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The Assembly met at 13:31 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
 
13:31
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
 
13:31
Statement by the Presiding Officer
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Before we start the agenda this afternoon, I have, as I said I would yesterday, reviewed the Record of Proceedings, and a number of unacceptable things were said during yesterday’s debate on the legislative consent motion on the UK Trade Union Bill. I called the leader of the opposition to order for referring to a group of Members as ‘you lot’. I did not hear the word ‘mob’ at the time. But, having reviewed the Record, I see that the leader of the opposition did use it, and I certainly consider that too to be out of order. And I would ask Members—all Members—again to be respectful when referring both to each other and to people outside the Chamber during session.
 
1. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
 
13:32
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to item 1, which is questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and question 1 is Mohammad Asghar.
 
Services for Cancer Patients
 
13:32
Mohammad AsgharBiography
1. What action will the Minister take to improve services for cancer patients in Wales for the remainder of this Assembly term? OAQ(4)0674(HSS)
 
13:32
Vaughan GethingBiographyThe Deputy Minister for Health
Thank you for the question. I recently required each health board to set out 100-day improvement plans, to focus on improving services and outcomes for patients. The cancer delivery plan sets out our vision for cancer services in Wales, and that plan is supported by clinicians, cancer charities, and campaign groups, who also take part in the cancer implementation group.
 
13:33
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Thank you for the positive reply, Minister. But patients in Wales face increasing delays over cancer care delivery. Across Wales, there has been a 6 per cent increase in those waiting for urgent cancer care. What action will the Minister take to address this worrying deterioration in cancer waiting times in Wales, please?
 
13:33
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thank you for the question. As we all know, there’s been a significant increase in the number of people referred for cancer, the number of people being diagnosed with cancer. I set out this week in the cancer annual report that about 19,000 people were actually being treated for cancer in the year covered. So, there’s going to be extra volume going into the service. These challenges exist across the UK. The 100-day plans are about focusing on dealing with the referral-to-treatment times, and, as I say, delivering on improving outcomes, because, for me, the most important part is what outcomes are we securing for our people, and we know that, in fact, more people are still being seen within the required time—28 per cent more people were seen within the required time. We still have better referral-to-treatment times than England, but this is an area where we recognise that improvement is needed, and, in particular, to deal with the backlog of people who are still waiting. So, I’m clear about my expectations, and I believe health boards will deliver and you’ll see referral-to-treatment times improving over the next quarter.
 
13:34
David ReesBiography
Deputy Minister, as you may well be aware, the Health and Social Care Committee looked at the cancer delivery plan, and it produced a report on that, which did indicate that good progress was being made. But there were a couple of concerns, and one of them was the key worker and the role of the clinical specialist nurse. Can you tell us what the Welsh Government is actually doing to improve the uptake of the key worker, to ensure there’s enough there for people, because they are critical to not just the cancer care delivery, but also all the other ancillary issues, particularly around information that they will receive at that time.
 
13:34
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. He makes a fair point about not just the outcomes, but actually the quality of care and how people are treated through the whole of their treatment, understanding the diagnosis and the other forms of help and assistance that they may need. So, we’ve been very clear, again, in our guidance about the role of the key worker. The 2013 cancer survey recognised that two thirds of patients had been assigned a key worker and knew who they were. We expect to see improvement, and it’s a clear priority for us, because we recognise that, as well as understanding the information about their treatment and their treatment pathway and what that will mean for them, we do want to see that that person is treated as a whole person in the family, in the community and what’s important to them. So, I’m clear about the guidance we’ve issued. I’m clear that we expect health boards to improve their positions, which I think will happen and be borne out in the cancer patient survey, but I also expect that there’s more that we could and should do in the future.
 
13:35
John GriffithsBiography
Minister, at the end of last week, along with the Presiding Officer, Lindsay Whittle and many others, I was at the cutting of the first sod by the health Minister at the St David’s Foundation Hospice in Newport—a 15-bed hospice with considerable investment from Welsh Government, Newport City Council and a range of others. Would you agree with me that this shows the importance of investing in services that support people at every stage of the condition?
 
13:36
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, I absolutely do recognise that, and I’m very pleased that the Minister had the opportunity to cut the first sod in the pouring rain and that it wasn’t something that I had to do. But, this is a good example of looking at all the different forms of treatment and support that people need at every stage in their journey. It’s also a really good example of partnership between health, local government and the third sector, as well. I’m very proud of the work we’re doing with the hospice movement on seeing different forms of care that are appropriate to people’s needs at that point in their treatment, and we’re making real strides in this area, in particular in end-of-life care with people who are, unfortunately, suffering from cancer.
 
13:36
Sandy MewiesBiography
Deputy Minister, I’m sure everyone here welcomes the news that cancer survival rates are improving in Wales, and this is despite the fact that even more people are being diagnosed with cancer than before. Can you tell me what the Government and the Welsh NHS, working together, are doing to improve early diagnosis?
 
13:37
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question and, again, highlight the fact that cancer services are improving in Wales. It’s a really positive success story for NHS Wales that survivorship at one year and five years is improving, and, for the first time ever, more than half the people diagnosed with cancer are now expected to live past five years.
 
On early diagnosis, this is a national priority that the cancer implementation group has selected for itself. There’s work being done on improving access to diagnostics and there’s important work being done on lung cancer as a particular priority. We recognise that we don’t see enough people referring themselves early enough; they’re being seen later in the pathway than they should be, so outcomes aren’t as good as they should be, as well. So, we recognise also the work we’re doing with primary care—the work we’re doing with Macmillan and the oncology service—so that primary care clinicians are enabled to identify and refer earlier, so that people can get definitive treatment and support afterwards, as well.
 
Investment in Health Services in Gwent
 
13:38
John GriffithsBiography
2. Will the Minister make a statement on investment in health services in Gwent? OAQ(4)0688(HSS)
 
13:38
Mark DrakefordBiographyThe Minister for Health and Social Services
In this financial year, we will invest over a £1 billion in health services in Gwent, or £1,848 for every person in the population. That will increase further again next year as a result of the additional £260 million revenue investment in health services announced in December’s draft budget.
 
13:38
John GriffithsBiography
Minister, we are on a journey towards greater provision of services in primary care, rather than secondary care. Would you agree with me that, in order to make that transition as smooth and as effective as possible, it’s very important that we get the community facilities in place before services are pulled out, as it were, from the secondary sector? In that regard, would you also agree that it’s very important that health centres such as the Ringland health centre, which has long been planned and is eagerly awaited, are part of that change in provision?
 
13:39
Mark DrakefordBiography
I absolutely agree with what John Griffiths has said about the need to shift services out of secondary care and into community and primary services. That does mean we have to invest in the infrastructure of our primary and community estate. The finance Minister has had some very fruitful discussions with the European Investment Bank in relation to the programme of investment in Ireland, which that investment bank has supported in order to modernise and improve their primary care estate, and it’s an avenue that we intend to pursue actively over the months ahead.
 
13:39
William GrahamBiography
Minister, you’ll be aware of the contribution by private industry in raising £100 million in equity finance, in terms of Proton Partners International, who will open the United Kingdom’s first proton beam therapy centre in Newport later this year. Would the Minister agree that both public and private medicine can both be complementary and contribute to the increase in health of people in Wales?
 
13:40
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank William Graham for drawing attention to the proton beam therapy clinic in Newport. It’s there as a result of investment through the Welsh Government as well, through my colleague Edwina Hart’s department. We hope it will be a tremendous success and will bring further investment and research into Wales. Certainly, we are confident that there will be a proton beam therapy clinic up and running in Wales as the first one of its sort in the United Kingdom.
 
13:40
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Minister, Members will have received notification from Aneurin Bevan Local Health Board on the reduction of mental health beds in the area. In view of your recent statement on the importance of 10-year mental health plans, what measures will you be taking to assist the Aneurin Bevan university health board to address their current lack of mental health staff, please?
 
13:41
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank Lindsay Whittle for that. The proposals by Aneurin Bevan health board will result in a reduction in one bed, from 61 to 60 beds, when its redesign of its services is complete. There is work that the health board needs to do in relation to its in-patient mental health services. It provides more beds per 1,000 in the population than three quarters of health bodies in the United Kingdom. So, it is heavily dependent on beds as opposed to some community services. We will assist the health board in its redesign, which will involve concentrating the services that it has in particular locations, redeploying the staff so that it can make the most it can of the staff that it has, while continuing to provide a secure service to its local population.
 
13:42
Kirsty WilliamsBiographyThe Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
Minister, the First Minister said yesterday that there was not an issue recruiting and retaining medics in Wales, yet, over the Christmas period, the Aneurin Bevan health board were unable to fulfil the paediatric rota and their services were taken out of Nevill Hall Hospital and relocated to the Royal Gwent Hospital for that period. Luckily, those rotas are now filled again and services are back to normal. But I’m sure that you would agree with me that this is not a good way in which to deliver a health service for a population. What steps are you taking to ensure that there are adequate staff of all levels in our district general hospitals? Would you agree with me that the situation in Abergavenny could have been avoided if the specialist and critical care centre was up and running?
 
13:43
Mark DrakefordBiography
I think it’s important to get some perspective on the matter that the Member refers to. This was one ward in one hospital for one week, and it was done in a way that was planned in advance and carefully communicated to all those who would have an interest in it, and the service is now fully back and running in the place that it is intended to be in the long term. Ninety-six per cent of all posts in the Welsh NHS are filled. We get very good levels of application for the vast majority of posts in the Welsh NHS. Like other parts of the United Kingdom, there are a smaller number of specialities where there is a shortage of doctors and where we have to compete with others to attract those people into the Welsh NHS. One of the ways of doing that is to make sure that we have the most up-to-date facilities and are able to offer people who want to come and work in Wales the conditions in which they would want to practise medicine. The SCCC is certainly part of that for the south-east Wales population. It’s why I have made provision in next year’s capital programme of £36.9 million to allow that to go ahead as soon as we have agreement on the next stage of the business plan.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
13:44
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople and, first this afternoon, the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Darren Millar.
 
13:44
Darren MillarBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I ask you, Minister: will you bail out local health boards that are unable to break even by the end of this financial year?
 
13:44
Mark DrakefordBiography
The position on health boards is identical this year to last year. The health main expenditure group will stay within the means that are made available to it by this National Assembly. I will not allow services to patients in any part of Wales to be compromised by some of the financial challenges that are faced by local health boards. You might want to call that ‘bailing out’; I regard it as sensible management of our finances to make sure that patient needs come first and are properly attended to. Where health boards have difficulties in living within their means, we work with them to put them in that position. Seventy-five per cent of health boards in Wales are on track to live within their means this year. Seventy-five per cent of health organisations in England, where his party are in charge, are set to overspend their means.
 
13:45
Darren MillarBiography
As you know, Minister, the financial arrangements are very different in England to what they are here in Wales. But what is clear is that, in the latest reported figures to the Public Accounts Committee, the Welsh NHS is expected to overspend by £142 million. Now, we’ve heard from the chief executive of the NHS in Wales that that is expected to reduce as the year end approaches, to around £60 million. But doesn’t this demonstrate the complete unsustainability of NHS finances here in Wales as a result of the cuts that your party has imposed—record-breaking cuts over the years—and do you accept now that you shouldn’t have imposed those cuts and that the NHS in Wales would have had £1 billion more from 2010-11 until now had you followed our plans for the Welsh NHS?
 
13:46
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, the very first part of what the Member said turned out to be accurate, in that the overspend projected in mid year is indeed coming down, and coming down rapidly. We are dealing with 1 per cent at the very top of the budget, which we still have to deal with here in Wales. It’s a completely different position to the one faced in England, where, as he says, yet again this year, £1 billion is being transferred out of capital in order to prop up the revenue side of the English NHS. Far from underfunding the NHS here in Wales, if you look at last year, for every person in Wales, we invested £85 extra per head of the population. In England, that was £65, and in Scotland it was £10. We are spending more on the Welsh NHS than ever before and we have a record we are very, very proud to defend.
 
13:47
Darren MillarBiography
No matter what figures you try to trot out, Minister, the reality is that your Government has presided over cuts, closures and downgrades of services across Wales and, as a result, patients are paying a price. One of the prices that patients are paying is an increase in negligence claims against clinicians. We’ve seen, just last week, figures revealed in the Betsi Cadwaladr health board that seem to demonstrate that they’re setting aside an anticipated £90 million against negligence claims in that part of Wales. What action are you taking to ensure that services are safe when they are delivered and that the costs of negligence come down in future years?
 
13:48
Mark DrakefordBiography
Clinical negligence claims across the United Kingdom are up—they’re up much less steeply in Wales than in England, where his party is in charge—and they’re up for a whole range of reasons. Partly they are up because of advances in medicine itself, which means that someone early on in life who will survive something that has gone wrong in their life will live for longer, and courts are ordering awards that take account of that. One of the things we will do is work with the Department of Health, however, on a piece of work that they are leading in which they are looking at the disproportionate legal costs that are being claimed for low-value clinical negligence outcomes for patients. We’re very pleased to work with them to see what we can do to reduce that call on the public purse.
 
13:49
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Elin Jones.
 
13:49
Elin JonesBiography
Minister, a report published last week demonstrated that 55 per cent of medicine students in Wales come from the 20 per cent most privileged in society and that only 6.5 per cent come from the 20 per cent least privileged. International evidence shows that doctors from poorer backgrounds are far more likely to serve in poorer communities. Do you intend to take any further steps to promote medicine as a subject in schools in our most disadvantaged areas?
 
13:49
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, I acknowledge the point that the Member is making. I have spoken to the university here in Cardiff on this very subject, and they are trying; they are doing a lot of work in schools in disadvantaged areas, where they’re trying to show young people that there are opportunities for them to work in the NHS in Wales and to start on the journey that leads to them working as doctors. So, a lot of work is being undertaken already, and people who are working in the education sector recognise and are aware of the point that Elin Jones has raised. There is more that we can do, and we are willing, of course, to look at any idea that can help us to go ahead with this agenda that we share.
 
13:50
Elin JonesBiography
Given that you are speaking to the medicine school in Cardiff, have you spoken to them about the 32 per cent cut to higher education funding in your own Government’s budget, which includes a 32 per cent cut, of course, to expensive subjects such as medical education? Cardiff University recently said in their evidence to the Finance Committee in this place:
 
‘2015-16 already saw a 50% reduction in HEFCW funding’
 
to medicine and dentistry and
 
‘further erosion or loss of this funding will put at risk the education of doctors and dentists within Wales for Wales.’
 
With a further 32 per cent cut, how many fewer doctors will be educated here in Wales in order to work ultimately for NHS Wales?
 
13:51
Mark DrakefordBiography
There are absolutely no plans to reduce the number of doctors being trained here in Wales. This Government invests, through my portfolio, £350 million and more in medical education here in Wales. That’s an investment I want to go on making. I want it to provide a greater return for the Welsh taxpayer in terms of doctors who complete their training who go on to work in the NHS here in Wales. There are things that we can do to make sure that we get that extra return, but there’s no reduction in the level of investment and there are no plans to reduce the number of doctors who are produced as a result of it.
 
13:51
Elin JonesBiography
But that contradicts directly with the evidence provided by Cardiff University to the Finance Committee here. They identify the fact that there is a direct link between the £15,000 that it costs to provide an education for an undergraduate medicine student—. It’s not possible to fund that entirely through fees, and so that cut of 32 per cent in expensive subjects will have a direct impact on their ability to train and to educate the doctors of the future. The response of the First Minister yesterday on this was that universities should look at using their reserves in order to make up the deficit as a result of this cut. Do you expect a university such as Cardiff to use its reserves to train the doctors of the future?
 
13:52
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, the general issue of funding of higher education in Wales was very well rehearsed here yesterday by the First Minister. Universities cannot expect to be immune from the pressures that face all public services in Wales, particularly at a point where they are in a better place than almost any other public service to take actions that lie in their own hands to address that position. I simply repeat the point that I made to Elin Jones a moment ago: there is major investment from the health portfolio in medical education here in Wales and there are no plans at all to reduce that.
 
13:53
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Kirsty Williams.
 
13:53
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, what discussions have you had with your colleague the Minister for Education and Skills about the impact on Wales of the Conservative Government’s Westminster decision to scrap bursaries for student nurses?
 
13:53
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, I have indeed discussed this with my colleague the education Minister and we both jointly took part in a discussion on the work that he has in hand to provide reports to the Welsh Government on the future funding of higher education in Wales. That is in stark contradistinction to the absolute silence from Ministers in Westminster who have not once taken the opportunity to contact this Government to explain the nature of their proposals, nor the impact that they are likely to have on us here in Wales.
 
13:54
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Thank you, Minister. I’m disappointment to hear that. Minister, given that student nurses spend 50 per cent of their time while studying in direct clinical practice and work over 2,300 hours in a clinical environment, do you believe it is fair to scrap that financial support that enables them to train in a way that often prevents them from having outside jobs to supplement their incomes?
 
13:54
Mark DrakefordBiography
The Member makes very good points. Here in the Chamber yesterday, Llywydd, the Conservative Party manifesto was being trailed around the Chamber as though it had been written by Moses. Here is a decision made by Ministers in England without a single reference in their manifesto to this possibility. As far as I can tell, the Department of Health hardly knew about it before it was announced either. We contacted them immediately after the announcement was made to ask them for further details and they told us that they’d get back to us in January when they understood it better themselves. We’re yet to hear anything from them. The points the Member makes are exactly the sort of things they ought to be taking into account when looking at the impact of the decision that’s been made.
 
13:55
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
I’ve got grave concerns about that impact and what it will mean for the ability to recruit nurses to hospitals here in Wales, but also to the hospitals that my constituents use across the border in England. If they go ahead, would you support Liberal Democrat calls for trainee nurses to be paid wages for the hours that they spend working on wards, if the Westminster Government isn’t prepared to support their training?
 
13:55
Mark DrakefordBiography
I very well understand that the Member will be familiar with the detail of this whole argument, given her work on the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Bill here in the Assembly. What I could say to her is this: I’ve already had a first opportunity to discuss these matters with Tina Donnelly, the head of the Royal College of Nursing here in Wales. She had some ideas that she wanted to put to me. As we learn more of the impact of the decisions in England, we will be in a better position to make decisions as to what we can do in Wales. What I can say is what I said to her at the health committee a week or so ago, that we have no immediate plans to change any arrangements in Wales, that anybody beginning a course in September of this year here in Wales will begin under the system we currently have, and we will, as ever, in the way that we do, work closely with the profession and with the health service on finding a way through the consequences for Wales of a decision that’s been taken elsewhere.
 
13:56
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move back to the questions on the paper and question 3 is from Peter Black.
 
Ambulance Response Times
 
13:57
Peter BlackBiography
3. Will the Minister make a statement on ambulance response times in South Wales West? OAQ(4)0679(HSS)
 
13:57
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thank you for the question. The latest ambulance response time figures, which were released today, show that performance in the South Wales West region was the best in Wales, with 76 per cent of red-category patients receiving a response in eight minutes in the month of December 2015.
 
13:57
Peter BlackBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. You will of course be aware of the problems in accident and emergency at the beginning of this month, at both the Princess of Wales and Morriston hospitals. In the former, there was one case where there were 13 ambulances queued outside A&E, and of course there are issues with the accident and emergency departments in the region of South Wales West. The latest figures for A&E show that 812 people waited over eight hours to be seen in those particular departments. Can I ask, Minister, given the impact that these figures in A&E are having on ambulance response times, what action is being taken to try to address that problem?
 
13:57
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the follow-up question. I spent some time working with and discussing these matters directly with the health board and other partners, not just in ABMU, but also further into west Wales, into Hywel Dda, in recognition of the fact that there is a joint healthcare system in that part of Wales. It’s a matter that I made clear over a number of months, and not just recently. The delivery unit has gone into a system as well and I expect there to be an improvement in the time that people spend within A&E departments being seen, treated and then eventually discharged. There hasn’t been a significant impact on ambulance response times within the locality around Morriston Hospital itself or even Bridgend, but my concern is that any time when ambulances are waiting unnecessarily is time that’s not being spent on getting to the next patient who’ll need that emergency ambulance call. So, there is real seriousness and understanding of it and the need to improve across the whole system, and the new figures that are being released today for the first quarter give a much greater level of detail about the quality of care being provided and the areas that they can go at and actually improve. So, I think that this is an improving situation and we can expect there to be further progress in the next quarter and the one after that as well.
 
13:59
Mike HedgesBiography
Deputy Minister, what assessment have you made of the first few months of the new ambulance model? Can performance in Wales be compared with services elsewhere in Britain?
 
13:59
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. My own assessment of performance with the new model is that it’s been a success story. You’ve seen a new model introduced and often you’d expect there to be problems and teething trouble with that, but we’ve actually seen performance increase and improve month on month, and with the detailed figures released today you see much more about the quality of the care that the ambulance service are providing and much more detail about areas for improvement between health boards and the ambulance service itself. It is still, though, difficult to directly compare performance here with other parts of the UK. Probably the most broadly comparable is the red 1 figure in England, but we actually have more conditions within the Welsh red bundle that we’re dealing with. We await within interest the English figures that will come out for the month of December in the coming weeks, and I’m sure people will draw their own comparisons. But I’m robustly confident that Wales will continue to perform at a very high level and compare favourably with England.
 
14:00
Altaf HussainBiography
Minister, yet again, we have seen a rise in the number of people waiting more than eight minutes for an emergency response to a red call. In South Wales West, we saw 84 people waiting more than eight minutes and witnessed ambulances queuing outside Morriston Hospital. A lack of beds and shortage of A&E doctors within the hospitals is impacting on A&E waiting times and leading to poor ambulance responses. What are the Welsh Government doing to improve bed numbers and their management in our hospitals?
 
14:01
Vaughan GethingBiography
I’m perplexed by the Member’s questions, because the facts do not support what the Member has just said. Ambulance response times are improving month on month across Wales, and in south-west Wales, in the region we’re talking about, they are the best in Wales for the month of December. I suggest the Member, and whoever writes his questions, goes back and checks the facts. Go back, check the facts and recognise that ambulance response times in Wales are improving. You do yourself and the NHS a disservice by getting the figures wrong and demanding that I accept a wholly incorrect representation of what we are doing. You do yourself a disservice. [Interruption.]
 
14:01
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order. Order.
 
14:01
Vaughan GethingBiography
The figures are there.
 
14:01
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We really can’t have this screaming and shouting from the back benches.
 
Bethan Jenkins. If we could just have short answers, Minister, because we’re out of time here. Bethan Jenkins.
 
14:02
Bethan JenkinsBiography
I’m not a doctor, but I’ve spoken to paramedics in the field. They are telling me that the Choose Well campaign has £45,000 and that they have been lobbying you to try and improve on that finance so that people are directed appropriately to pharmacies, to NHS Direct and to out-of-hours, so that we don’t potentially see the same amount of ambulances outside Morriston that we necessarily would see over Christmas. So, I urge you, Minister, to see if you could look into that further and to see if there are any additional pots of money that could be diverted towards that particular campaign.
 
14:02
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. We will always look at how we can improve on the Choose Well campaign to equip people with the right information to access the right sort of care, treatment, support and advice. Some of that, of course, comes on the telephone, and you will have seen from the figures released today the significant numbers of people who are seen, treated and discharged on the phone, but also from NHS Direct, where there were nearly a million hits in the last quarter for people receiving advice remotely. So, there’s more we could and should do. We want to understand the success of this year’s campaign and then understand what we could and should do to improve that in years to come.
 
14:03
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We move to question 4, but if we could have some slightly more concise answers, because we are only on question 4 and we’re nearly out of time. Leanne Wood.
 
The Capacity of the NHS
 
14:03
Leanne WoodBiography
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the capacity of the NHS in Wales to meet patient demand? OAQ(4)0683(HSS)
 
14:03
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. The NHS in Wales continues to manage increasing demand in both unscheduled care services and planned care services. This winter, however, has demonstrated improved resilience in the face of increased demand in Wales. Delivering high-quality care in the future will require reform and improvement in health and social care as well as a change in public attitudes and behaviour.
 
14:03
Leanne WoodBiographyThe Leader of Plaid Cymru
In recent weeks, I’ve been contacted by NHS staff concerned at the way that hospitals are being run in Wales and to share their frustrations at the number of operations that have had to be cancelled. You’ll know from private correspondence that a constituent of mine has had to face repeated cancellations for a procedure to investigate whether or not she has cancer. When you add the anecdotal evidence to the hard data that 950 operations were cancelled at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital alone since April 2013 because beds were unavailable, and a further 136 were cancelled because equipment was unavailable, can you understand the collective frustration of NHS staff and patients?
 
14:04
Vaughan GethingBiography
I think any member of staff will be frustrated when operative procedures are cancelled or moved. I know, in particular, the frustration that the member of the public feels. I can’t, obviously, comment on the individual case that we’re corresponding about, but what I would say is that, overall, within the system, we know there’s much greater elective activity taking place this year compared to last year, particularly through winter, and that’s been a real success story of the NHS this winter, that they’ve dealt with additional winter pressures and, at the same time, even more elective activity has taken place. There’s a whole range of factual evidence for that. So, I recognise the need to continue to do more. That does mean, though, that we need different systems and a different way of working now and in the future.
 
14:05
Christine ChapmanBiography
Deputy Minister, Cwm Taf Local Health Board, which provides health services in my constituency, recently received an NHS award for its work to improve patient flow. Would you join with me in congratulating the board? And does he agree with me that this work demonstrates that it’s not simply bed numbers or what happens in A&E that determines capacity, but how the whole health system works?
 
14:05
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, I absolutely do, and Cwm Taf are leading the way on patient flow from before someone arrives at hospital, through the hospital system, and out of hospital as well. It’s particularly important to look at the whole health and social care system, as Cwm Taf have recognised; they have effective partnerships with their local authority partners. There’s a story here for the whole of Wales as well. For three successive months, we’ve seen a fall in delayed transfers of care here in Wales; the comparison with England is that they have record highs in delayed transfers of care. And, through winter, that is a real and significant achievement. It shows the whole system working more effectively together, and that is a story we want to see more of in the future.
 
14:06
Andrew R.T. DaviesBiographyThe Leader of the Opposition
Minister, last week we had the Royal College of Emergency Medicine’s report into staffing at A&E departments, and, from our own research, it’s clearly shown that, in many of the A&E departments, the staffing rotas are not up to what they should be, especially by the royal college’s own benchmarking. I think the average last June was only about 45 per cent of what it should have been. What measures are you as a Government taking (a) to understand the number of consultants that should be on duty in A&E departments, and (b) to work with the royal college to make up this deficit in the numbers of consultants that are available in A&E departments across Wales?
 
14:07
Vaughan GethingBiography
Well, as the Member will know from the significant attention paid to this issue last week, there’s been a significant rise in consultant numbers—over 50 per cent. We continue to work to have the right levels of staff within our departments—not just consultants, but the whole staff mix as well. We continue to pay attention to the work done outside hospital to keep people out of hospital who don’t need to go in and to have alternatives for treatment. And, in particular, we look at the whole system—because the royal college are particularly concerned about what they refer to as exit block; we call it delayed transfers of care. And, again, I make the same point: delayed transfers of care are improving here in Wales. The third successive month falling, through winter—a real success story, in direct contrast to what is happening in England.
 
14:07
Aled RobertsBiography
Minister, all of the north Wales hospitals over the Christmas and new year period, within their accident and emergency departments, were placed in the highest category, I think, in terms of two of them, and the second category in terms of the other. There’s a situation where people are in A&E for a number of hours, others are waiting for hours in ambulances in the car park: that creates a situation also where there are problems in Wrexham specifically in terms of moving patients out of hospital, and the number of beds have been reduced significantly over recent years. So, have you asked, as a result of that, Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board to review their plans for the winter given the situation that has existed over the Christmas and new year period?
 
14:08
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. I’ve had a number of questions with the health board about the status of their winter plans and what they’re doing to reflect on the position on the ground. There’s a real difference in throughput compared to, say, Bangor, and compared to the other two major sites in north Wales, and there’s learning that they can undertake within the health board about what’s the most effective way to work. However, the reality is that most people are seen, treated and discharged promptly and quickly. I recognise that more needs to be done so that people don’t wait a long time for their treatment and discharge, but—and the Minister regularly makes this point—we would rather see people and discharge them than admit them artificially just to beat the system. So, we need to understand all of the outcomes, the whole patient journey, and, of course, learn from what works most effectively within the system already.
 
Health Services for Disabled People
 
14:09
Mohammad AsgharBiography
5. What action will the Minister take to improve health services for disabled people in Wales for the remainder of this Assembly term? OAQ(4)0673(HSS)
 
14:09
Mark DrakefordBiography
Thank you for the question. Amongst the actions to be taken during the remainder of this Assembly term will be confirmation of independent living grant arrangements for 2016-17, determination of new learning disability nurse training numbers for the September 2016 intake and publication of a new integrated services framework for deaf people and people with hearing loss.
 
14:10
Mohammad AsgharBiography
Thank you for that reply, Minister. Disabled people make up over 20 per cent of the population of Wales, which has a higher proportion of disabled people than any other nation, and most regions, of the United Kingdom. Will the Minister confirm that his consultation on improving quality and governance in the NHS will make improving services for the disabled a priority, and when does he expect to publish the result of his consultation, please?
 
14:10
Mark DrakefordBiography
I entirely agree with the Member about the importance of attending to the needs of disabled people, and of listening carefully to what they have to say. In relation to the integrated services framework, to which I referred in the answer, the consultation on that has completed one round, and I expect to receive advice within the next four weeks. Then we will further discuss the most practical ways in which we can make a difference with people who themselves experience those disabilities.
 
14:11
Gwyn R. PriceBiography
Minister, what impact will the proposals relating to the public toilets in the Public Health (Wales) Bill have on disabled people in Wales?
 
14:11
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank Gwyn Price for that important question. Indeed, in terms of priorities for disabled people during the remainder of this Assembly term, getting the public health Bill on to the statute book, with the difference that it will undoubtedly make in relation to the provision of toilets for use by the public, is an important priority, and in the way that we have constructed the plans that local authorities must draw up, and the ways in which they will have to report on them, as well as assessing the general community need for toilets, there will be specific obligations on making sure that there are changing places for disabled people.
 
Social Care Priorities
 
14:11
Joyce WatsonBiography
6. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s priorities for social care for the remainder of the fourth Assembly? OAQ(4)0689(HSS)
 
14:12
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank Joyce Watson for that question. Preparation for the implementation of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act (2014) on 6 April represents a key priority for the Welsh Government during the remainder of this Assembly term.
 
14:12
Joyce WatsonBiography
I thank you for mentioning that Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act. Will it help promote greater independence and give those people, those service users, who need it a stronger voice and more control over the services they need? If it does, will you provide us with an update on the implementation of this landmark legislation, and how it will be of benefit to the people when it comes into force?
 
14:12
Mark DrakefordBiography
Well, providing greater voice and control for service users over the services they need is absolutely, as the Member said, at the very heart of the Act. I know that she particularly will have welcomed the decision of the appeal court today in relation to the Clunderwen case of a disabled family trying to look after a child with disabilities while under the direct impact of the bedroom tax, and it’s a terrific result and one well known in her part of Wales. That sort of action will reinforce what we are able to do through the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act. We’ve had 250 events to prepare staff for the Act, over 7,000 staff members in Wales have attended those, and we are confident that we are well prepared for 6 April.
 
14:13
Nick RamsayBiography
Minister, you recently visited the Raglan project, which has received many accolades, including from the older people’s commissioner, for its work as a dementia-friendly community. It’s a great example, I’m sure you agree, of a modern community-based social care system, which takes care both of those working within the system and those who are being cared for. How are you rolling this project out, and the best practice from this project, across the rest of wales?
 
14:14
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank Nick Ramsay for that question. I very much enjoyed my afternoon in Raglan, where I went out with some domiciliary care workers to see the way in which their system works, and it undoubtedly does deliver some very significant benefits to users of the services. By providing people who work in those services with a working environment in which they feel able to do the job they’re asked to do, it means people are retained, go on learning the job and being better able to provide them. I advocate the Raglan model in many of the meetings I have with social services directors and others in Wales, and intend to continue to do so.
 
14:14
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Minister, could you please explain why you need to hold a consultation on the impact of zero-hours contacts on the retention of domiciliary care workers when the research that you commissioned and published last week clearly shows that zero-hours contracts have a negative impact on the retention of these extremely important workers?
 
14:15
Mark DrakefordBiography
I need to carry out a consultation, Llywydd, in order to fulfil the commitments I gave to this Assembly and in order to carry out the obligations of the Regulation and Inspection of Social Care (Wales) Act 2016, with the additional obligations to consult that were placed in that Act as a result of recommendations by this Assembly’s own committees. I was very pleased to commission the research; it tells us something important. We will consult on it in order to make a practical difference to the working lives of people who provide services to people receiving social care and, as a result, to improve the quality of services that they receive.
 
14:15
William PowellBiography
Minister, recent press reports of tragic events that took place in my region early in this Assembly remind us once again of the vital role played by whistleblowers in exposing abuse, neglect and bureaucratic obfuscation on the part of local authorities and others, especially in the field of social care. Minister, given the courage shown by such whistleblowers in situations of this kind, but also the professional dangers that they face in bringing forward their information, what more can the Welsh Government do to protect them in the dangers that they face, so that they’ve got the confidence to come forward to do the right thing?
 
14:16
Mark DrakefordBiography
The Member makes a number of very important points, and it’s always been the policy in this Assembly, and across parties, to make sure that people who have important things to say about services are enabled to do so and protected from any adverse consequences that they may face when they do that. There are additional provisions, strengthened as a result of amendment as it went through the Assembly, in the regulation and inspection of social care Act, and we will look to improve the safeguards in exactly the way that he outlined.
 
14:17
Gwenda ThomasBiography
Minister, the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 places an obligation on local authorities to promote the possibility of direct payments to service users. In a great many cases, of course, this will help ensure that they receive the help that they need, but in some cases direct payments will be inappropriate. Can you assure me, please, when implemented, the regulations and codes of practice will not only clarify the meaning of the Act, but will nurture the spirit of it? Also, as valuing the workforce must underpin priorities, what assessment have you made of the impact of the Chancellor’s so-called national minimum wage—living wage, I should say—on the social care sector?
 
14:17
Mark DrakefordBiography
I thank Gwenda Thomas for those two very important points. The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act represents a major liberalisation of the direct payments system here in Wales. It means that it should be one of the first things that are explored with people, not a last-minute afterthought after everything else has been explored. People will be able to use direct payments for a wider range of situations where care and support are required; they will be able to employ relatives, for example, for the very first time. But, there is an important safeguard, placed by her, indeed, in the Act, to make sure that social services departments still have to be satisfied that direct payments are a way in which the needs of the individual can be met. The regulations will, indeed, express the spirit of the Act in the way that she outlined.
 
In relation to the so-called living wage, I’m sure other Members here are in receipt of very anxious correspondence from care providers. It’s all very well for the Westminster Government to announce intentions of this sort, but if they’re going to, they have to back it up with the resources to make this possible. So far, there’s not a single penny on offer for them to help the sector—that very important sector, on which so many people rely—to allow them to fulfil the obligations that are now being placed on them. We will work carefully with them in order to address the problems that are created for them in Wales. We want the workforce to be well paid, but we understand that if you want that to happen, there is an obligation on public providers who make these obligations to provide the funds to allow that to happen. As far as we know, there isn’t a single penny being provided from the Conservative Party in England.
 
14:19
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, Minister. Can I just remind Members, when they’re speaking from the floor that they should address the Chair and not particular Members of the Assembly?
 
2. Questions to the Minister for Education and Skills
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
 
14:19
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to item 2, which is questions to the Minister for Education and Skills. Question 1 is from David Rees.
 
The Apprenticeship Levy
 
14:19
David ReesBiography
1. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the introduction of the apprenticeship levy? OAQ(4)0674(ESK)
 
14:20
Julie JamesBiographyThe Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology
The Welsh Government had had a number of discussions with the UK Government about the introduction of the apprenticeship levy. Central to these discussions are the needs of employers in Wales who will be charged this very unwelcome employment tax.
 
14:20
David ReesBiography
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. Clearly, following last week’s announcement by Tata Steel and the implications that has, it has a major impact upon my area. Tata, I know, are still looking to recruit apprentices to encourage the next generation of people into the industry, but that levy will have a major impact upon Tata. Have you had discussions as to what proportion of that levy will be returned, and do we know whether that proportion will actually be used by the industries and in the areas from which it is gained, particularly the areas of Tata?
 
14:20
Julie JamesBiography
We haven’t had detailed discussions about Tata itself, although I will say that we are, of course, in the process of putting a taskforce together. The first meeting of the skills sub-group of that taskforce took place earlier this week, and I met with the chair of that group down in Llanelli, because part of the taskforce’s remit is to assist Tata to carry on into the future, as well as to assist those individuals who are leaving. So, I’m sure that will be a central part of the discussion, although we’ve not yet had those specific discussions.
 
More widely, we still do not know that the levy will return any extra money to Wales. I noticed that Simon Thomas and Plaid Cymru announced some funding for apprenticeships the other day based on the levy, so if he has any more information that I do, I’d be very grateful to hear it. But, my understanding is that it’s going to be Barnett-ised, and it’s not very likely that we’ll have any additional funding to Wales, but we are not yet in a position to say one way or the other because that is not yet clear to us. I do have an upcoming quadrilateral with all of the Ministers to discuss it, so I may have more information after that.
 
14:21
William GrahamBiography
Deputy Minister, I hear what you say, but within the consultation it was made very clear that any additional funds would simply be returned to other key industries, particularly the steel industry in Wales.
 
14:21
Julie JamesBiography
That’s not clear, actually; the way that the apprenticeship levy is being collected is that it’s being collected through Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs as a tax. It’s going to be returned to the UK Government through HMRC, and we are in discussion with the UK Government about how that is to be devolved. At this point in time, it is not clear how that will be devolved. So, I’m not able to say one way or the other, as I keep saying. I hope very much that we will have some clarity soon. I do have the quadrilateral with the Minister in early February, and it may be that I can say more then, but at this point in time I simply don’t know.
 
14:22
Bethan JenkinsBiography
The Confederation of British Industry’s director general, Carolyn Fairbairn, has suggested that if the UK Government will not back down on the introduction of the apprenticeship levy, then perhaps it could introduce an allowable expenses scheme that would allow companies to claw back some of the associated costs. It has also suggested a range of measures for small companies, which potentially could be more relevant to us here in Wales. I wonder what discussions you’ve had with your UK counterparts along those lines to see if some of those other ideas can be explored.
 
14:23
Julie JamesBiography
We haven’t had those discussions because it is a devolved matter for Wales, and the UK Government is belatedly rightly saying that the skills policy itself is a matter for us. So, the interesting bit to us is how much money will be attached to that, and how it will be devolved. And then it will be a matter for us to take forward, here in Wales, our skills policy. I’ve recently announced, for example, that we’re taking forward our apprenticeship policy, as we would have done before the levy was introduced. We won’t be operating a voucher scheme here in Wales, but one of the interesting things that we are in discussion with employers about is whether they will be able to access the English voucher scheme to spend it in Wales. So, if you take a company that has cross-border trading—any of the big companies that have cross-border trading—will they be able to spend their English vouchers for the English part of their business with Welsh training companies? It’s not clear to us whether they can or can’t yet. I fear that I think it’s because the details of that scheme are not yet clear to the UK Government.
 
14:23
Eluned ParrottBiography
One concern that I have, Deputy Minister, is that the drive for companies to reclaim what they have invested in the apprenticeship levy might lead them to be tempted to staple together some pre-existing work-based learning into a lower quality offer, but describe it as an apprenticeship. What can we do to protect the quality of the learning opportunities that young people in Wales have?
 
14:24
Julie JamesBiography
That’s a very real problem, because what we have here is an expectation raised by the employers who pay the levy that they will have it returned to them, by and large, and, actually, that’s not how it’s going to work. I’ve already had discussions with some of the sectors about how it might work here in Wales. It’s important also for Members to realise that this affects all employers, not just businesses—it affects big public sector organisations, ourselves, health boards, local authorities, and so on. So, it’s a lot of expectation raising, but not much delivery on the back of it. I, too, fear that the apprenticeship brand will be weakened by the proposals in England, but as I said to William Graham when we had this discussion last week, I remain optimistic that that will not happen, but as yet we have not seen the proposals. What I have seen is that the small businesses will access the levy from unclaimed and unspent levy paid by bigger businesses and public sector organisations. I have to say that I don’t think that’s a particularly good way of going about it. So, what you’ve got to do there is wait for a big employer not to spend all of its money before you can tell a smaller employer what it might access, and that doesn’t sound like a very planned or joined-up system to me.
 
Supporting Supply Teachers
 
14:25
David ReesBiography
2. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government will support supply teachers? OAQ(4)0673(ESK)
 
14:25
Huw LewisBiographyThe Minister for Education and Skills
Thanks to the Member for Aberavon. The Welsh Government is fully committed to supporting our entire education workforce, including supply teachers, in their work. For example, we’ve recently launched an online information portal specifically for supply teachers, providing an overview of resources, training opportunities, networks and support that supply teachers in Wales can access.
 
14:26
David ReesBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I appreciate very much that that work has already been done, but the Children, Young People and Education Committee report on supply teaching highlighted the need for a new model of delivering supply teachers across Wales. At present, New Directions actually has been given the contract for supply teacher provision across all 22 local authorities: effectively a monopoly. Teachers in my constituency have been told if they wish to do any supply teaching, ‘Sign up to New Directions, otherwise you won’t get work’. Supply teachers are telling me that they only receive approximately 60 per cent of the fees charged by the agency and they’re not treated equally to full-time colleagues in the next classroom. When will the Welsh Government actually act to stop this monopoly and ensure that supply teachers are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve?
 
14:26
Huw LewisBiography
My thanks to the Member for Aberavon again. I gave evidence to that Children, Young People and Education Committee inquiry into supply teaching and I’m aware that they published their report last month. I’ll be responding formally to the committee’s report early next month and we will indeed have a debate on 10 February here in the Assembly on the issue. I have to make it clear, as it is in our guidance on ‘Effective management of school workforce attendance’ that we published last year, that there is no compulsion on schools to use the managed service provider. Ultimately, it is the duty of individual headteachers and their governing body to determine the best way to manage absences and provide cover in their schools. Now, of course, in this context the Minister for Public Services has also carried out a consultation on alternative delivery models across the public sector, and those findings will inform our longer term view and vision as a Government for the provision of supply cover in schools. I think we should, for instance, thoroughly investigate the mutual alternative when it comes to supply teacher cover. We do need to think about how we move forward, also in the context of the possible devolution of pay and conditions of teachers to achieve a more flexible and high-quality workforce. But, the Member is quite right: the current situation is not good enough.
 
14:28
Russell GeorgeBiography
Minister, as you’ll be aware, all newly qualified teachers must complete a full induction period of 380 sessions, the equivalent of three school terms. During last year’s inquiry on supply teaching, which has been mentioned, the children and young people’s committee received written evidence from the Education Workforce Council stating that fewer than 50 supply teachers have met their practising-teacher standards since September 2012. So, can I ask what action has the Government taken to enable supply teachers to demonstrate their attainment of professional teacher standards?
 
14:28
Huw LewisBiography
Well, as I say, we are looking at those issues that we have the powers to influence. This is—the Member’s quite right—an issue that needs to be considered alongside, for instance, our reforms as regards initial teacher training and what happens in the early stages of the career of a newly qualified teacher. But I will reiterate that we are somewhat hamstrung in this regard because we have no devolved control over the pay and conditions of teachers, which does colour the debate and limit the room for manoeuvre of the Welsh Government.
 
14:29
Alun Ffred JonesBiography
Whatever the level of skills of supply teachers, of course they cannot deliver the work of full-time teachers, for all sorts of reasons. Do you have statistics that show whether there are more supply-teacher days happening in our schools in 2014-15 compared to previous years?
 
14:30
Huw LewisBiography
This will be a matter for local authorities, of course. I’m not aware of a national collection of such data, but I will write to the Member if I’m incorrect on that point.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
14:30
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople, and, first this afternoon, the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
 
14:30
Simon ThomasBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, at the end of five years of a Labour Government—and you have now stated that you are to retire as Minister—the 10 per cent most privileged students in Wales are lower in their attainment according to the Programme for International Student Assessment review than the lowest 10 per cent in terms of privilege in Shanghai. Is this a record that you’re proud of?
 
14:30
Huw LewisBiography
The spokesperson for Plaid Cymru, journalists, and other observers, simply cannot keep on regurgitating the PISA figures of 2012 as if they’d happened last week. And he’s well aware, of course, that, since that last set of PISA tests across Wales, this Welsh Government, and the education system as a whole, has been engaged in the largest set of reforms since the Education Act 1944. It is simply not good enough to continue to try and blindside the public by repeating the 2012 PISA figures as if they were news. The whole system has moved on since then, and a great deal has happened, as he is well aware. Last summer’s GCSE results—an all-time high—are concrete evidence of that shift.
 
14:31
Simon ThomasBiography
Well, Presiding Officer, it’s not me regurgitating these figures—it’s Andreas Schleicher, the person you commissioned to do your independent report on your education system, speaking last night on BBC Wales, who regurgitated these figures.
 
But we will turn to something that you can’t claim dates back to 2012—Estyn’s chief inspector’s report, published this week, which demonstrates how far we have to go. It refers to a variation in education standards and polarisation in terms of the best and the worst in our schools. So, are good teaching and excellent leadership, in your view, the best ways of increasing the attainment of all school pupils in Wales?
 
14:32
Huw LewisBiography
Well, we’re all well aware—all the international evidence is unequivocal on this point—that the quality of teaching and learning, followed closely by the quality of leadership, are the key determinants of attainment in terms of young people in our schools. That is well known. It is not surprising also that Estyn continues to draw our attention to the variability within the schools system within Wales. There are those schools that have cracked it, in terms of the quality of teaching and learning, and of leadership, and those that have work still to do. But it is unequivocally the case that the former group is growing in number, while the latter group continues to shrink in number.
 
14:33
Simon ThomasBiography
Well, at last we’ve found something that we agree on, Minister. Therefore, although the Estyn report did state that there’d been some increase in the number of schools that were ‘excellent’ this time, it also stated that, in a third of our primary schools, and—in my view more worrying still—in over half, 57 per cent, of our secondary schools, management and leadership are only ‘adequate’ or indeed ‘unsatisfactory’. In my view, every pupil in Wales should be taught by a ‘good’ or ‘excellent’ teacher in a school that is led by an ‘excellent’ headteacher. As Estyn has demonstrated that in over half of our schools that isn’t the case, what steps are you now taking to ensure that every school in Wales and every pupil, therefore, is given fair play?
 
14:34
Huw LewisBiography
Well, the Member is quite right to point out that our primary schools, in many ways, are leading the way in terms of school improvement, and our secondary schools need to work that much harder in order to catch up with the agenda. But the Member will also be aware that, for the first time ever, I have instituted a system that means not only do we have a real-time grasp of where a school lies in terms of its school improvement journey—and I’m talking here about our categorisation system; the results for this year will be published tomorrow, in detail—not only do we understand where every single school is in Wales, in terms of that journey, but we also have a structure and mechanism, through our consortia, through the good work of Estyn, and through local authorities also, in terms of immediate intervention when we see that a school is not meeting the grade when it comes to issues like the quality of teaching and learning and of leadership. That is a first and that is a first in the United Kingdom. Only in Wales can the Minister take a real-time look at what exactly is happening in a particular school and interrogate the actions being taken to improve the quality of teaching and learning in that school.
 
14:35
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, Aled Roberts.
 
14:35
Aled RobertsBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, given all the attention that has been given to higher education during this last fortnight, the postgraduate regime in England has changed since September. Have you given any consideration to introducing a similar system in Wales for the next academic year?
 
14:35
Huw LewisBiography
Well, yes, of course. As the Member will be aware, postgraduate support was one of the key priorities I put to Professor Sir Ian Diamond in terms of the considerations I hoped he would undertake in terms of his review, and, of course, he’ll be coming back with concrete ideas and proposals for the next Welsh Government in terms of how postgraduate support should work.
 
In the meanwhile, I am working with higher education institutions in Wales to see what can be done to assist in terms of postgraduate support for this financial year in particular, and that work is ongoing. But I do regard it as a priority and he’s quite right to point it out.
 
14:36
Aled RobertsBiography
Thank you for that. I’m pleased to hear that work is being undertaken. One of the problems, of course, is that, if we do introduce a similar system here in Wales to the one in England, the Students Loan Company would be responsible for that. They have stated that it would be impossible, even if we had exactly the same system here, to introduce that new system for 2016-17. Therefore, given all the pressure that will be on universities in terms of their funding next year, are you concerned that there will be a reduction in the number of postgraduate students in Wales in the future?
 
14:37
Huw LewisBiography
No. I don’t think it’ll come to that. First of all, it’s important to understand that, although this much-trumpeted support for postgraduate students in England on the face of it seems like a good thing, what, of course, the Conservatives have done in England is pay for that by removing all forms of maintenance grant to undergraduates. They’ve pulled the rug from under the least-well-off students in England in order to pay for that showcasing postgraduate support. So, we don’t want to emulate England in that regard—that is without any form of equity or fairness and it’s not the way we would want to operate in Wales.
 
I’m well aware of the Student Loans Company’s shortcomings here in terms of their capacity to deal with devolved systems. I can tell the Member that I’ve had very constructive discussions with my equivalents in Northern Ireland and in Scotland in terms of how we can, as a tripartite group of devolved nations, overcome the capacity shortcomings that the SLC is showing in relation to the demands made upon it by the Minister in England.
 
The current situation cannot be sustained for much longer and we will need to look to other means and mechanisms of administering student support across the devolved nations of the UK.
 
14:39
Aled RobertsBiography
Finally, may I turn to Estyn’s annual report, which shows that there are 27 fewer primary schools in Wales this year compared with the previous report? Despite that, there’s been an increase of about 4,000 in the number of primary school pupils in the country. The figure is 6 per higher this year than it was five years ago—there have been five years of growth. Given all the pressure that Estyn and the Government are placing on local authorities to reduce surplus places in primary schools, is there a need for the Government and Estyn to reconsider in terms of planning? And do you have any concerns about class sizes within primary schools because of this growth in the number of children of primary school age in Wales?
 
14:40
Huw LewisBiography
I’m not aware of any of the 22 local authority areas reporting any kind of undue concern around the supply of school places. The Member’s quite right: in some parts of Wales, the school population is increasing, although, in other parts of Wales, the opposite is true. It’s a very varied picture across the country. The work that’s gone on over the last four to five years in terms of decreasing surplus places, I would add, has been indispensable in terms of making our system more robust financially and is one of the reasons why we’ve been able to weather this period of austerity without putting undue pressure upon our schools.
 
Again, the contrast here with England is stark: Wales is able to plan for changes in intake in population of children and young people and I am able to engage with local authorities in order to make that happen. Free schools and academies in England run riot across any agenda involving planning for school places and make it impossible to do so, to the extent that you can have free schools with 50 per cent surplus places and empty desks sitting at one end of a street, while a local authority school at the other end of the street is bursting at the seams. That is no way to run a system and I am not aware of any pressures, particularly in terms of forward planning, across the 22 local authorities here in Wales.
 
14:41
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
The Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Angela Burns.
 
14:41
Angela BurnsBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, let’s talk about something that you should be able to control, hopefully. The good news in Estyn is that 91 per cent of primary school pupils in receipt of free school meals achieved their foundation phase core indicator at age seven, and a further 93 per cent at 11. However, the proportion of children on free school meals who achieved the core subject indicator at 14 fell by over 10 per cent before dropping by a staggering 43 per cent by the time they were 16. What conclusions do you draw from this, Minister?
 
14:42
Huw LewisBiography
Presiding Officer, the Member’s being very, very creative with numbers and statistics here. It’s well known, of course, that those young people whose lives are impacted upon by poverty and deprivation find the impact increasing as they get older. But what we are seeing for the first time in the history of education in Wales is that, at every key stage of education, pupils on free school meals are catching up with their better-off peers: at foundation phase, key stage 2, key stage 3 and key stage 4. It’s no good trying to paint an overall fall between foundation phase and key stage 4, as if there’s some kind of failure in the system here. It will take longer for the older age groups to catch up because, of course, so much of their attainment is built upon what came before. That’s just logical, common sense.
 
14:43
Angela BurnsBiography
Oh dear, Minister, what a shame—rather than trying to protect your back, I rather hoped that you might come up with something entirely illuminating about how you’re going to help young people on free school meals make a better, safer and more coherent transition from primary school to secondary school, but, oh no, we just had a little lecture on, ‘It’s almost getting a little bit better; please bear with us’. These kids are in the education system now and what I would like to understand, Minister, is what you are going to do to improve that. I acknowledge the fact that, in primary schools, you are achieving some outstanding results, but what I fail to understand is why you as a Government, the state, and the taxpayer should put all of that money into helping those young people only for it not to work when they get to secondary school—only for 43 per cent of them to drop back when they are 16 years of age. Because then it is really hard to rescue them, then it is really hard to capture them, and then it is really hard to put them on to a good path where they are going to have a prosperous future.
 
14:44
Huw LewisBiography
Well, you know, there is massaging the facts and then there is indulging in some kind of chiropractic manipulation of them. Let me illuminate the point, yet again, for the spokesperson for the Welsh Conservatives: young people on free school meals at every stage of education in Wales are catching up with their better-off peers, whether they are 16-year-olds or whether they are four-year-olds, and at every point in between. Never before in educational history has this been a provable fact. I would ask her to perhaps address her comments to her equivalents across the border in England, where it most certainly is not a fact.
 
14:45
Angela BurnsBiography
To be utterly frank, I have very little interest in what happens in England, because I am the shadow Minister for education here in Wales, and it is the Welsh pupils in our Welsh country facing a Welsh economic future that I am particularly interested in, and I only wish you were as interested in them as you appear to be in slagging off England at every available opportunity. So, I will come back to my original point: 43 per cent of them fall back at 16. Now, those are—
 
14:45
Huw LewisBiography
They don’t fall back. This is an untruth.
 
14:45
Angela BurnsBiography
And this is in—. For those people who have not yet had the chance to read the Estyn report from yesterday, this is not me saying this; this is an inescapable fact as laid out in the report by Estyn, the inspector of schools. So all I’m asking, Minister—a really simple question that even you should be able to answer—is: what are you going to do to try and improve that transition so we can close that gap further? I do hope you understood that question.
 
14:46
Huw LewisBiography
I’ll make every effort, Presiding Officer, to cling to reality myself this afternoon. The opposition spokesperson is trying to argue that black is white. How can 16-year-olds who are on free school meals simultaneously be improving their attainment year-on-year at a faster rate than their peers and still fall back? This is absolute nonsense. What we are seeing here is a simple differential across the age ranges whereby, by the time the young people on free school meals in our foundation phase have reached their GCSE years later on in their school careers, then truly remarkable changes are likely to have happened because of what has gone before in their education. I’m a former teacher myself and with the absence of a blackboard, diagrams, or some kind of interactive whiteboard, I can’t make it any simpler for the Welsh Conservatives than that. [Laughter.]
 
14:46
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move back to questions on the paper. Question 3 is from Leanne Wood.
 
The Foundation Phase
 
14:47
Leanne WoodBiography
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s record on the foundation phase during this Assembly? OAQ(4)0679(ESK)
 
14:47
Huw LewisBiography
I’m proud of the foundation phase and what it’s achieving. The independent evaluation published last year showed that it is delivering real improvements. Indeed, we have met and exceeded the target to reduce the poverty attainment gap at the end of the foundation phase three years earlier than was anticipated.
 
14:47
Leanne WoodBiography
Minister, Plaid Cymru supports the foundation phase, but we recognise, like many in the profession, that it could be so much better were it to have a better level of resources and guidance from the Welsh Government. One recent concern is whether or not the education improvement grant cut, which amounts to £7.5 million and is not ring-fenced, will be protected by local authorities in the light of other cuts that they are facing. What can you say to allay the fears of everyone with a stake in the improvement of our children’s education that budgets will be sufficient?
 
14:48
Huw LewisBiography
The Member’s quite right to draw attention always to the importance—the paramount importance—of education in those earlier years of children’s school careers. Of course, she will be aware that, in terms of resources, the pupil deprivation grant for younger age groups has been introduced, and that will help, of course. We also have a major investment in Flying Start so that those young people moving into the foundation phase at the very earliest stages of their development, particularly in terms of language development, are far better supported, and that covers more areas of the country than it ever has before.
 
The 1 per cent commitment to our schools budgets has provided some insulation in terms of the overall shock of Tory-driven austerity across the UK to our school system. But there is no guarantee of an absolute anything in a democracy, except to say this: if those people in the Welsh public who are concerned, particularly about the foundation phase and investment in it, want their fears allayed, then they need to consider very carefully where they put their cross on the ballot paper in May.
 
14:49
Mike HedgesBiography
Firstly, can I thank the Minister for visiting Pentrechwyth and St Thomas schools on Monday, where he saw first-hand the foundation phase and the seamless transition from Flying Start? Of course, the foundation phase is only what the best schools were doing before its introduction. Has the Minister had a collective view from the teaching profession on the merits of the foundation phase?
 
14:49
Huw LewisBiography
There have been several reviews, of course, of the foundation phase since its inception, and I have an expert group that advises me at regular intervals about its development and its roll-out across the country. Also, in addition to that, of course, we have Estyn and the feedback that they provide. However, the overall picture, as I see it, is that the foundation phase is now well bedded in, although there are settings in which best practice in the foundation phase is something that still needs a body of work, and we come back to those old essentials of good teaching and learning and good leadership in those environments. He’s right to point out, actually, that in those settings where there is an integration with Flying Start in terms of staff co-operation and so on, there really is something special starting to happen.
 
14:50
Suzy DaviesBiography
Minister, the Children, Young People and Education Committee took evidence from Estyn today, albeit anecdotal today, that contact with the Welsh language in non-Welsh language settings is improving in the foundation phase. Now, this is encouraging, but how satisfied are you that local authorities and consortia are really selling the case to school leaders in the non-Welsh-medium sector that they need to up their game in making the Welsh language a valued and high-status part of their school ethos and, indeed, their school improvement plan?
 
14:51
Huw LewisBiography
Well, I’m far from satisfied, Presiding Officer, and I should never be satisfied in this post that I occupy at the moment. We do, of course, have a new mechanism through the Welsh in education strategic plans at a local authority level that should drive improvement in this area. But it is also true that, as we develop our new curriculum under the guidance of Professor Graham Donaldson, there will be another fresh look at Welsh in what we might describe as English-medium school settings at present. Of course, that will have major implications for what goes on in the foundation phase right through to key stage 4.
 
14:52
William PowellBiography
Minister, in the face of a serious fall-off in recent years in the UK’s bee and butterfly population, largely due to the loss of flower-rich habitats, schools in Wales are being called upon to get involved in a UK-wide initiative called Polli:Nation, which aims to reverse that decline. This heritage lottery funded project enables foundation phase pupils and their teachers to develop school grounds to provide much needed habitats and educational and resource material. With the evident educational and environmental benefits that would accrue from such a project, would you agree with me that it would be beneficial for a large number of schools in Wales to get involved in this project, for which applications are needed by the end of February, so as to take this forward across Wales?
 
14:52
Huw LewisBiography
I thank the Member for drawing attention—. It really does sound like a very worthwhile project with real educational spin-offs. I’d be very happy if he would supply me with the details to try and ensure that, through our electronic newsletter to schools, Dysg, we can make sure that every headteacher in Wales has sight of the options that are available to them.
 
Student Finance
 
14:53
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
4. Will the Minister make a statement on student finance in Wales? OAQ(4)0680(ESK)[W]
 
14:53
Huw LewisBiography
I thank the Member for Ynys Môn. I am proud that the Welsh Government has been able to fulfil its pledge to mitigate the increases in tuition fees forced on Wales by the UK Government. Wales continues to be a net importer of students from other parts of the UK, proving that Wales is an attractive place to study.
 
14:53
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
Given the financial support provided to students, I think it’s important that we consider not only the funding provided for fees, which is a separate debate, but also the funds paid to universities and which maintain services for students. The president of Bangor students union has written to me to express grave concern about the cuts that the Government will impose on higher education in Wales and the impact that that will have on crucial areas such as financial support and counselling. They are concerned about the implications of this for mental health problems among students. Does the Minister understand that a cut such as the one proposed by the Government for the HE sector is bound to have an impact on students and the quality of the provision for them within our universities?
 
14:54