Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd19/11/2019
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
I have received notification, under Standing Order 12.58, that the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething, will answer questions today on behalf of the First Minister. And the first question is from Siân Gwenllian.
1. Will the First Minister provide an update on train services across north Wales? OAQ54704
Yes. The Welsh Government continues to work with Transport for Wales to improve train services around north Wales, for the north-east Wales metro, whilst investing in station improvements and the building of at least five new stations in north Wales.
Last week, there was confirmation that the situation with the Transport for Wales Pacers still hasn't been resolved, and if no agreement is reached, then there is a risk that some of them may have to be withdrawn from our railways, and that will, obviously, mean that services will decline for the people of Wales. So, can I just give your Government a word of warning? Don't think that you can downgrade services in north Wales by withdrawing trains from the tracks, and through running fewer services, in order for the more densely populated areas to have those trains, and to fill the gaps in losing these Pacers. The service provided across north Wales at the moment, and, indeed, from Cardiff to north Wales, is a joke.
Well, I'm happy to confirm again that we're waiting a decision that's due at the end of November about the ability to continue with our current stock, because this Government certainly does not want to see a diminution in services because of the issues about the stock. This is in the hands of the UK Government, and the Minister for Economy and Transport has made clear his willingness and his desire to have this decision reached promptly. But I am happy to confirm to the Member that, far from disinvesting in north Wales, they are part of the national programme of investment, and, more than that, there will be new services from the middle of December onwards, between Machynlleth and Pwllheli, between Llandudno Junction and Llandudno, and also between Llandudno Junction and Blaenau Ffestiniog. This is a Government that is committed to continue to invest in every part of Wales. We finally take control of the franchise.
In the March 2016 budget, the UK Government announced it was opening the door to a growth deal for north Wales, and that would embrace the Growth Track 360 document from the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, with ambitious proposals for rail infrastructure across the region. The Welsh Government says it's developing a high-quality and integrated transport system across north Wales. At the beginning of this month, the two Governments—UK and Welsh Governments—together with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, signed the heads of terms and agreed seven programmes that will form the basis of the north Wales growth deal from next year, including strategic transport. What provision thus far has therefore been agreed for those programmes to prioritise rail, not just in the north-east and cross-border, although critical, but across the region, to Gwynedd and Anglesey too?
Well, the transport Minister set out previously the investment that we're making not only in the north Wales growth deal, but in particular in the north-east Wales metro as well. And we are pleased to be working together with partners, not just the UK Government—of course, we part-fund the north Wales growth deal—but working together with the North Wales Economic Ambition Board. I think this Government has a track record to be proud of in terms of wanting to promote north Wales for its economic activity and, indeed, investing in transport infrastructure.
You boast here that the service is a proper service, but you only have to look at your own Twitter feed today to realise just how many complaints there are from Welsh football supporters, who have found that there is no room for them on trains from north Wales to travel down to see the game this evening. So, where is the management and the forecasting for these services, knowing quite well that there would be thousands of people travelling from north Wales? Once again, you're failing.
No, look, we are continuing to invest in a programme of investment in railway services across Wales, and in particular in north Wales too. We have been clear about the need to do that over a period of time, and the significant investment that is coming not only in new facilities at stations, but in new services, new capacities and, indeed, a range of measures to make sure that fares are cheaper for young people, in particular, to travel on the rail service—. We have a track record to be proud of. There is more to be done, and I'm proud to work alongside the Minister for Economy and Transport Minister to do just that.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on organ donation rates in Wales? OAQ54696
Thank you. We are proud to be the first country in the UK to introduce a system of deemed consent. Last year saw the highest ever number of organ donors in Wales and the highest consent rate in the UK, at 77 per cent.
Diolch. As you've said, Wales has the highest organ donor rates in the United Kingdom and this is a huge success story. As the Minister will be aware, one individual donating their organs can transform the lives of eight other people at least. So, can I ask what more is the Welsh Government doing to promote organ donation within families to address the small number of family refusals for organ donation? And also, with organs from Welsh donors being part of a pan-European database of organs, what discussions have you had about any post-Brexit challenges?
Well, the Member will know, on Brexit, it's one of the issues of concern that we've raised about tissue transfer between different European nations, and that's still unresolved. We don't yet know about our future relationship with Europe, and I'm very clear about what that relationship should be.
On your broader points, though, about organ donation specifically here in Wales, I continue to fund, as the health Minister, the annual and ongoing communications campaign and, in the last two years, we have made a particular point of wanting to encourage people to have that conversation with their family and their loved ones, so that their voice, their choice and their preference is respected should they be in a position to become an organ donor. And, actually, the feedback from that has been really positive, and it demonstrates there's still a very high level of understanding of the system here in Wales shown by the number of people that are positively opting in to the register to register the choice to become an organ donor.
Obviously, organ donation requires a huge amount of professionalism and dedication from the staff involved in that particular field of medicine. Our staff are the backbone of the NHS, health Minister, as you, hopefully, will agree with me. Would you, therefore, offer an apology today for your party's actions in their party political broadcast by using an actress to mimic a nurse's remarks when this is totally misleading and actually impinges on the professionalism of the health workers who work across our wonderful health service?
I think there are two issues here. The first is that my party, not the Government, but my party acted promptly when discovering that the production firm had, without the agreement of the Labour Party, used an actor in the party political broadcast. That has been withdrawn and is not being circulated. The second point is that having made a point about wanting to praise staff within the NHS, to then segue into a rather cheap shot about the health service I really don't think does you many favours at all. And, in fact, in this area of organ donation, the transplant unit in Cardiff is one of the most innovative centres within the UK. It has a high satisfaction rate, a high quality rate and, for example, is engaged in arrangements taking forward the ability to transplant—for example, the work they're doing on people with hepatitis C.
I think, actually, if you want to underscore the value of our staff within the national health service, you look again at the way in which you talk about the health service and the way in which you choose to talk about the investment that we continue to make in our national health service here in Wales.
Questions now from the party leaders, and, on behalf of Plaid Cymru, Helen Mary Jones.
Diolch, Llywydd, and I'm sure I speak for everyone today in the Chamber wishing our First Minister a speedy recovery. Can I draw the Minister's attention to the joint Wales Audit Office and Healthcare Inspectorate Wales report into governance arrangements at Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Local Health Board that was published yesterday? I'm sure that, once again, our thoughts will be with the families affected by the catastrophic failing in maternity services. This report will make hard reading for them, as it will for the front-line staff, because it is clear that a lot of what went so terribly wrong could have been avoided, and that both the staff and the families were let down by failures of management and scrutiny.
The report raises concerns that this was a board that appeared from the outside to be performing well if you measured them against the Welsh Government's targets, and that the pressure to meet financial targets skewed the board's focus away from the quality of patient experience. Now, I would ask the Minister, given that he sets the targets, whether he accepts that, given that, despite eight reports, surveys and visits into Cwm Taf that should have led to action being taken, it took a ninth report for him to do anything? Given that he and his officials failed to pick up on the issues in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board until crisis point had been reached and that he's failed to sort them out after almost five years of intervention, does he accept that the Welsh public, and particularly the public in Cwm Taf, will have little faith in his ability to ensure that the issues raised in this report are addressed and the recommendations acted upon?
I think there are three points I'd make in response to the Member. The first is that, of course, we have had the royal college's view because I acted, intervened and ordered that review to take place. I then acted and intervened in the health board in changing the escalation status of the health board. So, I have acted and I've put additional support around the health board, and, of course, at the time when I announced those measures, I indicated that this review from Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and the Wales Audit Office would be provided. And it's important that it is, because we want an honest picture of what's happened within Cwm Taf, as it was, and Cwm Taf Morgannwg as it now is, because the honesty and the clarity in what's happened and the steps that are being taken are important to provide reassurance and confidence for members of the public, including, of course, the staff. The second quarterly report on maternity services will be published and made public in January, on schedule, and I expect that there will be questions, which I'll be happy to answer at that point in time, about the nature of the progress that has been made and, indeed, the progress yet to come.
And the third point I'd make is that I recognise the Member regularly uses opportunities to call for me to leave my post, but when it comes to the direct experience I've had with families, they have been very clear that they positively want me to stay in post as the health Minister to see through the programme of improvement that is required. [Interruption.] And I've had direct conversations with families who've made it very clear that that's their expectation—
I can't hear the Minister and his response. I'd appreciate some silence from some people in particular.
—and I've committed to doing just that and to being utterly transparent in the nature of the progress being made and in any action that I have to take and any action that I choose not to take in supporting this health board and requiring this health board to make the improvements that are plainly required.
I thank the Minister for his answers. He clearly doesn't speak to the same families as I do. But I'll be absolutely clear that I'm not calling for him to resign today. I think he needs to reflect on the fact that, as I've already said, eight reports, surveys and visits had taken place and raised concerns before his officials did anything. And we've had the first quarterly report that told us that, even after intervention, the service still isn't safe. I think it may be that the public in Wales will have some concerns about his apparent complacency.
If I can take him back to the report, where the report raises wider issues for the NHS in Wales, it says, and I quote,
'The Welsh Government will no doubt also want to reflect on the issues raised in this report and give consideration to how they will gain assurances on the robustness of quality governance arrangements across other NHS bodies.'
Now, referring back to previous questions I've asked him in his other role around the capacity of the non-executives in Cwm Taf, prior to his intervention, his special adviser—and he may want to look back at the transcript of the committee—made it absolutely clear that there was a very poor level of scrutiny, and this report confirms that, is the Minister prepared to accept today that there is a real need to look at the way in which non-executives, particularly very well remunerated chairs and vice-chairs are appointed? Does he need to ask questions across the service about their capacity to scrutinise? And does he need to look at the way that the health boards are structured, where the non-executives and the executive directors sit around a table together and it's very easy to see how a culture develops where the board is one board and the non-executives lose their focus in scrutinising the performance of their executive directors?
Can I first just deal with the regular accusation that I'm somehow complacent in my duties? I take my duties seriously. It's a job that I enjoy, despite all the pressures, but that requires you to understand issues and to actually work hard to go about your duties and to recognise the impact on staff and the public. And I do think it's distasteful to regularly suggest that I'm somehow complacent because I don't always agree with what the Member demands of me.
When it comes to the action being taken, I've already written today, and you'll have seen my written statement, to every single NHS organisation in Wales, requiring them to respond to me by the first week of January with the level of assurance they have about a number of issues that have been raised within this report today into Cwm Taf Morgannwg. I have provided a pro forma that I expect them to respond to to make sure that there are consistent responses to the same issues, for us to understand, both for each individual organisation but then collectively across the NHS Wales family. And I will, of course, report back to Members once we've had an opportunity to scrutinise and look at those responses to see if they have provided the assurance that I am looking for.
When it comes to David Jenkins's role, he was really clear in the evidence he also gave to the committee that he felt that the board had done what it could and should do by that point in time, in terms of being properly reflective on what had gone wrong, and they're looking seriously to address and respond to that, but he recognised there was more to do.
On the broader point about how independent members behave, we are already taking a series of steps to reinforce the point that independent members are there in terms of their public duty, and they have a public role to undertake in scrutinising, challenging and, at points in time, supporting the way that health boards work. But it is not a role where they're there to be cheerleaders for the organisation. So, we're already acting on a range of the recommendations before the report today, and I will continue to do so as we take forward the measures that it recommends for us to undertake as well.
Well, Llywydd, I'm sure that what I would expect or demand of the Minister for health is unimportant. I would argue, however, that what the public, patients and, importantly, front-line staff expect is important, and they will come to their own conclusions about the way in which he responds to scrutiny, both here and in the health committee.
To refer back to David Jenkins, he said, of course, as the Minister rightly says, that, since the intervention, the board had done what they should have done in responding to the need for that intervention. But he was very clear that their performance before that was absolutely not up to scratch, and those families have suffered and those front-line staff have been put in an impossible position, because the people the Minister appointed were not up to doing their job until he intervened.
I would put it to him that, after 20 years of the Labour Party running the health service in Wales, GP numbers have fallen, the accident and emergency waiting times are the longest we've ever seen, life expectancy in Wales is falling for the first time in a generation. And I would say to him that, if he isn't able to transform this service in the way it needs to be transformed, perhaps he should get out of the way.
Well, it's a fairly predictable line that we hear yet again, and, in fact, what Helen Mary did say in her response was to recognise that, actually, following the intervention that I made, there has been a positive impact upon the organisation. The Wales Audit Office and HIW review recognises the new leadership in place are taking forward serious steps to address the issues of concern. And, when it comes to who the people of Wales trust to run the national health service, I look forward to their verdict in 18 months' time.
Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, are you proud of your record of running the Welsh NHS?
I'm tremendously proud of the job that I do on behalf of the people of Wales. I continue to undertake my duties in a manner that I think befits the responsibilities.
Minister, if you are so proud, as my colleague Andrew R.T. Davies said, why on earth did your party feel the need to hire an actress to play a nurse in your recent party political broadcast? [Interruption.] Ah, yes, I know Labour Members don't like this, but it's the truth, isn't it? Is it—[Interruption.] Is it—[Interruption.] Is the reason—[Interruption.] Is the reason, as today's report confirms, that it appears you've presided over a culture of fear and blame that has resulted in staff feeling unable to speak out and raise concerns? Is it because your abysmal record of delivering health services is so poor that you couldn't find anyone working in the NHS to support your campaign? But, either way, it's not just a mark of embarrassment that Welsh Labour have stooped to this level, but shows a great disrespect to the people of Wales too. So, Minister, in light of today's damning report into governance arrangements at Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board, what assurances can you now give staff working in the Welsh NHS that their concerns will be heard and acted upon? And how confident are you that there are no further distressing details yet to emerge from this deeply worrying chain of events?
It's my first turn doing these questions, so I think I have an excuse in terms of my performance. I'm not sure the Member opposite does, and I'm disappointed that he didn't bother to listen to the answer given to Andrew R.T. Davies. It is simply not true, as he asserts—we did not feel the need to hire an actress. My party did not do so. I'd be grateful if he'd listen and respond to the information and facts that are being given.
In terms of staff feedback and how staff feel about the national health service, actually, the feedback from our staff is positive about the view of this Government, certainly in comparison to the alternative offering across our border. We have a positive public service, we take seriously the investment we make in staff. I've invested a record sum in training the future of our health service. You'll have seen last week a 13 per cent increase in the budget for future healthcare staff, record numbers of nurses, midwives and therapists being trained, record numbers of GP trainees coming into the service here in Wales. These are matters of fact, not opinion, and, of course, when it comes to the investment we make in the health service, today's figures from the UK Treasury demonstrate that health spend in Wales increased faster than in England or Scotland, demonstrated that the combined spend on health and social care in Wales is higher than any other UK nation. I need no lectures from the party opposite on the nature of our commitment to our staff, our public and our national health service.
Well, I'm certainly not going to take any lectures from the Minister, because you are failing the people of Wales when it comes to our health services. Now, as you know, Minister, your colleague John McDonnell has announced the average working week in the UK would be cut to 32 hours within 10 years of a UK Labour Government. Minister, you can't seriously see this as a way forward for Wales, but perhaps you can just tell us, therefore, just how many extra doctors, nurses and other vital NHS staff will be needed to meet the reduced working hours, and how will your Government recruit enough staff to meet this new demand. Because if you thought things were bad now, just wait till we've had 10 years of a UK Labour Government. And let me give you—[Interruption.] And, Minister, let me give you some facts—[Interruption.] Let me give you some facts, because you gave us some facts earlier. This is your record as health Minister: over half of Welsh health boards placed in either special measures or targeted intervention status, services centralised further away from patients who desperately need them, A&E waiting times are the worst on record, cancer waiting times have not been met for 11 years, and people across Wales are desperately waiting to see their GP. Minister, that's not just Welsh Labour's record, it is yours too, and when will you take some responsibility? I do think that you should consider your position so that the people of Wales can be confident that, when system failures are made, the Government will take ultimate responsibility.
Well, of course, if we did have a UK Labour Government we wouldn't have had 10 years of austerity. I look forward to a decade of investment in public services. I look forward to the ability to properly remunerate our staff right across the public sector. I look forward to the ability to properly support our economy in an entirely different way to the one that the Member has supported on three if not four different UK elections in campaigning for a policy of austerity. When it comes to the record of the health service here in Wales, I've already set out the fact that we continue to invest in the health service here in Wales at a much greater level than across the border in Tory-run England. If you look at our record on the future of the health service: a parliamentary review at a time when people were prepared to be grown-ups about what was required for the future of health and social care, implemented with a joint long-term vision for health and social care—the only joint health and social care plan within the United Kingdom—record staff investment, and staff who are coming with us on a journey to deliberately redesign the future of health and social care together, I'm proud of what we are doing across health and social care. I can look patients in the eye, I can look our staff in the eye, and say, 'I am doing the right thing for this most precious public service', because our staff and our public know that you can't trust the Tories with our national health service.
Brexit Party leader, Mark Reckless.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, you didn't answer the question as to what increase in NHS workforce or, indeed, increase in spending you would need if this policy of a 32-hour average working week were to be applied to the NHS. Can you not tell us what is that average contracted full-time equivalent rate currently, and what would that change be if it was shifted to 32 hours, if indeed this policy will apply to the Welsh NHS? There was some confusion as to whether it would to the English NHS—Jon Ashworth, your Westminster spokesperson, said it was nonsense to suggest the policy should be applied to the English NHS. Will it be applied to the NHS in Wales? If so, how much will it cost? Or do you want to opt out?
Well, the man who stands on no manifesto he shows any loyalty to is regularly interested in what other people might do with the promises we make and that we keep. In terms of the 32-hour week, it's an aspirational policy for 10 years hence, and I'm certainly not getting trapped into trying to artificially produce figures for that. What I have real figures for is the 55 per cent increase in nurse training over the last five years, the record number of GP training places we filled in Wales—never before have we had that record of GP trainees here in Wales—a 71 per cent increase in midwifery training places over the last five years. That is a record of this Government with the resources given to us, the priority we place on our staff, on our health service, and a record that I am proud of. And it's one the public appreciate as well, because more than 90 per cent of the public in the national survey have had a good experience when they were last seen in either primary care or hospital-based care. This is a Government to be proud of. This is a national health service to be proud of.
I'm grateful to the Minister for his confirmation that this 32-hour week is merely an aspiration for 10 years' time. I think that will be quite reassuring to many of the health boards who are under enormous pressure already, with waiting lists having increased by 16,000 for hospitals just in the latest year.
One area of policy from your party at a UK level, which again I understand will apply here in Wales through law, is that they've stated that any ability to opt out of the 48-hour maximum on a working week will end. Now, I know there is guidance within the NHS as to how that applies for NHS contracts, but consultants currently are allowed to opt out of that 48-hour cap if they are then doing private work that, added to their NHS work, comes to more than 48 hours. Given the firm commitment from your party to remove that cap through UK law, what assessment have you made of the impact on NHS working hours for consultants if they choose to reduce NHS hours in order to facilitate private work within that cap?
Could you also say what consideration you've given to the issue of the taper for pensions, which is affecting many consultants, and whether you think that's a contributory factor to that 16,000 increase in hours? We've had a proposal, I think today, from UK Government for the English NHS. And I'm not recommending you accept it here—it seems to be quite 'make do and mend' in terms of that NHS consultants will pay out of their pension fund for the extra tax, but there's then a promise to pay it back to them at some point in the future.
If not that, are you giving consideration to any other mechanisms that might encourage NHS consultants to offer up more hours to try and help waiting lists, both in terms of the pensions and that 48-hour cap that otherwise is pending if a UK Government were—something we would certainly not want to see—to come in at the election, let alone for 10 years?
Well, I'm not going to get drawn into a fantasy list of hypothetical questions about a manifesto that is yet to be published. There is, though, a real issue in the comments that Mark Reckless has made, and that's the future of our consultant workforce in particular, but, more broadly than that, senior staff within the national health service. There is the unresolved challenge of our future relationship with Europe. And it's a matter of fact that both the General Medical Council and the British Medical Association have stated that, in surveys of their membership, a number of our European Union nationals are making preparations to potentially leave the United Kingdom, depending on the outcome of our future relationship with Europe.
The bigger issue, though, in the here and now is the challenges about tax and pensions. We just need to be clear about this: changes to tax and pension rules introduced by the UK Government have had a real impact upon staff within the national health service. They've led to unexpected and higher taxation bills; they've also led to doctors in particular withdrawing from providing part of the service. It's a genuine UK-wide issue, directly caused by changes introduced by the UK Government when the Member was in fact a Conservative Member of Parliament.
But more than that, I have written to, I have corresponded with, I have spoken with UK health Ministers—I've written to the Treasury about this as well—asking them to undo the damage that they have done. Because it will cost our national health service the goodwill of our staff that we've burned up and potentially lost for good. More than that, to recover the additional lists that we have lost, we'll probably end up paying more in the independent sector; it will cost us more to provide the same activity. And the solution on offer in England is not a long-term answer. They're using public funds to undo the damage done by a different decision in another part of Government. I issued a statement last week that highlighted that 15,000 patient treatment episodes in Wales over five months have been impacted by the tax and pension changes. It really is time for an attack of common sense in the United Kingdom to undo the damage they have done to our national health service, to our staff, and, in particular, the people who rely on the health service itself.
3. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's policies for supporting the economy in south-east Wales? OAQ54719
Our policies include safeguarding the south-east Wales economy from the adverse impacts of Brexit by investing in people, places and businesses through skills, infrastructure and business support.
Thank you, Minister, for that question. I'm sure that you'll agree that the economy is underpinned by a strong transport infrastructure. Day after day, the economy of Chepstow in my constituency is suffering from immense traffic congestion. This gateway town to Wales needs urgent assistance, as it's an important part not just of the Welsh road network, but also the UK network as well.
I've raised this with the Minister for Economy and Transport before now. I wonder if you could update us on where we are at the moment with the potential for a new bypass for Chepstow. It is made more complex by the fact that two thirds of the bypass would be across the border in England, so it requires some strong cross-border working. So, perhaps you could tell us what mechanisms are in place within the Welsh Government so that once this period is over and moving into the next year, there will be strong links with the UK Government so that you can make sure that that road is progressed.
As you know, the economy and transport Minister has been working with counterparts in England—there is work between the two Governments. As you recognise, it's a cross-border issue for the road infrastructure you referred to, and we will have to wait until after the UK general election is concluded, and then I'm sure that Ken Skates looks forward to working with Andrew McDonald in his new role.
I asked for that, didn't I? [Laughter.]
A statement by the economy Minister last night confirmed that the Welsh Government has been meeting the Community union and the consultants Syndex to try to find a way forward for the Orb steel plant in Newport. Now, obviously, that's very welcome news. I wonder whether the Minister can share some information with us in terms of what has been proposed.
Firstly, could he tell us how advanced these talks are with what I understand are two interested buyers and tell us how quickly this can progress, given that there is a general election under way? With the fact that the plant is due to close by the end of the year, it would be useful to know whether the workers are being kept informed of developments so that they can plan for the future.
Finally, Minister, I'd like to know, given the economy Minister's statement that the UK Government is not being helpful, whether the Welsh Government will consider giving the plant the support it needs to stay open under different management.
The economy Minister has been directly engaged, together with the First Minister, in conversations with the steel union Community and their consultants on an outline proposal that could see the Orb plant have a proper future. A summary of their proposal was received within the last week, and the economy Minister has also set out that Tata Steel should provide more time for that proposal to be properly considered.
It's also worth, again, putting on record the incredible disappointment and frustration of the Welsh Government at the lack of action by the UK Government to give the steel sector a real future. On a personal note, I have a steel manufacturer within my own constituency. I know that differential energy prices are a significant problem for the steel sector. It's within the gift of the UK Government to do something about that, but, more than that, they could just actually show up.
When it comes to the UK Steel Council, the economy Minister here has called for meetings for more than a year since that council last met. Andrea Leadsom finally agreed to do so, then cancelled with less than 24 hours' notice. That is not the conduct of a Government that is serious about supporting the steel sector. I only wish we had a UK Government that would support the steel sector, as we do in the Welsh Government, and I look forward to a change in that approach on 13 December.
Minister, it's been two and a half years since the Welsh Government announced the £100 million investment in a technology park, at the time, in Ebbw Vale. Many people in Ebbw Vale and the wider part of Blaenau Gwent want to see what is happening to that £100 million investment and want to see evidence of that investment taking place. I'd be grateful if the Government would be able to make a statement on this matter, and I would like to invite Ministers to Ebbw Vale to discuss with the residents there what we are doing, and what the Welsh Government is doing, to make that £100 million investment a reality.
I'm sure that the Minister and his deputy, who are in the Chamber, will have heard you and will take seriously the request about a statement, but also about a visit to Ebbw Vale to see directly the work that is taking place on the ground.
4. Will the First Minister outline how the economic priorities set out in the Government's programme are delivering for people in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ54714
Thank you for the question. Our economic priorities for the whole of Wales, including Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, are set out in the economic action plan. These include investing in people, places and business through skills, infrastructure and business support.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Clearly, we need to retain a long-term commitment to uplifting the economic conditions and opportunities for communities like Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, so I very much welcome the wide-ranging economic interventions that Welsh Government are making in my constituency. So, I'm thinking of things like support for companies like Sharp Clinical Services in Rhymney, the building of the new bus station in Merthyr Tydfil, the town centre regeneration investment in tourism and heritage opportunities, and vital preparations to deliver the final improvements to the Heads of the Valleys road between Dowlais and Hirwaun.
So, for future economic growth in our Valleys communities, it's hugely important that these investments continue, but would you agree with me that comparing the need for investment in our communities with the case for reparations is both offensive and wrong?
Yes, I do, and I'm happy to state that the Government is due to continue its programme for investment in the link between Dowlais and Hirwaun. Regardless of the point in the political cycle, the recent comments advertised again in the Institute of Welsh Affairs magazine about a claim for reparations are ones that I do find—and I'm not alone in this—deeply offensive. At the time they were first made at the start of October, in Black History Month, I made clear they were not appropriate and they were offensive. It's worth people, regardless of where you sit in this Chamber, reflecting on the fact that four in 10 of the most popular surnames of African Americans are Welsh surnames, and it's because of who they took their names from when they were freed from slavery.
And the reference to internal colonialism made by the leader of Plaid Cymru in the case for reparation is something that I find deeply offensive. It's not a smear; it is not something to be used at this point in the cycle, it's something that should not have been said in the first place. It's worth remarking that internal colonialism is used to describe the African American struggle and it is just not possible to look at the last century of Welsh history and say that we have faced the same sort of struggles of state-sponsored racism and segregation that took place in African American history. And even after the laws were changed, the reality of division, of the terrorisation, of the killings that took place, that has simply not happened in the last century of Welsh history.
We have legitimate arguments to make about our place within the UK, the European Union, and appropriate investment in our communities here. We can do that robustly and confidently without seeking to try to compare ourselves to one of the most shameful periods in world history.
Minister, will you join me in welcoming the fact that the number of people in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney who are claiming out-of-work benefits has fallen by a third since 2010, thanks to the policies of the UK Conservative Government? And do you agree with the director general of the Confederation of British Industry that some of Labour's policies threaten to crack the foundation of our economy, as in your policies in Labour for the next Government that you're putting in, that an increase in corporation tax will definitely deter companies, especially multinational companies, from going across the Heads of the Valleys road to Rhymney and Valleys areas to invest there?
There were some interesting comments there, some of which I understood. It's fair to point out that unemployment has fallen by over a third from 2011 to 2019. You have an active Government here in Wales that works alongside communities, investing in the future of them, and I'm proud of the work that our economy Minister continues to lead.
When it comes to Conservatives looking to parade their record on who should be trusted with the economy, it's worth pointing out that the deal that is on offer about our future relationship with Europe by the Prime Minister, even on their own best estimates, is a hit to the economy of 4 to 7 per cent. If a UK Labour Government was proposing to deliberately reduce the UK economy by that amount, there would be howls of outrage from the Conservative benches, and it's also worth remarking that you should think again about the way you talk about business when the current Prime Minister's famous view on the business world, if they don't agree with what he says, is to 'eff business'. That isn't the approach that an incoming UK Labour Government will take on wanting to improve our economy, and turn back the tide of deliberate damage done in the last decade of austerity.
5. Will the First Minister provide an update on the provision of primary healthcare in Wales? OAQ54730
Thank you for the question. The primary care model for Wales creates multidisciplinary teams, providing a wider range of services in the community. The model requires contribution at the local level though our 64 primary care clusters.
On 16 October I was informed by the Aneurin Bevan University Health Board that Gelligaer surgery had made a formal request to close their branch in Gilfach, near Bargoed. That's a surgery that's operated as an outreach surgery from Gelligaer for some time. Over 2,000 patients in Gilfach and Bargoed attend the Gilfach surgery, and if they had to move, they'd either have to move some distance to Gelligaer or to nearby Bryntirion surgery, which is already heavily subscribed.
I'm meeting doctors at the Gelligaer practice on Friday to discuss this. I'm also preparing a letter with constituents to write to the health board to make the case to keep the practice in Gilfach open. We need more accessible GP services and there's an urgent need to recruit GPs, particularly to train them and for them to work and live in the northern Valleys in communities like Bargoed and Gilfach, where I'm from. What has the Welsh Government and particularly the health Minister done to achieve that aim of training and recruiting GPs and moving them to live and work in those northern Valleys areas?
Yes, thank you. I recognise the activity the Member's undertaken, particularly during the eight-week consultation about the Gilfach practice. It is worth recalling, of course, and the Member will know from our recent visit to Bryntirion—the second visit I've undertaken—about the changing model for primary healthcare, about having different healthcare professionals involved and engaged, with some general practitioners, but more therapists and in particular pharmacists, but also, in that particular practice, an advanced practice paramedic as well who has been a recognised and valued part of the team.
The change process is difficult and wanting to work deliberately in different ways, having more direct access to a different range of staff, that's the model we're trying to roll out. That doesn't mean to say that you need to have it contracting in the way that the service is provided. It's how they're expanding the number of professionals. That's why I'm so proud of the fact that we have recruited the highest ever number of GP trainees, including in the northern Valleys, because every single GP training scheme is full for the first time ever. And more than that, I look forward to further expanding the number of GP training places across Wales. The limiting factor in that is, actually, the number of practices that are prepared to be training practices themselves, and that actually helps sustainability in those practices that undertake it. So, I look forward to hearing more from the Member about his engagement with the local general practice community and the public, and I look forward to continuing to roll out the successful primary care model here in Wales.
I'm so pleased to hear your warm words about the importance of maintaining and developing primary care and the importance about it not just being about the GP, but, of course, using all the other allied healthcare professionals that are vital to making community services work.
Now, last week, the First Minister said to me at about this point in time, I think, that,
'the health service needs to be seen in the round, and that cannot mean a focus just on hospitals.'
That's something I completely agree with, something the parliamentary review was very clear about, and something, indeed, you've tried to reflect in 'A Healthier Wales', your vision for healthcare going forward. So, can you please tell me, Minister, when do you intend to actually divert more of the health budget into community services and into primary care? Because we're asking an awful lot of our primary care and community services, but they're doing it on the same levels of budget that they have done. It incrementally grows. The Royal College of General Practitioners would like to see it at 11 to 12 per cent. Can you please tell us how you're going to start to take that money out of secondary care, out of the big, expensive element, see the health service completely in the round, as it should be, and put some of the funding where you're trying to transform the services and make that transition, or else it simply will not happen?
Well, as I've said on a number of occasions, I think artificial percentages are the wrong way to look at dividing up the health budget and actually investing in our priorities. It's a matter of fact that secondary and tertiary care is much more expensive to deliver than primary care, so there's going to be an imbalance in the budget. I'm interested in making sure that we do properly invest in the future of primary care. That's why the additional resource I've put into therapist training, for example, is such an important step forward in continuing to invest in the future of the workforce.
But more than that, of course, you weren't there, so you wouldn't have heard this, but at the recent primary care conference, there was a really positive response from our cluster leads locally and, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery has come from across the border because they're copying the way that we're arranging and engaging the new primary care model and working together in clusters.
But I was able to set out that when we are in a position to set our budget, I expect to invest more in our clusters so they have more freedom to invest money into local choices, so that's the partnership at a primary care level having more of their own freedom, in addition to the wider budget. And I look forward to making the full budget available once we're able to publish our budget after the general election.
6. What action will the Welsh Government take to improve working conditions for teachers in Wales over the next 12 months? OAQ54705
Following the devolution of teachers' pay and conditions last year, we have been working with stakeholders to ensure that we implement changes that benefit teachers here in Wales. The work of the managing workload and reducing bureaucracy group is a good example of this.
Thank you for the answer, Minister, but the National Education Union Cymru recently held its conference in Newport. During the conference, concerns were expressed about the increasing number of incidents of aggressive behaviour by pupils and parents to our teachers. They have suggested that posters be displayed in schools warning against violence or threats against teaching staff. Minister, what action will you take to ensure that there is a zero-tolerance approach to any form of violence or abuse against teachers in our schools in Wales?
I'm sure he'll be delighted to hear, as I'm sure you weren't there at the conference, but the education Minister was, and was able to reiterate the zero-tolerance approach of this Government to exactly the sort of threats and intimidation against anybody working in our schools. It is not the sort of behaviour that we think is appropriate, it is not one this Government tolerates, and there is a clear message that our trade unions and our teachers understand from this Government.
7. What actions is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that sufficient numbers of hospital beds are available for the winter months? OAQ54731
Thank you. Local health boards are responsible for delivering sufficient hospital bed capacity to meet the needs of their local populations throughout the year. As the health Minister, I announced £30 million of additional investment to deal with winter pressures at the start of October. This is earlier than ever before to help prevent unnecessary admissions of people into hospital and to enhance capacity and resilience right across our system.
Can I thank the Minister for that answer? Now, I fully understand the pressures of the winter upon our services and that, clearly, has implications upon bed occupancy within hospitals, and, consequently, elective surgeries, which are subsequently cancelled as this result of bed shortages. We're seeing that, I've experienced that, and many of my constituents have.
I fully appreciate the commitment of delivering care. For example, I was at Morriston yesterday, but there were 10 ambulances stacked up outside the accident and emergency department yesterday at 2 o'clock in the afternoon, which clearly has implications of actually getting ambulances out to people. Part of the problem is flow through hospitals—we know that, we know there's a problem. And I also know the argument that if beds are there, they'll be filled quickly. But if we don't address the issue of how we deal with some of these points, we're going to have patients waiting in ambulances outside A&E, patients not having elective operations, patients waiting in homes 14 hours—as I've had a constituent telling me—for an ambulance, because they're stacked up outside Morriston Hospital.
It is important that we look at how we manage those beds and ensure that the bed occupancies are used effectively. Can you give us an indication as to how the Welsh Government will actually address the issue of bed availability to people, so elective surgeries are not cancelled and people wait longer, so that when people turn up at A&E, they won't be waiting in an ambulance for 14 hours outside A&E, and won't be waiting for an ambulance 14 hours in their homes?
That's consistent with the approach that we want to take more progressively in terms of not just moving more care closer to home, but getting people out of hospital when they don't even need to be there and avoiding people going into hospital in the first place. And in the winter moneys that I announced, some of that money went directly to the health service, but £17 million of it went directly to regional partnership boards, so that the health service and their partners in local government, housing and the third sector have to work together on understanding what would make the biggest impact for the whole system. Because the challenge about the front door of a hospital is actually about the way that the whole system works. Some of that is about moving to a different part of the health service when you're medically fit, but more often than not, it is about moving into social care support, to return to your own home or a different care service. And that's why we talk about bed equivalents—that's about getting people out of the hospital where they don't even need to be—to move them where an appropriate place for their care is.
And you'll see in the winter plans that are published in the first week of December the full total of the number of bed capacity, including the bed equivalents, and the bed equivalents are at least as important, because that is getting to the right part of our care system. It's also why I and the Deputy Minister spend so much time being interested in, and want to see improvement in, delayed transfers of care, because those are people who require care services but are in the wrong part of our system to receive the appropriate care for them. So, it's a continuing point of investment, a continuing point of pressure within our system, but I recognise the point of investment this Government needs to continue to make right across health and social care.
Finally, question 8—Lynne Neagle.
8. Will the First Minister provide an update on the work of the ACE Support Hub in Wales? OAQ54703
Yes. The adverse childhood experiences support hub continues to provide expert advice and support to public services such as education, health and housing, to help them to operate in a trauma-informed way.
Thank you, Minister. I was very pleased to visit the ACE support hub last week and to meet with the small team there who are doing such important and transformative work in ensuring that there is that good awareness of trauma-informed working in Wales. However, I'm very conscious that the funding for the hub is coming to an end in the near future. So, what assurances can you give that not only will that important work be able to continue, but that the Welsh Government will look at ensuring that that work is fully embedded across Welsh Government? Most importantly of all, what can we do to ensure that we actually reduce the numbers of adverse childhood experiences in Wales in the first place so that that work is less necessary?
That, indeed, is part of the point and purpose of setting up the hub in the first place—to try to make sure that we do embed that learning to help in trying to ensure that we have fewer ACEs taking place, but we're actually intervening at an earlier point to help support children and their families.
I can say, in terms of the budget, it is an active consideration for Ministers and as soon as we're in a position to have our budget published, I expect we'll have some positive news for the ACE hub and its continued work right across public services.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item is questions to the Counsel General, and the first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders.
1. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided in relation to agreements entered into by the Welsh Government? OAQ54692
The Welsh Government enters into a wide range of agreements with public and private entities. The Welsh Ministers have a range of statutory and common-law powers to enter into such agreements.
Thank you. The reason for this particular question is in relation to the Valuation Office Agency. Now, I know what you're going to say: 'Ah, but the valuation office technically comes under UK Government.' Well, the Welsh Government directly funds the VOA to provide council tax and non-domestic rating valuation services for Wales. I know that Welsh Government have entered into a service level agreement, which I've studied very carefully, and that is to remain in force until 31 March 2020, and it costs £9 million a year for your Welsh Government to do this.
Now, having studied this agreement, I am aware that there is an expectation for the valuation office to clear 3,000 outstanding appeals. Now, when I say 'appeals', we're talking about business rate appeals where businesses dispute or, in fact, cannot afford the amount of business rates that the valuation office are saying that they're responsible for. So, they put this appeal in and I've got businesses in Aberconwy that have been waiting over two years. So, on your books, there are 3,000 appeals. If the First Minister was here, he would agree that I've worked considerably, at length, with him on this, and I just find it preposterous that if you have got a service level agreement with anyone—. If I'm procuring a service for me personally, I have a say in the quality of that service that is delivered to me.
Now, recently, the Trefnydd came to one of our cross-party groups on small shops, and it was a huge issue. We had Edward Hiller here from Mostyn Estates, and they were really concerned about these outstanding appeals. Businesses can't afford to wait two years, Minister. So, will you commit to working with the First Minister, and, indeed, as regards my own constituency, with me directly, on looking at the existing service level agreement and looking at preparing for the 2021 agreement and actually scrutinise them a little bit more thoroughly than what you're doing? It's taxpayers' money that's paying this £9 million.
Sorry, I mean, it's such a strong feeling—
No, no, I think you've made your point.
I thank the Member for that question. I hope she will understand that, due to the very open nature of the original question, I'm not in a position to respond in detail to the point that she has just made on a particular contract, which I'm sure she'll understand why that will be. But I'm happy, in relation to the service level agreement that she refers to, to look into the matter and make sure that I follow up with the Member with whatever information I'm able to provide.
2. What discussions has the Counsel General had with Cabinet colleagues about developing legislative proposals to help reduce the number of children being taken into care in Wales? OAQ54691
Safely reducing the number of children taken into care is a priority for this Government. No discussions have been held about developing legislation to do so. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 already provides a comprehensive legislative framework for local authorities so they can provide appropriate support to families experiencing difficulties, thereby helping children and families stay together.
Thank you, Minister. With the number of looked-after children in having reached the highest number since records began in 2003, I am not surprised that the commission on justice has raised alarm. I appreciate that there are plans to see an average reduction of 4 per cent in each of the next three years, but there is a need to consider an additional approach. Now, for example, in England, family drug and alcohol courts help to solve problems in families at risk of losing children to care. More so, the evidence from the London FDAC evaluation is that, over five years, for each £1 spent, £2.30 is saved. Bearing in mind the positive impact that FDACs can have on families and the public purse, will you advise how the Welsh Government is going to act on the recommendation that FDACs should be established here?
I thank the Member for that further question. As I indicated in my original answer, it is a priority to safely reduce the number of children taken into care, and she will be aware of the investment that the Government has made from the integrated care fund in order to seek to improve the position overall. She refers specifically in relation to the work of the commission for justice, and I, as she has, have read the recommendations that the commission has made. There have been ongoing discussions with the family liaison judge for Wales, with the Children and Family Court Advisory and Support Service Cymru, and through the family justice network and local family justice boards, there will be further work undertaken to strengthen the relationship with the judiciary in this area.
But the broader point that she makes in relation to the recommendations of the commission—she will have heard the First Minister's statement in the Chamber on the recommendations overall recently, and there will be a debate and other steps taken in the new year that will give an opportunity for those recommendations to be considered further on the floor of this Assembly. But the recommendations made are a very considered, very compellingly argued set of recommendations for giving people in Wales the justice system that they deserve, and, in particular, tackling this very important issue of the role and presence of looked-after children in the criminal justice system.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his response to Janet Finch-Saunders's question. I wonder if he agrees with me that, while the overall reduction target of 4 per cent is to be welcomed and that none of us wish to see children unnecessarily taken into care, no such overall targets should influence decisions regarding individual children. It has been put to me by some front-line social workers that they may be put under pressure not to take care proceedings in some circumstances where, perhaps, they should do so. So, will he agree with me that those overall targets should not deter local authorities from taking the appropriate legal proceedings to protect an individual child, even if that does affect their ability to deliver on what, in my opinion, is a slightly artificial target that the Government has set?
Well, I don't wish to stray into the policy responsibilities of the Deputy Minister in relation to this, but she will note, I think, that the work under way is work that works collaboratively with local authorities in relation to this area. We've been absolutely clear as a Government that we take a safety first approach in relation to these judgments, consistent with that overall ambition, and that nothing, of course, overrides the need to protect children from abuse or neglect. I'm pleased to say that the Children's Commissioner for Wales has recognised that safety first approach to this work, and I believe is supportive of the manner in which we are trying to achieve that ambition.
Of course, we all agree that we want to see a safe reduction in the numbers of children entering the care system, but there are significant differences in approach as to how we deal with that, and I'm sure you're aware that the Children, Young People and Education Committee has expressed significant concerns about the presence of a numerical target. And, actually, the children's commissioner told our committee two weeks ago that she did not support a numerical target, although she did support efforts to safely reduce the numbers of children in care. You will be aware that, as well as the qualified support that the commission gave to steps to reduce the numbers of children in care, it also said specifically there should be vigorous support for a programme of research to underpin reform of Welsh family justice and associated preventative services. The overarching aim should be the reduction in the numbers of children taken into care and the provision of far better evidence of the impact of intervention on family life. A carefully thought through, long-term policy for reducing the numbers of children taken into care should be developed after the conclusions of the research are undertaken, and then implemented. What assurances can you give that the Government will be taking that very considered approach to what could be a very sensitive and high-risk policy?
I'm anxious not to trespass into the policy responsibilities of my colleague in Government, but I know that the Children, Young People and Education Committee has obviously looked very carefully at the issues, which the Member, as Chair of the committee, is setting out in the Chamber today. And I'll make sure that my Government colleague, the Deputy Minister, has heard the points that the Member has made today in the discussion.
3. What discussions has the Counsel General held regarding access to justice in Wales? OAQ54698
We take every opportunity to raise concerns about access to justice in Wales with UK Government departments. The Commission on Justice in Wales similarly identified the extent to which people, for example, in rural areas, especially those whose first language is Welsh, for example, cannot access justice.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his response. May I ask him this afternoon, in further discussions that he may have, to prioritise access to justice for women and children in the family court system? I have had a number of constituency cases brought to me where people are very gravely concerned that children's voices, particularly the voices of children who have been in homes where domestic abuse has occurred, are not effectively heard in that system. And the current requirements around the thresholds of abuse to which a woman has to prove she's suffered—or, indeed, a man—before they can get access to legal aid is a real matter of concern in terms of ensuring that all parties are adequately heard. So, may I ask him, in further discussions that he has, to ensure that those issues about access to justice for women in family courts, and particularly access to justice for children, are kept very high on the agenda?
I'll certainly give the Member that assurance. Access to the justice system, and the family courts in particular, has been an issue that we have raised consistently with UK Government Ministers. And the point that she makes about the challenges that face anybody seeking legal aid in that part of the courts system in particular is, if I may say, well made. Part of the analysis that we've been undertaking in relation to the impact of the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act 2012, in particular, has encompassed the sorts of issues that she is raising today, and we will continue to make those representations on behalf of users of the courts system here in Wales.
4. What recent discussions has the Counsel General had with law officers regarding the outcome of the judicial review about the alleged mishandling of raising the state pension age for women born in the 1950s? OAQ54700
The Welsh Government have expressed concerns to the UK Government on a number of occasions about women who have had their state pension age raised without effective or sufficient notification. As the Member will know, the High Court recently dismissed a judicial review of a case brought by two women. I am aware of that judgment and await any appeal.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his reply. I'm afraid he might be getting rather fed up with me this afternoon. I would like to take this opportunity, Llywydd, just to remind the Chamber of the scale of this problem. We have an estimated 195,000 women across Wales affected by that—over 41,000 in the region that I represent. I'd like to ask the Counsel General this afternoon—he mentioned in his response the ongoing appeal—to look and see whether there is any way that he and the Welsh Government, given the impact of that loss of income to Wales from those women who are not receiving those pensions, could look again to see if there's any way that he can provide any support to the appeal, or perhaps produce some evidence—and that would be another part of the Welsh Government rather than him himself—to support that appeal. And can I also ask him to have discussions, particularly depending on the outcome of the general election, of course, with his colleagues in the Labour Party at UK level? Now, they have already pledged to extend pension credit to the women affected, but that's a means-tested benefit and it is not fair to ask those women who have lost a benefit to which they're entitled to ask for means-tested benefits in order to get redress. So, can I ask the Counsel General if he or the appropriate person in the Welsh Government will make representations on behalf of these women should his party find itself in Government? Nobody underestimates the scale of the problem, but I'm sure that he would agree with me that it's also difficult to underestimate the scale of the injustice.
Well, I will associate myself with the opening and closing remarks, if I may say, in relation to the scale of this issue, and I absolutely don't tire of hearing in relation to this matter from the Member. She and other Members in this Chamber have consistently raised this matter, and I think it's a matter of the gravest injustice that women who have, in many other ways in their lives, faced discrimination because of their gender throughout their adult working lives should face this further injustice at a point when they may be least able to make other choices to address that. I think it imposes a particularly grave responsibility on the UK Government and Parliament to address this question in a way that restores justice to those women.
On the question of the legal proceedings and the role of the Welsh Government in that, she will know from previous exchanges we've had in this Chamber that I have reviewed and kept under review powers that I may have to intervene in legal proceedings to deal with the sorts of issues that she has raised in her question, and, unfortunately, I've not been able to persuade myself that those powers of intervention exist. But we have, as a Government, made reasoned representations on a number of occasions to the UK Government with very, very disappointing responses on each, I think, occasion that we have done so. I share with her the hope that the general election will lead to the election of a Government that restores the justice that this cohort of women so richly deserve.
Can I join you in sharing the views that we need a Government that will actually respond to these women, who have actually received an injustice? And I'll declare an interest now, in that my wife is one of those women. I'm sure there are many others, and we all appreciate that. The loss of that income is a huge disadvantage. You quite rightly pointed out that many of those women have suffered during their working careers. They weren't allowed to join company pension schemes. They would often work part time and came in at different times because of family commitments in those lives and those times. Things have changed since then, since they were actually starting out in their careers. But you've said you urged—. Can I urge you to actually continue to pressurise the UK Government and look at all avenues possible? If you haven't, find the gap, if you can get involved in this.
And could I also ask you to look to colleagues in your Government, because it's not just about the unfairness to those women in those cases of losing the money, but they are carers, they take on caring responsibilities? That's going to be a burden to this Welsh Government. They take on other duties, which will become a burden to this Welsh Government. Those are huge issues that we haven't yet anticipated the financial outcome of. Will you look at those figures? Would you ask your ministerial colleagues to address the issues of what is going to happen to those women, because they're either not going to work, and therefore there's going to be a situation as to the loss of income for them, and how do we, as the social services, provide the services to them? If they are carers and if they take on work, they lose their caring facilities. How do we provide the care and facilities for them, and the cost of all that? It's a benefit that we have to identify, to tell the UK Government, 'This is costing you not just the money that these women are losing, but the services they are losing as a consequence of that.'
Well, I thank the Member for highlighting and underlining the importance of the impact of these changes principally on the women involved, but also more broadly on public services and the economy and communities here in Wales. He talked in particular about the role of many of the women affected in their caring responsibilities, and I want to reassure him that the impact of these changes is something that the Welsh Government is considering. The work that the Deputy Minister, for example, has led on in relation to the Welsh Government's gender review has considered some of these impacts that he is describing in his question. I think he outlines very eloquently, if I may say, the extent and the depth of the injustice that many of these women face.
Thank you, Counsel General.
The next item is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd to make the statement—Rebecca Evans.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are two changes to this week's business. Following yesterday's announcement, the Minister for Economy and Transport will make a statement today on Tata Steel. Additionally, tomorrow's short debate has been postponed to 8 January. Draft business for the next three sitting weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Trefnydd, I have two issues that I'd like to bring before you today. I note, from the written statement from Vaughan Gething, the Minister for Health and Social Services, issued today, that he intends to issue a further statement on the governance arrangements in Cwm Taf health board and on the maternity services early next year. I would urge the Government to turn this into a proper debate. We have not had the real opportunity to debate the never-ending saga of the issues that are happening at Cwm Taf. This is like a piece of tumbleweed: as it spins along the plain, it gets bigger and bigger and sucks in more and more, and the Assembly Members here have the right to discuss this and to discuss this in Government time.
And just to put this in context, may I remind you that, in 2018, only last year, we had a consultant midwife on secondment who wrote a report that was ignored. We had a substantial report from the Human Tissue Authority that raised massive concerns over the storage and use of tissue within that health board. The Wales Audit Office last year reported on quality and governance arrangements. This year, we had the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives issuing a report. We also have, of course, the report that's come out today and, on top of that, there are five separate reports being assessed and currently analysed ongoing in Cwm Taf, including the independent maternity services oversight panel, one from the delivery unit, one from the Welsh Risk Pool, and there are David Jenkins's views, who's the independent adviser. I would urge the Welsh Government to actually give us the time to discuss this properly, rather than just turning it into a written statement, where we have no ability to forensically look at this and to see what needs to be done and whether or not changes are being truly made in that health board.
The second issue I'd like to raise with you is that, in January 2018, the parliamentary review on health and social care was issued. Now, as you will recall, this was given the air cover of being a joint parliamentary review, with the Welsh Conservatives joining with Plaid Cymru and I think it was UKIP at the time, and Labour, to produce air cover and a report to talk about where health and social care services should be going on. That's going to be almost two years ago—in January of 2020, it will be two years ago. Despite this joint working that we all undertook in immensely good faith and despite the vision for health that the Government subsequently produced, we have not had any real feedback on how successfully that report is being implemented. We've had very little feedback on whether or not it's achieved some of the goals and the ambitions that we all signed up to. We've had very little feedback on how well it's going down with the public, patients and, of course, the staff. We've had very little feedback on whether the transformation that was promised is really beginning to happen. And I would also ask you, therefore, to give us the courtesy, as we all engaged in this report, to have a Government debate here so that we can actually understand, after two years, where that review has gone, how successful it's been and what else needs to be done, because I fear that it's just on a shelf quietly gathering dust.
Thank you to Angela Burns for raising both of those issues today. Of course, the health Minister has today issued the written statement on Cwm Taf, and he did have the opportunity to address some questions during First Minister's question time this afternoon. I will make sure that he hears the request for the opportunity to discuss the issues on the floor. I recall there was a statement made on Cwm Taf on the floor of the Assembly in recent months, but I appreciate this is a long-term and ongoing issue and that Members will wish to remain informed and to have the dialogue with the health Minister on this issue.
And on the second issue, Angela Burns is quite right to say that the parliamentary review work was undertaken in good faith, and it was a genuinely, I think, cross-party piece of work. I understand completely the interest in ensuring that that important and good piece of work is bearing fruit. The health Minister will be making an oral statement to the Assembly on 'A Healthier Wales' insofar as it relates to the impact of the 'Train. Work. Live.' campaign, which was part of that piece of work, on 3 December, and I know that he will consider the request to update on other parts of that important piece of work in due course as well.
Today is International Men's Day, and there are a number of events on the Senedd estate today, including the Men's Sheds initiative. These projects are helping people to open up about their own mental health, which reduces stigma, which is vital when we know that suicide rates among men have been described as a national emergency. Suicide has been cited as the biggest killer of men under 45. Almost every community has been affected by the loss of men long before their time to die due to suicide, and I have personal experience of losing someone in this way and I can testify to the devastation that it causes. So, on International Men's Day I want to reinforce the importance of talking. If you can't talk to someone close, are there others, like the Men's Sheds, that you can reach out to? Investment in talking therapies and good mental health support services is essential too, because not everyone has someone close to them that they can open up to. So, can we have a statement from the Minister, or a debate in Government time, outlining what talking therapies are available and what other strategies the Government are deploying to reverse these appalling suicide statistics?
Netball has been a fantastic success story in Wales, and the Rhondda in particular—825 women and girls are regularly playing netball in Rhondda Cynon Taf, and some of the biggest clubs in the country can be found there. This is great news as it not only provides girls and women with access to team sports, but it also forms an important feature in the fight against obesity and improving mental well-being. However, the success story has been achieved against a backdrop of significant barriers. Sports facilities are hard to access—in fact, there are grave gender inequalities when you consider that there are 35 rugby, cricket and football fields in the Rhondda, the vast majority of which are located outside of schools and therefore accessible on weekends, compared to the nine netball courts in the Rhondda, of which six are not available on weekends as they are located in school premises. Now, the Welsh Government has a role to play. While Welsh Netball has nearly 20 per cent more members than Netball Scotland, it receives significantly less funding than its sister organisation. So, I would like to see a Government statement outlining how this Welsh Government intends to address this gender inequality in sport and help meet the incredible demand that there is for netball in the Rhondda and beyond.
I thank Leanne Wood for raising the two issues, the first being the importance of International Men's Day and the importance of that day in terms of being a focal point for us to remind men that it is okay to talk about mental health problems that they might be experiencing, but also an important chance for us to signpost to all of those organisations that are out there for men to be able to access should they need to do so. So, I'm very happy to support and endorse everything that Leanne has said, particularly her enthusiasm for the Men's Sheds movement—I think that's one example of a movement that is proving to be particularly useful to men right across Wales. But it is important as well to recognise that not everybody will feel comfortable reaching out to talk to somebody, which is why those therapeutic services that Leanne Wood referred to are so important, and it's why the Minister for health has been refreshing the mental health delivery plan. And I know that he does intend to bring forward a statement on that plan in due course, and that would be an opportunity, I think, to discuss the importance of talking therapies within the context of the Chamber.
Again, I share Leanne's enthusiasm for netball and I've met myself with some of the women from Rhondda Netball, and they are inspirational young women. I think that the fact that the sport is growing so quickly is really, really exciting. But the point about facilities is one well made, and I'll ask the Minister with responsibility for sport perhaps to liaise with Sport Wales to explore the opportunities there are for investment in facilities across Wales.
Minister, I want to come back to an issue that we've raised on many occasions in this Chamber, and that's the Banksy. We're fast approaching a year since Banksy actually produced his latest, Season's Greetings, artwork in Port Talbot. Thanks to the Welsh Government, we protected that over the Christmas period, and the Welsh Government also funded the move of that from its location to a far safer location. However, that location now is closed to the public. The public can only see it through a window, and can't actually see it and access it and feel the full vibrancy of it.
Now, I know that we've raised the issue on many occasions with the Deputy Minister in relation to the contemporary art museum that the Welsh Government is talking about. We seem to have gone a bit quiet on that at this point in time. I would like a statement, possibly from the Government before the Christmas recess, as to where we are with that process and where we can be moving towards, because it is important that artworks such as we saw in Port Talbot, which—. It is preserved, it is there, and should be more accessible to the public. We need to make sure that we can deliver that and make it accessible to the public as soon as possible, and understanding where we are in the progress of producing such a museum across Wales is helpful in that agenda.
Well, as David Rees says, the Welsh Government was really pleased to be able to support the cost of security and the move of the Banksy piece of art into its current location. The future of the artwork in Port Talbot is an issue for the owner and Neath Port Talbot county council to discuss in the first instance, but I can confirm that work is under way on taking forward the recommendations of the contemporary art gallery feasibility study. A steering group of Arts Council of Wales, Amgueddfa Cymru/the National Museum Wales and Welsh Government officials is currently considering the distributive model and we will be making a further announcement in due course.
Would the Minister make a statement on the Government's current position with regard to the wilding project in mid Wales known as O'r Mynydd i'r Môr, given that the other so-called wilding projects have often resulted in devastation to the upland areas? The removal of livestock from our hills, supposedly essential in this rewilding process, can have such detrimental effects as tick infestation, overdevelopment of gorse, an explosion in bracken coverage—the latter resulting in water pollution of our streams and rivers, as the run-off from the bracken is toxic.
Destocking of upland areas causing undergrazing has also resulted in huge infestations of unpalatable grasses, such as Molinia and Nardus, which smother all other important grass species. The removal of the habitat that is the result of farming practices that have been in place for hundreds if not thousands of years has resulted in the loss of 33 red and amber listed moorland bird species. We're losing one of our greatest assets, heather moorland—essential habitat for wintering bird species.
Local opposition to this project is growing, with many farmers now actively protesting against it. Would the Government give a definitive statement on whether it supports these wilding projects in principle? And, if so, is it giving financial backing to such projects, given, it would seem, that many such projects are being promoted by what one might call English urbanite groups?
Well, David Rowlands had the opportunity to put his concerns about that particular project on the record today, but I would invite him to write to the Minister for environment and rural affairs again with those concerns, so that she can set out the Welsh Government's position, as he's requested.
Minister, may I ask for a statement from the Minister for Housing and Local Government on what guidelines are issued to local authorities in Wales regarding car parking charges? More than 300 letters have been delivered to Newport City Council objecting to new car parking charges at Tredegar Park, when it was previously free of charges. Drivers face a daily charge of between £1 and £5, depending on the length of their stay, which results in a significant cost to those who use the park on a regular basis, such as dog walkers. Please could we have a statement on what advice the Welsh Government provides to local authorities concerning the implementation and impact of car parking charges in Wales?
Welsh Government doesn't issue specific guidance to local authorities on the matter of car parking charges themselves, but if Mohammad Asghar does have particular concerns about the decisions taken by the local authority in his area relating to car parking charges, then I would encourage him to raise those concerns with the local authority itself.
I'd like to ask for a statement on housing adaptations and an update on what Welsh Government are doing in this regard. I ask because I have a constituent who suffered from a very serious illness that has left her wheelchair bound, and she's only in her early 30s. She's recently been required to stay at a Holiday Inn—other hotels are available—but this has been paid for by the local authority due to the fact that they have zero places for her to live. The one place that is adapted is already housing somebody else.
She's gone to three different housing associations. One of them has kindly said that they will build a new house for her, but that is still going to take some time through the planning system. In the interim, she's vulnerable—she's in temporary accommodation without the right adaptations. So, please could we have an update from the housing Minister, who I know is here listening too, to understand what we're going to do with the issues with people who are having these issues locally when the housing simply just is not available to them, be it by the council or the housing association in question?
My second request is, again, groundhog day, I think, with regard to eating disorders—that will be my legacy, I'm sure. Last Friday, the health boards were given the termination of sending in their ideas and their programmes for future work in relation to the eating disorders framework review. I would like to request an oral statement on this—because we had a written statement on the actual review, which I was disappointed about—to understand how many health boards have submitted their plans, what do they look like, is there a national picture emerging, are the health boards are going to be working together more as a result of this eating disorders framework review. We need to see progress happening, considering we had such positive buy-in from patients and from carers. Please can we have an oral statement?
Thank you very much for the issues that you've raised. As you say, the housing Minister was here to hear your concerns specifically about housing adaptations. She's asked me to invite you to write to her with the details of the individual who you've talked about this afternoon, because, clearly, the situation that that person finds themselves in is not acceptable in terms of living accommodation, certainly in the long term, when a more appropriate home is being sourced for that individual. So, please do raise that case with the Minister.
I will—again, I'll speak to the Minister for health with regard to your request for an oral statement on the Welsh Government's approach to eating disorders. I know this is an issue that you've had a strong interest in for a long time. It is important to understand the status now of the responses from the health boards and what kind of picture is emerging in terms of how we take things forward, so I'll make him aware of that request.
Trefnydd, I welcome your comments earlier in this time regarding mental health and men's mental health and suicide prevention, and I welcome the Government's work on this. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to this solution, but we all in this Chamber and this institution have lost someone just two years ago in this way, so I would like to remind everyone as individuals, as well as the Government, that as individuals we can all play our part in preventing suicide as human beings. Unlike what some may say, we should never—we should never—stop trying to help others, especially when it could save lives.
Trefnydd, Parliament in New Zealand, led by the progressive Labour Government, passed a zero carbon Bill with the aim of reducing emissions to zero carbon by 2050. Now, this ambitious target recognises the perilous state that we find ourselves in. Will the Welsh Government bring forward a statement on how Wales can achieve a similar target for a radical climate strategy based on a green new deal? Now, this is a policy proposal that has been so ably put forward by young activists and our future generations around the globe, who are demanding action now—a proposal that is now being championed by the UK Labour Party in an election that may be our last chance to act on climate change before it is too late. Will the Trefnydd use all of her influence to encourage the Welsh Government and ministerial colleagues to meet with the Government of New Zealand to understand how they plan to achieve this target and how we can bring it over to Wales?
Thanks to Jack Sargeant, particularly for his opening remarks in terms of reminding us that, actually, this is an issue in which we can all play a part individually. Even if it's just something as simple as asking somebody if they're all right, and just being a listening ear and demonstrating to somebody that we care, that can make all the difference at the time when a person needs to hear that kind of thing.
On the point about New Zealand and the commitment that it's made in terms of playing its part in terms of keeping global warming below 1.5 degrees and helping respond to what is a global climate emergency, we really welcome the work that New Zealand is doing. And I can confirm that Welsh Government officials and New Zealand officials do have good dialogue across a wide range of matters. I know this myself in terms of setting budgets within the context of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, for example. But Welsh Government has accepted the latest advice from our statutory advisers, which is the UK Committee on Climate Change, and that suggests that Wales can achieve a 95 per cent cut in carbon emissions by 2050.
The Minister with responsibility for environment and rural affairs has committed to that target and is putting it into legislation next year, following further advice on how our revised target would then affect our interim targets. I think that that's a really appropriate way for Wales to respond, but I think it's even more important to demonstrate a level of ambition, which the Minister has done in terms of asking the committee to go back and give us some further advice on how we might achieve net zero. So, I think it's important that we should be doing that looking to the future, but not lose sight of all the things we can do at the moment through our carbon delivery plan, which was published in March and contains sector-by-sector lists of things that we can all be doing right now.
Can I call for a single oral Welsh Government statement on the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board improvement framework? We received a written statement last Thursday on this, referring to a number of matters that merit full and comprehensive scrutiny within this Chamber, if not in full debate. It states, for example, that GP out-of-hours have been stepped down as special measures, and that the Minister will be interested to hear the views from the next tripartite meeting on progress with the delivery of quality sustainable mental health services. It refers to the development of the clinical services strategy, and also says progress has been made since the recovery director started in post, despite the u-turn by the health board, allegedly on the recommendation from him, regarding nurse rotas last week.
During the summer, with a constituent, I met a professor in the health board's department of psychiatry. He told me, 'Where we never had an out-of-area patient and had the lowest bed usage in the UK, we now have wards full of patients in England—at great cost. All substantive consultants have left and the service is populated by locum doctors, nurses and social workers, with a good deal of evidence that management prefer locums as they can be dismissed should they speak out of turn. Several of my patients have died, in part because of difficulties in getting them input. The rot extends down to basics. Several years ago, a doctor who referred and a patient who saw me in a clinic would within 48 hours have copies of my letter on the concerns dealt with. Now they are unlikely to have a copy of the letter 48 days later and patients are missing follow-up appointments as a result.'
A consultant physician at one of the three general hospitals asked to meet me. She had resigned after the health board allegedly failed to comply with their own procedures following vexatious complaints and bullying against her and another consultant.
I was copied into a letter from a senior GP, detailing their concerns regarding out-of-hours cover, stating, 'The situation I have witnessed over the weekends during this summer I would consider barely satisfactory, let alone safe for patients.' They concluded that they didn't want me to make that letter public, but they have received a response from the health board that they're happy to be public because it was not confidential, and they said, 'In this response you will see that the times mentioned for waits in north Wales are an utter disgrace. Whilst the response was pleasant, I really cannot see that any real change will come about.'
Three examples very recently from senior clinicians within that health board, which belie the statement and require more thorough scrutiny in this Chamber. I hope the Welsh Government on this occasion respond in the affirmative.
Mark Isherwood has taken the opportunity to put on record the response of the three clinicians from within the Betsi Cadwaladr health board, and I will be sure to make sure that the health Minister is aware of those concerns that you've put on the record this afternoon. I will also make him aware of the request for the oral statement in relation to the Betsi Cadwaladr improvement framework.
May I request a debate in Government time to discuss the very real crisis that exists in terms of waiting times for orthopaedic surgery in Ysbyty Gwynedd, and the concern that that crisis has become something far worse? In May, which was the last time I asked for waiting time figures for orthopaedic surgery at Ysbyty Gwynedd, there were 2,200 people waiting at that point for 110 weeks. By the time I received the latest response from Betsi Cadwaladr health board in the past few weeks, that figure had gone up to 2,900 people with a waiting time of 115 weeks.
I don't need to say that that is unacceptable. The chief executive of the health board has apologised in a recent letter to me and has accepted that this is unacceptable, but we're not looking for apologies, but a system that allows patients in my constituency and nearby constituencies to receive treatment in a fair waiting time. There are two surgeons who are to be appointed from January, as I understand it. The truth is that this is too little, too late, and they are now dealing with a waiting list of 700 more people than if the decision had been taken six months ago to appoint when there was a real need for these surgeons. So, can we have an urgent debate on this, because, as I say, we were facing a crisis previously, but it has gone beyond crisis now?
Well, again, I'll make the health Minister aware of the concerns that have been expressed by Rhun ap Iorwerth this afternoon in terms of waiting times for orthopaedics at Ysbyty Gwynedd. The waiting times that he's described are clearly not the kind of waiting times that we would want to see. So, I'll, again, be sure to have that conversation with the health Minister. I know that he does plan on bringing forward a statement on 3 December, which relates to the impacts of the 'Train. Work. Live.' campaign and I'm sure that a good part of the problem facing Ysbyty Gwynedd is in relation to the recruitment and retention of staff, and that could potentially be part of the contribution that you might wish to make in the statement that the health Minister will be bringing forward on that issue shortly.
Thank you, Trefnydd.
The next item is a statement by the Minister—[Interruption.]
—dramatically introducing her own statement on the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. I call on the Minister to make the statement, Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. Apologies for spilling water there.
Llywydd, I'm very pleased to introduce the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill to the Assembly. This Bill consists of provisions that have been subject to extensive consultation, both with the public and local government. It will deliver a major package of reforms to the way in which devolved elections are run and the governance framework of local government.
The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill proposes to extend the franchise for local government elections to 16 and 17-year-olds and foreign citizens legally resident in Wales. The Bill will allow principal councils to choose their voting systems for elections. It will also set the elections cycle for local government at five years, in line with that of Senedd Cymru.
The Bill provides a power for the establishment of a combined all-Wales database of electoral registration information and will enable electoral registration officers to register people automatically using a wider range of reliable data. The Bill amends the legislation relating to the qualification for and disqualification from membership of a local authority and makes provision for election pilot schemes. It further provides clarity on returning officers' expenditure and the accessibility of election documents.
The Welsh Government is changing the governance framework for local government to better enable innovation, transparency and local ownership for driving up service delivery outcomes and standards across Wales. The Bill will, therefore, introduce a general power of competence and a new system for improving performance and governance based on self-assessment and peer review, including the consolidation of the Welsh Ministers' support and intervention powers. To support this, I am working with the Welsh Local Government Association to develop a new, sector-led, co-ordinated approach to local government improvement and support. This Bill requires local authorities to take responsibility for their own improvement. There are reserve powers for the Auditor General for Wales and the Welsh Ministers where performance is less than satisfactory.
It is a feature of this Bill that we are seeking to empower local authorities, providing options where they do not currently exist. The Bill provides a power to local authorities to make an application to merge voluntarily. Local authorities work hard to deliver services using different mechanisms to collaborate over different areas. A key recommendation of the working group on local government was the need for more consistent mechanisms and structures to support regional working and collaboration. The Bill will therefore provide for this by including powers to facilitate more consistent and coherent regional working mechanisms called corporate joint committees.
We have worked very closely with the WLGA and local government leaders, through the local government sub-group of the partnership council, to develop these proposals. I see these committees as an important tool for local government to use to support collaboration, transformation and the longer term sustainability of public services. They will be bodies corporate, formed from the membership of principal councils, established in statute and able to directly employ staff, hold assets and manage funding.
Local authorities will be able to request the creation of a corporate joint committee for any service they wish. Welsh Ministers will only be able to create a corporate joint committee in a limited number of functional areas that are set out in the Bill: improving education, strategic planning for the development and use of land and the function of preparing a strategic development plan, transport, and economic development. The aim is to reduce complexity for councils using different kinds of regional working arrangements, and to ensure that the decisions are made as close to the local people as is possible for effective and efficient democracy.
Good governance is not only about effective structures, it is also about transparency. Therefore, amongst other measures included in the Bill aimed at increasing public participation in local democracy and improving transparency, principal councils will be required to prepare, consult on, publish and keep under review a public participation strategy. They will also be required to publish a guide to their constitution that explains in ordinary language the content of their constitution. Provision is made for the broadcasting of council meetings that are open to the public. To encourage diversity and hopefully enable more employed elected members and those with caring responsibilities to be able to stand for election, the Bill amends the legislation covering remote attendance at principal council meetings.
The Bill also requires community councils to prepare an annual report about the council's priorities, activities and achievements during the year. This was a recommendation of the independent review on the future of community and town councils in Wales and key to ensuring transparency and accountability.
The Bill requires a principal council to appoint a chief executive and makes provision about their role. This replaces the term 'head of paid service' and updates the role to reflect modern management practices. To further promote diversity in democracy, it also enables the appointment of members as assistants to the executive and job sharing by executive members and leaders. It also updates provision about the entitlement of members to family absence and places a duty on leaders of political groups to take reasonable steps to promote and maintain high standards of conduct by the members of the group.
The Bill includes a number of measures aimed at reducing opportunities for avoidance behaviour relating to non-domestic rates and removal of the power to make provision for the imprisonment of council tax debtors.
Taking the opportunity afforded by the Bill, miscellaneous provisions relating to a range of matters aimed at strengthening and modernising the operation of local government are contained in the Bill. These include information sharing between regulators, the Auditor General for Wales and the Welsh Ministers, repeal of community polls and their replacement with a petition scheme, a new process for appointing the chief executive to the Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales, and powers to enable the merger and demerger of public services boards.
As I outlined in Plenary last month, we are working to enable prisoners and young people in custody from Wales, who are serving a custodial sentence of less than four years, to vote in local government elections. This follows on from the recommendations of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee report, 'Voting rights for prisoners'. Our aim is that eligible prisoners and young people in custody will be able to vote at the next ordinary local government elections, due in 2022.
This will be a very small group of new electors, but they have particular circumstances that cut across many of the long-established arrangements for registering to vote and casting votes. There simply has not been enough time to work through and test with the UK Government, HM Prison Service and electoral registration officers all the new legal and administrative requirements to enable us to have provisions ready in time for this introduction. I will be keeping the Equalities, Local Government and Communities Committee informed of these developments and hope to share provisions on prisoner voting with the committee well in advance of Stage 2.
I look forward to Members' comments on the Bill today and the Assembly's consideration of the Bill over the coming months. Diolch.
Clearly, there is too much in this Bill and your statement for me to cover in its entirety, so I'll try and be selective.
You state that principal councils will be required to prepare, consult on, publish and keep under review a public participation strategy, but previously Welsh Government has proved often averse to implementing the Localism Act 2011's community rights agenda, which would help public participation, including the right to community challenge; the right for community organisations to submit expressions of interest in running local authority services; and the community right to bid for assets of community value, where councils would maintain a list of community assets nominated by community groups and, if the asset is sold, the group would be given time to come up with a bid. Would this facilitate these deficits or not?
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Your statement refers to community councils and the need to prepare an annual report, and it states that this was a recommendation of the independent review on the future of community and town councils in Wales and key to ensuring transparency and accountability. In January, I questioned you regarding the Wales Audit Office report, stating:
'The current standard of financial management and governance remains disappointing at too many Town and Community Councils'.
You responded that you'd only been in post six weeks and said you'd not yet had a chance to read the report in depth. So, again, how, if at all, will this Bill address that? You refer to the independent review panel on community and town councils in Wales that has also called, amongst other things, for all community and town councils to be working towards meeting the criteria to be able to exercise the general powers of competence and recommended that community and town councils, all representative of them, should become statutorily invited participants on all public services boards. Again, how will this Bill address that?
You refer to enabling prisoners and young people in custody from Wales serving a custodial sentence of fewer than four years to vote in local government elections. Of course, the YouGov poll in 2017 asking people in Wales whether any prisoners should be allowed to vote: only 9 per cent stated that they should. So, there does appear to be a bit of a disconnect between the will of the people and Welsh Government here. However, the motive, we support, which is 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. How do you respond to the evidence in the report that you referred to, the committee report, from Parc prison, where we heard that few prisoners would either use a right to vote, or see it as an incentive to rehabilitate, and where the committee report admitted that the empirical evidence to support the theory that voting age rehabilitation was limited? In fact, the right, we understand, of prisoners to vote is to be introduced at Stage 2 due to difficulties the Welsh Government has had in identifying the number of prisoners who will be included within the eligibility criteria. How does that address the deficit regarding scrutiny, where Stage 1 scrutiny in committee is essential to proper detailed scrutiny of all elements? If that information from the Welsh Government's briefing earlier today is accurate, it raises major concerns.
I've been here long enough to remember how the debate on votes at 16 started, and it started because 80 per cent of young people in Wales weren't voting for anybody and it has developed since. In your explanatory memorandum, you refer to the figures in Scotland, and you say that 89 per cent of those eligible 16 and 17-year-olds in Scotland registered, against 97 per cent for the general population, and I believe 75 per cent are estimated to have voted, against 85 per cent for the general population. But the real comparator, is it not, is the Scottish Parliament election in 2016, when overall turnout was back down to 55.6 per cent for the constituency and 55.8 per cent for the regional vote—even lower in Wales at 45.4 per cent? So, what evidence have we got to indicate that a parliamentary election would see that referendum result being repeated in terms of engagement?
You talk about reforms to improving electoral arrangements for local government, including extending the franchise to foreign citizens legally resident in Wales. However, the explanatory memorandum provides no examples of any other country or nation that gives non-citizens the vote in local elections and the impact that this has had. So, what discussions have you had with other national Governments about the impact of allowing non-citizens to vote in local elections? And what case studies has the Welsh Government used to assess the impact of allowing non-citizens to vote? I'm told that at its briefing earlier, the Welsh Government did not know of any research that had been carried out on the effect of the introduction of the right to vote for non-citizens and where the principle of representative democracy has always been based upon a citizen's right to vote requiring the stake that citizenship brings.
I believe I'll be coming to the end of my time shortly, so I'll conclude—
You will, yes. I am watching, yes—go quickly. [Laughter.]
—before you very politely point that out to me.
The Bill allows some council officers to stand in an election within their local authorities, how will you manage issues around conflict of interest that could arise in such circumstances? What consideration have you given to the potential cost of an educational programme to inform local people of any potential changes to electoral systems used by local authorities within your regulatory impact assessment?
Thank you, Mark Isherwood, for that series of questions and comments. In terms of the public participation strategy, we are not copying the Localism Act, because our legislation already allows for a number of things that are not current in England, and, anyway, we're not in a position where we want to copy England. What we're doing here is, in conjunction with the WLGA, developing a system for Wales. So, I'm very pleased with the public participation strategy, it complements a number of other things, such as the community assets transfer and so on. It doesn't encompass all of them. But we are very keen that each local authority should develop its own strategy for its own people, because we believe in the local democracy that that brings.
In terms of community councils, the Member will be aware that there have been a number of audit issues with some councils across Wales and so on. What we are doing is we are making sure that they are making a statement about where they are and what their activities are, which is transparent and open. We're also restricting the power of general competence for those community councils where they have not had qualified audits, where they have capable and competent staff that administer them, and the idea is to encourage them to get themselves to a good standard of accountability. If that isn't sufficient, then we will review the situation, but I'm confident that ensuring that community councils step up to that plate will be enough to—it's enough of a carrot to enable them to be able to do that.
In terms of the number of issues that he raised around the voting arrangements, we have a fundamental political disagreement here. I fundamentally disagree with virtually everything he said in his contribution on voting. The prisoner voting system was rehearsed at great length in the committee. The committee report reported, it was a majority report, he was in the minority that didn't support it. We do support it, and that's why we are where we are.
In terms of votes at 16, I vehemently believe that young people should have a say in the way that their country is governed, the way that their local authorities are run and the services that they provide. We've rehearsed, as part of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, the measures we'll put in place in terms of our curriculum to make sure that people understand the rights and responsibilities that voting brings. I think that the argument that people don't use their vote so they shouldn't have it is an extraordinary one, and I'm sure that people will be very interested to think that Conservatives think that.
In terms of foreign nationals, the UK Government has done a number of things around citizenship that have tightened that up, which mean that a number of people who live and contribute to working and cultural life in Wales are not able to have a say in the way that their local councils and services are delivered. I simply think that that's wrong, and the Government wants to put that right. In terms of eligibility, we are saying that anyone who has the right to remain, live, reside, work and contribute to this society should have a say in how it's elected.
Can I thank the Minister for the statement? Can I, in fact, welcome the statement and welcome the general direction of travel? Can I also thank the Minister for arranging the briefing by officers earlier today? I found that very valuable.
Obviously, it's a very extensive Bill, and I'm not going to indulge in a long list of quotes and discussion points, but I was going to concentrate on the voting systems, specifically the single transferable vote versus first-past-the-post. And, obviously, I note the proposal, we've discussed it before, about actually not having a strategic lead from here to say, 'Listen, guys, we're going to have STV across the board in local elections, just like in Scotland.' You've devolved the decisions to our local authorities, which will possibly render—of the 22 local authorities, obviously, some of them STV, others first-past-the-post, with authorities next door to one another having completely different voting systems from that point of view. Now, I think there is a potential for some element of confusion there, and I would prefer that there would be a strategic lead from here to say, 'Listen, guys, we're going for this, it's STV, and everybody's having STV.'
I'm a long-term proponent, as is my party, of proportional representation, plainly, because, at least then, every vote will count, and, hopefully, addressing low turnouts and spoilt-vote scenarios. The sky hasn't fallen in on Scotland, basically, who've had STV in local government for some years now. In particular, I've always thought that the combination of first-past-the-post and multimember wards at local authority level to be particularly undemocratic. You and I both know Cockett ward specifically in Swansea, where I previously was a county councillor myself; the electorate there is 12,500 in Cockett in Swansea, and there are four county councillors. Then, obviously, every elector feels they have four votes and they're all going to vote the same way, so you need a slate of four candidates. I can see Mike has obviously been in another multimember ward in Swansea, but we can compare experiences if we like. But, anyway, even, dare I say, when 15 years ago all four of those ward councillors in Cockett were Plaid Cymru, we only got about 60 per cent of the vote. We didn't get 100 per cent of the vote, so even in those halcyon days when Cockett went Plaid, we didn't deserve it. There should have been two plaid, one Labour, one Lib Dem, if you were being fair about it. I note now there are four Labour councillors in that ward on a similar percentage of the vote, so the same argument still applies about fair play: never have the residents of Cockett voted 100 per cent for whichever party has the four county councillors.
But STV, you see, would answer that conundrum, wouldn't it? In terms of, if we must have multimember wards, what about having STV, then?
As Dai Lloyd says very eloquently, the current multimember ward system with first-past-the-post in place produces some strange and wonderful results, and he won't be surprised to find that I think the current result is quite halcyon whereas the previous result was not quite so halcyon from our point of view. But he makes a very good and effective point. Clearly, not 100 per cent of people voted—. That's why we're giving local government the chance to look again at whether they want to change the system. If they do, they'll be able to consult with local people and they'll be able to do that by giving them that power.
Once we've got a couple of councils that have decided to do that, and I'm sure that they will be able to consider it very seriously, then we will be able to compare what that produces with what the first-past-the-post system produces, and the Bill also puts in place a peer-review system so that we will have the ability to compare and contrast. One of the things that's said about STV is that it increases diversity and participation. We will be able to see, almost in a controlled trial, if you like, whether that actually comes to pass.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak as Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, as we will of course be scrutinising this Bill during its passage through the Assembly. This is a very important and indeed substantial Bill and we will be undertaking thorough scrutiny of the various provisions in due course. But at this stage I would like to ask the Minister about two provisions that have not been included in the Bill as introduced. The first is in relation to extending the franchise to prisoners in Wales. Members will be aware that our committee recently undertook an inquiry into voting rights for prisoners, and we recommended, as we heard earlier, that the Welsh Government and the National Assembly for Wales Commission introduce legislation to give all those Welsh prisoners who are serving custodial sentences of less than four years the right to vote in devolved Welsh elections. This recommendation was accepted. In a letter to the committee on 18 September, the Minister confirmed that the Welsh Government would
'seek an appropriate legislative vehicle to introduce provision at the earliest opportunity to enable prisoners and young people in custody from Wales to vote in Assembly elections on the same terms as will apply for local government elections.'
So, as such a provision has not been included in the Bill that's before us, I would be grateful to the Minister for any update she's able to provide today to confirm her intentions on this. And I would also like to ask the Minister about the commitment she made to the committee on 17 October in relation to a due regard to the right to adequate housing. The Minister suggested that this Bill could include such a right, but there is no provision for this, and, again, I would be grateful for an update on the Welsh Government's intentions.
Certainly, John. In terms of the prisoners' franchise, as I said in my statement, we simply haven't had the time to work through since the accepting of the committee's recommendation. We intend to bring forward, or work with the committee to bring forward, amendments at Stage 2 to enable the committee's report to be brought into effect. And by then—well in advance of Stage 2—the officials will have had the chance to work through the various complexities of how that will be administered. So, I'm very sure that we'll be able to work with the committee to bring that forward well in advance of Stage 2, so you have a good chance to look at it and indeed to see whether the committee itself wants to do that.
And then, in terms of the due regard to a right to adequate housing, I think what I've said in the committee is that we would look to see whether we could include that in the statutory guidance around the performance framework for the local authorities. So, this Bill sets out the way in which that guidance would be issued, and then the guidance itself would have the various provisions in it. So that sort of provision, and a number of things around the way various services are performed, would be in the statutory guidance. And, as John Griffiths will know, the statutory guidance is something that the authority must follow—it's not something that it can itself have due regard to.
We don't agree with the change in the franchise, but Mark Isherwood has already spoken about those, and I will therefore focus my remarks on areas where I think we agree with the Government, at least in principle. The single transferrable vote—we'd like to see electoral reform, and I think STV has a lot of attractions, and actually I think it's quite exciting that the Welsh Government is allowing different local authorities to go their own way and make their own choices. We approve of local devolution, and we'd like to support you in this, albeit there clearly are risks and uncertainties around it, and we will see how it develops. I wonder how far the Minister expects local councils to go in choosing this. What are her expectations? If councils do go to STV, is it likely to remain that way? If you get people elected under STV, is it going to be harder to reverse that process than it is in the first place? Clearly, she won't know firmly what's going to happen, but I think there are reasons we have to think about what the scale will be. We have a Local Democracy and Boundary Commission for Wales. Is there going to be extra work for that body, where councils do go to STV, redrawing ward boundaries to be more appropriate for that electoral system, or could there be scope for some councils to stick with existing ward maps, particularly where there are larger numbers of wards with three or four members? Could I also ask what will be done in terms of local education to help people understand that the system may be different in their area, whether 16-year-olds being able to vote within schools, or more broadly for the electorate, for whom this may be a new way of voting that contrasts with both Westminster and the Assembly?
Moving on, I welcome the general power of competence being extended to local authorities. The Minister says she didn't want to copy England, but is this not what you're doing in this area, albeit eight years late? When the Localism Act came through in 2011 at UK level, and some aspects did extend to Wales as well as England—for instance, I think there needed to be a legislative consent motion for the senior pay policy—why didn't we at that time look to give an LCM to extend the general power of competence through that Westminster vehicle? And, if not, why is it that we haven't sought another vehicle at any point over the last eight years to bring in that, I think, very positive reform?
Can I also ask about the corporate joint committees? Am I correct that this will be an additional option for local councils? Various councils and other bodies have found good ways of working, regionally or in collaboration locally, and, where those ways work and have been successful, is there really any need to change them? I know these corporate bodies will be their own legal entity and can employ staff, for example, and are certainly a positive addition to have, but is that simply an option that councils will be allowed, rather than something that's forced upon them?
I won't rehearse the voting issues either. In terms of the issue around when a local authority, a principal council, decides that the voting system should be changed, and that STV would better suit the need of the local people, they need to agree the change by a two-thirds majority of council seats, and the new system has to stay in place for at least two electoral cycles, for the reasons that Mark Reckless outlined. And then it would have to go through the process again to change it back, if it wanted to. So, there's a system in place that allows it both to change it and to change it back. And that's two full electoral cycles—so 10 years, effectively—in between them. And the reason for that is that we don't want the chopping and changing, and we also want to have—if the system goes into effect, we want to allow it to bed in and make sure it has a second electoral cycle. In order to do that, the local authority would have to work with the local boundary commission in order to change all of its wards to multi-member wards. So, there's a process set out in the Bill in order to facilitate that and to work with the commission. And, yes, that's work for the commission, but we are in the process of redoing the entire boundary system at the moment, and, by the time this Assembly ends, they will have completed that process and be ready to start the next process in any event.
In terms of the general power of competence, the reason that we're doing it now is because it sits alongside the rearrangement of the way that we do performance management for local authorities here in Wales. So, they are allowed to have the power of general competence—it's something I've personally believed in for a very long time—but it sits alongside the self-improving peer review mechanism, and I think both are needed for local authorities to be able to take best advantage of it, and that's the reason why we didn't do it at the time, because we didn't have that system in place.
And, in terms of the corporate joint committees, they have to have the corporate joint committees for the four areas of work outlined in the Bill, which I set out in my statement, and then a local authority or local authorities in the area can add anything else to it that they wish to do. Some of them will choose to change their arrangements, because it will suit them better. Others will choose to stick with the arrangements they have in place, and we are not imposing any kind of one-size-fits-all on Wales. So, the committees will have to exist for the four mandatory areas in the Bill; otherwise, the local authority's entirely empowered to add or not, as it sees fit.
Can I just express my disappointment that we will not have the right to adequate housing written into Welsh law? I think this was the opportunity to do it in this Assembly. I think the opposite case, that people don't have a right to adequate housing, is exceptionally outrageous, and presumably we've never accepted that as a social norm since at least the second world war. So, to actually put a right that could be actioned by people who feel they've not received the attention they should from the various statutory bodies that are responsible for providing such a right would be a definite advance, and it would also lift up the priority of housing for all. So, I do think it's time, and I think it's very disappointing that you're hiding behind some sort of form of due regard contained in guidance. Now is the time to put this in on the face of the Bill. And, of course, the courts interpret that in terms of what is available, what we can do, but the basic point would be that everyone should be housed, and I do think that ought to be in our fundamental law.
Secondly, on the right of prisoners to vote, this is a very important area in which international law has a lot to say, very nuanced in terms of the length of sentences that prisoners receive—there's a huge range—and there's a whole issue about younger people as well, given that 16 and 17-year-olds will get the right to vote. So, I do think this area needs examination. But I do find it very frustrating, Deputy Presiding Officer, that the Government again is introducing a Bill without a really important section of that Bill being available for the whole legislative process. Now, our legislative process takes, at each stage, weeks. The whole process takes months. And yet you are telling us that you still haven't got the proposals ready, but you've got to introduce the rest of the Bill for various other reasons. And, in response to the Chair of the local government and housing committee, you said you're still working through the details and the complexities, but you'll try to let him have it sometime after Stage 1—you know, we shouldn't legislate like this. It really is a poor show.
Well, on the right to adequate housing, I hear what David Melding says, and I largely agree with him. But what we're doing here is ensuring that local authorities give regard to the right to adequate housing. He will know that the Conservatives refused point blank to put that into the Housing Act 2004 at the UK level. Had they done so, we wouldn't be having this conversation. So, I'm not going to take any lessons about that from the Conservative benches. We will be putting that due regard right into the statutory guidance and local authorities will have to abide by it, just for the avoidance of doubt.
In terms of the prisoner voting, I agree with him. We want to get the elections part of this Bill through in order to allow local authorities to have the changes in place that they want to have. But I also wanted the committee to do its important work in looking at this matter, and I made it very clear in the committee that I was waiting on the committee's report to take it forward. We've accepted the recommendations, and I will work with the committee to bring that forward as fast as we possibly can.
Thank you. And, finally, Mike Hedges.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I start off by saying I welcome the statement? Can I also say that what local government most needs is a financial settlement that allows you to fulfil the needs of the communities served? And whatever the Bill has—and there are lots of very good things in the Bill—it's the financial settlement that is the real driver for local government.
Three very positive statements on the Bill: extending the local government franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds may well get all of us as politicians paying more interest to the views of 16 and 17-year-olds than we have up until now—and I don't exclude myself from that, I don't exclude other Members in here either, and certainly not local authorities.
Secondly, enabling the addition of people to the electoral register without application where the electoral registration officer is satisfied they have reliable information the individual is eligible for registration: it's not just your ability to vote, it's all the other things that go with being on the electoral register.
Allowing principal council employees and officers who wish to stand for election to resign their posts once they are elected, rather than when declaring candidacy: I think that's a great step forward. And we both know people who've given up and then failed to get elected afterwards. But when is the resignation to take place—on being declared elected, or before they sign the declaration as an elected member? There can be four or five days in between those two dates.
I have concerns about the five-year cycle. We brought a five-year cycle in for the Assembly, but looking at a five-year cycle for local government—. And it was to fit in with the Westminster Parliament, which was going to have a fixed, five-year term—well, that turned out well, didn't it? [Laughter.] But I think five years is too long. I think four years is about right. I think three years is probably better than five, but I think five years does stretch the elastic of democracy too far, and I really would hope that we'd both turn the Assembly elections, which are not your responsibility, and local authority elections, back to a four-year cycle. Because we don't need to worry about Westminster; they seem to be running on a two-year cycle at the moment. [Laughter.]
I welcome the proposed provision for principal councils and eligible community councils to have a general power of competence. The only worry I've had, and I've campaigned for the general power of competence for the whole of my political life, is that some English councils in the south of England have turned the general power of competence into an ability to buy up estates and shopping centres all over Britain. And I think there may well need to be some control over that general level of competence—being competent to do anything within your own area, not competent to go and borrow £30 million to go and buy a shopping centre somewhere. I don't think any of us who have argued for a general power of competence in the past ever thought that's what people would use their general power of competence for.
Is there a proposal to make it easier for local authorities to remove the three protected officers—the chief finance officer, the monitoring officer and the head of paid service? If I could call it the Caerphilly problem—. Because the difficulty, or the near impossibility, of having those three posts protected is such that, unless something is done, any other local authority who had a chief executive who was not prepared to go would be in exactly the same position as Caerphilly are and may well find themselves in further problems in the future.
On behaviour and putting group leaders in charge of behaviour—brilliant idea. The only problem is, as you and I both know, the people who behave the worst tend not to belong to groups. They tend to be individuals, independents of various hues. They are the ones who tend to behave the worst, in my experience of local government and, dare I say it, other places. And, really, have we got an opportunity to bring some sort of action against those, because, if they haven't got a party leader, then who do you complain to?
And, finally, on electoral systems, I think that's a whole debate in its own right. If I can just say I fundamentally disagree with every single word Dai Lloyd said on it. The STV wastes more votes than any other system. The great election result in a council in Scotland: three seats—topped the poll 1,700, second 1,500, the third person elected 354, because both the two largest parties were frightened to put up two candidates in case they didn't get anybody elected, and the other—. So, we really do need to start discussing this. And I think that—. And also—well, finally, I'll say that I wish Dai Lloyd was right that people vote in party blocks, because my experience in Morriston is that they tended to be very much a pick and mix when they were picking the people to represent them and, thankfully, most of the time they picked me.
Well, I'm not sure how to follow that last remark. Mike Hedges made a series of points that reflect his life-long interest in local government, and I largely agree with the points that he made.
Just to pick out some of the things, the three protected officer issue, we are currently conducting a review into the arrangements for protection for senior officers with particular roles in the authority. He will know that we're doing that as a result of the situation that occurred in Caerphilly. So, we'll have a look at the review once it reports in January and take that into account, I'm sure. My own particular view is that you need to strike a balance between officers who should not be subject to any kind of arbitrary dismissal because they are giving hard-to-hear advice to elected members, and somebody who's kept in post for seven years, or six, or five, or three, or whatever it is, while they have a dispute with the council. So, clearly a better balance has got to be struck, but we'll await the outcome of that.
In terms of the power of general competence, some authorities in England have taken commercial activities to a whole new level. The various powers, performance management systems, et cetera, that are associated with this Bill will also come with sets of guidance attached to them, and one of the sets of guidance will be around the prudential borrowing and financial provisions that the local authority must follow, which we're actually in the process of consulting on right now.
We will be ensuring that, as we go through the committee, the committee has full sight of the drafts of the various regulations and guidance that go with it, so that we get the committee's full input as we take that through. And we're developing the guidance and statutory regulations that go with this Bill in co-production with the WLGA for the first time. So, they're being co-produced with local authorities in Wales, so that they are fit for purpose as we produce them. So, I take his point, but I think there are ways that we can ensure that local authorities don't over-reach the use of the power of general competence in that kind of way.
In terms of the cycle, we are matching the cycle of the current Senedd. I think that we need to do that because otherwise we're constantly moving. I've just made the Order to move the local government elections out a year because otherwise they clash with ours, so that's something we have to address. If the cycle for us changes, then clearly we'll have to readdress the cycle, but it makes no sense to have them clashing in that way.
I completely agree with him about the local government settlement. He will know as well as I do that we're currently in the hands of an austerity-driven Conservative Government who take very little responsibility, it seems to me, for the decimation of public services across the whole of the UK. We've done what we can to protect local government here in Wales, but I too would like to see an ending of the austerity regime.
In terms of the behaviours and so on, obviously individual Members are still subject to the code of conduct. This is an additional duty on group leaders, so that the group leader becomes a role model and enforces a certain set of conducts. But I don't disagree with his comments about people who don't belong to any group, and they are of course subject themselves to the code of conduct, as they are at all levels of Government.
And then the last thing was about the change in the voting systems. What we're doing is we're allowing the local authority to choose for itself whether it does that. So, if there's a head of steam in its local population or in the local authority itself to do that, then we will facilitate that. If there isn't, then we won't. All voting systems have their ups and downs. We would have to have another hour and a half, Deputy Presiding Officer, to debate that, so I don't propose to do that now.
Thank you very much.
Item 5 on the agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Economy and Transport on Tata Steel. I call on the Minister for Economy and Transport, Ken Skates.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Yesterday, I issued a written statement following a press release from Tata Steel outlining details of their proposals for transformation of the European business. Today, I would like to take this opportunity to update Members on this announcement, which I know will be of concern to many of you and your constituents.
Following the announcement in May of this year that the proposed joint venture between Tata Steel and ThyssenKrupp would not be going ahead, Tata announced that it was working with restructuring consultants to develop a new transformation plan. Yesterday’s statement from Tata Steel is the first announcement the company has made concerning the outcome of their transformation planning.
The statement said that the programme was needed to urgently improve the company's financial performance to make sure the European business becomes self-sustaining and cash positive, whilst enabling investment to safeguard its long-term future.
The statement sets out the four areas on which Tata intends to focus to improve financial performance. These include improved sales and product mix, efficiency gains by optimising production processes, reduced procurement costs and lowering employment costs. As part of the focus on lowering employment costs, Tata steel has announced an estimated reduction in employee numbers of up to 3,000 across its European operations. It is expected that about two thirds of these roles will be office based.
The statement does not provide any information on the geographical spread of job losses or timescales for implementation. However, I have today spoken with the company and I was told that further work will take place in the coming months to identify, function by function, what jobs will be lost. Then, an assessment on the site-by-site impact will be made, with implementation by March 2021. Regular discussions will continue to ensure that we, as a Welsh Government, offer full support to people directly employed across the six sites in Wales and indirectly employed within the supply chain.
In terms of job losses in Wales, we will do everything that we can to support those affected, and our ReAct programme stands ready to provide assistance to workers across the Welsh Tata Steel sites, including co-ordinated support from local partners. The Welsh Government remains committed to working with the company and trade unions to secure a long-term future for steel making in Wales.
The statement follows the disappointing news on 2 September concerning Tata Steel’s proposed closure of the Orb Electrical Steels site in Newport. The First Minister and I both visited the Orb site on 13 November to meet with the Community union, which has worked with consultants Syndex to produce a report outlining an alternative to the closure of Orb. Following this visit, I spoke directly to Henrik Adam, chief executive officer of Tata Steel Europe, and raised the importance of allowing sufficient time to consider Community’s proposal and, indeed, any other offers that come forward that might offer a viable future for the plant. I will continue to press the company on this very point.
The steel sector continues to face a huge range of challenges, both globally and domestically, including global overcapacity, rising carbon and raw materials prices, slowing sales, increased imports, high energy prices in the UK and a downturn in demand from key supply-chain sectors such as automotive.
In the face of these challenges, the Welsh Government has provided significant support to the steel industry in Wales over the past three years. Specifically for Tata, in 2016 we provided £11 million in skills funding, of a total offer of £12 million. In addition, we've also offered £8 million investment to support the Port Talbot power plant plans and £660,000 for research and development into new products.
More widely, we have supported the steel industry by providing £2 million of funding for the establishment of the steel and metals institute at Swansea University; we've published a procurement advice notice supporting the sourcing and procurement of sustainable steel in construction and infrastructure projects in Wales; and, of course, we became the very first signatories to the UK steel charter. We have also provided £6.8 million in funding to Celsa Steel for environmental improvement projects for the company's sites here in Cardiff.
I am proud to say that the Welsh Government has demonstrated its steadfast support for the steel industry and has done everything within its power to support the sector. It is now time for the UK Government to do the same and play its part in supporting the steel industry, which is a vital strategic sector for the UK as a whole, sitting at the foundation of many supply chains including construction and automotive.
I continue to call for the UK Government to take action on non-devolved areas such as energy to address the huge electricity price disparity between UK steel producers and their European counterparts, and the adverse impact this has on competitiveness.
I also continue to press the UK Government to urgently progress a sector deal or equivalent for steel, to provide the foundation for a sustainable industry. The sector is calling for certainty around Brexit and its No. 1 ask of Government is tariff-free access to EU markets. Both the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language and I continue to raise Brexit-related trade issues with the UK Government at every opportunity.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I wrote to Andrea Leadsom, Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy on 8 October, asking her again to convene a meeting of the UK Government, Welsh Government and the steel industry, along the lines of the UK Steel Council. I was pleased when the Secretary of State agreed to convene a UK Steel round-table to take place on 24 October, but I was extremely disappointed and frustrated that with less than 24 hours to go, the meeting was cancelled.
Yesterday’s announcement is further proof that the steel industry in Wales and across the UK is continuing to face an extremely challenging operating environment. The UK Government must now treat the situation facing the steel industry with the urgency and importance that it deserves, by reconvening the steel round-table at the earliest opportunity and taking decisive action to address some of the issues facing our steel producers.
Can I thank the Minister for his written statement and his statement today? And, of course, I would agree with him that this announcement yesterday will be very worrying for the workforce of Tata Steel in Port Talbot and other locations around Wales.
I'm pleased you've had an initial discussion today, and in that discussion, was there any indication of how this announcement may affect the skilled workers at Welsh sites? You mentioned a couple of months as the timescale for analysis to take place on a function-by-function basis. That's what you mentioned took place in your conversation this morning. Did you get any sense of when an update may be expected, and were there any other commitments made to you during that conversation? And what discussions did you have in influencing this process, if you like, for the benefit, of course, of the Welsh sites in your conversation this morning?
There has been a significant amount of cross-party consensus to support our steel industry to date, and I'm sure the Minister will agree that we don't want to lose this in the heat of a general election.
I was also pleased, like you, that the Secretary of State agreed to convene the UK Steel round-table to take place on 24 October. You mentioned your disappointment and frustration that that meeting was cancelled at the last minute, and I'm also aware that colleagues in the UK Government were equally frustrated that UK Steel cancelled this meeting at the last minute, despite being urged by the UK Government to continue with this meeting. I wonder if the Minister will therefore clarify that there has been a good deal of engagement between his department and UK Government officials on the future of the UK steel industry.
And turning perhaps to a few points where the Welsh Government could support, Tata Steel has said that it aims to secure the foundation for investments required to accelerate innovation and the company's journey towards carbon-neutral steel making. I wonder what more the Welsh Government can do to support this ambition. What measures are you considering to assist in reducing operating costs and bureaucracy, such as a post-Brexit business rate relief to alleviate pressure on the industry, and ensure that Tata Steel has structurally competitive business here in Wales? Was this something that you were able to discuss this morning in your meeting? And finally, will the Minister also state what specific Welsh Government infrastructure projects will procure homemade Welsh steel, which will benefit, of course, the wider supply chain here in Wales?
Can I thank Russell George for his contribution and his questions and first of all agree entirely that cross-party support on this very important issue should be maintained during the current election period? I'll come to the degree of engagement that we've had with the UK Government in a moment, but I can say that the discussion that took place this morning with Tata was very constructive. I was able to ascertain more detail, but I'm afraid I cannot give a site-by-site specific assessment of the impact of the announcement because, as I identified in my statement, the work that will be undertaken in the coming three months will be based on functions rather than sites.
As soon as the data concerning the functions is available, Tata will then be able to provide an update on how this impacts on each of the sites, and I expect that to be around February of next year, and, as I said, Dirprwy Lywydd, from February of next year through to March of 2021, there will be the implementation stage for this transformation programme.
I think it's only right to state at this point that Tata have also given me assurance that they will honour the memorandum of understanding with trade unions, and that as a consequence, they will seek to avoid compulsory redundancies. Now, we know, from the fact that the majority of the jobs will be office-based, that in terms of the announcement that had already been made regarding Orb, the jobs that are blue collar in Orb could still be—or the people who are occupying blue-collar jobs in Orb could still be transferred to other opportunities within the Tata family along the M4 corridor, and I have asked for my officials to continue discussing this and the transformation programme more widely with Tata over the coming weeks and months.
In terms of the round-table discussion that was due to take place last month, whilst it's true that UK Steel cancelled the meeting, they did so out of frustration, a frustration that, unfortunately, the Secretary of State was not able to attend for the full meeting, and so I have every sympathy for UK Steel. It's absolutely vital at this incredibly challenging time that every single Government puts its weight behind a collective effort to deal with the challenges that the sector faces. That said, Dirprwy Lywydd, I did have a very constructive meeting myself, on a bilateral basis, with the Secretary of State just last month, and I suggested to the Secretary of State that it would be advantageous for us to share, where possible, human resource of our two Governments, and I was very pleased that the Secretary of State agreed that this was a good idea and we're now progressing with just that. I think on two fronts—one the future of steel, the other the future of the automotive sector—our Governments need to be working very closely together and I expect our officials to do so.
Tata did talk in their statement about the carbon-neutral future for steel producing and Russell George rightly asked what sort of support may be available from the Welsh Government with regard to this. Through our economic action plan, we have now created the new lens for assessing bids for grant funding and one of those calls concerns decarbonisation. I think that if we can dovetail opportunities from the UK industrial strategy and the Welsh Government's economic action plan, we can support Tata's endeavour to achieve carbon-neutral steel production, but in order to maximise those opportunities within the UK industrial strategy, we need, with urgency, a steel sector deal to be completed.
And in terms of other support that may be available, other means that may be available to provide opportunities to Tata and other steel producers in Wales, well, the city deal in Swansea bay is one obvious means of supporting the sector, and also, as Russell George identified, major infrastructure programmes. And as a consequence of the Welsh Government being the first signatory of the UK steel charter, it is clear that the Welsh Government is committed to ensuring that as much Welsh steel as possible is utilised for major infrastructure projects as is possible. And within the Wales infrastructure investment plan, which was just published this month, there are significant projects that could utilise Welsh-produced steel, and I expect Tata to be able to take advantage of the public purse and the procurement opportunities that are now available to it.
Clearly, this is more devastating news for the steel industry in Wales and the individuals involved, who are now concerned that there will be more impacts on jobs here in Wales, though, of course, it is very uncertain at this point where the axe is going to fall. I think it's clear also that we have a case here of workers, wherever those jobs go, paying the price for the way that joint venture with ThyssenKrupp collapsed, and the lack of plan B in the event of the collapse of that joint venture. And it's come to my attention, certainly, that unions had warned Tata on multiple occasions that they shouldn't put all their eggs in one basket; they should have their eyes on other options too. And I'd be interested in hearing from the Minister what similar warnings Welsh Government would have voiced.
It's been, certainly in my six years as an Assembly Member, a time of relentless uncertainty. Somehow, announcement after announcement of job losses, the odd reprieve every now and then, and I'm grateful for when finances have been made available for various projects that have given a lifeline at various points. I certainly agree with the Minister when he says that UK Government needs to pull its finger out. To me, it's not showing that it is doing what it can to support this vitally important industry to Wales.
Also, I question what influence you in Welsh Government believe you have, because, yes, Welsh Government has engaged positively, it has made money available through training schemes for various power schemes, and research and development as well, but what influence do you genuinely believe you have? And with jobs at risk, at best now, is there even an element of influencing your engagement with Tata now to protect those jobs that the millions of pounds of Welsh Government money has been able to do in terms of training? Are those jobs that have been trained up using Welsh Government money safe? Are those jobs that have benefited directly from assistance packages over the past few years going to be protected because you believe you have some sort of influence?
The issue of Orb steel in Newport is one that is concerning, too, of course. We have Tata here saying that they want to diversify into new products—products that future markets will need. We know that's what was being produced in Newport. And when you said a minute ago that you had asked Tata's chief executive for sufficient time to consider proposals that had been put on the table, could you give us an idea of what 'sufficient time' means? What is the timescale here? And, you know, when I and my party have been talking about convening a major manufacturing summit for Wales to really start mapping out the shape of manufacturing in Wales for years to come, the kind of thing I have in mind is a manufacturing sector, an industrial base, that needs Orb to be in Newport, that has ambitions, be it in electric vehicle manufacture or associated elements of the EV sector, that needs Orb to be in Newport. And that in itself could help make the case. So, I'll leave it there for now.
It's a relief, in a way, that job losses, where they happen, aren't due to happen until, I believe, March 2021, which at least buys a little time. But we need to know now that Welsh Government, of course, is trying to use its influence, as much as it believes it has, whilst at the same time looking to UK Government to show that it's serious about the steel industry.
Can I thank Rhun ap Iorwerth for his questions and for identifying some very significant and important points? One: the question of how much influence Welsh Government has over what is largely a UK problem—and you could extend it and say that it's actually, in some respects, a European problem, and in other respects, it's a global problem. Does Welsh Government have the ability to truly influence global capacity issues? No. Does Welsh Government have the ability to address the disproportionately high energy costs? No, that's UK Government, and it must act. Does Welsh Government have the ability to influence falling demand for steel from within the automotive sector in China and in the United States? No. Therefore, what Welsh Government must do is focus on those challenges that we can help Tata to address, to work in collaboration with Tata. And where we can clearly assist, and where we have been clearly assisting, is with the development of skills that are going to be required for advanced manufacturing in the future, including steel. We can help with decarbonisation of their footprint; indeed, we are doing just that. We can help with R&D, and, again, we're doing just that. But the big changes that could be made to assist Tata in its transformation programme within the UK are in the hands of the UK Government.
The UK Government could do three things quickly and relatively straightforwardly. First of all, convene that steel council. Secondly, the UK Government could address price disparities on energy, and it's a fact that UK steel producers face 80 per cent higher costs for energy than the French, and 62 per cent higher costs than the Germans. That could be dealt with by UK Government, by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and the Treasury working together. The third area where the UK Government could make significant progress is with that sector deal. Why? Well, because the sector deal requires contributions, investment, from steel businesses. Now, in order to get that sector deal over the line, they need to make sure that enough money is put on the table to unlock investment from Tata and other steel businesses. Tata told me just this morning that this transformation programme is about making sure that they can invest in capital expenditure in order to sustain the sites that we have in the UK and in Europe.
Now, Welsh Government will assist where it can, but that question that Rhun ap Iorwerth posed was incredibly important, and it's absolutely right that we look at what UK Government has done to date, but we look more closely again at where the UK Government needs to deliver in the future. And, I'm not going to act as a commentator on what Tata did or did not do, or should or should not have done at the time that the joint v