|1. Questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs|
|2. Questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|3. Topical Questions|
|4. 90-second Statements|
|5. Debate on the 'Wales' future relationship with the Committee of the Regions' Report|
|6. Debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee Report: 'Everybody's Business: A Report on Suicide Prevention in Wales'|
|7. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Active Travel|
|8. Welsh Conservatives Debate: School Funding|
|9. Voting Time|
|10. Short Debate: Housing our Heroes: Are we meeting the housing needs of our veterans?|
|Motion to elect a Member to a committee|
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 Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, and the first question is from Jack Sargeant.
1. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Economy and Transport on the impact of environmentally friendly transport on pollution levels? OAQ53454
Thank you. I have regular discussions with the Minister for Economy and Transport about sustainable action required to reduce emissions from transport, for example through work on our Welsh plan to tackle roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, and the decarbonisation ministerial task and finish group, which I chair and of which the Minister is also a member.
Thank you, Minister, for that, and I welcome this opportunity to ask my first question to you in this Chamber. I'm sure the Minister will agree with me that plastic pollution levels are an issue globally, but Wales has an opportunity to lead from the front. Sometimes, we also need to look elsewhere as to how we think differently about transport. In Surabaya, Indonesia's second largest city, decision makers have come up with a different way to encourage residents to recycle waste, giving free bus rides in exchange for used plastic bottles. Under a scheme launched by Surabaya in April, communities can ride red city buses by dropping off plastic bottles at terminals or directly paying for a fare with bottles. Llywydd, a two-hour bus ticket costs 10 plastic cups, or up to five plastic bottles, depending on their size. The city hopes to meet their ambitious target of becoming a plastic-free city by 2020.
Alongside the Government investing in the future of technology and green transportation, will the Minister also discuss with the Minister for economy, as well as local government leaders, how we might be able to replicate a similar system in pilot areas here, which falls in line with our future generations Act?
Thank you. It's certainly a very interesting initiative. We had a lively conversation with officials this morning when we were going through the oral questions, and I'll certainly discuss it with my colleague Ken Skates. I think it's also important to discuss it with the Deputy Minister for Local Government and Housing, Hannah Blythyn, who obviously leads on that part of the portfolio, but also local government leaders as well.
The Member will be aware that Hannah Blythyn also announced a consultation on the merits of a deposit-return scheme for drink containers earlier this week, and the UK Government are consulting at the same time, but, clearly, plastic is an area where we've done well with our recycling. We have very high recycling rates of plastic, so we want to avoid unintended consequences.
As we heard at the recent cross-party group on transport, chaired by Russell George, it's buses and heavy goods vehicles that contribute primarily to the diesel pollution. And while lorries get replaced fairly frequently, buses don't. Previously, Welsh Government gave Swansea Council quite a lot of money towards the Nowcaster system—I haven't mentioned it for a while, so I thought it deserved a bit of an airing—and as far as we can tell—somebody may contradict me here—it has not been used to redirect traffic at any point. So, it's, as far as I'm concerned, a failed system. Would Welsh Government consider putting money into helping councils upgrade their public transport, if you like, making that more anti-pollution, rather than investing in these monitors that don't seem to have made any difference?
It's certainly something I'd be very happy to discuss with my colleague Ken Skates.
Minister, you mentioned the level of nitrogen dioxide, and you'll be aware of the study being undertaken by Professor Paul Lewis at Swansea University in this regard—figures showing 81 out of 916 places exceeding safe limits, including eight in Carmarthenshire, and one example being the Felinfoel road in Llanelli. What evaluation are you and your officials making of moves like the 50 mph limits on certain trunk roads and parts of the M4 since they were introduced? Are we yet able to see what difference those are making?
What recent discussions have you had with local authorities to improve the monitoring of pollution levels, because you will be aware that there are communities that are concerned that they've got levels that they feel may be dangerous but the monitoring just isn't there. And have you given any further consideration to the need for a new clean air Act for Wales?
Thank you. In relation to the five areas that we've got across Wales that relate to the reduced 50 mph speed limit, this is obviously an area that Ken Skates leads on, but I do have one in my own constituency and I know that they are being monitored very closely, but I don't know if any figures have been brought forward as yet. The speed restrictions have been identified as the only measure that will achieve compliance with nitrogen dioxide limit values in the soonest possible time. I think we need to get the message out a bit better. Certainly, the one in Wrexham, people don't understand why we had the 50 mph there, why it wasn't being enforced, was it for safety, was it for emissions. So, I think it's really important that we have signage, and that's something that I've been discussing with my officials.
You asked about a clean air Act, and, again, that was something that was in the new First Minister's manifesto that I am looking to deliver on as we take forward this term, looking at what we can do within the legislative programme we have.
2. How is the Welsh Government's landfill disposals tax community scheme benefiting communities in south-east Wales? OAQ53444
Thank you. Twenty-seven of the 71 applications received under the landfill disposals tax community scheme were successful in the first funding window, administered by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action. Eight of these projects will be delivered within south-east Wales, investing £257,490 in projects that enhance the environment, biodiversity, and minimising waste.
Thank you. I welcome the news announced last month that a total of 27 projects across Wales will receive grant awards in the first round of funding, raised by the Welsh Government's landfill disposals tax community scheme. Minister, this highly innovative scheme was established by the Welsh Government to support local community and environmental projects in areas affected by disposals to landfill, and funded by the new Welsh landfill disposals tax, which replaced UK landfill tax in April 2018. So, Minister, are you able to state how many applications for funding were received from projects in Islwyn during the first two rounds of funding? And can you indicate further what actions the Welsh Government are taking to ensure that Islwyn benefits from this rewarding scheme?
Thank you. I mentioned in my original answer that the WCVA hold the contract and the responsibility for the management and distribution of fundings. There were a number of applications received from the surrounding area, but only one application was received from within your own constituency of Islwyn in round 1. Unfortunately, that was unsuccessful. One application from Islwyn has also been submitted in round 2, and that's currently being taken through the assessment process. I am continuing to encourage the WCVA, as the delivery organisation, to provide eligible applicants equal opportunities to apply to the scheme. I think—the early discussions I've had with the WCVA—there has been a very high level of demand for the scheme, and they've confirmed that the applications are of a very high standard.
You've started something now, Minister. I don't know whether you've got any figures in that file relating to my constituency as well—probably other Assembly Members will ask the same. If you don't have any figures, either now or later, if you could contact me regarding the uptake of the scheme in my area, that would be much appreciated. In terms of the community scheme and the benefits overall, it's clearly a good idea to have this, and the Welsh Government's gone down the right route following the devolution of landfill disposals tax. Could you tell us what you're doing to raise awareness of the scheme across Wales in communities? Because it strikes me there's probably very little knowledge out there about the landfill disposals tax itself, and maybe there would be more applications forthcoming if there was a greater awareness. So, if you could tell us a little bit more about that, that would be very helpful.
Just looking through my list, it doesn't appear there are any successful applications from Monmouth; I don't know if there were any that were unsuccessful, but I'd certainly be happy to look into that and write to the Member.FootnoteLink As I said in my answer to Rhianon Passmore, the WCVA run the scheme for us. They promote it, they publicise it, they use a range of mechanisms—I know they do specific events, they have newsletters, they use social media. And, again, there's been a very high level of demand for the scheme. So, I think they are promoting it in a way that's been very successful, but of course we can always do more, and I will certainly encourage that.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, we're a matter of weeks now away from leaving the European Union. As things stand, it seems that we may leave without an agreement or a transition deal even. This, of course, places a clear threat to the environment in Wales, and to our rights as citizens. Because, to date, we haven't seen any Welsh Government proposals on the environmental governance structures that will exist in Wales post Brexit. Now, you promised a consultation back in the summer of last year, then in the autumn, then in the new year, and we're now approaching the end of February and we're still waiting, and, of course, the Brexit clock is still ticking. That lack of progress is scandalous, if I may say so, and, of course, it could be disastrous to the environment here in Wales. Will you, therefore, confirm to this Senedd when we will see that long awaited consultation on environmental governance? And when will the Government, at last, outline your intention in terms of legislation? And how will you introduce emergency measures in a 'no deal' Brexit scenario?
Well, I'm very interested in the use of the word 'scandalous' and 'leaked letter' might come to mind, having looked at your website this morning—Plaid Cymru's, not the Member himself. I don't think it's scandalous. We've done a huge amount of work. You're quite right about a 'no deal' Brexit. I take that threat very, very seriously, and I will be bringing forward the consultation. You've got to appreciate our environmental gap is very, very different to any other part of the UK because of the legislation that we've already had in place, but I will be bringing a consultation forward next month.
Well, I have to appreciate some things, but I think you need to appreciate as well that you've had well over two years to get ready for this, and now we've got 37 or so days left until we leave the European Union, until our environment is exposed to all of these threats that many of us are concerned about. Our current environmental governance structures through the EU provide a free and accessible mechanism for every citizen to pursue potential environmental infringements by their governments or public authorities. There's nothing even close to the scope and power of the EU Commission and the Court of Justice of the European Union in this area that currently operates here in Wales. So, the question is: where do we turn after Brexit?
I was concerned to see you recently implying in a letter to the environment committee that the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales provided mitigation for these complaints. Our existing European structures also, of course, monitor compliance, and they can fine, they can instruct remedial action where infringements are identified. The ombudsman doesn't do that. Given this significant gap, and given the possibility that from the end of next month people in Wales will be stripped of their rights to challenge Government in these ways, how will you ensure that the rights of Welsh citizens, the protection of the Welsh environment won't be diminished after Brexit? And when will we see an equivalent monitoring and enforcement structure created, which has the power to monitor compliance, to receive complaints and to require the Welsh Government and public authorities to take remedial action and to do all of that, of course, from a wholly independent standpoint?
So, I want to ensure our response to addressing the gaps in the functions that are undertaken by the EU Commission currently. And you are right—there will be gaps but, as I say, they will be much, much smaller than in other parts of the UK. But I want to make sure that it not only helps to maintain and enhance our environment, but it's one that's consistent with the devolution settlement and it complements our existing accountability mechanisms. The public services ombudsman is one of them, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales is another one, the Assembly itself is another one.
I'm also having ongoing discussions with the UK Government on its proposals. They are publishing their draft provisions sometime towards the end of this year. Again, those draft provisions are required by the withdrawal Act, and that includes sustainable development as a principle. But I've made it abundantly clear that I don't want to see any diminution of sustainable development or of our environmental standards here in Wales.
But why is it taking so long? I say again, you've had over two years to ready yourself for this. It seems to be tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow. Maybe we should call you the 'maniana Minister', because where is the finishing line on this? Well, I'll tell you where it is: it's in 37 days time when we leave, potentially, the European Union, and without these arrangements in place our environment will be exposed to all kinds of threats and our citizens will have their rights in that respect diminished.
Now, the current environmental principles and associated rights, of course, apply to all public authorities and all Government decision making. But, without action, that will not be the case after we've left the European Union, even in areas where the Welsh Government has previously legislated for some principles, albeit in a much narrower and now, I believe, wholly inadequate scope within, for example, the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. They've moved in England to legislate for nine principles and rights in their principles and governance Bill. All we have in Wales, with days until Brexit, is a blank piece of paper. There are no excuses for this, Minister. You've had plenty of time to get ready for this eventuality. So, how will you ensure that there's no regression in the scope of how these environmental principles and rights apply from the very moment at which we no longer fall under the remit of existing EU structures?
As I said in my earlier answer, I'll be going out to consultation next month. You say we've had two years, but you have to appreciate the level of work that Brexit has brought to the Government. The 'no deal' scenario I am taking very, very seriously, I think, as the days tick by—you're quite right. We will be going out to consultation. I've been working very closely with stakeholders since the referendum around this, but I don't want to pre-empt any consultation. But I do state again: we do have legislation in place in a way that other parts of the UK don't.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. It is good to hear from the Plaid Cymru benches that the Conservatives in Westminster are taking action on the environment and I hope that the Minister will listen to the complaints this morning about the delay in her putting her own proposals forward.
But, in talking about delays, I really do want to ask the Cabinet Secretary if she could indicate when she will actually be making a decision on the environmental impact assessment that she was minded to, or her deputy was minded to, instruct on, regarding the Barry biomass boiler, because this now has been going on for over 12 months. The 14 February last year was when the Deputy Minister said that the Government was minded to instruct that an EIA be undertaken by the developer. When we talk about action not being taken and when people in a community listen to those statements, they expect action. We are now over 12 months on, and no action. So in that folder, I very much hope that you can give me a definitive date as to when you will be telling us that that environmental impact assessment will or will not be required.
I'm afraid I don't have it in my folder because that decision is still being taken by Hannah Blythyn.
You must agree, Minister, that that is completely unacceptable, 12 months on from when it was first announced that the Government was minded to instruct the developer to undertake an environmental impact assessment. We're 4 months on from when the then First Minister sent me a letter indicating that a decision would be taken by the end of November last year. Residents and Members of this institution are still waiting. How much longer do we have to wait? What pressure then will you bring to bear on Hannah Blythyn in her new role, who's obviously taken this responsibility with her, because I was of the opinion that it still resided with you, but clearly that's not the case. So, what pressure will you be bringing to bear to get that decision made? You were quick enough to make a decision on the Hendy windfarm in mid Wales. Let's have a decision on the Barry biomass boiler.
As I say, the decision is going to be with Hannah Blythyn. I'm sure she'll be in the Chamber, because I think she's answering the next set of questions. So, if the Member has the opportunity, he can ask her himself. But certainly, I will speak to her and ask her to write to you.
That seems to be the reply I get time and time again on many issues that I put before the Minister: 'I will write to you' or 'We will make a decision in the fullness of time' or 'in due course'. What is the fullness of time? Nearly 13 months on now on this particular issue.
If you look at the department in particular, the 'Brexit and our land' consultation has moved on now into the summer before the Government responds to that; the WWF and other environmental organisations have highlighted their concerns about delays in the department; and, in particular, developing the agri Bill, which we're not sure will or will not be coming before us and the timing of that Bill. I think the Minister has indicated that it most probably won't be in action by the time this Assembly breaks up in 2021. It seems to be a constant delay and pushing back.
We need proactivity from the Minister and her department in developing these solutions here in Wales. That's what devolution was all about. When residents in Barry and other parts of Wales look at this inaction, they really do question what decisions have been taken in their name. What confidence can you give that your department is up to speed, is on top of its brief and is able to deliver on the various initiatives that I've highlighted to you today, because on the evidence that I've highlighted, when it comes to making what I would suggest is a relatively simple decision, albeit with legal constraints and legal considerations, you cannot even make that decision?
I go back: the question the Member asked me is about a decision not being taken in my department, so I can't answer that question. As I say—[Interruption.] You asked me a question about when a decision was going to be taken. I cannot answer that question; it is not in my department.
So, you ask me what confidence I've got in my department. I've got a great deal of confidence in my department. But I have to say, Brexit, which so many members of your group supported, has added a level of work that you cannot begin to imagine. I've had 45 new officials. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs alone has had 1,300 new officials. The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has had 700 new officials, just to help with Brexit. So, I have great confidence in my officials who are working flat out to make sure we've got an agricultural Bill.
'Brexit and our land' consultation came forward last year. I had hoped to bring the White Paper forward in the spring; I've now said the summer because I want to ensure that we analyse the responses we've had in a thorough way. There were some very, very good thought-provoking ideas coming forward. We need to give them due consideration, and I think it's better not to rush this. I have said, as has the First Minister, that I will bring an agricultural Bill forward in this term. It's got to fit in with the legislative programme, it has to fit in—it's obviously a whole-Cabinet decision, but both I and the First Minister have said that we'll bring an agricultural Bill forward this term.
In the interim, I have made sure that we've taken temporary powers through the UK Government Agriculture Bill to make sure that we can pay farmers, for instance. You too mentioned the letter from WWF—it's not just Plaid Cymru that had it. Frankly, I was quite surprised at that letter because, again, they know how our Environment (Wales) Act 2016 and how the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 have embedded sustainable development in everything that we do in the Welsh Government in a way that other Governments haven't.
Diolch, Llywydd. Has the Minister seen the panicked letter that was written by the major European agricultural food and drink organisations to Michel Barnier on 6 February? It says:
'on behalf of the entire EU agri-food chain'—
I'm reading from the letter itself, pointing out that
'In 2017, EU-27 agri-food exports to the UK amounted to €41 billion',
whilst the UK sells only €17 billion in return. So, there's a massive deficit in food and drink between Britain and the EU, which opens up a very substantial opportunity for British producers if there is indeed no deal on 29 March. Does she welcome at last the dawning realisation on the part of European producers that, if there is no deal, this is going to hurt them far more than it'll hurt us?
Well, in that case then she's flying from reality because that is the view of the people in Europe who are most concerned about the impact of this.
But let's look at this in a positive light. There is going to be a massive opportunity for British farmers and food producers generally after 29 March, if there's no deal. Just let's look at the figures. In beef, let's take beef: we export £450 million-worth of beef; we actually import £1.3 billion-worth of beef. So, we actually export only one third of what we import. Lamb: it's broadly based. We import as much as we export and the imports come mostly from New Zealand, but New Zealand is increasingly interested in exporting to other parts of the world, like China and the far east and, actually, sales from New Zealand to Europe are falling and they don't use anything like their quota anyway. Pig meat: we export £470 million-worth a year; we actually import £1.1 billion-worth year. So, there's a massive opportunity there for people who are in the pig meat production area. Dairying—[Interruption.] Cats, the Member for Ynys Môn thinks we should be concentrating on. I think we should take this seriously as an issue and not try to make a joke out of it. In dairy products again there's an opportunity. Eighty-two per cent of the milk that Ireland exports comes to the United Kingdom, as does 49 per cent of their beef. I'd like to know what the Minister is doing to promote Welsh produce within the United Kingdom to take up the opportunities that will open up after 29 March if there's no deal.
Llywydd, the Member says I'm flying in the face of reality. You, Neil Hamilton, were at the meeting of the council of National Farmers Union Cymru, I think it was last month, where you heard the president John Davies saying that a 'no deal' exit would be absolutely catastrophic for the agricultural sector and for farmers, on the day that Theresa May apparently said that she thought—I think the phrase was something like 'Welsh farmers would welcome a "no deal" Brexit.' You heard what John Davies said that night, so if I'm flying in the face of reality, I really don't know what you are. A 'no deal' would be absolutely catastrophic for farming, for farming families and for our communities in Wales, and I'm getting more and more fearful that that is the way we are going to leave the EU.
On a positive way, you ask what we're doing to promote Welsh food and drink in the UK. You may be aware that we have an event on a biannual basis, and we are due to have it next month at the Celtic Manor—Blas Cymru—and there we will have over 100 producers and we will welcome about 150 buyers, many of them international, but many from across the UK.
Well, I'm very pleased to hear that, and this is the sort of positive talk that we want to hear across the Chamber, but the reality is that, whether there is a deal or no deal is not actually in our hands but we have to prepare for the consequences if there is one. And what I say is that there are massive opportunities as well as, obviously, the difficulties that that would pose for producers. But, there are markets that are rapidly expanding in other parts of the world, unlike Europe, which is a stagnating—and, indeed, declining—economy, as most of the continent will be in recession in a very short time.
In the middle east we've been very successful recently in expanding our markets. In 2013-14, we were selling only about £3 million-worth a year of food to the middle east. The latest figure that I've got is for 2017, and it was 10 times that—£33 million. So, clearly there are opportunities there that can be taken advantage of. China is a massive market, of course. It'll soon be one of the largest markets in the world. New Zealand is selling more and more to China. Exports of New Zealand produce to the UK in 2017 were only £340 million. They are now exporting more than three times that amount to China, and rapidly increasing that every year. So, what are we able to do to capitalise upon being able to sell to markets in other parts of the world, like China and, indeed, India, which expanded at a rate of 8 per cent last year, to take advantage of these opportunities for Welsh producers?
The Member may be aware that the Welsh Government supported an enhanced export programme with Hybu Cig Cymru. So, for instance, Japan have obviously recently opened their market to Welsh lamb, so I know HCC are working there. We support trade missions to places like Japan and India. So, I'm ensuring that that work is progressing. I think that work was being done before we had the referendum to leave the EU. I think we were always looking for new markets. I was out in Gulfood in Dubai a couple of years ago, where, again, most supermarkets that you went to had Welsh lamb on the shelves. So, I think this work has been ongoing for many years.
3. What action will the Minister take to further promote Welsh food and drink produce in 2019? OAQ53434
Thank you. A significant amount of work is undertaken to promote Welsh food and drink. One example is the biannual Taste Wales event, which is taking place again next month at the Celtic Manor resort. There will be over 100 Welsh food producers who will meet over 150 buyers, a third of whom are international.
Thank you very much for that answer, Minister. A YouGov survey of consumers carried out for NFU Cymru found that Brexit could help drive sales in Welsh produce once the UK leaves the European Union. A quarter of respondents said that buying Welsh produce will be more important to them post Brexit, while an additional 31 per cent said that buying Welsh produce is important to them now and will remain so. Minister, what discussion have you had with regard to food labelling to ensure that Welsh farmers and producers can take full advantage of the potential benefits indicated in this consumer survey?
I think that food labelling is very important, and it's part of ongoing discussions, particularly post Brexit. I think that people are far more interested in where their food and drink comes from than they were probably just a couple of decades ago. I think that having the dragon on our food, showing that it was made in Wales, is very important, and people really recognise that. If I can just say: just yesterday, another food—actually, the first fruit—gained protected food name status from Europe, and that was the Vale of Clwyd Denbigh plum. It was great to welcome them into an ever-growing family. I think that's 16 food and drink products and, as I say, it's the first fruit.
The food and drink industry in Wales issued a report last summer saying that UK consumers wanted to see more Welsh produce. That was at the same time as, of course, Welsh produce was rebranded as British produce at the Royal Welsh Show last year. Can the Minister update us on what the Government has been doing since then to try to stop this rebranding of Wales by the British state?
So, the Member is referring to a commercial decision that was taken by the Royal Welsh Show to allow the UK Government to sponsor the outside of the food hall. That will not be happening again this year; I can assure you of that. Those discussions are ongoing about Welsh produce being labelled in that way. Certainly, I think that the majority of companies that I work with do feel it's a massive advantage. They feel it's very easy to sell Welsh food and drink with that branding on it.
4. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with stakeholders with regard to reducing pollution in Port Talbot? OAQ53462
Thank you. The Welsh Government has a good working relationship, with Ministers and officials meeting regularly with stakeholders in Port Talbot. This includes Tata Steel, local authorities and Natural Resources Wales. Our discussions focus around air quality management in the area, action to reduce air pollution, and communications with the local community.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, and, obviously, there are two main areas of the pollution that we've been concerned about. One is vehicle emissions, which I will raise with the Minister for Economy and Transport, because it's under his remit at this moment in time. The other one is, obviously, industrial emissions. As you've highlighted there, you have discussions with Tata, and I want to raise the issue of pollution from Tata. We all understand the importance of Tata to the economy of the town and the area, but at the same time it needs to be a responsible neighbour to the residents of my constituency. What discussions will you have with Tata to ensure that the emissions and the pollution that we are seeing—? And residents complain to me every day that they wash their car, they get up in the morning, and their cars are full of red dust or black dust, their houses, their gardens, the window sills, the patio sets—everything is continually being polluted. What discussions are you having with Tata to look at how they can actually reduce that for my constituents, because, whilst it's not deemed to be the worst of the pollutants, because the PM10s and the PM2.5s are, people are still breathing in this dust, they are still living in this dust, they're carrying this dust throughout their houses, and we need to do something to ensure that it actually is reduced?
Thank you. As I say, officials are having ongoing discussions with Tata Steel. I know there are plans for myself and Ken Skates to do a joint visit to have further discussions with Tata Steel. You'll be aware of the intense monitoring that goes on in that area, and I know that so far this year there's only been one single exceedance of the daily limit of particulate matter, which is PM10, across all the monitoring sites but, of course, one is one too many and we are closely monitoring it.
Swansea University, along with the universities of Warwick and Sheffield, are collaborating on this new SUSTAIN project, which will use £35 million of investment to reduce emissions from the steelmaking process and increase productivity and jobs, which I think is a very welcome collaboration, something that can reduce pollution for Tata Steel, which I hope will also, when they're building their new power station, if that comes into being, be very conscious of reducing pollution with that power station as well. If the SUSTAIN project does make the progress that's expected, what direct support do you think Welsh Government could consider giving it, particularly once or if the state-aid rules change after we leave the European Union?
I'm unsure of what support we would be able to give, but I'd be very happy to look into that and write to the Member.
Now, increasing the use of electric vehicles, both private and public, is a clear way to reduce air pollution levels—pun intended—such as in Port Talbot, but the Welsh Local Government Association has been critical of progress, or rather lack of progress, on this agenda, stating that there's a lack of national direction and there has not been a concerted effort by Welsh Government to work with local authorities on this agenda. Do you accept that there's been a lack of progress on this and that, until you provide that national direction, Port Talbot and other areas of Wales will continue to suffer air quality issues?
Well, I think we certainly have shown leadership in relation to electric vehicles. I know we gave—I think it was about £2 million we gave in funding, I thought to all local authorities, but my colleague Ken Skates does lead on this. But, from my memory, I think it was about £2 million that we gave to local authorities to kick start, if you like, some progress in relation to this area. But, of course, we do need to do more and, clearly, we need—. I've certainly had discussions with the National Grid, for instance, to make sure that such a route of electric vehicle charging points would be able to be sustained by the current capacity that we have within the grid.
Minister, it's not just air pollution that we have to worry about in Port Talbot and my wider region. Other pollutants are also having an impact. A recent review in the journal of Biological Conservation highlighted the impact pesticides were having on invertebrate species. As the species champion for the fen raft spider, whose habitat is in the shadow of the steelworks, one of only three in the UK, I am concerned about the impact pesticides will have, threatening this native species with extinction. Minister, what action will your Government take to protect the fen raft spider and other insects from pesticides and other pollutants?
It's very important that we protect all insects, as you say, and, certainly, we have guidelines for pesticide use, and I know farmers are very careful in what pesticides they use, and we work very closely with them to ensure they have up-to-date information on pesticides that can be used.
5. What discussions has the Welsh Government had about licensing of performing animals? OAQ53450
Thank you. I issued a written statement on 31 January summarising the outcome of a series of workshops held with stakeholders to discuss mobile animal exhibits last year. My officials have been in correspondence with DEFRA to discuss cross-border issues regarding the English licensing of animal activities legislation.
Thank you for your answer, Minister, and thank you for your letter that you sent to me recently on an issue raised by my constituent who at the moment faces needing to pay not only for her own Welsh licence, which she's perfectly happy to do, but also an additional £800 if she's going to be able to take her business into England, which she does on a regular basis. Now, she—and many other people who work in this field—is a sole trader, with very low turnover, and, if she has to meet this additional £800 on an ongoing basis, her business will cease to be viable.
I'm pleased to hear you say that you are having discussions with Michael Gove about this issue, because it's a small issue in the great big post-Brexit picture, but to my constituent, and to others who work in that field, it's a very serious one. What assurances can you give us? It is too late now to resolve this by the 1 April deadline, I imagine, for this year, but what assurances can you give my constituent that, by next year, we will have some sort of cross-border arrangements in place, and that she will not have to pay twice to licence her business?
Well, officials are still—. I'm aware of the correspondence that we exchanged, and my officials are certainly continuing to have those discussions with counterparts—not actually just the UK Government, but, obviously, Scotland, because, obviously, these businesses, as you say, are transient in nature. So, I can't give you a date as to when those discussions will come to a conclusion, but I do hope that it won't take a year to do so. But, you're quite right, I don't think we'll have it in place by 1 April this year.
Minister, I think this area of public policy deserves a lot of attention and needs to be speeded up. Your first written answer, I think, or written statement, was in December 2016, so, it's well over two years ago that that was made. The public are demanding some action here, because it's not just circus animals. We've all been to agricultural shows and seen the birds of prey there, and, at Christmas, you often see reindeer out on the streets in some mobile displays. And I think we need clarity, and, those that are using animals, if they can do it humanely, and without those animals suffering any loss of dignity, then it may be appropriate. But we do need to come to a conclusion on this and state what our policy aims are for regulation.
I think you're right about public interest. I think, in some ways, there's more public interest in mobile animal exhibits than in circuses, because we don't have any circuses registered in Wales. And, as you say, we've all been to agricultural shows. Schools, for instance, often have birds of prey, and so I do think it is something of public interest, and, certainly, when we had the consultation, there was a high number of responses in relation to this aspect.
The licensing scheme is being developed. You'll be aware that we've engaged with any stakeholders, also with enforcement agents. We are going to have a full public consultation, because I think that is required and that will be done, hopefully, within the next few months. But you will appreciate, again, Brexit has to take priority—particularly a 'no deal' Brexit—but I do hope that the consultation, certainly, will come out by the end of the summer.
6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to address the risk of flooding to critical infrastructure in Wales? OAQ53441
The Welsh Government prioritises flood and coastal risk management funding on the protection of homes and communities. Whilst it also supports schemes that provide wider benefits, including protection of infrastructure, the owners of those assets are ultimately responsible for ensuring they remain resilient and fit for purpose.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, and can I put on record my thanks to the Welsh Government for the investment that it's made in flood defences in my constituency? But you will be aware that there is one particularly fragile part of the sea defences in the area of Old Colwyn, which protects the main sewerage network, the A55 trunk road, the Colwyn Bay promenade and, indeed, the north Wales railway line. We saw some dramatic storms earlier this month, which have further undermined those defences, and it's now becoming critical that they are upgraded and improved in order to protect that vital infrastructure that I just mentioned. Now, your predecessor in terms of holding the portfolio for flood defences was kind enough to visit the constituency to learn more about the concerns of Conwy County Borough Council in relation to the fragility of those defences, and I'd like to extend an invitation for you to come and visit as well, to see for yourself some of the challenges that are faced. I think what is absolutely clear is that this is going to require some leadership from the Welsh Government in terms of a commitment to bringing forward some investment in order to bring those other partners, which also have some responsibility, including the local authority, Welsh Water, national rail, et cetera, to the table. But I would be grateful if you could visit the constituency to meet with Conwy County Borough Council, some of the other partners and myself in order to explore a way forward.
The Member wrote to me at the end of January, and I wrote back to you on 13 February just clarifying that we had not provided any agreement to fund work. Because I do really think that the local authority needs to get together with the third party beneficiaries—you named Network Rail as one of them—because I really think—you know, this is a £37 million scheme; that would absolutely take up all my budget. So, I really think that the leadership really needs to come from the local authority in getting these third parties together. I know officials are having ongoing discussions also.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the red meat sector post-Brexit? OAQ53465
Thank you. We expect the red meat sector in Wales to face considerable challenges post Brexit. We've been working closely with our stakeholders to help prepare the sector as best we can for the multiple challenges and considerable change that leaving the European Union is almost certain to present to our farmers and farming families.
I recognise that lamb will indeed face significant challenges, particularly in a 'no deal' Brexit. I was pleased with our Brexit committee visit to Brussels over the past couple of days. We had a meeting with the New Zealand ambassador there and had constructive conversations, which I understand he's also now been having with the lamb sector in Wales. Will the Minister, though, give some more consideration to the beef sector? Because, if we were to leave the EU with no deal and apply tariffs to Irish exports to the UK, which are so significant, that would leave a very significant opportunity for beef and, indeed, dairy farmers in Wales to step up production profitably to fill that gap.
I was going to say, when you said you were aware of the challenges to the lamb sector, I'm very aware of the challenges to the beef sector also. My officials have been doing, obviously, some scenario planning and it's not just about your sectors, it's about your position in Wales and where you are as to the effect a 'no deal' Brexit could have on you.
One of the reasons I brought some funding forward under the EU transition scheme was to help the red meat sector, to help farmers, benchmark to make sure their business plans—they understood their performance and their productivity, so we could identify where to focus our real efforts. So, I think you're quite right, we do have to look at lamb and beef, but, really, we need to ensure that there is a 'no deal'—that there is not a 'no deal' Brexit.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on tree-planting rates in Wales? OAQ53455
Thank you. The Welsh Government is committed to accelerating woodland creation in Wales, and I am aware that more needs to be done to encourage this. I have agreed to another round of Glastir woodland creation funding. I'll be making an oral statement on Welsh Government support for forestry in Wales in March.
Thank you. Last week, children across the UK went on strike in a call for action on climate change. I know the Welsh Government is fully committed to combating climate change and recognises the hugely important role that woodlands play in the sustainable development of our natural resources. Welsh Government has committed to a minimum increase in woodland cover to 15.8 per cent by 2030. To meet the legal target for greenhouse gas emission reductions, the UK climate change committee recommends that 4,000 hectares of trees should be planted each year by 2030. This would take woodland cover in Wales to 16.7 per cent. We undoubtedly need more trees in urban and rural environments across Wales. What steps is the Minister taking to ensure that we meet our tree-planting targets?
As I say, I know that we need to do far more in relation to tree planting, and I have been having discussions both with the Confederation of Forest Industries and with Natural Resources Wales. You'll be aware of the actions on our climate change adaptation—they're described in our climate change strategy in Wales. And woodland creation, including urban greening, which you referred to, has got a very important role to play in tackling the impacts of climate change. So, we're going to embed that in the role that sustainably managing Wales's natural resources can play into their decarbonisation work. I mentioned that I met with Natural Resources Wales just last week, and they certainly have land that's going to be available for tree planting, so I'm going to work with them to see how we can convert some of that land into woodland—hopefully, over the next year.
Minister, I think we all agree with the aspirations for greater tree planting here in Wales. The forestry sector, actually, over the last couple of years, has been hugely successful, and when we look at the outcomes—especially financial outcomes—from some of the participants here, they give optimism for the future. But the successive targets that Welsh Government have set for tree planting have been missed—not just by a small distance, but by a country mile. Now, you've talked of conversations you've had. You're a Minister who's been in post some several years now. Can you give the Chamber some confidence that you, in your ministerial role, have identified the shortcomings in previous rounds of funding for forestry plantation here in Wales, and how, going forward, we can have confidence that you will hit the Welsh Government's targets by shutting off those shortfalls and actually getting some momentum behind the tree-planting operations across the length of Wales?
I think we do need to get some momentum behind our tree planting. There are clearly several barriers, which I think we have to overcome, and it's interesting, it depends who you're talking to as to whether we're planting the right trees in the wrong places or the wrong trees in the right places, and going through the wood for the trees—pardon the pun—I think it seems to be very complex, and I don't think it needs to be that complex. I had a very productive discussion last week with Confor, followed immediately by a meeting with NRW, where we did identify how we could overcome some of those barriers, and I mentioned in my answer to Jayne Bryant that NRW do have land ready to go, ready for being planted, so I want to work very closely with them over the next few months to make sure that woodland is planted over the next year, to kick-start some tree planting at the levels that we would want over the next year. I also think there are opportunities within the public goods scheme—we've brought forward that proposal in 'Brexit and our land'—and again, post-Brexit, I think that is an opportunity that I would want to work through.
The next item is questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government, and I have received notification under Standing Order 12.58 that the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government will answer questions on behalf of the Minister. The first question is from Paul Davies.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s strategy to build more homes? OAQ53435
The delivery of additional homes is a key priority for the Welsh Government, as set out in the national strategy. We're using all levers available to us to encourage house building and are making a record investment in housing during this Assembly term.
Deputy Minister, your own Government estimates that around 8,300 homes need to be built every year, and according to the Federation of Master Builders in Wales, only 6,000 were built last year. Now, the Federation of Master Builders states that the planning process is too complex and too expensive, and that recent evidence suggested that the housing market had become dominated by a small number of very large firms. They've estimated that around three quarters of new houses were being built by five large firms. In order for you to reach your targets and to give smaller Welsh firms more opportunities, will you now look to review the guidance issued to local authorities in order to make sure that the planning process is less complicated and less expensive, so that smaller businesses are able to build more new homes?
The Member will be aware that a revised national planning policy for Wales has already been published, which is aimed at helping address housing delivery issues by introducing more rigour and challenge into the plan-making process in terms of allocation of housing sites. Both myself and the Minister did meet with the federation recently, to talk through those concerns that you've raised, but also, actually, we're taking steps as a Government to make sure that we are helping to support those small to medium enterprises, particularly those Welsh-based ones, to be able to work with us towards our ambitious targets of 20,000 new homes. One of the schemes that the Minister recently announced to assist us in doing this is the Self Build Wales project, which will help address some of those collective previous barriers of planning, finance and access, and open up the market to more small and medium enterprises in the process.
We know that the large house builders benefit from scarcity of housing as it increases the prices they can charge for new builds. And as Paul Davies outlined, we've got a small number of very large builders who dominate the market. One method of increasing housing supply is self-build and self- managed build. Will the Government ask local authorities, outside the local development plans, to identify sites for five or fewer dwellings that can be either self-built or the building can be self-managed so that we bring houses into use, help small builders and help people become home owners?
Thank you, Mike Hedges, for your question. You make some incredibly valid and interesting points. As I've already referred to, the latest iteration of 'Planning Policy Wales', specifically, now requires local planning authorities to maintain a register of small sites. And as I've previously mentioned, we've announced £40 million to support new and innovative Self Build Wales schemes, and as part of that, officials are currently engaging with local authorities to identify suitable sites for self-build, potentially on the scale that you've mentioned in your question. Clearly, it's for local authorities to determine which sites are put forward for the scheme, but myself and the Minister look forward to seeing those sites start to come through in the coming months.
Deputy Minister, it's my belief that there are some key measures that we can take to address our housing needs that don't involve having to build new homes, and one such example is RCT council's schemes to bring back empty properties into usage. Three hundred and twelve empty property grant applications have been received since the scheme began in 2016, and to date, 128 of those homes have now been brought back fully into use, with £2.4 million being spent through the empty properties grant. So, do you agree with me that this sort of scheme provides a very sustainable way in which we can address the housing shortage, and are there any plans to ensure that other local authorities can learn from this best practice?
Thank you, Vikki Howells. Absolutely, I certainly welcome the efforts and the work of Rhondda Cynon Taf and other authorities in terms of how we actually create new homes by bringing empty buildings back into use. And it's something I particularly feel passionate about now in my role of leading in terms of regeneration, how we can link that up holistically, not only regenerating and bringing back to life a community and a town centre, but also, actually addressing housing needs and decent housing needs in the process.
We know there are many reasons as to why homes are lying empty, so there needs to be a range of tools available to bring them back into use. So, I've asked officials to explore how we can better support local authorities in using their enforcement powers to bring empty homes back into use, and I think this is an area where we can definitely add more value.
2. What measures will the Minister take to tackle rough sleeping in Wales in 2019? OAQ53433
Our commitment to tackling homelessness, including rough sleeping, is supported by significant additional investment of £30 million. This includes investment for Housing First and support for a range of initiatives as part of our rough sleeping action plan.
Thank you, Minister, for the reply. In its response to the Assembly inquiry into rough sleeping in Wales, Cardiff city council said that many people who experience rough sleeping can remain isolated on the streets as they do not want to be accommodated in hostels. Last year, a request for funding by Newport City Council to provide homeless pods for rough sleepers was turned down by the Welsh Government. It was very upsetting. Earlier this month, it was reported that a scheme for turning shipping containers into accommodation was coming to Cardiff, having been piloted in Bristol. Minister, do you agree with me that such innovative ideas as these should be encouraged to tackle rough sleeping in Wales by those who, for whatever reason, do not want to be accommodated in hostels in Wales?
As a Government, our first objective is to support intervention that aims to support people in avoiding rough sleeping as a course of action in the first place. Out of the additional £30 million, £12 million is provided to the local authorities to increase their support to people who present themselves as homeless. As the Member rightly says, there are many reasons why people may not feel it is right for them, or, indeed, appropriate for them to go into hostel accommodation, so, that's why Welsh Government works with local authorities and our third sector partners to ensure that we can take a holistic approach that takes into account the individual and the individual circumstances. The Member refers to the initiative in terms of the Newport City Council pods initiative that previously came before the Welsh Government. Whilst I think that the Welsh Government understands the intention behind these pods and the issue they're trying to tackle, there were concerns regarding their use and what alternative options are available for funding, with each pod costing in the region of £6,000. However, we are keen to work with all of our partners and our stakeholders to look at actually how we can take action to tackle rough sleeping and homelessness in Wales, in all of our cities and towns.
I'd like to return to the question of HMP Cardiff inmates committing offences upon release just so they can have a roof over their heads. Labour in Government have a track record of promising to solve this problem. In December 2015, communities Minister Lesley Griffiths pledged that prisoners facing homelessness would receive support 56 days before their release. In launching the national pathway that she claimed put Wales ahead of the rest of the UK, she said
'There is no doubt a stable accommodation situation is a key factor in helping to break the cycle of offending.'
Then, there was the framework launched last year by local government Minister Alun Davies to provide positive change for those at risk of offending. He trumpeted the Government's commitment to reduce—and I quote:
'offending and reoffending, to help ensure our communities remain safe.'
We've had plenty of warm words from previous Ministers in the past, but as the independent monitoring board report from last week illustrated, the future for many inmates remains seriously grim and bleak upon release from prison. How will you ensure that your new initiatives fare better than your previous initiatives?
Diolch. The Member is absolutely right in terms of, particularly within HMP Cardiff, the impact that short-term sentences can have in terms of particularly the 56 days, because if you're in prison for an incredibly short term, it's a short enough period to have an impact on your previous accommodation and potentially that of your family. And actually, then, there's a challenge in terms of making sure the right accommodation is available afterwards. It's something I know the Minister is acutely aware of and action is ongoing to tackle this as a matter of emergency.
On the same subject, Minister, given that Welsh Government removed prisoners from the priority need category, and then there was a protocol set in place that should have joined up organisations and agencies to make sure that prisoners upon release did have a roof over their head, it seems that that isn't working very well, given the statistics that Leanne Wood has referred to. I just wonder now, in this situation, whether the Welsh Government will have a new look at the situation for prison leavers, given the obvious implications for their health and well-being if they are sleeping rough and without a secure home, and also the impact on reoffending.
Can I thank John? I know the Member, in his role as Chair of the committee, has a keen interest in this area. You made very similar points to those Leanne just made. I refer back to last week's report from the independent monitoring board for HMP Cardiff, which was incredibly stark in its findings. We recognise there is a specific issue with HMP Cardiff with high levels of short sentences and the impact that has. However, as my colleague stated in this Chamber last week, we expect to see improvements in the standards and capacity of the community rehabilitation companies, who deliver resettlement services on behalf of the Ministry of Justice. Local authorities have a key role to play, and we've provided in this area additional resources through the homelessness prevention grant. We certainly take on board what the Member has said to ensure that the review we take of priority need will see things improve in this area.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson—David Melding.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, you'll know that having a safe and affordable home is without any doubt a basic need, and stable surroundings can help maintain health and well-being. So, today, I'm sure you will welcome with me the initiative of Tai Pawb and the Chartered Institute of Housing to publish a report on mental health within the private rented sector. I think it's a very good area to focus on. It has found that almost a third of support organisations feel that tenants in the private sector never have enough support. Interestingly, nearly half of landlords feel there is never enough support and information for them to support tenants, particularly those with mental health problems. So, today, will you join me in welcoming this report, and will you help to disseminate its very important findings?
I certainly join you in welcoming the report and the findings and the issues that it's raised today. I and the Minister for Housing and Local Government will, of course, go through those findings with a fine-tooth comb and respond in due course. And I think you're absolutely right to raise the point about support not only for tenants, in terms of their mental health, and the impact that has on somebody's ability to maintain and secure a decent and stable home, but, actually, the benefits and support for landlords and agencies as well, enabling them not only to support tenants, but, actually, so that they secure stability of tenancy as well.
Well, I certainly welcome what you've said there, Deputy Minister, and your broad support. For tenants, the stress and worry of accruing rent arrears, for instance, can exacerbate existing mental health problems, and for some, of course, it can trigger those mental health problems. And the cognitive and behaviour changes that often accompany mental health problems can make it extremely difficult to prevent arrears in the first instance, or to resolve them once they've occurred. Now, social landlords pay a lot of attention to this phenomena, and on two of the main recommendations of the report—that the Welsh Government should provide comprehensive information for landlords and letting agents regarding local and national mental health support, and that Rent Smart Wales should require all private sector landlords to complete a module on mental health to improve their knowledge of how to access support for tenants with mental health problems—will you be supporting these very innovative ideas?
You're absolutely right that they're very innovative ideas, and they're the sort of ideas that we need as part of our discussion on the way that we work in collaboration within Wales to make a difference to our communities and those within our communities. The idea of doing work with Rent Smart Wales to do a module on mental health is definitely one worth considering, but as I am the super-sub today, I'd hate to put words into the Minister's mouth, but I'm sure it's something that she will look at with great interest as well.
I welcome your full-match game today, as it were, as the super-sub—[Laughter.]—and I'm sure you are able to form your own judgments and urge the boss to move on this. It's really significant, I think, that there's unity in the sector, including the organisations that represent the private landlords. And it is an area that is growing—20 per cent or so of people now are in the private rented sector, and many of those are quite vulnerable, they may be on low incomes and they may have pre-existing health conditions. And so, this is an area, I think, of public policy that does need cross-party support and, I'd say, improvement or development to meet modern trends. And I believe that most private sector landlords would jump at the chance of receiving this type of help and advice and training, because it will enable them to sustain their long-term tenancies and their income streams. So, it really is, in the landlord's and landlady's, I suppose, interest, as well as the tenant.
A further recommendation of today's report states that representatives of the private rented sector should be included in the governance structures of the Supporting People programme. Will you look at this recommendation, another innovative one, and act on it as soon as possible? And will you also commend the work undertaken by the Residential Landlords Association, and, indeed, highlighted in today's report, in their efforts to reduce inequality and discrimination in the private rented sector?
I'll certainly commend any efforts to tackle inequality and discrimination within the sector in Wales, and within the country as a whole. You're spot-on in terms of saying, like we said, that it's not only to take on board and look at the review and the innovative proposals contained within it, which will not only potentially bring benefits for the tenants, and particularly to address inequality and any discrimination that may be faced by a tenant because of their own mental health problems, but that it also gives that security and long-term, sustained tenancies for landlords and landladies as well. And just to reiterate, we will certainly take away and look at the findings of the review with great interest.
Diolch, Llywydd. Given the costly and long-running farce in Caerphilly County Borough Council, what consideration is the Welsh Government giving to bringing in a nationally decided set of pay scales and terms and conditions to control senior and chief officer pay through a national framework?
May I thank the Member for his question? You raise a number of key points. Local workforce matters are matters for individual local authorities at present. Clearly, you raise a number of key issues there, and issues that can be looked at in terms of future legislation going forward.
Would you agree that having one pay scale throughout Wales would take out the variances that we see between chief executives and directors across Wales, put an end to the competition and form of internal market that we have at the moment, and put an end to situations such as that in Caerphilly happening again in the future?
In terms of creating—the Member raises a really interesting question; it was raised previously, in terms of the potential for one public service and central pay scales. And, clearly, anything of that sort needs to be done in partnership and in discussion with the trade union representatives in local government, as well as local government representatives. Things like—obviously, you raised the benefits, but they can also bring clear challenges as well, if there's any reorganisation of that sort, in terms of harmonisation of pay scales as well.
We have one pay scale for National Assembly staff, one pay scale for health board staff. Why not local government? What's holding you back?
I think the Member raises some really salient points, in terms of how we go forward, in terms of actually working with our hard-working workforce in local government, who we all depend on for those services that make a day-to-day difference to our lives. And it's certainly something the Member would like to take up with us further that we can consider further down the line.
Diolch, Llywydd. Last time we had these questions in the Chamber, I was discussing with the Minister, Julie James, her thoughts on the planning system in Wales. Now, later in that session, a couple of Members raised specific issues over multiple applications for large-scale housing developments in their areas. This is an ongoing issue, of course, in many different parts of Wales, as I'm sure you're aware, Minister. Now, you've just come across from the environment portfolio, so you'll also be very aware of the environmental considerations. Do you think that the planning system takes enough consideration of environmental impacts?
The Member has picked up—as many Members will be familiar with from their own postbags—the need, when we're taking into account large-scale developments, to take into account, as part of that process, and as part of local development plans, that local infrastructure and also the impact on the environment. And we recently had a review of 'Planning Policy Wales', to broaden that context, and take things into a more holistic account.
Yes. And of course it wasn't long ago, so we do need to have a look at that further on down the line. But, clearly, there are, as you say, implications for infrastructure to these large-scale housing developments, to always put in place the infrastructure that's needed. Now, one specific point in relation to this issue is the use of section 106 agreements. These are conditions attached to planning applications, whereby the developer is obliged to provide certain community facilities, which could be a park, a library, a playground, or it could be some other part of the infrastructure. There have been complaints that many developers haven't fully provided the facilities that they said they would. Do you think that enforcement of section 106 agreements has been robust enough?
Clearly, 106 agreements offer an opportunity for local communities to gain broader benefits from large developments, or developments in their area. And, clearly, we recognise that when local people, as part of a proposal on the table, in its initial form, are given reassurances, it will come with various agreements and community development projects—it creates concerns when that doesn't happen. And it's certainly something we are looking at in terms of how we make sure that local people have the confidence that we work with local authorities, and through LDPs, to make sure that the full benefits of section 106 agreements are realised.
I'm glad that you see that that is an issue, and hopefully maybe we can get a statement on that later on, and see what your department's thoughts are on that, because I think it is something that does cause anxiety to existing communities when new large-scale developments are built and they don't have in place these things that were promised. Large-scale housing needs can prove challenging to the environment. We were talking earlier on, in response to a question from Mike Hedges, about small-scale developments. Mike was talking about self-build in particular. I don't want to task you with that specific issue, as we've tackled that, but how far should there be a presumption in general, going forward, in favour of brownfield developments?
The Member raises the opportunities that we've talked about earlier in this Chamber for self-build and to enable more opportunities for self-build through our new programme, and also more opportunities for those smaller to medium-sized construction and building developers within Wales. The revised 'Planning Policy Wales' has been published, and that aims to address a number of the housing delivery issues that have been raised in the Chamber today by introducing more rigour and challenge in the planning-making process in terms of the allocation of housing sites.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on public satisfaction with local authority services in Wales? OAQ53440
Local government provides vital services that support people and communities. Receiving feedback plays an important part in this and 77 per cent of respondents to the latest national survey for Wales were satisfied with their ability to access the services and facilities they need.
Thank you for that answer, Deputy Minister. You will have read with some concern, no doubt, the reports last week that local authorities in Wales had received 87,000 complaints in relation to missed refuse collections. In my own constituency, of course, we have a regime where a missed refuse collection means that people can go up to eight weeks without having their waste collected, which is clearly unacceptable. And, in fact, in Conwy, around 10 per cent of the 87,000 complaints related to that one particular local authority.
Now, the local authorities in Wales have to abide by Welsh Government rules. What many people in my constituency are asking for is, yes, better reflection within the local government funding formula to make sure that there's a fair settlement for the local authority of Conwy, but in addition they're also asking for the Welsh Government to protect local communities by insisting that local councils collect waste on a more frequent basis. So, I would be grateful if you could tell me what you're doing to look at the funding formula to make sure that it's fair to north Wales and to Conwy in particular, and what work you are doing with your officials to look at the timeliness and the frequency of waste collections in order to protect the public from the potential harms that can come about to the environment and their public health?
The Member raises—and I know this is a point that the Member has raised previously in terms of the frequency of bin collection and in particular residual bin collection. I'm resisting the temptation to make a joke about talking rubbish. [Interruption.] It's worth noting that the reports that you refer to are actually in the top 10 complaints for all English councils, but, nevertheless, we know that when this happens it creates an issue for local people—whether it's the burden of having to remove the rubbish yourself or about any ensuing complications from that. There are many reasons for missed collections. I won't know the detail for individual ones, which could be vehicle breakdowns, weather, bins in the wrong place, or slightly late. In terms of actually how we work with local authorities to support them with this, the Member will be aware that it's a matter for local authorities in terms of the frequency of their bin collections. Welsh Government has always been clear that we do need to build on our recycling record. We know that if you are recycling all the dry recycling you can do, that if you look in your bin there are more things you can recycle. We need to move in that direction in terms of the sustainability of our planet. We actually need to do it in the right way and work with residents to do that as well, and that includes making sure we have other collections in place, such as for nappies and incontinence pads—the things that you don't want to leave in a black bin for a number of weeks.
In terms of going forward to work with local authorities in the area of particularly waste and recycling and waste collection, later this year we will be going forward on our 'Towards Zero Waste' strategy, looking at what sort of statutory guidance we do issue to local authorities. But, at the same time, I was working with those partners in local authorities and in the Welsh Local Government Association to make sure that we work in a way that not only works for them, but works for the citizens of those communities as well.
In response to your question with regard to the funding formula, my colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government has been clear, in meetings with Conwy County Borough Council and in this Chamber, that the Welsh Government is certainly open to having people come forward with alternative suggestions for how we approach that, but they have to be fair, they have to be objective and they have to fit in and be applicable to local authorities across Wales. But it's certainly something that the Minister is happy to consider and to test.
Minister, one of the important services that are very much appreciated in our communities are, of course, leisure services. Some councils at the moment are investing very heavily, particularly my council, Rhondda Cynon Taf. Others, of course, because of the financial position, are looking at closures. Of course, local authority leisure centres, which tend to also provide better terms and conditions for its staff, are disadvantaged against leisure centre trusts that are set up because they're exempt from business rates. Those trust leisure centres, often former publicly owned leisure centres that have been put into trusts, benefit to the tune of about £5.5 million by way of exemption from business rates. But, of course, local authority leisure centres have to pay those business rates. Rhondda Cynon Taf, for example, pays £850,000 per annum in that respect. Do you agree with me that, in order to maintain public satisfaction in leisure services, to maintain those leisure services, there needs to be a level playing field? I wonder if you will make recommendations now that they should be put on the same par and that local authority leisure centres should now be exempt from business rates.
Can I thank the Member for his question? He raises a very good point about how his own authority still has it in council, but a lot of authorities have looked at asset transfer as an alternative and community-run facilities. You raised the difference between status in terms of non-domestic rate relief in terms of who's owned by local authority council or by a trust.
Leisure centres are liable to pay non-domestic rates, as you say. As this is a matter for the finance Minister, who is responsible for this form of taxation, I'm happy to—. The Minister is obviously in the Chamber and has heard all of this exchange, but I'm happy, through the Minister for Housing and Local Government as well, to follow that conversation up with the Minister for finance.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the impact of the sustainable urban drainage regulations on housing supply? OAQ53464
Research published by the Welsh Government in 2017 indicates that compliant, well-designed SuDS on new developments could save Wales nearly £1 billion in capital construction costs alone by 2021 and generate wider benefits not only for our environment, but for the broader economy, of £20 million per year.
I know what the Minister says, but she also tells us, as do other Ministers, that the Welsh Government is committed to a great increase in housing supply and what a priority this is. While she no doubt has worthy justifications for the particular regulations, does she accept that there is a trade-off between such a regulation that makes house building more expensive and more difficult for people who might undertake it and the amount of housing that will be supplied?
Will she also consider complaints that I've had from house builders about inconsistent interpretation of these regulations by different drainage-approval bodies and the intention of various planning authorities to come up with separate and potentially conflicting guidance as to how they should take these regulations into account?
In terms of the interpretation of the regulations by SuDS approval bodies, then actually SuDS, as a water issue, is a matter for the Minister for environment, but I understand that local authorities should have been issued with guidance in terms of the approval bodies and how that is applied.
I don't think we can get away from the fact that we know that sustainable urban drainage systems will reduce the incidence of flood damage by 30 per cent, and I don't think this is a benefit that we can choose to ignore. I hear what the Member's saying in terms of—. I'm aware of the evidence in a paper submitted to the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee earlier in the month. It asserted that SuDS regulations could cause a 20 per cent reduction in density on housing estates, but this isn't consistent with the findings of the research that we commissioned by Environmental Policy Consulting, which was published in January 2017, and which found that, where SuDS are planned into developments from the outset, there appears to be no impact on the number of housing units, and this is consistent with the research of a wide range of professional bodies. However, we will continue to work with house builders, local authorities and all stakeholders to monitor the progress of this policy, and we'll be steadfast in our objective of not only developing efficient and effective long-term sustainable approaches to reducing flood risk, but our objective of building more houses.
5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that developers keep to planning obligations? OAQ53468
A planning obligation is a legally binding private contract between a developer and a local planning authority. The adherence of a developer to such an agreement is therefore not a matter for the Welsh Government.
Well, I disagree with that because there are regular examples now of cases where developers, even once they’ve been given planning consent, refuse to provide the necessary percentage of affordable homes that they have agreed to provide as part of the planning conditions, and the reason, very often, is because they can’t make sufficient profit. Now, if there isn’t a requirement for them to stick to that clause come what may, then why include it in the first place? So, what are you going to do as a Government—and not wash your hands of this issue, because it’s a national problem—to assist local authorities in ensuring that clauses such as this, which designate the number of affordable houses required, are actually respected and delivered by developers?
I hear what the Member's saying. When planning obligations are negotiated by local authorities and developers—and they represent important conditions, including conditions that many of us in this Chamber are in favour of—it's important that the developer protects that in the public interest. Like I said previously, if the public have been following a particular planning application with a particular expectation, they have a right to expect those obligations are adhered to, and I am aware, as you say, of developers seeking to renegotiate some of those planning applications after consent to develop has been gained. I know that's something that my colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government is acutely aware of, and she's looking into the situation.
Deputy Minister, I'd be grateful if you could clarify for me how much progress you are making in actually getting to the decision about the environmental impact assessment that is required for the Barry biomass boiler. It is an obligation that you were minded to support. Obligations play both ways—both placed by planning authorities on developers, but where Government has obviously indicated their desire to implement something, then surely a 13-month period is significant time for you to be able to form an opinion and actually make a judgment call on it? Residents in Barry, and also the developer now, have been waiting a considerable length of time. Can you this afternoon give us a clear indication at the very least of the timeline you're working to to allow that decision to come forward?
I'm very aware of the representations the Member has previously and assiduously made on the issue, and of the local and the public attention and the public feeling behind it, and why. In respect of the decision, you're asking in terms of the environmental impact assessment of the planning application dealt with by the Vale council, and I know the former First Minister wrote to you to say he didn't anticipate a decision before Christmas, but further legal clarification on the aspects of the case has been necessary. I understand the Member's frustration with this and why he is pushing on behalf of his constituents, but I'm sure he agrees, on an issue such as this, it's important that things are done and that we get all of the best legal consideration that we can have to make sure that we come to the best decision, and a decision will be issued as soon as possible.
6. What is the extent of the Welsh Government's powers to ensure that rents for social housing are affordable? OAQ53446
Rents must be affordable for people living in social housing. Social landlords are required to comply with the current Welsh Government rent policy, which provides a framework within which social landlords are responsible for setting the rents for their own properties and tenants.
My understanding is that the Welsh Government has set an index of 2.4 per cent rise at the September 2018 consumer price index assessment of what is reasonable, and that means that tenants’ weekly rent, if they're assured tenants, is only 2.4 per cent. Now, my understanding is that this only applies to assured rents and it will come into effect on 1 April this year. I’ve had several tenants correspond with me, concerned about the level of rent increases they’re experiencing. One assured tenant, who obviously won’t experience more than a 2.4 per cent increase, is also being loaded with service charges for additional things like decoration, gardening, roof repairs, this sort of thing, and she reports that, over the last few years, since the service charge and the rent have been split, there have been significant increases twice a year.So, that’s produced a very significant outlay for that individual.
For another individual, who is a secure tenant, a fair rent is set by a rent officer. The last review was in October, and it was set at an 8 per cent increase over the next two years. Now, that’s well above the 2.4 per cent. And the concern I have is that social landlords are finding loopholes to not adhere to the Welsh Government’s guidelines of 2.4 per cent and that this is in a context of an absolute shortage of affordable housing, and that people on low wages are concerned that they’re simply not going to be able to stay in their social rented housing unless they go on to housing benefit, producing a perverse incentive to become unemployed. And, obviously, we’d all agree—
Thank you. Apologies. And so, my concern is, what can the Welsh Government do about this, given the implications there are for social housing tenants?
Can I thank the Member for her question? I recognise that delivering all the housing we need across tenures is a challenge, a challenge not just for those delivering the housing, but challenges for people in need of that housing as well.
You’re right to say that the Welsh Government has decided that this year’s rents in the social housing sector should increase by no more than 2.4 per cent. Individual social housing landlords have made the case that, in managing a house, there can be a need to vary rent increases in different parts of their stock. Where this case has been made persuasively, the Welsh Government has agreed to allow a limited and controlled variation around an average increase of 2.4 per cent. The points that you’ve raised in terms of actually the challenges some of your constituents are facing merit further attention, and I’d invite you perhaps to write to the Minister for housing on this issue so that we can look further into that.
7. How does the Welsh Government support recycling and reuse enterprises in Wales? OAQ53456
Reuse plays an important role in achieving our zero-waste ambitions, with the potential to save hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste between now and our 2050 zero-waste target. In November, I announced an additional £5.4 million across eight new projects to improve reuse and recycling levels across Wales.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. I recently visited Reseiclo in Newport, a social enterprise that won the environmental award in last year’s Social Business Awards. Reseiclo was established 13 years ago in Crindau, and aims to save as much wood waste from being sent to landfill as possible. They collect wood mostly from construction sites in south-east Wales, sell the items in the best possible condition at low cost and make a wide variety of items from reclaimed wood. The seven employees work with volunteers and adults with learning disabilities to upcycle the wood, and the business survives entirely on the fees charged for collection services and sales. So, with an estimated 5 million tonnes of wood waste generated in the UK each year, what support can Welsh Government give to support enterprises like Reseiclo to achieve their ambition, and perhaps the Deputy Minister will join me in visiting Reseiclo to see the excellent work that they've done over many years?
I thank the Member for that and for highlighting the excellent work that Reseiclo does. In my previous role as Minister for the Environment, and still with having responsibility for this, I've visited a number of re-use centres: FRAME in Pembrokeshire, Crest Co-operative in north Wales and also most recently The Shed in Llantrisant. So, I'd be more than happy to join you on a visit and to congratulate Reseiclo on their award in person. We talk about the way that, actually, these centres are not only providing environmental benefits but, as social enterprises, they're bringing much more broader benefits to the people who have an opportunity to get involved, and I've heard so many stories of volunteers who have then gone on to learn skills and to actually have employment there as well, so they are not just to the benefit of the environment but change people's lives. That's why Welsh Government is committed to further investing in supporting initiatives such as these. As you mentioned, there's question of whether you upscale and use reclaimed woods—and we know that wood can be a particularly hard thing to recycle because of the chemicals often used on it, so it's really good that they are taking this and creating such a successful initiative, and I'd be more than happy to come and visit.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government support for co-operative housing? OAQ53424
We are committed to supporting the development of co-operative housing in Wales and community-led housing more generally. Through our co-operative housing in Wales project, we fund, with the Wales Co-operative Centre, to encourage, promote and support housing co-operatives.
Oh, sorry; I wasn't sure if you'd finished then.
Whilst co-operative housing provides a substantial proportion of dwellings in places as diverse as New York, Vancouver and Scandinavia, it has failed to become a major provider of housing in Wales. Will the Minister set up a taskforce or take some action to identify what needs to be done to substantially increase co-operative housing in Wales? I believe it's something that we are missing out on and an opportunity to increase the number of houses, which we all keep on talking about wanting.
The Member talks about innovative initiatives that are happening elsewhere, not just in Europe but across the world globally. I agree there are things we can learn from elsewhere in housing as well as other public policy areas as well. Likewise, there are things where other countries could learn from the things that we are doing. We do have innovations in co-operative housing in Wales. At the moment, these are fairly small scale, but some are obviously more successful than others, and we need to learn from these examples and scale upwards based on the lessons learnt.
We already have a number of expert groups on this topic. There's the Wales Co-operative Centre, which is grant-funded by the Welsh Government, and there's also a co-operative housing stakeholder group, where both the Wales Co-operative Centre and the Confederation of Co-operative Housing are joined by Community Housing Cymru, the Welsh Local Government Association, as well as community-led housing groups themselves. Whilst at the moment we're not convinced by the merits of another expert group, I think it's certainly something that these expert groups can look at to ensure that they learn from examples in other parts of the world and see how they can apply successfully here in Wales.
9. How is the Minister strengthening the planning process in rural areas? OAQ53447
Effective planning in rural areas is best achieved by having local development plans in place setting out the planning strategy for rural areas. 'Planning Policy Wales: Edition 10' has strengthened planning guidance on rural areas by requiring effective placemaking to ensure development promotes prosperity, health and well-being.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. And you've anticipated my question by mentioning the LDP process. I recently held a supermarket surgery in Morrisons in Abergavenny—always a popular model. I can see Lynne Neagle agrees and holds them as well. [Laughter.] One issue that keeps coming up in my surgeries at the moment is planning and, in particular, the number of planning applications that are coming forward outside of local authorities' local development plans. What guidance are you giving or has the Minister given to local authorities when it comes to dealing with these applications? I get the sense that my constituents accept that there must be more housing and there must be more building but they are concerned about the robustness of the process and, if you're going to have a local development plan process, would you agree with me that it's better that applications go through that process rather than being seen to be rushed and possibly inappropriate in the longer term?
The Member again raises important points in terms of public confidence in the processes going forward. I think there was a familiar smile all round when you mentioned a supermarket surgery—many an hour spent by many of us in this place at one of them. [Inaudible.]—many local authorities are currently in the process of reviewing their development plans. When the Welsh Government comes to consider and approve any review, it will consider whether the plan meets the needs of local communities and its own guidance. It's an objective of this Welsh Government and the Minister that the LDP of any local authority is developed in the context of a regional plan, and I'm pleased that progress has now been made in developing such a regional plan in south-east Wales. If a local authority is considering approving a very significant development that is outside its own LDP, the Welsh Government does have the power to call in such an application and has done so in the recent past. But the Member is aware that I am unable to comment on any individual applications.
The next item is the topical questions, and I have selected one topical question to be asked to the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport. The question is from Rhun ap Iorwerth.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the effect of Honda’s decision to close its factory in Swindon on the supply chain in Wales? 281
Diolch. Wales-based suppliers to the Honda Swindon facility will of course be impacted by this devastating news. Our officials, together with the Wales automotive forum and the UK Department of Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, will be working with these companies, utilising all available resources to help.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. This clearly is a worrying announcement for us. It's thought, I think, that around a dozen companies are direct suppliers, including Kasai—200 workers in Merthyr Tydfil—Toyoda Gosei in Gorseinon—600, I think, there—Mitsui in Ammanford—over 100. It's a very long list and, of course, those companies have their own supply chains as well. So, there's a knock-on. Some companies, no doubt, will be able to transition to new customers, given the relatively long run-in to the Swindon closure. But, certainly, many will find it very difficult to replace their Honda deals, especially if those contracts form a large proportion of their total work. So, could the Deputy Minister outline the nature of the work that will be ongoing now with the sector to assess the impact of the Honda announcement, and outline what kinds of support packages are being considered for development by the Government at this stage? Could he tell us what specific support is being investigated to assist with transition to new contracts, and also transition to new vehicle technologies, including new generation propulsion? Because, in fact, much of our expertise here is in the electronics—in the chips and so on—that could be the smart foundations of a future automotive industry in the UK—an industry that is threatened by Brexit, of course.
Now, while Honda say that their decision is not because of Brexit, there is plenty of evidence to show that uncertainties and nervousness about Brexit have been a significant factor in some decisions taken by car and component makers to de-invest in the UK in recent months. There are, of course, plenty of warnings about the catastrophic consequences of a 'no deal' Brexit for carmaking in the UK. Now, the Deputy Minister will have read reports, as I have, of a fund—code-named 'Kingfisher' by the UK Chancellor—to bolster the economy in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit. Now, were preparations for Brexit transparent, as they should be, I'm sure that the Treasury would already have been having conversations with Welsh Government about how such a fund could work in Wales, what the priorities would be, and so on. I'm not holding my breath, but I'll ask, nonetheless, what discussions may have taken place. Specifically, what level of funding might be available from Kingfisher, or any other fund, for that matter, for the automotive industry in Wales? Also, does Welsh Government expect to have any influence over how those funds are spent? Also, how can different companies and different sectors, including automotive, be expected to access those funds?
Thank you. In fact, there are 18 Wales-based companies in the Honda supply chain. For the majority, Honda accounts for less than 10 per cent of their total business, but there are three companies—all of which are Japanese-owned—where Honda accounts for 80 per cent of their business. There is one other company, also Japanese-owned, where Honda accounts for nearly 50 per cent of their business. Of course, this announcement will not come into play for three years, which does give us some time to work with the companies to find alternative markets. In the meantime, the companies are still expected to meet their contractual requirements to Honda to work at capacity. So, we're not expecting any immediate redundancies, and we do have three years to assess the options available to us. And it's encouraging that Honda are inviting the companies to bid into their new model. There is a range of dialogues going on with the companies and with the UK Government. Officials were part of conversations yesterday in London with the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. Again, they're there today taking part in a summit—the inaugural Honda taskforce, chaired by Greg Clark—so we're in full dialogue with the UK Government in working out how we can respond to this.
Were it to come to the pass where redundancies will happen, of course, we have the ReAct programme where we are now, sadly, well used to putting in place a package of measures, including Careers Wales and Jobcentre Plus, and support in place to help companies adapt and for workers to retrain, but we're not there yet.
In terms of the broader picture, the Member is right—there is, of course, a confluence of factors at play here. Brexit is undoubtedly a factor, as the cost of exporting to Europe could well increase significantly after the end of next month, but it's not the only factor. This is a factory that has not been operating at capacity for some time. There's a drop in global demand for cars. There's a move away from the standard engine towards electric vehicles. There are environmental concerns and, of course, there is the dropping of the tariff, making it cheaper for Japanese companies to export from Japan into the rest of the world. So, there are a whole range of interventions.
In terms of the specific question on Brexit, we did have a meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit preparedness this morning, which I can tell Members was a fairly sobering affair. There are, of course, dialogues going on of how we can help each individual industry. We would encourage all manufacturing companies to take advantage of the Brexit portal, which is the central source of all advice for how to adapt. We are concerned that, certainly amongst small and medium enterprises, too few are engaging. Having taken part in a round table with business groups last week, there is a feeling amongst small businesses, in particular, that Brexit will be sorted out in some way, something will turn up, and they needn't worry too much about it. There are a number of organisations who are engaged and have accessed our Brexit preparedness fund, which has been maxed out, and we have now released extra resource to make sure that there is further support available for businesses.
Well, of course, Honda has confirmed that Brexit wasn't a driving force behind their decision, but it was largely driven by the industry's move to electrified vehicles, and they have said that they will focus activity in regions where it's expected to have high production volumes of electric cars. So, I am concerned that we are behind the curve here in Wales. We know that the Scottish Government—or, certainly, my view is that the Scottish Government is much further ahead when it comes to developing infrastructure and supporting that technology. Now, some councils, I'm aware, haven't even started to bid for funding to install EV charging infrastructure, preferring to wait for market demand.
So, just to briefly focus my questions on this, what is the Welsh Government doing in terms of working with local authorities and also working with regional economic plans to ensure that this area of electric vehicle and new technology is being taken forward? And what is the Welsh Government doing to demonstrate to companies like Honda and Ford that Wales is a place that makes innovative infrastructure investment decisions and takes new technologies seriously?
Thank you. I think that's a little bit of a stretch to try and link those two issues together. We do have a £2 million fund, which we've agreed jointly with Plaid Cymru, to roll out electric vehicle charging. On the point of Brexit not being a deciding factor, I think, again, the Member is stretching credibility a little. This morning—
This morning, the former ambassador to Japan, Sir David Warren, has said that it is fanciful to claim the decision was not related to Brexit. At the end—[Interruption.] I'm having heckles from the Conservative benches. Their anger would be better directed at their own Government who are failing to provide certainty for businesses about what the trading environment is going to be at the end of this month.
I am listening to businesses, who are telling us that at the end of this month, they could well be facing a tax of £400 on every engine, on top of non-tariff barriers, if we don't get a good deal, which will disrupt the whole just-in-time business model that the car industry relies upon. So, the Conservative benches are living in fantasy land if they think that the uncertainty around Brexit is not a factor in every decision that every multinational company is making at the moment.
Minister. I can well understand why the UKIP and Conservative Members want to bury their heads in the sand about the devastation that Brexit is causing on a daily basis to our manufacturing jobs. I am desperately worried about my automotive plants in Torfaen. We have hundreds of well-paid workers working in automotive supply chains whose jobs are all now at risk, not just from a 'no deal' Brexit, but also they recognise that there is no deal as good as the deal that we've got now for our manufacturing.
Can I ask what discussions you've had specifically with automotive plants in Torfaen to ensure that, as best we can, we can prepare for this catastrophe that seems unstoppably to be heading down the track towards us?
Thank you. The Wales Automotive Forum is seeking early engagement with all the companies—all 18 Wales-based companies in the Honda supply chain—to understand the positions they're in and how the Welsh Government can help mitigate this loss. As I say, we have a suite of interventions available and we do have three years. There are going to be no major redundancies from this announcement, the factories will continue to have their order books guaranteed under their contracts for the next three years, and we will then have time to help them to prepare. But, of course, this is a fast-changing environment in terms of the way the car industry is developing. The automotive sector and the aerospace sector are undergoing profound changes to their industries, which makes it all the more important that we have a stable framework of regulation and law and trading arrangements through a good deal. And I agree with the comments that Lynne Neagle has made—it is fanciful, as the former ambassador to Japan has said, to claim that the decision is unrelated to Brexit. Brexit clearly is not the only factor, but it is, nonetheless, a factor for all companies who are trading in the international environment at the moment.
Well, it's fanciful for the Minister to try to link this to Brexit, because Honda are closing their production line in Turkey, which is inside the customs union. So, this has absolutely nothing whatever to do with Brexit, as the company itself has said. It has everything to do with the EU's policy and the UK Government's policy and the Welsh Government's policy on phasing out diesel. Because since 2006, the demand for Honda's cars of all kinds in Europe has fallen by 50 per cent, and demand for the Honda Civic, which is in question, had fallen by nearly two thirds, and that's directly related to the dieselgate scandal and the legislative changes that have been made as a consequence of that. So, I'm afraid to say that the businesses and individuals who are suffering, or will suffer as a result of this decision can point the finger of blame most closely at the Welsh Government, the UK Government and the institutions of the European Union that are in the process of destroying the market for diesel cars in their own back yard. The demand for diesel cars last year alone fell by 30 per cent. The idea that the decision to close these production lines within the European Union or within the customs union are anything to do with Brexit is nonsense. They're everything to do with the deliberate policies, job-destroying policies, of the EU.
It's worth remembering that Neil Hamilton made very similar arguments to argue against the phasing out of leaded petrol. He has been consistently wrong on protecting consumers and protecting vulnerable people from polluting vehicles, and he seeks to point the blame everywhere but at the reckless policy he has pursued to destroy jobs on the back of lies about what the impact of withdrawing from the EU would achieve.
Neil Hamilton points to the fact that Turkey is also closing its plants. That is what happens when you have free trade deals; there are consequences both ways. We've undertaken a trade deal with Japan that makes it cheaper for Japan to produce its cars in Japan, and that's the way free trade works. Outside of the protection of the EU, we're going to be more vulnerable to changes in international conditions.
Neil Hamilton dismisses the expertise of the former ambassador to Japan, who himself has made the link to Brexit, and I think it's naive—. I'm not saying that this is the only factor, but he's naive to think that companies that rely on trading goods—. And bear in mind that just 10 per cent of the 160,000 cars produced by Honda are sold in the UK, these are—. These are—I see Michelle Brown is busily taking photos; the—[Interruption.] It's just a shame she didn't have more important things to do—[Interruption.] These cars are being sold for export to the EU and the potential costs of exporting rising is clearly going to be a factor in the decisions that they make.
Minister, you'll be aware that Kasai in my constituency is a large automotive operation employing around 200 people, as Rhun ap Iorwerth has already mentioned. Now, they provide a very unique and revolutionary manufacturing process—the first of its kind in Europe, in fact, which has been largely responsible for its success and its ability to be able to secure contracts with companies like Honda and Jaguar Land Rover, which both account for a large part of its business.
Now, as you've already said, at this stage, we don't know what the impact of the Honda announcement in Swindon will be on Kasai, but in the worst case scenario, it's possible that jobs will be lost, and the impact on an area like Merthyr Tydfil on the back of recent job losses in St Merryn Meat and the proposed transfer of 200 plus Department for Work and Pensions jobs out of the town can't be underestimated. Now, I'm grateful for the information that you've already given in previous answers, but I'm going to be meeting with Kasai management tomorrow, with Gerald Jones MP, and it would be helpful if, in those discussions, we were able to provide some more reassurance about Welsh Government's ability to support them through what could be a difficult period, should they need to explore alternative markets and contracts to secure their long-term future in Merthyr. Because I'm assuming that Kasai, like many other companies, will be in a position where they're going to need to get over a hump; they don't want to lose jobs while they're doing that, while they're out in the market looking for alternative business. They may need to be developing alternative skills within their workforce to compete in different automotive markets. So, what particular support and assistance would Welsh Government be able to give a company like Kasai in that process of getting over that particular hump in terms of delivering their future security?
Thank you. Yes, I'm aware of the position at Kasai and the 200 jobs. As I said, there'll be no immediate redundancies in any of the plants, as this announcement will not take effect for three years, and we will be working with the companies in the meantime to help see how we can support them to find alternative markets. Kasai, as Dawn Bowden said, produce the inner door panels for the Honda Civic and have a specific skill set, and Honda are going to be inviting all the companies affected to bid in for the new models that they are going to be producing. So, the Wales Automotive Forum will be engaging with the company to see how we can work together to provide a future for the plant in Merthyr Tydfil.
I'm sure it hasn't escaped Members' attention that the Ford factory in my own region has imminent job losses of up to 1,000 potentially in the pipeline. You mentioned earlier, Deputy Minister, that the situation at Honda is not going to become acute until 2021, that means there are two years when Welsh Government could be working not just for Honda, but for Ford and their supply chains to make sure that we get the best out of what is really a disastrous deal all round.
The second thing I wanted to ask you is: last week, we heard from Jeremy Miles that the Minister for international affairs was working hard on promoting the automotive sector, which included supply chains, across the world, and I wonder if you've got any update on what exactly that is looking like. Thank you.
The First Minister and the Minister for the economy met with the UK chair of Ford last week to see if we could provide any further help and assistance. Clearly, the situation they face is serious, and they too, like Honda, are facing the changing nature of the automotive sector and the confluence of different forces that have come together at the same time to cause difficulties for the various companies in the sector. The conversation there reinforced the fact that the creation of trade barriers and non-trade barriers in the export market was a very real factor in their decision making. In terms of the work the Minister for international affairs has been doing in promoting Wales, I will certainly ask her to update you on the progress in that, but I can assure you that we're all working together to try and mitigate the impact of Brexit and help the sector to become more resilient in the face of considerable change.
The next item, therefore, is the 90-second statements, and the statement comes from Jayne Bryant.
Paul Flynn was a giant of the Labour movement, a passionate devolutionist and an exceptional parliamentarian. He was a champion for the Welsh language, which he learnt as a teenager, and was incredibly proud to have seen the establishment of our Senedd. Respected across the political divide, with his wonderful turns of phrase, witty comments and incisive mind, Paul undoubtedly spoke truth to power. He was far ahead of his time on issues that others found too controversial. He was proved right on so many of them. As he said, everyone agreed with him 20 years after he said it. [Laughter.]
He loved Newport, and was so proud to represent Newport West in Parliament. There could be no-one better to have on your side than Paul. A tenacious campaigner who cared about people and never gave up, always wanting to seek out and speak up for the silent voices, he was freethinking and courageous. Paul embraced new technology and saw it as an opportunity to communicate with more people. He was the only person I know who was disappointed when Twitter increased the character count. To him, Twitter was an art form, like poetry; every word mattered, and he enjoyed the challenge.
Due to his mobility issues, Paul thought of different ways to campaign. He once parked up on Bettws Hill and regaled the whole estate with a massive loudspeaker for hours with his dulcet tones. I'm not sure whether he enticed or annoyed people out to vote; either way, it worked.
I first met Paul when I was nine years old, when he visited my school after he was first elected to represent Newport West in 1987. He brought politics alive to me then, and has done so ever since. Never bland or boring, Paul proved that politics was about people, and wanted young people to be as passionate about it as he was all his life.
He was forever optimistic. Best of all, he was kind, inspiring and so much fun to be around. He'll be greatly missed, and our thoughts and love are with Sam, his wife, and their family. He has done Newport, Wales and the Labour movement proud. [Applause.]
The next item is the motion to elect a Member to a committee. I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion.
Motion NDM6977 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Dai Lloyd (Plaid Cymru) as a Member of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee in place of Helen Mary Jones (Plaid Cymru).
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No, therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Which brings us to the debate on the 'Wales' future relationship with the Committee of the Regions' report. I call on Mick Antoniw to move the motion.
Motion NDM6942 Mick Antoniw, Bethan Sayed
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the report and recommendations relating to Wales’ future relationship with the Committee of the Regions.
2. Recognises the importance of a continued relationship between Wales and the Committee of the Regions.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to support the establishment of a Joint Commission between the Committee of the Regions and the United Kingdom to ensure continuing dialogue and collaboration between the Committee of the Regions and the Assembly and Welsh local authorities after the UK’s withdrawal from the EU.
Thank you, Llywydd. I move the motion and also refer to the document prepared by myself and Bethan Sayed on Wales's future relationship with the Committee of the Regions. Llywydd, by the end of next month, it is likely we will have left the European Union. Nothing, however, is certain. There could be an extension to article 50, there could be a general election, there could be a referendum or ratification of some form. No-one knows for certain, especially the Government. This means that our representation on a number of European bodies will come to an end. This report is predominantly related to our representation on the Committee of the Regions. It is not, however, exclusively so, which is why Bethan Sayed and myself have referenced a number of associated EU bodies that we are, as an Assembly, engaged in or associated with to one degree or another.
I'll be frank that I don't think we have ever had a sufficiently clear strategy in respect of these subnational structures of the European Union, nor have we maximised the potential benefit to Wales that we could have achieved. Nevertheless, our leaving the EU draws into sharp focus the consequences of leaving and the potential partnerships, associations and opportunities for engagement with other European countries and organisations that we are likely to lose unless we proactively take steps to construct new post-Brexit frameworks.
I was previously a member of the Committee of the Regions for two years in the last Assembly, with Rhodri Glyn as alternate. We worked well together, covering as many of the key areas of influence relevant to Wales that we could, from the economic and social policy in the EU to environmental policy. We both had a number of successful opinions that directly related to Welsh policy or issues. The relevance of the committee of the regions, in my view, has always been massively undervalued, because it enables a coming together of towns and cities, of federal states, of subnational governments and governance, and provides a framework for the development of EU policy, of access to the EU Commission, the EU Parliament and Council, and has played a massive role in the planning of regional metro transport systems, smart cities, environmental planning, recycling, regional governance, regional economic and regeneration projects, and there is much that we have implemented here that has its origins in the developments in other European countries, and then promoted and developed into strategies through the Committee of the Regions.
At the moment, for example, I'm a member of the Committee of the Regions taskforce on Ukraine, and the Committee of the Regions is playing a significant role in the process of decentralisation and democratisation in Ukraine, twinning mentoring regions across Europe with the regions of Ukraine. Economic and social stability and security in Ukraine is vital to the future stability and economic prosperity of Europe. The geopolitical value of this type of work cannot be underestimated.
The Committee of the Regions has also made a significant contribution to inter-regional policy on culture, the arts and on minority languages. Importantly, it is also a significant constitutional function and legislative power as a guardian of subsidiarity. In a post-Brexit world, Wales as a country, and this Assembly and Welsh Government, will need to develop its own specific relationship with Europe. We will want to protect the reputation we have established and developed, and develop new, more formal Welsh relationships, particularly in the field of innovation and research, and projects such as Erasmus. We will need to show that we are prepared to do what is necessary to overcome the political, economic and social isolationism that risks overshadowing our future identity.
At recent meetings of the Committee of the Regions, the UK delegation has been promoting a new dialogue, to establish a new format for a post-Brexit associate status. This has been accepted in principle, but flounders around the uncertainty of the Brexit negotiations. Until there is clarity about the UK position and the final arrangements for the relationship between the UK and the European Union, the Committee of the Regions and other EU institutions are understandably reluctant to develop and formalise new arrangements and structures.
Key issues will arise in respect of future UK engagement. It will have to properly represent the interests of devolved Government and the political diversity of the UK. We will want to promote a specific Welsh relationship within that, which is not restricted by previous UK arrangements. Issues of funding will have to be addressed. It is, for example, likely we will want to continue with Erasmus, one of the most successfully used social policies that enables young people from across Europe to engage with one another, study and train in various European countries. What is clear to me is that we will need a Welsh European voice. The isolationism and introversion of the extremists in the Tory Party and UKIP are not for us. We must continue to be internationalist and to be an outward-looking nation. It is very likely that by the conclusion of the next Committee of the Regions conference in March, significant progress will have been made, but the outline of the prototype structure for a future relationship will have progressed. The purpose of today's motion is for the Assembly to endorse the approach that Bethan and I have adopted, and to instruct the Welsh Government to take ownership of the process now. After 29 March, our input as members of the Committee of the Regions will have come to an end. It is therefore vital that Welsh Government fills that vacuum and continues the process until a formal arrangement is in place. The motion, therefore, calls on the Welsh Government to directly engage with the Committee of the Regions and with other EU institutions, and also to pursue this objective with the UK Government, as part of the ongoing Brexit negotiations. Thank you, Llywydd.
Can I say how much I welcome the debate that's before us today, on this important issue of engagement post Brexit? I do not accept the caricature that in order to be a Brexiteer, you are therefore not an internationalist, and you are an isolationist. That's certainly not my view. I'm very much an internationalist, and I think it's very important that we engage globally, and not just within Europe. And of course it's absolutely vital that we have a continued close relationship with the different regions within Europe post 29 March. I was an individual, of course, who voted to leave the European Union, but I do think that it's very important for this National Assembly, as an Assembly that has a look over the horizons that are beyond Wales, beyond the UK, and beyond 29 March.
We were told constantly, of course, during the referendum that it would be impossible to maintain a close relationship with other parts of Europe after Brexit, but, of course, that is absolutely not the case, and that's why my party was very pleased to see the new First Minister follow our lead, in appointing somebody who's responsible for international relations. And I'm very pleased to see that Eluned Morgan took on that post, given the wealth of experience that she had in Europe. And of course other groups in this National Assembly have also taken the opportunity to appoint international relations spokespeople. And it's great that Delyth Jewell has that privilege on behalf of Plaid Cymru, and I want to welcome her to her post.
I think that it's vitally important that, yes, the Welsh Government does develop its international relations strategy in terms of engagement around the world, and this, of course, is a very important part of it. But you're quite right to point out in your opening speech, Mick, about the need for this National Assembly, as an institution, also to have an international relations strategy, so that we can promote the work of the National Assembly outside of Wales, but also learn from other parts of the world too, in terms of how we operate and function as a devolved legislature within the successful union that, of course, is the United Kingdom.
Now, I have the privilege of representing the National Assembly as one of the members on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I've been a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly now for over a decade, and as part of the the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly's work, of course, we have the opportunity also to engage, in a different forum, with people from other legislatures within the UK, and of course the Republic of Ireland, and indeed some of the other islands that make up the British isles. And I find that that is a very useful way to work collaboratively with other parliamentarians, in terms of trying to explore some of the challenges that are often very common to all of us on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.
I chair the European affairs committee of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and that committee actually undertook a short inquiry about engagement with different European institutions following Brexit. It published a report about 18 months ago, and it looked at the value of engagement and collaboration that was already taking place—not just the inter-governmental collaboration, but we also did meet with the president of the Committee of the Regions, Karl-Heinz Lambertz, to have a discussion with him about the opportunities that might exist to still engage with the committee in the future. And it was very, very clear that there are a whole host of nations outside of the European Union that are already actively involved in different fora, which have been established for engagement. And some of the ones that he was referring us to were the Association of European Border Regions, for example, which of course is going to be increasingly prominent, I think, for us, in terms of our engagement going forward. It works very closely, of course, as Mick and Bethan will know, with the Committee of the Regions, and you don't have to be a member of the EU in order to engage with it.
So, I would very much encourage this National Assembly, and the Welsh Government, to seek some involvement with that particular organisation, as time goes forward, because I do think that there are huge opportunities for us in terms of international engagement post 29 March, and I think we ought to seize them, but we can only do that if we've got a proper strategy in place, both as a Parliament and in terms of the Welsh Government too.
Can I welcome the report from our representatives in the Committee of the Regions and the introduction by Mick Antoniw in relation to the importance of the Committee of the Regions and what we need to do about it? I want to refer back to the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee's report of last February or March, 'Wales’ future relationship with Europe—Part one: a view from Wales'. By the way, that was a hint—part 2 is coming out on Thursday. Recommendation 16 we had was:
'We recommend that the Welsh Government sets out in its response to this report, what discussions it has had on Wales’ future relationship with the Committee of the Regions after Brexit and how those discussions are progressing.'
And this is the response we had from the Welsh Government—I hope the Minister might be able to expand on some of the comments in here:
'The Welsh Government supports the principle of a continued relationship between the UK and the Committee of the Regions (CoR) and the detailed discussions already underway as to the shape of the relationship.'
So, perhaps we can have some confirmation as to how far they've now gone.
'In the transition period, we have expressed our support to the establishment of a joint Committee of the Regions-UK Commission which would if adopted by the CoR include twelve members from the CoR and twelve from the UK.'
But, again, we need to know if that is still the position of Welsh Government, and if so, what pressures are they putting on the UK representation to ensure that there's Welsh representation on that delegation.
The Welsh Government also states:
'We also agree with the proposal of a permanent political forum for North-West Europe after transition which should include representatives from each of the Devolved Administrations.'
So, again, this is last May. What progress has been made on these three points in the response to our part 1 report?
It's important we now also—. I support Darren Millar's comment about separation from Assembly and Welsh Government. I note that my other remaining comments will be on Welsh Government, but it is important that the Assembly has its own position in European institutions. And I appreciate very much, Llywydd, the response you gave to the committee, which highlighted some of those things. Perhaps we need to see how much more work we can do and who else we can explore to work with as an Assembly, particularly legislatures across Europe in particular regions. I know you've had discussions with the Basques and the Catalonians, for example. We may want to—. And that will be very helpful for us as well, because there are two separate groups here: there's an Assembly relationship and there's a Welsh Government relationship, and it is important. We must remember that the two representatives may be appointed by the First Minister, but they are representing the Assembly at that Committee of the Regions, not the Welsh Government. Why? Because, again, if you read the papers from the Committee of the Regions, and we were given some, when we met with the president of the Committee of the Regions yesterday, relating to Brexit, and their voice is very clear in that they want the discussions between the UK Government and the EU to come also to a position where we can have an agreement on a joint committee between the Committee of the Regions and the UK. Now, my concern, then, is that what we were told was most of these—[Inaudible.]—with third countries happen on a once-a-year basis. So, that's a loss of access in one sense, but it's the informal connections we'll get as a consequence of that, and perhaps you will look at how we can get sub-committees as a consequence to work on it. So, that is important—very much indeed.
What we were told yesterday, and this is quite clear—the president told us, without reservation: it's up to the Welsh Government to lead on the ask. They weren't going to lead; they wanted the Welsh Government to take the lead. So, in a sense, if we really want to get involved, the Welsh Government has to step up to the plate and put forward its proposals.
Will you give way? Does he recall the emphasis also placed on having UK Government support for what we want to do? And does the Member believe that's something we can obtain to ensure Wales can keep the connections he wishes?
Yes, it is important, the UK Government support, because, clearly, the UK Government at the moment is still a member state and will be seen as the main body in one sense. But what they did identify was that—. There are two points to that: is Wales able to have an influence within the UK argument, in the sense of what we've always talked about—a Council of Ministers or replacing the JMC with something more formal? But they did indicate that was a UK issue and they didn't want to get involved in that. But there also is a point that the UK Government needs also to get involved, because they are, at the moment, at member state level and that's who they are in discussions as far as some of these positions, because the structures are from state to state. So, that was the formalisation process. But it is important that, if Welsh Government wants to get involved, Welsh Government must start asking for this.
I also want to highlight one thing, because this is important. We also met with other officials, who clearly stated that, during the years that the Welsh Government has had a presence in Brussels, they have been very effective in what is known as soft diplomacy, and they are now being recognised for that work. What's more, they are being sought out as people who have gone that far, because, for many others—. As a member state, you're automatically included. As Wales, we actually began to act as a third country, in a sense, and we built that soft diplomacy up. And that was a very clear direction in which we needed to go. So, this relationship with the Committee of the Regions is another mechanism to continue that soft diplomacy and, therefore, I would urge the Welsh Government to pursue this and I recommend this report to the Welsh Government.
I've also just come back from a hugely interesting and thought-provoking visit with the EAAL committee to Brussels and, as has been said, we had the privilege of meeting the president of the Committee of the Regions there, as well as the fantastic Mairead Mcguinness, MEPs and ambassadors. In many of these meetings, we were given a bleak impression of the loss of influence that the UK and, even more so, Wales will suffer with the advent of Brexit. Another committee member likened this inverted progress to that of a decision maker moving to a lobbyist, and this is a real danger.
I haven't spoken in this Chamber before about Brexit and I don't hesitate to say how personally devastating I find the prospect of Wales losing her voice in sister conversations in Europe. So, we must make progress where we can. Indeed, the purpose of the committee's visit to Brussels was to examine the kind of relationship that Wales should hope to build with EU institutions and nations after the end of March. I cannot stress enough how vital it is that Wales cements and nurtures strong alliances and the Committee of the Regions is an obvious mechanism for furthering that aim.
Ivan Rogers has said that, for every country in Europe, its relationship with the EU is its most important strategic relationship. For us, in Wales, that fact isn't about to change. Our geography isn't about to change and I certainly hope and trust that our cultural ties will not change. But we know that the impact of Brexit will not be felt in the same way across all parts of these islands. That is particularly the case in Wales and especially the case in certain parts of Wales, including my region in the south-east. Indeed, as we've already heard today, some of these effects have already been felt with the closure of Honda's plant in Swindon and the likely impact that will have on the Kasai plant in Merthyr Tydfil, where 200 people work. We simply cannot afford to lose these jobs, and I will be doing all I can to work with interested parties in order to save them.
Brexit will have, as this report notes, an asymmetrical impact. So, our diplomacy too should probably be asymmetrical. As things stand, the mechanism seen in the Committee of the Regions—of devolved legislatures having a direct voice in the conversations of EU institutions—is not replicated on a UK level. That is why I would applaud the recommendation to establish a joint commission between that committee and the UK to ensure that this mechanism is not lost, and I hope that the Assembly endorses that recommendation too.
We should, without doubt, be looking to maintain associate representation on the committee. It's dismaying that, to date, so much diplomacy has been trusted to the UK Government to do on our behalf. Wales needs to keep our voice heard loudly and clearly. We can't trust another Government to do that for us. That is particularly true of a Government that is regarded with such bewilderment and horror as Westminster is in Europe at the moment. That lack of clarity that Westminster is giving to Europe is a huge issue. As one person we met put it: 'When you're sailing, you need to see the land in order to steer properly.' For so many of the EU institutions who want to work with us—and there's a willingness for that—they can see only water. That is why we need to affirm our commitment to finding a way of continuing to work with the Committee of the Regions. Wales can't afford to lose her voice. Diolch.
I call on the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, Eluned Morgan.
Thank you, Llywydd. May I first of all thank Mick Antoniw and Bethan Sayed for their report on the relationship between Wales and the Committee of the Regions? And may I congratulate Delyth Jewell on her appointment as spokesperson for Plaid Cymru on international relations?
Now, I have been aware of the work of this committee over a lengthy period of time, and I think it’s a European institution that represents a unique voice of regions, nations such as Wales, and local authorities across the European Union, and I do appreciate the commitment that our Members are giving in representing Wales there.
Since the result of the referendum, the Welsh Government has been clear that although Wales may leave the European Union, we are not leaving Europe, and, therefore, it makes sense for us to develop ongoing relations with the relevant organisations and institutions within the European Union, as well as networks and relations with other regions, so that we don’t lose that successful collaboration, as we’ve heard from so many speakers, which has developed over the years.
Now, in the past, these relationships have proved to be valuable and have enabled us to have an influence on the development of policy at a European level, but also to learn from other regions in order to help to improve our own policies here in Wales. It’s clear that formal membership of the UK of the Committee of the Regions will cease once the UK withdraws from the European Union, and this is true if we succeed to reach an agreement or if we leave with no deal.
The Welsh Government is of the view that it makes sense to look at what opportunities exist to nurture an ongoing relationship between the UK and the Committee of the Regions, and I’m aware that our representatives have been active in negotiations on establishing this commission jointly between the Committee of the Regions and the UK during any transition period that may follow a deal.
If such a structure were to be developed, of course, this would have to be agreed by the Committee of the Regions, but I would be very eager to ensure devolved representation in the UK delegation and I would expect that the three devolved administrations should be in place to nominate one representative to that committee. We also agree that there is room to further look at a proposal to create an ongoing political forum for the north-west of Europe following any agreement, and that should include representatives from each of the devolved bodies.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Now, I understand that a proposal along the lines of investigating the establishment of a north-west Europe economic forum, which was mentioned by Mick Antoniw, is under consideration by the Committee of the Regions at the moment, and I look forward to the outcome of the committee's decision, which, of course, will take place after the UK's exit from the European Union. I was really interested to speak to Sir Albert Bore in a phone meeting I had with him last week precisely on this matter—about what that could look like and what are the models that exist for that kind of example for us to follow.
Turning to the recommendations made in Mick and Bethan's report, I'm pleased to confirm that, since the referendum in 2016, Ministers and officials have continued to explore how established relationships can be developed to further benefit Wales. I absolutely endorse the point that we have built up so much goodwill over the years, so much soft power, that it would be a huge mistake to throw that away. And I can also confirm that the First Minister is seeking to meet with the Committee of the Regions president during his forthcoming meeting to Brussels.
Now, I recently announced that the Welsh Government will be developing a new international strategy, and in the course of that consultation, we'll be looking to determine which of the many European networks, listed in appendix A of the document, we will want to prioritise in terms of future relationships between Wales and the European Union. And as that clock keeps ticking down towards the UK's exit from the EU, I think it's essential that we send out a strong message that, even if we do leave the EU and its institutions, we are absolutely determined to ensure that we remain on good terms and that we're determined to enhance and to continue to develop our relationships with our nearest neighbours on the continent.
That sub-member-state level of governance will have, we hope, a key role in ensuring that those friendships will continue. We will make every effort to ensure that a Welsh European voice will be heard loud and clear across the continent. I'm happy to report that the Government is happy to support the motion in full.
Thank you. I call on Bethan Sayed to reply to the debate. Bethan.
Diolch yn fawr iawn. I know that time is short. Thank you to Mick Antoniw for introducing our report and for putting forward eloquently the discussions that we've had and the conclusions that we've come to in relation to the work that we have sought to do in the limited capacity that we've had in relation to our representation on the Committee of the Regions. I welcome everybody's contributions here today, especially the recognition of the fact that, in whatever guise it is, we need to continue working with the European Union but also work with other countries on a worldwide basis to show that Wales is truly an internationalist community of communities.
I would take issue with one thing that Darren Millar did say in terms of our potential to work with Europe. Yes, we can work in different ways and different networks, but we have a formal relationship now. We are formal members and we have that capacity, as I did two weeks ago, to stand up in the Senedd in Brussels and speak and tell people what we are doing here in Wales to promote our nation, to promote our values. We simply won't have that opportunity under more informal structures, but I appreciate that that will have to happen. It's how we do that when we won't have those same very privileged structures that we've had. I make the analogy of how we've been able to network, how we've been able to bring nuggets of ideas back into this institution, back to benefit Wales, and how we will have to find new ways of doing that. [Interruption.]—I haven't got time. I've literally not got time. We can continue these discussions afterwards.
In relation to what the Minister has said about one member of any joint commission, I would be urging her to consider more than one. What's been good is having a diversity of opinion of myself and Mick Antoniw. We have similar thoughts but we may differ on other things. I think having that diversity of opinion on an international or European level is something to be promoted and supported, and perhaps even more important post Brexit so that we can have a strength of representation on that level. You mentioned that the First Minister is seeking a meeting with the president of the Committee of the Regions. I would urge you to tell us, as soon as that seeking process is over, that you're having that meeting, because when we were in Brussels recently there was an absolute urgency to ensure that processes are in place post March. I can't underestimate how valuable it has been, even though I've only been to a few meetings, to be able to engage positively.
After I spoke in the European Parliament two weeks ago, I had a Google Translate conversation on my phone with an Italian Minister. My Italian is non-existent and his English or Welsh is non-existent, and he said, 'We didn't leave the EU, you chose to leave the EU', and I said, 'We want to still continue working with you and keep the doors open.' I think that's the message we all have to have here today: moving on, we want to keep that door open, we want to engage. This report that we've brought to you today is important to ensure that we find different ways to engage positively and that we work not only calling on Welsh Government, but that the National Assembly for Wales as an institution has its own ways of engaging so that we can become strong in the world as a nation in our own right as well. Diolch yn fawr iawn to everybody for contributing.
Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
We now move to item 6 on our agenda, which is a debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee report, 'Everybody's Business: A Report on Suicide Prevention in Wales'. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Dai Lloyd.
Motion NDM6974 Dai Lloyd
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee, Everybody’s Business: A Report on Suicide Prevention in Wales, which was laid in the Table Office on 5 December 2018.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I consider it to be a privilege to open this very important debate today on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee’s report on suicide prevention in Wales, 'Everybody's Business'. The number of deaths by suicide in Wales is staggering. There were 360 registered deaths from suicide in Wales in 2017, 278 of those in men. This is an increase from the 2016 figure, when there were 322 registered suicides, and there has been no apparent downward trend over time. It is also likely that official suicide statistics may under-represent the true scale of suicide due to the need to establish beyond reasonable doubt that suicide was the cause of death in a coroner’s inquest.
We undertook this inquiry to understand what is currently being done and where action is needed to drive the change and improvements that are required to reverse this worrying trend. As part of this inquiry, we took a wide range of evidence. In addition to the usual formal evidence gathering carried out in committee meetings, Members met with representatives of Tir Dewi, formed to help the farmers of west Wales in difficult times, and the Jacob Abraham Foundation in Cardiff, which provides support around mental health issues and supports people bereaved by suicide. I would like to thank everyone who contributed to this work.
We have made 31 recommendations in this report, which, if implemented, would be a big step forward in making Wales a zero-suicide country. I will address some of these in the time that I have today.
Suicide is everybody's business; that’s the key message we’ve heard throughout this inquiry. That's the message we all need to remember and share. Suicide can affect anybody, there isn’t a community in Wales where people haven’t been touched by suicide, and talking about suicide does not make it more likely to happen.
The committee heard clearly that raising awareness amongst the public, as well as those working in front-line services, is absolutely paramount. We need to encourage help-seeking behaviour and promote a more compassionate response to people in distress. Evidence from a range of stakeholders suggested that there would be merit in front-line staff across various professions receiving training in suicide awareness. In particular, we heard from the Samaritans that achieving much more consistent training for people on the front line, who are likely to encounter people who are at risk of suicide, is something that we can make some real progress on.
I am therefore pleased to refer to the Welsh Government’s response to recommendations 1 and 2 of this report. We welcome the Government’s commitment to make training resources available, and are keen to see how effective this will be in increasing the uptake of training in suicide prevention, both by the public and front-line professionals. It's not just a matter for doctors.
The committee also welcomes the fact that the Assembly Commission has accepted recommendation 3, and we encourage the Commission to continue to promote the availability of training and support to all its staff, given the role everybody has to play in suicide prevention, and we need more talking therapies available everywhere, but more of that later.
We are pleased that the Government has accepted recommendation 5 and has committed to take positive steps to ensure that all GPs in Wales understand the General Medical Council guidelines on sharing information in order to protect life. The committee received powerful evidence from Papyrus during this inquiry about their campaign to encourage NHS bodies to support staff appropriately to make a best-interest decision to break patient confidentiality in this setting. We understand that Papyrus also welcomes this response. As a committee, we recognise this is real progress.
In recommendation 13, we make it clear that action on a Wales-wide postvention strategy for suicide is an immediate priority. We welcome the Government’s positive response to look at what is happening in England with a view to adapting it for Wales. As a committee, we intend on returning to this issue in six months and expect development in this area.
In relation to part b of this recommendation, we have some concerns around the guidance to schools on talking about suicide and the support offered more generally to this vulnerable group. Now, Lynne Neagle, as both a member of this committee and Chair of the Children and Young People and Education Committee, will talk more about this in her contribution, as many of this committee’s recommendations strongly echo those in that committee’s report into the emotional and mental health of children and young people, 'Mind over Matter'.
Briefly, in relation to recommendation 25, there is strong evidence that reducing access to means is an effective element of suicide prevention. In line with our key message that suicide is everybody’s business, I want to highlight the important role that planning authorities, architects and others can play in suicide prevention, with the inclusion of measures to prevent suicide in all new building design. We strongly urge the Welsh Government to do all it can to ensure structures are safe.
Turning to a separate angle, many people feel unable to talk about their mental health, mainly due to the stigma that still surrounds admitting they have a problem. We need to overcome this issue so that everybody feels comfortable to seek the help they need without fear of being judged or losing face. Access to appropriate and timely specialised services is key in ensuring people get the support they need. There must be parity in the support available for mental and physical health conditions, so that people can access appropriate support when they need it to prevent reaching a point of crisis. Therefore, we are pleased that the Government has accepted recommendation 6 of this report, where the committee calls for all necessary steps to be taken to ensure this parity. We look forward to seeing how a new delivery plan will address this need and expect this work to move at pace, including development of the mental health core data set.
Recommendations 7 and 12 refer to urgent referral routes for GPs and the waiting times for psychological therapies like cognitive behavioural therapy. Although the Minister has accepted these, the Government’s response does not marry with the evidence heard by the committee during this inquiry. We heard from GPs that it is often very difficult for them to refer and get someone seen as quickly as they believe is necessary. With serious physical illness, GPs can ring doctors in secondary care hospitals for immediate hospital admission. No such right exists for GPs' access to secondary care psychiatric doctors. It is unacceptable that mental health services are not prioritised in the same way as physical health, and this needs to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
Turning to male suicide, inability to talk about mental health is particularly true of men. Throughout our evidence gathering, we heard that men, particularly middle-aged men, are at higher risk of suicide. It is a staggering statistic that suicide is the single biggest cause of death among men aged 20 to 49 years. We need to overcome this issue so that everyone feels comfortable to seek the help they need without fear of being judged. New approaches are now needed to encourage help-seeking behaviour and to improve mental health, well-being and resilience among men. These can make a huge difference, but often rely on the commitment of individuals or are unsustainable due to short-term funding of charitable institutions. Reducing and, ultimately, preventing male suicide needs to be recognised as a national priority, and we are pleased that the Minister has accepted recommendation 18.
There are certain factors that create risk and stress to people living in rural areas over and above the suicide risk factors affecting general populations. The committee heard that, whilst there are no specific statistics available on the number of farmers who had completed suicide, all farmers knew a farmer who had taken their own life. We were particularly struck by the evidence provided by Tir Dewi when they told us, and I quote:
'When a death occurs on a farm, the cows still need to be milked this morning, and this evening and tomorrow'.
This clearly demonstrates the importance of understanding the impact various pressures can have on farmers’ mental health and the need for mental health awareness training to be undertaken by staff of all those organisations who interact with farmers and their families.
We welcome the Minister’s response to recommendation 22 and we note that the Welsh Government’s farm liaison service have recently attended training. However, I would highlight that all staff who work to support farmers would benefit from this training, such as those involved in arranging farm inspections. The committee was particularly pleased to learn that the Farmers' Union of Wales has recently made a public commitment to further raise awareness of mental health problems in rural communities.
Turning briefly to prisoners’ risk of suicide and self-harm in Wales, the committee is pleased that the Government has accepted this recommendation. The committee is embarking on an inquiry into prison healthcare and will take the opportunity to look at this issue in more depth over the coming months.
Finally, we welcome the additional £500,000 annually recently announced by the Minister towards the delivery of suicide prevention in Wales. We know that the Samaritans report that the average cost of a suicide in the general population is estimated at £1.67 million per completed suicide, which clearly highlights the economic cost of suicide. While, in his response to recommendation 31 of this report, the Minister accepts in principle the need for specific funding to be made available for suicide prevention, the committee would wish to see some protected resource. We would therefore welcome further information on how this additional funding will be spent.
To close, there is a lot of work being done to raise awareness of the risks of suicide and I would like to praise the excellent work being done by third sector organisations in putting support in place for those affected. There is a momentum building, but greater direction is needed to really drive forward the change still needed, and the committee is committed to ensuring that suicide prevention remains on the agenda. I look forward to hearing others’ contributions this afternoon and to seeing real progress being made in this area. Thank you very much.
Thank you. In accordance with Standing Order 12.23, the Llywydd has not selected the amendments tabled to the motion. Darren Millar.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to take part in this debate, and I think that the health committee has done some sterling work in terms of taking forward this particular inquiry. Every time somebody commits suicide, they take a little bit of the life of everyone else around them as well, and, you know, we in this Chamber have known individuals who have taken their own lives, and we know of the tragedy that can unfold for those who love them as a result of that.
Three hundred and sixty deaths in 2017 is 360 too many, and we all must do everything that we can to ensure that those numbers start coming down. As the Chair of the committee quite rightly pointed out, the statistics are absolutely going in the wrong direction, and that should be a cause of alarm for each and every one of us. And I don't think that it's any coincidence that, at the same time as those statistics going in the wrong direction, we've also seen a lengthening of waiting times for people getting access to talking therapies, and problems with mental health services in different parts of Wales as well.
I was very struck by the comments about the farming industry. I can remember inviting Tir Dewi to come in to give evidence to the cross-party group on faith about their work, because I know that they are an organisation that is inspired, effectively, by the Christian faith of those volunteers who engage with it. I was alarmed at some of the individual stories that they shared at that cross-party group just about the challenges—the unique challenges, really—that many in the farming community face. And I think it is absolutely right that the committee has highlighted this in this important inquiry report and the need to have some focus on the farming industry going forward.
I'm also pleased to see the references to building design in the report. I can remember visiting a mental health unit at Glan Clwyd Hospital around two and a half years ago with the current mental health director, not long after he started in his post, and I was absolutely appalled to see that there were many ligature points, even in that mental health ward where people are sectioned because, sometimes, they're at such a point of crisis that they're thinking about taking their own lives. And I was astonished that these were things that had not been addressed in that building design, despite the fact that that was a health board that was in special measures for mental health purposes. So, clearly, there's an awful lot of work to do within our own public health service estate in addition to, of course, retrofitting buildings and dealing with any new building applications that come through, and making sure that the planning system adequately considers these sorts of things as we go forward.
I think it's quite right that the report also highlighted the need to address the ongoing stigma that there is in relation to those with mental health not feeling as though they are able to talk about the things that they are encountering. I think that the statistics that Mind Cymru and Hafal have highlighted, which say that 40 per cent of employees are reluctant to discuss their mental health with their employer, are pretty stark. But, what's really awful is that fewer than four in 10 employees would consider hiring someone if they knew that they had a mental health problem. That is shameful. We've got to address this sort of prejudice in our society and amongst the workforce. I think that, yes, quite rightly, the Welsh Government, the National Assembly for Wales and other public services have got to show some leadership on this. But, somehow, we've also got to reach out to employers across Wales and make sure that they are also engaging positively with the workforce. I think that we can look at public sector contracts with private suppliers, whether they be supplying parts of the workforce or goods and services, to see what they are doing, frankly, to ensure the positive mental health and well-being of the workforces that they employ.
So, I want to commend this report to the Senedd. I was very pleased to see the recommendations—pleased to see many of the positive things that the Government had said in response to those recommendations. But, I think that we do need to continue to have a focus on this issue on a cross-party basis, so that we can reduce this problem, reduce this prevalence of suicide, with so many needless lives actually lost.
I really do believe that suicide prevention is everybody's business and everybody's opportunity. I'd love to speak about every recommendation but, given the time constraints, I will focus on two areas. The first is particularly close to my heart—young suicide and the overlap between this report and the Children, Young People and Education Committee's 'Mind over matter' report, because the two are inextricably linked. Suicide is the leading cause of death for young people aged 15 to 19. More than 200 children die by suicide every year in the UK. In 2017, 226 children died by suicide. That is a national scandal. As Papyrus told our inquiry, if Ebola or HIV or any other disease was killing 200 schoolchildren a year, we would be throwing millions of pounds at it. I agree. The findings of 'Mind over matter’ were clear. The urgent challenge now lies at the preventative end of the pathway, with emotional well-being, resilience and early intervention.
The parable of the river feels more relevant now than ever. I’m sure some of you know it, but to summarise: one night, villagers were sitting by their riverbank, about to eat, when one villager noticed a young child floating upside down and drifting down the river. Several villagers jumped up, dived in and tried to rescue the child. It was too late. A short while later, another young child was noticed, coughing and screaming as it struggled to stay afloat. This time, the villagers were luckier and the child, although bruised and battered, lived. This turn of events continued, and the frequency with which the villagers had to rescue children from the river increased—sometimes successful, but not always guaranteed. Soon all the resources and people power of the village were directed at saving as many children as they could. This occupied the villagers constantly, and other endeavours that they'd previously pursued had to be forgotten. This was accepted because it was a worthy cause. One day, two villagers began to walk away from the village, heading upstream. They were questioned, 'Where are you going? We need you here to help save the children.' The villagers replied, 'We’re going upstream to find out why those children have ended up in the river in the first place.'
That is absolutely where I believe we need to be—upstream, before young people fall in that river in the first place. That’s why I am delighted that 'Everybody’s Business' wholeheartedly endorses the recommendations in 'Mind over matter', which aim to do just that. It is the first time that one committee report has fully endorsed and supported another in this way, and I'd like to thank Dai Lloyd for the collegiate way that he leads the health committee and for the constructive partnership that has developed between our two committees on the fundamental issue of our nation’s mental health. Because it is not just young people who will benefit from the recommendations of 'Mind over matter'—they set out a road map for developing resilience for all.
We've heard today about the scale of the challenge with male suicide. It is the leading cause of death for men under the age of 45. It is without any shadow of a doubt a public health emergency. Yet, most men who die by suicide have no previous contact with mental health services before their death. So, how do we reach them? With half of all mental health problems beginning in childhood, Samaritans Cymru have told us that developing resilience and early intervention in schools has a major role to play in preventing male suicide. I agree.
Myself and other committee members will continue to hold Welsh Government’s feet to the fire on progress with 'Mind over matter'. But in the meantime, we still need to pull young people from the river. So, I was really disappointed that the recommendations made in 'Mind over matter' and repeated, in full, nearly a year later in this report on the need to issue urgent guidance to schools on talking about suicide, are only accepted in principle again.
Now, I really welcome the work that has been done to prepare guidance for schools by the brilliant Professor Ann John, but I am deeply concerned that Welsh Government has not made any commitment to making this guidance statutory. Talking about suicide does not cause suicide. Talking about suicide saves lives. Every day lost on this is a day when we could potentially see another child die by suicide as, indeed, we have done since 'Mind over matter' was published. It simply cannot wait until we have implemented the other reforms.
To lose someone you love to suicide is a uniquely devastating loss. People bereaved by suicide are themselves at much higher risk of themselves dying by suicide. So, I was disappointed that recommendation 15 on support for those bereaved by suicide was only accepted in principle. During the inquiry, we met a group of relatives at the Jacob Abraham Foundation, all of whom had lost sons, husbands, fathers to suicide. One lady had lost her two sons to suicide—a heartbreaking reminder of the risk that suicide bereavement poses. Shockingly, not one of those families had received any specialist support, apart from the support offered by the foundation, which receives no statutory funds and is operating on a hand-to-mouth basis. Minister, I don’t need another review to tell me that suicide bereavement support in Wales is woefully inadequate and that we need to address it urgently.
In conclusion, I know that both the health committee and my committee are asking a lot of Government on mental health, and I make no apologies for that. I also acknowledge both this Minister and the Minister for Education's commitment to the new task and finish group to deliver the 'Mind over matter' recommendations. Welsh Government regularly reminds us that mental health is a priority in 'Prosperity for All', but we are still not seeing sufficient evidence of that on the ground. It is time for Welsh Government to make parity between mental and physical health a reality in Wales.
I wasn't, of course, a member of the committee when the evidence was received, and I want to begin my contribution to this debate by by expressing my gratitude to all involved in this very important piece of work—to my fellow committee members, to staff and most of all, of course, to those who gave evidence. This is a wide-ranging and comprehensive report, and as Lynne Neagle has said, I think any one of us contributing to this debate could talk about it for hours. I want to concentrate on just three of the recommendations.
I want to begin with recommendation 2 around public awareness. It is crucial that we create a climate where suicide is truly understood to be everybody's business. Suicide can affect any family in any community at any time, and it remains incredibly difficult to talk about. There is still shame, there is still stigma, and there absolutely should not be. We all need to be aware when those around us may feel isolated, lonely and desperate, we need to be ready to ask when someone is okay, and to listen, to really listen to their reply, and perhaps most of all to what they do not say.
And we need more openness, and it is in this spirit that I share with this Chamber today the fact that my own family is one of those that has been affected. When I was a very little girl, my cousin David, who was in his late teens, took his own life. I chiefly remember him just suddenly not being there any more, and when I asked where he was, being told to shush. What had happened was never spoken of, and it was years until I really knew. What I did know was that my much loved aunt was never the same again.
Now, that, of course, was many years ago, and much has changed, but not enough. And this brings me to recommendation 15 and the others that refer to the need to provide services for the bereaved. I want to associate myself with every word that Lynne Neagle has just said. Of course, in the 1960s, when we lost my cousin, there was nothing. My aunt was never supported to address the terrible grief and the complex emotions that those bereaved by suicide experience, and this is not surprising. What is surprising and, indeed, is shocking, is that today, many families affected by suicide are still unable to access any bereavement support, let alone the specialist suicide bereavement support that they need and to which they should be entitled. The committee heard of excellent examples of good practice, but Members describe themselves in the report as 'staggered' at the lack of support still available to those bereaved by suicide, and I am staggered too. This cannot stand. Such support does not need to be expensive, but the cost to those who do not receive the help is incalculable. Welsh Government, with appropriate agencies, must ensure that appropriate bereavement support is available to all those who need it, when they need it, in a form that works for them, all over Wales. Specifically, they need to support the third sector organisations who excel in this regard. And I have to say, as Lynne Neagle has said to the Minister, that in this regard, acceptance in principle is not enough. Too often, acceptance in principle means kicking this into the long grass. I very much hope that is not the Minister's intention, and I would ask him today to review that acceptance in principle and turn it today into an acceptance in full.
I finally want to turn briefly to recommendation 18, which calls on the Welsh Government to recognise male suicide as a national priority. It is beyond doubt that the sexist stereotypes around acceptable masculine behaviour contribute directly to the very high suicide rate in men. Society still does not encourage men and boys to be open about their vulnerabilities—weakness is still frowned on. Most of us are conscious of the negative effects that sexism and patriarchal norms have on the lives of women and girls. We need to remember that this sexism, these patriarchal norms, are sometimes literally fatal to men and boys too. Recommendation 18 calls on the Welsh Government to allocate appropriate funding and to implement new approaches, encouraging men to talk about their mental health and seek help. The Welsh Government needs to act. But there is one thing that we could all do. Let's all commit today never again to say to a little boy, 'Big boys don't cry.'
The Welsh Government's overall positive response to this committee's recommendations are welcome on the whole, but there is a need for urgency, as Dai Lloyd and Lynne Neagle and others have said. We must none of us rest until Wales is suicide free. The committee will closely scrutinise the Government's delivery on this vital agenda, and I will be privileged to take part in that work.
I want to begin today by welcoming this report and the hard work the committee has done on this issue, and I also echo the comments made by Members from across the Chamber this afternoon. It's about time that we are debating this extremely important issue within this Senedd Chamber, and in preparation for my contribution today, I thought I'd go back to something that myself and mum stumbled across when we were going through dad's clothes after his sad death. Whenever we used to look in his suit jackets, we often found a pen that wasn't working, broken glasses or a white ribbon. But on this occasion, we found a piece of paper, a menu from a town council ball in Connah's Quay, and on the back it had written these words that he was going to make his speech based on: 'Edrych ar ôl ein gilydd'—look after each other.
Deputy Llywydd, in that spirit, I want to focus my contribution to this debate today. Nothing can prepare you for the lasting impact of suicide. It's devastating and the effects on family members and loved ones can be severe and far reaching. The ripple effect in particular hits you—it hits me. It's impacted close friends as well as friends of friends, and many of my friends looked up to my dad as their second dad. Some days, these ripples will be small, and sometimes we make progress. And other days, I struggle to get out of bed.
Unfortunately, friends and family of those who've committed suicide experience impacts on their own mental health. Learning that you've lost someone you love through suicide is traumatic enough. Personally, I can say that you do begin to have other feelings, and those feelings impact your own health and well-being—the feeling of guilt, anger, confusion, distress over unresolved issues and many, many more—all of which I know have had a long-term effect on me and will continue to do so. And I know they have a long-term effect on others in many different ways as well.
It's extremely shocking that statistics in 2017 show that 360 people took their own lives in Wales alone, and it's a horrible feeling that my dad is one of those 360. It's terrifying that thousands of others have had suicidal thoughts. As Members know, I try to speak openly about this issue, because I know there are others suffering in silence. No matter how hard it is, I will continue to speak out. It's what dad would've wanted; it's what he would've done.
Deputy Llywydd, I must pay tribute to Abbie Penell from Pontypridd who was recently in the news for speaking about the impacts of suicide following her father's suicide. And she was completely right about the need for support of those bereaved by suicide, and I must say I respect her bravery.
Deputy Llywydd, I'm going to finish by saying the words Dai Lloyd said earlier: suicide is everybody's business. We must all do more to support each other. We must all do more to prevent suicide. I do not want another family to go through what we're continuing to go through. So, let me take you back to the start of my speech, let's remember those words that dad had on that piece of paper in his suit jacket: Edrych ar ôl ein gilydd. Look after each other. Diolch, Deputy Llywydd.
Well, Deputy Presiding Officer, I think in all the years that I've been in public life, I've never felt more inadequate in rising to my feet to take part in a debate, following that powerful speech from Jack Sargeant, because none of us can, of course, compare in experience or knowledge with him—tragic as it is that I have to say that. I've been touched by suicide tangentially, but never directly, and it is a terrible, terrible thing, made all the more powerful, I think, by the way in which Jack described the impact of this upon his family.
A very close friend of mine's wife, from university days, just before Christmas, committed suicide out of the blue, and I know what a devastating impact this has upon everybody around. Jack was absolutely right in saying that it affects not just the immediate family, but also the wider circle of friends as well. And it's difficult to imagine, actually, the black place that somebody is in, feeling so desperate that this is the only way out, and it touches everybody's hearts, I think, just even to think about it. And I've been in some black places in my life too. I've been falsely accused of sexual misdemeanours and found myself on the front pages of newspapers and the lead item in news bulletins, and I know the pressure and impact that can have upon you. I was never tempted down the suicide route, but I have personally experienced a sense of loneliness and desperation, and I think it's that loneliness that lies at the heart of this whole problem. As Jack very well said, we need to look after each other in this respect. It's only when people feel that there is nobody to whom they can turn, for whatever reason—. I think Helen Mary Jones again hit a nail on the head in what she said particularly in respect of men, that we are—at least, certainly men of my generation—much too buttoned up. I find no difficulty in expressing myself in public, but I have to say, on emotionally related issues, I find the greatest difficulty in opening up in private, in circumstances where it would be to my benefit to do so. And I'm far from alone in that. So, it is vital that we do as much as we possibly can to take away what remaining stigma there is relating to suicide or suicidal thoughts. We've come a very long way since the Mental Health Act of 1959, before which anybody with some kind of mental illness was described officially as a moral and mental imbecile. There is, of course, a much greater understanding in society today than there was in the world into which I was born, but we still have a very, very long way to go, and Government has a very important role, I think, in this respect, and particularly, as Helen Mary pointed out, in respect of men. Indeed, Dai Lloyd, in his opening speech, also pointed out that middle-aged men in particular, we discovered—. I wasn't, sadly, a member of the committee when the evidence was taken, but I've read with great interest the report and a lot of the documents around it. There is a particular problem with men, and I think the more people of my generation are able to talk about it in public, then it may help somebody.
The roles of charities and the third sector in all of this is absolutely vital as well. In a world of family break-up, very often the man is forgotten about because women are overwhelmingly the victims of domestic violence, but men can sometimes also be the victims of domestic violence. Where families break up and children are taken away, then that also is often a cause of suicide amongst men, which perhaps needs more attention. I have had, as many Members have had, contact with a charity called Both Parents Matter, which has drawn this to my attention, which is why I mention it in the course of this debate today. It is important, without depreciating in any way the importance of looking after women in these circumstances, for us also to remember that men can sometimes be victims too.
It is a tragedy and perhaps an indictment of society today that suicide is on the increase. It's a paradox, isn't it, that in a world of global communication and instant communication, and in an increasingly urbanised world, people can actually feel lonelier than ever? We have to do all that we can, every one of us in public life, to ensure that we reduce the stigma and maximise the help that can be given to people who are so desperate that they are tempted to take their own lives.
Someone came to see me in a surgery last week, as it happens—a mother who was grieving for her daughter following suicide. She was in grief, and she was asking 'Why?' Why couldn’t more have been done to help her? Why were those things that were obvious to her now as signs that her daughter’s life was in danger not obvious to her at the time? She had been in contact with mental health services. The mother said that she’d tried to take her own life once. Three weeks later, she was offered a mental health consultation over the phone.
This isn't the first time that I've sat in a room with a family who were grieving in similar circumstances since my election, and far too many mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, children, friends are also asking 'Why?' And that’s what we as a committee did, and I was shocked in taking part in this inquiry. Each of us was. We heard the reports of those who have suffered the impacts of suicide. We received evidence on the steps that could be taken here in Wales to respond to this national crisis. I do recognise that there is work being done by Government, but this is what we are facing—a crisis, no less. Suicide is the main cause of death in young men in Wales, as we've already heard; the main cause of death in those under 35. It emerges from something that is preventable. If it were a physical illness, as we've already heard, then everything would be thrown at it to ensure that people are given the support that they need, but at the moment that simply isn't the case.
We need to raise awareness, therefore, about the issues related to suicide. We need greater training, we need better quality training, we need clearer pathways through the health system to assist those who are at risk of suicide. But from my point of view, what is central to the recommendations is that the Welsh Government needs to take all possible steps to ensure that there is equality between the provision of healthcare and mental health care. I hear far too often from constituents about the difficulties they face in accessing mental health services. Often, it includes difficulties in accessing children and young people’s mental health services, and this has to change. We must do more to encourage people to seek the support that they need and to look for that support at an early stage. We need to raise awareness of the kind of support that is available before they get to that crisis point.
I hear too often of vulnerable people who are being turned away from services when they do seek out those services—hearing, perhaps, that their mental health condition is not considered to be sufficiently serious. There was a recent case in Anglesey over Christmas: a young boy had completed a suicide, although he went to hospital seeking help. Unfortunately, there was no bed available for him. He was considered not to need that support and he himself decided what he needed to do in order to deal with his pain. And it was a very severe blow to that community—a community that has responded by coming together and identifying that suicide, as we’re discussing today, is everyone’s business. I’m very pleased to see the response of organisations such as the young farmers, individuals such as Laura Burton from the Time to Change Wales movement, which have responded by deciding to spread that message within our communities on the impacts of suicide and the factors that can contribute to it, and there is a role for us all to play in safeguarding and helping each other.
Those who have lost someone to suicide are urging us to ensure that no other parent, partner or child should suffer as they have suffered. We’ve heard that appeal from Jack again this afternoon. Yes, we talk more about mental health these days than we have done in the past, and that is a positive step. There’s no doubt about that in terms of dealing with that stigma surrounding mental health, but there is a long, long way to go. A quarter of the population, as we often hear bandied about as a statistic, will suffer some sort of mental health problem during their lifetime. We all know somebody who has been affected, and we ourselves can be affected at any time too. So, we must continue to talk about mental health and we must talk about suicide, but we must also remember that that talk has to go hand in hand with action.