85 speeches by……and 14 more speakers
And that brings us to the first item on our agenda, namely questions to the First Minister. The first question is from Lynne Neagle.
1. Will the First Minister outline what steps the Welsh Government is taking to improve child health in Wales? OAQ(5)0555(FM)
Yes. We’re committed to continuing to improve child health in Wales. ‘Taking Wales Forward’ included a commitment to implement our Healthy Child Wales programme, which was launched last October. That programme includes a range of preventative and early intervention measures to help parents and children make healthy lifestyle choices.
Thank you, First Minister. Recent reports by the Chief Medical Officer for Wales and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health had very hard-hitting messages about the impact of poverty and inequality on child health. Will the First Minister outline what steps the Welsh Government is taking to improve outcomes for children from poorer backgrounds in Wales, and what assurances can you give that tackling the impact of poverty on child health will be a top priority for this Government?
Absolutely, it’s a priority for us. In terms of closing the attainment gap we’ve seen, that gap has been closing. We’ve seen, of course, the pupil deprivation grant and the way that has worked for the benefit of so many young people. We’ve seen the foundation phase and the benefits that gives to children in terms of developing skills early that will stand them in good stead for the future. Of course, we always look to see how we can improve outcomes for children in the future, and that is being considered across the Government at the moment as part of our commitment to prosperity for all.
May I also refer to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health in Wales? There are 39 recommendations contained here, and the First Minister would do well to consider the report and to reflect on the recommendations as an agenda to tackle the issue of child and adolescent health in Wales. Among the recommendations on one key area in this context, of course, is the additional risk to a child’s health when someone smokes during pregnancy. We know of the impact that that has, in a number of ways, on the development and growth of a child, the risk of stillbirth and the risk of low birth weight, and so on. There are data on the numbers that smoke during pregnancy in England and Scotland, but, for Wales, the data aren’t perhaps as robust as they should be, because we rely on self-reporting from pregnant mothers when it comes to gathering the data. Can I ask you, therefore, what intention the Government has to look at the need to gather more robust data in that area, because how can we know what needs to be done unless we can be sure of the scale of the problem?
Well, we are developing a new child health plan at the moment, and that will look at the priorities that we should pursue and those that the health service should also follow. As part of that, we must ensure that the data that we have are robust, and this will be considered during the development of that plan.
First Minister, will you agree with me that one of the ways to improve child health is to ensure proper access to school nurses across Wales? Will he congratulate the school nursing workforce that we have here in Wales that do an excellent job in terms of immunisation and public health messages in our schools, and, in particular, the unique Judith Jerwood in your own constituency, who serves in Bryntirion Comprehensive School, where they have a unique model of school nursing, which, I believe, we ought to see more frequently in high schools across Wales? You’ll be aware that the school nursing service there is one that is employed by the school itself, and one that gives advice on all range of subjects, not just to the pupils, but also to the staff and, indeed, their families.
It’s a very good example of good practice. I can almost see the school from where I live; it’s very, very close to me. We know that the school nurses do an excellent job. We know, for example—the Member mentions immunisation—that our childhood immunisation rates remain at the top of international benchmarks. We know that, in 2016-17, the childhood flu immunisation programme was extended as well to include all children aged two to seven years of age. It’s an excellent model that’s in place in Bryntirion and one that I would encourage other schools to look at.
First Minister, the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health’s 2017 report, ‘State of Child Health’, highlighted the need for safe places for children to play in order to tackle the quarter of the child population in Wales who start primary school obese. What is your Government doing to ensure that young people have access to open spaces and play areas, and what actions are you taking to ensure that every new development provides safe areas for children to play?
In new housing developments, we would expect local authorities to provide those open areas—and I’ve seen them, not just in my own part of the world, but across Wales. Where new houses are built, there is space for children to play, there are often facilities for children to play on as well, and cycle paths, which are increasingly included as part of developments, as they should be. The Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013 is part of the process of ensuring that cycling is seen as something completely normal in terms of the provision of cycling facilities in new developments in the future. That is certainly much in advance of the situation that previously existed, where housing developments were built and no provision was made at all for either open spaces or, indeed, for facilities for children to play.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on cross-border health arrangements between England and Wales? OAQ(5)0548(FM)
A cross-border protocol is in place to ensure relevant patients have access to appropriate services, and all associated matters are handled in an agreed and consistent manner.
First Minister, you will be aware of the ongoing Future Fit process on the future of emergency healthcare services for patients in Shropshire and mid Wales. It’s important for my constituents that emergency services are based in Shrewsbury. To date, the Welsh Government hasn’t taken a public position in this regard. Can I ask what prevents you from taking a view on this matter and making strong representations to the NHS Future Fit programme board on behalf of mid Wales’s residents? Will you take a position?
Geographically, Shrewsbury is closer, and so we would prefer services to be based in Shrewsbury. But it’s important to ensure that services are safe and sustainable, which is something, of course, that we’ve had to deal with ourselves. I know, for example, with ophthalmology and neurology, that the health board—Powys, that is—has secured alternative provision for ophthalmology services through an organisation called The Practice, which does include community outreach clinics within Powys. But clearly, from our perspective, we would wish to see services that are accessed by Welsh people in England as close to those Welsh patients as possible.
First Minister, today we learn that there has been a 16 per cent increase in the number of junior doctors choosing to come to or stay in Wales to train to become GPs. Across the Welsh NHS, waiting times are going down; average response times to emergency calls are now less than five minutes; the British Heart Foundation described Wales as a world leader in cardiac rehabilitation; there’s improvement in cancer performance, with the number of patients treated now 40 per cent higher than five years ago; and for the fourth successive month we are getting people home from hospital faster. First Minister, in England the proportion of patients being treated or discharged in time fell below 78 per cent, with nearly half of hospitals declaring—
You do need to come to a question.
[Continues.]—major alerts because of a shortage of beds. What message do you have for the men and women who work in the national health service and have had to endure the Tories’ attempts to denigrate the Welsh NHS over the last few years?
Well, we all saw what the Tories did in 2015, but the Member makes a robust and comprehensive case that shows the progress that the Welsh NHS has made. Today we see that more GP training places are being filled and it shows that the Welsh NHS is seen as a good place to work, and that good progress will continue in the future.
At the same time as fulfilling a genuine need, cross-border healthcare co-operation can also serve to mask the shortage of specialist clinical staff in Wales, which has been caused by the failure of Government to train sufficient clinicians. When are you going to review the number of self-standing organisations within the Welsh NHS, which receive tens of millions a year, with a view to reducing them so you can spend more on specialist clinicians for Wales itself?
If we look at a rural authority like Powys, it’s inevitable that an authority like Powys will access specialist services from England. Geographically, it makes sense for people who live in large areas of Powys. In fact, there are specialist services in England that rely on Powys patients in order to be sustainable. Accident and emergency in Hereford is an example of that; without patients coming from eastern Breconshire particularly, the numbers going through Hereford’s A&E would cause questions to be asked about the sustainability of the service in Hereford. So, no; from my perspective, the last thing I want to see is any kind of wall come down between Wales and England in terms of healthcare. We know as well that 25,000 people cross the border the other way, to get A&E services in Wales. That’s why, of course, we have a robust protocol in place to ensure that services are available to people on both sides of the border.
I now call for questions from the party leaders. Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. First Minister, why did the Welsh Government decide last week to sack the chair of Sport Wales given that, upon his appointment, the then incoming chairman was told by the Welsh Government representative that he was entering a toxic environment and that he was tasked with tackling a dysfunctional and insular organisation? Does all your Government agree that sacking this chairman was the right reproach?
First of all, can I say that Sport Wales was facing great difficulties? That much is true. There is an independent review of Sport Wales, which is continuing at this moment in time, but it was quite clear that the relationship between the chair and the board and the vice-chair had broken down and therefore action had to be taken in order that the organisation could be rebuilt.
I am told that the review has been concluded, First Minister, and, on 13 February, the Welsh Government’s deputy permanent secretary, James Price, dismissed all the allegations made against the then chair and offered him three options to move the situation forward, all of which saw him continuing his involvement in some shape or form within Sport Wales. What happened in the very short intervening period, which altered this situation and resulted in the sacking of Paul Thomas?
Well, as is known, on 14 February the Minister made a statement to Assembly Members on the headline findings of the review. One of those findings was that a clash of cultures had developed between the chair and other board members. It was clear that action needed to be taken in order for the board to become fully functional in the future.
I have the letter here—it is in the public domain, so you can comment on it—that was sent to James Price at the beginning of March that clearly itemises the allegations that were made against the chair and how those allegations were rebuked. There are some very serious allegations levelled against the previous chair and also the current chief executive of Sport Wales. Sport Wales handles a considerable amount of public money and has a remit to improve elite sport and participation sport around Wales. I would be interested to hear how the Welsh Government will take forward the allegations and investigate the allegations against the previous chair, and also the current chief executive, as the allegations warrant answers, and above all to make sure that Sport Wales is able to get on with its day-to-day functions. But I do reiterate: the Welsh Government told the new chair, Paul Thomas, on taking up office, that he was entering a toxic environment and that he was tasked with tackling a dysfunctional and insular organisation. I do ask once again: does the entire Government agree with the dismissal of Paul Thomas?
The answer to the question is ‘yes’. The Government has taken a view on this. It is quite clear that the organisation remained dysfunctional and that the relationship had completely broken down between the chair and the board. In those circumstances, no organisation could possibly be expected to deliver what it should do in the future. We know that all organisations need to adapt to changing circumstances and the independent review of Sport Wales’s operations is continuing, but it was quite clear that Sport Wales could not continue with the dysfunction that still remained in the organisation and the Minister took the decision that the best way forward was to take the action that was taken in order to make sure that Sport Wales is effective in the future.
Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, the proposed job cuts at the University of South Wales are of great concern, and I’m sure you share that concern. The plan is to cut 139 jobs to deal with rising costs and various other challenges. The University of Wales Trinity Saint David is also looking to downsize its workforce. I’d like to place on record mine and Plaid Cymru’s support for the roles both of those institutions play in our society. But I am concerned about the situation that those institutions are facing and about the prospect of losing what are well-paid jobs. What discussions has your Government held since the two sets of redundancies were proposed? Were the universities’ strategies shared with you and are you satisfied with the explanations they’ve given for these changes?
I’ve not seen any explanations for these changes at this moment in time. I am aware of the situation, however, at those institutions. We expect there to be a period of consultation and that staff and unions are kept informed at all stages in the process. One of the issues that concerns me is that we are seeing a drop in applications, particularly from students from abroad. We know that applications through UCAS to Welsh universities from EU countries, for example, decreased by 8 per cent between 2016 and 2017. The fewer the students there are, the less money there is and the less money there is to pay staff, and that concerns me.
As a former student at Treforest, I know how important this institution is for the Valleys. It’s always played a leading role in upskilling people to do the work that our local economies need doing. Now, there are demographic challenges, which you’ve alluded to, and rising costs facing that university, but I don't think that should mean that we should lose the positive economic impact that the institution generates. Plaid Cymru also believes that the University of Wales Trinity Saint David plays a vital role in the west as well. The proposals are for a 4.6 per cent reduction in staff at USW and the figure for Trinity Saint David is yet to be confirmed. I've had contradictory information on these job losses. On the one hand, we were told that many of the roles at risk will be managers, but from the trade union, I've been told that the roles to be cut could include jobs in IT, library staff and student services as well. Do you think, First Minister, that these job losses are normal housekeeping or are they a sign that these two universities are facing a difficult future?
I’ve not seen anything on this scale since I was in university myself in the 1980s, and that is concerning. It's also correct to say that it’s not quite clear what sorts of jobs would be lost. That’s why, of course, we expect there to be that period of consultation, so that there is greater clarity from both institutions about what they are proposing. But I am concerned—I don't know whether this is correct or not, but I have the figures in front of me—as to whether the drop-off of applications, not just from the EU countries, but other countries as well, is having an effect on those universities’ income, which would be, from our perspective, as a country that welcomes students, something to greatly regret.
Both the institutions are feeling the pinch as well from the decision taken to lift the universities admission cap in England. We know that the situation around European and international student recruitment remains volatile and is likely to be for some time, but the responsibility to navigate through these difficult waters falls to us here in Wales, and it’s you, First Minister, who has overall responsibility for protecting our higher education sector. So, what will the Welsh Government do to support our universities? How will you help to protect these jobs and ensure that there’s no impact in the longer term upon courses? Do you intend to carry on as business as usual or are you going to step in and provide support and guidance to Welsh universities so that they can continue to do the good job that they do, serving our economy and our country?
We’ve provided more money for higher education, but it's about more than that. It's about making sure that Wales is still seen as a place where students from abroad want to come to. That is a point I've been making very strongly whenever I've gone abroad and, indeed, when ambassadors have come to visit us here in Wales. That is hugely important. We also finance schemes, for example, like Sêr Cymru. Sêr Cymru is a way of bringing in the top academics into Wales, attracting, then, the best students as well. That helps with the sustainability of universities. Some universities themselves have invested heavily in capital programmes to improve, or indeed build new campuses, which again are hugely important in terms of attracting in students. But what we don't know at this moment in time is what effect Brexit will have—we've seen some figures already on EU students applying to Welsh universities and, of course, students from other countries such as India, where there's been a significant drop-off of numbers over the past few years—and what effect that will have on the sustainability of our universities. That is something that is yet to be fully seen in terms of the impact.
Leader of the UKIP group, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. It's inevitable, I suppose, a certain amount of posturing takes place at the beginning of any negotiation and the current Brexit negotiations with the EU is no exception to that. The First Minister wants to play a direct role in these negotiations and there is, in fact, a useful role that he can play. He could write to Chancellor Merkel, for example, to say it’s a mistake on their part to disconnect the trade talks from the other issues that haven't been decided, such as EU citizens’ rights in this country and vice versa, and also the question of the dowry that the EU apparently wants the British taxpayer to stump up, which may be as much as £60 billion, which is a bit rich considering we've paid them £500 billion in the last 40 years. Secondly, there is the other development in relation to Spain and Gibraltar, where it seems that the EU is trying to use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip to try to get a better deal from us. Given that the question of sovereignty in Gibraltar has been decisively settled by referendum, where nearly every single resident of Gibraltar voted to retain its links with Britain, will he write to the Prime Minister of Spain and also to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar supporting the Gibraltarians’ right to self-determination, which is guaranteed by article 1 of the UN charter?
Well, firstly, it’s right to say that there’s a lot of posturing, that much is true, and there are issues that still need to be worked through. But the important thing is to discuss the start as soon as possible and that the future of EU citizens all around the UK and UK citizens in the EU is resolved as quickly as possible. I do think there’s been a significant amount of hysterical reporting on some of these issues. It was said that the UK was using defence and security as a bargaining chip. That’s not the way I read the Prime Minister’s comments last week, in fairness. It’s also said that Spain is trying to use Gibraltar. I don’t believe that either. Spain, in fact, has been very quiet on the issue of Gibraltar. It was just one clause that appeared in the Commission’s negotiating document. That has more to do with not sovereignty, but Gibraltar’s status as a tax haven and how that would affect the border with Spain in the future. So, I see nothing malevolent in this. There are issues wherever there are tax havens that need to be resolved when there is a land border with that tax haven. It’s absolutely clear that the people of Gibraltar wish to remain British and that’s what should happen. That was a decision of a referendum. They also voted 95 per cent to remain in the EU. That’s not going to happen. When I met with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, he was quite clear that the last thing Gibraltar wanted was the closure of the border. It would be disastrous for the economy of Gibraltar. Some 15,000 people cross that border every day. So, it is in the interest of both Spain and Gibraltar that that border stays open, but of course there will need to be a consideration of what effect Gibraltar’s tax status has on the European market, which I’m sure can be resolved.
Well, it’s certainly true that it’s in the interests of both countries—Spain and Gibraltar—for that border to remain open because 40 per cent of the jobs in Gibraltar are filled by people who live in Spain. Given that the rate of unemployment in Andalusia is 30 per cent and in Gibraltar is 1 per cent then it’s massively in Spain’s interest to respect the existing status of Gibraltar and, indeed, its status as a tax haven for that matter as well. So, I’ll repeat my question to the First Minister: will he write to the Chief Minister of Gibraltar and to the Prime Minister of Spain supporting the Gibraltarians’ case, both in relation to sovereignty and to their freedom to set what tax rates they want in respect of the trade that is actually conducted within the territory of Gibraltar?
In fairness, the Prime Minister of Spain has not actually laid claim to Gibraltar or indeed commented at all on the issue of Gibraltar. The issue has come from the Commission not from Spain itself. I reiterate what I’ve just said: it is a matter for the people of Gibraltar how they choose what relationships they choose to have. They have voted overwhelmingly to stay British and that’s exactly what should happen. Nowhere should be forced to transfer to another country against the wishes of its population. That’s true of any country in my view. I’ve already met with the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. I will be meeting with him in the next few weeks. I’m happy to reiterate that point to him. In the discussions we’ve had, it’s Gibraltar’s concern about what Brexit might mean for their own trade situation and their border, that is what Gibraltar’s been most concerned about, certainly as we look forward over the next two years.
I agree with the First Minister. He’s absolutely right: the border is of critical importance to Gibraltar. But it’s not as though we have no bargaining chips in our hand in this respect. If indeed it is the case that Spain has put its claim to Gibraltar’s sovereignty on ice and is prepared to live with Gibraltar, that’s well and good. But the idea that the European Commission suddenly produced this proposal in a letter without discussion with the Prime Minister of Spain is fundamentally absurd. Clearly, this is something that has been decided in the Council of Ministers between the Commission and in particular the Prime Minister of Spain. It is vitally important for southern Spain as well as for Gibraltar that there should be no interference from Spain in the economic life of Gibraltar at all. I think, given that the First Minister was a strong supporter of remain and, indeed, Gibraltar itself and the people of Gibraltar were overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU, I think this is where he can play a significant role in trying to persuade the EU authorities of the good sense of coming to sensible agreements with Britain in the interest of us all.
Well, I’ve never had three questions on Gibraltar, I have to say. I’m not responsible in terms of my devolved powers for Gibraltar, but we do have a relationship with Gibraltar. As I said, I’ve had meetings with the Chief Minister and I’ll continue to have meetings with the Chief Minister in the future, as Gibraltar is in a similar situation to, for example, Northern Ireland, although it’s very different in the sense that Gibraltar is outside the customs union and it has its own arrangements in terms of tax. But what is absolutely clear is that when Brexit happens there must be no destabilisation either of the area around the border on the Spanish side or, indeed, of Gibraltar itself. I’d expect that to be examined as part of the negotiations. I would not expect nor would I support there to be any negotiations about future sovereignty over Gibraltar; that matter is settled.
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on investment in Welsh road infrastructure? OAQ(5)0546(FM)
We have a projected spend of over £700 million on improving and adding to our existing road infrastructure across Wales. That’s in addition to funding held in reserves for the M4 project.
Thank you, First Minister. The public inquiry into the M4 and the route decided on by the Welsh Government is well under way. The Welsh Government’s original published proposals for the M4 black route also included de-motorwaying the existing stretch of motorway between Magor and Castleton, with the possible creation of cycle lanes, bus lanes and speed restrictions. Is this still the Welsh Government’s intention and is this being considered by the public inquiry, given that de-motorwaying could itself have a negative impact on journey times for many of my constituents, many of whom would still continue to rely on the existing piece of road, regardless of whether or not the black route is chosen?
Given that there’s a public inquiry ongoing, it wouldn’t be wise for me to comment on that. However, the Welsh Government’s evidence is of course public and open to examination. It’s hugely important that the inquiry is able to consider all evidence before making a recommendation.
Anyone who regularly travels between north and south knows that it’s not a pleasant experience to say the least. Unfortunately, the most practical way of travelling across Wales for very many people is by car, and there have been no significant improvements to the main road linking the north and south of our country since the days of Ieuan Wyn as Deputy First Minister. What work is being done by your Government to analyse which improvements are needed to the A470 in order to improve this key transport route that links our nation? If the answer is ‘none’ or ‘not much’, will you commit to carrying out this study and to cost any improvements required in full? I would be willing to bet that we are talking about a relatively small sum compared with the investment intended for the M4.
Nid wyf yn derbyn yr awgrym mai dim ond y car sydd ar gael; mae’r gwasanaeth trên wedi gwella ers amser—ers blynyddoedd. Ar un adeg, pan ddechreuodd y lle hwn, nid oedd yn bosibl mynd o’r gogledd i’r de ar y trên; roedd yn rhaid newid yn yr Amwythig. Nid oedd modd mynd lan heb newid trenau. Mae hynny wedi newid; mae trên nawr bob dwy awr yn mynd i lawr. Mae’r awyren, wrth gwrs, yn mynd lawr hefyd ddwywaith y dydd a lan ddwywaith y dydd. Ac hefyd ynglŷn â’r A470, fe welsom ni bethau yn gwella o ran ffordd osgoi Cwmbach-Llechryd ym Maesyfed a’r newidiadau a ddigwyddodd yn Christmas Pitch yn sir Frycheiniog, Dolwyddelan hefyd i Bont yr Afanc, a’r newidiadau yn ardal Cross Foxes ar yr A470. So, rydym wedi gweld gwelliannau sylweddol ar yr heol honno ers blynyddoedd. Ond mae yna gynllun gennym—cynllun ‘pinch-point’ os y gallaf ei alw’n hynny—er mwyn delio â rhai o’r problemau sy’n dal i fod yna. Wrth gwrs, i rywun fel minnau sydd yn dod lawr o’r gogledd o Gaernarfon trwy Machynlleth ac Aberystwyth i Ben-y-bont ar Ogwr, roedd yn bleser mawr i weld y gwelliannau hollbwysig yng Nglandyfi—rhan o’r heol a oedd yn beryglus dros ben am flynyddoedd mawr, ond mae’r heol nawr wedi cael ei gwella yn fawr iawn.
First Minister, yesterday’s report by the British Heart Foundation underlined the links between roads policy and health outcomes. The fact that 42 per cent of people in Wales are physically inactive, leading to long-term ill health and costs to the health service, is directly related to the decline in active travel over many years. When future roads are considered, will the First Minister make sure that interventions to encourage and prioritise public transport and to build cycle design into the road infrastructure are at the heart of considerations?
Yes. I cannot stand here and preach from a position of strength in terms of inactivity, I’m afraid, but what I can say is that the vision that was shown on what was the M4—what is now the A48 at Britton Ferry—in terms of the cycle route that exists over the bridge was incredibly visionary at the time. We’ve seen it rolled out, for example, at the Church Village bypass. When that was built, that had a cycle path running more or less alongside it, and we would expect that where new road schemes are in place that there should be an improvement in cycle routes as well, in order to provide people with a choice in terms of the way they travel, and not feel that they have to travel by car.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on paediatric care in Wales? OAQ(5)0553(FM)
Yes. We are committed to ensuring safe and sustainable paediatric care delivered on the basis of the very best available clinical evidence and advice.
The First Minister will be aware of the limitations on paediatric care at Withybush hospital and I have a particularly distressing constituency case that has arisen, where a child was taken out of hours to Withybush in June 2016, in pain that was diagnosed wrongly as a urine infection, treatable by antibiotics. Next morning, the child was taken to A&E with something that was suspected to be appendicitis. The child was then rushed to Glangwili for an emergency operation for peritonitis. The same child, in January of this year, was again taken to the out-of-hours GP in Withybush with a fever. That was misdiagnosed as a virus. The child was then driven the following morning by the parents to Glangwili where the symptoms of scarlet fever were diagnosed, which was correct. I know that an individual case isn’t necessarily representative of everything, but given the out-of-hours limitations on paediatric care, if there had been a paediatric specialist in Withybush at the time that the child was taken to the hospital for the initial diagnosis, it’s perfectly possible, and indeed likely, that those errors might not have been made. So, can the First Minister tell us what the Government may be able to do in order to restore full 24-hour paediatric services at Withybush?
First of all, the situation that the Member’s described is a situation where I would expect the GP to make a diagnosis rather than a paediatric consultant being needed to do that. We’re talking here about an infection, or scarlet fever—a GP should be able to pick up on that. You wouldn’t need a consultant to diagnose that. There are changes that have taken place at Withybush—that much is true—at the paediatric ambulatory care unit. They are temporary, they’re not designed to be long term, and I know that the health board is working hard to resolve the issue and to reinstate the 12-hour service as soon as possible.
First Minister, when children leave hospital, particularly if they have a life-limiting condition of any kind, they’re still going to need medical and, of course, social care at home, and that will affect their carers and other children in the household. In July last year, the Minister said that the Government was refreshing the carers strategy at the end of last year and it is, as far as I can tell, still being currently refreshed in both January and March this year. If your priorities are young carers and carers’ respite, when can they see what you mean by that?
Well, we want to make sure that the strategy is right; that means taking into account as many views as possible in order for the strategy to be robust. The strategy will be published as soon as possible, once it’s felt that the strategy is one that can be presented to the people of Wales.
5. Will the First Minister provide an update on the work of the Valleys taskforce? OAQ(5)0550(FM)
Yes. It’s met on four occasions and an outline delivery plan will be published in July, addressing three priorities: firstly jobs and skills; secondly, integrated and improved public services; and, thirdly, community and personal well-being. The plan is being shaped, of course, by feedback from the initial public engagement events.
First Minister, depressed wages and high unemployment have been blighting the Valleys for at least three decades, so the obvious question is: what’s taken you so long? Places like Maerdy and Treherbert are desperate for investment and well-paid jobs, and the commute to Treforest, or further afield from the Heads of the Valleys, is a joke. There were two trains cancelled this morning. If the city region and the Valleys taskforce prove to be yet more false dawns for these communities, there’s a risk that real damage will be done to this institution and to devolution, not just to your Government and the Labour Party. How do you intend, as head of this Government, to ensure that actions match the rhetoric and real benefits are delivered to the Valleys? And what will you do if another two or five or 10 years go by with no noticeable improvements in these communities?
Well, transport is key and that’s why the metro is so important. It takes an unacceptably long time at the moment to travel from Treherbert down to Cardiff. The service is also not seen as reliable and the leader of Plaid Cymru has given an example of that happening. From next year, we of course will specify the franchise. We’ve not had an opportunity to do that before. We will also be able to move forward with the metro, to have more convenient, more comfortable and more frequent services and also, of course, to connect the Rhondda Fach via bus services into Porth, for example, to make sure that bus services connect more frequently with the train services going through the Rhondda Fawr. Now, that is one way of getting people to jobs in Cardiff, but it’s not just about that. We know that 11 million people go through Cardiff Central every year. It is about making sure that it’s easy to get from Cardiff up into the Valleys as well, so that investors don’t see the Valleys as being physically distant from Cardiff, which I’ve heard. They’re not, we know they’re not, but that’s the way, sometimes, they have been perceived and we want to make sure that we have a transport network that shows that our Valleys communities are able to attract more investment in the future, as well as people also being able to access employment wherever that might be.
First Minister, as has been highlighted, the Valleys taskforce is looking at areas of transport that you’ve identified, and, of course, there are Valleys to the west that don’t even get involved in the metro aspects. I’m very pleased to welcome that the taskforce is actually looking at all the Valleys, including those in the west, including the Afan valley, and I know that there’s been a meeting in that area. But tourism is important in the Afan valley, and it’s industries such as that that are going to drive the regeneration of those Valleys and the skills you’ve identified. Will you ensure that the taskforce looks at the development of those skills to ensure that local jobs for local people can happen through the tourism agenda?
Absolutely. We know that Afan Argoed has been a major driver for tourism at the top of the Afan valley. Glyncorrwg, of course, is seeing the benefits both of the fishing lakes and also cycling routes, and that is something we intend to develop further in the future. It’s hugely important as well that we don’t forget that transport links are important wherever the particular valley might be, and that means, when we get control of the buses next year, we’ll be able to look at how we can improve services in the Afan valley and on the buses as well. We know that trains went in 1970, but, certainly, it is an opportunity for us now to create an integrated transport system across Wales, not just in some parts of Wales, to benefit people who live in the Valleys.
First Minister, I’m told that, to date, there have been nine engagement events, five targeted events, and four further formal engagement events are planned, and the Cabinet Secretary has attended, or plans to attend, each and every one of these engagement events. Can you confirm that that is the case? I would ask how these views are being fed back in and possibly whether you could report back some of that feedback to the Welsh Assembly. And, if, indeed, Cabinet Secretaries are attending these events so regularly, I do commend that as very good practice.
Yes, that is the plan. It’s hugely important that people see these events as worth coming to, and, if they have Government Ministers at those events, I trust they will feel that that is the case. I think it’s right to say that, in the initial events, there was a great deal of frustration that people wanted to get off their chests, and that is inevitable. Now, what we’re finding is that people want to move on and see what can be done to improve their quality of life, whether it’s transferrable skills—we know that skills are hugely important across Wales. Skills are the key to raising GDP, and we know that unemployment is, on paper, less of an issue than it was, but GDP per head is still an issue, and that is something that we will focus on very sharply over the next five to 10 years and beyond.
6. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for improving public transport in the northern valleys? OAQ(5)0544(FM)
The national transport finance plan, published in July 2015, sets out investment for transport and infrastructure and services for 2015-20 across all parts of Wales.
The south Wales metro gives us the opportunity to deliver real improvements in public transport services in the Valleys, and I welcome the First Minister’s answer last week about the importance of inter-Valley transport links. At the moment, a return bus journey between Aberdare and Merthyr is £7. A train journey between Aberdare and Cardiff is £8—more than the hourly national living wage. How will the Welsh Government make sure that fares for the metro are set at an affordable level?
I can assure the Member that affordable fares are being considered as part of the procurement of the next rail services that we have and also the metro contract. We want to make sure that we see increased patronage, particularly at off-peak times and on services where patronage is currently low. We want to see discounts to the cost of travel for people working irregular work patterns or part-time hours, and, importantly, it’s hugely important that the system is integrated and has a ticketing system that has electronic ticketing and smart ticketing. That is something that is absolutely crucial to the development of the metro.
First Minister, in an announcement, they claim—here is the quote: ‘one of the most significant improvements to valleys commuters in a decade, since the opening of the Ebbw Vale line.’ Arriva Trains Wales revealed that they are to double the capacity of commuter trains in and out of Cardiff to deal with overcrowding. However, the Arriva contracts mean that it is trying to deal with rising passenger numbers with the same number of trains as they held in 2003. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with Arriva Trains to find ways of increasing the number of trains to provide services between Cardiff and the Valleys?
Well, it’s part of the franchise discussions that will take place next year. We want to make sure there are more trains and more comfortable trains on the network. For the first time, the Welsh Government will have control over these issues, and we intend to make sure that the network is improved and developed for the future.
I just want to speak up for the northern valleys of the Ogmore constituency. We have four valleys, many of which will benefit from better public transport in terms of faster buses, cheaper ticketing, joined-up ticketing, but particularly the Llynfi valley. I wonder: what is the view of the First Minister on the importance of the Maesteg to Cheltenham, as it now is, main line—or community line as it in in the Llynfi valley—in terms of south Wales metro? Because for many people in that valley and adjoining valleys, that is as integral to the Cardiff travel-to-work area as is Ebbw Vale or Merthyr or anywhere else. They believe they are part and parcel of the south Wales travel area, so what role do they play within the south Wales metro?
Hugely important. It was a great act of foresight by Mid Glamorgan, actually, in 1988, to open up that line to passenger traffic. At the moment, of course, it’s an hourly service with no Sunday service—well, that’s not something that in the long term we should be satisfied with. It’s important that we look to increase services on the line and look to see how that can be done, and, of course, to see what can be done to run a Sunday service, although it’s important that we understand what the patronage would be of that Sunday service. But I know full well that those trains are very, very well used. They now run later in the evening than they used to, which is one thing—I don’t spend my entire time looking at rail timetables, may I add, even though I may give that impression at times. But I do know that the service is hugely important to the people of the Llynfi valley, and we will look to enhance that service in the future.
7. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support access to high street banking services in town centres? OAQ(5)0549(FM)
Decisions on the location of branches are matters for the banks but we recognise the negative impact closures can have on communities. Whilst this is non-devolved, of course, we have welcomed the announcement that post offices will be able to provide services to fill some of the gaps left by bank branch closures. If that’s done properly, it may well enhance the service to bank users, rather than reduce the service.
NatWest has announced their closure across south Wales. We’ve heard of closures in the constituencies of Alun Davies, Lynne Neagle, Vikki Howells, and in my constituency, where Ystrad Mynach branch is closing—that comes on top of Barclays closing in Nelson—and NatWest did it without any consultation at all, as far as I’m aware, and I condemn that and I think that there should have been far better consultation than there was. I’m concerned about the impact on elderly and vulnerable people, people who don’t have access to internet banking, and also the message this shows to high streets where there are banks closing, branches closing, and we’re trying to regenerate the northern valleys and build our town centres, and the banks are doing the opposite, and I think it’s absolutely the wrong thing to do. You mentioned the Post Office: to what extent can you as a Welsh Government and we as Assembly Members ensure that people like the Post Office ensure that those services are properly available?
I’ve seen branch closures in my own constituency as well over the years. I know that, in even branches in Bridgend town itself, the patronage has dropped quite considerably because the reasons for people going to the bank are few in number now compared to years ago. Now, internet banking services are not of themselves a solution. As the Member rightly points out, there are people who either can’t or don’t feel comfortable using electronic services, and provision must be made for them. To my mind, if this is done properly and people can access the same services through the post office, that will give them access to a wide range of branches. It’ll also help with the sustainability of post offices, because I know that they receive a commission for providing those banking services, and the post offices do provide a way of ensuring that services continue for those people who use them. I have been told by banks that there will be more closures at some point in the future—nothing specific, but it’s just the trend that they have seen thus far. HSBC were the last to resist that trend—they kept their branches open longer than most in some parts of Wales—but it’s absolutely crucial that services are not lost to people and that they are provided by the alternative means of the post office.
A statement by Lloyd’s Bank this week that they intend to shrink a number of bank branches is concerning in a number of ways, particularly in terms of the job cuts that that is bound to lead to, and the erosion in the face-to-face counter service available, but we could also take a positive view of the announcement in part, because what we seem to be seeing is the bank adapting in response to changes in customer habits, rather than taking the step, which has appeared far too easy for them in the past, to close branches. Does the First Minister agree with me that we should urge the banks to adapt rather than close, and that’s best for our high streets in Wales, and that we should seek to use all legislative and regulatory tools possible in order to urge them to do that?
I don’t believe that it’s possible to use legislation to change the situation, but I do agree with him that banks should think of every alternative apart from closure—that should be the very final option, rather than the first option, because, of course, the service is lost to the high street. If that’s not possible, then it’s crucial that the banks deal with the post office so the services can continue in the post office, but we wouldn’t wish to see the closure of branches as a priority for the banks.
First Minister, the NatWest bank, in the last 12 days, has also announced the closure of the Welshpool and Machynlleth branch in my constituency—two very major towns, of course, there, as well. As Hefin David has alluded to, they’ve done so without any public consultation whatsoever. Now, a public meeting was held last night in Welshpool in this regard, and the post office, as you have mentioned, was also discussed as a potential, but a lot of the issues there revolve around privacy and disability access. Is there actually capacity at the post offices, as well, in some particular locations? Now, as you said, I understand absolutely that this is, of course, an issue, ultimately, for the bank—it’s a commercial decision. I have previously raised—and had a fairly positive response from Ministers when calling for the Government to facilitate a discussion with the banks and the Financial Conduct Authority and other partners to explore a community banking model that would see banks share services. I wonder whether this would be something that you’d be willing to explore in more detail.
I will consider that. I’ll ask the Minister to write to the Member with regard to the proposals that he has made. What we don’t want to see is a loss of banking services completely in communities, and there is a danger that, where banks—particularly when they do this very quickly—decide to shut branches, sufficient provision isn’t made in the post offices—that they don’t leave a cash machine, for example, in a community, so people can’t get cash. I know that in Crickhowell, recently, one of the branches closed, but the ATM has remained, which provides some service for local people, although not all services. So, I will ask the Minister to write to the Member in that regard, particularly with regard to the suggestion he makes on community banking.
8. Does the First Minister have any plans to make official visits to European countries in the near future? OAQ(5)0558(FM)
Yes. My most recent visits were to Brussels and Norway, and I plan to visit Gibraltar in the near future.
I thank the First Minister for that response. Does he have any plans to visit the European Investment Bank in Luxembourg to state Wales’s case for future investment by the bank in projects in Wales like Velindre hospital in my constituency and to put the case for the UK to continue as a subscribing partner after we leave the EU?
Yes, I can say that a senior-official-level delegation visited the EIB in Luxembourg in October to maintain direct dialogue. The vice-president of the EIB visited Cardiff for a number of meetings on 9 February. But we strongly advocate that the UK should remain a sponsoring partner of the EIB. It doesn’t cost anything to the UK; UK contributions loan money, so it’s repayable over the terms of those loans. There is no reason, at all, why, in leaving the UK, we cannot remain part of the EIB infrastructure.
Thank you, First Minister.