Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

25/09/2019

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

Nominations for a committee chair

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is the nominations for a committee chair. Yesterday, you’ll recall that the Assembly agreed a motion under Standing Order 17.2A to allocate the Chair of the Committee on Assembly Electoral Reform to the Labour group. I now invite nominations under Standing Order 17.2F for the election of the Chair, and, just to remind you, only a member of the Labour group may be nominated as Chair and only a member of the same political group may make and second a nomination. Therefore, I invite nominations from the Labour group for Chair of the Committee on Assembly Electoral Reform.

I call for another member of the same party group to second the nomination.

Are there any further nominations? Does any Member object to the nomination? I therefore declare that Dawn Bowden is elected as Chair of the Committee on Assembly Electoral Reform, and I wish her well and wish her the best of luck in that work as Chair of the committee.

1. Questions to the Minister for Education

The next item is questions to the Minister for Education, and the first question is from Michelle Brown.

The Teaching of the Welsh Language

1. What assessment has the Minister made of how effective the teaching of the Welsh language is in schools? OAQ54370

Since the 'One language for all' report in 2013, Estyn published a report on Welsh in key stages 2 and 3 in 2018, and two further reviews will be undertaken during 2019-20, looking at language acquisition in primary schools, and the teaching and learning of Welsh at A-level.

Thanks for that answer, Minister. On the day GCSE results came out over the summer, school leaders said that they were extremely concerned at the fall in the percentage of 16-year-olds passing Welsh second language at A* to C, and their association called on the Welsh Government to work with them to find out what has caused the 10 per cent fall in grades. But it wasn't just Welsh they were concerned about. The 4.3 per cent drop in English results also prompted them to call for more work from the Welsh Government. The director of the Association of School and College Leaders Cymru seems to be blaming the changes you have made, when he said, and I quote,

'We can assure the public that there has been absolutely no let-up in the commitment of schools to produce the very best outcomes for their pupils, and it is important to understand that these results come at a time of enormous change in the Welsh education system.'

And the National Association of Head Teachers Cymru also said that more work needs to be done. The two languages of most importance in the country are Welsh and English, and you seem to be failing our pupils on both. Can you tell us how you're going to stop the education system delivering worse results for these subjects year on year?

With regard to Welsh second language GCSE results, I'm sure the Member is aware that, this year, we saw the removal of the short course GCSE, and that undoubtedly has had an impact on attainment this year. But the percentages that she has quoted are misleading, due to an increase of a third in the number of learners entered for a full course exam. Many learners would have previously accessed the short course, and the arguments around the need for change in that regard are well rehearsed here in this Chamber. What is really encouraging, Presiding Officer, is that, when looking at raw numbers for passes at each grade, we have seen an increase in the grades of A*-A, up 9.7 per cent, and at A*-C, up 12.5 per cent, which suggests that the increase in entry numbers is resulting in more learners attaining a good pass in Welsh second language GCSE—an improved and more challenging qualification. 

With regard to English, I'm pleased to see an improved outcome in English language, particularly at A* to C, but, clearly, there is always room for improvement, and we shall be working with regional consortia, schools and Qualifications Wales with regard to more steps we can take with regard to improving results in English language. 

Minister, I was, I must admit, a little surprised to see in Stats Wales that, as well as those who are qualified to teach Welsh as a first language, 40 per cent of our teaching workforce is qualified to teach Welsh in English-medium schools as a second language. Whether they're using those skills, of course, is a little let easy to ascertain. The number of new entrants choosing to train in Welsh has been falling, and the number of people who believe that learning Welsh should not be compulsory is still disappointingly high. So, what practical steps are being taken now, with the current workforce, to ensure effective teaching to a new Welsh language continuum, to produce young people with higher Welsh language skills, which they will use confidently after they've left school?

13:35

Well, it's important to recognise that we have increased investment to support the development in the Welsh in education workforce to a record amount of £5 million in this financial year. So, in 2017, we spent £4.2 million, then £4.8 million, and, as I said, this year that's risen to £5 million. This allows us to provide continuous development of practitioners' Welsh language and teaching skills. For instance, one practical way in which we do that is through our sabbatical scheme, which provides intensive Welsh language training to practitioners across Wales. And funding is also being made available and provided to regional consortia to offer a range of opportunities to develop Welsh language and the Welsh language teaching skills in our workforce. For those wishing to enter the profession, to teach either Welsh language itself, or to teach other subjects through the medium of Welsh, we offer the highest level of financial incentive for them to do that.

Vocational Courses

2. How is the Welsh Government ensuring that pupils at Key Stage 4 have access to vocational courses? OAQ54368

Thank you, Nick. I place great value on vocational qualifications being available for 14 to 16-year-olds. The Learning and Skills (Wales) Measure 2009 requires all learners to be offered a minimum of three vocational courses at key stage 4 in the local curricula offer.

Thank you, Minister. You've been quite clear that your move away from the five A* to C English and Maths measure was designed to encourage schools to focus on realising the potential of every child, not just those on the C/D/C borderline. Your new measure—the capped 9—puts value on vocational courses, which is very welcome, and, as she says, so many young people can secure a rewarding and successful career through the vocational route. However, we're still some way off, as I'm sure you would recognise as well, between achieving that university-recognised parity between academical and vocational qualifications. So, what are you doing to ensure greater availability of such courses in schools and colleges, and to ensure even more effective signposting for younger people, at an earlier age, so that we do see, over time, that the loss of—I was going to say 'prejudice'; that's probably too strong a word—the loss of that difference between vocational and academic so that both routes are equally acceptable?

Presiding Officer, I'm very glad that the Member has recognised, in the interim accountability measures, vocational qualifications do count towards a capped 9 score. So, there is no disincentive for schools to be able to offer these courses to pupils, where that is the right thing for those children. I'm very pleased to reassure the Member that all four secondary schools in Monmouthshire are meeting the requirement of the learning and skills Measure, and that that choice is available to learners in his area. For example, in King Henry VIII Comprehensive School, in Abergavenny—which I had the privilege to visit on GCSE day, and to celebrate with them a record set of GCSE results for that school—learners in that particular school are offered eight vocational courses at key stage 4. But the Member is right—there is more that we need to do to sometimes overcome perceptions of the value of vocational courses. And that's why we are currently piloting a new approach to information and advice to children and young people, so that we can ensure that all children are making the right choices on the basis of a real understanding and knowledge that vocational qualifications can help them achieve their career aspirations and fulfil their potential.

Minister, in your answer to the question from Nick Ramsay, I'm very keen and very pleased to hear that you actually recognise vocational education as being equivalent to academic pathways. And it's a shame that not enough young people—or their parents in particular, sometimes—understand the same thing. Because to ensure that we have that parity, to ensure that the skills that we need in Wales are available to people—and young people in particular—we also need to educate some of the older generation, and the parents, to ensure they also understand that. Because many people over the last 20 years have been pumped the message, 'Higher education, that's the way to go.' But actually there's a mix that is available, and equally treatable are both qualifications—vocational and academic. And they should not be seen as separate pathway, but as a single pathway with perhaps different outcomes at the end of it, but, at the end of the day, equal outcomes. So, will you also expand the discussions you're having with young people to their parents, to ensure that parents understand the importance of both pathways, the quality of both pathways, and the outcomes that children can actually achieve in their long-term careers?

13:40

Certainly. David Rees makes a very important point on the influences that children are put under when making choices about what courses to follow in school or in colleges. Often, children are listening to their peers—they're very interested in understanding what their peers are doing—but obviously parents and family are a huge influence in helping children make decisions. As part of the Gatsby pilot, which is currently being delivered in the Rhondda Cynon Taf local authority area at the moment, which is looking to really test and improve the system of information and advice, those schools are indeed working not just with pupils, but working with local employers and with parents to be able to ensure that children are exposed to that wide range of options that are available to them and recognising that taking a vocational course at 14 is not a barrier to higher levels of study. Indeed, taking a vocational course from 16 to 18 is a perfectly normal way in which you can then go on to attend a degree course or a higher level apprenticeship, if that's what you want to do.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople, and the Conservatives' spokesperson first—Suzy Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, last week, the finance Minister made a statement setting out her thoughts on the implications for Wales of the UK Government's 2019 spending round, and in that she reinforced the Government's view that budget spending decisions should be predicated on eight areas of priority. Why isn't school-age education one of those priority areas?

What the Minister was referring to are the cross-cutting priority areas that the Government has. One of those includes early years. Early years is part of our education system. My priority is ensuring schools have the best budget possible. The finance Minister has announced that, now that we have some details of our revenue budget, we will bring forward the budget for the whole of the Government in November.

Bearing in mind the huge changes that will be happening in schools, not least with the change in curriculum and the preparation for that, but also the long-standing and very acute complaints made by schools now about their direct funding, I have to say I was disappointed not to see that more explicitly in even the cross-cutting themes of Government, because, of course, if you get education wrong, it has an effect on every other area of spend as we go forward.

The UK Government has announced that 2.3 per cent above inflation boost to the Welsh block. There's also over £2 billion due to come to the Welsh Government from the UK schools budget—specifically schools, not education. That's over three years, and I accept the annual settlement is a restriction on planning. You've seen the CYPE report on funding for schools, which concluded that there is a very real and present danger on the sufficiency of school funding. I'm sure that the Minister for local government will be making the case for more money for her portfolio, more money for councils. Are you going to be leaving it to her to find the extra direct funding that schools need?

I'm grateful that the Member has acknowledged the difficulties that have been placed upon Welsh Government by the decision by her colleagues in Westminster only to give us an indicative budget for one year for education, whereas they have afforded the education system in England the courtesy of an indicative budget for three years, and that does indeed make things more difficult for us.

The Member will also be aware that I have welcomed very much the CYPE committee's work on education funding. I have accepted all the recommendations of that committee report, including a review into education funding in Wales. When that report is debated later on this term, I look forward to giving more details to Members on how we will respond fully to that. 

With regard to this year's budget, both I and the local government Minister are at one on the necessity and the priority in ensuring that both local authorities, which are the main source of funding for our schools, as well as education in totality are a priority.

I'm grateful for that response, Minister, because, as we know, the concern that actually the CYPE committee had was, while we recognised that the local authorities are responsible for the majority of direct funding, that is not protected in any way. It'll be very interesting, when you produce the results of your review, and in fact respond to the debate, whether you're going to be in a position to say how any direct funding can be protected within a hopefully enhanced local authority budget.

I just want to ask you something different now, because this weekend we saw media coverage of concerns over the content of sex education lessons to very young children in parts of England. I know that making religious and sex education a compulsory part of the new curriculum is contentious already, but I have to say even I'm a little bit squeamish about the potential of drawing masturbation to the attention of six-year-olds, especially when we are also asking them to understand and speak up about inappropriate touching by adults. Now, I've no idea how accurate these reports are, but I think families and teachers across the nation would appreciate a statement from you to reassure them what you think age-appropriate sex education will look like in Wales. 

13:45

The Member is absolutely right; if we are to achieve the goals of a purpose-led curriculum, and if we are to ensure that every child leaving our schools is a happy and healthy child, then age and developmentally appropriate RSE I believe is an important way in which we will achieve the purposes of our curriculum. Clearly, this is a sensitive subject, and the Member is right to say it is also an issue around child protection also. But I want to assure her and all Members here, and indeed the wider community, that the content of RSE will be developed very sensitively and carefully, with the best advice from professionals and those who have advised the Government to date on the necessity of ensuring that RSE is available to children in Wales.  

Thank you, Llywydd. The Labour Party has said that they will abolish private schools, redistributing their properties to the state. A motion was passed in their conference to integrate private schools into the state sector. Now, given that only 2.2 per cent of Welsh children are educated in private schools, do you agree that it would be a relatively simple matter to move immediately to scrapping private schools in Wales?

Okay. Well, it’ll be very interesting to hear the debate, or it would be very interesting if we were able to hear the discussion in Cabinet with your fellow Labour members on that issue, where there has been clear guidance provided by their conference. So, it was interesting to hear your response there.

Labour too would campaign to abolish the charitable status of private schools, and I note that a consultation is ongoing with the Welsh Government on this issue and I look forward to seeing private schools paying tax. And this, of course, raises questions about Ysgol Gymraeg Llundain, the Welsh school in London. I look forward to seeing how you intend to allow Welsh-speaking parents to continue to receive Welsh-medium education in London.

Suzy Davies referred to this issue, which is another issue altogether, but, in the Children, Young People and Education Committee last week, you mentioned that there was a strong lobby, or at least a strong response, against including religious education and RSE as a statutory part of the new curriculum without the right for parents to withdraw their children from those lessons. I do very much hope that you are not considering giving in to this pressure and that you agree with me that these are two crucially important areas and should be retained as statutory elements of the new curriculum as we aim towards creating healthy, confident citizens and a society that respects diversity.

Well, luckily for us, Presiding Officer, education is devolved and we don't need a party conference in Brighton or, indeed, Bournemouth to tell us how to run our education system. I see no problems with the Welsh Government's commitment to continue to support Welsh-medium education in London. We know a number of those families return to Wales and place their children in Welsh-medium schools here, and I have no plans to change the support for that. And I can assure the Member that I have no plans to change my mind with regard to the statutory nature of both religious education or RSE in our curriculum reforms. 

Excellent. I’m extremely pleased to hear that last answer, certainly.

Turning to another issue, which is transportation-to-school policy, in response to points raised by Llyr Gruffydd last week, the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language stated that there would be a refresh of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, and that we can expect that in the autumn. There are examples of the need to create change arising across Wales, particularly in terms of pupils in Welsh-medium education. In Flint, for example, it is disappointing that the cabinet there is going to be charging sixth-form students for their transportation to school, which will particularly impact pupils in the sixth form at Ysgol Maes Garmon, and there's a possibility that parents will face an increase of 400 per cent in the cost of sending pupils to Welsh-medium sixth-form provision in Neath Port Talbot.

These issues are at risk of undermining any investment in Welsh-medium education and attempts to reach a million Welsh speakers. So, can you expand on what the Welsh language Minister said on this intention to refresh learner travel policy? When and how will any review happen? Can people express their views during this review, and is the aim, ultimately, to strengthen the access of our pupils to Welsh-medium education?

13:50

The Member will be aware that school transport, somewhat curiously, does not fall under my portfolio, but falls under the portfolio of my colleague Ken Skates. But, I, Ken Skates, Eluned Morgan and Julie James are working collectively on a policy solution to the situation that we find ourselves in. Moves in Flintshire and Neath Port Talbot have been a cause of concern to me. I understand that the policy in Neath Port Talbot has been put on hold at the moment, and that is very welcome.

In the case of post-16 transport, it is an undeniable situation that to access Welsh-medium post-16 provision children are having to travel significant distances. We should be ensuring that there is a transport policy that allows them to pursue their education continuum through the medium of Welsh, and should not be putting barriers in their way in their ability to do that, which is why the Government is committed to looking at a policy solution to this problem.

School Uniforms

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the affordability of school uniforms in Wales? OAQ54392

Thank you, Jayne. To support schools in making effective decisions on their school uniform policies, I have developed new statutory guidance for schools and governing bodies on school uniform and appearance policies. This guidance aims to encourage a more consistent approach across all schools in Wales to the affordability of school uniforms.

Thank you for your answer, Minister. The affordability of school uniforms is a big issue for many parents across Wales, and I know the Welsh Government's pupil development grant supports families on low incomes to buy new school uniforms. I'm sure you've seen some of the fantastic examples of parents in parts of Wales creating successful donation systems, enabling parents to donate and recycle old school uniforms to other parents to buy at a fraction of the price. Not only does this help families, but it helps the environment as well, stopping those from going to landfill. Will the Minister commend this work? How will you ensure that that consistent practice that you mentioned will get across to all local authorities in Wales?

Thank you, Jayne, for that. You're right—this is a real issue for many parents across Wales. That's why we have increased the money available to support parents via PDG access, providing support to an additional 14,000 learners at the start of this academic year. But it's also correct to say—and many of us who are parents will be well aware how quickly children grow, and sometimes their items of clothing are perfectly serviceable, and it's a real shame that other people cannot enjoy the benefit of using those items.

Therefore, in our statutory guidance, we draw schools' and governing bodies' attention to the fact that there are many very successful second-hand school uniform shops or swapping arrangements, which, as you say, is good for the purse of individual parents, but it is also really important for our environment. As part of the statutory guidance, we draw schools' attention to that good practice and would encourage many more of them to undertake that facility within their school.

13:55

I welcome the publication of the statutory guidance that came into force at the beginning of the month, and it makes the school uniform more affordable, accessible and gender-neutral. While there's more flexibility within the system, those in receipt of grants can be compelled to just go to one supplier; that is the case with one school within my constituency in the Rhondda. I also know that some schools do not give permission for the logo to be embroidered onto generic garments, which is often the more economic option, and something that is particularly important for families on low incomes. So, does your statutory guidance need re-examining to allow more flexibility for parents, whether they're in receipt of a grant or not? 

The statutory guidance that has come into force at the beginning of this academic year applies to uniform across the piece, regardless of whether you're in receipt of a grant for your uniform. Indeed, it does actually draw schools' attention to the fact that they should be able to offer a range of options that allows parents to make individual choices. And with regard to embroidered or branded items, it asks schools to really question whether that is needed—so do you need a branded polo short, or is a plain polo shirt in school colours appropriate? Again, asking governing bodies to question whether the ability to embroider on or to buy a patch that can be sewn on, rather than directing people to an individual store—those should be considerations that governing bodies are making when setting their uniform policy, and to think about the impact that that does have on individual families. There are often cheaper ways in which families can buy a uniform if they are given that flexibility, and that's what the statutory guidance urges governing bodies to do: to provide that flexibility and not to have some of these restrictive options that add cost to families. 

Minister, further to Leanne Wood's question, I fully support you in your laudable aim of keeping the cost of school uniform down. However, I note your guidance allows schools to decide whether their logos are strictly necessary. I believe that logos express the mission and the spirit of a school, and are a source of pride for students, parents and staff, and create a sense of community among the children of those schools. In view of this, would you join me in encouraging as many schools as possible to retain their logos as a symbol of their identity? Thank you. 

As a Minister, it is not my role to dictate to individual schools what they can and cannot have on their uniform. What is my role as the Minister is to publish the statutory guidance, which we have done, and to impress upon school governors the issue of thinking about affordability when designing their school and appearance policy. Indeed, we do ask schools to question whether it is appropriate or necessary for every single item of clothing to have a logo on. I think back to my own time when my children were in primary school, when I used to send them in a generic white polo shirt and they had a logo on their sweatshirt. I did not see it was necessary to have a logo on both of those items. What we're saying to schools is, 'Think—before you make these rules, think about the issue of affordability for all of your parents'. I agree that uniform can bring a sense of identity, and can bring many, many benefits to schools, but, when designing a uniform policy, be aware of the added financial burdens you may be placing on those parents, and what that can mean to the well-being of children in their schools who may be really concerned about whether their parents can afford all the kit and the uniform that is being asked of them. Because we know, if children's well-being is detrimentally affected, that their learning is detrimentally affected.     

Rural Schools

4. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's rural schools policy? OAQ54375

Our rural education plan sets out our approach to rural schools, pulling together actions from our national mission. This includes our small and rural schools grant, which is benefiting over 400 schools, and our e-sgol pilot project, which is being rolled out to other local authorities and schools across Wales. 

Thank you for that answer. I've been contacted by concerned parents in Llandrillo, Corwen whose village school, Ysgol Gynradd Llandrillo, was amalgamated with Cynwyd school. My question today is about the situation that arises when the new schools created as a result of amalgamation and rationalisation are no longer able to cope with rising demand when they are victims of their own success. This is tearing two rural villages apart. In Llandrillo, the old school building stands empty, and I'm told that the new school is oversubscribed and local children are not getting the Welsh-medium education they require. What steps are you able to take to address this situation?

14:00

Well, the planning for provision of school places is not a matter for Welsh Government; it is a matter for the local education authority, and in the first instance, the Member should address her concerns to the local authority at that place. With regard to Welsh medium, it's very concerning to think that parents who want that opportunity for their children are being denied that opportunity. That is a huge source of concern to me. Parents should be able to exercise their right to a Welsh-medium education for their children if they desire. If the Member does not receive any joy in her communications with the local authority, then I'll be very happy to have correspondence from her in this regard.

Minister, with the school reorganisation code, as revised, when business cases come before the Welsh Government to be signed off, what weight does the Minister place on the policy imperatives that Welsh Government have put in place at that stage of the process? Or is it merely that you're looking at the financials around such an application? I'd be grateful to understand exactly how big a policy initiative is weighed when the business case is signed off, finally, by Welsh Government for new school developments.

Well, there are very clear criteria when deciding to grant twenty-first century schools and colleges funding to any local authority for their project. That's done by an independent board that makes recommendations to the Minister. The primary purpose of the twenty-first century schools and colleges fund is to ensure as many children as possible are receiving their education in buildings that are fit for purpose and are able to deliver our new curriculum to great effect, and to address what is, in some cases, in some schools, the very poor state of buildings that children and teachers are currently working in. But it is not correct to say that you have to close a school to have access to that fund. There are many, many examples across Wales where like-for-like provision has been put in place. But if the Member has a particular issue, I'm sure he can raise that when he's in one of his Vale of Glamorgan county council meetings.

School Improvement Consortia

5. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Welsh school improvement consortia? OAQ54367

Thank you, Mr Hamilton, for your question. I meet with the regional education consortia annually as part of regular evaluation and improvement sessions. I am due to meet them again this autumn. My director of education meets regularly with each region and provides feedback. I also meet individually with regions to discuss matters of importance when they arise.

I'm grateful to the Minister for that response. She'll recall that a short time ago, the leader of Neath Port Talbot council described the improvement consortium in his area in less than glowing terms. He said that it was set up to improve schools but the opposite had happened: the schools that needed improving haven't, and those schools that were doing well have dipped in improvement. The Association of School and College Leaders said the consortia are duplicating funding and functions provided by the LEAs, and they put a figure of £450 million on the cost of this. When the Minister appeared before the Children, Young People and Education Committee a few months ago, she said that getting money to the school front line is a priority, and if sufficient money isn't getting there, is it not time for this Assembly to do something about it? If we're not getting money to the schools and pupils, isn't it time for this Assembly-created quango of management, consultancy, apparatchiks and buzzwords to be scrapped so that the money can then go directly to local councils who are wholly elected and perhaps in a rather better position to estimate the school community needs in their area?

Presiding Officer, it's disappointing that Mr Hamilton doesn't seem to understand the governance arrangements of regional consortia. The consortia work on behalf of local authorities to lead, orchestrate and co-ordinate the improvements in schools across the region. Local authorities established the regional school improvement service in 2014 under the national model for regional working. Regional consortia, I should stress, are not an additional layer of bureaucracy. Where they follow the national model, they consolidate the school improvement activities of their constituent local authorities and provide them on a regional basis.

14:05

I can tell you, Minister, that teachers and headteachers that I meet in Aberconwy continue to regularly question the actual effectiveness and value of the regional consortia. Concerns, indeed, have been raised in the committee during the funding inquiry, and I look forward to a review of the regional consortia. Neath Port Talbot Council voted to leave the educational consortium ERW, and GwE has not yet reached a number of targets in its 2017-20 business plan. These include the need to provide good leadership and management, ensure that schools are well prepared to deliver the new curriculum and guarantee that a value-for-money framework consistently is implemented by all. Those are fundamental basic requirements of any taxpayer-funded body. The latter is impossible for my schools in Aberconwy, as they are actually, as governors in Conwy have stated today, being cut to the bone. Extra money needs to reach our schools and our pupils urgently. So, will you commit to welcoming any potential review of the education consortia in Wales, and will you actually be open and welcome and look at any recommendations that we come up with and work with us, as a committee, to perhaps not have a blinkered view to what the regional consortia are, whether they're good, bad or indifferent? Let's have a look at this once and for all, and let's let them prove themselves to be effective and a good use of taxpayers' money.

Presiding Officer, the Member has clearly missed my written reply to the committee's report, where I have accepted all the recommendations of that report. Rather than welcoming a review, I shall be setting it up.

Question 6 [OAQ54353] is withdrawn. Question 7—Rhianon Passmore.

The Additional Learning Needs System

7. Will the Minister outline the timescales involved with the implementation of the additional learning needs system? OAQ54383

Thank you very much. As set out in my statement of 17 September, the statutory roles created by the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018 commence in January 2021, and the new ALN system will commence, on a phased basis, from September 2021. The code and regulations will be laid for National Assembly approval in 2020.

Diolch, Minister. Thank you for the confirmation, then, that the additional learning needs system will commence on that phased basis from September 2021. Teachers, parents, educators and teaching trade unions will, indeed, welcome the fact that the Welsh Government has listened and acted constructively on their feedback and the many conversations that have taken place. And I know, Minister, that you passionately believe that it is essential that time is taken to listen and respond to the views gathered during that consultation so that the code and regulations are fully fit for purpose. Minister, what actions will the Welsh Government take to ensure that, as this process moves forward, there will continue to be ongoing, constructive open dialogue with all interested parties to ensure the greatest possible potential of success when the additional learning needs system comes into force?

Well, the Member is correct in saying that we've had to take very seriously the response that we have had to the draft code and amend our timetable accordingly. I can give her and the Chamber an assurance that we will continue to work with all stakeholders to address the concerns that have been raised and to ensure that the new system is effective and provides the change that parents and children need. My officials are aiming to conduct, over the coming weeks and months, meetings and events with key stakeholders to refine specific aspects of the code where concerns have been raised during the consultation period. If I can give some specific examples of what that would include: in relation to required use of educational psychologists, the boundary between school and local authority maintained individual development plans and the operation of systems within the pupil referral units and Welsh education otherwise than at school more generally. So, that's to give Members some flavour of the specific areas of work where we're going to have to engage once again with stakeholders in preparation for the drafting of the code.

Llywydd, I remind the Chamber that I'm on the governing body of two special schools. We are in that in-between zone. I do welcome the shift away from statements, particularly for the flexibility we require. Children have a variety of issues, sometimes, and some of them may not get quite to the statement threshold. Where do they go? They still need real interventions. But I noticed the balanced remarks of SNAP Cymru, saying that we are in this difficult period between two systems, and I am concerned that some children will not be receiving the support in education that they require, and that has to be—. In the next year, we must emphasise that the system that is in place at the moment goes until it's replaced.

14:10

David, you are absolutely correct. Local education authorities are bound by the law as it stands now, and simply because we are transitioning to a new legislative framework, that does not allow them not to attend to the needs of children who are in the system now. My expectation is that they apply the law to children who have a range of special educational needs as it is currently stated, and they simply cannot leave those children dangling in anticipation of the new legislative regime that is coming into force. I have been very clear in my communications with the Welsh Local Government Association, with education portfolio holders and directors of education, who I met last Friday morning, on my expectations in this regard. They have to follow the law as it currently stands, as we wait to introduce the new law.

Online Personalised Assessments

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the roll-out of online personalised assessments for learners and schools? OAQ54362

Thank you, Hefin. I made a written statement updating Members on the roll-out of online personalised assessments on 3 September. By the end of the summer term, over 268,000 learners had successfully taken online numeracy procedural  assessments. Following extensive development work and trialling, reading assessments will be available to schools from October.

In addition to that, the Minister will know I wrote to her on 16 July on behalf of a cluster of schools in Caerphilly county borough, particularly Glyn-Gaer in my constituency. They had concerns about the way the tests were happening in the school, the fact that you couldn't carry out certain activities within the tests, and that the results were difficult for teachers to interpret easily and quickly. She mentioned in her statement that changes have been made and improvements have been addressed. But with that in mind, can you confirm that you've met with the schools that wrote to you, or your officials have met with the schools that have written to you, and what actions have been taken directly with those schools as a result?

Well, I'm grateful to the Member for making the representations that he has done on behalf of that cluster of schools. We have acted on that feedback, not only from yourself, but from other schools, and we have, over the summer, made a number of refinements to the system that should address the concerns that were raised in your letter. By introducing assessments on a phased roll-out, we are able to use the experience of maths to ensure that we don't fall into some of those bear traps as we roll out with reading this autumn. As promised in my response, officials are already discussing with the relevant regional consortium how they can best engage with that particular group of schools, and I understand that, in response to the invitation in my letter, a teacher from one of the schools has already confirmed her attendance at the next teacher panel for the review of the online numerical reasoning assessment, which will be held in October. So, those teachers are actively engaged in the process, and I'm very grateful for them taking the time to do just that; it's really helpful.

Minister, I welcome, too, the value that these online assessments can add to the assessment programme the teachers undertake, but one of the concerns that have been raised with me is that, obviously, there is a bit of a digital divide in our country between those children who perhaps will not have the opportunity to be as skilled as others in the use of computers and don't even have access to a computer in their home, or access to broadband at home, where, of course, others will have, and they could potentially gain an advantage. What have you got built in to these systems to make sure that those sorts of issues are considered in the way that these assessments are undertaken?

Firstly, the Member will be aware that the first part of our new curriculum is the roll-out of the digital competence framework and, therefore, there is an expectation on schools to address these skills with their entire pupil population. With regard to information technology facilities within schools and ensuring that there is equity of provision across the piece, you'll be aware that the Government has invested heavily—tens of millions of pounds—to ensure connectivity for our schools. I'm very pleased to say, and I'm sure every Member of the Chamber will be pleased to hear it, that our final school in Pembrokeshire, which was the last outstanding school in the programme, has now been connected, and in doing that we've also solved some of the community connectivity issues as well.

Our attention therefore has now turned to supporting schools with the IT infrastructure within their schools, and the Member will be aware that, prior to the summer recess, I announced a £50 million capital investment project in edtech. Each local authority at the moment is conducting individual school surveys so that we understand where individual schools are with their infrastructure within their schools, and therefore Welsh Government will then be working with local authorities, with that £50 million, to ensure that there is equity of provision within schools.

Outside of schools, the Member will also be aware of the deal that the Welsh Government has struck to supply Microsoft Office software to all schools in Wales, paid for by the Welsh Government, and that software is also available for pupils, to be able to use on devices at home, so parents will not have to buy a licence for Microsoft Office software and their children will be able to use their log on in the home. Again, that helps address same of this digital divide, if a parent is struggling to find money to pay for those licences.

14:15
Service Children

9. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to support service children in schools? OAQ54365

The Welsh Government's supporting service children in education Wales fund helps schools provide additional support to mitigate the challenges that children of armed forces communities can face because of their family's military lifestyle. I have made available £250,000 for applications this academic year.

I'm grateful to the Minister for that response. You'll be aware, of course, of the calls from the Assembly's cross-party group on armed forces to establish a service pupil premium here in Wales, and I believe a service pupil premium would go a long way in supporting those children who are disadvantaged as a result of their parents' service in the armed forces, either due to their frequent relocations or the impact of active service. I know that additional support would be welcomed as the armed forces play a key role in your constituency, Minister, as well as in my own. Therefore, can you tell us whether the Welsh Government is considering introducing a service pupil premium here in Wales, and if not, can you tell us what additional specific support the Welsh Government can actually offer to service children in Welsh schools?

Presiding Officer, I am very alive to the issues faced by children of serving families, which is why we have made this fund available. That fund this year is supporting three projects in the county of Pembrokeshire, and I'm sure the Member would be glad of that. If he's not aware of the individual projects, I'm happy to write to him with details of the schools that are in receipt of that grant.

We continue to look at the needs of our entire cohort of children when deciding educational budgets, and he will be aware of the challenging financial situation that the Welsh Government has found itself in. I'm committed to doing what I can to find resources to support the projects that are ongoing at the moment, and crucially I have started the process by which we will systematically begin to collect data on armed service families' children in our education system. That is not collected at the moment. It's very difficult to keep track and provide the evidence that we would need to support additional investment in our schools. We have started that process now, where pupil level annual school census data will be amended so that schools can record children of military families, and at the same time we will be amending PLASC data so that families who have adopted children will also be recorded. It's a long and tortuous process—longer than I would have liked it—but that process has now begun, which will mean that we will have better data so that we can make informed policy decisions in the future.

2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next item, therefore, is questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from John Griffiths.  

Cancer Waiting Times

1. Will the Minister make a statement on waiting times from NHS identification of suspected cancer to diagnosis? OAQ54385

Thank you for the question. I made the decision to improve cancer diagnosis, with Wales being the first country to introduce the single cancer pathway. This reports on the time a patient waits from initial suspicion of cancer to the start of treatment. Our latest data shows that 75.1 per cent of patients started treatment within 62 days of the initial point of suspicion.

Minister, for the eight most common types of cancer, survival is three times greater when diagnosis is early and it is detected at the earliest stages rather than the latest stages. Of course, patients and their families go through absolute agony from cancer being suspected to eventual diagnosis one way or the other. I very much welcome what you mentioned in your initial response, because that’s real progress that’s very significant and important, but I know that capacity constraints continue, such as workforce shortages, and that is limiting the NHS’s ability to diagnose. Amongst the asks of some of the organisations representing people with cancer and their families are that the Welsh Government conducts an audit of diagnostic staff within the Welsh NHS and then addresses the gaps that exist. Is that something that Welsh Government will commit to?

14:20

The point that the Member makes about earlier diagnosis is exactly right—it’s a key section of our cancer strategy here in Wales. And, of course, the single cancer pathway will give us a better idea of the points at which we need to improve across the service. There is always going to be a workforce challenge that is simply not going to be resolved by new treatments or new technology. So, the workforce strategy that Health Education and Improvement Wales are working on will of course take into account the steps that we are already taking, for example the imaging academy and the work that we discussed here in this Chamber last week on improving endoscopy services, all of which will have an impact, not just on improving what we're able to do, but on our need to plan for and then acquire the numbers of staff. So, I think I can give the Member the assurance that we are looking at our current numbers of staff. The information we'll get from the operation of the single cancer pathway will give us further information and, of course, you'll see that when we publish the draft workforce strategy that HEIW are working on together with Social Care Wales.

Minister, Wales has now a single waiting-time target for cancer diagnosis and treatment, which I welcome. However, it is well known that we lack capacity in diagnosis services, and your Government has failed to meet its own targets for cancer waiting times via the urgent route since 2008. Minister, what action are you taking to deliver this significant investment in cancer facilities across Wales to build up the capacity required to meet this new single target for cancer diagnosis?

Well, I think much of what the Member asked was covered in my response to John Griffiths. It is a fact that when you look at cancer waiting times we've comparatively done better than England. If you look at our single cancer pathway new figure, it’s actually only a couple of percentage points lower than the old target on offer in England, and for only some of the pathway. And the reason that we introduced the new single cancer pathway was because we recognised that there were hidden waits within the system within the 31-day figure. So, we've got a much more honest reflection on where we are, and we have invested in the past and we continue to invest now. It’s a matter of fact that we've invested 6.5 per cent in the budget to train healthcare professionals in the last year. It goes back to the points I made to John Griffiths about having a proper workforce strategy, understanding what we're already doing and the investments we've already made.

Prescribable Treatments

2. What assessment has the Minister made of the number of people who will be affected by the Welsh NHS’s decision to follow the approach taken by the NHS in England and remove items that have been deemed as of low clinical priority from the list of prescribable treatments? OAQ54374

NHS Wales has not taken the approach the Member refers to. The All Wales Medicines Strategy Group has developed guidance identifying several treatments that are poor value for money, ineffective or dangerous. Doctors use their clinical judgment and other prescribers to offer the best possible treatment options to their patients.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Welsh eight-year-old Sofia Bow was born with the genetic disorder cystic fibrosis, which affects one in every 2,500 babies born. This Government has refused to fund the drugs Orkambi and Symkevi, even though they have been proven to improve lung health and reduce the need for hospital admissions, saying they're too expensive, while the Scottish Government has managed to negotiate a discount with the manufacturers so that the drugs can be prescribed to sufferers in Scotland. Sofia’s family are considering leaving their Welsh home to move to Scotland so that their daughter can get the life-changing treatment she needs. So, will you now copy the Scottish NHS in prescribing Orkambi and Symkevi? If it is just down to the money, once you've worked out a reasonable price for a child’s life, will you arrange a discount if required, or do you need the Scottish health Minister to do it for you?

I'm afraid the Member's question doesn't just depart from her initial one in not referring to low clinical priority treatments and a list of prescribable treatments, but actually it's a significant misunderstanding of the position around Orkambi.

I have said in correspondence to all Members and in public statements that I continue to express my frustration at the choice that Vertex have made—the manufacturers of Orkambi and Symkevi—to not engage with the appraisal process here in Wales. It's not simply a matter of money. Members here, but also those watching families who are directly affected, this is not simply about money; it is actually about the refusal to engage in a process to provide the clinical evidence of the effectiveness or otherwise of these medicines. Frankly, if they were making the medicines available for £1 a go, as opposed to £100,000 a treatment, we'd still need to know what is the effect of the medicine.

On the deal that they've struck in Scotland, having had their own Scottish appraisal process not grant access to Orkambi, they've then gone back and struck a different deal. That's in commercial confidence. I have not had sight of that, so I'm not in a position to copy the same deal or even to comment properly on the relative value provided to it.

I'd say again to Vertex to engage with the appraisal process here in Wales as they have indicated in the past they would do, to not place families in this invidious position, and to allow us to properly understand the effectiveness of the medication that they have available, and for us then to make a properly evidence-based choice. I don't want any family in Wales to be put in the position that the Member describes because of a refusal of a pharmaceutical company to engage in our well-respected and well-understood appraisal process.

14:25

Minister, I welcome the approach that's been taken by the Welsh Government to the prudent healthcare agenda. One of the principles of that agenda is, 'Only do what you can do and let others do things that you cannot do.' Of course, one of the ways that the NHS could be reformed would be to enable pharmacists across Wales to do more of what is currently being done in GP surgeries. Today is World Pharmacists Day, what do you have to say to those pharmacists across Wales who are looking for a new contract in order that they can deal specifically with this issue once and for all?

As I've indicated previously when discussing primary care more generally here, the reform process of contracts in primary care, including pharmacy, is an important part of our ability to meet our shared objectives. Actually, pharmacy contractors here in Wales who are community pharmacists are engaged in a regular and constructive conversation with the Government. I expect the next stage of the future pharmacy contract to allow us to invest more in the future of pharmacy and in a wider range of services, some of which, you never know, may form part of the questions that other Members will ask later on the order paper.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Dai Lloyd.

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, are you content with the quality of the information that you have about the NHS workforce?

I don't think the current workforce data that we have allows us to have the most robust means to plan for the future. That's part of what we're considering. In fact, I had a discussion on this very point earlier this week. 

Thank you for that. As you know, in the recent report of the health committee on community and district nursing services, we received evidence that predicted—and I quote: that despite recognising the key contribution of our community and district nurses in the provision of healthcare for the future, we don't know much about this invisible service, as it’s described. We don't have a detailed picture at a national level of the number or the skills mix within the nursing teams or the level of illness of the patients receiving care in their own homes. Now, naturally, this will have an impact on workforce planning efficiency.

That’s what the evidence tells us. In addition, we received direct evidence from community nurses being overworked, facing stress, overextending themselves to meet demand, whilst the heads of health boards predicted a far rosier picture of a service achieving its targets. We don't have full data either on the number of physiotherapists or occupational therapists in the community either. So, how can you plan to move more healthcare into the community in future when you don't know the number or the skills level of the healthcare staff working there at the moment?

Well, I wouldn't say it's a blank piece of paper and we don't know anything about the current workforce or indeed the current nature of demand. The Member will know that, in terms of our agenda for moving more care closer to home, it does involve continued investment in primary and community care. It involves the new models of care that are being trialled, both within the transformation fund and outside it as well. That's not just anecdotal evidence about particular parts of the country, it's actually a part of our system-wide reform. We've deliberately chosen to take a path where only those projects that have the ability to scale up will be supported through the transformation fund. So, of course, the evidence that we'll have from our cluster plans as well—where they'll have to plan at cluster level—will inform our medium-term planning process and health boards, in addition to the workforce strategy that is being developed by Health Education and Improvement Wales. So, you have a range of different sources of intelligence on what is currently happening, and what we need to do more of in the future.

But the Member will know, both from his time within this place, and the career that he regularly doesn't mention before he got elected, which he still carries on at various points as well, that this is never a static point in time. And our ability to reform as rapidly as we would like in this place often grinds up against reality. But I do think that the agenda we set out in 'A Healthier Wales' is one that we have commitment across the board for, and we'll continue to make investment choices to support that.

14:30

The same kind of pressures of work and gaps in rotas, stress and the terrible tiredness that emerges from overworking because of staff shortages also impact on doctors in our hospitals—exhaustion, huge responsibilities for life-and-death issues, no rest periods, an intensity of work without a break, the dangers of driving having finished and all-night shift, and the feeling of a lack of support and a lack of recognition of the huge commitment to their patients, and also the feeling that hospital administrators don’t take regard of this and are insensitive on occasion. So, what are you, Minister, doing to promote the well-being of our hospital doctors?

Well, we're taking a broad approach. On the one hand, when you look at the quadruple aim, staff are one of the four pillars within that quadruple aim. Specifically, when it comes to the medical side of the workforce, we have engaged already with the British Medical Association on the fatigue charter. I spoke with the BMA in the last few weeks—and that work is ongoing—to try to make sure we deal with some of the points that the Member raises about the incredible pressure and commitment that our medical workforce face. And it's only because of that commitment, not just our medical workforce, but the wider workforce, that the health service continues to provide the quality, breadth and compassion of care that is there. But we don't take that for granted. That's why we've had those discussions with the BMA, and we've have those discussions with other workforce representatives too, because I would not pretend that everything is rosy and everything is fine. Our challenge is how, with the additional demands we see coming in to our system, with all of the other issues outside the health service that both drive demand and affect our workforce, we do still do all that we can and should do to make sure that we are a good employer, and that we do properly take account of staff well-being at all levels.

Diolch, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, you'll be aware, of course, that Care Inspectorate Wales have the key role for inspecting and taking action to improve the quality and safety of services for the well-being of the people of Wales. Now, according to the chief inspector's annual report 2018-19, 2,499 inspections were undertaken. That is 456 fewer than the year before. There were fewer services regulated also. Now, this decline in regulatory and inspection activity comes despite staff costs having increased by almost £150,000, and the percentage of that budget representing inspection and regulation activity having increased. So, how do you, Deputy Minister, justify the increase in staffing costs, whilst there has actually been a significant fall in the number of inspections, and what steps will you take to reverse the decline?

Well, obviously, the work that CIW does is absolutely crucial. It looks after the standards that are in our care homes in particular, and it's absolutely important that all the inspections they carry out are done to a sufficient depth, and are done in a very considered way. And I think what they are doing is doing very considered inspections, and I have every confidence in them.

Well, Deputy Minister, thank you for that response, but I have to tell you, here and now, that I do not share your confidence in them currently. According to strategic priority 2, in CIW's strategic plan 2017-20, the organisation is striving to be a great place to work. However, there are serious allegations of bullying and harassment within the organisation, and intense pressure on the inspectors themselves. In fact, I know of an inspector who raised concerns, triggering a so-called investigation. And this is how the senior manager responsible for the investigation responded:

'It has been concluded that, as your grievance focused on the breakdown in relationships between your line manager and senior manager, and as you took the decision to resign from your position as an adult inspector in CIW, that these professional relationships will no longer be present, as you are no longer an employee of CIW and Welsh Government'—

so, you can see the very close-knit comment there, about CIW and Welsh Government—

'therefore, it has been considered that it serves no useful purpose to continue this investigation.'

So, it is alarming that the investigation was abandoned just because the person concerned resigned from CIW. And, technically, being as they themselves—the senior manager—said 'CIW and Welsh Government', technically the buck stops somewhere with Welsh Government. So, I ask you, Deputy Minister, will you commit to undertake an independent investigation into staff treatment, the intense pressures that are burdening them, and also how they actually go about carrying out investigations when somebody has actually been a whistleblower, and brought to their attention concerns about the lack of correct procedure in the carrying out of inspections within a care home establishment?

14:35

I can reassure the Member that I have regular meetings with the head of CIW, when we discuss all aspects of CIW's work. Obviously, the job that staff in CIW carry out is a very pressurised job, because they are looking at how our most vulnerable adults are looked after. And they take any evidence of any poor care that they see very, very seriously. And I can assure the Member that, in situations where they've had to intervene—I absolutely accept that they are very stressful situations—they take the job extremely seriously, whistleblowing is taken very seriously, and I can assure you that there is a good relationship between the Welsh Government and CIW, but that they do act independently.

Thank you, again, Deputy Minister, but we also know too that there have been some documented articles on the Y Byd ar Bedwar programme about their concerns—CIW—and about their ability to actually carry out robust inspections that do protect our most vulnerable in those situations.

Now, finally, I have reason to believe, from a reliable source, that these internal difficulties are negatively impacting on social care service users too. For example, it has been alleged to me that even though concerns about providers appear on a radar within the organisation, and despite inspectors allegedly flagging this up to managers, some situations can allegedly go ignored for weeks. In fact, one concern raised about a particular establishment—it took six months for the organisation to take any action whatsoever—six months—where it was felt that vulnerable people were potentially put at risk.

Deputy Minister, the fact that such serious concerns about a regulatory body, designed to protect the most vulnerable, have been raised with me, brought to my door, in the way it has been, as an elected Member of this establishment, I would ask that you take these—[Interruption.] Well, it is a Parliament, you're right. So, as an elected Member of this Parliament, I am asking you, Deputy Minister: please, will you consider a review into the fundamental workings of CIW? Will you look to the issues I've raised about allegations of staff bullying, intense pressures? But, more importantly, will you look at CIW, with a view, independently, to look whether it is actually doing what it's intended to do—to protect our most vulnerable? Thank you.

I would ask the Member, if she has got any very serious concerns about any way that any vulnerable people are being treated, that she should write to me about those individual situations. And it's not possible to respond to 'a reliable source'—it's not possible to respond to those sorts of incidents. And if you have serious concerns, please would you write to me?

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, our NHS buildings are in a bad state of repair, and some are falling down. There is a £0.25 billion backlog of works deemed to pose high or significant risk. Thirteen per cent of the estate is not safety compliant. Of the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust buildings, only a little over a third of them are deemed to be functionally suitable. Minister, you have committed around £370 million in health capital projects this year—how much of that will be spent ensuring NHS buildings are safe for patients and staff?

14:40

The significant chunk of NHS capital, as the Member will know, has been spent on the creation and completion, which is on time and on budget, of the Grange university hospital. I have already published a range of other statements setting out, for example, our capital programme in primary care. And NHS organisations have discretionary capital to try and undertake their backlog maintenance. So, I recognise the challenges that do exist, but this is part of what health boards themselves need to address within their allocations.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. There is at least a £0.5 billion backlog in building maintenance. I say 'at least' because most local health boards cannot even afford to do the assessments necessary to determine the extent of maintenance issues—maintenance issues that are impacting upon patient care. BBC Wales heard from staff at the University Hospital of Wales who stated that there were infection risks because hospital waste had to be transported in patient lifts. Minister, what is your Government doing to assess the risks to patient safety due to poor maintenance, and what will you do in future years to eliminate the repair backlog, which has been growing year on year?

Well, the Member mentioned the £370 million figure available and, of that, £80 million is available for health boards and trusts to undertake exactly this sort of maintenance work. It's within their discretionary capital allocation. And it's part of the job of health boards and trusts to properly understand the estate they have and to understand the risks they have. It is, though, the case that, where there have been immediate issues, for example the immediate collapse of a roof in a facility in Wrexham within the last financial year, the Welsh Government provided additional assistance to make sure that alternate facilities were available while the health board planned to properly replace that facility that had a significant impact on endoscopy capacity on the site. So, the Government gets alongside health boards when we can and should do, but this is part of the job that they have to do in properly managing and running the estate of the national health service.

Staff Retention in the Welsh NHS

3. Will the Minister make a statement on staff retention in the Welsh NHS? OAQ54384

Yes. Recruitment and retention is a priority for the Welsh Government and the national health service. Health boards and trusts are leading on initiatives to improve retention, such as return to practice and improving staff well-being. The Welsh Government has also put in place a range of measures to increase the supply of healthcare professionals.

Thank you, Minister. Through written Assembly questions, I have unearthed an alarming fact about the number of nurses in Wales: 4,727 have left the Welsh NHS since 2016/17. And get this: in 2018/19, there were more leavers than joiners. We need more registered nurses to deliver care, and as the Royal College of Nursing in Wales has advised, this requires a focus on both recruitment and addressing retention. As it stands, however, increasing recruitment is not sustainable without improving retention rates. So, Minister, will you commit to investigating why there is such a high number of leavers in Wales, and will you develop an NHS workforce strategy that is focused on providing safe working conditions and more flexible working to actually help our hardworking nurses across Wales?

The Member may have picked up and forgotten, when reading out her supplementary question, that we talked about the NHS workforce strategy in response to two questions earlier on today. I recognise that, last year, the last year for which we have figures, there were 65 more leavers than joiners in terms of the nursing workforce; that is in contrast to a steady trend of increases in nursing numbers. Between 2009-18, nursing numbers have gone up by 3.8 per cent in total. The Member reflects figures of people who have left the service, but, of course, we are recruiting each year as well. The Member will also know that we have regularly rehearsed within this Chamber the work that we are doing on looking to recruit further nurses. The ‘Train. Work. Live.’ campaign has been successful. In fact, the Royal College of Nursing themselves have been complimentary about that particular campaign. It's also a matter of fact that, in the last five years, we've increased nurse training places by 68 per cent in Wales. So, we are doing all that we can and should do to increase the number of nurses coming into the profession, as with, indeed, the work that we are doing—the Member referred to some of it—on making sure we have more flexible patterns that reflect the reality of someone's work to try to make sure that we retain the nurses that we currently have as well. The big factor, of course, that will affect some of our ability to recruit nurses in the future is our continuing relationship with Europe, where we still recruit and have a number of European Union and wider economic area nurses within the NHS family.

14:45

Minister, I'm very pleased to hear the answer you've just given and the efforts the Welsh Government are putting into developing and training more nurses across the area. I speak to nurses—it's not just nurses, but other professionals across the health service—and I want to praise the work that they do, because many of them, if not all of them, go above and beyond their normal working conditions and actually put a lot of effort in, but it takes a toll on the nurses and other staff. They get to a point where they just can't take any more, and they have to, therefore, look to get out early.

You've talked about flexible working. I've raised this with my own health board on occasion. Will you look at opportunities, because some of the nurses who are leaving and going to agencies do it because they want to have greater control over the hours they work? They want to have the ability to have, actually, a better work-life balance with their families. Therefore, will you look at the flexibility of working contracts so that nurses can, actually, have that within the NHS, without having to go to an agency to have that work-life balance that makes the difference to them? It shows that they are cared for and they are well respected by the system, not just by the patients.

I recognise the points that the Member makes. This is something at different points in the training cycle of members of national health service staff, but also when they're at different points in their working life. That's why it's been important for me to retain the NHS bursary. We've seen the impact of removing the bursary in England, where, in particular, it's had a catastrophic impact on recruiting learning disability nurses, who are often more likely to be mature nurses.

There's also the point about that flexible working pattern that'll be important at various different points in someone's life, whether it's about caring responsibilities for adults or children, or, actually, just people wanting to be in a different stage of their life towards the end of their career as well, because we do rely on staff goodwill to provide the service

So, yes, that is part of what we are looking at, not just about the future and into the distance, but it's part of what health boards are already trying to address today. But it goes back to one of the points that I made to Dai Lloyd about our ability to make the system-wide reform that we think we could and should do, and how quickly we're able to do it, because this is a priority in the here and now, and not just in two or three years' time.

Cancer Mortality Rates

4. Will the Minister make a statement on cancer mortality rates in north Wales? OAQ54387

Yes. Cancer mortality is improving across Wales, including the north. The European age-standardised mortality rate for cancer in north Wales has fallen from 348.3 in every 100,000 in 2001 to 276 by 2017. That represents a 21 per cent fall over 17 years.

Those statistics are very welcome indeed, but, unfortunately, as the Minister will know, we're still well behind other countries in terms of our five-year survival rates. In fact, for bowel cancer, we're twenty-fifth out of 29 countries in Europe for that five-year survival rate. You will know that catching cancer early is critical to people's opportunities for survival. Cancer Research UK have indicated that you're three times more likely to survive your cancer if you're diagnosed at stage 1 or 2, rather than stage 3 or 4.

So, in order to drive that improvement in mortality, we clearly need to address some of the issues that we face in the diagnostic workforce. We know, for example, that there are shortages of radiographers, of consultants and of specialist endoscopy nurses in Wales. Can you tell us what specific action the Welsh Government is taking to address the shortage in the workforce in order that we can drive up this early diagnosis to improve those mortality rates and move us from the bottom of some of those European league tables right to the top? 

I think it's broadly the same question that John Griffiths asked earlier on, because we are, of course—. I referred to it earlier—the response to the committee's report on endoscopy. It notes the action that we are taking and need to take on widening the workforce. I've met a number of staff who are taking part in the work of the endoscopy board about the work that they want to do. Using your point here about prudent healthcare—do only what only you can do—means that doctors, who have almost been the exclusive workforce in this area in the past, should be less and less undertaking those procedures. There are more and more nurse endoscopists and others that we need to train.

Actually, within the leadership of the profession, there's a recognition that that's what we should have—we need to plan to do so. It's the same in terms of our imaging professionals as well. That's why the imaging academy is so important to us. So, there are specific steps that we are taking. We expect to see more of them in the workforce strategy when that comes out. You can also see us making investment choices to support that strategy not just in this year's budget, but in the future.  

14:50
Drug and Alcohol Dependency Rates

5. Will the Minister make a statement on drug and alcohol dependency rates in Wales? OAQ54393

I'd like to start by congratulating Jayne Bryant and, in particular, Mr Bryant for his excellent choice, and wish you all the best for the future.

There were between 42,000 and 58,500 problematic drug users in 2015-16. According to the national survey for Wales for the year later, there were 81,392 harmful drinkers. I should make clear that harmful drinkers are defined as men drinking over 50 units a week and women drinking over 35 units a week for women, but not all harmful drinkers are dependent.

Thank you, Minister, for all of that answer. [Laughter.]

I visited, along with my colleague John Griffiths, last week, the Kaleidoscope project and the Gwent drug and alcohol service in Newport. GDAS is a single integrated service providing substance misuse services in Gwent. Sadly, they've seen a big spike in referrals and an increase in older people with alcohol dependency. While every preventable death is one too many, according to the Office for National Statistics' latest figures, the number of deaths related to drug misuse in the Gwent local authority areas are among the lowest in Wales. GDAS treatment programmes are set up for recovery. They ensure that people are able to access substitute prescribing in a time frame that's appropriate to their presenting need. Would the Minister join me in praising the work that GDAS does and look at how we can share this work across other parts of Wales?

Yes, absolutely. I've visited Kaleidoscope myself during my time in ministerial office to see directly some of the work they do on a range of areas, including image-enhancing drugs and a range of different dependencies and challenges that people face. It's part of our approach in bringing together the third sector with statutory bodies in area planning boards to understand the local intelligence that needs to exist, and then to make investment choices accordingly. So, they're not made centrally by the Welsh Government, but we've actually increased the budget available to area planning boards to provide front-line services. So, yes, it is a good example of a model that works. It's a good example also of the continuing need coming into those services, and we need to continually review our capacity to further support front-line work as well, of course, as the demand and the reasons for that demand coming into our services.  

Minister, according to Public Health Wales, drug-related deaths in Wales are at their highest levels. They report that the number of people dying from drug poisoning has increased by 78 per cent in just the last 10 years. They also say that there has been a rise in the number of young people dying from substances such as cocaine. Given that seeking early support can prevent the escalation of the problem and dependency, Minister, what action will you take to tackle the problem of drug dependency in Wales in the light of these disturbing findings? 

Again, that's why we're investing more in our front-line services not just at the treatment end, but in programmes together with other partners—the police are obvious partners in this area—on actually trying to intervene at an early point. There's no easy answer, though, because, of course, many of the reasons why people become drug and alcohol dependent are outside the health service. So, the challenge isn't just one for the health service in that earlier intervention and prevention, and it's certainly not just an education challenge; it is the broader stresses and strains that people are under, and it's how we actually address some of those. That includes, for example, the new substances that are appearing on a regular basis on the streets. 

So, there's a wide programme of work. It's about working with partners on the prevention message, as well as having a more effective response when people do need treatment. In that respect, our substance misuse programmes do show that you are more likely to receive specialist treatment and support in Wales than in England. In fact, King's College London in July of this year estimated that you're 2.5 more times likely to receive that specialist health and support and also receive it more quickly.  

Sore Throat Test-and-treat Service

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the roll-out of the sore throat test-and-treat service? OAQ54359

Yes. Since the sore throat test-and-treat pilot started with 58 pharmacies in November last year, there have been 3,655 consultations recorded. Antibiotics were prescribed in only 752 cases, or 21 per cent. I'm delighted that the sore throat treat-and-test pilot won the innovation and technology category at the 2019 Antibiotic Guardian awards this year. This demonstrates Wales is at the forefront of innovation and investment in community pharmacy.

14:55

Thank you, Minister, for your response, and, just like my colleague Vikki Howells mentioned during business yesterday, I too have visited some excellent community pharmacies within my constituency of Alun and Deeside, and there's been some great work there taking place in taking forward and rolling out the innovative sore throat test-and-treat service.

Now, when I met staff recently, they highlighted two specific issues that I wish and, I think, appropriately today, you could address for us, Minister, given the fact that it is World Pharmacists Day. Firstly, on the issue of training, there is a concern that although this roll-out is going to be a vital part in dealing with the winter pressures, community pharmacists won't actually be trained until the new year. Minister, what is the Government doing to get them trained quicker so that people can experience the full benefits of the test?

Finally, Minister, on the roll-out in general, I'm really proud that Betsi has the highest level of roll-out, which is a great story for the health board but also for the people in north Wales. The tests have led to, as you mentioned, an 80 per cent reduction in the use of antibiotics, and has had roughly a 95 per cent positive patient response, including one of my constituents, Molly, who actually came up to me in the street and mentioned the test and recommended the test to me. So, it is a great way forward for Wales, but what's important is that it benefits everyone in Wales. So, Minister, what is the Government doing to get more consistency and less variability in the roll-out between health boards right across Wales?

Thank you for the question and the points made. I was aware that your neighbour in the Chamber had raised a similar issue in business questions yesterday. I will provide a written statement, setting out some more of the detail on what we're doing on rolling out this service, but it's worth addressing your point about training as well. I've invested £4.5 million in the future training of pharmacists to ensure we have a sustainable workforce, and that will carry on for the next few years and will nearly double the number of pharmacy training places in Wales.

We've already invested, in the last few years of the pharmacy contract, sums of money in investing in the workforce that we have in the here and now. Because the plan for the roll-out of the sore throat see-and-treat test is that we expect 50 per cent of community pharmacies across Wales to be able to provide that through the winter. And it's not just a winter pressures initiative; it is actually a part of the standard range of services we expect to see provided in community pharmacy locations. These are convenient locations, well-founded within communities, with trusted professionals who have relationships with people, so you will see more investment in the future of community pharmacies. This is just but one example. I'll happily provide the written statement that the Trefnydd had committed me to, and I'll be able to provide the details I think you and your fellow Members will be looking for.

I'm genuinely pleased on those occasions when even opposition Members should commend an action of the Welsh Government, and I do think this is a good scheme. I notice in the August edition of 'Clinical Pharmacist' the scheme is evaluated and praised and it does bring genuine innovation and relief. For many years, we've been trying to get people with minor ailments to seek the advice of a pharmacist—lower back pain, insomnia. There are a whole range of things where your first point of contact is often a pharmacist. So, I do hope that we will be seeing that continue. But it is a very promising scheme, so I do commend it.

Well, thank you, and I should just reiterate—I know I've said in this Chamber on a number of occasions, both when I was a Deputy Minister and, indeed, in my current role now—this is built on the back of the investment in the Choose Pharmacy platform. That's now available in 98 per cent of pharmacies. It allows us to invest in different and additional services within the community pharmacy sector. So, I am optimistic about our ability not just to roll forward this particular example, but that, in the future, we'll see more of those services being provided by healthcare professionals within the community.

The Misuse of Drugs

7. Will the Minister make a statement on the mortality rates associated with the misuse of drugs in Anglesey? OAQ54389

Thank you for the question. Any drug-related death is a tragedy, and we have increased our investment to tackle substance misuse. Mortality rates for misuse of drugs in Anglesey is 6.4 per 100,000, slightly below the Wales average at 7.2. Whilst there is a variation in those percentage points, this actually reflects an additional two drug-related deaths, or the misuse of drug deaths, on the island of Anglesey in the most recent figures.

15:00

I have become aware of what appears to be a concerning pattern of deaths on Anglesey in this latest period. I say that I’ve become aware of this, because, as far as I know, there’s no publicity on this. What I’ve had is people in our communities talking with me to share their concerns, and they see a pattern. I think I’m right to say that five deaths have occurred in the Llangefni area in a very short period of time recently. The concern, really, is that those who misuse drugs have been combining benzodiazepine with other substances with tragic consequences.

Now, having made enquiries to the coroner and police, it appears that data isn’t kept on that specific drug as a cause of death because it’s considered a contributory factor. May I ask the Government to look into these deaths to investigate into the possibility that there is a pattern here? May I ask what work is being undertaken to recognise how much of a problem taking a combination of drugs is? And can I appeal for additional support that is really required urgently in order to be able to offer help to those people who are misusing drugs, a number of them for a number of years, so that we can prevent more deaths?

I'd be grateful, so that I don't misunderstand the exact points that the Member is raising from local intelligence and concern, if he would write to me so that I can make sure that, whether it's the Government—or, indeed, asking the area planning board to look at this with their own local intelligence as well. The figures that I quoted earlier relate to the published figures of 2018, so it is possible that the Member is referring to misuse of drug deaths that have taken place after that. So, I'd be very grateful if he would write to me. I will look at that and I will then write back to him to explain how either we will look at it within the Government, or, indeed, how the information and intelligence is being shared and a response sought from the area planning board.

Since the Welsh Government published its 10-year substance misuse strategy in 2008 to tackle and reduce the harms associated with substance misuse in Wales, drug misuse deaths across Wales have risen from 569 to 858: in Anglesey, actually—up to the figures published in August by the Office for National Statistics—slightly better, down from 10 to eight, but, across north Wales, up from 81 to 98. And the ONS figures in August revealed that Wales had the second highest figures amongst the 10 areas—nine in England plus Wales—the second biggest increase in its rate over the last 10 years at 84 per cent, and the second highest age-standardised mortality rate for deaths related to drugs misuse by country and region. It is not a good picture.

Why is the Welsh Government still failing to address the recommendations made in a series of reports it commissioned during the second and third Assemblies on substance misuse treatment in Wales, particularly detox and rehab, to address the problems identified by Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and their review last July 2018—10 years after the strategy—that people found it difficult to get the treatment they needed from substitute prescribing and detox, rehab and counselling services because of long waiting times and a lack of capacity in services? The solutions were identified—why are we still waiting?

Actually, the data on waiting times shows that, in the last 10 years of the substance misuse strategy, we have seen a significant improvement in waiting times—91.5 per cent of people start treatment and are seen within 20 working days of referral, compared to 73 per cent 10 years ago. And our challenge is what our service is able to do, compared to the demand and the need coming into it and the broader challenges outside the health service that end up needing a health service response. So, I don't think it's as simple as Mark Isherwood paints the picture, that this is simply a case of the health service not doing its job. It is how we are able to deliver on seeing and treating people in a timely manner. It is also what we're able to do as a whole-society effort on the challenge of drug and alcohol misuse, and I do recognise that there are too many deaths from drug and alcohol misuse. It's part of why we have a recommitment to a future substance misuse strategy and it's also, for example, on the alcohol front, why we've committed to taking measures on the price of alcohol as a significant measure to reduce mortality as well.

Social Care Levy

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the cross-government work looking into a social care levy? OAQ54380

15:05

Yes, and I'd like to thank the Member for his work within Government on taking forward the work across Government on a potential social care levy. I now chair the ministerial board, and, over the last six months, we've considered potential methods to raise and distribute potential additional funding. Our current focus is on the principles of priority areas for any funding, and I look forward to being in a position to write to the health and social care committee with outline proposals, which we will broadly consult upon.

That's really welcome news, Minister, and I'm glad that the work is progressing in a considered way, steadily, because we can't rush at this. But he'll understand that, with the social care Green Paper in the UK Westminster Government still disappearing over the horizon like some sort of mirage, it is vitally important that we do do the work here in Wales, because I suspect at some point we will need to create our own solutions. There has also, of course, been talk within Welsh Government about a national care service as well, which would provide a valued career path for people who work within care, similar to what there is within the health service as well, rather than, as so often has been remarked, an alternative to stacking shelves or whatever—I think that denigrates the workforce, actually, but we know what that phrase means. So, could he tell us how he will take this work forward as it progresses, as he sees some of the outcomes of the work streams going on, in a cross-party way? Because what we do know is that far too often before, at a UK level particularly, this has crashed and burned against short-term politics and electoral cycles. In order to take this forward in Wales, if it comes to that, we will have to have cross-party agreement here in this Senedd to do that.

Yes, I recognise the point the Member makes, and, in fact, ahead of looking to consult on some outline suggestions about how we might raise and then make use of funding—and, of course, the rate at which staff are paid is part of that—I'll want to be able to have a conversation with the Chairs of our subject committees here. My office will be in touch to try and arrange a conversation, and we'll also be offering a technical briefing for the health and social care committee to look at some of those models so that we're open about what we're talking about, and to do that in a way that really does give us an opportunity to take this forward in a way that doesn't descend into a partisan contest. Because, whatever we think of the current UK Government—and there are many views available—it's not likely that we're going to have a social care Green Paper any time in the near future, so we need to know what we can do in Wales with the powers that we have.

On this point, on a cross-party basis, backbenchers in Westminster have come together and agreed that they should raise additional money to put into the social care system. That was a unanimous view from two select committees that came together, including members of the Conservative Party, Labour and others as well, who all agreed that you needed to raise money. So, there's a willingness to look at a UK level for that, but I think in Wales we'll need to look at that before we get to that point. We can then take account, if progress is made at any point in the future, of UK funding streams and what that might mean. But, yes, I'm happy to indicate now, and I'll be following that up with conversations between my office and the committee, and, indeed, I hope that party spokespeople would be open to a conversation about that when we have those outline proposals, because nothing is determined and decided at this point.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, we already have people who are leaving Wales to live in other parts of the home nations in order to be able to access drugs that they cannot access here. So, given Jeremy Corbyn's giveaway speech at conference, when he talked about having social care free at the point of delivery, could you confirm whether or not that is one of the work streams that this cross-party group is currently working on? If so, are they also looking at the costings, really to prevent a mass exodus from Wales?

I don't think anything from yesterday should lead to a mass exodus from Wales, and I don't recognise what the Member said about a mass exodus from Wales on the basis of the availability of medication. We have a very good record on the availability of new and effective medication, as our successful new treatment fund demonstrates. But, on your point about social care, when we share outline consultation proposals, those will have an idea about the sort of funds that that would be required to deliver. So, we'll be open with each other about what different options might mean in terms of how we use funding, as well as how you could raise that funding as well. So, yes, if you want to have the maximalist approach to having the maximum available social care, then we will be able to set out what that would require, and we'll be looking to consult on a wide basis. I'll certainly be wanting to make use of the citizen panels that exist around each regional partnership board, together with the mix of parties that lead local authorities. They'll all have a stake in this and in fact the WLGA are part of the work that we're doing in the programme board. So, it's being genuinely taken forward on a cross-sector basis—and indeed a cross-party basis, I'm sure the Member will be delighted to hear.

15:10
3. Topical Questions

Thank you, Minister. The next item is topical questions. I have selected one question to be asked to the Minister for Economy and Transport, and the question is from Bethan Sayed.

Thomas Cook

1. What is the Welsh Government doing to help those impacted by the closure of Thomas Cook? 341

Llywydd, can I say that the collapse of Thomas Cook is extremely disappointing? My thoughts are of course with all of those affected by the announcement. I issued a written statement yesterday outlining the range of actions I've initiated and my officials are of course maintaining very close contact with Cardiff Airport, UK Government and various other agencies.

Thank you very much for that written statement. To start on a positive, I'd like to ask you if you'd join with me in praising Elaine Kerslake from Gilfach Goch, who arranged a whip-round on a flight that she was coming back from on Thomas Cook because she realised that the staff were not being paid. Therefore, would you want to praise her for doing that? But also would you join with me, therefore, in asking those managers and CEOs of Thomas Cook, who reportedly earned £35 million in 12 years in bonuses despite the financial problems that they had—would you ask for them to pay back—join with me in asking for them to pay back those bonuses in the face of this particular sensitive situation, where we're finding that Thomas Cook staff are not being paid when those CEOs have benefited from the downfall of that particular company?

My other question to you would be—in my area at least, there are many Thomas Cook shops and staff will be adversely affected. I know that you mention in your written statement how you will be supporting staff, which I'm thankful for, but could you expand on that, and also how you would potentially be supporting the infrastructure around those shops on our high streets that will need to be facilitated in the future—can they be taken over by other travel agents or other such companies that may aid the high street in that regard—and also tell us a bit more about how staff in general in Wales will be supported?

Now, we all know that travellers have been affected, and many of them have come to me, but one case in particular did make me feel concerned—a constituent of mine couldn't get home on the Cardiff flight that was allocated to them because of disabilities that they had and therefore had to pay for their own flight. Can you assure us that you're looking into these types of situations so that travellers are able to travel back in the comfort that they need and with the support that they need if they do have those disabilities? We can't forget those people who are vulnerable when they are seeking to travel home. But I would like to share—with everybody else, I'm sure, in this Chamber—how sad we are that this has happened and how we can potentially as a nation support those staff and those affected.

Can I thank Bethan Jenkins for her questions and the concerns that she's expressed, not just for those affected who've been travelling with Thomas Cook, but also for employees at the company? I'd like to put on record my thanks to the kind woman from Gilfach who helped to raise money for people who are facing unemployment. I thought that was a selfless act, and the response from other passengers on board, I think, was quite incredible.

Can I also put on record my thanks to the Civil Aviation Authority and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office? When Operation Matterhorn commenced, a Herculean effort began to bring 150,000 people back to the United Kingdom and UK Government Ministers and I were clear that this would not be an easy task, but the way in particular that the Civil Aviation Authority have conducted themselves and have managed this situation is incredible, and I'm sure that many people who have been brought home as a result of their efforts will join me in thanking them—likewise the FCO, who are on the ground in so many countries doing an incredible job in providing support to British citizens.

I'm going to take up a unique case that Bethan Jenkins has identified, but one that does concern me, and that is the decision by a passenger with a disability to pay for their own flight home. Something that the Secretary of State for Transport and I were concerned to check on before Operation Matterhorn commenced was that there would be provision available for people who are disabled, and that would be prioritised: not just provision to get to a plane—an alternative service and onto that plane—but also onward transport when they returned home. We were given assurance that transport for disabled people would be provided as a priority. If the Member can provide me with information about the particular constituent, I will, of course, take up that matter with UK Government and with the Civil Aviation Authority.

I’m afraid to say that a significant number of people will be affected by the demise of Thomas Cook. We estimate that 179.5 full-time equivalents will be affected in Wales alone through the shops closing, and an additional 45 members of staff at Cardiff Airport. The Working Wales programme will be available to them as part of that. ReAct, a tried-and-tested intervention, will be available to them. We have regional response teams across Wales ready to assist anybody who is affected by the collapse of Thomas Cook, and I would urge any Members who are approached by businesses that are affected as well by the collapse of the company to direct them to the Business Wales hotline for assistance.

I think Bethan Jenkins makes a very important point that in many of our communities—and I was looking through the list of where some of the Thomas Cooks are located—many of them will be severely impacted by the closure of those shops. In many of the high streets that I can identify before me, there are very few such services, and to have another shop close in some of those places will, of course, be pretty devastating, which is why I and the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government are keen to progress a 'town centre first' initiative that would see the public sector, and indeed the private sector, prioritise investment within town centres to stimulate a greater degree the economic resilience within them. This won’t be an easy task, but it is one that we must embark on.

And just one final point as well, and that regards the action of the CEOs. I’m pleased to note that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has initiated an inquiry into corporate actions, and I think it would only be right and proper to await the outcome of that before commenting on it.

15:15

Can I also align my views to the other Members who have spoken in regard to the sympathy for those staff who are affected and, of course, the many other people that have been affected and are still being affected as well? I am pleased, Minister, in regard to the hotline that’s been set up that you referred to in regard to Working Wales—I think that’s the right approach. I wonder what support that you consider the Welsh Government may need to provide to Cardiff Airport. There is a challenge here in that the airport has lost a major airline that carries 100,000 passengers every year. So, I was somewhat surprised, but maybe you can elaborate on this, to read in your statement yesterday that you think that there will be a limited impact on the airport. It may be very difficult for the airport to find a new airline partner to replace Thomas Cook in advance of next year’s busy summer season, and of course you'll be aware that the airport has lost £23 million since 2014. So, do you feel that Cardiff Airport needs some support and could you outline what support you think it may need? And also, what initial analysis have you done in regard to the impact of Thomas Cook’s collapse on the financial stability of Cardiff Airport?

Can I thank Russell George for his questions and for joining other Members in this Chamber in thanking organisations and bodies such as the CAA for their work and efforts in recent days? I’m going to focus specifically on the issue of Cardiff international airport, which was the primary focus of Russell George’s questions.

In terms of the financial sustainability of the airport post collapse of Thomas Cook, it is indeed true that it will not have a major impact on the airport, and that is because, as part of the due diligence of the application process for the loan that we provided to Cardiff international airport, we modelled a number of scenarios. One of those scenarios included the impact that the collapse of an airline would have on the airport. The model that we took was a larger airline, and, therefore, the viability of the airport is very much intact, in spite of the collapse of Thomas Cook.

However, I think the Member raises an important point concerning the long-term ownership and sustainability of the airport, and that is something that I'll be bringing back to this Chamber in the autumn. It's quite incredible; we tend to think in the UK that airports as a default should be privately owned, but this is not the case globally. I think in total there are around 4,300 airports that have service scheduled flights, but only 14 per cent of those are not in public ownership. Even airports like JFK are owned by the public. So, it's actually the model globally for airports to be owned by the public, and that should be the same for Cardiff Airport, in my view. The airport is speaking on a very regular basis with alternative airlines, other airlines that it's trying to attract into the facility, and I am very confident, based on the very recent discussions that have taken place, that new airlines will be attracted and will be providing new routes from and to Cardiff Airport.

But if I could just say, there are two major challenges that airlines are facing right now, airlines that operate from a UK base. One concerns the spending power of UK citizens, which has reduced overseas because of the fall in the value of the pound, and therefore the difficulty in attracting UK citizens to go abroad. And then the second challenge that is facing us as a consequence of uncertainties around Brexit is the fall in the pound and the fact that fuel is priced in dollars, and therefore the cost of operating airlines that are based in the UK has risen. Therefore, the sector itself is clearly in a very fragile and precarious position. 

15:20

May I also add my sympathies to the staff, as outlined by Bethan and by Russell—those staff working in the shops in Wales, but also to the staff in the whole operation of the airline? Would the First Minister not agree with me that, even if it were desirable to bail out Thomas Cook—and given the apparent appalling management structure, it probably wouldn't be—the UK Government could well fall foul of the European state aid rules if they were to try to bail out the company? And there is one point with regard to the return of passengers from abroad. Apparently, once a company or an airline goes into liquidation, all the aircraft owned by that company are grounded. It's apparent that, back when Monarch collapsed, the UK Government said that they would change the rules. So, could the Welsh Government consider making representations to the UK Government to have the rules changed with regard to it, so those aircraft could be freed up to bring passengers home at times like this?

Absolutely. I'll consider doing that without a shadow of a doubt. I must say that the ability of the Civil Aviation Authority, though, to have identified 45 aircraft to bring passengers back was astonishing. It's a real credit to them that they were able to do that in such a small window of opportunity. I think it's a matter for UK Government to consider whether or not it should have bailed out Thomas Cook. I'm not privy, and I doubt I will ever be privy, to the due diligence it's undertaken. Therefore, I accept the word of Ministers within the UK Government when they say that it wouldn't have been a sustainable and affordable option. I know that people have raised the question of whether it should have been brought into public ownership. That's probably a matter for Members in the House of Commons to raise. But, as I say, I have not been in receipt of any intelligence that has been provided through the due diligence process.

4. 90-second Statements

The next item is the 90-second statement. Angela Burns.

Today is World Pharmacists Day, a time to recognise the contribution that pharmacists and their teams make to world heath. Co-ordinated by the international pharmaceutical federation, World Pharmacists Day brings to the fore the varied work pharmacists undertake in various countries. For example, in Africa, pharmacists provide health education seminars and manage clinics for chronic diseases such as mental health disorders, HIV, diabetes and hypertension.

Specifically for us in Wales, pharmacists play a key role in the provision of NHS services, ranging from flu jabs and health checks to advice on all manner of illnesses and minor injuries, such as the innovative sore throat test and treat. And I know, as a mother, I was constantly, when my children were young, in the pharmacy asking for help. Wonderful people. 

So, with the emphasis on encouraging people to choose well and to seek help from the appropriate service level depending on their need, this year's World Pharmacists Day theme of safe and effective medicines for all promotes the crucial role that pharmacists play in safeguarding patient safety by improving the use of medicines and reducing medication errors. 

The discharge medicines review service in Wales is a great example of where medicine errors are being minimised through the use of data, but there's more to do and best practice to be disseminated. So, Members, I would ask that you all recognise the role that pharmacists play in delivering safe and effective healthcare, and to pharmacists throughout Wales, I say, probably on behalf of all of us, a very heartfelt 'thank you'. 
 
 

15:25
5. Debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee report: Voting Rights for Prisoners

The next item, item 5, is the debate on the Equality, Local Government and communities Committee report on voting rights for prisoners. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—John Griffiths.

Motion NDM7139 John Griffiths

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

Notes the report of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, 'Voting rights for prisoners', which was laid in the Table Office on 11 June 2019.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr. I'm pleased to open today's debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee's report on voting rights for prisoners.

I would like to start by thanking all those who contributed to our inquiry, either by giving written or oral evidence; the members of the public who contributed to our online discussion forum, and the respectful manner in which differences of opinion were discussed and debated, especially as these are matters of some controversy; and the prison staff and prisoners we spoke to during our visits to Her Majesty's Prison Parc and to Her Majesty's Prison Eastwood Park. Both gave us a real insight into the practicalities of introducing any change, but also enabled us to explore the broader points of principle with those most affected by any change, prisoners themselves. They were interesting and informative discussions. 

Having taken evidence, and after very careful consideration and weighing up of the ethical, practical and legal arguments, the majority of the committee recommended giving more prisoners the vote. As I said earlier, this is, of course, a controversial issue, and we were very conscious of the impact any change might have on victims of crime and explored this with all our witnesses. 

Part of the background to these matters is the ruling that the UK Government was in breach of the European convention on human rights by having a blanket ban on prisoner voting. Limited changes were then introduced, allowing prisoners on remand and on temporary licence, for example, to vote. The European Court of Human Rights has been clear that the right to vote is not a privilege. It has said that the presumption should be for including as many people as possible in democracy. Prisoners retain other rights when they enter prison. They may lose their liberty, but they do not lose their basic rights. I believe voting is such a right. 

One of the most compelling arguments we heard was that prisoners remain citizens of society. This was something that came across very strongly during our discussions at the prisons. We heard that many strive to stay an active part of their families' lives, despite the physical barriers. Llywydd, I would say that criminal justice policy in the UK results in overcrowded prisons, a lack of rehabilitation and high reoffending rates and that more effective reintegration into society means less crime and fewer victims of crime. It benefits our communities in general as well as ex-offenders and their families. Voting may be a small but significant signal towards a more enlightened and productive approach.

Removing the right to vote is also part of a process that treats prisoners as outsiders: they are not like the rest of us and should be treated differently. This is not good for them and not good for wider society. It hinders the process of reform and does not help with reducing reoffending or social cohesion. Many stakeholders told us they believe enfranchisement would help. Lady Hale, now President of the UK Supreme Court, as we've heard quite a lot about recently, said that retaining the vote would encourage civic responsibility and reintegration. It is also an important symbol. While there is not extensive empirical evidence to support this view, we were persuaded by the stakeholders who said that greater inclusion when in prison would help rehabilitation upon release. There are also a number of other arguments that informed our final views, such as international precedent, and the disproportionate effect the ban has on certain groups of people.

Llywydd, we then needed to consider what the franchise would look like. We ruled out basing it on the type of offence or release date, and settled on sentence length. I, along with some of the members of the committee, supported full enfranchisement. However, after careful discussion, we decided to recommend including prisoners serving sentences of less than four years. We felt that this was a suitable compromise that balanced the need for a simple electoral franchise; is easy to understand, which was a very strong theme throughout our evidence; is mindful of acknowledging the view of public opinion, which is against all prisoners having the right to vote; and ensures compliance with the European court judgment. It also recognises the significance the criminal justice system accords to four-year sentences, which are subject to less favourable terms for early release.

Llywydd, I'm very pleased that the Welsh Government has accepted our key recommendation and will be seeking to legislate to make changes for both Assembly and local government elections. I believe this shows real political leadership, and indicates that Wales remains at the forefront of respecting human rights. I would, however, like to seek some further clarity. The Llywydd and the Minister confirmed in correspondence that changes to the Assembly franchise will be taken forward by the Welsh Government. In her letter, the Minister said she would be seeking an appropriate legislative vehicle. But while she committed to changing the franchise for local government in this Assembly term, there is not the same commitment for the Assembly. So, Minister, I would be grateful if you could provide some clarity on your thinking on this, and whether the change will be in place for the next Assembly elections in 2021. The current provisions in the Government of Wales Act 2006 clearly link the Assembly and local government electoral franchises. If, Minister, you are not making the changes to both at the same time, can you outline if you are seeking to decouple them on a temporary basis? It is worth noting the evidence we received from the Electoral Commission that they should be consistent.

While I have focused then on the broader issues of whether prisoners should have the vote, our report also looked at the practicalities around method of voting, information and campaigning. I would ask the Minister to give an update on how discussions with the UK Government on the issues raised by the committee in recommendations 5, 6 and 10 are progressing. These specifically relate to designating an election co-ordinator within the prison staff, ensuring that all eligible prisoners are registered to vote and are supported to take part in relevant elections, and providing access to Welsh media for those prisons with a sizeable Welsh population.

Llywydd, I now look forward to hearing other Members' views on these important matters. I'm sure it will be an interesting debate because this has been a very interesting piece of work for the committee, and, I'm sure, for Assembly Members in general.

15:30

Joyce Watson took the Chair.

Prison is the sharp end of our justice system, and an important and integral part of the criminal justice system in every country. Depriving someone of their liberty for a period of time is one of the most significant powers available to the state. Prison plays a crucial role in upholding the rule of law, by helping to ensure that alleged offenders are brought to justice, and by providing a sanction for serious wrongdoing. Its core purpose is threefold: protection of the public; punishment, depriving offenders of freedoms enjoyed by the rest of society and acting as a deterrent; and rehabilitation, providing offenders with the opportunity to reflect on and take responsibility for their crimes, and prepare them for a law-abiding life when they're released.

As we heard in Parc prison, few prisoners would either use a right to vote or see it as an incentive to rehabilitate. The committee admits in the report that the empirical evidence to support the theory that voting aids rehabilitation is 'limited'. The report also notes that when Cardiff prison took steps to encourage prisoners on remand to register to vote at the last election, not one took up the opportunity. Our focus should instead be on giving offenders opportunities to build positive lives. Rights go with responsibilities, and not voting is just one of the facts of life arising from being in prison, reflecting a decision by the community that the person concerned is not suitable to participate in the decision-making process of a community.

Following the European Court judgment referred to, some 17 per cent of prisoners are already eligible to vote. Prisoners in the community, on a temporary licence, can now vote, and both unconvicted prisoners being held on remand and civil prisoners jailed for offences such as contempt of court also already have the right to vote, although very few do. The UK Government has also said that it should be made more clear to people given prison sentences that they will not have the right to vote while in prison.

This report quotes a Welsh Government consultation, in which 50 per cent agreed that prisoners should be allowed to register to vote, and an Assembly Commission consultation, in which 49 per cent agreed that prisoners should be able to vote in Assembly elections if they were due for release during the period for which Members were being elected to serve. However, both these consultation responses were self-selective, rather than weighted representative samples. In contrast, only 9 per cent of people in Wales said that all prisoners should be allowed to vote in a 2017 YouGov survey.

It is not having boundaries that contributes to offending, but a lack of them. It is concerning that some committee members believed in the principle of votes for all prisoners. But despite that, the committee, as we've heard, only recommended that the Welsh Government and National Assembly legislate to give Welsh prisoners serving custodial sentences of less than four years the right to vote in devolved elections. For the reasons already outlined, Mohammad Asghar and I could not agree with that recommendation.

Responding to this report, the Welsh Government stated that it will work to introduce legislation in this Assembly to enable prisoners from Wales serving a custodial sentence of less than four years to vote in devolved local government elections. Responding on behalf of the Assembly Commission, the Llywydd stated that it does not consider that amendments should be introduced to the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill to address this issue. In a letter to the committee Chair last week, the Welsh Government added that it is committed to the principle of prisoner voting in all local elections, and it will seek an appropriate legislative vehicle at the earliest opportunity to enable prisoners from Wales to vote in Assembly elections on the same terms as will apply for local government elections.

To be clear, according to the Law Pages, giving the vote to prisoners serving a custodial sentence of less than four years will include those convicted of having a blade or sharp point in a public place, racially aggravated common assault, racially aggravated criminal damage, procurement of a woman by threats, attempted incest by a man with a girl over 13, abduction of an unmarried girl, causing prostitution of women, soliciting by men, ill-treatment of patients, assault with intent to resist arrest, and procuring others to commit homosexual acts, and many more. It is this that Labour and Plaid Cymru are supporting, further evidencing, dare I say, the growing gap between the expressed will of the people of Wales and their elected so-called representatives here.

15:35

I'm pleased that we're having this debate, and I'm just really disappointed at the Conservatives' contribution, not just today, but in the inquiry as well. I must admit that when our committee embarked on this inquiry I was sceptical. As a former probation officer, who keeps a keen interest in the justice system even though it isn't devolved, I thought it would be odd for us, as a committee, to rock up to various prisons to talk to prisoners about something that was in our interest. We're well aware of the range of problems that prisoners face, from homelessness to drug and alcohol problems, mental health, family breakdown, abuse, domestic violence, yet we were not going to the prisons to talk to people about those issues, we were asking prisoners and staff instead about their views on voting, presumably for us. I have to say that I felt a bit uncomfortable about it all. But how wrong could I be?

It soon became clear, on our visits, to HMP Parc and HMP Eastwood Park that some of these prisoners could see a way through our inquiry of putting their concerns on the agenda by having the vote. At present, who is listening to them? Do they have a voice at all? No, they don't. Prisoners have been forgotten and marginalised by policy makers, politicians and wider society, and here we have an opportunity to do something to change that.

There are disagreements as to the purpose of prison. Is prison solely about punishment? Should we make life in prison so awful for people that they would see it as a deterrent and be absolutely determined never to go back? If that's how we see it, then conditions and rights don't matter. Yet people then end up wondering why people who go through the prison system come out more damaged and more criminally inclined. Prison without a rehabilitation element is little more than a crime factory.

My view is that prison should not only be a punishment, but it should also be a tool to protect the public and to try and rehabilitate the person so that they don't commit further offences on release. A rehabilitative approach results in lower crime and a safer society, as any honest comparison between Scandinavian countries and the UK would reveal. We should be aiming to reduce the prison population by rehabilitating more people and treating people like the citizens that they are and that we want them to be. It is for these reasons that I support extending the franchise to prisoners and I endorse the recommendations of this committee report.

Being given the opportunity to vote is a reminder to prisoners that they are still a citizen despite being punished for a crime. It's a reminder that they are going to be released one day and that there are expectations on them as a citizen. Being allowed to put that cross in that box can help to reintegrate and include prisoners in wider society.

For me, although I was initially sceptical as to the usefulness of this inquiry to the prison population, I became more and more convinced that it was the right thing to do. It is nothing short of a scandal that if you are a woman sentenced to prison that you have to be incarcerated in another country with no access to your family, to the Welsh news, to your rehabilitation network and that alone should be a good enough reason to devolve the criminal justice system, so that we can do something just about that.

Voting is not a privilege and it shouldn't be seen as such. Voting is something that we should want all of our citizens to be doing. For me, this is a question where Wales could signal that we could things differently, more humanely with more compassion. This report gives the Government such an opportunity and I very much hope it takes it up.

15:40

I'm delighted to speak in support of the recommendations that came out of this committee, and to welcome as well the way in which John stewarded this committee. We heard an immense amount of evidence—those people who came in front of us, the visits that we made as well, where we spoke with prison governors, prison staff, front-line staff and also with people who are incarcerated themselves. I want to thank all those people who gave evidence, but particularly the way in which Members dealt with hearing that evidence as well. There were differences of opinion on this committee—they've come out in the report in terms of the main recommendation that we've come to—but we have done it in, I think, a temperate way. We've recognised those differences. I would simply say to Mark: I'm not a so-called representative. I am a representative in this institution, as everybody else is. Don't denigrate the role of myself or others by calling me a so-called representative.

However, if I can turn to the substance there, the report is balanced, because it does actually look at the arguments for and against as well. It makes clear that, as the European Convention on Human Rights has said, voting rights are not absolute rights—universal rights. That is exactly why this committee was looking at it. To what extent do we reflect public opinion? To what extent do we want to show leadership as well? But there is clearly, also, by international evidence, but also the pressure that's been put on the UK Government over successive years and years, a mood that we should actually look at this and see how much further we could go, very much because of the arguments that Leanne and the report put, which are that, whilst it might not be a universal, absolute right, we should be looking to individuals who are in prison not as—. Some will be lifelong prisoners, and some, including women we met, who said, 'Well, I've got children outside of this prison. I'm in here for a very short time. My children are in school. My children will be receiving care while I'm away from here. I have no say whatsoever in—'. Yet, still, those people who are in prison—all of them—will pay tax on earnings, tax on savings et cetera whilst they're in. So, it's a curious anomaly.

The report is balanced. It recognises—Mark, you're absolutely right—that the public does not support voting rights for prisoners. It does also reflect that the public mood is changing, and has changed on this as well. Sometimes, there's a need for us, as elected representatives, to actually signal a course—a direction of travel. I won't embarrass the Minister, but when she came in front of us in committee, I said, 'Minister, what is your mood toward all of this?', because I was slightly sceptical. I thought the Government might park this and kick this into the long grass: 'What an interesting committee report this is. We'll come back to this in five years or 10 years' time.' And I said to her, 'Do you see yourself, possibly, being the Roy Jenkins here of the Welsh Government Ministers on this issue?'—not that you should go above and beyond, and not that you should try and be cavalier in the way—. But look at the evidence and decide what is the right, progressive policy that balances those interests of people like the victims' commissioner, who came in front of us and spoke quite passionately about her concerns about the victims' side, but also very much that issue of rehabilitation—the fact that these people remain citizens, because they are paying tax, they have children outside in schools et cetera. So, I think it's quite balanced.

Now, the compromise we came to is a compromise. There were different views on the committee. There were those of us who supported, for simplicity but also on basic principles, the actual universal extension of that suffrage within there. Many of the witnesses who appeared in front of us actually supported that as well, for the very same reasons. But we recognised that, on the committee, because there were such differences of opinion, we should look at something that was practical, that was simple, that was deliverable and that wasn't overcomplex. We looked at many different possibilities within that, and the one we've settled on, of sentences of four years or less, gives that, I think, simplicity and clarity, and it gives that clear message that Wales, even if the UK Government won't move, could actually move forward and show a clear signal that we believe in the principles of rehabilitation—in the principles that these people, many of whom will be passing through prison, will be back living with us, alongside us and reintegrated in society, and bringing their children up and working in careers and so on and so forth. I think that's an important principle.

So, I welcome this and I welcome the response of the Government as well. My only query would be to echo what the Chair has said: what are we talking here about timescales of taking this forward? I think there is an opportunity here for the Welsh Government to show some leadership on this and, perhaps, who knows, the UK Government will follow suit in due course.

15:45

I thank the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee for their report on voting rights for prisoners. I was not a member of the committee during their inquiry, but had I been, I would have joined Mark Isherwood and Mohammad Asghar in opposing the recommendations. It must be noted that prisoners on remand do have the right to vote, and I do not agree with the premise that prisoners should be allowed to vote.

The right to vote, a right that people died to secure and a right that people have died to protect, is linked to our citizenship. Citizens of good standing, those who abide by the rules and laws of our society, gain the right to decide who makes the laws.

15:50

It's simply to make the point: would you recognise that there is a significant proportion of the prison population that are actually ex-servicepeople? They're veterans who actually served our country on the front line, and they have got into the situation where they are in prison for a time. For us to write them off when we want them to be back and reintegrated into society is an unusual message.

Nobody has written anyone off, Huw, but what I am saying is that when people are rehabilitated, then they have the right to come back in and have that vote.

It’s been a long-established practice in our country that those who break the laws of our nation lose the right to have any say in the making of those laws, and we should not abandon that practice. By breaking our laws, prisoners have demonstrated their disregard for our society and its citizens, along with the victims of their crimes, and in every crime there is a victim. They should not have a say in how our country is run. I wholeheartedly reject any move to give prisoners the vote.

I also question the decision to set the cut-off at sentences of four years or less. This practically means that all prisoners serving time in Welsh prisons will be entitled to vote, as Wales does not have any category A prisons. Even Scotland has not gone this far—they set the cut-off date at 12 months. So, I do not support the committee’s recommendations and, in what must be a first for me, I am calling on the Welsh Government to consider the implications and reject those recommendations, because not only does this go against the wishes of the wider public, those pushing for this change accept it is broadly unacceptable to ordinary voters. So, once again, politicians are stating that they know what is best, and disregard public opinion. We are put here to serve our constituents, and we simply can’t simply ignore their wishes, whatever our own personal opinions may be. So, if Welsh Government press ahead with this policy, they will be—

Not another one, sorry.

They will be demonstrating how out of touch they really are with public opinion. By giving the vote to those who reject our society’s rules, you are in danger of disillusioning ordinary voters—voters who won’t turn out at future elections because they refuse to vote for an out-of-touch political elite. And for what? A handful of votes from people convicted of a criminal offence. Having worked in the prison service, I can tell you that the turnout, in somewhere like HMP Parc, will be nowhere near the 33 per cent who voted at the last Assembly election.

And for the reasons I have stated, I urge Members to reject these proposals.

This report by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, of which I was previously a member, makes 11 recommendations. The main recommendation is that Welsh prisoners who are serving custodial sentences of less than four years should have the right to vote in devolved Welsh elections. My colleague Mark Isherwood and I disagreed with this recommendation. I do so again today.

I object to this proposal in principle, and for practical reasons also. We as a society produce a framework of laws setting out standards of responsibility and commitment that we expect our citizens to maintain. People who have committed crimes against their fellow citizens do not meet those standards. So, if these people are not willing to follow the law, why should they have a role in making the law for everyone else?

The First Minister himself said in this Chamber yesterday, Presiding Officer, and the quote is:

'people who decide to be law makers give up the right to be law breakers.'

I believe the opposite is also true. There has been much talk of prisoners' civil liberty, but imprisonment, by definition, involves the suspension of the right to liberty. Civil liberties in a democracy combine the right to vote with the right to stand for election, freedom for association, assembly and movement. Offenders serving prison sentences are deprived of these civil liberties as a consequence of their actions. I strongly believe in the rehabilitation of offenders. The restoration of the right to vote demonstrates that an individual has paid their debt to society. It should be seen as an incentive to integrate offenders back into civic society. So, in principle, I object this proposal.

But there are also practical arguments against. The fact is, these proposals create a bureaucratic nightmare for staff employed in our already hard-pressed prison services. This report proposes that all prisons, wherever they are, have Welsh prisoners appointed an election co-ordinator within the prison staff. This represents an additional burden on prison staff. Wales does not have any women prisons, so Welsh women—

15:55

Given that the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, was found guilty of breaking the law this week, do you think he should now not have the right to vote?

Look, he did not harm the country. You're the one harming the country.