Cynulliad Cenedlaethol Cymru

Yn ôl i Chwilio

Y Cyfarfod Llawn

Plenary

06/02/2019

The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the Minister for Education

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Education, and the first question is from Lynne Neagle. 

The Provision of the SenCom Service

1. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government discussions with local authorities in Gwent about the provision of the SenCom service? OAQ53347

Thank you, Lynne, for your continuing work on this important subject. 

Working on a regional basis can help ensure resources and expertise are targeted effectively to support learners with additional learning needs. I have asked my officials to engage with SenCom to understand the potential impact on learners of Newport’s proposed withdrawal from that service.

Minister, I continue to be dismayed at the apparent willingness of Newport City Council—a Labour council—to jeopardise services for a very vulnerable group of children and young people by their withdrawal from the effective and highly specialised regional SenCom service. Newport are now, belatedly, undertaking some consultation with families, but parents have complained about letters being sent out only in English, in small print, and too late for parents to attend important consultation events. Would the Minister agree with me that in order for consultation to be meaningful, it needs to be timely, in a language parents can understand, including minority ethnic parents, and in a format that is accessible to parents who themselves have a sensory impairment? And do you share my continued concern at the way Newport City Council is handling this planned change to services for children with a sensory impairment? 

Lynne, it is absolutely critical that those families who are in receipt of this service are engaged with properly and that the individual interests of individual learners is never forgotten. And I would agree with you absolutely that any consultation with families needs to be meaningful, and that cannot be meaningful if parents are unable to engage in that. As I have said, in my original answer to you, my officials will continue to seek reassurances from Newport and, indeed, other local authorities who may be impacted by this proposal, to ensure that the learning needs of those individual children and young people are not jeopardised.  

Minister, I just heard your previous answer to my colleague. You may be aware that I asked for a statement on this issue on 11 December, and was told by the leader of the house that you were in discussion with Newport City Council about the rationale for the withdrawal of the service and that you would report back. Since then, many charities, such as the Royal National Institute of Blind People Cymru, Wales Council for the Blind, Guide Dogs Cymru and Sight Cymru have raised concerns that Newport's decision could lead to a postcode lottery of this provision. Councillors from all parties in Monmouthshire unanimously backed a motion to oppose Newport City Council's decision, deeply regretting the level of uncertainty it has created around this essential support network. Minister, what action will you take to ensure that services for these vulnerable children in south-east Wales are protected, please?

Well, I can assure the Member that I wrote to Councillor Debbie Wilcox, the leader of Newport City Council, back in November, seeking reassurances. A response was received from the said council in December, and the council stated that they were confident that they will leave a significant and well-funded service that should be more than able to maintain the current levels of delivery to the remaining four local authorities. However, as you will have heard from Lynne Neagle, the situation is fluid, continues to change. Newport council are belatedly now engaging with parents of children who use this service, but, again, as we've heard from Lynne Neagle, the quality of that consultation exercise is at best questionable, and my officials continue to liaise with Newport City Council over their actions on this particular service. 

Minister, I know your strong personal commitment to this and to ensuring that all learners across the whole country have the very rich education experience that they have a right to expect. I share Lynne Neagle's absolute dismay at the actions of Newport City Council. I feel that Newport City Council is turning its back on some of the most vulnerable learners in the country and acting in an entirely cavalier fashion, without any real care or consideration for the impact that this is having on learners across the whole of the Gwent region. It is a tragedy that, at the time of your consulting on the code for additional learning needs, this is taking place and causing such distress for people in the region. Minister, my question to you is this: how can you as a Welsh Government ensure that we have the structures in place in the future to ensure that councils are unable to cause this distress, unable to act in this way, and unable to turn their backs on the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in our society?

13:35

The concern that I have is that SenCom services, which, as everybody has recognised, is a service that delivers on a regional basis to a very specific group of children and young people with very specific additional learning needs, actually has been, I would argue, an example of very good practice—of local authorities pooling their resources, working together, to ensure a strong, sustainable service. Now, the fact that Newport has made these decisions—which they are entitled to do—demonstrates how we will have to look again at how we encourage and support local authorities to work on a regional basis where there are proven advantages for doing so, and I continue to have such discussions with my colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government.

Question 2 [OAQ53370] not asked.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

And therefore we will move to questions from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Mohammad Asghar.

Thank you, Madam Presiding Officer. Concerns have been expressed that, at present, investment in skills and adult education is too heavily focused on young adults, to the detriment of people aged 25 and over. By 2022, a third of the Welsh workforce will be aged over 50, so adult learning is much more important than ever in Wales. Minister, what are you doing to extend part-time and flexible modes of education, which provide an essential route for many adults who would otherwise be unable to access education in Wales?

Well, firstly, I'm sure that the Member has inadvertently suggested that prioritising the needs of younger learners in further education over those of others is not something that he supports. I'm sure the Member would want us to continue to ensure that learners of post-compulsory age—17 onwards—continue to enjoy provision. But he makes a valuable point—that we need to ensure that learners, throughout their lifetime, have an opportunity to upskill, learn new skills or engage in education to improve their employment prospects. That's why you will be aware, I am sure, of my commitment with the new First Minister to explore the concept of ensuring that Wales becomes a second-chance nation and that every learner has an opportunity to engage in education at various points in their life. Of course, I am delighted that, as a result, for instance, of our changes to higher education support, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of part-time learners registering with the Open University in Wales this year, which is in stark contrast to the numbers that continue to decline across the border in England.

Thank you, Minister. But concerns have been raised about the lack of awareness of the financial support available for part-time students and greater debt aversion amongst mature students as contributing factors in any reduction in demand for part-time provision. Student Finance Wales focuses heavily on young people, resulting in a deficit of important information, advice and guidance for current and potential mature students. What are you doing, Minister, to ensure that part-time learners are treated fairly and on an equal basis so that part-time finance options are publicised as prominently as full-time ones in Wales?

Well, Oscar, I would argue that the results speak for themselves. We have seen an increase of 35 per cent this year in the registrations for part-time degree courses with the Open University alone here in Wales. The Welsh Government engaged last year with a highly successful public information and advertising regime. In terms of reach and outputs, it's actually the most successful Welsh Government advertising programme ever undertaken—even more successful than the organ donation publicity campaign. What's important to me is that we look to support part-time learners in other areas, not just simply those who are studying at a degree level. We've made a big impact at degree level. We need to now make sure that those adults who want to study below degree level also have the opportunity. I'm currently considering the report that was commissioned by the previous Minister around Adult Learning Wales and we'll be looking to explore with our colleagues in FE what more we can do to ensure that part-time learning at all levels becomes a reality for many more Welsh citizens who wish to pursue it.

13:40

Thank you, Minister. I've got no doubt that you're doing a wonderful job in your own post, but new data published by the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that a number of both EU and non-EU students attending British universities has risen nicely. In 2017 and 2018, over 458,000 students attended British universities—a rise of 16,000 over the previous years, and 20,000 since the year of the EU referendum. On a good note, Minister, will you join me in welcoming this news, which has been achieved, as the BBC would say, 'despite Brexit'?

First of all, can I take this opportunity, Presiding Officer, to let people know that Wales's universities and FE colleges are open to business? We greatly appreciate the contributions that are made by European members of faculty and European and indeed non-European foreign students who come to study here in Wales. I hope many more of them will continue to do so.

But the Member does really need to listen to Universities Wales and to ColegauCymru about the real and present threats that Brexit poses to our FE and HE sector. The member, in ignoring those, actually is being reckless with the future of this very important sector. Undoubtedly—undoubtedly—Brexit, in whatever form it takes, will impact upon that sector and it will not do so positively.

Thank you, Llywydd. I want to start where I left off the last time I had a conversation with you across this Chamber, namely with this very unfortunate sentence in your White Paper, published last week, about teaching English in nursery settings and nursery schools. I’m not going to rehearse the same issues again, and I’m very pleased that you have carried out a u-turn on this issue and that there will be no change of policy, as the Minister for the Welsh language suggested in answering my questions last Wednesday and as was confirmed in a brief statement that appeared on the Government’s website on Monday.

But there are further questions arising in my mind in the wake of this fiasco. It’s clear that the inclusion of the sentence was an error, but how on earth did that sentence, which would have meant a substantial and shocking change of policy, appear in the White Paper in the first place? Are important publications like White Papers not read and re-read time and time again in order to avoid fundamental mistakes such as this one? Isn’t there a process in place to ensure consistency with the Government’s core policies?

The other question arising is: why would anyone in the education department add such a sentence? How will you ensure that all your education officials are familiar with policies that have been recognised over decades as being the right ones for teaching Welsh to children under seven years of age? All I can say is that this mess has undermined your credibility as Minister and that of the civil servants of the education department and this Government. 

There was never any change in policy. I said that in questions last week. It was reiterated by the Welsh language Minister the following day, and I am very pleased that we have issued a detailed clarification in which I have made clear that immersion will continue in different schools and different settings. 

So, if I can, Presiding Officer, for the record here this afternoon: our proposals in the new curriculum will still enable schools and settings such as the meithrin to fully immerse children in the Welsh language and I'm very grateful to both officials at meithrin and UCAC for their support in this area.

13:45

Thank you for providing that clarity, but you haven’t answered the question as to how on earth such a sentence appeared in the first place.

I’ll turn now to other aspects of your White Paper, if I may. It does note that primary legislation will be required for certain issues, including the six areas of learning and experience. One of those is the humanities, and you list the humanities as history, geography, religious education, business and social studies. I’ve heard you on a number of occasions discussing the importance of teaching Welsh history to our children, and I believe that we share the same vision in that area. Will you, therefore, consider adding the history of Wales to that list of subjects under the 'humanities' heading? The history of Wales would then appear on the face of the Bill and it would mean that it would be a statutory requirement for every school in Wales to introduce Welsh history as part of the new curriculum.

Let me be absolutely clear again: it is absolutely my expectation and my intention that all children should learn their own local history, the history of their nation, and the place of their nation in world history and the contribution of our country to world history and world events. The concept behind the curriculum, especially in the humanities, is a focus on the local at the very youngest age, and growing out from the local, which will give our children an understanding not only of their place in their community, but their community's place in our nation, and, indeed, the world. That is the focus. But I have to say I am concerned that this idea that the Welsh dimension can only ever be delivered through the history curriculum—it's truly worrying for me, because, actually, what I want out of this curriculum is not just children to learn about Welsh history. I want children to learn about Welsh literature, I want children to learn about Welsh musicians, I want people to learn about Welsh scientists. And the Member will know, from reading the White Paper, that, actually, a Welsh dimension will be a cross-cutting theme, not just in the humanities AOL—it is a cross-cutting theme for the entirety of our curriculum.

Thank you very much. I agree entirely with you, but that’s not an argument for not including the history of Wales as a specific subject under that long list that you have under the heading of 'humanities'.

In turning to another aspect of the new curriculum—and I quote—the curriculum will provide

'freedom for practitioners to use their professionalism and creativity to meet the needs of all learners'.

That is at the heart of the Donaldson vision, if truth be told. The White Paper goes on to say that there will be less detail in legislation, in terms of the content of the curriculum, than is the case at the moment, and that the content of the areas of learning and experience will be set out in statutory guidance.

We know that the curriculum and the new assessment arrangements will be published in April for feedback. What many teachers are asking is: when will the supplementary guidance be available and how detailed will that guidance be? Many teachers argue that they need clear and detailed guidance, and they fear that that won’t be available.

The Member is absolutely right; the individual AOLE progression steps and 'what matters' statements will be published in Easter. We are doing that in a format that will allow practitioners and, indeed, any interested parties to feed back. I would accept that there is a balance to be struck between becoming so prescriptive in that guidance that we actually might as well stay where we are, because the nature of the curriculum won't have changed at all if we're to provide long lists of things we expect teachers to do.

You will be aware, from Graham Donaldson's original report, that the way in which our curriculum is currently structured robs teachers of their creativity to truly meet the needs of their individual students. Now, clearly, we will have to provide—in, perhaps, an inelegant way—some scaffolding for the teaching profession, but we cannot, and I will not, fall into the trap of giving to our teachers long lists of prescribed things that I expect them to teach, because to do so would be to fail the vision of what we're trying to do for our curriculum for our young people.

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Good afternoon, Minister. Minister, you've recently announced a new sex and relationships education regime, which is to be imposed on schools and that parents won't be able to opt their child out of. Will you make sure that the new SRE curriculum covers identifying what constitutes abuse, why it's wrong, how to prevent it, and what to do if it happens?

13:50

First, the Member is wrong to say that I'm denying parents the right to withdraw. If the Member has read the White Paper, she will be aware that there are specific questions in the White Paper about how we tackle the issue of the right to withdraw from such lessons. But I can give the Member absolute reassurance that in ensuring that our children learn about relationships and sexuality, they will learn about issues such as consent, domestic violence, what constitutes a healthy relationship, and where to obtain help if they find themselves in a situation where they are concerned about their safety.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Recently, we've seen the first ever conviction involving a parent performing or allowing female genital mutilation to be performed on their child. Despite years of this abuse taking place and it having been made illegal a long time ago, the UK and Welsh Governments and the institutions under their control have been ineffective at preventing it and dealing with it when it does happen. Do you agree with me that the one way we may be able to help prevent FGM in Wales is by highlighting it as a specific issue when it comes to SRE? A vague message about making sure people respect your body will not be effective in this scenario. It needs highlighting as a specific issue in its own right, doesn't it?

Obviously, female genital mutilation is a form of abuse, pure and simple, and it is illegal in our nation. As I said, the Member will have to wait for the individual AOLEs to be published, but we are not going to be in a position where we are listing long, long lists of individual specific subjects. But schools, crucially, have a role to play in supporting, protecting and preventing female genital mutilation, which is why, before summer recess every year, I write to all schools to remind them of their responsibilities and what they can do as summer holidays approach—which is often a danger time for many of our female students, when they may be at risk from this process and procedure—to actually remind them of their responsibilities, what to look out for, danger signs, and crucially what they should do about it if they are worried about any individual child in their school.

I understand what you said about not wanting to impose on teachers a long list of items to teach—I understand where you're coming from there, Minister—but FGM is such a horrific abuse of a girl. It's now being undertaken on babies, because, and I quote,

'The girls are unable to report, the cut heals quicker and prosecution is much harder once evidence comes to light and the girl is older.'

That's the end of the quote. So, simply telling girls in school that they should report anyone trying to do it isn't going to work. Increasingly FGM is happening here in Wales, in the UK, so just keeping a note of those girls who are likely to go on holiday and have it done abroad—they might have had it done to them as babies. The whole point is, I would suggest, to educate the next generation of citizens in this country, every single one of them, in SRE, that female genital mutilation is horrific and it cannot be tolerated. Do it right at the word go. Get rid of that acceptance of it in a small part of our community. The charity Barnardo's says that community engagement is key to ending the crime of FGM. So, will you help solve this problem through educating future generations that FGM exists and can't be tolerated?

It will not be tolerated, and education has an important part to play in that, but so do many other agencies. The Member raises the issue of FGM in baby girls. Clearly, that is an issue for midwives and the national health service to address. But let me be absolutely clear again: across the Government, across all departments, we recognise FGM as a terrible form of abuse and we will work collectively together to end it.

13:55

Diolch, Llywydd. I understand you've grouped questions 3 and 5. Is that correct?

The Development of 'A Curriculum for Wales, A Curriculum for Life'

3. What steps has the Minister taken to ensure that young people's voices are heard in the development of A Curriculum for Wales, A Curriculum for Life? OAQ53348

5. Will the Minister make a statement on the development of A Curriculum for Wales, A Curriculum for Life? OAQ53349

Thank you, Hefin. In answering both question 3 and 5, I can assure you that the views of children and young people are essential to our curriculum reform process. We've already engaged with them on key developments such as e-portfolios, online assessments and the relationship and sexuality education programme that we will put on the face of the Bill. Pioneer schools have engaged with learners during the curriculum development and we will continue to involve them fully in the feedback process. There is a children and young people's version of the White Paper and their views will be essential in getting our new curriculum right. 

In spite of those great steps, the children's commissioner has been critical that the voices of children haven't been heard enough in the development of the new curriculum. I hosted an event last week at the Pierhead building on Tuesday with Caerphilly Youth Forum, where they submitted a petition that said that they wanted to make sure that 'curriculum for life' lessons were compulsory in the new curriculum. They feel the current curriculum is failing to provide them with the life skills that they need. The Children's Society have also recommended that child well-being be a central part of the new curriculum, and the general feeling among those people I spoke to is that still more could be done to involve children's voices in the development of the curriculum. Therefore, what progress is she making?

Absolutely. I would absolutely agree with the Member that this is a process that will need to continue. The strategic stakeholder group representing children and young people has been set up specifically to take account of the views of children and young people in the reform journey, and that includes additional learning needs children, young carers, elective home education—so there are lots and lots of voices that can feed into that process. The overall aim of that group is to strengthen how we communicate and engage with children and young people to help us identify what is the best way we can actually do that and make it meaningful for everybody involved. In addition, we've been working with colleagues from the new youth Parliament, because again, I believe that is another useful forum that we can use to inform our feedback during the curriculum design process. I look forward to working with the 60 newly elected members to engage them in that. 

Further to the development of the new curriculum, the Minister will be aware of the criticism from the Welsh Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Education in Wales, in which they said the curriculum's development was

'generic, poorly defined and weak on knowledge and skills development'. 

She came to the Children, Young People and Education Committee on 10 January and said that ADEW had not attended a consultation meeting on the development of the new curriculum to express these concerns directly since 2017. With that in mind, what progress has she made in rebuilding relationships with ADEW, and has she had any further meetings to address those concerns?

As I said, what was disappointing about that is that not only had the opportunity not been taken by ADEW to contribute their concerns during formal stakeholder meetings, but I meet regularly with the leadership of the WLGA and, indeed, ADEW, and none of those concerns had been expressed to me. I'm aware that those concerns have not been expressed to the previous Cabinet Secretary for local government either. So, it was disappointing to see the evidence that had been given to CYPE. I'm pleased to say that, at the most recent stakeholder board, both the WLGA and ADEW were represented.

Minister, I was encouraged to hear about some of the direct consultation mechanisms you are using to get the views of young people on the curriculum and its development, and I applaud what you've done there. I would like to hear whether anything's been done with the school councils, because they're in a very good place to do some really deep deliberative work where they actually take control of the process and consult with their members—the pupils in those schools—and then feed through to the Welsh Government their views, rather than be part of a very controlled, narrow, specific process of a number of questions, for instance. 

And that's exactly what the strategic stakeholder group for children and young people will be doing to look at the most effective ways and meaningful ways that we can engage with that group. I'm also interested in ensuring that children who are in education provision not in school also have an opportunity to feed in. So, for instance, we'll also be exploring with our youth service colleagues about how people who engage with and use the youth services, who perhaps sometimes aren't in formal school education, can also feed in. We want to hear from all children—as many children and young people as we can—in a variety of settings so that their voices can be heard. 

14:00

Minister, it does seem ironic that we spend a lot of time in this Chamber talking about listening more to young people, and, indeed, as you've just mentioned in your previous answer, the establishment of a Youth Parliament, which we all welcome and want to see developed to its fullest extent. You mentioned that you think the Youth Parliament would be a vehicle for greater involving pupils' and young people's thoughts on the curriculum and wider issues. I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit more on how you'd envisage that might happen in practice in terms of developing the curriculum. 

Well, I think the Youth Parliament is an exciting new vehicle that we can feed into our work. The introductory meeting of the full Youth Parliament, I understand, will be during the February half term, where each of the 60 Members, I think, has a certain allotted amount of time to discuss issues that are important to them. I hope some of them will choose to talk about the curriculum. It's not for me to dictate to those Members what they spend their time doing; it is for them to decide what they spend their time doing. But the offer is open and I would be very keen to engage with them on the issue of the curriculum. It might not be for the whole Youth Parliament to do that, but there may be a particular group of young people who are interested in the Youth Parliament who want to engage on this issue and my door is open to that engagement should they wish to pursue it. 

Adult Education in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

4. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for adult education in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ53338

Thank you, Dawn. We're committed to ensuring adults across Wales have access to the essential skills they need to thrive in our society and economy. In Merthyr and Rhymney we directly fund the local authority, college and Adult Learning Wales to deliver a range of provision for adults in the region.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. I'm always impressed by the contribution adult education makes to the quality of life in my constituency and I know that you visited a class at Canolfan Soar on Monday, so you'll have seen that first hand. There's no doubt that adult education brings valuable opportunities for learning but it's also great in delivering other Government priorities—friendship to overcome problems of loneliness and isolation, benefits to mental health, as well as keeping people active and healthy. Can I ask you, therefore, what further action the Welsh Government could take across portfolios to strengthen adult education services in our communities, not just as a mechanism to deliver education but also to deliver our well-being objectives?  

Well, Dawn, you're absolutely right. On Monday morning, I had the opportunity to visit Canolfan Soar to meet the history group that were studying the impact of immigration on the history of Merthyr. The participants of the group were telling me that not only did it help them address issues of loneliness, it gave them a reason to leave their house, it helped them to continue to engage intellectually in a wide range of subjects, which they felt improved their physical health as well as their mental health, and actually had enabled them to make connections with other individuals to pursue other activities, not just learning—so, new friendship circles that led to them undertaking other activities, which was incredibly valuable. Of course, all of this was happening, I think, in a way that was accessible and affordable, so nobody was put off from participating because of costs associated, and I think that's really important.

You'll be aware that the previous Minister commissioned a review into the future of Adult Learning Wales. I'm considering my options as a result of that review, but can I reassure you, as I said in answer to Oscar earlier, that I believe that everyone has a right to lifelong learning and I'm looking at innovative and new ways in which we can make that right a reality?

One issue that's been raised with me is that the courses that Merthyr college offer and are available to adult learners generally require full-time attendance and attendance in the daytime as well as in the evening. I just wonder—given the commitments that many adults will have for caring and employment, would the Minister agree with me that it would be desirable if Merthyr, and indeed other colleges, were better able to offer part-time courses that adults could attend in the evening to get these qualifications?

The Member makes a very fair point. We need to have a variety of ways and a variety of settings that individuals can engage, and I will be discussing with colleagues in FE about what more they can do to support part-time provision, making sure it is accessible to all of those who would wish to participate in it, and I look forward to, as I said, finding new and innovative ways in which we can increase the opportunities for part-time learning, so that as many people as want to have the opportunity to take that up. I think it's good for the individual, it's good for society and, ultimately, that will be good for our economy. 

14:05
Improving Educational Outcomes in Disadvantaged Communities

6. How will the reform of the school curriculum improve educational outcomes in disadvantaged communities? OAQ53342

Thank you, Dawn. The curriculum is being designed for all learners. Underpinning the development work is a belief that someone’s ability to benefit from education should not be determined ever by what their background is or where they live. This priority has been an important consideration in developing the new curriculum.

Thank you for that, Minister, and you'll know that, for many children in Wales, it is the support offered by their school that is the key to transforming their life opportunities and shaping their lives generally and developing their self-confidence. Would you therefore agree that, as we develop and implement the new curriculum, and as we think about the funding of our school services into the future, then tackling disadvantage must remain a core priority of education policies of this Government? And can you give me some practical examples of how this can be done? 

Well, Dawn, you're right that the curriculum will need to be supported by the school's wider support offers; it cannot be the curriculum alone that can tackle these issues. Issues such as inequality and disadvantage go beyond the scope of the curriculum, and must be considered more widely by individual schools, by individual local authorities, and, indeed, the Welsh Government itself. Breaking that cycle of poverty and disadvantage is a long-term commitment, and I've been very clear about my personal commitment to the pupil development grant for the remainder of this Assembly term, and look to increase other opportunities, for instance such as PDG Access, which look to address issues around the cost of the school day and how that can impact upon parents. 

With regard to PDG, we're investing an unprecedented amount—over £190 million in 2018-19 and 2019-20—to support the education of children from our most disadvantaged communities. 

Minister, I'm very grateful for the response that you've just given, but will you recognise the tremendous role of the faith communities across Wales, which are working very closely, often, with schools to eliminate poverty amongst the families that they serve? There was an excellent event that was sponsored just yesterday by Huw Irranca-Davies with the Catholic Education Service, and I was amazed and impressed by the wealth of activity that just the Catholic Church in itself was undertaking with the schools that it serves. So, will you commend them, and what other work is the Welsh Government doing to engage with faith organisations more widely to help to address the poverty that some of our children find themselves in? 

First of all, can I say how sorry I was that I was unable to attend the event yesterday? But I'm very pleased that Steve Davies, the director of education in Welsh Government, was able to attend on my behalf, because we greatly appreciate the work of all voluntary organisations, faith based or non-faith based, that are committed to assisting our children. When I talk about a national mission for education, I mean that truly, because there isn't an individual or voluntary group that cannot add to the national mission and help us ensure that we raise standards in our schools and close that attainment gap. So, I'm very grateful to all those, including the Catholic churches, for the work that they are doing. I enjoy a very positive relationship with our faith school bodies, who will continue to help us develop our curriculum and, of course, play an important part in the Welsh education system in actually delivering education, as well as support services. 

Minister, I was recently invited to visit the new school in the shadow of the Port Talbot steelworks, one of the most disadvantaged communities in Wales. Whilst the new building will help combat the disadvantages of crumbling facilities, it's the curriculum and how it's delivered that will help young people escape disadvantage. The steelworks are one of the region's biggest employers, and they have asked for involvement in the curriculum in order to ensure that young people have the skills needed by industry. Minister, are you involving industry in developing the new curriculum?

14:10

Caroline, that's precisely why we have to move away from the concept of a long list of what people have to do, because, clearly, in that community, ensuring that the young people have the skills to take advantage of opportunities from local employers will be very different from the kind of curriculum for, perhaps, people in deepest Radnorshire, my own constituency, who will not necessarily be looking to work in that particular steelworks. So, we do need to be able to allow our schools and our teachers to ensure that the curriculum is delivered in such a way as to meet the career aspirations and the employability options in individual areas.

We do engage with a number of organisations with regard to industry to allow them to help inform the development of our curriculum. And I'm very grateful to some of our big anchor companies who work so closely with schools in their individual areas, but I will ensure and ask officials once again what more we can do with partners to ensure that their voices are heard, and to understand from them what they can do to help us support education in their home area.

Funding Priorities in the Education Portfolio

7. Will the Minister make a statement on funding priorities in the education portfolio? OAQ53350

Thank you, Nick. I'm taking forward a number of priorities set out in 'Prosperity for All', primarily under the key theme of 'Ambitious and Learning'. Our 2019-20 budget continues to be committed to the success and well-being of every learner, regardless of their background or their personal circumstances.

Diolch, Weinidog. Could you update us on the next phase of the twenty-first century schools programme? The new Monmouth Comprehensive School in my constituency is pretty much complete and being used and looks fantastic. You've probably had a visit there yourself. As part of the construction of that school, the constructors involved young people with an interest in engineering and construction in the process, and that's been a spin-off of the twenty-first century schools project in my area that wasn't anticipated originally.

Could you let us know when work will begin on developing schemes for other schools in my area, such as King Henry VIII, which is in quite a poor way structurally? And do you also envisage there being similar spin-offs in terms of allowing young people to be educated on the job, so to speak, and then possibly pursue careers in construction or civil engineering that they might not otherwise have done?

Thank you, Nick. I'm glad to hear about the progress of the school that you referred to. It's not an unexpected spin-off—it's a cunning plan. Indeed, in allocating contracts to companies to build our twenty-first century schools programme, there is an expectation, indeed a requirement, that they do engage with the schoolchildren of that school in the process of building that school, and that they also look to expand apprenticeship opportunities for older young people when undertaking that work. So, it's not a happy coincidence—it's planned for.

We are now coming to the end of our first phase of our twenty-first century schools programme band A, and we are already beginning to assess bids from local education authorities around their requirements for band B of the twenty-first century schools programme. And you will be aware that we have made this even more affordable for local authorities by upping the intervention rate. That is, Welsh Government will commit more capital to the band B programme, allowing local authorities to save on revenue costs associated with borrowing and to ensure that local authorities are able to be as ambitious as possible with their plans. It is they that put forward the schools, and I'm sure you'll be discussing with your colleagues in Monmouthshire whether King Henry will be one of those schools coming forward, and I look forward to receiving the recommendations from the independent capital investment board as regards what we will be able to do in Monmouthshire.

Of course, that's not the only programme that Monmouthshire County Council is benefiting from. The Welsh-medium programme is also something that Monmouthshire County Council has been very successful in bidding for and, of course, the Welsh Government covers 100 per cent of the cost of those new builds.

Minister, I've received many representations from my local authority, trade unions, local communities regarding the minority ethnic achievement grant funding from the Welsh Government. I understand that you've kept the figure the same this year as last year and that you've given it out to four of the major cities in Wales to look at how that's distributed. But the demographics are changing across the towns and areas and local authorities, and therefore needs are changing. And what we are seeing in Neath Port Talbot in particular is a diminishing of the service as a consequence of the loss of funding. Will you re-look at the priorities for this grant to ensure that communities that deserve it and that benefit hugely from this grant are able to access it?

14:15

Thank you, David. We are able to maintain levels of MEAG investment in the new financial year as in the previous financial year. We will be looking to undertake a piece of work on how to ensure that this money is indeed reaching those communities that need it the most and to look at the opportunities for a more sustainable basis for providing that funding going forward.

The Welsh Dimension within the New Curriculum

8. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh dimension within the new curriculum? OAQ53364

Thank you, Llyr. Developing an understanding of the culture and history of Wales and its place in the wider world is an essential component of a young person’s learning journey across all the areas of learning and experience throughout their education. And I can assure you, this is not a tokenistic bolt-on to the curriculum; it is an essential.

Thank you for your response. In responses to other Members, you have made it clear that, certainly, you don't want to provide a long list of subjects and areas that should be taught, and I understand the sentiment and agree to a large extent with that, but what I'm struggling with is how then are you going to strike the balance in ensuring that teachers have the flexibility to teach what they think is suitable in the context of the areas of learning and experience while at the same time, of course, ensuring that pupils in Wales are learning those aspects that they need to know about, whether in the context of Welsh history or Welsh literature or any aspect of the Welsh dimension. You mentioned some specific scaffolding, earlier. Does that suggest that there will be a shortlist and not a long list? Could you expand on this?

Thank you very much, Llyr. Can I just provide you with some assurance that the humanities AoLE working group in particular has taken full account of the Cwricwlwm Cymreig report, as well as a range of experts, including Elin Jones, who has been very helpful in making sure that we get this right to ensure that both Wales and history and the Welsh dimension are reflected appropriately across the curriculum. What's important is that there will be, when we publish the areas of learning and experience and the statutory guidance—that will provide the scaffolding for individual school teachers, and it will be really important that there is guidance given at that stage about the necessity of having the Welsh dimension across all the AoLEs with, potentially, some practical examples of how that can happen.

Of course, what's really important with the curriculum as well is that this is about learning and experiences, and therefore, we would be expecting lots of Wales's bodies, such as Cadw and the national museum, to continue to help provide teachers with resources and the opportunity for Wales's children and young people, not just to sit in their classroom and experience the Welsh dimension but actually to be out and about and experiencing that in a very real way. But, again, that can't just be about history; that has to be about language, communication, culture, music, science. It cannot simply be the preserve of the humanities AoLE, otherwise, we will have missed this really important opportunity.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, in questions following your statement on the education White Paper last week, you observed that, and I quote:

'the focus tends to go onto qualifications'.

And, hopefully, your announcement on a single Welsh language curriculum will actually lead, in time, to better exam-based Welsh language attainment as well, but to the increasing use in all settings of the Welsh language as a means of communication so that those non-examinable means are going to be just as important if the Welsh language isn't stuck behind a school desk. So, how do you plan to get this across to school leaders who are already juggling very limited resources and, like it or not, will be focusing on getting good exam results out of their children?

Well, of course, what's really important is that we will have a language continuum, which we will expect children to move along. What's really important is that that focus will be on using the language as a means of communication, not just something that you learn just to be able to write. And what we want to do is improve the linguistic ability of children in both languages to ensure that, when they leave school, as many of our young people as possible are completely bilingual and are able to use and enjoy the language both in the world of work and in society. 

It's also about understanding, in some communities, the importance of those linguistic skills and recognising that these are valuable skills to have in the world of work. And therefore, being able to be able to do your childcare bilingually, by being able to be a healthcare professional bilingually, by being able to offer services bilingually, actually, there's a real—not only a cultural benefit to being a bilingual person—but, actually, there are real economic benefits to being a bilingual person. I think it's one of the ways in which we need to make the case and support that with good-quality Welsh language teaching. And that is a feature of our reform programme to ensure the experience of young people, where the medium of tuition is English in their schools— that their learning of the language is a positive one, delivered by a well-motivated, skilled and confident staff.

14:20
2. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services

The next questions are to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the first question is from Helen Mary Jones.

Discussions with the Families of Patients from the Tawel Fan Ward

1. What discussions has the Minister had with the families of patients at the Tawel Fan ward in Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board? OAQ53343

I have met twice with the Tawel Fan families' group in north Wales, once in my former role as deputy health Minister and more recently in October.

I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer. The Minister will be aware that the management of Betsi Cadwaladr university health board has recently acknowledged to the families at Tawel Fan that the unit was, in fact, a dementia assessment unit, and, therefore, nobody should have been living there long term, though some patients were there for more than six months. Can the Minister explain: do we have an understanding as to why this was allowed to happen? And is he confident that no other patients in Betsi Cadwaladr in any other settings are being accommodated long term in units designed for short-term assessment stays?

Yes. This is a matter that was raised during the meeting with the families in October. There's been a range of correspondence around the purpose and point of the unit. I'm actually looking ahead now to what I'm expecting to be an outline case for revising the estate on that particular site, and it will involve changes to the current Tawel Fan site, as well, together with a strategy the health board have now got agreement on with stakeholders for both in-patient and community services across north Wales as well.

I'll happily take up the specific point that you ask and write to you—and copy in other Members—about the broader point about current units and short-stay patients and how they're currently being used.

We were assured that there was going to be a significant pace of change and improvement in mental health services in north Wales as a result of the Tawel Fan scandal, but, of course, we're approaching the four-year mark in terms of the date when the health board was actually put into special measures. And it's certainly beyond the four-year mark in terms of the date by which the initial Ockenden report was received by the board. I'm very pleased that there is some progress that appears to be being made in terms of the strategy now, and also at some of the capital investment that is going in to try to resolve some of the problems at the board. But what does this say about the way in which Welsh Government special measures actually work?

If you recall, we were told that there was going to be a 100-day plan that was going to turn this situation around when Simon Dean was appointed as the interim chief executive of the board. So, the 100 days came and went without any progress. We know that Donna Ockenden, the initial author of the report that exposed the rot in mental health services in north Wales, expressed concerns as recently as last summer—and even earlier this year in the public domain about the lack of progress. And in fact, she was citing staff members who said that the situation had got even worse. When can we expect to see some tangible difference for patients on the ground? Because I'm afraid that the lack of progress has added insult to injury to those families to whom we've been referring today.

Well, that's a particular point of view that's taken, and I don't agree with every factual assertion that the Member has made. The 100-day plan of the start of special measures was actually to reset the course with the health board. There was no suggestion that within 100 days all issues would be resolved; that was never claimed by anybody within the health board or outside it. To suggest that now is simply not accurate.

More so, in terms of the reports that have been provided, we've actually gone through not just the initial report but, actually, a very long-running report provided by the Health and Social Care Advisory Service, and that's had a range of areas of action. And I'll remind the Member and everybody else here that that was not a clean bill of health for the health board—far from it. It recognised a range of challenges, historic and continuing, for the health board to resolve, and my focus is on ensuring that the health board meets those challenges. Actually, members of the Tawel Fan families are involved in the stakeholder group to provide assurance about the progress that is being made and still needs to be made, and I think all Members should take some comfort from the recent messaging back from Healthcare Inspectorate Wales, our inspectorate. They say that there is real improvement within the quality; they don't have the same quality concerns that they did have two and three years ago. A large amount of the credit goes to the director of mental health and, indeed, the nurse director for the leadership that she has shown around this area as well, but actually, the staff who are properly re-engaging with people they care for and communities across north Wales.

I don't expect there to be any significant move forward in special measures unless and until the health board meets the milestones that I have set out in the special measures improvement framework. I will get advice from the Wales Audit Office and the inspectorate as to whether they have done so. No decision will be made that is convenient for any politician in this Chamber, unless it is a decision that is right for people in north Wales and backed up by evidence.

14:25
Free Car Parking at Hospital Sites

2. Will the Minister provide an update on free car parking at hospital sites in Wales? OAQ53366

Car parking is free at all NHS hospitals in Wales. Health boards and NHS trusts are responsible for the local management operations and the arrangements for car parks on their sites.

I recently had correspondence from a constituent who wrote to me about an experience that he had at the University Hospital of Wales, Cardiff. He parked in a zone that was clearly marked out on the Cardiff and Vale university health board website as being designated for patients and visitors. He was then surprised to receive a £40 fine from a parking enforcement firm called ParkingEye, which said that the zone was for parking for staff only. He paid the fine, because he was afraid of the potentially spiraling costs of legal action. There appears to be confusion between what the health board and ParkingEye see as particular parking zones and those designated for particular kinds of use.

In the meantime, the health board has said that they will not intervene in any appeals to enforce parking fines with parking enforcement firms. I think free hospital parking is one of the Welsh Government's key achievements, and the Minister said in his answer that it's something that is universal. Can he therefore give some reassurances that health boards are implementing this policy effectively, including Cardiff and Vale board, and that, where it is needed, there's clear dialogue between the health boards and private parking firms to do it properly?

That's exactly what we expect. There is, of course, the challenge of making sure that free parking on hospital sites does not turn into people parking for free on hospital sites, but not actually making use of the healthcare services in that hospital. So, the challenge is how we make sure that people who are there receive the free parking that they should expect.

I'm interested in what the Member has said about confusion between a zone that appears to be marked out as a patient parking zone and they've parked there and still received a fine. If the Member provides me with details, I'll happily take the matter up to make sure that the policy is being applied exactly as it is intended to. But I do think the honest truth is that, at the start of free parking across the estate within Cardiff and Vale—one of the last to move over because of long-term problems they'd previously had—there were some challenges, and Members from Cardiff and the vale will have seen those in their constituency postbags. Those were significantly reduced, but I'm interested in any further instances to make sure that the policy is got right. So, please do write to me and I'll have the matter investigated.

Minister, I welcome the announcement that parking at all NHS hospitals in Wales has been free since the end of August last year. Since free hospital parking was first announced by the then health Minister, Edwina Hart, in March 2008, first of all, why did it take 10 years to implement this? The second thing is, it's a bit of a mess in certain areas, it needs proper management—the car parking—because it is used by staff, and for some of them, it's very important to come in at the right time and there's no space, they go around in circles, then patients in a certain urgency, and then visitors. In certain areas, it was also in negotiation with the board that ANPR technology would be used, which is automatic number plate recognition. So, are you in negotiation with such companies to make sure that parking in our hospitals is free and fair for patients, staff and visitors in Wales, please?

14:30

I'll deal with your first point about the time it's taken. I'm very proud that the Welsh Labour commitment has been delivered. We were not able to deliver it as quickly as we had wanted to because of the long-term contracts that existed—if you were listening to my first answer you would have heard me say that—and there was a practical point about the cost to the public purse in buying out those contracts. We now have a full estate of free parking for patients, and we look forward to England catching up with us. Despite long-held promises by the current Government, they do not have the same level of achievement that we can celebrate here in Wales, and I'm sure you'd join with me in recognising that. 

On the broader point about traffic management, this is a real challenge, not just in making sure that patients can park, but actually staff parking as well. That's partly about the efficient use of our large and significant sites—there are a large number of traffic movements on and off during the day—but also about encouraging people to take alternative ways of getting on to hospital sites, whether that's in Cardiff, where there is a park and ride facility, or, indeed, on the one that I've used with the Deputy Presiding Officer around Glan Clwyd. So, it's about a range of measures to make sure that people who do need to get onto the site are able to do so and to make proper use of that. And that is what we expect health boards to deliver in managing properly each hospital estate. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I'd like to turn to the subject of the performance of our emergency care system, and it's been highlighted that the performance of two out of the three of the accident and emergency units in hospitals in the Betsi Cadwaladr region has been so bad that it's dragged the average Welsh figures substantially down. The First Minister acknowledged last week that this level of performance was unacceptable. Now, given that the Minister is, through special measures, directly responsible for this performance, can he account for the factors that have led to it?

I won't rehearse the challenge about whether I'm directly running the health service in north Wales through special measures or not; we keep on coming back to this. But the reality is that the performance within emergency care in north Wales is not acceptable, and that is the direct message that the health board have had. In terms of the reasons for it, and factors within it, some of the factors are that, despite the fact that we've had better weather this winter than last winter, actually the flu season is slightly worse this winter, and, unusually, in January, there are more major incidents than minor incidents compared to last year. But, essentially, the challenge is actually about how the system in north Wales, in particular in two of our major sites, is not able to cope in the way that the rest of the country is able to, and that's complicated. It's about relationships between health and social care, it's about clinical leadership, and it's actually about leadership across the board. And there's a challenge about understanding that in other parts of Wales—there is significant pressure on our system at this time of year, which we understand—performance standards are better. So, it isn't just about saying, 'This is unacceptable, sort it out'; it is actually about working with our staff, because the worse thing I think I could do is to simply say, 'It's unacceptable and I want people to go down the road.' Actually, we need those staff within our system, their compassion and their commitment to deliver. We need to keep the staff with us whilst we understand, and they understand, together with their clinical colleagues and peers, how they can actually improve the service that they want to provide with their colleagues and for the people that they serve. It's also why the post of the unscheduled care lead, an emergency department consultant herself, is actually really important, to have that clinical credibility to deliver the improvement that all of us wish to see. 

Well, I'm grateful to the Minister for his answer, though slightly puzzled by it. I thought that the whole point of special measures was that the Government was taking some responsibility for what was going on. But putting that to one side, and be that as it may, I'm also slightly surprised to hear the Minister say that factors are complex and, by implication, they don't know exactly what's going on, because in response to my colleague Adam Price last week, the First Minister asserted that there was no need for an in-depth inquiry into the state of A&E in Wales. That is, of course, something that's being called for by your Labour colleagues in London, though, in fact, the English system, unfortunately, is outperforming the Welsh system on average. One of the reasons, of course, that the First Minister gave for not needing an inquiry was, he said: 

'We know the things that need to be done.' 

That's exactly what he said, and: 

'The job is to get on and make sure that the general improvements are shared elsewhere and everywhere'.

Now, I'm sure I and everybody in this Chamber would want to associate ourselves with what the Minister has just said about the excellent work that front-line staff do, in sometimes very, very difficult circumstances. But either the First Minister is right and we know what needs to be done, in which case, I'd suggest that the Minister and his officials get on with it, or we don't know, in which case, we need to find out. 

Well, that isn't quite an accurate reflection of what I said or what the First Minister said either. I certainly never said, 'We just don't know what's going on within the emergency care system.' We do know that there's a challenge about clinical leadership and engagement and buy-in. And, actually, if you look across north Wales you can't really distinguish the take that comes into Ysbyty Gwynedd compared to Glan Clwyd or Wrexham Maelor to explain the differentials in performance. So, there is a challenge about how we have a positive perspective with our staff that doesn't simply say, 'You are not doing your job properly'. That is the worst possible message. So, it is about the engagement we expect to have. That's why the clinical leadership, from a national lead, really does matter—somebody with credibility with that workforce, to understand the specifics about each site, but then the broader points about clinical leadership and behaviour within our system. And all the things that we are doing across this winter, about making sure we don't have people going in unnecessarily, having more ability within our primary care service, they matter in every part of our system. But we do recognise the specific challenges and problems within north Wales in particular, and that is a focus, of course, for our whole system.

14:35

You see, Llywydd, I am struggling a little bit with this, because, on the one hand, the Minister is telling us that there is no substantial difference between the effect of what's going on in Ysbyty Gwynedd and what's going on in the other two accident and emergency units, and, on the other hand, he's telling me that the factors are different, and we need to take them into account. Now, I am certainly not suggesting that anybody on the front line in those services is not doing their job properly. We might ask ourselves if there are persons in this Chamber who, in this regard, may or may not be doing their job properly, but I don't want to get to that level, necessarily. It is clear that, in relation to accident and emergency, and these two particular hospitals, whatever the Minister is doing under special measures, as it stands, is not working, because otherwise they would be learning from the good practice that he rightly highlights elsewhere in Wales. Does the Minister accept that it is now time, given the powers that he has under special measures, to do something more radical, that we need a root-and-branch look at the whole system around those two hospitals, looking at what's going on with admissions and unnecessary admissions, right through to what's going on to people unnecessarily being kept in hospital? It cannot be the case that Ysbyty Gwynedd can manage, and these two hospital cannot manage. It is time, I think, for the Minister to step in and look at this in a radical and consistent manner.

Again, I don't think that's a fair reflection on the fact of what I've set out. You need to understand what is specific to each particular site to address, but, actually, there is nothing that explains the significant difference in performance between the three sites within north Wales, and, actually, when you go beyond that, then, the differences in different parts of Wales too. That's why we do have a real focus on clinical leadership. For the third time I'm going to say: clinical leadership matters, and performance, and that can and will make a difference. Our job is to be able to encourage and support those people to be clear about the expectation for the board, and their point in accountability and achievement—and they will be held to account, and, actually, the chair has taken some personal ownership and responsibility for the mission of improvement within this area—to understand the 90-day turnaround and improvement plan, to let us see what has changed, and what needs to change further. Because simply saying, 'Do something radical and different, Minister'—well, that isn't an answer. That is the easiest thing to say, but it is not an answer to address performance and the sort of service that our staff want to deliver, and our public expect. I'm determined to do the right thing—that is about listening to our staff, looking at the evidence, and making sure the right thing is actually done. And I fully expect to be held to account, whether we do well or not.

Thank you. I think my questions are—thank you. Diolch, Llywydd. May I welcome you to your first questions, I believe, Minister? I look forward to working with you, as we go forward, in this portfolio. I know, from my time with you in committee, that you're very genuine in your working.

Right, there are at least 370,000 carers in Wales, which is more than the population of Cardiff. And around three in five of us will become a carer at some point in our lives. For many young people, however, this point comes far too early. Indeed, as you will be aware, we have a selfless army of carers aged under 18 years old across Wales. Now, last week saw Young Carers Awareness Day, and many of us as Welsh Conservatives strove to raise awareness of this, and the vital role that these young champions play in supporting their sick and disabled family members. One major point of concern is the fact that some young carers are unable to continue in education or apprenticeships, because of a fear of losing their carers' allowance. Will you therefore endorse, support and ensure that we bring about a policy that we want to introduce, and that is a £60 a week young adult carers futures grant?

14:40

I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for that welcome and very kind words. In response to her comments about young carers, we're absolutely committed to supporting carers of all ages, including young carers and young adult carers. We do think that education in the school setting is one of the key areas to identify and help young carers and I'm aware that the financial situation of young carers is often a matter for concern, and her proposal is something that we can look at.

Thank you, that's very encouraging. Thank you, Deputy Minister. I believe that our grant would go a long way in helping to ensure that young carers can continue in education. This is key, but there is more still that we can do. Indeed, it is a frightening fact that YoungMinds suggest that 68 per cent of young carers have been bullied at some point because of tackling their home responsibilities. So, they've made clear signals that professionals, particularly in schools, are not yet able to spot and identify training needs, not just for the carers themselves, but for their peers. How can you be sure that the identity card will reach all carers and that adequate training is given to adults working with young people, so that we can identify our carers much sooner in the system and give them the support they need?

I absolutely agree with the Member that there is a lack of awareness of the issues of young carers and it's really important, particularly in schools that there is a much wider awareness, and that is something that the Government certainly wants to work on. 

The proposal for a young carers ID card is actually being worked on at the moment by officials here in the Government and they're working with Carers Trust Wales to consider the proposals for such a scheme and working also with the education department. There are already a number of carer identification schemes in place in local authorities in Wales, and I think what we've got to do is to investigate how they are working, but what we would want to do is to introduce a national ID card for young carers. But, obviously, you can introduce the card, but you've got to make sure that people understand what the card means. So, I'd like to reassure the Member that people in the Government are working at the moment on this issue, and I think this is something that young carers themselves would welcome.

Thank you, again. One aim of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2016 is to improve the well-being of carers who need support. Following this, a carer of any age has the same rights to be assessed for support as the person they care for. These assessments are undertaken by social services. However, the total number of social service staff for children and young people has not really, in any real form, improved since 2014-15, especially when one takes into account the high levels of sickness and stress that actually exist within those very departments. Therefore, what measures are you taking to ensure that young carers are able to fully receive their needs assessment—and this is a genuine assessment—and then to receive the subsequent support that they need and that they receive it promptly?

It is absolutely vital, as the Member says, that correct assessments are made for young carers, and the social services and well-being Act does require that, but I am aware that many young carers have not had assessments and I know that there is variability of how the assessments actually apply. So, the Government is looking at this—looking at how to improve this and is looking at it through the ministerial advisory group for carers and in other ways. But I do think that it's absolutely crucial that young carers do get assessments, because one of the things that you have to look at in an assessment is how being a carer is affecting the ordinary, everyday life that a young person needs, and the assessments really need to take those into account when they're made. So, the assessments are crucial, but we do need to ensure they're more consistent and more widespread.

Diolch, Llywydd. The Minister will be aware, from the auditor general's report on NHS Wales's expenditure on agency staff that the amount of money that is being spent has gone up by 171 per cent over seven years, and amounted to £135 million in 2017-18. This is a very expensive way to recruit staff. In Betsi Cadwaladr in 2017, they were spending 7 per cent of their total staff budget on agency staff, and in Hywel Dda it was 10 per cent. The latest figures show that Betsi is spending £30 million on agency staff, and Hywel Dda £23 million. The response that I've seen so far from the Welsh Government is this: that this report will inform future activity in strengthening leadership to steer work to deliver future efficiencies and develop a single source of data collection. Will the Minister agree with me that, rather than just management speak, there should be some practical action to get these figures down so that the money could be spent in other ways that are more beneficial to patients in the health service in Wales?

14:45

Actually, if you look at what we've done over the last two years, we have made real inroads into agency and locum spend. I made a choice to introduce not just a cap on rates, but a range of other measures that the service had offered in terms of some policy choices. That's meant we've spent at least £30 million less on agency than in the last financial year, but we know that we need to do more. And actually, there's a challenge for all of us: if we really do want to see a reduction in agency and locum spend, then we need to change the way that we deliver care. That means the current way in which we deliver care will need to change to make it more attractive to recruit permanent staff within the service. And, of course, Members across this Chamber are regularly put under pressure to support keeping the way that services are delivered, even when those services rely on high degrees of agency and locum spend. So, actually, changing services isn't just about driving the financials down; it's actually about delivering better care, with permanent members of staff who are permanently on the care team.

Of course, some health boards in Wales are doing very much better than the boards that I've just quoted. In Cardiff and Vale, for example, only about 1.5 per cent of their staffing budget is spent on agency staff. So, if they can do it, why can't the other health boards? This is largely going on medical and dental staff, and nursing and midwifery. Again, in Betsi, 65 per cent of the money they've spent on agency staff has gone on medical and dental staff—that's £19 million. But Cardiff and Vale, by contrast, spent only £360,000 on this in the latest year. What accounts for these disparities? It clearly can't be pay as the cause, because pay rates are pretty much nationally set. Here is a case again where political leadership is absolutely necessary to solve what is a substantial problem that adds to all the other burdens on the health service.

Actually, we know that for a significant part not just of Wales, but across the United Kingdom, some centres are more easy to attract and recruit to than others in different parts of the country. You don't need to take my word for it; go and talk to people who work in those other parts of the health service about the relative ease or difficulty of doing so. Cardiff and Vale, and other parts of the south-east corner, have had a more stable way of delivering and transforming their care. There is a different job of work to be done, for example, in west Wales and in north Wales in transforming the way that care is delivered. If we're unable to do so, then we'll continue to prop up parts of our service with agency and locum and higher spend. That's the unavoidable reality of where we are. So, if Members want to see genuinely a reduction in agency and locum spend, then we all need to have a grown-up conversation about where that care is delivered, to make it a more attractive place for staff to work. If we can't do that, we'll continue to either prop up parts of our service with agency and locum spend, or see those reform and change at a point of crisis, rather than deliberately planning to do so. That was one of the central messages of 'A Healthier Wales' and, indeed, the parliamentary review that every party in this Chamber signed up to.

Of course, the performance of some health boards in recent years perhaps makes it more difficult to recruit staff, in areas like north Wales in particular. Nevertheless, that can't be the whole answer to this difficulty, because the same problem is seen with locums for GPs as it is for NHS staff in other areas of professional activity. For example, in relation to Blaenau Ffestiniog, the Healthcare Inspectorate Wales 2017 report said that GP recruitment there still had significant issues because there was considerable reliance on locums and improvement was needed. Well, on the Primary Care Professionals website today, there is an advertisement for 32 GP jobs in Blaenau Ffestiniog, 22 of which are for locums. So, in 16 months since that healthcare inspectorate report of 2017 till today, there's been very, very little change. On page 39 of that report, it said that the assistant area director of primary care and primary care development manager, by 31 January 2018—that's a year ago—should increase the availability of salaried GPs through recruitment to reduce frequent change in staff and locums available to complete their own tasks. So, when are we actually going to see some significant progress not just in relation to agency staff in hospitals, but also in the recruitment of GPs to serve areas that have relied far too long upon locums chopping and changing? Most patients want to see their regular GP; they don't want to be in a situation where every time they go to the surgery they're seeing somebody new.  

14:50

That's true for some patients, and others take a rather different view. If you look at what we're doing and, actually, if you look at the NHS England plan, for example, when they talk about the way that they want general practice to work together, it sounds and looks a lot like clusters here in Wales. They may not give us credit for it, but they're actually copying a number of the things that we're doing because the workforce of the future will be different, and, when I think about agency and locum, I absolutely think about primary care—the ability to recruit enough general practitioners, the training that we have, the achievement over the last two years and doing very well on filling our GP training places, but, more than that, about the environment they're going to work within with different forms of staff.

And there's a different number of GPs working in a different way with other healthcare professionals. That's why the record investment we're making in other healthcare professional training, the £114 million we're investing—. Even in a time of austerity, a £7 million increase in that form of training, for more staff, for the physios, the nurses, the paramedics. That's the challenge that we have to confront. And, actually, our GP workforce are broadly supportive of the direction that we are taking. The challenge, as ever, is: are we able to move fast enough to keep services open, up and running, and to persuade enough people to actually come on board to work in a different way? And, within that, I accept I'm not the most persuasive voice. A general practitioner is more likely to listen to a fellow GP about the way that they have changed their practice, working with different professionals, than to any politician within this place. And, actually, we do have a range of leaders within general practice who are making that bid and showing real leadership with their peers. So, actually, for all the challenge that we have, there is real room for optimism about the path we're on, and, indeed, the flattery of NHS England largely copying significant parts of what we're already doing in Wales.

The Funding of Healthcare in North Wales

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the funding of healthcare in North Wales? OAQ53334

The Welsh Government continues to invest in the health service in north Wales, as demonstrated by the £1.4 billion allocation in 2018-19. We've provided specific additional support this year, totalling nearly £20 million to support performance, winter pressures, capacity and capability within the organisation.

Well, a fifth of the patients at the Countess of Chester Hospital come from Wales, and last week I questioned your colleague the finance Minister after the Countess of Chester Hospital reported in December that delayed transfers of care—better known to some people as bedblocking—for patients from Wales had gone up 26 per cent compared to the previous year, whilst falling 24 per cent for patients in west Wales. And their chief finance officer said there's extra capacity that the west Cheshire system is putting in and we've got to see some extra capacity being put in by Wales. The finance Minister said that she would refer that to you.

Only this morning, I and five other AMs received an e-mail from a whistleblower describing themselves as 'a concerned Betsi Cadwaladr NHS supporter', which said that the health board has unsurprisingly failed to break even in any of the years since being placed in special measures by you, and that management was wasting valuable resources and public money on IT systems such as the health roster clinical activity management IT system, which has cost over £200,000. No analysis was done on the initial trial, there was no proper business case carried out, the project failure has been hidden from the public, this had been trialled unsuccessfully in 2015 with negative feedback, and the consensus from medical experts was the system wasn't fit for purpose but it still went ahead. As I concluded last week when questioning the finance Minister, what is going on, Minister, because the buck really does stop with you?

Well, obviously, I can't comment on an e-mail you've had today from a whistleblower about his perspective, but we want to take seriously any and everybody who provide concerns about the use of money. But, actually, the project you mentioned there does not go into the first part of your question and the disagreement between the Countess of Chester trust and the health and care system in north Wales. Actually, the facts are that we have seen a significant fall in the amount of delayed transfers of care within north Wales. That is because health and social care have worked together on achieving that. I had to have personal meetings with health and local government over the last few years, and I'm delighted to see real and sustained achievement. We should recognise that and not so easily fall for a line of argument from the Countess of Chester trust. If you look at their financial challenges themselves, it is precious little to do with the health and care system here in Wales. To give you an example, if the Countess of Chester trust's deficit was transferred into Betsi Cadwaladr, it would nearly double the deficit in Betsi Cadwaladr. Their financial challenges are not the problem of Wales. My patience with the way in which they seek to shift blame for their challenges to north Wales is wearing thin. I want to see a health and care system that works for the person—a genuinely collaborative partnership across the border, but that does require a different level of conduct and behaviour from colleagues in Chester. 

14:55

Well, if they have finished barracking across the Chamber, I will ask my question.

Nursing students at Bangor are concerned about a possible threat to their courses because of cuts at the university. At a time when we need far more nurses in north Wales to fill hundreds of vacancies, there are questions arising as to whether departments within the Government here are speaking to each other, because, without sufficient funding for universities for lecturers, there will be fewer nurses, and the reliance of the health service in north Wales on agency staff and locums, which are expensive, will intensify. So, isn't this an example of a lack of collaboration across Government, which, as a result, is making a difficult situation worse?

We have nursing courses provided in Bangor that we pay for. They're part of the numbers and the training numbers that I've invested in, which I referred to in my answer to Neil Hamilton. I expect both the numbers to be delivered and the quality of training and care to be delivered. If there are real and serious concerns, as you've mentioned, I'd be very pleased to hear from you direct about the detail of that, because I want to make sure, as I say, the numbers and the quality are safeguarded. This is the workforce of the future that we're investing in after all. 

General Practitoner Services in South Wales Central

4. Will the Minister provide an update on GP services in South Wales Central? OAQ53339

'A Healthier Wales' sets out our vision for healthcare services and the primary care model for Wales is instrumental to delivering our aims for general practice. We are working with NHS Wales and representative bodies to continue to improve the delivery of services to the people of South Wales Central.

Thank you, Minister, for that answer. One of the biggest frustrations many patients have when trying to access GP services is actually making that first phone call to get an appointment with the GP. A constituent of mine—a Mr Owen Smith from Pontypridd, who I think you know—recently took to his Twitter account to highlight how he'd rung his GP surgery 300 times over the last five weeks. In his words, the appointments were sold out by 08:35 on each occasion. This isn't isolated to Owen Smith; this is across the South Wales Central area, where many patients struggle to get an appointment. What confidence can you give us that your department is putting energy into making more accessible the appointment system at GP surgeries so that patients who need those appointments can get them, and we don't get the rants that we saw off Owen Smith on Twitter, which highlights many of the frustrations that other constituents who don't have access to Twitter or social media feel on a day-to-day basis? 

Well, I'm not sure the person you refer to has given you permission to highlight his own personal experience in the way you do, but there is—[Interruption.] 

The characterisation you provide I don't think is entirely fair, but I do recognise the variance in experience between practices, and it's something that comes up regularly in postbags. If you look at the national survey for Wales, it recognises a decline in satisfaction in having access to local healthcare. So, there is a real challenge. It's a challenge that was recognised both by the general practitioners committee of the BMA and the Government and the broader health service as well. It's part of the conversation. It's about contract reform. It's also part of what we're trying to get through in the new model for primary care. When we talk of the new model, it's a recognition that, actually, access is a really important part of that. And it doesn't come because I sat down in my office and decided I believe that 'telephone first' is the way to go; actually, that directly comes from a programme of activity run by GPs themselves and it's driven by those GPs that have resolved the challenges that a range of people complain about and the ability to have an appointment with the right healthcare professional. It is partly about people recognising where they can go if it isn't a general practitioner, but it is also then about being able to talk to someone about the challenge in a reasonable period of time. I recognise that this will continue to be a point of discussion with general practitioners—not just with the Government and the wider health service, but actually between general practitioners themselves, because some GPs are evangelists for a new system of 'telephone first' and others are deeply sceptical and dismissive of it. So, there's a real job of work to persuade GPs that, actually, it's about delivering a better job for them, but ultimately a better service for the public.

15:00
Improving Ambulance Response Times in South Wales West

5. What progress is being made to improve ambulance response times in South Wales West? OAQ53355

There is considerable work under way to ensure patients who have a clinical need for an ambulance response in South Wales West do so as quickly as possible. I was encouraged to note that the latest figures show the area was again among the best performers in Wales for patients in the red category.

Thank you for that response, Minister, and I appreciate the efforts being made to improve the response times. I want to raise an issue in relation to that and how we can perhaps help it, because in my personal circumstances, I had a need for a family member to phone an ambulance over the weekend, and the individual actually went into atrial fibrillation at home. We phoned up and we were told the ambulance was on its way. I asked for clarity—'Can you give me an idea of what time?'—because I could actually get to Morriston perhaps faster than half an hour. We were not given information. We waited 20 minutes and I took the decision to go to Morriston, and I got there before the ambulance would have arrived. I actually cancelled the ambulance on the way.

But I've also had constituents telling me how many times they have been waiting for ambulances. If ambulance staff and ambulance crews, or the people on the 999 service, can actually give us an indication—they refuse, because they said, 'We can't predict it'. But if we can have an indication where they're coming from, I can take action to get somebody to a hospital faster, and treatment faster. In the case of AF, you need to get there fast.

Now, I didn't know what category it was in. I wasn't told whether it was red or amber. I was simply told, 'We can't give you any information, but your call has been logged and it's been passed on'. That's not good enough. I need to know when it's going to be coming, and if it's going to be delayed, I'll take the action and get the patient there. Can you look into this to ensure that people have the best information to take the decisions that they need to take to get the patients to the best place?

This was part of the amber review and the conversation about whether you should give an indication of whether an ambulance is due, and the advice in that was not to do so. There's work that the chief ambulance commissioner is doing to take forward the amber review to try and improve the experience for people whilst they are waiting as well.

I'd be happy, though, to talk to the Member directly about the experience he's had, to try and understand if there are more things that the ambulance service could do, even if it is that conversation about what the individual could do if they could safely transport someone to a centre they are likely to have to attend in any event if the ambulance arrives.

Thank you for your question, David, because I'm thinking once again of the role of co-responders, which I've raised in the Chamber a number of times. They are obviously well equipped to deal with a quick response to precisely this sort of situation that David Rees has mentioned there. They have a huge role to play in the efficiency of emergency response, and the row about how that service is paid for, I think, is a complete distraction.

Bearing in mind the changes in the red and amber categorisations as well, I think I'd just like to raise the issue of first responders, which is obviously different. I'm sure you've been pleased that Bishopston and Pennard first responders group has recently attracted a huge host of new volunteers, but again—and it's not the first time it's happened to them—they are still waiting for the ambulance service to come and do the training. People are losing interest in that period of time. Can you tell us what Welsh Government can do to help the ambulance service take advantage of this social capital in helping them produce a better response rather than wasting it? Thank you.

On the two points—. There are two separate points, and on co-responders it isn't just about money. It is actually about agreement on the role, for example, for firefighters as well, and agreement that is about terms and conditions and, actually, about how we deliver and make better use of trained personnel within our broader emergency services system.

The point about first responders is one that I've actually taken up previously with the ambulance service about their plan for first responders and making use of people who want to be first responders to maintain their skills and make sure that is actually plugged in and designed in as part of our system. I'll happily take that up and write to the Member about where the ambulance service are on that, because I don't want to lose sight of those people who want to contribute and could make a real difference in a range of communities across the country.FootnoteLink

Engaging with the Public about Changes to Services

6. What guidance is provided by the Welsh Government to health boards regarding engaging with the public about changes to services? OAQ53344

The Welsh Government has issued national guidance to NHS Wales on engagement and consultation when they're considering making changes to health services. I expect them to take full account of the guidance and involve stakeholders—including, of course, the public—fully when proposing any changes.

15:05

The Betsi Cadwaladr health board is about to discuss far-reaching changes to the way in which some services are provided across north Wales. The changes include the provision of urology services on two sites rather than three, and the movement of stroke services from two sites and orthopaedics from two sites. So, I’m sure you’d agree that the health board needs to be entirely transparent with the public when major changes such as these are being discussed. Unfortunately, they are trying to introduce the changes through the back door. Will you ensure that there is thorough consultation and that detailed impact assessments are carried out before any final decisions are taken?

I don't think I'd quite accept the characterisation that these are changes trying to be introduced through the back door. On the three areas that you've talked about—on neurology and orthopaedics, there's big pressure on the numbers going through our system and our ability to meet those. That is partly about the rise in demand—for example, in neurology, in having the right equipment and right people recruited into those services to make them robust, and in orthopaedics, where it isn't just about having a more efficient way of delivering more operations, it's actually about which centres should you have operations taking place in, what do you have done, and then, also, what do you need to do in terms of those people who may not need an operation in the first place. In all of those areas, there is a need to talk to staff and the public about what is potentially there. I know that the draft proposals that have gone to the board are exactly that: they're draft. No final decisions have been made and I do expect there to be full and proper consultation.

On stroke services, though, there's been a long-running conversation and the leading voice with and for patients, the Stroke Association, are very clear that they want the health service in Wales and across the rest of the country to make real progress on hyperacute units—a smaller number of admitting centres with better outcomes for staff. Actually, the clinical lead for stroke services in Wales, based in Bronglais, is really clear that the number of our services where actually people are admitted for stroke needs to change as well to deliver better care. Now, that's a conversation that clinicians need to have and agree, but it's also a conversation they need to have with the public about what they're proposing and why as part of that proper engagement with the public. That is my expectation, not just in north Wales but across the whole service.  

Could I ask the Minister, in terms of guidance, are we in any way hamstrung by the constraints that are on health boards in terms of consultations? Before Christmas, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board went out to consultation on an issue around Maesteg hospital. It wasn't framed as 'the future of Maesteg hospital; how we can look at the long-term future of it, what we can do on reconfiguration of services'. It was big up on the overhead projector on Maesteg town hall with a couple of hundred people watching it: 'Closure of day hospital', which many people, by the way, conflated with the closure of the hospital itself rather than the day unit and the respite care provided. They've paused that because of the overwhelming objections to the proposals going forward and they're going to come back and reconsult. But one of the things they say to me is they're limited by how they frame that. They have to frame it in terms of closure of a unit as opposed to asking people, 'What would you like to see here to meet the modern needs of Maesteg and the upper Afan valley?' and so on. So, is there a problem with our guidance that is constricting the way in which health boards can go out and actually consult people on what they want to see as the future of their very important local facilities?  

I'm prepared to take on board and take seriously the point the Member is making and look again at the guidance to see if it does have an unintended consequence. But actually, the starting point is that it's important to have a full conversation with the public about what is being proposed: what is the proposal for the future, what does that mean about services now? And to make sure that we don't have an artificial conversation that either makes people more worried about the future of services that are going to be taken away, rather than the future mix of where people get the right care, in the right place, at the right time. So, I'll happily talk with him about the specific example he raised and look to see if there is a need to change the guidance or not, and the balance that health boards need to address to be able to move as quickly as possible, but actually to make sure that there's a speed and a pace that properly engages the public in having a real conversation about what matters to them.   

Tackling Missed Appointments in the NHS

7. What is the Welsh Government doing to tackle missed appointments in the NHS? OAQ53351

Health boards use a variety of different tools to remind patients to attend appointments, including text messaging and phone reminders, one of which I had myself yesterday. Missed appointments cost the NHS and patients have a role to play in ensuring that arranged appointments are attended.

Minister, I recently had a hospital appointment rearranged at short notice. Thankfully, I received the notification letter the evening before the appointment. However, I know others who weren't as lucky. Given that we're constantly reminded of the cost to the NHS of missed appointments, what is your Government doing to ensure that patients are informed of appointments or any changes, and will you look into the use of technology such as automated calling? 

15:10

This is part of standard business for the health service in making sure that people have the opportunity to attend, and, if there are changes, that people are told promptly, because something in the second class post is certainly not the most efficient way to get to most people within the country. So, it is a regular part of learning across the service about the different approaches being taken, but also to think about what the future means and a more efficient use of our resources. For me, that does involve significant reform of the outpatient system and what we're actually trying to achieve, and not just how we remind people to attend their appointments in the first place.  

Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, in Cardiff and Vale University Health Board, for non-emergency outpatient appointments, the non-attendance rate is now over 10 per cent. I noticed in England one of the things they do with sending texts—and it may be what we do, but could you just inform me—is that they do provide a rough estimate of the cost of a missed appointment, and then do that on an individual and a collective basis. Because I think if people realise how much it does cost—the opportunity cost is very considerable—they would think again. But over 10 per cent of no-shows is not acceptable.   

Yes, and that is a real challenge. It is partly about efficiency, but it's also, frankly, about making the best use in terms of people's time, and not just money. Some health boards do provide an estimation for the amount that an appointment costs, and most hospitals that I have been in—and I tend to go to a few during the time I spend in the job—do have regular signs showing the cost of missed appointments to the health service. There's plenty of information available for people who use the health service about the reality of the cost. I think the challenge is how we have a more consistent approach about use of things like text reminders, and the place of informing people about the cost of using the health service and, indeed, of not using it at any point in time as well. 

3. Topical Questions
4. 90-second Statements
5. Debate on the Petitions Committee Report: P-04-628 To improve Access to Education and Services in British Sign Language

This brings us on to item 5, which is the debate on the Petitions Committee report on access to British Sign Language. I call the Chair of the committee to move the motion—David Rowlands. 

Motion NDM6952 David J. Rowlands

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

Notes the report of the Petitions Committee on Petition P-04-628 To improve access to education and services in British Sign Language, which was laid in the Table Office on 5 October 2018.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Llywydd, for the opportunity to open this debate on behalf of the Petitions Committee. The petition we are discussing today relates to British Sign Language, and the ability of deaf children and their families to learn and use BSL in their everyday lives. As we all know, communication is a vital aspect of life. However, for some it can pose significant challenges on a daily basis.

This petition, which collected 1,162 signatures, was submitted by Deffo!, a forum for deaf young people based in Swansea. I welcome Deffo! and other observers to the public gallery, and I would also like to inform Members that an interpreter is signing proceedings in BSL in the gallery. A BSL version of the committee’s report is also available online, and a BSL video of this debate will also be made available later today on Senedd.tv.

I would also like to thank the petitioners on behalf of the committee—and, I am sure, all Members of this Assembly—for their tenacity and commitment to fighting for improvements to the education and support available to deaf and hard-of-hearing young people in Wales. In particular, the committee thanks Cathie and Helen Robins-Talbot from Deffo! for the information they have provided throughout the process, as well as to Luke and Zoe who gave deeply compelling oral evidence to the Petitions Committee during our consideration of the petition.

The petition calls on the Welsh Government to improve access to education and services in British Sign Language in order to improve the quality of life for deaf children and their families, and to deaf people of all ages. There are around 2,600 deaf children in Wales and over 3,000 pupils whose major special educational need is hearing impairment. BSL is a distinct language that is not dependent upon, or strongly related to, spoken English. The British Deaf Association state that there are approximately 7,200 BSL users in Wales, 4,000 of whom are deaf.  The Welsh Government recognised BSL as a language in its own right in 2004.

15:15

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

The petition has a number of objectives: improved access for families to learn BSL, for BSL to be introduced to the national curriculum, better access to education through BSL, and making more services and resources accessible in BSL for deaf young people. I will focus for the rest of this contribution on each of the petition’s objectives in turn, in order to outline the evidence the committee received, the conclusions we reached, and the responses provided by the Welsh Government.

Firstly, the petition calls for improved access to families to learn BSL. Deffo! have stressed the vital importance of this so that parents and siblings can communicate with and support deaf children within their family. They told the committee that cost can be a significant problem, with basic BSL classes for adults costing £300 per person and advanced courses up to £1,600. There are also few opportunities for families to learn BSL together, as most classes available are provided through adult education centres. The Welsh Government has consistently told the committee that provision of these classes are the responsibility of local authorities. However, the result appears to be a lack of provision, because it becomes a choice within local adult education budgets. The evidence the committee received demonstrates that, in most cases, there are no free or low-cost sign language courses available to parents and children.

I note that the children’s commissioner has also recommended that BSL should be made accessible to all families with deaf children, and the committee has heard that the National Deaf Children’s Society is disappointed that this has not been taken forward.

The petitioners have argued that the current status of BSL and the fact that it is considered to be a choice rather than a medical need mean that this is the type of provision that tends to be squeezed out during times of financial pressure. They have proposed that the Welsh Government should recognise BSL as a minority language, and that local authorities should consider it to be the first language of many deaf and hard of hearing children and young people. They consider that this would serve to improve and protect provision for learning BSL. The Petitions Committee agree. We believe it is vital for families of deaf children to be offered an opportunity to learn how to communicate through BSL. As a result, we consider that the Welsh Government could do more by guiding local authorities to treat BSL as the first language of many deaf children and young people as a way to reframe the conversation about what constitutes adequate provision. Furthermore, we have recommended that the Welsh Government gives consideration to the development of a national charter for delivery of services and resources, including education, to deaf children and their families. We think this would help to improve the consistency of provision throughout Wales.

I welcome the fact that the Welsh Government has accepted both of our recommendations in this area, and that it has also acknowledged that members of the deaf community face a number of issues in relation to BSL, including a shortage of interpreters. In her response, the Minister commits to reviewing the provision of BSL in Wales and considering the development of a national charter of the type recommended by the committee. We would welcome an update on this work this afternoon, and urge her to ensure this work is progressed with pace in order to begin to improve the support available for deaf children and their families.

Moving on, the second call in the petition is for BSL to be included in the national curriculum. The petitioners have advised the committee that the majority of deaf children in mainstream schools do not have access to BSL in school, but are taught sign-supported English instead. This does not transfer outside of school, and therefore deaf children still have to learn BSL in order to communicate with other members of the deaf community. Deffo! argue that, if BSL were to be included within the national curriculum, it would help other learners to communicate with deaf or hard of hearing people in social and other contexts, as well as gradually improving communication in everyday life.

Throughout our consideration of the petition, Deffo! have expressed frustration with their experience of seeking to engage with the Government on this matter, and with what they consider to be a lack of engagement with processes such as the Donaldson review. That said, during this time, they did have the opportunity to meet the previous Minister and the committee has welcomed the fact that BSL is included within the languages and communication area of the new curriculum. 

However, we remain concerned about a lack of national direction in relation to ensuring that BSL provision is widely available in Welsh schools, and the Minister’s response to our report indicates that this will largely remain at the discretion of individual schools and local authorities. Speaking frankly, it is currently difficult to see this as promising any significant step forward in improving the ability for pupils to access BSL through the curriculum. I urge the Minister to consider further how schools can be specifically encouraged to pursue this option in light of the formal recognition of BSL as a language in its own right.

The committee has also called for the Welsh Government to explore the creation of a GCSE in BSL. After this was raised by Mike Hedges, the previous First Minister wrote to Qualifications Wales on this subject. The response indicated that Qualifications Wales does not consider it viable to develop such a GCSE solely for use in Wales. However, subsequently, the UK Government has indicated that it is giving consideration to the development of a BSL GCSE. We understand that Qualifications Wales is open to adopting any GCSE developed and we would urge them, and the Minister, to ensure that this happens quickly in order to avoid a situation where deaf pupils in Wales fall behind their counterparts in England.

Access to appropriately qualified staff was also of significant concern to Deffo! They highlighted a number of statistics, including that pupils have just three hours of contact with a teacher of the deaf per week on average, far less than the target of 270 hours per year, and that significant numbers of appropriately qualified teachers are due to retire in the next 15 years. Deffo! suggest that many are being replaced by teaching assistants. In response, Ministers have referred to duties on local authorities to identify, assess and make provision for children with special educational needs. Again, however, the committee were concerned by a sense that there is insufficient impetus coming from the Welsh Government to make this the case in reality. It is unclear how the Government ensures that these duties are implemented sufficiently in practice.

In our fourth recommendation, the committee urges the Government to engage with workforce planning issues and consider the long-term sustainability of support for deaf pupils. The Minister’s response refers to welcome additional funding being provided. However, the National Deaf Children’s Society has referred to this as a short-term solution to a growing problem, and we urge the Government to continue to focus on ensuring that Wales has an appropriately trained education workforce in relation to the needs of deaf pupils.

The final aspect of the petition is a call for more services and resources to be accessible through BSL. Deffo! told the committee that many deaf young people fail to access services with the reasonable adjustments they are entitled to under equalities legislation. For example, witnesses noted that there is only one deaf youth worker for the whole of Wales. Deffo! want BSL users to be able to access information about services such as education, healthcare, social services and public transport in their preferred language. They told the committee that they felt demoralised by their inability to access such services.

Ministers have noted that the Welsh Government does not have the power to legislate in relation to the provision of languages other than Welsh. However, the committee believes that our earlier recommendation in relation to the development of a national charter for the delivery of services and resources to deaf children and young people will help to address some of these issues if it is taken forward. Such a framework could help to improve consistency of service provision across public services and provide greater accountability where such provision does not meet suitable standards. Again, I urge the Minister to ensure that this is taken forward in a robust and meaningful way.

In conclusion, Dirprwy Lywydd, I want to thank Deffo! again for bringing the petition forward and everyone else who has provided evidence to the committee. The issues raised by this petition are many and varied, and they challenge all of us here to seek to ensure that deaf children and young people in Wales are able to access the education and other services that they should be entitled to. I welcome the positive response received to our recommendations from the Minister, and I hope that, if they are taken forward, these actions result in improvements for deaf children and their families. Diolch yn fawr.

15:25

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I will sign. [Signs in BSL.] That's the trouble with having a long name. [Signs in BSL.] That said: I am Janet Finch-Saunders and I am a BSL student. Over the last year, my team and I have enjoyed the pleasure of learning BSL. We've already passed the first level and are now studying for the next. The reason for this is because I acknowledge the fact that many of the 7,200 BSL users in Wales rely on BSL as their first language and believe the support we offer should be more accessible to our deaf community. Through my role on the Petitions Committee, I have been delighted to support the cause made by Deffo! for improved access to information and services in BSL.

Following the Welsh Government's recognition of BSL as an official language in 2004, it is fair to say that progress has been poor. Whilst there are some pioneer schools, as part of the area of learning and experience for languages, literacy and communication, there's a lot of vagueness about where these schools are and how other children in schools can access this approach. Of course, it is reassuring to see that special educational needs schools are included in the trial group. However, it is deeply concerning that BSL is being classified as an international language, alongside other classic and modern languages. Not only is it incorrect in this instance to classify BSL as an international language, it simply undermines the necessity of this education for the 2,642 deaf children in Wales. As such, I would like to see an equivalence of BSL to English and Welsh used more widely in our schools. Qualifications Wales has dismissed the introduction of a GCSE in BSL at this stage, arguing that BSL will invite too few students. While they concede that this may be subject to reassessment following the conclusions of the Department for Education's collaboration with BSL partners, I consider that Wales should also undertake further preparations to pioneer the introduction of a GCSE in BSL.

GCSE aside, as for the Children's Commissioner for Wales's report, it is essential that sufficient funds are available to ensure that parents and close relatives of deaf individuals receive BSL training. And do you know what? How ironic that my colleague Suzy Davies AM told me of the news release:

'Parents of deaf children face funding "postcode lottery"

Parents of a deaf four-month-old have to pay £6,000 for sign language classes if they want to communicate with her.'

That is appalling in this day and age. Such inconsistencies are also creeping in to—. Oh, sorry. I've jumped ahead, sorry. Crucially, I believe that urgent action is needed to address the inconsistencies in the services currently being provided. I have seen first hand how there is a variation between different local authorities, and, for example, my colleague Mark Isherwood AM and I co-operated with the deaf community in Conwy County Borough Council following the withdrawal of financial support and the negative impacts on those merely wanting to communicate as regards council services in a way that they are only able to do.

Such inconsistencies are also creeping into education, as data released in July 2018 highlighted the fact that seven out of 18 respondents thought that SEN specialist services were not meeting the current demand for hearing impairment services. This is worrying, given that there are 3,116 pupils with this communication requirement in Wales. Whilst I welcome the fact that the Welsh Government has acknowledged there are problems and have allocated £289,000 to support professional training of a local sensory workforce, I am concerned that this is insufficient to ensure there is wide consistency across the service, especially when there is only one deaf youth worker for the whole of Wales. As such, I now implore you to listen to the recommendations of this report and to develop a national charter for the delivery of services and resources to deaf children, young people and their families, as a matter of urgency, so that there is a clear national benchmark and standard that all organisations and authorities can work towards. We are lucky. We can communicate here in the way that we are easiest able to do so. It is about time that the deaf people in our community are able to do the same. Diolch yn fawr iawn. 

15:30

First of all, can I declare an interest in that my sister is profoundly deaf and a user of British Sign Language, and also, as president of Swansea Hard of Hearing Group? And before anyone says, 'Why not Welsh sign language?', sign language is descriptive. You translate the sign into any other language you are familiar with. It does not use an alphabet, but has signs to describe what someone wants to say.

Turning to recommendation 1:

'The Welsh Government should support British Sign Language as a minority language, and encourage local authorities to recognise it as the first language of many Deaf children and young people when providing support and education services.'

For many deaf children, sign language is their first language, it's their language in the education system and it's the way that they converse and learn. Sign language should be treated as an equal language in the education system, no different to Welsh and English. It is a matter of educational equality that British Sign Language is treated equally with Welsh and English.

The Petitions Committee said that we therefore recommend that the opportunity to learn British Sign Language is made available to children at all levels of education. As part of this, we encourage the Welsh Government to continue to explore the creation of a GCSE in first-language sign language with Qualifications Wales. I again hope that that will be pushed forward. That sums up what is needed, and that is a GCSE in British Sign Language, so that proficiency in it can be recognised. It should be treated equally to English and Welsh in terms of a GCSE. This would mean that when jobs ask for grade C or better in English or Welsh, then it should also say 'or British Sign Language'. This provides equality of opportunity for those who use British Sign Language as their primary method of communication.

It is not only the deaf community that needs British Sign Language, but the rest of the population, who need to be able to communicate with those who are deaf. The petition calls for better access to British Sign Language classes for parents and siblings to support them in communicating with a deaf family member. Surely this is a reasonable request. The vast majority of children who are born deaf, or become deaf very young through diseases such as meningitis, mumps and measles, have hearing parents. A deaf child comes as a shock to parents and siblings who want to learn how to communicate with the deaf member of the family so that they're not left out. 

Turning to the last committee recommendation:

'We recommend that the Welsh Government continues its engagement with the Welsh Local Government Association on Workforce Planning for SEN specialist services, with a particular focus on teachers working with Deaf and hard of hearing children and young people. This should include
consideration of the longer term sustainability of these services. As part of this we support the introduction of a minimum standard BSL qualification for learning assistants supporting Deaf children and young people.'

This is incredibly important, because if people are working with deaf children, then they have to have at least the same level of language as the children they're working with. Whatever qualifications and support we say should be provided become meaningless if we don't have people qualified to teach and support learners. We can pass and agree all sorts of things here about the importance of having this support, but unless we've got people trained and capable of providing the support, it's not going to happen. 

Finally, the petition calls for services to be accessible to deaf young people in British Sign Language. Deffo! told the committee that many deaf young people are not able to access services and referred to a survey that suggested that most deaf people struggle to access healthcare such as GP surgeries. GP surgeries that only accept telephone calls for appointments or want patients to ring in and then ring patients back cause huge problems for those who are deaf and are not able to undertake that. I've talked to deaf people who have gone to a surgery and been told they've got to ring in. They say, 'Well, I can't hear', and it's, 'Well, that's the way we work.' And I think it is important that surgeries do show support, and I think it is important that surgeries realise that there are deaf people out there and that the one-size-fits-all of, 'Ring in, and we'll ring you back', doesn't work for people who can't hear. 

There is a lot that needs to be done to help the deaf community. Accepting these Petitions Committee recommendations and implementing them would be a good start. certainly not a finish, because the deaf community feel that they have not been treated fairly over many years. And I'm sure you recognise that, Deputy Presiding Officer. And it is important to ensure that we start making steps in that direction now.

15:35

British Sign Language is an important language that isn't adequately recognised. At present,  there is no adequate provision or no adequate rights in place to support deaf people at any stage of their journey through life, starting in the earliest years.

Ninety per cent of deaf children are born into hearing families. Therefore, new parents often have no experience of deafness, and have to learn how to communicate with and support the specific needs of their child afresh. Astonishingly, there is no free lesson provision, and, therefore, it's often a challenge for families to ensure opportunities to help their children. And it's true to say that this is a form of language deprivation. No child should be deprived of their right to their language. It's inevitable that a child's earliest development would be affected by this communication vacuum, because a lack of communication capability leads to feelings of isolation that have a negative impact on the emotional and mental health of an individual, and possibly on their life chances more widely.

Things don't improve when a deaf child goes to school. Deffo! says that, on average, deaf children who receive mainstream education in Wales leave school at 16 with a reading age of nine. Often, their speech and lip-reading skills are poor. Also, there has been a consistent gap in the attainment levels of deaf children compared to their hearing peers, which is at its widest in the foundation stage and at key stage 2. This gap exists because of the barriers that deaf learners face, more often than not. And this is also a concern for the children's commissioner, who has stated that the lack of commitment to closing the attainment gap between deaf learners and their hearing peers is an issue that needs attention from the Government and from local authorities, in order to ensure appropriate support for the communication needs of children and young people who are deaf, including BSL learning opportunities that are accessible and affordable, at a range of levels.

And this lack of focus is also highlighted when looking at local authorities, with only one Welsh local authority committed to the British BSL charter from the British Deaf Association. So, it's time to achieve that focus on developing our own national charter for the provision of consistent services and resources for deaf children and their families.

The Welsh Government needs to track the development of deaf children and their families throughout their education journey, and ensure that the appropriate provision is available, because the statistics speak for themselves. At present, there are far too many deaf children who use BSL as a first language being supported by school staff with too simple levels of signing. And we need to think seriously about encouraging teachers to gain a BSL qualification, at appropriate levels.

And turning, therefore, to the new curriculum, there is an opportunity here to encourage far more use of BSL in schools. And, as we know, BSL isn't only for deaf children, and teaching BSL at school could give an additional opportunity for children, across the spectrum, to learn another language.

Having considered all of this evidence, and the statistics, it's clear that work needs to be done by us, as politicians, to promote the importance of BSL resources and services, so that the appropriate support is available at all levels, from infancy to adult life. And the Welsh Government also has a responsibility to meet the requirements of the petition. Thank you.

Thank you to the Petitions Committee for introducing this debate. I'd like to thank the petitioners for their efforts in highlighting that we're not doing enough and how we can improve the lives of deaf people, particularly children and young people. 

There are many laws and accepted principles that seem unquestionable now, but would not be in existence without those like Catherine Robins-Talbot and Deffo!, who work hard campaigning for people who have been unheard for years to be given a voice that will not be ignored. Society gets to know about a part of their community that they never knew and policy makers turn from indifference to conviction.

I would urge the Government to accept all the recommendations in the report. I know that resources are limited, but it's a question of priorities and about how far up that list of priorities deaf people are for Welsh Government who are the only people here who can act on this.

It's nearly two years since the first time an MP in Westminster asked the Prime Minister a question using BSL, in an effort to have BSL put on the national curriculum in England. BSL has now been recognised as a language for 16 years. There are over 150,000 users of BSL in the UK—more than 87,000 of whom are deaf. So, the question for me is why BSL is not already on the curriculum in some way in Wales. If the petitioners felt that provision for deaf people in Wales was satisfactory, they wouldn't have gone to the trouble of petitioning the Assembly and proposing solutions.

I note that, in paragraph 20 of the report from the Petitions Committee, the Government say that it's up to local authorities to support families where a child is deaf or hard of hearing. But I do have to question the consistency here of a Government that is constantly stating and implementing their desire to support those who communicate in Welsh, but not those who have no choice but to communicate in BSL. 

Our tradition of being a community and society that sticks together and works through adversity and unfairness makes us proudly Welsh and British, and making sure that our young people have every opportunity to offer their best to Wales and have Wales offer its best to them should be as important a part of what being Welsh is about as any other aspect of a rightly proud Welsh culture.

For what good reason shouldn't it be part of the national curriculum, even at a basic level, so that all our young people know BSL exists and are given a chance to study it as a GCSE language option that realistically will probably offer our society and communities more positives than some other language options? Deafness and a reliance on BSL should not be seen as an additional learning need. BSL speakers don't have a learning difficulty. The only difficulty they face is that too few of the hearing population don't understand the language they speak and that's our fault rather than theirs. They should not be the people who face the negative consequences of a society that effectively chooses not to engage with them, and not supporting the recommendations in full will be nothing short of saying, 'You're on your own. We hope you have rich parents who can afford the extra help you need, because you're getting little or nothing from us.'

We've had legislation pass for inclusive play areas, where children with physical disabilities can play alongside those who don't, and part of the justification for funding those was that it will raise awareness of disability and how little it should matter in modern Welsh life. Surely the same can be achieved for deaf children, if all children were introduced to BSL at school. How many deaf children avoid using play areas because of the difficulties they face when another playful child tries to speak to them? How many more deaf children would get to meet and play with, and have in their circle of friends, hearing people if even very basic BSL were on the national curriculum? Who can imagine what positive outcomes that would have for deaf children in later life?

There are lots of policies and laws built to entrench equal rights for numerous other groups, but we don't seem to have equal rights for deaf people. These young people need us, and we need the talents of these young people that for too long have been unfairly untapped. Wales would benefit and deaf people would benefit if only we opened our eyes to see what they have to say. That's why I support the recommendations of this report and hope that the Government will change their response to recommendation 3 to an unequivocal acceptance and to implement the report's recommendations without delay. Thank you.

15:40

Thanks to Deffo! and to those who gave evidence to the committee and to Stuart Parkinson as well for e-mailing. Also thank you to Cardiff Deaf Creative Hands. I went there once for a visit and it was really, really informative as well as enjoyable. 

I don't think the deaf community really gets a fair crack of the whip. I think they're very excluded. When I launched the Propel group in the autumn—or in the summer, actually—we made sure we had somebody signing, as well as the translation. Just listening to what was said earlier, and the fact that in Wales there is one youth worker— one—it's unbelievable that there's only one youth worker who is fluent in BSL, British Sign Language. It's a scandal, really, that. And 'A Curriculum for Wales, A Curriculum for Life?' —the whole point in having devolution, the whole point in developing Welsh institutions is to be different, to be fair, to be innovative, and we have 'A Curriculum for Wales' saying that they don't want, or that they're not going to make sign language a qualification, which is simply wrong, and there should be a political decision to correct that.

There's an issue of training as well for teachers. I'm told they only go up to level 3; they don't get further training. Deaf teachers don't have access to all teaching methods. The course for teachers for the deaf at the University of South Wales has just been scrapped. There's a huge issue as well about British Sign Language deprivation and the issue of fatigue in school for pupils who have to lip read with difficulty.

I support the recommendations. I think British Sign Language should be a minority language. It should be on the national curriculum and there should be a charter. And I'd maybe like to invite the Minister to visit Cardiff Deaf Creative Hands in this city to see what good work is being done, and maybe you could come along with me, or with the other regional Members, or I'm sure the constituency AM would come along as well. What I'd like you to do this afternoon is to give an undertaking to implement the recommendations of this report. Thank you. [Signs in BSL.

15:45

Deffo! Wales Deaf Youth Forum submitted this petition to improve access to education and services in British Sign Language, or BSL: improving access for families to learn BSL; adding BSL on to the national curriculum; improving access to education in BSL for children and young people; and providing better access to services in BSL, such as health, education, social care and public transport.  

British Sign Language is the UK’s fourth indigenous language, recognised in its own right in 2003, and campaigners are calling for deaf BSL users to be seen as a language minority group. Currently, there are deaf children in Wales in mainstream education with limited access to other deaf peers and communication support. As a result, they leave school at 16 with an average median reading age of nine. They often also have poor speech and lip-reading skills, which hasn't changed since the 1970s, and failures in increased mainstream education are only exacerbating this. Families have limited access to support groups and other similar families, and are unable to learn BSL unless they can afford the high costs involved. There is no opportunity for deaf children and young people or their families to learn their own language, BSL, or even to gain BSL qualifications until they are 16 years old, when they leave school. They've missed out on important life skills, life-changing conversations within the home and local and worldwide news.

Last month, the education Minister announced that modern foreign languages were being included within international languages in the curriculum, and that this would also include BSL. However, BSL is not a foreign language, it is indigenous. The National Deaf Children’s Society have stated that although they appreciate that the structure of the new curriculum will facilitate the ability for schools to teach BSL on the new curriculum, they believe that the Welsh Government could take an active role in encouraging schools to pursue this option. They added that encouraging more schools to teach BSL is crucial, given its status as an official language in Wales. They said that, at present, too many deaf children who are first-language BSL users are being supported in schools by staff who have only a very basic level of Sign. They're very disappointed that a recommendation by the children's commissioner that access to BSL should be made available to all families with deaf children, has not been taken on board, and they said a stronger message is also required to ensure that local authorities start to regard provision for learning BSL as part of their duty in meeting a deaf child's additional learning needs, because they said that, at present, this is simply not happening in practice. 

In response, Deffo! Cymru stated that 

'the GCSE benefits only those in secondary school, whereas learning from nursery will prepare all of those who access BSL for a future GCSE or indeed the current system of Qualifications for BSL'.

Although they welcome the education Minister’s vision for seeing languages taught in schools, they express concern that this is the choice of the school, not the child,

'to enable them to improve access to learning, further education, social skills, leisure pursuits, employment and life fulfilment'.

Twelve days ago, I visited the together creating communities group at St Christopher’s School in Wrexham, at their request, to discuss their work exploring whether Wales could follow Scotland’s lead in implementing BSL into the curriculum.

Deaf constituents in north Wales have e-mailed:

'deaf people who I am advocating are suffering all throughout Wales and many are in mental health crisis',

adding that the British Deaf Association is very much at the forefront of pushing for legal recognition of BSL in Wales, and is asking local authorities and public services to sign up to their charter for BSL, and make five pledges to improve access and rights for deaf BSL users. We have a charter already—let's use it—but presently, only two of the local authorities in Wales have signed up.

Last October, I called on the Welsh Government to respond to calls for BSL legislation in Wales made at the north Wales Lend Me Your Ears 2018 conference, looking at Scotland’s 2015 BSL Act and their 2017 national BSL plan, establishing a national advisory group, including up to 10 deaf people who use BSL as their preferred or first language. Although the Wales Act 2017 reserves equal opportunities to the UK Government, a BSL (Wales) Bill would be compliant if it related to the exceptions listed in it. Without specific rights-based legislation, the Welsh Government’s generic legislation is going nowhere.

15:50

Presiding Officer, I'm very pleased that we're having this debate today. [Signs in BSL.] And I'd like to thank the committee for their work in this area and for its report and the recommendations. I wrote to the Chair last November with the Welsh Government's response, so I do not propose to replicate all that in detail now this afternoon. But to be absolutely clear, the Welsh Government has accepted the recommendations of the report, either in full, or one recommendation in principle, because that recommendation relates also to the issue of qualifications at GCSE level.

The Welsh Government has an independent qualifications body and as Members have referred to, there is already some work that has gone on with Qualifications Wales with regard to a GCSE. The decision was made that a Wales stand-alone GCSE would not be viable, but that an England and Wales GCSE may well come to fruition. In the meantime, it is important to recognise that equivalent qualifications at both level 1 and level 2 are available, and that those qualifications do count towards a school's accountability measure. But I will write to Qualifications for an update on the collaboration that they are having with English examination boards, and I will be happy to put the copy of that letter in the library. 

The Welsh Government formally recognised British Sign Language as a language in its own right in 2004, and I would be the first to recognise that more could be done to develop a co-ordinated approach to the promotion and support for BSL, and work is ongoing in recognition of this. We are continuing to address the issues and difficulties being faced by members of the deaf community in Wales. This includes supporting training to increase the number of qualified interpreters in Wales, and we are in the process of tendering for a review of BSL provision for adults in Wales, which will report in June. We are aware that current provision is limited. It's limited for the offer, it's limited for access and capacity to deliver it too. Despite this, ultimately what is important is that I want to develop a fair and equitable system. So, that review will look at current provision. We will also look at latent demand for BSL provision for adults in Wales, what factors facilitate our Act as a barrier to that demand, and the Welsh Government will consider BSL as an essential communication skill, and, as such, what the cost would be to delivering that to a level 2 and whether we have the workforce to deliver that to a level 2. So, this work will be ongoing, and, as I said, will report in June.

One of the options that we are actively considering is indeed a national charter for the delivery of services and resources to deaf children, young people and their families. We envisage that that charter, between the Welsh Government, local authorities and other partners, would help us understand current provision. It would also reflect the good practice guidance and standards being developed on deafness and hearing loss to support the implementation of our social services and well-being Act. Critically, it would also help us to address the current shortage of interpreters and tutors.

To further assist local authorities in planning their workforce and identifying training needs, we have published data, which we commissioned from the Data Unit Wales, providing information on the local authority-based specialist workforce. Local authorities are indeed responsible for ensuring that BSL is available to children who have been identified as requiring it. However, the new curriculum, which we are rolling out from April, will allow schools to develop curricula that meet the needs and reflect the interests of their pupils. The area of learning and experience for languages, literacy and communication, which is in development, will encompass a wide range of languages, including British Sign Language, which I have never described as a 'foreign language'. 

We also have the benefit of the Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act, which was enacted last year. This will deliver improvements for children with additional learning needs, including those with a hearing impairment. The Act has fairness and equity at its core, and aims to ensure that all learners are supported to reach their full potential, whatever that potential is. The Act is expected to come into force from September 2020, and the phased implementation period will last until 2023. Until then, local authorities must ensure that they continue to comply with the duties placed upon them by the Education Act 1996, and the special educational needs code of practice for Wales.

Alongside legislation, I'm also working to raise the attainment levels of learners with additional needs. Needs should be identified early and addressed quickly so that everyone has the chance, as I said, to reach their potential. I want every pupil to be able to enjoy their education, to be ambitious and to succeed in whatever they choose to do, which is why we have developed a transformation programme along with the ALN Act, because nothing short of transformation is going to be acceptable. I have committed £20 million to this over the course of the Assembly to provide support, advice and challenge to local authorities, schools and early years settings and FE institutions as they prepare for the implementation of the ALN reforms. A substantial amount of the £20 million funding will be directed towards workforce development. In line with our national mission for education, I have allocated £289,000 over three years to support professional training of the local authority-based sensory workforce. This funding includes training in BSL at various levels, and postgraduate training for teachers of the deaf. 

We're also developing a national approach to career-long professional learning—an approach that builds capacity for all practitioners, including teaching support staff, classroom teachers and school leaders. Last autumn, we consulted on draft professional standards for assisting teaching, which we expect to be ready from September this year. Career-long professional learning is one of the five dimensions of these standards, and is relevant to meeting the needs of all learners. The importance of this is referenced in the overarching values and dispositions that accompany the standards. We have ensured that headteachers' responsibilities to facilitate this is contained in their formal leadership standards. 

Our priorities of raising standards, reducing the attainment gap for all students and instilling public confidence in our education system are at the heart of our vision and actions for education in Wales. Every single reform that we're working on together is driven by those three priorities, and delivering on them will ensure that all of our learners and all of our teachers are supported to be the best that they can be. I'm very happy, Presiding Officer, to provide updates to the Assembly once the commissioned report is available. Can I just finish by saying that I'm very happy to support British Sign Language? [Signs in BSL.]

16:00

Can I thank all the Members who contributed to this debate? I apologise for not being able to respond to Members individually, but I'm very much constrained by the time available. I will, therefore, concentrate on the Minister's responses. It is very gratifying to know that you can have BSL in levels 1 and 2, and it's also gratifying to find that there's a £20 million fund now being given—but, again, unfortunately, to local councils with no hypothecated part of that. So, it's patently obvious that local government is not being as responsible as it should be and that they're patently failing to provide BSL opportunities. 

Thank you for taking my question. My question is—. My team and I have been able to acquire the training in BSL through here, the National Assembly for Wales, and our staff development team, who I would like to put on record my thanks to. Would you agree with me that, really, it's incumbent on all of us as Members to, perhaps, look into learning BSL? The staff development team here are more than willing to provide this. I just think that we should all be proficient ourselves as we move along. Thank you.

Well, I absolutely agree with you, Janet, on that basis, but we are talking here about education on a much wider basis, and what we're talking about, really, is the provision of BSL for children in particular within the education system, and the truth of the matter is that there is no specific pathway for these children to take. And I will thank the Minister for the fact that she is saying that we are pursuing the possibility of a GCSE in BSL, but you are following on from what England are doing. Now, we're supposed to be innovative in Wales and, surely, we should be ahead of the game on that basis.

So, in conclusion, Llywydd, I hope that this debate and the petitions process as a whole have been a positive experience for Deffo! and their supporters, and I thank them again for their engagement with the committee and the Assembly as a whole. I hope the Welsh Government will give further consideration to additional points raised by the committee and by other Members who have spoken this afternoon and that the recommendations that the committee has made are followed through in total. Diolch yn fawr.

Thank you. The proposal is to note the committee's report. Does any Member object? The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36. 

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Steel Industry

Item 6 on our agenda this afternoon is the Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv) on the steel industry, and I call on David Rees to move the motion. David. 

Motion NDM6950 David Rees, John Griffiths, Bethan Sayed, Russell George, Suzy Davies, Jayne Bryant, Huw Irranca-Davies, Caroline Jones

Supported by Alun Davies, Dawn Bowden, Jack Sargeant, Mike Hedges, Vikki Howells

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

1. Welcomes the investments made by the Welsh Government to support a sustainable future for the steel industry in Wales in recent years.

2. Recognises the challenges facing the Welsh steel industry following the UK's departure from the EU.

3. Calls on the Welsh Government to continue supporting the Welsh steel sector which is a key industry for the Welsh economy.

4. Calls on the UK Government to address the high costs of energy facing the steel sector in the UK in comparison to electricity costs in the EU.

Motion moved.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the motion in my name. As Members are aware, the steelworks in Port Talbot is the beating heart of my constituency, my home town, and the blast furnances breathe the fire that comes from this Welsh dragon. To be honest, I cannot imagine the skyline of Port Talbot without those blast furnances as part of it. I've never known it to be anything else. So, steel is part of my DNA and is very close to my heart.

Dirprwy Lywydd, it only feels like yesterday that we were debating the future of the steel industry in Wales here in this Chamber—and, I remember, in the Chamber in Tŷ Hywel, when we were recalled—but it's almost three years since the industry was in that critical position. Tata was up for sale, looking at the closure of the Port Talbot works, and the global markets were hitting the steel producers—all of them—hard. And today, I'm pleased to say the industry is in a better position. We must praise the actions of the Welsh Government to get to this point. We've also seen Tata investing in their plants, including Port Talbot. Only today they've had an announcement from the local council in Neath Port Talbot of the approval for plans to reduce dust emissions in the plant. More investment going into the works at Port Talbot. But it also looks to upskill and build the workforce as well, including a vibrant apprenticeships programme in that works—a clear sign that Tata have confidence in the future of our steelworks. The steel industry in Wales, not only in Port Talbot, is a vital part of the Welsh economy and we must protect it.

However, whilst we had hoped that the future of steel making was assured following the actions of the sector and the Welsh Government, we now face up to more challenging times. The high energy costs continue to present difficult economic challenges within the industry, and now the uncertainty of Brexit is making those challenges bigger and deeper. It is critical that at this time all parties work together to secure the future of steel as it once again hits uncertain times, ensuring that we safeguard the local economies of Port Talbot, Llanelli, Cardiff, Newport and Shotton, let alone protecting our industrial skylines.

During the recent difficult times that our steel communities have experienced, the Welsh Labour Government's focus has been on securing a successful and sustainable future for the steel industry in Wales, one that targets the retention of steel production and jobs. They've invested in all three major steel makers, provided support for research and development, given a commitment to decarbonisation, and continued support for employees. The Welsh Labour Government has demonstrated that they will not abandon the steel industry here in Wales.

However, the challenges being posed to the sector by Brexit and high energy costs cannot be resolved by the Welsh Government. It is now time that a commitment from the UK Government is given to steel producers and their employees. They want assurances that the steel industry will not be forgotten during Brexit and the UK Government will finally deliver on the promises of tackling the disparity on energy costs between the UK and the EU. These are the areas I will concentrate on today, but I'm sure there will be more. Otherwise, I'll be here all afternoon. I don't intend to, Dirprwy Lywydd. 

Just two weeks ago, steel producers and trade union reps attended the steel cross-party group here in the Assembly, which I chair. In that meeting, we heard damning evidence from the sector about the disadvantages they face on a daily basis when it comes to energy costs. This was further compounded this week by UK Steel's annual report on energy costs here in the UK compared to France and Germany. In 2017, the Tory manifesto committed the Westminster Government to seek delivery of the lowest energy costs in Europe for both domestic and industrial consumers. Two years later, the industry is still waiting. In 2018, the same Tory Government released its industrial strategy, which once again promised to make the UK the best place to start and grow a business, yet steel was a byline in that document. 

There has been some action since then on energy efficiency. However, no amount of energy efficiency improvement will counteract having to pay 50 per cent to 100 per cent more for your electricity than your competitors. At our CPG, we were told that energy costs in the UK are 110 per cent higher than France and 55 per cent higher than Germany. There are worries that this is going to get worse, not better. Support at £65 per MWh was needed to close today's gap, let alone what may happen in the future. 

We have argued for many years that all our steelworkers are asking for is a level playing field, to make them competitive in a global marketplace. Our steelworkers, in my view, are the best in the world, and their commitment to the industry over recent years shows that they can play their part. But they need the UK Government to step up to the plate now. They want the UK Government to actually respond to UK Steel's report on energy costs. That outlines nine measures for the UK Government to implement immediately in order to give the industry a fighting chance in the changing global economy.

To give the UK Government incentive to take action, the UK's five largest steel producers made a firm and direct commitment that all savings on electricity costs would be put back into the industry in the UK, thus delivering cost parity with Germany, which would deliver a £55 million a year investment over and above business as usual. This represents a 30 per cent increase. With this commitment from the steel sector, to me, it's a no-brainer that the UK Government should join in. Such funding would provide vital research and development funding for the industry in years ahead, particularly as we will see the loss of around £40 million a year from the coal and steel research grant administered by the EU, which, as I mentioned last week, will be paid back to the UK Government's Treasury. This money was paid into the EU by the steel and coal industry and is money that they are entitled to and should have full access to, yet the UK Government has refused to ring-fence this for those industries. Research and development is vital as we move ahead to ensure that we stay ahead of global competitors. In the UK, we have seen fantastic research and development initiatives going ahead, particularly here in Wales, and I'm sure colleagues may want to mention some of that, especially as it's in my constituency. Now, I find this absolutely appalling. I want to continue to fight alongside the industry to ensure that this money—money that is actually from the industry itself—is going back to the industry. It belongs there, it should stay there post Brexit. I'm sorry, Dirprwy Lywydd—it does lead me on to the B word. I hoped to get away with it this week, but there we are.

On Monday, UK Steel published its report, 'Implications of a No-Deal Brexit for UK Steel Companies'—genuine fears of a 'no deal' Brexit. And I appreciate that we're not there yet, but it's looking more likely. In that report, they identified seven key areas that would be impacted upon to different levels as a result of Brexit: movement of goods, EU tariffs, free trade agreements and non-EU tariffs, rules of origin—which sometimes we forget about—trade remedies, safeguards and research and development. I'm not gong to discuss all of those in this contribution, but I'll just focus on three, which are some blatant and obvious ones: movement of goods, rules of origin and safeguards. And they'll have a direct impact on the steel industry in my constituency in Port Talbot, because 30 per cent of the steel from Port Talbot goes to the automotive industry, 80 per cent of that being UK based, which sounds positive—here it is in the UK, so we don't have to worry about it—but when you put the fact that those cars are exported to the EU, and those cars will be subject to tariffs, then you can see the impact. We saw only this weekend the decision of Nissan to reduce or remove the X-Trail production here, Nissan being a possible client of Tata. I know they do the Juke, but here we have a situation where again we're seeing the automotive industry moving away from the UK.

Now, that has major implications for Welsh steel being sold on the global market, because we want to see more Welsh steel on the global market as a consequence of that, and that is going to be challenging. Now, this exported steel will be subject to EU tariffs if we have no deal, and the tariff is estimated between 4 per cent and 5 per cent. We currently export 2.6 million tonnes to the EU, and Turkey will want to grab some of that marketplace. We export 300,000 tonnes of steel to them, and they could actually impose 15 per cent more tariffs on top of that. So, if there's a deal, no risk. If there's no deal, we have some serious trouble, and we will also be facing tariffs of the US and other countries, and even facing EU tariffs, because we have no protection anymore. These are really disastrous possibilities.

A 'no deal' Brexit will see UK steel or UK-manufactured components—because don't forget, steel goes into components and other aspects, and there are your rules of origin coming in—. Therefore, EU manufacturers will look at exactly how much steel is in their components, because where the rules of origin will take place, will they have to reduce UK steel for EU steel? You might say Tata has places in both, but we are looking at the industry here in Wales, and it will impact on the industry here in Wales. Now, I do know the UK Government is looking to replicate the existing EU free trade agreements, and as a result, 50 per cent of a car produced in the UK is made of UK steel. It will be subject to tariffs, and we've got to look at that very carefully.

Dirprwy Lywydd, we need to protect safeguards, combined with various tariffs. I'm concerned a little bit about the Trade Bill and the trade remedies in that, because 97 per cent of our current exports go out under EU FTAs and if we don't have protection there, we will be facing real challenges. To conclude my contribution, Dirprwy Lywydd, UK steel is on a precipice once more, I'm afraid. I am proud that this is a Welsh Labour Government that has been proactive, but I'm worried that the UK Government is failing our industry. For me, it's time they stood up and acted to save our steel industry. They didn't last time, and now it's time to do it. Our fantastic steelworkers want it, our producers want it, and our local communities deserve it.

16:10

Can I just being by saying I absolutely agree with you that we have the best steelworkers in the world here and they deserve the attention that we're giving them now? Because we're talking about a foundational industry for the UK economy, particularly for Wales, particularly for my region, and while we now recognise maybe the dangers of entire communities relying on one industry, such as in places like Port Talbot, contemplating the loss of production as collateral damage in a changing world is just simply not an option.

For me, I think the risks of steel dumping and not controlling controllable costs are the most clear and present dangers, followed by inertia or barriers that could affect the opportunity for Wales to carve out a space for itself in the fast-moving world of innovation. That's an aspect of Brexit that I think it would be a mistake to overlook at a time when the main story is tariffs. Here, as David mentioned, the effect of the country of origin classification for steel and steel products is a massive post-Brexit headache for which we need a cure before it infests the rest of the economy. And while US protectionism may have initially have been seen by workers as more of a threat to the production at the Ford plant in my region than Brexit, now with the UK steel industry so dependent on a flourishing automotive industry, can it really fight a war on two fronts? I think the UK Steel briefing paper, which had some courage today, is pretty clear about why a 'no deal' Brexit is bad news for steel.

Because the UK Government—you know, it's not responsible for China being able to produce steel at a price that's probably the lowest on the planet, I would imagine. So, I'm pleased that this debate isn't framed just in a simple, 'Let's get the UK Government' way. But I think the UK Government needs to understand as well that Welsh Conservatives, apart from expecting an exit agreement, a deal on that, expect trade deals as well to prevent unfair competition and any steel dumping here. Because Wales, as we heard, produces over half the UK's steel, and it's Welsh communities, therefore, that are the most vulnerable. 

The other controllable cost, of course, is energy, which David Rees also mentioned. But there's a serious question here about how to prioritise. I hope we all welcomed the UK Government's recent limitation on domestic energy charging—consumers must now be told where they can get the cheapest deals—and that happened more or less at the same time as every single one of us here in this Chamber was standing up and saying, 'Let's have a Swansea bay tidal lagoon', which I still think was a great idea, but, despite it's many, many benefits, what it didn't do was produce cheap electricity. The same points are hovering over Wylfa and, of course, Hinkley Point at the time. We're asking now for cheaper electricity for heavy industry; it blooming well needs it, but, with no control over oil prices, which affects fuel prices, how can we help the UK Government—[Interruption.]—just let me finish this—prioritise these competing calls on its energy policy?

16:15

I thank the Member for taking the intervention. I agree and understand that point, but it is possible, if the UK Government was prepared to put investment into Tata, for example, to look at how we can recycle the waste gases. It could become self-sustainable, therefore it doesn't rely upon oil or gas prices outside because it can do it itself. 

You've predicted what I'm about to say next, David. Because, in the meantime, the sector will want to know what all the actors in this space can do to overcome the fact that they're paying twice as much for their electricity as French steel makers. So, I'm actually really encouraged that Tata's taking a lead on this—already some distance down the recycling of energy within the plant itself, and, of course, if both Welsh Government and, indeed, UK Government stick with the programme, then there'll be money going to ensure that the power station is actually completed and contributing to much cheaper and, of course, actually, just more sustainable energy production. 

Personally, I'd like to see a bit more progress on the UK steel sector deals—you know, it was finally hauled out as something important. But I want to come back to this essential and perhaps more optimistic opportunity for Wales to be seen as a centre of research and development, excellence and innovation in steel. We can look at a small country like Israel, not that much bigger in terms of population than us, and it is soaring ahead in all areas of innovation across a number of sectors despite a more deeply rooted challenge about security and identity than Brexit is presenting to us.

While I share David Rees's concerns about the EU research fund for coal and steel, I agree with you actually—because it was levied from that sector it should be returned to that sector. But Wales has got to be ready for that. This is where we look to Welsh Government for action and the Welsh sector itself. We've got the UK's industrial energy fund, the new £66 million transforming foundation industry challenge fund just to be announced, and we'd like Welsh Government to be seizing all those opportunities to push its own decarbonisation agenda as well as helping the steel industry directly.

And while the Government perhaps is dragging its heels on the Reid review recommendations, which would help raise our status as a quality research nation, we already know that the city deal is committed to the national steel innovation centre, building on the success of the Swansea University steel and metals institute. And while I accept, Minister, you can't just roll over on things like this, you can't let small squabbles over land hold up big progress. We are looking at a big picture that's facing big challenges. I think you could score some big brownie points by tackling some of the smaller barriers that might be threatening steel's sustainability here in Wales. Thank you. 

Thank you, David Rees, for tabling the motion. I speak both on behalf of Bethan Sayed, who's one of the signatories of the motion, and as Plaid Cymru spokesman on the economy.

And our commitment to the steel industry I think has been clear enough, not least through the fact that elements of support provided to Tata Steel from Welsh Government have come about through co-operation between our two parties. We've been clear, I think, before, during and since the crisis at Tata Steel in 2016 that securing the future of the industry is vital, is crucial, if we want Wales to remain a centre of manufacturing and industry. And Bethan Sayed went so far as to say that she didn't want to live in a Wales that didn't have any steel making, so central the industry is to our economic past and economic future. Every economically successful nation needs an industrial sphere to prosper.

So, we've been eager to put pressure on and to work with Welsh Government on steel, because we know that, although we may have disagreements, there are areas where, if we can co-operate, then we should for the benefit of people in this country. Co-operation with the Government on this and a cross-party approach has meant that critical funding, such as the £30 million to support an upgraded power station facility for Tata Steel at Port Talbot, was secured, improving generation, lowering emissions, helping to control the costs of energy, a major financial burden on steel making, as we've already heard. And, incidentally, I reiterate Plaid Cymru's longstanding support for establishing a national energy company, which we believe could help things further, but something, so far, the Labour Government has continued to resist.

But, as much as we welcome the thrust of this motion, perhaps it doesn't quite reflect just how vulnerable a position our steel and wider industrial sector finds itself in. But, certainly, Dai Rees, in presenting the motion today, has expressed concerns that we also share here. I think we're beyond apologising for using the B word by now—it comes up in everything that we do. We are heading towards the EU exit. We're hurtling towards that exit without a deal in place, or any sort of customs and market access protection or agreement. The Trump administration, if we want to look at what's happening in the United States, continues its damaging and short-sighted use of tariffs to make political points, particularly on products such as steel. And the UK will soon find itself in an increasingly precarious world economic environment without our European partners standing alongside us. So, I think firm foundations and having firm foundations for our steel industry now are more important than ever.

We are in a very different position to the one we found ourselves in 2016. Tata Steel merged with a major European steel company, ThyssenKrupp. I look forward to hearing from the Minister, hopefully, about the kinds of long-term assurances that he and Welsh Government have received, the kinds of assurances that we now require, about the new company's commitment to their sites in Wales. At the moment, it's fair to say that we can be encouraged that some of the investments being made by the steel sector seem to be for the longer term; they do suggest an expectation of continuing steel making in Wales over, say, the next decade at least. But it's essential, of course, that Welsh Government remains focused. It cannot afford in any way to take its eye off the ball on steel making. Our current circumstances are unclear. There's much confusion about the direction in which we're heading, lack of certainty, and things look uncertain for the whole industrial and manufacturing sector across the UK.

But I'm very concerned about, as Dai Rees said, what news emerging from the automotive industry could mean for the steel makers that supply it. These are major questions and of huge significance to the future of the Welsh economy. So, hopefully, when the Minister replies, he can offer us some assurances that this will remain a priority for this Government over the long term, so that steel continues to be recognised as the anchor industry it quite frankly must be and remain for the wider Welsh economy.

16:25

I'd first of all like to thank David Rees for tabling this debate today, and it's a pleasure to take part. Steel is in the blood of my region. It was at the heart of the industrial revolution and transformed south Wales into the world’s powerhouse. Without the steelworks, large parts of South Wales West wouldn’t exist. Port Talbot grew out of this revolution to become one of Britain’s most significant steel producers. The steelworks' location gave it an advantage as production moved from utilising poorer quality British iron ore to higher quality source material from overseas.

The history of iron making in the Port Talbot area extends back to the thirteenth century, when the Lord of North Cornelly granted the monks of Margam Abbey the rights to extract iron and lead ores from his lands. Neighbouring landowner Philip de Cornelly also granted monks the rights to produce iron from the ores extracted from his lands. Iron production continued down the centuries until the advent of the industrial revolution, when a new dock was created to facilitate the import of ores and the export of finished products. The dock was named after its builder, Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, and became known as Port Talbot. One hundred and eighty-odd years later, Port Talbot is still dependent upon steel production. Living in the shadow of the steelworks, the plant not only dominates the horizon but also the very psyche of our town. At one stage you either worked at the plant or knew someone who did. Nowadays, fewer people may work at the steelworks, but it is still responsible for the employment of many in the region due to the wider supply chain that has sprung up around Port Talbot.

The decline in steel production has been a major concern in recent years as the global market has become flooded with inferior steel from China and with the US embarking on a trade war at the behest of its protectionist President. It was therefore an enormous relief when the first roll of coiled steel came off the line following the refit of blast furnace 5 at Port Talbot.

Tata Steel’s £50 million investment underlines the firm’s commitment to the plant, the people who work there and the wider community. It is now up to the Welsh and UK Governments to work together to ensure the plant’s long-term future. Tata have shown their commitment, and Government must do the same. Steel is as vital to the UK’s infrastructure as it is to Port Talbot, and the Governments here in Cardiff and at the other end of the M4 must do all they can to ensure the UK remains a steel producer.

Post Brexit we must have a level playing field when it comes to tariffs. The EU must resist the urge to punish the UK for having the temerity to leave. Rationally speaking, tariffs harm both sides. I urge the UK Government to pursue fair, tariff-free trade agreements with the rest of the world, opening up new markets for our high-quality Welsh steel. We might not be able to compete with Chinese steel on price, but we can certainly beat them on quality. Tata have renewed their faith in Port Talbot, and it’s now up to the UK Government to level this playing field and ensure a cast-iron future for steel making in South Wales West.

We need cheaper energy, free access to international markets and a commitment to the use of Welsh steel in new infrastructure projects. The UK Government must step up to the bar and work with the Welsh Government to ensure our steelworks are protected. My neighbours and their families are dependent on employment at Port Talbot steelworks. Tata are doing their bit, and the workers also, and the workers work long, long hours to secure the future also. Now it is the turn of both Governments to work together, and post Brexit we must all work together and ensure Wales is not worse off by one single penny. 

Can I also begin by saying that I'm very pleased to support today's motion? And thank you to David Rees, my colleague, for bringing forward this debate but not only bringing forward today's debate, but your continuous commitment towards the Welsh steel industry through your work both in the Chamber and the cross-party group. I'm very pleased to speak in this debate today and to stand up for the steel industry as a whole, but particularly steel making in Shotton in my constituency, which produces many quality steel products, such as galvanised, metallic and pre-finished steels.

Deputy Llywydd, I must say that when I saw that this debate was tabled, it took me back to the date it was tabled and my by-election campaign last year, during which I made a commitment to standing up for steel, for the steel industry. So, I think it's pleasing to say, one year on, I can come here and stand up for our Welsh steel industry. It also took me back to the Save Our Steel campaign and the work that my dad did at the time to stand up for the industry and the workers, particularly in that site in Shotton. Developments in the steel industry were rightly one of the most high-profile political issues of 2016, and I vividly remember him working day and night, contacting the trade union officials and lobbying hard to both the Welsh and UK Governments to support the very important industry. Everyone who supported that campaign knows how important the industry is to Shotton, but to Wales and the UK as a whole, as David Rees has rightly highlighted on many, many occasions.

As we all know, Deeside's darkest day occurred in March 1980, when British Steel, after a decade of battering union and political pressure, axed 6,500 jobs at Shotton steel. It was the biggest industrial redundancy on a single day in western Europe, and entire families faced redundancy; communities were ruined. The impact on the industry for our area and the whole of Wales is massive. The Welsh economy research unit at Cardiff University found that the total economic impact of Tata was £3.2 billion in Wales per year, which supported a gross value added of £1.6 billion. Tata contributes £200 million in wages to the Welsh economy each year, and each job at Tata supports an additional 1.22 jobs throughout the Welsh economy.

Deputy Llywydd, let's not forget that steel is either in every single product or in every single process in our current world, so the steel industry rightly deserves all the support it can get. And I'm proud of the Welsh Government, and I think the Welsh Government has a great track record of backing the steel industry, and I know that, under the guidance of Mark and Ken, it will continue to do so. But it's clear to me that support shouldn't just happen when crisis hits, and the UK Government, as many Members have said from across this Chamber, can learn and should learn from lessons of the past.

In closing, Deputy Llywydd, I do want to take time to mention the workers in the steel industry, especially those working at Shotton. I've had the pleasure to visit the site on quite a few occasions, and I know that, just last year, we took many Members from my party up to the site as well. And it's clear to me that the workers are extremely proud of what they are doing and what they're achieving day in, day out, and I'm proud of the contribution the industry makes to my community and to the whole of Wales. So, in closing, my final message is a message to the workers within the steel industry: we will in this Chamber keep fighting for you in this difficult time, and we thank you for everything you do to improve our Welsh economy. Diolch.

16:30

Diolch Dirprwy Lywydd, and can I thank all Members for their contributions to this important debate today? This motion is most welcome and also very consistent with the Welsh Government's position on the steel industry, and so it's my pleasure to support it. I especially enjoyed the many reflections on the history of our steel-making activities here in Wales, with David Rees, Jack Sargeant and Caroline Jones providing some great assessments of the social as well as economic value of our steelworks. I think David Rees welcomed the work of Welsh Government in saving our steel, but he also made the very important point that we, once again, find ourselves standing near a precipice. We've debated many times in this Chamber the principal challenges that impact on the steel sector, and these include, of course, uncompetitive industrial electricity prices, global overcapacity and unfair international steel trading practices. These matters continue to be of huge concern to the sector, but as many Members this afternoon have identified, we now have considerable uncertainty about Brexit. The US section 232 tariffs on steel have highlighted the importance of ensuring the steel sector is safeguarded from unfair international trading practices. We've ensured the concerns of the steel producers in Wales have been raised at the highest level in Westminster.

After the UK and Ireland, the primary market for UK-produced steel is, of course, Europe. When we exit the EU, it is therefore vital that the steel industry in Wales is not disadvantaged through unnecessary trade barriers such as additional customs, tariffs, quotas or technical barriers to trade. The steel sector is highly dependent on free trade, but, equally importantly, on the rules such as trade remedies that underpin this free trade. It's also important, Deputy Presiding Officer, to emphasise the steel industry will be impacted by any disruption in its supply chain as a result of Brexit, including, importantly, in the auto sector, as Suzy Davies and Rhun ap Iorwerth identified. Indeed, the first two rolls of steel that came from blast furnace 5 last week were destined for auto manufacturers in the west midlands and north of England. And I heard for myself just last week the sector's concerns at the Cross-Party Group on Steel. The sector has been engaging directly with the UK Government's Department for International Trade to raise its concerns and to emphasise the importance of ensuring future trade remedies in the UK are robust.

The Welsh Government is in regular dialogue with the UK Government on Brexit, and we are making the case for them to provide as much certainty as possible for Welsh industries, including, of course, the steel industry. The impact of the UK industrial electricity price disparity with other countries, especially with regard to France and Germany, is another issue that we continue to raise with the UK Government and which Members this afternoon have identified. This is of utmost importance if the sector is to compete on a level playing field internationally and if it is to attract investment in plant and research and development. This is being reinforced by the most recent statistics published by the UK Government, which show that the UK has the highest industrial electricity prices in the EU. For extra large industrial users, prices are 90 per cent—90 per cent above the EU median.

Now, it was a pleasure to visit Tata Steel's Port Talbot works last week alongside the First Minister to mark the re-lighting of blast furnace 5. The completion of this project marks a substantial investment in the future of the plant and in its workforce, and demonstrates Tata Steel's commitment to sustaining steel making in Wales. In June 2018, Tata Steel announced it signed a definitive agreement to enter into a joint venture with Thyssenkrupp. This is currently subject to regulatory examination by the European Commission. However, meanwhile, we continue our engagement with Tata Steel UK regarding further potential supporting relations to enable their operation to become more sustainable for the long term. To date, we have offered £17 million of funding across Tata Steel's Welsh operations that support skills development in the workforce and, of course, an £8 million investment in the Port Talbot power plant.

Many Members in this Chamber, alongside Tata Steel, recognise the importance of increasing levels of research and development for the long-term sustainability of the business, and our support includes over £600,000 of funding for research and development in new product development alone. And our economic action plan has been designed, in part, to help Wales develop new platforms and new partnerships between Government, universities, colleges, businesses and so forth that might enable us to target more competitively awarded funding in UK industrial strategy challenge funding. There are clear synergies between our economic action plan and the UK Government's industrial strategy. Wave three of the industrial strategy challenge fund includes two challenges particularly relevant to the steel sector: firstly, a £170 million challenge focused on decarbonising industrial clusters, and as Suzy Davies said, a £66 million challenge transforming foundation industries. We are working with the sector to take advantage of these and other opportunities available from the UK Government.

The UK steel sector has identified public sector procurement as a key core action that Government could take to strengthen the sector and to improve its ability to compete, and in January last year, we published a procurement advice note supporting the sourcing and procurement of sustainable steel in construction and infrastructure projects here in Wales. This is part of our ongoing commitment to support the long-term viability of steel making in Wales, and is designed to encourage the widest use possible of Welsh and UK steel in public sector contracts.

Dirprwy Lywydd, to conclude, I fully recognise the ongoing challenges that steel companies in Wales face, particularly given the uncertainty caused by Brexit, but equally, I can assure the steel sector that this Welsh Government will continue to work at its side to ensure a long-term future for all steelworks in Wales, and I am pleased to support this afternoon's motion.

16:40

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. May I begin by thanking all Members who've taken part and contributed to this debate? I do feel that there can be little doubt of Members' commitment to the steel industry in Wales, regularly evidenced in this Chamber in debates and at questions in general.

Obviously, foremost amongst those contributions, always, is Dai Rees's, so it was entirely fitting that David Rees opened this debate today. I would like to join Jack Sargeant in paying tribute to David Rees for his work on the cross-party group and his general commitment. I think we all realise very well, through David's contributions, the importance of Port Talbot steelworks to his constituency and his determination to fight the cause to ensure that everything that might be done is done by Welsh Government, by UK Government and by the industry, working with the trade unions and the workforce to ensure that those jobs are safeguarded and developed for the future. It's certainly a commitment and a strength of feeling that I can readily understand, representing Newport East with the Llanwern steelworks, and also important steel players in my constituency, such as Cogent and Liberty Steel. We need to protect those jobs to develop the industry and bring new investment and new jobs for the future, and that is a matter of working with the industry, Government at different levels, the trade unions and the workforce. Those are the messages that we've heard today and I think we very regularly hear, and rightly so.

There are some very common themes within that general debate, Dirprwy Lywydd. Newly, I guess, is the importance of Brexit and avoiding the huge risks of a 'no deal' Brexit. There are some very big issues involved in Brexit, per se, but much bigger risks involved in a 'no deal' Brexit, and that's been made crystal clear by UK Steel recently, but further back, also, by the trade unions, by Members here and by Ken Skates as the relevant Minister. There can be little doubt that the crippling uncertainty, as it's been described, Dirprwy Lywydd, is hugely destabilising for the industry and in terms of planning for the future. There are particular worries around the automotive industry, as we've heard, the situation with tariffs, with research fund moneys and a great deal else besides. Obviously, the sooner we get to some degree of certainty around those issues, the better for all concerned.

The high cost of energy also always, and rightly, features in these debates and it has again today. I think we are, all of us, Dirprwy Lywydd, very conscious of that disparity, that unfairness in competition between the UK steel industry and the steel industry in other countries and the need for the UK Government to finally get to grips with those issues. We have seen investment in energy efficiency; we are seeing important moves towards the generation of energy by the industry itself, as we've heard, and that's an important matter for Liberty Steel, for example, in Newport, where they have important plans for the current Uskmouth power station. So, the industry is taking the steps that it can itself, but it needs that help from UK Government.

I very much welcome the Minister's recognition of all of those issues and reassurance again of Welsh Government's commitment to work with the industry, to work with the trade unions, to work with Members here to meet these challenges. Procurement, as the Minister mentioned, again is another absolutely central matter for necessary progress, and I welcome the new development of policy and strategy by Welsh Government, which I think is very promising and we will all want to see delivery on. 

Dirprwy Lywydd, the investment by Tata, you know, is a great statement of confidence for the future of the steel industry in Wales, and we all welcome that, and the workforce very much welcomes that. So, what we need to do, in terms of Government action, is to play our part. As has been said in this debate, Welsh Government has stepped up to the plate as far as that is concerned. UK Government also has a very important role, and we need to see UK Government step up to that plate also.

16:45

Thank you very much. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

7. Welsh Conservatives Debate: Regional Economic Inequality

The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Rebecca Evans, and amendments 2, 3, 4 and 5 in the name of Rhun ap Iorwerth. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected.

Item 7 on the agenda is the Welsh Conservative debate on regional economic inequality, and I call on Russell George to move the motion.

Motion NDM6959 Darren Millar

1. Notes that regional economic inequality remains stark across Wales, as evident in the latest GVA figures.

2. Regrets that the Welsh Government’s policies have failed to address economic inequalities between regions in Wales.

3. Welcomes the contribution that the Cardiff city region deal, the Swansea Bay city region deal, a north Wales growth deal and a mid Wales growth deal will make to addressing regional inequality in Wales.

4. Calls on the Welsh Government to:

a) work constructively with the UK Government to deliver growth deals in Wales;

b) review the economic action plan to incorporate a strategy to grow wages and economic prosperity in all parts of Wales and address economic inequalities between regions; and

c) promote a regional development policy post Brexit which supports deprived communities across Wales, including those outside west Wales and the valleys.

Motion moved.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion in the name of my colleague Darren Millar. There is quite a bit we can agree with in the Government's motion today, but we can't support it because it deletes the entirety of our motion. We will not be supporting amendments 2 or 5, but we will be supporting amendment 3, and are interested in hearing more detail on the Plaid Cymru proposal for a regional investment Bill, which is contained within their amendment 4.

Deputy Presiding Officer, economic output per person varies widely across Wales. There is a marked contrast between gross value added per capita in the north and the south-east corners of Wales, our Valleys communities, and our rural communities in mid and north Wales. If I can give some examples of this, gross value added per capita in Anglesey is just under half that of Cardiff, and numerous regions of Wales lag behind the wealthier parts of the nation. There is also a clear geographical division in wealth in Wales, and there is also, sadly, an urban and rural divide. The latest figures indicate that Wales's less well-off regions and local authority areas are subject to very poor growth rates, and this is, of course, the responsibility of the Welsh Government. We need to put in place an economic strategy capable of both closing the gap and improving the economic fortunes of Wales as a whole. By contrast, some poor and very economically challenged regions of England saw growth in GVA per capita, so it's simply not correct to say, as in amendment 2—what the Government is trying to accomplish—that it's the UK Government's economic policies that are contributing to these internal regional inequalities within Wales. And it's clear that despite similar structural challenges, many poor regions of England are experiencing robust growth, while similar regions of Wales are not only failing to grow at a significant rate, but some are actually contracting, which is very, of course, concerning. So, I simply don't accept Plaid Cymru's argument that it is somehow the UK Government's economic policies that are a contributing factor towards this. 

Let's look closer, also, to home, to the Welsh Government's economic policy over the last 20 years. There have been a number of drivers here. We've already had, of course, three major economic strategies launched by the Welsh Government since the creation of this Welsh Parliament. And I put it forward today: all have failed to boost the regional growth, failed to drive forward Wales's economic Welsh economy, and failed to create sufficiently well-paid jobs, and failed to create productivity. Wales is currently the weakest, slowest growing economy in the UK, still lagging behind Scotland considerably. I don't think any of us in this Chamber want to see that, so I don't say that with any satisfaction. We want that to change. Firms that have invested in this country should have been integrated into domestic supply chains in order to help embed that outside investment in local communities, and I just believe that the Welsh Government has failed to properly capture that inward investment, which has meant that their strategy has failed to close the economic gap between Wales's regions and also failed to increase prosperity in Wales in general. For example, despite huge injections, of course, of public funds into our enterprise zones across Wales, they have failed to deliver on their key objectives. The zones were meant to build capacity in specific sectors of the Welsh economy, including manufacturing, energy and professional services. They were are also intended to attract firms to certain areas of the economy as well. There have been some examples of successful areas within the enterprise zones, but it's a mixed bag. That's what I would contend. But the economic data makes it clear that enterprise zones and their associated funding have not made the impact on economic growth that we would have expected.

So, on these benches, we also do welcome the contribution that the Cardiff, Swansea bay, north Wales and mid Wales growth deals will make to addressing regional inequality in Wales, and I'm sure that the Minister will agree with that. These city and growth deals represent a game-changing, I think, approach to regional development because they have the potential to help develop small and medium-sized enterprises, larger firms and transport infrastructure across Welsh local authorities. And I do give an example, of course: last week, the Growing Mid Wales partnership visited the Senedd to showcase their produce and services from businesses across Powys and Ceredigion. That was a great opportunity, I thought, to underline the need for public investment and growth for a mid Wales growth deal. I thank the Minister for meeting the delegation, meeting businesses, and speaking at that event as well. These growth deals, of course, have a strong regional focus and are centred on building collaborative partnerships between neighbouring local authorities in order to raise that regional growth and prosperity. And I am grateful, also, to the Minister for the way that he has engaged with me and other stakeholders on this issue. And in this motion, we call on the Welsh Government to continue to build a positive, open and collaborative relationship with the UK Government and major UK civil service departments to help enable long-term success for the growth deal initiatives across Wales.

Deputy Presiding Officer, the Minister wouldn't expect me to heap too much praise on him, and, in concluding, there are a number of areas where we feel that the Welsh Government's approach to economic policy must be improved significantly. The Welsh Government's economic action plan rightly begins to turn Welsh Government attention towards boosting business support for Wales's SMEs, consolidating that finance mechanism together, improving public procurement and strengthening the Welsh supply chain. However, I contend that it must also be developed further to ensure that it outlines clearly how its central themes and content will help raise wages in Wales going forward. The new regional offices also need appropriate resourcing and their work plans must dovetail with existing policy measures to boost regional growth. And there needs to be greater funding, I think, for business support in Wales also, going forward, in my view. So, while the economic action plan represents a welcomed change in the direction in relation to Welsh Government approach to developing the Welsh economy, there are many areas that must be bolted on to that strategy if Wales's regions are to prosper and the economy of Wales is to thrive going forward. I look forward to Members' contributions in this debate this afternoon and remain open-minded, again, to Plaid's amendment 4, with regard to which way that we may vote this afternoon.

16:50

Thank you. I have selected the five amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. I call on the Minister for Economy and Transport to formally move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Rebecca Evans. 

16:55

Amendment 1—Rebecca Evans

Delete all and replace with:

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

1. Recognises the importance of strong, resilient regional economies across all parts of Wales as a driver of inclusive growth

2. Notes the cross-government measures set out in the Economic Action Plan including the appointment of Chief Regional Officers and teams in Welsh Government to support Regional Economic Development across Wales

3. Notes the important role for City and Growth Deals in driving regional economic growth when they are coordinated alongside wider interventions such as infrastructure, transport and skills.

4. Notes the recent announcement that the OECD is supporting the development of regional economic development policy in Wales based on international best practice

5. Calls on the UK Government to address inequalities in infrastructure funding between the nations and regions of the UK and do more to spread investment opportunities equitably across the country

6. Calls on the UK Government to respect the devolution settlement and ensure that strategic decisions relating to the management and administration of replacement structural funding to address regional economic inequalities are made by the Welsh Government.

7. Notes the development of regional indicative budgets for Economy and Transport investment across Wales.

Amendment 1 moved.

Thank you. I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to move amendment 2, 3, 4 and 5, tabled in his own name.

Amendment 2—Rhun ap Iorwerth

Delete point 2 and replace with:

Notes that the UK Government's policy of austerity, along with the Welsh Government's mismanagement, has led to a large increase in economic inequalities between Wales's regions.

Amendment 3—Rhun ap Iorwerth

In sub-point (a) in point 4, after 'the UK Government' insert 'and local authorities'.

Amendment 4—Rhun ap Iorwerth

Add as new point at end of motion:

Calls for a regional investment bill, with the aim of ensuring fair financial investment across all of Wales.

Amendment 5—Rhun ap Iorwerth

Add new points at the end of the motion:

Welcomes the fact that the Arfor project board has held its first meeting and has agreed on an outline programme of activities for the next two years.

Notes the fact that £2 million has been earmarked in the budget for secretariat support and investment  for Arfor during 2018-19 and 2019-20 as Plaid Cymru's budget priority with the Welsh Government.

Confirms the importance of maximising the undeniable link between economic prosperity and linguistic prosperity in Welsh-speaking western areas of Wales.

Amendments 2, 3, 4 and 5 moved.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I’m pleased to participate in this debate. May I thank the Conservatives for bringing this topic forward today? Given that I have the job of trying to persuade the Conservatives to support our amendment 4, I’m sure I shouldn’t say anything too negative about the Conservatives, but I’m afraid that I do have to start by pointing out the irony that the Conservatives have brought a motion forward criticising the Welsh Government for its failure in creating equality and regional balance in Wales, when the Conservatives’ own record, like the Labour Party, one has to say, at the UK level, is one of having created an unprecedented level of inequality.

In a way, what the Conservatives are saying today is that Wales is unique within the UK in terms of the kind of inequality that exists. But if you look at the inequalities within Britain as compared to many of our European partners, Britain, or the United Kingdom, is far more unequal, economically speaking, than Italy, although Italy is known as a state where inequality is rife, with a traditional difference between the prosperous north and the poorer south. Britain is less equal than Germany, where still, after a quarter of a century or more, there is great inequality between the old east and the west, where the gross domestic product of the east is still only around two thirds of the GDP of the west. But the UK is still not achieving the same levels of equality.

If we look at the reality within the UK, at the sub-regional level, the per capita output is eight times greater in the west of London than in the west of Wales and the Valleys. There is no similar difference anywhere else in the European Union, so, I’m sorry, the Conservatives can’t argue that in some way they are a party that promotes economic equality, because the Conservatives, as a British party, and Labour, as a British party, have failed to secure that kind of equality that I want to see in Wales in the future. I am confident in Wales’s ability of being a nation state that can aim towards that sort of equality that is only a pipe dream at a UK level. The last thing I want to see is Wales in some way becoming a nation where we have inequality within our own nation that would be similar to what exists within the UK more widely. I don't—[Interruption.] Yes, of course. 

I understand and appreciate what you're saying, but you're also suggesting that both us on these benches and Labour benches are UK parties and you're a Welsh party, yet our motion is about the inequalities in Wales. We're just talking about the inequalities across the country.

It is incumbent on me to point out the irony in the position that you take as a party that has wholesale failed completely to introduce the kind of equality on a UK level that you say we want to see in Wales. There's no hiding that both main UK parties, in governing for decades, for generations, have failed to bring equality to the UK. And you're quite right, we need to talk about how we bring that kind of equality to Wales.

By the way, I’m not one who likes to talk about everything going to the south—it’s a very populist thing to do in north Wales. It’s not a north/south split that we have in Wales, but there is a difference between the east and the west, where there is prosperity in the north-east and the south-east that does need to be disseminated to the rest of Wales. But we must seek ways and means of doing that.

I will briefly mention the regional renewal Bill, mentioned in amendment 4, that we are eager to see delivered. The figures demonstrate that investment in infrastructure and in transport and so on is inconsistent across Wales at the moment. Russell George, you referred to the figures and that lack of equality in terms of investment in various parts of Wales. What I would want to see is a Bill being developed whereby there would be a requirement on Government to demonstrate that they do give due regard to regional fairness and equality in their expenditure decisions in the same way as the future generations Act requires the Government to think whether their decisions are beneficial for future generations. We should be thinking regionally in that way, and I would welcome your support on that principle of having that kind of Bill.

The clock is against me, although I did take an intervention from Russell George. Siân Gwenllian will be speaking specifically about the plans that we have for the creation of economic activity in the west of Wales, but we must be clear what kind of Wales we want to see. It has to be a Wales that is prosperous, of course, but also brings prosperity to all parts of the nation. That's why I appeal to you to support our amendments today.

17:00

Supporters of devolution in the late 1990s claimed that the relative failure of the Welsh economy could only be addressed by tailor-made solutions created here in Wales. Sadly, under successive Welsh Labour administrations, that has not proven to be the case. The Welsh economy has underperformed over the past 20 years and has failed to catch up with the UK economy as a whole. As a result, Wales remains the poorest country in the United Kingdom. Not only has the Welsh Government failed to significantly close the GVA gap between Wales and England, it has failed to tackle the regional economic inequality that still exists in Wales.

The contrast is stark. Wales is economically divided between north, south, east and west, urban, rural and whichever way you want to think of. In my own region of South Wales East, the division in clear. In 2017, GVA per head was less than £15,000 in the Gwent Valleys. In Newport, the figure was over £23,000 per head. It is a fact that, if you compare the GVA per head of all the local authorities in the United Kingdom, Blaenau Gwent is in the bottom five. Earnings in Wales have remained the lowest in the whole of the United Kingdom. Again, taking Blaenau Gwent as an example, more than 30 per cent of workers in the borough are paid less than the voluntary living wage.

I recognise that the Welsh Government has introduced a number of initiatives to try to address the problem of regional inequality. They have all had grand titles: 'A Winning Wales', 'Wales: a Vibrant Economy', 'Economic Renewal: a New Direction', but they all fell by the wayside and failed to deliver the transformation the Welsh economy needs.

This failure is exemplified by the poor returns received by the Welsh Government policy of enterprise zones. Since the creation of these zones in 2012, £221 million of public money has been allocated to support this policy. In Ebbw Vale alone, nearly £95 million has been spent to create, safeguard or assist just 390 jobs. In spite of the injection of large sums of public money, enterprise zones have failed to meet their key objectives.

Deputy Presiding Officer, they were meant to build the capacity of specific sectors of the Welsh economy and attract funds to those designated areas, but they have failed to make any significant impact on economic growth. Previous Welsh Government strategies have pledged to explore and exploit the job-creation potential of major infrastructure investment. However, one such project with the potential to deliver huge benefits to the economy remains kicked into the long grass. The M4 relief road is currently bogged down in a combination of Welsh Government dithering and indecision of approach.

This Welsh Government has lost its purpose and sense of direction. No wonder Alun Davies AM, who is not here at the moment, said, in his words—it's a quote—

'moving away from that commitment to reform and…looking at the lowest common denominator.'

Deputy Presiding Officer, Wales needs an ec