to actually having the power at all. So, if we haven't got the power yet, then those arguments are less relevant. I think the report of the Welsh Affairs Committee makes very interesting reading, and it's clear that the devolution of air passenger duty is overdue. I think it's refreshing and interesting to see a parliamentary committee from the other end of the M4, as we often describe it, well, first of all dealing with an issue like this, which is so relevant to our discussions in this Chamber, but also almost enthusiastically embracing the devolution of this tax, albeit with caveats as to some of the problems that could potentially arise from it.

As I said, air passenger duty would fit into the jigsaw of taxes that have been devolved—income tax, landfill disposal tax, stamp duty. This is a matter of parity, I believe. Scotland has this power, as we know, Northern Ireland has had the tax devolved to it, so it has become increasingly difficult to see why Wales shouldn't have similar devolution of tax here. There are, of course, arguments against it, and some of them are flimsy, others are worth looking at. They're well versed. We keep hearing of the threat to Bristol Airport; that comes up again and again when we have these discussions. I think that threat is probably overstated given that regional airports around the UK and Cardiff Airport in Wales do serve different populations, in the main. I know people travel fair distances to go on flights from airports, but I can't see why Bristol Airport would feel so threatened by this. And in any case, I don't believe that that should stand in the way of what is basically a political, philosophical—however you want to put it; constitutional—decision for this place, and the need for Wales to have this power.

Another argument that's been used against the devolution of APD is that the aviation industry is relatively undertaxed, and that airline fuel is not subject to tax, and tickets aren't subject to VAT in the same way. That may well be the case, but again, I can't see why that is an argument for or against the devolution of the tax. It should be for this assembly to decide what is relevant to Wales and the Welsh economy and air flights here, and this is where the power should lie.

My colleague Andrew R.T. Davies I think earlier mentioned the climate emergency, and that is something that needs to be considered. It did come up in the Finance Committee discussions. Clearly, there has been a lot of focus on air travel recently, as to its role, and it clearly does contribute massively to the carbon footprint, so I think individuals and governments do need to be aware of that. I would say, as I said before, though, that this isn't necessarily an argument against devolving it—it's for the decisions here to be taken. I would also say that I don't really see it as—. I don't think people are suddenly going to jump on planes that weren't going to jump on planes before. I think they're probably going to go to—. It might make a marginal difference. They're going to go to Cardiff Airport instead of elsewhere, whether that be across the border to Luton or Heathrow or wherever it might be. But first and foremost, that airport has to be successful for those decisions to be faced further down the line.

So, Welsh Conservatives are more than happy to support this motion—indeed, co-submit this motion along with other parties here—and I hope that we can finally settle this once and for all and get this important level of taxation devolved to Wales.

16:35

I'm also very pleased to have been able to put forward this motion jointly with the Labour Government and the Conservative Party. Plaid Cymru has long championed the devolution of air passenger duty to Wales, and it is pleasing to see now, at last, that there is a consensus building here—certainly also the consensus that we saw reflected in the report by the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee. It is 10 years on since the Holtham report proposed this as a sensible measure. This would, as we've already heard, be the last major proposal to be enacted from the Silk commission, so the time is right, and it is baffling, in many ways, why blocks are still being put in the way of devolution. I think Stephen Crabb, when he was Secretary of State for Wales, said there were too many uncertainties and concerns about APD to get a decision through the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, and the Chancellor. Yes, uncertainties and concerns—not about Wales, it seems.

It has again been baffling to see the Secretary of State for Wales—in whose constituency Cardiff Airport is—seemingly batting for Bristol Airport, earning him the title of the Secretary of State for the west of England. And we have heard plenty of evidence to say that this wouldn’t be about disadvantaging Bristol—and there is no strong evidence to suggest that Bristol would be at a disadvantage—but that in fact it would be advantageous to Cardiff. And that is what we are interested in here. And not just Cardiff Airport, but Anglesey Airport—Maes Awyr Môn—in my constituency. We should be looking at this in the round.

There are obvious environmental concerns about the direction of travel for air travel in general. There have been plenty of reports suggesting that we will still see a huge increase in air travel globally—much of it driven by growth in Asia. But I was reading today a report saying that there will be changes in patterns of air travel that won’t necessarily be about driving up air passenger numbers, but would be about cleverer ways of people using air travel as a mode of transport, where the hub-and-spoke networks that we have been used to, and the growth of the major airports—the Heathrows of this world—will, if not give way entirely, see a shift towards more point-to-point travel with smaller, more efficient long-haul aircraft being able to make the journeys from city to specific city, and region to specific region, including, of course, Cardiff and Wales, and the advantages that can come from that.

So, I am pleased that we are jointly tabling this. We shouldn’t have to. In a situation where Scotland already has seen APD devolved, when Northern Ireland has APD devolved, it seems to me that the barriers are there to stop Wales in some way gaining that kind of advantage that could come from the devolution of something that is very much in the spirit, I think, of devolution and the direction of travel for devolution as a whole, and a proposal that has been made now in a number of highly respected reports, from Silk back to Holtham. So, let us today make that statement that we believe the time is not just right, but is overdue for us to take this step. It is in our interests as we look for ways of optimising the Welsh economy. It is not about trying to disadvantage others.

16:40

It's a pleasure to speak in this debate and I'm delighted to note the report of the Welsh Affairs Committee. I read it at the time it came out. I thought it was a good report. It’s relatively short; I wouldn’t describe it as a comprehensive report. My assessment was a bit different than the Minister’s in that I didn't read its focus as being especially on the constitutional side or looking at this in a sort of neutral ‘Should it be devolved?’ as opposed to a ‘What would the impact be if—?’ type of way. The substance of it, at least in terms of change of positioning at that Westminster level on a cross-party basis, seemed to relate to the evidence about Bristol Airport. And I think they concluded pretty firmly that even if we were to abolish or substantially reduce APD if devolved, the effect on Bristol Airport would be pretty small, and, frankly, not a sufficient basis for determining whether this tax should not be devolved here when it is devolved to Scotland and Northern Ireland.

In terms of points 2 and 3 and the references to the cross-party consensus, and pushing this forward with point 4, my group have discussed this and reflected on it. I was very grateful to the Minister, actually, yesterday, for answering my questions in a telephone call and setting out a bit more about the position of the Welsh Government, and for her frankness in that, which I appreciated. I think there has been a shift in emphasis from the impact of cutting or getting rid of the tax to one of varying it, but I understand the Minister’s perspective, as she’s expressed just now, that she would like Westminster to look at each tax and an argument for devolution on the merits of devolution, as opposed to the specific merits of a proposed policy, given it would be being devolved for us to decide here what that policy should be.

Nonetheless, I do think that it is easier to assess the merits of a policy where there is a firm intention as to what direction it should be. My understanding still is that the Welsh Government would be looking to reduce if not abolish it and the potential benefit to Cardiff Airport would be something that we should properly consider in that. And of course Welsh Government owns Cardiff Airport, so if it were to become a more popular airport and a better business proposition, some of the benefit of that would go to the taxpayer, either from increased dividends or lower net cash going into it going forward, or indeed from selling a minority stake if the Government were ever to do that. So that's something that weighs with us. 

I was less convinced by the arguments Nick Ramsay put forward about this being a matter of parity with Scotland and therefore we should do it. Scotland has significantly greater powers in many areas than we do here. I wouldn't argue for parity on one of those, and I wasn't aware that he did either, at least not across the board. Scotland has the power to vary the rates and not just the rates but the thresholds of income tax. People in Scotland are paying significantly more tax towards the upper middle and higher end of the income distribution because the threshold has not been raised as it has in England and indeed Wales for the 40p rate. Yes, I'll take an intervention.

16:45

I'm grateful for the chance to clarify that. You've shifted the argument now onto income tax and that's quite a different tax to APD. I think when it comes to a tax such as APD, there are clearly advantages for it to be devolved to Wales. I think in the case of that tax, there is an argument for parity, but I wasn't saying that there should be parity for everything across the board, otherwise we would be massively changing the—

I'm glad for the clarification. I'm sure his constituents would appreciate it as well. Certainly the better offer than if Boris Johnson were to come in and raise the threshold to £80,000 and that were not to happen for them, they might wish to hold their Member to account for that. But I think he makes an important distinction around taxes. We are sceptical about the devolution of ever more taxes to Wales—

He's proposed to raise the threshold of income tax that I raised—

We're not talking about income tax. We're talking about air passenger duty.

I'm glad you've clarified you're not talking about that, because it wouldn't have been popular with your constituents if you had been. But the fact is—[Interruption.] That's enough, Nick, thank you. [Interruption.] Nick, can we move on? Thank you. 

This tax is a small tax. It's only £10 million. It was, as stated, recommended by the Silk commission. Notwithstanding our scepticism to continued devolution of more and more taxes and that only ever going in one direction, towards the objective supported by Plaid Cymru to my left, with that £13 billion fiscal gap we were told about earlier, I just don't think it's a good idea to have ever more fiscal autonomy and then independence. However, this area was in the Silk commission. We don't want to fight something that there was such a consensus on so long ago. I think it would have benefits to Cardiff Airport if this tax were to be reduced. I still see that as the likely path of direction.

I think it's very difficult to do within the carbon budget context, because if we reduce APD here and that leads to more people flying from here who were otherwise going to Bristol, if that's scored against us but we don't then consider the reduction in Bristol, then we might not make what would be the right decision on a carbon dioxide basis for the UK as a whole. But in the round, I think the case has been made for this tax to be devolved. The Welsh Affairs Committee supports it cross-party and I think we should support it cross-party in this Assembly as well. 

I'll say first of all that I do support the devolution of air passenger duty, but I am wary about what the Welsh Government will do with it. Labour like nothing more than to spend other people's money and they think they know better how to spend other people's money than people do themselves. Recently, we heard that, across the border, Welsh Labour's fellow travellers and ideological soulmates in the Westminster Labour Party plan to tax the gifts parents give their children via a brand new lifetime gifts tax. It's yet another example of the Labour Party that works on the principle that if it can be taxed it must be taxed, never mind what the consequences are.

Of course, devolving air passenger duty to Wales will be an opportunity for Wales to reduce the tax to benefit families using Welsh airports, but there's no reason to suspect that, given the chance, Welsh Labour won't follow their Westminster heroes' lead and increase it once they have control of it, or create brand new taxes if they have the powers to do so. I'm not hearing any guarantee from the Welsh Government that if the tax is devolved they won't try to use it as a cash cow. Perhaps in this debate they will be willing to give that guarantee to families and businesses who would use Welsh airports. I doubt it, though.

What must be surprising for anyone who thinks Labour stand for the low paid is that they even want to be responsible for a regressive tax like air passenger duty in the first place. The tax forces a low-paid family who has taken a year or more to save for a holiday to pay the exact same amount of tax as a wealthier family who can go on holiday at the drop of a hat. It completely and deliberately ignores income or ability to pay. So, how has a party that says it's on the side of struggling families come to want responsibility for a regressive tax on the much-deserved holidays of those who work the longest hours in Wales? Well, because this Labour Government supports other regressive taxes when it suits them and their political ideology, of course. Just look at VAT.

Although it's not devolved yet, this Labour Government try to fool us that they're doing all they can to beat period poverty, while saying that we should keep our EU membership, which stops us removing VAT from sanitary towels and tampons because the EU classes them as luxury items. Now, it's one thing to say that you're prepared to tax the low paid the exact same money for a holiday abroad as you charge the super rich, but surely it's immoral to say that you'll continue to charge a single mum for vital sanitary towels or tampons. The same thing goes for the so-called 'fat tax'.

Let's be realistic: Labour are unlikely to want air passenger duty devolved so that they can lower it or abolish it. They want it devolved so they can raise it and use it as they think fit. Even the simple understanding of economics that Labour has should tell them that raising it too much will see people opt for flights that take off and land at nearby English airports, such as Bristol instead of Cardiff. 

16:50

No. Let's crack on, Mark. Sorry. 

By wanting to control this regressive tax, but in complete contradiction wanting to also stay in an EU that imposes taxes over which the Welsh Government have no control and can only tug at the sleeves of their so-called friends in the EU to try to influence decisions, shows that even when it comes to low-income families, the message from this Labour Government is loud and clear: that they know better than the people how their hard-earned money should be spent. 

Bringing me on to my final point: on this Government's watch, parts of the Welsh NHS have become a basket case, literacy and numeracy is hardly stellar according to the Programme for International Student Assessment, and the economy has stagnated. So it's surprising that Welsh Government, at this particular time, sees fit to spend its time and attention fretting about claiming further powers from Westminster. Indeed, if Labour spent as much time trying to resolve Wales's problems as they spend wondering about what new powers they should have, what new ways they can come up with to take money off people to fund their pet projects, and doing their best to thwart Brexit, Wales would be in a much better state. Thank you. 

I'm glad to contribute to this debate today, because the devolution of air passenger duty is something that I've championed long and hard for many years, and I can't find a coherent argument to say why air passenger duty should not be devolved to this institution. In fact, I was on point in the negotiations on Silk for the Conservative group here, and when all the leaders were sitting around the negotiating table talking about income tax and talking about other measures, obviously this was one of the taxes that we did talk about. 

I do sympathise with the point that was introduced—I think Rhun introduced it—about Stephen Crabb's comments some four years ago now, because there was a discussion about it going to Scotland as well at that time, and the northern airports as well, and how they might be affected, and it seemed to overcome that argument for it to be transferred to Scotland. It's not our problem what's going on in Bristol. Bristol are a commercial operation, and they seem to have a very successful model, to be fair to them, with 8 million passengers going through. If someone's trying to cite Bristol as an argument why we shouldn't transfer the duty, which I think has been the case, I just don't see that that should be a reasonable argument in this debate, to be honest with you. This is about— [Interruption.] Yes.

Just very quickly—and thanks for giving way—do you have any idea what's driving the Member for Cardiff Airport to be citing problems for Bristol as a reason not to devolve the tax to Wales?

I'm sure that you have better access to the Member for Cardiff Airport than maybe I do these days. [Laughter.] So I'll leave you to pose that question, and maybe you'll listen to the answer. 

But, generally, this is a tool that can come into the hands of this Assembly and, by extension, to the Welsh Government, that can drive opportunity. I personally would like to see what the First Minister said, it becoming a reality and being abolished. I make no bones about that, because that's what the First Minister said: if it did come to the Welsh Government, they certainly would look to get rid of it. It would have a cost on long-haul flights of about £1 million, and I appreciate the figure that's been talked about is £10 million in total. It is worth reflecting on the Silk commission's recommendation that it was related to long-haul flights and not short-haul flights. And that was the Silk commission's recommendation. So there is a difference there, hence I would suggest the modest tax income loss that the Welsh Government might face if it did do away with it for long-haul flights, if that power came to it, but I would say that that would be multiplied several times over by the increased volume of passengers coming into Cardiff, especially international passengers, and the spend that they would have within the Welsh economy.

Interestingly, as we go forward, if it was to be devolved in its entirety on short haul as well—there is much talk about electric engines and the development of electric engines on short-haul flights in particular—that would be at the discretion of the Government, whoever controls that power at that time, whether you would want to incentivise that technology for short-haul flights. I think that's an interesting debate and discussion to have, because it is fair to point out that there's an environmental consequence for people who fly—I accept that—but as someone who believes that flying is an economic good and it links people to communities the length and breadth of the globe, I'd like to see flying become as cheap as possible, not as expensive as possible. I do see it as a tool of empowerment.

But I do regret bitterly that we have not enacted the Silk commission's recommendation and, indeed, the recommendation of the Holtham commission from 10 years ago, and I reiterate it and it is worth reiterating: there is not a coherent argument to stop air passenger duty being devolved to the National Assembly. I can argue with the Welsh Labour Government—as I do week in, week out—about some of the policy decisions they've taken, but it's called democracy, and people cast their vote accordingly and they either endorse the politicians to take those decisions or they don't as such. So, to actually say that we don't trust the policy decisions that are going to be taken isn't a good enough and sound enough reason to stop this tax being devolved.

So, it is a pleasing sight I hope—I haven't seen the buttons pressed here tonight—but hopefully by the end of the night we will have a thumping big vote to endorse this motion tonight that's before us. And I do hope that with the change of leadership that will come in the Conservative Party and the new Prime Minister that this particular unfinished piece of business will gain new impetus, and it will not be long before that economic lever is transferred here to Wales, and then we can have the real discussion on the policy. But as I said, I clearly want to put my flag to the mast of what the previous First Minister argued very comprehensively that it should be used to lower air passenger duty, so that people get better options and opportunities of flights out of Cardiff Airport.

But again, I would seek clarification, because I hear what the finance Minister has said about, on the one hand you've got the environmental argument, on the other hand you've got the economic argument, and you say that these tests have to be put to the future generations commissioner, the legislation and all the rest of it—the future generations Act. You can do that now so that the case and the argument and the policy can be understood and gain wider support outside of this Chamber. And, as I said, from my understanding, certainly the previous First Minister was very clear that he wanted to get rid of air passenger duty, especially on long-haul flights. I would be grateful if you could, in your summing up, commit to that particular policy that was the policy of the Welsh Government under the previous First Minister, and I'd like to understand whether it's a continuation of that policy for this current Government.

16:55

It is indeed gratifying to note the recommendations in the Welsh Affairs Select Committee report, because there is no doubt that if air passenger duty were to be devolved, and the Welsh Government were to use this opportunity to reduce or better still abolish APD, it would unlock the true potential of Cardiff Airport by considerably enhancing the Welsh Government's ability to attract new airlines, and thus potentially facilitating a large increase in passenger numbers using the airport.

APD was devolved to Northern Ireland for direct long-haul flights through the UK Finance Act 2012, whilst the Scotland Act 2016 made provision for the full devolution of APD to Scotland. Since then, the Welsh Government has argued that there is no justification for being treated differently to Scotland and Northern Ireland, and we on this bench fully endorse that stance. 

The problem for Wales has been the UK's stance with regard to protecting the status of Bristol airport. This argument no longer stands, as Bristol's operations have hugely expanded over recent years, dwarfing those of Cardiff. We only have to look over the Severn to the M49 corridor to see the wider impact expanded airport usage can have on the economy. A completely new interchange is being constructed to make access to a large business park, which is expected to provide thousands of local jobs. As set out in the Welsh economic action plan, enhancing the connectivity of Wales with the rest of the UK and internationally is key to the development of Wales' economy. 

As long ago as 2014, as referred to by Andrew R.T. Davies, the Silk report also recommended that APD should be devolved for direct long-haul flights initially. But although Andrew R.T. Davies said that they didn't say about standard flights, they did actually say that

'devolving all rates of APD to Wales should be part of the UK Government’s future work on aviation taxation'.

Now, given that the Silk report was five years ago, I think it has now come time for full devolution to take place. We in Brexit fully endorse the recommendations in the report and call upon the UK Government to devolve these powers as soon as practicable. But I have to say that we support this APD on the basis that the Welsh Government will use it to actually take away or reduce it considerably, because that is what this will do to the Welsh economy, and that's the whole idea of this being devolved to the Welsh Government.

17:00

I'd like to contribute only briefly to this debate. Like others, I warmly welcome the motion that the Government and opposition parties have placed before us this afternoon, and I'm very happy to endorse and support that. I think we should also welcome the work of the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. Now, I accept I have somewhat of an interest in this matter, but it is one of the instruments of the House of Commons and of the Westminster system that has been consistently supportive of the work of this place and which has recognised how we need and can develop institutional scrutiny and democracy across the United Kingdom.

Now, I believe that we should be devolving this particular tax because I believe that we should ensure that we have a coherence of structural devolution. I'm not one of these people who believes that we should devolve any particular matter unless there's something we especially want to do with it that is different to that which is done in England. I've never been one of those devolutionists who simply want to define what we are here in Wales as being different to the other side of Offa's Dyke.

I believe that we should have coherence in the settlement. I believe that, at present, the settlement is a broken settlement. You only have to listen to any debate on transport to look at that. You have the issues that I have with the railway from Ebbw Vale to Cardiff, which are matters that are ignored by the Department for Transport in England, and the Government here do not have sufficient powers to progress matters as we would choose to do. There is a structural issue there with the settlement, and I believe there's a structural issue here with the settlement as well. I believe that, if the Welsh Government—and the Welsh Government is the only authority that has the ability to properly manage transport policy in Wales, so if it is to do that in a coherent fashion then it must have the powers available to it to deliver that policy, whatever that policy happens to be. And air passenger duty is a part of that. It's part of a suite of different powers that should be available to the Government to enable it to deliver a holistic policy.

So, I believe that we should support the work of the select committee in this matter, and I believe we should support the long-standing view of the Welsh Government that this is devolved as part of a wider fiscal framework, which will establish a very different financial relationship between the different institutions of the United Kingdom. We've already seen this argument made coherently by both Silk and by Holtham. Both have been very, very clear that, if we are seeking to devolve issues of taxation then we should do it, not on a piecemeal basis but in order to deliver a stable settlement where both Governments in England and here in Wales are able to deliver their policy in a holistic manner. We've already seen this failure with the judicial system, where criminal justice again represents a part of a broken settlement.

I hope that, in resolving these matters, we may reach a point whereby we have a stable and coherent settlement before either I retire or my constituents decide it is time for me to retire. I hope that, in taking this matter forward, the United Kingdom Government will take a more rounded view on these matters. I'm not sure if I share the optimism of Andrew R.T. Davies and Nick Ramsay that a new Prime Minister later this year will lead to such a happy outcome, but what I hope we'll be able to do—and the former First Minister has spoken clearly about this, our new First Minister has spoken very convincingly about this as well—is to arrive at a point where the settlement works and the settlement no longer becomes the point of debate but how we operate the settlement and the policy options that we have become the area of debate, and that is how any democracy should properly operate. So, I don't wish to enter into a debate, and I hope we don't cloud the debate this afternoon with questions about how the Government would operate this taxation. That is a matter for manifestos, election and political debate in this place. What this place has a responsibility to do—and we failed with the last Wales Bill or Wales Act process because of the lethargy in Whitehall in delivering a devolved settlement that enables us to take these matters forward. I hope now that through this report and other reports we'll be able to ensure that we do have a devolved settlement that enables both Governments to deliver their policy.

17:05
Member
Rebecca Evans AM 17:06:21
Minister for Finance and Trefnydd