Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd14/03/2017
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call the National Assembly to order.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and I have received notification, under Standing Order 12.58 that the leader of the house, Jane Hutt, will answer questions today on behalf of the First Minister. Question 1, Nick Ramsay.
Business Rate Revaluation
1. Will the First Minister provide an update on support available to businesses affected by the business rate revaluation? OAQ(5)497(FM)
The Welsh Government has announced an extra £20 million to support businesses affected by the rates revaluation—£10 million through our transitional relief scheme and £10 million for high-street rates relief. This is in addition to our £100 million small business rates relief. We’ve acted to provide certainty and security to ratepayers in Wales affected by revaluation.
Thank you for that answer, leader of the house. Businesses in my constituency continue to be deeply concerned by the business rate revaluation. Whilst any additional support is welcome—I hear about the relief that your Government has announced—the additional discount is a drop in the ocean for those businesses facing the biggest hikes. What assessment has been made of the number of businesses who will not benefit from the scheme of support that the Welsh Government is putting in place, and will the Government look again at raising the threshold at which businesses start paying business rates in order to avert some of the large-scale business closures that I fear are going to happen after April?
Our £10 million transitional rates relief scheme will assist businesses whose entitlement to small business rates relief would be adversely affected by revaluation. Our £10 million high-street rates relief specifically targets businesses in your constituency. I know there are high-street ratepayers, including shops, pubs and cafes, and, of course, we listened to the concerns and responded to the small businesses in Wales. These are bespoke-funded schemes, and, indeed, they are in addition to our £100 million small business rates relief. As a result, three quarters of businesses will receive help with their bills in 2017-18.
Leader of the house, as a result of revaluation, the average rateable value in Rhondda Cynon Taff has decreased by 6.1 per cent. With this being a fairly common pattern across the area, what impact could this have on the Welsh Government’s policies towards promoting economic prosperity across the south Wales Valleys?
Well, of course, the statistics that were published by the valuation authority show that total rateable value will fall in all of the Valleys authorities. That does mean that the majority of ratepayers in these areas will benefit from a reduction in their bills, and we’ve acted to provide that additional support to businesses through an extension of £100 million small business rates relief scheme. But, of course, Business Wales, and all the other levers that will assist businesses in your constituency, will have a bearing on economic opportunity, including the city deal, in which Rhondda Cynon Taff is a key partner.
Notwithstanding the point made by the Member for the Cynon Valley, this is fundamentally an unfair tax. It’s wreaking economic carnage on our high streets. Isn’t it time just to scrap this tax altogether and replace it with something like an internet sales tax?
Clearly, this is an issue where we have worked over a period of time, as a very pro-business Government, to take action to help new and existing businesses, and to indeed look at the impact not just in terms of revaluation, but our business support scheme. We are looking at a new permanent scheme in terms of small business rates relief from 2018, and it’s important to target support in ways that reflect the needs of Wales. We have engaged as widely as possible about our schemes in the short time available between the Valuation Office Agency’s publication of its draft rating list and the date by which these regulations had to be in place. But it is their scheme. We have to make sure that it redistributes the amount payable between properties, reflecting changes in the property market. That’s their responsibility.
Leader of the house, the business rate revaluation is putting our high street at risk. Many small businesses are facing huge hikes in their rates bills, yet their turnover is not increasing. For many, the only alternative is to seek rental properties with smaller rateable values off the high street, and this could be the final straw that breaks the camel’s back for small, independent high-street retailers. The UK Government’s latest budget proposes a cap on the business rates increases for those small firms set to lose their rate relief. Leader of the house, will your Government consider doing something similar for small high-street retailers here in Wales?
Can I just make it clear that we’re doing more than the UK Government? If you look at the funding for the rates relief measures that the Chancellor announced last week, it would amount to just over £12 million. If we’d relied on that, it would have meant £8 million less support for small businesses in Wales. We’ve got two fully funded bespoke schemes. I’m sure many of the businesses in your constituency will particularly benefit from those two—not just the transitional scheme, but also the new scheme that is specifically targeting those high-street ratepayers.
Energy Efficiency in Homes
2. What consideration has the First Minister given to prioritising energy efficiency in homes as part of national infrastructure policy in Wales? OAQ(5)0504(FM)
Investing in housing, including its energy efficiency, is already an investment priority in the Wales infrastructure investment plan. Our long-term vision and the actions we are taking in this important area are set out in the energy efficiency strategy, published last year.
There is a lot of excellent work already being done in Wales, but putting domestic energy efficiency alongside other nationally important infrastructure programmes could have multiple benefits, including dramatically boosting efforts to tackle fuel poverty, providing those warm and cosy homes, improving the health and well-being of our older citizens, reducing the carbon emissions through energy efficiency, reducing energy consumption, reducing the number of new power stations we need to build, and creating thousands upon thousands of jobs in every street and every community throughout the land. So, far from being a win-win, it would be a win-win, win-win, win-win, ‘ac ati’. As we await the results of the recent consultation on the national infrastructure commission, could I ask the leader of the house and the First Minister and his Cabinet to consider seriously the huge potential for Wales of putting energy efficiency as national infrastructure and the transformative effect if could have on future prosperity and well-being?
Well, I concur completely with the Member. If you look at the opportunities that we have in terms of our infrastructure, not only delivering on our carbon reduction commitment, but the multiplier benefit effect on so many outcomes: better insulated homes, tackling fuel poverty, helping health, education and well-being outcomes, creating jobs and economic activity. But I will say that it is important that we’ve been refining the remit and terms of reference for the proposed national infrastructure commission for Wales following our response to the feedback from consultation. It will include economic and environmental infrastructure, including energy, and it will be looking at the interactions with social infrastructure on housing and cross-cutting delivery issues.
Cabinet Secretary, our housing stock is amongst the oldest in Europe, and we really need to focus on schemes of retrofitting because a lot of that housing stock is occupied by people who have low incomes or are otherwise vulnerable. Indeed, if we improved these skills and developed retrofitting products, we would then find a market in other parts of the UK for those skills and products, and indeed in other parts of Europe.
Indeed, and I think this is where it’s important that we’re working with industry in terms of the opportunities for the skills base. We’re looking at ways in which we can develop the skills and experience not only of our workforce and our young people, but also, clearly, through the apprenticeship schemes that we’re supporting.
I agree with the original questioner’s proposition—there’s no better example of what we debated last week here of a foundational economy than investing in this area where you link in skills at a local level and you ensure that Welsh Government capital spend is spread across Wales as well, because this is not a regional problem; it’s spread across Wales in terms of the older housing that we have. What we’re looking for from Welsh Government is a clearer cited purpose around investment in energy efficiency and, as has already been asked, something that is put into the national infrastructure commission as a task and aim of that commission.
I’ve already said that we are going to change the remit as a result of consultation in terms of the infrastructure commission. It is important that we recognise we’re continuing to invest £108 million annually to ensure that over 222,000 social homes meet and maintain the Welsh housing quality standard. David Melding referred to the older housing stock in Wales, but the standard does require all existing social homes to be brought up to an energy rating of D or above. Of course, this is an all-Wales programme with a budget of £20 million to be made available to support this programme.
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders
Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Lywydd. Leader of the house, although our economic potential is yet to be fulfilled, we can already see that Wales is a strong exporting nation. Last year, we had a £2.2 billion trade surplus with the EU. Our surplus was higher than in 2015, when it was £1.5 billion. With non-EU countries, we had a trade deficit of £2.3 billion, while the UK as a whole had trade deficits with both EU and non-EU markets. What future do you see for our EU trade surplus if we are taken out of the single market?
It is important that we recognise the value of exports for Wales for the year up to and including 2016—£12.3 billion, an increase of £725 million on the previous year. Of course, as the leader of Plaid Cymru says, Wales benefits hugely from current integration with the EU single market, with access to over 500 million customers. So, that could clearly be a huge impact in terms of the prospects in terms of how we exit and how we make sure that Wales’s interests are safeguarded.
Plaid Cymru predicts a difficult future for those exporters who rely upon the single market. We now have some in the UK Government talking about leaving the EU without any deal at all, which will effectively mean World Trade Organization rules. That would be the hardest possible type of Brexit. It could lead to future tariffs and other barriers. And on the social and environmental side, it could lead to deregulation and to lowering standards. The UK Government has now indicated that the article 50 letter will be sent later this month. That means there’s a window of opportunity, a window where there can be some influence. The Welsh Government has said that it wants to be consulted. I wonder if you can tell us: have you been consulted yet? And what are the implications of the UK Government issuing that article 50 letter without fully consulting Wales as to its content?
Clearly, we want an article 50 process that does reflect the interests of Wales within the wider UK negotiating framework and, in fact, we set out together with Plaid Cymru the Welsh Government position that is comprehensively set out in our White Paper, ‘Securing Wales’ Future’ around those six points, including continued participation in the single market and ensuring that Wales does not lose out on a penny of funding as a result of leaving the EU. So, we certainly want and expect to be consulted on any article 50 letter before it’s issued. The First Minister made it very clear to the UK Government that anything less would be totally incompatible with the approach that they agreed at the Joint Ministerial Committee after the referendum result. We have, as you know, together sent a copy of our White Paper to the European Commission.
It’s fairly clear what your Government wants What’s not clear is what you’ll do if you don’t get it. Yesterday, we saw how the mishandling of Brexit will lead to a new referendum on Scottish independence. That referendum could end the United Kingdom. The state, as we know it, could cease to exist, and that would be a radical change for Wales. But it would also create the opportunity to be bolder, more ambitious and more confident about our own future, and I suspect that there may even be people in this Chamber who supported the Scottish ‘No’ campaign last time who would now feel less comfortable doing so. Leader of the house, the First Minister’s statement yesterday on a Scottish independence referendum lacked detail. It said almost nothing about the future of Wales. Can you add more detail on where you see the Government taking Wales over the next two years? What is your vision? And what plans does your Government have to put in place for the constitutional and economic future of this country?
I do go back to your second question about engagement and influence in terms of the article 50 letter, and just to say that the point I would make and the First Minister would make is that we need to work together on this to make sure that securing Wales’s future and the delivery of that are as a result of support across this Chamber, particularly as the co-signatories of that White Paper, and that we use our clout to say what we expect in terms of engagement on that article 50 letter.
Of course, in terms of your third question, it’s right that the constitutional future of Scotland is decided by the people of Scotland. We’re clear that we believe that the UK remains better together, and last year, Welsh Labour was elected on a message of togetherness. That remains our watchword for this Government. But I think the important point for us today is that, as a party and as a Government, we remain committed both to the union and to the ongoing joint ministerial committee process relating to exiting the EU. Indeed, the Scots say that they’ve no intention of walking away from the JMC where we have common cause on many issues in terms of our negotiations on exiting the EU.
Leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Leader of the house, many of us would’ve seen in the media over the last week the shocking images of drug abuse, with people comatose in public places, and one can only feel a huge amount of sympathy for the individuals who have fallen so low as to be in that position, and equally want to make sure that as many safeguards as possible are put in place to try and rectify the problems that people have in their lives that have found them in this very, very tragic position. Regrettably, much of that media coverage has painted a very negative image of a certain town in Wales, an image that many of us in this Chamber won’t recognise from our visits to that town, but it is a fact that those images have been in the national media.
Today, we have the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales calling for the legalisation of drugs as a solution to this issue. On this side of the house, we certainly do not believe that that is the case, but I’d be grateful, in your role as leader of the house in responding for the First Minister today, if you could give us a Government response as to what action you are taking as a Welsh Government, given that you held a meeting last week between the police and crime commissioner, yourselves and other agencies to try and address some of the shortcomings in this particular area.
I think it’s important, if we look particularly at north Wales, the Welsh Government provides over £4.9 million of the substance misuse action fund to the north Wales area planning board. That’s about commissioning a range of needs-led services delivered by the providers in that region. I think, in terms of the issue of paraphernalia and the current visibility of individuals with substance misuse issues within the town centre, clearly, that has had to result, as it does, in a multi-agency approach. That includes, of course, North Wales Police, the police and crime commissioner, Wrexham local authority and voluntary sector organisations.
I had hoped that, with the time that’s lapsed since this initial story ran some 10 days ago, we might have got a fuller answer from the leader of the house, given the points that I raised. Because the Welsh Government, in 2008, brought forward a strategy, ‘Working Together to Reduce Harm’, and from what we see in these types of images, that strategy, from what I can see, clearly doesn’t seem to be working. What evaluation has the Welsh Government taken of this strategy and the support that is in place for local authorities, for the police forces here, the police and crime commissioners and support agencies in the health and social care areas, to actually address these issues that are happening day in, day out, week in, week out, on the streets in towns and villages across Wales, that are crying out for a solution and support from central Government here—the Welsh Government? In particular, you have had this 10-year strategy in place that is now starting to come to the end, and yet, we are seeing these horrific images that have been portrayed in the media as happening in public spaces as we speak.
Of course, I have identified our investment in the substance misuse action fund and that is available to those who are delivering on the ground—the north Wales area planning board. But I would like to say also that, when they have come together to look specifically at the most recent issues, they have developed a comprehensive town centre action plan. It’s got a number of actions. It has to be about the constantly changing needs and circumstances in terms of substance misuse, but there are a number of planned projects co-ordinated by Cais through the Champions’ House recovery hub and also the identification of hotspot areas. And, of course, clean-up has taken place. But it’s also important that we recognise that this is about the substance misuse that we need to look at in terms of best practice, and that’s where the new substance misuse delivery plan is so pertinent.
Leader of the house, Andrew Atkinson, who is the chair of the Wrexham town centre forum steering group, has identified that everyone seems to be blaming everyone else, rather than actually getting to grips with the problem. I heard from a sedentary position on the other side, from the Welsh nationalists, that they believe that legalising drugs is a sensible alternative here. From this side of the house, we definitely do not believe that legalising drugs is part of the solution. And, in particular, when you see that the deaths from drugs have doubled since 2012, and 114,000 died last year, that clearly is not a road to solving this problem. What you as the Welsh Government—[Interruption.] There’s lots of mumbling coming from the other side of the house. [Interruption.] From the Government here in Cardiff, there clearly does need now to be a working group set up by the Welsh Government to pull together the charities, the health bodies and the Police and Crime Commissioner for North Wales to make sure that we can get a co-ordinated approach to dealing with this issue, especially in Wrexham, where there does seem to be a blame culture developing, rather than the ability to get to grips with the very serious issue that many of these people are facing, and the tragedy that their lives have spiralled out of control. Ultimately, they need the support of Government working with sponsored bodies to put the measures in place. Can I confirm that you will do that?
I have identified not only our strategy, updating it, and the investment, but I would hope that also Andrew R.T. Davies is also speaking to the Conservative councillors in Wrexham, and indeed the independent councillors, who are at the sharp end of being responsible for this, but with our support and with the support of that multi-agency panel and the action plan that they’ve devised.
The leader of the house will have seen that last week’s budget was not an unqualified success for the Chancellor and for the Government. Does she and the Welsh Government draw any lessons from that experience, with a view to how they’re going to exercise the tax-varying powers we’re about to obtain under the Wales Act 2017?
Well, I do think that, in terms of last week’s—I think it’s been described as the ‘omNICshambles’ budget, certainly a budget that has hit self-employed people very hard with a £2 billion hike in national insurance contributions. And that is affecting many of the people we talk about, and the FSB talks about, in terms of self-employed people who are the risk-takers, spearheading growth and productivity in the economy. So, we need to have no lessons. The UK Government and ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ need lessons from us, and I would say from our Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, because, the additional funding—[Interruption.] Can I say, you’ve asked me the question, Neil Hamilton—?
Let’s listen to the leader of the house, please.
The additional funding doesn’t alter the magnitude of spending reductions we’re facing for future years. Despite the small additions, our capital budget in 2019-20 will still be 11 per cent lower in real terms than in 2010-11, and our revenue budget will still be 8 per cent lower.
With respect, the leader of the house didn’t answer my question. What I was keen to elicit was whether it makes it more or less likely that the Welsh Government will use its powers to vary rates of income tax, put them up rather than down, or vice versa. There is a lot of economic evidence to show that lower tax rates can actually produce higher tax revenues. In the 1980s, when Nigel Lawson reduced taxes, that was the effect. In 1979, the top 1 per cent of earners paid 11 per cent of all tax revenues. By 1997, they paid 21 per cent, despite the fact that the top rate of income tax had been reduced from 83 per cent in the pound to 40 per cent. So, is it not sensible for the Welsh Government to think in terms of making Wales into a kind of tax haven within the United Kingdom?
You know, I don’t think we’d expect anything different from the leader of UKIP. I would’ve hoped that the leader of UKIP would be considering the impact of the Chancellor’s budget last week, the impact on the people that we represent, the impact of the fact that the sting in the tail of that budget and forecast is there’s a £3.5 billion cut planned by the UK Government for 2019-20, which could mean another £175 million taken out of the Welsh Government budget. That’s what I am concerned with and, of course, we have to look at that in terms of the implications of this budget, not just for the self-employed, but some of the poorest people in Wales. What we’re spending per head of population will decline by 4 per cent in real terms over the Office for Budget Responsibility’s forecast period.
With respect, I’ll try again. I still haven’t had an answer to my question. Does the leader of the house accept that lower tax rates can produce higher tax revenues? In which case, everybody wins.
Well, as far as the UK Government is concerned, we take responsibility and, indeed, we have our responsibilities that we are now taking through in legislation in terms of the devolved taxes that are coming our way, and we look forward to a debate on this in the next couple of weeks. But I think we need to recognise, and I hope Neil Hamilton recognises, the adverse impact of the decisions that were made by ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ last week where he fumbled his first budget, and recognise as well that that’s bad, the fact that it is undermining their mission to promote the UK as a place to start a new business.
Question 3, Adam Price.
Equal Levels of Investment
3. Will the First Minister commit to taking steps to equalise the level of government investment in all parts of Wales? OAQ(5)0506(FM)
‘Taking Wales Forward’ details our priorities and the investment Welsh Government is making to benefit all parts of Wales in every aspect of society.
The Government’s own figures show that the level of Welsh Government’s capital expenditure on infrastructure in south-east Wales is twice that per head in north Wales, and three times the figure for mid and west Wales. I mean, it’s concern over that huge investment gap that led my party to vote against the supplementary budget last week. What assurance—[Interruption.] What assurance—[Interruption.]
Let’s hear the question.
What assurance can she give my party and Members on all sides who represent those regions that we will have equal investment for all parts of Wales so that we can see prosperity shared across our country?
Well, I think that the Member has seen the combined Welsh Government allocations for local authorities, health boards and police authorities for 2017-18, and has seen that there is only one area where there’s a slightly different per-head allocation, and I would want to share this again with the Member. In terms of capital expenditure, on an all-Wales basis that’s crucially important in terms of our investment in social housing, our investment in twenty-first century schools, and our investment in transport. I can, again, give you the investments in, for example, flood and coastal risk management, supporting the whole of Wales with £144 million; £700 million to improve our trunk road network; and in terms of north Wales, particularly important, £50 million to advance the developments of the north-east Wales metro, with potential to expand west in the future. But, I do have to say that, in terms of the supplementary budget, what was in that supplementary budget is very important to the people of Wales. It is £170 million to support the Welsh NHS—just to give one example—and £16 million for a treatment fund for new types of treatment; an additional £20 million funding for higher education; and an additional £55.5 million to support the construction and maintenance of the trunk road network in Wales, including plans to accelerate delivery of the Llandeilo bypass as a result of our budget agreements. So, let’s recognise the importance of our considerations.
Cabinet Secretary, there’s a Cardiff capital region city deal, there’s a proposed Swansea bay city deal, and there’s a north Wales growth deal. What consideration has been given to a mid Wales growth deal on the same scale, to ensure that there’s a similar level of investment in the fourth remaining economic region of Wales?
Of course, there has been work done, as you know, Russell George, in terms of how we can respond to growth opportunities in mid Wales, but I think it is also relevant to say—and I’m going to be very pertinent to your patch—that these are about budget choices in terms of those cuts to the capital programme that I’ve already spoken about. But five new primary schools we are building in Powys—recently announced as part of the twenty-first century schools programme. That is so important for the prospects of your children and young people in terms of growth opportunities in mid Wales.
Leader of the house, though you wouldn’t believe it, there was quite a degree of consensus last week during the debate on the foundational economy, which has already been mentioned by Simon Thomas, and it was agreed unanimously in the Chamber that indigenous small businesses connect with each other in a way that doesn’t happen in large firms. Networks of social capital need to be extended beyond local social contexts, it was agreed. It was further agreed that the geography of the south Wales Valleys has been a barrier to this in the past. Would the leader of the house therefore accept that for Government investment focused in this area to be successful, the northern Valleys should be seen as interdependent communities, linking east and west, and not simply spokes linking into a city hub?
It’s always good when we get back to consensus in this Chamber, as we did, very much, on that debate on the foundational economy, which, of course, the Cabinet Secretary for economy and transport responded to very positively. I was also interested to see the very strong arguments for the points you’re making, Hefin David, on the northern Valleys’ interdependency, with Vikki Howells, in an article in ‘The Western Mail.’ It is a very pertinent point in terms of the city region deal, because we have to make sure that we recognise the northern Valleys and it’s not just pulling down, it’s going up, and it’s that mutual interdependency.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on provision for people on the autism spectrum in Wales? OAQ(5)0509(FM)[W]
Wales was the first country in the UK to take a national approach to autism. We’ve provided £6 million for a new national integrated autism service. Our latest strategic action plan was published on 30 November as a result of extensive consultation.
Thank you for that response. The National Autistic Society Wales has asked for a record of the number of people on the spectrum in order to assist local authorities to plan services more effectively and in a more comprehensive manner. One would expect a record of people of autism who have a care plan from next April onwards, but there are a number of people who are autistic who don’t have a care plan and there are others who go in and out of the system. Can I ask, therefore, when will your Government insist that a full record is kept in order to ensure that the proper resources and facilities are provided, where needed, in all parts of Wales?
I thank the Member for that question. It’s very relevant to the work that’s been taken forward by an implementation advisory group for the autistic spectrum disorder strategic action plan for Wales. In fact, the National Autistic Society is sitting on that implementation group, and, as it’s World Autism Awareness Week later this month, the group’s going to be meeting for the first time at the end of the month. But, of course, looking at that plan, it needs the data; we need to work on those data. But it’s also about the new 26-week waiting-time target from referral to first appointment for children with autism and other neurodevelopmental conditions to speed up access to support.
Minister—sorry, leader of the house—I understand that, obviously, the strategic action plan’s only been in place for some five or six months now, but what we really need to see is how the gaps in the provision of services, particularly for adults, are going to be filled. Within Pembrokeshire, there’s a massive gap in the provision of services for adults with autism and neither Pembrokeshire County Council nor the local health board appear to have a cohesive enough method of being able to plug those gaps. So, what can you, as the Welsh Government, do to encourage that to happen, because I can tell you now, your strategic action plan isn’t even touching the sides on that?
I think the £6 million we’ve put into developing our new integrated autism service will start to have the kind of impact that the Member would want to see. It’s an investment over three years. It’s going to be rolled out across Wales by 2019, and it’s going to see new specialist teams in every region providing adult diagnosis, support in the community, and advice and information for adults with autism and for their parents and carers.
The Welsh European Funding Office
5. Will the First Minister provide an update on the work programme of the Welsh European Funding Office between now and the UK's exit from the European Union? OAQ(5)0501(FM)
The Welsh European Funding Office is continuing to implement our EU funding programmes, as agreed with the European Commission, to deliver jobs and growth. Nearly two thirds of the funds have been committed to date, and our aim is to invest all of the EU funds available to Wales by early 2019.
Thank you for that update. You may already know that, as well as indicating that equivalent money should come to Wales after exit, witnesses giving evidence to the external affairs committee have said that this is an opportunity to do things differently in terms of regional funding. Can you tell me how many of the applications currently with WEFO are predicated on the private sector taking the delivery lead? And what advice is WEFO giving bidders for that remaining money to make sure that its long-term projects are structurally flexible enough—perhaps I could put it like that—to make sure that they can last once the days of the Commission directing regional funding have gone?
Well, clearly, multi-million EU projects include Business Wales apprenticeships, directly relevant for the private sector, south-west workplace plus, which you will be very aware of in your region, making an impact by boosting business, helping them to increase work prospects and skills of our people, but also ensuring that, through the programme monitoring committee, we’re engaging fully with Welsh stakeholders, including the private sector in terms of a common Welsh position on future arrangements for regional funding in Wales. That’s critically important—of course, the PMC is chaired by Julie Morgan—in terms of safeguarding those investments.
Leader of the house, as Suzy Davies pointed out, WEFO operates under EU regional policy rules at this point in time, but in two years they’re not going to be there, effectively. What I’m asking is: what discussions have you had with the UK Government about a future regional policy, and are you taking the opportunity to be creative in the agenda to ensure that what happens in Wales can actually be unique to Wales?
I think our White Paper, ‘Securing Wales’ Future’, is vitally important because it does lay out what we made clear as far regional economic development—. It’s very clear that that is a devolved competence, and it must remain so. We would resist firmly any attempt by the UK Government to reverse any form of devolution and take control of regional policy. So, I’m glad I’ve had the opportunity to put that on record today. It is important that we have got our engagement through the Joint Ministerial Committee on European negotiations, at which the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government represents us. He presented our White Paper at their meeting on 8 February.
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on post-16 education in Wales? OAQ(5)0503(FM)
Further education contributes significantly to skills development, improving employment and careers prospects for learners in Wales and the performance of companies and public services. It ensures our young people can access the skills that they need to develop their careers and that adults can develop their skills to support our growing economy.
Thank you for that answer, leader of the house. There’s been a lot of talk about the need for parity of esteem between higher and further education in this Chamber over the past 10 years, but successive Welsh Labour Governments have failed to deliver on that talk and that ambition. The Wales Audit Office, in fact, has confirmed in a recent report on the oversight of further education colleges’ finances that there has been a significant cut of £22 million to our FE colleges over the past five years and that that has stifled them being able to make some progress. In fact, we now see nearly half of our Welsh colleges carrying large deficits and being forced to eat into their reserves. I wonder, leader of the house, whether you can tell me what action, specifically, the Welsh Government might be able to take as a result of the savings that will be secured through changes to higher education student support in terms of some of that cash being invested into our FE sector in order to rebalance the situation in terms of parity between both forms of education.
Well, you know—you may talk. We deliver, actually, as a Welsh Labour Government. [Interruption.] I have to say that, in terms of our approach in Wales, where not only have we established—[Interruption.] We’ve established an approach to vocational and technical qualifications that we’ve actually developed in consultation with employers. We’ve benefited from collaboration, engaging with Northern Ireland and Scotland. We’ve got an internationally-recognised approach to apprenticeships, vocational and technical qualifications, as we can see by the investment and our commitment to 100,000 apprenticeships, and we have the regional skills partnerships to determine the need and demand for skills in Wales. Now, I don’t recognise the points you make at all and, of course, those employers that, for example, I met last week, who are concerned to get young people into science, technology, engineering and maths—and indeed Julie James addressed many yesterday—they see that, actually, parity of esteem with vocational opportunities is vital for young people. The apprenticeship route is one that young people aspire to and actually are now engaging with.
Along the same lines, there is YouGov research last year that showed that only 7 per cent of those between 18 and 24 were considering an apprenticeship as the best option for them, compared to 68 per cent who saw higher education as the best option for them. So, the perception still exists, doesn’t it, that there isn’t parity of esteem between vocational and academic courses. So, can I ask what the Welsh Government is doing, for example, to promote the perceptions of the Sutton Trust research, which shows that the probable earnings of the best apprentices are many thousands of pounds more over the course of their careers than of students who have been in higher education outside the Russell Group of universities—without, of course, the debts that emerge as a result of higher education?
Yes. I mean, that clearly is—. The impact of our investment in 100,000 quality apprenticeships speaks for itself: a key plank in ‘Taking Wales Forward’, recognising the value of the post-compulsory education training sector, and also the fact that it enables young people to reach their potential. As you say, the Sutton Trust research is very valuable, very pertinent, and, clearly, as well, in terms of our statutory duty to provide education for learners up to the age of 18, we have actually protected, and mitigated the brunt of funding reductions imposed by the UK Government. But, as a result of a budget agreement, we have put an additional £30 million to support further and higher education as well, which, of course, is having a huge impact in terms of targeting investment and making those opportunities for our young people real, because they can progress anyway from apprenticeships into higher education routes and into very well-paid and long-lasting jobs and careers.
Promoting Green Energy Initiatives
7. How is the Welsh Government supporting community shares projects that promote green energy initiatives? OAQ(5)0500(FM)
Our local energy service supports communities across Wales to run share offers, gaining local support, raising local capital that keeps the benefits of renewable projects within Wales. We are looking at how these projects can continue to be developed following the UK Government’s removal of support for solar and wind.
Cabinet Secretary, these mechanisms stand within the very proud co-operative tradition of promoting local enterprise and social benefit, and particularly, for technical reasons, they are easier to use and more flexible than traditional charitable approaches, which may form alternative funding routes. And they’re an excellent way to promote community schemes in particular, and they keep income and, importantly, assets, in the local community. I do commend the efforts that have been going on in the not-for-profit sector, but I do think some Government push in this area would also be very welcome.
I agree with all the points that the Member has made. The local energy service has supported community share offers that have raised over £5.5 million since 2010, and you’ll be very aware of many of those community projects, but we want to see commercial developers work more closely with communities on shared ownership and investment. I think, importantly—and you mention the co-operative model: well, we’re very proud to have a Wales Co-operative Centre, which we are supporting to set up Community Shares Wales, and that does help communities to share experience of how they can develop these local energy services.
Traffic Officers’ Duties (North Wales)
8. Will the First Minister make a statement on the duties of Traffic Officers in north Wales? OAQ(5)0508(FM)[W]
Caiff swyddogion traffig Llywodraeth Cymru eu lleoli yn ardal coridor ffordd ddeuol yr A55/A494/A550 o gyffordd 8 yn Llanfairpwll hyd at y ffin â Lloegr yn Sealand a Brychdyn.
As the leader of the house has just confirmed, traffic officers in north Wales patrol the A55 until Llanfairpwll. Of course, the A55 doesn’t stop at Llanfairpwll; it continues all the way across Anglesey to the port of Holyhead. This, according to police officers, is causing them problems, because it ties up resources in dealing with road accidents and so on, which doesn’t happen in other parts of north Wales. Will the Government look again at the current strategy that does stop at Llanfairpwll, in order to ensure that the A55 in its entirety benefits from the work of these traffic officers?
The Welsh Government traffic officer service, as the Member will be aware, was originally devised to cover those busier sections of the Welsh trunk road network. We actually inherited this PFI contract, as you will be aware, which has, in terms of the responsibilities—we need to look carefully at the impact of that in terms of covering those areas. But, in the north, the service area, of course, was the A55/A494, as I said, from the English border to junction 11. And we then saw that we needed to extend that cover to the Britannia bridge and thus improve its resilience.
And finally, question 9—Dafydd Elis-Thomas.
The Scottish First Minister
Llywydd, may I ask the leader of the house, in responding on behalf of the First Minister today:
9. What plans does the First Minister have to meet with the Scottish First Minister to discuss the relationship with the European Union? OAQ(5)0496(FM)[W]
The First Minister spoke to the Scottish First Minister yesterday and continues to have regular discussions with her, both bilaterally and in meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee and British-Irish Council.
I’m very grateful for that response, and I’m sure that the First Minister will have had an interesting conversation, as always, with the Scottish First Minister. Because there is so much in common, leader of the house, between the Scottish Government’s White Paper, ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, published before Christmas, and the red paper of Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government, ‘Securing Wales’ Future: Transition from the European Union to a new relationship with Europe’, does the Welsh Government see the importance, whatever the decision taken by Scotland on its constitutional future—and that’s a matter for them, of course—that there is a role for collaboration in the current negotiations within the UK and between the UK and the European Union, particularly to safeguard unfettered access to the single market for both nations?
Indeed, there is considerable common ground between our White Paper, ‘Securing Wales’ Future’ and the analysis by the Scottish Government on the impact of the UK leaving the EU. In particular, ‘Scotland's Place in Europe’ does emphasise, as we have, the economic importance of the single market, the vital contribution that migrant workers make to businesses and public services, and the critical need to respect devolution settlements and to develop new constitutional arrangements within the UK. And, of course, that's where the First Minister has taken the lead in calling for those arrangements. You will recall his call for a constitutional convention, and he did convene an extraordinary British-Irish Council summit last July to allow us to continue to discuss the implications of the referendum and then to take us forward in terms of ways in which we can work together and strengthen our voices.
Thank you, leader of the house.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
I have accepted four urgent questions under Standing Order 12.66, and I call on Dawn Bowden to ask the first urgent question—Dawn Bowden.
Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the potential health impacts of the Ffos-y-fran opencast coalmine, following the announcement last week by the UN special rapporteur on hazardous substances and waste? EAQ(5)0118(ERA)
I thank the Member for her question. Welsh Government met with the special rapporteur on human rights and hazardous substances and waste on 24 January. His preliminary findings and recommendations were presented in an end-of-mission statement on 31 January, and the full report will be presented to the UN human rights council in September of this year.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Before this news broke on Friday, I had met previously with some of the local residents, protesters and Merthyr council, and I'd undertaken a site visit to Ffos-y-fran, including a lengthy meeting with the operators. So, I was already very aware of the concerns surrounding the operation there, and for some time I've been seeking assurances about a range of environmental and health issues. However, I wasn't aware that a United Nations representative was visiting the area, meeting with local residents and proposing to make a public pronouncement.
It is of course right that the rapporteur undertakes whatever studies he deems fit, but I was somewhat surprised that he appears to have made statements to the media without detailed discussions with those bodies criticised in his report. Nor did he seek discussions with the local elected representatives, either at the council, with myself as the AM, or with my colleague Gerald Jones as the MP before producing his report, to establish a wider view of actions taken.
At this stage, Cabinet Secretary, I think it’s probably difficult for me to take an informed view on the rapporteur’s conclusions, although I would of course welcome any legitimate call for an inquiry into any potential health impact of the Ffos-y-fran operation if the evidence suggests that that is necessary.
One particular area of the report where I do absolutely share his concern, however, is the future maintenance of standards in the UK of public health and environmental protection post Brexit. If you’ve seen the report, Cabinet Secretary, you will know that he calls on the UK Government to fulfil its human rights obligations on air pollution, protecting the rights of children, women of productive age, the elderly and those of poor health, who are especially vulnerable to toxic chemicals, in developing the new plan to tackle this air pollution crisis.
So, can you assure me, Cabinet Secretary, that the Welsh Government will work with the UK Government and the United Nations to consider any concerns highlighted in this report in relation to Ffos-y-fran in particular, but also, more generally, those relating to human rights around environmental protections, both now and post Brexit?
The very short answer to your question is ‘yes’. We will continue to work with all of those parties. I am aware that the Minister did meet with the rapporteur, and it is certainly unique, his opinion. But if the Member has any concerns she would like to raise specifically about Ffos-y-fran, I’m sure the Minister accordingly would welcome a letter from the Member.
Cabinet Secretary, further to my colleague here, residents living alongside the Ffos-y-fran opencast mine have long campaigned against air and noise pollution. There is anecdotal evidence of very high rates of childhood asthma and cancer clusters within the community. I would like to ask a couple of questions, Minister, if you’d kindly reply. If there is no independent investigation, what action will the Welsh Government take to monitor the potential health impact on the community of this opencast mine, and will they commission their own study?
The second is: the Welsh Assembly has imposed a 500m buffer zone between new opencast mines in Wales and the community that surrounds them. I remember in previous Assembly sessions Bethan Jenkins raised this point in her area. A lot of points were actually agreed by the Assembly that opencast mines should not be near the housing areas, yet the nearest houses to Ffos-y-fran are only 40m away from the mining activities, which is against our laws and rules here. Does the Cabinet Secretary believe that the residents should be entitled to some form of compensation for the disturbance they are being forced to suffer in this case?
The other one is: what discussions have the Welsh Government had in the past, and what discussions do they intend to have, with Miller Argent, the mining company, about negating the effect of their mining operation on the local community?
Finally, Minister, will the Welsh Government agree to consider the contents of this report and bring forward a statement to this Assembly in the near future with any changes it proposes to make to planning regulations on opencast sites in Wales? Thank you.
I’m very aware of the emotive issues around opencast mining. The Ffos-y-fran site was granted permission in April of 2005. It was subject then to an environmental impact assessment. This meant that all relevant issues, including cumulative effects, and those relating to health, were taken into account as part of that decision-making process. The report the Member raises is being presented to the UN human rights council, and not to us. I will ask the Minister on her return to have a consideration about this, and I will ask her to write to Members in accordance with her views.
First, I think I need to say that the response of Miller Argent to this report is insulting and undermines the severity of the situation. Describing this as ‘fake news’—a report from a UN rapporteur—is frankly disgusting and is outrageous considering that the local community have been raising these concerns for some time. I’m also very concerned that Merthyr county council responded by dismissing legitimate concerns and everyday experiences of residents as
‘limited and unsubstantiated comments from some members of the community’.
So, first, I’d like to ask you here today: will you join with me in condemning those very comments, considering that these are not unsubstantiated and these are views that have been raised with you when you were the former environment Minister for this Assembly? I’d also like to understand where your plans are now with regard to the restoration discussions that you had in your previous role as Minister. Many of us took part in that. Where do they stand? Restoration at Ffos-y-fran is very piecemeal as opposed to it being constructive and long-term and we’d like to understand where that is going.
I’ve also raised concerns about the coal MTAN and the fact that that is not strong enough. It needs to be amended and changed. It needs to be put into legislation. Can you commit, if this UN rapporteur is to be taken seriously, that you as a Government will try and work to your best possible action in making sure that we have these issues dealt with, so that future opencast mining applications are not dealt with in the same way, and that ones in areas such as East Pit in Cwmllynfell and Margam are also treated in the same manner?
I thank the Member for the question. As always, she is very robust in her views on opencast mining. This Government takes very seriously the health implications and planning conditions presented in all our communities and takes that very seriously in the technical advice notes and planning guidance that we issue to planning authorities. What is really important is that any observation made by the special rapporteur is evidence based. I will be very interested to see the detail of that plan and his completed presentation.
The Member will be aware that the planning Minister will make views on the MTAN 2 and the subsequent discussions that took place around the deliberations around what MTAN 2 was made up of. I will ask her to respond to you directly on that issue as I’m no longer the planning Minister in those terms.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
I now call on Lee Waters to ask the second urgent question—Lee Waters.
Will the Minister make a statement on the failure to appoint a Welsh representative on the BBC board? EAQ(5)0095(EDU)
The BBC board member for Wales must be fully able to champion the diverse needs of the Welsh people. The Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport did not agree and we could not support her recommendation. Strong candidates were available. The Secretary of State refused to discuss them with me.
Thank you, Minister. The BBC, in their reporting of Dr Carol Bell as the preferred candidate of the UK Government, has quoted a UK Government source as saying that the Welsh Government had
‘seen fit to veto the secretary of state’s choice of candidate’.
Could you explain to the National Assembly the Welsh Government’s role in the process of having a BBC board member for Wales? Was it simply as a rubber stamp or was it meant to have a substantive role? Did it, in fact, have a substantive role? Would he also tell us where he thinks this leaves us now? What is the timeline for the appointment of a Welsh board member? The rest of the board is now in place and is beginning its work.
Finally, the Assembly’s Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee strongly recommended that any Welsh representative of the BBC board should be subject to a pre-confirmation hearing by the National Assembly. That did not happen in this case. As I understand, that’s because of the timeline being hurried. Now that there’s less time pressure on the appointment of a BBC board member for Wales, would he agree with the cross-party committee that it should have a chance to talk to and question the person who is appointed, before you give the consent of the Welsh Government to that appointment?
Presiding Officer, I’m sure you will agree with me and Members across the whole of the Chamber that the deliberate, I assume, leaking of the name of any individual who applied for this post, as happened yesterday, is to be regretted and is entirely contrary to the standards we expect of the public appointments process. It is a gross infringement of their personal privacy.
At the same time, it is clear from media reports that the United Kingdom Government and their sources have sought to undermine this Government, undermine me as a Minister, and to brief against decisions that we have taken, all done unanimously. Let me say this: however we seek to conduct inter-governmental relationships within the United Kingdom, this is a textbook example of how not do it. The Welsh Government reached an agreement with the United Kingdom Government on the appointment of this person to represent Wales on the board. The Welsh Government was represented on the recruitment panel. Interviews for the post took place in Cardiff on 14 February. It was clear from those interviews that there were a number of very well thought of candidates and a number of appointable candidates. Not all of these were unanimously agreed upon, and some were judged to be stronger than others. Their relative merits were set out very clearly in the panel report, which was seen by both the Secretary of State and me. I was confident of being able to make a good appointment. I was therefore shocked to receive a letter from the Secretary of State on 27 February, where she said she was minded to recommend a candidate who was not one of those unanimously agreed stronger candidates. I was also shocked that I was given 24 hours to respond to this letter. I was even more shocked to discover that the Secretary of State was unwilling to even discuss the other candidates with me. She insisted that we either accept her choice or, in her words, we veto it, forcing a rerun of the competition. This, Presiding Office, despite her own Permanent Secretary accepting via e-mail that there were other stronger candidates, and despite my assurance that we would be happy to agree a choice from those other stronger candidates.
Presiding Officer, at no point have I expressed an opinion as to who I believe the strongest candidate for this post would be. What I’ve said very clearly is that Wales deserves the best, and the candidate that the appointment panel believes is the best candidate. And I will not be told by any Secretary of State that I have no choice in this matter, and I will not be told then by anonymous UK Government sources that I have the temerity to exercise the power available to me. I have the right to exercise that power available to me, and whenever the UK Government behaves in this way, we will exercise that right.
Presiding Officer, I am profoundly disappointed with where we are. I am profoundly disappointed with the actions, the attitude and the tone of the Secretary of State, and I am profoundly disappointed that the United Kingdom Government is not willing to act in the best interests of Wales in this matter.
I’m profoundly disappointed as well, Minister, because the bottom line here is that there is an empty chair on that board. Wales is not there. The board itself has an incomplete skill set and it’s missing a range of skills, which the Secretary of State clearly believed her preferred candidate had. That decision was made from a shortlist after open competition. They were interviewed by a panel, which included a Welsh Government representative. That panel will have agreed the candidates who were over the line and recommended accordingly. There was, as I say, a Welsh Government representative on that panel. In those circumstances, I think, Minister, you must give your reasons, beyond what you’ve already told us today, about why you disagreed with the Secretary of State’s individual conclusion. There is a skills gap on that board now. What was wrong with the individual candidate who was chosen, and what that individual could have offered?
You may not have expressed a preference about who you would have liked to seen appointed. Will you tell this Assembly if there was a candidate you had a preference for, and whether any candidate on that shortlist might have had a closer relationship with your party than the one who was chosen? If not, if you’re not prepared to tell us those reasons today, I will draw my own conclusions on cronyism.
I will not join the Conservative Party this afternoon in rubbishing individuals who apply for public appointments, and I will not join the Conservative Party in making those allegations against individuals who apply and who have a right. I believe that everybody who applies for public appointments has the right to expect their application to remain confidential. It is a matter of record that the United Kingdom Government sources have placed these names on the record and I regret that. I will not join you in doing so.
But let me say this to the Conservative Party: the panel that interviewed the candidates and who made an agreement was very, very clear in who it felt were the stronger candidates and who it did not feel were the stronger candidates. My representative on that panel wrote to the Permanent Secretary of the DCMS the following day on 15 February. He said in that e-mail, ‘That makes this candidate’—and I’m paraphrasing—‘not appointable.’ That e-mail I can read from this afternoon. The Permanent Secretary to the DCMS replied to my official agreeing that the candidate in question was not the strongest candidate. It would not be acceptable for me, as a Minister, in this role to accept any candidate who is not the strongest candidate, whoever they might be. I understand the roles and responsibilities of this place. I recognise that we have to have the very best people on the BBC board. The BBC board needs a wide range of those different responsibilities, experiences and skills. But one of them, one of them, must have the role to be the very best representative that Wales can have on that board and I will not compromise on that.
I think from hearing the questions so far they exemplify the point made by Lee Waters as to why we do need to have pre-hearings within the parliamentary structures. The UK Parliament does have that condition when they are putting forward names and I think that’s something that we should be able to do. But I didn’t hear you answer the question with regard to whether you think that that is something that, now we’re in this new position, we should be able to do as a communications committee. We have written as a committee to the Scottish Parliament to ask what they’re processes are and whether they had a pre-parliamentary hearing. I would like to hear your views here today because whatever the names that are floating about, whatever the personalities involved, I think it’s important that, as a legislature, we have that view. Considering the fact that under the new charter there will be a new licence for Wales, there will be new conditions placed upon BBC Wales and this, surely, is a new hinterland by which we can have that discussion. I am very concerned to hear that they did not listen to your views as Minister. I would like to be satisfied here today that in any future process you will be able to work with them constructively and that we will not face this issue again, because, of course, it’s important that we do have the Welsh representative there, but we need a Welsh representative there who understands Wales and who can then bring our views forward on a more positive basis in the future. Thank you.
It’s clear, Presiding Officer, that there’s a great deal of concern across the Chamber. I will, therefore, place my final letter to the Secretary of State, dated 7 March, in the library of the National Assembly for all Members to be able to take a view on that and the process that’s been followed.
In terms of the question asked by both Bethan Jenkins and Lee Waters on the role of the communications committee, I see a significant role for that committee and for this legislature in holding to account the BBC and other broadcasters. I believe that this process in its entirety needs to be reviewed, and prior to us moving forward with a rerun of this process, we need prior agreement from the DCMS on the structure and nature of that process. I felt, quite frankly, that we could work on the basis of trust and respect between administrations in this country. It is clear to me that we cannot work on that basis and that we need to review the process.
I feel very disappointed that we have not had the opportunity to have the conversation that we needed to have. The Secretary of State refused to discuss any other candidate with me, despite my repeated request to discuss any other candidate. Contrary to the views I hear being expressed opposite, I did not during the process, I have not today and I will not express a preference for any single candidate. I regard the best candidate for appointment as the one who I would want to see appointed to represent Wales, whoever he or she may be. But I certainly do see a significant role for the National Assembly for Wales in the future in holding Governments and broadcasters to account.
Thank you Minister.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
I now call on Andrew R.T. Davies to ask the next urgent question. Andrew R.T. Davies.
Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the long-term future of the subsidised north-south air link in light of news that Citywing has gone into liquidation? EAQ(5)0142(EI)
Yes. Can I thank the Member and refer him to the written statement issued yesterday. The intra-Wales air service review has been completed and once findings have been analysed I will make a further announcement. In the meantime, I’m pleased that we have agreed a rolling contract with Eastern Airways to operate the service.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, and thank you for your statement that was issued yesterday clarifying some of the measures that the Welsh Government has put in place. As a user of this service, I can literally leave my front door and be in north Wales by 8.40 a.m., and coming off the Isle of Anglesey. I fully support the service if it was commercially viable, and it is disheartening now that this is the third time in 18 months that the operator has either gone out of business or had its safety certificate withdrawn. There is a considerable Government subsidy that is put into this air link of £1.2 million. I believe that £0.5 million is also spent on the terminal and the running of the terminal up in north Wales on RAF Valley.
So, what is crystal clear now is that, with the review that you’ve commissioned, there does need to be a full evaluation of the options available to make this route more commercially viable or, regrettably, actually bring an end to this route because, obviously, the taxpayer really is not getting value for money when you look at the sums involved and, regrettably, the passenger numbers who are using it. And I regret that, because, as I said, as someone who supports the service, I’d like to see a more commercially viable route developed in this instance, but we can’t carry on as we are, every six months or so, with an operator either going out of business or having its safety licence withdrawn. Can you indicate what the current commercial terms are that you’ve had to engage the new operator on, because in your statement you indicate that there is an additional expense that you’re having to incur, and I think it is only right and fair that we understand what that expense is, because you have a limited budget and that money must come from that budget? Can you also indicate the timeline where you will be bringing forward the evaluation that you have made as Cabinet Secretary of the report that you’ve commissioned? You talk of a number of weeks. I’ve most probably been here long enough to know that a number of weeks can be many things in response—and I mean this with the greatest respect—from Government Ministers, and I think it is important that we get clarity on that. And thirdly, can you confirm that this evaluation has looked at all the options? There were no no-go areas, because I know my colleague from Clwyd West has championed the ability to establish a route to north-east Wales, rather than just focusing solely on north-west Wales.
Can I thank the Member for his questions and his keen interest in this area? I’m pleased, first of all, that the intra-Wales air service was saved; it was the only one of Van Air Europe’s air services to be saved, and that was as a consequence of tireless work by my team within Government over the weekend, and particularly during Saturday. My heart goes out to the many passengers on other Van Air services who have been left stranded in Northern Ireland and on the Isle of Man, but we do now have a rolling agreement with Eastern Airways to provide the service.
Now, we are using, as I’ve outlined already, the budget that we would ordinarily use for Van Air and Citywing. However, as the Member indicated, we are having to contribute a small but not insignificant sum to maintain the service during this period. This resource is available within the existing budget for the north-south air link. However, last year, as the Member outlined, I did request a thorough—a thorough—review of the intra-Wales air service, which has looked at a wide range of options, from ceasing the service entirely to changing service patterns, increasing provision, looking at the actual type of aircraft that’s used and also assessing whether alternative options in terms of connectivity are available in the short and medium term. We’ve also looked at the potential of using other airports, not just in north-east Wales—but I take what the Member says about Hawarden Airport—but other small airports in Wales.
The report has taken longer than expected due to a range of factors, but it is being finalised this month, and I’ll therefore be in a position to assess it over the Easter period, with a view of making an announcement on the future of the service in the next term. This service is not just important to Anglesey; it’s also significant for Cardiff and south-east Wales, ensuring that we are a better-connected and united nation. But I will need to consider the recommendations of the review alongside the recent operator problems. And, as I say, I aim to make an announcement as soon as possible regarding the long-term future of this air service.
I’m grateful to the Minister and officials for making sure that the service was able to continue without a break. The leader of the Conservatives says that he lives within spitting distance of the airport in Cardiff and he says that he uses the service from time to time to get up to Anglesey, but, as somebody who is somewhat isolated from those five-hour journeys from north to south Wales, it doesn’t surprise me that he is sanguine about the possibility of losing the air service, unless it is commercially viable.
We know that all transport, to a lesser or a greater extent, is subsidised by public funds. That is the reality of the way transport works, and I would be grateful for a few assurances from the Cabinet Secretary now that he agrees with me that this isn’t, by now, a desirable service, but that it is a vital part of the transport mix, that it is a crucial business link for many people in businesses wishing to do business between north and south Wales, and that it has become crucial for the conduct of public service in Wales. This is not just a means for people from the frozen north to come down to Cardiff; this is a means for Government Ministers to make sure that they are able to keep close ties with the north of Wales. So, I’d be grateful if he would confirm that it is vital, now, as part of our transport mix.
I would be grateful for assurances that any changes to services—and, of course, services must be reviewed—would not lead to a position where a flight from the north would get into Cardiff later, or would leave Cardiff earlier, because a flight needs to be practical and it needs to work in a way that allows people to conduct their business. In actual fact, I would ask him also to confirm whether he has considered means by which the flight could arrive in Cardiff earlier in the morning and leave later in the day in order to extend the working day for people connecting to the capital city. Also, it is a frequent request to expand air services, and I’d be grateful for comments on what kind of expansion he has in mind, including, perhaps, links to London that I know we had an opportunity, informally, to discuss yesterday.
Finally, on a practical note for those who’ve already bought tickets with Citywing, there was an issue when the last company went out of business and people had to reclaim their money from a company that had gone into liquidation. We know how difficult that was and that will be the same in this case. Could the Minister tell us what efforts the Government will put in to ensure that those who have paid for tickets will be able to have the best chance possible of getting reimbursement?
Can I thank the Member for his questions and take the last question first? Officials are already talking to Citywing about the potential to claw back the cost of the tickets. We’ve been very clear—and we were over the weekend—that passengers are able to go to either Anglesey or Cardiff airports and catch the flights on Eastern Airways with the bookings made through Citywing. But, in terms of those bookings that may have been lost, or where passengers are not willing to travel with Eastern Airways, consumer protection law applies as normal, as well as the well-established air travel organisers licence protections. But I would gladly take up any cases that the Member may have of passengers who have been left out of pocket as a consequence of Citywing’s demise.
It’s not just the public sector—although the public sector clearly has considerable benefit from this service—that relies on it. We believe that approximately half of the journeys that are taken on the air service are taken by people representing private sector interests. So, it’s actually a very important service for both the private and public sectors. The review will consider whether it’s merely important or whether it is, indeed, vital. I wouldn’t wish to prejudge the outcome of that review. I’ll also consider whether the North Wales Economic Ambition Board has deemed the intra-Wales air service to be a key component of any growth bid deal, and I’ll also be listening to the views of local authorities across north Wales.
It is essential that we have good, frequent transport links with the north of the country, as a Member, like Rhun ap Iorwerth, who represents a northern constituency. But any form of public transport must be sustainable, and we must ensure that we don’t just keep pumping subsidy into a service that is seeing a reducing number of passengers. There must be alternatives, whether that’s through increasing the number of passengers, and, in this regard, I think it’s important that we consider the future demand through Wylfa coming on stream and other economic developments on Anglesey and in the north of Wales. All of these factors are being considered within the review, and I’m looking forward to receiving it in the very short term.
Cabinet Minister, I understand that Loganair has operated a successful operation connecting the Orkney islands to Kirkwall on the Scottish mainland for some eight years. Would the Cabinet Secretary consider looking at the model used for this service, given the collapse of the third operator on the north Wales-to-Cardiff route? And will he also consider the use of Hawarden aerodrome as an alternative to Valley, Anglesey? And I also understand that there are new models of aircraft now—single-engined—which carry the same number of passengers. When he’s looking at those who will provide the service, will he be considering the type of aircraft used?
Can I thank the Member for his questions? One of the big challenges that we have with Anglesey is the type of aircraft and civil aircraft that can fly into and out of Anglesey without the need for additional investment in the infrastructure there. So, we would need to look at investing in facilities and the infrastructure if we were to increase the size of aircraft that operate to and from the airport. I’ve always held the belief that Hawarden airport could offer considerable benefits for the north Wales economy as well, but there are problems again with the infrastructure there, because the runway is quite a bit shorter than normal airport runways. So, again, investment would be required there. There are also challenges to overcome in terms of securing the slots that would satisfy Airbus, who rely on that particular runway to bring in and to take out components for aircraft manufactured in Toulouse.
The Member does raise the interesting point of Loganair. This is a service that we’ve examined very closely. We’re trying to learn as many lessons as possible from around the world insofar as how air services can operate in a sustainable way within a small country. Again, that information will be available to me as part of the review that’s being undertaken.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
I now call on Darren Millar to ask the fourth urgent question. Darren Millar.
Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the data security breach affecting NHS staff using radiation dose meters? EAQ(5)0135(HWS)
Thank you for the question. The servers were provided by a third-party company named Landauer. They informed Velindre NHS Trust on 17 January 2017 that they had been subject to cybersecurity attack on 6 October 2016 and that staff information had been accessed. Landauer has confirmed that the breach occurred on its UK servers at its headquarters in Oxfordshire, and full details of the incident were provided to Velindre by Landauer on 26 January 2017.
Thank you for that statement, Cabinet Secretary. This is an astonishing data security breach affecting thousands of NHS workers right across Wales. At the moment, we know that NHS staff in the Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board have been informed, all 654 of them. We know also that the Velindre trust has informed its members of staff, but, as yet, we’re unaware that other members of staff in all the other health boards across Wales have been actually informed. I wonder whether you could tell us today: when will they get to know about the fact that their personal details, including their dates of birth, national insurance numbers, alongside their names, have potentially been leaked to third parties and could be abused in terms of fraudulent activity? People can change their bank account numbers, they can change their passwords, but they cannot change their national insurance numbers. This is something that goes around with them for the rest of their life, and potentially this information could be misused five, 10, 15, 20 years down the line.
So, I wonder what action the Welsh Government is taking to ensure that health boards take their responsibility to inform staff very quickly seriously. Can you tell us why there has been a delay between the NHS having been informed of this breach and staff being informed? When did the Welsh Government first become aware of this data security breach, and why did we not receive at that time a briefing as Assembly Members in order that we could liaise with health boards and reassure our constituents about the problems that this might cause? And did the Welsh Government give instructions to sit on this information at all? I think these are important questions. I don’t doubt that there was some discussion between the Welsh Government and the health boards about this particular breach, but I wonder what advice was given to those health boards, when they became aware of the breach, about communicating with their staff. It’s very clearly the biggest data breech that I’ve ever been aware of in the NHS in Wales. It’s a serious breach, and we need to understand precisely how this happened and what can be done to prevent it from happening again in the future.
Thank you for that series of questions. Presiding Officer, it might be of help to confirm that I will issue a written statement to Members during the course of this week to provide some fuller detail, which I don’t think we’ll be able to deal with in today’s urgent question. I appreciate that a number of Members will have a range of questions and interests for their own constituents. But if I can be as helpful as I can in answering the series of questions that the Member has asked: the data breach is serious—of course it’s serious—and it’s a breach that affects staff in both England and Scotland as well as in Wales. The company involved provide an integrated service for a range of different healthcare organisations right across the UK. So, they take this seriously, but there are obvious questions to ask, and that I myself will want to be reassured on, about the time lag in the breach occurring, the company being aware and NHS Wales organisations being informed. There is a full and proper investigation that is being undertaken. I don’t think, in honesty, Presiding Officer, I’ll be able to inform Members of all those matters because I don’t expect that the investigation will be completed this week, but I’ll certainly reassure Members that, as soon as that information is available, I will provide a further statement to Members as well.
We should not forget that this breach took place as a result of a criminal act. I can also happily confirm that no instruction whatsoever has been provided by the Welsh Government to NHS Wales to sit on this information. I think that sort of accusation is deeply unhelpful, and there will be members of staff, who are our constituents, who will be worried, but NHS organisations inform us that they expect every single member of staff to be informed by the end of this week. Part of the challenge though, Presiding Officer, is that a number of the staff who were affected by data security breach no longer work for the national health service in Wales, as well. That explains part of the challenge, but obviously I’ll want current and former members of staff to be told as quickly as possible. As I say, I’ll provide a written statement within the course of this week, and subsequently when further and fuller detail is available.
Before I ask my question, can I remind the Chamber that my wife’s a radiographer and is therefore probably on that list of those whose data was breached? Cabinet Secretary, thank you for the answers you’ve given, and I look forward to the written statements you’ll be providing. But, clearly, as well as the data breach issues, there are questions as to what type of information was held and what type of information should be held, because I don’t think that the information I’m hearing about is appropriate for such a database, in that sense. What is the Welsh Government doing to ensure that, in future, the data that are going to be held on personnel are only relevant to the particular topic that they are being held for, and not actually on a wider basis. For example, I’m hearing about perhaps even addresses. Well, people’s addresses are not relevant to this information. So, it is important that we clarify what data is going on, and will he undertake a survey and a review of that type of data to ensure that, in future, only relevant data are held on individuals for particular purposes?
And can he also ensure that people are informed? You’ve indicated this week that they will be. My wife, when I spoke to her yesterday—she was off yesterday—hadn’t been informed of the breach, and therefore I’m assuming her colleagues hadn’t been informed of the breach in ABMU. In that sense, it is important that people are told what information is being held about them, what could have be lost on their behalf, so that they can review that information. Because, I’m hearing that Landauer are actually offering two years free access to Experian. Well, this could be longer than that to start with, and why should somebody have to keep looking at this website day after day to see if they’re in risk of actually having their identity stolen?
There are transparently serious consequences that flow from the data breach, and, for example, the national insurance numbers were used in order to have a unique identifier for individuals, because this is about tracking the individual’s exposure to radiation. So, you need a unique identifier, and there are challenges to review, again, how that is done. I also accept that there are challenges to be properly dealt with about the appropriate level of personal information to be kept and transferred, and then to ensure that people are properly informed, not just at this point in time, but I accept that this is not something that is necessarily going to just disappear over a period of months. So, there are plainly questions to resolve, and, as I said, Presiding Officer, I don’t think I can honestly give Members all of the answers to the questions they will quite rightly have and expect to be answered. That is why I’ll issue a written statement now and I’ll issue any further statement once that full and proper investigation has been done, because the questions David Rees raises are entirely understandable, and Members across this Chamber will have those concerns on behalf of their constituents, regardless of whether they are relevant or not. But, they are entirely fair questions.
Cabinet Secretary, this is the latest data breach to hit our health service, and this particular breach is devastating for the staff concerned. Although no patient data were involved on this occasion, it does highlight the concerns of many that the NHS cannot be trusted with personal information. Earlier this month, a former nurse was sacked by Hywel Dda university health board for breaching patient confidentiality. Yesterday, we learned that a north Wales physiotherapist has been suspended for removing patient files without consent. Cabinet Secretary, these data breaches do little to restore faith amongst the Welsh public that their sensitive health information is in safe hands with the Welsh NHS. Other countries have introduced legislation protecting health information over and above the existing data protection legislation. Do you think it’s time that we followed suit so that we can reassure the Welsh public and NHS staff that their sensitive information is safe?
I do try to be constructive in response, Presiding Officer, but I think that much of what was just said was deeply unhelpful. The accusation that the NHS cannot be trusted with information and then trying to draw a link between a data breach from a criminal act, where, of course, we want to ensure that cybersecurity on sensitive information is appropriate and up-to-date, as far as possible, against what we know is a continually evolving criminal community who are acquiring these data—to try to draw a link between that and individual professionals who have failed in their duty to their profession and to the people they are responsible to and for, I just think is deeply unhelpful. I do not accept that there is an appropriate link to be drawn.
Rather than attempting to scare members of the public about the safety of NHS data and suggesting the answer lies in the law—I don’t think the answer does lie in the law. It’s about our systems for protecting those data and in providing assurance for people who access those data that they can be trusted. If they breach their very clear obligations, either as employees, as healthcare professionals or in terms of breaching the law, then they can expect to be pursued for those breaches, but, actually, the important point about health data is of course you want them to be secure, but we want them to be shared. Members regularly ask me in committee and in this Chamber, ‘How can we ensure that health data and information are shared between healthcare professionals, because there is much healthcare gain to be made in the sharing of those data?’ We want secure systems, we want professionals who can be trusted and held accountable if they breach those obligations, and that is the basis on which I will continue to act in balancing all of those different aspects, but ensuring, ultimately, the best interests of the patient will guide what we do and do not do.
I feel great sympathy towards the individuals working in the NHS who have been affected in this way and also, of course, those who are working outside the NHS in Wales who also have been affected. I do, however, think that the Velindre hospital trust that runs the radiation protection service based in my constituency of Cardiff North has responded appropriately to this incident, which was, of course, beyond their control. I do feel reassured that, certainly in the case of the Velindre staff who have been affected, enough support has been given to the 530 individuals affected. I know that as well as having the letter—individual letters sent to the individuals involved—there has also been the opportunity for individual consultation with all those people affected where they can ask any particular questions and can raise any queries. So, would the Cabinet Secretary agree that the other health boards that are in the process of informing their members of staff that this breach may have occurred—that individual consultation is also offered, because I think that is a way of reassuring, so that they are able to have face-to-face meetings?
Also, I think that it is important, obviously, that individuals are informed as swiftly as possible, but it’s also very important that the right individuals, at the right addresses and in the right trusts are informed. With the thousands who have been affected by this, it’s absolutely essential that there is time to establish that you are not, for example, contacting somebody who may have died in the interim, but you are actually contacting somebody who is actually there, working in the trust, and has been affected by this. So, there is bound to be an inevitable time lag while all these details are looked into. Would the Cabinet Secretary agree that it is essential that care is taken over reaching the individuals involved, but that it should be done as quickly as possible?
I thank the Member for pointing out the balance to be struck in ensuring that people are informed as soon as possible and, at the same time, that there is accuracy in those people that are informed. You’re right; over 3,000 NHS staff have been affected, but there are a number of people outside the NHS affected as well. I do think that other health organisations could look at what Velindre have done in providing the support and guidance that you mentioned, and also the fact that all Velindre staff have now been contacted and provided with that support and guidance. I believe that Velindre have also managed to write to their former staff now as well. So, there does need to be care taken and attention paid when reaching staff within and outside the NHS—those who are no longer employed by the NHS—ensuring that there is real accuracy in that and, of course, that those members are updated as the picture evolves as to what happened and why, and what will then be done afterwards as a consequence.
I draw Members’ attention to my register of interests and my wife’s employment as a radiographer. Can I welcome his reassurances today, but also the fact that he’ll bring forward a more detailed written statement? I suspect that we may have to come back at some point in the future as well with an even more detailed statement. Perhaps some of the questions I have might help guide his subsequent responses. First of all, do we know now the full extent of those who have been affected by this data attack—this cyber-attack—or do we feel that it could actually spread beyond those that have already been reported in the press and media? Secondly, have all those who have been affected—that we know have been affected—been informed? It would be good to get that reassurance. Secondly, if not now, how soon can those who suspect that they may have been affected, but actually are in the clear, be informed that they have nothing to worry about? Thirdly, do we know that this is, or will the investigation tell us whether this is the result of an aggressive cyber-attack that could not be defended against? Or if we find that, actually, this is a—. We don’t know this yet, but if the investigation turns up that this is a lapse in the defence and the levels of defence that were there, what liabilities does the private company or the health board have to those people who are affected? Finally, looking further ahead, and following the questions from Darren, knowing that the repercussions of this could spread, not in the months ahead but the years ahead, could we seek some assurance of what responsibility and what liability the company, the health board and others may have to those individuals who may be affected, who may be affected by data theft, credit loss and many other more serious eventualities way down the line? What protections are they now given because of this data breach?
I thank the Member for the series of questions. I believe that the figures published are accurate. They identify the—. Our understanding is that over 4,700 staff in Wales had their data stolen from the server of the private contractor—as I say, from their servers based in Oxfordshire. I’m not aware of those affected in Scotland or in England. Those are matters for colleagues in the UK Government and in the Scottish Government. Again, I’m happy to say that my understanding and expectations are that, by the end of this week, all staff who have not been informed will have been, and that should provide reassurance to people that have not been informed. But I take on board the point that there will be people who will be genuinely concerned about whether their data has been accessed and they have not been informed as of yet.
On your finishing point on whether or not there is potential liability, well, that’s what we will need to understand as the report concludes, as to what happened in this instance, how promptly action was or was not taken, and then ultimately the respective obligations of both the NHS and the contractor. This is a specialist contractor who provides healthcare services of this type, as I say, within the UK, but also on a global basis as well. It is my understanding this is not a data breach that results from a careless leaving of a disk or a pen drive in a public place, as we’ve seen, sadly, in the recent past, but that this was a cyber-attack upon the servers. So, it’s not a case of data being left carelessly, but of course we want to look at what sort of cybersecurity this particular company had at the time, and equally, I know that Members want to be reassured that there has been an appropriate response to the attack that has taken place. So, as I say, I’ll provide as much information as I can do to be helpful in my first written statement, but as I’ve said earlier, I expect to provide a second written statement once a report is available and we’re able to share that with Members and the wider public, who will understandably be concerned.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
The next item on our agenda is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the leader of the house, Jane Hutt.
There is one change to this week’s business. Business Committee has agreed to reduce the time allocated to tomorrow’s questions to the Assembly Commission. Business for the next three weeks is as shown on the business statement and announcement found among the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, could we have a statement, please, on the St Athan aerospace park? We’ve only recently had the good news around the Aston Martin development of the Red Dragon hangar, but some years ago, obviously, Cardiff Aviation set up at the aviation park, and they’ve faced some considerable commercial challenges. Welsh Government put a considerable sum of money into Cardiff Aviation locating at the aerospace park, on the pretext of creating a certain number of jobs, running into the hundreds. They have had a challenging commercial time there and trading has been quite challenging. There are also other businesses located on the aviation park that have obviously experienced difficulties with the runway being open over weekends and night-time working, in particular. So I would be grateful if you could secure a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for the economy to outline those two aspects: one, how the aviation park is now working—in particular around 24/7 working, and in particular the ability to bring planes in and out; and, secondly, with the specific request about Cardiff Aviation, considering the considerable amount of public money that went in to secure this relocation, and in particular, the jobs associated with the company, what measures is the Welsh Government taking to make sure that job targets are being met? And if there are any doubts about those job targets, what action has been taken to safeguard the public money that has been put into this company?
Thank you for those questions. On the first question, St Athan aerospace business park, of course, is part of the enterprise zone, and I’m very familiar, again, with the 24/7 working issues, which obviously is where Welsh Government has to secure the support of the Ministry of Defence and also the Civil Aviation Authority. So, I certainly will ask the Cabinet Secretary for an update on those arrangements, but obviously it’s not just Welsh Government here, in terms of responsibilities for securing that, in terms of security and aviation safety. On your second point, again, in terms of Cardiff Aviation, that is a matter that I will draw to the attention of the Cabinet Secretary.
I’m just raising the issue with regard to Juhel Miah in my constituency, my region, again. I know that other AMs have. I’ve had communication with him this week, you see, stating that he hasn’t had any response from the First Minister. The First Minister obviously wrote to the US authorities with regard to the fact he was taken off the train to America—. Train? Plane. That would be interesting—new technology. And so, he’s very concerned that he hasn’t has a response from the First Minister. Obviously, he welcomes the fact that the First Minister has made those representations, but would like to know what has come from those communications, so that he can understand what next to do. I’m going to meet him at the end of this week, but I think if he could get assurances from the First Minister before I meet with him, I would be very grateful, considering that he feels in quite a vulnerable position having been treated in this way, but not understanding why, as a schoolteacher, as a British citizen, he has been treated in this manner.
I will certainly raise that with the First Minister. I am aware that he not only, of course, as you know, wrote the letter clarifying the position, but he has also—. I think I understand that he might have had a response from that letter from the Foreign Secretary, so it is now an opportunity to update on that position. Thank you for raising it.
Last week, I held a meeting with the senior management of Barclays bank after it announced it was making 100 people redundant at its Llanishen mortgage advice centre. Many of these people have been working there for many years—20 years or more—and are highly skilled. So, it is a real body blow that these skilled workers are going to be made redundant. Would she be able to ask for a statement about what the Welsh Government can do to support workers like these, who have been working for this one company for many, many years and who feel that their skills have been thrown away?
I think this is another disappointing announcement from another major high street bank, and we’ve had them in all our constituencies across Wales—and also, indeed, Yorkshire Building Society; another one very recently. We've been aware of Barclays’s restructuring programme, and it obviously is a trend, as we've said—an unfortunate trend—in terms of the banking sector. So, the Cabinet Secretary for infrastructure and economy has written to Barclays, urging them to reconsider the decision. We want to safeguard jobs across Wales. We will, obviously, help in terms of staff facing redundancy. I think it's worth mentioning the ReAct III programme. That provides a comprehensive package of support to people in Wales affected by redundancy, and, of course, that is something where possible new employment is to be found soon after redundancy, preventing progression into long-term unemployment. So, there's been contact made between Barclays and Careers Wales and Jobcentre Plus. We've also alerted our employer contacts, including the Welsh contact centre forum, about the possibility of skilled staff coming into the jobs market over the next few years, and they're going to work, where they can, with Barclays and affected employees. Yesterday, a fast-expanding customer service venture, Firstsource, announced that it's going to begin a two-day recruitment event later this week, hoping to create a further 300 jobs in Cardiff—Discovery House, as we know, in Cardiff Bay, and Oakleigh House in the city centre. Also, we have the Vodafone announcement of 100 new customer service jobs. So, I think all these connections will be made to give some hope and prospects to those people who may unfortunately lose their jobs, particularly in terms of your constituency and the Llanishen mortgage advice contact centre.
Could I call for a single statement on police funding in the context of the apprenticeship levy? As you may know, police forces in England can access funding for apprenticeships through the new digital apprenticeship service account there, but, in Wales, the Welsh Government approach, which is different, means that Welsh forces can't. When I raised this in the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee, regarding our inquiry into the apprenticeship levy with the skills Minister, I highlighted their need for access to funding for accredited courses in Welsh colleges, where they are contributing over £2 million a year to the levy, but currently can't access it. I was told that the Welsh Government would instead strike up a grant or contract arrangements in dialogue with the college policing, and that they had meetings in the diary with the police and crime commissioners in Wales. Well, last weekend, I was informed that those meetings with the police and crime commissioners had been cancelled and not rescheduled. In that context, this Assembly merits a statement to bring us up to speed so that we can ensure that officers in our police forces in Wales are not penalised and can access that funding for their vital training and apprenticeships.
Well, do I detect someone who has now converted, Mark Isherwood, to devolving policing to Wales? Because we certainly haven't got responsibility in terms of policing, and we’re not, certainly, responsible for introducing the apprenticeship levy, which we have huge concerns about. Obviously, we will look into the situation in terms of how to take the dialogue forward with the police and crime commissioners.
Can I ask the leader of the house when she thinks the Government is likely to allow time for a debate on the annual report and accounts of Natural Resources Wales, which were laid on Friday? I don’t know how many Members have had the chance to look at this yet, but if I can inform everyone that the accounts have been qualified by the Auditor General for Wales, and qualified in a very specific and heavy way—. The qualification, which details over five pages, which I won’t read out at this stage—I hope to have a debate where we can go into it. But I would say that it relates to a sawmill and timber operation worth £72 million over 10 years, and the main conclusion that stands out for me from the auditor general’s qualification of the accounts is his conclusion at paragraph 16 that says,
‘the decision to award a number of very significant contracts to the sawmill operator was, in my view, contentious and repercussive.’
On that basis, he has qualified the whole of the accounts, as well as those relating directly to the £72 million account.
Now, there are a number of issues here. For example, one of the reasons for the contract volume awarded to the sawmill operator was designed to enable it to make a major investment in its sawmill. However, the auditor’s qualification refers to information received that
‘the required contracted investment in the operator’s Welsh premises had not been made’.
The auditor doesn’t come to any conclusion on value for money, because that’s not his job when he audits accounts. However, he does say this:
‘In my view, the commitment of NRW to sell the sawmill operator a high volume of timber over a ten year period would appear to be an opportunity which other operators may have been interested in.’
The inference is that £72 million-worth of contracts were laid without a proper tendering process, not meeting state-aid rules or general rules of public law. This is very serious, and it’s compounded by the fact that the introduction to the annual report by the chair and chief executive of NRW makes no reference to this whatsoever, and doesn’t say what they’re going to learn from this process, or what steps they’re taking to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. In fact, they contend that the auditor general has—that his qualification is ‘disproportionate’ to the shortcomings identified. I think £72 million-worth of shortcomings are rightly highlighted by the auditor general, and I would like to see the Welsh Government bring forward as early a debate as possible on these accounts and the annual report so that we can hold Natural Resources Wales to account.
Thank you, Simon Thomas. If I can clarify, and you obviously raise this in your question, the qualification does relate to Natural Resources Wales’s record keeping in relation to a sales contract let in 2014. It is an issue for the Natural Resources Wales accounting officer, who is the chief executive, and this matter should be considered, I would say, by the relevant Assembly committees. In fact, NRW have been invited to appear before the Public Accounts Committee on 28 March and 2 May, so those, I think, are the first appropriate steps to take.
I would like to ask for a Government statement on the current GP contract. I’ve been told by constituents recently that one surgery is refusing to change dressings and referring patients to the hospital. Another surgery will only provide repeat prescriptions via computer request, which is exceptionally difficult for some of my elderly constituents. The same surgery refuses patients an appointment until the doctor has spoken to them. The patients aren’t able to know whether that is right or wrong, and whether the GP surgery can do it. I’m unable to tell them that, and, most importantly, when I contact Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, they say that GP surgeries are private contractors to the NHS, and they’re not happy to take it up with them. So, I thought someone somewhere must know what the contract is, because I think what they’re doing is unacceptable.
Thank you, Mike Hedges, for that question. I think—well, in terms of the GP contract, as you will, of course, be aware, it was agreed with the Welsh General Practitioners Committee on 4 March 2017, and, in fact, that contract—. There are important changes to the GP contract that you’re trying to clarify on behalf of your constituents. There is going to be an increase in general medical services of approximately £27 million. Now, that includes an uplift of 2.7 per cent for GP pay and expenses for 2017-18. It also includes provision for GP practices to provide new enhanced services, including care homes, warfarin management, diabetes, and the delivery of secondary care initiated phlebotomy tests to improve the quality and safety of patient care.
As we announced, and as the Cabinet Secretary announced, this is about negotiating an improvement and updating the contract, but it’s about modernising it to better meet the needs of the public and the profession. So, that obviously—. In terms of the experience, this is not yet—this is for 2017-18, so, within the next few weeks, it will be implemented.
Can I request a statement please on Welsh Government making payments to suppliers in a timely manner? I am aware, from bus operators that have raised the issue with me, that late payments are, of course, causing cash-flow problems for some bus operators, particularly smaller operators. I’m aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Infrastructure, last week, during the statement on bus services, said that this issue is a local government issue. But it is very much a Welsh Government issue. So, I would very much welcome a statement confirming that the issue of late payments from Welsh Government in this regard will be addressed.
Obviously, this is an issue that Welsh Government needs to be made aware of, and in terms of the role of local authorities as well. Certainly, this can be brought to the attention of the Cabinet Secretary. I think that there’s a lot of interest at the moment in the opportunities for bus services in terms of the bus summit that was held on 23 January.
I declare an interest because this matter does relate to Cardiff council. It’s an important matter and relates to transport. The cabinet member for transport on Cardiff council is refusing to act on dangerous routes to school. Two roads come to mind: Heol Isaf in Radyr, where cars speed at up to 70 mph, and Caerau Lane in Caerau, where the road heads towards Mary Immaculate High School and children have to cross over, hundreds of them, a busy road, which is really dangerous. [Interruption.] With the greatest of respect, I’m trying to ask the Minister for a statement and I would like your attention, please, instead of heckles.
Carry on with the question, Neil McEvoy.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Your colleague is quoting the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 to defend his position, because, technically, he is legally correct, but, morally, I would say he is wrong, because there’s a world of difference between the aspirational routes in the Act and where children actually walk and how they actually get to school.
So, will your Government write to the council reminding them of their responsibility to keep our children safe? I would like some kind of statement about this matter, because safer routes to school are extremely important, and, for a very, very small amount of money, we can keep our children safe. Diolch.
Well, the Welsh Government is responsible for a very pioneering and important policy in terms of Safe Routes to School, providing funding for local authorities. Of course, they apply for that funding and present proposals for safe routes to school and safe routes in those communities. The council, of course, is well aware and clear about their statutory obligations in relation to the learner travel Measure.
Leader of the house, on Friday evening, an ambulance crew was attacked while trying to care for people. Unfortunately, this is not the only case, and recent figures have shown that there’s a rise, year on year, in the numbers of staff who are attacked across Wales. Friday was another unacceptable and deplorable attack on our public servants while trying to do their job. Can we have a statement on what support the Welsh Government can give to safeguard our front-line ambulance staff and indeed all our emergency services who come to work to save lives and provide care and assistance, often under difficult, traumatic circumstances?
I respect the fact that the Member has brought that to our attention and I think it does bring to light again those totally unacceptable incidents of violence against—. We have zero tolerance to violence against our staff. These are staff who are working under huge pressure. This is an issue that, of course, we take very seriously in the Welsh Government in support of the Welsh ambulance services trust. It is important, of course, again, that the local health board also is aware of that and it is followed up and, if necessary, action taken to protect the staff.
I thank the leader of the house.
The next item on our agenda is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children on the Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Bill. I call on the Cabinet Secretary, Carl Sargeant.
Thank you, Llywydd. I was pleased yesterday to introduce the Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Bill, together with the explanatory memorandum, to the National Assembly for Wales. Our supply of social housing is under considerable pressure. Between 1 April 1981 and 31 March 2016, 139,100 local authority and housing association homes—that is 45 per cent of the 1981 social housing stock—were sold under the right to buy and right to acquire. The reduction in the stock during that period is forcing many vulnerable people to wait longer for a home today, and according to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, developing and protecting social housing is one of the best ways in which housing policy can be used to tackle poverty. Given the pressures on social housing and the need to build more homes, the time has come to end the right to buy as one of the ways to address the pressures. As well as abolishing the right to buy, the Bill will encourage social landlords to invest in new social housing, safe in the knowledge that it won’t be at risk of having to be sold after only a few years. The Bill has been developed following consultation on a White Paper in 2015. A wide range of stakeholders, including young people, have also been engaged through workshops. I would like to place on record today my thanks to all who have contributed to the development of that process.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
The responses from stakeholders, including Shelter Cymru, local authorities and housing associations, show clear support for the aims of the Bill. The Bill will protect the social housing stock for rent by people who are unable to buy or rent a home via the private market. This includes many vulnerable people who benefit greatly from the safe, secure and affordable homes that our social housing provides. In summary, the Bill will abolish the right to buy, the preserved right to buy and the right to acquire for social housing tenants. The rights will end for new homes not previously let in the social housing sector two months after the Bill receives Royal Assent. To ensure that tenants are aware of the effect of the Bill, abolition of rights on existing properties will not take place until at least one year after the Bill receives Royal Assent. All affected tenants of social housing will be informed in writing within two months of Royal Assent, and the Bill complements the Welsh Government’s wider aims of a more prosperous and fairer Wales. It will assist in tackling poverty and it will help to preserve a stock of safe, secure and affordable housing for use by people on modest incomes or who are vulnerable.
The legislation to abolish the right to buy and right to acquire supports other action being taken by the Welsh Government to increase the supply of housing—for example, setting the ambitious target of 20,000 affordable homes during this term of Government. The Welsh Government remains committed to helping people on modest incomes to own their own homes too, for example via the Help to Buy—Wales scheme. Help to Buy—Wales is now firmly established, and our £290 million investment in the second phase will support the construction of over 6,000 new homes by 2021.This has been widely welcomed also by aspiring homeowners and housebuilders alike.
We are strengthening schemes that support low-cost home ownership, but not at the expense of reducing the social housing stock, and not via schemes that, in the long-run, can end up costing tenants, and all of us, more than the social rented alternative. There is evidence that many properties sold under the right to buy eventually end up in the private sector. When that happens, that can involve higher costs for tenants, and where housing benefit is claimed, that can cost more to the public purse. I recognise that some people will oppose the Bill, pointing to the contribution the right to buy has made in assisting tenants to get home ownership. But we need to consider those apparent benefits in the context of the housing system as a whole. I am concerned to encourage as many people as possible into home ownership also. This Bill ensures we safeguard the investment made in social housing over many generations so that it can be used to support the most vulnerable families now and in the future.
Llywydd, our manifesto commitment to end the right to buy will contribute to a fairer Wales by helping those for whom the housing market doesn’t work. The Bill will help make a real difference to many people’s lives. I look forward to the wider debate surrounding this Bill and I look forward to the contribution of Members and the many stakeholder groups who I know want to see this Bill become law.
I have to start by saying quite directly that this is a very sad day for Wales. After all, nearly 140,000 families have benefitted from the right to buy since 1980 and home ownership is an aspiration that tens of thousands continue to have across Wales. Now, an important route for them will be closed. If there was ever a public policy that was in endorsed year in, year out by public acclamation it is this: 140,000 families.
Jenny Rathbone rose—
This is a statement—
There are no interventions on a statement, sorry.
Indeed, I think one can reasonably claim that the right to buy has been the most popular housing policy in British history and particularly popular, incidentally, in Labour’s traditional heartland. I’ll leave that dilemma to you and your colleagues.
You’ve also selected the wrong target. We need to build more homes—many more homes. That’s what should be taking up our time at the moment. We need annual house building in the region of 12,000 to 15,000 in the next generation, just to make up ground. We are currently struggling to build the Welsh Government’s target of 8,700 new homes a year. The last time we achieved that inadequate target was 2007-08. In his statement the Cabinet Secretary said the Welsh Government aims to provide 20,000 affordable homes during this term. But that is only 2,500 more than previous plans. Now here’s the truth of the matter: about 250 homes were subject to the right to buy on an annual basis in the last five years. This has declined considerably as the benefits on offer have been reduced, but it is still an important policy and one I think more people should have access to—250 homes each year for the last five years. Yet, we are falling short of our house building targets—or need, anyway—by something like 6,000 houses a year. That’s our undersupply at the minute and I just think it’s shocking that a Government chooses to withdraw the right to buy and not concentrate on building more homes.
Can I just say that if the Government had concentrated on reforming the right to buy, you would have had support from us? Because no policy is fixed and final. Even the most successful policies need adjustment and we would have looked at ways to make the right to buy even better for the twenty-first century. I think all of us would have agreed, for instance, that all receipts from right to buy should be reinvested in social housing and that is something that should have been done from the start, frankly, and may have avoided some of the controversies.
And now my questions. Unfortunately, Deputy Presiding Officer, we will have to oppose this Bill and subject it to very extensive scrutiny. It has been brought forward despite the fact that the right for local authorities to suspend the right to buy has only been taken up by three, with two more pending. So, 17 out of the 22 have not actually activated the suspension and now you are forcing their hand. I would like to know, Cabinet Secretary, whether sections 6 and 7 that are contained in the Bill relate to the commencement or the actual implementation of the Bill. This means, as you’ve said, that there will be a period of notice of one year on the existing social housing stock and that would allow tenants currently in social housing to consider whether they should exercise their right to buy. But I would like to know if this notice period will also apply to those local authorities that have already suspended the right to buy, or whether it’s not going to be comprehensive.
Can I finish just by commending the Government on one thing, and that’s the quality of the explanatory memorandum? Because this will help us scrutinise the Bill effectively, and I do think, Deputy Presiding Officer, that the legislature is greatly assisted when the Executive exercises this sort of candour. So, on that, I do commend you.
I thank the Member for his contribution. I was not expecting anything less, but I was hoping that the content in David Melding’s contribution would have extolled some more detail in the fact that I understand that there are political differences between the Conservative policy and the Labour policy in this space—and I wasn’t expecting any support in that field. But the Member suggested that we are focusing on the wrong area. This abolition of the right to buy is only part of a suite of tools to enhance the housing market. We are investing heavily in our housing stock. Over the last term of Government, we exceeded our targets of building social housing with local RSLs, and I’m encouraged that already we are seeing local authorities starting to build new council properties in constituencies. Indeed, my own in Flintshire, and that of Hannah Blythyn, are already on the way with people living in those homes. We need to secure those for the future.
We have lost 45 per cent of social housing stock since 1981. This is significant, and I’m glad the Member recognised that part of the problem with this is about the Treasury rules that applied in terms of the lack of ability to reinvest back into social housing. Actually, our money from here went back to London, so we lost on both levels; we lost social housing but also lost the finances to reinvest—a double-whammy for Wales. So, that’s why we are introducing this scheme as part of a package; a suite of things.
The Member asked a very specific question on the issue of authorities that are already under suspension and will the 12 months allow them to have grounds for application during that. That will not be the case. The suspension period that is starting now will continue during the introduction as well, so the scheme will not apply for the five-year suspension period that applies to those authorities. There are more than three; I’d just also correct the Member on his application. There was Carmarthen in January of 2015, Swansea in April of 2015, Anglesey in September of 2016 and Flintshire in February of 2017. Denbighshire is already being considered also, and another two authorities are seeking a potential application. We’ve had some discussions with them also. So, a significant number have already sought to suspend this on a temporary basis.
I’d like to say that we support this Bill and the policy intent behind it. It’s been a long-standing position of Plaid Cymru and we’re looking forward to the scrutiny process. I will say in reaction to the Conservatives that many people cannot simply afford to buy their own homes, and we always need social housing for that purpose. I wouldn’t want to seek to try and play working class people against other people in their own communities, because I think that’s irresponsible. The intentions of this policy are the right intentions and I think that it’s one that we should try and support, although I understand that there will be ideological reasons why people in this room will not.
One of the questions I wanted to ask was: are you planning to create more mixed communities where housing is a mix of social and private in relation to this particular piece of legislation? I know that in the past, maybe there have been communities where there’s been more of a propensity for people to buy in a certain area of a council estate and not in another area of that estate, and then it’s intensified the issues around social housing and the right to buy. So, I was wanting to ask on that.
Obviously, by giving notice that right to buy is going to be abolished, there will be existing tenants thinking of buying who will start to look for ways to finance this, and this potentially puts people into a vulnerable situation. There have been numerous examples over the years of companies providing the finance to help people take advantage of the right to buy that then evict the tenants when the finance isn’t repaid, knowing that they have equity in an asset that was acquired for far below market value, and would have probably risen then as a consequence. So, what actions will you be taking to minimise these risks as we approach the end of right to buy?
Your statement also mentions the Help to Buy—Wales scheme as support for people to get on the ladder, but this scheme only applies to new builds. So, last year, the all-party parliamentary group for excellence in the built environment reported on the quality of new-build houses throughout the UK, and they found that 93 per cent of buyers report problems to their builders, and of these, 35 per cent report 11 or more problems. So, now, there are questions about whether the National House Building Council is able to appropriately resolve these complaints and ensure that new builds are fit for purpose. So, is the Welsh Government planning to examine this report and take action against poor-quality new builds? And given these problems, is it really appropriate to restrict Help to Buy to just new builds?
My final question, at the moment—of course, we’ll be scrutinising this Bill on the communities committee on which I sit—is: are you satisfied that a year is enough time to provide scope for people who are in the process, mid process, of right to buy? I know that Scotland took a two-year decision when they were allowing people to still put forward cases to buy their homes. So, I would want to be satisfied that you are giving tenants the correct information, timely information and that they understand their rights, because this is integral, because it’s changing, fundamentally, and that we can encourage people to understand, via, perhaps, a public campaign, as to why you’re taking this decision to do this as part of a Government initiative.
I thank the Member for her contribution and I welcome her party’s commitment to support the Bill process, moving forward. The Member is right about the mix of communities, but we have to remember that 45 per cent of the stock has already been sold and has now gone into the private sector, so it’s very diverse from what it originally started out as in the first place. So, we must plan better in terms of the way we create communities, and that’s part of the planning guidance that is issued. The creation of new social housing, which is being developed by RSLs and local authorities, is, again, about how it satisfies local need, which is important to engage local communities in.
On the Help to Buy—Wales programme, I’m interested in the Member’s comments with regard to the quality of some of the builds. I’ll look at that report carefully. I would not want to be funding any organisation that is providing poor-quality properties. We recently invested up to £20 million in an innovation fund for new housing ideas and concepts, on which we’re having some great responses back. I hope that—alongside this Bill, I said there’s a suite of tools that will help us develop new opportunities, and the innovation programme, alongside the social housing grant will also add to the opportunities that will be given in the housing division.
The one-year period of respite after the introduction—I’m confident of the ability of tenants to act, should they wish to do so, in terms of purchasing, but I would also be mindful of this in terms of our engagement with tenants. So, we will write to all tenants within the two-month period of the Bill receiving Royal Assent. But I think it’s also something that you may want to scrutinise us on about the detail after that event, about making sure that we give confidence to the tenants that if they are seeking to make a significant purchase like that, they are not drawn into the traps of loans sharks and otherwise to make the finances available. It’s something for which we think the 12-month period we believe will be adequate in that space.
Cabinet Secretary, we know that safe, secure and affordable homes are a crucial part of the fabric of fulfilling lives and strong, cohesive communities, and safeguarding and ensuring decent standards of Wales’s housing stock is a core component in achieving this. As you’re well aware, in February this year, my own council, Flintshire, was successful in its application to suspend right to buy in respect of all council dwellings, with, between 1996 and 2016, a total of 1,606 properties being sold against a backdrop of oversubscribed demand and ever-growing housing lists.
Cabinet Secretary, as you alluded to in a previous answer, the council has led the way in starting to build the first lot of new council homes in a generation through the strategic housing and regeneration programme, and I’m sure I don’t really have to ask whether you’ll join with me and welcome the precedent set by Flintshire County Council and its innovative and trailblazing approach. But I do have an additional question: in your statement, you say all affected tenants across Wales will be formally written to regarding changes under the legislation. Can I ask what guidance or resource will be provided to make sure that this happens? And also, can information be more widely publicised regarding the availability and eligibility for Welsh Government schemes such as Help to Buy and rent to own?
The Member raises some fair points in terms of the information for future tenants and future positioning of support from Welsh Government. We do have a website already with links to the suite of financial support or information available for new tenants. That is available from the Government. Of course, I’ll congratulate my local authority—our local authority—it would be unwise not to do so. Councillor Bernie Attridge, the lead member on housing, is a tremendous champion of social housing, and along with other authorities, I must say, they’re starting to turn the tide in terms of investing carefully in new housing stock for local people, which is very important.
I should just remind Members of a very stark fact that in England, there was a promise that for every one sold they would reinvest and build another home on the back of that. But, actually, the stats suggest that, for every seven that is lost to the market, only one is then rebuilt, which is unfortunate. Therefore, we’re never going to have enough social housing stock unless we make investments and protect them for the future, which is what we’re going to do here in Wales.
Thanks to the Minister for his statement today. In UKIP, we do broadly support the right to buy, but we also recognise the practical difficulties that this policy has led to. It’s interesting that the right to buy has become an ideological battleground between Labour and the Conservatives, because it was actually Labour that first proposed this kind of scheme in their 1959 general election manifesto under Hugh Gaitskell. However, Labour lost that election and it was the Conservatives who eventually, 20 years later, began to enact the sale of council houses, and it proved to be a popular policy, as David Melding has articulated earlier today.
However, sometimes it does take a distance of a few years before we can see if a policy has really worked or not. So, has right to buy helped to facilitate more home ownership in the UK? Well, up to a point, it certainly has. In 1980, when the Act came in, 55 per cent of British householders owned or mortgaged their own home. After the Act, this steadily rose, peaking at 71 per cent in 2003. Unfortunately, since then the figure has declined to its current level of less than 64 per cent, which means that, for the first time, we actually have lower home ownership rates than in France. So, it is a bit of a mixed message and I can see your concerns over right to buy.
The figures do become more concerning when they apply to the young. In 1990, 45 per cent of 25-year-olds were on the property ladder. In 2000, that figure had gone down to 34 per cent, and in 2010, it stood at 21 per cent. So, it certainly seems that today the young are being priced out of the property market. Indeed, the flip side of the 1980 Housing Act seems to have been that the severe restrictions on councils’ ability to build new council houses has ended up in a shortage of housing. Revenue from council house sales was directed by the central UK Government to go to reducing councils’ debt. So, we have had a period in which councils have been severely restricted in their ability to build council houses. We now enter a period in Wales when, as you, Minister, elucidated earlier, we are now seeing some council houses built again, which is a welcome development. But you are now addressing the problem of the depletion of stock, and that seems to be principally why you want to end the right to buy in Wales. We in UKIP think that there should be ring-fencing of revenue from the council house sales, with councils obligated to reinvest this into either new-build council houses or regeneration of existing stock.
We need to continue to push for job investment away from the major coastal towns and cities as far as we can, because this could then help to address the problem of the depopulation of the Valleys.
I haven’t heard a question yet. Are you coming to a question?
Well, I will start to introduce some questions. Thank you for reminding me, Deputy Presiding Officer. So I wondered, Minister, what you thought about this as part of your joined-up approach, presumably, to the housing issue. Because perhaps you can comment on this when I suggest that what we don’t really want are endless new private estates on the green belt, with only grudging and very minimal elements of social housing, whose residents clog up the road when they travel into their jobs in the city. Is this a good idea for the future? Perhaps you can elucidate your vision on this? Far better in my view—in our view—to try to keep jobs in the Valleys as far as possible, and to regenerate housing in the Valleys themselves, and also to develop brownfield and infill sites in the city. So, I wondered what your thoughts were on those ideas.
There are also other external factors—[Interruption.]—that you may be able to shed some light on—and I thank you for your interest, Members over there. For instance, we are leaving the EU—
Are you coming to a conclusion, please, with some questions?
I am indeed. I am indeed, Deputy Presiding Officer.
There are other issues, such as leaving the EU. I see that the EU forces member states to allow international investors to buy into their housing markets. This may now change. Is this a welcome development, therefore, noting that two Cardiff postcodes are in the top 10 for properties being owned by offshore companies? So, that could be addressed by us leaving the EU. So, a series of questions, we just took a while to get to them. But I’d be glad if you answer them. Thank you.
Before I call the Cabinet Secretary, could I just remind Members, all Members in the Chamber, this is a statement and it should be four spokespeople, a short preamble, and then a couple of questions per spokesperson? And for the rest of you, it is a straight question to the Minister, not a case of taking however much time you take to go around the houses, shall I say, to get to questions. They are questions, and I have a number of speakers. Cabinet Secretary.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, again. There were a lot of questions there—lots of those questions will be resolved through the scrutiny of the Bill as it take passage through the Assembly, which I’d be happy to debate with Members and the Member who asked those questions earlier on. Look, I’m not saying that the right to buy was a bad theory that was introduced, but it was fundamentally flawed. Mrs Thatcher had the opportunity to change many people’s lives and having the right to buy was one of their proposals too, but the problem was we weren’t reinvesting back into creating more housing stock. The public purse was shrinking and the issue of the housing revenue funding was going back disproportionately to Treasury. We’ve changed the rules now in terms of the HRA, and we’ve exited that programme where authorities are now able to keep 100 per cent of their capital receipts, but the stock level is so low. And that’s why we have to make sure, where we are making investments in these for the future, we protect them for the long term. Planning for the future is a piece legislation we introduced here in Wales, and this Act—hopefully, if passed by this Assembly—will help us complete that programme. But the Member did raise many issues, indeed, including the issues around Brexit, which I’m sure will come up during the discussions through the scrutiny of the Bill.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement here today. This is an important announcement and, moreover, one that was endorsed by voters in Wales during last year’s Assembly election. As you’ve pointed out, for every 20 social housing properties in existence in 1981, nine have since been sold off, and whilst the right to buy did help many families onto the housing ladder, the policy was not introduced in a sustainable way. We are facing the social consequences of this today, so I welcome your action.
My questions: I note from your statement will still give social landlords the option to sell homes to their tenants. If this does happen, what safeguards will be in place to make sure that any such sales will not impact on the provision of housing stock? How will the Welsh Government encourage social landlords to invest any money made in this way back into providing more housing to make up the shortfall? And finally, it’s important that Welsh citizens know about these changes, and I note the duty on social landlords to inform their tenants, but how will you monitor this to make sure that it has actually taken place, and what consequences will there be if social landlords do not convey this information accurately?