Today’s Senedd roundup: Minister quizzed over NHS winter pressures

Photograph by Silas Camargo Silão from Pixabay

Owen Donovan, Senedd Home

Here’s a summary of this afternoon’s questions to the Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth).

Further questions on NHS winter pressures

Helen Mary Jones AM (Plaid, Mid & West Wales) got a sense of deja vu from successive ministerial claims about the NHS during the winter period:

“I have been looking back at the Minister’s statements around winter pressures over the past three years, and he always says the same things. He always talks about norovirus and flu, and he says the same things when you have a challenging year when you have lots of norovirus and flu, and he says the same things when, as in this year, in fact, the situation is not that challenging.”
– Helen Mary Jones AM

Accepting that the situation has improved in areas such as unscheduled care, could she have an assurance that we won’t be having these conversations again in 20 years?

Using the most urgent 999 calls as an example, the Minister said increase seen this winter is the sort of increase you would otherwise expect over several years. There has been some progress in getting health and social services working together but it comes down to people living longer with diseases that are not a part of the natural ageing process which results in patients attending hospital being more vulnerable than in previous years.

Cash for carers

Shadow Social Services Minister, Janet Finch-Saunders AM (Con, Aberconwy), called for better recognition and support for the “selfless army” of an estimated 370,000 unpaid carers in Wales.

The number of carers who have had a care needs assessment undertaken by their local authority (as stipulated in the Social Services & Wellbeing Act) simply wasn’t high enough.

The draft budget for 2020-21 allocates £40 million to deal with expected pressures in social care, with £30 million allocated last year for a similar purpose; was this enough money?

The Deputy Minister told her that ultimately it was for local councils to decide how to use the money, with the money being used for a wide variety of different reasons:

“The decision as to how it was used was left largely to the local authorities because they are closer to their (carers) needs. But certainly, we know of the sorts of issues that they used that £30 million for. Nine local authorities utilised this funding to support adult and older people’s services. Eight local authorities used the funding to support domiciliary care for older people. Eleven local authorities used a portion to increase wages across the sector….”
– Deputy Minister for Health & Social Services, Julie Morgan (Lab, Cardiff North)

Doctors’ pay either side of the border

Eager to maintain a record of mentioning England for the sake of it (which must rival John Inverdale), Mark Reckless AM (BXP, South Wales East) compared rates of pay for doctors. While in Wales first-year junior doctors are paid up to £1,500 more than England, by the second year it flips with Welsh junior doctors seeing a £700 increase compared to £2,800 in England right up to registrars where pay is £1,000 higher in England. While these were relatively small differences, were they impacting recruitment and retention?

The Minister said pay decision in Wales are informed through negotiations by industrial bodies like the BMA and the Welsh Government were said to have done the right thing by not imposing a similar contract to England. Recruitment was also about more than pay.

“There’s certainly no agenda given to try to somehow save a small amount of money and to try to risk recruitment and retention because doctors look at a much wider suite of things. They look at training, they look at excellence, the future of the services and whether they believe that’s somewhere they want to work. That’s why we have a campaign like ‘Train. Work. Live.’, because all those aspects make a difference to where a whole range of health professionals choose to locate themselves for their careers.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething

Children at school. Picture by Lucélia Ribeiro (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Fund to cut infant class sizes expected to remain until at least 2021

Here’s a round-up of this afternoon’s education questions.

The draft budget and schools

Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM (Con, South Wales West) picked up on some of the specifics in the draft budget – namely a fund to keep smaller rural schools open, as well as the future of a £36 million fund to cut infant class sizes.

“This £36 million, though….has already prompted some questions about its value for money in terms of its outcomes. You’ve also heard that schools are worried that maintaining the levels of employment of all of these new staff….this £36 million may have bought, may be pretty difficult when this class-size funding commitment comes to an end.”
– Shadow Education Minister, Suzy Davies AM

The Education Minister, Kirsty Williams (Lib Dem, Brecon & Radnor), was pleased that the small schools funding has helped keep a pledge to keep smaller rural schools open – the same level of money as previous years will be available.

The Minister told AMs her intention is for the £36 million fund to remain in place “for as long as she’s a minister” and probably until the end of the Fifth Assembly (April 2021) at the very least.

A successor to Erasmus+?

Bethan Sayed AM (Plaid, South Wales West) criticised the UK Parliament for rejecting an amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill which would commit the UK to take part in Erasmus+ (EU student exchange programmes) after Brexit.

The Minister didn’t rule anything in or out in terms of a distinctly Welsh approach soon:

“Now, it is true to say that the vote this week does not preclude us from an ongoing negotiation, and I have used every opportunity that I have had and will continue to have to persuade (the UK Government) of the real value of that money. And sometimes, politicians and civil servants need to be reminded that we can know the cost of everything and sometimes miss the value of some things, and Erasmus+ is an example of where the value that is appreciated is so much more than the financial sums that are invested.”
– Education Minister, Kirsty Williams

The Minister confirmed there have been discussions on a possible replacement scheme – possibly UK-wide or a Celtic programme – but it’s unlikely to have anywhere near the breadth, strength or track record as Erasmus+.

Call for equality between Welsh and English language GCSEs

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) raised the case of a constituent who was denied a place at medical school for having a C-grade in GCSE English, yet achieved a B-grade in her first language, Welsh. Given that communication skills are important for any prospective doctor, and the lack of Welsh language skills amongst health staff, surely Welsh and English should be treated on an equal basis?

Mark Isherwood AM (Con, North Wales) raised the increasing difficulty in comparing Welsh qualifications to those in England due to different qualification formats and grading systems.

The Minister said the ability to work in both languages would be a clear advantage and she offered to look into this individual case. Though it’s the responsibility of individual universities to set course entry requirements, in principle she agreed that English and Welsh are of equal standing.

On comparability of qualifications, the advice given by Qualifications Wales was clear that universities understand the Welsh letter-based grading system far better than England’s number-based system.

Jeremy Miles AM. Picture: National Assembly

Proposals for post-Brexit regional fund replacement expected in March

With Brexit about a fortnight away, life after Brexit is moving to the forefront of AMs minds. Yesterday, the Senedd was updated on work regarding one of the key elements – replacing EU regional structural funding (previously known as Objective One).

Counsel General & Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles (Lab, Neath), described the proposed Shared Prosperity Fund as the first major test of the Prime Minister’s pledge to protect the Union.

He added that the UK Government’s actions to date have “fallen way short of promises to engage and consult on (the Fund).” There has, however, been a commitment that the Fund will match the size of those currently received by each UK nation at present.

Plans for a Welsh regional development fund are currently being developed by specialist technical groups and the initial proposals are expected to be published in March 2020 – with a hint that there may be more local and regional control over funding than at present. The new system is expected to be up and running some time in 2021.

Shadow Brexit Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), said the UK Government’s commitment to providing “not a penny less” of funding was in black and white in the Conservative 2019 manifesto. The reality to date is EU funds haven’t worked to the extent that was promised in Wales. Any new approach had to ensure places struggling outside the West Wales & Valleys area receive their fair share of support.

David Rowlands AM (BXP, South Wales East) also took exception to the Minister’s scepticism towards the UK Government’s intentions; we needed a reminder that EU funding was heavily restricted while Wales can largely do what it wants with Barnett Formula funding via the UK Government. Why would the Shared Prosperity Fund be any different?

Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) accused Darren Millar of being “flippant” and too willing to heap praise on “his London masters” at the expense of Welsh interests. Yes, the early signs from the new Welsh Secretary, Simon Hart, have been promising but with less than a year until Wales loses EU funding completely (at the end of the Brexit transition period in December), words weren’t enough.

David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon) said those deriding the use of EU funds should visit his constituency to see what benefits they’ve delivered. That aside, we still don’t know very much about the Shared Prosperity Fund other than its name: how will it be delivered? Will there be any EU-style restrictions? Will it be funded over several years at a time (like EU funds) or just one year at a time?

Photo by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash

International strategy welcomed by AMs

The Minister for International Relations & Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan (Lab, Mid & West Wales) has officially launched the Welsh Government’s International Strategy (pdf). A draft version was published last year.

The three key priorities are:

  • Raising Wales’ profile internationally. This includes maintaining or increasing a Welsh overseas presence, co-ordination with UK Government departments and agencies to raise Wales’ profile and making better use of the social reach of the Welsh diaspora.
  • Growing the economy by increasing export contribution to the Welsh economy by 5% over the next five years and encouraging inward investment through what are described as “magnet projects” and centres of excellence in cybersecurity, compound semiconductors and the creative industries.
  • Establish Wales as a globally responsible nation by promoting the fact Wales was the first country to put UN sustainability goals into law and our excellent recycling record, as well as increasing tree planting in Uganda and becoming a Nation of Sanctuary committed to human rights and promoting peace.

The reaction from AMs was broadly positive.

Shadow International Affairs Minister, Darren Millar AM (Con, Clwyd West), said the strategy was a move towards Wales’ playing to its strengths – which is good news. That said, he wanted the Welsh Government to start practising what they preach to ensure the lofty ideals in the strategy – such as human rights (his proposed law on older people’s rights was voted down) – are upheld. He expressed support for creating a network of envoys.

Delyth Jewell AM (Plaid, South Wales East) thought the final version of the strategy was a big improvement on the draft. She praised the emphasis on sustainable development though, like Darren Millar, expected the Welsh Government to lead by example. How the Welsh Government intends to defend Welsh interests in post-Brexit trade negotiations needs to be properly set out as well, while there was a distinct lack of targets.

Chair of the External Affairs Committee, David Rees AM (Lab, Aberavon), kept his enthusiasm in check, asking practical questions on Wales’ involvement with EU programmes after Brexit and how a Welsh overseas presence could be expanded? Rhun ap Iorwerth AM (Plaid, Ynys Môn) called for a measure of flexibility in how the strategy works in future, particularly concerning work with existing and new Welsh diaspora groups.

Mandy Jones AM (BXP, North Wales) called for Wales to host a Commonwealth trade summit after Brexit.

Meanwhile, several AMs made the case for Wales to make greater use of culture and soft power to promote ourselves. Delyth Jewell mentioned the Welsh language and music, Mick Antoniw AM (Lab, Pontypridd) described the award-winning Cory Band as “fantastic ambassadors”, while Jack Sargeant AM (Lab, Alyn & Deeside) made a case for games developers to be lobbied to include the Cymru Premier League in future FIFA games* – potentially reaching millions of players globally.

*Before anyone scoffs at the idea, the Irish league – which is of a similar standard and stature to the Cymru Premier – is in FIFA.

Photo by Martin Brosy on Unsplash

Senedd passes law for new GP indemnity scheme

Yesterday, the Senedd passed the NHS Indemnity Bill which will create a mutual public indemnity scheme for GPs in Wales.

Somewhat unusually, there were no amendments at all made to the Bill, which cleared Stages 3 and 4 at the same time.

“The future liabilities scheme has already been established and is operating successfully. It covers claims for clinical negligence arising from 1 April 2019. Both the future liabilities scheme and the existing liabilities scheme are aligned, wherever possible, with the arrangements introduced in England. This will ensure that GPs in Wales are not disadvantaged in comparison to their colleagues in England, that there is no negative impact on GP recruitment and retention and no interruption of the cross-border flow of GPs.”
– Health Minister, Vaughan Gething (Lab, Cardiff S. & Penarth)

The Health Minister confirmed that the Health Committee will be provided with an annual report on the workings of the indemnity scheme from April 2021 – which was welcomed by opposition AMs.

The only note of concern was a possible clash between a future duty of candour and the indemnity scheme, which was suggested could result in GPs being forced to admit to potential liability in negligence claims – though the Minister said a duty of candour didn’t change any fact of liability in the first place.

Although a recorded vote has to be taken at Stage 4 of the legislative process, the Bill was approved unanimously.

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A Prophecy is buried in Eglwyseg
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A Prophecy is buried in Eglwyseg

There will be hot winters in Abersoch and Llangrannog. It is written in the sacred book of Gwydion.

Light candles for our father spirit, Caradog,
for Heledd – she is the spirit of our lost lands, and Dôn – she’s Earth, and the warrior spirit of Llywelyn. And pray for Mab Darogan.