|1. Questions to the First Minister|
|2. Business Statement and Announcement|
|3. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services: Reforming Electoral Arrangements in Local Government|
|4. Statement by the Leader of the House: Superfast Cymru|
|5. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education: Securing the Right to a Suitable Education for All Children|
|6. & 7. The Land Transaction Tax (Transitional Provisions) (Wales) Regulations 2018 and The Land Transaction Tax and Anti-avoidance of Devolved Taxes (Wales) Act 2017 (Amendment to Schedule 5) Regulations 2018|
|8. The Landfill Disposals Tax (Tax Rates) (Wales) Regulations 2018|
|9. The Land Transaction Tax (Tax Bands and Tax Rates) (Wales) Regulations 2018|
|10. The Land Transaction Tax (Specified Amount of Relevant Rent) (Wales) Regulations 2018|
|11. Voting Time|
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question, Vikki Howells.
1. Will the First Minister outline what actions the Welsh Government is taking to tackle the issue of low pay in Wales? OAQ51651
Growing our economy and spreading opportunity are at the heart of our recently published economic action plan, and the plan sets out actions we are taking to improve earnings and prosperity in Wales.
Thank you, First Minister. At the last meeting of the cross-party group on industrial communities, Professor Steve Fothergill presented evidence to us showing the stark association between low pay and the former industrial parts of Wales. Median pay in older industrial areas is just 90 per cent of the UK average. Women are more disadvantaged than men, and median pay in Rhondda Cynon Taf, for example, is just 67 per cent of that found in London. Will you outline how the Welsh Government will be prioritising tackling low pay in the former industrial parts of Wales, like my own constituency of Cynon Valley?
Yes, we're addressing the problems that were caused by the Conservative Government in the 1990s, where gross value added was deliberately suppressed per head, as well-paid jobs were removed and replaced with jobs that were on a much lower pay scale. We do recognise, of course, that current inequalities exist in different regions across Wales, and the economic action plan will spread opportunity and prosperity across the whole of Wales.
In terms of implementing the plan, alongside other strategies, we will deliver tangible results focusing on improving the quality of life for all the people of Wales, including the former industrial areas.
First Minister, we've recently as an Assembly passed legislation, or secondary legislation, brought forward by your Government, allowing care workers who've been on zero-hour contracts for more than three months to transfer to minimum hours contract if they choose to do so. A year or so ago, I would say, Bridgend County Borough Council had 344 members of staff all on zero-hour contracts, although, of course, not all care workers. Are you considering extending the offer that's being extended to care workers to non-care workers as well, when it comes from to transferring from zero-hour contracts to more permanent arrangements?
Well, these are things that we continue to consider. Can I say that fair work is important to us, which is why a fair work board has been convened and is exploring how we can further leverage fair work outcomes from public spending and procurement practice in Wales. I can say that the fair work board does view fair and decent wages and a guaranteed hourly income as necessary to ensure greater financial security to individuals, and to enable them to access goods and services.
First Minister, outlined in your economic contract are calls to action, which businesses will be required to follow if they want to get direct Welsh Government support. But none of those calls to action specifically relate to requiring a living wage or any types of incentives around wages specifically. Given that Wales is a low-pay country, with wages £50 less per week than the rest of the UK, will you clarify whether or not businesses that wish to have support from your Government will or must pay a living wage as we move forward, and, if not, could you explain why not?
I can say that we support, of course, the concept of a living wage. We have produced a guide to implementing the living wage through procurement, which has been made available to private, public and third sector organisations. We have taken decisive action to improve the well-being of workers involved in public sector supply chains in Wales and across the world, launching a code of practice for ethical employment in supply chains in Wales, and that code focuses on guaranteeing good employment practices and includes a commitment to consider paying all staff the living wage as set by the Living Wage Foundation.
In terms of fair work, I can say that the board itself, which is being led by Julie James, has made good progress, both in defining the meaning of fair work and in identifying the levers by which we can increase the availability of it across Wales.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on Welsh Government efforts to tackle the issue of homelessness in Arfon? OAQ51655
Tackling homelessness across Wales is a priority for this Government, as set out in 'Prosperity for All', and, of course, we support that through budget decisions. At least 357 households have been prevented from becoming homeless in Gwynedd since April 2015 as a result of our legislation, guidance and funding.
The increase in rough-sleeping is seen as a problem for Cardiff and the large urban areas, but I am very concerned to see an increase in Bangor, which is developing into a destination for homeless people from across north-west Wales and beyond. There is some support available—there are two hostels—but we do need a welfare centre in the city where people can access practical, medical and emotional support. I will be meeting with the agencies this week to see how we can get such a proposal up and running. Can you confirm that some of the additional funding for tackling homelessness among young people—this funding that you announced in December—will be spent in Bangor?
Well, there is a question here for the Gwynedd authority. Gwynedd was the only authority in Wales not to seek funding under a programme we issued last summer to tackle homelessness amongst young people and rough-sleepers. Officials have met with the local government officers and have urged them to ensure that they do take advantage of every opportunity to tackle this problem. As regards the funding that has been issued, this will be considered in terms of the best way of ensuring that the optimum results are achieved.
At last September's Digartref Ynys Môn and Bangor University event in the Assembly, we heard homeless young people themselves debating youth homelessness in Wales. And they said young people living in supported accommodation could have a host of issues to deal with and may struggle with this alongside studying and assignments. Last Friday, I visited the Hwb project—Grwp Cynefin's Hwb project—in Denbigh, to visit the supported accommodation project there, supporting young people and preparing them for independent living, and also the Denbigh youth shed, designed and created by young people from the HWB project, working with Scott Jenkinson and the 4:28 Training group, to provide a safe place for young people to explore who they are, develop pro-social relationships with suitable role models, and develop and learn skills. Will you firstly join me in congratulating those young people on forming the first youth shed in Wales, and secondly confirm whether the Welsh Government will support them in their vision to give every town in Wales a youth shed?
Well, the question is about Arfon, but it's an important question, which I will answer. Firstly, of course I join with him in congratulating the initiative that young people have shown. I'd like to know more about it, and I'd be more than happy to receive further information as to what the process was in establishing the youth shed and how perhaps the model can be adopted across Wales.
Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, last Friday, the Permanent Secretary released her report into the leak inquiry that you commissioned from her around the Cabinet reshuffle that took place in November of last year. The report indicated that there had been no unauthorised leaking. Are you confident that there was no authorised leaking, and will you—will you—make that report available, so that we can read through that report and actually come to our own conclusions?
Yes, I'm confident there was no authorised leaking, as he has put it. But can I say there's a very important point here to remember? People came forward to give evidence to this leak inquiry on the basis of confidentiality. What he is asking the Permanent Secretary to do—because it's her decision—is to out those people, for the evidence to be made available and their names. Such a course, I have to say, would be both dishonourable and dishonest, and would bring the Welsh Government into disrepute.
Secondly, there are other inquiries that are ongoing. It's hugely important that people feel able to come forward to give evidence to those inquiries. Now, if they are not able to have the assurance that they are going to be able to give evidence confidentially, then they will not come forward. There is a real risk that if the action that is—. This is not what he is urging on me, but the action he is urging on me could lead to witnesses being intimidated, and not coming forward. That is not something that he is actively suggesting, I understand that, but that is the outcome of that.
And so it is hugely wrong for any inquiry, where people are asked to give evidence confidentially, to then find that their evidence is in fact going to be made public, and their names. That does not help in terms of bringing or encouraging people to come forward, with evidence, in further inquiries.
I would agree with you, First Minister. I want to create an environment that encourages as many people as possible to engage with the various inquiries that are looking into the events surrounding the Cabinet reshuffle of last November. And certainly it wouldn't be my intention to out anyone, because that would be against the principles of any inquiry or investigation. But it's not unreasonable, for me or any other Members, in light of any one of 101 tweets I could point to—and I'll just use this one tweet that is on social media:
'told by sources that Carl Sargeant Communities Secretary is losing'.
An important thing is that it is not 'lost' but 'losing' his job, and that was before the Cabinet reshuffle happened. Now, that's not unreasonable, and I could point to many others from other journalists and lobbyists who used the same sort of language. So, it is not unreasonable for people who have witnessed what has gone on to pose the question: why was such language being used by people in a professional position and people we know who had access to the Government information machine to put such messages out there? Again, I'd ask you, using the redaction process and making sure people's identities are covered, that this report be made available so that we can consider its findings as we consider many other reports that are made available to this Assembly.
So, it's Twitter now, is it, that is used in order to judge whether—? [Interruption.] Twitter is not evidence. Twitter is not evidence; Twitter is gossip. There has been an inquiry. That inquiry was conducted by the Government's head of security. Unless there is evidence that the Welsh Conservatives have that that inquiry was in some way compromised, then the inquiry is over. I have given him the answer that he has required and I have to say to him that I am not prepared—it's not my decision; it's the Permanent Secretary's—to countenance a situation where people are told, 'Come forward, give evidence confidentially' and then they are told, 'Oh, now we are going to release all your evidence and your names'. That brings the Government into disrepute.
No-one's asking for names, First Minister, and there are plenty of processes that you can point to where people's identity is protected. I did point to Twitter, but I point you to social media as well. I've given you the examples here. That's the language from professional people that was being used around the time of the Cabinet reshuffle, and they were using it two or three days prior to the reshuffle. I would hope that you can be exonerated and that some of the horrendous allegations that are levelled at the Government and at you can be discounted, because ultimately we know what tragedy followed from it. But it is difficult for me, other Members and interested parties to have confidence in reports that we are prevented from seeing.
Now, I hear what you said twice to me today. I have three questions. There must be a way of allowing information to come forward that is redacted and that can give confidence that the opinions that have been formed around some of the allegations can be discounted by this report. Not having sight of this report makes it very difficult to argue that case. I would argue for you to sit down with the Permanent Secretary to come up with a formula that will allow us to have sight of as much of the report as possible, preventing any disclosure of names or identities of people, so that we can have that confidence, because the evidence—and I can pull out many other examples—points to information that was already in the public domain before Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries came in to have that discussion with you. That's a fact.
I have to say that if anything on Twitter is evidence then by all means never give evidence in court—never give evidence in court. It is innuendo, gossip, tittle-tattle, the kind of thing that some politicians love. I deal in evidence. There has been an inquiry. That inquiry has gone forward. People were invited to give evidence to that inquiry and it was a matter for them whether they gave evidence or not. Giving evidence to the inquiry was important and we encouraged people to come forward. That inquiry is now finished. The fact that it doesn't sit with the strange conspiracy theories of some people, I'm afraid, cannot be helped. But unless there is evidence that Members have that somehow the head of security of the Welsh Government was compromised, that the Permanent Secretary was compromised, the inquiry has reported and the inquiry is clear in terms of the results of that inquiry.
Has the First Minister seen the report from the Centre for Cities entitled 'Cities Outlook 2018', which estimates that 112,000 jobs may be at risk in Cardiff, Newport and Swansea as a result of automation? There are those who unkindly say, of course, that Welsh Labour has led the way in robotics, but there is a serious point here as well, because the areas that are most likely to be affected by automation adversely are those areas which are already de-industrialised and where unemployment is highest. In fact, Alyn and Deeside, according to this report, faces the largest threat—35 per cent of jobs at risk from automation. So, can the First Minister tell the Assembly what concrete plans the Welsh Government has to deal with this looming threat that lies ahead of us?
Automation is very much part of the economic action plan. How we deal with automation is very much part of that. I know that many of my colleagues who sit on the back benches, Lee Waters amongst them, have been very vocal about the need for us to face this challenge. As I say, it is something that has been recognised in the economic action plan as something that we have to deal with. Now, how that is done depends on how fast automation goes, predicting which sectors will be automated first, and then, of course, upskilling our people. Training our people to look at new jobs is a hugely important part of ensuring that we have jobs in the future.
I have no difficulty in agreeing with the First Minister on that, and, indeed, in paying tribute to the role of Lee Waters in raising this issue in the Assembly, but there are other things that can be done as well. The areas that are most likely to be affected by this, again, according to not only this report but also one by another organisation called Future Advocacy—it says that one in five jobs in every constituency in the whole of the United Kingdom could disappear by 2030. In the cities in particular, these are affected mostly by mass immigration. Without leaving the single market, of course, we won't be able to recover control of our borders and select the groups that have the skills that we will need in future, whilst also controlling the flow of those who will actually exacerbate problems that are going to take place of their own accord in any event. Even on the latest figures, which were substantially down on the previous period, net migration stands at 230,000 a year. Newport, Swansea, Cardiff and Wrexham are the cities that are most affected by this in Wales. These are the areas also that are most likely therefore to see wage compression further exacerbated as a result of automation. So, will the First Minister now accept that some sensible controls on migration are necessary? And that does mean leaving the single market.
Well, no, it doesn't, because of course that would destroy the market that we sell in. He knows full well that 60 per cent of what we export goes to the single market and that 90 per cent of food and drink goes to the single market. If those exports are jeopardised, if demand drops for what we produce in those markets, we'll lose jobs. It's that simple. It's not a question of immigration, it's a question of making sure that we have the markets that we need in order to sustain demand for what we produce and then of course be able to sell. We know that the European single market is most important. If we cannot cut a deal with the European single market, there is no hope for cutting a deal with any other market.
Well, I certainly don't agree with that at all. It's not the case that trade will suddenly seize up if we leave the single market. It'll affect certain sectors more than others, that's certainly true, but there's massive scope for import substitution given the huge trade deficit that we've got with the EU—but I don't want to pursue that line any further now.
The other point that I want to make, though, is the pressure on housing in the whole of the country, and particularly in south-east Wales. We're likely to see this increase as a result of getting rid of the tolls on the Severn bridge, which we're all in favour of, but nevertheless there's bound to be some effect on the local property market as a result of the difference in house prices on this side of the Severn compared with on the other side of the Severn. The ONS has said that rents in the UK have gone up by 23 per cent in a decade, which is faster than the growth in incomes, so again the pressure is upon those who are at the bottom of the income scale more than anywhere else. Towns like Newport, of course, are relatively poor towns in income terms. So, will the First Minister agree with me that these are pressures that need to be taken fully into account and there needs to be a policy on the part of the Welsh Government to do something about this?
We need more houses. It would help, of course, if people didn't object to every single housing application that appeared on their doorstep, which we know has happened in the past, and his party are well known for that opposition. We as a Government have a target of 20,000 affordable homes. We're well on track to deliver that and we need to make sure that the pressure is taken off the housing market by ensuring that there is more supply of houses. As a Government, that's precisely what we're doing.
Thank you, Llywydd. First Minister, when there are lengthy waiting lists for treatment, private health companies give patients the opportunity to avoid those waiting times by paying a fee. Many constituents have informed me that they have been encouraged to consider paying to go private for treatment or swifter diagnosis. That means that treatment becomes something that is based on the ability to pay. Do you agree with me that that is akin to creating a two-tier health system, and isn’t that gradual privatisation, if truth be told?
No, not at all. We are completely against privatisation, and that is why we have spent more on health than ever before—in order to ensure that the services are available for our people.
I would argue that it is increasing the role of privatisation. There's another form of creeping privatisation going on that I can point you to. Are you aware that under your watch there are plans to privatise more dialysis services in the north of Wales? And we're not talking here about the contracting of a company to do a particular job of work, say, tackling a backlog of elective surgery; we're talking about outsourcing core NHS services to a private company. Figures seen by Plaid Cymru suggest that the saving will be around £700,000, and much of that saving, it seems, will come from staff entitlements to sickness pay, to holiday pay and pensions. You must agree that that is creeping NHS privatisation.
The facts, as he put it, I cannot agree with—I agree with him. I'm not aware of the situation as he describes it, but if he writes to me with details, I will, of course, investigate.
I'll certainly send Betsi Cadwaladr's plans for the increased privatisation of dialysis to you. Those two examples are very, very different, but there's a common theme there, I think, of private companies playing an increasing role in healthcare, picking away at NHS services. I'm not really driven by ideology on this—at the end of the day, surely we want a better NHS for both patients and staff. But profiting from waiting times, profiting from core services, creating a two-tier system where the rich get signposted to quicker treatment, outsourcing to cut costs to the detriment of hard-working NHS staff—this is not acceptable, we know it's wrong, I'm quite confident that the public think it's wrong, so why is Labour in Wales allowing it to happen?
We are not, but I'm surprised to hear him say he's not driven by ideology, because we are, I can tell you, on these benches. We are driven by the ideology of making sure that people have an NHS free at the point of service. Now, if Plaid Cymru doesn't believe in that or doesn't have an ideology on the health service of all things, then perhaps they could tell us more. No, we do not agree with privatisation. That is why, of course, we have set our face against initiatives such as private finance initative, set our face against initiatives that we see in England, where the NHS is being privatised. In Wales, the NHS will remain in the public sector.
3. What guidance has the Welsh Government provided to local health boards on the transformation of clinical services? OAQ51661
The Welsh Government expects health boards to work together with the public, their staff and others to design and deliver sustainable services that ensure the best possible health outcomes for the population. Guiding principles are contained within the NHS planning framework.
Last week, First Minister, in relation to the options being considered by Hywel Dda health board, you said that the Welsh Government had no policy at present, but that you may have a policy at the end of the process. Isn’t the problem here that you wouldn’t have a mandate for any of these options, because none of them were mentioned during the Assembly election campaign? So, for us to have the minimum democratic accountability, would you commit to holding a vote in this Parliament if one of these options were to be recommended by the Government? Could we assume that that will be a free vote, given that one of your own Ministers has already committed—this is evidence from social media—to oppose any recommendation that would close hospitals, whatever the Government policy? Or will the First Minister censure this Minister, as you did with a former Minister in very similar circumstances? His name was Leighton Andrews.
Why isn’t he participating in the process? Because he hasn't up until now. I can say that the health board has been working with elected politicians. They’ve been working in order to ensure that a working party was established with representatives from across the political parties, and also councillors, in order to see—[Interruption.] Please, listen and learn—what the transformation work is. I can say to Adam Price—it’s extremely important that people know this—that he released a press statement with Jonathan Edwards saying that he intends to meet with the health board as soon as possible, and asking what is the view of the Labour Government. Well, I can say that the health board tried to contact his office. On 8 December, an e-mail was sent to Adam Price inviting him to meet with the health board in order to discuss any concerns that he may have, with no reply. No reply. Then, on 8 January, once again an e-mail was sent inviting him to speak to the health board—no response. No response. He was even offered a telephone call with the health board on 23 January, but he turned that down. He turned it down. So, on one hand he says that he wants to talk, but no, the problem is that he's grandstanding in this place, without doing the work on behalf of his constituents. [Interruption.]
Paul Davies. [Interruption.] Paul Davies. [Interruption.] Paul Davies. [Interruption.] I would just say that the local health board probably has information regarding whether I answered e-mails or phone calls to them as well. I wouldn't personally want that shared in this place. Paul Davies. [Interruption.]
Okay, okay. Enough. Paul Davies. [Interruption.] Paul Davies. [Interruption.]
First Minister, if we could return to the issue, five of the nine options being considered by the Hywel Dda University Health Board would lead to the closure of Withybush hospital. Naturally, this is entirely unacceptable to the people of Pembrokeshire. So, in those circumstances, when it comes to any consultation, what assurance can you give the people I represent that any consultation will be meaningful and will truly represent the views of local people? What will you as a Government do to ensure that this happens? Because the people I represent have no confidence in the Hywel Dda health board at the moment.
As I said, a working party has been established in order to secure the views of politicians across the political spectrum, and also councillors, so that they can be part of the transformation work. So, there is an open invitation to elected members and others so that they can play a part in that process.
First Minister, we accept that we can't deliver the health service in the same way we did 70 years ago—[Interruption.]
I can't hear the question, Llywydd, sorry. I can't hear the question.
Caroline Jones, carry on. The Plaid Cymru group is agitated, but I understand why they may well be agitated. But can we allow questions to proceed, please? Caroline Jones.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, we accept that services have to change and that we can't deliver health in the same way we did 70 years ago. However, any change has to be based upon clinical need and be clinically led. By that, I don't mean the clinical director of the local health board. Change needs to be driven by the doctors and nurses and supported by doctors and nurses. I've been contacted by a number of staff protesting about the merger of wards at Morriston Hospital, which has proceeded without the support of clinical staff. Staff believe the change is financially driven. First Minister, can you guarantee that financial pressures will not lead to further such changes in future?
Financial pressures are not the issue here, it's a question of making sure that a service is sustainable and that they can attract the right staff and the right level of staff. That is what guides the guidance that we give to the health boards; mainly that they want to put in place a safe and sustainable service.
First Minister, you may recall that I've previously raised on numerous occasions my concerns and those of my constituents—[Interruption.]
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the provision of mental health services in north Wales? OAQ51690
Yes. Improving mental health services across the whole of Wales continues to be a priority for the Welsh Government and we have committed a further £40 million specifically for mental health services over the next two years.
Thank you, First Minister. I have previously raised with you my immense concerns, on behalf of my constituents, about the current mental health provision in the Betsi Cadwaladr board in north Wales. Last term, I referenced correspondence from Professor David Healy, who is a widely respected consultant psychiatrist in north Wales. At that time, he raised issues around staff morale, suitability of staffing arrangements and the exit of senior nurses from the service. Again, a recent letter, which I've now received a copy of, from Professor Healy to the Cabinet Secretary, raises further concerns and notes that, following his visits to some mental health services within the Betsi board, in his words, in the Hergest unit, he was presented with a scene from Dante's purgatory or hell. On arrival at Roslin mental health centre, he found an equally apocalyptic scene. This theme correlates directly with constituents' views when they come to see me needing desperately this support. He finishes by saying that you now have every locum in the UK steering clear of here and patients finding themselves in settings unimaginable a few years ago—it's an extraordinary fall from grace.
Now, this service, First Minister, is failing and was, in fact, the primary trigger for the special measures being put in place. Two and a half years later, this service is in a mess. The response from the Cabinet Secretary shows disinterest. Will you take this matter seriously?
That's absolutely not true.
Just ask the question to the First Minister. Don't get diverted by—[Inaudible.]—the health Minister.
I have the letter to Professor Healy. I have the response. First Minister, I would like to share these with you, but I am asking, on behalf of my constituents, on behalf of the staff who work in these units: will you please look at the service more carefully and actually maybe have a conversation with the Cabinet Secretary and perhaps just get him to show a little bit more enthusiasm and concern when issues of this nature are raised about mental health services in north Wales?
I think it's hugely unfair to suggest that the Cabinet Secretary is not concerned—he is somebody who is passionate about the health service—and that certainly is not the impression he gives to the public, of that I am sure.
I am aware that the Member has written to the chief executive of the health board with a number of concerns about the provision of mental health services in north Wales. We have asked the chief executive of BCU to meet with you in person as soon as possible to discuss your concerns. In terms of the comments around the operation of Conwy community mental health team, I know that the chief executive and mental health director met the local authority scrutiny committee last week to discuss concerns and action directly with them.
5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the support that is available for children and young people with additional learning needs in Wales? OAQ51687
Local authorities are responsible for providing a suitable education for all children and young people, including those with additional learning needs. By reforming the current system, we want to transform expectations, experiences and outcomes for children and young people with additional learning needs.
First Minister, you would probably have heard that Afasic Cymru, which is the charity that supports parents with children who have speech and language learning difficulties. The charity is closing its Cardiff office tomorrow and will close its north Wales office at the end of March. This is a charity that has very deep roots in south Wales, founded over 40 years ago. We'll continue to have a service from its London headquarters, but I'm very concerned that current policy, which has reduced core funding to key organisations—. I understand the logic behind that, but combined with the temporary nature of lottery funding, we are losing key skills and vital support networks, and these charities are faced with obtaining the equivalent of administrative support from a great many bodies—education authorities and health boards—across Wales. We really do need a strategy to ensure that this expertise is maintained because it's of such great public benefit, particularly when we are reforming an essential aspect of the law.
I'm disappointed to hear the decision to close Afasic Cymru. I do understand that Afasic, a UK-based charity, will still offer advice and support to families in Wales. It is, of course, the responsibility of health boards to ensure they provide adequate access to therapy services, including speech, language and communication therapy, and speech and language therapy is provided to all children and young people who are identified as having a need. We will of course monitor the closure of Afasic Cymru on service users.
I'm pleased to hear that you will be monitoring the situation, because we also know, as the budgets of a number of schools where many of us are governors are shrinking, that means that the only true saving that many schools can make is to reduce the staff numbers, and classroom assistants are very often the first to be cut. In a climate where the Government—. Of course, we welcome the fact that you have legislated in order to strengthen the support for pupils with additional learning needs. Very often, it’s those classroom assistants who are on the front line and who are providing that additional support. So, what assessment have you carried out of the impact that shrinking budgets and the loss of classroom assistants is having on the new Act and, hopefully, its success?
A package of funding—£20 million—has been put in place to support the Act itself and all that is associated with the Act. It includes, for example, developing the workforce, ensuring that people in the workplace have the skills in order to work effectively within the new system, and also, of course, to ensure that things improve for the learners. So, the funding is in place, and we understand how important it is to have an effective workforce.
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the treatment of chronic conditions in North Wales? OAQ51648
We are taking a range of actions to prevent, diagnose and treat chronic conditions, both nationally and at health board level. These actions are set out in a suite of strategies and delivery plans.
Thank you. First Minister, most of the community-based services for chronic conditions are still only available on week days, and there is a need to better co-ordinate the work of the different staff groups and teams that care for patients with chronic conditions. What effort is the Welsh Government making to address these problems?
We know that the health board is working hard to meet these pressures and challenges in waiting times in the north, and I know that this is something that the Cabinet Secretary takes a personal interest in. In terms of chronic conditions, I can say, in the BCU area, the number of emergency admissions has fallen and the number of emergency readmissions has also fallen, and that's as a result of actions taken over the past few years across north Wales and, indeed, across Wales as a whole.
First Minister, you'll be aware that there's been some concern expressed over the past few days about death rates in Glan Clwyd's emergency department. The mortality rates in that emergency department are double what they were just a few years ago, and this is a cause of great concern for my constituents, many of whom are served by that hospital in emergency situations. Do you accept that the situation in north Wales is not acceptable? And given that this is a health board that is in special measures, what action is the Welsh Government going to take to investigate why this hospital death rate has doubled in recent years and why it's the worst in Wales? What action are you going to put in place in order to ensure that this situation is resolved urgently?
Well, those A&E figures will be affected heavily by the age of patients attending, and the severity and complexity of their illness on attendance, all of which would impact, of course, on the risk of death. Now, the particular measure reported involved small numbers and it's consequently not age adjusted. Age is likely to be the main reason why this figure seems high, not least reflecting that Conwy has the highest percentage of over 75s in the whole of Wales.
More recent figures from the health board show some reduction in the peak reported. The overall in-hospital mortality rates for Ysbyty Glan Clwyd are in line with the Welsh average, but I can't say, of course, that these figures that he's mentioned are being used by the health board to look in detail at what is contributing to the numbers of deaths in the emergency department and across the site, and we do expect all deaths in hospital to be subject to an individual review to help identify themes to drive improvements in care as well as sharing good practice.
7. How is the Welsh Government working to increase economic output for the communities of Islwyn? OAQ51685
We are investing in developing the skills of our people, improving our infrastructure and supporting a competitive business environment.
Diolch. First Minister, on 15 January, the Cardiff capital region cabinet unanimously agreed to support, in principle, the £180 million redevelopment of Wales's capital city's main transport hub, with £40 million of city deal funding. The money from the city deal investment fund will aim to assist with securing match funding from the UK Government and Welsh Government, as well as the private sector, to deliver the project. First Minister, it is a fact that 85 per cent of Wales's capital city jobs growth has arisen from an increase in net commuting into the city from adjacent communities like Islwyn. Therefore, what can the Welsh Government do to ensure that the economic benefits of a modernised Cardiff central train station, a new Cardiff central bus station and other innovative integrated transport infrastructures will benefit my constituents who will continue to commute to Cardiff for work?
Through our work on the ministerial taskforce for the Valleys, and, of course, through the development of the metro, we are looking to support change, maximise opportunities and improve economic outcomes in the Valleys. And we will place a particular emphasis on maximising benefits from new initiatives, such as the metro and such as city regions and city deals, to support those who commute into Cardiff, but also build on previous regeneration policies and programmes with the aim of creating better opportunities within the Valleys, reducing, of course, the need to commute.
First Minister, last week, I was privileged to attend the Severn growth summit, organised by the Secretary of State for Wales, really looking to maximise the benefit we can receive from when the Severn tolls are abolished at the end of this year. First Minister, what are you and what are Welsh Government doing to ensure that we in Wales reap the maximum possible benefits from the end of those tolls and, particularly, in Islwyn, in the Caerphilly council area, what are you doing to ensure that we can see more housing, more regeneration and more opportunity to benefit, not just people commuting to Cardiff, but people commuting to Bristol and, even more importantly, bringing economic development and jobs into those Valleys communities?
His idea of a privilege is different to mine, but I can say this to him: the one thing we will not do is say that, somehow, there is no difficulty with Brexit, no matter how it happens, because we know that the economy of Islwyn and the whole of the Valleys would be affected adversely by a hard Brexit. We are working, of course, through the economic action plan, to develop regeneration and jobs. We are working to develop more housing through our housing target—affordable housing of 20,000 homes. I have to say, I hear what the Secretary of State says about connecting the south-east of Wales with the south-west of England. It's a shame the UK Government wouldn't allow us to run a train service between Cardiff and Bristol Temple Meads, which is a shame, because that would help, of course, to link the areas economically.
8. What action will the Welsh Government take to improve the economy of south-east Wales in the fifth Assembly? OAQ51658
The 'Prosperity for All' national strategy and economic action plan set out the actions we're taking to improve the economy and business environment across Wales.
Thank you very much for the reply, First Minister. The abolition of tolls on the Severn crossing at the end of this year will remove one of the barriers hindering economic prosperity in south-east Wales. We just heard earlier, also—last week, the Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns, held a summit in Newport on how we can transform the economic and cultural prospects of south Wales and the south-west of England, making it easier for businesses to increase inward investment and tourism to create jobs in the area—on both sides of the channel, I mean. Will the First Minister join me in welcoming this initiative and can he confirm that the Welsh Government will work with the UK Government in developing these links to improve living standards and job prospects in south-east Wales?
There was an event held on 22 January, I understand, which an official attended from Welsh Government. Now, we're more than happy to actively participate in this initiative. We know that joint working will be beneficial for Wales and our regions, and I'm sure there will be more events such as this in which we will continue to contribute. But, of course, what is hugely important is this is not run solely by the Secretary of State. This is a joint initiative between the Welsh Government, Welsh local authorities and those across the border.
9. Will the First Minister make a statement on bowel cancer screening in Wales? OAQ51641
We have a well-established national population bowel screening programme in Wales, with nearly 147,000 men and women screened during 2016-17. We continually look for ways to increase uptake and recently announced the introduction of better and more user-friendly testing, which will be rolled out from January 2019.
Thank you for your answer, First Minister. Certainly, I have a constituent who's contacted me, who is over the age of 74, and their concern is they haven't been able to self-refer for a screening test themselves. This is something that is available in other parts of the UK—in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, as I understand it—and I would be grateful if the Welsh Government could consider following the position of the UK Government and the other devolved administrations across the UK.
Was it FIT, the faecal immunochemical test, he mentioned?
We recently agreed to implement a more sensitive and user-friendly testing regime for bowel cancer screening in Wales. It's a key action within the revised cancer delivery plan. The roll-out of FIT within the bowel screening programme in Wales is planned for January 2019 and it's hoped it'll be more user-friendly and will improve uptake. That new test is expected to result in an increased demand for colonoscopy as a result of better uptake and slightly increased sensitivity.
10. Will the First Minister make a statement on the governance of NHS Wales health boards? OAQ51686
NHS bodies need to ensure that they have robust governance in place and act in a manner that upholds the values set for the Welsh public sector.
Well, one of the areas of governance that perhaps needs to be reconsidered as a result of today is the maintenance of confidentiality between health boards and Assembly Members. Perhaps the First Minister will address that in response, but the question I wanted to raise, prompted by what's going on in Hywel Dda at the moment, is the level of public dissatisfaction with the method by which decisions are taken and the lack of democracy in the national health service in Wales.
UKIP stood in the last Assembly election on a policy of making health boards elected—six out of the 11 in our proposal, with five professional executives—so that people who are going to be affected by decisions that are taken have a chance to elect the people who are making those decisions for them. What's happening at the moment is that people feel that whatever is going to emerge from this process will be something that's imposed upon them rather than something in which they've had any real role in developing.
Well, as I said, the chair of the health board has confirmed that she will establish a reference group with representatives invited across political parties, and elected members at county level, to regularly update them on transformation work. That meeting will take place on a monthly basis, and invitations will be sent to all AMs, Members of Parliament and elected council members.
First Minister, the parliamentary review recommends the Good Governance Institute's maturity matrix as a way of measuring good governance in health boards. How do we measure good governance now?
Well, through their delivery they have to ensure, of course, a safe and sustainable service in their areas, and I believe that they do that. There will occasionally be difficult decisions that they will have to take; we know that. What is hugely important, though, is that we are able to measure them in terms of their public engagement. There have been problems in the past around this, and not least in Hywel Dda. That's why I do very much welcome what the chair of the health board has said.
Thank you, First Minister. Point of order arising from questions—Rhun ap Iorwerth.
I would like to raise a point of order under Standing Order 13.9. The Data Protection Act 1998 says that no-one should use data in ways that have unjustified adverse effects on the individuals concerned, and that you should handle people's personal data only in ways that they would reasonably expect. We are all data controllers in our own offices here in the Assembly, of course. The Standing Orders say that the Presiding Officer has a clear role in overseeing whether Members engage in conduct that constitutes an offence. On those grounds, would you, Llywydd, give an undertaking to review the response given by the First Minister to a question raised by Adam Price, the Member for Carmarthen East? I think we're talking here about improper use of data. We are talking about access that Government Ministers have to information being held by public services in Wales about Assembly Members, and we're talking about an issue of privileged information being used by Government to attack a Member of this Assembly.
A statement was sent out by the Member and another, which said,
'We will be keeping a close eye on these proposals as they develop, and intend meeting with health board representatives at the earliest opportunity.'
It is legitimate, in my mind, to point out that opportunities have been offered. It is perfectly legitimate and open to scrutiny. If Members say they want to meet at the earliest opportunity, it's important that there's an understanding amongst the public that opportunities have been offered, and that is something which apparently—[Interruption.] I heard Rhun ap Iorwerth without interrupting him. Perhaps he will grant me the same courtesy, and the rest of his party.
Yes, he will. He will grant you that courtesy, and thank you for your response and the point of order. I have noted what's been said here this afternoon. I will give some further consideration to the sharing of data and its relevance to our Standing Orders here, but that is a matter that I will look at further and return to if needs be.
I am now moving on to the next item of the agenda—[Interruption.] We don't need further comment on that now, because we are moving on to the next item on the agenda, which is the business statement. I call on the leader of the house, Julie James. And let's be very quiet on the noises off and allow Julie James to make her statement.
Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to this week's business: later this afternoon, the Cabinet Secretary for Education will make an oral statement on securing the right to a suitable education for all children. Business for the next three weeks is shown on the business statement and announcement found amongst the meeting papers, which are available to Members electronically.
Can I call for a single statement on autism assessment delays across Wales? You may have seen reports of BBC Wales research last week that children in parts of Wales were waiting, on average, two years for an autism assessment despite the Welsh Government's target of six months or 26 weeks. We heard that freedom of information requests to local health boards revealed the average wait to be 107 weeks and six days in Hywel Dda Local Health Board, covering Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion and Pembrokeshire, and an average of 39 weeks in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board area, covering north Wales, for a child to be seen. But the quote from the Welsh Government was that the roll-out of a national integrated autism plan was continuing.
This month, I was contacted by a Flintshire mum who said her son was assessed by the child and adolescent mental health service at five, was recognised as displaying high-functioning autism, but a diagnosis wasn't given as they said they'd re-assess him in a few years rather than jump to conclusions. He was recently re-assessed by the new integrated autism service, and the outcome was that he didn't meet the autism criteria, but was neurologically different. She's requested a second opinion, as the written report clearly indicates that, in all areas, he is autistic, and this is supported by the many professionals they're currently working with.
I'm representing a large number of constituents in the autism community fighting to get the services needed by them or their loved ones, but being denied assessments, often on spurious grounds. I had a meeting with a health board clinical psychologist and a mum, herself on the spectrum, whose daughter was being denied assessment on the basis that she's so good at masking and coping in school before melting down at home. Instead, the health board clinical psychologist tried to psychoanalyse the mum in front of me. Another mum I met the other week with her daughter, aged 11—
Right, well, how will you respond to this? Will you make a statement recognising, for example, that that young woman—that 11-year-old child—had an anxiety attack in front of me, in private, when confronted with the problems she's facing, and the years of her needs being denied by self-denying statutory bodies, just because she's learnt to cope so well in school?
We will be publishing waiting times in general, and that will be fit for a statement. I suggest that if the Member has particular constituency issues that he wants to raise, with individual cases, that he raises them directly with the Cabinet Secretary. It's clearly not appropriate for a Government statement to address individual constituency matters. So, I suggest he takes the correct route for that. But we will be putting out a statement on waiting times in general.
Just to say, I have more requests to speak in this business statement today than I've ever had, so, if Members could keep their contributions as succinct as possible, we will get through as many as we can. Dai Lloyd.
Diolch, Llywydd. Can I call for a debate on specialised health services in Wales? Leader of the house, you will be, no doubt, aware of the current consultation on the future of the major trauma network in south Wales, which closes next Monday, 5 February. You'll also be aware of the current proposal to establish the major trauma centre in Cardiff at the expense of Morriston, coupled with the suggestion that Morriston’s excellent burns and plastics unit could also be moved to Cardiff. That undermines Morriston’s position as a regional centre of medical excellence. There's also a review of thoracic surgery in south Wales, which, once again, pits Morriston against Cardiff.
Following on from losing neurosurgery and paediatric neurosurgery services at Morriston Hospital, people in south-west Wales are understandably concerned at what appears to be yet more centralisation of key health services in Cardiff. In addition, previous UK-wide reviews of certain specialties, such as paediatric cardiac surgery, have seen a service that was based in Cardiff then subsequently lost to Bristol. The reason for that was the geographical proximity of Cardiff and Bristol. We must mitigate the risk of this type of domino effect, as centralising specialised services in Cardiff makes them vulnerable to a further move to Bristol in any subsequent UK review.
I could develop the argument, but the Llywydd—
Yes, I'm about to cut across you to remind you that the meaning of 'succinct' is 'short'.
Short. And so I reiterate my call for a debate in Government time on this whole issue of specialised health services, ultimately to keep specialised health services in Wales. Diolch, Llywydd.
There is indeed an existing consultation about the location of the major trauma unit, and I am going to take this opportunity to encourage everybody to participate in that consultation, so that we hear the widest possible range of views. The Cabinet Secretary, I am sure, has heard the speech made—sorry, the question asked—by Dai Lloyd just now, and he will, I'm sure, be making a statement in due course when the results of that consultation are with us.
Leader of the house, you'll recall that last year I tabled a Member's legislative motion aimed at outlawing here in Wales the shameful practice known as sex for rent. This evening, the tv series Ein Byd will be showing shocking footage about the alarming sex-for-rent problem now facing some young people in our communities, and I believe the programme will reveal the true nature of the problem that I sought to highlight in my motion.
In debating my motion last year, the Cabinet Secretary at the time, Carl Sargeant, agreed that this activity was abhorrent to us all, and he rightly highlighted the Live Fear Free helpline for the reporting of concerns. He also suggested that the Welsh Government could consider the fit-and-proper-person test of the landlord and agent registration scheme, and that as an Assembly we'd be updated on the possibility of action through that mechanism. He said he would look at the possibility of acting against the sex-for-rent adverts, although we both acknowledged that that's not easy.
The Cabinet Secretary also promised to follow up and seek advice on criminal aspects of this activity, so that we could seek to help anyone feeling vulnerable in our communities, and we know that the UK Government have subsequently stated that such arrangements are a criminal offence under the Sexual Offences Act 2003. But, I believe that there are more practical steps that we can take. I accept that, obviously, there's been some understandable disruption in the work promised by the former Cabinet Secretary, but I believe the tv programme this evening will bring back into focus the need for us to renew our work on this issue.
So, will the leader of the house arrange for a statement to be made about the range of powers and the actions available to this Welsh Government in order to crack down on this vile problem? Because we owe a responsibility to everyone, especially the young and vulnerable, to keep them safe in the housing choices that they make, and we must play our part in ending exploitation and sexploitation. I feel strongly that the Assembly would appreciate the opportunity to make their views known again about this problem after the programme is broadcast this evening.
Well, thank you to Dawn Bowden for highlighting that very important point. I'll be very keen to speak with her again myself afterwards, and I'd also like to highlight the Live Fear Free helpline for anybody who is experiencing this kind of problem in their accommodation. The Minister is indicating to me that she'd be very happy to write to Members to clarify what the situation is in Wales and perhaps she, myself and Dawn could have a conversation about taking that forward afterwards.
Leader of the house, I'd like to call for two statements: the first from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services. This is in regard to a campaign that most of us are aware of for both vaginal mesh transplants and for hernia transplants. They're very complicated operations. There's a high un-success rate—10 per cent of those who have it—and at the moment the UK Government have agreed to a retrospective audit of mesh in England. Could I ask that you ask the Cabinet Secretary if he could make a statement on the calls for such an audit to also take place in Wales? Written or oral, I would be most grateful.
The second statement would be one that is in regard to the threat to Audley Court in Shropshire. This is a specialised residential facility for veterans with combat stress, both physical and mental injuries, to be able to go on residential courses—sometimes short ones for six weeks or so, sometimes it's much more permanent. This residential facility is being run by the Combat Stress organisation. They're going to have to close it. There is nowhere else in Wales, and I'd be very grateful if the Cabinet Secretary for veterans would give us a statement on what the alternative provision might be in Wales to help our veterans.
Finally, Presiding Officer, if I may ask your indulgence, and that of the leader of the house, and through both of your good offices, ask all Assembly Members and Assembly Member support staff to consider voting for Wales in the BBC Countryfile magazine awards 2018. Pembrokeshire coast is a finalist in the holiday destination of the year competition, and we also have Anglesey, Bodnant gardens and Snowdonia as finalists in various categories. Everybody, please will you consider voting? Thank you, leader.
I'm very happy to endorse that last sentiment, of course, and I myself am very fond of walking the Pembrokeshire coast path, so I can totally get behind that.
In terms of the other two statements that she called for, the Cabinet Secretary for health has indicated to me that he's due to give a written statement very shortly on the vaginal mesh issues that she raised. In terms of Audley Court, the Cabinet Secretary for the armed forces is also indicating to me that he's also happy to give a written statement highlighting the issues at Audley Court that the Member highlighted.
Could I ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for the economy about the announcement last week by Kimberly-Clark that they're to reduce their workforce globally by between 5,000 and 5,500 employees? That's a reduction of around 12 per cent to 13 per cent of their global workforce. Now, it's unclear at the moment what the implications will be for their facilities at Flint, but, clearly, it is cause for concern. Could we have a statement, therefore, explaining what steps the Welsh Government are taking to leave no stones unturned in working with the company, with the trade unions, and other stakeholders, to protect those jobs.
The Member raises a very important point. We do have—unfortunately, because it is always as a response to redundancy—a very good way of dealing with those sorts of issues. The Cabinet Secretary, I know, will be engaged in that matter. I think the best course would be for the Member to ask the Cabinet Secretary for an indication of exactly what is happening in this regard, so that he can become involved, and I'm sure, in due course, the Senedd will be updated.
I would like to ask for a statement on the Welsh Government's involvement in preparation for the 2021 census. Lower super-output data is used by the Welsh Government for the provision of services such as Flying Start, and it can mean, where areas are non-homogenous, that we can end up with some of the poorest areas left out and some of the richest areas put in. I think it really is important that these areas are as homogenous as possible, because I think the Welsh Government needs to become involved because they're using the data for something it wasn't initially intended for.
The other question is on Welsh speakers. Should the number living in the rest of the United Kingdom be counted, and should the question be 'How often do you speak Welsh?', which is objective, as opposed to 'Can you speak Welsh?', which is subjective?
Well, thank you for those two very important points. The Office for National Statistics is now deep in preparation for the 2021 census of population in England and Wales. They've undertaken significant work on the proposed content for the 2021 census, and, in early 2017, undertook a large-scale test, which included parts of north Powys. It'll be mainly online for the first time, and we've been working very closely with ONS to make sure that it's as successful as possible in Wales. Census regulations for Wales will need to be considered by the Assembly, and it's important therefore that the Assembly is provided scrutiny on the ONS preparations at an early stage. That will ensure ONS have sufficient time to take into account any views expressed by the Assembly when they are designing the final census forms. The Member will certainly have an opportunity to put that point of view forward there.
Just after Christmas, I did write to the Llywydd to ask for relevant committees to consider inviting ONS to provide an update to them on preparations for the 2021 census, and I understand that the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee are giving it initial consideration this Thursday. So, I think that's a very effective way to make sure that the Assembly is contributing towards the preparations for the census.
Leader of the house, may I ask for a statement from the Welsh Government on caring for looked-after children in Wales, please? Yesterday, the head of children and family services at Newport council, Sally Jenkins, told the Public Accounts Committee that there was a crisis in caring for looked-after children, with councils struggling with a lack of residential care and foster carers. She went on to say that most councils were overspent on their budgets. Could we have a statement, please, on this vitally important issue in Wales? Thank you.
The Member raises a very important point, but he does have the opportunity to raise that point in questions to the Minister. The Minister I think walked in as he was making his point, and I'm sure will be able to answer the questions in formal Assembly questions for him.
If I may begin with the easy one, which is to note that Caerphilly cheese today got protected geographical indication status as the only indigenous Welsh cheese—which I'm very pleased to see, but it does give a wider context, of course, to what happens when we leave the European Union, both to PGI status, and, indeed, branding food from Wales. Because, at the moment, what you see currently in the shops is not necessarily guaranteed for the future, and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs need to come to agreement with the Welsh Government around how exports, particularly beyond the UK, get marked. We could have a situation where that very high-quality Welsh food getting PGI status—15, now, products in Wales—could be simply branded as food from the UK. Now, I've got nothing against food from the UK, I eat it all the time, but I want to see food from Wales branded properly in that way, so we can market and export that, particularly in new markets, of course. So, I'd very much welcome a debate, actually, on this from the Government, on a resolution of the Assembly, so we can send a very clear signal to the Westminster Government, who'll be negotiating trade agreements on our behalf, that we want and need to see Welsh food specifically designated as Welsh food. I'm not against a UK designation as part of that food chain, but I really want Welsh food to be designated as such.
The second issue I'd like to ask about is more to do with Hywel Dda, and it's to simply say this: I did want to ask about the reconfiguration and the plans that are going ahead, but I want to ask a much more specific now, which is around a statement from the Government around the protocol regarding health boards and their work with Assembly Members, in the light of the astonishing replies of the First Minister to my colleague, Adam Price.
So, to put on the record, I had two e-mails from Hywel Dda before Christmas, asking me to get involved in some very woolly and uncertain kinds of discussions. I thought that was an invite to give them political cover for serious consideration, and I wasn't prepared to engage with that. I got an e-mail on 23 January, saying, 'We tried to phone you'—no record they did, but—'We tried to phone you, and, by the way, this serious change is happening and it's about to break in the local press', which I then responded to and had a meeting with them on Friday. And I think it was just following a meeting that Angela Burns and Paul Davies also had with them. They told me in the meeting on Friday they wanted to set up a political reference group, which the First Minister referred to—[Interruption.]—which is the first I heard of it. They certainly haven't contacted me to say they want—they invited me to that group. But I have serious concerns now to join any such group, knowing that what I say, and what I e-mail them, will be revealed to the First Minister, and will then be used as political attacks on me in this Chamber. So, this is a quite serious question, despite some muttering by Ministers in this place. This is a serious question: is there a protocol regarding the way health boards deal with Assembly Members looking at serious reconfigurations of hospital services in their area? If such a protocol does not exist, will the Minister—the Cabinet Secretary concerned—ensure that such a protocol is in place, because, without such a protocol in place, I do not feel I can engage with Hywel Dda?
On the first one, obviously PGI status is something we're all very proud of, and I'm very proud of our Welsh products that get it. It will be very much part of the case put forward by the devolved Governments that such status should be protected, and that, obviously, our market share should be protected accordingly. And it's one of our great concerns in the ongoing negotiations that such matters might take secondary status, where indeed they should be in the forefront of the minds of Ministers who are negotiating it. So, we are making very sure that that happens. There are a large number of arrangements already to update the Senedd and committees about the Brexit negotiations; I'm sure that they can accommodate the PGI status as part of the trade negotiations as part of that.
On the second issue, Llywydd, I'm not going to comment on that. You have undertaken to have a look at what happened during today's Plenary session, and I'm sure you will do so.
Last week, a barrister acting on behalf of the Welsh Government admitted in the High Court that the Welsh Government's inaction on air pollution was unlawful. Whilst the fact is to be regretted, I very much welcome the courage of the Welsh Government in acknowledging the problem, because that is very much in contrast to the UK Government, which is still in denial about the extent and seriousness of air pollution. We know that air pollution kills more people than road traffic accidents, and most recently we've learned that it also creates a spike in suicides. Now, I understand the Government has agreed to work with ClientEarth on this matter, and that's to be welcomed. But I wondered if we could also have a debate in this place so we can discuss what are the urgent short, medium and long-term proposals that we need to put in place. Clearly, the metro is one of the ones that's going to sort things out in Cardiff, but we need, as a matter of urgency, short-term measures to instantly reduce the number of people who are dying of air pollution.
The Member highlights a very important point. There was a case heard on 25 January, and a judgment is expected within the next two weeks. ClientEarth are working with Welsh Ministers, and other parties, to agree a consent Order, and it's not appropriate to comment further until that's concluded. We have very recently had an Assembly debate, on 5 December—I believe it was the Minister's first major debate in taking up her portfolio—which was led by the Minister for Environment on the urgent need for cross-Welsh Government action to tackle poor air quality, which we very much recognise. I'm sure that the Minister will be updating us once we know what the outcome of the court case is so that we can take forward the—. It was a very good debate on 5 December and we agreed, for example, the establishment of a national air quality assessment and monitoring centre for Wales and a number of other things that came out in the debate. And I'm sure she'll update us on the case in due course when she has the Order.
Leader of the house, last night I was pleased to attend the world premiere of the new BBC drama, Requiem, a joint venture with Netflix, which has been partially filmed at Cefn Tilla house in my constituency and shows off the Welsh countryside at its very best. Could we have a statement from the Welsh Government on the promotion of Wales as an international film location? There's clearly major economic potential if we do develop Wales in this way, and I think it would be helpful at this juncture, with increasing interest in Wales for this reason, if we had that statement.
Secondly, I visited Monmouth's new comprehensive school building last week—it's been a week of touring—a stunning building, state of the art, a product—a tribute, I should say—to Monmouthsire County Council's vision and also to the twenty-first century schools programme. It's been a fantastic example of collaboration between the Welsh Government and local authorities. I wonder if we can have an update from the Cabinet Secretary for Education on the further phases of that scheme and how we're going to ensure that county councils, such as Monmouthshire and others across Wales, can make the most of accessing that funding so that we do have school buildings that are truly fit for purpose.
And, finally, as I know time is short, the Welsh Revenue Authority have got a stand upstairs. I know many AMs have already been there to see them today. I think they're still there until 4 o'clock. Jocelyn Davies, former Assembly Member and former Finance Committee Chair, is up there as well. They're currently having a consultation on their new charter, which is about to go live. I think the consultation ends mid February. So, could the Welsh Government try to ensure that as many people as possible across Wales, and stakeholders and tax experts, do take part in that consultation to make sure that, when taxes do go live and the Welsh Revenue Authority is snowed under with all the work it has to do, that charter does ensure the best possible relationship between the tax industry and the revenue authority and Welsh Government?
Well, thank you for those three issues, which were all three issues that the Welsh Government is extremely proud of. We're very proud of our countryside and we're very proud of our burgeoning film industry. I'm glad the Member had a chance to be involved in that. We make a series of statements about our success in both promoting our countryside and our film industry and I'm very happy to say that the Cabinet Secretary is always pushing both the Welsh tourism industry and the Welsh film industry as much as it possibly can be pushed.
In terms of Monmouth's new school buildings, it's always a real pleasure to go to one of the new school buildings. I've had the privilege of going to several of them over the last few years. We are, of course, incredibly proud of our twenty-first century schools programme. We have been able to secure a budget for that going onwards. It is an excellent example of good cross-Government local authority working and I hope that Members will all take advantage of visiting the new schools as they pop up in their various constituencies. We are immensely proud of that programme and rightly so.
In terms of the charter for the Welsh tax revenue authority, of course, we're very excited to be raising our first taxes for 800 years. I can't help but say that it's also a very good example of digitalisation of services. We've had an excellent team working on how to set the revenue authority up and what parts of it can be digital and good engagement with the various accountants and tax experts and so on about how things can be filled in online and so on. I absolutely take this opportunity to join with the Member in saying how proud we are of it and making sure we get as wide a recognition of that throughout Wales—[Interruption.] Yes, and that we get a good response to the consultation.
I wanted to ask if we could have a debate on youth homelessness. It's in regard to a question that Siân Gwenllian asked of the First Minister about how the new money will be spent. It still seems unclear to us—here on these benches at least—how that money is going to be distributed. I also met with another housing association on my tour of housing associations that didn't know, again, about this announcement, that was made to the public, as opposed to here in Plenary, and didn't know, therefore, how they could utilise that fund. So, a debate in Government time would be welcome.
The second one I wanted to ask for was if we could have an updated statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services with regard to his announcement to review the eating disorders framework, which I'm very welcoming of. I had a letter about it but I wanted to understand if we could have a statement to AMs as to how they can contact Jacinta, who is going to be leading on this, via Swansea University, and how other AMs can put their views forward to a review of the eating disorders framework, considering that it is an issue that affects all Assembly Members. So, yes, thank you for doing it, but can we have a statement so that we know how to give evidence and contribute to the consultation that she will be engaging in across Wales?
On the first one, it's very timely because the Minister will be making a statement in Plenary next week about homelessness, so I'm sure you'll be able to ask all of the questions you want to there.
The health Secretary is indicating to me that the letter in question has been placed in the Assembly library, but he's more than happy to copy it to all AMs to make sure that they understand the circumstances and how to get in touch.
Leader of the house, I had two points I wanted to raise. First of all, last week, I was very pleased to sponsor the launch of the second annual state of child health report by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health. I'm sure the leader of the house is aware that the report highlighted the progress that Wales is making in particular areas, especially tackling childhood obesity, maximising pregnant women's health and developing research capacity around children's health, and, actually, outstripping the rest of the UK. So, it's an extremely positive report about the Welsh health service. I wonder if it would be possible to have a full debate about this, particularly about the importance of these early years, as healthy children become healthy adults. That was the first point.
The second point: I wondered if the leader of the house had seen the letter in the i newspaper this morning from the Nevill Hall consultant—again, praising the Welsh health service—saying how the design of our health services in Wales has enabled Welsh Government and physicians to work together in a co-ordinated way to tackle many aspects of liver disease in particular, including hepatitis C? That, of course, is something we have debated a lot here in this Chamber. I think it would be useful if we were able to have an update about how the Welsh Government's goal of eradicating hepatitis C by 2030 is progressing, and acknowledging the great work that has been done in the way that our Welsh health service is designed and the great progress we're making.
The Member raises two very important points there. The RCPCH does praise the Welsh Government for making commitments and recognises significant progress against many of the recommendations outlined in the report, including in relation to breastfeeding, obesity and protecting children from tobacco—all of which are things I know the Member has complained vigorously on for most of her political career.
It does highlight areas that require more work, obviously, including some transition services, but we are continuing to work very closely with them to consider the recommendations and to make sure that we implement them.
The Member is also very right to point out that, of course, the way that we work here in Wales makes a huge difference in the way that our services are taken forward. We work very collaboratively across the board and we make sure that we hear a multiplicity of voices in all of our services to make sure that they do remain fit for the population as it goes forward. The health Secretary is indicating to me that he would be very happy in due course to bring a statement about where we are on those services and to say a little bit more about how we work in Wales and the benefits that brings to the Welsh population overall.
Leader of the house, this question has come up on a number of different occasions without a clear response. Would it be possible to have confirmation of the publication date for the Welsh standards in health?
Yes, I'm sure the Cabinet Secretary can provide you with that information and copy it to all Assembly Members.
Will the leader of the house join me in welcoming the initiative taken by Aston Martin to hold a graduate careers fair at Cardiff and Vale College tonight, which I'll be addressing? There are 750 new jobs being created at the St Athan plant in my constituency. Doesn't this indicate the strength of confidence in the Welsh economy, with Aston Martin badging each new car as 'made in Wales'? Will the Welsh Government make a statement to update the Assembly on this exciting new development?
The second question: I'm sure you welcome, as I do, the news that the UK Government decided not to challenge a court ruling that said changes to personal independence payments were unfair to people with mental health conditions. Every person receiving PIP will now have their claim reviewed. Will the Welsh Government make a statement calling on the UK Government to backdate reviewed claims and publish a timetable for action?
In terms of the first one, yes, it's extremely good news and Aston Martin are an enormously beneficial member of the community, both in the Vale of Glamorgan and, actually, in Wales overall. And very much part of the reason they wanted to come to Wales was because they liked the collegiate way in which we engaged with them and also they liked the skills base surrounding them, and they also liked the collegiate way that we work right across Wales to make sure that they would get the skills they wanted. So, we're very pleased and proud to have them here. I will say the Cabinet Secretary and I had a little bit of an altercation about which one of us was going to go in the first made-in-Wales car, and that's still ongoing, that altercation, and I'd be pleased to update the Assembly when I've won.
In terms of the PIP assessments, that's a very important decision. I was very pleased to see that the UK Government decided not to challenge the court decision, which is absolutely the right thing for them to do. We want to do two things, though. We want to ensure that the reassessment of the claims is done in a light-touch way, because sometimes the reassessment process itself can be as traumatic as the experience. So, we want to be sure that they do that with the right light touch, and we also want to make sure that they do it in a responsible fashion that actually means that, when they roll out universal credit to go alongside it, people aren't doubly impacted by the roll-out of universal credit, which has been happening somewhere. We are keeping a very close eye on that, and I'm sure once we've got some information about how it will be ongoing we will be updating the Assembly in due course.
I'm looking for a Government statement on the equity of consultations. I welcome the consultation that's now being run around the Roath brook issue by Natural Resources Wales, but I'm questioning why the same courtesy is not being offered and given to the residents of Barry who are campaigning strongly against the incinerator there, because I think they should be treated in exactly the same way, and I'd like a statement on that, please.
We carry out consultations extremely fairly. Some of those consultations the Member has mentioned are not a matter for Welsh Government. The second one, for example, is a matter for the local authority.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services on reforming electoral arrangements in local government, and I call on the Cabinet Secretary to make the statement—Alun Davies.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I wish to take this opportunity this afternoon to inform Members of my proposals for taking forward reforms to the arrangements for local government elections, including who can vote, how they are registered, how people vote and who can stand for election. My statement today focuses on arrangements for local elections, but I'm aware, Presiding Officer, of the work that you have in hand on reforms to this Assembly and that very much the same arrangements will also apply in the future to Welsh parliamentary elections. Legislative proposals concerning local government elections in Wales will be included in a local government Bill, which I intend to introduce later this year. The proposals are in keeping with the consultation last autumn, the detailed results of which I will be publishing very shortly.
Local democracy is all about participation. We want to boost the numbers registered as electors, make it easier for people to cast their votes and give more people the right to take part. We have seen how in recent years the move to individual registration—which I believe was rushed and underprepared—has led to some groups of people dropping off the register. I intend to counteract that in part by enabling and encouraging electoral registration officers to automatically add people to the register where they are satisfied with the information to hand. That should work particularly well with school students where local authorities already have their details and simply need to transfer these to the ERO. Anyone automatically registered would be added to the edited register, not the one available to marketing organisations, and they would be contacted to confirm their preferences and whether they would be happy to go on the full register or, in the case of anyone whose identity should not be revealed, to become registered anonymously.
I also intend to create an all-Wales electronic register, combining the registers held in each county with a common format, making managing the registers more efficient and making easier the process of splitting registers at elections that cross county boundaries.
Voting at elections in this country has been conducted in more or less the same way since the nineteenth century. Most of us go to a polling station and put a cross on a piece of paper using a heavy leaded pencil on a piece of string. Many people like this in fact, because it is a bit of an event, a chance to speak to the neighbours, and, in general, people do trust it. However, Presiding Officer, we also know that it is increasingly at odds with people’s everyday lives, and this is especially true for young people. For this reason, I intend to legislate for pilots at local elections and by-elections that would explore the options of electronic voting and counting, and voting in different places and on different days. The Electoral Commission would need to evaluate any pilot before we moved to make anything permanent and widespread, but time is overdue for making the voting process more modern and more flexible, observing, of course, the need to keep any new system completely secure.
I am particularly pleased to be setting out these electoral reforms today because we will very shortly be celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the first women being allowed to vote in elections in the United Kingdom and the introduction of universal male suffrage. It is therefore fitting that I am able to state my intention, making use of the powers due to be transferred to this Parliament under the Wales Act 2017 from April, to extend the franchise further in a number of ways.
Presiding Officer, I intend that 16 and 17-year-olds will be able to vote at the next local elections. We will be following Scotland in this, and their experience already shows how much young people of that age welcome the opportunity and make use of it to further the democratic process. Within schools, the active citizenship theme of personal and social education will provide young people with an understanding of politics and the right to vote.
Everyone who has committed to life and living in Wales should be able to play a part in our inclusive democracy. We intend to allow anyone from any nationality who resides in Wales to be able to register and vote in our elections. This will transcend the debate over the future of EU citizens’ voting rights by making clear that people from all nations and nationalities who have made their homes here should be able to participate fully in our democracy.
I am also exploring options for extending the rights of prisoners to vote in local government elections if their due release date falls before the end of the term of office of the council being elected. They would be able to vote by post or by proxy on the basis of a connected address in Wales, usually their last address. People who are sent to prison need to feel part of the community when they are released, and the right to vote will form part of this.
Presiding Officer, I intend that local government will move to a five-year term, in keeping with this Parliament and that intended for the United Kingdom Parliament. Individual councils will be able to choose whether to change to the single transferable vote system. A change would first require two thirds of the council in question to vote in favour of changing. The new system would have to be used for the next two rounds of ordinary elections.
I also intend to make some changes governing candidacy at local elections. I want to follow the practice that already applies to parliamentary elections and allow candidates to publish just the ward where they live rather than their home address on election documents. I will also put arrangements in place to enable candidates to publish policy statements on a council website.
I also intend to make it easier for council employees to stand for election to their own council. At present, they have to resign before they can even stand as a candidate. I will change this so that they only have to resign if elected. However, I will also urge local authorities to offer career breaks for at least the first term of office.
Presiding Officer, that is my initial proposal. I am also aware that many Members feel that at least some council employees should be able to serve as councillors in their own authority, and I will listen carefully to the deliberations on this matter during scrutiny. I wish to put on record that I will positively look for ways in which we can accommodate these views when we come to legislate. I therefore will be approaching this with a completely open mind and will be looking at ways of enabling council employees to stand for election to their own authority.
I believe the central issue here is around remuneration. If the levels of payments made to councillors for doing their job was more comparable with wages, taking a break from other employment would become more realistic. I intend to review this matter, together with the independent remuneration panel, over coming months.
Presiding Officer, I strongly believe that Members of this Assembly should not also be councillors and I intend to legislate so that they become disqualified from council membership. I am also going to require candidates to declare any registered political party membership if they are not standing under a party banner. Failure to do so could result in disqualification.
Finally, I intend to amend legislation so that the role of returning officer will be undertaken by the council's chief executive. The returning officer, usually the council's most highly paid officer, will no longer be able to claim a personal fee from their own council or for running Welsh parliamentary elections. It is not publicly acceptable, particularly at a time when ordinary council workers are subject to such restraint. I commend this statement to the Chamber.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for this statement. It does present some opportunities, but it also presents a number of questions. Of course, we recognise the need, as highlighted by the Electoral Reform Society, to increase participation in local democracy. However, the issue of whether to seek the reforms outlined to tackle the root causes of the problem of voter disengagement and the disconnect with politics felt by so many residents in Wales will be covered by the proposals you are bringing forward.
Local authority representation in Wales is in danger of becoming a closed shop. In the 2017 local government elections, 7 per cent of county borough councils seats were left vacant. At town and community council level, 81 per cent of seats were either uncontested or vacant. Further, engagement with local councillors is appallingly low in Wales, with a whopping 84 per cent of respondents to the national survey for Wales saying that they had not contacted their councillor in the previous 12 months. And as we've alluded to on numerous occasions here, a lack of transparency is endemic, because between 2016 and 2017, local authorities fully or partially excluded the public from 39 per cent of cabinet meetings, and in Bridgend this was 93 per cent.
Welsh Conservatives have pushed for a more thorough package of reforms, aimed at increasing voter engagement, for many years, including the community rights agenda under the Localism Act 2011, yet the Welsh Government has failed to give any credit to this, or any more powers or any more controls to local communities. And really, it is fair to say that you've failed in terms of local democracy and allowing local communities to have their say more on democratic issues. Cabinet Secretary, can you explain how your proposals address the urgent need to increase participation and engagement in these areas?
Now, concerns are already being raised about automatic registration of potential voters. Cabinet Secretary, can you advise as to how you envisage this being balanced in terms of data protection legislation and the use of personal data, as well as how you would ensure that this process is to be completely protected and free from voter fraud?
On this matter also, I would like to ask the Cabinet Secretary how you intend to go forward with postal votes, given allegations last year of duplicating voting and, of course, issues raised around the practice in Tower Hamlets. What a missed opportunity if you're bringing in local government electoral reform. Anybody here who's ever stood in any election at any level knows that postal votes with some of our older demographic can be an absolutely vital tool and help them to vote, but it can be very complex also with signatures sometimes with a slight difference. Those votes are then cast aside and not actually registered as a vote. So, I would ask you, Cabinet Secretary, whether you would look at how we can simplify the postal vote process so that, actually, people are more confident at using it than they are at the moment.
In relation to your proposals for pilots for electronic voting, voting in different places and on different days, you'll be aware, Cabinet Secretary, that previously the Electoral Commission found that a trial of additional facilities for voting by the then Labour UK Government had little success in targeting opportunist voters such as the young and the elderly, with a majority stating that they would have voted anyway. Therefore, I would be interested in the costings that you can evidence in regard to these schemes to enable proper cost-benefit analysis prior to any pilots being given the green light.
You expressed the intention to enable 16 and 17-year olds to vote at the next local elections. How do you balance giving 16 and 17-year olds the vote when this Assembly has legislated against them previously, for example, using a sunbed? And parental permission is still required to marry or serve in the forces. I would also at this point mention that, as a serial campaigner, the 18 to 30-year-olds are often disenfranchised because, of course, politics isn't taught in schools. There is that sort of void—[Interruption.] Yes, all my schools in Aberconwy would like to see the political system more on the curriculum. So, I would ask you how you intend to ensure we have greater participation of those people who are already able to vote now.
As regards your proposals to allow individual councils to change to the single transferable vote system, you will recall that, in response to the ‘Reforming Local Government: Resilient and Renewed’ White Paper, 60 per cent of respondents favoured first past the post as it was felt it was better understood, and 94 per cent felt it was better to keep the one voting system for the whole of Wales. This response seems contrary to your proposals today, so how can you justify that?
We welcome the requirement for candidates to register political party membership if not standing under a party banner and the improved transparency and accountability that this would provide, because we're all aware—and in police commissioner elections—where people actually stand as independents when, in reality, they are members of a political party. I know that three members in Conwy County Borough Council who were elected as Plaid Cymru last May are now of no political party within that council.
And finally, we greatly welcome—and we've been calling for this—the proposed changes in terms of ending the remuneration of returning officers by their own councils. It is wrong, as you've rightly pointed out, that you can have a chief executive on a higher salary than the Prime Minister of this country and yet they can also earn another 20-odd thousand pounds as a returning officer. That is wrong. If you're stopping the double-jobbing of Assembly Members and councillors, then you should be looking at that and I endorse that.
And absolutely finally, in relation to changes to eligibility of candidates, I wonder what costs might be entailed by local authorities giving career breaks for candidates who are successful at election who are council employees, where conflicts of interest are likely to arise. Also, again, there will be costings if departments are allowing people to fulfill duties as a councillor—how their work and things will be covered in terms of costing.
So, I think there are a lot of questions there for you, Cabinet Secretary. I look forward to scrutinising this as it comes forward. I will just say this: I'm glad that you've had the courtesy at last to bring this to this Assembly. It was disappointing to see UK Labour tweeting this announcement before we, as Assembly Members, had had any courtesy shown to us. I would just say that that is not the best way to get off on a good footing when you want to bring such serious change to our electoral system. Thank you.
Presiding Officer, I think the whole Chamber will be with me when I say I'm delighted that I'm not always accountable to this place for the actions of the United Kingdom Labour Party and their press office.
I would say to the Conservative spokesperson to perhaps move away from her counsel of despair. We seem to have listened to five or six minutes of a list of all problems and difficulties that are faced in making any change whatsoever. I have to say to the Member concerned and to other Members that we will increase participation when we persuade people there's a purpose to voting and that voting can change something and that voting can have a purpose in shaping the future of our communities. Simply listing problems facing people does not, I would suggest, inspire change anywhere with anyone.
I will say to the Conservative spokesperson that town and community councils will not be affected by the announcements I'm making this afternoon. She will be aware that there is a review currently taking place, which was announced by my predecessor, the now Cabinet Secretary for Finance, and I will be making further statements on the future of town and community councils when that review reports, which I expect to be at some point in the early summer.
Can I say, in terms of attempting to answer at least some of the questions that she has asked this afternoon, that this is a part of a package of reforms? She will be aware from questions that we had last week and the statement I made on the local government settlement that I have asked all Members here, as well as council leaders and Members of the UK Parliament, what powers they believe should rest with principal local authorities. Now, I trust that the Conservative Member for Aberconwy on this occasion has written to me by tomorrow's deadline in order to provide me with her views on these—[Interruption.] She didn't give me her views on anything. I wish she had. It would make my job easier. Let me say this: I presume—[Interruption.] I can only presume—. I don't want to get into the issue here of what e-mails have been sent or not sent, but I presume that she will be writing to me this evening to provide me with that package of proposals that she has.
I am putting together a series of reforms to and with local government to underpin local democracy to ensure that we do have participation in local elections and to ensure that local councils and local authorities are more powerful in the future than they are today. This is a part of that package of reform. It is not the totality of that package of reform, and it is also the first statement that I make here on the whole reform process.
The Conservative spokesperson has asked questions about voter fraud and data protection. I have to say to her that, where this is already being practised in Scotland, there is no evidence of any of those issues being an issue for the Scottish authorities. We don't expect them to be an issue for us. We will ensure that there is proper protection in place for all those on the register, whether they are 16 or 17 or in fact anybody who is vulnerable in any way. And we will ensure that there are proper guidelines in place to ensure that data protection and voter fraud are not issues of any new system.
I do accept the point that's been made about the ability to simplify postal votes. Clearly, many people we know and many electors do rely on postal votes, whether it's because of infirmity or because of work commitments that mean they're unable to vote in person. I hope that we'll be able to continue to simplify the process of postal votes, but I have to say that we will need to ensure as well that postal votes remain a secure form of voting. The reason, Presiding Officer, I am seeking permissive powers in this legislation in order to provide us with the pilots to enable us to consider different changes to the voting system is to do exactly as the Member suggests, which is to understand in practice how these proposals will work in terms of how we elect new councillors in the future.
I hope that we will be able to look at a diversity of different proposals to improve and drive up turnout. I hope that people will be able to vote electronically in the future. I hope that we'll be able to vote on our telephones in the future, and I hope that, even if we are unable to do that in the near future, we will be able to move to a system of electronic counting in the near future. I will say to the Member, who seems very—how shall I put it—lukewarm about the suggestion that we should increase the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds, that I see young people as being motivated to take part in the political process where politicians are able to demonstrate there's a purpose and a view to voting. I think it is our responsibility here and elsewhere to explain to people how voting can change something and the importance of taking part in the election process.
It's a matter for others to take some of the views that have been expressed in terms of proportional representation versus first past the post. I have to say to the Member for Aberconwy that part of personal and social education is around active citizenship. I'm surprised that she is not aware of that. Our ability to communicate and to educate young people about the importance of the political structures of governance of Wales, of local government and of the United Kingdom will help us, I hope, engage a new generation of people in taking part in our democracy and holding, I hope, us all to account.
I want to focus on three aspects that you've noted in your statement this afternoon, and all three relate to increasing participation and better representation within local government. The way that young people come into contact with politics in their early years is crucially important for the future of representative democracy, and therefore Plaid Cymru welcomes your intention, as a Government, to extend the franchise to include young people of 16 and 17 years of age for local government elections. But, without doubt, there is a lack of understanding of politics in Wales. For example, do people know which Government is responsible for the various services? This extends to all age groups. Assessments have been carried out by Cardiff University, for example, that demonstrate that there is a problem in terms of a lack of interest and information among students in Wales in politics in general, but there’s even less interest in local politics.
So, in welcoming this positive change, one turns their sights to political education, and we’ve discussed that in broad terms already. I believe that there’s a golden opportunity here—along with introducing the vote for young people, we must also give more emphasis on improving political education as part of the curriculum. You’ve mentioned citizenship under personal and social education, but I would like to hear your views as to whether more needs to be done. Do you have any plans to look further than what’s currently proposed within the curriculum?
It’s understandable, isn't it, that political alienation can happen in a society where people don’t see the value of voting, and therefore don't take notice of politics because perhaps they feel that their vote doesn’t always count with the first-past-the-post electoral system? Therefore, I welcome your commitment, in the past and in the statement today, to introduce STV for local elections, but it simply isn’t going to happen unless it is mandatory for all local authorities in Wales. It must be mandatory for all local authorities—it shouldn’t be an arbitrary option. In reality, it’s not councils that should decide whether they want to be accountable to their constituents through a fair electoral system; the Government should make that decision on an issue of such great principle. Not making that a mandatory change does show a lack of leadership, in my view, from the Government. It also avoids the duty that the national Government should have—that leadership should be shown.
We know the benefits of STV. STV has been used in local elections in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and for the Assembly elections there too, and, as a result, local elections are far more competitive, the make-up of local government is closer to the wishes of the people and there’s far more interest in elections when they are held through the STV system. So, I remain to be convinced of the argument that you’re trying to make in making STV an option. I simply don’t understand, apart from the issues, perhaps, of self-interest and party interest involved here. I don’t see any other rational argument for not making STV mandatory for local elections in Wales.
To continue with the theme of representing the population more accurately, I’m going into an area that you perhaps haven’t touched on. The consultation document on electoral reform doesn’t discuss how to enhance the representation of minority groups on our councils, and it doesn’t either tackle the issue of how we reach gender equality. Only 28 per cent of councillors are women, of course, and we must tackle that problem, which is a fundamental problem in terms of a lack of equality.
I think I heard you on the television on Sunday saying that we need more consultation on your proposals for the regionalisation of services. If there’s to be more consultation, I wonder whether you would consider also consulting on various options to ensure gender equality within our councils. After all, gender equality in our Assembly has been accepted in principle by the First Minister and by the Minister for equality in this Chamber, so why not do that? So, why not do something within local government too? That discussion is a very lively one at the moment, and I do think that it’s very timely for us to consider how we can use the electoral system to achieve equality in our local authorities, and I’d like to hear your views on that. Thank you.
I’m grateful to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson for her general welcome of our proposals this afternoon. I concur with very many of the points that the Member has made, Llywydd. I agree with you when you talk about the lack of understanding of politics in Wales. I know that my friend the Secretary for education, for example, will be writing to the BBC today after their report on Today yesterday talking about the education policy in Wales and England—and I think they were saying 'England and Wales'. I do think that there is a lack of understanding of Welsh politics and politics in Wales and the nature of Welsh politics, not particularly among young people but amongst us all, because we don’t have a platform within the political world or the media world in the UK that explains how the UK is governed and the constitution of the United Kingdom. I think that that is something that we need to consider further. I see that the Minister for broadcasting is present in the Chamber this afternoon, and I’m sure that he will continue to raise these issues.
Citizenship is vitally important. It’s important that it’s taught in our schools, but also, I would say that citizenship is important to us all, and understanding how we all live together is something that is vitally important. I very much hope that the way in which we change our politics to extend the franchise to young people, and to also ensure that we change the way in which we campaign when we stand for election—. I think that is going to be extremely important in inspiring people to vote for the first time.
The Member also tempts me once again—how shall I put this—on the issue of STV and the voting system. My personal view is completely clear, and the Member knows where I stand on this. I support STV for elections both here, Westminster and local government. I have no doubts on that and I agree with the Member on the benefits of STV. Of course, that would also assist to resolve the problem that Janet Finch-Sunders raised in her contribution with regard to the lack of competition for some seats in some parts of Wales.
But I, and I would suggest that you too, will have to acknowledge that there is not sufficient support currently to move to this system. Without general support across the country, I don’t believe that we should force or impose change of the electoral system on people. We create these new powers to enable councils to make their own decisions if they think the people they represent wish them to move in such a direction. But the only way we can change the general system is by pushing it through, and I don’t believe that I wish to do that, and I don’t believe that there is currently enough general support across the Chamber to do that. I’m sure that I would campaign with other Members to perhaps change that in the future, but that is where we are today, and I believe that the statement that I have made today reflects the current situation.
I agree with you when you talk about equalities and the way in which we can use the structures in local authorities to ensure that minority groups are represented in councils across the country. This has, of course, been a matter of discussion in at least one of the White Papers that we’ve seen on local government over the past few years. I am considering it at present—it’s not a central part of the statement that I have made this afternoon, but I did suggest in my statement that we would consider how we remunerate councillors in future in order to ensure that we can appeal to more people and create more opportunities for people to stand for election in the future. I do think that that would assist in ensuring that we have a more equal representation within chambers across the country in the future. So, I hope there will will be a discussion, and I will lead a discussion and debate on this in the ensuing months.
Thanks to the Minister for today's statement. There are a few sensible points in that statement that we would broadly support, and some more contentious ones. To start off with the good stuff: the role of the council chief executive as the returning officer in local government elections. We would agree with you that it should now be a statutory role for the council chief executive, and the excessive remuneration for that role of returning officer should be ended, particularly in these times of cash-strapped local councils. So, we fully agree with you on that. We spent a little time talking about STV. I think that's an interesting issue—interesting because we now have a Minister who has publicly supported that system, which is a good development. The question is: will your presence as the Minister be able to have any meaningful effect on local council elections and the way in which they are held?
Now, David Melding is sat over there, and he will probably, with his memory of things that have been enacted in this Chamber, or not enacted, remember that this was an issue in the first Assembly term, when Rhodri Morgan was broadly in favour of changing the voting system but nothing happened. And here we are, 15 or 16 years later. Now, we have moved to a position where you are going to say that councils will be allowed to move to a system of STV, but it's not going to be mandatory. Okay, you could make the point that you need to consult and you can't force councils into doing something, and you need to uphold the principle of localism. You could come up with various arguments, but the problem is that you are going to end up, probably, with many Labour-run councils, which are simply going to stick with first-past-the-post. I mean, that's blindingly obvious. So, we will look with interest as to what happens as a result of you enabling local councils to move to the new system, but I do share Siân Gwenllian's scepticism as to what will actually ensue.
Now, the other points—many were raised by Janet Finch-Saunders in her rather comprehensive look at what you were doing. I tend to agree with lots of the points she made. I won't rehash them, of course, but just to reiterate the points she was making about potential voter fraud. I agree, e-voting—it's interesting. You could enhance the engagement of more voters—that's a laudable aim. You cite the fact that in Scotland, where there's been a pilot, there hasn't been much evidence of fraud. Well, please keep an eye on this, because we don't want to hear in four or five years' time that there is lots of fraud going on.
We've already had the issue of the massive increase in postal voting, which has led to instances of electoral fraud—as Janet cited, the example of Tower Hamlets. So, I would also ask if you could include in your review a review of this massive increase of postal voting. And do you agree that postal votes should only be available to those that genuinely need them? So, that would be one question. Another question is: what particular safeguards are you going to bring in regarding e-voting?
The issue of 16- and 17-year-olds—well, you had a little pop at Janet when she talked about the education system, but it's actually many of the young campaigners who want votes at 16 and 17 that have raised the issue of what they call 'unbiased political education'. So, they do seem to feel that that is lacking in the system. So, I would ask again, as others have asked today: is some change to the education curriculum required? But, of course, there's also the problem of how on earth you actually provide unbiased political education. So, it is rather a double-edged sword, that issue. So, that is going to be difficult as you proceed.
Lastly, prisoner votes—this does seem rather a perverse move, as it seems to be completely unsupported by the general population. The most recent opinion polls seem to indicate that 70 per cent of the population are against giving votes to prisoners. If you are going to try to give prisoners the vote, will any effort be made to increase the vote among serving armed forces personnel? Thank you.
Presiding Officer, whenever we debate these matters, there's a clear divide in politics, where parties of the left wish to increase participation and to encourage people to vote, and those conservative parties of the right seek to prevent people from voting, and take part in voter suppression and seek to find ways of placing barriers in terms of enabling people to vote. And let me say this: I want to persuade and to encourage, and even, dare I say, to inspire people to vote and to take part in our democracy. And you do not do that, Presiding Officer, by listing difficulties, listing problems and giving us the counsel of despair time and time again.
I stood for election, not simply to describe the difficulties of the communities I sought to represent, but to find answers to those problems and find solutions to the issues that we face. And that is why, in seeking to make this statement this afternoon, I want to encourage more people to vote. I want 16 and 17-year-olds in this country to feel part of this community and have a stake in the future of their families and their communities. And we will give them the right to vote, and we will ensure that they feel able to exercise that right. We will do that simply through education, but we will also do it by the way in which we campaign as political parties, and by the way in which we govern as politicians and Ministers. And we will inspire people to vote. That's my approach. It's what I want and expect the whole of this Government and others to do.
But let me say this: the whole purpose, the purpose of providing for permissive powers to enable us to look at different options, and to look at different potentials and possibilities, to enable us to make these changes, are to understand the consequences of those changes, and to understand the consequences of what we're seeking to propose. Therefore, we will ensure that all pilots are looked at and considered by the Electoral Commission, completely independently of Government, and before we make any fundamental permanent changes to the electoral system, we will ensure that it is secure, we will ensure it is protected against fraud, and we will ensure that it performs as we expect it to do, and that means increasing participation as well.
But let me say this: in ensuring that 16 and 17-year-olds are able to vote, we are looking at increasing the franchise and giving them a stake in our society and in our communities. Let me say this: I want to ensure that those people, particularly those people serving relatively short prison sentences, also feel that they have a stake in the society and the community in which they will be living. We need to ensure that, mainly in this case, young men, feel that they have a stake in their community, and we need to put a clear emphasis on rehabilitation, on training, on ensuring that people don't feel that they're being locked out of society, but feel that they've been given opportunities to play a full part in our society. And we will do that by ensuring that people who are serving these short sentences are able to vote in local elections, and feel that they are appreciated and valued in our society, and that we will invest in their futures as well as our futures.
I welcome the opportunity to ask questions on the local government statement. My view, although possibly not held by everyone here, is that we do not discuss local government anywhere near enough.
I welcome the proposals to boost the numbers of registered electors, to make it easier for people to cast their votes, and give more people the right to take part. Surely that's what democracy is about—making it easier for more people to vote. I warmly welcome votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. My daughter and her friends, who are 16 and 17, felt highly aggrieved that they could not vote in the European referendum, which they thought was going to have a big effect on their future. Moving every election to a common fixed term is important because it stops elections to different spheres of Government being on the same day, so each one can have their own mandate. Whilst I support councillors seeing out their term after election to the Assembly, no Assembly Member should be able to stand for any council. For highly paid chief executives to be paid extra to be a returning officer makes no sense, and some councils have already made it part of the chief executive's role. I welcome the pilot schemes.
Four questions. Why can't we use a common electronic register so that people can vote at any polling station? On electronic voting, I have confidence in the security against hacking. What safeguards will there be against people harvesting the codes and then using them? On electronic counting, what is to stop the type of hanging chad debacle that cost Al Gore the presidency?
On people working for local authorities, can you not distinguish between those who are directly employed and those who are indirectly employed? We had the example of people working for organisations that are partly funded by a council, you find examples historically of people working in polytechnics, you've got schoolteachers who are all excluded, and, although they're paid by the council, they're sort of one step removed in terms of their employment. So, can we have some means of distinguishing those who are directly employed, and those whose employment, whilst paid for by the council, is indirect?
Presiding Officer, nobody would ever accuse Mike Hedges of not talking enough about local government, and we welcome his experience and knowledge of the subject. I told Members last week that I would never challenge him again, and I hope to stick to that in this answer today.
I hope that, in terms of establishing a national electronic register, we will be able to move to a situation whereby we will be able to vote when we're not necessarily in our ward, or constituency. Certainly, I would welcome that myself, and I assume that those are the sorts of issues that we would rely upon technology in order to solve. I see the leader of the house, who is responsible for digital matters in this Government, is nodding, and I'm delighted that she is, which gives me reassurance that, at least on this issue, I'm hopefully getting things right.
In terms of the safeguards in terms of codes and other matters, we will ensure, clearly, that these matters are secure. That is why we are seeking to introduce pilots, and not moving straight to new systems. And I think the pilots that we operate we will learn from, and we will, I hope, ensure that we have a participative democracy, where people feel able to take part in elections wherever they are, and to do so easily.
In terms of electronic counting, the systems that we have viewed in operation are different systems to those that the Member describes in Florida. And of course it is counting the votes rather than registering the vote that we are talking about in terms of electronic counting. I'm absolutely confident that that is one reform that we could introduce very, very quickly.
I made, Presiding Officer, a point in my statement of seeking to ensure that we do have an open view on issues around directly and indirectly employed by local authorities. The point that the Member has raised is absolutely correct. It is not our wish to prevent people from taking part or standing for election if there is any way at all in which we're able to encourage people and enable them to do so. So, the conversation that we will be having over the next couple of months will be a practical conversation about how we can enable people to stand for election to authorities from which they will receive a payment, and not a point of principle or a negative conversation about how that can be stopped. It will be a positive and open conversation about seeking to enable more people to stand for election, and how that can be managed.
There's much in this statement that I generally welcome. I realise that we've got a few months ahead of us before the legislation is brought into the Assembly, so I do hope the Cabinet Secretary is in listening mode. And, myself, I think extending the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds will allow us to spend more time on discussing education, particularly for the under-18s. I don't think we do discuss education enough. I have always thought it crazy that Britain remains, I think, the only modern, industrialised state that has the divide between elementary and secondary school education at 11. I mean, nearly every other nation I know of does it much later, and we may discuss some of these fundamentals more.
However, I do have some reservations, and I'm just raising these now because, as I said, I do agree with a lot of what the Cabinet Secretary has said. I think breaking the link between citizenship and the right to vote is troublesome, and we do need to consider this in much more detail; it needs very, very careful thought. Unless we propose the same reform for Assembly elections, then we risk degrading the value of the vote for local authority elections, by allowing non-citizens to vote in their elections. So, I think we need to be very, very careful. If we allow non-citizens to vote, should they also have the right to stand for election? And this again, I think, would be a troubling precedent. I know we've allowed European Union citizens to vote, but that's because we subscribe to—well, at the time—a common EU citizenship, and for very similar historical reasons, Commonwealth citizens have also been allowed to vote, and our citizens have had reciprocal rights elsewhere, for instance, in the Republic of Ireland.
Secondly, and I know why this has been proposed, and it is difficult to co-ordinate the electoral cycle, but I think five-year terms are simply too long. They're too long here. By the fifth year, we're all exhausted and we need a new influx of talent and ideas. And the other thing is that the legislative cycle is also affected. If you give people five years it can take them a long time to get ahead and do essential reforms. We're still waiting for a real flow of the most important legislation that will come before the fifth Assembly and it was exactly the same in the fourth Assembly. Five-year terms are too long.
Finally, disqualifying councillors from being Assembly Members, I think, again, is troubling. You should allow the local electorate to decide. Being a member of more than one legislature, I think, is something you could say is a profound conflict of interest. But, being a councillor is no more of a conflict of interest than holding a job. We have our Standing Orders that allow for that to be managed through declarations of interest. In the Westminster model we have the mother, not of all Parliaments, but of all contradictions and conflicts of interest, in having members of the Government—pretty much a full-time job, I would say—in the legislature. So, I simply don't think there are very convincing theoretical arguments to say that councillors cannot sit in this Chamber.
I hope I can reassure David Melding that I'm very much in listening mode. I hope that I always am, of course, but certainly in terms of providing a statement this afternoon, this concludes a period of consultation, but we haven't yet, of course, moved forward to legislate and we won't be doing that before the autumn. It certainly is my intention, as I said in reply to Mike Hedges earlier, to actively listen to what is said.
I'm afraid I probably must disagree with David Melding on the issue of citizenship. I do recognise the point he makes and I don't necessarily feel it's an entirely invalid point. However, I think more important to us is the cohesiveness of our communities and the sense that people should be able to play a full role in our communities if they are ordinarily resident in that community. So, I hope that we will find a solution. We understand already that a person seeking asylum could not vote until their application had been determined and they'd been granted leave to remain in the United Kingdom. Those granted asylum and resident in Wales would be entitled to register to vote. For me, the sense of inclusivity in our community and in our society is the issue that drives me and why I believe that we should ensure that everybody who is resident in a community should be able to play a part in shaping that community.
On the issue of five-year terms, I have to say that I have a great deal of sympathy with David Melding on this. I've argued publicly and privately for some time that I believe four years is a sufficient term for this place, for the United Kingdom Parliament and it would be for local government as well. I feel that the point he makes about an institution becoming tired after a long period of time without an election is a good point, and all of us who have served a number of terms here understand and appreciate the point he makes. For me, I would prefer all of our democratic institutions to serve fixed four-year terms. However, since we are in a position, at the moment, of this place moving to a five-year term and the United Kingdom Parliament having whatever term it seems to choose, despite the legislation that's been passed there, then it seems to me that local government should be treated in the same way. However, if we were to reopen that debate, my vote would be for a four-year and not a five-year term.
The final point he makes is that of disqualification of councillors in the National Assembly. He and I have sat together in the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, as have others, and have debated this point on previous occasions, and we've all taken part in debates here in the Chamber on the matter. I feel the argument has been made and has been won in terms of—. There is a clear conflict of interest between people who come here and sit in this place and also sit elsewhere. Can I say this? I don't believe the issue of a time constraint that others have said is especially important and convincing and persuasive for me. What is important for me is the role of this place and the place of this place in our democracy. It is important that—I hope in the future that local government will be seen to be a full-time role, representing the people there, but if, for example—. I'm trying to avoid using any examples as I speak. If, for example—let's use me—I had been elected to represent, when I represented Mid and West Wales, but I represented a ward in Aberystwyth. I think people in Pembrokeshire or Powys would have reason to ask significant questions about me, about where my priorities would lie. We've seen, time and time again, people who sit in an individual council return to their ward issues here when, really, we should be representing the whole of the constituency, whether that's an electoral constituency or a regional constituency.
I also believe that since we do take decisions here—. And I do disagree with the point of principle that David Melding has raised here; we take decisions here on funding and on statutory matters that will then be an issue for local government. It is not right, it is not proper, that a councillor should then be involved in taking those decisions at both levels.
I have four more speakers wanting to speak. If everybody can keep to a very succinct question, I'll try and call all. Jenny Rathbone.
Diolch, Llywydd. I disagree with Janet Finch-Saunders that we should simplify the postal vote verification system. We have to make sure that the person who's casting the vote is the person who's entitled to do so. But I do wonder whether—. I agree that many votes are actually put in the bin because they haven't filled in the form properly, and I wondered whether we can consider sending back that vote to the person who failed to complete the verification, explaining that the vote was null and void, and that would then possibly enable them to consider not voting by post next time.
I think people with literacy or learning difficulties should be discouraged from voting by post because it's much simpler to go to a polling station, where all they've got to do is find the candidate they wish to vote for on the list. But I do think your proposals around electronic voting and different days for voting enable us to ensure that people who have difficulty going to a particular place, which is open for 15 hours—. We could have roving voting polling stations, for example, in care homes or in supermarkets for very short periods of time, which would enable people who have difficulty walking to the polling station—enable the polling station to come to them. That is what electronic voting systems would enable us to do.
When you're thinking about how we actually improve the accuracy of the electoral register, don't let's just think of school students, but those who are providing homecare ought to be able to automatically register somebody who'd dropped off the register because of their illness. Registered care homes and nursing homes ought to be obliged to register people who become their residents, who may indeed have difficulties conducting that sort of registration electronically.
I'm happy to see—
Okay. On the questions of STV, will turkeys vote for Christmas? Because those who have been elected under the single, past-the-post system are unlikely to want to change the system to another one. Therefore, how else could we proceed on this matter?
I was hoping that Jenny Rathbone would continue her final question on STV and provide me with an answer to the question. Look, I'm a strong supporter of fair votes, to ensure that your vote counts wherever you happen to live and to encourage people to participate in elections. And I think proportional representation does do that. However, we must all recognise that we don't have the mandate for that at present, and we don't have the support to do that at present, although I would say that, most of the studies that I have seen, in terms of how the outcomes of some of these elections don't produce some of the radical changes that some claim that they would as well. So, I hope that people would seek—and I hope that we will have this debate in this place about what is best for the institution and best for Wales rather than what would be best for perhaps for Jenny Rathbone or Alun Davies, and I hope that all people would approach the debate in that sense.
Can I say I think we should always look towards simplifying how we vote and to ensure that voting is seen to be as straightforward and as easy as possible? Clearly, the balance is to ensure that we don't have fraudulent voting and that we don't feel that the system is open to abuse. We're always looking, and, as a Minister, I will always look, towards simplifying the voting process, the electoral process, and we'll do that in a positive way. I agree very much with the points that you've made about the registration of electors, and to ensure that we have polling stations, or the ability to vote, in different places.
I'm going to touch on and question the culture of this Government in denying people choice. I really would like an explanation as to why you can be a landlord, with your proposals, and an Assembly Member, you can be a company director and an Assembly Member, you can be a university lecturer, even, and an Assembly Member, you can even be a Member of the European Parliament and an Assembly Member, and, of course, you can also be a member of the House of Lords and an Assembly Member. So, why is it that there's a focus on local government? And, yes, I'll declare my interest in being a councillor here.
I represent Fairwater here in Cardiff.
I'm very proud of representing my community on Cardiff Council.
But I think the public sees through this. It's pretty obvious that you're trying to play party politics and achieve through legislation what you're unable to achieve through the ballot box. Two thousand, four hundred and fourteen people voted for me to sit over there last May, and, as a matter of democratic principle, you do not have the right to tell those people how they should think.
I'm glad that Councillor McEvoy declared his interest. I have to say to him that, in terms of any personal antipathy here, I think he should look towards his former party rather than this Government.
I will be succinct, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, I gave you earlier a copy of this document, 'Votes @ 16', which was really a summation of views from working groups in Y Pant School and Bryn Celynnog Comprehensive School in my constituency. Can I say how incredibly enthused they were, and I think are now, about this actual proposal? Let me just focus on a couple of points, and a question at the end. The first point that has been made, very succinctly, is that it would be non-understandable by that generation to talk about them having the right to vote if it can't be done online. Everything is done online, and I very much welcome the commitment you have about actually working out a mechanism on that.
The final point I want to make and ask you a question about is that the one thing that is absolutely clear is that the overwhelming majority of 16 to 17-year-olds want the right to vote, but provided they have the information, the capacity, to do so. That is a point they've made time and time again, and, in fact, when you originally asked them, they split 50:50 on this, but when you said 'if you were provided with the information that would enable you to participate properly', it rose to almost 100 per cent. It seems to me that the key challenge that we have to make for that generation, for those new voters, is the ability to engage from a very early age. And we have to get away from this obsession that we have about, 'Oh, you mustn't have politics in school'. Life is about politics, society is about politics, and we have to give the opportunity, from 12, 13, 14, 15 on—the ability to engage with them on political issues, on trade union issues, on social and economic issues, all the way through. Some of the schools that have their restrictions on that, I think we have to look at. So, we need a policy that is about positive and fair engagement with citizenship and social responsibility and that, it seems to me, is the biggest challenge of all in terms of the extending of the voting to 16 and 17-year-olds, even to the extent that quite a number actually said that, without that, they wouldn't want that opportunity. So, that is the challenge, Cabinet Secretary. How do you propose to deal with it?
I would take a leaf out of your book, Mick Antoniw. I think if Members haven't seen the document that he's produced, it is a first-class document and demonstrates how you actually do go about engaging with people. Let me, without testing your patience too much, Presiding Officer, just quote two sentences from it: 'Without exception, the students engaged in debates in an enthusiastic and thoughtful way. Their views were expressed with great clarity and conviction.'
I agree very much with the point that Mick Antoniw has made in terms of how to engage with people—and I think, if you don't mind me saying so, we've got a textbook example of how to do that in the way that Mick Antoniw has spoken with the students in Y Pant School in his constituency, and that is a great way forward for all of us.
But let me say, as I conclude, on this matter, we have expected and we expect young people to take decisions on their future life chances at 16. We should not exclude them from taking decisions on their community at 16. The American revolutionaries in the eighteenth century made it very clear to the British Government of that time that there would be no taxation without representation. It's something that many of us believe resonates down the centuries and that this Government will ensure that everybody in our community feels a part of that community and can play a role in shaping the future of that community.
Diolch. I welcome this statement. I think it's very positive, very forward looking. I, for a long time, have been part of a campaign to get votes for 16 and 17-year-olds. I had a private Member's Bill in the House of Commons in 2008 that ran out of time, but it certainly changed Labour Party policy. So, I'm really pleased today that we're actually making a move towards 16 and 17-year-olds voting, even if it is just in local government elections, because I hope this will follow very swiftly for Assembly elections. One of the main reasons I think that it will be so good to have 16 and 17-years-olds voting is that we will then listen to them, because what they have to say I think is so important.
I just have some few quick questions. I think automatic registration makes absolute sense, and I wondered if the Cabinet Secretary had considered the method of identifying young voters when they receive their national insurance numbers in order to get them automatically identified straight away. I'm concerned about the large numbers, the thousands of people, who are not registered and I'm particularly concerned about the fact that the black and minority ethnic communities are under-represented. The figures by the Electoral Reform Society show that 85.9 per cent of white people were registered to vote, but only 76 per cent of black and minority ethnic citizens were registered to vote. So, that inequality does exist, so how does the Minister think that we would be able to tackle that?
I support all the different ways he's suggested of trying to vote to try and increase participation. I welcome the idea of voting on different days. I wondered if he'd considered having a period of time to vote, like stretching over a weekend or over five days, as is done in some countries and some states in the United States. So, I wondered if that might be a way of increasing participation.
I support Siân Gwenllian's points about trying to get women more involved and I think—. I just want to finish, really, with the point that the Minister made, that you have to make people feel that there is something worth voting for if you vote, and that's absolutely crucial. My constituency of Cardiff North has consistently had the highest turnout in the Assembly elections and also in the Westminster elections. The reason it has that highest turnout is that you never know what's going to happen there; you never know who's going to win, and so people feel they have a real reason to vote. But, going beyond that, I think it is beholden on us as politicians to try to make politics relevant to people's lives because politics is exciting, but people don't always realise that.
Of course, the real reason for the high turnout in Cardiff North is that you have a fantastic candidate in Julie Morgan to vote for and an equally fantastic Member of Parliament in Anna McMorrin to support and to elect.
Can I say that I agree very much with the points that the Member's made? Let me return to the point on diversity, because it hasn't fully figured in the debate this afternoon. We need to ensure that people feel able and are able to participate in our electoral process. But we also need to ensure that people are able to serve after that election. My concern is, all too often, we've seen descriptions of the current cohort of local authority members and it is not representative of society as a whole. We recognise that. I believe we have to go much, much further and have a much more serious debate about how we provide remuneration and how we provide ability for people to serve as local authority representatives. It is absolutely my determination to address these issues. I will be addressing these issues in a further consultation in the next few months, and I will be ensuring that we're able to move forward on that matter.
The Member mentioned that she introduced a private Member's Bill some years ago in the House of Commons on reducing the age of the franchise. One of the first meetings I spoke in in this place was in favour of people who reach the age of 16 being able to participate in our elections here. Presiding Officer, you and I have met in order to discuss the proposals that I'm making today. I hope that we will be able to move forward to have a common franchise and a common set of electoral arrangements for our national elections to our Parliament and also our elections to local government in the future. Certainly, I will be working and doing my best to ensure that we're able to do that.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the leader of the house on Superfast Cymru and I call on her to make the statement. Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. Today I want to update you on our plans to extend the coverage of high-speed broadband following the end of the build phase of the Superfast Cymru project. Through Superfast Cymru, we have fundamentally altered the broadband landscape in Wales, bringing superfast broadband to areas of Wales that simply would not have been connected. Since the project began in 2013, the availability of superfast broadband across Wales has more than doubled thanks directly to this project and to our investment. The latest Ofcom report shows that Wales now has the highest availability of superfast broadband—over 30 Mbps—amongst the devolved nations despite the obvious challenges that our topography presents in the roll-out of broadband networks. We must not lose sight of the significant achievement that this large scale engineering project represents. Homes and businesses the length and breadth of Wales are now enjoying the benefits of this investment and accessing digital services.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Members will be keen to understand how many premises in their constituencies and regions were connected through the Superfast Cymru project and how many premises were connected overall. I will release this information as soon as I have it. We are currently reviewing the latest data presented by Openreach and working through our robust testing and verification process. I aim to announce the final confirmed figures in the spring.
Despite the success of Superfast Cymru in transforming broadband connectivity across Wales, there is clearly more work to be done. My own postbag continues to swell with letters from individuals, communities and businesses frustrated by the absence of high-speed broadband where they live or work. This Government shares that frustration and is committed to taking further action to addressing those broadband issues.
We have identified 88,000 premises across Wales that will not be served over the next three years without Government intervention. A detailed map showing these premises is available on the website. As I outlined in my oral statement of 8 November 2016, we have committed £80 million to enable this work. It is important to recognise, however, that the work to be done will get progressively more difficult and a one-size-fits-all approach may not deliver the best outcome. So, today I am announcing a suite of measures and proposals that, when taken together, will help us to realise the ambition described in 'Taking Wales Forward' to bring people together digitally by offering fast, reliable broadband to every property in Wales.
Firstly, I'm pleased to announce that we have now invited suppliers to tender for the successor scheme to Superfast Cymru. We have invited the market to present solutions in three lots with an emphasis on rural delivery, business prioritisation and ultrafast 100 Mbps services. Superfast Cymru delivered access to vast numbers of premises in rural areas, but there is more work to be done in parts of Powys and Ceredigion in particular. To address this, we have encouraged solutions that connect premises in those areas and in areas with lower 4G mobile data coverage. The tender assessment will also recognise those bidders that target premises suffering the lowest download speeds. Businesses are taking advantage of the opportunities that having a fast connection affords, but we recognise that there are areas that businesses could be better served. We have, therefore, encouraged bidders to pay particular attention to business premises in their responses to the invitation to tender.
The demand for connectivity and the speed of that connectivity continues to grow exponentially. In the home, for example, video streaming to 4K and now 8K televisions are putting ever greater pressure on bandwidth and we need to ensure that the infrastructure keeps up with this demand. We also need to ensure wherever possible that we minimise the need for future public intervention by encouraging sustainable solutions that are scalable in future without the need for additional public investment. We have, therefore, encouraged the market to focus on the delivery of ultrafast and gigabit connectivity in their responses to the invitation to tender. I know that uncertainty around which premises will be connected and time frames for connectivity caused some frustration during the delivery of Superfast Cymru. To help alleviate this, the successful bidder will be required to identify from the outset the specific premises that will be served in any given lot. Not only will this provide greater certainty for residents and businesses in the plan, it will also enable those premises not addressed to focus on alternative approaches.
I am acutely aware that slippage of delivery timescales dogged Superfast Cymru and was the source of endless frustration for those whose dates changed. While it is unlikely that project slippage can be entirely eradicated given the complexity of the engineering involved and the scale of the challenge, we will encourage suppliers to consider how delays will be minimised and premises will be notified when changes inevitably occur. I have to be clear, however, that the funding available is unlikely to deliver fast broadband to every premises that we have identified. The invitation to tender represents one part of a suite of interlinked interventions designed to improve connectivity. Our Access Broadband Cymru and ultrafast connectivity voucher schemes will continue to provide funding in parallel to this work. Both schemes are being reviewed to ensure that they continue to provide the right solutions and complement the new Superfast Cymru successor scheme and the wider broadband landscape.
We also plan to introduce an additional, novel scheme that supports communities demonstrating tangible demand, particularly targeting those communities that are not covered by suppliers in their response to the ITT. We are seeking to establish a broadband outreach team to support this approach and to work with clusters of homes or businesses to harness this demand, define a local project, and procure a solution. There is much work to be done on this approach, but I will provide more detail in due course.
Finally, concerns have been raised about those premises where the infrastructure required to connect them appears to have been deployed by Openreach, yet the work has not been completed. In such circumstances, Members can be assured that the Welsh Government has not funded any aspect of that infrastructure. We have invited Openreach to provide detail on these structures and we will explore how we can support their completion through the gainshare mechanism in the grant agreement so that as many premises as possible can be addressed. In addition to this, I have also agreed to a request from Openreach to extend the build phase of the Superfast Cymru project by two months so that the delayed works to around 2,500 premises can be completed and commissioned. This will not lead to any further costs to the Welsh Government.
While I firmly believe that the success of Superfast Cymru should not be underestimated, and while I encourage Members to consider not only the challenges within their constituencies but also the considerable achievements, I do recognise that we have much to do. Above all, we need to ensure that fast broadband is available to everyone so that Wales can to meet the ever-growing demand for greater bandwidth and increasing digitisation. Together, the successor scheme, the community scheme, and our voucher schemes will provide a comprehensive package of interventions that will help us meet the challenges ahead.
Can I agree with the leader of the house that I think we must celebrate the fact that the Superfast Cymru project has been successful in delivering fibre broadband to many homes and businesses across Wales? The consequence of that improvement, of course, is that there's a sense of injustice that grows for those that are left behind, and the sense of injustice has been made worse, I think, by continued delays, poor communication and a lack of capacity that has left a significant minority of residents wondering whether they will ever get the upgrade that they have been repeatedly promised—or should I say 'scheduled'? I'm genuinely pleased, of course, leader of the house, that you have recognised this frustration in your statement and I'm encouraged that the new scheme will bind the winner of any given lot to set out which premises will be served. I think that's very much to be welcomed and I think that's a lesson learnt from the Superfast Cymru scheme.
As you would expect, I have a series of questions on the new scheme. Of the 88,000 premises included in the new scheme, how many were identified as part of the open market review and how many were previously in scope for an upgrade under the Superfast Cymru scheme? Last week, Openreach, in the committee session, suggested that they do have those details, so I would be grateful it you could provide detail in that regard, in writing if not today. In your statement, you also said that there will be three lots, but some telecoms experts suggest that too few lots may mean that little is gained by splitting them up in this way. So, do you recognise this view? And, if you are awarding a lot for the whole of rural Wales, how will you ensure that the mix of technologies is flexible enough for different areas that have unique requirements due to challenging topography?
An Ofcom-commissioned report into the cost modelling of universal broadband appeared to suggest that one needs to be extremely careful about how the mix of technologies are deployed in rural areas, saying that the cost of fibre to the premises if it is clustered is two thirds less than fixed wireless access, while the cost of FTTP if it is dispersed was around a fifth more than fixed wireless access. So, I would be interested in hearing about how you have considered this Ofcom report in designing the different lots to take into account that, so that public funds are, of course, spent effectively and reach as many people as possible.
You've also confirmed that the budget for this scheme will be £80 million, which is only around £900 per premises, and this seems to suggest a technology mix where fibre to the cabinet and wireless will be dominant, which is a major stumbling block, I'd suggest, for those residents with long lines in deep rural Wales, such as Powys and Ceredigion, for example. Therefore, can I ask how you will guard against the prospect of rolling out an inferior technology that fails to deliver for the deep rural locations? I'll give an example. If Openreach were to win a lot, it would surely be a step backwards if they were to decide to deploy more fibre to the cabinet to save costs, rather than pushing forward with fibre to the premises for the long-range VDSL technology, which has already been successfully trialled in the highlands of Scotland.
I'm assuming that the three lots for the new scheme are expected to be awarded later in the spring, so therefore the roll-out won't begin until later in the summer or the autumn, and this will be many months, of course, after the Superfast Cymru project has ended, leaving many thousands of premises in limbo in the meantime. So, can I ask why didn't you ensure that the scheme dovetailed with the Superfast Cymru scheme to avoid the inevitable delay that will now occur, and what will happen if you deem that none of the bids are acceptable for one or more of the lots, or if no company is interested in one or more of the lots?
And finally, you say in your statement that in some communities the infrastructure has been partially rolled out, and many of us have heard reports, of course, as you mentioned, of cables hanging from poles awaiting to be connected. What will happen to those part-built Superfast Cymru FTTP connections that simply ran out of time? Can you confirm that you will use the gainshare windfall to ensure that there is 100 per cent superfast footprint in these communities?
Thank you for that series of questions. We've considered at great length how we can solve some of the issues that Russell George rightly highlights, and we've gone for the series of lots in order to have very specific provision for specific types of community. That's why there's also a community lot in there, because we want to be able to ensure that we do get the right flexible technologies for different communities. And so, there's quite a bit of work to be done for some of the bespoke communities about how the best technology fix will work, what internet service providers might be attracted once the technology is in place, what the relationship between those ISPs and some of the big providers might be, and so on.
I'll give him a bit of an anecdotal example, because it illustrates the problem. Oftentimes, if I'm talking to somebody with very slow broadband—0.02 Mbps or some such—they tell me that they don't care about 30 Mbps; they'd be delighted to have 7 Mbps or whatever. They only want to upload their single farm payment, and so on. And therein lies the difficulty, because, first of all, we're talking about download speeds, but often people are talking about upload issues. There are real issues with what happens when you do get 7K and find you can't actually stream Sky and your teenage children can't do their homework, and all the rest of it. And we know from our business advisers that, actually, once people have their foot on that ladder, they're not suddenly satisfied with 7 Mbps; they want to climb that ladder. So, we need to ensure that we have a futureproof system in place that doesn't deliver shadow speeds of that sort. So, a mix will be absolutely essential.
You heard me detailing that we have listened to the whole issue around the scheduling and people falling in and out of scope, and so on. So, we now have a very specific map of identified premises. We've done a lot of work to make sure that we know where those premises are. There is a shadow on the map, which is where we've had some indication through the open market review from providers that they are themselves going to provide superfast or ultrafast in those areas. Russell George will acutely remember how we did it last time, and the fact that we had to then vary the contract for another 42,000 premises when those plans were revised. We've learnt that lesson and so we've structured it in a such a way that those shadow premises will come in or out of the contract when we see whether they're connected or not. So, in answer to your question about that, as it becomes absolutely clear whether there's a commercial roll-out or whether it's part of this extension or not, those people will come in and out of the various lots and we've deliberately flexed it so that we can do that so we don't have that problem.
The reason we've kept the voucher scheme in place, though, is because—I make no secret of this—£18 million, although it's a substantial sum of money and a big investment from the Government, isn't enough to get to all premises in Wales. There will be still some people who are inaccessible in one regard or another and we will therefore be expecting the voucher scheme to come into play where they pay a part-share of that and we continue to pay a part-share of that, to reach those really difficult premises. I'm completely upfront about that. The topography of Wales is such that it is just—that's just life.
I will say this, though: I'm always amazed by the number of individuals who write to me saying that they recently bought their house and now they're very upset about their broadband speeds. Deputy Presiding Officer, I will say this to the house sellers and purchasers of Wales: why not check first? If it's going to cost you £25,000 to get broadband, why not consider knocking that off the price of the house you're buying? Really, until we get some commercial reality into this, we can't be expected to just get state aid all the time. I completely accept that if you've been in your house for a long time and through no fault of your own, technology has changed and so on, but if you're buying a new house or you're buying new premises, for goodness' sake, why not check before you buy?
It may be that just people assume that we're part of the twenty-first century, so I'm not sure that I'm with the leader of the house there. Progress that has been made absolutely should be welcomed, and I do sense in the leader of the house's statement an acceptance, though, that there is a great feeling of anger and injustice among many individuals and many communities that I and other honourable Members represent. That's a tragedy in a way because this technology, which was meant to lead to the death of distance—actually, to lessen the disadvantage that rural communities face—has actually exacerbated it. It was not meant to be that way. That's what this statement has to be about addressing now. So, can I ask—I welcome, obviously, the rural delivery plan that she's suggested—has she considered, given the broken promises that unfortunately were a constant feature of Superfast Cymru, the introduction of penalty clauses in that contract should those kinds of promises be broken in future?
She mentioned Ceredigion and Powys, where certainly there is a lot more work to be done, but can I also ask her as well to put on the record that other areas of Wales—Carmarthenshire, my own constituency, has one of the lowest superfast connections of all of Wales—will also be covered?
She mentioned the—she said as well that we cannot promise that all premises in Wales will even be connected as a result of these interventions, so can she give us a figure—a percentage? Are we talking about 0.1 per cent or less than 0.1 per cent?
She mentioned the 2,500 properties that Openreach have promised to do further work on because of the appalling position where constituents—and I have and other Members have seen their coiled-up cables outside their doors sometimes and yet they can't get a connection—can she give us any information on where those 2,500 properties are going to be located, when will we know, and will she be able to influence the choice of where that further investment is made?
And finally, she mentioned there are three packages: rural delivery, ultrafast and business premises. Can I urge her, rather than doing rural at the end of the line this first time, could we have the ultrafast investment focused in areas, in post-industrial communities, in the northern Valleys and elsewhere in rural Wales, so that those areas actually are the test beds rather than that investment of the next wave always happening in urban areas that actually already have a better connection?
Well, the Member raises a number of really important points, but let me just set the record straight, Deputy Presiding Officer, just on that rural point. I represent the centre of Swansea. There is no Superfast Cymru there. This is a market intervention, so it is primarily a rural or very rural programme. The whole of the superfast first-phase programme was done off the back of an open-market review where we asked the commercial providers where they were going to go, and this is a state aid intervention. So, we are only able to go where the market told us they would not go. So, there is no Superfast Cymru at all in the centre of Cardiff, for example, or in the centre of Swansea or indeed in Wrexham or in large populous areas, because, as you can imagine, that's where the good commercial outlay is. That's where they get the best return for their commercially invested money and so on. So, this has always been a rural or semi-rural programme. So, we will continue to do that.
I wasn't trying to say that we'll have rural delivery or ultrafast. I was trying to say that we are concentrating on rural delivery business prioritisation and ultrafast. The Member made a very good point and I absolutely concur with him about it. There's absolutely no reason why rural communities should have to climb some sort of invisible ladder. There's no reason why they shouldn't leap from nothing to 100, and that will be what we will be looking to do. But I want to be completely honest with Members today and say that it will be very expensive indeed to get to some of the isolated premises in Wales, and it will not be possible with the £80 million that we have on the table. So, for us, it's always going to be a trade-off between getting to as many people as possible and making sure we have bespoke solutions for communities of people who are in a particular area that we can get to. That is always a difficult trade-off. It was for the first programme and it is for this one. That's why I've been touring Wales talking to communities—I'm very happy to come to any that you know of—about bespoke solutions for them so that we can get that out there.
But we are hampered in a number of ways as well. There is a difficulty about the way the UK Government continues to view broadband and spectrum as a cash cow for sale to the highest bidder—that is a big problem for public services in Wales—and also that they are still reluctant to regard it as utility. So, we start all of the problems of wayleaves and so on, because this is still regarded as a luxury, which it clearly is not any more. So, for example, there is no right to cross land. So, if you were getting an electricity supply, you would have the right to cross land. You would have to pay a good sum of money for the wayleave that was necessary, but you would be able to do it. We cannot. So, we have thousands of premises in Wales stuck behind wayleaves that we need to negotiate on a commercial basis, and that is a continuing difficulty. So, there are some ideological issues. Sorry to use that word—I know it can be emotive, but it is absolutely the case. I think this should be public infrastructure like roads, it's so essential. Unfortunately, the UK Government still regard it as a luxury product that people would have as an optional extra, and that is hampering the way that we roll it out.
We've tried, in structuring this new tender, to cover off some of the issues that people have raised with me as I've toured around Wales.
Minister, you were right to say that this is a key utility and we should acknowledge that without the direct market intervention of the Welsh Government thousands of my constituents would be now without broadband. But of course there remain the frustrations of those who are left behind. I had a lively public meeting on Friday night in the community of Bynea just outside Llanelli, where there is palpable frustration at the way they've been treated. You mentioned earlier that, when people are buying their homes, they should check first that they are going to be connected. People in Bynea did check, and they were told it would be connected. They have screenshots, they have e-mails from Openreach right up until the end of December with a date saying that this was going to be connected, only to be told that that is not now going to happen, with the maddening explanation for some of them that they've been connected to the Swansea exchange, not the Llanelli exchange, which was being enabled and which just defies all common sense.
I welcome the schemes that the Minister has set out. Can I ask her specifically if she could look at the case of my constituents in Bynea and work with me to see what can be done to help them, because I really do think they've been treated very shabbily indeed?
The Member makes some very valid points, and I've rehearsed in this Chamber many times the frustration of people who are left at the end of the superfast project. The connection was always scheduled, never promised, but, nevertheless, after something's been scheduled for a very long period of time it can feel very much like a promise. I'm not trying to get out of that on a semantic point, but it is a very important point the Member makes. I'm more than happy to either come with him to the community or to explore as a paper solution what can be done for a specific community there.
There are some issues around connections to which particular exchange, and if it's a fibre-to-the-cabinet connection via the copper networks then one of the difficulties has been that BT has not reconfigured its copper network in order to have the broadband roll-out, and that's one of the things we are also—. Many people have brought this up with me over the years and that is something we are trying to address in these next three lots. But there is a big issue about the UK Government's approach and Ofcom's approach to the BT copper network and what needs to be done to reconfigure that in order to facilitate some of the broadband connections as well. But I'm more than happy to come and talk to the community in question.
I welcome the statement and I'm happy to commend the leader of the house for the energy and commitment that she has brought to this part of her duties. I think it's fair to commend Ministers when they have been successful at what they're doing, and I appreciate the practical difficulties that she's had to grapple with. At the end of the day, no reasonable person could disagree with what she said about it. It may be practically impossible to connect every single house or premises in the country, regardless of cost, although we do accept that for other utilities like electricity connections and so on, and, indeed, the universal postal service, although that doesn't require the kind of infrastructure investment that this requires.
I agree with everything that she said and indeed everything that other Members have said in the course of this debate and I shan't repeat anything that's been said before. I'd just like to ask in respect of the delivery slippage timescales of which we've heard much.
One of the things that has been referred to, I think by Lee Waters, a moment ago, is the frustration of people who have been told one thing only to discover that the truth is another. I wonder if, in the future, there could be some obligation placed upon the suppliers or the providers of these services to publicise the precise actions and plans that they're putting in place to minimise time slippage and to have some kind of system—we can't entirely eradicate delays because nobody's totally in control of events in these circumstances, but we need to have some sort of system of better communication and more honest and transparent communication that, perhaps, could be organised from the centre more easily than simply waiting for the companies to act of their own accord. The broadband outreach team, for example, which she mentioned in the statement—could that be broadened to include the monitoring of delivery slippage and timescales, noting cases of particular problems and working with providers to expedite the resolution of difficulties?
Thank you for those important points. I will just address—. I didn't address, when I answered Adam Price, the 2,500 premises that are in this shadow area—apologies. So, I'll just do that, because Neil Hamilton raised a similar issue.
There are several groups of people who we're trying to deal with. There is the group of people who were being promised Superfast Cymru and then have gone over the edge of the contract. We've done an enormous piece of work with BT Openreach over the last few months to identify where those premises are and we've negotiated with them that those people will be connected, if they're 98 per cent—I'm not going to be held to the percentage—but very close to completion, and that will be done at no extra cost to us under the grant scheme of the contract. So, we've extended the deadline of the contract, but with no cost on that, so it's part of the original scheme, but with no cost on that. That's been negotiated specifically because of the frustration of people who can see it arriving and then it stops just before.
Another piece of work is being done to identify where infrastructure has been put into the ground—I hasten to say, at no cost to the public purse, because all of the upfront investment is done by Openreach BT; we only pay once it arrives at the premises—to identify where that is. I'm afraid it's called 'stranded resources'—you get very jargonistic when you deal with these people quite a lot. And to understand exactly where that is and what investment it might take to make something of the investment that's already there and that's an ongoing negotiation. Indeed, I know all kinds of jargon I didn't know before about this stuff.
And then there are some places where no build has occurred. You’ll have heard me say in this statement that I absolutely accept the points about comms that absolutely everybody has made. That's partly occurred because of the way we did the first contract, which was an all-Wales contract. We only specified the number of premises, I didn't specify where they should be, who they should be, or anything else, and in order to get to that number of premises, it was necessary for the contractors to overbuild, because if they were going to hit a problem halfway through and they couldn’t make it, they didn't want the very considerable penalties in the contract. So, they were overbuilding. So, what we're now doing is investigating where that overbuild is to see if we can capitalise on it. So, from the point of view of the public purse, it's a good thing, although I do not take away from the frustration of the people at the other end of some of that overbuilding and some of the comms.
In this new contract, we are asking them to specify the premises, so they will be telling us exactly where they're going and how, and then we will have timescales, and they will be monitored. As I've said, there's no way that slippage of delivery timescales can be eliminated, because it's a contract, and an engineering one, but, this time, we will know why, and that will be communicated properly to the householder. It may well be that, having said that we're going specifically to get to 32 Acacia Gardens somewhere, actually, it turns out to be impossible because who knows what engineering problems there might be along the way, but that will be communicated clearly, that premise will know exactly where they are, and we can refer them to the voucher schemes and all the rest of it.
I just also wanted to say, Deputy Presiding Officer, that we're not technology dependent here; we're very open to any technology that will get us to wherever we want to go.
Thank you very much. I will just now very gently remind the next set of speakers that it should be a very short statement before you ask your question. Paul Davies.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. It'll come as no surprise to the leader of the house that I, too, continue to receive representations from constituents regarding the lack of delivery when it comes to broadband services. I have whole villages in my constituency, like Mynachlog-ddu, for example, where some infrastructure has been upgraded, but not completed. I know that other Members have made reference to this today. I note from your statement that you intend to explore how you can support the completion of these infrastructure projects, so can you give my constituents, like the ones living in Mynachlog-ddu, reassurance that they will receive the broadband services they deserve? And what mechanisms will the Welsh Government be using to make sure that these services are actually being delivered on time or within acceptable timescales? Finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, could the leader of the house tell us what specific criteria will be used to determine the areas that will be targeted under this new successor scheme she's announced today, especially when she receives the latest data around the number of premises that have not been connected through Superfast Cymru?
Thank you for those important things. So, as I've said a number of times already, the structure of the new contracts will be very different to the structure of the old contract, so we will have defined premises. We're not, at this point, saying which premises, we're asking the market to tell us where they can get to with this money and how they can do it, and they are being asked to specify the premises that they can get to. When we get that back in, we'll be doing a contract evaluation to see what gives us the best value for money, what gets us to the most premises and so on. There will be some trade-off between very rural, isolated premises and villages, such as the one that you speak of and many other Assembly Members speak of as well. There are some villages where we have partial superfast, perhaps in the centre of a village, with scattered houses going out from a village in a classic geographical pattern that, if you did urban geography, you will have learnt about. There are some issues around how we get to some of the scattered communities, and that's when I'm talking about bespoke solutions for some of them, and that might be a range of things: it might be wireless; it might be closed LANs; it might be a number of things that we can investigate.
If the Member wants to write to me highlighting specific communities where there is a cluster problem of that sort, I'd really like to know that, so that we could be sure to take those into account. Deputy Presiding Officer, that's an offer I make to all Members in the Chamber—that we'd very much like to understand what that looks like.
We will be able to tell you whether you're in the 2,500 premises, because we've had those identified. So, again, if you want to ask me very specifically about any premises, then we'll be able to tell you back where that is. Obviously, I don't have all of that information with me today, but if you tell me a phone line or a postcode, then we can tell you that information back.
I welcome today’s statement from the Cabinet Secretary, and I look forward very much to corresponding with her regularly over the next months and years too, saying that I don’t consider her to be a stranded resource in any way whatsoever, and I’m grateful to her for responding to my correspondence.
If I could just ask the Cabinet Secretary very briefly about this £80 million that she’s mentioned that’s available: what’s the source of that funding? Are we still using European funding for that purpose, and are there assurances that that funding will be available throughout this period?
I welcome what you’ve had to say about the 2,500. I’m sure that many of the things that I’ve been corresponding with you on will come into that. When will we get some feedback, through a written statement or something similar, that that work has been completed, so it’s clear to us that we are moving on to the next phase?
Could I ask very briefly about businesses? A number of businesses, particularly in rural areas, only need 10 MB, or whatever they are. They are businesses, but they are not data transfer businesses; they just use broadband to run their businesses. When you have a data transfer businesses, well, yes, that business should invest in that itself, but I just want some clarity that the support available in this programme is sufficient for those SMEs that exist in rural Wales, because far too often they’re told by BT, 'You have to pay for yourself', whereas I feel, as I’m sure you do, that public infrastructure is for businesses going about their daily business. I’m not talking about data transfer businesses, as such, here.
On that final point on public infrastructure, you have mentioned Ofcom yourself. I’m of the view that Ofcom should actually set a certain speed as a right for all where that’s entirely practical. Clearly, they haven’t done that, for political reasons. Are you having any discussions with Ofcom on this, and does the Welsh Government have a view on changing our approach into a statutory approach providing statutory access to broadband?
Yes. Simon Thomas raises a number of very pertinent issues. I will update the Senedd as soon as I have the figures on the outturn, which, as I say, will be about 16 weeks from the end of the contract. As soon as I have them, I will of course update Members with those. That update will include numbers of premises connected in each constituency, and also the uptake figures.
I just wanted to use this opportunity to talk a little bit about the uptake figures, because Simon Thomas specifically asked what the £80 million is, and he's absolutely right: it's a mixture of European funding, a small amount of UK Government funding, and Welsh Government funding. It's also got the gain share funding in there, and I'll just remind Members that as soon as we go over 21 per cent uptake on any one resource, we start to get a gain share, and that gain share goes off into the future. So, the more people that get connected the more money we have, and I cannot emphasise enough that for those of you in low-uptake areas—and I will be contacting Assembly Members individually to talk about what can be done—we need to get that uptake taken up, because obviously, the more money we have, the more I can spend on getting to more premises. But the European funding is secure for this stage of the project; we're not worried about that. We're spending it as fast as we can go, and we have the gain share to make the money up, alongside others.
In terms of Ofcom and the UK Government, we've had many conversations with them about the right to this service. We have not been able to win the argument about this being infrastructure as yet, but I have not given up. I am currently engaged in a conversation about 5G spectrum sales and how that might be done. There are clear issues there for automation and autonomous vehicles and all sorts of stuff. I don't want my Vodafone signal to go out in mid Wales driving my autonomous car, and neither does anybody else. So, there are some real issues there to be considered, and we are still in very active engagement with the UK Government. We also have to negotiate all of this with BT UK, because this is all done under state aid exemptions from the European Union, so it's quite a complex process to negotiate, but we have done it.
In terms of the businesses, there is a bespoke business exploitation fund. We're very happy to come out to any business—it doesn't matter how tiny—and talk to them about their needs. It is surprising how little some of them understand about what will come when superfast comes, and sometimes it is just really obvious that they need an ethernet connection, and we can help them with a voucher system to do just that, or indeed if they need superfast, we can be sure to have them registered on our radar. So, it's worth pointing them out.
I'm not going to repeat everything said, but I do welcome the progress, and I'm even old enough to remember the dial-up system in the 1990s. But we did have Openreach at committee stage last week, and I raised the issue about what constitutes a business model for them in terms of new properties. The answer I got was 30 properties. We all know that in rural areas, that in itself is now going to be the problem of the future. So, to that end, I want to ask the Cabinet Secretary what conversations you're having with planning authorities, when they're giving planning permission for new builds, and at what point—and I asked this of Openroach—they're looking ahead in terms of new developments, so that we can already track progress in this when it comes to new builds. Because it has to be treated like any other utility is treated, and I look forward to that. The reason I ask that is because, in the rural areas where we have a minimum of 30 properties being considered as investment by Openreach, there is a risk of further depopulation of those communities that are already being depopulated because of access to services.
The Member makes an extremely important point. I've had a range of conversations already, both with the Cabinet Secretary for public services and with my colleague the Minister for Housing and Regeneration about what we can do. Certainly, a large number of house builders in Wales routinely put up less than 30 properties, but there is a range of things that can already be done: it can be included in a section 106 agreement when the council adopts the roads, for example. It's much easier to put the infrastructure in in the first place than it is to retrofit it.
We've done some stuff. I did some work on this with the late Carl Sargeant, actually, about building regulations and what can be done inside a house to facilitate some of this. One of the ironies of this is that our new insulation standards and so on mean that we create, effectively, a Faraday cage quite frequently, and so signal doesn't pass through it. So, if you're using a mobile phone inside your house, you'll be very frustrated unless it's been wired in a particular way. So, there are some big things around building regulations to make sure that we actually enforce some of the standards. That work is ongoing.
Also, my colleague Lesley Griffiths has a piece of work with planning colleagues—there's a piece of research, which we're due to receive any minute now, about mobile, and some of that also includes what we're doing for broadband infrastructure in some of our more rural communities to make sure that new-build houses are connected. But I'll also make the point I made before: if it affects the house prices that small builders can get for them, then they will take notice of that because it affects their bottom line. So, if, when you buy your new-build house in wherever, you find that's going to cost you £10,000 as part of our ultrafast connectivity scheme to connect your small business that you plan to run from your garage, then you're going to be very cross. So, I enjoin people to ask that question first and then price the house accordingly.
Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I share the concerns about the ability of the planning process to actually deal with some of these issues for new housing estates, but in addition to that, of course, we need to look at our permitted development rights, so that people who might need a mobile solution to their broadband needs can also get one. I think we need to be forcing operators to share masts, and in addition to that we need to raise the potential heights of masts that can go ahead without permitted development rights here in Wales, which are obviously much lower than they are in other parts of the UK at the moment. So, I do think there are some things that can be done on that front.
One other opportunity, as well, Minister, that you haven't referred to is the ability to reap some benefits from the public sector broadband aggregation scheme. I've got schools in some of my communities with fantastic broadband speeds, and none of the properties around them can benefit from those speeds because they're not allowed to connect somehow to the cabling that's managed to get the fantastic speeds into the schools. It's absolutely ludicrous. So, we need to be able to overcome some of these challenges, so that where there are high speeds being piped into some of these communities that are getting very poor speeds from the BT Openreach network, there are opportunities to connect.
I've got the misfortune, Minister, as you will know, of having a community with the lowest access to speeds of over 10 megabits per second in my own constituency, in rural Denbighshire, in Llanbedr Dyffryn Clwyd, where just 6 per cent of the households there are able to access a decent broadband speed, whilst 90-odd per cent are able to access a better one elsewhere. I've appreciated your interest in my own constituency. One thing that concerns me, though, about your statement is it would appear to me that you've extended BT's contract for works that were already scheduled but they didn't complete. Are BT Openreach going to face a penalty for failing to complete the work that they promised to complete by 31 December? Because that's not clear from your statement.
The other thing that concerns me is that you're making this statement now, but we knew what the end date of the contract was going to be. It was going to be 31 December last year. Why on earth didn't you make a statement before 31 December to allow people to put together possible bids, to think about these things so that we don't have this long waiting period now while we're waiting for other potential suppliers to come forward with ideas? I think it is disappointing that you haven't brought something forward sooner than today.