Today’s Senedd roundup: Health Minister accused of ignoring Cwm Taf concerns following ITV Wales investigation
Owen Donovan, Senedd Home
Following an ITV Wales investigation, it was revealed earlier today that the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), approved Cwm Taf health board’s medium-term care plan days before a damning report on the state of maternity services in Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr Tydfil was published.
A few hours later was health questions and, given the seriousness, I’ll only be covering the two questions relating to it (instead of the usual three).
Medium-term plan “was important by itself”
Round one went to Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), who noted that inspectors considered the situation at Cwm Taf so bad that they published interim findings to secure immediate improvements. Did the Minister think it was appropriate to, therefore, approve the health boards medium-term plans with that in mind?
“Yes, is the straight answer, because it’s important that there is a plan and the plan itself makes sense. And having had the interim step from the joint royal colleges’ report, of course, I considered the matter fully, and whether it would be better to not approve that plan. I believe it’s the right thing for the organisation, and I believe their capacity to deliver and continue to deliver in other areas should continue. But, of course, there is heightened scrutiny. So, I did take the step to raise the escalation status of the organisation, the targeted intervention.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething
But, Angela Burns said Cwm Taf was already struggling at the time. There were several reports going back to as far as 2015 identifying concerns. The Minister refused to sign off medium-term plans at other health boards, so why was Cwm Taf so special?
The Minister said the situation at Cwm Taf shouldn’t be portrayed in an entirely negative light, but Angela Burns wasn’t satisfied with that:
“I’d like to remind you that even the maternity services oversight panel interim report is very clear….about the fact this is a cultural change that has to happen….that there are systemic issues, and the governance arrangements, if nothing else – which is one of the things in that (the medium-term plan) waxed lyrical about, and say is absolutely spot-on – are poor. Their audit committee hasn’t met for ages, to discuss some of these issues. So, Minister, I’ll just ask you this: did you look at Cwm Taf’s performance robustly and dispassionately? Did you look but did not see? Did you look, did you see – did it not matter?”
– Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns
The Minister took more exception to how that question was phrased that its substance. Nonetheless, he’s been very open about the need for change at Cwm Taf and those changes have been made. Any decisions he makes are done so dispassionately and with the public in mind.
Cwm Taf’s issues “weren’t ignored”
Plaid’s health spokesperson, Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales), tried to dig down into the reasons why the Minister signed the plan and his thought process at the time. Surely he knew about problems at Cwm Taf and she didn’t understand what Cwm Taf was doing so right to result in their plan being signed off while others hadn’t had their signed off?
“The position in Cwm Taf was plainly different (compared to Hywel Dda health board). Having had a three-year plan, having made progress on a range of areas and the challenges about quality and some of the governance issues that have been highlighted, some of those were addressed through time with a range of criticism in the reports. But the idea that all of those issues were ignored or not highlighted or not considered simply isn’t true. And in any of these judgments, it is a balanced judgment about what to do with and for that organisation. I made the judgment that I did. I think it was the right thing to do.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething
Helen Mary Jones went one step further and argued that the need for a properly independent health and social care inspectorate and accountability for managers means the Health & Care Quality Bill should be withdrawn or significantly amended.
The Bill, which passed Stage 1 yesterday, wasn’t going to be withdrawn by the Minister. He said there would be opportunities to amend the Bill in later stages, but in terms of managerial accountability he said: “I don’t think that a couple of speeches in the Chamber and a demand to change legislation is really an honest answer to how we could get there.”
Kirsty Williams AM. Picture by Welsh Lib Dems (CC BY-SA 2.0)
Council criticised for Welsh-medium school u-turn
Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) welcomed positive changes to Welsh-medium Education Strategic Plans (WESPs), but some local authorities were flouting existing rules, causing frustration for parents demanding expanded Welsh-medium provision.
“The recent situation in Blaenau Gwent encapsulates this for me. The residents of the Tredegar area….have been battling for years for a second Welsh-medium school. At last, the council agreed to do that after the campaigners had gathered the data that assessed demand. A number of cylchoedd meithrin (Welsh-medium nurseries) were open to prepare for this, but then, last month, there was a U-turn from the council and a decision was taken not to open these cylchoedd meithrin, which is certainly a mistake, to my mind.”
– Sian Gwenllian AM
Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), wasn’t happy. She said it was “remarkable” that a local authority would bid for funding for a new school and then do a u-turn. The Welsh Government would look to see how the original plans can be honoured and her officials will take it up with Blaenau Gwent Council.
The Minister later added that as a non-Welsh speaker who’s chosen Welsh-medium education for her children, the cylchoedd meithrin are a crucial element in meeting the Welsh Government’s million Welsh-speakers target by 2050.
Skilled Welsh-medium primary teachers will be able to “level up” to secondary schools
Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), mentioned that despite the Education Workforce Council setting targets for the number of graduate trainee teachers (PGCE) in certain subjects – including Welsh and modern foreign languages – there was a distinct shortage.
As mentioned a few weeks ago, just 12 teachers qualified to teach Welsh (as a subject) at secondary school level in the previous year compared to a target of 75. For modern foreign languages, there were only 18 qualified teachers with a target for 59.
The Minister accepted that the approach hasn’t been successful, but changes are on the way.
“I am currently considering an entire systematic reform of how we support initial entrants into our (initial teacher training) provision and teachers through the first few years of their career, with specific mention of Welsh-medium provision in secondary schools, which is of concern to me. The Member will be aware that, only this week, we launched a new scheme, where those who have qualified to teach in a primary school but have the potential and the skills to teach either the Welsh language or through the medium of Welsh in a secondary school but are not qualified can gain additional professional learning opportunities to allow them to transfer into a high school.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams
Joyce Watson AM (Lab, Mid & West Wales) asked what was being done to address and prevent bullying, with 10% of Welsh secondary school pupils experiencing bullying at least once a week. She welcomed the recently-issued guidance, but wondered whether schools are actively encouraging parents and guardians to look at the resources there are so there’s a message at home and in school that bullying is wrong.
Paul Davies AM (Con, Preseli Pembs.) asked what steps were being taken to ensure schools properly record bullying? While Mandy Jones AM (BXP, North Wales) raised concerns from a constituent that their local school wasn’t taking bullying seriously enough.
The Minister said there were a variety of ways to draw attention to the guidance and resources available. The new guidance makes proper reporting of bullying incidents mandatory and also requires local authorities and schools to monitor trends. Any parent or guardian who isn’t satisfied with how a school addresses bullying should, first of all, raise it with the chair of governors.
AMs target reduction in number of children being taken into care
The Motion (Final/Amended Version)
- Welcomes the Ministerial Advisory Group’s first Annual Report on the Improving Outcomes for Children programme.
- Acknowledges that the increase in the number of children taken into care is the result of several complex factors, including intergenerational poverty and austerity.
- Calls for the re-engineering of the system to focus resources on prevention to protect children and improve their outcomes.
- Calls on the Welsh Government to avoid the use of binding targets to reduce the number of children taken into care.
A challenging programme of activity
Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North), set out that the report acknowledges “progress and activity” but laid down the task ahead. Listing many actions which have been taken to date, the Deputy Minister added that £15 million has been added to the integrated care fund.
There was, however, no room for complacency:
“Our recently published statistics show us that the number of children looked after by local authorities is still increasing. In 2018-19, the number rose by a further 7%, taking it to 6,846….But, there is a note of optimism. It’s important to note that, for the second year running, the number of children starting to become looked-after has decreased. I’m hoping that we’re now beginning to see the results of the investment in our prevention and early intervention services, and all the work of the group that David (Melding) is chairing.”
– Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan
Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) said it was a duty for AMs to undertake similar training as councillors to understand their responsibilities towards children in care. The main reasons some older children and teenagers were entering care were complex issues that fall short of the criteria needed to access mental health services.
She raised the possibility that law changes may be required to look at the family court process, kinship care and placements where a child can remain with their parent under a care order – similar to that in Scotland.
Not always clear why care numbers are increasing
Chair of the Advisory Group, David Melding AM (Con, South Wales Central), noted that the reasons behind an increase in the number of looked-after children aren’t clear cut, with a range of social and even political/policy differences between different local authorities.
“If I turn to what we need to achieve, we’ve always known that high-quality placements are key to successful services. Stable placements close to home are really important, but as our data shows in the annual report, those experiencing three or more placements in 2017-18, that was 9.6% of children, and this year 9.2% are getting three or more placements. That’s not acceptable and we need to ensure that that figure comes down.”
– David Melding AM
He mentioned the need for greater support for looked-after children to improve attainment at school and to prevent becoming NEETs – 46.5% of looked-after children are neither in education, employment or training a year after leaving care.
Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) called for a strengthening of children’s’ rights and greater clarity over what a rights-based approach means in practice.
Shadow Social Care Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy) welcomed the focus on reducing the number of children in care but doubted it could be achieved. She supported a recommendation from the Public Accounts Committee for a national strategy for care placements. Neil McEvoy AM (Ind, South Wales Central) repeated a call for reform of children’s services and raised some issues, including a lack of crisis provision and poor attitudes from social services and the police in child welfare incidents.
£4.5 million fund to trial new ways to boost the foundational economy
Yesterday, Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters (Lab, Llanelli), updated AMs on the Welsh Government’s plans for the foundational economy – which has been discussed in the Senedd several times in recent years.
Movement for change
The Deputy Minister said this was a move away from the traditional approach of supporting specific economic sectors towards longer-term economic growth rooted in communities and more resistant to economic shocks.
“….we’ve created a £4.5 million foundational economy challenge fund to trial ways of growing and improving this part of the economy. Over recent weeks, we’ve announced 52 innovative projects across Wales that we are supporting, from food and social care to construction and regeneration, and from applicants in the public, private and third sectors. They are now experimenting with different approaches, and we’ll be creating strong communities of practice to spread what works, and to learn from what doesn’t.”
– Deputy Minister for Economy & Transport, Lee Waters
This is being done with one eye on improvements to public procurement (citing a Carmarthenshire project to supply local schools and hospitals with local food), the potential economic consequences of Brexit and also to retain the so-called “Missing Mittlestand” – the lack of mid-sized, locally-rooted companies which in Wales have historically been taken over by larger foreign companies.
Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery) warned that good practice often doesn’t travel well in Wales. He suggested this project was spread too thinly and will be difficult to monitor.
Some of the project was brought about with Plaid Cymru support at the last budget and Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) was pleased to see it move forward. He brought up the issue of a local foundational economy company involved in construction and home maintainance which wants to stay put but is being persuaded to move away to grow.
While the Deputy Minister said it would be ideal for companies to stay where they’re rooted, moving to another place within a broader region wasn’t necessarily a bad thing and the Welsh Government is pressing for regional collaboration – which didn’t satisfy Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Rooted in communities
Jenny Rathbone AM (Lab, Cardiff Central) raised the matter of community council reserves and asked whether they could play a greater role in public procurement on a smaller scale – for example, community-owned energy schemes.
David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) said none of this was any good without the necessary infrastructure in place to enable the efficient movement of goods and services.
Vikki Howells AM (Lab, Cynon Valley) criticised the lack of any mention of the foundational economy in the Welsh Government’s draft National Development Framework – and the Deputy Minister accepted there was more to be done to ensure the foundational economy is fully embedded in all government thinking.
Huw Irranca-Davies AM (Lab, Ogmore) thought there was room for a greater role for community organisations and co-operatives, raising examples such as Project Skyline (community management of uplands in the Valleys) – a project the Deputy Minister said was “very exciting”.
Dawn Bowden AM (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney) added to this by mentioning a Bevan Foundation community regeneration think-tank, which the Deputy Minister confirmed has received funding for two projects and he expected the Foundation to ask difficult questions to fix some of the problems in the foundational economy like low pay and low productivity.
Aviation industry “working hard” to reduce its environmental impact