Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd21/03/2018
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 this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, and the first question is from Rhun ap Iorwerth.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on work to clear Holyhead port following storm Emma? OAQ51938
Diolch. The First Minister and I have both visited the port and marina and have seen the clean-up work first-hand. Initial work was carried out to reduce the amount of diesel entering the water, booms have been deployed, and work is ongoing to clear the polystyrene spill. I again thank all those involved for their hard work.
Thank you very much for that response. There are two parts to my question, I suppose—the first looking back and the other looking forward. And, in looking back, I think there are some serious questions about the speed of the response to what happened in Holyhead. I asked a topical question five or six days after the event, and what you said was:
'You say that it's been a grave environmental impact...questions haven't been raised with me about our response...There is a north Wales standing environment group, of which my officials are members...if you are saying that there is a grave environmental situation...I will want to know why that hasn't been brought together'.
I think it's quite clear that there was, and remains, a grave environmental issue. So, perhaps you could update us on whether, on reflection, there was a missed opportunity to get in early to deal with the environmental impacts of what's happened. And what lessons have been learned, in terms of making sure that, if there's disagreement about who exactly should take over, Welsh Government can step in, or your relevant bodies?
Secondly, looking forward, because that's crucial now, we do need assurances about what is happening. I've heard reports this morning of maritime people returning to Holyhead for the first time since the events and being shocked at what hasn't happened up to now. We need assurances on rebuilding the marina, on help for individuals and businesses that have been affected, and of course on the need to step up in terms of the environmental clean-up, of which there is a lot yet to do. Can you today give us those assurances, because this still is a desperate situation in Holyhead?
Okay, thank you for those questions. And, as you are aware, I mentioned in my opening remarks to you that I visited the Thursday after the storm. And certainly, I think, Natural Resources Wales, all the agencies, came together very quickly, and the clean-up operation started very quickly. Of course, there's always lessons to be learned, but I don't think we could have done anything more quickly than we did.
In relation to going forward, obviously marine safety, which includes safety within ports, is not devolved; it remains the responsibility of the Maritime and Coastguard Agency. When I visited the marina, I mentioned that I will look at any financial support that I could give. Obviously, the first port of call for a lot of these places—pardon the pun—is their insurance company, and certainly that seems to have happened. I met with the owner of the yacht shop in the marina. He certainly had some concerns, which I've passed on to my colleague Ken Skates. I've also been contacted—. Obviously, it's the local authority's responsibility to clean the beaches, and, again, I met with the local councillors and officers, and, again, was very happy that that work was being done. I've received representations from the Lobster Pot, which you're probably aware of, in Church Bay, asking what extra funding can be given. I've passed that on to my colleague Alun Davies. So, I think it's very important that, across Government, we come together to see what support we can give. And I've said I will give consideration to possible financial support for public infrastructure repair and environmental damage clean-up.
After storm Emma hit on 1 March, there were immediate warnings from the community that diesel, debris, polystyrene would get out to the open sea if urgent action wasn't taken, but the booms—the environmental booms—didn't go in until the Sunday afternoon. And, despite warnings by the council, coastguard and police that people shouldn't take on board the clean-up themselves, from the day after, the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Holyhead sailing club and members of the public started to clear away the debris because of that risk and because of the delay from statutory intervention. What lessons has the Welsh Government learned from this, so that, in future, better engagement with the community can occur, but also a more joined-up approach to responding quickly, before the damage, diesel and debris start leaking out from the harbour into the broader environment?
As I mentioned in my earlier answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth, I think there was a quick response. I know that Members of the public were told not to go down there from a safety point of view. You'll be aware this storm lasted most of the weekend, and certainly, when I met with the owners of the port, and other people associated with the marina, they were still asking—this was on the Thursday after the weekend—for members of the public not to go down there. They'd had a group of schoolchildren who wanted to come and help, and whilst of course we appreciate the offer of help, health and safety has to come first.
2. What plans does the Cabinet Secretary have to reduce the amount of plastic waste in Wales? OAQ51946
The latest data from the Waste and Resources Action Programme shows that Welsh local authorities’ capture rate of plastic bottles for recycling from households in 2015 was 75 per cent, up from 55 per cent in 2009. We have commissioned consultants to conduct a study to examine the potential for extended producer responsibility schemes, which will include an analysis of deposit-return schemes.
Thank you. Last week, I visited the World Wildlife Fund Earth Hour event here in the Senedd, and pledged to give up single-use plastic cutlery to help cut down on plastic waste—just a small step. But, of course, one of the biggest plastic polluters are plastic bottles. So, would she agree that one of the ways forward is to push for a deposit-return scheme, and could she let us know about any progress towards that?
Thank you very much to the Member for her question. I actually too have pledged the same pledge as her not to use plastic cutlery. I think, yes, absolutely, we know that plastics are a big issue. It's certainly something that's in the headlines a lot at the moment. As part of the extended producer responsibility study, this includes an analysis of the potential deposit-return schemes. And that will look at things in the round, in terms of how we build on our current rates, but also what else that we can do to tackle that problem that we know that exists in terms of beverage containers, plastic bottles and other materials that can be recycled but which are not being recycled as well as they could be at the moment. I've had the first final draft of the summary of that report, and I hope to be able to publish that as soon as is practicably possible.
Minister, you only need to step outside this building and go over by the Norwegian Church to see a huge amount of plastic floating in the bay area. And whilst fine words are carried out in this Chamber, we all need to take corrective action to make sure we reduce our plastic usage and clean up our environment, But one thing that has gained prominence in recent weeks is the amount of plastic that is potentially in the food system. The Food Standards Agency, over which, obviously, the Welsh Government have oversight here in Wales, have a role to play in inspections and understanding whether this is a potential issue via the food chain. I'd be grateful to understand whether you've had any meetings with the Food Standards Agency in relation to this issue, and if you have had those discussions, what element of risk is conveyed by them to you of plastics entering the human food chain and being a potential risk to people?
Thank you for your question. I think you're absolutely right, and as the Member Julie Morgan said, it's about those small steps that we can all take. And whether it's an individual, organisation, grass roots or Government, it's the way we go forward to tackle these issues.
In terms of the potential problems of plastic within the food system, I understand that my colleague the Cabinet Secretary has had a meeting with the Food Standards Agency. So, perhaps if you'd like to write to her, she can fully appraise you of how that meeting went.
Following on from the other participants, we understand the Welsh Government is considering a deposit-return scheme to cut down on the use of single-use drink containers. This, of course, follows on from the hugely successful charge placed on plastic bags. Can I urge the Government to make sure that any deposit-return charge is set at a level that will make the return scheme a viable option? I have the advantage, or the disadvantage, of remembering the deposit return on the old Corona bottles. So, it is worth noting that you received thruppence for each bottle returned. This, set against the cost of a full bottle of just 10p, meant that the return price was a little over a third of the cost of the full bottle. Would the Cabinet Secretary consider adopting this same type of differential?
May I thank the Member for his question? I actually do remember the old Corona bottles, but you probably lost me a little bit on the thruppence. [Laughter.] Yes, in terms of the extended producer responsibility report and including the feasibility of DRS, we'll look at all those issues and evaluate them, and then we'll be able to produce a report and analyse those results, and actually take all aspects, such as those, into consideration in terms of beverage containers.
We now move on to questions from party spokespeople to the Cabinet Secretary, and the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Simon Thomas.
Thank you, Llywydd. If I can remind you, Cabinet Secretary, some 18 months ago you started the consultation process on the nitrate vulnerable zones in Wales and the need to tackle that issue. Just before Christmas, you announced that you would be looking for voluntary collaboration to improve the environment around nitrates. Plaid Cymru supports that, because we’re of the view that we can attain a better standard by working with the best in the industry. But, in the meantime, of course, Caring for Welsh Rivers seem to have lost patience with this lengthy process and have said that they will be making a complaint to the European Commission on your performance in this area. What would your response be to the European Commission, and can you tell the Assembly what the timetable is now for putting in place the action required in this area, working together with the industry, not enforcing it on the industry?
Thank you. Yes, you mentioned that I made a statement in December of last year, following the consultation we had on NVZs. I set up the Wales land management forum sub-group on agriculture pollution, which are looking at that for me. I've also met with the group recently too, and I'm expecting them to bring forward some recommendations to me by the end of March. It is absolutely vital that we fulfil our international and our legal obligations, and I've no intention of proceeding with an approach that didn't fulfil those requirements. The voluntary approach hasn't worked on its own. I didn't want to go to full legislation; I wanted to find a mix of both. However, it's incredibly disappointing that we are still seeing so much agricultural pollution of our rivers.
I’m grateful for that explanation and I’m looking forward to some urgent action, therefore, and some recommendations being brought forward, and I agree with the Cabinet Secretary that the agricultural industry also needs to look at its own practices in terms of the release of slurry into some of our rivers. But what this issue highlights, of course, is that the European Commission, and European rules and regulations, are all important in how we manage our environment in Wales, and we now understand, certainly, how the Westminster Government is looking at retaining these powers unless we make amendments to the Bill in Westminster at the moment, or if the Bill that we are to discuss later today doesn’t succeed. So, in areas such as fisheries, animal welfare, organic farming, pesticides, herbicides, these are all areas where Westminster is seeking to intervene and that would be appropriate for this Assembly. So, can you tell us, whatever the method that emerges in terms of dealing with this—either the Bill we’re discussing here this evening or the withdrawal Bill going through Westminster—whether you could commit to retaining these European principles in Welsh legislation? And do you therefore believe that although you may not accept Plaid Cymru’s amendment later this afternoon, you would accept the principles underpinning that amendment?
Yes, absolutely. At the moment, we're still in the EU, so we're obliged to comply with those European directives. I would certainly commit to keeping at least the same standards, if not enhancing them.
I'm grateful for that political commitment if we don't get the legislative one later on.
Today you also announced your five core principles for the future of land and those who manage the land. This includes a new farm support scheme to replace the basic payment scheme. But, we all know that if the money that does get reallocated as we leave the EU is allocated to Wales in anything approaching the Barnett formula, rather than our own equal and equitable share of this money, that we will be at least 40 per cent worse off, and some parts of Wales significantly worse off than others. So, can you tell us what further assurances you're seeking from the UK Government regarding funding? We've talked about powers, but this is about the money. And are you in a position to give the assurances that you think that we will have that equitable share of the funding, notwithstanding any decisions that might be made about Bills here or in Westminster?
Unfortunately, I can't give you any assurance around funding. They are ongoing conversations. I've got my next quadrilateral on Monday in London. Funding is a standing item, now, on the agenda; both myself and my Scottish counterpart have insisted upon that. I absolutely agree; we're completely opposed to any Barnettisation of that funding. But what we have committed to is making sure that that funding does go back into agriculture, up until 2022—the same as other parts of the UK.
The Conservative spokesperson, David Melding.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, last week, you'll probably be aware that there was, I think, an unprecedented joint inquiry by four House of Commons committees, stating that poor air quality is now a national health emergency in the UK. Obviously, they're talking about all Governments; it's not just yours. They've called for a clean air Act. We know from our own Public Health Wales that air pollution is now considered to be a health crisis second only to smoking, and of more concern than obesity and alcohol. So, is it time now that in Wales we should have a clean air Act?
Can I thank the Member for his question? He's absolutely right; this is one of the most important issues of our time, and tackling air quality, as I made clear prior to Christmas, is a top priority of mine within this role. You're aware of our commitment to consult on the clean air zone framework, and this will fit with the UK air quality plan. But the idea is that it will go out for consultation by the end of April, with a view for a document at the end of July. We are also committed to working across Government, particularly—. Although this is viewed as an environmental issue, actually, like you say, it's a lot broader than that. It involves Public Health Wales. It affects our health and well-being. And a lot of the levers, actually, that we have within Wales to tackle air quality are cross-Government—so, that being transport, local authorities and health, of course.
I just wonder, Minister, if this piecemeal approach, even if it's well co-ordinated, is enough, and that's why I'm pushing you on a clean air Act. Can I just remind you that poor air quality contributes to 40,000 early deaths in the UK—in Wales, 1,300—and that the annual cost of all that at UK level is over £27 billion? Road transport is responsible for 80 per cent of roadside nitrogen dioxide concentrations, and these are highly prevalent in our urban areas. I've just had some information from the British Lung Foundation that, across my region, South Wales Central, there are around 3,230 average life years lost associated with particulate matter. In Cardiff alone, that would be 1,543 life years lost. The toll is massive, and a lot of this is down to traffic flow in our cities, the number of vehicles, and the lack of alternatives and sustainable means to get around that don't rely on motor traffic. So, I ask you again: is it not time that we have a clean air Act, and also have very structured strategies to deal with urban congestion?
The Member highlights a very important point about the impact of transport, particularly in our urban areas. I think I noticed, just this week, that Cardiff council has announced a car-free day again in May this year, and I have met particularly with Cardiff council to discuss, actually, the clean air zone for Cardiff, and how we can tackle congestion as part of that. It's also why I'm working very closely with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport about how we deal with the pressures of emissions and air quality in terms of our trunk roads. We are committed to taking a cross-Government, structured approach to tackling this issue, and air quality is a key priority in the Welsh Government's national strategy, 'Prosperity for All'.
Again, I'm going to push you. I think car-free days are wonderful. The first I ever experienced was about 20 years ago when I was in Brussels, and I was wandering around thinking—[Interruption.] Well, no, I don't share some of the phobias that are present in certain parts of the Chamber. [Laughter.] But I remember feeling, 'What's strange? What's unusual' and then I thought, 'Gosh, I can hear children playing.' That's what I could hear, because there was no traffic noise. But these are one-offs, aren't they? What we need is a much more ambitious strategy. A recent study found that, if the average speed of urban traffic fell by just 4 kph from, say, 16 kph to 12 kph, there's a 10 per cent increase in pollution in diesel cars and vans, and 25 per cent in buses and trucks. It is absolutely crucial that we reduce the amount of motor traffic and also improve its flows. I'm very sceptical of the initiatives that we occasionally see from the Welsh Government. I don't mind the car-free days in our cities, but the recent one—to open bus lanes to heavy goods vehicles, so that that's a way of improving traffic flow—does seem to me to miss the point. We need a strategy to get heavy lorries, at least in peak times, off our roads. There are other forms of delivering goods in city areas. You get that all around the continent now—the spoke and hub arrangements, with smaller vans taking in the goods into cities and not relying on these enormous articulated lorries. We need a more structured approach. We need an urban strategy so that we are clean-living places, and we need a clean air Act. When are we going to get it?
Can I thank the Member again for his questions on this? You're absolutely right in terms of how car-free days are a positive, but they are just a small step in the direction that we want to go in, and what we actually need is a clear modal shift in terms of how we go about our daily lives, really, and how the infrastructure works. That's why it's so important that this is tackled across the Government.
You did refer to Brussels. I wondered where you were going with that for a minute. But one of the things I did observe recently, when I was in Brussels, is how they use data and modern technology to tackle these issues too. Because I'm aware, in Brussels, that they have some kind of app that tells them if it's specifically—. People can monitor the air quality and if it looks like it's going to be a specifically bad couple of days or period, I believe that there are now such initiatives as free public transport, I think. So, I think these are all options that do need to be considered and explored in full.
UKIP spokesperson, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Supermarkets are now gearing up for their annual promotion of lamb at Easter time, and it's a great opportunity, obviously, for lamb producers in Wales. I was disturbed to read, in the online version of Farmers Weekly this morning, that some retailers are claiming that British lamb is out of season at Easter. This has been, of course, hotly denied by the National Sheep Association, who say that British lamb can be sourced at all times of the year. Can the Cabinet Secretary tell me what she is doing to ensure that all retailers are aware that Welsh lamb is available at all times of the year, and that they should buy it?
Well, that issue has not been raised with me. I do meet supermarkets, and certainly my officials meet with supermarkets and other food outlets to make sure that they are very aware of the amazing Welsh produce that we have and when it's available for them to sell in their supermarkets.
Another interesting fact that I've picked up is that a YouGov poll commissioned by the National Farmers Union has found that only 18 per cent of the people of Wales had Welsh turkey on Christmas Day, and that only 29 per cent of people had Welsh potatoes. Obviously, there are great opportunities to take advantage of what we might call gaps in the market that have existed hitherto, and leaving the EU means that we have the opportunity to take up the space that might be left, depending on what sort of deal might or might not be done by the British Government in imported produce. Ireland has had a very successful branding project for its products, and I'm sure that Wales could be equally successful, although, of course, we don't want to create an autarchic economy that keeps out imports, and consumers must have a choice—it's very important that that is one of the consequences of Brexit. Nevertheless, we must have greater emphasis than we've had in the past on creating a new Welsh brand for food. We know about the successes that Hybu Cig Cymru have had up to now, and I think that the Cabinet Secretary has made this one of her priorities, so I wonder, perhaps, if she could just expand a bit on what her plans are for the year ahead in this respect.
Thank you. I was reading some statistics last week that said that over 50 per cent, now, of Welsh people would prefer to buy Welsh food and drink, and do so. So, again, I think we are making a big impact there. It's very important that, going forward, we ensure that people—and I think that Simon Thomas raised this yesterday in the legislation that we are taking through—it's very important that food is badged as Welsh. On Monday, I met the Secretary of State for Wales and made it very clear to him that I didn't want to see Welsh produce consumed in British or any other labelling. I think it's very important that we have that specific Welsh labelling, because it does carry with it great kudos. It is one of our most important manufacturing sectors, and I think that what it does is connect agriculture with consumers right across Wales. It's an area where our profile is really growing. I think people are taking a much greater interest in what they eat and drink, where it comes from and how it's produced. I do think that we are ahead of the game right across the UK.
I think you make a very important point about Hybu Cig Cymru. I've given them additional funding to make sure that they can run an enhanced export programme. As we come out of the EU, that is one of the opportunities that we need to look for. You'll be aware of several trade missions and trade development visits that are ongoing to make sure that we are out there selling Wales.
Finally, I'd like to revert to a question that Simon Thomas started with about the case that is being taken up against the Welsh Government by Afonydd in the European Commission, and the consultation on NVZs, which is still causing, with the uncertainty, great concern to farmers, and to reiterate my support for what Simon Thomas said about the success of schemes like the blue flag scheme in Pembrokeshire, where farmers have clubbed together to find what we might call micro solutions to this macro problem. I fully accept what the Cabinet Secretary said: that farmers have got to get their act together all over Wales on the question of nitrate pollution of soils and rivers. But the approach that I have consistently promoted—and I believe the Cabinet Secretary is receptive to—is of using the carrot approach rather than the stick approach, and certainly not having a kind of one-size-fits-all solution to this problem. I know that she can't, obviously, announce today the results of the consultation and the decisions that she's going to take in consequence of it, but I would just like her to reassure farmers yet again that she is aware of these concerns and that she will try to put together the most flexible scheme possible to take notice of the very different conditions that exist in different parts of Wales and on different kinds of land.
Well, I think I did that in my statement in December. I don't accept that there is that huge amount of uncertainty among the agricultural sector. Certainly, when I spoke at the NFU conference in Birmingham, the national one last month—. Following that, I met with the group, and some of the farmers in that blue flag scheme to which you referred—I had a presentation from them, and they form part of that group that is advising me. I absolutely agree about the carrot and not the stick. That was why I came forward with the way forward, if you like, around having some voluntary approach and the regulatory approach.
The recommendations from that group I have asked for by the end of March. We will have a look at those recommendations and see what can be taken forward, but I reiterate what I said to Simon Thomas: I am concerned at the amount of agricultural pollution that we are still seeing. We've recently had six days of heavy snow in the last month, and I've had several e-mails sent to me, with photographs, about slurry being spread on top of the snow, et cetera. So, I think it is about working—. I very much want to work with the sector in partnership. I think it would be much more successful than if we have regulations alone. However, it does need to be closely monitored. While I have now got the Minister for Environment, the environment is still in my portfolio, and it's about getting that balance right.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on improving the planning system in Wales? OAQ51919
Thank you. Building on the improvements to the planning system introduced through the Planning (Wales) Act 2015, I am currently consulting on a revised 'Planning Policy Wales' and undertaking preparatory work for the national development framework. I also look forward to receiving the recommendations of the Law Commission to simplify and consolidate planning legislation.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for that answer. One of the things that has happened in other parts of the United Kingdom via the planning system is a greater allowance under permitted development rights. One of the bottlenecks that I see in local authorities is just the sheer volume of applications that come before many local authorities and their inability to process them in a timely manner. This has huge economic repercussions, not just for the rural economy, but for the urban economy as well.
Has the Cabinet Secretary or her officials made any assessment of relaxing some of the controls around permitted development rights that have been undertaken in other parts of the United Kingdom to help economic development and help get some of the applications that really shouldn’t be in the planning system blocking up planning departments the length and breadth of Wales?
It is something, certainly, that my officials have been—. I think they’ve probably met with every planning official in each local authority across Wales to discuss this. We are generally concerned about the capacity of our planning departments across, not just local authorities, but obviously the three national parks too. So, I do think we have to look at everything we can to make it easier, because, as you say, it’s really important for the economy.
Cabinet Secretary, the pre-planning application process allows many developers the opportunity to actually meet the local authority officers to ensure that they develop the application and to meet the needs of both the local authority and themselves. Now, I appreciate that the local authorities are very limited in their resources, and we often see it as a small number of staff. However, this therefore means that on many occasions, officers who are actually supporting the developers in that pre-application process are also making the recommendations on that application. Now, surely it’s a conflict of interest, so what’s the Welsh Government doing to ensure that no such conflict can arise when planning officers make those suggestions to the applicants but also could be ending up making the recommendations, or decisions even, on applications?
Thank you. Decisions on planning applications must be made, obviously, in accordance with the local development plan, unless material considerations indicate otherwise. Therefore, any pre-application advice has to be based on the authority's established policies and should provide consistency in advice given.
Final decisions on applications are either taken by the planning committee or they're obviously signed off by senior officers. So, an oversight is achieved. Authorities should also have procedures in place to ensure that where an officer has a personal interest in an application, as you referred to, they do not determine that application.
What consideration has the Cabinet Secretary given to the extent to which the planning system can be used to ensure that commercial developments come to fruition and deliver on the promises of work and economic benefits made before planning permission was given?
Well, I think I answered that point in my original answer to the leader of the opposition.
I think it's very important that our planning system is simplified and consolidated in a way that would help that to happen. I don't think it is at the moment, and that's why I'm undertaking the review of 'Planning Policy Wales', and, also, the Law Commission are looking at it for us too.
I've recently been in correspondence with you on planning issues around a development that's very significant in the mid and west region at the moment, which is the expansion of poultry units. We've seen a lot of applications coming in for free-range poultry. It's a response to the market; it's a response, partly, to Brexit, I think. It's something about the industry preparing itself for the future. So, there's no problem with that, but the planning rules around these units do seem to be rather rooted in the past, because we haven't dealt with such a large number before. Natural Resources Wales say that they don't make any remarks around planning applications around these units if they are not intensive farming, but, in fact, free-range poultry can be as polluting, or potentially as polluting, as intensive poultry; it's the nature of the way the hens are kept, particularly when they're indoors. So, are you absolutely sure that the current planning regime for free-range and other poultry units is fit for purpose?
You're absolutely right in saying that we are seeing an increase in the number of poultry units going through the planning system and are coming to fruition. And I do think it is about farmers diversifying and, certainly, I think Brexit is having an impact on this.
This is an area that I've actually asked for some advice on, because there was one up in north-east Wales, actually—not in my constituency—where I received a significant amount of correspondence, just absolutely pointing out that it can be much more intensive than some types of agriculture. So, the short answer is 'No, I'm not', but I am looking for some advice around that to make sure that it is fit for purpose, and I'd be very happy to write to the Member once I've had that advice.FootnoteLink
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on efforts to tackle non-indigenous plant species in Wales? OAQ51922
The Welsh Government continues to work with partner organisations and the public to tackle the threats of invasive non-native species, which continue to have significant environmental, social and economic impacts in Wales. On Japanese knotweed, we have funded innovative trials with its natural psyllid predator and chemical treatment research.
Can I thank the Minister for that response? We have problems with a number of non-native species, but in my part of the world, Japanese knotweed is far and away the most problematic. Can the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the trials that are taking place with the natural predator—I note you avoided trying to pronounce its name as well; I'm doing the same—and any progress with chemical treatments, because it really does cause a blight on houses, on areas, and makes houses unsaleable, and makes some of them dangerous?
I thank the Member for his question. I know you've been vociferous in representing your constituents and communities in raising this area, and you're right, it does cast a blight on our buildings and on our local environment. I do notice I get the formal words for these—it does take you a while to get your tongue round some of them. I'm learning quickly on that.
You asked about the data in terms of the trial. Swansea University is currently analysing the data from their initial two-year chemical control trial, with the aim of producing technical advice to help tackle Japanese knotweed. I look forward to reading the final report, as I'm sure the Member will look forward to too. I can also confirm that the Welsh Government has provided additional funding for the Centre for Agriculture and Biosciences International to continue the psyllid project for 2017-18.
The dreaded Japanese knotweed extends beyond Swansea East and into other parts of South Wales West, including areas around railway lines and areas that have been identified in the draft local development plan for quite extensive development. I'm wondering if you could commit today to speak to your Cabinet colleagues across the relevant portfolios to try and establish what the cost would be, particularly to the Swansea bay metro plans, such as they are, and to the plans under the LDP, should the knotweed blight not be controlled. I think there's some significant concern starting now, particularly around the railway lines, around potential plans for a metro, because getting rid of that stuff first has got to be dealt with before we can even think about expanding the rail network. Thank you.
I thank the Member for that question. My understanding is that there have previously been issues around rail lines and the problem of Japanese knotweed, and I think you raise a really pressing and important point there with your question. I'm certainly very happy to liaise and speak to my Cabinet colleagues on actually making sure we are ahead of the issue on this, hopefully, in terms of how we tackle it going forward.
Minister, the invasion of non-indigenous plant species, particularly Japanese knotweed, has been a real problem for my region. Residents in South Wales West have seen their properties devastated by knotweed, and I welcome the work being done by Swansea University and Natural Resources Wales to eliminate this invasive species. Last summer we saw the rise of another threat, giant hogweed, which poses a danger to public health. Cabinet Secretary, what is the Welsh Government planning to do to track and eliminate giant hogweed and raise awareness of the danger it poses to human health?
I thank the Member for her question. Like Members, landowners and home owners alike, I'm concerned about the need to control non-native invasive species, not only in their growth, but in their spread. We know they're one of the greatest drivers of biodiversity loss worldwide and cause significant socioeconomic damage. So, it's something that we take very seriously as a Government and we'll be taking it forward. I'll make sure that is considered in full as well.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the environmental impact assessment process applying to the Barry biomass incinerator? OAQ51932
Welsh Government issued a letter to the developer on 14 February stating that we are minded to direct that an environmental impact assessment is required. The developer has responded and we are currently considering the representations that have been made before taking a final decision.
Thank you, Minister. Will you confirm that you will be following that through? You said you've had a response from the company. Because, obviously, the people of Barry want to know whether you will be instigating an environmental impact assessment on this latest planning application to the Vale of Glamorgan Council. Also, I do understand that EIAs are automatically required when a project is classed as a heavier industrial schedule 1 development, in the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017, when a plant has a capacity exceeding 100 tonnes per day, including burning waste classified as non-hazardous, and it's anticipated that the Barry biomass incinerator will burn 200 tonnes a day. Can the Minister confirm that NRW will include the Barry biomass plant in the future generations commissioner's review of the environmental permitting process?
I thank the Member for her continued questioning on this area, which I know is of concern to many of her constituents. Our letter to the developers sets out how we were minded to classify the project within the categories set out in the Town and Country Planning (Environmental Impact Assessment) Regulations 2017. Following this response from the developer, we will be giving careful consideration to this screening decision regarding the planning application currently before the Vale of Glamorgan Council, ensuring that it is robust and takes into account the latest case law.
You also mentioned in terms of NRW and future generations commissioner—Natural Resources Wales and the future generations commissioner met twice to explore and refine how the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 can best be applied to the development of what are often complex and technical policy areas, such as environmental permitting. The review will look at historic cases, as to look at any current cases, as things stand, could prejudice the decision-making process.
Thanks, Minister, for your statement on the environmental impact and how it will be assessed. Could I just make an additional point that hopefully you'll look into or get the NRW to look into, which is that some residents have reported that there is a lot of noise and smoke outside of the agreed 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. testing window? So, could you investigate that those testing times are being adhered to? Thanks.
Can I thank the Member for raising that? It is something that has been raised with me and with NRW. I understand that Natural Resources Wales have investigated complaints about dust from local residents, and I further understand that another—[Inaudible.]—potential to cause dust. I understand NRW are issuing advice and guidance to a number of companies in the area to make sure all is being done to reduce potential emissions, but of course this is something that NRW will be expected to continue to monitor.
Can I support Jane Hutt's representations to you that we need an environmental impact assessment? That plea has also been made by the Tory-led Vale of Glamorgan Council. There's complete political unanimity on this. If you go down to Barry and talk to anyone, often the first thing they'll talk about is this incineration plant and its sheer scale. We need that assessment and we need NRW to monitor things now most closely, because, really, when the local democratic processes are overridden in the planning process, which of course has happened in this case, then people have to be reassured that the most effective, vigilant regulation takes place.
The Member is absolutely right that people need to have that reassurance that effective, vigilant regulation is taking place. I know that Natural Resources Wales and the Vale of Glamorgan Council are working together to address the concerns of people in Barry, particularly, as we've heard already today, during the pre-commission work of the biomass facility. There's very little I can add to what I've already said in terms of where we are with the EI assessment, but we don't intend to set an arbitrary deadline for the final decision to be made, as the decision, as you can appreciate, requires careful and full consideration of all the issues. But I am very acutely aware of people's concerns.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government's approach to river management? OAQ51940
The river basin management plans, published in 2015, include detailed assessments of all Welsh rivers and measures that we are planning to take to improve their quality. Currently, 37 per cent of our rivers achieve good status under the water framework directive, and we aim to increase this to 42 per cent by 2021.
Thank you very much. Many fishing organisations and anglers have raised concerns regarding changes that have been suggested by NRW to bye-laws in relation to salmon and sewin. According to anglers, the bye-laws are strict and anglers themselves have not had much input into the process. The Cabinet Secretary has stated that the proposals have been approved and have been introduced formally for her consideration. Unfortunately, the Cabinet Secretary has refused to hold a meeting with me and two other Assembly Members to discuss the concerns of anglers. So, may I ask you, therefore, today, as the Minister for Environment, if you would meet with us and if you would also postpone the process of introducing the bye-laws in order to discuss the concerns that the anglers have with them?
Thank you for those questions.
I think I might have to revert to English now. In terms of the NRW consultation on restrictions in terms of salmon rivers in Wales and the consultation in 2017, I heard what you said about writing to my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary. So, I will liaise with the Cabinet Secretary on the recommendations that we're awaiting, and then if the Member doesn't mind, I will respond in writing as soon as possible to you, to follow up on that.FootnoteLink
7. What are the Welsh Government’s priorities for improving animal welfare in Wales? OAQ51925
Thank you. The Wales animal health and welfare framework implementation plan sets out the framework group and Welsh Government priorities for animal health and welfare. One of the strategic outcomes is:
'animals in Wales have a good quality of life'.
I will be making a statement on animal welfare on 24 April.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. You will know that 80,000 puppies in the UK are sold through third-party sellers, with significant negative impacts on their health, welfare and behaviour. I'm sure you'll also be aware of the growing support for Lucy's law to ban third-party sales, including from animal charities like Friends of Animals Wales and its inspirational funder, my constituent, Eileen Jones. While the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs are playing catch-up on the progress already made here in Wales regarding dog breeding, how can the Welsh Government respond to the Lucy's law campaign to make sure we stay ahead of the game on companion animal welfare?
Thank you for that question. I'm very happy to engage with your constituent who I know has founded the campaign. I think I've been asked to speak at the event that's going to be held here in the Senedd in the near future, and I'll be very happy to do that.
We have already introduced a number of animal welfare issues well before England, and it is good to see DEFRA now following suit. I met with Lord Gardiner on Monday, who is the DEFRA Minister in relation to certain parts of animal welfare, and we had a very good discussion around some general issues. But I did note with interest their call for evidence—DEFRA have just put out a call for evidence—seeking views on the possible ban of third-party sales, and I'll certainly be very interested to see what comes from there and what we can learn here in Wales.
8. How is the Welsh Government responding to the spike in cases of Alabama rot disease? OAQ51937
Thank you. Alabama rot, which does not impact on public health, is not a notifiable or reportable disease. The control of the disease is not the responsibility of the Welsh Government. Concerned dog owners should consult their private vet, and we are monitoring developments as private veterinary investigations and research continues.
One of the recent cases of Alabama rot, a fatal disease found in dogs, was reported at a veterinary practice in my constituency after walking in a woods near to my home town of Penygraig. A dog was taken to Tonypandy practice of Treforest Veterinary Clinic with the ulcers that are associated with Alabama rot, and the dog, like so many that get this disease, died. Given that scientists don't know what causes this disease, they don't know how to treat it, and many dog owners are worried about the disease and the spate of cases reported recently. Can you give any advice to those dog owners in the Rhondda and beyond about what they can do to minimise the risk of their pets catching Alabama rot? And can you confirm that the Government is actively engaged in combating this disease?
I had a discussion with the chief veterinary officer around Alabama rot this morning. As I say, it's not the responsibility of the Welsh Government, but obviously we are very keen to learn from the research that is ongoing. It's considered to be a winter disease and it's associated with wet weather conditions, so I asked the question, 'Well, if we have a wet summer, will the same situation arise?' As you say, we have—whether it's just more public awareness around this, but certainly there seems to have been a spike in the number of cases. The chief veterinary officer said that it can be caused more in wet marshy areas, and it's really important in the winter that, if you walk your dog in wet marshy areas, you dry them off after. I suppose that, in the summer, whilst we still could have wet conditions, probably the dog would dry itself off more. The disease has been assessed by the cross-Government risk assessment group. It's not transmissible to humans, which I think is really important to say, but I think we do need to ensure that we monitor developments, and we are doing that through private veterinary investigations and the research that's ongoing.
And finally, question 9, Llyr Gruffydd.
9. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the promotion of renewable energy? OAQ51941
Diolch. I have set stretching yet realistic targets for renewable energy. My aim is to decarbonise our energy system, while reducing long-term costs and bringing the economic benefits to the people of Wales. By the end of 2016, Wales generated 43 per cent of its electricity consumption from renewable energy.
Thank you for your answer. It's three years now since France legislated that all new buildings in commercial zones should have green roofs, and that means either partially covered by plants, which helps insulate the building and helps retain rainwater and also promotes biodiversity, or, of course, solar panels. I'm wondering what your Government's ambitions are in that respect and whether you think, given that you say you have stretching targets, they could stretch as far as maybe trying to replicate this, particularly maybe in relation to new public buildings in Wales.
I'd certainly be very happy to look at it. As you'll be aware, not all parts of energy are devolved to us. When I was in London on Monday, I met with Claire Perry, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy's Minister of State, and we had some very interesting discussions about what more she can do to support us in our renewable energy desires, so, for instance, in relation to onshore and offshore. Obviously, it was very disappointing to see the feed-in tariff taken away, because I'm a passionate believer in solar panels. So, I'd be very happy to look at what you say about green roofs, certainly, and to see if we can bring anything forward in Wales.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services. And the first question is from Leanne Wood.
1. How is the Welsh Government helping veterans return to civilian life? OAQ51936
We have set out a range of services in our armed forces package of support, which clarifies our commitment to helping veterans settle back into communities across Wales.
You'll be aware that some armed forces personnel struggle with adjusting to life outside the forces and some particularly struggle because of the traumatic events that they have witnessed. This might explain why a 2014 survey by the British Legion found that working-age veterans are twice as likely to be unemployed as their equivalents in the UK general population. More recent studies on the level of homelessness among UK veterans vary, but what we don't know is the proportion of veterans among the homeless population in Wales, because those figures don't exist. Cabinet Secretary, are you confident that local authorities are following the army covenant when it comes to veterans not being disadvantaged when it comes to housing? And will you also give an undertaking that your department will look into the issue of homelessness among veterans in Wales to see what the extent of the problem is and to consider what measures you can put in place to address those specific problems?
I agree with the Member for the Rhondda that there are a number of issues that potentially may face veterans as they leave the armed forces and return to civilian life. The Member may be aware that we are developing an employment pathway to deal with some of those issues and that we are working with local authorities to deal with issues around homelessness as well. I am absolutely confident that local authorities are doing all in their power to deliver on the commitments that they have made under the covenant, and we are certainly working with local government to ensure that that is delivered across the whole country. I'm aware of, and I agree with, the point she makes about information. I've corresponded with the UK Minister in this field before Christmas, and we are looking at how we develop a set of matrix to understand both the extent of veterans who may be homeless, but also to understand the pattern, if you like, of life following life in the armed forces for veterans across Wales. And that will inform not only the issues on how we deal with homelessness and employment, but a whole range of service provision for veterans.
As the Cabinet Secretary's aware, these are matters covered in the cross-party group on armed forces and cadets' report on the armed forces covenant in Wales, and I know that the group is looking forward to your formal response to that.
One of the things it also covers is the call for core funding for third sector partners delivering peer-mentoring schemes. You'll be aware that the Change Step peer mentoring and advice service for military veterans and others with PTSD and a range of psychological problems who want to make positive changes in their lives, led by the charity CAIS, secured 12 months' funding from Help for Heroes to embed a peer mentor into each Welsh health board. How do you therefore respond to the need highlighted by Veterans' NHS Wales for core funding to keep the peer mentors in post as part of their core team, to mirror the Scottish veteran model?
I hope that we are supporting and providing sufficient funding to Veterans' NHS Wales. We are currently providing annual funding of £585,000, and you will be aware that the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services has recently announced additional funding of £100,000 per annum to increase the capacity for veterans with mental health needs. So, I hope that we are providing for the needs that are currently being identified.
The Member for North Wales refers to the cross-party group and the report that was published by the cross-party group before Christmas. I'd hoped to respond fully to that by the Easter recess; I haven't been able to do that, but I will be able to provide a full Welsh Government response to that report early in the new term.
Cabinet Secretary, just to pursue Leanne Wood's question a little bit further, because she highlighted in the question as to whether you think the councils were doing enough. But clearly, housing is an issue, not just when they come out of the forces, but perhaps some time afterwards when they fall into situations where they have great difficulties. Will you work with the housing Minister to ensure that registered social landlords also have a single point of contact for veterans, so they don't have to find themselves chasing different people across the spectrum to try and get that help, so they have a point of contact within RSLs who can help them with all the issues they have?
Absolutely. The housing Minister has obviously heard the question that you've asked and will be potentially able to write to you, giving you more information on this. But, certainly, we are aware of those issues. A person homeless on leaving the armed forces is in priority need under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014 and will be entitled to housing if homeless. We also understand that most local authorities also have a former member of the armed forces as an additional preference category. But what we do need to ensure is that it's not simply a safety net but a pathway in place that will provide for the needs of veterans leaving the services. And I hope we are doing that.
One of the more exciting initiatives I've seen has been the co-ordination officers appointed by local authorities, who, working together, demonstrate how local authorities can deliver support to veterans in a more holistic way, rather than in a sector-by-sector way as we've done in the past. And I hope that the liaison and co-ordination officers in local government will be able to make a real difference to the experience of veterans leaving the armed forces.
2. What support is the Welsh Government providing to local government to improve services across Wales? OAQ51921
Across all service areas, Welsh Government continues to provide significant support to local government.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for that answer. Obviously, we've had a brutal two weeks when it comes to the weather over the last—well, certainly the last two weeks that we've endured, but it's been a pretty wet and bleak winter as well. Road surfaces across my region in particular—but I'm sure across the rest of Wales—have suffered and broken up greatly, as was emphasised in press reports yesterday. Has the Cabinet Secretary had any discussions with local government leaders about what additional financing the Government may be able to make available to local government to alleviate some of the unique pressures that the heavy snowfall in particular has placed on their resources that could jeopardise the delivery of services going forward?
I think Members across the whole Chamber will want to join with me in thanking all the public service workers, both in local government and elsewhere, who worked so very hard to keep people safe over the last month, where we have had some very severe weather in different parts of the country. I think, right across the Chamber, we all owe those public service workers a great debt of gratitude. And I'm sure everybody will join me in thanking them for the work that they have done.
I have not had a formal request from Welsh local government for additional support over the last month. I am meeting local government leaders on Friday, and I will certainly look very hard at how we can continue to provide support for Welsh local government, wherever that is needed.
Despite the obvious budgetary challenges that have just been talked about—we're now into our eighth or ninth year of austerity—I know that improving public services is something you feel as strongly about as I do. So, I was pleased to see the recent launches of Unison's residential care charter, which followed on from the launch of their ethical care charter last year. And both set out standards that the union believes should be applied to deliver improved social and residential care, including bringing outsourced services back in house. Would you agree, Cabinet Secretary, that local authorities adopting these charters would be a significant step forwards in delivering improvements in these particular local government services to help meet the needs of our most vulnerable citizens? And would you further agree that we do need to find ways other than outsourcing to improve the efficiency and delivery of our services?
Absolutely. I was delighted, alongside the Member for Merthyr, to join Unison for conversations on this matter last week. I think the work that Unison is doing is absolutely groundbreaking in ensuring that we have a public service workforce that works alongside providers and employers to deliver the best possible standards of service for all people who require social care in Wales. The ethical care charter seeks to ensure that we do have a high-quality and sustainable social care sector, a respected and supported workforce, providing compassionate, dignified care across the whole range of services provided. I think everybody across the whole Chamber will join with me in welcoming the initiative from Unison, and I would certainly encourage all parts of local government to work with Unison, and other trade unions, of course, in order to deliver exactly those ambitions and that vision for social care.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Janet Finch-Saunders.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, you will be aware that Members across this Chamber have raised concerns about the current local government funding formula. Now, with regard to that, you said to me in January:
'I've heard many Conservative Members here arguing for a change in the formula. What I haven't heard is Conservative councillors arguing for that change in the formula.'
But I have copies here of letters sent to your department from Monmouthshire County Council and the Vale of Glamorgan Council, writing after you took office on 3 November. Both are signed by Conservative councillors, and both state that their authorities wanted changes to the formula. In fact, the leader of the Vale of Glamorgan Council, Councillor John Thomas, was calling for a full review, and he still does today. Cabinet Secretary, how will you address this clear vacuum of engagement with local authority leaders, and will you please apologise to those councils who wrote to your department about the funding formula for dismissing their concerns so casually?
I'm aware of the correspondence she—[Interruption.] I'm aware of the correspondence she has, because I gave it to her. I'm also very aware of its contents. What I will say to the Member is that we work with local government to deliver a formula that local government wishes to use in order to distribute fairly our rate support grant to all local authorities in Wales. There is no, and has been no, proposal from local government to make significant and substantial changes to that formula. Clearly, the distribution sub-group will look at marginal changes to the formula through the year, and we've already published our work plan for the coming year. And I will continue to meet local government leaders and finance leaders in local government in order to discuss with them how they see the formula working and whether they see the need for a significant or a substantial change. But, to date, local government has not sought that significant and substantial change.
Cabinet Secretary, you didn't give these to me, technically. I obtained these as a result of an FOI. Now, you stated yesterday—[Interruption.] You stated yesterday that you had been talking to council leaders the length and breadth of Wales, yet the Welsh Local Government Association have said that your Green Paper has caused 'disquiet and confusion'. Further, the leader of the Vale of Glamorgan Council has noted that there was no meaningful discussion or engagement with councils as regards this. This is yet another example where you are saying one thing in this Chamber, but the reality is different. This casual approach of taking local authorities for granted, taking our voters for granted, and taking this Assembly for granted, will not cut it. There is demoralisation. There is fatigue. And there is growing frustration about your local government reform proposals—third in a line over the past two years. Now, do you not think, as the Cabinet Member—fairly new in post, I'll give you that—that you have a duty, you have a duty, to remove these obstacles, particularly given the pressures that your Welsh Labour Government has put our local authorities under, and to provide a clear, strategic, well-consulted on plan for local government, with full engagement and agreement from local authorities before bringing it to this Assembly? I think that that's the very least that those authorities deserve. Will you do that?
I have many conversations with local authority leaders of all political hues and none. And they all say very different things, in different ways, and express themselves differently. But not one—not one—including the leader of the Vale of Glamorgan, in fact, has said to me, 'I wish that we—' or 'We want you to deliver Conservative policies and the Conservative policies that are being delivered for local government in England.' Not one. What we've seen in England has been the dismembering of local government, the undermining of local government. We've seen funding in local government decrease by 12 per cent across England in real terms. In Wales, we've seen local funding increase by 4.4 per cent. The National Audit Office report on the capacity within local government in England, published earlier this month, was an indictment of policy in England, of Conservative policy for local government. What we are doing here is putting forward proposals to strengthen and empower local government. What we're seeing in England is the undermining of local government. And let me give you this undertaking, Presiding Officer: whatever proposals come out of the consultation I launched yesterday, what we will test all those proposals against is, 'Does this empower and strengthen local government?' And, if it does, we will move forward. We have a vision of a vigorous local government, an activist local government, a local government that works with Welsh Government in supporting them to deliver public services. We will never follow the Conservative route of undermining local government, underfunding local government, and undermining local authority leaders.
Well, thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Could you perhaps tell me of one local authority leader that has backed these plans so far? Now, the WLGA have spoken of the recent Welsh Government's assurance that no reorganisation would occur for 10 years. Yesterday, your Green Paper proposals destroyed that stability, and, with it, the confidence, the morale and any ability to plan for the future for local authorities. Can I ask you a question as well? At what point was this raised with your Welsh Government Cabinet colleagues, and can you tell me today also whether you had the support for your proposals going forward from each and every single one of your Cabinet colleagues?
I come here to speak on behalf of Welsh Government, not to speak on behalf of myself, and the process that we launched yesterday was a Government process. It was a Government process. It was launched by the Welsh Government as a whole. But let me say this, let me say this: I asked all local government leaders before Christmas what their ambitions were for local government. I asked all local government leaders to send to me their suggestions for the powers, the freedoms, the flexibilities, the additional responsibilities that they wanted for local government. I asked them to outline what their vision was for local government. And, you know, the leader of the Vale of Glamorgan has been mentioned by the Member for north Wales, for Aberconwy, so, let's understand what the leader of the Vale of Glamorgan asked for: automatic cameras in car parks. That is the vision of the Conservatives for local government. It's not much of a vision; it's pretty thin stuff. Our vision for local government—[Interruption.] Our vision for local government is of empowered councils able to deliver strong and effective public services, protecting public service workers, protecting public services and delivering stronger councils in the future than we have today, devolving power from this across the whole of Wales. That is a vision that I believe garners support both here and across the whole country.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Bethan Sayed.
Well, follow that, isn't it? Clee Tomkinson Francis estate agents recently put out an ad in my region for a private rental, and I'm sure many have seen it, including the words, 'No pets' and 'No DSS' in the same sentence. I know that other people have been putting similar such adverts around on Facebook, but that's in their private capacity. Do you agree with me that that's something that's considered pretty discriminatory? You could imply that there's a comparison there between people and pets and how people are then discriminated against if they want to seek tenure in the private rented sector.
I thank you very much for raising this issue and I'm very keen to work with the private rented sector to break down the barriers that we see in terms of the private rented sector providing housing for people who are in receipt of benefits.
But, even more than that, I want the private rented sector to play its role in housing people who are coming directly off the streets. And we are able to do that through our housing first approach, which is already seeing some people coming straight from the streets into the private rented sector. We're able to do that because Welsh Government's providing bonds, for example, which does take away the element of risk for the private rented sector in terms of providing housing to people who don't have a history of secure tenures. But I certainly don't want to see any discrimination operating in any part of the sector and I do share your deep concerns about people who, for reasons that are discriminatory, won't provide housing to people on benefits.
Thank you for that answer. Just to continue on this, I've raised the issue with the Residential Landlords Association and they've told me that it's often to do with insurance or mortgage, which is a policy put on them from the UK Government. My concern is that, with job insecurity as high as it is and with the private rented sector being the only option for many people, the discrimination against those on universal credit, for example, is just not feasible for them. For example, if someone loses a job or is in regular but temporary work and is required, from time to time, to restart a universal credit claim, is that person going to have trouble either renting a home in the first place or risk not having a tenancy renewed because of their work history?
So, I wanted to ask you here today whether you'd commit to making representations to UK banks, insurance companies and the private rented sector to attempt to find a way to change this behaviour, and will you make representations to your counterpart in the UK Government to make it clear that the Welsh Government believes that these policies are ultimately unsustainable, discriminatory and unrealistic, even, in the current climate?
Thank you. I'll certainly be happy to take this up with my counterparts in the UK Government. I write, on a very frequent basis, to the UK Government expressing the Welsh Government's concerns over many aspects of the implementation of universal credit, not least the impact that it is having in terms of rent arrears and the increase that we're seeing across all tenure sectors as a result of the implementation of universal credit.
One thing I am really keen on is that the UK Government takes a proactive approach in terms of offering people alternative payments, by which I mean payments direct to their landlords rather than to themselves, when they're first having their discussions with their work coaches. That's not right there in the template that is used at the moment, but we have had some really good discussions directly with the Department for Work and Pensions on a local basis to ensure that they are having meaningful conversations with people about their options in terms of having those payments. So, rather than saying, 'Would you like an alternative payment?' they're actually being told what that, practically, means for them, because an alternative payment is just a concept, really, if you're having a discussion without understanding the fullness of the options available to you.
But, again, Welsh Government officials have strong working relationships with the private rented sector, the banks and insurance companies, and this is certainly something I'll ask my officials to have discussions about with them.
Okay. Thank you. Well, I'll look forward to having an update on that particular issue, because I think it's important because it sets the tone for how people in society treat one another as well. I think that's something that I'd be very keen to hear more about.
Keeping to the private rented sector, solving the challenge of homelessness and housing security will require the private rented sector to play a role, and we've had quite a considerable discussion of late on housing first and the pilots that are being run at the moment, and the issue of ongoing support for those in the private rented sector. Would you be able to look at how you would work in these pilots at helping those who are in receipt of benefits in relation to housing first? For example, many people are capable of living independently and may be capable of work, but other personal issues may mean that that person isn't always good at paying bills, may have mental health challenges from time to time and so they put themselves in jeopardy in that private rented situation. So that's why some private landlords, I understand, are not then offering the tenancies to people in Wales, because they are fearful of the implications that will have, and the fact that they don't have the same level of support that social housing can give in relation to mental health or wraparound support. So, my ask is, when you are looking at the housing first developments, that you consider the private rented sector as integral to this also and talk to the sector as to how they can be part of the discussion.
Thank you very much for that and I will give my commitment to you that we do see the private rented sector as integral to delivering our ambitious housing first aspirations. But, I would also add that, just last week, I did have a meeting with Tai Pawb, who Welsh Government funds in order to try and create a housing picture in Wales, if you like, which is accessible to everybody. Tai Pawb have undertaken some work in two local authority areas directly with the private rented sector, to raise awareness among private landlords in terms of the opportunities that there are for them and to cut down those barriers that they have in terms of, perhaps, preconceived ideas as to what aids and adaptations might mean for the value of their properties, and so on. Tai Pawb were particularly positive about the discussions they'd had with the private rented sector in those two areas. So, there are certainly opportunities to learn from what they've done in those two areas as to the kinds of conversations that we have to have, really, with the private rented sector to raise confidence and open those doors to people who are disabled or otherwise have protected characteristics.
The UKIP spokesperson, Gareth Bennett.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, I wanted to return to the issue of local government reform, which we were discussing yesterday. There were various issues that came out of that. Mike Hedges, your colleague, raised the subject that there will still be considerable population variations, even after your proposed reorganisation, with different councils having widely different populations.
Rhondda Cynon Taf has currently one of the biggest populations of the current 22 councils, at about 240,000 people. If you were to merge RCT with Merthyr, which is your current proposal—or part of your current proposal—that would add 60,000 people. If you then add Bridgend to the mix as well, which is also part of your proposed plan as it stands, you end up with a population in that proposed council that's not far off 0.5 million people. RCT also has around 30 one-member wards, most of which will presumably be swallowed up or merged following the reorganisation. So, how can we keep a sense of localism and local accountability when places like Taff's Well, Church Village, Llantrisant—I'm not saying these exact places, but certainly communities like these—will no longer have their own councillor, serving just that place?
I think the challenge outlined by the UKIP spokesperson is a good one and I don't disagree with him about the challenges raised. I don't believe, and I've never claimed, that the Government believes that there's an optimum shape and an optimum size for local government. What we're seeking to do is to publish an indicative map that will look at potential shapes of future structures. I hope I made clear to Members yesterday that I'm very happy and very content to have further conversations on all of those different matters. This is a Green Paper process: what it is is a conversation, a consultation, a debate, a discussion; what it isn't is concluded Government policy and what it isn't is a dogmatic view or a determinist view of what the future should hold. I want to look at what is possible, balancing the sort of localism that's been described there with the scale to deliver robust and high-quality public services, and I'm very, very happy to consider how that is best done.
I'm glad to hear that you're open to discussion and I hope that we have a good conversation, involving many players, about where we're heading with the local government reform. I think, to be fair, whatever you do, there is going to be an element of controversy. You have to do something. You can't make an omelette without cracking an egg, so to speak. But, to return to specific concerns—[Interruption.]. Well, I know there's more than one. I mean, I could ask nine questions about this, but I'm restricted to three. [Interruption.] Oh, eggs. Okay, right.
Let's go back to the questions. Vale of Glamorgan, for instance—here's another one. We've got political accountability as well. This is another issue, because I think what we need to have, as far as we can, is competitive elections in the new councils, rather than perhaps creating, dare I say it, one-party states. Now, to give a possible example, Vale of Glamorgan has always been a highly competitive council. Both Labour and the Conservatives have controlled it in recent years. But if you merge it with Cardiff, which, I take it, is only a proposal—I understand that, Minister, but that's the current proposal—if you merge Vale with Cardiff, the risk is that it becomes, possibly, a safe Labour zone. Now, I'm not commenting particularly on Labour or the Conservatives because, as you're probably aware, I don't belong to either party, but the point is this: is there a danger of poorly run councils if one party has a political stranglehold on that council? And is there a danger that you recognise, Minister, that we could be heading for that situation, in some cases, under your proposed plans?
No. No, I don't recognise that, and I certainly would hope to see competitive elections and competitive democracy in all parts of Wales, even including Blaenau Gwent.
Well, Blaenau Gwent is an interesting one, because the proposal now is to merge it with Monmouthshire and with Torfaen. Now, last time, we had the issue that there was a voluntary merger proposed by Blaenau and Torfaen—I think Lynne Neagle mentioned this yesterday—but that voluntary merger was turned down. So, I think this is an instance in the past where one of your predecessors wasn't perhaps as willing to consult as perhaps he should have been. So, I hope you do take a different route if we do have a voluntary proposal, perhaps involving Torfaen and Blaenau Gwent. I hope you would look upon it, perhaps, in a better light than Leighton Andrews did.
To advance to my third question, there is an argument that's been put forward today by the Vale of Glamorgan leader, who has been mentioned earlier—John Thomas. He makes a particular point, which is that the Vale currently—this is his contention—is one of the best performing councils. So, I make no comment on that, but my question is: will performance indicators be taken into account by you as you look into the proposals, and how far will they weigh in your final considerations as to the mergers?
I hope that over the next few months what we will debate and discuss is a vision for the future of local government, and not simply the means by which we achieve that vision. What I tried to set out yesterday, and what I want to set out over the coming months, is a vision for local government where local government is more powerful than it is today, is stronger than it is today, has more robust units of governance, able to deliver a broader range of powers. I do not wish to enter a debate with the argument that we're building on ashes. I do not wish to enter a debate that we are simply rectifying failure. I don't want to have a debate on those terms. The Welsh Local Government Association has made it clear many times that the current structures are not sustainable. Nobody that I have spoken to has argued for 22 authorities.
So, there is agreement that we can't carry on the way things are. There is agreement that the current position is not sustainable. What we need, then, to do, is to debate and discuss how we take these matters forward. I hope that people will look beyond simply a debate around mergers to have a debate about what sort of units of governance we want to see in Wales in the future. How do we devolve powers from this place? How do we empower local communities? And how do we hardwire democratic accountability? I want to have that vigorous, rich debate about the future of local government. I believe that we have the potential to create a very real renaissance for local government across the whole of Wales, and I hope that Members on all sides of the Chamber will contribute positively to developing and delivering that vision.
3. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the changes to working age benefits and the roll-out of universal credit in Wales from 1 April 2018? OAQ51933
We know the third-year freeze to most working-age benefits will be the most painful yet. I'm extremely concerned about the devastating impact welfare reforms are having on low-income households. I've repeatedly expressed our concerns to the UK Government and called for a halt to universal credit roll-out.
I thank you for that, Minister, because I was going to ask you whether you could confirm that the Welsh Government continues to make representations to the UK Government regarding the adverse impact of further cuts to working-age benefits from 1 April. These are the second largest cuts to the benefits budget in the past decade, affecting around 11 million families. And with £2.5 billion-worth of cuts to working-age benefits and working-age benefits frozen for a third year, and the withdrawal of the family element of support for new tax credit and universal credit claims from families with children, costing families up to £545, affecting 400,000 families, what will this mean for these families in Wales?
Thank you very much for that question. I can certainly confirm that the Welsh Government continues to make strong and repeated representations to the UK Government regarding the impact that their welfare reform programme and austerity programme is having on people in receipt of benefits. We are really concerned because, actually, this is just the start. Many people are starting to think, 'Well, universal credit has been talked about for so long, it's not going to happen to me if it hasn't already'. But we know that many local authority areas in Wales have yet to commence full roll-out.
We've asked for many changes to universal credit, for example to shorten the time for the first payment through the removal of waiting days, and these changes have been applied, in addition to help for those with housing costs via the two-week non-repayable transitional payment, due to be introduced from 11 April. So, we do have some success in the representations we are making. But, certainly, we don't think the UK Government has gone anywhere near far enough. So, we continue to ask for the halt of the roll-out of universal credit until the many issues that we have identified are dealt with.
The reasons are made stronger by the fact that the Equality and Human Rights Commission has recently published a report on the cumulative impact of tax and welfare reforms, and this analysis does include Wales-level data, and it does highlight the significant impact that the reforms are having on the low-income households in Wales, but particularly those with children and with protected characteristics.
Well, evidence shows that people on universal credit are moving into work faster and are staying longer in their work, and that over three quarters of the tenants were already in rent arrears before they started claiming universal credit, but, after four months, this had fallen by a third. It's always been recognised, however, that some will need extra support, which is why the Department for Work and Pensions has been working with the Welsh Government since March 2012 on plans for universal credit roll-out, and why the UK Government issued the universal credit local support services framework in February 2013, developed with the DWP and partners including the Welsh Local Government Association and Welsh Government—now called universal support—ensuring that claimants who are not yet ready to budget for themselves are protected and assisted under the new system, and that alternative payment arrangements will be available to help claimants who need additional support. Given Welsh Government involvement in this at a devolved level since 2012, and yet the repeated problems we keep hearing raised in the Chamber, why isn't it working better in Wales?
This really is a question for the UK Government. The fact that the Welsh Government does interact and engage with the UK Government on these issues, as you'd expect us to, in order to voice strongly the concerns that we're hearing amongst people within our communities, does not mean that the Welsh Government is responsible for the decisions that the UK Government makes. The UK Government has not listened to many of the recommendations that we have made. I've outlined a few that they have listened to, but, ultimately, the UK Government does need to halt the roll-out of welfare reform until such time as the many issues that remain unresolved are dealt with.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the local government settlement for Pembrokeshire County Council? OAQ51952
For 2018-19, Pembrokeshire County Council will receive £162 million from Welsh Government through the local government settlement.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response. The medium-term financial plan of Pembrokeshire County Council says that the county has the largest shortfall between its actual spending and what the Welsh Government predicts it needs to spend to deliver services. And because the Welsh Government assumes that the council tax is collected at the same level for every authority, Pembrokeshire loses out significantly. Welsh average band D council tax for 2017-18 is £1,162. That's £279 more than Pembrokeshire at £883. That's a 31 per cent variance, which is, of course, enormous. It looks as though Pembrokeshire County Council here—and others that are in the same position, or perhaps not quite so severe—is, in effect, being penalised by the Welsh Government for its past success in containing costs while continuing to deliver services. The perversity of the system is that the more you spent previously, the more you would get by way of a block grant from the Welsh Government. Isn't it time to address this perversity?
The variance, of course, is caused by decisions taken by Pembrokeshire County Council, and I strongly support Pembrokeshire's right to take those decisions. Pembrokeshire County Council then deal with the consequences of the decisions that they themselves take. I think it's important that we do have a vigorous debate locally about local taxation. I believe that it's important that local authorities are empowered to take decisions over taxation, and I think it's important to have a strong debate about the consequences of those decisions, and we have had a flavour of that in this Chamber and elsewhere over the past few months in reference to Pembrokeshire.
I hope that we will see, through the reforms that we are debating, more decisions taken locally. I hope that we will see more vigorous debate in the future about both those decisions themselves and the consequences of those decisions. Of course, I'm always open—as I've said in reply to previous questions—to a conversation about the funding formula. I'm always open to conversations about amendments to that. But, fundamentally, decisions on local taxation are decisions, quite rightly, for local authorities, and the consequences of those decisions are also, quite rightly, for local authorities.
Of course, if I were to move from Ceredigion to Pembrokeshire I would save £300 per annum straight away, but I would live in a county where a national intervention has been required by the Welsh Government in terms of children’s issues and education, and where there have been a number of failings over the past few years because of decisions taken locally to keep council tax low, not just in terms of the whole of Dyfed, but for the whole of Wales—the lowest possible council tax across Wales. And there is a price to pay in terms of the underinvestment that there’s been over the past few years. The council has now taken the decision, and, like you, I support the decision taken both ways—it's a local decision. They’ve taken the decision to increase council tax substantially. My question to you is: do you see this as part of a plan to move the county council to a more central position in the range of council tax that we see in Wales? Is this a one-off that won’t truly tackle the problems that the county council has, or is this something that they are discussing with you as something that will work over the next two or three years to re-establish the best services that local people deserve to have in Pembrokeshire?
I have discussed this with Pembrokeshire council, but they have a local mandate, of course, and it’s a mandate that they have to carry out. They are currently considering the implications and the legacy of the decisions that were made in the past and looking at how they will develop a financial strategy that will ensure the future of local services and also having a reasonable level of council tax. But we agree that that is a matter for them. I don’t want to use this platform here to offer comments on that. I don’t think, as someone who lives outside of Pembrokeshire, that it is for me, because it is for the people of Pembrokeshire to make these decisions and to hold the discussions locally and then for the council to act upon the decisions that are made.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the financial support provided to local councils to deliver services for the elderly? OAQ51928
We have invested an additional £65 million in social services in this financial year. The 2018-19 settlement for local government prioritises £42 million and a further £31 million in the following year to maintain core spending on social care at current levels.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. Now, loneliness and isolation is a key issue facing many of the elderly population, and not just the elderly population here in Wales, as a health committee review discovered recently, but particularly affecting our elderly population in Wales, and day centres play an important part in helping to tackle that particular agenda. Recently, we have seen local authorities introduce or raise charges for day centres for the elderly, and third sector day centres are struggling to achieve sustainable financial positions. These services are vital and they need to be affordable. Now, with that in mind, will you agree, in conjunction with your Cabinet colleagues, to review the current provision of day centres in Wales and the funding that is available to local councils to deliver or commission these vital day centre services?
I've outlined the financial framework within which we are working at the moment. Those matters are quite rightly matters for my colleague the Minister for social services, and I'm sure that those are areas that he would want to address. But I do agree with you, and I think that it's right and proper that you do address issues around isolation and loneliness. You will be aware that in 'Taking Wales Forward 2016-2021' and in our response to the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee's inquiry into loneliness and isolation, we confirmed our commitment to developing a nationwide and cross-Government strategy to tackle all of these issues by March next year. I'm sure that the points that you've raised on day centres are areas that will be addressed by that. The Cabinet Secretary for health is in his place and will have heard your comments. I'm sure that those are areas that we would wish to address.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide clarity regarding the future structure of local government in Wales? OAQ51934
Our proposals were set out in the statement I made yesterday and the Green Paper that has been published for consultation.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. As you can tell, I tabled this question before I realised your surprise statement was going to be made, so apologies for groundhog day. However, it's an important subject that does, as I know you agree, need to be debated. As Janet Finch-Saunders said earlier, the WLGA's reaction to your statement was less than warm. In fact, it was positively icy. They point out that this flies in the face of previous assurances that there would be no reorganisation for at least 10 years. The WLGA also refers to the fact that most academic analysis—and I quote—
'concludes that such reform programmes rarely deliver the savings or changes'
that were originally hoped for.
On a positive note, Cabinet Secretary, they are looking forward to their meeting with you on Friday and a full and vigorous debate. I hope you have your Weetabix before that one. [Laughter.] I think we'd all like to be a fly on the wall to see what happens there.
Clearly, you said yesterday that we need to be optimistic and I think we would all agree that we do need to see reform of local government, but we need to know what local government and what local people actually want to see at the end of this process. When will the all-important listening part of this process begin?
It began yesterday. I'm grateful to the Member for a part of Monmouthshire for placing on the internet for everybody to see our exchange and our conversation yesterday. I felt that the points that he made yesterday were very fair and were important to make, and I hope that he recognises that my response was made in a similar sort of vein.
Let me say this about the WLGA. I saw their response yesterday evening, clearly, but I've also, of course, had very long conversations with local government leaders across Wales and throughout the country. Let me say this: they are very clear, and have said so publicly and repeatedly, that the current structures we have are not sustainable. They've said that very clearly—that the current structures are simply not sustainable. I've yet to meet a single local government leader who makes the case for 22 local authorities. In fact, I've yet to meet anyone across the country who makes the case for 22 authorities. So, we have points of agreement. We have agreement that we cannot carry on the way we are. We have agreement that the current system is not sustainable, and I think the questions raised by Dai Lloyd in an earlier question reinforced that. So, the question is, then: what do we do?
It is not good enough and it is an inadequate response to these challenges to simply say that what we have we hold, and we defend current structures. That is not an adequate response to where we are. What we have to do is to speak seriously, candidly and frankly, openly, together, and work our way towards what I hope will be an agreed position. That listening, that conversation, started yesterday, it will continue until June, and I give an undertaking to all Members here that my mind remains absolutely open on what the conclusions of that consultation will be.
7. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the role of social enterprises in the Our Valleys, Our Future delivery plan? OAQ51948
The plan recognises the value of social enterprises as delivery partners. They support taskforce priorities through creating jobs, developing skills and providing local services across the Valleys. The plan includes actions to provide support to social enterprises through guidance and training, and initiatives such as Better Jobs Closer to Home.
One of the key aspects of the delivery plan for 'Our Valleys, Our Future' is the creation of a Valleys landscape park, which will build a sense of pride, and anyone who's travelled to the northern Valleys will see the beauty of that area. This can build on a diverse range of local initiatives, often small social enterprises, which utilise the natural landscape of the Valleys for recreation, leisure and conservation. Last week, I met the Building Communities Trust, who do a lot of good work in my constituency, and they told me there needs to be more support from the Welsh Government for those small-scale social enterprises in particular. Can the Cabinet Secretary commit today to working with those smaller-scale social enterprises within the framework of 'Our Valleys, Our Future', particularly in the context of the Valleys landscape park, so that we can deliver these local projects closer to communities like the northern Valleys?
Absolutely. I'm very happy to give the Member for Caerphilly that undertaking this afternoon. But also, I want all of our communities in the Valleys to be a part of designing what that landscape park or that regional park will look like. We will be hosting a number of seminars in the spring, through the spring, in order to look at how we can develop the concept, and make that concept a reality. I know the Member for Caerphilly has been very active in proposing his vision for that, and I'm grateful to him for the points he's made to me, and for the invitations to see projects in the Caerphilly constituency that he has extended to me. I'm very grateful to him as well for outlining his ambitions for the landscape park, and I will give an undertaking to the Member that, certainly, all of those matters are guiding and shaping our thinking.
And finally, question 8, David Rees.
8. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with UK Ministers regarding the provision of support services to Welsh prisoners upon their release? OAQ51930
Ensuring that Welsh prisoners have the appropriate level of support upon release is a key priority. As such, I meet with UK Ministers and the head of the prisons service in Wales to ensure that the services provided are appropriate for Welsh prisoners upon release and are supportive to reducing reoffending.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. The Ministry of Justice stress that the proposed prison at Baglan will house prisoners who are getting ready for release, and thus will need support as they prepare to learn to return to their own communities, probably mostly across south Wales, but also further afield. Now, we know that it's a challenging time for many prisoners on their release, and supporting this could help in reducing the likelihood of reoffending, as you've highlighted. But as you know, Cabinet Secretary, this support includes input from social services, housing services, health services, education services, employment services and probation services, nearly all of which are actually under the control and the competence of this Assembly. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the additional costs incurred to deliver these services, and what discussions have you had with UK Government to ensure that the necessary funding is provided to Wales to ensure that the already stretched budgets are not expected by the MOJ to cover these additional costs? And if they haven't provided the necessary funding, isn't it time the Welsh Government told the MOJ that the land for Baglan is not for sale—in fact, no land in Wales is for sale?
The Member for Aberavon, Presiding Officer, contributed to an excellent debate we had here earlier this month on the whole issue of justice policy in Wales. The points he makes are points that he knows I agree with. I agree very much that the overall constitutional settlement we have in this regard is broken. It's fractured, and what it means is that neither the Welsh Government nor the UK Government can actually deliver the sort of holistic policy response to those in the criminal justice system that is required by all of us.
I've made representations to the MOJ about refreshing the concordat that we do have at present with the MOJ about how we take forward these matters. I've written quite recently to the Home Secretary about the way in which the Home Office works on these matters as well, and I hope to be able to bring a statement to this place in the near future that outlines the approach that we will be taking in this field. It's an absolutely essential part of what we want to do if we're able to achieve social justice in our communities and across Wales.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
The next item, therefore, is the topical questions, and the first topical question is from Mick Antoniw.
1. Will the Welsh Government make a statement on the implications of the Gambling Commission’s report on gambling in Wales? 156
Thank you for the question. We continue to see problematic gambling as an emerging public health issue and need to do all we can to tackle it. We strongly urge the United Kingdom Government to take action, resist the pressure from the industry, and significantly reduce the maximum stake for category B2 gaming machines, which, of course, include fixed-odds betting terminals.
Cabinet Secretary, thank you for that. I know this is a matter that you regard yourself of some importance. The data we have shows that there are 30,000 people in Wales who report gambling problems, 100,000 are identified at risk, 22,500 children aged between 11 and 15 who are in some way involved in gambling, and the estimated cost to Wales so far is between £40 million and £70 million. You'll have seen the Gambling Commission's report, which deals with certainly one issue with regard to fixed-odd betting machines, reducing the bet from £100 to £30 maximum, which quite frankly still amounts to £900 being bet in 10 minutes on these machines, which are identified as the crack cocaine of gambling. In many ways, this really doesn't go far enough and indicates, I think, the extent to which the Gambling Commission has conceded to the powerful gambling lobby.
Cabinet Secretary, you'll be pleased to know that a cross-party group has now been formed in this Assembly and we'll be working alongside the cross-party group in Westminster as well to engage in joint activity to ensure that there is legislation and activity across all the Parliaments within the United Kingdom to actually tackle what is this growing hazard. I'm just wondering, from the Welsh perspective, Cabinet Secretary, what powers you think we can use in respect of limiting further betting machines and the actual betting capacity on those, and developing the public health agenda, and in particular the need for real, hardcore research, where Wales can take a lead in actually identifying and understanding far more the implications and the social problems that arise from gambling, it's association with things like sport, the normalisation of gambling and online gambling—really, if you could outline what action the Welsh Government proposes to take in light of not only all this information and these points that I've raised, but also the recommendations and the information from the chief medical officer.
Thank you for the series of points and questions raised. I've previously indicated in the debate around the chief medical officer's report that the Government will bring forward a statement on how we expect to use our new powers once we have them, and you can expect that in the near and not the long-term future. I know that some Members had an opportunity to meet the chief medical officer today, and I welcome the broader gathering of interest and desire to do something that goes across a range of parties. I'm thinking about our Welsh parliamentary colleague Carolyn Harris who's led a high profile and active campaign on fixed-odds betting terminals through Parliament. So, the issue is very current and is very real in all of our communities.
I won't be able to deal with all of the points in the question today, but I will certainly undertake to cover those and come up with a more considered statement. But in particular, if I refer back to comments made by the leader of the house yesterday about the advertising issues, which are mentioned in the Gambling Commission's report, and the points about the public health agenda, it is a genuine awareness-raising campaign that we need to have to understand how people behave. I don't think we can rely on the industry self-regulating and simply being responsible. Some more steps have been taken, but I think there is more to do and more to be done. In particular, on your point about advertising, whilst there are things we'd want to see advertising bids coming forward for, there is something that goes into one of the points the Gambling Commission themselves raised.
Now, our party on the UK level has policies to have a compulsory levy on the gambling industry. The Gambling Commission themselves said that, essentially, there is a good case for the industry itself to do more to meet its obligations. They currently provide about 0.1 per cent of turnover into GambleAware, and, actually, they could and should do more. The Gambling Commission themselves recognise that if the industry does not meet their obligations on a voluntary basis, there is a strong case to consider a statutory levy. I certainly will be, after I've given it consideration, making a statement to this place, and I'll write to the UK Government, where most of these powers still rest.
When I asked for a statement on the Gambling Commission yesterday, I wasn't expecting it quite so quickly, so well done for the joint act to get you here to talk a little more about this. One of the things that's emerged from the statement from the Gambling Commission and the response that the leader of the house kindly gave to me yesterday is the fact that there is little that the Welsh Government has in terms of a formal relationship with the Gambling Commission—representation on the Gambling Commission or the ability to nominate members onto the commission—and I think that's clearly something that's a lacuna here, with powers being devolved to the Welsh Government around some limits around fixed-odds terminals, with the interest that we have here in the Assembly around that and the fact that the Gambling Commission, to my mind, has not interacted with Assembly Members, even though we represent the communities that are very much affected by these problems, as Mick Antoniw has set out.
So, is there a way that the Welsh Government not only will respond to the consultations, as you've already done, but take some firmer action now in negotiation with the Gambling Commission and also, ultimately, with the UK Government to ensure that you have a much more formal relationship, so that the Gambling Commission does take fuller account and give due regard to your views and, indeed, that the Gambling Commission might come and report to this Assembly from time to time on the decisions that they've taken as well?
I recognise the points you've made, and I think there's a good argument around them. As and when we respond publicly more formally to the Assembly with a statement, which I've promised on three occasions now, about our fuller response, we certainly do need to consider our relationship and what our bid should be. That's both partly about the Government and what we think the relationship should be with the Gambling Commission, and about having relationships that properly reflect that it is a Scotland, England and Wales regulator. Of course, it's fully devolved to Northern Ireland—one of those odd things, again, about an asymmetric devolution process. But there is something about recognising also the place for the Assembly, and the Assembly itself may wish to take a view through the relevant committee about what the responsibility should be. But the Government will certainly set out its view, and properly take account of the points that you've made today.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary. The next question, therefore, is from Angela Burns.
2. In light of today's announcement by the UK Government to increase pay for over a million NHS staff in England, will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government's plans for NHS pay in Wales? 158
I am pleased that the United Kingdom Government has listened to my repeated calls to lift the public sector pay cap and provide additional funding to reward NHS staff right across the United Kingdom. The NHS Wales Partnership Forum is meeting tomorrow to offer advice on how any consequentials could be used in Wales.
Lifting this pay cap has been long awaited by all political parties, and we wholeheartedly welcome this announcement, which gives recognition to the front-line staff who work tirelessly to deliver world-class services. From today, staff such as nurses, porters and paramedics will receive an average 6.5 per cent increase in their pay packets over the next few years, with many of the lowest paid workers in the health service receiving the largest increases in their pay, which will certainly help us to promote our equality and fairness agendas. Along with yesterday's announcement, you will know that the UK Government are going to establish five new medical schools in parts of the country.
England is not alone in facing these recruitment challenges, and what they're doing will really help to make their health service more resilient. In Wales we spend almost £14 million a month on agency staff, and have seen the equivalent of one nurse a day leave our health service. Health services cannot run the risk of losing more of our exceptional front-line staff, or our newly trained students.
Now, we know that you, the Welsh Government, will receive consequential funding from the Treasury to mitigate this increase, so Welsh Government will get the normal share of an extra £4.2 billion for the NHS pay changes over the next three years. Will you please confirm that you will actually put the consequential to the pay awards here in Wales? And could I also ask you whether or not you will be considering the fact that the pay deal so far is looking at how the deal can reduce the high rates of sickness that we see in the NHS across the United Kingdom? It's not just in Wales. We lose over 900 full-time years to sickness every year, and if we can get these people back into work more quickly and incentivise them and perhaps give them priority treatment, then that in itself will help to alleviate some of the human resource pressure we find in our NHS here. We all welcome the lifting of this pay cap, but I do want to hear what you're going to be able to do with this consequential and whether you'll be applying it to our staff.
I have a few comments to make in response. I genuinely welcome the fact that the pay cap has been lifted, but there are significant challenges that we should not forget that face partners of the national health service in other public services that still face a realistic pay cap as a direct result of eight years of austerity and continuing. We should remind ourselves that, for 'Agenda for Change' staff, it's a real-terms pay cut for most of them of 14 per cent since 2010. So, the move that England have announced will go some way towards resolving that, and I am happy to confirm that any consequential for NHS pay will go into NHS pay here in Wales—clear-cut and no nonsense around the side. That builds on commitments made by both the First Minister and, indeed, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance.
I would just remind people that the comments that you made, Angela Burns, about moving on low pay—those are challenges for NHS England to move on. We made further progress. She may not be in the room, but Dawn Bowden was part of the negotiating team on the trade union side, where we made progress for our lowest paid NHS workers in Wales some years ago. So, I'm pleased to see England catch up on some of that progress. We will have a negotiation with NHS employers and the trade union side to decide how to deploy any consequential that is coming to Wales to go into NHS pay, and that will be properly negotiated in the partnership approach that we wish to take here in Wales.
I do recognise the challenges you mentioned about NHS nursing numbers. There's a real challenge right across the UK in getting enough nurses in. The biggest problem is in England. They have the biggest numbers, not just in volume but in percentage terms, and you will recognise that the Nursing and Midwifery Council for the first time said that there are fewer nurses in the NHS in England than the year before. That's the first time in history that that's happened. We don't have that situation here, but we should not be complacent about the reality of the pay cap and a range of other measures about the way that nurses feel in England.
Also, we will continue to discuss with our partners how to improve attendance rates, how to improve return to work from sickness, how people are supported to stay in work or to return to work. Those are matters that we regularly discuss between employers and the trade union side. So, I do look forward to being able to come back to this place to confirm any agreement that will be reached by the employer side and trade unions on how we expect to reward NHS staff here within NHS Wales.
It's not nice watching Wales playing catch-up again; it's the second time in health in two days with that announcement from Jeremy Hunt about the opening of five medical schools in England yesterday. I look forward to us catching up with that eventually. Plaid Cymru, of course, on the pay cap issue, have long made it clear that we believe that the pay cap should have been raised previously, and people, I think, will remember that Labour in Government in Wales were not able to be proactive in seeking ways of raising that cap earlier. But we are where we are, and our hard-working staff in the NHS will now finally, it seems, get that pay rise that they have long deserved. I'm pleased to hear, Cabinet Secretary, you saying that you expect that consequential to go into lifting that cap.
Will you agree, though, that lifting the cap in itself isn't enough, and can we have an assurance that, alongside that long-awaited review of pay, we will also see a new concerted effort to put a workforce plan in place for the NHS as a whole and ensure that everything is done on the recruitment front as well? Addressing pay is one thing, but it doesn't in itself address the issue of the unacceptable pressure that there is on staff within many parts of the NHS because of shortages in the workforce.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I'll happily deal with that last point first. We expect to improve our ability to plan for the current and future workforce through the creation of Health Education and Improvement Wales—we talked about that previously—and the way in which we're trying to pool the ability to do so between health boards and other organisations like the deanery and others too. That's a positive step forward to having a more strategic approach to planning for our future workforce need. As well as looking at the numbers of staff that we need and in different groups of staff, we of course need to look at the ways in which we expect them to work, and the ways we expect them to be trained to then work within the service of today and the future. That's why the parliamentary review matters so much. We need to have models of care that are attractive for people to work in, and to get us the best prospect of people wanting to come and make their career in Wales. You may say to train here, to live here and to work here, of course.
Now, I want to go back to your starting points about the pay cap. I've been incredibly disappointed about the way in which Plaid Cymru have been quite happy to give the Tories a free pass on this. The reason why Wales could not move on the pay cap before was because of our budgetary position, because of eight years of austerity. That is the clear and unalloyed truth, and the way in which those matters have been handled here have been very clear. We have always been clear that this was an issue for the United Kingdom Government to raise the pay cap and to fund raising the pay cap from the UK Treasury, as they have done today, at last. But the war of words between us will not stop because, unfortunately, Jeremy Hunt compounded previous statements that are simply not factually true by saying in the House of Commons that the health service in Wales would be £1 billion pounds better off if we had taken decisions as they have done. That is just a straight lie. And if we're going to have a properly informed debate about the future funding of the national health service, then there needs to be a more honest discourse between parliaments and governments, and with the public, and I will not hesitate from calling Jeremy Hunt out for what he is when he makes untrue, and knowingly untrue statements about NHS finance here in Wales.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. [Interruption.]
But calling him a liar is—[Inaudible.]
Excuse me. I have called another speaker. Caroline Jones.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Cabinet Secretary, it is past time we lifted the pay cap for NHS staff who work under tremendous pressures, particularly relating to staff shortages. The deal in England covers staff on the Agenda for Change contract, which excludes doctors. So, whilst I welcome the previously announced increase in pay for our GPs, what consideration have you given to increasing the pay of NHS doctors and dentists?
Doctors and dentists are covered by a separate review body process. Agenda for Change staff do not include those particular professionals. We are awaiting advice from the doctors and dentists review body, and we will, of course, report back to this place when we have that advice and a decision for us to make.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.
We move on to item 4, which are 90-second statements, and the first this week is David Melding.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. It is fitting that we pay tribute today to Nicholas Edwards who died on Saturday. As Secretary of State for Wales between 1979 and 1987, he made a lasting contribution to Welsh public life. Here in the Senedd, Nick Edwards's vision for the urban renewal of Cardiff Bay is obviously apparent. This morning, I crossed the barrage and had views of a truly beautiful cityscape. The Guardian's obituary of Lord Crickhowell emphasises the difficulties he faced in starting this transformation, and I quote:
'Though mocked at the time, Edwards rightly described the bay project as one of the greatest pieces of urban regeneration in the country.'
In short, he was a man of vision and leadership, not least in standing up to the Treasury to secure the funds for the project.
However, his introduction of the all-Wales learning disability strategy in 1983 will, I believe, stand as an even greater achievement. This is because it set wholly new standards for best practice that have been emulated world-wide. The all-Wales strategy established the right that people with learning disabilities have to normal patterns of life within the community; to be treated as individuals, and to receive the best available public services to achieve their maximum potential.
Deputy Presiding Officer, a thriving democracy has to recognise the constructive contributions made by different political traditions. Nick Edwards's term of office was the longest of any Secretary of State for Wales, but in reaching out beyond his own political tradition, he was able to make an innovative contribution that strengthened Welsh national life. In extending our sympathies to Lord Crickhowell's family, it is an honour also to express our gratitude for his enduring achievements.
Thank you. Angela Burns.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. In today's consumer-driven society, we can all be guilty of taking for granted that which others across the world do not have. For example, we are able to source an array of exotic fruit and vegetables from around the world in our local shops. However, many in developing countries are not so lucky. They would love to have a banana with their breakfast, an avocado with their lunch and grapes with their supper, but they have to survive on rice and beans, or an equivalent basic, for every meal they eat. An inadequate diet represented by plain rice and beans really is the reality for some of those living in extreme poverty. It is for this reason that I've agreed to support and promote the Mean Bean Challenge. This has been created by the wonderful Tearfund Wales, who are a Christian relief and development agency.
The catering team here in the Assembly have agreed to put rice and beans on the menu every day this week and are asking for small donations towards the charity. The idea of this challenge is to eat only rice, beans and oats for five days straight; nothing sweet, no salt, and, worst of all, no caffeine. I have followed this diet for just a day so far—I'm going to try a few more—and I encourage any other Assembly Member or staff member to take up the challenge either tomorrow or Friday lunchtime to make a small donation and tell others. It is a sacrifice that I'm willing to make to remind myself of the plight of so many people around the world.
Tearfund are a great charity and have worked hard to promote the Mean Bean Challenge. I would also like to thank Rob and the Charlton House catering staff who've supported this, and I urge you all to take part.
Hugo Thompson, Monty Williams, John Morgan and Joel Wood, all from Caerleon, have successfully completed the world's toughest row—the Talisker Whisky Atlantic Challenge. They rowed 3,000 miles across the Atlantic to raise awareness for Diabetes UK.
They decided to embark on this ambitious journey after Hugo was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 2015. Hugo was determined to prove that it wouldn't hold him back, and the friends formed Team Oarstruck. Starting in the Canary Islands on 14 December, Team Oarstruck faced extreme weather conditions, seasickness and exhaustion. It took 55 days, two hours and 23 minutes, but on 7 February, they reached their destination in Antigua.
This is an incredible achievement. Fewer people have rowed across the Atlantic than have been to space. Their journey made it into the world record books, with Hugo becoming the first person with diabetes to complete the row. They've raised over £9,000 and have been inundated with support.
As chair of the cross-party group on diabetes, and their local Assembly Member, I'm incredibly proud of Team Oarstruck. We hope to welcome them to the Senedd in June to hear more about their significant achievement. Raising awareness is crucial. Almost one in four children in Wales are not diagnosed with type 1 until they're seriously unwell. The common symptoms are the four Ts: toilet, thirsty, tired, thinner.
Team Oarstruck have gone from amateur rowers with a big idea to record breakers. Their dedication and commitment to the cause is inspiring.
The next item is the debate on the general principles of the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill. I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee to move the motion. Simon Thomas.
Motion NDM6696 Simon Thomas
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with Standing Order 26.83:
Agrees to the general principles of the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill.
Thank you very much, Dirprwy Lywydd. First of all, I’d like to thank the members of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee for their detailed consideration of the Bill at Stage 1. I'd also like to thank everyone who has contributed to the various consultations and debates that we have had whilst drafting and developing the Bill.
Before I move on to talk about the recommendations in the report, I think it's important to remind Members why the Finance Committee believes that this Bill is needed. The public in Wales needs to have confidence in the ombudsman to investigate when individuals believe that they have suffered an injustice or hardship through maladministration or service delivery. It's more important than ever that public services deliver for the people of Wales and that the ombudsman is empowered to ensure that our services are citizen-centred.
The Bill extends the ombudsman’s powers in four main areas. We believe that the ability to undertake own-initiative powers is important, and has the potential to secure significant benefits. Allowing the ombudsman to accept oral complaints will improve social justice and equal opportunities. The investigation of matters relating to private health services will enable the ombudsman to explore a complaint in its entirety, following the citizen and not the sector. And, finally, complaints handling procedures could lead to a better service for individuals and would have the scope to improve services as a result of learning from best practice.
The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee has made 19 recommendations, and I'm able to accept every one apart from one of these recommendations. I am very pleased to see that the committee has recommended that the Assembly agree to the general principles of the Bill and I very much hope that Members will support that decision this afternoon. In responding to the report, I will deal with the main themes stemming from it.
I would like to start with recommendation 10, which requests that a revised explanatory memorandum and regulatory impact assessment are published before Stage 2, taking account of the committee’s recommendations. This is the only recommendation that I'm not able to accept. The Standing Orders of the Assembly provide a mechanism for revising the explanatory memorandum after Stage 2 proceedings and this has become standard practice. Should this Bill proceed further, I would be very happy to publish a revised explanatory memorandum after Stage 2, taking account of any amendments that have been made to the Bill. For this reason, I do not feel it would be appropriate to accept this recommendation. However, I'm more than happy to consider whether more robust evidence is now available and to assess whether changes are needed to cost estimates in light of that, and I will provide the committee with written updates as this work progresses.
In the Auditor General for Wales’s response to the committee’s consultation on the Bill, he raised a number of concerns relating to his functions. Recommendations 7, 8, 9 and 18 deal with these and I am happy to make the necessary changes to the Bill to deal with these concerns. These will ensure confidentiality and will safeguard the auditor from defamation claims. The Bill reiterates the general requirement for the auditor to lay before the Assembly a certified copy of the ombudsman's accounts within four months. The request to change this, in recommendation 9, will need to be considered in the context of the committee's wider work on this recommendation.
The ombudsman doesn't come under the Welsh Language (Wales) Measure 2011. Currently, we have a bilingual ombudsman who has an office with a bilingual ethos, and we need to ensure that this continues in the future. Therefore, I have accepted recommendation 6 and I will, in consultation with others, such as the Welsh Language Commissioner, be considering how best this can be achieved.
A number of recommendations deal with the update of the RIA. These are recommendations 11 to 17 and 19. I am happy to accept all of these recommendations. I’ve said previously to the committee that I welcomed its decision to commission an expert adviser to report on the financial implications of the Bill. I am pleased to note that the expert adviser was supportive of the extension of the powers of the ombudsman in the four main areas. Essentially, these recommendations deal with potential costs stemming from the Bill, recommending that more work is done to show the range of those costs.
For example, in terms of recommendations 11 and 12, the figures included in the assessment reflect evidence received from the ombudsman on costs. However, I am more than willing to reconsider the levels of the estimates and to revise the assessment if needed. I think it is worth noting that any variance in this context would decrease the general costs of the Bill.
Recommendations 14 and 15 deal with costs related to oral complaints. I think it is worth noting that the ombudsman has discretion at present to accept oral complaints under the 2005 Act. Therefore, not all oral complaints will result in an additional workload for the ombudsman, but I'm willing to consider further analysis of 40 per cent of complaints being made orally.
Recommendation 17 concerns an important part of the Bill that deals with investigating a public and private care pathway provision. I will be undertaking further consultation on this to seek further information.
I am also content to ensure that the RIA ultimately complies with guidance in the HM Treasury Green Book, which is recommendation 19.
It is not an intention in the Bill to cut across other statutory obligations. Recommendations 2, 3 and 5 show that members of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee are concerned about the potential danger of a duplication of work by the ombudsman and other regulators. I hope that I was able to give assurance to the committee about the difference between the role of the ombudsman and of other regulators, and, even though they can look at the same range of matters, they look at them from two completely different points of view. The arrangements within the Bill reflect those that are currently in the 2005 Act, and go further, if truth be told, to enable further collaboration. However, I am happy to accept recommendations 2, 3 and 5 to ensure good collaboration, to maintain appropriate records and to give appropriate consideration to other obligations stemming from the law.
I'd like to talk briefly about the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee's report and thank the members of that committee for their consideration of the Bill. I am very pleased the committee has endorsed the approach that we have taken with this Bill in producing a consolidated piece of legislation that is available bilingually. You should remember that the 2005 Act was made in the House of Commons, and was made in English alone. I am also pleased that the committee is content with the balance between what is included on the face of the Bill and what is left to subordinate legislation. This balance has emerged from the 2005 Act, and is based upon the consultation on the draft Bill. The parts of the original Act already in force have been effective and worked well over the past 13 years.
I am happy to accept the recommendation made by the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, subject to the necessary discussions with the Welsh Government, as this provision relates to the potential powers of the Welsh Ministers under the Bill.
I very much look forward to hearing what Plenary has to say on this Bill and on the reports, and, of course, to respond to the debate in due course. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Thank you. Can I call on the Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, John Griffiths?
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm very pleased to speak in this debate as Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and to outline our findings from our scrutiny of the Bill. As the Bill was introduced by the Finance Committee, we also conducted the financial scrutiny alongside our general scrutiny. I would like to thank everyone who contributed to that scrutiny, those who gave written and oral evidence, and, in particular, members of the public who either responded to the written consultation or completed our online survey.
Our scrutiny focused on the provisions within the Bill where the most substantial changes to the ombudsman’s powers are being proposed, as outlined by the Member in charge in introducing this debate: so, enabling the conducting of own-initiative investigations, providing greater flexibility as to how complaints can be made, allowing the investigation of complaints that include both a private and public healthcare element, and giving the ombudsman powers to set model complaints procedures for listed authorities. Our scrutiny also touched on other aspects of the Bill, including Welsh language requirements.
In total, we made 19 recommendations, most of which are focused on elements of the regulatory impact assessment, and I very much welcome the correspondence from the Member in charge and the comments made earlier regarding acceptance of 18 of those recommendations.
Dirprwy Lywydd, there was clear and broad support for this Bill, although not unanimous. We heard some concerns from stakeholders. Though supportive of the general principles, they raised issues around the implementation and operation of some of the provisions within the legislation. These issues included creating additional complexity in an already crowded regulatory framework, and the financial impact on public authorities, who, of course, are already managing a difficult financial climate. But, notwithstanding these concerns, the evidence we received supported the assertions made in the explanatory memorandum and by the Member in charge that the Bill will improve social justice, protect the most vulnerable, and drive improvements in complaints handling, and, more broadly, public services. We were therefore happy to recommend that the Assembly agrees to the general principles of the Bill.
I will now move on to some of the specific provisions, starting with sections 4 and 5. These sections provide the ombudsman with powers to undertake own-initiative investigations without the need for a complaint to be submitted by a member of the public.
We heard from the Member in charge, the current ombudsman, and his counterparts in Northern Ireland and Scotland, that this was a critical tool in the ombudsman’s toolkit. It is also one that is available to most of their counterparts across the world. We noted the concerns raised by stakeholders about creating additional complexity in that already crowded regulatory framework, but the Member in charge responded to these concerns by reminding us of the difference in roles and approach between regulators and an ombudsman. It is the ombudsman who approaches concerns from a citizen perspective, and we found that a compelling argument. We support, then, this extension of the ombudsman’s powers. We made only one recommendation in relation to these provisions, which is to place an additional duty on the ombudsman to consult with regulators before embarking on an own-initiative investigation, and I am pleased that the Member in charge has accepted this recommendation.
Moving on to the provisions on making and referral of complaints to the ombudsman, the Bill seeks to remove restrictions on how complaints can be made or referred. Currently, oral complaints can only be made at the ombudsman’s discretion. We heard clear evidence that this can make it more difficult for the most vulnerable to access the ombudsman’s services. While we have focused on oral complaints, we noted that the Bill’s provisions will enable the ombudsman to adapt in the future and accept complaints in any format they feel is appropriate. This helps futureproof the legislation and will allow the ombudsman to adapt to any technological changes. We believe these provisions will improve access to the ombudsman’s services, and therefore only made one recommendation in relation to these provisions. Recommendation 3 calls for amendments to be brought forward to place a requirement on the ombudsman to maintain a register of all complaints, not just oral complaints, and, again, I am pleased that the Member in charge has accepted this recommendation. We also called on the ombudsman to reflect on the evidence we received when developing any guidance. If this Bill is passed, there will be an issue, and we will monitor, during our ongoing scrutiny of the ombudsman, progress on these matters.
Dirprwy Lywydd, Part 4 of the Bill introduces powers for the ombudsman to set complaints handling procedures. This was one of the elements of the Bill