Today’s Senedd roundup: Minister defends investments record

Ken Skates AM Minister for Economy and Transport. Photo National Assembly for Wales and licensed under CC BY 2.0

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Here’s a round-up of this afternoon’s questions to the Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South).

Welsh Government “not balancing risks and benefits” with business investments

Shadow Economy Minister, Russell George AM (Con, Montgomery), quoted figures from PricewaterhouseCoopers that the Welsh economy will grow by just 1% this year and fall back to 0.8% in 2020.

He accused the Welsh Government of failing to create the right conditions to attract inward investment and, while it’s right the government takes risks from time to time, has “thrown money” at poor investments. How could Wales be confident the government will take responsible decisions when the Auditor General has said the government hasn’t come up with a way to balance risks with benefits?

As you might expect, the Minister blamed Brexit for causing economic uncertainty, but argued that there were often more positives resulting from government investment than negatives:

“For every list of so-called poor investments, we can produce a list of successful investments, investments in businesses like Aston Martin, who are choosing to make Wales their home of electrification, of businesses like INEOS, who we’ve secured very recently in the face of fierce competition from around the world, businesses like Airbus, who we are helping to secure the future of ‘The Wing of Tomorrow’ programme for. I think it’s important to say that we’re often accused of being risk-averse in Welsh Government. We are equally accused of having too high a risk appetite.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

Unequal rail fare cuts?

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) returned to the issue of rail overcrowding, citing many examples and repeating recently-raised concerns about seating and standing capacity on new trains set to be introduced from 2023. He suggested Transport for Wales based capacity figures on a much smaller per-person area than the industry standard – which the Minister rejected.

Rhun then moved on to rail fare reductions from January:

“Treherbert to Cardiff is 25 miles, and a train ticket costs £6.10. That sounds about right to me. With a third off, that’s down to £4. Holyhead to Bangor is 25 miles again. That’s over £10 a journey. With 10% off, that brings it down to £9. How come you can pay £4 for a journey in one part of Wales, and over £9 – more than double – in another part of Wales?”
– Rhun ap Iorwerth AM

The Minister explained that some fares are within TfW’s control, while others are regulated by the UK Government. Broadly-speaking there’ll be significant cuts for some journeys across all of Wales introducing what he described as “a strong degree of social justice to the public transport fare regime”.

Williams F1 engineering arm “potentially interested in Ebbw Vale”

David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) asked for an update on TVR’s factory in Ebbw Vale and when cars could be expected to be produced there? He also asked for confirmation on whether Williams Advanced Engineering – the engineering arm of the Williams Group (which includes the Formula 1 team) – were interested in establishing a presence in Ebbw Vale?

The Minister confirmed he’ll be meeting representatives of Williams tomorrow at an automotive summit. The Welsh Government would be “fully supportive” of any efforts to attract such a prestigious company.

Minister Leaving No Room For Complacency Following Pisa Results

Within hours of the 2018 PISA results being revealed, AMs had the opportunity to question the Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor). She said that, overall, it was good news and a clear sign of progress.

The Minister was particularly pleased by an increase in high-performers in reading and mathematics and while Wales hasn’t exceeded the OECD average, a high bar has been set. She paid tribute to the hard work of teachers and students who were “beginning to show what Wales is capable of”.

She was, however, concerned about the student wellbeing findings which implied high levels of emotional stress amongst Welsh students, hoping that the “whole-school approach” to mental health would deliver in the long run.

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West), noted the improvements, but it still wasn’t quite good enough with Wales remaining the weakest nation in the UK. Compared to the abandoned target of a 500 point average score across all three subjects, Wales remained some way behind.

Sian Gwenllian AM (Plaid, Arfon) added that while Wales’ performance was encouraging, she had concerns over inconsistencies in how the new curriculum is being faced up to by teachers; only 40% of teachers in pilot schools felt they were part of the curriculum’s development. There was also a mounting recruitment crisis with a third of new teachers leaving the profession within five years.

“No tension” in levels of support for advantaged and disadvantaged students

Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) thought the Minister was a little “too self-congratulatory”; Wales was still lagging behind the OECD average for high performers despite clear improvement.

He also thought there may be a tension between the levels of support offered to pupils from more deprived backgrounds compared to those from advantaged backgrounds – many nations invest more in well-off and high-performing pupils, Wales is one of the few doing the opposite.

The Minister rejected this:

“I don’t believe there is a tension there. The Government cannot ignore anybody. The education system has to be a system that works for every single pupil to allow them to reach their full potential, whether they are students with profound additional learning needs….or whether they’re the students I met today who are destined for world-leading universities, we have to create an education system that allows each and every single individual to reach their full potential.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) was upbeat about the results but was concerned about the OECD findings on low levels of reading amongst Welsh students – which may or may not imply increased digital reading over print reading.

Photo by Richard (Dick) Kaufman from Pixabay

Government challenging attitudes towards the disabled in work

The Welsh Government are going to focus efforts of changing attitudes of employers in order to improve employment rates amongst disabled people.

Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates (Lab, Clwyd South) said that while the proportion of Welsh disabled people in work has increased over the last year from 45.2% to 48.6%, it still lags far behind the general employment rate.

Measures introduced by the Welsh Government include improving access to professional advice and support and the introduction of inclusive apprenticeships, but the heart of the government’s strategy going forward is changing attitudes.

“I can confirm that disabled people’s employer champions, who will work with employers across Wales to make workplaces more inclusive and better support the recruitment and retention of disabled people, will be recruited in the new year. We are also reviewing our marketing material and employer resources to dispel myths, influence and change employer attitudes, and raise awareness of wider support available to businesses when employing disabled people.”
– Economy & Transport Minister, Ken Skates

Some barriers people face are “illegal”

Shadow Communities Minister, Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) said some of the barriers disabled people face when seeking employment were “illegal”; public bodies have equalities duties and many people he’s worked with have never been told about them.

Also, while awareness of autism was increasing, the proportion of people with autism in employment wasn’t increasing, meaning many employers miss out of hiring perfectly qualified autistic and disabled people because “they don’t make adjustments in their recruitment process”.

Dr Dai Lloyd AM (Plaid, South Wales West) was concerned that the draft code for people with additional learning needs has seen a “significantly reduced” duty to provide appropriate careers advice to special needs students. The Minister said Careers Wales has 30 specialist staff working with special needs students.

“I’m old enough to remember when we used to have the green-card system. Companies were expected to employ a certain proportion of people with green cards and the percentage was reported. This disappeared, unfortunately, with the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and I think that’s done far more harm than it’s done good, because then, you could hold employers to account. At the moment, it’s very difficult to hold employers to account.”
– Mike Hedges AM (Lab, Swansea East)

David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) raised the matter of disabled people not only getting work, but getting to work – transport is often one of the biggest barriers preventing disabled people finding and maintaining employment. The Minister pointed to investment in new trains which will be more disabled-friendly.

GP trainees exceed quota following recruitment drive; AMs argue it’s still not enough

The Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth), told the Senedd yesterday that the Welsh Government’s “Train, Work, Live” recruitment drive has resulted in the number of trainee GPs exceeding the original number of training places.

186 training places were filled despite an original allocation of 160; 7 places were filled for Pembrokeshire (compared to 0 in 2016) and three schemes across north Wales filled 28 places despite an original 22 place allocation. Some medical specialities which have experiences shortages in recent years, like psychiatry, have seen training places fully-booked too.

A new register of locum GPs has been set up as part of measures to incentivise doctors to become full-time salaried GPs or partners.

Shadow Health Minister, Angela Burns AM (Con, Carms. W. & S. Pembs.), said that while the signs are positive, there were still gaps in the nursing workforce, with NHS Wales spending £63million on agency nurses in 2018-19.

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) heard from a cross-party group that there were no higher-level trainee doctors for stroke services. She also called for more accurate advice to be offered to students considering applying for medical school.

Dr Hefin David AM (Lab, Caerphilly) warned that a GP surgery in his constituency wasn’t just facing a GP shortage but also a shortage of other professionals in primary care. Caroline Jones AM (BXP, South Wales West) raised concerns about the up to a quarter of GPs in Wales retiring or leaving the profession – or expected to do so – in the next five years.

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