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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
Well, good afternoon, everyone. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
 
13:30
Statement by the Presiding Officer
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Before we start the business, it is my pleasure to welcome the Speaker of the Icelandic Parliament, which is the oldest Parliament in the world, and a delegation of his parliamentarians, who are present in the public gallery today. You’re welcome. Thank you very much.
 
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.
 
13:30
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
And now we move on to the first item, which is item 1, and it’s questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services. I think the questions this afternoon will be answered by the Deputy. So, question 1 is from Llyr Gruffydd.
 
Staffing Pressures
 
13:30
Llyr GruffyddBiography
1. Will the Minister make a statement on staffing pressures in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board? OAQ(4)0701(HSS)[W]
 
13:30
Vaughan GethingBiographyThe Deputy Minister for Health
Thank you for the question. Staffing pressures in Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board are consistent with other parts of the UK at this time of year. Actions are in place to address the challenges and ensure sustainable staffing. These include targeted recruitment—including European Union nurses—and high-profile initiatives, such as the Outstanding GP Development Programme.
 
13:31
Llyr GruffyddBiography
When professionals like the North Wales Local Medical Committee describe the situation as a ticking time bomb and as being on a knife-edge, and when the Royal College of GPs in Wales say there’s a workforce crisis, and when GP Survival Wales says that surgeries in north Wales are collapsing like dominoes, do you agree with the First Minister when he says that there’s no GP crisis in north Wales?
 
13:31
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thank you for the follow-up question. I don’t agree there is a crisis, but there are very real challenges. There is no lack of—there’s certainly no complacency about the position that we face now and for the future. There are some localised challenges that we do recognise, which are being addressed, and I think what gives us some confidence is the way in which those issues have been managed in the recent past, and beyond. So, we’ll continue to work in partnership with trade unions and professional bodies on understanding where we are now and, of course, on developing our workforce strategy, where we do have the buy-in of not just the Government and NHS bodies, but the individual staff representatives themselves. So, it’s really important that we have an honest discussion, but a discussion where we don’t reach for extremes of language, and actually deal with the situation as we face it.
 
13:32
Ann JonesBiography
Deputy Minister, yesterday—or the day before, even—saw the start of the new chief executive of Betsi Cadwaldr University Local Health Board, Gary Doherty. I wonder whether you will take the opportunity early on to talk to him about the importance of staff who work in Betsi from the European Union, and from other parts, and whether you would discuss with him what impact Brexit could have on the hard-working staff that we have within the health service, and for future recruitment.
 
13:32
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thank you for the question. You’ll be pleased to hear that I will be meeting Gary Doherty when I’m next in north Wales, within the next two weeks, and I look forward to having a conversation with him about shared priorities for the future of healthcare in north Wales, and, in particular, on addressing the issues not of special measures, but of the improvement plan that the Welsh Government has published. And I think he’s made a welcome statement at the start, about wanting to address that, and a range of other priorities for citizens in north Wales.
 
You also make an important point about the potential impact of leaving the European Union. Betsi Cadwaladr has recruited, I believe, 85 nurses, from across the European Union, for example, in the last year. And we do know that recruiting medical staff from other parts of the world, outside the European Union, is more difficult—it is possible, but it is more difficult. And it’s a real signal for those who’d want to leave the European Union—that it would practically make our ability to recruit medical and associated healthcare professional staff more difficult, not easier, because all of our health boards are actively recruiting within the European Union, and I do not want to see an extra barrier to those excellent staff coming here to work within Wales.
 
13:34
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Well, clearly, GPs are self-employed contractors, but health boards and Governments are responsible for the strategic manpower, or person power, planning for them. And it’s years since the Royal College of General Practitioners warned of the ticking time bomb, years since BMA Cymru said that commitments made by the Welsh Government haven’t happened in the way intended, and 21 months since the chair of the north Wales medical committee came to this Assembly to say we had a crisis in north Wales. How, therefore, do you respond to the letter sent to the First Minister by groups representing GPs in north Wales, accusing him of being out of touch with the reality of the challenges facing GPs in north Wales?
 
13:34
Vaughan GethingBiography
Well, as Members will know, the First Minister dealt with these questions, again, yesterday, and I’ll reiterate what I said to Llyr Gruffydd at the start of this set of questions. We recognise there are very real challenges across particular parts of healthcare not just within Wales, but across the UK. We’ll continue to work with people within the medical profession in planning and delivering on a secure future for the national health service. For example, we’ve already secured a new two-year contract with GPs. That’s come through negotiation and working with people who work within the service, rather than picking a fight with them, as we see over the border. It is absolutely in our interest to continue working in that particular fashion. Where challenges do arise, we work constructively with people engaged in the healthcare professions to resolve them together. We’ve seen that consistently in the past in Wales and there’s no reason to think that will not happen in the future.
 
13:35
Aled RobertsBiography
Minister, for about two years now, a number of us have been putting pressure on the Government in terms of longer waiting lists in north Wales than anywhere else. Mark Drakeford said in July 2014 that he was aware that Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board wasn’t able to reach the target of the 36-week and 26-week waiting lists and that officials were working very hard with the health board to improve the situation. The health board has been under special measures for 90 months now. So, can you tell us exactly what improvement and progress has been made in terms of waiting lists, and what exactly are your officials, as a Government, doing to improve waiting lists in north Wales?
 
13:36
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thanks for the question. In terms of achieving our waiting times target, as opposed to the list, there are some areas of staffing challenges, but the greater challenges aren’t actually about the staffing pressures themselves—they are more about the ability to have a system that is properly in balance. So, there’s an issue about the short-term issues and there’s extra capacity being brought in. That’s partly about NHS staff having additional resources. This is also partly about commissioning some extra capacity and it’s also a broader system across the health service on making sure that we run the system where we understand what capacity and demand are. That’s partly about shifting more care into primary care and away and out of hospitals, and it’s also partly about making the very best use possible of what we have in secondary care.
 
A good example of an initiative that’s being taken in north Wales to help manage this is the physiotherapy service as part of the orthopaedic pathway. So, people are regularly referred to the physiotherapy service and it successfully diverts people away from potential surgery to be successfully treated without the need for a surgical intervention. That’s also taken place consistently across GP surgeries in north Wales. So, there are a range of measures that are already being taken and our challenge always is: what do we understand and what are we doing now? How to have a more prudent approach in the future that makes the very best use of our resources to deliver the very best possible outcomes for our patients within the appropriate waiting time standards?
 
The Mid Wales Healthcare Collaborative
 
13:37
Elin JonesBiography
2. Will the Minister provide an update on the work of the Mid Wales Healthcare Collaborative? OAQ(4)0699(HSS)[W]
 
13:37
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. The Mid Wales Healthcare Collaborative is making good progress with an ambitious programme of work to improve healthcare in mid Wales. First year achievements include a new GP fellowship scheme, 12 additional surgical beds at Bronglais General Hospital and the successful recruitment of a new paediatric consultant.
 
13:38
Elin JonesBiography
Deputy Minister, the establishment of this collaborative is one of the most enlightened decisions taken by your Government, and, in following the work of the collaborative in detail, I’m confident that Hywel Dda Local Health Board has seen the need to work across borders in mid Wales. Will you ensure that the three health boards, including Powys and Betsi Cadwaladr, give priority to this work and include Bronglais and surrounding services in their planning programmes for services in future, for the benefit of those patients living in the Bronglais catchment area?
 
13:38
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, I’m happy to give that assurance ,and I do particularly welcome the recognition from the Member for Ceredigion about the work of the collaborative and the way in which this decision was reached. It was an important point in time for healthcare in and around mid Wales, when the report was published, in terms of changing the narrative and the conversation about healthcare in mid Wales. It wasn’t constantly about suggesting that there was a plan for the hospital to disappear, but about understanding what’s there and what needs to be there in the future and bringing together different bodies—healthcare bodies, NHS professionals, the public and politicians—to actually have a different conversation about the future of healthcare in mid Wales. I’m really pleased to see that successful steps have been taken forward and we will continue to support that and expect there to be further progress in the future.
 
13:39
Joyce WatsonBiography
Deputy Minister, one of the earliest pieces of work that was announced by the collaborative was around telehealth, and the Welsh Government did invest a considerable sum of money in that. Obviously, that technology does have real potential for our rural communities, reducing distance and travel times for appointments. Are you able to provide an update on that work?
 
13:40
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, I’ll be happy to provide an update. The Mid Wales Healthcare Collaborative study has now completed a study of telehealth activity with £25,000 of funding. There’s further funding of over £200,000 to go into implementing the recommendations from the study because we recognise that, for a range of people in mid Wales in particular—but there’s a general point here about the rest of the NHS—that telehealth is an important part of delivering much better care more locally as well so that people don’t need to go to regular outpatient appointments. They can have specialist care delivered in a local setting. So, this is absolutely something that we’re funding and we are prioritising with the collaborative. We expect to see more of it in the future to the benefit of patients and clinicians themselves to ensure that we really do deliver care around the person wherever possible and as locally as possible.
 
13:41
Russell GeorgeBiography
One of the objectives of the Mid Wales Healthcare Collaborative is to deliver a change programme that addresses the delivery of healthcare to the people of mid Wales as close as home as possible. Now, Newtown is the largest town in Powys, but the minor injuries unit is only open Mondays to Fridays between 8.00 a.m. and 6.30 p.m. Can I ask what discussions the Welsh Government has had with the collaborative on the prospect of establishing a 24-hours a day, seven days a week minor injuries unit in Newtown to achieve the objective of, of course, delivering healthcare as close to the people of mid Wales as possible?
 
13:41
Vaughan GethingBiography
Well, I think the question neatly reveals the challenge of politicians wanting to have individual initiatives within their own constituencies regardless of what the evidence suggests is right. It’s important that the collaborative is understanding population healthcare needs and the best possible response from each of the providers within the area, and they need to collaborate with each other. There have been a range of initiatives to try and deliver on our expectations that more care will be provided locally. I’ve just described one in the previous question from Joyce Watson. We’re learning also from the virtual ward activity within a part of Powys as well, to understand the best way to deliver healthcare itself, rather than saying that we want to concentrate an area of activity regardless of what the evidence tells us about the very best way to use our most precious resources, which are our staff, to deliver the very best possible outcomes for the patients and the people of mid and west Wales.
 
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, Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Elin Jones.
 
13:42
Elin JonesBiography
Deputy Minister, Labour’s manifesto in 2011 committed to providing access to GP services in the evenings and on Saturday mornings. Do you believe that you have succeeded to deliver that commitment?
 
13:42
Vaughan GethingBiography
You’ll be aware, from the most recent figures, that there is greater access to GP services, with more services being available in both core hours and extended hours during the week. As I’ve said in earlier questions, we’re looking to deliver changes to healthcare here in Wales by negotiation and agreement with our staff, and these are matters that we’ll continue to discuss with representatives within the NHS and doctors themselves who are, of course, as you know, independent contractors.
 
13:43
Elin JonesBiography
May I take you back to that pledge in 2011, before the election? Very usefully, you outlined a number of details of that commitment in a statement on 3 July 2012, by saying that you would extend the availability of appointments in the evenings, after 6.30 p.m, during 2013-14. Are you aware that, in four health boards—Cardiff and the Vale, Cwm Taf, Powys and Betsi Cadwaladr—not one surgery offers appointments after 6.30 p.m, and, in Abertawe Bro Morgannwg, only 1 per cent of surgeries do so, and that has fallen from 27 per cent four years ago? Your policy is a complete failure in terms of your commitment to the people of Wales before the last election. Are you now willing to acknowledge that?
 
13:44
Vaughan GethingBiography
Well, the objective figures demonstrate that there is a greater availability of appointments outside working hours, and we’ve actually got pilot work being undertaken within the south-east of Wales—[Interruption.]—to look at ensuring that people, particularly those people at work, can have access to GP surgeries outside the area they live in and closer to where they actually work. So, there’s an important point here about ensuring that there is greater access and availability for people to access primary care as and where appropriate. It remains a commitment of this Government, and we expect to see further work undertaken in the future to ensure that people really do have appropriate access to local healthcare.
 
13:44
Elin JonesBiography
To go back again to the commitment in 2011 and what you said, which is that you would be extending appointments in the evenings and also on Saturday mornings, and that you would specifically do the work of extending Saturday appointments during 2014-15. Only two surgeries throughout the whole of Wales are offering appointments on Saturdays, and they are every other Saturday. Are you willing to be honest with this Assembly, and with the people of Wales, in terms of your No. 1 health commitment in 2011, that you have failed to meet that commitment, and will you apologise to the people of Wales for failing to meet that commitment?
 
13:45
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for her final question. In terms of the work that I’ve already outlined, there is an extended availability for people to be able to access primary care. It is a commitment of this Government and, in the future, we expect people to be able to access more healthcare locally. [Interruption.]
 
13:46
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Elin Jones, you’ve asked your question. [Interruption.] Elin Jones, behave.
 
Will you answer, please?
 
13:46
Vaughan GethingBiography
The access to primary care is something that we have expanded, in terms of the extended hours that it’s available, and we do already know that some surgeries already provide access in the evenings and also on weekends on a greater basis. Our challenge always is how consistent that is and whether that actually meets the needs of patients themselves. So, we will continue to work in partnership with the profession on ensuring that access to primary care is as readily available as possible, and that is a commitment of this Government, now and for the future of the national health service here in Wales.
 
13:46
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrats spokesperson—Kirsty Williams.
 
13:46
Kirsty WilliamsBiographyThe Leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. Minister, given your failure to achieve your No. 1 pledge in terms of improving access to GPs, it’s no surprise, then, that 40 per cent of patients who were surveyed expressed that it was difficult to find a GP appointment. And that’s not appointments in the evening, or even an appointment at weekends; many people report finding difficulty to get a routine appointment in normal hours. What steps have you taken over the last five years to ensure that people can access a GP appointment in a timely fashion, and would you agree with me and my constituent who recently tried to make an appointment to obtain the results of a scan? He was told he could see a doctor in three weeks, and was told that if he wanted to see the doctor who’d actually referred him for the scan in the first place, he’d have to wait a further week. So, in total, he would wait four weeks for an appointment to see a GP to obtain the results of a scan.
 
13:47
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. It is something that we recognise in terms of people’s challenges around access to healthcare on the day or immediate appointments, and it comes out from the Welsh health survey. So, whilst the majority of people don’t find this an issue, we reckon that a significant number of people do find it a challenge on receiving appointments on the day, and that there’s challenge on dealing with people who are independent contractors and understanding how their own appointments systems work. And we know that in every constituency, there will be surgeries and practices, side by side with each other, running significantly different systems. So, it’s part of our challenge, working with health boards and GP practices, in their clusters as well, towards then how they can improve their systems so that the very best models that do deliver against patient expectations can actually be copied and rolled across. Now, there isn’t simply a way of simply insisting that GP surgeries run exactly the same appointments model, because it will need to differ depending on different parts of the country. But, I recognise the challenge, and it’s also why we expect My Health Online to be rolled out to more and more people to make sure it is as easy as possible to book appointments now and in the future. So, it’s a challenge we have now. It’s one where we recognise there really is good practice in the majority of places in Wales, but it certainly isn’t something where we would say we are happy with the current position.
 
13:49
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Deputy Minister, he wasn’t looking for an appointment on the same day—he couldn’t even get an appointment in the same month to see the results of his scan. Now, in your document, you said not only would you improve access to GPs, but that you would ensure that pressure was taken off our A&E departments. Well, in the January of this year, a total of 3,294 patients spent 12 hours or more in an emergency department, and your own Government website says that you’re not meeting your targets with regard to reducing the number of people who spend four hours in an A&E department. So, you haven’t delivered your target on GPs. You haven’t delivered your targets on A&E departments. Why is that?
 
13:49
Vaughan GethingBiography
The Member will know, from both the question I dealt with last week and, indeed, the written statements that we’ve issued, that there is a significant and additional amount of increased attendance at A&E departments right across Wales and the UK. Here in Wales we’ve had a 10 per cent increase on A&E attendances compared to January last year. That’s nearly 8,000 extra patients. In fact, through December and January, more than 63,000 people were seen within the four-hour timescale. What’s important for us is that the targets themselves are helpful markers of part of the care—not all of the care—that people receive. Still, the average time is about two hours and 10 minutes for people to be seen, treated and discharged or admitted.
 
There’s no avoiding the fact that some people are in a hospital waiting area for longer than we would wish, but at all times they are being actively treated and managed, and that is something I regularly discuss with health boards—how they reduce the number of people who are waiting 12 hours or longer. But many people would rather stay, be seen, treated and then discharged, ultimately, if that is the right thing to do for them, rather than to be artificially admitted, as the system works in England, where there are financial penalties for not doing so. I think the system we have in Wales is the right one. The challenge is how we deal with that pressure, and there needs to be a recognition that there is unprecedented pressure coming through the front door of our hospitals at present. It’s only thanks to the dedication and hard work of staff that we continue to see and treat people with dignity in almost every single instance.
 
13:51
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Deputy Minister, it was your programme of government that said that you would improve access to GPs during the term of this Assembly. You have not done so. It was your programme of government that said that you would take pressure off our A&E departments. You have not done so. Our A&E departments, as you’ve just said, are busier than they’ve ever been. But perhaps the most damning failure in the programme for government: you said you would close the gap between the poorest people in this country and the richest people in this country in terms of health outcomes and life expectancy. Your own Government website says that those gaps have remained the same. Why do you believe, despite making that promise that you would close the health gap between our poorest people and our richest people, you have not been able to do that over the last five years?
 
13:52
Vaughan GethingBiography
Well, let me deal with the points that the leader of the Liberal Democrats has just made about the pressure on A&E departments. There is a huge amount of work, as she is perfectly well aware, that is ongoing to reduce pressure on A&E departments, and to reduce admissions so that people do not need to go into hospital unnecessarily. To try and suggest that additional demand coming through the doors of accident and emergency departments is somehow down to the Government and we are directly responsible for that need is significantly unhelpful and does not recognise the reality of the position. I really am disappointed about the way that has been suggested.
 
It is to the significant credit of our staff that they are managing and dealing with that additional pressure, and you know very well that, at this time of year, the additional demand comes from a range of different factors. We have an older, poorer, sicker population than England in general, and that means that we have more people coming through our doors—more people with chronic healthcare conditions. That unprecedented demand is not a matter where the Welsh Government is going to be able to say, within a year or two years, that we can turn off the tap. The challenge is how to anticipate that and plan for it. How do we equip our national health service to properly deal with that, working hand in hand with their partners in social care and in primary care? That is a challenge which we are having a conversation with all of our partners about, and it’s something that we are actively doing. You will know from your own constituency a range of measures that have been undertaken in this area.
 
In terms of the gap in healthy life expectancy between our poorest and better-off citizens, the fact that the gap has actually stopped opening up is something to recognise, because when you look at health inequalities in a range of other parts of the United Kingdom, the gap has not been closing. We’ve got specific targeted programmes—for example, Living Well, Living Longer, which I was very pleased to launch in Blaenau Gwent in the recent past. That programme is actively looking at what we can do to reduce health inequalities between our poorest communities and our better-off communities. There is active engagement with those people, and active engagement with a range of different partners who all need to be facing in the same direction. I’m happy that we have a very real commitment to end, and do something about, health inequalities, and I’m very proud of the work that we’re doing with our partners to do just that.
 
13:54
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Conservatives’ spokesperson, Darren Millar.
 
13:54
Darren MillarBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, there are 1 in 7 people in Wales on an NHS waiting list. What are you doing about it?
 
13:54
Vaughan GethingBiography
There are not 1 in 7 people on an NHS waiting list. I’m happy to disabuse the Member of his ignorance in this matter. [Interruption.]
 
13:54
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Order. Order.
 
13:54
Vaughan GethingBiography
The figures for waiting lists recognise there are a number of people who are more than one list, as you know perfectly well. To suggest that 1 in 7 people in the whole of Wales are on a waiting list is simply not true. I would prefer it if we could have a rational conversation about the health service and its challenges, rather than attempt to deliberately misrepresent the position by misquoting figures in the way that you do. I do hope that you’ll recognise that when you get to your feet next.
 
13:55
Darren MillarBiography
No answer at all from the Minister on what he’s doing to reduce these record waiting lists. Let’s just put this into perspective: there are almost 440,000 people on waiting lists here in Wales. When Carwyn Jones became First Minister, the figure was almost half that; it has doubled on his watch. Not only are more people on a waiting list, but more people are waiting longer than in other parts of the United Kingdom. We know, for example, that, from the official statistics, the average wait for a hip operation in Wales is 75 days—it certainly was in 2014-15—compared to 197—. Sorry, it’s 75 days in England compared to 197 days here in Wales. We also know that figures for heart bypass waits show that there’s a gap of 111 days here—that’s the wait in Wales—versus just 57 days in England. Why should people in Wales have to put up with these longer waits? I ask you again the question I asked you earlier: what are you doing to reduce these waiting times?
 
13:56
Vaughan GethingBiography
I’m disappointed that you again misrepresented the figures. I’m disappointed that you again misrepresent the facts when talking about our national health service. To suggest that one in seven people are on a waiting list when you know that is simply not true—it troubles me about the level of honesty with which you engage in this debate. When it comes to the numbers of people on a list, or the number of waiting list appointments that are waiting, in fact, in England, the percentage has risen even higher than in Wales. In fact, the numbers of people on a list don’t tell you how quickly people are seen or about the quality of treatment that people receive. I really would ask you again, Darren Millar, to reconsider the way in which you are misusing figures and not giving an honest representation of the achievement of our national health service here in Wales.
 
Dealing with your point about hip operations, we know, for example, that it is not simply the amount of time you wait; it’s actually the outcomes that we’re interested in, as well. You will be perfectly well aware that from a recent audit of mortality rates after hip operations, 11 particular hospital sites in England had significant concerns about the rate of 30-day mortality, and the best performing hospital in the category was actually Bronglais here in Wales. It shows that quality really is at the heart of what we do here in Wales, and I really do wish you could at least recognise that and the quality of service that people do receive on a regular basis from our staff here in NHS Wales.
 
13:58
Darren MillarBiography
I’m still waiting for an answer on what you’re doing about the waiting times—
 
13:58
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Darren Millar.
 
13:58
Darren MillarBiography
[Inaudible.]
 
13:58
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Darren Millar. Darren Millar. Darren Millar, will you please sit down a moment?
 
Deputy Minister, I’d like you to consider the way you are expressing your answers before you reply to any more. Right—Darren Millar.
 
13:58
Darren MillarBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I have sought an answer on two occasions now to what you are actually doing to reduce waiting times. You talk about outcomes. The Royal College of Surgeons has warned that people are coming to harm as a result of heart bypass waiting times here in south Wales; the same conclusion was drawn, also, by the Wales Audit Office. What are you doing to reduce these unacceptable waiting times? If we want to talk about being honest and open with the public, why on earth aren’t you accepting that there’s a crisis in the waiting times here in Wales and that it needs to be dealt with urgently? Do you accept that your record-breaking cuts to national health service budgets are having an impact on the ability of the NHS to address these waiting times?
 
13:59
Vaughan GethingBiography
Of course, we are investing a record amount in the national health service here in Wales, despite the fact that we are suffering year-on-year cuts from the United Kingdom Government, led by his party; that is the reality of the position. We are making those choices on investing in our national health service in the most difficult financial period of time for this National Assembly, and I’m proud of our record. In terms of waiting times, we expect waiting times to fall. At the end of this year, you will see a national health service in Wales that has improved waiting times across the whole piece. You will see that record, and, when you do, I expect you to do the decent thing by our national health service and apologise for suggesting otherwise. I expect you to put the record straight. I expect you to have the decency to recognise that the way you talk down our national health service, the way you misrepresent the activity within our national health service does a serious discredit to you, and people in Wales will not be fooled by Tories shouting about the national health service. People in Wales know perfectly well you can’t trust the Tories with our NHS.
 
14:00
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move back to the questions on the paper. Question 3 is Sandy Mewies.
 
Primary Healthcare Facilities in Flint
 
14:00
Sandy MewiesBiography
3. Will the Minister provide an update on the provision of primary healthcare facilities in Flint? OAQ(4)0704(HSS)
 
14:00
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, I’m very happy to. Thank you for the question. The Welsh Government has approved £5 million of capital funding for a new integrated health and social care centre in Flint. The proposed new centre will integrate and co-locate a range of primary, community, social and voluntary sector services.
 
14:00
Sandy MewiesBiography
Thank you. The go-ahead for Flint health centre and the number of services being provided is to be welcomed. At the original consultation on health services in 2012, I said that, should services be replaced, then the services that did replace them should meet the needs of an ever-growing population and be both safe and sustainable. I also said that the planned timeline for providing those services was frighteningly long. Minister, can I ask that steps be taken to ensure that this scheme suffers no further delays and that, in future, health boards act to ensure that if services need to be replaced in a community, then the transition is as quick and as seamless as possible?
 
14:01
Vaughan GethingBiography
Thank you for the question. Those were points well made by Sandy Mewies. I should say, given that this will be your last health questions, that you have been a consistent and persistent advocate for new healthcare facilities to serve the people of Flint, and I do recognise that this scheme has been long in the planning, and we would have wanted to see it delivered more quickly than it has been. You do make a completely fair point: the transition should be as seamless as possible.
 
Healthcare services have continued to be delivered, but I do think that, in the future, we would expect there to be no further delays at all in the delivery of this scheme so that the people of Flint get the significant investment delivered on their doorstep to provide a significant and additional range of services for the people of Flint to access. So, I think this is a good example of the sort of schemes we ought to see in other parts of Wales as well, and I look forward to being able to deliver that over the course of the next Assembly term.
 
Health and Social Care
 
14:02
John GriffithsBiography
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the importance of addressing health and social care needs together to improve service provision in Wales? OAQ(4)0697(HSS)
 
14:02
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. Our approach in Wales has been to enable and support partnership working across health and social care to ensure people have high-quality, integrated services, care and support. We have therefore protected our vital social services budgets and provided specific funding, such as the intermediate care fund, to drive partnership working.
 
14:03
John GriffithsBiography
Minister, in England, I think we see the conseqences of a lack of UK Government support for social care, which is that there are grave problems for social services and health. Thankfully, here in Wales, as you’ve briefly mentioned, we see an integrated approach to health and social care through, for example, the intermediate care fund. Would you agree with me that the situation in England at the moment, because of the lack of that integrated strategy and policy, is a salutary lesson as to what happens if you do not take that approach? Will you assure me and the people of Wales that the Welsh Government will continue to develop and implement policy in a joined-up way with regard to health and social care?
 
14:03
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question and for highlighting the significant impact of the cuts to social care in England that we have not followed here in Wales. The Treasury’s own figures show that spend per head in Wales for health and social services is 7 per cent higher. It’s not just this Government that is saying there is a problem with social care in England. Simon Stevens, the chief executive of NHS England, has regularly called for a politically stable settlement and for the funding of social care in England. I’m proud of the fact that we’re delivering a genuinely joined-up solution here in Wales, looking at health and social care together. It helps to explain why we have a much more robust system here in Wales between health and social care, and it also helps to explain why they have record highs in delayed transfers of care in England, where as we seem to keep it stable and manage much more successfully here in Wales.
 
14:04
William GrahamBiography
I’m most grateful to the questioner for highlighting one of the core policies of the Welsh Conservatives. We are committed to creating a £10 million care innovation fund to co-ordinate health and social services. Do you accept that the care innovation fund is more likely to help people remain in their own homes?
 
14:04
Vaughan GethingBiography
I’d love to see the details of Conservative policy and how on earth you’re going to fund it. In Wales, we’ve got an intermediate care fund that is delivering integrated care—£20 million last year, £50 million of revenue next year, and an extra £10 million of capital. This is a Government that is delivering on integrating health and social care, and I look forward to us being able to continue that journey in the next Assembly.
 
14:05
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Well, Deputy Minister, without what we would consider to be the true integration of health and social care, how will you make sure—and I would quote your Government’s prudent healthcare policy—that people will receive the right care in the right place at the right time, because from what I’ve heard today, your party’s in a bit of a hole and the normal advice is to throw the shovel out and stop digging? Personally, if I were you, I’d get out of the hole. [Laughter.]
 
14:05
Vaughan GethingBiography
Dear, dear—talk about to strangle a metaphor. [Laughter.] I will restate again that this party and this Government have no intention at all of following Plaid Cymru’s agenda to smash the health service into many different pieces. We do not believe that splintering community and primary healthcare into many different parts of local government will be at all helpful on delivering genuine integration of health and social care. We are very proud of the approach we’re taking in the Gwenda Thomas Act that was passed by this Assembly on a different model for health and social care to work together. The partnership boards are already there, as are the pooled budgets and directive that this Government is issuing, and the real money we’re putting in the intermediate care fund to ensure that is delivered. We recognise that health and social care working together is important; that’s why we look at them together when we fund them. We’re really proud of the work they’re doing together with the voluntary sector too, and we expect there to be more of that to come in the future as we deliver real outcomes for people in every single part of Wales.
 
14:06
Gwenda ThomasBiography
Minister, domiciliary care is frequently the point at which health and social care needs most obviously overlap. Would you agree with me that in addressing the needs of service users through their homecare systems, public bodies should have an absolute focus on the quality of care provided, and the right of service users and their carers to be at the centre of the design and provision of services, and that these goals should never be subordinated to the desire to compete with other providers in the social care market?
 
14:07
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question; I agree with the point she’s making. We’ve been very clear with both health and social care providers that we expect there to be a focus on quality in commissioning as a driver for the work that they do. That’s why we’ve also directed them using the scheme of the Act that you piloted through this Assembly to ensure that they plan and understand our population needs, and then meet together as well. So, we’ve got a specific area where we expect them to work together on the joint commissioning and delivery of those services. It’s why we’re protecting health and social services spend; it’s why there’s been an extra £21 million going into social care in the last budget. But I’m particularly pleased that you mentioned the needs of carers. We’re looking in particular at the needs of carers at this point in time, and this really is a groundbreaking part of the legislative scheme that you’ve introduced, and I think Wales is significantly well placed compared to the rest of the UK to properly recognise and deliver on the rights and the needs of carers going forward for the future.
 
Haemophilia and Contaminated Blood
 
14:08
Julie MorganBiography
5. Will the Deputy Minister provide an update on progress with payments to people with haemophilia who have been infected by contaminated blood? OAQ(4)0706(HSS)
 
14:08
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. On 21 January this year, the Department of Health in Whitehall published proposals to change payments made in the circumstances you just outlined. That consultation ends on 15 April, and I would urge anyone affected in Wales, their families and representatives to make their views known before that closing date.
 
14:08
Julie MorganBiography
I thank the Deputy Minister for that response, but I’m sure the Minister is aware that the Haemophilia Society and haemophilia groups in Wales have been told by the English public health Minister and by the Wales Office that although they’ve been asked to contribute to the consultation process in England, the exact amount and form of the payments will be up to the Welsh Government. This, I believe, has been news to the Welsh Government, and it was really a great shock to people and families who have suffered a lot through being patients who have been contaminated with infected blood, and have actually contracted HIV and hepatitis C, and are really in a situation where they don’t know what’s happening; they are totally confused about what the situation is. So, I wondered if the Deputy Minister was able to clarify the situation about what is the responsibility of the Welsh Government, and what is the Department of Health doing by giving such conflicting messages.
 
14:09
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for highlighting the issue; I know she’s taken a great deal of interest in this as chair of the cross-party group on contaminated blood. It may be helpful if I explain that the UK Government and the Governments in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales had agreed to undertake a unified UK approach on payments to people affected by the contaminated blood scandal. Unfortunately, the UK Government then made a unilateral announcement on moneys for people in England ahead of the consultation itself. That has created a large element of confusion amongst people who are taking part in the consultation and will be affected in every single part of Wales.
 
The First Minister wrote to the Secretary of State at the start of February—and we still await the response to that letter—highlighting that we wish there to be a proper four-nation process, as was agreed at the start of this, that we do wish there to be no further unilateral announcements made to cause additional confusion, and at the end of the consultation, we then expect to be able to take a genuine four-country approach to this particular issue, because the last thing that people who’ve suffered from the contaminated blood scandal want is different countries and different departments criticising each other, saying that the blame lies somewhere else. This is led by the UK Government, it’s an approach we all want to be able to sign up to, and I hope there’s now an attack of common sense and a common approach to dealing with this particularly difficult issue.
 
14:11
Suzy DaviesBiography
Deputy Minister, I’m sure that the Assembly would appreciate a general update on investment in research and development on blood and blood-borne diseases like hepatitis, as Julie Morgan mentioned. I’d be especially grateful for an update on progress in relation to pernicious anaemia to include information on the latest thinking on the frequency and dosage of vitamin B12 injections as well as any new therapies. Could you confirm how often the Welsh Government reviews the literature on pernicious anaemia and whether it’s directly commissioned any research into this disease, into haemophilia and other blood or blood-borne diseases?
 
14:11
Vaughan GethingBiography
We have a range of activity on blood-borne diseases and we have a range of activity that’s been undertaken, that’s been subsumed, as one of our delivery plans. I’ll happily write to you with the details of that and make sure other Members are copied in.
 
14:11
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
I will return to the payment scheme. There is serious concern that what the UK Government is consulting on at present represents a significantly retrograde step in terms of the support provided to those who have to live with the consequences of contaminated blood. Will the Deputy Minister give us a commitment—as well as seeking an explanation of what’s going on—to work closely with the UK Government during and beyond the current consultation to ensure that, first of all, if the responsibility for implementing the payment scheme is somehow devolved to Wales, sufficient funds are provided to us in order to implement such a scheme, and if not, that the Welsh Government should represent the interests of Welsh patients by strongly lobbying against this unjust step that’s being recommended and that could, it appears, be forced on Wales?
 
14:12
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. Again, it helps to recognise there are a range of different payment mechanisms from different charitable funds at present. Broadly, there’s been agreement that a single scheme with less complexity would be the right thing to do for people affected by the scandal. The challenge has been, on the move to that single scheme and the unilateral action that the Department of Health took—I set that out earlier in the response to Julie Morgan.
 
In terms of proposals as they come, we do want to work with the UK Department of Health, as do all of the other UK nations. That is our absolute clear preference. If there are challenges in the way that happens, we will of course represent the interests of Welsh citizens in the future of any proposals. There’ll be no lack of effort in trying. But I don’t want to get into a war of words with the Department of Health. I want there to be a recognition that this is best dealt with on a cross-United Kingdom basis and it means that they have to work with all of the devolved administrations, delivering a fair deal for people affected by the contaminated blood scandal in every single nation of the United Kingdom. That’s what we want, that’s what we’re working towards and we’ll continue to represent the best interests of Welsh citizens in doing so.
 
14:14
Eluned ParrottBiography
Minister, I’m grateful for you earlier statements. I met with a constituent last week who was deeply distressed by the anxiety that this situation is causing with regard to her future. One particular cause of distress was the idea that had been put around—and I’m not sure where that came from—that some of the payment money ought to be used to pay for some of the very expensive novel medications for hepatitis C that are available, and they’re currently only available to patients really suffering from the very later stages of the disease to bring that timing forward. I wonder if you can clarify whether or not that is the case and whether you can represent to the UK Government the absolute necessity that people affected by contaminated blood should have access to these regardless of the payment scheme.
 
14:14
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, thank you. I’m aware of the very real anxiety that families feel, and each of us probably has constituents individually who are affected by this particular issue. That’s why I go back to the decision that the Minister made in August last year to ensure that a range of novel but costly treatments that are effective for people with advanced hepatitis C are available here in Wales, including of course sofos—sofosbuvir, which I know the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats has struggled to say in addition in the past—[Laughter.]—but that’s now available. The challenge always is about making that available for people who are in need of that and make sure it’s available on a more consistent basis. So, we’ve made a decision with funding to try and make sure that it’s going to happen. The challenge now is to make sure it happens consistently across Wales. I think we’ve got the right position that we’re taking in Wales in terms of our objectives. It’s now making sure that they’re implemented in practice. The money we’ve announced should deliver that.
 
Integrated Health and Social Care Services
 
14:15
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-ThomasBiography
6. What new provisions have been made for integrated health and social care services during the fourth Assembly? OAQ(4)0696(HSS)[W]
 
14:16
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. Among the significant new provisions for integrated services are the new hospital at Tywyn and the new community health centre announced for Blaenau Ffestiniog, both of which bring health and social care services together, and both of which have been funded during this fourth Assembly.
 
14:16
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-ThomasBiography
May I thank the Minister very much for that response, and for the developments that are taking place in the Dwyfor Meirionnydd area? I welcome the development in Tywyn and look forward to seeing the hospital opened as well, of course, as the health centre at Blaenau Ffestiniog. But may I also thank the Minister for the practical leadership that’s been shown in sites such as Ysbyty Alltwen where, at last, social services and health services are collaborating in the same corridor, and even in the same rooms with specific cases, where the pain caused in the past to patients and clients of these services to have to have separate assessments has now come to an end?
 
14:17
Vaughan GethingBiography
Yes, and I am grateful for the recognition of the practical steps that are being taken to integrate health and social care services on a local level. That’s what we think we need to see more of. It’s why we are funding a range of schemes to bring together health and social care, not just in Tywyn and Blaenau Ffestiniog, but in Llangollen, Flint and Cylch Caron as well—examples of the sort of integration of practical services that we want to see. We’re funding capital and we’re getting partners together to do that. That’s our preferred approach for the future: a practical partnership approach between health and social services, rather than a big-bang reorganisation, which, as the Member knows, we don’t support. But I do think there is much to praise in what is already happening and what we could see more of in the fifth Assembly.
 
The Flu Vaccine
 
14:17
Sandy MewiesBiography
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the take-up of the flu vaccine this winter? OAQ(4)0705(HSS)
 
14:17
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. This season’s vaccination campaign is still under way. Early indications are that the number of over-65s vaccinated is likely to be an increase on previous years, and we know that six health boards or trusts have already achieved the target of vaccinating 50 per cent of their staff with direct patient contact.
 
14:18
Sandy MewiesBiography
Thank you, Minister. We know also, though, that too many younger people are at risk of the particular type of flu that is going around at the moment and they are failing to take up the offer of the free flu jab available to them. The Welsh Government target for vaccination currently stands at 75 per cent. We know that only 50 per cent of those under 65 are being vaccinated. So, what is the Welsh Government doing to make those at risk aware that this free vaccine is available and where they can get it?
 
14:18
Vaughan GethingBiography
I thank the Member for the question. It’s an important point as well. It’s worth reflecting that, last year, of course, with the flu campaign, there was a suggestion that the vaccine wasn’t as effective as it could have been. Actually, we now understand that last year’s flu vaccine was much more effective than was thought and reported. Unfortunately, some of that reporting at the time has leaked into people’s willingness to get the jab for this winter. It is a real challenge. You make a completely accurate point that younger people have been more affected by this year’s flu strain. So, we would encourage all those people who are at risk, including me, under 65 to make sure that they get their jabs when they’re available. We don’t think the challenge is people being aware that the flu vaccine is available; it’s really about people taking the next step to go on and say that they will get it and will be protected. I still think far too many people have the idea that flu is somehow benign. In fact, we know that people die each year from flu and people have serious illness. So, if you’re in an at-risk group or over 65, take advantage of the offer and get the vaccine while it’s still available.
 
14:19
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, Minister.
 
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. Janet Haworth’s not present, so we’ll move to question 2, which is Aled Roberts.
 
Question 1, OAQ(4)0685(ESK), not asked.
 
Higher Education Funding Council for Wales
 
14:19
Aled RobertsBiography
2. Will the Minister provide an update on the HEFCW remit letter for 2015-16? OAQ(4)0692(ESK)[W]
 
14:20
Huw LewisBiographyThe Minister for Education and Skills
Yes. I thank the Member for North Wales. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales has made progress against all of the priorities I set out in my 2015-16 remit letter. Progress is regularly monitored through quarterly monitoring meetings both with Ministers and officials, and the remit letter for 2016-17 will issue before the end of this financial year.
 
14:20
Aled RobertsBiography
May I ask you, regarding that remit letter, do you think at the moment, regarding that additional £5 million for part-time provision and the additional £5 million for research, that there will be specific reference to those figures? Are you in a situation to confirm that the letter will also ask them to continue with Welsh-medium provision through the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol? In doing so, I must declare an interest as my son is a member of the Coleg Cymraeg.
 
14:21
Huw LewisBiography
I think I can enable the Member to rest assured in terms of those three key issues around part-time provision, research and Welsh-medium provision in higher education. As I say, work is progressing on the preparation of that remit letter. I expect advice from my officials imminently and, in line with usual practice, the letter will issue before the end of the current financial year. But, I am on the record as having emphasised part-time provision and research in particular as being areas for concern.
 
14:21
Angela BurnsBiography
Minister, during the last spokespersons’ questions, you said that universities in Wales held over £800 million in reserves in 2013-14. It turns out that actual figure is far less—almost half—because most of that amount is illiquid. Indeed, a more accurate assessment of the higher education sector’s financial position is an aggregate deficit of £67 million. Do you finally agree with those figures that are from the books, and how will you address that when you give HEFCW their remit letter? How will you address the funding issues for higher education, because without a robust higher education system we are serving our young people poorly?
 
14:22
Huw LewisBiography
Well, Presiding Officer, I really have no idea where the Conservative spokesperson’s figure of £67 million-worth of deficit might have emerged from. Perhaps we can have that conversation when there is more time to permit it. But the figures I quoted were from the publicly available figures published by the universities themselves, which show that there are individual higher education institutions in Wales with a greater depth of reserve strength than the Welsh Government itself. This is illustrative, I think, of the robust financial position of higher education within Wales, which is a direct result of our student support policies and investment in higher education over the last term of the Welsh Government.
 
14:23
Elin JonesBiography
Minister, as has already been mentioned, one of the successes of the HE sector over the past few years is the growth in Welsh-medium provision. The survival of the Coleg Cymraeg and national funding through HEFCW are essential in maintaining that momentum. Will you confirm, therefore, that you will be in a position to ask HEFCW through the remit letter to maintain the budget line for the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol into the next financial year?
 
14:23
Huw LewisBiography
Well, of course, Presiding Officer, it is ultimately for the funding council to allocate its resources, but the Member is quite correct that the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol has made some real tangible progress in terms of improving Welsh-medium higher education provision since 2011 when it was established. I will continue to encourage HEFCW to continue its focus on Welsh-medium study, as I believe it’s important that the activities of the Coleg continue to be supported at a level that maintains this progressive momentum.
 
14:24
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Before we move to spokespersons’ questions, I would just like to remind Members that it’s very discourteous to the Chamber if you have a written question on a paper and you leave the Chamber before that question is asked because it deprives other people of the opportunity of questioning the Minister on that. So, please try and pay attention in future and don’t let it happen again.
 
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
 
14:24
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to spokespeople’s questions and the first question this afternoon is from the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Aled Roberts.
 
14:24
Aled RobertsBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, you have made it completely clear that it’s important that we have consistency across Wales in terms of improving standards in our schools. But, there was a debate last week on Estyn’s annual report that showed that a gap is starting to emerge between those schools that are excellent and the schools that perhaps need more support. Significant amounts of money are being given to regional consortia at the moment to improve standards. Money has been provided for the Schools Challenge Wales programme. Therefore, can you tell us exactly what your expectations are in terms of the regional consortia, in terms of improving standards, and how they’re doing at the moment in your opinion?
 
14:25
Huw LewisBiography
The Member will know, Presiding Officer, that I have taken a personal interest in the progress of the educational consortia. I have led, myself, the challenge and review events at each of the four consortia up and down the country over the last couple of years. We are, I think, beginning to see real traction in terms of school improvement as a result of the good work of the four consortia. He’s right to point out that Estyn had a concern around polarisation in school standards, although let’s be careful: what Estyn was specifically talking about were secondary schools and there was a very different picture around more universalised progress in the primary sector. But, this polarisation between the very best, the excellent delivery of teaching and learning in our best schools, and those—a decreasing number of schools—where that certainly could not be said is something that we do need to watch. It’s something that consortia need to be concerned with.
 
14:26
Aled RobertsBiography
Estyn also mentions that there is a risk of some sort of narrowing of the curriculum and that, with all the pressure on improving standards, perhaps some subjects are disappearing from the curriculum of secondary schools. They refer specifically, I think, to modern languages. You announced in June last year the Global Futures programme where additional funding was being provided to try and turn the situation around. Can you tell us exactly what progress you have seen in terms of the situation during the first year and whether you’re satisfied with the progress in terms of that programme?
 
14:27
Huw LewisBiography
Any potential narrowing of the curriculum is certainly something to guard against and it’s something that, in correspondence with Members here and with other partner organisations, I’ve been active in guarding against over the last year or so. There certainly have, I would say, been some local authorities, and most particularly some headteachers, who have misinterpreted things like the demands around the new GCSE maths curriculum as somehow meaning that they have to narrow the number of subjects that are available for GCSE. This is certainly not the case. The direction of travel, as we move towards our ‘Successful Futures’, our Donaldson curriculum, is very much based upon a broad and balanced curriculum and that is the future for Welsh schools-based education. I am pleased that Global Futures certainly has fired the imaginations particularly of leaders of modern foreign languages in our schools, and I am particularly encouraged, actually, that for the first time cultural institutes like the Institut Français and the Goethe-Institut, and the Italian embassy and the Spanish embassy, have been actively involved in setting up shop here in Wales. For the very first time, they have left London and set up shop in Cardiff in order to assist us now with the very real heavy lifting that’s ahead of us, most particularly in terms of upskilling the workforce in primary schools in modern foreign languages.
 
14:28
Aled RobertsBiography
Before I ask my final question, as I think that this will be the final opportunity that I have, may I wish you well after May and thank you for your co-operation during these last two or three years? My final question is about the statement by the National Union of Teachers that states the fact that we as politicians have to create some sort of positive environment for the profession and for our schools, but also says that all this pressure on the profession is creating a situation where there is a risk that professional development, recruiting and so forth are starting to suffer. Therefore, may I ask you, given that our numbers in primary schools are on the increase, whether you’re satisfied with the number that are coming in to the profession and whether we need to re-look at the way that we plan for the future in terms of the workforce?
 
14:29
Huw LewisBiography
The Member is very gracious in his comments, and I thank him for that. He’s very right, I think, also to emphasise these particular points, in terms of his last question to me as education Minister. All depends—in terms of progress within Welsh education, all of it depends on the progress of the teaching profession itself. This is about inculcating an atmosphere within Wales that I hope will continue to be very different to the one that pertains across the border in England, that is exacting, that is challenging, that does expect the highest standards possible, but is also, in return, supportive and respectful of the teaching profession. The new deal, the new curriculum, the new system we will soon have in place around initial teacher education and training: all this is designed to, essentially, change the nature of the Welsh teaching profession. Only by doing that can we change the very nature of the educational delivery to young people itself.
 
14:30
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Welsh Conservative spokesperson, Angela Burns.
 
14:31
Angela BurnsBiography
Thank you, Presiding Officer. May I take this opportunity, Presiding Officer, to also wish the Minister for education all the best in his career, going forward? You and I may not have agreed on a great many things, but you’ve enabled dialogue, and, for that, I am grateful, and I do wish you well. I thought I’d get the good wishes in before I asked the questions, because you may not be so fond of me afterwards.
 
I wanted to pick up on a point that Aled Roberts made about the Estyn report, and the number of secondary schools providing an adequate or unsatisfactory learning experience for their pupils, because there was a slight glossing over of that. Because it’s 46 per cent of our secondary schools—that’s just under half of our secondary schools—according to Estyn, that provide only an adequate or, even worse, an unsatisfactory, learning experience.
 
We all know the regional consortia are responsible for school improvement; they’ve been very slow to get off the ground after the previous education Minister’s fanfare announcement of them. Minister, what do you think that you can do in the time available to set up a really coherent way of moving forward, because those young people who are in secondary school—just under 50 per cent of them—are having a less than adequate education, and we need to be able to move that story on?
 
14:32
Huw LewisBiography
Well, the Conservative spokesperson is both gracious and cutting in equal measure, and, in many ways, generates the atmosphere that I’ve been trying to generate perhaps around the teaching profession, with that support and challenge given equal emphasis.
 
She’s quite right to point out that primary schools—and Estyn have said this very plainly: in terms of school improvement, primary schools do seem to be leading the way, and it seems to be an echo, really, of the turnaround that we saw in schools in London in that regard, and, in secondary schools, we are seeing issues that are more problematic. But, let me just remind her that the picture throughout is shot through with forward momentum. GCSE results, at present, are the highest on record. The poverty attainment gap is closing at every key stage of education. The number of schools getting below the 50 per cent level 2 inclusive mark has almost halved since 2012. Every local education authority is now out of special measures, and two thirds of the Challenge Cymru schools saw an uplift in their performance in the summer 2015 summer exam results. That is momentum. That is undeniable school improvement.
 
14:33
Angela BurnsBiography
Minister, you know I can’t let you get away with that paean of praise, partly because I simply do not recognise it. The recent Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report said that one of the key problems was that the strategies for differentiated teaching and formative assessment are underdeveloped. Classrooms are filled with 30 or more pupils, with different personalities and learning needs, so teachers need training and professional development to help them serve the varying needs of their pupils. I’m sure you will say that the new deal will answer that. I’m sure you will say the new deal will help to increase the 46 per cent of secondary schools that are only adequate or are unsatisfactory. But, Minister, I say to you this: many teachers still do not understand how the new deal works and how it is going to work, and it is supposed to be their route to professional development. What good, Minister, is a policy that makes no sense to the profession?
 
14:34
Huw LewisBiography
I really must take issue with the Conservative spokesperson over her choice of language here. If there are teachers who are unaware of the new deal, then I would take a very serious view of that, but especially given now that we have electronic communication with each and every teacher in Wales, keeping them up to date, personally, with developments around these critical issues like their professional development.
 
Not being aware of it, however, is a very different thing from her suggestion that somehow teachers take a very dim view of the new deal. I have been met with nothing but enthusiasm for the new deal. From teaching unions to individual teachers themselves, there has been almost a unanimous welcome for the principles behind the new deal and it is being rolled out as we speak. In keeping with the philosophy behind the school improvement programme that I’ve set in train, the new deal will, in essence, be built by the profession itself. It is not for politicians to spoon feed the teaching profession in terms of its own professional development—it is time for the Welsh teaching profession to realise its potential and take charge of its own destiny.
 
14:36
Angela BurnsBiography
Minister, that’s—
 
14:36
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Sorry, I thought we’d had three questions.
 
14:36
Angela BurnsBiography
I don’t believe we have.
 
14:36
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Okay, fine. If you can just keep them short again, that would be helpful.
 
14:36
Angela BurnsBiography
I will attempt to be succinct, Presiding Officer.
 
Minister, you talk about the new deal as a way forward for teachers to help to improve the standards of education here in Wales and I know that you are talking about work, for example, undertaken by pioneer schools. The reason why these two things are so important is because of the effect that it is having, or not having, on trying to close the attainment gap. What else, Minister, are you going to be doing to ensure that teachers and schools and pupils, indeed, are able to implement the new curriculum effectively, because I fear that simply pioneer schools, the new deal and the odd other initiative won’t be enough. We need a coherent and strong and robust support system in place for the massive changes that will be sweeping through education.
 
14:36
Huw LewisBiography
Well, the robust system is there—it’s there in terms of those pioneer schools that will be looking directly at curriculum development in parallel with their colleagues in the new deal pioneer schools, who will be looking at the professional development required to meet the needs of the new curriculum, but also the professional development that is required in order to meet a very different expected standard when it comes to the quality of teaching and learning more generally, whether that includes the new curriculum or not. This is the essence of the movement towards a self-improving system—a self-improving profession that releases itself really from the need for politicians to continually tinker with the mechanism. I hope that, when we finally see the Welsh Conservatives’ policy on education, we will see within that a commitment to the self-improving system and I hope that we will not see some kind of reversion back to their masters in London in the support of free schools and academies, which would lead to a fracturing of the system and make the progress towards a self-improving system in Wales well-nigh impossible.
 
14:38
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth, who is always known to be concise.
 
14:38
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
I try my best, Presiding Officer. Deputy Minister, is one Careers Wales officer for every six secondary schools in Wales enough?
 
14:38
Julie JamesBiographyThe Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology
The careers services in Wales has, it’s true, suffered some cuts to its budget recently and it’s been a matter of some discussion in the committees of the Assembly. As I’ve said very many times in this Chamber, the austerity policies of the Conservative Government in Westminster are both cruel and destructive of very many good services across Wales. We’ve had no good choices to make in how we are putting our budget together.
 
Having said that, though, only this morning, I attended a meeting of the careers family in Wales in which we discussed a new approach to careers with blended methods of assisting pupils at all of the tiers—we have one through five tiers, for those Members in the Chamber who need their memories refreshing on this point—of children coming through our schools and we will be having a blended approach to making sure that all of them get the careers information and advice and guidance that they need as appropriate to the level of engagement that they require from the careers service.
 
14:39
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
‘Some cuts’, you say, and, as understatements go, that really is quite a memorable one. You are very open, as a Minister, always about wanting to do more than you’re actually able to for financial reasons. But a 57 per cent cut in funding for Careers Wales in five years is much more than just cutting the cloth according to the financial climate. It’s a wholesale change in approach from Government and moving away from face-to-face contact as a policy. Now, I know that different pupils need different sources of advice, and that online advice may well work for some pupils. I’ll go further and say that some pupils don’t even need face-to-face contact, but will the Minister agree with me—and what career professionals tell me—that face-to-face contact is still very important for many pupils? Will the Minister admit that face-to-face contact can’t be delivered for even close to the number of pupils that need that face-to-face contact with the current resource allocation?
 
14:40
Julie JamesBiography
I would very happily agree with Rhun ap Iorwerth. That face-to-face contact can be very important indeed, especially for those children who are at the most vulnerable end of the tier progression framework. However, I would like to point out that careers advisers, whilst extremely important—and I would like to put on record my gratitude to the careers service for the sterling job that they are doing in providing what is still one of the most excellent careers services in Europe and, of course, actually one of the only existing ones in the UK after the decimation of careers in England—they are not the only people delivering face-to-face guidance. We have a whole range of other arrangements in place—the youth progression engagement framework, for example, which includes youth workers and so on. Indeed, actually, the new Donaldson curriculum roll-out will include, as one of the four purposes, preparing people to be engaged and active citizens. That will also include a revision to the careers and the world of work curriculum and how they develop it.
 
So, the other thing that I would like to say—and there’s no reason that the Member should know this, because I haven’t actually told anyone yet—is that we are looking to have a piece of work done around a new offer for the careers service, given its restricted budget. I am hoping to have that with me very shortly now so that we will have something for whoever the new Government is, coming in after the elections, to base a really excellent, first-class service on. So, I actually accept the premise of his argument: I do think that face-to-face is very important indeed, but it’s not important as a universal service. It is important that it’s correctly targeted, and it’s important that the face-to-face sits inside a service that is all-encompassing in terms of all of the other necessities to get young people into the world of work, which is actually what the careers service is all about after all.
 
14:42
Rhun ap IorwerthBiography
The problem is that the targeting is far, far too narrow. It appears to me that what’s happening is that the only ones that are being targeted for face-to-face contact are those at risk of becoming not in education, employment or training. There are far more pupils than that who require face-to-face contact. Now, there’s not even a mechanism, as I understand it, to ensure that all pupils even have adequate online support. So, that’s something that needs to be developed. There’s a danger that pupils can go through schools with pretty much no careers support.
 
Now, we understand that the Scottish Government initially pursued a similar policy of moving to online support, but, following university research and pressures from the likes of Unison, the Scottish Government decided to return to face-to-face contact as that was seen as the best way forward—the most effective way of supporting young people, which is what a good careers service does. Isn’t it time that the Welsh Government admitted that it’s got this wrong on support on careers in Welsh schools?
 
14:43
Julie JamesBiography
Right up until that last sentence I felt that the Member was doing really well because I agreed with quite a lot of what he said, but I don’t think we have got it wrong. What we’re doing is looking to see what the most effective careers service for the twenty-first century can be in conjunction with the revolution in education that Welsh Labour has delivered, and in conjunction with the youth progression engagement framework, the youth service and a large number of other youth services around the person. So, right up until your last sentence, I thought we were going to be able to agree with each other on this last occasion for education questions. So, I don’t think we’ve got it wrong. I do think that there is room for refiguring some parts of the careers service, and I’ve said that quite openly. We are looking at this report and I do hope that the next Government, whoever that might be, will take that forward in the best possible way because we are, actually, very proud of the excellent careers service that we have here in Wales, and we do want to preserve it.
 
14:44
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move back to questions on the papers. Question 3 is Janet Finch-Saunders.
 
Child Literacy
 
14:44
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
3. Will the Minister make a statement on child literacy in Wales? OAQ(4)0690(ESK)
 
14:44
Huw LewisBiographyThe Minister for Education and Skills
Yes, I will. This Government has put in place a comprehensive set of actions to strengthen the teaching and learning of literacy, including the national literacy and numeracy framework and national tests. We are now seeing improvement in literacy levels, and Estyn have reported that standards of basic literacy have improved across Wales.
 
14:44
Janet Finch-SaundersBiography
Thank you. Minister, I’ve no doubt that you are aware that poverty levels for our children in Wales have risen considerably since 2004, and that therefore does affect their education and literacy levels. Can you advise as to why this Government is still yet to undertake a full and proper assessment of those children living in poverty outside of the Flying Start areas? Do you have the numbers available? And would you also agree that it is essential for a future Government to commit to actions to ensure that these children are also able to access the quality support they need for good speech and early language development? How many have we, and what are you doing about them?
 
14:45
Huw LewisBiography
Presiding Officer, the Member’s question is both confused and confusing. First of all, it ill behoves, I think, any supporter of the Conservative Party to stand up in this Chamber and then lecture any of the rest of us, really, on the increase in numbers of children in poverty. This is the party that has presided over removing welfare benefit support from families in greatest need, and is currently engaged in trying to make children in poverty disappear by massaging the statistics in England. That will not happen here in Wales. We know precisely how many young people we’re talking about here, because of our commitment to children on free school meals and our commitment through that to invest preferentially in their future and their prospects through the pupil deprivation grant.
 
14:46
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now to move to question 4—David Rees.
 
The STEM subjects
 
14:46
David ReesBiography
4. Will the Minister provide an update on the development of STEM subjects in schools? OAQ(4)0695(ESK)
 
14:46
Huw LewisBiography
I thank the Member for Aberavon. Our vision for education and strategic approach to increasing STEM skills, including unprecedented support to schools, is resulting in improvements in attainment by our young people. For example, in GCSE mathematics, 64.4 per cent achieved A* to C in 2015—2.7 percentage points higher than the year before and, indeed, the highest on record.
 
14:47
David ReesBiography
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Last week, you visited the second campus in Swansea University in my constituency and saw for yourself the fantastic engineering facilities that are available there, and you also heard that they’re encouraging schoolchildren to come in to the campus to actually see those and to experience the future that STEM can offer to many people. What’s the Welsh Government doing to encourage more schools and more universities to take up such offers so that we can get young people enthused in STEM? Because, to get them to do more A-levels and GCSEs, we need to start them early; we need to get them encouraged into taking science, engineering, and not to be afraid of the maths, which many people have been.
 
14:47
Huw LewisBiography
Quite so, Presiding Officer. I was indeed impressed by my visit to Swansea University just recently, particularly their aim to enhance participation from all areas of society, really, and most particularly disadvantaged communities in south Wales, and their commitment also to be working with young people at a younger age—I think down to year 9—in terms of the school groups that were working with them on the campus. And I know also, of course, that Swansea University is engaged in a wide range of STEM enrichment work, such as the Technocamps and further maths support programmes. So, I think that there are lessons for the higher education community and, indeed, for schools in terms of the kind of engagement that’s available to them arising from the work of Swansea University, and I commend them for it.
 
14:48
Suzy DaviesBiography
I’m sure we’re all agreed on the importance of promoting STEM subjects in the future Welsh curriculum, and where children and young people show a talent and aptitude for this learning, then I welcome strong encouragement for their take-up, particularly when studied in tandem with modern foreign languages. However—and I was encouraged by your answer to Aled Roberts on this earlier, Minister—are you prepared to tell your successor that Wales and its economy will be disadvantaged if children and young people are denied the opportunity for different discovery, creativity and, critically, an understanding of human nature and its effects if arts and humanities are played down in terms of importance on the new curriculum?
 
14:49
Huw LewisBiography
Well, what an opportunity the Member offers to me, and a chance to tell—
 
14:49
Suzy DaviesBiography
[Inaudible.] [Laughter.]
 
14:49
Huw LewisBiography
I can hardly wait. A chance to tell my successor what might be important in terms of education policy. I could wax lyrical all day long. But, to be serious about Suzy Davies’s point, she is quite right, of course, that we must—and I come back to the point I made earlier—commit ourselves to a broad and balanced curriculum, and that’s very clearly what Graham Donaldson has offered to us in terms of ‘Successful Futures’. Indeed, first out of the traps, if you like, in terms of our commitment to that philosophy has been our creative schools programme, co-sponsored by us and the Arts Council of Wales. So, STEM is important, but a broad and balanced education involves a great deal more.
 
14:50
Bethan JenkinsBiography
Minister, you will remember that I have raised with you in the past issues surrounding the fact that people the length and breadth of Wales can’t study A-level engineering even if they wish to do so. Following on from that, Edwina Hart said in response to Rhun ap Iorwerth that there would be a cross-spectrum approach to looking at the situation in Tata Steel. I wonder whether you’ve had any discussions with the Minister for the economy to see how more young people in Wales could access engineering studies in school so that they can then go on to work at places such as Tata in Port Talbot in order to develop sustainable mechanical engineering in that area.
 
14:51
Huw LewisBiography
Well, I thank the Member for that question. It’s an important point and, of course, a broad range of A-level offer is something that we seek to preserve and protect. I am very happy to have the discussions that she mentioned there. It is important, however, not to send the wrong messages to young people. It isn’t a necessity, by any means, if one wishes to become an engineer, to have to take A-level engineering, in the same way that if one wishes to become a lawyer, it is certainly not the case that one has to take A-level law. Indeed, a goodly number of Russell Group universities would give advice to young people that what they are interested in in terms of engineering, for instance, is that there’s a good mathematical competence on the part of the individual, and they don’t necessarily have to have that engineering A-level. So, it’s important that young people are not put off by what we say, and it’s not a necessity that an A-level in engineering is required for a career in engineering.
 
14:52
Eluned ParrottBiography
Minister, if we are to give young people a positive experience of science education at an early stage, so that it sets them up with an enjoyment of science for life, it’s important that we have primary school teachers who have the confidence and the ability to deliver engaging and exciting science lessons in primary schools. You will be aware, of course, of the fantastic role that Techniquest has played here in Cardiff Bay in their outreach programmes in providing CPD for teachers, and I wonder if you can tell us how CPD for teachers in science education and communication will be rolled out over the following years.
 
14:52
Huw LewisBiography
Well, in a multiplicity of ways. I pay tribute to the work of Techniquest, but, of course, Techniquest is not the only way in which—. Indeed, Techniquest simply wouldn’t have the capacity to address the skills issues that we need to address in terms of our primary school professionals as regards STEM subjects. I recently visited a very interesting project in the Education through Regional Working area in south-west Wales, which was very simply about imaginative use of secondary school science and technology colleagues working ever more closely with their feeder primary schools, and the staff within those schools becoming involved in the professional development of the primary school staff, with good ideas flowing in both directions. This is as much about the profession shifting for itself, in my view, as it is about external bodies being there in order to help, as welcome as that may be.
 
Funding School Pupils
 
14:53
Mark IsherwoodBiography
5. Will the Minister outline how the Welsh Government funds school pupils in Wales? OAQ(4)0684(ESK)
 
14:53
Huw LewisBiography
I thank the Member for North Wales. The Welsh Government of course does not fund schools directly. Local authorities are responsible for funding schools as they are best placed to know the needs of their schools and their learners. The Welsh Government sets the strategic direction for education, providing the national policy and legislative context within which local government operates.
 
14:54
Mark IsherwoodBiography
Thank you. Well, the Welsh Government gives 17 out of 22 Welsh local authorities a higher gross schools budget per pupil than Flintshire, including neighbouring Denbighshire and Wrexham. Given the previously stated Welsh Government expectation that local authorities should prioritise per-pupil funding in schools, and only retain centrally what should be necessary, how do you respond to a situation where Denbighshire and Wrexham with larger budgets retain only £783 and £810 respectively, but Flintshire, with a smaller budget, retains £882 per pupil, and therefore has one of the lowest delegated schools budgets in Wales?
 
14:55
Huw LewisBiography
My understanding, Presiding Officer, is that each and every one of the 22 local authorities in Wales—so, I’m not being biased in a party political sense here—has surpassed the 85 per cent delegation of school budgets to schools that the Welsh Government set as an expectation. Indeed, our expectation through this next Assembly term will be that that increases to 90 per cent delegation. I’m not in a position, nor, I think, would it be wise for me, to arbitrate between the various decisions being made by Flintshire, Denbighshire and so on. The issue of school transport alone, for instance, would introduce really quite marked differences between front-line delegation of funding, and rural authorities most particularly have an issue. The delegation of school transport funding would be a catastrophic development for some rural authorities in particular. It is for local authorities to make their decisions and face their electorate when the time comes.
 
14:56
Keith DaviesBiography
I would like to praise the Welsh Labour Government for increasing the funding for school pupils in Wales in the next financial year. However, in Carmarthenshire, the Plaid Cymru-led administration have chosen not to spend this additional money on education. Plaid Cymru in Carmarthenshire have chosen to spend this money on a series of vanity projects, while cutting education by £3.6 million in real terms. Do you agree with me, Minister, that while Plaid makes promises about spending more on education, only Welsh Labour can be trusted to look after the interests of our young people?
 
14:56
Huw LewisBiography
I bow, of course, to the expertise of the Member for Llanelli in terms of what is happening locally and currently in terms of decision making at Carmarthenshire County Council. But, I can say that, throughout the current Assembly term, the Welsh Government has protected school funding by 1 per cent above the rate of change to the Welsh block overall, which, during the term of this Assembly Government, has meant an additional £106 million arriving at the front line in our schools.
 
14:57
Kirsty WilliamsBiography
Minister, what role does pupil funding play when local authorities are considering school closures? Do you agree with the First Minister, who has, in correspondence, stated to me that finance should not be the driver for school closures and schools should be closed only if that leads to an increase in educational outcomes?
 
14:57
Huw LewisBiography
Educational outcomes are, as has been stated many times, the primary concern when it comes to school organisation—schools reorganisation—and that is the expectation of the Welsh Government upon local government in turn. Of course, financial issues need to be a part of the debate, and the historic issue that was inherited by my predecessor, really, around surplus places is something we’ve been working on, now, for the last few years, and the situation is greatly improved in that regard. But the Member is quite right to say that it is the increase in outcomes around teaching and learning that is, and should be, the primary focus of any schools reorganisation package.
 
Unconditional Offers for University Places
 
14:58
William GrahamBiography
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of Welsh students who receive an unconditional offer for university places? OAQ(4)0696(ESK)
 
14:58
Huw LewisBiography
I thank the Member for South Wales East, but I’m afraid I have to say this level of information is not held centrally by the Welsh Government.
 
14:58
William GrahamBiography
I much regret that that information is not available, Minister. Could I ask you to comment, then—if you accept from me these figures—that, Newport East, has one of the lowest levels, as only 4 per cent of pupils receive unconditional offers, whereas in Montgomeryshire it is 16 per cent? Would the Minister make a statement on what could be done to decrease this difference?
 
14:59
Huw LewisBiography
I’m not aware of the figures the Member quotes, and I’m unsure, really, as to the sourcing—how they might be sourced, those particular figures, at a local authority level, at least. I can tell him that unconditional offer making is not, at a national level, a widespread practice in Wales, and, as a proportion of offers to 18-year-olds, it remains relatively small at around 2.5 per cent. Of course, higher education institutions have autonomy in terms of their admissions practice, but I would accept the point, I think, that he’s making centrally, which is that this is something we need to keep an eye on. We need to be careful, I think, around the pressures upon higher education to increase student numbers because that really drives their finances, and what that means in terms of the future of our young people and issues around quality, too.
 
Further Education
 
15:00
Mike HedgesBiography
7. Will the Minister make a statement on further education in Wales? OAQ(4)0686(ESK)
 
15:00
Julie JamesBiography
We cannot underestimate the importance of further education, and so we have protected the funding for further education for the forthcoming year and it is more vital than ever to focus on the resources that are available to learners and ensure they are used as efficiently as possible.
 
15:00
Mike HedgesBiography
Can I thank the Deputy Minister for that response? I believe in the importance of access courses. I taught on several. They give a second chance to those who didn’t fulfil their potential at school. An example I know of is a hospital consultant I recently met who started off on an access to medicine course. What are the Government’s proposals for access courses in further education colleges?
 
15:00
Julie JamesBiography
In each of the years that we’ve had to make cuts to the further education budget, access to HE provision has been treated the same as any other full-time provision and has therefore not been subject to the significant cuts faced in other areas. As autonomous bodies, each FEI is able to plan and deliver provision that it sees as most relevant to its own area. Our data from the past two academic years show that most access provision has remained broadly the same. However, in health and social care, which is the area you’re particularly speaking about today, there’s been a planned increase of around 17 per cent and we very much welcome that. I share the Member’s point of view that access courses are very important indeed, as we specifically want to ensure that people have access to education throughout their lives and are able to develop themselves throughout their lives in a progression towards higher skills, which the economy so desperately needs.
 
15:01
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Sorry. I shall keep up myself. Paul Davies.
 
15:01
Paul DaviesBiography
Diolch, Lywydd. Deputy Minister, I’m pleased that Pembrokeshire College recently hosted an anti-bullying event with the motto ‘Expect respect’, with a number of local stakeholders. Of course, it’s important that FE colleges are promoting a respect agenda amongst young adults. Given the importance of educating young people about issues such as bullying and domestic violence, what action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that FE colleges are not only talking to students about these issues, but actively promoting equality and positive relationships among young adults?
 
15:02
Julie JamesBiography
Yes, I completely agree with the Member that it is an extremely important part of growing into a young adult and, as such, FE colleges are expected to take a full account of the context in which they teach their courses. Estyn has recently commented very favourably on the approach in most FE colleges to this sort of issue, and we would certainly be looking to take forward initiatives to ensure that, as good practice progresses in those areas—and the Member will know that practice with regard to anti-bullying, for example, is a bit of a moving feast at the moment, with various different approaches to it being tried out—that FE colleges stay abreast of that and implement best practice as appropriate. So, I completely share the Member’s point of view on that.
 
15:03
Lindsay WhittleBiography
Deputy Minister, some further education institutions have adapted to funding cuts by boosting links with the private sector and exploring alternative income streams. Could you tell us whether attempts to diversify funding sources have been really successful, and to what extent that has minimised the funding reduction of recent years, if at all, of course?
 
15:03
Julie JamesBiography
Well, some FE colleges have stepped up to offer that provision extremely well. It has to be said that it’s not universal across Wales yet. However, ColegauCymru, which is the umbrella body that the colleges all subscribe to, recently did a piece of work across the colleges for the Welsh Government, and in conjunction with the Welsh Government, about an approach that would assist people to learn from good practice across the piece. We’re in discussion with them about that very point so that, as each college comes up with an idea that seems to work, we can spread that good practice across and share it.
 
Also, of course, we have our enhanced employer engagement events, and we are very much also coming at it from the other end and making enormous strides in trying to persuade Welsh businesses that training their staff is the best way to retain them and be resilient for the future. Indeed, the Member will know—I know he shares my point of view on this—that the data show that the better you treat your staff and the better you train them, the more likely they are to stay happy, healthy and in employment with you, and the more likely your business is to grow. So, we are doing a lot of good practice sharing. It’s early days. The policy has been in place for coming up to three years now. Some colleges have made better progress than others, but all are making progress in the right direction.
 
15:04
Lynne NeagleBiography
Deputy Minister, I’m very grateful for your ongoing efforts to ensure that we have a comprehensive post-16 offer for young people in Torfaen. Can I ask whether there’s any update on your discussions with Torfaen council on this, please?
 
15:04
Julie JamesBiography
I pay tribute to the Member’s persistence on this matter, and I certainly am very much aware of it; we’ve had a number of meetings on the point. My understanding is that the discussion between the Welsh Government and Torfaen is proceeding perfectly happily, and that they’re going along towards making a business case so that she can finally get the result she wanted in Torfaen. I think it would be very much down to her efforts when that happens.
 
15:05
Jocelyn DaviesBiography
Coleg Gwent is setting up a subsidiary trading company to deliver work-based learning. Currently, of course, the staff that area already working there will be TUPE’d over, but they have been told that all new staff will be on new terms and conditions. Can you do anything to ensure that teaching staff employed by colleges’ trading companies will get the benefit of the nationally agreed all-Wales pay scales?
 
15:05
Julie JamesBiography
Yes, it’s a bit of a fraught issue, actually, and it’s tied up with the Minister’s work on the Education Workforce Council and what we can do about who’s registered and what the qualifications are for that. So, there’s a big piece of work ongoing around that sort of protection. In the end, the answer is that it’s a matter for the college, but that’s not to say the Welsh Government doesn’t take a very close interest in this. And, actually, ColegauCymru is also working with the National Training Federation for Wales in terms of working together possible merger talks. I think it’s an ongoing thing, so it’s not actually happened yet, but we’ve been encouraging that with a view to getting a consistent set of terms and conditions which protect the workforce, not only because that’s good for the workforce but because that protects the standards in terms of the training that’s provided. And in terms of Welsh Government training, the standards are very important to us. So, I accept the premise that the Member makes. It is a matter for the colleges, but nevertheless we’ve taken a firm view about what we think should happen in that regard.
 
15:06
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
Thank you, Deputy Minister. Thank you, Minister.
 
15:06
3. Debate on the Petition Committee's Report on its Review of Public Petitions
Y Llywydd / The Presiding OfficerBiography
We now move to item 3, which is a debate on the Petitions Committee’s report on its review of public petitions, and I call the Chair of the Petitions Committee—William Powell.
 
Motion NDM5981 William Powell
 
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
 
Notes the report of the Petitions Committee on the ‘Review of Public Petitions Arrangements’, which was laid in the Table Office on 2 February 2016.
 
Motion moved.
 
15:06
William PowellBiography
Diolch yn fawr, Lywydd. I’m very pleased indeed to be opening this debate today on the Petitions Committee’s review of public petitions arrangements here in the National Assembly. The review was carried out at the request of the Presiding Officer and the committee agreed with her that it was timely, at the end of this fourth Assembly, to consider how the system introduced at the start of the third Assembly was working and what room there was to further improve it.
 
In the first and second Assemblies, there were fewer than 60 petitions overall that were submitted to the Assembly, and very little, if any, action was taken on most of them. Our current petitions arrangements were introduced, as many of you will know, at the start of the third Assembly. Crucially, they required an Assembly committee to consider all admissible petitions. This led to over 260 new petitions submitted in the third Assembly, and I pay tribute at this point to the many colleagues who are in this Chamber still today who played a part in those early days, and took their own part in putting the system in place.
 
In this Assembly, the Petitions Committee has considered a further 360 new petitions, which together have been signed by over 400,000 people, the vast majority of them from here in Wales. On these figure alone, I think it’s fair to say that our petitions system has been something of a success. And the feedback that we have received over the past five years, backed up by the consultations that we carried out as part of our review, indicates that the people of Wales broadly value the system that we have in place.
 
The petitions system can and does lead to positive change through influencing Government policy, or simply by allowing citizens the chance to have their concerns heard here at the heart of the Welsh democracy. It allows people to get involved in the work of our Assembly, and to bring issues that they care about to light.
 
I will speak later in a little more detail about our recommendations. But I think it’s important to emphasise that the committee did not feel there was a need for fundamental change to the current system. While there’s always room for improvement, the committee sees the changes that we’ve recommended as incremental and evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. We hope that they will result in a more focused and relevant system, while retaining the accessibility that is seen as such a valuable feature of our current arrangements.
 
Before I move to talk about the committee’s recommendations, I want to spend a little time taking a broader view of the work of the Petitions Committee during this Assembly, and highlighting some of the petitions that we have considered together. Petitions cover all aspects of the Assembly and Government’s responsibilities. As you might expect, the largest number that we’ve had relate to health and associated matters—tying in, of course, with the findings of the BBC’s poll for St David’s Day just yesterday—but education, the environment, transport, the economy, the Welsh language, local government, housing, culture and animal welfare have all attracted significant numbers of petitions too. And there were many others covering a wide range of topics on issues of concern to people the length and breadth of Wales.
 
Of course, not all of the petitions we receive have been or can be resolved to the complete satisfaction of those who bring them forward. The Petitions Committee does not have executive powers and clearly cannot overrule Government decisions or force particular outcomes. What it can do, as I mentioned earlier, is to help petitioners to achieve positive change through influencing Government policy or policy that’s under development, or simply by bringing the issues they care about to light and giving their concerns a fair and equitable hearing.
 
That is not to say that there have not been some clear successes. As a result of two petitions, from Bethany Walpole-Wroe and from Pembrokeshire Parents Want a Say, the Minister for Education and Skills has written to all local authorities and school governing bodies in Wales, and the regional consortia, to ensure that they are applying the law correctly on allowing children in Wales to take holidays in term time.
 
A petition from friends of Cwmcarn Forest Drive raised concerns about how the effects of very necessary work to deal with larch disease would affect the future of their valued amenity. The petition led to Natural Resources Wales involving the petitioners in future plans for the drive and a commitment to work with the petitioners to meet their aspirations. The petitioners said that the petition had achieved everything that they had hoped it would achieve.
 
We are currently considering a petition from Mervyn Lloyd Jones and renowned tree expert Rob McBride about safeguarding the ancient Brimmon oak tree from work associated with the much needed Newtown bypass, again the subject of a very popular petition earlier in this Assembly. Although there are still matters to resolve, the Minister has now confirmed assurances about safeguarding this precious 550-year-old oak tree. Incidentally, as I said, the bypass was also subject to an earlier petition, so it’s timely that at the end of this fourth Assembly we see a delivery date for the bypass and we also see that precious tree safeguarded.
 
We have also dealt with extremely personal issues that raise wider concerns. Think for example of the petition from Emma Jones, whose son was born prematurely at 22 weeks and then tragically died. Even though her baby was born alive, medical assistance was not offered because of the extremely limited prospect of survival before 24 weeks. That is a personal tragedy, but Emma’s actions in petitioning us on the wider issue have led to her meeting senior Welsh Government medical officials to discuss the implications of her case and advising them on how guidance in this area can be improved for the future.
 
Just yesterday, we received a petition on type 1 diabetes from Beth Baldwin, again with her campaign rooted in the tragic loss of her son Peter, but she’s positive about bringing this forward so as to bring change for the future.
 
More prosaically, a petition calling for the reinstatement of the Wrexham to Barmouth X94 bus service—an extremely important regional link in north Wales—was successful. But, concerns about the provision of regional bus services led to a number of other petitions and these were not matters that the Petitions Committee, with its wide brief but limited time, could resolve to everyone’s satisfaction. However, I’m very pleased that our colleagues on the Enterprise and Business Committee took these petitions forward, and the concerns that they raised were taken into account in their inquiry into bus services in Wales, which I understand will be published very shortly.
 
I want to thank the committee for that, and also to thank other Assembly committees that have taken on petitions into their own work programmes—yet another way in which petitioners do get their voices heard and in which we can make this place work even better.
 
Animal welfare issues have also featured prominently in our discussions, as I mentioned earlier. Recently, the committee has considered a petition from the RSPCA calling for a ban on the use of wild animals in circuses. The Deputy Minister has now agreed that there is no place for wild animals in circuses and is reviewing how the issue can best be addressed. Members may be surprised to hear that there is currently no legal prohibition in Wales on shooting the rare Greenland white-fronted geese. Following evidence from a petitioner, the Minister has agreed to look again at whether the voluntary ban that’s currently in place should be replaced by a more statutory ban. That is a real gain for that species and also for the many people who value them.
 
Some petitions have led to reports and Plenary debates—debates on the establishment of a Welsh peace institute, on the incineration of waste, on pollution in the Burry inlet and associated issues of cockle mortality, on noise nuisance from wind turbines, on the Maritime and Coastguard Agency in Wales, on army recruitment in schools and, more recently, on the availability of defibrillators in public places. Many of these debates have been informative and, hopefully, enlightening, some in unexpected ways. For instance, in debating the report on whether or not there should be a Welsh cricket team, we discovered that Mohammad Asghar could have become a cricket professional. I think maybe we would agree that cricket’s loss was this Assembly’s gain—[Interruption.] Anyway, he’s not here to take his part, but maybe he’ll join us later.
 
Turning then to our review and its main recommendations, the committee has made 17 recommendations, most of which, given the evolutionary approach I mentioned earlier, are to continue current arrangements. However, we have made a number of important recommendations to be considered for change. Our reasons for these recommendations are set out in more detail in our report. It will of course be for the incoming Business Committee, Assembly and indeed the future Petitions Committee to decide how they should be taken forward in detail, but I will, for the purposes of today’s debate, highlight the most significant of the recommendations that we’ve made.
 
Firstly, reflecting evidence submitted by the public and stakeholders, the minimum number of signatures for a petition should be increased from the current figure of 10 to 50, and from one to 50 for petitions from organisations. We have recommended that anyone, including people under 18, should continue to have the right to sign petitions that are submitted. However, only people resident in Wales or organisations with a base in Wales should be able to submit a petition in the first place.
 
The Petitions Committee should continue to deal only with petitions that are within the competence of the National Assembly for Wales or the powers of Welsh Ministers. However, so that the Assembly as a whole can reflect on wider issues, we have recommended that the Assembly’s online petition system should be able to be used to submit petitions on non-devolved matters that relate to Wales.
 
We’ve also recommended that the incoming Petitions Committee should develop clear criteria for prioritising the consideration of petitions and for which petitions are debated in Plenary. And, so that it can look at the whole process in the round, the Petitions Committee should become responsible for deciding the admissibility criteria for petitions and should publish the outcomes of petitions when they come to being closed. Although it is not for this Assembly to decide the petitions system going forward, I hope that the debate today offers a sounding board for any views that Members may have on our recommendations, which I hope can then be given more detailed consideration by the Business Committee very early in the new Assembly.
 
In concluding, Llywydd, I would like to thank the members of the committee for their work—it’s been a committee of stable membership throughout this Assembly and that, I think, is to be valued in many ways—for the extreme diligence that they’ve shown, and I’m very grateful for that, and also for the non-partisan nature of so many of our deliberations. I’d also like to thank the petitions staff, both those in place currently and those who have moved on to other functions within this Assembly. They’ve given our work enormous support over the period and I’m immensely grateful to them. They also helped to produce the report that we have before us today. Diolch yn fawr.
 
15:19
Joyce WatsonBiography
The Petitions Committee, as everybody knows, was established at the start of the Assembly, and I’ve been a member since 2011. My experience in the involvement in that committee leads me to the conclusion that, if we didn’t have a Petitions Committee, we would establish one. I believe that it does perform a necessary and valuable role in the way in which the Welsh Assembly works and in particular the relationship the general public in Wales has with the Assembly as a devolved legislature and institution.
 
The National Assembly for Wales, as laid down in its constitution, is the democratically elected body that represents the interests of Wales and its people. It isn’t set up to be always adversarial and confrontational. It sometimes is, of course, but that is not the main purpose. The Petitions Committee embodies that principle, and I believe that and share that view that has been expressed already by the previous speaker. Our discussions are rarely adversarial and they are never confrontational. If I were pushed to say what we do, I would say that we are open to ideas and we look to make improvements where things can be made better.
 
The patron saint of Wales, St David, or Dewi Sant, told us that we should look after the little things. The accumulation of little things can, ultimately, make a big difference. And it is the case that, very often, the little things that we have done have made a big difference to the people of Wales and the people whom we have represented. It is at this point that I would like to thank the people who have brought very often heartfelt petitions to our notice, very often giving us evidence in a very dignified way, and I’m sure that my colleagues would share my thoughts on that.
 
We do have an opportunity in Plenary, very often, to grandstand, but in the discussions of the Petitions Committee, we prefer, somehow, to get to grips with the issues that are of burning importance locally, but all too often are, and could be, sidestepped when matters of national importance take their place.
 
Petitions presentations do offer campaigners a chance to present their petitions in person to members of the committee here at the Senedd, and we can discuss the issues. It does help generate media interest and public awareness. It’s not a statutory function of the committee, but we do feel that it’s an important part of that overall process. The Presiding Officer, in her response to the report, does say that she’s somewhat sceptical about the committee’s first recommendation that consideration should be given to allowing the Assembly’s online petitions system to be used to collect signatures on non-devolved matters that relate to Wales, and goes on to say that she believes that the new Presiding Officer will need to give careful consideration to both the resource implications of that change and the usefulness of the public petitioning the Assembly on non-devolved matters.
 
I agree with that sentiment, and, of course, it is the case that devolution is a process and that things will change and that we will have to keep up with the pace of that change. We do, after all, want to encourage as many people to engage here on those matters of interest to them, but at the same time, we don’t want to raise expectations about what we can and cannot do; we do have to be realistic. I believe that a healthy democracy does thrive on the exchange of views on matters of political importance, wherever those matters reside.
 
It is the case very often that we take petitions and we consider things on the law of unexpected consequences. That is usually taken as a warning against action. Sometimes, however, the unexpected is an opportunity that was not anticipated. I am very pleased to have an opportunity both to have served on the Petitions Committee and, equally, to have had an opportunity here today to discuss some of that work.
 
15:24
Russell GeorgeBiography
I’m pleased to take part in this debate today. Firstly, my thanks go to the Chair, William Powell, for setting out our report’s findings and recommendations. I would just like to use my time to reflect on my experience on the committee during the last five years. I first got involved with the Petitions Committee before I was a Member of this institution. I was a petitioner and I remember coming down here on a bus with 50 other people and presenting that petition to the then Chairperson, Christine Chapman, who I met then for the first time, and handing it to Christine and Andrew R.T. Davies, who was a Member from the Conservative group. But, for me, as somebody who led that petition, it was useful to be on the other side. I now meet people every week who hand in petitions and I have an understanding of where they’re coming from. For me, it was a good experience, and on the way back on that coach I felt a sense, and all those other 50 people, that we had actually taken part in the democratic process of bringing about change. They weren’t just moaning about something, they were bringing forward change, and that was the view of all 50 people, apart from one lady whom I spoke to on the way back. I asked her about her experience and she said she wasn’t that concerned about the Newtown bypass, she just wanted a day out in Cardiff. [Laughter.] But, apart from that, people were very passionate on that coach trip.
 
Of course, as it happens, that petition was closed only last Tuesday, after being on the committee’s books for over five years, because it had achieved the objectives of the petition. But, to me, the strengths of the committee are that, for me, anyway, it’s the most public facing of all committees, and because, while there might only be four of us, and we may only meet for a few hours once a fortnight, we also meet, of course, every week, normally on a Tuesday or a Wednesday lunchtime, when we receive petition hand-ins. For me, that’s the strength of the committee.
 
I’d also say, for me, it’s a privilege to meet so many diverse groups of people. We meet people who are experts in their field; they’ve been experts for perhaps decades on a particular issue, and they feel so passionate about something. Sometimes, we meet people who are passionate about something as a result of the petition process, and they’ve developed their skills, and other times, we meet people who bring forward a petition out of frustration about something that’s happened in their life as well. For example, of course, only yesterday, we had the type 1 diabetes petition brought to us. That’s humbling for us as committee members, because—the petitioner won’t mind me saying—there were tears in the petitioner’s eyes as they handed in the petition. That’s, of course, humbling for us as committee members—to speak to that person and the other people who’d brought in that petition, as well.
 
But, Chair, I would like to also just pay tribute to a few people. I’d like to thank the Chair for his diligence in chairing the meetings every fortnight and never missing anything from the agenda. I would like to thank my colleague Bethan Jenkins for bringing liveliness to proceedings. [Laughter.] I would like to thank Joyce Watson for bringing things back down to ground level. Joyce’s favourite phrase is, ‘Chair, we do need consistency’, in a normal Joyce fashion. But also, of course, I would like to thank the petition clerks and the legal team, who have been a real support to us as Members. I would greatly like to thank them and also, of course, more than anything, I would like to thank the petitioners themselves as well. Thank you, Chair.
 
15:29
Bethan JenkinsBiography
I’ll try and have a lively debate here today, Russell, just in your name. I would like to thank everybody involved in the petitions process, notwithstanding the fact that I think, potentially, I’ve been the longest-standing member of the Petitions Committee, having been on it since 2007 when I was first elected. But, do you know what, I think the petitions system is the door to the Assembly? It might sound cheesy and it might sound corny, but we meet so many different people, as Russell has said, from so many different walks of life, I actually tell quite a lot of people I feel like I’m the AM for Wales, quite often. I’m answering e-mails from people in Llanystumdwy, Ceredigion, Blaenau Gwent—all on these issues, because they feel then, because you’re on the committee, that you’ll be able to directly help them through other processes in politics that many other AMs may not see behind closed doors. So, you do have to manage expectations. But the fact that they can feel that the petitions system is their system is something that we have over other countries in the world, that they come and look at us as an example of how we engage with people here in Wales.
 
We have got recommendations here, which the Chair has eloquently spoken of, but I think, as a party, we would like to go further. I mean, we’ve already said that we’d want to introduce a Welsh representation of people’s Act. So I would want to take the petitions system further to where it is at the moment, for example, looking at how we could encourage a discussion on petitions online, potentially having votes on the popularity of an issue that we have on the Petitions Committee.