Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd18/04/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Good afternoon. I call the National Assembly to order.
The first item this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, and the first question, David Melding.
1. What additional funding will the Cabinet Secretary provide to the local government and public services portfolio to support people who are in debt? OAQ51998
I thank the Member for the question. Additional funding for credit unions and the discretionary assistance fund has been included in the local government and public services budget for 2018-19. When the Financial Guidance and Claims Bill completes its passage through the UK Parliament, we anticipate a transfer to Wales of responsibility and funding for debt advice.
Can I thank the Cabinet member for that answer? You may know that it's national Stress Awareness Month, and according to the Debt Support Trust, of those in serious debt, around half of the people in that situation have mental health difficulties and contemplate suicide. It's a terrible, terrible strain on people. In 2017, citizens advice bureaux across Wales helped 28,500 people with debt problems, and many of those were cards and loan debts. So, I think it's really important that we look at how much we can bring into this area of advice and support. I know, in the last Assembly, £4.4 million was identified for front-line services, and now we're getting the primary responsibility for debt advice in the near future, I do hope this will be a high priority in the Minister's considerations.
I thank the Member for that supplementary question. We're making nearly £6 million available this year to support organisations such as Citizens Advice, Shelter and Age Cymru to provide advice across Wales on social welfare issues, including maximising household income and managing household debt. Between April and December of last year, citizens advice bureaux helped 43,000 people in that category and helped to bring £28 million in additional income to those families here in Wales.
I completely agree with the Member that debt is inevitably associated with high levels of stress and difficulties in other parts of people's lives. I am involved in discussions with local government in Wales about council tax debt. Council tax debt is meant to include an identification of whether a household is vulnerable for other areas. Some local authorities in Wales do this very well. Some local authorities in Wales have no policy at all on vulnerability, so there is certainly ground to be gained not simply in funding, but in the way that these services are discharged on the ground.
One thing that’s likely to cause more people to get into debt is the period that they will have to wait for their first payment under universal credit. Receiving payments on a monthly basis after that first payment will also create major debt problems for many people. I can’t understand why your Government is so reluctant to take control of certain elements of administering the benefits system and the funding framework that would come about as a result of that. Wales could then move towards a system of making universal credit payments every fortnight, alleviating some of the debt problems that local authorities in Wales are going to face as a result of universal credit.
Well, I hear what the Member is saying and, of course, I agree with her about the impact that benefit problems have on people who are dependent on benefits. The question of whether it would be best to transfer responsibility for the payments to Wales is broader than the question that we are considering today and there are many other issues, beyond the point that the Member raised, to be considered if we’re to go down that path. At present, I don’t believe that the case has been made sufficiently strongly to go down that path.
Will the Cabinet Secretary comment on the fact that one of the main reasons for rising debt in the UK is as a result of the adverse impact of further cuts by the UK Government to working-age benefits from 1 April? These are the second largest cuts to the benefits budget in the past decade. They affect around 11 million families, with £2.5 billion cuts to working-age benefits, and working-age benefits frozen, for this year, and the withdrawal of the family support element of support for new tax credits, and universal credit claims from families with children, costing them up to £545. Will he also comment further on that beneficial role that's been expressed today that can be played by advice services, credit unions, and the adoption of the real living wage, supporting people in debt, with the support of the Welsh Government?
Can I agree entirely with Jane Hutt? I said in my original answer that, of course, the Welsh Government wants to go on investing in advice services. But it is an absolute disgrace that we are having to provide those services to people whose income is being knowingly and deliberately reduced by the UK Government, when those people live at the very margins of poverty.
A number of women Members in the Assembly yesterday tried to get a discussion of the Equality and Human Rights Commission report that was published during the recess, including the leader of Plaid Cymru, because the figures contained in that report are absolutely stark and ought to be of concern to every Member of this Assembly. An extra 50,000 children being pushed into poverty in Wales not by accident, not because somebody has lost their job, not because there's been a downturn in the economy, but because of the deliberate decisions by the UK Government to freeze the benefits of those families who have the least to live on of all. And those impacts will fall not simply on children, but they will fall disproportionately on women as well. Estimates in that report suggested that women will lose on average £350 a year from these benefit cuts, while men will gain around £15. The Member is absolutely right to point to those underlying causes of the need for debt advice in Wales, and to point to those remedies, such as the real living wage, which would have a genuine impact on the circumstances of those families who live in the direst of circumstances, whose poverty is increasing, and whose prospects for the future are under such threat.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the implementation of the new devolved taxes since they came into force on 1 April 2018? OAQ51976
Thank you, of course, for the question. Early indications suggest a successful start to the administration of devolved taxes since 1 April. Earlier today, the Welsh Revenue Authority published the first of what will be a regular series of statistical releases. It shows that 1,100 organisations have registered with the WRA for land transaction tax.
Thank you for that update, Cabinet Secretary, and I’m sure we’re grateful to the WRA for their work, and for what appears to be a successful start, as he says, to a new period in the constitutional history of Wales. You will be aware, of course, that these things are a process rather than an event. As part of the process, you’ve also set out in the taxation work programme some ideas on new taxes, or the development of taxes, in Wales, including working with the UK Government on a plastics levy possibly, and working here in Wales on a vacant land tax. So, can you give us an update on that, and that work programme, and how you have discussed these issues, or not, with the Westminster Government in terms of these new taxes?
Thank you, Simon, for that question. Just to say, the success that the authority is having at present comes from the hard, preparatory work that was done over the past years, including the work of the committee, which has been part of preparing the authority for the work that they are now undertaking. As regards the new taxes, we are continuing to work with the United Kingdom Government on more than one aspect. We are talking to them about what they are doing in the field of a plastics tax, and we’ve agreed to take the lead on this debate in Wales and to feed into the call for evidence— I've forgotten the Welsh word for 'evidence'. 'Tystiolaeth', of course—that the Treasury issued in March.
We also want to start to talk about Gerry Holtham’s work with them and what he has suggested in the care sector, but I have written—and I have shared the letter with the Finance Committee—officially to the Treasury to initiate the process in the field of vacant land. This is the one that we wish to use to test the new system that we have in the 2014 Act. I have written to the Treasury and we are preparing on an official level the work that we need to do with them. I’m looking forward to receiving a positive response from them and to begin this work in the Assembly—the more detailed work on the policy—and to see whether it will be possible to bring forward a Bill to the floor of the Assembly in order to create the first Wales-only tax through the process available to us.
In his latest spotlight on Cardiff offices, Ross Griffin, the director of UK investment at Savills, says that the increase in stamp duty to 6 per cent on a significant office development will deter investment by making Wales more expensive as investors target English regional cities instead of Cardiff, cutting the flow of capital into the Cardiff market. He concludes that this will limit future growth of the Cardiff office market and future employment growth in the city. How is this going to help my constituents and others who look to work in Cardiff?
Well, Llywydd, we will now be in the business of collecting evidence rather than trading speculations. This National Assembly has made the decision on the levels of taxation in non-domestic property for this financial year. Ninety per cent of commercial transactions in Wales will enjoy the lowest rate of taxation anywhere in the United Kingdom, because 90 per cent of commercial transactions happen at the level of £1.1 million or below, and we have the lowest tax rates for that part of our economy of any part of the United Kingdom. I've heard the case made by Mr Reckless and by those who make it. I've met with those companies and individuals myself. My officials have met with them subsequently. The analysis by Bangor as part of our preparations did not suggest that those would be the outcomes, but I will look very carefully at the evidence, and if the evidence suggests that the outcomes that are suggested in that article are something that ought to concern this National Assembly, then, of course, I will take that into account in decisions that will be made for future years.
Can I welcome the answers that the Cabinet Secretary has given to Simon Thomas? Can I just add my voice, yet again, to the calls for a plastic tax, which the Cabinet Secretary has heard me say on probably more occasions than he would have liked to have listened to them?
My question is though: has the Welsh Government produced a profile of expected tax receipts from the devolved taxes so that we can check, in the Finance Committee or in the Assembly as a whole, how the profile works against the expected?
Llywydd, yes, we have produced such estimates. We published them alongside the final budget in December of last year. They showed, for example, that we anticipate landfill disposals tax to bring in £26 million in the current financial year, falling as that tax is intended to do to £20 million in the year 2021-22. Our forecasts are supplemented by the work of the Office for Budget Responsibility. They published updated forecasts for the two Welsh devolved taxes and Welsh rates of income tax in March of this year. They are broadly comparable with the figures that we produced in December, and both sets of figures will be available to the Finance Committee for them to scrutinise the actual performance of these taxes as that information becomes available during this year and beyond.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. UKIP's spokesperson, Neil Hamliton.
Diolch, Llywydd. On 13 February this year, the Cabinet Secretary said that the vacant land tax is to have an impact on behaviour rather than to raise revenue. In the Republic of Ireland, the tax barely covers the cost of collection, which is just something that has got to be borne in mind. I wonder to what extent the Cabinet Secretary is able to say that land banking is a real problem in Wales, rather than just a perception, because Laura Harry, a planning consultant from Barton Willmore, an independent planning and design consultancy, says that
'while in theory a Vacant Land Tax is intended to increase house building, it may have the opposite effect and make Wales less attractive to housebuilders and undermine the Welsh Government’s housing ambitions',
which is something, obviously, that the Cabinet Secretary would not wish to see. So, is this tax perhaps directed at a problem that is more illusory than real?
I don't believe that to be the case. I think there is evidence of land banking happening in some parts of Wales. I've pointed in the Chamber previously to our stalled sites fund, which shows over 400 sites in Wales unable to be brought forward to be put to productive use, because there is remediation work required or the need to provide services for that land means that that land is not in productive use. Our stalled sites fund, with £40 million of Welsh Government investment available for it, is designed to help to remedy that situation.
I think it's very important for me to point out that the purpose of a vacant land tax is not to penalise anybody who is doing their very best to bring that land into active use, but is to provide an additional incentive to people who simply sit on land, hoping that the work that the public have done in providing them with planning permissions and so on will just lead to rising land values and, having done nothing at all themselves, they will be able to cash in on that by selling land in future.
The process, however, Llywydd, is really important, because at this stage we're at the very start of this process and many of the questions that the Member raises and other detailed questions will be part of the work that we will want to do once we know that the power has been transferred to us to bring this idea further forward.
I fully accept what the finance Secretary says there. Obviously, if we are going to have such a tax, we do need to realise that the behavioural effects that it might bring about can also be in the opposite direction—a point to which I'll come in a minute. Although, this is generally thought of as a problem to be addressed in urban areas, there is a potential impact on rural areas too. A rural surveyor for Country Land and Business Association Cymru, Charles De Winton, says that
'Small rural plots may not be viable to develop. A tax which forces them into development will inevitably increase the cost of development—a cost which will passed-on to the end-user. This does not help us tackle the crisis in availability of rural homes.'
The CLA's research in Wales suggested that over a third of the £1.3 billion annually into the economy by rural landowners was already put into residential development. One of the big problems with development sites is, of course, planning permission and the delays that, sometimes, that can bring about. So, potential developers often find themselves unwillingly in a situation where they're sitting on vacant land. We know around us here in Cardiff Bay there are lots of what might appear to be prime sites that still remain to be developed because there are no buyers for one reason or another. So, this is a matter that must be dealt with sensitively and with some delicacy.
All the points the Member makes are important points and ones that we would wish to take seriously. No finance Minister, when the detailed work is done, should that work demonstrate that a potential tax would create more problems than it would solve—nobody would want to take it further forward. So, these are important points and ones we will definitely want to consider.
I recognise the point the Member makes about rural communities and the fact that development often takes longer for specific reasons. But I just repeat the point that I made to him at the very beginning: a vacant land tax is not intended to bear down on those people who are making every effort to bring land into productive use. You've got to design it in a way that makes sure that people who are doing everything they can are not captured by it, while providing an additional incentive for those people—and we do believe that this does exist in the Welsh economy, just as the Chancellor of the Exchequer was anxious that it existed in the London economy—who should be bringing land forward for productive use, but who choose not to do it, in order simply to speculate for a windfall gain.
I'd like to turn to another tax now to explore the impact on behaviour. It seems, in the case of the sugar tax, imposed now by the Westminster Government, that the Welsh Government is due to get £47 million in extra funding over two years because of spending in England linked to that. Forecasts of what the levy would raise have fallen from £520 million to £240 million. The behavioural changes that the sugar tax has brought about already are that Coca-Cola, for example, have reduced the size of their standard regular Coke cans from 330 ml to 250 ml, although that hasn't led to a similar reduction in price in many cases. So, now we could find ourselves in a situation where, instead of buying a third of a litre in a can, people are buying two cans of quarter of a litre. So, they're buying actually more sugary drink than before, at a higher price. So, this would be a perverse outcome for such a tax to bring about. But Wales has a significant problem with obesity—worse than any other part of the UK—with 59 per cent of adults, apparently, overweight—I'm probably one of them—and 23 per cent classed as obese. As to the allocation of the money that is raised, can the Cabinet Secretary confirm whether the Welsh Government is going to allocate this money to solve the problem of obesity predominantly, whilst not regarding it as a wholly hypothecated tax? If it is raised for the purpose of changing behaviour, then the money that is going to be spent from that revenue should be directed towards the problem that it is intended to solve.
Well, Llywydd, I'll begin by welcoming the fact that manufacturers have taken action to reduce the sugar content in their products, and to reformulate the way in which products are brought to market in order to have a bearing on obesity. I regret the fact that the sugar tax was simply announced in a budget, without any reference to the devolved administrations, despite the fact that it has a direct bearing on our responsibilities. Therefore, we weren't able to contribute to a debate, which may have pointed to some of the potential unintended consequences of the tax as it currently stands.
Money has been transferred to the Welsh budget as a result of it. It will partly help to take forward initiatives such as the preventable obesity programme that my colleague Vaughan Gething is undertaking, but it allows us to do other things as well. It allows us to support the programme of free healthy breakfasts in our primary schools; it helps us to introduce the new school holiday enrichment programme, which helps to feed children during the school holidays, who otherwise might go hungry; and it allows us to do a number of other things in the field that the Member mentioned, to help us to bear down on the problems of obesity, which are well-known and well-recognised.
Conservatives' spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
Diolch, Llywydd. Can I just say that I've spied my former colleague on the Finance Committee, Peter Black, up in the gallery? It took me back to the last Assembly election, when we were looking forward to tax devolution as a distant, although approaching, inevitability. We are now the other side of that devolution.
You said, in answer to Mark Reckless earlier, in relation to land transaction tax, which I want to question you about as well, that we are now in the period of collecting evidence about the introduction of the taxes, and the effect of those taxes, rather than mere speculation. If, as you said in answer to Mark Reckless, there does, at some point, appear to be an issue with the rates of land transaction tax, at what point will you act to make sure that those rates are reduced so that they're more comparable with those across the border?
Well, Llywydd, as I said, we are in the process of evidence collection now. We will look to see how the non-residential property market develops during this year. We will look to see whether there is any evidence that the very small increase in tax turns out to be a decisive factor in very big multimillion pound decisions that companies make. My hypothesis—and it was the one supported in the Bangor report—that a company that is going to be spending many millions of pounds deciding where to locate itself will be interested in things like the price of land, the price of property, both of which are cheaper in Wales than in competitor cities along the border; they will be looking at the supply of skills, and we have a highly skilled population; they will be looking for long-term stability, which we provide here in Wales; and I don't believe that a small amount in a one-off cost on the purchase of the property will be decisive in those people deciding whether to come here or not, but that's my account. There are other accounts. Now, we will have the evidence, and I will take that into account in the decision-making process that we will have every year here as we set tax rates for the future.
Cabinet Secretary, you are an open-minded person, and it's interesting that your tone today is different to before the devolution of tax. You did say previously—you asked a rhetorical question and you answered it previously:
'Do I think that the marginal additional sum in LTT will be the determining factor in business deals...? No, I don't.'
I gather from your answer today that whilst you still would say that is your personal opinion, you don't shut the door on the fact that it might actually be causing problems for some businesses. Before you come back, if I can just pick out some projects, such as Central Square in Cardiff, for instance, where the marginal 1 per cent rise in rates would mean investors paying around 20 per cent more on their property than with stamp duty, and at least 32 per cent more than land and buildings transactions tax. So, I asked you previously at what point you would act on that evidence. Are you willing to accept that already at this point there are cases, such as in projects such as that, where this not only could make a difference but will make a difference? It might be marginal, but in economic terms it's marginal differences that often make the difference in profit or loss.
I don't think the Member can expect to cite those instances and say that they are actual evidence. We are a couple of weeks into the new tax regime, and I don't think he or anybody else could produce a single decision where a company could say, 'We've decided not to come to Wales because of the 6 per cent rate.' He's able to produce those large percentage figures because he's got low numbers, and the low numbers show that the actual impact from that 1 per cent is a good deal more modest than he's suggesting.
I stand by the thinking that lay behind the decision I made and brought to the floor of this Assembly, that the rate will not deter people from coming here to Wales and that the impact of lowering taxes for the 90 per cent of commercial property transactions in Wales, so they're the lowest in the United Kingdom, will have a much larger stimulative effect on business in Wales than the aspect that he complains of.
However, any sensible person must be open to the actual evidence and there are different views of how this may affect the market, and now over the coming months we will find out whether there is such an impact, and if there is and there is real evidence, then I just repeat what I've said, Llywydd, then of course anybody would take that into account as these decisions come up for review.
To be fair to the Cabinet Secretary, you're right, it is early days, I fully accept that, and we must obviously look at evidence. We'd want an evidence-based approach to this, and I also would accept that I've identified and spoken at length about one tax, but that is just one tax of an overall package, and in the economy there are different levers, and this may well just be one aspect of it. However, that one aspect cannot be ruled out when you're dealing with situations on the margins of an economy. That can make a difference. I'm pleased actually that you have left the door open on potentially altering the stamp duty regime—the LTT regime, I should say—in future, if that evidence does produce a problem.
Cabinet Secretary, I have no doubt at all that you want to be business friendly, that your Welsh Government does want to be business friendly, I've no doubt at all that your intention is to be business friendly, because only a madman would not want that. However, I would say that when you look at the evidence we have to date, businesses are concerned. So, can you tell us, if you look at the multiplier rates in Wales, for instance, compared with other parts of the UK, that's markedly higher. That does make a difference in terms of the business rates. Can you tell us what interaction you have had so far, albeit a short time, but what interaction have you had so far with businesses, and have any businesses expressed real concerns that they will not invest in Wales because of these changes?
Well, I have answered that question, but I'll repeat again: I met a group of businesses who made much the case that you have put very plainly this afternoon, and I've asked my officials to meet them subsequently so that we remain in touch with them and are well placed to gather the evidence that I've talked about this afternoon.
His point about the multiplier is a curious one because in England, where his party is in charge, there is of course a higher rate multiplier for exactly the sort of businesses that you've been talking about this afternoon. The largest businesses in England pay a higher rate of multiplier and we don't have that higher rate of multiplier here in Wales. And that is because in England, of course, they have to collect money from those higher rated businesses because those higher rated businesses pay for the rate relief schemes that smaller businesses enjoy in England, whereas, in Wales, we fully fund all our business rate relief schemes directly from the Welsh Government.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Adam Price.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. It's become more and more apparent in light of the report of the auditor general, for example, and then the evidence gathered by the Public Accounts Committee recently, that one of the cornerstones of the procurement policy of the Welsh Government, namely the National Procurement Service, is underachieving to say the least. The target, if Members recall, back in 2012, when the service was created, was to generate £25 million of savings on expenditure of £4.3 billion within the public sector. But, in the most recent years for which we have figures in the auditor's report, only £15 million has been delivered on a spend of £6 billion. We also discover in the report that only 19 per cent of members of the service have declared that they are making financial savings, and only a third of all local authorities are content with the service. And even the Welsh Government are saying that they are dissatisfied with the service that they themselves have created. Isn't it clear, Cabinet Secretary, that Welsh Government procurement policy is currently failing?
Well, Llywydd, I have welcomed the work done by the Auditor General for Wales in relation to procurement, and I welcome the work that the Public Accounts Committee has done in this field as well. It is because of concerns about the National Procurement Service, not simply the service itself, but about the changing context within which such a service has to operate—Brexit, ongoing austerity, emerging models of regional working, for example—that back in September I announced that we were undertaking a review of the service. Now, since then, as Adam Price has said, information has emerged about the extent to which the NPS has been able to reach the benchmarks that were originally set out for it and about the level of confidence that it has commanded amongst those who use it. That's why a plan to refocus NPS and Value Wales is important. That's why I am keen to press on with it. We need a service that is able to use the power of procurement to the advantage of the Welsh economy to the maximum extent, but it has to command the confidence of its key stakeholders, and there are changes that are needed to make sure that that can happen.
One of the main weaknesses as I see it in terms of procurement at the moment in Wales is a lack of staff with appropriate qualifications and the ability of public bodies to retain those experienced staff. In 2012, Cardiff University said in a report by Professor Kevin Morgan that there was a serious skills shortage at the heart of the public sector in Wales in relation to public procurement. He estimated that there was a need for an official with a chartered institute qualification for every £15 million of public spend. Now, the Welsh Government have gone a step further than that, of course, and followed the recommendations made by McClelland, and in their policy on public procurement they talked of a figure of £10 million of expenditure across the public sector as the benchmark. On that basis, of course, we are some 274 professional procurement managers short in Wales, so what actions are the Government taking to recruit and train more staff and experts in procurement?
Well, can I begin by recognising the point that the Member makes? The need for proper capacity and capability in procurement is a challenge. I talked to Kevin Morgan myself about it, and the Member was right that the McClelland methodology does suggest a deficit in Wales of the order that he identified. Now, we've already done some things about this in Wales. We've had the Home Grown Talent project, which has successfully brought new people into the system. We are committed to increasing the pool of procurement professionals in Wales. We're working with schools and colleges to raise the awareness of procurement as a desirable profession. But we also need to work with public sector organisations for them to give the sense of status and recognition to procurement professionals that they do to others. Too often, it seems to me, public organisations regard procurement as a rather handle-turning exercise, where you don't think of the people involved in it as having much of a cutting-edge contribution to the work of the organisation. But we know— some of the points Adam Price has already made—about the ability of procurement to drive value for the public, and not just value, but activity in terms of employment and community benefits and so on. The status of the profession needs to be recognised better, and that's part of the work that we want to do to try to address the recruitment and retention issues that Adam Price has identified.
Can I turn, finally, to a specific example, which I think raises further questions on whether or not NPS and the wider framework of procurement policy is fit for purpose? NPS recently awarded a three-year contract called Arbed 3, which is an all-Wales contract to insulate thousands of homes, to the Scottish based company, Everwarm, which is itself a subsidiary of a much larger firm called Lakehouse, based in Essex, I believe—a company that's been likened to Carillion in terms of its aggressive bidding for public sector contracts based on its ability to cut costs. This has led to questions about standards and probity, and it should be noted that this was the very same company that held the contract for fitting the fire alarms at Grenfell Tower.
Now, you, in the statement that you referred to, Cabinet Secretary, last year on repositioning Welsh Government procurement policy, did emphasise social value. Does this commitment sit comfortably with NPS's decision to appoint a firm that has been the subject of a string of negative reports, from profit warnings to fraud allegations and safety concerns—compared to Melin Homes, which, together with other Welsh-based partners, had, in the previous programme, ensured 100 per cent procurement from Welsh SMEs? Instead of repositioning Welsh Government procurement policy, don't we need a complete rethink?
Well, I thank the Member for raising that point, and it was raised in the Chamber yesterday by Mark Isherwood during business questions, as well. I've written, Llywydd, today, to all Assembly Members who have corresponded with me on this issue. Because there will be Members here who won't have received those replies, I wonder if I might just read the final two paragraphs of that letter, just so that I put the current position on the record for Members to know. So, the letter sets out the process that led to the identification of a successful bidder. It then says that, under the Public Contract Regulations 2015, we are required to allow a mandatory minimum 10-day standstill period. During the initial period, one of the bidders formally raised a number of points of clarification via their legal advisers and asked that the Welsh Government extend the standstill period. That standstill period has been extended. It will now last until 30 April and that will provide time to enable a clear and comprehensive consideration of the points that have been raised as part of this exercise.
Members will understand that, with that issue under further consideration, it wouldn't be right for me to comment further on the outcome of the procurement, but I will make a further statement when the standstill process comes to an end.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on Welsh Government spending commitments in relation to the local government and public services portfolio? OAQ52006
Can I thank the Member for that question? And no doubt I will find my answer to it any second now. Llywydd, the local government and public services portfolio will spend £5.4 billion in 2018-19, comprising £3.7 billion in revenue, £209 million in capital and £1.1 billion in annually managed expenditure. That investment covers a range of vitally important areas, including housing, homelessness, childcare and the council tax reduction scheme.
Okay. Thank you for that answer. There are financial implications to Government spending if a proposed prison in Port Talbot or elsewhere in Wales is to go ahead. Have you made any analysis of the impact in terms of how you would need to allocate extra resources to departments? I understand the public service Cabinet Secretary made a statement during recess, where the impacts on other aspects of public services and policy were raised as part of the reason for announcing a delay. So, I've received, myself, some information that shows that there is considerable impact on public resources relating to existing prisons, so I would like to ask: have you given any thought, specifically, to the impact on public services in south Wales and how you would need to potentially change the budget if there would be a need to do so?
I thank her for that further question. I have, of course, seen the statement on justice policy put out by my colleague Alun Davies during the recess. Whenever there are developments in this field, we work closely with the Ministry of Justice to make sure that, if non-devolved activity is being developed in Wales, the necessary resources come with it. We do that, however, at the point when there is a specific proposal around which those discussions could take place. So, the general answer to the Member's question is, were there to be any proposals, of course those discussions would happen, but they don't happen in this specific instance because there is nothing on the table around which such discussions could be focused.
Cabinet Secretary, around £100 million of grants were dehypothecated in this year's budget for local authorities and local government, and, of course, we see that as a positive move forward. Obviously, the costs of administration are very high. However, a number of local authorities have raised serious concerns that the £13 million that was previously allocated for the minority ethnic, Gypsy/Traveller and Roma element of the educational improvement grant was actually withheld and not actually passed on to this particular budget line. The education Secretary has since admitted error in this regard, thereby transferring this extra funding to make up for the shortfall. However, once again, our more rural local authorities were completely excluded from this correction. Cabinet Secretary, this does not inspire confidence in the budget setting of the Welsh Labour Government. So, therefore, what assurances can you provide me with that any dehypothecated funding going forward in the future will reach those authorities and the budgets that they're intended to do so?
Well, I'm grateful for what the Member said at the start of her question about her support for the general principle of dehypothecation, and I was very keen, in this budget round for this year, to take a step forward in that, because, at times when local authority budgets are under such pressure, we respond to the case they make to us that, if money goes into the revenue support grant, they can make more flexible, and therefore more effective and more efficient, use of it.
In relation to the minority ethnic achievement grant, we have come to an agreement, Llywydd, with the Welsh Local Government Association on that matter. I have provided an additional £5 million from central funds to assist with the education of children from those backgrounds, and my colleague Kirsty Williams has added a further £2.5 million to that sum to make sure that future development of this provision on a regional footing can be carried out. We were glad to reach that agreement with the WLGA. As we move further grants into the RSG, I accept the general point the Member made—that that has to be done carefully and has to be done with thorough discussion in advance to make sure that the particular strand in the budget formula that we use means that money ends up in the places where it is most needed.
4. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with the UK Government regarding what will replace European structural funds in Wales following Brexit? OAQ51987
Thank you, Siân Gwenllian for that question. Replacement funding for structural funds is a matter that I have raised with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and other United Kingdom Ministers. At present, they haven’t given us any details of their proposals. Our position for replacement funding and autonomy is clearly set out in our paper ‘Regional Investment in Wales after Brexit’.
Thank you. It appears from that paper that the Government’s main argument is that we need to increase the baseline for the funding that Wales received from Westminster to put right the losses from structural funds and European Union investments. Now, with all due respect, I don’t see you shouting particularly loudly on this issue at the moment. Wales is facing the loss of significant funding—£2 billion—with poor and vulnerable communities in west Wales and the Valleys worst hit, even though that is where the greatest need lies. So, can you give us an assurance today that you will have specific discussions with the Westminster Government in order to secure this post-Brexit funding? I would also like to know what assurance there is that the Welsh Government, in gaining those funds, will distribute that funding on a needs basis so that communities in west Wales and the Valleys don’t miss out.
I thank Sian Gwenllian for that question. From the point of view of this Welsh Government, it’s a standpoint that we put in the joint document between ourselves and Plaid Cymru in January of last year, namely that for every pound that we receive from the European Union here in Wales, that funding must come to us post Brexit, as those who tried to persuade people to vote to come out of the European Union kept reiterating. So, that is our policy, and I can tell the Member that, at all opportunities that I have to make that point with the Westminster Ministers in the Treasury, I do so. I take every opportunity to make that case wherever and whenever. Are we confident that we will receive this money? Well, we can’t say that for sure at the moment because we haven’t received any details from the United Kingdom Government about what they will be doing post Brexit.
On the point that Siân Gwenllian raised about how we are going to use the funding should we receive that funding, well that is why we have published the paper on the regional investment policies so that we can be clear that we want ideas from them in the field and that we want to be able to run the policy in the future on a needs basis, but also on the basis that we will have regulations in place where people can see clearly how the system will work and that they can be confident that there will be equity in that system in Wales.
5. How will the Cabinet Secretary ensure that money raised by the two new devolved taxes will contribute towards future investment in Welsh public services? OAQ52000
I thank the Member for the question. The revenue raised by devolved taxes will fund the essential public services on which communities and businesses across Wales depend, supporting our social objectives and helping to deliver fair economic growth.
Thank you. And what are the early observations on the Wales Revenue Authority and their management and collation?
I thank the Member. To make a few points on that score, the Welsh Revenue Authority has now been in existence for between two and three weeks, and the early days were always going to be ones where you would have some anxiety that the move from the existing system to the new one would go smoothly. I think I can report that it has been a successful few weeks. The first registrations for new Welsh taxes happened by 3 April. The feedback from users to date has been very positive, and the investment in digital systems, which was a key point of the Finance Committee, who reminded us during the whole development of the Welsh Revenue Authority that, with an opportunity to create a system from scratch, we ought to make sure that it was fully digital. The digital side of the Welsh Revenue Authority's work has proved to be very successful, both in the way that it interfaces with users of the service and in the way that it is able to use data inside the revenue authority as well.
6. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact of council tax increases on the residents of South Wales West? OAQ51993
Democratically elected local authorities are responsible for setting council tax every year. Local authorities are answerable to their local populations for the decisions they make, including setting council tax rates. The Welsh Government has this week launched a campaign to increase the take-up of our council tax reduction scheme, which supports low-income households.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Bridgend residents have had a 4.5 per cent increase, Neath 3.7 per cent and Swansea a staggering 4.9 per cent increase. At the same time as my constituents are forced to pay these inflation-busting rises, wages are only rising by half these amounts. Cabinet Secretary, how can these increases be justified when services are being cut? How can we justify asking my constituents to pay out more of their dwindling income for fewer bin collections, unrepaired roads, broken street lights and service cuts?
I'm afraid, Llywydd, that the answer is very simple: the justification lies in the impact of eight years of austerity on public service budgets here in Wales—eight years in which, year on year on year, there is less money available to this Government and to local authorities to do the vital work that the Member pointed to. I know that local authorities of all persuasions across Wales think very hard about the impact that their decisions have on their local population. At least here in Wales, the least well-off households have the comfort of knowing that they do not pay council tax, whereas across the border in England over 2 million of the poorest households in the land are now having to make substantial contributions, not out of their not-rising incomes, but their frozen benefit incomes for local public services.
Finally, question 7—Mick Antoniw.
7. What are the potential implications for Welsh Government funding decisions of the UK Government’s reduction in police budgets? OAQ51974
Llywydd, strong partnership arrangements exist between the Welsh Government and all Welsh police forces. Reductions in budgets on both sides inevitably place even greater pressure on our combined ability to provide essential services.
Cabinet Secretary, you've seen the growing debate on community safety, particularly the incidents, for example, in London, just to mention one area, the growth of knife crime, and the debate around the impact of police budget cuts around that. Of course, the UK Government's argument is that the Tory cuts in policing have not led to those increases in violent crime. Well, can I just draw the Cabinet Secretary's attention to the situation within Wales? We have, as the result of the loss of 682 police officers over the last eight years, had an 18 per cent increase in violent crime, a 14 per cent increase in knife crime in south Wales, a 25 per cent increase in knife crime in Wales and 84,000 crimes unsolved, and we've had the highest increases in these forms of crimes occurring. Isn't it the case that it is undeniable now that the Tory cuts to policing over the last few years that they've been in power have led to a direct result in not only fewer police officers and less money for the police, but a direct increase in violent crime, in knife crime and in crime generally across Wales, and that this is an issue that cannot go on any longer?
Llywydd, the Prime Minister's disastrous record as Home Secretary is increasingly coming home to roost. Her decision—let's remember that it was her decision—year after year after year to reduce funding for the police—[Interruption.] You forget the times that she turned up at Police Federation conferences lecturing them on the way that they should conduct themselves, while she was, at the same time, taking away from police authorities across England and Wales the wherewithal to allow them to do the vital work that they do. It doesn't matter how many times Conservative Ministers go on the television and radio trying to claim that the slash and burn through police authority budgets has had no impact on crime, because people out there living real lives in real communities simply know that that is not true, and the figures that Mick Antoniw outlined demonstrate that very well. In the Prime Minister's disastrous election campaign last year, one of the issues that she failed to address right through the campaign was Labour's promise that if we were elected, we would restore those budgets and make sure that police numbers were restored to where they were before the Prime Minister set about her campaign of reducing them. Of course reducing budgets for police authorities has an impact on the work that they are able to do and of course the work they are able to do has an impact upon the lives of people in communities in every part of Wales.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
The next questions are for the leader of the house. The first question is from Simon Thomas.
1. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the availability of mobile phone reception in Mid and West Wales? OAQ51977
Thank you for the question. While we don't hold specific information on mobile reception in mid and west Wales, I do appreciate the difficulties that the area suffers. We have successfully lobbied Ofcom to include coverage obligations in their forthcoming spectrum auction of the 700 MHz band, which we hope will lead to better service availability.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary—I'm not sure what she is when she does this, leader of the house or Cabinet Secretary, but she's a member of the Cabinet, anyway. Thank you for that reply. I really struggle to understand how we can actually move on many parts of rural Wales to the automated future, the robotics future that we've been talking about in Welsh public life only today if we don't have a viable and reliable mobile phone signal. You can't do your automated farm, for example, if you don't have that. You can't have automated cars if you don't have that. We can't have developments, even if we do see a new train line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth, without a reliable mobile phone signal for the track engineering and everything else.
You say you don't actually know the availability of this, and I understand it's not devolved, but there are ways of plugging the gap. The Scottish Government has a 4G infill programme. It has looked at changing planning regulations, trying to do the best it can about mast sharing, forcing companies to work together and, indeed, some public Government investment in filling in the notspots. Is that something that the Welsh Government is considering, and could we see a 4G/5G national programme, similar to the broadband programme that you've been rolling out over the last couple of years? I'm sure your postbag deserves a few extra letters on these matters as well.
The devolution settlement is very complicated here and the edges are difficult, and so what exactly is devolved and what isn't is a constant source of conversation between ourselves, the UK Government, Ofcom and the industry about who can do what. So it's not quite as straightforward as the Scottish situation, unfortunately, would that it were. There have been some improvements. I'm not arguing at all that it's wonderful, but there have been some improvements as a result of our conversations with Ofcom and their pressure on the industry. Currently, the proportion of premises across Wales with outdoor mobile coverage is around 90 per cent. We've seen an increase of 33 percentage points in outdoor 4G availability between 2015 and 2016, reaching 53 per cent.
The last 4G spectrum auction licence, which I've just been talking about, was awarded to Telefónica O2, and carried the coverage obligation of at least 95 per cent of the population of Wales by the end of 2017, and we fought hard to get that in there. In late 2015, Ofcom did announce their forthcoming auction of spectrum in the 2.3 GHz and 3.4 GHz bands. That's a very high capacity spectrum that will be used for increasing capacity of existing 4G coverage. We're pressing Ofcom for the forthcoming auction of the 700 MHz spectrum to include a geographic coverage obligation, or if it doesn't then a time-limited obligation to give it back to us if it hasn't been implemented. I've spoken in this Chamber before about the land banking effect of the spectrum auctions, and how difficult that is for us.
So, we are putting a lot of pressure on them. There are some other things going on. On the roll-out of the Home Office system, we understand that planning applications are now with local authorities and are going well. That will afford an extra ability to cover it. And also, of course, the rail franchise. We will be putting obligations on the rail franchise holder to spread mobile phone coverage along that network, and we're also looking at our road network. So, we are using the devolution settlement, such as it is, to the best of our ability and putting a lot of pressure on the UK Government and Ofcom about the way that the industry rolls out. We also continue to have the mobile action plan forum, which I chair, and 'Planning Policy Wales' is out to consultation as we speak about the issue with the mast sizes and spaces. So, there is a lot of activity going on, but I share the Member's frustration at the slowness and the difficulty.
The last thing I will say is that we have targeted in our broadband Superfast 2 project those who are excluded from 4G spectrum in order to try and boost them up in a different way.
Leader of the house, I do appreciate the answer that you've just given to Simon Thomas, but, of course, the reality is that in great chunks of mid and west Wales, there are areas where people do not have access to either broadband or mobile. To be fair, I absolutely recognise your commitment to sorting this out, and I know that you've taken on literally probably almost 100 of my constituents to try to get resolutions.
However, 90 per cent of mobile reception sounds great, but, of course, it's not 90 per cent of one provider. And so, sometimes you can get a bit of this provider, but your provider doesn't work. So, for example, I've got a household where—I don't know if I should mention the providers—if they were on EE, they can get it literally just by their door, but that's it, nowhere else in their area. So, actually that's not the best provider for them to be on. I wonder if a way forward might be to put together a task and finish group to look specifically at how we can jigsaw-puzzle together in rural areas all of the communication methodologies to ensure that our citizens really are digitally enabled going forward, because it's vital for business and for homework, kids, the whole lot. We all need our digital fix.
Yes, the mobile action plan is actually attempting to do just that, to pull the operators together and to make sure that the jigsaw fits, if you like. Not wanting to politicise this, but there are some fundamentals here. One of the big issues is roaming. The mobile phone companies don't like the idea of roaming, and Ofcom backs them up on that. And we understand entirely why, commercially, they don't want roaming in big population centres and so on. But in rural areas, it's probably the only hope because you're never going to get coverage of five different networks across the whole of the rural land mass of Wales and elsewhere in the UK. And so, we have been pushing the UK Government to look again at roaming for outside major conurbations, for example. And the frustration is that if you have a SIM from outside Britain—if you have a French SIM, it will roam quite happily. So, it will happily look because the EU insists on roaming. Likewise, if you take a British SIM to Europe, it roams around happily. So, we do push that, and I share the Member's frustration on that.
We will have geographical coverage by one provider—98 per cent geographical coverage I should hasten to add; there will still be a 2 per cent that's not covered—which will be great because I hope the residents will speak with their feet and swap to that provider. But that doesn't help the tourist industry. You can't be saying to your tourism customers, 'Welcome to Wales, please be on this provider or else you can't access anything.' That's clearly useless. So, we continue to push pretty much how useless that is and to use our public networks and public infrastructure to get it out as far as we possibly can. There are problems, as I say, with the devolution settlement on that.
2. Will the Leader of the House report on the progress of the Welsh Government's digital action plan? OAQ51970
Yes. Work is progressing across all themes: leadership, transformation, skills and workforce, platform services, digital dialogue and engagement, and data. It's very important to me because it drives improvements in delivering the business of Government, and, of course, I oversee progress of the plan, which is owned by the Permanent Secretary, at the digital and data group, which I chair.
Thank you for that reply. Leader of the house, I attended the cross-party group on hospices and palliative care at the end of last term. There, a barrier to more effective working and communications across disciplines was identified, and that is the inability of the various information technology systems to talk to each other, although I do understand improvements are under way. Only yesterday, during the statement on sexual health services, lack of effective IT systems were highlighted as a problem once again. I appreciate that health systems may not be in your remit, but this has got me thinking about public services innovation, and those services being fit for the present, never mind the future.
My research has led me to read your digital action plan 2017-20, a clear exercise in navel-gazing, if ever I saw one, with one paragraph—29—given to one of the main reasons we are here: our much-valued public services. The trail then led me to the 2012 'digital first' report. This was advice given to the Welsh Government, where leadership, strategy and direction were deemed vital to the future efficient delivery of public services. Now, this is 2018—this is the future. After 20 years of devolution, in a very small nation, can you please outline what leadership, strategy and direction the Welsh Government has shown in this key area?
I'll try and unpick that a little. The health services issue: my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for health and I do collaborate on health service issues, and, indeed, I attend the national informatics management board for the health service, which is NIMBY—always makes me smile, I'm afraid, but it doesn't mean what it normally means in normal parlance; it's the informatics board system. And the whole point of that is to co-ordinate IT progress across the health service, on a once-for-Wales basis, and to ensure that we do have systems that work—well, (a) that we have as few systems as possible, so we have similar systems across all health boards, and that, indeed, they do talk to each other, and that's very much a work in progress. And I'm sure the Cabinet Secretary for health would be happy to update you on exactly where we are with that. But I assure you, we are on top of that, and we have very vigorous conversations about it.
In terms of the Welsh Government itself, there are three aspects to your question, I think. One is the internal business of the Welsh Government, which I've just outlined in terms of the digital action plan, which is about the way the Welsh Government itself works. And the Member may know that we've just come off one of the big headline IT contracts, Atos, and we're moving to a more flexible system. The commission were several years ahead of the Government in this, and it's a different way of working. And that's what I was just outlining, and I'll be reporting on the progress on that plan very shortly. And then there's the work that I do with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for public services, in local government and in the workforce partnership council, around digital innovation and improvement for the delivery of public services. We have an enormous agenda there, where we liaise with all public services—devolved and non-devolved public services in Wales—to ensure, again, that we have a similar once-for-Wales digitally connected system, where we roll out systems together. And my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance just spoke in his answers about the real success we've had with the Welsh Revenue Authority, which went live earlier this month—and I know he outlined it earlier—with all the online collection and management of the land transaction and landfill taxes all digitally enabled, and with all lawyers and conveyancers, and all the rest of it, all able to log on to that system, and do their transaction digitally.
So, we are very much ahead of that curve. There's a lot more to do, and there's a huge issue about understanding what the future looks like, in terms of the skills agenda as well. But the Welsh Government is very much, I think, on top of that agenda.
Leader of the house, there seems to be two aims of the Welsh Government's digital action plan—a more connected Wales and a more equal Wales. Now, you've published an update on your digital inclusion plan this morning, which I've had a read through, which cites good progress. But I have to say the reality is, of course, that thousands of my constituents, in Montgomeryshire, still suffer from slow or non-existent broadband connectivity at all. So, that means, of course, they simply cannot, and they are unable to, access Welsh Government services online. They don't feel more connected, and they don't feel part of a more equal Wales in this regard, and it will be, of course, of no surprise that I'm mentioning this to you. But can I ask for an update on the procurement of phase 2 of the Superfast Cymru project, and when will you be in a position to publish a full list of the 88,000 premises that will benefit from the next scheme?
Well, I have to say, I congratulate the Member for managing to get broadband into a conversation about the digital action plan of the Welsh Government, and I think there are a number of other questions later on the agenda on that. But the short answer is: I will be making a statement towards the end of May about the progress of Superfast 2, the three tendered projects, and the bespoke community issue, and I will expand further on that in later questions, Llywydd.
It is fair to say, of course, that there is for more interface between public services and the public happening online, so I think it’s a valid question. I have to say that many of my constituents have had enough of the empty promises that they’ve received in the past from people such as BT Openreach, or Openreach as they are now. Villages like Ysbyty Ifan to all intents and purposes have been misled by a company that clearly is more interested in protecting the interests of its shareholders than in providing services to the communities that it is supposed to serve. And even worse than that, the Welsh Government has given some false promises to constituents, with copies of letters that I’ve seen dating back to November 2015 promising resolutions in this area—one of them from you in a previous role as Minister for Skills and Technology from over two years ago. So, when will these rural communities, such as Ysbyty Ifan, at last be receiving the services that they deserve rather than the empty promises that they’ve had over the last few years?
I'm sorry that the Member feels they were empty promises. We do go out of our way to say that the dates mentioned in the letters are shiftable and are not promised connection dates. But I've said many times in this Chamber that I share his frustration and the frustration of those who were scheduled in the programme and then who, for whatever complicated reason, fell out at the end. The Superfast 2 programme will very much be trying to address people who were inside the superfast 1 programme and, for whatever reason, fell out of it. I cannot promise that they will all be addressed. There are some complicated issues there.
Many people in Wales are stuck behind wayleave issues, for example. I think we have 10,000 premises stuck behind wayleaves at the moment, and, unfortunately, because it's not considered to be a utility, the Welsh Government and the contractors that the Welsh Government procures have no right to cross land. If a landowner refuses access to land we have no way of making them give us that access and that's just one example of many that there are across Wales.
But I do share the Member's frustration. I am going out to very many communities in Wales talking about whether a community solution is possible for villages, such as the one you've just mentioned, and whether we can do one of our bespoke solutions for a group of people who are geographically proximate or whether some other solution might be best, and I'm going down to Ceredigion next week I think.
Yes, Thursday. Four o'clock. [Laughter.] Llanina Arms.
I'm looking forward to it already. [Laughter.]
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Siân Gwenllian.
Thank you very much. And an invitation has been issued to your office to come to Arfon too, if I may say so.
During the past month, in a speech given in Oxford, the First Minister said that he will hold a review of the equality and gender policies of the Welsh Government, which will include, among other things, consideration of how to move gender to the forefront in making decisions, ensuring that economic development planning corresponds to the aims on gender and equality, and to make Wales the safest place to be a woman in the whole of Europe, which all sounds very laudable, but what are the details? When will this review commence? Who will be holding it? Will there be specific targets and specific outcomes, and what will the purpose of this review be?
Well, the questions are very welcome and very timely. We've only just concluded the agreement of the terms of reference, which only this morning I placed in the Members' library, so they can be accessed by all Members as of today. So, the question is a very timely one. We're very pleased to have agreed the terms of reference. We will be having two initial stakeholder events, one on 26 April and one on 3 May, where we're getting all of the stakeholders who are active in this sphere together—one in south Wales and one in north Wales—to just try and get as many people as possible, and I have written out to all of the groups that we're aware of. If you know of any that haven't received anything from us, do encourage them to reply—we're not trying to only get to the people we know about—asking them, if they could only do one thing in the next three years in this space, what would it be, so that we can get a discussion going at the two stakeholder events around the priorities that people highlight. And then I'm very pleased to say that we will be looking to see what we can do rapidly, what we can do in the medium term and then what might take a little bit longer to achieve as part of this review, which I'm delighted to be doing.
Thank you very much. I look forward to participating in that debate. In the context of the point made in the First Minister's speech in Oxford on making Wales the safest possible place to be a woman throughout the whole of Europe through legislation, you will be aware, of course, that that was one of the intentions underpinning the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015, and I'm very pleased that there has been some progress now in light of issues that I have raised in this Chamber on implementing that particular piece of legislation. There is one persistent defect in terms of that legislation, namely healthy relationships education. Despite recent work by the task and finish group, it appears that we are still no nearer a resolution in this area. There’s been no mention of what is going to happen in terms of teaching the foundations of a healthy relationship, having discussions on what is acceptable behaviour and what isn’t acceptable, and so on and so forth. So, there’s been an opportunity missed with the legislation. I hope there’s an opportunity now, but I don’t see any progress being made. So, what’s holding things back in this area?
So, the Member rightly identifies an issue that's been at the forefront of many of our minds for some time. My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Education will shortly be making a statement on the teaching of—I can't remember exactly how it's put—sex and relationships education, effectively. That might not be the exact title, forgive me, but that's the gist of it. We've been building on the successful projects run by Hafan Cymru across many of the schools in Wales around healthy relationships teaching. I had the privilege of going to see a session in one of our Valleys primary schools, which was amazing. The difference in the group at the beginning of the session and at the end, and the young woman who was teaching it, was inspirational. So, we've been very much looking to see if we can build on that. But my colleague—I won't steal her thunder—the Cabinet Secretary will be making some announcements very soon.
Well, I’m very pleased to hear that and it is about time if I may say so because education is crucial in tackling this particular problem.
Yesterday, some Members mentioned in the Chamber the review of sexual health services, which drew attention to the postcode lottery that exists in terms of abortion services in Wales. The review states that abortion services in Wales are inequitable and that this can lead to late abortions or for women to be in a situation where they have no choice but to go on with an unintended pregnancy. Now, clearly that isn’t an acceptable situation. Will this major review that you’re going to be conducting pursue this particular issue, given that the provision is very patchy at the moment? It is an issue that has to be dealt with if the comments made by the First Minister are going to be taken seriously, otherwise people are going to think that it was empty rhetoric or a tokenistic statement that was made ad hoc to the press in Oxford.
One of the purposes of the review is to look at gender-focused policy right across the Welsh Government. So, that's one example you just gave there. There are many others around how and why services are as they are in Wales. One of the ones that I often quote is that you often see services for refuges, for example, grow up where a number of people tens of years ago got together and saw the need and then we've continued with that service rather than on a needs-based approach across Wales. Not that there's anything wrong with the services that are there, but I'm not absolutely convinced that we've got the coverage and that people have the same experience wherever they pitch up for those services, because of the way they grew up and the way that we—. So, that's part of the purpose of the review. So, you've highlighted another. There are other services—I've had endometriosis services highlighted to me, for example, and there are a number of others. So, yes, the purpose of the review is to look at policy across the Welsh Government and the availability of services and to focus on what might be done to improve that.
The Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. My questions relate to your responsibilities for equality and human rights. On Monday, I hosted and spoke at the Going for Gold Autistic Acceptance event in the Senedd. It was an autistic-led event, at which they, autistic adults—highly articulate and intelligent autistic adults—covered the areas of concern that they have, but also put forward ideas of how we can all work together co-productively, in their terms, to ensure that we begin to tackle the discrimination faced by autistic people
'that has become the norm rather than the exception'.
They particularly raised concern that awareness is not acceptance or equality, which is where your role comes into this, and yet there's growing concern that autism awareness training generally, and disability awareness training more broadly, across Wales is increasingly being led by non-disabled people who are professionals in medical or caring professions with a medical focus, which informs people about disabled people's impairments and ways of overcoming disability, whereas, as the sector says, autism equality training is always led by trainers who are disabled people, with a focus on disabled and non-disabled people working together to overcome the disabling barriers in society, recognising that removing physical, financial and attitudinal barriers will create a more inclusive, accessible society.
How, working with your colleagues, will you address the growing concerns within the autism community, and more broadly amongst disabled people in Wales, that this awareness training, is being provided without them or despite them on a medical model, rather than with them on a co-productive basis to tackle the barriers that they're encountering?
That hasn't been raised with me directly, Mark Isherwood, and I'd welcome a longer conversation with you about where those concerns have been raised. I'm very happy to look at that. Very, very much our stated policy is that we have a co-production model; that we work with the communities that we are serving in order to make sure that the services that we provide are provided with them and with their input. So, I'm concerned to hear you say that and I'd very much welcome a conversation with you about where those concerns have been raised as they've not been raised directly with me.
Well, thank you for that. I look forward to that conversation. Perhaps you could, in your answer, tell me whether you want me to contact you or your office to contact—
I'll get my office to contact you.
I'll get my office to contact you.
Thank you very much.
Well, on a similar subject, and, again, wearing your equalities hat, the Welsh Government publication early last month of its evaluation of the integrated autism service and autism spectrum disorder—a word I hope the Welsh Government has stopped using; it should be 'condition'—and strategic action plan interim report found weaknesses and inconsistencies in both assessment and diagnostic services for adults with autism and in support services for adults and children with autism, and said that although success requires a co-productive approach involving staff, service users and carers in the design, implementation and evaluation of the service,
'There are concerns that the “top down” approach…has stifled this'
Again, from Monday's event, and more broadly, the community feels that this is a breach of their equality and human rights. It's more than systems; it's more than services; it's a rights-based issue. Again, then, I hope that you will agree to consider this broadly and potentially in the meeting that you propose.
Certainly. The services that you mentioned are not actually in my portfolio, but I'm more than happy to discuss with the Member how we can take that forward amongst a number of Cabinet Secretaries who are involved.
And my final question, again, on a similar theme, I have—probably because I'm the chair of the cross-party autism group, I get a lot more approaches regarding this—an increasingly bulging case load of families where children, particularly girls, are being denied autism assessment and diagnosis because of the gender-based misconceptions about how autism presents itself. I've got an example here from the Inns of Court College of Advocacy, whose own guidelines say that females with autism may appear more sociable than their male counterparts. It's been suggested that women and girls with autism are better able to engage in social situations because they're likely to observe and copy others in their social skills and use of language. Such strategies may mask any difficulties that they have and make them appear to be more able than they actually are.
I have a growing number of cases, where health boards and schools are seeing the masking rather than the person, and more and more of these girls and their families—some of whose parents are on the spectrum as well—suffering serious anxiety problems, depression, absenteeism from school, falling behind and, nonetheless, having a belligerent and non-co-productive response from the statutory bodies to them and to me when I represent them. I know that this covers briefs that are not yours, but, again, these parents and, when I meet them, the children are telling me this is a breach of their human rights. And, again, I hope that you will confirm that you will give consideration to addressing these very real concerns because they're causing real damage to real lives.
I'm very aware of the issue about misconceived ideas of what a child who's on the autistic spectrum might present like. The Member, I know, is aware that I have a case in my own family, which I very much have in the forefront of my mind.
I'm more than happy, as part of our discussion, to include my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Health, who is responsible for most of the services, and I think some of them are probably education services as well. So, if we have that conversation, I'm more than happy to take that forward.
I'd just like to reiterate that I've not had those concerns raised directly with me, but I'm more than happy to take them up.
The UKIP spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. By sheer coincidence, my question somewhat follows on from some issues raised by Sian Gwenllian earlier on.
In April 2015, the Welsh Assembly passed the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015. This was a laudable piece of legislation designed to protect, in particular, female victims of domestic abuse. As with any piece of legislation, it is incumbent on us after a period of time to question its effectiveness. Does the leader of the house believe the Act is achieving its goals?
It's still early days for the Act, obviously; we've only just put the new national advisers in place. I've had several extremely helpful and constructive meetings with them, including a half-day meeting with them where we discussed the range of services that currently exist in Wales and what needs to be done to get them to work in a more collaborative fashion. I had the real privilege just this week of attending the launch of the Seren Môr Consortium in Western Bay, which is embracing that collaborative approach as a result of our new national guidance. So, I think the Act is very much coming into its own.
We had a slow start, as Sian Gwenllian alluded to, but I think we're very much there now. We're about to put out our sustainable funding guidance as well. So, I think the Act is one that we can very much be proud of, and is just starting to make the difference that we expect and want it to make.
I thank the leader of the house for her comprehensive answer, but the figures with regard to sexual violence and domestic abuse do not make good reading. In March 2017, data showed a 23 per cent increase in this form of crime over the previous three years. Even given the fact that people are more readily reporting such incidents, it still shows worrying trends. However, what is far more worrying is the lack of funding for interventions once a victim has taken the often courageous step of leaving the home where domestic abuse has been perpetrated, sometimes over many years. Figures show that 47 per cent of such victims were turned away from refuges due to lack of accommodation. Given that these refuges play a vital role in helping people to get away from domestic violence, does the leader of the house feel funding is adequate?
Would that it were adequate. As my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance said earlier on in response to a question, this is the result of many years of Conservative Government austerity. We have less and less money year on year. We have less and less money. There are no easy choices. We are not ever cutting something that doesn't work. All of these services are vital. We are not in any—. I cannot say that the funding is adequate, as it quite clearly isn't, and, after the large number of cuts that we've sustained year on year, it's no surprise.
Well, again, I thank the leader of the house for her answer, but the stark fact is that agencies such as the Domestic Abuse Safety Unit and Welsh Women's Aid state that far from funding being adequate to fund extra refuges, they are now fearful that some refuges will have to close. Is, therefore, moving funding from these projects to local authorities a sensible alternative, given the possibility of top-slicing this vital source for administration costs?
Okay, that's not what we're doing; we're not moving the funding to local authorities. What we're doing is that we have a co-ordinated regional approach to funding these services. As I said in a previous answer, this is about ensuring that services are provided properly and adequately across all of Wales, to all of the women of Wales and don't depend on a postcode lottery of any description. So, we will be doing, as part of our rapid review, an analysis of why and where those services are, and whether they're adequate to their task.
We are also looking to make sure that we cover off all the other issues as well. So, it is an issue about survivors, there is an issue about the protection of people who are fleeing immediate domestic violence, but there's a huge issue around training, around prevention, and around perpetrator issues as well, which also have to be addressed as part of this agenda. So, we've had 70,000 people so far who've taken our awareness-raising e-learning, and we're rolling out our 'ask and act' training for front-line professionals. I was very privileged to visit the fire service recently, who are the first White Ribbon fire service in the UK, and to see for myself their 'ask and act' training for all of their front-line professionals, because prevention is the real answer to this, although I absolutely accept that we must provide services for people in immediate danger of harm as well.
3. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 on its third anniversary? OAQ51978
Yes, with pleasure. Since the Act came into force, the approach to tackling violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence has been transformed. Implementation of the Act has led to increased training, stronger guidance, practice change and a clear strategic direction throughout the Welsh public service. The third sector continues to play an extremely important role in all of this.
Well, of course, as we've heard today, the Violence Against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act is a critically important area of your portfolio, and I do welcome the way you are engaging so fully in this vital policy area. This Act has three purposes: prevention, protection and support, and in November I spoke at the BAWSO annual Light a Candle multifaith event at Llandaff cathedral, and I highlighted that, on average, two women a week are killed by a partner or ex-partner in England and Wales. So, given the ongoing prevalence of violence against women and girls, can you comment further on the progress of implementation of this pioneering legislation, given the challenges that are facing organisations who provide specialist services for women, the pressures on multi-agency providers such as police, social services, health boards, which all have a roll to play, and the NHS, particularly as a result of austerity and the pressures this Government is facing as a result of UK Government cuts?
Yes, indeed. I mean, we have made huge progress despite the challenges, and organisations across Wales have shown a real commitment to the Act and to the services that they provide. This is not a surprise to us; we know that people are very committed in this area.
We are, as Jane Hutt knows, in the process of moving to a co-ordinated, needs-led, regional commissioning base for services for violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. This is to provide for better planning and join-up of services, as I just said in previous answers, as well as some economies of scale. But we've got specialist third sector services being a vital part of that regional, collaborative approach, and just to elaborate a little bit, I did attend the launch of the the Seren Môr western bay consortium, which is a consortium of five organisations down there who have come together collaboratively. I think there is a real need for us to make sure that the way that we commission services doesn't have unintended consequences in lessening collaboration, and this regional approach will, we hope, be very instrumental in drawing those services together and getting them to work in a co-ordinated fashion together and share all of their data, rather than if we procure individual services and they compete with each other and naturally pull their data back together. So, we're very committed to doing that.
Our national training framework ensures that VAWDASV is a core part of the service that our health, fire and rescue, and local authority colleagues offer. As I said earlier, public services have shown their commitment to the training and, to date, over 70,000 people have been trained. Local authorities and local health boards are under a duty to publish their local VAWDASV strategies by early next month. It's a key commitment of the Act, and places it on a new strategic footing, which we think will ensure the stronger leadership and direction that the sector needs. We're very pleased to have got our own guidance out, as the third anniversary approaches.
Cabinet Secretary, between November 2016 and October 2017, South Wales Police dealt with nearly 36,000 incidents of domestic abuse, and those are the ones they've dealt with. So, this is an enormous problem, and in many ways, it's only now that it's getting full recognition. Will you join with me in commending the work of the Police and Crime Commissioner for South Wales? Indeed, the leadership shown by police commissioners, I think, is key in this area, but the south Wales police commissioner received a grant last year from the Home Office of £1.4 million to help address violence against women and girls, concentrating on protection and prevention, and I understand this was the largest of any grant given to a police commissioner. I do think there's some great practice out there now, but it's a huge task, and a lot of it does relate to educating people, stopping behaviour before it accelerates, and just having a no-tolerance approach to abuse.
Yes, I couldn't agree more. I had the great pleasure of going with the police and crime commissioner around the multi-agency service hub, over in Cardiff central police station. I don't know if the Member's had the chance to do that, but I'd recommend it to all Members, if you haven't had the chance. That shows the real leadership that the police service, in particular, has given to that collaborative approach. I was able to see for myself how they were able to make sure that they responded much more quickly and appropriately to all of the incidents that they were dealing with, and make a lot better use of the wealth of data, and different professionals all working side by side to make sure that they had the best possible outcome in the circumstances that were presenting to them.
We collaborated with them, and with—as I said—a large number of our other statutory public sector and third sector partners, in rolling out our 'ask and act' training and our e-learning, which we launched just earlier last year, and that's been very successful as well. The idea is to make sure that all of our first responders and the people who deal with people on a day-to-day basis pick up the early signs of this sort of domestic abuse. So, our teaching staff, our teaching assistants, our fire and rescue services, our police services, our ambulance and other responders, are all going through the 'ask and act' training. There are several layers of the training, so the front-line responders get a particular set of training, and then there are co-ordinated training packs for the people dealing with the results—with actual live incidents in, for example, the multi-agency safeguarding hub.
We also have a number of other campaigns because we're trying to tackle the cause of much of this as well. So, we launched our This is Me campaign back in January. I was very pleased to be able to launch it down in Gower College, with an incredibly enthusiastic set of middle-range teenagers who engaged very enthusiastically with it. That's been one of the best received campaigns we've ever run, I think, as a Government. The response to it has been amazing. Because this is a big society issue as well, and the purpose of that—. We know that gender stereotyping is a large part of what drives domestic violence, as people try to live up to stereotypes, which are not realistic or live-uppable to—if that's even a word. You see the point I'm making. It's extremely important that men don't feel that they have to be strong and whatever, and women don't feel that they have to be submissive in circumstances in which domestic violence occurs. That's just to give one example. There is a large range of others. So, that's been a very successful campaign.
I hope that Members have all had the chance to see it. It runs on lots of social media platforms. We've had more response to it than we've had, I think, to any other campaign. It's been extraordinary. Because we do see this as a need to change. Societal change is required in order to change some of the stuff, and in the meantime, of course, we continue to provide services for those incidentally affected by it.
4. What progress is the Welsh Government making in implementing its policy on asylum seekers and refugees? OAQ52009
The Welsh Government has worked closely with stakeholders to co-produce a plan to improve outcomes for asylum seekers and refugees. The draft 'Nation of Sanctuary—Refugee and Asylum Seeker Plan' addresses issues raised by the Equalities, Local Government and Communities Committee last year, and is out for consultation until 25 June.
Thank you for that. Cabinet Secretary, more broadly, growing up in Newport, I know many people who are part of the Windrush generation, having come to Wales from the Caribbean post second world war, and made huge contributions to our communities, our economy and, indeed, our public services. I share the current outrage at the way that the UK Government is conducting checks on the status of those who migrated to the UK from Commonwealth countries between 1948 and 1971, resulting in a number of them being informed that they do not have the right to access public services and, indeed, may be deported. Will you, and the Welsh Government as a whole, Cabinet Secretary, continue to press the UK Government to right these wrongs as a matter of urgency, and to stop the current situation, and reverse the current situation, where these members of our communities are being subject to gross indignity and a great deal of uncertainty and anxiety?
Yes, I share the Member's concern. I think this was the subject of a number of exchanges yesterday, here in the Senedd as well. I fully support the First Minister's position, as outlined in the letter that I hope all Members have now seen copies of. It is crucial that the Home Secretary puts in place a simple, quick and effective process to support all of these members of our communities. I have seen the new website that's been put up, and I don't think it's quick, easy or simple, I'm afraid, so we will be writing again to say that it's great that the website has been put there, that people are allowed to access it, but it should be made a lot more accessible. I don't know if Members have had a chance to look at it, but it's very off-putting and quite scary in some of its language, so it needs to be made a lot more simple.
And then of course only this morning it became clear that the embarkation documents have been destroyed, taking away some of the last pieces of documentation that some of the people caught up in this fiasco had, and that those whose embarkation documents were destroyed have been receiving a line that simply says, 'There is no record of you in our records, in our files', which is just not an acceptable situation at all. So, now that that's come to light, we will be writing further to highlight our shock that that's been done and to ask for further details about what's to be done to right it.
One of the priorities in the Welsh Government's asylum seeker delivery plan was to find increasing opportunities for access to higher education for asylum seekers, and very specifically in that plan it mentioned that Welsh Government will enable monthly surgeries with Cardiff Metropolitan University to provide advice on possible routes to universities for refugees and asylum seekers. You can probably see where I'm coming from as a Swansea representative yourself: are there any plans to roll this out to other parts of Wales?
Interestingly enough, this came up in—. I chaired the inter-faith forum earlier this week and it had a conversation about refreshing this strategy and what we can do to ensure that asylum seekers with professional qualifications, which are obviously of huge use to both them and to our economy, can make the most of those qualifications. The discussion was highlighted around the successful campaign to make sure that people who are qualified medical doctors could have their qualifications recongised swiftly and be working in Wales, and a number of—forgive me, I can't remember the exact number—a large number of people had gone through that programme successfully. So, we are in the process of looking to see what we can do to refresh that programme, not just in the universities, but across the board for people with professional and other qualifications that they could use.
I'm doing a lot with asylum seekers and refugees, both in Neath Port Talbot and Swansea, and it seems to me there's still quite a lot of issues with regard to isolation and transport issues. Some of the people I meet are actually single mothers with three or four children and they find it increasingly difficult to get different children to different places at different times, and get themselves then on to English for speakers of other languages classes or to college access courses.
So, I was wondering if you could look more into this particular issue, as well as the second issue that I'd like to raise with you, which is the fact that research that I've carried out shows that asylum seekers can't do voluntary work in the private sector. I've talked to some asylum seekers in Swansea who want to volunteer at a local hair salon because they are interested in developing their skills in this area, but they're being told, because of Home Office regulations, that they can volunteer at a charity but they can't volunteer at a business. That's confining their personal attempts to expand their horizons. They know full well that they can't work for money, but they want to be able to work on a voluntary basis in a local business. So, if you could look at those two aspects, I'd be very grateful.
Yes, I'm aware of both of those aspects already. In a recent refugee and asylum group that, again, I chair, that was raised and we raised with the Home Office unintended consequences of some of their policies, because some of these things are happening because of the issue about no recourse to public funds until you've got various levels of status. Unfortunately, we're seeking to extend free transport to all asylum seekers and refugees in Wales, but we need to be sure that that won't then be added to the list of public funds to which you have no recourse as soon as we make that statement. We are in the process of actually working through some of the complexities of that, so I'm very well aware.
In my own constituency, I have a number of people with whom I'm working who have a very similar problem. Similarly, with the voluntary work, we think it's an unintended consequence of the hostile environment, now called the compliance environment, that the UK Government has put in place, but we think it is actually an unintended consequence of it, so we're looking to see what we can do to draw that to their attention and get those rules changed.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve the representation of women in industry? OAQ52007
Our actions are focused on providing women with the opportunities and support they need to enter, re-enter and progress in the workplace in order to achieve and prosper. This includes our childcare offer, encouraging women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, training and upskilling programmes, all-age apprenticeships and tackling discrimination in the workplace.
Thank you. The UK has a deficit of engineers and difficulty attracting women into industry. Recently I attended a recruitment fair in Newport for CAF Rail's ground-breaking new project building trains and trams. They're offering a range of roles, including managerial, technical and operational. CAF Rail has a 40 per cent female Spanish workforce. In the UK, women only make up 11 per cent of the engineering workforce—the lowest percentage of female engineering professionals in Europe. I know the Welsh Government are doing lots of positive work with young people and schools, however, what action is the Welsh Government taking to engage with businesses who are eager to increase the amount of women in this sector?
Actually, as it happens, I've just come hot-foot from chairing the Women in STEM board that I chair and we've just expanded the membership of the board to include people from industry for exactly that reason. So, the Member makes a very timely and good point. And one of the things that the board has been highlighting to me is this whole issue about societal mores, if you like. Why are there more engineers in some European countries than here? And it's because it's just socially acceptable for women to do those sorts of jobs, where it's been, unfortunately, less socially acceptable here. So, we are looking at a range of things that can address some of those issues. I did talk a little bit about the This is Me campaign, which is challenging those gender stereotypes. So, if we think, that's a very important part of this. We also have our STEM Cymru II programme, which encourages more young women to progress into engineering careers, and, to date, over 3,000 young women have engaged with that programme. I don't know if many of you have met Jessica Jones from Cardiff, who's one of the first success stories, who subsequently went on to become the first female to win the UK's Young Engineer of the Year award following her involvement in devising the contraction optical monitoring system.
Jessica is very much an ambassador for female engineering students and has just completed her degree in astrophysics. Our programme helped her on the way, and we are engaging with young women such as Jessica to get as many ambassadors out into our schools as possible and I've been having long conversations with my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport about how we can, as part of the economic action plan, encourage businesses to engage with that programme more fully.
Finally, question 6—Leanne Wood.
6. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve mobile internet connectivity throughout the Rhondda? OAQ52008
We continue to undertake a number of measures to facilitate the improvement of mobile internet connectivity across all parts of Wales, including the delivery of the mobile action plan, the trialling of small cell technologies, continued discussions around 5G and the delivery of the essential backhaul fibre network.
There are many places in Wales that have substandard mobile internet coverage, as we've heard earlier on, and my constituency is not immune to this issue. Many communities are affected, but recently in Porth, for example, the council were unable to collect footfall data on the town centre because the counter couldn't get a consistent signal. Of course, this is bad for local residents, but it's also bad for business. Now, I appreciate that telecommunications policy is not devolved to Wales, but there are levers at your disposal and you outlined some of them in answers to earlier questions. Will you agree to look into places, like Porth in the Rhondda, that are lagging behind what is acceptable in terms of mobile internet connectivity? And will you use the powers and the influence that you have to remedy these local problems as soon as you possibly can?
Absolutely. I'm very happy to agree with that and I completely endorse the comments that Leanne Wood has made. As it happens, I'm chairing a meeting of the Valleys taskforce on Monday morning that is wholly to do with digital and digital connectivity and that will be very much at the forefront of that meeting with a view to doing exactly that. And, amongst the many things I outlined earlier that we're doing, we're also looking to see what we can do with public infrastructure—so, running Wi-Fi signals off public buildings and so on. So, there's quite a big piece of work ongoing about the complexities of the law in that regard, because, unfortunately, there are state-aid issues around using it, but I'm confident that we can find a way through those and provide good Wi-Fi for all of our communities right across Wales once we've got a way through. But, interestingly enough, the meeting to discuss that for the Valleys is on Monday.
Thank you, leader of the house.
The next item is a statement by the Counsel General on the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Bill. I call on the Counsel General, Jeremy Miles.
Thank you, Llywydd. Could I acknowledge, before starting the statement, the questions from Members on this extremely important subject?
The Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Bill was passed by the Assembly on 21 March. We have been clear, prior to introduction of the Bill, during its passage and subsequently, that the Bill is a fall-back option. Our preference has been throughout, and it continues to be, an amended European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that respects devolution. We made it clear that, even following the introduction, and, indeed, the passage, of the Bill, this remains our primary focus. Colleagues within the Welsh Government have been tireless in their efforts, which continue, to reach an agreement with the UK and Scottish Governments on amendments that would make the UK Bill acceptable to us. Such an agreement would enable us to recommend to the Assembly that it gives its consent to the EU withdrawal Bill, which would remove the need for our own legislation.
However, in the absence of an agreement, we felt it necessary to make responsible arrangements for the possibility that the consent of the Assembly to the EU withdrawal Bill would not be given. This approach was overwhelmingly supported by this Assembly when it passed the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Bill with a large majority.
However, clearly, passing a Bill is not the end of the process. As Assembly Members will be well aware, after Stage 4 of every Assembly Bill, a period of intimation immediately follows. During this period, the Attorney General and the Counsel General have the power to refer to the Supreme Court for decision the question of whether a Bill, or any provision of a Bill, is within the Assembly’s legislative competence. The Attorney General has decided to exercise this power in relation to this Bill and, yesterday, he referred it to the Supreme Court. The Attorney General and the Advocate General for Scotland similarly referred the Scottish continuity Bill to the Supreme Court.
Regrettable though it is, I don't think that we should over-dramatise the development. We brought forward our own legislation to avoid finding ourselves in a situation where no agreement on amendments had been reached and we no longer had a continuity Bill alternative as an option. In the same way, the UK Government has made the reference at the very end of the intimation period, because agreement on the contents of the EU withdrawal Bill has not yet been reached and because, if they had not done so now, they would lose the right to make a reference.
Negotiations continue, and both we and the UK Government remain committed to securing an agreement. This is therefore a protective measure on the part of the Attorney General. Indeed, I note that, in his press release, he stresses that:
'The Government very much hopes this issue will be resolved without the need to continue with this litigation.'
The Attorney General has referred the entirety of the Bill to the Supreme Court for determination, rather than limiting the reference to particular sections. He has cited a number of grounds in the reference, which include that the Bill does not relate to the subjects listed in Schedule 7 to the Government of Wales Act, incompatibility with EU law, impermissible imposition of functions on Ministers of the Crown, impermissible modifications of the Government of Wales Act, and impermissible modifications of the European Communities Act 1972.
I'm sure that Members will appreciate that we have had limited time to consider these arguments, though we remain clear in our view that the Bill passed by the Assembly is within its legislative competence. We will continue to consider the reference and the more detailed arguments that the Attorney General will be required to provide in due course in support of his reference as part of the proceedings, but I can reassure Members that we will, if necessary, defend the reference in full. In particular, we are taking steps to seek an expedited hearing and we will keep the Assembly updated of any developments in this regard.
As I've already stressed, we continue to work towards an agreement on the EU withdrawal Bill. In the event of such an agreement, appropriate amendments will need to be made to the EU withdrawal Bill. The final Bill will then require consideration by the Assembly as part of the legislative consent motion process. If the Assembly does ultimately approve an LCM in relation to the EU withdrawal Bill, the Law Derived from the European Union (Wales) Bill will no longer be necessary, and we then will take steps to repeal the Bill. At that point, we would expect the reference to be withdrawn.
Can I start by noting the restrained tone of the Counsel General? I do welcome this as a sign that the Welsh Government is genuinely seeking agreement on these matters. I also think the decision by the UK Government to refer the matter to the Supreme Court should be viewed as an attempt to clarify the current legal position. The Scottish Presiding Officer, after all, considered their Bill to be outside their competence, and, Llywydd, you emphasised, in expressing a concrete view in terms of our Bill, that the matter was finely balanced. So, it seems to me reasonable, under these circumstances, for this clarity to be sought.
Like the Counsel General, on this side of the Assembly, we believe that getting agreement so that an LCM can pass is essential and that is very much what we should be focusing on, and that obviously means that the EU withdrawal Bill has to be suitably amended, specifically around clause 11, to allow that to happen, and all reasonable attempts to achieve this have been supported by us and that will continue to be our attitude. Closely related to this issue is how the frameworks and their governance will operate. Again, we've sought to give constructive support to the Welsh Government in pursuing these matters broadly around some sort of concept of shared governance. These are very important issues for the British constitution, for the development of devolution, when in this remarkable situation of seceding from the European Union.
So, whilst we oppose the continuity Bill, we are prepared, now, to see the general situation and urge restraint and construction and a constructive approach on all parties. I just wonder whether the Counsel General can give us any further indication on the current state of negotiations. It does seem to me, from the tone on both sides, that we could be quite close to an agreement and I just wonder if that is a fair reading of the situation—or are there greater complications than we currently realise, perhaps, associated with other jurisdictions and their attitudes? But I'll end on this: that, given this statement this afternoon and its constructive tone, we will urge all parties to work and redouble their efforts to get over that line, so that we can have an LCM that protects the devolution settlement appropriately and all parties can agree to.
I thank the Member for his question. I should be clear that, obviously, our preference would have been for this not to be referred to the Supreme Court, but, absolutely, we understand the reason why that was done at the time it was done, today—yesterday, rather—being the last day on which that was available as an option for the Attorney General.
You referred to the discussions around competence. Our view remains that we have the competence in this place for the Bill that we have passed. What the Attorney General has set out in the reference are his grounds for seeking the court's view on that. He hasn't yet set out the reasoning for those grounds, so we haven't yet been able to engage with the reasoning for that, although we are obviously considering the grounds that we have received. We'll be receiving the fuller reasoning in due course.
Obviously, there have been and continue to be discussions amongst the three Governments in relation to appropriate amendments to the EU withdrawal Bill, and those discussions are ongoing. We very much hope that they will conclude in a positive way. Just to reiterate, in case there's any shadow of a doubt, our strong preference is for the EU withdrawal Bill to be appropriately amended by agreement between the UK Government and the devolved administrations, and in that eventuality, of course, the Bill, which has been referred to the Supreme Court yesterday, will obviously no longer be required.
I welcome the fact that a statement has been made by the Counsel General today, but I have to say this: a pledge was made by a Minister of the Crown on the floor of the House of Commons, before Christmas, in the middle of December, that this would be sorted. And here we are, the Lady Boys of Bangkok have reached Cardiff Bay, as they do every spring, and we haven’t found a solution to this problem. It’s been clear since the European withdrawal Bill was introduced that we needed to make changes to clause 11, and at least four months have passed without any sign of the Conservatives understanding the nature of the devolution that they are responsible for.
Today in the Commons, another Jeremy, Jeremy Wright, said that there was no agreement on the meaning of the word ‘continuity’. Is that the Counsel General’s interpretation of the problem here? If we do see that the Bill has now been referred to the Supreme Court, what situation are we in now in terms of expenditure by this Government and the Westminster Government to prepare for a court case, to take counsel and to start preparing a case? We are starting to spend public money on something that should have been decided politically not just today but four months ago. I want to hear from the Counsel General, if possible, more about the timetable here. He says that he hopes that the Supreme Court will hasten the process, because there is a process in existence so that the Supreme Court can do that, but it appears to me that we could get to a decision on this Bill before we reach political agreement on the nature of devolution and clause 11.
So, what plans does the Government have now to prepare for this court case and what public expenditure will be related to that? Are you going to do this in any way jointly with the Scottish Government? Of course, it must be acknowledged that Wales’s case may be stronger on this occasion that the Scottish Government’s case because we did push this through the toothpaste tube under the previous powers model and therefore we may be in a stronger position. So, are you working with the Scottish Government and what exactly will the arrangement be now if this goes to the Supreme Court? If there is political agreement, are there then amendments to be made to the Bill in the Lords or perhaps referred back to the Commons? And then at some point, we will have to make a decision as a Government—or as a Parliament, I should say; the Government part comes in three years—but we will have to give legislative consent, as David Melding has said. Would we have assurances and can you give us some assurances that we as an Assembly will have all the necessary information to make a decision on legislative consent if it comes to that?
I thank the Member for his questions. To be clear about this, it wasn’t my choice to send the Bill to the Supreme Court, therefore the question for the Welsh Government is: what are the steps that are appropriate to take in the context of the fact that that has happened? Of course, we have to prepare for this going to the court. We have a legal process to follow and we have to ensure that the interests of this place are safeguarded through spending what’s needed to ensure that rights and the Bill are protected in the legal process that is before us.
The next step is that we are at present looking at the process of having an early date for any court case that is needed, and discussions have already started on that. That’s the next step. In terms of the question of the relationship with Scotland, as the Member will know, the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government have collaborated and worked together through this process and the steps that we’ve taken throughout the process have happened through that co-operation. The intention, as we proceed, is that we still work in partnership. As the Member recognised, the situation in Scotland is different to the Welsh Government’s situation in terms of how the Bill in Scotland is structured and the constitutional analysis that has come in the wake of that, but we are going to co-operate with the Scottish Government.
In terms of the legislative consent in the Senedd, in the Assembly, we will have to ensure a variety of things before we can recommend that the Assembly does accept the Westminster Bill—that is, that agreement is reached, and that amendments are agreed and proposed. Then, we will ask for the consent of the Assembly in that context. I would suspect that, after that, steps will be taken to withdraw this Bill, but we need to look at those steps in the wake of what’s happening at present.
Can I congratulate the Counsel General on the calm and measured approach that he's brought to this, and in particular to applaud the way that he described the situation we've now arrived at as a development that shouldn't be over-dramatised? I suppose that if there are bona fide legal doubts about the compatibility of the continuity Bill with current legislation setting up this Assembly and devolving powers, it is right that the matter should be adjudicated, regrettable though that is. And I do agree with what Simon Thomas said that this fundamentally is a politically matter, which should have been resolved at political level. And does he share my continued perplexity at the dilatoriness of the United Kingdom Government in dealing with this matter and that a Government that ostensibly is devoted to the preservation of the United Kingdom is unnecessarily provoking a constitutional crisis that threatens to divide it? If the leader of UKIP can say that, then we've got to a very strange state of affairs in British politics.
It is vitally necessary that the United Kingdom Government, having approved the legislative settlement under which we exist—that that should not be undermined, certainly not explicitly or implicitly, by its own acts or intentions. I cannot understand, therefore, why it is that the UK Government has been so slow and continues apparently to be dilatory in its response to the arguments that have been put forward for what we all ultimately want to achieve. I'm perplexed by one of the grounds that is being cited by the Attorney-General, namely that of incompatibility with EU law, given that the continuity Bill will not come into force until we've actually legally left the EU. So, I don't know whether the Counsel General has got any information on what is in the mind of the Attorney-General on this point, or if this is perhaps an example of throwing the kitchen sink at us just in case.
It all seems rather problematic and extraordinary, but I'm pleased that the Counsel General is going to mitigate the matter in the way that he has set out, because it is vitally necessary that any uncertainty or ambiguity should be resolved. We can't be put into a position, which is what the continuity Bill itself was designed to deal with, of there being some legislative lacuna in the law as it applies within Wales. So, it's rather strange. We've got a situation now where the United Kingdom Government is litigating a Bill that we have put through this place that was designed to avoid the situation of legal doubts existing when we leave the EU. So, it is a paradox that perhaps this will ultimately resolve.
I share the view that's been expressed by a number of Members that this is a matter that should be resolved at a political level. And just to be clear, that is the Welsh Government's approach; it has continuously and throughout approached the discussions with the other Governments with that in mind. The objective has been throughout to reach an agreement in relation to the Bill going through the UK Parliament, so that the process we have pursued in this place through an emergency process would not end up being necessary. I've said in the past, in response to other questions, that time has been running out for some time in relation to agreeing those amendments. But, as I say, we are hopeful that we will get that over the line and agree amendments that we feel happy as a Government to recommend to the Assembly, with the other two Governments.
He raises one of the grounds that the Attorney-General has cited, which relates to incompatibility with EU law. As I say, we are currently considering the analysis and we will consider further when we get fuller arguments in due course, although obviously that was one of the grounds that had been contemplated in the discussions in this Chamber and in the Llywydd's analysis in her statement. It seems to me that taking preparatory steps within existing powers for a time for which we are outside the European Union is what we have done in this place, in the same way, I may say, as the House of Commons has done with their Bill.
I'll avoid repeating too much of what my colleagues have already said, but I will congratulate you on the way in which you've put a measured argument forward this afternoon. Can I also put on record the measured argument put forward by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance when he undertakes the negotiations as well? Perhaps that's more frustrating as to why the UK Government hasn't actually come to an agreement yet, because they seem to keep frustrating us.
I have a couple of points. I appreciate that we didn't want to be putting forward a continuity Bill, but we have because it was the right thing to do, and we must remember that. Therefore, I hope that, if it does end up in the courts, you, as the Welsh Government, will vigorously defend the rights of this institution to have this Bill put forward and let it work, because we saw the need for the Bill and that need has not gone away. We anticipate, from what has been said, that positive discussion and amendments will come forward, but, as Simon Thomas alluded to earlier, that was stated by the Cabinet Minister before in Westminster and we still haven't had it. So, until we see them actually agreed and approved and in the Bill, we're in a position where that continuity Bill still delivers what we want.
In that sense, can you give clarification—? You highlighted a little bit about what would happen. First of all, if agreement takes place and we see those amendments being approved and put into the Bill, what is the process that will happen to this particular Bill? Because we, as an Assembly, have agreed and passed the Bill, so, what is the process for actually then withdrawing the Bill as you just highlighted? And on timing—no offence to lawyers, but here we go again—law takes an awful long time; it is not a fast-moving process. There could be a situation where the EU withdrawal Bill, unamended, is approved before this goes to court. What is the situation if that arises? How will the Welsh Government tackle that so that we can ensure that what we approved in March actually delivers for the people of Wales?
I thank the Member for his question and also for his acknowledgement of the work of my friend the Cabinet Secretary for Finance in taking forward the discussions with the UK Government, which I completely associate myself with, if I may. He makes a very important point about the importance of defending these proceedings vigorously and that is absolutely my intention and the intention of the Welsh Government.
In terms of what happens in due course with repeal, if you like, the Member will recall that the Bill, as passed by the Assembly, includes a provision enabling the Act, when passed, to be repealed in this sort of circumstance. In order for that to happen, of course, it would need to receive Royal Assent first. So, there would be a sequence of steps, if you like, which would need to be agreed with the Attorney-General in the event that we here in due course do pass a legislative consent motion and that we find the amendments to the House of Commons Bill acceptable in this place. But obviously, the steps would need to be to withdraw the reference for the Bill to go to Royal Assent and then those powers would be available to Welsh Ministers here to deal with that repeal of the Bill.
Thank you, Counsel General.
Point of order—Simon Thomas.
Thank you, Llywydd. I’d like to raise a point of order under Standing Orders, particularly Standing Order 13.9 on conduct in the Chamber. In responding to Angela Burns and then Adam Price yesterday, the First Minister referred twice to myself and my work as a special adviser to Plaid Cymru Ministers in 2007-10. He stated, regarding the actions described by Angela Burns, and I quote:
'That's normal. Plaid Cymru Ministers, as Simon Thomas will be able to tell you, did exactly the same when they were in Government.'
I want to make it clear that I, as a special adviser, never contacted any public body to ask for the content or the nature of correspondence with Assembly Members, and that wasn’t part of the culture of the One Wales Government Ministers to my information. So, the First Minister’s claim is inaccurate.
That is not a point of order for me to adjudicate on, but Members will have heard your comments, Simon Thomas, and they are now on the record.
The next motion is the motion for an urgent debate, and, in accordance with Standing Order 12.69, I have accepted a request from Leanne Wood to move a motion for an urgent debate, and I call on Leanne Wood to move the motion.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, under Standing Order 12.69, consider the UK air strikes in Syria as a matter of urgent public importance.
Diolch, Llywydd. On the morning of Saturday, 14 April, UK forces joined with the United States and French militaries to undertake air strikes against targets in Syria. Sites believed to be linked to the manufacture and storage of chemical weapons near Damascus and Homs were hit in response to an alleged chemical attack on 7 April. The UK Government did not consult any of the UK Parliaments for approval of the attack. I've lodged an application for an urgent debate on this matter at the earliest opportunity. Llywydd, the urgency and seriousness of this topic cannot be overestimated, nor condensed into a short speech such as this. However, my application for a debate is based on three key elements.
Firstly, without a shred of democratic legitimacy, without a single vote in a single UK Parliament, the UK Government approved the strike. Following the publication of details of the attack, the First Minister made a statement indicating his support for it. AMs must have the opportunity to scrutinise the First Minister on this statement and on his reasons for supporting the attack. Furthermore, Members must be given the opportunity to debate the role of our democratic institutions in approving military action.
Secondly, Llywydd, Welsh women and men make up a significant portion of the UK's military ranks. In fact, we make a larger contribution than our population share. It's therefore only right that this Assembly must be given an opportunity to debate the implications this and any consequent military action may have on members of the armed forces from Wales and based in Wales.
Finally, Llywydd, the conflict in Syria has already led to the displacement of tens of thousands of people. I'm heartened that Wales has offered safety and shelter to some of these people. The escalation of the civil war in Syria is only likely to force more people to flee their homes and the region. Ensuring Wales is doing all that it can to help and accommodate these people in desperate need must be a priority for this Government. It's this Assembly's job to ensure that Welsh Ministers are willing and prepared to support those refugees created by this conflict.
Llywydd, there are many more compelling reasons why we must debate this issue, whether it's the democratic deficit behind the decision to strike, the First Minister's statement, the impact on Welsh servicepeople, the cost, which rarely seems to be questioned, despite austerity, or simply our humanity as a nation. I would urge you all to support this application and give us the opportunity to debate this most serious issue.
I call on the leader of the house to reply on behalf of the Government. Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. International affairs and decisions whether to launch military action against another sovereign nation are non-devolved matters and, as such, are normally debated in the Houses of Parliament rather than here in the National Assembly for Wales. Debating the UK air strikes in Syria in this Chamber risks blurring the lines between what is debated in the National Assembly and in Parliament. The First Minister answered questions from the leader of Plaid Cymru yesterday about military intervention in Syria; there were also questions during the business statement.
We all have personal views about the merits, rights and wrongs of the UK Government's decision to launch a joint punitive strike alongside the US and France against the regime in Syria at the weekend. As political parties, the forum for these views to be raised is in the Houses of Parliament. There have been nine hours of debate this week in the House of Commons, in which many of our colleagues participated. It's for these reasons the Government will be abstaining in the vote on the application for an urgent debate on the UK air strikes in Syria, and backbench Labour AMs will have a free vote.
The proposal is to agree the motion for an urgent debate. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Unless three Members wish for the bell to be rung, I will proceed directly to the vote on the motion. I therefore call for a vote on the motion for an urgent debate. Open the vote. Close the vote. For 27, 15 abstentions, nine against. Therefore the motion is agreed.
Proposal for an Urgent Debate under Standing Order 12.69: For: 27, Against: 9, Abstain: 15
Motion has been agreed
As the Assembly has resolved to consider the matter, in accordance with Standing Order 12.70, I have decided that the debate will be taken as the final item of business before today's voting time.
The next item of business is the questions to the Assembly Commission, and the first question—Julie Morgan.
1. What progress is being made in eliminating single-use plastic items from the Assembly estate? OAQ51992
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I thank the Member for her question. The Assembly Commission is committed to minimising waste, including reducing single-use plastic waste on the estate. We are proud to have achieved our commitment to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill to zero by 2018. In January we committed to alternatives to single-use plastics, where possible, within six months. We have already made progress with this, including eliminating individual salad dressing containers, and we will shortly be switching to compostable cutlery for takeaway food. A range of other options are being explored.
I thank the Commissioner for that response, and I'm glad that there is some progress happening. I notice you mentioned single-use plastic cutlery, so that will be a good move, but also what about the plastic cups for drinking water, which we haven't made any moves to remove yet? Salad pots, and the plastic lids for takeaway coffee cups—a lot of these items are still being used in the canteen, and I know that you have a plan. I think that you announced that plan in January, so it's really to urge you to move ahead with that plan, to make progress, and when are you going to tackle those particular items that I've mentioned?
I thank the Member yet again, and I'd like to update you on a couple of things. We are rid now of disposable coffee cups, and now stock aluminium drinks containers. The water filters around the estate cuts down on bottled water—plastic bottles. Meals hot and cold are now in compostable containers. There is extensive recycling signage across the estate for materials. Plastic straws were also raised last time—about the use of plastic straws—and although they haven't been in use an awful lot, they were in use, and we've now switched to paper straws, so I'd like to update you on that. Looking at the alternative to plastic cups for the water fountains—we are looking at an alternative for those, and I'll update you shortly on how we are progressing with that. We have achieved zero waste to landfill. So, that's the update that I have for you.
I welcome the steps that have been taken so far, and there's some encouraging news on the reduction of single-use plastic in the Assembly. I wanted to ask what further steps can be done as a major purchaser in Cardiff and south Wales, and as a leader in this. Is the Commission talking to its suppliers? Because as well as the single-use plastic that we use, it's the supply chain that provides the food and everything that we use in this place that also has some plastic all tied up in it. Everyone is seeking to reduce this and over a period of time perhaps completely eliminate it. Are you able to update us on how you're using your purchasing power to influence suppliers as well?
Well, obviously, Simon, we still have some stock that we have to use. It wouldn't be practical to just throw stock away, so we are reducing our stock at the moment, and we are always looking at alternative suppliers who produce exactly what we want to decrease our carbon footprint here, and to decrease the amount of plastics that we use. So, I will update you on that question, and I can assure you that we are looking at all suppliers to look at the best possible way of dealing with the question that you've just asked.
Thank you. Question 2 is to be answered by the Llywydd. Mandy Jones.
2. Will the Commissioner make a statement on the methods of communication employed by the Assembly to reach out to the Welsh public? OAQ51973
The Commission engages with the people of Wales in many different ways. We talk to people online, communicate via print and meet with them at events and workshops to inspire and encourage them to participate in Assembly work. Last year, we talked to around 50,000 people in schools, colleges, youth groups, community groups and events around the country.
Thank you for that answer. With all due respect to the other Members who have tabled questions today, the type of questions we ask of the Commission are quite limited and, it seems to me, very inwardly focused about internal Commission matters, which will, no doubt, leave many members of the public cold. I note the consultation on creating a Parliament for Wales has recently closed, and that only four public meetings were held across the country. Lots of people would not have even been aware of these meetings, and of those who were, many—those working, caring or looking after children—would not have been able to make those sessions. I know there were other ways of attempting to collect opinions, but they do feel like the same old to me. Considering the advancement of technology, consultation and information-gathering methods, is the Commission going to seek to push boundaries in terms of its engagement methods and how does it evaluate its current methods? How do we know it's working?
Please don't feel limited at all in asking questions of me, Mandy Jones. I welcome the question you've asked. We held four public meetings to discuss the electoral reform consultation throughout Wales. I attended all of the meetings, and they were reasonably well attended, especially the last one I attended, which was in Wrexham in your region, and it was a lively Friday night in Wrexham. I enjoyed myself immensely and learnt a lot from the people of that area about their view on electoral reform and all other interesting matters as well.
But you raise very important points about the need to be innovative at all times in how we do our consultation. We're not able to hold meetings in every single village hall in Wales to discuss any matter—neither us as a Commission nor the Welsh Government nor anybody—but we need to continually think and question ourselves, as you've raised this question today, on how we do our communicating with the people of Wales and allow them to express their views to us more directly, more vigorously and in every part of Wales. That's a challenge to me and a challenge to all of us, as elected Members, here representing communities throughout Wales, and it's where we want to improve all the time.
Diolch. The next two questions will be answered by Commissioner Caroline Jones. Question 3—Simon Thomas.
3. What work is the Commission undertaking to reduce carbon emissions? OAQ51979
Thank you, Simon. The Commission is pleased to take this opportunity to announce that we have recently achieved certification to the international standard for environmental management, ISO 14001. As part of this environmental system, we have a long-term carbon reduction target of a 30 per cent reduction in our energy footprint by 2021. This builds on a previous target that we had for a 40 per cent reduction in our carbon footprint by 2015. We are making good progress with this newer target through a range of actions, and we have achieved a 23 per cent reduction so far as part of our KPIs. Recent actions to support sustainability include the installation of electric vehicle charging points on the estate.
May I thank the Commissioner for her response and for responding in Welsh? Environmental jargon isn’t great in any language, I accept that, but I’m extremely grateful to you for it.
May I congratulate the Commission on two things, first of all, for gaining the ISO, that environmental standard, and secondly on the news that electric vehicle charging points have now been installed? I look forward to seeing them myself and to taking advantage of them.
The broader question that I wanted to ask today was on how the Assembly encourages more sustainable travel to the Assembly. I notice when visiting other capitals that have parliaments that there are walking or cycling routes to the parliament that have been marked out, '20 minutes' walk to such and such a parliament'. If you’re at the centre of Cardiff, you wouldn’t see any sign saying, 'Well, this way to walk to the Welsh Parliament'. I would ask whether the Commission would perhaps speak to the City of Cardiff Council, which plans safe and sustainable walking and cycling routes, to ensure that the city does much more to advertise the alternative ways of travelling to this Parliament and to Cardiff Bay too.
Diolch, Simon, and you raise an extremely valid point there about contacting other areas, such as the council, to explain that we are attempting to reduce our carbon footprint, and that we'd like to look at the different ways through active travel, and so on, of coming to and from the Senedd, and we wish to encourage alternative ways for Members, Members' families and any visitors to the Senedd to come here by other means of travel, or alternative means. So, I will certainly look into that for you and give you an update on that.
We do produce an annual environmental report and it's published on the website, so I wonder if you are taking advantage of looking at that, and our environmental system is checked annually. We have long-term carbon targets and have action plans in place where we will hope to achieve this. So, I will look into your question further and I will come back to you with an answer. Diolch yn fawr.
4. Will the Commissioner make a statement on the arrangements for asbestos management on the Assembly estate? OAQ52003
Hold on a second. Thank you for your question. The Assembly Commission fully complies with the regulations for the management and control of asbestos, and holds an asbestos register for all buildings within its estate. Detailed asbestos surveys and inspections were undertaken in 2002 and 2014, and the asbestos register confirms that no asbestos materials are present within the estate. The register is reviewed annually and consulted in advance of the commencement of relevant works or projects.
Okay, thank you for that answer, because obviously you are aware that there are some 3,000 different asbestos-containing materials—so-called ACMs—in use across the country, and I chair the cross-party group on asbestos, primarily looking at asbestos in schools and other public buildings. So, I thought it was incumbent on me to make sure that we're doing what we should be doing on our own estate if we're looking at this in other areas. So, I'm pleased to hear what you say about the register; we need to be managing that risk properly. That risk does require that detailed procedures to ensure safe working practices are set out in asbestos management plans, and I'm not sure if that's what you were talking about, but perhaps if that is, you could just confirm that that is the case, and that we do have those management plans in place.