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 for Wales is now in session.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on pharmacy opening hours? OAQ(4)0473(HSS)
The community pharmacy contractual framework sets out that each pharmacy must open for 40 core hours. Changes to increase or reduce these opening hours can be made by application to the relevant local health board.
Thank you for your answer. Two weeks ago a constituent of mine from Wrexham was prescribed antibiotics by the out-of-hours medical service at Wrexham Maelor Hospital. It was after 5 p.m. on a Sunday and the two nearest pharmacies were closed. However, he was given a choice of travelling 80 miles to Rhyl and back or go to Chester to collect his prescription. He chose to go to Chester but, of course, as a result, he had to pay a prescription charge of £8.05 to NHS England. Do you know, Minister, how many people in Wales have to pay for a prescription in England when it was issued in Wales and what is the Government doing to ensure that better pharmaceutical provision is available out of hours?
I thank Llyr Gruffydd for the question. I am familiar with the case, and I have asked my officials to see whether that has happened more than once. The evidence that came back shows that that is not happening at all as a matter of course. We do not think that people are crossing the border to pay for a prescription because they are not able to obtain it in Wales. About 10% of pharmacies are open on Sundays in Wales. The number has increased slightly after supermarkets like Tesco started providing services. We are working with Community Pharmacy Wales to try to increase the number in the future.
Minister, it is worth acknowledging that pharmacists are the most accessible health professionals, being available without appointment or registration. There is a chemist on nearly every high street in Wales, both in deprived communities and in vibrant, modern shopping centres. They serve healthy people as well as ill people. Do you not consider that you should make more money available so that there would be extended opening hours?
I entirely agree with the points that William Graham has made strongly on behalf of the community pharmacy network in Wales. It is a very strong network, with over 700 community pharmacies, and they really do provide services in every part of the country. We work closely with them. I do not think that the issue is necessarily one of funding. There are other ways in which we are able to work with the network to do just that—to extend their opening hours—particularly at those pinch points in the week of the sort that Llyr Gruffydd identifed.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Eluned Parrott.
Minister, constituents of mine have complained about hospital pharmacy opening hours across the Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board. The latest that any hospital pharmacy in our area is open is 5.45 p.m., which is described as ‘the emergency service’ but many others are open for only two hours a day or are closed at lunchime during the working day. Do you think that this is acceptable in terms of access?
The service provided by pharmacies in hospitals is a very important one. They are often exceptionally busy in dealing with demands that come their way. They have been extensively modernised over recent years by successive Governments investing in robotic pharmacy facilities, which are now widely available across Wales. I have not in the many visits that I have made to hospitals and to pharmacies in hospitals come across the issue that the Member has raised but I am happy to consider it further on the basis of what she said this afternoon.
Patients for some chronic conditions, such as HIV, are obliged to have their medication dispensed at a hospital pharmacy. As I say, in Cardiff that is only during working hours or they can arrange a delivery, which is also during working hours. Either option impinges on that patient’s confidentiality, which for a HIV patient in particular, is very important. I have raised this issue with you before but nothing has changed in the Cardiff and Vale LHB, so we have an inflexible 28-day prescribing regime and pharmacies or deliveries only during the working day. Do you really believe that Cardiff and Vale LHB is doing everything that it can to enable people with chronic conditions to manage their illnesses with dignity and, more importantly, with discretion as well?
I am a firm supporter of the 28-day prescription rule. We know that it is both a more clinically effective and a cost effective way of delivering prescriptions—75 million prescriptions were provided in primary care in Wales alone last year. We have to provide services in a way that meets people’s needs while, at the same time, protecting the resources of the system. I am very well aware of the issue that Eluned Parrott raises, having corresponded with her and with the local health board on it. I do expect local health boards to exercise discretion in individual cases where they know that someone has a very stable condition, where they know that their compliance with medication regimes is strong, and where a longer prescription would be suitable for them.
Individual Patient Funding Requests
2. Will the Minister provide an update on the guidance that the Welsh Government has provided to local health boards on Individual Patient Funding Requests? OAQ(4)0467(HSS)
An all-Wales individual patient funding request policy was adopted in 2011. The policy has recently been the subject of a Welsh-Government-commissioned review, and consultation concluded on 25 June. I will make a statement on the findings of the review once the analysis of the consultation responses is complete.
In the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board area, all applications for the following drugs—I apologise if I pronounce them wrongly—bevacizumab for colorectal cancer and ovarian cancer, cabazitaxel, siltuximab, enzalutamide, imantimib mesylate, pomalidomide and sorafenib, which were applied for through the IPFR, were refused during the 12-month period of 2013-14. Given that those applications are made on the advice of the consultant in charge of that patient, how can you guarantee that the recommendations of the consultant for access to those drugs are being properly assessed?
The policy review group that was set up to look at the IPFR process concluded in its report that the way that panels operate in Wales is already in line with rational and evidence-based decision making for those treatments that are not routinely available. The Member will be aware, having seen the report that she has quoted from, that 70% of all IPFR applications to the panel in the Betsi Cadwaladr area were successful. That does not suggest to me that the system is not taking proper account of the views of consultants.
In our recent inquiries in the committee, we have heard from clinicians who have expressed concern about the concept of exceptionality. Some of the drugs mentioned are perhaps in relation to cohorts that exist. Will you be looking at the guidance, and will you be giving some strong guidance to these panels to look at the cohort concept, not just an individual concept?
David Rees makes an important point and it was one that the review panel grappled with, namely how to ensure that we have an all-Wales approach to drugs that are frequently pursued through the IPFR panel. Its advice, which we have consulted on, is that the All Wales Therapeutics and Toxicology Centre should be put at the heart of the IPFR process. That would mean that it would get notification of all the applications that go through the panel. Where there are multiple applications for the same medicine, that would be identified early, and they would be able to be progressed to full appraisal or an interim evidence-based summary, so that an all-Wales consensus could be reached. The report that I mentioned to Antoinette Sandbach showed that one medicine was asked for 54 times through the IPFR process in Wales last year, and it is exactly that sort of drug being asked for many times that might be better decided on a cohort basis.
One of the problems with individual patient funding requests is that patients need to prove that their circumstances are exceptional—that is not easy to prove nor to define. We know that there are discrepancies, in general, from area to area, between different health boards, with patients being denied treatment in some places that they might get in other places. Does the Minister agree that central assessments could lead to the general removal of geographical disparities?
It is exactly that issue of standard procedures, across the different panels that the review group looked at. It specifically considered a national panel, and rejected that as the best way of achieving what Rhun ap Iorwerth is pointing at. It looks to the centre to provide that expert advice and early identification, and then to reinforce consistent decision making, so that a patient pursuing treatment in one part of Wales is being treated in the same way as they would elsewhere.
As chair of the cross-party group on haemophilia and contaminated blood, I would like to ask the Minister to provide an update about access to the drug sofosbuvir, for patients with hepatitis C. Obviously, our group is particularly concerned about those who acquired the disease through contaminated blood products.
Could I begin by congratulating Julie Morgan on the work that she does as chair of that important cross-party group? It is a group, I know, that is strongly supported by Members from other parties in the Chamber. The issue of access to sofosbuvir was raised in the last meeting of the cross-party group. It is a drug that allows people who have a very serious condition, associated with hepatitis C, to have a new drug that has a major impact on their health. We will not know from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence until October whether it is to be approved by it. However, having had advice from the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group, and through the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee, I have decided that we should, on an interim basis, make that drug available in Wales. The deputy chief medical officer is pursuing that with health board chief executives, and that drug will be available to those people for whom it is a life-changing therapy.
3. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government in relation to tackling antibiotic resistance? OAQ(4)0471(HSS)
I thank Lynne Neagle for that question. Tackling antimicrobial resistance is a key priority for the Welsh Government and the NHS in Wales. Together, we support the five-year UK antimicrobial resistance strategy, which has been developed through cross-government collaboration. Wales is developing our own action plan to support the implementation of this strategy.
Thank you, Minister. It is clear that, however much David Cameron likes to talk about dividing lines at Offa’s Dyke, when it comes to global challenges like antimicrobial resistance, cross-border collaboration is more important than it has ever been. Indeed, I personally welcome the fact that the Prime Minister’s intervention has put this hugely important issue back into the spotlight, because we face a stark reality, where existing antibiotics are becoming less effective. As the Minister knows, no new class of antibiotic has been developed in the last 25 years, and the development pipeline for new treatments is at an all-time low. Minister, by building on the work taking place through initiatives like the UK-wide antimicrobial resistance strategy, will you commit to ensuring that the Welsh Government plays a full and active role in helping to meet this great health challenge of our age?
I share Lynne Neagle’s welcome for the Prime Minister’s intervention on this matter. I have received a very constructive letter from the Secretary of State for Health at the UK Government. He is very positive about the work that has gone on in Wales already on this matter, and offers us a full participation in the work that is now being set in hand.
There are two things that we need to do in this area. One is to support the search for new drugs. The other is to use the antibiotics that we currently have in a proper way. Public Health Wales tells us that 30% of the antibiotics that are prescribed in Wales were not necessary. It is through the over-use of the antibiotics that we currently have that we have the resistance developing to them, and there is a great deal more that we can do already to make an effort to address that.
I am very grateful for that last point that you made, Minister. I am sure that you are aware that the British Veterinary Association has been running a campaign and that around half of all of the antibiotics prescribed in Europe are in fact prescribed to animals. So, I would be grateful if you could outline what steps you are taking to ensure that the Chief Veterinary Officer for Wales co-ordinates with the Chief Veterinary Officer in the UK and on a European-wide basis, because it would be a ridiculous situation if antibiotic resistance being tackled, as it were, by appropriate use in humans was then undermined by inappropriate use in animals.
It is an important point that the Member raises. The Prime Minister’s statement is very specific in pointing to the need for action on a global scale in relation to antimicrobial resistance. The resistance to antibiotics has, in part, been created by their overuse in animal health as much as in human health. I will ensure that the work that we do in Wales in human and in animal health is fully part of the UK effort.
Minister, you will be aware of the high rates of C. difficile that happened in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board area in previous years, which resulted in some very sad cases of deaths of patients there. The rates of infection have been falling recently and that is thanks, in large part, to the good use of those antibiotics across the health board area. There is still much more to be done to prevent the spread of C. difficile in hospital situations. However, I am sure that you would want to join with me to welcome the improvement that Betsi Cadwaladr health board has made in this area and we hope to see more continuation of the improvements.
I do welcome the progress that has been made in Betsi Cadwaladr and she is right to say that there is certainly more to do. However, Professor Brian Duerden’s review, which Betsi Cadwaladr commissioned, pointed very specifically to the impact of the inappropriate prescription of antibiotics on the rise in C. difficile and MRSA infections in that part of Wales. The latest figures are provisional and they are from surveillance data from Public Health Wales, but they suggest that the first quarter of this financial year, compared with the first quarter of the last financial year, is showing a 14% further drop in cases of MRSA in Wales and a drop of a third in cases of C. difficile. When the Public Accounts Committee took evidence yesterday and was considering the report by Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and the Wales Audit Office on Betsi Cadwaladr, it very specifically commented positively on the work that has been done at Betsi Cadwaladr, both clinically and at board level, to bear down on these conditions.
Minister, my question follows on from Antoinette Sandbach’s because, yesterday, the author and doctor, Max Pemberton, argued that resistance to antibiotics is being driven by our diet. He has said that demand for cheap meat has led to animals living in unnaturally close proximity where infections can spread like wildfire, necessitating the heavy use of antibiotics and therefore fuelling the resistance to antibiotics. Do you believe that there is a valid argument for all forms of factory farming to be banned, and that antibiotic use in animals should stop as a matter of a public health debate that we could have here in Wales?
I agree with the Member that this is a matter of public health debate and it is an important discussion that we have with the public. I am advised by the Food Standards Agency primarily in this area. It has not put advice to me to suggest that a ban on factory farming would be a proportionate way of responding to the problem, but the connection between the way that animal health is treated and its impact on human health, and the way that antibiotics play their part in that, is an important debate and one worth having.
Minister, would you agree with those commentators who argue that the failure of the pharmaceutical industry to come forward with new antibiotics demonstrates a failure of the market? Do you agree with me that this is further evidence of why our NHS should not be left to the destructive forces of marketisation?
It was a striking part of the letter that I received from Jeremy Hunt, I felt, when he said that the root cause of the failure to come forward with new antibiotics was one of ‘market failure’—his phrase, not mine. I think that the public generally believes that what has happened in the last couple of decades is that the pharmaceutical industry has been working away hard to try to find new forms of antibiotic, and sadly it has failed to come up with one. However, the truth is, as the letter that he sent to me states, that most major pharmaceutical companies have cut back or stopped altogether their investment in this area because they do not see it as something that they can make a profit out of. I absolutely agree with Mick Antoniw that it is a very good lesson indeed with regard to the fact that you cannot rely on market mechanisms to provide public services of this sort.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 4, OAQ(4)0472(HSS), has been withdrawn.
Community Health Councils
5. Will the Minister provide an update on the work of Community Health Councils in terms of supporting the patient experience in west Wales? OAQ(4)0474(HSS)
Thank you very much for that question. Community health councils provide free, confidential advice and support to patients who have concerns about health services. They have a statutory duty to represent both patients and the public in their areas, and to engage with the community and healthcare providers to ensure that people get the services they require.
Minister, I am sure that you will be aware, having met Hywel Dda Community Health Council, that it has developed a patient care handbook for cancer patients. Do you agree with me that this will improve patient experience in west Wales and that it is a good example of the commitment shown by the community health councils?
I was very grateful to have the opportunity to meet the group of people in Llanelli who have worked on the handbook. I met Dr Sian Lewis from the health board and Helen Williams from the CHC. Together, they collaborated on the handbook, which approaches this subject from the patient’s point of view. We have already discussed this matter in the Assembly and Andrew R.T. Davies has raised the subject of written care plans. The people in Llanelli told me that it is vital that they have something that patients are able to use. That is what they have prepared. They have had a meeting with my officials and they are going to work with Macmillan Cancer Support in the future to see whether it is possible to build upon what they have done and to distribute that throughout Wales.
In the case of west Wales, I believe that the local community health council has been courageous and persistent in standing up for patients and for the local community, especially when it comes to protecting services at Withybush General Hospital. Does the Minister agree with me that the strength of community health councils lies in their independent status as a patient representative body? Will he commit to preserving the independence of community health councils? After all, they should be patients’ champions that are there to speak up for local communities, and not for the Government of the day.
I certainly agree that the independence of community health councils is fundamental to their activity. They need, as the Williams commission said, to deploy that independence constructively and objectively.
One of the areas where the community health council had been very positive was in the Tenby area, where it agreed to the moving of the minor injuries unit from Tenby Cottage Hospital on the basis that GPs could stand in and make that provision. However, that did not happen last year, nor is it happening this year. Instead, we have the Red Cross and volunteers providing a service that, in my opinion, is second rate and not as good as the service that the community health council had asked for and that you, Minister, had agreed to on the basis of the Hywel Dda health board plans. Therefore, as the agreement with the community health council had been breached and undermined by the health board, what steps can you take as Minister to strengthen the voice of the community health council and to meet the needs of local people by ensuring that this provision is made by GPs?
The local community health council did not refer the Tenby MIU issue to me. The implementation of the plans of the local health board needs to be carried forward with the CHC and with other important local participants. I was pleased to see that the CHC was a full participant in the review of last year’s service that was provided by the Red Cross in Tenby. The independent evaluation of that service was very positive among users and providers. The health board is to provide it again this year; it is to be an extended service during the working week, as well as on weekends and bank holidays. I think that it has all the makings of a successful service.
Minister, I think that it would be fair to say that the relationship between the community health council and Hywel Dda health board has not always been an easy one. However, given the recent appointment of a new chair of the health board, Minister, will you do all that you can to help to encourage goodwill between the two sides and, to coin a phrase, give it a fresh start, because that is particularly important to the people of that area?
I thank Joyce Watson for that question. I think it is quite proper that the relationship between a CHC and its local heath board should from time to time be a challenging one, but it needs to be a constructive one as well. There is a new chair of the local community health council in the Hywel Dda area, as well as of the health board. I was encouraged in my meeting with the new chair of the LHB that she had gone out of her way in her first week in that post to have a meeting with the CHC. A new and constructive engagement between those two organisations can only be in the best interest of patients in the area.
6. Will the Minister outline what progress is being made to increase the number of frail elderly people who, on leaving hospital, are being enabled to stay in their own home? OAQ(4)0462(HSS)
Thank you for that question. Ensuring that frail elderly people receive appropriate care and support to maintain independence in their homes is one of my key priorities. The £50 million intermediate care fund that was announced last December is specifically focused on stimulating greater collaborative working between health, social services and housing to facilitate that aim.
Thank you for that response, Deputy Minister. The advantages of reablement services are well documented; not only do they help people make the transition back to life at home quicker or to resume their independence in daily living, but they also help to reduce demand on acute medical services and inappropriate admissions to residential care. Will the Welsh Government therefore prioritise preventative healthcare services such as reablement, and give further direction to local authorities and local health boards to ensure that investment in reablement services is maintained and further developed?
The White Paper ‘Sustainable Social Services for Wales: A Framework for Action’ set out the policy position on the importance of reablement as a model of service delivery, and my clear commitment to ensure that it was further developed and provided across the whole of Wales. That commitment has been reflected in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. The Welsh Government has invested considerable sums of money in supporting health, social services and third sector organisations to develop effective shared service models of reablement as a key element of promoting wellbeing and independent living. In July 2013, the Minister for Health and Social Services and I issued a joint written statement setting out the intention to integrate health and social care services at scale and pace to meet the needs of older people with complex needs. The integration framework for older people with complex needs was subject to public consultation in July 2013, and was subsequently published to the Welsh Government website in March 2014.
Deputy Minister, will you agree that one of the barriers to people being able to live an independent life at home can often be the inability to access, within a reasonable timescale, the disabled facilities grant? What action are you taking, along with colleagues in Government, to ensure that disabled facilities grants are delivered in a timely fashion in all parts of Wales on a consistent basis?
I agree that the timely provision of the disabled facilities grant is important. It is not in my portfolio, of course, but you will know that we have a cross-Government commitment to develop integrated services. I will pass on your question to the appropriate Minister and ask for a written response to be given to you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Lindsay Whittle.
Diolch, Lywydd. Minister, even for frail elderly people, there is a possibility of reablement in order to improve their ability to cope with tasks of everyday living. However, budgets for reablement vary considerably across Wales. What are you doing to make sure that reablement does not become a postcode lottery in Wales, please?
Well, I believe that we have shown this through the way that the £50 million integration fund has been allocated now. I do, of course, recognise the role of Plaid Cymru and the Liberal Democrats in securing that intermediate care fund. I believe that, in that process, we have had quite a lot of participation and collaboration from local government. Local partners have also developed statements of intent setting out how they will work together to deliver integrated services for older people, and, of course, that includes disabled people. Officials have received draft versions as starting points for discussion, although we are waiting for them to be signed off through partners’ relevant internal political processes. The final statements of intent, which will deal with much of your question, are expected shortly and will be published on local authority websites.
May I thank the Minister for her reply? Thank you also for recognising our role. I would be interested in what role you believe alternative therapy can and should play in helping elderly people to remain in their own homes for as long as possible, please.
Well, I am not sure what you mean by alternative therapy, but, of course, there is the complementary type and I have a personal view on that. Therapies in general, I think, can help the rehabilitation process and the wellbeing process, but that is far as I will go on that this afternoon. [Laughter.]
Deputy Minister, I hope that you share my concern regarding the tone of the question with regard to increasing the number of frail elderly people leaving hospital. Homecare is, of course, an ambition for many patients who relish their independence and homes. When people are able to be released from hospital, and not before, what assessment is in place to ensure that there is sufficient capacity and resources in the homecare teams to deal with additional patients? Anecdotally, I have had major concerns about the pressure on homecare teams and have challenged Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board about this when it looked to close Fairwood Hospital and Gellinudd Hospital. Can you allay these concerns for me, please?
Well, we have set out clear expectations in the 65-plus assessment process that was brought in before the end of last year. It is a requirement that that assessment is carried out in accordance with the guidance. Also, we have published jointly—the Minister and I—the integration framework. I have already mentioned the statements of intent. I think that your question is answered in my answer to the previous question. As you said, assessment is of the utmost importance and this is dealt with quite in detail in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. I have evidence that the assessment process is improving, and it now includes carers, which is a very important part of the assessment process.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Blood Service? OAQ(4)0469(HSS)
The Welsh Blood Service plays a fundamental role in supporting healthcare provision. Working with communities, hospitals and professionals, it ensures that the gift of donation is transformed into safe, effective blood components, enabling NHS Wales to save the lives of many patients in Wales every year.
Thank you, Minister. With the Welsh Blood Service advertising that it only has around four days’ worth of blood group O in stock, do you not agree that everything must be done to maximise the number of people who can safely give blood? All blood donated is tested and, in light of this, do you agree that the effective ban on gay and bisexual men giving blood can seem backward-looking and anachronistic? Will you look into whether anything can be done to reform this practice and stop the blood service restricting the pool from which it can draw?
Well, I certainly agree with Christine Chapman that we want to encourage everybody who is able to give blood to do so, and we are very lucky in Wales to have a very loyal and dedicated large group of people who do exactly that. The decision on how blood is donated is not, I believe, made on the basis of ethics or morality. The issue that is considered is one of safety. You heard earlier in a question from Julie Morgan about the catastrophic effects that there have been in the NHS when blood safety issues have not been fully attended to. I do not think it is accurate either to say that gay and bisexual men are barred from donating. A change happened in the recommendations of the advisory committee on the safety of blood within the last 12 months. I was very pleased, on behalf of Wales, to agree a change in the rules that means that men who have sex with men are able to become blood donors after a temporary deferral of 12 months. That has not been agreed in all parts of the United Kingdom, but it is agreed here in Wales and, when advice comes forward that allows us safely to make further developments in that area, I will be very supportive of them.
Minister, I asked your predecessor some time ago—very much on this issue, actually—whether she had had any conversations with the UK Government about the outright ban on blood donations from those who had had a blood transfusion before 1980. I am thinking more particularly of transfusion bans post CJD, actually, rather than HIV/AIDS, but I wonder whether you could tell us whether there have been any advances in blood screening and research that might encourage Governments on both sides of the border to perhaps revisit this particular ban.
Suzy Davies is absolutely right that there are developments all the time in the screening of blood. I visited the Welsh Blood Service at Talbot Green some months ago and I was hugely impressed by the incredible lengths that are gone to to screen blood that is donated and to make sure that it is safe for onward use in the NHS. Those techniques are developing all the time; they are kept under review by the advisory committee and, where it is possible to include a wider group of people as donors, I know that that is its aim. However, it has to balance that against what we know about the consequences that there have been in other people’s lives when contaminated blood has made its way into use; those effects have been genuinely catastrophic in the lives of the people affected.
The blood service in north Wales works out of two centres—one in Wrexham and one in Bangor—and both of those services are very much appreciated because of their local links. Will you confirm that there is no intention to change that pattern in the future?
Well, one thing that we are doing, of course, is creating a service for Wales as a whole and combining the service that we have in north Wales with the one that we have in south Wales. One of the important reasons for doing that is to confirm to people in north Wales that we want to maintain the service that we have already in place there and ensure that that service is entirely under our control here in the Assembly, and provided in Wales.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on waiting times for treatment in Wales? OAQ(4)0476(HSS)
The latest published figures on waiting times for treatment in Wales show that nine out of 10 patients are waiting less than 26 weeks from referral to treatment, while the standard wait stands at 10 weeks.
Thank you. In fact, in a letter dated 1 April, you reconfirmed the Welsh Government policy of 26-week and 36-week waiting times and you said that you expected patients to be seen in accordance with clinical priority, which is for the relevant consultant to decide. How, therefore, do you respond to correspondence received by constituents from Betsi Cadwaladr within the last two months confirming that it is working to a 52-week referral-to-treatment pathway, and further confirming very recently—two weeks ago—that it is actually working to 52 weeks from going on the waiting list rather than from referral? There is also a letter from a consultant to a GP saying:
‘Neither I nor my secretary have control over the waiting list. As soon as the health board places your constituent on the waiting list, I’m happy to do the operation.’
Well, it is quite impossible for me to respond to extracts from letters that I have not seen that are read out in Plenary, as the Member very well knows. There are conditions for which Betsi Cadwaladr is currently unable to provide treatment within the 26-week and 36-week periods that we lay down. My officials are working very closely with it to ensure that it is in a position to do that in the future.
Will the Minister join me in congratulating Velindre Cancer Centre and Aneurin Bevan Local Health Board on winning the Developing a Flexible and Sustainable Workforce Award last week for setting up a dedicated service for patients with cancer-related issues? In the first seven months of that service, the majority of the patients waited only 24 hours to see a specialist, compared with an average previous waiting time of six days. Does he not think that this is a very good move in the reduction of waiting times in cancer services?
I certainly join Julie Morgan in her congratulations. I was very pleased indeed to be able to attend the NHS awards on 2 July. There were fantastic entries in all eight categories of awards that day from all over Wales. Joint working across borders of health boards and with the NHS and other services was one of the hallmarks of this year’s award, and this was an award jointly shared by Velindre and Aneurin Bevan health board. The impact it makes on cancer waiting times, which are already well developed in Wales, will be very welcome.
One of the areas where there are serious delays, Minister, is in mental health services, specifically through the medium of Welsh—I know that we have raised this with you in the past—and in the Betsi Cadwaladr area in particular. I was shocked, therefore, to realise that the former chief executive of Betsi Cadwaladr had been given a payment of £200,000, which, in my opinion, is rewarding failure. Is there any way in which the Government can reclaim this funding for mental health services in north Wales?
That is not a matter at all for the Government. It is a matter for the local health board and then through non-Government arrangements here at the Assembly.
I do agree with the Member in terms of what he has said today and what he said in the past about the problems that arise in terms of providing services through the medium of Welsh in the area of mental health. I have discussed this with the language commissioner and with the current chair of the board of Betsi Cadwaladr. There is more that we can do. What we are talking about now is trying to expand the number of people who are able to provide services in the mental health area, not just depending on consultants where they are few and far between and there are problems in recruiting those able to use the Welsh language, but using the wider workforce with specific skills in mental health who are able to speak Welsh and can respond to people who have mental health problems in Welsh.
Minister, I must say that the evidence that the Public Accounts Committee heard yesterday was that the Welsh Government had agreed to the settlement with the former chief executive and that it was not just a matter for the health board. However, to return to waiting times, I am sure that you have received a copy of the ombudsman’s report last week on Ms A, talking about an unreasonable delay on the part of the Betsi Cadwaladr health board. You are also aware that I have corresponded with you—and thank you for the response—on ophthalmological services in north Wales, where there is a waiting time of over 50 weeks now. In your letter dated 8 June, you stated that, where treatment is cancelled by the health board with less than eight days’ notice, the health board in those cases, if that occurs twice, must ensure that the patient receives that treatment within a fortnight. This has not happened, so what are you doing as a Government to ensure that the Betsi Cadwaladr health board sticks to your guidelines?
The commitment that the Member points to is an important one. Considerable efforts have been made within the Welsh NHS, working with NWIS—the NHS Wales Informatics Service—to develop a reporting mechanism so that we can have accurate information about the extent to which that commitment is being delivered in the Welsh NHS. I think we are now in a position where that information is more reliable than it was. It shows a mixed picture. The number of operations that are cancelled twice and not rescheduled, with a patient’s permission, within 14 days varies from one part of Wales to another, but now that we have the raw information that allows us to track it accurately, it is a matter that I will be pursuing directly with health boards with a renewed focus.
Minister, the national survey for Wales shows that nine out of every 10 people who receive NHS care are very satisfied with that care. For me and some of my constituents, that must mean that the Labour Government in Wales is doing something right within the NHS. I think that, sometimes, we find it difficult to think of that when we hear the criticisms. However, in the light of recent celebrations for Armed Forces Day, and the fact that we will have servicemen and women returning, what can we do to ensure that those returning servicemen and women who have mental health issues do not face unnecessarily long waiting times or, in fact, distressing waiting times in order to get the best possible treatment, which they deserve?
I thank Ann Jones for that important question. The recent Nuffield four nations report, which we discussed extensively in the Chamber, found that satisfaction levels with the NHS in Wales are the highest in any of the four UK home nations. Since we established a national veterans service in Wales, dealing with mental health issues, waiting times for treatment have fallen very steadily, but I am aware that there is more that we need to do, because now the success of that service means that referrals into it are growing quickly, and I think that that is a mark of its success. Last month, I announced £485,000 extra a year to support psychological therapies in Wales, and, of that, £100,000 is going to be used specifically for reducing and equalising waiting lists across Wales for veterans needing mental health care.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on opposition spokesperson, Darren Millar.
One of the problems that the NHS is facing, and it is having an impact on waiting times in some specialities, is the huge recruitment challenges that some specialities face. Of course, these can be addressed through changes in pay and conditions and changes through the NHS Wales consultant contract. So, will you join me, Minister, in recognising that the one opportunity that you have to address these challenges through pay and conditions is one that you seem to be throwing away in terms of the competitive advantage that Wales could have by not implementing the recommendation of the review body on doctors and dentists on their remuneration packages, which recommended a 1% increase. The British Medical Association Wales has told me that that has resulted in it being swamped by e-mails—more than 450 e-mails—from demoralised, undervalued and unappreciated consultants working in hospitals across Wales.
Let me make three points in answer to that question. First of all, 96% of all vacancies in NHS Wales were filled in April, so the idea that there is a huge general problem of recruitment in the Welsh NHS is not the case. I have been very disappointed that the BMA in Wales, despite repeated requests, has declined to enter into negotiations over a renewed Welsh consultant contract. It has been unable to come to the negotiating table. I have concluded that we have to have a consultant contract in Wales. We will therefore join, as full partners, in the discussions that are going on between the English and the Northern Irish health services with consultants, where the BMA is at the table. Consultants in Wales will enjoy every single advantage that their English and Northern Irish colleagues have. I think that that is a very fair deal to offer them. Personally, what I want to do much more is to put on record today the fact that, as a result of the announcement that we have made, 2,400 of the lowest paid staff in NHS Wales will now enjoy the living wage—and that is as a result of our discussions with the trade unions—whereas their colleagues in England will be left well below it.
I would like to put on record the fact that we welcome, on these benches, the move towards a living wage in the Welsh NHS very much indeed. However, Minister, that does not take away the fact that consultants in Scotland are getting an increase, and will be at a competitive advantage compared with those consultants in Wales who are not going to benefit. You have criticised BMA Wales for not coming to the table, and yet you attached preconditions that it would have to accept a pay cut for consultants, before it even arrived at the table, which, as you fully already know, is why it refused to turn up. Will you give us a commitment, Minister, that, given that you are reviewing NHS finances, with your colleague the Minister for Finance, over the summer, should there be an opportunity to allow for an improvement in the pay and rewards for consultants in Wales, as a result of your work with the Minister for Finance, to look at that as an opportunity to bring BMA Wales back to the table and get an agreed deal made so that patients in Wales are not disadvantaged by a demoralised and undervalued workforce?
Let me make it plain that it is absolutely untrue to claim that there was any precondition—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Excuse me, Darren Millar. You have had two questions. We do not need any more comments, thank you.
I wonder whether I could make it clear, because I am the Minister responsible for this, that absolutely no precondition of that sort was ever made. I have made it clear to the BMA that a contribution from the pay bill is essential if we are to go on being able to afford the NHS in Wales. That is exactly what the Nuffield report said, which we debated here only two weeks ago: the lowest-paid members of the NHS in Wales—the ‘Agenda for Change’ staff—have agreed some difficult changes to terms and conditions as a contribution to making sure that their members continue to be employed in the Welsh NHS. I cannot expect those people who are the least well paid to make a contribution, and for those who have the broadest shoulders and the highest pay in the Welsh NHS to think that there is no contribution that they are able to make in return.
1. Will the Minister state how many food banks there are in Wales? OAQ(4)0210(CTP)
I understand that the Trussell Trust has at least 29 food banks operating in Wales, with a number of distribution centres attached to those food banks. There are also others operating as part of community programmes. For example, in north Wales, Môn Communities First, Citizens Advice and Barnardo’s have worked together to develop a food bank to address food poverty in Anglesey.
There is also a new one in my constituency, in Bon-y-maen, which you visited fairly recently. It was set up due to the problems that exist in that area. Does the Minister not agree with me that, for so many people, relying on food banks in twenty-first century Wales is a damning indictment against the Westminster coalition Government’s policy, which is causing so much hardship? They are the soup kitchens of the twenty-first century, caused by the Tory Government at Westminster and their little helpers, the Liberal Democrats.
The Member’s analysis is spot on. There is no denying the fact that there has been an explosion in food-bank usage since 2011. Around 80,000 people were fed in Wales last year by food banks. It is not just the numbers that we should be worried about, but the reasons why people go to them. The overwhelming majority of reasons why people go there are because of welfare reform and low wages. That accounts for 68% of the people who access support from food banks.
Of course, everyone in the Chamber recognises the value of food banks, and is concerned about the rising number of people using them. However, the overt politicisation of the existence of food banks has made it genuinely difficult, I think, to assess how much of the demand is driven by extra publicity, extra supply, and lack of controls on repeat visits, all of which, added together, disguise the actual demand that the Trussell Trust intended to meet. As an Assembly Member, I know that I am not expert enough to distinguish between genuine cases and those playing the system and giving out referral vouchers to constituents. I think that it is a cause for concern when the trust admits to factoring in a level of at least 10% of inappropriate use of the food banks when delivering the service. Bearing in mind that value, how do you think that the Governments on both sides of the border could advise and assist such independent charities in protecting themselves against the misuse of their service in order to help them to retain the confidence of their volunteers and donors?
The problem facing food banks is not the misuse of their services; it is that their services are required. That is what we should all be outraged about. When the Member refers to the politicisation of food banks, I say that every party should have a view on food poverty. Every Minister in this Government certainly has a view on food poverty, and every member of my party certainly has a view on food poverty. When you want to talk about the politicisation of the issue, the Department for Work and Pensions, referring to the Trussell Trust, said that it was
‘misleading and emotionally manipulative publicity-seeking’.
That is what the DWP said. It is quite right that we stand up for the fact that food banks are necessary in today's Britain, and that is a matter of shame. The shouting from Conservative Members does not disguise the fact that they are responsible for nearly 1 million people in Britain requiring emergency help from food banks. That is a shame and that is disgraceful.
Deputy Minister, do you agree with me that the Tory legacy of the 1980s was the number of young people sleeping on the streets in poverty, and the legacy of this current Tory Government in Westminster is people who, in the fifth richest country in the world, cannot afford to eat without the support of the generosity of ordinary people who give their food to assist them? It is the destruction of the welfare state by the Tories that we have to rectify next May with the return of a Labour Government.
I quite agree with the Member, especially on the last point. It is fair to recognise the generosity of people who give their time to volunteer in food banks, and those people who donate. I think that part of the difficulty when discussing food banks is the way in which food bank users are vilified, and the kind of language that refers to them as being indigent or lazy or drug addicts is really unacceptable. Most of the people who go to food banks are ashamed of the fact that they need to go to ask for help to feed their family. The issue here is how we tackle the use of food banks and how we tackle the problem, not one of attacking people who use those facilities.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the effects of high interest lenders on poorer communities in Wales? OAQ(4)0195(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. I am concerned at the impact that high-interest lenders are having on all communities across Wales. The regulation of these lenders is not devolved to the Welsh Government, but the work we support through credit unions and advice services will help people who have been affected.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, recent news that Wonga issued fake solicitors’ letters was very troubling. Have you any idea whether such letters were issued in Wales, and will you join me in roundly condemning this practice?
Yes, I am very happy, of course, to condemn the practice that has been discovered and exposed concerning Wonga and others in terms of fake solicitors' letters. I have no information at this point as to whether people in Wales have received such letters, but I do intend to write to the Financial Conduct Authority to find out if that is the case.
Minister, I have spoken before about the practices of high-interest lenders in my region of North Wales. Research published two years ago showed that nearly two thirds of people do not understand what the term 'APR' means. Will you therefore look at the steps that you can take? I know that Bethan Jenkins has spoken on this matter extensively and has a financial inclusion Bill, but it is really important that people understand and have the tools to be able to work out the impact of their taking out loans with these high-interest lenders.
I thank the Member for that question. Financial inclusion and literacy, of course, is extremely important. That is why we have invested in free and independent advice services and we are of course supporting credit unions to provide that level of advice for some of the poorest communities in our country.
I am pleased to see support for my actions from other parties. Minister, high-interest lenders are difficult to regulate and they have roots in our communities. For example, I have spoken to many people who talk about ‘providence’, where people are recruited who want relatively small sums of money—something that is sometimes called ‘garden fence borrowing’. Has your Government had any discussions on how to regulate this kind of borrowing and lending, and also any discussions on getting powers for this system here in Wales, so that we can enhance what we can do to stop this kind activity on the ground, as it were?
I thank the Member for that question. I understand her interest, of course, in financial inclusion. We do not have powers in terms of the type of loans that she is referring to. I do know, however, that the Financial Conduct Authority is preparing new laws to cap the cost of pay-day loans and high-interest-rate loans. We do not yet know what that level of cap will be, but that will be announced by 2 January next year. However, this is exactly why we encourage people to use credit unions as a far more viable and affordable form of borrowing.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, can you say what steps you are taking to ensure that credit unions have access to the public service broadband aggregate?
I will write to the Member on that particular point [Laughter]. Look, we are working very well with the credit union movements across Wales. We are organising next week a national joint conference between the credit union movement and us. I will make sure that I find out that information specifically and send it on to you.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I will give you a little bit of help: the public service broadband aggregate enables satellite working and closer co-operation between credit unions, and it enables them to reduce risk in terms of securing their data in the cloud. You may know that the Gateway credit union in Torfaen is already on it, care of the local council, but there has been some resistance to other credit unions using that aggregate. I think it would be very helpful in making credit unions more sustainable and in helping to develop them if they all had access to it.
I will still, nevertheless, check it with my officials if you do not mind and I will come back to you to be absolutely clear about our view on that. As I have said, our relationship with credit unions is good. We obviously want them to collaborate. That was the purpose of the grants that we have recently awarded, particularly to the north Wales credit union, in order to help expand the membership base and, of course, to develop a greater understanding of the role and value of credit unions.
3. What impact has the reform of social security benefits since 2010 had on the amount of money circulating in Cardiff? OAQ(4)0205(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. We estimate that, in Cardiff, some of the key UK Government welfare reforms will result in a loss of £100 million in 2015-16 alone. Although losses will vary depending on individual circumstances, the average annual loss per working-age adult in Cardiff is estimated to be around £430.
These are telephone numbers, of course, for most people. However, I note the Sheffield Hallam University work that estimates it equates to £480 per working-age adult. Obviously, that is not as severe as the £720 per working-age adult in Merthyr Tydfil, which is the highest. However, overall, would you agree with me, Minister, that the message from the UK Government is that the poor get poorer and that the rich, individually, get richer?
Yes, I certainly agree with your points. It is clearly the most vulnerable in our communities that are being targeted here. Our own knowledge and analytical services research, and it has been supported by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, is that the total loss to the Welsh economy as a result of these reforms will exceed £900 million. That is obviously going to have a knock-on effect on the private sector as people are less able to purchase goods and services. The average loss across Wales per working-age adult will be in the order of £500.
Obviously, Minister, one of the greatest ways to increase circulation of money in any city is a thriving economy. Would you welcome the moves that the UK Government has made to make sure that we have a vibrant economy in the UK and in Wales, and in particular that we have record employment and a growing opportunity for people to lift themselves out of poverty through getting into work and earning a weekly wage?
Of course, I want to encourage people to get into work for the right level of jobs. That is why I fully support the skills programme of the Welsh Government, the Jobs Growth Wales programme, the apprenticeships programmes and, of course, our own work on city regions.
Minister, benefit reform has clearly reduced the disposable income of many people in Cardiff, as you outlined in your previous answers, and the increase in food banks is testament to that. By the way, it is worth pointing out that the first food banks were opened under a Labour Government. I was alarmed, therefore, Minister, to hear about Labour’s plans to tackle social security reform and take it further than the Tories by threatening to cut the unemployment benefit of young people. Some areas of Cardiff have youth unemployment affecting as many as one in three people. What is your assessment of the impact that the reform of this support for young unemployed people will have on top of the existing benefit changes, and will you endorse or distance yourself from the right-wing youth unemployment policy of your party leader in London?
I do not accept your analysis. I know that the proposals by the national Labour Party also include very much encouragement to take up training and work placement opportunities. However, what I am concerned with is what the Welsh Government does here, and Jobs Growth Wales and the Lift programme really show that we are serious about helping young people back into employment.
The Digital Inclusion Delivery Plan
4. Will the Minister make a statement on progress towards meeting the Welsh Government’s Digital Inclusion Delivery Plan targets? OAQ(4)0198(CTP)
Positive progress has been made towards meeting our digital inclusion targets—79% of Welsh adults now use the internet compared with an estimated 66% in 2010. To build on this progress, I have set out ambitious, revised targets in our recently updated and published digital inclusion delivery plan.
Your announcement to help more people in Wales to gain basic digital skills is to be welcomed because we cannot escape the fact that more and more services are being placed online. These services include Government services here and in the UK. However, I recently received a complaint from a constituent concerned about being able to obtain information regarding benefit by means other than the internet. Minister, not everyone has a computer, or access to the internet, particularly some in older age groups and disadvantaged people, and some people just do not know how to do it and perhaps will not be able to use it in future. That being the case, can I be assured that the Welsh Government will continue to offer information through other means as well as the internet until we are confident that Wales is completely digitally inclusive?
I thank the Member very much for that supplementary question, where she raises important points. We recognise, of course, that not everybody is able, or indeed willing, to go online, although we will certainly continue to encourage the maximum number to do so. That is why I was very pleased to attend, together with the Minister for Culture and Sport, Grangetown library recently, where we extended Communities 2.0 to the remaining parts of Wales.
We cannot ignore the fact that the digital world is increasing its presence in everyday life and that includes public services. So, we do want people to take advantage, but we recognise also that it will not be right for everybody at this point. Universal credit, which has begun its roll-out in Wales, is meant to be an internet-based service. Although it is quite possible for people to do it by phone, this has not been made generally known, and I do not know for how long that facility will be present. So, we cannot control that, and that is why we encourage people to get online and develop the skills that are necessary, which is why our Communities 2.0 programme is so important.
In your recent delivery plan update, you talk about the cross-cutting nature of the plan. Given the Government’s drive to deliver a number of agriculture payment services online, how are you targeting rural farm businesses, and farmers themselves, to embrace, upskill and exploit digital technology, which, of course, is a key LEADER priority in the rural development plan?
We obviously want to make sure that all parts of Wales are able to access the internet. In fact, the rural parts of Wales tend to be better, on average, than the urban parts of Wales, in terms of being online. If you are aware of any particular problems in certain communities within Wales—agricultural or not—please let me know, and I will talk to our Communities 2.0 team in order to see what further work we can do.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Thank You, Presiding Officer. Does the Minister agree that there must be certainty about the funding of Communities 2.0 beyond March 2015 if the Government is to stick to its targets for digital inclusion?
Thank you. We are in the process of considering what needs to be done for a follow-up programme, and announcements will be made in due course.
The risk of losing this scheme, after March 2015, according to a report this week by one of the scheme’s delivery partners, namely the Wales Co-operative Centre, is that much of the expertise that has been developed will be lost, that the support will become patchy, that the quality of support will decline, and that the progress that has been made will cease. Does the Minister agree with that assessment?
Clearly, we recognise that there is more work to be done. Some 42,000 individuals, incidentally, have been helped by Communities 2.0, and 800 community groups. So, clearly, they have benefited. It is a rolling programme, and the need for it will reduce, as more and more people—and more and more champions as well, if you like—get online and are able to assist in that work. However, there will be a need for a form of programme once Communities 2.0 comes to its end. Of course, I have to stress that all of this depends very largely on budget considerations and what we are able to pay for. The signs are at the moment—certainly from the UK Government—that there are no increases on the way.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is encouraging volunteering within communities? OAQ(4)0196(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. We support volunteers in many ways. I have committed £7.2 million in 2014-15 to support an integrated infrastructure for voluntary organisations and volunteers, including just over £200,000 for Interlink, the county voluntary council and volunteer centre for Rhondda Cynon Taf. We are also developing a new volunteering policy with third sector partners.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. You will be aware of the Time for Healthy Communities initiative that is being trialled within the Pontypridd Communities First cluster. An important part of the scheme is the awarding of time credits to those who volunteer to help to improve the health and wellbeing of others. Involving businesses in the scheme, in order that time credits can be cashed, is key. So, would the Minister consider discussing how schemes of this sort could be promoted to the business community, with the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport?
I am clearly happy to have discussions. I am aware of time banking and time credits, of course. I will ask officials to give me more information about how the particular schemes that you have alluded to are actually working. However, I will give an assurance that I will discuss this matter further.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the opposition spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch. Minister, how did you, or how did the Welsh Government, respond to last August’s response by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action on refreshing the relationship between the Welsh Government and the third sector in Wales, which identified scope for local authorities, health boards and the third sector to work much more imaginatively to develop better services that are closer to people, more responsive to needs and add value by drawing on community resources?
Well, that is the work that we are doing through our volunteering policy. We have an excellent relationship with the WCVA, and with the third sector partnership council, and our discussions are fruitful. We have a clear vision to ensure that there is excellent partnership between the Welsh Government and appropriate voluntary organisations. The matters that you have referred to are matters that we discuss. If you are aware of any other concerns or complaint, please ask the relevant organisations to contact me directly.
Thank you. In fact, I think that you are the most relevant organisation in this respect.
Given that Co-production Wales has described co-production, which is the word being used for what the WCVA described, as not just a nice add-on, but a new way of operating, and that Community Links has said that we either cut to crisis-led services, or deliver systemic change, why has the Welsh Government brought in house services provided by the third sector, such as Careers Wales and energy advice, and why are health boards cutting support for palliative care or bereavement counselling or local authorities for relationship counselling, each of which can deliver more for less and add value focused on better outcomes and true community empowerment?
There will be a real focus in terms of discussions between Ministers and the relevant voluntary organisations that relate to their portfolios as part of the whole process of refreshing the relationship and developing an improved and more focused relationship; it also works with the third sector scheme and the code of practice for funding. Some organisations like Careers Wales have always been an arm of Government and not of the voluntary sector. So, I really feel that those issues are being properly addressed by our approach to the third sector.
One of the third sector organisations that will lose money in the near future is Funky Dragon, because the Government has decided not to fund the program in future. This is a programme that broadens and encourages young people’s understanding of the democratic process and some of my constituents have been asking why the Government has done this. Bearing in mind that similar bodies or organisations operate in other British nations, why has the Government turned its back on young people like this and what are its intentions for the future?
I think that you are referring to the unsuccessful bid to the children and families development grant. Whether Funky Dragon, in whatever form it wishes to continue, does continue or not is not really a matter for me. There was an open bidding process and it was not successful. Children in Wales was the successful organisation in terms of the engagement strand and we expect the work to continue. I see no reason why Funky Dragon should not continue; it is a registered charity and it does not have to rely solely on Welsh Government funding. It knew a long time ago that its current funding from the Welsh Government would end at the end of September.
A constituent of mine, Will Harry, of Ysgol Gynradd Gymunedol Gymraeg Llantrisant recently won parent-teacher association volunteer of the year award 2014 for his work in revitalising and energising that school’s PTA. I am sure that you will join with me in congratulating him, but I am sure that you will also agree that a vibrant PTA can be a hugely beneficial link between a school and its wider community. What discussions have you had with the Minister for Education and Skills about the role of PTAs and school volunteers more generally in revitalising communities and encouraging positive intergenerational links between the communities?
I understand absolutely the importance of what you say and I will certainly join you in congratulating him and the work of PTAs, but PTAs are not part of my responsibility; they are that of the Minister for Education and Skills. However, I will be happy to know more about how PTAs work with volunteers to see if there is joint work that we can progress.
The cadet movement has been around in one form or another in this country for over 154 years now; it is one of the UK’s oldest, largest and most successful youth organisations, running the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, for example. It has a long and proud history of preparing youngsters for all walks of life and encouraging an active involvement in local communities. It depends hugely on volunteers as I know myself, having been involved. Given the widespread nature and activities in the community of the cadet force, and its infrastructure, what specific programmes and assistance—I realise that it is not entirely in your gift—do you offer to support the movement and will you join me in congratulating these volunteers?
I will certainly join in congratulating all volunteers for the important contribution that they make. I need to write to you in terms of this specific organisation and the type of support available to it. However, I can tell you that we support GwirVol in Wales, which promotes volunteering among young people, and, of course, we have our own direct volunteering policy that we develop through the third sector partnership council and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action to ensure that volunteering has that high priority. I will write to you on the specifics of the organisation that you refer to.
The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill? OAQ(4)0207(CTP)
I was pleased to make a statement yesterday introducing the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill.
The Bill will create a commissioner for future generations—something that is welcomed although, of course, you want the commissioner to be accountable to the Government, while many of us want to see that become the responsibility of the Assembly. However, the day before yesterday, in your appearance in Swansea, you talked about a commissioner who would work hand in hand with the Minister; ‘co-operation and collaboration’ was the term used. Can you tell us, therefore, how the commissioner’s independence is to be secured? Will relevant individuals and groups be able to bring complaints before the commissioner?
The commissioner will be independent, as are the other commissioners, even though they are appointed by the Welsh Government. Certainly, I would hope that we had a system where there was good collaboration and communication so that there was a shared understanding. The commissioner will be supported by an advisory panel. He or she will not be dependent on the whims of Government, but will make recommendations in terms of supporting the sustainable development agenda for all relevant public sector bodies.
Obviously, the future generations Bill is going to be addressing the long-term wellbeing of people in Wales, and public bodies are going to have to start thinking in a different way. How is the Minister going to ensure that this new way of thinking—long-term thinking—will be embedded in the way that organisations approach all of the issues that have come before them, so that we try to move away from short-term solutions to long-term sustainable solutions?
I will not take as long as I did with some questions on this matter yesterday.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I am really glad of that. [Laughter.]
The whole basis of the work of the future generations Bill will be a statutory basis for the public services boards to collaborate and identify how they are going to achieve the statutory goals—the six that are on the face of the Bill. The goals demand that they draw up their own wellbeing plans, so the culture will have to change dramatically. The crucial issue here, of course, is that it will be the work of the commissioner that will help to drive that forward. However, the plans will belong to those local public services boards, and that, in turn, will demand a shift in attitudes.
One of the key aspects of the new Bill will be how it tackles the key causes of poverty. Can you tell me, Minister, where the synergies will be between this Bill and the rural development plan in tackling rural poverty? How will you be using the Bill and levered-in RDP funding to achieve cost-cutting policy objectives?
This Bill will apply to all parts of Wales—rural, semi-rural, urban and semi-urban. It will be a requirement that all Welsh Government policies dovetail with the requirements of the Bill. That is the value of the Bill—to bring the key theme of sustainable development into one direction. You are quite right that tackling poverty will be a crucial part of many of the goals. That is why one of the goals is very much about building a prosperous Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 7, OAQ(4)0193(CTP), and question 8, OAQ(4)0194(CTP), have been withdrawn.
9. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect of the bedroom tax on the residents of Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)0208(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. In February, we published an assessment of the impact of the UK Government’s welfare reforms in Wales. This included the impact of the bedroom tax, which is estimated to reduce incomes in Mid and West Wales by around £3 million in 2015-16.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Since the publication of the assessment by the Government, a further report entitled ‘One Day at a Time’ was launched in the Assembly yesterday by Citizens Advice. That report shows that two out of every three homes affected by this tax will include someone with a disability or a long-term health condition. That includes a well-known family in my area, the Rutherfords of Clunderwen, who live in a house adapted at taxpayers’ expense for their disabled grandson. Now, a number of homes that have been adapted with public money, tailored for people with a disability, are under threat because of this tax. Therefore, further to the work done earlier this year, have you made a particular study of how many houses that have been adapted for disabled people may be lost from the public housing stock?
I will raise those specific questions with my colleague the Minister for Housing and Regeneration, in terms of an assessment of the homes that could be affected. However, you are right; two thirds of those affected by this reform are expected to be disabled, and that is according to the Department for Work and Pension’s estimates. So, clearly, there is an imbalance in this particular tax. Let me make it clear: I am fully behind UK Labour’s policy to abolish the bedroom tax as the only way of dealing with this iniquitous tax on people, especially those who are among the most vulnerable.
You will be aware that the Department for Work and Pensions has issued guidance on more than one occasion to every local authority regarding discretionary housing payments. Sadly, only three out of the 22 local authorities spent even half of the discretionary housing payments halfway through the last financial year, even though, as you know, unspent money has to go back to the Treasury. What discussions have you had with your colleague the Minister for housing, on discretionary housing payments, and what discussions have you had with local authorities, especially in mid and west Wales, on this issue? What is the Welsh Government doing to ensure that money is being used and not being returned to the Treasury?
A discussion with local authorities about discretionary housing payments is not a matter for me; that is something that ought to be addressed to the Minister for local government and/or the Minister for housing. However, the demand for discretionary housing payments in 15 Welsh local authorities increased by 260% since the bedroom tax was introduced in 2013-14.
10. What is the Welsh Government’s overall strategy for eradicating child poverty by the year 2020? OAQ(4)0200(CTP)
The tackling poverty action plan carries forward the strategic objectives from the 2011 child poverty strategy. We recognise that, in attempting to tackle child poverty, we need to support families as a whole. The biggest challenges to our target of eliminating child poverty are creating more work and better paid work, and UK Government choices on welfare reform.
The briefing that we received less than one hour ago says that Wales has the highest rate of child poverty of all the United Kingdom nations; 200,000 children are now affected. You could fill the national stadium almost three times. Save the Children has stated that politicians in Wales should be honest with the public about the possibility of eradicating child poverty. I am not suggesting that you are not honest, but what contingency plans does the Welsh Government have if the target is not reached?
That is a fair question. I have been upfront with Members, Save the Children and all of the campaigning children and families’ organisations that are desperately keen to see Government commitment in Wales and Westminster to tackle child poverty. I have always said, and I will stick to this: we will keep the target and the goal that we have to eradicate child poverty by 2020. We should be properly held to account for all that we could and should do to help to meet that target. I do not think that we will help a single extra child out of poverty by removing the target. We will keep the target and strive towards it. Then, if we do not achieve that target, we need to honestly understand what we have done and what we could have done to lift more children and their families out of poverty, and, at the same time, understand the impact on what we do of what is done by the UK Government. Every single children and families non-governmental organisation says that welfare reform is the biggest barrier to lifting people out of poverty. Let us be honest about the whole range of Government responsibility here and at a UK level.
It was good to hear you say that we will strive to keep that target, because I believe that we have a duty to those people and children who are in poverty to do something about it. I was pleased to hear you say that.
I think that the job is made more difficult, as you touched on, by the UK Government’s welfare reform, and it is quite clear that the UK Government, under its present colours, is not doing anything to assist us. So, it will be that long and lonely furrow that we, or you, will plough as a Government, but it will be supported by NGOs and others in society. Education is the best route for any child out of poverty and, for me, education is a must. It is there; it is a right. It is not something that we should be looking at as an option; it is a necessity for those young people to be able to go out and carve out their futures. Therefore, will you update us as to how you are working with other colleagues from the Cabinet, including the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, to tell us what you are doing to reduce the gap between those who have poor attainment levels because of their poverty and those who are able to fly because they have a better start in life?
Thank you for the question. I work with the Department for Education and Skills on a range of different initiatives. The important point is that our mission on tackling child poverty and tackling poverty is a whole-Government mission. Good examples of joint work with the Department for Education and Skills are the pupil deprivation grant, the Communities First match fund, Schools Challenge Cymru and Flying Start. In terms of the Deputy Minister for skills’ responsibilities, we definitely have a conversation around Jobs Growth Wales and, in particular, the 750 opportunities that are specifically set aside for people from Communities First backgrounds. It is not just about having resources and having a plan; it is about having an appropriate way to target those resources to make the biggest possible difference. I only wish that the same approach was taken by the UK Government.
In that case, Minister, I am sure that you would be delighted to appreciate that the UK Government is trying to put more money back into the pockets of parents. It has increased the minimum wage by 3%; it has taken 155,000 of the lowest paid workers in Wales out of tax; and it has allowed 1.2 million people in Wales to benefit from the changes to the personal tax allowances while, at the same time, making sure that those who earn the most pay the most. Do you not agree that putting money back into the pockets of working parents—and, in the rural areas that I represent, rural poverty is mainly in-work poverty—is the best way to deal with the issue of child poverty?
If only that was what the UK Government was doing as a full picture. You will have noted the research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, published on 2 July, which set out the scale of losses to working parents as well as non-working parents when you take into account all of the tax and benefit changes. I will give you a figure: it says that single-earner couples with children will lose £32 per week, or 5.4% of their net income, on average. I would like to see the UK Government come up with a serious and meaningful commitment to tackle child poverty. Only the most die-hard supporters of David Cameron’s Government would suggest that this UK Government has such a commitment. Look at what it is doing. The reality is that families with children, in work and out of work, are suffering the most as a result of the deliberate choices made by this Conservative Government. I want to see a change in direction and I want to see a real commitment to tackling child poverty. That will not happen with David Cameron as Prime Minister. I look forward to next May and a change of Government.
I am sure that those listening to this will think that we are taking the matter a lot further in the debate today. The OECD and Save the Children comment that we are not short on strategies or legislative powers in Wales. However, the evaluation report that was published today states that, while the scale of programming as far as the Welsh Government is concerned is sufficient to meet the challenge, and the duties placed on local authorities and other public bodies should ensure that the issue is tackled more effectively, to date there has been a limited impact in terms of new programming or, in fact, the targeting of resources by those local authorities and public bodies to meet the problem and to tackle the issue. Therefore, what do you think the Government needs to do as a result of this evaluation report to perhaps ensure a greater focus as far as those local authorities and other public sector bodies are concerned?
I have obviously read and considered the evaluation of the child poverty strategy here in Wales. It is fair to point out that it refers back to a point in time. There is an issue regarding the time-lag between the evaluation being published and the point that it is examining. Since that work was done, we have had another year and there is a much greater commitment across the public sector to tackling child poverty. It is part of the point about having a whole-Welsh-Government approach, but it has to be an approach that is taken right across the public, private and voluntary sectors, because there has to be a real sense of shared mission. I think that we are much further along that road as a result. That does not mean that we are perfect; we still have very real challenges about what we could and should do in Wales, and I will not shy away from that. So, I still expect more to be done, more impact to be created and very real outcomes for people currently living in poverty. However, you cannot avoid the context of what is happening on a UK level, and the choices—these are deliberate choices—that are being made that make our task here much more difficult, and mean that the people living in poverty are much less likely to be lifted out of poverty than they should be.
Sustainable Development Knowledge Transfer
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the importance of sustainable development knowledge transfer to future generations? OAQ(4)0206(CTP)
I thank the Member for that question. Enabling future generations to understand their place in the world and the contribution that they can make is essential in achieving a sustainable Wales. Many young people in Wales take an active interest in sustainability and I want them to play a role in shaping the Wales they want.
I thank the Minister very much for that response. As you will be aware, Minister, Estyn recently published the long-awaited review into education for sustainable development and global citizenship, and that publication is to be much welcomed, as are a number of the recommendations. Given your cross-cutting responsibility for the delivery of sustainable development within Government, will you undertake to issue in the near future a written statement on the Government’s response to that matter in partnership with your colleague the Minister for Education and Skills?
What I think you are pointing out in reality is a matter for the Minister for Education and Skills to lead on, because matters relating to Estyn and issues to perhaps be added to the curriculum are matters for him. However, I understand the point that you make, and issues of sustainability and the associated education are matters that affect society in general. So, I will happily discuss this with my colleague the Minister.
Minister, looking again at the links between sustainable development and the rural development plan, how does the Government envisage using the RDP to develop educational research programmes with regard to knowledge transfer?
Matters in terms of educational research programmes are very much matters for my colleague the Minister for Education and Skills, and I can discuss that issue with him. As I said in response to an earlier question, the whole emphasis of the Well-being and Future Generations (Wales) Bill is all about embedding sustainable development in all that we do. So, I see no contradiction or difficulty in ensuring that rural areas, whether it is through the RDP or by any other means, are properly included in that work.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Proposed European Union Law
1. Will the Counsel General make a statement on any discussions that he has had with Law Officers regarding the impact of proposed European Union law on Wales? OAQ(4)0066(CG)
Good afternoon, everyone; thank you very much. As I have previously mentioned, it is not my intention to make statements about discussions that I have had with UK law officers or to disclose the content of any such discussions. This is an established convention designed to preserve the integrity of those discussions and the relationship between law officers.
I thank the Counsel General for his answer; it is also a convention that I ask these questions, Presiding Officer. I have to raise one issue with you, however. I want to ask if you have an opinion on this. There is a new law that has just emerged that wants to prohibit the use of drift nets by fishermen in Wales, and that emerged from nowhere, as it were; no-one in the Welsh Government or the Assembly seemed to be aware of it. It happened immediately before the European elections, so none of the Members of the European Parliament were fully aware of it. This is a law that will have a very detrimental effect on my region, and in general on the fishermen of the kind that we have in Wales, where the fishing is different in nature to the kind of fishing that the European Union is trying to deal with through this proposed law. The reason that I ask is that it is obvious that this can happen without us having adequate opportunity to scrutinise the potential impacts that European law could have on Wales, because that it what we will have to do—transpose this directive into our own laws. Are you of the opinion that we have the necessary steps in place to safeguard the actions of the European Union and the proposals of the Commission, and that you and the Government have adequate staff and resources to keep a close eye on these developments at the European Commission level?
The first thing for me to say is that I too am unaware of the particular development that you mention. As you will be aware, and as I am aware from the recent report by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee about the engagement with the development of law at European level, most of these matters operate at the policy level rather than at the level for which I am directly responsible. I am happy to look into the matter to which you advert, but I cannot give you an answer here and now.
2. Will the Counsel General provide an update on any representations he has made in relation to cases that are before the Supreme Court? OAQ(4)0067(CG)
I am very pleased to confirm that the Supreme Court has today unanimously held that the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill is within the Assembly’s legislative competence. This Bill will now proceed to Royal Assent. Judgment in the Recovery of Medical Costs for Asbestos Diseases (Wales) Bill reference is still awaited.
I thank the Counsel General for that response. I was of the opinion that both Bills were to be discussed together, so I would like an update on the asbestos Bill. However, may I specifically welcome the statement made today on the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill, congratulate the Counsel General and his team on work that was obviously well done before the Supreme Court, and welcome the fact that the Supreme Court has confirmed our interpretation of the slightly ambiguous boundaries of our constitutional settlement as it currently stands? Do you agree with me, Counsel General, that this is a significant decision by the Supreme Court, because its definition of a field under the 20 fields that are devolved, and its definition of the way that a field is dealt with, is one that justifies the approach of actually pushing against those boundaries? Do you now regret the fact that it was not possible to consider including zero-hours contracts within that Bill, because it is obvious that such contracts are also within the competence of Wales in relation to a field that is devolved?
Well, I cannot deal with the issue of zero-hours contracts today. First, may I place on record as well my thanks to the team that has supported me so well in the work that we have done in upholding the Bill? I should say in passing that the suggestion that a problem or some of the problems associated with the reference of this Bill are to do with rushed legislation or sloppy law-making causing doubts over competence and months of uncertainty for Welsh farmers, I utterly reject. There was nothing particularly, we thought, difficult about this particular reference, apart from the fact that there is a controversy about whether there are subjects, if I can put it that way, that are reserved in some way or impliedly excepted when the Government of Wales Act 2006 does not say that. We are very glad to have had a very clear decision from the Supreme Court, completely aligned with the arguments that we made. However, again, as I said the last time that this happened, I am far from complacent. We could go again and lose, but we won again five-nil, and I am very pleased about that. I think that this is a very important decision because it upholds the breadth of the devolution settlement even in its current form.
Counsel General, do you have any indication as to what this particular challenge by the UK Government has actually cost the public purse?
‘No’ is the answer to that. I am afraid that I do not know. I certainly do not know anything about the costs as far as the UK Government is concerned. Members will be aware, of course, that the costs on our side are limited by the fact that I, as an office holder, do the main advocacy myself.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Counsel General.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the First Minister.
Further to the Counsel General’s answer to Simon Thomas just now, I wish to make a statement about today’s decision of the Supreme Court on the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill. The statement touches on both the future of the agriculture sector in Wales and constitutional issues arising from the judgment.
The sector was supported for many years by the Agricultural Wages Board and the provisions in agricultural wages Orders for England and Wales. As we all remember, the Agricultural Wages Board was abolished by the UK Government on 25 June 2013. That was done without the consent of the National Assembly for Wales, and it destroyed a well-functioning system that was beneficial to the agriculture industry in Wales.
To provide a continuous level of support to the industry, the Welsh Government introduced the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill on 8 July 2013 to the Assembly. The Bill was referred to the Supreme Court in August by the Attorney General for England and Wales, who stated that he was not convinced that certain provisions of the Bill were within the legislative competence of the Assembly. During a two-day hearing before the Supreme Court on 17 and 18 February this year, the Counsel General argued strongly that the provisions of the Bill were within the legislative competence of the Assembly.
I am delighted to confirm today that the Supreme Court has ruled in favour of the competence of the National Assembly to enact the provisions of the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill. The Bill preserves the bespoke statutory regime for agricultural workers in Wales, as prescribed in the Agricultural Wages (England and Wales) Order 2012, it allows Welsh Ministers to create an agricultural advisory panel, enables Welsh Ministers to make future wages Orders and promote skills development and career progression in the agricultural sector.
The Bill will shortly be submitted to Her Majesty the Queen for Royal Assent and it is expected to become an Act later this month. Until a new Order is made by Welsh Ministers, the provisions of the 2012 agricultural wages Order will remain active in Wales. Following Royal Assent of the Bill, we will launch a 12-week formal public consultation on the proposed constitution and functions of the agricultural advisory panel. The Act, when given Royal Assent, will preserve a system that already supports professional development and growth and rewards skills and experience by adhering to a career matrix designed specifically for that industry.
The agricultural sector is crucial to the overall development of the Welsh economy. Land used for agricultural purposes accounts for approximately 84% of the total land area in Wales and the sector alone is worth over £150 million in gross value added to the Welsh economy. That figure does not reflect anything like the full value added to the Welsh economy when we take into account food production, environmental management, services and other economic multipliers arising from agriculture. Therefore, it is very important to see an increasingly resilient and sustainable agricultural industry in Wales, with well-trained workers and professionally run farm businesses that will not only help the industry address present and future challenges, but also take advantage of the many opportunities. This can only be achieved by promoting upskilling and introducing a bespoke statutory regime that is tailored to the needs of the agricultural industry in Wales.
Llywydd, the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill was the second Assembly Bill referred to the Supreme Court by the Attorney General, questioning the legislative competence of the Assembly. As such, while this is a welcome decision, this clearly shows that the current devolution settlement lacks the necessary clarity regarding the powers and remit of the National Assembly. We, as a Government, fully support the Silk commission’s recommendation that the Welsh devolution settlement should be recast to a reserved-powers model, and, of course, we further endorse the conclusion of the commission that by making such a recommendation—and we know—there is no case for the removal of existing powers from the Assembly. It makes perfect sense to ensure that there is greater clarity in the future for the good of all concerned. In the meantime, however, we welcome this exceptionally important judgment.
May I thank the First Minister for his statement and welcome today’s Supreme Court decision? It brings doubt and worry to an end. First Minister, I appreciate that you were not the lead Minister when this legislation was rushed through the National Assembly. The fact that this Bill was pushed through the Assembly using the emergency procedure, which stopped wider engagement and scrutiny, is, of course, very regrettable. That is the view of this side of the Chamber. I do not agree that the agricultural wages board was a well-functioning system that was beneficial to the agricultural industry in Wales. That is the view of us on this side of the Chamber and many others throughout the industry. Our views are well recorded in that regard and I will not reiterate them any further.
I would like to ask whether you think that the emergency procedures were now the wrong path to go down. In the future, will the Welsh Government use the normal procedures that we, as Assembly Members, should expect? May I also ask, now that we have clarity on this issue, whether you think that further referrals of this nature will perhaps not be made to the Supreme Court? Do you think that this judgment today sets a precedent for future disputes over competence? I would just appreciate your views on that.
Following the 12-week formal consultation that you talked about with regard to the constitution and functions of the agricultural advisory panel, when do you expect the Assembly to be further updated? When may we expect you to introduce these measures?
Finally, I would be interested in your view on this: what are the implications for decisions in other areas with regard to pay and conditions, such as teachers’ pay? I know that that is not devolved—I understand that—but are there wider implications, do you think, that we should be aware of?
First, may I thank the Member for welcoming the judgment in a way that the Secretary of State did not in Parliament? All he said today was that he would consider the implications, which carries a slightly sinister overtone, some might say, in terms of what he is going to do next, because he said that he would come back to the House. However, I noticed that Stephen Crabb did welcome the judgment, and I thank him for that.
I would remind the Member that the issue of the emergency procedure was well discussed at the time. It was forced on us by the UK Government’s own timetable. It was the UK Government that looked to abolish the board without the consent of the Assembly. Therefore, there was no choice but to attempt to fill that lacuna as quickly as possible, and that is why the emergency procedure was used: it was because of a timetable that was forced on the Assembly by the UK Government. I have to remind the Member that many on his side told us that we did not have the competence to do this, and they have been proven wrong. His colleague, Antoinette Sandbach, who may or may not speak later—I do not know—said on many, many occasions that this was outside the competence of the National Assembly. She was wrong. The Supreme Court has now ruled on that, and I welcome very much what that ruling has told us.
It is an important ruling in this sense. From my understanding of it, what it says is that, in order for the Assembly to have legislative competence, it does not have to show that a proposed piece of legislation is entirely within a devolved area as long as it comes within one of the fields specified in Schedule 7. So, as the Supreme Court said in the judgment, it is possible to argue that the issue of agricultural wages sits in the field of agriculture or, indeed, sits within the purview of employment law. What the Supreme Court seemed to suggest is that, as long as it can be brought within Schedule 7 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, it is within the Assembly’s legislative competence. It does not have to be fully within devolved legislative competence in order for it to be within the competence of the Assembly.
In terms of the 12-week consultation, well, of course, there will be an announcement once that consultation has come to an end in due course. Teachers’ pay and conditions are specifically not devolved; they are, to use the proper legal terminology, not conferred on the National Assembly. I do not see that there will be any benefit to this other than to the workers themselves who will now have their benefits protected. At the end of the day, we took this through in order to make sure that some of the lowest-paid workers in Wales were in a position where their wage rates were protected, and I am very glad to see that the Supreme Court has ensured that the Assembly, in its desire to protect those workers, is now able to do so. I am not surprised that the party opposite does not see that as a priority.
First Minister, the decision of the Supreme Court to unanimously dismiss the Tory challenge to the agricultural wages Bill is, as you say, a stunning and overwhelming victory for the Welsh Government’s principled stand, taken to protect agricultural workers in Wales. It was a very, very good day for democracy in Wales. As you have already outlined, the judgment goes further than many of us would have anticipated in that it clearly comes as close as the Supreme Court could possibly come to effectively endorsing a reserved-powers model in respect of how legislation should be dealt with within the Assembly. Hopefully, that will be an instigation to proper legislative reform.
I think that it is also important, First Minister, and I am sure that you would agree, to recognise the battle for this being fought by the young farmers, the Farmers’ Union of Wales, Unite the Union, and the commitment of the former Minister for Natural Resources and Food, Alun Davies, who actually made this legislation happen. First Minister, I think that it is also important to recognise that, throughout this whole process, the Tories stood hand in glove with the landowners and fought every inch of the way to prevent working people in the agricultural industry from getting the sort of protection that existed from the AWB, even to the extent of submitting and writing an argument at every stage that this was out of competence and that it would be damaging to the industry. We heard the representations that were made in the committee investigating this, which, basically, were along the lines that the reason why, for example, the NFU wanted to see an end to the AWB was so that it could increase wages. First Minister, I think that it is also worth recognising—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you coming to some questions?
I will come to a question, Presiding Officer—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, that will be helpful.
It is to recognise the fact that there is a commitment now from the Labour Party in Westminster to reinstate the AWB. Do you agree that the model that we have now for agriculture in Wales and the protections that we have established could now be re-established throughout the whole of the UK when Labour wins the general election in May?
Yes, I do. I think that there is much to be learned from the model that we are going to put in place in Wales. I hesitate to call it a victory, because I think that the Bill was referred by the Attorney General in what I thought was a genuine attempt to try to clarify what is a difficult Part, among many difficult Parts, of the Government of Wales Act 2006. It was important, and the Member is right to say, that the judgment goes well beyond, in many respects, what we would have thought, because it does make it quite clear, in my view, that there is a greater flexibility for this Assembly than perhaps was originally thought before this judgment came through. It certainly helps to inform the situation with regard to zero-hours contracts, for example, in a way that was not available to us at the time when the social services Bill came through, and I think that it is now worth examining the judgment carefully to see what might be done in that field. Certainly, that clarity is most welcome, and it was not there before.
However, again, I join with the Member in saying that this is an important and landmark piece of legislation that will help to protect many agricultural workers. I am more than pleased to see that the Supreme Court has agreed with our view and has ensured that at least some more clarity is introduced into the devolution settlement, although, of course, there is more that could be done.
May I also endorse the welcome given to the decision of the Supreme Court and the fact that what is contained within the Bill now, hopefully, can proceed relatively swiftly? However, whichever way the decision would have gone, everyone acknowledges, I know, that too much Welsh legislation ends up in the Supreme Court. I am sure, First Minister, that you would agree with me that that leads to excessive delays in bringing legislation into force and also wastes money and resources.
The current devolution dispensation clearly is not fit for purpose and is far beyond its use-by date. The case for moving to a reserved-powers model, I believe, has been made, and has been accepted by all parties and reiterated again in your statement today, First Minister. However, do you not regret maybe that your party did not introduce a more robust and more sustainable devolution settlement in the first place? Maybe you could tell us what you now think about that. We as politicians obviously need clarity around what is within competence and what is reserved to Westminster, but, more importantly, the public needs that clarity as well. Only recently, a BBC poll showed us that the majority of the Welsh public believes that David Cameron runs the health service in Wales. Surely, a reserved-powers model would significantly move us forward in that respect.
You have already indicated in relation to zero-hours contracts that they are something that you might now wish to reflect upon, and I welcome that, because the Farmers’ Union of Wales only today, following the decision of the Supreme Court, has called on you to reconsider your approach in light of the judgment. I would ask as well that you confirm that this is something that you would be happy to consider in relation to social care, which is another instance of Jocelyn Davies bringing forward amendments for that particular sector.
You have already suggested, I think, that you understand or believe that there will be wider implications following this judgment, so maybe you could indicate as well, First Minister, whether this judgment will now give the Welsh Government much more confidence and ambition in bringing a wider breadth of legislation forward in future.
I thank the Member for his comments. I think that it is fair to say that the current Government of Wales Act is past its sell by date. I have always said that. In fairness, devolution has been a process. Back in 1999, we had nothing like the powers that we have now and people may not have supported them at the time, but Welsh people have become more devolution friendly and more supportive over time. The LCO process, unlamented, is not something that we wish to return to, but it was a stepping stone at the time to allow Welsh Government and, indeed, this Assembly to get to grips with what appeared to be primary legislation, even though it was not. It served its purpose at the time, as did the Government of Wales Act. However, that time has gone now and we have to move forward with a new government of Wales Act that transfers more powers and, certainly, makes those powers, or boundaries rather, clearer.
In terms of running the health service, I think that it was 43% who said that they thought the Conservative Government ran the health service. It is still too high, I grant that. Nevertheless, it shows the difficulty that exists sometimes in terms of the fact that we do not have a strong national media in Wales that has the coverage that, for example, exists in Scotland. However, that is a debate for another day. There is no doubt in my mind that this judgment provides far greater clarity with regard to the issue, for example, of zero-hour contracts. The problem that we had with the Social Services and Well-being Bill was that we could not say whether the Supreme Court would take the view that it was an employment law matter or a social care matter. Now it is far clearer, of course. As I said in the Chamber at the time, or as the Minister said, we did not want to see the entire Bill—large as it was—delayed for months in the Supreme Court and so that was the reason we gave for not supporting the amendment that was made at the time. It does make it a lot clearer now. It is quite clear to me that as long as we can ensure that a piece of legislation fits within Schedule 7—even if it does not entirely fit within it—it will be within competence, even if it partially covers an area that is not devolved. That is an immense step forward. I would certainly welcome the greater clarity that that provides.
We will continue to be ambitious and push the boundaries. We have done it twice already. It may well be in the future that there are other Bills that end up in the Supreme Court. I hope not, because it is in no-one’s interests that that should happen and that is why this is another step towards moving to a reserved-powers model that would enable us to have far greater clarity. We have to be careful though, because the judgment that was made today extends the breadth of devolution to the point that it may take us beyond the reserved-powers model. We have to make sure that if we have a reserved-powers model, we do not end up handing powers to Westminster. There are a few issues that will need to be resolved. As a judgment it is immensely clear, immensely important and certainly provides far more flexibility and clarity than was previously the case.
I would like to thank the First Minister very much for bringing forward this statement this afternoon. It would obviously be churlish not to welcome the clarity that the Supreme Court judgment has brought, not just to this issue, but also to the wider constitutional matters to which the First Minister and others have referred. It is fair to say that this was a pretty bruising process, namely the consideration of this Bill, and it was also divisive when it came to the Chamber. It also brought division across Wales with the farming unions being split on the issue, the young farmers on the one side and the Tenant Farmers Association taking a different view. Therefore, we clearly now have closure on that particular issue and I think that that is important. However, we were, at that time, unable as a group to support the Bill and that was despite the combined efforts that were led by Antoinette Sandbach, Llyr Gruffydd and me in terms of bringing greater clarity to the Bill than was there in the original draft. We were unable to support it purely because of the refusal of the former Minister to listen to some specific concerns around one or two aspects of this. They concerned the wording that failed to make the distinction between ‘wilful’ and ‘involuntary’ conduct in relation to the Bill’s implementation. The lack of that clarity and that distinction could lead, in our view, to the possibility of a farmer or grower who, in an emergency situation of his or her own, such as illness, being deprived of the protection and fair play to which he or she would normally have been entitled. As such, it would, in my view, have been irresponsible for us to have supported the legislation in that form without further investigation and appropriate amendment. This is something that could have occurred had the normal legislative procedures been allowed for and the option of a report stage admitted. Given this, First Minister, I ask you to comment on what investigation has since taken place on that matter, which is potentially a serious one for farmers and growers in Wales? If no such work has been done on that point, a point that the then Minister had not been considered until it was tabled during the Bill’s discussion, will you commit to investigating what steps could be taken to mitigate it in terms of the Act’s supporting guidance?
Finally, First Minister, will you give an assurance that, when the time comes for the new body to have its governance arrangements sorted out and have the appointments made, there will be no question of blackballing representatives of the Tenant Farmers Association and, indeed, the National Farmers Union, who, for their own legitimate reasons at the time, opposed the Government’s direction in this matter?
I am reluctant to reopen the Bill because that has gone now; the debate on that has passed. What the Member asked me was whether consideration could be given to the guidance. Of course, we will give consideration to what the guidance might show and try to be as flexible as possible. However, the Bill has passed and that is now something that will be dealt with when the Bill becomes an Act at the end of this month.
There is no question of blackballing representatives. It is not the case in Wales that we would ever seek to do that. There are many in the Chamber who opposed devolution and who are here and we have not sought to blackball them in any way. Indeed, there are many who opposed devolution in other parties that have formed a very strong role in formulating Welsh Government policy outside of the Chamber when they have left front-line politics, as it were. There is no question of anybody being in that situation. That much I can assure Members.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We have had a speaker from each of the parties, so we will move now straight into questions. I call Antoinette Sandbach.
I do agree with you, First Minister, that the judgment from the Supreme Court takes the matter further than perhaps the reserved-powers model. Of course, it was looking at Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act, and not the process under which this Bill was brought forward. I have to say that I do agree with William Powell that the process was divisive and that the use of the emergency Bill procedure brought shame, in fact, on this Assembly, in the way that it was used and the way in which that legislation was attempted to be brought forward. There are going to be very real issues around cross-border farms—farms whose land straddles both sides of the English and Welsh border—and how that is going to be dealt with, because they will be subject to two separate legal regimes. So, maybe you could deal with that issue.
In terms of your comments about me being wrong, I spent 10 years, as you know, at the Bar, and I have always found that it is important to stand up. You do not always win your case. Of course, it is preferable, and I did have a very successful career at the Bar, First Minister—it was far longer than yours, I believe—
No; I was there for 11 and a half years.
[Continues.]—but I have no shame in accepting—[Interruption.] I am perfectly prepared to accept that on this side of the benches, we were—. This is a badly drafted piece of legislation; this will not be the first challenge that happens to it. It is as badly drafted as the Government of Wales Act itself. It is a hallmark of Labour Governments that they introduce poorly drafted, lengthy and, very often, ineffective legislation. We look forward to seeing how this gets implemented in due course.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I am not sure whether there were many questions in there, First Minister, but please answer them if there were.
I was intrigued when I heard the Member say ‘on this side of the benches, we were’ and then she said nothing. ‘We were’ what? ‘We were wrong’—I think that ‘wrong’ is the word she was looking for. Of course, you hold a position in politics and that is not always a position that subsequently proves to be right. I understand that that is the same in law, but she was strident that this was outside of competence and the reality is that she was incorrect in her submissions, if I can put it that way in terms of legal terminology. Again, I have to remind the Member that cross-border issues are well dealt with, and have been for more than 15 years. We have, of course, cross-border holdings. The rural payment system is very different between Wales and England—that has never been a particular problem; we resolve that. It is the same with this issue. If you use cross-border problems as a reason not to exercise competence in an area, then it is an argument, ultimately, against devolution itself, because there are problems with cross-border issues. They can be dealt with. We have done it for many, many years, in terms of common agricultural policy subsidy payments.
She did not quite say that she was incorrect in her submissions, but, nevertheless, I will be generous this afternoon, and welcome the fact that she has welcomed that there is greater clarity now. With regard to the Bill itself, clearly that is an issue that has been debated within the Chamber. I do not accept that it has brought shame to the Chamber at all; otherwise, all who took part in the debate are part of that shame. I do not think that any of us in the Chamber are part of that. As I said earlier on, the timetable was forced on us by her own party in Government—a timetable that we did not choose, and a timetable that would have meant that low-paid agricultural workers would have been left without protection, had we not taken the action that we took.
The emergency procedure is not to be used lightly; that much I know. However, we were not prepared to see a situation where, because of the actions of the UK Government, Welsh workers were needlessly left without protection, and today’s judgment has justified that.
It is interesting to hear Antoinette Sandbach say that she had been at the Bar herself for 10 years. Just remind me never to ask Antoinette to represent me on any issues, because she has not had an awful lot of success while she has been over here. However, I just wanted to say that I think that this is a good day for agricultural workers. [Interruption.] Well, no; I would not have you anywhere near me, Antoinette. I would do it myself, I think, before I trusted you.
So, I just wanted to ask the First Minister, given that he understood the terminology that was being used there—as barristers do—whether he thinks that Antoinette Sandbach should apologise to the people of north Wales for the remarks that she has made about us playing party politics with this particular Bill.
Well, it clearly was not party politics. We wanted to protect low-paid workers, and we have done that. The UK Government took the view, which was subsequently shown to be incorrect, that this was outside the competence of the Assembly. We took the view that it was within competence, and five Supreme Court judges—5-0, which is not quite the same as last night in terms of a result—unanimously agreed that this was within our competence.
There is an argument for saying that the Bill had to be tested because of the lack of clarity in the Government of Wales Act, and I accept that. However, there is no doubt at all that there are many agricultural workers today who will be more than happy with the fact that we have taken this Bill forward, and the fact that it has been shown that Wales has the competence in this area that it should have.
I am not going to comment on the Member’s legal prowess, because it is professional misconduct to do so, under the code of conduct of the Bar. Nevertheless, it has been shown that there are great perils to be had when Members in the Conservative benches opposite automatically take the London line. Today, that has been shown to be wrong.
First Minister, I am no great fan of the use of the emergency procedure in relation to legislation, but it is true to say that there is no link between emergency legislation here and references to the Supreme Court. Those are made on the principle of the issue. It is not wise either for Members here to discuss the cost of this process, because the cost—well, the Counsel General has referred one Bill himself to the Supreme Court. The cost arises because we have an ambiguous settlement, and that has to be tested time and again, unnaturally in a way. If we had a more comprehensive settlement that he and I agree on then that issue would be settled, as it were.
Now, in using emergency legislation—. If I recall correctly, we passed this Bill with a sunset clause. If you wish to consult further, are you going to consult, therefore, and move from a situation where you have a sunset clause in a Bill to a situation where this becomes permanent legislation, so that we can—with the assurances provided by the Supreme Court—move beyond that need for a sunset clause?
If I could refer to what is included in the Supreme Court’s decision—or at least to what is in the summary, because, given that I am not a barrister, I read the summary, rather than the full decision. It strikes me as very significant that the Supreme Court states that
‘agriculture…should be understood in a broader sense as designating the industry or economic activity of agriculture in all its aspects…as it is to that broader subject matter that legislative activity is directed’.
To me, that is true of the other subject areas contained within the Government of Wales Act 2006 as it currently stands. That is why I suppose that the First Minister is saying that it perhaps goes beyond what we have been discussing, even in terms of the reserved-powers model. Finally, in the light of the confirmation of this Bill, what steps will be enabled under the Act, as it will become, to help to improve and enhance skills within the agricultural sector? When the Bill was made, I remember that the Minister at the time talked not only about employment, but the need for training and a wider engagement with skills within the sector.
First, in terms of the sunset clause, that will need to be considered in order to ensure that this becomes permanent law; that much is true. Even though there are clear principles here, legislation is not always as clear in terms of the detail. So, I am sure that the Supreme Court would say that it would have to consider every case before it in its consideration of the details—in following the principles and in considering the detail. However, it is not as clear to say, ‘We can do this in agriculture and, therefore, it follows that we can do it in every other area’, even though this has been a great help in terms of the principles.
In terms of skills, this is part of the Bill itself. I mentioned the fact that a consultation board will be created and that a 12-week consultation will take place. It is very important, as it is in every area, to ensure that people have the skills for this century and that they can get jobs, and to ensure that Wales is considered as a location for investment. That is a key issue for the legislation, and that is something that the Minister will work on over the months and years to come.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 15:47.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Ann Jones to move the motion.
Motion NDM5552 Ann Jones, Andrew R.T. Davies, Aled Roberts, Bethan Jenkins.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the overwhelming appetite amongst football supporters for the introduction of safe standing facilities;
Calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with sport associations and regulatory authorities to promote safe standing at sports stadia in Wales; and
Calls on the UK Government to consider the introduction of a pilot of safe standing in Wales.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion.
I place on record my thanks to those Members who have co-tabled this motion alongside me.
Since the 1990s, major football clubs across the UK have been required to have all-seater stadiums, following several high-profile incidents. However, traditionally, most football grounds in the United Kingdom had terraces at each end, usually behind goals. Cardiff City football ground is a classic example of the areas where people stood behind the goals. Most supporters watched football standing up and, during the late 1980s, the average standing capacity in grounds was roughly twice that of seated provision.
Some football administrators saw the removal of the terraces as a solution to the problem of hooliganism and crowd control that had arisen during the 1970s. Coventry City Football Club’s Highfield Road became England’s first all-seater football stadium in 1981. However, it was clear that the all-seater stadium failed to prevent disorder or increase attendances and so, some two years later, seats were removed from part of the ground as it reverted back to its former configuration.
Football fans want, and deserve, a choice when it comes to sitting or standing. Ninety-two per cent of fans surveyed stated that they wanted the choice to either sit or stand. In England and Wales, all seating is a requirement of the Barclays Premier League and of the Football League for clubs that have been present in the championship for more than three seasons. However, other major sports now have allocated standing areas: St Helens Rugby League Football Club at Langtree Park, whose new stadium opened in 2012, has standing provision for almost 8,000 fans. Safe standing is officially supported by Cardiff City Football Club, Swansea City Association Football Club and the vast number of teams that make up the Welsh Premier League here within the Football Association of Wales’s jurisdiction. We know that safe standing is a tried and tested method of ensuring fans’ safety and of creating a world-class atmosphere for those fans. We need only look at how commonplace it is across the continent. I know that other Members will mention the issues there.
Without a doubt, more fans want to be able to channel their enthusiasm and support through the use of more safe standing areas. This enormous support proves that safe standing is not exclusive to one club, but that it is a need that is being expressed by more and more clubs that want to give their fans the best possible experience when they are turning up, through the turnstiles, to watch their teams play.
The rail seats configuration is the most common safe standing technique. It allocates a space for each fan, and that seat can be locked into place. They can also then be unlocked so that it becomes an all-seater configuration that can still be used if it is needed for UEFA competitions. It would not therefore lead to an overcrowding issue.
What is being suggested here is not a return to the terracing of the 1960s and 1970s. That era often just used occasional crush barriers, dotted around huge banks of steep terracing, meaning that any fan could be a dozen or more steps away from a fixed support. So, given what we know today in terms of crowd surging, we understand that you are more likely to have been hurt under that sort of terracing and standing on those terraces. However, modern safe standing areas would be smaller, shallower and have a waist-high rail between at least every two rows of fans or spectators. No fan would ever be more than an arm’s length, or 15 inches away from a sturdy rail. Falling forward or getting squashed is then rendered almost impossible and so would, I believe, meet the needs of safety standards as is now being directed by the governing bodies.
Standing enhances the games’ atmosphere. The large number of fans who prefer to sit to watch the football find themselves inconvenienced when fans stand up in front of them. I can testify to that. The installation of high-rail seats to create a designated standing area would remove standing fans from those designated seating areas, and it avoids potential conflict between those supporters.
Due to the excitement and drama of the game, many fans get to their feet to celebrate the goals, the near chances, and the more exciting moments of the game, or even just to point out the error of the referee or the linesperson at the time. Fans who stand in the current arrangements do so for those reasons, but they are not safe doing that and they could easily fall forward, taking others with them and so cause a major disruption to the fans, but, more importantly, they could be hurt. Stewards face that thankless task at games of trying to persuade their club’s most passionate supporters to sit down. That creates a bad feeling between the fans and the stewards, and then fans are more likely to go on to ignore stewards should there be any more important safety matters. By introducing the high-rail safe standing areas in a dedicated part of the ground, this serves to please all of those sections of supporters. Safe standing allows those who wish to stand to do so in safety and to have peace of mind.
The Football Association of Wales, I believe, has a golden opportunity here. It has a real chance to show the fans who support football in Wales that there is a real chance to pioneer a trial period of safe standing within the Welsh Premier League. Many of the Welsh teams want it, so why not let them trial it? It has worked in other nations not dissimilar to Wales, and the demand, as I have demonstrated, is there.
Forever in sport we talk about the fans’ experience. Let us, for once, put the fans first and let them have some safe standing areas. Then, let us re-evaluate that to go forward as a Government, as fans, but, as governing bodies, to make sure that we do make safe standing a must for all football stadiums across our country. Thank you.
Others will have quite a lot to say in addition to Ann’s points today, so I do not want to speak for very long. I just thought that it might encourage those who are taking part in the debate today, particularly those who are sceptical about this idea, that at least one of us—and that is me—has changed their mind on the issue of safe standing. I did come at it initially very much from the position that we should do nothing that could reduce public protection from another Hillsborough disaster. Beyond that, bearing in mind that fervent support for your team can still manifest itself in hostile behaviour, I was not minded to support anything that would jeopardise football grounds becoming welcoming places for children, women, people with particular vulnerabilities or disabilities, or even parents like myself who are interested in taking their children and have never been to a football match before. Beyond that, I must admit that I looked at this from the point of view of being a short person. Experience at many a stadium music event has convinced me that standing in a crowd means that you cannot see the band, the people around you cannot see you, and everybody gets to the oxygen before you do. [Laughter.] So, I did feel that there was an element of unintended discrimination creeping into the argument, because shorties like me, children and other vulnerable people would not be able to enjoy in any meaningful way the opportunity of cheaper tickets that would be sold for standing areas. However, then I went to the Safe Standing Roadshow, when it visited the Senedd a couple of weeks ago, and I saw the protective structures that would form the infrastructure of standing areas—completely different from the death-trap terraces that I remember. I understood how people who use wheelchairs can be part of the crowd with their friends. I heard that they already work in grounds in continental Europe. The Bundesliga, which is well known even to people like me to have the loudest and most hostile crowd, has benefited greatly in terms of atmosphere, but, crucially, without compromising the safety of spectators.
I think that keeping home and away fans separated is still a necessary evil, it seems, and it is a very uncomfortable observation, I have to say, for someone like me who is much more familiar with the rugby atmosphere. Having said that, some rugby fans who also enjoy standing might benefit from this, because the introduction of safe standing could in future encourage ground sharing and a more efficient use of facilities. We are going to see one example of this at Ryan Jones's new stamping ground, as Bristol Rugby is set to kick off its new season at Bristol City Football Club's Ashton Gate Stadium, which has just installed a section of safe standing rail areas.
I am not saying that Welsh grounds should rush to safe standing, as it costs money to start ripping out existing infrastructure, but in planning for wider access and looking ahead to refurbishment or new uses for grounds, I hope that opportunities for installing safe standing will not be overlooked.
The proposal is that the National Assembly for Wales
‘Calls on the Welsh Government to work closely with sport associations and regulatory authorities to promote safe standing at sports stadia in Wales’.
Standing at football grounds is popular. Many remember standing in such areas as the Kop, the Shed and, of course, the North Bank at Swansea. Many football fans want to be able to stand. Anybody listening to the tannoy at a football ground would be aware that many still stand in seated areas. Fans want to be able to stand. It would increase the capacity of football grounds without the need for any additional building work and it would save clubs substantial sums of money. It is supported by the Football Supporters’ Federation, which believes that pilot schemes would show that standing—outlawed after Hillsborough’s Leppings Lane disaster, which is still being discussed today—is now a safe way to watch football. A number of clubs, including Cardiff City, support this. I stand most weeks to watch sport on a Saturday afternoon in my constituency, where the local rugby and soccer teams play. However, the largest crowd that I was in last year was the 400 who went to see Bonymaen defeat Pontypool—where is Lynne Neagle when I need her? [Laughter.]
When the ground is not full, there are huge advantages to standing. You can go up and down the ground, meet up with different groups of friends, and even when the ground is full, you can stay together as a group of friends, watching the game, rather than be restricted in where you can sit. With all those advantages, why am I against safe standing? First, it is because I believe that safe standing is an oxymoron. I do not believe it possible for grounds that are at, or are near, capacity to have safe standing. I will now address five points: the surge; the crush; overcrowding; hooliganism; and the charge. When a standing crowd surges, everyone moves forward, but the banks are tiered, or terraced. You thus—this is personal experience here—can be moving forward, pushed by the crowd with your feet off the ground, to be deposited, hopefully upright, when the surge either returns you to where you started or puts you down—7 February 1968, Swansea City versus Arsenal in the FA Cup, which other Members may know.
The crush is caused because even if there is room in the corners, fans quite rightly want the best standing positions they can get, so they aim for a central position on the ground. Those at the back push forward, and those at the front, who are against barriers, end up getting crushed. While the number of seats in a seating area limits the number who can enter, no such limit exists in a standing area. That is what happened at the Hillsborough disaster: people kept on coming in at the Leppings Lane end, vastly exceeding its capacity. I do not want to go into the reasons for it, but the actual problem was too many people in too small a space. There is a nominal capacity, but we all know that people are of different sizes—he says, breathing in—and when overcrowding occurs, you can have serious injuries and fatalities.
Hooliganism has been almost completely ended at football matches. I believe that one of the main reasons is that they know who bought each seat, and, if there is a problem, the purchaser can be identified. We had a problem at the Liberty Stadium recently—the season before last—where a spectator had behaved badly. They were immediately identified by who had bought the ticket.
When you have standing areas, people move around; you do not know who they are. We are all familiar with hoodies, balaclavas and other means of keeping people’s faces covered. Obviously, with standing areas, you do not know who anyone is, and then the charge happens. For those who remember the Heysel disaster, it was caused by a charge. It became very popular at football matches to charge the opposition. However, you cannot do that when you are sitting down. You are stuck when you are sitting down; you cannot move around.
May I make an intervention?
Thank you, Mike; I am really grateful. I am summing up this debate, so I could have made this point then, but if you had attended the event that was held at the Senedd, you would have seen the layout that prevents the surge and charge through the barriers that are there for people to use and lean on. So much of what you have touched on is looking back 20 or 30 years in crowd control and stadium design—not the current offering that is available.
I will, hopefully, be intervening when you do your summing up on this, because I have some comments that I would like to make on that. However, if I may carry on, football grounds have become safe places. The mix of stands is far more reflective of society than the banks ever were. The banks were traditionally made up of men and boys between the ages of 12 and 40; others would be there, but it was mainly that age group.
To quote the Premier League:
‘Since the introduction of all-seater stadia the supporter experience has improved significantly and we have seen more diverse crowds attending Premier League matches, including more women and children. The police, safety officers and licensing authorities remain clear and have consistently informed us that crowd management has improved as a result of all-seater stadiums being in place in the top two divisions in this country.’
I believe that it would be a serious and retrograde step to bring back standing at football grounds, although I understand that a lot of people want it.
As we know, new stadiums with terraces are already beginning to be opened across the UK. However, what surprised me was how widespread safe standing remains in other countries. In Germany’s Bundesliga, for example, as has been mentioned, all of the league’s grounds allow standing and often have huge standing areas.
The ground belonging to Borussia Dortmund, one of Europe’s biggest and most successful clubs, provides standing accommodation for 27,000 fans. In 1998, UEFA ordered that all games in its competitions had to be played in all-seater stadiums. For a club like Dortmund—I have to learn to say it—which is a participant in and winner of the Champions League, this could have been a problem. However, it and other top-flight German clubs have developed a range of solutions, including the bolting of temporary seats to the steps of terraces and removable crush barriers, which can also be easily moved afterwards, as I think has been said in an intervention. Others use seats that fold away under aluminium terrace steps.
All of us here hope for the day when our clubs take part in high-profile competitions like the Champions League. Having said that, the prospect of requiring an all-seater facility for such eventualities does not appear to have prevented Swansea City and Cardiff City supporters from supporting the safe-standing campaign, and they were present at the event that was held recently in the Senedd. Safe standing is supported by fans. The Football Supporters’ Federation represents over 0.5 million fans throughout England and Wales, and nine out of 10 of those fans want to be allowed the choice of sitting or standing.
The idea that standing is unsafe has been proven to be patently untrue. Many people who claim this cite Hillsborough as a reason. We now know that that was caused by overcrowding, stadium layout and poor policing, not terraces. Nor is it true that crowd behaviour is more difficult to manage in standing areas; there is no evidence of this. If we are going to use anecdotal claims here, it could just as easily be claimed that the current law actively encourages disorder, because much of the tension at matches occurs as a result of stewards forcing fans to sit down.
Certain models of safe standing, such as the rail seating used by Dortmund, allows the identification of people in the crowd through the use of closed-circuit television and ticket information, as currently used by police—something that may alleviate Mike Hedges’s fears. So, standing has a perceived correlation with hooliganism, but even if there was any evidence to support that, improvement in technology, policing tactics and crowd behaviour need to be taken into account. Let us all have an evidence-based debate on this.
I have also heard claims that the German designs that I have alluded to would require huge investment by clubs, and perhaps even the rebuilding of entire stadiums. That may be the case, but if clubs thought that it was too big an issue, I would question why 27 of them, together with the Scottish premier league, have supported this campaign. Many of them are not big-spending premiership clubs, either.
As we have seen with free entry into museums, bringing prices down can stimulate revenues elsewhere. Safe-standing areas could help to bring down ticket prices, particularly as they can accommodate almost twice as many fans as seated areas. It is also worth noting that no-one would be forcing any club to introduce or re-introduce terraces. It would not be legislated for in the same way as seated stadiums would be. All that supporters are asking for is for the ban on standing areas to be lifted.
There are plenty of myths swirling around about safe standing in football grounds. What we need now is a fact-based public debate, and that is why it is important that we are talking about this today. We need a realisation that time has moved on, and that it is a different world from the days of terraces and that we need to allow our fantastic football fans to enjoy their favourite sport in the best way they see fit. Over the years, coming from a family of football supporters, I have seen how people’s passions in a positive way can be developed through sport. As was alluded to earlier, people stand when they feel passionate about a pass, a goal or something that happens in the game. That happens at the moment, and it is restrictive for some people. If you had a dedicated standing area for those people who know that they will become more passionate than other people, they can all be in that area together. You already see it in some matches: people buy season tickets so that they can sit with people of the same general mindset, and they will do that for a reason. So, I see this as a positive way forward, and to kick start the debate, I think that it is important that this National Assembly has an opinion, too.
I am a football fan as a result of my father introducing me to the delights of Wrexham Football Club when I was probably about six years of age. Therefore, I have to say, for Suzy Davies’s benefit, that, as a short person myself at the age of six, standing on the kop—and there is only one kop, Mike Hedges, and that is the Wrexham kop—was little or no problem for us. [Laughter.]
What we have to make clear is that we are not suggesting that we return to the type of standing arrangements that you refer to that we had in the 1970s and 1980s. I remember going to watch Wrexham play against Arsenal in 1992, but the difference between Mike Hedges’s experience of Arsenal in 1968 and mine in 1992 is that Wrexham actually beat Arsenal, rather than the other way around—
Thanks to Mickey Thomas.
Yes, it was thanks to Mickey Thomas, very much so.
However, we are not talking about returning to that type of standing arrangement, because most of us would recognise that there were difficulties with regard to excessive crowd numbers. I can remember being frightened for my life, watching Wrexham play Crystal Palace Football Club in 1976, when there were probably about 12,000 or 14,000 people on the kop, and where, as a youngster, I was genuinely worried about my safety.
Bethan Jenkins has already mentioned the arrangements that they have in Germany. Borussia Dortmund has a standing area for 27,000 fans. Nearly all of the German clubs have introduced safe standing with little or no problem. In fact, the German clubs are better supported than even our Premier League clubs at the moment. It may be that the passionate support of German fans may have led to the success of their national team yesterday evening, which is more than could be said for our colleagues over the border.
However, this safe standing actually works. It is shown to work, and there are rail seats, as Ann Jones has alluded to. It is now being re-introduced in Poland. The Polish legislature has just removed similar legislation to that of our own, which was introduced when they had hooligan troubles. The issue of hooliganism has not been removed as a result of the removal of standing areas. I did not actually go to see Wrexham playing Chester this year because it was a bubble match, at Football Conference level, where people’s civil liberties were severely limited because of the police response to hooliganism. The fact that there were no standing areas made no difference for those people who are hell-bent on going to football matches to create trouble. What we are looking at here is a change to the manner in which sport in this country is allowed to happen.
I believe that there is a big issue with regard to the attitude of the Premier League clubs. At the moment, if they can get £50 or £60 for a seat in a stadium, they are much more interested. If you go down to conference, second-division level, or even to the Welsh Premier League with Rhyl, you get a much more genuine experience as a football fan than you will ever get in the Premier League, where large proportions of the grounds are given over to corporate sponsorship and are not affordable to many fans. That is perhaps not the case for Swansea City, but it is certainly the case for the top Premier League clubs—I am only joking, of course—such as Manchester United et cetera.
So, we have to be careful and we have to ask questions. If we give a clear statement here this afternoon regarding our considered opinion, I hope that the FAW et cetera will have an internal discussion and, more importantly, that Conservative colleagues here can persuade their UK Government colleagues, who currently appear not to be convinced by this argument, because they have blocked legislation in the Commons, that they need to look at the experience of—[Interruption.] I am in coalition, and you will find that there is a difference within the coalition on this, as with many other issues. However, it is your Minister who has responsibility. So, I would hope that, given the newly found support from Suzy Davies and the well-established support from Andrew R.T. Davies, that they can have some influence on their UK Government colleagues to look at the situation in places such as Germany, Poland and Austria, where safe standing has been introduced with little or no problem, and has led to the reinvigoration of football in those particular countries.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources, Culture and Sport, John Griffiths.
First, let me say that I very much welcome this opportunity to discuss these important matters, which are obviously important to many football supporters in Wales and further afield.
The legislative context for the safety of supporters at football stadiums is the Football Spectators Act 1989, for England and Wales, which is dealt with by the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport, through the Sports Grounds Safety Authority, the SGSA. As Members referred to, this legislation came about as a result of the tragic events that took place at the Heysel Stadium in Brussels in 1985 and, more particularly, at Hillsborough, Sheffield, in 1989.
Thankfully, we have seen major improvements to spectator safety and comfort as a consequence of that legislation being introduced. Premiership and Football League grounds are now safer, more comfortable and more civilised than they were 20 years ago. As a result of that—and this is very important for all of us—we have a much more diverse audience making up the spectators for those games. They have been attracted to watch live football, in part at least, I think, as a result of those improvements.
However, as we know, and as this debate has touched upon, not all of the changes have found favour with all spectators. I know that the Football Supporters’ Federation has been very active in campaigning through the safe-standing roadshow for that system of foldaway or rail seating, as used by some clubs in Germany, as we have heard from Members. I know that that design is intended to meet the UEFA requirements for all seated accommodation at its international Champions League and Europa League matches, while enabling clubs to convert it to standing accommodation for all non-UEFA fixtures. However, when rail seats are folded away, the seating does not comply with the current SGSA all-seater licensing conditions, so obviously there are issues there. The Football Association of Wales, of course, has been involved in the debate. Its view of the issue is that safe standing legislation primarily affects Cardiff City and Swansea City, as they are the only Welsh clubs that play in the top two tiers of English football.
Will you take an intervention?
I did my opening speech without mentioning a certain football club in the Welsh Premier League, which I am now going to mention. My own football club of Rhyl has played in European championship matches. All right, it was at the knock-out stage, but we have been there, nevertheless—and been knocked out, as Mike Hedges has just said. There is a requirement for some clubs within the FAW to have licences for all-seater stadiums. Is this an area where clubs like Rhyl could meet UEFA’s criteria by having lock-up seats, because I think that is the way forward? You are not going to get anything further from fans if you cannot do those sorts of things.
I think that there is a lack of clarity on those matters, and they will need to be further explored. This debate is an example of that. As I said, the FAW’s view is that these are issues for Cardiff and Swansea. My own experience as a Newport County FC fan is one of standing more often than I sit at games, although I sometimes do one or the other. However, it is currently Cardiff City and Swansea City that are currently primarily affected in Wales.
Members will be aware of the ongoing issue at Cardiff City’s ground, where a section of the crowd steadfastly refuses to sit down during matches, and they see that as their right. The club and its stewards do their best to enforce the no-standing policy, but that issue persists. I understand that Cardiff City has approached the football league seeking to amend the ground regulation by making it clear that that requirement for all-seating does not apply to what it describes as ‘the singing area’, and a response is awaited to that case.
From what has been said—we have heard a variety of views—it is clear that this is not a straightforward matter to resolve. It is difficult to keep all parties happy, but we know that safety is paramount, that these are very sensitive matters because of recent history and that there is much strong feeling surrounding them. On the one hand, we have the UK Government legislation and the UEFA regulations requiring the all-seater policy, particularly for the top divisions. On the other hand, there is a significant groundswell of supporters wishing to return to standing as an option. At the more local Welsh level, the option to sit or stand still exists. However, I understand the support for a move towards a more well-defined safe-standing area policy.
There are issues around cost, of course; Members have referred to this, but there are various views in terms of costs, including whether or not it would lead to cheaper tickets as a matter of course. There would also be the serious complications that I mentioned regarding any club wanting to enter any European competition with the requirements for safe seating.
This debate, in short, is timely. The matter of a pilot of safe standing in Wales is for clubs, owners and supporters to consider. It is clear that there are many matters relevant to those considerations before we decide on the best way forward. This debate is an important contribution to that process, and it will be welcomed by all concerned with the best interests of football in Wales. As the Minister with relevant responsibility, I look forward to following the debate as it unfolds, and I hope to contribute to it in the future.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Andrew R.T. Davies to reply to the debate.
I welcome the opportunity to be one of the co-sponsors of this debate today, and I would like to pay tribute to my fellow sponsors for the support and advocacy that they have given to this campaign over many months and years. They have also highlighted in their contributions today their passion for the sport and for their local club. Ann Jones opened by highlighting the benefits that could be achieved, not at the major football clubs, but at the small town clubs. [Laughter.] I do not mean that in a dismissive way at all. She highlighted what a long journey it has been to move stadiums to all-seater stadiums, with Coventry City being the first. Sadly, its performance on the pitch has not mirrored some of the improvements it has made to its stadium. However, ultimately, this is a view that many fans hold very dear to their participation in the sport and their enjoyment of the sport. Ultimately, they think it would be a positive development in giving a unique experience of the football ground that fans, together, can bring with the camaraderie that they have.
I also have to pay tribute to Vincent Bailey, my researcher, who nags me to death on this particular issue. I think it is because he is a Tottenham Hotspur supporter and he suffers a great deal of pain with the performance on the pitch. So, he is thinking about how, if ever they redevelop White Hart Lane, he might one day get safe standing at White Hart Lane, being the model for that particular stadium. We all know, obviously, that Arsenal has progressed and built that wonderful new stadium, the Emirates, which he is jumping up and down about upstairs, cursing me in heaps, because we know of the rivalry between Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur.
However, seriously, in Wales, we have the opportunity to get behind this campaign. All the football league clubs, all 78 of them, have now voted to support this campaign. I appreciate that, because of the administrative structure of football with UEFA, FIFA and the domestic associations, there is a pyramid of regulation and organisations to try to convince. However, this really is a fans-led initiative. I had to be convinced in the first instance because I grew up in the era when Hillsborough struck the news headlines with the tragedies there and because of the hooliganism that used to exist in the 1970s and 1980s and, dare I say, into the 1990s. However, we are in a different place today. We are in a different era entirely and that is down, by and large, to many of the regulations that were put forward in the first instance by the development of good, solid policing tactics to deal with many of the troublemakers who, historically, used to turn up at football matches. I give way to Mike.
You mentioned the police. I was waiting for you to do that. Do you know of any police forces, safety officers or licensing authorities that support safe standing or standing?
Well, I have not heard of any that have objected to it, so ultimately, what I am saying to you is that the campaign has been very well organised. Ultimately, it has gone around not seeking to impose its views on people, but to win people over to the argument. I appreciate, Mike, the points that you made in your contribution. I respect those points, but actually if you look at the way that the campaign has been devised, and if you look at the examples that the campaign offers, such as Germany, as Aled Roberts and Bethan Jenkins highlighted, and the model they use in Germany, where one stadium in particular has 27,000 spaces given over to safe standing, there are examples that we can point to that show that, in a developed, commercial league, you can develop this opportunity for fans to enjoy safe standing at football matches. When you have got the national team banging in seven goals against Brazil on Brazil’s home territory out in South America, you have got to ask the question of whether that enthusiasm is infectious to the players so that, ultimately, they develop an international team that can go on and seriously challenge for the World Cup. I say that in jest because, ultimately, what we need to do here in Wales is lend our support to this campaign, so that we can have, as the motion calls for, a pilot scheme, so that it can be tested here somewhere in the UK.
I would love it to be here in Wales because we do have the stadium to do it here in Wales. In fact, I think that we have the best stadium to do it in Wales—either at Liberty stadium or Cardiff City stadium because they are medium-sized stadiums, I would suggest, or small in Liberty’s case. I do not mean that in a derogatory way, but it seats around 20,000 to 22,000. Cardiff, now with the extra seating it has put in, would seat about 30,000 to 32,000. It would be more problematic, I would suggest, for Old Trafford or somewhere like that to adopt a pilot scheme, where it has a seating capacity of, I think, 76,000. There is a real opportunity here to be at the forefront of something that I think could be quite magical.
I would say that the Kop end at Wrexham is ripe for redevelopment, if the Welsh Government was able to provide financial support. [Laughter.]
I am sure that the Minister is listening with open ears and that he would be encouraging the various grant-giving bodies to negotiate with the Racecourse there and ultimately to take that proposal on board. In all seriousness, Minister, I am grateful for the way in which you entered into the discussion. I know that you have received correspondence on this particular field. As I said, I do think that it is wrong to mix up the experience people had in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s with where we are today. It is a different ball game, and I pay tribute to Cardiff City Football Club in particular for winning family club of the year, for the second time I think. I recently had the pleasure of visiting the stadium and seeing exactly how they control crowds and give the customer the real match-day experience. You quite rightly pointed out the tolerance, shall we say, that they have within the stadium for fans to stand and enjoy the game. It is about striking the balance between what is safe, what is desirable and, ultimately, what is progressive in developing a model that will reverse, in some instances, declining fan attendance at football matches.
It is all well and good to talk about taking the many hundreds of millions of pounds from BT Sport or Sky Sports, but ultimately what people want is atmosphere. They want atmosphere in the stadium and they want that atmosphere to transfer into the homes, clubs and pubs of the country. Actually, if you have an empty stadium with no atmosphere, that is a pretty poor product for people to buy into and you will, ultimately, diminish the offering that you have. We have a guardian’s role to play here, in trying to promote the whole sport from the basement right up to the top tier. It is through the grass roots that we create the Gareth Bales of this world; not just by having the prawn cocktail brigades with corporate sponsorships and hospitalities that the casual fans wish to buy into.
Therefore, I hope that we can endorse this motion today, because it is not a binding motion, it just calls for exploration of the possibility. Even those who have concerns, such as Mike, I hope that they will find time, shall we say, to support the motion before us. As I say, it is not a binding motion; it calls to explore this possibility and work with the Football Association of Wales and other bodies that have an interest in football safety, so that we can, ultimately, bring to fruition a stadium design, a stadium build and a stadium regulatory environment that will give fans a twenty-first century experience when they attend a football game. We see it at rugby, we see it at horse racing tracks where fans are allowed to stand and enjoy their sport, and I fail to see why football fans should be treated differently. That is why I urge Members to support the motion before them this afternoon.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There are objections, therefore, I defer voting under this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of committee, Alun Ffred Jones.
Motion NDM5554 Alun Ffred Jones.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Environment and Sustainability Committee on its inquiry into Sustainable Land Management, which was laid in the Table Office on 19 May 2014.
I move the motion.
I bring this report to the attention of the Assembly to note. The committee has been considering sustainable land management since June 2013 and, in order to understand the issue, we have been working closely with farmers, land managers, conservationists and scientists and have spent time on the ground with them to learn more about the opportunities and challenges of sustainable land management.
The main findings that the committee has agreed on is that we need, first, a clear definition of sustainable land management. Secondly, we need to ensure high-level outcomes for sustainable land management at national and regional level, but we must empower land managers to do their work in a way that is appropriate to their particular circumstances. We need to do more to close gaps in knowledge and to collect data more consistently. We need to improve the way we share information and use innovative approaches on the ground, and the establishment of markets for ecosystem services is essential to the sustainability of land management in Wales in the future. We have made 14 recommendations to the Welsh Government. If these are implemented, they will address these conclusions.
In terms of the Government’s response, it has accepted, or accepted in principle, all of the recommendations. I am grateful that the former Minister responded positively to this report. I think that this is an area of policy where we are all aiming for the same results. There are differences in the detail of how to achieve them, but I do not think that there is a difference of opinion on the direction.
The main point that I want to raise in relation to the Welsh Government’s response is that it does not contain all the details that we asked for in making our recommendations. I will be writing to the Minister in relation to some of the specific points, but I would like to raise some of the significant points now.
Our first recommendation relates to the definition of sustainable land management. I am pleased that the committee’s principles for defining sustainable land management will be considered as you complete the environment Bill. I have to stress that it is important that the definition in the Bill includes the protection and enhancement of biodiversity as well as support for profitable rural businesses and prosperous rural communities. We are not convinced that the definition provided in the White Paper includes this fully.
Turning to the third recommendation, which calls for a timetable for the development of the natural resources policy, once again I am grateful for the extra details that have been provided in response to this recommendation. I would appreciate further clarification of the links between the agriculture strategy and the natural resources policy, given that the policy will come after the strategy has been agreed.
Recommendation 6 states that an evidence framework should be adopted. In making this recommendation, we anticipated that it would include broader issues than just environmental data collection. We also asked for detailed timetables, resource implications, agreed progress indicators, and a prioritised action plan for improving the way in which data are gathered. Minister, will this level of detail be included in the ‘State of Natural Resources’ report? Can you tell us when we can expect to see this report?
Turning to recommendation 14 that calls for the development of partnerships to attract private sector investment, in accepting this recommendation in principle, the Welsh Government’s response focuses on the nature fund. I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that he has received applications to the nature fund from the private sector and that some of these applications from the private sector will be accepted.
In terms of how we set out to gather evidence, we had formal evidence to the committee, but committee members also went to all parts of Wales, to barns, farm kitchens, mountain pastures, the uplands, the boots of Land Rovers, tourist information centres and laboratories in order to get the information on the ground and to get the comments and opinions of stakeholders. It is fair to say that those stakeholders did take part in a workshop at the start of our inquiry, and that did influence how the committee did its work. In addition, we tested our conclusions and recommendations in this report with stakeholders at a workshop at the end of our inquiry. This has made a significant contribution to our work, and it is a model that we would like to use again in the future.
In terms of the report, it is incumbent upon me to thank a number of people. We were assisted in our work by Professor Terry Marsden, director of Cardiff University’s Sustainable Places Research Institute. We would like to recognise his valuable contribution to our work and thank him for his learned leadership. Of course, our work is only as good as the evidence that comes before us, and I would like to thank everyone who has contributed to that. We give special thanks to the farmers, land managers, conservationists, scientists and project officers who welcomed us onto their land, their farms, their laboratories and, at times, into their homes. With people like this on the front line, we can be optimistic that land management in Wales in the future will be in safe hands.
Those are the comments that I have at the outset of this discussion. I will have an opportunity later on to close, but we thank everybody who has contributed to the work of the committee and, of course, the members of the committee itself.
I just want to ask the members of the committee who were involved in this inquiry what work, if any, they did on looking at the role of blanket peat bogs, which are an essential part of sustainable land management and which can play a huge role in tackling climate change, because they act as a fantastic carbon sink, as well as improving drinking water and the diversity of plants and wildlife. I am aware of the fantastic projects that were carried out to restore the blanket bogs around Lake Vyrnwy and in the Migneint special areas, and I would like to know what consideration you gave, if any, to trying to ensure that all the blanket peat bogs in Wales are restored in due course, as a result of Government and EU policy.
I might be able to provide some of an answer to Jenny Rathbone. We certainly look did look at the Migneint and what happened at Lake Vyrnwy. However, closer to home, what is happening in Blaenau Gwent, where 750,000 cubic metres of peat is going to be dug up, is something that, perhaps, you might want to work on within your own party. I know that Julie Morgan and I sat together around a table at a stakeholder event at the very start of this process, and that it was a very passionate group of stakeholders who we met there and there was very clear interest in the idea of sustainable land management. Again, I was with Julie Morgan, near one of the farm kitchens that were described by Alun Ffred Jones, and the genuine passion in the way that we were spoken to by that local farmer and his real frustration at some of the concerns that there are within the current system was really palpable and actually very moving. So, I would like to echo the Chair’s points in thanking the stakeholders who came forward.
I would like to concentrate on recommendation 6, which looked at data and how we can pull together existing data sources and identify the gaps in knowledge. It was very clear from the ‘State of Nature’ report that a lot of those data were not at a Welsh level. It did not identify Welsh-level data; it was using UK data extrapolated to Wales. It was also very clear from the evidence that we had in front of the committee that there is a considerable amount of data out there on the ground and, particularly, in the local records offices. I think that organisations such as the wildlife trusts that organise days where groups of experts come into the countryside and blanket cover a particular area are fantastic. I would like to echo the Chair’s concerns about the fact that the Welsh Government’s response in relation to recommendation 6 has not been as full as we would like, particularly given that the records are out there. We know that they are out there, we know that the information is there, but there is very little way of accessing it centrally. The European COBWEB project as well, which is encouraging citizen science, has a huge part to play in this.
There was also great hope expressed by some of the contributors to our deliberations that this would be a real opportunity to devolve things to a really local level, while having a strategic overview, and that it would not be a one-size-fits-all approach but would look at the framework within which really devolved, on-the-ground, local decision making could happen. I think that that was very welcome evidence, and it is reflected perhaps in our recommendation 9, which says
‘the Farming Connect-style approach to support services should be expanded to provide bespoke services to land managers, including the forestry sector, in relation to sustainable land management practices.’
I do think that that was an important recommendation from the committee’s work.
It is quite clear that a considerable amount of work needs to be done, particularly taking forward the idea of payment for ecosystem services. That work cannot be done without the support of the Welsh Government. If the Welsh Government is serious about the contribution that land managers can make in the delivery of ecosystem services, then this needs to be developed as a matter of urgency. Minister, you will see that in our recommendation 12.
We need to put sustainable land management on a sustainable footing and something that is taken forward for the future. Jenny Rathbone, you were right that there are huge advantages to blanket bogs and peat bogs being restored in terms of what they can do. I have found in my region in north Wales that land managers are very prepared to do that, but they want to know that they are going to be supported in that. In fact, I heard, on a trip in north Wales how, 20 years ago, they were being asked to install drains. Twenty years later, they are now being asked to block them up. The results have been dramatic, and they have support. Other people looking around locally see that that support is there, and that over-the-hedge syndrome—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Conclude quickly, please.
The over-the-hedge syndrome—I have seen my neighbour do it, therefore I am more inclined to do it myself—is something that really worked. It worked by example, if I can put it that way.
I am also really glad to speak in this debate. I wanted to echo the sentiments expressed by the first speakers and the Chair of the committee in being really grateful for the enthusiasm and energy shown by every stakeholder that contributed to the inquiry. We were all really struck by it, and it is worth repeating. I want to concentrate, in the short time that I have, on the ecosystems and payment for ecosystems delivery approaches that we have recommended in this report and the Government’s response to that, which I am very delighted to see, because it is clear that the Minister accepts the recommendations in the report, albeit with one or two tweaks about who exactly is going to deliver them. I wanted to make the same point that Antoinette Sandbach has just made, actually, about the real strength of exemplar projects and the over-the-garden-fence effect. The Pumlumon blanket bog project was a perfect example of that, where, as each individual farmer came on stream, they could see how it worked and the thing was spreading out, and real benefits were being shown both for individual farmers, but also for the prevention of flooding all the way down the river catchment area from the blanket bog in question right down the Severn estuary and so on. We should be very proud in Wales that we had that effect on some of our river flood catchment areas. So, I am glad that the Government accepts it.
I take the point about Natural Resources Wales made in recommendation 11 and the response to it. I would be pleased if the Minister would say that he will be keeping a careful eye on that working in practice and just keep an overview on it because we are all very concerned that data should be collected correctly and applied correctly to the projects as they roll out.
In terms of recommendation 12 and the acceptance in principle, again, I am delighted to see that. I understand that it is an acceptance in principle because you are awaiting the reports on the research that comes out. Minister, I would be really grateful to hear your responses as that research is known. The committee will be really interested in following that up and making sure that we really do spread this approach out. Again, I agree with all of the committee members in saying that we encountered a large number of land managers from every area of Wales, not just farmers but everyone else—the environment non-governmental organisations and everyone else who owns land, such as the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and so on—who are really enthusiastic to get this approach going and only wanted a little bit of a hook from the Government to actually get them there. I know that the Minister, as he returns to this portfolio, will be very keen to see that happen, and I know that the Minister has also been very keen on that in a previous life.
The last point that I wanted to make was on the development of partnerships and the investment from the private sector as we take that forward. This is not just about Government leverage; this is about assisting people to make businesses out of delivering things like carbon sinks because they are planting trees, or flood prevention because they are restoring blanket bogs, or the very best possible research, as in, ‘We thought it was good to drain the blanket bogs, but now we realise that that is a very bad thing, so we are actually going back on something we did 20 years ago’. So, I suppose that what I am looking for is reassurance that the Government sees this innovative new system as a real hook for driving things forward, and actually sees it as part of an invest-to-save strategy—to save financially, but also to save for the future of the Earth and the future of Wales as a clean, green country. So, I would look for that assurance, Minister.
I am very pleased also to be contributing to this debate today, and I would like to add my thanks to the clerking team, to the former committee Chair, Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas, who presided over the early stages of this inquiry, and also to all who gave evidence to the committee during the past year. I think that it is particularly important to note, as our current Chair and other speakers have done, that it is particularly valuable that the committee undertook what I think in total were eight separate visits to inform this inquiry, and those visits were literally to all parts of this country. This is a reflection of the clear need to ensure that the Assembly is able to reach out and be relevant to all parts of Wales, and not just some metropolitan elite.
I welcome very much the Welsh Government’s acceptance of all 14 of the report's recommendations, but note that nine have a caveat of being accepted in principle. Clearly, it will be a task for the committee in future months to scrutinise what the impact of this response, particularly with those caveats, will be, to ensure that meaningful and measurable actions are taken by the Welsh Government to deliver on those goals. One element that I would like to focus on in particular is that of the next RDP. In the general upheaval of yesterday, we had a rather limited statement on the RDP. However, we have yet to see much of the detail to fully understand what the implications are for the report's recommendations. I would appreciate any comments that the Minister might have in that regard. As such, it would be particularly helpful if the Minister could expand in his response on the Welsh Government’s response to recommendation 13, in terms of what alternative payment mechanisms would be explored to reward land managers for the delivery of environmental goods and services.
In more general terms, I think it is worth reflecting on the central conclusions of the report, which highlight a lack of a clear definition of what sustainable land management actually is, how outcomes need to be articulated, both at national and regional levels, how we must do more to close knowledge gaps and then to share that knowledge and, finally, how we establish markets for ecosystems services for the time to come. While many can argue over the precise issue of the definition of sustainability, I think that we are best served by remembering that when it comes to land management, we always need to give due consideration to the primacy of food production and the vital importance of food security in relation to the agriculture sector.
Back when we began this inquiry, one of the very first points that I put to witnesses was to note that 14 August last year marked the day upon which the United Kingdom would literally run out of food if it was solely reliant on home-grown produce. While I am unsure by which date that threshold will be reached this year, it continues to serve as a powerful reminder that we need to be managing our landscapes better, that we can produce far more food than we presently do, and that our sustainability is about far more than just how we treat our local ecosystems.
Finally, I want to touch on the tremendous importance of improving mobility in the agriculture sector, and also bringing in fresh ideas to the sector in preparing the way for the crucial next generation. Clearly, the Malcolm Thomas review will play a key part in this, and I would be grateful if the Minister could offer us an update on how it plans to take that forward over the recess in the context of the next RDP.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources, Culture and Sport, John Griffiths.
This is my first Plenary commitment regarding my new ministerial responsibilities for natural resources, and I would like to thank Members for their good wishes and also recognise the work of my predecessor, as Minister with responsibility for natural resources, Alun Davies, for his commitment and good work in taking forward strategy and policy for natural resources in Wales.
I would also like to thank the Chair, Alun Ffred Jones, and members of the Environment and Sustainability Committee for their work in undertaking the inquiry that led to the publication of the report; I very much welcome it and the emerging recommendations, and am pleased to have the opportunity to highlight the Government’s response today.
I am pleased to say that we have accepted, either in full or in principle, all 14 of the recommendations. We believe that they complement the Welsh Government’s approach in this area, and many of the steps that we are already taking are supported by the findings.
An important context to my agreement to many of the committee’s recommendations is that, as a Government, we are ensuring that we apply our commitment to sustainable development. This means that we must integrate the management of our natural resources and recognise the key interdependencies.
The sustainable management of natural resources, therefore, goes further than a focus on the activities on the land, and this relates to the points about definition. It must include how we sustainably use our water, air and seas. Those definitions will be put in place through the environment Bill to capture this and provide the foundation for how Wales’s natural resources will be utilised, enhanced and maintained for the long term.
In terms of the points on data, fundamental to our approach is having the best available evidence. The committee has highlighted the importance of a cohesive framework within which evidence is collected and used. We know that there are some gaps in our knowledge, including the data that we require to set clear goals and ambitions, not only for the sustainable management of land but for all of our natural resources.
The environment Bill will put in place a duty on Natural Resources Wales to prepare a report on the state of natural resources. This will provide an evidence base upon which the Welsh Government will frame its national natural resources policy and, of course, monitor progress towards those objectives.
Following the establishment of Natural Resources Wales last year, the Bill will take the next step in establishing a modern statutory framework for the sustainable management of those natural resources. A further crucial point is that sustainable management must consign to history what we see as false trade-offs between our environment and our economy. Going forward, particularly in the context of climate change, if we are to have the prosperous economy that we want, it has to go hand in hand with health and resilience for our environment; that is something that we will be very keen to ensure.
I hear the points that Members make about land managers. Of course, it is important that we support them to deliver on a number of different fronts. Yes, food production will continue to be key, but the ability to diversify and take advantage of the opportunities presented by ‘Green Growth Wales: Investing in the Future’ is as vital to our future management of water and carbon as it is to the future resilience of the industry.
Of course, Glastir is a key programme in delivering those priorities and it very much links with the rural development plan. Glastir will continue to be the primary delivery model for agri-environment, forestry and climate measures under that rural development plan.
Glastir is a scheme that differs from its predecessors by being the first scheme designed with a full range of long-term challenges specifically in mind. At the same time, the design of the scheme also gives consideration to the more familiar challenges that agri-environment measures had previously aimed to address in halting the decline of our native biodiversity, enhancing our landscape and preserving our historical heritage.
I believe that it is of paramount importance that the rural development plan is used to offer support, through advice, financial reimbursement, recognition and reward, to ensure that land managers are actively engaged in action that supports the Welsh economy, society and environment, and secures future prosperity and resilience for agriculture and the wider rural economy.
We must move to a win-win situation for our economy, society and environment. That is why, last month, in London, we launched a prospectus for green growth, capturing the huge potential in Wales for that growth to enable our businesses, rural and otherwise, to thrive. That includes significant opportunities for land managers at the heart of the creation of the low-carbon economy that we must become.
In developing a low-carbon economy, it is fundamentally about creating the conditions for that different type of growth that is truly sustainable, socially inclusive, resilient and environmentally sound. It is about making the growth process resource-efficient and more climate-resilient. Rather than slowing it down, we see a position whereby economic growth and prosperity is quickened and strengthened through that approach, and it is one to which the Welsh Government is very committed. I believe that all Members across the Chamber are similarly committed. I look forward to working with them as I take forward my new responsibilities.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the committee to reply to the debate.
I thank everyone who has contributed to this debate. It has not been a very long debate, but that is appropriate because, basically, it does not matter what we say here today; what is important is the action that follows. I think that that is a consistent theme throughout the contributions, namely that what is going to stem, not from the report, but from the response of the Government, is what will count.
There was a reference at the outset to peat bogs, and I know that the committee has looked at the work that is happening on those peat bogs to close the ditches, and that, as Antoinette Sandbach referred, overturns the policy of 20 years ago, where farmers were paid to open ditches. By now, they are paid to close them, due to environmental reasons.
Certainly, the point that Antoinette made as well on the need for us to have more meat on the bones, in terms of the Government’s response, is very fair, because agreeing in general with points, as I have learnt in this place, does not achieve much. We need the details and we need to see the action plan, and that is what will prove whether the Government is serious or not.
Julie James referred to the enthusiasm of the stakeholders, and I endorse that, based on my experience in terms of the committee’s work in that area. Also, there was an emphasis on the importance of the practical and the exemplary projects on the ground, which are making a difference and are encouraging those who work on the land to follow those good examples. There are big advantages and benefits for the economy if we get this right.
William Powell then emphasised the importance and the central role of the rural development plan, and the Minister referred to that as well. In this sense, what we need is clarity on the objectives and the outcomes and how we can achieve them. To do that, we need to communicate a clear and coherent message to those who are impacted in order to lead to effective action, which is going to make the difference and lead to a win-win situation that the Minister referred to. However, in reality, it is win-win-win, because you can create an environment that is sustainable, contribute to a society that is more robust and more powerful and confident, and, in doing that, the economy itself can be strengthened. However, we are a long way away from that at present. Even though important steps have been taken over the last few years and there has been positive action, I think that we are only starting on that journey. Therefore, this will be a test for the Government and stakeholders. I remind the Minister that the committee will come back to this to see what progress has been made during 2015, and I am sure that he will be pleased to come back to report on that to the committee. Once again, I thank everyone who contributed to the report.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to note the Environment and Sustainability Committee’s report. Does any Member object? There is no objection. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Andrew R.T. Davies to move the motion.
Motion NNDM5555 Paul Davies, Elin Jones, Aled Roberts
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the Ministerial Code: A code of Ethics and Procedural Guidance for Ministers.
2. Notes the First Minister’s expectation that all Ministers, Deputy Ministers and the Counsel General adhere to the Code.
3. Notes the ‘Report to the First Minister on the observance of the Ministerial Code by the Minister for Natural Resources & Food, in respect of the Circuit of Wales’ which confirms the breaching of the Ministerial Code by the Minister for Natural Resources and Food.
4. Calls for the appointment of an Independent Adjudicator of the Ministerial Code in order to improve transparency and thereby increase confidence in those elected to public office.
I move the motion.
I am formally moving the motion that is in the name of the three business managers of the three opposition parties—Paul Davies, Elin Jones and Aled Roberts. Today’s debate is most probably best encapsulated by Harold Macmillan’s words and his take on things: ‘Events, dear boy, events’. That is, his referral to the fact that events overtake things in politics. When this debate was tabled, we were very much dealing with the issue of the response of the Government, and in particular that of the First Minister, to the Permanent Secretary’s report into the activities of the then Minister for Natural Resources and Food.
It is important to consider why we have a ministerial code and, ultimately, what that ministerial code is about and what it sets out to achieve. We are all elected to this institution as individual AMs and we all have a responsibility to our constituencies and regions. Ultimately, I would hope that everyone battles hard and champions the cause of the particular area of Wales that they represent in the Chamber. Out of the Chamber, obviously, the largest party forms the Government, and it is, I am sure, a huge privilege to sit in Government and to be asked by whoever sits in the chair of the First Minister to participate in the decision-making process that that Government is undertaking, based on the manifesto that has been put before the people of Wales. That is why the ministerial code is there: to make sure that the political ideology that the governing party wishes to put into its policy, and the implementation of the policy, and the spending of the money that it has via its budget, are completely, if you like, insulated from the legitimate lobbying of individual Assembly Members. There is a huge amount of privileged information that Ministers have, and there is obviously the issue of judicial reviews and court proceedings that the Government might find itself entangled in, trying to argue the point when its decisions are challenged in court. Therefore, there needs to be that separation and insulation from the day-to-day lobbying and articulating the cause for our constituencies and regions. No-one disputes that, and any democracy and any institution in the western world, if you like, has those codes of practice.
Therefore, we are not arguing about having a ministerial code and procedural guidance for Ministers to adhere to; what we are saying is that, obviously, in this particular instance, there has been a breach, as the First Minister clearly identified. The process of arriving at that conclusion was welcome this time around, because obviously the Permanent Secretary was brought in at the opening stages by the First Minister, in response to the letter from Antoinette Sandbach requesting that the First Minister undertake a review into the dealings of the then Minister to see whether the ministerial code had been breached. There was nothing in the guidance to say that the First Minister had to do that, and I do not think that that, procedurally, had been undertaken before—that is, referral to the Permanent Secretary and a report being undertaken. I stand to be corrected on that, but I do not think that it had been done before. That was a very welcome move. What was also welcome in this whole process was that, when the report was put together, it was made available for Members and the public to see.
It was a damning report, to say the least—the contents of which I do not think many people could find any comfort in reading, particularly the individual Minister concerned. I will refer to some extracts, if the Chamber will indulge me. In point 36 of the report, it states that the advice was given to the Minister that he
‘should not comment on the matter, even in his AM capacity’.
It goes on to say that:
‘Welsh Ministers collectively have responsibility for determining the outcome if an application is sent to them on appeal or if it is called in.’
So, collectively, the whole Government has a responsibility in this particular field. The report also went on to point out that there was a greying of the area when the Minister challenged Natural Resources Wales in respect of the way he referred to the ministerial letter of direction that he had written. Ultimately, the code had been broken, which all of us understood.
From the opposition side, we welcome the process that led to the independent report from the Permanent Secretary. There is nothing that says that that would happen next time round, and that is what point 4 of this motion is clearly setting out: that we believe that it needs to be formalised, in that where there is a complaint or a belief that the ministerial code has been breached or broken, an independent person should step in as a matter of course to look into the procedures and processes, put a report together, lay that report before the Assembly and present it to the First Minister. It is entirely right that whoever is the First Minister picks his or her Cabinet and the Ministers that sit within the Cabinet. People can then objectively look at the report that has been put together and decide whether the First Minister has exercised good judgment in keeping that individual within the Cabinet, or is just playing raw politics by trying to hold the Cabinet together, and hold support within his or her party group in the Assembly, because there are two considerations.
On the way in today, I was listening to the phone-in on Radio Wales. Collectively, we were all being blamed for yesterday’s events. People did not discriminate between the Government and the Assembly as a whole: it was, ‘Those lot down in Cardiff bay’; it was, ‘The Assembly has done this’ or ‘Politicians have done that’. Many people outside this institution, regrettably even after 15 years, are unable to clearly understand the procedures and processes that we have. The more transparent that we can make those processes and procedures, the better and easier it will be for people to understand how Government is conducted in Wales.
Let us not forget that we all sit in here and talk about representing the people of Wales. Sadly, only 40-odd per cent of the electorate actually engages in those elections. The largest party here—this is not a derogatory comment; you quite rightly sit on those benches because you are the largest party—has the support of an even smaller percentage of the overall electorate to make the decisions. We, as the largest opposition party, have the support of an even smaller amount again. We are only talking of 40% of the electorate actually engaging with the Assembly electoral process. It is vital that we put the measures in place that give people confidence that the people that they elect to this institution will operate with the highest integrity, the highest honesty and, above all, with the best interests of the people of Wales at heart. If we can do that successfully, we will be a long way down the road to increasing voter turnout at Assembly elections and supporting the key decisions that are made in this building and by the Government that emanates out of the building by being the largest party.
So, the motion today is quite clear and quite straightforward. As I have mapped out, there is a reason why we have a ministerial code; it is to create the guidelines to separate a ministerial role and the legitimate role of all 60 of us as Assembly Members to canvass, lobby and promote interests within our constituencies and regions. That is perfectly legitimate. For those in this Chamber who have the huge privilege of sitting within Government and having executive responsibility, and therefore access to sensitive information, and in particular the purse strings of the Government’s budget and control over where that money is spent, there has to be a clear understanding as to how that is used. We can only spend that pound once, and if a Minister is lobbying for that to go into his or her constituency on the merit that they are the Minister, rather than on the merit of the proposal, that might well mean that instead of Rhyl getting that pound, it could be spent in this instance in Blaenau Gwent or somewhere else in south Wales. You have to have a fair crack of the whip so that people have confidence.
Above all, we want to see complete transparency of the process by having this independent adjudicator introduced into the system so that, where there is a reference for a perceived breach of the code, the First Minister, as a right, refers it to that independent person, who collects the evidence and presents the report. It is not taking the responsibility away from the First Minister to make that decision because he or she—whoever sits in the middle there—has the right to ultimately determine the fate of the Minister. The public will draw its conclusions from the evidence that is presented. I hope that people will endorse the motion tabled on the explanation that I have given to the Chamber this afternoon, and I urge support of the motion before us this afternoon.
I want to begin by saying how proud I am of this institution. While I do not very often agree with very much that Welsh Government does, I absolutely believe that it is the right of the Welsh people to elect a Welsh Government and for the public policy that dictates so much of our lives to be decided here in Cardiff bay. Do I think that we have a standards problem across this institution? No, I do not. I am also very proud that, as an institution, collectively, we have avoided some of the worst excesses that we have seen in other places. When I campaigned alongside the First Minister and others in this Chamber for the establishment of a National Assembly for Wales, we did so on the basis of wanting to create a new politics in Wales, a better way of doing politics in Wales. By and large, I think that all of us who have been elected to this Chamber over the years have strived and strived again to make that a reality: a better politics, a politics that looks at and focuses on what we can agree on rather than what separates and divides us. It is a better way of doing things, one that truly listens to our constituencies and turns that into public policy.
The events of the last two weeks have been damaging. Of course, they have been damaging to the individual involved and they have been damaging to the Welsh Government, but those of us on the opposition benches would be deluded if we thought that it had not been damaging to all of us and to this institution and to the public confidence in politicians yet again. So, we must, I believe, look to ourselves and try once more to find new ways to restore the trust and to renew those bonds of trust between us and the electorate. As Welsh Liberal Democrats, we have long called for independent policing of the ministerial code, and we have tried to advance that argument at times when we have not been in the storm of a debate about the actions of one individual person. We have done that because we think that there is simple merit in that case, and it is easier to talk about those things when we are not talking about individuals. However, the First Minister has constantly rejected that call, and yet we find ourselves now in a situation where we are discussing it again, all caught up in the behaviour of one individual person.
Now, I welcome very much the involvement this time of the Permanent Secretary in providing a report to the First Minister. It is very welcome indeed. However, it does not mean that it would happen again. It does not mean that the next time somebody has concerns—whether they are Assembly Member concerns or a member of the public’s concerns—about a Minister’s behaviour that the First Minister will make that judgment. We have no stated way of dealing with breaches of the ministerial code, and that is in sharp contrast, Deputy Presiding Officer, to the very clear and very structured way that backbenchers are treated within this Chamber. I would argue that what is good for a backbench Assembly Member is good for somebody who has the privilege of sitting in the Welsh Government.
I absolutely uphold the right of the First Minister to hire and fire his Cabinet members. That is his ultimate right, but I do not uphold his right to decide who is independently examined or independently reported on if there is a breach of the ministerial code. There should be the right for a member of the public or a Member of this institution to make their complaints directly to a commissioner for standards, in the same way as they would for a backbench Member, and for that commissioner to evaluate that complaint, draw up a report and investigate, if necessary, and then provide that report to the First Minister to do with whatever he saw fit.
It is not just the Welsh Liberal Democrats who have said that, previously, and I am glad to have the support of the other two parties here today. It is the standards commissioner and the committee of this place that has repeatedly, when it has been asked to look at the standards regime across this institution, highlighted this inequity in the system, time and again in its reports. It has repeatedly called upon the First Minister to look again at how this system works.
What I am asking the First Minister to do today is to establish an independent person—independent of politics and the civil service—to whom the job is tasked of receiving complaints from members of the public or anyone else if they feel that a Minister has breached that code, and to independently judge and evaluate whether there is cause for an investigation and if there is, to carry out that investigation and make their findings available to the First Minister and indeed, to the members of the public. Ultimately, it will be for the First Minister to judge the future of that Minister. I find it very difficult to understand why a First Minister would resist this opportunity to help restore those bonds of trust between us and the electorate.
I think that it is fair to say that when the no named day motion was originally tabled last week, we, in the opposition parties, saw it as an opportunity to further scrutinise the breach of the ministerial code, which was identified in the report on the former Minister for Natural Resources and Food’s behaviour, but events have moved on. The ministerial code is a bigger issue than any single Minister. Regardless of this week’s decision by the First Minister and of the decision that he made last week, we do need to look at how future breaches are dealt with.
The First Minister told us yesterday that, as with the UK and Scottish Governments, he is responsible for the ministerial code. This is a fact. However, the First Minister did not point out that Wales is alone in not appointing an independent adviser or group of advisers who can investigate alleged breaches of the ministerial code, among other functions relating to Ministers, and provide a view.
Of course, it is not the case that we have to copy other administrations, or follow what they are dong to the letter. As an example, the handling of the ministerial code by the UK Prime Minister has come under fire on several occasions. The two occasions that most of us will remember are in relation to Liam Fox and later on to Jeremy Hunt, who were his serving Ministers and the Prime Minister decided not to refer their cases to his independent adviser.
The Public Administration Select Committee later pointed to the weakness of a system where the Prime Minister retained overall control, and a point was made about the weakness of a regulator that could not launch its own investigations. I think that we should just think about that.
In terms of Scotland, the set up there involves an independent panel and the First Minister of Scotland referred himself to the panel for investigation in light of criticism over his stance on legal advice relating to whether an independent Scotland could join the EU. Now, he was cleared after a full investigation, independent of that Government, but of course, the politics of the independence referendum played a much larger role in that case than the kind of wrongdoing that we have been focusing on here.
While pointing out that, unlike Wales, the UK and Scottish Governments have independent advice in place in relation to their ministerial codes, the wider argument today is that we could actually do something better and more suitable to our own circumstances than the other administrations in question. That is what this motion does; it calls for the appointment of an independent adjudicator and we could demonstrate a high level of commitment to open government, to transparency and a new style of politics, which Kirsty Williams mentioned earlier on.
The problem for us, of course, is having to think about this and debate it when the First Minister has already turned his face against any change. Perhaps he would agree to look at this again in the future and reflect on how this is perceived as well as how it operates. That is a good thing in itself.
I do not disagree with the First Minister’s argument yesterday that this week’s sacking demonstrated that the current system worked and, no doubt, he will repeat that again this afternoon. It did work. However, that does not make it the best system—just because it worked. I think that we should look again at that.
I entirely agree with the First Minister—he must be free to appoint or dismiss as he sees fit. No-one else is entitled to that right, but an independent view brings strengths, which I think that we should not dismiss out of hand.
I think that one of the strengths that we should not dismiss out of hand is the fact that there is the opportunity to get very real answers to questions. It has been notable in this case that the particular breaches of the code have not been identified. They have been requested. We know that the First Minister has made a decision that the code has been breached. There were a number of potential breaches. Sir Derek Jones, in his report, has identified where the sections of breaches of the code took place, but a properly constituted report by an independent person who looked at the evidence for a particular breach and identified that breach would be key.
I also think that an independent person provides a measure of protection for the civil service. That has been important when seen in the light of subsequent events. It is particularly apparent in the circumstances facing Alun Davies that he received advice on 14 March from the civil service. The advice that he received was that he should not comment on the matter even in his AM capacity. First Minister, I know that the entire Cabinet was given advice because of the collective responsibility in respect of planning applications, and that was very clearly laid out on 28 March and is present in Sir Derek Jones’s report, when all the Ministers were given advice that they should not comment because of the perceived prejudice to planning applications.
How did it look to members of the public? On 28 May, a body that had only been in existence since 1 April said to Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council:
‘We have taken into consideration any mitigation proposed which will then help to offset the environmental impacts’.
It was Natural Resources Wales’s view that there remained unacceptable environmental risk. That was the conclusion. This is a non-governmental body that was overseen by this particular Minister. That conclusion is what was challenged by Alun Davies. Against the advice given to him by his civil servants, he wrote to Natural Resources Wales saying:
‘I am very anxious that this development goes ahead.’
He also called for a meeting, which, on 28 March, advice by civil servants said should not happen.
Sir Derek Jones noted in paragraph 59 of his report that the Minister said:
‘I hope that between us we can agree a way forward.’
Sir Derek Jones said, in his report:
‘In his AM capacity, Mr Davies would have had no role in agreeing a way forward in how NRW responded to its statutory planning responsibility.’
It is a fact that Mr Davies was told not to express a view, and he did. The Minister was told not to meet with the developers, and he did. He met with developers and no notes were taken, which is in breach of common sense, let alone any ministerial or Assembly Member obligations. It is a fact that Sir Derek Jones’s report said that
‘Mr Davies’ intervention could be interpreted as having had some influence on the way in which NRW exercised its statutory planning responsibilities from 18 June onwards’.
First Minister, I know that you accept that the code was broken, but I do not know which provisions of the code you say were broken and which you say were not. I know that you say that the advice given to Alun Davies was precautionary, but that advice existed, as Sir Derek Jones has stated, to preserve the integrity of the planning process.
I was surprised when you, First Minister, said that the Minister had not exercised sufficient care in clearly establishing the perception of full separation between his ministerial and constituency roles. What an independent person looking at this would do would be not only to look at the perception, but also to look at the acts and to make clear what the effects of those acts were. I think that the appointment of an independent person—. As Kirsty Williams says, all of us as Assembly Members are subject to referral, potentially, to the standards commissioner, so I do not see why Ministers should not be subject to the same.
Every Government Minister has a duty to conduct himself or herself according to the highest standard of conduct in fulfilling their governmental roles, and members of the public should be secure in the knowledge that their Government is acting with integrity, objectivity and honesty. When there is an accusation that this has not been the case, this must be seen to be dealt with in the strongest possible terms, but it must be seen to be transparently dealt with as well.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats have not just been calling for this change in reaction to the recent scandals. We originally tabled a debate in November 2012 to discuss the issue and deliberately chose to do so at a time when there were no outstanding complaints, so that we could argue the case on pure principle. However, sadly, events have overtaken us and we do not have that luxury anymore. The pure principle is a very simple one: to protect the transparency of our political institutions so that the electorate at large can have confidence in them and can have faith that, when something has gone wrong, something will be done to deal with it. It is a principle that we have asked the Welsh Government to address over a long period of time, in our manifesto, in questions and in debates, only to have the First Minister rebuff the idea out of hand. I hope that the events of the last two weeks will, at least, give the First Minister cause to ponder on whether or not the independence with which these investigations are undertaken might be reviewed.
Asking for the report by the Permanent Secretary is certainly a step in the right direction, but I would suggest that there is still a long way to go. For example, the Permanent Secretary, while impartial, is still very close to the day-to-day workings of the Government to perform such a duty. There is an issue of appearance, in that that relationship might not be seen to be independent. Also, the Permanent Secretary’s report provided no recommendations for the First Minister, so it left the First Minister in a position where he had to make judgments on the basis of a simple statement of fact. We would like an independent adjudicator to go further: to be able to make recommendations to the First Minister for the First Minister then to act upon.
We have to ask ourselves a question: was the investigation by the Permanent Secretary a one-off, or will this be the normal practice from now on? As far as I can see, a precedent has been set, and I believe that that precedent is a good one, but I also believe that it needs to be formalised, so that people can be confident that the example that we have seen is not a one-off situation and that, if another incident were to occur, people would understand what the process would be, that the process is consistent from Minister to Minister and from case to case, and that people can expect a report to be published, so that everything can be seen in the public domain.
The First Minister has expressed concerns that this would mean that a non-elected official would have the ability to fire Ministers. This is not what we want to see. It is not a system that we believe would be practical. We want a system where, as Kirsty Williams said, an Assembly Member can call for an investigation by an independent adjudicator into the conduct of a Minister, and that that investigation would provide recommendations for actions for the First Minister. It would provide the First Minister with cover in the event of such an incident occurring in the future, and provide him with the confidence that the actions that he takes are ones that have been seen to be appropriate by an independent individual. It would then be up to the First Minister to justify the reasons why he had not taken the advice if he chose to decide that that was inappropriate at the time.
Several years ago, the National Assembly agreed to a law that places the commissioner for standards on a statutory footing, and this law had support from all four parties here and from the Government. It had that support because we could see how important it was that the people of Wales could have confidence in their elected representatives. Why should Ministers not be on the same footing? All sorts of other professions have a system of regulation that is seen to be independent. Why not politicians too? At a time of growing cynicism towards politicians of all colours—and this does not help—we have a duty to make our political processes as transparent as possible, and certainly at least as transparent as our peers in other parts of this country. The current system is a long way from that. When we raised the issue for debate in November, we did so, as I say, at a time when there was no current scandal to colour the debate and force the issue, so that we could debate the issue on that principle alone and establish a system that was above suspicion and not a reactionary opportunity to change our systems in a knee-jerk way as a result of a present crisis. Well, we have a present crisis. That crisis has been dealt with, but we need to know that, when the next crisis arises, there will be a system in place that will deal with it appropriately.
I am delighted to take part in probably what is one of the most important debates that this Chamber has held since the creation of the Assembly.
Last week, the Welsh Conservatives told the First Minister that the position of the Welsh Labour Government’s Minister for Natural Resources and Food was untenable following a report into his recent conduct, which concluded that he had broken the ministerial code. In his statement, the First Minister stated that the Minister,
‘did not exercise sufficient care in clearly establishing the perception of full separation between his ministerial and constituency roles.’
He also stated:
‘it is clear to me that the Ministerial Code was breached’,
also saying that the Minister had apologised but that no further action would be taken.
I say that this was extremely poor judgment by the First Minister. As always, mistakes come back to haunt those ill-fated decision makers; certainly, that is my experience. Sadly, for the First Minister, his mistake did come back to haunt him less than a week later. We all now know that there are aspects of the First Minister’s Cabinet that were not only lacking, but were totally inexcusable. That aside, the besieged Minister was sacked too late, some may argue, but credit where credit is due to the First Minister for finally acting.
This in itself is now why I think that this debate is significant and why I think that this debate is one of the most important debates that this Chamber has held since probably the creation of the Assembly. It is, because I frequently hear up and down Wales that people really have a mistrust of the process of government here, sadly. I will just broaden it by saying that, over the years, in my previous profession, I was engaged in central and eastern Europe in institution building and the fight against corruption, building a pathway for former countries to join a modern democratic Europe. When I look at what exists in Wales, and indeed at what has existed over the years, I am tempted to draw a comparison. Wales is stagnant and the Government needs to demonstrate its commitment to open government more regularly. That is not a throwaway soundbite; it is my considered opinion, having worked to build institutions, helping to build openness and transparency into the heart of governments of former regimes.
If, by some unimaginable fluke, the nationalists were to eventually realise their independence dream, I would be very interested to see what the European Union would impose on Wales as pre-accession conditions before Wales was allowed to join. As that is very unlikely, I do not think that we need to worry too much about it.
I am bound to say that, as an Assembly Member for the last three years, I find it very frustrating. Frankly, at times, I really find that the Government in Wales is nothing more than a wink, wink, nudge, nudge institution. I do not approve of it, nor should anyone else. Welsh civic society and some aspects of the media, as I say, are complicit if this institution is to grow and deliver for Wales, as I want it to. I hope that this sorry affair will present a wake-up call. As some Members would put it, it is time to wake up and smell the coffee. Transparency needs to be the word of the day in your statements, answers to written questions, and relationships with developers and key advisers.
In the coming months, I believe that there will be some interesting revelations on the way that this Government has performed in Wales. Chickens are coming home to roost, and I will be looking to ensure that Ministers will be held accountable for their actions, as indeed Alun Davies subsequently was.
So, Members, the ruling party here has an enormous responsibility to the people of Wales. I do not want Wales to become a poor relation of the United Kingdom. That is not something that I relish, and I will do all that I can to change it. This is not talking Wales down; it is speaking up for the people of Wales who want to know what you, as their Government, are actually doing on a day-to-day basis through their Members. They deserve to have honesty and integrity in Government. I feel that it is imperative, therefore, that the call for the appointment of an independent adjudicator of the ministerial code is supported in order that we can see improved transparency and an increase in confidence in those elected to public office. Thank you.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the First Minister.
I thank Members for their contributions to what has been a debate that has dealt with the issues, and I intend to respond in kind. I think it is important to begin by offering an explanation of my thought processes over the course of the last week or two.
Antoinette Sandbach basically reiterated what was in Sir Derek Jones’s report, and it is of course a report that I wholly accept. It was quite clear to me last week that the decision that I had to take was exceptionally finely balanced, and that was communicated to the Minister. I did not anticipate what would happen the following day—I do not think that anybody could have anticipated that. However, I can say to Members that I discovered on Friday morning last that there was, as was communicated to me, a problematic e-mail that had been passed on to my office by the private office of the Minister. On Monday, I became aware of the full extent of what had happened, and then, yesterday morning, I asked the Minister in and I listened to what he had to say, but the decision that I took was that he could no longer continue as a Minister in this Government. The irony, of course, is had there been a system in place at that time where everything was automatically referred to an independent person, that would have delayed the process, and so, as far as this week is concerned, a decision was taken, and it is a decision that I very much stand by.
I do not take the view that where such e-mails are communicated to me, any attempt should be made to suppress them. It was my decision to ensure that that e-mail was published. It was my decision that Members should be fully aware—and I wanted this to be as transparent as possible—of what had happened. I was not prepared to say simply that the Minister had left the Government without offering an explanation. I took the view that the only rational view that could be taken of the e-mail was that an attempt had been made to gather confidential information for use against those named Members—something that I took very seriously—and I took the view that Members in this Chamber, and indeed the public of Wales, should know that, because I do not believe that this is something that should be part of our politics here in Wales.
I am very grateful for the First Minister’s intervention, but if there had not been a complaint to you on the twelfth of this month, the meeting—. There was an e-mail from Alun Davies to Natural Resources Wales. There was a meeting that took place on 18 June. Were those meetings communicated to you at the time?
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
It seems to me that it was only the complaint that triggered the inquiry that then brought this material to light.
I think that the Member means June last year, not June this year.
I became aware of the situation regarding those complaints when the freedom of information request was made, and not before then. As a result of that, of course, I asked the Permanent Secretary to investigate the issue as he did.
As I say, just to draw this particular issue to a close, I think that transparency is exceptionally important, and that is why I took the view, as I say, that Members should know what had happened. It was not sufficient, in my judgment, simply for the Minister to leave government without any explanation being given. I hope that Members understand my thought process in terms of that.
The Presiding Officer took the Chair at 17:38.
It is quite clear that the system worked. The private office informed my office and informed me. If this was widespread throughout Government, then I would know about it, and private offices would be informing me of what was going on. So, I can give Members an assurance that this is not something that is common practice in Government; it is something that was an exception, but nevertheless an exception that must be dealt with.
Could I turn to the contribution made first of all by the leader of the opposition? He is right to say that government is a privilege. It is not always a pleasure, nor is it easy, but then it is not meant to be. We accept that as we come into government. But one thing that I did notice, and I noticed it in the contributions of all Members, is that it is not clear what Members are asking for exactly. An adjudicator is a judge, simple as that: it is somebody who presides, arbitrates or judges in a formal dispute, and somebody who hands down judgments. Clearly—and I made this point in debates last week—the impression that the use of the word 'adjudicator' gives is of somebody who would actually judge the situation, and that judgment would be binding. That is not what Members have said today—I accept that—but that is what an adjudicator does. So, care must be taken with the terms that are used by Members in debates such as this.
Will you take an intervention?
Yes, of course.
As the First Minister indicated, I think that the sentiment was conveyed fully by the three parties regarding what we perceive the role to be; it is about independence, taking the evidence and putting it in a report. However, ultimately, you, as First Minister, or whoever succeeds you, would pick the Cabinet. It is not about taking that responsibility away from you. So, would you be prepared to open up discussions on this particular aspect to see whether progress can be made?
Let me come to that. I know that what Members do not want is an adjudicator; it is an unfortunate use of the word, but I accept that that is not what Members have asked for. However, I know that Members have asked for different things. The leader of the opposition, for example, said that, as far as he could see, the system would work where the First Minister refers a complaint to an independent person, that person then produces a report for the public and Members here, and then the First Minister takes the decision. Basically, that is what happens in Westminster; that is the system there.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats talked about independent policing of the code. I am not clear what she means by that or what would happen. She seemed to indicate that the complaint would go straight to a standards commissioner, who would investigate—the First Minister would not be the gatekeeper, as it were—and then the First Minister would take the decision. There is a subtle difference there.
First Minister, at present, if the Assembly wants to complain about an Assembly Member, the complaint is immediately passed to the commissioner. We know that, in the past, the commissioner has received complaints from members of the public about the actions of a Minister, which they are not allowed to look at. Those complaints have subsequently been passed on to a First Minister—I am not saying that it is you—and nothing more has been heard about them. The public needs to have a system that is equal for both individual Assembly Members and Ministers and that responds to people’s concerns. At the moment, there is no way in which a member of the public can access that system.
I would hope that a member of the public would get a response with regard to any complaint that was made.
With regard to what Jocelyn Davies said, she talked about an adviser, a regulator or somebody with an independent view. All of those words were used. I know that what she wants to see is somebody who provides, at the very least, an independent piece of advice to the First Minister. What is not clear to me is what Members—. There is no unanimity in the Chamber among the parties that have put their names to this debate as to how exactly the system would work. That much, I think, needs to be clarified in future, although I accept that what they have asked for is for there to be, at the very least, an independent adviser who provides advice to the First Minister. I would argue that the Permanent Secretary does that.
I think that it is dangerous ground to suggest that the civil service is not independent; I can assure Members that it is. The very fact that the private office of the former Minister notified me of what was happening is a sign of that cherished independence. We do not want to be in a situation where the civil service is replaced every time there is a new Government coming into office.
I am aware of the time, Llywydd, but I know that I have taken a number of interventions, so perhaps I may be given a little more time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have not indicated that your time is up yet.
What I can say to Members is that I think that the point that Members make with regard to the Permanent Secretary is one that I will ponder further, and that point is whether there should be a system where the Permanent Secretary is engaged to produce a report on a regular basis. That is something that I am certainly willing to consider, having done it, of course; it was very useful to me for the Permanent Secretary to be able to do that.
I am certainly willing to consider whether there is scope for obtaining independent advice beyond that. However, as far as today’s debate is concerned, because of the use of the word ‘adjudicator’, I think that there needs to be further thought given to how this system would actually work.
As far as Byron Davies is concerned, he seemed to put us in the same category as Serbia, with which I disagree. He said that the media and civic society were complicit in some kind of conspiracy against the people of Wales. I cannot accept that. I am told, although I did not hear it, that he used the word ‘corruption’. I will be corrected if he did not, but that is what these benches heard. I thought that that was a wholly inappropriate contribution by him and one that was out of keeping with the contributions that were made by Members around this Chamber. I do not accept that the democratic body that we have established here is part of a conspiracy with the media and civil society in Wales to do Wales down. That is certainly the impression that I was given.
I say to Members that I welcome the contributions that have been made. I certainly think that there is scope for examining the current system, and, as far as that is concerned, I have an open mind. However, without there being clarity, it is very difficult to support a motion that needs that further clarity.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Simon Thomas to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is true to say that the debate has been very different from what we expected when the motion was first tabled. The motion was agreed between the three parties and, certainly, the three parties that have contributed today are agreed on the kind of independent perspective that we want to bring into this process.
Towards the end of his contribution, I think that the First Minister, at last, saw the train coming down line and realised that we can no longer reject the need for some sort of independent scrutiny of the ministerial code. I think that that happens even in Westminster, however unsatisfactory that is from time to time. It certainly happens in the Scottish context, as Jocelyn Davies outlined in her contribution. Also, a precedent has been set, as Andrew R.T. Davies and Kirsty Williams pointed out, through having an independent report from the Permanent Secretary on this occasion.
The First Minister has just accepted that that report was of great use to him. Therefore, if he has accepted that an independent report had added value to the process of administering the ministerial code, I would agree that we cannot go back now, as the precedent has been set and has been a valuable precedent. There is no going back on that.
Jocelyn Davies’s contribution encapsulated this in the Welsh phrase ‘nid da lle gellir gwell’—that is, there is always room for improvement, and that is argument here. Although the system has worked on this occasion, we could formalise what we have done and improve on it. It has been an incident that has bruised us all. I know that it has bruised one Member more than anyone else, but it has left its mark on each and every one of us. Each and every one of us has had people approach us and ask us, ‘What’s happening in your Senedd? What’s happening in that Assembly? You can’t run things properly and you can’t maintain a just administration.’ That has been reflected in the way that people perceive us.
It is true to say that today’s debate has been a lot more positive, and, therefore, we have been in a position to put to one side the specific issues that happened with Alun Davies—although Antoinette Sandbach did remind us of them—as much as we possibly can in order to concentrate on what we can learn as an Assembly and a Government from this process. It is a question about the Welsh Government and Welsh governance. We, as Kirsty Williams said, are eager to see something better developing here: not the old way of doing things, and not calling on the same people to examine the people who have done the job in the past but something new and fresh that can instil confidence not only among us as Assembly Members, but among the Government and the public.
Although I have not been fully convinced of this in the past, I think that this has moved us towards a situation where we have to have—I will use the Welsh word that is in the Welsh motion—an adjudicator or ‘dyfarnydd’, which a better word perhaps in this context, because the First Minister has been debating semantics here. We need an independent individual who can provide independent advice to the Government.
One of the unfortunate things about the First Minister’s response today is that he was trying to negotiate publicly, asking, ‘What do you and you want and what do we want?’ I would ask the First Minister rather to accept the spirit of this motion today and to open negotiations with the leaders of all parties in this place, so that that negotiation in terms of what exactly this process should be can be settled and discussed, not on the floor of the Assembly, because that or a public committee of the Assembly is not the best of doing that, but through discussion among the parties.
What we are eager to see is that independent advice should be made available publicly to the First Minister on the majority of occasions, and the First Minister should take the decision and then he or she would remain responsible for that.
It is right to go a step further too, because there is a problem in the perception that a breach of the ministerial code leads to a Minister losing their post. That is not always the penalty, I would argue. It is possible to make a mistake and to breach the ministerial code and not lose your post. Vince Cable did that, and lost some of his responsibilities. What was staggering to me with regard to Alun Davies’s conduct was that he had so clearly breached the code and there was no sort of sanction whatsoever—not necessarily that he had to be dismissed, but there was no acknowledgement from Government that he had done wrong and that that had affected the reputation not only of the Government but of democracy and the administration of the Assembly too. So, as part of those negotiations, some sort of understanding of the possible penalties—as Leanne Wood asked you about yesterday, First Minister—would be of assistance in this context too, because it is clear that we can impose penalties that are not as severe as being dismissed.
It is true in this context that the Minister breached the code again the day after the very day on which you had expressed your support for him. It is clear, therefore, that, if a Minister loses the confidence of the First Minister, you do not have to go to an independent person to ask their advice; you sack that individual on the spot. That is entirely clear. However, on those occasions where the code has been breached and questions have been raised by the public or Assembly Members, it would be a positive thing to have an independent individual to advise you, and to do so publicly.
The final point that I would like to make, if I may, is that I do not think that the Permanent Secretary is the person to do that. Although a valuable precedent has been set today, I think that Antoinette Sandbach’s point in this context is important: having an independent person from outwith the Assembly and outwith Government would also protect the civil service. In Scotland, former Presiding Officers do that job, Presiding Officer, and so I do not know whether you would consider that when you are ready—at some point, perhaps—to step down from your current position.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I am glad that you qualified that last bit. [Laughter.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There is objection. Therefore, I will defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The Business Committee has agreed that voting will be conducted at the end of business, before the short debates. I intend to move straight to the votes, unless someone objects. There are no objections.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5552
Motion agreed: For 26, Against 1, Abstain 20.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5555
Motion not agreed: For 24, Against 25, Abstain 0.
Thank you very much to everyone who is staying for this debate.
Sandy Mewies took the Chair at 17:53.
Ddirprwy Lywydd, sorry, Lywydd—. Who am I speaking to today?—[Interruption.]—Lywydd dros dro. There we are; thank you very much. I am very happy to give some of my time in this debate to Simon Thomas, Eluned Parrott and Aled Roberts.
Cuts to discretionary school transport have been making the headlines in local papers in my region for most of the last school year. With the Welsh Government giving due notice of deep cuts to the local government block grant over these two years, each of the three local authorities, as well as others in Wales, have looked at school transport as fertile ground for savings. The inconsistent approach of just these three councils has led me to question the principles on which they are trying to make decisions, and that has prompted more curiosity about the way in which children and young people get to school or college. It seems crazy to me that the Welsh Government is at least attempting to deal with the challenges of standards and attendance, but that something like getting to school has barely changed since 1944.
There have been changes, of course. The Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 introduced some provision around safety, and the new learner travel guidance launched only last month grew from its conception in the Chamber during my last short debate. I hope that today’s efforts, Minister, prove to be more than just food for thought, too. Nevertheless, the threshold distances for free transport of two miles or three miles between school and the home of a child are celebrating their seventieth anniversary this year. While the distinction between the two distances is expressed as applying between primary school age children and secondary school age children these days, as opposed to when a child is eight years or older, the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 and all relevant legislation before and since devolution has clung to those distances found in the statutory guidance arising from an education Act passed during the second world war.
Sian Thornthwaite, a consultant specialising in school travel, told the transport select committee in 2006 that the journey to school was important because of potential health and environmental benefits. She gave evidence that affordable and available transport, whether by bus or through options for walking and cycling, has a key impact in terms of reducing exclusion and ensuring that young people are able to continue in education. There was widespread agreement from other witnesses in that inquiry that the current two and three mile distances are no longer realistic walking distances and are merely
‘an arbitrary limit which differentiates as to whether the financial burden falls on the parent or the local authority.’
As we are now in the consultation period for the secondary legislation required to make sense of the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013, I urge all Members to consider whether we need a different perspective on distances that children might be expected to walk or cycle to school. I would be very interested to know how many of those children who do not receive free transport actually do walk or cycle to school at the moment, and what targets for improvement will be achieved as a result of the Act.
While concerns about time, safety or tiredness might undermine the appetite of a child to walk two or three miles to school, I also recognise that the cost of reducing those statutory thresholds in terms of free transport will do little for the health of stressed council officials trying to save money, for money it is that has caused the ructions in South Wales West, with all three local authorities trying to pare right back to statutory minimums: free transport to the nearest suitable relevant place of education beyond the two or three mile limit.
In our last debate, Minister, the tricky word was ‘available’. In this debate, the tricky words are ‘relevant’ and ‘suitable’. Who decides whether a school is suitable for a child? Gone are the days when it had anything to do with choice. It does not matter if your nearest school has terrible results, or if your child might be having a dreadful time there: that is the school the Welsh Government says your child should go to. If you want your child to go to another one further away, you must pay for the child to get there. While as a Welsh Conservative I may not be happy with that Hobson’s choice, at least it was clear what the rules were and what might be provided at the council’s discretion.
I think that the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 has changed that. Although councils had always had the discretion to offer free transport to Welsh-medium schools, faith schools and sixth-form colleges, they began to treat the Measure’s duty to promote access to education and training through the medium of the Welsh language more like an obligation to provide free transport to a child’s nearest Welsh-medium school, if more than two or three miles away. However, it is still only a discretion. I want to be clear that I think that the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 fudged that issue. I would have preferred it to have included Welsh-medium education as one of the learning needs that a local authority must take into account. Wales is a bilingual nation, and our legislation should clearly reflect the principle that Welsh should not be treated less favourably than English. There can be no room for discrimination. Is it right to call a decision on language merely a preference? Is it right for a council to designate an English-medium school as ‘suitable’ just to save money on bus provision, when a child or his or her family wants Welsh-medium education? In short, when does a preference become a right?
Wales may be a bilingual country, but it is also a multi-faith country. If a council takes so much care not to offend on the grounds of language preference when exercising its discretion, should it not also take care not to offend on the grounds of religious preference? Members frequently stand up in this Chamber and talk about equality and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Article 28 says that a child has the right to an education. Article 2 says that:
‘Parties shall take all appropriate measures to ensure that the child is protected against all forms of discrimination…on the basis of the…expressed opinions, or beliefs of the child’s parents, legal guardians, or family members.’
Having signed up to the UNCRC, Minister, are you completely certain that section 1(4) of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, which excludes voluntary aided schools from the list of relevant places of education is compatible with the convention?
Article 14(3) of the convention says:
‘Freedom to manifest one’s religion or belief may be subject only to such limitations as are prescribed by law and are necessary to protect public safety, order, health or morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others.’
So, is it necessary to deprive children of a free school bus in order to protect public safety, order, health, morals or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others?
Now, you may not feel persuaded to move on the two-mile and three-mile thresholds, Minister and I suspect that I do not actually blame you for that either, but I do hope that you will look closely at the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 and its relationship with the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child or at least offer guidance to those schools in my region that have either stopped free transport to faith schools, are still considering free transport to faith schools or have postponed making any decision because they simply cannot work out how to deal with the consultation responses. I hope also that the convention will form the core of the Welsh Government’s consideration of the management of transport for children with special educational needs. It may even be something that you might want to talk to the Minister for Education and Skills about as he ponders on the direction of the additional learner needs Bill.
I just have a few observations on transport to post-16 places of education or training. I recognise that, quite often, we can be talking about greater distances to school or college, sometimes even out of county. However, at the moment, there is real confusion and inconsistency about what help there is with transport costs. With such an emphasis on, and the need for, post-16 education and training, I wonder whether the Government might be able to consider how it could help provide some clarity at least. You may already be aware of the evidence of Rhieni dros Addysg Gymraeg, which suggests that transport is a significant factor in enabling students to continue their education through the medium of Welsh. Sixth-form students in Ysgol Gyfun Ystalyfera in my region lost their free transport recently and now have to make special applications for help. At the same time, Swansea council had considered and ditched plans to charge students for travel to Gower College.
The recent NUS report on transport in Welsh further education showed that access funds at colleges are being disproportionately used to finance transport, despite the existence of the education maintenance allowance, and while I have concerns about that because it limits the amount of money that colleges have to overcome other access barriers it was also very clear that transport costs do influence the decision of students from poorer backgrounds to both start and continue in further education. Most 16 to 18-year-olds do get help with their transport costs at the moment, but 69% of respondents to the NUS survey of those young people said that they relied on that transport support in order to remain in education or training. So, you can imagine the level of drop-out that would happen if they for some reason lost that transport support.
In preparing for this debate, Minister, I visited the website of colleges in three local authority areas in my region to try to find out what transport assistance you might expect, and not one of them provided a straight answer because, I think, there is no straight answer. It is no wonder that 20% of students experience difficulty just trying to get the information they are looking for. Now, it is right that Welsh Government does not attempt to interfere directly with these independent institutions. It may well be right that it should not be down to local authorities to take responsibility for post-16 transport to education and training. However, it is an aim of Welsh Government to widen access to education and build an appropriately skilled workforce, and I think that it is well worth you, together with the Minister for education and the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, exploring fully how to stop transport costs being the issue that prevents students fulfilling their potential, through whichever language, and at the institution that offers the education or training they need.
I would like to thank Suzy Davies for raising this important debate today. I think that she raises some particularly important issues in terms of enabling access to Welsh-medium education and the impact of transport policy in making sure that people have the choices they believe they have. The impact of policy changes in this area can be incredibly stark—that, potentially, the right to learn through the language of your choice, the language of your fathers, if you like, in a bilingual nation, could be restricted to those whose parents can afford to provide the transport. That is, of course, if public transport is indeed available in that area. On that, I would like to return to the withdrawal of the V5 service in the Vale of Glamorgan last year, which meant that pupils in Rhoose who were attending Cowbridge Comprehensive School had their only direct means of public transport withdrawn on the basis of public transport funding changes. The impact of that was that those individual children were facing a journey of 1 hour and 45 minutes, via Cardiff, in order to travel the 10 or 12 miles between Rhoose and Cowbridge, which is obviously an appalling impact. The parents in that case have clubbed together to provide a private service, but the cost of that is restrictive for parents from less well-off backgrounds. This is a case in point. We have to make sure that the transport needs of those individuals are being supported and that the transport policies are supporting the educational policies that we are also delivering.
I do not think that this is a new problem. I have scars from my days in Wrexham when we tried to pull back on some of the discretionary services that were provided, even to schools within two or three miles, when money was more readily available. However, there is a danger that we have a lack of consistency as far as counties are concerned, when they all respond because of budgetary pressures. We also face a situation where, if you travel on the railway along the Marches, you will see a large number of English secondary schools that are now providing free transport in England. I think that this matter of discretion, Minister, is something that you and the Minister for education, perhaps, need to look at, because, certainly, the impact on Welsh-medium, faith and post-16 education is something that we might pay the price for in the coming years.
Thank you for the opportunity to contribute to the debate. I agree with many of the points raised by Suzy. I think that it is clear that Welsh-medium education is a choice that is a priority for the Government, and it is therefore a policy priority in Wales. The Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 does not fully reflect that. I know, as one who was an adviser to the Government at the time, that the reason why it does not reflect that is the fact that it went through that LCO process. However, I also think that certain authorities have not paid due regard to the Measure as it currently stands either. It is true to say that Welsh-medium education is one of the things that should be promoted according to that Measure.
It is also true to say that, as we look at people in the post-16 category, outwith compulsory education, we must support those people in an equitable and fair way so that they can access education, training, apprenticeships or whatever. So, it is clear that we need to review the whole package that is provided and ensure that it covers pupils up to the age of 18. That will involve costs and a need to look again at the whole system, but I would personally support some sort of review of that system now that we have the broader powers to legislate in this area.
I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to reply to the debate—Edwina Hart.
It is always a pleasure to reply to short debates, because the nature of the discussion of a short debate is generally one of trying to be helpful in terms of the points that are made based on Members’ experiences, particularly within their own constituencies. That was certainly the case when we spoke about blue badges earlier during this session.
May I say that I am aware of the issues around this? I think that we have all had issues where we have taken up casework on behalf of constituents regarding the arrangements for travel to work—or travel to school, which, of course, is work in itself. It is important for us to recognise that Welsh Government policy has not changed in this area, but local authorities, with the increasing budgetary pressures that they have been under, have looked to their discretionary learner travel provision.
It is important for us to recognise that there has been a particularly high level of correspondence on the issues regarding those having to travel to faith schools and Welsh-medium schools. We have looked at some of our guidance and we are giving clear, comprehensive, informed and easy-to-understand guidance, but that is not producing the right results for parents, with the use of the word ‘discretion’.
In terms of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, which defined a minimum level of statutory transport entitlement, we know that local authorities have the discretion to do more. So, it might be opportune for me to look at some of the provisions within that Measure. It is important that we keep up to date with changes in circumstances and I have no objection to discussing some of these issues further with the Minister for education.
I also think that it is important for us all to recognise the point that was made about educational maintenance allowances, which is quite interesting, and about those in receipt of them being able to afford to travel and those who perhaps do not get—. You will know what I mean. There are all sorts of issues around that that we also have to look at in terms of transport.
I am also currently funding some schemes on young persons’ transport in certain areas in Wales and the results of those will be available in 2015. I am also in the process of commissioning further work on youth travel arrangements for those who are going into education and those who may go into apprenticeships and training. I hope that I will be able to report in September on the further work that I am undertaking within my department.
It is important that we recognise that this is where the lives of people start in many ways, as they develop their career and look at their future. Education and training shapes their life chances, so it is important that we give them the best opportunity to ensure that they can get on with their life chances.
In terms of this, I will take on board all the points that have been made to me today by the various speakers. I will discuss this with my colleague the Minister for Education and Skills, and I will certainly review some of the legislation that is currently around and share with Members, as soon as I am able to, the progress that I am making on the various schemes that I have asked people to look at.
I have agreed to requests to speak from Aled Roberts, Janet Finch-Saunders, Mick Antoniw and Mark Isherwood. I will start up by placing on record my thanks to the Motor Neurone Disease Association for the assistance that I have had in putting together this debate. The aims of the debate are: first, to raise awareness of motor neuron disease; secondly, to outline some of the challenges facing people with MND in Wales; and, thirdly, to establish more information and call on the Welsh Government to do more to support people with MND.
This debate follows MND awareness month in June and global amyotrophic lateral sclerosis MND awareness day was held on Saturday 21 June. The theme of this year’s campaign was ‘voice’, as people with MND have made it clear that spreading the word and raising awareness can be a powerful way to keep their views being heard while their own voice may be getting fainter. Members may also have seen the MND Association’s Voice campaign posters at Cardiff station. With that in mind, and the knowledge that 80% to 90% of people with MND experience communication problems as their speech deteriorates, perhaps the Minister can advise us how he will implement his decisions in response to the review of the provision of communication aides and how he will ensure sufficient funding on an ongoing basis.
Motor neurone disease is a progressive disease that attacks the motor neurones or the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. This then means that messages gradually stop reaching muscles around the body, which, in turn, leads to weakness and an increasing loss of mobility in the limbs. The effects of MND can vary enormously from person to person, from the presenting symptoms and the rate and pattern of the disease progression to the length of survival time after diagnosis. Like other neurological conditions, MND can affect how you walk, talk, eat, drink and breathe, but that is not to say that all symptoms necessarily happen to everyone, or that everyone will develop these symptoms in any specific order. Sadly, as many Members are already no doubt aware, there is currently no cure for MND. It is a progressive terminal illness. Approximately 250 people are living with motor neurone disease in Wales.
It is essential that people with MND and their carers can access the right care in the right place at the right time. Unfortunately, MND can be extremely difficult to diagnose for several reasons. Even in 2014, this condition is still little understood, and this contributes to the many people with MND not receiving the care and support that they need.
First, although MND kills five people every day, with half of people dying within 14 months of diagnosis, it is a comparatively rare disease. The early symptoms can be quite slight, such as clumsiness, mild weakness, slurred speech, all of which may have been attributed to a variety of other causes. So, it can be some time before someone feels it necessary to see their GP. Also, there is no specific test to prove that someone has MND, which means that diagnosis requires the elimination of other potential conditions. Naturally, this can take time—time that people living with MND simply do not have.
With that in mind, I welcome the recent neurological conditions delivery plan for Wales, launched on 8 May, which sets out the Welsh Government’s expectations to improve services to people with neurological conditions. Within the delivery plan, there are several delivery themes, which have particular significance for people with MND.
I am pleased that the MND Association is a key member of the Wales Neurological Alliance and was actively involved in contributing to the development of the delivery plan during its draft stages. We will be working with the Wales Neurological Alliance in monitoring and holding the local health boards to account to ensure service improvement. However, in delivery theme 1 of the delivery plan, could the Minister clarify in his response how he will ensure that the awareness of motor neurone disease specifically is raised, as opposed to the general awareness raising of neurological conditions?
I also welcome in delivery theme 2 the delivery expectation of a better understanding of neurological symptoms and care among general practitioners. The Minister may be aware that the MND Association has been working with the Royal College of General Practitioners on an early diagnosis of MND and has produced a new red-flag tool, which I have here, and a range of resources, that will help to reduce inaccurate referrals and the time to diagnosis. The red-flag tool is a simple, A4-sized flowchart sent specifically to GPs and health professionals to raise awareness of MND. The first section aims to guide them through some of the symptoms of MND; it then details progression rates and factors that are not supportive of MND diagnosis in the second section. If there are ‘yes’ answers to more than one symptom and a progression factor, then the GP is advised to refer the patient to neurology. Progress into the treatment and care of people with MND will be boosted by faster and more accurate diagnosis with the red-flag tool.
As MND can be rapidly progressing, it is essential for an early diagnosis for a range of reasons, from removing uncertainty for the person experiencing the symptoms to enabling them to plan for the future. It also allows specialist care and support to start early and increases the window of opportunity to research into and better understand MND. Therefore, Minister, one of the key aims of today’s debate is to call on the Welsh Government to make a commitment to ensuring that all local health board chief executives distribute the MND Association red-flag tool to all GPs and other health professionals, such as speech and language therapists, across Wales.
In terms of multidisciplinary assessment, timely access to this is of particular relevance to people with motor neurone disease due to its often rapidly progressing nature. I trust that the Minister will join me in welcoming the debate that took place on Monday about specialist nurses at the north Wales neurosciences network board meeting. The MND Association works in close partnership with the north Wales motor neurone disease specific advisory group. It is a forum where stakeholders, as the Minister may be aware, from a wide range of clinical and non-clinical groups with a direct relationship to MND services assess and plan priorities, and advise on and review the delivery of services to people with MND in north Wales.
Many people living with MND in south Wales are now receiving better co-ordinated care closer to home, thanks to an innovative care network funded by the MND Association in a long-term partnership with NHS Wales. The aim of the network is to deliver an equitable service, even for those living miles from hospital, and for all those with MND to receive the same standards of care. The network offers a multiprofessional, one-stop-shop approach, with a collaborative approach between neurology and palliative care, which results in fewer hospital visits for people with MND. Hubs are based in Swansea and Cardiff, with a number of satellite clinics spread across the rest of south Wales.
While MND may, indeed, be a disease of low prevalence, it is one of high need and high cost. Indeed, the average cost of care for someone with MND has been estimated at around £200,000 per year in the last year of life, and this cost could increase significantly if poorly planned care and care of a poor condition lead to crises and emergency hospital admissions. It is quite clear that public services in Wales are currently facing significant financial challenges and, as a result, the NHS and social services in Wales can find it challenging to meet the needs of people with MND in a timely and equitable way. In fact, the south Wales MND care network has identified a number of issues of concern regarding timely and equitable access to equipment for people with MND, such as poor access or delays to non-invasive ventilation, cough assistance and mobile arm supports, as well as long delays for assessment for major house adaptations. I would be grateful if the Minister could advise how these issues are going to be addressed.
The profile of MND issues is well and truly on the up, here and with the election of Madeleine Moon, MP for Bridgend, as chair of the established all-party parliamentary group on MND at Westminster. The APPG will be launching an inquiry into augmented communication for people with MND in the autumn, which will be calling for evidence from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and I would like to ask the Minister to support and provide evidence to this very worthy inquiry.
I just wondered whether it is possible for there to be an intervention at this point, if the Member gives way.
No, you can make an intervention when the Minister is speaking.
Sorry, Darren. I would also like to highlight the role of research, as highlighted in the delivery plan, in delivery theme 7, targeting research, prioritising a commitment to research, delivering improved diagnosis, management, treatment options and outcomes. The third sector is a key partner in the development of research, both as a funder and as a supporter of patient involvement in clinical trials and social research. The MND Association is currently funding two sets of research at Cardiff University at a total cost of £420,367. First, there is a three-year biomedical research project, which started in 2012, led by Professor Derek Blake and, secondly, from April this year, research led by Professor Vladimir Buchman. Professor Buchman is building on his research to extend his research team’s studies of fused in sarcoma-triggered MND.
The MND Association funds research that builds on recognised success, and Professor Buchman’s research is a great example of this as his research was recognised as one of the best to be published in 2013. With this in mind, could the Minister detail the Welsh Government’s own plans to support more research specifically into MND? A report—which, again, I have here—published in 2012 by the MND Association contained nine recommendations, one of which was for better cross-border arrangements to avoid the risk of people with MND falling through the gaps. We have a long, porous border in Wales, as Gerry Holtham commented, and, clearly, we need to make sure that border issues are addressed.
Perhaps Mark Isherwood, as chair of our own Assembly cross-party group for neurological conditions, could meet with the all-party parliamentary group chair, Madeleine Moon, to discuss cross-border issues as well as shared learning. As the APPG noted in its inquiry into specialist palliative care services in England, specialist palliative care services not only provide a positive experience for the patient but also reduce the burden on the NHS, which is why palliative care must always be on the Welsh Government’s agenda, too. Historically, end of life and palliative care services have focused on the needs of people with cancer. As a result, the needs of people with other conditions, including progressive neurological conditions, have often been overlooked.
It is essential that there is equity of access to specialist palliative care services post-diagnosis for all people in Wales with motor neurone disease. I accept that, in the past, the Welsh Government has shown some support for people with MND in Wales, and I believe, Minister, that you are a signatory of the MND charter—a five-point charter, which contains many good aspects. If we can perhaps get all 60 Members to sign this charter we can send a direct message to the rest of the UK that we are listening and that we are leading the way in recognising support for people with motor neurone disease.
Finally, I would like to make a very special mention of local MND Association branches across Wales, which are made up of volunteers doing a fantastic job of providing local support to people living with MND. Thank you for all that you do. This is a heart-breaking disease, and today’s debate is really to ascertain the challenges that people with MND are facing and how we can best work together to support them. I hope that the Minister will give a real commitment today to support the motor neurone disease campaigns and to help make Wales a better place for all of those living with MND.
There are four speakers who will have roughly just a minute each. I call Mick Antoniw.
I only want to make a short contribution, and that is because Nick has made a speech that has been completely comprehensive. My involvement with motor neurone disease was in representing people a number of years ago when we were investigating potential links between chemical exposures and so on and this particular disease. The facts of the matter—and, I suppose, the real concerns—are two things; one is the lack of awareness, even among the medical profession. Of course, there are many complications about diagnosis, so the red-flag scheme is something to be welcomed. Perhaps it would be useful to know how we can actually promote that to ensure consistency among GP practices. The other one is the limited amount of research that is actually going on. As I remember, trawling through the medical literature, it really was very limited. Most of it was foreign. So, it is very welcome that there is this work going on—this very specialist work that Cardiff University now seems to be taking upon itself. I welcome that very much. I wonder whether there is anything further that we can do in terms of promoting the research into this, and some of the other similar neurological diseases that we have, which are incredibly intensive in terms of the level of disability that they do ultimately cause.
I now call Aled Roberts. I must ask people to be succinct.
Yes; I will be. Nick Ramsay mentioned low prevalence. Actually, I knew very little about motor neurone disease until around two years ago, when my father-in-law was diagnosed with it; he subsequently died around three months later. Strangely, one of my mother’s best friends was diagnosed last week with the disease. He lives two doors away from my where my father-in-law lived. I can only praise the palliative team in Wrexham Maelor Hospital and the neurologists from Walton. We, as a family, experienced the very difficulties that Nick Ramsay referred to as far as diagnosis was concerned. There was a lack of knowledge, as far as generic specialists at Wrexham were concerned, in the first instance. Therefore, I can only say that I too would support all that the Government can do with regard to improving early diagnosis and the red-flag scheme.
I would like to thank the Member for Monmouthshire for allowing me to contribute to this debate. I have only ever known two people with motor neurone disease—one around 20 years ago and one who is suffering now, as we speak. I was really quite shocked with the way that this particular illness takes your strength, your health and, eventually, your dignity. We see it as a progressively degenerative disease and one that is often severely life shortening. While they say that the disease is, fortunately, quite rare, that in itself presents its own problems. Currently, the concerns that a friend raised with me, based on the experiences of their father who is suffering from MND, are around a lack of awareness about the disease. This connects down to the medical profession, too. When you are feeling so ill and so weak, the fact is that you cannot actually access diagnostic treatment, continued treatment and support.
I just wanted to put on record my gratitude to St David’s Hospice. Too often, we associate hospices with cancer treatments only, and I have to say that, in this particular instance—
Can you wind up now, please?
Yes. In this particular instance, the person concerned, who is suffering from this illness, is really gaining tremendous support from this hospice and palliative care.
I call Mark Isherwood. I must ask you to be extremely brief, Mark.
Yes. As Nick Ramsay indicated, I chair the cross-party group on neurological conditions, sponsored by the Wales Neurological Alliance, which is represented by the Motor Neurone Disease Association on the neurosciences network in north Wales. If they would like to contact me, I would be delighted to arrange a meeting with Madeleine Moon to see how the two groups can work together on a cross-border basis.
I will conclude by referring to the fact that Kevin asked me to host at St David’s Hospice, last October, the moving film ‘I Am Breathing’ to health and social care professionals, raising awareness of MND and telling the story of the final months of life of Neil Platt, who found as a young man with a new child that he was dying from motor neurone disease. I commend that film to all of you as a wonderful way of understanding and sharing awareness of the condition.
Thank you. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to reply to the debate, Mark Drakeford.
May I thank Nick Ramsay for what I thought was a thoughtful, informative and detailed contribution to the debate? Edwina Hart said in her reply to the last short debate that short debates are often among the most useful things that happen in the Assembly, and when they are properly used, they really do make a big contribution to the quality of our debates. I thought that Nick's opening speech and, indeed, all the contributions that we have heard were really exemplary in that way. I do not suppose that I will manage to answer every question that was raised as Nick went along. I am very happy to read his contribution after today and, if there are points that I am not able to respond to immediately, to provide a response to him beyond this afternoon.
I am inevitably going to cover some of the same ground as others have mentioned, but I hope to add to what we have heard as well. Motor neurone disease, as we have heard, is a relatively rare but cruel condition. Some two people in every 100,000 are likely to develop the disease in Wales. That makes it a rare disease by the formal classification of that way of thinking about things. Here in Wales, we were the first nation in the United Kingdom to publish our rare disease plan, one of four that are to be developed across the United Kingdom and in which we will take a leading part.
Within that, we know that MND takes more than one form. Some 5% of MND sufferers, for example, will have a family history of the disease. It is a disease that is predominantly a condition of middle age. Onset takes place in the considerable majority of cases between the ages of 40 and 60, although it is not impossible for the disease to attack much younger and much older people. It is a disease that is more likely to develop in men than in women.
Once it begins, in whatever form and at whatever age, the progress of the disease can be rapid and debilitating. As you have heard, although estimates vary, in the current state of knowledge and treatment, about half the people who are diagnosed with the condition will die within 14 months of diagnosis. Such a rapid course is not inevitable; some two out of 10 MND sufferers will live for more than five years, and one in 10 will survive for 10 years and more. The causes of the condition are not known, as Mick Antoniw pointed out. It is not currently thought to be associated with precipitating conditions such as race, diet or lifestyle.
I want to pick up on something that Nick Ramsay said, because I think that there is quite a profound message for us, and for all of our fellow citizens, in the way that we think about the health service and its future. I try to say a lot, when I am speaking on public platforms, about the way in which, if we want the health service of the future to be able to respond in the way that we would like it to respond to conditions like MND, for which there is known precipitating cause, we all have to do more to avoid the harms that are avoidable. So much of what the health service deals with are harms that need not have happened, where we know that, with better and more careful attention to our own health, we could have avoided those things. If we want the health service to be able to concentrate on those things that could happen to any one of us, without anything that we could do about it, we need to find the scope for the health service to do that by all of us taking the responsibility that comes with avoiding harms that need not happen at all.
I am going to say more positive things about the developments that can help people diagnosed with this condition, but, at this point, I think that it is important to acknowledge that, for anyone who receives such a diagnosis, the immediate impact is likely to be devastating and can be little short of terrifying. We know from the literature that there is a cycle of anger, bargaining, depression and, for most people, acceptance; that is a journey that people will be likely to follow. It can be, as Aled Roberts reminded us, rapid progress, too, in which all of that has to be accomplished.
Last month was, as you have heard, Motor Neurone Disease Awareness Month. The themes that lie behind the Voice campaign map very closely onto those set out in the neurological conditions delivery plan. Awareness raising is the first part of that plan. Nick asks what the Government can do. I am very happy to say to him—
I am very happy to take an intervention.
Thank you; I am grateful to you, Minister, for taking the intervention. I think that awareness of this disease is absolutely critical. Would you congratulate the many families who also work hard to raise awareness when their loved ones may have received a diagnosis, including the family of Councillor William Knightly in Towyn in North Wales, who have shown incredible resolve and determination to ensure that the local community there is aware of the devastation that this disease can cause?
I absolutely agree with Darren Millar; I want to associate myself with what he said. I was doing my own shopping two weekends ago, and, coming out of the supermarket, there were families collecting as part of last month’s activities. Knowing that this debate was going to happen, I took the chance to go over to talk to them about their experience. It was immensely moving to hear what they had to say, but immensely heartening, as well, to think how people, at such a devastating time in their lives, still find the resources to think about other people and still want to be part of making things better for others. So, I very much associate myself with what Darren Millar has said. Simply sitting there and talking to people as they went by was part of awareness raising. I think of this debate as part of a contribution to that.
Nick asked specifically what the Welsh Government will do. I will say a little bit more in a moment about the implementation group that has now been set up to take forward the neurological conditions delivery plan. It will be led by Dr Matt Makin, the medical director of Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board. It has its first meeting planned in the next few weeks; awareness raising is one of the first things that it is going to be talking about in that first meeting.
The second thing that the delivery plan talks about is early diagnosis, and we know that that is a particular challenge in this condition. There is no single test to diagnose MND. One of the real challenges of responding to it is that the early symptoms look so very much like other more common conditions, like a trapped nerve or peripheral neuropathy, associated with type-2 diabetes. It is why the red flag tool is so important, because it will assist GPs hugely to make that early diagnosis. It is important that the Royal College of General Practitioners is associated with that, because professional advice coming from the royal college gives it a status and significance in the eyes of the GPs, which will mean that it will be taken notice of.
Nick asked if I would make sure that chief executives distribute the tool through their networks to that those who need to use it. I certainly give that undertaking. I meet chief executives regularly. I will make sure that I raise this with them directly when that next takes place.
The third key aspect of the delivery plan is providing effective care. We had an adult neurosciences review in Wales in 2008, which my colleague Edwina Hart set up. As a result of that work, care pathways were developed for some neurological conditions, including MND. There are two pathways set out under the review, for suspected MND and the management of MND. It makes it clear that a multi-disciplinary approach is essential to providing for the effective care of someone who has had that diagnosis. The involvement of the third sector in that is an integral part of how those services should be provided. It has to be done quickly and regularly because of the rate at which the disease progresses.
We talk in the delivery plan, as we do in them all, about living with a condition. Early diagnosis of MND matters for a particular reason, and that is because of how it can allow individuals to exert control and influence over their futures, even in these circumstances. We are more familiar today than we were even five years ago with the concept of advanced decision making, and that is especially pertinent in the case of motor neurone disease, where the mind remains unaffected but where the physical impact is so profound.
I was very fortunate over the last couple of months to be able to help launch a new group here in Wales, called the Dying Matters Coalition. The coalition is made up of clinicians, voluntary bodies and patients, and it aims to persuade us all to make better preparation for our own mortality. The coalition has a new chair, Hywel Francis MP, and it is led by senior clinicians, such as Dr Paul Buss, the medical director of Aneurin Bevan health board, and Baroness Ilora Finlay. It has advanced decision making as one of its central themes, and we are much assisted here in Wales, because Cardiff University law school has a group of academic lawyers who are among the leading developers of this important agenda.
For motor neurone disease sufferers, an advanced decision means making known treatment preferences in case you are unable to communicate your decisions later—that voice aspect of the campaign—because you are too ill to do so. It is about knowing in advance how you might want decisions to be made: whether to be treated at home, at a hospice or in a hospital; whether you would wish a feeding tube to be inserted if you are no longer able to swallow; whether in the case of respiratory failure you would wish resuscitation to be attempted by artificial means; or whether you are willing to donate organs when death comes, because the brain and spine of people with motor neurone disease are especially important for ongoing research.
Drug therapy currently available is only of very limited efficacy. It can increase survival for a small number of months, but the disease continues to progress and the treatment itself brings significant side effects. Responding to the condition, therefore, relies more on strong specialist and community support, with which individuals can go on leading relatively independent lives and lives of real quality.
When the end comes, as we have heard in the debate this afternoon, palliative care is especially important. Janet Finch-Saunders made the point powerfully that palliative care and hospice care today is much more than cancer care. Here in Wales, through the board that drives that and Ilora Finlay’s leadership of it, we are better placed to respond to the sorts of conditions that we are discussing here today.
For the future, research is absolutely essential. Mick Antoniw made this point, but I think that it is important to say, as a leading clinician in the field of motor neurone disease said very recently, that there is more going on in MND research today than at any other time in the past. There may not be enough, but it is certainly an agenda that has more purchase and more activity than would have been true of any previous time. Part of that is, of course, because of stem-cell research, which offer a wholly new way of thinking about the disease. It is at a very early stage, but it offers a different set of possibilities to the ones that have been there in the past. The work of Cardiff University, which we have heard about, is a really important contribution to all of this, The Medical Research Council Centre for Neuropsychiatric Genetics and Genomics is here in Cardiff and, since the fourth Assembly was elected, international research in which Cardiff has been a key partner has made a very important breakthrough in identifying a gene associated with that familial form of the disease, which I mentioned at the outset.
I see that I am out of time. I conclude by saying that I believe that we have in place some of the necessary building blocks to help us respond positively in the present to the needs of those who suffer from this awful condition and some important developments that will allow us to help improve the position in the future. I am very grateful to Nick for having raised awareness by putting motor neurone disease forward for this afternoon’s debate, and to all those who have taken part.
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 18:43.