By continuing to use our site, you are agreeing for us to set a small number of cookies. Cookie policy

Desktop
Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content
 
 
You are in :
Back to list View this page without hyperlinks
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
 
13:30
Questions to the First Minister
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Good afternoon. I call the National Assembly for Wales to order.
 
Ambulance Services in Brecon and Radnorshire
 
13:30
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on ambulance services in Brecon and Radnorshire? OAQ(4)1507(FM)
 
13:30
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Yes. I am encouraged to note that the latest available ambulance response time figures show that category A performance in Powys was better in December 2013 than for the same period in 2012.
 
13:30
Kirsty WilliamsBiographyThe Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
First Minister, figures recently released by the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust showed that ambulances in Powys are answering almost one fifth of their calls in other local health board areas. That means that many of my constituents are potentially being left without proper ambulance cover. When I raised this issue with you last June, you said that you would investigate the matter. What did those investigations reveal?
 
13:31
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
There is no reason to suggest that there is a lack of cover in Powys and we see that because of the figures that I have just mentioned to the Member from December of last year. In terms of responses, including, of course, air ambulance responses, we know that people in Powys do get to hospital quickly when they need to, despite the rurality of the county. Of course, there will be some communities where ambulances do cross the LHB borders, if I can put it like that, or even the county boundaries, where that is necessary. However, that does not necessarily mean that there will be a lack of cover elsewhere in any other county.
 
13:32
Darren MillarBiography
First Minister, the problems in the ambulance service are not confined to Brecon and Radnorshire. In fact, what we have found is that there are problems across Wales, including in Bodelwyddan, where 13 ambulances were stacked up outside the hospital—
 
13:32
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Darren Millar, I have cut your microphone off, because we are talking about Brecon and Radnorshire and not doing examples of other geographical areas.
 
13:32
Darren MillarBiography
I am merely making the point that the ambulance service is under pressure.
 
13:32
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Please move on with the question.
 
13:32
Darren MillarBiography
That is as a result largely of the record-breaking cuts that your Government has imposed upon the Welsh national health service. What action are you taking to remedy that situation to ensure that our unscheduled care performance can improve and what lessons can you learn from looking across the border where the performance of the ambulance service is a darn sight better than here in Wales?
 
13:33
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I think it is important that, where somebody is on the front bench of any party, they understand that Bodelwyddan is not in Brecon and Radnorshire. That is clearly a requirement, I would say. He talks about record-breaking cuts forgetting, of course, the fact that his own party has imposed cuts of £20 billion on the NHS in England. Of course, in England, they are called ’efficiencies’ but the effect is very much the same. Smoke and mirrors is what we see there. We know that the audit office has said that reliance should not be placed on the figures that are used in England, particularly for referral-to-treatment times. So, we take no lessons from the party opposite; we know that in their heart of hearts the NHS is simply not important to them.
 
13:33
Simon ThomasBiography
There is no general hospital either within the boundaries of Brecon and Radnorshire or Powys and therefore patients have to be taken to nearby hospitals. Those hospitals are currently under review, from Bronglais right the way down to south Wales. In that context, the ambulance service has admitted that patients will have to spend longer being transported over greater distances, and it has specifically admitted that this will require more training and enhanced skills for certain staff. As the ambulance service is already suffering because of levels of sickness that are twice that of other emergency services such as the police, how will you ensure, First Minister, that the staff and the necessary skills are in place for these longer journeys in ambulances that will come about as a result of the reorganisation of hospitals?
 
13:34
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Two things: it does not follow that people will have to travel further in an ambulance, because the air ambulance is available. That has been true for Powys for a long time, and we know that it is entirely natural in Powys, where emergencies in terms of childbirth take place—
 
13:34
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call question 2, from Jenny Rathbone.
 
13:34
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Sorry, I am just wondering why—
 
13:34
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Sorry. I do beg your pardon, First Minister.
 
13:34
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I do need to answer the question.
 
There are emergencies in terms of childbirth where mothers are taken to hospitals in England, or sometimes in Wales, by air ambulance. So, that is a possibility for people. I do think that the paramedics already have good skills in Wales, but where we need to consider or reconsider that skillset, we would expect the trust to do that.
 
Public Services
 
13:35
Jenny RathboneBiography
2. What can the Welsh Government do to ensure that local authorities are future proofing public services to deliver more with less for the foreseeable future? OAQ(4)1503(FM)
 
13:35
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Each local authority, of course, is responsible for ensuring the sustainability of the services that it delivers to individuals, families and communities. However, we are supporting local authorities to do this through legislation, policy and funding, aligned to the programme for government.
 
13:35
Jenny RathboneBiography
The recent Wales Audit Office report on the financial challenges facing local authorities indicates that only a quarter are looking beyond the immediate budget-setting process, when we know that this is not just a short-term challenge. So, what can we do to promote a much more strategic conversation with local communities as to what services communities want and how we can deliver them sustainably?
 
13:36
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Well, of course, it is for local authorities to deliver those services that are within their responsibilities. However, as the Member will know, the Government’s view is that there needs to be a restructuring of local government in Wales. Once that process is done, I believe that it will be a situation where services are far more able to be delivered sustainably and safely in the future than is the case now.
 
13:36
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Co-production Wales has said that the futureproofing of services requires a change in service delivery, breaking down barriers between people who provide services and those who use them. How, therefore, do you respond to its call for explicit links between service providers and citizens and communities, designing delivering services together, and sharing budgets?
 
13:37
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
It is important, of course, that there is collaboration and budget sharing, where that is appropriate. We would seek to ensure that, where services are made available to members of the public, either via local authorities or other public bodies, they work with the service recipients in order to ensure that the service is appropriate for the individual.
 
13:37
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Referring to the report that Jenny Rathbone mentioned, the audit office is highly critical of the failure of local authorities to tackle these challenges. However, in describing good practice in one council, the report states that the council benefits from robust financial management and has had some success in terms of planning effectively for the future. Would you join me in congratulating the leadership and officials in Gwynedd Council on their vision and success?
 
13:38
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I could see that coming from a long way off. I praise any local authority that ensures that it understands the challenges ahead. That is true, of course, of Gwynedd, and it is true of a number of other authorities.
 
Questions without Notice from the Party Leaders
 
13:38
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions from the party leaders. First this afternoon, we have the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
 
13:38
Leanne WoodBiographyThe Leader of Plaid Cymru
First Minister, last week, the south Wales programme revealed its proposals for the withdrawal of critical health services from some of our hospitals, and you have fully supported its plans. You have repeatedly claimed that medical professionals themselves support centralisation. Now that Cwm Taf Local Health Board has voiced unprecedented opposition to the proposals for the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, confirming that there is no universal consensus among medical professionals, will the final decision on the future of the Royal Glamorgan Hospital be made by the Minister for Health and Social Services?
 
13:39
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Yes, the Minister for health, of course, has the responsibility to ensure that the health service is safe and sustainable in the future.
 
13:39
Leanne WoodBiography
Thank you for your answer, First Minister. It has become clear that the consensus that you claimed on this matter never did exist. There is no consensus, even in your own party. The current Member of Parliament for the Rhondda is saying that he is not happy, and that assumptions that were made in the reaching of the hospital downgrade proposals are a mistake. I have good reason to believe also that there are members of your own party sitting behind you who share those views. First Minister, will you show some leadership today, and assure us that we will not see any more Labour Party banners proclaiming your party’s opposition to the south Wales programme? Will you give us an undertaking that your party will be straight with people on health from now on?
 
13:40
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
We have been straight with people. The issue is that your party has not been on any number of occasions, I have to say. Of course, the Minister for health will take decisions with regard to the final structure if certain circumstances are met. We hope that there will be agreement. If there is not agreement that will have to be looked at, or, of course, if there is a referral by a community health council, that will have to be looked at. However, what we want, of course, is to ensure that there is a sustainable health service across the whole of that part of south Wales in the future. That means looking at every hospital, not just focusing on the Royal Glamorgan, as she does.
 
13:40
Leanne WoodBiography
You will know, First Minister, that most attempts at reconfiguration are now ending up with costly judicial reviews. It is likely that the south Wales proposals will end up in the courts too. First Minister, your party is split, your plans have been rejected by the public, and senior health managers are in disagreement, as are medics. First Minister, this situation is a mess that you could end right now. Instead of pushing your deeply unpopular hospital centralisation plans, do you not think that now is the time to focus instead on boosting NHS recruitment, sorting out our ambulance service, and merging health and social care as proposed by Plaid Cymru?
 
13:41
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
The problem that she has, of course, is that we are trying to create a health service in Wales that will be attractive for people to work in. What she wants is no change and she will see a complete collapse of services in time. All the time they claim that consultants do not support what the Government is doing. The majority of consultants do: that is a fact. You should talk to more consultants, as I do, in the whole of south Wales, and they would tell you that it is important that we have hospitals that are able to offer the right level of training, that there is enough throughput of cases, which you cannot increase artificially, and that doctors can find a hospital that is able to offer them an opportunity to practise. What she wants is a second-class health service. She wants hospitals that are staffed with doctors that are not properly trained or hospitals that are understaffed; that is more important than having doctors with the right level of expertise. I will give her one example. What was her party’s view on the centralisation of stomach and oesophageal cancer operations? It was against it. What happened? A 20% increase in survival rates. However, they would prefer to keep services local—even if those services are worse than when you can create services in centres of excellence—rather than say to the people of Wales that there are some services that have to be centralised in order that more people should live. That is the important aspect here. For her party, what is more important is that it is able to play political games rather than deliver services—[Interruption.]
 
13:42
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order, order.
 
13:43
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
[Continues.]—that will ensure more people have a better outcome. That is secondary to their own considerations.
 
13:43
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.
 
13:43
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
First Minister, last April I asked you about the number of ambulances waiting hours outside A&E departments. Ten months ago, you told me that you were seeing what could be done to alleviate the situation. I have figures that show that, in December, there were more than 2,000 occasions when it took more than an hour to turn around an ambulance. Are you still looking for the solution?
 
13:43
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Eighty-five per cent of people at the last count particularly get to hospital within an hour. There will be occasions when people have to wait longer, but we are certainly not in the situation that has existed in some hospitals in England, for example, where there are serial occasions when ambulances are waiting.
 
13:43
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
First Minister, I do not know what your definition of ’serial’ is, but we had over 2,000 incidents in one month alone. That sounds pretty serial to me. Today, we hear that the number of ambulance service staff who are off sick with stress has increased 16% on last year. Serious concerns have been raised about the frustration at waiting outside hospitals watching patients deteriorate in the back of their ambulances. Last May, the Minister for health acknowledged this problem and said that tackling stress for ambulance staff was his priority. What have you done to reduce the pressure on hard-working paramedics and ambulance service staff?
 
13:44
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
For the last month, 40% fewer patients were waiting over an hour for handover than in March 2013. We have, of course, continued to monitor the situation. Between March and December of last year there was a 4.7% improvement in the percentage of patients being admitted, discharged or transferred within four hours from arrival at A&E. Twelve-hour waits have reduced by over 60% since March and December 2013. She talks about people having to wait and she mentions figures in the thousands: 940,000 people attend emergency departments in Wales every year. The vast majority of those people get good treatment at the right time. Where that does not happen, it is important that the Government looks to see how things can be improved. However, let us put this in context.
 
13:45
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
That was—[Inaudible.]—First Minister, but it did not answer the question about what you have done since last May to reduce the stress on paramedic and ambulance staff. Despite what you said earlier, you do not seem to understand that senior ambulance trust managers have admitted that in order to adequately cope with NHS reorganisation, more paramedics will be needed because services are moving. Will you commit on behalf of your Government today to making sure that the Welsh ambulance service has all the resources that it needs to make sure that patients are not put at risk, and are delivered to hospitals in a timely manner, following the centralisation of services that your Government is presiding over?
 
13:46
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Let me see if I can patronise her back. [Laughter.] She will understand, no doubt, that we are training more paramedics. We understand the point that she makes. What she does not seem to grasp is that the vast majority of patients are seen within an hour of being transferred. There will be and there have been occasions where 2,000 patients out of the 940,000 people attending emergency departments in Wales will fall into that category. I am not saying that we find that acceptable moving forward—of course not—but it shows that the vast majority of people are treated in good time and receive good treatment. Yes, we are training more paramedics, but let us make sure that we understand that when it comes to the NHS in Wales, the vast majority of people receive a good service. It is not just us saying that—patients in the service tell us that as well.
 
13:46
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies. [Interruption.]
 
13:47
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiographyThe Leader of the Opposition
It is good to hear so much cheering from the benches opposite. [Interruption.]
 
13:47
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order. I am very interested to know what the leader of the opposition is going to say this afternoon.
 
13:47
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiography
On the levity point—. I would like to ask the First Minister about the reports today on the Ian Watkins case, namely the failure of children’s services in Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council and other services protecting children and young people and their lack of response in terms of such allegations when concerns were raised at a very early stage, as I am led to believe. Does the First Minister believe that the services as configured did all they could to assist in addressing the concerns raised on this particular issue?
 
13:47
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
These concerns have been raised today. It is right that those concerns are given the fullest consideration, and I am sure that the Minister will do that.
 
13:47
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiography
I am grateful for the First Minister’s answer on that. If the concerns are substantiated, and I see no reason from what I have seen that they will not be, will the Welsh Government instigate an inquiry into the failure to address these concerns and make sure that safeguards are there so that these horrendous crimes are not perpetrated on other children across Wales, let alone in the Rhondda Cynon Taf area?
 
13:48
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
It is difficult to make that prediction, bearing in mind that the police are allegedly involved and policing is not devolved. We have no power to call the police to account when it comes to any kind of inquiry. That was a problem that we have met before in looking at other situations. This needs to be looked at very carefully, and consideration will be given to ensuring that the public can have confidence in the system that exists in RCT and in other public authorities in the future.
 
13:49
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiography
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. Do you not think that a serious case review would be a way of pulling all the agencies together to look at the allegations, irrespective of whether policing is devolved or non-devolved? In fairness, I think that many people outside of this institution will not be that concerned about where the responsibility lies; they just want to make sure that the safeguards are in place and that action is taken to address some of the very real concerns that have been raised today. I take your word, First Minister, that the Minister will look at this, but I believe that the Welsh Government has a key role in instigating such a review and taking the lead on it as the main executive body in Wales.
 
13:49
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
As I said to the leader of the opposition earlier, this is something that I know that the Minister will be looking at, with a view to determining the best way forward. Where such allegations are raised, it is important that they are investigated fully. I am with him in that regard.
 
Unscheduled Care
 
13:49
Rebecca EvansBiography
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the provision of unscheduled care? OAQ(4)1505(FM)
 
13:49
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
The increased focus placed on winter planning over the past 10 years means that resilience in the system is better than ever—we can see that in the course of what has happened over the past few months—and significant improvements have been achieved by NHS Wales when compared with the relevant performance indicators.
 
13:50
Rebecca EvansBiography
Hywel Dda Local Health Board is currently discussing the future provision of accident and emergency services at Withybush hospital. Will you confirm that the health board is looking only at 24/7 provision and that there are no plans to reduce A&E to a 12-hour service?
 
13:50
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I can say that the local health board has confirmed that it wishes to see 24/7 emergency cover continue at Withybush General Hospital.
 
13:50
Angela BurnsBiography
Thank you for that. Following on from Rebecca Evans’s nicely thought through question and answer, Minister, perhaps you would care to tell us what effect there will be on A&E as paediatrics is now being sucked to Glangwili hospital and there will be less and less paediatric cover in Withybush hospital. Paediatrics, as you know, takes up 25% of most A&Es, and, without paediatrics going through that hospital, A&E at Withybush will have no option but to have a reconfiguration of hours. Some honesty in this discussion from the health board to a public that is already very upset by the changes going on in Hywel Dda in the Pembrokeshire area would be much appreciated. The Minister promised us clarity and transparency, a lesson the health board has yet to learn.
 
13:51
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Well, I can only repeat what I said in answer to the Member previously, and that is that 24/7 emergency care is the wish of Hywel Dda when it comes to future services at Withybush hospital.
 
13:51
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Minister, I learned recently that some patients wander into A&E with complaints such as hiccups and that some patients go to A&E as many as 40 times a year. What efforts is the Welsh Government making to persuade people to visit their GPs rather than wander into A&E or phone 999 for this unscheduled care? It is not necessary. People need to be educated.
 
13:52
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
The Member is quite right. The difficulty is, of course, that A&E is the only area of the health service that cannot turn people away. I have spoken at length to A&E consultants in my own hospital. They have often told me stories of people who come to them when there is nothing wrong with them but also of people who have been to their GP four or five times and who go to A&E and say, ’I’ve been to see my GP; my GP hasn’t done anything so I’m coming to see you now instead’, and there is nothing wrong with them, of course. The estimate they place on the number of people in that category is between 30% and 40% of the people who come to A&E. That is why the Minister for Health and Social Services has been absolutely clear in terms of what he has said, which is that people should not attend A&E unless they absolutely have to. It is important, of course, that people are able to access GP services at a time that is convenient to them. That is why we have continued to roll out access to GPs in the evenings and at weekends. I have seen this happening. GPs are now available in the evenings. In particular, those GP practices that offer nurses as part of the practice are able to deal with a lot of minor injuries as well to take pressure off A&E. So, yes, people need to ensure that they do not go to A&E unless it is absolutely necessary, but it is also important, of course, that we continue to roll out services with GPs so that appointments are available at a time that is convenient to the public.
 
Young Recruits Programme
 
13:53
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Young Recruits Programme? OAQ(4)1513(FM)
 
13:53
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Yes, it has been a great success. Demand has been extremely high and we have already exceeded the target for this financial year.
 
13:53
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Thank you, First Minister. I, too, would endorse that it has been an excellent initiative for jobseekers and small employers alike. However, in recent months, I have received a number of concerns in relation to some of the lengthy delays in the payment processes, in particular to our sole traders and very small businesses. In the July 2013 evaluation process, the following weaknesses were identified: inaccurate information being sent to employers regarding funding criteria and the under-resourcing of programme administration, which was leaving small businesses working with very tight margins and low disposable revenues really struggling to participate. First Minister, will you work with your Deputy Minister to speed up these processes so that our employers and all our jobseekers who want to take advantage of this initiative can do so?
 
13:54
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Yes. The programme is an exceptionally successful Welsh Government programme, of course, and we very much welcome the fact that so many people have benefited from it. Working with the Minister, we will, of course, continue to ensure that the programme moves from success to success.
 
13:54
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
We in Plaid Cymru are very pleased to have been a real driving force working with your Government to greatly increase the number of apprenticeships. Do you, First Minister, agree that oversubscription of the young recruits programme shows that the Government needs to take urgent action now to further extend the programme, including increasing the number of higher level apprenticeships?
 
13:55
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
That is a bid for the next budget, I suspect. However, we are very pleased, of course, that the programme has been working very well. We acknowledge the agreement that was made at the time of the last budget, and we acknowledge the supreme success of Jobs Growth Wales, which has a success rate of over 80% in attracting young people into apprenticeships and permanent employment.
 
13:55
Eluned ParrottBiography
First Minister, how many of the young people who successfully complete a Jobs Growth Wales placement transfer directly into the young recruits programme?
 
13:55
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I do not have that figure, but I can tell you that the vast majority of them get a permanent job and many of those who do not go into education or go on to another apprenticeship. It shows the great success of the scheme, particularly compared with schemes that have existed elsewhere in Britain.
 
Withybush General Hospital
 
13:56
Paul DaviesBiography
5. Will the First Minister make a statement on services at Withybush hospital? OAQ(4)1500(FM)
 
13:56
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Withybush hospital will continue to play a vital role in providing health services for people in Pembrokeshire.
 
13:56
Paul DaviesBiography
First Minister, a fortnight ago, I asked you about the downgrading of services at Withybush hospital following the decision of your Government to close the special care baby unit at the hospital. In your response, you suggested that the Minister for health’s decision was supported by all doctors in the area. However, I have received copies of correspondence from GPs from Pembrokeshire to the Minister and the health board stating otherwise. Will you take this opportunity to explain, for the record, that the Minister’s decision was not supported by all doctors in the area?
 
13:56
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I did not say such a thing. I have the record here and I can tell you now what it says, that a decision has been taken on the recommendation of doctors—those who were on the panel—and it goes on to say that it is the view of doctors that the system has to be changed. That is true in terms of the colleges and most of the doctors. Also, of course, there is a strong recommendation from doctors on the panel that change must happen. No-one sensible is arguing that there should be two level 2 units—one in Carmarthen and one in Withybush. The argument is about where that unit should be. The Member’s argument is that the unit should be in Withybush and not in Glangwili. Has he said that to his colleague who is sitting next to him? That decision has been taken on the grounds of what is best in order to secure a safe and sustainable service for the future.
 
It is not honest or true to say that this has been a decision that is completely political. It is a decision that has been taken on the grounds of evidence from doctors, on the basis of what the colleges say, and on the basis of recommendations emanating from a panel that looked at this in a totally neutral and objective manner. I do not know how the Minister could have made another decision, if you want to keep a system that is safe and sustainable.
 
13:58
Simon ThomasBiography
First Minister, in discussing the emergency care units in the Hywel Dda area, the health board quoted a document by the College of Emergency Medicine—’The Way Ahead’. To have a 24-hour emergency unit, it said clearly that it would have to be supported by seven specialties, and among those seven specialties is paediatrics. Paediatrics has already been cut—or it is intended that it will be cut—from 24 hours a day to 12 hours a day at Withybush hospital. Do you truly believe and are you truly of the opinion that a 24-hour emergency unit will continue in Withybush?
 
13:59
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I cannot go any further than the answer that I gave earlier. That is the view of the local health board, and that is what it has told us, which is that it wants to ensure that there is a 24/7 service available in the hospital, and that that service is an emergency service.
 
Neurological Conditions
 
13:59
Lynne NeagleBiography
6. What discussions has the First Minister had with the Minister for Health and Social Services in relation to the Neurological Conditions Delivery Plan? OAQ(4)1514(FM)
 
13:59
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
The Minister has advised me that his consultation on a neurological conditions delivery plan has now closed. His intention is to publish the final plan in April.
 
13:59
Lynne NeagleBiography
First Minister, while I welcome the delivery plan, I am deeply concerned about the lack of community-based rehab services for brain-injured patients in Gwent, despite their availability in other parts of Wales. I have several constituents affected by this alarming lack of provision. While I am pleased that the health board is planning to establish a local service, detailed plans have been in place for a while, and progress does appear to be painfully slow. First Minister, I am sure that you can understand what a difference this tailored multi-agency support can make to patients with brain injuries. Will you look at this issue with the Minister for health with a view to urgently ending this serious inequity in provision affecting my constituents?
 
14:00
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Clearly, that is unacceptable and that is one of the reasons why the Minister has decided to develop the delivery plan to help to drive improvements across Wales. I understand that you have corresponded with Andrew Goodall, the chief executive of Aneurin Bevan, on this matter and that he has set out the health board’s plans to improve the provision of services.
 
14:00
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I call on Nick Ramsay. [ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: Hear, hear.]
 
14:00
Nick RamsayBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I will have to practise throwing my voice from my new position. [Laughter.]
 
First Minister, the neurological conditions delivery plan was launched last year to help people living with a range of neurological conditions, as you have just mentioned. The chief executive of the NHS in Wales has said that it is not going to work unless local government and the third sector work together to make sure that it works on the ground. What are you doing to make sure that all of these different factors are coming together to progress this very important plan?
 
14:01
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I am tempted to say that I will text the answer to the Member. [ASSEMBLY MEMBERS: Oh.] However. I will afford him greater courtesy than that and say that the plan is designed to ensure that all the relevant bodies work together in order to ensure that the plan is delivered properly, and that is why, of course, the plan is in place.
 
14:01
Elin JonesBiography
First Minister, in some areas there is no epilepsy specialist nurse service available and Hywel Dda is one of those areas. There is currently a funding bid being developed for an epilepsy nurse in the west Wales area. Do you agree that, for special conditions such as this, it is important that there is practical, specialist support from specialist nurses available for people wherever they may live in Wales?
 
14:02
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
In terms of how that is practical, I would want to ensure that there are adequate numbers of nurses with that specialism available across Wales so that people can access the treatment they need. However, we have to consider how many are available and how many will be needed for the future, and consider the financial situation. Having said that, no-one could argue against a case that states that we must ensure that there are adequate numbers of them available.
 
14:02
Aled RobertsBiography
First Minister, there was a great deal of celebration when the national directive on epilepsy was launched in 2009. NICE has issued new guidelines since 2012, but, nonetheless, there has been no update and there is quite a bit of criticism about how effectively the health boards have been implementing the national guidelines. Will epilepsy be included within the neurological plan and will you as a Government be updating the epilepsy guidelines?
 
14:02
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
May I tell the Member that this is crucially important question, as was the question asked by the Member for Ceredigion? May I ask the Minister for health, therefore, to write to the Members to ensure that the details are made available to them?
 
Severe Weather
 
14:03
Russell GeorgeBiography
7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the effects that recent severe weather conditions have had on communities in Wales? OAQ(4)1509(FM)
 
14:03
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Our responder agencies have worked hard to put their plans into action to reduce the impact of the recent severe weather. I would like, as I am sure that all Members would, to express sympathy to the communities and individuals who have experienced the full force of the recent storms. Nevertheless, given the difficulty surrounding the weather and the sheer force of the weather, I believe that we managed to deal with it as efficiently as possible.
 
14:04
Russell GeorgeBiography
Thank you, First Minister; I appreciate your answer. Those communities in Wales who have been affected, particularly by the loss of power to thousands of homes and businesses, rightfully want to know what support they will be getting. May I ask what your Government is doing to help to secure that support? What discussions have you had with energy companies about potential bill reductions to properties that have been affected, and have you examined a package of business rate reductions for those businesses that have been significantly affected by the impact of the severe weather?
 
14:04
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Local authorities are able to put bids to the Welsh Government in order to receive extra funding with regard to the weather. Of course, we were in the fortunate position that we invested in our flood defences, whereas we saw a 28% cut in flood defences in England, and we have seen what the result of that was. I am sure that the people of Wales appreciate the fact that we have not seen the level of flooding that, unfortunately, some in England have had despite the fact that the weather has been exactly the same. It is right to say that, at one point on Wednesday last week, 100,000 homes were without power, but the situation was rectified very quickly. I pay tribute to the power companies for making sure that people were not left without power for many many days, and to Natural Resources Wales for ensuring that people were not left in flood water for many, many weeks.
 
14:05
Llyr GruffyddBiography
Last week, I visited a farmer in the Vale of Clwyd who has cleared thousands of tonnes of tree trunks, branches, twigs and so on from the Elwy and Clwyd floodplains. I am sure that you will be aware that there are restrictions on the Rhuddlan bridge at present due to damage being caused by these materials being caught up under the bridge. The same is also true at St Asaph. I have raised with the relevant Minister the need to do more to allow farmers to tackle some of these problems that do cause damage to our infrastructure. Will you give a commitment that the Government will move as swiftly as possible to develop such plans to avoid this kind of damage in the future?
 
14:06
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Farmers have a key role in ensuring that floods do not happen. You mentioned the fact that a discussion has taken place with the Minister. I am sure that the Minister will ensure, if any more help can be given to farmers, that it will be available as soon as possible.
 
Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board
 
14:06
Bethan JenkinsBiography
8. Will the Welsh Government establish a full public inquiry into care standards at Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board and its predecessors over the past 25 years? OAQ(4)1502(FM)
 
14:06
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Twenty-five years is a very long time in terms of any potential inquiry. However, I can tell the Member that a number of steps have been taken to meet the concerns that have been expressed. An external team is reviewing the quality and safety of the Princess of Wales Hospital. The chief executive personally chairs a Princess of Wales Hospital quality and safety steering group. On 7 February, the board announced a series of concerns clinics to enable patients and relatives to discuss issues with members of staff; nurse staffing levels on medical wards have been increased to enable compliance with the expectations set by the chief nursing officer; new clinical and executive managerial arrangements are now in place at the Princess of Wales Hospital; and, of course, there has been put in place a review into two hospitals in the local health board area, which were announced, of course, by the Minister for health last year. So, a number of actions have been put in place in order to deal with people’s concerns, and it is important that what has been put in place has an opportunity to report back to the Minister and to identify any problems that might yet remain.
 
14:07
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Thank you for that answer, but it is still plain that neither those families who have recently come forward nor those who continue to fight for answers, such as the parents of Robbie Powell, are happy with the solutions offered so far. If a health service is about caring for patients, I believe that ensuring that their families are happy about their care is a paramount issue. You said last week during First Minister’s questions that Assembly Members who call for a public inquiry do so at the drop of a hat. I believe that this is insulting to the parents and families of those who have lost people in the ABMU health board area. Many of the reviews that you have commissioned may add up to be more costly than a public inquiry could be, First Minister. Therefore, do you not believe that the cry from the parents and families of patients is not worthy enough for you, as a Government, to enact upon their demand and have a full public inquiry?
 
14:08
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I did not say that those calling for a public inquiry do so at the drop of a hat; I said that you were calling for a public inquiry at the drop of a hat, and I explained what I mean by that. The Member mentions the case of Robbie Powell. It is a case that has been well aired in this Chamber. The case of Robbie Powell is tragic, and Mr Powell and his family were treated appallingly, as we all understand. An investigation took place, and a number of events occurred, which made it very difficult for Mr Powell and his family. I spoke to the General Medical Council, the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and I initiated the investigation. There was an apology—and rightly so—from the Welsh Government. It is very difficult to know what else can be done, although Mr Powell, quite rightly, is angry and upset about the loss of his son, even after all of these years, and I understand that. However, I have to say to the Member that many of the people who were at the meeting that took place in Bridgend are people that I have been dealing with for some years. I have done the hard work in terms of dealing with them, listening to their concerns, and taking their concerns forward as a constituency Assembly Member. She only became interested a fortnight ago when she went to the meeting. There are some Members who do the hard work, and there are some who jump on a bandwagon, and that is exactly what she has done.
 
14:10
Byron DaviesBiography
I find myself agreeing with Bethan Jenkins’s request for a full public inquiry into care standards at Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board. Following on from that, I want to unashamedly reiterate our request for a full Keogh-style NHS inquiry in Wales, which would of course pick up the specific concerns that constituents have about care standards within our local health board. We have called for it, First Minister, again and again, but, more importantly, it will save lives and improve our NHS. Why will you not agree to it and clear the air once and for all?
 
14:10
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
Sorry, I thought that was a resignation speech; I thought we were going to have it now rather than this afternoon, when we all expected it, but there we are.
 
I say to the Member: there is no need for a Keogh-style inquiry. That is a politically driven matter, as he knows. It is a great shame that he and other Members did not take an interest in many of the people in Bridgend who had their concerns, and that they had not taken an interest before the meeting took place, as many of us did. [Interruption.]
 
14:11
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order.
 
14:11
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
My concern, as somebody in whose constituency the Princess of Wales Hospital is, and as somebody who lives in Bridgend, is to make sure that what has happened at the hospital is thoroughly investigated in order to ensure that public confidence is there in the future. From that we will not shy away. It is important that what has been put in place is able to report back, and then, of course, it will be possible for the Government to decide what happens next. Restoring public confidence will be important for many of us who live in that town, even when other Members have moved on to other issues.
 
14:11
Peter BlackBiography
First Minister, we have all heard your refusal to hold a public inquiry, and we are aware that you have dealt with many of the cases raised at that public meeting in Bridgend on 30 January. Can you give an assurance, then, that the current inquiry into the hospital in Bridgend, which you have initiated, will be able to take evidence and talk to all those people who spoke at that public meeting and those who were not able to speak at that public meeting but have those concerns? Will you be able to take into account their views and their problems as part of that inquiry?
 
14:12
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
It is important that the inquiries are as broad as possible. The Member will know about the inquiry being taken forward by June Andrews. It is important that that inquiry commands the support of the families involved and is able to listen to the family’s concerns as broadly and as thoroughly as possible. That is very important. It is clearly in the interests of all that what has been put in place investigates thoroughly what has happened at the hospitals. It is important that there are lessons learned in terms of the future, and it is absolutely crucial that there is public confidence, in terms of not just the families directly involved, but indeed all those who live in the area. I know the Member shares my view in terms of that—to ensure that what seems to have happened in years gone by in some parts of the hospital is certainly not repeated in the future.
 
Construction Industry
 
14:13
Gwyn R. PriceBiography
9. Will the First Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is supporting the construction industry in Wales? OAQ(4)1501(FM)
 
14:13
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
We are committed to supporting the construction sector in Wales, and, working with the construction sector panel, we want to continue to ensure that we develop the appropriate packages to grow the sector in the future.
 
14:13
Gwyn R. PriceBiography
Thank you for that answer. First Minister, recent construction data in Wales has been very encouraging. Do you agree that the recently announced shared equity scheme can only further encourage housebuilding in Wales?
 
14:13
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
The index of production in Wales shows a 3.1% increase when comparing the last four quarters with the previous four quarters, while the UK dropped by 1.6%. So, it shows that the Welsh Government is delivering in terms of the economy, in terms of housebuilding, and, indeed, the 2,000 jobs that were announced yesterday with Pinewood Studios—one of the largest inward-investment projects Wales has seen for many years, and done without the WDA may I say to the party opposite? I am sure that all Members will welcome the work that was done by Edwina Hart and her department in bringing to Wales, despite fierce competition from other countries, a significant investment project. So, I say to the Member that, yes, Help to Buy-Wales is an exceptionally important scheme, and there are close to 250 expressions of interest, but it shows, when it comes to housing, construction and attracting investment, Wales is at the top of the league.
 
14:14
William GrahamBiography
Clearly, First Minister, with the expansion in construction, there should be a large number of firms of tradesmen right across Wales who wish to take part in that. At one time, your Government used to employ a rather curious—how shall I put it?—’restriction’ on such firms, where if the contract they applied for was worth more than 50% of their turnover, they would be denied further progress in the tender process. Does that still occur?
 
14:15
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
I would need to investigate that thoroughly for the Member. It may be that there are other factors that we have to take into account as a Government, particularly with regard to procurement rules, but I will ensure that the Minister writes to the Member with a full answer.
 
14:15
Jocelyn DaviesBiography
The construction industry is, as you mentioned, highly reliant on house building. A recent survey by the Money Advice Service found that three quarters of new first-time buyers had stretched themselves to buy their home, with nearly 40% losing sleep due to their current money worries. That is because they had underestimated the true costs. What safeguards do you have within the help-to-buy Wales scheme to ensure that first-time buyers cannot just afford to buy, but also afford to live in, the homes that they have chosen?
 
14:15
Carwyn JonesBiographyThe First Minister
What we want to ensure is that those who buy under the help-to-buy Wales scheme are able to service the debts that they will get under their mortgage. We would expect them to receive advice from the financial institutions and we expect those institutions to provide advice that is sound. Nevertheless, it is important that people have the ability to buy houses. That is a dream for many people, although I take the Member’s point that it is important that people do not stretch themselves, particularly at a time when interest rates are historically low. They may not remain that way in the future, and then the squeeze will come on many families. It is important that, as people take out mortgages, they understand what might happen. It is exceptionally important that the financial institutions provide that advice, as I am sure that most of them do.
 
14:16
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, First Minister.
 
14:16
Business Statement and Announcement
Lesley GriffithsBiographyThe Minister for Local Government and Government Business
There are no changes to report to this week’s business. Business for the next three weeks is as shown on the business statement and announcement, which can be found among the agenda papers that are available to Members electronically.
 
14:17
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiography
In your role as Minister for local government, is it possible to have a statement as to what role the Government plays in working with local authorities to repair roads? With the terrible winter that we have had so far, with all the water and everything, the pothole situation is deteriorating rapidly, I would suggest. I appreciate that budgets are under pressure and that there is less money to go around, but, come spring, these roads will be in an appalling condition, especially many country lanes. Do you, as a Government, issue any guidance to local government as to how they should maintain the roads under their responsibility? Do you specifically allocate money to those local authorities? Could you contain that within a statement, if you are minded to give a statement?
 
14:17
Lesley GriffithsBiography
That would not be a statement for me as Minister for local government; it would be for the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. It is for local authorities to determine how much funding they spend on their highways.
 
14:17
Rebecca EvansBiography
Following a series of tragic deaths linked to the ’neknominate’ game, I would welcome a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services, updating Members on efforts to prevent underage drinking and efforts to promote responsible drinking among adults.
 
14:18
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Thank you for that question. The Minister for Health and Social Services does a great deal to encourage people to drink sensibly. Guidance is given to members of the public in relation to that. The Minister’s officials work with Alcohol Concern Cymru all year round to promote healthy drinking messages and tackle underage drinking in Wales. This is a very rapidly moving situation. I am sure that the Minister would consider bringing a statement forward in future.
 
14:18
Llyr GruffyddBiography
Minister, when the announcement was made a while ago on plans to move intensive care services for newborn babies out of north Wales to Arrowe Park Hospital, that was done on the basis of a consultation that made it clear that some 36 babies would need to be transferred out of north Wales, and that they would be younger than 27 weeks old.
 
It has now become apparent that the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board is looking at the possibility—and, indeed, has taken the decision, in all likelihood—that children under 32 weeks will now find themselves transferred to Arrowe Park. More than that, they will be going ’principally’ to Arrowe Park—that is what the statement says—which means that they could be going to Crewe, Warrington or even Ormskirk. To my mind, that raises serious questions about the consultation process. You will be aware that the First Minister took personal charge of this issue, and that a group of people is looking at the issue at present. However, I would ask you kindly to consider making time for the First Minister to give an oral statement or, at the very least, to present a written statement, explaining how much consultation has actually taken place on this change in what will happen to newborn babies, why what has happened was not part of the formal consultation and whether he feels that this, in any way, undermines the work of looking at a more long-term location for the services.
 
14:20
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Thank you for that question. I do not think that this is a new revelation. It is part of ongoing and sensible demand management and the information has been in the public domain. Approved contingency plans must be in place for babies to be able to go to other centres should Arrowe Park be full. It has always been the case that babies have been born in a range of hospitals in the north of England, based on the need to access appropriate specialties.
 
14:20
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Minister, the Government has recently been out to consultation on safe routes to schools policy. I wonder whether you could arrange for an update to be given to the Chamber, especially with regard to safe routes to schools that find themselves on the trunk road network. Yesterday, I visited the pupils at Llanelwedd Church in Wales Primary School on the A483. They are campaigning for a crossing in that area that would encourage more children to have the confidence to walk to and from school. It would also assist the children in accessing facilities in the town of Builth Wells. They are determined to address this issue and I would be grateful if we could have a statement and any assistance that your Government could offer. I know that the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport takes children’s road safety issues very seriously.
 
14:21
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Yes, she certainly does, and the Minister will be happy to bring forward a statement.
 
14:21
Darren MillarBiography
Minister, I want to support the calls from Llyr Huws Gruffydd for a statement on neonatal care in north Wales. I think that the reports in the media today are very alarming and will cause a great deal of distress to mums-to-be across the region. I would encourage you, as the Welsh Government, to clarify the current situation in terms of the support that you are giving to the Betsi Cadwaladr health board to develop a sub-regional neonatal unit in north Wales as well as to confirm and reaffirm your commitment to that. Clearly, we do not want people travelling unnecessary distances in order to access services. We want to keep services within north Wales wherever possible. It does appear that the story that we have been given by the First Minister is at odds with some of the information being made available to the ’Daily Post’ newspaper in particular. Some clarity on that would be useful.
 
May I also ask for an updated statement from the Minister for Natural Resources and Food further to the report that was published last week into the flooding incidents over the past couple of months? I think that it is incredibly important that we understand the precise action that is now being taken by the Minister, working with local authorities, to redress and remedy some of the coastal damage in parts of north, west and south Wales in particular. My own constituency, of course, had its coastal defences heavily undermined as a result of the poor weather. I am particularly interested to find out what is going on in the Conwy area.
 
14:23
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The Minister for Natural Resources and Food did issue a written statement last Friday. I am not sure whether you have seen that.
 
In relation to neonatal care in north Wales, you will have heard my answer to Llyr Huws Gruffydd. The First Minister will receive the panel’s recommendations on 31 March, so I do not think that it is appropriate to comment further at the moment.
 
14:23
Mick AntoniwBiography
Minister, following on from the questions from the leader of the opposition to the First Minister, and his answers, I was wondering whether time could be made available by the Government for a statement on the Ian Watkins issue. The reason for this request is that, already, the police have indicated that they are taking action in order to tighten up their own procedures in respect of what has happened. Allegations have been made in respect of Rhondda Cynon Taf’s social services department. This is a matter of public concern and it seems to me that it is appropriate that the Government should make a statement at some stage with regard to the allegations, in order to ensure public confidence in the procedures that do exist.
 
14:24
Lesley GriffithsBiography
You will have heard the First Minister’s answer to the question during his question session. We are all deeply concerned by the allegation that there has been a failure by RCT social services, but I do not really think that it would be appropriate for Ministers to comment further in advance of a proper inquiry into the allegations that have been reported.
 
14:24
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Minister, you will know that last week Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs issued a statement about closing its network of inquiry centres in Wales, which will lead to many job losses. Not only that, it will also take away the face-to-face advice that many people need on complicated tax issues. If we look at the wider Welsh economy, it will substantially affect how we can operate in Wales. Could we have a statement from you, because I hope that you would have responded to the consultation, as did I, in terms of how these closures will affect Wales?
 
14:25
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I know that the First Minister has been in contact with the Secretary of State for Wales on the issue. It is not a devolved matter, but there is activity and there are discussions at official level.
 
14:25
Eluned ParrottBiography
Minister, yesterday saw news that passenger satisfaction levels have fallen below 50% for Arriva Trains Wales and First Great Western. A key factor identified in that survey demonstrated that passengers are worried about things like overcrowding and the inability to get a seat on those services, which shows how much of a challenge there is in terms of rolling stock in Wales. Could the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport bring forward a Welsh rolling stock strategy as a priority to not only identify the current needs and shortcomings, but also to set out how we are going to deal with challenges in advance of electrification, the new accessibility requirements that are coming for rolling stock and the new Wales rail franchise?
 
14:26
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The Minister deals with many issues in relation to rail—in fact, we have a debate on it tomorrow afternoon. However, I do not think that that is the appropriate time to bring forward that strategy.
 
14:26
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
Serious concerns have been raised with me about how the Britannia bridge was able to stay open in the high winds last week. Serious questions were raised about the resilience of the crossings of the Menai straits, because of the fact that that road was closed for many hours in the high winds. Could we have a statement on the accuracy of the information that was being gathered at the time about the strength of the winds, and therefore the accuracy of the advice that was given on keeping that bridge open?
 
14:27
Lesley GriffithsBiography
The Minister for Economy, Science and Transport will make a statement in due course.
 
14:27
Aled RobertsBiography
Minister, I would ask you to reconsider your answer to Llyr Huws Gruffydd. I think that the Government is duty-bound to make a statement on neonatal services in north Wales. The official consultation was on the basis of babies younger than 27 weeks being transferred to England but, more particularly, there were answers given here that the only hospital under consideration was Arrowe Park. Once again, that situation has changed. A legal consultation has been undertaken on this, so I ask the Government to make a clear statement on what is going on, rather than us having to read what is going in north Wales newspapers.
 
14:28
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I have answered this question twice. The only thing that I will say again is that the First Minister will receive the report on 31 March and will then make a statement.
 
14:28
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, Minister.
 
Motion to Elect Members to Committees
Motion NDM5440 Rosemary Butler
 
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects:
 
(i) Paul Davies (Welsh Conservatives) as a member of the Business Committee in place of William Graham (Welsh Conservatives);
 
(ii) Janet Finch-Saunders (Welsh Conservatives) as a member of the Health and Social Care Committee in place of William Graham (Welsh Conservatives); and
 
(iii) William Graham (Welsh Conservatives) as a member, and Chair, of the Enterprise & Business Committee in place of Nick Ramsay (Welsh Conservatives).
 
14:28
William GrahamBiography
I move the motion.
 
14:28
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
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.
 
14:29
PISA 2012—Update
Huw LewisBiographyThe Minister for Education and Skills
I begin with three important questions. Why is PISA important? Why have we as a Welsh Government chosen to take part in it since 2006? Why do we make such a big deal about it? Andreas Schleicher of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development sums it up for me when he said
 
’your education today is your economy tomorrow’.
 
PISA is an established, robust and internationally respected assessment. It benchmarks educational systems from diverse countries and cultures, and shows how individual countries are performing in a globalised economy. It is particularly important because PISA assesses whether students can use their knowledge and apply it to real life situations. It emphasises the mastery of processes, the understanding of concepts, and the ability to function in various types of situations. In a nutshell, PISA tests the skills acquired in the classroom to real life problems.
 
There is a clear link between the skills base of the population and the economic health of a nation. The cost of a low skills base is significant, and so it is imperative that we equip our young people in the classroom with skills that translate to the workplace and life. Everyone needs to understand how important it is for our young people to have these skills. Our new skills policy clearly demonstrates how important skills are to the Welsh economy. This policy is to support Wales to evolve into a highly skilled nation and to deliver on the jobs and growth agenda. This policy has been designed to specifically look at skills for jobs and growth, skills that respond to local needs, skills that employers value and skills for employment. These are the skills tested in PISA, and for our young people to do well in the next PISA round and in the future, we know that they need to have a better grasp and understanding of literacy, numeracy and reasoning. Education is the only way we can achieve this and that is why it must improve.
 
PISA is not the only measure of how our education system delivers, but I must emphasise its importance. Schools should prepare students for their working lives. We already have a number of reforms in process, but I have taken a long hard look at what PISA has told us and how we can improve. I want all learners to develop the cognitive and meta-cognitive skills that PISA demands. I want our students to develop those problem-solving and reasoning skills that are demanded in the workplace and in life. That is why we are moving to new-style GCSEs, which will test these skills more thoroughly, and it is against this backdrop that we will take this work forward.
 
In the academic year 2015-16, we will begin to see some of our education reforms bearing fruit. The current ’Improving Schools’ plan will have run its course and, specifically, the literacy and numeracy framework will have been statutory for a full two years. Both the national support programme and the national model for regional working will have been implemented, building capacity for school improvement and bringing high-quality intervention and support. Added to these, there will be changes both in qualifications and assessment that will be aligned to the reforms and this will provide a coherent and cohesive system delivering sustained improvement.
 
Nevertheless, we are challenged by the short timescale in which to effect improvements for the learners currently in the school system. Therefore, we are putting in place some measures designed to have an immediate impact. The first step is to conduct further analysis and planning. This is a broader analysis than the current PISA 2012 dataset. We know from other evidence that our learners struggle with taking tests, and very often, lack the resilience to complete tests, particularly as in the case of PISA, where their relevance and impact are often not clearly understood. This is an issue that needs to be addressed.
 
I am keen that we also communicate more clearly how much we value the adaptive skills that PISA tests. We will be developing a narrative that reinforces the link to a strong economy and the importance both to Wales and to the individual of high skills. This will involve working with partners to ensure that, as we move to a new GCSE model, particularly for mathematics, the importance of the changes are emphasised to schools, within schools, and to pupils and parents. Fundamental to learners being able to demonstrate their skills acquisition is a high level of literacy and numeracy competence. It is absolutely right that our focus is on cross-curriculum literacy and numeracy going forward. We know that this is of critical importance to enable young people to answer PISA-style questions or to do well in the new-style GCSEs.
 
To underpin this revised approach will require us to build further capacity within the system. This will include working with the consortia and the unions to ensure effective continuing professional development for teachers for the new GCSEs. The recently announced Schools Challenge Cymru aims to raise attainment and improve outcomes at key stage 3 and key stage 4 for young people, especially those from deprived backgrounds. Today’s announcement will ensure that all children in Wales will benefit from a stronger suite of adaptive skills, which will prepare them better for work, for further learning, and for their future lives.
 
I can also announce today that the Welsh Government has agreed that PISA-based tests for schools will be made available in Wales. Individual schools, or clusters of schools, will be able to take part in individual school-based PISA-type assessments, to benchmark themselves against the highest performing nations in the world. Schools will receive detailed feedback, which will provide a powerful source of information and analysis to effect school improvement. Together with confidential feedback from students on questions such as how much they enjoy school and the classroom environment, and from school leaders about the educational practices in the schools, schools will be able to see how well they are doing compared with other, similar schools. This is a voluntary option, and individual schools can decide whether they want to participate or not. However, I would encourage them to do so, as this will lead, for the first time, to schools being able to have a school improvement plan that benchmarks them against the best-performing schools in the world.
 
14:36
Angela BurnsBiography
Minister, thank you very much for your statement today. Like you, I would certainly agree on the importance of PISA in terms of ensuring that we have the portability and the recognition of skills, because PISA has, for whatever reasons, become the de facto international standard by which countries are measured. I have read your statement with interest, and just have a couple of observations that I would like to make on it.
 
The first thing is that I found the statement to be a bit of a puzzle. The reason for that is that, on Monday 10 December 2012, the former Minister for education made a much-publicised visit to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and asked it to put together a report—an analysis on the Welsh education system. That is due to be published, or to be presented—perhaps to yourself, Minister, and you may already have it, I do not know—in March 2014, which is just a few days away. I just wondered why you brought forward this PISA announcement today, when we are going to have that report that will be able to influence and impact on our thought processes.
 
The second comment that I would like to make about the statement is that I would like to just raise that never-ending plea to ensure that we do not teach to the test, but that we do really drill down and teach the skills of understanding and application.
 
I am concerned about some elements, because the statement does not seem to really talk a huge amount about actions. It seems to say that you are going to try to improve your delivery, and it talks about more analysis, and more planning. However, does that mean no action, and what effect will there be on current learners? In the Record of Proceedings for 3 December 2013, the former Minister for education made this comment about PISA:
 
’What matters is the programme of reform that has been drawn up and introduced over recent years; the embedding of that; the support that has been given to schools in terms of how the PISA assessment works; and, the work that has been done within the qualifications review to look at the lessons of PISA.’
 
Therefore, I have to ask you why we need yet more analysis and yet more planning, because, surely, we know what we need to know about PISA, and we should be able to move forward.
 
What I would also be interested to know, Minister, is what analysis you have done about what makes successful PISA schools. In Europe, for example, the key benefit that a great many countries that have done well in PISA have managed to bring forward is that they have stopped children from dropping out of the education system; that has been what has made the transformational change. What plans do you have in place to ensure that, rather than just constantly talking about trying to make more out of what we already have, we can stop those who are currently escaping us in droves and bring them back in?
 
I would also like to make comment that, in some ways, the PISA measure is flawed—it is not as transparent and as well-balanced across all the countries of the globe. Many different countries have different ways of putting education together. For example, the far eastern countries like to do an awful lot of out-of-hours school work. So, what analysis have you done with regard to that and how we might be more balanced in where we stand?
 
Finally, will the recommendations that you talk about lead to an assessment of future changes to the PISA assessment? For example, a measure of financial education will be included in the future. Will our future pupils be equipped with the skills and knowledge to deal with this as well as existing PISA measures? In your last statement on PISA, you said that you wanted to shoot it through with grit and resolve. Minister, I am not entirely clear that we have the grit and resolve in this statement today.
 
14:40
Huw LewisBiography
I am puzzled as to why the Member is puzzled about the compatibility or otherwise between today’s statement and the coming OECD report. She is quite right; that report will be with us in March. That OECD report, of course, will be an all-encompassing look at the current state of Welsh education with recommendations for the future, in the short, medium and long term. As I said in my statement, these PISA tests—these voluntary tests for schools—are being made available through joint approaches between Wales, England and Northern Ireland, through the OECD, in order to make sure that we begin quickly, as I promised, to respond to the various shocks that were presented to us during the PISA tests of 2012. I promised Members that I would not linger. This, in part, is a fulfilment of that promise.
 
We will not be teaching to the test. That would not be good enough. The report back, in terms of involvement in these voluntary PISA tests, to schools is the most valuable reason for taking on board this challenge. This is why I am encouraging schools to take this challenge on board. That feedback, which is individual to that school, will give it a wealth of information about where it stands in relation to other Welsh schools, in relation to other schools across the UK, and, indeed, where it stands in a global context, and will enable it to self-evaluate with a very rich database of information.
 
It is just not true to say that there is no action going along with this statement, of course, because I have mentioned already the Schools Challenge, which is a considerable intervention in terms of our lowest performing 40 or so schools. I have mentioned the qualifications changes that are coming; the overhaul, of which there is more to follow, of continuous professional development and support for our workforce; as well as the literacy and numeracy framework and the support packages that go along with that.
 
The Member is quite right to point out that a good school in PISA’s eyes may have various aspects. One of them, certainly, is this: every child’s achievement is of importance. One of the defining features, I fear, of the Welsh educational set-up as we currently have it is that we have too many lower achieving young people. That is not a feature of those countries that perform well in PISA. Another feature, incidentally, of the top-12 PISA countries is that they are community comprehensive-based systems—only one of them is not. Of course, Wales has that in common and we will stick to that philosophy. The Member is quite right: PISA is flawed, but PISA does matter.
 
14:43
Leighton AndrewsBiography
May I start by welcoming the Minister’s statement and suggesting that, perhaps, he should take the opposition spokesperson through the PISA assessments, as she would realise how difficult it would be to teach to the test in PISA? May I say to the Minister that his statement demonstrates that we are now in a position to integrate the literacy and numeracy framework, the new GCSEs in mathematics and numeracy, and the PISA tests? With the further development of the numeracy tests this year, I think that we will be giving our young people very good preparation for PISA in the future. I am delighted that he is opening up the opportunity for Welsh schools to take part in the schools comparison globally, which I discussed with Andreas Schleicher in the OECD in December 2012. Finally, I welcome the announcement that he made last week, which he refers to in his statement, on Schools Challenge Cymru in respect of the 40 poorest performing schools in Wales. Does he agree with me on this: if we are to improve our performance in PISA and other international comparisons in future, the question of leadership in our schools remains critical? Will he continue to support the initiatives that were developed in the Hill review in respect of leadership in schools?
 
14:45
Huw LewisBiography
I thank the Member for those positive and insightful comments. He is quite right, of course, to point to the need we have to integrate initiatives such as the literacy and numeracy framework. In fact, the LNF is a measure to build integration into the system as regards the importance of literacy and numeracy across the curriculum. That feeds through then into the need to get ready for the new-style GCSEs, which have greater rigour when it comes to literacy and numeracy and also have those cognitive and metacognitive aspects—those problem-solving, applying-knowledge-to-the-real-world aspects, if you like—that are so much a feature of PISA. Schools Challenge Cymru, of course, is also intended as a jump-start measure for some of our schools that are finding it most challenging to come to terms with the situation they find themselves in. The Member need not fear with regard to the Hill review’s emphasis on leadership and capacity. Those go hand-in-hand with these measures around curriculum and assessment changes. I will be making further announcements very shortly that echo the calls that Hill made upon us.
 
14:46
Simon ThomasBiography
I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon. May I start by saying that we are very pleased that Plaid Cymru’s argument that poor education is holding back the performance of the whole nation is now more broadly accepted? Nobody can be content with the current situation with our economy, whatever our long-term objectives for the constitutional future of Wales may be. In that context, I welcome once again and take advantage of this opportunity to say that we welcome Schools Challenge Cymru. However, we are awaiting the details of precisely what that programme will entail. I am also pleased that the Welsh Government has set out today clearly and plainly its belief in the purpose and credibility of PISA. There is no system that is perfect, I accept that, but many have tried to cloud the picture in terms of PISA results, including, unfortunately, many within the teaching unions. I think that the Government’s statement today is of value in that context. I accept that and I am grateful for it.
 
To all intents and purposes, what the Minister has stated today is that Welsh pupils will practice for PISA tests in future. That in itself is not unacceptable; I want to make that clear. However, over and above everything, we must ensure that pupils learn the necessary skills in a robust way so that they can take these tests rather than learning by rote. I accept that the Minister is not saying this, but I want to make it clear that there are some who may interpret what has been said today as some sort of attempt to teach for tests. I want to be clear that we should be teaching skills. In that context, I agree with what has been said already about the fact that we will not improve unless our teaching, leadership in the school and in the classroom, support for teaching, and the attainment gap, have been dealt with. They, essentially, remain as the main challenges facing the education system in Wales. What the Government has said today is of assistance at one level in dealing with that. However, to be fair, it does not tackle those fundamental issues.
 
So, I would like to ask two questions of the Minister today on some of those basic issues. First of all, you published yesterday, Minister, a written statement on the national model for regional working. In that statement, you mention implementing it gradually from April onwards. I want to ask you today why you think that should be implemented gradually. A year ago, the former Minister was unhappy with progress at that point. Seeing it being implemented gradually now is very strange to my mind. Is someone slacking at a local authority level here, Minister? What are you doing to ensure that the process is hastened? You said that this process is crucial in securing results in your statement on PISA today.
 
Finally, what are you going to do to prioritise professional development and teacher training, particularly in the teacher practice phase so that the teachers themselves learn these skills in terms of transferring skills from one subject to another and from one situation to another? I fear that, as well as our pupils, some of our teachers also struggle with the problem, because they themselves have gone through an education system that has not assisted them to acquire these skills.
 
14:50
Huw LewisBiography
I welcome Simon Thomas’s comments, particularly his focus on the importance of PISA, and the need not to cloud the picture—I think that was the phrase that he used. Accepting the limitations of PISA, as of any testing regime, those who would aim to put PISA aside do our young people a great disservice. It is something that we cannot afford to allow to happen. We are not so much going to practise for the tests in future—as Simon said, there is nothing inherently wrong with that—this really is about the data and information that the schools will be able to mine in order to inform the continuing professional development of their workforce and their self-evaluation as a school. It is what school leaders will need in order to be able to lead more effectively, and, of course, all of this is about delivering the skills in the classroom. So, it adds strength to the elbow of our workforce out there. I will have a great deal more to say about the support and the challenge that we need to set out for the teaching workforce as the spring unfolds.
 
In terms of the national model specifically, I expect to see every consortium with an operational model by 1 April. However, as I have said repeatedly—I do not wish Members to misunderstand this—working through a model of school improvement into each and every school and each and every classroom will not happen when you wake up on the morning of 1 April and you have a consortium that is operational. That flow through into the experience of young people takes time. A great deal of that will be about the parallel developments in professional development and training, on which I will be making more announcements as the spring progresses.
 
14:52
Aled RobertsBiography
May I also, like Simon Thomas and Angela Burns, welcome the fact that we have a clear statement from the Government that PISA tests are going to be an element for us to measure the success or otherwise of our education system? I think that Simon is right: having seen last year’s disappointing results, a number of people have tried to question how robust those tests were. Therefore, the Government statement that it considers PISA tests to be a yardstick, to some extent, of the changes is important.
 
However, in saying that, I think that we also need to pursue what Leighton Andrews said about integrating the various changes that have taken place. A question does arise of whether the same skills are tested in the literacy and numeracy tests and in PISA, and whether the elements that need to be taught to children, and the way in which teachers approach that teaching, are different in the tests that have been held on a national level in Wales compared to international tests such as PISA.
 
Therefore, have you considered how consistent those skills are between the two systems? Also, have you considered, as we move to the next PISA tests, the fact that they will look in a much more elementary way at science skills? Some of the changes that the current Government has brought in on literacy and numeracy mean that there is less of a focus on some of those science skills.
 
Your statement also talks about the fact that you wish to look at the data. You say:
 
’The first step is to conduct further analysis and planning’.
 
How long are you going to take to look at those details? I think that I do share some of Simon’s concerns about capacity within the consortia. Some have failed to appoint consortium heads. A number of posts within the consortia are still vacant some 18 months after they were established. So, what steps will you take as a Government to ensure that the consortia are in a position to act on these measures? How much discussion has there been with the consortia, local education authorities and school leaders about some of the changes that have been introduced in this statement today?
 
Finally, bearing in mind that there is an opportunity for schools to conduct internal PISA tests and that there is some reporting back on their performance, will that reporting back just be for internal school leaders, or will the information be made available to governors and parents? The pattern varies from consortium to consortium as to consortia staff reporting back to headteachers only or to governors too. At present, there is a tendency that, if school leaders are unwilling to admit that there are problems, they are unwilling to admit that to governors, in some cases.
 
14:56
Huw LewisBiography
My thanks to Aled Roberts for those comments. He is quite right, and I welcome that he also, on behalf of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, recognises the importance of PISA. As I said, it is very important that we do not set it aside or seek to obscure the lessons that PISA presents us with. If we do that, we essentially engage in risky behaviour as regards the reputation of the Welsh educational system as a whole. It is a reputational risk, and that risk is then transferred to the life chances of young people, so there would be a very direct effect from those who would seek to obscure the lessons from PISA on the life chances of young people, and we cannot afford for that to happen.
 
The next PISA tests are concentrating upon science, but the first point that I would make is that literacy and numeracy will continue to be the prerequisites for success in terms of PISA and, indeed, any other qualifications testing such as GCSEs, science included. To access some of those PISA-style science questions, what we have found from the data analysis of what has gone before is that the hurdle that many of our young people are failing to clamber over is not the science aspect of the question, but the level of literacy or numeracy required to understand the question in the first place. So, there will be a continuing focus on support for the workforce in terms of training around literacy and numeracy, although we are aware, of course, that science will be the lead element of the next PISA tests.
 
I am confident, to answer Aled’s question about consortia, that we will have consortia with sufficient capacity and that they will be operational in every part of Wales by the end of March. I make that pledge to the Assembly here this afternoon.
 
In terms of the reporting back to schools, the school does receive a confidential and very detailed report back if it undertakes these voluntary PISA tests. It is then, really, for the school to make best use of the data within that report. I would expect, obviously, that, first of all, if a school has volunteered for this, it has an understanding of the need to self-evaluate and that it should then use those data for proper, meaningful self-evaluation, and you cannot exclude the governorship of the school from that.
 
14:59
Christine ChapmanBiography
Thank you, Minister, for the statement. In it, you relate the importance of PISA results to a strong economy, but I am also very pleased that you have related it equally to life in general, because I think that we forget sometimes that many of the young people who are involved in PISA will become the parents of the next generation. Like other things that we do here in this Assembly, it is about the building blocks for a good society and for the future generations of Wales.
 
Going back to the questions, Minister, some commentators have noted that the countries that have achieved the most success in PISA have been those that concentrate on boosting teachers’ knowledge and morale.
 
I would be grateful for your comments on this and on whether our strategies for improving educational success relate to those. It has also been suggested that, while Finland’s success in PISA is an exemplar—and I know that there are other countries—little work has been done to determine which characteristics of the Finnish education system lead to that. What work has the Welsh Government done to explore the best-practice examples from other countries?
 
Thirdly, I understand that the majority of countries involved in PISA do not track pupil data to the snapshot that the study provides. I would welcome your views on this, and on whether mapping this data to provide a clear overview of pupils’ success would be useful in supporting Welsh learners.
 
Finally—this is just as a comment, really—as you and many others have noted, equity in comprehensive education is more successful than selection. Do you agree that this is a powerful argument against the course taken by Michael Gove in England?
 
15:01
Huw LewisBiography
I thank the Member for the Cynon Valley for those points. She is quite right, of course, to point out, that success in tests like PISA—. While I would not say that PISA is directly related to our economy, I would certainly say that the skills level required to succeed in tests like PISA do have an economic impact. However, what is an even more important issue than that we are talking here about the life chances and the quality of life of our young people, which is, of course, directly related to their success or otherwise in the educational system. Those countries that do best do work very hard with the workforce, in terms of teacher capacity and teacher knowledge and morale. As I say, I will be making some major announcements later this spring about a new relationship, essentially, between the Welsh Government and the Welsh teaching workforce, which will be a twin-track approach with enhanced support on the one hand from the Welsh Government towards our workforce, and enhanced challenge on the other regarding standards.
 
Of course, my officials and I do take a look across the UK and across the world, learning what we can from best practice, and including the engagement of experts who have international experience in this regard. I do not dismiss any of the lessons that Finland has to give us. However, I can inform Chris Chapman that, recently, senior officials of mine have been taking a look at certain aspects of the Canadian educational system, which, in some respects, has gone through the kind of school improvement journey that we would like to see happening in Wales over the next five to 10 years. There are some interesting lessons there about which I will be able to say more later.
 
She is quite right to point out, of course, that I believe that I am correct in saying that, of the top 20 countries in the PISA results, over and again I believe that only one of those countries runs a selective system. It is Singapore, I believe. Every single one of the others has a comprehensive educational system. I draw the obvious lesson from that. I leave Michael Gove to draw his own conclusions.
 
15:03
Update on the Review of Council Tax Support
Lesley GriffithsBiographyThe Minister for Local Government and Government Business
Tackling poverty is a core priority for the Welsh Labour Government. This means prioritising the needs of the poorest and protecting those most at risk of poverty and exclusion. However, the relentless pressures on our budgets from the UK Government demand difficult choices about how best to achieve this. There are few areas where these choices are thrown into sharper focus than council tax support. I know that Members are familiar with the background to this, however it is worth reminding ourselves of how we got to the current position.
 
In October 2010, the UK Government abruptly and callously announced the abolition of council tax benefit, while simultaneously cutting funding for replacement schemes. On 31 March 2013, the Welsh Government was left to pick up the pieces and took responsibility for developing a replacement scheme for Wales. The cornerstone of the approach that we adopted to our council tax reduction scheme for 2013-14 was in recognition of the need to protect entitlements for low-income households. In November 2013, the Assembly approved regulations for a scheme to protect entitlements for 2014-15. An additional £22 million was allocated to the local government settlement. Our scheme defines which households may pay a reduced or zero council tax bill. The funding does not go directly to those households, but to each local authority to replace the council tax income it would otherwise raise. Our regulations protect eligible households regardless.
 
Our single national framework scheme provides consistent support to households across Wales and, as a result, entitlements have been protected for over 320,000 Welsh households. Compare this with England, where responsibility to design support schemes locally was passed to local authorities, resulting in a postcode lottery of support based on hundreds of individual schemes. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, this approach has left 2.5 million households in England worse off by an average of £160 per year, along with an average 30% to 40 % increase in council tax debt queries recorded by citizens advice bureaux in those English authorities that introduced minimum payments. Furthermore, early indications suggest that many English authorities that protected entitlements in 2013-14 have found they cannot afford to do so in 2014-15. This risks reduced support for many more households in England.
 
Our scheme, and the additional investment that we have made, protects low-income and vulnerable households. This was vital given that these groups are already struggling to cope with the impacts of welfare reform, which are hitting the poorest hardest. However, the shortfall in the funding transferred to the Welsh Government from the UK Government creates an additional budgetary pressure that further diminishes the resources available for local services. These are likely to be services that low-income and vulnerable families rely on for support. This is set against an unprecedentedly difficult local government settlement as a direct result of the UK Government’s persistent reductions in the Welsh block grant in successive spending reviews. Despite these relentless cuts to our budget, this year, once again, council tax in Wales is, on average, £230 lower than in England, and the Welsh Government has once again delivered a revenue settlement that is overall significantly better than in England.
 
However, the funding pressure on council tax support is expected to increase. While the UK Government’s transfer to us remains flat in cash terms, the cost of maintaining entitlements will increase as council tax levels rise. So, our options are stark. Reducing entitlements exposes low-income and vulnerable households to increases in their council tax bills at a time when many are struggling to cope with other changes to the welfare system. However, maintaining entitlements may reduce the funding available for local services on which many of these households depend. Therefore, we are reviewing our options for the medium and long-term future of council tax support. Our aim is to develop an equitable and sustainable system that delivers the maximum protection for low-income and vulnerable households within the funding constraints imposed on us by the UK Government.
 
We have established a task and finish group to help with this work. Its membership includes representatives of local government, the Welsh Local Government Association and citizens advice bureaux. We have examined information on the impact of changes in England and we are modelling the impact of the various options that we might take in Wales, particularly in order to understand the implications on equality. We have factored in wider welfare reform, in particular the roll-out of universal credit and the resulting changes to housing benefit. We are consulting widely, and the consultation is due to end on 5 March. The consultation responses will be a key factor in determining the way forward.
 
We face hard choices. The fundamental question is, of course, whether entitlement is maintained, meaning resources will need to be identified to bridge the growing gap between funding provided by the UK Government and the cash needed to maintain local services. As part of the review, I will be taking every opportunity to make representations in the strongest terms to the UK Government that funding for replacement schemes should reflect the actual cost of providing adequate support for those in need. Anything else puts us in a position of changing entitlement, and potentially reducing the income of 320,000 of our poorest households in the process.
 
No decision has been taken about the key question of whether entitlement is maintained. However, the consultation also sets out the options if we have to reduce entitlements. These include whether we reduce entitlement for all households, or continue to protect some; what is the fairest and most equitable way of implementing any reduction; and whether we should pass responsibility for designing local schemes to local authorities.
 
Finally, we must consider the recommendations in the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery regarding the future shape of local government. A smaller number of authorities will alter the landscape of council tax support. However, decisions need to be taken now about support for 2015-16 and beyond. Therefore, we cannot be constrained by the report’s recommendations.
 
This is a genuine review and I assure Members that this is a full and meaningful consultation. We have made no decisions. I want to hear honest and frank opinions on all these difficult questions, so that our deliberations are informed by the views of stakeholders, key groups our decisions will impact on, and Members from across the Chamber.
 
15:10
Mark IsherwoodBiography
We welcome the establishment of the task and finish group to review council tax support and the consultation launched over two months ago, but we regret that this statement seems to be more about party-political point scoring against a place somewhere else, rather than information already well in hand.
 
You say that the Welsh Government faced hard choices because of the callousness of the UK Government, but the UK Government faced hard choices and had to pick up the pieces after the previous UK Government callously rang up historic deficit levels, which if not tackled would have had lenders closing the door to the UK and therefore Wales. It would have been bust, bail-out and far greater cuts than anything that we have thus far envisaged.
 
You say that council tax in Wales is an average £230 lower than in England, but constituents have highlighted that this is only logical given that wages in Wales are far lower than in England. Given that council tax is increasing faster in Wales than in England, what does the Minister propose to do to stop Welsh council tax outstripping that in England?
 
In your statement, you refer—surprise, surprise—to universal credit and housing benefit. It seems to slip into every statement that every Minister makes in the Chamber or to the media. Given that you have factored that in, have you also factored in the 200,000 households in Wales that will be better off by £163 per month when the changes have gone through by the end of 2017? How are you working with the Department for Work and Pensions to roll out universal credit, given that it advises that officials in the Welsh Government and DWP have been working together since March 2102 on the roll-out of universal credit in Wales? Could we please, at last—I have asked many times—be told where we are up to with this?
 
In terms of housing benefit, the direct payment of housing benefit to private sector tenants was introduced by Labour in 2008—with safeguards in place, to the former Government’s credit. Similar safeguards are proposed in the universal credit local support services framework—agreed with, among others, the Welsh Local Government Association. Those safeguards will mean that housing costs can be paid directly to landlords more than monthly or can even be split between different people. How is your Government, as you have mentioned this in the statement, working with local authorities to ensure that people who need the support are identified before the changes take effect, rather than afterwards, as happened too often with previous housing benefit changes?
 
Your links on the order paper refer to the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ work on this. Its senior research economist stated that low-income working-age families are now likely to receive more help with council tax if they live in a better-off area without too many low-income pensioners among their neighbours; but, conversely, working-age people living in poorer areas and in areas containing more low-income pensioners receive less help. It was looking at England primarily, but that was on your link. How are you proposing to ensure that, by tackling this beyond single local authority boundaries, we can help ameliorate the impact that is identified?
 
In England, local authorities are limited to a council tax increase of 2%, above which they have to hold a referendum detailing plans for what the council will spend the increased revenue on. Why is the Welsh Government still denying this part of the Localism Act 2011 to people in Wales, so that they can decide on how their council tax is spent and what it is spent on?
 
Finally, you referred to the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery; we seem to have everything in this statement today. A small number of authorities will alter the landscape of council tax support. How will you respond, therefore, where the proposed mergers to which you refer are likely to involve unlawful expenditure or unbalanced budgets under the Local Government Finance Act? [Interruption.]
 
15:15
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I apologise for the mobile phone that went off at the end; we will find out whose it was. I call on the Minister.
 
15:15
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I thank Mark Isherwood, I think, for welcoming the task and finish group and this consultation. I am sure that he will agree that it is important that we find a sustainable way forward. It is certainly not about political point scoring; it is about the hard choices that we have to face. I am very interested in Members’ views on this. The consultation is open until 5 March and I hope that a many Members as possible will put forward a response.
 
You say ’surprise, surprise’ that welfare reform was in this statement, but it is having a massive impact on a huge number of our constituents. It is all part of the jigsaw of why so many people in Wales are struggling at this time.
 
You asked a number of specific questions, one of them was around welfare reform and what we, as a Welsh Government, are doing to ensure that people get support and advice on benefits. You also referred to housing benefit. I think that it is more important than ever that people get the information and advice that they need, so that they are able to access these services. We work with the Department for Work and Pensions. I certainly work very closely with the Welsh Local Government Association and local authorities, and we are preparing for the roll-out of universal credit. You may be aware, in your own area, that Shotton is included in the roll-out from 7 April.
 
15:16
Carl SargeantBiography
It is not in his constituency.
 
15:16
Lesley GriffithsBiography
No; it is in his area.
 
We are providing assistance to help people manage the change through a network of support for welfare and debt advice, and through support for financial and digital inclusion, as well as targeted support to prevent homelessness.
 
You referred to Eric Pickles and the Localism Act 2011. Well, they say that there is a 2% cap, but you may be aware that there are dozens of Conservative councils that will defy pleas from the said Eric Pickles and other Ministers. They are going to impose council tax rises on their residents in April. Almost a third of councils in England are planning to increase charges—many to the maximum level that is allowed without triggering a local referendum—despite a demand from Conservative Ministers that they cut or freeze their bills.
 
I have told local authorities that it is absolutely right that they set their council tax levels. They are under no illusions that I will use the powers available to me to cap if I think that they are excessive. I think that it is absolutely right that local authorities are currently planning their budgets for next year.
 
15:18
Mike HedgesBiography
I welcome the statement, the setting up of the task and finish group and the consultation. The abolition off council tax benefit by the Westminster Government, while simultaneously cutting funding for the replacement schemes, has caused concern for a large number of people. I congratulate the Welsh Government on producing a single national framework that protects entitlement for over 320,000 households and avoiding a postcode lottery such as they have in England. Will the Minister confirm that while having a smaller number of authorities might alter the future shape of council tax support, it would not materially alter the global sum needed?
 
15:18
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I am sure that it would not. My expectation is that any new authorities would set their council tax in much the same way as authorities do now. They will have to determine their budget requirement and compare this with the revenue that they receive from the Welsh Government.
 
15:19
Lindsay WhittleBiography
As the Minister will know, we in Plaid Cymru strongly advocated fulfilling the cost of council tax support in Wales after the UK Government cut it by 10%.
 
We are facing understandable council tax rises across Wales. Council tax increases are not popular, of course, but neither are cuts to services. Plaid Cymru has accepted that there should not be restrictions on the setting of council tax up to the 5% guideline and that local authorities should use council tax to save services and jobs if there is local demand. This will obviously have a knock-on effect on the levels of council tax support, costing the Welsh Government much more. I am prepared to acknowledge that these costs are worth paying, but I would welcome the Minister setting out a full statistical analysis—I am sorry that those two words are there; they are very difficult to say—of which people benefit from council tax support, such as how many of them are carers, how many are pensioners and what other households are entitled to this help. This would help us to establish the value-for-money side of the debate, as we look to scrutinise how we spend public money in Wales.
 
Secondly and finally, council tax benefit—the previous name for this benefit,—was historically very much an under-claimed benefit. Previous Welsh Governments put resources into encouraging more people to take up that benefit before it was devolved, along with the 10% cut. Minister, is low take-up still an issue that you are concerned about, or are there now cost implications of take-up being far more frequent?
 
15:20
Lesley GriffithsBiography
In relation to that last point, we have seen a slight decrease in the number of people taking it up. It is something that I have discussed with local authorities, because we want to ensure that everybody who is entitled to it gets it. As I said in reply to Mark Isherwood, it is more important than ever that people get the right advice and support to make sure that they receive everything that they should.
 
The point you make about council tax rises to support local services is really pertinent, because that is a way in which local authorities get funding in, alongside the revenue support grant. We want them to save as many services as possible, even though they are in this very difficult financial situation. Again, it is really important that these decisions are taken locally.
 
You asked for a statistical analysis of the groups who benefit. You will be aware that several groups of people benefit, mainly vulnerable households. It is really important as we go through this consultation—as I said, it is a genuine consultation—that we have a look at all these different groups, and to see whether we can continue to maintain entitlements for these people.
 
15:22
Aled RobertsBiography
I also welcome the statement. As a group, we will be taking the opportunity to respond in full to the consultation. To reiterate the comments made by Peter Black, in no way do we seek to justify the failure of the UK Government to transfer the whole of the cost of the scheme in the first instance. You mention in the statement that the council tax support transfer is flat in cash terms. What analysis has the Welsh Government undertaken of the increased costs, and is it confident that there will be no problem this year?
 
In view of the fact that many councils will probably start their budget discussions in June or July, when will the task and finish group be able to indicate which of the options on the table might find favour? Will the consultation with local authorities be sufficient to ensure that they do not face any particular difficulties looking forward to next year’s budget? I agree that the whole situation is difficult. I do not think it is as easy as suggesting that localism merely leads to a situation where a cap should be put on local government. The very nature of local government means that it should be up to locally elected representatives to decide whether or not they increase council tax, or whether they face more drastic reductions in services. So, we share the view that these are difficult decisions, but we need a sustainable methodology going forward.
 
15:23
Lesley GriffithsBiography
I thank Aled Roberts for those comments, and I am very pleased that the Welsh Liberal Democrats share our view regarding the failure of the UK Government to transfer the whole funding. As I said, taking 10% off was callous. On the issue of localism, it is absolutely right that locally elected members who are responsible to their electorate take these decisions.
 
I have been in discussions with local authorities regarding the funding. The decision that we came to over the summer regarding next year’s scheme was taken with the view that it was a shared responsibility between Welsh Government and local government. I know that some aspects of local government felt that we should take the full burden of the cost, but I do not agree with that at all. So, I think that local authorities are satisfied at the current time that the funding is correct, but they are looking at their numbers because the amount of money they have increases with their council tax rises. So, again, that is a decision that should be taken locally.
 
Once the consultation ends, on 5 March, we will need to look at the responses—and I am very pleased that your group is submitting to that—to see what the consultation says because I am really interested in that. Then, the task and finish group, I would hope, would finish very quickly and come forward with recommendations. The most important thing is that, for next year, for 2015-16, we have a sustainable scheme in place.
 
15:25
Darren MillarBiography
Minister, I know of your long-standing commitment to and support for the armed forces in Wales. As you know, as Chair of the cross-party group on the armed forces, I have been contacted by people who want to express their concerns that the opportunities for disallowing war disablement pensions, war widows’ pensions and the armed forces compensation scheme income may be lost as a result of any changes that may come as a result of this review. I wonder whether you might be prepared to include within the scope of the work of the task and finish group some consideration of whether the current discretion that local authorities have exercised, to be fair to them, in all parts of Wales to exclude those from any sort of entitlement checks will be able to continue in any way through some national approach to the scheme. As you know, it is a discretionary function at the moment with local authorities. I think it is just the first £10 that they are obliged to exclude and disregard when means-testing for council tax benefit. However, I wonder whether we might want to approach this in a nationwide manner.
 
Minister, you have done some work on veterans’ cards schemes in the past. I wonder whether this could be included in the scope of that scheme. Obviously, if someone was able to present a veterans’ card, that would, hopefully, automatically ensure that they were properly means-tested and that these sorts of streams of income would be discounted. It would be great if I could just get some indication as to whether you might be prepared to consider that as part of the work of the task and finish group.
 
15:27
Lesley GriffithsBiography
Okay, thank you, Darren Millar, for that point regarding armed forces individuals. Whether any specific group should be protected from a reduction in support is a key decision coming out of the consultation and as we go forward in looking at a new scheme. It is certainly something we could look at. I do not think it would necessarily fit into the veterans’ card scheme, which I am looking at. I am hoping to have a pilot scheme in due course. However, certainly, certain veterans would be classed as vulnerable and may be covered by another aspect. However, it is certainly something I am happy to look at.
 
15:28
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, Minister.
 
15:28
Bovine TB Eradication Programme Update
Alun DaviesBiographyThe Minister for Natural Resources and Food
The programme for government contains a clear commitment to take a science-led approach to eradicating bovine TB. Members will be aware that I have made a strong personal commitment to bovine TB eradication since first being elected in 2007. I have regarded this as a priority, both as Chair of the last Assembly’s Rural Development Sub-committee and previously as a Deputy Minister in the current Assembly.
 
Bovine TB remains a significant challenge facing Welsh cattle keepers. It has social and financial impacts on the industry and the wider community. I am determined that this Government will do all in its power to control and eradicate bovine TB and to support farmers through the process. Despite what we are sometimes told, it is clear that there is no quick fix to eradicating bovine TB from Wales. It will take many years and requires the whole community to work together. However, Presiding Officer, I am pleased to publish the latest statistics today, which show some improvement in the bovine TB situation in Wales. The first stage of an eradication programme must be to stop the increase of bovine TB and to begin to reduce the incidence. The latest figures suggest that we may have reached that point. Between December 2012 and November 2013, there were 880 new herd incidents compared with 1,145 new herd incidents in the previous year. This represents a 23% reduction. In the same period, the number of cattle slaughtered for bovine TB control also reduced from 9,364 to 6,275, which is a reduction of 33%. While I welcome this reduction, I recognise that we must not become complacent and there remains more to do.
 
Last December, we received formal notification of the European Commission’s acceptance of the UK bovine TB eradication plan for 2014. The acceptance of the annual bovine TB eradication plan is an important part of our programme as it underpins all activities that we undertake. It means that Wales will receive a share of the provisional €31 million awarded to the UK to help it accelerate the eradication of the disease.
 
We continue to build our programme year-on-year in accordance with European Commission requirements. Our programme is based on the key principles of infectious disease control, namely keeping infection out of clean farms, rapid early identification of new breakdowns and prompt removal of infected cattle. We also seek to limit the spread of disease through strict biosecurity practices and movement controls. Since 2012, cattle herds in Wales have been tested at least annually and pre-movement testing rules have applied to all herds. Exemptions to pre-movement testing have been reviewed in the last six months. From 30 September this year, cattle moving within sole occupancy authorities will no longer have an automatic exemption from pre-movement testing for bovine TB. This will reduce the risk of bovine TB being spread by cattle movements.
 
I have also tightened up on cross-compliance penalties for late bovine TB tests, beginning with routine surveillance notified to farmers from 1 January 2014. The majority of farmers already respect this requirement and this policy will encourage all to make sure that bovine TB tests are on time. Cattle compensation arrangements are also subject to review, to ensure that they are in line with our eradication strategy. On 28 January, I published a consultation on bovine TB compensation, which sets out proposals to introduce a table valuation system. I believe that a table-based system would have a number of distinct advantages. Importantly, it would allow for the speedier removal of diseased animals from farms and, therefore, reduce the risk of further disease spread. The consultation closes on 22 April.
 
We recognise the importance of trading cattle in our industry, but animal movements constitute a risk to disease spread. My officials have been working closely with the livestock industry and the regional TB eradication and delivery boards to develop risk-based trading proposals for Wales. The purpose is to provide information to farmers at the point of sale in order for them to evaluate the bovine TB risk of cattle they are considering buying. We intend to launch a pilot scheme later this year for the bovine TB history of the vendor to be provided at markets. This is a voluntary scheme, which relies on sellers providing accurate information and the co-operation of livestock auctioneers.
 
The disease picture in Wales is not uniform and it is important to take account of local and regional factors as we continue to build our programme. Last April, the Welsh Government appointed a specialist to study the disease patterns on a regional basis. This will enable us to target additional eradication measures in future and make best use of all resources. In line with this proposal last October, we launched a new initiative called Cymorth TB. The aim of this work is to provide farmers with additional support in dealing with a bovine TB breakdown and remaining bovine TB free thereafter. I believe that the private vet has much to contribute to bovine TB eradication, and as a first step, we are funding private vets to visit clients who have recently had a bovine TB breakdown. The objective is to help the keeper through the breakdown and to clear it more quickly. We intend to learn from both of these initiatives and to consider how they can be rolled out across the rest of Wales.
 
We are steadily ramping up our actions to tackle sources of bovine TB. Another element of our programme is aimed at the reservoir of infection found in wildlife. In the intensive action area in north Pembrokeshire, over 1,350 badgers were successfully trapped and vaccinated in 2013. In excess of 1,400 badgers were vaccinated the previous year. A full report on the second year of the vaccination project will be published before the Easter recess. Participation in the project is voluntary and I am grateful for the cooperation and assistance shown by land owners. I am also pleased to note that this co-operation and assistance is growing year by year.
 
In addition to this, we have developed a badger vaccination grant providing farmers, landowners and organisations across Wales with the opportunity to vaccinate badgers against bovine TB. The application window closes later this month. Successful applicants will receive up to 50% of the eligible costs of badger vaccination for five years and vaccination is expected to start this summer. We stand ready to embrace new technologies as they become available and we will work in partnership with farmers, the veterinary profession, the agriculture industry and rural communities. I recognise the potential benefits of cattle vaccination as part of the bovine TB eradication programme. I am pleased that progress is being made towards the establishment of vaccination field trials in the United Kingdom.
 
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 15:35.
 
Alun DaviesBiography
This June, Wales will host the world Mycobacterium bovis conference. Here, we will be able to learn from other countries that have already made great progress towards eradicating bovine TB. We will also share our own eradication programme with all those who share our vision. I believe that we are making significant progress towards bovine TB control and eradication. There are some real challenges and hurdles to overcome, and we must continue with our comprehensive approach, which is aimed at dealing with all sources of infection, to achieve our long-term goal of a bovine-TB-free Wales.
 
15:36
Russell GeorgeBiography
I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon.
 
I attended a meeting last night at Welshpool livestock market—I was invited to do so by the Farmers Union of Wales. Welsh Government officials were also present, to discuss the various issues around bovine TB, and how the Welsh Government’s TB eradication programme is being implemented. I hope that it has been relayed back to the Minister, from his officials, that there was a significant amount of anger and frustration emanating from the room that still not enough is being done to tackle the reservoir of infection in the wild, and that the Welsh Government still does not have a grip on the situation. There was a strong feeling that farmers are still experiencing many of the burdens and the costs that bovine TB bring, yet the Government was not prepared, or was reluctant, to take responsibility for its share of the eradication plan.
 
I welcome the reductions that you have set out today. However, last year, we still saw 900 new herd infections, and over 6,000 cattle slaughtered, which, of course, has an emotional and financial price for farming families. The farmers at the meeting last night were unanimous in their belief that the Welsh Government is not tackling the infection properly and correctly. Farmers feel that they are working longer and harder for less. I have to say that I did feel sympathy for the Government officials who were there last night, who had to defend a policy that is not working.
 
In terms of the programme, it would be useful to have a fuller and clearer understanding of the costs, compared with benefit outcomes. I would be grateful if the Minister could provide me with some more detail of the budgetary costs of the eradication programme to date, and estimated costs for the next two years. Of course, if he does not have that today, I would be happy for him to write to me on those points.
 
In terms of the vaccination programme, while I appreciate that a report will be published before Easter, it would be useful to have some further details on how the programme went last year. Is the Minister prepared, perhaps, to flesh out some more details on that? In relation to vaccines, there are, of course, legislative and technical issues that need to be ironed out with the European Commission on the wider use of the vaccine in the future. Can the Minister provide any further update on that?
 
Furthermore, the UK Government proceeded with two pilot culls, and, despite what the media has said about their effectiveness, we still await the official reports of those cull programmes. Will the Minister give a commitment to examine those reports, when they are published, to see whether there are lessons that can be learned, which could be put into practice here in Wales?
 
Finally, in terms of the compensation consultation, I want to ensure that the Minister gives full regard to the significant financial challenges that Welsh farmers are facing with regard to their bottom lines. The Minister seemed to be fixed on the system before the consultation was launched. However, I would ask him to listen to, and act on, the consultation responses if they tell him that this is not the best option for the Welsh cattle industry.
 
15:39
Alun DaviesBiography
I should start by welcoming the new Conservative spokesperson to his role this afternoon. I do not know how long he will be here, but we wish him the best of luck; he might be taking a different role from another farmer later in this Assembly. Certainly, that might well be the case. [Interruption.] I do not know, but I certainly welcome—even if his leader will not allow me to do so—him to his new role in this place today.
 
He describes the Welsh Government’s policy as a policy that is not working. I will suggest to him that, if he wants to see a policy that is not working, he should go across the border to England. You will see in Wales that the number of cattle slaughtered in the last year is down 33%; the equivalent statistic for the rest of GB is 14%—less than half. In terms of the number of herds being affected by bovine TB, we have seen reductions of 23%; the equivalent number in England is 6%. I will say to the Member for Montgomeryshire, the Conservative spokesman: if you really want to see a policy that is not working, look at what DEFRA has been doing this year, last year and the year before. The numbers speak for themselves. I would suggest that he says to his constituents that Powys has seen a 29% decline in animals slaughtered as a consequence of bovine TB. That is twice the average for across the border. We, in Wales, are getting a grip on this disease. We are progressing policies that are demonstrably having an effect, at twice the rate that we are seeing across the border—unless the Conservative Party wants to challenge DEFRA’s statistics; I doubt that it will. We are also seeing a policy that is beginning to demonstrate that we are getting a grip on this disease. I know that many people are impatient and I share their impatience. That is understandable. However, what I will say to people is that this is not a time to change policy. It is a time to ensure that this policy is delivered and continues to be delivered, because it is a policy that is working.
 
The answers to questions that have been asked on the costs of the project are, of course, covered in the budget that has been provided to Members. I would suggest that, if he wishes to understand how we are budgeting for this year and next year, he takes a look at the budget. He asks how the project is working in Pembrokeshire. There has been continuing increasing co-operation and working together throughout the community in north Pembrokeshire. That is being seen in the effectiveness of that vaccination project. Finally, he asked me if I will speak to DEFRA about its reports on the culling policy in England. Of course, I will take note of what is being done in England and, of course, I speak to DEFRA Ministers on a regular basis about how we take different approaches to the eradication of bovine TB. However, I will say this to the Conservative spokesman: those same Ministers have been very coy in what they have said about their culling process. They have been very coy about not claiming any success whatsoever.
 
15:43
Llyr GruffyddBiography
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I agree that there are lessons to be learned from experiences in England—I think that I would be very pleased to see the Government learning some of those lessons. However, I also think that there are lessons to be learned from Ireland, where badgers are culled and where they have seen a fall of nearly a third in the number of cases. Therefore, I believe that we must look at the wider picture rather than pick and choose elements, as has characterised this whole debate in the past perhaps.
 
Despite this, the fall that we have seen nationally—which is to be welcomed, of course—does not hide the fact that there are significant increases in new cases in some areas. [Interruption.] You ask where that is. The north Wales regional TB board met last night. The board noted a very significant increase in the Trefeglwys and Caersws area since the autumn. More than 140 animals were slaughtered and many more reactors were seen in herds that had not come into contact with other cattle as well as many more inconclusive cases. Those were the board’s conclusions, not mine. The board also noted a strain of TB in that area that was different to the strain linked to other TB breakdowns in Wales. Therefore, I would be grateful if you could update us on the situation in that area and, therefore, your reaction to this specific development of a new strain and how it affects any scientific strategies when you give consideration to ways of tackling this disease.
 
You referred to many things in your statement. I will try to be brief. You mention the exemptions that come to an end in terms of animal movements within the SOAs. In some cases, animals are not moving over great distances, of course—they are crossing the road or even going through a gate. I would ask you to look to see whether some of those situations could be dealt with in a way that is a little more commensurate with the risk involved, in all honesty.
 
You mentioned the table valuation. I fear that there are mixed messages coming from the Government now. Only a fortnight ago, you were here telling this Assembly, in response to the Kevin Roberts report, how important it was to work on issues of genetics, and so on, and to improve the quality of the stock of the national herd in order to strengthen the resilience of the industry, and, within an hour and half, you were announcing a consultation on moving to table valuations. That would take you away from a situation where the quality of the stock is properly recognised to a very crude mechanism of actually measuring the value of livestock.
 
It does not appear to me that the proposed system will do anything but overvalue animals of a low quality and overvalue high-quality stock. That is an example, in my opinion, of inconsistency. I would like to hear how you think that is in keeping with the kind of industry that you want to see. It also appears from that consultation, by the way, that it is unlikely that there will be an appeals process following decisions. Maybe you could correct me, but I would like to hear if there will be an appeals mechanism for decisions taken on the value of livestock if that regime is introduced.
 
You mention in your statement a new pilot scheme to state the cattle’s TB history when taking it to market. I would like to ask what that would actually achieve. Either the farm is clean and has been given a clear test or it has not. All of a sudden, you are creating a category of farms that have experienced TB in the past, and that would certainly blacken the reputation of the animals and the farmers who wish to sell their stock, although they are now clear. So, are you not in truth making it more difficult for those people to sell their livestock and making the recovery of any business that has suffered TB far more difficult? In my opinion, that is something that should be opposed, but I would like to hear more of the rationale behind such a proposal.
 
You recognise again in your statement the role of the private vet in tackling TB, but again you put that valuable role at risk, in my opinion, by moving to large-scale tenders for TB testing services across Wales—one in north Wales and one for south Wales. Forty per cent of the income of many veterinary practices is dependent on this work. In losing those contracts, not only will there be an economic impact, possibly, in terms of job losses, but you will also undermine the relationship that develops over time between the vet—the local veterinarian—and the individual farmers. Also, there is risk that you will lose that element of passive surveillance that happens as these vets visit farms regularly. That of course could have a far greater long-term cost in terms of animal welfare, tackling diseases and ill health, and, in general, the resilience of the industry.
 
Finally, I think that it is significant that you have not announced any specific results for the intensive action area here today. It would have made sense, in my opinion, for us to be able to see those results alongside the national statistics that you refer to. Perhaps you can give us some suggestion, as I am not expecting you to provide any statistics, whether you are happy with the progress that has been made in terms of the work in those intensive action areas and the impact that it is having on the number of cases of TB. Will you commit to more transparency when it comes to giving us updates on the statistics in the intensive action area, perhaps by providing regular updates every three months or six months?
 
15:49
Alun DaviesBiography
It is certainly not my intention to publish reports on a quarterly basis. I am not sure whether, fundamentally, that would lead to a greater understanding. I will say that for the Dyfed area, which is where the statistics are collected from, the decline in the animals slaughtered for TB control over the last year was 33%—it was the same as the national average. The number of new herd incidents was 28% decline, which is above the national average. All of these statistics are published information. They were published last week on the DEFRA website and I would expect a spokesperson as well equipped as you to have taken the time to look at those numbers and to understand them.
 
You invited me to look across the Irish sea; that is something that we do on a regular basis. This is not an administration that simply looks inwards; we do talk to other administrations. That is why we have invited a global conference to Wales in June and why we will be speaking to people, not simply our Celtic cousins, although, of course, we do enjoy very good and healthy conversations with those administrations, but people from across the world, to understand what sorts of processes, policy directions or policy tools are in place in all sorts of different Governments and circumstances, to understand where we are in terms of the knowledge available to us, and how that knowledge can be turned into policy tools that will have the impact of bearing down on this disease.
 
In your question, you referred to some particular areas where increases have been seen in bovine TB. We understand that there is significant regional variation in the spread and the nature of bovine TB, and that is why we have appointed specialists to look at the regional understanding, as I referred to in my oral statement this afternoon, to ensure that we address the disease, perhaps in different ways in Gwynedd to the ways employed in Dyfed, Glamorgan or Gwent. Therefore, we understand that and that is something that we have been addressing for some time now. I hope that we will be able to expand on that as our understanding of the disease continues to grow.
 
You referred to areas in north Wales that have seen significant increases; that, of course, is not the case. No part of Wales has seen a significant increase. The part of Wales that has seen an increase in the animals slaughtered was the old county of Gwynedd, which saw an increase from 73 animals to 84 animals, so nine additional animals were slaughtered in that area in that year. Therefore, I would not say that we were seeing a significant increase in any part of Wales. All other areas, without exception, have shown significant declines. The smallest decline was 23% and the largest decline was 48%, so we are seeing significant declines, but we are not seeing significant increases in any part of Wales on the basis of the statistics that we have available to us.
 
You asked a number of questions on risk. There is no contradiction between a tabular approach to compensation and the work that we were discussing in terms of upland resilience two weeks ago. May I say that there are 51 different categories on those tables? It is not so much a crude instrument as a means of providing a very clear means of reacting quickly to ensure that we are able to provide compensation to farmers at a rate that is fair, both to the farming community, but also to the taxpayer, and to ensure that we are delivering compensation, but also delivering the removal of diseased animals in a way that bears down on the disease. In terms of risk-based trading, this is something that has been practised in other areas and other administrations, and it is something that we are looking at. We are proposing a pilot scheme. If it has the impact on the market that the Member suggested that it might well do, clearly, that is not something that we would progress. However, I would say that there is no evidence to sustain or to support the concerns that he has outlined today.
 
Finally, on the issue of private vets, they will and do provide an essential and important element of our overall control and management policy and strategy. He has made the point on a few occasions about the nature of the contracts. I would say to him that we are putting in place framework contracts that will enable us to deliver a cost-effective solution for the taxpayer to resolving these sorts of issues, but that does not mean that the service will simply be delivered by one, two or half a dozen major practices. They will be delivered locally by local vets who are familiar with the local territory, the local community and the local industry. That is how we are setting up these contracts. The reason why they are done in a framework manner as suggested is simply to ensure that we are providing best value for the taxpayer. I am sure that that is something that you would join me in wishing to see.
 
15:54
Joyce WatsonBiography
I welcome your statement today, Minister, particularly the increase in the vaccination scheme that is demonstrated and the decrease in the incidence of bovine TB. It has been described as ineffective and cripplingly expensive and, according to Professor Rosie Woodroffe, it is very likely to have increased the risk of TB in cattle. The badger culls in Somerset and Gloucestershire have been a disaster from start to finish. That is not a political statement and that is not a statement that we have made up; that is the statement of a professor following the disastrous cull in Somerset and Gloucester. I would like to put that on the record. I would also like to contrast that with the Welsh Labour Government continuing to use an evidence-led strategy for eradicating the scourge that is bovine TB. I do not want to repeat everything that has already been said, but I do think that vigilance through testing regimes, strict standards of livestock movement, and reporting and recording, offer the sensible, scientific and sustainable way forward. That is exactly what you, Minister, are doing here in Wales.
 
I recognise, as has been said already, that farmers do need information and support. You mentioned earlier this year that you had six pilot projects that were ongoing. I would like you to tell us when you will be making an announcement about the success of those pilot projects to this Chamber. I also recognise, Minister, that the one place that farmers may need support now is Montgomeryshire, as has already been mentioned here today. There is a suspected spike in TB breakdowns in that area, to the west of Newtown, and it is extremely worrying. I ask, Minister, whether you would be able to make a statement about that TB breakdown later in the year, and perhaps look at the reasons for it. I do understand, as has already been mentioned, that a Farmers Union of Wales special meeting was held last night in Welshpool to discuss that particular situation.
 
That is, really, all that I want to say, but it is worth noting and repeating that while Powys has this situation on the ground at the moment, it has, as you have just said earlier, a 29% reduction in the cattle slaughter with the systems and procedures that you have adopted in Wales.
 
15:57
Alun DaviesBiography
Thank you very much, Joyce. In terms of where we are on the vaccination scheme, as I say, I will be providing Members with a full report on this before the Easter recess. In terms of cost and ease of delivery, which I think that we have seen, I would like to pay tribute not only to the landowners and farmers who have co-operated and provided assistance in the delivery of the scheme, but also to the Welsh Government officials who have delivered it on the ground. I think that there is an extraordinary comparison to be made between the chaotic approach that has been taken in England and the thoughtful way in which we have delivered the policy in Wales, and obviously, of course, a policy that is far more cost-effective in Wales and a policy that, at the end of the day, is being more successful. If you want to see how not to deliver agriculture policy, go to England; if you want to see how to deliver an agriculture policy that underpins the industry in the future, come to Wales. That is where you are seeing a 33% decline in the animals slaughtered. It is not happening across the border. We are absolutely clear on that. That is a result of the testing regime that we have implemented in Wales, the biosecurity regime that we have implemented in Wales, and the comprehensive approach to dealing with the resevoir of infection in wildlife.
 
I have answered a question on local conditions. We are aware that providing statistics on a regional or national basis might hide individual areas where there are difficulties, and where those areas are identified we will take action to address the genesis of the disease in those particular places.
 
15:59
William PowellBiography
Thank you, Minister, for the statement today.
 
As others have mentioned, despite the progress that has been made, it is important to remember that this continues to be very much a plague on our agriculture industry. Many farmers who approach me on the issue still feel disempowered by the strategy that the Welsh Government has chosen to adopt. The occurrences of the disease within that belt of northern Powys, in Trefeglwys, Caersws, and up in the north Wales region and the Ceiriog valley also, are of real concern. Minister, I would invite you to consider returning to Trefeglwys, which was the site of a farm visit that you undertook last spring in relation to the weather conditions, to meet farming representatives of both unions in that area, to actually hear their concerns at first hand. I think that that would be extremely useful to show you in your listening mode.
 
Moving on to the issue of cattle movements, it remains absolutely clear that, as you said, proper tracking of bovine movements is a particularly relevant weapon in preventing the further spread of bovine TB. As such, I am pleased to see that the sole occupancy authority’s movements are being addressed in line with the commission’s recommendations. I think it is important that this is done, as Llyr Gruffydd has emphasised, in a proportionate manner, so that you do not have idiocies arising where you are crossing a road or a level crossing, incurring major difficulties for the management of those farms. Last week, Minister, you highlighted the fact that the Welsh Government is presently working both with DEFRA and with the Animal Health and Veterinary Laboratories Agency to understand more fully what impact such changes will have here in Wales. I would be grateful if you could update us on any discussions you have had with regard to this matter, and when they are expected to conclude.
 
Naturally, a matter of great concern to farmers is the decision, as has already been outlined by colleagues across the Chamber, to reopen the tabular valuation agenda, which had previously been ruled out in this Chamber. This is of enormous concern to farmers the length and breadth of Wales. The Welsh Liberal Democrats remain against this change as we feel that it will result in a system that will not suitably reflect the real value of cattle across this country. This is particularly the case with pedigree cattle, which can only really be judged on an individual, case-by-case basis. Given that the consultation outlines an illustrative reduction of almost £4 million a year to farmers should the Welsh Government choose to impose the system, as it seems minded to do, Minister, would you outline what assessment has been made of the impact of such a loss on farmers, who are already suffering from a number of other decisions, some of them emanating from this Chamber?
 
Finally, in relation to the CAP, I was glad to see that the rural development plan consultation was launched late yesterday. While I am sure that we can get into the details of that in tomorrow’s debate, I was hoping that you would be in a position to flesh out some of the limited comments that it makes with respect to animal health. Finally, I would urge you, Minister, to redouble your efforts to understand the critical role of the individual veterinary practice, and the local link between vets and farmers that has already been stressed by colleagues here. It is absolutely essential, and there would be major difficulties that would arise in terms of the testing regimes were you to have groups of people unfamiliar with the topography and the individual farms, the stock and the farmers who make their livings in those areas.
 
16:02
Alun DaviesBiography
I think we would be testing the patience of the Deputy Presiding Officer and the Chamber to destruction if we were to start discussing the 98 page consultation document I issued yesterday on the new rural development programme. I would suggest to the Liberal Democrat spokesperson that perhaps he take some time to read through it, and then we can have a debate on that at another time. In terms of where we are going now, I do not intend to significantly revisit or change any direction or policy at present. We are seeing a policy being delivered that is delivering success in controlling the disease. I understand that opposition spokespeople have to spend time looking through every document for bad news or difficulties; that is part of the role of opposition, and I accept that, but I would invite even the Liberals, on some occasions, to congratulate farmers and cattle keepers across Wales who have helped deliver this decline in bovine TB. It is something that has not been delivered solely by Government, but by the community as a whole working together—not making the point that William Powell made about disempowerment, but understanding the importance of testing and of having a testing regime that works, understanding the importance of biosecurity, understanding how that can have an impact on the disease, and then recognising, while being in no way complacent, and not believing that this battle is a battle that is won, that we are seeing a significant decline in the incidence of bovine TB in the cattle population of this country, and that that decline is taking place from Clwyd down to Pembrokeshire, from north Wales to south Wales, east to west. That decline is taking place because of the policy tools that we have in place, and because of the way they are being delivered by cattle keepers, day in, day out, across the whole of Wales. I hope that Members on all sides of the Chamber will join me in working with the agricultural community to ensure that this decline, while we welcome it today, is something that we put in place as a means of controlling and then eradicating this disease in future.
 
16:05
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding OfficerBiography
I assure the Minister that I am always keen to make time for full and proper scrutiny, and, with that in mind, I will call three more Members, but just a question each, please.
 
16:05
Jenny RathboneBiography
I had not planned to speak at all in this debate, because we do not have many cattle in Cardiff Central, but we do have lots of people interested in the UK Government’s policy of culling as opposed to the vaccination policy. I would like to congratulate you, Minister, on the very significant reduction in the numbers of cattle being slaughtered as a result of the vaccination policy. My question is: to what extent is the fact that this is a voluntary scheme—the vaccination of badgers—influenced by mood music among local leaders in particular communities determining whether farmers in a particular area do or do not pick up on the vaccination scheme?
 
16:06
Alun DaviesBiography
The vaccination programme in place in north Pembrokeshire is one that has the support of a vast majority of farmers and landowners in the area and is being delivered with their help, co-operation and support. We will be making a full report on this before the Easter recess, but I will say that the decline in the incidence of the disease that we are seeing is the result of a number of different policy tools working together. We are seeing a decline in nearly every part of the country. That is the result of farmers, cattle keepers, vets and people working together to ensure that that happens. We need to ensure that we continue to support that work and continue to put in place the appropriate control mechanisms and frameworks in all parts of Wales that bear down on the disease and will help, eventually, to eradicate it.
 
16:07
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiography
Minister, we may well disagree with the direction that you have taken in sorting this problem out, but one thing that we are all united about is getting on top of it and eradicating it. There is no disagreement on that tune. I will put two points to you, if I may. First, would you confirm—I think I know the answer—that any change in the valuation process, that is, moving to tabular valuations, would be subject to a vote in this Chamber? As I recall, there was a similar vote in the second Assembly; I think that was the case. I would be grateful if you could confirm that.