Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd25/10/2017
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
Right, can Members come to order, please?
[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 Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government. And question 1, David Rees.
1. How will the Cabinet Secretary assess the progress being made in relation to delivering the Swansea Bay city deal? (OAQ51240)
Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. Work continues with the Swansea bay city region and the UK Government to develop and agree an implementation, monitoring and evaluation plan to oversee detail of the deal.
Well, thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. Now, last month, in an answer to Jeremy Miles, you highlighted that, as long as the 11 projects were in preparation, not all business cases had to be prepared before they could start working. But there’s an issue still with the governance aspects of the city deal. Now, earlier this month—on 4 October—a paper to the cabinet scrutiny for Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council highlighted the concerns over the governance issues. Where are we with the governance issues, and when will you actually make a deadline by which they have to agree the governance issues, because there are projects that are ready to go, they’re waiting for this process to be at that point where governance is in place and we can actually ensure that these are going ahead properly?
Well, I thank David Rees for that question. Dirprwy Lywydd, just to confirm that, following my last questions, officials of the Welsh Government, and the UK Government, wrote jointly to the component authorities of the city deal, confirming on 12 October that neither Government will require all 11 business cases to be approved before funds can begin to flow. There are, however, a set of steps that need to be taken in order to allow that to happen. They’re relatively simple in nature but, for the record, I’ll just mention them briefly, Dirprwy Lywydd.
The first thing is that governance documents do need to be agreed by the full councils of the four authorities, and then by both Governments. That will allow the current joint committee to come out of its shadow form and to be fully appointed as a joint committee responsible for finance, staffing and legal decisions in delivery of the deal. That will allow business cases to come forward and, once approved, for funding to flow. I am very keen that the deal moves on from talking about the deal itself to the delivery phase. I was encouraged by the statement put out by the shadow joint committee, the leaders of the four authorities meeting together on 16 October, when they said that they were more determined than ever to see the deal turned into practical action on the ground, and there is now a clear process set out by which they can ensure that that happens.
Well, I’m concerned about governance and the delays that uncertainty about it might be causing at the moment. And I was very encouraged by your own comments last year, when you told me that, once the deal is agreed and funding secured—which you’ve just confirmed now—then the board should be representative of businesses in the region. And you assured me that you would include this important requirement in the discussions that you have with the board. Now, I understand that it seems to be a bit nearer than we were last time we spoke, but there is some disquiet still that private enterprise isn’t adequately represented in the shadow board, and I’m wondering how your representations to the board on this important point have moved matters on.
Well, I thank Suzy Davies for that. Just to give a tiny bit more detail, then, Dirprwy Lywydd, the way that governance arrangements are currently envisaged is that there will be a joint cabinet of the four leaders. In the end, because this is public money and money that belongs to local authorities as well as to the two Governments, those decisions must be made by elected individuals. But I have agreed with the Secretary of State that there should be an economic strategy board that will provide direct advice to that cabinet. The economic strategy board will be chaired by a private sector business representative, and we’re in discussions with the Secretary of State’s office as to how we can make sure that that person is appointed, and the people who will support them in that work.
Further to the governance issues, what discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had relating to financial contributions and return involving the four authorities? Councils may have to borrow around £360 million, which, in these times of austerity, is a major challenge. So, what discussions have you had about that? And also as regards the city deal, what discussions have you had as regards the need to be working cross-sectorally, with local government, and not just with the private sector but also with, particularly, the health sector, because there are major health innovations happening locally, and we’d like to see both sectors talking to one another?
Dirprwy Lywydd, just to take up the second point first, because Dai Lloyd is absolutely right—it is very important that the range of interests that have a direct contribution to make to the city deal are represented around the table when those decisions are being made. That clearly involves the local authorities themselves and their private sector partners, but the university is a very important player in all of this—has been from the beginning—and the university health board is as well. And part of the reason why governance arrangements take a little while sometimes to be agreed is that we have to make sure that we have all those component parts in place and that every part is confident that it can make the contribution that it wants to make.
As to the financial arrangements, these were confirmed in the original deal document. There’s £1.3 billion worth of additional investment coming to the Swansea Bay city region area as a result of the deal. The Welsh Government will provide £125 million of capital. The UK Government will provide £115 million. Then there are contributions from local authorities and from private sector interests as well. It is important that local authorities understand that they will have to use their borrowing powers in some instances in order to make their contribution, but all of that was, I believe, Dirprwy Lywydd, well understood when the deal was originally agreed back in March.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on how various elements of the draft budget help the most vulnerable groups of people in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? (OAQ51237)
I thank Dawn Bowden for that. Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, full retention of the £244 million council tax reduction scheme, an extra £1 million to uplift the discretionary assistance fund and an additional £20 million for homelessness prevention are amongst the budget elements that assist most vulnerable groups in Merthyr Tydfil, Rhymney and beyond.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer, and I’m sure, Cabinet Secretary, you will agree that the support offered to vulnerable people by this draft Welsh budget stands in stark contrast to the grotesque chaos of the Tories’ universal credit scheme. Welfare reforms, Cabinet Secretary, are stripping billions of pounds—yes, billions of pounds—from our Valleys communities, including Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, and this, in turn, is impoverishing the lives of too many people. And I’m sure the Cabinet Secretary will agree that the work of food banks is not uplifting, as leading Tories describe them, but are a sad indictment of twenty-first century Britain. So, in spite of the Tory cuts to our Welsh budget, can I ask the Cabinet Secretary to confirm that the focus of this Welsh Government will be delivering the warm, secure homes that our people need, the financial support and advice they deserve, and the holding out of a helping hand that we may all need in tough times, so that in Wales at least, people know whose side we’re on?
Dirprwy Lywydd, let me begin by agreeing with the point that Dawn Bowden made in opening her supplementary question. I attended a meeting early today involving housing associations, the third sector, credit unions—all of them expressing real concerns about the impact that changes to universal credit are already beginning to have in parts of Wales. Some of us remember the time when we had what was called a social security system, and what we now have is exactly the opposite, a system that breeds insecurity in the lives of those people least able to bear it, and the result is that costs are created and displaced into other parts of the system. The Trussell Trust has reported that food bank usage in areas where there has already been full universal credit roll-out has increased by more than twice the rate in other parts of the UK where roll-out has not happened. But we see it as well in escalating arears, evictions, impact on mental health services, and so on. I know Members here have asked me in the past about the way in which Welsh Government budgets can be used to protect the social fabric of our society at a time when it is under such strain, and where individuals need to rely on it all the more. And the points that Dawn Bowden made about what we are trying to do in housing, in supporting people in greatest need, are part of our ongoing efforts to try to use the budgets we have to make good the social fabric because we know how much it is needed here in Wales.
Thank you, Minister, for replying to Dawn Bowden’s question with so much detail. But I think there is another side of the coin. Vulnerable people on low incomes have been hit hard by the Labour Government’s failure to pass on the funds it has to freeze the council tax in Wales, with the result that council tax debt has been labelled as ‘Wales’s biggest debt problem’ by Citizens Advice. The Welsh Local Government Association has warned that councils will have to raise—
Are we coming to a question, please?
[Continues.]—council tax by 5 per cent due to proposals in the draft budget. What action will the Cabinet Secretary take to alleviate the problem of council tax debt caused by regular above inflation increases and relieve the burden on hard-pressed households in Merthyr Tydfil and elsewhere in Wales?
Dirprwy Lywydd, I entirely reject the underlying proposition in that question, which is that had we frozen the council tax in Wales, that would somehow have left people better off. What we know is is that without the ability to raise the council tax, then the ability of local authorities to go on providing the services on which people rely would have been even further compromised. His party’s policy of attempting to freeze the council tax in England is in deep disarray. Very few councils now take up that offer and, in fact, the council tax in England rose at a higher rate than in Wales in the last year. What we do is we go on, quite unlike councils that are controlled by his party, protecting the most vulnerable from the impact of the council tax—£344 million in the budget laid in front of this Assembly earlier this month to make sure that the most vulnerable individuals and households pay no council tax at all here in Wales. The average council tax being paid by people on those benefits in England is now £181, and in many Tory authorities it is over twice that amount. The most vulnerable people, from benefits that have been frozen, are having to find money every single week to pay a tax that here in Wales nobody in those circumstances pays at all.
Thank you very much. We now move to spokespersons’ questions, and I call Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Steffan Lewis.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Yesterday, the Welsh Government published the detail of its draft budget, including detailed budget expenditure line tables for 2018-19 and 2019-20. In the last 24 hours, a number of organisations have expressed concern regarding the Supporting People budget line in light of that budget line in particular disappearing in the 2019-20 budget table. Plaid Cymru, of course, understands those very real concerns as it formed a central part of our budget agreement with Welsh Government. Could the Cabinet Secretary take this opportunity to clarify the status of the Supporting People grant for both financial years, and can he particularly elaborate on the relationship between the Supporting People grant and the local government revenue support grant for both those financial years, in light of the fact that hypothecation will disappear?
Well, Deputy Presiding Officer, thank you very much for the question and congratulations first of all to Steffan Lewis for his new responsibility here in the Chamber.
Rwy’n falch iawn o gael cyfle i ateb y cwestiwn hwnnw. Gadewch imi ddechrau, Dirprwy Lywydd, drwy ddweud yn glir nad oes toriadau i’r rhaglen Cefnogi Pobl yn unrhyw un o flynyddoedd y gyllideb a gyflwynwyd i’r Cynulliad hwn, a dyna ganlyniad y cytundeb a wnaed rhwng Plaid Cymru a minnau yn y cyfnod cyn ei gyflwyno. Y flwyddyn nesaf, bydd Cefnogi Pobl yn parhau i fod yn grant unigol ar wahân fel y nodir yn y tablau a gyhoeddwyd ddoe. Ceir cynnig, a fydd yn cael ei drafod a’i ddatblygu gydag awdurdodau lleol a’r sector, i ddod â nifer o grantiau ynghyd yn yr ail flwyddyn. Mae’r swm o arian sydd ar gael ar gyfer Cefnogi Pobl yn yr ail flwyddyn honno fel y cytunwyd. Nid oes toriadau iddo. Yr achos dros ddod â meysydd cysylltiedig ynghyd yw y byddant yn caniatáu mwy o ddisgresiwn proffesiynol wrth ddefnyddio arian ar y rheng flaen ac yn lleihau’r swm o arian a ddefnyddir yn y grant ar gyfer gweinyddu. Fodd bynnag, gwn fod Ysgrifennydd y Cabinet dros Gymunedau a Phlant yn cydnabod yr angen i allu parhau i ddangos sut y bydd yr arian yn cael ei ddefnyddio, a bydd yn trafod ffyrdd o sicrhau bod hynny’n digwydd fel rhan o’i ymgysylltiad â’r sector, gan barhau o drafodaethau lle y trafodwyd hyn yn benodol yng nghyfarfod bwrdd cynghori cenedlaethol Cefnogi Pobl ar 21 Medi.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. So, to clarify, the removal of the ring fence—and I understand that this will be piloted in the next financial year—and the discretion in pilot areas will not allow local authorities therefore to underspend, so to speak, on the Supporting People grant. Can he clarify and confirm that the merger, so to speak, with other grant streams will, in fact, be complementary rather than competing, and that, in that case, every single penny allocated and guaranteed for the Supporting People grant for the next financial year and the one after will be spent on Supporting People projects?
I think the Member makes a very good point in the way that he puts it, that the grants are being brought together because they are complementary. They all operate in the area of early intervention and prevention. Dirprwy Lywydd, I should have answered the point that Steffan Lewis made in his first question to me: the proposal is not for Supporting People grant to go into the RSG. It’s not going into the unhypothecated part of the settlement; it is going to remain in a hypothecated grant, where the mechanics of how that grant will function in the future will be worked out in the engagement with the sector itself, where local authorities will have to produce delivery plans and where grant payments will be made in arrears, subject to that delivery. So, there will be a very clear mechanism through which the money that we have agreed and which will be there in both years—there will be a very clear mechanism for tracking it and making sure that it is being used for the intended purpose.
That’s a very important point, of course. I’m glad to hear the clarification that hypothecation will remain in a form. However, the fact that the budget line in particular for the Supporting People grant disappears in the second year raises questions on how we can ensure that we can scrutinise fully and properly as elected representatives, but also in terms of the sector as a whole, that that money, which is allocated and is being protected because of the agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government, is actually being spent on what it is intended for. So, the Cabinet Secretary, now that he has clarified that the merger with other grants will not lead to a diminishing sum for the Supporting People projects and that it is a form of hypothecation, albeit in a different accounting form, so to speak, can he go on the record and clarify that we will be able to scrutinise that that is actually what is being delivered on the ground, even in the absence of a specific Supporting People grant budget line in Welsh Government books?
I understand that if the Cabinet Secretary responsible does decide to amalgamate the grants into a single grant stream, it will be important that the actions that flow from that grant stream can be monitored—that they can be monitored internally by the department, that they can be monitored by the project group and that they can be reported in a way that allows Assembly Members here to see how money that is allocated through agreements we reach here is then put to work on the ground, and the detail of how the mechanics of the grant will function in future. I know that the Cabinet Secretary, Carl Sargeant, is keen to make sure that those mechanics are agreed with the sector and with local government so that their transparency can be secured.
Thank you very much. Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.
Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, I’m sure that you would agree with me—in fact, you’ve stated it many times here in the Senedd—that openness and transparency and good councillor conduct are key to engagement with our political democracy and to attracting people to have faith in our political system, ultimately then helping us to attract more people to stand as candidates. Sadly, however, I have an e-mail here, sent by a Swansea Labour councillor, Mark Child, to colleagues in your Labour Party and it was sent from his council e-mail address. I’ll be sending you a copy of the said e-mail, but I will read a very short extract:
Hi David et al, Next full council is Thursday 26th of October…There is an opportunity to ask questions from the public gallery at full council.’
It goes on to ask party colleagues to help find members of the public to ask a range of questions on their behalf. In relation to one question on cycle paths, the councillor asks,
Could someone ask whose idea this was so we can reply “this was Labour’s proposals for Bishopston”‘.
Is this really your question?
Yes, I think you need to come to a question.
Do you think this kind of thing helps the public to have confidence in local government? As the Cabinet member—[Interruption.]—with responsibility for local government, will you investigate this blatant and utter disregard for due procedure and for making a mockery of the public questions available in some local authorities?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I look forward to seeing the e-mail in full. So far as I’ve been able to understand it from listening to it, I hear a publicly elected person encouraging the idea that members of the public might come and ask questions at a public hearing of the council. I’m struggling, so far, to see what the difficulty with that would be, and I’m perfectly certain that all political parties here take the trouble to make sure that their members are informed and, when there are matters that are of interest to them, that they are able to come and take part in democratic forums.
I’m sorry, Cabinet Secretary, but I don’t think you understand local government proceedings. This is time allocated to members of the public who are then able to come along and scrutinise what they are genuinely interested in. It isn’t for a political party, of any colour, to actually feed questions to people to do that in order that they might score some kinds of political points. Frankly—and the fact that you’re laughing about this, I find it disgraceful of you as Cabinet Secretary, who should be, actually, embracing and encouraging true local democracy. This is an absolute mockery. Now, it is evident that the Labour Party is seeking to manipulate full council by drafting in stooges to ask planted questions. I actually hope that you will take this matter seriously. They should not be using their publicly funded office for party gain, and wouldn’t you agree with me that this is, in fact, a breach of councillor conduct and it should be referred to the standards committee? I’ll certainly be looking into it. Will you be asking your colleague, even the First Minister if you’re not prepared to, to investigate this conduct? But will you, at the very least, condemn in the strongest terms any council in Wales, or any political party that has elected councillors in Wales, that subverts proper scrutiny in this way?
Let me begin by saying, Dirprwy Lywydd, that I think it is very important that all citizens in Wales who have an interest in the proceedings of democratic bodies are able to take part to the fullest available extent in the work of those bodies, in asking questions and in scrutinising people who take decisions on their behalf. If the Member believes that there has been some breach of proper procedure, then her tender interest in procedures would have led her to conclude that the right thing to do is to draw that breach to the attention of those authorities responsible for monitoring those breaches, not spraying around suggestions that it should be followed up by people who have no such responsibility. So, if she has a complaint, and she believes she has, she should report it in the proper way, and then make sure that it is investigated in a proper way. As I say, so far, from what I’ve heard her read out this afternoon, what I’ve heard her read out is members of the public being encouraged to come and take part in democratic debate.
Well, that, to me, just says that you’ve abrogated your responsibility as a Cabinet Secretary. These issues—[Interruption.] These issues partly explain the lack of public trust in politics, and I want to ask you about candidacy now in Wales, which is at crisis point. In September, the Electoral Commission reported that 7 per cent—that’s 7 per cent—of all county and borough seats were held unopposed at the elections in May. Now, 100 per cent of the town and community council seats in our capital city of Cardiff were uncontested or vacant in this year’s elections. Hoping to increase interest in candidacy through local government reform will not be enough. This is where nobody came forward and were encouraged to come forward to stand for seats in a democratic election in May. I think that, again, is a failure of this Welsh Labour Government. Will you commit your Government, going forward, to taking proactive steps to tackle this democratic—? And just for all the muttering of the backbenchers: at the end of the day, as I’ve said on many occasions, we haven’t had the chance yet to lead on some of the portfolios here that are held by Welsh Labour Members, but I’m telling you now that I can tell you that if Welsh Conservatives were leading local government in Wales, I can assure the members of the public there would be more openness, democracy and democratic accountability.
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I share the Member’s anxiety at the number of uncontested seats in town and community councils in Wales in May’s elections. I want us to do more as a Government, but it is not just for governments to be taking action in that regard. In our principal council elections, there were more candidates than ever before, and that’s a sign that efforts can be successful in bringing more people forward for election. I’m very proud to be a member of a party that fielded many hundreds more candidates than her party fielded in those elections. I say to her that just as Government does have a responsibility to make sure that the position of a town and community councillor is made attractive and is widely advertised, we, all of us as separate political parties, have a responsibility to try and encourage people to stand for election, and the fact that there were no elections to town and community councils in Cardiff is as much a reflection on her party’s inability to find people to stand for those posts as it is of any other political party.
Thank you. UKIP spokesperson Gareth Bennett.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. We had a panel from the Welsh Local Government Association in committee this morning, Minister, discussing matters relating to the draft budget. We all know that these are difficult times for local government funding, but one thing that would help councils to take decisions is some certainty of future funding levels. I know you have provided an indicative budget for 2019-20, so we have moved to a two-year cycle. The situation in Scotland is that they effectively have a three-year cycle. The WLGA are calling for a multi-year settlement and say that a three-year settlement would be a great help for their forward planning. What’s your response to that?
Well, I say this to the Member: I share the WLGA’s ambition for a three-year cycle—I wish I was in a position to do that for them—but we do not have a Welsh Government budget for the third year of this cycle because there has been no comprehensive spending review by the incoming Government, elected in June of this year, and in circumstances where I simply do not know how much money we will have available to use for all public services in Wales, I cannot give local government a sensible and reliable indicative budget for that third year. I wish I was in a position to do that, because I understand the points that they made to you and that you made this afternoon about that helping them to be able to plan.
I made a judgment, Dirprwy Lywydd, that it was possible to provide a firm budget for next year and a reliably indicative budget for the second year in the budget that I laid on 3 October. Without the figures that I need from the UK Government about what the shape of the Welsh Government’s budget will be in the third year, I simply didn’t have reliable enough information to be able to give local government figures on which they could plan properly.
Yes, thanks for clarifying that. Of course, that lack of information would make it very difficult, so I take it that the situation regarding the UK Government and Scotland is therefore different from the situation regarding the UK Government and local government funding in Wales. Continuing with the theme of the financing of local government, you’ve stressed in the past to the WLGA the need to seek alternative sources of income. The WLGA say that this is currently easier for councils in England to achieve due to their power of general competence. We heard today that English councils have invested in petrol stations, in superstores and, in London, they even own their own shopping centres. If councils in Wales had the power of general competence, would this more entrepreneurial route be a good route for them to go down, do you think, or would there be too many potential drawbacks?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I am keen to provide local authorities in Wales with a general power of competence. It was included in the draft Bill published during the last Assembly term and was widely welcomed by local authorities. It is one of the reasons why I’m keen to press ahead with local government reforms so we can bring a Bill in front of this Assembly that will provide local authorities in Wales with exactly that ability. I think they will want to look carefully at some of the ways in which those powers have been used across our border. I think that there are some positive lessons that can be learned from things that local authorities there may have been able to do. Some of the more speculative investments that have been made, of the sort that Mr Bennett outlined, are giving rise to some concerns in some parts of England about whether taxpayers’ money has been reliably invested and whether it will give local taxpayers a proper return. Sometimes it’s lucky to be going second in something because you are able to gain from the experience of those who’ve gone first. This is an area where I think Welsh local government will be able to reflect on the experience across our border, use the new power we are keen to give them where they can do it to advantage, but maybe not to be drawn into some areas of activity where proper returns and the levels of probity that we would expect may not be so easy to guarantee.
Yes, thank you. That, of course—. I think you need to have some kind of thought to the possible disadvantages, which you’ve outlined, so I think that’s a sensible answer.
Now, another development in England—[Interruption.] Another development in England is that at least one council has successfully set up a not-for-profit energy company. That is the Robin Hood Energy company in Nottingham. Now, if these powers of general competence did come to Wales, do you think that would be an idea that some local councils could effectively pursue here?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, there is a very long and proud history in Wales, dating back many years—and particularly during the inter-war years—of municipal socialism, in which local authorities were indeed the direct suppliers of utility services like water and like energy. Now, I am keen to see some of that spirit reinvented in the modern era. You can’t do it exactly as it was done then, but finding new ways in which local authorities can provide services, which make sure that those—and this is the case in the Nottinghamshire scheme, isn’t it? The scheme is focused on making sure that those who have the least ability to pay bills are not further disadvantaged by being drawn into the most expensive forms of tariff. By organising it on a public basis and a not-for-profit distribution basis, it is more possible to make sure that tariffs are available that protect those who need that protection the most. I’m sure there will be some Welsh local authorities who will want to look at that experience and see whether they will be able to do more of that sort here in Wales.
Thank you very much. Question 3—Adam Price.
3. Will the Welsh Government scrap the public sector pay cap? (OAQ51243)
Dirprwy Lywydd, the pay cap imposed by the UK Government should end, and the UK Government, not Welsh public services, must find the money to do so.
Well, the Scottish Government, last month, in its programme for government, has committed to scrapping the pay cap for NHS staff, for teachers, for civil servants and other hard-pressed public sector workers. Responding to this, the interim leader of the Labour Party in Scotland, Alex Rowley, said:
This SNP u-turn is long overdue, and it is welcome to see that’
Derek Mackay has finally followed Labour’s lead to end the pay cap.’
Now, Labour are calling for the Westminster Government to scrap the pay cap. They’re applauding the Scottish Government in scrapping the pay cap. But, in the case of the one Government where they could end it themselves, they’re refusing to do so. Isn’t this rank hypocrisy of the worst kind?
What it is, Dirprwy Lywydd, is a reflection of the different levers available to different Governments in parts of the United Kingdom. I am meeting Derek Mackay tomorrow. I look forward to discussing with him how far he has got in his plans. We don’t have much detail yet, either of the extent to which the pay cap will be able to be lifted in Scotland, or how he intends to pay for that, but his ability to raise funds is of a different order to ours, and he does not have to make some of the arguments I have to make about the UK Government’s impact on our budget. So, I look forward to discussing it further with him, but the difference lies not in the sense that Adam Price outlined, but in the different set of tools and capacities that different parts of the United Kingdom have to take action in this area.
Public sector workers in Wales deserve a pay rise. Public sector workers in Wales need a pay rise. They’re still paying the price for the casino capitalist bankers who took us into an economic crisis. Does the Cabinet Secretary agree that Westminster needs to end austerity and increase the budget allocation to Wales so that we will be able to give workers in Wales the well-deserved pay rise that they really should get?
Dirprwy Lywydd, I entirely agree with what Mike Hedges has said. Of course public sector workers in Wales deserve to be properly paid for the work that they do, and he’s absolutely right to point to the fact that people who struggle on on wages that have not been increased year on year ask how it turned out that they were responsible for the banking crisis of a decade ago while those who were responsible for it appear to have to shoulder a good deal less of that burden. Mike is absolutely right as well, Dirprwy Lywydd, in saying that, just as the pay cap in Wales should be lifted, then the responsibility for paying for lifting that cap, for that policy in the first place, must come from those who are responsible for it. They must provide the money. The First Minister has provided a guarantee that if a cap is raised in November’s budget and the money flows to Wales to lift that cap, every penny of that will be devoted to that purpose.
Whilst we in UKIP recognise that the public sector pay cap must be brought to an end and all employees, not just a chosen few, should be paid commensurate with their work grades, we also believe that there are huge opportunities to avoid the high levels of waste in some parts of the public sector. Bureaucracy and waste are still prevalent in the NHS and, in some instances, could be said to be at epidemic levels. Does the Cabinet Secretary agree that only by reducing the huge levels of bureaucratic staffing endemic in our public services will we be able to fund true front-line staff, with salaries commensurate with their responsibilities, and this on a sustainable basis?
I don’t agree with the point the Member has made in the way that he makes it. I would have agreed with him had he simply said that there are always efficiencies that can be made and ought to be made in public services. That is undoubtedly true. To go on, though, to make some far more sweeping assertion that public services are bloated bureaucracies just flies in the face of what we know about them. Many of our public services have very hollowed-out centres, have reduced the capacity that they have at the centre to run very large and very complex organisations to what I regard as the minimum sustainable level. Does that mean that they should not go on trying to make sure that money is squeezed out and put in the front line? No, it doesn’t. Should that money go to people who are providing front-line services? Yes, it should. Should that money be directed to a chosen few, as the Chief Secretary to the Treasury has suggested? No, it shouldn’t.
4. What financial provision has the Cabinet Secretary made for local authorities to meet their prevention duties? (OAQ51227)
I thank the Member for that question. A large proportion of local government spending helps prevent difficulties from occurring or those difficulties from deteriorating further. In order to assist all local authorities in these endeavours, I have decided to provide an additional £1.77 million over and above the local government settlement to ensure that no local authority in Wales sees its budget reduced by more than 1 per cent compared to the current year.
Diolch. Well, in fact, this question was raised with me by the Red Cross and, after that, I wrote to you with a written question, and your reply recognised that local government is responsible for a range of preventative services, but similarly, then, responded with reference to local government funding in the round. What consideration have you therefore given to financial provision in the context that sustainable, community-driven development at local authority level, mobilising individuals, associations and institutions to come together and build on their social, cultural and material assets, putting them at the heart of decisions, will prevent care needs from becoming more serious and therefore save money for local authorities at times of budget reduction and the opposite?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I regularly agree with what Mark Isherwood says about the need for all public services to regard their users as assets, to make sure that, when people are involved with public services, they are not regarded as problems to be solved, but as joint participants in the business of bringing about improvement. That sense of co-production is particularly important in preventative services. We’re very lucky in Wales to have such a vibrant third sector that helps to mobilise citizens in exactly that way, and I have always believed that local authorities that seek to engage their citizens in that positive way are likely to be able to make greater impacts with the budgets they have, particularly at the preventative end.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the principles that steer the Welsh Government’s consideration of new taxes? (OAQ51244)[W]
Thank you very much for that question. The five principles underpinning Welsh tax policy, as set out in the tax policy framework, underpin our approach to the consideration of new taxes.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer, but, bearing in mind that these new taxes and any new tax introduced does have to have the consent of the Westminster Government too, and in looking at the four taxes currently being considered, each with their benefits and disbenefits, how important is it for the Government and the Cabinet Secretary that at least one of those taxes, the disposals of plastics tax, seeks a change in behaviour rather than is one that raises funds? And would that suggest that a tax of this kind, as with the plastic bag levy in supermarkets and so on in the past, is a tax that’s likely to gain support not only in Westminster but also among the majority of the population here in Wales?
Well, Deputy Presiding Officer, just to say that one of the new taxes that we already have, namely landfill disposals tax, is an example of a tax that tries to influence people’s behaviour more than actually raising revenue. So, I acknowledge the principle that Simon Thomas has alluded to. The new taxes, when we consider them and when we make the case for them that we will have to present when we go to Westminster—there is more than one element that we can include in that assessment, and the impact on behaviour, with a few other things, is one of the important issues that we can work up and include in the decision that we have to take in the new year, when we come to select one of the options to put forward in order to test the new possibilities that we have under the Wales Act 2014.
Last night, Cabinet Secretary, I attended a cross-party group meeting on tourism, and there were many tourism operators there who were extremely concerned about your suggestion that a tourism tax should be seriously considered for implementation here in Wales. The genie, of course, has been let out of the bottle, and, even if you rule this out early on, which I very much hope that you will, the spectre of the very prospect of a tourism tax that you have now allowed to be in people’s minds will put people off. They’ve already said this at the meeting. Now, given the fact—[Interruption.] Given the fact that this has received such a negative reception from the tourism industry that it’s causing many tourism businesses to hold off on investing in their own facilities, do you accept that it was a huge error of judgment to even bring forward suggestions for a tourism tax, and will you now rule it out for the whole duration of at least this Assembly term?
The Member, as ever, so wildly exaggerates his case that it loses any impact that it might have made. I’m interested to hear about his meeting last night. I do hope that he wasn’t encouraging other Members—[Interruption.]
You’ve asked the question. Will you listen to the Cabinet Secretary give the answer, please, without interrupting? Thank you. Cabinet Secretary.
I’m simply saying, Dirprwy Lywydd, that I do hope that he wasn’t encouraging other Members of his party to attend that meeting and ask questions. Otherwise, the Member behind him—he will be in great trouble with her as a result.
As the Member knows perfectly well, what we have done is to propose four potential ideas—all of them utterly mainstream ideas, all of them ideas that have been tried in other parts of the world. All of them have been part of the debate that has been alive here in Wales over recent months. They are no more than possibilities and each one of them will be carefully analysed.
My real disappointment, Dirprwy Lywydd, in the contribution the Member made is that, instead of wanting to use the new opportunity that we have here in Wales to have an open debate about these things and to hear the evidence and to hear from people who have different views and then to weigh it up in a proper way, he wants to foreclose that debate before it’s even begun. I think that is a disappointing way to think about the way in which our democracy here in Wales should operate.
To follow up that question—I understand that the finance Secretary is obviously not going to be able to rule in our out any of these taxes at the moment—will he bear in mind, in making up his mind, the report of the World Economic Forum on travel, which ranks the United Kingdom 140 out of 141 countries in the world for cost competitiveness in the tourism industry? Only one country in the world has higher tourist taxes than us already, if you include things like air passenger duty and VAT, and maintaining the competitiveness of the Welsh economy, particularly for international tourism, ought to be one of the important principles underlying any decisions on taxes the Welsh Government makes.
I think that all evidence from anywhere around the world is worth considering as part of the debate we need to have about which of these taxes is worth taking forward. There are many examples from elsewhere of tourism taxes. We need to look at what their advantages are and where there have been disadvantages identified. The evidence that the Member has pointed to this afternoon can be taken into consideration in that wider debate.
Following on from Simon’s question on the principles underlying new taxes or levies, can I ask to what extent the future generations and well-being Act and the principles underlying that are enshrined within new proposals? We know that the proportion of elderly people requiring residential care is forecast to rise by over 80 per cent by 2035, less than 20 years hence, alongside a rise of nearly 70 per cent in the proportion requiring non-residential care.
Gerald Holtham and Tegid Roberts have suggested that a hypothecated trustee-led small levy going into a fund, an enhanced social insurance fund in Wales, could fund adequate social care in Wales for the foreseeable future. Wouldn’t this be a fine example of using the principles enshrined in the future generations and well-being Act to guide the development of Welsh taxes and levies and to improve the lives of Welsh citizens?
I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that. Three of the four different possibilities on our list have now been mentioned this afternoon. I think that’s a really good sign of our ability to have a proper debate about the different ways in which powers that have come to Wales might be used.
The work of Gerry Holtham and Tegid Roberts is very serious. They met recently, I know, with my colleague Rebecca Evans and talked about more work that needs to be done to build on that possibility. What I’m then keen to do, Dirprwy Lywydd, as I’ve explained in the Chamber before, is to test the new machinery that the 2014 Act sets out. I will be discussing that with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury when I meet her tomorrow. There are a series of tests that we will need to be able to answer at the UK level here when a Government were to decide on which, if any, of the candidates to bring forward. Then, consistency with the principles of the well-being of future generations Act would undoubtedly be something that any Minister would expect to be scrutinised upon and tested upon by other Members.
Thank you very much. And finally question 6—Angela Burns.
6. What studies has the Welsh Government undertaken on the potential impact of any taxes it is considering introducing during the fifth Assembly? (OAQ51236)
I thank Angela Burns for that question. As she knows, I have announced four potential tax proposals, to be considered during this autumn. We will continue to seek opinions and evidence to inform the decision about which one of those four possibilities should be progressed to the next stage.
Cabinet Secretary, thank you for that answer. On page 23 of the Welsh Government tax policy report, there is a boast that there was a considerable public response to the call for ideas about proposals for new taxes. Figures in the same report show that you had the sum total of 305 responses, which represents 0.009 per cent of the Welsh population. One might say that was a slight exaggeration. Can you please tell me how many of these responses were from private individuals rather than lobbying groups and how many suggested to you that a tourism levy was the best way forward?
Well, I take a different view than the Member does about the fact that 300 responses were received to a statement made here in the Assembly. It wasn’t even an official consultation exercise. I remember saying here during that statement that, uniquely in my experience, I was receiving e-mails in the Chamber from members of the public as part of that debate. I think the fact that 300 people decided that this was a discussion they wanted to take part in and that 60 different ideas emerged as a result of it—I think that is, in my mind, a pretty healthy sense that people out there want to take an interest and want to make a contribution to a new set of possibilities that we’ve never had here before. I’m perfectly happy to write to the Member giving her an idea of where people came from, but my—without checking, let me say that—impression from the letters that I saw and the e-mails that I received is that these very largely were individual citizens interested in what goes on in this Chamber and wishing to make their contribution to it.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Item 2 on the agenda is questions to the Assembly Commission, which this afternoon are being answered by the Llywydd. Question 1, Bethan Jenkins.
1. Will the Commission outline the rules relating to private vendors, such as the Big Issue, on or outside the Assembly estate? (OAQ51228)
All activities in the public areas of the Assembly estate require sponsorship by an Assembly Member. Assembly Members may not use such events for activities that are for financial gain, including fundraising. Should Assembly Members have concerns about these rules, they are at liberty to make representations to the Assembly Commission, and we will consider the policy in the round.
I was asking in relation to discussions that I had with ‘The Big Issue’ when I was selling copies with them in Cardiff. They were saying that they were getting squeezed out by people who were begging in Cardiff so that they couldn’t potentially sell their issues very well there. So, I was wondering whether there was capacity around the estate for some ‘The Big Issue’ vendors to come and sell to those who are working in the Assembly or around the Assembly estate, given that this is a noble cause that will help people get off the streets from being homeless to potentially back into work. So, I was wondering—. Obviously, if I need to write, I can write, but I’m wondering whether there is any flexibility in the system just so that we can be assured that we have tried to encourage people to buy ‘The Big Issue’ in and around the Assembly estate.
Selling ‘The Big Issue’, of course, makes a very valuable contribution to support people who are homeless and to promote the case for tackling homelessness. The Assembly’s policy, of course, at present means that we cannot allow any fundraising activities on the Assembly estate, and that’s true of any charity or good cause that any Assembly Member here could propose as an idea. But it is true to say also that you could write to the Commission and request a possible exemption being made, but we would have to raise the issue once again. Once one allows one exception, then I can guarantee that each one of you as Assembly Members would wish to offer other exemptions, and I’m sure they would all be good causes.
2. What efforts is the Commission undertaking to promote political education? (OAQ51233)
The Assembly has delivered educational activities for hundreds of thousands of children and young people on the estate, in schools, colleges and out-of-school settings across Wales. Since its establishment in 2000, the team has delivered activities for primary and secondary school pupils and college students, aligning its services with the curriculum needs.
Commissioner—sorry, Llywydd—a healthy democracy means engaged and informed citizens and I’ve been raising the issue of political and democratic education in schools for some time, but we’ve also got a democratic information deficit amongst adults. In both 2016 and 2017, major surveys have suggested that just over a third of Welsh voters do not know that health is a devolved issue, believing instead that the Welsh NHS is run by the Conservative Government in Westminster.
For education, the percentage of respondents not knowing that education is devolved is even higher again. All available evidence suggests that an information deficit that is as unusually high as it is in Wales can affect the outcome of elections and referenda—it’s serious stuff. Will the Assembly Commission work either with the Welsh Government or on its own to take steps to improve political education, information and awareness in Wales, and do you accept that what’s happened to date is inadequate?
Well, the surveys that you’ve alluded to are disappointing in the level of knowledge that the people of Wales have as to where responsibility lies for decision making on devolved areas and non-devolved areas of competence. We know that, as an Assembly, coverage of our work here is limited in how it gets to the people of Wales through traditional media and press sources. That’s why the Commission established the digital taskforce that provided us with recommendations on how we can improve the communication directly with the people of Wales, especially through new media sources. So, the Commission will be looking at how we put those recommendations from the digital taskforce into action.
But it is the responsibility of all of us here, as AMs, or MPs elsewhere, to be clear with our own constituents where the responsibility lies for devolved and non-devolved areas of work when we do our constituency work, but also when we do the electioneering that appears on the horizon every now and again.
A visit to the Senedd can also be a valuable part of political education, yet a visit from a deaf constituent of mine a few weeks ago showed me that we still must strive to improve the experience of visiting here for those who are deaf. Unfortunately, although all efforts were made to get a British Sign Language interpreter here, nobody was available. I was grateful to staff in the Commission for helping with showing my constituent around, but whilst my constituent was watching First Minister’s questions, they discovered that there were no subtitles available on the screens in the public gallery. Can we arrange for subtitles to be displayed in the public gallery to ensure that we continue to lead the way in an accessible legislature?
I’m very sorry to hear of your constituent’s experience here. We want what we do here to be available and accessible to everybody in Wales. I’ll need to look into the issue that you’ve raised, but what we can do and should do on this we will strive to do as a Commission.
Llywydd, just one specific point I want to mention on that. The education starts here with young people coming in and schools coming in and the Commission does a fantastic job of encouraging schools to come to the Assembly to look at it. I had a school visit this morning from Awel y Môr; they brought 90 pupils—two busloads—and I had to book two slots for it. Because they’d booked two one-hour slots, they were informed that they couldn’t actually get support, because the booking for support is a two-hour slot, not two one-hour slots. Will you have a look at this so that we can support schools to come here, even if it’s only for one-hour slots, to get an understanding of what we’re doing here, and get the news for citizenship?
Yes, I’ll definitely look into that. I think it’s wonderful that 90 young people from your constituency wanted to come here to see democracy in action. And I don’t want anything that we do, in the rules that we have, to make that more difficult for young people, from all over Wales, to come and access our work here.
3. Will the Commissioner make a statement on how security costs are allocated in the Assembly? (OAQ51247)[W]
Security is a high priority for the commission. We invest in a range of security measures on the basis of professional advice and the changing nature of the security threat.
Thank you for that response. As we looked at the Commission’s draft budget, it became apparent that many of the policing security costs are paid through an agreement between the Commission and South Wales Police. Given that policing is non-devolved, and given that we are a legislature within the UK system and that we are not an independent parliament, and given that a number of the challenges that we face emerge from international terrorism—attacks and threats of that kind—is it the Commission’s intention to discuss with the UK Government, and the Home Office specifically, to consider whether or not they should shoulder some of the burden for keeping this Parliament safe for staff, Members and visitors?
The priority, of course, is to ensure what you’ve outlined, namely the safety of the public and the safety of a democracy at work here, and that is true whether policing is devolved or not. The practice, of course, and what happens is that we shoulder the financial responsibility with South Wales Police of providing that security for us. That is a common policy. The House of Commons do exactly the same, as do the Scottish Parliament, and they fund the additional requirements of such parliaments.
I accept the point that you raised in the Finance Committee, which is that policing is non-devolved, and possibly we need to look at this in a different way from the point of view of this Commission and this Parliament. But, currently, the position is that we see that as our responsibility, and that is the position that we accept at present.
Thank you, Llywydd.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Item 3, then, is topical questions. And the first topical question is to the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, and Mark Isherwood.
Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Targeted Regeneration Investment Programme, following its launch on 20 October 2017? (TAQ0056)
Last Friday, Llywydd, I announced a new targeted regeneration investment programme for Wales. The aim of the programme is to support projects that promote economic development, with activities focused at individuals and areas most in need, whilst serving the aims of wider sustainable development.
Well, as your written statement said, regeneration investment has a crucial part to play in driving prosperity and building resilient communities, and there’s no disagreement there. It also says that you’re inviting bids from local authorities, along with partner organisations. How will you ensure that the programmes that are delivered through this do things with people rather than to or for them, where we now have years of hard evidence showing what works and what doesn’t, and that those schemes that are simply delivered top down don’t have long-term sustainable benefits, whereas those schemes that break down the barrier between service providers and service users—and I’ve given you many examples over the last many months—actually have quantifiable, measurable and evidenced improvements?
The guidance issued to local authorities and partners is very clear about the working together of the principles developed under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. The issue of partnership agencies working alongside local authorities is one that will gain support by the team who will be assessing the bids that come in through the programme. They will gain more points for working with partner agencies as opposed to working in isolation.
Thank you very much. And the second topical question is for the Minister for Lifelong Learning and Welsh Language. Darren Millar.
Will the Cabinet Secretary respond to data which shows that Welsh students accounted for just 2 per cent of last year’s Oxbridge intake? (TAQ0057)
Welsh students deserve equitable access based on merit to places at Oxbridge. While the Seren network in Wales is helping to equip and prepare our academically brightest young people for top universities, such as Oxford and Cambridge, those universities must now show that they are challenging the biases in their own admission processes.
Thank you for responding to this question today, Minister, in the absence of the Cabinet Secretary. I hope you’re getting a proportion of her pay.
The number of Welsh students studying at the UK’s top universities fell by almost 10 per cent in the three years to 2016. On top of that, we’ve had figures published just very recently showing that just 2 per cent of last year’s Oxbridge intake were Welsh students. We know from the information that’s being fed back to us in our constituencies that the 100 per cent pupil uptake target for the advanced Welsh baccalaureate is contributing to this problem. It’s leading to some schools strong-arming students into doing a qualification that is loading them with extra work, which is then preventing them and placing obstacles in their way from them being able to achieve the three As that they need to get into our elite universities around the UK, and putting them at a significant disadvantage.
On top of that, we know that many of those Russell Group universities don’t recognise the Welsh baccalaureate as being equivalent to a traditional A-level qualification. And, of course, this isn’t me alone that’s raising these concerns. These concerns are being raised by headteachers, by students and their parents. Indeed, Paul Murphy, the former Secretary of State for Wales—Lord Murphy—has raised concerns, saying that he heard repeated concerns from teachers saying that the Welsh bac does not currently meet the requirements of academically more able and talented students and takes up valuable space in their timetable. Given these concerns, and I accept what you say about the work of the Seren network, but given these concerns, what consideration will the Welsh Government give to abandoning the 100 per cent take-up target that has been set in respect of the advanced Welsh baccalaureate, and what will you do to review the work of the Seren network to ensure that it actually does work at getting more Welsh students into these top universities rather than the reduction that we’ve seen in recent years?
Given that question, I would say, based on your homework, Darren, I don’t think you’d get close to getting into any one of these universities. I think you need to understand both the context of what is happening here and also what the Welsh Government is doing. And you need to look not just at a few figures, but you need to read the rest of the page, and then turn the page and understand the whole picture, and you’re not doing that. Let me say this: it is absolutely the case that both Oxford and Cambridge are working well with the Seren network, and I pay tribute to both of those universities for the work they’ve done with the Seren network over the last few years. I particularly welcome the work of Jesus College Oxford, who took a group of Welsh students to—[Interruption.] If you don’t want me to answer the question, I’ll sit down.
No, you carry on. I’m listening.
I’ll say this to the Member: Jesus College Oxford took a group of Welsh students to Oxford in the summer, to a summer school, and spent considerable time talking with them. Over 2,000 people are now a part of the Seren network and are benefiting from all the advantages that that has given to them. It enables them to understand the processes needed to apply for and to gain a place in one of these colleges. And let me say this as well: both Oxford and Cambridge are participating well in that, and none of the issues that have been raised by the Member this afternoon have been raised by those universities in terms of their engagement. However, there is a context to this. It is clear that if you are white, if you are middle-class, if you are privately educated and from the south-east of England, then you have a better opportunity to study at these universities. And that is unfair and it is wrong. It is due to the biases in admission and processes within the system, and that needs to change. It is no accident, Deputy Presiding Officer, that, in 2015, 10 Oxford colleges did not admit a single British black student—not one—whereas in Harvard over half their intake today is non-white.
Darren Millar’s main question is quite timely for me. I have a constituent who is in the sixth form. He is 18 years old and his dream is to go to Oxford and all he wants to do is sit the admissions test. Not only is his conceptual knowledge excellent, he also predicted Trump, he predicted Brexit, he predicted the Corbyn surge and he can give detailed demographic explanations for why these things happened. Sadly, due to an administrative mix-up, he is being denied the chance to take the test. When I rang Oxford, they told me that they have to treat everybody equitably, which I found utterly absurd, given that he is a state school student, and I think, in this case, they should relax the bureaucracy to allow him to study. So, will the Minister agree that Oxbridge colleges need to become more flexible and accommodating, particularly with state school students, in order to increase their intake of students like the constituent that I’ve mentioned today?
I’d certainly be happy, Deputy Presiding Officer, to take up the case of the constituent that the Member has referred to and perhaps that’s something we can discuss following this question today. But on the wider issue, I’m not convinced that the universities need to be more accommodating; they simply need to be fair. They simply need to be fair, and they need to ensure that the way in which they recruit students from across the whole of the United Kingdom and elsewhere is done on the basis of fairness and ability, and not on the basis of a prejudice that appears to be working against the vast majority of people in the United Kingdom. The admission figures are well known. The analysis of those figures is well understood. It is consistent, it happens year-on-year-on-year; it is not an accident. It is a consequence of the way in which these matters operate. It must and has to change.
Do you know, I feel sometimes we really need to get beyond this obsessing with Oxbridge as well? There are other excellent institutions—the Russell Group and others as well—that we really should be encouraging our young people to aspire to, and not just within the UK as well. We need to look beyond that in terms of broadening our young people’s horizons and look at Harvard, Yale, the Sorbonne and others. Why shouldn’t we? It was a recommendation actually in the Diamond review that the Welsh Government extends the student support package beyond the UK. It was actually in the Plaid Cymru manifesto as well. Are you going to cheer that too? Well, never mind. [Laughter.] Certainly, that’s something we should be encouraging. The Government, in fairness, said that they accepted that recommendation and that they would be developing a pilot. So, I’m just wondering whether the Minister’s in a position to give us an update as to where you are with developing such a pilot.
I hope the Member isn’t criticising me for attempting to answer the question that was asked on this occasion. But I accept that he might see it as a very rare event. I accept the point that he makes and I don’t dismiss it. I think it’s a perfectly valid and fair point. In terms of what we’re seeking to do at the moment, our work is being tunnelled through the Seren network. I’d be quite happy to write to Members on all sides of the Chamber actually outlining what is happening with Seren at the moment. I think it’s been a great success. I’ve spoken at a number of Seren events, including their national conference last year, and I have to say that I have rarely spoken to such a large group of enthusiastic and motivated young people who are all anxious to receive the help and support that Seren provides, and then to succeed in whatever their chosen field or chosen approach is. I will say to the Member that a number of students I have spoken to have not simply been concerned with going to the Oxbridge colleges, but a number of them have applied to—and I know at least two have succeeded in winning places—the Ivy League universities as well.
Thank you very much, Minister.
The next item on the agenda is the 90-second statements and the first 90-second statement today is Darren Millar.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Next Tuesday, 31 October, marks the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of the Protestant reformation, a day when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk, nailed his now famous 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Though primarily a protest against some of the beliefs and excesses of the then Catholic Church, the theses became a catalyst for the movement that changed the world, and the non-conformity it promoted would eventually take Wales by storm. The reformation affirmed the idea that the Bible should be available in everyday language, not just Latin. It promoted freedom of religious belief by challenging the authority of corrupt church leaders, and it promoted the belief that salvation is found through an individual’s faith alone in Jesus Christ, not through good works, penance or the intervention of a religious cleric.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Some of Luther’s beliefs are frankly abhorrent and many of the early reformers reverted to the practices that were as corrupt as those they railed against. Yet, despite these, it’s impossible to diminish the positive impact of Luther’s actions 500 years ago and the effect that they had and are still having in Wittenberg, Wales and the world.
I will close with the words of Professor Sarah Williams of Regent College in London:
If we believe that all human beings are created equal, that they are free to act according to conscience, to speak freely, to be treated fairly before the law; if we believe that rulers should obey the same laws as their subjects, that oppression should be resisted; that leaders should be held to account, that differences should be tolerated within civil society—then the Reformation is something we must celebrate.’
Last week, I was delighted to attend Merthyr Tydfil’s civic centre for the rededication of the plaque that honours volunteers from the town who joined the international brigades to fight fascism in Spain—a fight that they hoped would save Spanish democracy and avert a world war. The event was attended by relatives of the volunteers and it was touching to listen to their stories about the commitment made by members of their families and to hear about the risks and dangers faced by the volunteers as they travelled to the front line for the battle against Franco and the fascists. Some did not return.
The rededication was followed by the annual S.O. Davies memorial lecture, organised by the Merthyr Tydfil Trades Union Council. The lecture was delivered by local historian, Huw Williams. Huw’s lecture was a reminder of the deep, international roots held within communities all across Merthyr Tydfil. This, of course, included people of Spanish origin who had come to Merthyr to work during the employment boom—some of whom later returned to Spain to fight alongside the international brigades. So, this plaque links together one part of Merthyr Tydfil’s rich political heritage with events in Spain of the past, and indeed, of the present. It reminds us all that we forget our history at our peril.
Today, wise heads in Spain and Catalonia are at this very moment thinking carefully about their history and so, I hope that we remember this important part in our history by acknowledging the sacrifice of those from Merthyr Tydfil and across the south Wales Valleys who volunteered for the international brigades to fight for democracy and against fascism in Spain. ‘No pasarán.’
The Vegetable Summit was held yesterday simultaneously in Scotland, England and here in Wales at the Pierhead. Its aim is to change our dysfunctional food system. Most people have heard about five a day, but few actually achieve it. Vegetables should be a fifth of our shopping; we buy less than half that. Sugary, fatty, salty foods are piled high and sold cheap, while some communities are fruit and veg deserts. The advertising industry tries to target children with sugar-loading cereals, drinks and biscuits and a mere 1.2 per cent of advertising is spent on promoting vegetables. Not surprisingly, nearly 80 per cent of five to 10-year-olds do not eat enough vegetables to stay healthy, rising to 95 per cent amongst 11 to 16-year-olds. That drives up obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer.
The pledges made yesterday include Birmingham, Brighton, Redbridge and Cardiff councils becoming veg pioneers so that growing and eating lots of veg is a normal activity. Lantra and Puffin Produce are working on a plan to increase Welsh veg production by 50 per cent by 2020. Castell Howell is driving up veg sales and putting more veg in its ready meals. Lidl, Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Co-op are all going to put two vegetables in all their main meal dishes, and Greggs will put veg in all its soups and at least half its sandwiches. Cardiff Metropolitan University will include two vegetables rather than one in its canteens at no extra cost and Charlton House will be trialling free veg upstairs on Fridays. My Peas Please vision for Wales is delicious, accessible, affordable veg, where eating it in large quantities is normal.
Item 5 on our agenda is a debate a Member’s legislative proposal and I call on Simon Thomas to move the motion.
Motion NDM6350 Simon Thomas
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes a proposal for a Bill to alter the planning process so there would be a presumption against hydraulic fracturing (fracking).
2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to protect the landscape of Wales and public health.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. This legislative proposal, which I hope the Assembly will support today is for a Bill to amend the planning system so that there’s a presumption against planning permission for hydraulic fracturing or fracking. This is aimed to protect public health, the environment and the landscape of Wales.
The Presiding Officer took the Chair.
The situation at the moment, following a Plaid Cymru motion tabled in February 2015 is that the Welsh Government has in place a moratorium against planning for fracking. Many argue that this position is open to legal challenge, but that, in any case, will soon change, because under the Wales Act 2017, both the National Assembly and the Welsh Ministers will soon have powers in relation to petroleum. Importantly, petroleum is defined in section 1 of the Petroleum Act 1998 to include
natural gas existing in its natural condition in strata’,
such as shale gas, which is extracted through fracking.
The current, unsatisfactory position, however, is underlined by the fact that test drilling is still happening. A planning application to test drill for shale gas near Pontrhydyfen, near Port Talbot, was granted by Natural Resources Wales back in January 2016. We—. Sorry, Mike Hedges. I’ll give way.
Isn’t it more important, to start with, to ban the test drilling? Because people aren’t test drilling because they’re bored or looking for something to do; they’re test drilling because at some stage in the future, they think they’re going to be able to frack.
That’s an important point, and I know that allowing test drilling in Scotland, where they’ve come out against fracking, means there are now legal cases pending, and you shouldn’t give people encouragement, if you like, or spend money, that they would then have a legal recourse against you. It’s better to ban completely, and I accept that point.
We, in Plaid Cymru, have made our stance against fracking absolutely clear, and consistently so. This, now, is a real opportunity for our National Assembly to send a clear message in advance of gaining the full powers next April. We don’t want fracking in Wales, we don’t need fracking in Wales, and we should not allow fracking in Wales.
As well as being hugely unpopular, there are concerns that fracking could have a detrimental impact on human health and the environment. Under such circumstances, I would argue that the precautionary principle can and should be applied in full. We now better understand the impact of air pollution on public health—stated to be a public health crisis by Public Health Wales—and we must move away from burning and using fossil fuels in order to address that.
Of the chemicals used in fracking, 75 per cent of them can affect the skin, eyes, other sensory organs, the respiratory system, the gastrointestinal system and the liver. More than half the chemicals show effects on the brain and nervous system. More than 25 per cent of the chemicals can cause cancer and mutations. No wonder that the United States’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recently reported that while breast cancer rates in the USA have been slowly falling for many years, they are on the rise again in several counties at which natural gas extraction takes place. I give way to the Member.
Can I commend the Member for actually bringing forward this debate on this legislative proposal? Would he note that in the US where, on a state-by-state basis, they looked at this technology, the ones that allowed it to develop into something of a bonanza actually had to reduce and diminish their environmental legislation to make it happen? They actually stripped away protections to make it happen, and that had an impact on public health too.
I’m sure the Member is correct, and we are faced with this challenge of leaving the European Union and keeping our high environmental standards, and I think that’s a challenge of a country that has its Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 as a centrepiece of its legislation.
In terms of protecting the environment, fracking will not help us either combat climate change or end our dependency on fossil fuels. Shale gas is terrible news for our climate. Fracking will create more climate-changing gases, it’s not compatible with our climate change targets, and shale gas will keep us hooked on fossil fuels and distract us from the real solutions of the future: energy efficiency and renewable energy. Allowing fracking in Wales, I also suggest, would make a nonsense of the Government’s own recently announced target of 70 per cent of our electricity to come from renewable resources.
There’s also a risk that fracking could contaminate water. The UK’s Environment Agency found that flowback liquid from the Lancashire shale contained, and I quote,
notably high levels of sodium, chloride, bromide and iron, as well as higher values of lead’.
The impact on our landscape would be enormous. For fracking to be fully developed, we could see 10,000 to 20,000 wells scattered around the countryside in clumps of six to seven on so-called drilling pads. I do note, with a deep irony, that those who are the strongest backers of fracking tend to be those who oppose windfarms in the strongest possible terms as well.
It may also be the case that the UK’s geology would not support fracking. In August 2017, Professor John Underhill, Heriot-Watt University’s chief scientist, stated this:
The inherent complexity of the sedimentary basins has not been fully appreciated or articulated and, as a result, the opportunity has been overhyped.’
He warned against relying on shale gas to, quote,
ride to the rescue of the UK’s gas needs only to discover that we’re 55 million years too late.’
Plaid Cymru wants to end our dependence on fossil fuels, and this does include a complete ban on fracking. We acknowledge that climate change is the biggest threat facing humanity, and we need to decarbonise our energy sector. It remains our aspiration to produce as much electricity as is consumed in Wales from renewables by 2035. Fracking is diverting the attention of the energy sector and, possibly, public funding as well, from sustainable and renewable sources of energy. Instead of investing in fossil fuels, the UK Government should be investing in clean renewable technology. Swansea bay tidal lagoon has a huge potential for the Welsh economy and could create more jobs without the risks to public health and the wider environment.
I hope today the Welsh Government will support this proposal as a commitment to use the powers when they come into force next April to ban fracking in Wales. Instead, we should look to amend the land-use planning legislation to fast-track community-owned and farmer-owned energy schemes, with a presumption in favour of development. We would then transform our energy policy to place the interests of Welsh communities at the heart of everything we do.
In accordance with Standing Order 12.23(iii), I haven’t selected the amendment tabled to the motion. David Melding.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I say we’re happy to note the proposal without necessarily endorsing it? I do have a qualified position on this. Also, the current position, which is essentially a moratorium on applications until this area is devolved, is something we think is appropriate so that, in effect, the Welsh Government and this Assembly are allowed to develop an evidence-based approach. I do have some reservations about an approach that says, on every ground, it is comprehensively banned, because I think evidence usually requires a slightly more nuanced and subtle use than that, and I do think it’s very important that we develop our public policies in the light of evidence.
There are some potential benefits—at least, those who propose the use of fracking talk about them: the use of gas instead of coal, if that stops us shifting to renewables as quickly as we want, I can see how it diverts attention, but it is kinder than coal, we know that; and the possible income and investment in former coalfield communities, I don’t think these things can just simply be put aside. However, there is a lot of public opposition, and it is a very—or it seems to be, anyway—a very disruptive intervention and it has a big impact on our landscape. So, I don’t think those factors can be put to one side very easily, and they’re certainly of concern to communities around Wales.
But I come down to this need for an evidence-based approach, and we do need to make a fair assessment of this technology to see if is able to be exploited to some degree. I know there have been lots of arguments, from earthquakes to flaming taps, and if they’re there, and it’s robust that those are a real risk, then we must, obviously, pay attention to that and act on it. But I do think some of the range of stories you hear require us, anyway, to apply—
Will you give way?
[Continues.]—full rigour to those claims. I’ll give way.
I thank the Member for taking an intervention. I understand the evidence base you’re asking for, but there’s also a problem that there’s no evidence base to actually support—to analyse the impacts upon the environment. That’s what we need. We need to look at the impacts on the environment and, unfortunately, we have yet to get that, so we haven’t got it for, but we also haven’t got the problems shown either.
I think we should advance in a way that is fair to all technologies, basically. So, I think that’s what we need to remember when we’re looking at developing energy sources, that we use the same criteria.
I think one of the big issues that fracking would have to face is whether it can be reconciled at all with our wider strategic objectives, especially in the well-being of future generations Act. Now that, I do accept, is a very material point. I also accept that the application of this technology in Britain may have been exaggerated. I think, in general, it is more feasible in areas that are away from population and of a wider area. We are talking about fairly constrained sites, so those are big, big factors.
So, I’m happy to note this and to look forward to a full and proper evidence-based approach from the Welsh Government and this Assembly. I suspect the people of Wales would expect—would require, anyway—great reassurance if this sort of technology is going to be used on any scale whatsoever.
For me, this isn’t about flaming taps or earthquakes. These are clearly issues that would need to be sorted out if fracking was ever to be permitted, but I think there’s a much broader point that this debate is about that cuts through, I think, some of the tortured arguments that David Melding just made.
Our whole way of life, since the second industrial revolution, has been built upon access to energy derived from fossil fuels, and we’ve built a materially prosperous society on that. However, as a matter of logic, if it is based on finite natural resource, then surely there’s going to come a time when that reaches its limit.
Now I’m not anti-technology—far from it. I’m very open to the idea that innovation can help us find ways of improving our way of life that are consistent with respecting the planet’s boundaries, but I do worry that most of us are in denial about the impact that human behaviour has had on our environment and impacted its ability to sustain us in the way of life we’ve come to assume is our right. My problem with fracking is that, instead of taking the hint that we’re reaching the limits of our reliance on fossil fuels, we’re trying to blast the last bit of gas out of the earth to sustain an industrial lifestyle, instead of confronting the fact that we need to find new ways of doing things.
Now, the gas produced through fracking may emit only half as much carbon dioxide as coal, but this doesn’t take into account the leakage of methane and other greenhouse gases during the process. When these are added in, studies show, the shale gas can create even more pollution than coal, and I don’t see how releasing highly damaging gases into the air that contribute significantly to greenhouse gases and rising temperatures is consistent with our stated policy of cutting emissions year on year. I heard David Melding call for nuance and policy that is based on evidence. Well, the evidence on climate change is fundamentally clear and there’s no room for nuance around it. This is a threat to our and our future generations’ lifestyles, and we must tackle it with a clarity that does not allow for nuance. So, I don’t see how we can countenance sanctioning fracking in Wales, and for that reason I support the Bill.
I would say, Llywydd, we need to stop trying to find a way around this to please corporate interests. We need to focus on developing our economy in a way that respects the needs and well-being of future generations. Our focus should be on reducing the amount of energy we need through innovation and building up our renewables capacity so that it not only meets our energy needs, but can provide us with green energy that we can sell and export. Let’s end Wales’s association with dirty energy and make us leaders in clean energy.
Let me first say that, as things currently stand, I would be very concerned to see any fracking in Wales. It’s not been proven to be safe, but neither has it been proven that it cannot be made safe. I also agree with much of what Simon Thomas and Lee Waters have said about the dangers of fracking, which is why the concept of fracking in Wales really, really, really does worry me. Before permitting energy sources such as fracking that could affect the ecological or geographic environment, we need to be informed and certain of its consequences on our environment and people living in the vicinity of it.
The proponents of fracking say that fracking allows drilling firms to access difficult-to-reach resources of oil and gas. I’m sure that’s true. In the US, it has significantly boosted domestic oil production and driven down gas prices. It’s estimated to have offered gas security to the US and Canada for about 100 years, and has presented an opportunity to generate electricity at half the carbon dioxide emissions of coal. The industry suggests that fracking of shale gas could contribute significantly to the UK’s future energy needs, and the taskforce on shale gas, an industry-funded body, has said that the UK needs to start fracking to establish the possible economic impact of shale gas, saying it could create thousands of jobs. However, those against fracking point to some largely unanswered environmental concerns.
Fracking uses huge amounts of water, which must be transported to the fracking site at significant environmental cost. Environmentalists say that potential carcinogenic chemicals used may escape and contaminate ground water around the fracking site. The industry itself suggests that pollution incidents are the result of bad practice rather than an inherently risky technique. But, while it might be that good practice may prevent pollution, we must be mindful that, when profit and loss come into play, the temptation for corner-cutting may be an overriding one. There are also worries that the fracking process can cause small earth tremors, as happened near Blackpool in 2011.
Objectors also point out that fracking is simply distracting energy firms and Governments from investing in renewable sources of energy and encouraging continued reliance on fossil fuels, which has already been mentioned this afternoon. But, although that may be the case, I believe that any restrictions or controls on fracking should be based solely on the safety and sustainability of the process, rather than a means to encourage exploration of alternative energy sources. We should of course be exploring renewables, and are doing so. But it would be sensible and prudent to have a healthy mix of energy sources, and it may well be that fracking could be a safe and acceptable part of that mix.
So, turning to the motion, I think there may come a time when it might be appropriate to introduce a presumption against fracking. However, this proposal pre-empts a finding that fracking cannot be safe. We all know that sourcing energy comes at some cost to the environment, whether it be fossil fuels or the development or installation of renewables. So, we can’t expect fracking or any other energy source to be problem-free. But we do owe it to the people of Wales to find out to the highest degree possible what the implications of fracking are, and whether fracking can or cannot be safe. I believe that we need to properly and carefully gather and examine the evidence, perhaps via the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, which could come back to this place to present objective findings and an educated and evidence-based recommendation as to whether we should presume in favour or against approvals for fracking. It may well be that we will find that we should presume against approval, and I have no problem supporting that stance should the evidence point that way. But, until we have that proper study, we are simply relying on dribs and drabs of information from either the pro or anti lobby, whose members may have vested interests.
So, in summary, I am not saying that we should not presume against. I’m saying it’s perfectly possible that we should presume against. We just don’t have enough information from reliable and objective sources to make that judgment right now. Once we’ve decided if there should be a presumption either way, it remains UKIP policy that any final decision should be made by the people who live in the local area via a referendum. While some may attempt to undermine this policy by moaning about the cost of a local referendum, on such important issues we should be giving local people a stronger voice in their area. The costs of such a vote could become part of the application costs for the multinationals that would be looking for a decent frack. Thank you.
I support Simon Thomas’s Bill for all the reasons that have already been outlined on environmental grounds, and we need to be moving away from fossil fuels and on to renewables. There’s one aspect I’d like to interrogate Simon Thomas on, which is how we fulfil our global responsibilities in the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Because we have to bear in mind that Centrica, which is the largest energy supplier in the UK, has already invested £40 million in a 25 per cent stake in the Bowland exploration licence. So, how would you frame your legislation to ensure that people were aware that, although they thought we were in a frack-free country, if we simply import it from another energy supplier who is fracking over the border or somewhere else, we are simply burning up the carbon that we should be endeavouring to save? Therefore, I think that this is a particularly important point. I’m concerned that Centrica says one thing and does another. Because it claims to be a world leader in new technologies and cleaning up the world, but, actually, it is one of the largest donors to something called the Texas Public Policy Foundation, which sounds very cuddly but is a climate-denying fossil fuel lobby. So, therefore, I wondered if you would be able to address that in your response.
Can I thank Simon Thomas for bringing this forward today? Because I think it’s an important proposal that he is putting down, and I took part in the debate in February 2015 in relation to fracking. Michelle Brown has highlighted, and I agree with her, that there is a mix of energy generation that is required. We all accept that. But it’s also important that, when we do that, we balance that with the safety of the environment. Therefore, we must look at those considerations, and I err on the side of the lack of evidence for safe fracking at this point, and that’s particularly important, because that is what we’re talking about, hydraulic fracturing—as we all know it, fracking—and the implications of that. Across the globe, environmental groups have mounted significant protests against fracking, citing the fact that the detrimental environmental impact that shale gas extraction may have could prove to be substantial. And that’s it: we don’t know, and I’d rather err on the side of safety.
There is no doubt that public concern is significant around fracking and the related industrial processes. As Simon Thomas highlighted, there is one application possibly waiting to come in, within—. Actually, it’s not Pontrhydyfen; it’s in Cwmafan, technically, because it’s in my own ward—but it is a concern. And boreholes have been approved, because there’s no control on boreholes. So, we should look at—. If you are going to look at it, expand, look beyond just fracking itself; look at the boreholes and the processes beforehand that can lead to the concerns of communities, not to understand the whole process. Cut it straight away and we are better off.
Dirprwy Lywydd—Llywydd, sorry—there are many gaps in the scientific literature regarding these impacts and, as a result, public debate often relies on information and anecdotal sources. We need to get the evidence. David Melding was quite right: evidence is important. But we need to have the evidence of safety or not safety, and that’s not there. And the analysis of geological structures—as Simon Thomas said, our strata are different here in Wales compared to—the Vale of Glamorgan, perhaps, compared to Blackpool. We need to have that investigation. Scientists from Global Responsibility and the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health have published reports that reviewed current evidence, all issuing the fact that there are concerns.
The many environmental risks have already been mentioned—I won’t mention them all. But we also talk about health and safety aspects. We forget sometimes that there are workers on these sites, and Cornell University in the US actually conducted research that found that exposure to gas drilling operations was strongly implicated in serious health effects on humans and animals. And the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health released a hazard alert on data collected that workers may be exposed to dust with high levels of respirable crystalline silica—silicon dioxide—during fracking. So, there are serious health implications for workers. These can go on to people around the communities because, unlike America, we have tight spaces. And, unlike America, we have the opportunity perhaps now to do things.
It was mentioned by Huw Irranca-Davies that places in America are changing American laws. But New York State has banned fracking. Maryland has banned fracking. There are countries and regions that have banned fracking, and while we may not be the leader this time, I think we should definitely follow.
I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs, Lesley Griffiths.
Diolch, Llywydd. I’d like to begin by thanking Simon Thomas for bringing forward this proposal. And I note the terms of the motion and acknowledge the concerns several Members have raised in the Chamber today around fracking.
At the end of last year, I made a statement on our developing policy on energy. I set out three priorities: to use energy more efficiently, reduce our reliance on energy generated from fossil fuels, and drive the energy transition to deliver maximum benefits for Wales. Last month, I announced stretching targets for renewable energy, which include Wales generating 70 per cent of its electricity consumption from renewable energy by 2030. This will help us to decarbonise our energy system. Moving towards clean energy requires action to move away from continued fossil fuel extraction, as well as further work to encourage and incentivise the generation of renewable energy. And, of course, it was a key Welsh Labour manifesto commitment to continue our robust and unequivocal opposition to fracking. So, I believe Welsh Government has fully demonstrated we support the sentiments behind the motion.
It is an opportune time to take action to prevent Wales being locked in to further fossil fuel extraction through onshore unconventional oil and gas, such as shale or coalbed methane. We already have a precautionary planning framework through two notifications directions that have been issued in respect of unconventional oil and gas extraction. However, I recognise there is a need to do more. I’ve already commenced a review of ‘Planning Policy Wales’ to ensure it best fits with the intentions of our well-being goals and supports progress in terms of our decarbonisation agenda. As part of this revision of national planning policy, I will strengthen planning policy in relation to the extraction of onshore unconventional oil and gas, and will be consulting on changes early next year. I have written to chief planning officers informing them I intend to consult on such changes. I am confident the changes I propose to consult upon through my overall revision of ‘Planning Policy Wales’ will achieve the objectives of the motion without the immediate need for changes to the law. However, I do not rule out the possibility of introducing legislation at some future date if it proves necessary.
I call on Simon Thomas to reply to the debate.
Thank you very much. I was about to intervene on the Minister there when she concluded her comments, so I will make the comments that I’d intended to make there now. I’m grateful that she has just confirmed that she will retain the current moratorium, but also that she recognises that when the further powers do come to us here in the Assembly, it would be possible for the Government, if necessary, to take statutory legal steps in order to ensure that the current situation remains. I don’t think she has dealt with some of the concerns that others have in terms of the testing or in terms of the drilling, and I think that’s perhaps where the Government may need to look in the future.
If I could just respond to the debate more broadly by saying that I’m grateful to every Member who participated in the debate. I sense that a majority here are in favour of a ban on fracking in Wales, and a full ban for the reasons that have been outlined very clearly by people such as David Rees, Lee Waters and Jenny Rathbone too. Now, I recognise the dilemma that David Melding finds himself in, because the Conservative Party in Wales in 2016 wanted to retain the moratorium on fracking, but a year later in the general election this year the UK Conservative Party said:
Byddwn yn datblygu’r diwydiant siâl ym Mhrydain.
I think David Melding has performed a miracle in making the argument that he did make, but I would tell him and others here that the feeling among the population against fracking is so strong that this is an opportunity—and I say that positively. It’s an opportunity for us to restate how we can develop alternative technologies and renewable technologies instead of fracking in Wales. And in that sense, I stand with Lee Waters. We are not against new technology; in fact, I want to see the development of new technologies in Wales—for example, offshore where £100 million of European funding and Welsh Government funding is now invested around the coastlines of Wales to develop marine energy. This is where we want to see industry work and investment done in Wales, not underground with fracking in geology that is, if I may say, increasingly clearly, inappropriate for the kinds of developments that have taken place in the US or Canada. Our geology and our communities aren’t appropriate for those kinds of developments in terms of underground gas.
And the final point that I want to raise is a point raised by Jenny Rathbone. Yes, we can’t disconnect entirely from fracking, and I will answer the question by asking another question, if I may. There is gas coming into Milford Haven today. There’ll be a huge a tanker outside the port. That’s LPG but where LPG goes depends on the price of fracked gas in the United States, and although we’re not importing that directly, the price of the gas and where it goes and whether it goes from the western isles to us, or from Qatar or to South Korea all depends on the international price of gas, and we can’t disengage from that.
But I would conclude by endorsing the words of David Rees. Although we wouldn’t be the first to ban fracking, given the history that we have of underground gas and underground energy, we could take hold of that history and make a stance and make it clear that Wales is not a nation where fracking should be allowed.
The proposal is to note the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I will defer voting under this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The next item is a debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee on Communities First, and I call on the committee Chair to move the motion—John Griffiths.
Motion NDM6547 John Griffiths
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee on the inquiry into poverty in Wales, ‘Communities First—Lessons Learnt’, which was laid in the Table Office on 18 October 2017.
Diolch, Llywydd. I’m pleased to open today’s debate, and I’d firstly like to thank all those who provided written and oral evidence to this inquiry, as well as the staff and service users that we met on our visits, and place on record our acknowledgment of the significant and important work that has been delivered by Communities First projects and staff across Wales over the last 16 years. It has had a positive impact on individuals, in many cases life changing, as with a number of young people in my own constituency who are now working in community development themselves and helping to bring about further positive change within their communities.
Following the announcement to wind down the programme, we decided to do a short inquiry that focused on three things: the strengths and weaknesses of Communities First, transitional arrangements and the impact on other related programmes. We published our initial findings in July and followed this up with a more detailed report, which was published last week. We made 11 recommendations. The Government accepted six, accepted in principle three and rejected two.
We strongly recommended that a tackling poverty strategy should be published. The Government rejected this recommendation, saying that its policy would be set out in ‘Prosperity for All’, its national strategy that was then published in September, and that it wanted to take a more holistic approach in responding to the long-term challenges.
While we welcome a cross-departmental response, we still believe a poverty strategy is essential. It would show how the cross-Government approach is working and would enable the Assembly to scrutinise its effectiveness. We do not think a holistic approach prevents such a strategy and action plan. So, I would press the Cabinet Secretary to reconsider these matters.
Moving on to the transitional arrangements for Communities First, in guidance, the Welsh Government stated that the three Es—employability, early years, and empowerment—should inform decision making for local authorities. The evidence we heard highlighted the importance of the Welsh Government’s employability plan and, in our report, we highlighted that it has still not been published. This has made it more difficult for local authorities to draw up their transitional plans, and for us as a committee to understand the full impact of the end of Communities First. We would urge the Welsh Government to publish it as soon as possible.
Moving on to empowerment. Local authorities and other key stakeholders told us they were unclear what it meant in practical terms. We therefore recommended that Welsh Government should clarify this, and that was accepted in principle. Transitional guidance is cited as defining empowerment as:
making sure communities are engaged and empowered to have their voices heard in the decisions that affect them.’
We do not believe that this definition provides the necessary clarity and would ask the Cabinet Secretary to provide some concrete examples of what is meant in practical terms.
Communities First has been delivering a wide range of different projects across Wales. Some of these, though, could—or, some would argue, should—be delivered by statutory services. We therefore recommended that Welsh Government should ensure that local authorities identify such programmes and that those that are successful and valued by communities are transferred to relevant statutory bodies. This would then enable limited legacy funding to be directed to projects that Communities First does best.
The Government accepted this recommendation and outlined how they were taking this forward. However, while welcoming the work that is being done around health and education, more information on what support is being offered to projects that fall outside of these areas would be appreciated. Additionally, the work that is being done will not capture any projects that were closed down directly as the result of the announcement to wind down the Communities First programme. I would therefore like more information on whether the Welsh Government has made any assessment of the number and details of such projects, especially those concerning health and education that fall outside of the three Es.
During oral evidence, the Cabinet Secretary confirmed that legacy funding would be available for the next two financial years. He also added that there was the possibility of a further two years’ provision. We called for clarity. The Government then confirmed the commitment to funding for the next two years, but again did not clarify the position beyond that time. I would be grateful if the Cabinet Secretary were to provide that clarity today, and if he cannot do that, to commit to doing so before the publication of the final 2018-19 budget.
Llywydd, in closing, I would like to reiterate my comments commending the work done by Communities First across Wales, but now that the decision has been made to close the programme, it is essential that the transitional arrangements and continuing delivery are robust and help protect the most effective elements of the programme. I hope our report will play a part in this, and I now look forward to hearing Members’ contributions. Diolch yn fawr.
I thank the Chairman for those comments then, and for the work that the committee and everybody has done on this. We heard from a large number of witnesses throughout this inquiry, and I think what has stood out the most from it is the total lack of consistency experienced across Communities First in terms of outcomes, working partnerships and management. For some, we did hear positive reports, and, of course, that is fantastic. Some mentioned true engagement with those most disengaged and the lives of some individuals being demonstrably improved by the dedication and hard work of certain staff members. But from others—and I think it’s fair to say the majority—I would say real concerns were raised. As noted in the report, despite running for over 15 years, and at a cost of over £432 million to the taxpayer, it does remain unclear at best as to whether this programme will have had much sustainable impact at all. We heard concerns from a number of witnesses with regards to the place-based approach taken, with the Bevan Foundation asserting that this type of intervention simply does not work and makes an assumption that the individual is the problem and should be treated, leaving open further questions about other potential problems with leaving the other place-based initiatives in place while Communities First winds down.
So, given the findings outlined in the report, I would be interested to know whether the Welsh Government plans to look into any potential programme adjustment with regard to Flying Start, Communities for Work and Lift. In terms of management and working partnerships, it was incredibly disappointing to note that performance management frameworks did not join up, and that a protectionist attitude and/or silo mentality has led to insufficient talking. We know in organisations and other groups how that can be a real danger, especially with regard to the duplication caused by reluctance to engage in true partnership working. These kinds of attitudes simply are not acceptable where public resources are being used, and when the future of individual lives can be so dramatically and personally affected.
Of course, the failure by the Welsh Government to publish their employability plan made it hard for the committee to really assess the full impact of the closure of Communities First. Frankly, this is not acceptable, and we hope to see this plan published as soon as possible to ensure proper scrutiny against this key policy driver.
So, I think, as a minimum, based on our inquiry, the Welsh Government needs to reflect on the findings of the report and ensure lessons are learnt for the future programme, in whatever form it may take. Going forward, I would suggest that the Welsh Government takes a good, long look at itself and, in fact, undertakes an investigation as to why this programme has been allowed to run for so long when there have been such glaring problems in certain areas. Giving evidence, the Cabinet Secretary said that he thought that
what Communities First has done is that it has had the ability to stop communities probably getting poorer.’
This isn’t good enough. We must be showing far, far more ambition than this, and I do look forward to further working in this area from the Welsh Government, seeing them demonstrate far more robust, workable and concrete aims to deliver poverty reduction across Wales. For what it’s worth, I actually believe that Communities First now should be wound up. It’s failed as a project, and I would certainly look at our future generations, and the implications on that, and providing sustainability for our most vulnerable communities. And I would ask the Cabinet Secretary how he is working with our future well-being co-ordinator in taking forward a better programme, so that we can have real, sustainable outcomes. Thank you.
There are now only 18 months to go until the phase-out of Communities First is concluded. And, in terms of the transfer of delivery and legacy funding, we must be confident that statutory bodies that will take over delivery of current projects have the funding required to deliver those projects, and that money is ring-fenced accordingly. I say that because, today, there are some questions over the merging of some funding streams related to Supporting People, some of which could include aspects of current Communities First schemes. So, I need to understand here today whether the budget allocation process currently under way is going to include an overall cut in the amount that is currently spent on Communities First. And will you categorically rule that out as Cabinet Secretary?
There is a note in the Cabinet Secretary’s committee response that states that there will be no financial implications, as spending on programmes going forward will be drawn from existing budgets, but it does not say which budgets, or if the budgets where Communities First will be merged into will have a corresponding increase in money. I think we need clarification on that. It says in response to the committee report that individual strategies for specific aspects of poverty will be rejected by the Government going forward. Of course, we understand as a party that there needs to be a cross-cutting approach, with attention paid to how various aspects are drawn together, but what about a separate child poverty approach?
Myself and Sian Gwenllian, my colleague, have raised on numerous occasions—both in the committee, and here in the Chamber—that there should be consideration of a dedicated child poverty strategy, as many other countries have, because aspects of child poverty cross-cut beyond economic issues, particularly relating to local government, social services and housing, for example, and education, education equalities, and intervention for children in a crisis, for example. So, we’re not satisfied that there is no need for that individualised strategy in relation to child poverty.
In relation to Flying Start, we acknowledge there is a postcode lottery to this programme, and the Government does accept that this isn’t ideal. However, although there are options for flexibility, I can’t see from the Government’s response to what extent they are taken out—I believe it’s called ‘outreach’—how many local areas take up that outreach opportunity to expand on Flying Start, and what are the opportunities ongoing.
I understand—you’ve heard me say before as well—that monitoring and reporting need to be improved on with any new moneys moving forward, emanating from Communities First. We’ve had evidence that, once somebody gets into a job, there is a lack of information as to how long they stay in that particular job, and the follow through in relation to support for that particular individual. I have a personal concern as well that Communities for Work is clearly set up in a Communities First area. If that is one of the answers to replacing Communities First, via current economic European levers, how is that going to be extended in future, given that it does, at the moment, cater for a smaller geographical area?
Our frustration as well, as a committee—and, no, I can’t speak for everybody on the committee—was a lot of emphasis was put on the employability plan, employability strategy, moving forward, which I believe is in the hands of Julie James AM, but it’s very difficult to analyse how that would be a response to Communities First, when we have simply not seen any of the detail, and we’ve been promised it time and time again. So, we can’t, at this moment in time, be assured that that can be the silver bullet to Communities First going into other funding streams, because we simply don’t have the knowledge and the detail in front of us.
Ultimately, I haven’t understood precisely the rationale for ending Communities First in and of itself. It might be good to have a frank conversation about the fact that, potentially, it’s because, ultimately, it failed to achieve what it set out to achieve. We can’t simply throw away money like this in the future, because it’s a lot of money that’s gone to something that has not been a success. While individual projects may have been successful, as a concept it did not succeed. So, we need reassurance, not only as a committee, but as AMs that any future schemes will go about doing what they intend to do and that local people can be as involved as possible.
I don’t have much time left, but my other biggest bugbear was this whole concept of empowerment. It says you define empowerment, and I quote,
as making sure communities are engaged and empowered to have their voices heard in the decisions that affect them.’
That doesn’t say much. It doesn’t say how they’re going to be engaged, how they’re going to get involved in the process. We can bandy these terms around as much as we like—as we did with ‘programme bending’ for however long when I was first elected—but words need to transform into action. I hope that you will listen to that comment and make sure that citizens are involved in any future make-up in a proactive and meaningful way when thinking about the future of helping those in areas of poverty in Wales.
Can I thank the committee Chair for his statement and, indeed, the honesty of his report? In 2001, the Welsh Government launched its regeneration strategy for the south Wales Valleys. Amongst the many initiatives envisaged the flagship proposal was the Communities First programme. This, as the name suggests, was to be a communities-based set of interventions that were designed to eradicate poverty across what used to be termed the south Wales coalfield. Sixteen years later, and with £432 million invested in the project, the Welsh Government itself has finally decided that its impact has been negligible. Why? Because the Valleys still continue to top the league tables for inequalities of poverty, health and education.
Although this project was supposed to be community driven, Government and local authorities controlled the funding. In many instances, the governance boards set up to administer the programmes under the scheme were populated largely by local councillors, which meant many decisions were made with regard to party political agendas. Community engagement was thus much diminished. It must be acknowledged that there were instances of good practice and some substantial achievements, particularly with regard to children and young people, but these were patchy and certainly not universal.
The overall failure of Communities First must also be viewed in the context of some £1.2 billion of so-called European funding spent on other Valleys initiatives. ‘Strategic partnerships’, ‘capacity building’, ‘joined-up thinking’ and ‘local action plans’ were the buzzwords of the time—all compelling rhetoric, but short on delivery. Hindsight is, of course, a powerful tool, but there is much about the Communities First project that should have been seen not to be able to deliver the required goals. Perhaps the failures of the scheme could have been avoided by initiating a stand-alone pilot project to evaluate its possible outcomes, which could then have been rolled out in a more co-ordinated fashion.
The Welsh Government made substantial mistakes in the regeneration strategies—Communities First amongst its most prominent. But it is immensely encouraging to see that it appears to have learnt from these failures and now seems to be embracing a whole new ideology with regard to eliminating poverty. There seems to be a very real realisation in this Welsh Government that poverty can only be eradicated by a strong industry-based economy. The truth is, only good well-paid jobs can achieve the goal of poverty eradication and that is why we in UKIP will support any Government strategy to build a strong, resilient industrial economy in the Valleys of south Wales.
I appreciate some of the nuances in this debate today. Communities First has played a role in my area and I don’t recognise the language of failure, because many people in my community will say that Communities First didn’t fail, but actually provided a great deal of uplift to people who live in my community. I’ve seen in the report the evidence of strengths. There’s a lot about the value of engagement and engaging with people who otherwise wouldn’t have engaged in community activities. I’ve seen people go from strength to strength. One very small example in my constituency: in my council ward, when I was a councillor, I was involved in the demolition and rebuilding of a local community centre and we had £400,000 from the Big Lottery. I absolutely say, guaranteed, that there were people involved in that project who would not have been as involved in that project if they hadn’t developed the skills they had through Communities First. So, there was a definite benefit, even if sometimes the benefit wasn’t exactly as intended by the project. So, I think the language of failure is wrong to use. I’ve seen places like Aber valley, Bargoed, Cefn Hengoed, Graig-y-Rhacca and Lansbury Park, all benefit from Communities First.
Just to look at three recommendations that took my interest and the interest of some of my constituents: recommendation 11, recommendation 5 and recommendation 6. Recommendation 11 looks at the closure of Communities First and the impact on other Welsh Government programmes. I’m pleased that the Cabinet Secretary has accepted the recommendation. In the Aber valley in my constituency, there are two bodies that were reliant on Communities First funding; that’s the Senghenydd Youth Drop In Centre, which I’ve mentioned before, and the Aber Valley YMCA. They took part in Communities First projects, but unfortunately, the lead delivery body hasn’t included them in the targets for legacy funding. I know that that Cabinet Secretary will want to take a limited role in these areas, but what opportunities for appeal would there be for those areas that may not be included by the lead body in legacy funding, other than going to their local Assembly Member and asking them to raise those issues here in this Chamber? I think that’s quite an important issue to address.
The other one is recommendation 5, which is addressing the issue of employability. The recommendation asks the Cabinet Secretary to take the broadest view of employability. Yesterday, I talked about the launch of the Federation of Small Businesses self-employment report. I feel that, as Communities First is wound up, then we should not just look at employability, but also self-employability and the role that self-employability can play in the employability programme. There’s 8.7 per cent self-employed in the Valleys communities, which includes Caerphilly. How can we then ensure that that number grows so that the people who wish to be self-employed, particularly women, can access self-employment? That would involve engaging further education colleges, local schools and people who would operate successfully through Communities First in previous cluster areas.
Finally, recommendation 6, for my contribution. We know that the lower super-output areas tend to exclude people who may be living in poverty outside of those areas and the concept of outreach is very welcome. Bethan Jenkins has already mentioned the fact that perhaps we need some expansion of the understanding of outreach, as the programme is wound up. The children’s commissioner gave evidence to the Children, Young People and Education Committee last week, in which she said that she would like to see the childcare offer extended to non-working parents. In order to do that, you’ve effectively got to end austerity and I would understand the Cabinet Secretary’s view if he were to say that that would be incredibly difficult within existing budgets—virtually impossible. However, I understood from my discussion with, and my questioning of, the children’s commissioner that what she was referring to was an extension of Flying Start universally, and, again, that would be virtually impossible. However, looking at the issues of outreach, where can we be clearer about how outreach can be introduced within local authority areas? I’d like the Cabinet Secretary to explore that in as much detail as possible. I’m therefore pleased that, again, he’s accepted those recommendations.
I think this report should be welcomed. I think it makes a valuable, cross-party, independent contribution to the discussion about Communities First and I’m glad that the Government has looked on this in a very open-minded, clear and honest way and I look to see those improvements that I’ve suggested, and that other Members have suggested, being taken on board by the Government, and I really believe that they will.
I cannot find any reference in this report on key lessons learnt from Communities First to key issues such as programme bending, grant-recipient bodies, the damning Wales Audit Office reports and the rejected proposals to take Communities First forward from 2012. Like many, I gave my support to the programme when it was launched because we were told it was about genuine community empowerment and ownership. My initial concerns were raised when evidence-based allegations were brought to me of Welsh Government gerrymandering, manipulating Communities First boundaries for political advantage in rural north Flintshire. This concern was added to by growing evidence that the programme wasn’t delivering improved outcomes for people in the Communities First areas, with high inactivity and benefit dependency and low prosperity levels persisting. But, whenever we challenged the Welsh Government over this during the second and third Assemblies, they told us that Communities First was instead about programme bending, conveniently ignoring that the purpose of programme bending was supposed to be delivering improved outcomes.
Well, we’ve heard that the programme, between 2001 and 2017, involved spending of nearly £0.5 billion. Well, the 2006 interim evaluation of Communities First found
little evidence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation’
Communities First is still a long way away from producing the regeneration outcomes that…are its main aim.’
As a member of the Audit Committee in the second Assembly, I successfully called for an inquiry into Communities First to be included in the Wales Audit Office forward work programme. The resulting Wales Audit Office report, published in July 2009, found significant Welsh Government failure, stating that serious weaknesses in financial planning and the processes of funding the programme led to widespread variation in funding with no clear rationale into funding decisions, that there was an absence of basic human resource and financial planning, that monitoring was weak, and that there was no evidence that anything was done with the feedback.
The 2008 Joseph Rowntree Foundation report, ‘Community empowerment in practice: lessons from Communities First’ found a general failure to exert community influence over statutory members of Communities First partnerships and
no evidence of significant mainstream “programme bending” where statutory agencies prioritised actions and expenditure in the Communities First partnership area.’
The Plas Madoc Communities First whistleblower asked for my help as she’d properly reported her concerns to the Welsh Government only to then suffer false allegations against her rather than see action against the guilty parties. It was only after I referred this to the Wales Audit Office, supported by a Plaid Cymru Member and a Liberal Democrat Member, and after the Wales Audit Office then produced a report confirming
a fundamental lack of financial control and governance’
that action was taken that led to the conviction of the Communities First co-ordinator.
False allegations of a similar nature were then made against the Higher Shotton Communities First co-ordinator after she whistleblew against Flintshire Council, then one of the few local authority Communities First grant recipient bodies in Wales, stating that they were wrongly taking control of the programmes and diverting funding outside the Communities First area. Another Communities First co-ordinator in Flintshire had resigned under similar pressure.
The joint paper published in 2011 by the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, the Centre for Regeneration Excellence Wales and Community Development Cymru, ‘Communities First—A Way Forward’, found that the original design of the programme was flawed and that the missing link in achieving community ownership was the lack of a longer term vision in the Communities First programme that, quote, ‘would move beyond programme and Government dependency and provide the community-owned dimension which is often sought but seldom achieved in creating a better Wales.’
The Minister then and Cabinet Secretary now rejected this, instead rolling out the 2012 cluster model and ignoring the lessons from Flintshire and made most local authorities the Communities First grant recipient bodies, enabling too many to encroach on programme delivery and emasculate the communities themselves.
In February, the Cabinet Secretary Carl Sargeant revealed that Communities First will be phased out by March 2018 and, in June, he told the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee that the programme would not be replaced, that the record of its work in Wales’s most deprived areas had been mixed and that the figures aren’t moving. What an admission of failure. And all because the little Napoleons failed to understand that as well as having needs and problems, our most marginalised communities also have social, cultural and material assets and that identifying and mobilising these can help them overcome the challenge they face and that citizens and communities should be seen as the co-producers of health and well-being rather than simply the recipients of services.
Can I say, firstly, that anyone who thought a £30 million-a-year programme would eradicate poverty was somewhat hyper-optimistic and delusional? This is echoed by the evidence of Caerphilly council. Can I just say that to expect a single programme to singlehandedly reduce poverty is naïve and unrealistic? You will never eradicate generational poverty by a single anti-poverty programme. It has been very successful at some things and not so successful at others, but actually, poverty, fundamentally, is down to economics. Anti-poverty programmes and employment support programmes are all well and good, but, unless you have a robust economy, then we’re never going to eradicate it.
We also know that the first thing that the majority of people who live in a homogenously poor area do when they increase their income sufficiently is move—they move to a more affluent area. I think the Chair will be able to tell us about that. But we know the characteristics of poor communities: poor health; high numbers of people on benefits; those not on benefits on low pay and irregular hours; general low educational attainment; few books in the home; with many, a sense that things cannot get better. Where you have an area that is disadvantaged, then, to quote the Welsh Local Government Association,
if you look at the most disadvantaged areas, they’ve got the most parts of the system where intervention is needed, so they need a multi-agency approach, an intensive piece of work, to put all the bits back, and get them working again. In a more affluent area, where you’ve got pockets of poverty, the system isn’t quite as broken, and, therefore, you need fewer interventions—more specific interventions—to help those people get back up and running’.
Ynys Môn council said:
The programme has reaped success for changing and improving individual people’s lives by supporting them into training, volunteering and work opportunities and improving their life skills’.
To quote Swansea council:
Community based, accessible services allow staff to understand communities, building relationships and trust that support disengaged people to participate in and access services that they would not otherwise’.
Turning to recommendation 1, which I think is incredibly important, what’s going to happen to what has been done? I think it doesn’t matter if you call it Communities First or you call it ‘Swansea First’ or if you call it ‘Making a community better’. It doesn’t matter, the title—it’s what’s going to happen to the schemes.
Communities First successes in Swansea include—and I’ll just talk about health first—weight loss programmes, improved diet, smoking cessation programmes, exercise programmes. Will Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board or Health Improvement Wales take these on? Because these really are important, in my opinion. I think, far too often, for health, we keep on thinking it’s hospitals—we need more money in hospitals; we need to do more in hospitals. I believe that we need to do more of getting people fit and well so that they don’t end up in hospital. I know how the life expectancy in some of our poorer areas can be up to 10 years less than that in some of our richer areas. You’ve got to improve lifestyle.
On poverty: a project that looked to help people to reduce their utility bills; a clothing shop project, which recycled unwanted clothes; a project that promoted the local credit union and getting people out of doorstep lenders, which is one of the biggest problems that happen in some of our poorest communities. These doorstep lenders, some are meant to be national companies, but they certainly do cause huge problems and they end up paying massive interest rates, some of our poorest people. Who will take on projects like these?
Low educational attainment is a major cause of poverty. Projects prioritised improved educational attainment by helping adults back into learning. Family learning projects operated in partnership with local schools. Homework club sessions targeted children and parents who don’t have ICT and internet facilities at home, supporting young people with their education. I was very fortunate that I was brought up at a time when I was not disadvantaged, because no household had more books than I could access from the local library. Now, there are those who are ICT-rich and those who are ICT-poor, and that does make a huge difference to the educational attainment of very many children. I think that’s one of my greatest fears at the moment, that, if you’re poor now and you don’t have access to all the ICT equipment, then you’re going to be disadvantaged as a child. A parent and toddler group aimed at increasing the development and learning of pre-school children. A homework club provided support to children with their homework and, more importantly, ICT facilities for them to be able to do it. There was also a scheme that encouraged a learning environment in the family home. Who is going to take these over?
On Flying Start, what the Chair of the committee has seen in Newport is replicated in Swansea East, where relatively affluent areas distort the data, so the poorest areas in Swansea—Plasmarl, the terraces of Plasmarl—do not get Flying Start. Yet, the converse is true. I’ve got large detached houses that are in a Flying Start area, because they’re close to a very poor council estate. This cannot be right, and I think it really is important that we ensure that Flying Start targets individuals and is not based upon somebody living 10 streets away being rich.
There are many things that we can learn from Communities First. I do think that there was a failure back in 2001 to establish a robust evaluation mechanism that could have exposed poor programmes much more systematically and much more quickly, because, unless you have some effective monitoring arrangement, it’s impossible for Welsh Government, based in Cardiff, to pinpoint areas of concern until they become a crisis.
I think that some of the things that occurred during the early programmes also indicate a failure to hold delivery bodies to account, because, ultimately, although it was a bottom-up programme that required the community to shape the way in which services were going to be delivered, nevertheless there was always a delivery body that had to be there to ensure that things were done appropriately and that the governance arrangements were in place. I’m not aware of any of the delivery bodies being held to account and being obliged to reimburse central Government where things went really badly wrong.
The 2002 refocus gave the programme a better central purpose—to tackle people’s employability and get more people into work—and that probably should have been there from the beginning, because it wouldn’t have prevented all the soft interventions that have enhanced community well-being and made people emotionally, physically and mentally more ready to take on employment, but it would have given you that central driving focus. I think it’s disappointing that we haven’t had any independent evaluation of the success of Communities First since the 2012 refocus, because I think it makes it more difficult for us to know what really does work and what doesn’t work in terms of trying to re-energise communities that need public investment to make them more sustainable.
One of the problems—or not the problems, one of the things where I perhaps disagree with many colleagues is that a geographical focus, in my view, is very important, because you have to put some ring fence around the area that you want to target, because otherwise it’s always easy for people who are delivering programmes to simply avoid the most challenging problems and go for the easy wins. So, I think that geographical focus is very important—that place-based approach—but using super-output areas is a convenient mechanism, because there are lines on maps, there are statistics that are collected for a whole host of reasons, which makes it easier to monitor the numerical achievements. But, clearly, super-output areas are a very blunt instrument in that, in many cases, they cut across streets, they cut across whole estates, which clearly produces anomalies in terms of injustice. But I think that the Communities First programmes weren’t sufficiently imaginative in finding ways in which they could get around that by engaging with other programmes that would enable them to take on individuals that were needing support but weren’t in the catchment, and I’m pleased that that is a recommendation that has come out of our report.
None of these regeneration programmes are forever, and I think it’s really important that people should have recognised that from the starting point, because the whole point of these programmes is to pilot innovative ways of working with very complex issues around poverty. It’s really, really complicated, and we needed, always, to have been bearing this in mind in terms of informing and reshaping statutory services so that we could deliver them better, and I am concerned that, if all Ministers are responsible for tackling poverty, it becomes nobody’s responsibility. So, I feel that the winding-down process needs to be robustly managed to ensure that local authorities, who are, in the main, the delivery bodies, are really analysing what are those aspects of the programme that have been really successful and that need to be incorporated into their mainstream delivery programmes, because, otherwise, I feel all the learning and the achievements of Communities First can be lost.
Firstly, like others, can I thank the committee for the comprehensive, if sometimes uncomfortable, reading in terms of the report? I’m not going to deal specifically with any of the recommendations in the report, but there are three key issues that I wanted to raise, focusing on the future and the actions that still need to be taken, and we will draw lessons from that report in terms of taking them forward. My comments, as you’ll appreciate, will be made in the context of areas like my own constituency. For me, this must be about what we deliver in the future, through and beyond the current transition period.
So, firstly, the report contains the inevitable realisation that the efforts of the Communities First programme faced an uphill challenge to overcome the history of social and economic deprivation of too many of our Valleys communities, in the context which I’m coming from. That task became almost impossible when we were faced with a UK Government that chose to pursue a policy of austerity, an austerity that was built around a programme of so-called welfare reform. If I refer back to my question to the Cabinet Secretary for finance early on, according to research by Sheffield Hallam University, that programme of reform is going to see nearly £0.5 billion a year being removed from Valleys communities. The welfare reform programme, when fully implemented, will remove more than that from the Valleys every three years. That’s more than £1 billion every three years.
That assault on our Valleys community is in progress, and, in light of that assault and the associated impoverishment of our communities, Communities First faced being a sticking plaster that was never going to be a total solution. As Hefin said, whilst Communities First did some outstanding, life-changing work, in itself, it could not raise many thousands of people in our most deprived communities out of poverty, because it lacked the support of UK Government policies that were amongst the key drivers in tackling poverty. So, that wasn’t the fault of Communities First.
Secondly, we must ensure that the best parts of Communities First projects and the associated lessons are carried forward—many other colleagues have made that point, too—through this transition period, because, as we’ve already heard, so much good has come out of them. I’ll just use one example from my constituency. The Cabinet Secretary, I’m sure, is aware of the Forsythia youth project, which was a fantastic project in providing—and is still a fantastic project—support and guidance to young people. It provides early intervention, mentoring support and role models, and has been life-changing for many young people in Merthyr Tydfil. The success of that project has been recognised by so many partners, both at local and national level. It would be a crime—a crime, really, against our young people—if projects like that were lost due to the changes in the programme. So, the best of Communities First, obviously, has to be taken forward, and I would like some assurance from the Cabinet Secretary that his transition division have a clear view on the essential projects that need to be saved.
Thirdly, we must remember the continuing value that place-based policies can deliver. Indeed, in the near future, I look forward to welcoming the publishing of the work of the Valleys taskforce, recognising the Valleys as a place that needs to receive further cross-cutting attention from our Welsh Government to help us move our communities forward. In my constituency, I see some great examples of award-winning regeneration in Merthyr Tydfil. By the way, Merthyr Tydfil is a town that is growing; it’s a vibrant hub in the Valleys. Can I say it is not the town that was portrayed so negatively, once again, in ‘Valley Cops’ on our tv recently? But the work in Merthyr Tydfil is far from complete, and the Communities First transition is seeing this particular budget reduce, I believe, from £1.6 million to somewhere around £370,000. So, we’re going to be facing significant changes.
I also look at communities like Rhymney that need some extra care and support to help them face the future. They’ve not benefited strategically, like Merthyr Tydfil has, and they can’t point to the same levels of investment and regeneration as its neighbours, either across the valley in Merthyr or down the valley in Caerphilly. So, there are places that must receive our attention as part of the all-new strategies that we’re currently announcing, whether it’s in ‘Prosperity for All’, whether it’s the work of the Valleys taskforce, whether it’s our Welsh budget choices and local government settlements. There remain places and communities, like those in my constituency, that we are obliged to support if we’re to achieve our aims. Our continuing commitment is vital as they face the prospect of losing billions of pounds of support from UK Government over the coming years.
So, as we move away from Communities First and the transition to a new phase is under way, we must remember that the causes and symptoms of poverty remain to be challenged and to be overcome, and this cannot be achieved by Welsh Government alone, who do not hold all the economic levers. But I know the Cabinet Secretary will give some assurance that, in now focusing on resilient communities, tackling poverty remains a key objective for this Welsh Government.
I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Children, Carl Sargeant.
I’m grateful, Llywydd, for the opportunity to respond to the committee report. I’m thankful to the committee for their report, and grateful to all those who’ve given written and oral evidence. While there were differences of interpretation and emphasis, the Government was able to accept most of the committee’s recommendations, as the Chair made reference to.
Llywydd, the decision to close Communities First was a difficult one, but after careful consideration, I took the view that while the programme had done much for individuals, overall poverty levels remained stubbornly high, and no one programme could be expected to remedy this. It was time for a radical change of direction and, as Mike Hedges alluded to, this is about a jigsaw, a suite of tools that is able to protect our communities. The Welsh Government is committed to a cross-Government drive to create prosperity for all, and as I said in February, we are determined to build resilient communities by focusing on early years, employment and empowerment. Our national strategy, ‘Prosperity for All’, has now laid out our plans to invest in the prosperity and well-being of communities and individuals across Wales.
Many who responded during our extensive engagement exercise appreciated the help that the programme gave to individuals and the work of the staff, but there was also recognition of the need for a new approach based on tackling the root causes of poverty and working with local people to focus that effort as effectively as possible.
Like Hefin David, I’m offended by the use of the word ‘failings’ for Communities First, because actually we did see and have seen some great work going on in your communities across the whole length and breadth of Wales. Janet Finch-Saunders and Mark Isherwood wash their hands of this, but it’s their Government that have put pressure on Wales, which has a huge impact on the issues of tackling poverty—[Interruption.] They can laugh, but the fact of the matter is, you have as much to be responsible for as anybody else. Llywydd—[Interruption.] No, I’m not at the moment. I may give way in a little while. The Welsh Government is committed to cross-Government working, as I said earlier.
Change is never easy, Llywydd, but I make no apology for facing up to difficult questions and difficult challenges. I pay tribute to all those who have joined us in working through the difficult choices we have, and those involved in developing the answers. Last October, I announced I was minded to phase out Communities First. Following that, I conducted a broad consultation, receiving several thousand responses. In February, I announced that I would close the programme and set out our new approach to building resilient communities. We took the time to listen to people before taking that final decision.
Phasing out the programme rather than opting for a sudden closure, together with the mitigation measures I put in place, is providing opportunities for staff redeployment and the continuation of some of the most effective Communities First projects, like Dawn Bowden has alluded to.
The work to take forward our new approach is progressing well. Our strategy, ‘Prosperity for All’, sets out how we mobilise all the energies of Welsh Government to support the building of resilient communities throughout Wales. Key activities across my portfolio will complement those undertaken by my colleagues, and we will deliver in ways that involve and empower our communities, involving them from the onset.
We are working with a wide range of partners to identify the things that need to be put in place to support the empowerment of our communities, and this shared exploration will shape how Welsh Government supports the development of resilience in those communities.
Llywydd, the transition year was designed to maximise the support for those who need it and who would feel the effects of change, and the Communities First transition team offers the help and advice needed to lead delivery bodies and staff on the ground. I know that many Members have been to see me with local issues and I have been able to point to my delivery team and transition team for their support. They have ensured that bespoke support has been rapidly available, as required, in addition to the frequent bilateral meetings and bi-monthly meetings of the lead delivery body network.
A key aspect of the team’s role this year is to support mainstreaming activities, which are both effective and valued locally. Lead delivery bodies supported by the transition team have done some excellent work already in securing the future of some of the most successful projects from Communities First. However, Llywydd, I must be clear that this is not about mainstreaming absolutely everything. Not everything works in every area. That’s why I have asked for the focus—to look at the best bits, as some Members put this, and make sure that this is a programme that meets real community needs. Dawn, one of your questions was about how we make sure that we are sighted on these decisions. These will be decisions by the local delivery bodies. This is not a decision for me to pick out. We are distant from those communities. It is important that there is a local influence and making sure that they understand that better.
In Pembrokeshire, for example, the lead delivery body has engaged closely with the health board to incorporate the Communities First approach around healthy eating into the board’s general service delivery. A local GP is now facilitating the work of the action group that supports people with additional needs to live in the community. This shows how the best bits of projects previously delivered by Communities First can continue and thrive in a new context. In Newport, many former Communities First projects are being delivered by a different provider, programme or team. The Tackle Project is now being delivered by the Dragons. The well-being support team and Newport youth services have also taken on a number of projects too.
Our work to carry forward the best of Communities First includes the legacy fund and the employability grant, and these are being developed in collaboration with the organising groups and with colleagues in local authority areas. I listened to Hefin’s point around the self-employed, which is a really important one. I will ask my team to see how that operates. The broader question around the employability plan is with Julie James and will be issued shortly. We are just finalising the detail of that. Employability is a key priority, and £12 million of employability grant supports that work. The legacy fund is enabling local authorities to continue projects that make a difference to lives in their area. It is a two-year legacy programme. After two years, I will be speaking to the finance Minister to see how that ends up in the RSG provision in order for the continuation of support.
Where there is local drive and determination, Llywydd, some of the best aspects of Communities First can continue in new and innovative ways. I congratulate all those working with the support of my officials to find new ways to particularly thrive on those projects in the future. Some people still ask me when I will reveal a successor programme to Communities First. My answer is that the challenges of creating prosperity for all is no longer a matter for one particular programme. It is the central and defining mission of this Government as a whole.
I call on John Griffiths to reply to the debate.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Could I first thank Members very much for their level of interest and, indeed, their level of passion for these issues, including Assembly Members who are not members of the committee? I think their contributions were very valuable, actually, in providing balance in terms of experience of Communities First. It was very good to hear, for example, from Hefin David, Dawn Bowden and Mike Hedges—none of them members of the committee—in terms of the successes of Communities First in their areas and about how, as Hefin said, some of those successes in developing community capacity then had important benefits when it came to other projects, because that capacity was used to enable those other projects to take place and, indeed, succeed. So, I think that does give necessary balance, which I hope our report has done in any event—looking at some of the shortcomings but also all the good work that took place. I think we did try and strike that balance in our report, and I hope that we did so effectively.
I think that a lot of the points made by Assembly Members, Llywydd, concentrated—and I think necessarily so—on the evidence base, evaluation, and performance management, because our report does indeed deal with those issues to quite a large extent and, indeed, they feature in a number of the recommendations. Recommendation 4, in talking about the tackling poverty strategy, talks about performance indicators, effective performance management, and setting out a broader evidence base. The recommendation 8 talks about ensuring that performance indicators are consistent across the whole of Wales, publicly available, broken down by local authority, and made available to committee to aid scrutiny. Recommendation 9 is the dashboard of poverty indicators, perhaps involving organisations such as the Bevan Foundation or Joseph Rowntree, and we talk about a longitudinal study on poverty in Wales in recommendation 10. So, I think it’s clear that the committee identified those issues around evaluation, performance management and an evidence base very strongly, and I’m glad that that’s been reflected by contributions today, because it has become a mantra for Welsh Government to be evidence-based, and we need to see the practical application of that in important programmes such as those that tackle poverty.
A number of Members talked about the importance of the economy, Llywydd, and I think we would all recognise that. The saying that a rising tide lifts all boats is very important to tackling poverty, and we want to see the economy strengthen in Wales, but we also, alongside that, want to see bespoke programmes and initiatives to tackle poverty, including those that are place-based, again, as a number of Members mentioned. I think it is right that we should have a balance between those that are generally available and those initiatives, those projects that are geographically specific.
Llywydd, I’m grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for his response. I think it is important that we have clarity in terms of legacy funding, and if that is to go into RSG, then we look forward to getting more detail as to exactly how that is going to occur and what controls and what parameters will be set around that to make sure that it does have the desired effect in tackling these issues. I think the transition team is important, and we want to see that sustained in terms of the help for lead bodies and the ability for Assembly Members to bring issues to the Cabinet Secretary, and for those to be tackled by that transition team.
I think it is important that there is a cross-Government approach and, again, we recognise that, Llywydd. But what we want to see in terms of the tackling poverty action plan—and, you know, this was indeed an important recommendation—is that set out in a strategy that enables scrutiny, and which contains all the performance management and performance indicators that I started off by addressing. I think that that is a key ask for the committee, and we want to see that taken forward.
Finally, as Members mentioned, in terms of the good practice and the successes, it’s very, very important that they are retained. Recommendation 1 refers to statutory bodies recognising that success and taking on responsibility, and we want to ensure that that is an important part of what’s taken forward for the future, and that’s why it’s the first recommendation.
The proposal is to note the committee’s report. Does any Member object? Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Jane Hutt, and amendment 2 in the name of Rhun ap Iorwerth. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected.
The next item is the Welsh Conservatives’ debate on a tourism tax, and I call on Nick Ramsay to move the motion. Nick Ramsay.
Motion NDM6546 Paul Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Does not believe that a tourism tax should be implemented in Wales.
Diolch, Llywydd. Today’s motion is very clear: we simply do not want to see a tourism tax implemented in Wales. I imagine most of you will have worked that out by now. [Laughter.] Members are aware that Wales now has significant tax-raising powers under the Wales Acts of 2014 and 2017 and that, earlier this year, the Welsh Government consulted on proposed new taxation methods. That consultation resulted in proposals for four new taxes to be introduced—a tourism tax, a levy for social care, a vacant land tax, and a disposable plastics tax. I was going to mention the 305 responses received to the call by the Government for ideas about proposals for new t