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 provide an update on the progress being made in Wales to control bovine TB? OAQ(4)0189(NR)
The latest figures, published on 10 September, show that we continue to make progress in tackling bovine TB in Wales. New herd incidents to July 2014 were down 18% on the previous year, and the number of cattle slaughtered as a result of TB was down 27% on the previous year.
Thank you for that answer. Earlier this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ own independent assessment of its 2013 badger cull in England concluded that it had been neither effective nor humane, and a subsequent announcement that a further cull would not proceed was widely welcomed, before the Secretary of State changed his mind and postponed a cull to 2015. Would the Minister agree with me that, by bringing forward the date of the cull to before the general election, the new Secretary of State has demonstrated her enthusiasm for placating the farming lobby, rather than following the science, as is done here in Wales?
I thank the Member for his question. I have to say that badger culling in England is a matter for DEFRA Ministers. However, my officials are in regular contact with DEFRA officials, and we naturally take great note of what is happening there. However, the world is watching what we are doing and, make no mistake about it, Wales is at the forefront of international efforts to fight bovine TB. The British Cattle Veterinary Association recently held a prestigious international conference in Cardiff, which was the opportunity to showcase our model. Attendees included the World Health Organisation, European Governments and the European Commission, and they were all here to see what we are doing. Indeed, members of the European Commission’s food and veterinary office are here this very week, looking at what we are doing, and learning from us.
Back to Welsh questions, Deputy Minister, you will be aware of the pending changes to our bovine TB rules, particularly around the testing regime, which will come into force on 1 October. The issue of summer grazing has been raised with me, specifically by those farmers who have cattle on rented summer grazing land, where there may be a lack of suitable and safe cattle handling facilities to carry out TB tests. One solution could be isolating the cattle when they return to the farm and conducting a post-movement test. Can you confirm whether Welsh Government will take this commonsense approach?
I thank the Member for the question. He is right to say that, after the end of this month, there will be no pre-movement testing exemption for movements within sole occupancy authorities. However, there are very good reasons for this. Until now, it has been possible to have a main premises in the high-risk area of north Pembrokeshire and also an SOA on the low-risk island of Anglesey. Until now, you have been able to move cattle between those places, without testing. I think that that presents us with an unacceptable disease risk, and we are dealing with that through these changes.
I am grateful to farmers for their co-operation with this. You will know that this new regime coincides with the introduction of interim land association management agreements, which will allow certain movements of this type to continue in the short term. We have written to all affected farmers, and they should contact the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency for further information, if they have any concerns.
Plaid Cymru led a successful campaign in the second Assembly against a new valuation system in terms of TB compensation. The latest Government consultation outlines a system of paying compensation according to average prices. Does the Deputy Minister appreciate that that would lead to paying too little compensation to owners of the finest cattle, and paying too much to the owners of the poorest quality cattle, and would she agree that we need greater flexibility in such a system in order to reflect the difference in the value of the stock in Wales?
The Member refers to the consultation document that was published earlier in the summer. On 18 July, I announced that I would ask my officials to consider all of those responses, some of which echo the arguments that you have made. It is my intention to make a statement on the next steps next month.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Before we move to question 2, I remind Members that this is question time and not questions with great introductions, so please ask concise questions.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on farm income levels in Wales? OAQ(4)0190(NR)
Average farm incomes in Wales have increased by around one fifth over the period 2003-04 to 2012-13. Based on the most recent forecasts, average farm incomes in Wales are estimated to increase by around 32% in 2013-14 to £37,300. Actual farm income figures are due to be published in November.
I am very grateful to the Minister for that detailed response. Back in the Royal Welsh Show this year, together with my friend Roger Williams, the MP for Brecon and Radnorshire, I took part in a peaceful protest at the Tesco stand. We were protesting against the marginalisation that farmers have felt that they are suffering in relation to the prices that they receive for their quality food. At that time, Deputy Minister, you gave an undertaking, which was press-released, to organise an event that would take account of this and actually engage with the supermarkets and the farming sector. Could you update us please on the progress that has been made in that regard?
Absolutely. We are making some very good progress towards holding that event. I will be holding it in conjunction with Hybu Cig Cymru when it publishes its report on the state of the red meat industry in Wales, and that will be in October.
Deputy Minister, sadly, farmers across Wales are seeing substantial cuts in milk prices, which are obviously causing a huge amount of volatility in the dairy industry. Given this period of instability for milk prices, can the Minister tell us what specific action the Welsh Government is taking to protect the dairy industry in Wales and to alleviate some of these problems?
I am very aware that a number of buyers have announced a reduction in milk prices that will hit this autumn, and I am very conscious of the concern that that is causing within the dairy industry in Wales. Projected incomes for dairy farms are up 88% on last year to £84,700, but I realise that that is no comfort when looking ahead to price decreases. However, at the moment, favourable grazing conditions, due to the good weather that we have had, and relatively low feed cost, is holding up the margins, and the good news is that it is unlikely to be a problem getting good-quality forage on farms this winter. However, that is not to say that I do not take the challenge very seriously and I have already asked the dairy task force to inform and advise me further.
Welcome to your post, Deputy Minister. You will of course be aware that the Government has a policy of encouraging diversification by farmers to promote farm incomes. One of those areas is renewable energy. You will be aware, as I am, I am sure, of the proposed policy in Powys of restricting on-farm renewable energy, which is an unfortunate policy in my mind. What will you do as Deputy Minister, along with your fellow Ministers, to ensure that the policies in Powys will be ones that promote diversification and increase farm incomes and do not limit farm incomes?
I am familiar with the Member’s concerns. I cannot comment on the individual local development plan proposal at the moment because it is at the proposal stage and due process must be allowed to take place. However, I can say that the Welsh Government is of the view that farm-based renewable energy schemes do have the potential to make a valuable contribution to the energy mix in Wales. Many of the community-led renewable energy projects being supported by the Welsh Government’s Ynni’r Fro are joint ventures between local communities and farmers, and small-scale on-farm energy production can help farmers to lower their energy costs, which can be substantial, and help them to maximise their income. So, I am actively exploring what role the next RDP can play in supporting and enabling this.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
First this afternoon is the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, William Powell.
Will the Deputy Minister please provide an update on the progress made by Professor Wynne Jones OBE in carrying out his independent review of the learning delivered by further education colleges in Wales, with regard to the provision of skills and knowledge to the farming industry?
As the Member knows, Professor Wynne Jones was asked back in February to undertake an independent review of the learning that is delivered by FE colleges in Wales and to look at the relevance of that learning in supporting and developing farming businesses in Wales. I expect that report in November of this year. It has turned out to be a larger piece of work than was originally envisaged and, also, Professor Wynne Jones has other commitments, but I look forward to the report in November.
I thank the Deputy Minister for that response. As you will be aware, further education colleges that deliver land-based training are vital to supporting our rural Welsh economy. That is exemplified particularly by the dairy development centre at Coleg Sir Gâr’s Gelli Aur campus, to improve the dairy supply chain by assisting farmers to increase the proportion of turnover. Given this, is it not disappointing that other than this one excellent initiative, currently very little use is made of such colleges outside their core teaching remit? What proposals do you have to make greater use of this dairy development centre?
I think that those discussions would come about as a result of the report that we are awaiting from Professor Jones, but I would certainly be keen to explore that issue further with my colleague the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology.
Thank you once again. It is a fact that the total funding available for the delivery of apprenticeships has declined to a significant extent, so that some providers, as you will be aware, are unable to take on any new apprenticeships even in the 16-plus age range. With this drastic cut to funding, how do you ensure that the number of apprenticeships available for the agriculture sector, where the age profile of farmers is so alarmingly high, is safeguarded?
I think that that will be a role for the agriculture sector panel, in advising me on this particular issue, when that panel is put into place. It will play an important role in looking at the skills progression of people who work in the agriculture industry and those will include apprentices, and I am keen to explore that further.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, the opposition spokesperson, Antoinette Sandbach.
Minister, I am sure that you are aware of the climate change conference that is happening in New York at the moment. The latest figures for greenhouse gas emissions in Wales went up by 5% between 2011 and 2012—a rise that outstripped all other areas of the UK. Your Government has targets to reduce emissions by 40% by 2020. Clearly, we are missing those. Can you say what you would be telling that conference on how you are going to achieve that target?
I thank the Member for her question. As she will be aware, I am not at that conference; I am here answering questions from you. However, I will take the opportunity to indicate to you and to Members in the Chamber that we are committed as a Government to meeting those challenging figures in terms of climate change and delivery. I know that the Member has a view on the 2020 target, but it is still our intention to aim for and reach that target. I know that you have a view, along with others, that that will be challenging. I recognise that. As a Government, we recognise the importance of climate change as both a significant opportunity and a headline risk to us. Action on climate change is crucial to deliver the policies of our priorities and there is a programme of change that we adopt across Government in Wales.
My question to you, Minister, was, ‘How?’
You will be aware of our climate policy refresh that we undertook. Unfortunately, I have only been in post for a week, so I have not undertaken it, but the previous Minister has actioned that. We are looking at the current climate change strategy and at how best to drive that action going forward.
I am surprised by the contributions from the opposition benches because when I made the decision to make amendments to our targets in the housing sector, opposition Members were very critical of that decision, but this was about a Government taking responsibility for growing the economy and balancing that in the shape of the climate agenda. So, I am sorry that the Member does not agree with me all of the time, but the public sector and the housing and building industry, now under the remit of Lesley Griffiths, certainly welcomed the decision made by this Welsh Government as a responsible Government for Wales.
Minister, I am delighted that you came on to the housing sector because, in fact, most of our housing in Wales was built pre 1919 and energy-efficiency measures in relation to those properties are a large contributor to greenhouse gasses. Yesterday, you ruled out working with the fuel poverty action group, which not only addresses energy-efficiency measures, but also fuel poverty in low-income houses. Now, I appreciate that it has been critical of your Government’s actions, but what are you going to be doing to address the issues in pre-1919 housing build stock?
We are already addressing these issues, and, again, the Member will be aware of the report that was issued yesterday, the annual report on the sustainable development programme, which is about ensuring and showing the outcomes and deliveries that we see on the ground on a daily basis. The Welsh housing quality standard is being delivered by my colleagues, and is bringing housing stock up to quality and environmental standards. We have increased our target on housing from 7,500 up to 10,000. We will take no lectures from the opposition benches on building properties in Wales. Actually, what you do not like is that we are delivering and you are clearly not.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Diolch, Lywydd. Your predecessor as Minister for natural resources wrote in August this year that whether gas from unconventional hydrocarbons that may be present in Wales can be safely extracted and bring benefits to the people of Wales requires more research. Do you, as the current Minister, subscribe to the same view that the safety of extracting unconventional gas, including through fracking, is both unproven and uncertain?
What I do accept is that there are still unanswered questions on the opportunity for the fracking industry, and that is something that we are taking very seriously in Wales. My colleague and I—as well as the Minister for planning and the Minister who was in charge of this department before—have set about commissioning some additional work in terms of the economic value of that and the impact on Wales, and that is something on which I look forward to a response to me very shortly.
Thank you for that answer. You mentioned the economic impact. Maybe you could clarify that it also looks at the environmental impact. Given that the UK Government is going gung-ho on fracking at the moment, and the clear implications for Wales, maybe you could appraise us a bit more thoroughly as to whether that research is going to be looking at all aspects of the potential impact of fracking.
I think it is a really important point that the Member raises. I am being very open on this issue. I think it is important that we have to measure the economic and social impacts, right across Wales, that it potentially has in terms of development. We recently published a report on potential gas reserves in Wales, and it is something that needs to go hand in hand in terms of impact—opportunity even—and how that affects communities right across Wales.
Your party leader, Ed Miliband, said yesterday in his speech that there is no more important issue than tackling global climate change. Now, the science tells us, of course, that we just cannot exploit a new carbon-intensive fossil fuel if we are serious about limiting climate change to 2 degrees centigrade. So, given the powers that the Welsh Government has over planning, with full powers, of course, over mineral workings, do you, Minister, now agree that it is time for a moratorium on unconventional gas and fracking in Wales until such time as the safety and climate change aspects are settled?
Well, there are two points that I want to raise. My party leader is Carwyn Jones, and I am very proud to have a Welsh Labour leader delivering Welsh Labour policies in Wales. This is certainly important and we work very closely with our colleagues in Westminster, but not under the direction of them. The second point you raised was about a moratorium on fracking and unconventional gas exploration. As the Member is aware, most of the licensing conditions are approved by the Department of Energy and Climate Change in Westminster. There is an activity with Natural Resources Wales, the Health and Safety Commission and the Welsh Government, in terms of that. However, what we do prescribe is a very precautionary measure in delivering around the planning system in Wales. I cannot prejudge any application, but what we are doing is taking a balanced view on the distribution and opportunities that fracking may present in Wales.
The Extraction of Natural Resources
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the extraction of Wales’s natural resources? OAQ(4)0195(NR)
I thank the Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefewr for his question. ‘Minerals Planning Policy Wales’, the minerals technical advice notes and associated minerals planning guidance notes confirm national planning policy in relation to the extraction of natural resources.
Minister, may I return to the reply that you gave earlier to Llyr Huws Gruffydd, where you alluded to the fact that you are now looking at the economic impact of extracting unconventional gas? In the Welsh Affairs Committee at Westminster earlier this year, Plaid Cymru proposed an amendment talking about the fact that the resources of Wales belong to the people, and that all the revenue from the extraction of unconventional gas should be collected by Welsh Government. All the Labour MPs from Wales voted against that. Is that the policy of Welsh Government in the days when Carwyn Jones is talking about more and more powers for Welsh Government?
I am very grateful to the Member for his question this afternoon. I think that it raises some important issues. Silk part 2, as the Member will be aware, will be about the issues around the conditions regarding energy, which are still being considered by Welsh Government. The Member raises a very interesting point with regard to the revenue provided from such activity in Wales. I would give assurance to the Member that what we are doing is making sure that the review has both an economic and social impact in terms of what the consequences of fracking are in Wales, and how that may have an impact in the communities that he and many Members in the Assembly represent.
Well, Minister, I think that you left one word out of that, which was ‘environmental’: it is not only about the economic and social impact, but also about the environmental impact. How is your evaluation being carried out in the light of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill that is coming through this Assembly?
I am very grateful that the Member gives me the opportunity to raise the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill in the Chamber today. Tomorrow morning we will be introducing first-stage scrutiny at committee on this very important Bill on cross-cutting themes right across Government. The Member is absolutely right that this Bill will be comprehensive, with economic, social and environmental impacts taken into consideration for sustainable development across Wales. What I think is really important is that sustainable development does not sit outside policy. Actually, it is fundamental to developing policy, which is what we will be looking for in the way that the Bill is drafted. I welcome the Member’s contributions through the positive engagement that she shows, certainly through the committee stages as we move forward.
I attended a public meeting in Llantrisant about fracking earlier this month, where a councillor from your own party said that local authorities simply do not have the tools that they need to resist planning applications for fracking and test drilling, and that, in fact, no rejected applications had been successfully defended at appeal. When are you going to issue a technical advice note on fracking to set down those environmental and safety standards to protect local communities through the planning system?
Well, I think that what we have seen, certainly in planning across Wales, whether that would be for fracking or any other development, is about leadership. What I am surprised by in the Member’s contribution is that, sometimes, development is all right as long as it is somewhere else. What I am doing in Wales, in showing leadership through my department, is ensuring that we provide the proper guidance and proper planning regulation in order to make people feel confident with the system. The planning Bill will be introduced later this year in terms of giving people the complete tools and confidence for the industry, both customer and investor, to ensure that the planning system works appropriately. Let me just give confidence to the Member in terms of unconventional gas developments in Wales. Consideration around ‘Minerals Planning Policy Wales’ identifies many planning issues that have to be considered during the planning stages, including access and traffic generation, noise, control of dust, smoke and fumes, disposal of mineral waste, blasting controls, land drainage, and a whole host of other things that need to be considered. So, I do not accept that we do not issue enough guidance. It is about showing openness and transparency in the decision-making process around any application that includes fracking or any other application that comes through the planning system.
Unconventional Gas Sources
4. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s policy in relation to energy from unconventional gas sources? OAQ(4)0194(NR)
I thank the Member for Aberavon for his important question. ‘Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition’ identifies the role of gas in supporting our transition to a low-carbon energy system. There is a need to evaluate the potential unconventional hydrocarbon resource in Wales, alongside full consideration of all evidence relating to its extraction.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I am pleased that so many Members are keen on asking questions on this particular issue this afternoon, because it is a very controversial issue. I concur with your predecessor, who indicated that there needs to be greater analysis as regards the evidence that needs to be provided for fracking. However, you have already identified this afternoon that licences are actually from the UK Government. What discussions have you, or your predecessors at the Welsh Government, had with the UK Government in relation to transferring the ability to issue licences to the Welsh Government so that it can be decided here in Wales? You have also talked about the minerals technical advice notes, and you believe that there is enough cover, but, in the meantime, while we await that transfer—and I hope that it will come—will you be looking at the guidance in relation to buffer zones, because it refers to buffer zones for minerals, aggregates and coal, but it does not to refer to anything for extraction?
I know that the Member has a keen interest in this and has raised this with me and previous Ministers on several occasions, representing his constituents very well. We have not discussed licence transfer with UK Ministers, although this, I believe, is under consideration by the UK. Wales’s robust regulatory and local planning processes are designed to protect people and the environment, and I listed a few of those issues before in terms of the protection that is given through the planning system and the guidance that we give for consideration.
What is really important for me is ensuring that people feel that they are being listened to and ensuring that they can see a transparent process during decision making. People may not like the outcome, but, if they can be assured that their considerations have been given a full opportunity to be scrutinised, that is something that is really important going forward.
We do not require any amendments to the mineral TANs at this stage. A clarification letter was sent to every local planning authority in July and I expect it to be adhered to.
Minister, for the first time since this Government was established in 2011, planning and natural resources sit with one Minister and I think that is a welcome development, because, on this particular issue, there has always been that divide. From my understanding, from the discussions that I have had with Natural Resources Wales, there has been no ministerial direction given to it to undertake the research work that is required on this new technology and so it is really relying on quite outdated practices and research papers. Will you be instructing Natural Resources Wales to undertake the necessary work to inform and update the policy papers, so that planning authorities, when they consult them, do have the most up-to-date advice that is available to protect communities that see a real threat?
I am grateful for the Member’s question this afternoon. As I am sure he is aware, oil and gas licensing is a reserved matter. This is something that DECC is dealing with in terms of the issue of petroleum exploration and development licences. There is a role for Natural Resources Wales in terms of the activity of exploration boreholes, which we believe is covered quite clearly in the technical advice notes and guidance that we have issued already. As I said, I updated planning members in July, with a further letter to them, to ensure that that is clear. We have commissioned additional work, as I mentioned in answer to the previous question, around the economic, social and environmental impact with regard to what fracking will mean in terms of the Wales gas fields. When I receive that, I will give the Chamber a further update on that detail.
Minister, you will be aware that some kinds of unconventional gases, such as coal-bed methane, are in the areas that were heavily mined and that there are now hundreds, if not thousands, of miles of underground routes. I have asked this question in the past, but has the Welsh Government done any sort of research, or is the Government aware of any research, that considers the stability of these works, which are very often flooded?
I will have to write to the Member with the detail on the specific question regarding the workings and any work that has been previously done on this. However, what we have to recognise in Wales is that the mix of energy opportunities that we have, be they wind, solar, gas or other opportunities in terms of developing energy to give energy security for the people of Wales, is something that we have to consider very carefully, with a careful eye on how this may impact on our communities across Wales.
Minister, you will know that there have been no applications for fracking in Wales, but, of course, there have been a number of applications for test drilling. Whereas fracking can be very disruptive, test drilling can, of course, be confined to a particular area, and, although it is disruptive, it is not as disruptive as the fracking process. Local planning authorities are not able to take the subsequent fracking application into account when considering a test drilling application. Is there any way, in terms of the guidance that you issue, that local authorities would be able to link those two together, so that they understand that, if they give permission to a test drilling application, a fracking application may follow thereafter?
I do not actually think it is rocket science that that is the potential, actually. Investors will not come along to do test boreholes on the basis that they are not expecting to find some shale gas. I will have to give that further consideration in terms of how to link an application. I am reluctant, at this stage, to do that because I think that planning applications should be taken on their own merits, and linking the two would certainly compromise that process. As you are aware, what complicates the issue is the fact that part of it is devolved and part is not. That does not help the licensing regime and people’s understanding of actually who has responsibility for what. Local authorities have responsibility for exploration, and quite rightly so, as do Natural Resources Wales, but, ultimately, the issue of hydraulic fracking will be licensed and the conditions issued by DECC, the Department of Energy and Climate Change.
Minister, will you be considering issuing a statement that will set out the Government’s position on the way in which extraction of shale gas is compatible with the Government’s renewable energy targets?
As I mentioned in response to one of my first questions, which was about climate change and what that means, we are doing a refresh of climate change policy in terms of where we are and where we need to be. I will give further consideration to issuing guidance to local authorities and to colleagues across Government in terms of the collective agenda in tackling these issues around climate change. The Member is right to raise this important issue. Alongside the future generations Bill, which I know the Member has a strong interest in, we will be introducing an environment Bill later on in the Assembly term, which will address some of the issues that the Member has raised today, and which he has raised in other opportunities with other Ministers, on the climate change agenda.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the development of anaerobic digestion in Wales? OAQ(4)0191(NR)
I thank the Member for Mid and West Wales for his question. The Welsh Government is supporting a programme of seven local authority anaerobic digestion projects, working in regional partnerships, to help to address the affordability of sustainable food waste treatment infrastructure. Four of the partnerships have been awarded contracts, with a fifth due to be awarded early in 2015.
I am grateful for that answer, Minister, but, at a community meeting within my region earlier this week, which was held specifically to address concerns about the impact on residents and businesses of a nearby, recently commissioned AD plant, NRW officials repeatedly referred to the severe constraints that they face in terms of staff resource in dealing with monitoring and enforcing the conditions around that particular digestion. In this context, Minister, and given the importance of developing anaerobic digestion successfully across Wales, will you undertake to investigate these concerns so that they can be addressed and the concerns of the community alleviated?
Anaerobic digestion plays an important part in the process, both of the recycling agenda and of the waste stream agenda. I met with NRW on Monday. I was less than a week into post, and I met with the very important arm’s-length organisation, and it did not raise at all any staffing issue with me or concerns about that. If the Member wishes to write with details of what was raised with him, I will certainly take that up with the chief executive the next time I meet with him.
Minister, I know that in the Environment and Sustainability Committee’s report on energy, one of the recommendations was that Welsh Government set up a central team that has expertise on energy in order to assist bodies that do not have that in-house expertise. I know that we have a very successful project in the North Wales region, Biogen, which is one of those anaerobic food digesters, but there is also a lot of scope for on-farm digestion, particularly in relation to dairy farms where the waste from the cows can be turned into energy. I wonder what you are doing to make the planning and consenting regime easier so that advantage can be taken of this technology.
I think that we have got to look across the whole sector for opportunities to create energy from waste, and look at the impact of that and how we can support it across Government, to aid the development of a different approach. I am not keen on giving preferential treatment to any particular planning application, as I think that it should be dealt with fairly across whatever sector, and that includes anaerobic digestion, as it plays a part in that. I will give it further consideration, but it is early days yet. I met with the energy team prior to questions today, actually, to discuss a whole host of new opportunities.
Anaerobic digestion has been around for a while, and we have commissioned a couple of plants. However, according to one Member, there are some concerns locally from his constituents. We have to address some of these issues that are still, possibly, of concern to people. I hope to be visiting the anaerobic digester in North Wales shortly to see how it operates. Again, I will be asking my team to see what we can do to promote new opportunities in this field.
Minister, support from the Government for anaerobic digestion is, of course, to be welcomed. Only in April, the Prosiect GwyriAD facility was opened in Gwynedd, showing us what can be achieved. To what extent are you looking to develop more facilities for generating energy from food waste across Wales, and is it the view of the Government that we need to get to a position where all, or as much as possible, of our biodegradable waste can be converted for generating electricity or other purposes?
I am grateful for the Member’s question. Again, I recognise the recent achievement of the facility at Penygroes, with regard to the accreditation of the quality of the product as well. What is really important to me is that, if we look at the whole waste-stream profile and at areas of pressure, we see that we are doing extremely well in terms of recycling in Wales compared with many parts of Europe. I think that we should be incredibly proud. That is not just delivered by local authorities and personnel, as this is about the education of individuals in the home, where people are actively engaging in recycling and in making a commitment to a sustainable future.
So, there are many things that we need to do, including the activity that the Member raises. Are there things that we can do more of? Indeed, there are, but, again, this is all based on the very difficult financial pressures under which we find ourselves. However, we will continue to do what we can.
6. Will the Minister outline what progress is being made in dealing with Himalayan balsam? OAQ(4)0183(NR)
I thank the Member for Swansea East for his question. We are supporting strategic catchment-scale control work on Himalayan balsam through action groups, and we are discussing the potential release of a new pathogenic fungus at five sites across Wales from 2015 with the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International to tackle this pest.
I thank the Minister for his response. I have a major problem in my constituency at the Fendrod lake, which is slowly being taken over by Himalayan balsam. My constituents have contacted Natural Resources Wales and the council. Who is actually responsible for removing it?
I thank the Member for his supplementary question. I am quite sure that Members will agree with me that Mike Hedges will go down in history as the champion of tackling Himalayan balsam and Japanese knotweed at first hand. The responsibility for the control of non-native species, such as Himalayan balsam, currently rests with the landowner or tenant of the land affected. However, while the landlord or tenant is subject to controls on the spread and disposal of the plant, they are under no current legal obligation to remove the plant from their land.
Members will recall that this is a very attractive-looking plant with a pink flower. Unfortunately, many of us will have probably touched that plant, because it pops rather well and then, of course, distributes the seeds almost everywhere; hence, it has grown enormously along the rivers and streams of Wales. The Minister is right to suggest that this Indian fungus might be used. It has been used successfully in Cornwall. Will the Minister undertake to report back on the success of the use of this rust fungus?
Indeed. As the Member relates his knowledge of this problem, may I also add that we understand that this is becoming one of the United Kingdom’s most invasive weed species, particularly along riverbanks, waste grounds and damp woodlands, as referred to by the Member? This is something that we are taking very seriously, and, working with partners, we are seeking to tackle this issue, which you and Mike Hedges raise on a regular basis.
Minister, I do not know whether you are aware of the incredible work being done by volunteers to clear the balsam. At St Dogmaels, I have seen this weed being cleared by the work of a dedicated team of people who have painstakingly pulled it up. Their efforts should be recognised, and I hope that you will join with me to congratulate them. Perhaps, if you find yourself on a sunny day in the vicinity of Poppit Sands, you will take the opportunity to visit me in my caravan and see how the landowners and volunteers have worked very hard to rid the village of this scourge.
How can I refuse that kind offer? We worked very closely on the Housing (Wales) Bill, and I am sure that I would like to come and view the non-existence of this weed, particularly with a cup of tea, at Jocelyn Davies’s caravan. [Laughter.]
Renewable Energy Generation
7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support renewable energy generation in Wales? OAQ(4)0184(NR)
I thank the Member for his question. ‘Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition’ sets out what we are doing to encourage renewable energy projects and to maximise their economic and environmental benefits in Wales. The delivery plan published in March sets out progress made and delivery actions being taken in support of renewable energy.
Thank you very much for that, Minister. Can the Minister advise what proportion of community schemes approaching the construction phase under the Ynni’r Fro programme are wind energy projects? Does he agree that more emphasis should be placed on the generation of energy from water? I mean, small hydroelectric projects should be considered seriously in Wales. What does he think about that?
I thank the Member for his detailed question. The Member will welcome the fact that Ynni’r Fro has completed one project that is a hydro scheme, with two other schemes in construction, and another two projects are due to be completed by March of 2015. These are driven by the community and for the community. There are currently 51 other pipeline projects being supported by the programme, which are due to be completed beyond the March 2015 deadline. The next phase of support for this programme to ensure continuity of provision is currently being developed by my team. By March 2015, it is anticipated that there will be around 5 MW of installed capacity through this very innovative programme.
The Welsh Government has failed to reach its target for renewable energy generation. In fact, it missed its target by more than 60%. Does the Minister know why the Government has failed so spectacularly, and what are the new targets that have been set?
I do not recognise that we have failed spectacularly. That is another political statement obviously used by the opposition. Actually, I am very proud of the work that goes on in communities and by this Government in terms of energy generation and opportunity. That is something that we will strive to continue to do. Again, the Member and Members across this Chamber often come to the Chamber complaining about development in their area. Actually, you want to show some leadership in the development of energy programmes across Wales and show that it is the right way to go to develop a sustainable future for Wales.
The Future of National Parks
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of national parks? OAQ(4)0185(NR)
I thank the Member for Preseli Pembrokeshire for his question. I am committed to undertaking a governance review of Wales’s national parks. I would like to see our designated landscapes become international exemplars of sustainability, living landscapes with vibrant, resilient communities, extensive outdoor recreation opportunities, and of course rich in biodiversity.
This review, as I understand it, is looking at the accountability and responsibility of national parks. Given this announcement, surely the future of national parks needs to be discussed alongside the backdrop of local authority reform. So, could he tell us what discussions he is having with his colleague, the Minister for Public Services? Is it his view that national park authorities should retain their current planning functions?
I have not had any conversations with the new Minister for Public Services yet. We are a week in, in terms of the conversation with the national parks, but I have had previous discussions with Ministers in my other role on the responsibility for the planning function of national parks. The Member will be very aware of the discussions that I have had, and that is probably the reason why he is posing the question today. I still have not made a determination on the effect of the planning system for national parks.
There is a discussion to be had, I think, about the role and function of what national parks and the larger public sector organisations, such as local authorities, have and deliver in communities, but I have a family of 25 planning authorities across Wales, which I believe is too many. I have not decided yet on what that structure may look like in future, but it is something that I am seriously considering looking at with regard to a resilient planning service for Wales. It is really important that we link the economy and planning together. They go hand in hand, and if one breaks down, we will see failure in our communities. I know that the Member, despite our political differences, would agree with me that the economy is an important thing and we need to drive forward in Wales.
May I take this opportunity to congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and the Deputy Minister, and wish them well with their responsibilities? In terms of the planning function of national parks, I think that there is consensus among Members from different parts of the Chamber that the time has come to review the planning status of the national parks. The Minister will be aware that, in the previous Assembly, I represented all three—or parts of all three—national parks, and I came to the conclusion that it was time for all planning functions to rest with local authorities, in place of the current system. I hope that the Minister—and perhaps he will confirm this—during the process of the planning Bill and during the process of responding to the Williams review, will take this opportunity to reform the way in which we do planning in Wales and ensure that we have a more coherent and consistent planning system than the one we have at present.
I am very grateful for the Member’s thoughts. Once again, I pay tribute to him for the work that he did within Government in terms of driving this agenda forward in his previous role. There were two points in his contribution. First, with regard to the Williams commission review, which is a cross-Government view about transition in local government and what should be happening there, that is a discussion that the Minister for Public Services will be leading. Aside from that, I believe that the Member is absolutely right to raise the issue of planning and whether that is led by the national parks or local authorities. I have not made a decision on who is best placed to make those decisions, but I do know that duplication or having far too many decision makers is having an impact on the way in which we can make positive interventions in relation to the growth of Wales. The planning Bill is about enablement and fairness, and that is something that I do not believe, with the current structure and approach, with 25 planning authorities operating very differently, is delivering the best for Wales, and certainly not in terms of sustainability moving forward. I thank the Member for his considered representation.
Minister, if you are considering moving to a single national park for Wales, surely that is incompatible with development control functions remaining with the national parks. Many of my constituents and those of us who live in the park already feel that the current structure is not accountable to local people. That accountability will be completely lost if we move to a single park structure. Will you take that into consideration when making decisions in this regard?
Yes, of course. Once again, the complexities of the Williams commission and whatever happens in terms of national parks is an important point that the Member raises. More importantly, it is important for the people the Member represents. Once again, that feeling of closeness and representation for those particular areas are very important to me, too. I have come to the conclusion that a single national park would not be the right place to have a single planning division. There is certainly a disconnect there with public perception and public engagement. Therefore, I am probably in that space. However, there is still work to be done in terms of the planning authority provision for a national park and for local authorities, and those discussions will continue, including during discussions as the planning Bill progresses through the Assembly.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s policies on childcare in North Wales? OAQ(4)0226(CTP)
Ensuring access to affordable, high-quality childcare for our most disadvantaged children and families across Wales remains a top priority. We recently published a progress report on the early years and childcare plan. In taking forward actions under the plan, consideration is given to the needs of different areas.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. The annual Family and Childcare Trust survey for 2014 found that only 11% of Welsh local authorities had sufficient childcare for children aged between five and 11. With the childcare costs for two children in full-time childcare having risen by over 27% over the last five years, the financial strain on household income is becoming quite severe. Will you outline what discussions you have had with fellow Cabinet colleagues to help to ensure that there is sufficient childcare provision in Wales’s local authority areas?
Similar to Carl Sargeant, I am in week 2 of the job, and I have not had specific discussions as yet. I know that discussions have gone on before, and in my previous portfolio I certainly had discussions with the relevant Minister around this issue. Obviously, local authorities have a duty to provide childcare, and, as a Government, we help and support them in doing this. The childcare sufficiency assessment, which local authorities submitted earlier this year—I think that it was in April—showed that there are significant gaps in their out-of-school childcare, so they know that this is the case because they did the work. I will be having those discussions with my ministerial colleagues going forward.
A nursery in Glyn Ceiriog has contacted me this week, a nursery that has had an excellent review from Estyn recently, as it is facing the problem of maintaining a service in a rural area, with numbers varying not only from day to day, but from year to year. When numbers are small, of course, maintaining buildings and staff is a significant challenge in terms of funding, and therefore there is grave concern that this important service will have to close. What support can you give to nurseries in rural areas that are facing challenges such as this?
Diolch. I am not sure whether the nursery to which you refer is private sector or public sector, as, obviously, that will make a difference as to what help and support we can give. However, it is very important that we work with local authorities. I mentioned the childcare sufficiency assessment that has been done by local authorities, and I assume that that would be Denbighshire—
It is Wrexham.
Sorry, Wrexham County Borough Council. I assume that it would have brought forward its assessment. So, I would be very happy to have a discussion with Wrexham if that is the case.
Minister, you announced on Monday a draft 10-year plan on childcare, and you have said that the assessments were received earlier in the year. Yet, in areas such as Wrexham, where there is a lack of space within schools, nurseries are now being told that it is not possible for them to continue to hold meetings within those schools. So, will you have discussions with your Minister for education to discuss this situation?
The two portfolios have worked very closely together in bringing forward this plan, and I will have a further discussion with the Minister for Education and Skills.
2. What plans does the Minister have to support the needs of Gypsies and Travellers in Wales? OAQ(4)221(CTP)
The Welsh Government published an update on progress towards meeting the objectives in the ‘Travelling to a Better Future’ framework for action in November 2013. Good progress has been made and we will continue to work to achieve fairness and equality for these communities.
I thank the Minister for that response. Bearing in mind that the Welsh Government has put a duty on local authorities to provide sites for Gypsies and Travellers, which is a huge step forward and I congratulate the Government on doing that, what does the Minister plan to do to support the establishment of those sites, in view of the support that Gypsies and Travellers often need when sites are set up because there is often hostility from local residents? Certainly in Cardiff, there is a problem that the Cardiff Gypsy and Traveller Project is struggling to survive.
I accept that there is still a lot of work ahead to address the shortfall that we have in pitches, for instance, across Wales. I think that the new duties upon local authorities are important, however I firmly believe that legislation will not solve all the problems on its own.
You will be aware that each local authority is required to undertake a new Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment, and that has to be done by February 2016. Following the assessment, the local authorities themselves will have a much clearer idea of the need for the sites.
As a Government, we fund eight regional community cohesion co-ordinators across Wales, and they have a specific role in ensuring that these communities are engaged within local housing and planning processes. It is very important that their voices are heard and that they have somebody who will be their advocate and help them to ensure that their voices are heard.
Local authorities also have a duty through the Equality Act 2010 to tackle discrimination and to promote good relations. That should include providing support to local organisations, as is the case with the Cardiff Gypsy and Traveller Project.
Minister, a report published earlier this year by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Prisons revealed that around 5% of our prisoners in England and Wales considered themselves to be Gypsy, Romani or Travellers. Among the reasons stated for this over-representation were the illiteracy and innumeracy of members of these communities. What discussion have you had with ministerial colleagues to address the problem of educational underachievement among our Gypsy and Traveller community in Wales?
Again, I have not had any discussions this early in the portfolio in relation to the specific group of people you refer to. However, in my previous portfolio, I was the link Minister regarding prisons and I had discussions with ministerial colleagues regarding literacy and numeracy skills for Welsh prisoners. I will undertake to have a discussion if you think it is an issue, and I will write to the Member following that discussion.
Minister, obviously, all local authorities must make a local assessment of the need for sites, but you are the only one with a national overview. So, how many new sites do you think Wales needs?
I do not have a figure in my head at the moment. I had a briefing with officials this morning prior to questions and was told that my predecessor opened a site in Powys earlier this year and that that was the first one for a decade. I actually have a Gypsy and Traveller site in the ward I live in and I did not think that it had been there for that long a period of time. So, clearly, we have not had many new sites in Wales. So, that is a piece of work that I will have to undertake. There is clearly a shortfall in the number of pitches we have. Presumably then, there is a shortfall in the number of sites we have.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to questions from party spokespeople. The first is from the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch and welcome to my first question of you in this role. It is a decade since the housing sector in Wales warned of a forthcoming housing supply crisis. In 2008, the Sue Essex report on affordable housing referred to the ‘current crisis’. The Homes for All Cymru report six years ago stated that there was a crisis in Wales. The 2012 Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee report quoted a housing association sector saying
‘The housing crisis is with us now.’
Last year, the Country, Land and Business Association report ‘Tackling the Housing Crisis in Wales’ said,
‘We need more homes for rural economy workers to keep communities in the countryside viable.’
Do you agree that we have a housing supply crisis in Wales?
That is not my take on it this early in the portfolio. I have had several discussions around different aspects of housing. I also spoke at a housing conference last week. Clearly, one of our programme for government commitments is to build 10,000 affordable homes by the end of this term. I am due an update on the number of homes within the next month, I think. However, I believe that we are on target to deliver that figure of 10,000.
In fact, during the first three Assembly terms under Labour, the number of social homes in Wales fell by nearly 30,000. Given that, in the year to July, only 1,123 new homes were registered in Wales against an estimated need of 14,200 new homes in Wales annually, what dialogue will you be personally having with the construction sector in Wales, noting the comment by Construction4 Growth Wales that the cost of Wales-specific regulation in the sector means that companies, and particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, are increasingly unable to compete.
I will be having several discussions with stakeholders. I think that they are incredibly important in making sure that we have the supply of homes in Wales we want to see. Clearly, you have the house builders and registered social landlords. Just on Monday, I attended the celebration of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. Three previous Ministers for housing and I were all there to celebrate the housing Act. Clearly, the work that was undertaken by my predecessor, Carl Sargeant, will assist in that. They are a very important part of ensuring that the housing supply is what we want to see.
Thank you. You refer to the housing Act, much of which focused on the way that the private rented sector can help to provide housing to people who are homeless and in desperate need. The 2011 Communities and Culture Committee report on making the most of the private rented sector quoted the National Landlords Association as saying that there should be Wales-wide private rented sector access agencies for vulnerable people based on the Agorfa Cefni Lettings model, a partnership of trust between the private sector and local authorities, with the National Landlords Association and the third sector implementing and delivering more for less rather than replicating for higher cost. Why, therefore, are we instead seeing a plethora, a sudden upsurge, of new housing companies being announced by local authorities, which seem to be replicating for higher cost, with the risk that it will deliver less for more than would be the case if it followed the good practice, and worked across the three sectors to meet this desperate need.
I do not recognise that, but certainly I would not want to see duplication of any of our public services. I know that you were at the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 celebration too on Monday, and, from the discussions that I had with people there, I do not recognise your comments.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Leanne Wood.
Llongyfarchiadau—congratulations on your new post, Minister.
Last week’s Sheffield Hallam University report on the impact of welfare reform on the Valleys makes for difficult reading. The report found that the current welfare reforms, when they come into full fruition, will take more than £1 billion every year out of the Welsh economy. That is equivalent to £550 for every working adult. We cannot afford to take this hit, Minister. So, will you join me in condemning the devastating effects that welfare reform has had, and will have—cuts that have been orchestrated by a Westminster coalition with no mandate in this country?
Yes, certainly; the findings of the research that came out of Sheffield Hallam University show the devastating impact that welfare reform is having on many of our most vulnerable citizens here in Wales. Certainly, the findings, I think, that came from the university research were broadly in line with our own research, which estimated that Wales would lose around £900 million a year—so it was very similar.
Minister, it was good to hear you joining the Party of Wales in highlighting the unfairness with which these welfare reforms will punish some of the most vulnerable people in our society. Given that these reforms will impact Wales, and the fact that they will impact Wales disproportionately, I would like to know what impact assessment you have carried out to look at the effect of these cuts. Can you also tell us what measures you intend to implement to mitigate the worst effects of these welfare cuts?
Clearly, we have been doing a great deal of work. Before I came into post, my predecessor was doing the work. We have the ministerial task and finish group on welfare reform, which I attended in my previous portfolio. I think that six Ministers attended that, because we wanted to show the importance with which we viewed this work that we were doing, to mitigate the impact of the welfare reform changes coming from the UK Government. Just yesterday, we had an oral statement about the extra £2 million funding that I announced last week to support advice services, because what I would like to see is people going for advice before they get into difficulties. So, we are doing a great deal of work to mitigate the impact of welfare reform.
Minister, one aspect of the Sheffield Hallam report, which I am sure would not have escaped your attention, was the impact of welfare reform with regard to child benefit. It has been estimated that, in the Valleys alone, £45 million in child benefit will be lost as a result of this change. Will you therefore join me in condemning the Labour Party’s plan to put a cap on child benefit, which is a real-terms cut? A child benefit cap will affect those who need the income the most, and it will hit women particularly hard, given that they tend to be the principal carers of children. So, will you this afternoon, Minister, join me in condemning this cruel policy?
I was waiting for that to come along. What I would rather do is concentrate on the levers that we have in Welsh Government to help the people of Wales. I do hope that we have a Labour Government following the election next year, and one thing that the Labour Government will be doing is getting rid of the bedroom tax.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
Minister, in his letter to me, dated 19 August, your predecessor told me that he had investigated whether the public sector broadband aggregation programme could be accessed by credit unions, so as to enable satellite working and closer co-operation between them, as well as enabling them to reduce risk in terms of securing their data in the cloud. He told me that he was considering this further, and that his officials would be discussing the matter with the relevant departments within Welsh Government. May I ask what conclusions have been reached on this issue?
As far as I know, no conclusion has been reached at the moment. My officials are currently discussing this issue with the relevant departments within Welsh Government, which obviously manage the PSBA scheme. I do recognise that credit unions having access to that scheme would be very beneficial to them.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you know, the Welsh Government has spent £649,000 of taxpayers’ money on an advertising campaign to promote credit unions. Your predecessor told me on 11 June that a major objective of that expenditure was a 25% increase in the predicted growth acceleration of credit union membership. In his letter to the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, dated 11 July, your predecessor said that membership fees for credit unions for the quarter April to June would be available to the Welsh Government by the end of that month. Can you tell me whether the stated objective of a 25% increase in membership was achieved and what the actual figures are?
The only figure that I have in front of me is that, at the end of June 2014, adult membership for all credit unions in Wales is estimated to be 65,960. I will have to check with officials if we have a more up-to-date figure, and I will let the Member know if that is the case.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. That was the figure that was quoted by the Minister for March of this year as well, so clearly the figures for the end of June have not been available. I would be grateful if you could pass those on to us. Your predecessor told us back in May this year that he and his Cabinet colleagues would market credit unions to the public service workforce and facilitate payroll deductions. This would support credit unions to become sustainable by attracting higher earning members. To what extent have the Government’s marketing activities been directed towards attracting more tier 1 and 2 members to credit unions and persuading them to borrow?
I think that that is a very important point. Certainly, I know that North Wales Credit Union Ltd is doing some really good work in promoting credit unions to the public sector workforce and having that payroll deduction, which will encourage more people to sign up to it. I want to do all that I can to support credit unions to be sustainable. I know that there are some that have been a bit more fragile. I mentioned north Wales, and I think, certainly looking at it this early in the portfolio, that it is an example of good practice. I would like to visit it quite soon to see what it is doing and what can be rolled out. I absolutely believe that good practice should be rolled out.
The marketing campaign did encourage people to join the credit union. People are now talking about the importance of credit unions and the way that people who are more financially stable can help some of the most vulnerable in our communities.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of people in Wales who do not have access to a basic bank account? OAQ(4)0224(CTP)
I thank Gwenda Thomas for that question. Living entirely within a cash economy can be expensive. Recent research estimates that 6% of people in Wales do not have a current account with a bank, building society or credit union. The Welsh Government supports credit unions to provide affordable and accessible financial services to those who are financially excluded.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. While the number of households without access to any bank account has declined in recent years, there is still a significant minority of individuals who remain unbanked—to use that word. For a great many of them, being trapped in a cash- only economy exacerbates the profound problems of life on a low or unstable income. Given that a lack of banking services is frequently associated with social isolation, I am glad to hear you refer to the credit union and would support that. Perhaps you would like to say if there are any other ways that we can seek to widen the financial inclusion of these vulnerable people.
As a Government, we have several initiatives to assist these people. We had the oral statement yesterday on advice services, and the extra £2 million that we are providing will help people who are financially excluded. I also want them to go along to get advice before they get into debt, to get those preventative measures in place. You will be aware that, from that funding, we fund a Communities First and Citizens Advice joint project, which delivers outreach advice on a range of issues in Communities First areas, which, of course, are some of our most deprived areas.
I think that everybody needs access to live in a modern society, and banking is clearly one area, so we have to do everything that we can to help people who find themselves financially excluded.
I too am a great fan of North Wales Credit Union Ltd and, in fact, met its representatives only last week. I know that it is trying to develop its online service provision in order to enable the sort of inclusion that has just been referred to by Gwenda Thomas. One thing that it has suggested is that a way of helping it would be to include it within the Welsh public sector broadband aggregation scheme. Can you tell us today, Minister, whether that is something that you will be able to extend directly to North Wales Credit Union, as indeed to others trying to develop the suite of online services that are, of course, essential for daily living these days?
I am not sure whether the Member was in the Chamber when I answered Peter Black’s question on PSBA, but certainly my officials are having discussions with the relevant Government department responsible for that scheme. I can see that it would be beneficial for credit unions to have access to that service, so the discussions are ongoing.
Given that banks are now disappearing from our villages and towns, making it less likely that people will open a bank account, what discussions has the Government had with external organisations to try to create a people's bank—a bank that would serve people in all parts of Wales?
I have not had any such discussions. I am not aware if ministerial colleagues have done so, but I think that it is important. As you say, we are seeing banks disappearing from our villages and towns and not everybody has access to online banking, for instance. We know that many people are, unfortunately, digitally excluded. So, I am sure that those discussions are ongoing, but I have not had any personally.
4. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s work to promote credit unions? OAQ(4)0225(CTP)
As part of Welsh Government funding awarded to credit unions in January this year, a national marketing campaign was undertaken with the aim of increasing membership by 2,000 above predicted growth rates for 2014. During this campaign, more than 2,500 new members joined credit unions, in line with the target.
Thank you, Minister, for that response. Endorsing the comments made by the Member for Arfon, it is obvious that the major high street banks are accelerating the pace of their branch closure programme across our country. In that context, if the banks are committed to reducing their services to principally an online service, backed up by regional hubs, is it not important and, in fact, imperative that the Welsh Government steps up a gear in developing alternative models—perhaps community banking or, indeed, further emphasis on the development of credit unions—to offer people across this country genuine inclusion, particularly those in our rural heartlands?
I do not think that it is just Welsh Government’s responsibility. I think that there are other organisations that have far more responsibility than us, but I do think that we have a responsibility to support and promote the credit union project. Clearly, we have announced additional funding of £1.2 million in January of this year and then £1.9 million in April over three years. I mentioned the work that I want to do to support credit unions to become more sustainable for the very reasons that you suggest.
Minister, there are two credit unions operating in my constituency: Smart Money, based in the town of Caerphilly, and the Bargoed, Aberbargoed and Gilfach Credit Union Ltd. Both do a lot of good work in the community, providing advice and support, particularly for disadvantaged people. However, would you agree with me that we need to support the credit union movement in Wales, but also challenge it in terms of providing advice on financial inclusion, offering loans to better-off customers and providing other facilities for saving, such as payroll deduction, which has been pioneered very well indeed by North Wales Credit Union?
Yes, absolutely; I mentioned the good work done by North Wales Credit Union in relation to encouraging people to have payroll deduction of sums for credit unions. I think that the sustainability of credit unions is absolutely vital and I will do all that I can to continue the work that you undertook in this portfolio. I also want to promote their work to the public sector workforce. I think that I can also do that across Government, particularly with the education, health and local government portfolios. However, you are right: we do have to challenge them, to make sure that they are making provision for people who are both financially and digitally excluded.
Regarding the £700,000 of funding for the national campaign that you talked about for promoting credit unions, what assessment have you made of whether this campaign has had a positive impact? How many referrals and enquiries were received as a result of the project?
I have not personally undertaken that piece of work, but that will be done by my officials. I mentioned in my initial answer to Bill Powell that, during the campaign, more than 2,500 new members joined credit unions in line with the target, so that is very encouraging. We want more people who are financially sustainable to join credit unions to enable them to support the more vulnerable people in our society.
Minister, Swansea’s credit union, LASA, is already working with young people, but at the moment it is looking to set up a credit union for young people, so that we have a sort of trickle-up approach. Those young people are already going home to their parents and helping them with their financial education. I wonder whether the Welsh Government has done any work or research, or has any data, into the potential benefits of setting up credit unions for young people, so that they can go through life with those skills, being empowered with those skills.
I think that you raise a very important point. I know that we have over 13,000 young savers within our credit unions in Wales, which is very encouraging. We need to do more work, because—you are absolutely right—if they learn those skills at a young age and take them through life, it is very good. Also, they are going back and educating their parents, where there is a need for that, unfortunately, in some cases.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on the expansion of Flying Start? OAQ(4)0211(CTP)
I am pleased to say that excellent progress is being made. The recently published statistical release showed that, at the end of 2013-14, a total of 31,322 children and their families were being supported by the Flying Start programme across Wales. This shows that we are on track to meet our commitments.
I thank the Minister for that response. Flying Start is a very successful programme that stops some children starting school at a substantial disadvantage with a developmental age that is well below their actual age. Will the Minister, however, review areas that are not included due to the relative affluence of the overall lower super output area, such as Trallwn in my constituency?
I will not be reviewing those areas that are currently not included. Obviously, Flying Start is a geographically targeted programme. However, I know that you have concerns about this issue; I have heard you mention them before. Local authorities do have some flexibility; it is not set in stone. Obviously, they have to gather evidence of need to support that. They do have some flexibility, but I will not be reviewing it.
The Welsh Conservatives have supported this programme since its inception, although the Minister will well know that, sometimes, measuring the outcome is more difficult as it occurs during a child’s development. I notice that there has been a fall in the childcare take-up on an all-Wales basis from 90% last year to 86% in the current year. What are you doing now, Minister, to address this unwelcome decline?
I was not aware of that figure, but I will certainly have a discussion with my officials regarding that, if it has indeed declined from 90% to 86%, because clearly it is a very successful programme. It delivers services to some of our most disadvantaged families, right across Wales, and you will be aware of our commitment to double the number of children who benefit from the programme from 18,000 to 36,000 by the end of this term.
Minister, may I ask you exactly what flexibility local authorities have in terms of the geographical nature of Flying Start? If you look at a town such as Llanelli, which is a single community where there are many Communities First areas, councillors in that town complain to me that this geographical nature prevents co-operation across the town as a whole. Is there any way in which authorities could be more flexible? Although you say that you are not reconsidering this, could you also be flexible in this regard?
We give the guidance to local authorities. The way that they can be flexible is by operating an outreach service that enables them to use the Flying Start programme to support a family with a child under the age of four that is living outside of the Flying Start area, where a clear need has been identified. So, it is up to the local authority to go out there and get the evidence to support that, if it wants to help benefit a family that is outside the Flying Start area.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on improving childcare across west Wales? OAQ(4)0212(CTP)
Improving the quality of and access to childcare across Wales is central to our early years and childcare plan. We recently published a progress report on the plan. In taking forward actions under the plan, consideration is being given to the needs of different areas across Wales.
Minister, I recently had the opportunity of visiting Jig-So, which is a charity that offers a range of outreach session workshops to local families, such as first aid courses and fire safety courses in north Pembrokeshire and, indeed, in west Wales. What support is the Welsh Government offering to organisations such as Jig-So, which offer crucial skills and services to families and to parents, particularly those living in rural west Wales?
I am not aware of the specific organisation to which the Member refers. However, we have several grant schemes that different organisations can bid for. I am not quite sure which one that would fall under, but, for instance, we have our children and families delivery grant and our out-of-school childcare grant. If you would like to invite me to visit that scheme, certainly, I would be very happy to do so.
Volunteering in the South Wales Valleys
7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to encourage volunteering in the south Wales valleys? OAQ(4)0215(CTP)
The Welsh Government has committed £7.192 million in 2014-15 to support an integrated infrastructure for voluntary organisations and volunteers. This includes £567,729 to the Gwent Association for Voluntary Organisations, covering Blaenau Gwent, Caerphilly, Monmouthshire and Newport. We fund the Volunteering Wales website for those offering or seeking volunteering opportunities.
Thank you for that answer. During recess, I met with many community organisations in Islwyn, for example, Disability Can Do in Pontllanffraith, which has supported the teams of volunteers providing essential support to adults with disabilities and their carers. What more can be done to encourage volunteering in helping the most vulnerable people in our society?
Thank you, Gwyn Price, for that question. It is always really good to hear about volunteering that is targeted at helping other people, particularly where it is directed at some of the most vulnerable people in our communities. We are now working with the third sector partnership council to develop a new volunteering policy for Wales and to stimulate volunteering, to find fresh ideas and ways of doing so. We all value the role of volunteers greatly and, I think that, in Wales, we are very lucky to have so many dedicated and passionate volunteers. I think that a passion for something is a good way of encouraging people to volunteer. Certainly you see in sport—how people come forward when they have a passion for a particular sport. That is something that I would like to look at. We also need to look at training needs and how we can support people to be confident and comfortable in any volunteering role that they have.
Minister, many retired people have a lifetime of experience and skills that could be of great benefit to voluntary organisations in Wales. What plans does the Welsh Government have to encourage retired people to get involved in voluntary organisations, so that their experience and skills can be used to benefit their local communities?
Thank you, I go back to my previous answer to Gwyn Price. I think that one thing that we can do, when a volunteer comes forward and they have had that lifetime, as you say, of experience and skills in a certain area, and they have probably retained that passion, is encourage that to come along. I also want to do more to encourage young people to volunteer, because I do not just want to rely on retired people. You will be aware of the new third sector scheme and code of practice for funding the third sector that we have brought forward, and that is an area that I want to work with to develop that new volunteering policy that I mentioned in my answer to Gwyn Price.
Minister, with a large number of public facilities closing and the enormous interest in many communities in taking them over so that they can be community-led, it is important that those groups are well prepared to take over the administrative functions of the facilities, as well as the other services that they provide. You mention that adequate training is important: how will you ensure that enough finances are made available to local authorities to ensure that when the local authority closes a facility, the volunteers are genuinely adequately trained and that there is no financial comeback on those volunteers?
I think that you raise a very important point and that was certainly something that I was looking at in my previous portfolio. I mentioned the new volunteering policy for Wales, and that is somewhere where we can look at the training needs and also the management needs, because people will also need to be managed if they are taking on roles such as you describe.
8. Will the Minister outline measures that the Welsh Government is taking to aid older people living in poverty in Wales? OAQ(4)0217(CTP)
Thank you. Our tackling poverty action plan details commitments to reduce poverty for all, including older people. Relevant commitments include continued free bus travel for people over 60, funding for crucial advice services specifically targeted at older people and funding to support digital inclusion amongst the over 50s.
Age Alliance Wales recently published its 2014 update on its 2012 report, ‘Wales: A Good Place to Grow Old?’ In this, among other things, it called on the Welsh Government to involve older people and the third sector in the design, planning and delivery of services for older people, and to not simply consult them after decisions had been reached. How do you respond to that call, and will you be delivering upon it?
I think it is really important that as many people as possible are involved in the provision of services. I think local authorities have stepped up to the plate in their budget negotiations; I know Wrexham council is just about to start a very wide-ranging budget consultation. I know other local authorities— Monmouthshire, for instance—did a very good budget consultation. I think it is really important that everybody is involved, not just older people. Clearly, I am sure that we are all being spoken to by older people about their bus passes and about other schemes and strategies that the Welsh Government is coming forward with. We obviously have ‘The Strategy for Older People in Wales 2013-2023’, we now have phase three, and I think that is another area that older people have been very involved in—in bringing forward that strategy.
I have a copy of a magazine here by Age Cymru Gwynedd and Anglesey, stating the following:
‘Unfortunately the current Tackling Poverty Action Plan makes only passing reference to older people and lacks many targeted actions to help older people living on very low incomes.’
Do you agree, Minister, and how should you respond?
Well, I have not seen a copy of that. I am very interested to see Ynys Môn and Gwynedd putting out a joint newsletter—I would be very interested to see that. I have looked at the tackling poverty action plan coming into portfolio. It is obviously cross-cutting; the programmes and policies contained within it are aimed at all people in society affected by poverty, and that does include older people.
9. What plans does the Minister have to support the Post Office network? OAQ(4)0220(CTP)
The Welsh Government has an excellent record of supporting Welsh post offices. We have provided capital improvement grants worth £10.7 million to Welsh post offices since 2002. The final post office diversification fund awards were announced in May 2014.
I thank the Minister for that response. As the Post Office’s policy now is to encourage supermarkets and other stores to take post offices into their existing businesses, and this can sometimes cause problems when postmistresses or postmasters give up and there is no suitable place in the area for them to go—this is actually happening on Whitchurch high street in my constituency at the moment—can the Minister suggest any ways that there could perhaps be a more flexible approach by the Post Office?
Obviously, post office matters are not devolved to Welsh Ministers, it is an issue for the UK Government, but we have long recognised the importance of local post offices to the communities they serve. I mentioned the post office diversification fund, and I think the figure now is that we have given awards— grant funding—to almost half of the post offices in Wales, which I think is an incredible achievement, particularly when it is not a devolved matter. I have had issues in my own constituency where post offices have wanted to go into shops and supermarkets, and it is very difficult. Any post office matters that are discussed by the UK Government are obviously monitored by my officials, and perhaps that is somewhere where we can perhaps feed into any consultations that come forward from there.
Minister, leading on from your response to Julie Morgan, you may well be aware of the work that local authorities in England, such as Sheffield City Council, undertook to make post offices the front office for government and public sector services in Sheffield, making better use of post offices across the city, and enabling local people and businesses to access a range of public services in the community, for example, being able to pay council tax and rent through one of the 78 post offices. I know that, in 2009, the Welsh Government sponsored a trial of the Post Office validate service with two local authorities in Wales— Cardiff and Conwy. I was wondering what other trials and opportunities you are exploring to integrate public services into our post office network here in Wales, so as to keep them alive in our communities.
I was not aware of the work being undertaken by Sheffield City Council. As I said, any matters to do with the Post Office are not devolved to Welsh Ministers, but certainly officials can monitor any developments that may affect Wales.
I accept, Minister, that matters appertaining to the Post Office are not devolved, but, despite the financial support that you have given to the post offices, is it not the case that post offices are still closing throughout Wales, particularly in rural areas?
I think that post offices are closing in all areas of Wales, unfortunately. I mentioned that I think we have an excellent record in supporting them through the post office development and post office diversification funds. We have supported over half of post offices in Wales with a capital improvement grant, which I think is an incredible achievement.
I was pleased to meet local campaigners in Llandaff North last week who are hoping to bring a new post office to their community. However, obviously, to make sure that new post offices are economically viable for the postmasters in the long term, it is important to consider ways in which they can diversify. I wonder whether you have had direct discussions with the Post Office yet to discuss ways in which the Welsh Government’s own services or information on things such as organ donation or financial literacy could potentially be delivered through our post office network, which is already active in our community.
No, I have not, as yet, in week 2, had conversations with the Post Office Ltd, but I am sure that it will want to meet me. I am actually meeting with Royal Mail; I know that it is a separate company, but I am actually meeting with it next month. I am certainly very happy to meet with the Post Office.
Minister, of course, in 2015, as the result of the Tory-Lib Dem legislation, there will be a reconsideration of the maintenance of the universal service. Of course, Ofgem will be consulting over this with regard to Wales. Will you be making efforts to consult with Ofgem Wales in order to discuss how this consultation is going to take place, and to ensure that we actually do all that we can to protect the universal service?
Yes, certainly. My officials—if they have not already had a discussion—will be having a discussion on this issue.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on the scale of problem debt faced by families in Wales? OAQ(4)0222(CTP)
In June 2014, the Welsh Government commissioned a report that showed that one in six families in Wales is burdened by debt. This is too many. We will continue to play our part in helping people who are affected by problem debt.
Thank you. I was very concerned to read that, according to the latest research from the Children’s Society, more than 150,000 children in Wales are living in families facing debt problems. In my own constituency of Delyn, 34% of families are in problem debt, with the debt owed totalling almost £6 million. Despite claims by the UK Government that its economic policies and welfare reforms are protecting families, it clearly is not working. Many families are still struggling to make ends meet. Minister, what action is the Welsh Government able to take to protect children from the effects of problem debt and to support financially vulnerable families?
Tackling debt in Wales is a key part of the Welsh Government financial inclusion strategy and tackling poverty action plan. You will have been in the Chamber yesterday when we had the oral statement on advice services and the extra £2 million funding that we have put into that. I go back to what I was saying before: I want people to access these services before they get into debt, and use them as a preventative method. Clearly, we cannot fill all of the gaps that the UK Government has left us with, particularly around the welfare reform proposals, but we will continue to do everything that we can to mitigate the worst impacts, as far as we are able.
Perhaps I can just advise the Member that, as a result of the UK Government’s welfare reforms, universal credit will see £22 million put back into our families in Wales over the next 12 months. However, according to StepChange Wales, the scale of problem debt facing families is increasing, as the Member rightly pointed out. Rent arrears and council tax arrears have gone up from 19% to 29%, and energy arrears, and an average pay-day loan for a family in Wales is £1,335. Too often, though, there is an assumption that this is largely due to a lack of income, yet many of the debt arrears are for services attracting funding provision. Sadly, not enough is done in terms of education, budget planning, financial management and learning to save for a rainy day. Forthcoming Bills include a Bill on financial literacy brought forward by Bethan Jenkins AM, and I believe that this is a positive move for your Government to embed these principles of prudence for these families. Will you support this Bill?
I had a meeting just this morning with Bethan Jenkins, who is not in the Chamber, who is very passionate about this Bill. We are working our way through it. Perhaps you will not be aware of the way that the Government works, but this thing has to be worked through in stages. I have had two meetings—it is only week 2 in post for me, but I have had two meetings with Bethan Jenkins about this Bill.
11. Will the Minister make a statement on progress towards the Welsh Government’s strategy to eradicate child poverty? OAQ(4)0219(CTP)
We remain committed to our ambition of eradicating child poverty, even though it is extremely challenging. UK Government welfare reforms and reducing budgets are having a significant impact, so current levels remain unacceptably high. The Welsh Government is investing in early years and prevention to have a long-term impact on child poverty rates.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I welcome the recent publication of the Welsh Government’s tackling poverty action plan, as I believe this makes an important contribution to the progress on the Government’s strategy to eradicate child poverty, even though we are in a difficult place and times in facing the welfare reforms from the Tory-led UK Government. I am further pleased to see the progress made through schemes such as Families First, which has supported more than 3,000 families across Wales, and Flying Start, which has supported more than 500 children in the Neath Port Talbot area, including areas in my constituency. In the light of these successful schemes, how do you see the action plan working with a broader strategy in order to take this agenda forward and improve the lives of our children?
I am currently looking at the child poverty strategy, which obviously works alongside the tackling poverty action plan. They both have common outcomes. Both of the strategies set out key objectives and what we want to see is a reduction in the number of children living in workless households. You will be aware of several schemes and programmes. You mentioned Families First, which I think is an excellent scheme, and there is Communities First, obviously, and the Lift programme. I am asking other Ministers to show how their portfolios are contributing to achieving the numbers we want to see.
One thing I would say is that the child poverty strategy does not sit in isolation. It has a cross-cutting nature, and I think it is important that we use other strategies and legislation if needs be to improve outcomes for people from low-income households.
Minister, teenage conception rates have fallen in recent years, which I welcome as progress towards eradicating child poverty. Could the Minister advise when the Welsh Government will be in a position to report on the outcomes of its Empower to Choose project, which is designed to reduce these rates even further?
I am not aware of the specific rate, but I will write to the Member on that point.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 12, OAQ(4)0214(CTP), has been withdrawn.
13. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of gender pay inequality on poverty in Wales? OAQ(4)0213(CTP)
Pay inequality has a clear impact on poverty in Wales. When women get equal pay, their family income rises, and their whole family benefits. The Welsh Government is firmly committed to gender equality in the workplace and to tackling the underlying issues that create pay inequality.
Thank you, Minister. Forty-three per cent of part-time workers are paid below the living wage compared with 12% of full-time employees. Given that three quarters of part-time workers in Wales are women, it is no surprise that the gender pay gap widened at the end of 2013, for the first time in five years. Does the Minister agree with me that, as a nation, while we should aspire to pay the living wage, pay inequality also remains a significant root cause of poverty in Wales?
Absolutely. I am wholly committed to gender equality in the workplace and to enabling women to overcome the many barriers that they may face in accessing work, as well as encouraging and supporting them to progress in the workplace.
As you say, the majority of part-time workers are women and we know that many traditionally female career paths are lower paid than traditionally male career paths, because women are obviously more likely to work part-time. As the new Minister for equalities, I was really pleased to participate in a conference on Monday held in Cardiff, organised by Welsh Government. It was called Girls Make a Difference, and there we had 100 year 12 girls who listened to talks and engaged with women who are inspirational and role models. We probably realise it, but, out there, people will not realise that our chief veterinary officer is a woman, our chief medical officer is a woman, and my director general, who organised it, is a woman. We had speaking there Professor Laura McAllister, chair of Sport Wales and professor of governance. Sarah Thomas was there, ex-GB hockey player, with her bronze medal that she won. You could see that these young girls were very impressed by what they heard. In fact, after my speech, one said that she had wanted to be a nurse, but now she wanted to be a politician.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We are out of time now. Thank you very much, Minister.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1 and 2 in the name of Elin Jones, and amendment 3 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Darren Millar to move the motion.
Motion NDM5570 Paul Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes calls from the British Medical Association for a full-scale independent investigation into Welsh NHS services and calls upon the Welsh Government to commission such an investigation as soon as possible.
Thank you very much indeed, Presiding Officer. I move the motion in the name of Paul Davies, which
‘Notes calls from the British Medical Association for a full-scale independent investigation into Welsh NHS services and calls upon the Welsh Government to commission such an investigation as soon as possible.’
I will just deal with the amendments before I go into the rest of what I want to say. We will be supporting amendment 1, noting
‘the BMA’s concerns over the Welsh Government's inability to recruit’.
I think there is, very clearly, a recruitment crisis in some parts of the national health service, particularly in terms of primary care and, indeed, certain disciplines within secondary care. So, we will be supporting that.
I am afraid we cannot support amendment 2 regarding UK Government funding. Plaid Cymru will, of course, be aware that national health service spending in England has increased over and above inflation, and that, if such increases had been applied in Wales, then we would be hundreds of millions of pounds better off in terms of spending on our national health service here than is currently the case.
We will also be supporting amendment 3 in the name of Aled Roberts on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, calling for the
‘consideration of safe and minimum staffing levels’.
Members, it pains me to say it, but, despite the hard work and dedication of its staff, the national health service in Wales is in a state of crisis and you do not need to look very far for the evidence. [Interruption.] The Government may find this a comical matter, but I certainly do not.
All but three Welsh hospitals have a death rate that is higher than the England and Wales average; emergency care is struggling to cope with A&E four-hour target waiting times not being met once since 2009; more people than ever are waiting more than nine months for their first hospital appointment; waiting lists have bloomed, with almost 200,000 more patients on a Welsh national health service waiting list than when Carwyn Jones became First Minister, and waiting times for diagnostic tests appear to be completely out of control, leading to further delays in treatment for patients. On top of that, hospital-acquired C. difficle infection rates are on the rise and staffing levels in some areas and parts of the Welsh NHS are at dangerous lows. Some of these problems have delivered devastating consequences for families, some of whom have lost loved ones while they were waiting for treatment or while stuck in the back of queuing ambulances outside hospital front doors.
Just today, we have seen more evidence of this crisis with the ambulance response time targets. Despite promises of improvement from this Labour Minister, they have now been missed for every single month bar one in the past two years. It is no wonder that, last week, the chair of the British Medical Association in Wales warned of ‘imminent meltdown’ unless urgent action is taken.
I listened very carefully to the First Minister during questions yesterday when he was rubbishing the inconsistency of the British Medical Association, but let me say this in this Chamber this afternoon: the British Medical Association and its members, like all good clinicians, change their prescription when the existing treatment regime is not working. You have made it clear, Minister, in your time in office, that we must listen to clinical advice in shaping the future of the Welsh NHS. Yet, when that advice does not suit you, you choose to ignore it. Well, you cannot ignore clinicians who are working at the coalface of the national health service who warn of imminent meltdown and say that ‘work intensity has increased to frankly dangerous levels’ and that ‘if we became whistleblowers, we could make every hospital look like a Mid Staffs’. Other people complain of ‘avalanching workloads’ and the dire state of recruitment, which is actively denied by Mark Drakeford.
It is not good enough. Things have got so bad that even Ed Miliband has finally joined in the chorus of voices raising concerns about the national health service in Wales. Even Red Ed has admitted that he now has some concerns, and, of course, he is not the only one in the Labour Party. Ann Clwyd, who was tasked with conducting a review into NHS complaints procedures, broke rank last July, stating that the catastrophic failings in the Welsh NHS were equivalent to the scandal in Mid Staffordshire.
To be fair, Minister, you have commissioned a number of reviews of individual patient cases and of different parts of the NHS during your tenure in the Cabinet. However, while these are to be welcomed, there appear to be some inconsistencies as to why some cases result in reviews where others do not. It is this ad hoc approach to the way that you are dealing with the NHS that we feel is not appropriate.
As the British Medical Association has acknowledged in its report, ‘Creating a Healthier NHS for Wales’, which was launched last week, we now need this wide-ranging independent review into all parts of the national health service if we are to get to the root of the problems and solve them once and for all. Instead, Welsh Labour attempts to neutralise criticism of poor performance by blaming the figures, rather than accepting responsibility for its stewardship of the health service.
Concerns about the Welsh NHS have been raised by clinicians before, including Professor Sir Bruce Keogh and the Royal College of Surgeons. However, to date, we have seen insufficient action to understand and address the root causes of the problems faced by our NHS. Frankly, I think that the people of Wales are a little bit fed up of Ministers making excuses and denying that problems exist in the face of very clear and growing evidence to the contrary. We want to see some action taken to identify the causes of the problems so that they can be put right once and for all.
Every poor statistic and every unnecessary death is a fire alarm that all is not well in the Welsh NHS. We ignore fire alarms, Minister, at our peril. These fire alarms have now been ringing for months, yet there are no clear signs of action to assure patients that you are taking the appropriate steps to attend to them. Instead of getting to grips with the issues and investing in our national health service, your First Minister and you, unfortunately, in Government, have signalled an intention to scrap the very targets and measures that paint you in a bad light.
The answer, of course, is not to blame the data or to rubbish their quality, or to say that it is the way that the data are collected that is the problem. The answer is to look at the causes of the poor performance in the first place, so that you can take action to put them right. Instead, Minister, you have been burying your head in the sand, blaming health boards, ambulance services, general practitioners and other professionals when things go wrong, and then trying to pat yourself on the back when things go right. I have to say that there is more than a whiff of Mid Staffs about it.
Let us remind ourselves of what Professor Sir Brian Jarman, who developed the hospital standardised mortality rates, said about the reaction of the UK Labour Government when he tried to warn about NHS failings in Mid Staffordshire. He said that he faced a ‘denial machine’. He believed that:
‘there was political pressure for the information to be ignored’.
Well, Minister, I can see very clearly that you have been using that denial machine here in Wales. It is not right for you to continue to resist an inquiry to identify the potential shortcomings in the NHS on cost grounds, especially when you have managed to spend millions on refurbishing lavish offices here in Cardiff bay.
It is becoming increasingly clear that the record-breaking national health service budget cuts being imposed by your Government are placing unprecedented pressure on front-line services and hard-working national health service staff. Under Labour, the NHS in Wales has become the sick man of Britain. That is why we need an urgent independent investigation to turn this situation around and give patients the confidence that they need.
I ask you these questions, Minister. How many more unnecessary deaths? How long do waiting lists need to be? How many more reports about poor care? How many more complaints? How many more months of underperformance, whether it be in the ambulance service or against waiting-time targets? How many more of these do you need to see to persuade you of the need for an urgent inquiry into the national health service so that we can put this situation right once and for all? You need to act, and you need to act now and take the advice of the British Medical Association. I urge Members to support the motion.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have selected the three amendments to the motion. I call on Elin Jones to move amendments 1 and 2, which are tabled in her name.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the BMA's concerns over the Welsh Government's inability to recruit and retain an adequate NHS medical workforce.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Regrets the UK Government's continuing cuts to public spending and the impact on investment in our NHS.
I move amendments 1 and 2 in the name of Plaid Cymru.
Plaid Cymru will support amendment 3 today and will also be supporting the motion, because, in principle, I have no opposition to an independent review of the NHS. What is not clear from the motion and the opening comments, if I may say so, is what exactly the interpretation of such a review would be. Would it be a swift, short-term investigation to scrutinise the day-to-day problems of the NHS, in terms of waiting lists and meeting ambulance waiting time targets, or would it be in terms of the mortality rates in some of our hospitals? Is that what you have in mind, or would it be a longer-term, more comprehensive review of the structures underpinning our health service, of workforce planning and of which targets would be appropriate for our health service in the longer term?
We know that the recent Nuffield report demonstrated the scale of the funding shortfall for the NHS in Wales over the next 10 years. It is a sobering figure for us all, that financial vacuum or shortfall of £2.5 billion over the next 10 years. Therefore, it might be useful to have an independent review into what sort of NHS we can afford over a 10-year period, and what are the challenges that will make that difficult over that period of time. The danger with any independent investigation of that sort is that it will tell us only what we, truly, already knew, of course. That is always a danger with reviews of this kind.
The reason why there is demand for independent reviews, and why those calls are increasing, is that organisations feel, as did the BMA last week, that the Government is not taking their concerns seriously or is not listening to them. It They do have concerns and they should be listened to. Like Darren Millar, I agree that the First Minister's response yesterday to the BMA report was entirely party-political, rather than first ministerial. He was contemptuous of the BMA report’s conclusions and of the institution itself. That was so different from the times we have heard him and others laud the BMA—provided it was praising the work of the Government. Therefore, we need that consistency from the First Minister, the consistency that he himself called for from the BMA. We need that consistency from the First Minister also.
The First Minister should take seriously the BMA’s concerns about the NHS. Denying the existence of problems is not acceptable, particularly when they relate to morale, respect and the working conditions of our medical workforce, who are so important to providing the NHS services that we all aspire towards. That is why Plaid Cymru believes that we need to plan for the increased pressures that will be placed on our medical workforce, both those who are there now and those who will be there in the future. We know that the number of doctors that we have per capita is lower in Wales than it is in most European nations, and it is certainly lower than in the countries of the United Kingdom. We have our own plans as a party for how we could increase the population of doctors by 1,000 over a decade, and we have outlined how that can be achieved in practice. I am not confident that the Government is taking some of these challenges seriously todate, and it certainly is not bringing forward realistic schemes for increasing the number of doctors that we have working in the NHS in Wales. Therefore, it is essential that we take seriously what is being presented as a lack of morale among staff and a lack of confidence by the BMA and now by doctors in the health service.
In conclusion, I refer to amendment 2 in the name of Plaid Cymru. While the Westminster Government continues to cut public spending and while this Assembly is being under-funded by the Treasury, the NHS will continue to be under pressure. We need to be honest about the financial situation that puts the NHS under unacceptable pressure. If there is not adequate funding within the public funding system, we cannot seriously expect the NHS to achieve what we all want from our NHS.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Kirsty Williams to move amendment 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the BMA's call for consideration of safe and minimum staffing levels across primary, secondary and community care.
I move amendment 3.
If we are being honest, we have to acknowledge that there is not an NHS system in any part of the United Kingdom that is not struggling at the moment. Over the summer, there were horror stories about the situation in accident and emergency departments in Northern Ireland. Let us not forget why the Keogh review was set up in the first place: there were significant problems within the NHS in England. Therefore, I want to be absolutely clear that Wales is not the only part of the United Kingdom that is grappling with the question of how we sustain a publicly funded NHS with shrinking resources, whether money or personnel, against an ageing population and advances in medical care. So, these are not problems that we are facing alone.
Nobody wants to do the staff of the NHS down. Let us face it: if politicians had the approval ratings of the NHS, we would be living in a much better democracy. Nor am I comfortable—and I had to endure it again this morning—hearing about the Welsh NHS in negative terms in the national media. I do not want the rest of the UK to think that, as a nation, regardless of who runs the Government, we cannot take care of our sick, our needy and our vulnerable. It makes me feel ill. I do not want people to hear that about our Welsh NHS. I know that there is excellence every day in our NHS. There was yesterday, there is today, there will be tomorrow, and there will be next week and next month. I have seen it and I have received it, and my constituents benefit from it every day. However, if we are being honest about what is good about the system, we have to also be honest about what is going wrong and what could be better, because I have also seen care that is not what we would want it to be. We have seen constituents who have had to wait too long, and we have seen front-line staff who have been put under pressure and in a position that none of us would want to see. Therefore, we have to be honest about what is going wrong, too.
The Government has set its face against an independent inquiry, and it has done so in such a way as to give the Minister no room for manoeuvre now, and no way out. The reality is that, while the BMA is calling for a Keogh-style review, actually many of the elements of a Keogh-style review have already been carried out in Wales. With regard to mortality, we have had debate after debate, and movements and an examination of mortality and risk-adjusted mortality index figures. We have had debates and reviews over patient experiences and whistleblowing. However, there have been parts of Keogh that we have not looked at, and I am particularly concerned about issues relating to the recruitment and retention of staff, staff morale, and what the BMA report had to say about whistleblowing and how staff can bring concerns to people’s attention. To go back to what Keogh said, he said that there were lessons for all of the NHS from the investigations that he carried out: limited understanding of how simple it can be to listen to staff and patients and engage them in improving services; the capability of boards and managers to use data appropriately; and the difficulties for some in operating in geographical and professional isolation. Those are things that are happening here now in Wales, and I think that there would be some benefit in looking at them.
However, I think that we need to go beyond an instant inquiry into what is happening now. I believe that it is time now for the Government to establish a cross-party, and no party, and civic commission into the future of the NHS in Wales, to map out where we want to be in 25 years’ time, the challenges of achieving that, and the steps that we need to take. It is beyond a review; we need something more serious. If it is good enough for tuition fees and if it is good enough for higher education, why will the Government not commit to such a review, and a commission, for our NHS, so that all that is good can be preserved, and so that that which needs improving can be planned for and acted upon?
Thank you for the opportunity to take part in this debate, noting the calls from the BMA for a full-scale independent investigation into Welsh NHS services and calling upon the Welsh Government to commission an investigation as soon as possible. As a Member who represents South Wales West, from Gower to Bridgend, I know only too well of the numerous reviews over the past year that have shown that serious failings exist within the health boards in Wales. However, I do take the point that many positive things do take place in the NHS also, on a day-to-day basis, because of the very dedicated staff that we have.
Members, there has been no shortage of warning signs about the Welsh NHS over the past year. Several organisations, such as the Royal College of Surgeons and the Wales Audit Office, have produced reports that highlight failings in several health boards in Wales. These failings include cancelled or delayed operations and unsustainable methods employed to achieve financial savings.
We have today seen the Welsh ambulance times, yet again, not meeting targets, and, of course, this followed the very sad death of Mrs Powell, who died last week while waiting in an ambulance outside Morriston Hospital. Much has been said already in this Chamber about that, so I will not go into any detail on it, other than to offer my condolences as well. The death in an ambulance in Swansea should be seen in the following context, I believe: that, according to the latest official figures, the Welsh ambulance service failed to hit response time targets for the most urgent calls for the ninth consecutive month. Statistics also show that 87.7% of people arriving at Welsh accident and emergency departments were seen within four hours of arrival, with the Welsh Government target, of course, being 95%. The worst-performing health board was Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, with nearly 17% of patients waiting more than four hours.
I do believe that we need a full-scale inquiry, and we need it now. No longer can you hide the scale of this gross mismanagement within the NHS in Wales, and, in particular, I have to say, in ABMU. The Royal College of Surgeons published a report in July 2013, following findings that 152 patients had died in the last five years while waiting for cardiac surgery in Cardiff or Swansea. The Royal College of Surgeons said that conditions had reached dangerous levels at the University Hospital of Wales in Cardiff, with patients dying regularly while waiting for heart operations.
Over the past year, several organisations, such as the Royal College of Surgeons and, as I have said, the Wales Audit Office, have produced reports that highlight failings at several health boards in Wales. These failings include cancelled or delayed operations and unsustainable methods employed to achieve financial savings targets, which have both seriously compromised patient care.
ABMU victim support group, co-ordinated by Gareth Williams, who lost his mother Lilian at the Princess of Wales Hospital after she suffered appalling standards of care, is compiling a document of over 100 victims, who all allege serious abuses and neglect resulting in injury, disability and death. The evidence, Minister, grows and grows.
I would like to conclude by focusing on a huge concern in my area of Wales, namely the recommendations following the Andrews report. That independent review into aspects of care at two hospitals in south Wales was published on 13 May 2014, and it revealed shocking examples—shocking examples—of poor care and unacceptable practice in the care of older patients. The report is entitled ‘Trusted to Care’, detailing the findings of the independent review into practice at the Princess of Wales Hospital Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot Hospital. It primarily focuses on the care of older patients, including nursing standards. The report identified horrific examples of poor care, including leaving patients without their medication, food or water for days, and one patient left in his own excrement.
The First Minister, along with ABMU health board, has apologised and committed to the implementation of every one of the 18 recommendations, but stopped short of committing to a full-scale inquiry into standards of care. So, Minister, please accept from me that I am not jumping on a bandwagon here, but that I am merely responding to the real concerns that people come to me with in South Wales West and that I have to bring to you in this Chamber. A full-scale inquiry is now needed across the NHS and across Wales. I very much hope that you will seize the opportunity that is presented in this motion today and that you will start an independent, full-scale inquiry, as called for by the British Medical Association. I believe that the people of Wales really do deserve this.
I fundamentally disagree with the Tory motion before us today and reject its wider call for a full-scale public inquiry into the NHS. However, in some ways, I still welcome this debate because, if nothing else, it once again exposes the completely false dichotomy the Tories are trying to present when it comes to health, as if anyone who does not heed their calls for a politically motivated inquiry of this kind is burying their head in the sand or somehow pretending that problems do not exist within the health service. Indeed—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Can Mambers listen to what other speakers are saying please?
It is transparently a line of attack that is far more abut them playing their part in David Cameron’s war on Wales than it is about improving our NHS. Having read the BMA’s report, while of course there are serious issues that need to be addressed in relation to complaints handling and whistleblowing, to me, it offers no new evidence whatsoever that a full-scale public inquiry would be either timely, helpful or necessary at this point. It is really disappointing that the BMA has allowed itself to be dragged into this Tory political game playing, particularly at a time when I am sure many of its members here in Wales will be horrified at what is happening to the NHS in England under a Conservative Government.
Of course the health service in Wales is facing massive pressures. On the one hand, we are dealing with huge challenges facing health services across the globe—seismic issues like diabetes, dementia and a rapidly ageing population, and, at the same time, we are having to cope with massive cuts to the amount of money we have to spend here in Wales. These cuts, let us not forget, are a direct result of Tory-Lib Dem imposed austerity that has seen nearly £2 billion slashed from our block grant since 2010. However, there has been no attempt by Labour to shy away from the perfect storm facing the Welsh NHS. It has been our Minister for health who has led the political charge when it has come to laying out the stark financial challenges facing the health service as we saw in his brutally honest response to the Nuffield report on the NHS funding gap in Wales. Similarly, when specific problems were exposed in relation to the inspection regime at Welsh hospitals, we have seen him prepared to tackle those problems head on.
I was part of the health committee’s inquiry that looked into the role of Health Inspectorate Wales, so I do not duck away from the seriousness of the gaps that were highlighted within our report. However, by appointing Ruth Marks to lead a comprehensive review into the role and functions of HIW, the Minister demonstrated not only that he is willing to listen, but that he is prepared to step in and take tough action when it is clear that there are specific problems that urgently need addressing. We saw that too in his response to the ‘Trusted to Care’ report into problems at Neath Port Talbot and the Princess of Wales hospitals. I will give way to Nick Ramsay.
Thank you, Lynne, for giving way. If, as you say, the Minister is willing to listen, which I am sure he is, then would it not be far better at this point for him to listen to the concerns of the BMA rather than having your side of the Chamber slinging mud at it and trying to slur what it is saying? It has very genuine concerns, so, for goodness’ sake, get on with dealing with these issues and not mud- slinging.
I think that you are the only ones over there who are mud-slinging—mud-slinging at our NHS and mud-slinging at the people who work in it. Let us be crystal clear: when it comes to directly addressing these calls for a full-scale public inquiry in Wales—because it was specifically the terrible events that took place at Mid Staffs hospital that led to the establishment of the Keogh inquiry in England, and although it is a matter of public record that I called for lessons to be learned here in Wales from that situation—no matter how many times the opponents of the NHS in Wales have tried to paint one situation or another as some kind of Welsh Mid Staffs, they have failed utterly to present any evidence that we have a situation in a Welsh hospital that parallels those terrible events. If the Welsh Conservatives have evidence of that, then they should produce it, but until then, let us see these calls for what they are: ideologically driven attacks from a party whose colleagues in Westminster have presided over a disastrous top-down reorganisation they promised would not happen, who have carved up huge chunks of the NHS and handed them out to profiteering private contractors, who have cut nursing numbers by 4,500, and closed hospitals and missed key cancer waiting times targets. Perhaps they should have spent more time getting their own house in order before embarking on this Tory war on Wales.
I remind my colleague that it was in fact the Labour Government that gave us the massive deficit facing the United Kingdom, the same deficit that your leader forgot to mention in his speech, and this is a man who wants to lead our country—I think not.
In putting together my contribution today, even I was shocked just how easy it is to find reference to the problems facing our health service here in Wales. Type ‘health service in Wales’ into Google and the third entry reads,
‘Doctors warn: Welsh NHS faces “imminent meltdown” amid call for inquiry into nation's health service’.
Yes, that is from the British Medical Council. Another entry, dated only last December reads,
‘Wales health: Challenging year for the NHS’,
‘It is under intense pressure, with services being reorganised, financial constraints acute and many targets being missed throughout the year.’
It goes on to describe the demand, stating that this year the Welsh NHS has ‘struggled to cope’ with ‘hospitals overwhelmed’, ambulances queued up and ‘hundreds of planned operations’ cancelled. It states that the Minister at that time took over a service ‘lurching from crisis to crisis’.
Thank you for taking the intervention. So, when, a couple of months ago, you made the same allegations and the BMA described them as a ‘wicked slander’, do you agree with that?
With respect to my colleague, the BMA said
‘The Welsh Assembly Government shows that they have got no respect for clinicians working in sub-standard conditions and managing avalanching workloads’.
Another quote is:
‘I feel very saddened and deeply frustrated by the current quality or lack of healthcare services in Wales and lack of recognition by the Welsh Government of any of the issues.’
That is directly from the coalface.
Type in ‘health service inquiry Wales’ or even ‘health service scandal Wales’ and, as my colleague Byron Davies has said, you will find the name, Lilian Williams, bless her, who was 82 years old and died at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend. In May 2014, there were high mortality rates at six sites and an e-mail written by Bruce Keogh and concerns about officials and their attempts to suppress that e-mail.
Eric Ward, described by his wife as being offered only half the food that he needed. She had to release a photo of his skeletal frame after he sadly passed away. Labour MP, Ann Clwyd, had to complain after her husband died ‘like a battery hen’ at the University of Wales Hospital in Cardiff. Furthermore, the Assembly Member for Aberconwy felt very desperate during a recent bank holiday, desperately seeking help from you, Minister, because a very sick constituent of mine was desperate for a bladder cancer removal. Facing delay after delay, promise after promise and let-down after let-down, that constituent gradually became so weak that by the time that the operation took place, he was further diagnosed with secondary tumours and, a matter of weeks later, he died. As his family said, ‘He had simply had enough’.
Another gentleman wrote to me, describing how the love of his life, his dear wife, who, although allergic to Penicillin and having mentioned this on five separate occasions to nursing staff, was administered this drug and sadly experienced severe organ failure. Not only had he to cope with the grief and the loss, but, as the coroner became involved, it was a matter of many weeks before he could even arrange for her funeral. These cases are terribly tragic, but they are real-life circumstances. This is not scaremongering.
We have had mortality data, horrific evidence, protests and Labour Government apologies. The BMA cannot be wrong; Ann Clwyd cannot be wrong; the north Wales patient watchdog and Professor Keogh himself, and the Royal College of Surgeons and the College of Emergency Medicine cannot all be wrong. Certainly the BMA cannot be wrong.
Your monthly cancer waiting-time target has not been met in any single month for over 70 months, and there is no prospect that you are actually doing anything to succeed in reducing these targets. In our recent patient round-table discussion with cancer patients, it became clear that they had gone to doctors and GPs numerous times before they were sent for diagnosis. Our A&E departments are stretched beyond belief. No patient should be forced to wait for more than four or 12 hours to be treated in an emergency department, but that is the reality for many vulnerable people. It should be a matter of shame for Carwyn Jones and your Government that these targets have not been met once during the last five years. Your Welsh Labour Government simply must get to grips with the crisis in Welsh emergency care and throughout our health service. You must reverse the record-breaking NHS budget cuts. You must halt the current dangerous hospital closure and centralisation programme, and you should take the honourable step of admitting defeat and allow an inquiry to take place.
This is a very disappointing debate based on a very weak report. I have read this BMA report, and there is very little in it. We all agree that we need an NHS in Wales that is open and transparent about patient safety, which enjoys a culture of professional and patient engagement and empowers all staff to raise concerns without fear of reprisal. Those words I obviously agree with. What I do not agree with is that we do not have that here.
The picture that the pamphlet paints simply does not fit with my experience of talking to patients and professionals in my constituency, and during my visits to doctors’ surgeries and hospital wards. Do I ever raise concerns on behalf of constituents? Yes, of course I do, but I almost always get coherent answers to the concerns about what might have gone wrong. Even when the answer does not satisfy the constituent’s concerns, the dialogue remains open and ongoing. This is a health board that is open to constant improvement and acknowledging where things have not gone right.
Later on today, I will be attending the annual general meeting of the Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board, where I am confident that I will hear yet again of examples of improving practice from front-line practitioners. That is the same health board that has produced a credible three-year financial plan by investing to save and getting the best out of our NHS resources.
So, I find that the comments from the opposition, particularly from Darren Millar, do not tally with the facts.
Will you take an intervention?
Not at the moment; I might do later.
Let us have a look at the Keogh list. No. 1 on Keogh’s list is reducing avoidable deaths. Only last week, we had Mark Drakeford telling us that the evidence from mortality case reviews clearly demonstrates that deaths in Welsh hospitals are in very large measure expected and unavoidable. In almost every case, those deaths are not attributable to the quality of care received, yet the Tories continue to bang on the drum—
Will you take an intervention?
Not at the moment, no. You can talk about your constituency; I will talk about mine and the experience of my patients.
Looking further down the Keogh list, it says that patients, carers and the public should be more involved and should be able to get real time feedback. Absolutely. Some 90% of patients complete the ‘2 minutes of your time’ survey to give feedback to the health board. Most informal concerns are resolved within two days. I find that this is a health board that is listening and learning from issues that do not go as well as they should. How do we work with hospitals in remote areas so that they are not left isolated, and so that staff in better-performing hospitals or specialties are used to train and inspect others? Absolutely; that is one of the fundamentals of the south Wales programme—that we share good practice and rotate the expertise around south Wales. I absolutely agree with that.
I will go back to the figures around what Cardiff and Vale health board is doing. It has the lowest emergency hospitalisation rates in Wales, despite having the fastest-growing population. It has the biggest improvement in medical in-patient performance, moving from the lower quartile UK benchmark to the upper quartile for length of stay in less than 12 months; that is across the UK. Some 95% of patients say that they are happy with their GP. Cancelled admissions due to unavailability of ward beds are down from 258 in July 2012 to 53 in July this year, which is an 80% improvement. Cardiac surgery weekend operating started in February this year and is ongoing, in order to reduce waiting lists. On e-discharge, primary care community directors, who are lead GPs, conduct pathway reviews of common medical conditions, and it shows that there has been an increase in the discharge and a decrease in the length of stay.
So, I would expect the opposition to have a slightly more measured approach to the improvements that we are making in the NHS in Wales. Yes, things occasionally go wrong, but really, Darren, you ought to be paying more attention to what is going on in your constituency. If you can beat what Cardiff and the Vale is doing, I want to hear about it.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate and to highlight some of the issues facing patients in west Wales. Now, of course, generally speaking, patients do receive excellent care from professional and committed staff who do excellent work often in very difficult circumstances. However, it is clear that there are some major concerns expressed by medical staff and constituents about some of the care provided to patients. Only recently, I received a letter from a constituent who had received a consultation from a doctor and the doctor did not know who that individual was or why he was there. In addition to that, the doctor told my constituent that the scan did not highlight any problems, but this is no surprise as he had not received a scan in the first place. To add to this worrying list of difficulties, my constituent needed an endoscopy but the doctor providing the treatment thought that he was having a colonoscopy. Given these problems, I, along with many other Members, warmly welcome the BMA’s calls for an independent inquiry into healthcare in Wales.
Care standards in Wales have been the cause of concern to patients the length and breadth of Wales who have suffered poor response times from ambulances, cancelled or deferred operations, and unsustainable methods of attaining financial targets—each and every one of which have put patient care at risk. The Member for Cardiff Central mentions figures. In my constituency, unfortunately, statistics for ambulance response times for category A calls still demonstrate Pembrokeshire being below the Wales target of 65%. Indeed, the figures show 272 people waiting longer than eight minutes for an ambulance in circumstances that could be life-threatening. Even worse is the fact that 107 people waited longer than 15 minutes in a category A emergency. It is crucial that patients and their families can have confidence in a crisis that they can ring 999 and get a swift response. However, unfortunately, as we hear time and again, that is not the case.
There is serious concern in Pembrokeshire that the reconfiguration of services is being done before there are improvements in emergency care. Hywel Dda Local Health Board notes in its document, ‘Your Health, Your Future’, that reconfiguration of services will result in a 20% reduction in acute bed numbers. Unfortunately, the Government’s reconfiguration schemes have the potential to make the situation even more complex in terms of emergency care. As Members have already noted, there is a huge need to recruit and retain staff within the health service—this is an even greater concern in rural areas such as Pembrokeshire. The recruitment of staff is a particular problem and it is no surprise that people are not willing to apply for posts in a health service that is facing huge challenges and where there is uncertainty as to whether those jobs will still exist in future. The figures for 2012 from the Wales Deanery demonstrate that, in terms of medical recruitment training in paediatrics, 99% of jobs were filled in England as compared to only 87% in Wales. In terms of core medical training, the rate in England is 99% and only 72% in Wales.
In Pembrokeshire next month, we will see the paediatric services that are available overnight in Withybush General Hospital disappearing. This seems to be a response to recruitment problems, problems with rotas and clinical training problems. Following years of uncertainty on the future of services in Withybush General Hospital, it is no surprise that Pembrokeshire is not seen as an attractive place to work. Under these circumstances, services become unsustainable, forcing patients to travel further for their crucial medical services. Also, losing such services creates fears among the staff and local communities and generates a great deal of uncertainty about the future of our hospitals. This uncertainty places huge pressure, which can lead to huge pressures on services, which can then lead to negative effects on services. Therefore, bearing in mind that many people and highly respected organisations such as the BMA are now calling for an independent investigation into the Welsh NHS, the Minister certainly needs to seriously consider the need for such an investigation for the whole of Wales. I do not understand why the Government would oppose such an investigation; surely, it would do what we all want to see, which is to ensure that patients across Wales get the high-quality care that they deserve.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer, for calling me in this debate. I am very surprised that the opposition is asking for a full-scale independent review of services in response to the BMA report, which also asks for the reform of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales. It seems to me that to have this full-scale, vague inquiry that it is talking about is the last thing that we need, particularly in view of the fact that the Minister for Health and Social Services has already set up an independent review of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales under Ruth Marks, which Lynne Neagle mentioned earlier. As Elin Jones said—
Will you take an intervention?
In a minute. It is entirely unclear what this independent investigation means. We have no idea how much it costs or what it would actually look at. I just think that this is a very political response and a very irresponsible response.
Darren Millar highlighted what the First Minister said about the BMA yesterday and I think that it is worthwhile saying that it did say, ‘Don’t bring in a Keogh style inquiry’. I think that the words that the BMA used were very irresponsible when it used the word, ‘meltdown’. What is that supposed to mean?
What does the BMA and the opposition party think about patients who are waiting to go into hospital and about the confidence of nurses, doctors and healthcare workers when they read words such as ‘meltdown’? I will take the intervention.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you taking an intervention from Darren Millar or from the leader of the opposition?
I am sorry. Andrew R.T. Davies was first.
I am grateful to the Member for Cardiff North for taking an intervention. I am surprised that she says that she is surprised at the opposition’s calls. This has been an 18-month long call from these benches. It was in July 2013 that we put our first call in and, as the Member for Aberconwy listed, there is a whole pile of professional organisations that now support that call. Therefore, to say that it is opportunist, I think is being somewhat disingenuous.
Well, I certainly feel that it is opportunist. It is also important to remember some of the climate in which this is done. To refer again to the national survey of Wales 2013-14, to which I know we have referred before in this Chamber, 92% of people said that they were happy with their care in the NHS and 95% of hospital patients said that they were treated with dignity and respect. You cannot get away from those figures. To be asking for an independent inquiry in that situation, I think, is totally irresponsible.
I think that the BMA does a good job in many respects and I know that the Minister for health will read the report very seriously, but I do think that the opposition is being entirely opportunist. I think that it is causing a great deal of anxiety with these calls and I think that it should rethink it.
I am not surprised that this motion has been brought before us, because it has been a consistent part of the Tory agenda to effectively act as political mercenaries for David Cameron in Westminster. You see the consistent political ideology. There is not an interest in the NHS in Wales; there is not an interest in health. This is so that you can go back to Westminster, David Cameron can stand up there and you can play your political games. Let us be honest about it. Half of the Tories here do not actually want to be in the Assembly; they want to be in Westminster so that they can be down there privatising and selling off the NHS. [Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order, order. Can you stick to the point and move on without referring to where people wish to be?
Antoinette Sandbach rose—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I do not think that he is taking an intervention, Antoinette Sandbach.
That calmed me down a little bit. [Laughter.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Antoinette Sandbach, will you sit down?
I read the two sides of A4 that talk about a whole series of things and very little of it actually justifies any form of inquiry. I have to say that when you go back to the BMA’s original positions, and you look at where it talked about a ‘wicked slander’ and ‘a Keogh inquiry’, you do wonder why there has suddenly come from the council a change in position. You wonder whose influence or sticky fingers have been working their way around at this particular moment to bring this forward. I have to say this: the Tories can have no credibility whatsoever on the health service, and I think that there are very serious concerns about the terminology, the timing and the way in which the BMA council has brought this forward to get involved in what has been, basically, not only an attempted call for an inquiry from the Tories, but, quite frankly, it could be for an inquiry on just about anything, because once this is out of the way, there will be a call for another inquiry, because, at the end of the day, all you are doing is, on behalf of David Cameron, playing politics with the Welsh NHS, and we are concerned about the actual progress and improvement of the NHS.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to reply to the debate, Mark Drakeford.
We are debating a report this afternoon that, on its cover, says that it is about how concerns are raised in the Welsh NHS. It makes one direct recommendation in this area. It is a recommendation worth reading and considering carefully. It does not contain a great deal that is surprising, because the Welsh partnership forum, where employers and employee organisations meet, has recently been reviewing the all-Wales policy on raising concerns. Consultation on the revised document closed on Friday last week. The BMA has responded positively in that consultation to the intention to establish a common principles project and has offered to participate in it. The ideas in the pamphlet that are about raising concerns can, I hope, be taken forward in that way. I will also ensure that my officials consider some of the suggestions that are being made by the BMA in this regard as part of the response that we are currently developing from our work on the Keith Evans review into the handling of concerns in NHS Wales. Keith Evans was rightly critical of some aspects of the way in which the NHS does respond to concerns. I agree with the BMA that there are improvements that need to be made, and where it has provided suggestions about that, we will take them seriously.
There is a second set of recommendations in the report that deal with the future of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales. I share the surprise of some other Members that the author of the report had apparently not heard of the work of the Health and Social Care Committee; it makes no reference to its report in this regard. It makes no reference to the announcements that the Government has made about an inquiry into the future of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and, apparently, did not know that Ruth Marks had already been commissioned to undertake an independent review. That work, as Members will know, is well under way. I am quite sure that Ruth will be interested to hear the views of the BMA, and what it has to say about Healthcare Inspectorate Wales is worth reading too. Indeed, I know that the BMA has already been approached by Ruth and that a representative of the BMA attended a workshop that she held on the topic just yesterday. I will ask Ruth Marks directly to consider the suggestions that the report makes.
So much, Llywydd, for two of the three recommendations that the report contains. Both of those are constructive; the Government will engage with them directly. It is in the first recommendation of the document, unfortunately, that it all goes badly astray. As we have heard, in fewer than two sides of A4, the document extracts some phrases from reports that, in many cases, were not written about Wales at all and had nothing to say about the services that are provided here. It then rehearses the work of different reviews that have been commissioned and published in full by this Government.
In a single sentence, occupying two lines, it asserts—it certainly cannot be said that it argues—that what the NHS in Wales needs, most of all, is to repeat all that work in a single, expensive, unfocused, ill-defined, undifferentiated, open-ended review.
Sensible contributions—and there have been many to the debate this afternoon—have pointed to the inadequacy of such a recommendation. Elin Jones asked what exactly it would mean. Was it to be a quick and rapid review, with some key issues coming to conclusions? As she knows, if there were quick and easy answers to the problems that health services face in every part of the United Kingdom, they would already have been found. The answer must be that what is proposed is for some lengthy, drawn-out, delaying type of investigation that would hold up much of what we are determined to do in Wales. I hope that, very soon, Marcus Longley will publish his report into health services in rural parts of Wales. If we were to accept the recommendation that we have here, everything that that report might say, everything that we may be able to do with it to improve services in that part of Wales would be held up while we go in for this utterly unprofitable exercise.
Kirsty Williams, I thought, made a very interesting contribution. She pointed out that much of what is being called for has already been done in Wales, and where there are other aspects, which continue to need attention, we continue to provide them. Inquiries are not the only way in which policy problems can be pursued here in Wales. The idea that she put on the table today was certainly not the idea that we find in the BMA document, and certainly not the highly partisan set of proposals that we have heard pursued by the opposition here. I will think very carefully about what she says. I am very interested to meet her to talk further about her idea, which was a very different sort of idea than that in the attention-seeking, politically driven, absolutely partisan contributions that, one after another after another, we heard Members on the opposition benches continue to make today.
We have heard this afternoon that if the BMA says it, it must be true. I look forward to Darren Millar telling us in his response of the Conservative Party’s conversion to free prescriptions in Wales, because if the BMA believes in anything, it believes in that. Let us hear you say that if the BMA is right on this, it is right on that. Let me give you a list of all of those things that the BMA believes in that you entirely reject. What this is all about—[Interruption.] What this is all about, Llywydd, is—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
What this is all about is a partisan selection of a particular point of view. The opposition party, in its corrosive, wolf-crying way, has done so much damage to the morale and the capacity of the NHS, as the leader of the opposition said here, for fully 18 months. I think that the NHS in Wales is much better than they do. I think that the BMA members are much better than its own council appears to think. These are the BMA members that provide 19 million appointments in primary care, that see 1 million people in our accident and emergency departments, and that carried out 3,300 surgical and other procedures in the NHS in Wales last year. These are the BMA members that have helped us to reduce the death rate from heart attacks, and have helped us to reduce re-admissions of patients with chronic conditions. In the revalidation exercise, the results of which I have seen just this week, of the 50,000 patients who were asked their views of doctors here in Wales, 98% of them said that their doctor was polite and considerate, and 95% said that the doctor explained things in a way that they could understand. Patients in Wales do not believe that the NHS is in crisis; patients in Wales do not think that this prescription will put things right, and neither do we.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Antoinette Sandbach to reply to the debate.
Why the BMA has changed its mind on this, Mick Antoniw, is because it has said this: if the people who do not know what is going on are raising concerns—. I am sorry, it said:
‘If the people who do know what’s going on are raising concerns and they’re not being listened to, then our thinking is that maybe the only way in which the Welsh government is going to take notice of the things that are going wrong is by having an independent inquiry.’
I am delighted that Jenny Rathbone has such a wonderful hospital in her constituency. We had 363 complaints outstanding—some of them found under the stairs. I had a constituent who waited over a year for Betsi Cadwaladr to conduct an inquiry into why he was tube-fed lying down, which his mother, a former staff nurse, had advised them would lead to him dying, which he duly did. That is the NHS that my constituents—
No, you would not take an intervention from me.
That is the NHS that my constituents are experiencing up in north Wales. So, if it is about reducing avoidable deaths, as you said, then you need to listen to the experience of Janet Finch-Saunders’s constituents, which is that they waited so long on the waiting list that they died, or to the experiences of Byron Davies’s constituents in ABMU. Your refusal to hold that inquiry—. I am sure that the Welsh Government would have no difficulty in framing the terms of an inquiry, given the amount of inquiries, task and finish groups and the 393 quangos that you have here in Wales. You would have no difficulty framing the terms of an inquiry. It is about patient safety and putting patient safety first. What the Welsh Government might learn from that inquiry is where it is failing to put patient safety first and how it might remediate that.
Your constant refusal to do that is because you are frightened of what you might find. If you really believe that all is well, and yet you hear of a patient dying outside the hospital with 15 ambulances—. On 17 December, somebody died outside the hospital with 15 ambulances in front of them. They cannot get into the hospital to be treated and the issues are that your statistics—. The BMA is the latest of a number of organisations to call for this inquiry. You can persist in sticking your head in the sand and you can seek to argue, like Lynne Neagle does, that it is political. We are elected here to scrutinise the Welsh Government, to hold it to account and to look at where the policies are failing. When a constituent of mine is told in March 2014 that he might be lucky if his operation is scheduled by March 2015, which was in the letter that I got from the health board this week, then I think it is worth scrutinising, it is worth looking at what lessons can be learnt and it is worth looking at the RAMI statistics.
Minister, the BMA is saying that you are not listening, and this is what the doctors are telling us: ‘I feel very saddened and deeply frustrated by the current quality or lack of healthcare services in Wales and the lack of recognition by the Welsh Government of any of the issues.’ Look at the media: every day there is some news about NHS failure. These are quotes from a doctor: ‘Senior clinicians take roles for Welsh Assembly Government—an unpaid role that takes a lot of time and commitment. It’s very difficult to see this continuing’; ‘Our recent record of posts advertised that did not attract a single applicant is too embarrassing to recount’; and, ‘There is a dire state of recruitment actively denied by Mark Drakeford. We cannot get any interest in our posts from anyone. In July, we will be four posts short, with another two on maternity, i.e. six down before anyone takes annual leave. Our department is on the point of collapse’. What a Keogh-style inquiry would do, Minister, is highlight which department that was and make sure that no further patient’s safety is put at risk.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection. I defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 16:14.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Paul Davies, and amendment 2 in the names of Jane Hutt and Aled Roberts. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be de-selected.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Leanne Wood to move the motion.
Motion NDM5571 Elin Jones
The National Assembly for Wales:
1. Believes that, following Scotland's independence referendum, relations between the nations of these islands must change;
2. Believes that the people of Wales are sovereign and it is they who should decide the nature and pace of constitutional development in this country; and
3. Calls on the First Minister to immediately begin discussions with the UK Government to facilitate a transfer of responsibility over functions to Wales, in order to rebalance powers between the nations.
I move the motion.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. The importance of the Scottish referendum last week was not lost on this National Assembly. It was a topic of conversation for our constituents in their households, in their workplaces, and on the streets the length and breadth of this country. Across our parties, we no doubt shared different reactions and different emotions when the result came through, but I think most of us in this Chamber would welcome the democratic engagement that took place and the level of interest sparked among young people and, in particular, those in Scotland’s most deprived communities.
Last week’s referendum has provided a new opportunity to further the interests of Wales. Plaid Cymru is clear that this opportunity should not be scuppered. Our constitutional journey over the past 15 years has been characterised by piecemeal process, the results of which have always been unsatisfactory. That is not to make light of the important steps that have been taken and the coming of age that we have experienced as a nation. I accept, of course, that it is better to walk before you can run, but it is the case that every constitutional settlement that we have had to date has had to be revised and changed. So, let us make a fresh start now.
Plaid Cymru is clear that the arrangements for devolution to this Assembly should result in equity of treatment between Wales and the other nations of the UK, and, crucially, will give Wales the tools to deliver for the people here. Plaid Cymru is of the view that the recommendations of the Silk commission—both reports—are a starting point, but by no means an end point. Plaid Cymru maintains that the inclusion of a referendum for the part-devolution of income tax is unnecessary, and it is not consistent with the principle of equity across the nations of the UK. The idea that income tax devolution can be chosen or rejected has significant implications for financial accountability, which my colleagues will explore further during this debate.
Neither do we believe in a limit being placed upon Wales’s powers in relation to energy. All energy policy should be devolved, and, in a nation with such potential in terms of natural resources, it makes no sense to put a cap on our ability to maximise that potential. However, in addition to moving forward, we must recognise too that we need to simultaneously catch up. An agenda that incorporates the entirety of the Silk package, and a positive approach towards a reflection of what is happening in Scotland, could see Wales advance considerably from our current position. Significant new policy tools would be available to future Welsh governments, which really could make a practical difference to the way in which we deliver our policies here.
The differences between Scotland and Wales are well known, but they are not always differences that we should be proud of. Scotland has been much better at articulating its interests and securing commitments and pledges. The amendments to our motion today reflect the fact that the unionist parties wish to welcome the ‘no’ vote in the referendum, whereas Plaid Cymru remains proud of our solidarity with the ‘yes’ campaign. I respect those views and the intentions of the amendments, but I hope that we will be able to find areas of agreement on ways in which we can create a Wales that is more democratic, that is more accountable, and is more able to meet the diverse needs of people in all parts of this country. I move the motion in the name of Elin Jones, and I look forward to a useful discussion this afternoon. Diolch yn fawr.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the two amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be de-selected. I call on Andrew R.T. Davies to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Delete all and replace with:
Warmly welcomes Scotland’s unequivocal decision to vote against independence and looks forward to working with all parts of the United Kingdom in forging a stronger union for the future.
I move amendment 1 in the name of Paul Davies.
It seeks to delete the motion and reflects on the unequivocal decision of the people of Scotland to vote against independence and stay within the union. I am looking at some of the faces across the Chamber, but I think that a margin of 400,000 votes is an unequivocal decision by the people of Scotland. Ultimately, what we need to be reflecting on is what we can do to strengthen this union of ours that will add to prosperity and stability within these islands.
The one thing that I think needs commending here is the way the Prime Minister, in fairness to him, engaged with Alex Salmond some years ago, after the 2011 election in Scotland that brought a majority SNP Government into being north of the border, and engaged in allowing the referendum to come forward and for it to be formally be recognised that if it was a ‘yes’ vote then discussions would be undertaken for an independent Scotland. That really did show respect for devolution. I give way to Simon.
I am grateful to the Member for giving way. I agree; I think it is an important sign of respect from both Governments that that Edinburgh agreement was made. That is why I am disappointed that his amendment to this motion today takes away the statement that the people of Wales are sovereign in this regard. Surely it is right that the people of Wales, at one stage, could also make a similar decision? You are not going to deny them that, are you?
I would not deny them that for a moment: if you want to bring a referendum forward on independence, I am more than happy to have that referendum any day of the week.
It will not be today. [Laughter.]
It is quite ironic that, in the poll that is out today, you are polling 3%, I think, for independence in Wales. I appreciate that it is only one poll and you do not take just one poll to mean everything, but 3% really does show where the political ground lies here. Ultimately, the amendment seeks to bring balance, which is reflective of the decision taken last Thursday.
Yesterday, the First Minister questioned me in his statement and wanted some answers. I did find it rather bizarre that he was seeking answers, because all the answers are on the record and have been on the record for some time. He asked me whether I support a convention. Well, some two years ago, I went before the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee of the House of Commons when it sat in this building and put on record that I do believe a convention would be a good idea. However, what I did caveat that with was that what is required is that England understands what it wants to bring to the negotiating table and that we do not get a convention that ultimately just turns into a talking shop that gives comfort to the nationalists, who, half way through, might walk away and say, ‘We are gaining nothing here’ and demand another referendum.
I did find it quite interesting listening to what the First Minister said on Monday. He said that his aspirations for the convention were to set up a standing executive or committee to move it forward—very Labour like, I think that is, to say the least—and then take that to the public. Well, over the next 18 months, the public is going to be in a huge conversation in these islands. In the first instance, there is a general election next May and then, 12 months later, all the administrations and Governments across these islands face elections as well. There will be party manifestos that will be put before every person in this country, and I would suggest that the time for such a convention, when Governments will come with fresh mandates and be able to make clear decisions that really do shape the future of these islands, would be in the summer of 2016 or autumn of 2016.
The First Minister also asked whether I would work with other parties. Well, I made that point to him a week last Tuesday in First Minister’s questions, as I pointed out yesterday, and just he threw the notion back in my face. I am always happy to work with all parties in this Chamber, as I have done since I was elected leader of the Conservatives here in the Assembly. It is the First Minister who seems to be averse to working across party political lines. I expect that; he still thinks he is in Bridgend County Borough Council, I presume. Ultimately, if he wants to rise above local politics and be more statesmanlike, he should reach out to work with more parties.
He also asked, ‘What is his view on the Cabinet sub-committee that is being set up?’ I assume that he was referring to the point about the William Hague committee. Of course, that is the sensible way to resolve the issues that Westminster faces and, ultimately, to come up with a coherent line for the rest of the United Kingdom, in tandem with the promises that were made to the Scottish electorate before the referendum. That is a sensible line to come up with and a sensible way to take this argument forward. What has your leader done? Ultimately, what we need to be doing is addressing the big financial questions that will provide for our ageing population and provide the health and social care services we require in these islands. It requires statesmanship and it requires bold ideas. We can do that here in Wales; we have the ambition to do it. I reach out to the other parties to seek common ground within this institution and, above all, reach for the aspirations of people across this country of ours to stay within the union and develop a prosperous and confident nation of Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Kirsty Williams to move amendment 2, tabled in the names of Jane Hutt and Aled Roberts.
Amendment 2—Jane Hutt, Aled Roberts
Delete all and replace with:
1. Welcomes that the Scottish people have chosen to remain a member of the family of nations that is the United Kingdom;
2. Believes that we must promote a new union for all the people of the UK, including Wales; and
3. Calls for the swift implementation of Parts 1 and 2 of the Commission on Devolution in Wales and the establishment of a UK-wide constitutional convention to draft a plan for a new union.
I move amendment 2.
I begin by saying that I welcome very much that the people of Scotland were given the opportunity to have their say on the future of their nation; it is only right that, following the election of the SNP Government, they had the opportunity to do so. I am pleased that the result was a ‘no’ vote, and that Scotland has decided to remain in the union.
I think that Leanne Wood is right to say that the levels of engagement during the referendum campaign were indeed remarkable and something that we should aspire to achieve here in Wales. The sight of 16 and 17-year-olds casting their vote on the way to school that morning was fantastic to see, and I hope that we can use that as a platform to ensure that 16 and 17-year-olds across the United Kingdom are able to exercise their democratic rights in future.
Whatever the result—yes or no—it was clear that things were never going to be the same for anyone in the United Kingdom. What I am also clear on is that something that the ‘no’ campaign almost failed to do at times, it seems, in Scotland is something that we cannot afford to do here. Those of us who believe in the union have to make a positive case for that union—a reformed union and a new union. If we fail to do so, it will simply pass the initiative to those in Wales, and those outside Wales, who would seek to promote the cause of separation. If we let this opportunity that is in front of us now pass, I believe that that is what will, inevitably, happen.
This new union must ensure that Wales is not treated as second best or as an afterthought after Scotland has been dealt with. We deserve better than that, as I am sure that we would all agree.
What we also need is a settlement that does what the settlement has not done over the last 14 or so years. We need a settlement here in Wales that delivers certainty, clarity and accountability, and lays to rest these questions for at least a generation, so that we can get on with what the people of Wales truly want us to get on with, which is doing what they need us to do for their families: giving them an opportunity to go to a decent hospital, allowing their children to go and get a decent education in a properly equipped school, and giving those children the opportunity to earn their living to keep a roof over their heads and provide for their families. That is why we need the additional powers—not because it is some vanity project for people here in this room, but because, without those powers, we will not be able to deliver on the aspirations for our constituents and the people of Wales.
I believe that Silk parts 1 and 2 are indeed the basis of how we can act now. I also believe that we can go beyond that. However, let us be clear: we need to establish that, first, there is consensus here in Wales that that is what we want, and, sometimes, I wonder whether it is. I think that we do need to come together, as political leaders and people outside this Chamber, to send a very clear message to Westminster and Whitehall about what we want. If we think that they are sitting there in London just waiting to hand it all over to us, then we are delusional. Whitehall and Westminster have never worked like that; regardless of who is in charge of the Government, they simply do not get it. It goes against every natural instinct that those places have, which is to hoard power for themselves.
The best chance that we have—the only chance, I would argue—of being able to give those powers that we need to this Government and Assembly is to speak with one voice and to be clear about what we want. It is incumbent on all of us to put aside the political differences, to focus, for once, on what unites us rather than divides us, and to take the Welsh fight to Whitehall, because, if we do not, that opportunity will be lost for a generation, and I suspect that it will begin to be the death knell for the union.
It was a pleasure to be present in the Chamber yesterday, and it was a slightly surreal but enjoyable enough experience to hear people speaking freely about self-government, Keir Hardie and the four nations of the British state. Indeed, the ground has shifted, and there is an opportunity, as Kirsty Williams said, for Wales to speak with one voice. I think that that is important if we want to move things forward, and to do so quickly. However, we should remember that there is one reason, and one reason alone, for this, namely the SNP Government in Scotland and the strong leadership of Alex Salmond, who fired the imagination of individuals and groups on the ground throughout the country, and who shook the unionist parties to their very foundations.
Here in Wales, we are undergoing a process of financial reform and tax devolution, as a result of the UK Government’s agreeing to some of the recommendations of the Commission on Devolution in Wales. However, what has to be accepted is that the small taxes that are being devolved do not create any significant financial accountability for this institution. The only tax that can be devolved pragmatically and functionally, and which delivers meaningful accountability, is income tax. Plaid Cymru has been campaigning against the so-called ‘lockstep’ mechanism that the UK Government insisted on including in its original proposals for income tax—although it now looks fairly certain that the ‘lockstep’ will be removed, hopefully. That is to be welcomed, but it leaves the problem of the referendum, which the First Minister still believes is necessary.
Plaid Cymru disagreed with the need for a referendum on income tax devolution. We later accepted the recommendation conditionally, as part of the wider Silk package. However, the need to look at the UK as a whole surely means that we need to move on and do so fairly quickly. Scotland is receiving a new system of income tax devolution under the Scotland Act 2012, without a referendum on that question being required. A referendum itself is also a prospect filled with uncertainty aout the kind of turnout that could be expected on a technical issue of such limited appeal. If we have learned anything from the Scottish referendum, that lesson is that referenda should be confined to major and fundamental issues. That is what fires people and their imagination.
Turning to fair funding, Plaid Cymru’s position has always been that fair funding and tax responsibility go together and should be implemented at the same time. This is what the Holtham commission recommended in its second report. However, one should not be used to prevent the other.
Plaid Cymru is clear in its constitutional vision. If corporation tax is offered to Scotland, Wales must receive equal treatment. The First Minister, to be fair, did not rule this out yesterday, albeit with certain caveats, but we need to examine any fiscal offer that is made to Scotland and identify which elements would be possible or feasible to be undertaken here in Wales.
To conclude, as we debate Wales’s democratic journey as a nation, we need to be less cautious about the kind of financial responsibilities we need to undertake. We need to remove the lockstep that I referred to in order to have a National Assembly that is financially accountable. There is no shame in demanding a fair share of UK resources, but we should also be prepared to accept the responsibility that goes along with it. The ability to accept that responsibility is what will give us the opportunity to change Wales and to change the situation of people on the ground for the better.
This is not natural territory for me, not least because, important though these constitutional debates may be, in the end, they are not the reason I entered politics. When it comes to my overriding concern, which is getting the best possible deal for my constituents, experience tells me that it is delivery far more than process that interests them, and understandably so, in my view.
However, I was moved to speak today, as to me it feels as though we have seen both the very best and the very worst of British politics in the last few weeks. On the one hand, we saw, in the run-up to the Scottish vote, politicians diametrically divided by party and ideology, putting their differences to one side and uniting when there was something fundamental at stake. We saw, too, David Cameron playing the statesman, delivering powerful and emotional speeches on the importance of the union, which, even to me, seemed genuinely heartfelt. I, too, was enormously relieved at the ‘no’ vote last week, and yet with the ink barely dry on those referendum ballot papers, with people across the country still breathing a collective sigh of relief, it was seemingly back to politics as normal for the Tory leadership—once again playing political games and once again running scared from Nigel Farage and their own right-wing backbenchers. Let us face it: this is exactly the sort of manoeuvring that saw David Cameron move perilously close to overseeing the break-up of Britain and forever going down as the Prime Minister who lost Scotland.
Refreshing as it was to see an engaged electorate in Scotland, how can we ever hope to convince the cynical if solemn promises on devolving more power are hijacked and derailed by Tories who increasingly act more like the English Democrats on steroids than a political party for the whole of Britain? That is even before you get on to the substantive issues thrown up by the West Lothian question itself, a question that has remained unanswered for the best part of 40 years, precisely because it is inherently so much more complex than simple slogans such as ‘English votes for English laws’ could ever convey. Indeed, the issues at stake here—the prospect of having two tiers of MPs, ensuring that Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have a proper say on overall spending levels, and ultimately avoiding the Balkanisation of Britain—are all issues that are far too important to be decided at a hastily convened party summit at Chequers, with the likes of John Redwood on the guest list.
It is worth remembering, too, that the McKay commission, charged by David Cameron himself with looking at these issues, made it crystal clear that creating second-class MPs was to be avoided at all costs and that, whatever changes take place to deliver more fairness for England, ultimately, all MPs must vote on all issues. Quite frankly, the idea that William Hague and a few Tory party grandees should be allowed to get together in a smoke-filled room and stitch up fundamental constitutional change would be laughable if it were not exactly what the Tories seem to have in mind.
I am fearful, too, of what this new paradigm of constitutional uncertainty could mean for Wales and for the Assembly as an institution. This is not because I have a closed mind when it comes to devolving more power to Wales—provided, of course, that we are not again left to cope with the sting in the tail that we have previously seen with the unfunded devolution of council tax benefit and the social fund. I agree that Wales should be an equal partner in any future UK-wide discussions on the future of the constitution, as the First Minister has already set out. However, I have been here since the beginning, and I have sat through the corporate body days, the Richard commission, the Government of Wales Act 2006, the legislative competence Order system, the All-Wales Convention, the referendum, then Silk part 1 and now Silk part 2. I know that it is often said that devolution is a process and not an event, but there is a very real danger that the focus on powers will once again become the only show in town.
To me, that is a hugely worrying prospect when we face such massive challenges in our education system, at a time when the health service is under tremendous pressure, and at a time when the biggest shake-up of local government seen for a generation is on the horizon. Whatever the future holds in terms of the balance of power within the UK, the people of Wales will not forgive us if we lose sight of those key challenges, and instead return to the perpetual navel gazing that has sometimes appeared to be the main preoccupation of the Assembly.
I must disagree with Lynne Neagle, because I believe that her argument introduced a false dichotomy. As we discuss the constitution, we are discussing our future. As we discuss our future, we are discussing how we govern ourselves, and as we discuss how we govern ourselves, we are discussing, in truth, how we deliver for our people. That is at the heart of this debate.
I would like to concentrate, during the next few minutes, on what was done before, but as a result of, the Scottish decision. A definite vow was made, signed up to by the leaders of the three parties, which was something entirely new in British politics; we have not seen this before. I do think that it would be good and valuable to scrutinise that vow to see what is there for Wales, because we have all agreed, in the response to Scotland, that what is being proposed for Scotland should be offered to Wales as well. That is all that we are seeking.
The vow was worded in terms of three guarantees, as it were. The first revolved around powers for the Scottish Parliament, namely, first of all, that there should be new powers and secondly that they should be delivered before the next general election. In that context, we in Wales have an opportunity to do something similar. The Wales Bill is already before Parliament at Westminster, and it might be possible to amend that somewhat to deliver the recommendations of Silk, at least. However, as stated by Kirsty Williams and many others, Silk is not in itself enough. It is not a solution to what has happened in the wake of the Scottish decision, and therefore we must build on that. I think that we need to put a timetable for that in place prior to the next Assembly elections, to make sure that the next Assembly will have the same kind of powers as are likely to go to Scotland.
The second part of the guarantee was that the Scottish Parliament, to use the original wording, would become a 'permanent and irreversible part of the British constitution'. This is totally new, and that is why I want to ask how you can make something 'permanent and irreversible' in terms of the British constitution, which is not written? We thought that the Bill of Rights 1689 was permanent, but that was changed two years ago to allow a Catholic to become the country’s monarch. Therefore, there is no such thing as something that is entirely permanent, unless you create a new Act of union, and unless you are talking about something completely new, which acknowledges that there are four countries and nations here with four concepts of sovereignty, and that, in the context of what happened with the Edinburgh accord, those parts have the right to join together in union—because that is the decision of Scotland, and there is no indication that there will be a different decision in Wales at the current time—but they also have the right to withdraw from that union. That is the kind of federalism that you are talking about if you want to create something that is truly permanent.
As regards the second part of the guarantee given or the vow made, I thought that it was extremely interesting to see David Cameron in particular had signed up to this, because it was clearly stated that the purpose of the union was to share our resources equitably. There is a meaning to ‘equitably’ that is much more than ‘everyone getting the same’. ‘Equitably’ does not mean giving £1 per head to everyone in Liverpool, Cardiff or Edinburgh; just and fair is the meaning of ‘equitably’, which means that economic disparities within the United Kingdom must be recognised, and must be corrected within any regime that follows.
That makes me feel that there are at least five principles that we should take forward in discussing how we progress from here. First of all, any powers coming to the Assembly must be ones that build a nation and build the economy. Secondly, in the light of this statement about justice, any new powers must be ones that rectify the current fiscal position in which Wales is underfunded. Thirdly, Wales as a nation must be respected and seen as a partner equal to Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Fourthly, we must see fiscal accountability, accountability for decisions, and clarity about who is responsible for making decisions in this new context. Fifthly, we must seek new powers that build a more just society. Those are the principles that I would like to see adopted in determining which powers are now due and would appropriately come to Wales.
I also welcome the decision made in Scotland by the Scottish people, by an overhelming majority of over 400,000 people. If ‘Yes’ had succeeded, Scotland would have needed to create a new currency, perhaps called the Scottish pound. New Scottish passports would have needed to be created. Scotland would have had to reapply to the European Union for membership with the near certainty of rejection. A ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland could have led to the Balkanisation of the whole of western Europe. Market reaction would have been the opposite of a rise in the pound and share prices. Last year, I led a backbench debate on the reserved powers model. I do not want to repeat the long list I gave of the countries in Europe that have embraced the reserved powers model, so, suffice it to say, it is the preferred model across Europe. Britain, when it set up devolution, embraced the asymmetric devolution model, based on what had been done in Spain. Catalonia had far greater powers than almost anywhere else in Spain, the Basque country had greater powers and some of the other regions had substantially fewer. Spain is now moving towards symmetry. In recent times, the difference between the powers devolved has become reduced as further responsibility has been devolved to all regions.
If we look at the United States of America, as we often do on many things, we see that state size varies from California with 38 million people and Texas with more than 26 million people to Vermont with just over 600,000 people and Wyoming with less than 600,000 people. The last two, as I always point out, are smaller than the Swansea city region. What do not vary are state powers. The number of senators they have also does not vary. I recently outlined my support for the Northern Ireland model, under which section 4 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 allows the Secretary of State to devolve areas listed as reserved matters in the Act provided that a resolution has been passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. This has stopped the big bang method of everything being devolved in one go. When two thirds of the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly wish to have items devolved to them, a vote by that body moves those powers to being devolved. Has it worked? Yes. Additional legislative power relating to policing and justice matters were devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly last year following a resolution of that body.
The English question will not go away and cannot be answered by creating first and second-class members of the Westminster Parliament. It will have to be addressed, which is one of the reasons why we need a constitutional convention to end asymmetric devolution and deal with the problems in England. It needs to be made up not just of the usual suspects. It needs to involve interested individuals as well as politicians and academics. We also need to decide what should be provided in each sphere of government. May I take you back to a word that, in 1990s and the early 2000s, was very popular: ‘subsidiarity’? The subsidiarity principle is based on the idea that decisions must be taken as closely as possible to citizens. The European Union brought it in. The principle says that the European Union should not undertake action, except on matters for which it alone is responsible, unless EU action is more effective than action taken at national, regional or local level. We need to decide what should be provided where. Devolution cannot stop at Cardiff bay. It cannot just be a case of moving powers from Westminster to Cardiff bay and then stopping. I am going to suggest a novel approach: we decide in which sphere of government a decision is best made and then allow that sphere of government to deal with it. It may be Westminster, it may be here and, dare I say it, it may actually be local government. We need a showing of mutual respect, not just by Westminster to the Assembly but also by the Assembly to principal councils and by principal councils to community councils. In 10 years’ time, we need to look back and be able to say that we have most, if not all, decisions made at the appropriate level. Would anyone say that we are there today?
Last week’s referendum may have been lost, but it has certainly delivered a fatal blow to the stagnated political order in the UK. While negotiations about greater powers are under way, it is vital that we also consider the relationship between the nations of the UK. If, as the First Minister said, we are to understand the UK not as a single nation but rather a multi-nation state, we need to reconsider how the individual national Governments work together on the issues at UK level. Greater co-operation between the national Governments is vital to ensure that each nation is given a voice. Following the Scottish referendum, a number of issues have been put back on the agenda. The West Lothian question is causing considerable consternation among English politicians of all parties, and it remains unclear how it is to be resolved despite the many valiant attempts over the years. A federal solution is often mooted, presumably with the aspiration of creating a stable and enduring system, with proponents pointing to the many examples of federal systems working around the world, but none of those have the imbalance of just one member being so enormous compared with the others. With England having 80% of the population of the UK, I wonder whether the federal system could ever be stable.
There is the prospect of a Parliament for England, even that the UK Parliament becomes an English Parliament for part of the week. This, of course, would serve the political class interests only. How does that enfranchise the English nation? If it wants its own Parliament, I am sure that it would want separate elections that would allow it to vote differently if it wanted to do so, to its UK Parliament votes. The voter who always votes for the same party at all elections at all times is getting rarer.
When we created this institution, how ridiculous would it have been to have Welsh MPs doing this job for half of the week and doing their other jobs for the other half of the week? Would that have satisfied the Welsh call for devolution? No, because it is silly. Yes, UKIP, I think, has suggested it, but I do not think that even that party really believed that it was a credible option. It would actually create more questions than it answers. In my experience, simple solutions to complex problems rarely work and usually create more problems.
It is likely that a satisfactory answer will not be found immediately, and the enfranchisement of English voters is essential. That is a matter for the English, I know. Although, it is vital that increased powers for Scotland and Wales are not delayed by a failure to reach consensus on the future of England’s democracy, I think that that is important.
Whatever the West Lothian solution arrived at, it must accommodate the national Governments inside a wider partnership. The current set-up, in which the Governments of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have very little say in the policy areas that are the primary responsibility of the UK Government, is unstable and it leaves the smaller nations without an adequate say on the issues that affect them.
Perhaps the joint ministerial committee could be reformed so that agreement can be sought between the national Governments on UK matters that are the primary responsibility of the UK Government, and perhaps more opportunity for communication and co-operation will also mean that, in policy areas where agreements cannot be reached, arrangements can be made to accommodate that disagreement. A new JMC should meet at least quarterly and act as a forum for Ministers to meet to discuss their specific policy areas. Formalising and structuring the relationship between the nations will mean that politicians can be held to account for representing the interests of the citizens of their individual nations.
It is very difficult to predict the final result of the negotiations following the Scottish referendum, but it is vital that we do not let this opportunity for Wales’s place within the UK to be redefined slip by without seizing that opportunity. I want to see Wales taking its place as an equal partner in a system where every nation has its voice.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Galwaf ar y Prif Weinidog.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I thank Members for their contributions and I speak, in part, to the second amendment on the order paper.
I did not think that the time would come when even I would become slightly jaded with another debate on the constitution. I am trying to find something original to say, given what was said yesterday and last week and, indeed, the week before that.
I note, of course, having listened to the leader of Plaid Cymru, that the independence referendum that she was so strongly advocating last week appears not to be on the agenda this week. Although, I take note of what is said in the Plaid motion about the issue of sovereignty. This is a very muddled concept, of course, in British constitutional law. Sovereignty, it is said, rests with Parliament, yet, there is a clear right of secession, which was exercised by the Irish free state in 1920. It was almost exercised by Scotland last week and it is there to be exercised as part of the Good Friday agreement by the people of Northern Ireland, should they so wish. That much is true, but it is clear from the opinion polls that the people of Wales would exercise any such sovereignty in wanting to stay within the UK.
May I turn to the contribution of the leader of the opposition? I have to say that I am still none the wiser as to where he stands. He seemed to be saying that there can be no constitutional convention unless England decides what it wants beforehand. The whole point of a constitutional convention is to allow that issue to be resolved as part of an entire UK constitutional convention, not to say that, unless England gets its act together, nobody else is able to put forward ideas. That much is wrong. May I also say that he said to me, when yesterday I made the suggestion that there should be a convention, that it was little more than a committee, and his suggestion is not a committee, in fairness, it is a sub-committee: a Cabinet sub-committee? That, apparently, is the answer to all the ills of the UK constitution. It is not good enough to say that a Westminster Cabinet sub-committee is the only means of resolving the major constitutional questions that affect the whole of the UK and four Governments.
As per usual, the First Minister is mixing my words. The point that I was making was specific—[Interruption.] That is a bit rich on a day when only 3% support independence. The point that I was making was quite clear: the route that the Prime Minister set out last Friday is, of course, the right and proper way to deal with this issue before the general election. The issue that you have talked about—a constitutional convention—is a completely separate issue and you are mixing the two up just to confuse people.
I have no idea what the sub-committee is meant to do, because it has never been stated. Apparently, it is meant to talk about English votes on English laws. This has had no engagement with devolved Governments at all, and that is not the way to move these things forward. It smacks of the complacency that exists in his party and almost lost the union in the first place. That is the point: the establishment almost losing the union and the people now need to rebuild it. That is what we need. A sub-committee of the Westminster Cabinet will not do it. It is a sticking plaster that is being applied to a serious injury.
May I also say that, as far as the other issue that he mentioned is concerned, in terms of when this should happen, he seemed to be saying that, in an act of urgency and dynamism, nothing should happen for two years? That is what he said. Until after the elections here in 2016, nothing whatsoever should happen in terms of looking at a UK constitutional convention. That is, I have to say, one of the most complacent things that I have heard from any politician anywhere in the UK in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum. I have said many times what I believe and what many people believe should be the way forward. It is for others to agree or not with that view, but, nevertheless, I have put that detailed view forward and it is encapsulated in the amendment that we have put before the National Assembly.
I listened to what the leader of the Liberal Democrats said. There was nothing that she said that I could disagree with. She has, of course, resurrected her party’s former call for home rule. She will notice that I have shamelessly adopted that as well, and I think that it is something that we can explain to the people of Wales as meaning entrenched devolution without independence.
May I turn to what my colleague Lynne Neagle said? She is absolutely right to say that much time has been taken over the past 15 years in looking at the issues of powers and devolution. It is why we need a convention, so that these issues can be resolved, rather than spending many months and years looking at incremental devolution. It is much better that this should be dealt with in a way that engages all the people and the Governments of the UK. One thing that I would disagree with her about, respectfully, is her suggestion that David Cameron was statesmanlike. I do not know whether ‘effing Tories’ is now registered with the Electoral Commission as a party, but I do know that if I asked my colleagues in the 2016 election to stand for election and have my name and photograph on their leaflets while I had called their party ‘effing Welsh Labour’ I am not sure that I would have got much support. However, it shows how bad things have become in Scotland that the Prime Minister, in his last visit to Scotland, had to say to the people of Scotland, effectively, ‘We know you hate us, but don’t kick us now, kick us in May.’ That is how bad things have become for the Conservatives in Scotland.
May be turn to what Simon Thomas said? It is right to say that there is no guarantee in the constitution. It is not possible at present. We need to have something written in order to say that, and that is important. At present, the Westminster Parliament can do what it wants, and that has to change. What he said about resources is completely true. The way in which resources are distributed across the UK depends on where the need is, and that is very important. That is part, of course, of the vow that was made by the party leaders.
To turn to what my colleague Mike Hedges said, he referred to the Northern Ireland model. The only thing that I will say is that there are two points to make here. First of all, I would be very wary of any model where the Secretary of State, whoever that might be, is basically giving the go-ahead to further devolution. It gives the impression that, somehow, we have to behave in a certain way before we get it. He is right to say of Northern Ireland that the reason why the model is different there is because of the issues particularly with regard to policing and justice, where you had 40% and more of the population who did not believe that the police and justice systems were objective. The need to build confidence, cross-community, in justice and policing meant that that devolution could only happen when the time was right. That is what happened in Northern Ireland; the Police Service of Northern Ireland was set up, and that got much greater community buy-in than the previous policing set-ups in Northern Ireland. Justice was then devolved.
I come back to the point that I made yesterday, last week and, indeed, the week before: times have changed so fundamentally within the UK that suggesting that things can bump along the floor, as they have been in years gone by, just will not do. We must have a constitution that is fit for the twenty-first century. If the message of last week is not heeded, the UK is in danger in future of breaking up. That is my view. It was a very close vote in Scotland; it was a clear vote in Scotland—I accept what the Conservative leader has said—but to call it ‘unequivocal’ is taking it a bit far. It only needed 200,000 people to change their minds and it would have gone the other way. We must heed that. He is smug in a way that he should not be, and in a way that the Prime Minister has not been. It is important to understand that we came within an ace of the UK that has existed for 90 years breaking apart. To suggest that we can just ignore what happened in Scotland is complacency of the highest order.
I look forward now to discussions with other parties, although given what the leader of the Conservatives has said, I do not think that he will go anywhere in terms of taking his party anywhere. However, I have greater hopes for the Secretary of State than I have for the leader of the opposition in terms of that. To discuss with other parties how we now move forward in making sure that Wales’s voice is heard means, of course, an inter-governmental discussion as soon as possible with other administrations. It means talking to those parties that want to move forward with further devolution for Wales and, ultimately, to see a strong identity for our nation within the state of the United Kingdom.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Leanne Wood to respond to the debate.
Plaid Cymru fully expects the debate around the national future of Wales to develop further. While I accept that there are disagreements between our parties, I will reiterate the point that I made yesterday during the First Minister’s statement: it is not always possible for us to speak with one single Welsh voice. We do have differences on how far we want Wales to go on its constitutional journey. Of course, those differences are valid. I remain hopeful that there are areas of agreement on what the particular and specific next steps could be. I have indicated that Plaid Cymru would co-operate on a cross-party basis if there is an opportunity to do that. We have made it clear where we stand. Plaid Cymru has published its own views in a document this week, and the document does not state that an independent Wales is the next step for our country. Instead, it looks at the existing Silk recommendations, but also looks beyond that, to a package of a number of areas that we think could be better decided in this National Assembly.
I look forward to viewing the proposals from other parties as they emerge, and I believe that having sight of such proposals will allow us to outline the practical political uses that we might wish to make of any new powers. Plaid Cymru has been keen to suggest practical uses for some of the new tax powers, for example, but I accept that there are further areas where we need to capture the imagination of the wider public.
Speakers today alluded to the state of public opinion in Wales. It has been mentioned that we have, of course, had another opinion poll today. That opinion poll locates most of this Chamber in the correct place, in that 49% of people in that poll want this Assembly to have more powers, or, you could say, want to have more self-government. I am keen that we focus on the practical steps that can be taken now. The poll that has come out today, I believe, demonstrates support for that.
It has often been the case that people in Wales have been ahead of the politicians in the Welsh constitutional debate. I hope that, from today’s debate, we can now press for those powers that we need, that we can go on to raise the stakes in this Assembly, and that we can ensure that Wales is not treated any less favourably than the other nations in the United Kingdom.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that the motion without amendment be agreed. Does any Member object? There is objection, therefore I will defer voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Paul Davies.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Aled Roberts to move the motion.
Motion NDM5574 Aled Roberts
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Welcomes that 16 and 17 year olds were able to vote in the recent Scottish independence referendum, which was the first time they have had the right to do so in a major ballot in the United Kingdom;
2. Recognises the importance of empowering young people in Wales to engage in politics and contribute their views and ideas to help shape the communities in which they live;
3. Notes the Electoral Commission 2014 report which found that 49% of 16-17 year olds in the UK are not registered to vote and believes that more needs to be done to encourage the participation of young people in democracy; and
4. Welcomes the steps proposed in the Voter Registration Bill, which aims to increase the participation of young people in politics by empowering electoral registration officers in Wales to improve data sharing and increase the number of people registered from underrepresented groups.
I move the motion.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to introduce this debate, on behalf of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, which looks at another facet of what was part of the previous debate, namely the fact that so many young people responded to the referendum in Scotland last week—the first time that 16 and 17-year-olds were given the right to vote. Of course, while we are all proud of the fact that 84.5% voted, it was also good to learn that 100,000 of those were young people between the ages of 16 and 17 who had registered to vote.
Here in the Assembly, Members from all parties have supported extending the vote to 16-year-olds. It is worth looking at the situation over the last 20 years: in 2010, only 44% of those between the ages of 18 and 24 voted in the UK election, compared with 63% in 1992. Here in Wales, while the figures for 2011 were a bit better, at 35% of those people voting, it is worth remembering that that age group had the lowest figure of all age groups turning out to vote. Back in 2002, the Electoral Commission said that the number of young people who were not registered was one of the key barriers. The main recommendation of its report was that we should improve registration procedures, which is why we are calling for that in this debate today. It is time to act, because now only 49% of 16 to 17-year-olds have registered to vote when they reach the age of 18.
As a result, we hope that the Assembly will support some of the amendments to the Wales Bill that have been tabled by Lord Roger Roberts of Llandudno in the House of Lords, with the support of Bite the Ballot—amendments that aim to secure changes in the registration system for 16 to 17-year-olds and encourage registration staff to work in schools to promote registration. The amendments also encourage public bodies to share data for those within that age group. These actions would be similar to those seen in Northern Ireland, where 57,000 young voters registered between 2008 and 2012.
We need to press ahead and build on the momentum of the Scottish referendum. However, what is happening here in Wales? In 2009, a report by Nacro Wales noted a number of barriers that prevented young people from taking part in elections: a lack of confidence, or problems in communication prior to registration; a feeling that they had no right because their views were not considered in the past; and, even worse, the fact that young people felt that the information was expressed in language that they did not understand; meetings organised by electoral officials at inconvenient times; and the fact that they did not receive feedback after taking part in the past.
There is a need, therefore, for us to use more innovative ways to overcome these barriers. One method of doing this is to use the national participation standards for children and young people in Wales. These standards were approved by the Welsh Government Cabinet sub-committee on children and young in 2007. Powys youth forum has been working, through the Petitions Committee process, to raise the profile of these standards. However, this is but one example, and we hope that today's debate will stimulate more ideas and harness the momentum following last week’s vote, in order to ensure that our young people in Wales have a real opportunity to contribute to shaping the society and services that we all hope to see for the next generation.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the amendment to the motion. I call on Andrew R.T. Davies to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Recognises the work Funky Dragon has done over many years to increase young person participation in politics and believes the Welsh Government should reinstate this funding.
I move amendment 1.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate today. It is slightly ironic that we are here today—I do not criticise the Liberals for moving this today—discussing young people’s participation in politics, particularly engagement in youth parliament-type concepts. Funky Dragon was here only last week championing the cause, as it has done over many years, of trying to stimulate young people to get involved in public life and in politics, particularly, and the Welsh Government has only just recently withdrawn its funding. Next Tuesday, all that good work will come undone, especially the statutory role that it fulfils in supporting local authorities to undertake that participation, and the dialogue with young people will be left in the gutter. As I understand it, the Welsh Government has not come up with an alternative formula and has not come up with new channels to stimulate that type of engagement.
If the Minister—I appreciate that she is new to the position—has some new angles to bring to this subject that her predecessor, Jeff Cuthbert, could not bring to the table, I think that this would be a good opportunity to hear from her today. It would be better still if she was able to bring forward a funding line that gave Funky Dragon the ability to continue the work that it has done so admirably over the years. From the United Nations—which has recognised the work that it has done, with young ambassadors from the organisation going out to give presentations in New York—to the European Union, it has been a beacon of international excellence in the role that it has undertaken in youth participation.
You are right that there is a great deal of unease about the ending of Funky Dragon funding. The young people from the Powys youth forum I have met are not so interested in the name of the organisation, but in establishing some kind of a route to give children across Wales, regardless of their background and where they live, an opportunity to scrutinise the work of this Assembly and to pass ideas up. Would you agree that it is the principle of allowing that to happen that is important, rather than one particular organisation?
I agree entirely, but as of yet, in terms of Funky Dragon or any successor to it, we are unaware of any initiatives or funding lines that will fill this void. I use Funky Dragon as an example, because that is what people will be able to understand. If there is a change of name or a change of organisation in some shape or form, that is fine, but the Government should tell us what it is putting in place. It will be all well and good if the Government votes with your motion today, but it would be slightly hypocritical, given the action that it has undertaken. So, I look to the Minister to give a detailed explanation of the funding and what type of organisation might succeed the Funky Dragon project.
I have to say, when I go around schools in my own area of South Wales Central, and I know that other Members attend Welsh Baccalaureate engagement sessions, it is quite surprising that, when the question of votes for 16 and 17-year-olds is put to sixth formers, by and large—I think that the last time we did this was at Hawthorn High School in Rhydyfelin—over two thirds of the students present voted that they would not want the change; they were happy with the age of 18. I have not, to date, been in a secondary school where a majority view has existed for the change in legislation to bring it down to 16 and 17. I have been lobbied extensively by various organisations—Funky Dragon being one of them—and I have been lobbied by individuals, but every time I have put it to the test, with other politicians present who have advocated for the change, we have never seen a majority in those meetings.
So, while we can draw on some of the experience in Scotland—the numbers across the electorate there registering to vote were startling to say the least, in particular among young people—there does not seem to be that desire here in Wales to change the parameters. What I believe is vitally important is that there is that engagement and that understanding with young people, because, ultimately, the young people will be the ones who will be going into the workplace in the future and they will be shaping our society for the future. The sooner they can engage with politics and politicians, hopefully, the greater and louder their voice will be in the policy and decision-making process that affects their lives.
So, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate. My group has a free vote on this particular issue, because there is no party line on whether there should be votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. When debates have been held before, particularly backbench debates, it has always been the principle that we have allowed Members to express their personal views. However, I think that Members need to be cautious, because I do not detect a groundswell of opinion in Wales that is seeking to change the voting age from 18 to 16.
I am very pleased to be taking part in this important debate, and I agree strongly with the sentiments of Andrew R.T. Davies and Kirsty Williams that it would be highly improper for us not to consider the present threat to our Welsh youth parliament, Funky Dragon. In that context, just last week, it was my privilege to accept a petition from Funky Dragon representatives from the length and breadth of Wales on this very matter. The announcement that Funky Dragon funding will cease next week is hugely disappointing and is a hammer blow for the young people who are involved, and have been involved in previous years, in its valuable work.
As colleagues have already mentioned, the Scottish referendum has signified a major step forward for democracy in the UK, with a landmark decision to allow 16 and 17-year-olds to vote. Scotland’s youth parliament played a key role in this campaign, helping to make this a reality. It has an active presence across Scotland and, earlier this year, it launched a young voter-engagement project, ‘Aye, Naw, Mibbe: a little about politics, a lot about you’, to increase the level of interest and motivation among young people in the field of politics. Similarly, Northern Ireland has its own youth parliament, set up by the Department of Education. Youth engagement of this kind is crucial to encourage more young people to get involved in politics and to increase the likelihood that they will participate in local, national and European elections.
Until now, Wales has had a proud record in the area of children’s rights and of meeting the requirements of article 12 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which gives young people the right to have a say when adults are making decisions that affect them. We have led the way with policy and legislation, such as the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. Since 2002, Funky Dragon has created a strong relationship with the Welsh Government, forging a direct opportunity for dialogue, information sharing and advocacy on behalf of children and young people at the national political level. As Kirsty Williams pointed out, this is inclusive of people from every background—that is vital. This will no longer be the case with the deletion of that funding. The recent decision by the Welsh Government to end Funky Dragon funding is a real hammer blow, and we will be the only country in Europe not to have an independent youth forum. I think that that would be a matter of considerable regret.
Members of the Powys youth forum have been in touch with Kirsty and me to express their disappointment at this decision. They have highlighted the important role that Funky Dragon plays across Wales in giving a voice to children and young people, with influence at the national level. Some quotes from the correspondence might be apt:
‘As members of Powys Youth Forum we have been able to ensure that our voice, and the voice of those we represent, have been fed through to the National arena by our elected Funky Dragon representatives.’
‘Funky Dragon has given us a mechanism for getting our voices heard on a number of National campaigns, and more importantly allowed us to affect change.’
Thirdly, and finally:
‘The loss of Wales’ only youth led, democratically elected, platform for the voice of young people isn’t just a step backwards for the democratic process in Wales but a massive step back in terms of Wales’ commitment to the UNCRC.’
We can all agree that decisions that affect young people should be made in consultation with young people, in order to ensure that those decisions are made in the best interests of current and future generations. To disband Funky Dragon without alternative provision being in place goes directly against this principle. For this reason, we will be supporting the Conservatives’ amendment to our motion.
The loss of Funky Dragon represents a serious democratic deficit here in Wales, further disengaging young people from politics and democracy in Wales and across the UK; this is a retrograde step. We should be riding the wave of momentum following the Scottish referendum, which has generated such a high level of interest and participation in the field of politics. By dispensing with Funky Dragon, without options for an alternative mechanism in place, we would be missing a fantastic opportunity to maintain the political energy that we have seen unleashed in recent months to increase youth participation in politics. I urge the Welsh Government at this late stage to reconsider its decision on this important matter.
I am pleased to speak in support of the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ motion, and I was pleased to be a joint signatory to the statement of opinion on the same subject. It was encouraging and quite inspiring to see 16 and 17-year-olds involved in the Scottish referendum, and I hope that this will lead to 16 and 17-year-olds having the vote in future local government, Assembly and general elections and in future referenda here in Wales. I think that there has to be a concerted effort to ensure that young people register. I think that we need something like the Bite The Ballot campaign in Wales, where people go into the schools and colleges to ensure that young people register.
On the issue of votes at 16, when I was in the House of Commons, I was lucky enough to present a private Member’s Bill in 2007-08 that called for a reduction in the voting age. That did not become law, but the Labour Party has since adopted votes at 16 as its policy, and Ed Miliband said at the conference in Manchester that it would be part of the general election manifesto, and, if elected, the Labour Party will introduce votes at 16.
In 2012, this Chamber voted in principle in favour of votes at 16. I know that it is the Liberal Democrats’ policy and I believe that it is Plaid Cymru’s policy as well. Alex Salmond has called for votes at 16. Therefore, I think that a general consensus is emerging, but I am aware that Andrew R.T. Davies said that his party has no policy and that they will have a free vote on this issue. However, it is obviously the Conservative Party that is the one party now that is not moving towards 16 and 17-year-olds voting.
In terms of turnout, since the excitement and the interest created by the Scottish referendum, I think that we can see that the public will vote if they feel that there is a lot at stake. Also, although we do not have any numbers yet about the percentage of young people who did vote—because I do not think that that data is yet available—we know that 109,533 of 16 and 17-year-olds registered. However, the opinion polls that took place before the referendum, interestingly enough, showed that the concerns of those young people were very much the same as the concerns of older people. There was not a big gap in concerns, and I thought that was an interesting argument. The argument for votes at 16 comes down to fairness, making life better for young people, being inclusive, bringing people into the political process and getting them into the habit of voting at a young age.
On the Conservative amendment about Funky Dragon, I want to use the opportunity to pay tribute to Funky Dragon. I have worked closely with it for many years, both here and in Westminster, and I think that we all know that it has an international reputation. It has done groundbreaking work with the UNCRC; its ambassadors have been outstanding and many of them have gone into politics as a result of being involved in Funky Dragon. Therefore, I ask the Minister to say, when she responds, what she plans to do about the gap that will leave Wales as maybe the only country in Europe without a democratically elected body of young people. If we want our politics to be relevant to young people, it is important that we have a mechanism by which young people can make their voices heard.
Would you agree that it is not just an impact on their ability to work here in Wales? If we do not have an elected body here in Wales, how can we possibly participate in UK-wide or, indeed, international initiatives? If we do not have young people elected from among themselves to create that representation, not only to work here, but in other arenas too, it will be a source of embarrassment.
Yes, I agree with that point of view, because obviously Funky Dragon did participate in the UK Youth Parliament and did go up and take part in the debates in Westminster. This is the sort of activity that we want to encourage, so I do hope that the Minister, when she responds, will be able to tell us what is going to take the place of Funky Dragon, and where we are going in youth involvement in Wales.
One of the key barriers to youth participation in politics is confidence in the democratic process. Often, young people feel that there are not enough opportunities to influence political parties and that they have little influence over the political process. The political system can seem closed off to young people, which leaves them feeling powerless—actually, that does not just apply to young people, I think that applies across the board, but we are talking about young people here.
One key way to open up the democratic process and encourage an early awareness of politics so that young people are encouraged to vote is to lower the voting age to 16, and I absolutely agree with Julie Morgan, and other speakers, on that particular issue. The Welsh Affairs Select Committee supported the reduction of the voting age in its first report in 2003-04, stating that,
‘Lowering the voting age would involve young people whose voices should be heard in our democracy and could be a positive step towards reengaging young people in democratic politics.’
This is echoed by the Power commission in 2006, which recommends that the voting age should be lowered as part of a raft of measures to reinvigorate participation, as by sowing the seeds of democracy and engagement early, we can encourage engagement later in life. It is absurd that eligible 16 and 17-year-olds can currently pay into a tax system that is set by a Government that they have no say in choosing. They can join the armed forces, drive a car, change their name by deed-poll, join a union or co-operative, give full consent for medical treatment, get married or have a civil partnership, and these responsibilities should not be divorced from the right to vote.
Denying young people the opportunity to express their views through the ballot box reinforces the impression that their views are not valid. The longer young people are left unable to participate, the less chance there is of ever engaging them. Young people nowadays are far more engaged in the world than previous generations, because of the culture of mass media and social networking. They are arguably more engaged than many other people of older generations. By opening up the voting franchise to the 1.5 million 16 and 17-year-olds, we get them engaged in the political process earlier, and make it clear to them that their voice matters. This is healthy for democracy now and in the future, and could help to overcome the decline in voter turnout that we have seen over the past decades. I think that Scotland illustrated that more than anything else.
In the Assembly, there has been cross-party support for votes at 16 when this issue has been debated in the past, but if we are to secure progress on this, then our parties in Westminster must all be on board as well. The Liberal Democrats have long advocated lowering the voting age, since manifestos as far back as 2001, and we welcome that this has been Plaid Cymru policy in both general and Assembly election manifestos as well. Sadly, the message from both Labour and the Conservatives is less clear. The Conservatives made no mention of this in the last general or Assembly election manifestos, and have vocally opposed extending the franchise to 16; in fact, I think that the free vote that the leader Andrew R. T. Davies has just announced is actually a step forward in that regard. Labour skirted the issue by promising a free vote in parliament. In 2005, Bristol—. I give way to Andrew.
I always like to be classed as a progressive. [Laughter.] If you look back at any vote that the Conservatives have had on this issue, you will see that it has always been a free vote. We have never whipped this vote.
I think that the problem, Andrew, is that you get into so much trouble with free votes. [Laughter.]
In 2005, Bristol West MP Stephen Williams introduced a private Member’s Bill that sought to lower the voting age to 16. This Bill was defeated by just eight votes: 107 Conservatives voted against and 26 Labour members voted against.
Evidence from elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany, where the voting age is 16, demonstrates that not only is lowering the voting age a powerful means of combatting disillusionment about politics among those aged 16 to 18, but it will also encourage citizens to continue participating throughout their lives. Lowering the voting age to 16 would also allow a seamless transition from learning about voting, elections and democracy to putting such knowledge into practice. How many of us have gone into schools and talked to 16-year-olds about the electoral process and then seen them lose interest by the time they reach the voting age? Citizenship education is part of the curriculum in Wales, and we have a generation of voters studying democracy and the importance of voting, yet they are denied the right to use this knowledge and to cast their vote for at least a further two years, or up to seven, depending on the electoral cycle, which is longer than the entire time spent in compulsory secondary education. This gap creates dissonance between the message of citizenship education and the experience of reality, which risks leading to cynicism. It means that the message on the importance of citizen engagement can be easily forgotten before young people even have the chance to vote.
The proposals being put forward by Lord Roberts’s amendments to the Wales Bill will help to address this, empowering registration officers to ensure that all 16 and 17-year-olds are at least on the register and are able to vote as early as possible. The next step is to lower the voting age to 16. Youth organisations across the UK have campaigned on this issue, and it is time that political parties united with one voice on both sides of the M4, so that we can see this much needed change.
I am pleased to be able to take part in this debate. Lynne Neagle, the Assembly Member, said earlier—she is not here now—that she did not get involved in politics for constitutional reasons, but I did not get involved in politics to see young people be ignored. While things have progressed, we still have far to go. For example, in 1997, I was active in campaigning for this place to exist. Even though I was not a member of any political party, I wanted to see a space for democracy in Wales, as opposed to having to go to London all the time. However, I could not then exercise my right to vote. I think that is frustrating for any young people who are engaged to any extent. They may take part in many campaigns, but they cannot then vote in the ballot box. Yes, we have talked about Scotland recently, but this could have been done before the referendum in Scotland. Westminster could have put forward voting at age 16 at an earlier stage. Andrew R.T. Davies said earlier that there was a vote at a certain school and the children themselves said that they did not want to have the vote. That is because they do not know any different. [Interruption.] In Scotland, they were given that decency and the respect of having a vote at 16, and I think that we need to give young people that respect and give them the vote at 16.
I am grateful to the Member for taking an intervention, but to say that 16 and 17-year-olds do not know any better is a bit harsh, to say the least. This vote is held on an annual basis at Hawthorn, and at various schools across South Wales Central that I have attended with other Members, and I have yet to go to one school where a majority has endorsed having the vote at age 16.
‘They do not know any better’ are not the words I used; I said that they do not know any different. At the moment, the education system that we have—and Peter Black mentioned going in and talking about electoral processes—means that we cannot go in and be political. They need to hear what we are saying on a political basis for them to be engaged and for them to decide on these things. I am not trying to patronise the young people, as you seem to be suggesting; all I am saying is that they have not being given the chance, in contrast to Scotland, where we have seen 16 and 17-year-olds have debates with their parents as to why they are voting differently in the ‘yes’ campaign. Also, they were given a very stark choice, were they not? People say, ‘Naughty Wales; why can’t you engage more young people?’ It is because we do not have that very stark campaign difference. If we had the answer to empowering young people, we would be doing it already. Yes, all of us here want to get more people involved, but, in various campaigns, we have to give young people the tools to be able to do that, as opposed to the sort of top-down thing, saying ‘We’ll do the work for you’. We have to say, ‘Well, you set up a campaign group; you do this for yourself’, and then that might change the way in which things work for them.
With regard to the issue of Funky Dragon, I do not agree with the way that the Welsh Government took the funding away from Funky Dragon; I think that that needs to be explained. However, neither do I think that Funky Dragon sits within the Government’s realm. As I have been saying since I was elected here, we need to see a youth parliament via the Assembly Commission. I know that the Commission is doing much more work in this area, but it has not taken the full step of creating a youth parliament. I do not think that it is proper for it to have funding from the Government, because all parties need to feel equal with regard to what happens, and I think we need to have a proper set-up here, where we provide time for them to sit in the Chamber and to have debates in a proper fashion. They could even inform the debates that we have here, because we are all talking about young people now, and I am sure that they have things to say that could inform this debate better for the future.
So, I am not happy with the way that it did it, but I do not think that it sits with the Government. Obviously, we will be able to pursue the Commission further as to the voting for young people.
With regards to campaigning and engaging young people, it is not true to say that it is all on social media; they do actually want to have face-to-face discussions, so let us acknowledge that too. I also think that there are new ways of doing things. Look at voting online. We can get mortgages out online, we can seek financial advice online, but somehow it is not safe enough still for us to vote online. I think, not only for young people, but for adults too, if we were to adapt the electoral system to be more engaging in that manner, then we may see more young people who can currently vote at the age of 18 taking part in the political process.
However, yet again, just to end, it is all about us and how we engage with young people and inspire them. If we can do that, then we will go a long way to getting more people engaged in Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Finance and Government Business, Jane Hutt.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I would like to thank Aled Roberts for tabling this motion. Lowering the voting age to 16, as Members know, has been the subject of several debates in this Chamber and today we have another opportunity to debate such an important matter. I have been very pleased and proud on more than one occasion to respond to these debates in support of a motion to lower the voting age to 16.
The Welsh Government supports and values strong and effective democracy, and that means that we must recognise that the involvement of young people in the democratic process is essential to achieving this. That is why we support the lowering of the voting age to 16. The political engagement of young people and the electorate in general during the Scottish referendum was very inspiring, as Julie Morgan and other Members have said today. It also demonstrated that it is possible to engage people, especially young people, in the democratic process. Over 90% of Scotland’s 16 and 17-year-olds registered to vote in the referendum. The overall turnout was 84.59%, the highest on record and a figure that we would all like to see at every poll. It is right that Scottish 16 and 17-year-olds were able to vote in the referendum, on an important decision that affects their future.
As politicians, we make decisions every day that affect the lives of young people. At 16, a young person can choose to leave full-time education, take up employment and pay income tax. They may marry without parental consent and have a family. These attributes of citizenship are recognised by law, yet these young people are not deemed old enough to vote by the people who make the laws affecting them.
From the debate we have had today, there is agreement, I believe, that 16 and 17-year-olds should be able to vote in all elections. Their having a say in who represents them is widely supported and firmly backed by the Welsh Labour Government. The Welsh Government has always encouraged—particularly through the school curriculum for Wales, and Peter Black acknowledged this—opportunities for schools to encourage young people to participate in the political process and become active citizens. Young people are introduced to this process through participation in school councils, which means getting involved in the decision-making process, mock elections, and having an ongoing influence in those schools, including appointing headteachers. That is happening at primary school level as well as secondary school level. These activities provide an understanding of the democratic process and how the political system works.
However, I think those developments can be lost if a lengthy period of time elapses between leaving school and being able to vote for the first time. We interest and engage young people at a very early stage, particularly through the school curriculum and through school councils. So, lowering the voting age could establish the habit of voting when still at school, and could lead to increased turnouts. As Kirsty Williams said, the school pupils and students going to vote before going to school was an impressive picture that we saw at the Scottish referendum. It is wholly contradictory that young people in Scotland will not be able to vote in the general election next year when they could vote in the referendum. That momentum of engagement achieved for the Scottish referendum will be interrupted for those people.
I want also to comment on the work that Lesley Griffiths did, when she was Minister for local government, looking at diversity in local government. Her report, ‘On Balance: Diversifying Democracy in Local Government’ recommended that councils and secondary schools should encourage councillors to speak to students about their role and the creation of shadow youth cabinets to promote their work through county councils. I am very fortunate in my constituency. The Vale of Glamorgan has a good example of this. It has appointed a youth cabinet. It is a formidable group of young people. Some town and community councils, such as Solva and Welshpool, have appointed youth representatives. I know that there are more examples and many of you, as Assembly Members, will be engaging with them in your constituencies. However, getting more young people engaged as the first step requires action at all levels to increase awareness, registration and turnout.
Modernising the electoral system by moving from the system of household registration to individual electoral registration could provide an opportunity to improve levels of electoral registration, particularly among young people. One example of a campaign recently by electoral registration staff in Ceredigion improved levels of registration, which resulted in 2,655 new student registrations. I am sure that Elin Jones was very pleased to hear that; where they are going to vote is for them to decide. The new online registration facilities are another positive step.
Just focusing on our responsibilities in the Welsh Government in terms of promoting the rights of children and young people, that, of course, was embodied in the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011. It placed children’s rights at the heart of the Government’s work. The Children and Families (Wales) Measure 2010 places a duty on local authorities to have structures in place to enable children and young people to participate, have a voice, and influence decisions at local level.
So, if it is good enough for us to ensure that children have a voice at local level, and if we have insisted that schools give young people a voice, why then have we not got a national organisation to replicate that at a national level, given that you are taking the money away from Funky Dragon? Surely, if it is good enough for county councils, it is good enough for Welsh Government.
Well, I am just moving on to this very point, Kirsty Williams. I think it is very important that we put on the record that ensuring that children have an active voice and can participate in the working of government is a key theme in the new children and families delivery grant. There has been a recent tender process and Members have commented today on the fact that the grant to meet that theme and that objective was awarded to Children in Wales. I will say again that, in terms of what the expectations will be, it was awarded a grant to deliver the project in partnership with Tros Gynnal Plant and Voices From Care Cymru. The project will inform and enable children and young people to participate effectively with Ministers and policy makers. I will go on to this in a minute. Also, that project is going to ensure that the Children and Young People’s Workforce is informed of children’s right to participate and that structures are in place to support a better informed, engaged workforce to deliver Welsh Government policy and effectively influence and contribute to policy development. So, that is what Children in Wales has been tasked to do in partnership with Tros Gynnal Plant and Voices From Care Cymru. I would like to pay tribute, as others have, to the young people who have led the way in youth participation initiatives over the past 15 years and influenced government at all levels, including those people who have played a part as Funky Dragon representatives, and including those young people who have played a part in youth forums. Kirsty Williams, of course, mentioned Powys youth forum. Also, I think we need to recognise that the Presiding Officer made an important statement on youth engagement in July. That is where I feel that Bethan Jenkins has an important point—
May I just clarify how long that funding will stay in for? Obviously, the situation with Funky Dragon was that the funding came to an end. So, we need to understand how long that programme will run for.
Well, this is something that the Minister will report back on. I want to finally say that the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty is meeting with the Presiding Officer shortly to discuss how different approaches to children’s and young people’s participation can complement each other in terms of addressing these wider issues following those statements that all leaders made in the summer. So, finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, we have committed ourselves, as the Labour Party, as did Ed Miliband and the First Minister yesterday, to lowering the voting age to include 16-year-olds and 17-year-olds. I hope that Members will support the motion. We are opposing the amendment, but we welcome the fact that there is a debate on this issue, and I hope that I have clarified a way forward to address the very issue of how we engage children and young people strategically at national and local levels.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Eluned Parrott to respond to the debate.
Diolch. Last week’s referendum in Scotland was momentous. It is clear, not only from our debates today, but from conversations that continue across all of the UK’s nations that the implications of that debate will reverberate for many years to come. However, as the establishment, including us, turns to the practicalities of renewing and rebuilding our union, we must not forget that this debate was as powerful and as lively as it was because of the active and informed participation of the people of Scotland and the crucial role of the young people of Scotland.
Of course, this was a debate about the future of a nation and the young people of that nation have the most intimate possible interest in shaping that future—of course they do—for their own generation and the generations that follow. We have seen that, when they were enfranchised, engaged and involved in that debate, those young people grabbed that opportunity with both hands and they ran with it.
Our debate today does not call for votes at age 16 specifically, but does welcome the role that young people played in the democratic process when given the opportunity to engage. I had hoped that this example would demonstrate to Members on the benches opposite that 16 to 18-year-olds are not only willing, but are more than able, to engage in the political process fully. Sadly, that does not seem to be the case for all Members and I am very sorry to hear it. I think that it is way beyond high time we stopped patronising our young people by suggesting that they are not capable of entering into reasoned, informed debate. Self-evidently, they absolutely are.
When they are patronised and marginalised and disenfranchised at 17, is it any wonder that many of them then turn their backs on party politics at 18? We must continue this conversation on enfranchisement now that this precedent has been set. Even within the current rules, it is absolutely vital that we work more effectively to engage and enthuse young people in the decisions that affect them as much as they affect any of the rest of us.
I would like to thank all the Members who have contributed today and those organisations in our third sector that have worked so hard to ensure that the voices of young people continue to be heard. That includes organisations such as Bite the Ballot and Funky Dragon, which have played an important role.
Turning to individual Members’ contributions, in opening the debate today, Aled Roberts highlighted the vital role of voter registration in improving engagement in elections, and he spoke of Lord Roberts’s proposed amendment to the Wales Bill currently going through the House of Lords to make voter registration easier and more accessible. Bluntly put, if you are not on the register, you are not enfranchised, and if you are not on the register at 17, you may not be on the register at 18 when it is your turn to vote. We need to make sure that that process is as easy and as accessible as possible. So, I welcome very much Lord Roberts’s proposed amendments to the Wales Bill as well as, should they fail, his private Member’s Bill on the same subject.
Andrew R.T. Davies reflected on the irony of the contrast between some of the rhetoric about youth engagement and the reality of the funding cuts to a body that has been delivering on this agenda very effectively. I attended Funky Dragon’s conference this year, here in the Assembly, and I was incredibly impressed by the quality of the work that it was doing. I was dismayed, as other Members have been, by the cut in funding to a project that has clearly been a real trailblazer in terms of youth engagement, that is well respected internationally, and that has an excellent reputation. That is not to say that there can be no other means of delivering youth engagement, and there should be more and a broader range of those means, but notwithstanding that, there needs to be a better understanding of what the decision-making process was in terms of Funky Dragon and, specifically, what is the strategy to deliver youth engagement? What is the strategy to bring that youth engagement to the Assembly and provide a national forum if that is being removed by the removal of funding from Funky Dragon?
We will, of course, support the Conservatives’ amendment today and we thank them for it. I also thank them for the free vote on the motion, but I would point out that, in terms of the debate today, this motion does not actually call for votes at 16, which seems to be the problem that they have with it. We want to recognise the importance of early engagement, ensure that we hear the voices of young people in our decision-making process and, most importantly, ensure that young people are registered to vote at the ages of 16 and 17, so that they are on the register for their first election at the age of 18. I had imagined that the Conservatives might be able to support a motion that was not specifically touching that contentious issue for them.
Bill Powell spoke very eloquently about the importance of Funky Dragon’s work. Yes, I will certainly give way.
You do, of course, recognise that we have to vote against the motion in order for you to be able to vote for the amendment.
I am sure that, after voting for the amendment, you will then want to vote for the motion as amended, should we get that far. [Laughter.]
I would also like to thank Julie Morgan for her kind support for our motion today and also for her long-term commitment to this idea, not only here, but also in Parliament. Julie talked about the ideas of fairness and inclusion, and about getting into the habit of voting and how important that is for young people. She also talked about the important role of youth parliaments, and how they fit into a structure that provides an engagement opportunity for young people.
What I think that Members on all sides of the Chamber wanted to hear in your contribution, Minister, was where the strategy is here. Where is the decision-making process leading us, in terms of delivering youth engagement, if funding is to be delivered on a grant-by-grant basis? That is not a long-term basis for delivering a long-term strategy, and that is what, unfortunately, having listened very carefully, I was not able to hear in your response today.
Peter Black was absolutely right to say, I think, that it is healthy for our democracy to open the vote to 16 and 17-year-olds, and he is absolutely right to point out that it is illogical, illiberal and unfair that, at 16, you can pay taxes, but are not considered responsible enough to decide on how your own money is spent.
I would like to thank Bethan Jenkins as well for her contribution. She talked about getting involved in politics at a young age on an issue that she felt very strongly about. I sympathise. I have been in politics so long that I was actually a member of the Liberal Party once. However, many, many young people, like you—
Those were the days.
I know. Those were the days. [Laughter.]
Many young people, however, have been turned off by party politics—[Interruption.] I know. They were happy days.
Many young people who have been turned off by a kind of politics that has, far too often, turned its back on them, are actively involved in cause-led campaigns: on the environment, international affairs and a huge range of other issues. So, it is wrong to suggest that 16 and 17-year-olds are not interested in politics. It should actually tell us everything that we need to know about the enthusiasm that is there. It should tell us everything that we need to know about the potential that there is to bring new ideas into our politics, if we offer those young people a chance.
I thank the Welsh Government, and I thank the Minister for her support for the aims of this debate today and for her continued support for votes at the age of 16. I listened very carefully to your contribution, but as I understand it, you have given a tender now to Children in Wales to deliver a programme, but there is no plan in that to give Wales a representative assembly for young people. I fear that, with all of the grass-roots work done at a local level, the opportunity for those young people to feed into the National Assembly and the national Parliament may be lost if we do not have a structure that leads from the grass roots to the decision-making bodies here as well. So, I would like you to think on that and to see whether you can reconsider how we are going to deliver the voices of young people into the Assembly.
A lot has changed in politics since just last week, and a lot will change in the weeks, months and years to come as a result of last Thursday. I dearly hope that one of those changes will be that we open up our democracy to the young people who care so much about it and we bring some of those ideas into our Chamber.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that the motion be agreed without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection, therefore I will defer voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I start the votes, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are not.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5570
Motion agreed: For 21, Against 31, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5570
Amendment not agreed: For 26, Against 26, Abstain 0.
As required by Standing Order 6.20, the Deputy Presiding Officer exercised his casting vote by voting against the amendment.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5570
Amendment agreed: For 36, Against 16, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5570
Amendment not agreed: For 26, Against 26, Abstain 0.
As required by Standing Order 6.20, the Deputy Presiding Officer exercised his casting vote by voting against the amendment.
Motion NDM5570 as amended.
The National Assembly for Wales:
1) Notes calls from the British Medical Association for a full-scale independent investigation into Welsh NHS services and calls upon the Welsh Government to commission such an investigation as soon as possible, and
2) Regrets the UK Government's continuing cuts to public spending and the impact on investment in our NHS.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5570 as amended
Motion NDM5570 as amended not agreed: For 10, Against 42, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5571
Motion not agreed: For 10, Against 42, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5571
Amendment not agreed: For 11, Against 41, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5571
Amendment agreed: For 31, Against 10, Abstain 11.
Motion NDM5571 as amended.
The National Assembly for Wales:
1. Welcomes that the Scottish people have chosen to remain a member of the family of nations that is the United Kingdom;
2. Believes that we must promote a new union for all the people of the UK, including Wales; and
3. Calls for the swift implementation of Parts 1 and 2 of the Commission on Devolution in Wales and the establishment of a UK-wide constitutional convention to draft a plan for a new union.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5571 as amended
Motion NDM5571 as amended agreed: For 31, Against 10, Abstain 11.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5574
Motion agreed: For 41, Against 11, Abstain 0.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Will those Members who are leaving the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly?
I am pleased to have secured today’s debate. I had agreed to give Aled Roberts a minute of my time, but he has been called away. I know that I am not the only Assembly Member who has had constituents attending surgeries and raising the issue of affordable childcare.
As we see our economy recover from the recession, we are seeing jobs created and opportunities develop. Unemployment is falling but we are in danger of leaving behind a whole section of society in Wales, and that section is lone parents with children. While the economy has grown, we have still failed to adequately address the need to provide and supply affordable childcare to make it economically viable for parents and to help them return to the workplace.
In single-parent families, the need for affordable childcare is even more pronounced. Mothers—and it remains mainly women who are lone parents—are not only the main care givers, but many also need and want to bring in an income to support their family. The background to this is stark in terms of the statistics. In a UK-wide survey, conducted for the Westminster Government by Netmums, 80% of parents said that childcare fees are too high, 10% are unable to find a childcarer they trust and over a quarter stated that they cannot find care to cover their hours. Most worryingly, the study revealed that more than two thirds of parents have been stopped from doing their job due to problems in finding suitable childcare. What is worth noting is that this survey also found that over half of the respondents felt that parents should bear the majority of the cost of childcare and only 6% felt that the cost should be passed on to the employer.
The annual Family and Childcare Trust survey for 2014 earlier this year highlighted the rising cost of childcare across the UK, including Wales. In Wales, you can expect to pay on average £103 per week for a nursery place, which totals £5,356 per annum. It is only slightly cheaper for a childminder—£92.40 per week, which equates to £4,900 a year. Obviously, these figures are the figures for the cost of one child in childcare; they would double for two. Childcare costs have risen by 27% across the UK in the five years since 2009, and this is of huge concern. In 2012, only Swiss parents contributed a higher proportion of their salary than British parents to pay for childcare. Here in the UK, it has been estimated that over a quarter of a parent’s salary will go on childcare, compared with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 11.8%.
Looking at the support that parents get from local authorities does not create a rosier picture. Local councils have a legal duty to make appropriate childcare provision, yet they are failing to do this, and this is something that I have raised in the Assembly Chamber before. Only 49% of councils in Wales have enough childcare for working parents and just 11% of Welsh local authorities have sufficient childcare for children aged between five and 11. When you look at all local authority provision in rural areas, you will see that it is nearly stated to be 0% in terms of adequacy.
The Family and Childcare Trust found that only 5% of Welsh councils have sufficient out-of-school activities for 12 to 14-year-olds and it states that, for many families, whether they find affordable and quality childcare is down to luck. With funding for out-of-school groups at just over £2 million for Welsh councils for the last three years, it appears that the Welsh Government is failing to adequately address the needs of working parents with children at either end of the age spectrum, and costs for after-school clubs have risen by 15%, but there has been no additional funding.
Minister, with the statistics in relation to gender inequality—and I know that this forms part of your brief as well—and with the stark figures that I have just outlined, it is no wonder that women are going into part-time, low-paid jobs. The reality is that they cannot access or find childcare that would allow them to take up more highly skilled and higher-paid jobs. When I was a lone parent working in north Wales, I knew that, for example, there was no appropriate childcare provision in the area where I lived that could allow me to work during the school holidays. There was an after-school club and there was a breakfast club at the school, which helped during term time, but it was not present in the school holidays. The provision that was there from the local authority required me to go and pick my child up at lunchtime and give them lunch, which meant that I could not go to work, effectively. I did go to work, but I had to find another way around it.
In Iceland, 90% of children aged between one and five attend day care and most of the local municipalities contribute up to 85% of the operating cost of kindergartens. The scenario that I have detailed in my earlier submissions is difficult enough in a two-parent family earning the average wage or above, but, as we know, there are large numbers of parents who are not in this position. They may be lone parents or on the minimum wage or only working part time. The high cost of childcare clearly creates a barrier to women entering the workplace once they have had a child and it makes them potentially more reliant on Government support.
I have followed the campaigns that Chwarae Teg has run, highlighting this issue closely. It has called for affordable and accessible childcare to be available to all parents in Wales and for new and innovative methods of delivering this service to be explored. Its manifesto states that the need to make childcare more flexible and affordable as well as ensuring that childcare meets both the economic needs of the parents and the educational needs of the child. I would also like to praise the work undertaken by Gingerbread, a UK-based charity that offers expert advice and support to single parents across the UK. Charities like this help signpost parents, particularly lone parents, to where help and assistance is available. Chwarae Teg, as an employer, provides childcare vouchers, which can help meet some of the childcare costs and make it more feasible for women to re-enter the workforce. I know that other companies do similar things and there are tax incentives for the employer in doing so. It is a scheme that I would like to see being made more use of and promoted better so that as many parents as possible can have the opportunity to take advantage of it.
I am aware that there are issues with the child tax credit system. It was a very good idea but, unfortunately, the maladministration in child tax credits, which over the last decade has seen £5.6 billion of overpaid child credits by HMRC to individuals, and the fact that much of this money has been written off, has had a severe impact on the wider perception of those who need to claim these credits. In times of financial struggle for the UK Government, the Welsh Government and households, to see so much money wasted and at times written off will obviously leave that negative perception, and it has hugely damaged what was otherwise potentially a very good idea.
The Westminster Government has had to take some tough decisions in trying to get this money paid back in its efforts to rebalance the books. Chwarae Teg also mentioned the important issue of changing perceptions that women are carers first and earners second. I have no doubt that you will be aware, Minister, of the HeForShe campaign that is gathering pace and was launched at the United Nations just two days ago. Here in Wales, we have seen the gender pay gap rise to, in some cases, a 35% difference between the median earnings of men and women, particularly in relation to part-time work. Earlier ONS figures on the gender pay gap showed a 16% difference, with average male pay at £11.70 per hour and women’s average pay at £9.77. This is not acceptable. You could do something through Investors in People and make sure that companies that do not adhere to the legislation or do not pay women equally with men do not get Welsh Government contracts.
It is argued that this is as a result of more women working part-time hours to fit around childcare arrangements. While this is not a deliberate effort by employers to pay women less, the nature of the jobs that they can undertake can lead to lower scales of pay. If we can change the perceptions as to who the main carer is, then, over time, we can narrow or even eradicate this pay gap. Drawing comparisons with Iceland again, it has the highest percentage of women in the labour force of all the OECD countries. If a small country like Iceland can do it, why can we not?
I also want to touch on the challenges surrounding childcare in rural areas. Last year, the Wales Rural Observatory’s rural services survey found that, in rural Wales, 49% of communities did not have access to out-of-school groups and that the majority of communities in rural Wales with populations of below 1,000 people had no nursery provision at all. This highlights the problem that families living outside towns and cities face in funding childcare, and it also highlights the gaps in your provision—if you look at your programmes, such as Communities First and others, they tend to be concentrated in urban areas and not rural areas. There is poverty, deprivation and lone parenthood in rural areas, and you need to be looking at this issue and addressing it.
I accept that there are closer-knit communities in rural Wales and that there is the potential to have a local family network. Sixty per cent of the respondents stated that they lived within 5 miles of their families. However, you cannot assume that grandparents, or other members of the family, will play a role in childcare arrangements.
I do not pretend to have the answers to this issue. Governments of all political hues have failed to deal with it and ensure that there is a correct balance in helping to create the conditions for affordable childcare and removing some of the barriers facing women who are re-entering the workplace after having children.
Progress has been made across the UK in recent years, with laws surrounding flexible working, greater paternity leave and other child-friendly policies. However, we still have a long way to go. Here in Wales, the free breakfast scheme and the Flying Start scheme have made some impact in addressing the problems that I have highlighted, but clearly not in rural areas and the other areas that I highlighted earlier.
The Westminster Government has, obviously, taken the step recently of trying to address the issue of affordable childcare. However, often, single parents or the low paid slip through the net. In last year’s budget, a £2,000-a-year payment through the tax system to help pay for childcare was announced for those earning under a certain amount. However, it is only open to families where two parents work; that is wrong. I am sorry—I appreciate that it is my party, and I appreciate that it is my Government, as it were, but it is wrong. If you are a lone parent, you should qualify for that support. In England, an additional two and a half hours a week of free early years schooling has been introduced, with pledges from other parties to extend this further should they be in Government. All of these things, no doubt, will help, but there is still much further to go.
I am certain that affordable childcare will play a central role in upcoming election manifestos, but we need action from the Welsh Government, Minister, to meet the needs of those struggling to access affordable childcare. There is the legal obligation on local authorities, and I would urge the Welsh Government to ensure that we support local authorities in delivering on their legal obligations to provide appropriate childcare. We need to do that from an equality standpoint and a sustainability standpoint, and, in particular, to support those who are lone parents and on the lowest incomes back into the workplace. Thank you.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty to reply to the debate—Lesley Griffiths.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I thank Antoinette Sandbach for highlighting the importance of childcare as an enabler for parents to access work. Ensuring the availability of affordable and high-quality childcare is a key priority for the Welsh Government and is fundamental to the tackling poverty agenda here in Wales. A great deal of work has been undertaken, and I will outline the variety of schemes and programmes that we have during my response on behalf of the Welsh Government.
Evidence tells us that employment provides the most sustainable route out of living in poverty, and, for families with children, childcare is essential to enabling and supporting parents into not just work but to encourage them to go into education and training. By making childcare more accessible, affordable and flexible, we make it easier for parents to access jobs and opportunities. Our tackling poverty action plan, ‘Building Resilient Communities’, recognises the role childcare can play, in terms of reducing the number of families living in low income households and improving the outcomes of young children.
‘Building a Brighter Future’, our early years and childcare plan, which we published in 2013, sets out a number of actions to improve the affordability, accessibility and quality of childcare. We published our first annual update on progress in the summer, and we have already made a great deal of progress against a number of actions and are continuing to drive forward progress on others. For example, we have published rapid research into the needs of parents working atypical hours and who have disabled children. The review of early years registration, regulation and inspection is now complete, and we are consulting on proposed changes to childcare sufficiency assessments and the draft 10-year early years workforce plan.
Affordable and high-quality childcare provision in Wales is a key element of our strategic equality plan, which recognises the role childcare plays in enabling and supporting women to enter and progress in the workplace. Antoinette Sandbach mentioned a couple of times that local authorities have a duty to provide childcare, and I mentioned in my question session this afternoon that they have undertaken their own assessments, and they have identified where the gaps are. It is up to them to correct that and provide the childcare that is needed in their local area, and, as a Government, we support and help local authorities to do that.
In-work poverty is a growing issue in Wales, and evidence suggests that this issue tends to be concentrated in families working part time. Supporting second earners into work is essential to reduce in-work poverty, and I have always believed that childcare is a key policy lever that we have as a Government. There are some levers that we do not have in this area, but childcare is one that we have to enable this to happen.
We recognise that more needs to be done to ensure that childcare provision supports those with non-traditional working patterns, such as evening and weekend work. In June, we published research into the childcare needs of parents working non-traditional hours, which found that problems facing parents in general in accessing childcare are exacerbated for those who have to work different hours.
The research also found that those working atypical hours tended to be working in low-income jobs and that problems facing families in accessing childcare were worse for lone parents, and it was good to hear you criticise your own UK Government on that policy.
In these challenging financial times, the Welsh Government has to prioritise resources. You said yourself, Antoinette, that the UK Government has to take some difficult decisions around working tax credits. My constituents are very unhappy with those decisions taken. You will also know that our budget has been cut by £1.7 billion over this term, and I only have the money that I have, and I can only give that money out. We recognise, if we had more money, childcare would be an area that we would put more funding into. However, clearly, I want to make the absolute best of our schemes; think about our free breakfast club initiative, which is providing very welcome childcare for many of our constituents.
We are clear about the need to focus developments on households in, or at risk of, poverty, and that means that we are looking hard at what more we can do to support parents in accessing work and working additional hours when they want to. Taking households out of poverty involves not only access to work but, often, an increase in the number and financial value of the hours worked by adults in those households. Childcare provision, particularly wraparound childcare provision, is, therefore, important, particularly for low-income families.
Given the links between childcare and a number of other ministerial portfolios, and taking account of the very serious financial position that we face in Wales, the Minister for Finance and Government Business is also looking across Government, at all portfolios, at how the issues of affordability and accountability can best be addressed, using, where possible, our existing resources.
We are also committed to our ‘Building a Brighter Future’ commission, which is an independent review of childcare and early education registration regulation and inspection. You will be aware that that was led by Professor Karen Graham from Glyndŵr University in Wrexham, and the report was published last month.
We recognise the importance of having effective regulatory and inspection arrangements in place that drive improvements in childcare, learning and wellbeing outcomes for children. The report made several recommendations, which we are now considering. These recommendations related to the workforce and are being considered as part of our ambitious, long-term vision for the early years workforce in Wales. Members will be aware that, this week, we launched a consultation on a draft 10-year plan for early years childcare and play workforce, because we know that high-quality early education and childcare leads to much better outcomes for children, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. We want our early years, childcare and play practitioners to be equipped to provide the best possible support for children so that they can encourage them to fulfil their full potential.
Antoinette Sandbach mentioned that a proportion—I think that 10% was the figure you mentioned—of people cannot find childcare practitioners whom they can trust. Certainly, as a mother myself, I always felt that to leave your most treasured possession with childcare providers, you needed to have that trust in them. That plan is one way in which we can help our practitioners to gain those skills and also to build the workforce capacity that we need as we go forward. We have many dedicated practitioners in Wales already, but it is important that we encourage and help them to hone those skills and undertake that professional development as they go into their careers and beyond.
Officials in the Department for Economy, Science and Transport are taking forward a range of actions contained in ‘Building a Brighter Future’ to develop the childcare market in Wales. This includes the delivery of a number of childcare pilot projects, working with local authorities, once again, and private sector childcare providers, to assess need and capacity in their areas. Since January this year, Carmarthenshire, Denbighshire, Newport and Neath Port Talbot have been undertaking pilot projects to look at how they can improve flexibility in their foundation phase offer. Each authority has been allocated £100,000 to undertake the pilot projects, which will end next August. They will be evaluated and will help to shape future decisions in relation to the greater flexibility of the foundation phase.
We are also looking at the uptake of Flying Start childcare sessions and trying to overcome issues relating to uptake and unauthorised absences in this area. Once again, there will be some pilot projects commencing in the autumn, with a number of local authorities trying to bring forward different approaches.
An out-of-school childcare grant, totalling £2.3 million per year, has been made available to local authorities since 2012, and that helps them to provide wraparound childcare outside school hours and during holiday periods. In line with Welsh Government priorities, local authorities have focused on offering out-of-school childcare, including holiday play schemes for children from low-income families and children with specific needs.
We are also in the process of developing a bid for European funding to help to move parents into work where childcare is a significant barrier. The proposed target audience is parents living in workless households, lone parents and also potential second earners. Targeting these parents would support families to find a route out of poverty by helping them into sustainable employment.
There is also a range of childcare subsidies available at a UK level, which can support parents with the costs of childcare, which you referred to. While that additional support is welcome—we have universal credit, and the Department for Work and Pensions is expecting more parents to become eligible for support with childcare costs—we have to set it in the context of the wider welfare reforms that the UK Government is bringing forward, because, once again, they are hitting families that are already struggling to make ends meet.
You mentioned pay inequality and, once again, in my question session earlier, you will have heard me refer to my commitment to look at this to try to encourage females in particular. You will have heard me talk about the Girls Make a Difference conference that we held on Monday, at which we heard from some fantastic and inspirational role models, who tried to encourage women to think differently. I should have mentioned that our own chief executive of the National Assembly for Wales, Claire Clancy, was there. She told me that she had had conversations with the young girls, some of whom had a very traditional way of thinking about careers. Hopefully, we will have given them some insight into the different ways of approaching that.
I also acknowledge the vital role that the third sector plays in the support for and the provision of childcare. We are delighted to have awarded the childcare element of the new children and families delivery grant to a new childcare consortium, comprised of the main voluntary sector childcare organisations in Wales.
So, I hope that I have described the great deal of work that the Welsh Government has already done. We have many schemes, programmes and support in relation to childcare that we not only support but fund as well. However, it is an issue, as you say, that we will all, I am sure, be looking at in our manifestos as we go forward to the 2016 election.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you. That concludes today’s proceedings.
The meeting ended at 18:25.