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.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Finance and Government Business, and question 1 is Mohammad Asghar.
The Public Services Portfolio
1. What discussions has the Minister had regarding the budget allocation to the public services portfolio? OAQ(4)0655(FIN)
I held discussions with many people regarding public services, and the outcomes are reflected in the draft budget, ‘Fairer, Better Wales—Investing for the Future’, which I published on 8 December.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Recent figures have revealed that three of the top 10 areas of the United Kingdom that have the highest concentration of asylum seekers are in Wales. Swansea was sixth, Newport eighth, and Cardiff ninth, of the top 10 in the country. What consideration was given to the pressure on local authorities’ budgets created by supporting asylum seekers in Wales when allocating funding through the public services portfolio?
Well, the Welsh Government funds the third sector in Wales to support refugees and asylum seekers through the equality and inclusion grant. Around £904,000 has been made available to the Welsh Refugee Council, the British Red Cross and the Trinity Centre over three years. And, in addition, Cardiff and Swansea local authorities have used their Supporting People programme grant to provide housing-related support for people with a refugee status.
The Welsh Government Budget
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of the Welsh Government’s budget on South Wales West? OAQ(4)0658(FIN)
Our spending plans set out in ‘Fairer, Better Wales—Investing for the Future’ meet the needs of the people of Wales, including South Wales West.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. You know, of course, in addition to the second campus by Swansea University, and the proposed second campus for Trinity St David, Neath Port Talbot College are also looking to expand and have a second campus. Can I ask you what capital is available in the budget to help the further education sector with these sorts of aspirations?
Well, I think you would be very pleased, I’m sure, with the announcements not only last week in the supplementary budget for this year, putting more money into twenty-first century schools, which actually includes money for FE as well, but also with the capital announcements that I made for the next financial year, which, of course, also, as part of the £120 million, includes funding for not only twenty-first schools, but the FE sector.
Minister, the announcement of over 1,000 job losses by Tata and the establishment of a taskforce by the Welsh Government actually took place after the publication of the draft budget in December. The budget yesterday was approved, but can you actually tell us whether you are putting funding aside to support the taskforce and its ambitions to support those who are losing their jobs and local investment? And have you had discussions with the Treasury in relation to their financial support for the taskforce?
I thank David Rees for that question. The Minister for Economy, Science and Transport updated Members, of course, last week in her oral statement on the second meeting of the Tata Steel taskforce and the actions that are being taken. As the Minister outlined, all four of the work streams have developed key initial actions that need to be taken forward. That includes the provision of a one-stop shop for support and advice to employees and the development of an enterprise zone submission. But we’re also, as the Minister explained, in discussions with the UK Government in terms of potential for enhanced capital allowances, and we’ll continue to press the case with the UK Government for accessing funding under the European globalisation adjustment fund. But also, as far as my role is concerned, I’m also meeting Commissioner Thyssen, from the European Commission, next month, to discuss these matters in Brussels, including any support that the European Commission may provide.
Minister, your draft budget shows a cut of almost £7 million to the flood protection budget. Considering the unprecedented weather that we’ve experienced so far this year, with heavy rain and winds of up to 100 mph in places like Porthcawl, what information did you have from the Minister for Natural Resources about the impact such a cut would have on the safety of my constituents, their homes and their businesses?
Well, the Welsh Government received £10.7 million in consequential funding in 2015-16 from the UK Government in response to the flood damage, for example, caused by storm Desmond and storm Eva. We’ve already announced £2.3 million for maintenance schemes and emergency repairs across Wales, and £0.5 million for A55 flood drainage improvement works, and, indeed, £1.9 million for the A55 Talybont flood alleviation scheme. Since 2011, we’ve also committed £300 million, including European funding, to manage flood risk and with an additional £150 million we’re investing in coastal risk management from 2018.
Minister, yesterday I raised with you the concerns of those in Swansea, whereby the council has removed funding for music services, and they were in a contract with Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, who have said that they will retain that service. But, how feasible it will be for them to be able to do so without that funding from Swansea is to be questioned. Minister, this has come before the budget has even reached local authorities. What will you be doing in conjunction with the task and finish group that the Minister recently put forward on music to make sure that this does not go ahead?
Well, of course the Welsh Local Government Association and, indeed, all the local authorities were very pleased that I managed to deliver a budget that had a far lower cut than was originally anticipated: an average of 1.4 per cent. So, now, and, indeed, as the budget was passed yesterday, providing more certainty to local authorities in terms of their budget setting process, of course, they will be, I’m sure, taking account of the outcomes of that task group in terms of music education, which, of course, was led by the Minister.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to questions by the party spokespeople and, first this afternoon, Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Alun Ffred Jones.
Thank you very much. Can you give us further details about the changes to the draft budget that were announced yesterday? We welcome the additional funding for the higher education sector, of course. Of that £31 million that has been returned to the HEFCW budget, can you tell us where this funding will come from, whether that be the reserves, or, if it’s not from reserves, from which budget will it come?
I can assure the Member, Alun Ffred Jones, that this will come from reserves.
Thank you very much. And the same question—and perhaps you explained this yesterday: in terms of the funding for local authorities, namely the £2.5 million to assist those that were hardest hit by cuts, where is that funding coming from? Is that from reserves or from another budget?
Yes, that is from reserves as well and, of course, it is being allocated as a specific grant to those three local authorities.
Thank you. In responding to your comments yesterday, the pledge to build a critical care centre in Torfaen, in Llanfrechfa as I understand it, was welcomed, and it appears that the cost of that will be some £500 million. Can you tell us what the expenditure profile for this scheme is and how it will impact on the capital budget within the health service over the next few years?
Well, of course, as part of my budget for 2016-17 I also announced, yesterday, a further £120 million in capital allocations. But, of course, the allocations in the pipeline as part of the Wales infrastructure investment plan include those allocations—those priorities set by Ministers in terms of their departmental allocations—and the updated pipeline was, indeed, published as part of my capital announcements.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, the devolution of tax powers in 2018 will be a huge development for the Assembly and, in many ways, unchartered territory. What is certain is that for every tax that is devolved, the block grant funding to us will be reduced. What discussions have you had with the Treasury regarding the formula that will be used to calculate these reductions?
Well, I thank Nick Ramsay for that question. I have, of course, been engaged in discussions in terms of fair funding for our budget for the last six years as finance Minister and, of course, we welcome the fact that a funding floor was announced by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor last year. But, of course, what we have in terms of that commitment does fall short of delivering fair funding over the long term, because the floor is set only for the course of the Parliament.
Thank you, Minister, and I also welcome the Barnett floor, but I was actually asking you about changes that will happen to the block grant because of the devolution of tax powers. Minister, while the initial reductions in the first year should be straightforward, future reductions will have to be indexed to economic growth and inflation or the Welsh Government budget could be subject to a new Barnett squeeze, but this time at the taxation end of the formula rather than the spending end. What form of indexing have you argued for with the Treasury?
Well, you’re quite right, Nick Ramsay, that we have to negotiate the offset to our block grant as a result of the devolution of those taxes that will come in April 2018. Now, it’s very interesting that the Scottish Government is still debating and negotiating the offset to their block grant, and, of course, I am working with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to ensure that we have a fiscal framework for Wales that can clearly identify those offsets, and clearly identify those against those wider needs. And I do again call on the fact that we do need to ensure that our block grant, in terms of the Barnett formula, is secured in a fair way with the funding floor.
Thank you, Minister. I quite agree that joint agreement on this area is absolutely crucial for tax devolution to succeed. Do you agree with me that any indexing of block grant reductions needs to be per capita, and could you tell us a little bit more about the progress that you’ve made in agreeing a fiscal framework over the longer term, to ensure that reductions in block grant funding are proportionate to the level of tax being levied in Wales so that we do not end up out of pocket?
Again, I’m very grateful for the question from Nick Ramsay, the opposition finance spokesperson, because it’s clearly important. I went to the chief secretary before Christmas, in our last meeting, to say, ‘I have got cross-party backing for my negotiations; cross-party backing for a fiscal framework.’ It can’t be just a one-off; it has to be a long-term fiscal framework, and it has to include that appropriate indexing, as you say, and ensure that we do have the offsetting of our block grant appropriate to our needs.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
And now the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, following on from those questions from Nick Ramsay, the press reports that the obstacle between the UK Treasury and the Scottish Government around these negotiations centres on the no-detriment principle, which the Treasury appears to be reluctant to agree to. Can I ask: is this a principle that you’re also taking forward in your talks with the Treasury, and what reaction have you had to putting that proposal to them?
Again, we not only learn lessons, but ensure that we don’t fall into the same traps in terms of the Scottish Government, in terms of their negotiations, and, of course, this principle is very important to us in terms of no detriment.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, but you haven’t made it clear whether or not this is a principle that the Treasury are open to hearing from you. The Scottish Government reckon that, without this principle in place, they will lose £3 billion over 10 years. Have you made any similar calculations as to what our loss would be on the limited taxes that we currently have access to if the Treasury don’t agree a no-detriment principle in negotiations with us?
We’re very clear, again, in terms of the no-detriment principle. It is very early days, I would say, in terms of those negotiations, and the negotiations at the moment are still very much focused around the fact that we are seeking a long-term inter-governmental agreement, as Nick Ramsay said, in terms of our fiscal framework, and, as we move towards the devolution of those taxes in April 2018, this is going to be the key point and purpose of our negotiations.
Thank you. My concern, Minister, is that Scotland appears to have more clout than we do with the Treasury, and if they can’t shift the Treasury on this particular principle, then what chance do we have? Are you working with the Scottish Government to try to put joint pressure on the Treasury in relation to this, and maybe with Northern Ireland as well, to ensure that the Treasury understands that this is a fundamental point in terms of those negotiations?
I think that’s a very fair point. What is very disappointing is that we have not had a finance quadrilateral—that’s within our devolution settlement and code—since November 2013. And, as the finance Ministers for Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, we met indeed last year. We called for a quadrilateral to, exactly, as you say, press on these points of joint interest, and not only, of course, these points, but there are many other issues that we’re concerned about trilaterally, such as, for example, the apprenticeship levy and the implications of that, and the lack of recognition of devolution in terms of those impacts.
We have our own joint Exchequer committee process. The only time that has met was when Danny Alexander was the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and that was back in 2015 that we met. So, at the moment, the devolution engagement, and indeed respect for devolution, in terms of those negotiations and relationships, is not there. Again, I welcome cross-party support here in this Chamber to ensure that we can move forward on this and to demonstrate that we, as a Welsh Government, backed by our National Assembly, have got the clout with Treasury.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move back to questions on the paper, and question 3 is from Keith Davies.
The Welsh Procurement Policy Statement
3. Will the Minister provide an update on the progress of the Welsh procurement policy statement? OAQ(4)0659(FIN)[W]
Mae’r datganiad polisi wedi ei fabwysiadu’n eang ar draws y sector cyhoeddus yng Nghymru ac mae’n sicrhau manteision gwirioneddol, gan greu swyddi a hyfforddiant a chynyddu cyfleoedd i gwmnïau a leolwyd yng Nghymru.
We will hopefully soon see the work starting to use the tidal lagoon technology in Swansea bay. What can the Welsh Government do to promote the use of steel from the UK in these major infrastructure projects that are in the pipeline now?
Clearly, Keith Davies, we do hope that we can benefit from the proposed Swansea bay tidal lagoon and ensure that the decisions are made by the UK Government to move this forward in terms of the opportunities. And then, of course, it can ensure that we can take every opportunity in terms of contracts to source steel products.
Minister, it’s essential that the Welsh Government does all it can to support our farmers in tendering for public sector contracts. I appreciate that, last year, the National Procurement Service brought the procurement of food within its scope and was developing a food strategy. Therefore, can you provide us with an update on this food strategy and can you tell us how the Welsh Government is ensuring that there are robust supplier selection procedures in place for food contracts across Wales so that Welsh farmers don’t miss out on these contracts?
The NPS has already established itself. It already has 30 live contracts and frameworks as of 1 February, as far as the NPS is concerned. It has awarded six contracts and frameworks in other areas such as managed service, employee benefit schemes, supply of biomass fuels, all-Wales printing services and facilities management. So, clearly, the fact that the NPS is up and running and clearly delivering on those contracts and frameworks will also apply to the all-important food procurement contracts.
In the Chamber yesterday, the First Minister rejected my suggestion that we should legislate in order to increase the percentage of public contracts that are awarded to Welsh companies. The truth is that the Welsh Government is saying the right things very often on procurement but failing to secure effective action across the public sector. That’s why Plaid Cymru would legislate in this area. But another issue that needs to be addressed is procurement capacity across the public sector. Can the Minister tell us how the Government’s budget allows investment in capacity building and expertise?
In thanking you for that question, I would say that our Wales procurement policy statement has been greatly strengthened now by the new powers that we have to regulate on procurement matters in Wales. Of course, this will lead to regulation rather than advice notes and guidance and officials now are working to develop community benefits as the first area of regulation. So, I think you will see that difference in terms of the strength of those new powers. Of course, you’re right to say that consistency and, indeed, delivering on capacity in procurement are crucial. That is something where we not only have the European social fund to support us in building up procurement capability; the Home Grown Talent project saw 28 trainees helping their host organisations save in excess of £7 million.
4. How much Welsh made products have been procured in relation to Welsh Government-awarded construction and infrastructure projects over the term of the fourth Assembly? OAQ(4)0657(FIN)
We’re analysing contract pipelines to provide a picture of future requirements for Welsh-made products. For example, the Heads of the Valleys road scheme delivered 84 per cent spend with Welsh business.
Thank you for that one specific answer there. I was trying to understand how many contracts have been awarded by Welsh Government to Welsh steelmakers in the last five years and what value this represents. I think it would aid people in my area, especially now with potential job losses at Tata, to understand fully how best the Welsh Government can utilise the steel that is produced there. I appreciate the procurement group is up and running with the taskforce, but perhaps if we had some figures, it might help those people understand better.
It’s a very important part of the steel taskforce, which I’ve already been responding to, that it’s interrogating future procurement pipelines, including the Wales infrastructure investment plan, to ensure that construction and infrastructure-related tendering opportunities are known and visible to Welsh business. And, of course, the Welsh Government is clearly involved, not just in terms of the steel taskforce, but also with the UK Government in terms of procurement opportunities. Procurement does play a very important opportunity in addressing some of the issues facing construction and steel suppliers in the current market. I would expect contracting authorities in Wales to use procurement as a lever to reduce those barriers to those suppliers bidding for public contracts.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. It’s very important that we ensure that public contracts are actually used to the benefit of our Welsh industries. But on that point, beyond the steel are also industries that service the steel, in particular, Fairwood fabrications, for example, which are losing 100 employees as a consequence of the loss of contracts with Tata, and their skills can be used in infrastructure projects. Will you ensure that procurement rules also look at the subcontractors to ensure that those type of businesses that are also going to struggle, can benefit from procurement rules to allow their skills and workforce to be used in contracts such as this?
I think the supply chain question is key, David Rees, and, of course, the charter for sustainable British steel is crucial to that in terms of its aims. In fact, my procurement policy statement fully complements the aims of that charter. The adoption of key principles of the Wales procurement policy statement is to open up supply chain opportunities for Wales-based businesses, and that’s why we’re supporting this procurement stream, as I’ve said, of the taskforce established by Edwina Hart.
In relation to the procurement of steel, in particular around public sector contracts, there is a campaign, obviously, that has been campaigning for some time around the use of British standard steel in particular, and making sure that that is a key caveat of the contracts. Are you confident that public sector contracts in Wales are serving the best interest of companies based here in affording them the best opportunity to access the market with British standard product, but above all, have not been undermined by substandard imports that might be coming in at a cheaper price, but have no lifespan equivalent to what the Welsh product might be?
Well, that, again, in answer to that, the importance, I think, of the charter for sustainable British steel is crucial to this. As I’ve said, the fact that we do have a Wales procurement policy statement actually underpinning the way we contract is crucial—it’s fully complementing, as I said, that charter, and also ensuring that procurement policy is supporting Welsh businesses to access public contracts. Take on board the fact that we have an opportunity here and we have an opportunity with British steel in terms of those contracts.
Minister, as you’ll know, Celsa in my region produce reinforcing bar for reinforced concrete and not only does it meet the highest British standards, as Andrew R.T. Davies has suggested, but it’s also being undercut by importers of grey imports into the steel market that are not fully traceable. How does the Welsh Government make absolutely sure that none of the steel being used in the Welsh supply chain and public purchasing is a grey import that isn’t fully traceable back to its source?
I think again, these are very valuable questions. They’re questions that, of course, are being addressed, not just by the taskforce chaired by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, but also the UK steel procurement working group. And, of course, my officials have also attended three of those four UK Government steel procurement working group meetings. Key outputs from the working group have been the publication of guidance on the procurement of steel in major projects and the development of a growth balance score card to monitor results. We, of course, are in very close discussions, not only with the Cabinet Office about our policies and statement, but also about the fact that we are leading the way in providing intelligent interpretation of the buy local policy.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s use of European funding? OAQ(4)0665(FIN)
We have invested £455 million of structural funds in 15 months, representing a quarter of our total funding allocation and a total investment of £990 million to support communities, businesses and people across Wales.
Thank you for that response. I’m sure you’ll be aware of the concern of many people in the agricultural sector in terms of the slow pace within Government in bringing programmes forward to create a more robust and resilient industry under the RDP. There is concern that the numbers that can access the grants, for example the sustainable production grant, is very low. The level of investment required means that many people are excluded in terms of Welsh farms. Now, in accepting that investment needs to be made in a way that strengthens the sector and makes it more sustainable, will you put pressure on the Deputy Minister? As the Minister responsible for taking an overview of European expenditure, will you ensure that there’s a smaller grant scheme introduced as a matter of urgency, in order to see the transformation that we want to see across the sector, rather than just among a small group who actually can get the necessary investment?
The rural development plan is under way and is open to applications. Indeed, we know, across Wales, that it is not only under way, but also the support that is provided, not only by local authorities and by Welsh Government, but also intermediary bodies, is clearly helping move this forward. What I’m sure you would agree with me on, in terms of your question, Llyr Gruffydd, is thank goodness we have got an EU-funded rural development plan to boost the economy and diversity in our rural communities.
Minister, the Welsh Government used European funding in order to provide the rather fantastic lido facility in Pontypridd in Ynysangharad park. Today, the council announced that, in fact, for the coming year, there are going to be no charges for the use of that facility and that this is intended not only to make the facility more available across the whole of Wales for those who want to use it, but also in order to improve the business opportunities and the footfall, in the town of Pontypridd and assist with the regeneration of the town. Do you agree with me that that is an excellent cross-cutting use of European funding and will you write to the council to congratulate them on their far-sighted decision?
I certainly agree with Mick Antoniw, the Member for Pontypridd. This is an excellent use of European funding, and I was delighted to officially open the lido last August. I certainly encourage everyone to go and have a swim down there. Maybe you were there on New Year’s Day, I don’t know, but there were certainly many who crowded into the pool and the park. But this is about how we can see, at first hand, a transformation that’s taken place with the support of EU and, indeed, heritage funds and the Welsh Government. I congratulate Rhondda Cynon Taf council for now opening this up as a key destination and tourist facility.
Minister, in the year 2000, Welsh Labour announced that EU funding was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Here we are, nearly 16 years later, with many areas of Wales remaining well within the criteria for structural funding. Would you care to hazard a guess when your Government’s policy will actually lift most of Wales out of its structural problems?
If you look at how important EU funds are to Wales, and we’ve had a couple of examples already this afternoon, helping us—and I hope you would recognise this, William Graham—helping people into work and training through multi-million-pound apprenticeships, traineeships, Healthy Working Wales, recently announced growing workforces through learning and development, Gwlad, materials and manufacturing education, training and learning, the METaL 2 scheme at Swansea bay, and companies such as Tata Steel—William Graham—the Royal Mint and Oceaneering benefiting from more employee training—. Do I have to continue with the list to demonstrate the importance of EU funding investment levered in by the Welsh Government?
6. Will the Minister provide details of meetings held with the UK Government regarding the funding of infrastructure projects? OAQ(4)0669(FIN)
I meet regularly with a wide range of parties to discuss infrastructure investment across Wales, including the UK Government. Last week, I met Lord Adonis, chair of the new National Infrastructure Commission.
Minister, I think we’ve seen in recent times that countries at the forefront of wind energy reap great benefits from that role of leadership. Wales and the UK now have an opportunity with regard to tidal energy and, personally, I would very much like to see a tidal lagoon in Newport after Swansea and Cardiff and, obviously, there are plans to extend them elsewhere. Would you agree with me that there are great opportunities here to develop manufacturing capacity with the skills, jobs and technology that go along with that, which could then be exported to the rest of the world, but we will only realise these benefits if the UK Government stopped delaying and very quickly now make a commitment to back that project for a tidal lagoon at Swansea, which can then be rolled out elsewhere? And will you continue to urge the Minister to get off the fence and commit to this project as quickly as possible?
Well, I’m sure that your point, John Griffiths, will be shared across this Chamber in terms of this message to the UK Government. Indeed, we have engaged with the UK Government to ensure that maximum benefit is delivered for the proposed Swansea bay tidal lagoon, and to ensure the longer term UK policy for tidal range. That’s crucial to the UK, and not just for Wales, and reflects Welsh aspirations whilst protecting the environment. I would say, of course, that the Swansea bay tidal lagoon is one of our key Welsh infrastructure investment plan pipeline projects with the potential to bring economic and environmental benefits to Wales, and, of course, it’s the first of six tidal lagoon schemes, four of which are located in Wales, and Tidal Lagoon Powers identify the next phase of two lagoons to be located at Cardiff and Newport.
The Circuit of Wales, Minister, has potential to regenerate not only Ebbw Vale, but large parts of south-east Wales. Could you outline what discussions you’ve had with Cabinet colleagues to bring financing this project to an end?
Well, a very constructive discussion and negotiation is continuing.
I don’t know whether you are aware, but some minutes ago, it became evident that the UK Government has stated that they will undertake a review of tidal lagoons across the whole of the UK. Considering the fact that there is a possibility of having a tidal lagoon in north Wales, notwithstanding the future of the Swansea lagoon, do you share with me the disappointment of seeing the UK Government turning their backs on renewable energy, which impacts not only on investment here in Wales but on jobs for our people in Wales?
Aled Roberts, you’re quite right. We have noted the UK Government’s decision to establish a UK energy review. It’s not reporting until autumn, and we are disappointed that this initiative could potentially add a further delay to the Swansea tidal lagoon.
The Natural Resources Portfolio
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the funding allocation to the Natural Resources portfolio in the 2016-17 draft budget? OAQ(4)0668(FIN)
As set out in the draft budget, ‘Fairer, Better Wales’, the proposed budget for the natural resources portfolio next year stands at £367 million.
Minister, during a recent environment committee budget scrutiny session I asked the Minister what assessment had been made of the level of EU-sourced funds dedicated both to flood alleviation but also to coastal management schemes, and he’s kindly undertaken to report back to committee on that shortly. Given the growing threat of a potential Brexit later this year, what contingency plans does the Welsh Government have in place to actually supply the funding necessary to continue with this valuable work, should we make that disastrous decision?
Well, I think it’s worth, again, repeating the fact—and this is for the record, in terms of the importance of the European Union—that since 2011, we’ve committed almost £300 million, including European funding, to managing flood risk and an additional £150 million, which we’re investing into the future. It’s quite clear that this shows how Wales benefits significantly from being part of the EU. Of course, we have always maintained, as you know, as the Welsh Government, that a UK exit would be bad for the economy, the Labour market and the environment in Wales.
Minister, I was pleased to hear that Conway county’s bid for assistance from the flood recovery fund has been successful. Conway county are keen to continue preparation of flood prevention plans, but to proceed with this, they need the Natural Resources Wales reports to be completed to inform this work. Minister, can you ensure that NRW will have the budget available to them to complete this important work, and, Minister, can you offer a guarantee today, Minister, that further funds will be made available from this Welsh Government’s reserves to support this important and urgent work?
Well, I think, Janet Haworth, that perhaps I could just assure you—and I thought you would have understood this—that once a bid has been accepted, then the money will come.
Natural Resources Wales is facing a significant cut in its budget once again this year, despite the obvious challenges posed by climate change and flooding. Now, in deciding upon your budget for next year, was any assessment made of the additional cost implications that have been identified because of new legislation: the Planning (Wales) Act 2015, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Bill?
Well, just looking at the budget for Natural Resources Wales, for the main expenditure group, the Minister’s whole portfolio, if you look at revenue and capital together, is going to be £9 million higher than the 2015-16 baseline of £357 million. It’s clear that we have cushioned the impact of revenue reductions with a capital increase—which is key and very important, just in terms of infrastructure investment, as we’ve just been talking about, in terms of flood prevention—of £26 million, which is a 41 per cent uplift. And let’s just look at things that we are supporting with Natural Resources Wales: £3 million for the St Asaph flood-risk management scheme to reduce risk along the River Elwy and protect over 400 properties; £5 million for the coastal risk-management programme for preparatory work; £8 million for Warm Homes; and £10 million for ‘Green Growth Wales: Local Energy’—and that’s going to increase and accelerate projects to deliver green investment in Wales. So, of course, this is all in support of natural resources, and Natural Resources Wales is involved in implementing those new developments.
The Education and Skills Portfolio
8. What priorities were considered by the Welsh Government when allocating funding to the Education and Skills portfolio? OAQ(4)0662(FIN)
Our spending plans reflect our priority of raising standards and continuing the new momentum in Welsh education.
I thank the Minister for that response, and I welcomed very much the written announcement today that £85 million in funding is being allocated to education and training programmes for healthcare professionals—and I think that includes nurses, physiotherapists and clinical scientists and a number of other people. Does the Minister agree that it’s very important that we do have this increase in numbers, in order that we can cope with the needs of some of the very frail, elderly people who we now have to care for in the hospitals, and that the 10 per cent increase in nurses will be very welcome?
I thank Julie Morgan for that question because the £85 million package that was announced today by the Minister for Health and Social Services will support that range, as Julie Morgan has said, of education and training programmes for healthcare professionals—including nurses, physiotherapists and radiographers—in a range of health science training opportunities.
Minister, over the next five to 10 years, there are going to be seismic changes in education, such as the curriculum review. In order for those changes to be successful, there will need to be significant resources put in place—not just people, but funds. What I’d like to know is: when are you planning to start accruing funds within the portfolio to support those changes as they come through, and what order of magnitude do you think those funds will need to be?
Well, throughout the term of this Government, we’ve protected school funding by 1 per cent above the overall change to the Wales departmental expenditure limit, and this uplift will continue in 2016-17, with an extra £39.7 million in front-line funding for schools to help pupils in Wales to achieve their maximum potential.
Minister, I welcome the fact that there was a reversal yesterday in the budget of the proposed cut to higher education in Wales. Obviously, you’ve had evidence in the budget consultation process about the impact of that cut, and the need for the Welsh Government to close that gap. However, at least £20 million of the money that you’re not now cutting was dedicated to the tuition fee policy, which is a demand-led policy, and you have no control over that demand. Could you confirm, therefore, for the Assembly, where the money has come from in other portfolios that you’ve clearly had to add in now to the education and skills portfolio to close that cut that you announced yesterday?
The money came from reserves.
9. Will the Minister provide an update on the opportunities provided by the impending new procurement powers? OAQ(4)0666(FIN)
The first area for regulation will be community benefits, helping to boost the economy through creating jobs and tackling poverty, and work is in hand to identify how regulation will drive adoption of Wales’s procurement policy.
I thank you very much for that, Minister. You’ve rightly put a big emphasis on how these powers can deliver community benefits. That is something that the cross-party construction group has focused on as well, as you, indeed, are aware of, having taken part in the process. But the Wales TUC has also done good work around how public spending projects can support local jobs. Can I ask you, Minister, when we move forward with those powers, whether you’ll bring updates to the Chamber?
I’ve answered a question earlier on this afternoon on the point about our new powers. You will have welcomed the fact that we now have that designation Order that I negotiated with the UK Government. We have new regulating powers, and the first area that we’re developing in terms of regulation is community benefits. So, just in terms of our Better Jobs, Closer to Home project, which of course was championed by the Wales TUC, I already have a working group that’s been set up, and it’s already identifying suitable contracts, for example, to be delivered by employment hubs. There’s an options appraisal of those hubs, and we’re looking at those new regulatory powers, again, and how we can develop a definition of ‘disadvantaged worker’ so as to maximise the benefit realised from this project.
Minister, can I echo the earlier comments in a question of Bethan Jenkins that the news over the last few weeks has been dominated by the contraction of the steel industry, particularly in Port Talbot? How do you intend to make sure that the new procurement powers are used to ensure that more Welsh steel is used in public sector construction projects in Wales, and, more generally, how do you envisage the new powers being used to support home-grown manufacturing in general?
Well, I have answered those questions quite fully this afternoon. Again, there’s the steel taskforce that has a procurement pipeline and procurement working group, and also the work that we’re doing with the UK Government in terms of their steel procurement taskforce, and the Welsh Government playing a leading role in terms of adopting these policies.
‘Fairer, Better Wales—Investing for the Future’
10. Will the Minister make a statement on the objectives of ‘Fairer, Better Wales–Investing for the Future’? OAQ(4)0663(FIN)
Well, ‘Fairer, Better Wales—Investing for the Future’ provides the foundations for ensuring the economic, social, environmental and cultural wellbeing for our own and future generations in Wales.
I’m grateful to the Minister for her answer. Could she outline how that mirrors or replicates invest-to-save, which equally is a successful policy?
Well, I’m grateful that William Graham, the Member, recognises the importance and the impact of invest-to-save. With invest-to-save, of course, in terms of every pound invested, £3 is returned. Invest-to-save is, of course, about innovation, but it’s also about energy efficiency, it’s about collaboration, and it’s about recycling of funding in an innovative way.
11. Will the Minister make a statement on capital projects in west Wales? OAQ(4)0664(FIN)
The Wales infrastructure investment plan pipeline provides details of our current and planned capital projects across all parts of Wales, including west Wales, and I published an updated pipeline last week.
Minister, I would be interested to understand how your department looks at lost opportunity costs, and what evaluation is made of them when you’re looking at capital projects. So, for example, the A40 is a capital project that’s had delay after delay. I know it is now coming downstream, but, nonetheless, over the last five years, there have been significant lost opportunity costs on that particular project. So, what evaluation do you make of it, and how do you monitor these lost opportunities?
Well, we have seven investment priorities for the Wales infrastructure investment plan, but faced with a 30 per cent cut to our capital programme by the UK Government, of course then we have to ensure that we’re funding the priorities in terms of the infrastructure investment plan.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to item 2, which is questions to the Minister for Public Services. Question 1 is Andrew R.T. Davies.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for Armed Forces veterans? OAQ(4)0673(PS)
Llywydd, we are committed to supporting both serving members and ex-members of the armed forces in Wales. Our package of support sets out how the Welsh Government supports armed forces veterans in Wales.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. I recently visited Change Step in Cardiff, which is a veterans-led organisation that offers to give support in the community to veterans who experience, in particular, mental health issues. One of the examples of the work that was led there was how this is a veterans-led organisation, so there is an understanding of the complex issues that many people present when looking for support. But, the armed forces in their make-up are very diverse today. In particular, many young female recruits are now entering the armed forces. What assessment have you made, Minister, of the support the Welsh Government is able to provide to work with armed forces charities to make sure that support represents the diversity of veterans who are leaving the armed forces and meets the needs of that diverse group of individuals?
The Member is right to stress the value of veterans-led charities and third sector organisations. There are many of them, of course, and indeed organisations such as the Royal British Legion have veterans at their head in Wales. It’s important that we, within the package of support, are able to reflect the diverse needs of the armed forces community and he’s right to raise that. I’m certainly happy that, as we carry forward our review of the armed forces package for Wales, we refresh it with a view to ensuring that all groups who leave the armed forces are served well by it.
Minister, the Ministry of Defence is clearly aware of the date when military personnel end their service to their country. But, I don’t think it’s right that the Welsh Government should pick up many of the tabs, as clearly they are doing. What pressure can you bring, as Minister, to ensure that there is better liaison between the DWP, local authorities and health authorities to, at the very least, ensure that people have access to decent homes, jobs and health services?
Let me start by saying I think there’s very good liaison between the Welsh Government and the armed forces. The First Minister and I met the chief of general staff this morning and we discussed a number of issues related to this agenda. I think the armed forces are very pleased with the successes that we’ve been able to make in Wales in terms of our investment in our armed forces package, but also the way in which we engage with them and with many other different agencies through the armed forces expert group, which I chair. That brings together both devolved and non-devolved services on a regular basis. The Ministry of Defence, I think, is aware, for example, of our success in Wales in promoting the defence privilege card and the way in which we collaborated with them in the advertising of that card to boost its take-up here in Wales. I think there may be issues in respect of data sharing. Increasingly, those kind of data sharing challenges are being overcome. Obviously, if there are specific issues that the Member is aware of, I invite him to write to me about them.
Minister, Glyndŵr University in Wrexham has recently embarked upon a two-year research project to explore the specific difficulties experienced by ex-servicewomen and ex-servicemen in the transition back to civilian life. Given that much of the evidence around those difficulties is currently anecdotal, I feel that this research could be of significant benefits. Are you prepared to consider the findings when they become available forming part of the refresh that you referred to in an earlier answer?
I’m very happy to do so. I think that quite a lot of work has been done, actually, on a more-than-anecdotal basis, let me say, by third sector organisations and by statutory organisations. There’s been some excellent work undertaken, for example, within the prison service, within the national offender management service, in addition to our own devolved services. But, certainly, I’d be very happy to look at any evidence that is brought forward by that academic review.
2. What plans does the Welsh Government have to increase support for victims of domestic abuse in Wales? OAQ(4)0663(PS)
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s strategy for domestic violence? OAQ(4)0677(PS)[W]
Llywydd, I understand that you’ve given your permission for questions 2 and 5 to be grouped. The implementation of the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 will improve prevention, support and protection for victims of domestic abuse in Wales. The draft budget proposes an increase in the budget for this area of work.
Thank you for that reply, Minister. Refuges provide a vital package of support for women and children living in fear of domestic abuse or violence. Welsh Women’s Aid has expressed concern that such life-saving services do not have sustainable funding to protect and support the most vulnerable women and children in Wales. Will the Minister commit to sufficiently funding women’s refuges and providing them with a sustainable funding model?
Well, this was an item that was discussed in the violence against women expert group last week, and Welsh Women’s Aid were present. There are some issues around the sustainability of some refuge services. Of course, funding for those comes from a variety of sources, including local government, but also from other Welsh Government budgets, such as those held by my colleague the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty. I think what is important is that we move to a sustainable basis for the future and also a basis that reflects the entirety of need across Wales. I think that some of the services that have developed have not necessarily developed on the most planned basis possible, and that’s why we’re engaged in mapping the availability of services across Wales at the present time.
In the Finance Committee, Women’s Aid said that 250 women had been rejected from refuges in Wales last year because of a lack of capacity, and they expressed concern that the funding that they receive locally in order to maintain these refuges is being cut for next year because of the pressures on local government, for one thing. You’ve just referred to the fact that we need to create a system that is sustainable for the future. Well, what sort of system could that be if the picture on the ground shows that some refuges could close, according to the evidence of Women’s Aid?
As I said, we discussed this with Welsh Women’s Aid last week, and let me say that I made it clear to third sector organisations that their budgets would be maintained for the next financial year. The issue, I think, is one worthy of wider consideration, however, because I do think that the provision across Wales does not necessarily meet need, and I think there are areas of Wales where those services are not currently available. That’s why we want to look at this more systematically, and certainly we will be gathering evidence to support that systematic look with the assistance of my ministerial adviser—sorry, with the assistance of the national adviser on violence against women.
Minister, responding to domestic abuse is an important area of work for the police service in Wales, in partnership with other statutory and voluntary organisations. Regrettably, the Tory UK Government has slashed funding for the police over the last five years, as well as for public services generally. Do you agree with me, Minister, that whilst we in Wales will do our very best to support this vital work, victims of domestic abuse in Wales are not helped by the Tory UK Government’s continued austerity programme?
My colleague the Member for Caerphilly is absolutely right to point to the cuts in spending on police that have been undertaken by the UK Government. He may be present later—I think the Police Federation has an event in the Senedd this evening, and no doubt we will hear further from them about some of the challenges that the police service is facing. I’m pleased that, as a Government, we have invested in the programme of police community support officers, so that there are 500 more police community support officers in Wales than would otherwise have been the case. We’ve been investing in supporting our police while the UK Government has been cutting the funding to them.
Minister, preventing young women and men falling into manipulative and unhealthy relationships is surely key to making sure that we can reduce the harm that domestic violence does in our society. I wonder what progress has been made since the completion of the violence against women Act towards developing a curriculum and support materials for teachers, so that they can take forward this agenda within their personal and social education lessons.
Yes, indeed. We held an event in the autumn, at which I spoke and the Minister for Education and Skills spoke. It was a very well-attended event held, if I remember rightly, in the SSE SWALEC stadium. We had representatives of a wide variety of organisations who work with young people, as well as people from within the education service. There were many teachers there who take an active interest in this area, and I thought the discussions on that day were very valuable and will inform our work going forward.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople, and first this afternoon is the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, I hope, like me, that you are delighted by the news of the mayor for Cardiff campaign—a move that could see our first democratically and directly elected mayor here in Wales. This, of course, would bring forward full democratic participation, true community engagement and absolute democratic accountability. I am personally pleased about such an initiative going forward, and it comes with cross-party support, and I wish them all the best with this campaign. Do you?
Well, I’m very interested; I wasn’t aware that the Welsh Conservatives now wanted to see elected mayors in the place of all local authorities. That may come as news to some of their serving councillors, I suspect. Let me say that there is a campaign, I understand, in Cardiff. They have a threshold to reach before they can take forward their plans. We’ll wait and see if they reach that threshold.
Thank you, Minister. [Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Now, of course, following the Localism Act 2011, referendums were held in 10 English cities for directly elected mayors. There are now 17 such mayors in England, with more on the way in greater Manchester, Liverpool city region, Sheffield city region, the north-east of England, Tees valley and the west midlands. Clearly, there is popular support for such an accountable and democratic representative. It’s vital that the residents of Cardiff have their say on whether they will have such a representative, yet the campaign here in Wales has to gain 10 per cent as opposed to 5 per cent over the border. Minister, as part of your local government reform, will you address this to ensure that our people do have that choice and that freedom? And considering local government reform is in such chaos at the moment, isn’t this a good initiative for you to get behind?
Well, the Conservatives, of course, control one local authority in Wales. I assume, therefore, that they will be bringing forward proposals for a mayor of Monmouthshire in due course. Perhaps we will look to see those. I wasn’t aware that they were planning to replace Councillor Peter Fox in that way.
Well, moving on, Minister, Welsh Conservatives have advocated the freezing of council tax, particularly so for the three years where adequate funding came across from the UK Government. Plaid Cymru and Labour-led Conwy County Borough Council are now proposing to move towards a four-weekly bin collection, the first in Wales, whilst at the same time proposing yet another 5 per cent council tax increase. Minister, are you proud of the legacy under Welsh Labour that our residents pay more and get less?
Residents in Wales pay, on average, £157 a year less in council tax than residents in England. In England, this next financial year will see cuts to council budgets of double the cuts that councils in Wales are having to undergo, even if you take into account the bung that was given to the Conservative-led south-east of England councils yesterday by the UK Conservative Government. And what do we see in England as well? They’ve tried to bribe councils into holding council tax freezes, but 50 per cent of them, including dozens of English Conservative councils, will not implement that council tax freeze policy.
Oh, maybe they’ve learnt from this Government then.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, Peter Black.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, further to the question that Alun Ffred Jones asked in terms of domestic abuse, I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the evidence that Welsh Women’s Aid gave to the Finance Committee at the beginning of January regarding this issue. They told the committee that they know of 284 women who were turned away from refuges in Wales last year because there was no space, and 161 women in Wales couldn’t be accommodated in refuges for the same reason. Minister, given that a lot of these services are commissioned by local government as opposed to the Welsh Government, can I ask how your review is going to be addressing those particular issues?
I think the point has already been made by the Member for Arfon, in an earlier question. And, as I said to him, we’ve discussed these issues in the violence against women expert group just last week, with Welsh Women’s Aid. I want the national adviser for violence against women to look at these issues with the third sector organisations. I think it’s fair to say that refuges have not grown up on a planned basis across Wales, and the distribution of them is variable. It’s important we move to better planning of those resources, and that’s what we’re engaged with at the present time.
Well, thank you for that answer, Minister. That’s very helpful. I think that part of the problem is the way these services are commissioned. I’m interested in your approach to this through your national adviser. Are you suggesting that, in future, you’re looking at a centrally commissioned process around Wales, or are you looking to work with local government and the third sector and health services to try to rationalise the services they provide?
We’re certainly looking, in due course, to move to a more of a regional commissioning model, and work is already under way in that regard in Gwent, for example. That will involve engagement, let me say, between ourselves, local government, the health service, and third sector organisations. We will seek to move out more of a regional commissioning model across Wales, probably more towards the beginning of the 2017-18 financial year, looking at the experience that we have from what has been undertaken in Gwent.
That’s very helpful. The other issue that Welsh Women’s Aid raised with the committee was the inconsistency within Welsh Government itself. I mean, you obviously have oversight of this issue, but they referred to other departments in the Assembly to take account of these issues, such as economic development. I’m just wondering what cross-cutting work is going on within the Welsh Government to try to get a more coordinated approach to these issues of domestic violence in all departments.
Well, the Act that we passed, obviously, lies on the entire Government, and there is a responsibility across the entire Government. The principal budgets for this do fall to myself and the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, and, obviously, these are issues that we have discussed, including looking at the regional commissioning model between our departments. But there is regular dialogue between officials on these issues.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I’m staying with the issue of domestic violence, Minister. You were very clear in answering questions earlier, saying that the Welsh Government doesn’t intend to cut the funding provided for these services. But, of course, a number of questions have been raised about cuts at a local level. Have you had, or have you sought, assurances from local authorities that they don’t intend to make any cuts to these services during the next financial year?
Yes, we’ve been very clear to local government that these are important services. Obviously, I’ve protected—well, I’ve more than protected—the budget; in fact, we’ve added to the budget for the next financial year. As we move to a regional commissioning model, I think that will give us a better planning focus for the provision of services in the future. And, certainly, we are well aware of the issues that are being raised by Welsh Women’s Aid, and, indeed, discussed them just last week.
Thank you for that response. You’ve already mentioned this regional commissioning, and, in response to Peter Black, you specifically spoke of the 2017-18 financial year, and that, of course, is when the violence against women Act will come into force in full in terms of the intention to introduce statutory guidance on the provision of services. Can you confirm, therefore, that it is your intention to take the statutory guidance along with the provision of services and the funding available? That’s to say that we could expect to see what you’ve just outlined in the Chamber being put in place during that financial year, with the support of statutory guidance.
Well, I think the answer is, broadly, ‘yes’ to the question he’s asked. Just to explain: clearly, we have the regional commissioning model already in operation in Gwent, and we’re learning from that. I looked at the possibility of making this happen faster, but that would have meant a very difficult transition for all third sector organisations that are currently running some of those services, which would have had greater uncertainty for the next financial year, as it were. So, I think we’ve got to move to this on a phased basis, but I think there’s no reason why, as we develop the guidance, that shouldn’t also inform some of the funding judgments that we need to make.
Well, thank you, Minister, and to move to something slightly different, as they say, you’ll remember Michael Gove. [Laughter.] He and the Prime Minister have said something quite interesting, I think, around prison reform over the last few days, something that, perhaps, you might be interested, and I’m certainly interested, to see whether we can make use of here in Wales, because if we’re going to move to a reforming prison system then some questions arise about the superprison in Wrexham and whether that’s actually fit for purpose. But questions also arise about how we deal with women in our judicial system and young offenders, which I know you’re particularly interested in and concerned about. What opportunity do you think you now have to re-engage with Michael Gove in developing a distinct Welsh approach to female and young offenders in Wales?
Llywydd, Michael Gove phoned me yesterday—[Laughter.]—to discuss the report that was published yesterday, the interim review on youth offending, and we had an initial conversation about some of the implications of that for Wales. That review, of course, raises the possibility that, as the review progresses, it will consider the devolution of budgets and commissioning to Wales. That is something, clearly, we would like to engage with and we will be taking forward.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 3 [OAQ(4)0675(PS)] will not be asked this afternoon.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on local government funding in Wales? OAQ(4)0678(PS)
The majority of the funding provided to local government by the Welsh Government is delivered through the revenue settlement. I announced the provisional settlement for 2016-17 on 9 December. The average reduction of 1.4 per cent was considerably better than was anticipated.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, will you agree with me that the improved settlement will give Welsh councils the opportunity to protect the vulnerable’s access to services like social care and this is in direct contrast to the huge cuts in England?
Yes, indeed, and my colleague the Member for Islwyn is quite right to raise this question and I know that he will be working with his colleagues in Caerphilly to ensure that services that are provided, such as social care, are protected at a local level. We have protected the funding for local government in Wales over the course of this Assembly term. This means that local government in Wales has not been subject to the level of cuts experienced by councils in England.
Minister, the direction from the Welsh Government to local authorities is to protect social services and education budgets. Clearly, these are local authorities’ largest budget areas. As a result of the large amount of savings that have to be made in other areas, and given the fact that a large amount of savings would have already been made from those areas, can I ask you how sustainable you think this is?
Well, Llywydd, I’m disappointed that as the Member is a member of Powys County Council he didn’t start by welcoming the additional money found by the finance Minister for his local authority. I think that would have been generous of him to have done so, but he didn’t. We have made additional money available to that local authority. We’ve also made additional money available in respect, of course, across the piece, of social services, and we’ve honoured throughout the lifetime of this Assembly our commitment to ensure that local government benefits by additional school spending 1 per cent above the money we get from the UK Government for education.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 5 was grouped with question 2, so we now move to question 6, which is Keith Davies.
The Local Government Settlement for 2016-17
6. Will the Minister provide an update on the impact of the local government settlement for 2016-17 on public services in Wales? OAQ(4)0666(PS)[W]
I announced the provisional settlement for 2016-17 on 9 December. The average reduction of 1.4 per cent was considerably better than was anticipated.
Thank you, Minister. I’d like to welcome the commitment shown by the Welsh Labour Government to schools by providing an increase of 1 per cent for school budgets in the local government settlement in Wales. However, in Carmarthenshire, the administration led by Plaid Cymru is planning their draft budget to cut budgets for schools by £3.6 million in real terms. Do you agree with me that Plaid Cymru is letting our young people down in Carmarthenshire?
Well, can I say to my colleague the Member for Llanelli, obviously, the settlement that we have provided reflects our commitment to protect schools funding to ensure the delivery of the best outcomes for Welsh children? I’d be very disappointed if any local authority was not passing that money straight on to the schools in their area and I’m sure that if my colleague the Member for Llanelli thinks there are specific problems in Carmarthenshire he will want to draw them to the attention of the Minister for Education and Skills.
Minister, despite a favourable settlement and a rumoured council tax rise of around 5 per cent, Swansea council are considering cutting £400,000 from residential placements for children, £97,000 from libraries, and £90,000 from the Wales National Pool and National Waterfront Museum. This is the council, you remember, which failed to apply for a second tranche of discretionary housing payments, and returned almost £1 million as it was unable to spend it on reducing poverty. It’s your Government’s view that both appropriate care and contact with heritage and sport improve a child’s life chances, so how do you ensure that local authorities, in making their savings choices, don’t undermine your Government’s policy objectives?
Well, we don’t dictate to local government as to how they spend the money they receive from the Welsh Government. We do not allocate hypothecated budgets. I think all local authorities are clear of their statutory responsibilities and of the expectations that this Welsh Government has of them. I would say that these are difficult times for all councils in Wales, whatever their political hue, and all councils are facing very difficult challenges because of the cuts imposed by the UK Conservative Government.
7. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s opposition to the UK Government’s Trade Union Bill? OAQ(4)00668(PS)
I wrote to the Minister, Nick Boles, following this Assembly’s decision to withhold legislative consent. I’ve subsequently had a telephone conversation with him. The UK Government is clearly aware of the National Assembly’s opposition to the Bill.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, and, before I ask my question, I want to put on record my membership of Unite the Union, and my former role as a University and College Union lay officer for the trade union. Following yesterday’s questions to the First Minister on this matter, it’s clear that the Tory Ministers and Government lawyers in the UK Government are at odds with one another regarding the impact of the Bill here in Wales. Minister, I’m sure you agree with me that the role of trade unions is critical in ensuring that employees are supported and protected from challenges to their rights and safe working, amongst many other things. This is clearly an ideological attack on trade unions by the Tories to ensure that those positions are weakened. Will you continue to remind UK Tories that, in fact, this does not apply here in Wales, and that this Assembly has made a strong statement where we oppose the imposition of a trade union Bill on our public sector workers?
My colleague the Member for Aberavon is absolutely right to put this question in those terms. I think, as we are now clear, the UK Government has legal advice on this Bill that makes it clear that it has a very weak case to legislate in respect of public services in Wales. The First Minister, of course, explained our position on this just yesterday. I know that amendments are being pursued in the House of Lords to raise the concerns of the Welsh Government, and they will no doubt be raised subsequently, and I will be giving evidence to the House of Lords committee tomorrow on this matter. But let me make it clear: if the UK Government does go ahead and try to legislate in respect of Wales, we will work on a Welsh Bill, in the next Assembly, to legislate quickly to rescind the key provisions of the Trade Union Bill as they affect Wales.
Would the Minister not agree with me that this Bill is, in fact, a wonderful measure in enshrining the individual rights of trade union members in agreeing or not agreeing to have a strike? It is the first time that this legislation actually proposes that, where every member’s vote counts, and, if the Minister is so concerned about the provisions of this Bill, perhaps it might become an amendment to the current Wales Bill.
I think you have to ask what problem the Bill is trying to solve. Where are the junior doctors on strike today? In England, not in Wales. We do not have an issue on public sector strikes here in Wales. This is not, to use the Member’s phrase ‘a wonderful measure’. Indeed, even UK Government lawyers clearly don’t think it’s a wonderful measure, because they are very clear that they’re on very weak ground when it comes to Wales.
I wanted to start where you left off, Minister, because one element of that letter states that there needs to be further withdrawal in Wales and Scotland in terms of the views of the Governments there and the Parliament here. So, what discussions have you had in that regard, and what discussions have you had with trade unions that say that the conventions in that letter don’t go far enough?
Well, as I said in my earlier answer, I spoke to the relevant UK Minister on Friday. I have had regular meetings with the trade unions and met with the Wales TUC and their legal adviser in the last fortnight, certainly. I’ve had other meetings with trade unions and I’ve had discussions with other representatives in Westminster who take a dim view of the Trade Union Bill’s provisions. We are very clear in our opposition to that Bill, and we will sustain that opposition and, if necessary, reverse the provisions of the Trade Union Bill, should it be passed by Westminster in its current form.
The Future of the Fire Services
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of fire services in Wales? OAQ(4)0664(PS)
I’m committed to maintaining the fire and rescue service’s proud record of keeping people and communities safe.
Thank you very much for that answer, Minister. Can I seek assurances from you on behalf of the fire services in Wales that you will not allow police and crime commissioners to take over the running of the fire services here in Wales?
I can absolutely confirm that we will not be allowing the police and crime commissioners to run fire services in Wales. The UK Government’s proposals would imperil the fire services’ arson reduction and community engagement work, they would subject a devolved public service to non-devolved control and would yield no financial savings. They have nothing to commend them at all and they will not happen here.
In the 2016-17 budget, the combined line for fire and rescue services has fallen by 8.8 per cent over the two separate budget lines for fire and rescue resilience and fire and rescue framework. If you marry that with the council tax harmonisation project, which could take local authorities up to nine years to implement and which would also have consequential impacts on fire and rescue authorities, fire services will come under immense pressure. What, Minister, will you do to ensure that fire services such as mid and west Wales are not further jeopardised by these reductions and people’s lives put at risk?
Well, we’ve been able to provide, in the last financial year, mid and west Wales with additional funding, for example, to buy a drone. So, we’ve been very receptive to requests for further assistance from fire and rescue authorities. I think it’s important that she looks carefully at the budget, because I was scrutinised on this in the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee and I had to explain some of the changes that have been made. We are confident that the fire and rescue authorities are well resourced. We are pleased with their success in reducing the number of fires over recent years, and they have a very active engagement with the community safety agenda, which we welcome.
I had an excellent meeting with fire officers in Holyhead recently. They are entirely committed to their work, but it is a cause of concern for them, as it is for me, that the recruitment problem in terms of retained firefighters does create very real problems in terms of providing cover in rural areas such as Ynys Môn. Does the Minister therefore agree that recruitment exercises need to concentrate on the truly local and emphasise that retained firefighters do provide a crucial service for their own communities?
I endorse what the Member has said in respect of the important role played by retained firefighters in stations such as Holyhead, but let me say that there has been an all-Wales recruitment exercise by the fire and rescue authorities combined over recent months, and they’ve had a very high level of applicants for that. In fact, it’s well exceeded the number of vacancies that were available. So, I’m confident that the recruitment that is being undertaken by the fire and rescue service is delivering what is necessary.
Minister, the consultation by north Wales fire authority makes it clear, apart from the recruitment process that you’ve just alluded to, that, by now, only nine fire brigades, or engines, within north Wales are staffed by full-time officers. Because of that, they say that they’re moving away from the retained fire officer model to a situation where they look at contracted fire officers. They would be on a full contract but on a part time basis. Is that a pattern that will have to be considered across the whole of Wales, bearing in mind that it appears from the consultation that this problem with retained firefighters is one that is on the increase?
Well, I think these decisions overall are matters for the fire and rescue authorities. So, in respect of north Wales, North Wales Fire and Rescue Authority needs to make the right decisions to support the staffing of the stations within its own region. I think, as I’ve said, there has been a recruitment exercise undertaken by the three fire and rescue authorities in Wales, and that has clearly been very well supported and they’ve had a very high number of applicants for that recruitment exercise.
9. What actions is the Welsh Government taking to improve community safety in Wales? OAQ(4)0669(PS)
As part of our work on community safety, we have provided funding for an additional 500 community support officers in Wales.
Minister, unless we have fully integrated communities, community safety and community cohesion is at risk. Part and parcel of a truly integrated community is respect for the laws of the United Kingdom and respect for those who police those laws. What action is the Welsh Government taking to promote respect for the police across all communities in Wales?
Hear, hear. Good question.
It’s an important question. We do, obviously, work very closely with the police and I think they themselves are engaged in a wide range of community cohesion activities. I think, for example, just to illustrate, in recent months, along with the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, we’ve been looking at issues around countering extremism; we’ve been looking at addressing issues such as Islamophobia in Wales. These are issues on which we’ve also had regular discussions with the police forces in Wales. I think they are very sensitive to those issues in how they are taken forward across all communities in Wales, recognising that we want to reflect the diversity of our communities in Wales, but we also want to ensure we do have community cohesion. The police are very active as well, let me say, in targeting those right-wing extremists who would do serious damage to the diversity of our communities in Wales.
Minister, would you join me in applauding the mosque open day series of events that took place just last Sunday? I attended one in Newport along with the Presiding Officer and other prominent local politicians, and it was very encouraging to see different sections of the community coming together, learning more about the Muslim faith and developing relationships. Would you agree with me that it’s very important that Welsh Government continues to support that integration within our local communities?
Yes, indeed. And, I’m well aware that not only colleagues from Newport attended those events, but many others did, and that they ran a series of successful events over the weekend to promote mosques. Let me say that my own department has been engaged, following discussions with the Minister for Education and Skills and the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, in looking at ways in which we can open up greater access from the Welsh Government and, indeed, from the National Assembly, to a wide variety of organisations within the Muslim faith. We’ve held break-out sessions recently in the National Assembly with up to 80 participants in different groups—young men, young women, older men and older women—and those have been very well engaged. The engagement has been excellent and I think it has given the Welsh Government a lot of ideas for future development.
There are great concerns in the Wrexham area, Minister, about property and homes being the subject of arson. There have been 55 cases of setting fire to cars in Wrexham recently, and the police have admitted that they can’t get information from the community in some areas and that that hampers efforts to solve the problem. Would you, therefore, support the intention of the community council in Caia Park to offer a reward of £1,000 in order to catch one of these arsonists?
Well, let me start by saying that arson is a crime that has a devastating effect on individuals and on communities in many cases. And arson itself has been the subject of a series of campaigns by all the fire and rescue authorities in Wales to seek diminution of cases occurring. I welcome attempts by local organisations to seek to work with the police to bring forward information on perpetrators.
The Local Government Formula
10. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact that the Welsh local government formula has on the budget share for 2016-17? OAQ(4)0665(PS)
Llywydd, each authority is responsible for setting its budget, taking account of the range of sources of funding available to it. These include its allocation through the local government settlement and sources such as grants, council tax and income from fees and charges.
Thank you, Minister. Whilst the formula is quite complicated, it really has three major drivers: population or relative population change, sparsity and deprivation. It has nothing in there for places like Cardiff or Swansea that provide regional centres and provide services for a much larger area in terms of art galleries, et cetera, and it certainly, perhaps, needs to do that. Of course, everybody thinks that a change to the formula will mean they’ll have more money. With the same amount of money in the system, for every winner, there’s a loser, but who actually agreed the formula?
The funding formula is agreed with local government through the partnership council for Wales and its sub-groups, including the distribution sub-group and the finance sub-group. However, of course, as well as representatives of local government on those groups, there are independent members as well who have validated the elements within the formula. So, it’s been a collective agreement this year, as it always is.
Minister, we had a really good evidence session this morning in committee, with evidence coming forward from the WLGA and other council leaders. Now, one of the fundamental questions posed was actually about the funding of reorganisation and local government reform, and you made it quite clear that, you know, it’s down to local authorities to actually fund this. Minister, you’ve seen the poor settlements that you’ve given to our local authorities—[Interruption.] Oh, yes.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
You have seen the very poor—some in particular, of course, the more rural ones—. How on earth do you expect your local government reorganisation programme to go forward when you’ve already cut our rural authorities to the bone?
Can I start by reminding the Member that yesterday she voted against the additional money for Powys, Ceredigion and Monmouthshire when the budget was discussed? Let me talk about the consultation—let me talk about the local government reform programme. We are currently out to consultation on this; the consultation finishes on Monday. We have published, with the draft Bill, a regulatory impact analysis and a detailed breakdown of costs. It is very clear from our estimates and, indeed, from the estimates provided by the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy for the Welsh Local Government Association, that there are major savings to be made as a result of local government reorganisation. There is no difference in the figures. The Wales Audit Office has also said that it thinks that the figures we have produced are a reasonable estimate of the likely costs of merger and the likely potential savings. Can I just say, finally, that I remind her that the local government settlement in Wales, again, is far better than the settlement that’s being given to councils in England by the Conservative Government in Westminster?
The South Wales Fire and Rescue Service
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the educational work carried out by the South Wales Fire Service? OAQ(4)0670(PS)
The South Wales Fire and Rescue Service operates several highly effective education programmes. These both improve fire safety and divert young people away from fire-related crime.
Minister, the loss of Porth fire station was a big blow not just for the local community, but for the wider area, and this station and its loyal and dedicated firefighters served with distinction. We are well aware of the heroics that these firefighters performed on a regular basis, but the educational work that they performed behind the scenes was also of vital importance. Now, I understand from speaking to contacts from the station that the school visits that were happening before and the work carried out with the young adults who are deemed at risk of offending would have been carried out with distinction by the Porth firefighters, but that work has dropped off dramatically since the station’s closure. What provisions can be made to ensure that this vital educational work takes place ahead of the imminent grass fire period? Secondly, do you regret your Welsh Government did not do more to stop the closure of Porth fire station, given that you have powers and duties to ensure public safety?
Well, there were a series of points which I have to correct the Member on. Let me start, however, by paying tribute to the work of firefighters at Porth, who I met on many occasions. They did excellent work in the local community, both in their role as firefighters but also in terms of the education and community work they also carried out. The Member is simply wrong on the position in respect of the Welsh Government and its powers. These are matters for the south Wales fire and rescue authority.
In respect of the educational programmes, let me say that the educational programmes are continuing. It’s only in the last week, I think, that the south Wales fire and rescue authority launched the Bernie education programme about mountain fires and grass fires in Darran Park Primary School in Ferndale in the Rhondda. I’m sorry that the Member wasn’t aware of that. Throughout the south Wales fire and rescue area, there are a range of educational activities that are well under way being delivered by firefighters in the south Wales fire and rescue authority.
Minister, grass fires are a very serious issue in south Wales. We are now entering the spring and, ironically, it was the spring that saw the worst grass fires last year, because of a rather damp summer. Can you inform the Chamber—because you’ve set up various working groups to support the fire service in their work, both in education and in tackling these fires—what new ideas you might be having coming out of those working groups that will enhance the fire service in south Wales, and indeed across Wales, to deal with these terrible acts of vandalism that blight so many communities?
The Member is right to raise the issue. You’ll recall that the First Minister and I held a grass fires summit, which involved members of the local authorities in south Wales, the fire and rescue service in south Wales, South Wales Police and others, and we have made investments to assist the fire and rescue services. I referred earlier to the unmanned aerial vehicle, commonly known as a drone, that we’ve provided for mid and west Wales, which will be deployed beyond the mid and west Wales fire and rescue authority boundaries. We’ve also invested in additional equipment in the form of vehicles for south Wales fire and rescue as well. As I mentioned in answer to the earlier question, of course, south Wales fire and rescue is continuing with its educational work in the community. I think it’s fair to say that the engagement that we’ve had over the last 12 months has brought greater attention to this issue and, I think, a renewed focus by agencies such as the police. I was pleased to see the prosecutions that took place last year as a result of combined fire and rescue and police activity.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move on to item 3, which is a debate by individual Members under Standing Order 11.21. I call on Julie Morgan to move the motion.
Motion NNDM5942 Julie Morgan, Elin Jones, Darren Millar, Aled Roberts
Supported by Christine Chapman, Janet Finch-Saunders, Russell George, Rhun ap Iorwerth, Mark Isherwood, Jenny Rathbone, John Griffiths, Mike Hedges, David Rees, Sandy Mewies, Llyr Gruffydd, Ann Jones, Alun Ffred Jones, Gwyn Price, Joyce Watson.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Deplores the number of bank branch closures in Wales, and in particular the frequency of closures even when the bank branch may be the last bank in the area.
2. Calls on banks to consider the impact of bank branch closures on urban and rural communities and individuals, especially older people and small businesses before final decisions on closures are made.
3. Calls on banks to carry out meaningful consultation, including local community organisations, pensioner organisations and business groups before final closure decisions, especially when the bank branch concerned is the only one remaining in the area.
4. Calls on the UK Government, the Welsh Government and the Financial Conduct Authority to ensure that they take the impact of bank branch closures into account when formulating their respective policies on financial services, economic development, and financial regulation.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I’m very pleased to have obtained this debate on bank closures in Wales today. I’d like to thank my cross-party sponsors of the debate, Aled Roberts, Darren Millar and Elin Jones. Aled Roberts will conclude the debate. I’d also like to thank all those Assembly Members who signed up to the debate, giving their support. I think the large number shows the strength of feeling on this issue here in the Senedd.
In my introduction to the debate, I want to cover the extent of the closures in Wales, the meaningfulness of the consultations undertaken by the banks before closure, and the effect on individuals and customers in my own constituency.
In the UK, a House of Commons briefing paper in 2015 shows the trend of bank branch closures from 1988 to 2012. In 1988, there were 20,583 main banks and building societies. In 2012, there were just 8,873—a really drastic reduction. So, obviously this is an issue that is wide. It is wide across the border, not just in Wales. I note that the Member of Parliament for Clwyd South, Susan Elan Jones, has written to the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee in the House of Commons to call for a full inquiry into bank closures. Just to quote from Susan Elan Jones, she says:
‘There are plenty of countries in the Western world that would never put up with the sort of shabby behaviour we are now getting from our so-called national banks.’
I think that shabby behaviour has been reflected in Wales.
In Wales, according to the Assembly Research Service, there appears to be no centrally held list of bank branches in Wales. The Campaign for Community Banking Services was set up to campaign for continued provision of bank branch networks, and began collecting data in 2003. The CCBS estimates that, since 2011, there have been an estimated 108 bank branch closures in Wales—47 HSBC, 43 NatWest and 18 Barclays. Other bank closures have been announced in the last two weeks, and it seems to be a never-ending trail of bank closures throughout Wales. There are now approximately 30 sole banking communities in Wales that have had no bank branch at all since 2011, which I think we’d all agree is a very difficult situation for a town or a village—to have no bank at all.
These bank closures have taken place all over Wales, and many Assembly Members have campaigned against them. I campaigned against the closure of the NatWest in Rhiwbina, and the closure of Barclays at the crossroads in Birchgrove, which—despite all efforts—is due to close on 19 February. The Assembly Member for the Rhondda, Leighton Andrews, has also been campaigning against bank closures in his constituency, particularly the NatWest in Pentre, Lloyds Bank in Porth and HSBC in Porth and Treorchy. I know that Jane Hutt led the campaign to stop the closure of NatWest in Llantwit Major, which closed last November. This was shortly followed by an announcement that Barclays, as well, was pulling out. I’m sure that other Members during this debate will tell us about their experience of bank closures.
The closure of a bank branch can have a profound impact on a community, especially when it is the only bank left, which is certainly the position in Rhiwbina when the bank closed in my constituency. A huge amount of concern was expressed to me by local residents, especially the elderly. For them, many of the trips to the local branch were part of their way of life. The other group, of course, that is very strongly affected is small traders, because small traders need to bank their money at the end of the day. The closure of a local bank can be a death blow to a community in terms of attracting small businesses and enabling small businesses to continue. I’d also make the point about small local charities. They need local branches to be able to go in and personally deal with.
One of my constituents in Rhiwbina said of the closure of NatWest in Rhiwbina: ‘I’m 93 years old and find going to Heol Llanishen Fach post office difficult, or to go to another bank. The assistance I get from the bank staff is invaluable to help me remain independent.’ Another Rhiwbina constituent told me: ‘I’ve written a strong letter to NatWest saying I have been a customer for 60 years. I feel let down, and I feel that they have betrayed my trust in them.’
It does seem to me that, when banks announce that they intend to close a branch, a big effort is usually made to try to stop this, but it just doesn’t seem to make any difference. I had meetings with bank staff, including the regional manager of NatWest, and the same with Barclays. I wrote letters explaining why the closures would be detrimental to people’s lives and businesses. I’ve written to George Osborne, organised petitions, and collated information for so-called impact statements. Yet those impact statements don’t seem to have any effect whatsoever. Jane Hutt, Vaughan Gething and I together wrote a letter to Sajid Javid, the Secretary of State for business, about the protocol for closures, which appears to have no effect on the final decision at all. I know that Jane Hutt has also been through a similar process as I’ve been through in trying to prevent the closure of a bank in her constituency. Despite chairing a very well attended public meeting, gathering signatures for a petition, providing evidence on the impact on vulnerable and elderly customers and businesses, this was disregarded.
We do know that the reason banks are giving for closures is the fall in customer numbers and growth in online banking. I think that there is no doubt that we have to accept that that is a trend; many more people are banking online. But many of my constituents told me that they were very surprised by the figures produced by the bank for the number of regular users that leads to a closure decision. One local GP told me that she was surprised to hear the figure that was given as the number of regular users for the Rhiwbina branch. She said: ‘I have to say that every time I go into this branch, there is a queue. It is very well used, often full of elderly folk or local business owners cashing in their takings.’ That is my impression when I’ve been in that branch as well. I’m pleased to say that, in Rhiwbina, the bank has at least recognised the need for some form of continued service, and it will be providing a weekly mobile banking van from 10 March, which will be there for two hours. It’s certainly not ideal, but at least it’s some help to customers.
So, one of the things I think we need to look at is how we get independent scrutiny of the figures banks provide about their regular customer numbers. I also think there should be an absolute presumption against closure if the bank is the last one in a particular area. I do not think that the banks should go ahead with the closure if it is the only one there, because it does destroy communities.
Lastly, I think consultation needs to be meaningful, because at the moment it seems that whatever petitions, protests and meetings we have with the banks, the community impact is simply disregarded. Perhaps the banks should focus more on providing a service to their customers, their more vulnerable customers in some cases, the small businesses who provide the lifeblood to our country, and perhaps they should consider putting more money into doing that than sponsoring high-profile events or football championships. Perhaps they should re-think their priorities and concentrate on continuing to provide the very valuable service they do to our constituents.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Well, this item has obviously generated a lot of interest from Members. I’ve had 12 requests to speak. I don’t think we’re going to get through them all, but we will try. But I may not get through them all. Darren Millar.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and thank you to Julie for suggesting this debate to Members today. I think it’s a very important issue that has often been overlooked by this Assembly Chamber, but nevertheless, I know that many Assembly Members have taken a great deal of interest in this in their own constituencies. Like Julie and other Members of this Chamber, I unfortunately have had to battle over the future of banks up in Clwyd West, and other people in north Wales have had to contend with these too. The first bank that closed in my constituency was in the last Assembly term, in Kinmel Bay, and I can remember the tussle that I had with the HSBC over the future of that branch. Kinmel Bay is quite a large community, with 8,000 people there, and yet there’s not a single bank in that community. It struck me as very concerning indeed that there should be no bank serving a community of that size. I think that there are significant flaws in the processes that all banks go through when deciding where their branch distribution should be, and I’ve been astonished, frankly, at the disregard that they show to the views of local customers. Their businesses rely on customers, and at the end of the day, you cannot afford to overlook their views.
I’ve also since that time seen branches close. The HSBC branches closed in Rhos-on-Sea, and indeed, most recently, in Cerrigydrudion, and I have to say that the rural communities are much more affected, I think, than many of our urban communities by bank closures, because of course when a branch closes in a community, if it’s the last branch in that community, they have much further to travel in order to access banking services elsewhere. I know that a recent report was published into access to rural branches, and some people are having to travel 8 miles and more in order to get to a local branch facility. That clearly is not acceptable at all.
But it’s not only branch closures. Some branches are simply reducing the number of hours that they are open, and that too can have a big restricting factor on the ability of customers to access services. I’ve seen that happen to a Royal Bank of Scotland branch over in Colwyn Bay, which reduced its hours back in 2011 and, again, caused a great deal of distress to those customers who use that facility on a regular basis. NatWest also has been closing branches in my constituency in Abergele and Rhos-on-Sea, and you can see that this trend, if it continues, is going to further disadvantage those people who rely on the services. Julie’s quite rightly pointed out that older people are more disadvantaged by branch closures than many others, and that is because many of them are not online and are not able to avail themselves of some of the more modern technology that younger people might use to be able to access their banking facilities. Let’s face it, lots of people like a face-to-face service when it comes to banking. They have trusted, over the years, their banks, up until many recent events over the past few years, and I think it is important that there is a counter service available in many of our communities, and not just something that is a hole in the wall, which is very often the only thing a bank might leave behind in some of these communities. A hole in the wall does not represent a decent banking service and can never be regarded as acceptable in my opinion.
I want to also stress the importance of the banking network to visitors to Wales. We forget sometimes that Wales has a booming tourism economy and part of what makes that attractive is being able to access, yes, things like broadband and Wi-Fi these days, but also the availability of a local branch to get some currency, particularly for overseas visitors, is incredibly important. We can’t overlook the fact that, when you lose branches—particularly in rural parts of Wales, beautiful parts of Snowdonia, along some of our trunk road network in places like Cerrigydrudion—it does have an impact on the visitors that come to see us and it can leave them with a very sour taste in the mouth when they are unable to get cash out to be able to spend in our economy. It’s not good from an economic point of view.
So, I think it is important to recognise the disproportionate impact on rural communities, the disproportionate impact on older people and this adverse impact on the tourism industry, in particular, when our bank branch network is in decline. So, I support you, Julie, in calling for everybody who’s involved in these decisions to pay more regard to these issues in the future and to actually listen to the voice of their customers when making these decisions.
Most of the time people discuss or oppose bank closures, they are about the problems—as Darren Millar talked about—in rural Wales. It’s not just rural Wales. I want to highlight what has happened in Woodfield Street, Morriston, in the last 25 years. It’s a major suburb of Swansea and the area of Woodfield Street, Clase Road and Pentrepoeth Road is a major retail area. It includes a large number of small businesses but also national chains such as Iceland and Wilkinson.
When I was first elected as a county councillor in 1989, the complaint I regularly heard was, ‘There are too many banks and building societies here. We don’t need them all’—an example of the need to be careful about what you wish for. Of the five banks—Barclays, Lloyds, NatWest, HSBC and TSB—two have closed and one branch was closed following the Lloyds TSB merger. We now have two banks left on Woodfield Street—Lloyds and HSBC. But Lloyds are busy closing branches—Skewen, in the constituency of David Rees, and Uplands, in the constituency of Julie James, were announced for closure this week. Does the following quote from the ‘South Wales Evening Post’ sound familiar?
‘Lloyds say customers from the branches have been told of the closures via a letter.’
The closures come despite calls from both customers and councillors urging the banking giant not to go ahead with the plan, but they’re going ahead with it anyway. The complaints, which we’ve all taken part in—. We’ve all sent a letter, we’ve all signed the petition. I don’t know of anywhere it’s ever worked. If somebody can tell me where it’s ever worked—. But, once they seem to make this decision, they pay no attention to anybody.
Unfortunately—I feel I might slightly disagree with Darren Millar—sometimes the banks close the cash points at the same time—a cash point is not a bank, but it does give access to money for people—in many cases leaving the option of either paying for cash withdrawals or travelling several miles to access cash. Of course, this is not just a British phenomenon. In Des Moines in Iowa—empty bank branches are starting to litter small-town business districts across the nation as the financial institutions that own them focus their resources.
Whilst in city centres, such as Wind Street, banks that have closed can and have been converted into pubs and wine bars, such opportunities do not exist in suburbs, smaller towns and villages. In the case of Morriston, both the former Barclays and HSBC bank buildings are still empty. I fear they will remain empty for some time. Banks are a specific type of building. They don’t actually lend themselves to any other form of retail. Turning a bank into general A1 retail is difficult. They’ve tried that with a TSB in Morriston several times and it doesn’t seem to have worked for any of them.
Whilst I accept internet banking has reduced footfall in banks, there is still a need for businesses and the general population to visit banks. We cannot afford to allow the number of banks to further dwindle. [Inaudible.] Certainly—
I’m grateful to you for taking an intervention. One of the key things that is lost when a bank is shut is that business connection—the small businesses, in particular, build up a relationship. Very often, when that entrepreneurial spirit comes into the business, and they need a small loan, because that personal contact is lost, the business really does struggle to access finance. That opportunity for small-scale employment in rural or urban areas does decline dramatically because of the lack of access to finance.
As unusual as this is, I actually agree with every word Andrew R.T. Davies just said. Also, the other problem is that a number of businesses need change on a daily basis—pubs, for example, restaurants and cafes need to get change, and they don’t know how much change they’re going to need tomorrow until the cash up the night before. So, you have this situation where they can’t get change, or they have to travel several miles to get change, which certainly causes disruption to the businesses.
I think it really is time for the Westminster Government to act. It is too late for many communities—not for Woodfield Street in Morriston, for example, but it is for a number of other communities. We need to act before we only have odd banks in city centres or in major retail centres and the rest of us will have to make our way there. Can I just give the warning that we’ve seen what’s happening with the decline of petrol stations, and how few petrol stations there are? There are actually fewer petrol stations in Britain now than there were in 1921, according to figures I read. So, this decline can take place. We need to start fighting against them, we need to start opposing them, and we need to hold the banks to account for it. It’s our money they’re holding, they just won’t let us get hold of it.
I thank Julie Morgan once again for proposing this as an important topic for discussion, something that has touched each and every one of us in our constituency. I’ll try not to repeat what’s already been said, because, obviously, there will be some common ground for us as Members in all parts of Wales. Of course, losing a local bank is a huge blow to any community. At best, perhaps, it can mean that one has to change bank accounts to another branch down the road. At worst, and far too often, the reality is, of course, that the bank to close is the very last bank in that community,
The two examples I have from my own constituency are Menai Bridge and Amlwch. In Menai Bridge, HSBC closed there. It’s a prosperous town, full of economic activity, and it makes no sense whatsoever to anyone looking from the outside why HSBC would intend to close that branch, particularly given that it’s only a year or two since the branch in Beaumaris closed, and the customers of that bank were told at that point, ‘Don’t worry, you can go to Menai Bridge to do your banking.’ Now, in Amlwch the branch there is closing. Amlwch is a town that’s going to be at the heart of great economic activity over the next decade, yet it is clear that they are not looking to the future at all in terms of the bank in Amlwch. What have customers been told? ‘Don’t worry, you can actually do your banking in the post office.’ But we know that there is uncertainty about the future of the post office in Amlwch, and we know of too many communities in Wales where the post office has also been lost.
We know that this, according to the banks, is driven by changes in our own banking practices, and, of course, we, each and every one of us in this Chamber, I’m sure, are doing more of our banking online and so on. But the decision to close these branches is happening at a time when our communities, generally speaking, aren’t ready to say, ‘Yes, we are communities that do all of our banking online’. There are too many vulnerable and older people in our communities who aren’t ready to participate in this modern online banking age. Also, we regularly in this Chamber talk of problems in relation to broadband in our rural areas. There are too many areas that don’t have the necessary digital infrastructure to enable them to fully participate in online banking.
What the banks say, of course, is that these branches aren’t profitable. I’m sure that they’re right in terms of the branches themselves. I’ll refer to a paper published by the Competition and Markets Authority in August of last year as part of an inquiry into retail banking:
‘the “retail banking” divisions constituted an important source of income for the five largest UK banks. In 2014, these banks on an average, derived close to 60% of their total revenues from the retail divisions. The retail banking divisions across the five banks reported a total income of £42.1 billion and profit before tax of £14.2 billion in 2014. Figures...show that, while total reported income of the banks has remained relatively stable between 2012 and 2014, the reported profit has, in general, shown an upward trend during this period’
The banks are profiting from their retail banking. What should happen is that the banks operate as a network, with profitable branches assisting, in turn, to maintain the less profitable branches, in a way that regulation certainly happens with the private mobile phone market, for example—the masts in Anglesey don’t make a profit for the telecommunications companies, but as part of the network they do have to provide that wider coverage, of course. So, that is what should happen with the banks, but, clearly, the banks aren’t interested in that. So, we must maintain pressure on the banks and on Governments to ensure that full consideration is given by these institutions to the impact of their decisions on communities.
We can make our own efforts to ensure the viability of our high streets, for example, in order to attract more customers to the banks, but, of course, the bank is one of those things that actually makes for a viable high street. We will play our part, of course, to try to ensure that there is footfall through our banks, but the banks do have to consider their responsibility as part, as I say, of a network that serves not just our prosperous and highly populated areas, but also our poorer, rural areas.
Could I say how much I welcome the debate supported by Members across the Chamber here this afternoon on access to banking in Wales? Like many Members have already outlined for their constituencies, Brecon and Radnorshire has been badly hit by closures, losing banks in Ystradgynlais and Talgarth in the past. In the most recent wave of closures, we’ve seen Barclays close the last bank in Llanwrtyd Wells, and NatWest close its branch in Crickhowell. We’re currently awaiting the closure of HSBC in Builth Wells and the HSBC in Rhayader, which, again, will be the last bank in town.
The attitude from the banks, it must be said, has done nothing to rehabilitate the image the industry currently enjoys after their recklessness and their behaviour helped bring our country’s economy to the edge. They seem to have forgotten what this country did to assist them. They have been impervious to the impact that their withdrawal from communities will have on local people, the stock answer being that people are urged to use a different or alternative branch many, many miles away, use telephone services or internet banking services—not so very easy to do when there is a lack of public transport in many parts of Brecon and Radnorshire, and a lack of adequate mobile and internet infrastructure.
They are also very happy to pass the buck to the Post Office, with little or no consultation with that organisation to see if they can actually pick up the slack. Now, I am very grateful to the Post Office and their operatives who have responded so positively in many of our communities. In Llanwrtyd Wells, the Post Office agreed to upgrade the facilities that were available so that more financial transactions could take place, and I’m very grateful to the postmistress there, as I am to the postmistresses in Rhayader who are really trying to bridge the gap for local people, and, again, in Crickhowell.
Also, bank closures potentially mean the loss of the only access that community has to free 24-hour cash machines. Now, I’m glad to say that after a lot of campaigning and a lot of hard work, we’ve been successful in maintaining the cash point in Llanwrtyd Wells and in Crickhowell, yet the future for the only 24-hour free cash machine in Rhayader is still very much in doubt. HSBC have made it quite clear that they have no intention of keeping that cash point available, and we are now in the hands of Cashzone to see whether they will consent to keeping that there.
Powys has the second lowest average wage in the whole of this country. Having access to free cash withdrawals that allow people to withdraw small cash amounts at each transaction is absolutely crucial in these communities.
Can I turn to the issue, then, of the access to banking code? It is, at best, given lip service by the banks that I have recently been engaged with. And at worst, in the case of HSBC and the person who was charged with closing those branches, I had to tell them it existed; he had no idea he had any obligations under that access to banking code. It is simply not good enough. But, of course, who can blame the banks when they know they are not going to be held to account? I am still waiting, as is the community council of Llanwrtyd Wells, for responses from the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, Sajid Javed, who has simply not bothered to respond to our correspondence with regard to ensuring that he is enforcing the access to banking code.
I appreciate and understand what you say, because, do you not accept that when Vince Cable was business Secretary and was negotiating the protocol with the banks, which rejected it, that was the opportunity to regulate, when regulation should have been brought in, and he failed to actually do that? And had regulations been brought in then—because it’s only by regulation that the banks can be brought to heel in terms of delivering public services.
Mick, I wouldn’t disagree. It’s clear to me that the access to banking code does not work, and is not worth the paper it’s written on for my constituents. Therefore, it seems to me the only way forward is to provide a statutory underpinning of that code, to make banks accountable for their actions. I am quite clear on that. It’s the only way in which we are going to ensure that our communities are properly looked after in this regard.
But as well as a statutory underpinning of that code—which I don’t see happening any time soon, it must be said—we do need to look for other solutions, especially what we can do to promote other methods of access to financial services in communities, such as, for instance, the credit union. If you look at the development and the breadth of credit union services, for instance, in the United States of America, as opposed to what we have here, I think it’s time that we looked to develop alternatives to the big banking institutions, which have demonstrated, quite clearly, they’re not interested in many parts of Wales.
Well, unlike the idiots who were allowed to wreck our banking system, I am a qualified banker, who previously worked in the building society sector, and I’ve campaigned against the closures of both bank and mutual building society branches.
Speaking here in November 2013, after HSBC announced the closure of branches in Llangollen, Conwy and Beaumaris, I stated that widespread concerns had been raised by constituents regarding the impact this will have on them, the wellbeing of the businesses in their towns, their communities, and the thousands of tourists who visit the area. They’re afraid that rural areas are taking the brunt and believe that we need to take a longer term, truly customer-focused approach. However, HSBC told me that low customer usage meant that the bank was unable to reverse its decision.
Last June, we heard that the village bank that starred in a NatWest television advert pledging to keep every branch open as long as it was the last in the community was being shut down. We learned this month that Barclays is to shut its branch in Buckley, Flintshire, with accounts moved to Mold—a 6-mile round trip for customers. It’s the third bank to announce a closure in the town over the last six months, leaving just one branch.
Following HSBC’s announcement of the proposed closure of branches in Chirk and Ruabon, Simon Baynes, the prospective Welsh Conservative candidate for Clwyd South, carried out community bank surveys and held public meetings in both communities. And, accompanied by two county councillors, he then met HSBC and put questions to them, raised by the public. These included: ‘Please be specific about the factors in your decision to close; customers have trouble understanding the decision, given that there are often queues in these two bank branches.’ ‘Doesn’t this decision betray a lack of forethought?’ In practice, it’s very difficult for many customers to go to Wrexham, particularly shops that need to cash up takings, and given that there are few cashiers now in the Wrexham branch. ‘Surely, this closure is discrimination against people without the internet, who cannot drive.’ ‘Doesn’t HSBC take into account the knock-on effect of closure on the surrounding areas and businesses, as well as the two towns themselves?’ I give way.
I agree wholeheartedly about the lack of forethought, and I’m sure that you would agree with me that it is regrettable that when the Corwen branch closed, of HSBC, everybody was told, ‘Go to Llangollen.’ Then, they closed Llangollen and told people to go to Chirk or Ruabon. Now, they’re closing Chirk and Ruabon and people are ending up going even further to Wrexham. That lack of forethought shows complete disregard of people’s rights in their own communities.
Precisely. And, as they said, ‘Why doesn’t HSBC care more about the effect on the elderly of these branch closures, and the cost of getting to other banks?’ And, ‘What links do you have’, they said, ‘with community banking models, and credit unions, and can you help such institutions, given your departure?’ However, I understand they said they had no intention of changing their decision.
So, let us heed the key survey findings. People feel strongly they need a bank. Footfall is significant in both banks. They are important for older people, those without transport, shopkeepers and small businesses. Chirk has 0.5 million tourists a year and banks play a role in that, and the post office will not be able to fill the void of bank closures.
With digital banking decimating the use of traditional services the UK Government and the British Bankers Association entered an agreement early last year that commits banks to working with local communities to establish the impact of the branch closure prior to the closure, finding suitable alternative provision to suit individual communities and putting satisfactory alternative banking services in place before a branch is closed. In May 2015, the access to banking protocol came into effect, outlining consultation and community engagement requirements prior to a branch closing and requiring an assessment of the impact of any proposed closure on the wider community including businesses. Last August’s letter from the UK Government to the British Bankers Association outlined their position stating:
‘Branch closures continue to be a matter of concern for consumers and small businesses in affected communities…it is important that closure decisions are made responsibly, and that efforts are made to provide adequate alternative banking arrangements reflecting local circumstances—including small business needs—before a branch closes.’
That’s why the BBA and the Post Office started to agree a standard set of services to be made available to bank customers at post office counters and why that remains vital. The letter also asks the BBA for the industry’s view on the viability of shared branch arrangements. The operation of the protocol is due to be independently reviewed in summer 2016—this summer. So, let this debate help inform and influence that review. Thank you.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this important debate today. The spate of bank closures across Wales is undoubtedly a great cause of concern. I’m aware, as my colleague Julie Morgan has said already, of the moves afoot at Westminster to debate bank closures and I’m very pleased that Susan Elan Jones MP has written to the chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee to request that this issue goes before members sitting on that committee. I thank Julie Morgan AM for facilitating this debate and I’m sure that all Members—as they have done so far—contributing to this debate will be able to draw on examples from their own constituencies—
In one second. Examples from their own constituencies and regions of how bank changes have inconvenienced loyal customers when they either relocate or go entirely. I’ll take the intervention.
Thank you. While I agree with everything that’s been said up until now about the closures of the banks, would you agree with me that this is just further disenfranchisement of people who do not have access to the internet? Banks are continually encouraging people to pay bills through the internet. Benefits can be accessed through the internet. You’re being told now they want your bills to utility companies paid through the internet. What will happen to people who don’t have that access, who don’t have access to banks, who can’t get to places—this is all ages—if things do not change to accommodate the people who need to be accommodated?
I agree with you completely. Banking services are a public service in effect. People have every right to access their own money in order to pay bills and the internet is not for everyone. I agree absolutely with the sentiments that you’ve expressed.
In August 2014, the HSBC branch at Bargoed in my constituency closed and relocated to Blackwood, some 5 miles away. Some might say that 5 miles isn’t that far away, but the topography of our valleys coupled with lower than average car ownership has made it very difficult for some of my constituents in the Bargoed area to continue banking with HSBC. Local councillors have been concerned with the impact of such a closure on the footfall of the town, especially after significant Welsh Government, European Union and local authority money has gone into the regeneration of Bargoed. The construction of a park-and-ride facility; a new bus station at the northern end of the town; the construction of a £25 million new road, Angel Way; and a new retail development, Plateau, have breathed new life into the town of Bargoed. At a time when public money on a big scale was being invested in Bargoed, HSBC’s decision to relocate sent out the wrong message to local people and potential investors.
We should not underestimate the close relationship between long-standing customers and employees at the bank. In particular, older people who have been banking with the same branch for 30 or 40 years will tend to visit their local branch more than school leavers and young adults. There does have to be a recognition, as has been mentioned, that not everybody wants to or is comfortable with online banking. For those who do choose to stay loyal to their bank, they could well have to depend on public transport. We all know, unfortunately, that sometimes our buses don’t operate to schedule, and the twice-hourly service from Blackwood to Bargoed could slip causing further inconvenience. It’s also right to highlight the travel costs to those individuals not old enough to obtain a free bus pass. In effect, therefore, the residents of Bargoed, who have remained loyal to HSBC and made the switch to Blackwood, have had to pay through their own pockets for a decision that was completely taken out of their hands.
Llywydd, can I finish by endorsing the call of Kirsty Williams regarding the importance of credit unions as a viable alternative to high street banks? And I trust that all AMs are members of their local credit unions.
As a member of my local credit union in the Rhondda, I’m delighted to follow on from this last contribution. Plaid Cymru in the Rhondda has campaigned vigorously against bank branch closures affecting the Rhondda as well. HSBC, who ironically market themselves as the world’s local bank, have announced that they’re going to be shutting their branches in Porth and Treorchy. Customers have been told that they will need to travel to Pontypridd if they want a counter service, and, unfortunately, there is more bad news on the way as Lloyds Bank have also said that they intend to close their branch in Porth as well. So, if you’re fit and healthy, and you have your own car, travelling to Pontypridd will still be a major inconvenience for many Rhondda residents, but if you’re not fit, and you’re not healthy, and you don’t have your own car, then travelling to Pontypridd from the top of the Valley may well be a nigh impossibility.
HSBC don’t seem to realise, or perhaps they don’t even care, that not everyone is able to do internet banking. Rhondda Cynon Taf has one of the lowest take-ups of the internet throughout the UK, with around a quarter of the population never having been on the internet. Furthermore, as a trader in Maerdy remarked last week, how can he internet bank his change? This news comes after the loss of many local facilities and services, some by public bodies. Our local council, for example, has recently shut libraries, day centres, and we’ve also lost pubs, shops and post offices—all lost in our communities in recent times. This is why I feel it’s important that we do all we can to make strong representations to HSBC about their plans, and that’s why Plaid Cymru has spent so much time rallying with residents, with plans for a petition and so on.
But, I must ask the question: is anyone listening to all of these people and all of these campaigns and all of these petitions against these losses of local services? So far, the record has not been great. Not many of those campaigns have actually been successful. We have lost so much despite great efforts on the part of many local people. That said, we will not give up on our town centres and the communities that they serve. We must do all that we can to keep these vital services in our communities. Those facilities, after all, make them the communities that they are.
I thank Julie Morgan for bringing forward this debate today. Much of what’s been said isn’t news to me, but I have had my eyes opened by the fact that this is very much an urban problem as well as a rural issue affecting our rural banks. In my constituency in Montgomeryshire, HSBC have recently announced their intention to close two of its branches in Llanfyllin and Llanfair Caereinion Other banks have closed across north Powys: the Royal Bank of Scotland has closed branches in Montgomery, Llanidloes, and Llanfair Caereinion, and HSBC have also closed branches in Llanidloes and Machynlleth. Barclays have also reduced the opening hours in Llanidloes. This isn’t over the last 10 years; this is just over the last 18 months, two years. The closure of these banks in my constituency, of course, is having the same devastating effect as it is on other villages and high streets across Wales.
I have had the same experience as Julie Morgan and other Members, where a bank has written to me and informed me of their decision; I have then written to the bank and asked to meet with them; I then meet with them and ask them to change their position and they say ‘no’. That’s the short version, but whatever you do to involve yourself in petitions, in campaigns, in surveys, you still get the same negative answer. Leanne Wood just mentioned that most campaigns are not successful. Well, I’ve yet to know of any campaign that’s been successful. If anyone can tell me that they have had a successful campaign, please intervene and let me know what their secret is. My approach, rather than doing petitions, more recently has been to conduct my own consultation, because banks aren’t doing it. So, as soon as I’ve known, I’ve conducted my own survey and then I’ve presented the results of those data to the banks when I’ve met them, and I’ve met all banks in the last 18 months in my constituency—HSBC, Barclays, NatWest. I’ve met with their regional managers, presented data to them that I’ve collected as a result of my own surveys and, very often, those data are different to the information they present to me, as well. I met with HSBC bank in December in Llanfyllin. They were telling me, ‘This is how many people used our bank last year.’ I said, ‘Well, how many’s that per day?’ They worked it out for me whilst I was there and it was three per day. Well, I was sitting in the room next to them and I could see on the monitor that there were three people standing in the queue. So, I do question sometimes the data that they provide. I think they’re very selective with their data.
From my experience, the groups that are most affected are small businesses, of course, particularly if they’re engaged in retail activity, because there are issues with banking money and obtaining change quickly without fuss. Charity organisations are very much affected, because of the types of bank accounts they have to hold—they have to go into a bank—disabled residents as well and elderly residents are obviously affected. Also, communities that have little or no broadband or mobile signal are obviously affected as well. Of course, as has been pointed out, there’s a reduction in footfall as a result of bank closures, which affects other local businesses as well.
Now, I think I understand to a point—as I think we all do—why the banks are taking this approach. To a point, we understand that there are technological advances, and that’s the main factor. I’m guilty anyway of using online banking, and therefore I go into my bank less as a result. But, for me, that’s all the more reason why we need banks to come together and explore a new model of banking that will see them sharing buildings, sharing services and continuing to serve customers.
There is a role here as well for Welsh Government—I’ve raised this with Ministers in the past and spoken in debates—to act as a facilitator to bring the banks together—
Will you take an intervention?
Shouldn’t the real direction be that we want the UK Government to actually regulate the banks to require them, as with any other public service, to provide that service? And isn’t the reason why the Tory Government won’t do it the amount of finance that gets put into its coffers from individual bankers and from the finance industry? The Tory Government will not regulate. Isn’t that the problem?
I was really hoping, Mick, that we could end this debate on a note where we got cross-party consensus. I agree with the first part of what you said. I agree with the first part of what you said. What I want to see—. Let’s see all parties in this Chamber have something in their manifesto ahead of the Assembly elections and let’s see whoever forms the next Welsh Government taking this forward as a facilitator, bringing banks and the regulators together and doing that on a cross-party basis, with cross-party support.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I now call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport to speak on behalf of the Government—Edwina Hart.
Even though, of course, I’m replying to the debate, Presiding Officer, as a Government Minister, I fully understand and agree with the concerns that are raised in this Chamber by all Members who represent constituencies here, because we all see it at first hand. I thought what was very interesting was Llyr’s intervention, when he said, first off, you start off with one and then you’re allowed to go a mile down the road, then you go to that bank and you’re told you’ve got to go 3 miles down the road. So, when does 3 miles become 10 and when does 3 miles become 30? That’s actually the issue because, all along, I think, they’ve sometimes had an understanding that they’d have a wider closure programme rather than the one branch that they might discuss with you in one year and what happens in the year after.
Obviously, we’ve got to put this debate in some sort of context because banking is a matter for the UK Government and, ultimately, decisions on bank closures are commercial matters for the banks. We may be their customers, but they’re actually only interested in how the market responds to their profits or not and how, of course, they’re regarded within the City and how they see the wider economy and their relationship with it.
Can I say, there are obviously a number of reasons for closures? I think Russell George touched on one of those, which was financial innovation and trends in society towards falls in demand for the use of cheques as a payment means, and the increased use of electronic payment services are one of the issues that the banks raised. Also as well, of course, the financial crisis led to several bank mergers and a consequent duplication of branches in some areas. Mike alluded to his constituency, about TSB and Lloyds and what happened there.
The financial crisis also placed downward pressure on the banks, forcing banks to look at ways to cut costs. Of course, the British Bankers Association estimates that the number of people going into branches to do their banking fell around 30 per cent between 2012 and 2015. But I think, even on an anecdotal basis, we could question the figures the banks have been using in terms of what we see with our own eyes when we go to the branches on the high street that we pop into for some of our work, in terms of what we’re undertaking.
Now, when we look at some of the issues around the fall in numbers, we also recognise the concern about the impact of closures on local communities. I’m not really aware of any recent evidence or research—and it would be good to have some done, actually—specifically on the impact that bank closures have on the local economy, because most of the evidence has been anecdotal. But there was some research done by the University of Nottingham, and that reported that areas with the highest rate of closure are traditional manufacturing areas, where loss of branches is at a rate 3.5 times higher than areas with the lowest rate of decline. It’s quite interesting now that we need to recognise it’s not all rural communities, but it’s industrial communities as well that have been impacted.
Now, I have to say, like Julie Morgan, I think we can say what an excellent job consumer organisations, such as the campaign for community banking services, have done when they’ve been set up to look at branch networks, and they’ve highlighted the issues. The issue is access to financial services, the economic cost and inconvenience to small business, the elderly, the disabled and others of having to use alternative banking locations and facilities. Into that context, of course, come the points that have been made about credit unions, about what alternatives we can engage in in looking to help and assist that could be alternatives for individuals.
There’s also the social cost of excluding low-income consumers from mainstream financial services, exacerbated by the absence of a community-based banking presence, and that also links into the digital issues, I think, and the points made by Sandy Mewies.
There’s also the sustainability of communities, which I think Jeff Cuthbert and others covered. Bank branch closures contribute to the commercial decline of communities, as better-off consumers change their purchasing habits, along with the need to travel further afield for banking services. Businesses close and regeneration is rendered more unlikely and start-up finance for local business becomes more difficult to obtain. Even though some people think you can still go into the local branch and have a decision on some aspects of lending as a business, you’ll find sometimes that’s done a lot further away now.
Also as well it’s the environment, because we’ve got to look at the environmental issues, because, if we’re asking people to travel further, we’re also having an environmental impact, which I think we also need to recognise.
Also as well, and one thing that hasn’t come up in the discussion, I don’t think, from any of the contributors today, is the impact of the closure of branches on jobs and people. There are jobs going out of these communities. People are employed and they will no longer be employed. That is extremely important in all areas. I meet regularly with senior representatives of the main banks and have pressed them for better access to finance for business and to give full consideration to the effects of community branch closures before deciding to do so.
People have alluded to the business Secretary Vince Cable, who actually wrote to banks calling for clear procedures, I think, in 2014, setting out the steps that banks would take when closing a branch to ensure customers in rural and deprived areas do not lose out. I do agree with Mick Antoniw when he said that there should be a statutory underpinning to all of this. I think we’re all agreed across the Chamber that, if we take anything away from this, we need to have some element of regulation in here to make sure that they do pay attention to what their customers are telling them. In March 2015, the major high street banks and consumer groups did sign up to the industry-wide agreement that Mark’s alluded to, and that protocol is due to be reviewed—it is important that we’re involved and do something on that review, because the review will look at how we work with local communities, find suitable alternative provision, and put in satisfactory alternative banking. That has to be a reality in terms of the code.
Local post offices do provide an excellent range of services and I think it was in August 2015 that Anna Soubry actually wrote to the chief executive of the British Bankers Association welcoming the green access to banking protocol, and emphasising the importance of banks following the process set out in the protocol. It also looked at the heads of terms agreement between the banks and the Post Office on provision of services.
But, as Kirsty Williams illustrated, the reality is totally different to what is happening in terms of the code. There is no proper consultation. Sometimes in post offices, their postmasters and mistresses are rushing to aid and assist because there hasn’t been a dialogue. So, there are definitely problems with this code that do have to be, I think, taken seriously.
I think we’ve had a very good debate today, and we need to all use the opportunities I’ve indicated of making representations on the code, and I will be writing to Anna Soubry, but the whole issue for me is regulation. Leanne asked, ‘Is anybody listening? Are the banks listening?’ I can tell you the banks are not listening, and we have to ask ourselves the question, ‘Who bailed out the banks? Who owns part of the banks?’ That’s the public. At the end of the day, we need to make very strong representations on taking matters forward, and I very much welcome the context of this debate today.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Aled Roberts to reply to the debate. Aled Roberts.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. May I also thank everybody for their contributions during the afternoon? May I thank Julie Morgan in particular for asking the three of us to support this debate today? I think that the theme running through this debate is frustration, because we’ve all been through this process for a number of years. I think the figures that Julie mentioned at the beginning show that this has been a problem for about 20 years by now, but it is on the increase.
I believe that, when Ken Skates and I had a joint meeting with the regional manager of HSBC in north Wales, it was obvious that this problem would be on the increase, because he said that the HSBC board at a UK level had decided that they wanted to close banks more swiftly. He also said at the time that the HSBC network in west Wales, in both north and south, would ultimately see the greatest number of branch closures.
Rwy’n meddwl, erbyn hyn, ein bod ni’n adlewyrchu’r rhwystredigaeth yna. Rwy’n meddwl bod nifer o’r siaradwyr yn dweud—. Mae’n rhaid imi ddweud, o ran Russell George, y broblem sydd gennym ni ydy y gallem ni gyflwyno’r holl bethau o fewn ein maniffestos ni ar gyfer etholiadau’r Cynulliad, ond, yn y pen draw, problem ar lefel Brydeinig ydy hyn. Mae’n rhaid inni ofyn cwestiynau—pam mae yna nifer o wleidyddion ar lefel Brydeinig o bob plaid fel pe na baen nhw’n barod i fynd i’r afael â’r broblem yma a symud i system o reoleiddio? Rydym ni wedi trio ‘protocols’ gwirfoddol yn y gorffennol ac mae’n amlwg erbyn hyn nad yw’r ‘protocols’ hynny yn gweithio.
Darren Millar said that there’s also a problem from the point of view of those branches that remain—that their hours are being restricted. He also said that, ultimately, we need to retain the counter service if possible. Although, I must say that we have been most eager in north Wales—. Rhun mentioned the problems on Ynys Môn. Five branches of HSBC in north Wales are going through this process of closure: the two in Anglesey, Betws-y-coed in the Conwy area, and also Chirk and Ruabon in Wrexham. HSBC might be in the vanguard on this, but, as Mark Isherwood said, Barclays is also beginning to look at its network. Only Barclays remains in Clwyd South—one bank in a constituency of about 60,000 people, one bank remaining in Llangollen.
What surprises me is the fact that they aren’t looking to the future. I held a meeting with HSBC at the end of the summer and I was concerned at that point about the future of the banks in Chirk and Ruabon. About three months before the decision or suggestion that those banks would be closed was made, the regional manager said, ‘Oh no, there’s no problem whatsoever with either Chirk or Ruabon. Chirk has the Kronospan business going through that branch. Ruabon is busy with the business of people who’ve been forced to go there from Rhos.’ So, these aren’t decisions taken on a regional level, but decisions taken on a national level. I believe that, as Mark Isherwood said, it’s difficult to understand exactly how the people managing our banks at present take these decisions. As Kirsty Williams said, it’s also difficult, as ratepayers, to accept, after all the money that went into the banks during the period of austerity, after all that, that they deal with ratepayers in this manner.
Mike Hedges said that this is not a rural problem. Russell George said also that he now understood that. Mike has always made it obvious. He always takes us back to Morriston, and he mentioned—like Jeff Cuthbert in Bargoed—the impact that that has on businesses within these towns or small suburbs, because there are people who perhaps could bank in adjacent towns or neighbouring cities, whereas they ultimately won’t be spending any in the shops locally. They will just go on that one journey to the bank. As Jeff Cuthbert said, that is difficult to accept, as so much public money goes into a place like Bargoed in trying to regenerate those towns and villages. At the end of the day, a commercial decision means that it exacerbates the problem.
I think that we must look fundamentally at the system. I think the movement of community banking is one that we could consider. They have different tiers of banking, but ultimately, we need to question here in the UK why, very differently to the situation on the continent, all these decisions are taken centrally in London. I think that’s the problem. This situation would not exist in Germany and such places, where there are very many more decisions taken on a local level. The community banking movement talk about creating some kind of franchise in the first place, where all the banks come together to maintain a local branch, but after that, moving to a system—and many people have alluded to the credit unions—and moving to a system where we secure some kind of service, not only for the elderly, not only for people who don’t have—. As Rhun said, there are some areas where broadband is not dependable. Also, there are these small businesses that need cash in order to sustain their businesses within those areas.
So, I think the message this afternoon is that perhaps the whole time taken in signing petitions and corresponding with managers is over. It’s high time that we demanded that all the parties on a UK level take urgent action if we want to see the banks remain within our communities for the future.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There are no objections; therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Can I remind Members that, if you take part in a debate, it is expected that you stay and listen to the rest of the debate? It’s extremely discourteous of Members to leave the Chamber as soon as they’ve spoken, and I do take a very dim view of that. There were two Members who did that this afternoon.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 4 is the debate on the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s report on supply teaching, and I call on Ann Jones to move the motion.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Children, Young People and Education Committee on the inquiry into Supply Teaching, which was laid in the Table Office on 16 December 2015.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I’m pleased to present the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s report on supply teaching to the Assembly this afternoon for debate.
Supply teaching is an essential part of the education system. Teacher absence is inevitable, so it must be a common goal to ensure that where cover teaching is required it can be delivered effectively, and is of the highest standard, in order that we provide pupils with continued quality learning.
The many challenges and difficulties in meeting these high expectations for supply teaching have been explored in three recent reports produced by the Wales Audit Office, Estyn and the Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee. The Children, Young People and Education Committee very much welcomed those reports and noted that concerns were still being raised. So, the committee were particularly keen to learn about whether supply teaching affected pupils and what impact it had on the pupils’ journey.
As part of the inquiry, we undertook surveys with young people, parents and carers, which attracted almost 1,500 responses. We are extremely grateful to those who took the time to respond, as this provided a clear picture of how supply teaching is viewed by those on the receiving end. During the course of the inquiry, the Welsh Government published new guidance on effective management of school workforce attendance. It is important to note that much of the evidence referred to in our report was received prior to this guidance being published. The Committee was, however, keen to ensure that the new guidance was considered. The report therefore includes additional evidence from stakeholders on the potential impact of that guidance.
The Committee made 22 recommendations in its report. I won’t go through all of these in detail, and I can hear everybody saying, ‘Thank goodness.’ Instead I’d like to concentrate my comments on what the committee believes are the key areas that emerged. Our overarching recommendation calls on the Welsh Government to look at a range of options for the future employment of supply teachers, including cluster arrangements operated by local authorities or through a national body. We believe closer arrangements between the employers and those with responsibility for providing school education would help resolve many of the issues identified. This view was shared widely across all those who gave evidence. Such a change would be a vital step forward, but is likely to be a longer term goal, as the current contract for supply teachers is due to continue to run until August 2018.
The inquiry identified a number of areas where improvements could be made within the time frame of the current contract. The lack of meaningful, consistent, comparative data, with regard to teacher absence, was a major concern. This lack of data means that the reasons for teacher absences are therefore unclear, making it difficult to manage and reduce sickness absence. Evidence also pointed to a system for supply cover, including data collection, which is overly complex. So, while methods of data collection need to be improved, this needs to be done in a clear and easy-to-manage way.
On pupil behaviour and outcomes, evidence received from Estyn, and the responses to the survey, indicated that the use of supply teachers has a negative impact on pupil behaviour, and has a further negative impact on their achievement and progress in lessons. However, Estyn also suggested that, although the progress of pupils in individual lessons may not be as quick as it should have been, this did not necessarily have an overall effect on pupil outcomes. Again, the lack of valid, reliable data in this area makes it very difficult to accurately assess the impact of supply teaching on pupils’ outcomes. The committee believes that research should be undertaken in order to gain an understanding of the effects of supply teaching on behaviour and pupil outcomes.
I want to turn to the continuous professional development of teachers now. The provision of CPD to supply teachers was one of the main areas of concern expressed by almost all those who gave evidence. Issues raised suggested that: there is little access to CPD for supply teachers; that meeting the cost of CPD is a major problem; and that the CPD available does not necessarily reflect the Welsh Government’s priorities. Although the Minister has restated his commitment that the new deal for the education workforce would apply to supply teachers, it is not clear how this will be delivered. The introduction of school development plans should help deliver better training generally across the school workforce. It is not clear, though, how these development plans will be used to consider the needs of supply teachers who are on day-to-day or short-term contracts. This needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency. The potential use of online learning, particularly the introduction of the professional learning passport, was raised as a positive way forward. There has also been recognition of the importance of sharing professional practice and direct observation. The committee believes the Minister should promote the importance of face-to-face CPD, alongside online learning. The suggestion of mandatory CPD for teachers was supported by many. The committee accepts that there may be potential difficulties in establishing a statutory approach for CPD, but believes this is something that should be explored by the Minister.
I’ll move on to newly qualified teachers. The committee was extremely concerned to hear evidence that the lack of support for newly qualified teachers is resulting in a high percentage leaving the profession. The committee believes that there must be adequate and improved support for supply teachers who are newly qualified teachers to enable them to fully demonstrate their attainment of professional teacher standards. On performance management, the committee heard a lot of evidence that suggested there is no real performance management for supply teachers. Many of those providing evidence recognised the difficulties in providing performance management, and questioned the practicality of a system for short-term staff. The committee believes that there must be a more robust system for performance management, including the provision of feedback on all levels, and that the Welsh Government should consider how this could best be achieved.
On quality assurance, again evidence received expressed concern that quality assurance in supply teaching was difficult to measure, particularly as there was no current quality mark or standard that supply agencies were required to meet. The committee believes that Welsh Government should consider whether the establishment of a Welsh quality mark would improve quality assurance.
If I turn to Welsh language supply provision, there was concern expressed about a general shortage of Welsh-medium supply teachers. Although much of the evidence we receive was anecdotal, it was suggested that, because Welsh-medium teacher training graduates were more able to find a permanent post, they were not entering the supply pool. It is vital that an accurate picture is gained of the effect of supply teaching through the Welsh medium, to enable appropriate action to be taken if necessary. The committee believes that Welsh-medium supply issues should be considered as part of the future thematic review of supply teaching that the Minister stated he would request from Estyn.
I mentioned earlier on the Welsh Government’s new guidance on effective management of school workforce attendance as a way forward that may help towards resolving some of the issues identified in this inquiry. However, the committee believes that it is too soon to tell if the guidance will achieve its stated purposes and have a positive impact on the effective management of teacher absence. The committee therefore welcomes the Welsh Government’s proposals to request the further thematic review on supply teaching by Estyn, at which time the effectiveness of the guidance can be assessed.
To conclude, then, Deputy Presiding Officer, as ever I’d like to thank those who gave evidence to the committee, particularly the young people themselves, as well as members of the committee and the clerking team who helped produce our report. I commend the report to the Assembly. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
I’m very grateful to be given the opportunity to speak on another report by the Children, Young People and Education Committee. This shows that it has been consistently effective in scrutinising the Welsh Government, something the Minister for education himself has said. The Chair of the committee has actually very succinctly gone through the majority of the recommendations, so rather than read what I put down here, what I’d like to say is that—. I feel I ought to declare an interest, Deputy Presiding Officer, because I have two children, one at secondary school and one at primary school. For me, it’s about the effects that having supply teachers has on children’s education. I actually responded to this inquiry as a parent, and I absented myself from much of the inquiry when the evidence was taken, because I had given such evidence.
I will just speak from personal experience. I was very surprised to see how my youngest child, who had always done extremely well at primary school, really suffered in the year that she had a string of supply teachers. It wasn’t just her. I also speak on behalf of the majority of her classmates, because they didn’t just have one supply teacher that came in and looked after them for a week, or two weeks. It was a very long period of time, and they had one supply teacher for a few days, one supply teacher for the middle day, and then another supply teacher for the end of the week. So, they had three different people. It was very interesting, when I was reading the witnesses that the rest of the committee saw, and of course the report that we’ve put forward, to see that the children themselves—and I quote here—80 per cent of the pupils who responded to the committee’s survey on supply teachers said
‘they learnt less with a supply teacher than with their usual class teacher.’
The same proportion of respondents said that their behaviour was worse when taught by a supply teacher. One of the reasons behind these numbers is that pupils do not feel challenged by the work given to them by the supply teachers, and a lot of the time a lot of the work is time filling rather than real learning. I found that, again with my own particular experience and my daughter’s friends, they would be given homework by teacher A, but teachers B and C then took over for the rest of the week and they had no-one to give that work in to and no-one to monitor it.
The other thing that became very apparent was that the rate of bullying went up. Now, I’m not talking about big bullying, I’m talking about bullying with a very small ‘b’. This was classroom joshing that went just that little bit too far. Again, this comes back to the supply teachers not knowing the characters so well and not having that opportunity. So, I think that there’s a very, very clear correlation between what a child learns and how they get on at school and the relationship that they build with their teacher. At primary school age, it is particularly of import.
The other area that really came out when I read the witnesses—and again it’s connected with this—is the impact that then has on teachers who work in areas of disadvantage and on the young people who are in more disadvantaged areas. They found it even harder still to cope with a supply teacher. The levels of attainment were not picked up and, again, that whole problem was compounded.
So, whilst the Chair’s very clearly gone through the rest of the recommendations, Minister, I think what I would like to do is just have your view, to someone like me who’s a parent, who’s been through this, and to all those parents out there, that supply teachers are very necessary. We have teachers who need time out for training and who obviously need time out for babies or because they’re unwell or because we have quite high levels of stress, or we have schools where they find it very hard to recruit teachers. So, we need supply teachers. They’re very, very vital—a fundamental part of our education system. But how do we ensure that they feel knitted into the school? How do we believe that they can be really knitted into the pupils that they are looking after so that there’s consistency and coherency so that those are not wasted days at school but instead they’re still valuable for those young pupils? Thank you.
May I also thank the committee and the committee clerk for the detailed work undertaken in looking into the issue of supply teaching? You can see how important it was that over 20 recommendations were made in terms of how we can improve the situation. I think everyone is agreed that things aren’t particularly positive now.
But there is room to take pride in the success of our schools and in the way in which local authorities, generally speaking, are maintaining and supporting our schools. There was a time when education authorities actually arranged supply teaching. Generally speaking, those arrangements have been privatised. Now, in education, we see a glimpse of how we could develop in the future if we don’t have a structure of local democracy, and the picture isn’t positive, by a long straw.
Where supply teachers are concerned, all too often, independence leads to problems, and there’s been talk of regional pay scales. Well, things don’t bode well if we see supply teachers actually preparing the ground for that. Generally speaking, the wages paid to supply teachers in Wales are lower than in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Let’s state quite clearly in this Chamber this afternoon that supply teachers aren’t second-class citizens in comparison with the rest of our teachers. They deserve the same professional dignity, including CPD and opportunities for promotion, as the Chair said earlier. I am occasionally critical that we too often look over Offa’s dyke for inspiration. However, let me recommend the example set by Sefton Council in England. There, the authority runs its own agency for supply teachers. In Northern Ireland, Belfast council keeps a register of supply teachers and ensures that they receive the pay that corresponds to their experience and qualifications, and they are part of the teachers’ pension scheme and receive CPD. I think that those two examples, Sefton and Belfast, do actually show the way for us to support our supply teachers.
I would like to see a national register for the whole of Wales. In Wales, the local authorities were among the founders of the WJEC. This is the way forward—not a future that makes profit for a middleman, but a base with its roots in the national democratic tradition of Wales.
You’ve heard me say this before, but the motto of the FAW is that team play is the best kind of play. That won’t just be relevant in Euro 2016 in France, but also in education. I very much hope that our report will be adopted by the Minister and that he will look at where things can be improved, because, ultimately, we have to look after our supply teachers, or we will experience some of the problems that Angela Burns mentioned earlier. Thank you.
I’m very pleased to be able to contribute to the debate on this very important report by the Children, Young People and Education Committee—a report, of course, that has been agreed by every party on that committee and, because of that, is a very powerful one, but also because of that doesn’t quite reflect what Plaid Cymru thinks about the situation. So, because the Chair has set out so clearly the recommendations that were agreed by all parties, I want to focus in this debate on the aspects that Plaid Cymru will be focusing on in the election and in the next Assembly.
There’s no doubt about it that, as the report says, we need to reconsider the way that we support supply teachers in Wales. Plaid Cymru would prefer to see one national agency for providing supply teachers, and it would be even better if that agency were to have a co-operative basis with the teachers themselves, so that any profit would be recycled into training teachers and into paying better wages and so on. Of course, you don’t have to go far to see this in practice in these isles, because that’s what you have in Northern Ireland, where there is one single agency providing for a small nation of 2 million people, and we have the ability, I believe, to do that here.
At present, supply teachers don’t necessarily receive any pension contributions, and they don’t receive the wage rate that a teacher would receive. New Directions, I understand from those working for New Directions, pays £90 per day, and, of course, they charge slightly more than £90 of the school that employs that person. We also see that the agencies—even though this report is about teachers specifically—from the details that we’ve received from the Education Workforce Council, are increasingly also providing thousands of classroom assistants. Truth be told, the work is expanding very quickly in the area of teaching assistants, more so than with supply teachers. In the same context, you see a newly qualified teacher being paid just as cover and not to teach; you see classroom assistants having to work with children with needs just on the day, without knowing anything about the situation. What Angela Burns was saying in terms of other children is especially true for vulnerable children and those who need specific care, of course. So, one agency, one provision, one way of doing things, and a fair wage for doing that.
Following that, there will be an opportunity to look at the second part of the greatest weakness that we have here, which is the need for professional development training in this area. The Government—and I welcome this—has been speaking consistently recently about the new deal, about the fact that the profession needs to develop into a profession that sets its own standards, that polices those standards, and then implements and acts on that basis. We won’t be able to achieve that aim if 10 per cent or more of the workforce are working through agencies and don’t receive a fair deal in that regard. We saw in the committee that there is very little professional training—and that is very basic, truth be told—that was being offered by the agencies. If there were to be a more appropriate body for Wales, there would be a way of including everyone, including some of the classroom assistants also, in this area.
That means, of course, in a way, that we need to treat, increasingly, I think, supply teaching as a career. It should be possible for someone to consider being a supply teacher as a career. It’s not possible at the moment. Truth be told, we are depending on people who are at the beginning of their career and at the end of their career to support this whole system. But think about it, if we want to see the ideal that the Minister has for a profession like this coming into existence, it would mean many teachers in the classroom having to leave the classroom for professional training, not just on the five days that are allowed now, but consistently, such as in Scotland, throughout the week, throughout the months and throughout the term. We need supply teachers, not just to cover illness, but for reasons of developing the workforce that is currently employed. And so I want to see a way for someone to consider in the long term being that being a supply teacher is something worth while—something that contributes fully to our education system, and not just something that you do while you’re trying to become a teacher or when you’re trying to leave and retire from being a teacher.
I think that that is what is facing the next Assembly and the next Government. I very much hope, therefore, that this report will be an important step forward for the next Government to get to grips with this problem.
I am pleased to speak to the report on the issues of supply teaching, and put on record my thanks to the clerking team and the witnesses to the committee. I think the Chair of the committee has outlined in detail the issues that were raised in the committee, so I’ll keep on a couple of points.
Supply teachers are a vital part of the education system here in Wales. Without them, we would see many children missing out on parts of their education on a daily basis. Almost a quarter of school pupils are taught by a supply teacher at least once a week, and 30 per cent are taught by different supply teachers each time. And whilst work is often left by teachers being covered, or heads of department tell the supply teacher what needs to be done, in reality we have seen many supply teachers facing challenging classes without the understanding and the context of the lessons being known. I hear from supply teachers who indicate pupils can often be unruly when they take over classes, and the level of support from heads of department and senior staff within the schools does vary dramatically, with one supply teacher telling me they had a chair thrown at them during a lesson she was covering. In addition, supply teachers are often not told about any learning, behavioural or medical conditions that pupils under their care may have, and this often leads to confusion, disorder and incidents such as that I’ve just noted.
At the outset, I wish to make clear that supply teachers want to teach. They do not want to be classroom supervisors. They want to use their pedagogical skills and help our children learn, but often face difficult behaviour and limited support. They simply want to be treated as equals to the permanent staff, especially in being respected, supported and having the same terms of employment.
The current supply teacher system has effectively created a privatised approach, with agencies filling the gap that local authorities previously filled. There are over 40 supply teacher agencies in Wales, and often, in order to find continuous work, many supply teachers are working for more than one agency. This often results in teachers having to pay extra tax on a second job, as an associated discrepancy with their pay. And they often have to pay a fee to use a pay-as-you-earn company, and that money is taken from their pay, which is severely dented already by the supply agencies taking their cut, as Simon Thomas has highlighted already in that case.
And currently, through the National Procurement Service, the New Directions agency has been given a framework agreement, which runs until August 2018, from which stems a strong encouragement to local authorities and schools to use this particular agency in all 22 local authorities in Wales.
I welcome the Government’s response to recommendation 1 that a further thematic review will be carried out by Estyn, because I have great concerns about the current model, and I am against the policy of having a single supply agency across Wales, which effectively acts as the go-to provision of supply teachers. And I have been informed by the National Union of Teachers’ representatives in my own constituency that a teacher on supply was effectively told: ‘Join New Directions or don’t get supply work.’ That cannot be the case and should not be the case. I’m, in fact, against the concept of private supply agencies delivering such an important service in our education system.
I believe that we should look at other examples, such as the Northern Ireland model, as mentioned. That has been extremely successful, where all supply teachers are registered on the Northern Ireland supply teacher register, an online web-based facility providing real-time booking systems and a regional central database for all substitute teachers in Northern Ireland. It allows schools to access the database at short notice in order to book substitute teachers. Payment for all approved periods of substitute teaching is then made on a monthly basis, and this allows supply teachers in Northern Ireland to actually have the same pay and conditions as teachers employed in the school. And don’t forget the pension issues in relation to supply teachers, which this comes down to, because if you’re not paid by a local education authority or a school, you are not necessarily involved in the pay and conditions agreement and the pension agreements.
The current system encourages the use of agencies. It results in less pay to supply teachers than their local authority-employed colleagues, and it even opens the use of Swedish derogation to avoid compliance with the agency worker regulations, which protect workers after 12 weeks in the same job. It’s unfair and unjust.
The devolution of teachers’ pay and conditions to the Assembly, as identified by Silk, would allow opportunities to ensure that all teachers are subject to the same pay and conditions and able to access the teachers’ pension scheme. I look forward, perhaps, to the day when that may happen.
We also looked at CPD for supply teachers. We must ensure that it’s just the same quality and readily available in order for them to improve the quality of teaching and learning in the classrooms. We all want the quality of teaching to be the highest possible for our children. Recommendations 11 through to 18 address CPD. I won’t go through them in detail because I’ve raised CPD on many occasions, but it’s vital that our children in our schools are taught to the highest quality. It is vital that every teacher teaching our children, including supply teachers, have access to that quality CPD. It’s vital that we support our newly qualified teachers as they progress through the system.
We must ensure that the Welsh Government urgently looks at the impact implications we have, and I urge the Government to actually take these report recommendations and act on them.
May I also thank the staff and everyone who provided evidence to the committee? I feel that I’ve been dealing with the issue of supply teaching for almost three years now because the Public Accounts Committee looked at this situation when we received the Wales Audit Office report back in 2013. But the work of the Children, Young People and Education Committee did build on the work of the Public Accounts Committee. I believe that the Chair, as many people have already said, did mention our gravest concerns in this area.
We did have some concerns about data, and the fact that it was very difficult to identify what exactly the situation was. I think that, even since we completed our work, the situation has deteriorated because there were reports drawn together by the Welsh Government and that practice came to an end in 2013. So, perhaps if we returned to that situation, we would see that there has been some deterioration. Also, I was concerned about what we heard in relation to the fact that some headteachers don’t actually hold return-to-work interviews when staff return from illness or absence to see what the problems were.
I think much of this work depends on the effectiveness of headteachers—and those are some of the issues that Angela Burns mentioned—but, as the Chair said, the Government did issue new guidance in July of last year, although it appears that the unions didn’t feel that that guidance got to grips with the fundamental problem. I do agree with what David Rees, Simon Thomas and Keith Davies said that a mistake was made in relaying this contract for three years whilst we as a committee were looking at the issue. I do think that this model of commercialisation of education is a mistake to an extent. It’s difficult to accept as a teacher that you receive a rate of pay of £90 whilst a private company is receiving far more than that. And, of course, the situation will deteriorate because the Westminster Government has now stated that, from April of this year, the tax reductions for supply teachers will change. At the moment, it’s possible for you to seek some sort of reduction in terms of travel costs and meals because you’re a supply teacher, but, from April onwards, that will disappear. So, you will have far less in your pocket than that £90 that Simon Thomas referred to.
I’ve had the same discussions as Simon Thomas with the Education Workforce Council. They were surprised that 5,000 classroom assistants are now registered with them but are employed by agencies. So, we’re not just talking about teachers here; we are talking of the whole education workforce, and that’s what concerns us as a committee. I think that the Government needs to tell us exactly how they’re going to deal with the situation of newly qualified teachers within these arrangements. We did hear some evidence that an increasing percentage of newly qualified teachers are given supply contracts only, and therefore all of the problems that we identified in terms of the training that they receive in those early years—the years when they are formed as professional teachers—and we need to address that issue and get to grips with it.
Finally, I think that many of us feel that the model in Northern Ireland, the co-operative model—Keith also mentioned Sefton—may be something that we now need to start working on here. If we are serious in the next Assembly and eager to see a different model, then we must prepare the ground for that.
Finally, of course, there is a responsibility on the consortia to sustain and improve standards in our schools, and I think that they need to have a comprehensive understanding as well of the impact of supply teachers who are appointed at short notice in some schools, and the impact of that on standards. The evidence from the children themselves was quite robust, yet there weren’t too many experts who were able to tell us what impact that would have on individual pupils ultimately. Thank you.
I think this is a very important subject. I was a member of the Public Accounts Committee during its inquiry into supply teaching following the WAO report. I suppose one of the things that was most surprising was the extent to which supply teaching is being used, because it can’t just be explained away by sickness absence; there seems to have been a general use of supply teaching that was worrying, so I hope that that has now been halted as a result of the Government’s new guidance.
Clearly, some absence is predictable, but much of it is not. The things that are predictable are things like the time that teachers require to prepare their lessons, their continuous professional development and the supervision and observation of other teachers’ practice, which is all part of the important ways of improving teaching and learning.
I think that cluster arrangements are a very good idea. At Ysgol Pen-y-Groes, which is a one-form-entry Welsh-medium primary school in Pentwyn, where I’m a governor, the school already develops common policies, common continuous professional development and observation of each other’s teaching along with a whole group of other Welsh-medium schools, both primary and secondary. So, it’s perfectly possible to share peripatetic teachers to cover both planned absence as well as occasional unplanned absences. I would’ve thought that was a very good way, either basing it around Welsh-medium requirements or around a cluster of nearby schools.
My own daughter is currently teaching three days a week, by personal choice, part-time in a primary school with a very high number of children with emotional and behavioural difficulties, as well as disadvantage. Although her core role is to work with those whose learning is falling behind their chronological age, she’s not infrequently asked to cover whole-class teaching for absence through sickness at a moment’s notice. As an experienced teacher, this is something that she is well able to do, and in a school with well-organised lesson plans, this shouldn’t be a significant problem. This works well in those schools, but all too often supply teaching involves the least experienced teachers with little or no access to continuous professional development, and there has to be some concern around the possible prevalence of the use of supply teaching in disadvantaged areas, which I hope the Minister will look into further.
In schools that are struggling to deliver because of poor leadership and poor teaching and learning, we can have a perfect storm of disadvantage where learning objectives are not met, pupils’ progress is halted or reversed and behaviour deteriorates to such an extent that it calls into question whether pupils are safe and, indeed, the wellbeing of the teacher who is being supplied. I would be interested to know what the fallout is of NQTs who only ever experience supply teaching, because I would regard supply teaching as one of the most difficult forms of teaching. It seems to me a waste of resources if NQTs are only being used in this way, and who, obviously, in many cases, will give up, thinking that this is just too much of a challenge.
There are some very excellent supply teachers, and we absolutely want to applaud the work they do, but we simply won’t recruit and retain good teachers as supply teachers unless we pay them properly. So, some of the work that’s been done to unravel the work of both supply agencies and, I have to say, headteachers in allowing people to go on paying people well below the rate for the job in defiance of the European working time directive, by encouraging or forcing supply teachers to sign away their rights—. It is something that I think should be outlawed. I’ve personally written to all the chairs of governors of all the schools in my constituency, and I’m sorry to say that not many of them have written back, because I fear that, in some cases, the senior management team have not enabled the chair of governors to actually see this letter, as there is, clearly, an issue around heads who are prepared to pay well below the rate for the job just because of their budget. So, I very much hope that the new arrangements that will come into place after 2018 will bear in mind the committee’s recommendations, and ensure that we have good-quality supply teachers for the future.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I begin by putting on record my thanks to the children and young people committee, and particularly the Chair, for both their inquiry and the subsequent report? As I stated to the committee in evidence, supply teachers form a significant and important part of the teacher workforce in Wales. It’s important that we have the appropriate structures in place to support them in their role, and I believe that this report has helped us develop the robust evidence base that we need to make positive changes for the future, because change is needed.
I was pleased to see that many of the committee’s recommendations fit closely with our own policy direction, and I’m pleased to be able to accept them all, at least in principle. Some do require further work and consideration, but I support the intent of the recommendations and welcome the support of the Assembly in taking the next steps towards a stronger structure for supply teachers across Wales.
Our education system is undergoing profound change: the development of the new curriculum for Wales, the new deal for the education workforce and our work to transform initial teacher training are, taken together, the biggest package of reform in Welsh education since 1944. This changing context provides us with the opportunity to look at new and alternative delivery models for the provision of supply that will reflect the requirements of the new education system that we are forging. In addition to the work arising from the committee’s report, there are broader issues for us to address when we consider how to create a more flexible and high-quality workforce for the future.
Members, of course, will already be aware that teachers’ pay and conditions continue to be the responsibility of the UK Government. If pay and conditions were to be devolved, it would allow us to create a system that would reflect the value and regard in which we hold all our teachers here in Wales. The committee recommends looking at a range of options for the employment of supply teachers, and this complements our ongoing work on alternative delivery models across the public sector in Wales. The consultation on our action plan in response to the ‘Is the feeling mutual?’ report closed back on 13 January. I look forward to working through the responses in relation to the supply teaching model, which will help inform our longer term planning and provision for these public services. We will continue to look at national and international models of delivery to ensure that the structure of covering lessons in Wales supports the development of a high-quality, flexible teaching resource.
At the moment, a framework agreement is let by the national procurement service for the supply of temporary workers via a managed service provider. This framework agreement is in place, as Members have mentioned, until 2018. I must say, though, that schools do not have to wait until 2018 to consider and implement innovative, sustainable and inclusive cover arrangements. I would encourage them to do this now, most particularly, of course, our new deal pioneer schools, which should be considering all these options very deeply.
Schools do have a range of options available to them when considering how to cover lessons. Headteachers and governors should explore the alternative options, as set out in our guidance document, when planning cover arrangements. I would like to see more innovation from schools in this area.
It is worth reminding ourselves at this point, I think, in terms of the points raised by Angela Burns, Keith Davies and David Rees, in particular, that there was no Welsh Government decision to head towards the model of supply teaching that we have in schools presently. This was a system made by local authorities, and these were choices made by headteachers. These are decisions and choices that can be unmade by local authorities and headteachers. I think the role of the Welsh Government here is to hold up better examples in ways of working to give those stakeholders confidence in the potential of a better system. In the meantime, we will work with those who provide supply teachers in our classrooms to ensure that they implement performance management systems that benefit the teacher, the schools, and, ultimately, the learners. As recommended, we will ensure that our guidance document is strengthened in this regard.
The committee quite rightly highlights the importance of professional learning for supply teachers, and this is something that is essential for all education practitioners. It’s important that every teacher takes responsibility for their career-long professional learning. The new deal will offer everyone, including supply teachers, an entitlement to access high-quality professional learning opportunities to develop their career. The future role of the Education Workforce Council, as the professional body for all teachers, including supply teachers, will be critical in supporting the delivery of many of the committee’s recommendations, including access to that high-quality professional learning and any possible quality marking, as I’ve already spoken about in relation to the workforce council’s future role.
Fundamental to delivering an excellent education system is ensuring that all of our education workforce feels highly valued and given the status it deserves. To underpin this work, I’d like to announce this afternoon that I am setting up a taskforce to consider future supply teacher delivery options for Wales. This is a sector issue and, as such, it’s vital that employers, unions and key stakeholders actively contribute to the development of options for the future.
So, I want to thank the committee for its support in raising awareness of these issues, and I believe the evidence that’s been collected does now provide a strong basis for work in this area as we move forward to a different future concerning supply teaching.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Ann Jones to reply.
Yes. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I thank those members of the committee who took part in this debate as well? I think it was quite clear that we’re all singing from the same hymn sheet, which is quite good to do, I think, for a report—that everybody thinks the same way. Angela started off by talking from a parent’s perspective, but I can remember being in school when they had supply teachers and I shudder to think how I treated some of those supply teachers. So, it’s not always about how well the supply teacher can cope; it’s whether they can cope with unruly people like me, but there you go.
I think we’ve all understood the experiences, and it was interesting to hear Jenny say as well from a PAC perspective how you’d looked at that, and certainly the way in which supply teaching was being used. I think what we’re trying to do is say that we don’t have a problem with supply teaching, but what we have a problem with is the way in which supply teachers were being treated.
It was good to hear the Minister say that change is needed and that he accepts all our recommendations—well, in principle, anyway. I mean, that’s a good start; at least we’re saying that we’re on the same wavelength as the Minister and the Welsh Government, and that we, as a committee, also accept, Minister, that you are taking through one of the largest packages of reform in education that we probably will see. So, it’s to say that we were trying to assist you in doing that, in a way, and trying to smooth the path, particularly so that supply teachers are not forgotten. Yes, it is the local authorities’ choices to make, but we know the financial challenges that local authorities are under, despite the fact that we have protected school budgets in this Assembly. It’s still very difficult for them to do that. But we welcome your taskforce on this again today.
All in all, I was proud of the report. I was proud of the way in which we dealt with that for supply teachers. I believe it’s caused a bit of debate out there among teachers, among supply teachers, which is good, because then, hopefully, for your taskforce, Minister, we will be able to harness that further evidence from our findings into the taskforce, so that we, once and for all, can actually say that we do value supply teachers, which is something the committee was very keen to endorse. I know that you yourself have said that as well.
So, all in all, we look forward to the co-operative model that Simon and Keith referred to. Perhaps we could have—I don’t know what we would call it—a Cymru model. I don’t know. We can’t call it just a Cardiff model, because we’d be accused of it being a south Wales one. That certainly won’t do for Simon in the west or Keith in the west and me in the north. So, we’ll have to think of something to call it. But nevertheless I think—[Interruption.] Sorry?
The Clwyd model.
Oh no, no, no. [Laughter.] No, no. I don’t think so either, for that one. I just think that the way in which we have approached this, we’ve had some good evidence from teachers themselves, and some of them were very honest with us as well, so we’re very grateful to them for putting that in. We hope now that we can move forward, and, as we look at the curriculum review and we look at the way in which the new deal does help teachers, that the supply teachers will be up there with those teachers, and that we will actually now get a workforce that, when they come in and they take over for a sickness or for an absence from the classroom, that will be a seamless transfer for our pupils.
At the end of the day, that’s what we were looking for: to say that we value supply teachers, but that we also want to see that seamless transition from what is the full-time teacher going off and going to do continuous professional development and the supply teacher coming in. There should be no difference in the level of education or in the level of the pupils’ behaviour, even if it means that people like me would have to have gone and sat in the corner to write lines. I did many of those in my career as a pupil, so—. I will continue to support teachers in the way in which we should value them. We should be looking forward to ensuring that they are—. Whether they choose to be part-time teachers, we should say, ‘That’s fine. There is a career for you as a part-time supply teacher. And, in the same way, you’re valued as a teacher who works the five days and more on a permanent contract.’ Thank you.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to note the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s report. Does any Member object? 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: amendments 1 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts, and amendment 2 in the name of Paul Davies. If amendment 2 is agreed, amendment 3 will be deselected.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 5 is the Plaid Cymru debate: the Wales and Borders rail franchise. I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to move the motion.
Motion NDM5952 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Welcomes the UK Government’s intention to devolve the specification and procurement of the next Wales and Borders rail franchise.
2. Notes with alarm the UK Government’s intention to remove some services from that franchise prior to its devolution.
3. Notes that such a restriction does not and has not applied to rail franchising with respect to Scotland.
4. Believes that radically re-drawing the service map of the Wales and Borders franchise would undermine the devolution of transport functions and harm the interests of rail passengers in Wales and the Borders.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. It’s my pleasure to move this motion in the name of Elin Jones. We are discussing an issue of great seriousness this afternoon, and it’s the future of our rail franchise—the Wales and borders franchise—and the intention of the Department for Transport in London to fragment that franchise. We’ve known of this issue since the publication of the Wales Bill command paper. I raised the issue with the Minister last year. We know that negotiations have been ongoing since last year, but it’s only in the past few weeks that the real intentions of the Department for Transport have become clear and our worst fears are being realised.
The all-Wales franchise was created by the UK Government in 2001 and awarded to the present company, Arriva, in 2003. It wasn’t created or awarded by a devolved Government, but devolution was clearly the inspiration behind it, and the Assembly Government of the time warmly welcomed the move. The creation of the all-Wales franchise paved the way for the devolution of performance management and funding of the franchise in 2006, following the transport Act of the year previously. So, in 2006, the National Assembly and the Welsh Government of the time assumed responsibility for managing the Wales and borders franchise, although not at that point for its renewal or reprocurement in future. That included—and includes—responsibility, of course, for services that go to destinations in England. The One Wales Government expanded rail services considerably, including services that run along the Welsh Marches line and stop at English stations. The current Government has also funded additional services to Shrewsbury from Aberystwyth, which Plaid Cymru campaigned for, so that’s the background.
The previous intention of the UK Government, as we know from the wording of the command paper, was to specify that some services served English markets, and to remove them from the franchise map and re-assign them to rail franchises in England, overlooking the fact, of course, that these English franchises would in fact be running services into Wales, but our Welsh franchise would be prohibited from doing so. This is exactly the same attitude that we’ve seen in the Wales Bill. When the reserved-powers model was being drawn up, UK Government departments were asked to write down what they wanted to keep reserved, so we have a total failure of devolution policy here.
Well, it now appears that the idea of defining English markets actually means any service that doesn’t both start and end in Wales. The Holyhead to Cardiff service will be safe, but Holyhead to Manchester won’t. Milford Haven to Manchester, running via Cardiff, would be taken away from Welsh Ministers, as would Aberystwyth to Birmingham international. Those services would presumably still operate under English franchises, but we would lose the revenue, we would have no influence over the services or the timetables, and there would be minimal co-ordination. The remaining Welsh franchise would be a hollow shell and we would probably have to cut public services further in order to fund it.
There is of course no such prohibition in Scotland. Even though the rail issues between Scotland and England are different, and there is a separate franchise for the sleeper train to London, that separate franchise is still under the control of Scottish Ministers. The idea of penalising Scotland in such a way is simply unthinkable, and while there is a political lesson there, no doubt, Wales will only be listened to if we unite on these issues.
When taken together, the threat to the Wales and borders franchise map deserves to be treated with the same seriousness with which we are treating the Wales Bill. The UK Government announcement on this clearly said that the Wales and borders franchise will be devolved. That implies the existing map. Losing Chester to Crewe, the shuttle there, may well make sense, as that is entirely in England, but we should be able to procure services for all other routes. Of course, we should have an open consultation mechanism for residents in England who can access our Welsh rail services, and, if necessary, that could be provided for in legislation. But to erode the franchise is to erode the future of rail in Wales.
Turning to the amendments, we accept the Liberal Democrat amendment, certainly. They highlight again the importance of the cross-border route to the Welsh franchise, and, more importantly, to passengers in Wales. The Conservative amendment deletes all of our concerns about the franchise. It is surprising and unfortunate, if I may say, to see them do that, because we want to have cross-party unity on this, and we think that is vital. We regret seeing that Conservative amendment today, because devolution of the rail franchise is the official policy of the Conservative UK Government—presumably the Welsh Conservative Assembly group too. It’s very strange to have an amendment before us that suggests that there are no concerns about the franchise map.
So, in conclusion, Plaid Cymru’s key argument today is that radically redrawing the service map of the Wales and borders franchise would undermine the devolution of transport functions and harm the interests of rail passengers in Wales and the borders. We obviously still want the devolution of the franchise to go ahead. It’s absolutely critical. There are examples both within the UK and even between European countries of cross-border services where revenues are split, and agreements are reached. We don’t want another constitutional dispute. But such a constitutional dispute will happen anyway if this radical redesign goes ahead. When that dispute happens, we need to be very clear where the blame lies.
Finally, we call on the Welsh Government here to be clear with the National Assembly about the exact issues at stake as they understand them, the stage that we’re at in terms of deliberations on the future of the franchise, and how serious the threat is to the integrity and the very future of the Wales and borders franchise.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the three amendments to the motion. If amendment 2 is agreed, amendment 3 will be deselected. I call on Eluned Parrott to move amendments 1 and 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Insert as new point 2 and renumber accordingly:
Notes the importance of cross-border rail connections to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham to the economies of north and mid Wales.
Insert at end of point 2:
‘, in particular the removal of cross-border routes which may undermine the commercial attractiveness of the franchise’.
Amendments 1 and 3 moved.
I’d like to thank Plaid Cymru for bringing this important debate today. Rail is critical to our future economic success and our hopes for driving down our carbon footprint by encouraging people to make more positive choices. Of the 20 million passenger journeys entirely within Wales, 8 million—or 40 per cent—terminate in Cardiff. It’s vital to the local economy, and it’s vital to the Welsh economy as well, that these routes are not only maintained but, I hope, will expand in the future. We need the levers of power devolved to Wales to control that. However, these current rumours are very disturbing.
More than 9 million journeys—so, that’s more than the number terminating in Cardiff—begin or end their route in England. That cross-border traffic is critical to people living in Wales. I would make the case that that is the market for people living in Wales. The north Wales main line, the Heart of Wales line, the south Wales main line—they all link up down a spine of railway, which is the Marches line, which threads the border, as we know. But, devolving a network without devolving the spine that holds it together is a nonsense. We must make sure that our case, as we put it forward, is a robust one.
Plaid Cymru are correct, in Scotland, no services were removed from the franchise before devolution. But, it’s not an entirely fair comparison, as the ScotRail franchise doesn’t thread the border in the way that the Marches line does. In fact, only the London sleeper and an infrequent service to Newcastle crosses the border at all. So, I would suggest that we shouldn’t be making a case on the comparison; we should be making a good case, a strong case, on its own terms.
Firstly, we must make the case that our cross-border services are critical to Wales’s economic development, an area of devolved competence. Routes to Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham are vital to the local economies of north and mid Wales. Any damage to them would hit Wales disproportionally. That’s why we’ve laid our first amendment.
Secondly, damage to the effectiveness of the services is likely if we continue down this road and we push travellers back into their cars by splitting services. We know that when passengers have to change trains, they’re much less likely to use that service. Separating the franchise could lead to a significantly worse service for those individuals. That would be catastrophic to the Welsh economy, for those who don’t have the ability to make a choice of alternative transport, and it would be catastrophic to our carbon targets.
Thirdly, we have to look very closely at what the UK Government means when it announced, in February, its intention to transfer services primarily serving English markets into franchises that would remain under their control, after the Wales and borders franchise is devolved. As I suggest, those markets are largely Welsh ones, even when the line is in England. Although people may be starting or ending a journey in an English station, they may well have commuted to that station from a Welsh destination point.
Finally, if the UK Government removes the Marches line from the franchise, it will fundamentally undermine the commercial attractiveness of the franchise as a whole. In order to ensure that the Wales and borders franchise is cost-effective as a whole network, it’s vital that an operator can cross-subsidise services for rural communities who would otherwise be cut off from the rest of Wales with the profits from the more commercially viable routes. Removing the profit-making lines would mean that the Welsh Government, of any colour, in the future, would be left with a much more expensive subsidy-based railway and a burden on our budget, created solely so that bigger profits can be made by operators in England. That is wholly unacceptable.
Now, the Conservative amendment seeks to paint the world as a much rosier picture than it really is. As I say, when the UK Government announced its intention in February to transfer services into franchises that would remain under its control it, I believe, was not thinking clearly about what the consequences would be of what was left behind. I would welcome clarity on what exactly they mean by ‘serving English markets’. But, I would suggest that, either way, the risk at this point is too great should these rumours actually be true.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on William Graham to move amendment 2, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Delete points 2, 3 and 4.
I thank, again, Plaid Cymru for bringing this debate. But, I would remark that the Department for Transport has stated, in the terms of the agreement on devolution of rail franchising powers to Wales, that services primarily servicing English markets would be transferred to English franchises, with the commitment that it would ensure the Welsh Government are no better nor worse off as a result of any remapping from 2018.
Would the Member give way?
We haven’t got a great deal of time. If you’re very quick, yes.
To be frank, I don’t care whether the Welsh Government’s better off or worse off, I’m thinking of the Welsh citizen. If I’m travelling from Aberystwyth to Birmingham, if I’m a student attracted to Aberystwyth University, I don’t want to have to change in Shrewsbury because an English government doesn’t understand how the Welsh economy works.
Unfortunately, you’re not coming from the correct premise. Passengers want to get to destinations—they don’t particularly care who operates it as long as they get there on time, reasonably and at a competitive price.
This was emphasised by the Chancellor in November when he reiterated that the United Kingdom Government was pressing ahead with the Great Western electrification project as part of a key United Kingdom infrastructure investment. The venture failed the usual Treasury test, and the Great Western electrification is a political recognition of the Conservative Party’s commitment to improve the Great Western main line. It’s widely acknowledged that the electrification of the main line, the south Wales Valleys lines and the connections to HS2 will potentially have huge economic and social benefits for Wales.
With greater devolution comes greater responsibility for the Welsh Government, and they are a co-signatory to the current Wales and borders franchise, and they will take over the procurement of the franchise in 2018. In that, they will determine the service commitment expected to be delivered by the franchisee. The primary economic and environmental objectives of those who manage our rail transport network, both within Wales and within the United Kingdom, is to grow passenger numbers, not place barriers in the way of passenger development. In evidence to the Enterprise and Business Committee, the Department for Transport highlighted that no decision on any major investment in Wales is made without taking into account the views of the Welsh Government, and they will be consulted on any in England that have implications for the Welsh franchise. I understand that such discussions between our Minister and the Minister in London were of a robust nature, and I have every confidence that our present Minister for transport will do her best in the circumstances.
The need for co-dependency of rail network services is illustrated by rail freight. This is a nationwide international business that does not correspond neatly to railway administrative boundaries. Most rail freight services operate across at least two, and often more, railway industry boundaries and require that any join between Welsh and English rail infrastructure and management must be seamless. Devolution must deliver ease, efficiency and competitiveness, rather than unnecessary complexity, practical obstacles and further bureaucracy. Although cross-border routes are the most commercially viable routes, in 2014-15, Wales and borders received £101.9 million in subsidies, equating to a subsidy of 8.5p per passenger kilometre, the highest in the United Kingdom. With regard to rail services, comparisons between Wales and Scotland, as previously mentioned, are not valid. Cross-border services in Scotland are clearly geographically different to Wales. There are just two rail connections with England, with no services originating in Scotland, crossing to England, and then returning to Scotland. Wales has nine rail connections with England, including a service that originates in Wales, crosses into England and then returns.
The future franchise will allow an untangling of services, with the majority of English services remaining a Whitehall responsibility, and the majority of Wales services being devolved. At this stage, they continue to be discussed by our Governments, and Wales will gain control of rail services and determine the service delivery expected from the franchisee. A key factor in ensuring passenger and freight growth for our rail network is essentially a seamless service, which requires access to direct rail services and the wider integration of the network.
William, will you take an intervention?
Well, if you’re very quick; we have very little time.
Can I just ask whether you’d accept, therefore, that the Wales Office has a role in actually looking after the interests of Welsh rail passengers, rather than merely accepting the brief from the transport Minister?
Well, I can confirm that they are a consultee, but not a statutory one.
So, co-operation and collaboration is the way to achieve this, but equally to determine the franchise outcomes and those who bid to deliver them. A Conservative Welsh Government would ensure the new franchise would reflect the needs of Wales.
I too welcome this debate this afternoon on the devolution of the Wales and borders rail franchise. Certainly, I agree with Eluned and Llyr about what they were saying earlier. What I see now, and what’s happening now with the Conservatives in London, and now perhaps with the Conservatives here, is that they are offering less and less to us than we have already. I think we should have what we already have, and perhaps a little bit more. Those are the points that I want to make this afternoon. What we want is more than we have already.
Last week, we as Members considered the report of the Enterprise and Business Committee, which talked about transport for the Rugby World Cup in Cardiff. I don’t want to repeat what I said last week, but I do think that responsibility for providing transport for people to attend major events in Wales should be written in to the contract of the franchise.
As the Assembly Member for Llanelli, I would like to see many more services travelling to west Wales from Swansea in future, and more services should stop at request stops such as Kidwelly in my constituency. People who live in places like Kidwelly depend on train services to travel to work and to link up with the main network, especially in the absence of bus services late at night and on Sundays. More frequent services can make life easier for my constituents and can lead to less time being wasted waiting at Swansea station.
My constituents want to have greater choice around when to travel. The Great Western services leave Swansea station in the early hours of the morning, but there’s no service from west Wales to link up with those early trains.
Finally—and perhaps it’s not part of today’s debate—I would like to see the Welsh Government having influence over the terms of the Great Western franchise. I see that Great Western trains have won an extension to their contract up until 2019, but Great Western services play a vital part in running services from Swansea, through Cardiff and the south-east of Wales towards London. What we want is more than we have now, not less.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart.
Thank you very much indeed, Deputy Presiding Officer. I very much welcome this debate today and the opportunity to update Members on the transfer of rail franchising functions to Welsh Ministers.
We are committed to putting rail services at the heart of our transport system, and I’m very pleased that we’ve agreed with the UK Government that we will be granted powers to award the next Wales and borders franchise. This is an exciting time for our railways, as decisions about our railways will be taken here in Wales, not only for the awarding of the next franchise but for building on and delivering service improvements in the future. We expect to see the transfer of rail franchising functions to Welsh Ministers in 2017. The next Wales and borders franchise will be the first rail franchise specified by the Welsh Government, and discussions with the UK Government around the detailed terms of the transfer, including which services are included, are ongoing, and are expected to conclude by the middle of this year.
I was very concerned, therefore, to hear recent reports about discussions that were being held at official level within the UK Government regarding the removal of some services from the franchise prior to its transfer. And I really can understand the concerns that have been expressed by Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats on this particular issue. This is not the right way to proceed, in my opinion, and it should not proceed in that way. So, I wish to reassure Members that Ministers at the Department for Transport have not said to me that they want to retain services that run into England, but I intend to have a further meeting with DfT Ministers in due course so I can reassure myself that that is not the case.
These services are valuable to the franchise, and we will be pressing for the franchise arrangements to include all cross-border services. Assessment work undertaken by Arriva Trains Wales has demonstrated that these services are bound up with the other Wales and borders services. Splitting the services away from the franchise will be difficult operationally, as well as inefficient, and I think we’ve got to bear that in mind as well. My own officials are exploring options for retaining the services in the franchise, and I fully recognise that high-quality cross-border routes and connectivity are important to make the franchise commercially attractive, and we’ve also got to bear that in mind as we have this process currently in the UK of franchise arrangements.
These cross-border rail connections are important to the economy across all parts of Wales, and that’s in terms of connectivity for individuals as well as the issues around business. For example, we continue to support Arriva Trains Wales on its ongoing application to the Office of Rail and Road for powers for additional services for north Wales to Manchester Airport. The franchise will also include rail services to be delivered as part of the south Wales metro announced last November.
I recognise that the Department for Transport must ensure that services provided to passengers in England are maintained and improved, and we’re happy to agree arrangements to this effect. But under current arrangements in Scotland, as Rhun also illustrated, Scottish Ministers are able to include any cross-border services they consider appropriate in the franchise agreement. So, once again, we’re second class citizens on some of the issues surrounding rail.
For the Wales and borders franchise, it is essential that the franchise map does not significantly change, so that links between Wales and England can be protected, together with the financial sustainability of the network as a whole. That is one of my main concerns here—it’s got to be financially sustainable. The burden of all this can’t pass on to us, utilising funds we’ve got over and above the franchise arrangements to improve services. This is actually key.
So, last month, I opened a consultation to invite opinion on the key quality outcomes for the next franchise specification, including outcomes and priorities for improvement, service configuration and capacity, performance and disruption handling, fares and tickets and, of course, rolling stock. The consultation is the first stage of a programme of public and industry engagement that will run until 18 March. We’ve already had 30 responses to the consultation and it will be the views of passengers and stakeholders that will inform the way the rail service is delivered after 2018. A report summarising the views expressed during the consultation period will be prepared and published after the election has taken place. There will then be further public consultation on the detailed proposals and specifications for the award of the next franchise.
I’ve also, of course, established a not-for-dividend wholly owned subsidiary company of the Welsh Government to deliver the franchise, and the company will work with Network Rail to progress physical changes to the railway network, which will be essential to having efficient delivery. It is important that we work with Network Rail to secure infrastructure improvements to our rail network and to ensure that projects are delivered in good time and to cost—something that is not currently happening as it should be with delayed projects and rising costs—and to ensure that we have our fair share of money that is coming out from Network Rail to ensure that we can run things properly here in Wales.
If I may now turn to the amendments, we’ll obviously be supporting Aled Roberts’s amendment No. 1. In terms of Paul Davies’s amendment, we will not be supporting the amendment because we support the original motion. And we’re supporting the third amendment from Aled. Can I say that, for me, it is very important that the devolution of rail infrastructure to Wales is our ambition and our intention? We need to continue to press the UK Government on this matter, but they mustn’t try to undermine that with these siren voices about how they going to deal—
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Most grateful. I was hoping she was going to mention the devolution of railways. Can she give us a very brief, two-sentence progress report of where this is at at the moment?
Yes. We are proceeding well with discussions on this particular issue, but my concern is that we’ll end up having devolution of rail and then we’ll have an undermining, perhaps, of the franchise arrangements before everything occurs. Now, there’s no point in giving you one thing with one hand and taking it back with the other, and I’m afraid that this Government has got a very poor record on these and on upholding the integrity of the entire settlement.
So, as far as I’m concerned, it’s important that we carry on pressing for the devolution of rail powers. It’s very important that we deal with the issues around the franchise because only then, in my opinion, can we control our destiny. If we want to have integrated public transport in Wales and have control of things, we’ve got to have the relevant powers. There is no point in us even talking about rail unless we have the powers in this Chamber.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Rhun ap Iorwerth to reply.
Diolch yn fawr iawn, Ddirprwy Lywydd. A gaf fi ddiolch i bawb heddiw sydd wedi siarad yn gryno ac yn eglur iawn am y bygythiad sy’n wynebu dyfodol gwasanaethau rheilffyrdd yng Nghymru? A diolch i’r Gweinidog, Keith Davies ac Eluned Parrott, a ailadroddodd yn glir iawn pa mor bwysig yw cael yr ysgogiadau angenrheidiol i lunio system reilffyrdd ar gyfer yr unfed ganrif ar hugain i Gymru. I’r Ceidwadwyr, rhaid i mi ddweud fy mod yn hynod siomedig o glywed plaid yn y Siambr hon, pan ydym yn chwilio am undod, i’w gweld yn awgrymu y dylem fod yn ddiolchgar am beth bynnag a gawn. Nid wyf yn siŵr a oedd William Graham yma i siarad ar ran Llywodraeth y DU ac yn dweud y dylem dderbyn yr hyn sydd i’w drosglwyddo i lawr o’r Adran Drafnidiaeth. Rydych yn dweud nad oes ots gan deithwyr yng Nghymru pa fasnachfraint sy’n rhedeg eu gwasanaethau i deithwyr, ond gallaf eich sicrhau bod teithwyr yng Nghymru yn malio am fywiogrwydd, am hyfywedd ac am natur gydgysylltiedig y gwasanaeth rheilffordd sydd gennym. Rydych yn dweud y byddai Llywodraeth Geidwadol yn darparu ar gyfer masnachfraint effeithiol yng Nghymru. Ni fydd gan Gymru wasanaeth rheilffyrdd o bwys os yw’r newidiadau yr ofnwn y gallant ddigwydd yn dwyn ffrwyth.
I note the Minister’s reassurance that she is hearing some positive messages from the UK Government. I must say that I have little faith in the capacity of the UK Government to act in the interests of Wales on this matter. We need to hear certainly a public statement of support for keeping the integrity of our franchise. Let’s speak today with a very clear and united voice.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I will defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 6 is the Plaid Cymru debate on hosting major events, and I call on Bethan Jenkins to move the motion.
Motion NDM5954 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the value to the Welsh economy of hosting major events in Wales.
2. Calls for the development of a Commonwealth Games bid with Wales as the host nation in 2026 or 2030.
3. Calls for the development of a bid to bring a cycling Grand Tour to Wales, for both men and women.
4. Calls for an official send off in this Assembly for the Wales football team ahead of this year’s UEFA Euro 2016;
5. Calls for the establishment of ‘fan zones’ across Wales so those that don’t attend the UEFA Euro 2016 can support their team at home.
Diolch. Thank you. We will be supporting the Liberal Democrat amendment. We saw during the Rugby World Cup what sort of problems can be caused—problems that can ruin the experience for fans—when transport is not managed as effectively as it can be during these types of events. But I’ll focus my contribution on the forthcoming Euro 2016. We all remain incredibly proud of the achievements of Chris Coleman’s team and look forward to a summer of them doing even better. Some of us may have tickets for the game, some of us may not. I’m still waiting for the formal UEFA lottery, so I will hold out my hopes for that next week, but otherwise, I’m open to offers.
Obviously, as a party, we think it’s incredibly important that we honour the team and that is why we’ve written to the Presiding Officer, the Welsh Government and the Football Association of Wales to call for a reception for the players prior to departing for France in June. We started that process off in November and although the Presiding Officer has written to me to say that talks are ongoing, we appear to be no nearer to getting an event together today. So, in passing this motion this afternoon, as I hope we will, I’m hoping this will lend a sense of urgency to this event, because it really would be embarrassing if this unprecedented occasion were to pass by without being officially marked by Wales’s own Parliament, and the clock is now ticking.
I should add that I’ve had correspondence from the FAW this morning saying that while time is going to be limited this side of the Euros, perhaps we could instead stage a welcome-home event for the team. I still believe that the momentum would be there to have that type of event.
We’ve also called on the Welsh Government to help establish fanzones across Wales for when the Euros are under way. What we are thinking of is something similar to the success of Cardiff Arms Park fanzone during last year’s Rugby World Cup, which attracted more than 150,000 fans. This created a wonderful atmosphere and it was a huge success. I think that Wales needs to build on that. We’re taking part in the finals of a major football tournament for the first time since 1958 and the Welsh Government should be at the forefront of efforts to ensure that as many fans as possible from across Wales can enjoy that experience. So, I do look forward to hearing from the Minister of any progress that has been made so far.
We also believe that the Welsh Government could look at setting up fanzones not only in Cardiff, but in other areas of Wales, such as Wrexham, Swansea, and other areas. Aberystwyth, I know, and Carmarthen have strong football followings and I think it’s important that we work with partners to try and make this happen. That’s why I have written to local councils to see if they’re interested in it, and also to various football clubs in the respective areas to see if they can lend their support, too.
If the Welsh Government is not minded to lead on such a development, can we use this debate to hear from the Minister what plans are in place to mark this summer’s Euros? I think there’s an appetite to hear from the Government, because fans are very interested in taking part in this whole process.
I previously also argued that a team of marketing and business experts should travel to France during the tournament to promote Wales abroad, so I’d be interested to hear from the Minister if there’s been any progress with this idea.
There’s no doubt that anybody in this room would disagree with the need for Wales to be on the sporting map of the world, and it does give great morale to Wales when we do have such big events. We only need to look at the Ryder Cup: the Celtic Manor brought an economic benefit worth £82.4 million—of that, south-east Wales drew an impact of £74.6 million, while Newport accrued £28.3 million. This is all the more incredible when you consider that during the week-long event, of 244,000 visitors to the event, there were sizable numbers who weren’t even based in Wales, with some finding accommodation as far away as London.
We’re also talking in this debate today about bringing a big cycling occasion to Wales. We know that cycling has taken on a new momentum in Wales and we saw how successful a leg of the Tour de France was in Yorkshire. I think it’s something that we would all agree is not a political issue, but something that Wales could have here—either a leg of the Tour de France or the Italian Giro d’Italia. I know that there are people in Wales in various companies who are working with Welsh Government to look at the possibility of those schemes, and I would want to see that developed for the future.
I think, in discussions on these types of issues, it’s important because we want to get more people involved in sport and excited about the opportunities that sport offers them. We still know that lots of people are not exercising, and are obese or overweight. If they see Wales being successful in these world events, then we know that that may encourage people to take part in sports. So, I urge people to support the motion here today.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the amendment to the motion. I call on Eluned Parrott to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Insert as new point 2 and renumber accordingly:
Believes that every major event needs effective management and transport planning to ensure a high-quality experience for visitors and to minimise disruption for local residents and businesses.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. Thank you, Plaid Cymru, for bringing the motion and for accepting our amendment today.
Wales has a proud record of hosting major events, and as a Member representing all of Cardiff, I can tell you that welcoming the world on behalf of Wales is a source of great pride to all of us. I do welcome the proposal that Wales should bid for the Commonwealth Games. Perhaps you think it should be in Aberavon; I’m thinking it may be Cardiff. It would be a great host city. It did bring a boost of something like £282 million to Glasgow’s tourism business, and I would like to see that here. Also, though, it provides a deadline, doesn’t it, to create that step change in local infrastructure that will have a lasting impact, and new sports arenas and athletes’ villages that give homes and facilities then for the people of Wales for generations to come? So, the Commonwealth Games could allow us to be shown off around the world and show off our culture and our achievement in so many ways. So, that is a really welcome thought.
I also agree with the idea of, perhaps, trying to bring one of the grand cycling tours to Wales, too, although, in the twenty-first century, wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need to say that it should be for men and women, because surely there’s no reason why it wouldn’t be? But it is what it is, and the velothon—. Clearly, we have some experience of hosting the velothon now in Cardiff and south-east Wales from last year. It was very successful in attracting sport and leisure competitors, and I understand that the organisation are planning to come back again this year, too. But, Members will know that it did cause some difficulties. Whilst in theory a grand tour could be very welcome, in practice, local residents found this very challenging and found it very disruptive. The surrounding areas in particular found it disruptive when roads were closed for, perhaps, days at a time. They couldn’t go around and about their normal business, and that’s why I’ve brought our amendment.
As we heard in last week’s debate on the Rugby World Cup, whilst major events could bring in a huge boost to some in the local economy, if not planned and managed effectively, they can be damaging to others. Cardiff has to be able to operate as a city as well as as a host when an event is happening. This is, of course, the case for other locations in Wales, but it’s a particularly pressing issue in Cardiff, because of the number of events that we host.
Looking to the fanzones, for example, the fanzone is one of the things that we hosted for the Rugby World Cup in the city centre of Cardiff. The idea of fanzones is fantastic. They provide a wonderful atmosphere for people and, yes, a send-off should absolutely happen. But we have to make sure that those are hosted in appropriate locations. At first thought, the idea of hosting it in the Cardiff Arms Park was wonderful, except, of course, it is a residential location; it is surrounded by flats. Whilst one rugby match every couple of months might not be a problem, or a smaller rugby match every few weeks isn’t so much of a problem, a seven-day-a-week party atmosphere until midnight every night is a little bit more wearing on the nerves of those local residents, I have to tell you.
I don’t know where the Welsh Government draws the line between what is a major event and a slightly more minor event, actually, but according to one estimate that someone gave to me recently, Cardiff hosts more than 400 events a year for more than 1,000 visitors, and more than 50 events for more than 10,000 visitors in any year. When residents of Cardiff cannot continue their normal day-to-day lives on an event day, when you’ve got that many, we have a problem. When the council can’t clear the litter from our streets between events because they’re back to back, when buses are cancelled, when people can’t get to work in the shops and arcades and, even if they can get in there, their customers can’t, if we can’t get people into the offices that are based in the city centre, then we have a problem. So, as I say, when Cardiff cannot function as a city because of its hosting, then that is an issue for all of us.
Now, transport, planning and managing those events effectively are hugely important, as we heard last week. Part of that is in the here and now, but the reality is that when these events take place, we really are just fighting against the tide. We do not have the infrastructure that we really need to look to this hosting events successfully of this kind of scale in the future. We really do need progress on the development of our bus station in the city centre. We really do need major investment in our railway station to make sure that we can continue to give our guests the best possible experience, so that they leave Cardiff and an event anywhere in Wales remembering what a fantastic place it was to go and enjoy.
Last time Wales played in a major football tournament, I was one—probably most people in this room weren’t alive. As someone who has been a lifelong sports fan, especially football, I am very excited that Wales have qualified for a major tournament. Who else in here is haunted by Paul Bodin missing a penalty, Joe Jordan handling the ball, or the lights going out at the Vetch Field when Wales were beating Iceland?
First, can I deal with the provision of fanzones? I expect the Castle Square area of Swansea to show all the Wales games, as it has shown all major sporting events. I have actually spoken to Swansea City to ask them to consider opening the ground and showing the matches on the big screens that are there. A fanzone in a football ground will probably be the best place to have them. I would be amazed if the Presiding Officer, whoever it happens to be at the time, does not arrange a party, either at the going away or coming back of the team, hopefully after getting very far in the tournament.
We do need major events in Wales. One of the achievements of this National Assembly—and dare I say it, the Welsh Government—is that we have had more major events in Wales since devolution than we did before. What is achievable? Everyone has their own view of what major events are. I would argue that Wales has 19 major sporting events every year—every Premier League game that Swansea City play. World interest in the premiership is phenomenal. In some parts of the world, Swansea City is better known than Wales because of the reach of the premiership. Key competitions to have are the finals of the Champions League and the Europa league. Of course, the Champions League is coming to Cardiff in 2017—a huge achievement. Surely the Welsh football association and the Welsh Government need congratulating on having the Champions League final.
Of course, if you want major sporting events, you need the infrastructure. That is why keeping Cardiff Wales airport as an airport is so important. Put simply, no airport equals no major sporting events.
Turning to the Commonwealth Games, regarding the Commonwealth Games, there are, really, two initial questions: how much would it cost, and how are you going to pay for it? While each Commonwealth Games costs a different amount, and sometimes the costs are extremely opaque, we know that, according to ‘The Independent’, Manchester cost £300 million, and Glasgow, according to ‘The Daily Telegraph’, cost £400 million. If Wales bids, it’s almost certain to be successful. The days of multiple bidders for the Commonwealth Games appear to be over. How would it be paid for? Do we take it off the education or health budgets? Of course, there is a simple way of paying for it: give Wales the Barnett consequential of the London Olympics. That would give Wales approximately 5.4 per cent of the estimated £9 billion for the London Olympics, giving us almost £500 million, less the £20 million we’ve had, which would be enough.
Turning to where in Wales to host these games, as the Commonwealth Games—like the Olympics—are given to a city, not a country, why not Swansea—Wales’s premier sporting city, Wales’s top football team, Wales’s top rugby team? Whilst the events would be held across Wales, Swansea should be the lead city. It has been to Cardiff; it is now the turn of Swansea.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak on holding major sporting events in Wales, and we will be supporting the motion.
As we know, holding major sporting events has the potential to bring a number of benefits. There are the health benefits, which come from the increased interest and participation in sport that holding major sporting events engenders. Obesity is an increasing problem in Wales. Regular sport and exercise, in conjunction with a healthy diet, could help to reduce levels of obesity. It would also reduce the risk of developing major chronic diseases, such as coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. And there are the economic benefits derived from the influx of a large number of spectators to the host venue and the opportunity of promoting the host venue abroad.
Wales has a strong history of hosting major sporting events, such as the Ryder Cup and Ashes matches; and the Welsh economy has benefited as a result. Bethan Jenkins has already mentioned the Ryder Cup at the Celtic Manor in 2010, which injected over £80 million into the south Wales economy. The chairman of Glamorgan County Cricket Club estimated the benefit of holding international cricket matches to be in excess of £75 million over six years, and yet the Welsh Government’s approach to holding major sporting events is characterised by a lack of ambition.
The Welsh Conservatives fully support making a bid to bring the Commonwealth Games to Wales in 2026 or 2030. The Commonwealth Games were last held in Wales in 1958. A successful bid to bring the games to Wales would have a substantial economic impact. It would create opportunities for individuals, communities, businesses and organisations across Wales to share in the benefits engendered, and an opportunity to market Wales abroad.
We already have world-class venues in place. I believe bringing the Commonwealth Games to Wales once again would enhance our growing reputation for staging international events. On Sunday 22 May this year, up to 18,000 riders will take part in Velothon Wales. This completely closed-road cycling event takes in some of Wales’s most breathtaking scenery. It is likely to attract some of the world’s best teams and riders. It promises to be a spectacular weekend of cycling events. I believe the landscape of Wales with its combination of urban and mountain environments lends itself perfectly to cycling events. I fully support the development of a bid to bring a cycling grand tour to Wales.
Deputy Presiding Officer, for the first time since 1958 people across Wales will have an opportunity to watch our football team take on Europe’s best. It is right that the National Assembly should mark this historic occasion by giving Chris Coleman and his team an official send-off. However, the vast majority of supporters will not be able to get tickets for the games themselves. That is why we fully support the establishment of fanzones across Wales, so that supporters can share the experience of watching Wales together. During the Rugby World Cup, some 150,000 people visited the fanzone at Cardiff Arms Park. We have a chance to make the most of the enthusiasm presented by Euro 2016 to increase sports participation in Wales. I call on members from all sides of the Chamber to sign the statement of opinion tabled by Andrew R.T. Davies and back fanzones across Wales.
Sporting events not only create jobs and other opportunities, and promote the country; they also give people the will for fighting, for improving their—what do you call it—discipline, competition and leadership. There are quite a few things involved with sporting events. Our children definitely need to come on board to make sure that what we did in the last Olympics, where we virtually punched more above our weight and achieved more medals than ever before—. This small nation has great talent, and I am quite confident that we can tell the world that we are the best in sporting events in the world. Thank you.
I have to say that I feel Mike Hedges’s pain with his references to Paul Bodin and Joe Jordan, but that pales into insignificance compared to the depths of despair and despondency felt by many Carmarthen Town fans when Mike was a Welsh league referee, of course, years ago. [Laughter.] But let’s not look back. Let’s not dwell on the costs and the problems. Let’s look at the advantages and the positives that would come from, for example, hosting the Commonwealth Games here in Wales.
Therefore, let us look at the experience in Scotland in 2014, where almost £0.75 billion was generated for the economy as a result of hosting the Commonwealth Games—£390 million, according to one estimate, for Glasgow itself. Between 2007 and 2014, 2,100 jobs were created, on average, with over half those, seemingly, in Glasgow. The games there were arranged on time and within budget, and that in turn engendered a great deal of public support for sport and a great deal of participation as well. Six hundred and ninety thousand unique visitors were attracted to those games. There was investment in infrastructure, particularly in high-level performance sports, which has obviously brought wider benefits in that area.
Physical activity is on the up for the first time in many years as a result of the Commonwealth Games in Scotland. Simultaneously, of course, they saw significant investment in infrastructure in Scotland, in terms of the regeneration of the east of the city particularly, which brought investment in housing and, as I said, a wider legacy in terms of physical fitness and public health, as well as economic benefit. So, the case for attracting the games to Wales in 2026 or 2030 is incontrovertible in my view.
I also want to briefly mention the need to attract cycling events to Wales. Bethan Jenkins, of course, mentioned the Grand Départ as part of the Tour de France, which came to Yorkshire of course, in 2014, and that attracted 2.5 million people who lined the roads to see the Tour de France in their own area. I’m sure that that brought significant benefits in its wake. We don’t necessarily have to try to attract the Tour de France specifically. We know that Northern Ireland has staged the opening of the Giro d’Italia. It would be possible, perhaps, for us to look in that direction. There’s also the Vuelta, the cyclists’ grand tour, as it’s known, which has only started outside Spain on two occasions and not for many years, but there is an opportunity there, perhaps, to try and attract those events to Wales.
So, we need a little imagination. We need some inspiration from the Government here, and that’s exactly why Plaid Cymru has tabled this debate this afternoon. But, we need to look at the benefits and the opportunities, and see beyond the problems.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, Ken Skates.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I thank Members for their contributions to this debate today, which also provides me with an opportunity to update the Chamber on the progress we made in delivering our major events strategy? Since we debated this very topic last May, we’ve made further strides in reinforcing Wales’s reputation as a world-class events destination. In 2015, with the eyes of the world once again upon us, we supported the successful delivery of a number of global sporting events, including the Ashes test match, the Rugby World Cup, and Wales Rally GB. We also supported what I think was a rich and varied mix of cultural events, including the Machynlleth Comedy Festival, the Hay Festival, Festival No. 6, Focus Wales in Wrexham, and of course the Good Life Experience in Hawarden.
On point 1, the Welsh Government fully recognises the economic value of hosting major events. They make a positive contribution to our drive to support jobs and create wealth, and they can also play a vital role in raising Wales’s international profile and reputation as a place to visit, as a place to live in, and of course as a place to invest in. In 2015, we supported 39 events across Wales, which attracted an estimated 400,000 visitors, generating a direct economic impact of over £120 million. That represents a considerable return on investment of £30 for every £1 invested by Welsh Government.
On point 2, the Welsh Government is continuing to work with key stakeholders on a detailed feasibility study in relation to the potential bid for the 2026 games. Cabinet considered a progress paper in October, and further work has been commissioned on a five-case business model. Following the success of Glasgow 2014, we fully recognise the desire for Wales to pursue a bid for a future Commonwealth Games, and the key issues in considering a bid, as Mike Hedges pointed to, remain the likely costs and benefits for Wales. I can inform Members that we’re taking full account of the economic impact study from the Glasgow 2014 games.
On point 3, cycling also features prominently in our annual programme of supported events, which reflects the significant recent growth in popularity of the sport. Wales has hosted stages of the Tour of Britain since 2010, and last year saw the inaugural Velothon Wales successfully staged across south Wales. This actually means that Wales currently hosts two of the four major international road cycling events in the UK. But we are ambitious in wanting to host the most prestigious events that the sport has to offer. Of course, there are no bigger road cycling events in both scale and in tradition as one of the grand tours. There is no doubting the global attention that Yorkshire attracted by staging the Grand Départ of the 2014 Tour de France. Similarly, the Giro d’Italia generated huge interest in Ireland, helping to establish the landscapes north and south as potential tourism destinations.
Deputy Presiding Officer, on point 4 we are of course hugely proud of the achievement of our national team in reaching one of the world’s biggest tournaments, and they can count on our wholehearted support as they prepare to compete against Europe’s best teams. Officials have discussed the possibility of a send-off for the Welsh team before Euro 2016 with the Football Association of Wales. However, the time the team has together before travelling to France is limited, and the team management’s priority, I think quite rightly, is on pre-tournament preparations. As Members will be aware, following the e-mail sent out by the FAW this afternoon, I think it’s absolutely essential that we therefore look at the potential for a celebration when the team returns. The final home game for the team will be at Cardiff City Stadium on 24 March, and I think that gives everybody an opportunity to give them the send-off that they thoroughly deserve.
On point 5, the Welsh Government would welcome the establishment by partners of any opportunities for football fans in Wales to get together with friends and family to view the matches here. Given that the matches will be broadcast by the BBC and ITV on a shared basis, much of this activity is already being planned for pubs and clubs across the nation. I know that the FAW supports the notion of establishing fanzones throughout Wales and is exploring the opportunities with interested parties, including the national team sponsors. However, as I have said, the focus of the FAW is on the extensive preparations of the national team in France and the operational logistics for team management, media and fans.
I think it’s also worth noting that the tournament gives pubs and football clubs—indeed, sports clubs of every variety across Wales—a golden opportunity to capitalise on matches. So, while fanzones might appear to be desirable, I would not wish them to deprive small businesses, such as pubs and sports clubs, of valuable revenues.
Bethan Jenkins, how could I possibly disagree with your suggestion that I take Welsh Government figures to France next year to promote Wales? It’s something that, oddly enough, many Members have already raised with me. Amendment 1, Aled Roberts: we would support this amendment. The Welsh Government works closely with event owners and organisers to ensure that effective delivery and communications plans are in place at the earliest stages of planning an event to ensure a high-quality experience for visitors and to minimise disruption for local residents and businesses.
In closing, major events can and should be grown at home as well as attracted to Wales. 2016 is the Year of Adventure in Wales, which has already garnered us unprecedented amounts of top tourism listings for 2016 from the ‘Rough Guide’ to the ‘Lonely Planet’ to ‘Forbes’—all naming Wales as a must-see place to visit in 2016. Our vision of Wales as a consistently outstanding destination for major events remains. In developing a distinctive portfolio of events, Deputy Presiding Officer, we’ll seek to strike the right balance between attracting international events to Wales and growing events here for our communities and by our businesses.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Bethan Jenkins to reply.
Thank you and thank you everybody who has contributed to the debate this afternoon. Obviously, it’s an exciting time for the Welsh football team and I think that reflects in everybody’s contributions today. Obviously, I would have liked to have heard a more hands-on approach with regard to potentially setting up the fanzones. I do actually agree with what Mike Hedges says with regard to the potential for it to be held in stadia across Wales, because I think that they have the capacity already in the system. Whether they would only show the Wales games, or whether they would show all games, is something else altogether. But I think the possibility is there to be able to do that. Hence why I, as you said, have written to various clubs so that we can look into that feasibility.
I wouldn’t really see it then as infringing on small businesses, because I think there is a critical mass of people who will not be able to go to France, who may not be able to afford it, are working, are too ill to be able to attend, or who can’t get hotels, can’t get places to stay. So, they may not be able to travel. So, there will always be those people that will want to take part.
I hear what Eluned Parrott is saying with regard to transport and with regard to the issues that are created for residential areas. I would obviously take those concerns very seriously, but I think sometimes perhaps those residential areas can just join in the fun as well and see if they can get involved in the celebrations. I’m sure I’ll get an e-mail complaining about that comment now, after I sit down.
With regard to Mike Hedges, he’s obviously very passionate about Swansea. I was counting how many times he said ‘Swansea’. But, obviously, we’ve got a great football team there. So, of course we would want to put that on the map.
With regard to the Conservatives, well, thank you for the contribution, although, at the beginning of the week, the leader of the Conservatives was very keen to put out a statement of opinion on fanzones, but has found himself unable to come to the debate today to show his passion for the creation of them here. So, you know—.
Obviously, Llyr has given you more detail as to Plaid Cymru’s views with regard to the Grand Départ and the figures with that, and the Deputy Minister has also said how successful these events are across the world. I would obviously welcome much more investment in this area because—not being a cyclist myself, but being a runner—I think it’s important that, when you’ve got a critical mass of people who are big into a certain sport, we follow that trend and we bring those events to Wales.
I think that this will be an ongoing discussion, especially with regard to an event to celebrate the team. We had one here for those who were part of the Olympics. It’s a way that Welsh society can celebrate. It wasn’t really about politicians congratulating or wanting to meet the team, it’s about the grass-roots clubs potentially coming down to Cardiff, or having the event somewhere not in Cardiff, so that they can celebrate with the team all of what football offers to Welsh society, and I thank you all for taking part in this debate.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] You object. I’ll defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 7 is the Stage 4 debate on the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Bill, and I call on Kirsty Williams to move the motion.
Motion NDM5956 Kirsty Williams
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with Standing Order 26.47:
Approves the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Bill.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I formally move the motion on the Order paper and ask that the National Assembly approve the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Bill. If colleagues in this Chamber today decide to do so, it will mean that Wales will become the first country in Europe to pass a law that ensures that nurses, in the first instance on acute in-patient wards, will have the time to deliver safe, effective and quality nursing care. It will mean that the Welsh NHS will be a world leader in not only recognising the link between nurse-patient ratios and patient outcomes, but taking the ultimate step that is available to a parliament, and that is legislating for it.
Let us be clear about the evidence: only today the ‘British Medical Journal’ published a report on the effect the number of registered nurses for every six patients has on patient outcomes. The evidence in the BMJ today reinforces other studies that have demonstrated the positive effect that safe nurse staffing has on patient outcomes. A study across 30 English acute trusts found that hospitals with the highest number of patients per nurse had a 26 per cent higher mortality rate. But this Bill goes beyond simplistic numbers. It accounts for the acuity of patients—i.e., how sick a patient is—and, for me, most importantly of all, it respects the professional judgment of the nurse in charge of the ward and it empowers her or him to state clearly what is in the best interests of the patient on that ward on any given day. But this Bill will go further. It lays the foundations for safe nurse staffing not just in acute medical and surgical wards in our district general hospitals, but lays the foundations for other areas of the NHS as well. Last week, in the Stage 3 debate, we heard about the work that is already very advanced with regard to in-patient mental health wards, the work that is going on to establish acuity tools for those working in community hospitals and for nurses working in the community.
Deputy Presiding Officer, the hour is late. I had the good fortune to win the private Member’s Bill ballot, and the opportunity to achieve this change in our law has been a huge privilege, but we would not have got here today if it were not for the hard work of very many other people. Now, I appreciate that I am in danger of falling into the cliché of Oscar-acceptance-speech territory. [Laughter.] But it is only fair that the people who have worked so hard are recognised. So, I would like to thank the efforts of my own staff, Siân Donne and John Williams in my office, and the superb Assembly Bill team, which works for all Members. Their advice in terms of policy, procedure and legal drafting has been superb, and, without them, I would not be standing here today.
Can I also thank the Royal College of Nursing, and nurses past and present whose testimony has been so much more eloquent and persuasive than anything that I could say myself? Could I thank the Health and Social Care Committee, which was, in the end, not too terrifying to sit in front of and did not exact too much revenge when they found me on the other side of the table? I’m grateful for their hard work on the Bill. The amendments that were brought forward have truly tested whether this is the right piece of legislation, and I’m grateful for their efforts and the efforts of the official spokespeople from the Conservative party and Plaid Cymru for their support.
I’d also like to put on record my thanks to the Minister, who, shall I say, perhaps was slightly doubtful at the beginning but has persevered with me and the legislation, and recognised that this is a valuable contribution to make to Welsh healthcare.
The Bill before us is short in nature and small, but I believe it will deliver a big difference to the outcome of Welsh patients and to the ability of Welsh nurses to do what they do best, and that is care for us all when we’re in need.
I rise to speak in support of the motion tabled in the name of Kirsty Williams, and I want to take this opportunity to congratulate her for persevering with this piece of legislation. It has been a long time getting to this stage here in the National Assembly for Wales, but I’m pleased that, on all sides of this house, there’s agreement in respect of this Bill that we need a piece of legislation that requires guidance to be issued to Welsh health boards and other NHS bodies in Wales on the staffing requirements in terms of nursing.
As the Member has quite rightly pointed out, there was very clear evidence presented to the committee that looked at this legislation that suggested that, when more nurses are available to care for patients, there are better patient outcomes, and that’s what this is all about. I want to pay a great deal of tribute to the Royal College of Nursing here in Wales with their ‘Time to Care’ campaign, which was the genesis of this Bill coming forward. I can well remember rubbing shoulders with nurses in events upstairs in the Oriel, and, indeed, in my own constituency, as well, helping to promote the need for this legislation, and I want to pay tribute to each and every one of them.
I’m also pleased that this Bill does not just recognise the need to get the nursing ratios right and the staffing levels right, but it also addresses the need for more effective workforce planning, and I was very pleased that the Minister recognised this as well during the Bill’s progress through the legislature, because it is imperative that there’s a sufficient supply of nurses for our NHS and, indeed, for other sectors in Wales to be able to tap into to make sure that there are safe nurse staffing levels. I’m very pleased that that workforce planning area of the Bill was improved with the introduction of the independent hospital and care home sectors, which the NHS, of course, is working increasingly closely with at this current time.
Obviously, I was disappointed that some of the amendments that were tabled in terms of trying to introduce the words ‘safe’ and ‘safely’ onto the face of the Bill were not accepted, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t think that the Bill won’t make a meaningful difference to the care of patients across Wales and to the working environment for our nurses. So, we will be supporting it, and I look forward very much in the near future, I hope, to be returning to this Assembly after the elections to hear the outcome of the work that the Minister and his team, or any future Minister and his team, will have been doing to assess the evidence in relation to those other care settings to which this Bill, should it become law, may apply in the future—particularly mental health care settings, but not only mental health care settings, children’s wards, and, indeed, community hospital wards as well. So, yes, we will be supporting this Bill today. We very much hope to see its impact on the ground in our hospitals in Wales in the near future.
I’ll be brief. I, too, am very pleased to support Kirsty Williams and her Bill here today. I’d like to read, if I could, a very brief quote from a very recent survey from Unison; I know Unison has many members in this Chamber. This is the quote:
‘The survey results show a continued problem with understaffing which exists nationwide, meaning that patient care is suffering across the country.’
But, as Corporal Jones would say, ‘Don’t panic’—the report is about nurse staffing levels in England. Here in Wales, we’re doing something about the problem, and that is thanks indeed in the first instance to Oscar-winning Kirsty Williams, as we’ve heard today. I hope Members here and members of the public will agree that during this, the coming silly season, there are politicians mature enough to recognise that other parties have good ideas too, and that we can support them. And I’m proud, on behalf of my party, Plaid Cymru, to support Oscar-winning Kirsty Williams. But look, this Bill is only the first step towards making sure that patients aren’t exposed to risks because of unsafe nurse staffing levels. Please, let’s not forget the important work that healthcare assistants and auxiliary nurses carry out as well. Why is it only the first step? Well, because knowing what we want is one thing; knowing how to achieve it is another.
So, finally, in fully supporting this Bill, I would expect now urgent discussions to be arranged, involving you, Minister, local health boards and trusts, and, of course, the Royal College of Nursing, as to how we can attract and retain nursing staff—staff who are very important to all of us here in Wales; staff who we need and value. Thank you very much.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Health and Social Services, Mark Drakeford.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. Can I begin by thanking the Health and Social Care Committee and Members from all parties who played a constructive part during the passage of this Bill and its amendment at different scrutiny stages? Primarily, however, I’d like to congratulate the Member in charge for the way that she has steered this piece of legislation through the National Assembly, and hopefully onto the statute book today. She has stuck closely and successfully, if I could say so, to that old political dictum: that the first duty of those who seek to be progressive has to be to find ways of making progress. And, because the Member in charge has been willing to find those ways, we have a Bill that the Government side will be very pleased to support at this final stage. That support is tangible and practical, as well as support in principle. Earlier today, I was pleased to confirm that, in the next academic year, we will invest a record £85 million here in Wales in training the future workforce of the national health service, and that that money will fund an additional 135 nurse education places. Many of those individuals will take up places in work on adult acute wards when they are qualified. This is a 10 per cent increase in nurse education places on top of the 22 per cent increase last year. We now have the largest number of nurses in training in Wales since this National Assembly came into being. Those numbers will undoubtedly help to meet the new duties imposed by the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Bill and to make a success of it in the way that the Member in charge, and others who played a part during its passage, would want to see for patients in Wales in the future.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And Kirsty Williams, for the final time, to reply to the debate.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Could I thank the Members for their contributions to the Stage 4 debate today? Darren Millar is right to make the important points regarding workforce planning, and I was pleased that we were able to amend the Bill in a way that placed the proper emphasis on the need to get that right.
I thank Lindsay Whittle for his comments. Deputy Presiding Officer, sitting next to Lindsay in the health committee for the last almost five years has been an education, and a delightful one at that. I know that he cares deeply about ensuring that we get health services and social services right in Wales, and I’m grateful for his support. He makes the important points with regard to recruitment and retention. What we do know: in other countries, such as New Zealand, and in parts of Australia and parts of the United States, where similar legislation has already been put in place, it has been a fantastic aid to the recruitment and retention of nursing staff because they know that they will be nursing on wards with adequate numbers of colleagues around them, allowing them to do the job that they were trained to do.
I welcome the Minister’s announcements just today on the issue of workforce. We are going to need more nurses not just because of this Bill but because of the demographics of our population, and I welcome that very much indeed. I think, Deputy Presiding Officer, it was Lloyd George who said that the greatest eloquence is that which gets things done. Together, the Minister and I have been able to get this done, and I’m grateful to him for his time.
I will close with a quote from Tilda Shalof. Actually, she is a Canadian ICU nurse, but her words, I think, sum up beautifully what this piece of legislation is about:
‘The hospital will never be healthy for patients if it's not a healthy environment for nurses, where their voices are heard and where they can care for their patients and use the full extent of their knowledge, abilities, and skills. After all, hospitals today have become one big intensive care unit: all patients need intensive caring.’
This Bill will give nurses the time to do just that and I commend it to the Chamber.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The next item is voting time. Before I conduct the first vote, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are not.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We’ll vote first on the first Plaid Cymru debate, on Wales and borders rail franchise. I call for a vote on the motion tabled in the name of Elin Jones. If the proposal is not agreed, we will vote on the amendments tabled to the motion. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 35, there voted against 16. Therefore, the motion without amendment is agreed.
Motion agreed: For 35, Against 16, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5952.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We’ll now vote on the second Plaid Cymru debate, on hosting major events. I call for a vote on the motion tabled in the name of Elin Jones. If the proposal is not agreed, we will vote on the amendments tabled to the motion. Open the vote. Close the vote. There voted in favour 51, no votes against. Therefore, the motion without amendment is agreed.
Motion agreed: For 51, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5954.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Will those Members who are going to leave the Chamber please do so quickly and quietly.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The final item is the short debate, and I call on Kirsty Williams to speak on the topic she has chosen.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. It seems that debates come along like buses—you don’t have to do one for a while and then you have three in an afternoon.
I am very grateful to have the opportunity to raise this important issue, and I have been asked for a minute to speak by my colleague William Powell, which I hope there will be time for.
In some ways, I feel very sad that I have to bring forward a debate like this. I would hope that the value of rural schools to a community would be self-evident to politicians of all levels who find themselves in charge of our children’s education. Unfortunately, that has not been the case at Powys County Council in recent times. We have lost battles to save schools like Whitton and Llanigon and Beguildy and, in recent months, we have had proposals come forward to close schools in Llanbister and Nantmel and at Llanfihangel Rhydithon, commonly known to local people as Dolau school. After fighting off initial proposals to close Gwernyfed High School, those proposals have been brought back again with threats also to the long-term future of Llandrindod Wells high school and Builth Wells High School.
Now, I appreciate that the Minister is not in a position to speak about individual school proposals in case he is called upon at a later stage to make decisions with regard to the schools. I understand that. But, to me and my constituents, the actions of Powys County Council feel like an all-out assault on education in my area, particularly in Radnorshire, which is the most rural part of my constituency. In preparation for this debate, I asked people in the constituency to tell me how they feel school closures will affect their community, and their response has been overwhelming, Deputy Presiding Officer. If the Minister, or Powys County Council, have any doubts over the strength of feeling on this issue from members of the public, I urge them to take a look at the comments on that thread on my Facebook site.
The uncertainty is having a major effect on the children of Brecon and Radnorshire. Anyone who has moved schools as a child will know what a scary time that is and how it can impact adversely on a child’s education. As one constituent, called Sharon Punter, said, ‘I am very concerned that my children will have to change schools again. They’ve already had to move primary schools due to Llanigon closing. This kind of uncertainty cannot be good for a child’s education’.
One commentator who wished to remain anonymous said, ‘My son is in Builth high school, and I’m concerned that the ongoing various consultations have already seriously damaged his education. For the past few years, the school has been threatened with closure and merger, et cetera. Staff morale appears very low and this is impacting on the children. It’s no wonder that Builth school has been unable to recruit a headteacher for so long’.
Let’s be clear: there are educational benefits to being taught in a small school. I would not defend them if I thought they were doing our children down. Finland is a country that consistently is in the top 10 in the world PISA rankings for maths, reading and science. Yet just over a quarter of all comprehensive schools have less than 50 pupils. Now, I’m not advocating high schools of 50 pupils, but it does show that small schools are not an impediment to a child’s educational outcome. The average class size for grades 1 to 6 of basic education is 19.8 pupils, while the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average is 21.6. In grades 7 to 9, the average class size is 20.1 pupils, while the OECD average is 23.9. We know that pupils and teachers often prefer small class sizes, so, in a similar way, we should not be afraid of the impact of small schools. Children thrive in that environment. Ofsted have also seen the merit of small schools. They have previously said the quality of teaching in small schools is generally better, and inspectors concluded that their positive ethos and important place in the community meant there was a good case for retaining small schools.
If I can turn to the issue of community impact, it’s very important to factor that in—not just the impact on the children, but also the impact on the whole community. An example of this was summed up by my constituent Kate Platt, who said,
‘I feel that the closure of Gwernyfed would have far reaching effects on the community. Why would young families move to an area where there is no school within 20 miles? So companies struggle to recruit—doctors, vets, solicitors, pharmacists...If families don't come then communities die. The effect of closure on our children will be dreadful but there is so much more to it than that.’
Kate is right. The community impact of school closure is difficult to overstate. Aside from the impact on the children, my major concern is that closure would create an unbalanced community. For a community to thrive, it needs to have people of all ages and all walks of life. We already have an ageing population in Powys, above the Welsh average. If these schools are allowed to close, it could make the area less desirable for young families to move in and to stay, thus further compounding the issue. A local property expert recently told me that the first thing that a young family look for when moving into an area is a good local school. If the local school is closed, or even under the threat of closure, they will not move in.
I’m also very worried about the strategic position of some of the schools that are threatened with closure. I’m very worried about losing pupils over the border to English schools and the potential knock-on effect that would have. We already have a significant brain drain in Powys, where young, talented people leave. If they have not attended a school in the area, it will be even harder to encourage them to stay.
Caroline Clinch Price wrote:
‘living in Rhosgoch we have already lost a primary school. If we lose [the high school] my kids will have a 20 mile trip to Brecon or Builth, this would force me to send them over the border to Kington, a distance of only 10 miles. Rural families are finding it very difficult to stay within their communities, and children risk losing any sense of Welsh identity, and the right to be bilingual. Years of Welsh language study at primary school will be thrown away.’
Another commenter said, ‘I moved into the area from north Wales and have since married and bought a house in Libanus. We enjoy the community here so much that we have started our family here and our hope is to expand and stay in the community. Our worry is that, with the threat to education locally, this will force us out, especially as we are bringing up our daughter to be bilingual. My husband and I feel very strongly about this. Moving would be our last resort, as we have made our life here, but for our daughter’s education, this might have to be an option.’ The Welsh identity of these areas is under threat from these proposals. What different consideration should be given to school closures when the border means that the child’s nearest school is across that border?
And, of course, Deputy Presiding Officer, there are increasingly divergent educational policies, different approaches to how we teach our children, on either side of the border. I know that people will have different views on the appropriateness of that; but, I support very much the proposals of the Donaldson review as do, I believe, the majority of school leaders and teachers that I meet. But, our children are not going to have access to that progressive curriculum if they are forced across the border.
Bussing children considerable distances also impacts on the ability to deliver for children in the wider sense of education; omitting the opportunities for after-school curricular activities that cannot be delivered at the end of the school day because of the constraints of the school transport system. These impacts are felt most by the more deprived families living in communities. But, also, in other areas of a child’s life, who would want to participate in YFC, rugby club, football club or cultural activities, after a significantly long journey at both the beginning and the end of your school day?
So, what can be done to keep these rural schools open? In Scotland, the Children and Young People (Scotland) Act 2014 strengthened the presumption against the closure of a school. It contained a number of other proposals that have helped keep schools open, such as requiring local authorities to carry out more rigorous consultation on school closures, particularly if it’s on the rural school list maintained by Ministers; communities have a right to challenge any inaccuracies in councils' proposals; it’s introduced a new procedure for reviewing school closure decisions; if a closure is rejected, that school will be protected from closure for another five years, thus avoiding the issue of blight that so often happens in the community where a local authority comes again and again and again if they’ve decided that the school shouldn’t have a future.
It also went beyond the requirement that local authorities must have special regard to viable alternatives to closure and the effect of different travelling arrangements and the effect on the local community—local authorities must show how these requirements have been complied with. I recognise that the Welsh Government does have the school reorganisation code and I commend the document. It is clear about what the expectations are. And, indeed, we used that successfully in challenging the original proposals regarding Gwernyfed. But, many of my constituents feel that Powys County Council is paying mere lip service to that document and not really engaging with the spirit of it. I would ask the Minister if he could ask his officials to look very closely at whether Powys County Council officials are truly complying with both the letter, the word and the spirit of that document.
In the early days of this Assembly, when the Liberal Democrats formed a part of the administration with the Labour Government, we did set up a small schools fund, which was designed to ensure that additional resources were made available. I wonder what consideration the Minister might give to looking at the feasibility of such a grant again. Perhaps that feasibility could be considered under a general piece of work carried out by the Government into the future of rural education that could look at all aspects of how we can address the challenges of providing education in a rural area; how we could use new technologies, for instance, to ensure that there is the widest possible range of choice and subjects available for our older students; and how we could combat the issue of professional isolation by harnessing the power of IT.
The Minister, in his policy, also states that federation can indeed be a very viable alternative to school closure, especially in rural areas and can bring very real advantages to the educational outcomes and opportunities for children. I agree with him on that. Again, my concerns are that these options for federation and different types of governance arrangements are simply dismissed by Powys County Council. Why not look at the opportunities presented by Donaldson to have federation not just from primary school to primary school but actually primary through to high school. That really chimes with the aspirations of that document and I think could go some way to keeping our children in our community as well as addressing issues around the challenges of recruiting headteachers.
Minister, I will let the people of Brecon and Radnorshire sum up my contribution today. This quote comes from Angharad Woodland: ‘Geography and culture dictate that an urban blueprint cannot be imposed on rural education. Powys County Council are behaving like the ugly sisters, trying to squeeze their huge education system into PWC’s glass slipper. One size does not fit all when all encompasses the largest county in Wales.’ As Delyth Jones says, ‘Children are our future, they are the next MP, the next Powys county councillor, the farmer, the doctor, the hairdresser, the cleaner—whatever job they choose. But, taking our precious schools away, one by one, is going to ruin and deny them of that choice. How about listening to the children, listening to the teachers, listening to the community voice? It’s our children’s right.’
And, finally, Jackie summed it up nicely: ‘If you strip out the school, you strip out the heart of the community.’ Minister, schools are the lifeblood of a rural community, please do all that you can to protect their future.
I’m very grateful to Kirsty Williams for bringing forward this important short debate today and for making the case so passionately for rural education in its fullness. The issues that she’s raised I’m very familiar with, they also are replicated across my region of mid and west Wales—from the Dolgellau catchment area in the north, right through to Pembrokeshire, to Carmarthenshire, and to my own native Powys. I would join her in paying tribute to the school organisation code 2013, which is a legacy of the previous Minister and very much one where he was in listening mode. I would urge the Minister today to uphold the principles of that very important document in assessing the adequacy of any local authority’s approach to closing schools, particularly in rural areas, which are such a vital, vital asset.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister for Education and Skills to reply—Huw Lewis.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I begin by thanking the Member for bringing this short debate here today? This has not been the subject of a short debate for some time, and so I welcome the opportunity to discuss these issues, and commend Kirsty Williams, the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, for keeping this important issue on the agenda.
Kirsty and others will no doubt recall that the Rural Development Sub-committee carried out a comprehensive inquiry into the reorganisation of schools in rural areas in 2008, as a result, actually, of a petition from residents in Powys. The report produced by the committee was very well balanced. Many of its findings remain entirely relevant to the discussion today, and many of its recommendations have been acted upon since. The committee took the view, at that time, that the primary purpose of any school is to provide the best possible education for the children that it serves. It was clear on the point that the support that a school provides to a community was not, and never should be, its primary purpose or the main driver of policy. As my colleague, the then Member for Mid and West Wales, Alun Davies, said at the time,
‘The needs of the children come first.’
None of us, I suppose, would argue with those basic principles.
All schools are important, whether they are in rural or urban areas, just as each child is important, too. This is why, when revised legislation for school organisation was made, it was crystal clear that the most important consideration was the impact of proposed change on educational standards. It is for local authorities to decide on the right pattern of provision to deliver the best standard of education; it is they that must also now undertake thorough consultation and consider other options before making changes. They also need to carry out a community impact appraisal as part of the consultation process.
Children in rural areas deserve access to good schools. It should be possible to create a pattern of schools at primary and secondary level that ensures that the children of every community, including the very rural, have access to high-quality, well-resourced schools within a reasonable distance of their home. Furthermore, all schools have the potential to become a focal point for the community or communities that they serve—of course they do. In rural Wales, schools of the right size in the right location are capable of bringing separate communities together for the benefit of all. I recognise the high regard in which many rural schools are held, but the reality is that some have closed because they were unsustainable educationally. In the vast majority of cases, more sustainable schools have been created from reorganisation, and these too are rural schools, whether they’re in a larger village or a small town.
I cannot, of course, as Kirsty Williams has mentioned, comment on any changes that are in line in Powys or elsewhere individually, but where proposals require a decision from me, it is the interests of learners that come first. We should also, though, remember, as the Member has reminded us, that the committee inquiry identified specifically that federation and other forms of innovative school organisation can help rural schools overcome the challenges they face. We introduced legislation in 2010 which allows schools to federate by choice. More recently in 2014, I introduced powers for local authorities to federate schools. Federation can allow small rural schools to become viable and remain open in their communities, and I would include readily in any consideration of proposals around federation ideas that might posit a mixture of primary and secondary schools, perhaps in a catchment area, to be put forward as proposed federated models. It makes a lot of sense, in my view.
Our school organisation code is clear that local authorities should consider other alternatives, including federation, when they are considering closing schools. However, it is for schools and local authorities to determine whether federation is in the best interests of pupils and will lead to improved outcomes.
The committee inquiry also recommended that clear progress should be made with improving school buildings, and there has been substantial progress over the last five years on this agenda. Band A of the twenty-first century schools and education programme represents a £1.4 billion investment over the five-year period that will end in 2019. All local authorities will benefit from this major schools improvement programme, which will support the rebuild and refurbishment of over 150 schools and colleges. The schools in our programme benefit both urban and rural areas. Imaginative projects to provide sustainable schools are being supported in a number of rural areas, such as Bala, Llandysul and Dolgellau. Whilst these will involve some closures, the larger schools will better serve their communities.
The revenue funding we provide to local authorities each year through the settlement is distributed according to relative need, using a formula which takes account of a wealth of information on the demographic, physical, economic and social characteristics of authorities. Included within the formula are a number of indicators that account for varying degrees of rurality across authorities in Wales. Amongst other areas, these are used throughout the education element of the formula to take account of the limited ability of rural authorities to benefit from economies of scale.
We believe that local authorities are best placed to judge the local needs and circumstances of their schools, and to fund them accordingly. Local authorities are accountable to their electorates for the decisions that they make. The Welsh Government’s policy on rural school aims to strike a balance. We recognise the importance of having access to excellent schools in all parts of Wales, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that the system stays as it is. In some instances, alternative arrangements, including closures, including federations and the creation of larger area schools will be in the best interests of local children. I will continue to encourage excellence in all parts of Wales, and I thank Members for their thoughtful contributions this afternoon.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close. Thank you.
The meeting ended at 18:28.