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The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
 
13:30
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
 
13:30
1. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and question 1 is Bethan Jenkins.
 
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
 
13:30
Bethan JenkinsBiography
1. What action is the Welsh Government taking to address the lack of treatment available for those with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of sexual abuse they suffered as children? OAQ(4)0624(HSS)
 
13:30
Mark DrakefordBiographyThe Minister for Health and Social Services
Self-identification as a victim of sexual abuse in childhood is inevitably hard to predict, and service planning is inherently complex. Only a proportion of such victims are clinically assessed as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. The significant increase in psychological therapies in Wales will improve access to treatment for those who need it.
 
13:30
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Thank you, Minister, and I’d be interested to know what the proportion is. I have a constituent who suffered abuse as a child, and has suffered mental health issues, such as post-traumatic stress, including night terrors and sleep apnoea, as well as other issues. He’s trying to access appropriate treatment, but his GP isn’t very helpful, according to my constituent. He was told that he was being referred to a crisis team and that it would take time, and that PTSD services were now, at the moment, being directed towards ex-veterans and ex-service people. Is your Government planning to take steps so that these types of services can be enhanced for others, who are not just service people?
 
13:31
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank Bethan Jenkins for that question. The person you spoke to is right to say that we do have a separate and dedicated service for military veterans. In thinking of her first question, 32 per cent of people who access sexual assault referral clinics in Wales in the last year identified themselves as having been a victim of historic sexual abuse, that is to say, abuse that happened a year or more earlier than they reported it. So, that’s 32 per cent of all people presenting at SARCs. Of people who present at SARCs, 12 per cent of those are people who then need onward referral to mental health services, and only a proportion of that 12 per cent will actually be identified as suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. But, when it happens, it is absolutely serious and demands a proper response. The money we are putting into psychological therapies—£3.1 million, new money, this year, divided between services for adults and dedicated services for children—will, I hope, result in circumstances such as the one that you have just described being responded to better in the future.
 
13:32
Christine ChapmanBiography
Minister, how are your officials working with others in the Welsh Government to help improve the response to those who suffer sexual abuse as children?
 
13:32
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank the Member for that. The approach, as she will know, that we take in the Welsh Government is that responding to those who identify themselves as having suffered sexual abuse as children is that it is everybody’s business—it is not the preserve of any one particular service area. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 strengthens the safeguarding arrangements for children and will have an impact in this area. The Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 is another very important strand in the way that our officials are working to improve services for children, and the first commencement Order under that Act will happen on 5 October—next week.
 
13:33
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
I’d like to thank Bethan for actually raising what is quite a sensitive issue, which will resonate with many across Wales, to include some of our children.
 
Minister, what assurances can you give regarding increasing the availability of treatment and support for children, but also too—because this has been raised in my constituency, with a family, that, as a result of earlier issues and sexual abuse, this has now carried forward, and, certainly, one of the sisters has had children herself? But also, how do you provide for children in that kind of setting, away from adult services?
 
13:34
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank the Member for that question. She is absolutely right, I think, to say that, when an incident of child sexual abuse is revealed, then the impact is on the whole of the family, and we have to think of how we respond to the impact that that will have on wider family members. Here in Wales, it’s Conwy social services department that, on behalf of all local authorities in Wales, is providing support services to victims of historic child abuse in the north Wales area, and so there is a reservoir of expertise there. In terms of psychological therapies, as I said to Bethan Jenkins, we are putting £3.1 million of new money into psychological therapies and we’ve divided that money very deliberately between a sum of money to improve therapies for adults, and separate money for children, and that money will go through our child and adolescent mental health services.
 
13:35
Gwenda ThomasBiography
Minister, will you provide details of the latest available information concerning Operation Pallial?
 
13:35
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank Gwenda Thomas for that, and, of course, it picks up some of the points that were just being made by Janet. We know that 21 people have been arrested as a result of Operation Pallial since it began in November 2012. It’s been led by the National Crime Agency, and five people so far have been convicted and sentenced to substantial periods of imprisonment, and there are further trials under way. Operation Pallial has been supported by a wide coalition of organisations, including the North Wales Police, and the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children from the third sector. The children’s commissioner has taken a particular interest in it, and it is focused on the needs of victims and witnesses—witnesses in the family sense that was mentioned a moment ago. The inquiry has now issued a ‘Learning the Lessons’ report and this is its conclusion. It says
 
‘We are satisfied that children and young people are now much safer…and that there is now in place a clear infrastructure of checks and balances…to prevent the widespread and sustained abuse that children and young people in North Wales care homes suffered in the 1970s and 80s.’
 
Cancer Treatment Waiting Times
 
13:37
Peter BlackBiography
2. Will the Minister make a statement on cancer treatment waiting times in South Wales West? OAQ(4)0622(HSS)
 
13:37
Vaughan GethingBiographyThe Deputy Minister for Health
I expect all patients awaiting cancer treatment in south-west Wales, and throughout Wales, to be seen in order of clinical priority and within Welsh Government targets. We are working with the health boards to ensure that performance improves.
 
13:37
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Of course, the targets you set are not being met in South Wales West. The latest figures show that only 81.6 per cent of cancer patients being treated by the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board were seen within 62 days, which is a decrease from 85.2 per cent in June. Can I ask you what specific actions are being taken to reverse that trend?
 
13:37
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thank you for the question. In Abertawe Bro Morgannwg health board area in particular, there is a recognition that they have a number of issues to deal with. Partly, it’s about recruitment and an understanding of their particular pathways as well. They have taken action to recruit new consultants within particular fields. They’ll also have a new CT scanner on its way, and, in particular, it’s important for me to understand the action they’re taking to deal with their backlog as well as dealing with new referrals. So, there’s a real understanding that improvement is required. The percentage figures, though, are sometimes unhelpful, in that they relate to very small numbers of patients. The challenge will be to see more people being treated within target times as ABMU continue to improve. They know exactly what is required and expected of them, and I expect them to produce that.
 
13:38
David ReesBiography
Minister, the figures are disappointing, and whereas perhaps I contradict you, if you look at the figures, the numbers are actually some of the highest in Wales being treated in ABMU. But, one of the concerns I have is diagnostic examinations, which play a critical role in early diagnosis and to allow treatment to start quickly. What’s the Welsh Government doing to improve diagnostic services within ABMU?
 
13:39
Vaughan GethingBiography
We’ve actually seen a significant improvement across the all-Wales picture, including in ABMU, in diagnostic services. There are some specific challenges in some areas that affect the whole of the UK. For example, sonographers—there’s a shortage and there’s a real difficulty in recruiting those people across every single part of the UK healthcare system. So, the action that has been taken means that, across Wales, there has been a 44 per cent reduction in diagnostic waiting times. And, again, there is a very clear understanding of what needs to happen within health boards, and, in particular, the requirement to share resources as well, because part of the challenge is to see the whole healthcare system, to recognise the patient flows that move across it, and, in particular, ABM’s role as a tertiary centre and the people that go from Hywel Dda and Powys in particular to receive treatment in that particular health board. So, diagnostics are improving. We expect to see further improvement, and I’m optimistic, based on management information, that we will see further improvements being realised when the next few periods of monthly figures are published.
 
13:39
Altaf HussainBiography
Deputy Minister, in my own experience and from talking to both patients and clinicians, one of the greatest delays to treatment is as a result of urgent cancer referrals by GPs being downgraded. What steps is your Government taking to prevent this downgrading and the inevitable delay to a patient’s treatment?
 
13:40
Vaughan GethingBiography
I’m not aware of any attempt by the national health service to downgrade urgent cancer referrals. If the Member has evidence of that, I would like to see it and deal with it, because that is not what we expect. In fact, on cancer care and treatment, in Wales, we have very good access to cancer care and we have improving outcomes. I recognise that there are challenges, and there’s no hiding from that, but, on referral-to-treatment times and expected wait times in cancer, we do better than England. On outcomes, we’ve seen the fastest improvement of any UK nation. So, there are challenges that we will address, but let’s not pretend that cancer care is not, on the overwhelming basis, a positive experience of high quality and which makes a real difference to people’s lives here in Wales.
 
13:41
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Yn dilyn ymlaen o’r cwestiwn blaenorol ynglŷn â’r ffaith ein bod yn gweld, dro ar ôl tro, fod yna broblem gyda’r amseroedd aros ar gyfer pobl sydd eisiau cael asesiad diagnostig, os yw’r GP yn ansicr, efallai eich bod chi o fewn y targed, ond efallai fod pobl wedyn yn mynd yn waeth o fewn y targed hwnnw ac yn aros pan ddylen nhw ddim fod yn aros. A ydych chi wedi gwneud ymchwil i mewn i hyn ac a ydych chi wedi gwrando ar syniad Plaid Cymru o greu canolfannau ar gyfer y fath beth?
 
13:41
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thank you for the question, and I note that Plaid Cymru’s idea is essentially the same as that announced by Jeremy Hunt some weeks ago. Our perspective in terms of diagnostics is that we recognise—[Interruption.]
 
13:41
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order.
 
13:41
Vaughan GethingBiography
We recognise that there is a challenge in terms of the whole pathway, including the diagnostics part of it. Our focus is on the whole pathway and on making sure that appropriate treatment is provided within the right timescale to continue improving clinical outcomes. The additional resource that we’ve provided over this year and the last financial year as well has led to an improvement in diagnostic waiting times, and that is leading to people being identified earlier. Part of our challenge, though, in really improving outcomes for cancer patients, is the earlier diagnosis in any event. We’ve seen a significant increase in the number of people being referred for cancer treatment, but part of that challenge is that often that referral is made too late and the cancer can often be more advanced than it would be in patients in other parts of the UK. There is a challenge there right across the whole workforce. That’s why we’re working in particular with Macmillan and primary care to try and ensure that diagnosis and referral is made at an early point to make that biggest difference possible for people who are then subsequently diagnosed with cancer and require treatment.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
13:42
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople, and first this afternoon is Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
 
13:42
Darren MillarBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, can you tell us how much spending on the Welsh NHS delivery area has fallen in real terms since 2010-11?
 
13:42
Mark DrakefordBiography
Llywydd, as I answer this question every time, and as the Member knows perfectly well, his question is not a sensible one. Patients straddle both health service and social services areas. It makes absolutely no sense whatsoever to the individual to analyse spending in the way that he seeks to do. Health and social care spending together in Wales remains 8 per cent above that which his Government achieves in England.
 
13:43
Darren MillarBiography
And here is me thinking that, under Corbyn, spin was dead in the Labour Party. Quite clearly, that is not the case. The reality, Minister, if you’d have cared to answer the question directly, is that NHS spending has fallen in real terms since 2010-11. In fact, in one single year, it fell by over £225 million and, of course, it’s had devastating effects on the NHS—[Interruption.]
 
13:43
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
The Minister needs no help to answer the questions.
 
13:43
Darren MillarBiography
It had a devastating impact on the NHS workforce and, indeed, on patients. The reality, Minister, is that if you had increased spending year on year, in line with inflation, more than £1 billion extra would have been spent on patient care in the national health service over the past five years. Given that fact, do you regret your Government’s decision to make record-breaking cuts to the national health service budget?
 
13:44
Mark DrakefordBiography
Llywydd, the Member’s so-called facts are absolutely nothing of the sort. He completely ignores the very, very substantial investment directly in health services that has been made in Wales this year, last year and the year before. His figures would stand up to absolutely no serious examination whatsoever. Here we have a health service in Wales that is employing more doctors, more nurses, seeing more patients, delivering more treatments, doing better than it has ever done before, and it does so in the face of the savage assault on public services that his Government is absolutely determined to carry out.
 
13:45
Darren MillarBiography
The Minister responds to what he describes as my figures. These are not my figures; these are figures from the Members’ research service, and I suggest that if you have an issue with the quality of the information provided, you take it up with them. I want to commend them for the piece of work that they have done, which makes it absolutely clear that more than £1 billion more would have been spent if your party had accepted the commitment that my party made prior to the Welsh Assembly elections in 2007. Performance has suffered, patients have suffered and staff have suffered under the pressures that these cuts have created. Do you regret that yours is the only Government that has made these cuts to national health service budgets? Do you also regret serving under a First Minister who has delivered these swingeing cuts to the NHS in a way that no Conservative Prime Minister has ever done to the national health service? No Conservative Prime Minister has ever cut an NHS budget, unlike your First Minister here; shame on him.
 
13:46
Mark DrakefordBiography
What I regret, Llywydd, and I regret it every time the Member gets to his feet, is the way in which he believes that he is able to extract some partisan political advantage from attacking the work that is done in the Welsh NHS—
 
13:46
Darren MillarBiography
Attacking you.
 
13:46
Mark DrakefordBiography
I can tell—
 
13:46
Darren MillarBiography
Attacking your support for cuts.
 
13:46
Mark DrakefordBiography
I can tell him this: that his approach to this matter is absolutely resented by patients up and down Wales. And I’m glad that he has given me the opportunity to shine a light for a moment on the approach taken by his Government. No doubt he will have read in the ‘Health Service Journal’ over the last two weeks the way in which the Department of Health and the Treasury are conniving together to undermine the so-called promise of an £8 billion investment in the NHS in England and its consequentials here in Wales. So, we know—. The King’s Fund—. [Interruption.] Well, I’m glad he thinks it’s nonsense; he’ll tell us when he hears it in the comprehensive spending review. The King’s Fund tell us now that it is an established fact that the Chancellor intends to exclude from that £8 billion all spending on medical education; that he intends to exclude from that £8 billion all moneys spent on public health; that he intends to exclude from that £8 billion all the money that is spent in the health service on research. By the time his Government has finished fiddling the figures once again, we will see that people in Wales, England and elsewhere are short-changed once again by the actions of his Government. That’s what I regret.
 
13:47
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Can I just—? Can I remind people this is not leaders’ question time? That was yesterday. I now move to Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson, Elin Jones.
 
13:47
Elin JonesBiography
Minister, you’ve failed to agree three-yearly financial plans with the Betsi Cadwaladr health board and the Hywel Dda health board—the two largest health boards and the two most rural health boards in Wales. What’s the main reason for that?
 
13:48
Mark DrakefordBiography
The reason we have been unable to agree a three-year IMTP with those two health boards is because we take seriously the assurances that were given to this Assembly—were given to your colleague Simon Thomas, who particularly led a series of important questions on this matter—when we said that, in introducing a three-year funding regime, only those health boards that brought forward credible three-year plans that showed that they were genuinely able to integrate service, finance and workforce planning, and only when they reached the necessary standard, would we agree to a three-year plan. That has not yet proved possible in Hywel Dda or in Betsi Cadwaladr, and I’m not prepared to approve three-year plans that don’t merit approval.
 
13:48
Elin JonesBiography
During this last year, you’ve also changed the way you distribute additional funds to the health boards within financial years, and therefore the change of formula and the change of decision have had a financial impact on the Hywel Dda health board particularly. Under the new formula, Hywel Dda health board has received £24 million additionally. If you’d used the old formula, they would have received £48 million during that financial year, although none of their needs or health circumstances had changed during that period. Do you accept that this places additional financial pressures on Hywel Dda health board to plan financially over a period of three years?
 
13:49
Mark DrakefordBiography
I do recognise the pressures that face all of our different health boards in different ways in drawing up plans to live within their means. I gave an undertaking in front of the Health and Social Care Committee that we would update the formula that we use to distribute money between health boards, using the latest population and other information available to us. Whenever you change the formula there will be some health boards that gain as a result and there will be some health boards that find that they would have been better advantaged under the previous formula, but it is right that we do make sure that the figures going into the formula are the best available and represent the most up-to-date information that we have. That’s what we’ve done. We recognise the impact that that has on some health boards, and we help them in other ways.
 
13:50
Elin JonesBiography
In the past, Minister, you’ve accepted that there is a case to look specifically at some of the rural health boards, particularly in terms of their demographics, in terms of an ageing population and the population who are retiring into those rural areas and those coastal areas—and Hywel Dda and Betsi Cadwaladr are two of those health boards. To date, your formula doesn’t reflect that additional pressure and the pressure of providing services in a rural context sufficiently, and therefore do you believe that it is now time, in the context of those two particular health boards—and also Powys if it came to that, although there are no acute hospitals in that specific health board—that we should look at the real costs of providing health services in a rural context?
 
13:51
Mark DrakefordBiography
I think the points that the Member makes are serious ones and proper ones, and we do always look to see that we recognise the additional pressures that come with different population structures, and undoubtedly providing services in more sparsely populated parts of Wales brings costs with it. Powys, however, does have a three-year approved plan; they have managed to pass the hurdle that we set in their path to reach approval. But, because we already recognise those costs, that’s why, in some parts of rural Wales, there is more than £200 more spent for every single person in that area than is spent on the citizens of Cardiff to meet their health needs. I can tell you that, when I meet the health board in Cardiff, they will point out to me all the pressures that come with being the largest city, with having populations from around the world, with having diseases that do not occur anywhere else in Wales, and running a tertiary centre for the whole of Wales. Every part of Wales has particular characteristics that they are able to show require proper funding; we do our best to balance those factors out, and we keep them under review in the way that the Member quite properly asks us to.
 
13:52
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, Kirsty Williams.
 
13:52
Kirsty WilliamsBiographyThe Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, in the last five years, 29 general medical services contracts have been handed back to local health boards and a further 18 have closed their doors altogether. Apart from the recently announced sustainability package from your Government to assist with financial difficulties in general practices, what steps are you taking to secure the future of general practice services in Wales?
 
13:53
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank the Member for that very important question. Well, we are investing £40 million more in our primary care services in this financial year. It is, in very scarce times, by far the single greatest investment that we are able to make, and we are doing that in order to create the primary care service of the future. GPs are hard to recruit, and the nature of the GP workforce is changing, with people coming into it wanting to work in different ways. So, we have a primary care plan and a primary care workforce plan, which mean that, in future, people will receive those services from a wider range of clinical professionals able to provide the services that they need, releasing GPs to concentrate on those things that only GPs are able to provide.
 
13:54
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Minister, one of the major issues facing a general practice is recruitment, as you said, and the issues appear to be particularly acute in rural Wales and in Valleys communities. Indeed, the further you get away from the M4 corridor, the harder it seems to be to recruit general practitioners. I believe that exposure to general practice at an undergraduate level and exposure to practices in rural communities at a postgraduate level could be positive steps your Government could take to increase the number of GPs being recruited to those areas. What steps are you taking to ensure that people have the opportunity to experience GP practice at the very start of their medical education and have access to a wide range and wide type of practices, where they can see the reality of being a rural GP or a Valleys GP as a really positive career choice?
 
13:55
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, I completely agree with Kirsty Williams that when young people in training see the opportunities that come with practising in Valleys and rural communities they immediately see the way in which that will provide them with chances to practise general medicine in a way that in other places may no longer be so available. So, working with Cardiff University, we now have at the Keir Hardie University Health Park in Merthyr Tydfil students who, within six weeks of arriving on their medical course in Cardiff, are out knocking on people’s doors, visiting not just with GPs but with that wide range of other health professionals—health visitors, physiotherapists, occupational therapists and others. I’ve been and met groups of young people who’ve undergone that experience and I can tell you they are hugely enthused by what they see and come out of it really wanting to go back and practise medicine in those areas.
 
At the postgraduate level, as part of the mid Wales collaborative, we are going to fund a new cadre of academic GPs. So, these are GPs who want to spend part of their time in practice, but they want to be doing research and academic work in general practice and, in the mid Wales collaborative instance, inter-general practice in rural Wales. So, I think we are doing our best to be as imaginative as we can be in exposing people along the whole range of GP training to the experiences that working in Valleys and rural Wales can bring them. I share her confidence that once people see the opportunities that are there, they will want to take advantage of them.
 
13:56
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Minister, can I stretch your imagination a little bit further, then? There are some people who would like to combine a career in both primary and secondary care, a portfolio career that allows them to see patients in general practice but also allows them to contribute to the services delivered in their district general hospitals. But to do that they need to have staff-grade posts. I’m aware of one GP who has consistently wished to apply for a post to work in the A&E department in Nevill Hall but has consistently been turned down for funding. Instead, the health board is quite happy to spend considerable amounts of more money on locum cover than actually a substantive post. Would you agree with me that portfolio careers that allow suitably trained doctors to work in both primary and secondary care actually could solve both our GP recruitment crisis and also sustain services in our more rural and distant DGHs?
 
13:57
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, whether they would solve the crisis I’m not sure, but I’m sure that they would make a contribution to its solution. I think we’re at a stage where all ideas are welcome and thank you for suggesting that one. I’m interested in the specific example that you raised of where barriers are in place, but I’m also aware of some very positive work that’s going on at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, for example, where there are GPs who want to do exactly that. They want to practise as general practitioners, but where they have a special interest, in diabetes, for example, they want to be able to offer some clinics in the hospital setting to work directly with consultants to extend their own range of skills. I met a group of clinical fellows recently, young doctors embarking on their career, and I thought it was very interesting that they said to me they never used the term ‘primary and secondary’. They said, ‘That’s an old-fashioned way of thinking about the health service and it gets in the way of organising things in the way that we will need to in the future.’
 
13:58
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move back to questions on the paper and question 3 is from Rhodri Glyn Thomas.
 
Waiting Times for Treatment
 
13:58
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
3. Will the Minister make a statement on waiting times for treatment in Hywel Dda University Health Board? OAQ(4)0631(HSS)
 
13:59
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. Current waiting times for referral to treatment in Hywel Dda are not acceptable and require improvement. The health board plans for improvement include running additional clinic sessions during the week, at weekends, and some outsourcing of patients. However, on cancer referral to treatment, Hywel Dda are among the best performing health boards in Wales.
 
13:59
Rhodri Glyn ThomasBiography
I’m pleased to hear the Minister acknowledging that the performance of the health board in terms of waiting times generally is not good enough. May I refer him to two cases that represent the two poles in terms of the age ranges involved? One individual who was 79 years old waited 29 months for treatment for a neurological disorder, 19 months to see a neurologist and then four months to have three scans that could have all happened at the time. And then another individual who was 25 years old who had broken his wrist back in February had waited until June to be told that he would have to wait another 12 months for treatment in terms of a graft from his pelvis for his wrist to recover. Does he accept that this performance by the health board is insufficient?
 
14:00
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, and if the Member wants to write to me with the specifics that he’s outlined then I’ll happily take that up with the health board to try to get him a proper answer to, I assume, his constituents on their care and the length of time they’ve had to wait for different stages of their treatment. It represents this point about dealing with a backlog, because often when we talk about referral-to-treatment times, we talk about new patients coming through the door, but we still need to recognise the people who have been waiting the longest still need to be treated too. There’s a point about when is the clinically appropriate time to deliver the right care at the right time in the right place. And so everyone understands the approach that should be taken. Hywel Dda health board understand they need to improve their performance, and they also have plans to do that. The challenge always is: how do we ensure that happens at the right pace to ensure that public expectations of the health service are met, because there is still huge public trust? As you will know yourself and I know you understand from your own interaction with the health service, it does amazing and astonishing things on a regular basis, but, in the key reputational areas, there must be an improvement. That is what we are determined to see, working with our health boards. I expect to see over the coming months that there will be an improvement in achievement in Hywel Dda and in other health boards across Wales.
 
14:01
Angela BurnsBiography
I think it’s slightly disingenuous to try to cool the boiling pot of waiting times by sort of talking about it being at the appropriate pace. You look at Hywel Dda and people are having to wait for gastric surgery. The issue there is the only place they can go for it is to Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board. ABM have closed two of their smaller hospitals. ABM are unable to get people out of their major beds anywhere to convalesce, and so we have patients in Hywel Dda who can’t even get a date far into the far future; they simply cannot get a date to have vital surgery. Deputy Minister, I would like to understand, rather than looking at issues such as the pace—the pace is that they need the surgery, they are in enormous pain and it’s impacting on their life—what pressure you can bring to bear on those two health boards to make sure they work better together so that people in west Wales are not disadvantaged again.
 
14:02
Vaughan GethingBiography
I don’t think there’s anything disingenuous in what I’ve said about the health service as it is now. Our expectation is for improved achievement. Since I’ve been in this post, actually, I have taken up issues with both Hywel Dda and ABM health board about the requirement to work together as a more joined-up system for west Wales, and I’m pleased to say that there is a much more constructive relationship between the two health boards now, and a much greater understanding of what they need to do together for the entire population that they serve, because patient flows across the health board boundaries are quite common on a range of different treatments. So, for example, I’ve also taken up issues in relation to delayed transfers of care to ensure there’s capacity both within the health service, between the different parts of the health service as they need treatment, and also with their local authority partners. It isn’t simply a case of trying to say that delayed transfer problems should be laid at the door of local authorities; there is much that the health service could and should do. I’ve had those meetings and I’ve made clear my expectation for action to be taken in advance of winter to ensure that there is more capacity within the system, because some people do wait too long and some people do wait in discomfort. But, many people don’t wait in discomfort, but there’s still the challenge of getting the right treatment at the right time and in the right place. That’s what I’m determined that we will do, from a Government perspective, working with our health boards to deliver on that very clear, very simple and appropriate vision and mission for the health service.
 
Future Workforce
 
14:03
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
4. Will the Minister make a statement on planning for the future workforce within the health service? OAQ(4)0638(HSS)
 
14:04
Mark DrakefordBiography
A workforce capable of sustaining the NHS in the future will not simply mirror the workforce of the past. The next round of integrated medium-term plans will include a particular focus on workforce planning, as we develop a 10-year workforce strategy for Wales.
 
14:04
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Thank you very much for that response, and we look forward to seeing the outcomes of these discussions. May I refer you to nursing for those who have learning difficulties? There was a report in 2012, ‘Strengthening the commitment’, that acknowledged that specialist nurses had, and I quote,
 
‘a major input into the health of people with learning disabilities’.
 
But, a shortage of nurses in this area became apparent. There was then a further update report in 2015 that highlighted the same problem. Half of the nurses in this area are over 50 years of age. So, what plans does the Government have to ensure a sufficient supply of nurses working in learning difficulties for the future?
 
14:05
Mark DrakefordBiography
Thank you for the question. Each year, we agree plans with the health boards and the other members on the boards who undertake the workforce planning. We’ve invested more than £80 million in this current financial year. We’ve increased the number of nurses by more than 20 per cent in this current financial year, and we have given an additional £0.5 million to assist with training the specialist nurses that we’re going to use here in Wales in future.
 
14:05
Gwenda ThomasBiography
Minister, I was with you in July when the primary care workforce planning scheme for Wales was launched in the Amman Tawe surgery, in the village where I live. Has the period of engagement on the plan with a broader range of stakeholders now been completed, and when do you hope to publish the final version?
 
14:06
Mark DrakefordBiography
May I thank Gwenda Thomas very much for that question? May I say thank you very much for accompanying me to Amman Tawe in July? It was wonderful to be there with you and Dr Duncan Williams who is the lead on developing the scheme at Amman Tawe.
 
Llywydd, we have had a period of engagement on the primary care workforce plan that has been concluded. The plan was very well received. If you look at what has been achieved in Amman Tawe, where I was with Gwenda Thomas, where they took a practice that was in a very difficult situation with a number of GPs deciding to leave, they now have three full-time GPs, five part-time GPs, two advanced nurse practitioners, a clinical pharmacist, a strengthened group of healthcare assistants and they’ve newly employed a paramedic. In terms of the question that I was originally asked about the workforce, you can see the workforce of the future happening already in Amman Tawe.
 
14:07
Janet HaworthBiography
The Minister will be aware of the loss of general practitioner surgeries, especially in rural areas, where this has the knock-on effect of patients seeking to register with surviving practices. This puts extra pressure on these practices. What plans does your Government have in place to ensure the survival of our primary care services across Wales?
 
14:07
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, as the Member will have heard Kirsty Williams mention earlier, we now have an agreement with GPC Wales on a new framework for supporting practices in rural areas, which are inevitably small in scale and on multiple sites, and that happens in Valleys communities as well. The framework sets out a set of agreed criteria, against which fragile practices can apply to their local health boards for assistance, and there is an agreed make-up of a panel that will determine those applications locally. That assistance can be in the form of back-up services, back office services that health boards may be able to provide on behalf of small practices; it can be extra deployment of workers to come and help out, or it can be in the form of direct financial assistance. I’m very glad that we’ve been able to conclude that agreement with GPC Wales, and I think it will help to address the sorts of circumstance that the Member has identified.
 
14:08
Aled RobertsBiography
Minister, you did announce that £80 million for additional training in February, but there was also an announcement in April on a review of the training and education of the health workforce, and I think that you gave an update in July. It was said at that time that you hoped to make some sort of final announcement during the autumn. Can you now tell us exactly when that report will be published?
 
14:09
Mark DrakefordBiography
My hope is to make that statement in October. We’ve completed the period of returning to the consultees to ask for their comments on the report that had been written under the leadership of Mel Evans. The panel have now reconvened to look at the comments that have been returned. They have fed back to me on their conclusions after completing that work. I look forward to receiving an update from the civil servants and making the announcement to the Assembly in October.
 
Nurse Recruitment
 
14:10
William PowellBiography
5. What assessment has the Minister made of the challenges facing nurse recruitment in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)0637(HSS)
 
14:10
Mark DrakefordBiography
Assessments of the recruitment challenges facing both local health boards and trusts, including those in mid and west Wales, are carried out through a number of mechanisms, but primarily through their integrated medium-term plans.
 
14:10
William PowellBiography
I’d like to thank the Minister very much for that response. Following a letter that I received last month from the Shrewsbury and Telford Hospital NHS Trust regarding delays that they’re currently suffering in their international staff recruitment programme, I immediately wrote to the Home Secretary to highlight the concerns that they had regarding the need to put nurses on the shortage occupation list. The response that I then received from the Minister for Immigration went on to refer to the,
 
‘long-term decision to train our workforce here at home.’
 
Minister, do you agree with me that, if we are to have and to maintain the safe nursing levels on our wards for which we are campaigning, in the short to medium term it will be necessary for us to recruit both from home and abroad? Furthermore, do you also agree with me, and, indeed, the Royal College of Nursing that the UK Government’s irresponsible and illogical attitude to immigration is contributing actively to the nursing crisis that we are facing?
 
14:11
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank William Powell for that question, and thank you for what you have done in writing to the UK Government on this matter. We, as a Government, have provided evidence to the UK Government’s Migration Advisory Committee’s review of the UK and Scotland shortage occupation lists and have argued in favour of including nursing within that UK list. It seems absolutely essential to me, and it is just a wrong-headed focus on the wrong issue that is leading them to refuse to do that. I’ve argued as well for a separate Welsh shortage occupation list. Scotland have it. We get absolutely nowhere in these discussions with the Home Office because they are bent on an entirely different set of priorities, and those things simply get in the way of them making sensible decisions. I agree with you that services in Wales could be improved by better recruitment from overseas. And the final point that you made about the absolutely wrong-headed decision that Elin Jones raised on the floor of the Assembly just before the summer, which will lead, potentially, to the deportation of very well-qualified nurses, both in the NHS and in the social care system, based on some entirely ideologically driven decision by the UK Government, is absolutely to be regretted.
 
14:13
Joyce WatsonBiography
We’ve talked about recruitment from further afield, but could you tell me, Minister, what efforts are being made by the health boards in Mid and West Wales to recruit surgically qualified nurses from within the European Union?
 
14:13
Mark DrakefordBiography
Thank you to Joyce Watson because, indeed, our first call is to recruit actively within the European Union. We have four local health boards in south Wales, including Hywel Dda, that are joined together in a common attempt to recruit from within the European Union. They are focused so far on Spain, on Portugal and on Italy. The first five overseas nurses to be recruited to Hywel Dda have begun work this week. There are a further 22, we hope, who have been offered contracts and who we expect to arrive. The Hywel Dda health board continues to take a very active part in recruiting on the European stage, including participating in the next European health recruitment fair in Dublin in October.
 
14:14
Paul DaviesBiography
I understand that the RCN have been concerned that staff shortages due to recruitment difficulties have resulted in nursing staff missing out on essential training. I note the £80 million you have invested in training. However, an RCN survey this year of more than 14,000 staff, with over 700 respondents working in Wales, revealed that nearly a fifth of nursing staff were unable to complete essential training. In the circumstances, what other support have you provided to nurses in order to tackle this specific problem? What mechanisms have you put in place as a Government to ensure that nurses are able to complete that essential training?
 
14:14
Mark DrakefordBiography
As Paul Davies’s question made clear, this is an issue that is not confined to Wales. As pressures on nurse numbers increase, so releasing nurses who are being employed for training becomes a greater issue for health boards and for trusts.
 
One of the ways in which this issue will undoubtedly be addressed is when we move to universal and compulsory revalidation of the nursing profession. The Nursing & Midwifery Council will consider this matter at their October meeting. We have had one health board in Wales that has been one of a small number of locations where the revalidation tool has been trialled—that was in the Aneurin Bevan health board. When health boards and trusts know that, in order for their nurse workforce to go on being accredited to train, they have got to be released for such training modules, then I think that will bring an extra and welcome pressure into the system.
 
14:15
Simon ThomasBiography
Minister, I agree with what you’ve just said on recruitment, of course, but it’s also important that we ask what sort of nursing workforce we need in mid Wales over ensuing years, and I am concerned on two issues: one is the possible shortage of community nurses, because there are nurses retiring, and there’s already a shortage there, and, secondly, that we’re missing an opportunity perhaps to establish senior nurse practitioners as part of the primary provision that we have, particularly those who are able to prescribe also, as a way of assisting and collaborating with GPs. Are those two things something that you’re working with the health boards on to ensure that they are available in future?
 
14:16
Mark DrakefordBiography
Thank you, Simon Thomas, for that question. We are collaborating with the health boards in the context of the plan that we have for primary care, in particular, and we’re trying to increase the number of nurses that are able to prescribe independently and to help in doing more in that respect.
 
There is an interesting issue that is connected to what Simon Thomas has raised, which we will come back to, no doubt, on the floor of this Assembly. The Safe Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Bill: one of the things that has been a matter of debate around it, and I know is well understood by the Member in charge of it, is whether or not, by identifying some parts of the health system as being protected in law in relation to the number of nurses, it might lead to areas that are not so protected finding numbers moved away from them. There are people in community nursing who raise that point regularly. We will come back to it. It’s a matter I know the Member in charge is aware of and we’ll be looking jointly to find ways of doing the good things that that Bill seeks to do while minimising any unintended consequences.
 
14:18
Keith DaviesBiography
Minister, will you welcome the start of the work at Prince Philip Hospital on implementing the new GP and emergency nurse practitioner unscheduled care service? Does the local health board’s success in recruiting to all these boards not demonstrate that, even in challenging times, nurses and GPs can be recruited for clinically sustainable services?
 
14:18
Mark DrakefordBiography
Of course, I do very much welcome the fact that work has begun on the front-of-house developments that will be required at Prince Philip Hospital. I hope it’s a tangible sign to the local population of the service that, I think, by and large now, people are signed up to. And, the fact that, as I understand it, as Keith Davies has said, the health board has been able to fill all the posts that it was looking for in order to provide that new service, I think does show that, when workforce planning is got right, and scarce professionals can see that they’re going to be asked to work in a service that is properly organised and sustainable for the future, we’re still very well able, in Wales, to recruit successfully to such ventures.
 
14:19
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you.
 
14:19
2. Questions to the Minister for Education and Skills
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to item 2, which is questions to the Minister for Education and Skills, and question 1 is William Graham.
 
Absenteeism in Schools
 
14:19
William GrahamBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Good afternoon, Minister.
 
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the rate of absenteeism in schools in South Wales East? OAQ(4)0625(ESK)
 
14:19
Huw LewisBiographyThe Minister for Education and Skills
My thanks to the Member for South Wales East. I’m pleased to report that, across Wales, attendance continues to improve. Overall absence in secondary schools in south-east Wales improved according to the latest statistics, although performance does, of course, vary between local authorities in the region, highlighting that there is still work to be done.
 
14:19
William GrahamBiography
I’m grateful to the Minister for his answer; he will know that the figures have not improved as one would like. The Minister will also know that children only get one chance in school, and, although reasons for absenteeism can be many and varied, what positive steps could he take to engage with local authorities to reduce this worrying trend?
 
14:20
Huw LewisBiography
Well, as I say, Presiding Officer, the trend is not worrying; the trend is showing every sign of improving. I do worry about those, perhaps, local authority areas where things are not quite as advanced as they would be, for instance, in Monmouthshire, which is showing now absence levels of only 5 per cent—this is measured by half days missed in a year—and Torfaen, which has seen a decrease in its absence figures down to about just over 6 per cent, although it’s perhaps not quite so encouraging in Caerphilly, where absence figures remain over 7 per cent. The good work that’s been done in terms of driving absence figures down is about local authorities understanding their schools, and schools working together with pupils—and families, critically—to ensure that the importance of good attendance is something that nobody misunderstands. It really is also very much about good-quality teaching and learning in the classroom, which is one of the single biggest motivating factors for young people when it comes to an enthusiasm to attend school. But the overall trend is in the right direction.
 
14:21
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Minister, you are right: in fact, absenteeism is going the right way. But official figures on school absenteeism do not cover incidents of truancy where a parent is making efforts to ensure that the child attends school, but without much success. What efforts are being made for help and support to be given to such parents, please?
 
14:21
Huw LewisBiography
Well, of course, we have our education welfare services, and it’s very important that the officials engaged in that sort of work are on top of their game and that, as I say, the local authorities are in very close contact with schools, and with social services, if that is part of the picture as well. I would encourage those Members who are concerned about their particular local authority area perhaps not performing quite as well as the best in Wales to encourage their local authorities to take a long hard look at some of the best practice we are seeing up and down the country. But it is true to say that, across Wales as a whole, school absenteeism levels are at record low levels.
 
After-school Clubs
 
14:22
Julie MorganBiography
2. What is the Welsh Government doing to promote participation in after-school clubs to improve a child’s basic skills? OAQ(4)0624(ESK)
 
14:22
Huw LewisBiography
My thanks to the Member for Cardiff North. Recent Welsh Government guidance on family and community engagement recognises the benefits to learners of schools working in partnership with community groups and learners’ families. Partnership projects, which could be run either during or after school hours, help learners apply, practice and see the relevance of their learning.
 
14:23
Julie MorganBiography
I thank the Minister for that response. Llanishen Fach Primary School in my constituency is providing a very popular after-school bridge club, which, of course, is excellent for promoting numeracy, problem solving and developing mental maths skills. The Welsh Bridge Union has been in touch to say it’s keen to promote bridge as an activity in other schools and it’s offering to work with schools, doing structured courses with all the materials needed to deliver this. Is this something that the Minister would welcome and would encourage in other schools in Cardiff and in Wales?
 
14:23
Huw LewisBiography
Well, of course, I would. Thank you for bringing that to my attention. I am pleased that Llanishen Fach has chosen an innovative approach, really, to addressing those crucial skills and engaging young people in an innovative way. Improving literacy and numeracy skills do remain, of course, key educational priorities, and I’m pleased that schools are prepared to experiment and use engaging approaches such as, in this case, bridge, to develop those skills. That’s all to the good. Every school, I would hope, pays attention to the potential that after-school clubs and school clubs in general can have in engaging young people in all sorts of agendas relevant to their education and, indeed, with an eye to broadening those young people’s view of the world and their education in general.
 
14:24
Darren MillarBiography
Minister, access to after-school clubs can often be hindered by a lack of transport from schools back home for those pupils who don’t have access to transport other than perhaps their parents and others. What work do you intend to do with Welsh local authorities to help facilitate home-to-school transport for those who want to be able to participate in the after-school activities that are offered by many schools across Wales?
 
14:25
Huw LewisBiography
Well, of course, the Welsh Government recently announced subsidised bus fares and reduced bus fares for 16, 17 and 18-year-olds. It marks a unique policy departure. As far as I’m aware, this is the only part of the United Kingdom where such subsidised transport for young people of that age group is supplied by the Government. That, I think, will make a great difference to those older age groups. There will, of course, remain transport worries concerning younger age groups and, of course, most particularly in those areas where there isn’t a great deal of public transport after 5 p.m. I would remind colleagues that the pupil deprivation grant, which is distributed pretty much to every school in Wales—it is quite a legitimate use of the pupil deprivation grant that headteachers could consider providing transport for young people, most particularly, of course, if it is aimed at raising the attainment levels of the least well-off young people.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
14:26
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople, and first this afternoon is Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
 
14:26
Simon ThomasBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, your Government is getting a bit of a reputation for setting targets, missing them, and then either abolishing them or downgrading them. But you really have two targets for the same thing. You are now in the strange position of having one national target for attainment for free-school-meal pupils of 37 per cent to achieve grades A* to C at GCSE, and another target for the school categorisation threshold of 34 per cent. Which do you actually expect schools to achieve, and by when?
 
14:27
Huw LewisBiography
Well, Simon Thomas is being a little bit fast and loose with the facts here, as is maybe his wont. Perhaps we should have targets for Plaid Cymru researchers to keep up with statistical studies. Thirty-seven per cent, of course, is the national target for gaining five good GCSEs—A* to C. What Simon Thomas also refers to is that ratchet effect of increasing targets—32 per cent, and I believe 34 per cent after that—to ensure that there is a floor beneath which our Schools Challenge Cymru schools should not drop. These are schools, as we all know, that were facing the greatest challenges of all when they joined the schools challenge. Although some of them are already exceeding that target, there are those that have compounded multiple problems that stretch back in some cases some years. It is in order to be clear to everyone that every school is expected to improve every year in terms of closing the gap between the least well-off young people and their peers that that ratcheting target is there for that very specific group of schools.
 
14:28
Simon ThomasBiography
Well, I can assure the Minister that I do know what I’m talking about, even if Nick Ramsay’s phone doesn’t agree with me. [Laughter.] What we’re talking about here is a target for 34 per cent of intervention in schools that need intervention to support free school meals by 2017, whereas your national target says 37 per cent by 2017. So, that means that, if a school reaches 34 per cent, it won’t be seen as needing any further assistance to meet your national target although it will, in fact, be 3 per cent short of your national target.
 
Now, before the summer, you were very bullish that Wales would outpace England in achievement in GCSEs, including improvement on the link between poverty and educational attainment. In fact, we only achieved 31 per cent when it comes to those who receive free school meals. That, surely, is a great betrayal of Welsh pupils in deprived communities. You constantly prove improvement but only deliver mediocrity. What are you going to do to hit your own target for pupils receiving free school meals?
 
14:29
Huw LewisBiography
Presiding Officer, if Plaid Cymru really regards this summer’s GCSE results as an example of mediocrity, then I suggest they think long and hard about the message that they’re sending out there to our young people, to their parents, and to our teaching professionals. Our level 2 inclusive results this year were at 57.6 per cent—an all-time high. That’s 2.1 percentage points up on the year before—a level of achievement that is 13.2 percentage points higher than when records began, back in 2006-07. Also, 31.3 per cent of pupils eligible for free school meals achieved the level 2 inclusive of five A* to C grades at GCSE, and that was 3.5 percentage points higher than in 2013-14—again, an all-time high. On top of that, what those figures show is that the gap between the least well-off young people and the rest is closing—promises fulfilled. Early days, yes, of course, early days; it is still unacceptable that only one third of our young people on free school meals are achieving at this level. It is unacceptable, and a great deal more work remains to be done. But, to portray these efforts as somehow being mediocre is disingenuous, to say the least, and is a disgraceful misportrayal of the efforts that schools and young people have been putting in over the last couple of years. [Interruption.]
 
14:31
Leighton AndrewsBiography
Withdraw it.
 
14:31
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I don’t think the Minister needs any assistance.
 
14:31
Simon ThomasBiography
I’m not withdrawing anything. Early days? Sixteen years you’ve had to perform—16 years is not early days. I specifically said ‘free school meals’. Both of you—the two of you—have been preaching about dealing with poverty and education for 16 years now. The Labour Party has been in Government for 16 years, has failed utterly and betrayed the communities you represent. A third of the children in Wales can’t even get five decent GCSEs, because of your failure in Government. I won’t take any lessons from you about that, and I certainly won’t apologise for speaking up for the poorest in our communities, against a Government that’s consistently let them down.
 
14:32
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Are you coming to your third question?
 
14:32
Simon ThomasBiography
If I’m allowed to.
 
14:32
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you.
 
14:32
Simon ThomasBiography
Schools Challenge Cymru, of course, is your latest scheme to improve standards. So, of the 40 schools in the programme, how many outperformed the national average in raising the standards of free-school-meals students?
 
14:32
Huw LewisBiography
Well, those numbers are still being resolved. As Simon Thomas knows full well, the full resolution of GCSE results doesn’t come in the summer—
 
14:32
Simon ThomasBiography
Well, you’ve just said how good they were.
 
14:32
Huw LewisBiography
He’s seen the results—
 
14:32
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Minister, he wasn’t standing up when he spoke, so just ignore what he’s saying when he’s sitting down, and answer the original question.
 
14:32
Huw LewisBiography
Well, I’m trying very hard to ignore several points that the Member has raised this afternoon, Presiding Officer, so let’s try and stick to the facts here. And the facts are these: we have never been at such a point, ever, in our secondary schools, when the least well-off young people in our communities are performing at this level of attainment—never—and that includes the four years when Plaid Cymru were in Government. And we have never before seen such a closure of the gap between those young people’s attainment and everyone else in the school population. The schools results in Wales show, unequivocally, that the system is improving, and that the young people who are improving the fastest are the poorest. And I’ll go to my constituents, and to the people of Wales, and be proud of that record.
 
14:33
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Angela Burns.
 
14:33
Angela BurnsBiography
Thank you Deputy—I beg your pardon, thank you, Presiding Officer.
 
14:33
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
It’s catching, it’s catching. Is there something I don’t know?
 
14:34
Angela BurnsBiography
Minister, will you please explain why the Welsh Government didn’t note that England had changed its exams structure in 2013 in last year’s statistical release on that academic year’s GCSE results, as it did in this year’s release?
 
14:34
Huw LewisBiography
Well, really, if I spent my time trying to keep track of the changes in the English examinations system, it would very rapidly turn into a full-time job for me. We’ve had the English baccalaureate, and not the English baccalaureate, we’ve had the plus 8 and the super 8, and the in-out, in-out, hokey-cokey approach to what is actually measured within the examinations system within England. It has changed so often over the last couple of years that it is rather bewildering. It has reached the point, in fact, where, since the latest review in England—the Alison Wolf review; I don’t know how many of you spotted that one, but it seemed to come and go overnight—the changes made by that review have made it clear that England is now highly unlikely even to produce a level 2 inclusive figure for their GCSE results this year, which means that my ambition to close the gap between Welsh and English GCSE attainment will actually be very difficult to prove statistically because England, it seems, are not even going to produce the figures.
 
14:35
Angela BurnsBiography
‘Disingenuous’ is going to have to be the word of the day, I think. Simon Thomas had to use it, and I’m going to use it with you, because you are being deliberately disingenuous. The reason why my first question was so important is that it goes to the integrity of the answers and the information that the Welsh Government chooses to share with not just the opposition parties, but with the people of Wales. You, Minister, have stood in this Chamber over the last six to eight months and said that you are going to close the gap between England and Wales; that your policies are going to make that difference for our children. And, yet, when we actually looked at the figures, the reason why the statistical releases show that there was a closure in the gap had nothing to do with you, Minister; nothing to do with your policies, but everything to do with the changes that the English have made to their exam. If you’re going to stand here and compare yourself to England and say you are doing better or you have closed the gap, then you’ve got to use a properly verified set of figures because, otherwise, you’re trying to pull the wool over our eyes and the eyes of the Welsh public. So, what is it? Did you know or not? Because this year, you confessed; last year, you didn’t.
 
14:36
Huw LewisBiography
Well, Presiding Officer, I’ve heard it all this afternoon now, and what we see beginning to emerge, as the unequivocal evidence that the Welsh school system improving is starting to come through thick and fast, is both Plaid Cymru, and now the Welsh Conservatives, attempting to play the man and not the ball. I’ve had my integrity impugned this afternoon. Let me tell you that, in terms of the figures we’re using here when we talk about the figures on GCSE attainment in England, and figures going back to 2011, they’re not my figures; it’s not my officials who have published these figures; these figures are published by the Department for Education in England. The level 2 inclusive gap over those years was: in 2011, 8.9 per cent; 2012, 8.3 per cent; 2013, 6.5 per cent, and last year, 1.4 per cent.
 
We have difficulty now in terms of comparing. These comparisons are—. I’ve always accepted that these comparisons are not necessarily helping anyone educationally, but the media are obsessed with this comparison and so, it seems, are the opposition party, so let’s address the question. The difficulty this year will be that the Department for Education in England has changed the measures so often, so profoundly now, that it’s highly unlikely that England will produce a level 2 inclusive figure that will make any sense whatsoever this autumn, and that won’t be a first.
 
14:38
Angela BurnsBiography
I don’t mind with whom we choose to compare ourselves as long as they’re significantly better than us. We could compare ourselves to Scotland, or perhaps Germany, or perhaps one of the Scandinavian countries. The point, Minister, is that we all need benchmarks and measurements, something your department absolutely hates having to do, as we found out in the committee meeting today. We need to be able to judge the quality of the work that the education department is producing; we need to be able to judge the quality of our education system. We need to be able to judge where our young people are going to be on a global playing field. You, very, very deliberately, and with great fanfare, have stood here in the past and said that you are closing the gap with England, and you’ve cited these very figures that have now been proven to be made of nothing but ephemera. So, what I’m saying to you is that we need you to stick to a decent set of figures, where we can benchmark the performance of this Government. And it is vitally important; it’s not about talking down education; it’s not about talking down Wales; it’s about ensuring that we raise our game, so that we actually become truly excellent and are better than everybody around us. But, if you’re going to play by one set of figures, which are the ones that you’ve been quoting all this year—and we can go back to the Record of Proceedings and see them again and again and again—then don’t be surprised when someone like me stands up and tells you that you have got it wrong and that you are being disingenuous, because that is exactly, Minister, what you are being.
 
14:40
Huw LewisBiography
Well, I’m bewildered now, Presiding Officer; I’m at a loss. I must confess, I’m at a loss as to how to respond to—. Well, that wasn’t really a question at all, was it? It was some kind of assertion, based on what exactly? Let me tell the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson the truth, and I challenge her, and any other opposition Member here present today, listening to this debate, to come back and disprove this: Wales has maintained a transparent and consistent methodology of measuring the level 2 inclusive score over these years, since 2011. We haven’t changed it; it has been consistent throughout. Professional statisticians—I presume you are not calling their integrity into question—are the people who give us those figures. Consistently, throughout those years, since 2011, we have seen the level 2 inclusive score in Wales rise from 50 per cent to 51 per cent the year after, to 52 per cent the year after that, to 55 per cent in 2014 and, this year, reaching an all-time high of 57.6 per cent. Quite who the opposition parties are accusing of being disingenuous, I don’t know, but I will be very happy to be disproven by anyone who can bring me proper evidence, rather than assertions, that those clear statistics are in any way wrong.
 
14:41
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, Aled Roberts.
 
14:41
Aled RobertsBiography
I’m not going to suggest that the statistics are wrong, but I do want to question some of them on the basis of the evidence that you have provided to us within some of your reports, because some of us recall how unwilling the predecessor education Minister was to accept the idea of having a pupil deprivation grant in the first place. But we do welcome his change of heart on the road to Damascus if you like,
 
If you recall this morning, I did say that there were weaknesses in the way that statistics are gathered. I’m very eager to understand—you’ve said that the gap between those who receive free school meals and those who don’t is narrowing, but the report published last month suggests that there is one caveat to that, and that is that there are fewer children who are put forward for the core subjects in key stage 4 than those put forward who don’t receive free school meals, and that there is therefore a weakness in the government’s analysis that that gap is narrowing. Is any work being done to understand why fewer children in receipt of free school meals are not being put forward for GCSEs than their peers within the school?
 
14:43
Huw LewisBiography
Presiding Officer, that is just another assertion pulled out of the air here. I’m not aware of any statistics that show—
 
14:43
Aled RobertsBiography
It’s in your own report, Minister.
 
14:43
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order. Excuse me, Aled Roberts.
 
14:43
Huw LewisBiography
I’m not aware of any statistics that show a fall in the number of young people, over time, on free school meals, who are being entered for examinations. I’m very happy to take a look at those figures in order to confirm that. [Interruption.]
 
14:43
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order. Sorry, Minister, hold on. We’re making very slow progress this afternoon and it doesn’t help when you’re making comments from the back seats. Minister, please go on.
 
14:44
Huw LewisBiography
The truth of the matter here is incontrovertible and the opposition parties cannot stomach it because it is clear: it’s written in letters a mile high and every teacher who I have spoken to across Wales for the last 12 months knows that it’s true and every honest commentator on the state of Welsh education also knows that it’s true. Our GCSE performance is rising year on year and the gap between the least well-off young people in our schools and the rest is at an all-time high and they are gaining ground on their peers. The opposition parties cannot stomach it.
 
14:44
Aled RobertsBiography
It’s your own report, Minister—paragraph 18:
 
‘Despite a narrowing gap in attainment nationally at Key Stage 4 there are some caveats: first, improvements in GCSE attainment among e-FSM pupils are balanced against proportionately fewer e-FSM pupils being entered for GCSEs in core subjects’.
 
Why is that happening?
 
14:45
Huw LewisBiography
Well, I’m not going to comment on a random paragraph pulled out. I’m not even aware which document the Member is waving around in the Chamber this afternoon.
 
14:45
Aled RobertsBiography
The Welsh Government ‘Evaluation of the Pupil Deprivation Grant’.
 
14:45
Huw LewisBiography
Well, thank you. Obviously, I should have known that, or perhaps worn better glasses. But that wouldn’t surprise me at all, that a lower proportion of young people on free school meals are entered for some GCSE subjects. That’s part of the problem we’re trying to overcome here. The point here is that, year on year, the number of young people on free school meals that pass five good GCSEs—a life-changing set of qualifications—with that clutch of qualifications, is rising, and it’s rising faster than the level of the general population. QED.
 
14:46
Aled RobertsBiography
Well, may I move on to one of the other indicators that the Government has put in place, namely the PISA tests? It was stated in a written statement that only 89 out of 213 secondary schools in Wales had volunteered to participate in the next PISA tests. Do you have any update on that figure, please?
 
14:46
Huw LewisBiography
As far as I’m aware, that is the figure of schools that voluntarily entered to use the PISA-style questions that were made available on Hwb, which is our electronic resource for professionals across Wales, which is, I would guess, around 40 per cent of our secondary schools here in Wales. It is not for me to dragoon schools into tests like this. This is a choice for professionals. We encourage schools to take a look at the option. After all, these PISA-style questions follow quite closely our changes, particularly the changes that are being made in GCSE teaching and assessment over the next few years. Eighty-nine schools, I believe, is the correct figure.
 
14:47
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move back to questions on the paper, and question 3 is from Aled Roberts.
 
Schools Challenge Cymru
 
14:47
Aled RobertsBiography
3. Will the Minister outline how the Schools Challenge Cymru funding for regional consortia will be spent? OAQ(4)0629(ESK)
 
14:47
Huw LewisBiography
This year, £3.5 million has been awarded to regional consortia to continue to build capacity and support collaboration at regional level. This investment is designed to ensure that Schools Challenge Cymru continues to have a positive impact on the wider educational system.
 
14:48
Aled RobertsBiography
Would you be willing to invite the consortia to publish exactly how they spend that money, so that we as opposition parties can assess what impact that spending has had on individual school improvement within the regions?
 
14:48
Huw LewisBiography
Well yes, of course; there’s no mystery to the way that funding allocated to consortia is spent. It’s spent according to the plans developed by the consortia themselves. It’s all about building capacity, releasing expertise, which is an important part of finding room within the system to do this work, and there is no secret about the accounting behind how the consortia work. All that is published, and I’m very happy to write to the Member with details of whichever part of those figures he’s interested in.
 
14:49
Jenny RathboneBiography
Would you agree with me, Minister, that rather than the glass-half-empty, instant-gratification approach of some of our colleagues, that the Schools Challenge Cymru programme can only deliver once we’ve seen the results of improving the way in which primary schools tackle deprivation? What heart can you take from the London Challenge report that came out today, by the London School of Economics and the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which showed that they had doubled the outcomes for children on free school meals? However, that is a programme that’s been going since 2003. It takes time. Perhaps you could just tell us how the relationship between the regional consortia and the Schools Challenge Cymru programme is operating to reinforce all the measures that we know work in the London Challenge, which is, obviously, what our programme is based on.
 
14:50
Huw LewisBiography
Schools Challenge Cymru is, indeed, based on the best use of good evidence-based interventions that we have seen working in other parts of the UK and, indeed, in other parts of Europe and across the world. We have experts working with us—alongside us—that were involved in the London Challenge and the Greater Manchester Challenge as well. Let me tell you that Professor Mel Ainscow, who’s heading up this work for the Welsh Government, is on record as saying that after only the first year—let’s remember, this is just the first full complete academic year that we’ve seen the schools challenge in operation here in Wales—as saying unequivocally that, at least in terms of that albeit rather narrow measure of GCSE improvement, Wales is improving faster than was the experience in London after their first year. Now, it’s very dangerous to extrapolate beyond that, but let’s just put that out there for consideration. There is certainly nothing dysfunctional in terms of a comparison between the early days of Schools Challenge Cymru and the challenge, as was, in London—the London Challenge, of course, having been dismantled by the coalition Government when they came to power, but the after-effects, in terms of how professionals work with each other in London, proving to have been permanent.
 
14:51
Paul DaviesBiography
Minister, I was pleased to attend the launch of Schools Challenge Cymru with you at Milford Haven comprehensive, which is the one school taking part in the initiative in my constituency. It’s clear from the answer you gave to Simon Thomas earlier that you don’t yet know whether the scheme is successful or not. Can you tell us, therefore, when you will know whether the scheme has been successful or not, given that it has been running for a year and it’s only committed to run for two years?
 
14:52
Huw LewisBiography
I was answering a question that was specifically in connection with GCSE results this year. We’re not in a position, really, anywhere in Wales to give final definitive figures on the GCSE results, although we do know that a good number of Schools Challenge Cymru schools have, within the first year of engagement with the programme, increased their level 2 inclusive attainment to levels that they have never themselves seen before. An example is Tonypandy comprehensive, which has turned in GCSE results this summer that that community has never seen before. These are double-figures increases; we are seeing improvements of 10 per cent, 11 per cent and almost 20 per cent for some schools in terms of the number of young people succeeding at GCSE after one year of the challenge. However, these are narrow measures of success of how the challenge should actually be judged, and we are at a very early stage. We should do justice to the young people who are involved in this challenge, which is about a great deal more than a snapshot of a single set of GCSE figures.
 
14:53
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
How many of the schools included in the Schools Challenge Cymru programme are in the GwE area, which is the north Wales consortium area?
 
14:53
Huw LewisBiography
I’m sorry, I didn’t catch the beginning of your question; I beg your pardon.
 
14:54
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
How many schools included in the Schools Challenge Cymru programme are in the GwE area, which is the north Wales consortium area?
 
14:54
Huw LewisBiography
The number of schools in north Wales included in Schools Challenge Cymru is well known. I can’t call the exact figure to mind. Am I missing the point of the question? They’ve been known now for some time.
 
Higher Education Funding
 
14:54
Simon ThomasBiography
4. When does the Minister expect the first part of Professor Diamond’s review of higher education funding to be published? OAQ(4)0632(ESK)
 
14:54
Huw LewisBiography
I expect to receive a factual summary of the evidence that Professor Diamond and the review panel have considered as part of their work by this November. It will be published at the earliest opportunity following submission.
 
14:55
Simon ThomasBiography
I thank the Minister for confirming that we will see the publication of this important work. Does he expect that his party and the Government—and, indeed, all other parties—will put forward during the election campaign next year, on the basis of the factual statistical analysis, new proposals for the funding of higher education?
 
14:55
Huw LewisBiography
Well, I can’t speak for other political parties; that is a matter for them, but I would have thought that everyone with a realistic view of the political landscape at the moment would realise that there’s a great deal of pressure in terms of how higher education is funded going forward, and I know that my party will be carefully considering what it takes to the electorate in terms of a socially just but affordable way in which we can support our students in the future.
 
14:56
David ReesBiography
Minister, I am sure you would agree with me that one of the priorities for the Diamond review is actually to ensure a high quality of education in our higher education sector, but also to ensure that it works with other partners across the whole sector to deliver for our regional communities here in Wales. It’s come to my attention that, in fact, we are seeing a growth in what I would call access to higher education-type courses across the sector—sometimes in HE institutions themselves or under the auspices of HE institutions. It’s possible that those fall outside the umbrella or net of quality assurance, because QAA looks at HE work and, if they’re not in further education colleges, it misses their work. Will you look at the area of this type of access course to ensure that the quality is assessed? I don’t question them, but it’s important that we are confident that the quality is there to ensure that service delivery across the whole sector—FE and HE—is meeting the standard we expect?
 
14:56
Huw LewisBiography
Can I thank the Member for Aberavon for raising this point this afternoon? It is very important. I am aware of these courses, and there’s no reason to think that quality is an issue. However, I’m not convinced that courses like this would necessarily represent the best value for the public purse, and I’ve asked my officials to look at this sort of provision. I’ve also asked Professor Sir Ian Diamond to give particular attention to this issue in terms of his review of student finance and higher education funding. Wales really does need a strong partnership and strong collaboration between further and higher education. We need that collaboration, and not competition, between the sectors. So, I do thank the Member for bringing that point to the floor of the Chamber. That is something upon which we will act as soon as is humanly possible.
 
14:57
Nick RamsayBiography
Minister, the £3.6 billion cost of your tuition fees policy was justified on the basis of helping Welsh universities, but there’s actually been a drop in Welsh students attending those universities over the past two years. Could it be that the Diamond review publication is being withheld because it shows that your policy is ultimately unsustainable? Yesterday, we had the withholding of the publication of Cabinet decisions; today, this. Whatever happened to transparency?
 
14:58
Huw LewisBiography
Presiding Officer, I’m beginning to think I may have entered an alternate dimension, in relation to some of the questions that I’m receiving, particularly from the Welsh Conservatives, this afternoon. I haven’t withheld the Diamond review; it will be published this autumn and that has always been the intent. Nothing’s been withheld. The Member needs to stay off those conspiracy theory websites.
 
Local Education Consortia
 
14:59
David ReesBiography
5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to monitor the effectiveness of local education consortia? OAQ(4)0627(ESK)
 
14:59
Huw LewisBiography
I welcome the positive progress identified by Estyn and the Wales Audit Office in their recently published reports on consortia. My officials continue to monitor the performance, progress and impact of consortia against their agreed business plans and tomorrow I will undertake the first of this autumn’s review and challenge events.
 
14:59
David ReesBiography
Well, thank you for that answer, Minister. In fact, those reports from Estyn and the Wales Audit Office actually highlighted the need to ensure that regional consortia are appropriately scrutinised, and I’m sure you would agree that the work undertaken in supporting schools to improve should be evaluated for both effectiveness and value for money. This year, we’ve seen the best results for GCSEs, and I’m sure that the work of the consortia has fed into that, but what evidence is available to demonstrate that, and what action will the Welsh Government take to actually analyse the work of the consortia to ensure that they play an effective role in delivering school improvements?
 
15:00
Huw LewisBiography
Well, as the Member knows, I take a direct and personal interest in the effectiveness of consortia. As I mentioned in my previous response, I will be chairing tomorrow the first in a round of review and challenge events for each of the four consortia. They’re also, as you’ve mentioned, scrutinised through Estyn and the audit office, too. A great deal hinges for our young people on the success of our consortia. They are essentially the means by which school improvement services are delivered here now in Wales, and although we are seeing signs of uplift in school performance, most particularly through those GCSE results, we will have to keep a very close and vigilant eye on how the consortia are working and how they develop. They’re engaged in a complicated business. Even a single school is a complicated thing. With 2,200 schools, well, that is very complicated indeed. So, we need to support our consortia but also we need to challenge them at every turn.
 
15:01
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiographyThe Leader of the Opposition
Minister, I’ve had representations from some schools in my area over the supply of information and the forewarning, shall we say, when, obviously, the traffic light system was brought forward, and they found themselves to be in a category that everything led them to believe that they weren’t going to be in. There does seem to be a genuine concern over the ability to have discussions with the consortia about the assessments that they’ve made and then, maybe, any appeals that they might want to lodge with the consortia over that grading. Have you made an assessment of the way in which the information and the discussions between the school and the consortia is undertaken so that any bottlenecks can be ironed out, because that relationship is vital to drive improvement, and the last thing we want is a deterioration in the relationship between the consortia and the individual schools?
 
15:02
Huw LewisBiography
Can I thank the Member for that question? It is quite a worrying question, actually, because it points to someone, somewhere, having the wool pulled over their eyes. No school should be surprised by the traffic light colour that it receives because it has been involved from the beginning of the discussion with the consortium and with its local authority. It’s been involved in all the discussions that have led to the categorisation colour code that the school actually receives. So, for any headteacher to turn around and tell any observer, ‘I don’t know where this came from; it’s a surprise’, is a very puzzling comment to make indeed. But, to be as generous as I could possibly put it, there is obviously something wrong in the school improvement agenda of a school that doesn’t understand how it managed to get into its category. That, in itself, is a school improvement worry.
 
15:03
William PowellBiography
Minister, as you are aware a petition is currently being considered by the National Assembly’s Petitions Committee calling for the Welsh Government to review the guidance to local authorities on headteachers’ power to authorise term-time holidays. You’ve previously stated that the existing guidance in Wales does advise schools and local authorities of their discretionary power to authorise up to 10 days absence per year for a family holiday during term time. However, evidence recently presented to the committee by the lead petitioner, Bethany Walpole-Rowe of Ceredigion, suggests that in practice it’s the education consortia that are in the driving seats here and are determining policy, which is making it very difficult for headteachers and governing bodies. In the light of this uncertainty, Minister, will you consider, in partnership with the consortia across Wales, reviewing the guidance and making it clearer and more transparent?
 
15:04
Huw LewisBiography
Well, if I could say, Presiding Officer, I don’t intend to review the guidance. I think the guidance is clear and it is transparent and the headteacher is the person in the driving seat. If there is another interpretation being forced into the conversation by a consortium, local authority or anybody else, I would be very happy to learn about it so that I could intervene. We do not have the English-style system here in Wales. A great many people seem to be under the impression that the school absence system in Wales is what is reported as being the one in England. Ours is different. It is about discretion, and it is about the common sense attitude of a headteacher, and that’s the critical element. So, if Members are seeing schools that are not operating in that way, I’d like to know about it because I’d like to get in touch with those local authorities or consortia concerned to make sure that guidance is being followed.
 
Impact of Poverty on Educational Attainment
 
15:05
Christine ChapmanBiography
6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to reduce the impact of poverty on educational attainment in Wales? OAQ(4)0626(ESK)
 
15:05
Huw LewisBiography
My thanks to the Member for Cynon Valley. We will continue to implement our programme of educational reform, which is now paying real dividends. The results published last Thursday show that in 2014-15, 31.3 per cent of free school meal learners achieved five A* to C grades at GCSE. As I say, this is a 3.5 per cent uplift, higher than in 2013-14.
 
15:05
Christine ChapmanBiography
Thank you, Minister. I was absolutely delighted to see this increase in the number of free school meal pupils getting five good GCSEs, and this does represent a narrowing of the attainment gap, and this is something that we should be very proud of. However, the gap is still there, as the ‘Ready to Read’ report published last week demonstrated, with children with persistent experiences of poverty being twice as likely to have poor vocabulary skills as their peers, with significant consequences in turn for their educational attainment. I wondered, Minister, what your reflections on this report are, and how can the Welsh Government best address the challenges it identifies?
 
15:06
Huw LewisBiography
I’ll read the report with interest. All evidence in this regard is valuable, but all evidence, it seems, is also consistent and very clear in that some of the problems relating to educational attainment are rooted in literacy and numeracy—and literacy, particularly, is itself rooted in early oracy in the very young. And that’s why I’m working very closely with my colleague the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, to make sure that what Flying Start delivers to our young people takes into account that disadvantage in the acquisition of language that very, very young children face in deprived circumstances. It is—
 
15:07
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I’m sorry; I thought you’d finished.
 
15:07
Huw LewisBiography
I’m sorry; just one final sentence, if you’ll forgive me, Presiding Officer. It is the case, though, that good intervention can transform situations for young people. Just this week I went to a comprehensive school in the Vale of Glamorgan, which this summer saw 66 per cent of its young people on free school meals hitting five good GCSEs.
 
15:08
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Minister, Estyn recently called for more to be done to prevent vulnerable pupils, many of whom come from poor backgrounds, from being excluded from schools. They call on local authorities, schools and pupil referral units to work together to prevent children leaving full-time education here in Wales. What action does the Minister intend to take in response to this call by Estyn, please?
 
15:08
Huw LewisBiography
Of course the Member will be aware of our work on school exclusions. Although figures do move up and down slightly, they are in historic terms, over the last 10 years or so, on a downward trend. And he’ll be aware that I’ve asked Ann Keane, the former chief inspector of schools, to review our work on education other than at school, which will include PRU provision and other forms of provision and intervention for those young people at risk of being excluded from schools. I know that Ann will provide us a report that will be extremely useful—indispensable, I’m sure—in terms of making further improvements in this regard.
 
15:09
Bethan JenkinsBiography
I believe firmly in the aspiration behind this question, and that informed my Financial Education and Inclusion (Wales) Bill, as you will know, Minister. But it is a little-known fact that growth rates in manufacturing are actually greater than those from the financial industry, and also help to spread wealth around the UK, which is obviously what we want to do. With that in mind, would you consider an audit of engineering provision, particularly at A-level across Wales, with a view to improving that provision? Because when I did a desktop study of this a couple of years ago, provision was patchy, and it would be good to see if this has changed or not, and if it hasn’t changed, what are you doing as Minister to improve it?
 
15:10
Huw LewisBiography
I’m assuming that the Member’s referring to engineering provision within schools as a subject area. Yes. Well, that’s a very interesting intervention and I think there’s substance in what the Member is suggesting—it would be very much in line with current policy developments. If she’d be kind enough to write to me with the substance of her suggestion, I’d be more than happy to take a look at that.
 
15:10
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Minister, the pupil deprivation grant is also applied to those very youngest children now in nursery settings, which is very welcome, following a campaign by the Liberal Democrats, but also to children who are looked after. What analysis are you carrying out to look at the impact of pupil deprivation grant on nursery children but also those children who find themselves in the care system through no fault of their own?
 
15:10
Huw LewisBiography
Well, we will evaluate the effect of the pupil deprivation grant in all its guises, whether it’s for older children on free school meals, those who are looked after or the very young, through the usual evaluation procedures. It is, though—. I would remind everyone, particularly in terms of the £300 now allocated for the very young, the cheques are barely out of the building as yet. One of the questions I’ll be asking headteachers and leaders in settings for the very young is for an audit as soon as possible in terms of how they are spending their pupil deprivation grant. I wouldn’t like our early years settings to be under any misapprehension about who that money is intended for and the purpose for which it’s intended.
 
3. Welsh Conservatives Debate: Local Authority Services and Council Tax
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Elin Jones.
 
15:11
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to item 3, which is the Welsh Conservative debate on local authority services and council tax. I call on Janet Finch-Saunders to move the motion. Janet Finch-Saunders.
 
Motion NDM5831 Paul Davies
 
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
 
1. Notes the important role that local authority services play in an individuals’ experiences of public services.
 
2. Regrets the Welsh Government’s persistent refusal to provide support to local authorities in preventing rises in council tax bills;
 
3. Notes that the average band D council tax for Wales for 2015-16 is £1,328; and that households are £546 worse off over the course of the Fourth Assembly due to the Welsh Government’s refusal to implement a council tax freeze;
 
4. Believes that people in Wales will question the value for money provided by many local authority services further to these council tax rises; and
 
5. Further believes that more work needs to be done in Wales to utilise the role third sector organisations can play in effective local service delivery.
 
Motion moved.
 
15:12
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
I move the motion in the name of Paul Davies AM, a motion that seeks to propose that the National Assembly for Wales does note
 
‘the important role that local authority services play in an individuals' experiences of public services.’
 
And we regret
 
‘the Welsh Government's persistent refusal to provide support to local authorities in preventing rises in council tax bills’,
 
noting that
 
‘the average band D council tax for Wales for 2015-16 is £1,328; and that households are £546 worse off over the course of the Fourth Assembly due to the Welsh Government's refusal to implement a council tax freeze’.
 
And we believe
 
‘that people in Wales will question the value for money provided by many local authority services further to these council tax rises’.
 
And we further believe
 
‘that more work needs to be done in Wales to utilise the role third sector organisations can play in effective local service delivery.’
 
Local public services play a key role in the everyday lives of people across Wales, and it is only right that those responsible for this provide top delivery and performance alongside value for money for out taxpayers here in Wales.
 
Over 16 years and under the Welsh Labour Government, our residents have seen crippling council tax rises that now have increased to a 168 per cent increase since this Labour Government came into play here. They have seen the Welsh Local Government Association warning of public service failure and they have seen over £100 million spent on golden handshakes for senior council staff over the last three years. What they haven’t seen, though, in some authorities is innovative public services, open and transparent spending and value for money across local government.
 
Our motion today calls on this Assembly to note the important role the third sector can play in providing innovative and effective local service delivery, and highlights the importance of value for money when it comes to spending taxpayers’ money.
 
Local authorities, indeed every local authority has the moral imperative and a duty to spend taxpayers’ money with prudence, financial probity and should be held accountable in democratic terms, both at local level and, of course, here in the Welsh Labour Government.
 
The confidence of local people in their ability to influence and shape local service delivery is worryingly low. The 2014-15 national survey for Wales found that 59 per cent—yes, 59 per cent of people—disagreed or strongly disagreed that they could influence decisions affecting their local area. Of course, we only need to look at our health service and the problems therein, especially in north Wales, for further evidence of ignoring patients, especially after taking what they call consultations on ward closures and recently on maternity services. What an absolute shambles. Again, we can only lay responsibility, ultimately, at the feet of this Government. However, at present, this lack of confidence is further hindered by a culture of secrecy in some local authorities. That, now, of course, is extending to the Welsh Labour Government and their shocking announcement yesterday that they will no longer be publishing Cabinet decision reports online. You know, it’s about culture, a culture of secrecy, and it’s also about trend.
 
In 2013-14, Wrexham council held every single one of its cabinet meetings behind closed doors. Anglesey—Ynys Môn, I prefer to say—excluded the public from at least one agenda item in 71 per cent of their cabinet meetings. A Welsh Conservative survey found that 49 per cent of respondents felt that their authority did not provide easy-to-access information on where it spends council tax and additional taxpayers’ money—
 
15:16
Mike HedgesBiography
Will you take an intervention?
 
15:16
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Yes.
 
15:16
Mike HedgesBiography
Thank you, Janet Finch-Saunders, for taking this intervention. How many committee meetings do you attend here that go into private session?
 
15:16
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
We are talking about cabinet meetings where decisions are being made, usually when it’s controversial. This culture of secrecy, closed doors and a lack of information must be stopped. We are calling today for local authorities to provide council tax payers with a clear and accessible breakdown of how their money is spent. We are calling for open public meetings of engagement prior to council budget setting to increase transparency and enhance public understanding of how and where their money is spent. Monmouthshire do this and consider it extremely worth while. We are calling for all local authorities to publish all expenditure as, again, Conservative-led Monmouthshire council do. A change in Labour’s local government culture is well overdue.
 
Overturning such a culture of unaccountability and secrecy is just the first step. We do need to acknowledge and utilise the valuable role that the third sector can play in providing our vital public services. The third sector understands the needs of service users and our communities and often has a closeness to people that public services can only hope to reach. The provision of value-driven service delivery and innovative solutions via the third sector is invaluable and is a resource that certainly needs tapping into. Effective Governments don’t always need to deliver every service, but they do need to ensure that services are delivered efficiently and well to a high standard. Co-production Wales (All in this Together) have highlighted the need for a fundamental shift in thinking in terms of public service delivery, stating that the futureproofing of services requires a change, breaking down barriers between people who provide services and those who use them.
 
We need to provide better public services more efficiently and offer new partnerships between Government, civil society and the independent sector. We need to give power to those working on the front line, to those who know what is best for the service that they are charged with delivering. There are lessons to be learnt from steps taken over the border in England to improve both the transparency of local government and the delivery of such services. These include incentives to drive local growth, whereby councils retain 50 per cent of money generated by business rates; a requirement on all local authorities to publish expenditure; and a cut down on wasteful spending across the board. Cutting down on such waste is essential, both for providing taxpayers with value for money and for increasing confidence in the way public money is spent by those who represent them at local level and Government level.
 
Welsh taxpayers will be shocked to learn that redundancy payments by local authorities have risen by almost 50 per cent in the last 12 months, and that is over £100 million—£100 million spent on golden handshakes. As I said, it’s well known as the revolving door process, where an officer is made redundant, given a fat cheque, only to return in another role or as an external consultant. This kind of spending flies in the face of Labour’s cuts to the local government budget that have forced councils to seek efficiency savings. I have concerns that this outrageous figure could be just the tip of the iceberg if Labour press ahead with their current botched plans for council mergers and major upheaval in local government reorganisation. It is little surprise that the public has lost confidence in the Welsh Labour Government’s ability to deliver local government reform. I’ve only been here for four years and I’ve already lost such confidence.
 
Our policies to restore public faith in the delivery of public services through utilising and increasing the role of the third sector and through operating true and proper open and accountable government will reduce wasteful spend by councils and enable us to pass this on to council tax payers through a council tax freeze. Welsh Labour’s failure to freeze council tax, as they do in Scotland, as they do in England, has now left us—us, as well—£546 worse off. Since Labour came to power, council tax bills have risen 168 per cent. We know, certainly in Conwy, they’ve already factored a 5 per cent increase into their budget for next year.
 
The Minister has highlighted that the local government settlement is not the only funding stream for councils in Wales, and I wonder whether, today, he would confirm that this indicates his contentment with further council tax rises across Wales. Certainly, neither the Minister nor his predecessor, nor his predecessor, gave any indication as to how high council tax would have to rise before they would even consider using their power to cap council tax increases.
 
Now, the First Minister has said he cannot see how a council tax freeze would help the local economy. But, I put it to the Minister here today that the people of Wales know best how to spend their money. The people of Wales would not have lost £15 million, as the Welsh Labour Government did through the regeneration investment fund. The people of Wales would not have awarded grant funding to a charity that had not even applied for it, as we saw this week with Autism Spectrum Connections Cymru and Autism Initiatives UK. And, the people of Wales would not have paid out £100 million over three years in golden handshakes for the boys. The people of Wales know best how to spend their money in our Welsh economy, and a Welsh Conservative Government would ensure that they would have money in their pockets to spend.
 
That might appear to be small fry to the Minister, sat in his office up on the fifth floor. Indeed, his party in Westminster have called a council tax freeze a ‘gimmick’, but I assure you, Minister, it is a significant sum to many of our households the length and breadth of Wales. This is our policy commitment and I can assure you that it is not a gimmick. I urge Members to support our motion today; to support open and transparent spending of public money; to support the role of the third sector in providing vital public services; and to support giving back to the people of Wales who have put up with so much incompetent spending of public money by the Welsh Labour Government. Let’s give them this money back in their pockets and let us have improved public services. If you can’t do it, then, on 6 May, move over and let the Welsh Conservatives do this for you.
 
15:23
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
I have selected the amendment to the motion. I call on Lindsay Whittle to move that amendment, tabled in the name of Elin Jones—Lindsay Whittle.
 
Amendment 1—Elin Jones
 
Delete all after point 1 and replace with:
 
Regrets the implications for the future of local authority services if the UK Government continues to pursue austerity policies.
 
Believes that local authorities and communities should have the freedom to make their own decisions to raise finance, in order to protect local services and jobs.
 
Amendment 1 moved.
 
15:23
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Diolch, Lywydd. I formally move the amendment in the name of Elin Jones and, in doing so, I declare an interest that I am also a member of Caerphilly County Borough Council, but take no remuneration from said council.
 
Plaid Cymru will be opposing the Conservative motion today and every point included in it, apart from part 1. The Conservatives regularly unfurl the flag of council tax rises every few months. There’ve been two Conservative debates on council tax rises this year and more throughout the term of this Assembly. This motion, like the others, I believe, deserves to be rejected, not because the other parties like council tax rises, or because we want to increase the costs for working people, but because the Tories really are in no position to criticise anything regarding local government funding without rightly being accused of ‘having a bit of a nerve’. Local government is in a state of—[Interruption.] I really toned that down [Laughter.]
 
Local government is in a state of crisis. Last year, the finance spokesperson of the WLGA was warning that it was just a matter of time before the basic delivery of services reached a crisis point. As a councillor for close on 40 years now and a former leader of a major council, I’ve not seen such a dire condition of local government financing in Wales. There is, I’m afraid, fault to be laid here at Labour’s door, as well. They’ve shown themselves to be lacking in leadership on local government reform and collaboration, waiting, perhaps, too long to arrange a commission on local government reform in the first place, even though it was inevitable, and then kicking the report into the long grass as far as possible, really. You’d be good for the world cup, boys. Their decision to forgo the reintegration of health and social care, something long called for by Plaid Cymru, has exacerbated the financial problems in local authorities even further. So, no other party is entirely free from responsibility when it comes to the state of local authority finances.
 
But, the Tories’ motion here is particularly galling given two things. Firstly, it’s their ideological commitment to austerity that is ultimately driving the public financial situation across the UK. Their manifesto commitments back in 2010 made clear what was going to happen, as they explicitly advocated for services from Government to be cut back and taken over by the private sector. Secondly, all we need to do is to find out what the Tories—
 
15:26
Nick RamsayBiography
Will you give way?
 
15:26
Lindsay WhittleBiography
No, I’ve no time. I’m terribly sorry, Nick; you can answer the end. What the Tories would do with local government in Wales—well, just look at their record in England. An austerity audit earlier this year confirmed there’s been a 37 per cent cut to local government in England since 2010, with further cuts planned over the next Parliament. Coupled with the council tax freeze, which has prevented any English authorities from doing anything to plug their shortfall, it’s been a disaster for local authorities.
 
Well, is that what we want in Wales? Is that what we want? No. In Wales, of course, the current financial situation persists, but we will reach the point that English authorities face at some point in the coming few years. Yet, despite this, the Tories are calling for tax cuts, decreasing vital revenue sources even further. So, we would urge Members to support our motion today, because we cannot allow any party that bears so much responsibility for the financial problems of local authorities to get away with a motion such as this today. The motion seems to place the blame for people’s dissatisfaction with service provision and local amenities on the high cost of council tax. Well, as a councillor for many years, I think the real problem is that the services they expect and should have as part of the basic contract between people and Government are being lost in a right-wing experiment to remodel the state. No permanent council tax freeze is going to help alleviate that, I’m sorry.
 
15:27
Mohammad AsgharBiography
I’ve been listening to this debate for a while, for this Government has done a lot of cuts and everything. But if the Conservative Party hadn’t done these cuts, we’d probably be living like Greece, so remember these words and thus my speech starts for the council tax.
 
In Brighton this week, we have heard the Labour Party conference criticising the Conservative Government for its alleged attacks on hard-working people. Speaker after speaker queued up to claim only Labour will stand by hard-pressed communities—what a strange statement; they are the ones who put people in poverty in the first place. However, the reality is somewhat different. Wales is the only part of the United Kingdom where Labour is still in power. The fact is, whatever their claim in Brighton, in Wales, Labour has let down hard-working families.
 
It is a fact that while the UK Government has sought to ease the pressure on household budgets caused by council tax increases, the Welsh Government has chosen not to. Welsh Labour has paid lip service to the problems faced by hard-working families in Wales in paying their bills.
 
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair.
 
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Instead of using the money provided by the Westminster Government to freeze council tax in Wales, Welsh Labour has allowed council tax bills to rise to excessive levels. The average band council tax bill in 1997, Deputy Presiding Officer, was £495. In 2015-16, it was £1,328. This represents an increase of 168 per cent. In south-east Wales, it is the poorest communities that have suffered the most. Since 2011, council tax has increased by £542—550—. [Interruption.] Yes, go on then.
 
15:30
Jeff CuthbertBiography
Do you think, in South Wales East, perhaps what’s really hit households is the welfare changes that your Government has brought in, which have meant a loss, on average, of £550 per working-age adult?
 
15:30
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Well, Jeff, you know very well, you were a Minister—
 
15:30
Jeff CuthbertBiography
Yes, that’s right, so I know.
 
15:30
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Look, this Government—our Government in Westminster—only in real terms have cut 1p in the £1, for God’s sake, and you’re trying to say this country has got really in a bad position in finances. It’s not that—it’s the mismanagement of your Government here.
 
It’s £553 in Torfaen; Merthyr Tydfil, £693; and a struggling £733 in Blaenau Gwent, which is the poorest region in my patch. Citizens Advice has said that council tax in Wales is the biggest debt problem. The number of people struggling to pay council tax bills has more than doubled in the last 12 months. Deputy Presiding Officer, we on this side of the Chamber recognise the need to help families and pensioners with their bills. In sharp contrast, the Welsh Labour Government has shown a callous disregard for those people by refusing to freeze the council tax in Wales. Welsh Labour has decided to use the money for its own purposes. They believe they know best how to spend the money, rather than leaving it in the pockets of the Welsh public. The First Minister is on record as saying he could not see how a council tax freeze would, I quote, in his words, ‘help the local economy’. What a strange thinking by a First Minister.
 
Well, First Minister, putting money in people’s pockets stimulates the local economy. Giving people increased spending power allows them to make their own spending decisions, and most will be spent locally, boosting the local economy. That is the answer, First Minister. It isn’t good enough for the Welsh Government to say that average council tax bills are lower in Wales than they are in England. Welsh bills have gone up, from being 78 per cent of the English level—78 per cent—to 89 per cent in the current year. What a shame. Average wages were lower in Wales than in England, and we remain the poorest nation in the United Kingdom. By refusing to freeze council tax, the Welsh Labour Government has shown—
 
15:33
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding OfficerBiography
Finish now, please.
 
15:33
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
 
It has shown that it does not care about relieving the pressure on Welsh families and pensioners. It is a disgrace that Wales under Labour—
 
15:33
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding OfficerBiography
Finish, please.
 
15:33
Mohammad AsgharBiography
[Continues.]—is the only part of the United Kingdom that denies the benefits of a council tax freeze.
 
15:33
Mike HedgesBiography
This debate takes place when the most extreme Government Britain has ever had is setting out destroying the state provision of services in England. [Interruption.] I want, initially, to address two specific points in the resolution.
 
15:33
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding OfficerBiography
Order. We’ve heard pungent speeches from this side; he’s not been going 10 seconds and you’re shouting him down. He will be heard. Mike Hedges.
 
15:33
Mike HedgesBiography
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
 
Point 2 regrets the Welsh Government’s persistent refusal to provide support to local authorities in preventing rises in council tax. The Welsh block grant, I would say, is the Welsh block grant, but, as that seemed to confuse some of the researchers on the Conservative benches, I’ll try and help them. The Welsh block grant is a fixed sum. If the Welsh Government reduces the rate support grant—and they made up the grant, they made it up by a grant supporting council tax—local authorities would have exactly the same money coming in, just packaged differently, and then spun as a saving, which would be illusory.
 
Point 3 notes the average band D council tax for Wales for 2015-16 is £1,328, and that households are £546 worse off over the course of the fourth Assembly due to the Welsh Government’s refusal to implement a council tax freeze. The fact that the average band D council tax is higher in England is, of course, ignored. The fact that a large number of Conservative councils in England have not implemented the council tax freeze is also, of course, ignored. The logic of this argument is that there is a desire to reduce local government expenditure by £546 per council tax payer per council.
 
I now intend to summarise my interpretation of the Conservative party’s policies.
 
15:35
Nick RamsayBiography
Will you give way, Mike?
 
15:35
Mike HedgesBiography
Can I finish my summary, and I will then? You might want to intervene twice. A freeze on council tax, cut the rate support grant in order to support hospital services, directly fund schools and reduce overall education expenditure by ending the central local authority expenditure, and for councils to concentrate on their statutory functions and reduce or end discretionary services. Nick.
 
15:35
Nick RamsayBiography
Thank you for giving way. Yes, you’re right; a number of local authorities, Labour local authorities, in England, did choose not to pass on the council tax freeze. But the difference in England compared with Wales is that at least they were given the choice, which councils in Wales were not given.
 
15:35
Mike HedgesBiography
Well, actually, I’m glad Labour’s won Surrey, we’re doing really well, but I think the key point, of course, is that local authorities get exactly the same amount of money; it’s just how it’s paid out. Every local authority in Wales could freeze council tax; they just have to cut services. What does this position that I’ve just said about the Conservatives mean in practice? If education central services were removed, the most obvious change would be the end of free school transport. This would need legislation. It would be taking us back to before the 1944 Butler Act. This would disproportionately affect rural areas, Welsh-medium education and denominational schools. The second major area removed would be education consortia, and, whilst removing them may be popular, it would signal the end to all support to schools from outside.
 
End discretionary services—that’s an easy one, isn’t it? You’re only doing statutory services: that would mean closing all parks, closing all community centres, closing all leisure centres, closing all sports facilities, closing all public toilets, ending bus subsidies—and that’s obviously a number of bus routes—ending economic development by local authorities, ending support for tourism by local authorities and substantially reducing library provision. What the Conservatives appear incapable of understanding is that housing, social services for the elderly, primary care and secondary care are all inter-related. To quote that well-known left-leaning news group, Sky:
 
‘Bed blocking in NHS hospitals has reached its highest level…amid warnings that a lack of social care is bringing the health service “to its knees”. Every day, doctors and nurses in England are unable to discharge more than 1,000 patients who no longer need treatment because there is no care available for them at home or in the community…Analysis of the latest health statistics by Sky News shows that on one day in September’
 
2014, just under 5,000
 
‘patients were unable to be transferred either to other parts of the NHS or into the care of local authorities…That month, 138,068 days of care were lost because of “delayed transfers of care”. At £250 a day for a hospital bed’
 
that’s £34 million a month looking after patients who no longer need to be there.
 
More than a quarter of the delays were attributed to a lack of social care funding and that is before the latest set of cuts to local authority expenditure. Poor housing, unavailable sport and exercise opportunities, inadequate primary care and unavailable social care will lead, without any doubt whatsoever, to serious increasing demand and delays in hospital care. The continued attack on local government by the Conservatives is not only unfair and unwarranted, but, if implemented, would have a catastrophic effect on hospital services and the whole of society.
 
Can I just finish by paying tribute to councillors of all political parties? When I first got elected, I served on the county council with Nigel Evans. I know Lindsay Whittle served as a councillor for 40 years. These people give their time and work incredibly hard for very modest amounts of money. I think we all ought to pay tribute to the work that they do for their community because they care.
 
15:38
Russell GeorgeBiography
I would like the opportunity to take part in this important debate on our public local services. I do declare an interest as a sitting member of Powys County Council. I do agree with Mike Hedges that many county councillors work extremely hard across Wales. I would like to focus my remarks on the challenges of delivering public services in rural areas, and the unfairness, I think, in the funding formula, which continues to penalise rural local authorities in Wales. Living and working in mid-Wales is a great privilege, but delivering essential public services, such as healthcare and education, in rural areas, where public transport links are limited, is increasingly challenging. Some local authorities, including my own, are also currently considering closing schools serving local areas, meaning that students may spend a good proportion of their time, of their educational day, travelling to school on a bus rather than being in a classroom and this has the potential to penalise those who live in the most rural parts of Wales. There is, therefore, a requirement for there to be new and innovative ways of thinking, which will see services delivered closer to people who live in rural areas of Wales rather than further away.
 
There are clearly specific issues facing rural areas, such as my Montgomeryshire constituency and, in recent years, many of those problems have been exacerbated by a Welsh Government that continues to fail to reflect the unique challenges of delivering public services across large, sparsely populated areas, such as mid Wales.
 
For the last eight years in a row, Powys County Council has received one of the worst local government funding settlements from the Welsh Government of all 22 local authorities in Wales. I seem to make that statement every year, just adding an extra year on every year I’ve been here.
 
A special budget seminar of Powys County Council was told that, on average, they’ve received a 0.5 per cent increase every year for the past nine years, compared to a Welsh average increase of 9.8 per cent, and a near 19 per cent increase for Cardiff Council. So, the average over the last nine years is: Cardiff Council a 19 per cent increase and Powys County Council a 0.5 per cent increase.
 
Harry Thomas, a former chief executive of Gwynedd Council and a recently appointed member of the Independent Commission on Local Government Finance, told the seminar earlier this month that Powys’s budget would be £16 million higher if the county had received the Welsh average. I listened to Mike Hedges and what he says—that it is all the fault of the UK Government—but these are decisions made here by this Welsh Labour Government.
 
15:42
Mike HedgesBiography
Will you take an intervention?
 
15:42
Russell GeorgeBiography
Yes.
 
15:42
Mike HedgesBiography
Is Powys County Council not better funded than both Cardiff and Swansea per head of population and above the Welsh average in terms of the amount of money it receives per head?
 
15:42
Russell GeorgeBiography
You completely miss the point, Mike Hedges. You’re therefore saying that, nine years ago, Powys County Council was well overfunded.
 
15:42
Mike HedgesBiography
Yes.
 
15:42
Russell GeorgeBiography
Well, thanks for making that clear; I’ll be sure to let my constituents know that view. I don’t agree with you, Mike Hedges. You’re not aware of the unique challenges that exist in rural parts of Wales. You’re just not seeing that point, Mike, at all.
 
The difference between urban and rural areas is wrong and it’s time that ended, and the Welsh Government needs to reform the formula that it used to decide how much each council receives. The current system is flawed. It doesn’t work properly and it doesn’t take into account the challenges of delivering vital local public services over large rural areas. The current system provides councils in urban south Wales with a far more attractive financial settlement, while the largest, most rural councils of Powys, Ceredigion, Monmouthshire and Pembrokeshire are among those with the worst cash settlements.
 
In conclusion, Depu