The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly of Wales is now in session.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The first item this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and question 1 is from Nick Ramsay.
Policies for Improving the M4
1. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s policies for improving the M4? OAQ(4)2094(FM)
Yes. As well as our long-term plans for the M4 corridor around Newport, we are carrying out a number of measures along the M4 elsewhere, to increase capacity and tackle pinch points.
Thank you, First Minister. There are, as you will be aware, increasing concerns—from all sides—about the Government’s proposed black route solution to the problems of the M4 in south-east Wales surrounding the Brynglas tunnels and, indeed, the process that led to the black route’s adoption as the Government’s preferred route. Aside from the environmental concerns, the commissioners of Newport docks have said that the bridges over the docks pose a serious threat to the economic wellbeing of the port at Newport. Will you now listen to the Welsh Conservative calls for you to reopen the consultation process around the M4 solution and to put the blue route well and truly on the table for consideration, during this hiatus that your failure to act over the last years has created over the next year?
Does anyone follow Twitter, I wonder, on the benches opposite? Because William Graham, you see, said that he supported the black route, at which point, Antoinette Sandbach responded:
‘Pity @williamgrahamam not willing to put his vote where his principles allegedly are. I was taught actions speak louder than words.’
‘What price principles?’, she continued:
‘Public inquiry excludes Blue Route, whole point of the motion to get that position reviewed’.
But Byron Davies joined in then, on Twitter. He joined in, saying that, if there was to be a relief road, it didn’t have to be a motorway. William Graham responded, saying it should be a motorway, at which point, Byron Davies said to William Graham, ‘Could this be a spoof account?’:
‘Could this be a spoof account? @williamgrahamam I know so well, voted in favour of the Welsh Conservative motion yesterday.’
William Graham replied:
‘No conflict between motion and Black Route. Confident Black Route will be chosen at public enquiry.’
Response from Byron Davies:
‘Ah—confirmed, definitely a spoof account’.
William Graham later confirmed that his tweets were genuine.
Sometimes, I refer to ‘the party opposite’; I should refer to ‘the parties opposite’. They don’t have a single view on the M4, a single view on transport, a single view on the economy—a rudderless shambles.
First Minister, you’ve actually identified the M4 has pinch points elsewhere, and clearly the overhead section at Port Talbot is one of those pinch points. The trial at junction 41 has been operating now for six months. Will you look at that trial? It’s actually come to a point where we want to cease it. We want to look at the operation of the overhead average speed cameras to assess their effectiveness in the pinch point and then take a decision based upon the whole range of outcomes, but the people of Port Talbot have actually suffered congestion at pinch points along the roads in Port Talbot itself, and traders have informed me they’ve lost business. Is it now time to actually say that time is up on that trial?
Well, I will assure the Member the trial will operate until March. The effect of the peak-time closure will need to be reviewed before taking a decision on the way forward. Public consultation will take place, as part of any plans—if there are plans—for permanent closure. The effect of the average speed camera enforcement will be assessed using data collected from the east-bound carriageway, because there are no junction closures on the west-bound carriageway, and that trial is being monitored. All these things will be taken into account before the next steps are considered.
We intend to use £1 billion as a shorthand for the cost of the new black route. There’s a suggestion that, already, that price has maybe gone up to £1.2 billion. Would the First Minister also comment on suggestions that a bridge over Newport docks would cost another £200 million to £300 million on top of that, compared, incidentally, with about £100 million for a third crossing across the Menai, which is going to be highly unlikely, I guess, with £1.5 billion spent on that stretch of road in Newport?
Well, he’s pulling figures from thin air, I have to say. I mean, it’s not even £1 billion—it’s well below that. We’ve always said very clearly that we would not seek to use the full amount that we were able to borrow to pay entirely for one road project—that’s been made very, very clear. The reality is that something must be done to alleviate congestion around Newport. We have made our proposal and now, of course, that proposal is being examined through the various processes. But it is not good enough to say that nothing should happen, because the traffic will continue to build.
First Minister, one way of improving traffic flow on the M4 is, of course, to encourage people to travel in other ways. With that in mind, I am wondering if you can tell us when the proposed introduction of a direct rail service between Ebbw Vale and Newport will begin.
That’s not going to affect the tunnels, as the traffic coming through the tunnels comes from the Severn bridge going west bound. Whether there is a railway line between Newport and Ebbw Vale isn’t going to make a difference. The traffic does not travel through the tunnels to go between Ebbw Vale and Newport. Much of the traffic that comes through is coming through on a weekend. They’re travellers, holidaymakers, particularly in the summer. They are going to use their cars. They are not going to go on to the trains because of, quite often, the luggage that they are carrying. The reality is that the situation is not going to be alleviated. There needs to be something done to make sure that the traffic continues to flow so that people aren’t sitting in traffic jams with, of course, the effect on the environment with extra carbon dioxide emissions.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Before we move on to question 2, I’m sure the Members would like to join me in welcoming a delegation from the Fijian Parliament, led by the speaker. I did assure them that you were very well behaved, so I hope that you’re not going to let me down. [Laughter.] I now move to question 2—Rhodri Glyn Thomas.
Local Government Reorganisation
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on local government reorganisation? OAQ(4)2096(FM)
Well, later today, the Minister for Public Services will be making a statement on the latest reforming local government White Paper.
Well, that’s extremely interesting, First Minister. May I remind you of what you said on 28 January of last year in presenting the Williams commission report? You said that, ‘We must move as a matter of urgency on this issue and will be consulting internally, and we as a Government will be able to state our official position once we have completed that consultation at the end of March’. A year later, we haven’t the slightest idea where the Welsh Government stands. Following that, you’ve asked councils to come forward with proposals for voluntary merger. You’ve turned those down, and, now, the Minister for Public Services is going to make another statement. You’re all over the place on this issue, First Minister. We don’t have the slightest idea where you stand on this issue, and, more importantly, you haven’t the slightest idea where your Government stands on this.
Well, knowing where your party stood would be a bit of a help. I’ve invited the other parties—[Interruption.] No, it’s not enough to say that you have no policy. Listen now: I want to ensure that there is an opportunity for the leaders to speak to me and to each other to come to a conclusion about what the map should look like. If there is no agreement on that, a map will be published in the summer.
We have seen two local government reorganisations when lines on a map have overridden the importance of service delivery. Will there be a published cost-benefit analysis prior to any local authority merger or will there be an internal rate of return based upon net present value prior to any merger?
Well, there will, of course, be a draft regulatory impact assessment, which will accompany any proposals for a Bill and it, of course, will contain the figures in terms of the costs of such an action.
First Minister, last week the Minister for Public Services, Minister No. 3, sent shock waves across not only those authorities whose bids had failed but the wider local government community in Wales. Now, despite previous commitments to the Williams recommendations, last week’s actions certainly contradicted this. That left those authorities that had applied feeling that they’d completely been misled by the Minister and this Welsh Government. Now, this was, as you can well imagine, against a very tight financial, challenging sort of settlement and a challenging backdrop.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you coming to the question?
Yes. With such uncertainty, turmoil and demoralisation in our very important level of governance here in Wales, it is time now for you to step up—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—to the plate as the First Minister and tell us what is your plan for the blueprint for local government. And also—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I think you’ve—
[Continues.]—are you still committed, are you still committed to the Williams recommendations or do you have a bigger plan for a much smaller number of authorities—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—in line with other Members within your own Cabinet?
We’re still considering what the map should look like, but what she’s suggesting is that the proposals that came forward from the councils should have been rubber-stamped, regardlesss of any wider context. And the reality is, of course, that only one of the proposals was actually in line with the Williams commission’s recommendations in any event. So, clearly, there were difficulties with doing that. I say, once again, that there is an open invitation to the other party leaders to take this forward. I’d prefer to take it forward on the basis of more than one party taking it forward. We know that it was always impossible to bring forward legislation before the election in 2016, and so, instead of shouting, come forward with some constructive proposals. [Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I knew I made a mistake telling the speaker from Fiji that you were well behaved.
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to questions from the party leaders, and first this afternoon we have the leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
First Minister, you are very keen to tell us that you are a leader of Welsh Labour. Are you leader of a cult-like mafia that is frightened of free speech and terrified of dissenting voices?
No, I leave him to judge that; he’s in a better position than me.
Obviously, your former employee, Councillor Luke Ellis, seems to think that you are, given his writings and comments over the last couple of days, in that he has highlighted the fact that, you know, Labour today is more like a cult-like mafia and is frightened of free speech and terrified of dissenting voices. Now, I remember full well that, when we talked about the Williams commission last year, you were confident that you would carry your party and you would have a quick decision. Now, what we have 12 months later, First Minister, are two parts of your party refusing to select AMs—Caerphilly and Islwyn—we have councillors walking out in Wrexham, we have a public services Minister who is ripping up the work of his predecessors, and we have a First Minister who is setting no direction at all for local government reorganisation. When are we going to have a road map for what local government is going to look like from your leaderless Government?
Can I advise the leader of the opposition to be very careful in terms of quoting Luke Ellis? I give you that very strong advice at this stage, given the things that you may not know. I’ll leave it there. Secondly, he talks about leaderlessness. This is a party whose members tweet publicly against each other while he sits there and does nothing. Absolutely nothing. He lets them do it and he thinks it’s our party that has been leaderless. The reality is that we are in a situation where we have outlined now the way forward in terms of local government in Wales. There is a White Paper, there is a statement this afternoon, and the Minister will make clear the future direction of local government for Wales.
First Minister, whilst you’re very familiar with quoting Twitter, I concentrate on the real issues that people want to focus on, which is what the local government foot map will look like around Wales. Ultimately, what people want to know, and in fairness—[Interruption.] The public services Minister can giggle and laugh, but all he seems to do is go around causing mayhem like he did in education, with very little results. What the public services Minister should concentrate on is supporting councillors in their role, and, in particular, communities getting the services they require in their everyday lives. Last week, we saw from him complete disregard for all the work that has gone on in the last 12 months. I just don’t think it’s unreasonable, and many other people don’t think it’s unreasonable, to see a clear set of principles coming from the Government as to what we can expect around local government reorganisation.
Now, you’ve talked of a map coming forward this summer. Is that map going to actually come down to six local authorities, as has been talked of by the public services Minister, or is it going to stick to the Williams commission principles, and we’re going to see 12 or 13? Can you give us that simple, simple geographical context that the Welsh Government is working to?
I don’t believe 13 was a figure in the Williams commission’s proposals, but I’m not going to prejudge discussions that I have with other party leaders; that would be discourteous and I’m not prepared to do that. But he mentions education. He’s run from that, obviously, this afternoon, despite the fact of running a press conference on this. He’s run from the fact that his party in England have failed to build any new schools, run from the fact that they have got rid of the education maintenance allowance, run from the fact that they’ve trebled, nearly, the amount of money that students in Wales would pay in the future if they had their way—
A cult-like mafia.
[Continues.]—run from the fact that education spending in Wales is 8% higher than it is in England—run from that, run from any kind of policy decision, run from the fact that his Prime Minister yesterday trailed the suggestion that schools funding would be ring-fenced in England and then rolled back from it.
A cult-like mafia. A cult-like mafia.
[Continues.]—And worst of all, in a press release the Conservatives sent out only this afternoon, accused the Labour Government of gerrymandering exam results.
A cult-like mafia. A cult-like mafia.
[Continues.]—Every single young person who has tried an exam in the past year or two has had that qualification undermined. What kind of a party undermines Welsh students to please their masters in London? The party opposite.
A cult-like mafia.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I think you’ve said that six times.
I was hoping he’d pick up on it: his ex-employee.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Right, we now move to the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Lywydd. As you know, First Minister, Plaid Cymru has produced detailed, costed proposals that are achievable to employ and train an additional 1,000 doctors for the Welsh NHS. According to Welsh Government estimates, can you tell us how many additional doctors Wales needs?
Well, we know that we have, for example, 11% more GPs, who have been put in place over the past decade. We know that vacancies are low. We know that there are difficulties in recruiting doctors in some specialisms, that much is right. It would help me, for example, if you were to explain how the recruitment of 1,000 doctors is achievable and where they’d come from.
We’ve produced detailed proposals on this. There is a paper available. We have plans to recruit doctors in the short term and train them over the long term. First Minister, surely we can all agree that a shortage of GPs, especially in the Valleys and in rural communities, is a ticking time bomb, with so many people due to retire. Now, the number of doctors that we have needs to be addressed now so that we have a new generation of GPs able to meet patients’ needs. You announced proposals last week to introduce 1,000 additional medical staff into the Welsh NHS. Can you tell us how many of those would be doctors?
They would be doctors, nurses, OTs, they would be physiotherapists, and they would be people who are at the front line of healthcare, because we know those figures are achievable. What we don’t know, from this mythical paper, which I haven’t seen, I have to say, is where you are going to get 1,000 doctors in five years. You can’t train them in five years, because it takes more than five years to train a doctor, so that’s out of the window. You know that. You would apparently recruit 1,000 extra doctors. I mean, the ambition’s fine, I’m not going to argue with you about that, but where on earth would you recruit 1,000 extra doctors in five years? There is no country on the planet that could do that.
You deliberately misunderstand our policy, First Minister. Our plans include a short-term measure to recruit doctors now and a longer-term plan over two terms of a Plaid Cymru Government to train additional doctors for the Welsh NHS. We propose 1,000 doctors because that’s how many doctors we need to bring Wales up to the UK average. That’s a reasonable first step as part of a long-term plan for the Welsh NHS. Now, it’s concerning to me that you can’t specify how many additional doctors the Welsh NHS needs as part of your proposals. It also concerns me that you’ve linked your proposals to Whitehall’s introducing a mansion tax. Now, you’ve previously said to us, in this Chamber, ‘What happens in Westminster happens in Westminster’, so where is your plan to train the additional doctors that we need now, irrespective of Whitehall’s tax policies?
We do not know—we know now it’s two terms, apparently; that’s news to us, but there we are—how many extra doctors you plan to train. We do not know which specialisms you say you would put the doctors in—
This is your policy—
Well, it’s not my policy to recruit 1,000 more doctors. It’s perfectly proper for the people of Wales to try to understand where these doctors would come from. I make the point to you: what you suggest is impossible, and any doctor will tell you that, which is why I say the ambition might be fine but the reality is you’ve not thought through the policy. You accuse us, but frankly, if we get extra money from London, we’ll take it, not like you and say, ‘We don’t want it; we want independence instead’. We’re not in the business of saying that we will base the recruitment of 1,000 doctors on making sure that people carry on drinking sugary drinks in order to pay for those doctors. It’s a fallacy in terms of the way that you’re trying to present the argument. The reality is we have increased the number of doctors, particularly GPs. It’s not just about doctors. It’s about nurses, it’s about OTs, it’s about physiotherapists, and it’s about speech and language therapists as well. You have no plans to recruit with regard to them, so I’m afraid that she and I will never see eye to eye on this one, clearly. We know what is realistic, we have been recruiting, not the pie in the sky of Plaid.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, I note with interest the proposals from the Minister for Public Services to limit councillor terms and terms for cabinet members and leaders. I presume what is good for the goose is also good for the gander, so can I assume that, should those powers be devolved to the National Assembly, you will be introducing term limits for Assembly Members, Cabinet members and, indeed, First Ministers?
I’m afraid I can’t change an electoral system to make sure the Lib Dems win an election on that basis. I’m afraid you’ll have to do that yourselves. The Minister for Public Services will of course outline his proposals in the course of this afternoon’s proceedings.
First Minister, you, not surprisingly, didn’t answer the question. If it’s good enough for the goose, surely it’s good enough for the gander. Will your Government be bringing forward proposals to limit the terms of individual Assembly Members, Cabinet members and leaders? Now, I appreciate that Leighton Andrews obviously has a very low opinion of his Labour colleagues in local government, and this is your way of breaking up Labour’s old boy clubs and their cosy cabals, but don’t you agree that the real way to empower voters is not for the Minister to dictate who can and cannot stand in elections, but to abolish safe seats, party fiefdoms and unopposed council elections by introducing a fair voting system, so people get the representatives they vote for?
Well, a voting system of the kind—not the exact kind—was put to the people of Britain and they rejected it overwhelmingly in a referendum. I don’t think that that would gain support. I think people do very much value the fact that they have a local councillor, or councillors, who represent their area. As she is fond of saying to us in terms of health service targets, try and win under the existing systems; you’re trying to change it for your advantage.
But, Minister, you’re not going to allow local people to vote for the councillors they want to, because you’re going to limit who can stand in elections. You’re taking power away from the people—taking power away from them—to elect the people they want to represent them.
Now, isn’t it the case that the Williams commission was a real missed opportunity to examine in detail what we want county halls to deliver? Now, your Minister will go on to say in his statement this afternoon that you’re going to tell local councils what to do in education, social services, economic development, waste and planning. After you take all those things away from local people, what exactly do you expect local government to do?
Well, that’s nonsense, I have to say, in terms of taking powers away. I’ve said many times that, when we get the structure of local government right, we can then look at devolving powers to local government, but it’s important that those councils are able to use those powers, and bluntly, some of them are not able to use those powers at this moment in time. But I have to say that, first of all, we don’t have the powers to change the electoral system of the Assembly—which has come as news to me—and secondly, I do not think it is right to say to people, ‘You will not have a councillor representing you in your local area’. It is not right to say that the single transferable vote has to be imposed on councils without, of course, there being support amongst the public, and I do not believe that support is there.
The Freedom of Information Act 2000
3. Will the First Minister detail how the Welsh Government complies with the Freedom of Information Act 2000? OAQ(4)2087(FM)
We comply with the Act itself, and the guidance from the Information Commissioner’s Office, of course, is a part of what we consider.
Thank you. Well, for the second time, the Welsh Government has been taken to the information rights tribunal in the Llangollen River Lodge case, and for the second time, the Welsh Government has lost. Your Welsh Government classed the request for information to or from you, to or from Edwina Hart, and to or from Jane Hutt as vexatious, but despite appointing top London barristers at huge public cost, the tribunal found that, in all the circumstances, the request was not vexatious.
We already know from previous documentation obtained, that the Welsh Government did apply inappropriate political pressure on the health board to locate a health centre in a completely inappropriate place. What else are you trying to cover up?
So, we know the Conservatives are against the health centre in Llangollen. That’s what he’s just said. So, we’ll note that one.
The allegations he made are nonsense, of course. Can I remind him of this? Of the requests that we receive, only 0.2% end up with information being released, despite our original position—0.29%, actually. I have to say that, in terms of compliance, our rate is better than the UK Government, far better than Northern Ireland, and streets better than Scotland. So, when it comes to compliance and considering Freedom of Information Act requests, we are in a very good place. There will be occasions such as this, of course, where, despite the Information Commissioner agreeing with us, the tribunal does not agree. That is something, of course, that happens from time to time, in Government.
First Minister, having a look over the FOI responses made by your Government this year, I notice that one made in January regarding Neath Port Talbot’s bid under the twenty-first century schools programme was made exempt from disclosure, because, and I quote, it:
‘would or would be likely to: inhibit…the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation or otherwise prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs.’
I don’t expect you to reply directly about this, because obviously, it was rejected as an FOI request, but I’m interested to know how you balance such decisions against the need for transparent government. Would it not be possible for you to release some of that information, but with redactions, so that the public could see some of what the discussions were, as opposed to not having any of that information at all?
The assumption will always be that information is released and, where possible, information is released with redactions. Each individual case is considered on its merits, examining that case against what the law says and what the guidance says. Of course, if people are not content with that, there are avenues open to them to take their grievance further.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on Welsh Government actions to support strong intercommunity relations in Wales? OAQ(4)2099(FM)
Yes. We published a national community cohesion delivery plan in June of last year, and that plan is supported by eight regional community cohesion co-ordinators. The Minister will be publishing a progress report in the summer.
Thank you for that response, First Minister. Last month, of course, we witnessed the horrific events in Paris, where a number of people were brutally murdered by extremist fundamentalists, who perverted the name of one of the world’s greatest and most historic religions. Nonetheless, I was heartened by the show of solidarity here on the steps of the Senedd a few days later, when people from different faiths and backgrounds across Wales came together to condemn extremism and terrorism of all kinds. We saw a show of solidarity from leading members of Wales’s Muslim and Jewish communities. Would you, therefore, agree with me, First Minister, that the vigil held here in Cardiff bay demonstrates the importance of strong inter-faith relations in Wales, and something that we should use as a basis to help build community cohesion, particularly during times of tension?
Absolutely. Of course, that cohesion is continued in the work of the faith communities forum—a very useful forum for ensuring that issues of policy are aired, but also to bring people together at a time when the world is experiencing so much strife. So, what we saw on the steps of the Senedd is an illustration of a process of cohesion that continues on a monthly basis through the faith communities forum and through other means as well.
First Minister, Professor Anthony Glees of the University of Buckingham warned recently that Islamic State, IS, so-called in the world, has people who go around schools, campuses and Islamic community centres looking for young people who may be susceptible to radicalisation. Given that strong intercommunity relations are vital in identifying and stopping these recruiters for terrorism, what further measures will the Welsh Government take to strengthen the relations with the Islamic community in Wales?
Well, I think the relations are already very, very good. The fact is that the community is represented on the faith communities forum. It’s a very civically active community. Of course, where there are difficulties, which arise from time to time, we work very closely with the community to overcome those difficulties. With regard to security issues, those are matters, primarily, that are not devolved, but, of course, we work with the UK authorities in order to make sure that any potential trouble or any potential recruitment is discovered as quickly as possible.
Minister, there are concerns that arise from permanent residents of an area where there are Gypsy/Travellers present. Quite often, the response from the authorities and from some permanent residents is antipathy from the outset, and this is obviously not desirable. Concerns, we have to recognise, from both sides, when these issues do arise, are, indeed, valid. How are you fostering understanding and dialogue between residents and Traveller communities to encourage both sides to listen, and to reduce tensions?
Well, it’s the job of the community cohesion co-ordinators to do that. They’ll play a key role in enhancing engagement with Gypsy and Traveller communities in order to build that mutual understanding, of course, and in order to build mutual respect across communities. So, that is a role that they will play in order to overcome the difficulties that often arise when different communities come into verbal conflict.
The Young Farmers’ Club Movement
5. What assessment has the First Minister made of the contribution of the Young Farmers’ Club movement to the communities of rural Wales? OAQ(4)2085(FM)
Well, it’s the largest rural youth organisation in Wales: 155 local clubs and over 5,000 members. It has always played a valuable role within rural communities and in working alongside government.
I’d like to thank the First Minister for that response and for that endorsement of the important work of young farmers in Wales. One particularly important aspect is the level of volunteering that young farmers’ clubs nurture. There are, on average, eight volunteers who support each club, averaging some six hours per week, equating to almost 500,000 volunteer hours per year. The recent loss by the young farmers of three-year funding of some £700,000 from the national voluntary youth organisations fund threatens, many argue, the sustainability and the future prospects for the young farmers continuing their valuable work. In this context, First Minister, what assessment have you made of the potential threat to the future of young farmers in Wales that’s brought by this funding reduction?
Well, I know that there is a meeting planned between young farmers and, I believe, the Minister in the course of the next few days, or at least with officials. In that meeting, it will be possible then for the young farmers’ clubs to receive feedback in terms of their financial position.
First Minister, it’s more important than ever that there is a secure future for young farmers’ clubs in Wales so that they can support and continue to develop the skills of young people across our rural communities. I echo the views of others who have criticised this reduction in their funding from your Government. Bearing in mind the importance of young farmers’ clubs for our young people, particularly in rural areas, what specific discussions have you had with the organisation as to how they can continue to provide important services for young people, and what other alternative funding sources can the Welsh Government make available to the young farmers’ clubs to help them to continue to provide their services to young people?
Well, this, of course, will be discussed in any meeting that will take place. The Member said that this was a sort of ministerial decision. Well, that isn’t quite right, of course, because it was an advisory panel that made recommendations to the Minister. They decided that, of the organisations that had submitted a bid, seven should be funded, which include such organisations as Urdd Gobaith Cymru, ScoutsWales and Boys and Girls Clubs. So, who does he think should be knocked off that list so that the funding is given to the young farmers’ clubs? That’s the problem. What he’s saying is that the young farmers’ clubs should be given special treatment. I don’t believe that that’s fair when you look at the other organisations that are being funded. Having said that, of course, there is an opportunity for them to speak to officials in order to ensure that they can receive more advice on the way forward.
Half of the problem is that such a significant organisation—and you’ve acknowledged yourself the role that they play, particularly in the most peripheral communities of Wales where there are no alternative services for young people—. Part of the problem is that they have to go from year to year depending on their bid, and to go from one bid to another. Now, will you look at a relationship model between your Government and the young farmers movement that deals with them more as a delivery partner? It’s a model used in New Zealand, for example, where the Government sees the organisation as a means to promote Government programmes among the agricultural community; to introduce educational and training programmes; and to go into schools to talk to pupils about the source of their food and so forth. Can we turn this unfortunate position into an opportunity in order to ensure that there is a stronger relationship between the Government and the movement in terms of delivery, but that is based on agreements that are far more sustainable in the long term rather than year on year?
Well, in principle, of course, that would be fine. The problem, of course, is that that is not the position for us as a Government. We don’t know how much long-term funding we will receive from the United Kingdom Government, so it’s extremely difficult to give some kind of long-term commitment, without knowing our own financial position. That’s something that has been raised a number of times by a number of organisations—whether it would be possible to have some kind of long-term agreement. It is difficult, of course, bearing in mind that that is not the nature of the relationship between Wales and the United Kingdom.
I declare an interest—two of my daughters are members of the young farmers’ club. First Minister, it’s clear now that there’s no point revisiting the decision by Lesley Griffiths’s department for funding for young farmers, but your Government constantly tells us that the rural development fund is bigger than it has ever been in Wales. Would you agree with me that there is potential for both Rebecca Evans and Carl Sargeant to look to utilise some of the funding from the rural development plan to fund the young farmers’ club movement, especially, as you’ve just said, that they are key partners in working with the Welsh Government. Young farmers’ representatives are on many of the stakeholder groups and are expected to contribute to part of the policy-making role that you yourself have as a Government? So, would you agree with me that the rural development fund does offer a brighter future for the young farmers’ club movement?
Well, it is right that the rural development plan will offer more money than ever before, thanks to the hard work of Labour Ministers, both behind me. That much is true. In terms of what the future holds for them, there is a meeting on 5 February—forgive me, with senior officials rather than with the Minister—and at that meeting it’ll be possible, then, to examine what other options might be available to the YFC in terms of future funding.
The Educational Attainment of Children in Wales
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the educational attainment of children in Wales? OAQ(4)2083(FM)
This has been a very positive story for Wales over the past couple of years, especially the final performance results in 2014. The final examination results demonstrate real progress and improved performance.
Of the pupils in Wales who qualify for free school lunches and achieve five GCSEs, 28% of those pupils actually succeed in Wales. In England, the figure is some 38%. Now, after 15 years of Labour education Ministers and an anti-poverty strategy that has been a priority here in Wales, why do the figures compare so poorly?
Well, the figures are, of course, more positive. We know from the figures published last week that the level is rising, and, of course, we wish to see Schools Challenge Cymru making a difference over the next few years, and also the pupil deprivation grant, which has been given by the Government, with the support of the Liberal Democrats.
First Minister, at the end of January, Estyn announced that Tŷ Gwyn Education Centre in Glyncoch in my constituency had made sufficient progress to be removed from the list of pupil referral units requiring significant improvement. Will you join with me in applauding the work of the whole-school community in achieving this result, and can you also ensure that any best practice from Tŷ Gwyn is shared with other schools in this much-needed sector so that they can deliver the best for their pupils?
Could I join the Member in paying tribute to the work of the Tŷ Gwyn Education Centre? It shows what can be achieved with strong leadership and a shared commitment. I understand that Dr Alec Clarke, who is the executive headteacher at Tŷ Gwyn, will share his vision and ideas for improving pupil referral units at the national conference, which will be hosted by the Welsh Government at the end of this month.
First Minister, the answer you gave to Alun Ffred Jones on attainment levels was an interesting spin, but completely inaccurate. Children here are still 50% less likely, if they are on free school meals, to achieve five good GCSEs. In England, the Prime Minister is travelling the length and breadth of that country challenging mediocrity in education. Here in Wales, on the back of a ‘Sunday Times’ article, the Welsh Government has bunkered down and thrown up the drawbridges and tried to slam the lid shut on debate. First Minister, when will you challenge mediocrity in education? When will you agree that these children don't have a right—? It's our duty to provide a good education to them. When will you restore education to the centre of our nation?
Well, let's just examine one thing. We have protected schools funding—ring-fenced it. The party opposite won’t do it. It won't do it. In fact, their policy is to cut education spending by between 12% and 20%, according to who you believe. Their own leader—not this leader, but the one previous—on 18 November said that the budget that he would put forward would mean cuts in education of around 20%-- in education budgets. That's what he said. That was then supported on the same day by a Member on the benches opposite saying, ‘Yes, the figure might be 20%, as the leader has identified.’ Andrew R.T. Davies is the name of that person who said that 20% figure on 18 November 2010. The reality is the Tories are all over the place. They want us to cut school spending. They want to cut the money for teachers. They want to cut the money for students. They can't be bothered to build new schools—we've seen that in England—and we know that education in England is a complete and utter shambles, whereas in Wales it’s improving. No cuts of 20% will come from the party on these benches while we’re in Government.
Continuing on that theme, I do believe that the Tory war on Wales is continuing now on the education system, and it seems—[Interruption.] I’m not reading; don’t be so stupid. [Interruption.] And it seems, First Minister, that Nicky Morgan, the education Secretary, is now coming round to the thinking of Welsh Labour, by wanting to protect school budgets, which is in contrast, as you’ve just mentioned, to the 20% that the Tories were thinking of cutting should they have ever got into power here. First Minister, will you continue to support the children, particularly those whom I represent in the Vale of Clwyd from disadvantaged families and who are now enjoying from you an increased budget in schools, and look to help them to obtain what they want to achieve, which may not be five good GCSEs, although that’s what they should aim for, but whatever they get by way of a qualification? If they get a good, rounded education, that should be sufficient for everybody.
Well, we know that levels of attainment in Wales are increasing in almost every way. They are going backwards in England, particularly with regard to GCSE results. ‘Michael Gove’ and ‘organisation’ don’t go together do they, as two words? We’ve seen the fragmentation of education in England; the cuts. It’s so bad in England that the Department for Education can’t even produce figures to show how much money it spends on education. That’s how bad it is in England, and it has become so opaque. We know from the Treasury’s own figures that we spend 8% more on education than is the case in England. We know we kept the education maintenance allowance; we know that the party opposite would impose a tuition fees tax that would take tuition fees up to £9,000 a year for Welsh students while, of course, hammering those at the lower end of the income scale through removing the education maintenance allowance. They cannot get away from the fact that they wish to cut education spending by 20%—or 12%, according to whichever figure they want to come out with today—and that means fewer teachers, fewer opportunities for Welsh pupils and, of course, ensuring that the education system in Wales collapses. That will not happen under us, and that’s why we have ring-fenced school spending in Wales. It’s a shame that the parties opposite can’t do the same.
7. Will the First Minister provide an update on how the Welsh Government monitors workforce planning in the NHS in Wales? OAQ(4)2095(FM)
Under the NHS planning framework, all health boards and trusts in Wales are required to complete Integrated medium-term plans on an annual basis. These plans must evidence full consideration of how the workforce necessary to deliver a sustainable service will be maintained and developed.
May I ask you, therefore, whether you are confident that that process is proceeding? The figures that we’ve obtained from Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board, for example, demonstrate that they spent £5.75 million over 11 months last year, until the end of November, on agency nurses. Simultaneously, they declare that they are unable to open wards in hospitals to respond to increased demands for beds because of the failure of their recruitment policies. Do those plans take into account the fact that, from next year onwards, any nurse from outwith Europe—and Betsi Cadwaladr has many from the Philippines and other similar places—if they don’t earn more than £36,000 per annum, will have to return to their country of origin. The health service will not have the right to employ them. So, do those plans take account of the numbers in north Wales who are from those backgrounds?
Well, first of all, of course, anything appertaining to admission into this country is to do with the United Kingdom Government rather than ourselves. It is important that we ensure that there aren’t any stupid policies in place to stop people from coming here to work and from bringing their skills to Wales and the United Kingdom. It is true to say that the number of temporary nurses in hospitals has increased. That is also true of England—an increase of 63% on four years ago. So, this is a challenge for everyone. We know that Betsi Cadwaladr, for example, have been to Spain in order to recruit there. They have also been recruiting locally at nursing fairs, and they have advertised in newspapers in order to ensure that they do recruit. So, they are very active in ensuring that there will be more nurses available in future in Betsi Cadwaladr. Of course, nobody knows what the impact of any future United Kingdom Government policy would be in terms of cutting back on the numbers coming in in future.
Of course, it is not just nurses that have issues in terms of ensuring that there are sufficient nurses for the Welsh NHS. We also heard at the Health and Social Care Committee last week that the provision of training places for doctors is a problem in Wales, and that has resulted in a crisis, as far as doctor recruitment is concerned, in the country. The Wales Deanery told us that they have recommended, over a number of years, an increase in the training places for doctors—up to 200 or so; around the 200 figure—from the current 136, on a number of occasions to the Welsh Government, and their recommendations have not been acted upon. Can you give us an explanation as to why that is the case?
Well, we made a pledge that we will recruit 1,000 health professionals off the back of the mansion tax, which his party opposes, of course—a redistributive tax that would make money available in order to train more health professionals in Wales. He cannot, on the one hand, say he opposes the mansion tax and then demand we recruit more health professionals when we have said we will use the receipts of that tax in order to train more health professionals in Wales. It's a shame that his party cannot support that revenue source in order to provide the people of Wales with more health professionals.
Well, there is one thing that our parties agree on—that we need at least 1,000 additional professionals in the health service over the next decade. We’re clear that 1,000 of those should be doctors, and you’re not sure how many of them should be doctors. Now, today, the NHS Confederation published their briefing on workforce planning for the NHS in Wales, and it states clearly that if training for GPs continues at the current level, then it militates entirely against care away from hospitals and care in the community. Can you at least give a figure today as to how many additional GPs are required in the health service over the next decade to meet the requirements of the NHS Confederation?
Well, two things: it depends on how many will retire, and it also depends on how many people use their GPs rather than visit the pharmacist or, alternatively, the nurse. We know there is a challenge to recruit more staff, particularly in north Wales—north-west Wales in particular—and we are considering that through our current recruitment programmes. We know that it’s important to train more doctors. We know that it’s important, for example, to train more GPs. What I would say to you as a party is: if you wish to recruit 1,000—we won’t go over old ground again—how many of those would be GPs? How many would be working in orthopaedics? I don’t believe that you know, because you’ve just got one round figure—but there you go; I’m sure that that’ll be part of the debate for—. You don’t have a figure. [Interruption.] No, I know; you’ve said that. Well, that might be part of the debate over the ensuing months.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to item 2, which is the business statement. I call on the Minister, Jane Hutt.
Diolch, Lywydd. I've one change to announce to this week's business: the time allocated to the debate on the Medical Innovation Bill legislative consent motion has been extended to 30 minutes. Business for the next three weeks is as shown on the business statement and announcement, which can be found among the agenda papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, could we have two statements, please? We've just seen in First Minister's questions that the First Minister referred to the policy of the mansion tax and, in particular, this would fund Welsh Government’s ability to hire additional medical staff, I think is the correct term, of about 1,000 in total. Yet messages that are coming from London clearly show that there will not be a Barnett consequential for this. Now, it cannot be right and it cannot be proper that the Welsh Government are modelling all their support for the Welsh NHS about additional staff on a model of income that is clearly not going to be made available to you, and so, I do think that it is quite incumbent on the Welsh Government to come forward with a statement to highlight exactly how they're going to pay for these 1,000 extra clinicians, which we’re told are going to ride to the rescue of the Welsh NHS. No-one would deny the Welsh NHS's ability to attract more staff, and we will support the Government in its endeavour, but you can't put false promises before people, and it is vital that the Welsh Government bring forward a statement so they can be scrutinised in this Chamber as to how they're going to pay for this commitment, which clearly, according to the Labour front bench in Westminster, is not going to be made available via a Barnett consequential.
The second statement I would seek off the Government, if possible, please, is around the support for the young farmers movement. In particular, obviously, being the largest youth movement in the countryside, the vital work that they do in promoting the Welsh language and, in particular, aspects of community engagement and coherence that, if the young farmers movement was to lose any of that capacity, would have a massive impact on communities across the whole of rural Wales, but in particular, in my South Wales Central regional area, where we have at least five young farmers clubs—and I do declare an interest, as I’m vice president of one of those clubs. To go from a level of funding that has supported the movement’s objectives and abilities to zero overnight really does show an inability for the Government to appreciate the work that the National Federation of Young Farmers Clubs does, and I do think it's incumbent on the Government to come forward and take questions on this specific issue, because you are talking about something that is part of the fabric of rural Wales.
Well, I do find it very interesting that the leader of the opposition is so engaged in our plans—the plans of the Labour Party, which will soon be in Government, from next May; the plans of a Labour Government that recognises that investment in our national health service is the key objective that our electorate wants us to see in terms of our investment. Now, I’m very proud of what we have achieved in ensuring that we put over £500,000 more into our Welsh national health service as a result of the Welsh Labour Government’s commitment. And, of course, I think people recognise that that is what happens in terms of investment in the health service when Labour is in charge, which it will be in due course, of course, in Westminster.
Now, your second question, of course, was raised by Members with the First Minister. I think it is important to recognise that these were applications to the national voluntary youth organisation that were considered by an advisory panel with four external representatives from the youth work field. This is difficult in terms of this being an important funding source for our young people’s organisations across Wales, and of course it is clear that, in terms of the decisions that were made, there will be feedback to the young farmers clubs in terms of the meeting that has been arranged for them with the officials of the Minister.
Minister, during health questions last week I raised the importance of promoting emotional resilience amongst children and young people in the care system—a key theme emerging from Action for Children’s ‘Too much, too young’ report. It’s an issue we saw highlighted again in last week’s Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales report—one that followed wide-ranging inspections of services for looked-after children across Wales. Given this welcome focus on improving the life chances of looked-after children, and in the light of the Minister for Education and Skills’ statement on raising their educational aspirations later this afternoon, can I ask for a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on how he intends to ensure that the regulations and codes of practice emerging from the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 address these issues with emotional resilience and ensure that we are delivering for looked-after children?
Well, I thank Lynne Neagle, the Member for Torfaen, for this important question, raising the importance of promoting emotional resilience amongst children and young people who are being looked after in care in Wales. Clearly, the wellbeing of children is a major priority. The wellbeing of children in care, in particular, is a major priority for this Government, so regulations and codes of practice concerning looked-after and accommodated children will be consulted on in May as part of implementing the new Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act that saw Royal Assent last May.
Minister, I wonder whether we could get a statement on your policy to assist the homeless in Wales. As you know, Cyrenians Cymru Ltd in Swansea are to close on Friday unless they receive support from the council or from you as a Government. I understand the problems that have existed with this particular organisation, but they are concerned that people in the area won’t be given the support that they need if Cyrenians do close on Friday.
And the second statement I’d like to have from you, Minister, if possible, is progress on finding a new chair for the Wales Muscular Dystrophy Network. We were all very thankful—I chair the cross-party group on muscular dystrophy—for the work of Dr Goodall, but since he’s left that job, we do not have anybody chairing the network in Wales, and in that time, progress is slow. So, I would like an update on the Government’s work in that regard.
I thank Bethan Jenkins for those questions. Of course we regret the closure of Cyrenians Cymru. We remain in close contact with the City and County of Swansea Council and all interested groups to safeguard services to vulnerable people where possible, working with partners, and South Wales Police, of course, to ensure that all public funds that have been received can be accounted for in full. Just again to say: since 1999, Cyrenians Cymru has received around £2.7 million of Welsh Government funding and around £8.3 million of EU funds, and also the charity has received nearly £1.5 million of Welsh Government funding via the City and County of Swansea since 2012. Of course, this is a situation that we are very, very closely engaged in in terms of serving those vulnerable people, particularly in the Swansea community. I will, of course, ask the Minister about the future of the network and I am sure he will respond accordingly.
Minister, I’ve asked you before for a statement from the education Minister as regards the rolling out of the Schools Challenge Cymru plan. In answer to written questions, the Minister has confirmed that the minority of those schools receiving assistance under that programme find themselves either in special measures or as classified in need of significant improvement. Yet, there are schools the length and breadth of Wales and high schools in my own constituency—two of them that are regarded as requiring special measures—that do not receive any assistance out of this fund. Please could you impress upon the Minister the need to have a statement on the methodology of choosing which schools are getting additional support and which ones are not and what plans he has to ensure that those schools that are placed in special measures that do not fall into the Schools Challenge Cymru plan get the additional help, resources and support they need to improve outcomes for the pupils at those schools?
I thank Kirsty Williams for that question. Indeed, this is an important point in terms of the ways in which we have and always do respond to those schools that do find themselves in special measures, in terms of the response in developing action plans, the monitoring arrangements and, of course, then the re-inspection as a result of that important role of Estyn. Of course, this is a clear responsibility in terms of the consortia to make sure that those schools provide the support that they need. I think, obviously, clearly, the Minister has outlined the criteria that have led to the selection of those schools that are eligible for Schools Challenge Cymru. Indeed now, also, we have the important development of the national schools categorisation in terms of recognition of development and needs of schools in Wales. But, clearly, this is a point that the Member has raised and which I respect.
I’d like to bring to the attention of the Assembly, and request an urgent debate on, please Minister, the cockle industry of south and west Wales. The problems have been besetting cocklers and their families now for the past 15 years. During this time, the cockle death rates in Burry inlet and Loughor estuary have all but annihilated the once-thriving industry worth many millions of pounds to the region. In fact, people are being driven out of the industry after generations of families having worked in it—they can no longer afford to wait for an upturn in its fortunes. Average incomes have dropped below £10,000. Natural Resources Wales have agreed that research into sewage outflow and a parasitology investigation into the causes of cockle mortality would be welcome. But, of course, they cannot finance it without help from Government. Last month, the cocklers came to Cardiff—in fact, they are here today—and asked to meet with the Minister, who refused. Not even civil servants would meet with them. So, it was left for me to take a letter to the Minister’s office and that really is not good enough. I really do think that it’s about time these people had their way and had some sort of recognition of this problem. I would ask for an urgent debate on it, please.
Byron Davies has raised an issue and a question, which of course the Minister and the Government is well aware of in terms of the support we have given to the very important cockle industry. Of course, it is important that you have represented your constituencies and brought forward a letter, which I don’t believe the Minister has yet seen. But, of course, as part of your role, I’m sure you’ll make sure that the Minister will have sight of that and then, of course, we can respond. But, I think you already, in your questions, recognise the action we have already taken in terms of the role and work of Natural Resources Wales. That is going to be critical in terms of the outcome of that work, in terms of future prospects.
Can I ask whether it’s possible to have two statements from the Government, with the first being on the economy of southern Pembrokeshire? I welcome the fact that the Minister has published a letter to Assembly Members on business rates, and extending the Milford Haven enterprise zone for business rates because of the loss of jobs at Murco. But, we have also heard that the power station in South Hook won’t proceed with plans at present either, and, therefore, clearly there are very serious economic problems that are going to have an impact on the economy of that area. So, having some assessment from Government of the implications of some of these decisions, and any further intervention by Government that may be possible, would be valuable.
The second statement I would request is anticipating what the Minister, Leighton Andrews, is about to say, because it’s been all over the press already, namely the Government’s intention to look at high salaries within local authorities. I ask the Government whether it’s their intention to extend this principle into other sectors where public funding maintains those sectors. I refer specifically to the further education sector, where the principal of Coleg y Cymoedd has just been given a pay rise of almost 50%, while the rest of the workforce, including lecturers, within that college have stayed on an offer of 0%. So, is it then the Government’s intention to take the same principle of managing senior salaries from the local authorities—where the FE colleges once sat, of course—into the FE sector? Because, when the Measure that releases FE from the Government’s control was passed in this place, some two years ago, it was clearly stated that the sector was mature, and could deal with responsibilities in terms of its public requirements.
Thank you to Simon Thomas for his questions. I’m glad that you have recognised the action of the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport in terms of the economy and the needs of west Wales, particularly by extending the Milford Haven enterprise zone, and by recognising her close engagement, as Minister, in economic pressures and issues that are arising in that important part of Wales, which you have acknowledged today.
Now, I think it’s not surprising at all you raise a question, if not a comment, in terms of the news today in terms of salaries in other parts of the public sector. But, I think it’s for this afternoon that we look particularly in terms of the statement that’s being made by the Minister for Public Services in relation to local government, which of course is key to business today.
The final provisions of the Offender Rehabilitation Act 2014 came into effect over the weekend, on 1 February, which means that the integrated public service we knew as the probation service has been broken up, with some offenders assigned to Working Links in Wales. This has been done, against all advice, by the coalition Government in Westminster, and there is a great deal of concern as to what the result will be in Wales. Could we have a debate about how the changes in the probation service will affect the services that we have responsibility for in Wales, for example, mental health services, social services, drug and alcohol services—all those services that are integral to working with offenders, to help rehabilitation?
I thank Julie Morgan for that question, because I think all of us, I’m sure, across this Chamber, are aware of the major concerns about the break-up of the probation service. Of course, that break-up has been brought about by the UK Government, and although it is non-devolved in terms of the responsibility for the National Offender Management Service, which deliver the probation services—they’re responsible, of course, on an England and Wales basis—we have to ensure that this does not adversely impact, as you say, in terms of the vulnerability that so many people who depend on these services may experience. So, I mean, this is a matter that we will have to keep a very close watch on, and I’m sure there will be further opportunities to scrutinise and question the impact of this regrettable change.
Minister, may I ask for a debate in Government time about the threat to the good inter-community relations in Wales posed by Islamic radicalisation? The recent terrorist attacks in Paris have heightened tensions between communities in Wales. Also, Wales has not been immune to young Muslims being radicalised by the extremists and, in some cases, going abroad to fight for Islamic State. The people—the children—who have gone from Cardiff to Syria actually live only 100m or a couple of 100m from here. I think if we think that it happens in England or that it’s not a devolved power or anything like that, we should get our own house in order and protect ourselves, together with the United Kingdom. Can we have a debate on this issue so that we can fully explore the means of tackling radicalisation in the interest of better inter-community relationships in Wales, please?
Well, I welcome the fact that Mohammad Asghar has raised this question again and, indeed, it was raised during First Minister’s questions, and to point out the concerns, which are shared across this Chamber, I know, in terms of the impact of radicalisation. Also, of course, the First Minister drew attention to the importance of the inter-faith forum, which he chairs, and, of course, there are many opportunities, which I know Members are taking advantage of, to engage with the faith communities. But, of course, this is something that we take very seriously as a Welsh Government and look to every opportunity to raise awareness and understanding of the issue.
Can I request a statement from the health Minister setting out his expectations within what time frame health boards should respond to correspondence? I sit on the National Assembly for Wales’s Petitions Committee and we wrote to Hywel Dda Local Health Board in March, and got a reply six months later; Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board, we wrote to in March and we’re still awaiting a reply; and Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, we wrote to and got a reply several months later, following a chase-up letter. Now, if health boards can’t respond to Assembly committees in a timely fashion, what hope have the members of the public got? I hope the Minister would agree with me and take some action.
Well, Russell George, of course, is talking about a very specific area where, of course, there will be correspondence as a result of representations that have been made, and I am sure that the health boards will take note of the points made today.
Can I call for two statements from the Minister for Health and Social Services, please? The first is on the sub-regional neonatal intensive care centre proposals for north Wales. There was obviously an announcement made last year by the First Minister regarding proposals to develop such a centre at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd in Bodelwyddan. But, very little appears to have happened since then in terms of making progress against the Welsh Government’s wishes, and I think it would be helpful if the Minister could provide an update in a statement to Assembly Members.
Secondly, can I ask for a statement on war disablement pensions? It’s come to my attention, through the Royal British Legion, that there are some concerns about the difference in treatment for the war disablement income that’s given to veterans. Those, apparently, that are on the war pension scheme and have been given an award prior to April 2005 have the whole of their war disablement pension completely disregarded for social services purposes and, yet, those post April 2005, under the new armed forces compensation scheme, appear to have only the first £10 of that income. Both are obviously in relation to any injury or loss that people have suffered as a result of their time in the armed forces. I think it is important that there’s a level playing field for people, regardless of the date on which they were awarded their war disablement income. So, I would appreciate it if we could have a statement from the Minister, in his capacity as Minister for social services, in respect of that. Just for information purposes, their research seems to suggest that only two of the 22 local authorities in Wales treat people on the same basis regardless of the date of their injury and I think that is very, very disappointing.
On the two questions that you raise, Darren Millar, on the first one, I know the health and social services Minister will be responding as will have been planned in terms of consideration of the neonatal services in north Wales. He will, as I say, respond as he indicated when this was raised last year. On your second point, this is a matter where it’s unclear to me from your point and question whose responsibility this would be in terms of the war disablement income criteria and eligibility, but I will certainly look into this in terms of our powers, and indeed those of local government and the UK Government.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to item 3, which is a statement by the Minister for Public Services on the local government White Paper. I call on the Minister, Leighton Andrews.
Thank you, Llywydd. Today, I published our White Paper on local government reform, ‘Power to Local People.’ The White Paper sets out our vision for local government in Wales, based on activist councils engaged in delivering modern, accessible, high-quality public services with their local communities; local authorities that act as community leaders and agents of change, with leadership that focuses on excellence, and councils committed to looking outwards at their place-shaping role, and on building community capacity and resilience.
The White Paper delivers a new deal for local government, which recasts the relationship between Welsh Government and local government, with a new framework for public service delivery, based on the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill. Priorities will be set by Welsh Government in a small number of key national priority areas, for example, education, social services, economic development, waste and planning, leaving local government to set the bulk of its priorities with local people. Local authorities and eligible community councils would be granted a general power of competence. We will establish clarity on the roles of leaders and their cabinets and elected members, distinct from the roles of chief executives and council staff. Our proposals would reduce the cost of politics and management in local government.
There will be a review of the remuneration of councillors, leaders and cabinet members to bring the overall cost down in line with other parts of the UK. There will be a reduction in full-time cabinet roles. There will be tight controls on the remuneration of chief executives and other chief officers. We propose chief executives will be recruited through a national recruitment process, and the role and responsibilities of the chief executive in local authorities would be defined in legislation. We will consult on whether there should be term limits on chief executives.
The role of our public service workforce will be supported through the public services staff commission. We want local authorities that reflect the diversity of our communities in Wales. We propose placing a legal duty on council leaders to ensure diversity amongst elected members and senior council staff. The White Paper proposes term limits on councillors and leaders, and a possible recall mechanism. We also believe that no-one should be allowed to hold posts as a councillor and Assembly Member at the same time. We will review barriers to council staff standing for election. We propose that people standing for election as independents should be required to declare any party affiliation.
Leaders will also have explicit duties in respect of standards of behaviour, including bullying and harassment of councillors and staff. Our proposals will require local authorities to take greater responsibility for performance. We want chief executives to have a statutory duty to drive performance improvement. We want to see a culture in which audit and inspection are the last lines of defence of quality public services, not the first. We want councillors to act as community champions, leading local initiatives to improve service delivery. We want backbench elected members to have a stronger role, working with community organisations to shape their communities and local services. We will open up new opportunities for communities to own and manage local services where this is appropriate, looking to the Welsh tradition of co-operatives and mutuals.
Responsibility for ensuring consistency amongst community councils will lie with principal local authorities, and we will expect them to hold a review of town and community councils in their areas. Activist councils should lead in the development of new forms of community control of services, including mutuals and co-operatives, establishing new community rights to be involved in the improvement of services, to initiate the transfer of land and other assets from local government to community groups, and a first refusal to buy assets of community value. The Welsh Government will support local authorities in the development of new skills to create this cultural change.
We expect local authorities to be open and transparent. Each local authority will be expected to produce a plain English or ‘Cymraeg clir’ constitution that reflects the principles under which it will operate and its relationship with the public. We will strengthen provisions with regard to the broadcasting of proceedings and the rights of the public to engage in proceedings. We will develop a new improvement system, with local authorities required to undertake an annual self-assessment process supported by biennial peer reviews.
We will repeal Part 1 of the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2009, removing the requirement upon local authorities to produce annual improvement plans. There will be a strengthened role for audit committees, with an independent chair, and a requirement to consider the local authorities’ self-assessment peer review and whole-system assessment reports. We will have more decisive intervention powers for Welsh Ministers to intervene in the event of corporate or service failure. Local authorities will be required to prepare a corporate plan. They will be required to publish comparative service performance, based on real-time data. We expect local authorities to embrace digital technology to improve services to local people. Local authorities will be required to establish an online complaints process.
We will strengthen the relationship between internal scrutiny and external audit, inspection and regulation. We want local scrutiny committees to provide the public and community-based bodies with opportunities to engage with scrutiny. We’ll strengthen the relationship between external review bodies, requiring them jointly to assess individual local authorities and produce a combined annual assessment of local government in Wales. In the longer term, we will review the mechanisms for funding local authorities, with changes to the framework of financial governance required to enable and support these reforms. We will now consult on this White Paper, and I commend it to the Chamber.
Today’s White Paper is one that touches on many of the fundamentals facing local government in Wales and comes during a period of huge uncertainty for those employed in and charged with running our authorities across Wales. If implemented, I actually do welcome many of the proposals, and they’re not before time. The White Paper talks about delivering a new deal for local government and recasting the relationship between Welsh Government and local government, and I know many authorities will not disagree with those principles; it is certainly very long overdue. However, after last week’s u-turn by yourself in terms of the voluntary merger process and the First Minister’s vague response, there is no doubt now a current ethos and a lack of trust, confidence and respect for this Welsh Government in this regard and so you have got to overcome those.
Over many years, we have seen so many reforms, diktat and bureaucracy thrown in the direction of our local authorities in Wales by the Welsh Labour Government, leaving many feeling that it was more about justifying their own existence as a Government and the Minister rather than being seen as to be leading, guiding and working with our local authorities in the main. This has culminated in the need for a massive and swift change of direction if those very valuable, vital services, so often required for some of the most vulnerable, are to be realised and protected. There is much rhetoric about the need to reduce the cost of politics and management in local government, to include the remuneration of councillors, leaders and cabinet members, in line with other parts of the UK, and we cannot argue with that. Tough talk on the remuneration and appointment of chief executives and other senior officers—I don’t argue with that. I would ask the Minister for some commitment that you will eradicate the constant internal recruitment process so often rife within local authorities.
Of course, it was the Welsh Conservatives who tabled amendments in this vein for the independent remuneration panel to cover all senior officers, because some of the senior officer pay is eye-watering across Wales. But it was sad that, at that time, and it was not that long ago—certainly in this term—it was voted down by Welsh Labour, Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats here—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. I’m sorry, can we stick to the report that’s before us today and come to some questions?
Yes. Better late than never, as they say, but, given the financial challenge we face, it did not require a new White Paper, it needed strong leadership. Mention of the public services staff commission persuades me to ask the Minister for his absolute assurance that the appointment to this commission will be fair, transparent and equitable and will not be driven by individuals within Welsh Labour in some other guise? There are many good people working in public bodies across Wales of all colours and none. True diversity must form the basis for any such commission.
I’m particularly keen that this White Paper addresses the need for greater diversity within our local authorities, because it is a fact that local government resonates with the wider public much more than the Welsh Government itself, and it is essential that all views, beliefs and backgrounds are represented at both officer and member level.
Now, independents, Minister: I’d like you to go one stage further. Currently, if an independent is elected to some local authorities, they are only allowed to sit on council; they cannot actually be part of any committee unless they join a registered political party. So, some authorities get round this by having an independent political party of that particular authority. I reckon that’s misleading the electorate, if they stand as an independent and then become part of another political party.
I certainly relish the direction of travel as regards the community rights agenda, and, again, it proves just how well the Localism Act 2011 is working in the UK.
The pay in terms of chief executives: currently there are the policy pay statements in place, which should be implemented and led by yourselves more.
The White Paper mentions transparency and the use of digital technology and how that should contribute to better public engagement—Monmouthshire County Council being a great example of that already happening.
And then finally, Minister, the complaints process, online or otherwise: we want to see a complaints process that, again, is transparent, is accountable and that actually does recognise the complaints brought by members of the community at the time. Thank you and I really look forward, with my group, to scrutinising this Bill.
Well, Llywydd, I don’t think the opposition spokesperson disagreed with anything I said, which must be a first and also worries me slightly, I must admit.
Let me just run through some of the issues that were raised in her contribution. She welcomed the new deal and the recasting of the relationship with local government. I thank her for that.
She welcomed what we’re saying in respect of the review of remuneration of councillors, cabinet members and also chief officers. She made the case for the external recruitment of chief officers, and certainly the proposals we outline in respect of a potential staff appointments commission would address those issues. I can tell her that there will be an open appointment process to the statutory public services staff commission when that is established.
She supported what we’re doing on diversity, and I welcome that. And I don’t disagree with her in respect of what she had to say about complaints, and I think there is good practice in Welsh public service, not least in parts of the health service, that we can learn from in respect of that.
She had some observations on independents as members of groups and I’m not sure I was entirely in accord with her. But I think the actions that we want to take to ensure that anybody who stands for election and declares themselves as an independent should have to declare if they hold any party affiliation would do much, I think, to strengthen transparency across local government in Wales.
So, I’m very pleased to have her support for the programme that we’ve outlined as a Government, and I look forward to her voting for it in every particular.
I couldn’t start without commending the Minister on his use of the example of the Gwent Archives and by describing the work of Aneurin Bevan and the Tredegar Medical Aid Society in describing the role that local government could play in our lives. I’m particularly pleased that he’s used, and he’s used it this afternoon as well as in the White Paper, the term ‘activist council’. I welcome very much, and I think many people will welcome, the general power of competence that he is proposing to give to local government, together with reducing some of the burdens of administration and performance regulations.
I hope, and my question to you, Minister, is this: how will he and the Welsh Government provide support to chief officers, to local authorities and to the leaders of local government in achieving these ambitions? I believe that this is a very ambitious White Paper, which sets out a profoundly important role for local government in the future, which will strengthen local government and will equip local government with the tools that it needs to deliver excellence in public services across Wales. But I hope the Minister will agree that that is a partnership between this Government and local government to achieve that for the people of Wales.
Can I thank my colleague, the Member for Blaenau Gwent? And I have to say I enjoyed my visit to his constituency this morning and to the Gwent Archives, which I’ve been associated with ever since I was the Deputy Minister for Regeneration, when we took the decision to invest in the general offices in Ebbw Vale to ensure that the Gwent Archives could actually be housed in Gwent rather than being housed in Cardiff. And, of course, they contain much historic information that is valuable and interesting, and I was able to view there today proceedings of the Tredegar working men’s medical aid committee and the work there of Councillor Aneurin Bevan. He is right to draw attention to what we say in the White Paper about the changing role of local government over time. In the initial sections of the White Paper, we talk about the history of the development of local government in Wales and the different responsibilities that have been held at different times. And what we want to see, obviously, is a system of local government in Wales that is fit for the digital age and fit for the delivery of modern high-quality public services, not just for local people but working with local people to develop those.
I’m glad he welcomes the general power of competence that we want to give to local authorities, and I’m glad he sees our proposals as ambitious and aiming at excellence. In terms of how we would support the development of chief executives and indeed leaders and cabinets going forward, he raises there an important point, because I do think leadership is critical to this. I think there is a role there for our public service academy in developing the relevant courses to support leadership development, both at a political level and at executive level within local government, and I look forward to taking that work forward.
May I very much welcome the statement this afternoon, Minister, and also welcome the principles that have been outlined in the White Paper? I’m sorry if that adds to your concerns, but this statement and the White Paper are long awaited, and the only shame is that we didn’t have the statement and the White Paper a year ago or even two years ago. Then we wouldn’t have had this period of uncertainty and the local authorities and local authority leaders wouldn’t have been in a position where they are facing significant cuts to their budget without knowing fully the intentions of Welsh Government for them.
May I in the first place welcome the steps the White Paper takes in addressing senior salaries and senior officers’ payments? I’ve told you before, Minister, that we must look not only to the payments made, but ensure that there is consistency between the highest payments made and the lowest payments made within local authorities. Authorities that are Plaid Cymru-led have taken very great steps to ensure that that consistency is in place, but then they are facing difficulties when they endeavour to recruit staff because other authorities are willing to pay very much more. So, how will you address that problem, Minister? Also, there is a problem where local authorities are, now, going to appoint chief executives, where the salaries of those chief executives will be lower than some of the senior officers already in place. Pembrokeshire council are facing this problem at present. How will you as a Minister suggest that those authorities should address that issue? I very much welcome what you say about the recruitment of chief executives and senior officers. You mentioned an academy. Should we be looking at an academy, a college or another institution that would do this work? The Williams commission alludes to this and talks about a development centre. I would be very pleased to hear more about that subject from the Minister.
One of the other issues you referred to, but do not make a recommendation on, is the payments that the chief executives, mostly, but sometimes senior officers, receive as electoral officers. Do you accept that Swansea has very clearly demonstrated what should happen in this situation, and that that’s an integral part of the chief executive’s role—which can be delegated, if he or she so wishes, but it’s an integral part of his or her function—and there shouldn’t be an additional payment for it?
I listened very carefully to what you are saying about specific periods of office for the elected members of local authorities. Kirsty Williams raised, I think, a very relevant and pertinent question to the First Minister here: if you're going to do that with one level of elected members, shouldn’t you look at every other level, too? How can we justify doing so on one level without doing it other levels within our ability to do so? Of course, I don't necessarily disagree. I think the period of 25 years is reasonable enough, and I'm willing to listen to what more you might have to say on that.
You also talked about reducing the allowances that elected members receive on every level within local authorities. Do you consider there might be a risk that we won’t be able to attract people from all sorts of backgrounds by doing that, and that it’s important that this payment that elected members receive on that level ensure that we attract a range of people to apply for those jobs, and stand for election? Certainly, I accept very clearly what you say about scrutiny and accountability, and transparency, and we need to collaborate and co-operate in order to make that happen. I really welcome what you say, Minister. If it shows anything, it demonstrates that you’ve been listening very intently to what I’ve been saying over the past few years, because you’ve incorporated many of my suggestions in your paper. [Laughter.]
Well, may I first of all thank the Member for his support?
He’s welcomed the statement; he’s welcomed the principles underlying the statement, and I’m very grateful to him for that. He referred to this in the context of the Williams commission review. He may recall that, when the Williams commission review came out and I was on the back benches—in what I like to call my ‘gap year’ from the Government—I did say myself at the time that I felt that one of the things that was lacking from the Williams commission review was a vision for local government. I think what we’ve tried to do in this White Paper today is to supply some of that vision for the future of local government.
I think he makes an important point in respect of senior salaries, and in respect of the relationship between the salaries of the highest paid and the lowest paid within local government. That’s something I’d like to explore further and give more thought to. He is right to raise the role played by the independent review board in respect of chief executives’ salaries, and I am grateful for the fact that they recommended to Pembrokeshire County Council that they should go for a lower salary for the replacement of their chief executive than they were themselves planning to do. Now, I know that there is a meeting in Pembrokeshire this afternoon that is going to be looking at that, and I look forward to the outcome of that meeting with great interest.
I do think, in terms of recruitment of senior officers, we need to look across the whole of Great Britain to see what kinds of salaries are being paid. I think, in respect of some of the salaries in Wales, they have clearly got vastly out of kilter with the responsibilities bearing on specific local authorities in Wales when you compare them with authorities of a much bigger size elsewhere in Great Britain.
In respect of our academy, we already have our public service academy, and it is referred to, of course, in the Williams commission report. I have taken over responsibility for that in the last couple of months, and I’m quite excited, in fact, by what they have been able to do in respect of leadership development in public services in Wales. I do think, however—and I’ve had this conversation with them, and I said something about this in a speech a couple of weeks ago—that we need to look at how they’re working alongside higher education institutions in Wales, and some of the courses that they have on offer that could be relevant to leadership development within our public services, including within local authorities.
He raised again the point about the role of the chief executive in respect of elections and additional payments and so on. That area is covered within the White Paper, and I urge him to have a look at that section.
He raised the question of term limits on councillors, and I’m very pleased to be starting that debate today with the publication of the White Paper. I think the question of whether there should be term limits in other areas would, of course, depend on the responsibilities that we have, in respect of elections to this place. That’s an important factor in the future. I know that there are proposals, of course, for reform of one of the institutions in Westminster, which have incorporated in the past proposals for term limits, as well. So, it’s not as though this is a debate that is happening in just one sphere, but I think it is important to start that debate. I do think if we’re going to create greater diversity in local government, then we do have to open up a proper look at whether being a councillor is a full-time job, whether it is a job for life, or whether it is actually something that people see as giving a service back to their community and is entered into on that basis. I think that’s an important part of the cultural change that we are seeking to create with the debate around this White Paper.
He also spoke about the question of allowances. If you look at the allowances paid to backbench councillors in Wales, compared with, say, England or Scotland, they are not overly generous, except that councillors in Wales generally represent fewer electors than councillors in England or Scotland. However, when it comes to salaries of cabinet members and leaders, I think they do look on the generous side, compared with councils of similar sizes elsewhere. I do think, therefore, we need to look at that in more detail with a view to an overall reduction.
Minister, Aneurin Bevan said that the purpose of achieving power is to give it away, and I see this statement very much within the vein of a further stage of devolution, decentralising power, but requiring, obviously, the clarification of the roles between the Assembly and also of councils themselves. I was very pleased particularly with the statement that activist councils should lead in the development of new forms of community control of services, including mutuals, co-operatives and establishing new community rights. You will be aware of my particular interest in the role of community councils, because I see community councils as perhaps playing an enhanced democratic role. With the transfer of further rights down to community groups, that may be a role they play there, as well.
Whilst the consultation is taking place, though, there is, of course, legislation going through in the forms of the Planning (Wales) Bill and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill, which is dealing with certain aspects of community council powers. There is also consideration, as you know, by the Welsh Government of the issue of assets of community value and transfers, which is also under way. What steps will you be taking during the consultation to ensure, I suppose, one, that decisions aren’t being pre-empted, but also that there is consistency across legislation that has already taken place and Welsh Government work that has already taken place within these areas that you describe within your statement?
My colleague, the Member from Pontypridd, started with a quote from Aneurin Bevan, and, of course, one of the other things Aneurin Bevan said was that he stood for the council because he was told that was where the power was. Then he was told, ‘Well, no, the power’s all gone to the county council’ so he stood for that. Then, he found the power had gone away from there as well. So, there are many Aneurin Bevan quotes we can find to talk about the development of power in local government over the last century.
In respect of what he had specifically to say on policy, I am glad he recognises that this is very much about decentralising power within Wales. I particularly welcome the support he’s given for what we have had to say about the development of community mutuals and co-operatives. Obviously, we want to build on the work of the Welsh Co-operative and Mutuals Commission, which my colleague, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, developed under the chairmanship of Professor Andrew Davies.
He also drew attention to his long-standing support for community councils, and, obviously, my colleague has produced a report on the functioning of town and community councils. Although his constituency and mine are in the same local authority area, he has community councils throughout his constituency; I have none in my constituency. So, one of the issues I think we need to address—and this is why we’ve said this needs to be addressed within local authorities—is the issue of consistency around the provision of town and community councils within principal local authority areas.
He also drew attention to other legislation that’s currently going through the Assembly: the planning Bill and future generations Bill. Obviously, I’ve had the opportunity of conversations with my colleagues in other parts of Government, and my colleague, the Minister for Natural Resources, in particular, over the role of public service boards, which are delineated within the future generations Bill. I think the principles of the future generations Bill, as I said in my statement, will be central to governing our future objectives for activist local councils in Wales.
Can I start by saying I think this paper has a useful contribution to make? I think there are some very interesting proposals in there, which require some more detailed scrutiny in terms of improvement and in terms of scrutiny, finance, performance, governance and community ownership, all of which, I think, do have potential to transform the way that local government approaches its role and empowering local people in that respect. I’m happy to engage with that and to look at that.
At the risk of destroying the cosy consensus that seems to be building in this Chamber between Labour, the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, I do feel that some of the proposals in this paper effectively amount to a blueprint for the emasculation of local councils. I’m surprised, in fact, that the Minister has not just proposed abolishing local elections altogether and suggesting that he appoints the councillors himself, because I think that is the level of control freakery that I think is in place in some of these proposals. I think if the Minister is serious about empowering local people and introducing diversity into local government, I’m surprised he’s not proposed a system of proportional representation for local government, which I think would go a long way to actually delivering on that particular objective.
I think one of the concerns I have in terms of the term limits is that local government is going through a very difficult period at the moment, not just in terms of the cuts that he’s having to make with regard to the resources available to it and the services, but also obviously in terms of reorganisation and the whole range of other proposals that have been put up. I think, in that regard, experienced councillors do provide stability and support for those less experienced councillors in coping with that, and also, I think, in terms of the transition from the 22 councils we have now to the 10 or 12 that Williams has proposed, but the Minister has not yet indicated his preference in respect of that. So, I think the Minister needs to think again in terms of those term limits.
I think my colleague, Kirsty Williams, has of course highlighted the other obvious question: you know, if we are having term limits on councillors, and chief executives as well, then why haven’t we got term limits on MPs, AMs, and a whole host of other elected officials as well? Clearly, it does seem to me that singling out one group of people is certainly not an equitable way to go forward. Can I ask the Minister, in respect of your proposal for term limits for chief executives and councillors, do you propose those term limits should be retrospective, or are you proposing that they actually take effect from the first election of that person? I think it’s useful to be clear on that.
Will you also stop councillors from becoming peers or MPs as well? You seem to have just singled out AMs. We shouldn’t be just stuck on AMs. Are you looking at other groups as well you wish to stop councillors from being? Why do you feel it’s necessary to take away from local people the right to elect a representative who they choose to want—and who they choose in terms of any respect—and also in terms of what party they want? You’re trying to, I think, undermine as well the role of the independent local government, which I think is an important one in this regard.
How will your proposed new duties for leaders fit in with the current code of conduct for councillors? I think that’d be interesting to see, if you could explain that. What mechanism will be available to principal councils to ensure consistency among community councils? You’ve already referred to wanting to have a consistent approach for the provision of community councils. Are you therefore proposing that areas that aren’t currently—I was going to say ‘subject’—that don’t currently have community councils should have community councils imposed on them? Are you proposing to change the current arrangements whereby local people can have public meetings to either create a community council or to abolish a community council, or is that now going to be a matter in future for the Minister to determine, to try and ensure that consistency?
Finally, what other measures do you propose to reform community councils? I think we all agreed, as a result of the Williams commission, that although Williams approached the reform of principal councils, there was a huge gap in his proposals in terms of how community councils operate and how viable some of those community councils are. Are you proposing to broach that subject as you develop these proposals? Thank you.
Can I, again, start by thanking the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for his initial support for much of the White Paper? He did say that he thought it had the potential to be transformative in terms of the overall culture of local government, and particularly in respect of performance. He then went on to suggest that we were going to emasculate local councils, although he didn’t actually spend any time telling us precisely how he thought local councils were going to be reduced in power. I don’t think there are any proposals to reduce the powers of local government. I think what we’re doing here is recognising the reality that we currently set some national priorities in service areas like education and social services, but what we’re actually suggesting, of course, is that there should be fewer centrally imposed targets on local government overall.
He asked about the issue of term limits, and I think I dealt with the key point in response to the earlier question from the Plaid Cymru spokesperson in respect of term limits on this place. He asked about why councillors should be prohibited from being members of this place but not be prohibited from being members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. I don't think I actually have powers to stop them being members of the House of Commons or the House of Lords. I certainly wouldn't want to inhibit his career progress in any shape or form. You know, I am sorry that the proposals I bring forward may end his time as a councillor in Swansea, or he could just choose to stay in Swansea if he wished. But, on the other hand, the electorate might bring in a term limit for Liberal Democrats at the next election in any case.
I am interested by the way that the Liberal Democrats appear to be so opposed to term limits when, in fact, for their own internal party elections, they have term limits in place. I understand they have someone who is a president of their party who is subject to term limits. Just a quick Google helped me find that out earlier on today.
Can I just move on to the—? He asked me why we're not bringing forward a proposal for proportional representation. It's very straightforward: we have a manifesto commitment against that, so we’re not bringing it forward.
In respect of diversity, I look forward to any suggestions he may wish to bring forward as to how we can improve the diversity of local government. We’ve set out a number of proposals in the White Paper. I do think that this has to be led, and the political parties have a role in this. My party has already given commitments in respect of the percentages of women standing for local elected office, and we look forward to other parties joining us in that commitment. He asked about how we would reconcile new duties with the councillor code of conduct. Well, clearly, we will have to ensure that any duties that are being developed would be compatible with any new code of conduct. He asked also about the consistency of community councils across principal local authority areas. We make it clear in the White Paper that we see this as a job for the principal local authorities to work through with their local communities. It is not for the Welsh Government or Ministers to determine what that consistency should look like.
I welcome many of the points in the Minister’s statement today and I particularly welcome his commitment to bring about more diversity in local government, because I think that the ambitions in his statement will not be achieved unless we have councillors and officers who really represent the communities where they come from. Certainly in Wales, the number of women councillors, it’s well known, is only at about 30%, and I think that, for black minority ethnic councillors, I doubt if it's at more than 1%. So, I think there is obviously a big task ahead, and I know that, in the document, he does say he’ll put an equality duty on the leaders of councils to ensure that councillors and seniors officers are diverse. Could he expand on how he thinks it will be possible to do that and how, in fact, we will bring about the change that we’ve all been talking about for so many years?
My colleague the Member for Cardiff North is absolutely right to draw attention to the very low level of female councillors that we have in Wales—it is, as she says, only at around 30%—and, indeed, also the low number that we have of black minority ethnic councillors. We could say the same of disabled councillors as well. So, these are issues that we are seeking to tackle. She will be aware, I think, of the report that we commissioned of a group chaired by Professor Laura McAllister—the diversity in democracy report, which came forward with a number of recommendations that we are now implementing. I'm pleased that all local authorities have appointed diversity champions, and I think that is important. But, those diversity champions need to be supported by their leaders and by their chief executives within local authorities as well, and that's where, I think, the duty comes in. I think what we need to do is to explore what is available to us within the context of the public sector equality duty to make that a meaningful responsibility on local authority leaders.
Then, of course, having duties is one thing—it is also important that those duties are re-enforced, that behaviours in councils are welcoming to people coming into a council environment and are not off-putting, that meetings are held at times that are appropriate to people of different backgrounds, not just, say, to people who are retired and therefore have more flexibility in their ability to attend meetings. And, I do think that there is an issue sometimes about behaviour in local authority chambers. That has been raised with us, and we touch on that also within the section on diversity. This is something I am determined to drive forward myself. We held a very useful discussion with a group of younger councillors, former councillors, including several from different ethnic minority backgrounds, recently, as an ideas forum, really, to look at some of the issues that we needed to take forward. I think that this is something that is genuinely of interest across the political parties, and I look forward to support from across the Chamber on that agenda.
I am a strong supporter of local government. The vast majority of councillors of all parties, and none, work incredibly hard for their own communities. Also, the vast majority of council employees are committed to providing a high-quality service to the public. We all benefit from the quality of service that is being provided. Can I welcome the proposal to bring in general power of competence? Local authorities have been asking for this for decades. It is something that is desperately needed, and I think that it will be welcomed right away across local authorities.
On independence, yes, they should be required to declare a party affiliation if they’ve got one. One of the things that always amazes me is how you can have an independent group and how you can then have an independent group in coalition with other political parties. I think that the word ‘independent’—. We did have one in Swansea who was an independent independent, who actually refused to belong to any one of the groups, and he actually called himself an independent independent. The idea of having an independent group—. It is well known that a number of people who are in independent groups are members—and active members—of political parties. In fact, back in the 1960s, the Neath parliamentary candidate for the Conservative Party was also the ratepayer candidate in a council election, pretending to be in independent. Obviously, he was not that independent if he was a parliamentary candidate for a political party.
I have two questions. Does the proposal tighten control of the remuneration of chief executives and other chief officers—something that I very strongly support? Does that mean that we will be returning to something like the joint negotiating committee-style of chief officer bandings for our salaries? Unless that happens, the moving of salaries up, which has taken place over the years—. I agree entirely with Rhodri Glyn Thomas: a job is a job; you can’t get an extra £30,000 for doing another part of it. Like him, I commend Swansea for their action.
I also welcome the proposal of not having people serving in the Assembly and in local authorities. I would ask that you look at having people allowed to serve their time out on a local authority, so that they won’t be resigning from the authority. At least three of us in this Chamber did that—we saw our time out. We saved the local authority substantial sums in terms of having a by-election, and I think it is sensible. But, I don’t think that anybody should ever stand again, and I think that that is the direction we ought to be moving in.
My colleague, the Member for Swansea East, obviously has considerable experience of local government and has given us the benefit of that this afternoon, and, I think, has brought forward a number of very valuable suggestions. Can I start by endorsing what he has said? People who go into local government, from whatever political party, I think, go into it to make a difference, to do the best they can for their local communities. We should honour that commitment, support that commitment and, indeed, make it easier for more people to take up those kinds of roles. I think it’s also worth saying at this point that I don’t think anyone went into local government wanting to cut and shut, and I do accept that this is a very difficult time for people in local government, just as it is a difficult time for people in all parts of the public services, given the austerity policies to which we are subject from the Conservative-led coalition at Westminster.
He is absolutely right also to endorse the hard work of council officers across Wales. That is something that is being recognised, I think, by the trades unions in our proposals to establish a statutory public sector staff commission. I would like to thank him for his welcome for the general power of competence. I think that that will be a significant boost to local government as it moves forward. I very much welcome what he had to say about our proposals in respect of independent councillors. I am certainly open to exploring with him further the question of what is the most practical way to ensure tight controls on the remuneration of chief executives’ salaries—whether that is necessarily a return to a previous structure through the JNC, well, that's one proposal, but I'm sure there will be others and, as I say, I'd like to explore those discussions with him in due course.
Can I say to him finally, in respect of the prevention of future double jobbing between Members of the Assembly and members of local government, certainly, it would be our intention, if someone who was a sitting councillor was elected to this place, that they could of course serve out that term. The question would be that they shouldn't then subsequently stand for re-election.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move on to the next item, which is a statement by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport on business rates. I call on the Minister, Edwina Hart.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I'm very pleased to update Members today on the latest developments in regard of business rates. We’re approaching a significant moment with the full devolution of business rates in April 2015. This is an important opportunity to consider the right regime for Wales. That is why I set up the business rates panel in October last year with a very clear remit to examine the recommendations I have received over the last few years and make proposals for a strategic approach following devolution.
The panel, chaired by Chris Sutton, includes a range of expertise across its membership. I would like to place on record my thanks to Chris and the panel members for their efforts over recent weeks in preparing this body of work. The panel has made a number of important observations and recommendations. They have placed an overriding emphasis on stability in the short term in the business rates regime. Their view is that a smooth transition and transfer of business rates to Wales is fundamental to ensure that confidence is maintained in Wales as a place to do business. In their view, the radical reform in the short term should be avoided, and variations to better reflect the needs of Wales should be introduced in the medium term. This point is amplified by the panel because of the close business links with England. We've often raised issues related to the interconnected economy and the porous border in this Chamber. We must remain mindful of this in any variation of the business rates regime. On that advice, I'm pleased to announce that we will extend the small business rates relief scheme again for the next financial year, 2015-16, and match the proposal for England. This scheme benefits over three quarters of businesses in Wales, reducing their business rates or taking them out of them altogether.
I will not be introducing any variation for the next financial year. This is in response to calls for stability from the panel, but also due to technical reasons that impede variation by April 2015. The fine details of arrangements for full devolution of business rates from April remain to be finalised and will not be formalised with the UK Government until the March budget. Also, small business rates relief entitlement is automatic, and there would be insufficient time for amendments to be made to the billing systems to reflect any changes.
Going forward, however, I'm committed to looking at how the small business rate relief scheme can best meet the needs of the Welsh economy, while also taking into account the impact of tax reliefs on funding available for public services. Although the report challenges the impact of small business rate relief, I think all parties in the Chamber would like to see some variation to better reflect the Welsh business base. The panel have costed a number of enhancements to this relief—some of these changes will be extremely expensive, and we need to balance the costs of any increase against the impact of reduced funding for critical public services. The least expensive option identified in the report would require an additional £14 million. To match the Scottish scheme would require an additional £34 million, rising to an extra £47 million if that were a tapered scheme. There are, of course, other options and proposals, and I’m more than open to hearing those.
The panel has made a number of recommendations on the issue of whether business rates are a lever for economic growth. They’ve made some important medium-term recommendations, such as having more frequent revaluations, changing the index to the consumer price index, and recommending local retention. I'm broadly supportive of the panel’s aims to use business rates to support economic growth and would welcome Members’ views on this. I'll also be taking a discussion on this to my ministerial colleagues and the UK Government.
The panel are clear that future changes to reliefs and exemptions should be fully considered and evidenced as we go forward, and that these should be in line with economic policy. This could lead to a divergence from the regime operating elsewhere in the UK when there is clear evidence to do so, and I welcome the Members’ views on this. The report also makes a number of observations about the administration of business rates, and I will be discussing these with the Minister for Public Services. In addition, there are important reviews being undertaken by the UK Government into the administration structure of business rates. Our expertise and experience in Wales should be taken account of, and the body of evidence that we have produced over the last three years considered as part of that process. I wrote to the Chancellor at the end of last year to make that offer; I have yet to receive a response.
We’ve taken many steps to support business over the last three years, through business rates relief and schemes. We’ve launched a number of schemes to encourage construction, support the occupation of empty properties, provide relief to retail, food and drink sectors, and support businesses in our enterprise zones. For example, today, I have announced an enhancement to the boundary of the Haven Waterway Enterprise Zone. As a consequence of this, more businesses will be able to apply for, and benefit from, business rate relief. This is just one of the measures to help mitigate the effects of the closure of the Murco refinery on the local economy.
I appreciate everyone will need time to consider this report, and I’m keen that Members also have the opportunity to share their views on its findings. The report will be available online this afternoon, and I will be attending a scrutiny session on business rates at the Enterprise and Business Committee on 11 March. I look forward to a more comprehensive discussion then, and to Members providing me with their views in more detail, and I will make a further statement following that to Plenary.
I’m most grateful to the Minister for her statement today, and particularly for making available to party spokesmen the short interview we had with Chris Sutton, who has been instrumental in forming many of the views the Minister introduced today.
One would say this particular form of taxation is proved and tested since 1598, so it’s not exactly something that we will alter quickly. However, I would have preferred to have seen a more radical solution—I think, probably, the Minister also—but we have to be bounded by the amount of devolution powers that actually come to us. Business tax is fundamental to economic growth, and devolving this would be seen as the lever for such economic growth, not just as a stable source of revenue.
Businesses supported devolution, as it stimulates growth, jobs and investment, but expects evidence that the Welsh Government is focused upon these aims. It is vital for Wales, given the strong interconnection between the Welsh and English economies. But, currently, just over 100,000 properties in Wales are liable for business rates, and produce nearly £1 billion per annum. And it is a stable form of taxation. I would ask the Minister for some clarification about whether there are any EU state aid issues, resulting from the charging of different taxes in various parts of the country. Transition, of course, must be smooth and promote stability, both transparent and predictable.
We aim for a stability of investment, but we don’t want investments to be penalised. I’ve asked the Minister again, and it would be interesting here to note she touches slightly on administration. Now, that really is a vital part of this scheme. Appeals—though they’re not technically known as appeals—must be shown to be fair. At the moment, from the figures presently available, there are 5,120 appeals in Wales outstanding from the 2010 actual revaluation, and there are 130 outstanding from the 2005 revaluation.
The frequency of the valuation is really the key to this entire policy. In England, it is now for seven years, and, therefore, as we know well, the rents that were pertinent in 2010 are not the rents that are pertinent now. So, we would look to the Minister to reduce that term, and not simply be influenced by what is happening in England. It is Wales’s interest that should be paramount. The stability of the taxation is important, the frequency of the valuation is vitally important. I would seek the Minister’s views on that.
Can I thank William Graham for his contribution today, because he is quite right: it’s a proven, tested form of taxation? And even though I, like him, would like to look for some more radical, Wales-specific solutions, I find myself in a difficult position—we haven’t finally agreed the arrangements in terms of devolution, we’ve got to look very carefully at the financial settlement, and, of course, I am very wary of the review that’s going on across my border, and the impact on the porous border. But, that doesn’t mean, after I’ve made this statement today, and given evidence to the committee, that we can’t collectively think of the ways we need to go forward after this, ready, I think, for 2016.
Can I say that business rates are there as a lever for economic growth, and I think that it’s very important that they are utilised properly? I will certainly ask my officials to look at—I’m not aware of any state aid issues—what will happen if there’s greater diversification between England and Wales. And I also think it’s very important that I do look at some of the administrative issues that you’ve raised. I’ve indicated that I’ll discussing these matters with my colleague who’s in charge of public services. But we’ve also got to make sure, if we do introduce a system that has more frequent revaluation, how that’ll be administered. Who’s going to undertake it? Who’s going to do it? Is it going to be worthwhile doing it? There are all these very difficult issues in here.
But I do agree that frequency is one of the issues that is raised by small businesses, because they are in the absolutely ludicrous position of having a valuation done one day and, by the time it comes on board, the whole economy can have changed and they are under enormous amounts of pressure. I also feel as well that it’s important that we look at some of the key indicators that we’ve got—the key things that we like to look at as well. We should look at what we do on new developments if that encourages economic growth. I certainly think we need to look more carefully at some of the other measures we’ve introduced, to see if they can stimulate more.
Now, I think this is subject of an ongoing discussion and I very much look forward to scrutiny in the committee and the ideas of all Assembly Members, because I think, across parties, we will get commonly agreed areas that we want to take forward in terms of the reform of business rates.
Can I thank the Minister for that statement? Can I welcome the fact that the current business rates relief scheme will be extended? But the truth, of course, is that it is the least that the Government could have done today. Apart from that, what we have today is some sort of update. We have had a series of reviews and inquiries recently. The most recent, of course, was the establishment of the panel responsible for this report back in the autumn, to weigh up a series of recommendations that had been made over previous years by other panels. So, we now do need to move forward. What we have here is further delays. I know that, although a political decision has been made to devolve responsibility for rates, the decision about funding to go with that has not yet been made. So, of course there are limitations in terms of the details that can be published now, but we're not entirely clear about the Government’s principles, let alone the details of implementation.
Apart from extending the current scheme, the Minister said that she does not want to introduce other significant changes of the kind that we have called for—no change to the threshold so as to include more businesses, for example. That is partly, the Minister said, because of the panel's recommendations, but partly because of technical problems. Well, if one of the technical problems is that it is too late in the financial year to change the threshold for April, may I remind the Minister that it was a delay by the Government in coming to a decision that has meant that we are so late in the financial year in hearing this announcement today?
Well, there are a number of options listed on technical changes. I know that our recommendation as a party was one of those: a recommendation that would bring some 70,000 businesses out of business rates entirely. We want to give every opportunity for businesses to invest in growth. The Minister also told us that stability—keeping a balance—is her priority now: not doing anything too extreme, in order to retain the balance between businesses here and those across the border and so on. I understand the sentiment, but our economy needs every assistance now.
The Minister is inviting suggestions and recommendations for the way forward. We'll respond, certainly, to that request. We are well used to making recommendations in this particular area and we'll continue to try to persuade the Government of the need to use these new powers as a real economic driver. We'll continue to encourage raising the threshold to help more businesses, to introduce a new multiplier, to establish a valuation office or agency for Wales in order to develop a revaluation system that works for Wales. So, we are seeing more and more delays here today. Risk management is one thing; not making significant decisions is an entirely different matter.
Thank you very much. I do have to provide stability, I do have to make decisions and I’ve got to be conscious of what budget I have. This is the difficult position I find myself in. Oh, that I could make a decision that would please everybody and please the business community. I would be more than happy to do so, because I do think it’s important that we look at how we help and assist small businesses. I think it’s very important that we look at a variety of things that are going on, but that will be dependent on how we manage our budgets, in terms of what cash we have from the UK Government in the final settlement, how we then intend to look at our budget across the piece.
I think it’s important to recognise as well that we are between a rock and a hard place in this discussion. We wanted business rates, because we did want to look at it differently, we wanted to look at the right economic levers within our economy, but also then, of course, we’ve got the position of the UK Government about how they deal with those matters. So, I do understand why you feel the way that you do, and I’m sure I’m going to have further criticism on this agenda about not acting any quicker in certain areas.
I have to say that I do share your disappointment that I can’t go further, but I do think that we have to recognise that we’ve had to have all these reports done because we’ve had to have a consensus developing. And this final report that Chris Sutton has done I think indicates where everybody will feel confident about where we are in the short term; what he’s suggesting for the medium term I think is good, in terms of going for better revaluation, but there are a lot of issues around that that we need to flesh out. The only thing that I can say to you today is that I will try and flesh out these issues quickly in terms of policy when I have your views in, so if we are in a position financially to have a discussion about what more money and resource can go in—although I can’t see that it’s going to be like that when you look at the cuts that are coming from the UK Government and how we have to manage our budgets very carefully—we will certainly have that discussion to see if we can get any elements of consensus.
I share disappointment that I couldn’t, in many ways, be more radical because I do have my own views about what we should do specifically on business rates, but I do have to be guided by our budget settlement and what is sensible in terms of the advice I’m getting from business, which is stability at the moment and then take forward things in bite- size chunks.
Thank you, Minister. I read the report of the panel reviewing the report of the task and finish group, and the two subsequent reports of that task and finish group in response to the consultation to the original report, with great interest. My thanks, I think, to the panel on a very helpful piece of work in guiding us through all of those consultative processes, and obviously, things have moved forward since then. The fundamental question remains though: do we look on business rates as a stable form of finance for the Welsh Government, or do we look on business rates as a real lever for economic growth? Stasis is only really excusable if you view it as the former. Stability in the short-term—you say it is important; of course it is. I agree that a smooth transfer of powers is very important because businesses need a stable environment in which to operate. One of the most important things a Government can do is to limit the uncertainty and the churn in that environment.
However, there is an issue about to what extent we benefit by staying the same. I agree that retaining the current small business rate relief scheme, for example, in the next year is very wise, as the report says, though because of the structure of the Welsh economy, that costs money. We have very many more businesses that are underneath the threshold for small business rate relief as a proportion of our economy than England does, and that means that, in order to just extend the current regime without making any alterations, after the devolution of business rates, it will cost us an extra £24.1 million in a single year, according to the estimates in the report. So, my question is: what discussions have you had with the UK Government over that? Is there any undertaking from them that they will be making a transitional arrangement to enable you to maintain that, because it is, essentially, double the cost of what any consequential through the Barnett formula would allow?
I also very strongly agree on the frequency of the revaluations. We do need more frequent revaluation so that we can iron out any of these very sudden peaks and troughs. And I think that there is an important thing that we can look at in the short term, regardless of what England are doing and the major piece of work that they’re doing to reorganise their system—and that’s have a look at ways in which we could create an interim valuation system in between major revaluations. Are there ways in which we can look at a proxy value, looking at the average rents in particular areas? Is there a way in which we can make that revaluation process more responsive to the actual market? I wonder—you talk about it being something to look at in the medium term; can you tell us, in time terms, what the medium term actually is?
As I say, whilst I support the extension of the existing reliefs in the short-term, I think you have to be honest and say that where you have a complex package of tax reliefs to overcome the perceived inequities in a system, it suggests to me that, fundamentally, the design of that tax system isn’t quite right, and more radical reform is going to be necessary in the long term. I think that it would be right to point out that this report, and, indeed, other reports previously, are lukewarm at best on the value of extending tax reliefs over a long period of time. In particular, one of the things that is the cause for concern is that it costs money to implement these, but if they’re not targeted at specific interventions, then they don’t have an economic benefit. Similarly, if we are looking at a system of rate reliefs that are renewed on an annual basis, and, on this occasion, only seven weeks in advance of the next financial year, that in itself is a cause of uncertainty and instability in the taxation regime. If we’re going to be designing a system for Wales, it doesn’t have to be limited to a system of tax relief. It can be a system that is fundamentally different to the one that we have inherited.
I think we have to be honest here: the devolution of business rates is a risk. It will cost money if we don’t get it right, but it’s a risk that is worth taking if we’re prepared to use the powers that we are being given with the financial responsibility radically to incentivise economic growth, because the current system punishes people who invest in their property; it punishes people who put plant and equipment on their property and create wealth for this country; it requires a suite of reliefs to try and make it fair, but still fails to be fair; and it will cost Wales millions of pounds just to keep pace with England, even if we don’t aspire to be even better. So, I think business rates as usual just won’t do, and we do need to set out a timetable for more radical reform that this report does in fact say, in the long term, is possible.
Can I thank Eluned Parrott for her comments? I do think I’d be more than happy to set out a timetable when we’ve had further dialogue on this issue, the views of Members and, of course, my scrutiny at committee, because my medium term is really some discussions, I have to say, in the summer of this year, about trying to get some blueprint into action about the areas that we actually need to look at, because you are absolutely correct that we’ve got to be realistic in what we’ve had in terms of the devolution of business rates. We’ve got to get things right because there is risk associated with it, and it would be very important that we do get the risks right.
I also think it’s very useful to look at the Scottish and Northern Ireland situation, where they’ve had business rates for a while, and they haven’t made immediate changes to the regime; they’ve actually gradually decided what they need to do and how they’ve dealt with it. We’ve made changes, even with our very small areas of what we’ve dealt with, because we have the new business rate scheme, we have the capping of the multiplier, we’ve had small business rate relief, and of course it’s important that we give better guidance and information to businesses as part of business relief. But, we’ve got to be honest, I think, because we need to recognise that there are some tough decisions around about the finances on this, because if we are to provide additional support through a non-domestic rates regime, there’s that balance, because of the support for critical public services, and that particular balance.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 15:47.
Can I say, in terms of the issues about the transfer and the settlement, those are matters that have been dealt with by my colleague Jane Hutt, so I will certainly be updated on those issues ready for committee in terms of discussion? You are right about targeting, because, in my mind, if you are investing in something and you are a business investing, you’re actually bearing extra costs, so how you incentivise investment is, I think, a key issue, and how you use business rates in that context. But it’s not just about business rates; it’s about the whole range of policies. I have very much sympathy with the issues that you’ve raised with me today, and I hope that we keep this dialogue going forward to ensure that we can actually make progress on business rates to get a system that’s fit for purpose.
What I like about this particular report—I know I’ve had loads of reports, and I’m criticised for it, but I tell you one thing: we’ve got 60 very educated Assembly Members here now on what business rates are as a result of the report—is that this report is quite solid about the short term, the medium and where we can go in the long term, and that’s the first time I think I’ve had that clearly spelt out in terms of what stages we can go. I think that suits all the parties in the Chamber.
Minister, I also welcome your statement this afternoon that you’re extending the small business rate relief scheme again for the financial year 2015-16 and matching the proposals in England. I also note that you have written to the UK Government, outlining the expertise and experience in Wales over the last three years, and that’s still awaiting a response. You said that you broadly supported the panel’s aim to use business rates to support economic growth. I was pleased to see recently that, when Labour wins the next general election, it will cut business rates in 2015, freeze them in 2016, and then devolve £30 billion of business rates to back local economic growth. I hope, Minister, that you will discuss these proposals with the incoming Labour Government so that Wales can benefit from such funding.
Obviously, thank you for the welcome for my statement. I think it’s important to recognise we do have the opportunities now, with the devolution of business rates, and also we are going to have to have a discussion about the local retention of business rates to help and assist, perhaps, in local areas. But when you see the gaps that there are between what business rates are taken, for instance, by the city and county of Cardiff and you compare that with somewhere like Ynys Môn, and if you then look at some local authorities that are reliant on just one big contributor, like Neath Port Talbot and Tata, you recognise that even when we look at local retention issues that we’re going to have to be very careful that we don’t just disproportionately benefit parts of Wales. We know our responsibility is to the whole of Wales and their opportunities for economic development.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 5 is a statement by the Minister for Education and Skills on raising the ambitions and educational attainment of looked-after children in Wales. I call on the Minister, Huw Lewis.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I’d like to take this opportunity to update Members on very important work being taken forward by the Welsh Government to support the education of children who are looked after in Wales. We would, I am sure, all agree that every child in Wales, including those who are looked after, has the right to expect an excellent education regardless of their circumstances. This should be a fact and not just an aspiration. To ensure that we accomplish this, the Minister for Health and Social Services and I have issued for consultation a joint strategy entitled ‘Raising the ambitions and educational attainment of children who are looked after in Wales’.
In March 2014, there were more than 5,700 children looked after in Wales. Decisions to take children into care are not taken lightly, but once children do become looked after we must use that opportunity to improve their life chances. Developing their potential and ambitions to achieve in education and in life must be paramount. But, all too often, this is not the case. The educational performance of children who are looked after is significantly lower, below that of other mainstream pupils at all key stages.
For example, in key stage 4, in summer 2013, 53% of pupils achieved level 2 inclusive. The equivalent figure for children who are looked after was just 13%. This is typical of performance across all key stages. Too many children who are looked after will leave compulsory education with few or no qualifications. In 2014, some 45% of 19-year-old care leavers were not in education, employment or training. From 2007 to 2010, that figure stood at 51%. So, that does show improvement, but it is still at an unacceptable level.
We need to use this opportunity to build greater momentum. Children who enter the care system come from a background perhaps of family upheaval or breakdown. Abuse or neglect can often be a factor and can have long-term and debilitating impacts. These circumstances inevitably affect the child’s ability to learn effectively and progress is hindered through school and beyond. As a consequence, children invariably need additional help and support. We cannot change their past, but we have to work harder to change their future. The local authority, as the corporate parent, has a key responsibility to safeguard and promote the welfare of the child, which includes of course their educational achievement.
Both the health Minister and I are absolutely clear. The improved educational attainment of looked-after children is essential. It will, though, only be possible if education, social services and others collaborate effectively. There has to be seamless integration that starts at the highest level of the Welsh Government and reaches right into the classroom to ensure that each and every looked-after child receives effective help and support.
The draft strategy sets out a range of actions at every level of the system with a strategic focus on action to promote better leadership, partnership and collaboration, and effective teaching and learning. It is essential that all those whose work responsibilities and lives bring them into contact with children who are looked after contribute to this national conversation and identify actions to better support these learners. We recognise that the voice of the child is critical to properly understand how the actions we take impact upon their lives. We are working with the third sector organisation, Voices from Care, to explore better ways of getting looked-after children engaged in the consultation and in decisions that affect them.
Decisions on the care aspects of the life of a child who is looked after have a fundamental impact on the child’s ability to achieve in education. We will also commission research this year to inform the final strategy. This will engage directly with looked after and former looked-after children to help us better understand the challenges they face on a daily basis.
The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 comes into force in April 2016. This legislation provides a real opportunity to tackle issues such as stability in the lives of children who are looked after by strengthening the support that we offer. We will ensure that the work taken forward in implementing the Act is consistent with the aims of the education strategy. Regulations and codes of practice will help to strengthen links between education and social services to ensure they work together collaboratively to improve both the educational and the wellbeing outcomes for these children.
We are already clear about some areas that need to be addressed through the strategy. The current arrangements for providing support for children who are looked after through the pupil deprivation grant are ineffective in delivering evidence of improved outcomes for learners. From April, we will place responsibility for this funding with the regional educational consortia. Working with local authorities and schools, their task will be to ensure the delivery of strategic and coherent support, which makes a real and evidence-based impact on the education of children who are looked after.
We are also aware that the complex issues that impact on the looked-after child’s ability to achieve in education often continue once they are adopted. To ensure continuity of support regardless of placement changes or school moves, we are building flexibility into the terms and conditions of the grant arrangements to enable consortia to support interventions aimed at former looked-after children who have been adopted.
We will be working with key stakeholders in the coming weeks to ensure the smooth implementation of the new arrangements. I’m sure that everyone would join me and the Minister for Health and Social Services in recognising the importance of this work. I do not underestimate the challenge, but we must not shirk from it. All our young people must reach their full potential, and we cannot accept that children who are looked after achieve less than we would wish and hope for our own children. I will update Members on the progress of this work following the consultation.
Minister, good afternoon. I would like to thank you for your statement, because, as you say yourself, this is such a vitally important area. I do have some questions springing from the statement. Whilst I welcome the proposal for a joint strategy, I would ask you if you are convinced or content that you have the capacity to handle that consultation. You’ve got four large consultations currently running; there’s been 18 in the past year that are still really being processed. On the time to consult, process, produce and implement from that consultation, given that we’re entering into the last year and a bit of this current Assembly, are you content that you’ll have the time to do that and to be able to implement it and see it through? I would like to say for the record that the Welsh Conservatives will be contributing to this consultation. As you know, we always do on the larger ones that you bring forward.
The statistics that you have in your statement are absolutely salutary, but I think you should also add the fact that the average external qualifications point score for looked-after children improved to 262 in 2013 from 221, which is very welcome; however, it is an average score of 262 versus 501, which is achieved by all the pupils in Wales. So, we do agree with you that this is an area in which we need to move forward at pace. But, talking about the pace, one of the concerns that I have is that, in 2011, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales did his review, ‘Missing Voices’, which I know you’ll be familiar with, but there seems to be an awful lot of evidence out there in the public domain as to what we could do and should do, and there is a very clear opinion from the children and young people themselves who are being looked after as to what they want. And I worry that we might be in a situation where we are yet again asking the same groups of people what it is they want, and, actually, what they really want is for someone to listen to what they’ve always being saying they want and to get on and do it. How will you be able to make sure that we can drive forward this change, because this party will support you in this area?
The Children, Young People and Education Committee has produced an awful lot of work on this area, and we did a very large study into children who were put up for adoption. Again, we looked in part there at some of the looked-after children issues and the problems that looked-after children and adopted children have post-adoption in gaining that educational support and being able to move forward. So, again, Minister, we all know what that problem is; it’s been around an awfully long time. We are years down the road and it’s still a problem. So, how will you be able to assure us that we can really move forward in this last sort of year and a bit to achieve a concrete change there?
You talk about the funding arrangements and that the pupil deprivation grant isn’t being provided for, or the assessment of it isn’t accurate, and you want to put it into the hands of the regional consortia. Now, you know I’ve a bit of a problem with the regional consortia, and, on 3 December, to the Children, Young People and Education Committee you also said that, having met each consortium, you accept that each one of the four is at a different stage of development—and these regional consortia have now been around for some two and a half years. Can you assure us that, if this funding is put under their control, and also the ability to implement a lot of this is put under their control from April, you believe that those regional consortia are all up to the task and will be able to deliver this for the children of Wales?
My final comment, Minister, is that the ‘Missing Voices’ report talked very clearly about Wales as being on an advocacy journey for over 10 years following publication of the Waterhouse report, and yet it still finds itself without a clear set of checks and balances to ensure that all children with an entitlement to advocacy have a genuine opportunity to access it. And I know that, when we were the Committee on Equality of Opportunity, we looked very long and hard at advocacy, particularly for young children. Will you please reflect, if you may, for a few moments on how we really will make sure that this is what the young people want?
Thank you. We will, as I said earlier, respond to the consultation and we will work with you on this tricky area, because these are definitely amongst some of the most disadvantaged young people in Wales, and we would like to see them have that opportunity to achieve the 501 that most pupils in Wales can achieve post-qualification.
Well, Deputy Presiding Officer, I thank Angela Burns for those comments and those thoughtful and constructive points.
I have no concerns around the capacity of the Welsh Government, working with our partners, to handle the consultation. I would say, and you might expect me to say, that I believe consultation is imperative at this point in time, and that this is a priority area for consultation. This is the way we do business in Wales, and I’ll go on later in my comments to explain why I think this is a particularly important point in time to commit the resources for consultation.
She’s very right to say that there have been some measurable improvements in terms of the educational outcomes for looked-after children across Wales, but they are marginal at best. And what is absolutely stark is that we have an enormous distance to travel if we are to fulfil our aspirations for where looked-after children should be in terms of their educational attainment. As part of my work within this period of consultation, I will also be taking a look—not necessarily travelling myself, but taking a look—at systems across Europe where there are very interesting models that we need to learn from, I think, in terms of better outcomes for looked-after children in other countries in the European Union. There have also been developments in Scotland recently that we may be able to learn from.
I echo Angela Burns’s concerns around being clear about the views of young people. Yes, we have talked about these issues with young people before, and this comes back to this point around the need for consultation just now. I think that, particularly in a legislative context, this is an important point in time. We have the coming of the new social services legislation, but we also are just beginning to talk about the additional learning needs legislation coming through on the education side. Now, there is considerable overlap in terms of the statistics. I believe that almost exactly two thirds of looked-after children also have some kind of special educational need. So, there needs to be consideration within the construction of that legislation of these issues in an attempt to get that legislation right for this group of young people. I take on board the points about the committee’s past work. We do need to recognise that and not for one moment set it aside. There has been a lot of thought put into some of these issues prior to this point. I recognise that absolutely.
She raises concerns over the capacity of the consortia. Well, the consortia—the four of them—I’ve met with each and every one through what we’ve called challenge and review events. I have every confidence, actually, that we’re in a position where this item of work would be carried through properly by them. The consortia really have travelled a considerable distance in a very short time, and I am confident that we will be in a better situation should the PDG flow through them. The simple fact of the matter is that, at present, PDG for looked-after children flowing to schools is falling foul continually of the sheer mobility of this group of young people. Quite often, by the time the PDG investment has arrived with a headteacher, that child has moved on, their placement has changed, or they’ve moved to another school—something has changed in their lives. I think taking this to a regional level will give us a more strategic view and allow us to make sure that the resource actually does reach the child.
Thank you for that very important statement, Minister. Do you agree that any strategy to improve the educational attainment of looked-after children must have due regard to the recently published Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales report, which says that urgent action is needed to give children in and leaving care the emotional and psychological support they need? This report, which was mentioned earlier this afternoon by Lynne Neagle AM, follows the CSSIW inspection of how authorities fulfil their corporate parenting role. It concludes that agencies need to work together more effectively to deliver important and ambitious outcomes for children in care. I’m sure you will also welcome, along with me, the response of council leaders that said that the findings of this report will help them to improve outcomes for looked-after children.
Could I thank Gwenda Thomas for those insights? And I agree, of course, that we have to have due regard to all the needs of children who are looked after and those who have left care. And that’s one of the reasons, of course, for having this joint draft strategy between myself and the Minister for Health and Social Services to ensure that we encompass as holistically as is possible the subject matter that we need to grapple with here. It’s very clear, I think, to everyone that only by ensuring effective multi-agency support can we improve this situation. I am aware of the recent CSSIW report, and my officials will be discussing the outcome of that work with CSSIW throughout the consultation period.
I would like to thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon. It’s appropriate and important that this Assembly does discuss this group of children, who are disadvantaged in many ways, both socially and educationally, in our nation at the moment. Having said that, there wasn’t a great deal of content in the Minister’s statement. What there was, I welcome, but, clearly, we will have to wait to see what emerges from the consultation before we can put more meat on the bones in terms of the ideas that the Minister’s put forward.
In the context in which we are discussing this matter today, I think we should also regret the failure, over the years, to provide adequately and sufficiently, particularly in educational terms, for this group of looked-after children, and that we as corporate parents, as it were, have failed this group of young people. But there are a number of quite clear reports in the recent past that have shown the way forward, and I would like to ask the Minister just a few questions based on what he expects the consultation to do and what has also been recommended recently.
First of all, the Wales Audit Office reported some two years ago, and requested particularly more collaboration between Government and different Government departments in taking care of looked-after children. I accept that this is a consultation and a joint statement today, but I would also like to know which other departments of Government are part of this process, particularly as we move into the anti-poverty work carried out by Government and similar community work. I think it’s very important that we see the Government itself doing what it is asking others to do, namely to work across the spectrum much more.
I also share some of the concerns about shifting the support and funding from the schools to the consortia. I don’t share the Minister’s confidence in the consortia. There has been improvement—yes—but it’s still very patchy and it remains true, in my view, that the consortia still have some way to go before they achieve what they are supposed to achieve, never mind asking them to take on this expert role, where I would have thought that schools—I accept the point that looked-after children move frequently—are at least much closer to these young people and know exactly what their backgrounds are.
In that context, of course, although the Minister has said that he’s moving towards the consortia level, one of the areas where we need improvement in schools perhaps is in initial teacher training and continuing professional development for teachers in order to identify looked-after children and to provide support to them and to know how to support them socially, on a community basis, emotionally, and educationally, as they proceed through education.
I was pleased to hear the Minister say now that he is going to seek examples of best practice elsewhere. It is also included in the consultation, of course. He mentioned throughout Europe—which is great to see—but mentioned specifically Scotland, and, of course, Scotland has taken a particular step forward in this area, particularly in terms of advocacy for looked-after children, by ensuring that there are designated named individuals for each and every child from birth to the age of 18 in that context. That’s led to a great deal of discussion in Scotland about state intervention, as it were, but certainly it does go some way towards ensuring that looked-after children and young people have an individual they can approach in terms of expressing concerns, seeking support, or in terms of advocacy more generally.
So, I hope that the Minister will look at the Scottish model and, indeed, respond today on the kind of ideas that he favours, perhaps.
The final thing to say in the context of the consortia is: does he feel that anything else is needed in terms of guidance, or support, or specific encouragement now, to ensure that this element of the pupil deprivation grant is fully implemented and properly implemented in a way that hasn’t perhaps been achieved in the past?
I thank Simon Thomas for those comments. I think, Deputy Presiding Officer, he’s a little unfair in terms of criticising the content. This is, after all, an invitation to others to express their views. I could have filled the document with proposed content and run all over it with my tackety boots as a Minister. I do have enthusiasms and proposals that I would like to see discussed, but this document sparks a consultation that is, of course, for everyone. It is clear, and I think I’m right in saying, that this is probably the first time that we’ll have a national conversation on the issue of a specific focus on the education of looked-after children. We will follow through in terms of this strategy by producing an action plan, which we will then get on with. We will be holding agencies to account in terms of how they address their role in delivering better outcomes for these young people. It is, from the outset, a commitment to a holistic, systematic approach.
In terms of some of the other points that Simon Thomas has raised, I will, perhaps, have to be drawn into some of my own views and suggestions for consideration on one or two points. He mentions the Wales Audit Office report. Yes, of course, we have to have a mind to the beam in our own eye in terms of cross-Governmental co-operation, and the Minister for Health and Social Services and I will be working very hard at that.
But he is quite right also to say that there are implications here and, indeed, good practice to learn from and build on in terms of some of the work that’s gone on through the IFSS working and the team-around-the-family type set-ups that are out there in communities at the moment and go beyond local government and social services into voluntary sector action, too. So, there is a role, he is quite right, for the anti-poverty agenda, and there is stuff to learn from the way the anti-poverty agenda has progressed.
I don’t share his concerns around the consortia in terms of the flow of the PDG. This is not a question of the consortia having to develop expertise in the issues surrounding looked-after children. Their job will be to get the money to the child. What we have at the moment is a system whereby children are moving, very regularly and often, and an individual school does not have an overview of that child’s movement, and they’re receiving a PDG payment for a child who may have moved on in the middle of the previous term. The consortia, having a regional view, will be able to much better, I believe, keep track of those young people and, working with the local authorities, make sure that they don’t miss out on the extra resource that is their due.
He is absolutely right to be concerned about initial teacher training and continuing professional development. This is, again, an area that is very timely. We will soon have John Furlong’s report into ITT. I don’t want to steal his thunder, but it will signal a fundamental shift in terms of what we expect from teacher training in Wales. We also, almost simultaneously, have the opening up of the debate around the new curriculum through Graham Donaldson’s report, and I don’t think I’m giving any hostages to fortune if I say that, as part of that, there will need to be, for instance, a complete reworking of personal, social, health and economic education in schools, and a rethink about pastoral support of all kinds as it’s delivered by schools—and there is an issue. There is an issue in terms of the skills of the teaching workforce in these areas, which can be very involved and can be multifaceted. There is quite often in a school no designated person with expertise in a particular area to lock the actions of the school into the wider package around, in this instance, a looked-after child, although there are various groups of children for whom you could say the same. I think that needs an overhaul. I think we need to rethink how we deliver pastoral support in schools and that we need to tie that in from the very beginning with our overhaul of initial teacher training.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I beg your pardon.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
You still continue. Go on.
Just very briefly. Yes, of course we’ll take a look at the Scottish case, although I understand the designated person debate was rather lively and wasn’t without issues. Of course, in terms of the pupil deprivation grant, at all stages, in all strands of the pupil deprivation grant, I am very keen to ensure that it goes where it is meant to go and does what it is meant to do.
May I say, in opening, that I don’t think that there’s one Assembly Member here who opposes this ambition? I think that all of us believe that every child in Wales, including those who are looked after, deserves the best education. However, one point that I do wish to make is that a previous strategy was published by the Welsh Government in 2007. What I’m asking is whether any analysis was carried out before you went out to consultation of the failure of that 2007 strategy, ‘Towards a Stable Life and a Brighter Future’? If we are still here in some eight years’ time with the same problems, and the same ambition having failed, it will be those children during those eight years who will have suffered. Therefore, I share and support every word within the statement, but I do ask whether there has been any analysis of the failure of the previous strategy.
I also welcome the fact that you’ve expressed this afternoon that 60% of looked-after children also have special educational needs. We will, of course, have to reflect this new strategy and this new analysis in the legislation coming forward. May I also ask you about some of the reports that I have read by the social services inspectorate? There is a common theme in almost every one of the inspection reports that have been published by the inspectorate. It states that it’s impossible for us to improve the attainment of looked-after children unless we, in the first instance, deal with their emotional difficulties and some of the mental health issues. So, in considering what we’ve been discussing this afternoon in terms of the discussion in the children’s committee, you’ll be aware that many of us are concerned about the CAMHS service. I do ask you to elaborate on what improvement there will be to that service before we can expect schools to improve children’s attainment.
I also think that there are concerns in terms of some of the outcomes in those reports relating to the fact that in almost every council that has been inspected, we’re seeing a situation where the corporate parental responsibilities are restricted to the social services departments within those councils. I think that there is a in changing the system to one of regions and consortia in that, ultimately, you are changing that responsibility to a body that deals only with education, bearing in mind that the entire structure in terms of corporate co-ordinators and co-ordinators of looked-after children remains within the local councils. So, I see that there is a need for the funding to move, and that there is a need for us to take some kind of strategic overview for these children, but I do think that there is a deficiency in terms of the differentiation between the councils and the regional consortia. I do hope that that will not be the case because the Welsh Government has decided that these changes will take place from April onwards.
In concluding, may I just ask how you are going to do the monitoring? The consultation paper states, in very general terms, ‘we expect’, but of course the previous strategy is full of words like ‘we expect’. Ultimately, we are here eight years hence and those hopes have been destroyed.
So, I’m just asking you how you’re going to monitor the improvement in terms of the performance that you are keen to see? May I also just ask one final question about the paragraph on the final page that talks about extending the pupil deprivation grant for children who are outwith the care syste and who have been adopted? Will you be putting additional funding into the PDG, therefore, if you say that you’re eager to see—? It says here:
‘we are building flexibility into the terms and conditions of the grant arrangements to enable consortia to support interventions aimed at former looked after children who have been adopted.’
So, you’re extending the number of children who fall under the auspices of the PDG.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I thank Aled for those points. We haven't forgotten about the strategy of 2007 and, indeed, it took us forward. I have described, and so have others here this afternoon, that there have been improvements since then, although I think everyone would share the disappointment at just how great those improvements were. All I can say is that I reiterate we are at a point in time where we have opportunities now to grapple with issues that perhaps we could not have done in 2007, not least the legal implications of the landscape around the additional learning needs Bill and what is expected in law. We are also about to embark, as I say, on a profound overhaul of teacher training and curriculum reform, as well as that ALN Bill. So, there are multiple forces coming together at this point, which make this a very important point in time to get these issues right for this group of young people.
He's right to talk about the importance of emotional and mental health. The link with CAMHS is going to be absolutely critical to all this. But, you know, I repeat that I think, within schools themselves, we need a greater reservoir of expertise in terms of teaching professionals understanding these issues and being able to link in properly with the wider support network that needs to be there around the child.
In terms of the regional consortia, I'm hoping very much there’s been a misunderstanding here in terms of the role of the regional consortia. All I am asking the regional consortia to do is channel the PDG for looked-after children. I am not asking them to strategise or deliver anything complex. They are simply a delivery mechanism to get the PDG to the right school. What we're finding at the moment is that, because so many of these children move across local authority boundaries, local authorities are losing them, or at least the school is losing them, and the money is not flowing quickly enough and not actually reaching the headteacher for that child. So, it's no more than that. I'm not taking any of local government’s responsibilities as corporate parent away from them. In fact, we need to better describe their role as corporate parent and be much more rigorous, in my view, about what is expected.
Of course there will be monitoring. That's part of the consultation. We need to make sure that this system hangs together, and that the right people are held to account. We may need to talk, as the consultation unfolds, about targets, and, of course, I've already mentioned changes in law and in guidance, which will no doubt arise as recommendations for the action plan that will follow the strategy.
Oh, and the final point—yes, on adopted children, I will ensure the resource is there.
Just a few quick points. I think it's very good that this is a joint statement, because it's absolutely essential that all the needs of the children who are being looked after are taken into account. I think we all know that, for all children, the links between home and school are usually a key to academic success in particular. So, when children are moving around in the way that we’ve heard described here this afternoon, it's absolutely essential that we do have those links.
I just want to make a few points. I wondered whether you could respond to the fact that many older children may not wish to be identified as being children who are looked after, because there is still a stigma in many people’s minds about being looked after—amongst many children’s minds. I wondered how you would deal with that sort of issue, or whether you had thought about that. I know that the issue of children who have got special learning needs or other special needs has been raised here this afternoon. But I also wanted to raise the issue of, you know—. Cardiff Council has responsibility for quite a high number of unaccompanied asylum-seekers, who are additionally vulnerable. Although I think the CSSIW report said that those children had good support in schools, there was often a problem when they went on beyond the schools to further or higher education. This was identified by the young people themselves. Finally, the point that has come over, I think, very clearly is that it is the voices of the children that must be listened to.
Well, on that final point, of course, Julie Morgan is quite right. We will all need to be on our guard throughout this process to put the voice of the young person at the centre of our thinking. She’s right to stress the home-school link as being absolutely central, and, of course, the upheaval that many of these young people have faced can have these devastating impacts, as we know, on their future prospects.
In terms of identification of older children, in particular, it should be the case already, of course, that there are good practices in place to ensure that young people are not being stigmatised as looked-after children. But, I would be very interested to talk about ways, during the consultation, in which we can make that clearer, if it needs to be made clearer, or tighten up procedures around that issue of stigma.
In terms of unaccompanied asylum seekers, here is a particular group that we will need to consider as part of the consultation. I know it is the case that higher education in Wales has moved forward—well, it has made great strides in terms of support for formerly looked-after children now approaching adulthood or who are adults. The Buttle charter mark has been achieved by every single HE institution in Wales. FE, on the other hand, has a little way to go yet, and we need to have a conversation as part of this consultation about how we accelerate things in further education. I have already spoken about the recognition that I have that capacity in schools needs to be boosted too.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And last, but certainly not least, Ann Jones.
Deputy Presiding Officer, most of the points that I was going to make have been covered by the excellent members of my Children, Young People and Education Committee. So, I will defer and take some points into the consultation.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you. Thank you, Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We move then to item 6, which is a statement by the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology—an update on joint working with the Department for Work and Pensions. I call Julie James.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I very much welcome the opportunity to provide an update on the work currently being undertaken between the Welsh Government and the UK Government to better align the employment and skills services that support job-seekers in Wales. As a substantial policy area devolved to the Welsh Government, skills have a major impact on both the economic and social wellbeing of Wales. Together with policy action to support the employability of individuals, skills provide a strong lever for tackling poverty and strengthening the creation of jobs and growth. Despite this, one of the key challenges we continue to face is the fact that a number of employment policy matters remain the responsibility of central Government, through the Department for Work and Pensions. In order to be fully effective, we must clearly take action to join up our devolved responsibilities with those reserved at the UK level. As many of you are no doubt keenly aware, this challenge has been crystallised since the introduction of the Department for Work and Pensions’ flagship employment initiative, the Work Programme.
The ongoing challenge relates primarily to the need to demonstrate added value for Welsh Government in European social fund-funded skills provision, and ensure there is no overlap or duplication in funding coming into the system from different Governments. We have a common aim with the DWP, to support individuals in Wales who are seeking work and to fulfil their ambition of gaining sustained employment. We want to ensure jobseekers in Wales have access to the widest range of help available, and we therefore need to work with the DWP to simplify access to respective employment and skills programmes.
In November 2013, the Welsh Affairs Committee published a report focusing on the operation of the Work Programme in Wales and made several recommendations that required active collaboration between the DWP and the Welsh Government. In response to these recommendations, which focused quite clearly around the issue of access to Welsh Government and ESF-funded provision for Work Programme participants, my predecessor and the Minister of State for Employment jointly agreed to establish a working group that would be charged with seeking practical solutions to the problem. The access to employment working group has met on several occasions to discuss this and a number of other related issues. The engagement has been extremely positive and some significant agreements have already been reached, including the introduction of the skills conditionality project, which has been designed to further test mandation for jobseekers with an identified essential skill need, and provide Welsh Ministers with additional evidence to make a definitive decision in relation to skills conditionality provision in Wales. We have also affirmed access to apprenticeship opportunities for Work Programme participants within the eligible age range and provided the working group the opportunity to influence issues such as the Welsh Government’s footprint for European social fund delivery and the development of our new adult employability programme, which will operate from September this year.
Despite these positive moves, we remain challenged by the nature of the Work Programme contracts and our inability to determine where we can demonstrate added value through integration with our own programmes and investment. The Welsh Government has persistently sought greater clarity from the DWP around the nature of the delivery within the Work Programme to understand whether there are opportunities to better align the support available. I'm very pleased, therefore, to announce today that, following the DWP’s recent announcement to extend the Work Programme to 2017, Welsh Government and DWP officials will be working together on a solution to enable Work Programme participants in Wales access to appropriate ESF programmes from April 2015. This will involve varying the current contracts to allow greater clarity around what we expect Work Programme providers to deliver and be paid for, thereby opening up opportunities for Welsh Government or ESF-funded schemes to provide additional support where required. It is expected that this work will be concluded by 31 March 2015.
This is by no means the end of the story. The DWP may have extended Work Programme contracts for an additional year, but they are already considering their approach to the next round of Work Programme contracting. It is imperative that we avoid any of the issues we've experienced to date, and I will therefore be strongly advocating Welsh Government involvement in every stage of the commissioning process for the next contract. I understand this will gather some momentum following the UK elections.
Further to these specific actions, and as a final point, the Welsh Government continues to develop and refine our own response to the challenges facing the skills system in Wales, as we aim to move towards a better integrated and more responsive system that offers better value for the limited resources available to us. This is not only our responsibility, but a joint one across the whole skills system, whether it is nationally led or more regionally or locally focused. Our skills policy statement and its accompanying implementation plan, along with our ongoing developments to establish programmes that provide relevant, flexible and cost-effective support to both businesses and individuals, are all testament to this joint ambition. Our ongoing relationship with the DWP as one of our key partners is vital therefore if we are to realise his ambition, and I look forward to continuing to lead on our collaboration in this very challenging area.
May I thank the Minister for her statement this afternoon? The Welsh Conservatives acknowledge and support all measures that ensure jobseekers in Wales have access to the widest assistance to fulfil their ambition of gaining a sustained employment. We understand that, although this is a substantially devolved policy area, there is a requirement for effective working together to realise these objectives. Welsh Conservatives note that the United Kingdom Government held the UK Investment Summit Wales 2014 at the Celtic Manor, which gave a very clear indication of their wish to create further job opportunities and economic investment in Wales. Further, the Conservative-led coalition Government, by extending this programme, is the most important element in the extension of the Work Programme to 2017, and the joint working to ensure that Welsh participants are able to access ESF programmes from April this year. We also recognise the need to address concerns with regard to the levels of youth unemployment and the number of people living in workless households. This is clearly a key issue in increasing employment opportunities to all people in Wales.
We greatly support the Deputy Minister’s statement that we must move towards a better integrated and more responsive system that offers better value for the limited resources available to us. We agree that this is not only our responsibility, but a joint one across the whole skills system, whether it is nationally led or more regionally or locally focused. Can I ask the Deputy Minister how she feels this can best be achieved in Wales? Clearly, we welcome today’s statement and her undertaking to provide future statements on progress in realising developments outlined today.
Thank you for that very important question. As I said, we’ve been doing a lot of work in this area. I absolutely agree that it needs to be integrated across the piece. It’s essential that we get the best help to the people who need it the most, and, to that end, we’ve done a lot of work in terms of what is contained within the Work Programme, because the real issue has always been additionality, as those of us who are familiar with European programmes will know. But unfortunately, officials, particularly in the DWP, were not all that familiar, I think, with that concept.
The Work Programme is a black box contracting system, in the sense that the Government doesn’t mandate anything within it, so the problem we’ve always had is that we’re not able to show additionality if we don’t know what’s already contained within the contract. So, an enormous amount of work by the officials has gone forward as a result of various reports that have been made, and we are confident now that we have a way forward. That’s not to say that we’re completely satisfied with where we are with the Work Programme; it continues to have a number of problems as far as we’re concerned, but we continue to work very well with colleagues in the DWP.
Deputy Minister, I very much welcome your statement, and I’d just like to ask you about a couple of aspects of it on matters that I know we have raised and discussed before. The first thing is the actual contradictions that exist between the UK Government’s programme and Jobs Growth Wales, and in particular the inability to be able to transfer from one to another, particularly when the interests of a young person actually securing employment or training should be the main priority. I’d be grateful if you could perhaps clarify how that may be resolved and what the consequence of any discussions has been so far on that particular issue.
The second one is in respect of our response to the significant construction jobs growth within Wales and the training opportunities that actually arise from that. As you know, Wales is experiencing probably the highest level of construction jobs growth in the whole of the UK—I think it’s around 2% in England and around 7% in Wales. Are we satisfied that our training programmes are actually ensuring that we are maximising opportunities for training and apprenticeships in that area?
May I ask you one other point on a rather disturbing comment that came from the Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb? When talking about apprenticeships, he said:
‘It is why we have rescued apprenticeships from the scrap-heap of the education sector…I believe Wales needs this kind of focus’.
Do you recognise that sort of criticism, and, if not, will you draw the Secretary of State’s attention to this misinformed mischief and get him to focus on apprenticeship creation rather than trying to attack the apprenticeship programme in Wales?
Thank you for those questions, Mick Antoniw. On the first one, the contradictions, we are hopeful that we have ironed out some of those problems. Much will depend on what is contained within the Work Programme after its new contract period goes ahead, because what we’ve agreed with them in Wales is that it will be less of a black box effect and so we will, I hope, be able to show that an individual is not getting an additional benefit by transferring onto one our ESF-funded programmes. So, that’s the crux of the matter that is under discussion. We aren’t there yet, but we are hopeful that we will get there, although there are some difficulties around the way that it interacts with the welfare system, which I’ll come onto in a moment.
In terms of construction growth, I meet constantly with companies that really have inspiring growth programmes. I’ll combine that with your fourth question, because I frankly don’t recognise the description of Wales that Stephen Crabb unfortunately put forward this morning and, actually, over the weekend. I think it’s most unfortunate because we’ve actually worked very well up to now with the Secretary of State for Wales, and he’s descended into a political arena for no reason other than doing the bidding of his masters in London, I fear, and not to the benefit of the people of Wales, because—and I’ll tell you this—actually, we’ve had very constructive conversations with the DWP about our apprenticeship programmes, which are recognised as excellent. We’ve had very constructive conversations with people right across the UK Government about our traineeships and our Jobs Growth Wales programmes, which are the envy of everybody who runs the Work Programme. We have 82% success on sustainable jobs with our programmes; they have 19.1% in Wales on theirs. They absolutely are envious to their back teeth of what we’ve been able to achieve. Actually, that’s why they’re so anxious to understand what we’re doing and tailor their Work Programme accordingly, which we applaud. We’ve been working in the spirit of co-operation with them right up until we’ve descended into this ridiculous political football. Frankly, I’m disappointed in Stephen Crabb, who I thought was an honourable individual until this unwarranted attack on us.
Going back to the good message of construction growth and training, we’ve done excellent work through our procurement policies with getting our trainees in place in all of our construction contracts. I’ve worked very closely with the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to ensure that our skills pipelines are lined up with what we know about our construction industry growth. We’ve had a number of meetings over the past few weeks, which have been extremely positive. We are working very hard to get a construction college under way as soon as we possibly can, aligned to the employer needs. And, here in Wales, absolutely crucially, we’ve kept our apprenticeship standard. We have not removed all Government funding as they have in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. We have not descended into employer-led-only training schemes. We have maintained that Government funding should give you a portable, credible qualification, useful to you on your CV as well as useful only to a single employer.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I commend the Deputy Minister’s balanced approach, but the Secretary of State most certainly is an honourable Member of another House.
I concur entirely.
Deputy Minister, thank you for your statement. However, it still remains a very confused and complex picture regarding the interface between Welsh Government programmes and the UK Government’s Work Programme. It would be much easier if it were all devolved, Deputy Minister, which of course is precisely what Labour in Scotland are proposing—that the Work Programme and, indeed, the benefits regime should now be devolved, in something that’s now called ‘home rule plus’, or ‘vow plus’. Now we are very clear that that is being proposed for Scotland, can you say a little more about the enticing promise in your statement that things will improve after the general election? Is that because Welsh Labour is going to secure the devolution of the Work Programme and Job Centre Plus to Wales? If that were to be the case, then I could accept the enthusiasm and optimistic language in your statement. However, I have it on good authority that certain Members of the Labour Party are not so keen on such devolution. [Interruption.] I would like a response; that is a genuine question to you, Deputy Minister. So, I hope you will respond on that.
To return, however, to some of the details of your statement, I am struck by the optimistic language there, but it’s not backed up by firm proposals or firm solutions. You talk of working together on a solution for the employment working group. So, we still—18 months, two years down the line—don’t have that solution, apart from enticing thoughts of opening up black boxes and peering inside and being able to better match what we do in Wales with what the UK Government is doing. So, in addition to what you have already said, are you at all confident that we will get that solution—that there will be a better way for those seeking jobs in Wales to move from things like Jobs Growth Wales into and out of the Work Programme, and a better match between the two?
In the same way, you talk about, in positive language, the apprenticeships scheme in Wales. However, I was not clear from what you said whether it is now the case that all applicants are able to access apprenticeships as a valid employment outcome as part of what you’ve agreed with the Work Programme officials. I’d like confirmation on that.
Can you say a little more about what your discussions with the Work Programme and UK officials have turned around—essential skills and mapping those essential skills, analysis of what the Work Programme providers are actually providing in terms of skills in Wales and, therefore, the nature of any unmet demand that we may need to pick up in terms of slack or, indeed, work with the Work Programme on ensuring? Do you have any further proposals for other skills development, particularly going forward that might succeed Jobs Growth Wales, which I think was a reasonable response to particular economic circumstances? But, I would suggest its days in its current form are coming to an end, and it needs to be rethought and reprogrammed to better match what is going on elsewhere in the UK and, indeed, better match some of the issues here in Wales. We have already heard a little bit, for example, around the construction industry.
Your statement, made today, comes before the end of the trial that you have announced previously on mandation, which I suppose is due to end, I think, in March. However, I would be grateful if you could say something about mandation at the moment. The Welsh Government, in the past, has opposed the conditionality regime and has opposed mandation; it has allowed a trial to go ahead in Wales, but I don’t know what you can say about the information that that trial has given you and what further steps might be taken in that regard, and whether, indeed, your position on mandation and the conditionality regime is one of principle or simply one of actual practicalities here in Wales.
We all want to see a skilled workforce in Wales, we want to see people supported to acquire those skills and we want to see that done, as I think you’ve just alluded to, in a way that isn’t just linked to individual jobs, but is linked to creating a workforce that is skilled and able to become lifelong learners themselves. However, it does seem to me that, in this statement, despite the more optimistic language that you’ve used, there’s still an awful lot to agree with the UK Government and the Work Programme, and still an awful lot for the Welsh Government itself to achieve in this regard.
Well, I’ll start by agreeing with your last couple of sentences. I agree that there’s still an awful long way to go, however, I think that doesn’t take away from the distance we’ve travelled already. So, I would say that we’ve come a very long way. We’ve got a lot better understanding of where we are with the DWP after a lot of work by officials on both sides. But we aren’t where we’d like to be still. It’s very much ongoing. I’ve just agreed to extend the co-operation between the two departments—on both sides, that’s been agreed—because we can see how beneficial it’s been, but we absolutely agree we’re not at the end of that journey.
Turning back, then, to the devolution issue, our view is that we’ve got the Smith process and the St David’s Day process, and we want to see what’s on the table with that. My position is, as it’s always been—I’ve said this before in this place: it’s obvious that we’d like to be able to be in control of large parts of the Work Programme, but it very much depends what’s on the table. We want that process to go ahead. The First Minister has been very clear about his position on this; I absolutely agree with that, because there’s an enormous amount to do around how that would be funded, what the mandation and conditionality things would be, and so on. It’s under discussion at the moment. It’s going to be discussed at future ministerial meetings here and so on, so that’s very much still in play. But that’s where we are with it at the moment.
In terms of the journey travelled, I think the best thing is for me to try and explain what we’ve been trying to do in terms of mapping. Officials have been looking to see if we can map an individual’s journey through the various programmes, so that we can see where the overlaps occur, we can see whether we can make sure that there is additionality if they come into one of our programmes from the previous programme and, therefore, we can ensure that individuals can move into the best part of the programme that suits them. And that’s what’s proving to be the difficulty, because to do that, you’ve got to be absolutely certain what’s in each programme, and it’s about getting that clarity. That’s what we talk about with this black-box approach, and I think that’s where we’ve moved forward. We’ve moved forward because we’ve made people understand that, without that, we can’t get the travelling.
It’s unlikely, but not impossible, that somebody would move from Jobs Growth Wales into the Work Programme; it’s much more likely to be the other way round. In fact, those are the individuals, as Mick Antoniw has highlighted, that actually we have the most trouble with, because there’s a good opportunity for them, but we can’t get them out of the Work Programme. So, that’s where the work has been. I think we have progressed, but we’re certainly not there yet.
In terms of mandation as well, we have got a programme at the moment to see what skills mandation looks like—that is to say, ‘You have to do this; you have to undertake this skills programme’. But there are two sorts of mandation, and the other sort is, ‘Mandation or you lose your benefits’. That I am completely opposed to, and that is what the Scottish Government has talked about, but that is a slightly different thing. So, we use the same word, but it means two different things. Our programme is looking at mandation onto essential skills programmes, but I would say that my position—and it’s a very personal position—is that I am opposed to the devolution of welfare, because I think welfare is a distributive system across the United Kingdom, and that’s why I’m not a nationalist. So, I think it’s very important to say that. I think the break-up of the welfare system cannot be in our interests. At the same time, I think that mandation in terms of essential skills is a slightly different issue.
I think the last thing you asked me was about the apprenticeship programme. We’ve agreed with DWP officials what apprenticeship programmes contain, and then it’s the same conversation about whether it’s additional to what they’ve been getting on the Work Programme. I’m pleased to say that, in most cases, it is, and so that would be an acceptable shift from the Work Programme that wouldn’t involve these terrible sanctions that I reiterate I am completely and utterly opposed to.
I’d like to thank the Deputy Minister for her statement and very much welcome the improved relationship between the Welsh Government and the DWP, because ultimately it benefits jobseekers if we can ensure that the resources that we’ve got and the resources that they’ve got are effectively aligned. We do have a common goal, as you say.
I am glad to see that co-operation is bearing fruit and I look forward to seeing how that new approach works in practice. You suggest that Welsh jobseekers will see a difference from 1 April, and yet you say that you’re not currently where you want to be in terms of making sure that that mapping exercise is complete. So, I wonder if you can tell us if there are any specific programmes or any specific areas where you believe that problems may persist beyond 31 March.
You talk in your statement about the skills conditionality project being an outcome of the access to employment working group. I wonder if you can give us a little bit more information about what that actually is and what it means, and particularly what existing programmes fall within that project, who is eligible and how it operates.
You talked also in your answer to Simon Thomas about mandation onto skills programmes and trialling how mandation might work, but obviously being very clear that you don’t see mandation as being something that is then to be at the risk of someone losing their benefits. Can you tell us what the penalty is, if you like, for failing to comply with a mandatory programme if someone chooses not to? If it is mandatory but there is no penalty, then it’s not really terribly mandatory.
Finally, I wanted to talk about older jobseekers. The majority, obviously, of Welsh Government employment projects have been targeted at younger people. However, there is a growing body of research that’s showing that people who lose their jobs over the age of 50 are highly likely to remain unemployed for very long periods of time, and that there are major challenges for this age group. I wonder if you can tell us whether the Welsh Government has plans for this particular group, and whether they’ve discussed those plans with the DWP in advance of implementation of any of those things, because, clearly, what we wouldn’t want to see is a repeat of the issues that we’ve seen with the plans for younger people. You mention the adult employability programme in your statement. I wonder if you can confirm who that’s for. I presume it’s going to be available to all adults, including those aged 16 to 24, and, in which case, I’m just wondering if you can confirm what targeted action is available to the over-50s and what targeted action will remain for the younger people who we’ve been previously supporting. Thank you.
Starting with that age point, other than those that specifically say they’re targeted at under-24s—we do have some programmes like that—all the other programmes are open to all age groups. So, I think that’s something I’ve emphasised before in this Chamber, and I’ll emphasise it again now. So, it’s the other way round; unless it specifically says it’s for young people, it’s open to all age groups.
We’ve also specifically targeted higher-level apprenticeships, for example; they’re open to all age groups. And, actually, many older workers already have essential skills and varying levels of qualifications. So, they’re much more likely to access level 3 and above, higher-level skills programmes.
We’ve just, as you know, announced, courtesy of the finance Minister, an addition to our apprenticeship programmes once more, and, indeed, to our flexible skills programmes. All of those—the higher-level apprenticeships and the flexible skills programmes—are aimed at all age groups. So, the flexible skills programmes in particular we’re very pleased about, because that allows us to satisfy the specific demands of sector-led training fields. So, the construction sector I was just talking about—I was meeting with the creative industries small business sector only this morning; they are taking a number of apprenticeships in, which is very specific. And we’re able to do that through our future skills, flexible skills programme, and that’s why we’ve targeted it in that way. So, it’s actually because we are wanting to be able to look at smaller groups of individuals, and not have a programme so inflexible that we can’t respond to it. So, I assure you that that’s why we’re putting the money where we’re putting it.
In terms of mandation, it’s just such a much more complicated—. I really can’t go into it now, but I’d be more than happy to come and have a much longer conversation with you or your group or anything else about the way that we’re approaching this. It’s not possible to answer it in a four-minute question here. It’s an extremely complex area, and that’s why we’ve got a pilot running, to see exactly what happens and what effects it has. The Scottish Government has done something very similar. We all have an emotional response to it, but it’s very difficult to get hard data out of the Work Programme at the moment, so that’s what that programme is for. So, apologies for not answering you fully here, but it’s a much longer problem than that.
And the last one is that, in terms of the ongoing programme with the DWP, what we’ve done is we’ve got them to extend their contract for one year and we’ve got some concessions for that, but we’ve got work to do about the continuing Work Programme, depending on the outcome of the general election. I’ve just realised that I didn’t answer Simon Thomas on that, but I didn’t actually say I was very enthusiastic about it; I said that we were told that the Work Programme would ramp up after the general election. So, I just wanted to correct that impression.
I thank the Deputy Minister for her statement today. It’s been mentioned by the Deputy Minister and many other speakers about the overlap in areas of work between the Department for Work and Pensions’ Work Programme and the Welsh Government’s programmes, such as the flagship Jobs Growth Wales programme and, indeed, the more recent Lift programme for people living in workless households. I was very proud to introduce them during my time in the Welsh Government. Like her and Mick Antoniw, I have concerns about the impact of participation in the Work Programme on the eligibility of young people for Jobs Growth Wales placements and the potential that this has for their future employment prospects. You’re absolutely right, as I can remember from my time, that there is only one direction that young people want to travel and that’s from the Work Programme to the Jobs Growth Wales programme because of the much better likelihood of them having a positive outcome.
Deputy Minister, would you agree with me that we do need to get the best deal possible for people seeking employment or training opportunities and that this is indeed a shared responsibility—we are where we are on that matter—given that people seeking work are not too concerned about which Government is actually responsible for their opportunities? So, would you be able to tell us what your experience has been of the DWP’s willingness at a political level and day-to-day level to co-operate in making sure these arrangements run smoothly?
Thank you for that, Jeff Cuthbert. I would wholeheartedly agree with you that we need to get the best possible deal for our people seeking employment and training in Wales and that they absolutely do not care which Government is funding it. I pay tribute to your earlier work with the DWP in this area. We’ve worked very hard to get that feeling across both Governments. We’ve had very good co-operation with officials in the DWP and, indeed, up until this weekend, we’ve had very good co-operation politically, and that’s why I was voicing my disappointment earlier on.
Through the access to employment working group, which is at official level, we have thrashed through a large number of the details associated with the Work Programme and, again, you’re absolutely right that the direction of travel for people is off the Work Programme onto our programmes, and not the other way round, because our programmes are so much more successful in delivering sustainable employment. But they have been very co-operative in wanting to allow that to happen and to understand the rules around ESF and the complex European funding difficulties about additionality that cause many of these difficulties. I will just reiterate that we are working closely with the DWP to review the current Work Programme contracts, given their intention to extend the current delivery up until 2017, because it’s an excellent opportunity for us to understand the entire programme better and to work very well across Governments, but I will say once more that it’s because they are so very envious of how successful our programmes have been.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And finally, Mark Isherwood.
Thank you. I’m just intrigued to know why you experience an inability to determine where you can demonstrate added value through integration between UK Government programmes and your programmes when we humble opposition Members can. I think Welsh Government figures of 10 November showed that 48.9% of people going through Jobs Growth Wales remained in employment for six months, and that’s a programme with employers’ subsidy on offer and dealing with job-ready customers, but figures readily available from Work Programme providers show that, working with long-term unemployed without any employer subsidy, 36% of those who’d completed two full years on the programme remained in employment for six months. They’re two entirely different demographics that complement each other. Don’t shake your head; it’s a fact. If not, prove it. You’re providing a subsidy for jobs-ready people. The Work Programme is only referred to by Jobcentre Plus for people who are furthest from the workplace, otherwise they’re not referred for a two-year programme. Why won’t you admit they complement each other and bring them together, as the Welsh Affairs Committee wanted, instead of continuing to find partisan reasons not to?
Well, that just simply isn’t right. I don’t recognise any of the statistics the Member has just given. The Jobs Growth Wales programme is 82% successful in sustainable growth, and the verified statistics on the Work Programme in Wales are 19.1%. He is more than welcome to pick those up off the website.
He has misunderstood entirely what I’m saying about the alignment. We’re not saying, ‘We don’t want to’; we are saying that, because we have to demonstrate additionality and because the Work Programme will not reveal exactly what it is that they are delivering, we cannot demonstrate that additionality. Officials have been extremely helpful. I will reiterate again: we have worked very closely with them, we are not reluctant to do it, but it has been impossible unless the Work Programme is much more transparent than it is at the moment. We are very hopeful that we will get there and, as I say, the direction of travel is always one way from the Work Programme to Jobs Growth Wales. So, he’s wrong on that point as well, I’m afraid.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Deputy Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 7 is the legislative consent motion on the medical innovation Bill. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move the motion—Mark Drakeford.
Motion NDM5680 Mark Drakeford
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6 agrees that provisions in the Medical Innovation Bill, relating to treatment and alleviation of disease, illness, injury, disability and mental disorder; provision of health services; clinical governance and standards of health care in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
Diolch yn fawr, Ddirprwy Lywydd.
Thank you for the opportunity to explain why the Welsh Government has brought this legislative consent motion before the National Assembly and why we will ask Members to vote against it. Before doing so, I would like to thank the Health and Social Care Committee for its consideration of this LCM. The committee concluded that the provisions of the medical innovation Bill lie within the competence of the National Assembly and was not yet persuaded that the Bill is an appropriate vehicle to achieve its stated aims. The Welsh Government shares both of these conclusions.
The UK Government’s position is that the provisions in the medical innovation Bill relate to medical negligence claims and the common law of tort, as it applies across the legal system in England and Wales. The UK Government is of the view, therefore, that the Bill deals with non-devolved matters, will apply to both England and Wales and is not within the competence of the National Assembly. Therefore, in their view, that renders a legislative consent motion unnecessary.
I have said out repeatedly in correspondence with the Department of Health Ministers why this is plainly not the case. The purpose and effect of the Bill is not to amend the law of tort generally, or to protect doctors from negligence claims in order to benefit those doctors. Rather, it sits firmly within paragraph 9 of Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act 2006, which identifies the treatment and alleviation of disease and illness, the provision of health services, clinical governance and standards of healthcare as all entirely within the devolved competence of this National Assembly. It’s for these reasons, therefore, that the Government brings this legislative consent motion to the floor today.
It’s then necessary to consider whether, having brought the LCM, the Assembly should give its consent for the Westminster Parliament to legislate in a devolved area. I understand, of course, Lord Saatchi’s concern that there should be no bar to responsible innovation in medical practice. At this point, Dirprwy Lywydd, it’s important to emphasise that this has always been a backbench Bill—not one brought forward by the Government at Westminster—and with strong and differing views held by individual members of all political parties. But against Lord Saatchi’s own test, the Bill is unnecessary, as there is no evidence that innovative care is prevented by doctors’ fears of the current system of clinical negligence. An excellent recent example can be seen in the use of innovative treatments in the United Kingdom, Europe and Africa for the treatment of patients with ebola, all of which has been possible within the current arrangements. I therefore agree with the position taken by organisations such as the British Medical Association that the Bill is unnecessary and should not proceed.
Of course, Diprwy Lywydd, there are many organisations and individuals who go beyond the belief that the Bill is unnecessary to argue that it is positively harmful. The Royal College of Radiologists, for example, in its written evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee, raised specific concerns about the removal of protections for patients from inappropriate experimentation and doctors from pressure to innovate in ways that are potentially detrimental to their patients.
The royal college highlighted the risk of exposing vulnerable and desperate patients to false hope and futile and potentially harmful treatments, as a result of the relaxation in existing governance mechanisms. I share the concerns of the royal college and many others that the Bill does not sufficiently protect vulnerable patients. Indeed, in November last, more than 100 leading clinical oncologists signed a letter published in ‘The Times’ opposing the Bill. At an earlier stage in the process, Robert Francis QC, author of the Mid Staffordshire review, pointed to what he called:
‘an alarming lack of accountability or scrutiny or other safeguard built into the Bill.’
He concluded, and this is what he said, the Bill
‘increases the risk to vulnerable patients of mavericks with irrational or unjustifiable grounds for proposing a treatment and those with commercial interests in promoting dubious treatments.’
Above all, it will leave patients without a remedy when injured by treatments that many doctors would consider unacceptable, and at the mercy of the judgments made by individual practitioners who have no professional support or oversight. Nick Ross, a distinguished journalist and chair of the Wales Cancer Bank advisory board put it more pithily when he described the Bill as,
‘a hammer to crack a non-existent nut’
and one that would ‘entrench old-fashioned malpractice’.
Not only would the Bill risk real detriment to individual patients, but as the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges concludes, one of its unintended but adverse consequences could be to undermine the essential role of proper, scientifically rigorous clinical trials on which innovative treatments for the whole of our patient body are legitimately based.
Dirprwy Lywydd, at the very minimum, this Bill is unnecessary. At worst, as concluded by Dr Sarah Wollaston, a GP herself, of course, and Conservative Chair of the House of Commons Health Select Committee, the Bill would endanger patients, fail to advance innovation, undermine clinical trials and set up a quacks’ charter.
Here in Wales we have a proud record of patient participation in clinical trials. People take part every day in responsible medical innovation, motivated, very often, by the hope that, in doing so, they might make a difference in the future to others. We should tamper with that system only when we are completely convinced that we have something even better to put in its place. I do not believe that that could fairly be said of the Medical Innovation Bill as drafted. It is a solution in search of a problem and not a very sound solution at that. I ask Members to vote against the legislative consent motion today.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, David Rees.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I am pleased to contribute to this debate in my capacity as Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee. I’ll try and avoid repeating some of the information on the LCM provided by the Minister, and focus upon our work as a committee. Our report, which Members will have had the opportunity to read, addresses two main issues: whether the provisions of the Medical Innovation Bill fall within the legislative competence of this Assembly; and whether the Bill is an appropriate legislative vehicle to actually achieve its stated aims here in Wales. I will address each of these in turn.
First, the issue of legislative competence. The Supreme Court, in its judgment on the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill in July 2014, clarified that the test of whether the provisions in a Bill fall within the legislative competence of the Assembly is whether those provisions relate to a devolved subject. We acknowledged the view of the UK Government that the provisions in the Bill relate to the law of tort. However, the view of the Health and Social Care Committee is that the provisions in the Bill relate to the subject of health, specifically the treatment and alleviation of disease, illness, disability and mental disorder; the provision of health services; and clinical governance and standards of health. Neither medical innovation nor the law of tort are exceptions under Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act. Therefore, as a committee, we are clear that the provisions in the Bill fall within the legislative competence of the Assembly and that the consent of the Assembly is required for the provisions in this Bill to apply in Wales.
Secondly, the question of whether the Bill is an appropriate legislative vehicle to achieve its stated aims. As is frequently the case with LCMs, the time available to us as a committee was limited and brief. We issued a call for evidence in December, and are grateful to the six organisations and individuals who responded within that short notice. A list of those who responded is set out in the report, and the responses are available on our website. The Minister has already referred to some of those responses.
While generally supportive of appropriate medical innovation where doctor and patient agree that it is in the patient’s best interests, the majority of those who responded to our consultation opposed the Bill, either in principle or as it is currently drafted. Concerns raised included: the potential for the Bill to create confusion and delays;the accountability for decisions to innovate made under the Bill; and the risk of exposing vulnerable or desperate patients to false hope and potentially harmful or expensive treatments.
In his submission to the consultation, Lord Saatchi acknowledged that there had been some opposition to his Bill, but said that many of the concerns had been resolved through amendments.
The short timescales available to us, and the other work in our programme, have resulted in us not being able to actually undertake a detailed piece of work on this occasion. However, I think that it is important for Assembly Members to be aware that, while the committee believes that patients should be able to benefit from innovative treatments where it is in their best interests to do so, on the basis of the evidence available to date, we have yet to be persuaded that this Bill will actually achieve its stated aim of encouraging such innovation.
I just want to make a very brief contribution to this debate. I have to say that, in terms of the Welsh Conservatives’ view, we are of the opinion that we need to see innovation, of course we are, in terms of treatments, in terms of the availability of new innovation in the Welsh NHS, and, indeed, elsewhere. I think that the policy aims of the Bill, as put forward by Lord Saatchi, are things that we can support. However, is this Bill the appropriate vehicle, and does this lie within the competence of the National Assembly for Wales?
I have to say that I fully concur with the Welsh Government in terms of its view and the view of the Health and Social Care Committee in terms of the scope of this Bill falling absolutely within the competence of the Assembly. It is very clear that this is touching on issues that relate to the field of health in the Government of Wales Act 2006, and therefore it is entirely appropriate that we’re having this debate in the Senedd today. We will be voting against the LCM on the basis that we do not feel that there is a need, frankly, for the provisions in this Bill in order to allow for appropriate medical innovation here in Wales. As the Minister has already said, and, as we received evidence to the health committee from a range of sources, there is innovation already taking place. Frankly, Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom are at the cutting edge, in many respects, of medical innovation, with new treatments coming online and upstream all of the time. We ought not to undermine that by tinkering with our legislative arrangements in a way that would undermine the accountability that’s currently in the system, which allows for that innovation to take place.
So, we do feel that the provisions in this Bill are unnecessary, that the current law, and the ethical guidance that sits alongside that law, are sufficient and adequate to be able to allow for responsible medical innovation where there is a patient interest that clearly is going to be pursued. For that reason, we’ll be supporting the Government’s position today and encouraging Members in this Chamber to vote against this LCM.
Plaid Cymru will be voting against this LCM, although we as a party are certainly supportive of medical innovation and the medical innovation that happens on a day to day basis within the NHS and in the universities here, in Wales, and beyond.
First of all, as others have already mentioned, the health committee is of the view that competence to legislate in this area does lie here in the National Assembly rather than in Westminster. Medical innovation is not an exception to Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act and therefore it is clearly an issue related to health on which we should legislate in this place.
In the brief consultation undertaken by the health committee, we received a clear and robust response from representatives from the Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of Radiologists, expressing their objection and noting their very serious concerns about some clauses within the Act, including questions as to whether the Bill was necessary in the first place. They also highlighted the fact that there is a lack of research accountability inherent in the Bill as currently drafted, and therefore that something that is at the heart of medical innovation would be missing from the debate if this Bill were to be passed, and that is the need to share best practice—and worst practice also, if it comes to that—and to learn from the lessons that emerge from research and innovation. All of that is missing from the Bill as drafted as present.
So, for those reasons, Plaid Cymru will today be opposing and will vote against this motion.
If I could add to the consensus that is clearly developing around the Chamber this afternoon, Lord Saatchi’s Bill looks to modify the duty care doctors have for their patients, and I note the belief of Earl Howe from Westminster that these issues are tort. I don't disagree. They probably do relate to tort. The legislation does have all the wrappings of something that affects private law rights, however the Bill does suffer from hybridity in that it clearly also relates to health and public expenditure on health, and thus trespasses into devolved competence. Thus, I believe, it is a matter for the Welsh Government and this Chamber. Therefore, I support that the Government has felt it necessary to bring forward the LCM. It's right that it is on the order paper today.
I have every sympathy for Lord Saatchi's motivation. I know his own personal experience within his family has driven his thoughts behind this Bill, and all of us would have sympathy for that. But, as important as innovation is—and innovation in healthcare is something that I and my group feel very strongly about, something we have actively sought to promote and to deliver here in Wales—we cannot currently support this Bill as drafted. I don't believe that it would enhance innovation in medical care or enhance outcomes for patients. Indeed, as outlined by many of the responses that the health committee received, or, indeed, responses to Lord Saatchi's own consultation, there is a very genuine fear that patients could be harmed as a result of this legislation, and innovation stifled. Therefore, we, too, as a group will vote against the LCM this afternoon.
The Bill is ill thought out. It also offers fewer guarantees and protections than currently exist in common law and therefore the legislation is unnecessary and also undesirable.
The only comment I want to make is, really, to raise with the Minister and with the Welsh Government the need, I believe, to actually make an approach to the law officers in Westminster on the fact that they still don't appear to understand the implication of the recent judgment on the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill. It is extremely concerning that there is still advice being given that clearly contradicts the position that’s been outlined very clearly by the Supreme Court, and the amount of time that appears to be wasted in Westminster now as a consequence of that lack of understanding and lack of attention to decisions relating to Welsh devolution should concern us all. It’s certainly my view that approaches should be made, either via the First Minister or via the Counsel General, to try and resolve that situation.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And the Minister to respond.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer.
I'd like to thank all those who have contributed to the debate. There’s clearly an emerging consensus across the Chamber around three key issues. Firstly, it’s common ground in this Chamber that this is a Bill that trespasses into areas of devolved competence. I've heard what Mick Antoniw has said about the need to draw the attention of certain departments in Whitehall to the settlement and to the latest judgments in relation to it. Secondly, we are all agreed here that responsible medical innovation is something we want to see and we strongly support, but, in the third point of consensus, our fear is that the Bill, far from adding to the capacity to do that, runs the risk of frustrating responsible innovation. I therefore ask Members to vote against the motion, confirming our view that the provisions within this Bill should not apply to Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I will defer voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1 and 3 in the name of Paul Davies, amendment 2 in the name of Elin Jones, and amendment 4 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 8 is a debate on the review of independent living adaptations, and I call on the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty to move the motion—Lesley Griffiths.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Acknowledges the importance of adaptations services and how they help people to continue living independently in their own home for as long as possible.
2. Notes the findings of the Review of Independent Living Adaptations, which was published on 23rd January 2015.
3. Supports action by the Welsh Government to enhance the help available to people in need of adapted housing.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
I'm very pleased to open this debate on the important subject of helping people to live in their own homes for as long as possible. This follows the report I published recently on our major review of independent living adaptations. Enabling people to live independently in their own homes, in a safe environment, is important to their quality of life and their health and wellbeing. It also helps to reduce demand on our health and care services by preventing unnecessary admissions to hospital often through accident and emergency departments and long-term care. Over and above reducing demand on the services, this saves both financial and human costs too—for example, the £29,000 cost of a broken hip resulting from a fall, and the detrimental impact this would have on a person’s life. The delivery of adaptations has improved over the last few years. The time taken to deliver disabled facilities grants has reduced. We’ve had notable success with additional programmes of action, such as the independent living grants, which made use of additional funding available at the time. More recently, adaptations programmes have been playing an important part in the delivery of the intermediate care fund. However, it is still not good enough. I share the Commissioner for Older People in Wales’s concerns regarding delays in parts of the current system. There are unacceptable discrepancies across local authorities in Wales, with scope for considerable improvement, and I want to see that happen. This is why we commissioned the review, and the findings of our report will inform action that will lead to improvements.
At present, housing adaptations are delivered in different ways, across different tenures. While some people get a quicker service than others, trying to establish a universal system may have unintended consequences. I would not wish to make changes that meant people had to wait longer for the adaptations that they currently receive fairly quickly—for example, under the rapid response adaptations programme. This programme has been extremely successful since its introduction in 2002. It facilitates quicker hospital discharge and prevents people from entering more long-term care by providing relatively simple adaptations work. Disabled facilities grants are also important, and are available to people in all tenures. Waiting times, as I said, have drastically improved.
I was pleased to see that the local authority returns for 2013-14 showed all local authorities are now delivering their DFGs within the statutory timescale of six months to approve the grant, and six months to complete the works. However, this does not mean further improvement isn’t required, and I recently wrote to all local authorities reminding them of their corporate responsibilities in relation to DFG provision. In order to speed up the service provided, the Welsh Government has, for some time, advised local authorities to provide non-means-tested adaptations up to a value of £3,000 outside the DFG system. It does not really make sense to provide minor adaptations through that system, as the review report acknowledges. The report calls for a move towards universalism in the provision of adaptations: that is, providing them free of charge to all who need them, irrespective of income. I have reservations about this in terms of best use of increasingly limited public money. The report suggests the tests of resources, or means tests, should be dispensed with in order to make the application process less complex. Clearly, we should make the process as simple and user-friendly as possible. However, at a time when resources are being cut, I do not agree it would be wise to scrap the means test altogether. The option of a move towards a single system for providing adaptations is attractive in some ways. However, the way in which they are funded in different tenures of housing presents a number of difficulties in achieving a workable solution.
Under the current arrangements, physical adaptation grants are funded out of social housing grant for tenants of housing associations. Council tenants receive adaptations through the housing revenue account and large-scale voluntary transfer bodies build in the cost of them into their dowry bids. Disabled facilities grants are funded out of unhypothecated local authority general capital funding. This allows local authorities to determine themselves how much they need to spend in response to demand. Pooling these different funding streams is far from straightforward and I am not convinced necessary. I am mindful of the situation in England where the funding for disabled facilities grants is ring-fenced. The money is often exhausted before the end of the financial year. Any change to the current funding arrangements will need careful consideration. We need to make sure any changes will improve the service. Despite the many complexities, a number of the recommendations contained in this report are clearly sensible. I am strongly attracted, for example, to recommendation 15 on accessible housing registers. I also support recommendation 18 on local authorities having multidisciplinary teams to carry out adaptations works. These are examples of good practice and I expect all local authorities to adopt them. This is something that I will be pursuing with them.
The report is also correct in pointing out there should be consistency across Wales in terms of occupational therapists’ working methods. I see an important role for the College of Occupational Therapists in making sure adaptations work for anyone who needs them.
I'm sure today's debate will highlight other matters that will form part of our response to the review. I'm anxious to hear Members’ views on these matters. However, we need to guard against thinking these issues are susceptible to easy solutions. Concerted action to enable older people to live independent lives wherever possible will require the participation of all agencies with an interest. Local authorities, the WLGA, registered social landlords, and Care and Repair will be at the vanguard of this action. However, I'm also conscious of the crucial role the NHS can play. I'm therefore pleased to announce today the Minister for Health and Social Services has agreed that he and I should jointly sponsor a taskforce charged with developing an integrated response to the report we published on 23 January.
I know many colleagues have strong views on the matters set out in this report. Although they are important, this is much more than just a debate about targets and performance indicators; this is a debate about providing crucial services for people so they can lead happy, healthy, safe, fulfilled lives. I very much look forward to Members' contributions.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the four amendments to the motion and I call on Mark Isherwood to move amendments 1 and 3, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Delete Point 3 and replace with:
Calls on the Welsh Government to:
a) ensure that local authorities work with social landlords to produce a customer charter setting out commitments in relation to adaptation services;
b) work with local authorities and social housing providers to set out delivery time standards and ensure that they are met by all local authorities;
c) audit adaptation services to identify best practice and its implementation; and
d) put in place mechanisms to monitor customer satisfaction and longer-term outcomes.
Add new point at the end of the motion:
Notes the key recommendations of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Home Truths campaign and No Place Like Home Report.
Amendments 1 and 3 moved.
Diolch. Well, the College of Occupational Therapists has welcomed this review of independent living adaptations, whilst noting that it is the latest in a long line. As they state, it's vital to move from regarding adaptations as a building task to properly considering them as an intervention designed to minimise the impact of disability, enhance independence and enable people to continue living in their own home. As they say, the current fragmented system is no longer fit for purpose, and they've consistently called for improvements to be made to the adaptation process to improve outcomes and reduce delays.
Care and Repair Cymru also welcomes the review findings and supports the recommendations to look at how cost-effective the means-testing provisions are for disabled facilities grant and to enable smaller adaptations to be undertaken in a quicker and more flexible way. As they say, this will help alleviate pressures on NHS Wales and help achieve independent living and better preventative services.
We support amendment 4, reflecting the review’s recommendation that local authorities should be required to exempt adaptations costing £1,000 or less from means testing. As the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee inquiry into home adaptations reported in 2013, some stakeholders wanted to see the means test phased out, others saw a means to maintain it, to prevent the floodgates from opening, and others suggested that the means test should either be revised or abolished. We therefore recommended that Welsh Government should conduct a cost-benefit analysis of the means test and report back to the committee on its conclusions. The then Minister responded that Welsh Government deliberations might not specifically include a cost-benefit analysis, but they would carefully consider the means test to see if there was any scope for changes. Following this review, therefore, a responsible Welsh Government would now conduct a cost-benefits analysis.
During our committee inquiry, the real experts, the service users, told us about the problems that they'd experienced when trying to get adaptations made to their homes. It was they who said that the person should be at the centre of the system, with a say in what they want. There should be follow-up assessments to check whether the work was appropriate and to the right standard, and there should be better communication between services. Local authorities, they said, should commit to doing things within a certain amount of time and be accountable for this. Hence, our amendment 1 replaces point 3 in the Welsh Government’s motion supporting its action to enhance the help available to people in need of adapted housing and instead calls on the Welsh Government to take action to achieve this, ensuring that local authorities work with social landlords to produce a customer charter, setting out commitments in relation to adaptation services, working with local authorities and social housing providers to set out delivery time standards and ensuring they’re met by all local authorities, auditing adaptation services to identify best practice and its implementation, and putting in place mechanisms to monitor customer satisfaction and longer-term outcomes. These all represent recommendations made by the committee in 2013, which the then Minister rejected but which are now reflected in this review of independent living adaptations. As it states, we recommend collecting performance data in a consistent way from all delivery agencies. There is also potential for the development of more service-user-focused performance measures.
Our amendment 3 notes the key recommendations of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Home Truths campaign and ‘No Place Like Home’ report. Referring to their 2014 report, ‘The Hidden Housing Crisis’, which revealed the human misery from the lack of disabled-friendly homes, this found that 22% of disabled households in Wales are waiting for an adaptation to be made to their home, and that many Welsh councils have no estimate of the number of disabled-friendly homes they need, or of the impact the lack of disabled-friendly homes is having on health and care services. It therefore calls on all political parties to outline their plans to build more disabled-friendly lifetime homes in their 2016 manifestos.
When we debated the committee report 16 months ago, I referred to my meeting with Conwy’s occupational therapist manager and housing renewals manager to discuss their good practice in adaptation services and therefore welcomed this review’s recommendation that occupational therapists should be in local authority housing teams. Following this review, we now need action to deliver home adaptations with the people who need them.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Jocelyn Davies to move amendment 2 tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Believes means testing for adaptations is inequitable and outdated.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move amendment 2.
Now, I think it probably goes without saying how important the home adaptations are, and providing adaptations is a vital service that helps people live independently and safely, of course, in their own homes for as long as possible. So, I welcome the publication of the Government’s review.
While there’ve been a number of inquiries carried out here to investigate the provision, I think it’s now time to move the debate on. I think it’s time to take action to build on the pockets of good practice that we know already exist, improve areas of service provision that need improvement and ensure that everyone who could benefit from an adaptation does so. The same themes emerge each time we revisit this issue.
The housing sector is, of course, complex, and adaptations funding has developed in a piecemeal way over many years, so we need to see a system I think, that works for everyone. Individuals, as the Minister’s already said, have a statutory right to adaptations being carried out in good time, and now we need a simplified system that is accessible and efficient to meet that legislative right. On this, I think there’s much to be commended in Wales. For example, the review does praise the simplicity, speed and efficacy of the physical adaptations grant, the rapid response adaptations programme, and the independent living grant. Rapid response and ILG are carried out by Care and Repair, and I think we should thank them for the excellent work that they do, which they carry out with speed and expertise, and which seems to me to represent value for money.
So, I think that the review is right to recommend that the rapid response adaptations programme is expanded to cover all ages and all adaptations up to the value of £1,000, because obviously it shouldn’t just be older people in need who benefit from a system that is delivered by a reliable organisation. We do know that Care and Repair delivers a high-quality service quickly, right across the country, and we have to acknowledge that this is something that local authorities cannot do. It seems to me that it is the disabled facilities grant that so clearly has room for improvement. It’s the only funding scheme that involves the means test, and you will see from our amendment that we consider this inequitable and outdated. The cost of administration means that less money is available to actually provide adaptations, and, of course, it causes considerable delays. I hope the Government takes on board the review’s recommendation to move towards universal provision of adaptations without means testing.
Now, all adaptations costing less than £1,000 should be removed from the means test as soon as possible. This would be far more in tune with the broader philosophy of public services in Wales, and it would speed up service delivery and simplify the system. While I understand and acknowledge that there are concerns about the greater demands caused by abolishing the means test, the benefits here probably outweigh the risks.
Now, without doubt, having a home adaptations system that works is in the interests of everyone. It is in the interests of those, of course, who need them because they benefit hugely from sometimes minor adaptations, which mean they can continue to live safely in their own homes. It’s also in the interests of the health and social care services. Unsuitable housing can cause accidents and injury and leave people trapped in hospital or moved into supported accommodation before it is necessary. The savings to the public purse are impressive, and the knock-on effect on waiting lists is well documented. And, of course, it benefits the family who can then feel more confident about the ability of their loved one to cope.
So, I want to thank the Government for commissioning the review of the provision of the independent living adaptations work carried out in Wales, and ask them to move quickly to implement its recommendations. I think it’s time to build a system that works for everyone, build on the good practice where we can find it, and eliminate the delays that currently exist. Thank you.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Peter Black to move amendment 4 tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to require local authorities to exempt minor adaptations from means testing, as recommended in the review.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I move amendment 4 and can I very much welcome this review, which picks up, I think, on a number of the themes that came out of the last committee review into adaptations? When we as a committee did that review, I think we swore that it would be the last one ever because it must’ve been about the third we’ve done into adaptations, and so this must count as the fourth. Really, having had so many reviews, it’s about time we actually put some of this into effect and actually started delivering on a safer, simplified and more effective adaptations system. So, I hope that the Minister’s action plan in terms of this review is able to be put into place very quickly so that some of the important recommendations in here are put in place—including recommendations that her predecessor rejected from the committee, I think, especially in terms of the performance indicators, which I think are absolutely crucial in terms of measuring the quality of the adaptations, but also how they’re being delivered at different levels.
Previous speakers are absolutely right. The whole housing system is very complex, and the adaptations system reflects that in terms of who is responsible for what adaptations. Clearly, there are things that are working very well. Others, such as the disabled facility grant, are ‘patchy’, I think is the most charitable way of putting it, around Wales in terms of how they’re being implemented, how effective they are, and also how quickly they’re able to be put into place. Clearly, I think that recommendation 2 in this report is absolutely crucial in terms of creating a tiered system that is consistent across Wales, with the minor adaptations up to £1,000—in my view, and I think the view of this report as well, and the fourth amendment—being free of means testing, so it can be delivered quickly and as part of an enabling agenda to make sure that people are able to stay in their own homes, or go home after a hospital stay, et cetera.
On the other two tiers, in terms of the mid-level adaptations and the major adaptations, again, it’s making sure we have some consistency across Wales, not just in terms of the type of adaptations but also how they’re delivered and how they’re assessed. Yes, I do agree that we should move towards the removal of means testing in the long term. I think the problem is of course that that is going to be very costly. My concern is if we do so immediately, we will find ourselves doing far fewer adaptations simply because of the cost of that. That has to be a gradual, planned process. So, we’re not going to support that particular amendment by Plaid Cymru, but in general terms, I support the thrust of where we’re going on that.
Recommendation 5 in the report talks about an ILG-style fund available to triage urgent DFG cases—it’s all jargon, isn’t it?—for all tiers when means testing remains in place. I think what we found as a committee when we did our review was that the ILG, the independent living grant, was very, very effective and certainly worked very well. Certainly, I think that is something that does need to be taken forward as part of this.
Then, I just wanted to refer to recommendation 11, which does very much reflect a recommendation when the committee did this, in terms of the performance indicator. A lot of people who gave evidence to the committee said to us that the current performance indicator didn’t really measure effectively how well local authorities were doing in delivering the disabled facilities grant. Effectively, it was measuring the time taken from inquiry to delivery of the grant without looking at the quality of the grant and of the work, and without looking at the various stages of it.
So, I very much welcome the fact that the report here recommends that we have a performance indicator separately measuring time taken from initial inquiry to assessment, and assessment to completion, and also on collecting performance data in a consistent way from all delivery agencies, which I think is another failing of the current system, which the committee report found as well. I think that we very much acknowledge the last part of that recommendation: that there is potential for the development of more service user-focused performance measures. Performance indicators should account separately for minor, mid-level and major adaptations. I think that’s absolutely crucial. If we’re going to measure the way these adaptations are delivered across Wales by various agencies in different ways among different client groups, we have to make sure that we can measure the quality of those adaptation works as well as the time it takes to deliver on it. I think everybody, whether they’re a housing association, a local authority or some other organisation delivering these adaptations, such as Care and Repair, would then feel that they’re on a level playing field in being assessed as to how well they’re doing their job. We, as Assembly Members, and the Government and Government Ministers would also feel confident too in being able to carry out that assessment of how well things are being done.
So, I think, Deputy Presiding Officer, this is an excellent report and one that I hope can be put into place quickly and delivered across Wales. I think that, after so many reviews by committees and by the Government, it is about time we delivered on this particular agenda.
The holy grail of social policy has always been, in my opinion, the intervention that will both improve the lives of our citizens and, at the same time, save public money. When budgets have been reduced, when every penny must be put to best use, this quest takes on even greater significance. I hope that in my time in ministerial office, I was able to find a number of policies that met these twin goals. On the basis of that experience, on the evidence of my casework files and, indeed, from the circumstances of my own family, I would argue that independent living adaptations are one of the simplest ways to make life better for our constituents and realise long-term savings for social and health services.
The first part of this motion acknowledges the importance of adaptation services, and it is to that I will speak. Without doubt, well-designed adaptations enhance independence, reduce fear and anxiety and improve a person’s quality of life. Medical interventions now extend the term of lives far beyond the biblical threescore years and 10, but it is freedom and dignity that give meaning to that extra time. To put a financial value on that would be impossible. What can be measured is the impact that this independence has on our health budget.
Falls by older people in the UK cost millions and millions per annum. A single hip fracture costs on average £33,000 to treat. Back injuries, frequently suffered by carers, cost the NHS £602 million each year. The simplest of adaptations—the installation of handrails—helps to reduce the incidence of all of these. One report has estimated that adaptations put back entry into residential homes by, on average, four years. This saves approximately £80,000 per person. Many of the people who this statistic applies to will, of course, be elderly, but we must remember that this is not only an older person’s issue. A member of my own family, my niece, was born with very severe disabilities. She will never live alone, but, because of the independent living fund and independent living adaptations, she is able to live within her family. Instead of being sent to the institutions of a previous age, she is at the heart of a household that loves and cares for her, and I know that there will be many stories like this throughout Wales.
When they are done right, adaptations make such a difference. It is because of this that it is incumbent on all of us to make sure that the system in Wales works as well as it possibly can. To do this, we need to work together, as has been said, with service users, with carers, with local government, with housing associations, and with organisations such as Care and Repair as equal partners, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank Care and Repair in particular for all the wonderful work they have done in my constituency of Neath.
Collaboration is the best way to work.
Yes, working together is the best way of working, and I’m certain that, if we can build a consensus, then Wales can once again lead the way.
I was going to say that, of course, I think everybody in the Chamber would agree in principle with what we are talking about, and certainly I must pay tribute—how do you follow Gwenda Thomas and what she has said? Absolutely right, I think, sums it up for everybody, because what we’re talking about here is giving people the opportunity to live independently in their own homes, but to live independently in different settings as well. Gwenda raised the issue that we’re not just talking about older people here; we’re talking about people of every age who may need support and their families. But I can tell you that, throughout my time in politics, which has been some time now, one of the great mysteries has always been how do you fund disability facility grants? How do you choose priorities? How long is a piece of string? Because the solutions are very hard to get to. So, I welcome the Welsh Government response to the review—it did, of course, commission it—as well as the recognition of the improvements that have been made to the service in recent years. But also, the recognition that, realistically, there is more to do.
Meeting the need fulfils a number of important functions. It allows people to be discharged from hospital so bedblocking can decrease, and it prevents some people having to enter long-term care. The College of Occupational Therapists—and I think everybody here recognises they are experts in this field—have made the point it’s vital to move from regarding adaptations as a building task, but considering them as intervention which will minimise the impact of disability, provide opportunities for independent living that enable people to stay at home and that allow them to take part in social and leisure activities.
I’ll go on then to talk about ExtraCare Charitable Trust, which I think is a wonderful programme that is now going across Wales. I’ve got one ExtraCare scheme newly built in my area, and two which are on the way. And do you know what they do? They don’t only answer the difficulties that people find themselves in trying to live alone without some support; they also answer one of the most serious problems I think that people with any sort of disability or who are vulnerable or who are older face today, and that’s loneliness. It gives them a community in which to live, and that is vitally important.
The Welsh Government’s guidance that adaptations that cost less than £3,000 should lie outside the means-testing regime is sensible, and it will help to deliver the aspiration to timeliness that we really need. And we must remember that some adaptations are relatively minor; some problems can be solved quickly and at quite a low level. The rapid response adaptations programme has been mentioned; it’s excellent. On Care and Repair, I think everybody here would value Care and Repair services, because probably we all have them working in our constituencies. They do work throughout Wales, and the work that they do is reassuring. The help and advice they give helps people to make good choices when they’re looking for adaptations.
Deputy Presiding Officer, all the things that have been talked about today are important pieces of a jigsaw. And, again, one of the things I welcome is the announcement by the Minister that you’re going to work with the health Minister on a joint taskforce. And one of the things I think should be looked at is the cost of the more expensive adaptations. Peter Black expressed very well, I think, the problem with not means-testing, because some adaptations can be very expensive indeed.
They are needed very often, but I do remember a case in my constituency where a gentlemen who was a builder was seeking an adaptation for a member of his family. The local authority came up with a gold-plated scheme. He said, ‘They don’t need to do that; they can do this, this and this, and it will meet our needs’. That was a member of the family saying that. Fortunately, the local authority agreed and it did meet the needs, so I do think that a task of the taskforce will be to look at the costs and see how they balance.
We’ve been talking about the different pieces of the jigsaw. Peter Black was saying he’d been talking about this in recent times at different committees. I’ve been talking about it since the 1980s. I don’t think we can ever stop talking about it, because this is not a problem that will go away. With people living longer, as Gwenda has said, more and more people will need this sort of support in their homes. So, we must look to the future and always consider what we can do.
The right to inclusion, to the dignity and maximisation of independence that an adaptation can bring, is just that—a right, not a privilege. Now, I wish those were my words, but they were the words of somebody who contributed to the committee inquiry that’s been mentioned, in 2013, and those have stayed with me for quite some time. I do welcome the Welsh Government’s report today, but I also agree with those who said we’ve had that many reports. I know Peter Black said that we thought the committee report was the last report and that we would go on to some actions. I do think that we are seeing actions, but the delivery of the adaptation service is patchy at best, and I think we owe it to those people who are on the lists waiting to go through the bureaucratic system—we owe it to them and their families—to actually do what we can.
Many of you will know—and I spoke in the last debate about this—about my personal circumstances and how I found it difficult to break through the bureaucracy of the system with the local authority. And, at the time, I think I said—and I still hold this dear, and many people have confirmed this—that Care and Repair were the oasis of calm in what was a very turbulent time for my family, but also for many more families as well. And so we have to realise that there are people who can find a way of doing adaptations that meet the needs of the people involved. Unfortunately, some of the local authorities are stuck by how you have to get the funding from the disabled facility grant. If you’re not eligible, then you have to find another way around it. And all of that takes time and, often, with the person who needs the adaptations taking up occupancy of a hospital bed, which is not necessary.
There also needs to be, I think, some adequate training of occupational therapists within local authorities who can work with their colleagues in health so that one doesn’t say one thing and then somebody says something else, which I found was the case. And also, we have to take into consideration what the person who is wanting to receive the adaptation really wants themselves. For example, not everybody wants a ramp to their front door. Not everybody wants to signal the fact that they may be a person who is dependent on a wheelchair or has mobility problems if they’re living on their own, as was the case for my husband, as he lives on his own—I think he quite likes the idea of living on his own from Monday to Thursday [Laughter.]. But that’s besides the point. They don’t want to signal to the wider community—
Will the Member give way?
Yes, go on.
Thank you for giving way—it wasn’t to support your husband in any way on that point [Laughter.]—
Oh, I’m sure it was. [Laughter.]
[Continues.]—but to say that I visited a Care and Repair scheme in my constituency and I was really impressed by the way they provide a holistic, whole view of someone. Although the local authority are very good at looking at aspects of someone’s life, I think that you’d agree with me that Care and Repair are very good at looking at the whole individual and deciding appropriate conditions for that person.
Yeah, absolutely, and that was my, sort of, experience of Care and Repair at a time when we were attempting to get my husband home, because I was conscious he was bedblocking, and so were the local health board, who kept telling me that my husband was still in a district general hospital bed. So, yes, Care and Repair were very good at moving in very quickly and assessing the whole situation, and I’m glad you didn’t mention the fact that my husband likes to be on his own when I’m down here or I might have to take issue with you. All that’s needed is a very simple—[Interruption.] All right then, okay, fine. That’s okay.
Sometimes, all that’s needed is a grab rail or an opportunity just for somebody to be able to have that independence, and I think we do miss the opportunity sometimes when we go in to do all the form-filling. You know, I filled in 20 pages of forms knowing full well that, given our circumstances, they would come to nothing, but they’re sitting somewhere on somebody’s file, and I’d be interested to know whether the gentleman who did say to me, ‘Oh, Mrs Jones, I will come back to you within half an hour’ nearly three years ago has had that cup of coffee that he was going to get while he was picking the forms up. I just wonder whether he’s still in the same job, and, if he is and if he’s listening, then, ‘You owe me a phone call from nearly three years ago’. But, the important part of that is: don’t promise what you can’t deliver. I know that the Government will put into consideration now the recommendations, and I hope we will see some action for the people who need it most.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And the Minister to reply.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I’m very grateful to Members who’ve contributed to today’s debate. I will address some of the points raised later.
I think what the debate today has done is serve to underline what a crucial aspect of public service delivery independent living adaptations represent, and I think all Members who spoke recognise the savings it can make, both to our health service and to someone’s wellbeing of life. My focus is on people who need help; they need to be able to access the system easily and I think the system needs to respond effectively. From the perspective of the individual, the important thing is for timely and effective help to be available. People also need to know what sort of help is available out there, and it really doesn’t matter to them who delivers it.
Some of the report’s recommendations are for local authorities to consider, and I don’t wish to cut across their statutory responsibilities. However, I do recognise that they must be at the heart of the implementation discussion that now needs to get under way.
I think today’s debate also has pointed very much to the need for change. However, as we introduce change, we mustn’t damage parts of the current system that are already working well. As Jocelyn Davies said, there is a great deal of good work being undertaken across Wales and we’ve already demonstrated improvements can be made in a number of ways, including the introduction of independent living grants a couple of years ago—that was very successful. Local authorities have developed a number of innovative schemes with key partners, which provide small grants to meet local needs.
Several Members—Jocelyn Davies, Gwenda Thomas and Ann Jones—all spoke about Care and Repair. They’ve proved very successful and agencies carry out essential work, and I too would like to add my thanks to them. They’ve also responded constructively to the challenge of reducing the number of agencies in Wales in order to protect front-line services. There is more to be done to share these experiences and ensure the adaptation service across Wales is more uniform and successful. As I said earlier, home adaptations can make a great difference to people’s lives, and I think today’s debate did demonstrate that we all, right across the Chamber, understand their importance.
Just turning to the amendments, I’m supporting amendment 1, subject to the important qualification that these are areas where we can advise and encourage local authorities and registered social landlords, rather than direct them. It’s very important that we have integrated working between all the partners involved.
I cannot accept amendment 2, which calls for the abolition of all means testing. As I explained earlier, we can’t afford this in the current difficult financial circumstances, and we need to target limited resources at those who are least well off. I’m also happy to support amendment 3 on the Leonard Cheshire report. We always need to engage with the views of those people working in the field. I accept amendment 4 on the basis we are committed to continuing our efforts to encourage local authorities to exempt minor adaptations, although we don’t have the power to require them to accept them.
Mark Isherwood referred to several amendments that he and his group will be supporting, and I’ve certainly heard what he says. In relation to the College of Occupational Therapists, what they say is actually reflected very much in the report, and a person-centred service has featured in guidance since 2007.
Peter Black, I can assure you that we will be responding to the report, obviously, fully, as quickly as possible. I think you made a very good point that we’ve had several reviews and it is now time to try and get that simplified and less bureaucratic system right across Wales. I will be having discussions with local authorities around this and I mentioned the taskforce that the Minister for Health and Social Services and I will be pulling together.
Around recommendation 11, you referred to the performance indicators and I certainly will look at it—Welsh Government’s very happy to consider it—but it could need an amendment to current legislation. But, certainly, we’re very happy to consider it. I think the level of satisfaction, in terms of outcomes is very high, and that’s certainly something that I’m getting, particularly, from Care and Repair.
Gwenda Thomas reminded us very eloquently that interventions such as independent living adaptations are so important and they’re not just for older people; some people, unfortunately, need them from birth in some cases to lead the sort of life that Gwenda Thomas referred to.
Sandy Mewies referred to the need for timely and appropriate adaptations to make sure we don’t have those delayed transfers of care, and also referred to extra-care facilities, which are, of course, a new way of living. People consider that as they go through choices of housing through their lives. Local authorities and RSLs certainly should look at the costs of major adaptations, and I thought that was a very good point that you made for the taskforce, and, perhaps, that will be their first task.
Ann Jones, right to inclusion—that expresses exactly what we all want. Ann reminded us again of her personal experience. You are quite right: it needs to be as simple and as least bureaucratic as possible to ensure that people are able to access that help, at a time that can be very difficult and very traumatic in their lives.
I think there’s been a great deal of consensus in this debate today, and I think we have shown over recent years it is possible to make significant improvements. I do hope the action that the Minister for Health and Social Services and I are taking will provide us with more improvements very quickly, going forward. So, I thank the Members very much for their contributions.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree amendment 1. Does any Member object? Amendment 1 is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Amendment 1 agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree amendment 2. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I defer the rest of the voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I conduct the first vote, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are not. We will, therefore, vote on the legislative consent motion on the Medical Innovation Bill. I call for a vote on the motion, tabled in the name of Mark Drakeford. Open the vote. Close the vote. There were no votes in favour of the motion. There were 54 votes against. Therefore, the motion is not agreed.
Motion not agreed: For 0, Against 54, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5680
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We’ll now vote on the review of independent living adaptations. We have dealt with amendment 1. I call for a vote on amendment 2, tabled in the name of Elin Jones. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 11. There voted against 32. There were 11 abstentions. Therefore, amendment 2 is not agreed.
Amendment not agreed: For 11, Against 32, Abstain 11.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5682
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call for a vote on amendment 3, tabled in the name of Paul Davies. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 54. There were no votes against. Therefore, amendment 3 is agreed.
Amendment agreed: For 54, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5682
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call for a vote on amendment 4, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 54. There were no votes against. Therefore, amendment 4 is agreed.
Amendment agreed: For 54, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 4 to motion NDM5682
Motion NDM5682 as amended:
1. Acknowledges the importance of adaptations services and how they help people to continue living independently in their own home for as long as possible.
2. Notes the findings of the Review of Independent Living Adaptations, which was published on 23rd January 2015.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to:
a) ensure that local authorities work with social landlords to produce a customer charter setting out commitments in relation to adaptation services;
b) work with local authorities and social housing providers to set out delivery time standards and ensure that they are met by all local authorities;
c) audit adaptation services to identify best practice and its implementation; and
d) put in place mechanisms to monitor customer satisfaction and longer-term outcomes.
4. Notes the key recommendations of the Leonard Cheshire Disability Home Truths campaign and No Place Like Home Report.
5. Calls on the Welsh Government to require local authorities to exempt minor adaptations from means testing, as recommended in the review.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I now call for a vote on the motion as amended, tabled in the name of Jane Hutt. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 54. There were no votes against. Therefore, the motion as amended is agreed.
Motion NDM5682 as amended agreed: For 54, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5682 as amended
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
That concludes today’s business.
The meeting ended at 18:08.