Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd17/01/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs. Question 1, [OAQ51567], is withdrawn. That brings us to question 2, Mark Isherwood.
2. How is the Welsh Government helping people in fuel poverty in Wales? OAQ51539
Thank you. Our key programme for tackling fuel poverty is Welsh Government Warm Homes, which includes the Nest and Arbed schemes. For the period 2017-21, we are investing £104 million in improving the energy efficiency of up to 25,000 homes of those on low incomes or living in deprived areas of Wales.
Diolch. Reducing emissions from our housing stock is key to meeting our broader energy and climate change targets. Given that 90 per cent of today's homes will still be in use in 2050, will you, as Cabinet Secretary, commit to working with the cross-party group on fuel poverty and energy efficiency to consider introducing a revised fuel poverty strategy and action plan to outline new targets to improve homes to a minimum energy efficiency standard of EPCC, whilst acknowledging the benefits that some schemes, such as Arbed, have brought forward, and recognising that there's much work to do, given that the 2018 targets originally set are not now going to be met?
I think you make a very important point, and we had a decarbonisation ministerial task and finish group on Monday, where we were talking about this, because, obviously, we've been concentrating on energy efficiency as our way of tackling fuel poverty, but we also need to look at retrofitting in respect of decarbonisation and how we are going to obviously hit those targets as well.
We will be having new fuel poverty data at the end of 2018 and that will absolutely inform the discussions that we have, particularly with our stakeholders. I'd be very happy to come along to a cross-party group, if you wish me to do so.
Cabinet Secretary, I recently met with Citizens Advice in my local area to discuss their work campaigning on pre-payment meters. I'm sure that you will be fully aware that people on pre-payment meters are some of our most vulnerable citizens, who are often disadvantaged to the tune of several hundred pounds a year. Rhondda Cynon Taf actually has the highest number of households with pre-payment meters in Wales. I appreciate that this isn't an area that is devolved, but what work has the Welsh Government done, or what consultation has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government around this key issue?
Again, I think the Member makes a very important point. It's not a matter for the Welsh Government, but, of course, it is something that we are extremely interested in. I know that my officials have had discussions with officials in the UK Government around what we can do to support, as you say, some of the most deprived people in our constituencies.
In the future, as well as advice and support services, we should be looking at smarter and more efficient homes to begin with. I understand that the Welsh housing quality standard has mandated better efficiency in social housing, but we need to be looking at a wider approach. The SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre in Swansea University has created a design for homes as mini power stations, and plans were approved for 16 such new homes in Neath in August of last year. The design itself could cut household utility bills by 60 per cent. I was just wondering what plans you have to outline more support in this area so that we can look at more innovative housing to bring the cost down for those who potentially can't afford it.
I mentioned in my original answer to Mark Isherwood that we had a meeting of the decarbonisation ministerial task and finish group, and Rebecca Evans, the Minister for Housing and Regeneration sits on this, because we need to look beyond 2020 now, when all of our homes will have reached the WHQS, about what we then do with that funding that's been available for that. I think we need to look at much more innovation in our homes, and certainly those discussions will be ongoing between me and the Minister for Housing and Regeneration.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on reducing the usage of plastic packaging? OAQ51570
I recently met with the British Plastics Federation, RECOUP, Plastipak Holdings Inc. and Iceland to discuss what industry is doing to increase recycling and reduce the usage of plastic packaging. We're working to reduce it through a number of actions, including the carrier bag charge and a study into extended producer responsibility for food and drink packaging.
Earlier this week, the European Union pledged to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030. That's something I fully support, and I'm sure all of us here would, because we understand the huge toll that plastic is having on our environment, our wildlife and, ultimately, our health. As things stand, we will be out of the EU by 2030. What discussions are you having with Government to ensure that Wales will not be a less environmental country in a future that's outside the European Union?
I think that's a really important question—really important points made—and you're right that the scourge of plastic use is really high in the public consciousness at the moment. It's important that we embrace that and take action alongside it.
In the Welsh Government, we're very keen to make sure that we are leading the way on this, that we are committed to tackling the use of plastic, and at the moment we have the Eunomia consultation, looking at extended producer responsibility, but it looks at a range, not just the things we've seen highlighted such as beverage cups, but all the different containers. Also, there is work to look at the pilot on the deposit return scheme, and actually, we have the legislation in place through the Environment (Wales) Act 2016—Part 4 of the environment Act—which enables us to take that further in terms of responsibility on businesses. We have the legislation there, and I think it's important, now, that we make sure that comes into action, but we are committed to doing that in a range of areas, and I'm sure I'll update this place in due course.
Minister, last September, the Welsh Government announced that it had commissioned research into the ways in which the Welsh Government could introduce extended producer responsibility. Now, this could, of course, encourage producers to design their products in a different way. Can I ask when you expect to report on the outcome of this research?
That research, as I mentioned, by Eunomia into extended producer responsibility is due to report back to us next month. So, I hope to have an update for this place in the not-too-distant future.
Thank you for those answers, Minister. Can you agree that, obviously, the best way to reduce plastic packaging is to reduce it at its source? Obviously, we're very encouraged to hear about Iceland's intentions to stop using plastic packaging in their goods within five years. With that in mind, I just wondered whether you've held any discussions with businesses in Wales to seek an end to the use of all non-recyclable packaging materials, or could you bring forward legislative proposals to enable that to happen?
You're absolutely right to mention Iceland, with their proposals to reduce their own-brand plastic packaging by 2023. I think it's really important that industry is a driver as part of this as well, and, as I mentioned, I met with Iceland just before Christmas and learnt more about their plans in sustainability. I also met with Plastipak in Wrexham, which uses PET recyclable plastic, and we've—. In terms of when we're looking at the extended producer responsibility study, businesses and stakeholders have been involved with that, and I've also met with representatives of the retail industry. So, we are taking that forward and we want businesses to be part of that with us.
Minister, every year, more than 8 million tonnes of plastic ends up in our oceans, costing at least £6.2 billion in damage to marine ecosystems and killing an estimated 1 million seabirds, 100,000 sea mammals and untold numbers of fish. Supermarkets use ridiculous amounts of unnecessary plastic packaging, simply adding to the problem. Wales led the way on single-use carrier bags. Let's lead the way in tackling the issue of unnecessary plastic packaging. Minister, what discussions have you had with major supermarkets about the use of plastic packaging, and will you consider legislation if major retailers fail to voluntarily reduce the amount of plastic packaging?
Thank you very much for that question. There seems to be a clear consensus on this issue in terms of needing to tackle it. As I said previously, I have met with a number of major supermarkets and with retail representatives to discuss this as part of our study into extended producer responsibility. We'll await the findings of that and then take it forward from there.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The first question is from the Conservative spokesperson, David Melding.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Can I pursue this point about the role plastics play in generating so much waste and destruction of our environment? Reference has been made to the excellent action of Iceland, and that supermarket actually conducted a very extensive survey before they took that action, and 80 per cent of the people they polled said they would endorse moves to go plastic free. I think, responding to such a public sentiment, the UK Government has committed to working with the Waste and Resources Action Programme to explore the introduction of, for instance, plastic-free supermarket aisles in which all the food is loose. I think we need this type of thinking. I wonder what plans you have to review the Towards Zero Waste programme to make it more ambitious and to reflect this growing public demand for action.
Thank you very much for that question. You're absolutely right that it is a bold move for a major retailer like Iceland, and hopefully that will also stimulate others within the sector to actually take their lead as well. I think that's when we do have some healthy competition in terms of actually ticking the boxes, and, actually, you can see a shift in people being more aware of the packaging and what they're buying.
In terms of our Towards Zero Waste strategy, there is a plan to refresh that later this year as we increase our targets and our ambitions in terms of how we look into practice. Hopefully, the extended producer responsibility study and the work we're doing with WRAP will all feed into a part of that.
Minister, you may know that the UK Government's 25-year plan includes a pledge to eliminate all avoidable plastic waste by 2042. They also have a goal to eliminate all avoidable waste by 2050. The latter—all avoidable waste by 2050—is also contained in Towards Zero Waste, but there's no earlier deadline for the elimination of plastic waste. I just wonder if you're going to review the document so that we could have something that at least matches the ambition of the UK Government or, even better, given our increased ambition perhaps in this area, that beats it.
The Welsh Government, and here in Wales, we are proud that we have led the way in the past in terms of bringing the plastic bag charge and plastic packaging in that respect. We are continuing to work with industries and local authorities to find better markets in Wales especially for plastics. There are great opportunities in Wales for businesses to look at how they can get involved with the plastics recycling industry. Of course, when we're refreshing the strategy, we will look at how we actually can create more ambitious targets, but not just the aspirations in those targets but actually the actions that we need to take over the course of the short, medium and long term to make sure that we do actually lead the way again in Wales.
I just wonder if we need to completely look at a different scale in terms of what's happening out there. You're seeing this incredible social and commercial movement to address this problem, and it's the politicians who are perhaps falling a bit behind, and in particular—in this area anyway—the Welsh Government. We've heard from Wetherspoon that they're going to ban plastic straws and they're going to bring in biodegradable ones. This obviously introduces the whole question of single-use plastics. You've told us what's happening with the review into producer-led initiatives, but isn't it time we raised the stakes and just started a very bold consultation on banning single-use plastics within a set time from our economy?
The Member again raises some very important points on that and prescient points on that. I'm loath to name-check the many more major corporate companies, but another well-known fast food brand has, I believe, also announced that they're looking to remove straws and other plastics in the next couple of decades.
I think we need to be bold in our ambition, and when we look at refreshing the strategy we should look at how we achieve that, but I think it's really important that we do work with industry on this, that industry is involved with it. It also creates opportunities in terms of recycling and in terms of the skills and jobs that we have here in Wales as well.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. I will remain on the topic of plastics as it is all around us. Just to pick up on what David Melding said, I think it is true to say that citizens and communities are ahead of some politicians in this area. I look at communities such as Aberporth who have declared themselves to be plastic-free and are working across small businesses and across the community to achieve that, and I welcome that. Of course, this Assembly just last week, on a Plaid Cymru motion, voted in favour of the principle of introducing a single-use plastic tax. This is something we haven't discussed yet today. So, as the single-use plastic tax is one of the four taxes you as a Government are considering, will you commit now to go along that route and to select that tax because the public, very clearly, are willing to accept such a tax?
Thank you for your question.
As you'll be aware, the disposable plastic tax is one of four taxes currently being considered by the finance Secretary. I think that's probably a question for him further down the line, but it is something I am in discussions on with the finance Secretary, and also keeping in the loop on and linked in with the proposals that you saw in the UK Government's budget on the twenty-second, to look at something similar there, to see how we can feed in as part of that as well. So, it is something that's still on the agenda, and in ongoing discussions. I'm sure the finance Secretary will look at it.
I don't think I'm going to get a commitment to a plastic tax out of you today, so I'll change tack, if I may, to something else that you as a Minister are also responsible for, which is air pollution. ClientEarth is taking the Welsh Government to court by 23 February, due to concerns of illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide in towns and cities, often emerging, of course, from diesel vehicles. Do you recognise the problem of air pollution in Wales? I presume you do, but do you recognise your responsibility in your Government to deal with this, and how, particularly, will you respond to this court case and respond to the claims of ClientEarth?
The Member is right. Air quality is something—. Actually, the first debate in this portfolio that I led was on air quality. It is a commitment and remains a priority. You refer to the ClientEarth case. I can't comment on that in detail at the moment, as it's an ongoing case. But, actually, in terms of our aspirations in the clean air plan that we've set out, it's not just about meeting those obligations. It's actually making sure that we pave the way for the future and we go above and beyond. We know how important air quality is. Poor air quality impacts, obviously, on the most vulnerable communities, and it is really important that we take action on this.
In the debate, we did outline the clean air plan for Wales, which includes clean air zone frameworks. We are going to be working with local government, and you heard in the budget yesterday there is additional funding for that as well. It's also actually using all the levers we have at our disposal, as well as encouraging the UK Government to press forward on areas where they can take action, such as phasing out diesel vehicles.
I think it's really important that there's a commitment to work across Government on that. Whereas air quality is considered an environmental issue, it can't be tackled that way alone. So, it's really important that we work across, looking at transport, for low-emission vehicles, and look at our infrastructure, and make sure that when developments are taking place, air quality provision is taken into account when that happens.
Well, indeed, it might be seen as an environmental issue, but it's as much a public health issue as anything else. In fact, the Assembly voted, in that debate that you just referred to, again for a Plaid Cymru amendment that called on the Welsh Government to treat air pollution as a public health issue as well as an environmental issue. You're not responsible for public health, I know, but across Government, clearly this needs to be joined up.
The Scottish Government has said that it wants to go in front of the Westminster Government in terms of phasing out new petrol and diesel by 2032. We have examples around Europe of cities phasing out diesel and petrol vehicles in a much shorter space of time than the Westminster Government's talked about. Is it not the time to at least consider pilot areas in Wales where diesel and petrol may actually be banned, either on specific days or specific times, in order to achieve some improvement in air quality in those areas that, to be frank, the current system just isn't tackling, and there are public health deaths quite directly as a result of that?
The Member is quite right to raise the public health concerns on this. Like he said, it's very clear that it's always been perceived to be an environmental issue, but, actually, if we're going to get to the root cause and tackle it and improve our air quality, it does have to involve cross-Government and cross-government working as well, in terms of local government and the UK Government.
In terms of looking at areas or zones where perhaps you could ban or limit access for high-emission vehicles, that's something that could be considered under clean air zones. But what we made clear in the debate too is that the clean air zones are not a one-size-fits-all approach. There will be different problems, and therefore different ways that we can best tackle it in different areas across Wales.
UKIP spokesperson, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Llywydd. Capable and competent as the Minister is in answering her questions, I want to give the Cabinet Secretary her moment in the sun today as well and move to different areas of policy. I know we have differing views about the virtues of EU membership generally, but I hope that the Cabinet Secretary will agree with me that being outside the common agricultural policy, and the common fisheries policy, and the single market does give us the opportunity to have high standards of animal welfare than obtained in many areas of the EU, and in one area in particular, in relation to fishing. At the moment, the EU permits something called electric pulse fishing, which involves putting an electric current through the water—usually about 60 amps; so, it’s quite high intensity—and stunning fish, which are then dragged by nets into the boats. This has a number of unfortunate effects, not least on the fish themselves, because that method tends to break fish's spines and cause a great deal of internal haemorrhage. The trawling at the sea bed denudes it of all wildlife. And traditional catches are caught up in this as well and are discarded. If we recover policy responsibility for this area, we'd be able to ban electric pulse fishing. I wonder if the Welsh Government will commit itself to that.
You're quite right when you say that we have very differing views around Brexit, but I’ve always said that we would look at opportunities. I think we have very high animal health and welfare standards in Wales, and I would certainly not want to see those drop at all.
In relation to your specific question about banning that specific type of fishing, it’s certainly something that I will be considering in great detail.
I’m grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. Another area that could also lead to an improvement in animal welfare is if we banned the live export of animals. At the moment, the EU estimates that around 4 million cattle, 28 million pigs, 4 million sheep, 243 million poultry, and 150,000 horses are transported for more than eight hours within the EU. Once we're out of the EU, we will be able to stop the British element of that. I know there’s not a great deal of that which comes from Wales, but nevertheless, every little helps, as a famous supermarket says, and we will be able to make our contribution to the improvement of an important element of animal welfare.
Yes, absolutely, and certainly, my preference would be for animals to be slaughtered as close as is practical to their point of production, and I think that, again, that is something that, as you say, doesn’t have a huge effect on Welsh exports. However, it doesn’t matter how small it is; I would certainly want to have a focus on that.
I'm grateful again to the Cabinet Secretary. This note of amity is very welcome in the Assembly, I’m sure everybody will agree.
The third area in which I think we ought to be able to improve animal welfare is by the installation of CCTV cameras in abattoirs in Wales. The larger ones already do this, but the smaller ones on the whole don’t. Out of the 29 abattoirs in Wales, I believe there are 18 that are not monitored by CCTV, and they are generally the smaller ones. But it seems to me very important, and I think important for farmers generally and the agriculture industry generally, that the public has confidence in the food that is put on the table and the methods by which it is produced and processed, and in order to keep up public support for farmers and agriculture generally, we need to be proactive in showing that animals are kept and, when they are killed, also are killed in a humane way and to the highest possible standards of animal welfare. So, this is an area in which the Welsh Government could take an initiative, even at the moment, before we leave the EU. I wonder if the Cabinet Secretary would give further consideration to extending the existing controls.
Absolutely. I had a meeting this morning with the chief veterinary officer on this very topic, because, you will be aware, we had the consultation previously. England are looking to do this; Scotland are looking to do this. I have to say that the vast majority of certainly large slaughterhouses do have CCTV, but I am very keen to look at making it mandatory, to see what package of support would have to be made available, because I think that is the way to improve standards and practices and keep that confidence that the public have. So, I’ve got officials working very closely on this matter, and I will be bringing forward a statement to this place in the not-too-distant future.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on animal welfare in Wales? OAQ51554
Animal welfare is a priority for the Welsh Government. An overarching strategic outcome of the Wales animal health and welfare framework group is:
'Animals in Wales have a good quality of life'.
Work is ongoing to revise the existing Welsh Government livestock and companion animal welfare codes of practice.
Thank you for that answer. Cabinet Secretary, RSPCA Cymru believes that an animal abuse register would act as a deterrent for individuals who may otherwise have committed acts of cruelty, and could also help to prevent the suffering of other animals from reoffenders. Will the Welsh Government consider an animal abuse register?
Thank you for that question. Certainly, I have been approached by the RSPCA in relation to this, and it's something that we are giving very serious consideration to.
Cabinet Secretary, I heard your exchange with the leader of UKIP earlier about CCTV in abattoirs, and it is correct to say that all large abattoirs do have CCTV. There is an issue that it should be rolled out in the rest of the abattoir sector, and we on these benches support that. From your findings and your deliberations on this, would it be correct to say that funding could be released from the rural development programme to support such an initiative so that there wasn't an undue burden placed on small abattoirs, on a cost basis, that could jeopardise their future, which is vital to the promotion of red meat in this part of the United Kingdom?
Certainly, yes, it is something that we are looking at from the RDP. I mentioned in my answer to Neil Hamilton that I had a meeting just this morning with Professor Christianne Glossop about this. I don't want that to be a burden. I don't want smaller slaughterhouses to come to me and say that funding to do this is a barrier, so I would want to take that away. You asked specifically about the RDP—obviously, there may be legal matters that I would have to look into—and that is the piece of work that's currently ongoing.
Cabinet Secretary, I wanted to ask you about the rearing of game birds. There appears to be no regular inspection of these sites by animal health inspectors and the current code of practice on game bird rearing is now seven years old. It is very basic and it doesn't even require a minimum space for the birds to be reared in. So, really, they're often reared in overcrowded, battery-like conditions. We don't allow hens to be in such conditions, so I wondered if the Cabinet Secretary would commit to review the regulatory framework on the welfare of game birds that are reared for so-called sporting purposes at the earliest opportunity.
Thank you, Julie Morgan, for that question. I mentioned in my original answer to Mandy Jones that we were currently revising many of the existing codes of practice. Certainly, there was a code of practice for the welfare of game birds reared for sporting purposes in 2011, for instance. So, we have been in consultation with the industry and welfare organisations, looking at that particular code of practice. I'd be very happy to see if we need to change that.
I think we should also remind those who are responsible for game birds that they should be knowledgeable and competent in husbandry and management techniques. The code of practice states that when birds are housed or penned, the accommodation should be well constructed and managed and of sufficient size to ensure good health and welfare. As I say, we are looking at revising these codes of practice, so if we look at it and we think that something needs changing in the regulations, that would be the opportunity to do it.
I wanted to carry on with the question with regard to the animal abuse register. Clearly, we're well advanced in this particular area with the working group led by RSPCA, but I wondered whether you'd taken on my concerns last time whereby those who had started the campaign, such as Tŷ Nant animal sanctuary and Maxine Berry from Justice for Chunky, would be involved in that particular working group. Could you give us an outline as to when you would be making your initial statements or thoughts as to whether this would be something Wales could lead on—a Wales first—to have this register? I think progress on it would be welcomed by campaigners in the field.
Yes, as you say, the working group has now met. I think they're due to report to me in the summer. So, I would imagine the timeline for being able to bring forward a statement would probably be the summer or as soon as we come back following the summer. It's a piece of work that, obviously, you've shown a particular interest in and I think it would be great if we could be first. Certainly, at the moment, we're ahead of the game, but the link between—. What we had a discussion about, Bethan, was in relation to an animal abuse register and the link with domestic abuse. I attended a seminar on that and it was very clear that Wales was ahead of the game in drawing those comparisons together.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement regarding Welsh Government support for forestry in Wales? OAQ51545
As I stated in Plenary on 13 December, forestry is one of my top priorities. The Welsh Government will work with stakeholders to develop ways to continue to provide support for forestry as part of the sustainable land management proposals that will eventually replace the current CAP.
Thank you for that statement. As the Minister knows, stakeholders generally feel that the policy direction of the Welsh Government's strategy, 'Woodlands for Wales', is appropriate. In a recent debate on a report by the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee, I raised the importance of increasing access to and community benefits from woodland. What progress has been made on this since the CCERA report?
I welcome the Chair of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee's further political and personal interest in this key area, and following up from the debate that we had just last month. Welsh Government are aware that the woodland estate is an important social asset. We know that it brings great health and well-being benefits from being able to access it, and a sense of identity and place at the local level as well. We're currently analysing the responses to our consultation, 'Taking forward Wales’ sustainable management of natural resources', which contains proposals to update the legislative framework for public access to the outdoors, and we will publish a summary of that and the Government response in due course.
I also note that, during the debate, there were some very good examples cited by colleagues in terms of community woodland. I wish to reiterate my commitment then that if Members would like to invite us to see that, so that we can see best practice at first-hand, that could then hopefully influence us further down the line.
Minister, you'll be aware of the importance of the timber industry in my own constituency, particularly for businesses like Clifford Jones Timber in Ruthin, which, of course, is a significant employer and one of the main forestry-related companies, if you like—timber-related companies—in Wales. One of the concerns that they've cited to me, and was raised with the committee during the course of its work, was the shortage of the supply of wood, and the need to plant more wood in order to compensate for that. They tell me that if they had access to more reliable sources of wood, they would be able to expand their business and create more employment and wealth in north Wales. What specific action is the Welsh Government taking to drive up the availability of wood for use in the timber industry?
It might surprise the Member that I wholeheartedly agree with everything he said there. That won't happen very often. [Laughter.] As I said, forestry is one of the top priorities, and I'm well aware of the issues that he's raised. Actually, my first meeting in post was with Confor, where they raised similar issues that there is the demand there, but we have to increase the supply as well, and we have to look at how we best manage that, too, in terms of woodland creation. And the issue at the moment is actually accessing the land management and how we do that, and that is something that we are looking at in more detail. I'll also be going to Scotland early next month to learn more from the relative success they've had there, to see if there are things that we can apply in creating new woodland to increase the productive potential of woodland in Wales. I think to do this, we need to work with stakeholders, such as the company you mentioned in your constituency, to develop ways that we can provide that support for forestry as part of the design of sustainable land management proposals, which, as I said, will eventually replace the current CAP.
I have no question.
6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to address flood risk in north Wales? OAQ51537
The Welsh Government’s flood and coastal risk management programmes are actively addressing risk across north Wales. The £5 million St Asaph scheme, protecting 548 properties, will complete shortly. In addition, we are investing over £7 million in over 30 flood schemes across north Wales.
One of the areas that has received significant investment in recent years, of course, is the bay of Colwyn, but there is one part of the bay of Colwyn that is particularly vulnerable to flooding, and experienced flooding very recently in Storm Eleanor, which hit north Wales just a few weeks ago when the promenade of Old Colwyn was flooded. This is a regular occurrence now, and I'm very concerned at the vulnerability of the defences in that area, which, of course, as you will know, Minister, protect the A55 and the north Wales railway. We need some leadership on this, and I believe that that leadership needs to come from the Welsh Government. I would be very grateful if you would join me in a visit to Old Colwyn to inspect those defences, and to bring together the various agencies and partners that will be required in order to upgrade the facilities and the defences there.
Thank you for your question. You're right that the risk at Old Colwyn is to the infrastructure—rail and road—rather than to homes, and you'll be aware that officials have encouraged Conwy County Borough Council to seek appropriate partnership contributions from those stakeholders before seeking further grant funding, but Conwy borough council, I understand, are also planning to hold discussions with Welsh Water regarding Old Colwyn. And, in November, officials from the council met with Network Rail to develop a potential joint solution to coastal risk at Old Colwyn. I understand that those discussions were positive, but if the Member would like to write to me to invite me to visit, I'd be happy to consider that.
I'm very willing to help the Minister to fill a day of visits in north Wales by asking her to visit Anglesey as well. We had floods in many parts of Anglesey before Christmas, and, of course, I have visited those communities from Dwyran to Lanfairpwll to Menai Bridge and Llangefni, and so forth.
I would like to mention the situation in Llangefni specifically. I, of course, have been discussing the situation there with Natural Resources Wales. It has become apparent that the Isle of Anglesey County Council asked NRW a few years ago to undertake flood prevention work on the Cefni river following floods, historic floods there, in the last few years. And it is clear that NRW hasn't been able to prioritise that work, which isn't especially complex work, but it is necessary. Could I have a commitment from you as a Minister that you will ensure that NRW will prioritise this work, because it's not a risk on paper, as we've seen in other parts of Wales, including Roath in Cardiff, that we have here, but a real risk that has been proven by evidence?
Thank you for your question.
I didn't catch the beginning of it. Was that an invitation to come and visit? I'm always happy to visit north Wales. I'm acutely aware of what happened in November, just before Christmas across Ynys Môn, and I know that Welsh Government officials have been in touch with local authorities and NRW, but if the Member would like to write to me on that, then I will then take it up for him.
7. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on local development plans in North Wales? OAQ51551
Diolch. There are five adopted local development plans in north Wales, with Wrexham County Borough Council and Flintshire County Council expected to adopt their plans by 2020. Conwy County Borough Council and Denbighshire County Council are due to commence a review of their respective LDPs, and I've recently invited them to prepare a joint plan instead.
The mid-year population estimates are showing clearly that the projections that have been used as a basis for many of these local development plans are clearly incorrect. In Wrexham's case, the population projection back in 2014 was for an increase of around 1,200 people in population by mid 2016. We now find, of course, that the increase has actually been four—not 4 per cent; four people. Now, clearly, that basis is fundamentally flawed in relation to the LDPs that we do have. They're wildly inaccurate, but they still remain the basis for the LDPs that have been reviewed or that are currently in place. So, will you agree with me that this inherent flaw in the LDPs is leading to an overestimation in terms of population, which in turn means that there will be more and largely unnecessary developments in terms of greenfield areas, in places, for example, where you yourself have opposed such schemes, in places such as Llay, in the past?
I am absolutely committed to a plan-led approach to development across Wales. I think it's really important that local authorities bring forward their LDPs. It's unfortunate—and you mention my own constituency of Wrexham in particular—it's very unfortunate that they haven't had an LDP in place. I wouldn't say they're flawed. I think the difficulty around LDPs is that they have to be constantly under review, and I think, going forward, we need to move away from LDPs and have more strategic development plans. Certainly, that's the work that's ongoing. My chief planning officer is currently going round Wales meeting with all local authorities, but I think we need to have those plans in place to make sure that we have the decision making, but of course the information needs to be correct, so that the decision making then is as appropriate as possible.
In October, the leader of Conwy council wrote to you stating that the Welsh Government's removal of the past building rate methodology from the calculation of land supply process had significantly undermined local development plans across Wales, rendering councils unable to defend speculative development applications that put the wrong houses in the wrong places. The only reason Wrexham doesn't have an LDP is because they'd nearly completed their LDP, but the Welsh Government told them to start again because they didn't have enough houses, and we've just heard from my colleague across the Chamber what resulted from that.
In December, you wrote to me saying that the underlying cause of Flintshire's exposure to speculative planning applications was their failure to adopt an LDP, and adding, you said that Flintshire is one of the few local planning authorities in Wales still to adopt an LDP and is likely to be the last authority to do so. So, which is the problem? Is it the failure by county councils to produce LDPs or does Conwy council have a point?
It's really important that local planning authorities have their five-year land supply and you referred to a letter I sent you before Christmas. The problem is when they don't have those five-year land supplies, we see developers coming in with very speculative applications. So, I think it's really important and I don't want to talk about specific plans because, obviously, our powers in the development process means that I can't. But I think, looking at it on a case-by-case way, when a Member writes to me, I respond in that way. So, if I wrote to you about Conwy, that's what I stand by; if I wrote to you about Flintshire, that's what I stand by, also.
8. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on Welsh Government discussions with Natural Resources Wales about the Roath flood scheme development in Cardiff? OAQ51572
Natural Resources Wales are responsible for the scheme. I met with their officials and elected representatives, including yourself, on 9 January to further discuss this scheme and the concerns of residents. During the meeting, NRW explained the reasons for the works and the options they had considered to alleviate flood risk.
Yes, and thanks for arranging that meeting. I think that was a useful clear-the-air meeting, as far as it went. The problem is, by that point, we already had many local residents protesting against the felling of trees by climbing up the trees and doing other activities on site. So, clearly, something did go wrong with the consultation. Could you now work with NRW to assess exactly what did go wrong and hopefully avoid this kind of repercussion in future schemes?
Thank you for your question and your interest in this. Roath Brook Gardens and Roath Mill Gardens are the final phase of the flood alleviation works, and this process has been under way for five years. We've gone through planning and consultation and it's now at the implementation stage. Residents' concerns were raised very late in the process and at this final implementation stage. I called for a meeting with NRW at the earliest opportunity, in post, in order to understand the work and its impact on the parks. I understand that concerns had not been flagged up with the department prior to my coming into post.
The consultation has been ongoing during this time and I'm happy to write to the Member, and other Members with an interest, with a full list of the public consultation, but throughout the scheme's planning and construction phases, NRW have consulted with the local community, Cardiff council and stakeholders, and they confirm that this has included local AMs, MPs and councillors. I also understand that local councillors have been heavily involved though briefings, have attended most public meetings and have facilitated residents' discussions. I know that NRW have tried to work constructively throughout the scheme to improve the scheme, to try and reflect residents' views, and I know that that is ongoing, as NRW are meeting with residents as we speak to see if further resolution can be sought.FootnoteLink
Can I also thank you for the meeting you arranged last week with interested Members and NRW? It's important that we do advance in scientific and technical evidence. I think one of the things that may have assuaged the protesters would have been if we'd had an existing and more abundant tree canopy. It's a problem, then, when we do, unfortunately, have to see trees removed, either because they're diseased or would be, or as a result of the new course of a brook, for instance. So, could we just increase the amount of woodland we have in cities, please?
The Member makes a very important point, and I'm glad you were able to join us for that meeting last week. In this particular case, more trees are being replanted than are being felled. I recognise the strength of emotion and feeling that people have for their local parks and recreation places. I think, as part of our woodland creation strategy, we do, perhaps, need to look again at how we create urban centres and areas of parks, with canopy creation in mind as well.
9. What is the Welsh Government doing to reduce the number of fires at waste disposal sites in Wales? OAQ51548
The Welsh Government is providing new enforcement powers to Natural Resources Wales to tackle illegal and poorly operated sites. We have also provided funding for fire and rescue service staff to be seconded to NRW to develop fire prevention and mitigation plans and help train operators in the waste industry.
Minister, I'm sure you've probably heard the BBC Radio Wales report that indicated that firefighters were called to deal with 68 of the 123 recorded waste fires in the last few years, and that expended about 22,000 person hours to extinguish the flames, at a total cost of some £1.8 million. Mark Andrews, who leads on these matters in Wales and England for the National Fire Chiefs Council, said that increased rates of recycling, which, of course, we want, mean more waste and more fire risk, and he called on regulators to take a much more robust line. Isn't that at the heart of this matter, that we need effective regulation here?
Absolutely. The Welsh Government has provided £200,000 to Natural Resources Wales to help fund additional waste crime work. The funding has paid for an officer from the fire and rescue services to work with Natural Resources Wales to develop and embed guidance on fire prevention at waste sites. The Welsh Government introduced powers in October 2015 to make it easier for the regulator to suspend permits and to take steps to remove any risks. We will be laying another instrument on waste crime towards the end of this month, for scrutiny by the National Assembly, to provide the powers for Natural Resources Wales to lock the gates of sites to stop access and prevent waste coming on to a site, and a second power will be aimed at those who unlawfully keep or allow waste to be kept on land and make them responsible.
Thank you to the Minister and the Cabinet Secretary.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, and the first question—Lynne Neagle.
1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of welfare reform in Torfaen? OAQ51574
Thank you. Our research shows that the welfare changes from 2010-11 to 2015-16 have hit the south Wales Valleys hard. This includes Torfaen, which was the seventh worst affected local authority area in Wales, with average income losses above those for Wales as a whole. In terms of the welfare changes introduced since 2015-16, and those that are continuing to roll out over the next few years, analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies shows Torfaen will be hit hard again.
Thank you. After the first six months of full service universal credit in Torfaen, the council's head of revenues and benefits, Richard Davies, said he felt the ethos of his role had changed from paying benefits and making sure people had their entitlements to ensuring people had food on the table. Sadly, there is no sign of improvement, and, last week, the chair of Bron Afon Community Housing predicted the number of tenants adversely affected by universal credit will rise again, and the level of rent arrears already being caused is deeply worrying. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to support residents in communities that are struggling under universal credit, and, in particular, what steps can we take to ensure the problems with rent arrears do not lead to an increase in evictions and homelessness?
I thank you very much for that question, and I share your deep concern about the impact that universal credit, particularly, but welfare reform and austerity in the wider sense, are having on our communities. It's a concern that's shared by the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, who, today, actually, has met with the leader of Torfaen council, and part of the discussion was about the impact that welfare reform is having on people living in Torfaen. I've been very clear with the UK Government that there are severe issues with the roll-out of universal credit, not least the impact that the changes to payment of housing support are having on people with rent arrears.
Welsh Government is really keen that people are proactively offered that choice to have the alternative payment, where the payment is made to their landlord rather than to the individual. We know that makes much more sense for people who haven't had to budget in that way previously, and it gives surety to the individual that they will have that roof over their head. I've had discussions around that with Jobcentre Plus in Wales to try and ensure that people do have that proactive choice and they're not just asked, 'Would you like alternative payments?', because 'alternative payments' doesn't mean anything to anybody, but that the option for an alternative payment is explained in terms of the fact that it will mean that your rent is paid for you and you don't have to worry about that.
We're really keen to ensure that people do have the advice and the support that they need, which is why Welsh Government has invested nearly £6 million of grant funding to support our advice services across Wales, supporting, particularly, funding for front-line advice, Better Advice, Better Lives, and the Communities First shared outcomes project. That's because we are really committed to ensuring that people do have free, independent advice. I've spoken also to Citizen's Advice, because I've been really keen to understand their experience in Torfaen, which has had full roll-out now. They were very clear that rent arrears are a problem for people who have been moved over to universal credit. They are undertaking some local mitigating action, such as access to local hardship funds, for example, and tenants are being helped in that way, alongside those alternative payment arrangements I was talking about. But the message is very strong that this issue is putting quite strong pressure on our advice services and on Citizen's Advice in Torfaen, particularly.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Does the Cabinet Secretary agree that our benefits system should be designed to make sure work always pays? And will she join me in welcoming the fact that unemployment in Torfaen has fallen by 37 per cent since November 2010? Thank you.
The Welsh Government absolutely agrees that work should pay, which is why we have such severe concerns about universal credit, which actually means that in many cases work doesn't pay. People who are in employment, such as lone families, and families with disabled people who are in employment, some of them will actually see their income fall as a result of the impact of universal credit. It's absolutely important that work pays, but it must pay well as well, which is why we're doing so much work around the issue of the living wage. And we have to address issues such as zero-hours contracts. We've made a commitment to do so under the areas where we do have power to do so—for example, in the field of social care. We're keen to ensure that zero-hours contracts are not something to see now as an acceptable way in which to employ people.
2. What discussions has the Minister had regarding accelerating housing plans in South Wales East to take account of the abolition of the Severn bridge tolls? OAQ51561
I thank you for the question. I welcome the ending of the tolls and the benefits that it will bring to Wales. I recognise that this could influence housing demand and prices in the region. I'll be meeting with both Newport and Monmouthshire local authorities to discuss this issue in more detail, and I have already had some early discussions with house builders.
Minister, it could lead to higher house prices. We've already seen in the past year house prices go up by more than 9 per cent in Monmouthshire, and more than 6 per cent in Newport. I just wonder if there's a need for a greater urgency about this. I'm delighted to hear about the meeting she's having, but where there is demand and the opportunity to boost the economy, and bring high-earning people in and help the tech centre in Newport, could the Government perhaps look to do more to assist Newport and Monmouthshire in getting sites ready and accelerating development to benefit from this?
I thank you for the question. Having complete coverage of adopted local development plans across Wales is really crucial in terms of ensuring that the homes that Wales needs are delivered. For the South Wales East area, there are significant opportunities and challenges that are larger than any single local planning authority, and are certainly best addressed through local authorities working together, which is why I'm pleased that the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for planning has written to local authorities in the area, inviting them to come together and submit plans to prepare a joint LDP.
We know that there has been a positive trend of house building across Wales—722 new dwellings completed in south Wales during the July to September quarter of 2017. But I do agree that the removal of the tolls does provide us with an opportunity to increase and improve the speed of house building, as does our innovative housing programme, for example, in the area. I'm keen to work with the local authorities and with house builders to ensure that we do that alongside registered social landlords.
Minister, what would certainly help address any increase in house prices would be delivery of Welsh Government plans for 20,000 extra affordable homes in this Assembly term. So, will your discussions with Newport City Council and Monmouthshire County Council include discussion as to how affordable homes can be best taken forward in that area?
I thank you for the question, and almost any discussion I ever have in this portfolio does include the important role of making sure that we hit our 20,000 target for affordable homes. But I'm also really keen to ensure that we do increase the speed and the amount of the development of homes for market sale as well, because we know that we need the whole diverse package in Wales to meet different people's needs for different types of housing. It's difficult to understand at the moment what the impact might be in the longer term on house prices in the area, but we're certainly keeping a very close watching brief on that. Were there to be increases in house prices, that would obviously be good for the local housing market and existing home owners. However, I do recognise that it could potentially have a big impact on the ability of local first-time buyers to access properties in high demand areas, which is why it's so important that we continue our housebuilding right across Wales, but particularly in this part of Wales, and why we look at what different kind of packages we can put together to support people to buy a home.
I'm really excited about the development work we're doing on the rent to own project. So, that will be a package available for people who can afford a market rent but haven't been able to save up a deposit for a home, and that will be able to allow them to buy a home under a new package that we're currently developing, and I hope to say more about that in the very near future.
Thank you. We now move to spokespeople's questions. The first spokesperson this afternoon is the UKIP spokesperson, Gareth Bennett.
Thank you, Dirprwy Llywydd. Minister, we've had the issue of homelessness in the news a lot lately. This tends to become a big topic as we approach Christmas every year, but, more significantly, we've also had the latest annual empty homes figures, which show a rise in Wales from an estimated 23,000 empty homes a year ago to 25,000 homes now. So, despite the Welsh Government's Houses into Homes initiative, the empty homes situation does seem to be getting worse. What do you think your Government can do to improve this situation?
I thank you for the question. The issue of empty homes is an issue of concern for the Welsh Government. There have been, as you say, some good projects delivered under our empty homes project in particular, but it is an opportunity, really, to look right across our opportunities for regeneration to see how we can turn, for example, empty shops in our high streets into homes. That's something that we're pursuing through our town centre loan scheme, for example. It's something that's been part of our Vibrant and Viable Places project, but could, in the future, form part of our targeted regeneration investment programme. That's a new programme launched in October of last year, which is a £100 million of investment in regeneration. So, I'm keen that, whenever we are thinking about regeneration, we're also thinking in the context of home building and particularly turning empty properties back into homes.
Yes. Thanks for the answer. I think an holistic approach, as you've advocated, would be good, but I think you need to keep on top of the empty homes situation as a specific issue. Now, in terms of increasing housing supply in other ways, I know that you and Mark Drakeford, the Finance Minister, have been having discussions over a possible vacant land tax. Could you give us any update on the Government's progress on this issue, and how do you think this might help the housing situation if you do agree to proceed with that tax?
Well, this is certainly one of those four areas of a potential future Welsh tax that Welsh Government has been considering and has been subject to a poll undertaken by the Welsh Treasury to understand the views that people might have on this as one of the potential four. Obviously, you wouldn't expect me to make any announcement on the way forward today, because it is still a matter for discussion, and I'm sure that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will be able to provide an update to Members as soon as he's able to do so.
Yes, thanks. I appreciate that it's still a work in progress and, of course, it cuts across the finance Minister's portfolio, so I look forward to an update in due course. So, perhaps instead of me pursuing that issue, I could go back to the empty homes problem. Councils in Wales also have the power to take control of empty homes through empty dwelling management orders. Now, the figures show that these orders are hardly being used in Wales at the moment. Is there a case, do you think, that councils should now be guided into using these powers more often?
The way in which the councils generally approach the issue of empty homes tends to be, in the first instance, to try and work with the owner of the property in order to bring that home back into use. But then, if that fails, the empty dwelling management orders are there for local authorities to avail themselves of and I would encourage them to do so if they feel that it is appropriate to do. There are areas of good practice where local authorities are working with the owners of properties. For example, in Swansea, the local authority will work with owners in order to bring a property back into use by providing them with a loan in order to refurbish the property to the necessary standard, but then also guarantee that they will have a secure tenant for two years or more as a result of that. So, I think there are opportunities for local authorities to learn from one another and to explore the good practice that is being undertaken. I'm also keen that local authorities consider as well whether or not to increase the council tax on second homes. That's an option that local authorities can and do take and I think it is a sensible way in order to try and prevent second homes taking over some villages—as we do have a situation in Wales—and that people who do own those homes do contribute to the local area.
We now move to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Siân Gwenllian.
As this is the first time I have questioned you in your new role as the Cabinet Secretary for local government, may I congratulate you and wish you well? I would like to ask you first what sort of style you will adopt in your new role.
I'm grateful to the Plaid Cymru spokesperson for her kind words at the beginning of our new relationship. I'm not sure that I've ever considered myself as someone who has any sort of style in any way. I may be wrong. The tone I want to adopt in the discussions that I've already started with councillors and council leaders across the country is a tone of respect towards councillors and councils in terms of the work that they do. I said during the debate that we had yesterday on the local government settlement that councillors and council leaders undertake some of the most difficult jobs in Welsh politics at the moment.
I was brought up in a home where public services were discussed around the dinner table. My father worked for Tredegar Urban District Council, Blaenau Gwent Borough Council and then Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council, and therefore the services provided by councils are something that I was brought up with. I respect the work that's being done, and I respect the workers that are doing that work.
I agree with you that the relationship that you develop with the leaders of different councils and authorities is key. Your predecessor took the approach of collaboration, with a relationship built on the basis of respect, even though there are tensions that sometimes exist between the Government and local authorities. But that wasn't always true, looking at former Ministers in your party. I remember, when I was a cabinet member in Gwynedd Council, I had experience of one of your predecessors who used the style of an angry headteacher with a cane. Now, that sort of style is never going to get things done.
The regionalisation of services is an example of where there is a need to tread carefully, of course, and maintain this important relationship with local authorities. But there is also an approach that needs to be important as well in terms of regionalisation, which is accountability. Even though I support the efforts to ensure that services are run more strategically and are more effective, I am concerned about this approach and losing that accountability. How are you going to ensure that this new level of governance is going to be accountable to councillors and, more importantly perhaps, to the electorate?
I agree with the Plaid Cymru spokesperson in her analysis—perhaps not every single word of it, but certainly the main thrust of her message. I understand that. May I say this? I think it's important that we find a balance. This is a discussion I had this morning, as it happens, not just with the leader of Torfaen, who's already been mentioned, but also the leader of Caerphilly, about the tension that exists between ensuring that services are provided at a strategic level, but also ensuring that the way that we deliver services acknowledges the importance of place, and the importance of collaboration with those people who are in receipt of the services. So, there is a tension there on occasion, and we must ensure that we do have services that are delivered at a level that is strategic, robust and that will maintain services of the highest possible quality, but are also accountable and can respond to very localised needs. At the moment, I'm considering where we are in terms of our policy. We know that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance has worked very hard to put in place a new and different vision for local government. I will now be using or drawing upon the work done by the Cabinet Secretary as a foundation to moving forward in ensuring that we can deliver the kind of high-quality services that we all want to see, and in ensuring that that is sustainable for the longer term.
I look forward, therefore, to seeing how exactly you're going to sustain that important accountability, which is what I was asking about.
Turning now to the electoral system and the White Paper on local government reform, it notes that reforming the electoral system to the single transferable vote would not be mandatory to all councils in Wales and that councils would have a choice to bring it forward or not. In my view, that is a mistake. It would enable some local authorities not to move towards real representation for political reasons, perhaps, or self-interest, or whatever reason. Will you consider that, therefore, and ensure that reforming the electoral system to STV is mandatory for all local authorities in Wales?
The Member is tempting me to get onto very dangerous ground here. May I just say that my personal view as an individual is that I support STV? I think that is the system that provides the greatest accountability and provides a fair vote to everyone across the nation—in this place, in local government, and, frankly, in Westminster, too. But I'm not sure that in saying that I represent the views of everyone on these benches and everyone in this Chamber. So, I do intend to proceed with changes in electoral arrangements. I have asked for permission to make an oral statement on that on 30 January, when I will make a clear statement on our way forward in terms of electoral reform for local government in the future.
Cabinet Secretary, this year we celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of the suffragette movement's success in obtaining true equality for women by means of securing the vote. We also celebrate—well, we should be able to celebrate—48 years of the Equal Pay Act 1970, yet here in Wales it is paid lip service only. We still see disgraceful equal pay gaps present within Welsh public services—not only at the heart of Welsh Government, but also in local government. Now, I have been chasing this issue for quite some time now, since I became aware of it. But the fact of the matter is, as I stand here today, we still have 92 equal pay claims outstanding. Now, that is an appalling set of events. I have to say, it was up in the hundreds when I first started raising this in the Senedd here, and some authorities have been made aware that this is not acceptable. But I have to tell you that Ynys Môn and Swansea are among the highest. These women deserve this money; it is their money. And at the moment, the back and forwards that is happening between lawyers holding out on these women, who have already earned this money, and the money should be theirs—. Now, I also note that the Welsh Government's strategic equality plan, back in 2012, committed the Welsh Government to work with partners to identify and address the causes of the gender, ethnicity and disability pay and employment differences. Cabinet Secretary, with respect to our local authorities and their leaders, what efforts are you taking to stamp out this really bad practice of inequality and ensure that these women get their just deserts and the pay that they are due?
I agree with the whole of her question, and at risk of simply repeating her own words, I think we do celebrate 100 years since the beginning of extending the franchise to everybody in this country. I've already spoken to a Minister at the Cabinet Office about UK Government plans to celebrate that anniversary, and certainly the Welsh Government will wish to support and take part in that celebration as well. Part of what we're seeking to do, as I said in an answer to Siân Gwenllian, is that we want to continue to extend the franchise, we want to continue to deepen and enrich our democracy and how people are encouraged and enabled to participate in that democracy. At the heart of Siân Gwenllian's question was accountability. Accountability, for me, is best delivered through the ballot box. What we have to ensure is that the ballot box is at the heart of our democracy and how we encourage and enable people to participate within it.
But in terms of equal pay, I've nothing to add to the points that you make in your question, and the observations you make. It is an appalling reflection on our system that women are still waiting for these matters to be resolved. It is appalling that anybody would not be paid an equal rate for the job. We're seeing a debate taking place in the BBC at the moment. You'd have thought they would know better. I hope that they reflect on what has been said over the last few weeks particularly, and I hope also that, as we continue to develop our policy—. The Minister for Housing and Regeneration spoke, in answer to an earlier question, about Wales as a fair work nation. I believe that fair work is essential for everybody, and that means a fair and equal rate for the job. We value our public service workers—we value all our public service workers, male and female—and they all deserve a fair living wage for the commitment that they make to our communities.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for a respectful and considerate response. Another issue I've had to raise, sadly, is about the secrecy that takes place within some local authorities in terms of the democratic proceedings and how the press and public are restricted from those. Now, I'm really proud to be an Assembly Member and part of this institution, when transparency and allowing the public to view our proceedings—. They can go on Senedd.tv and see them. But the fact of the matter is that we are still seeing—and you'll see the release that we've put out today. We've taken the figures now of the times that members of the public and the press are excluded during very important decision making within local authorities. Last year, Bridgend excluded the public in 93 per cent of its meetings, Conwy in 81 per cent, and Merthyr Tydfil 71 per cent. I might add that, with Conwy, of course, it was the previous administration. Now, decisions made at a local level have such a direct impact on the lives, jobs, homes and locality of our residents, and such secrecy and lack of participation, engagement and enablement is a real concern. Now, looking at your Welsh Government record for local government—and I don't blame you for this one iota—the responsibility for this portfolio has changed hands no less than five times in six years. Fundamentally, this Welsh Labour Government refuses to get a handle on the issues that matter most to those so largely dependent on the delivery of much-needed vital local services. So, Cabinet Secretary, how will you get a grasp on this portfolio and champion efficient financial probity, greater transparency and true democratic accountability?
I'm interested, Deputy Presiding Officer, in the point she makes about the public being excluded from meetings. Members may be interested to know that I took the opportunity to attend full council in Blaenau Gwent last Thursday morning when I was in my constituency, and I was asked to leave the meeting at one point whilst they debated and discussed issues from which the public were excluded. Now, I take it in good faith and in trust that they are doing so for the right reasons and debate and discuss issues that should rightly be conducted in private. It is, I think, incumbent upon all of us who exercise public responsibilities to do so in a way that is transparent and open to encourage and enhance and root democracy, which we all care about.
The Member asks a number of somewhat related questions. In terms of the wider issues about transparency and accountability, for me, accountability is about being able to remove people and to hold people to account, where they fail or where they don't deliver. Now, it's not a matter for me to comment on cabinet appointments, but it is a matter for me to be put at ease that the frameworks that we have for local government provide a level of transparency, openness and accountability. For that we need simplicity in terms of our structures and our processes and our procedures. I hope that we can work together. I don't think there's a—. Siân Gwenllian talked about a tension between Welsh Government and local government in her questions, but I hope that we can all agree a set of important basic principles upon which we will operate. Trust, respect, openness, transparency, and a commitment to real partnership and collaboration is what I think local government wants from this Government, it's what this Government offers local government, and I think it's what both local government and Welsh Government have to demonstrate to our electorate.
Thank you. You are doing really well so far. Keep it up. More than one of your predecessors pledged—
You can do really well by just asking the question because you're four minutes over time.
More than one of your predecessors pledged to introduce webcasting of council meetings and, in doing so, provided £40,000 to each local authority. I have received representations from residents in Conwy, across north Wales and beyond, from as far as the Vale of Glamorgan and Rhondda Cynon Taf, who are concerned that they are unable to access the democratic decision-making processes as council and cabinet meetings are not available via the webcasting systems that your Government has actually provided the funding for. Going forward with the proposed local government Bill, can you confirm for us today—. I know that Mark Drakeford AM, your immediate predecessor, did pledge to make webasting a mandatory requirement. Will you stick to that in any future local government reform?
I certainly will. I'm looking across at the Cabinet Secretary, hoping that he's going to indicate in some way that he did make that commitment [Laughter.] He is. On the basis of that, I reiterate that commitment from the point of view of the Government today.
3. What strategy is the Welsh Government following to support local government non-statutory services in Wales? OAQ51565
Local authority services play a vitally important role in the lives of all citizens in Wales. The Welsh Government continues to protect funding for all our local authorities, so that those vital services, both statutory and non-statutory, can go on being provided. Local service delivery, however, is for local determination.
Cabinet Secretary, leisure services are vital to health and quality of life and enjoyment for our people here in Wales. Will you join me in recognising the value and the contribution of Newport Live, which delivers recreational, sport and cultural services? I've been involved in a number of meetings they've had with Aneurin Bevan Local Health Board and a range of partners, including Newport City Council, to ensure that we do take steps to get our local population more active. I believe that that's testament to the breadth of the vision that Newport Live have and the contribution they are making. Most recently, they succeeded in a bid to bring the transplant games to Newport, which will have very obvious benefits. So, I would be very pleased if you would join me today, Cabinet Secretary, in recognising the contribution that they make and commit Welsh Government to continue working with them and key partners to bring these benefits to the local population.
I absolutely will, Deputy Presiding Officer. I know that the Member for Newport East has championed a healthy lifestyle and an active lifestyle for many years in this place, and he actually lives it as well, which is a constant example to the rest of us. Can I say this: Newport Live benefits from a strong relationship, with a forward-looking council in Newport, with a dynamic leadership in Newport, which seeks to ensure that organisations in the city do work together? I'm aware of the work that Newport Live does in encouraging and supporting families with health inequalities to live a healthy lifestyle. I think that, in many ways, this might be an example for many other organisations and authorities across the rest of Wales.
Cabinet Secretary, as a result of the poor local government settlement, Newport City Council has announced cuts to many statutory services. These include cuts to school breakfast clubs, transport for children with special needs, activities for people with autism, and family information services. Newport City Council also intends to cut its contribution to a Gwent-wide service for finding missing children. Will the Cabinet Secretary commit to reviewing Newport City Council’s plan to see what he can do to offset the effect of cuts to these services in Newport? Thank you.
No. It’s a matter for local authorities to take those decisions. I have no intention at all of interfering or commenting or making observations on those decisions. I said yesterday in the debate we had that local authority leaders and local authorities are dealing with extraordinarily difficult times, and I have to say that any Conservative Member who comes to this Chamber to complain and to grizzle about spending cuts needs to start looking to home and the responsibility of a Conservative Government that has failed, through years of austerity, to deliver either economic growth or to reduce the deficit. On every objective they’ve set themselves, they've failed, and the only consistency we’ve seen from a Conservative UK Government is that of failure.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the work of public service boards? OAQ51546
Positive progress has been made by public services boards to meet their obligations under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. Having published their assessments of local well-being, PSBs are now consulting on their draft well-being plans. The focus must then shift to making a difference for their communities.
Thank you for that answer. When public service boards were set up in 2016, one of the objectives was a set objective that was designed to maximise the public services boards’ contribution to the well-being goals. What progress has been made towards achieving this?
Currently, all public services boards are consulting on their objectives as part of their well-being plans. Local well-being plans must explain why the objectives the public services boards have chosen will maximise their contribution to achieving their national well-being goals.
I will say to Members that I have seen some of these plans. The quality of some of them is, quite frankly, variable, shall we say? We are working with local authorities and PSBs and others to ensure that we do provide the support for PSBs to deliver the sort of planning that we would all like to see.
I also want to take the opportunity to welcome the initiatives that some PSBs have taken in order to ensure that they are able to strengthen their work. I’m aware that Conwy and Denbighshire have formally merged to create a single PSB, as have Rhondda Cynon Taf and Merthyr. Anglesey and Gwynedd have chosen to collaborate to produce a joint assessment plan for their areas. I welcome those initiatives, and I welcome the way in which PSBs have moved to address these issues.
Cabinet Secretary, these boards are largely invisible, and they certainly need a sharper focus. I think they should be tasked with showing how they’re implementing the well-being of future generations Act. And the way they can do that is to actually demonstrate, perhaps in an annual report, what is changing, what services have been adapted, what services are being collaborated on in their delivery, so we can actually see the change agenda taking place.
The Conservative Member for South Wales Central has described what my expectations are as well. I would say, very gently, that we are at the beginning of this process, rather than halfway through or at the completion of it. PSBs are, at the moment, undertaking their consultation. The Member would be very welcome, of course, to contribute to his own PSB with those observations, and I would very much welcome that. Certainly, the test for this piece of legislation, and the test for this process, is how it affects people’s lives. That is the key issue for all of us, and that is what I would certainly be seeking to address in the future.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the timetable for the Independent Remuneration Panel for Wales's report into allowances for elected members of community and town councils in Wales? OAQ51544
The Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, as amended, requires the independent remuneration panel to hold an eight-week consultation on its draft report and produce its final annual report by 28 February. Its determinations then take effect in the next financial year.
Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary, who responded to a letter on this question just a few days ago? Your reply perhaps slightly misses the point, as this is in regard to the timing of the independent remuneration panel for Wales's report on allowances for elected members. Local councils, of course, have to set budgets by mid January. That means either the councils have to guess what might be in the final report or have to make allowances for something that might not happen at all. Can I ask you to consider asking the panel to start their consultation earlier and to publish their annual report by the end of December each year? That would, of course, allow councils to take decisions into account during their budget process.
I am aware of the concerns that have been raised with the Member by, I think, Welshpool Town Council. I will give some consideration to the points that he raises, but I will say to him as well that there is already guidance available to town and community councils on how they manage their finances. We have a practitioner's guide, which has been published by One Voice Wales and the Society of Local Council Clerks, and it is written specifically for town and community councils. I would very gently suggest that he asks the town council in Welshpool to consider the matters covered in that guidance and I hope that will resolve the issues that they've raised with him.
Will the Cabinet Secretary join me in thanking and congratulating the dedicated town and community councillors who do so much for their fellow citizens in my constituency and in much of Wales? To give an example, Cowbridge and Barry town councils are promoting their towns to be fair-trade towns, and Barry is promoting their town to be the first real-living-wage town in Wales.
I certainly will. I think the Member provides some very great examples of the difference that town and community councils can make. I know, growing up in Tredegar myself, that Tredegar Town Council was always a force for good in the town, and today is, I think, a model of what a town council can achieve for the population it serves. The examples that the Member has given in the Vale of Glamorgan also provide other examples of how town and community councils can play an essential role in the well-being and livelihood of communities. Can I say this: we do currently have a group looking at the future role of town and community councils? What I would like to see is how we can strengthen the role of town and community councils. I think there are many concerns amongst the electorate about how our towns are developing and how change is managed in many of our small towns across the whole of Wales. I feel and I believe that town councils have a very important potential to fulfil a role within towns and communities across the country and I would certainly very much welcome any suggestions and proposals to strengthen their roles in the future.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the provision of local public services in Pembrokeshire? OAQ51534
Public services deliver vital services to people in Pembrokeshire and across Wales. Their ability and resilience to deliver positive outcomes in challenging times is a priority for me and this Government.
Of course, one way of ensuring that the provision of local public services is truly local is to ensure that services are not centralised and that local authorities remain truly local. Does the Cabinet Secretary therefore agree with me that merging local authorities like Pembrokeshire should not take place, as local public services are best delivered by individual local authorities accountable to local people, and what the Welsh Government should be concentrating on is ensuring that we see real and meaningful collaboration between local authorities?
I hope that we will see real and meaningful collaboration amongst authorities in the future. We need to be able to deliver services at a scale that is both robust and delivers excellence in terms of delivery of the services and for the people delivering those services. How we deliver services will be different in a rural part of west Wales, which the Member represents, in north Pembrokeshire than it will be in the centre of Cardiff. What I'm anxious to do is to ensure that we're able to consider how we structure local government in the future to best enable us to deliver the services that the Member has described but also the accountability that we've already debated this afternoon. I want to see both effective services and a rooted democracy in different parts of the country that is a rich democratic debate about the future of our vital public services. I will be making statements on this in the next few weeks.
I hope shortly to be meeting with Pembrokeshire officials and cabinet members to discuss the budget for next year. You will know that Pembrokeshire has had a public debate around increases in council tax way above the 5 per cent guidance that has been issued. What message would you have for Pembrokeshire County Council and also for the taxpayers there if there is a rate set that is way above the 5 per cent guidance that has been used in the past?
I'm not sure that it helps the local democratic debate that Siân Gwenllian was championing earlier in this session for Ministers to be passing observations and comments on the decisions of local authorities. I believe in local government. I believe in local decision making. I believe in local democracy. And that means that local democratically accountable political leaders should have the right to take decisions that I may disagree with, that other Members here may disagree with, that Members who live in that area may disagree with, but it is their right to take those decisions and they then must argue their case to the local electorate, who will hold them to account for those decisions.
Council tax in Pembrokeshire has consistently been amongst the lowest in Wales. Council tax is set by all councillors, not only by the executive, in the same way as the amount of money spent here and the amount of money raised here is set by all Assembly Members. Does the Cabinet Secretary agree that council tax rises is a matter for elected councillors, who will answer to local electors for their decisions?
I'm absolutely delighted to be in complete agreement with the Member for Swansea East. I once disagreed with him on local government matters, I'll never do so again, and I'm delighted that I don't have to do so this afternoon.
7. What support does the Welsh Government offer to housing associations in Torfaen when dealing with anti-social behaviour? OAQ51575
Welsh Government is working with Community Housing Cymru, the police, police and crime commissioners and other stakeholders to develop a national approach to tackling anti-social behaviour for use by all social housing providers in Wales.
Thank you, Minister. Unfortunately, I've seen a big increase recently in complaints from tenants about anti-social behaviour, and in some cases they've been very serious and even life-threatening cases. One of the things that appears to be consistent is a reluctance to give evidence because of fear of reprisals, and whilst in recent years there's been an increase in the use of professional witnesses to support cases, it is inevitable that they will not witness or experience the same issue as someone who is living with a situation 24/7. What further support can the Welsh Government offer to ensure that social landlords and tenants in Torfaen are better protected to ensure that such cases are dealt with more effectively, and even to prevent them from happening in the first place?
I thank you for raising this important issue, and I'm sorry to hear about the serious anti-social behaviour issues that your constituents have been facing. I met with police and crime commissioner Alun Michael earlier in the week, and his deputy, and they're working together to lead that piece of work, which is developing a resource for all social housing providers, hopefully, subject to the successful evaluation of that pilot scheme. And my intention would be for it to be rolled out as soon as possible after the evaluation. I expect to have the full report by the end of March, and I'm keen to establish which local authorities and which social landlords in particular would benefit most from the use of the resource. So, perhaps if we could have a conversation and pinpoint some particular registered social landlords in Torfaen, that might be a good area where we could start making some progress. Obviously, there are issues of confidentiality here, so if you would like to me to ask my officials to speak to any specific landlords about issues that your constituents are facing, I'd be very happy to do so.
Thank you very much, Minister.
The next item on the agenda is topical questions, and this afternoon's topical question is from Russell George.
Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. There is, of course, understandable excitement about the decision—[Interruption.] Sorry, yes.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government's £2.5 million investment in TVR? 103
That does help; now we all know what you're talking about.
I do indeed share the Member's excitement about the investment the Welsh Government has made in TVR, which follows a process of thorough due diligence, and we provided a repayable commercial loan of £2 million in early 2016. This was made alongside a private sector lender. We've also invested £500,000 into equity on the same terms as other investors, giving the Welsh Government a minority stake of 3 per cent in TVR, ensuring that the Welsh taxpayer benefits from the company's success.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, and sorry, Deputy Presiding Officer—I got too excited myself in my question there.
There is, of course, the prestige of the TVR badge, but that's of course not the only thing that's of consideration. Two and a half million pounds is a significant investment, and the public, of course, want to see the evidence that taxpayers' money is properly being safeguarded. Now, papers filed with Companies House suggest that the Welsh Government has told the company that £2 million of the loan will not be called on for repayment, provided that the company secures private sector investment equal to or greater than £5.5 million. Can I ask you to confirm if that's correct?
During committee this morning, you were unable to confirm whether the Welsh Government has an observer on the board of TVR. I wonder if you could also clarify that position. And, to date, the two listed companies connected with this investment have a headcount of just six jobs. Now, commercial common sense and respect for taxpayers' money dictate that there must be an economic benefit to this spending. So, can I ask what conditions the Government has placed on TVR in return for investment, and what is the delivery date by which the promised 150 jobs will materialise? And finally, do you agree that the Welsh Government does have a moral and economic duty to the people of Blaenau Gwent to ensure that this exciting project doesn't turn into another disappointment for that area?
Can I thank the Member for his questions and say that the car received, importantly, a commercial and critical success? The reception was quite astonishing at Goodwood in the autumn when it was unveiled. It's a remarkable machine. The design incorporates unique and cutting-edge elements of automotive design by Gordon Murray, who himself is well known to automotive experts as being one of the best designers anywhere on the planet. His contribution to the vehicle, I think, has made it an immediate success in terms of orders. The order book is extremely healthy. I would encourage Members to take the opportunity to visit the car when we have the Welsh launch.
In terms of the conditions that have been attached to the loan and the equity stake, I think the Member raised an important point about the repayable element of the finance that we've offered. It's not correct that Welsh Government has said that the £2 million is non-repayable. The £2 million is fully repayable. The loan will last for a five-year period. It became active in March 2016. However, if they don't bring—. I think where some of the confusion has been created is that there was a condition in the support stating that, if they didn't bring manufacturing to Wales then we could demand immediate repayment of that loan. As a consequence of us not demanding immediate repayment of that loan, I think it's been viewed wrongly as Welsh Government saying that the loan needn't be repaid. The fact is: it will be repaid.
In terms of the equity stake that we've taken in the company, again, that is protected because we can require the company to buy back at the greater of the market price or the original cost the equity that we've taken in the company. But, as I said earlier, the car has received an incredible reception at launch, the order book is very healthy indeed, the market for this type of vehicle is buoyant globally, and I believe that the car will be a huge success. It resurrects one of the most popular British automotive brands in our history, and the orders that were taken at Goodwood in particular showed that, when people see the vehicle in the flesh, people respond by handing over cheques.
Now, in terms of the benefits of the scheme and the time frame moving forward, TVR identified that a privately owned building at the Rassau industrial estate offered the best option for their manufacturing and, as a consequence, Welsh Government officials spent many months negotiating with the private owners to secure that building. Having completed that agreement, lawyers for both Welsh Government and for TVR are finalising an agreement for lease. In the meantime, we are pleased that TVR are negotiating to take a short-term lease on a small factory nearby in order to complete the engineering development work, but they've also got an office at the works, which is where a small number of people are currently working on the project. Longer term, by quarter 2 of 2019, we aim to have TVR manufacturing the vehicle for sale next year. At that point, we also expect a considerable number of people to be employed at the site—over 100 people. This will be hugely important to Blaenau Gwent, not just in terms of the employment offer, but also in terms of reshaping perceptions and giving that area huge confidence.
Did the Cabinet Secretary answer the question in relation to the membership of the board, because he was unsure, when he was asked this morning, whether the Government had nominated, presumably not a director according to the company accounts, but a nominated observer, at least? Is it Government policy to have nominated observers in situations like this where the Government has taken an equity stake? He said this morning that the reason the Government had taken a direct stake in this instance, rather than going through the development bank, because the development bank hadn't been established—. But will it now be the policy, from now on in, for those equity stakes to be held via the development bank, which deals with investments on a regular basis, and would therefore seem a more sensible approach?
Can we have a Government statement every time an equity stake—? I mean, this is different, surely, from a grant or a loan. If the Government is taking part ownership in a company, then surely it shouldn't be up to the BBC to report that—that should actually be provided either in a written statement or a statement on the floor of the Assembly.
I'm happy to issue written statements confirming whenever Welsh Government takes an equity stake in a company. The Member asked about the role of Finance Wales as it was, and the development bank as it now is. The development bank is monitoring the progress of the business, but the reason that Finance Wales was not able to take an asset investment in TVR was, in part, because it could not take an investment in TVR, because the company was, at the time, located outside of Wales. We were able to, on the condition that manufacturing came to Wales.
In terms of representation on the board, as a minority shareholder, with just 3 per cent, we would not be expected to be able to present a board member. However, as I indicated this morning, a Welsh Government official does attend board meetings as an observer, and, of course, I closely scrutinise activities and progress with regard to this particular vehicle, but the company as a whole as well.
Hewlett-Packard, of course, started with two people, and Facebook with one, so I don't think the number of people you're starting with is of great importance; the number of people you end up with is the most important.
There are three ways of funding: grants or non-repayable loans, as they used to be described, loans and equity. Will the Cabinet Secretary explain why he's chosen equity in this case?
We chose a mix of both a loan and equity: equity, in part, to ensure that we were able to benefit from the success of the company, as I've already said, and the loan in order to make sure that we get manufacturing to Wales. There are risks and rewards in any investment, but with this particular investment, the brand is incredibly strong and the potential of the reward is therefore immense. The potential of the reward for Blaenau Gwent, again, is potentially huge, and so I think the balance of risk versus reward is heavily skewed towards reward.
Cabinet Secretary, I rise today not so much to pose a question, but simply to say that UKIP unreservedly welcomes and congratulates the Welsh Government on this investment, particularly as it's in an area that is one of the most deprived in Wales, and I'm absolutely certain that the constituents of Ebbw Vale will wholeheartedly welcome this announcement. TVR ticks all the boxes as far as desirability is concerned: a high-tech iconic brand and a global image for design excellence, with a proven and loyal customer base. There is huge export potential from the newly emerging wealthy economies for this designer-style vehicle. If we are to expand our manufacturing base in Wales, I see no better recipient for funding than this type of company. Again, I congratulate the Welsh Government on this announcement. Perhaps there is a question: when can we have more of the same?
Thank you. You redeemed yourself there in your last statement.
Can I thank the Member for his endorsement of our decision to invest in TVR? I share his belief in the company. It has one of the biggest followings of enthusiasts of the brand of any British motor manufacturer, and I think the naming of this particular car the Chimaera, as well, recognises the strong heritage that the brand has. In the past, there have been two Chimaeras; this is the third. Currently, if you're looking at investing in a classic car, it's said that the Cerbera and the original Chimaera are two of the fastest rising classic cars available at the moment. I'm in no doubt that the new Chimaera, to be produced from next year, will prove equally popular, not just amongst existing enthusiasts of TVR, but also amongst new purchasers globally.
I thank the Minister for his answers so far. I want to make it quite clear that we're very supportive of Government support for companies, especially when they offer exciting and dynamic propositions. Where we do have concern is where other businesses point to support being given to companies, and they themselves are refused support. In particular, they draw attention to the last set of published accounts from TVR that clearly indicate, and I read from the accounts, that the £2 million loan has been given by the Welsh Government, and it goes on to say that the lender—that is your good self—
'has indicated that they have no intention of demanding repayment'
of this loan. I do think that does need clarifying, because it doesn't go on to say that that money would be repayable in five years' time, as the Minister has indicated, or it's on commercial terms. That statement is, from just an observational point of view, quite misleading.
It also says that the company is obliged to raise an additional £5.5 million of equity. The Minister has indicated that the Welsh Government have put £500,000-odd in as an equity stake. Could he also inform us how much of that £5.5 million of equity has been raised, separate to the £0.5 million that the Welsh Government has put in, to give us an indication of how much confidence other investors have in what, potentially, if it comes through as promised, could be an exciting development for Blaenau Gwent?
Can I thank the Member for his question and suggest that, in order to really show his support for TVR, he puts an order in today for the new Chimaera? The last set of accounts do indeed state that, but it's incorrect to assume that the loan is non-repayable. We were not responsible for submitting those notes, but the quote 'no intention of demanding repayment', as I said to Russell George, relates to the clause that we had built into the support that would have enabled us to demand immediate repayment should the company decide not to bring the manufacturing of the Chimaera to Wales. That's clearly not the case, because of the investment already made in the works and the negotiations under way to acquire the small factory and, indeed, the work that's under way by our officials in making the full facility ready for the commencement of production. Therefore, the loan will be repaid in full.
In terms of equity, of course, our equity was significant. However, the company has been successful in drawing the required equity to get this motor vehicle into production. In addition to the scrutiny of the business plan that KPMG carried out prior to the March 2016 decision, I'm pleased to say that Deloitte have been operating on our behalf more recently and they have given us confidence in the company's ability to take the project forward, to take the car forward and to deliver, not just for the investors, but also for the customers.
Thank you very much.
Item 4 on our agenda this afternoon is 90-second statements, and the first one this afternoon is by Dawn Bowden.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. The fine Gothic former synagogue in Merthyr Tydfil had served the Jewish community there since the 1870s. The Jewish community at Merthyr reached its peak in the 1930s, but having now largely disappeared from the town, there are still signs of their presence, including the Jewish cemetery in Cefn Coed.
In 1955, there was held, and I quote,
'an impressive service in which the Chief Rabbi re-consecrated the 80 year old Synagogue.... In his address...the Chief Rabbi referred to the persecution which made Jews leave the lands of their birth and how they had found',
to quote, 'freedom of worship in Merthyr.'
It's therefore sad to note, which you'll see from the picture, the current condition of the former synagogue. The UK-based Foundation for Jewish Heritage recently mapped all the historic synagogues right across Europe, which they categorised according to their significance and condition. The Merthyr Tydfil synagogue is one of only two in the UK highlighted by this work and shown to be in the most danger. Thankfully, the foundation has already found the funds to undertake a preliminary study of the building that could lead to its restoration. The synagogue is an important part of our collective history, not just for Merthyr Tydfil and for Wales, but beyond that as well. So, I wish the foundation well in their work; it deserves to succeed and for this important building to be saved.
The Llywydd took the Chair.
In 1994, 10 years after the miners' strike, the UK Government turned their attention to the last deep pit in south Wales. The target of their economic vandalism was Tower Colliery. Tower in Hirwaun was profitable—it had been commended by John Redwood, of all people, for its productivity. But Westminster still decided to strike its final blow against the once-mighty miners. The NUM Tower workforce and local community rose to the challenge.
Cynon Valley MP Ann Clwyd joined the miners in a sit-in deep underground to highlight the valiant campaign. The response from the UK Government and the NCB was further betrayal and backsliding. The miners had no choice but to vote for closure. But their story did not end there. Led by branch secretary Tyrone O'Sullivan, 239 miners each contributed £8,000 of their redundancy to buy the mine. It was resurrected as a workers' co-operative; the first mine in the world to be owned by its workforce. January 2018 marks 23 years since Tower reopened—a brave and bold new chapter in its history.
Tower is now closed, but there are exciting plans for the future of the site; plans that will ensure Tower and its story of struggle live on. To paraphrase from the narrative boldly owned by the miners of Tower: they were ordinary men, they want their jobs, they bought a pit.
Last year, Llŷn Coastal Bus ran two buses regularly between Llanbedrog, Abersoch, Porth Neigwl, Aberdaron, Porthor and Nefyn between May and the autumn. It's supported by a community transport group, providing a door-to-door service. Llŷn Coastal Bus follows a route that complements the public transport service, allowing people to walk the coastal path, leaving their cars. It opens the door to an area of outstanding natural beauty and an area where the Welsh language is the language of daily conversation.
The bus is also used regularly by local people. A group of friends went from Abersoch to Aberdaron and visited Porth y Swnt and had a meal before going home. The bus is used by young and old, by mothers and their children during the summer holidays. It's of assistance in tackling health problems by encouraging people to keep fit by walking, and also tackles loneliness by providing transport to various events and heritage attractions.
I had an opportunity prior to Christmas to meet a number of people who were involved with the success of the scheme in Nefyn and heard from businesses and local individuals how the Llŷn Coastal Bus brought environmental, social and economic benefits to the Llŷn peninsula. I'd like to thank the drivers, the volunteers, and all those who maintain this service, and in the face of uncertainty in terms of funding for this year, I would encourage the Government to support this important link in all ways possible.
The next item is the motion to elect a Member to a committee, and I call on a Member of the Business Committee to move the motion formally. Paul Davies.
Motion NDM6630 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.3, elects Mandy Jones (Independent) as a Member of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee.
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The next item, therefore, is the debate on a Member's legislative proposal, and I call on Steffan Lewis to move the motion.
Motion NDM6576 Steffan Lewis
Supported by Adam Price, Dai Lloyd, Leanne Wood, Rhun ap Iorwerth, Siân Gwenllian, Simon Thomas
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes a proposal for a Welsh Continuation Bill.
2. Notes that the purpose of this Bill would be to affirm the continuation in Welsh law of all areas previously a matter of EU law that fall within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with the Wales Act 2017.
I'm very pleased to formally move the legislative proposal for a Welsh continuity Bill. I want to also place on record, Llywydd, that the introduction and even enactment of a Welsh continuity Bill is not, and has never been, the preferred option of Plaid Cymru.
Indeed, I recall suggesting in the aftermath of the European referendum that the four Governments of the UK get together, perhaps using an accession in reverse template as a means of establishing how we leave the European Union and how we can accommodate the constitutional complexities of this union. That would not have been easy, it wouldn't have been a straightforward process, and it would've taken time. But, it would have been the best process, the fairest one, and it would've resulted in the UK being in a position to trigger article 50 with its eyes wide open. The UK Parliament then could have considered a far more satisfactory withdrawal Bill that would have effectively been concurrently written and agreed by all Governments of the UK. Instead, Llywydd, the UK Government have shown little but contempt for the devolved nations.
Members will recall my alarm at the now infamous paragraph 4.2 of the UK Government White Paper for what was then called the great repeal Bill, which intentionally misrepresented how the UK agrees to common EU frameworks that refer to devolved matters. Plaid Cymru correctly predicted at the time that this misrepresentation acted as a means to lay the groundwork for a Westminster power grab, and here we are with the now named EU withdrawal Bill, which is a naked power grab if ever there was one.
Clause 11 of the Bill will put new constraints on this Assembly's ability to legislate. Powers over long-devolved matters, like agriculture and environmental protection, will be seized by Ministers in Westminster. Decisions that will deeply affect the livelihoods of Welsh farmers, for example, will be made in Westminster by those who are also very keen to strike new trade deals with countries like America, Australia and New Zealand at all costs.
The UK Government have promised that the Assembly will be strengthened, offering substantial new powers, although they have been so far unable to identify a single one. Since the alarm bells have been ringing, Plaid Cymru has called for unilateral legislative action in the form of a continuity Bill, not because we wanted Wales to be under this threat, but because Wales is under this threat.
Llywydd, when I've spoken about a continuity Bill in the past, there have been a few Members here who have questioned my motives and, perhaps, suspected that it's part of a remoaning Welsh nationalist plot to stop Brexit and bring down the British state somehow. Well, I have learned in the last few weeks that life is far too short not to say what you believe and to believe what you say. I am a Welsh nationalist, and I will always believe in a European future for my country, but whether you were leave or remain, and whether you are unionist or nationalist, are irrelevant to the question of the continuity Bill. Whether to support a continuity Bill or not comes down to how you answer one simple question: do you believe that the referendum of 2016 provides a mandate to the UK Government to remove powers from this National Assembly? Plaid Cymru says it does not provide such a mandate, particularly when quite the opposite was promised to the people of Wales during that referendum.
Llywydd, timing is also important and I am at a loss to understand why the Welsh Government wishes to push this issue to the very last minute. Not one Welsh Government or Scottish Government joint amendment was accepted by the UK Government in terms of the withdrawal Bill; the UK Government even broke its own promise to bring forward its own amendments to improve the Bill at Reporting Stage. What more do they need to do to threaten Welsh devolution before we are prepared to act in defence of our hard-won democracy?
Llywydd, be in no doubt: once they have their hands on Welsh agriculture, the Welsh environment, there are measures that they will implement that may prove irreversible if ever we get those powers back. We have a window to act in the interests of our citizens and the rights and standards that they hold dear, in addition to the democratic structures that they have endorsed in two referenda. Let's take this opportunity with both hands. I commend this proposal to the National Assembly. [Applause.]
Although the UK Government's European Union (Withdrawal) Bill doesn't actually take back existing competencies from the Assembly, there is no end date for the restriction on devolved competency created by the retained EU law model it would introduce. We, Welsh Conservatives, instead believe that any common framework in any area must be agreed and not imposed by the UK Government, and further we will support this motion on the basis that it notes only a proposal for a Welsh continuation Bill.
However, we do welcome last week's statement by the Secretary of State for Scotland, confirming that amendments to clause 11 of the Bill will be brought forward in the House of Lords, and adding,
'I regret that it has not been possible to bring forward amendments at the report stage but our commitment to improve the bill remains absolute.'
We, here, received assurance that the language used by David Mundell last week still stands.
Will the Member give way?
As the—. Yes, indeed.
I thank the Member for giving way. Do you agree that it's disappointing that they've had the Welsh Government's and Scottish Government's amendments since Novermber, they've had our committee's amendments since November—they've had plenty of time to actually look at these and produce their own amendments by the Report Stage, which was actually yesterday and today?
I'm coming to that. I share the disappointment expressed by David Lidington, which I'm going to come to.
As the Scottish Conservatives' constitutional spokesperson said last weekend,
'clause 11 of the bill needs to be amended to restore the spirit of the Scotland Act.'
And obviously, by association, legislation applying here. He said:
'There is a fundamental principle on which Scottish devolution rests and has rested since its creation 20 years ago which is that everything is devolved unless it is expressly reserved.'
'that is the principle that clause 11 needs to be amended to comply with and that is our position too.... It is relatively easily done. This does not have to be difficult.'
May I say that that is also the Welsh Conservatives' position here?
Will you take an intervention?
We also supported the—.
Thank you for taking the intervention. Just very briefly, much along the lines of a libertarian argument on public surveillance—if you've nothing to hide, you've nothing to fear—is it not the case also that, if there's nothing to fear from the undermining of the integrity of devolution from what the UK Government are seeking to do, why not just have a belt-and-braces approach and introduce a continuity Bill as well?
I've said that we are going to support this motion—I hope that that should provide you with some reassurance—but on the basis that we note.
We also supported the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee's European Union (Withdrawal) Bill interim report on the legislative consent motion, including its objective 1, to remove the clause 11 restriction on the devolution settlement. And, although, despite all the work that continues on the withdrawal Bill and frameworks, the UK Government is not yet in a position to table amendments to clause 11, it's understood that the new man at the Cabinet Office, David Lidington, spoke with the First Minister on 9 January and the next day expressed disappointment that agreement had not yet been reached on amendments to devolution aspects of the withdrawal Bill. He also said that he's committed to work to reach agreement with Welsh and Scottish Ministers and that this work will intensify. The Prime Minister also repeated that commitment at Prime Minister's questions in Westminster. It would therefore be helpful if the Cabinet Secretary could update us on the further discussions that he or the First Minister have had regarding this with both the Cabinet Office and the Welsh Office. Thank you.
In the three minutes I have, I rise to support this motion. I do so because this is probably a motion on what may be the most important constitutional piece of legislation that we can bring to this Assembly. I don't have time to go into detail, so I'll sum up very quickly: there are two major constitutional issues that are coming before the House of Lords. One is the upholding of the Sewel convention, and where the House of Lords effectively acts as a constitutional wing of Parliament, that it will not legislate in the absence of a legislative consent motion from this Assembly, which, at the moment, it seems that it is impossible for us to give in the light of the Bill. And the second one is the actual support of the devolution statutes, which would require, in those areas that Parliament has already devolved, the consent of this Chamber.
The Bill in its current form—let's be very clear, it is a continuity Bill of its own, but it's a continuity Bill for the British state and one that also seeks a recentralisation of the British state. I think that, in the absence of any clear amendments from the UK Government to accept the devolution statutes and the principles that underline them about decentralisation of power, and in the absence of any guarantee on financial autonomy for this Chamber—because that's another very important area that we mustn't forget to it, the financial autonomy of the Welsh budget, which the withdrawal Bill also seeks to undermine—that means that the position is totally unacceptable. It is lamentable that the UK Government has failed, at every stage, to either engage with or to properly participate with this Government in the actual drafting of a proper constitutional settlement within the withdrawal Bill.
There is no constitutional logic to the UK Government's position, because just about every parliamentary committee and every Assembly committee that has considered the constitutional position recognises that the starting point of the UK Government is fundamentally wrong. For that reason, we are left, in the absence of any last-minute major constitutional changes by the UK Government, with the position of 'What do we do?' We can either wait and see whether the withdrawal Bill goes through in whatever format—and that isn't a guarantee by any stretch in any event—or we can say, ourselves, 'It is time for us to assert what is the correct constitutional position of this Assembly and to have that on the statute books', so that, when the Lords consider this matter, they are not just considering the issue of legislative consent and Sewel and upholding those constitutional conventions, they're also considering legislation we have passed with Royal Assent that properly sets out what the constitutional powers and authority of this Assembly are. Thank you.
Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you to Steffan Lewis for an excellent speech that summarised the situation we're facing at the moment and how late in the day it is in terms of these principles.
I want to focus on the environment and agriculture in this context. It's important to bear in mind that some of the most fundamental principles in terms of our environment have emerged from European legislation—the precautionary principle has emerged from European legislation, and also the principle that the polluter pays. Now, both of these principles are a foundation for the laws that we pass in this place in relation to the environment, and, as we exit the European Union, I'm of the view that people in Wales do want to keep hold of these principles, and the most convenient way of ensuring that is by supporting a continuity Bill.
The third thing that emerges from the environmental sphere in this area is that Welsh citizens at the moment have a right to go to the European Court of Justice in order to access environmental justice, and there have been no guarantees given or safeguarded in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to ensure that it would be possible to seek environmental justice as we leave the European Union. I think that that principle has been crucially important. Just today I asked a question of the Minister, Hannah Blythyn, about the fact that there was a court case against the Welsh Government in terms of air pollution. Now, we should be safeguarding the rights of citizens to challenge any Government—the Government here, the Government in Westminster—on the basis of their failings in the environment. That is secured within the current system, but we need a continuity Bill to secure that access too.
The second principle in agriculture is this: if we see that the hands of Westminster are going into our pockets for the funding that is currently safeguarded under CAP, and is twice as much as we would get under any Barnett formula arrangement—once Westminster gets its hands on that money, less and less will be transferred as part of the budget. Mick Antoniw referred to this. The current system doesn't safeguard the budget for this place, and, specifically, it doesn't secure the flow of funding that has emerged from the common agricultural policy and has provided such sustenance to so many farmers and rural communities in Wales. On that basis alone, we should argue for a continuity Bill.
I encourage the Government, as I did last week—. As I said, don't trust the Tories, and you said that you don't trust the Tories. Well, don't, then, believe that the House of Lords is a means of delivering the amendments that we need to see. Publish the Bill now, in draft form, so that we can see the way forward clearly, and publish the Bill in draft form in order to bring persuasion to bear on the Westminster Government.
It's impossible, of course, except for reasons of perversity, to oppose this motion, because it's just a 'take note' motion, but I want to make it clear that I, and my party, also support the intention behind the motion. I haven't always taken that view, because, following what Steffan Lewis said in his compelling opening speech today, I had perhaps thought originally that the purpose behind this was somehow to delay or get in the way of the Brexit process. I've now come to believe that that is not the intention behind it, and it's regrettable that the United Kingdom Government has made the Brexit process less palatable to people who were against the decision that the public made in the referendum campaign, and would like to have avoided that, but I do believe that most people who are in that position do not now want to reverse the process. I do think it's unfortunate that the United Kingdom Government, therefore, has made it more difficult to pass the EU withdrawal Bill than it need have been. I have to say that it's par for the course, in a way, because, as Simon Thomas pointed out yesterday, it's rather extraordinary that the Secretary of State for Wales, on a transparently bogus excuse, refuses to meet the Finance Committee of this Assembly.
The devolution settlement is one that I didn't want in the first instance, and that was a referendum—two referenda—where I was on the other side from those who won, but I unreservedly accept the decision of the Welsh people, and it's actually been a great pleasure to me to be here to help make that work. I've become a lot more enthusiastic about it, as a result, as well, and I see the advantages of further devolution because I see the EU withdrawal as the ultimate devolution Bill, in a sense, for bringing power back to the people. I believe in devolution of taxation, because that makes the Welsh Government more responsible, and I believe in competition between the nations of the United Kingdom in public policy terms. So, there are great advantages in this, and I want us to see the EU withdrawal accepted by as many people as possible, and indeed embraced with enthusiasm.
So, I think that the policy of the United Kingdom Government's actually quite contrary to the best interests of those of us who want to see Brexit achieved as quickly and as completely as possible. So, I am delighted to support this motion today, and to congratulate Steffan Lewis on the way that he introduced the debate, in what I thought was a splendidly succinct speech, which was also complete as well as compelling.
The Bevan Foundation published a report in 2016, after the EU referendum, called 'Wales After Brexit: An Agenda for a Fair, Prosperous and Sustainable Country'. I was particularly struck by the opening message, relevant to the debate today:
'Nobody knows what the future holds—the optimistic and pessimistic forecasts are all based on assumptions that may or may not be realised.... How our leaders respond in these extraordinary times will be critical.'
So, I do welcome the Member's legislative proposal debate, initiated by Steffan Lewis today, and I wish to start by thanking Steffan for his robust and constructive scrutiny in the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee of all things relating to Brexit. Having recently joined the committee, I've looked to Steffan for his extensive knowledge base, as well as attention to detail, guided as well, of course, by the Chair, David Rees. Steffan has been resolute in addressing the issues and impact of Brexit on Wales, and we've every reason to respect and support his motion today and thank Steffan for raising a question, for example, of the First Minister last week welcoming the £50 million transition funding announcement. I do see that as an example of the way the Welsh Government has shown leadership and grasped its responsibilities, which, of course, started with 'Securing Wales' Future', in partnership with Plaid Cymru, with six key objectives, which have stood the test of time since it was published.
It's against these objectives that further work has been undertaken by the Welsh Government, most recently with the paper, 'Regional Investment in Wales', providing a clear way forward for Welsh Government to exercise its responsibilities, with a call on the Welsh Government to make good on promises in the EU referendum—part of the objectives, of course, of 'Securing Wales' Future'—to ensure that Wales is not a penny worse off as we leave the EU. The plan provides the framework for utilising replacement regional funding across public, private and third sectors.
So, this does demonstrate the commitment of the Welsh Government to be constructive and responsible in terms of negotiations with the UK Government, but unwavering in its commitment to safeguard the devolution settlement. The UK Government's negative response to amendments from not only the committee but both Welsh and Scottish Governments to the EU withdrawal Bill—a naked power grab, as Steffan Lewis has described—provides no certainty that the UK Government will respect our constitutional settlement or the constructive approaches that we have made as a legislature, and the Government have made.
So, the First Minister's statement yesterday, and your motion today, Steffan Lewis, provide more than a warning to the UK Government of our position. I want to finish by referring to just one of the six objectives in 'Securing Wales' Future', which puts into context what's at risk. And, of course, Simon Thomas refers to the environmental protections. I would also, finally, like to say guaranteeing EU rights for working people, including—just one example—equal treatment of part- and full-time workers.
So, I'm glad that the Welsh Government has prepared a continuity Bill. I thank Steffan Lewis for giving us the opportunity to consider its importance today. It