Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd05/12/2017
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
I have accepted an emergency question under Standing Order 12.67, and I call on Mick Antoniw to ask the emergency question. Mick Antoniw.
Will the First Minister make a statement on the implications for Wales of bespoke border arrangements for Northern Ireland? (EAQ0001)
Well, we can't allow different parts of the UK to be more favourably treated than others. If one part of the UK is granted continued participation in the single market and customs union, then we fully expect to be made the same offer. Things seem to have moved on though. Where the UK Government was clearly looking to do a deal with the EU yesterday, that deal was torpedoed by the DUP, which asks the question why it is that a small party in Northern Ireland has the ability to have a veto over what is good for the UK in terms of negotiations with the EU. My colleague from behind says, 'That is not strong and stable'. I agree entirely with him. But, really, the question is this: is the Prime Minister really in charge of the UK, or is the UK in the charge of 10 MPs from Northern Ireland?
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. You , like me, might have been under the misapprehension that we were living in a parliamentary democracy, that Parliament was there to represent all the interests of all the parts of the United Kingdom, and we now find, First Minister, that it is apparently being run and dictated to by just 10 people, who have strong right-wing and homophobic views, historic links to terrorism, and who are opposed even to the majority decision of the people of Northern Ireland in respect of the European Union. So, when the people of Wales were encouraged to leave the European Union because it would make Parliament sovereign again, do you think this is what they had in mind?
'No' is the answer. I don't think they had in mind a scenario where, first of all, the UK Government could be shaken down for £1.67 billion, and, secondly, the UK Government was not able to negotiate with the European Union because of a veto held by a small number of Members of Parliament. I don't think that's at all what people had in mind when they voted last year.
Clearly, as successive Welsh Governments know, working in coalitions, which you are a de facto head of, and we've had two previous Governments in coalition, that is the reality of coalition government. But, last night, the Taoiseach said, 'We don't want a border in the Irish sea.' At lunchtime today, David Davis stated in the House of Commons that they are now close to concluding the first phase of negotiations, bringing forward trade negotiations, and the Government does not want a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The UK Government recognises the integrity of the EU single market but also of UK borders, and that they will not be treating any part of the UK differently. He also noted that Labour Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, has said that staying in the single market would be interpreted as not respecting the referendum.
Noting, therefore, that, last week, Bertie Ahern, the former Taoiseach of the Republic of Ireland, stated that technology would be a partial solution to managing movements across the Irish border after Brexit, and the number of times you've raised this disparagingly, what research has your Government actually undertaken on the technologies being applied in many parts of the world that are managing goods and transporting across borders on precisely this basis?
I'm not sure it's our responsibility to do that, quite frankly, and the UK Government has said consistently that it's exploring the technology. In other words, it has no idea what technology might be used. Can I say to the Member that there is one example of an entity that is outside the customs union having a border with an entity within the customs union, and that is Gibraltar, and that border is very, very hard. It's far from being a soft border. Really, he seemed to be reading out a statement they should have delivered yesterday afternoon, and that is that the UK Government is close to a deal with the EU. Well, that clearly isn't the case after we saw the collapse of the negotiations last night. I'm surprised to hear that the DUP are actually in a coalition with the Conservative Government. I wasn't aware that they were actually in a coalition and had Ministers in a coalition.
But isn't the point this: that the UK Government has a responsibility to secure a deal that is good for the whole of the UK? It was quite clear yesterday—quite clear yesterday—that they were looking to arrange a special deal or special status for Northern Ireland. That was where the UK Government was yesterday lunchtime. Arlene Foster picks up the phone and says 'Theresa, sorry, we're not going to allow you to do this' and Theresa May then capitulates. Is there not a danger here that the whole of the UK and its interests will be made subject to the views of the largest party in Northern Ireland—true—but not a party that represents the majority of people in Northern Ireland? Can the Member not see there are dangers in that?
We've seen over the past 24 hours the prospect of one part of the UK getting a unique deal, and I reiterate that we in Plaid Cymru want Wales too to be able to benefit from any kind of distinct or special arrangements that would allow us also to be in the single market and the customs union. And nobody in their right minds would want to see a hard border on Ireland—I know the First Minister agrees with me on that. But shifting the hard border eastwards is not a solution that would work for Wales, and certainly not for my constituents and the port of Holyhead.
There are very grave implications for my own constituency, and the 1,000 people working either directly or indirectly in the port of Holyhead, in seeing a hard border at Holyhead. Holyhead is the second most busy port in Britain, in terms of ferries transporting goods. Now, trade is entirely reliant on the free flow of goods, and trade will seek simpler and easier routes. There is already evidence of more direct routes being sought for ships travelling from the European continent to the port of Holyhead.
Now, we have to consider all options. We would favour remaining in the single market. What consideration is being given, if we can’t achieve that, to creating a free trade area in Holyhead, or in Anglesey as a whole, or in other port areas in Wales as a way forward? I want an assurance that this Government will be looking at all options, including that one, and can I also ask for an assurance that the fate of our ports will be now be central to the work of the Welsh Government in persuading the UK Government to demonstrate that they are giving any consideration at all to our interests as a nation, because, at the moment, I see no evidence of that at all?
Well, a great deal of what the Member has said is correct. We have said on several occasions that 70 per cent of the trade between Great Britain and the island of Ireland goes through Welsh ports, and anything that stops that, or is a barrier to that, is something that will cost Holyhead, Pembroke Dock and Fishguard a great deal in jobs and in trade. What is the answer? Well, it’s quite clear: the United Kingdom should remain within the single market and also in the customs union. So, we wouldn’t want any kind of border as regards tariffs between Britain and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That is the answer. And, of course, we’ve been telling the United Kingdom that they don’t have to interpret last year’s result as a result that has to lead to the hardest Brexit possible. It is quite possible to leave the European Union in a way that doesn’t endanger jobs in Wales and which keeps us in the single market and part of the customs union.
The only thing we've learned out of the fiasco of the weekend is that Theresa May isn't terribly good at politics, which we knew anyway from the last general election result. It would be inconceivable for the DUP ever to countenance the kind of deal that we read about, whereby there would be a special deal for Northern Ireland on trade, because that would compromise the integrity of the United Kingdom, which is the main purpose of the DUP's existence. So, that was never a runner. Eighty-five per cent of Northern Ireland's trade with the British Isles as a whole is done with the United Kingdom, not with the Irish republic, so it's not even in Ireland's economic interest to have the kind of deal that the EU would want. But I think the other lesson we draw from the events of the weekend is that a handful of Northern Irish MPs have far more influence with the British Government than the Welsh Government has, and I think that that's an indictment of the Welsh Government rather than the DUP.
[Inaudible.]—the Conservative Party, and the weakness of the Prime Minister. It is worrying to hear the leader of UKIP say, 'Well, the Prime Minister isn't terribly good at politics'—that perhaps is not the strongest attribute that somebody might have when they are in fact the Prime Minister.
There are two options here. Either, first of all, the DUP weren't asked their views, and then made their views very, very clear, or they were asked their views and went back on some kind of agreement with the UK Government. There are no other options available here. Either way, it's a sign of mismanagement by the UK Government of the situation. I thought what was being proposed yesterday was something that was interesting, in terms of a solution. Nobody wants to have a hard border—it's impossible to have a hard border, actually, on that island. I know that area well. It's impossible; it can't be done, and I thought there were ways of looking for a solution. But what we now seem to have is there is a veto on the part of one party, which represents roughly 37, 38 per cent of the population in Northern Ireland, in terms of what the future might hold, and that, surely, is not a situation that is sustainable as far as the future is concerned. And I would expect the UK Government to have dealt with this with the DUP beforehand in order to gain the DUP's support. It seems to me that either that didn't happen or it did happen and the DUP changed their minds. What other option could there be?
Thank you, First Minister.
Questions to the First Minister now as listed on the agenda, and the first question is from Darren Millar.
1. Will the First Minister confirm the process for addressing complaints regarding the First Minister's adherence to the ministerial code? OAQ51393
Yes. Any complaints regarding adherence to the ministerial code should be submitted to me as First Minister.
As you will be aware from our exchange, First Minister, last week, I hope to provide evidence to the independent investigator looking at the allegations of bullying in the Welsh Government. What assurances can you provide to this Assembly, Carl Sargeant's family and others that any AM with information will be able to contribute without fear of reprisals and that the collective responsibility, which usually binds members of the Welsh Government, will be waived for the purposes of all the investigations that you have announced?
Well, all Members can provide such evidence as they think they have. It's a matter ultimately, of course, for the adviser to decide how the process is then taken forward.
Section 2.9 of the ministerial code states that responsibility for special advisers rests with the First Minister and the First Minister alone, and that's been reflected in the First Minister's entry in the list of ministerial responsibilities, where there's an explicit reference to special advisers. That has been the case up until the amended version of ministerial responsibilities, which now under the First Minister's entry omits that reference to special advisers. Why is that, First Minister? Are you trying to conceal or evade your responsibilities?
No, of course not. That's nonsense. It's to do with the situation of senior civil servants. I'm not responsible for senior civil servants or any other part of—. Sorry, it's not senior civil servants; it's those who are not senior civil servants. I'm not responsible for the civil service. I appoint special advisers. The line manager of special advisers is somebody different in terms of their pay and conditions, but I appoint them and that will remain the case in the future.
First Minister, you've finally referred yourself for investigation under the ministerial code. I've been asking you to do so for months, on three separate occasions when I believe you've misled this Senedd. You've either ignored the calls or just smeared me instead. Now, the ministerial code is clear: if you knowingly mislead the Assembly, you will be expected to tender your resignation. If you are found to have misled this Assembly, will you resign? And will you now refer yourself for investigation under the ministerial code on the other matters that I've raised previously?
No, because all the Member raises is frivolous nonsense, as well he knows, and without any basis in fact at all. The adviser is there. I have said that I will refer myself to the adviser in terms of a suggested breach of the ministerial code and that's exactly what will happen.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on teacher recruitment in South Wales Central? OAQ51417
Yes. We want teaching in Wales to be a first choice profession so that we can attract the very best. In addition to our incentives, we are working with the sector, including the regional consortia, to actively promote the profession, to recruit the very best and brightest individuals into teaching.
First Minister, I'm pleased to say that, in the South Wales Central region, there were two gold award winners and a silver award winner in the Pearson teaching awards that were announced in October. These are very prestigious awards, as you know. However, despite these outstanding examples of best practice, recent Welsh Government figures have shown that, since 2007, the number of job adverts across Wales for teachers has risen by 9.4 per cent, while the number of applications has dropped by nearly 19 per cent. Do you believe the Welsh Government has got a role to play in highlighting what a rewarding profession teaching is and how much best practice there is in some of our schools?
Yes, I do, and, just to give the Member some idea of what we've been doing: we've been working with regional consortia to actively promote a recruitment and retention offer to support recruitment to initial teacher education in Wales; there's £20,000 available to graduates with a first or postgraduate degree undertaking secondary postgraduate ITE programmes in maths, Welsh, computer science, physics and chemistry; there's £15,000 available for those who are modern language students who fit the same criteria. In Wales, we have seen a 3.9 per cent increase in UCAS applications for Wales ITE providers in 2016 compared to 2015. So, that is encouraging news and shows that the incentives that I've mentioned, along with the other things that we are doing, are proving to be attractive to potential teachers.
You'll be aware of the debate about supply teachers, and some of our most experienced teachers are earning poor wages because of the situation whereby agencies take a large chunk of the pay available to them from schools. In Denmark, it's against the law to make a profit out of education, First Minister. Legislation like that here would solve the problem with regard to supply teachers. As a matter of principle, would you be open to such legislation here in Wales?
I think that goes a step, perhaps, too far. What I am interested in is what we can do when pay and conditions are devolved, which has been the problem for us, how we can then improve the conditions of supply teachers as well. In the meantime, I know the Cabinet Secretary, on 5 October, announced in Plenary £2.7 million to support a school-based supply cluster arrangement. That'll see recently qualified teachers, who might otherwise find themselves in supply roles, employed in maintained schools on a supernumerary basis and paid at national pay rates. But, yes, it is right to say that, when we see pay and conditions devolved, there will be then the opportunity to look again at whether the current arrangements for supply teaching are adequate.
There have been problems with the retention of teaching assistants, or TAs. Often, TAs qualify as higher level TAs, but find that they aren't given the salary or responsibilities appropriate to the new level. This has contributed to many leaving the profession. What steps can the Welsh Government take to address this problem?
It's a matter, of course, for schools in terms of what they do. The local management of schools means that schools have a certain degree of autonomy in terms of how they employ people, but it is clearly in the interests of schools to ensure that they provide the right terms and conditions in order to retain the teaching assistants that they need.
First Minister, the education Cabinet Secretary recommitted in the Chamber on 24 October the Welsh Government's mission to promote teaching in Wales as a high-status, valued and flexible profession. I know personally, as a former teacher and visiting lecturer, how demanding and challenging, as well as exciting and satisfying, the teaching profession can be.
First Minister, the Welsh Labour Government has announced, as you said, support of £2.7 million across the current and next academic years to fund 15 local authorities in supporting the school-based supply cluster arrangements across 86 schools and in times of austerity. That will enable the appointment of approximately 50 recently qualified teachers on a supernumerary basis to work across school clusters, covering for teacher absence and ensuring a high level of localised teaching.
In addition, savings will be realised from school supply budgets. First Minister, how then will the Welsh Government measure the success of this highly innovative approach and what possibility will there be for its roll-out to cover my constituency in Islwyn, so the benefits are felt by all schools in the Gwent valleys?
Can I thank the Member for her question and the passionate way in which she represents her constituency and the people who live in it? I can say to her the response from schools and local authorities involved in the £2.7 million supply cluster project, or pilot, rather, has been extremely positive. Arrangements are in place to closely monitor and evaluate the initiative, including commissioning a formal research project to evidence the benefits of the pilot as a catalyst and to look at viable future alternative supply models.
Questions now from the party leaders. Leader of the UKIP group, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. On 13 November, Adam Price tabled a written question, which asked the First Minister if
'he continues to be responsible for "staffing including the terms and conditions of Special Advisers'.
The answer came 10 days later:
'I retain a close interest in staffing but responsibility rests with the Permanent Secretary.'
But the code of conduct for special advisers says something that is diametrically the opposite of that:
'The responsibility for the management and conduct of special advisers, including discipline, rests with the First Minister who made the appointment.'
So, how does the First Minister reconcile what that said on paper with what he's just told Adam Price?
I'm not responsible for the civil service in any way shape or form; I am responsible for special advisers and for their appointment. In terms of their pay and conditions as a line manager, that's the responsibility of somebody else.
Conduct, yes, I am responsible for the conduct of special advisers.
Good. In which case, can the First Minister then confirm that the inquiry that is being undertaken, one of many—another day, another inquiry today—by James Hamilton will involve, also, an inquiry into the conduct of special advisers, because they are specifically responsible to him, the First Minister, ultimately, for their political conduct?
No. The inquiry will look at whether I have breached the ministerial code in relation to the answers I gave in November 2014 and November 2017.
So, is the First Minister saying that the conduct of special advisers will not be part of the terms of the inquiry of James Hamilton?
Well, I've referred myself, under the ministerial code, to the adviser. It will be a matter for the independent adviser to decide how, then, to take the inquiry forward.
Plaid Cymru leader, Leanne Wood.
First Minister, as you said earlier, the Democratic Unionist Party torpedoed the UK's attempt to move on to the next stage in the Brexit talks, and the border in Ireland is the sticking point. None of us want a return to a hard border, but neither do we want to see barriers between Wales and our nearest neighbours. Barriers will be bad news for the port of Holyhead, as we heard earlier, for Stena Line, for Irish Ferries, for jobs, and bad news for other Welsh ports as well. There will be delays to business, and gridlock for passengers is the risk. We all know how much influence the DUP has. What influence can you use to protect the port of Holyhead from a new hard border?
Well, we have spoken to the Irish Government about this and informed them, of course, of our concerns and they share our concerns. The last thing they want to see is a hard border between Wales and Ireland as a maritime border, and we are working with them in order to ensure that doesn't happen.
First Minister, I used the word 'influence' on purpose. The Welsh national interest can only be protected if our MPs vote the right way on crucial Brexit divisions. Plaid Cymru's solution to the border problem, as you'll be aware, is for the UK to stay in the customs union. The UK Labour Party is supposed to be the official opposition in Westminster. You've just said, earlier on, that you want Wales to remain in the single market and that membership of the customs union is the solution to this problem. We heard earlier, also, about the importance of parliamentary democracy. Can you tell us, therefore, why Labour MPs voted against the UK membership of the customs union as recently as 20 November?
First of all, it is gratifying to see that Labour and Plaid Cymru MPs have worked together in order to make sure that we look to try and get our amendments through the Commons and the Lords, which I very much welcome. She will know my view, and that is that I believe we should have full, unfettered access to the single market. We've agreed the same position. I also believe that the UK is best served by staying within the customs union. There will be different views in my party in London, and those views are well known, as some Members have put them. But my view is, as First Minister, that we are best served by staying in the customs union and having that access to the single market.
The problem here is that we have a number of Labour views. We don't have clarity as to what the Labour position is, and there has been a failure by Labour MPs to protect our interests here in Wales, by the way that they vote. We're facing a weak and divided Tory Government, but a consensus has been allowed to be built over leaving the single market and the customs union. You've said that if a distinct deal is offered to another UK country, you expect that to be offered to Wales. Perhaps I trust Westminster a lot less than you do, First Minister, but as things stand, I expect Westminster not to offer us such a deal. But we can change that situation if we want to. In the absence of any action or initiative from the UK Labour Party, this Assembly can speak out. You have the power to ensure that Wales doesn't settle for second best here. As First Minister of this country, will you ensure that, when the time comes, Labour MPs in Westminster will back a distinct deal for Wales?
Well, I think they've shown that through their actions last night, in fairness.
No, they haven't.
It's not as if they haven't been supportive of the amendments that we have put down. But the perspective I have is this: I want to see a good deal for the whole UK. I think that's by far the easiest solution. Having a deal specifically for Wales is more difficult; there's no question about that. It's more difficult. It's not impossible; it's certainly more difficult. I would like to see the UK as a whole remain in the customs union, have full and unfettered access to the single market, and that means, of course, that Welsh businesses will be able to access the UK market, which is hugely important for them, and the EU market at the same time. I don't see that there needs to be any kind of competition between those two aims.
Leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, did Leighton Andrews make a complaint of any nature in 2014 about the conduct or behaviour of members of staff in the Welsh Government or your office?
First Minister, why have you subsequently, then, when we've been questioning you in this Chamber, indicated that you had issues brought to your attention by the individual I named and others, and that you dealt with those issues at that time? Because there are quite clearly two stories running here, and it is difficult for the impartial observer to try and get to the truth of what people want to hear, which is what was actually going on in 2014 and what action was taken by you. So, can you clear up who is telling the truth: Leighton Andrews or yourself?
I just answered your question. There were no allegations of bullying.
So, you're saying that, in the answers you gave this Chamber over the last several weeks, where you identified—and these were your words—issues were addressed and actions were taken, that those issues were not related to behaviour of the nature that has been described by Leighton Andrews, by the special adviser or by other individuals who've gone to the press indicating such an atmosphere existed on the fifth floor, and they were brought to your attention. And you did say, in this Chamber, that you did take action. So, what action did you take, and what were the issues you were referring to in your previous answers?
Issues that did not involve bullying. I've said no allegation was made by Leighton Andrews to me in regard to bullying. Were there issues that arose? Yes, there would be conflicts now and again between people—disputes about the titles of Bills, for example. When you have a talented team of people, sometimes they will rub up against each other.
Let me just make one thing clear: the narrative, the political narrative he's trying to create is that somehow the Government—[Interruption.] Oh, he's not, is he? That somehow, in 2014, the Government was in chaos and has been ever since. We delivered on all our manifesto promises between 2011 and 2016. We got back into power in 2016. The people of Wales trusted us to do that. Far from being ineffective, far from being a Government where people constantly spent their time arguing with each other, we were a Government that delivered for the people of Wales and delivered our manifesto as we promised.
3. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government round-table discussions on leaving the European Union? OAQ51414
The Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs chairs the Brexit round table for her portfolio. It has met on a regular basis since July 2016, and the Welsh Government also engages with stakeholders across all policy areas on EU transition through established forums.
Thank you. It's important, of course, in the context of what we’ve been discussing this afternoon, that the Government at every level is involved in all ways possible in terms of defending Wales’s interest. I know that in the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee of the Assembly on 20 November, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance mentioned the round-table arrangements for the Minister for agriculture. He talked about the working party of the Cabinet Secretary for Education. He talked about a group chaired by the Cabinet Secretary for the economy. And another area that will be very sensitive to our departure from the European Union will be health and social care. In staffing, we’ll have to push for visas in order to attract staff to work in Wales specifically. There are concerns, as a result of losing the European Medicines Agency, in terms of how Wales can make bilateral agreements with the new agency in Europe in order to continue to test medicines in Wales, and so on. So, there’s a broad range of areas that will need to be addressed.
So, can you tell us what work the health Secretary is doing in leading a team on Brexit? Because there is concern within the health sector in Wales that this is one area that is being neglected somewhat at the moment, and we simply can’t afford that to happen.
We are working extremely closely at the moment with health and social care organisations in order to understand the impact of Brexit, and so they can also understand the impact on themselves and how we can discuss that. Since the referendum itself, the Government has been working with health and care organisations in order to consider which parts will be impacted by Brexit. Also, workshops have been held between the UK Government and Welsh Government to consider the legal and executive impact of Brexit as regards a number of issues. So, a number of things have taken place in order to ensure that the health service can consider what problems can arise because of Brexit, especially a hard Brexit.
In his letter yesterday to the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee, the UK Parliament's Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said
‘The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union has held numerous discussions with the Welsh Government—including a number of bilateral discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government’
‘There is agreement between the Scottish, Welsh and UK Governments that common frameworks will be necessary in some areas and we have together agreed a set of principles that will underpin our work’.
‘We have agreed a programme of intense discussions with the Welsh Government, led by the First Secretary of State, to take this forward.’
Could you tell us a little bit more about what that programme of discussions is and how you'll be informing this Assembly about the developments that arise from them?
The discussions are not with the Secretary of State, particularly, for Wales, but the different Secretaries of State who have portfolio responsibilities in Whitehall. They are called 'deep dives', for reasons that escape me, actually, but what they are looking to do is to see where there is a need—first of all, is there a need for a common framework, secondly, what should that common framework look like. But key to this all, of course, is that any common framework in any area must be agreed and not imposed by the UK Government.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on plans to promote openness and transparency within the Welsh Government? OAQ51403
We are committed to maximising transparency and openness through our publication scheme.
Thank you, First Minister. As you will be aware, the last few months have seen some pretty torrid times in politics, and I think the esteem in which we are held is suffering. I think the Welsh public will expect us to be far more open and transparent going forward. I have recently received an answer to a written question from the Cabinet Secretary for health and well-being that contradicts an almost identical question tabled by my colleague David Melding less than two months earlier. What can you do to ensure that your Government is providing consistent information to questions tabled by Assembly Members? It is merely our attempt to conduct proper scrutiny, which is our duty on behalf of the public, for whom we are the elected representatives.
The Member has me at a disadvantage. I don't know what the questions were or what the answers were, but if she provides me with those questions I will, of course, investigate.
As we seek the most transparent answer possible on some of the issues that are most important to the Assembly today, I return to the question asked by Andrew R.T. Davies, because, when you responded to Andrew R.T. Davies, you said very clearly that you weren’t dealing with any accusations of bullying, but a far broader question was asked of you. So, may I ask that question again? Did you receive any complaint or comment by Leighton Andrews around October 2014 that related to behaviour—not just bullying, but behaviour in general—of any member of your staff or Government? And, in dealing with such a comment or complaint from Leighton Andrews, did you promise him that someone would look into those comments?
Well, things are shifting now, because there were complaints made by everybody on occasion. Some people said, 'I want to be listened to; I’m not happy with this'. That’s quite natural. He is familiar with this, as one who was a special adviser in the previous Government. And there was a great deal of discussion within the Government then about some of the problems that were arising, and people were saying, 'Well, this should happen', 'That should happen instead.' That’s quite a natural process in the way a Government is run. And how do you judge a Government? Well, by their actions, and we have a good record. In terms of was there any kind of allegation—because that was the original question, remember—of bullying from Leighton Andrews, the answer is 'no'.
First Minister, you're now investigating a potential leak after it was alleged that many people knew about your Cabinet reshuffle before it happened. It also seems that there are many people here who know who the complainants are against Carl Sargeant and the nature of the complaints. It can't be raised here because of data protection laws. By Friday there were—. On the Monday of the week in question, you said you had no complaints over the last months against your AMs. By Friday, you said that you had three. So, I'd like you to state on the record whether or not you're aware of those complaints being co-ordinated in any way.
That's a remarkable suggestion, I have to say. I hope he has evidence for that. First of all, I'm not sure what he's talking about on the Monday—he's not clear about that. If he is saying that, if it wasn't for data protection, he would out complainants, then he needs to take a long serious hard look at his own character.
5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the future of perinatal mental health services in Wales? OAQ51401
Yes. The Welsh Government is committed to supporting mental well-being before, during and after pregnancy. As well as developing community perinatal mental health teams across Wales since 2015, we have committed to providing in-patient care in Wales as part of the draft budget agreement.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. As he mentioned, because of the agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Government, there will be a return of in-patient perinatal mental health services in this country. It was expected, though, that by now the Welsh Health Specialised Services Committee would have come back with a report on how in-patient perinatal mental health services could be delivered. I wonder if he could outline the reasons for this delay, and perhaps could elaborate on what timeline he expects to be followed in the new year.
We have invested since 2015-16 an additional £1.5 million each year to provide a community mental health service within every health board in Wales. Each health board now has a community service in place, with more than 2,300 women being seen across Wales since the start of last year. Those new teams do help to improve perinatal mental health outcomes for new mothers, as well as their babies and families. We have also committed to providing specialist in-patient care in Wales within the draft budget for 2018-19 and 2019-20, and the all-Wales steering group on perinatal mental health has been asked to draw up options for in-patient care in Wales by the end of January.
Given that up to one in five women are affected by perinatal mental illness, the view of—the Royal College of Psychiatrists have stated that there has always been a shortfall of perinatal mental health services in Wales and that is a worry. The recent report of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, published in October, noted that the Betsi board had still not filled the majority of posts within their new perinatal mental health service teams, despite funding having been provided to them for that, and that was the same month that you actually took them into special measures. Can you now confirm, First Minister, whether, after 30 months of your Government's intervention, this board has now completed recruitment to this service and that it is now fully operational?
The evidence base suggested that there wouldn't be sufficient demand to provide a unit in north Wales alone. WHSSC, it's right to say, was asked to work with Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board to consider options in the north of Wales, and the Cabinet Secretary has committed to establish a clinician-led managed clinical network to help drive forward improvements to perinatal mental health services in Wales.
First Minister, like all mental health services, perinatal mental health services in Wales are facing the twofold pressure of increased demand and staff shortages. In evidence to the Children, Young People and Education Committee, nearly all local health boards highlighted the fact that a lack of sufficient clinical psychologists is impacting their ability to provide a comprehensive service to new mothers. First Minister, can you outline the steps your Government is taking to increase the numbers of clinical psychologists in Wales? Thank you.
I think I've answered the question in terms of the money that we have put forward. I can say that, with the establishment of community teams across Wales, we're well placed to recognise severe postpartum mental ill health. The consensus is that there's now sufficient demand to re-establish specialist in-patient care in the south of Wales, and I know that last week the Cabinet Secretary wrote to the Children, Young People and Education Committee in response to its recent inquiry into perinatal mental health in Wales.
6. Will the First Minister make a statement in response to the announcement that wholesaler Palmer and Harvey has gone into administration? OAQ51438
I have been made aware that wholesaler Palmer and Harvey has gone into administration. For any business in Wales impacted by the announcement, guidance and support are available through the Business Wales service.
Thank you. I was contacted last week by a constituent who was extremely concerned about the impact that this will have on their small family-owned business. Palmer and Harvey is the main supplier, and that is the case for hundreds of convenience stores in rural areas. I was informed by the constituent that Palmer and Harvey customers do have accounts with agreed terms that allow shops to pay either monthly or fortnightly. So, even if an alternative supplier does have the stock to supply affected businesses, they're concerned that it could take time to put in place necessary financial and licence checks to allow new accounts to be opened, certainly this side of Christmas. So, it is the case that the only option available to businesses would be cash purchases, and many of those won't be in that position. So, my constituents do fear that the cash-and-carrys local to them will simply not, in the short term, be able to set up delivery schedules for services to meet their needs and, in turn, the needs of those local constituents. So, First Minister, is it possible in any way for the Welsh Government to make enquiries and give what assurances they can to affected businesses and individuals in mid and west Wales and elsewhere at this time?
I can say that Business Wales is available to provide information, guidance and support to any business impacted by the announcement, and I would encourage them to make contact. Business Wales advises and supports businesses on all aspects of their operation, including evaluating their supply chains to identify alternative suppliers, which includes Welsh companies. And supporting the development of local supply chains and clusters so that more economic value and employment is retained locally will be part of the new regionally-focused model of economic development, which we will set out in the economic action plan.
First Minister, 10,000 firms went out of business last year in Wales. The number of firms still in business after five years is just 43 per cent, which is below the UK average. Now, understandably, some firms will go out of business due to changes in the market and for other reasons, but can I ask what your explanation is to why businesses are more likely to go out of business in Wales, and can I also ask how the Government is addressing this trend?
In terms of why businesses in Wales, some businesses, fail, we know that that will happen from time to time, unfortunately. The latest phase of Business Wales aims to create 10,000 new businesses, 28,300 new jobs and provide support to help inspire the next generation, and that service provides support right across Wales for aspiring entrepreneurs, start-ups and existing microbusinesses and small and medium-sized enterprises, including social enterprises.
7. Will the First Minister provide an update on the impact of universal credit in Torfaen? OAQ51439
I'm extremely concerned about the time claimants are waiting for their first payment, and the fact that many of our most vulnerable people in Torfaen and elsewhere are struggling to deal with the complexities of universal credit, and we have called on the UK Government to halt the roll-out.
Thank you, First Minister. As you've highlighted, in July Torfaen became the second part of Wales to go live with the full service operation of universal credit, and after just two months our main housing provider, Bron Afon Community Housing Limited, had recorded £27,000-worth of arrears, with 300 tenants in arrears. Citizens Advice Torfaen is monitoring closely the impact locally, which has, as you've alluded to, included delays and difficulties accessing payments, and particular problems for young people. Now, in Torfaen we are fortunate in that the local authority, CAB and housing providers are all working together in partnership to support people through these difficulties, but, with the UK Government intent on continuing with this ill-conceived roll-out of universal credit, it's going to be essential that similar arrangements are put in place throughout Wales. What more can the Welsh Government do to ensure that there is that planning in place across Wales to ensure that all communities are supported through this process?
The Minister has written to the Minister of State for Employment requesting more details in relation to the UK autumn budget changes, particularly where universal claimants are in receipt of housing costs, to understand how the new support arrangements will work for claimants in relation to the universal credit. The Minister is also seeking reassurance that the Department for Work and Pensions will be able to offer financial support to universal credit claimants over the Christmas period. As far as we're concerned, there is £5.97 million of grant funding in place this year to provide advice on social welfare issues, delivered through three projects.
First Minister, you say you support the principle of universal credit, and the aim of universal credit and the UK Government's wider welfare reforms is to help people get in and stay in work. Given that unemployment in Torfaen is historically low and has fallen further in the past year, isn't that something you should be supporting constructively and trying to work with the UK Government?
Well, it doesn't work; that's the problem. Regardless of what the principle is, it clearly doesn't work. There'll be people left high and dry without any money. We know that it's a mess. We know that there are members of his own party—well, I don't know if he is a member of the Conservative party or not—there are members who sit in the same party on that side in Westminster who have made the same points to the UK Government. The point is that this is a mess of the UK Government's making, and ordinary people are suffering.
8. Has the First Minister sought legal advice on the covenant that exists on land in Baglan industrial park on which the Ministry of Justice wishes to build a new prison? OAQ51428
As the Member will be aware, this question relates to legal information that's privileged, so I can't respond to him on that point.
First Minister, I asked your Counsel General the same type of question about a fortnight ago and I got a typical lawyer's answer, or perhaps a typical Counsel General's answer. My constituents want clarity. There's a debate tomorrow afternoon in this Chamber about that prison, and they're seeking that clarity, particularly on the Welsh Government's views on its responsibilities under the covenant. Can the First Minister reassure my constituents that the Welsh Government has no plans to change the covenant and will seek to abide by its principles of keeping the use of the land for industrial purposes, and to avoid nuisance for neighbours, which would mean telling the MOJ 'no' when they wish to purchase or lease the land for the development of a prison, which, in my book, does not come under an industrial development?
What I can say to the Member is this: the Ministry of Justice have not asked the Welsh Government to sell them the land at the Baglan site, and no decision on the future of the site has been made. I can say that a letter was written by Carl Sargeant to David Lidington, Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, on 26 October 2017. That letter sought confirmation whether it's still the intention that the proposed prison at Baglan would be a category C establishment or whether there are plans to house other prisoners in the proposed prison. In addition, the letter requested confirmation of the effect that a new prison in south Wales would have on the prisons of Cardiff and Swansea. We have not received a response to that letter. And there will be no further action from the Welsh Government until that response is forthcoming.
That's a very interesting answer, First Minister. I think, however, you are possibly able to tell us—as it's a matter of public record—which parties would be entitled to enforce the covenant that's in the documentation at the moment. Are you able to tell us, as well, how many expressions of interest have been made in that land during the period of Welsh Government ownership, and which have been put off by the existence of the covenant?
It's very difficult to give a view on whether an expression of interest has been put off, because, of course, you wouldn't know of the expression of interest in the first place. What I can say is that it's the Ministry of Justice—that her party, of course, are responsible for—who want to build on this land. From our perspective, we are quite clear that until and unless we get the clarification that we wish to have, we will take no further steps in relation to this land. We will examine very carefully whether this land is, in fact, the right place for a prison to go.
Legal advice I've received, and I quote, says: 'Assuming this is correct, there is a covenant and that covenant is legally valid. It means that the site is affected by an obligation in favour of a third party limiting its use to an industrial park only. In those circumstances, building a prison on the site could be a breach of the covenant. In the event of a breach, the party with the benefit of the covenant could take steps to enforce it, e.g. by seeking an injunction restraining the development and/or claiming compensation.'
So, from this legal advice, which clearly shows there are many tools within the Welsh Government's box to block the proposed prison and force the MOJ into compulsory purchase, the only reason not to do this, as far as I could understand, would be that the Welsh Government wants to have this prison in Baglan. Will you seek a commitment here today that the Welsh Government will oppose releasing this land to the MOJ, so that, therefore, posing the question to the UK Government is no longer necessary in future?
We await the response from the UK Government. I'd say quite clearly to the Member that there will be no action on this point unless there is a satisfactory response to that letter, and even then, we will consider whether, in fact, this land is the right place for a prison.
Thank you, First Minister.
A point of order arising out of questions. Simon Thomas.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I seek your advice as much as anyone's as to whether Standing Orders can help us actually get the correct answers to questions in this Chamber. You will have heard my question was very specific to the First Minister about whether he'd received any comments about the behaviour of his staff from Leighton Andrews, to which he gave no reply—[Interruption.]
I'm listening to this point of order in order to decide whether it is a point of order or not.
Thank you. I think we'll listen to the current Presiding Officer in these regards, if we may. In the last 15 minutes, Leighton Andrews has issued his own statement saying as follows:
'In November 2014, I told the First Minister face to face that I believed that the Code for Special Advisers had been broken. I asked him to carry out a formal investigation. He said he would.'
He said he would. Can we reconcile these two questions by giving the First Minister an opportunity to add to what he told myself, Angela Burns and Andrew Davies?
The Member knows that we can't use points of order just in order to extend First Minister's questions. Your comments, or the comments of former AMs, are now on the record this afternoon.
We now move on to business questions. The leader of the house—Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. The only change to this week's business is the timings for oral Assembly questions tomorrow. Business for the next three weeks is shown on the business statement and announcement, found amongst the meeting papers that are available to Members electronically.
May I ask for a statement from the Welsh Government on the UK Government's industrial strategy, published last month? The strategy commits the UK Government to work in partnership across all four nations to create the conditions where successful businesses can emerge and grow to help young people develop the skills they need to do the highly paid and highly skilled jobs of the future. Can I ask for a statement from the Welsh Government confirming their willingness to engage in a constructive manner with Westminster to meet the aims of the industrial strategy in Wales, please?
I was very glad to see the industrial strategy published. It had a number of things of great interest to the Welsh Government in it, not least the emphasis on digital and data, which is very welcome indeed. The Cabinet Secretary for economy and infrastructure, who isn't here today to hear your question, will be bringing forward his own economic action plan, which will of course detail how it dovetails with the UK industrial strategy, amongst a number of other things.
I've received many, many representations from parents in the Port Talbot area whereby they're claiming that specialist provision of a playgroup for children with additional learning needs at Action for Children at Neath Port Talbot Hospital is under threat and that it may lead to closure. Also they've told me that the autism family support worker is under threat of losing their position. This scheme is obviously funded by the Welsh Government through Families First, and this has raised its head previously a few years ago. One parent has told me, and I quote: 'Action for Children's services were a lifeline that was most important to us when we were thrust into an unfamiliar world, facing the uncertainty of the diagnosis process and the task of learning a whole new set of skills. The difference that this provision made to us was marked and indispensable.'
Would it be possible for the Minister with responsibility for this area to give a statement to AMs as a matter of urgency, for us to understand whether it's closing full stop or whether there will be another provider coming instead of it? What I understand is that the criteria for the application process has changed, so it may not be that it's going altogether, but it may be that somebody else is coming in to provide it. Whatever the issue is, we need to know, because people are becoming anxious in the area about what provision is going to be provided for their children in the hospital. Any advice or any support that the Welsh Government can give would be very useful indeed.
I'm familiar with the scheme, as it happens, and it's a very good scheme indeed. I know that there are a large number of parents who have relied very heavily on the scheme in the past and I've had similar representations to the Member made to me about the benefit that the scheme has brought to families. The Minister responsible is here and has listened very carefully to your comments. I'm sure he'll be able to bring something forward in due course that will allay people's fears.
Leader of the house, the Cabinet Secretary for rural affairs is aware of concerns raised about the complexity of the application process for rural development grants via the WEFO website for third sector organisations who've been allocated funding in the current round. Can the Welsh Government assure me that these concerns are being addressed in order to facilitate the draw-down of rural development grants for local projects such as the Ogmore village hall association?
Thank you very much for that question. The current system is not new; WEFO Online has been used for the successful management of EU-funded projects since 2008. The majority of applicants have successfully completed the online claims process with the existing guidance and support. However, we are aware that some applicants do have issues submitting their claims and officials work closely with them on a case-by-case basis. The guidance explains that the claims process is being reviewed by officials in response to feedback from applicants to that effect. We're not aware that any applicants have actually dropped out because of that process, but with regard to Ogmore, I can confirm that officials met with the trustees last Thursday to support them in submitting their claim.
Dramatic pause. Suzy Davies.
Dramatic questions. Diolch, Llywydd. I wonder if we could have an update from the Cabinet Secretary for health, please, on the draft dementia strategy, now that he's had time to hear concerns raised at the cross-party group from dementia representatives. It's not published yet, of course, but some concerns were raised that perhaps it wasn't as innovative as they were expecting or that it was still too clinical in its model. I'm wondering whether—I see that you're here—you might agree to do that fairly soon.
Secondly, in September, following some pressure from my party, the Government undertook to review how potential conflicts of interest were managed in the case of a former civil servant with links to a film production company that subsequently received a Welsh Government loan. On 1 November, which is two months later, I was told that the review was being finalised, and, as of today, I'm still not sure what the outcome of that was and whether it has been finalised. I think this was probably a very straightforward review, but there's still a—. I think you'd have to agree that it's unacceptable not just in terms of transparency but in terms of uncertainty for the individual who was the subject of that review, and I'm wondering if you could arrange for an urgent update to the Assembly on that, please.
Finally, I wonder if I could ask for your assistance as business manager, actually. On 29 September and 4 October, I submitted a total of 16 written questions about film policy and its delivery process to the Cabinet Secretary for the economy, of which two have been answered. I've been told more than once that I will get a full set of answers to remaining questions, and I haven't. An attempt to resubmit some of those questions via a freedom of information request were rebuffed on the basis that they required explanations that were not held in a recorded form, and that is completely unacceptable when they relate, amongst other things, to conflicts of interests managing that, which, of course, should be minuted. I wonder if you could investigate, please, why I haven't had an answer to those questions.
In terms of the dementia strategy, I've had myself several meetings with the health Secretary about the dementia strategy, and I'm very aware that he's taken on board a large number of the issues that were raised with him by the various groups, including groups of people who have dementia themselves, and that he's on course to publish the new strategy, taking into account all of those views, in the new year. I see he's nodding at me, so that remains the case.
In terms of the conflicts of interest, I don't know whether that's related to the second one or not, but it's obviously the same topic—[Interrupion.] Different subjects, same topic. I think the best thing for us to do there is to actually discuss it outside and I will undertake to broker with the Member meetings with the various people she's mentioned to see if we can reach a satisfactory solution.
Could I ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services following the news yesterday that the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales, CSSIW, has classed 14 care homes in Wales as services of concern, meaning there's a possibility of suspending the service or, indeed, of cancelling their registration? I'm particularly concerned about the disproportionate nature or spread of those homes, with 10 of the 14 being located in north Wales, which, of course, is an area that I represent. I previously called for the expansion of the remit of CHCs, community health councils, to include social care, rather than abolishing them, which is the proposal of the Government at this moment in time. The intention of the Government is, of course, to create what could be a remote national body, no doubt based in Cardiff. My question is: why not use the boots on the ground that the CHCs already have, and that they are, certainly in north Wales, using very, very effectively, to scrutinise the service? Let's extend that to scrutinising care homes so that we can ultimately raise their standards.
North Wales Newspapers was one of the largest independent newspaper companies remaining before it was recently taken over by Newsquest, employing around 250 workers, publishing 13 newspapers, including the daily Leader in north-east Wales. Newsquest has announced now 20 job losses, and the entire production department is being outsourced to Oxford. There are fears, of course, that other departments will follow, as we've seen when other newspapers have been taken over by Newsquest. Newsquest and Trinity Mirror together have complete control now over all six daily papers that we have here in Wales and around 60 per cent of our local newspapers. We've argued here for greater media coverage in Wales to better reflect our lives in a devolved context, so how can that happen when jobs are being outsourced by Newsquest to Oxford and the largest newspaper chain in the north could now be left with what could be effectively a skeleton staff? So, I'd like to hear from the relevant Minister what the Government is doing to protect these jobs that are clearly now at risk, to ensure that we protect what local news coverage we have across Wales, and also to ensure that what limited plurality we still have within Welsh media isn't eroded further.
Thank you for those two very important questions. In terms of the community health councils and their role in social care, the Minister was listening carefully all the way through. The Member characterised the consultation in not quite the way I understand it to be, and I think we do need to let the consultation take its course and see where we go with that. It is a consultation about the future of the CHCs, and I'm sure the Member, like me, has met with the CHC in his area and has had a number of representations. We need to let that consultation take its course.
In terms of the specifics about the care homes, I'm afraid I don't know very much about that at all, but the health Secretary was here listening to you, as was the Minister, and I'm sure, between them, they'll be able to address some of the concerns you raise.
In terms of the news issue, I share the Member's concern about the lack of diversity in local news, and a similar fate has befallen my own local newspaper and radio station, as it happens. I think that it would be very appropriate for the Minister in question to take a view and report back to the Assembly in due course when she has something that she can say usefully to us on that subject.
I have two items I wanted to raise with the leader of the house. Over the weekend, we all heard the news from the Royal Bank of Scotland that so many more bank closures would be taking place, and I think it's 20 in Wales. Two of them are in my constituency of Cardiff North, in Whitchurch and in the Heath hospital, and already I've been contacted, and I'm sure other Members have been, about what a loss this is to the community. I know that RBS are saying that fewer people are using the bank branches, and I'm sure that is true, but, for elderly and disabled people, it's very important that they do have a bank to go to. And of course, there's the issue of the contribution to the high street and the importance for local businesses. So, I wondered if we could have a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for the economy about this further detrimental step, because we have debated this in the Assembly many times before, but the value of these banks to the community just does not seem to be recognised. So, that was the one statement I wanted.
And, then, the other issue was, on Saturday, I visited Organicafé, as part of Small Business Saturday. It is a very innovative, organic cafe in Birchgrove in my constituency, which has just won Best Cafe in the Welsh Italian Awards. The owners only actually came from Italy two years ago, and they've made a fantastic success there, so I was really pleased to visit it and highlight their achievements. But it made me think that there has been a big growth in cafe culture, and I just wondered whether it would be worth looking at the value of the cafe culture to our economy as well.
I can't resist answering that one first because I'm familiar with the cafe, and I would like to congratulate them on their award—it's well deserved. My son put me in the knowledge on the cafe, and it is indeed a fantastic little place, for those people who haven't visited it yet. Italian cafes have played an enormous role in the growth of cafe culture in Wales for a very long time, in fact, and certainly in the village I grew up in, in north Swansea, the Moruzzis were very instrumental in both kindling my love of ice cream, which possibly wasn't as good for me as it might have been, which I continue to have, and also, actually, just in promoting cafe culture in general as a place to meet and often discuss really quite progressive politics. So, I'm grateful to them for that as well. And I think that they do make a big contribution to our economy, and I'm sure that the Cabinet Secretary for the economy will be taking that into account when he produces his action plan in the future.
In terms of banking, I share the Member's concern about the closure of bank branches. I've had a number of meetings myself with a number of the big banks around their closure policy. They do produce statistics about the use of branch banking and so on, and a number of them do have good policies in terms of contacting older people and people with particular problems in mobility and so on about their banking. There is an arrangement in place with Post Office Counters, in actual fact, to do some banking, and we've made representations to them, I know, in my previous role, about ensuring that the Post Office Counters staff have the right training and that there are appropriate premises in which to conduct what might be a quite personal transaction in some cases for people who want to conduct banking transfers there. But I don't see any reason at all why we couldn't ask the Cabinet Secretary for the economy to make this Assembly's concerns known again.
Can I ask for a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for health on the situation faced by emergency departments in north Wales? The leader of the house will be aware that there were reports in the media over the weekend about tweets from the emergency department at Ysbyty Gwynedd, which claimed that some people were spending up to two days or more in the emergency department whilst waiting for medical beds. Now, we know that there is a problem at other north Wales hospitals. The poorest-performing hospital as far as the four-hour emergency department target is concerned in the whole of Wales is Glan Clwyd Hospital, in Bodelwyddan. This appears to be a significant problem in north Wales, which, clearly, people will want to have addressed prior to the very cold weather that may come over the winter period. Now, we heard a statement a few weeks ago, which was issued by the Cabinet Secretary for health, on winter preparedness, and he gave the impression that everything was fine. Well, things clearly aren't fine in north Wales. We need to know precisely what additional support is going to be put into place to make sure that patients, in an emergency, can get the services that they need.
That's a very important point that the Member raises, obviously. The Cabinet Secretary for health has made a number of contributions in this place to winter preparedness, and indeed to delayed transfers of care, and a number of other issues affecting waiting lists, and so on, in north Wales. He was here listening to your point and I'm sure he'll take it to account the next time he addresses us on the subject.
I'm looking at two statements from the leader of the Chamber. The Government has rightly issued statements about terrorist atrocities over the past 18 months. We have a Yemenese community in Cardiff, and in Wales, and civilians in the Yemen are being bombed and starved to death every single day. I'm wondering what the Welsh Government position is on this, and the daily terror—Saudi Arabian-backed terror—that the civilian population of the Yemen have to face every single day.
The second one is about mesh implants. I'm looking for a Government statement on the number of people who have received these mesh implants in Wales over the last seven years, and also the number of people who have had those implants without actually giving their consent and are in a lot of pain now. I'm wondering also what recourse is available to those people and what treatment they can be offered to help with their chronic symptoms.
Well, on that second one, the Cabinet Secretary has already made a commitment to bring forward a statement on mesh implants, which—he's nodding at me—I'm sure he will be doing very soon.
In terms of various war situations and other atrocities, around the world, obviously the Welsh Government shares your concern that people have to live in such appalling situations. We don't have, obviously, foreign policy powers here. What we do have though is a policy that welcomes refugees and asylum seekers from all over the globe, where we can provide them with sanctuary. And I'm very proud that we're a nation that can do so.
I thank the leader of the house.
The next item is the statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Education on public good and a prosperous Wales—consultation response. I call on the Secretary to make the statement—Kirsty Williams.
Llywydd, in the summer, I published a White Paper on the reform of the post-compulsory education and training system. The consultation closed in late October, and I'd like to take this opportunity to update Members on progress and to announce that we are moving forward to a technical consultation.
In the White Paper, I set out the Government’s proposals for reform, covering further and higher education, research and innovation, work-based learning and adult community learning, and we sought views on the way forward. At the heart of the proposal for a reformed system is a new body: the tertiary education and research commission for Wales. Not only would this replace the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, but it would also take on a wider set of functions, many of which are currently undertaken by the Government. In doing so, the new commission would provide oversight, strategic direction and leadership for the whole sector.
Over recent months, officials held a number of stakeholder events across the nation. This provided a dedicated opportunity for detailed discussions on the proposals. In addition, a separate learner consultation series of events was held in both north and south Wales, and a young persons consultation was also undertaken, because it is this group that will be most affected by the proposed changes.
I would like to thank all those who attended for sharing their views with us and helping to shape the next stage of our proposals. Although I cannot hope to do justice to the rich detail of the responses here today, I’m pleased to say that the proposals have received broad support. A summary of the responses will be published on the Government’s website.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
The strategic planning role of the proposed commission was welcomed. There was agreement that funding from the commission to learning and training providers should be made dependent in some way on Welsh Ministers’ agreement to its strategic plan. The majority of respondents outside the higher education sector in principle supported the introduction of outcome agreements but wanted more detail on their operation. We will develop further detail on this approach for stakeholders’ consideration. Respondents saw a role for the proposed commission in supporting students to change courses and providers, and to protect students in the case of provider failure. A majority also agreed that widening access for underrepresented groups remains an issue, as does the lack of opportunities for part-time study. Members will know that these are driving principles for our student support reforms.
Turning to the quality of provision, the vast majority of stakeholders supported a role for the commission in enhancing quality. Opinion was, however, divided on whether one common quality assurance framework for the whole of the PCET system would be the right way forward. Clearly, more work is needed here, and the complementary review that is being undertaken by Professor Harvey Weingarten will contribute much to the development of these proposals as we go forward.
Whether or not the proposed commission should have responsibility for sixth forms was a specific question asked in the consultation. Again, this is an area where we will look to do further work, but it should be said that a majority of respondents were of the opinion that sixth forms should be treated as part of the PCET system. Some respondents felt that sixth forms should be phased in at a later date rather than being part of the commission’s remit at the outset. I thank respondents for raising these and other matters that we will now consider further in developing our proposals for the next stage of consultation.
As well as what stakeholders have told us in response to the White Paper, we also need to consider other developments and their impact on our proposals for PCET reform. The recent review of the activities of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol recommended that it broadens its remit from higher education to cover the whole of the PCET sector. I am delighted that this is very much in tune with our proposals for PCET reform, and the relationship between the proposed commission and the Coleg will be a key consideration as we move forward.
The proposals for Research and Innovation Wales to be a statutory committee of the commission is clearly going to be influenced by stakeholder responses but also by the outcomes of the Reid review. This will report early in the new year and we will of course take Professor Reid’s views on board as we move forward. In the light of the responses to our initial White Paper proposals, I propose to issue a further technical consultation document early in the new year, setting out in more detail how we envisage the new commission might work. We are a Government that is committed to listening and I recognise that issues may yet emerge that are not covered by the technical consultation. I am, therefore, committed to continuing close engagement with stakeholders and across the Chamber as we move forward with our reforms.
I am heartened that, in the light of our proposals to reform the PCET system, stakeholders from the different sectors are already seeking out ways to work more effectively together in partnership, and that augurs really well for the future. Within Government we are also laying the foundations for a smooth transition to a transformed PCET system. We are taking an important first step towards that transition by making a series of new appointments to the current HEFCW council. The first of the new members joined the council on 1 December and the other new appointees will take up their roles early in 2018 as current members stand down.
These appointments will be for three years in the first instance and will help broaden the council’s reach and perspective. I am delighted that we have been able to attract such high-calibre individuals to these roles, which will be critical to helping us realise our ambitions for tertiary education, research and training. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the members of the HEFCW council who will be stepping down as a result of these changes. They have made a significant contribution to Welsh higher education over many years.
Deputy Presiding Officer, there is no doubting the scale of our ambitions and the scale of these reforms. I welcome the broad consensus that exists and the agreement that simply maintaining the status quo is not a viable option. It's not a viable option for learners, for providers or the nation as a whole. We are committed to working in partnership to get this right and to ensuring a PCET system that will meet the needs of all and help build a more prosperous and successful Wales.
Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for her statement today and for advance notice of that statement, and, indeed, all of the individuals who responded to the public consultation on the White Paper?
As the Cabinet Secretary knows, the proposal to establish a tertiary education and research commission for Wales is one that we Welsh Conservatives fully support. And whilst I appreciate the notice that the Government is now going to move forward to a technical consultation, I think it's very important to make clear that we're facing serious challenges in the post-compulsory education sector right now, and we have to move towards improving that situation as soon as possible.
So, these reforms, I believe, give us a crucial opportunity to create the flexible and agile education and training system that we all want to see and that was alluded to in the Government's White Paper.
I just wondered, though, whether you could give us a clear timescale for the completion of the technical consultation and when you expect to be able to implement any recommendations that emerge from that, once you've considered those consultation responses, in order that we can get to the place that we all want to be as soon as possible.
You didn't refer to vocational pathways in your statement today, and you did briefly mention part-time study, but only very briefly. As you know, the new commission, I believe, gives us an exciting opportunity to champion vocational qualifications and, indeed, part-time study. I know that they've been given a bit of lip service in the past, I think it's fair to say, from some of your predecessors—not you, I hasten to add—but we need some bold changes in the post-compulsory education system if we're going to fulfil the ambition that we've got for part-time students and, indeed, for vocational learners as well.
So, I just wonder whether you could outline if there are any plans to ensure that the new commission gives equal priority to vocational and part-time learning, to make sure that there's not an overemphasis by that new commission on higher education which, I think it's fair to say, there has been, potentially, in the past.
You also mentioned widening access for underrepresented groups—another thing that I very much welcome. One of the things that sometimes puts a barrier up for underrepresented groups is the flexibility of courses and the financing that is sometimes needed to support people in accessing those courses. So, I think that we clearly need to see some change in terms of how education courses can be accessed and delivered. Some of those groups that face those barriers are, of course, Gypsy/Traveller groups, ethnic minority groups and, indeed, looked-after children—they're significantly underrepresented in post-compulsory education. So, I wonder whether you could tell us what precisely you're going to do, in particular to support those groups and what you'll be tasking the new commission with in terms of improving access to post-compulsory education for those individuals.
In addition, in terms of the financing and the flexibility arrangements, clearly we need to be looking at how people access courses and how people can switch, perhaps, from one course to another if their circumstances change. Sometimes, people are knocked out of the system because they've got a health need for a period, and obviously it's important that they have the opportunity to be able to pick back up their studies. Sometimes, people relocate from one part of the country to another during the middle of a course and it's important that they can take and bank some credits with them from the courses that they've started. And yet, these are currently big issues that are not easily resolved with the current post-compulsory education system. So, I wonder whether these will be particular issues that you'll want the commission to focus on.
The other thing that I didn't hear you refer to today was something that really underpins the whole purpose of this reform, and that is careers. We know that we want to match people with appropriate careers that they can enjoy and have fulfilled lives in, but we also know that there's a dearth, frankly, of high-quality careers advice available to people in Wales, particularly those who are beyond compulsory education age. So, I'm talking adults, perhaps, in later life who are hoping to return to the workforce, or have been made redundant, or through circumstances are having to switch careers and may need some support, advice and guidance in order to get them into the right place. So, again, I wonder whether the commission could have a role in this and whether that is something that you would want them to have a look at.
Just finally, if I may, on the Welsh language, I know that there is a separate piece of work that is being done in terms of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and its role, but can you assure us that the role of the college will be integral, really, to the way that this commission operates, so that we can all ensure that there's a concerted effort, across the whole of the education sector, to support the ambition that we all have in this Chamber, which is to see those 1 million Welsh speakers within the time frame set by the Welsh Government of 2050? Thank you.
Can I thank Darren Millar for that series of questions, and for his in principle support for the reform agenda that we have before us? Darren, like me, understands that the status quo is not an option, and some of the problems and commentary that Darren has just made about some of the challenges that face students are one of the driving factors behind the reform.
We need a system that is truly listening to student voice, that recognises that simply seeing students as traditional 18-year-old school leavers is not appropriate any more, and we need to develop a system of post-compulsory education that recognises that people will come in and out of education throughout their lives and their careers as we adapt to an ever-changing economy. Students will need the flexibility to be able to study, sometimes full time, or sometimes part time, alongside working or, perhaps, caring responsibilities. The whole focus of creating a single body to oversee this entire sector gives us the opportunity to be able to establish such a system, and I welcome his support for it.
If I could turn to some of the specific issues that he raises, Darren, like you, I think we have to acknowledge that, despite many debates in this Chamber and many speeches by Ministers, Cabinet Secretaries and, indeed, opposition politicians, academic and vocational routes through education are still not regarded as equally valuable. That is something that I regret very much. Evidence suggests that learners—young learners, especially—and their parents are not always receiving the best information and advice to steer them towards learning and career choices that are right for them. That was one of the strongest messages that we had as a result of our learner consultation: young people are saying, 'We're not getting the advice that we need to be able to make those choices.' Again, one of the rationales behind this reform is to say that these courses, these pathways into employment, into learning and studying, are of equal status. Depending on what your aspirations are, what your career ambitions are, then there is no single right way or wrong way, or better way or less good way of achieving that. Again, that's one of the rationales behind this reform.
But we have to get information right; we have to get it right for young people, and we have to get it right for older people who may be facing career changes or may be looking for new opportunities as a result of redundancy or a change in life circumstances. I think it's fair to say that, perhaps, we have not developed this as much as we would like, and it's something that is a constant source of conversation between myself and the Minister, as well as the Cabinet Secretary for the economy, as we look at employability programmes and economic development in the round. We will need to do further work in this area to get the offer right, because if we listen to students and young people, they're not getting it at the moment. We have to be honest about that, otherwise there's no point in carrying out the consultation if we're not prepared to take on board what people are telling us.
Access, of course, is at the heart of our student support reforms. That's why we will be unique in the UK when we will offer pro rata support for part-time learners in higher education. For those who are in the further education field, we have maintained our commitment to the EMA, to the education maintenance allowance that allows children and young people from a poorer background to access financial support in the FE sector. Looked-after children, of course, will be eligible for the highest level of maintenance support that this Welsh Government will offer: in excess of £9,000 to allow them to study at a higher education level. The bigger challenge, I believe, for us, is to ensure more looked-after children have the opportunity to apply for that maintenance grant. That goes back to the action across the education department to support looked-after children in their education, because I want more of them to be able to access that maintenance grant. We also have a support system for disabled students, which has recently been independently reviewed, and that review has found it to be a very successful scheme that is really helping those people with a disability to go on into higher education.
It is my intention that, as a result of these reforms, it should be easier for students to be able to switch courses, carry credits forward, have a blended nature to their study—part time, full time, depending on their circumstances. With regard to the coleg, as you know, I think the coleg Cymraeg has done a great job in broadening access to higher education courses through the medium of Welsh. I believe that the principle of extending that to FE and work-based learning, so that people have the opportunity to undertake their learning and their training in Welsh is particularly crucial in certain sectors where we have a dearth of professionals. Only recently, in the additional learning needs debate, we talked about a whole raft of professionals that need Welsh language skills that we don't currently have at the moment. It's absolutely crucial that we develop the role of the coleg in line with our PCET reforms and I believe that they are attuned.
But I have to say, Deputy Presiding Officer, I'm very grateful for the way in which Darren Millar has engaged in this. Like me, he has high ambitions for this particular part of our education and training sector, and I look forward to continuing to work with Darren on the technical consultation, which will be released in the new year. I'm a Minister who is keen to get on with things, and we will try and make progress as quickly as possible, but recognising this is a significant set of reforms and we need to get them right.
May I also endorse the thanks given to the Cabinet Secretary for the statement? I look forward to seeing progress in this sector along the lines that have been outlined. It is certainly a journey that is travelling in the right direction. We may have to discuss this further when we deal with the minutiae, but we’re certainly supportive of the ambition. And I also thank the Cabinet Secretary for her statement that she is committed to working closely with stakeholders and working across the Chamber as these reforms make progress?
The previous questioner asked particularly about the timescale of the technical consultation. I'm just interested in your confirmation, maybe, that you still intend for this legislation to have completed its journey through this Assembly by the end of this Assembly, and maybe you could map out some key milestones for us on that journey if that's possible, just so that we have that broad timetable a bit more clearly in our minds, because there are a number of hares running here, really. You mentioned a number of reviews: the technical consultation itself, of course; the Reid review, which will feed into this; the Weingarten review, as well. I'd be interested in hearing how you think all of these can actually come together and be aligned effectively to ensure that all of these are taken into full consideration.
I've raised with you before the sixth-form question, and it was in the White Paper, and rightly so. You say that the majority of respondents were in favour of including sixth forms under the proposed system, although some made a pitch, if you like, to phase them in at a later date. I'm just wondering if you could tell us what more information or what further discussions you need to come to a decision around that and how that could potentially affect the timetable. Would that require legislation later on? Or would you incorporate that into your proposed legislation for something that will be brought in at a later point? Because, clearly, many of us are hoping that this will be a coherent and comprehensive reform of the sector. There's a danger that if we start hiving certain bits off that it becomes piecemeal. I understand the difficulties around that particular issue, but I'd just like to hear a bit more about your thinking in that respect.
You did mention adult community learning—or you namechecked it—at the beginning of your statement. There's not much more and, clearly, we've heard one or two things in your last response. Clearly, the decline in part-time adult provision is very worrying, and adult community learning, some people feel, is very much on its knees at the moment. So, the sector is telling me that it can't wait for these changes, although there was very little, actually, in the White Paper on adult community learning. There is a risk that we end up talking too much about sixth-form colleges, universities—we need to talk about them, of course, but I think we need to get the balance right. So, I'd just be interested in hearing a bit more about how we can really incorporate the sector's voice into the discussions from now on, and not fall into the trap of paying lip service—I think that is the second time that phrase has been used—and how that voice will be heard within the commission's role, because we come back to this parity-of-esteem principle that we're all pursuing, and it'd be good to have greater clarity, again, on that.
You touched on the extension of the role of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. I would reiterate that we need to make sure that the role isn't eroded in any way, that it retains its existing responsibility, its enhanced responsibility and its distinct role within the new landscape. Maybe you could acknowledge—or will you acknowledge—that additional responsibilities have to mean additional resources as well, albeit we're in a very difficult time, I know, in that respect. But one, one would expect, would have to follow the other.
On that point, it probably is too early to start talking about budgets and all that kind of thing for the proposed new body, but I remember well, when discussions were being had around the establishment of Natural Resources Wales, that one of the reasons being put forward was that it would create an efficiency of savings. I'm not sure whether that is part of your consideration or to what extent that might be driving some of what is playing out now. I'd be interested to hear whether you envisage some sort of projected efficiency saving from the new arrangement—or is that not part of your consideration at all? It'd be interesting to know, actually, at what point you think that might become clearer.
We've touched on addressing the barriers to post-compulsory education and training, and the cuts that have had a disproportionate effect on a number of groups. I presume that the outcome agreements that you mention in the statement would maybe look to address some of those in terms of ensuring that maybe some people with care-giving responsibilities, or those requiring particular kinds of support, are offered that. You say that it's a driving principle for your student support reforms in terms of addressing some of these barriers, and I'm just looking for confirmation that that will be embedded into the commission's remit.
Can I thank Llyr again for the support in principle that he has for this reform agenda? The consensus that we seem to have in the Chamber today is reflective of the consensus that there is out there across Wales of the need to move forward in this regard, and is reflected in the consultation.
With regard to timescales, what I have learnt over the last 18 months is to be very circumspect in committing myself to be able to deliver to certain timescales, because what I have also learned is that these things take a lot longer than you initially anticipate in Government. But it is my intention to go out to technical consultation in the new year, and it is still my absolute intention to bring forward legislation and, with the co-operation of this Chamber and the legislative processes that we have, to complete that process before the end of this Assembly term. That's what I'm setting out to do. But, already, in beginning to scope the legislation that may arise out of this—and we're at a very early stage. It's already looking like it could be the largest single piece of legislation that the National Assembly's ever ever had to deal with, at a time when there's lots of legislation going through the Assembly. But it is my absolute intention and my sincere hope that we can get to the end of it before the Assembly term.
With regard to finances, costs will be fully considered as part of the policy development process and will eventually, of course, need to be set out, as is required by Standing Orders, in the regulatory impact assessment. Costs, of course, will be determined by the powers and functions of the body that we intend to set up, and because we're still in the process of determining that, I'm not at this stage able to give the Member very much detail. But what I can say to the Member is that I hope to publish a partial regulatory assessment, setting out the methodology for establishing the costs, alongside the technical consultation. So, that's what my intention is to do, to be able to give Members an opportunity to see how the Government will eventually arrive at budget considerations associated with this. I hope that that will be welcomed by Members of all sides and will assist Members in their scrutiny role that they have here.
Just to provide clarity, the Reid review, which is looking at research and innovation, will again be published very early in the new year, and that is integral to our thinking of how we develop that very important piece of what the commission will be in charge of. The Weingarten review is specifically to look at the issue of outcome agreements. As I said in my statement, there is not a consensus at the moment about whether a single—you know, how exactly the outcome agreements would work, given the complexity and the diverse nature of the sector. And so the Weingarten review, of course from an eminent person who has significant experience in this field in Canada and in systems around the world, will be crucial in helping us to provide greater detail and greater insight into how those outcome agreements will work in practice.
Sixth forms—well, Deputy Presiding Officer, I think the Member said that he's in favour of sixth forms being in. I note he didn't put that in writing in the consultation, but I think he was hinting at that as his preference. It certainly is the preference of the majority of people who responded to the consultation, but, of course, that is at odds with the recommendation of Ellen Hazelkorn, who actually did not recommend that way forward and demonstrated, in other international systems that she looked at, that sixth forms were not part of that system. And that's why we need to give, again, considerable thought to the advantages and disadvantages of inclusion.
What is true to say from the consultation is that people were very much of the opinion that, if we are to break down this artificial divide and this perceived difference in parity of esteem between vocational and academic, it's very important that sixth forms go in. But it could be the case, given that this commission is going to have such a big task, that we could legislate in a way that would allow for sixth forms to enter into the commission at a later date—not requiring additional primary legislation, but to create the circumstances in the original legislation that would allow that to happen later. But we need, again, to have really thoughtful discussions with stakeholders about the advantages and disadvantages of those particular proposals.
I think that's addressed most of the issues. With regard to adult and part-time, that's one of the reasons why we are welcoming new members onto the HEFCW board, because we can't just wait for the new commission to be set up; we need to be developing thinking in this area now. We need HEFCW and other stakeholders to be working towards this agenda now. That's why I'm very pleased to say that we have work-based-learning experts going onto HEFCW from 1 December, and we will also have experts in adult learning and part-time learning joining the HEFCW board later on this year as a vacancy arises.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for your statement and your announcement of the abolition of HEFCW and the creation of a new commission. I would be interested to know how you foresee these commissioners will be appointed. Will it be put out to an open tender, advertising for applicants, or will it be, essentially, an in-departmental appointment of the commissioners? We've seen the results of appointed boards in the form of the failures in care at Betsi Cadwaladr in north Wales, so how are you going to ensure that the commission is properly accountable?
There's been engagement with stakeholders, and I note a range of educational establishments, organisations and learners took part in the consultation exercise, including the stakeholder events. Widening access for under-represented groups and the lack of opportunity for part-time study were issues for the respondents, as you said in your statement, but I'm sorry, Cabinet Secretary, I don't really see any signs of you tackling the problem so far.
According to the responses to the consultation, the biggest barrier to entering post-compulsory education was considered to be fear of debt, and we've had conversations about this before. This is obviously going to be more of a barrier to older people looking to change career or resume their education later in life, but, I'm sorry, you've done nothing to remove this barrier. In fact, you're making it worse. The stakeholders who took part in the consultation do really have—they have so valid views about the system and are to be commended for their work in contributing to the consultation exercise. However, I'd suggest that, if you want to widen access to education, the people you really need to be speaking to are those who aren't currently involved in the education system. Those people already engaged in the education system obviously have a great deal of knowledge and experience that can contribute to your decisions about that sector, but it doesn't really inform you in massive detail, from a very personal point of view, why people are discouraged from resuming their education and upskilling or improving their skills in other ways once they've actually left compulsory education and that kind of window in people's heads for going into post-compulsory education has ended. So, I'd like to see you consult with those people who aren't currently engaged with the education system to investigate what might encourage them to become engaged in the education system.
I'm not surprised that advice and support provided to learners was a key concern, and, given the Cabinet Secretary's recent decision to saddle Welsh students with debt, it's vital that the Welsh Government gets this right. I appreciate that so much detail isn't going to be here right now, inevitably, because of the stage of the process you're at, so—. I see you've announced a detailed consultation on how the commission will actually work and I really do look forward to seeing that consultation and the responses there too. Thank you.
With regard to the establishment of the commission, as I said, we will go out to a technical consultation. It is my intention that the executive of that commission will be appointed in normal open competition procedures. As to the members of the commission, they will be subject to the public appointment process that we have here in Wales, a process that has just been undertaken to recruit new members to the HEFCW board, a board that has done tremendous work in supporting higher education in Wales, work that I'm very, very grateful for. I'm particularly pleased that we've been able to attract high-calibre candidates to take up new positions on the HEFCW board, people from within and without Wales who want to give of their time and want to be part of this exciting period of reform in Welsh education.
Deputy Presiding Officer, it seems to me there is little point in me explaining once again to the Member the principles of our Diamond reform. To be absolutely clear to the Member once again: we will be the only part of the United Kingdom that will provide support—including maintenance support that is non-repayable—for part-time students. It isn't going to happen in Scotland, it isn't going to happen in England, and it's not going to happen in Northern Ireland. In fact, those countries and those parts of the sector that work outside of Wales are looking on with envy at the way in which we are going to support the part-time sector, because we recognise, in this Government, that part-time study is crucial, not just to those individuals, but to the economic wealth of this country. One of this nation's problems is around productivity and you improve productivity not just by investing in kit and machinery—you improve productivity by investing in your workforce, and we will help provide the environment to allow people to study on a part-time basis, and my challenge to the business sector will be to engage with the many schemes that the Welsh Government has to help them support to train their workers in greater levels of skills so that we can raise the Welsh economy. But I have explained this time and time again to the Member. She seems determined not to recognise what we are doing. [Interruption.]
Carry on. Carry on, Cabinet Secretary, please.
I appreciate that the Member doesn't agree with it. What is more important to me is that NUS Cymru agrees with it, the higher education sector in Wales agrees with it and higher education experts across the United Kingdom consistently say, 'If you're interested in progressive HE and FE policy, then look to Wales.' Because it is us, and us alone, who are doing something interesting in the field. With all due respect, it's those voices that I think are the ones that we really need to listen to as a Government.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.
Item 4 on our agenda is the Stage 4 debate on the Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Bill. I call on the Minister for Housing and Regeneration to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.
Motion NDM6607 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with Standing Order 26.47:
Approves the Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Bill.
Thank you, Deputy Llywydd. I formally move the motion. I am pleased to introduce the fourth and final stage of the Abolition of the Right to Buy and Associated Rights (Wales) Bill before the Assembly today. I'd like to start by thanking Assembly Members for their robust scrutiny of the Bill and for their support, which has ensured its passage through to Stage 4. In particular, I'd like to thanks members of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and the Finance Committee for their thorough and considered scrutiny of the Bill through stages 1 and 2. I'd also like to acknowledge all stakeholders who provided evidence during the scrutiny process and thank them for their contribution to the legislative process. My thanks also to Assembly Commission staff and Welsh Government officials for their support throughout the Bill process. I'd also like to say how pleased Carl Sargeant would have been to see the Bill reach the final stage. He believed passionately in protecting our social housing stock for those who need it most, and he worked extremely hard to bring this legislation forward. I'm delighted to be able to steer it through its final stages and onto the Welsh statute book.
This Bill forms a key part of the Government's housing policy, and was a manifesto commitment in 2016. This Government is committed to ending the right to buy and to protecting our social housing for those in the greatest need. Ending the right to buy will give local authorities and housing associations the confidence to invest in new developments to help to meet the need for quality affordable housing in Wales. The right to buy has been a feature of social housing for many years in Wales, and this has resulted in the loss of a significant number of homes—more than 139,000 between 1981 and 2016. In recent years, although sales of social housing have slowed, social housing stock is still being lost at a time of considerable housing supply pressure. Measures taken by the previous Welsh Government to address the impact of homes lost through the right to buy, and the continued pressure on social housing, included introducing the Housing (Wales) Measure 2011. This enabled a local authority to apply to suspend the right to buy and the right to acquire in its area. While the right to buy has been suspended in some parts of Wales, significant housing pressure still continues across the country.
This Bill was introduced last March following a White Paper consultation in 2015 to address the continued housing pressure and ensure that social housing is protected throughout Wales on a permanent basis. The Bill abolishes all variations of the right to buy, including the preserved right to buy and the right to acquire. Provisions in the Bill also allow at least a year after Royal Assent before final abolition on existing properties, but, to encourage investment in new homes, the rights will end for homes that are new to the social housing stock, and, therefore, have no existing tenants, two months after Royal Assent. One year is a fair and reasonable amount of time for tenants to decide whether they wish to exercise their rights and to take appropriate financial and legal advice. The Bill contains provisions to ensure that all tenants are given information within two months of Royal Assent, and that this information is supplied in the most appropriate format to meet their needs. This provision ensures that all tenants will be fully aware of the impact of the legislation before it comes into force.
This Government remains committed to enabling home ownership for those who want to enter the property market. We are well on our way to delivering our manifesto commitment of an extra 20,000 homes during this Assembly term. Government schemes, such as Help to Buy, homebuy and rent to own, are designed to help people on modest incomes into home ownership, but not at the expense of reducing the social housing stock. Ending the right to buy ensures that we safeguard the investment made in social housing over many generations for Welsh families now and in the future, and I ask Members to support the motion.
The right-to-buy policy has been extremely successful across the UK, and especially in Wales, because it responded to the aspirations of those on lower incomes to purchase their own homes. As I have consistently argued, the problems with the housing market have arisen due to a lack of housing supply, and especially in Wales—not because of the 300 or 400 homes that are now annually sold under the right-to-buy schemes. Some 139,000 council and housing association homes in Wales have been sold since the right to buy was introduced in 1980 under Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Government—139,000 homes in Wales; a remarkably successful policy. How could you have a better test of a policy's relevance and success?
The Welsh Conservatives, Deputy Llywydd, have tried to offer sensible ideas of reform for this popular policy so that abolition could be avoided. The Welsh Government has not been prepared to listen, and we regret this. We then attempted to make this right to buy abolition Bill fairer. We tried to provide a fairer outcome for those tenants in the currently suspended areas so that they, too, could get one last chance to purchase their property—denied to them.
We also offered an amendment with the intention of limiting the Act's operation to 10 years, following which the Welsh Ministers may lay regulations proposing that the abolition is made permanent. We did this because the Welsh Government made it clear in committee that it was not against the right to buy in principle. So, I tested this point—but alas, again, denied. No response.
Another amendment that would've ensured that the abolition of the right to buy and associated rights may not have come into effect until at least two years after the Bill receives Royal Assent was also denied, despite the fact that this was what happened in Scotland to allow a calm period of transition. These amendments were laid in response to the views of tenants throughout Wales who want more house building and would prefer alternative solutions to permanent abolition. Instead, this Bill intends to take their aspiration of home ownership away from them forever.
Deputy Presiding Officer, should we get the opportunity, the Welsh Conservatives will aim to reintroduce the right-to-buy policy with a reformed structure for the modern housing climate. These reforms would include ring-fencing the right-to-buy receipts so that they are reinvested into new social housing stock and removing the right to buy's applicability to new housing stock until it has been rented to a social tenant for a certain number of years.
In conclusion, this Bill does not serve the people of Wales well. It serves rather a narrow, left-wing ideology, oblivious to all the evidence and decades of success in its application as a policy. We will go on reflecting the aspirations of many tenants. Even at this stage, I urge Members to reject this Bill.
Just a very brief word as the Bill reaches the end of its journey through this Assembly. Plaid Cymru has supported the Bill fully throughout the process, and has assisted in improving it through the scrutiny process. Abolishing the right to buy has been a policy of our party over a period of decades. We were convinced that the right to buy would militate against those who can’t afford to buy their own homes, and militate against those who are reliant on renting in the social sector in order to get a roof above their heads, and unfortunately, that is what has happened. The number of social homes has almost halved in Wales, which has led to lengthy waiting lists, has led to too many people living under the same roof, has led to people living in inappropriate homes, and has led to an increase in homelessness. With the passing of this Bill, it is now time for this Government to focus clearly on the need to build more social housing, and to provide just as clear a focus on the efforts to eradicate poverty and inequality—a focus that is lacking at the moment.
I won't be supporting this legislation. I asked in this Chamber what is wrong with selling a council house as long as all the money is used to build new ones, and I still haven't had a satisfactory answer. I'm not prepared to vote to take away an option for working class people to own their own home without any new ways for them to buy a house being introduced. The legislation is part of an unhealthy trend of keeping people dependent on the state and reinforcing inequality.
So, here are some suggestions on where the Government would be better off putting its efforts. Between 2012 and 2016, Cardiff council run by Labour didn't build a single council house—not one. That was their choice. Other councils manage it. This legislation does nothing to address that. We should ensure that local people are the absolute priority for housing lists, and social housing stock in Wales should be used to cater for local demands. I hope that's a principle we can all get behind.
We need to build a lot more affordable housing, and that means really affordable. Better planning laws could force building companies to build a higher proportion of genuinely affordable housing, but we're in a situation now where just a few developers dominate the housing sector, leading to bad development plans where green fields are destroyed and local culture ignored. An industry where smaller local house builders build housing based on local need and local characteristics is surely a good thing, but the high cost of land and the complexity of Labour's planning laws prevent this.
If we really want to do something about the battle against the housing crisis, let's do something about the 23,000 long-term empty properties in Wales. They're sat empty and they're a blot on our communities. If those houses were used with an average of two people then we'd quickly get 50,000 people housed very quickly.
Now, credit where credit's due, because Torfaen council managed to bring a third of long-term empty properties back into use last year, but Cardiff council managed just 0.8 per cent, but will let rich developers build unaffordable housing all over green fields instead. So, why doesn't the Government get focused on every council in Wales, getting families into these empty houses?
Home ownership is part of the Welsh dream. Some here will say that ownership is just a UK obsession. I see nothing wrong with that. It's part of our culture, and I want to encourage it. That's why I cannot support this Bill.
Thank you. I call on the Minister for Housing and Regeneration to reply to the debate—Rebecca Evans.
Thank you. I've welcomed the opportunity to debate the Bill and I thank Members for their contributions. I always look to find common ground where there is some, and I think there is some in terms of the wider ambitions for housing. For example, there's no argument from Welsh Government on the importance of building homes, supporting people to buy a home, increasing affordable housing and turning empty houses into homes as well, but there is a fundamental disagreement between ourselves and the Conservatives and others about whether or not losing 139,000 houses from the social housing stock is actually a cause to celebrate, because on these benches it's certainly not.
What is a cause to celebrate is the fact that we are taking this important action to protect social housing stock for the future for the people who need it most, and I'd like to thank Siân Gwenllian for explaining why it is important that we're taking this forward, and take this opportunity to put on record my thanks to Plaid Cymru for the constructive way in which you have engaged with us throughout the passing of this Bill. And so, I'd like to ask Members to support the motion to pass the Bill. Thank you.
Thank you very much. In accordance with Standing Order 26.50C, a recorded vote must be taken on Stage 4 motions, and so I defer voting on this motion until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Paul Davies.
We now move on to item 5, which is the debate on the draft budget. I call on the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to move the motion—Mark Drakeford.
Motion NDM6603 Julie James
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 20.12:
Notes the Draft Budget for the financial year 2018-2019 laid in the Table Office by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government on 3 and 24 October 2017.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the Welsh Government's draft budget before the National Assembly. As Members will be aware, this budget represents a significant milestone in Wales's devolution journey. It is the first time where we have been able to set out our plans for devolved taxes and our borrowing proposals. It is also the first budget to be brought forward under the new fiscal framework and with the operation of the new Welsh reserve.
The Llywydd took the Chair.
Recognising the devolution of our new fiscal responsibilities, agreement was reached by the Assembly on a new budget process. For the first time, we have published our budget proposals in two stages. We set out the major building blocks of the budget on 3 October, reflecting those new fiscal responsibilities, and showing where the money comes from and how it was proposed that it should be allocated across portfolios. To help inform understanding, a suite of documents was published alongside the budget, including the chief economist's report, the Welsh tax policy report, and the independent report by Bangor University. I'm grateful to the Finance Committee for all its work in relation to this budget, and was glad to see in their report on it an indication that they are content with the level of detail provided alongside the outline budget. I look forward to engaging positively with the further recommendations set out in the Finance Committee's report.
On 24 October, Dirprwy Lywydd, we provided a greater degree of detail at budget expenditure line level than has ever previously been provided. This is a step that colleagues in the Chamber called for last year, and I hope that it has proved helpful in supporting meaningful scrutiny at the portfolio level. I have followed with interest the scrutiny sessions by individual subject committees, and I'd like to record my thanks to all Members who have played their part in our evolving budget process. My own reflection at this stage is that the two-stage process has worked in line with the intentions that led to its creation, but I look forward, of course, to hearing the experiences of others in this regard during the afternoon.
What is more challenging, Llywydd, is the unavoidable awkwardness of a UK budget that takes place late in our own draft budget process. That awkwardness is clearly apparent in the debate today, as we discuss a draft budget prepared before we had received the further allocations made available on 22 November. I intend to use most of the time available to me this afternoon to set out how I plan to align the resources made available in the UK budget with our own budget processes. Before doing so, however, let me deal briefly with the macroeconomic context that the UK budget reveals. Downward revisions to the economic forecasts, published by the Office for Budget Responsibility, confirmed weaker economic growth, lower tax revenues, and yet further pressures on living standards. That context has a direct bearing on our budget here in Wales because the new forecasts from the OBR help shape the resources that will be available to Wales through the working of a fiscal framework.
The Welsh Government's draft budget for 2018-19 was prepared using economic information from the UK spring budget, including OBR forecasts. Our own tax revenue forecasts, which use a number of the OBR economic determinants, will be revised now to reflect the new information made available alongside the November budget. As part of their work, Bangor University will scrutinise and assure these revised forecasts, and I'm happy to confirm this afternoon, Llywydd, that I will publish a summary report of the Bangor scrutiny work alongside our final budget on 19 December. I'd like to thank the team from Bangor for their excellent work to date. I'm pleased to let Members know that they have agreed to extend their current contract to undertake the independent scrutiny and assurance role for next year's budget, building on the expertise they have developed this year. This arrangement will continue as we put in place permanent arrangements for the independent production of independent tax revenue forecasts for Wales. Discussions with the UK Government and the OBR continue on that point, and I will update Members as we make further progress.
Llywydd, let me return to the way in which decisions about our budget are to be made against the background of UK Government decisions. As far as revenue is concerned, over the next week, I will continue to carry out discussions with Cabinet colleagues, concerning the £215 million-worth of consequentials from the UK budget available to Wales over a four-year period. The First Minister has agreed to a paper being presented to the next full Cabinet meeting, on 12 December, when I will bring a set of proposals for discussion. At the same time, in line with our previous agreement, I will discuss matters of mutual interest with Plaid Cymru, and I'm grateful to Steffan Lewis for having made time already to begin those discussions.
Llywydd, my intention is that the outcome of these discussions on the revenue consequences of the 22 November budget will be reflected in the final budget, which I have to lay before this Assembly on 19 December. I plan to do that because I think it is particularly important to give as much certainty as possible to our public service partners on the resources that will be available to them to run the services that they provide over the next two years.
I then intend to turn to discuss further the capital consequentials of the UK budget, including financial transaction capital. I hope to carry out those discussions over the holiday period. I'll give an undertaking this afternoon, Llywydd, that any early decisions on immediate capital priorities which it is possible to agree, before we debate the final budget on 16 January, will be set out to Members in advance of that debate on 16 January so that Members will be informed about them before we take that final vote. Those capital allocations will not be reflected in the final budget; I can't do it in time for that. But I will try to make sure that Members have the maximum amount of information that I am able to make available to them, and that information will include any additional capital consequentials that I'm able to agree on with Plaid Cymru, as part of our discussions with them.
Llywydd, there is a third element that we have to deal with as a result of the UK budget. The Chancellor announced a decision to introduce a new first-time buyer relief in stamp duty land tax as part of his budget. He did so, as Members here will know, despite the very clear advice of the Office for Budget Responsibility that such a relief was more likely to benefit sellers, through raised prices, rather than buyers, and that the relief will be significantly vulnerable to abuse. The change introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer means that, in England, 80 per cent of first-time buyers will pay no stamp duty at all. The proposals I set out on 3 October, to set the starting point of land transaction tax at £150,000 for Wales from 1 April next year, already means that 70 per cent of all first-time buyers in Wales will be exempt from that tax.
The Chancellor's decision, however, does result in some additional funding for Wales through a reduced block grant adjustment. That money is therefore in addition to the £215 million revenue consequentials, which I set out earlier. I continue to consider how that additional funding might best be deployed in Wales, and I intend to make an announcement on my decisions in that area before the end of this term.
Will the Cabinet Secretary give way?
Just on that point, just for clarification around this adjustment, is that specifically an adjustment under the fiscal framework to take into account the impact of introducing this tax on an England-and-Wales basis, before you have a chance to adjust as regards the new devolved powers next April?
Llywydd, it is exactly that. It is a one-off consequence of the timetables that will clash this year but won't clash in the future. It does mean that the block grant adjustment moves marginally in our favour. I am looking to see what might be done with that resource. And, as I say, Llywydd, I will make sure that Members are aware of the outcome of that consideration before the end of term.
Llywydd, I do appreciate the less-than-satisfactory nature of providing Members with information in this unavoidably disjointed way. It is a consequence of the interaction between our budget timetable and that of the UK Government. I hope Members will agree that the plan I've set out this afternoon is designed to provide the National Assembly with as much information as possible before a final vote is taken on our budget proposals. The alternative, as I've said at Finance Committee, is to adopt the model agreed by the Scottish Parliament, where MSPs will only see the draft budget for the very first time on 14 December, where no opportunity to discuss or scrutinise will be available until after our final budget has been considered here. In its report, our Finance Committee acknowledges the detrimental impact the UK Government's move to a budget with an unspecified date in the autumn has on the Welsh Government's ability to plan fiscal spending and tax policy. The other side of the coin, however, is the considerable benefit for the NHS, local government and other delivery partners in publishing our business plans in October. On balance, members of the committee concluded they preferred the arrangement we have in place here in Wales, and I'm sure that they will agree that while we continue to do things in that way, we should continue to keep in view the processes we have as our fiscal responsibilities develop.
Llywydd, to conclude, we agreed that the new budget process we have started on this year would be a new chapter and that there would be lessons to learn for future years. The report of the Finance Committee is particularly helpful in identifying areas where further progress needs to be made and, as I said at committee, I am always open to looking at the ways in which we can improve the information we provide and to go about discharging our responsibilities in the most effective way.
I thank the committee again for their recommendations, look forward to working with them on them and to hearing the views of Members this afternoon.
I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee, Simon Thomas.
Thank you, Llywydd, and as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance has just outlined, this is the first time for us to look at the budget in this way—a new approach for the Government and a new approach to budget scrutiny as well—because the Wales Act 2014 introduced fiscal devolution to Wales, meaning that the role of the Assembly now is to hold the Government to account, not only for its spending plans, but also its plans to raise revenue through borrowing and taxation on property and landfill waste, and of course income tax in due course as well. As such, we agreed to change the budget scrutiny process to ensure that the Finance Committee was afforded the opportunity to consider the high-level proposals of the Government in terms of its priority spending and revenue, and of course that every other committee could look at their individual budgets for Government departments. That’s what you have in the Finance Committee report and the reports by the other committees today.
One of our main considerations in the Finance Committee was the new powers around taxation, and how these new fiscal powers will be used. We’re grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for providing details of his proposed tax rates alongside the draft budget documentation. The information provided alongside the publication of the outline budget proposals included the chief economist’s report, the Welsh tax policy report, and the report from Bangor University. As the Cabinet Secretary has acknowledged, on the whole we came to the conclusion we found the information provided to be comprehensive, and this aided our scrutiny of the budget. And we’re also grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for confirming minutes ago that Bangor University will continue their work, and update the work following the budget of the UK Government, which has just been published. It was of great help to committee when scrutinising these high-level issues.
Some concerns were expressed over the transparency of the overall local government funding prior to the publication of the settlement. In future years we would like to see the strategic integrated impact assessment explain more in terms of how decisions had been prioritised and reached. Additionally, one issue that is a continuing theme from our scrutiny last year is the information available within the draft budget in terms of how the Government’s commitments are prioritised and fed into the budget allocations. We concluded that we’d also like to see clearer links between the draft budget, the programme for government and the 'Prosperity for All' strategy—and this, of course, all rests within the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
It wasn’t ideal that the UK Government budget was published in the middle of our scrutiny of the draft budget. We’ve just had an outline of the problems faced by the Government from the Cabinet Secretary, but as a committee we still think it’s helpful to have details around the Welsh Government’s intentions at an early stage. We also felt it would be helpful to have indicative figures for future years, although we accept that this may be difficult depending on comprehensive spending reviews; it is helpful to have detail provided where possible, and of course it’s happened in the past.
In light of the changes to the stamp duty rates announced by the UK Government, the Cabinet Secretary said that he would consider changes to the proposed rates in Wales. I was half thinking that we might have an announcement from him today, but not quite. We'll hear in due course, it seems. What is important is that we give appropriate scrutiny to the final recommendations by the Government. We also said in our report that these changes at the UK level could lead to pressure to rush through transactions in Wales to completion, which could lead to compensation for the Government. We’ve just heard confirmation from the Government that that compensation from the fiscal framework will happen. And, as he said, that will be a one-off, and we don’t expect to see it in years to come.
In considering the Government’s plans for taxation over the next 12 months, we considered the forecasts used to predict tax returns in Wales. Evidence has shown that there is limited Wales-specific data, and there was mixed evidence as to how vital this is to producing accurate forecasts. As a committee, we recognise that there is a case for ensuring that Wales-specific data is available, and that it is appropriate and gives additional value.
Additional funding was allocated to Wales as part of the UK budget, but a great deal of this was actually in the form of financial transactions capital—and this is the first time those words have been used in Welsh; cyfalaf trafodion ariannol, that is, apparently. Financial transactions capital is something that the committee will look into over the year to come to see how effective it is and to see how much use can be made of it, given that the Cabinet Secretary has suggested that this kind of funding can be restricted in terms of its use in Wales.
Two themes that emerged during our scrutiny last year have also been raised again this year. First of all, health funding continues to be prioritised, although this doesn’t seem to be resulting in service improvement or better financial planning, and often it is at the expense of other areas, notably local government. I was interested to note that the reports from the health committee and the local government committee have both raised similar issues.
The other theme relates to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Last year, we found that limited progress had been made in demonstrating how the Act is embedded in the draft budget, and we heard from the Cabinet Secretary how the Government had tried to align the draft budget and the Act during this year’s process. We appreciate that it will take time to fully embed this approach. However, we were disappointed that there was no further evidence of the improvements that we’d hoped to see. Nevertheless, we can see that efforts are being made, particularly by working with the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales in the area of procurement, decarbonisation and participatory budgeting, and we would hope to see more improvements going forward.
We also considered the financial preparations under way with regard to Brexit, and we are concerned that the uncertainty in terms of Brexit is impacting on the decisions being made by businesses in terms of investment. We are keen to see more efforts on the financial preparedness for Brexit in Wales and we will be looking to hold an inquiry into this area going forward. It’s also an area, of course, where the Government has just outlined some of the funding that has come in the budget that can be a priority, possibly, for preparing the economy and communities in Wales for Brexit.
Finally, we looked briefly at proposals for new taxes and we believe that this is an exciting new stage of fiscal devolution in Wales. We look forward to working with the Cabinet Secretary over the next year in bringing forward a new devolved tax, and we agree that the UK Government’s role in the consideration of new taxes should be limited to issues of competence and the impact on UK revenues. As a committee, we are interested in how the new process will work and I’ve written to the Business Committee asking that we be consulted on the new procedures for bringing forward new taxes in Wales.
This is the first year where our scrutiny of the draft Budget has focused on the strategic details, whilst the policy committees were able to report in their own right to the Assembly. Prior to the final budget debate we will be considering those reports, and I also hope to discuss the new process with other Members in order to consider whether improvements can be made for next year, and I would welcome any comments from Members on the way in which we have scrutinised the budget this year and the way of improving that for the future.
Finally, of course, I'd like to thank everyone who has contributed to this year’s scrutiny. As a committee, we are very grateful to all of the people who contribute to the work of the committee and who have assisted us in terms of drawing up our findings, which will be the basis of your discussion this afternoon.
I have selected the amendment to the motion, and I call on Nick Ramsay to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Paul Davies—Nick Ramsay.
Amendment 1 Paul Davies
Delete all and replace with:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Believes that the Welsh Government's draft Budget 2018-2019 fails to adequately meet the needs of the Welsh people.
Amendment 1 moved.
Diolch, Llywydd. I think the primary question, Cabinet Secretary, that I'd like to pose at the start of my contribution this afternoon is: what is this budget seeking to achieve? Is it simply trying to allocate funding to different budgets—in the past once perfectly acceptable? Or is it trying to do more than that, to address longer term challenges and to seek a real fundamental transformational economic change to the Welsh economy? I assume, given the changes to revenue to this place and the advent of tax powers to this Assembly, that the latter would be the preferred option.
Can I firstly concur with a number of the issues raised by the Chair of the Finance Committee? I've spent many hours alongside him on that committee considering many of these complex issues—well, from complex to some impossible issues, I think. It's been a very interesting time, and I think we've done our best—all the members of the committee across all parties—to scrutinise the budget as best we can.
Recommendation 1 of the Finance Committee's report calls for greater attention to be given to the way commitments are prioritised, and I would certainly agree with that. It's key that the priorities of the Welsh Government reflect the priorities and the needs of the people of Wales, and, as I said before, those needs over the medium term.
A number of spending allocations may be welcomed in this budget, but it remains less than clear how many of the current spending allocations reflect the priorities of the programme for government or indeed the extent to which the programme for government, or for that matter the future generations legislation, was referred to at all. It does seem that a number of these strategies are great in principle and at the time that they're being strategised, but they are conveniently discarded or at least put to one side when budget setting and the process gets under way.
We know that some budget lines are disappearing as part of a wider merger and simplification of budget lines in this budget. This has been a consistent concern throughout evidence heard by Assembly committees, and, as we heard, it was all committees that were involved in this budget process this time, not just the Finance Committee.
From 2019-20, there will be a single grant for a number of projects, including Flying Start and Supporting People: the early intervention prevention and support grant. Cymorth Cymru were particularly strong in their evidence to the Public Accounts Committee that the disappearance of a distinct budget line meant that the Welsh Government can no longer be fully held to account on how much they spend on Supporting People. It was also highlighted that it's unclear which services will be cut within the merged budget due to the £30 million savings from the decision.
In health, budget lines have also been changed, so there's also less ability there to scrutinise year-on-year spending. What we do know from the Cabinet Secretary's comments is that it looks like there's been another deal with Plaid Cymru this year—well, before the final dissolution of the compact. I'm sure that the Cabinet Secretary will say that the deal
'secures the whole of our Budget and demonstrates our commitment to working with other parties to deliver shared priorities in the interests of the people of Wales.'
Your words, I believe, Cabinet Secretary, not mine. But questions do have to be asked, I think, about the suitability of these types of short-term deals for putting Wales on a sounder and a more sustainable economic footing, and that isn't just a criticism of this potential deal or Plaid Cymru's actions here. I think that applies to other party's deals as well. You'll know that I was very vocal about the deal that was made between the Liberal Democrats and the Welsh Labour Government in the last Assembly, which led—[Interruption.]—which led us down the road to nowhere on one bit of the Eastern Bay link, still with no signs of the second bit being built. Go for it, Mike.
I was going to ask: does that also go for the deal between the Conservatives and the DUP?
You're just trying to distract me, aren't you, from my budget debate. [Laughter.] I'll speak to you in the tearoom.
Assembly Members: Let's hear the answer.
The answer is that it's this Welsh Government that is responsible for running public services in Wales. I don't defend everything that the UK Government do—I never have. I'm sure you don't defend everything that the UK Labour Party—. I know you don't defend everything the UK Labour Party did. [Laughter.] So, we're probably quits on that score. But this is about the budget for Wales and there are certain tools and levers we don't have at our disposal, but we do have levers at our disposal here to improve the economic situation in Wales, not just in the short term, but in the medium and long term, as well.
If I can just move on, we've spoken a lot about process, I'm aware of that, and I understand that that's because we are at a change in the way that the Assembly is dealing with its powers, but it is important to turn to some of the funding allocations in more detail, and, firstly, the health service, which Simon Thomas mentioned.
Of course, we'd all welcome any additional funding for our NHS. Welsh Conservatives have called for that year after year, particularly during the last Assembly, during the real-terms cuts that the Welsh Government made at that time, before they saw the error of their ways. You have to ask: how much of this money—as Simon Thomas did—is simply going into plugging health board deficits? You didn't put it in quite those terms, Simon, but I think I got the drift of what you were saying. You have to look at where that money is going. Is it making up for a lack of sustainable medium-term financial planning, and, if that is the case, then those gaps have to be plugged; we have to make sure that the financial processes that health boards are undertaking are sustainable in the longer term, because, as Mike Hedges often says in committee, you can't simply pile more and more money into the NHS—or into anything in Wales—without making sure that the checks and balances are in place to make sure that that money is being made the most use of.
Prevention hasn't been mentioned yet, at least I don't think it has. The Welsh Government places great emphasis on prevention, understandably, although there doesn't seem to be a hard and fast definition of what is actually meant by 'prevention'. We tried to fathom it out on the committee; we didn't have much luck either. But I would say that has led to sport being grouped with the health portfolio earlier in this Assembly, but, at the same time, cuts to sport and community assets, as a result of cuts to local government budgets, will inevitably harm that goal. So, it does seem that, on the one hand, we're saying very good things about prevention, but, on the other hand, the actions of Welsh Government in this regard aren't entirely going to be bearing fruit. In fact, in the words of the leader of Bridgend council, in Bridgend, the budget we commit to leisure centres and swimming pools is half what it was six years ago, and that's not just Bridgend; that's a common theme across local government. Indeed, the cuts to local government—I believe a cash reduction of around 0.5 per cent in 2018-19—were mentioned by the Chair of the Finance Committee.
Education is, of course, crucial to developing skills—. I'll give way.
I'm very grateful to you for making those particular points about the cuts and so on referred to by Bridgend. Do you agree with me, therefore, that there's a desperate need for an end to the UK Government's austerity programme?
Well, it's a shame that the overspending of the previous Labour Government took place at the time it did, and perhaps—[Interruption.]—perhaps—. Go on then; I'm feeling generous.
Well, I just wanted to give you further information, because, you see, the UK national debt at the time that the Tories took over was 50 per cent of GDP. It's now 88 per cent, so, clearly, austerity can't be working.
But, of course, it would've been a lot higher had the Conservative policies not been implemented, because you can't turn a supertanker around—[Interruption.] I'm not going to let you have any more interventions; I've been very generous. You can't turn a supertanker around overnight, and the deficit has come down, maybe not as much as we would've liked, I admit that, but there we are, nothing's perfect, but, once you're heading in the right direction, you're heading there, aren't you?
Education is, of course, crucial to developing skills and we do support programmes like the twenty-first century schools programme, delivered across Wales in collaboration with local authorities. That's to be welcomed, but, at the same time, if you look at the fall in part-time students, if you look at cuts to further education budgets, then that cannot be welcomed, and the Wales Audit Office have highlighted that grant funding has been reduced by 13 per cent, in real terms, between 2011 and 2016-17, to further education, so that's not good.
Can I just say, before I close, Presiding—yes, Presiding Officer—we haven't mentioned—? [Interruption.] I just wanted to make sure. We haven't mentioned procurement. The Wales Audit Office has released two reports that are critical of the Welsh Government's approaches to procurement, including the fact that it's had to fund the National Procurement Service, which is underused by the public sector. I think, in the past, procurement hasn't been alluded to enough and I think it's becoming increasingly obvious that, if we want to develop the Welsh economy, then actually procuring on a Welsh basis as much as we can is very important to do, and getting the most out of every Welsh pound that is spent. So, I would like to see a greater focus on that, moving forward.
I knew that the Cabinet Secretary would cite the funding situation from the UK Government. You didn't dwell on it, to be fair, Cabinet Secretary. As I said, I believe that, whilst we're in a difficult situation at a UK level, which does feed in to the squeeze on your budget here—I think we all appreciate that—at the same time, we do need to address what we can do here to make the situation better.
You mentioned last week the—I think I've got this right—financial capital transaction. You know the term better than me. I've looked at some of the details of this, and I think that you were concerned that the £1.2 billion coming from the UK Government was not exactly as it seemed, because that capital could not be used across the board, but I think there are certain projects in Wales that have utilised that. I think Help to Buy is one of those and, as Lesley Griffiths the Minister said, and rightly said, in 2015, that's a huge boost to the Welsh construction industry. So, while the economic situation is tight, and we do not have as much money here as we would like to have, I do think that the Government has to recognise that the money coming from the UK Government is to be welcomed.
In conclusion, finally, Presiding Officer, I think that there are aspects to this budget that we would welcome, but, overall, I don't think it pays enough attention to the medium and long term. I don't think it does, long-term, set the Welsh economy on that basis—secure, sustainable and competitive—that we would like to see, and that is why we will not be supporting this budget.