Y Cyfarfod Llawn
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. This meeting will be held in hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings, wherever they may be, will be treated equitably. A Plenary meeting held using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and those are set out on your agenda.
The first item on our agenda is questions to the Minister for Social Justice, and the first question is from Tom Giffard.
1. Will the Minister provide an update on plans for a universal basic income for Wales? OQ56695
I thank the Member for that question. Our programme for government commits us to piloting an approach to basic income as a means to supporting those in greatest need. Work is under way and we have begun designing a pilot, scoping this work and determining how it will be implemented and measured.
Diolch. Can I thank the Minister for that answer? The Centre for Social Justice's report, 'Universal Basic Income: An Effective Policy for Poverty Reduction', argues that UBI is unaffordable, putting at risk the provision of important services in healthcare and in education, adding that it, quote,
'Doesn’t meet the needs of low income households facing complex problems such as drug addiction, dangerous debt, and family breakdown',
'Provides a major disincentive to find work',
'Is no more generous to the most disadvantaged households than the provisions under Universal Credit.
In addition, we also know that studies show that UBI also has a limited effect on people's overall engagement with the labour market, and they also ask whether a higher rated UBI would be so expensive that it's difficult to invest in other essential services, such as the cost of construction of new social housing and the provision of low-cost public transport. So, with the evidence against UBI stacking up, Minister, will you outline which of our public services in Wales you think will need to be cut in order to afford it?
Well, I'm sure that Tom Giffard will have had sight of the very useful and, I think, informative Public Health Wales report, which was just published last week. It does actually suggest that introducing a basic income scheme in Wales could be a catalyst for better health and well-being outcomes for all. Clearly, these are early days. There's a range of views. We're looking at all of the pilots, listening to stakeholders, and, indeed, it's been widely welcomed locally, nationally and internationally that we are progressing with this pilot. Universal basic income is about alleviating poverty, but it's also about giving people more control over their lives and having a positive effect on mental health and well-being. And we're focused on how a small basic income pilot could be designed to support those in greatest need, potentially involving people leaving care.
The Minister won't be surprised to hear that Plaid Cymru is very supportive of UBI, and we look forward to seeing the final proposal from the Government on the pilot. Very quickly, has the Minister approached the Department for Work and Pensions to ensure that there's an arrangement in place so that any basic income payment isn't counted against any recipients who might also be in receipt of universal credit? I'm sure the Minister would agree with me that the last thing we'd want to happen is for those in receipt of a basic income to be worse off in the end.
I'm grateful for that question because, as we take the pilot forward, very much at the scoping and early stages, we are focused on how the pilot could be designed to support those in greatest need, but ensuring that those who are receiving benefits or welfare are not made worse as a result. So, clearly, we then will engage, as we scope the pilot, with discussions with the DWP to take us forward. But, also, we have learnt a lot by drawing on the experience of Scotland who have already undertaken quite a bit of work on this, to ensure that we learn from them because they have already tested this in terms of the UBI trial in Scotland.
I think it's also very important that I draw the Member's attention to the fact that, last year, in fact, the Senedd did also approve and a motion was passed—we have a new Senedd now, but last Senedd—to establish a UBI trial in Wales. So, I think there is great interest, and we need to now take this forward and listen to our stakeholders to make sure that we draw on the experience of Scotland and other countries around the world, that we do the complex work, and then I can ensure that we work together, as far as possible, I think, cross-party, because there's a lot of interest cross-party, even from the former Senedd Member David Melding, who wrote on this in former times.
2. How does the Welsh Government intend to promote equality within the Welsh public sector workforce? OQ56675
I thank Altaf Hussain for that question. The Welsh Government is committed to promoting advancing equality across the Welsh public sector workforce. As well as seeking to be an exemplar employer, we are using our social partnership approach and influence to encourage employers to go further to reap the benefits of a more equal and inclusive workforce.
Thank you very much. Minister, as one of a very small number of Members in this Senedd from the black, Asian and minority ethnic community, I'm all too aware of the challenges that many people face in this workplace, because of their ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation. Recently, the British Medical Association published a charter for medical schools to prevent and address racial harassment. The charter addresses four specific areas: supporting individuals to speak out; ensuring robust processes for reporting and handling complaints; mainstreaming equality, diversity and inclusion across the learning environment; addressing racial harassment on work placement. What discussions has the Minister had with our medical schools to ensure that racism is not to be tolerated? And will you support the BMA charter to give medical students confidence to speak out when needed? Thank you.
Well, I very much welcome the Member's experience and evidence in drawing attention to the charter for medical students. Indeed, I have mentored BAME medical students, who have drawn attention to some of the issues that they faced in terms of prejudice and discrimination. It is vital that our higher education institutions respond to our race equality action plan, currently out to consultation, and that we can incorporate all of the measures, including this charter for medical students, in that response to the race equality action plan. And I was very grateful for your positive response last week, when I tabled a statement on the race equality action plan. It is to seek an anti-racist Wales, and we want to be an exemplar, don't we? So, our medical school needs to be at the forefront of that, but it will result—successful implementation—in a fairer employment market, and a fairer education and training system, and it will also ensure we get those outcomes in terms of health and social services and the workforce in health and social care. But, also, the Hate Hurts Wales campaign, which we launched in March of this year, does raise awareness and understanding of hate crime and encouraging reporting, but airing it today is another message and voice that's been expressed, which I do welcome.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. Welsh Governments have been responsible, as you know, for co-ordination of cross-cutting measures to promote prosperity and tackle poverty in Wales for over 22 years. As the Joseph Rowntreee Foundation reported last year, Wales has retained the highest poverty rate of all the UK nations throughout devolution since 1999. Further, their 'Poverty in Wales 2020' report, last November, found that Wales still has lower pay for people in every sector than in the rest of the UK and that, even before coronavirus, almost a quarter of people in Wales were in poverty, living precarious and insecure lives. And, as the Bevan Foundation also stated, poverty was a significant problem in Wales long before the arrival of COVID-19. What alternative actions do you therefore propose to ensure that the Welsh Government works in real partnership with, and empowers, the voluntary sector, community groups and other social entrepreneurs to help deliver solutions to the long-term problems of our most deprived communities?
I thank Mark Isherwood for that question and, clearly, sharing the concerns of the Bevan Foundation, and, also, pointing to the fact that they are concerned about the sudden withdrawal of UK Government COVID support schemes, such as furlough and top-up for universal credit, and I hope Mark Isherwood and his colleagues would support my call for the UK Government to maintain the additional £20 per week universal credit payment beyond the autumn. In fact, I've written to the Secretary of State, Thérèse Coffey, and told her about our work to maximise income, and this is where, of course, we work so closely with the third sector. But we do have to recognise also how deeply concerned we are about the financial impact of the pandemic and it has fallen disproportionately on those who are already struggling. In fact, that's why maximising incomes and building financial resilience for those who are affected are key. So, although the key levers for tackling poverty—powers over tax and welfare systems—sit with the UK Government, we're doing everything that we can to reduce the impact of poverty and to support those living in poverty.
Thank you. I regret you didn't answer my question, and I quoted various bodies that pointed out that these problems long pre-dated COVID, and they're calling, therefore, for a change of tack. As I stated here last November, the recent Building Communities Trust report, 'Building Stronger Welsh Communities: Opportunities and barriers to community action in Wales', is about harnessing the strengths and skills of local people so that they can build the social infrastructure and shape the services they want and need in their area. After facilitating a national conversation at 20 events held across the length and breadth of Wales, they found that, and these are quotes:
'Disconnect between Government, public bodies and communities is a barrier to community action, despite examples of cross-sector collaboration',
'people in Wales feel increasingly less able to influence decisions affecting their local area...that "worthy words are not being backed up by action"...that public bodies are "doing to, not with" people and communities',
'entrenched public sector ways of working characterised by poor communication, lack of trust, risk aversion, silo working, professional bias and staff demotivation'
are significant barriers to greater community action. How will you therefore be engaging with them and other bodies, such as those I mentioned, to design, deliver and monitor a better way of working across Wales?
Well, I clearly have responded to the very important report that came out this week from the Bevan Foundation. In fact, I made it my business to meet with Victoria Winckler of the Bevan Foundation early on when I had this portfolio for social justice. Social justice has to be about empowering communities, and, indeed, that's what brought me into politics. And it is about engaging with our communities to ensure that we are getting it right in terms of the interventions that we are making. And, of course, as I said, the key levers for tackling poverty, working with our communities, are about making sure that they can get the advice they need to resolve problems with welfare, benefits, housing and debt, but also support for a more generous social wage through our childcare offer, our council tax reduction scheme, our Warm Homes programme and free prescriptions. This is about actually enabling Welsh citizens to maximise their income, and our child poverty income maximisation action plan demonstrates how we have done that. But it is crucial that we take and work with our communities as we address these key issues.
As I've indicated, these were the bodies that made clear these are longstanding problems. Yes, we must treat the symptoms, but we must also tackle the causes. The Building Communities Trust 2021 manifesto for healthier, happier and more resilient communities in Wales begins,
'Every community in Wales has the resources and influence it needs to build community capacity, and develop and run its own social infrastructure.'
One of Diverse Cymru's key asks in their 2021 manifesto is co-production, as they state,
'Legislation, policy and practice must be co-produced with individuals representing the diversity of...Wales across all characteristics to ensure that it respects every individual and advances equality for all.'
And yesterday's Bevan Foundation briefing on poverty, which you just referred to, in Wales this spring stated that a key theme that has emerged is that, without intervention, our recovery is likely to be unequal. What, therefore, if any, specific plans—not restating the aspirational comments that you've been sharing with us for as long as I can remember in this place, and which I almost entirely share with you—do you have to establish genuinely asset-based community development as a key principle within community development, empowering the people of the community and using existing community strengths to build sustainable communities for the future?
I don't think we have any disagreements, Mark Isherwood, in terms of the way forward to empower communities and, indeed, I think, probably in sharing with you during election campaigns in hustings with the Building Communities Trust and hearing some powerful examples of social enterprise community engagement, which you can see in terms of many of the initiatives that we're supporting in terms of tackling food poverty, fuel poverty, and ensuring that our communities are accessing the policies that we are putting forward to address poverty.
You asked me about addressing poverty and how we can engage the third sector. I met with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action last week, and one of the key points being made was the strength of volunteering and the ways in which we need to address inequalities as a result of the pandemic. And indeed, it is very important that you do also join me in calling for the UK Government to address the inequities in terms of our welfare benefits system, which has had such an adverse impact on the lives of people in those communities.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Sioned Williams.
Diolch, Llywydd. Weinidog, we've heard already this afternoon about the recent report published by the Bevan Foundation, which has provided us—as the title of the report suggests—with a snapshot of poverty in Wales during this spring 2021 period. The report makes for shocking reading, I'm sure you'll agree. What's more shocking are the problems the pandemic has exacerbated. The stark inequality it reveals is not new, and even more disturbingly, that inequality is deepening; deepening at a time when many of the protections put in place during the last months for the most vulnerable are now ending.
One of the key issues discussed in the report is the housing crisis that is affecting so many of our people and how it is driven by this inequality. Perhaps the most shocking statistic is that 6 per cent of households have already been told that they will lose their home. That's equivalent to 80,000 households who have already had to or will have to find a new home, and this despite protections from eviction being in place when this evidence was gathered. And it's those most economically and socially vulnerable that are having to deal with this crisis: it's mainly lower income households, disabled people, working-age adults. Clearly, the damage has been done to many individuals and families beset by fear and anxiety due to insecure housing, facing eviction, some of the temporary measures that have supported them, such as the ban on no-fault eviction, which is now being lifted.
I'd like to welcome the new tenancy hardship grant announced today. It will help some people stay in their homes, but for many, risks will remain, and so, with these things coming to an end, the no-fault eviction ban, furlough support, universal credit coming to an end, and these new grants only being processed—beginning to be processed—by mid July, can I ask the Minister what steps she and her Government will take, apart from the tenancy hardship grant and its finite resource, to ensure that people facing housing precarity don't lose their homes and slip through the cracks?
I'm grateful for that question, because it does go to the heart of the need of tackling poverty in Wales and the challenge that we've got. Can I say that having the role of Minister for Social Justice provides a huge opportunity for me and the whole Government to address the issues that you raise? Because we have to tackle that inequality, which some of you might have heard Professor Michael Marmot on the Today programme this morning talking about, and the fact that the deepening of inequalities as a result of the pandemic means that we have to build a fairer, as well as a better, recovery, and that, I'm sure you'll agree with me, is the way forward.
And that's why, in terms of tackling poverty, not just in terms of looking at our own work and the way the programme for government is focusing on the power of all of our collective efforts across the whole Government to address this, we are and I'm sure you would join me in urging the UK Government to change their ways in terms of extending universal credit to ensure that it goes forward in terms of that £20 a week beyond the autumn.
Our advice and advocacy services are absolutely critical to tackling poverty as well. So, you'll be aware of the single advice fund: £9.6 million of grant funding available for provision of advice services during this financial year. That's going to be crucial in terms of supporting those tenants who are now going to be able to access the tenancy hardship fund announced today. But also recognising what we've done over the past year, which isn't going to change: funding of £166 million to local authorities through the housing support grant, because homelessness prevention is critical, and it is where local authorities are playing their part to prevent people from being homeless. Our tenancy saver loan scheme—that's for those low-cost loans available to private sector tenants—those moving into the grant will be crucially important, but working with the Minister for Climate Change Julie James, making sure that we lever in the advice services, Citizens Advice, Shelter, as well as our local authorities, to ensure that that tenancy hardship grant will be backed and supported by all the agencies as well as the local authorities at a local level.
Thank you. The same report has found that one in three households in Wales don't have enough money to buy anything beyond the daily basics. We're talking around 110,000 households, roughly the same number of households as are in the city of Swansea. Hundreds of thousands of people across the nation are forced to borrow money, taking them further into debt, having to cut back on food, heating, clothes, and once again, those who have seen the greatest decline in their income, according to the Bevan Foundation, have seen the greatest increase in their costs of living.
In expanding the provision of free school meals to the 70,000 children in poverty that aren't eligible at the moment, we could decrease child poverty and inequality significantly, by decreasing living costs for parents who find it difficult, and give a better start in life to children. It's an affordable measure. If eligibility were expanded to include every family who are in receipt of universal credit, the additional cost would be £10.5 million. Child poverty and widening inequality is clearly a social justice issue. So, Minister, when can we expect further action on expanding the provision of free school meals by this Government?
Thank you for that question. You know that the Minister has undertaken to undertake a review in terms of free school meals, and I think it is very important again to note what the First Minister said yesterday about the uplift in the take-up of free school meals from 66,000 in January 2020 to 105,000 in January 2021. But I'd also like to draw attention to some of the other ways in which we can particularly support children and families in relation to tackling poverty, and draw attention to the holiday enrichment scheme, for example, which is going to result in many families in our schools, in our communities, who are going to benefit from the holiday enrichment scheme.
But it is going to be through every aspect of Welsh Government, whether it's education, housing through the climate change ministry, in terms of jobs and employability, that we can tackle poverty. We are tackling worklessness, reducing economic inequalities, we're tackling educational inequalities with the pupil development grant, and of course we have the most generous offer of free school meals in terms of the reach out to children during the school holidays. Can I also draw attention to the great schemes that are going on now in the Valleys, in Llynfi valley, Aberdare, Merthyr and Ammanford, for example, with the Big Bocs Bwyd scheme? I think Mark Isherwood might like to visit those schemes as well.
In such a bleak economic landscape, and without the power, as you referenced earlier, to ensure a fairer, more humane welfare system than that on offer from the Tory Westminster Government, the discretionary assistance fund is a vital source of support. While the Welsh Government invested an additional amount of money into the DAF and made eligibility criteria for accessing the support more flexible in response to the COVID crisis, this additional flexibility is due to end in September. So, given this picture painted by recent research and the Government's own data, this is really concerning, given that people will continue to face financial hardship and crisis after this date, and for whom the DAF has provided crucial support during such an exceptionally difficult time. Will the Minister and Welsh Government therefore consider continuing the additional flexibility for accessing the DAF beyond the end of September to ensure that those who need this support are able to access it? Diolch.
We're very proud of what we've been able to achieve in terms of tackling inequalities by ensuring that there is that flexibility in terms of the discretionary assistance payment fund, but also to ensure that more than one payment can be made. That was one of the restrictions to ensure that people could access the fund. It's very much part of our income maximisation action plan, and indeed also will be very much linked to support to be given to private sector tenants, linked to the tenancy hardship fund.
Question 3 to be answered by the Deputy Minister. Darren Millar.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s support for veterans in Wales? OQ56685
Our third armed forces covenant annual report details the wide range of support for veterans across Wales. This year we have seen excellent progress including increased investment in veterans mental health services, funding for veterans to access further and higher education and continued funding of our armed forces liaison officers.
Thank you for that response, Deputy Minister. Last week to mark Armed Forces Week, I took a visit to Adferiad Recovery's headquarters in Colwyn Bay in my constituency. Adferiad Recovery is a service provider to veterans through its Change Step programme, which has operated now for over a decade. Over 3,000 individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder have been supported by that particular programme, and they have provided 57,000 hours of one-to-one peer mentoring support. The cost of that service over the decade has been around £5 million, yet only £40,000 of that has come from the Welsh Government, and yet that is in spite of the fact that for every £1 invested in the service, academic research has shown that it saves the public purse £7 in return. Can I ask the Welsh Government whether it will look at the resources that it makes available to support veterans in Wales, and to see whether there's an opportunity here to invest to provide more sustainable funding to the Change Step programme, which of course operates across Wales and has benefited so many of my constituents and those of the Deputy Minister and others in this Chamber?
Can I thank Darren Millar for his question? I know this is an area that you're very committed to and very passionate about in the work you do with the cross-party group on armed forces as well, and also attend the expert group on armed forces as a guest on that.
The work you pointed out is quite rightly to be applauded, particularly on the back of Armed Forces Week, where many of us in this Chamber paused to pay tribute to those who've served, and those who continue to serve, the veterans and the contribution they make not only to our country, but to our communities right across Wales. The role of the third sector and those charities, we know they're the ones and we've only been able to provide that support to veterans and their families because we've worked collaboratively in partnership. You'll be very familiar with our armed forces scoping exercise, pointing out the progress we've made, but also the work that still needs to be done and where those gaps were. So, I'll most certainly be happy to look at the points he's raised today and come back to the Member, if he'd like to get in touch about that as well.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on child poverty rates in South Wales East? OQ56701
I thank the Member for that question. On Monday I published the progress report on the child poverty income maximisation action plan, and this shows that our first national benefits take-up campaign resulted in an additional £651,504 claimed by those entitled to benefits, including households in south-east Wales.
Thank you, Minister. Wales now has the highest rate of child poverty of any UK nation, with one in three children living in poverty. I worry that we've become so used to hearing that figure that it's lost its potency, so just to remind the Chamber that what that figure—that one in three children figure—means is that thousands of children in Wales are going to bed hungry. They're going into school, into classes, with their bellies empty, but they're also having to deal with the worry and the anxiety knowing that their parents are stressed. They may feel that they have to hide their situation from their friends, so they've got no-one to talk to. What I'm getting at, Minister, is that the impact of child poverty isn't just physical: it's not just about malnutrition or not keeping warm or comfortable, as damaging as those things are; it's also about the emotional strain, the bullying that can happen and the toll that poverty can take on young people's well-being and mental health. What will your Government do to address this hidden issue?
I thank Delyth Jewell for those very important questions. For me, as Minister for Social Justice, I will say there's never been a more important time to do all that we can practically to mitigate the impacts of poverty with the powers and levers that we've got. During the last Senedd term, as you will remember, the First Minister did make that commitment to re-engineer existing funding programmes to ensure that they have the maximum impact on the lives of children living in poverty. And that led to the report that I've just mentioned, and practical actions there. It's not just about maximising the incomes of families living in poverty, but also helping them to build resilience. This goes back to your key points about the impact on people's lives, on their mental health—supporting families to not just increase their income, but also to ensure that they can get into employment and that they can improve the outcomes of children and families. This is, of course, a cross-Government task in terms of backing the Flying Start programme, which has such an important support network across Wales in our most disadvantaged communities. But can I just say that, again, it is important that we look at what we're doing? There's over £60 million in additional funding to local authorities for free-school-meal provision during 2021, an additional £23 million up until 2022, in the next financial year, and the commitment I've already mentioned to review eligibility criteria. Can I say that the school holiday enrichment programme is a real opportunity? The school holiday fun and food programme, and the 'summer of fun' that has already been announced by the Deputy Minister for Social Services—those are going to be the ways in which we can reach out to those children and those families, with the potential for supporting those children in those communities and households that are experiencing poverty.
Minister, the Welsh Government set out in its child poverty strategy in 2015 that its ambition was to make sure no child was living in poverty by 2020. Needless to say, we're now in 2021. Save the Children has reported that Wales has the highest child poverty rate of any nation in the United Kingdom. Figures from 2019-20 showed that 31 per cent of children in Wales were still living in poverty, compared to 30 per cent in England and 24 per cent in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Even before the pandemic, almost 200,000 children were living in poverty here in Wales, with a higher proportion of children affected than at any point in the past five years. Minister, I know you've referred to the central Government on a number of occasions, but the Bevan Foundation has said there is a lack of joined-up thinking on the part of the Welsh Government, with policy too focused on increasing employment and policies not working in harmony. Therefore, Minister, what is the response—what is your response specifically—to the Bevan Foundation, and how will you ensure that an integrated, cross-Government approach is followed to eliminate child poverty here in Wales? Thank you.
I would have to say—thank you for that question—that the research that's been undertaken by the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, the Resolution Foundation, all the respected organisations, does look at the impact of the UK Government's programme of tax and welfare reforms, frozen for four years—benefits frozen for four years—and the fact that this has such an impact in terms of powers in terms of tax and welfare. They sit with the UK Government. So, I hope you will also support the extension of the £20 per week universal credit beyond September. Wouldn't it be good if the Welsh Conservatives were backing that as well? Because we have got to work together to mitigate the impact of poverty and improve the outcomes of people living in poverty. But can I just say how good it was that there was such support yesterday for the Minister for Economy when he announced the youth guarantee? Because employment does give a sustainable route out of poverty—giving that offer to all those under 25. It is about a joined-up approach, of course. Our child poverty action plan is setting out the Welsh Government's objectives for tackling child poverty, and I hope you will read the 2019 progress report and the one that I announced on Monday.
Minister, working and volunteering throughout the pandemic in a third sector capacity, I experienced first-hand the detrimental effects COVID has had on Rhondda families. Loss of income and increasing living costs have sadly seen families and individuals struggling to make ends meet. I'm grateful for the provisions put in place by Welsh Government to support these families, but there is still a very real problem surrounding the stigma of asking for help. What plans do the Welsh Government have to not only help end the stigma of seeking support, but to encourage families who are in desperate need of support to come forward and utilise available provisions, especially over the summer holiday period?
Thank you very much, Buffy Williams, for that very important insight into the impact of COVID on communities, and also the ways in which you were very engaged, I know, as other Members were, in empowering communities and volunteers, which of course increases their esteem and also their capacity. This is about entitlement—entitlement to the benefits that we are now ensuring that they can access, but it's also entitlement to engage in projects like the school holiday enrichment plan.
5. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding prisons and the probation service since the election? OQ56680
The Welsh Government continues to work closely with Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service. I welcome the transfer of all offender management into the National Probation Service. This was completed this week. I have met with HM Prison and Probation Service officials to progress joint initiatives.
Thank you very much, Minister. As you'll be aware, one of the major issues of the justice system in Wales is the lack of specific data for Wales. When HMPPS gave evidence to the justice commission in the spring of 2019, they said that their statisticians were collaborating with those of the Welsh Government to look at the level of recidivism.
I'll turn to English with regard to the next point, because I'll quote exactly what they said. They went further and said that a working group had been established between them and the Welsh Government
'to look at disaggregating data'
in our part of the justice system. My question, therefore, Minister, is: how is that important work going of disaggregating the data in that very important part of the justice system, to have Welsh-specific data? Diolch.
Diolch, Rhys ab Owen. You raise a very important point, a point that I raise regularly with the Ministry of Justice. In fact, I'm meeting a Minister tomorrow—Alex Chalk—and I will raise this issue again. It came so clearly through the Thomas commission analysis; it will be something I know that I will be working on with the Counsel General in terms of our justice sub-committee of the Cabinet. But that data is crucial for us to understand how we can ensure that there are better outcomes in terms of the impact of the criminal justice system on Welsh citizens.
Minister, a recent article in The Lancet highlighted the high number of deaths from coronavirus in prisons, and this is despite offenders being locked in their cells for up to 23 hours a day to stop the spread of the virus. This will be of particular concern in areas around open prisons in Wales, such as the Prescoed prison in Usk in my region of South Wales East. Would the Minister please update us about how she's working with the UK Government Minister and the prison service on a plan to tackle the spread of coronavirus in our prisons, and also how she's ensuring that inmates and communities around prisons are being protected?
Thank you, Laura Anne Jones, for that question. In fact, I met with the executive director of HMPPS Wales today and we had an update on prisons. He did say—and you'll welcome the progress report—that recovery is going well in prisons. They have four levels. The fourth level, the highest level, is when they aren't able to come out to activities and are very much confined to their cells, with level 1 being almost normal service. He actually reported to me today that all prisons in Wales are at level 2 apart from Swansea, which is going to move to level 2 later this week. He also confirmed that there are no outbreaks in prisons in Wales and that staff cases are low. He was very positive about the fact that there is close working with the devolved services that, of course, support our prisons, in terms of health particularly, which is key, but also in terms of the opportunities for prisoners when they leave prison.
I would just like to very quickly say how much I welcome the unification of the probation service. We actually did press for this and we unified it ahead of England back in December 2019. We pressed for it; it wasn't in our powers, but I have to say that a certain Rory Stewart, the former Minister, actually pressed for it as well and we achieved it. But as of Monday, everything is unified; we have a National Probation Service, which will be crucial for the communities and for the people leaving and resettling from prisons across Wales.
6. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to promote cohesion between Gypsy, Roma and Traveller communities and the residents of the Vale of Clwyd? OQ56698
Diolch, Gareth Davies. Through our funding of the community cohesion programme and the TGP Cymru Travelling Ahead project, we provide advice, advocacy and inclusion to foster good relations between communities in the Vale of Clwyd and across Wales, including Gypsies and Travellers.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Denbighshire County Council has, for many years, struggled to find suitable locations for residential and transit Gypsy and Traveller sites. They have explored multiple sites that have turned out to be unsuitable to all concerned. However, Minister, Gypsy and Traveller sites have been secured across north Wales by neighbouring local authorities. Will you accept that a better approach to addressing the needs of Gypsy, Traveller and Roma communities, and the needs of local residents, would be to adopt a regional approach to providing residential and transit Gypsy and Traveller sites?
I don't accept that at all. I hope that you will look at our Travelling Ahead plan as a local Member. Every local authority has a responsibility in terms of ensuring that local authorities provide adequate and culturally appropriate sites where there is a need. Denbighshire County Council—I understand, and we must encourage—has a legal duty to undertake a new Gypsy and Traveller accommodation assessment every five years, but it has not yet succeeded in delivering on its obligations. Let's hope that the consultation goes well. That has to include talking to Gypsy and Traveller families and the wider community, including representative groups, over the summer. It is vital that every local authority in Wales—. We have seen over 200 new pitches created and refurbished across Wales, delivered as a result of the investment. We are currently funding projects of £1.2 million to refurbish existing accommodation, and we have new sites. This is what Denbighshire now needs to do.
7. What progress has the Welsh Government made regarding plans for a community bank of Wales? OQ56668
8. Will the Minister make statement on the progress being made to open a community bank in Wales? OQ56671
Llywydd, I understand that you have given permission to group questions 7 and 8. The private sector proposal to establish the community bank for Wales is contingent on regulatory approval. Operational delivery plans continue to develop in parallel with regulatory assessments and wider Welsh Government evaluation, in order that Banc Cambria can be established at the earliest opportunity post regulatory approval and investment decisions.
Thank you, Minister. I am delighted that this question is being grouped with Jack Sargeant's as well, given that Jack has been such a strong supporter of a community bank. A recent report in the Flintshire and Wrexham Leader highlighted the alarming loss of bank branches in north Wales. Data published by the paper show that Clwyd South is the worst affected constituency in north Wales. Minister, are you able to outline how my constituents will benefit from the creation of a community bank following the loss of all but one bank in Clwyd South?
I'm very glad that Jack Sargeant has also raised this question this afternoon. At the end of 2021, there will be just one bank left serving the people of Clwyd South. The area has lost 80 per cent of its banks since 2015. It puts residents at risk, travelling out of town. The Barclays branch in Llangollen is the only physical bank branch left in the constituency.
The community bank, just to say for Members, is a benefit, and I think that this is well supported across this Chamber. It's going to be a mutual owned by, and run for the benefit of, its members. It will improve access to banking services and access to cash, with multichannel bilingual banking services for people and businesses. It will also be collaborating with the Welsh financial ecosystem, for example credit unions, and will create direct jobs as well. No community banks operate in the UK, but we will be the first community bank to operate. Banc Cambria aims to provide everyday retail banking across the whole of Wales.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Could I just start by thanking the Member for Clwyd South for his kind words—Ken Skates—and also for his work as a Minister to date on the community bank, and the Minister who is responsible now, Jane Hutt, for her commitment to date? Minister, as you have know, I've long championed for a community bank in Buckley in my constituency. Can you update the Chamber on the progress being made to open Wales's first community bank branch in Buckley?
Yes. Well, thank you very much, Jack Sargeant, another champion and pioneer for the community bank bid, alongside former economy and transport Minister Ken Skates, who got this initiative under way, and it is so good that we are taking this forward. I know how hard the Member for Alyn and Deeside—and Buckley, I believe the town council have campaigned for a community bank in Buckley. So, the roll-out and timing of branches are under development by Banc Cambria, and I'm also meeting high-street banks shortly to discuss social justice issues because of the closure of bank branches across the whole of Wales, which must concern the whole of this Chamber.
Thank you for your responses so far to these points, Minister. Clearly, some communities are seeking community banks in their areas. I was wondering how you prioritise which towns and communities would have a community bank in them.
This is the work of Banc Cambria, as they take this forward. I'm very glad that they have sought to meet Members and key people, spokespeople, across the Chamber. They're looking particularly at relationship working and partnership with credit unions, so I can give you an example in terms of Cambrian Credit Union in north Wales engaging with this. It is still a proposal; it envisages in terms of the way forward community banks across Wales, but I'm sure this is going to be as a result of not only our investment, which came formerly from Ken Skates, to conduct that feasibility, but also the prospects for where it is most appropriate and needed to have a high-street bank access point for Cambria.
With bank closures in our towns and villages across Wales being all too common, the vision presented by the team at Banc Cambria is an exciting one. For example, in my region, the constituency of Ogmore has just one bank left, and similar to what we've heard in Clwyd South as well. And, of course, in some constituencies they're at risk of disappearing altogether. The community-based model could have a wider application than just with banks, of course. Has the Minister given consideration to how we may be able to use the Banc Cambria model for other community-led businesses—in energy, for example—and what support will the Government be looking to provide?
And I very much appreciate that this is probably a next step. As the Member said, we need to establish Banc Cambria, we need to address the paucity, the devastation in terms of lack of bank branches. But I think it could be a model, couldn't it, and we will certainly be, I'm sure, building on that with your advice and support too.
Can I first of all say this is certainly an issue that I've raised myself with successive Welsh Governments? I think I raised this first with Edwina Hart, so very supportive in terms of my position in terms of Banc Cambria and the Welsh Government's approach to community banking. I listened very carefully to the answers provided, Minister, but I think what people will want to know, especially where there are towns in Wales, in my own constituency, where there perhaps were three or four banks a few years ago and now there are none at all. I think they'll be keen to understand timescales and when we might actually see that first physical bank appear in that town again. [Interruption.] I know that past discussions—. I'm sure from past discussions—[Interruption.] Sorry; bear with me. Drew, I'm sorry—. I think, from past discussions, Minister, I think there's going to be an issue of a Banc Cambria where they've said that they're going to make a point of going into towns where there are no banks at all. So, I'd be very grateful, Minister, if you could perhaps put some timescales in terms of when we'll see that first physical bank appear in a town for the first time.
I welcome this broad cross-party support this afternoon for the creation of a community bank for Wales. It is tightly regulated, as Members know, the banking sector, so we really have to await the satisfactory conclusion of the regulatory assessment. That's about assurance for investors and future members of Banc Cambria. But what they do—their aim is to open up in the order of 30 new outlets over the next decade.
Thank you, Minister.
And, Russell George, you managed excellently to persevere with your questioning despite the noises off on your Zoom. Well done.
Questions to the Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution are next, and the first question is from Jack Sargeant.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Rees) took the Chair.
1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the legal sector on ways in which social justice could be promoted through legislation? OQ56672
Thank you, Jack Sargeant. I have regular discussions with the legal sector on a range of matters, including legislation relating to justice.
I thank the Counsel General for that answer, and I'm very grateful for your obvious commitment—and long-standing commitment—to social justice. In your conversations with the legal profession in Wales, what references have been made to the legal aid cuts, and do you agree with me that the UK Government cuts mean it is far harder for most people, particularly working class people, to get justice in Wales and across the whole of the UK? And will you also, Counsel General, agree to meet with me and with my office to discuss this issue further?
Well, first of all, yes, I will be happy to meet with you and any other Members in respect of the issue of access to justice and the issues around legal aid. It's an issue which in previous Senedd sessions I've spoken on, and, of course, is a matter that very much engages the concerns, I think, of the judiciary and also of the Thomas commission. When legal aid was introduced in 1948, Viscount Simon, presenting the report, described it basically as an NHS of legal advice and support for the people. He said:
'I therefore commend this Report to the House with this simple reflection, that whatever the difficulties may be in the way of poverty, no citizen should fail to get the legal aid or advice which is so necessary to establish his or her full rights. I hold...that this is an essential reform in a true democracy'.
And I think that comment stands as much today as it did when NHS was in. What is unfortunate, I think, in some ways, is that the ethos of the purpose of legal advice and support is being reduced to an issue of cost rather than it is about fundamental empowerment of people within a democracy. This is an issue that's been raised. Lord Neuberger as president of the Supreme Court raised this particular issue, and basically said that:
'Cutting the cost of legal aid deprives the very people who most need the protection of the courts of the ability to get legal advice and representation.'
And another Supreme Court judge in 2018, Lord Wilson, said that:
'Even where it is required to continue to provide free legal aid, for example to defendants to criminal charges and to parents threatened with the removal of their children, the UK is dismantling it indirectly by setting rates of remuneration for the lawyers at levels so uncommercial that, reluctantly, most of them feel unable to do that work. Access to justice is under threat in the UK.'
And it has been for some time, and you only need to look at the figures over the past decade. In 2011, the real terms value of spending on legal aid in Wales was £128 million; the amount of spend on legal aid now is £80 million—a 37 per cent reduction. A reduction, in fact, compared with a 28 per cent reduction in England, and I think what that does is reflect the actual demand for legal support in Wales has not been so much within the criminal field, but it's been very much within the social arena. Effectively, we have now advice deserts. Welsh Government has invested enormous amounts of money—
Minister, I do ask my colleagues to be brief in their questions; I will also ask Ministers to be brief in their answers as well, please.
Thank you for that, Deputy Presiding Officer. I think, then, I'll just conclude on that particular question by basically saying that the advice and support that's put forward by Welsh Government is an attempt to repair the gap that exists at the moment, but certainly an unsatisfactory repair.
Too many disabled people continue to suffer social injustice because of the barriers to access and inclusion placed in their way at all levels of society. On 24 February this year, the Senedd voted in support of my Member's legislative proposal for a British Sign Language—or BSL—Bill. As a member of the cross-party group on deaf issues in the Senedd since 2003, and as chair of the cross-party group on disability in previous Senedd terms, this is an issue I've long been involved with in both north and south Wales. My proposed Bill would make provision to encourage the use of BSL in Wales, and improve access to education and services in BSL. As you know, however, the vote here in February only noted my legislative proposal, and a Bill therefore needs to be successfully proposed in this Parliament so that legislation can go forward, commencing with a wide public consultation. What discussions have you had, therefore, or will you have with the legal sector on ways in which the objectives of my proposed Bill could be promoted through legislation?
Thank you for the question. Obviously, the issue of individual Members' legislation is a matter for you, and it's a matter for the Senedd. What I'm keen to do is to actually have discussions with the legal profession collectively about the way in which we are able to actually provide the advice and the support that give support to our communities, all those who are actually the most vulnerable and in need. And I'd also draw your attention to the fact that it's the Conservative Government's proposals that, effectively, have excluded legal aid from all those issues of welfare and social areas that used to exist many years ago that now would probably be the substance of support to some of the objectives that you actually have. But I'm more than happy to have further discussions on that issue.
2. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Minister for Finance and Local Government on the effectiveness of the Welsh Government's expenditure on justice? OQ56703
Thank you for that question. I've had an initial meeting with the Minister for Finance and Local Government to discuss budgets for my portfolio responsibilities. As the Thomas commission makes clear, expenditure on justice would be more effective if there were greater devolution, allowing us to take a whole-system approach.
Diolch. One of the oddest things about our devolution arrangement is that almost 40 per cent of the total funding for justice in Wales comes from Wales, despite us having no control in this policy field. To coin a phrase, it's like having the worst of both worlds. As the 'Justice in Wales for the People of Wales' report said,
'Justice should be at the heart of government.'
Can the Counsel General please update this Senedd on discussions with counterparts in Westminster to remedy this anomaly?
Well, there will be discussions that will be taking place in respect of those anomalies, and it's certainly my intention to pursue those and to have a number of meetings to explore the issues of devolution of justice, the issues of devolution of policing, in particular, as well. These are matters that have been raised on this floor many, many times. I think the devolution of police and the devolution of justice are an inevitability, because the logic is there. I think it is unfortunate that in many cases it has been turned as though it is somehow some sort of territorial matter, whereas the real issue about justice and the devolution of justice is how it is part and parcel of our social and economic policy, our social foundations. Justice is a part of that, and it is one of the key levers of being able to fulfil the social objectives that we have.
I now call on party spokespeople to question the Minister. Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. What discussions did the Welsh Government have with the UK Government regarding the second edition of 'Reforming our Union', prior to its publication yesterday?
The 'Reforming our Union' paper was made available in its original form to UK Government, and the reforming the UK—the most recent version that has been published has also been made available to UK Government.
So, from that answer, Minister, I gather that you simply shared the document with them, rather than actually had any meaningful engagement with the UK Government prior to you actually publishing that document. Do you accept that, on the one hand, you can't bang on about the need for mutual respect between two Governments when you aren't giving the Government of the United Kingdom a heads-up when you're publishing proposals that affect the United Kingdom and talk about your agenda for its future? Why do you think that it's okay for you to publish such documents without any engagement when the very first people to carp if such a document had ever been produced by the UK Government would be Welsh Government Ministers themselves, suggesting that it would have been an act of disrespect? Do you accept that you were wrong not to have a discussion prior to the publication of these documents and not to engage with UK Government Ministers on this matter?
I think the Member has very distorted the situation, because every issue that is in 'Reforming our Union', the updated document, is one that is raised time and time again at inter-governmental meetings and with UK Government Ministers. There is absolutely not a single thing there that has not been raised time and time again with UK Government. One of the reasons why it has actually been published is because of the absolute necessity to put this down in writing, and to put it together collectively as a reflection of all those issues that have been raised, that the First Minister has raised, that other Ministers raised, time and time again with the UK Government, but, unfortunately, with very, very little response.
You say that it's an absolute necessity to put these things in writing and to publish this document—a document that is not dissimilar, of course, to the first edition of the document that was published two years ago. Why on earth does the Welsh Government think that now is an appropriate time to be discussing the future of the union, when we've just come through a very difficult period with the pandemic, we've got people waiting—one in three people on a waiting list waiting over a year for their treatment—when we've got schoolchildren having to play catch-up with their education? Don't you think that these are the matters that the people of Wales want the Welsh Government to get to grips with, rather than talking about tinkering with the constitution, which has no significant impact on their lives whatsoever at this present time? Don't you think it's about time you started paying attention to the real issues of the day?
Well, therein lies the problem, you see. I fundamentally disagree with the approach that you've adopted. I think the constitution is absolutely fundamental in what we can do, how we fulfil our manifestos, how we can deliver services, and how we can actually take decisions that really impact on people's lives. And the fact of the matter seems to be that the Welsh Conservatives, or the Conservative Party in Wales, are actually living in denial at the moment. There is a problem. There is a problem that is actually recognised across party; it was recognised by the interparliamentary forum, with many significant Conservative Members of Parliament within that, and representatives of Parliaments across the UK. That recognised that there is actually a crisis in our constitutional structure, that it is not working. If it is not working, then it means that it is impacting adversely on the people and on the way in which services and powers are exercised. So, it does impact on people's lives. It has a very direct effect on people's lives, and it is really disappointing that the Conservative Party in Wales is so in denial, because the way of resolving any particular problem is, first of all, to recognise that there is a problem. And there is a problem, and 'Reforming the Union' is a document that seeks to actually offer a way of resolving those problems, rather than them just being dismissed in the way in which the Member is doing.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson.
You've had your three.
I haven't actually; I've had two.
I thought it was three.
I've had two.
It seemed like three. [Laughter.]
Can we check? Because I'm sure you had one very quick one and then that was answered quickly. [Interruption.] You had a very quick one at the very beginning, Darren.
Did I really?
Yes, I'm sorry to say.
You'll have to await the punchline from the next instalment. [Laughter.]
You did actually ask three, because you sat down on three occasions.
Are you sure I've had three? [Interruption.] I don't believe you, but I'll check.
If I'm incorrect, Darren, I'll apologise afterwards, but I'm pretty sure there were three.
It's allright; I'm prepared to accept it.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhys ab Owen.
Hopefully, that means I have four now. [Laughter.] Diolch yn fawr—
—Dirprwy Lywydd. Rhun ap Iorwerth stated yesterday where he thought the plan unravelled—the basic problem of you protecting the union first and putting the people of Wales second. But, today, I want to concentrate on the implementation of your plan, and whether it does border on the verge of utopia, as quoted by Martin Shipton this morning in The Western Mail.
Firstly, I want to concentrate on the UK Government. The Secretary of State—.
The Secretary of State said immediately that he rejected your plan. We've had a robust argument from Mr Millar today against your plan. It will be impossible to deliver this without the UK Government. The Home Office refused to give evidence to the Silk commission, to their own commission. So, how are we going to get the UK Government to become part of this plan? Are you reliant on a Labour Government in Westminster being elected again, because, if you look at elections and by-elections, that doesn't seem possible any time soon? Thank you.
Well, you raise a very, very valid question. It's one we're asked many times. What do you do when you're in an impasse, where you, effectively, have a UK Government that seems to be oblivious to all the protestations, all the representation, all attempts at engagement that are made, and then the consequences of that are a deterioration in relationship?
Well, look, I think the first thing is this: Governments do not exist for eternity. Governments do change, politics is volatile, and political momenta actually change. So, I don't rule out, firstly, the importance that there are areas where we can make improvements, where there can be engagement, where there are areas of, for example, justice, that we can either deal with in respect of our own powers or through engagement. There are areas where we are engaging at the moment with UK Government in terms of constitutional change, and there have been certain other areas in terms of, for example, the delivery of justice.
But I take this view: when you are in such an impasse, when you recognise that there is a problem that the UK is on the verge of fragmentation—we see events in Scotland, and we see events that are in Northern Ireland, and we even see the pressures that are building up between the central Government in England and the regions of England—where do you actually go? It seems to me that the way to go is to actually engage with the people of Wales on the basis that sovereignty lies with the people of Wales, to build up a consensus and a momentum for support, for political support, but also to find out precisely what the people of Wales actually want in terms of their future: what should happen within Wales, should certain events occur—what should be the nature of that relationship? Because I believe that consensus, if it can be built as a result of a proper process of engagement with the people of Wales, is the strongest force that Welsh Government can have in arguing for and ensuring that there is change.
Mark my words: change is coming. The question is managing change in a particular way that is most beneficial to the people of Wales. But it will be something that will be determined here in Wales. There may be commissions. There is a commission of the Labour Party that's taking place. I'm sure there will be other commissions and events, and our process, which will be a Welsh process, will be one that will feed into any processes where there can be benefit to the people of Wales, but will also seek to build alliances with those who also see the need for constitutional change across the UK.
Diolch, Cwnsler Cyffredinol. But there is a second problem, isn't there? It's not just the UK Government that's not listening. Your own parliamentary Labour Party isn't listening either. The commitment to devolved justice disappeared from the 2019 manifesto; in 2020, after the publication of the commission on justice report, Chris Bryant, in an argument in Westminster, said he was against devolution of justice, and he has previously said that devolution isn't a devolved matter; the shadow Home Secretary has spoken against the devolution of justice in the past; the leader of the opposition has been completely silent about it. How will Welsh Government get their own side, even, to back you with this plan?
Well, we work on the basis of the Welsh Labour manifesto that has been supported by the Welsh Labour Party and which has been endorsed in a Welsh general election. The UK Labour Party has set up its own commission, and has adopted a mandate for that, which I think is one of the most radical constitutional positions, certainly for generations, and that is a process that I think leaves all options that are open in terms of the reformation or the steps that need to be taken in terms of the constitutional issues that are emerging within the UK. So, we will feed into that. We will present our own position as a Welsh Labour Party and in respect of the mandate we have, and also in terms of what lessons are actually learned from the conversation that we're going to have with the Welsh people.
Thank you. May I raise a third problem that you have—not just the UK Government, not just your own parliamentary group in Westminster, but also the rest of the UK Governments? To reform the union you will have to have support from not only the Westminster Government, but also the SNP Government in Scotland, the Northern Ireland Executive—wherever power lies there—and also the English mayors. So, what discussions have you had with other Governments and the mayors? And do you really want us to believe that the SNP Government is going to support these proposals? So, Counsel General, when these problems become too much and when the plan fails, what's plan B? Thank you.
Well, the SNP in Scotland, if we take that first, of course, has its own mandate, and it's a genuine mandate that comes from the people of Scotland as a result of the recent Scottish Parliament election. You will also know that, of course, where there have been common interests between Welsh Governments and Scottish Governments, there has been very close collaboration on a whole variety of constitutional issues. I have met on a number of occasions with my counterparts in the Scottish Government to talk about some of these issues, and, where there is common ground, we will work collectively to achieve the objectives that we have in terms of the benefit of the people of Wales, as they will do within Scotland as well.
I think, in terms of the regional mayors and so on—I think it is very important that there are discussions with those. Those are forms of devolved government; a very different and perhaps a very ad hoc form of devolved government—very different I think to what Kilbrandon, in the 1974 report, actually envisaged, and therein lies perhaps the nub of a much deeper problem as to why we are where we are now. But, as I said in my last answer, I think within Wales what we have to do is to engage and to be clear about where the consensus lies in Wales for change, to build on that consensus and to engage with all those others who would share a common interest in the constitutional reform. As I've said, I think constitutional reform is an inevitability. Unfortunately, there are consequences—there are adverse consequences, if it is not dealt with in a progressive and in a cohesive way. And the most disappointing feature about it at the moment was, in the publication of the reform in the UK Government—is that the UK Government appears to have buried its head in the sand on the issues that really are facing us all at the moment.
3. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the Welsh Government's legal assessment of the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2021? OQ56679
Thank you for that question. The UK Internal Market Act 2021 undermines the long-established powers of the Senedd and Welsh Ministers in matters within devolved competence. In the challenge we brought to the Act, we have been granted permission to appeal. The Court of Appeal notes that it raises important issues of principle on the constitutional relationship between the Senedd and the Parliament of the United Kingdom.
I'm grateful to you, Counsel General, for that response. The question of course was framed before we had that happy news from the court. I'd be grateful if you could confirm that you will provide this Parliament with regular updates on—[Inaudible.]—progresses. My question to you—[Inaudible.]—is this: we've debated and discussed the internal market Act on a number of different occasions during its progress through the United Kingdom Parliament and we debated how that will impact our powers here in this Parliament. I'd be grateful if you, as a Minister, were able to provide us with regular updates in the form of a written statement, perhaps, on how those powers are being used, because I think, in terms of the debate we're having at the moment, it would be useful for all sides of the debate to understand the specific impact of the Act on the governance of this United Kingdom, as well as the general impact in terms of the balance of powers. So, it would be useful for us to understand the specific powers that are being used, what they're being used for and what their impact is having on the powers that are held in his place.
Well, thank you for that. And, firstly, on the statement on the legal action itself, we of course await a court hearing. I did issue—. As soon as I had the notification, I issued a written statement, which you've had, to keep Members informed, and, of course, I will update, as appropriate, as time proceeds.
On the issue of the powers of the internal market Act, yes, I think the request you make is a perfectly reasonable one, that we need to be alert to the way in which those powers are being used, and powers, in fact, in a slightly broader range around the internal market Act—not just those, but the way in which, out of the post-Brexit legislation, the issues of the way in which the emergence of increased concurrent powers, the way in which despatch-box agreements, are being used to, or have been used to, actually bypass sometimes the Sewel agreement, the actual status of Sewel and so on.
But the most recent example, of course, that we're all aware of is when the UK Government published its plan for Wales—a plan that, in fact, breaks all the commitments that were given that Wales would not be a penny worse off as a result of leaving the EU. That was action that was taken, using the powers of the internal market Act, without any engagement with Welsh Government whatsoever, despite the very clear mandate we have in respect of the devolution statutes, the intention of Parliament itself in terms of what the powers and responsibilities of this Parliament actually are. So, that was the first major exercise of those powers, which is ongoing, but there are many more, and it is my intention to comprehensively look at not only the internal market Act but all those other pieces of legislation where there are issues of their relationship to the status and integrity of this place and the way in which they impact on our ability to deliver for the people of Wales, particularly in the areas that we're very concerned about—in terms of food standards, in terms of environmental standards, which are clearly areas that are likely to be impacted, potentially, by UK Government trade deals.
I thank the Counsel General for that answer and the written statement that he has made on the issue. However, Deputy Presiding Officer, his view has been denied by the UK Government, who argue that nothing within the Act changes the legislative competence of the Senedd. And the divisional court ruled that the Government's attempts to overturn the Act using courts rather than the political system were inappropriate, and his predecessor's failed attempt at the court case has already cost an untold amount of civil service time plus £87,458 of taxpayers' money so far. Will he confirm to the Senedd that the Welsh Government will now stop their attempts to try to re-fight the referendum and listen to the will of the people of Wales, who, I will remind him and the Member who brought this question here today, voted to leave the European Union, and not waste more taxpayers' money on appealing this again, and start focusing on the things that matter to the people of my region of South Wales East and Wales, like the recovery of the economy from the pandemic, improving Wales's education and driving down NHS waiting lists?
Well, I thank the Member for the question. I suspect the question was dated before she or her adviser had the opportunity to actually read the written statement that I made, because the appeal was lodged and the appeal has actually been successful, and there will be a hearing on that appeal. And it's very interesting that the appeal court judge recognised the significant constitutional issue that it's raised, which is why that leave was actually granted.
In terms of no powers having been taken away, the fact of the matter is that that is just rankly untrue—for one example, the issue of state aid, which is now a reserved matter but wasn't previously. Now, that is really significant in terms of the way the Welsh Government can exercise its economic powers. But I make the further point to you again in terms of what is important: you're right, when you go onto the doorstep with people, the first thing they don't ask about is the constitution. But if, for example, you go to the people of Wales and you say, 'What do you think about community safety? How safe do you think your community is?' They will start talking about, 'Well, we need to see the police here, we need to make sure there's better engagement', et cetera, and then you have to explain actually that, of course, policing isn't devolved, and people don't understand that. When you talk about the fact that one of our objectives is in terms of equality and social justice and you find out that equal opportunities is a reserved matter. There is an illogicality to what is there, and I'm afraid the Member has fallen into the trap, along with her colleagues, of putting their head in the sand and ignoring what is actually happening in reality and the opportunities that exist to address some of these anomalies.
Counsel General, you've said that you will now bring forward an appeal to challenge this flagrant attack on Senedd competence. From day one, Plaid Cymru identified the threat to our hard-won democratic powers, and the reality is that there is a supermajority here in this Parliament to extend those powers, but the Westminster Government is denying that majority and that mandate. Their actions now are so blatant that even Labour Ministers here who once defended the union are questioning its capacity to deliver for the people of Wales. So, Counsel General, given that you are announcing a national conversation about our future powers, including, of course, the implications of the internal market Act, will you confirm that all options will be discussed in that process, including a contingency plan for the break-up of the UK in the event of Scottish independence or Irish unification?
Well, the precise parameters and the actual nature of the engagement in the conversation that are going to take place have got to be ones that are open. You can't say, 'We're going to have a conversation with the people of Wales about the future of Wales and about these issues,' and say to people, 'By the way, you can't discuss this, you can't discuss that.' I think I have a good idea where some of the consensus may lie, but we will test that when we actually have the conversation. For me, what is going to be important in it is that it engages not only with organised society. I'm very pleased, for example, that Wales TUC are going to have their own commission on the issue of workplace rights and where those powers should particularly lie. I think that is a very significant step forward, being led by Shavanah Taj, the new regional secretary of the Wales TUC. But I think it is also important that we engage with those organisations that have real roots within our communities, but also we have to look at the ways in which we engage with those peoples within our society who don't engage, who have basically given up on the political system. I've said several times—and I'll perhaps finalise on this particular point—we have a crisis of democracy in our country when 40 per cent of people don't vote in UK Westminster elections, 50 per cent don't vote in Senedd elections and 60 per cent don't vote in local government elections. That is a crisis of democracy in my view, and one of the purposes of this conversation is going to be to actually re-engage with the people, to take every step that we can to work out ways in which there can be empowerment of individuals of communities, and also the governance of Wales.
4. Will the Counsel General make a statement on proposals for a standing commission to consider the constitutional future of Wales? OQ56688
Thank you for the question. We are working rapidly to make the commission a reality. We want it to lead a conversation with the people of Wales to find a consensus among citizens and civic society about devolution and the constitution. I will be making further announcements about the commission next month.
We welcome that statement and the focus very much on that wider civic engagement with people out there in Wales. If I can turn, as well, to proposition 20 of the document 'Reforming our Union: Shared Governance in the UK', the second edition, it says there,
'It continues to be our view'—
the Welsh Government view—
'that future constitutional reform needs to be considered from a UK-wide perspective, but',
it goes on,
'there is as yet no commitment from the UK government for that national debate across the UK which is clearly needed.'
So, could I ask the Counsel General how does he see that the work here in Wales may influence the wider constitutional debate in the UK? And what specific actions will he take to persuade the UK Government, or in the absence of a willing partner there for now, then the Parliaments of the UK—including the two chambers in Westminster—and the burgeoning mayoralties across the UK to build that case, that a constitutional convention on a UK-wide basis is needed in addition to the work that may be carried out here in Wales?
Thank you very much for that very thoughtful question, and very difficult question to answer, certainly in the time that the Deputy Presiding Officer is going to allow me. We argued for many years about a convention—a convention being a mechanism for actually bringing all these issues together and deciding on the future of the UK. What is the purpose of the UK? How should it exist? What should its basic principles be? Should it exist, even? So, that issue of a convention has been argued for a long time. One of the problems, to some extent, as you've identified, is that the window of opportunity for such a convention begins to dissipate, particularly when you have moves as they are within Scotland, when you see the problems that are now emerging in Northern Ireland, and also even some of the disagreements that have taken place within England itself. The first thing is there has to be a process that is of ongoing engagement. There has to be a process where we continually seek to engage with the UK Government, and we will continue to make every endeavour to engage in a rational and reasoned way with the UK Government.
I think the point that you have to make out, of course, is that if you have this level of challenge ahead, not tackling it causes problems to increase, and the risk of the fragmentation and break-up of the UK, as the First Minister has said on a number of occasions, is closer than it has ever been in his lifetime, and it's certainly closer than it has ever been in my lifetime. As I say, I think we have to form alliances with those within all parties who recognise that, and I do take some confidence—and you will know from your own involvement in the inter-parliamentary forum, that I was also then involved in—from the actual scale of common agreement that there is across parties, including senior Conservative figures, such as Bernard Jenkin, who was chair of the UK's influential Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee, and across the various Parliaments and the Northern Ireland Assembly as well, when we were able to engage with it, that the current arrangements aren't working, they're not fit for purpose, they are aggravated now by the constitutional change situation that we're in as a result of leaving the EU, and if it's not fit for purpose, then you've got to address it, and the question is how do you actually address it.
So, we will keep calling for that convention, because that is a way of bringing everyone together to actually try to address this in a rational way. But, in the absence of that, we will take our own lead in terms of determining where Wales is. What must happen within Wales is that any constitutional reform must not be something that becomes the diktat of any commission that's based in London or any other part of the UK other than Wales. We have to determine our own future, and, as I've said, I think last week, for me, we have a change in sovereignty from the situation we had when devolution was first established. Then it was the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but since the creation of legislatures, sovereignty now lies with the people and it lies with those Parliaments, and the concept of shared sovereignty is, I believe, the only one that has any credibility and has got to be the basis, I think, for all constitutional reforms for the future.
5. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the legal sector regarding the impact of legislation and guidance on phosphate levels in riverine special areas of conservation? OQ56692
I thank you for that question. I have to say, the subject matter is not one I am deeply familiar with, but I can say that the Welsh Government and NRW are committed to tackling pollution in Wales’s nine river special areas of conservation. I have not had any discussions with the legal sector on this matter to date.
Thank you for that response. I understand that the regulations that impact on rivers in special areas of conservation emanate from the 2017 UK Government conservation of habitats regulations. Despite that, many rural areas feel very frustrated about the way in which this guidance has been introduced, with scant consultation or discussion prior to its implementation with local authorities and housing developers. The planning guidance raises many questions for local authorities, particularly with regard to their ability to fulfil their housing allocations as outlined in their local development plans, and some development plans have now been postponed as a result of this, which does cause all sorts of problems.
In terms of unlocking some of these development sites, there will be a need for confirmation of investment from Dŵr Cymru to treat phosphate levels in those waste water treatment sites that serve the areas in question. Unfortunately, this isn't likely to be announced until 2022 and won't be implemented until 2025. This, of course, is going to cause further delay in the planning process. So, what discussions have you had with Government Ministers on the need to look at the legislative framework in this particular area to ensure that discussions do take place between the major stakeholders and bodies in Wales to get to grips with the concerns that have been expressed? Thank you.
I'm certainly aware of the concerns, and those concerns have been raised in this Chamber in debates on a number of occasions. I'm grateful to you for refocusing on those and raising those again.
There have been a number of ongoing discussions that are there. It's not appropriate for me, really, to intrude on the portfolio of another Minister that has specific responsibility for this area. I know the Welsh Government has established the SAC management oversight group to engage with the relevant stakeholders and to develop and deliver measures needed to help improve phosphate levels in Wales. Dŵr Cymru have also confirmed that they've arranged to meet local authorities on these issues, and I also understand that Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water's developer services team are in contact with local authority planning officers, and they're providing information on phosphate capability. I'm probably limited in actually being able to say anything further specifically on regulations. There is a judicial review that is being dealt with, and it would not be appropriate for me to comment further in that respect.
Question 6, Rhys ab Owen.
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I did have a fourth question after all.
6. What's the timetable for implementing the recommendations of the Commission on Justice in Wales? OQ56678
Thank you for the question. Our programme for government makes clear this Government's continued commitment to pursuing the case made by the commission for the devolution of policing and justice to Wales. The newly constituted Cabinet sub-committee on justice will set our agenda. I will chair that committee, which will meet for the first time on 8 July.
Thank you very much for that response, and I'm very pleased that you are to meet on 8 July. One of the major problems raised by the commission on justice was the lack of co-operation with the justice system in Wales, and there was a clear recommendation to establish a law council for Wales. What's stopping that from happening, and when will it be established?
Firstly, thank you for that and also thank you for, obviously, the very significant input you've made into the Thomas commission work and the report. I will just make this comment that that report, as I think I said at the time, is a report in terms of quality of international quality. Perhaps that's nothing less than you would expect from Lord Thomas of Cwmgiedd, but also the rest of the panel of Welsh expertise within the judicial and legal sector that I think contributed to what is a very important analysis of the judicial system and issues around access to justice and administrative law, and that will have an impact for a number of years.
In respect of the law council for Wales, I can tell you that I have been having various discussions around that. Work is ongoing on that. We've had engagement with the Law Society, who've agreed to act as a secretariat for the establishment of a law council for Wales. And I'm hoping that in the not too distant future, there will be a more formal announcement of the establishment of a law council for Wales. The law council for Wales, of course, will be independent of Government; that is extremely important. I can certainly give this assurance, though, to the extent that the law council for Wales, when it is established, will want me engaged, I will give all the support and encouragement to engage with it as they wish, because I see it as a very important development within the justice sector within Wales, and the development of the Welsh judicial system.
7. What representations has the Counsel General made to the UK Government regarding plans to require photo identification cards in order to vote? OQ56691
I have made clear to the UK Government that the Welsh Government does not wish to see voter ID required for devolved elections. We are concerned about the potential operational impact of this, along with other UK Government proposals, on the administration and accessibility of devolved elections, and on voter experience.
Thank you for the answer, Minister. I am deeply concerned about the impact regarding voter ID and the impact it will have on the electorate in my region of North Wales. The move by the Tory Government in Westminster will very likely suppress electoral turnout, particularly amongst most disadvantaged communities. Putting up unnecessary obstacles to participating in our democracy in this way should be avoided at all costs. So, does the Minister agree with me that elections should be as open, accountable and accessible as possible, and will the Welsh Government work to ensure that photo ID is not required for Senedd and local elections here in Wales? Diolch.
Thank you for that very insightful question, and a very important question in terms of the elections Bill, which has, I think, just been published, the details of it we've only just seen. But I will say that there have been quadrilateral discussions on this; I have engaged with UK Government Ministers on this, and I have a further bilateral meeting imminently to discuss aspects of the legislation and its relevance.
The first thing I think I would say is there is a very different approach from the Welsh Government to the UK Government in elections. Everyone wants to see free and fair elections, but we want to see those elections as open as possible, as transparent as possible, as accessible as possible. We want to see anyone who would like to vote to not only be able to vote as easily as possible and as fairly as possible, but for their vote to be counted, so we're looking at a number of issues around the election system. I have to say that our approach is one of accessibility and openness, and I do not agree with the approach that's being adopted by the UK Government for the introduction of ID cards. Now, the implication may well be that in respect of parliamentary elections there will be a divergence, that they may well have a different process. I will put the arguments that we have as to why we would not like to see that in Wales. It does have implications for the administration of elections within Wales, but of course the UK parliamentary elections are a reserved matter. As far as the Senedd elections are concerned, and as far as our local government elections are concerned, we have no intention whatsoever of introducing or giving support to the concept of ID cards.
ID cards: the logic that's being put behind it is that it is about dealing with voter fraud. Well, in terms of the number of convictions for voter fraud that occurred in the 2019 general election, there were four convictions and two cautions in the whole of the United Kingdom. There is no evidential base for that particular move, and it can only leave you with the one question as to why it's actually being introduced, similar to measures that are also being introduced in parts of America that are being promoted there, and there is a very strong suggestion that this is more about voter suppression than it is about free and fair and open elections. As I say, I will be arguing the Welsh Government's case and putting the position of the Welsh Government in those discussions, and I will update this Chamber and I will update the Senedd in due course when we know more.
Minister, proving that we are who we say we are is not so unusual, whether it is our age to buy a drink or a firework from a shop, or proof to open a bank account, or a driver's licence to hire a car, it is part of modern life and something we are all used to. If it is good enough for those activities, then why not for something as important as voting? Minister, I know that those on the political left see this as an affront to our democracy, when in fact it is to preserve and protect the democratic process itself that photo identification is now being considered. If you are against the idea of voters proving who they are, what other steps do you think should be taken to ensure the robustness of our democratic process?
Thank you for the question. I think you actually put the question in exactly the wrong way, from reverse. The question is: if you want to impose restrictions and checks and balances of all sorts, and you could go much further, then you have to say, 'Well, there has got to be a reason to do it.' Yes, we all want to see a free, fair, open and robust electoral system. I believe we have a free, fair, open and robust electoral system. So, I can only then ask the question: if there is no evidential base to actually make a change that will make it more difficult for people to vote, that may place additional obstacles on people to vote, why is this being done?
And finally, question 8, Sioned Williams.
8. What representations has the Counsel General made on behalf of the Welsh Government regarding the appropriateness of current legislation relating to home-to-school transport? OQ56697
Thank you for the question. Learner travel and the underlying legislation was identified for review by the previous Government. The pandemic, however, impacted the completion of that process. This is now a matter that will be considered by the Minister and Deputy Minister for climate change, within the context of a new programme for government.
Diolch. I'm aware that there were discussions held in the last Senedd term concerning the appropriateness of the current legislation with regard to home-to-school transport. The home-to-school transport legislation currently in place does not provide free transport to primary school children if they live within two miles of their school, or within three miles for a secondary school pupil.
Now, we've all heard of cases, I'm sure, across this Chamber, from our constituents where children are having to walk long distances to school, often in the dark in winter months and in the rain, sometimes for over an hour, as in a case brought to my attention recently in Neath Port Talbot. Unfortunately, there's also an issue of social justice here at play. Whilst pupils from middle-class backgrounds can often benefit from a lift to school from their parents, or pay for spare seats on local authority transport, pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds don't always have that luxury and often can't afford to pay for private bus passes or for normal fares. The system seems unfair and I think it needs changing. Have you therefore held discussions with Ministers of the Welsh Government around this issue? Do you believe that there is a need and a will to change legislation in this area? Diolch.
Well, the issue of the legislation and its adequacy is clearly a matter that's under review. The Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 has had a number of representations since and, of course, there have been a lot of demographic changes as well. The Measure set out the legal framework specifically related to travel and transport, and there's correspondence not only from Members of the Senedd, but also from the Welsh Language Commissioner, from members of the public and from the Children's Commissioner for Wales for a review of the Measure. So, that review, as I said, has started. It's not completed, but it's under way, and the relevant Minister will, of course, be reporting on the outcome of that review in due course.
Thank you, Minister. We will now suspend proceedings to allow changeovers in the Chamber. If you are leaving the Chamber, please do so promptly. The bell will be rung two minutes before proceedings restart. Any Members who are arriving after a changeover should wait until then before entering the Chamber.
Plenary was suspended at 15:12.
The Senedd reconvened at 15:21, with the Deputy Presiding Officer in the Chair.
Item 3, questions to the Senedd Commission. All questions are to be answered by the Llywydd. Question 1, Rhys ab Owen.
1. Will the Commission make a statement on efforts to protect the Senedd to ensure that Members and staff are safe? OQ56682
We have a range of security measures in place to protect Members and staff. We work closely with South Wales Police, who provide an armed presence, we have access to other security and intelligence services, and we do background checks on all pass holders. Security officials from all UK legislatures keep in regular contact to discuss arrangements and concerns. Our security officers provide regular security briefings, including one-to-one advice, and we advise and support Members and their constituency offices on security matters.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. It was good to see the public gallery open yesterday, and hopefully other areas of the Senedd will be able to reopen to the public soon. What steps has the Commission taken to ensure that the Senedd estate is safe, in relation to COVID, for all building users?
This is a public building. The Senedd belongs to the people of Wales, and the people of Wales must have access to their Senedd. We've ensured, over the past year, that our work as a Senedd is accessible in a safe way throughout the COVID pandemic by ensuring that that access is available online. But, of course, we want to reach a situation where people again are part of our estate here, not just us as Members and staff members. So, we will take the specific steps, when safe to do so, to ensure increasing use of the estate, but we have to do that within the current recommendations, social distancing in particular, to ensure the safety of our staff, our Members and any visitors to the estate.
2. Will the Commission make a statement on the introduction of job-sharing arrangements for Members of the Senedd? OQ56696
The work conducted during the fifth Senedd by the expert panel on Assembly electoral reform and the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform highlighted a range of benefits of job sharing in the Senedd, including the potential to improve diversity within our Parliament. The expert panel and committee also set out the legal and practical challenges involving democratic accountability that would need to be overcome to allow for job sharing for Members of the Senedd. Introducing job sharing arrangements for Members would require legislative changes, as well as public awareness and understanding of how elected representatives would undertake their role.
Thank you. We know that there are a number of barriers for groups that aren't sufficiently represented, such as women, from standing for elected office. The long hours can be difficult to deal with, particularly in light of childcare responsibilities, caring responsibilities or other responsibilities. As you've mentioned, during the last term of the Senedd, two reports recommended that job sharing should be allowed if that was openly explained to constituents, and that it should be cost neutral. The Senedd committee on electoral reform called for a commitment to take legislative steps early in the sixth Senedd to reform our legislature and to strengthen our democracy in Wales. How do you see this agenda being developed on a cross-party basis, and what time kind of timetable do you anticipate before legislation is brought forward?
Thank you for that question. The fact that the question has been asked, and other matters this week, have reminded us of the interest that there is in job sharing to promote diversity. Looking back at the work of the committee on electoral reform, one of the recommendations made by that committee was for the sixth Senedd, early on in its term, to be establishing a cross-party group to look at the practical steps that needed to be taken to promote job sharing. Job sharing can mean sharing as a Member of the Senedd and the barriers that you've referred to—legislative barriers—and some of the issues that would need to be overcome, but also, of course, job sharing as we've already discussed this week in terms of some of the functions within the Senedd where there is no need for legislative change but there is a need for detailed consideration of how that can be achieved. In terms of a timescale, as you requested, the recommendation of the committee on electoral reform mentioned that we need to take swift steps to establish that cross-party group to look at the next steps. I will be discussing across parties to ensure that we look at the steps that do need to be taken, and I will do that early on during the term of the Senedd.
My question really is about looking at job sharing for Members at the Senedd. You, Presiding Officer, and the Deputy Presiding Officer, effectively job share controlling Senedd proceedings. Will the Commission look at allowing job sharing for other posts, such as committee Chairs and commissioners? I heard what you said in the answer to the last question, but I think that this is something that doesn't even need a change in Standing Orders; it's just something that perhaps we ought to look at, and be allowed to test it. I don't know if it's going to work; it might be a complete and utter disaster, in which case, you can change back relatively easily. If the first thing we do to test out job sharing is have two people standing for election, and it turns out to be a disaster, we've got five years of suffering with it for being a disaster.
Thank you for your views on that. I agree. As I answered to Sioned Williams, there are a number of various roles that this Senedd has that could look at how they could be undertaken via job sharing. Some of those are, as you say, Mike Hedges, within current legislation, and would require just changes to Standing Orders, and also some clarity on the procedures involved. The committee on electoral reform proposed a working group to be set up early in the term of this Senedd to look at the various aspects of job sharing that could work—and we do need to remember this—for the purpose of increasing diversity. That reminds me, of course, that, on reflecting on how we elected Chairs yesterday—and I congratulate all Chairs that were elected yesterday—two thirds of our Chairs were men elected yesterday, and 100 per cent of them were white, and that's neither reflective of Wales, or indeed, reflective of this Senedd, and therefore, it reminds us how we need to work to ensure that we are promoting diversity in every aspect of our work.
3. Will the Commission make a statement on the payment of the real living wage to Senedd employees and contractors? OQ56689
The Living Wage Foundation rate for the United Kingdom, excluding London is currently £9.50 per hour. The minimum entry pay for Commission employees is currently £10.50 per hour. The previous Commission agreed that, with effect from April 2020, all Commission contract staff should be paid in line with the minimum entry pay for Commission staff. Therefore, the minimum pay for all contractors is also £10.50 per hour.
I welcome that answer, and I pay tribute and acknowledge the work of other Members in the fifth Senedd who pushed this agenda very, very hard indeed there, because of the importance of our democratic heart here of Wales as a nation, leading by example.
I wonder if I could ask whether there is more now that we can and should do to lead by example, either in omissions that we might not currently be aware of that we can cast our mind to, or alternatively, by actually sharing the experience of an institution like this with others in how we do actually promote the real living wage, not simply to the employees, but further afield, deep down beyond the organisation to everybody who touches this organisation?
Yes, indeed, and I think we can be proud as an employer that we do now employ all our staff and our contracted staff above the real living wage, and I pay tribute in particular here to Joyce Watson who has championed this in the last Senedd, and in the Commission. And, I think that, hopefully, we can think about how our example here of working with our contractors to ensure that the real living wage, above the real living wage, is paid to contract employees shows that, by discussion, we can get to a place where nobody working for us, with us here in the Senedd, is at a disadvantage, whether they are directly employed, employed by Members of the Senedd, or employed by our contractors.
4. What is the Commission doing to support the white ribbon campaign? OQ56673
In the past, the Commission has supported the White Ribbon campaign by holding an annual event in the Senedd and by raising money through the sale of white ribbons in the Tŷ Hywel and Senedd shops. Coronavirus restrictions continue to impact our ability to host in-person events, but we will continue to show support for the White Ribbon campaign by raising awareness on our social media channels and by posting notices on the Member and staff intranets.
During the pandemic, the Commission has been mindful of the increased risk of incidences of domestic abuse as homeworking has been the norm, and has implemented and communicated increased measures of support.
Diolch, Llywydd, and Llywydd, you will know I'm a very proud White Ribbon ambassador, and I am passionate about spreading the message that all men should make, and importantly, mean the White Ribbon promise. I know that you yourself, and other members of the Commission, both past and present, are powerful champions for this cause, and, as you've said, you often support the cause and have done over many years.
In the last Senedd, the Commission were looking at the possibility of becoming White Ribbon-accredited, and I'm keen to understand the progress that has been made on that issue.
Yes, Jack Sargeant, thank you, and thank you for pursuing this with us as a Commission, and I hope that you feel that you're knocking at an open door when it comes to promoting White Ribbon.
After saying that, I am going to have to say that despite our interest in becoming White Ribbon-accredited, I'm sorry to have to hide behind the pandemic for the reasons for not having achieved this to date. But having put in place more practical support measures for our staff in the context of the pandemic and working from home, I think it is now right for the new Commission to look again at what you've proposed previously, and proposed again today, at White Ribbon accreditation, and we will do so, as a Commission.
5. Will the Commission make a statement on its ICT policy for the sixth Senedd? OQ56681
The Commission’s policy is to provide secure and adaptable ICT services that allow Members, their staff and Commission staff to work efficiently and flexibly. By way of example, all users have the option to select mobile devices to support flexible working and Commission applications and information can be accessed via a cloud service.
I'm grateful to the Presiding Officer for that. I was profoundly shocked to read section 2 of the policy, where it states very clearly that the Senedd Commission may without notice check and make and keep copies of all information, which includes, but is not limited to, telephone calls and any electronic communications, stored information, data sent, received created or contained within the Senedd ICT system. These are extraordinary intrusive powers that the Senedd Commission seems to have granted itself, and far more intrusive than would be available to either the police or the security services, if they were investigating criminality without seeking judicial approval. And, it appears to me, that this level of potential spying or snooping on elected Members, doing their work on behalf of the people of Wales, is wholly and completely unacceptable. I would ask this Senedd Commission to urgently withdraw this part of the policy, rewrite this policy, with the collaboration and cooperation of Members, and then we can have a policy that all of us feel a part of, and where we don't feel that we're being treated as criminals.
I can assure Members of this Senedd that they are not treated as criminals, neither does the Commission use any of this guidance for the purposes of spying or snooping, and I'm comfortable then in working with Members and Commissioners to give the reassurance, and to review this policy, if needs be, and, therefore, we can do that. But this policy is in place to both protect Members and, also, to ensure, if investigations of abuse of any kind or criminal behaviour have been undertaken by any Member or member of staff, that there is the ability to look into that information. But the ability to do that is done in light of restrictions that we have placed on ourselves, and it's not, in any way, any fishing exercise that can happen by the Commission. But, as I said, I'm perfectly happy, now that it's been raised in questions here, to provide any reassurance and to review, if necessary.
6. Will the Commission confirm its meeting arrangements for the forthcoming term? OQ56705
Commissioners were appointed for this Senedd on 23 June, and the intention is that their first formal meeting will take place before the end of term. The Commission meets two or three times each term usually, and is able to meet as demand needs. The Commission governance principles and supporting provisions are published on the website.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Just reflecting, as a new Member into the Senedd on this intake, there seemed to me to be a bit of disconnect between some of the new proposals, which the Commission were bringing forward in rules and rule changes in our working, and what Members were actually seeking. So, just wondering, with that meeting arrangement and timetable in place, how will you be using those meetings and making sure we're engaging with Members, informing Members, as to any potential changes in the future?
Well, thank you for raising that, and I'm aware that there have been a number of issues that have been of interest to Members, new and old, on some changes that have happened, as a result of some Commission decisions or other decisions, and making sure that Members feel that the decisions that are taken are taken on their behalf, and in consultation with Members is important to me as chair of the Commission and I'm sure the other Commissioners as well, and we need to make sure that we are continually improving on this. I suggest that all Members always read their e-mails. Whatever you might be complaining about may well have come to you in an e-mail at some point, and this isn't particular to you, Sam Rowlands, as you're a new Member. But sending out e-mails is not a particularly effective, always, way of communicating and consulting. So, we need to improve on that.
I'm particularly keen as well that the Commission engages with Members, but also that we engage with the groups, possibly more formally than we have done to date, and the group staff, so that we make sure that any decisions that are taken are well enough consulted upon and informed so that the Commissioners take the best possible decisions on behalf of Members and nobody feels bounced by any particular change of rule that's taken place. That's not to say that all Members will always agree with any decision that the Commission changes and takes, but at least they need to be informed decisions.
7. What steps is the Commission taking to increase biodiversity on the Senedd estate? OQ56690
Despite limited green space on our estate, the Commission has made significant improvements in recent years to encourage biodiversity. We introduced two beehives a few years ago, and added a third beehive last summer. We have improved habitats to support pollinators, including a range of flowering plants in the Tŷ Hywel car park, and the wildflower strip alongside the Senedd, which this year is hosting a range of orchids. In our new carbon neutral strategy, we commit to doubling the amount of green space around the estate—something we have already begun working on—to increase both biodiversity and well-being.
Thank you for that answer. Since joining the Senedd last month, I was really pleased to hear about some of the measures in place to encourage wildlife, including the bees on the Pierhead building. I would like this Parliament to lead the way in terms of using innovative techniques to encourage biodiversity, and will the Commission commit to investigating ways to encourage native species on the estate here in Cardiff bay, including the planting of wildflowers on unused ground? It sounds like you are already doing that, so that's wonderful, thank you.
Yes, and we're keen to increase what we do. And I heard your question to the Deputy Minister last week, and I understand that you have a new role in particular on promoting biodiversity and wildflower planting. And certainly if you're interested, as Jenny Rathbone has been a champion of many of these issues in the Senedd to date, then the Commission staff and us as Commissioners would be keen to work with you and to bring your ideas also. We do work with our Commission staff—with those particularly interested in promoting this—to see how we can improve the opportunities available for biodiversity on our estate, given, of course, that we have limitations in the urban environment that we're in, but also with the limited land that we have on our estate. But that's not a reason not to improve. So, I look forward to working with you—old and new Members—with new ideas on how we can improve this into the next—into the sixth—Senedd.
8. What steps are being taken to build on the votes at 16 campaign to ensure that more young people have the opportunity to engage with the Senedd's work? OQ56707
We’re currently evaluating the success of the votes at 16 campaign, and will use this insight, alongside data on election turnout, to inform our future approach to engaging with younger people. Over the past year, the use of virtual sessions with schools and youth groups have proved invaluable in reaching wider audiences. We’ll continue to build this into our offer for younger people during the sixth Senedd. The campaign for the second Welsh Youth Parliament is under way, with candidate nominations launching on 5 July. This will become the crux of our engagement work with young people over the next two years.
Excellent. Thank you very much and thank you also for the role that you played in ensuring that young people of 16 and 17 did have the right to vote in this year's election. Although many young people took that opportunity, I'm very pleased to hear that you will be looking at the effectiveness of that campaign, but I'd also be interested to know whether that research will also include those who chose not to vote on this occasion. I hear from a number of young people who were very excited about the opportunity to vote that they'd found it difficult to encourage their peers to raise their voice too, because they didn't feel that they were sufficiently informed and felt that they didn't understand this place well enough. So, given that many people who are now 11 or 12 years old will vote in five years' time, is there any intention to find out why people chose not to vote too in order to draw up a strategy for the future?
That is a very important point, and also, of course, the challenge in ensuring that young people register to vote in the first instance. Those two things are linked, and both things are very important. So, we will need, as we reflect on the election and the experience that young people have just had of receiving the right to vote at the ages of 16 and 17, on how they decided to vote and on why a number of them decided not to vote—. So, both aspects of that work and those two cohorts are very important. It's important to discuss with those who did vote and those who chose not to exercise their new right, or weren't even aware that they did have the right to do that. So, yes, I agree, hearing the voices of all of the young people is very important as we think about how we prepare for future elections, including, of course, the fact that local government elections will be held next year, and there'll be a new cohort of young people who'll have the right to vote the first time.
Thank you, Llywydd.
The next item is topical questions, and the first is from Mabon ap Gwynfor.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's eviction policy? TQ557
Can someone unmute the Minister? There we are, Minister.
Diolch. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Welsh Government has negotiated a policy of no eviction into homelessness with all its social landlords across Wales. There is no eviction policy in the private rented sector, and the Welsh Government has, in fact, taken unprecedented steps to support tenants, preventing homelessness and supporting them to remain in their homes.
Thank you for that response, Minister. As we've already heard this afternoon, regulations safeguarding people from evictions are to come to a close partially today. The news on the grant for people who are having difficulty in paying their rent is to be welcomed, but there is a risk that this will be entirely insufficient to meet the real demand.
But also the Government doesn't have a particularly good record of ensuring that support reaches those people who need it most, if you look at the fact that 1,500 people have expressed an interest in the tenancy saver loan and that only 41 received any support, and tens of thousands of people more are about to find themselves in a financially vulnerable situation if the Bevan Foundation research is correct.
We've already heard that the Government is funding councils to tackle homelessness, but the sad truth of the matter is that many county councils continue to house people in hotels and bed and breakfasts. There's a very real risk that we will see an increase in the number of people who are homeless as a result of this, never mind the fact that the eviction policy is to come to an end entirely in September, just as furlough comes to an end. Shouldn't all steps possible be taken to ensure that people don't become homeless in the first instance, and what steps will you take to ensure that there is more appropriate housing available to house people who will find themselves homeless in the short term? Thank you.
Thank you for the question, which I'm sure comes from a real, shared desire, as I know everyone in Wales has, to make sure that we tackle the scourge of homelessness, especially with preventative measures. I'm extremely proud of the measures that everyone in the sector has taken across Wales during the pandemic, and we easily have the best record in the UK nations of making sure that people have not been homeless on our streets through the pandemic. Everyone in the sector has absolutely worked their socks off, coming together across Wales from both the statutory and voluntary sectors to make sure that that can happen.
We are still funding local authorities to the tune of just under £2 million a month, in addition to the normal funding that we give them, in order to ensure that people presenting as homeless right now are still treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve, and are housed in temporary accommodation. I absolutely accept that that temporary accommodation is a range of different services—of course it is, because we have an unprecedented situation in front of us.
We are currently seeing around 1,000 presentations of homelessness to local authority services each month, and we are currently seeing an average of around 400 of those people being moved into permanent accommodation. Members who were here in the last Senedd will know, because the Senedd agreed with us in funding local authorities to step up the pace of house building during the pandemic—. And you'll also remember, I'm sure, that we kept the construction industry open and running through all of that in order to do that. So, actually, 400 permanently housed people a month is an extraordinary effort by local authorities and registered social landlords and other house builders to get the housing built that we want.
I'm absolutely determined we will not have a going back to rationing in the housing sector and that we will continue to ensure that people who require homelessness services are treated with the dignity and respect that they deserve. We are currently working at pace to get our Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 implemented, and that will address a number of the issues that Mabon has raised in his question. We are working at pace to do that. There are real complications, which the Deputy Presiding Officer will not thank me for going into in the amount of time I have in a topical question, but I'm more than happy to discuss it in a cross-party way, as we have on a number of other occasions. And that will make a huge difference. Of course, today, as you rightly pointed out, we've announced that we have the grants system going into effect. You are right to say that the loans were not as effective as we'd have liked, for a range of reasons, and so what we're doing is we're announcing a grant now. There will be eligibility criteria for that. Our local authority partners, who've worked with us so hard during the pandemic to deliver services, will be delivering that on behalf of the Welsh Government, through the hardship fund. And I'm delighted to say that we've had agreement from the Welsh Local Government Association in the Government in order for that to be facilitated as soon as possible.
We are very worried about the housing crisis in Wales. Very recently, Plaid, quite rightly, brought a debate on the housing crisis, in Siân Gwenllian's name, to the Senedd—a motion that we did not amend, because we entirely agree. The true nature of the crisis is the real problem that we have with the pipeline, if you like, to homelessness. And so my colleague Jane Hutt has facilitated with us a series of advice and funding to advice agencies to assist with relationship breakdown issues and individual counselling and guidance, including debt guidance, mental health support and so on, in order to prevent that happening. And I'm working very closely with my colleague Lynne Neagle as well in making sure that substance abuse and mental health support is available in the sector.
I want to finish just by thanking the sector from the bottom of my heart, actually, for the work that they have continued to do throughout the pandemic and for the work they are still doing now to make sure that, in Wales, we have no real return to the streets and that those people who are still rough-sleeping, in tiny numbers in Wales, have outreach workers assigned to them, and we're working hard to get them into services.
I place on record my own interest in property within the private rented sector.
Now, as the National Residential Landlords Association reported in January, around 60 per cent of our private landlords have lost rental income as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Twenty-two per cent have lost more than £5,000, and 36 per cent have reported that losses are continuing to increase. Their bills have to be paid, and, if the contract is breached, sometimes eviction is the only way in which a landlord can protect their own livelihood.
Now, the reality of the matter is that, if the Welsh Government pursues a less than supportive direction for our valued private sector landlords, this could see around a third of our privately rented housing stock taken off the market or moved into the holiday let/Airbnb sector, which is already tempting some fed-up landlords as it is so much more lucrative and, frankly, a lot less hassle. This would make it harder for people to find a home. It would push up the cost of rent in remaining properties. Now, I'm sure that Plaid Cymru would not wish to support those outcomes, so it is time that they worked with us all, cross party, to ensure that both our tenants and, indeed, their property owners—
Will you ask the question now, please?
—have a fair deal. Yes. The end of legal measures to prevent evictions is a good start. So, it is important that tenants are supported to move into properties they can better afford. So, Minister, will you consider policies such as the introduction of deposit passporting? Diolch.
Thank you for the question. I think I understood it to be, right at the end there, the introduction of deposit passporting. We have a range of measures we're happy to look at in the private rented sector to enable tenants to move between households, where that's necessary for their families, and, as I've said, we're working hard in implementing the renting homes Act, which will allow greater protection for tenants in the rented sector. If Janet Finch-Saunders is very concerned about landlords who are losing income, she would do very well to refer them to our scheme, which would allow them to transfer their house into local authority control for a guaranteed income at the local housing allowance level. Over a large period of time, the scheme has proved very popular with landlords, who no longer have to have the 'hassle'—as she put it—of having tenants. It allows the tenant security and it gives them a secure income, benefiting all parties. So, if she's that concerned, I would highly recommend that she recommends that scheme in a widespread way to her landlord connections.
She's right in saying that we have a large number of reasonable landlords across Wales, to whom we're very grateful. They work hard to make sure their tenants are well looked after, and, in return, of course, they will be grateful that the tenant is now able to get a grant to repay the rent that they were unable to pay through no fault of their own as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. We're not talking about some kind of scurrilous tenant who's wilfully withholding rent; we're talking about perfectly reasonable human beings who find themselves in a situation that they cannot control through no fault of their own, which is why this Government is prepared to step in and assist both them and, of course, the landlords, who then receive the money, and the Government also prevents the human catastrophe of large numbers of people becoming homeless, which we all I'm sure wish to see.