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3. Topical Questions

May 17, 2017

17 speeches by…

  • Elin Jones
  • Eluned Morgan
  • Vaughan Gething
  • Caroline Jones
  • Simon Thomas
  • Lesley Griffiths
  • Paul Davies
  • Neil Hamilton

Eluned Morgan

What assurances can the Cabinet Secretary give that the IT infrastructure in Wales is protected, to ensure the continuity of care for Welsh patients following the cyber-attacks in the NHS in England? TAQ(5)0173(HWS)

Vaughan Gething

I thank the Member for the question. As you know, the First Minister issued a written statement yesterday regarding the ransomware attack that affected organisations globally last week in the UK, primarily NHS England and NHS Scotland being the focus of attention. Whilst we have been unaffected on this occasion, we must continue to be vigilant to ensure that our systems are as resilient as possible against future attacks on the network, which are, sadly, inevitable.

Eluned Morgan

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. I think the incident last week has raised many questions, most importantly how we are going to protect our patients in the NHS. As you say, the reports have suggested that 47 trusts in England have been affected, and 13 in Scotland, because they’d failed to apply recent security updates that might have protected them. Now, I think it's worth noting that the impact is not just one of disruption and inconvenience; this actually, potentially, has life-changing and life-threatening consequences. If you think about the impact on individuals waiting for scans for cancer treatments, I think the impact could be incalculable and such an attack by cyber terrorists is morally, I think, indefensible. Now, the joined-up nations of the NHS in Wales and the £11 million computer investment meant that there were fewer vulnerabilities in Wales. I think of course we've got to point out that there’s no room for complacency, but I think it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the efforts of the NHS Wales Informatics Service and the IT teams across the whole of the NHS in Wales for protecting us from this latest attack. That's not to say that we should be complacent—it may happen again—but they protected us on this occasion and I think we should salute them.

Vaughan Gething

I quite agree. I'm very happy to publicly acknowledge and thank staff in the NHS Wales Informatics Service, not only for the way in which they have made the case for, and then applied, the additional cyber security measures that we’ve provided across the service, and not only for the fact that they did actually uptake the security updates that apparently did not take place in NHS England, but the fact that over the course of the weekend and into the start of this week, they looked for vulnerability within the system, they detected areas where the virus had been intercepted by the measures we’ve put in place, and were able to actually resolve some of the risks that existed. That, for example, included closing off parts of the NHS to external e-mails: the right thing to do to make sure that our system was not compromised. But that professionalism is there to be vigilant constantly, because this is not an issue that will go away this week. We certainly can't skip away and say, ‘There won’t be a problem next week, the week after or next year as well.’ There’s a challenge here about making capital investment decisions as well. It's not always very popular investing in areas like this, but it is essential, it makes a real difference to patient care. So, we can thank our good fortune and the sense that we have made in being one step ahead by making investment choices in cyber security.

Caroline Jones

We welcome the First Minister's written statement yesterday concerning the impact of the recent global cyber attacks on the NHS in England. It is positive to learn that the NHS in Wales was not significantly affected and services were largely uninterrupted. However, we note that 40 cancer patients had treatment interrupted at Velindre hospital in Cardiff, which, for them, must have been quite traumatic. It is clear from repeated events of this nature that we are living in a world where data held electronically are vulnerable and services can be brought to a halt within seconds of an attack. It is clearly unacceptable that the users of Wales’s public services should be affected in this way, but we also note that we do not want to overreact and throw the teddy out of the pram. Electronic data storage is, largely speaking, more efficient and more secure than paper-based systems. So, it is important we continue to develop our information infrastructure across Wales to maintain pace with technology. In light of this, would the First Minister give an undertaking to ask the new cyber security centre based at GCHQ to review cyber security across the public sector in Wales? Thank you.

Vaughan Gething

Thank you for the question. As you know, I'm not the First Minister but I'm sure he'll consider your request. There is already a review, as you'd expect, to take place within the service here to learn lessons from what worked and why and what more we need to do in the future, and it's important that we do that—to understand the level of risk that we carry, to understand what we do within the system, and how we minimise the risk progressively in the future. That's the right thing to do and that’s what we’re already doing of, and for, ourselves, as we should do. We're lucky to have national architecture with the NHS Wales Informatics Service, where people are committed—committed to the once-for-Wales approach we’re trying to take on taking advantage of the developments in using digital technology to improve health care—not just the process but the experience and the outcomes for people as well—as well as understanding the risks that are attached to that. There is a meeting of the national informatics board—a nice snappy title within the healthcare world—and they’ll again be looking back at what’s happened as well as looking to the future as well. So, a properly balanced approach—not complacent, but not forgetting, as you say, the real advantages and the real potential for improving healthcare by unlocking the great digital potential that does exist.

Simon Thomas

Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the 1,761 Glastir applications that have still not been paid? TAQ(5)0142(ERA)[W]

Lesley Griffiths

Thank you. As of this morning, there are 1,198 Glastir area claims still to process. In 2016, basic payment scheme claims were prioritised, due to the significant value and number of farm businesses receiving those payments. As of today, over 99.2 per cent of farm businesses have been paid, a total of £220.6 million of BPS. From January, Rural Payments Wales’s focus switched to processing Glastir claims. RPW continues to work hard, and all of our probate and other legally complex cases will be paid by the end of next month.

Simon Thomas

Can I welcome the Cabinet Secretary back to her place, and hope that she recovers well. Can I just say to her, I’m grateful for the updated figures—the figures I had in my original question date from about three weeks ago, so clearly some progress has been made? However, when I looked at the profile of these figures, Gwynedd in particular—Meirion Dwyfor has been one area where farmers have particularly complained and has had a very bad profile within that, and I think it is important to put on record that, of course, these, though they’re called Glastir payments—in almost all circumstances, they are repayments for money the farmers have already spent on work already undertaken and often inspected on farms. So, can you confirm what you’ve already told us—or rather, it wasn’t you, it was at the time somebody standing in for you—what the Government told us on 11 April, which was that you did expect all these payments, with the exception of very difficult ones, to be paid by the end of this month? I note that so far that doesn’t look completely likely. And can you also say whether you’re considering any further steps that you can take as a Government to help farmers who are facing a very difficult time, an uncertain time as well, with Brexit? For example, I understand the Scottish Government has allowed loans to be made, and then for the final details of payments to be done later on down the line. Are these also being actively considered as a way of helping farmers who really do need now these Glastir repayments to be made?

Lesley Griffiths

Thank you. You’re quite right—since I think it was a written question that was issued to the Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, there have been a further 563 claims paid, and I’ve given you the current position today. We did inform farmers that this would happen, because of the way that we were doing the BPS after the changes last year, so I don’t accept that the Glastir payments are late, because we didn’t actually say when they would be paid. However, I do appreciate the difficulties. We did actually say we would start paying Glastir payments in February—we actually started in January, so we were a bit earlier, and as I’ve said today, they will all be paid by the end of June. You asked about loans, and I am aware that the Scottish Government are doing that. Any loan scheme would likely fail EU state aid rules, and I think that would then increase the risk of us being penalised financially. I also think it would take time to establish, and quite frankly I’d rather RPW’s staff be out there getting those claims processed as quickly as possible.

Paul Davies

Cabinet Secretary, it’s absolutely crucial that all of the 1,198 outstanding Glastir applications are now paid as soon as possible in order to protect the viability of those farm businesses, and it’s simply unacceptable that it's been 18 months since some farmers have received a Glastir payment, and I think this is further evidence that the Glastir scheme is still plagued with difficulties and that there is far too much bureaucracy in the system. So, in the circumstances, will you outline what additional support the Welsh Government will be providing for farmers affected by the delay in payments in order to protect their businesses in the interim? There is also a real concern that the system in its current format is inadequate. As you’ll know from my own correspondence with you on this matter, it’s my view that the Welsh Government should be making it easier for more applicants to carry out environmental practices, not putting obstacles in their path. Given the current concerns with the system, do you therefore agree that it is now time to review the management of the entire implementation of Glastir to ensure that the scheme is more co-ordinated and actually encourages landowners to carry out more environmentally friendly management practices rather than deter them?

Lesley Griffiths

I actually think Glastir has been incredibly successful. In fact, this year, we’ve had an increase in the number of Glastir contracts and claims to process. We’ve had, I think, an additional 543 successful Glastir applications. So, I actually think it’s been a very incredibly successful scheme. You also will appreciate that the EU common agricultural policy simplification meant we had to have additional checks introduced for Glastir—we needed to bring those in line with the BPS. We’ve also had complications with mapping 2016 integrated administrative control system inspections, and that, again, will have impacted on Glastir. I’m always very keen to look at how we can simplify any process. You’ll be aware of the new farming business grants scheme that we’ve brought forward, and I’ve been very keen to make sure that’s as simple as possible. But I do assure everyone all payments will be made by the end of June.

Neil Hamilton

I also welcome the Cabinet Secretary back to her place in this Assembly and hope that her health will continue to improve. The Cabinet Secretary, I am sure, will share my disappointment that some farmers, as Paul Davies has just pointed out, have been waiting 18 months for their payments, given that by this time of the year many farmers experience cash flow difficulties at the end of the winter, and that we must certainly try to ensure that what are described as annual payments are just that and not payments made every 18 months in future. I appreciate that no administrative scheme is going to be perfect and foolproof but we should certainly do our best to ensure that what is described as an annual payment should be just that. When farmers ring the customer contact centre, they are given no idea about when their payments might be made. I wonder whether there might be some improvements made in the information that can be given to them, even if it’s only of an approximate nature through that, because it is a worrying time for many farmers—how they pay their bills and they’re beginning their business plans for the remaining part of the year. The third point I’d like to make is that—unrelated to the previous point—some farmers have recently received letters in error from Rural Payments Wales with regard to Glastir non-completion of capital works, when, in fact, the work has been completed. Can you confirm that Rural Payments Wales will contact them directly as quickly as possible to confirm that the letter was sent in error?

Lesley Griffiths

Thank you. Yes, as far as I’m aware, all people have been contacted already, and probably a couple of months ago, to say they were sent in error. In relation to being given information about when they will have their payment, I think that’s a very fair point. Certainly, I’ve had a meeting today with our RPW staff to say that at least they can be told by the end of June, for instance, which I don’t think they have been. But I have been given assurances by my officials that that will be the case and I hope that all farmers who are still waiting will hear this or will have been told by RPW staff that they will get their payment by the end of June.