|1. Questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services|
|Statement by the Llywydd|
|2. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd|
|3. Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition (in respect of his "law officer" responsibilities)|
|4. Questions to the Assembly Commission|
|5. Topical Questions|
|6. 90-second Statements|
|7. Motion to amend Standing Orders|
|8. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal: Equal Opportunities Audit|
|9. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Early Cancer Diagnosis|
|10. Plaid Cymru Debate: A&E services at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital|
|11. Plaid Cymru Debate: Coverage of the Six Nations|
|12. Voting Time|
|13. Short Debate: Fate of the coalfields: the impact of devolution on coalfield communities; the current challenges they face and some questions regarding their future prosperity|
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
[Interruption.] That was a timely alarm, so it brings us to order in the Chamber this afternoon.
Item 1 on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and question 1 this afternoon—Siân Gwenllian.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on perinatal mental health services for women in Arfon? OAQ55228
We have reaffirmed our commitment to improve access and quality of perinatal mental health services both in the community and for in-patient care in the 'Together for Mental Health—Delivery Plan: 2019-22', which was published in January.
At a recent meeting of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, a psychiatric consultant and medical director for mental health at Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board said that it appears that, 'we probably need about four beds of a mother and baby unit' in north Wales.
He went on to say that the board was willing to pilot a new model of care.
Now, what becomes clear, whatever the figure, and whether you need a unit or not, is that we do need urgent action to develop unique provision for mothers and babies in north Wales. Things have started in south Wales, at last, with a pro tem unit, but there is nothing that seems to be happening in terms of mothers in north Wales, who continue to have to travel a long way from home or are treated on psychiatric wards without their babies, or decide not to seek the necessary assistance at all. Will you, therefore, give directions to the relevant bodies to look into the options for north Wales with the aim of creating unique provision so that mothers in large parts of the country aren't left behind?
Well, I thank Siân Gwenllian very much for that very important question, and, as she says, we are making progress now with south Wales, but we certainly now need to move along with the situation in north Wales.
We have been having discussions with providers in England to discuss options for a joint provision, but those proposals are now on hold, because the English service is actually looking at developing its own provision. It is going to resume talks later on this year, but we're not sure when that will actually come. But, I know that Betsi Cadwaladr has said that it is interested in developing its own unique type of service. It has also mentioned a service for women who don't actually want to go into any beds at all. So, I think that's certainly something that we could look at, because it's very important that we do recognise that, at such a crucial time, women should feel able to have treatment and should be able to get it near home. So, we certainly will follow up those points.
Well, reference was made to the Children, Young People and Education Committee and, of course, their 2017 report 'Perinatal mental health in Wales' noted that
'north Wales alone does not have the necessary birth rates to sustain a specialist MBU, we call on the Welsh Government to engage proactively with providers in England to discuss options for the creation of an MBU in north east Wales that could serve the populations of both sides of the border.'
The Minister accepted their recommendation that the Welsh Government engaged, as a matter of urgency, with NHS England to discuss options for the creation of a centre in north-east Wales that could serve the populations on both sides of the border, saying 'I have asked the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee to work with Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board to consider options in north Wales, including this recommendation.'
Well, by my reckoning, that was 28-29 months ago, when the recommendation was urgent and the Minister said that he had asked then for that work to go forward.
The Betsi Cadwalar website's only reference to perinatal mental health talks about their mental health service as close to their homes as practicable for mother and baby, but it doesn't refer to that key mental health provision. Only last month—and I'll conclude here—BBC Wales reported that mothers in Wales are suffering due to the lack of a specialist in-patient mental health support unit two years after Welsh Government promised to develop one. Why are we still waiting to hear, and if, as you indicate—I'm sure you do indicate—that, currently, discussions with England are on hold, why can't the developing model in England continue to develop on a cross-border basis, as proposed, rather than on a singular basis, recognising a border that could negate the recommendations in this committee report?
I thank Mark Isherwood for those questions. As I said in response to Siân Gwenllian, the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee has engaged with providers in England to discuss options for the creation of a mother and baby unit in north-east Wales that could serve the population of both sides of the border. And I think, as you've acknowledged, those discussions have now stopped, because the English services, they've got this provider collaborative initiative, which is provision of local services in England, and they want to see how that turns out before they go into any further discussions with us. So, that is the situation at the moment, but certainly, we do intend for those discussions to resume this year, and certainly, we are going to look at anything that Betsi Cadwaladr itself proposes.
2. Will the Minister provide an update on the implementation of the Coronavirus Action Plan to safeguard the citizens of Islwyn? OAQ55225
Thank you. We are currently identifying cases of the virus, isolating patients, and tracing anyone who has been in contact with them. If the disease becomes established in the UK, we will need to consider further measures to delay the rate and extent of its spread.
Thank you. Minister, may I begin by commending you personally for the calm and authoritative manner in which you have led the Welsh Government's response to the coronavirus outbreak? Yesterday in the Senedd, Minister, you made a most welcome statement updating the citizens of Wales on how the coronavirus action plan is developing. My constituents in Islwyn have greatly welcomed your commitment to prioritise the authorisation of supply of personal protective equipment to all GP practices across Wales, and as supplies of personal protective equipment start to be issued, is your department able to offer timescales for when every GP practice in Islwyn will be equipped?
Also Minister, can you reiterate the advice that the Welsh Government would give to Islwyn residents who present with significant flu-like symptoms, about attending work, their GP surgery and/or an accident and emergency department? Because, inevitably, people worried that they may have this virus will seek medical attention, but also, as usual, the chronic respiratory conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or those with seasonal flu viruses, chest infections, pneumonia and other ordinary respiratory conditions. Minister, what is the best course of action for these people to aid themselves, their families and the wider community?
Thank you for the questions. On personal protective equipment, I made the decision and the announcement over the weekend about protective equipment to go to general practice. We expect that to be completed within the week across the whole country, so, in Islwyn, obviously, I would expect that every practice within Islwyn will have that within that time frame. If any Member is aware that they have a local practice where that hasn't happened, then I'd be grateful to hear about that so that we can resolve it. I announced yesterday that community pharmacies will also be supplied with personal protective equipment and those supplies will be going out before the end of this week as well. So, having made the decision we'll be able to move rapidly, and we're in the fortunate position that we expect that Wales will have all of that equipment issued and in place within a shorter timescale than England—that's partly about the size and the logistics involved. So, we're in a good place there.
And I think it's an important point to reiterate as well, the things that the public can do themselves. The normal advice about 'catch it, bin it, kill it', wash your hands, but also the normal advice that we'd give and would ask you to follow if you've got significant flu-like symptoms, not to come into work; not to go into places where you're at risk of actually other people acquiring them, with significant consequences. That is normal advice; not just now, with coronavirus potentially circulating, that is normal advice that we would ask people to follow.
For people who are concerned and want medical attention, it's really important that people do not go into their local surgery or into a hospital. Please follow the advice to call 111. It's available across the whole country, and you should then be given advice and guidance on what to do. If you need to be tested, we've already been able to test over 90 per cent of people in their own homes, but also, there are now at least 11 drive-through testing centres across Wales. More are being created by different health boards, and those are for people who are advised to go and attend them. So we're doing all that we could and should do to keep people at home where they need to be, to give them the advice and the provision that they need, and again, if the position changes, then the Government and our chief medical officer, together with other Governments in the UK, will be clear about the reason for that change in advice and what we're then advising people to do. It really is important that all of us take on our individual responsibility as elected Members in what we do to keep our constituents safe, and what our constituents in turn do to keep themselves, their families and other people safe as well.
Minister, hospitals in England are being asked to carry out more video-based consultations with patients to reduce the risk of spreading coronavirus. NHS England have said that they hope this move will reduce the number of people in hospitals and lower the potential for transmission. Minister, will you look at this innovation to see if it would benefit patients in Wales? And what measures are you considering to safeguard communities in Islwyn and elsewhere in Wales?
Finally, we all know that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has announced £20 billion funding to tackle this coronavirus, so how much funding are you hoping to have in Wales to not have that silly disease coming to this part of the world? Thank you.
On your point about remote consultations so that people don't necessarily need to attend in person, we've already had a programme of work to do exactly that through the health service. For example, many people now can have advice about eye health conditions without actually needing to go and see a consultant. We've managed to improve access by making use of our primary care contractors in doing that—pharmacy and optometry being really good examples of that.
However, coronavirus accelerates the need to do that, to avoid person-to-person contact, where possible. That explains why, yesterday, I announced that I have made a decision to actually implement a Wales-wide solution in particular in primary and community care, to allow more video consultations to take place. We've also increased and beefed up the 111 service so that it can be across the whole of Wales to deal with advice and information on coronavirus.
It'll be the same for those areas of hospital practice that need to continue. But actually, regarding the way that our hospitals will work if the coronavirus becomes more embedded and more significant, it won't so much be about the example I've given about eye care taking place where images are swapped and sent over; it'll be more and more about how we make use of our hospitals for the sickest of people and the need to displace other activity, if that is what is required. If you look at the example of Italy, the stage they're at and the severity they have, it's an entirely different scenario for the way that the healthcare system needs to work. So none of us should pretend that, if coronavirus is a more significant issue, we can still maintain business as usual.
As for the money that the Chancellor has announced, obviously I've been preparing for questions here today, but I look forward with interest to the detail of the announcements that have been made. But, equally, the point that the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd has made is that, regardless of the headline announcements today, funding is dealt with on a needs basis across the UK to deal with the reality of the impact that the coronavirus will actually have.
Minister, the constituents of Islwyn are like many other constituents—like mine in Aberavon and others across Wales—who have deep concerns and anxieties over the spread of coronavirus and the implications it could have for their families. I very much welcome the updates you keep giving this Chamber regarding that and your keeping us informed as to the progress and actions that should be taken. That's very welcome.
I also welcome the dissemination of that information to the people of Wales, as much as possible. However, when we do see cases of coronavirus—and, in Neath Port Talbot alone, there have been six identified, the largest number in a single place in Wales at this point it time—and then we've seen one in Cardiff, where it was reported that a member of staff of Sky's call centre was identified as having the coronavirus, and they then took the decision to deep clean that particular site. As such, people who hear of cases within their own locality, where maybe their children have been attending a school with children of a family who have been identified as coronavirus victims ask questions as to how we ensure things are safe. What discussions are you having with public bodies, including local authorities, to ensure and reassure families and parents that, when an incident occurs, everything is being done to ensure the safety of their family in those locations and, if necessary, deep cleaning will take place if it's appropriate? It is important that those messages get out, because if we don't get that messaging and communication right, the rumour mill starts, and that is one of the worst things that can happen in a situation like this. We need facts, not fiction. Therefore it is important that we get the communication right.
I completely agree with the ending that the Member has left there, because it's really important that all of us behave responsibly and provide information from trusted sources to our constituents. So that is information that the Governments of the UK are providing, including on the Welsh Government website, where we have got clear guidance for schools, and our guidance is that schools should remain open. There is no evidential basis to close schools now, and there's a challenge here about some people's perception that the Government should act and do things like closing schools, when, actually, all of the evidence available to us now is that it would not be effective in either delaying the coronavirus outbreak or indeed reducing potential mortality. And if it were appropriate, it may be appropriate later, but it is absolutely not appropriate now. And the example I've given is: it's not just about the science, about potentially having a second peak in an outbreak, where you could potentially have higher rates of mortality; there's a real challenge about if you close schools, who looks after them? It takes people out of the workplace. Or, if people have people to look after that child, it's unlikely to be registered childcare; it's often kinship childcare, and, often, those people are grandparents, older relatives and people who are in the highest risk category. So, actually, we do need to follow the science; we do need to follow the evidence, and to repeat those trusted sources of information.
And your point about local government is well made. So, in the planning we're already doing, we are definitely speaking with local government. I briefed cabinet members with social care responsibilities from across each part of Wales on Monday, about some of the challenges that they need to plan for. I'm speaking to leaders of local government across each part of Wales, and each party, all together at the same time, tomorrow as well. So, we're making sure that we're having direct conversations with local government to be prepared. And to really reiterate: we are not going to make choices to risk the health of the public; we're going to make choices on the basis of evidence, and the best available scientific advice, and we will continue to do it and be open with the public about what we are choosing to do and the advice we're giving them on how we want them to behave as well.
We now turn to spokespersons' questions, and the first this afternoon is Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Some questions initially on preparations for an increased intensity of outbreak, and it's important to put those preparations in place. We know from international experience that critical care capacity could become very, very important here. I've been looking at some figures today that show that critical care beds per 100,000 people in the UK is low, compared with global standards, and in Wales it is certainly much lower than in England. Both I and Adam Price asked yesterday what has been done to ensure that we are increasing capacity. I'm not sure that we had the answers that we wanted yesterday, so I'll ask again: what is being done now to make sure that capacity is being increased as much as possible, because current capacity is not going to be enough? I accept that there may be a different nature to the kind of capacity that we will need compared with normal times, but I think it's very important that we have a description from Government of what exactly is being done to make sure that we increase capacity in this very, very important area.
I recognise the broader point that's being made. The relative levels of critical care capacity across the UK are lower than other European countries; that's true. I don't think now is the time to try to get into any of the funding or other challenges that we might have in a normal period of politics; it's really what we can do now to improve the capacity that we have, for what we expect to be an influx of really sick people who are coming to our health service and need care. And, so, yes, we are already planning what is possible, both in terms of the staff that we have, the staff that we need to protect, in terms of their welfare and well-being, because if we do see significant absences across the economy and public services, that will affect the health service too. We're also needing to think about what else is possible, even if it isn't what we currently recognise as critical care in the way that we provide it, and what that means in terms of redeploying staff. That also means switching off other activity within the health service. So, this isn't a simple matter of flicking a switch and we automatically double our capacity; it's actually about how much we can change within the service; how much we can redeploy our staff, and then what we do to, as best as possible, meet those other healthcare needs. And, as I've said, that may mean treating people in their own home in the coming weeks or months, when we would today expect them to be admitted into a hospital.
Now, I'm not in a position to share direct and detailed plans. I'm working through the detail of those plans and the instructions we'll need to give the health service of what those plans would be. We've worked through them. I met medical directors from across Wales on Friday of last week. I met with royal colleges from across Wales last week as well, and so, we are deliberately drawing together people that need to be there to make those choices. As soon as we do have a decision to make, with the plan to go with it, we will, of course, share that information. And in the way that I have already briefed, not just the Plaid Cymru, but also the Conservative health spokesperson, we want to continue to make clear what those plans are, and the detail of them, and to be able to share information on a trusted basis, as well as being able to provide public information for everyone to see and hear. And that, of course, will involve not just members of the health committee, but all Members across this Chamber. I fully expect to be making weekly statements on the position in relation to coronavirus for the foreseeable future.
The Llywydd took the Chair.
Capacity will be needed in other areas too, below critical care. I fear the loss of community hospitals will be something that we rue, somewhat, in coming months. We will perhaps need to build capacity for isolation, for example, and I can relay to you the offer made by one hotel owner, for example, offering a hotel to be used, perhaps as somewhere where people can be isolated. Are there plans to create that kind of capacity within the system—perhaps turning to hotels, or other locations, or even to the army too. Because there is capacity that can be built within the military when it comes to isolation.
We're considering all options. And that's both part of our pandemic influenza planning that is being stepped up; it's also part of what local resilience fora are looking at, to consider what takes place in each of the four areas. And that involves not just devolved public services, it of course involves the regular relations we have together with non-devolved services. So, for example, the police are involved in each one of our four local resilience fora as a matter of course, in terms of that emergency planning and delivery response. We are also, of course, considering the potential role the army may have to play. But it comes back to what role is required, and who is best placed to serve that. So nothing is ruled out—certainly—in terms of the provision we have, and, as I said in answer to your first question, how that meets the need we expect to see coming through the health service and other public services, and where are the right places to try and increase that capacity, and, equally, the activities that we recognise will need to be delayed and put off for a period of time, and that, of course, depends on the length and severity of the outbreak.
And a short collection of questions, just to finish off. We know that Italy reached the point where they needed, or felt they needed, a nationwide lockdown. I'd appreciate just an idea of the kinds of plans that are being put in place, initially perhaps, for local lockdowns, and what preparations are being made for that.
Secondly, on 111, and the telephone triaging that is going on at the moment. I've contacted your office today with a specific concern about the parents of a constituent of mine who have returned from a cruise, contacted the triage centres on telephone—as they were instructed to do—were told, 'No, you're not in a risk category.' Others who were on the same cruise, I am told, have since been diagnosed as having COVID-19. You can imagine, therefore, the concern of my constituent and her parents. She can't visit her parents, because she suffers from pneumonia herself. So, again, it's a portrayal of the wider problems here. So how can we be sure that the telephone triaging isn't missing people who actually perhaps should be in a higher risk category? These people had said, 'Listen, we think we are at risk', and they were told that they were not, and they think that now they should be tested. I'll wait for a response from your office on that.
But also, we're still hearing from people who are saying they've tried to contact 111, and have been, for example, guided to a website, which tells them, '111 isn't available in your area.' Will you gather data on the use of 111, failure to connect to 111, and on how many people who do try to use the services—as they rightly should—are either not getting through, or are being sent to other websites, which are just not able to help them?
There are real, practical questions there, and I'm glad the Member managed to raise some of those with my office earlier today. And I would encourage any other Members, from any party, who have similar experience with constituents, where they're not sure about the advice they're being given, or they've been directed to the wrong part of the system, to raise those with my office. Because I want to make sure that they're resolved sooner rather than later, because we may well see more use of those services in the coming weeks. Some of that has come because people have been directed and gone to the wrong 111 service—so, the 111 service in England, where it says it's not available in your area. So, the 111 telephone advice service is available in every part of Wales. There is a symptom checker available on the NHS Wales Direct website. We want to try to ensure that people are using the service that we have set up and created and want to minimise the risk of people going to a different service over the border that may not direct them to the right path for their help and advice. But I don't want to lose sight of the experience that people do have of using the 111 service, and, as I say, I reiterate to them that I'd ask Members from all sides to contact me if they have the sort of experience you've described.
On the point about how and when people should be tested, it comes back to people following the advice and the guidance they're given. But I have asked again for some clarity to be reiterated, because we've seen some headline instances of people who are, for example, on cruise ships coming back, what happens to them, if people are symptomatic when they return, and to be clear, that the advice is consistent and isn't confusing for members of the public. So, I am taking the opportunity to do that, and will be able to reiterate that with the regular information that Public Health Wales provides and I'll also make sure that that advice is circulated specifically to Members.
But on the sorts of things that might happen, or might be required, I think we need to look at the circumstances in each country. We can learn, of course, from different countries' experience. And Italy, they're a European country we have links with, with a developed and modern healthcare system. There are parallels there for us to look at. Seriously, there are some differences, though. They have an older population than Wales does as well that may explain some of the challenges and the numbers they have coming through. But certainly the experience there of them finding that their health service is effectively overwhelmed now, well, part of that journey is how early and when we take action, because timing is really important, and that's been the advice from our own scientific advisers to all four Governments in the UK and indeed our four chief medical officers.
The danger is that if we act too early, it's the point that the First Minister made yesterday about the level of compliance if we ask people to act again. There's also a danger that we depress the peak of the coronavirus outbreak and we have a second peak later on, rather than being a wholly effective measure. There's also the risk that if we time it too late, then we could effectively bolt the stable door once the horse has bolted, because actually Italy is now in a position where it looks as if there's significant community transmission. And the value then of taking really restrictive measures, our scientific advice doesn't suggest that that's an effective measure at that point.
And it comes back to the difficulty that Ministers have to stand up to and recognise in making choices and advising the public, and that is about following the evidence and the best scientific advice about what we should do and the choices available to Ministers to make, rather than looking to have something that, from a communications point of view, may look as if we're making big and difficult choices and showing how seriously we're taking it, but may not actually be the right thing to do both to depress the peak of the coronavirus outbreak to allow services to recover and cope, but equally to make sure that we resolve and reduce, as far as possible, the potential mortality of the coronavirus outbreak.
And I would not want to be in a position where I've taken a series of actions that may look as if we're doing something that is gripping the situation from a public point of view, and subsequently find out that actually it was the wrong choice and our mortality rate may be higher at the end of it, and that is not a choice that I think I could live with.
Diolch Llywydd. Of course, spokespersons are to scrutinise and challenge you, Minister, and I've done my fair share of that over the past few years. But I would like to put on record my thanks to you, as our health Minister, for the hard work, obviously, going on behind the scenes and the plans that you are putting in place and also for keeping us, as Members, updated and keeping the public informed. I felt that that should go on record, thank you.
Now, coronavirus is most significant amongst older people and people whose immune systems are already compromised. These people are to be found in greater concentrations in residential care, nursing homes and in the domiciliary homecare setting. The seriousness of the threat is clear when considering the care home near Seattle, where there have been more than a dozen deaths and all the home residents now are confined to their rooms.
Last week, the First Minister advised that the Welsh Government would do more to provide advice to the social care sector. Care home residents are worried, care home providers and those delivering domiciliary care are worried. There is talk of issuing guidance, encouraging friends and relatives not to visit people in care homes until the risk of contracting the disease is more manageable. What steps will you be taking to support care home residents and reduce the risk of them contracting the virus?
I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for that question and she's absolutely right that older people, and older people with complex health needs, are at much greater risk. And so we want to do all we can to protect them as much as possible, and we are working very hard to do that. The director for social services and integration is taking the lead in the Welsh Government. We're liaising very closely with the local authorities, which are obviously very close to the care sector, and we have got a lead director appointed to look at this subject. The lead director is from Powys. We've set up a working group that is looking at all the sorts of issues that she raises. There has been guidance already issued to the social care sector. It's guidance that is joint with England. So, it is the same guidance, but we are looking to produce another set of guidance, which will be done by a working group with all the people involved.
Thank you. One in 17 adults in Wales work in the social care sector. The United Kingdom Homecare Association has advised that it is important for social workers to understand that home care visits could take much longer than the usual expected time whilst dealing with people who are unwell, and warn that the situation was potentially extremely serious, particularly with regard to having sufficient staff to support older and disabled people in community settings.
Similarly, I have received an e-mail that highlights concerns that one infected domiciliary care worker could potentially unknowingly carry the virus into the homes of countless vulnerable older residents. Therefore, will you explain what steps you are taking to assist our care workers to reduce the risk of contracting the virus? What emergency measures will be taken to protect vulnerable individuals receiving home visits, and state what support will be provided to social care providers to help them find replacement staff, should some employees have to self-isolate? And a question I have is: are all 15 cases of coronavirus that have been identified in Wales actually designated as COVID-19? [Interruption.] Well, coronavirus covers a—.
Yes, I believe they are, answering that last question, yes.
If you look at the social care sector, there's a wide variety of issues that arise: there are the people who are living in residential care or in nursing homes; there are those people who are receiving domiciliary care, and then these are the staff who are going in, who Janet Finch-Saunders has referred to. And it's obviously crucial that we address all of those issues, about what is to happen if anybody in any of those groups becomes infected and how we deal with the whole situation. So, for that reason, we have set up a social care planning and response group, which includes local government—because, as I said, we're working very closely with local government—it includes the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, because it’s absolutely crucial, I think, that we work very closely with the third sector in addressing all of these issues, because the third sector may be very close to some of the communities that we are talking about, but also the third sector does have many volunteers who work there and who I'm sure would be willing to help us in this situation, if it does escalate. And it also includes Care Forum Wales, which, again, is a very important body to work with. So, we are working with all those bodies and what we want to do is to come up with another set of guidance, which will address those very important issues that she has raised.
Thank you. I think my next question is more directed to the health Minister. Sadly, there is good reason to be concerned too about front-line health staff. I've received correspondence from a Welsh general practitioner who has highlighted a lack of personal protective equipment and masks for front-line staff, but also people such as receptionists, nurses and housekeeping staff. He has rightly explained that there are not enough of them to be able to self-isolate, if there may have been possible exposure, and to still cope with the amount of pressure on our health service. What urgent action will you take to ensure that every front-line member of staff receives and uses the personal protective equipment as directed?
Well, I think the health Minister did, in his earlier response, say that these were going to be provided. And certainly this is an issue that we have discussed within the Government, but it's obviously a very important point that we are taking very seriously.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, Dr Andrew Goodall told the Public Accounts Committee on Monday that he's very disappointed that three of Wales's seven local health boards are millions of pounds in deficit. Do you share his disappointment that Betsi Cadwaladr, Hywel Dda and Swansea Bay are forecasting a combined deficit of over £92 million for 2019 to 2020? Betsi Cadwaladr is predicted to be £41 million in the red; Hywel Dda not far behind with a £35 million deficit. My own health board, Swansea Bay, will be £16.3 million in deficit, and that's enough to employ around 465 radiographers. Minister, why can some health boards break even and others rack up massive deficits?
Well, the issues are different in different health boards, and of course I'm disappointed, not just at the failure to meet the target, but about the extent of that failure between different health boards themselves. In Hywel Dda, you'll know that we've undertaken a series of interventions and reports around their challenge and the opportunities for them to improve. It should, though, be said that on a performance end, Hywel Dda have made real improvements over the last few years. So, they are in a better place in performance terms, whereas in Betsi Cadwaladr, they haven't had the requisite grip and the control in terms of both performance and finance. So, whilst Hywel Dda health board can put their performance figures in a positive way, it's not quite the same story in north Wales, and you'll notice that both of the previous finance directors are now no longer in post. There's a recovery director who is having an impact on the financial discipline within the organisation, and, of course, there is now an interim chief executive following the change in leadership. And in terms of Swansea Bay, the disappointment is tempered with some optimism, based in reality about the future, and, again, the list of opportunities they have to improve the financial running.
There is one point that I think I need to make on a general level, and it is that if coronavirus is anything like as significant as we think it is, then the normal way of operating the health service will change significantly. So, the normal way that we want to hold organisations to account within the Government and within this place will have to change. I cannot expect the health service to behave in a radically different way in prioritising significant numbers of really sick people coming through the doors, if I'm then also saying, 'I want you not to lose any sort of progress on referral-to-treatment times, and I want you to try to make sure that money is being spent in a certain way.' Now, there'll be some points about financial discipline and opportunities to save money that will still exist in a way that doesn't harm the service, but there will need to be a sense check about what will really happen, and then what will be the longer term consequences if we do have a significant outbreak, on both resources, the overall pledges the Chancellor has made about the NHS having whatever resources it needs, and what that means in broader performance terms for the health service then to try to recover and catch up on.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Of course we all have to live within our means, but we can't just cut funding to health boards without impacting upon patient care. Take the new medicines fund, for example: the Welsh Government funds novel treatments for the first 12 months, and then health boards have to find funding for future years. So, what assessment have you made of the impact that this is having on local health board finances? And we also have to account for known unknowns, as you've already said—the coronavirus. But also, for example, the impact winter pressures will have on services throughout the rest of the year. And this year we have the added unknown of the impact that COVID-19 will have on services both planned and unscheduled. So, Minister, how resilient are NHS finances, and what steps are your Government taking to ensure financial pressures do not impact patient outcomes? Thank you.
Well, I think there's a broader point here about financial improvement across the health service in the last three or four years. I took a particular choice, on taking on the Cabinet role, that I would make sure that whilst we make sure the bills are paid—so that patient care is not compromised, that staff don't have to worry about whether they're going to get paid in the last two months of the year—we would highlight the reality of performance of each organisation, so rather than trying to find a new way to inject money into the system towards the year, as we were often accused of doing, we've been really upfront about the financial performance of each organisation. That greater scrutiny and accountability, and some of the very direct conversations that I have had, and that the chief executive of NHS Wales has had, I think have seen a real improvement. Even at the start of this Assembly term compared to where we are now, we are definitely moving in the right direction, but there is still more to do than I would wish there to be.
But in terms of the new treatment fund that you referenced, it's been a great success. The reason that we introduced it was because there was inconsistency across Wales when new treatments were introduced and available. They're available at different points depending on which health board you were served by, and some of the challenge is not just the consistency but the timeliness of that—it could vary significantly across Wales. They were supposed to be introduced and available within 90 days, and some health boards were not able to do that on a regular basis.
We knew that there was a particular problem in the first year of introducing new treatments, and the ability of health boards to have new treatments come onstream during the financial year and to plan effectively for them, and that was why they were introduced in such an inconsistent way. So, the new treatment fund has leveled that out so there is now a consistent service. And rather than being over three months, people expect new treatments to be available within about two weeks. So, there's a really significant intervention with, in health terms, a modest sum of money, but a really impressive and consistent outcome. I'm very proud of the action that this Government has taken to do so.
Question 3 [OAQ55201] not asked.
4. Will the Minister provide an update on any progress made in the recruitment of a new chief executive for the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board? OAQ55219
Yes. The health board is progressing the work on plans to recruit the right person to this crucially important role. Although decisions about employment matters are for the health board and its chair to make as the employing organisation, I am wholly committed to providing the support needed to the health board to deliver the improvements that are still required.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Despite being in special measures for nearly five years, the problems at Betsi continue to let down those who rely on it. The issues at Betsi have not been replicated in all boards across Wales, so it's clearly the running of that particular board that's at fault. A new chief exec may help, but a chief exec doesn't act alone—he or she is part of a board who make recommendations as to how the NHS in north Wales should develop, tackle its problems and decide on its priorities.
Last year, a cross-party committee of this place found that the health board were making unacceptably slow progress in sorting out its failings, but the buck does stop with you. Isn't it time to review how these health boards are constituted? In order to ensure that the treatment and care of patients are prioritised, isn't it time to insist that the majority of the members on any health board should come from clinically trained backgrounds?
I think there are two points there: one is the point about how the health board is constituted and then the make-up of the board and clinicians making up the majority. In terms of how the health board is constituted, if there's a broader point about its organisation and the scale of it, I actually think that for north Wales to improve, to try to undertake a structural reorganisation in order to change to have not one Betsi but two I think would be a mistake. If we did that, we would definitely lose a significant period of time while people look inwards about who's going to run those new organisations—i.e. decouple—then what you do about the fact that there are three hospitals across north Wales. Where does the middle one go? What does that mean in terms of service planning and co-operation, both within the same health board now but, potentially, in more than one organisation? So, I'm not persuaded that more than one organisation in north Wales is the answer.
In terms of your point about the structure, when it comes to the independent membership around the board table, we have deliberately, over time, constituted a mix of executive members, people who work for the health board as employees and independent members with the mix of skills that people require. It certainly doesn't always follow that people who have been clinicians in the health service make good managers of the health service, and we'll see that in all walks of life. I was a lawyer—I had some skills as a leader and a manager. My wife, who is still a lawyer, was a better manager than me, in terms of some parts of the role, but that had not really much to do with our ability as lawyers. So, it's about how your professional background lead you into the choices that an organisation makes, because, actually, someone who was a great doctor isn't necessarily the right person to run the finance function. Someone who has been a great nurse through their whole career isn't necessarily the right person to sit around the board table as an independent member. That's why we have an independent public appointments process, overseen by the public appointments commissioner, to try to make sure we get the right people.
It's also why we've reset our expectations about the way that independent members are not just appointed, but how they behave and their willingness to not just support the organisation, which is only part of their role, but it's about the scrutiny and the challenge and the leadership role they have around the independent members' table. And, actually, within north Wales, with the relatively new chair—he's only a couple of years or so into the role—he has brought a different leadership style and a different level of scrutiny that's changed the culture of independent members around the table, and all of our independent objective assessment, including the inspectorate, say that has made a real and positive difference. The challenge is going from that to real, definable improvement in accordance with the special measures framework that I set out for Members recently.
I do agree with you that you've got to have the right person in the right place doing the right job, and I also agree with you that the new chair of Betsi Cadwaladr has made some extraordinary changes and does appear to have the energy, the drive, the initiative and the experience to be able to lead that organisation forward. But the reality of the situation is that the ex-chief executive was basically in the job a couple of years too long, and so that health board has stagnated over these past few years. I appreciate you've got an interim—or the board have got an interim—chief executive in. However, what I really want to understand is how long will the hunt for a new chief executive take. And can you assure the Senedd that there are no barriers in place to ensure that that health board actually has the finances to recruit the best-quality individual with the best level of experience to lead it out of the doldrums that it has sat in for the past five years? Because not only will that chief executive need to have huge experience in running large public service organisations, but will also have to have a spine of steel in order to cut like a knife through butter to get rid of some of the other levels of management that perhaps are not experienced enough, and not capable of bringing that health board forward.
I think there are two points there. One is the licence but the expectation that a chief executive will make changes that are difficult—difficult internally within the organisation, but also, speaking honestly, within the broader politics around the health service. Any time difficult choices are made, most of us objectively end up seeing that there's a reason for a difficult choice to be made. But, actually, if you're a local political actor of any and every party—it's not a partisan point—it can be very difficult then to go along with either supporting that change or giving it the room to take place. Now, from my point of view, I want a chief executive within north Wales who is going to make the changes that the health board requires and that the people of north Wales deserve to see happen. For me, I'm prepared to wear some political flak and difficulty to get the right things done, because that's the overriding objective: to see north Wales healthcare improve and to take some of the robust choices that I think the chair wants to see made as well, that independent members are now signed up to do too. And, within that, then, having the right person, there is absolutely no bar in terms of money. If we need to go outside the normal salary range for chief executives within Wales, then we can do so because, again, I'm interested in getting the right person to make a real difference.
Objectively, I think most Members would sign up to that. We'll have to see what happens then when that person is in post and trying to deliver some of that change. But, whoever it is, it won't simply be a case of them sitting at a desk and banging it and saying, 'Now we have to do what I'm saying'. They've still got to be able to bring their staff with them, to set up plans that have logic to them, that have evidence behind them, and can set out why they'll improve healthcare in north Wales both for the staff who deliver it, and the public who receive it and take part in it.
We've just heard that the recently departed chief executive was in post for a little too long; you could probably say that about the three chief executives who've served during the period that the board has been in special measures and under the direct control of Welsh Government. Now, I know that you're reticent to direct the board to do anything, but, as Minister, I'm sure you can convey a few key messages to the new chief executive officer. And one of those, I would suggest, should be that the board needs to get to grips with the number of management consultants that it's engaging with—up to 40, I believe, in recent times, costing over £6 million to the taxpayer. No wonder they're heading for another hefty deficit this year. So, will you convey to the new chief executive that the time has come for them to get a grip on this relentless engagement with consultancy managers. They have managers who are employed and, if they were doing their jobs, then we wouldn't need these additional people at a huge cost. So, please tell them it's unacceptable and it has to change.
I think what has to change is delivery, and it's the delivery against an understanding of what their challenges are and their opportunities for improvement, and, actually, some of the work that we have commissioned around the health board, about the real understanding of where they could and should improve their finance function, what that means for the service, but also about having a clinical plan for the future to understand how they want to deliberately shape services in north Wales to provide better care. And that's the fundamental challenge the health board needs to grip, and of course they'll need the right people in post to do that, but, if they do have a deficit and if they can't recruit the right person at the time, they may need to make use of consultancy in exactly the same way that people, wherever they are in public services, or, indeed, in some parts of the private sector, from time to time need to use consultancy. But the level of that has to be appropriate. It has to help the health board on its way to the improvement journey that Members across the Chamber recognise it still needs to take.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on accident and emergency preparedness in South Wales West for coronavirus? OAQ55216
In support of the UK action plan, which builds on existing pandemic flu preparedness work, a planning and response group involving both senior officials and key external stakeholders has been convened. This will provide strategic co-ordination and support within Government and across the health service. This, of course, includes ensuring NHS accident and emergency preparedness right across Wales.
Thank you for that response. You heard from Rhun ap Iorwerth a little earlier today about the lack of capacity within A&Es across Wales for dealing with pneumonia-like symptoms that may arise from coronavirus—perhaps another consideration for those who are pondering the future of the Royal Glamorgan at the moment, which also serves my constituents.
Apart from the logistics of moving people with these symptoms safely through a hospital that's full of sick and elderly, frail people, there's also the effect on financial planning that the local health boards will be looking at. There have been promises from the UK Government for moneys to mitigate the challenges that are facing the whole of the UK. Are you in a position to tell us yet about how that actually might make its way to Wales? Are we looking at Barnettisation or cost per head or consequential losses? Have you got any steer on that for us at the moment? Thank you.
You're right to say—and as I've indicated both in previous statements and in questions that I answered earlier today—that we'll need to consider how to change the service. That both means about people who currently go through an accident and emergency department and into a hospital, how that may change and how some of those routes work, but also to make sure there's more capacity within hospitals. So, we'll actually need to help people out of hospitals to make sure there's capacity for really sick people to go in over coming weeks. We don't yet understand all of the numbers, because we're not at a point to be able to actually predict that more clearly, but we know that we'll have to do some of that, and so already there are conversations within health and social care about how that could and should happen sooner rather than later.
I also reiterate the point that I made that we will, effectively, have to pause some of our normal performance management expectations and monitoring. It would not be a fair test to set for the health service to say, 'You have to keep on doing everything now as you do today and cope with significantly increased demand as well'. So, the challenge about the finance and our ability to plan—I'm afraid we're not in a position to understand exactly what the headline pledges from the Chancellor that he's made today actually mean. He said on the weekend that the NHS would have all the resources it needs. The Finance Minister and Trefnydd went to a meeting, in fact, yesterday morning, a very early meeting with other finance Ministers from the other three national devolved Governments and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and we—. We still don't yet have a full picture of what that means in practice, about whether there will be a headline measure that comes now to help us deliver and plan services or whether this will simply be about, at a later point, whether a needs-based provision will be provided. But there's been a broad indication that there is a recognition that this is a UK-wide challenge and won't be dealt with in, if you like, the normal way of delivering the funding that's allocated. But we want to see the detail of that, and, as we get that, I'll be more than happy to be upfront with Members and the public about what that means.
7. Will the Minister provide an update on financial support for Welsh victims of the contaminated blood scandal? OAQ55232
Through the Welsh infected blood support scheme, the Welsh Government provides a comprehensive package of ex gratia payments as well as extensive wraparound support, which includes psychological support, benefit advice and support and signposting to other public services we can provide across Wales.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. I think, before I ask my question, I should pay tribute to the work you've done as a backbencher, before you entered Government, as chair of the cross-party group on contaminated blood and the work you did forcing the UK Government into the inquiry. That is certainly recognised. But I do have some questions about where we are today.
On 9 January, I wrote to the health Minister on behalf of my constituent Kirk Ellis, who was affected by the contaminated blood scandal. He's unwell and is increasingly anxious that his family are unable to provide financially for him, should anything happen to him. I'd also say there are members of the public who are members of the cross-party group on contaminated blood in the public gallery today, and they've come in to specifically hear this question.
Kirk has found out—Kirk Ellis has found out—that he is financially worse off than he initially thought, as victims in England receive payments for their children at a rate of £3,000 a year for the first child and then £1,200 for each other child. So, therefore, with a three-year-old, Kirk is £9,000 worse off than if he lived in England. There's a clear case to answer here, and it is, of course, incumbent on the UK Government to take the lead and to provide the funding. But also there is a differential in England, Scotland and Wales as to what people receive. In Scotland, the widows and widowers of people who have died will receive financial compensation. That is not the case in England or Wales. But the key issue—the key issue—until the inquiry has published its findings, there is a discrepancy across the United Kingdom.
Victims in Wales are asking the simple question: why can't we just pay them what they are rightfully owed? Minister, can you just answer that question? And also, please would you attend a future meeting of the cross-party group to talk to victims about this particular issue?
Well, I thank Hefin David for that very important question. I was pleased to meet members of the cross-party group earlier on today at the beginning of their meeting, and I know how strongly they feel about this issue.
There are four separate schemes in the four countries of the UK, and it is hard to compare them, because they are so different. However, I know it is absolutely right that, on average, beneficiaries in Wales receive, on average, £12,000 less than their English counterparts, although Wales does supply psychological support, which has been praised by Sir Brian Langstaff, the chair of the inquiry. But the Government believes that there should be parity between the four schemes. It has been difficult to make progress through all the changes of Ministers in Westminster. We recognise that the issue about the widows is very important, and that is something that members of the haemophilia cross-party group have consistently lobbied about—the fact that it's only in Scotland that the widows are recognised. So, I think that is a very important issue that we must look at.
We are planning a meeting of the four Ministers for the four devolved bodies. We want to move to a position of parity. I absolutely accept what Hefin David says, that it isn't right that victims here in Wales should receive less than in other countries. So, that is something we are addressing as soon there is a Minister who is designated in the Government in Westminster and as soon as we're able to have a meeting.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government will improve health services in the Hywel Dda University Health Board area over the next 12 months? OAQ55197
Our priority is to ensure the people of Wales, including those in west Wales, receive health services that deliver the best possible outcomes for patients. Achieving the vision that we set out in 'A Healthier Wales' will help to deliver that priority.
Minister, to improve services in the Hywel Dda University Health Board area, it's essential that vital services are as accessible as possible to local people, and that includes services being based at Withybush hospital. Can you therefore tell us what discussions you've had with Hywel Dda University Health Board about the provision of services at Withybush hospital, as well as any discussions you've had regarding the creation of a new hospital in west Wales, as the people I represent want to see essential services like the A&E department being maintained at Withybush hospital?
Well, this is a question about the delivery of the healthier west Wales plan. You'll recall the significant engagement that took place with both staff and the public, and then actual front-line members of staff presenting options to the health board for the future. And, within that, the community health council chose not to refer the possible options in. So, there is now an agreed strategy within west Wales about what that will mean. That will both be about—as we've seen the parliamentary review recommending in broad terms—some services needing to be concentrated to provide better services, better quality of care, and other services being delivered on a wider range and basis, including within the community.
You'll have seen, for example, some of the concerns people had about having a midwifery-led unit on the Withybush site; actually, there is no evidence, despite hundreds and hundreds of births, that it has compromised the care of women or their babies. We still, though, do continue to invest in the Withybush site; for example, the more than £3 million to complete improvements to wards 9 and 10 at Withybush hospital. So, there will continue to be an important role for the Withybush site to play in the future.
In terms of the new hospital option, I'm looking to receive a business case from the health board that sets out where they are and, as and when that's received and advice is provided to me about whether to support the next stage of that, I will, of course, make that clear. So, those are plans the health board are developing. I have a decision-making role, but I do look forward to—sooner rather than later, I hope—receiving that case to allow us to make a determination. And you and other people within west Wales will then get to see something about the vision for the future in terms of deliberately reshaping healthcare within west Wales and, indeed, the significant investment that will be required to make that happen.
I wish to draw Members' attention to the Catalan delegation joining us in the public gallery, led by the President of the Catalan Parliament, Roger Torrent. My thoughts at this time are also with the previous President of the Catalan Parliament, Carme Forcadell, who remains to this day in prison. I'm sure Members here will want to join me in wishing President Torrent a very warm welcome to Wales and to our Senedd. Croeso. [Applause.]
The next questions are to the Minister for Finance, and the first question is from Mandy Jones.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh rates of income tax? OAQ55207
Welsh rates of income tax of 10p per band were introduced last year and apply to income tax payers resident in Wales. On 3 March, the Assembly voted by 43 to one in support of Wales's rates remaining unchanged in 2020-21.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, your Government has made a commitment to not increase income tax rates during this Assembly term. What assessment have you made of the impact of increased rates of income tax on the Welsh economy and Welsh families, should a rise be instigated in the next Assembly?
The static costing of a potential rate change is relatively straightforward. For illustrative purposes, a 1p increase or reduction across all three bands in 2020-21, or in a future Assembly, would increase or reduce revenues by approximately £220 million, with the vast majority of revenues, of course, being generated through the basic rate. So, that would be the effect of a 1p change.
I think it is for all of us as Assembly Members, as we seek to develop our manifestos for the next election, to consider how and if we would use our Welsh rates of income tax, and also then to demonstrate to the people of Wales what the impact would be on their lives. So, for example: were there to be a reduction of 1p and a reduction of £220 million to the Welsh Government budget, it would be incumbent to demonstrate where those cuts would fall; and, equally, were there to be an increase of 1p and an increase of £220 million for the Welsh Government budget, it would be important to set out where that additional spend would be made.
Minister, you've just given a perhaps understandably clinical analysis—certainly at the start of your answer there—as to the effect on revenues of income tax changes. What you've said is, of course, totally technically correct, but increasing or reducing taxes does, of course, have other effects, which UK Government has been dealing with for a long time: behavioural changes, for instance. Increasing taxation may well bring more money into the coffers and allow you greater money to spend on public services; but at the same time, reducing taxation, as well as lowering the amount of revenue, may also of course stimulate, and almost certainly would stimulate, entrepreneurialism and encourage people to work harder, knowing that they're going to keep some of their money. So, all that has to be factored in.
I noticed, in the Chancellor's budget today, he mentioned that there was going to be a new Treasury office, or new Treasury officials, coming to Wales. I wonder if you could tell us what you know about that announcement at this early stage. And also whether, when it comes to making changes to income tax, you think there's potential for yourself and for the Welsh Revenue Authority to work closely with that new Treasury office, as a base of experience, so that when you do come to make these changes in income tax in the future, up or down, it's done with the best possible evidence, and we know full well what the effects are going to be on the Welsh economy.
I do think that any decisions should obviously be based on the best possible evidence, and this is one of the areas that we can explore in further detail in Finance Committee tomorrow, where I'll be giving evidence on what the potential impact might be of different exchange rates over the side of borders in the UK. But of course, we don't have much or any evidence, really, within the UK at the moment, because the Scots have only been collecting their own Scottish rates of income tax in recent years, and the first outturn data is due shortly. So, we actually don't have that evidence base to explore in detail. We can look at other areas of the world—parts of Canada, for example, have different rates of income tax in different areas—but those behavioural impacts I don't think will necessarily be read across. But as I say, there's lots of opportunity to discuss that in more detail in committee.
In terms of the Chancellor's announcement about a Treasury presence here in Wales, we don't have any detail as to what that might entail. It could be additional staff, perhaps, at the HMRC building. We're not sure what the detail is, but obviously we will be exploring that. We're really keen to work closely with HMRC and Treasury, because it's really important that we share information and ideas in order to give the best possible service to people in Wales. So, we look forward to more information on that posting. My only slight nervousness about it is the fact that we didn't hear anything today about the replacement of European funding, and of course we were hoping to hear a little bit about the shared prosperity fund. Now, whether or not the Chancellor sees a role potentially for that Treasury presence in administering that fund is something that causes us a little bit of nervousness, but we look forward to exploring it in further detail.
2. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Housing and Local Government in relation to how the Welsh Government can help fund plans to reduce the number of empty houses in North Wales? OAQ55227
I have regular discussions with the Minister for Housing and Local Government, covering a range of matters within her portfolio, including those relating to empty houses. This includes investment in our property loans programme, targeted regeneration investment through our empty property thematic fund, and our town centre loan fund.
But the truth is that we have around 3,000 empty homes in north Wales, and some of them have been vacant for a decade and more. This is a huge waste of resources, isn't it? Because we are crying out for affordable homes, but we have thousands of empty homes in north Wales, and then we're seeing houses built on greenfield sites and on flood plains in north Wales. So, certainly, it remains a problem. We know that the turning houses into homes programme had an ambition of bringing 5,000 empty houses into use, but I think only 98 were returned to the housing sector in the year 2018-19. So, can you tell us what consideration you're giving to other incentives, which may be more effective, that could be used to encourage the owners of empty houses to tackle this problem?
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Welsh Government's property loans programme has available a mix of capital grant and repayable loan financing worth over £42 million, available through local authorities to owner-occupiers to improve properties and to bring those empty properties back into use. Of this, £11 million has been allocated to the six authorities across north Wales to help those owner-occupiers and landlords bring sub-standard homes back into use. To date, over 350 loans have been issued, and nearly 300 empty properties have been brought back into use across north Wales as a result of that funding alone. But I agree that we need to be looking to explore what more we can do. And of course, we've introduced the transforming towns empty property fund of £3.2 million, and that's supporting a project operating across an area within Gwynedd and Anglesey; that seeks, again, to bring those empty properties back into use.
By the end of December 2020, we will have produced a finalised national action plan for tackling empty properties, setting out our national and local objectives, and that's a piece of work that I have discussions on with my colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government. More widely, we're looking at what we can do to support local authorities through better use of compulsory purchase orders, because some of those properties that could provide excellent homes and excellent properties for other purposes are ones that are a real blight on communities at the moment. So, we're making sure that every local authority has the skills and the confidence it needs to tackle empty properties in Wales. We're doing that by introducing an industry expert in the field of property management, who is delivering a series of training events to every single local authority in Wales.
Minister, like Llyr, I was looking at the data for 2018-19, and it is quite disappointing. It's a challenging area—empty homes in the private sector and asking local authorities to use their various financial mechanisms to get some of these homes back in use—but there's a variation in performance. The Isle of Anglesey brought 12 per cent of their private properties that were not in use back into use; 1.6 per cent in Conwy; 8.6 per cent in Denbighshire; and 5.6 per cent in Wrexham. So there's quite a variety there, and I do hope that the best practice is improved further and then adopted by the other authorities.
Yes, there is a variation in success in terms of bringing those empty homes back into use. Hopefully, the work on the CPOs, which I've just outlined, will prove useful to local authorities that have thus far struggled in this area, because we know that some local authorities have felt that they don't have either the capacity or the confidence to engage in that particular area of work.
Council tax premiums are also a useful tool in terms of tackling empty homes and, again, they've been used to different effect and to different levels across Wales. We do know that premiums will be charged on almost 6,700 long term empty dwellings in Wales in the next financial year, and the number of long term empty dwellings has fallen by over 1,000 since the premiums were introduced. So, it certainly is having an impact.
Thank you. We now turn to spokespeople's questions, and the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. A few questions on coronavirus and the preparations for that. In terms of the pressures on health and care services specifically, could you give us some idea of the kinds of discussions that have been happening between the Minister for Health and Social Services and yourself in order to ensure that the appropriate resources are made available, even if they're not required at the moment? Because we do need to know that a lack of resources will be no barrier at all when the fight against coronavirus intensifies.
I have been having these discussions with my colleague the health Minister in terms of how we deal with COVID-19, and there are also discussions that I've had with colleagues from the other devolved nations, and also with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. We're clear in Wales that funding is not going to be a barrier to the NHS being able to deal with the coronavirus. We were also clear at our meeting with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that funding that flows from the UK Government in relation to this exceptional circumstance should be done on the basis of need. I was really keen to press home the fact that, in Wales, we have a proportionately older population and, obviously, that puts us at potentially larger risk of having to look after people who are much sicker. So, that's something that we need to very much bear in mind as funding is allocated across the UK. We don't yet know how the picture will develop in the different regions of Wales, so this is very much an ongoing discussion, but I do want to give that confidence that funding is not going to be a barrier to supporting the NHS.
Thank you very much, and I would appreciate updates on the resources that are being released, along with updates on the steps in terms of safeguarding people's health. That point is centrally important, of course: we can't look at some model that would share funds according to population, because different parts of the UK could be hit very differently by COVID-19.
Moving, then, from the health element to the economic element, which of course is a substantial element of the concern as we move forward, the UK Government in today's budget has announced a package of support for small businesses, which of course will be under pressure. One idea is to freeze business rates for certain businesses; there is talk of a loans plan for businesses that have been affected by coronavirus; and there's also a pledge that the Government will assist companies with statutory sick pay for those who miss work because of coronavirus.
Now, it's very important that those packages are also outlined by the UK Government, but it's also very important that we hear from the Welsh Government how prepared you are to seek different ways of alleviating the concerns of business now and being ready to step in. We haven't heard the details of such plans to date, but now would be a good opportunity for us to discuss that.
I was pleased to make the case to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury yesterday that there should, in this budget, be a package of support for business, and I was pleased to see that delivered on. So, as you mentioned, there will be some things in there that will help support people in the immediate crisis. For example, the sick pay will be paid from day 1 rather than day 4; the Prime Minister previously announced that. But I think things went a bit further today, in terms of statutory sick pay for everyone who is advised to stay at home even without symptoms. That will be forthcoming, and I think that's really welcome. People can get the sick note from 111, and people in the gig economy will have easier access to benefits; I think that's really welcome, although I think we do need to see some more of the detail.
I understand that the employment and support allowance will be available from day 1 rather than day 8, and that the UK Government is also temporarily removing the minimum income floor in universal credit and relaxing the requirement to attend a job centre, so much of those conversations can be done online or over the phone. I think that is really to be welcomed, and I'm almost hoping that necessity will prove to be the mother of invention in terms of making universal credit work better for people, particularly for people in Wales.
The statutory cost of sick pay for SMEs could hit them hard, so I've been really pleased to hear that announcement from the Chancellor today that businesses with fewer than 250 employees can claim back the cost of sick pay for up to 14 days, and that will be refunded in full. I think that's an important measure for businesses. I was making the case yesterday for HMRC to scale up the Time to Pay service, and, again, I was pleased to see that reflected in the announcement today.
The UK Government has a dedicated helpline, announced today, but, of course, we already have that through Business Wales, which is there to support businesses in this particular circumstance.
And, finally, sticking with the budget, and with the Chancellor indicating that the UK Government will be launching a fundamental review of business rates, we're certianly of the view that we need a fundamental review, and we wish that we could have moved quicker in Wales. We've had review after review; I'm sure the time should have come some time ago for some action to be taken. As part of that fundamental review, the UK Government will consider plans to scrap business rates and replace them with a land value tax. Now, Plaid Cymru is currently looking at how land value tax might work in Wales; Welsh Government, for some time, has been looking at this. Is now not the time to seize the momentum, that there is a changing context, and the UK Government warming to the idea perhaps? And will we see some action soon on LVT from Welsh Government?
Well, you'll certainly see, very shortly, published, the document that we commissioned, which does look at the implications of land value tax and what that would mean for Wales. This is part of a suite of research that we've commissioned that looks at various aspects of local taxation, both for non-domestic rates and for council tax. We've also had a piece of work that looks at what the implications would be of re-evaluation, for example, and who the winners and losers would be there; what would be the distributional impact in terms of geography across Wales? Over the course, now, of this spring, there will be several pieces of research published, which, together, will provide all of us with a suite of really insightful evidence in order to consider the way forward.
But, of course, business rates—it's not something that you should reform just for the sake of it. We need to be sure that any reforms are made in a way that meets our Welsh Government priorities more widely. And I have to say that I was really pleased by the announcement today that the UK Government has finally caught up now, and that half of businesses in England will no longer be paying business rates. But, of course, we've had that situation in Wales for a very long time.
Thank you. Conservative spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has today, in his budget, announced a number of key funding commitments to small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as to the hospitality and retail industry, in light of the threat of COVID-19, which was just raised by the Plaid Cymru spokesperson. Today's announcement also includes an extra £360 million a year to the Welsh Government, more investment in infrastructure and more investment in broadcasting, such as S4C. So it's looking as though austerity—so beloved by members of your Government to talk about—is nearing an end. Will you confirm that the Welsh Government will use the Barnett consequentials arising from the Chancellor's pledges to match the UK Government's support?
Well, I've got bad news for the opposition spokesperson, of course, because austerity certainly isn't over. If you look at the documentation that supports the UK Government's budget, the Office for Budget Responsibility paints a pretty gloomy picture of prospects, even before taking into account COVID-19. And that's not surprising, given the UK Government's reckless approach to trade negotiations with our largest and most important trading partner, the European Union. At no point in this Parliament does the OBR suggest that growth will even reach 2 per cent, which is pretty poor by historic terms. So I don't think that we can say austerity is over. And even with the additional funding that comes to Welsh Government today as a result of the UK Government's budget, it barely takes us back to where we were 10 years ago. So, austerity, I'm afraid, is still with us.
Thank you, Minister. I was being mischievous when I mentioned the 'austerity' word—I knew that it would trigger a response similar to that. And some of what you say, in terms of growth, of course there's a basis there, and you're right to point those things out. But I do think that we need to look on the bright side as well. And there is good news in this UK budget, and hopefully the Welsh Government—key to my question—will actually be making use of the consequentials that are coming this way, to improve the situation here in Wales. Because Wales, of course, does have two Governments.
Minister, the Chancellor also announced a number of changes to national insurance and income tax, which, taken together, will mean that people who earn the minimum wage will now be £5,200 better off than they were in 2010. Moreover, beer duty and fuel duty are frozen for another year, so workers will see more money in their pockets in that way.
Here in Wales, we've been talking about the devolution of income tax, and the creation of new taxes. Do you feel that, often, the emphasis here is always on the creation of new taxes, and raising taxes? But there is also a tax-cutting agenda to be addressed, and the Welsh Government does have significant power at its disposal, in certain key tax areas, to reduce the burden on hard-working people in Wales, and to generate more income in the longer term by, of course, encouraging entrepreneurship, and providing businesses with more money to invest. We've heard about your view on taxes this year; could you tell us how you envisage using those tax powers in future, to reduce the tax burden on people in Wales, and to encourage economic growth?
I didn't hear anything from the UK Government today, actually, about changes to income tax. I know that there was an announcement in respect of the national living wage and the national insurance threshold, but I don't recall anything specific to income tax. Because that would be something that we would be keen to explore, particularly in case it had any implications for our Welsh Government funding. Actually, the Chancellor had very little to say on tax today. There was absolutely nothing on air passenger duty and there was nothing on vacant land tax. So those were two things that I was hoping to see in the budget today, but that was not mentioned. So, I don't think that the Chancellor has taken opportunities within his budget, particularly in relation to tax, because there's not an awful lot in it.
Thank you, Minister. You very cleverly chucked in air passenger duty there, knowing full well that this side of the Chamber do support fully the devolution of air passenger duty. So there are certain things we agree on, and there are other things that we do not agree on. The income tax changes mentioned were around thresholds, but that's aside.
Can I just, in terms of my final question, go back to something that Rhun ap Iorwerth raised, importantly, earlier, and that is the COVID-19, the coronavirus, situation? And this budget has contained within it an extra £30 billion or so—I think I'm right in saying—to the NHS, to deal with coronavirus in the UK, specifically in England. Have you had any discussions—? I know that officials in the Welsh Government have been having multiple discussions with officials in the UK—I know that with my public accounts hat on. Could you tell us if you've had any specific discussions with your counterpart in Westminster about the amount of money that will be coming to Wales over and above what we've got in the budget to deal with coronavirus? I think we would all appreciate that you're going to be potentially under massive pressure, and the NHS budget will be under massive pressure if you don't get that proper support for dealing with this extraordinary situation. So, if you could update us on that money in the budget and on any consequentials coming to you and to Wales—. And would you also confirm that that money will be ring-fenced and will be used within the NHS budget for the purpose that it is intended?
I would welcome any support that the Conservatives can give in terms of ensuring that their colleagues in Westminster do ensure that Wales is funded as much as it needs to be in terms of the coronavirus. The Chancellor was at pains in his opening remarks to say that the coronavirus is something that is not a political issue; it is something that we all have to deal with, and we have to work closely across Governments on. And I would agree with him on that.
In terms of the additional funding, the Chancellor announced a £5 billion emergency response fund for the NHS. So, we don't see any consequentials for that immediately, but what we do know is that that would be a figure of funding that might be available, should it become needed as the coronavirus progresses. So, we don't have a figure yet, and I think that's quite right that we don't have a figure yet, but what we do need is that agile working, that sharing of information to ensure that we do get the funding, as and when we need it.
Brexit Party spokesperson, Mark Reckless.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Could I ask the finance Minister to explain how her strategy in terms of business rates relief in Wales differs from that being pursued by the UK Government? They announced today that the 50 per cent retail discount that they have next year is going up to 100 per cent and being extended to leisure and hospitality. Is that an approach that she is attracted to?
And the other efforts they have to support small business, some seem to be on the cusp of what's devolved and what's not. For instance, the British business bank start-up loan fund that they're increasing; by virtue of its name, I assume that businesses in Wales are eligible for that, but I do not know as a fact whether they are. And, what sounded like a rate relief measure in the budget is actually not under the business rates relief heading, but comes under a separate small business grant funding heading, but it seems to have been limited to England through making a £2.2 billion payment through English local authorities and then they give £3,000 back to every business that benefits from their small business rate relief. To extend that small business grant funding, is it right that that should be done by the UK Government on an England-only basis, given what's devolved here?
And I don't expect the Minister to announce her decisions for small business rate relief within an hour or two of the UK budget here, but I wonder if she could say something about her strategy and the outcomes and what she's trying to achieve through that and how that differs from Wales to England.
We recognise how important non-domestic rates are in terms of our public services here in Wales. They contribute more than £1 billion to local government and to police services, and those are services that all businesses will benefit from in some way. We do take a different approach here in Wales, because our tax base is different. So, in Wales, the average rateable value is around £20,000, whereas in England, it's around £32,000. So, it's right, I think, that our rates and our reliefs do reflect those differences and the unique circumstances that we have here in Wales.
More than 70,000 ratepayers in Wales receive rate relief, so that means that half of all businesses pay no rates at all, so that's where England are moving to. So, they're moving in our direction. And I do understand when businesses are looking across the border at different types of relief, they don't always do so in the context of their own situation. So, when their rateable value is significantly lower, it's important to reflect on the proportion of the support that we're able to offer. We have a wide range of reliefs for businesses and that's something I'm wondering actually if we need to start pulling some of those together. We do have the extension of the high street and retail relief scheme into next year. So, that was an announcement that I was able to make in January of an extra £26.6 million for NDR support and that's in addition to the £230 million that we already provide through our existing relief to help ratepayers with their bills. And that's about supporting all retailers with a rateable value of up to £50,000, and that scheme will support around 15,000 ratepayers. So, we have a variety of schemes targeted at different industries, but obviously, I'll be looking closely at any consequentials that might come and how they might come.
Of course, there may be a case for doing it somewhat differently in Wales, but we have a £360 million consequential for next year just announced, and the retail but also the hospitality and leisure businesses are public-facing businesses that we may expect to be particularly affected by coronavirus and all the implications of that. And it does strike me that what the Chancellor has announced at the UK level for England seems a pretty effective way of getting money to those businesses, including those that you didn't mention any view on, those who get the small business rate relief in England, who get £3,000 channelled to them for each business through local authority. That's going to make a very significant difference in mitigating some of the impacts for many of those businesses. And I would encourage the Minister, as she absorbs what's happened in the budget at a UK level, but also when she considers the £360 million and how that pans out, compared to perhaps what she was expecting or not expecting to be in this budget, I do hope that those business rate reliefs will be an area where she can deploy some of that money.
I wonder, could I also ask about the Development Bank of Wales? I mentioned the British Business Bank start-up loans and can confirm actually that they are going to be eligible for all UK businesses—those start-up loans and the increase. But how do they interface with what's available from the Wales development bank? Is there a good deal of overlap? Can businesses benefit from both sources or do they have to choose one or the other? And what role does she see for the Wales development bank in mitigating the impact of the coronavirus? Presumably, for those businesses it has a relationship with already it should be in a good position to provide working capital support where that's necessary. But what's going to happen for its very substantial property development loans, which have been recycled again and again quite successfully to date, if developers find it difficult to sell on those properties? Isn't there a danger that that money will have a less positive impact for the economy at exactly the same time that coronavirus hits, if those developers aren't available to recycle and pay back the money as quickly as they otherwise would have? And can there be any role for the Wales development bank in supporting other businesses specifically for the coronavirus outbreak and working capital needs when it doesn't have that existing business relationship and knowledge of their working capital needs?
Well, the Wales development bank sits within the portfolio of my colleague the Minister for economy, but I do know that it has done really sterling work in terms of helping to support businesses prepare for Brexit. And in many ways, this is about helping businesses prepare for something difficult, so we can learn some of those same lessons.
It's been really important in terms of those property development loans, but also support for microbusinesses in terms of supporting them to grow, if they wish to grow. So, I think there are opportunities really to use those links that we have with those individual businesses to potentially offer support and advice, and this is one of the joys of being a small nation at difficult times, namely that you do have those individual relationships and you do have those opportunities to share information and advice.
But I know that Ken Skates will be looking closely at what role the Wales development bank can play in terms of supporting businesses as we face coronavirus. And I know that colleagues across Government will be having more to say about their own individual contributions to the effort in due course.
3. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs regarding access to emergency financial support for residents affected by recent flooding? OAQ55202
Homes affected during recent storms will receive up to £1,000 from Welsh Government. We are asking those impacted to contact their local authority emergency support teams in the first instance, to ensure they can access support as quickly as possible.
Thank you. As I've mentioned here numerous times, storm Ciara very sadly hit my constituency on 9 February 2020. Now an emergency funding relief scheme was announced on 18 February, and the First Minister stated,
'We will make urgent financial support available to people whose homes have been flooded and, in particular, help families who do not have insurance cover'.
Now, four weeks later, I am still being contacted by a number of my constituents who have filled in the appropriate forms and not heard a thing, and in a month, that's not good. So they've not received a penny. Now, on Sunday Politics, I was really heartened to hear you say that all those affected have now received their £500. Well, as I mentioned, I've got a number that haven't, so what I thought I might do, outside the Chamber, is write to you directly with details of those, so that maybe—. But are you aware of a problem in the processing of these application forms? And I have raised it with the local authority, who say, 'Well, we've done our part.' They've filled the forms in, we've sent them off, but there is this quite long delay, and I also have one lady who's not been offered the £500. She's been offered £80 but has suffered thousands of pounds' worth of damage, so I'm a bit worried about the criteria. Will you look into the processes? Because all I'm asking for is some fairness and balance for my constituents, so that they have something to help them get back on their feet after this awful flooding on 9 February.
I share any concern that people are waiting too long to receive their funding. Most applications to the discretionary assistance fund are processed within 24 hours, so individuals should have the funding within their bank accounts very quickly indeed.
I know that, as of 4 March, there were 278 awards made at £500, and 266 awards made at £1,000, so representing over a total of £405,000. So, I know that DAF is looking at verifying independent claims using data provided by local authorities, so what the individuals really need is for those local authorities to verify and to vouch for the fact that those individual homes have been affected by flooding, and that should be enough for the discretionary assistance fund. So, in the first instance, it would be about the local authority just confirming to DAF that those households have been affected, and then that should make things move more quickly. But of course, I'm keen to provide assistance if I can.
I was encouraged by the response of the First Minister yesterday, who indicated a willingness to consider adopting a scheme similar to the property resilience scheme that operates in England. This allows flood-hit homes and businesses to apply for up to £5,000 to help protect against future flooding. Yet, an answer that I had from the environment Minister this morning says that those households would not be getting a similar scheme in Wales.
I also asked the environment Minister a couple of weeks ago about help for homes and businesses with the cost of energy—dehumidifiers and industrial heaters, essential equipment when drying out a flood-hit property, are really expensive to run. She said that she would look at it, and I quote,
'as part of our ongoing response'.
Can you please let me know what discussions have taken place with regard to providing financial assistance, both for household flood-resilience measures, and for help with energy costs above and beyond what has already been announced to flood-hit homes and businesses? You will be aware, Minister, that there is a great amount of need out there, so can you tell us what additional resources you are making available to meet this need?
Well, I've had discussions with the UK Government about flooding, so you won't see announcements particularly related to Wales in the budget for flooding today. What you will see is an announcement of £120 million for repairs and £200 million directly to local communities for flood resilience. Now, we don't understand yet what the consequential funding might be that flows from that, but we've been really clear that our first and most important thought was dealing with the immediate crisis, and then there will of course be an ongoing piece of work in terms of ensuring community resilience in the future.
I'm hoping that there will be additional funding on top of what's announced in the budget today coming to Wales. That's certainly the discussion that we've been able to have with UK Government, and they've recognised that the situation here in Wales was exceptional, although I was disappointed not to hear Wales mentioned amongst the list of affected places in the Chancellor's statement today.
But these might be issues that the Minister for environment will prioritise in terms of the future, but we haven't yet got to the point where we're setting out the longer term stuff, so these will be discussions that I've yet to have, although the Minister might well be having those discussions with her officials.
Trefnydd, I wonder whether you could update us as to what the situation is with regard to the funding of major infrastructure problems. I know there has been an issue raised by the UK Government in terms of sending details and so on, but, of course, much of the infrastructure damage, some of it's below water, some of it isn't accessible and so on, but certainly Rhondda Cynon Taf is actually putting a lot of its reserves into actually carrying out that work, and, obviously, the Welsh Government is giving support as well. But, the key thing has to be that the money that we were told at UK Government level would be passported to Wales is actually quite vital now, in terms of the commitment that whatever the level of infrastructure damage is, we know that those major structure problems will have that additional financial resource from the UK Government. Have there been any further discussions? Has there been any indication that there will be a guarantee that the funds we need will be forthcoming when we need them in order to carry out those infrastructure reconstructions and repairs?
Well, the Prime Minister committed that funding would be passported to Wales to help us deal with the flooding, and we absolutely will hold him to that. Mick Antoniw is completely right to say that we don't yet know the scale of the challenge ahead of us, in terms of the recovery, because so much of that structural surveying work has yet to be done. Many of the areas that need to be surveyed are inaccessible at the moment. So, there's a lot of work to be done in terms of assessing and coming to an understanding of what the future figure might be.
We've let the UK Government know that we're probably talking about hundreds of millions, rather than tens of millions. I know I've heard figures around £180 million, but local authorities are all the time gathering further understanding. So, I think it will be several months before we can understand the full impact, in terms of spend for recovery, but we will be, certainly, holding the Prime Minister to account for his promise.
4. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Chancellor prior to the publication of the UK Government's budget? OAQ55234
I am in regular contact with UK Treasury Ministers about a range of financial issues. Ahead of the budget, I wrote to the Chancellor setting out our priorities for Wales, including addressing regional inequality and responding to the climate change emergency.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I think it's important that after 10 years we've seen austerity hit our local councils very hard. The Welsh Government has made tremendous efforts to actually minimise the impact austerity from Westminster has had on local authorities, yet we've seen local government in England continually suffering as a consequence of the cuts over there. In this budget, it's not quite clear yet as to how much of a consequential we will have as a result of the budget and the increase, if any, to local councils in England, but can you give assurances that if any consequential comes as a rise of funding to authorities in England that that will be passported straight to local authorities, because they are facing difficult times? We understand that coronavirus is among many other issues. They'll also face challenges as a consequence of coronavirus, because of the services—social services and community services—they often provide. It is important, therefore, that we support them as much as possible. If consequentials come, they should get it.
As David Rees recognises, we haven't yet understood the full picture in terms of where those consequentials might be. I would offer one word of caution in the sense that consequentials are given but they're also taken away, so that is an important consideration in terms of when and how funding is passported. But, as we come to a better understanding of the detail that we will have, then, certainly, there will be further announcements to be made. I have given a commitment that I will provide a written statement as soon as possible. So, after questions today, I intend to continue on that to give colleagues some further information.
In terms of the kind of figures that we have been provided with—we do need to check some of them, because they don't all match up—we're looking in the region of £122 million of revenue and around, or at least, £218 million of capital. But, of course, we have to remember that we had £100 million of capital taken off us just a few weeks ago, so £100 million of that new money today will have to go to plug that gap in our plans, which we have published and voted on for the year ahead. So, there is some of that to understand, and, also, we've had £3 million of financial transactions capital for the next financial year as well. So, as soon as we come to a better understanding, we will be able to make some further announcements on spend for next year.
Minister, I know that the coronavirus will have affected any pre-budget conversations you've had with UK Ministers, but I wonder, when you were having those discussions, what you thought about the various trade sector deals that are important to UK Government, and from which Wales can directly benefit in some cases, notably the tourism sector deal. I think you mentioned the hospitality sector a bit earlier on. So, can you tell me a little bit about those conversations and whether you're expecting anything in this budget announcement in relation to any steel sector deal—whether you've got any heads up on that? A brief question from me, I know, but it's important. Thank you.
There were several things that were obvious by their absence, I think, in the Chancellor's budget today, one of which was any mention of the steel industry. There was no clarity on rail spend. We had references to rail spend in Manchester, Leeds and other areas—Darlington—but nothing for Wales. And there were no real research and development commitments for us in Wales, and it was very unambitious, I think, in terms of tackling the climate emergency. So, there was lots there that I hope was obvious by its absence, steel being one of those areas, but we do continue to work with the UK Government. So, for example, on the future of the automotive industry, that's an area where we both have particular interests, and Welsh Government is particularly keen on developing that sector. So, Ken Slates is leading on some work in terms of how we can best ensure that investment that is brought to the UK does also feed through across to Wales.
5. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding any additional funding that will be provided to the Welsh Government to deal with damage caused by storms Ciara and Dennis? OAQ55204
I am in regular contact with UK Treasury Ministers about securing the additional funding we need to respond to the unprecedented impact across Wales of the recent storms.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, and thank you for the submission that you made to the UK Government regarding the budget. You made a number of important points regarding regional and national inequalities across the UK. You talked about welfare reform and the need for greater co-operation between the UK and Welsh Governments to deliver better social care in the future.
Could I, however, focus my question on the spending pressures from recent storms? In the preliminary information I've received both from Merthyr Tydfil and Caerphilly county borough councils, I can see that there is a need for significant spend in the constituency in order to overcome the impact of the storms, and I know from contributions from colleagues in the Chamber today that this is also true in other areas. Given the previous answers that you gave to other Members this afternoon, I think I'm right in assuming that you've not yet heard anything from today's budget that shows that the UK Government will finally actually step up to the mark and help us to invest in meeting both those current spending pressures and the future challenges facing Wales. Would you agree with me that, given the spending announcements from today's budget, this does finally confirm what we've always known, and that is that the last 10 years of Tory austerity and the hardship that that has brought to many of my constituents was always a policy of choice and not of necessity?
Finally, Minister, like me, do you wonder how the party of fiscal responsibility has managed to borrow £800 billion in the last nine years, almost double what Labour ever borrowed in its 33 years in Government?
I thank Dawn Bowden for raising that particular issue, and allowing me the opportunity again to stress that austerity isn't over with this UK Government budget, and it's very much alive and well. The UK Government has ensured that our budget for next year is still only marginally higher than it was a decade ago. And I think that that does demonstrate that we are still facing some challenges as Welsh Government, but those challenges absolutely feed, then, into local government, and local government has been really keen to impress upon us that one better year of funding, which we've been able to provide them with, doesn't make up for a decade of austerity.
6. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the UK Chancellor's budget statement? OAQ55212
I will be carefully reviewing the budget to assess the impact for Wales. But as always, it will be important to look below the headlines, as the devil is always in the detail, and I intended to publish a written statement later today.
I'm grateful to the Minister for her answer; I appreciate it was a very broad question. I don't know if the Minister has noticed that contained in the budget there is a commitment to a £30 million changing places fund. I'm sure that she would agree with me that the situation that so many of our disabled people face, where they can't be out of the house for more than a certain length of time because they can't access appropriate changing facilities, is something that none of us, I'm sure, across this Chamber would be content to see continue.
May I ask the Minister if she can make an assessment as soon as possible about whether or not we will get a consequential for this? I'm obviously probably one of the last people in this Chamber who would ever say to a Welsh Minister, 'Because they're going to spend this money in England on this, we ought to spend the consequential on exactly the same thing', but I have been very pleased to be supporting over some months the Llanelli changing places campaign in my own region, for example, and I'm sure she'd agree with me that it's absolutely unacceptable that a town of that size doesn't have a single changing places facility available for the disabled residents.
So, could I ask the Minister to find out as soon as it's feasible whether there will be a consequential and if she will consider having discussions with the appropriate Ministers—the Minister for planning, the Minister for social services—to see if it would be possible on this occasion, for this particular consequential, if we get one—and I really believe that we should—to be used? One of the disability charities has estimated that if we get the proper consequential for this we could provide 19 new changing places in Wales, which would obviously be of huge benefit to our disabled fellow citizens.
Well, the changing places fund wasn't one of the items that was mentioned in the Chancellor's speech itself, but I'm sure I'll find the detail set within the spreadsheets that accompany the announcement. So, I'll be taking the opportunity to explore in depth what has been offered through those spreadsheets and where those consequentials fall. So, at the moment, I don't have a full picture because it will take some time to get underneath the detail, but as soon as I do, I'll be able to make some further announcements.
Question 7 [OAQ55200] has been withdrawn. So, finally, question 8, Mike Hedges.
8. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government's budget prioritisation process? OAQ55192
The budget strategy is agreed by Cabinet at the start of the year. Prioritisation is guided by the bilateral discussions I have with Ministers and wider engagement with the four statutory commissioners and external stakeholders. The budget improvement plan outlines our approach to improving the budget process over the longer time frame.
Can I thank the Minister for that response? The amount of money spent on services is easily accounted for, but what's more difficult to identify is the outcomes achieved by that money. Does the Minister currently or does the Minister intend to set targets to be achieved with additional money provided to the different Ministers so that we can see that we're getting enough bang for our buck?
Mike Hedges's suggestion almost sounds attractively authoritarian, but I'm not sure that it is the view—. [Laughter.] I'm not sure that it's for the finance Minister to set targets across Government, but I do think that where they are appropriate, they should be developed by those Ministers and monitored closely by the individual Ministers as well.
So, there are some examples in our Welsh Government annual report, which was published in January, which show how we work against some sets of targets. One example, of course, would be the 20,000 affordable homes target during this term of Government, which we aim to build, and, of course, we're attaching £175 million of funding in 2020-1 to a diverse range of measures in order to help us progress our housing ambitions. So, whilst I'm not sure it would be for me to set targets, clearly, if colleagues set targets, then I'm keen to support them to achieve them.
Thank you very much, Trefnydd.
Item 3 on the agenda this afternoon is questions to the Counsel General and Minister for European Transition in respect of his law officer responsibilities. Question 1 is Helen Mary Jones.
1. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government regarding the legal impact of the UN’s Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women? OAQ55206
The Welsh Government is committed to advancing gender equality in Wales. We have commissioned research to explore options for advancing equality and human rights in Wales. A firm commitment to promoting those rights is built into the Welsh Government's DNA and directly influences our policies, legislation and decisions.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his response. Does the Counsel General agree with me that we may be facing a situation, given the nature of the Government at the other end of the M4 and the pressure there to deregulate, and what many of us would be concerned about in terms of a potential lack of commitment to equality, where the current equality legislation and the Equality Act 2010—we may face it being amended, in a way that many of us would not like? Does he further agree with me that one route that we may be able to go down in Wales to provide a legal framework for equality issues, and particularly in this case, for sex equality, would be to incorporate the appropriate UN conventions into Welsh law? I was very pleased to hear him mention the research, and I wonder if he can give an indication this afternoon of—I know he's not directly commissioned it—when that research may be completed and when it may be appropriate to share that with this Assembly and the appropriate committees.
Certainly. Well, she refers to CEDAW, which is, of course, effectively an international Bill of rights for women and enshrines the principles of equality that we would wish to see upheld and advanced. And we would fundamentally oppose any attempt to weaken the Equality Act.
We have sought to ensure that when we look at questions in relation to conventions, we do so in a holistic way. CEDAW itself, and the reflections that came out of the examination on its compliance in February of last year—in which Welsh Government officials were directly involved in order to make sure that Welsh interests and Welsh issues were directly represented and raised during that examination process—those reflections have fed directly into the gender equality review, the interim output of which has been considered by the Cabinet. But the research to which she refers, my understanding is that that is intended to have concluded by the end of this year, so that the output of that would be available during this Assembly term, as I understand it.
2. What legal advice has the Counsel General given to the Welsh Government in relation to the possibility of establishing family drug and alcohol courts in Wales? OAQ55203
We agree with the justice commission's recommendation to establish family drug and alcohol courts, and work is already under way to explore the feasibility of, and the mechanisms for, doing so.
Thank you. Of course, with regard to family drug and alcohol courts, during the Public Accounts Committee earlier this year, Albert Heaney, director of social services and integration, Welsh Government, advised that the judiciary regard them as being very positive, and a good approach that can be very helpful to families. Similarly, last October, the Commission on Justice in Wales called for the immediate establishment of FDACs in Wales. As I have said previously, I believe that the evidence indicates that the creation of FDACs in Wales could be, and probably is, in the best interest of children and parents. Could you provide an update as to how the Commission on Justice's recommendation is being progressed?
Well, we agree with the recommendation to establish the courts, as I indicated in my earlier answer. Officials have started work in this area through discussions about that particular recommendation, most recently at the family justice network meetings in November of last year, and again on 4 March of this year just gone. The president of the family division, as I think she was referring in her question, has stated that he is strongly in favour of FDACs, as they align well with the well-being legislation that we have in Wales, and fundamentally represent that preventative approach rather than a punitive approach. At that family justice network meeting on 4 March, a presentation was made about the functions and effectiveness of the FDACs, and it was agreed that local authorities would consider a pilot in relation to that issue.
3. What legal representations has the Counsel General made on behalf of the Welsh Government in support of the Backto60 appeal about the alleged mishandling of raising the state pension age for women born in the 1950s? OAQ55205
I'm aware, of course, that permission to appeal has been granted by the Court of Appeal itself in relation to the pension challenge, and that the appeal hearing will take place in late July. Whilst the Welsh Government is not a party to that action, we have, of course, written to the UK Government on a number of occasions to express serious concerns that women who've had their state pension age raised without effective or sufficient notification are being prejudiced.
I'm grateful to the Counsel General for his response. Given that we now have a new Government at the other end of the M4, and that that Government talks a lot about levelling up and about fairness, would the Counsel General consider, perhaps with the Deputy Minister with responsibility for equalities, making further representations to the appropriate Minister at Westminster and perhaps looking again at whether or not there may be some contribution that we could make, perhaps by way of evidence, to the appeal that he mentions? It may be that, with a new Minister in place, and with this new emphasis on fairness, and a slightly more relaxed approach to spending, we may get somewhat of a better hearing. I don't think any of us would be sanguine, but I'm sure that the women affected here in Wales would be very grateful if the Welsh Government were prepared to try again.
I know he agrees with me that this is a very profound injustice, that these women were picked on, and we know they were picked on, because the then Chancellor of the Exchequer thought that he could get away with it. He thought that they wouldn't fight back. This may be an opportunity for the Government of Wales, on behalf of this whole Assembly, to make further representations on behalf of our fellow citizens who have been most foully treated.
The Member certainly is not sanguine, nor are we on these benches, as she generously accepts in her question. As she will know from our previous exchanges in the Chamber in relation to this, we have sought every opportunity to put our perspective on behalf of women in Wales to the UK Government and have frequently received responses that we have put in the public domain. She will herself, I'm sure, share our assessment of the gross inadequacy of those responses in tackling the injustice that we seek to represent women in Wales on on that matter.
I have already had reflections on how we can continue to make representations in relation to this new stage of legal proceedings and will be discussing that with the Deputy Minister. We should be absolutely clear that the women who face this injustice have faced a number of other injustices very frequently during their working lives, and the UK Government should do all it can to ensure that, in this respect, at least, it stands on the side of those women who have given so much to society and have found, later on in life, that the Government is not standing on their side.
Thank you very much, Counsel General.
Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is questions to the Assembly Commission. This afternoon, all questions will be answered by the Llywydd. Question 1—Neil Hamilton.
1. Will the Commission provide an update on the flags flown on the Assembly estate? OAQ55226
The Assembly has four flag poles at three locations on the estate—two Welsh flags, one union jack flag, and one National Assembly for Wales flag, which are flown on the poles every day. There are established arrangements for varying the flags that are displayed, and the guest flags take the place of the Assembly flag, usually.
Thank you for that response.
I was very pleased to see the Catalan flag flying today, but, on a more regular basis, I wonder whether we could continue to fly the Commonwealth flag, which I saw earlier in the week. We have been members of the Commonwealth, obviously, since the inception of it. It has 54 member states, it encompasses 11 million square miles, spans all six inhabited continents, has 20 per cent of the world's landmass and a population of 2.4 billion people. The London declaration that established the Commonwealth member states as equal and free in 1949 states that its values are democracy, human rights and the rule of law, values that every progressive society should preserve and defend in the twenty-first century. And, of course, it has been presided over, as head of the Commonwealth, by Her Majesty the Queen for 68 years. So, I wonder if the Llywydd could tell us whether the Commission would look favourably upon this request either to fly the Commonwealth flag on a permanent basis, subject to special occasions such as today, or the flags of individual Commonwealth countries.
Usually, of course, on the fourth pole, it's the National Assembly flag that is flown. As the Member has said, the Catalan flag is flown today in recognition of the fact that the Presiding Officer of the Catalonian Parliament is visiting, and the Commonwealth flag was flown yesterday and the day before that to recognise the Commonwealth Day. That's what the policy has been in recent years: to fly the Commonwealth flag for two days per year during the period of Commonwealth Day.
I often have applications from Members to fly various flags to do with unions, states and different campaigns. I think it's very important that we do keep one of our flag poles available for the flags that reflect the special days or weeks or months to promote campaigns and recognised international days. That's my opinion on the issue. I don't expect every Member to agree with that.
Huw Irranca-Davies. No?
My apologies; I didn't realise my name was down. But, yes, I would like to ask a question relating to—
Well, don't feel obliged. Don't feel obliged to. But you are down.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. My request would be, knowing that we have an international strategy now that is looking at our links with other regions that have Celtic connections—the Basque Country, Catalonia, et cetera—whether or not we can indeed look at periodically, actually, flying, as we have today, those flags on a much more regular basis, and echoing what Neil Hamilton has just said, because I think that would be a good indication of the fact that Wales is a very outward-looking nation.
I'm very keen to receive requests and suggestions from Members as to how we support our work here in the flying of flags and demonstrate our solidarity beyond Wales and with international organisations and countries elsewhere. If people have views—Members have views—on how our internationalist approach to our National Assembly can be reflected in our policy on flags, then I'm very keen to hear that, both from Members here and from the Government in its own international strategy.
2. What action is the Commission taking to raise awareness amongst those newly eligible to vote of their right to do so in the May 2021 Senedd elections? OAQ55211
Awareness raising is a key priority for the Senedd Commission ahead of the next Senedd election, particularly among 16 and 17-year-olds, who will be able to vote for the first time. This includes contributing to the development of appropriate resources, which will be available from May onwards. And we're also working with partners such as the Electoral Commission and the Welsh Government to raise awareness in time for the elections next year.
I'm very grateful to the Llywydd for her answer, and it's extremely encouraging. I wonder if she can say a little bit more about how young people themselves are being involved in the discussion about how best we can communicate these messages to them? And, on a slightly different but related matter, can she tell us what partnerships are being developed to enable those foreign national citizens who will be able to vote in our Senedd elections to become aware? I just happened to have a conversation with a friend of mind who's originally from Romania, and she was very surprised, as well as very delighted, to know that she'd be able to vote in the next election, as would her husband, who's originally from Poland. So, those two points, really—how are we involving young people in the discussions about how best to get the messages across, and how are we enabling those citizens whose roots are elsewhere to understand that they can vote in this election?
Thank you for those two aspects of the question, relating to the two new aspects of the franchise that will be relevant to the elections next year. Of course, we have been preparing somewhat longer for the franchise to include 16 and 17-year-olds, assuming that that would be part of the legislation, and so our work certainly involves young people through the Youth Parliament, and through those partners who have collaborated with us in establishing the Youth Parliament, and who work directly with young people and with our work as a Commission in providing our support to schools in undertaking extra-curricular or outreach work to promote awareness among young people in Wales of democracy and the new right that they will have, and that work will intensify and continue in the months to come.
In terms of the second aspect of the question about the franchise expanding to include foreign nationals, of course, that's an aspect that's more new for us as a Commission, because it became part of the legislation during the scrutiny process, and so our hope is to work with the Government and the Electoral Commission to ensure that the citizens in Wales who have this new right to vote in the election next year will be aware of that. So, we will be, over the coming months, starting this important work to ensure that the Government and local authorities, of course, provide the correct information to people about their right to vote, bearing in mind, of course, that this has happen in time not just for the vote next year but importantly for the canvass this year to put people on the register for voting next year.
Llywydd, I was in Garth Olwg school in my constituency recently, and I can tell you how enthusiastic so many of the young students are that they will actually be participating in the Assembly election votes next year. One of the things that was considered when the legislation was going through the Assembly was not only the issue of political education but also the idea of how we actually make voting easier—the digitisation, perhaps, of the electoral register, perhaps the automatic registration of 16-year-olds, because they are all either in school or in colleges, and that would be something that would be quite feasible. And also why shouldn't it be the case that we have ballot boxes in schools? So, all of these were new ideas that were suggested in terms of how to make voting easier and also to increase participation in voting. Are any of those things on the cards? Are they under consideration? Might you be able to enlighten us as to whether there has been any progress with some of these ideas?
Well, these, of course, are ideas and issues that were raised during the scrutiny process of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, as they are with the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill in its scrutiny process at the moment as well. I think it's a matter for Welsh Government to propose legislation on changing the way that we vote, rather than who votes for this Assembly, and I know that there is some discussion around that as part of the local government and elections Bill, and I know that these are issues that interest a lot of people, because making sure that we make voting accessible as well as interesting for people is something that should unite us all.
How we do that and when we do that are matters, I think, that we need to possibly discuss a little bit more here in this Senedd itself, and I'm up for having that discussion. We're not there yet, but I'm sure that these are ways that—the young people will lead us older, more traditionally thinking people along those routes. Myself, I wouldn't be against voting on my own phone. I could do it from here now, if I could. But I think we will move with the times. At this point, we're probably moving a little bit too slowly in order to keep up with how young people want to engage with us, but we need to be open to those new ideas that are coming from schools like Garth Olwg and other schools right throughout Wales.
Commissioner, the expert panel advising on electoral reform, specifically extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, recommended a programme of proper political education as part of the curriculum. Has this education really been going on for long enough, as the new law has only just recently passed, and what representation has the Assembly Commission made to the Welsh Government to make this happen?
Thank you for the question. Yes, you're perfectly correct that the expert panel was very strong in its view that political education alongside the right to vote were two equally important measures to take in enabling young people to take part in the democratic process. The Commission is working with the Welsh Government, the Electoral Commission and others, but in particular, in this aspect of resources available to schools, to develop with Welsh Government resources that will be available as of September, the September term, to enable those 16 and 17-year-olds that are in school to access the most up-to-date information on their new right to vote at 16 and 17, remembering, of course, that not all young people with that new right will be in a school setting—also in a college setting and also in work settings—and we need to make sure that everybody is as equally empowered to know of their new right and how to exercise that right.
3. Will the Commission make a statement on what advice is given to Assembly Commission staff in relation to the containment of coronavirus? OAQ55196
The situation is constantly changing and, as a result, our considerations are also changing. Yesterday, an extraordinary meeting of the Commissioners was held to provide an update on the situation and to discuss the initial principles of our response. We continue to respond to advice that's changing on a daily basis, and careful planning needs to be done on the basis of different scenarios. The Commission provides all staff with information and advice about coronavirus that is as complete and up to date as possible. This information is available on our intranet.
If a Member suspects that they're infected, they should inform Members' business services immediately. In the case of staff members, they should inform their employer and the Commission immediately. Individuals who suspect that they are infected should contact the NHS helpline by calling 111 and isolate themselves at an appropriate place.
As the situation evolves, there may be implications for Assembly business, and we will ensure timely and appropriate decisions are made as a result of that. In the meantime, the Commission has taken proactive measures, such as placing guidance on thorough hand washing in the estate's toilets, and providing hand gel at all entrances to the building and public areas.
The situation is expected to intensify quickly, so we all have a responsibility in playing a part in preventing the spread of the virus. I'd like to assure you that the Commission is doing everything within its ability to safeguard staff, Members and visitors to the estate.
Thank you, Llywydd. With an increase in the number of confirmed cases, from 273 on Sunday to 373 yesterday, which is now an increase of 15 cases in Wales, I think it's reasonable for us all to be concerned about the potential further spread of this virus. The National Assembly for Wales and, indeed, our constituency offices are very much public facing, so I certainly welcome the fact that Members' business support issued e-mails on 28 February and again yesterday. One question I have: will there be notices provided to our constituency offices, because that's quite a good base for us to not only advise our own staff again, but to advise—maybe something for the windows of our constituency offices, just with some basic public hygiene advice?
I have reported in myself here some concerns, because I do know of one bathroom here on this estate where there is no hot water easily available and there is no soap, so it's as well that my concerns, when I do raise them, are taken quite seriously.
Now, as you are also aware, Llywydd, there are plans afoot to conduct a week of business in north-east Wales. I take you back to your comment you made earlier, that this thing could rise quite significantly on an imminent basis. So, what plans and considerations are in place now to think about the feasibility of continuing with that visit to north Wales? And, should there have to be a cancellation of this visit on an imminent basis, are we protected against any financial implications that may result as a result of that cancellation?
I'm very aware, as somebody who has a constituency office in Aberystwyth, that members of the public are going to constituency offices right throughout Wales to seek some advice from their elected representatives. I think it would be best if elected representatives look to Public Health Wales for much of the information that's on their website, which is easily downloadable, in terms of public health information, and to make that as available as possible in their local communities and, possibly, on window displays elsewhere, so that there's a consistency of messages that are reaching people in different ways. We're always very aware, of course, that people who are able to access, digitally, information from the Public Health Wales website are able to do that, but many of our constituents are not online and may well be visiting town centres and looking for other places for advice. I'm sure that we would want to make that as available as possible to them via Public Health Wales's most recent information.
The ongoing business of this place as our national Parliament is one that we will continue to review over the next few weeks. You make the point about Senedd Clwyd as well, which is meant to take place in June. You can be assured, as Members, that I and fellow Commissioners are very keen to look carefully and proportionately from day to day as we plan for the future business of this place, whether it's held here in Cardiff Bay or in Mold.
Thank you, Llywydd.
Item 5 on the agenda this afternoon is topical questions. The topical question this afternoon is to be answered by the Minister for Economy, Transport and North Wales. David Rees.
1. Following yesterday’s announcement by Tata Steel regarding the number of job losses in the UK, will the Minister make a statement on the impact these losses will have in Wales, and in particular the plant in Port Talbot? 404
Yes, of course. First of all, Tata Steel did not make an announcement yesterday. However, the news articles did report on questions that were asked of staff and an internal memo from Tata Steel. I can assure the Member that we continue to engage with Tata Steel about how their transformation programme will impact on operations in Wales and, indeed, we continue to impress upon them the importance of standing by their commitment to seek to avoid compulsory redundancies and reduce job losses to an absolute minimum.
I thank the Minister for that answer, and I thank him for his correction of my question as well. But clearly, we have mixed views on the news that came out yesterday, whichever way it came out. The 1,000 job losses that had been projected for the UK have gone down to 500, so that's a good bit of news. But of course there are still 500 job losses, whether they are compulsory redundancies or not, which we have been informed they will not be; they are still job losses and an opportunity for young people to move into careers in the steel industry.
We still have no detail as to where those job losses will be or what functions they would be within. It is important, I think, that we now get that detail, and I'm sure you agree with me that it is important that they respect that and that they respect the steelworkers and give them those details. In the original announcement, they indicated that by February we'd know where the functions would be. It's now March, and we just simply have information that the job numbers have gone down, but there's still no detail on where those functions will be or where those functions are located, and that's important.
Steelworkers have given continued dedication to Tata, maintaining and strengthening the steel industry over difficult times. They've faced challenges since the 2017 announcement, and there are global challenges as well. So, it is important that they are given that same respect back by Tata by giving them those details.
I also agree that it doesn't remove the challenges facing the steel industry in Wales and the UK, and the chief executive officer of Tata Europe, Henrik Adam, has himself indicated that there are serious financial challenges still facing the industry. Therefore, will you ensure that the Welsh Government looks at how we can support investment in the steel sector? And will you again—I know you've called upon them before—call upon the UK Government and the new Secretary of State to have a steel council meeting to look at how we can actually expand the steel industry?
They've just sold British Steel in Scunthorpe off to a Chinese company, with a commitment of £1.2 billion investment over the years. Tata have indicated some investment, but we need investment of that level to ensure that we have a playing field in which Tata in Port Talbot and Tata in Wales can actually face the global challenges that are coming down the line. Therefore, will you take that message back to London, to ensure that this is a twenty-first century business? It is modern, it's not old; it is a modern business. It has a strong future, and the UK economy needs a strong steel industry. We need to make sure that message is made loud and clear in London.
Can I thank Dai Rees for his questions and the points that he's made, which are absolutely right? After I repeatedly called for a UK steel round-table to be convened, one was convened on 5 February. There were two major issues raised at that round-table: one concerned procurement and the need to ensure that we use steel produced in the UK on UK infrastructure projects, and then the second concerned the incredibly high cost of energy and the need for the UK Government to address this.
Now, Dirprwy Llywydd, I haven't been able to check on the very latest announcements as part of the budget, but the message was absolutely clear at that round-table that the Government had to take an opportunity in this budget to announce measures to alleviate the high and volatile costs of electric. That is absolutely vital if the sector is to transition to a low-carbon position in the years to come, which will be assisted by, of course, development money from Welsh Government and UK Government.
A lot has been said about funds such as the industrial energy transformation fund and the clean steel fund, but I think we need to bear in mind the scale of these funds compared to funds that are being rolled out elsewhere. It amounts to about £500 million in total over several years for the whole of the sector in the UK and, indeed, other sectors where energy-intensive operations are found—£500 million over several years. Compare that with the £5 billion that the Dutch Government is investing every year in decarbonisation of industry, and that demonstrates why the UK Government really does need to take more ambitious action in this regard, listen to the steel sector and implement change as necessary.
Now, Dai Rees is absolutely right that, whilst it would be inappropriate to discuss at length a leaked memo, it does give us heart that we're seeing a movement in the right direction insofar as Tata is concerned and the Welsh plants are concerned. I can inform Members that I, along with the First Minister, had a very, very productive meeting with Henrik Adam, CEO of Tata Steel Europe, just a few weeks ago where we discussed a number of issues, including their transformation plan. The company made it clear that they would be providing me with a formal update on the impact on the Welsh sites according to their transformation plans as soon as that information is available. They're still looking into issues concerning the identity of the proposed jobs that will be lost, but I pledge to update Members as soon as I have had that formal notification.
I'm very grateful to David Rees for placing this question, and to the Minister for his response. I fully appreciate that the Minister doesn't want to get drawn into detailed discussions about what turns out to be a leaked memo, but I would associate myself with what he and David Rees have said about how this looks as if it is travel in the right direction and that this is encouraging.
I'd also very much agree with the Minister that the UK Government's investment in supporting the long term future of the steel industry, and particularly in decarbonisation, is pretty woefully inadequate. I think that one of the opportunities that we were offered by Brexit, were we not, was that some key industries that perhaps could not be supported because of state aid rules could now be perhaps more strongly supported? I wonder if the Minister will undertake to raise that point with UK Ministers: that they've, in a sense, been hiding behind the whole state aid process and saying, 'We can't invest. We have to be really careful'—I'm not sure that either the Minister or I would have fully accepted those excuses. But now, of course, we're in a position where we're moving away from that and, in terms of medium term investment, we may be in a position where further investment could be made in ways that perhaps were not available to us before.
The emphasis is obviously here on the huge scale of the jobs in Port Talbot and the huge importance to that community, but I'd also draw the Minister's attention the 649 jobs in Trostre in Llanelli, in my region. Now, that isn't as many jobs, but in terms of the importance of those jobs to that community and the quality of the work, the stability of the work, we would obviously be very concerned in mid and west Wales if some of the jobs that are targeted to be lost were there, or if very many of them were targeted in Trostre. My understanding is that because it's a pretty specialised type of process that they are relatively not at risk, but will the Minister undertake today—and I'm grateful for him telling us that he'll come back to this Chamber as soon as he knows more from Tata—to specifically raise the case of the plant at Trostre and the workers there?
Because, just as David Rees has said, these are people who have worked incredibly hard; they've been prepared to make changes; they've shown a lot of loyalty and dedication to the company; and I'm sure that the Minister would agree with me that that loyalty and that flexibility deserves to be rewarded.
Can I thank Helen Mary Jones for her question and her contribution this afternoon? I promise I will raise concerns about the numbers that could be lost from Trostre and every other steel site in the Tata family in Wales. The Member is absolutely right that the transformation planning is seeking to identify primarily white collar jobs that could be cut rather than blue collar. The numbers, as I understand them, of white collar at Trostre are not hugely significant, although there are obviously many backroom office jobs that could be affected. So, I will absolutely fight the case for Trostre and the retention of as many jobs there as possible.
I would agree with the Member as well that the state aid defence is a weak defence now, and it's also a weak defence, as we discussed yesterday, in terms of the support that could be offered to Cardiff Airport and many other sectors in the economy. Steel is strategically important in numerous ways for the UK. No other nation, as far as I can see, would be willing to allow steelmaking to be lost from their shores. Here in the UK, the UK Government must work with us in partnership. We wish to work with the UK Government. I'm determined to work with BEIS. I wish to see experience and expertise exchanged between Welsh Government and BEIS in order to ensure that we give the best possible fighting chance to the steel sector and many other areas of our economy for future generations. And that work should begin today with a concerted effort by the UK Government, through the budget, to address high energy prices.
Thank you, Minister. I think the fact that—this may be a leaked memo, but, obviously, you and the First Minister have been having conversations with Tata. There's an indication here, isn't there, that some granularity has been discussed here and that there must be some certainty on the part of Tata now about which parts of their operation they consider to be the most vulnerable and who's likely to be affected by them. So, the sooner we have that news, good or bad, the better, I think, not least because I think it needs to be shared with regional skills partnerships and colleges so that they can start the work on mitigation work, where, if we are going to have yet another flood of skilled people hitting our joblessness figures, then the opportunity for colleges and the regional skills partnership to plan for that would be, actually, very, very helpful indeed. And, of course, we're not just talking about employees potentially at Port Talbot, but but their supply chains as well. So, my question is: what are you likely to be telling them, and when?
I agree with you that the underlying issues haven't particularly gone away. You mentioned the high energy costs; I'm not going to disagree with you on that point, but every time you mention energy costs, I'm going to mention business rates, which is something that is within the gift of Welsh Government to deal with. So, I wonder, on the back of that, if you can tell me whether—perhaps it's a bit early to answer this question, to be fair—the Bank of England announcement today about a reduction in interest rates will help Tata at all in any way, managing, at least, their cashflow, if nothing else.
And then, finally, somebody's got to mention coronavirus in this context. And we did raise it, or you raised it, actually, in your response to a question I raised at the last cross-party group on steel, about whether there were unforeseen circumstances that could be new hits on the global steel picture—obviously, coronavirus is one of those—and what steps can we take in terms of early conversations with Tata not to use this virus as an additional excuse to try and close parts of the industry that are located in the UK, actually, overall, but particularly in Wales. Thank you.
Can I thank Suzy Davies for her questions and the points that she made? Again, really important points, and I'd agree with pretty much everything that she's said. In particular, if I could just touch on the issue of coronavirus. Discussions are already under way with BEIS in relation to the impact that coronavirus could have on the economy, and particularly in those areas of the economy where we rely on quite considerable movement of people, or high dependence on goods from those territories where economic activity is either slowing down or seizing up as a result of the virus.
It's quite clear to everyone concerned that the damage to the economy could, in a worst-case scenario, be quite considerable, and therefore, it will require a concerted effort by the UK Government to ensure that as many businesses as possible can overcome what will be a temporary period of difficulty. I'm yet to receive full detail of what the Chancellor has announced today in terms of support for business through the coronavirus, but I very much hope that it will be a sufficient package to enable not just companies in the steel sector but across the economy to address the challenge of coronavirus in the months to come.
I think it's probably too early to determine the potential benefit of interest rate reductions by the Bank of England in terms of how that might assist with cashflow issues. However, the Development Bank of Wales, the high street banks I will be speaking with are already saying that they will be ready to assist many businesses, and that is very welcome indeed.
And I just repeat the point that, as soon as anything formal is available to me from Tata, I will share that detail with Members. And Suzy Davies is absolutely right, the RSPs need to know, at the earliest opportunity, so that plans can be made to accommodate those who could be left without work to ensure that they get the right support to get back into employment.
Thank you. Finally, John Griffiths.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. Minister, thank you for your response to questions, and, particularly, stating that you will have in mind all the Tata sites in Wales in your discussions with UK Government and with Tata in general, because, obviously, for me, the Llanwern site in Newport East is still very, very important, having several hundred jobs and being very important to suppliers and contractors. Of course, we have a particular situation with the Orb site, which is idle at the moment, but, obviously, we still very much hope that that will come back into production and play a part in the steel industry in Newport and Wales.
So, within the general picture, Minister, I would welcome your reassurance, adding to what you've already said this afternoon, that Newport's steel industry will be very much in your mind, as you have talks and discussions, and make sure that steel has a very strong future in Wales.
I can assure the Member that Newport steel has been right there, right at the forefront of my mind, whenever I've spoken with Tata, whenever I've discussed these issues with counterparts in the UK Government. That will go on. I'm determined to ensure that as many jobs as possible within the steel sector in the Newport area are retained, and that we can actually build on the strength of the sector in Newport.
There was positive news recently in terms of the Welsh steel sector, and that came with the announcement of around 100 new jobs in the sector. I thought that that was particularly important at this moment in time, given the uncertainty that's being caused by a number of factors, including energy prices, ongoing uncertainty concerning Brexit, and, of course, coronavirus. That gave a very welcome shot in the arm of the sector in south Wales in particular, where the announcement was made, but for the whole of steel making across the UK.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 6 on the agenda this afternoon is 90-second statements. The first this week is from Jenny Rathbone.
Thank you very much. One in 10 women is affected by endometriosis. The causes of endometriosis are unclear, but retrograde menstruation, hormonal imbalance, surgical scars, problems with the immune system and genetics all play a part.
Many women suffer for years before understanding why they suffer with painful monthly periods, chronic lower back pain, pain during sex, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating and nausea, especially during their periods. Parents, teachers, employers and even the medical profession fail to spot the symptoms. It can take an average of eight years and 26 GP appointments to get to see an endometriosis specialist.
Endometriosis awareness training for GPs is now being rolled out across the Welsh NHS. And more endo nurses are being employed in line with NICE guidance. But there's only one specialist endometriosis centre in Cardiff for the whole of Wales, with a range of treatments to alleviate, but unfortunately unable to cure, this disease. Endometriosis costs the UK economy over £8 billion in healthcare treatments and lost employment, and the psychosocial impact is hard to put a figure on.
I want to pay tribute to the Endo March Wales co-ordinators: Nikki Dally, Samantha Hickson and Karla Edwards and all the other grass-roots campaigners who’ve raised the profile of endometriosis in Wales. It takes place every year on the last Saturday of this month. Last year, they were in Cardiff and Llandudno, and on Saturday, 28 March, they'll be in Cardiff and Mold. If you can, please join them.
On 8 March 1955, Dai Dower faced off in a boxing ring in the Earls Court arena against Nazzareno Gianelli. Dower beat his opponent, taking the European flyweight title. He was described as 'Boxing at his brilliant best'. He dazzled the watching crowd. This was the high point of the professional career of
'the fighting phenomenon of the south Wales Valleys’.
He claimed his third title, added to his British and Empire championships.
Life had started very differently for David William Dower. Born 20 June 1933, he started his career working as a miner in Abercynon colliery. A flair for boxing led to a successful amateur career, which he pursued alongside his grinding work in the pit. He was amateur flyweight champion, and competed in the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki. His professional career began the following year. When he took the European title, Dower was undefeated in the ring. In 1956, he was ranked second in the world. March 1957 saw him fail to claim the world flyweight title, and although he also lost the European title, he was undefeated British and Empire champion.
In 1958, Dower retired from professional sport at the ripe old age of 25. He became a sports teacher in a Bournemouth school, ending up head of sport at the town’s university. He died in August 2016, but his memory, as one of Wales's most successful sportsmen, and one of Abercynon’s most beloved sons, lives on.
This week is the hundredth anniversary of the death of Daniel James. Daniel James was a poet and hymn writer, but he is far better known by his bardic name, Gwyrosydd. Whilst being a prolific hymn writer, he is best known for composing the words of Calon Lân, which is normally sung to a tune written by John Hughes who was from Ynystawe in Swansea.
He was both born and buried in Swansea. He was a member of Mynyddbach chapel, the mother church for the Independent movement in Swansea, which now has the Calon Lân Centre attached to it. He started work in the Morriston ironworks as a puddler and he later worked in Landore tinplate works. In his middle age, the Landore works closed, and he found work successively at Tredegar, Dowlais, Blaengarw, and eventually in Mountain Ash, spending 15 years in one of Nixon's collieries, and finally, whilst in failing health, working for the local authority.
Much of his verse was unassuming and very popular, appearing first in periodicals and newspapers. He would also write a poem for a pint at the King's Head in Treboeth—perhaps the original 'poems and pints'. There has been a memorial tablet in Treboeth Public Hall since 1936, and a more recent one has been installed in Caersalem Newydd in Treboeth. The Calon Lân Society in Swansea have held several events and will be installing stained glass windows in the local school to commemorate the life of Daniel James, an ordinary working man with exceptional talent whose hymn, Calon Lân is the best-loved Welsh hymn.
Item 7 is a motion to amend Standing Orders, and I call on a Member of the Business Committee to move that motion, Caroline Jones.
Motion NDM7295 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly, in accordance with Standing Order 33.2:
1. Considers the report of the Business Committee 'Amending Standing Orders: Standing Order 12—Proxy Voting' laid in the Table Office on 3 March 2020.
2. Approves the proposal to revise Standing Order 12 and make consequential changes to Standing Order 17, as set out in Annex B of the report of the Business Committee.
3. Notes that these changes are temporary, and will cease to have effect on 6 April 2021.
Thank you. The proposal is to amend the Standing Orders. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Okay, so we vote under that item at voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Item 8 this afternoon is a debate on a Member's legislative proposal: equal opportunities audit. I call on Helen Mary Jones to move the motion—Helen.
Motion NDM7247 Helen Mary Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes a proposal for a Bill to provide an equal opportunities audit for firms in receipt of Welsh Government grants.
2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to:
a) improve and encourage equal opportunities in the private sector in Wales; and
b) build on the findings of Fair Work Wales: Report of the Fair Work Commission.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. This proposal is intended as a constructive contribution to the debate as to what will happen to equality policy here in Wales after Brexit. On these benches, we believe that equality law should be devolved in all its aspects, but we're realistic enough to understand that, given the current complexion of the Government at the other end of the M4, we're unlikely to get that devolution, as I'm sure many of us would wish, in the short term. We fully support full and unequivocal devolution, but if that isn't going to happen, we need to think about what we can do here in Wales within the powers that are currently devolved.
I think many of us do believe that we are likely to see big changes in the equality environment at a UK or GB level. There are elements of the current Government in Westminster who are very anti-regulation and by inference, that makes some of them, I believe, anti-equality. I must be clear, Dirprwy Lywydd, that I'm not implying that of the Conservative benches here; we have great champions of equality on the Conservative benches, and I see Suzy Davies and Mark Isherwood here, and there are many others. But there is that tendency at a UK level. That was used, was it not, used as one of the justifications for Brexit—that so-called burdens could be lifted from business in the UK? I'm sure that the Deputy Minister will agree with me that that is not something that we would wish to see, but if it is going to happen, much of the structure of the activity that we take here in Wales around promoting equality is based in the GB equality legislation as it stands now, and if that is lost, we will need to take steps here. We've talked about a number of alternatives—the enshrining in Welsh law of the UN conventions, for example.
I'm sure I don't need to set out, Dirprwy Lywydd, that we have a problem in equalities and employment in Wales. We know that women are traditionally found to be working in low-paid work, insecure work, part-time work, and I want to pay tribute to the organisation, Chwarae Teg, which I know, is an organisation that is very close to the Deputy Minister's heart, for the work that they've done in showing us what that costs the economy—not only what it costs the individual women, but what it costs the economy. We know, for example, that the access of black and minority ethnic people to high-quality and managerial jobs here in Wales is very poor and that that section of the population is more likely than anyone else to be overqualified for the jobs that they are doing. We know that 46 per cent of disabled people in Wales are in employment as against 78 per cent of the population as a whole, and I'm sure none of us believes that this is a satisfactory state of affairs.
When Welsh Government is granting contracts or granting grants, we have strong current guidance. The guidance in itself I would acknowledge is good. I do have some questions about how effectively it's used and whether, when commitments are made by a business, that is actually then checked and the commitments on paper are actually checked out to see whether they're actually being delivered. But all of that guidance, or the vast majority of that guidance, though there are elements, for example, that come from the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, falls out of the Equality Act 2010. If the Equality Act is amended and watered down, that guidance will need to be looked at again.
I believe it would be right to put those requirements onto a legislative footing so that there can be no doubt about what is required. So, this proposed legislation could provide for: equality audits pre-contract; specific binding equality commitments tailored to whichever business it was as part of the contracting process; crucially, equality monitoring during the period of that grant or of that business arrangement; and penalties if those equality commitments are not met without good reason. Sometimes, of course, there will be good reasons why they're not met, but if they're not met without reason, then there should be a penalty. Of course, these requirements would need to be reasonable and proportionate, depending on the scale of investment and the size of the organisation, but they should apply to all, in my view.
Now, this proposal builds, of course, on the work of the Fair Work Commission, which does, of course, call for the Welsh Government to legislate in some of these areas. I should say, Dirprwy Lywydd, that I don't think I've worded the motion perfectly because, in my view, this legislative approach should extend to all Welsh Government grants, loans and procurement contracts, and the legislation could be extended to include the whole public sector, including the health sector, local government, and so on. The same approach could also be extended to the third sector organisations contracting with or receiving grants from the public sector in Wales.
I wouldn't want to give the impression, Dirprwy Lywydd, that we want to put disproportionate burdens, but I'm sure that while we can all be pleased that fewer of our fellow citizens now are out of work, we should all be concerned that so much of the quality of that work is poor. It's low-paid, it's zero-hour contracts, it's insecure. I know that the Welsh Government will agree with us on these benches that that isn't good enough, neither are the limitations on the access of those who get opportunities to better opportunities. We were discussing on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee just last week the great imbalance between males and females in taking up degree apprenticeships, for example, and how that might be tackled. I hope, Dirprwy Lywydd, that we can all agree that the Welsh public pound should not be spent in ways that perpetuate injustice or inequality, and I would ask Members to support this proposal today to allow for further exploration. I look forward to Members' contributions to the debate and to responding.
Thank you. I don't have any speakers for the debate, so I'm going to go straight to the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip, Jane Hutt.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd, and I do thank Helen Mary Jones for tabling this motion and also say that I welcome this debate on how we can improve and encourage equal opportunities, particularly addressing the private sector as well as the public sectors, which we so often focus on, because this is clearly linked to our wider approach to tackling inequality. We know that better, fairer opportunities for everyone, right across the Welsh economy—. You referred, of course, to the Fair Work Commission, and we are acting on the recommendations. Delivering fair work is a cornerstone of our policy programme. We know, of course, that a fairer society where diversity is valued and respected and where people can participate, flourish and fulfil their potential, is the society and economy that we want.
So, equality and inclusion are integrated and mainstreamed through all six characteristics of fair work, but different approaches—and you've acknowledged this, Helen Mary—would have to be taken into account considering sector context and, for example, size of employers and how they could engage. But I do absolutely understand Helen Mary Jones's call to look at and to consider legislation regarding how we ensure that firms in receipt of Welsh Government grants could then move forward by, helpfully for them and constructively for them, providing an equal opportunities audit.
We will, and we will always, consider legislation where we have the powers to do so, but I think it's right that you focused as well on the fact that we do have other levers. We have procurement levers and non-legislative grants, which can, actually, drive change. We try to drive that change through working in partnership with business, but also with trade unions and with public bodies, to ensure that Government policy is working so that everyone benefits.
We know that simpler, stronger social partnership arrangements do actually deliver that ambition for better, consistent outcomes, and they do ensure that Welsh workers across all sectors in the economy share in economic growth, but most importantly in fairness in the workplace.
Actually, trade unions, of course, through collective bargaining, have been critical to advancing many workplace equalities. There are employers who also recognise these benefits of a diverse and engaged workforce that is fairly rewarded. So, part of our implementation work of 'Fair Work Wales' involves scoping how, for example, we might be able to include conditions on fair work and equality in funding agreements.
We already have the scope to attach a range of additional conditions to grants and other forms of financial assistance. We have to strike balances, of course, in terms of what this would mean. It's about developing an approach where employers embrace that change to deliver fair work and greater equality outcomes. That's where we have to, as the Government, manage this process.
So, we've accepted the six priority recommendations in 'Fair Work Wales', we've accepted others in principle and we've begun our journey to becoming a fair work nation. But, I also want to just mention today that this is alongside the commencement of the socioeconomic duty that underscores our commitment to a fairer society, with diversity valued and respected.
This morning, I issued a written statement to Members. I'm glad to have the opportunity to say to Members to look at the statement, because it regards the socioeconomic duty commencement date. We have to ensure that all our public bodies are fully prepared for this, and they are going to be engaged with partners in developing the guidance. We've had good consultation. The duty will now be enacted on 29 September of this year.
Just finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I think it's important that we're looking across the equality strands. So, last September, I published 'Action on Disability: The Right to Independent Living—Framework and Action Plan', and that requires action across every Government department, including economic development. Yesterday, I published the 'Advancing Gender Equality in Wales Plan', which came out of the Chwarae Teg gender review. It's setting out priority areas for the coming years, focusing on equality of outcome.
I think key to all of this, particularly in terms of the levers we have, is the economic contract, because that's a real tool for change. In fact, the economic contract has to ensure that businesses are making change and demonstrating responsible business behaviours. We have a great deal of soft power, but it is about how we move forward, when we need to legislate and how we can take account of evidence.
So, finally, I'd just say that, particularly in the context of leaving the European Union, the important work that we're carrying out in terms of research on wider options to strengthen and advance equality and human rights in Wales, I think, will help us get the evidence to see whether we need to move forward in terms of legislation in Wales. I'm very grateful for this legislative proposal, and I look forward to working with you and other Members in full on taking this forward.
Thank you. I call on Helen Mary to reply.
I'm very grateful to you, Dirprwy Lywydd. I feel that the Senedd may be rather tired of me by the end of today, because this isn't my last planned contribution—I thank Dr Dai Lloyd for his kind words. I'm very grateful to the Minister for the tone of her response. I fully endorse a great deal of what she said. She is right, of course, to say that there are some employers who are embracing this agenda very effectively, but I'm sure that she'd agree with me that there are others who are not and that, sometimes, we will inevitably, in Government, need carrots as well as sticks.
I very much welcome her statement today around enacting the socioeconomic duty. I think some of us may be a little bit disappointed about the decision to push it back, but I do understand the context of that, and that it is better to do it a little later and do it well than to rush and do it badly.
I think there are many levers, as the Minister has said—the procurement levers and so on—to promote this agenda in the private sector. But the truth is that many of those levers rest on legislation that I do not believe, and I don't think she believes either, are secure. The very existence of the definition of the six protected characteristics sits in the current Equality Act. If that is watered down, if that is amended in ways that we find unhelpful, I submit that we will need legislative responses, as well as all the other things around partnership and the very important role of the trade union movement and so on that the Minister has mentioned today.
Finally, I'm very grateful again, as I've said, for the very positive response, and I commend this proposal to the Senedd.
Thank you. The proposal is to note the proposal. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, it's agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Item 9 on our agenda this afternoon is the Member debate under Standing Order 11.21 on early cancer diagnosis. I call on David Rees to move the motion. David.
Motion NDM7238 David Rees, Angela Burns, Dai Lloyd, Mike Hedges, Jayne Bryant, Caroline Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes that early diagnosis of cancer improves survival chances.
2. Notes that the World Health Organisation recommends that all nations should have a strategy on cancer.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure that its new cancer delivery plan includes greater emphasis on earlier diagnosis for patients and for it to be in place when the existing plan ends in 2020.
4. Calls on the Welsh Government to take action to improve uptake of cancer screening programmes.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the motion, tabled in my name, this afternoon. I'd like to put on record my thanks to all Members who supported this debate, and particularly to Angela Burns, who will be closing the debate this afternoon.
Cancer Research UK have identified that one in two people in the UK born after 1960 will be diagnosed with some form of cancer in their lifetime. Presently, around 19,000 people are diagnosed with cancer every year in Wales. We all know someone who has received a cancer diagnosis. Some will be cancer survivors, but others are sadly no longer with us, having battled cancer with strength and dignity.
Over recent years we have seen meaningful progress in diagnosis, treatment and survival rates, with just over half of people with a cancer diagnosis living for 10 years or more, compared to one in four in 1970. However, Wales persistently lags behind comparable countries for cancer survival.
There is a direct correlation between the chances of survival and the stages of diagnosis across both year 1 and five-year survival rates. Cancer survival decreases when early diagnosis is not available. And that's something we need to remember: cancer survival decreases when we do not have early diagnosis.
In Wales we have seen one-year survival rates increase, along with five-year survival rates. It is clear that early diagnosis is fundamental. This becomes evermore present when we look at harder-to-diagnose cancers, such as lung cancer or pancreatic cancer. Cancers like these have little to no stage 1 symptoms, or symptoms that are non-specific. It is therefore important that any strategy for cancer treatment must include a strong emphasis on early diagnosis.
At the end of this year, the Welsh Government's cancer delivery plan, which was published in the fourth Assembly, comes to an end. The World Health Organization recommends that every country should have a cancer strategy, no matter what resource constraints it faces. As the current plan comes to an end, we need to ensure that Wales has a new, fit for purpose in a changing world, comprehensive cancer strategy, which will be in place when this current delivery plan ceases at the end of this year. A new comprehensive cancer strategy that meets patient need and, most importantly, improves patient outcomes.
Many of the cancer charities that I speak to on a regular basis feel that this is an opportunity for the Welsh Government, and for this Senedd, to set a new vision to improve patient outcomes, covering prevention, early diagnosis, access to treatment and cancer research that benefits patients. And they and I believe that the new cancer strategy must be underpinned by increasing diagnostic capacity, for faster diagnosis and treatment to improve patient outcomes.
At this point I want to praise the rapid diagnostic centre in Neath Port Talbot Hospital. It's a great example of how to use diagnostics at an early stage, and it's working well, with patients being referred by GPs upon suspicion of a possible cancerous condition, when a red flag is raised through non-specific symptoms. I visited the centre last week to see the fantastic work the team is actually doing in diagnosing cancers at an early stage. But it does two jobs. Whilst it can diagnose a cancer at an early stage, it can also reassure those who do not have cancer at an early stage as well. And we have seen a reduction for that team from an average wait of 84 days to an average wait of six days. What a dramatic change. And it's a primary-led function.
Now, as the motion states, early diagnosis is key to improving cancer survival rates, and we know that there are certain cancers that are more difficult to diagnose. We've mentioned them already: ovarian and pancreatic are just two examples of those diagnosed at a later stage. For the eight most common cancer types combined, survival is more than three times higher for those that are diagnosed at an early stage, compared to a late stage diagnosis. Diagnosing people at the earliest stage is critical to giving patients the best chance of survival. One of the major factors behind how likely someone is to survive lung cancer, for example, is how early they are diagnosed—
Thanks for giving way. You mentioned that some cancers are harder to diagnose than others and it's reminded me of a constituent's case that Angela Burns, our health spokesperson, has been involved in with me as well. The constituent that we saw, his wife sadly died of ovarian cancer; I don't think it was diagnosed until stage 4. Certain cancers like ovarian cancer are incredibly difficult to diagnose because they masquerade as other conditions quite early on, whatever those might be. So, would you say that—I'm delighted that you're bringing this debate forward—part of this means that the Welsh Government does need to look at some of those cancers that are harder to diagnose and maybe look at some of the evidence out there, particularly algorithms, for instance, which my constituent was looking at with an expert in Cardiff University, which can make that diagnosis process a lot easier so that you can get to these cancers a lot earlier?