Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd07/03/2018
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 is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Education, and the first question, Nick Ramsay.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on school categorisation in Monmouthshire? OAQ51856
Of course. Categorisation provides a clear picture of how well schools are doing and the level of support they need to do even better. This year, Monmouthshire has seen an increase in the primary schools in the green category, which is a testament to the hard work of the staff at the schools and is something to be celebrated.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. You've clearly got the same figures there in front of you that I've also seen. There has been, as you said, a steady improvement in categorisation in Monmouthshire, going from just three green schools five years ago to 13 today. This progress is a credit to the work of teachers and headteachers, and pupils, and also of course the local authority and the regional consortia involved, which has offered considerable support over the last number of years to headteachers, in offering challenge and sharing best practice. How are you working with the Education Achievement Service, and other consortia, to ensure that the sharing of best practice does happen between consortia as well as internally?
Well, I'm glad that we've got the same figures; it would not have been a very positive start if we had a different set of categorisation data between us. You're absolutely right, Nick, to identify that school improvement is a joint endeavour, between the staff and the leadership of individual schools, the local education authority. And I would like to pay tribute to Councillor Fox, I believe, at Monmouthshire council—sometimes, he and I have had some cross words about the performance of Monmouthshire, but this categorisation demonstrates that progress is being made—and also the regional consortia. It is important that regional consortia work together to learn from each other so that there is a consistent set of approaches to school improvement across the nation.
2. What is the Welsh Government doing to attract overseas students to Welsh universities? OAQ51846
Thank you, David. We're working closely with Universities Wales, the British Council Wales and the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, through the Global Wales partnership, to build collaborative opportunities and support increased promotional activity, such as the delivery of the Study in Wales brand in key markets.
Cabinet Secretary, students from overseas are worth more than £151 million to the economy of Cardiff alone. You may have seen a new study by the Higher Education Policy Institute that shows the benefits of international students are up to 10 times greater than the cost. So, for places like Cardiff, and other university cities and towns around Wales, this is a really, really important source of income, but, more importantly, the prestige we get and the future benefit from highly skilled people having had such a welcoming and attractive experience in Wales in higher education. So, what will you be doing to ensure that, as Brexit proceeds, we remain a key place, and a most welcoming one, for foreign students?
Thank you, David. I couldn't agree more with the analysis that you just gave of the importance of international students and, indeed, international staff who come to study and work at our universities. And I've been clear that students from the European Union, and beyond, remain very welcome in Wales and will continue to be very welcome in Wales. I have good news for the Chamber: UCAS data on full-time undergraduate acceptances for the 2017-18 academic year has shown that providers in Wales have had an increase in acceptances from the EU despite uncertainty relating to Brexit, and the highest number of acceptances on record from outside the EU. What's absolutely crucial to me is that we continue to press the case with the United Kingdom Government that international students should not form part of any immigration statistics that may come forward. As we heard yesterday from the Cabinet Secretary for health, whilst I believe those within the Department for Education understand this, and believe this, there is a battle to be won with the Home Office.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The UKIP spokesperson, Michelle Brown.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and good afternoon, Cabinet Secretary. The report into the future of the sex and relationships education curriculum in Wales says that, at the moment, the success of SRE too often rests on the interests and enthusiasm of individual teachers or school leaders with SRE/personal and social education responsibilities. In this area, knowledge itself isn't an indicator of success. An unplanned teen pregnancy isn't necessarily caused by a lack of information or understanding, and a child or young person may be fully aware that abuse is being inflicted upon them but not able to do anything to stop it. How are you measuring the success of current SRE, and how will you measure success in the future?
Thank you for that question. On coming into office, I was concerned that current SRE provision is not as good as it should be, and listening to children and young people, as I travel around schools in Wales, they have been very clear with me that the current SRE provision often doesn't meet their individual needs. That's why I commissioned Professor Emma Renold of Cardiff University, who is an international expert in these matters, to compile an independent report. That report has now been given to me. We are considering the recommendations of how we can improve current provision of SRE and how we can ensure that our new curriculum meets the needs of children and young people.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. In the same report, it says that, even before school, children receive messages about gender, sexuality and relationships from a wide variety of sources, for example advertising, books, social media, television and family members, et cetera. I'd say that a majority of these are either under the control of parents or can be under the control of parents, particularly those parents of preschool children. Surely, it's the parents' right to bring up their child in accordance with their values and beliefs? So, I'd just like to ask the Cabinet Secretary whether parents will continue to have the right to opt their child out of SRE if they feel that that SRE curriculum isn't appropriate for their child?
Well, of course, parents have rights and responsibilities, but, sometimes, the issues that you're talking about are beyond a parent's control. I remember only too well, when my own children were very small, going into a very well-known high street retailer to find in that shop the dressing up costumes for doctors were in the boys' toy section and the dressing up section for girls had a nurse's costume. These, sometimes, are beyond parental control.
With regard to the role and the compulsory nature of sex and relationship education going forward, I have received a very clear recommendation from Emma Renold. The report that's she's developed for me is under consideration, and I hope it won't be too long before I come to this Chamber with my full response to that report, outlining how we intend to improve relationship and sexuality education for all our children and young people in Wales.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary.
Parents, particularly of preschool children, are understandably going to be concerned about what the content of the SRE curriculum is going to be. There are going to be parents who, for religious reasons and various other reasons, may find the content of the curriculum unpalatable. So, I suppose my final question has two parts to it really. How much input are parents going to have into the new curriculum and if a parent—. Sorry, that's my question: how much input are parents going to have into that curriculum?
I'm still uncomfortable with this thing—that you don't want to say whether parents are going to have the right to opt their child out, because the ultimate ability for a parent to opt their child out of a part of the curriculum that they don't like is to withdraw their child from the school and home school the child. That's going to have a detrimental effect, particularly on women, who are going to be left looking after the child when, otherwise, they could have been in schools. So, how are you going to get round that?
I don't want to pre-empt the final discussions and decisions that I will make with regard to that report. And I have given a commitment here this afternoon, Michelle, that, having done that, I will come back to the Chamber with a full statement on how we intend to develop policy in this area.
I have to say, we don't allow parents to take their children out of maths lessons, or English language lessons, and what I hear from children and young people is that they feel this is a really important aspect of their education, which we need to get right for them. Of course, that has to be delivered in an age-appropriate way and in a way that is accessible even to our youngest children. And I don't believe there's a child too young to start to talk about relationships, being safe, consent and what that means.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Plaid Cymru opposes University UK's proposed pension reforms and we support the University and College Union lecturers' strikes. Do you support the UCU action against pension cuts?
Well, Llyr, I have met with both UK-wide officials of UCU as well as Welsh representation, and I continue to be in correspondence with them. Unfortunately, because of the bad weather in Cardiff on Saturday, I was unable to attend the UCU conference, because the conference was cancelled. Officials keep in close touch with both the employers and the employees, and I have, at every opportunity, urged the employers to get back around the table to discuss these concerns because it is of huge concern to me that any student should be disrupted, and I do have sympathy with those members who are seeing potentially significant changes to their pensions, and I understand why they are duly concerned. Unfortunately, the employers are individual organisations, but whatever Welsh Government can do to get those parties around the table to find a solution to this problem, then we will do that.
I'm glad to hear that you've made representations to the UK Government. Clearly, UCU has said that their colleagues in many other European countries in post-1992 universities, schools, FE colleges, the NHS and Government all have their pensions underwritten and guaranteed by the state of course, and they're asking why UK pre-1992 universities should have a pension scheme with no Government guarantee. So, I'd be interested in knowing what representations you've made to the UK Government and, indeed, what interventions you called for from them in this respect.
As I've said, Llyr, we have urged all parties involved to get around the table, and I was encouraged by the decision for parties to get back around the negotiation table and to have that work assisted by the Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service. I think that gives us the best chance of finding a solution here to this significant problem. As I said, the direct role that Welsh Government can play in this is somewhat limited, but we will use any of our ability to influence to make sure that these talks are successful, and I continue to talk with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to ensure that any disruption to individual students are kept to an absolute minimum.
Clearly, there's an economic aspect to this action, but I believe there's a moral issue at stake here as well, because all of this is happening to a backdrop of vice-chancellors, of course, enjoying astronomical salaries that put the salaries of the First Minister and even the Prime Minister at Westminster in the shade. Indeed, it was recently revealed that around £8 million was paid in expenses to top university executives just in the last two years. You've previously said that there should be restraint in senior pay and there should also be a focus on the lower end of the pay scale. So, how does all of that tally with these pension proposals, which are actually seen as a direct attack on the working conditions of those staff?
Well, Llyr, I would reiterate that stance here today. I do expect restraint from my vice-chancellors in Welsh universities, and you will be aware that HEFCW, working with the sector, have published a report regarding pay levels in Welsh universities, and our vice-chancellors are not out of kilter with those across the UK. But in terms of social justice, what's really important to me is that the lowest paid workers in this sector are treated fairly and that's why I'm delighted that Wales's higher education institutions and our sector will become the first part of the sector in the United Kingdom to pay the real living wage to all of their workers. We continue to negotiate that across all aspects of those people working in Welsh higher education, including those working in the Llandudno office of the student loans company.
The Conservative spokesperson, Darren Millar.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, research shows that the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller community have the lowest attainment rates of any ethnic group in Wales when it comes to their education. Tell us, why did you scrap the education improvement grant, which was designed to support and increase the attainment rates amongst this particular group?
Presiding Officer, I have not scrapped the education improvement grant.
As you know, you have redistributed the education improvement grant—the minority ethnic achievement grant element of that—into the revenue support grant for local authorities, and they claim that they can find no trace of it within the lines within the budgets that they have been given by the Welsh Government. They reckon that around £13 million has gone missing from the education allocation that they have received from the Welsh Government and that it's having a significant impact on their ability to meet the education needs of the Gypsy/Roma/Traveller community, and, indeed, other ethnic minority communities that need specific and additional support. What are you doing to put their concerns to rest?
The Member will be aware that a number of grants were rolled into the education improvement grant four years ago. Part of that was called 'MEAG', which is there to support the education of minority ethnic groups, and there was a separate grant scheme to support Gypsies and Travellers. The Member is not wrong to say that we need to redouble our efforts with regard to outcomes for Gypsy/Traveller children. Where we have seen significant improvement in the educational attainment of all but one minority ethnic group, Gypsy/Traveller attainment is still a cause of concern to me.
The Member is correct to say that as a contribution to moneys made available to the local education authority via the revenue support grant, the education improvement grant was added as a contribution. I've recognised that for some local authorities that has meant, because of different ways of distribution, they may have been put at a disadvantage. Therefore, I have made available £5 million to right that disadvantage for Cardiff, for Newport and for Swansea, and we will make an additional £2.5 million available over this new financial year to the regional consortia to work with lead local authorities, including Wrexham in north Wales, so that we can ensure that we can get better outcomes for these children.
So, that £7.5 million, which you've suggested, you're going to make available primarily to three local authorities that happen to be Labour authorities in south Wales, with very little left for the rest of the nation. The reality is that every single local authority in Wales has young people who need this sort of support. So, I ask you again: when will you ensure that there are adequate resources available to each of the local authorities across Wales, whether they be in north Wales, mid Wales, west Wales or south Wales, to ensure that they can meet the needs of not only the Gypsy/Traveller community, but also those other ethnic minority communities that may need additional support with their learning?
Well, Darren, as I've said, all local authorities will have benefited from the contribution of EIG going into RSG. I have recognised that, for some local authorities, changes in the distribution formula have had a negative effect. The reality is, Darren, that those three local authorities are affected because that is where the density of the population is, and therefore it is unsurprising that those authorities would be Cardiff, Swansea and Newport, because that's where we find the majority of those students living. On top of that, as I've said, we will give resources in this financial year to regional consortia across the piece to be able to develop policy and support in this area. It is true to say, for instance, that some of the most successful interventions are actually already run at a consortia level or by an individual local authority for the entire region, but I recognise that for this group of children, there is more to be done. But let me say: it's not fair to roll all children from a minority ethnic background into one particular case. Welsh Chinese children, Welsh Indian children, Welsh Pakistani children, Welsh Bangladeshi children all perform at or above the Welsh average.
3. How does the Welsh Government plan to develop an education system that reflects the objectives of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015? OAQ51835
Thank you, Bethan, and can I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your recent marriage?
'Education in Wales: Our national mission' provides an action plan that will see transformation of the education system in Wales. The plan has been developed in accordance with the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and will be delivered and assessed against the well-being objectives.
Thank you for that reply. The policy of school reorganisation and the creation of the centralisation of superschools, particularly in Neath Port Talbot and across Wales, has caused some concern, particularly with the potential closure of Cymer Afan Comprehensive School in my region. It's particularly acute in relation to the Active Travel (Wales) Act 2013, and it's going against that, because if the school closes they will be having to travel 50 minutes to reach the closest school. So, when we had a public meeting on this recently, people were saying that this would add stress to the lives of the children, and that it would contravene the very sustainability of that particular Act. I acknowledge you can't look into this particular issue in and of itself, but what is your view, if a school closes and if then, therefore, more transport is created, more pressure on schoolchildren is created—what do you do in relation to the well-being of those children to try and aid them in the development of their education, as opposed to hindering them, as many of the parents believe in this particular circumstance?
Well, Bethan, in undertaking their school organisation responsibilities, local authorities must comply with the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013 and the schools organisation code and must consider a range of factors. One of those factors is the interests of learners. You will be aware that we have recently undertaken a consultation on the code to see where it can be strengthened. Where proposals involve the closure of any school, which can be very, very challenging and very emotive, the consultation document must show the impact of the proposals on individuals, and indeed on the community, and an assessment of that community impact must be carried out.
Cabinet Secretary, considering the well-being objectives, can I ask you what consideration, if any, you've given to initiatives that we've seen in France and more recently in Scotland to control the use of mobile phones in schools as a way of helping to combat both school bullying and disruption to learning?
Thank you, Dawn. I have to say, it is for individual schools to determine the most effective way to address bullying and implement any anti-bullying policies within their school setting, which includes any measures that they may wish to consider to control the usage of phones or information technology equipment, which may be a channel for cyber bullying. We're also developing a suite—we already have a suite of measures in place to support schools in tackling cyber bullying within their schools and we are in the process of updating our anti-bullying guidance.
I do think it's important, however, to state that we can't just label all information technology as having a harmful effect on education. Only yesterday, we were debating digital skills and the use of technology in our classrooms and the advantages that can bring to both pupils and teachers. Therefore, we need to keep a balanced approach in this regard.
Cabinet Secretary, one of the objectives of the future generations Act is to ensure that every child has the opportunity to achieve their full potential, irrespective of their background. I'm sure we'd all agree with that. The gap in outcomes between children eligible for free school meals persists, however. A number of families are operating just above the poverty line but are not falling into the category that they should. Are you confident that the current criteria is sufficiently broad to capture all of these children who are suffering in these conditions, and if not, what do you propose to do to make sure that there is a better safety net?
Nick, you're absolutely right: one of the biggest challenges that we have in Welsh education is to ensure that equity within our system and that includes closing the attainment gap for those pupils who are qualifying for free school meals against that of their peers. This year, Welsh Government will invest over £91 million in the pupil development grant. We are always challenging both regional consortia and individual schools to adopt best evidence-based practice of how that resource can be best used to assist those children who are on free school meals.
We are aware that there are some families that fall above the criteria for free school meals, and given the constraints of public finance at the moment, it would be wrong of me to suggest that we were able to increase the number of children. At the moment, free school meals represents, as far as I'm concerned, the best proxy that we currently have for need.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the education improvement grant for schools? OAQ51839
Thank you, Russell. Through the education improvement grant for schools we will continue to make available more than £225 million over the next two years to support both the foundation phase and improvements in schools. This represents a significant investment that will benefit all learners as part of our delivery of the national mission.
Thank you for your answer, Cabinet Secretary. I was listening to your answers to Darren Millar earlier on and you committed £5 million from your reserves for the financial year 2018-19 to allow for the impact on urban local authorities. But from your answer to Darren Millar, it seems that that figure is now £7.5 million. How do you intend to support learners in mid and north Wales, and, in particular, how much of that £2.5 million that you referred to earlier will support learners in Powys?
Well, Russell, what's important is that we direct funds to where individuals who would previously have benefited under some of these grants are located. Because of the transfer, there are certain authorities that would not have received—or would have received very little under the old minority ethnic achievement grant and Gypsy/Traveller grant who, actually, under the RSG distribution, will have benefited. So, I do not anticipate at this stage making any additional resources available in this regard.
Cabinet Secretary, the education improvement grant is there to assist the regional consortia to improve the outcomes for all learners. My region is home to the best comprehensive school in Wales, Pontarddulais, but it is also home to one of the worst-performing schools, just a few miles down the road. So, how does your Government plan to eliminate such huge disparity in attainment within regional consortia?
I'm very grateful for the acknowledgement of Pontarddulais school. Only yesterday evening, I met the headteacher of the school as she becomes one of the first tranche of the new associates of the academy of leadership, and her contribution to raising standards in her own school and across the region is one of the reasons why she has been appointed to one of those, what I would regard as prestigious, roles.
Variation in our system, whether that be in-school variation, in-county variation or, indeed, in-region variation, continues to be a source of grave concern to me. It was addressed yesterday in our debate on Estyn's annual report in that we need better school-to-school working so that we can ensure that that variation is kept to a minimum, because it is incredible, is it not, as you've just described, that in one small area we can have highly performing institutions and those that are not doing quite so well? We need to take the opportunity to learn from the best and share that good practice.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on political and citizenship education in Welsh schools? OAQ51858
Thank you, Mr Bennett. Learners have the opportunity to study politics and citizenship as part of the Welsh baccalaureate and in personal and social education. Ensuring learners become ethical, informed citizens is one of the four purposes of the new curriculum. Political and citizenship education will be central to supporting this.
Yes, thanks for the answer. I think that, with the possibility of 16 and 17-year-olds getting the vote in Wales, there may be a stronger case now for improving the provision of political education in the school system. Indeed, many young campaigners who want the vote have called for that. So, I wonder, going forward, is there likely to be any change, do you feel, to the provision of political education?
Well, indeed, the development of the new curriculum provides a very real opportunity to ensure a broad and balanced education for children and young people across Wales, and I would include in that political and citizenship education. Indeed, as the mother of a 16-year-old myself, who is very anxious to have the opportunity to be able to have a democratic right and cast her vote and is incredibly—sometimes, much to my horror—interested in politics, I think that there is much more that we can do. One of the purposes of our curriculum, as I said, is to have ethical, informed citizens, and to be able to give our young people the skills, for instance, to understand that there will be words on the side of the bus and to interrogate exactly what those might appear to be or appear to promise and to be able to act accordingly, is very welcome.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on school funding in the Vale of Glamorgan? OAQ51843
Thank you very much, Jane, for the question. Local authorities are responsible for school funding in Wales. The Vale of Glamorgan Council sets their spending priorities for the services that they provide, taking consideration of local needs and all the resources available. How much an authority sets aside for school budgets is a matter for that authority.
Cabinet Secretary, you will be aware that the Vale of Glamorgan Council has written to every parent in the county about school funding. I thank you for your response to me regarding this matter. Your letter to me actually clarifies a number of points, and you've stated them again in response to me, and it does put the record straight regarding the Welsh Government's role in schools' funding budget decisions. So, I'm pleased you were able to clarify in your letter to me the key role of local government in setting budgets for their schools and for the role of local government in agreeing and reviewing the funding formula. I do want to quote briefly from your letter of 26 February. You say,
'The Welsh Government does not fund schools directly. Each Local Authority in Wales is responsible for determining how much funding is allocated to its schools'
and, as you say,
'How much an Authority sets aside for school budgets is a matter for the Authority to determine.'
You also say that,
'With regards to how the Welsh Government funds Local Authorities, the core revenue funding we provide is distributed according to relative need, using a formula which takes account of a wealth of information on the demographic, physical, economic and social characteristics of authorities. This funding formula has been developed in consultation with Local Government through the Distribution Sub Group'.
Do you think it would be helpful if your letter, including this information, was sent to every parent in the Vale of Glamorgan, or, at a minimum, was put on the Vale of Glamorgan website? And also, do you welcome the Welsh Government's twenty-first century schools programme, which has resulted in a new Llantwit Major learning community with an official opening on 22 March? And, Cabinet Secretary—
I've been very tolerant, Jane Hutt. You're over two minutes now. Very quick final question.
And finally, I understand that a recent Vale of Glamorgan Council cabinet report shows an increased capital contribution from the Welsh Government, while plans for 2017 onwards show a reduction in the Vale council's—[Interruption.]
Well, Presiding Officer, there is no doubt that this is a challenging time for education budgets, and I make no bones about that. That means that being clear about the facts and information is more important that ever, and it is disappointing that the correspondence that the Vale has issued to its schools and parents have misrepresented the position on school funding. I am in the process of responding to every letter that I have received from parents from the Vale of Glamorgan, setting the record straight, and I'm happy to do that again today.
In respect of core funding under the local government settlement, the Vale of Glamorgan is not—not—the lowest funded authority in Wales as it would have parents believe. It may be the lowest spending authority per pupil, but that is a matter for the council. What is a matter for me is that resources that I have centrally can be used to support education in the Vale of Glamorgan.
The Vale of Glamorgan benefits from the pupil deprivation grant; it also benefits from our small and rural schools grant; it is also part of our school-based supply cluster pilot; and it is also a part of our school business manager pilot. It has had significant resources made available to it under band A of the capital twenty-first century schools programme. We have outlined a significant amount of resource under the band B of the programme and, as you'll be aware, only this weekend I announced £14 million extra for small school repairs, of which the Vale of Glamorgan will receive over £0.5 million.
However, I must take this opportunity to say I would also encourage them, that is, the Vale of Glamorgan, to submit revised proposals to access part of the £36 million infant class-size commitment over the term, because what they've submitted to date does not meet the criteria, and I'm very anxious that children in the Vale of Glamorgan should not lose out on this opportunity to cut class sizes.
I think the reason, Llywydd, this double act doesn't quite work—though it's been very well staged, I know, I grant them that—is that the Vale of Glamorgan is a highly competitive authority politically; it's been run recently by Labour administrations and Conservative administrations, with other parties involved and independent groups also, and they've all had concerns about the funding formula and have raised these matters. When will you actually review the situation, because there is cross-party concern in the Vale of Glamorgan about the current situation?
Let me be absolutely clear: the core funding formula is not a matter for me; it is a matter for my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for local government and for the revenue support group that sits across that, making decisions about how the RSG revenue support grant is made available. On two separate occasions, the Welsh Government have offered Welsh local government the opportunity to change the base data, most recently in 2014-15, and on both occasions, the WLGA have refused the offer to update the data, and I have asked officials and the Cabinet Secretary for local government to look at that again. But it is a matter for the local government working collectively to agree changes to base data.
Question 7 [OAQ51833] has been withdrawn, therefore, question 8, Simon Thomas.
8. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had regarding the provision of free milk in schools? OAQ51867
Thank you very much, Simon. Discussions with DEFRA are ongoing regarding school milk. Wales will continue to participate in the existing EU school milk scheme. We will discuss with DEFRA and the other devolved administrations options for the future of the scheme, as part of our wider consideration around departure from the EU. And this is just one of a number of examples that many people do not know about with regard to the impact of us leaving the European Union.
Thank you for that response and I am pleased that discussions are ongoing, but at the moment, milk is available free of charge in the foundation phase, mainly because of investment by the Welsh Government. Milk is subsidised in primary schools, because we are part of the EU school milk scheme, and, of course, milk in schools is not only nutritious, and adds to the nutrition of children in schools, but also demonstrates where food comes from, so they can learn about the role of food in our daily lives.
I understand that you have to discuss this at a UK level, but I also think it’s important that the current Government, the Welsh Government, should make a statement that you would wish to continue, come what may, with the current milk system, because I think that’s the assurance that parents, schools and the wider community want to see.
Well, Simon, as you've acknowledged, the Welsh Government's school milk scheme is indeed unique amongst the United Kingdom home nations, being the only scheme that offers milk at no cost to the entire foundation phase. Over 99 per cent of maintained primary schools are signed up to the scheme, and as you said, it has a number of benefits for the children involved.
In 2017-18, the free school milk budget was £2.2 million, and even in the difficult scenarios that we've just been talking about with regard to education funding, I have been determined to keep that investment going because I realise and I recognise the benefits of the free milk scheme. We will continue to discuss this, but this is a live issue, it's not something we have forgotten about and we're actively engaged in how we can take this forward.
Can I thank Simon Thomas for bringing this question? Because I'm a really keen supporter of children receiving free milk in schools and, preferably, until they leave school, but there we go.
Can I thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for saying that you're as committed to providing that? But post Brexit, what consideration will you make of encouraging direct partnerships between our local milk producers, our farmers and schools, so that more people can get an added benefit out of having free schools with local milk?
Well, Janet, primarily, we provide milk to our schoolchildren because of the nutritional benefits that that provides children. But, of course, it has an additional benefit to the dairy sector, and as Simon Thomas says, it can provide us with a useful teaching opportunity to talk to children about sustainable food production, where their food comes from, and, indeed, the social and historic contribution to our nation of our farming community and our dairy sector in particular.
I'm continually looking at ways in which we can increase the amount of local produce that is available via our school meals services, as well as providing opportunities for Welsh children to understand more about where their food comes from.
9. What support does the Cabinet Secretary provide to people with additional learning needs who want to study the Welsh baccalaureate? OAQ51838
Thank you, Mark. Local authorities are responsible for providing suitable educational provision for all learners to enable them to access a range of qualifications, including the Welsh baccalaureate. Those with additional learning needs will receive additional support to meet their individual needs.
Thank you. I've been contacted by the mother of a young man on the autism spectrum. They've looked at the Welsh bac at level 3 and have doubts about their son's ability to cope with aspects of the Welsh bac, particularly the maths skills needed for the level 3 Welsh bac, where there's a need for a lot of executive functioning skills and collaborative and social skills that are likely to cause stress for their son and prevent him from coping with the course. How, therefore, will you address the barriers to achievement presented by the compulsion of the Welsh bac for all learners, and in particular learners with additional learning needs, on a level 3 course? And, what consideration will you give to a more flexible attitude that allows for learners with 'spiky profiles' to achieve, for some it would mean the baccalaureate and for others that would be too much, but nonetheless they need the opportunity to achieve with the great skills that they have?
Thank you, Mark. I start from the basis that all qualifications should be available to all of our cohort, and I don't think any of us would want to start from the provision of saying that there are certain groups of learners who cannot access a certain qualification. We have to start on the basis of equity.
However, I would expect headteachers to use their professional judgment in determining which learners should be undertaking the Welsh baccalaureate at the relevant level, according to the individual learning pathway, and what support individual learners may need to allow them to access a qualification that could be of benefit to them. But it has to be down to the professional judgment of those teachers who work with individuals and families.
10. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had in relation to the current industrial action in the university sector in Wales? OAQ51865
Mick, as I've stated earlier, I've had a number of discussions in recent weeks with sector representatives—both the unions and the employers.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. Isn't it a tragedy that, throughout the UK, tens of thousands of university staff have had to go on strike to resist a unilateral change by Universities UK to their pension scheme, and in some cases that will mean a pensions reduction in value of up to 40 per cent? On Monday, Cabinet Secretary, I had the honour of joining members of University and College Union on their picket line. They asked for one thing: an independent review leading to genuine negotiations. Do you agree that this is a reasonable demand, and will the Welsh Government do all it can to encourage—and I repeat, encourage—genuine negotiations to achieve a resolution to this dispute?
As I said in answer to the questions that Llyr Huws Gruffydd raised earlier, the Welsh Government stands ready to provide whatever support possible, necessary and needed to ensure that we can have that real and positive negotiation between both the employers and employees, and we continue to be ready to do that. We also are working hard with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to ensure that any disruption to individual students who may be affected by this action is kept to the very minimum.
I too have been supporting the lecturers who've been left with no alternative other than to strike in defence of their pensions, and I too spoke in one of their rallies. The pension changes that the UCU are opposing will hit everyone hard, but it's going to affect those lecturers early in their career, and it's also going to have an impact on part-time contracts and those on insecure contracts more than anyone else. This will inevitably lead to intergenerational and gender inequalities among university staff and that is unacceptable.
Will you condemn the changes to a pension scheme that could leave university staff in retirement in poverty? And, are you also concerned about the impact that this could have on the university sector in Wales, with many of our brightest and most capable lecturers seriously considering their future in this sector as a result of this move?
Leanne, as I said earlier, I am gravely concerned for the sector in Wales, and for individual students who are caught up in the strike action. I understand why the UCU have felt that they have no other option but to withdraw their labour, given the changes proposed to pensions for their members, and I have met regularly and corresponded regularly with the UCU, listening to their concerns and offering to provide assistance wherever we possibly can. I have also continued to raise this with Universities Wales and with Wales's vice-chancellors, urging them to get back around the table and to have the detailed, true and honest negotiations that Mick Antoniw just referred to, as well as working closely with HEFCW to ensure that disruption to individual students is kept to a minimum.
It is clear to me that the decision to go back to talks, supervised and organised by ACAS, is a step forward, but we need to do more to ensure that a suitable outcome can be found for those individuals who find themselves caught up in this way.
11. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on careers advice services? OAQ51872
Careers Wales is an impartial careers service that gives guidance to young people and adults, as well as facilitating links between education and employers. The service is currently being revised in an exciting way, and there will be an even greater focus on working with young people and stakeholders and on developing digital services.
Thank you very much. I’m going to ask you not to be as impartial as careers advisers. My interest is in your willingness to work with the Cabinet Secretary for health to encourage the young people of Wales to follow a career in health and care. Would you, as a Government, support joint investment between education and health, possibly, in a kind of all-Wales roadshow to explain the whole range of career options in these areas and to generate excitement in those options, from nursing to medical care and other professions—something that could also double up as a roadshow encouraging people to take an interest in their own health, in their own bodies and in their own diet and so on? I would be more than happy to meet Government representatives to tell them more about my vision in this area.
Well, there are a great many exciting things taking place in this area currently. We do hold days where we encourage young people to have a go—they’re called 'Have a go' days. Thousands of children have been attending these events, where they have access to see what type of options are out there for careers in the future. Health is a part of that, and we must also emphasise that we do need to get people to look into STEM subjects and to ensure that we don’t just emphasise health but point out that there are other opportunities; for example, we would hope to see people going into Wylfa and the developments there. So, I think that limiting it just to health might not be the path that we would wish to take. However, I would be willing to give further information about these days that are already taking place—these ‘Have a go’ days, which are very successful.
Other than Careers Wales, of course, Minister, there are a number of organisations, businesses and other charities that offer careers advice and guidance and training—many of which get money from the Welsh Government or access funding from sources that start with the Welsh taxpayer. How are you working with those organisations to make sure that they understand the growing importance of Welsh language skills? Are you ensuring, even if the organisations have the awareness, that the people that they're training are also aware at the end of that experience?
I'm very pleased with that question because I do think that we need to recognise the Welsh language as a skill as well as other things. The more that we ask different organisations to adhere to the standards, then the more we will be needing to recruit people with the skills necessary to implement those plans. So, there is an awareness that that is something that we need to emphasise. We are emphasising it much more significantly now in further education colleges, understanding that that was an area where we saw a huge drop-off in the number of people actually using the Welsh language after they'd finished Welsh language education. So, there are real opportunities. It is something that we are very much focusing on, and understanding that, actually, the Welsh language is a skill, and it is a method of actually finding a job in the future. A lot of it is about giving people the confidence
to use the Welsh language in a way that will help them to understand that it's an important part of the skills that they have.
Thank you, Minister and Cabinet Secretary.
The next item is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport. Question 1 [OAQ51860] is withdrawn. Question 2—Caroline Jones.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline the action the Welsh Government is taking to develop the life sciences sector in Wales? OAQ51861
Yes. 'Prosperity for All', our national strategy, sets out our intention to blend multiple policy aims and objectives. This partnership approach offers benefits to the life sciences sector in Wales, contributing to economic growth whilst also improving the efficiency and affordability of health services and, of course, improving the well-being of citizens across our country.
Thank you. Cabinet Secretary, I want to congratulate you on the work you are doing with the pharmaceutical sector in Wales, and welcome the announcement you made earlier today at the BioWales 2018 conference. The future of the pharmaceutical sector in Wales is not in the manufacturing of drugs but in the researching of new medicines. What is your Government doing to support increased links between the pharma sector and Welsh universities?
Well, can I thank the Member for her question? This is a timely moment to be able to discuss the life sciences sector, given BioWales 2018 is taking place just next door at the Wales Millennium Centre, and I was delighted to be there this morning to launch the occasion. There are 365 companies in the life sciences sector across Wales, employing more than 12,000 in well-paid high-quality jobs. So, it's a crucial sector for our economy, and we see life sciences businesses thrive right across Wales in many of our communities. So, it's not a sector that is just confined to one specific location in Wales.
Now, I'm pleased to say that, as a consequence of A Regional Collaboration for Health, ARCH, we are seeing a £200 million project being developed, which comprises two proposals: for the creation of a wellness village and life sciences village in Llanelli, and also a life sciences and well-being campus project at the Morriston campus of Swansea University. What's crucially important about this development is that it overlaps perfectly with the Swansea bay city deal, of which, of course, health and well-being is a very prominent theme. That particular project aims to create more than 1,800—again high-quality well-paid—jobs in the coming years, and will benefit the economy by more than £460 million. I think this is just the sort of collaborative effort that needs to be replicated across Wales. We see in the north, in the south-east and west efforts being undertaken to bring together academia and business, and I think, in the life sciences sector, there are some excellent examples of that delivering real results.
Can I congratulate the Cabinet Secretary on assuming responsibility for the city deals into his portfolio now? You've anticipated my question, to some degree, on the back of that. You referred to the life sciences campus and the sites there. Part of their role is to attract investment in for the whole of the city deal concept, if you like. Will you be expecting that investment to take the form of both public funds and private investment? I know there's a strong emphasis, as there should be, on private investment, but, with the potential loss of EU funding sources, what are you doing in looking at alternative public sector routes for that?
Well, we've repurposed the Life Sciences Hub Wales to ensure that there is a greater degree of overlap between what's happening in the business community and the needs of patients and people in Wales. In terms of the city deal, I think there would be an expectation not just of private sector investment but also the potential to draw in public sector investment through the NHS and through social care providers. I think, again, the city deal in Swansea makes for a perfect opportunity to promote health and well-being as a priority, not just for that region but also as a priority for the whole of Wales.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on development works on the A55 in north Wales? OAQ51850
Yes, of course. We're continuing to invest significantly in this strategic route in north Wales. We are spending £40 million to upgrade junctions 15 and 16, another £250 million in the Deeside and Flintshire corridor project, and looking at accelerating the delivery of the third Menai crossing. Of course, the road forms part of The Wales Way—a strategy to promote tourism in Wales—and it's marketed nationally and internationally as the culture corridor.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. You'll be aware, yesterday, that I had to raise with the First Minister the number of times that the A55 has actually been closed—that's 55—for a total of 2,720 hours. That's over 113 days. That's nearly a third of a year. This is an essential trunk road for businesses, freight and holidaymakers across the north, and they have been let down time and time again. Only yesterday, of course, we had the accident that has sadly seen two people hospitalised. And it's becoming the norm now. On a daily basis, people are expecting, at some stage, there to be major gridlock on these roads. I don't make this as a pun in any way, but I cannot afford, as the Assembly Member for Aberconwy, to take my foot off the pedal in terms of scrutiny on this issue. So, how will you ensure that your proposed upgrades and work associated with the pinchpoint programmes will not lead to further delays, congestion and just absolute misery for visitors coming into north Wales? It's gone on for too long now, Cabinet Secretary, and we really do need to be seeing some improvements.
I don't think anybody in the Chamber would disagree with the assertion that the A55 requires investment and upgrades. I'm pleased that we've been able in recent months to avoid planned daytime closures of the A55. Night-time closures will continue through to September of this year with no daytime planned closures taking place. But I also recognise that there is a need at the same time to upgrade significant parts of the A55 and to implement the short, medium and long-term objectives and recommendations that were identified in the resilience study.
In terms of the 55 closures, the vast majority of those can be attributed to accidents, incidents, breakdowns due to—believe it or not, there is a proportion of breakdowns caused by motorists running out of fuel. But it was also attributed largely to those planned overnight works.
Now, I think that what's essential is that we look at the progress that is going to be made in the coming months, and then judge on the basis of the implementation of the quick wins the success or otherwise of Welsh Government. I can say that, on wireless CCTV, installation is taking place in April; on the incident detection software, we're trialling a system; on the traffic officer coverage, with the extended hours, we're currently recruiting additional traffic officers—likewise, the additional traffic officer unit—and we expect also that by the end of March additional traffic officers will be extending their work right to the Gledrid roundabout of the A483, covering that huge area, the 55 and then down.
I'm pleased to be able to say that we're expecting a launch during April of the roads timetable. We're currently in discussions with data providers. In terms of the free recovery trial that was identified in the resilience study, we're currently reviewing historic incident statistics to see where and when this might provide some benefit. There was also a recommendation for additional mobile units and we now have six mobile signs rented, and those are on order for delivery shortly. We also have taken on a communications manager, which was identified as a crucial role. In terms of performance analysis we expect in April to be able to have completed the procurement effort that will allow that. In terms of the average speed enforcement trial on the Rhuallt Hill, again, we're going to go live with that in April or May of this year, and then, finally, the final short term measure that was recommended concerned vehicle restrictions on slow-moving vehicles. We are currently identifying exactly what definition should be used for slow-moving vehicles. It might take some time. We need to ensure the legal implications are bottomed out before we implement any restrictions on vehicle movement.
Questions from party spokespeople to the Cabinet Secretary, and the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Adam Price.
Diolch, Llywydd. The Wales and borders rail franchise has proven a unique exercise in many ways—unique in the form of the bidding process, but also, sadly, in that 50 per cent of the bidders have now had to pull out. It's also unique for any major rail procurement exercise in the UK in that the invitation to tender has not been made public. This continues to be the case despite the fact that the final tenders were submitted on 21 December 2017. They cannot now be altered, which is one of the reasons for Abellio's forced withdrawal from the process. This lack of transparency has prevented stakeholders from making meaningful comments on the aspirations of the Welsh Government for the future shape of the Welsh rail network. So, perhaps the Cabinet Secretary can shed some light on this for us today. Can he confirm that electrification of the Ebbw Vale to Cardiff rail line has been effectively ruled out for phase 2 of the south Wales metro, and that there is no commitment now either to electrify the Bridgend to Maesteg line?
Well, first of all we're awaiting, or I'm awaiting, full evaluation of the two bids for the franchise and the metro development. It would be premature for me to identify which projects are going to be taken forward and in what form within the next Wales and borders franchise and the development of the metro until the award has been made. But I would say, with regard to the tender process, yes, this is a unique process, one that has not been conducted anywhere else in the UK, but I think as Sion Barry in the Western Mail identified just a few weeks ago, we made the right call in making sure that four bidders remained in the race. There were calls for us to whittle the number of bidders down to two. I think it would have been somewhat embarrassing if that had taken place and then for Arriva and Abellio to have been those final two, and then for Arriva to withdraw and Abellio to have pulled out. But the fact remains that we have two world-class bids that are being evaluated at the moment. They've been strenuously tested, and we are on course to award the next franchise by May of this year.
Well, maybe I can help the Cabinet Secretary out a little here, because some of the answers have been provided for us now through the strategic environmental assessment on the south Wales metro that Transport for Wales have had to produce, and publish, under European regulations, albeit slightly under the radar. This document, and the accompanying maps, confirm that the Ebbw Vale electrification project has been—and I'm quoting directly here from the material now published by Transport for Wales—'discontinued from future consideration'.
Similarly ruled out is connecting Trelewis to near Quakers Yard, joining the Merthyr and Rhymney lines to create the so-called circle line of the Valleys, proposed by Mick Antoniw. It rejects an extension from Merthyr to Dowlais Top, but it does confirm a brand new on-street light rail service between Cathays Park and Cardiff Bay, replacing the current bendy bus. Now, Cabinet Secretary, you're getting £125 million to spend on the metro from the UK Government. When you asked for it, your Government promised it would be for the electrification of the entire Valleys lines network. You're now cancelling that, in just the same way as the UK Government did with electrification to Swansea, while continuing to spend on a bullet train for the bay. The Conservative Government were rightly accused of selling out on people who live to the west of Cardiff. Isn't the Labour Government now doing exactly the same to people who live in the Valleys to the north?
This is not correct. First and foremost, we have consulted on, and published, on numerous occasions, the high-level objectives for the Wales and borders franchise and the development of the metro. The specific design of the metro, and the build of the metro, will take place once the award has been made. But what counts most is that passengers see a vast improvement in the services that are delivered to them. In terms of electrification, we cannot say, until the award has been made, what the specific solutions are for each and every one of those lines that are contained within the metro area. It's therefore premature to assume that electrification of the entire Valleys lines is not included in any of the bids. I cannot divulge what is in the bids, but it is simply not possible to speculate over what is in there at present.
Cabinet Secretary, I'm quoting from your own Transport for Wales authority's maps. Under 'red', it says,
'Discontinued from future consideration at present'.
I'm just quoting at you your own transport authority's statement on these subjects. It is right, of course, that some of the money that you've had is going to be spent on the Valleys lines. According to the same document, there is a possibility that the existing core Valleys lines will be converted to light rail. But, again, that's a policy that we should be debating, because some will feel that light rail isn't appropriate in all circumstances—over long distances, for example, where trains are meant to travel more than 45 mph. It will disconnect the core Valleys lines from the national heavy rail network, with no freight or excursion, or through trains, for example, to Cardiff Airport possible ever again. Though I should point out that you've also ruled out a rail link to Cardiff Airport in the document, but we weren't told about that either. Why weren't we told about these policy decisions, so that we could debate them, and so that the people, ultimately, whose railway service this is—not the Government's—could have their say on whether this was the vision and these were the priorities they wanted to see?
Let's just be clear that devolution of responsibility for and funding for core Valleys lines is taking place, and we remain absolutely committed to upgrading the core Valleys lines as part of the metro vision, so that people can have more regular journeys. Four journeys an hour, we believe, is appropriate within a metro area, as a minimum. We've been clear in stating that. We've been clear in stating that, right across Wales, there will be improvements in terms of capacity, in terms of journey times and reliability. Outside of the core Valleys lines area, responsibility for infrastructure remains with the UK Government, but we would wish to see that devolved as well, as soon as possible. I think events of the past few weeks, with the damage to flanges on railway wheelsets, demonstrate why we need to make sure that there is a greater degree of investment right across the network in Wales. And, for that reason, we believe it should be devolved—responsibility should be devolved. But in terms of the metro, I can promise Members, I can assure Members, that the bids through from two world-class operators make for compelling arguments that there will be change to the rail services within the metro area, and across the country.
Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, despite being set up in 2013 to deliver greater value for the Welsh taxpayer, the Wales Audit Office has been critical of the National Procurement Service. Now, by anyone's estimation, it has comprehensively failed to deliver the intended savings in public spending. In 2016-17, it only generated about 60 per cent of the savings expected and, worse still, it made a loss of around £2 million, in both 2015-16 and 2016-17. So, can I ask why the Welsh Government's flagship policy for improving public procurement in Wales has failed so badly?
It's not actually the responsibility of my department. It's the responsibility of the Cabinet Secretary for Finance.FootnoteLink However, in terms of the economic action plan, we've made clear that with the economic contract, we could open up opportunities to extend the economic contract—the £6 billion of procurement opportunities within the Welsh public purse. We stated that we wish to disaggregate major procurement opportunities and contracts so that more small and medium-sized enterprises in Wales can capture valuable infrastructure projects across the country.
I appreciate what you've said, and, of course, you are responsible for the economic action plan, SMEs and supply chains that benefit as well. The Welsh Goverment formed the NPS in 2013. When it did that, it was given a £5.9 million loan, and, five years later, the NPS has failed to pay that loan back. So, I would ask, Cabinet Secretary, when can the Welsh taxpayer expect that money to be paid back? And, further still, the NPS is now not covering its own running costs, despite the then Cabinet Secretary Jane Hutt stating that the NPS would be self-financing by 2016. So, why is the Welsh Government currently using taxpayers' money to prop up the NPS and cover its running costs each year, despite the original policy being for the NPS to be self-funding by 2016?
Again, I'd refer this issue to my Cabinet colleague, who retains responsibility for it. I'm sure that my Cabinet colleague Mark Drakeford would be able to offer detailed answers to the questions that the Member has raised.
The National Procurement Service, I would suggest, is a failed policy. It's certainly an ongoing drain on the public purse. I am going to come to some areas that are certainly in your portfolio. Welsh SMEs and Welsh supply chains are not benefiting from the Welsh Government's procurement spending. In 2015-16, only 52 per cent of Welsh Government spending on goods and services went to Wales-based firms, and your Government's new economic action plan, which, of course, is in your responsibility, also fails to provide any detailed and meaningful road map for improving public procurement in Wales. So, can I ask a question that is absolutely in your portfolio? Why has the Welsh Government failed to address the issue of improving public procurement in the latest economic plan?
Well, it is addressed in the plan, as I say, through the disaggregation of major contracts. That will prove to be hugely beneficial, given the size of infrastructure projects—road in particular. And we're also working with not just industry bodies, but also with the sector teams within Government, to identify ways that businesses are able to work together and learn from one another in how to capture a greater share of the Welsh procurement spend. The Member is right that currently it's about 52 per cent—the proportion of contracts that are won by Welsh businesses—but that figure is increasing year on year, and I expect, through those measures identified in the economic action plan, and with additional measures that I've outlined through our engagement directly with business and business organisations, we'll see an increase further in the years to come.
UKIP spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, with the UK being listed by the Forbes as being the best place in the world to do business, where does Wales stand in comparison?
Well, given the alarms that have been raised recently by Airbus, by Ford and by many other companies, I would imagine that as we leave the EU, if we don't get the best possible deal, Wales, along with the UK as a whole, will be left further behind.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. I think all of us in this Chamber would recognise the fact that we need to considerably improve our act if we are to develop our business and commercial base in Wales, and, as discussed in the latest questions session, one of the key enablers to improvement is education. Nothing will do more to stimulate growth indigenously and also for inward investment than increasing our skills base, both vocationally and academically. Does it therefore concern the Cabinet Secretary that Cardiff University—the best performing in Wales—is ranked thirty-fifth out of 129 in the UK and that we have three others in the bottom 10?
I think it's fair to say that higher education gives us the strategic weapons for future economic growth in the fight for competitiveness, whereas further education gives us the tactical arsenal. In terms of FE, I think we have a very, very proud story to tell indeed. We have amongst Britain's best further education institutions based here in Wales. In terms of our higher education estate, I do think we have some world-class universities, and Cardiff amongst them, but Swansea as well, I think, in terms of research and development, in particular with regards to steel, can be counted as one of the world's best. The Member is right that, in driving up productivity, one of the key levers at our disposal is the improvement to the skills base and the pipeline of skilled people who are coming through to support business. But also we need to ensure that there is a greater degree of diffusion of innovation in Wales. We've been very clear that we expect, through the calls to action—the prisms through which we are going to be channelling and viewing investments in the future—that businesses innovate more and therefore work more closely, not just with higher education, but also with further education as well. I think in doing so, we will be able to improve our prospects and improve our productivity levels in years to come.
Again, I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his answer, and for the confidence he has in the Government's economic strategy. But the Federation of Small Businesses and business in general have long complained about the disconnect between employers and the academic establishment. Does that Cabinet Secretary believe that there are now policies in place to radically improve on this failing?
I do. I'd argue that now, more than ever before, businesses, and particularly higher education, are working more closely than they ever have done, and I'd point to an abundance of examples right across Wales where that is the case. Just today, I'm pleased to be able to share with Members the news that the advanced manufacturing research institute is being given planning permission in Broughton. We'll be spending a not-inconsiderable sum of money in developing that particular facility, but it will bring in significant private sector investment and also higher education investment. In doing so—in bringing together business with Welsh Government activities and with higher education research—we expect that institute to deliver something in the region of £4 billion of improvements in gross value added to the Welsh economy. That's a hugely significant investment, therefore, for Welsh Government to make. I think it demonstrates how smart investment that brings together business, large and small, with academia can bring about very rich fruits indeed for the economy.
4. What is the Welsh Government doing to support the economy of Pembrokeshire? OAQ51834
The 'Prosperity for All' national strategy and the economic action plan set out the actions we are taking to improve the economy and business environment across the whole of Wales.
Sadly, figures from the Local Data Company and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods show that Milford Haven still continues to have the highest vacancy rate of retail premises in Wales. This, of course, has been a long-standing problem that desperately needs support. It won't surprise the Cabinet Secretary that business rates is one factor in preventing businesses from setting up in places like Milford Haven. In the circumstances, can the Cabinet Secretary tell us what discussions he's had with his colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance on this matter? Perhaps he can persuade his colleague to commit to reviewing the business rates system in order to look at things like the multiplier to ensure that small businesses aren't actually disadvantaged on our high streets.
I can assure the Member that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance is very alive to the concerns of businesses in Pembrokeshire, and in particular to the concerns that they have over rates. I will raise with him further the points that you have raised today. But I would say that, as a whole across Pembrokeshire, we've seen a significant increase in the number of enterprises operating in recent years. I believe that there's been an increase of something in the region of 10.6 per cent in the number of businesses in Pembrokeshire since the start of the decade. However, I do also recognise that new and existing businesses do face very difficult challenges, and I'll certainly raise the concerns that the Member has raised today in the Chamber with the Cabinet Secretary.
Last week, the First Minister announced that Valero will be investing in a £127 million project to create a combined heat and power cogeneration unit at their Pemrokeshire refinery. That project will help secure the long-term sustainability of the refinery and also secure over 1,000 employees, and help boost the Pembrokeshire economy and, for that matter, that of Wales.
I understand the Welsh Government has been working closely with Valero to help secure this crucial investment. Cabinet Secretary, would you agree that this investment clearly demonstrates the value of strategic enterprise zones like the Haven Waterway enterprise zone, which you have now agreed to extend?
Yes, I would, and I thank the Member for her question. I think it's fantastic news. Valero's £127 million project, I think, shows confidence in the Pembrokeshire site and in the wider Welsh economy. It's interesting that the refinery is one of only six remaining refining businesses in the UK and it's located right at the heart of the Haven Waterway enterprise zone. It demonstrates how, by working together, we can secure employment within a valuable sector for many, many people. Something in the region of 1,000 people rely on work at this particular site. I'm delighted that we've been part of this positive news for the region.
Darren Millar is not here to ask question 5 [OAQ51849]. Therefore, question 6, Mick Antoniw.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the development of the proposed South Wales Metro servicing depot in Taff's Well? OAQ51863
Yes. Development of the site depends on the solution proposed by the successful bidder. As part of their robust approach to programme management, Transport for Wales are considering comments submitted on the outline planning consultation for the potential use of the site as a depot, prior to progressing with an outline planning application.
Thank you for that answer. Of course, we welcome all the steps that have been taken with Transport for Wales and with this potential new job opportunity in the Taff Ely area, which is of considerable significance. The issue I raise really is about engagement with the local community. I remember the site well as the former South Wales Forgemasters site. The issues that will arise will obviously be the light and noise pollution during construction, potential access issues at Tŷ Rhiw junction, Cemetery Road and Cardiff Road, and the availability of sufficient parking at Taff's Well station, which is also an issue that has been raised as a proposal in there. What steps have been taken to ensure there is proper engagement and consultation with the local community over this, whilst actually welcoming the fact that there will be a real jobs opportunity for the area?
Can I thank Mick Antoniw for his question? I recognise that he's spoken regularly and with great commitment on this subject. I'm pleased to be able to say that the statutory pre-application period of four weeks for the proposed depot concluded at the end of February. Transport for Wales have carefully considered the comments from the community. A consultation took place and statutory consultees were also engaged. We intend to submit a pre-application summary report along with a full outline planning application for a potential depot to the local planning authority shortly.
7. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve transport infrastructure in Pembrokeshire? OAQ51833
The national transport finance plan, updated in December of last year, sets out our priorities for transport schemes across Wales, including in Pembrokeshire.
I'm grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for his answer. It won't surprise the Cabinet Secretary to hear me again arguing that one way to improve the transport infrastructure in Pembrokeshire is to dual the A40, which would have a huge, positive knock-on effect on Pembrokeshire's economy and, indeed, on the economy of the whole of west Wales. Dualling would also improve road safety. Sadly, yesterday, we saw another fatality on this stretch of road. In light of the economic and, more importantly, safety benefits dualling the road could bring, will you now commit to dualling the A40 in Pembrokeshire in the long term, given that the Welsh Government has already committed to delivering improvements to the A40 in Pembrokeshire anyway?
We are committed to delivering many improvements to the A40. It's a key strategic route, and I'm pleased to be able to say that preliminary investigations have already begun to develop several more overtaking opportunities along the entire stretch of the A40. We're currently looking at when these can be delivered alongside other priorities that are identified in the national transport finance plan, and we'll develop a programme in due course. We also hope that European Union funding that's been earmarked for these improvements will be drawn down and utilised. The A40 is a hugely important route within Wales, and I will do whatever I possibly can to argue the case for further investment, not just for overtaking opportunities but, where possible, the dualling of the route as well.
Question 8, [OAQ51840], has been withdrawn, Therefore, question 9, Mark Reckless.
9. Will the Cabinet Secretary confirm whether the debate and vote on the M4 relief road that was announced in a letter to Assembly Members will be binding or advisory? OAQ51855
I can confirm that we will bring forward a debate in Government time on the M4 corridor around Newport project following conclusion of the public local inquiry. Given the legal implications of an ongoing public inquiry, we are currently considering options available to us and the timing, of course, of this debate, and I will inform the Assembly of those plans as soon as they are finalised.
Will Welsh Government treat the Assembly with equivalent respect in that debate and vote as it has with the recent vote to publish a leak report?
I can assure the Member that, with a Government debate, there is a vote, and I think it's essential, given that this subject has raised so many differing views, that all Members get a full opportunity to debate the subject and to be able to vote on it, as we've already promised that we will do.
10. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on transport plans for the Swansea bay city region? OAQ51830
Yes. The national transport finance plan, which was updated just last year, sets out our programme for the next three years and beyond.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response. I would like to ask: will the Cabinet Secretary consider quick wins such as the reopening of railway stations such as Landore, creating bus-train interchanges within the region and completing cycle routes?
Yes, I will consider quick wins of that nature, particularly those relating to active travel, given my stated desire to see a significant increase in the availability of capital funding to support active travel projects. Aproposal for reopening Landore station is being considered as part of a Welsh Government assessment of proposals for new rail stations. We'll be putting Landore forward as one possible option to be considered as part of the exercise being undertaken by Network Rail.
As part of the UK's consultation into the future of the Great Western railway position, I've actually done my own transport survey locally, mainly talking about the possibility of a parkway in Felindre or somewhere similar. That proved quite popular, but also ideas were put forward about improving local internal rail links as well, as Mike Hedges has mentioned, to help ease congestion and feed into what a parkway can do, because one of the advantages of a parkway, of course, is that it could help focus the movement of people and of traffic westwards into the city deal area, not just eastwards as we might expect. Obviously, there's a UK element to this. Have you had an opportunity yet to discuss yourself the opportunities that a parkway would present for the whole of the city deal region, not just for Swansea itself?
Yes, indeed. In fact, just this morning I met with Councillor Rob Stewart to discuss many issues, including the one that the Member has identified, and I think it might be helpful, perhaps, if I was to offer Members sight of my response to the consultation on the GWR franchise route. And I think that will identify how Welsh Government is making numerous demands of UK Government in terms of improvement of passenger services, and improvements to journey times and frequency of services as well. I think it's an exciting time, potentially, for the Swansea bay region. Of course, we've had the very sad, regrettable decision concerning electrification, but we are funding work concerning the potential development of a metro project, and I think this has all the potential to radically change the region and to bring further prosperity and opportunities for growth to Swansea bay and the surrounding communities.
Cabinet Secretary, whilst the concept, obviously, as you mention, of a Swansea bay and western Valleys metro is to be welcomed, does the Cabinet Secretary recognise concerns within the Neath Port Talbot area around the need to protect the status of Neath railway station as part of any metro proposal, and what discussions have you undertaken with the local authority and other stakeholders to address those concerns?
Well, I think the local authority has been very clear in its position on Neath station. I've listened very carefully and I accept the argument that Neath station and, indeed, many other stations in the area shouldn't just be protected but should be enhanced. I will look at any proposals within the metro vision that will deliver improved infrastructure across the entire network.
11. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline plans to improve tourism in south-west Wales? OAQ51853
In order to improve tourism, we as a Government, of course, invest across Wales. In 2017, in the South Wales West region of Wales, which the Member represents, this included visitor car and coach parking at Rhossili; significant improvements to Fairyhill hotel, which I had an opportunity to visit relatively recently and to see the impact of those improvements on the visitor offer in being part of an area of outstanding natural beauty as they enjoy their holidays; the development of the Three Cliffs coffee shop; as well as help, I’m pleased to say, for that historic hotel, the Castle Hotel, in Neath—one of the most important hotels in the history of the development of sport in Wales.
Thank you for that clear explanation of what is important for my region and that of others in this Chamber. I ask this question because one of the main points of your economic plan is tourism and culture. We have seen in the Neath Port Talbot area that the local authority has proposed that cuts be made to the Cefn Coed museum, which is something that we would like to see restored and developed. There have also been cuts put forward of 30.6 per cent to Pontardawe Arts Centre, which is also important as a vibrant arts centre for that area, and for the Swansea valley and for Swansea and Neath more generally. How will these cuts align with the economic system that you have, as a Government, of promoting and developing tourism and the arts locally?
Well, tourism, of course, is one of the foundation industries noted in the economic plan. We as a Government are not responsible for decisions taken by local authorities on their budgets, but I do think that it would be very constructive if local authorities were to do what I had an opportunity to participate in in Carmarthenshire very recently, namely to have a lengthy and detailed discussion on the priorities of the authority, particularly where the county council saw an opportunity to benefit from the various schemes that come within the budgets of the department that I am responsible for, particularly those schemes that make provision for tourism but which also, similarly, make provision for local residents and visitors. So, I’m not going to comment on decisions taken by local authorities, but it would be much easier if local authorities were to discuss their priorities with the Welsh Government in these various different areas.
Minister, you started in Swansea, you went to Neath—come to Aberavon and see some of the fantastic sites for tourism in Margam Park and the Afan valley. Many mining communities up in the Afan valleys and other valleys have moved to tourism as an opportunity to actually look at growing the economy. We have projects in the Afan valley. I know the Rhondda tunnel is going between Rhondda and the Afan valley, but there is also the Afan valley project—the resort project that has been proposed. These are opportunities that provide local people with jobs and skills that we can use in their home place. Will you come and visit that site to look at it and to ensure that tourism can actually get a community to thrive and start developing itself, based upon the fact that it's actually had a long period where there's been a lack of growth in the economy because of the loss of those industries?
Well, I can hardly say 'no' to you with you sitting there. [Laughter.] We are long-standing friends, obviously, as well as neighbours. But, seriously, I have been trying to visit as many of these sites as possible. I was in Cwmcarn recently, where I saw how the development of the relationship between the forestry, which has had serious problems, and the paths and the way the local authority can, by developing an excellent centre, get involved in the development of tourism, especially tourism based on cycling. I was also, of course, in my own part of the world at Coed y Brenin, which one might describe as second only to the Afan valley—[Laughter.]—as a centre of tourism and mountain biking. Certainly, I will come to the Afan valley, but I can only praise the efforts of all our mining communities, both the coal-mining communities, the lead-mining communities around where I live, and of course the slate-mining communities, which have all contributed immensely to the tourism offer now available, and I hope to be visiting Zip World and Surf Snowdonia and other of these facilities, none of which are now in the area that I represent, but not too far from the area where I live. So, I'm on the case, Dai.
12. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on Welsh Government plans for the Bontnewydd and Caernarfon bypass? OAQ51868
Diolch. I'm currently considering the findings and recommendations of the inspector's report that has been received following the public local inquiry, before making a decision on the scheme this spring.
Forgive me for my increasing frustration here. It's about time we had an announcement on the bypass. It's two years behind schedule already, and I was given a pledge by you that there would be an announcement in the new year. For me, the new year has long since passed, and we are into March and we still haven't had an announcement. As well as reducing traffic jams, the area would benefit economically from the proposal, and 40 apprenticeships could be created immediately in my area if there were to be an announcement made. So, may I urge you to announce the commencement of this scheme over the next few weeks?
I listened very carefully to what the Member had to say. I can assure the Member that it is essential that sufficient consideration is given to an inquiry's report in order to avoid any subsequent judicial action. The inspector considered 20 expressions of support for the scheme and 160 objections. The inspector also considered 20 alternative routes as part of the inquiry process. The inspector has presented his considerations along with his recommendations in a detailed report to my officials. I can assure the Member that I will be reaching a decision on this matter this spring.
13. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on economic development in the North Wales region? OAQ51847
Yes. A renewed economic vision for north Wales will emerge from the regional agenda contained in the Welsh Government's 'Prosperity for All' economic action plan document, integrating the aspirations of the north Wales growth bid and incorporating and capitalising on opportunities associated with key sectors and, of course, the Northern Powerhouse.
Thank you for that answer. Cabinet Secretary, at the weekend, the gap between the richest and poorest in the UK was highlighted, where the poor relation of the UK was west Wales. I've been looking into the relative prosperity of my region, and I find a large gap of around £50 per week in average earnings between those living there and those living and working in South Wales Central. What are you going to do to address this inequality and close the gap between the north and the south?
Well, it's not just a gap between the north and the south. We see inequalities in all communities, and between the north and the south, between the east and the west, between communities that are adjacent to one another. The whole purpose of the economic action plan is to iron out those inequalities and to offer higher quality jobs to people close to their homes and to equip people with the skills to be able to get into work. I think the report that's been published today by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation highlights just how dire the consequences of austerity have been, particularly for lower income households—especially for those households where there are children, because they've lost considerably more during austerity as a consequence of welfare reform and benefits cuts: around 12 per cent of net income has been lost to the lower earning households within our communities. Large families are particularly hard hit, losing around £7,750 a year, or one fifth of their net income on average. I think this is pretty shameful. We're going to be addressing it, and we are addressing it, through changing the way that we work, in order to provide more opportunities for higher quality employment for those who are furthest from the jobs market, or for those who are in work lacking the resource or the earnings potential to be able to live comfortably by focusing on the development of higher quality jobs and more and better career pathways within work.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary.
The next item, therefore, are the topical questions. The first question is from Rhun ap Iorwerth.
1. What is the Welsh Government's response to the effects of storm Emma on Holyhead? 150
Diolch. Natural Resources Wales are working with the Holyhead marina, the port authority and the Maritime and Coastguard Agency on the clean-up and to minimise further fuel loss or escape of debris into the environment. This includes taking action to deal with the polystyrene that has spilled into the water. I will be visiting Holyhead port and marina tomorrow to meet with all agencies involved.
Thank you for that response. I was at Holyhead marina on Friday, immediately after the storm, and the scene—many of you will have seen the pictures on television and so on—was truly heartbreaking: utter destruction. There were many pleasure boats there, which are important to the area, but there were also commercial boats in the marina, and many of those had been destroyed or partially damaged.
Now, all of the businesses using the marina make up an important part of the marine economy of Anglesey, and given the emphasis now, at last, thank goodness, on developing the maritime strategy for Wales, I would like to know what kind of support package the Government can put together to support these businesses in their hour of need in the short term. Secondly, and looking beyond the short term, may I be given a commitment that the Government will assist to fund research into the possible need for a sea defence for this part of the harbour in Holyhead? As a question related to that: would you agree that there’s an important role for the oceanography department at Bangor University in this important work, including the use of their research ship, the Prince Madog?
Finally, and crucially—and you have referred to this—in the short term, we are facing a grave environmental problem as a result of the storm. I understand that there wasn’t too much fuel in the boats, and that most of it has been collected, but there is certainly a huge problem in terms of the polystyrene debris of the pontoons in the marina. There’s a real threat as a result of polystyrene. I was on the Institute for European Environmental Policy website earlier, where they discussed the risks to sea life ingesting polystyrene, which can be broken up into very small particles and will then remain for a long time, and the risk when that gets into the food chain and so on and so forth.
Questions have been asked as to whether the response of Welsh Government agencies was swift enough following the storm in terms of the pollution damage. Local people have been told to keep away from the shore and not to participate in the clean-up, but many of them have said that they feel that they have to because they don’t see officials undertaking that work. But whatever happened then, now, five days later, I would like an update on what is being done to deal with the pollution, and an assurance that whatever needs to be done will be done to ensure that we don’t face more environmental destruction than we’ve already seen.
Thank you, Rhun ap Iorwerth, for that question. I would like to say from the outset that I'm very grateful to all those who have been involved in the clean-up operation. I think, because of their hard work, we have helped to minimise the environmental impact of this very unfortunate event, and I absolutely appreciate the effect that the storm damage has had on many people's livelihoods, and that's obviously a very distressing situation for them all.
You ask a series of questions; in relation to the boats, there are about 85 boats that have been damaged, of which five are commercial fishing boats.
I'm very happy to give consideration to possible financial support for public infrastructure repair. Also if there's any further environmental damage that needs cleaning up, I'm very happy to look at that, and that's obviously something I'll be discussing on my visit tomorrow. You say that it's been a grave environmental impact; I want to see for myself what it is, but certainly, questions haven't been raised with me about our response not being quick enough. I've been having several briefings every day since this happened on Friday, and, certainly, my understanding is from NRW that it's progressed in a very smooth way.
There is a north Wales standing environment group, of which my officials are members; that hasn't been brought together because there wasn't the need to do that. Now, if you are saying that there is a grave environmental situation, when I get there tomorrow, I will want to know why that hasn't been brought together if that's the case. But, certainly, my understanding is it hasn't been convened because they are happy with the way that the clean-up has gone to plan at the current time.So, I'll be very happy to update you following my visit there tomorrow, and, obviously, other Members too.
Whether we need to have a sea defence there is something that clearly needs to be looked at. This was an absolutely catastrophic event that happened on Friday, and whilst I appreciate we haven't seen weather like that for a long time in Wales, I think there are questions to be asked why it was so catastrophic. You said about the pictures, and, certainly, at home last weekend, to see those photographs were just heartbreaking. But as I said, Llywydd, I will be very happy to update the Member following my visit tomorrow.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary. The next question, therefore, is to be asked by Lee Waters.
2. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the effect of the end of free-to-air coverage of regional rugby from next season? 151
The Welsh Government recognises that this is a commercial decision, but the Government is deeply concerned about this decision that there will be no free-to-air television coverage of regional rugby in the English language from next season. We are still awaiting the outcome of further negotiations that affect the S4C coverage in the Welsh language and, of course, the red button that would provide for bilingual coverage for viewers in Wales.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. At a time when the Llanelli Scarlets are flying high, I want as many people as possible to see their success, but giving the English language rights for regional rugby to pay tv, the Pro14 are embarking on a risky strategy. Even on free-to-air, audiences for regional games have been falling, and by encouraging a new pay tv channel to outbid the BBC and S4C's joint bid the clubs are gambling in order to get an early pay day. For this to work relies on fans to pay £10 a month. But as I understand it, only two television masts in Wales are capable of receiving the new free sports tv: Moel-y-Parc in Flintshire, and Wenvoe near Cardiff, which doesn't reach Llanelli.
Would the Minister discuss with Premier Sports how fans across Wales will be able to view the new games next season? I am very concerned about the viability of this bid, not least because the chief executive officer of Premier Sport, Mickey O'Rourke, was the CEO of Setanta Sports, which previously failed. You only have to Google Setanta to know it failed because it didn't have a viable business model. The Minister mentions there's still a hope that S4C will get the rights to show some games, but only some games.
Pro14's approach has deliberately broken up the successful partnership between the BBC and S4C and gone for a small and unknown alternative for an unknown amount of money, but from what I hear, it's not a huge difference and I am puzzled as to why they've done it. It will potentially slash the audience for regional rugby, which is already struggling to get audiences, and though broadcasting isn't devolved, the fallout from this decision is. Without Friday and Saturday night rugby, clubs and halls across Wales will suffer. One of BBC Wales's most popular shows, Scrum V, will all but disappear, and new generations of rugby players will not get to see their region play.
So, this is a staggeringly short-sighted decision. Would the Minister meet with Pro14 to discuss what contingency plans they have if this new pay tv channel fails, and encourage them to rethink their decision? Diolch.
As the Member knows—and I'm very grateful to him for expressing his concerns on behalf of the Scarlets and, indeed, all rugby followers in Wales, but it particularly affects his constituency—the Pro14 competition is run by a body called Celtic Rugby UK Limited, which is a private company limited by shares, and it includes among its owners the Irish Rugby Football Union, the Welsh Rugby Union, the Scottish Rugby Union and the Italian Rugby Federation, with a board of directors consisting of two representatives appointed by each union and an independent chairman. So, these people, clearly, should be well aware of the results of their decision, as they discussed the various bids.
Our understanding is that this was a joint bid from BBC Cymru Wales, BBC Northern Ireland, BBC Alba and S4C, and as we know now, the bid has been rejected, but we have not had clear confirmation from Pro14 of precisely what arrangements are to be undertaken by the successful bidder. I will certainly accede to his request that I should have further discussions, both formally, if necessary, but certainly informally, as I will be meeting the characters involved fairly soon again, as I met some of them this morning, and that we will have those discussions so that we can understand the nature of this decision. But also to take up the point that he has made: what provision can be made to ensure that there is damage limitation as a result of this decision in terms of the ability of Welsh viewers to still participate in these essential games? That may well be in the form of the kind of discussions I understand may be going ahead between S4C at the moment and the successful bidder, about how many games and what permissions they will have to receive, from them, the opportunity to still broadcast both on air and online.
Well, I agree with Lee Waters; this is a very bizarre decision, certainly on the face of it. While there may be some incidental benefit for S4C if it does get some free-to-air viewing, by more viewers switching to S4C just for those games, I don't think that that, in itself, seems to justify the decision that's been made.
You say it's a commercial decision and that's absolutely true, but it's also true to say that Welsh Government has supported the WRU in the past with a range of grants, through strategic regeneration funding, through the community facilities and activities programme and through Sport Wales, of course. So, I think it's entirely right that Welsh Government should ask for some detail about how this decision was made, and very specifically, what arguments WRU put forward to maintain free-to-air coverage on Welsh language television; how hard they pushed that; and, in particular, what effect they think a probably limited viewership is going to have on their sponsorship, because, of course, sponsorship is key to maintaining Pro14, not just the commercial charging. And it strikes me, as I say, on the face of it, that this is an absolutely crazy decision if they're expecting sponsorship in the future.
I'm afraid I can't follow that line of argument. Our relationship with S4C, as Welsh Government, is specifically directed at supporting their activities in developing community rugby. And clearly, there is a close link between the community rugby and the possibility of viewers in Wales being able to follow the Pro14 regional rugby games. I have had meetings recently with the Welsh Rugby Union, both formally and informally, and as a result of this discussion today, which they will have heard, I can assure you that I will pursue all avenues that I can, short of seeking to interfere in a commercial decision. Because we have to make it quite clear that this Government is not in the business of damaging our relationships with bodies that take commercial decisions with which we may disagree.
I'm grateful to my friend Lee Waters for raising this important issue today. As a season-ticket holder at the Dragons, I'm deeply disappointed about this decision to move to pay tv. My love of sport, like many people's, came from watching on free-to-air television. I understand that there's a balance to be struck between using television to promote the game and using television money to pay for professional players, but we have to be mindful of creating a new elitism in which people of all ages who struggle to get to regional games are disproportionately excluded. And there are already examples of this in English and Welsh cricket, and in Irish rugby.
Worryingly, research by Dr Paul Rouse at the university of Dublin gives an example in Ireland of the difference between two Leinster games in the Heineken Cup. The number of women who watched the 2006 Leinster game on national Irish television was 67,000, compared to only 9,000 who tuned in to Sky in 2007. Similarly affected were the over-55s. If the Welsh regions do get more money, as this deal promises, what commitments would the Minister seek from the regions to ensure that they reach a wider audience to make up for the loss of mass exposure on tv, and to guarantee that there's not a two-tier fan base in Welsh regional rugby in the future? And finally, what opportunities does the Minister think exist to boost Welsh premiership rugby exposure from this decision?
I'm very grateful for that further question. It will be clear to those following this exchange that there is no support in this Chamber for the decision that has been taken in terms of the awarding of this particular opportunity to broadcast. It is significantly important, as you pointed out from your own experience, that there should be an opportunity for people to openly follow the coverage of significant sporting events, which leads to participation, recruitment of supporters who offer their lifelong support to rugby, as many of us do here to rugby—and indeed to football—in Wales. Therefore, it is imperative that we should, as a Government, continue to discuss with the sporting organisations that, as was already raised, we in fact do support. These questions that are being raised today are ones that I will personally—I give you this undertaking—that I will personally raise, not only with the WRU, and therefore through them with the Pro14, but also: what are the consequences, both for community rugby and for the premiership? This is certainly something that we would want to explore as a Government, and I give you the undertaking that you seek.
I thank the Minister, and the final topical question, therefore, is from David Melding.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government’s leasehold contract agreement with five major home builders? 152
Yes. Help to Buy—Wales is issuing new contract variations to all house builders using the scheme, not just the largest five. These new terms will limit the use of Help to Buy—Wales for houses on leasehold to exceptional circumstances. It will also ensure the leasehold terms for any Help to Buy—Wales home, including flats, are fair. In addition to this, the five major house builders have agreed not to market any new-build homes in Wales as leasehold, unless under exceptional circumstances.
Llywydd, in the past year since the UK Government's announcement of a crackdown on unfair leasehold practices, we have seen this issue become a real focus as well in Wales. Can I welcome the Government's announcement this afternoon? I think it is definitely a good step in the right direction. However, I am concerned that this announcement doesn't come across as an amnesty or a pardon for those big housing companies who have been operating these feudal practices for the past 10 years or more. Unlike the UK Government's stance, your statement doesn't seem to provide any hope for the many people, often first-time buyers, who are already stuck in this exploitative system. And so, does the Minister agree that the Welsh Government needs to provide leaseholders with clear support on the various routes of redress available to them, alongside a wider internal review of the support and advice system that is available to leaseholders where current practices are set to continue?
Thank you very much for those questions, and I would say that the announcement that I have made this week is only the start of my ambitions for leasehold, and the start of the action that I intend to take in this area. You'll recall we had a really instructive and useful debate here in the Chamber at the end of January, and I gave an undertaking at that point to bring forward as many early actions as I could, and the announcements that I've made this week are very much being true to the commitment that I made then, but this is just the start.
I do reiterate that I'm not ruling out the possibility of future legislation. I recognise that legislation may very well be needed in order to resolve the wider issues and to make leasehold, or an alternative tenure, fit for the modern housing market. In order to set out our way forward, we're engaging with the Law Commission's project, which is looking at this issue, and once we have the benefit of the Law Commission's report and our own research, which I've also commissioned into this issue, I'll be able to set out the next steps. But, in the meantime, I will be looking to use all of the avenues at our disposal.
I will say that, in terms of assisting people who are currently subject to those agreements that they've made through the leasehold contracts that they have, I'm very much aware of those problems. I think all of us, almost daily at the moment—I certainly do, anyway—have daily contact with people who are experiencing current problems. Some people think that they were badly advised or not advised at all about what leasehold means for them, and they should seek redress through the established means that already exist.
Disputes relating to the cost of buying freehold, increases in ground rent and service charges—those are things that we all hear about regularly—can all be referred to the leasehold valuation tribunal for resolution, and the leasehold advisory service is very well-placed also to assist leaseholders and help with the task of reforming leasehold tenure in the round as well. LEASE has been established for 20 years. They give free legal advice to leaseholders, landlords, professional advisers, managers and others on the law affecting residential leasehold in England and Wales, and they should be the first point of contact for people who do have concerns in this area.
But as I say, the announcement this week was a first step, and some early actions that I saw could be made fairly straightforwardly, following the discussions we had in January.
I'd like to thank David Melding for bringing this question forward because I think it would have merited having an oral statement from the Minister on this. But in your statement, you wrote that the five developers with which you have agreements would only build leasehold under circumstances judged by you to be absolutely necessary. I was wondering if you could clarify what you and these developers would define as absolutely necessary.
My second point only goes to reiterate what David Melding AM also said. Help to Buy is only one small part of the market, and we want to be assured that those who are already stuck in this particular circumstance will be given the same rights as those under the Help to Buy scheme.
The following point I wanted to make, emanating from what was said yesterday, I think, by Hefin David, was: I think it's a ticking time bomb in relation to the management fees that are imposed in relation to leaseholds. Many people have contacted me saying that they feel that there is a two-tier system in place, whereby they are paying management fees to do the same thing that they are paying their council tax to do, in relation to the management of gardens or the picking up of rubbish. So, I would wish for you to look at this, at a later date, as well as enhancing upon the statement that you've already made.
I thank you very much for those questions. Just to clarify, the exceptional circumstances that were referred to in the statement are highlighted in the Leasehold Reform Act 1967. So, they include things like land owned by the National Trust, the Crown, a local authority or within a cathedral precinct, and also includes land of a special architectural or historical interest where it's important to safeguard the land and the surroundings. So, in practice, what this means is that any application that comes through, requesting one of those exemptions to buy or to build a leasehold property through Help to Buy, will have to be raised with the Welsh Government, and then we will seek clarification on whether or not those exceptional circumstances are legitimate in our view. We'll seek that from the local authority.
Any developer registering a site through Help to Buy—Wales will be required to submit a pre-development plan, and that will be required to identify the proposed tenure and any reasons for leasehold. Again, we would have those discussions as to whether or not they fell under the Leasehold Reform Act 1967.
The Help to Buy scheme is only a small part of the housing market in Wales—you're right—which is why I'm very pleased that, through our house builder engagement programme, we were able to secure that agreement from those five major house builders in Wales that they'd no longer market homes as leasehold, and that applies to Help to Buy, but also to other marketed homes as well, which are new builds. So, I very much welcome that commitment.
You also raised the issue of management companies. Again, this is something that I'm interested in pursuing. I very much look forward to the debate we'll be having next week, I understand, proposed by Hefin David, into the relationships and the rights of people who own their house as a freehold property but within an estate and are subject to many of the same charges through those management companies as people who have leasehold properties.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item is the 90-second statements, and the first statement is from David Melding.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. In September 2016, a man named Gary had run most of the Cardiff 5 km Race For Victory before collapsing on the roadside in great pain, suffering from a cardiac arrest. Astonishingly, Gary's heart stopped for seven minutes. The first help to arrive at the scene was the Cardiff cycle response unit of St John Cymru, a group of volunteers who were able to get Gary's heart beating by itself again using a defibrillator. Gary was fortunate that everything came together at the right time, with early intervention and people on hand with the right training and equipment. The work of St John Cymru had saved Gary's life.
Last week, across the country, we celebrated and marked St David's Day, a very special and proud day for us. But this year, for many like Gary, it had extra value, as it marked the centenary of the establishment of the Priory for Wales of the Order of St John, an organisation of which I am proud to be a member. The first Order of St John was founded over 1,000 years ago on the principle that its members should treat and care for every person without discrimination of race, social standing or gender. From those basic foundations, the order has grown to become a vital part of our modern society.
Here in Wales specifically the organisation consists of around 4,000 volunteers who carry out the work of the order on a daily basis. It was in recognition of the dedicated work of the divisions in Wales that on St David's Day 1918 the priory for Wales was established. It is fitting that we mark this centenary of St John Cymru in the Chamber today, and we look forward to the reception you are graciously hosting in the Senedd, Llywydd, next month.
Yesterday we marked International Women's Day Week with the unveiling of the first purple plaque in Wales in memory of the late Labour Assembly Member for Swansea East, Val Feld. Val Feld was a champion for social justice before she become an AM and a passionate supporter of devolution as treasurer of the 'Yes for Wales' campaign leading up to the 1997 referendum. Val saw devolution as an opportunity to further our search for equality and social justice in Wales. I want to pay tribute today to Val's achievement in securing sections 48 and 120 of the Government of Wales Act 1998, and also pay tribute to Julie Morgan, Assembly Member for Cardiff North, who was an MP at the time, supporting the legislation through the House of Commons and working closely with Val Feld on the equality of opportunity clauses. Let us remind ourselves of the clauses in the Government of Wales Act 1998:
'Equal opportunities in conduct of business
'The Assembly shall make appropriate arrangements with a view to securing that its business is conducted with due regard to the principle that there should be equality of opportunity for all people.'
Section 120, 'Equality of opportunity', repeats this and adds:
'(2) After each financial year the Assembly shall publish a report containing—
'(a) a statement of the arrangements made in pursuance of subsection (1) which had effect during that financial year, and
'(b) an assessment of how effective those arrangements were in promoting equality of opportunity.'
Of course, this was updated in the Government of Wales Act 2006 to 'Welsh Ministers', who must make those appropriate arrangements and also publish a report annually. We are duty bound to respect this legislation in everything we do, and I think it's worth repeating those clauses today. Diolch yn fawr, Val Feld and Julie Morgan.
Diolch, Llywydd. Many of us had the privilege last week of welcoming 18 young women to the Senedd to take part in a leadership event arranged by Chwarae Teg—a day of activities to provide an insight into how the Assembly works and the role of Assembly Members. Now, each participant was partnered with an AM for the morning, participated in a question and answer session and took part in a mock debate to mark International Women's Day. The day proved to be a huge success and particularly positive, recognising that International Women's Day offers an important opportunity to reflect on progress that has been made around the world to achieve gender equality, but that we need to be bold in addressing the barriers that continue to prevent women from playing as full a role as men in the economic, political, social and cultural life of Wales. During the debate, there were some powerful messages put forward. One participant stated, 'We have just as much chance as boys of attending university, but the glass ceiling holding us back from high-level positions is still bolted into place. You can only punch at that glass ceiling alone so many times. You can only handle so much blood on your knuckles. International Women's Day is an opportunity for everyone doing this work to stand together'. And another stated, 'International Women's Day demonstrates and celebrates solidarity and respect for women, not only by women but also by educated men. This day shows the world that we will not settle for anything less than we are worth. This is why International Women's Day is still important in 2018.'
Long may this National Assembly show leadership and solidarity in bringing about equality. Diolch yn fawr.
A statement now by the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee, and I call on the Chair to make a statement—Jayne Bryant.
Diolch, Llywydd. As Assembly Members will be aware, in November 2017, the Llywydd, leaders of party groups and I, as Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee, issued a joint statement. We set out a commitment to ensure that inappropriate behaviour has no place at the National Assembly for Wales, and a desire to reassure everyone who works here, and those who visit us, that they will be free from any form of harassment. Whether it's here in the Senedd, a constituency office, or out in the community, everyone should feel as though they are treated with respect as they encounter representatives of this organisation.
The joint statement set out a number of actions intended to ensure the Assembly is an inclusive organisation, free from intimidation and harassment. These actions included the development of a dignity and respect policy, the establishment of a confidential complaints referral service, and ensuring the complaints procedure is clear and consistent. Work is well under way, and a dignity and respect policy is due to be laid before the Assembly next month.
The Standards of Conduct Committee agreed to undertake a more wide-ranging inquiry into creating the right culture at the Assembly. We believe that the Assembly must set an example and provide clear and strong leadership on the type of workplace culture we would like to see within Wales. We're considering existing procedures around complaints involving Assembly Members to ensure that they are appropriate and clear. Individuals must feel able to come forward with confidence about any concern regarding inappropriate behaviour.
We've held an open consultation, which aimed to find out whether the current complaints procedure is easily understandable and accessible, and whether there are any barriers to people raising concerns about the behaviour of anyone associated with the National Assembly for Wales. Although the consultation is now formally closed, people are always encouraged to come forward with suggestions on how to improve the process or with any concerns they may have. We're currently taking evidence from groups and individuals who have agreed to talk to the committee about their experiences. And I would like to put on record my thanks to those who have offered their views to the committee during the last few months. I'm particularly grateful to those who have agreed to speak to us. Without understanding the experiences of others it's very difficult to identify the challenges within the Assembly and ascertain precisely how the culture can be improved. As a committee, we're determined that these views will be respected and reflected in the reporting stage.
While we're still undertaking our inquiry, one of the messages we've heard to date is that better communication and clarity around the complaints procedure would help increase confidence in the system. Building on existing provisions within the Assembly Member code of conduct, the new dignity and respect policy will help to make it explicitly clear that inappropriate behaviour has no place in this Assembly. And I'm sure that Members will agree it's important that inappropriate behaviour must be called out. We're all responsible for ensuring we do not stand by and let things happen.
I'd also like to take this opportunity to re-emphasise that the National Assembly for Wales has a completely independent commissioner for standards, who impartially examines any concern or complaint raised with him. He can be contacted via phone, email or in writing and he'll always try to help, either by dealing directly with concerns or signposting in the right direction. A helpline has been set up for those unsure whether the commissioner is the most appropriate avenue for complaint. The number is on the Assembly website and posters around the estate. If Members and staff want to discuss any issue regarding the complaints procedure with the commissioner, he will be available in the Senedd during Plenary next Tuesday. In addition to the commissioner, members of the standards committee are also available to discuss any concerns you may have regarding the complaints procedure, and a member of the committee will also be available during Plenary next Tuesday.
It takes a huge amount of commitment, time, persistence to achieve meaningful cultural change. Today I have set out the early stages of the process, ensuring that the National Assembly for Wales fulfils its aims to be an institution that enables and empowers people. I'm confident this aim is shared by all of us here in the Chamber and that everybody will be willing to play their part in making sure this is achieved. Diolch.