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.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The first item this afternoon will be questions to the First Minister, but before that, First Minister, I am sorry, it gives me great pleasure to announce that, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, the following Bills were given Royal Assent on 27 January: the Further and Higher Education (Governance and Information) (Wales) Bill; the National Health Service Finance (Wales) Bill, and the Control of Horses (Wales) Bill.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the progress of discussions about reforming the Barnett formula? OAQ(4)1445(FM)
We have agreed a process with the UK Government that aims to address the threat of convergence in our relative funding levels. However, full Barnett reform remains my long-term goal.
Plaid Cymru has argued since the establishment of the Assembly that we need a fairer formula to fund Wales. Recently, as you have just said, you have been arguing the same case and, indeed, making it a condition before taking income-tax powers. The Labour Party did nothing when it was in Government the last time. Are you in a position to tell us whether Labour, if it does come to power in Westminster following the next general election, will commit to fundamental reform of the Barnett formula, or do you agree with Owen Smith that there is not much wrong with the formula?
I do not think that those were the words of Owen Smith. The issue of fair funding is something that we as a party are debating at present in order to get to a manifesto position where there will be a way forward. Of course, it would be a help if you could persuade your sister party in Scotland not to oppose any changes to Barnett.
First Minister, Gerry Holtham has made it clear in the past that perhaps we will have to change the way that Scotland is funded before reforming the formula in its entirety. Do you accept this and what discussions have you had with Alex Salmond on this issue?
Not one, because Alex Salmond’s view is that Scotland should not be part of Barnett anyway, because he seeks an independent Scotland. So, that is not something that he has been eager to debate at present with me or anyone else. What is important is that the situation in terms of funding for all parts of the UK is resolved, once the referendum has taken place in Scotland and we have a result in Scotland, because it is true to say that the Barnett formula cannot continue any longer.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement regarding the provision of mental health services in Powys? OAQ(4)1452(FM)
I am aware that Powys Teaching Local Health Board works with neighbouring local health boards to deliver high-quality mental health services for its population.
I meet regularly meet with the Montgomeryshire GP cluster group to discuss issues of mutual concern and a recurring issue that keeps emerging is the poor level of mental health services that patients in north Powys are receiving from Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board. At the meeting just before Christmas, one GP gave me two examples of appalling incidents that had occurred that were very unacceptable. GPs certainly feel that patients are still being put at risk due to the referral and administration process not working, as they see it. Would you be prepared to look at this issue in greater detail and provide these GPs with a reassurance that the Government will not tolerate this level of service?
I can inform the Member that we are aware of this. The NHS delivery unit is undertaking a review, which will be completed next month. I am aware that the health board has arrangements in place to cover out-of-hours provision and is working to strengthen those arrangements. The review currently being undertaken covers a number of areas, including the service pathway, operational working methods and the controls to support effective delivery. I know that Powys teaching health board and Betsi Cadwaladr health board are working with the delivery unit to implement any actions that are required as the review progresses.
Many believe, and I happen to agree with them, that healthcare in mid Wales has weakened since the closure of the Afallon ward in Bronglais General Hospital, and that not enough preparation was made for care in the community in the light of that. A review is currently being conducted by the Minister, chaired by Marcus Longley. I have just received the draft objectives for that review and they do not mention healthcare particularly. I will be writing back and saying, ’Do ensure that mental health services are taken into account in this’. Will you support my bid in that regard?
I am willing to accept any request from the Member, and I will consider that in great detail.
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to questions from the party leaders. First this afternoon, we have the Leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
First Minister, education is in the spotlight again today, with the latest Estyn report. One area that is highlighted in that report is the lack of national support to develop leaders in our schools. Do you accept that you have failed to provide adequate national leadership?
If you look at the report itself, it is true to say that it is not the sort of report that we would all want to see, but, nevertheless, it is true to say that there are parts of the report that we can take some heart from. For example, Ann Keane, talking to BBC Wales, said that she would hope that, because of the introduction of several Welsh Government initiatives, there will be a trend of improvement in the future. We have seen that more accountability has been introduced, and, of course, she welcomed the literacy and numeracy framework. What I think has not been there as it should have been is accountability; that accountability has been strengthened, and, for example, the school improvement plans will help that.
First Minister, it has been over a month now since the publication of the Programme for International Student Assessment results, and I am sure that you have taken time to reflect. You were on record acknowledging that you have taken your eye off the ball. As you seem reluctant to accept that there has been a lack of national leadership, can you tell me whether you can put your finger on exactly what has gone wrong in education in this country?
That is a fair question. I think that the answer is that there has been a blurring of the lines of accountability, in terms of leadership in schools and in terms of leadership in local education authorities. We as a Government, of course, have to accept that it is important that there is a clear way forward in the future, and I believe that there is. If you look at what has been announced by the previous Minister for education and the current Minister for education, you will see that there is a clear way forward in terms of schools in Wales, in order to see the improvements that we would all want to see. This has been evidenced, for example, by the closing of the gap between Wales and England with regard to GCSEs, and that is a gap that I expect to close further in the future.
You appear not to take any responsibility, First Minister, for the failings in the education system to date. I am sure that you will be aware of the scathing comments from the Labour MP for Islwyn yesterday, who said that he is frustrated that the Welsh Government is not addressing real bread-and-butter issues like education, which are concerning people day to day. Given these internal difficulties for you, First Minister, are you coming round to the view that a reduction in the number of Welsh MPs might not be a bad idea after all? [Laughter.].
I think that the two things are unrelated. She does not always listen to my answers, but I did make it very clear that we as a Government do take some responsibility—of course we do; I said that in answer to her second question, which she seems not to have heard. Nevertheless, it is important that responsibility is taken by local education authorities, and, indeed, by teachers themselves, who, at the end of the day, are the ones delivering the service—this has to be a joint venture, as it were. In terms of what is said outside of this Chamber, we are very much focused, of course, on education, and that will continue. That is why we made the pledge to seek to protect schools spending, as we have done, and that is why we have invested over the last decade in more than 140 new schools or improvements to schools. I was in school in the 1980s, and in the 1980s, the Government of the day could not even build a shed.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
First Minister, I am sure that you will want to welcome the excellent news that was announced in terms of the growth figures for the United Kingdom today, as well as the employment figures that were announced last week, which showed that, in the last three months of last year, 280,000 jobs were made across the United Kingdom, of which 220,000 were full time and 60,000 were part time. We have spent the last two or two and half years with you and your Labour colleagues prophesying a double dip or a triple dip and claiming that the economic policies of the UK Government are wrong. I am sure that, today, you would like to use the opportunity of First Minister’s questions to congratulate the Chancellor on such a record of economic stability and economic recovery.
Of course I welcome the figures. Who could not? However, we are just back where we were some three or four years ago, so I do not think that it is a question yet of saying that this is a wonderful step forward that will be sustained, although, of course, I welcome the figures. I am sure that he will be more than happy then to congratulate the Welsh Government on the fact that the Welsh economy has done better than the UK average as a direct result of what we have done here in Wales.
First Minister, it is always the same, is it not? You want to detract from the really good news of what is happening in the overall economy. However, sadly, Wales is lagging behind the rest of the UK in its economic performance. However, let us look at what is in your competence and what you were charged with delivering. As we heard earlier, the Estyn report today—it is a shame that the Minister for education is not with us today to hear Members’ comments—is a damning indictment of 14 years of Labour failure in education. What we have is the number of secondary schools in the ‘unsatisfactory’ category going up from 14% to 23%. The ‘excellent’ schools remain a small minority. Two thirds of secondary schools and half of primary schools are in need of follow-up inspections. You started your term in the fourth Assembly as a Government that was about delivery. Will you join your Minister for education in apologising for Labour’s lack of delivery in education, which is exemplified by this report today from Estyn?
Let us talk about the economy, shall we, and the UK unemployment average? If we look at youth unemployment for those aged between 18 and 24, we see that we are well below the UK average. If we look at the construction industry, we see that we are well above the UK employment average. If we look at the number of people in work in Wales, we see that it is at a historic high. If we look at the level of economic inactivity, we see that it is much lower, having dropped at a faster rate, than in the rest of the UK. This idea that we are at the bottom of everything is, quite simply, factually wrong. The reality is that our unemployment rate is not the highest in Britain; in fact, it has come down faster than anywhere else. The success of Jobs Growth Wales illustrates how well we have done in terms of youth unemployment. His story that, somehow, Wales is doing badly is clearly wrong. There has been a nearly 200% increase in foreign direct investment in the course of one year. All these things are conveniently forgotten.
Let us talk about education. Yes, there are, of course, issues that need to be resolved as part of this report. We recognise that. However, his position would be stronger, I believe, if it was not for the fact that he wants to cut education spending by 12.5%. His position would be stronger in terms of accountability if he did not want to make every school in Wales a free school. His position would be better if he did not want to create a situation where schools had to commission their own transport, their own school meals, their own special services and their own human resources department, no doubt, to pay teachers, and have no accountability at all to either their local communities or any elected bodies. His position would be stronger if that were not the case. We look at what happens across the border in England where there is endless meddling. There is a serial meddler in charge of education and what appears to be a department that is keen to brief against its own inspectorate. I think that the situation is that, yes, we have much to do in Wales, that much is true, but we take no lessons from his party in England.
I hope that on Saturday the Welsh team is as good at dodging the bullet and getting over the try line as you are at avoiding questions, First Minister. If you want to look at England and at what the Minister for education has done in England: he has lifted 250,000 pupils out of poorly performing schools and, above all, he has lifted them to get better grades in the English education system. However, the point that I made to you was about the Estyn inspection report, which was about your education system and the education system that your Government is responsible for running here in Wales. The damning indictment in this report and the previous report, which came out last year, was the lack of leadership and direction that was offered to the Welsh education system. I think that it is a crying shame that you were not prepared to apologise for the mistakes that were made and map out a bright future for Welsh education. The people who are watching this meeting today will have seen the emptiness that you are offering Welsh education, First Minister.
I can promise the leader of the opposition that I do not expect to see any bullets fired on Saturday on the pitch. He is the master of the mixed metaphor, as we know. Last week was a prime example of that. Nevertheless, he has done it again. The Estyn report illustrates that there are areas where there needs to be improvement. However, it also illustrates areas where that improvement is coming. He mentions England. How many schools have been built in England? The first thing that the Government did there was to stop the school-building programme. That was the first thing that it did. When I was in school in the 1980s—as someone who went to a comprehensive school, and whose children are now in a comprehensive school, I can tell you that nothing was invested in schools in Wales in the 1980s. Absolutely nothing. I sat in classrooms with broken windows, and I sat in classrooms with ivy growing up the inside of the walls, because the Government that ran the country—his party at that time—spent absolutely no money on them at all. Why? It was because they did not have children in the comprehensive system. That was the reason for it.
Yes, we will learn lessons from this report. That much is true. However, we are, at least, not in a situation where money is being diverted away from building new schools in order to pay for the free schools policy. That is what has happened in England. That is where the money went. Money was taken away from the most needy to pay for the few. That is what the Government did. If we look at England, we also see a situation where we have the inspectorate and the department at war with each other. That is what we see in England. We also see a Secretary of State who cannot help but meddle on a weekly basis in the curriculum. Accountability is important. We will move forward in Wales as we see the shambles being generated in England.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Finally, I call the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. First Minister, in 2011, following that year’s disappointing Estyn annual report, you told us that we would have to wait for your Minister for education’s speech to find out the solutions to the Welsh education problem. In 2012, following another disappointing Estyn report, you said:
‘Next year, I expect to see improvement.’
However, in 2013’s Estyn annual report, the proportion of schools awarded ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ judgments was even lower than in the previous year. In its report today, Estyn reports that the number of secondary schools rated as ‘unsatisfactory’ has almost doubled. First Minister, after four years of asking you this question following the publication of disappointing Estyn annual reports, could you give me a straight answer today: when will we see, and when will Welsh pupils see, the improvements that your Government continually promises but does not deliver?
Well, I would argue that those improvements are already showing signs of being identified, although not enough as yet. First, there is the number of schools that have been built. I have been to a number of schools in the past four years that are brand-new comprehensives, which were never built for many years in the 1980s and 1990s in Wales. They were never built. So, I have seen that. I have seen good examples in Wales of schools that are doing very well. What is lacking is consistency. There is no question about that. So, what we will look to be doing, as part of the school improvement plan, is to make sure that headteachers are supported where there is a question over leadership, and that departments in schools are supported by bringing in teachers from good-performing schools in order to turn those departments around. I believe that that is the way to see improvement in the future. We are beginning to see signs of that improvement, and I illustrated that with the example that I gave earlier on, namely that the gap that is there with England in terms of GCSE attainment is narrowing.
First Minister, I do not know which bit of the doubling of ‘unsatisfactory’ scores does not alarm you. You and your Ministers for education, past and present, continually tell us that the key policy to drive up standards is the creation of regional consortia. However, if you read the Estyn report today, it says, in relation to more than half of the local authorities that have been inspected, that regional consortia are failing to deliver an improvement in standards. You have placed everything on the creation of those consortia. When will that approach start to benefit all Welsh pupils?
Well, this is tied in with the debate later on the Williams commission, and the stance that her party will take with regard to the Williams commission. The Williams commission has made very strong recommendations in relation to what the future should be in terms of public service delivery in Wales. I look forward to hearing what she will say about that, and, indeed, about education, as part of that debate; she has not mentioned that so far. Nevertheless, I reiterate the point that I made earlier, that we are seeing signs of improvement. It is far from the case that improvement is satisfactory as yet. Where there are schools that are rated as unsatisfactory, they will receive assistance to make sure that they are turned around, and the Minister for education will be making an announcement in the very near future regarding a plan on how to do that.
I am not quite sure whether the First Minister understands what the regional consortia are. They are the gathering together of those local authorities to overcome the disadvantages of having small education authorities, and it is not working. I am not saying that; the inspector is saying it. The approach that you are taking is not delivering the improvements that you promised. Last week, I asked you about your decision to ditch the health targets that were contained in your programme for government. Let us have a look at the education targets in your programme for government. Attendance in primary and secondary schools is down on last year; the percentage of secondary schools inspected that were graded as ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ has flatlined at 45%, when you said that they would improve, and there are no ‘excellent’ standards in further education, adult or community learning, nor in local authorities. Now that it is clear that you are not meeting your education targets, do you intend to ditch those too?
No. I never said that we would. What is clear, however, is that there is a need to examine the way in which education is delivered, which she seems to indicate herself—that is why I am looking forward to hearing what she has to say later on this afternoon. At the end of the day, it is not the Welsh Government that delivers. It sets the framework and provides funding, that is true. The delivery, however, is done by local education authorities and by schools and teachers. So, in terms of ensuring better delivery in the future, it is important that teachers are part of that delivery, of course, and it is important that local education authorities are part of that delivery—under the Conservatives, they would not be part of it at all and schools would do it all themselves. Then, we can see the improvement that we have begun to see, which is as yet far from what we want to see—that much is true—and see that improvement continue in the future.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move back to questions on the agenda, and question 3 from William Powell.
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the duty of Local Health Boards to communicate with the public? OAQ(4)1451(FM)
All NHS organisations in Wales have a duty to communicate and engage effectively with the public.
I would like to thank the First Minister very much for that response. Just this lunchtime, together with Petitions Committee colleagues, I received a petition with some 11,000 signatures from Cardigan hospital. The petitioners raised severe concerns regarding the quality and transparency of communications that they have had with Hywel Dda Local Health Board. In addition to that, I have also heard that there are significant problems with the communication between the health board and Aberystwyth University, notably around mental health issues. First Minister, do you agree that it is necessary for Hywel Dda health board to raise its game in these matters and to communicate effectively with the public that it serves?
I can say to the Member that the Minister has made it clear that he expects to see more positive engagement and communication by the health board with the local population and he has asked the Welsh NHS Confederation to assist the health board and to help it to rebuild its relationship with local communities. So, we are aware of the issue and that work will be ongoing in order to rebuild the trust that should exist between the board and the community that it serves.
First Minister, it is not just the Hywel Dda Local Health Board that has had problems with communicating with the public. That has also been the case in north Wales, where the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board announced a temporary suspension of elective, non-urgent surgery last week, but did not communicate that effectively to individual patients within a reasonable timescale. Can you tell us whether your Government will be issuing guidance to local health boards to improve the way in which they are able to communicate with patients where operations might have to be postponed or cancelled, sometimes for very necessary reasons?
It can be, of course, a matter of notice: sometimes, it is difficult to let people know in good time when things have to be changed at short notice, although the situation has now been reversed. I will ask the Minister for health to write to you formally on this in terms of what guidance is already available.
Well, it is clear that the Hywel Dda health board has not listened to what the Minister for health had to say to it about improving communication, because 11,000 people signed a petition against the closure of beds in Cardigan, and a bus full of people from Cardigan came here to present the petition today. The Hywel Dda health board announced the closure of all beds in Cardigan hospital without any kind of consultation with the community, although it was a requirement on it to do so under Welsh Government guidelines. Will you look into the fact that the Hywel Dda health board chose not to consult with the local community when making such a significant change as withdrawing all beds from that hospital?
I will ask the Minister to write to you about that, but I would just like to say that the health board has said that no beds will be lost to the county. It is important to emphasise that. Also, of course, as I said earlier, work is ongoing to ensure that the health board improves its communications.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on asbestos in schools? OAQ(4)1446(FM)
10. What action is the Welsh Government taking to address asbestos in schools in Wales? OAQ(4)1457(FM)
Presiding Officer, I understand that you have granted permission for questions 4 and 10 to be grouped.
I recognise the serious nature of asbestos in schools, particularly the safety issue for pupils and teachers. The situation is regulated and compliance is monitored by the Health and Safety Executive. The regulation requires local authorities to undertake asbestos surveys in schools and implement an asbestos management system.
Thank you for that response, First Minister. I have seen a great deal of correspondence that demonstrates a lack of clarity in terms of who is responsible for the management of asbestos in Welsh schools. David Laws, at a Westminster level, says that the Welsh Government is responsible, and the Welsh Government states that the Westminster Government is responsible. Can you give us more information today as to who exactly is responsible so that we can tackle this very serious situation in Welsh schools?
The responsibility lies with the Health and Safety Executive; that is quite clear. As regards ensuring that things happen as they should, that is the responsibility of the executive and also of the local authority environmental health officers. Also, of course, some responsibility falls on the schools themselves, if they have to dispose of asbestos, to ensure that that is done properly and safely. Guidelines will be published before long, which will include details relating to the responsibilities of those who have various duties relating to the management and disposal of asbestos. However, in terms of the responsibility, it lies with the Health and Safety Executive, and, then, of course, in terms of ensuring that the responsibilities are progressed, that is also a responsibility of the environmental health officers.
First Minister, this conflict between health and safety and management within schools has been going on now for a number of months. New guidance is about to be published in England, following a report by a committee on cancer in Westminster. Do you know when the Welsh education department will publish new guidance, bearing in mind that some local authorities have not carried out the surveys that you mentioned for some 10 years?
Well, as I said, those guidelines will be published imminently. I have made it clear who has the responsibility for ensuring safety in schools in terms of the monitoring of that, and also, of course, the system of responsibilities.
First Minister, we have come a long way since the realisation that asbestos is responsible for a number of very horrible illnesses, including asbestosis and mesothelioma. We have also moved on now from the idea that it is completely safe to leave asbestos in situ, particularly in public buildings such as schools. Aled Roberts mentioned the committee in England, in the wake of which now the Department for Education has decided that it is unsafe and unsustainable to leave asbestos in buildings such as schools. I have heard what you have had to say, and I think that to a lot of people out there it would sound very much like passing the buck. I do not really care whose responsibility this is, but I think you as First Minister, and your Ministers for health and for education, have a duty to make sure that we make our schools as safe as they possibly can be. That is not happening at the moment. Please give us and parents out there a timeline by the end of which you can assure people that schools are completely safe.
Well, we can give an assurance now that schools are safe, because we know that asbestos is safe if it is undisturbed. So, simply removing the asbestos, with the enormous cost that comes with that, would not make financial sense. However, there is another issue here: it is often safer to leave undamaged asbestos in situ, subject to a regular assessment, rather than create additional fibre or dust disturbance due to its removal; that has been the reality for many years, and the situation that he has described is not my understanding in terms of the guidance that is coming from the Health and Safety Executive.
First Minister, I welcome the news that the Cwmcarn High School recently reopened its doors to pupils after work to remove asbestos. However, I am concerned that, although the school closed in October 2012, the work to remove the asbestos did not commence until June 2013. Does the Minister agree that the work to remove asbestos, when discovered in schools, should commence without delay to minimise the disruption to those pupils, parents and staff affected? Could he kindly tell the Chamber what the reasons for this long delay were?
It is not our doing, of course. This is not a matter for the Welsh Government; it is a matter for the authorities on the ground. I do not know why it took that long to begin work. There may have been good reasons for it, of which we are not aware, in terms of ensuring that conditions were safe for workers to go in to remove the asbestos. However, it is not the Welsh Government’s role to ensure that this work is done; it is the role of those authorities on the ground. Cwmcarn was, of course, originally a grant-maintained school.
Individual Patient Funding Requests
5. Will the First Minister provide an update on the review of the Individual Patient Funding Requests process? OAQ(4)1447(FM)
The preliminary work on the review is nearly finished. Officials have met with all of the local panels and will meet with patient groups tomorrow. The feedback from these meetings will inform the review group’s work when it meets on 31 January.
Thank you for that, First Minister. With so many reviews of so many aspects of the health service currently under way, I did not really want this one to get lost. We brought evidence before you, of course, that women with certain breast cancers are likely to be losing out as a result of the existing review. However, if you remain politically motivated to resist a cancer treatment fund, can you tell us exactly when we might actually get a full timetable from you, rather than just the preliminary announcement that you have made today?
I have given the timetable; the group will report by the end of March 2014. It is for the Minister then to make a decision. However, yes, what we do not want is a cancer drugs fund that prevents people from getting funding, which is what is happening in England. We know that the IPFR system is far better at reviewing requests such as this successfully. The cancer drugs fund in England turns down the vast majority of requests that it gets. No, it is not politically motivated; we do not want to disadvantage people in Wales, as, I am afraid, the Tories have done to people in England.
First Minister, this may be a question that people do not want to ask, but I think that it is important: where patients are not judged to be eligible for life-saving treatments on the NHS, what efforts can the Welsh Government make to deter doctors from charging patients privately for extremely expensive treatments that often do little more than raise false hopes for recovery or an extended lifespan?
There are issues there of professional ethics; there is no doubt about that. You will have heard, of course, the Minister for health, in the last week or two, talking about the need to eliminate treatment that, sometimes, serves no purpose or, sometimes, makes things worse. I think that that is an absolutely correct message to give. Any competent surgeon or doctor should be ensuring that treatment is available on the NHS. No competent or honest doctor should divert patients to private treatment that is not required.
First Minister, in addition to the very important issues raised by Suzy Davies and Lindsay Whittle, I have heard of the experiences of constituents who have applied for drugs in this particular way and have been turned down. However, because the health board does not directly inform the patient—it goes to the consultant, and, sometimes, the consultant does not pass on that message to the patient—by the time that the patient finds out that they have been turned down, the period in which they can appeal the decision has passed. I ask that, when you are reviewing the current situation, you have a look at this to ensure that patients are aware of decisions in a timely manner and are able to put an appeal in within the prescribed period.
Consultants should be doing that. One thing that I should emphasise is that there is a duty on consultants to ensure that the applications that are made are made properly and fully by the consultants; a letter is not good enough. I know of circumstances where a simple letter has been sent without any supporting information. That is not helping patients. It is important that consultants get this right as well.
Nevertheless, where circumstances change, my understanding is that people are able to reapply in any event, and it certainly would not be right, of course, for people to lose the ability to go through the system as they should because the information has not been passed on to them by their own doctors; that is a duty that rests on the shoulders of consultants who make the application in the first place.
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on orthopaedic services in north Wales? OAQ(4)1456(FM)
With £13.5 million of additional funding provided by the Welsh Government there has been a great improvement over the past three years.
First Minister, what you fail to mention is that many of the specialist and complex services provided by Gobowen hospital have now been repatriated to consultants in north Wales. It is fair to say that concerns have been raised with me by general practitioners, because what is happening now is that there is a three-phase triage system that means that a patient struggling with a complex revision or a specialist need for orthopaedic treatment waits several months to see a consultant who cannot actually carry out that treatment. They are then back to square one as they are referred by the consultant to Gobowen hospital. First Minister, my constituents have asked me to ask you what steps you are taking to ensure that those patients in north Wales who require the more complex and specialist orthopaedic treatment, which is only available at Gobowen hospital, can access these specialised services quickly and without unnecessary, costly and bureaucratic delay.
The situation that the Member has described, on the face of it, seems senseless. No-one could defend it. If she could provide me with further details, I will be more than happy to investigate the situation.
First Minister, are you confident that Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board will not have to delay treatments again this year, as it did last week, and that it has the necessary capacity to deal with the winter pressures when the winter arrives?
I am confident that it can deal with the winter pressures and I am very confident that it can deal with accidents. Sometimes, of course, there is such a great demand on services that some surgeries have to be postponed for a short period of time. However, I am pleased to see that everything has reverted to the usual practice. It is very important that it has plans to deal with accidents, and that is exactly what it did.
UK Membership of the European Union
7. Will the First Minister outline the Welsh Government’s position on UK membership of the European Union? OAQ(4)1453(FM)
The United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is essential to the prosperity of both the UK and Wales. We know that Wales benefits in many fundamental ways, including through programmes such as the structural funds and the common agricultural policy—without which our farmers could not function or operate—and our trade and foreign investment prospects are enhanced by our membership through unfettered access to the single market.
A recent study has shown that more than 120,000 jobs in Wales—4,000 of these are in my Delyn constituency—are dependent on the EU. The chief executive of Airbus, which employs 6,000 people in Flintshire, has said that Europe is key to its continued success. Will you further press the Conservative-led Westminster Government to listen to industry leaders like Airbus in the hope that it will stop behaving like UKIP plus one—a policy that will put jobs in Wales at risk?
The approach that we take to the UK’s membership of the EU is not one of blinkered nationalism, which I am afraid exists on the benches opposite—not everyone, in fairness—and certainly with regard to UKIP. The reality is that the Welsh economy would not function properly without membership of the EU. Why? It is because there are so many companies here—Airbus is one—that are only in Wales because Wales is, through its membership of the UK, a member of the EU. They would not be here otherwise. Why on earth would they bother coming to the UK when they could relocate or locate their factories within the much larger European market, which is far larger than the UK on its own? I have never understood this argument that Wales or Britain will somehow be better off outside the EU. Reducing your ability to access one of the world’s largest markets, as a country with a proud history of trading, seems to me to be utterly insane.
Well, the chief executive of Airbus has clarified his comments and made it very clear that jobs in the UK are not dependent on Britain’s membership of the EU. I am very happy to pass that clarification on to the First Minister, should he require it, and, indeed, to my colleague Sandy Mewies.
First Minister, is it not right that the people of Wales should be given their opportunity to vote and to have their say on the membership of the European Union? Constituents from across Wales could then express their views and decide whether or not they wish to be members of the European Union. They are perfectly able to make their own assessments as to the benefits of Wales’s membership of the European Union.
I do understand that the Member is in the right party. If people wish to have a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, they can vote for UKIP. That is the whole point. If people wish to have a referendum on Wales’s membership of the UK, they can vote for Plaid Cymru. At the end of the day, that is what Plaid Cymru stands for. The country is a democracy, and if that is what people wish, they can do so. However, the reality is this: Britain, on its own, is simply not big enough to attract investment and it is absolutely dependent on its membership of the EU. Our farmers would go bust without access to the European market. There is no question about that; they would not be able to compete in the face of tariffs that would be directed against them by what would then be the European Union, and they would still have to abide by European rules. You would not stop abiding by European rules. You would end up like Norway, where you would have no control over the regulations that are created in Europe but you would still have to abide by them if you wanted to sell into the European market. The reality is that the party opposite is driven by a narrow-minded, blinkered nationalism; that is all it is. Its concern is what is good for London, not what is good for Wales.
First Minister, I very much welcome your comments regarding the advantages to Wales of being within the European Union and the advantages to the United Kingdom of being a member state of the European Union, but what are you going to do to ensure that the people of Wales are aware of those advantages? If there was a referendum, there is a possibility that the citizens of the United Kingdom would vote to withdraw from the European Union, and the implications of that for Wales would be huge, as you have outlined. What will you, as a Government, do to ensure that the people of Wales are aware of the advantages of being within the European Union?
I have endeavoured to ensure that people understand that. I believe that the debate will be an interesting one over the next few years. The Member will know that £1.9 billion has come from Europe through the structural funds. That funding would not be available to Wales without those funds, and I do not believe for one minute that that money would be kindly donated by the Chancellor in London; he would keep all of those funds to himself. Without membership to the European Union, there is no future for farming in Wales—it means common agricultural policy payments and the ability to access the major market, namely the European market, as well. That is not to say that everything about the Commission or its structure is perfect, but, for me, withdrawing from one of the largest markets in the world would be foolish indeed.
8. What is the Welsh Government doing to increase the presence of international organisations in Wales? OAQ(4)1454(FM)
We continue our efforts to increase the presence of international organisations in Wales, including increased inward investment from international companies.
I thank the First Minister for that reply. Would the First Minister be able to provide an update on the joint bid with Cardiff Council to host the International Cricket Council in Cardiff?
We understand that Cardiff is on the shortlist of four. The project would be expected to create 70 jobs. We do not know yet when a decision will be made on the bids, but we have worked with the Glamorgan club and the city council and have supported the joint bid to the ICC.
The presence of international organisations, particularly international businesses, is very welcome in Wales. While we are happy to see 67 firms come into Wales this year, that is still only 4% of the inward investment for the whole of the UK and is considerably less than the 15% that Wales enjoyed when Labour took on devolved government at the beginning of devolution. As the Welsh Government has no aftercare strategy to turn these green roots into permanent roots, will your Government be adopting the Welsh Conservatives’ idea, set out in our ‘Destination Cymru’ document, which I am sure you have had an opportunity to see?
We spend a lot of time selling Wales abroad and at home, getting investment into Wales, as the figures show, and bringing jobs into Wales. What the Tories want to do is set up a council. That is their answer to all of this. In terms of aftercare, does she not know the anchor companies? Clearly not, otherwise they are just trying to take one of our ideas. They hark back to the days when Wales took 15% of the investment; there was a reason for that, which is that the Welsh Development Agency sold Wales on the basis that people would accept less money than anywhere else. That is why the jobs came, and guess what, they all went—all those companies went somewhere else where it was even cheaper. Therefore, let us not pretend that it took some effort to do that; at the end of the day, it was simply a question of, ‘Come to employ these people because they are willing to work on the cheap’. I am not prepared for people in Wales to work on the cheap, as the Tories wanted them to do in the 1980s and 1990s, and they destroyed our coal and steel industries. That is what they did. We are looking at good-quality jobs for the people of Wales; jobs that rely on skills and jobs that are sustainable in the future, not jobs that are here today and gone tomorrow, which is exactly the situation that the Tories created.
First Minister, I am sure that you would agree that maintaining links with other Governments is also important, especially in terms of trade and wider economic co-operation at that international level. Sadly, we have seen in recent years a decline here in the presence of other Governments, especially consuls. Have you had any discussions on reversing this trend, and what are you doing to encourage the presence of other Governments here?
I have had many discussions about reversing this trend. I have spoken to a number of ambassadors. We have more honorary consuls than ever before, but I would like to see full-time consuls return to Wales—the Irish consulate, for example, was closed for financial reasons. We will continue to make representations to foreign Governments to open a consulate in Cardiff. One of the problems is that there is a reciprocal agreement between different Governments, which limits the number of consulates that can be opened in any one country. For example, if we wished to have a Chinese consulate in Wales, there would have to be an agreement for an extra British consulate in China. That sometimes limits the scope that we have. However, we certainly want to see the establishment of a number of full-time consulates in Wales in the future, and I have had a number of discussions, which are ongoing, with various Governments with regard to establishing them.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, First Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I remind Members that it would be helpful if the muttering around the sides of the Chamber could be reduced. [ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: ‘Hear, hear.’] Thank you; I am glad that you agree.
1. What plans does the Welsh Government have to commemorate the Miners’ strike? OAQ(4)0104(CS)
A number of Wales’s cultural institutions, including those directly funded by the Welsh Government, are marking the thirtieth anniversary of the miners’ strike with events and programmes this year. For example, Big Pit National Coal Museum is holding a ‘strike day’ on Saturday, 5 April, with music, talks, films, book signings and family activities.
As you know, March sees the thirtieth anniversary of the start of the miners’ strike, which had a profoundly transformative effect and impact across Wales. It is an important anniversary, as papers released under the 30-year rule suggest that the then Government was misleading with regard to the strike’s causes. The anniversary provides us with the opportunity to fully understand the strike, its catalysts and its effects. Minister, how can we ensure that communities are involved in this process and that we do not neglect marginalised aspects of the history, such as the role of women?
I thank Christine Chapman very much for that supplementary question. It is very important, as everyone on the Labour benches and other benches in the Chamber would realise, to remember these events because of their significance and their impact on our hard-working communities. That is why it is right that we have this range of activities, and I am very pleased that Welsh Government-funded cultural institutions are playing a role. One example is the South Wales Miners’ Library, which will be screening the film ‘Smiling and Splendid Women’, which documents the role that women played in the miners’ strike, such as being on the picket lines, speaking at rallies and, of course, holding money-raising events. It is absolutely right that we remember what was a seminal event for Wales and for our Valleys communities in particular. It was about the forces of the state being turned on hard-working communities, as many of us remember. It is entirely right, in terms of the disclosures that the Member mentioned as having recently come to light, that we recognise that this was orchestrated and planned by the Government of the day, to its eternal shame.
Minister, I would be very happy to see the bravery and community spirit of the striking miners and their families commemorated in the way that you initially spoke of in your contribution today. What I would not be happy to see is a one-sided free-for-all dominated by trade unions, whose own mistakes contributed just as much to the bitterness that is still traded on today as much as the mistakes of any politician. Therefore, how can you reassure us that any Welsh Government plans will not be hijacked and that events that led to the death of David Wilkie will be appropriately commemorated and not inappropriately celebrated?
As I mentioned earlier, there will be a range of events explaining and recording the history of those events. However, I come back to what I said in response to Chris Chapman: recent disclosures and the history in general show that this was planned and orchestrated by the Government of the day against the trade unions and agains our communities in Wales. Of any part of the UK, Wales should understand and realise that, and I know that many in this Chamber do, but sadly that is not the case on the Conservative benches.
Minister, we would agree on these benches that we need to commemorate the miners’ strike in the way in which we are talking about today. We know, for example, that the police were actively politicised during those miners’ strikes, and for the Tories to say here today that the trade unionists should take equal responsibility is not something that I can agree with. I wonder, Minister, whether we could have community-based activities, because I know that, with the commemoration of the first world war this year, many people are receiving lottery funding. What I would like to see is former miners telling their stories to their communities, because people of my age, and some who are older, still do not know their own heritage with regard to the miners’ strike. We should be encouraging people to understand their history so that they can go forward and take these stories to their children, and to not tell the stories of international issues that may not be as relevant to them as the miners’ strike.
I very much agree with the Member, and I am sure that communities will be involved in the range of activities that Welsh Government is helping to take forward, and in a range of other activities also. Of course, Big Pit is very much about miners telling the stories of the mining industry, which will very much include experiences during the strike. It is absolutely right that we should have that first-hand testament to those events. I join the Member in her comments, because part of the orchestrated attack on our communities by the Government of the day involved abuse of the policing system and the creation of a national policing effort directed against those communities.
Minister, thank you for your answer and for that recognition. Following on from that, you will remember that I held a short debate two weeks ago on trade unionism, in which I mentioned that we needed to root trade unionism in our communities and referred to the pressures on many activists with regard to casework. I was wondering whether you could look at some sort of grant funding for the annual walk that takes place from Merthyr to Aberavon to commemorate Richard Lewis—Dic Penderyn—who suffered considerably during the 1831 uprising in Merthyr. This is something that we should be commemorating on more of a national scale in Wales, and I wonder whether you will join me in agreeing that that should be recognised more.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
This question is about the miners’ strike, Minister.
I can certainly say in general that industrial heritage and the history of the working class and trade union movement in Wales are uppermost in our interpretation plans and general cultural activity. We are strong on the general picture, but, in terms of any particular initiatives, there is a range of potential funders, such as the lottery, to which applications can be made.
2. What steps is the Minister taking to promote sport in Torfaen? OAQ(4)0115(CS)
The Welsh Government aims to ensure that the participation rate in sport across Wales increases for all age, gender and social groups. Our work programme is being delivered by Sport Wales, which has a partnership agreement with Torfaen to promote and support grass-roots and elite-level sport in the community.
Minister, with Wales’s RBS 6 Nations encounter just days away, rugby fans in Torfaen and across Wales will be hoping for a swift resolution to the ongoing dispute between the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions, particulalry since Leigh Halfpenny’s departure to Toulon has highlighted the further haemorrhaging of Welsh talent abroad. Would you agree, Minister, that among all this elite-level to-ing and fro-ing, it is vital that we work towards developing a sustainable solution to club rugby, so that teams such as Pontypool RFC, which are the heart and soul of the game in Wales, can survive and thrive into the future?
I very much agree with Lynne Neagle. Clubs like Pontypool RFC have a very strong history—everybody will remember the Pontypool front row—but Pontypool has provided many more players to the Welsh national side and other elite teams in Wales through the age range. So, the history of Pontypool RFC is very strong, and right across Wales we have clubs who are knitted into their communities and have much to contribute at the grass-roots and elite levels. So, I very much join the Member in stressing the importance of that level of rugby, and the need to get it right at the grass-roots, club, regional and national levels.
Torfaen council is about to consult on the closure of at least one of the secondary schools in Cwmbran. Whatever the outcome of this consultation, there is likely to be a significant loss of playing fields. In addition to school activities, they are also used by community groups and, occasionally, by national sports teams. Will the Minister support campaigns to retain these areas as sports fields?
I think it is very important that, in our general activity as the Welsh Government across departments, we ensure that there is adequate provision for sport, recreation and physical activity. That is an across-Welsh-Government issue and, of course, this very much involves working with partners such as our local authorities. So, we are always willing to look at specific issues, working with partners. However, I very much join the Member in general in stressing the importance of having those facilities and those opportunities available.
Minister, do you think that holding the winter Olympics in a country that last year made it illegal to even suggest that gay relationships are equal to heterosexual ones will in any way promote sport to young people in Torfaen?
I think the Member is ranging far and wide in terms of both issues and geography with that question. [Laughter.]
All of us are very aware of the need to ensure that human rights are uppermost in everything that we do as Governments, and that very much includes issues around major games. However, obviously, it is not entirely a matter for Welsh Government as far as the winter Olympics in Russia are concerned—
You can give your opinion, Minister—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Nor Torfaen. [Laughter.]
3. What discussions has the Minister had with local government leaders regarding the future of public libraries? OAQ(4)0111(CS)
I issued a letter to local authority leaders and chief executives in December announcing an expert review into public library service delivery in Wales. In February I will be meeting with local government officials and elected members at the Welsh Local Government Association’s Libraries Inspire seminar at the new Caerphilly library.
Thank you very much, Minister. I am sure that you would agree that libraries have played an extremely important role in our communities over the decades and centuries, and that their role has changed in the current climate as they provide a crucial service in terms of connectivity. I was in Pontyates recently, and, in that area, the local community runs the library voluntarily. There are computers available, which people use to apply for jobs and to fill in forms. Without that service, they would not be able to do that at all. Will you put pressure on local government to ensure that it fully understands the value of this crucial resource?
I very much agree with Rhodri Glyn Thomas about the cross-cutting importance and value of our libraries. Knowledge is power, as it states on a library in Newport. It is about education and about the dissemination and acquisition of knowledge, but it is also a community activity and, yes, access to IT and having support in accessing IT for job applications and benefit purposes. So, the role of the libraries is very strong indeed, and that is why I am taking forward a review, which has a short-term aspect in terms of immediate local authority budget decisions, but which also looks further into the future. I very much look forward to working with local authorities on their statutory responsibilities in these areas.
Minister, the coalition austerity measures have obviously hit public services across the whole of the UK and Wales dramatically. It is sad to see the impact on library services across Wales. Will you be giving consideration to how local authorities and the Welsh Government together could support local communities in taking ownership of these important community assets?
I think that, as with all public services in these very difficult times, it is important to look at new models of delivery, and sometimes those involve more elements of community ownership than typically exist now. I think that it is very important to get the balance right. Volunteers are very important, but, of course, our library service is a professional service with professional standards. It is a balance, but I very much agree with the Member that we need to involve our communities more significantly than is typically the case now. Also, in terms of library services as a whole, we need to look at new, innovative models. Co-location, across Wales, is delivering important benefits for library users at this moment.
Many of my constituents across Aberconwy are now seeing the closure of their much-loved and valued libraries. The point that Mick Antoniw AM made is very relevant. We have community groups that are now trying to establish working groups to take forward some libraries, to avoid seeing the services disappear. However, they need training and they also need funding. What guidance are you putting out there for local authorities to help these community groups to get going, with the hope that we can retain these facilities within our communities?
I am sure that these will be important aspects of the review that I mentioned earlier, because it will look at all aspects of the delivery of library services at the current time and into the future.
Minister, in my region, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council is looking to close nine libraries and, in Swansea, we narrowly averted the closure of one library in Pennard, when the council said that it would have a look at it again after strong opposition from the local community. As you have said, libraries provide a very important service; in areas such as Cymmer, where there are very little community facilities, access to broadband and other services is absolutely vital. What dialogue are you having with local authorities about ensuring that, where libraries are closing, alternative facilities are in place, and that residents are able to access these sorts of vital services?
As I mentioned earlier, library services are a statutory responsibility and we have library standards in Wales that we work with local authorities around. So, we do have important structures in place to make sure that we get the quality of service and extent of service that is necessary. However, my officials are in dialogue with local authorities across Wales at the moment and I look forward to discussing matters further at the Welsh Local Government Association seminar in the next couple of weeks.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. The Welsh public library standards are statutory guidance under the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964, as you have said. However, it is important, is it not, that that guidance is seen as more than just a voluntary opt-in by local authorities? In one meeting in Swansea, the librarian did not think that it was statutory. Is there any way for you to ensure that your officials stress to local authorities that the guidance is statutory and that you will take action, if necessary, to make sure that those facilities are available to people within a reasonable distance?
I have written to local authorities about the review that I am conducting, making it clear what the statutory responsibilities are. Those responsibilities are also stressed by my officials and I will reinforce that further at the summit to be held.
4. What assessment has the Minister made of access to leisure facilities across Wales? OAQ(4)0108(CS)
Sport Wales holds regular discussions with local authorities about leisure facilities, and these form part of their partnership agreements. My officials are in close contact with local authorities and Sport Wales to continually assess proposals for provision for the next financial year.
It is important that we recognise that local authorities need to be able to host events and leisure facilities. There is a question mark over the future of the Sun Centre at Rhyl, and the Nova centre and the indoor bowls centre in Prestatyn. These facilities have been run by an arm’s-length company, which has now decided that it will close all of them. Is there anything that your officials can do to assist local authorities that may have outsourced vital facilities in the leisure industry and are now facing this issue? A vast amount of people use those facilities for the benefit of their health and wellbeing and also as part of GP referral systems. They will have no access whatsoever to leisure facilities unless they can pay for private leisure gyms, which, of course, in an area of deprivation, is not possible. What can the Welsh Government do to assist local authorities to ensure that people have equal access to leisure facilities within their boundaries?
I have written to local authorities to stress the cross-cutting benefits of these leisure and recreational facilities, knowing that they face very difficult budgetary decisions. I think that it is absolutely right that those decisions should be taken in the knowledge of the importance of these facilities, as well as the knowledge that, once a facility is closed, it is very expensive and difficult to bring it back into operation. Therefore, I recognise the issues that the Member states. My officials, Sport Wales officials and the WLGA are in close contact with local authorities at these difficult times, and I hope that, working together, we can find a way through that does deliver for our communities.
Minister, you announced in October that £5 million-worth of interest-free loans will be available for local authorities—I think that you made the announcement at the reopening of Risca leisure centre. I wonder whether you could update us on preparations for that scheme. Also, could you tell us how you rural-proof your policies in terms of the funding of leisure centres? It is much more expensive for local authorities that cover large, rural areas to provide those sorts of facilities; they often have to duplicate to avoid the public having to travel large distances. Can you tell us how your policies take account of those authorities that cover expansive rural areas?
First, the £5 million loan scheme will come into operation not in financial year 2014-15, but in the following financial year. Therefore, we are working towards that, in co-operation with key partners. Preparations are currently under way. In terms of rurality, and the issues around the provision of service, of course, those matters are addressed in the funding formula for local authorities generally. My officials and Sport Wales always have a mind to those issues of rurality, in working with local authorities around provision.
Minister, the local authority facilities used by most people, of course, are playing fields. If you look at what is happening in Carmarthenshire, there is a proposal there to treble to cost of hiring playing fields, which means that a youth football team would have to pay between £4,000 and £6,000 per annum to be part of the local league. I suggest to you that that is a serious impediment to those young people’s welfare, to ensuring that they keep fit and that we also deal with health issues more generally. Do you agree that increasing the cost of using sports facilities, such as playing fields, is very short-termist, and would you encourage councils such as Carmarthenshire to revisit such issues?
In general terms, across Wales, I know that there are issues in terms of increasing fees for sports facilities, including sports pitches, and I think that it is quite a varied picture. I have written to all local authorities, highlighting these issues, because, obviously, I am very concerned that an increase in costs, and, possibly at the same time, a diminution in services provided will have a negative impact on physical activity, sports and recreation. However, of course, all this takes place in the very difficult context—which I think we all here must recognise—for ourselves and for local authorities, where budgets are very strained and very difficult decisions have to be made. However, for me, with my responsibilities, of course I am stressing the importance of maintaining facilities, and not unduly increasing costs.
Sport, Physical Activity and Active Recreation
5. Will the Minister make a statement on his national strategy and policy for sport, physical activity and active recreation in Wales? OAQ(4)0112(CS)
The ’Climbing Higher’ strategy set out the Government’s strategic direction for sport and physical activity, which aims to increase rates of participation in sport, physical activity and active recreation. The ’Creating an Active Wales’ action plan introduced specific targets that were based upon the progress that had been made.
Minister, as Simon Thomas has just highlighted, if these changes in the cost of using playing fields in Carmarthen are implemented, your strategy will have been completely undermined there.There will be an increase of some 500% across the board with all playing fields and with all sports. Given that 40% of adults and 80% of children are members of sporting clubs or centres, will you talk to Carmarthenshire County Council to emphasise your policy and how vital it is, not just in terms of sports but also for health, education and everything else, in order to try to ensure that this policy of utter madness is not implemented?
My officials and I are in dialogue with local authorities across Wales on these issues, as Members would expect. I have written to all local authorities and, among the matters that I have raised in that letter, is the issue of increased fees for sports and recreational facilities.
Minister, the commercial director of Pontypool Rugby Football Club warned last week that club rugby in Wales cannot survive in its current form. He went on to say that, in his view, the club game has deteriorated and its condition has been ignored by the Welsh Rugby Union and the regions. Does the Minister share my concern about these comments, given the importance of club rugby to the game in Wales?
We are all concerned about rugby in Wales; we always are, and there is always a national conversation about rugby in Wales. I am very pleased with that, as Minister for sport, because I think that it demonstrates the passion that there is for the game in our country. So, there will be a lively debate about rugby at local, regional and national levels, and that is absolutely right. For me, as Minister, it is important to have an overview of sport, both at grass-roots and elite levels and, of course, to work with rugby at all levels to make sure that we continue to succeed into the future.
Thank you for your reply, Minister. These concerns about the future of club rugby in Wales come at a time when the WRU and the Welsh regions are locked in a bitter row over funding. With the exodus of Welsh players to other teams outside Wales and the proposed Anglo-Welsh league, does the Minister agree with me that it is time that we held an inquiry into the future of rugby in Wales, such as the one that we held regarding football?
I know that the relevant Assembly committee held an inquiry into football in the past and is currently considering such an inquiry as far as rugby is concerned. I think that all Members here would recognise that there are quite a number of very important issues involved. If the committee were to take forward that inquiry, obviously, it would give Members the opportunity to feed in views and to debate the conclusions.
Minister, it is clear that the Wales Rally GB was a huge success in north Wales a few months ago. However, part of your strategy includes ensuring that disabled people are able to access all these events. I wrote to the First Minister about the failure of this particular company to cater for disabled access, but I have not received a reply. Will you ensure that Welsh Government grants are given on the basis that all aspects of your strategy are implemented?
This particular event is funded by the major events unit, which is the responsibility of the First Minister and indeed, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. I am pleased to look at these issues in terms of disability and access to major sporting events from the sports angle and respond to the Member in due course.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is encouraging participation in grassroots sport? OAQ(4)0110(CS)
[Interruption.] Bless you! [Laughter.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Were you blessing the Minister or someone else? [Laughter.]
I am very grateful, Presiding Officer.
Through Sport Wales’s community sports strategy, sports governing bodies and other partners, we provide opportunities for people of all ages to participate in grass-roots sport in their communities.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, grass-roots sports are vital to produce the next generation of elite athletes. With Welsh athletes on their way to the winter Olympics and later, the Commonwealth Games, will you join me in recognising the role of grass-roots coaching and wishing all of our athletes the best of luck in the future?
I certainly join the Member in wishing our athletes the very best in all major games, including the Winter Olympics and, of course, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow this year. I think that it is very important that we support grass-roots sport, and, in doing that, we support elite performance as well, because there is a feeding up into elite sport from those grass-roots levels. This year, we are investing £1.2 million in grass-roots coaching in Wales, and a further £2.7 million of lottery funding goes to our elite coaches. It is very important that we support sport at all levels here in our country.
I hope that the £400,000 that the Welsh Government is investing in grass-roots rugby will not be affected by the troubles referred to by Lynne Neagle and Mohammad Asghar earlier on. However, £400,000 is rather a lot of money, and I was wondering what level of financial support is finding its way through to groups like the YMCA, Girl Guides, the Urdd and Scouts in order to support activity, particularly for women, through sports other than rugby and football.
We tasked Sports Wales with prioritising sport at a grass-roots level through the community strategy and also with making sure that those groups that are currently not as active as they should be in sport and recreation more generally are given priority in funding streams. Therefore, I think that we very much address the issues that the Member mentions through that Sports Wales route.
I would like to ask you a question about grass-roots rugby also, and perhaps I should declare an interest as a committee member and juniors coach at Llangefni rugby club, home of George North, of course. However, may I ask you to expand a little bit on what you have already said, and, in particular, could you tell us what you plan to do to impress on the leaders of the game in Wales the potential effects of the current turmoil on the grass roots of the game and our ability to draw in the future George Norths who will feed our game and its future?
Members will be aware that the First Minister has written to both the Welsh Rugby Union and the regional clubs and I have had communication with both as Minister for sports. Therefore, we are communicating with those bodies, and I think that that is absolutely right at the current time. However, at the same time, we are recognising that, ultimately, these are matters that must be addressed by rugby in Wales itself.
Minister, grass-roots participation could be increased by building confidence, motivation and physical competence among our young people. Do you believe that physical literacy should be awarded the same status as literacy and numeracy? What discussions have you had with the Minister for education to ensure that every teacher is trained to deliver high-quality physical education, especially in the primary sector?
Of course, this is very much in the territory of Tanni Grey’s report on physical education in Wales. Both the Minister for education and I will be responding to that report in due course.
Community Ownership of Sport
7. Will the Minister make a statement on encouraging community ownership of sport in Wales? OAQ(4)0109(CS)
Sport plays an important role in our communities. It is important that local people or supporters are meaningfully engaged in decisions about their clubs or facilities. I want to work with key partners to support community ownership in Wales.
I am very pleased to hear that answer. As you know, Supporters Direct is a body that has been giving assistance and doing tremendous work in encouraging community ownership of sport. I am wondering whether you would be prepared to meet with Supporters Direct to explore, perhaps, how the Welsh Government could assist in its initiative with a view to setting up a Supporters Direct Cymru organisation.
I know that a number of clubs in Wales, including football clubs, are benefiting from the support and advice of Supporters Direct. I think that Merthyr Town F.C. is one example, and it is doing very well this season, thankfully, on and off the field. Supporters Direct does have a great deal to offer, and I would be very pleased to meet with the organisation to see how we can go forward together.
In a community meeting that I attended on Friday in Trefeglwys in my constituency, one of the issues that were raised and talked about was the lack of sports facilities across the county and across mid Wales to meet the needs of those taking part in various sporting activities. We know, of course, that the Minister and the Government want and encourage us to be more active. What is the Government doing to enable our communities in rural Wales, such as areas like Montgomeryshire, to develop and manage their own facility assets?
We work through Sport Wales and local authorities across the country to make sure that provision is in place and that necessary support is provided. There is a great deal of attention paid at the current time, partly because of budgetary difficulties, to producing new models of operation. I know that local authorities across Wales are looking at different models. We are very happy, with our partners, to provide support and advice to ensure that all possibilities are explored.
Minister, one of the most popular sports in Wales where the ownership is in the hands of the community is angling. Local angling clubs throughout the country have invested in our rivers and invested in the fishing rights. Anglers from every part of Wales came to the Assembly a fortnight ago saying that they wanted voluntary agreements for access to rivers rather than legislation. Can you outline how you will evaluate the value of the community ownership of our rivers as you consider your next steps on legislation in this field?
I very much recognise the importance of angling in Wales. It has a huge number of participants, and they derive a great deal of enjoyment from the activity. It is important in many other ways. I know that there are some big community memberships of angling associations. In taking matters forward, we are always very interested to hear views, of course, and any further proposals will involve the opportunities for further feeding in of views. I note what the Member says about voluntary agreements. Members will know that the Environment and Sustainability Committee suggested that voluntary agreements were very much the way forward, but with a legislative backstop where it was not possible to reach agreement.
Continuation of Leisure Facilities
8. What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities in relation to the continuation of leisure facilities across Wales? OAQ(4)0118(CS)
I have met recently with local authority cabinet members and the Welsh Local Government Association to discuss leisure service provision. I have also written to all local authorities emphasising the importance of leisure facilities and the cross-cutting benefits.
Thank you for that response. We have mentioned a lack of consultation by health boards. Are you content that Wrexham County Borough Council is adequately consulting on the closure of Plas Madoc Leisure Centre and Waterworld Leisure and Activity Centre in Wrexham as it only held its consultation for a fortnight prior to Christmas, and has refused to allow the public to attend any meetings discussing this particular issue in the town hall?
As I stated earlier, I have written—and I am in close contact with local authorities across Wales, as are my officials and Sport Wales—to ensure that proper consultation takes place whenever major change to services is being considered. Therefore, we expect of local authorities across Wales that consultation is adequate and meaningful.
Minister, you have now heard about the issues at Plas Madoc, at the Rhyl Sun Centre and at Prestatyn’s Nova Centre. There are further problems with the consulation in Wrexham. In particular, when it was first launched, the independent report that had been commissioned was not put onto the website so that members of the public could see what had been said. What are you doing to look at how people can access the health benefits of local leisure centres, effectively by tying up your grass-roots programme and your support for that? It may well be that you could link the two and give much needed support to local councils and support local leisure facilities. Not all sports will be carried on outside, will they? There are a number that are carried out inside and it is important that the grass-roots support is there for those leisure centres, and you may be able to get a double win, Minister.
I think that it is very important that these links are made, particularly at the current time of budgetary difficulties. Sport Wales is very keen in terms of linking up national governing bodies to make sure that people taking part in one sport also consider others and that links are made into the local authorities and the leisure centres. So, I very much agree that we need to join it all up and considerable effort is taking place to that end.
It has already been mentioned in the Chamber today that, last year, you announced that you would be investing £5 million as an interest-free loan scheme to local authorities to improve leisure facilities. I have to ask you: why the delay? By 2015, there will not be many leisure facilities left if the current round of cuts carries on. In view of Antoinette Sandbach’s last question regarding the health benefits that leisure facilities can bring, how can we ensure that facilities will be safeguarded, let alone improved, in the local authorities with the worst levels of health? Surely this is penny wise, pound foolish.
Again, I very much agree on the importance of these facilities and the need to retain and enhance them in terms of the health and fitness of the nation. Officials, Sport Wales and I are working with local authorities to that end. The £5 million loan scheme is for the financial year after 2014-15, which gives time for transition when authorities are looking for new models of delivery, but of course things cannot be changed overnight. You have to put the work in place in order to get to some of these new models.
Modern Artificial Sports Pitches
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of modern artificial sports pitches in Wales, such as 3G and 4G? OAQ(4)0105(CS)
Sport Wales records that there are 144 third generation pitches across Wales. They are owned or managed by various public, voluntary and private sector bodies or organisations and used for a variety of sports at elite and grass-roots level.
Thank you, Minister, for that response. During 2014, in my constituency, a large number of rugby and football matches have been cancelled due to the state of the pitches—though thankfully not Bonymaen RFC versus Pontypool RFC last Saturday. What is the Welsh Government doing to increase the number of 3G and 4G pitches in Wales?
Again, we are working through Sport Wales and with partners such as the Football Association of Wales, the Welsh Football Trust, the Welsh Rugby Union and Welsh Hockey. The idea is to join up effort and take an overview of where the 3G pitches currently are and where there are gaps where they could be placed most usefully. The FAW is looking at the Welsh Premier League and Welsh league clubs to roll out new 3G provision. For local authorities, I have opened a number already and I am going to Clydach Vale this Friday to do so again. There is a lot of valuable development taking place, but we need to make sure that it is strategically managed and rolled out.
Minister, the new national football centre, Dragon Park in Newport, has received financial support from the Welsh Government, which I welcome. It includes a 3G pitch, which provides an excellent, all-weather playing surface, allowing players to develop their skills all year. Given the importance of artificial pitches—you just mentioned this to Mike Hedges and I would like to ask a question in the same tone but one that has different words—to the development of sport in Wales, will the Minister advise what he is doing to support and increase the number of such surfaces around the whole of Wales?
We channel our funding to sport in Wales through Sport Wales primarily. As I said earlier, Sport Wales is part of the strategic development of 3G pitches, working with the Welsh Football Trust, the Football Association of Wales, the Welsh Rugby Union and Welsh Hockey.
I want to ask you to intensify your efforts in the negotiations that you are having with the FAW, particularly in the context of developing artificial surfaces within the Welsh Premier League. At the moment, they are used for an hour and a half a week. If they did have these artificial surfaces, they would be available, in theory, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I would also ask you specifically to look towards the Minister for health, as there are health benefits accruing from have such facilities, and the Minister for communities, and that perhaps together you come to some arrangement that this can be promoted further.
I do think it is very important that we join up across Government, as well as with a range of key partners outside Government. I am a member, along with the Minister for health, of the physical activity executive group here within Welsh Government, along with the chief medical officer and Public Health Wales, to make sure that we do make the links between physical activity, sport and the health agenda. So, I think we are making these links, and it is also important that we also look to join up in terms of existing facilities and better use of them. A prime example of that is driving ahead with community-focused schools, where there are some very good facilities that are not always as available to the public and sports clubs as they should be.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on promoting Welsh religious heritage? OAQ(4)0103(CS)
Wales has a long and rich religious heritage that dates back almost 2,000 years. The history and stories of Wales’s religious past feature prominently in the pan-Wales heritage interpretation plan to help widen access to our heritage and encourage greater participation in its care.
Minister, this week we marked Holocaust Memorial Day, and of course there are members of the Jewish community the length and breadth of Wales. What consideration are you giving to the Jewish heritage that Wales has in terms of helping to promote that more widely, and engagement with that more widely, in communities the length and breadth of the country?
Well, of course, all faiths in Wales are part of our efforts to promote, mark and value religious heritage in Wales, and ensure that it is part of important Government strategies, such as the tourism strategy, as well as those within my responsibility. Of course, the education department plays an important role in terms of marking these terrible historical events affecting the Jewish community, such as the Holocaust.
Part of this rich religious heritage is our choral and hymnal tradition. What plans do you have as a Government to promote this rich heritage?
Well, as I said, all aspects of our religious heritage in Wales are part of the Welsh Government’s work. As we take forward the interpretation plan and strategy more generally we will consider all possible inclusions. What the Member has said today will, I am sure, be considered in that regard.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
I have one change to report to this week’s business—the oral statement on progress on improving public procurement has been postponed. Business for the next three weeks is as shown on the business statement and announcement, which can be found among the agenda papers, which are available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, may I ask you to ask the Minister for Education and Skills to bring forward an oral statement with regard to the report published today by Estyn on school standards?
There is a debate scheduled on this report on 4 March, which is in line with previous years’ protocols. You will appreciate that the report was published only today, so I think it would be unreasonable to expect the Minister to make a statement at this early stage.
I was very pleased to visit Velindre Cancer Centre yesterday with Mark Drakeford, the Minister for health, when he launched the cancer patient experience survey, done by Macmillian, which was a huge vote of confidence in our health service and in the treatment received by patients suffering from cancer. So, I wondered, Leader of the house, whether it would be possible to have either a statement or a debate so that we could look at some of the details of this report, which I am sure must have cheered up everybody in this Chamber.
Yes, I absolutely agree. It made for very pleasant reading, and I am sure that the Minister will be very happy to make a statement.
Minister, I was wondering whether we could have a debate sometime soon on the future of eating disorders provision in Wales. I ask because the charity Beat Cymru will be wound up on 1 March, and the staff at the charity will be made redundant immediately. They were reliant on lottery funding, but the Minister kindly put more money into eating disorder services in Wales, and I am very concerned, as chair of the cross-party group on eating disorders, that if the youth ambassadors’ work, and the support groups in our local areas, cannot be maintained because of the cuts to this charity, those who do not then have support through the health service will fall through the gap again and revert to their very serious illness of an eating disorder. So, I call for a debate on this issue and urge the Minister for health here today to listen to what I have said so that we can try to come to a solution in the best interests of Welsh people.
Thank you. I am sure that the Minister for Health and Social Services has heard your comments. Obviously, it is for local health boards to ensure that they have the services in place for their population, including those suffering from eating disorders.
Minister, I also have a request for the Minister for Health and Social Services. I have had a number of constituents raise with me questions about the variability of service in terms of the quality of service provided across Wales in sexual health clinics, in particular in relation to access to clinical appointments in the first instance, and continued concern about the prescribing and support regimes for patients living with HIV and AIDS. I was wondering whether we could request a statement from the Minister, please, once he has had an opportunity to investigate those issues.
Again, I am sure that the Minister has heard your comments and will certainly look into the provision of sexual health services right across Wales and report in due course.
Leader of the house, is it possible to have two statements, please? The first is from the Minister for health in relation to the NHS delivery unit. I heard the First Minister talking about that unit in response to my colleague, Paul Davies, I think; he certainly talked about it during questions to the First Minister. We are aware of the First Minister’s delivery unit; I have heard, for the first time, about the NHS delivery unit now. I hope that it is having more success than the First Minister’s delivery unit. However, I would be most grateful to understand how it fits into the department for health, how it works with the health boards and what exact responsibilities it has in implementing day-to-day policy in the Department for Health and Social Services.
The second statement that I would seek is from the Minister with responsibility for planning in relation to the Williams commission. I appreciate that the report is sitting with the First Minister at the moment. There is no certainty as to whether that report will go forward or not, because, obviously, the Government has not indicated whether it is taking it forward, although the First Minister seems, from his rhetoric, minded to take it forward.
Two of the authorities that I represent in the South Wales Central region are currently discussing their local development plans and are at various stages of the LDP process. Considerable money has been spent on that process. Obviously, if that report were to be taken forward, in the instance of Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan, those two authorities would cease to exist and we would have one authority. I seek assurance from the Minister with responsibility for planning that he is working with local authorities to facilitate the LDP process to go forward, or, if there is doubt, to ensure that measures are put in place to safeguard planning departments from planning by appeal, because there is a real risk that the whole LDP process could fall into disarray with the proposals that are currently put forward in the Williams commission report.
In relation to your comments regarding the NHS delivery unit, it is my recollection that that unit has been there for about 10 years, so it is not a new phenomenon.
On your question regarding a statement from the Minister for Housing and Regeneration in relation to planning and the Williams commission, you will appreciate that, while the report obviously sits with the First Minister, and we will be having a debate this afternoon, it is actually for several Ministers—it goes right across Government—to bring forward comments and statements on the report in due course. As you can appreciate, it is a very large document; we are all currently working through it. As we go through the coming weeks, we will be reporting and bringing to the Chamber many statements regarding the commission’s report.
I understand that the UK Government is currently developing plans to allow some of the most vulnerable refugees from Syria to come to the UK. These may include victims of torture or abandoned children who have some really considerable support needs. So, I would welcome a statement from the Government updating Members on what discussions you have had with the UK Government about the role that Wales can play, and how we can ensure that all of the complex needs of refugees are met.
You bring a very important point to the Chamber. I know that my colleague, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, visited the Welsh Refugee Council yesterday, where he was able to talk to Syrian refugees and hear their stories. There have been no specific discussions with the UK Government on the role that Wales can play. You will appreciate that immigration policy is not devolved to the Welsh Government, but we fund three organisations through the new equality and inclusion grant to support refugees and asylum seekers, including the Welsh Refugee Council. I know that the Minister yesterday undertook to do what he could to make representations to the UK Government on behalf of two families that he met yesterday. The Minister is here and has heard your question. I am sure that he will make additional representations if that is what is required.
Minister, I heard what you said about the annual debate on the Estyn annual report, and you are right, of course, that we do that each year. However, may I suggest to you that, in the light of the discussion outside this place of the procedures of this place, a debate is not always the best way to hold Government Ministers to account? It would be good, I think, in the light of what Estyn had to say about some unfortunate backward trends within leadership and school standards, if the Minister were prepared to make a statement perhaps not so much on the Estyn annual report as such, but in particular about the preparedness of the regional consortia to undertake their tasks going forward. He has already told us that they have to be in place by the end of March, and that he wants to see them fully up and running and ready to undertake all of their tasks. We will not have a real chance between now and then to ask him about whether he is convinced about that and whether he needs, for example, to take further powers, as he has discussed in the past. So, I think that a statement on that issue would be extremely useful for all of us.
I will have a discussion with the Minister regarding that specific point. As I said, there is a debate scheduled, but I will speak to him on that and inform the Member.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
This item has been postponed.
One of the consequences of climate change is that periods of severe and unpredictable weather are becoming more prevalent. In recent weeks, we have witnessed significant storm damage and flooding. Late last March, Wales experienced snowfall and low temperatures that had not occurred in a generation. That followed hard on the heels of a year of poor weather. The severe snowfall and associated cold weather created significant difficulties for a number of different business sectors, including agriculture.
I visited a number of farms affected at the time and met with farming families who were evidently in considerable distress. At that time, I also put in place a number of support measures, including derogations from carcase disposal rules, a major financial contribution to the leading farm charities, and early common agricultural policy payments to farms in affected areas. However, I was struck forcibly by two questions: first, were our collective contingency response arrangements across Wales sufficiently robust and fine-tuned to respond to a situation of that sort? Secondly, why were businesses that, on average, had enjoyed rising incomes over the preceding five years apparently so vulnerable in financial terms to external events? That is why I asked Kevin Roberts, former director general of the National Farmers’ Union in England and Wales, to carry out a review into the resilience of farming in Wales.
Kevin structured his review in two phases, with his initial work focusing on my first question and the second stage looking at the wider resilience of farming in Wales, with a particular focus on our upland areas. Kevin made an interim report to me last July to enable the Welsh Government to address any urgent needs in terms of preparedness for contingent events. Kevin has now concluded the second phase of his work and I have today published his final report.
One of Kevin’s key recommendations from the first phase of the review was the need to establish a contingency management plan, in addition to the Welsh Government’s well-established emergency response arrangements, to help deal with isolated severe weather and other problems for farming and rural communities. A rural resilience manager has now been appointed within my department, and the implementation of Kevin’s initial recommendations is well under way. This work has included the creation of a resilience network, led by officials from within my department, that can help gather rapid and accurate information on the ground in any future emerging situations—an aspect that proved particularly difficult last spring.
We have met with farming and other stakeholders to help drive this work forward. I very much welcome their support for our proposals. This is very much a shared endeavour.
Presiding Officer, for the second phase of his review, Kevin Roberts has spent a great deal of time meeting with farmers, their representatives and a wide range of other partners and stakeholders across the industry to gain a full picture of the issues facing farming families and farm businesses in Wales.I would like to take this opportunity to thank Kevin for his considerable energy and commitment in preparing his report. His work has, among other things, been especially important to me in helping to inform a number of my recent CAP decisions.
The financial and other analyses that Kevin has undertaken highlight that it is our upland cattle and sheep farmers who are most susceptible to weather-related difficulties and wider volatility in the marketplace. This is not to say that the dairy or any other sector of the farming industry are immune to these problems, but, on the whole, they seem better able, and in some cases, better prepared, through efficient and effective business planning, to cope with the consequences. Kevin’s report therefore identifies that it is our upland farms that need continued public support to survive and then thrive, but he strongly recommends that support from medium and long-term business development must be the way forward, rather than ongoing and declining direct subsidy. That is why he recommended a full 15% transfer, available through CAP reform, from pillar 1 direct payments to the new rural development programme. Linked to that, Kevin recommends a comprehensive and well-funded package of measures through the new RDP to help our agriculture industry to modernise, become more competitive and improve its resource efficiency. He also highlights a number of other ways in which farming, particularly in upland areas, might be maximised.
Kevin’s report makes 41 recommendations in total. In particular, he highlights the need for a tiered and tailored approach to our business development services in Wales, which focus on enhancing farm technical performance in an environmentally sensitive manner. Alongside that, he proposes that there should be a substantial programme of investment in farm infrastructure. Although his initial discussions with insurers have suggested that there is little appetite to create new so-called ‘catastrophe insurance products’ for farmers, Kevin recommends that further work be done to pursue this concept, which seems to work effectively in other countries in the EU and elsewhere. I intend to take this matter up with Ministers for agriculture in the rest of the UK to see whether we can adopt a collective approach that will benefit all our farming communities.
Another strong message emerging from Kevin’s report is the need to deliver targeted, rather than generic, support to the upland areas of Wales. This is consistent with many of the recommendations of the upland forum, which my department is currently taking forward. Kevin makes the point, as the forum has already done, that there should be no contradiction in pursuing policy goals in the uplands that generate benefit for agriculture and the environment. The two objectives are interdependent. Kevin underscores the need for actions that will achieve multiple outcomes. To help advise on this element of work going forward, I will be announcing further developments to the composition and work of the upland forum in the near future.
Kevin’s report is clear that improved technical and professional performance on-farm is only part of a solution to building a resilient industry. The wider supply chain needs to play its part in meeting the challenge of developing new products and in increasing sales at home and abroad. The work of Hybu Cig Cymru is crucial in promoting our already strong brands of Welsh lamb and Welsh beef. Assembly Members will already be aware that I recently joined Hybu Cig Cymru on a number of overseas trade missions to help play my part in opening up new and emerging markets. Through new product development we must also look at ways in which we can build domestic markets and how we can increase our market share within the wider United Kingdom.
This review provides further insight into the challenges and opportunities for our agriculture industry, and I am grateful to everybody who has been involved in the process and has helped Kevin Roberts with his work. I have already addressed some of Kevin’s central findings through my recent decisions on CAP reform. I also intend to accept all his other recommendations, many of which will be taken forward as part of my RDP consultation to be launched on 13 February at our annual Welsh farming conference. I urge everyone with an interest to take part in the consultation process and to help us shape a new groundbreaking rural development programme, investing in the long-term future of Welsh agriculture and our wider rural economy. I will report further to the Assembly in the autumn on actions to follow up Kevin’s review. In the meantime, I commend this work to Members.
I, too, extend my thanks to Kevin Roberts and everyone who took part in the review. It is clear, Minister, that this is something that farmers in the uplands have been saying to you for many years, and this report substantiates what they have been telling you. I would like you to clarify, in relation to your resilience manager whom you have appointed to work in the Welsh Government, whether you have adopted the draft contingency plan that was drawn up. In particular, will you be acting promptly to ensure that any derogations or modifications to the EU regulations—or clarification, as he refers to in his report—will be sought quickly so that that is immediately in place when the next RDP comes into being? One of the biggest problems, as you will recall, was carcass disposal, last spring.
As Kevin Roberts’s report recognises, hill and upland breeds play a vital role in the stratified sheep sector in Wales. He has clearly indicated that a reduction in stocking levels would negatively impact both the livestock sector and the environmental health of the uplands. He identifies de-stocking as potentially being as much of a problem in the uplands as overgrazing. You have indicated that you will accept all of his recommendations, so will you be introducing a stock-related scheme equivalent to Tir Mynydd that is linked, as it were, to numbers of sheep grazing in the uplands to ensure that there is not de-stocking? If not, how will you tackle the issue of de-stocking? Will there be some sort of areas of natural constraint scheme? How will you look at that? You have said that you will prioritise the roll-out of the advanced Glastir scheme on moorland; will that look at, for example, stocking rates, or will that address only the environmental measures that you see as equally important?
The review has called for a multifaceted uplands package, with better grassland management and uptake of better performing genetic stock. How will you deliver the management of the sustainable grazing regimes that you aim to maintain in the upland areas, and how will you encourage the uptake of better performing genetic stock? How will you ensure that moorland farmers entering the scheme will not be met with the same difficulties that farmers have previously been facing in Glastir? Will you be looking at a small grant scheme and a part-farm approach specifically designed for the uplands? Will that be available in moorlands, too?
It has been made very clear that business knowledge and diversification, particularly for upland sheep and beef farms, is crucial to ensure their long-term sustainability. However, it has also been identified in the report that many of these farms are in areas where they find diversification difficult, presumably because there are access difficulties, or they do not have access to broadband or communications. Therefore, how will you introduce measures that will help those blockages to diversification that were identified in the report?
I notice that you have accepted all of his recommendations, so what is the point of launching your consultation if you have already said, ‘I accept all of these recommendations and these are what I will be acting on’? Are you saying that you have accepted them but that you are willing to have your mind changed, or are you saying, ‘I’m accepting them, but I just want to hear your views; I may not listen to them, but I would like to hear them’? I am not really very clear how you want to take that forward.
I think that Members are even less clear on the nature of that final question. I will be announcing next month a consultation on the RDP as a whole, and the consultation will debate and discuss how we take forward these recommendations. You will see from reading through the report that Kevin has made a number of recommendations, for example how we take forward business support and extension services. The consultation will discuss how we do that and the nature of that work. That, to me, is a very significant and substantial issue that is worthy not only of consultation, but serious debate up and down the country. I guess that the Member would probably agree with that, on reflection.
Many of her questions referred to Glastir and to the management of stocking levels and other related issues in the moorland and other parts of the country. I remind the Member that we launched a Glastir consultation last week, and many of the questions that she has asked will be answered by reading the document that was published last week. The issues that you refer to in terms of stocking levels and their flexibility were addressed directly in the document that I published last week.
In terms of the direction of travel, we have adopted a draft contingency plan and it is in place. It is being debated and discussed with stakeholders and others, and that work is being taken forward. We do not seek derogations until they are required; you would not have derogations in advance.
I was, again, confused by the question on the stock-related Tir Mynydd programme. There will be a debate on the RDP as a whole, and different schemes that might form a part of the rural development plan can be debated at that time. However, the Member seemed to be suggesting a return to headage payments, which is not something that we have in mind. I have not heard it suggested elsewhere, and that is certainly not going to be the direction of travel.
In terms of taking these matters forward, we are making a number of different announcements as we move through the first quarter of this year. I would ask the Member to take these different announcements as a whole, and regard them as a suite of different policy interventions to help support agriculture in Wales. We have had the announcement on pillar 1 payments of CAP. We have had the announcement on the review of Glastir. Today, we are making an announcement on the resilience review. We will be taking forward other matters over the coming weeks. I hope to publish the Malcolm Thomas report next week and I will be publishing the consultation on the rural development plan on 13 February. It would be useful if the Member were to review those documents, because I think that she will find that many of the questions that she asked were answered in those documents.
I also wish to endorse the thanks given to Kevin Roberts for his work; clearly, 41 recommendations deserve some consideration, so that we can weigh up the bigger picture as we bring all of those recommendations together.
One of the clear elements in what has been outlined is the emphasis required on increasing productivity while reducing environmental impacts. The sustainable intensification agenda is an agenda that the Environment and Sustainability Committee has been looking at in its inquiry into sustainable land management. I would like to hear the Government’s views on the potential of sustainable intensification, given that the response that the committee received from stakeholders from the agricultural and environmental sectors has been relatively cool.
I warmly welcome the references to the need to develop livestock markets and local abattoirs. I think that they have a key contribution to make and that they are very important elements in the chain that we want to make more robust. The capacity of the energy infrastructure in the uplands is also something that has been previously raised in this regard, and I think that the time has come for us to see more action on that front.
Mobility within the sector is highlighted in the report, and that means creating opportunities for young farmers to come into the industry. However, in order to do that, opportunities must be created for others to leave the industry. Has the Government had any discussions in the light of this report, and, if not, will you hold discussions with the United Kingdom Government, and the Treasury more specifically, to look at which considerations could be developed around the taxation regime that, very often, holds back those transfers?
You have regularly said that the work of Kevin Roberts will influence your decisions when it comes to reforming the common agricultural policy. I would say, as I have done in the past, that the recommendations should have been made public sooner, so that they could have contributed to the wider public debate around CAP, rather than simply informing your considerations as a Government.
When we talk about strengthening the food chain—and I am pleased that Hybu Cig Cymru is recognised in that regard—it is important that we do not forget that we need to protect the resilience of Hybu Cig Cymru too. Therefore, I want to ask you what progress has been made in relation to the suggestion that initial discussions on amending the red meat levy have taken place. Does this review make that change more of a priority?
Finally, Kevin Roberts highlights the major difference that exists between the best-performing businesses and those that are somewhat middling in terms of upland farms in Wales, never mind those farms that are the poorest performers. There is a perception among Welsh farmers that the Government is turning its back on those who may be at the bottom of the efficiency and competitiveness league. Therefore, what message do you have for those farmers, Minister, following the publication of this report? What assurance can you give that this Government will not leave behind anyone who wants to come on this journey?
They have my word that that will not happen. The burden and purpose of the analysis that you have seen, and in accepting the recommendations made by Kevin Roberts, is to ensure that people can come on this journey with us. When you have had more of an opportunity to analyse the report, you will see that Kevin says that there is a need to prioritise the sheep and beef sectors in the uplands, by ensuring that those who require assistance receive it, and not just some kind of one-size-fits-all assistance as has been the case in the past, but the assistance and support that farmers need for their particular farms. That is an important point, which is included in this report, and it is something that I will be emphasising over the ensuing period as we come to implement the recommendations.
I agree with your point about the social and linguistic importance of agriculture, and I accept that we need to evaluate the kind of policies that we adopt as a result. I would welcome any proposals that you might have on how we could do that. We, as a Government, evidently have some ideas, but I accept that this is a challenge, and I would be very happy to discuss this further should you have any proposals to make.
I also accept your point about sustainable intensification, but that is easier said than done, and easier said than elucidated. I believe that people see this in different ways on occasion and that there are different analyses and definitions. We must ensure that we move away from the old sterile argument that you can either sustain the environment or produce food. We have to move away from that. I do not believe that that kind of debate, which we have had in the past, has been of any assistance to agriculture or to the environmental debate in Wales. Agriculture has to be a sustainable industry for the long term—sustainable on the social side, the financial side and the business side, and sustainable in the environmental context. All those things must coalesce.
I will publish next week a report by Malcolm Thomas, which will consider the kind of discussions that you have suggested are required when it comes to mobility within the sector. There will be an opportunity for us to emphasise that later this year, but I accept that this is an important point.
Finally, Hybu Cig Cymru is exceptionally important to both the sector and the industry. I have a major concern about the levy—I believe that we all, across the Chamber, agree on this—and it is something that I have emphasised during discussions with DEFRA. I have held a number of meetings with DEFRA to discuss the matter, and I am in the process of writing to DEFRA at present to propose that we take the opportunity, as we review the agriculture development board later this year, to conduct a deeper review of the levy and of the levy system in its entirety, for each of the United Kingdom nations, in order to ensure that we have a levy system that is equitable for all and reflects people’s needs. I will be reporting back on this matter.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement today.
I would also like to thank Kevin Roberts very much for all the effort that he has committed in producing this wide-ranging report.
Since joining the Assembly, it has consistently been a theme of mine that upland farming is vital to the future of Wales. Indeed, it is a sector that needs further support, particularly our prestigious lamb industry, if it is to survive and to flourish. Indeed, just today, in response to a question from Sandy Mewies, the First Minister was again stressing the vital importance of CAP support to the industry. Be it the unilateral decision that we had to cease upland support for farmers, or indeed the decision to cut further incomes through the step that you took on the 15% modulation, our hill farmers have been getting an increasingly poor deal from the Welsh Government, and I am particularly pleased to see that Kevin Roberts has picked this up in his report, and is looking for action.
When talking about farming resilience, a key element is always going to be the sustainable use of our land. This report, as well as previous documents, such as the widely praised ‘State of Nature’ report, highlights the danger of monoculture environments developing across Wales. It is, indeed, our uplands where this danger is most acute. As such, I am glad to see that the report highlights the need for a higher level of agri-environment access for farms within the newly designated moorland areas. This is something that needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
In coming to questions, I am glad to see that the report also highlights the need to aid diversification across our uplands here in Wales, be they moorland or a severely disadvantaged area. The two sectors that naturally present themselves as suitable for such diversification continue to be the forestry industry, and, as we have heard previously, the energy sector, and I am pleased to see the focus that the report places on both. However, given the Welsh Government’s existing energy technical advice, and the way in which it limits and concentrates development into very limited areas of Wales for that development to take place, are you willing, Minister, to engage with the First Minister, to ensure that reviews take place, in order to facilitate this kind of energy diversification?
In terms of expanding forestry, only last week, in the Environment and Sustainability Committee, in the context of the ongoing inquiry into sustainable land management, which Llyr Gruffydd referenced, we heard from forestry professionals who expressed serious concern that the Glastir woodland element was not currently addressing the needs of the industry. Given this, will you please detail what you feel could be improved within Glastir so as to further aid upland farmers, especially those on key moorland sites, to ensure that there is the potential for the development of economic forestry, so as to add greater resilience to their businesses? Also, could you develop how you see the RDP contributing in the future to issues related to the catchment management around our rivers, referencing the need for greater resilience in the face of flooding?
I was also pleased to see the references made to local abattoirs, and, indeed, the network of livestock markets. Local multiples across the supply chain make this a critical element to the sustainability of the industry. Finally, Minister, in these days when farms across Wales are undertaking scanning operations to see the lambing rate that is to be anticipated in the spring, what can the Welsh Government do to aid research in terms of genetics and so on to increase fertility rates but also, crucially, to make the range of cheap breeds more applicable and appropriate to the upland setting that is so challenging for the future of the industry?
On the final point, we have already started conversations with the National Sheep Association about how we can look towards developing support for the improvement of genetics and the health and management of different flocks. We know that there are significant and substantial differentials in flock management, particularly in the upland sheep sector. We know that that is one issue that will have a significant impact on overall farm incomes. I take issue with the Liberal Democrats on what they said about unilateral decisions to remove support from various farmers. I was in the last Assembly and I remember there being cross-party support for those matters. In fact, I remember that Mick Bates, who chaired the Sustainability Committee at the time, actually led some of those debates under the former Minister. Of course, she will remember how she came in front of the committee to receive a very warm welcome from all sides of the committee on some of those matters. So, it might be worth while for the Member, as well as reading his questions, to read the transcript on which those questions are based.
I will also say that to suggest that the farming community gets a poor deal from Welsh Government is to either misunderstand or, frankly, not read the documentation I published this morning. You will see that there is probably the most substantial business and sector development programme being put in place to support the sector. It is not a matter of simply saying that we can increase a subsidy here and increase a subsidy there. When you actually look at and understand the numbers and data I am publishing, you will appreciate that a subsidy level is simply not sustainable in order to ensure that the future of upland agriculture, and upland sheep in particular, is one that we would be able to guarantee. I did ask the Liberal Democrats for support when I was arguing on some of the financial issues over the past two years on the reform of the common agricultural policy, and all I received was a deafening silence.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We have heard from the spokesperson from each party. We are already over the time that the Business Committee allocated, so I ask the next speakers to just ask questions.
The recommendation I am particularly interested in, which I am pleased that Kevin Roberts included, is on energy self-sufficiency. Even in upland areas, this is far more complex than just putting a photovoltaic panel on an outbuilding. Technologies such as biomass and micro-hydro need to be further examined, I would suggest, and promoted. Perhaps Community Energy Wales could have a role to play in supporting Farming Connect in mentoring and sharing best practice here if it was put on a more official footing and had adequate resources for that. I would appreciate the Minister’s comments on that.
I would like to look at how we can develop those ambitions. In many parts of rural Wales, of course, the network and infrastructure do not exist in order to provide significant inputs to the grid that would generate significant profits. However, certainly in terms of reducing input costs on farm energy production, it is something that I hope will become the norm rather than the exception, and certainly a significant part, or a part I should say, of the new rural development plan will be seeking to address those matters. If the Member has any suggestions to make I would be very happy to hear them.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
May I ask what priority the Minister intends to give to the section on payments for ecosystems services contained within the report? Specifically, does he intend to hold any negotiations soon on the section on energy efficiency and renewable energy, where the report emphasises the lack of infrastructure to link farmers to the grid so that they can create sustainable energy from various sources, including wind turbines and hydro-generation, so that they can maintain an income and pay for their agricultural activities?
I think that that is the challenge we face. I am happy to continue and to hold the kind of discussions that the Member suggests. We all understand that the infrastructure is currently not adequate in all parts of Wales, and the Member’s constituency is a perfect example of a place with the capacity and the need to develop sustainable energy. However, the infrastructure is not there to sustain that.
I return to the Ynni’r Fro project, which has been successful in terms of proving how the Government can support communities, farms and businesses to invest in sustainable energy. I want to see more of that in the next rural development plan, and I want to see an emphasis on that, so that we achieve not only the targets for the future of farm businesses but also climate change targets.
Given the Minister’s statement last week regarding the 15% diversion from pillar 1 to pillar 2, and his intention to use that money to make farm businesses more sustainable and profitable, could the Minister outline his ideas, please, for how investment and lessons for farmers in improving the genetic capability of their livestock, for instance, in the Elan valley, or in the hills above Abergwesyn, will make up the difference in the shortfall of income that he has taken away?
If the Member understands fully the current CAP system, she will know that there are considerable variations not only between Wales and England and other administrations, but between individual farmers in what they receive in terms of their subsidies. In terms of the overall broad analysis of the move from a historic-based payment—where the maximum payment per hectare is over £400 and the minimum is £6—to a system that is more transparent and fair, the overall impact will be better for the more extensive hill and sheep farmers than it will be on other businesses. We understand that and we acknowledge that.
However, in terms of where we are going, if the Member understands and reads the data that I have published today, she will see—
I have it here.
Take some time to read it.
She will see that the difference between the best-performing businesses in those areas and the average is absolutely immense. It will not be covered either by a 15% pillar 1 contribution or the totality of that contribution, in some places. The only way in which we will be able to guarantee the future sustainability of this sector is to develop a financial model that is viable in the future, when further cuts are made to the CAP budget. She supports a Government, of course, that sought ‘significant reductions’ in CAP 1 budgets. I fought that for two years and she said nothing at all.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 15:48.
Minister, thank you for your statement this afternoon. I appreciate it. I worry a little about the lack of focus on the lowlands, because I appreciate the terrible—[Interruption.] It is a serious fact, because the serious weather that we had last year was in the uplands, but if you go back to 1978, 1982 or other episodes of serious weather, the lowlands and the dairy industry, in particular, were severely affected—for many weeks, they were unable to get product out.
However, my question to you today is: will the Government be match funding the 15% modulation taken out of pillar 1 and put into pillar 2? I understand that, in a conference on Thursday, you confirmed that the Government was match funding that money. I would be grateful if you would confirm that here in the Chamber.
Your friends and neighbours who attended the meeting on Thursday will have heard me say that we will be clearly match funding the rural development plan as a whole, and that we will be match funding it at above the legal minimum. I have not yet concluded conversations with the Minister for Finance, who will have heard your question. When I have done so, I will make a further announcement on that. We intend to conclude those conversations by the time that the rural development plan consultation is launched next month.
I will say to the Member—I know that he has a particular interest in the lowlands of Wales and farming in the lowlands—that we are seeking to develop a balanced approach, recognising where the greatest problems and difficulties actually lie. That means taking a targeted approach to using public investment to support the industry as a whole.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
This statement provides an update to Members on recent developments in relation to transport. We all recognise the importance of bus services to communities and the challenges for service provision, particularly in rural areas. I am clear that this is an area where the Welsh Government should take a greater lead, and this is reflected in my decision last autumn to step in to ensure continuity of service for communities in west Wales when a major bus operator pulled out. The regional bus strategies that were consulted on last year provided a starting point to make progress, but it is clear that we have more to do to ensure that bus services are sustainable in the context of challenging budgets.
I have announced interim changes to bus funding for the next financial year and I will be using this period to refresh our policy in relation to bus services and develop a new approach to funding. To support this work, I am establishing a group to advise me. It will comprise of representatives from bus operators, local authorities and other interests, and I have asked Dr Victoria Winckler, director of the Bevan Foundation, who recently undertook a review of TrawsCymru services, to participate. In advising on the development of a sustainable, long-term approach to bus policy, the group will be asked to look at service provision as a whole. I want to draw on good practice across the UK to inform our thinking. For example, in the south-west of England, they have focused on systematically integrating general bus services with services that enable access to education and to health to generate efficiencies.
To make improvements, it is clear to me that we need to be absolutely explicit about our objectives for bus services. A priority must be to maximise the number of fare-paying passengers and the coverage of the commercial network. The new group will advise on the practical steps that can be taken to attract and retain fare-paying passengers and to remove barriers, enabling services to run efficiently. I am keen to move quickly to secure real, practical improvements on the ground for those communities that rely on bus services or suffer due to a lack of provision. I have been working with local authorities in Ceredigion and the Vale of Glamorgan to trial a new integrated solution to the provision of bus services.
There is also a role for community transport in delivering some services, and this has emerged as a priority from the work that I commissioned jointly with the Minister for Health and Social Services. Progressing this will be part of the remit of my new group.
The process of agreeing arrangements for reimbursement of the concessionary fare scheme in the future is nearing completion, and I will update Members when the process has concluded. At the same time, the smart ticketing back-office system for the concessionary bus scheme is being re-tendered and that will help to reduce administration costs. I am also looking at a range of options for harnessing the benefits of smartcard technology for transport.
My department is also working with a number of bus operators to explore the potential to introduce pilot young persons’ concessionary fare initiatives. I hope to be able to make an announcement on this very shortly.
My previous written statement set out the changes that I am making to the arrangements for grant funding for local transport projects and road safety activity. Local authorities will receive funding directly from the Welsh Government, rather than working through an additional layer of bureaucracy with the regional transport consortia. My statement also confirmed that I intend to develop a new national transport plan that will also reflect regional priorities. The city region boards will advise me on priorities for inclusion in this new transport plan from their areas and develop their role in co-ordinating transport delivery.
The metro is a key focus, obviously, for the south-east Wales city region board and there is already good progress on this complex, probably £2 billion transformational project. Following the report from Mark Barry, I have appointed a metro implementation group to make detailed recommendations on the implementation plan by the summer, and progress has already been made, with an initial investment of £77 million in transport improvements.
I have established the Cambrian railways implementation group to report on the implementation of improvements on the Cambrian rail line by 1 February 2014. The group’s work is being informed by a report produced by the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury railway liaison committee. I have also asked the Heart of Wales line forum to submit further advice on a review of the costs and benefits of the additional services timetable and proposals for resources to progress community rail development and longer-term service and local management aspirations.
Electrification of the Great Western main line and the Valleys line is progressing. We are engaging with the supply chain to ensure that Welsh businesses are in a position to benefit from the substantial investments being made in rail infrastructure and rolling stock across the UK over the next 10 years. Last week, Bombardier Transportation UK Ltd, Hitachi Rail Europe and Alstom Transport hosted a rail industry supply chain event in Cardiff in conjunction with the Welsh Government. The event at Cardiff City stadium was targeted at companies already active in the rail industry, as well as businesses in other sectors, to raise awareness of the diversification opportunities.
The ministerial taskforce on north Wales transport, chaired by Lesley Griffiths, Minister for Local Government and Government Business, is making good progress. In its first two meetings, the taskforce has focused on building the case for north Wales rail electrification and on identifying broader transport priorities for the region. Following discussion in the taskforce, I have written to the Secretary of State for Transport, asking him to ensure that the north Wales main line should form an intrinsic part of any further assessment of the case for electrification.
Work is well under way on all of the pinch point schemes. Subject to agreement with the stakeholders, we are on programme to complete the schemes by the spring of 2015, as planned. For example, good progress has been made on the junction 33 M4 westbound dedicated sliproad, with work starting on the site next month.
Minister, I thank you for your statement. The shadow Minister for transport is unable to be with us in the Chamber today, so I have a few points and a few questions to ask you in his place. As I said, I warmly welcome the broad update on a wide a range of transport issues that you provided the Chamber with today.
Minister, the statement refers to the development of a new national transport plan and says that the city region boards will advise on priorities for inclusion in this plan. Could you explain whom you will be consulting with on this plan in areas that are not represented by city regions? That is my first question to you. Secondly, city regions are becoming less and less separable from other transport issues, certainly in south-east Wales. This is all tied in with the metro, and you have mentioned the electrification of the main line and the Valleys line. Could you provide us with a timeframe within which you anticipate these projects will be completed? Could you also update me on what discussions you have had with the departments responsible for delivery in Westminster?
You talk about working with Ceredigion and the Vale of Glamorgan to trial new integrated solutions to the provision of bus services. These are areas that have been hit, as we know, by cuts. Will you provide more detail on these trials, and could you provide an indication as to when these trials will start and how long they will run for? I would also be grateful for more details to be provided on the range of options that are being looked into for harnessing the benefits of smartcard technology, which I know you mentioned briefly, for transport. I note the fact that the smart ticketing back-office system for the concessionary bus scheme is being retendered. Could you provide us with details on how long this tendering process will run for and on when a final decision will be taken?
I will put my other hat on, as Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee. You will remember the committee’s look at the whole issue of integrated transport within Wales. Some of the witnesses in that inquiry said that it was a ‘devilishly complicated thing to achieve’. We looked at the whole issue of smartcards and integrated ticketing. How do you see us going with that? They are not always the same types of scheme, and I know that some people would like to see an Oyster-type scheme, like the one operating in London. However, we realised that there were huge difficulties with achieving that. Do you think that that is achievable in the medium term?
Also, the committee recently looked at the Arriva franchise, which is up for renegotiation in 2018, 2019 and 2020. Are we on time for that? There have been concerns about the Government’s progress and response to this. We need to ensure that progress is made as soon as possible, so that if electrification of the Valleys line is going to happen within the timescale that we would like to see, the companies are able to get electrified rolling stock. There is no point at all in proceeding with electrification of the metro system if we are not going to have the right rolling stock for 20 years or more. That will involve a certain cascading of rolling stock. In light of the committee’s recommendations, do you intend us to have a wider cascaded rolling-stock scheme, which would be very difficult to achieve and is something that I do not think has been done in the same way elsewhere in the UK? If Wales could go down that route, it might have benefits, though I appreciate that there are problems.
Finally, you mentioned the M4. I think that I am right in saying that this issue is out for consultation at the moment. Within that consultation, there have been a number of responses. In looking at the press, I know that there have been some in favour of the Government’s route, but the blue route, as preferred by Professor Stuart Cole, has been gaining some traction as well. Could you update us on when you will be making a final decision on the M4 and relieving some of the misery of commuters on that stretch of road?
Thank you very much for your comments. If I may go in reverse order, with regard to the M4, the consultation has finished and we are currently looking at the responses. I hope very much that I will be able to publish the consultation responses shortly, then it is a process involving a timetable noting what we will look to do. I will update Members when I am able to do so. Over and above what might happen on the M4, there are issues relating to the Brynglas tunnels and those particular areas. I hope to make a statement to the Assembly on that matter shortly, updating Members on maintenance and other issues that might help in the short term.
In terms of the Arriva franchise, the recommendations made by the Enterprise and Business Committee following its inquiry will be considered specifically when we look at the specification for the new franchise and its development. There is an issue in that an improved devolution settlement with respect to rail services is also an objective for us, as the Welsh Government, to ensure that we have the resources to deal with those particular issues. In very real terms, you are absolutely right about the issue of smartcards and the complex nature of the issues surrounding them. You made a good point about the Oyster card as well and whether that is something that could be looked at. Perhaps if there was a metro it might be possible, and there are lots of issues around that. If it would be helpful to Members, I am more than happy to make a specific statement on the issue of smartcards and where we are in terms of the retendering. I know that there is considerable interest around the Chamber in this issue, so we could return to it.
In terms of Ceredigion and the Vale of Glamorgan, once details are available—although the Vale of Glamorgan and Ceredigion have some good ideas and the Vale is doing some stuff already—I would be delighted to share that work with you. We want to see how it runs in both those areas to see if we could extend that best practice elsewhere. This is increasingly going to become an issue, because when we see local authorities looking at reducing their budgets for subsidies, where is that going to hit? For example, I have had representations concerning Wrexham and the impact on bus services there. We will have to look very carefully at what good practice can emerge and how we deal with these issues in central and local government.
In terms of the metro, I have indicated previously on the time framework that we are looking for work on the analysis by the summer. I shall have a clear picture on timescales before the Easter recess, which I will be more than happy to share with the Chamber. The city region boards will give me advice on the national transport plan because they exist, as it were. I also have the group that is chaired by Lesley Griffiths in north Wales that can help me, but I have direct discussions with the others involved, outside those groupings, regarding how they might wish to input into this discussion. It is important for us to recognise that there are a lot of issues emerging in relation to transport, but with reduced budgets we have to make sure that our money is harnessed in the correct way. That is why I say that bus services are so important. There is no point in us running services that people are not using. It is very important that we recognise what people require services for: is it to get them to work? Is it to get them to a certain point where they can access other transport? That is the type of work that we will be doing over the next few months.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I warmly welcome the Minister’s further statement and the movement that takes us closer, I hope, to integrated public transport in Wales. May I congratulate her also on the establishment of a group to advise her further and, particularly, to build through collaboration between bus operators—companies such as Lloyds Coaches and GHA, which have taken over the X94 route, which is very important to us across north Wales—local government and other partners? It is important to develop a sustainable integrated service between buses and trains. How swiftly does the Minister hope to implement the pilot scheme for concessionary rates for young people, because that is particularly important for young people travelling to their place of work or to further or higher education or training? How does she intend to progress with her intention to pay local government directly rather than using the regional transport consortia? How soon will she be able to set out the regional priorities in her national transport plan?
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Then, I have just a few questions on the north Wales taskforce, chaired by her fellow Minister Lesley Griffiths. I warmly welcome the fact that that work has commenced, particularly the intentions in relation to the electrification of the north Wales main line as a priority, and asking for the support of the Secretary of State for Transport within the UK Government to ensure that that happens.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Will she also raise the hopes of those of us who hope to live long enough to be able to travel on an electrified route from north to south Wales? We therefore need to look at the whole issue of the Marches line, because it is a nonsense to say that it is not appropriate for this line to be electrified as a main national route within Wales because it happens to be on the Marches for a number of miles, because this line is the transport link, and a potential freight link, between north and south. I hope that she will continue to consider that route, because many of us use it at least twice a week.
Thank you very much for your comments. I do regard some of the issues around electrification as being key, not just in the south, but in the north. Your point is well-made about the links between north and south Wales. In terms of the issues around the taskforce and electrification, it has been concentrating on the electrification case and I have been in correspondence with the UK Government. I have a meeting, actually, I think next month. One of the issues that will be key to me is how we develop this. We have to get our business case in quickly, and that is the indication that I have had from the Department for Transport: we have to get all our ducks in a row, and we really need to get everything in place to make sure that we can make progress on it. That is for the good of Wales, and it is important to have those links across the border into England. We must not miss out on any electrification projects.
There are a number of other issues that obviously arise in terms of transport and the ministerial taskforce in north Wales. It is obviously very concerned about some of the issues around buses, delivery of roads, maintenance of the A55, and enhancements within that area.
In terms of the regional transport consortia, I am moving to arrangements where capital funding will be allocated on a competitive basis directly to local authorities, and this for me, I think, will ensure better value for money. I am also determined that I will no longer provide revenue support for the transport consortia. However, if local authorities wish to maintain their organisational structures, that is a matter for them. Obviously, I am mindful of the implications for staff, and I have been discussing some of these issues with local authority leaders yesterday, so you can be reassured on that.
In terms of concessionary fares for young people, this is a matter that we are developing with bus operators, and I very much hope that we will have a positive announcement in the next few weeks, which I think will be good news. It is important for us to recognise that that is a group that really needs help and assistance, particularly in terms of finding employment. When you look at the cost of transport for them as a proportion of what they might earn, because they are not even eligible for the minimum wage in a lot of areas, it will be very good to be able to do something very proactive on that level.
I am also keen, as you are, to see more work being done on the links between bus and rail in areas, and if you can get people by bus to a rail point, how they can then get in. In terms of the bus operators, we tend to talk about the large bus operators, but there are very successful small bus operators all across Wales that have done their best in terms of delivery of service, have excellent local arrangements, and have a good understanding of what is required within the local economy and in terms of natural transport links. We will be continuing to work very proactively with them as well, as we review whatever we can do in terms of maintaining as many bus services that are viable as possible.
Thank you very much, Minister, for that update on transport policy. I particularly welcome the initiative on buses. I had a few questions about how the national transport plan will ensure that walking and cycling play an important part in transport policy. How will we ensure that local authorities will bid for transport capital infrastructure projects that will encourage walking and cycling? Now that we have the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013, how will we ensure that it makes an impact and becomes an integral part of the national transport plan?
My colleague John Griffiths is taking forward the Active Travel (Wales) Act, and all the issues surrounding that. I know that he has had a good response across Wales to the proposals that we are taking forward to ensure that people are active in terms of their travel with cycling and walking. One of the key issues for me is road safety for the parties involved, whether they are walkers or cyclists. In terms of road safety, I have been particularly concerned about Safe Routes to School. We have looked at what is required now in terms of Safe Routes to School to put at its heart the safety of the child going to school. The same thing applies in terms of cyclists. I see this as being very much integrated into proposals and developments with the national transport plan. I have to say that I am, perhaps, going to have to consider further guidance when I am delivering new roads about what is actually required in terms of better standards in those areas.
Thank you for your statement today, Minister, and also for the written statement of 20 January. I am very glad to welcome the new bus advisory group. I wonder whether the Minister would agree to write to Members with the membership of that group and its terms of reference in due course. However, perhaps before that, could you give us an indication of whether this is a long-term advisory group or whether it is task and finish in nature and intended to input into the development of the bus strategy as discussed? I would also be interested to know how the work of this group will relate to the work of the users’ advisory panel announced in that 20 January statement.
Minister, I am delighted that the Vale of Glamorgan and Ceredigion are to pilot new approaches in bus transport. You are well aware, I know, of the difficulties that constituents in my own region have had to face in this area. Of course, we would be interested in more detail, so we thank you for the promise to give that. Also, the metro concept is very exciting and is changing and developing over a period of time. We would, around the Chamber, I am sure, welcome detailed statements on this as it progresses.
In terms of ticketing, I think that it is a very important issue, and while we are disappointed by the slow progress of the all-Wales Oyster card due to the technical difficulties, I am very glad that work is continuing. While I would note that there are infrastructure troubles when it comes to implementing something like this on the trains in Wales because of the stations, there are fewer problems when it comes to implementing it on buses; in fact, Cardiff Bus operates a system not dissimilar to this already. I wonder whether you can give us an indication of when you feel that that might be possible to implement on an all-Wales basis for buses.
In terms of costs, I am delighted also to hear of progress on a young persons’ concessionary fares scheme, which is very important. However, the cost of transport is also a major issue for part-time workers in Wales, and I wonder what discussions you have had with bus and train operators on the possibility of introducing part-time season tickets to help lower the cost of transport for part-time workers, or, if that is not possible, perhaps a carnet system of ticketing, which will allow people to save money if they are travelling regularly but not necessarily every day.
We are delighted by the progress on the electrification of the Great Western main line and the Valleys lines. It is a huge opportunity for Wales, and it brings us within those magic two hours of London, one of the world’s great megacities, which obviously has economic potential for us. I welcome your engagement with train builders in your recent Cardiff event. I wonder whether the Minister can confirm, then, whether that means that the Welsh Government is intending to purchase, or is certainly actively investigating purchasing, new rolling stock. While I note that two of these companies build infrastructure, one of them does not: it only builds rolling stock.
We welcome the work of the ministerial taskforce on north Wales transport, and the focus on electrification in north Wales, which is something for which this party has been calling for some time. We think that there is an opportunity here to strengthen that business case for the north Wales line by talking about the link with high speed 2 and, of course, the important connectivity of the line to London. However, key to that is the dualling of the Wrexham to Gresford two-mile stretch, to make that case and improve the possibility for increasing the frequency of services; I hope that you will have a look at that.
Finally, both statements refer to regional planning. Can you confirm whether the regional consortia are now effectively abolished, given the withdrawal of both their responsibilities and the funding to them? If not, can you confirm what powers and funding they retain? In terms of regional priorities being set by city region boards, while I understand the economic reasons for that in areas where there are city regions, it does not mean to say that there are, necessarily, bodies in other parts of Wales that do not have city regions that are making the case for the priorities for rural Wales. I wonder whether you can tell us how regional planning will be accomplished in rural Wales with neither consortia nor city region boards to do that.
If I can deal with the last point first—thank you for those many and varied points—the regional transport consortia are joint committees of local authorities. My decision to change the funding arrangement does not preclude local authorities from continuing to work together on a regional basis and to share expertise and resources. I would hope that local authorities would continue to collaborate via their officers et cetera to bring forward some of these particular issues. I discussed these issues fully with local authorities yesterday. They raised various points with me and I will have to consider further how I have this ongoing dialogue. In terms of the city regions, it is relatively easy, and it is relatively easy now with the taskforce in north Wales, in terms of that issue, but I am mindful of other areas in Wales that are not included in this, such as Ceredigion and Powys. I am meeting Ceredigion council to talk about some of these issues on Friday.
Turning to some of the other issues that you raised with me, interestingly, about rolling stock and everything, yes, it was a nice collection of companies to discuss various issues with and to see how companies could become involved in the production of other things. I am interested, actually, in the issues around rolling stock. I have made no firm decisions as yet, but I think that it is always well worth exploring all of these matters. The important thing is that a lot of companies came to that event, they made good contacts with these larger companies, and I think that a lot of business is going to be done as a result. When you think of the rail industry, all of the skills that we have in the automotive and aerospace sectors actually fit very neatly into all of the skills that are required within that industrial sector as well. The electrification thing is good, because it is what I regard as the magic to enable anybody from London to come to south Wales in two hours, which is also very important.
I think that you raised a very interesting point, which I am not aware has ever been considered—it certainly has not been raised with me—about part-time workers and season tickets. This is certainly an equality issue, given the number of women who work part time, and I would be more than happy to see whether anything has been raised historically and to focus on some of the work around that particular area. You are quite right that it is not just about young people, but about other disadvantaged groups, and rail fares for a part-time worker could be a huge amount in terms of the transport costs to allow people to have an element of employment.
In terms of the metro, I would be more than happy, as we make progress, to give Members an update with Mark Barry and the group. I can arrange that, if Members would like that, for them to see what progress has been made, where it is and what has been discussed. I think that it would be quite good to have a question-and-answer session on these issues, because I know that there is such an excellent and broad spread of support across the Chamber for the metro concept and its development.
In terms of my bus advisory group, it is a short-term group at the moment, in terms of helping with strategy. I would be more than happy to set out details of the group’s membership, its current remit and everything for Members and to indicate to you how it relates to the users’ panel.
In terms of the Vale and Ceredigion, I think that there is an awful lot of useful work that we can do in those areas. I also advise Members that Stuart Cole’s report has now been completed, and I will be making it available for Members, together with my response to his recommendations, very shortly.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have three Members left to speak, but I do warn them that we are in ‘Just a Minute’ territory now. [Laughter.] I call Russell George.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I am pleased by your recognition of the importance of bus services, particularly in rural areas such as the one that I represent. I have a big postbag on this issue, particularly from elderly people who see the bus routes as a lifeline. So, there is a particular issue there.
May I just ask that, when you are seeking to set up this group, you will have good representation from rural areas, and from local authorities representing rural areas in particular? I think that that is important.
I am pleased with the ongoing work on the Cambrian line and on the Aberystwyth to Shrewsbury line. Steve Kaye, who is the chair of the Powys Federation of Small Businesses, has raised a relevant issue, I think, which is that the line could act as a carrier service between the towns along the route. Shrewsbury acts, of course, as the main depot for the Royal Mail, so I would appreciate your comments on that and also on whether you would agree to discuss that particular aspect with your officials.
I am more than happy to take up everything that has come from the FSB in Powys about these issues. I think that that is very good. We are progressing very well with the work on the Cambrian line and discussions on the Cambrian hourly service. I think that it is very important that we look very proactively at what we can do within the limits of the resources that are available.
Minister, I was very grateful for the update on the rail situation in north Wales. One thing that you did not mention, or provide an update on, was the potential for a direct rail link to Liverpool. As you know, Liverpool is an extremely important commercial centre for the people of north Wales, and the north Wales tourism industry relies significantly on people visiting from Liverpool and the wider Merseyside area. So, I wonder what discussions you and your officials may have been having with the Department for Transport in the UK regarding the re-establishment of that direct link along the Halton curve.
It is entirely appropriate—and Lesley Griffiths is in the Chamber—that that issue, and the issue that was raised about dualling and links by Eluned Parrott earlier, are matters that the taskforce in north Wales can consider. That has been helpful in looking at the integrated approach.
Minister, you have made it clear that you intend to continue developing a new national transport plan that also reflects regional priorities. As you are fully aware, I have been campaigning to dual the A40 in Pembrokeshire for many years, as I believe it would be of huge economic benefit to the people whom I represent. In October last year you said that you were very interested in the prospect of dualling the A40 in Pembrokeshire, given that it is part of the trans-European network. Can you confirm for the record today that dualling the A40 is now certainly a Welsh-Government objective in the long term and that this will be included in the national transport plan in the future?
We are, obviously, currently carrying out work, and the national transport plan will be about not just the priorities for transport but the affordability of what we can deliver in terms of that plan. I think that I will be clearer on the priorities when I know what the cash is and how I will then have to stage the priorities. I think it would be disingenuous of me to say over and above that this would be an ambition for us in the Government, but it will be dependent upon the resource that is available.
Motion NDM5414 Lesley Griffiths
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 26.36:
Agrees to dispose of sections and schedules to the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill at Stage 3 in the following order:
I move the motion.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I do not have any speakers.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There is no objection. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of William Graham, amendments 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the name of Elin Jones, and amendment 6 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Motion NDM5412 Lesley Griffiths
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the Report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery.
I move the motion.
We know that public services face unprecedented challenges, with a perfect storm of downward pressure on funding and increased demand on services. These pressures are not sustainable, and something has to change. That is why the commission that is now known—by its shorthand, I suppose—as the Williams commission was set up. What then did we ask the commission to do? Quite simply, we asked it to produce an honest, independent and robust report on how our services are governed and delivered now, and how that needs to change in order to meet the needs and aspirations of people today, and to provide a sustainable basis for the future.
The report is comprehensive and detailed. Some of it makes uncomfortable reading for local government, for us, and for other public services here in Wales. There may be things in the report with which we do not agree, but we will respond positively and we will seize this opportunity to make a real change to how our services are delivered.
What, then, does the report tell us? It tells us that performance is far too patchy. The variation in performance between authorities is described as ‘wide and often inexplicable’. It cannot be right that one council can take more than a year longer to complete a disabled facilities grant scheme than another or that more than one in four looked-after children in one local authority had three or more placements last year, while in another the figure is less than one in 25. There are problems with scrutiny and governance, which are not effectively supporting and driving improvement, and the commission finds that basic standards and principles of governance are not being applied consistently and effectively. Scrutiny needs more status, and its capacity to drive change needs to be enhanced. There are wide variations in efficiency. If all authorities were to reduce their waste-handling costs to the level achieved by Swansea, the saving would be around £24 million per year. If all authorities were to reduce their corporate costs to the level achieved by Rhondda Cynon Taf, the saving would be around £38 million per year.
We do not accept that there is widespread deterioration in local public services, because the report highlights the consistently strong performance from fire and rescue services in Wales, but some services are not where we want them to be, and demand is only likely to increase in the coming years. We want to see better governance and better delivery of services despite these challenges. Resources are scarce, and they will remain scarce as the UK Government continues to reduce public expenditure. We cannot afford to wait to act until a more favourable financial climate returns.
The commission’s findings cannot be considered in isolation of the wider financial position. We are clear that this is not just about pounds and pence, but about improved performance, better governance and stronger local delivery, as well as making better use of limited resources. Efficiency and value for money are important, but they are not the yardstick by which alone we will measure success; we also need to think about the cost of doing nothing, because inaction would be very costly.
Let me be clear: this report was never just about mergers in local government, although that is, of course, where the focus of the discussion has centred in the past week. I am clear, and the commission is clear, that reorganisation is not a magic bullet; we cannot just reorganise or merge and then sit back and wait for things to improve. We need better governance, better leadership, more effective scrutiny, and a proper relationship between those who provide a service and those who rely on it. We particularly need to see better scrutiny of senior officers in some authorities.
Many of us will remember the last reorganisation. It is inevitable that people will fall back on previous experiences, but what takes place this time will be very different. The commissioner recommends merging existing authorities, not splitting authorities or, indeed, redrawing boundaries. We need to think carefully about how that transformation is supported, but we will not be replicating structures that were designed for a different time and a different task, unless they help us to deliver.
We will be working on our response to the commission in the coming months, but other work does not stop. We will continue to develop and implement reforms to improve public services. We expect all of those responsible for delivering devolved services to continue to improve their delivery, and that authorities will continue to work together to improve performance. Collaboration will remain vital, no matter how boundaries are drawn. Vulnerable people require public service partners to collaborate, integrate and work together to design and deliver services around the needs of individuals, families and communities. We know that collaboration makes a difference—the national procurement service being one example.
Let me talk about the timing. It is quite clear from the wording in the report that the report’s recommendations will need to be taken forward swiftly. As far as my party is concerned, we will be consulting between now and the end of March. We will then arrive at a formal party position and we intend then to move forward based on that position. We need to get it right, of course. We have the powers to make the legislation needed to implement changes, but, inevitably, developing that legislation will take time.
I would like to ask the First Minister for clarity on the timetable. You talked about the consultation with your own party, and, of course, we are doing likewise. Does that mean that a Government position needs to wait for a Labour Party in Wales position?
Like all parties, we will be consulting with our members. There will be a Government position by March. After that, we will look to move forward with legislation. I do not want to hang around on this issue, but, as I am sure Members will appreciate, there is a need to take soundings in terms of ensuring that party members are fully aware of what the proposals are. However, this is not a process that can take months. This is a process that needs to be done properly, of course, but it has to be done in a timely manner.
I invite other parties, of course, to put forward their views on this matter. I would like to work towards consensus, where it is achievable. It is preferable that these changes should go through on the basis of as much cross-party support as possible. That, of course, will need discussion between the parties, and there can be no timetable imposed on that. I think that it was misunderstood, at one point, that somehow the Williams commission was suggesting that we should be in a position to agree and legislate on everything by Easter. Clearly, that is not going to be the case. However, it does show, of course, that there is a need to move forward with change sooner rather than later.
Turning to the amendments, we will support amendment 1. We want to put in place a time frame. That time frame in terms of the delivery of potential legislation will need to be in place by the end of March or beginning of April. That is something that will be done, hopefully, in consultation with other parties. In terms of amendment 2, we will support that. We will have to oppose amendment 3, because much has already been taken forward to integrate. Annex G of the full report, for example, from the commission presents a comprehensive analysis of health and social care integration, with a clear rationale for the commission’s conclusions on this matter. So, the issue was fully considered, although, of course, the commission did not come to the conclusion that there should be a full process of integration of health and social care under the aegis of one body. In terms of amendment 4, we will support that. Inevitably, if there are to be fewer authorities, there will be fewer councillors. In time, consideration will have to be given to what the cap is in terms of the number of councillors per authority.
In terms of amendments 5 and 6, we cannot support these amendments. The commission’s report is about delivering better service for the citizen, not electoral arrangements. Leaving aside the views of the different parties on the single transferrable vote, for example, this is not the right vehicle, I believe, for examining this issue, now and in the future. What is important is that we have a robust system of public service delivery in Wales, one that, at the end of the day, delivers consistent services for the citizen. That is the major issue identified in the commission’s report, namely the inconsistency of what happens across Wales. More needs to be done to ensure that that inconsistency disappears. That means looking very carefully at the nature of local government organisation in Wales—that is true—looking at how public services can work together and making sure that we have a structure for the delivery of public services that will stand the test of time for many years to come.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the six amendments to the motion and I call on Janet Finch-Saunders to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of William Graham.
Amendment 1—William Graham
Insert at start of motion and renumber accordingly:
1. Calls upon the Welsh Government to indicate a timeframe to respond to the recommendations in the Report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, and
2. If minded to implement the recommendations in the Report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, calls on the Welsh Government to define:
a) the function and structure of any new local authority areas;
b) a transparent system of monitoring and evaluating service delivery in those areas;
c) the anticipated number of electors per councillor in those areas.
I move amendments 1, 2 and 3—[Interruption.] Sorry, amendments 1.1, 1.2(a), (b) and (c)—[Interruption.] Amendment 1—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
It is amendment 1 and it has subsections in it.
Okay. I move amendment 1.
Amendment 1 calls on the Welsh Government to indicate a time frame to respond to the recommendations in the report of the commission on public service governance and delivery. If you are minded to implement the recommendations, we call on you to define the function and structure of any new local authority areas, and a transparent system of monitoring and evaluating service delivery in those areas.
We support amendment 2, tabled by Elin Jones, and the report’s findings of the need to reduce complexity in public services and that any changes to public service delivery should improve outcomes for our citizens.
However, First Minister, I am somewhat disappointed to learn today that, while this report was only out last week and we were calling for you to provide some very strong leadership on this, you are now saying that you expect all the mergers to be in place for Easter. However, until you have had those discussions—[Interruption.] You have said that all mergers were to be in place—[Interruption.]—or agreed by Easter. What you did not tell us last week was that this is all dependent on your own party discussions. However, in the media you have made great statements about how this very much needs cross-party support.
The Williams commission, although welcomed as a means to look strategically across all public service delivery, poses as many questions as it does recommendations. The lack of reference of a cost-benefit analysis within the original remit of the commission is somewhat baffling and raises further concern. Local authorities the length and breadth of Wales are looking to you, First Minister, to show strong leadership. The question remains as to how we got where we are, and where we are now in terms of empowering those charged with administrating their duties in delivering essential and vital services in a transparent, accountable and democratic manner.
It is rather interesting, is it not, that 12 of the key recommendations focus on the need to up the game in terms of the current workings within our public service delivery? This begs the question as to whether there is strong leadership within the Welsh Government and whether it is fully accountable to the people of Wales.
You have often stated that local government is unsustainable. So, we ask this now: where is your clear direction of travel? Why do we have to wait until you have had those discussions within your own party? The people of Wales deserve better.
Many within local authorities, including front-line workers, senior management—[Interruption.] I did not see you, First Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Are you giving way?
I am very grateful that she raises the point about leadership. What is her party’s view on that?
This is a report commissioned by you. The ball is very much firmly in your court, First Minister.
Our front-line workers, senior management, executive and backbench members are now left in limbo, unable to plan on a short, medium or long-term basis. Many employees in local authorities have actually gone through a very painful and lengthy job evaluation process. Only yesterday, we highlighted the same concerns that the Wales Audit Office did about the lack of planning for the short term and mid term in financing in local authorities. We have witnessed many scandals across—. There have been spurious pension payments, behind-closed-doors increases and costly compromise agreements, not to mention the sad number of local authorities in special measures. It is four years until these mergers take place, but what mergers are these? All mergers are to be agreed in principle by Easter.
First Minister, you need to come out now and state your clear way forward. Will your proposals to merge two or three authorities—. You know, we have so many issues that would address it. Software: across the piece now, there have been problems with data sharing and problems like that. You owe it now to your staff or senior officers, elected members, service providers and, most importantly, our service users and taxpayers to step up to the mark. The spotlight for public service delivery responsibility is now upon you. It is time to step forward, step out of the shadows and speak up.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Leanne Wood to move amendments 2, 3, 4 and 5 tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the evidence presented in the Commission report on the need to reduce complexity in public services and affirms that any changes to public service delivery should improve outcomes for our citizens.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the report’s recommendation to begin the process of integrating health and social care, and regrets that the merger of these services was not considered fully.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Believes that if a reduction in the number of local authorities is agreed, then a reduction in the overall number of councillors should take place.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes that voting reform for council elections was not part of the Williams Commission’s remit but believes that the implementation of STV would be the most appropriate method of electing a reduced number of councillors.
I move amendments 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the name of Elin Jones.
It was inevitable that the publication of this report would be met with a debate about lines on maps. However, this commission was tasked with examining public service delivery, and I welcome the work that the commission has done in this respect. I want to say from the outset that I am disappointed that the commission’s terms of reference were constrained from the very beginning. The commission should have had greater freedom, particularly in the area of health. However, although the commission’s hands were tied, the Government’s hands are not, and the integration of health and social care remains a live issue.
Now, it could be argued that it is somewhat odd to hold a debate on this matter now. An alternative approach might have been to work with opposition leaders to see whether a joint motion could have been agreed, which would have sent a clear signal on the part of the Government. This was a Government commission, and we still await a full Government response. I, therefore, want to use my contribution to this debate to ask some questions that I would like the Government to address this afternoon.
First, what is the Welsh Government’s preferred timetable, bearing in mind that the implementation of most of the Williams recommendations do not rely on the issue of local government mergers? I think that we all agree that one of the most startling findings of the report was the wide variation in service provision. One example is that of the difference between Conwy and Newport in times for transfers of patients. Was the Welsh Government aware of the scale of the variations or was this news to the First Minister? I was struck by the apparent poverty of aspiration that Williams describes. Being at the Welsh average appears to be the height of ambition for many leaders in the public sector. Is average acceptable to the Government? It should not be. It was noticeable that there was no mention of the word ‘excellence’ in the First Minister’s opening remarks. Surely, we should be aiming for at least good, but preferably excellent, public services.
As for the Welsh Government’s programme, Williams had this to say:
‘The Welsh Government’s Programme for Government…must constitute the apex of this framework. At present it does not do so well enough…it contains almost 250 indicators. While some of these are genuine outcome measures…many others are measures of output, process or input relating to local authorities, the NHS, other service-providers or the Welsh Government itself.’
Some might say that this sums up the Welsh Government in a nutshell. Is the First Minister prepared to look again at his programme for government, and will he agree to publish a new version that reflects the Williams commission’s recommendations in this area?
Any reform must, at its heart, aim to improve services for the people of Wales. We need to be talking about what they are talking about, and people must be at the centre of this. The last round of local government reorganisation was built on wholesale horse-trading. This has been an unmitigated failure. It must not be repeated again this time. The Government must get this right.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on Peter Black to move amendment 6 tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Regrets that voting reform was not part of the Williams Commission’s remit and believes that any reorganisation of local government should increase accountability through the introduction of STV for council elections, as recommended by the Sunderland Commission, and as currently happens in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
I move amendment 6 in the name of Aled Roberts.
For me, the biggest surprise following the publication of the report was how quickly the First Minister and other Members of the Labour frontbench moved to try to get a cross-party consensus on this. What we have in front of us, in my view, is a Labour Government commission, and a Labour Government report that is owned exclusively by Labour Ministers. I am pleased that the First Minister made it clear today that that is the case, and if he needs to talk to other parties, there needs to be some concessions to our views about how this should be taken forward.
I very much regret the implication that this report has to be accepted wholesale, and has to be swallowed by us as it is written. We need to have some discussions about what is being put in place in terms of boundaries, voting systems and a whole range of issues about how public services will be delivered if there is to be a cross-party consensus on this particular matter.
There was no consultation on the terms of references commission, or on its membership. There was a crude attempt at cross-party representation without inviting the parties to nominate, which meant that not only was there no Liberal Democrat member, but there was no Liberal Democrat representation, or, indeed, that of Plaid Cymru or the Conservatives on this commission either.
In terms of the commission’s report, as has been said, I think, by Leanne Wood, the terms of reference were flawed. It did not look at health; you cannot address public services in this country without addressing health. It did not look at the voting system. I know that the First Minister said that this is about delivery, but it seems to me that service delivery is also about public accountability. If you do not have accountable local government, you are not going to have efficient and effective delivery of services to local people. You will certainly not have service delivery in terms of what people want out of their local councils, and you will continue to have the democratic deficit that has existed in Wales for some considerable time.
The report itself, in my view, is an over-long bureaucratic nightmare written in consultant speak. The reliance on current boundaries as building blocks is flawed and has no regard to natural communities. That is a problem that has to be addressed as part of talks about how we take this report forward. I think that the decision to leave national parks alone was a bizarre decision and one that should be addressed in terms of how we can make those national parks more accountable and effective.
All of the indications are that if this report is carried out as it is currently written we will be creating huge Labour-dominated monoliths delivering services more remotely, and we will still be beset with the problems that we currently experience with collaboration and partnerships, particularly in terms of health. It seems to me that we cannot implement this report too quickly. We have to do this right and we have to make sure that this is implemented correctly. This is the third reorganisation of local government in 40 years. We cannot be here again—or our successors cannot be here again—in 20 years’ time debating this again and talking about how local government boundaries were wrong the last time it was done. We need to make sure that this reorganisation is one that will last a considerable amount of time and one that will deliver better services across the whole range of public services, including health. That does not just involve coterminousity of boundaries; it involves a proper allocation of responsibilities to the relevant bodies, so that we make sure that we make the best use of the budgets that are available to those bodies and that they are delivering in the best possible way, without the sort of duplication that we are getting now, for local people.
Therefore, it seems to me that what we are faced with here today is, effectively, a fait accompli. I am not prepared to accept that fait accompli and the Liberal Democrats are not prepared to accept that fait accompli either. If the First Minister and the Labour Party, after it has been consulted and has discussed this within their ranks, are prepared to come to talk to us about what we really want out of this, we will talk to them. However, if you are not prepared to talk about the sorts of things that I discussed today, I think that this is going to stay your report and your implementation, and I am afraid that we are going to be back here in 20 years’ time, doing this all over again.
Although I see from the Plaid and Lib Dem amendments that they are using this debate as a vehicle for electoral tinkering that is the equivalent of watching paint dry, I do welcome this opportunity to contribute today, because whatever your take on the Williams commission and its recommendations, I think that we should all take heart from the fact that we are finally having a holistic debate about the future of public services in Wales. While I broadly accept the rationale that some kind of change is needed now, I cannot help but feel that we would have been much better off grasping this particular nettle much earlier in the lifetime of this Assembly. In places like Torfaen and in town halls and civic centres up and down the country, a radical reshaping of local services is already under way, like it or not, with councils making deeply painful decisions about services that people depend on because of the brutal cuts that we have been handed down from Westminster since 2010.
Of course, I do recognise those key challenges facing public services described in the report. Yes, public services are too complex and too fragmented. Yes, there are issues about scale, capacity and ability to deliver, and, yes, there is a clear need for better leadership, improved governance, scrutiny and accountability, as well as that less tangible but, nonetheless, critically important cultural shift that must take place in the years ahead. However, for me, the overriding question that remains unanswered is whether reducing the number of local authorities, particularly at this time, is the panacea for delivering that kind of change, especially when, on reading this report, it often feels like the commission started from the point of saying, ‘We need to cut the number of councils’ and then worked backwards, rather than keeping all options on the table and actually working out which model for our public services will most likely achieve our aims and ambitions for Wales in the future.
Take education, for example, which is surely the policy area where there is the most obvious gap between good policy here and its implementation out there on the ground. If the new systems already put in place to deliver improvement are the right ones—and I have no reason to doubt that they are—is there not an obvious danger that embarking on a long, complex and potentially very fraught process of local government reorganisation will derail that journey of improvement before the changes that we have put in place to try to fix the problems have even had a chance to bed in? Are we not also, at the same time as, quite rightly, bemoaning the current convoluted nature of public services, running the risk of adding to that complexity when we have a network of regional educational consortia operating within different geographical boundaries to those proposed for merged councils? Meanwhile, the fact that Ceredigion is currently our best performing local authority in terms of education and, yet, is also one of the smallest, should be enough in itself to strike a note of caution among those who dogmatically insist that bigger is, by default, always better.
For me, it is also really important, in light of the massive financial challenges that we face, that we listen carefully to the voices who have expressed concern over the likely cost of reorganisation, rather than simply shouting them down as harbingers of doom or roadblocks to change. At the end of the day, whether the true cost is £100 million, as Williams claims, or if the final figure is closer to the £200 million estimate that we have heard from the WLGA, we are talking about really significant amounts of money that we will not then be able to spend in other areas. While I recognise that, sometimes, you need to invest to save in the future, it is a pretty hard sell to the elderly person whose meals on wheels have been stopped, or to the community whose library has been closed, or to the residents who have had their street lights switched off. Indeed, I think that those people have every right to ask really searching questions against that kind of background.
While I accept the change is probably inevitable, and that there is a political momentum building that is becoming unstoppable, above all, today, I would like to reiterate my view that, having spent 15 years talking about anything but local government reorganisation in this Assembly, we now seem intent on rushing headlong into this process in a bid to meet an arbitrary Easter deadline for which there appears to be no rational explanation. Surely, if we have learned anything in this decade and a half of devolution, it is that we are better off taking our time and getting things right the first time, rather than making bad decisions on the hoof or for the sake of political convenience—decisions that we are forced to unpick later because thin s have gone badly wrong.
I would just like to make a short contribution on recommendation 178, which is the proposed merger of Powys County Council with Powys Teaching Local Health Board. I am not entirely against this proposal, but there are a number of significant barriers that I believe will make this proposal difficult to achieve. As the report rightly points out, Powys is among the most sparsely populated areas of the UK and, therefore, represents distinctive and unique challenges to public service delivery. There is a different model for delivering health services in the county. Those in the west rely very heavily on health services provided by Hywel Dda LHB and those in the east rely heavily on the services provided by two NHS trusts. Unless we have our own district general hospital, that is not going to change.
There are also other critical partnerships that emerge. For example, in the commissioning process for mental health services, the health board relies on Betsi for that provision, as I mentioned in questions earlier. In terms of education, Simon Thomas rightly pointed out last week that the local authority entered into a partnership last year with Ceredigion, which is already yielding positive benefits and improved performance levels across the county. Therefore, it is safe to say that, because of its unique position, Powys has had to work regionally and beyond organisational boundaries and borders to achieve service delivery objectives. That is something that public service providers in Powys are used to.
Are those collaborations perfect? Not by any means. However, as to whether further improvements are going to be forthcoming via a merger, I am not so sure. As I stated in questions to the Minister just last week, the merger idea has been examined as recently as 2010. A report that was produced and published by KPMG placed three options on the table: first, a full merger; secondly, two organisations remain, but with shared structures and functions; and thirdly, two organisations remain, with continued joint working. I know that, at the time, there was huge appetite among staff in all disciplines and across both organisations for more integrated working. There was also a realisation that many of the benefits, like aggregated cost savings and closer working between health and social care, could all be achieved through an integration process that did not involve a full merger. The rationale behind that thinking was due to several fundamental weaknesses that were identified at the same time. These were that primary legislation was required for this to happen; that there was no clear solution to reconcile the financial positions of both organisations, and in particular the issue of historical debt; that there was no redundancy policy within the Welsh NHS; that there was a governance gulf between the two organisations; that there was a significant lack of capacity between the two organisations to achieve a merger, which is particularly relevant; and that there was public concern about the democratic accountability. Williams states in his report that he feels that all of these challenges can be overcome, but I am not so sure. Yes, legislative barriers can be overcome with the full law-making powers now resting in this place. However, there are other challenges, particularly the historical debt, that have worsened since 2010.
Therefore, in his response, I would like the First Minister, if possible, to address three particular points that I will end on. First, when the merger plans were shelved, both bodies resolved to work in principle towards a merger, subject to a strong business plan and positive feedback. Has that process continued in the background? What efforts have been made by senior staff and Welsh Government to resolve the barriers identified in the original report, and what difficulties still exist? Secondly, what measures were pursued to deal with the LHB’s deficit and the issues surrounding governance that were identified in the original report? Thirdly, and this is a point that goes across the recommendations, what happens to the wider funding formula for local government? Is the Welsh Government going to recognise and address the current underfunding of Powys before such a merger goes ahead? If so, what would that funding model look like?
Despite the size and range of the report, I suppose it is inevitable that attention so far has focused essentially on pages 92 to 102 and annex H—not in this Chamber, I mean, but outside the Chamber, where people have been discussing the different proposals for the merging of local authorities and different configurations of boundaries. I want to make a few brief comments today about where I think the report has got a number of things right, and there are a couple of areas where I think that there are issues that need to be more broadly explored, as the Government considers its own approach to these issues.
Broadly, I am sympathetic to what the commission report says around issues of governance, leadership and culture in the delivery of public services. I think that it has rightly analysed the failures of collaboration in public services, which have been explored recently by the Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee as well. It makes very tellingly the point about the link between scale and performance, particularly in education. The Estyn evidence that it quotes is very clear and very firm. The commission also rightly addresses the big challenges facing local government at the present time—challenges of demography and an ageing population, challenges of austerity and the impact on public finances, and the challenge of rising expectations from the public regarding the quality of services that they want to see.
I very much agree with the need for a smaller number of stronger councils. Let no-one be in any doubt about that. Where I think the commission’s report is somewhat weaker is in the area of democracy. It does not give us an analysis of the appropriate role of local government or the appropriate relationship between local and central government. These are real issues, and they are confronted in every party all the time as to where those boundaries should lie and how delivery at a local level is held to account by central government, which is setting objectives. The issue of the functions of local government is also an area that is not addressed effectively within the Williams commission report. Answering these issues will be critical to building a consensus for reform across Wales. I am certain that if you talk to the public, they are not wedded to existing local authority boundaries: they can see the case for change and they are impatient for change. We need to answer some of those questions if we are going to take forward a consensus across Wales.
It is not a good time to be a councillor in any political party—either in Wales, England or anywhere else—at the present time. We know that councillors are having to deliver probably some of the most devastating cuts that they have ever had to do. They are not the reasons why anyone went into local politics, regardless of whether they are in a political party or independent. One of the questions that we have to answer is why go into local government. What is the role of local government? If you are going to develop a reform programme for reorganisation, you have to have a clear vision for local government going forward. I also think that it is right to say that we do not want, in the context of debate over local government reorganisation, to see those initiatives that have been already been taken to drive up performance—for example, the field of education and some of the recommendations being implemented now in the wake of the Hill review—being undermined by stasis within local government as people obsess about their future rather than about the very necessary changes that they have to deliver in improving performance in delivery.
I also think that we will need to look at the future of service delivery. Some services are going to have to be delivered in different ways. There is a jargon term ‘co-production’, which I really do not like. I prefer an older political language of popular control and democratic participation. However, the reality is that we are seeing people looking at new ways of delivering nursery provision and library provision in communities and new ways of delivering leisure provision. The likelihood is that we will need more of that in the future. We need that understanding that new ways of doing things will matter.
So, I want to see change and I want to see a smaller number of stronger councils, but I also want to see the building of a consensus across Wales to deliver that.
I must say that the First Minister’s statement this afternoon seems completely contradictory to what he has been saying thus far, which is that we have to respond clearly to the Williams commission report. He is telling us this afternoon that he is not in a position to give us the Welsh Government’s standpoint until there has been a consultation within the Labour Party in Wales. Having listened to Lynne Neagle’s contribution, First Minister, you have a job of work to do to persuade your own party on this matter. The Welsh Government will not have a standpoint on this until there has been that consultation within the Labour Party.
This reminds me of the period before the establishment of the National Assembly for Wales. We had a similar process of internal discussion within the Labour Party and created a constitutional settlement on the basis of what was acceptable to the Labour Party, on the basis of what could be pushed through the Labour Party and Welsh MPs. We all know that that constitutional settlement was completely deficient. We have spent 10 years and more trying to create a constitutional position in Wales under which the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government can work effectively for the people of Wales. If that is what we will get from this Labour Government in response to the Williams commission, we have no hope of being able to tackle these fundamental questions that Williams raises.
The fact of the matter is that the last local government reorganisation happened before devolution. We now have a National Assembly and we have a Welsh Government. Therefore, there are some services that can be provided and delivered nationally and there are some services that can be delivered regionally. We learned that lesson with the health boards—a similar Labour Government first of all established 22 health boards before realising that they were too small to commission and deliver effectively. Therefore, the number was reduced. There are services that will be delivered regionally, and there are services that will be delivered locally. The question for the Welsh Government, which it is obviously not ready to answer yet, is: how can those services be delivered more effectively?
The Williams report is clear that that cannot be done with 22 local authorities providing services in different ways. What we have in Wales is a pattern of nearly every authority doing something well, but also doing not so well in other areas, as a result of not having the expertise to deliver services effectively in every area.
It would be a mistake as well to believe that the Williams report exists in some sort of vacuum, and that we can only look at evidence presented to Williams. This morning, the Wales Audit Office published a comprehensive report talking about the need for local authorities to respond to the financial challenges that they currently face. The Auditor General for Wales, Huw Vaughan Thomas, is telling us that good things are happening but that he very clearly sees that these authorities are under immense pressure. He says that the cracks are starting to appear. There is evidence there too that change is required.
What is needed now is clear and strong leadership from the Welsh Government. You commissioned this report, First Minister, setting out conditions on what the commission could look at. Now, you are turning to us this afternoon and saying that you cannot give us the Welsh Government’s view on this until you have had a consultation within the Labour Party. That is not good enough from this Government, and is not good enough from you as First Minister. How do you expect to hold discussions with other parties when you are not prepared to give us your view? Until you tell us what the Welsh Government’s view is, there is no point in us having discussions, because we are not responding to anything.
Like the Member for Rhondda, I very much support the view that we need a smaller number of councils but that we need strong councils. However, I think that that then also raises the question that we need clarity in terms of the role of the Assembly in setting the policy framework and then the role of the new councils. So, we have to be clear about what precisely we want them to do. I think that we also have to take on board, and look at, the whole issue of the proper decentralisation of power to those new councils, with, perhaps, less micromanagement of activities that take place within them.
I have a certain amount of caution over the issue of the boundaries, because I think that there are opportunities that arise out of this report and out of reorganisation: for example, particularly affecting my constituency, whether there is a logic to putting together two of the poorest authorities in one area and conjoining them, as opposed to looking at the potential for broadening out the socio-economic basis of local authorities. It may be that it is not practical to do so, or there may be problems in doing it, but I think that it is something that we have to consider as part of the debate.
I think that there is another area in terms of local democracy that is considered by the report that requires further discussion: the role of community councils. The role that they play is very diverse across Wales. There may be a broader democratic role that they could play, and I think that some consideration needs to be given to that, as well.
One of the concerns that I have is over the timescale of the debate, because it has to be one that achieves consensus—this is setting the democratic norms for the next couple of decades, really—is the recommendation over early adopters, which seems to suggest that steps can be taken ahead of time. My real concern is that there may be a sort of piecemeal approach in some areas to moving forward, and there may be incentives that are not really clarified. That would undermine the consultation and the process of building a consensus around these proposals.
However, that having been said, this is an important report and it is one of the most important debates that we are going to have during the term of this Assembly. It is vitally important that we get it right.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the First Minister to reply to the debate.
I think that it is worth emphasising, first of all, that today’s motion is a noting motion. Peter Black seemed to have the view that this was, somehow, an attempt to force opposition parties to back what was said in the Williams commission’s report; that is not what this motion is about. I thought, in my naivety, that it might be an idea for Members to be able to debate this issue earlier on. I wonder why I bothered to do that now, but there it is; there has been an initial debate, whatever happens.
What is the Government’s view? I will explain it to Rhodri Glyn Thomas quite simply: there are too many councils. There need to be fewer councils. I note what is in the commission’s report and that must be the starting point. That is not to say that Members should feel that they should accept each and every recommendation that the commission comes up with; of course, that is not the case, but that has to be the starting point for any discussions.
It is preposterous that there are 22 trading standards departments. There are 22 social services departments that have struggled for 18 years to recruit people and to provide the right level of mentoring for new people who join those departments. We have 22 local education authorities, six of which are in special measures. I have to say that, with one or two of them, it is difficult to see how they will ever come out of special measures. That is not a sustainable situation. One local authority collapsed: Ynys Môn. That must give us cause for concern.
We have 25 local planning authorities. That is a severe drawback when it comes to trying to attract investment to Wales. The number of times that I have heard investors complain about the number of authorities that they have to deal with is remarkable. It is also the case that, while they are able to deal with ordinary planning applications, dealing with a large planning application is very difficult for them. They are not able to give pre-application advice, as the English authorities can, because they just do not have the capacity to do so. That cannot possibly continue in future; there must be fewer local authorities as a result. The only other alternative that I can see is that we keep the same number of local authorities but take some of their powers. We cannot carry on as we are; there is no question about that.
I would prefer to have local authorities that are strong, to have fewer of them and, indeed, to consider what powers could be devolved down to local authorities. I spend a lot of my time arguing for powers to be devolved from London to here. I am fully aware of the fact that the same argument applies to devolving powers to local authorities, as long as they are able to deal with those powers. I do not believe that they are able to do so in their present structure, but they might be able to in a future structure. That is something that we should consider, of course, as Members.
I am grateful for that contribution from the First Minister—it is a pity that he did not say that at the beginning of the debate; the debate would have been better if he had. He talks about numbers, and says that there are too many. I hope, First Minister, that your consultation is not going to be an internal, Labour Party consultation on exactly how many local authorities we will have and which local authorities will merge, in order to placate the Labour Party.
No. That should not happen. I must say that I would like to see what has been recommended by Williams being the focus of the debate.
Leanne Wood made the point that there should not be wholesale horse-trading—absolutely right. The last thing that we need is to spend months deciding what the boundaries should be, which ward should go where and what might be of advantage to our different parties. That is not what the people of Wales want. I entirely agree with her; there should not be wholesale horse-trading. The problem is that you then get Peter Black saying that there should be, in effect, lots of discussions about boundaries and about where communities should go. We have to have a consistent approach here. My opinion is that we have a proposal on the table—
In a second. It is not entirely complete, because we know that there is an open question with regard to the old west Glamorgan authority plus Bridgend and, indeed, further west that would need to be resolved. Nevertheless, that must be the starting point for any discussion. The difficulty is that, once you start looking at different boundaries, which authority merges with which authority and where communities should go, the whole thing starts to unravel. It is not a situation where you can just tinker around the edges, that is part of the difficulty.
I am not arguing for horse-trading. I am arguing that we should try to get this right. That means that we have to make sure that these local authorities reflect natural communities. I do not believe that the proposals, as they are set out at the moment, do that.
That is clearly an opinion that you have and is something that can be discussed, but I come back to the point that I made: once you start unravelling one or two, you pretty much start to unravel the lot. That has to be looked at with care. It does not mean that it should not be looked at at all—clearly not—but it has to be looked at with care; there is no question about that in my mind.
In terms of what Leanne Wood said about excellent public services, I did not say it specifically but it is what we all aspire to, surely. I join with her in supporting that. Peter, in his speech, talked about how we should look at the allocation of responsibilities—absolutely right. That is absolutely true. I come back to the point that I made earlier about how important it is to look at what goes where and at what powers might go to local authorities that might be able to deal with those powers.
We are also in a situation, as we know, of many local authorities spending an arm and a leg on employing senior officers, mainly because they are fishing in a small pond of senior officers. That means that we have seen incredible salary inflation for senior officers. Again, that is something that we need to consider in the future.
Russell George talked about the merger of Powys County Council and the local health board. I think that that can be dealt with. The commission said that that is something that could be dealt with. Yes, the deficit would need to be dealt with; that is right. In terms of how it would work, the commission has said that it would work well. Powys is the smallest authority in terms of population, as we know. There is scope for Powys being more innovative in the way that services are delivered within Powys.
The one thing that I would emphasise to Members is this: I see nothing wrong in consulting with my party. You have my view. The view that I will be putting to my party is that we have a report, we need to move forward and we need to make sure that local government and all public services are able to deliver excellent public service in the future.
I am coming to an end, Dirprwy Lywydd, but one thing that I would remind Members of is that this report is now on the table. The longer it takes to get to a resolution, the more difficult it will be for local authorities to recruit. It will be very difficult for local authorities to recruit senior officers, particularly, if they think that there is a limited lifespan to the job that they are being offered. It is not the case that there are many years that we can take to look at this issue. That will not work. An appropriate amount of time, of course; discussions between parties, of course; but there is no doubt, Dirprwy Lywydd, that, looking at the commission’s report—it is a very strong report—there needs to be change. Now, of course, the debate will begin in terms of what that change should look like.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that amendment 1 be agreed to. Is there any objection? No. Therefore, amendment 1 is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Amendment 1 agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that amendment 2 be agreed to. Are there any objections? There is no objection. Therefore, amendment 2 is agreed.
Amendment 2 agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that amendment 3 be agreed to. Are there any objections? There is objection, therefore, I will defer all further 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 conduct the rest of the voting on this motion, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are; ring the bell.
The bell was rung was rung to call Members to the Chamber.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. The five minutes are now up.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5412.
Amendment not agreed: For 25, Against 26, Abstain 1.
Result of the vote on amendment 4 to motion NDM5412.
Amendment agreed: For 41, Against 0, Abstain 11.
Result of the vote on amendment 5 to motion NDM5412.
Amendment not agreed: For 15, Against 37, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 6 to motion NDM5412.
Amendment not agreed: For 16, Against 36, Abstain 0.
Motion NDM5412 as amended:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Calls upon the Welsh Government to indicate a timeframe to respond to the recommendations in the Report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, and
2. If minded to implement the recommendations in the Report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery, calls on the Welsh Government to define:
a) the function and structure of any new local authority areas;
b) a transparent system of monitoring and evaluating service delivery in those areas;
c) the anticipated number of electors per councillor in those areas.
3. Notes the Report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery.
4. Welcomes the evidence presented in the Commission report on the need to reduce complexity in public services and affirms that any changes to public service delivery should improve outcomes for our citizens.
5. Believes that if a reduction in the number of local authorities is agreed, then a reduction in the overall number of councillors should take place.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5412 as amended.
Motion NDM5412 as amended agreed: For 52, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
That concludes today’s business.
The meeting ended at 17:23.