Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd16/05/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is the questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance. The first question, which has been grouped with question 6, is to be asked by Julie Morgan.
1. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with the UK Government regarding the shared prosperity fund? OAQ52189
6. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had regarding the UK's shared prosperity fund? OAQ52200
Thank you, Llywydd, and thank you for confirming that you've given your permission for questions 1 and 6 to be grouped.
The UK Government is yet to share any details of its proposals for a shared prosperity fund. I have raised the issue of replacement funds for structural funding with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and our position, including autonomy of funding, is clearly set out in our paper 'Regional Investment in Wales after Brexit'.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response. It's generally accepted that women have suffered disproportionately under austerity in the UK, and we all know how important European structural funds have been in tackling inequalities. How can we ensure that any replacement for the EU structural funds post Brexit will concentrate on the inequalities in society?
Well, Llywydd, can I thank Julie Morgan for that question, and to thank her for the work that she does in chairing the programme monitoring committee for the current round of European funding? And she will know, as a result of the careful attention that that committee pays to inequalities, that the current social fund programmes, for example, include specific targets to provide skills and training to more than 95,000 women in the workplace, and a particularly fine scheme to support 15,000 young women to participate in learning STEM subjects here in Wales. With the help of the programme monitoring committee, we formulated our proposals, set out in 'Regional Investment in Wales after Brexit', and one of the key principles in that paper is that we learn the lessons from current and previous funding rounds, and that we take the successes of it into the future. I can give the Member an assurance that inequality issues remain at the heart of the proposals that the Welsh Government has for developing regional investment the other side of the European Union.
It is a cause of concern that there are no comprehensive proposals that have been published by the UK Government as of yet, in terms of how exactly the shared prosperity fund will work. At the moment, the Welsh Government and councils in Wales, through the Welsh European Funding Office, decide on how the regional funds are spent in Wales. In the first place, it’s important that Wales doesn’t lose a single penny of the funding that we were receiving from Europe, which will mean that the funding will have to be allocated on the basis of need rather than being Barnettised. My concern also is that, if the system does change, where organisations in Wales will have to bid for grants from a pot of money held by the UK Government, then that will be another example of the Conservatives in Westminster undertaking a power grab, in economic development on this occasion. Will you stand up for Wales on this particular issue, or are we going to see you ceding once again, under the banner of your unionist ideology?
I thank Siân Gwenllian for the questions, and I agreed with nearly everything she said, until the end there. I just want to be clear that I do agree with her; it is more than time for the UK Government to bring forward the suggestions that they have. And, when we see those suggestions, it’s important that the people of Wales hear from the people who tried to persuade them to leave the European Union, back during the referendum—to clarify, every penny that was received during our membership of the EU—that the money must come to Wales in future, because the needs that we had continue to exist. It would be entirely unreasonable if the United Kingdom Government were to try to come forward with a new system where we would have to bid into a new fund. The best way, I am certain, is just to look at the funding that comes to Wales currently and then put that into the baseline that we have in our budget, and to give us the responsibility, as we already have, to administer the system in the future. I have already said this to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and I will continue to say this when opportunities arise in future.
I agree with both you, Cabinet Secretary, and Siân Gwenllian. I disagree with both of you at the same time, so, take that as you will. The development of the shared prosperity fund is clearly of immense importance to the Welsh economy and our goal here is that Wales should be no worse off after Brexit in relation to the structural fund allowance. I agree with what you said that we don't want a new system where we would be worse off by, in some way, having to bid for this funding, but, at the same time, I think you'd agree with me, Cabinet Secretary, we want to avoid a Barnettisation of the money coming to Wales, because that would also squeeze the budget in a different, but still a very significant, way.
What discussions have you had with the UK Government about avoiding that potential Barnettisation of the fund? And, also, in tandem with this, the Welsh Government should be developing its own regional policies so that we're in the best place possible to make use of those new funds when they do come to Wales. At what stage are you at in developing that new regional policy that will fit in with the UK Government strategy?
Well, Llywydd, I agree that neither a bidding nor a Barnett-derived approach to a shared prosperity fund would be acceptable to us here in Wales, remembering that this fund has no origins here in Wales and that the party that proposed it certainly did not secure a majority for it here in Wales. Let me say that discussions continue both at ministerial and official levels. I hope that when the UK Government comes forward with more detailed proposals for the fund, there will be the possibility of organising funding for Wales along the lines that I set out in my answer to Siân Gwenllian.
In the meantime, I agree with Nick Ramsay that it's very important that we press ahead with the plans that we are developing for how funding would be used for regional investment purposes in Wales in the future. We've carried out a consultation exercise, as Nick Ramsay will know, on the paper that we published. That was a very engaged exercise. Officials are currently analysing all the responses that we have received and I hope to be in a position to publish those shortly.
Cabinet Secretary, in full support of your 'Regional Investment in Wales after Brexit' paper, how can we ensure that future funding arrangements are aligned with other European funds we hope to draw on after Brexit, such as Horizon 2020 and the inter-territorial co-operation programme?
Wel, Llywydd, Jane Hutt make a very important additional point, because our anxieties about the shared prosperity fund, if it were to be done in the wrong way, are not simply that Wales might lose out financially through a bidding or Barnett-based system, but if a shared prosperity fund was seriously to be attempted to be run out of Whitehall, then where are the troops on the ground that the UK Government could rely on to make effective use of that funding?
Twenty years into devolution, it is the Welsh Government and other Welsh bodies who have the experience of regional economic development and of making sure that funding streams that come to Wales can be properly aligned with one another so that we get the maximum impact from it. And one of the small advantages that some of us think we may gain from not being in the European Union is that we would have greater flexibility to make sure that funds that came directly to Wales could be used in greater alignment with other funding streams for the future. We are in the right position to do that. The UK Government simply does not have the wherewithal In Wales to do so, and the points that Jane Hutt made about aligning our funds with other programmes is very important.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline the process for calculating the amount of funding allocated to the local government and public services portfolio to support homelessness? OAQ52175
I thank the Member for that question. The process for allocating funding for homelessness services follows that for the budget as a whole. Priorities are identified in bilateral meetings, with the Cabinet agreeing final allocations. The increasing prevalence of homelessness, and this Government’s ambition to eradicate youth homelessness, underpinned the additional funding agreed by the Assembly for these purposes in January of this year.FootnoteLink
Thank you for that information, Cabinet Secretary. My fear is that now the worst of the winter weather has passed, the need to adequately fund the services required to meet the needs of homeless people will actually start to slip down the public agenda. However, as I'm sure you'll agree, this is probably the very time when we should be planning to ensure that adequate finance is provided for these demands, especially with the growing threat from universal credit, which is going to be rolled out in my constituency next month. Certainly, in communities like Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, I believe we are seeing a greater demand for these services and, like others, I see that evidence every day. So, can you assure me that, as Cabinet Secretary for Finance, you remain in conversation with ministerial colleagues about how, overall, the whole of Welsh Government can best respond to these demands?
Llywydd, can I begin by agreeing with the opening point that the Member made? It is one of the genuine responsibilities of Government and, indeed, of the Assembly, to make sure that we remain alert to serious social needs whenever they take place. Inevitably, in the public domain, issues come and go, but I think I could say that, in the time that I've been a Member here, Members throughout this Assembly do make sure that they raise these issues right through the year, not just at the point when they happen to be under the public microscope, and that's a really important responsibility that the Assembly discharges.
The money that we have provided—the additional £20 million in the budget this year and again into next year—is there all year round. It's there to support the rough-sleeping plan that my colleague the Minister with responsibility for housing and regeneration published earlier this year. In the round of budget bilaterals that I'm just concluding with all my Cabinet colleagues, housing has been discussed in every single one of those bilaterals because it is the foundation of a successful life, and everybody in Wales deserves to have a base from which they can plan for the future and create a future for themselves and their families.
Cabinet Secretary, you will be aware of the recommendations by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee that rough-sleepers be considered as a priority need for housing. However, before this can be implemented, enough resources and support will be needed in place to cope with this change. What discussion have you had with your Cabinet colleagues about increasing the amount of funding allocated to tackling the problem of homeless people rough-sleeping in Wales, please? Thank you.
I thank the Member for the question. As I said just a moment ago, housing issues have featured in every single one of the budget bilaterals that I have had with Cabinet colleagues. Every Cabinet colleague has an interest in housing and homelessness matters, whether it be the mental health and physical health issues that homeless people face or the pressure on local government services that homelessness creates. So, I can give the Member an assurance that it is a matter that interests all members of the Cabinet. I know that the extra investment we were able to find for homelessness services was supported right across the Chamber.
I have to say to the Member that any time someone here asks me to find extra money for any service at a time when the resources available to the Welsh Government as a whole are going down, the only way more money for one thing can be found is by taking it away from something else. He'll understand, I know, that that is a very challenging calculation to carry out.
I understand that there are Housing First pilots that have been and are going to be developed in parts of Wales, which I welcome, as part of the commitment to tackle homelessness, but the involvement of other services, including justice and healthcare are key in relation to this. So, what are you doing to look at pooling budgets? I've spoken to the sector on many occasions and they've said to me that there's not enough conversation between housing and healthcare. Crisis, the charity, funded in the Liverpool city region—. They looked at the analysis of how Housing First worked there, and they found that access, for example, to second-tier mental health support and that learning and coaching were needed to make Housing First work. So, if we're going to make Housing First work here in Wales, which is something I support, how can we ensure that the budgets reflect that ambition?
Well, Llywydd, the Member makes a series of important points. Of course, the difficulties faced by homeless people are complex, and they often involve other issues in their lives. It's why, of the £10 million directly found for homelessness services in this year's budget, £6 million of that has gone into providing extra places for people to stay, and £4 million has gone into the support services that need to be provided, if people are to be able to use the opportunity that the new start of a new place to live might provide to them.
I'll think about the point that she has made about pooled budgets. They have pluses to them; they have downsides as well. Everybody who puts money into a pool needs to understand that that money can be used for purposes beyond those that they are responsible for themselves. Understandably, in tough times, organisations often look very jealously at the money they themselves have put in, and Members here often ask questions to make sure that the money is still being used for the purpose it was already provided for. So, shared budgets can be a solution, but they don't come without their downsides either. Certainly, it's a possibility we will keep in mind.
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, yesterday, in your statement on the vacant land tax, I described you as a jack of all trades when it came to developing new taxes; you've got a lot of different taxes on the go at the moment. In yesterday's statement, you spoke about testing the machinery in terms of the vacant land tax. If I can widen that question out into other potential new taxes that the Welsh Government might be considering in future, clearly one of those potential taxes would be one to deal with the social care time-bomb problem, and a potential social care levy, as other Members have discussed in this Chamber. Could you tell us: have you given any thought, as of yet, to a potential social care levy, and have you had any discussions with your colleagues about that?
Llywydd, yes, we've been very actively engaged in this topic—particularly recently, following the ideas published by Professor Gerry Holtham. Professor Holtham has provided the Welsh Government with a near-final draft of an updated report, in which he looks in more detail at the way in which a dedicated social care fund, based on the model of the original national insurance fund, might be developed for Wales. The First Minister has set up a cross-ministerial group, chaired by my colleague Huw Irranca-Davies, and that will begin its work by looking at three dimensions. It will look in detail at Professor Holtham's work to make sure that there is a workable economic model there, but it will look, as well, at what the social care services of the future need to look like. If we ever were to be in a position of trying to persuade people in Wales to dig deeper into their pockets to make provision for the future, then they will quite rightly expect us to be able to describe what it is they are going to get for the investment that they are making. And the third strand in the work that that group will do will be to look at the interface with the UK, because a social care solution for Wales has to interface with the benefits system, with the wider tax system, with the work of the Department of Health and so on.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. This is clearly a horrendously complicated area. It's an enormous problem that's gone on for a long time, and which will need to be dealt with in some form or other in the not-too-distant future. You mentioned Professor Holtham's research, and Professor Holtham suggested that an age-related, graduated tax might be best, at least in the short term. In her question to you earlier, Julie Morgan mentioned some of the problems that she identified that women could experience in the post-structural-funds world.
The Commissioner for Older People in Wales has pointed out that there could be potential disadvantages in Professor Holtham's proposals for certain groups of people in the social care levy—particularly women and those on low pay, as well as those older people that you may be asking to pay more under this model. Specifically, the older people's commissioner notes—. She says, and I paraphrase, that you're essentially saying, 'Thanks for everything you've paid in. We told you that when your time came it would be free. Sorry, it's not.' Are you confident that the concerns of the older people's commissioner and others are being taken into account when working out potential proposals for a social care levy?
Well, Llywydd, even in a paraphrase we would not have said to anybody, 'We told you it would be free', because it's one of the defining characteristics of the social care system that it is means-tested. We have many debates here, in this Chamber, about trying to join up the health and social care system and the barriers that exist to that. Personally, I've always believed that one of the real fault lines that makes it difficult to do that is that healthcare is free at the point of use and social care is means-tested. That always makes it difficult to bring those two systems close together.
Now, Professor Holtham, in his paper, talks about inter-generational fairness, and he deals with some other things that Members here will be very familiar with—the arguments that people born after 1980 have, at comparable points in their lives, a less-advantageous financial outlook than people who were born 30 or 40 years earlier than them. He draws on work in Japan, where there is indeed a graduated tax, where the older you are you pay a bit more towards social care. In your twenties, you never believe you'll need social care. By the time you're 50, you begin to realise that this could be you. Therefore, social acceptability, in terms of paying towards things, is calibrated in that way, but it is only one of the factors that Professor Holtham proposes, and he models a series of different ways in which payments could be made into a fund, and a graduated tax rising by age is only one of the models that he investigates.
Well, Cabinet Secretary, the Holtham model potentially doubles the social care levy from £172 to £344 for those aged between 57 and 59 within the space of 12 months, just at the point when income starts to reduce. In 2017, 71 per cent of retirees in Wales took early retirement, and the average age of retirement was 58 years and six months—right in the middle of this age range. I'm not seeking to make any party political points on this issue because I think, actually, it's too big for that—it's bigger than any individual party and any individual Government. This is an issue that's developed under many different parties and Governments over the years.
Cabinet Secretary, I think there is massive potential here for Wales to do something that is groundbreaking if we get it right, but also there are some enormous pitfalls, which the older people's commissioner has alluded to—and others have as well. So, can you give us an assurance that, in dealing with all these issues and giving guidance to the Assembly Members who are looking at this, you will ensure that, at the end of this, we will have a system that is equal and fair, that doesn't lead to some people feeling that they have been hard done by—to paraphrase—and also, of course, a system that means that a fund will be built up over time, and that some way down the line, future Governments won't say, 'Well, actually, that money isn't all there now for us to provide to you, as we said 20 or 30 years ago'? Because I think, and you would agree with me, that ultimately, we want to get this right and we want to make sure that, in the future, people don't feel that they have been cheated out of money that they otherwise would have had.
Llywydd, well, I think the contribution that Nick Ramsay has made does point exactly to both the potential of this idea, but also the pitfalls that get in the way of it, and demonstrates why it has been so difficult for Governments of all political persuasions to make a real inroad into this policy problem. I was due to give evidence to the Finance Committee in your inquiry into this earlier this month, and will do—I hope, now—next year. For that reason, I re-read the Dilnot review that, in 2012, said that this matter was absolutely urgent and couldn't be left any longer, and I re-read Gwenda Thomas's Green Paper of a decade ago, which reflects many of the debates that are still here today. That just shows what a difficult problem it is to address.
However, Professor Holtham does very directly address the final point that Nick Ramsay made. The national insurance fund, Llywydd, began as a funded system. It remained so until 1957, when the Macmillan Government decided that it would dip into it in order to meet current expenditure, and as a result, we now have a pay-as-you-go system. Holtham says clearly if you're going to persuade people to pay into a fund, it has to be organised in a way that people can have confidence that Governments cannot dip their hands in it in tough times, and the money that you pay in really is there for this purpose.
UKIP spokesperson, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Llywydd. Well, I applaud the sober and serious work that the finance Secretary is doing on the possibility of a social care levy—a subject to which we'll return in due course. I'm sure that the finance Secretary will agree with me that it's important that dog-whistle politics doesn't intrude upon these potential new taxes and that we don't create unnecessary anxiety amongst groups of people who might potentially be affected by any of them. One of the things that concerned me about the possibility of a vacant land tax, which we discussed in part yesterday, was that a lot of people may not ultimately be affected by it, and may, in the interim period, be worried by such a proposal. So, I wonder if the Cabinet Secretary will do a bit more to allay potential fears in this respect.
I referred yesterday to the work the Welsh Government has already done on this in relation to stalled sites and section 106 agreements. They identified just about 400 sites between 2000 and 2014 where land had not been developed for one reason or another. But the number of cases that might be regarded as true land banking, that were capable of economic development and were viable but weren't proceeded with, is actually very small. It's worth, I think, summarising the figures that are in the document. Where the reasons for stalling were related to land ownership or site sale, that is, those that related only to real land banking as opposed to variations in conditions or other planning matters, there were only 17 cases out of this 400 over a period of 14 years. So, the problem of land banking may not be as great as is feared, and I appreciate the point that was made yesterday, that this is a tax that has been proposed in order to test the system, and is not likely to affect a great many people. So, could the finance Secretary just say a little more on that one point?
Thank you, Llywydd. Well, I take very seriously the points that the leader of UKIP here made about avoiding dog-whistle politics. I quite certainly agree with him in what he said today on that matter.
Yesterday he made the points that he's made today, that when we come to look at the detail of a land value tax, the potential for one in Wales, we may find that it would apply in a relatively small number of occasions. As the detailed work gets done, I'm sure we will have the actual evidence as to whether or not that is the case. I tried yesterday to offer two reassurances to people in the sector who might have anxieties about this: first of all, that we will do the detailed work, and the policy that we bring forward, if we do, will be thoroughly based upon the evidence; and secondly, that we will take the time necessary to do that properly and thoroughly, and that if the power is drawn down to the Assembly, it will not be a matter of simply jumping to use the power because it's here. If the power comes here, we will make sure that, if we do use it, it's because the case for doing so has been thoroughly tested.
I wonder if the finance Secretary would agree with me also that there ought to be some kind of de minimis element in this, in as much as I referred to the case yesterday of Harry Hyams and the Centre Point building that was empty, right in the centre of London, a prime space, for many, many years in the 1970s. The problem that we're trying to address, if there is such a problem, relates to large potential development sites that have significant numbers of homes that could be built upon the land. There's little point in going after individual plots here or there that might or might not be developed for one reason or another. David Melding yesterday referred also to the need for flexibility in the way in which such a tax might be implemented.
In the review that is currently going on by Oliver Letwin, he's going to be looking at large sites, and he recognises that there are many reasons for even large developments not being proceeded with—limited availability of skilled labour, for example, limited supplies of building materials, limited availability of capital, et cetera. He gives a whole host of potential reasons that are nothing actually to do with the perceived ill of land banking itself. Even in the case of large sites, we will have to hedge around the potential tax with all sorts of reliefs in order to avoid creating injustice, even for significant property development companies.
Llywydd, there are indeed many reasons why vacant sites with planning permissions and so on do not come into productive use, and a vacant land tax would only ever be one tool in a much wider set of tools that policy makers can use to bear down on that. From memory, but I am relying on memory, I believe the Republic of Ireland scheme does have a de minimis part to it, but anybody who had heard Vikki Howells's short debate and had seen the examples that she brought forward would know that sometimes even very small sites that are allowed to go into dereliction spread the misery of that on a much wider scale amongst people who have to live nearby. So, scale is an issue, but it's not, by itself, a complete definition of the problem.
I fully accept what the Cabinet Secretary and, indeed, Vikki Howells have said on this, although dereliction is a separate issue in itself, which could be dealt with in other ways other than by a tax. But I'm also concerned about the potential impact of such a tax upon small house builders in rural areas. It's easy to demonise big companies, but there may be a variety of reasons why even small house builders, who can't afford to bank land for long period of time anyway, might feel that they would be affected by this and which would therefore dissuade them from applying for speculative planning permissions. And, given that economic circumstances can sometimes change quite rapidly, this would be an unfortunate development, because if it indeed resulted in fewer speculative proposals at the local development plan preparation stage, the onus would then be on local planning authorities to approach land owners proactively to identify land that is capable of development and which they would like to see developed. Given that local authorities have enough on their plate anyway, this would be another unfortunate consequence. So, I hope that that's another point that the finance Secretary will bear carefully in mind.
Well, Llywydd, I thank the Member for that point. I've seen the figures myself that do demonstrate that it does take longer in rural parts of Wales to bring land that has got the necessary permissions into development. We talked yesterday in the discussion here about a vacant land tax, about the length of time a piece of land would have to be vacant before it started to become liable for a tax, and, when we come to do the detailed work on all of this, which—. As I keep reminding Members, we're at the very earliest stages of doing that detailed work, but if those figures were borne out then they would lead, I think, to a discussion of whether or not you would need to have a longer period of time available in rural parts of Wales before a tax began to apply, because of the nature of development in those areas. But that is a point we would need to return to when the evidence was clearer. In the meantime, it is a perfectly fair point for the Member to have put into the debate.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Adam Price.
Thank you, Llywydd. A fortnight ago, Cabinet Secretary, you published the mid-term review in terms of the Wales infrastructure investment plan, which originally included a pipeline of projects worth £42 billion in total. Now, of course, in next year’s budget there’s only around £1.5 million—£1.6 million—which is capital investment, and I think we recognise, having done the maths, that it would take many, many years for us to deliver all of the investment needs in terms of infrastructure. You have to contrast this, of course, with the situation in the south-east of England and London, which is the corner of the UK that receives the largest slice of the cake in terms of infrastructure investment, and they are now about to receive an additional £550 million to save the Crossrail project, which, apparently, is overspending. To put this in context, that is a little less than half of what the UK Government intends to invest in the rail network in Wales over this next investment period of five years. So, can you confirm that Wales will not receive any additional funding as a consequence of that additional investment in Crossrail, because, under the financial settlement as it stands, there is a comparison factor of 0 per cent that is used in terms of the formula? And, along the same lines, if railways were to be devolved entirely, as is the situation in Scotland and Northern Ireland, wouldn’t Wales benefit to the tune of some additional £700 million, which could be invested in our network in order to make up for the underspending that has been the case over the past few years, and that could be done over the next five years between 2019 and 2024?
I thank Adam Price for that question, and I can see the point that he is making.
Investment across the United Kingdom is tipped towards London and the south-east in the way that he described. Because this is a relatively very recent development, I will write to him if I've got anything further to say. But my officials have been in contact with the Treasury today. They say, in relation to Crossrail, as I understand it, these things: first of all, that no additional funding has yet been committed to the Department for Transport as a result of the Crossrail developments, and at the moment the Treasury regard that simply as a pressure that the Department for Transport's budget has to manage. We then checked with them, if a further investment from the Treasury to the Department for Transport were to be made for Crossrail, would there be a Barnett consequential for that, and they said to us, 'Yes, there would be', because this is a local rail development, and, if there are to be new funds found for Crossrail and given to the Department for Transport, we would get our Barnett consequential for that through the fiscal framework, which I'll remind Members here of course means we would get 105 per cent of that consequential.
Now, I have seen too often the way in which the UK Government looks to find Barnett workarounds, so that things that at first glance you would imagine would attract a Barnett consequential, turn out not to. So, you can be sure that our officials will be very closely monitoring the situation, and, if money does become available for Crossrail and if that money does go to the Department for Transport, that we would get our proper share of that here in Wales.
Well, I welcome that news very warmly, and perhaps this is an opportunity to test the dispute resolution agreement within the fiscal framework. We will see in due course. Securing Barnettised funding, not only in terms of this overspend, but across the rail network, would mean that there would be £2 billion per annum rather than £1.3 billion, and £700 million would be a means for us to do a great many things. We could build the new rail line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth; we could look at putting right the failure or the u-turn of the UK Government on electrification to Swansea; we could look at doing two thirds of the work in terms of building the proposed metro for the western Valleys and Swansea. If truth to be told, all of these projects could be considered. That is, £2 billion or £3 billion in a transport bond would be a means for us to transform our transport system across Wales—the kind of ambitious proposal I would expect from a candidate for the First Ministership of Wales.
Now, you mentioned recently in a statement that you do want to proceed now to create Welsh Government bonds. Isn’t this an opportunity to create an innovative programme of investment that we have been waiting for for decades and to create a Welsh bond? Even I, as a Member of the opposition, would be willing to buy those bonds.
Thank you very much for that.
Of course, Adam Price is right to point to the fact that we are now drawing down the power for the Welsh Government to issue bonds. The reason for doing so is the one that Mike Hedges outlined in the Chamber a week or so ago—it's to keep the UK Government honest in the interest rates that it charges through the Public Works Loan Board, because, if it seeks to increase the interest charges to us in making loans from that source, then we would have another way in which we could raise money in this place, and that tends to encourage the UK Government not to raise interest in the loans that it makes.
The difficulty in the proposition that Adam Price puts—and he puts it persuasively, as he does—is that the ability to issue bonds does not increase the capital limit that the Welsh Government faces. It doesn't bring us an extra £1 in investment. So, we could create a fund of the sort that he has suggested, but it wouldn't be new money—it wouldn't be extra money available to Wales. So, if you did create a fund for that purpose, you would have to decide not to go ahead with various other important investments across other parts of the Welsh public sector.
Of course, that's a proper public debate about where priorities lie, but it wouldn't be right to suggest to people that you could create a bond-filled fund and that that, somehow, would be new money over and above everything we have—it wouldn't be.
I understand the Cabinet Secretary's argument. I wonder, though, if a purpose-specific bond was put together on the lines that I've suggested that, actually, you would be able to convince the UK Treasury, for that specific purpose, to raise the borrowing limit. Indeed, this is something that has been suggested by Professor Holtham, that you mentioned in another context earlier. So, I was wondering whether you would be prepared, at least, to look at this.
There is an alternative mechanism as well, which, actually, to some extent overcomes some of these problems, which is to look at Transport for Wales, which is modelled on Transport for London. Transport for London, of course, has separate borrowing powers, and it has them in particular because, of course, it has revenue-generating capacity; it also has capital-uplift capacity, in terms of regeneration schemes. So, that could be a mechanism. Indeed, the Labour Party in England is strongly advocating that the new body, Transport for the North, is given parallel borrowing powers. So, is the Welsh Government prepared to explore a case for Transport for Wales being given the kind of borrowing powers that have allowed Transport for London to invest extensively in its own network?
Well, Llywydd, this is a very good moment for raising these possibilities, because I have only recently written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury putting her on alert to the fact that, as part of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, I will be seeking an extension to the borrowing limit currently available to the Welsh Government. So, it's a moment where there are some new possibilities in play.
The ones that Adam Price has raised are certainly of interest, because this Government has a solid track record, begun by my predecessor, Jane Hutt, of looking for new and innovative ways of extending the pool of capital investment available to Wales. If it would be helpful, I would be very interested to meet the Member and talk with him in more detail than we're able to in these exchanges about how those ideas might be taken forward.
Let's see whether we can pick up some speed on questions and answers. We're on question 3 and we're almost out of time for the session, so that's a challenge for you. Dai Lloyd, question 3.
3. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on strategic investment in South Wales West? OAQ52177
Amongst the strategic investments made in South Wales West, the additional £266 million announced alongside the Wales infrastructure investment plan mid–point review will bring fresh funding in active travel, national health service capital schemes and waste recycling.
Thank you very much for that answer. The Welsh Government has spent over £11 million trying to develop a strategic business park in Felindre, Swansea. Since the demolition of the steelworks in that area, we have seen many marketing strategies aimed at bringing companies to that business park, but it is still vacant. There’s clear local frustration about the speed of development of the site, which has the potential to create hundreds of jobs. Do you share this frustration with the lack of progress and what do you intend to do jointly with Swansea council to move things forward?
Well, I thank Dai Lloyd for that question. Of course, I recognise what he has said about the time that has passed and that things haven't been developed in Parc Felindre. What I understand from people working in that area is that we have been trying to attract people in to help us develop the site. My notes state that
we have been encouraged by the standard of developers and occupiers who have now expressed an interest in the site, and my colleague Ken Skates is anxious to move ahead so that we overcome the difficulties that Dr Lloyd has identified.
Cabinet Secretary, part of your budget statement obviously included investment of over £30 million in the Tata steelworks in Port Talbot. Could you tell us what progress has been made on that investment and will we have it actually done in this financial year?
Well, Llywydd, the Government is anxious to invest in Port Talbot in partnership with Tata, where we can be sure that our investment is part of a long-term plan to ensure the sustainability of steel making in Wales. There is more that we are prepared to do with the company, provided those plans demonstrate that they are going to be using public investment alongside their own investment in a way that will create the steel-making capacity of the future. My colleague Ken Skates, and, indeed, the First Minister, have been in discussions with the most senior people in Tata to make sure that we come forward with plans that allow us to spend the money in a timely fashion and to secure the future of steel making.
I'm just going back to Dai Lloyd's question. Cabinet Secretary, we are talking 20 years here and I think we need some reassurance, particularly in my region, that this isn't another Kancoat or indeed another technium. Following the regeneration investment fund for Wales, I think we need some assurance that the investment is recoverable and that sales that are significantly under value won't be forthcoming. Firstly, can you tell me what security Welsh Government has on that land and secondly what conversations you've had with the city deal board, your Cabinet colleagues and indeed the UK Government in order to make sure we exploit to the maximum that quite useful asset?
Well, Llywydd, I think these are questions really for my colleague Ken Skates, who is directly responsible for the policy and the practical implementation of it. I'm quite sure that the points the Member makes will be shared by him in wanting to make sure there is a proper return for the public on the investment that has been made at the site.
4. Will the Cabinet Secretary clarify the allocation of Welsh Government funding to credit unions following the recent update to the Wales infrastructure investment plan? OAQ52191
Credit unions play a vital role in strengthening the financial resilience in our communities. As part of the Wales infrastructure investment plan mid-point review, I announced an additional £1 million over two years to support credit unions across Wales.
This week, I'm joining Michael Sheen as a new patron for Credit Unions Wales and I'm delighted to see this positive outcome of Welsh Government collaboration with credit unions in Wales as part of the financial inclusion strategy, which you've now endorsed with the allocation of financial transaction capital. Would you agree that this is precisely the way we should be using financial transaction capital, to meet Welsh Government goals of promoting social justice by supporting our credit unions? This allocation will help meet the challenging capital asset ratio requirements, which have changed in the last couple of years—particularly challenging for large credit unions—to ensure that we can help the growth and viability of credit unions in Wales.
Can I begin, Llywydd, by congratulating Jane Hutt on her new role as patron of Credit Unions Wales? She's right to say that the reason we are able to provide financial transaction capital is because there are new challenging capital asset ratio requirements set out by the Prudential Regulation Authority, and those capital-to-asset ratios are mandatory. Some credit unions in Wales have struggled to make sure that they are able to match those ratios, but they are able to produce plans that show how they can meet them in the future. An injection of financial transaction capital allows them to shore up their balance sheets while those plans are carried out. That's why, in discussion with the sector, we've been able to put forward the assistance that we are able to.
Can I just add our support to efforts to increase the capacity of credit unions? At the moment, according to the Money Charity, we spend £139 million per day on repayments and personal debt. It's absolutely incredible. And credit unions are a key part, I think, certainly for people in limited financial circumstances, but more generally as well, potentially. So, it's organisations like Dragonsavers in RCT that need to have their role expanded, and, you know, we can look at many countries—the United States and, much closer to us, the Republic of Ireland—that have a much more extensive financial services sector that embraces credit unions.
I agree with the Member entirely. Credit unions provide affordable credit and responsible lending and they are a lifeline for many people who, if they were obliged to borrow in more expensive parts of the market, would be part of that astonishing sum that the Member set out in his supplementary question that is being paid back all the time. In addition to the £1 million that I was able to make available through the Wales infrastructure investment plan, colleagues have recently announced £844,000 of Welsh Government funding to support credit unions over the next two years. There are 19 different projects that will be supported by that money, and they are all designed to do what David Melding suggested: to find ways of drawing more people into credit union membership in Wales.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the innovate-to-save fund? OAQ52163
The first round of innovate-to-save attracted 50 bids extending from the effectiveness of social prescribing to new ways of assisting communities threatened by coastal flooding. A second funding round was launched earlier this year.
Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response? I very much welcome the innovate-to-save scheme. It's something I've been asking for for some time. But, of course, not all innovations will work or provide long-term solutions, but those that do can produce improved services and/or savings to the Welsh public sector, which can be quite substantial. Are there any successful schemes that can be rolled out to other parts of the Welsh public sector?
Well, Llywydd, it is very early days in the innovate-to-save area, and I don't think we could yet be completely confident that these first schemes have yet demonstrated their success to the point where we could be confident of rolling them out everywhere. But to give you just one example, the Leonard Cheshire Disability charity, as they are one of the schemes we are taking forward under innovate-to-save, have been working with Anglesey council to pilot a project that brings people with profound physical disabilities together, because one of the effects of having a profound physical disability is you're often very isolated—you get services in your own home, you see the carer, you may not see anybody else. On Ynys Môn they've been bringing people together so that they can share in activities, and they have found it to be very successful. In that example, they are already talking to other local authorities in Wales as to whether or not they could roll that pilot scheme out further.
Cabinet Secretary, it's crucial that funding schemes like the innovate-to-save fund reach projects right across Wales and as such it's important that all parts of the Welsh public and third sectors are actually aware of the scheme. Therefore, can you tell us how the Welsh Government is promoting the scheme in all parts of Wales so that everyone is aware of it? Whilst I appreciate that the second round has only recently been launched, can you also tell us how you intend to monitor the fund to ensure its effectiveness?
Well, first of all, can I agree with Paul Davies that we are very keen that visibility of the fund and understanding of it is spread right across Wales? That's why we are working with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and with Nesta, as organisations that already have reach out in all parts of the third sector, to make sure that the scheme is well known and understood. We've extended the period of the second round in order to be able to hold events in different parts of Wales, again, to be able to explain the fund to people who may not have heard about it otherwise and to encourage bids from wherever they may come. And, of course, we will use our invest-to-save model to make sure that investments that we make through innovate-to-save provide a proper return for the investment that we are making.
And finally, question 7—Andrew R.T Davies.
7. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the availability of funding for capital projects over the next three years? OAQ52160
I thank Andrew Davies for that question. Our conventional capital budget will be 20 per cent lower in 2019-20 than at the start of this decade. Nevertheless, through innovation and determination, the Welsh Government intends to deploy £6.5 billion in capital investment over the next three years, supporting homes, schools and hospitals right across the whole of Wales.
I'm glad you gave such a long answer, First Minister. I wasn't expecting to be called, and I'd just put a Polo in my mouth, which isn't a good thing to do just before you ask a question, Presiding Officer—
I could tell that you were busy reading something, so I decided to try and catch you out.
What I'd like to ask the finance Secretary, if possible, please, is: the Government have just concluded the public inquiry into the M4 relief road, and cost pressures, obviously, have increased dramatically over the anticipated costs of the relief road. The Welsh Government's own figures are now £1.4 billion—that was the figure that was submitted to the public inquiry. How confident is the Cabinet Secretary that the £1.4 million that the Welsh Government supplied to the inquiry—if the inquiry finds in favour of this capital project—will be the final amount that he as finance Secretary will have to find? And if that increased amount of money does have to be found, how confident is he that other capital projects in other parts of Wales won't suffer as a consequence?
Well, Llywydd, that is the sum of money that I'm being asked to identify at present, and those funds are held in reserves for the M4 project, awaiting the outcome of the ongoing inquiry. Because this is a project that will extend into the future, it is part of the reason that I have written to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury telling her that I will be looking for an extension to our borrowing powers for those future years, in order that we can ensure, in the way that Andrew R.T. Davies has suggested, that if the M4 project goes ahead, and we make that investment, it does not take place at the expense of other necessary investments in other parts of Wales.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the leader of the house, and the first question is from Dawn Bowden.
1. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on action to improve digital inclusion in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ52174
Certainly. Through Digital Communities Wales, we are working in partnership with organisations and programmes across Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney who are well placed to reach the most digitally excluded. They provide the basic digital skills support needed to secure improved economic, learning and health outcomes.
Thank you very much. I'm very conscious, Cabinet Secretary, that you did have a major debate and statement on this yesterday. I have two questions for you today, and they're both on digital inclusion. So, please bear with me. My second question will be complementary to this one. But in the hope that you are shortly going to set out the track record of Welsh Government investment in broadband and digital services in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, do you agree that it's critical that we do also focus on implementing the Welsh Government's digital inclusion strategy of 2018? Because that strategy reinforces the concerns about the gap between disadvantaged people and the pace of change in digital services. So, while we can't hold back the progress, is there any further work we can do in our Valleys communities to support the strategy and to help people on the path towards acquiring those digital skills that are so vital to modern life and the wider well-being agenda?
Yes, absolutely. I think, Llywydd, I will have several opportunities in a moment to talk about broadband roll-out, so I won't indulge myself here. But once we have achieved roll-out, then it's obviously very important that people have the skills and confidence to make the most of the digital technologies. And there are some great examples, actually, in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney at the moment. We provide the strategic leadership required to tackle digital exclusion, recognising that digital skills requirements to meet the current and future needs of a modern economy and society are always evolving. So, we need a concerted, collaborative effort across the third, private and public sectors, and throughout our communities, to achieve a truly digitally inclusive society. And so, we work very closely across a number of Cabinet portfolios, with our local government colleagues, with third sector colleagues as part of the Valleys taskforce, and we have a digital action plan for the Valleys taskforce, which is very exciting. I think I probably said yesterday that it has a number of elements in it. One is a geographical database that is designed to allow people to access a range of data that they can use both in their personal life, in accessing public services, and in developing apps for little SMEs. One is actually assistance to develop such apps and community Wi-Fi to enable them to be used in a widespread way. So, there are a number of very important projects, but it is important that people have the skills to access them, otherwise we will just be exacerbating social isolation.
Leader of the house, the Welsh Government's recently published digital inclusion progress report states that Merthyr was identified as an area with limited digital inclusion activity taking place. This led to the formation of the Get Merthyr Tydfil Online partnership. Given that the Barclays digital development index 2017 claimed that Welsh employees score among the lowest of all UK regions for their digital skills, and that employers are willing to pay a premium for workers with word processing, data analysis and social media capabilities, will the leader of the house update the Assembly on the work of the partnership in improving digital inclusion in Merthyr and surrounding valleys, please?
Yes. You make a very good point. There have been a number of surveys recently. Unfortunately, it's always a difficulty in Wales, for the size of the survey, so if you extrapolate it out across Wales, we're not absolutely certain how valid the data is, statistically. But, nevertheless, it draws attention to some of the serious problems we have with digital exclusion. And there is definitely a generational issue there. The Member makes a number of points simultaneously. We need people to have the basic digital skills, to be able to access public services, and to stay socially involved and so on, but we also need the higher level digital skills in our working-age workforce, and our youngsters, in order to develop the programmes that allow people to access those skills.
Part of the Tech Valleys initiative, and a number of other initiatives in Merthyr, as I said to Dawn Bowden, in partnership with a number of partners, are to do both of those things together. And we have some very exciting inter-generational projects, where we have young people with very high levels of digital skills assisting in both hospitals and in residential circumstances, to get people who are older, who don't have those skills, to get online, and that's been very successful, and actually very heartening in a number of ways, to see the inter-generational working. So, there are a number of innovative ways that we can assist with that, but I agree that the—well, the sample sizes are a serious problem, so we do need to look at ways of capturing the data more effectively.
2. Will the Leader of the House provide an update on how the Welsh Government is promoting digital inclusion in Wales? OAQ52188
3. Will the Leader of the House provide an update on the Welsh Government's policies for promoting digital inclusion? OAQ52184
I think, Llywydd, you've agreed to combine this with question 3.
Digital Communities Wales, and many other actions in our framework and delivery plan, support more people to gain maximum benefit from the life-changing opportunities digital technologies can offer.
Thank you. Only 51 per cent of pensioners living alone and 25 per cent of disabled people in Wales have internet access. A lack of skills and low confidence are often the key factors preventing people from getting online. Learning how to use technology and access the internet undoubtedly reduces loneliness and social isolation among older people, by helping them to stay in touch with family and friends. Gaining digital skills can be life changing, enabling people to rediscover old connections, and form new ones. Inter-generational projects have been shown to benefit in a variety of fields, and digital skills are now second nature to most young people, and they benefit from sharing their knowledge. There are some great examples around Wales where this has happened, but what more can the Welsh Government do to encourage and to support inter-generational digital projects?
Well, as I was saying, we have some very innovative projects going on. But just to use some of the stats that we have: 85 per cent of adults in Wales now regularly use the internet, compared to 66 per cent in 2010, and £1 million a year is invested in the dedicated digital inclusion programme, our Digital Communities Wales programme, and we've done that every year since 2015. Since then, we've supported over 117,300 individuals to engage with technology, and we've trained over 1,000 young digital heroes, which is the programme we're talking about, where young people from schools, colleges and youth organisations volunteer to support older people to engage in digital technology.
Most of the funding activities in this regard are aimed at addressing the basic digital skills that we were just talking about, allowing older people to become less socially isolated and to have access to basic services. But we're very much aware that we also want to increase the digital skills of the youngsters who are actually doing the volunteering and the teaching, and to include that in the curriculum work that we're doing, and with our digital heroes scheme. So, it's a really great programme, and we're actually developing both sides of that, and we're looking to roll that out as widely as possible through Wales. I've been discussing with the Cabinet Secretary for health what we can do in hospitals for some socially isolated people, who have lengthy stays in hospitals, where, in a sense, Llywydd, we have a captive audience.
Leader of the house, digital inclusion is dependent on adequate broadband speeds, and I know, over many months, you've shown a keen interest in my notspots in Monmouthshire, and visited a number of them. You'll be aware that, recently, the UK Government announced that they wanted to roll out a fifth generation pilot across my area in south-east Wales. Can you update us on any discussions you've had with the UK Government about that pilot, about the timescale for the pilot, the extent of it, and how the Welsh Government intends to build on that to learn the lessons from that pilot and then roll out the good practice across the rest of south Wales and the rest of Wales?
Yes, we've asked Innovation Point to look into exactly how we can best exploit the 5G technologies and, actually, a large number of different pots of money that have come available in a number of different configurations, and Llywydd, yesterday, during my statement, I discussed some of those. I won't reiterate all of them, but we absolutely need to make sure that we are on top of the technology, that we assist small and medium-sized enterprises to exploit the technology, that we have the spectrum sales done in a way that allows us to access those technologies and doesn't cut them off, and that we also encourage the automotive industry in particular, but other digital-enabled industries, to come here to exploit the skills that we're producing.
So, we have a number of innovations going on at the same time, including things like the National Software Academy, which we fund over in Newport, which has a very innovative degree programme based on solving industry problems directly and which are then rolled out into the industries, and Innovation Point itself. There are a number of discussions that we have ongoing with our industries here already in Wales, because there's a big issue about upskilling the current workforce, as well as attracting in innovative, digital technologies. So, there are a large number of different ways that we're supporting those developments around the tech hubs, in the Valleys in particular.
The leader of the house will excuse my lack of grasp of some of the issues with technology around them. I come from a generation where communication technology consisted of stretching a string across the road and having a tin can either end. [Laughter.] But I understand that the 96 per cent superfast broadband in the Pontypridd area is very good.
Can I raise with you the issue of estates—new developed estates that are being built? There is an example in my area of Dyffryn y Coed, a Persimmon development in Llantwit Fardre, where there were two phases. The first phase connected to superfast broadband through the fibre broadband, and that's fine. But phase 2 is not connected to that—it doesn't have that highest level, because it hasn't been asked for by the developers. Now, surely, there must be an issue where new developments, almost as part of their planning permission—that there should be a requirement that they actually do this, because I now have a large number of constituents who tell me that the best advice that they have is to set up a legal entity to apply for a grant of £4,800, and then there's a 17-step process, which will take 12 months, in order to actually get that sort of fibre connection.
I have written to you about this, but is this a problem that has been arising in places? What can we do about it? And should we not be ensuring that it's a mandatory obligation upon developers?
Yes, it's been a continuing thorn in our side, actually, and this is the whole issue about whether this is an infrastructure technology or whether it's a luxury product. Unfortunately, the UK Government persist in thinking of it as a luxury product and not an infrastructure, and therefore we have less good powers in the area in terms of what we can do. But I have had extensive conversations, both with my Cabinet Secretary with planning responsibility and, actually, with the Minister for Housing and Regeneration, about what we can do, both in encouraging councils to put it in as part of 106 agreements, for example, and in encouraging the house builders to actually wire their properties.
There is an agreement with BT for house builders, where they build over 30 houses at the same time, to put the infrastructure in. But otherwise it's a negotiation between the developer and whatever technology company they're particularly negotiating with.
However, the scheme you're talking about is a BT community fibre scheme. We do have other schemes available in Wales and I think you have written to me, so I will be getting in touch with you about other solutions that may be possible for that particular community. It is an ongoing problem that we're aware of and that we're trying to work on.
Leader of the house, Newport has been attracting investment into the digital sector and is keen to attract significantly more with support from Welsh Government. You mentioned the software academy and the potential of degree-level qualifications. Does there also need to be even more emphasis on training for people who are in, perhaps, lower paid jobs at the moment, and are part-time, so that they can upskill, increase their income and benefit from but also drive the development of the digital economy we want to see?
Yes, absolutely. There's a need for science, technology, engineering and mathematics-related skills right through the spectrum. So, we want to produce the graduates of the future but we also need the technicians and so on. So, we have a number of employability schemes. They're not in my portfolio, but we have a large number of employability schemes and flexible skills programmes, which are available to existing companies to do just that—to upskill their current workforce. We also have employability schemes for people not yet in the market to get their skills into that. So, both of those things are covered. The software academy is looking at doing outreach for people who want to perhaps do level 3 skills as well—so A-level equivalent and higher national diploma, with a route to going on to higher education or indeed with a route to going into employment at that point. So, we are exploring that. There definitely is a need for everybody at every level of the range of abilities.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Siân Gwenllian.
Thank you, Llywydd. Equality means ensuring that people can live their lives to their full potential, and that they can live independently. I'm sure that you would agree with those words. That is why the social model in relation to disability has been a way of empowering the lives of disabled people, and making public services think about disability in a different manner. One of the greatest challenges that faces many disabled people is lack of finance or poverty, and, obviously, poverty can make the quality of life of a disabled person significantly worse. Do you agree that the Welsh Government has a responsibility to give financial support to disabled people and families with disabled children, so that they can overcome some of the barriers that society places upon them?
Yes, indeed. The Member, as always, raises a very important point. It's not actually directly in my portfolio. I have an overarching view of equalities that I work with all of the other Ministers and Cabinet Secretaries on. So, it's actually my colleague the Minister for children who actually deals with most of the funds available, but I have very regular meetings with him about the effect on disabled families and their communities. We work very closely with Disability Wales and a number of other groups in the sector to make sure that we do maximise the funding available. There is a limit to what we can do in terms of the universal credit roll-out, for example, which is causing some concern in the areas where it's been fully rolled out, but we are aware of some of those problems.
Thank you very much. You will be aware that Plaid Cymru has a motion later on this afternoon where we will be discussing child poverty, and that that motion calls for the devolution of the administration of parts of the welfare system. But, of course, there are some benefits that have already been fully devolved, or the administrative responsibility for them already lies in Wales—the Family Fund, the council tax benefit, elements of the social fund and, of course, the independent living fund.
Are you content with the way that your Government has been dealing with the responsibility for these particular funds? I accept that perhaps the other Minister would be able to answer in more detail, but, generally speaking, are you happy with the performance of your Government in dealing with these funds?
I think it's a very complex area, and it's not in my portfolio, so, forgive me, I won't have the level of detail necessary to answer it with perhaps the detail that you'd like. It is actually Huw Irranca-Davies, my colleague, who has control of the actual funds, but I have very regular meetings with, as I said, him and a number of voluntary groups in the sector to see what we can do. I am aware of the long-running and philosophical, almost, debate about whether you can administer a welfare system predicated on a set of values that you don't share, and we certainly do not share the values currently associated with the UK Government's running of that welfare system.
I'm sure it will come out in the debate this afternoon that there are a number of issues around whether you would actually get the money necessary to run it without cutting into other services and so on, but, in principle, of course, we'd like to see the welfare system run in the way it was intended, which is for the benefit of those people who need the helping hand to be able to live their lives to the full. I think we probably share the view that that's not how it's running at the moment.
My colleague the Minister with responsibility for this is conducting a number of reviews of the various funds, and he would be better placed to give you some of the detail of how those reviews are going at the moment.
Thank you very much, and we look forward to having that debate on the devolution of welfare later on this afternoon.
But it is clear that not everyone in your party is content with some aspects, certainly, of these funds—for example, abolishing the independent living fund. I understand that a proposal was passed to restore this fund by the Labour Party conference, which was in favour of adopting the Scottish model. So, could you explain how abolishing this essential support, along with cutting the funding to the Family Fund—? How can doing that be in accordance with my opening words and with the principles of equalities legislation, and your responsibility to remove barriers facing disabled people and children?
This is one of the difficulties of having one of the cross-cutting portfolios. So, I'm not going to give you an answer that's satisfactory, simply because I'm not the Minister with the detail of the fund in question, so it's not for me to answer that. But, in general terms, I've had a number of conversations with the Minister around what we're doing to review the fund, what the overarching aims of it are, what the amount of money contained within it is and what can be best done with that, alongside the various organisations with whom we liaise—the stakeholder groups and so on.
I am aware that there is a range of views on this, but, unfortunately, I'm not the Minister with overall responsibility for that. I do assure you that we have the conversation so that we can maximise the benefit to disabled families. But there's absolutely no doubt at all that we're struggling in an austerity agenda with which we do not agree and where we are really dealing with a rationing system, also with which we do not agree. So, it is a question of trying to find the best path through that and ameliorate, where at all possible, the difficulties that people living with disabilities and living with children with disabilities encounter in their lives.
The Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.
Diolch, Presiding Officer. Leader of the house, 18 months ago, you announced the intention to publish the mobile action plan. Can I ask, since that date, what concrete measures you have implemented to improve mobile coverage in Wales? And when was the last time you directly met with mobile operators?
I meet with mobile operators on a rolling programme of meeting the various different operators. I haven't had a group meeting with them for quite some time, since we launched the action plan, but I have a sort of series of meetings with them, if you like. We're also in regular correspondence with Ofcom. We've had many more discussions with Ofcom very recently around—it feels slightly like groundhog day here, Llywydd, because we had the debate yesterday—issues such as sharing infrastructure, planning your infrastructure more efficiently, what planning requirements are actually necessary, what the real need for a reduction in non-domestic rate charges are, and why they're so extremely opposed to roaming in areas where they've all agreed that only one operator is likely to give 98 per cent geographical coverage. I think I did rehearse some of that with you yesterday as well.
You did, and I did ask in my question what concrete measures you have implemented to improve mobile coverage in Wales. I didn't hear anything to tell me what actual measures you've undertaken. I would suggest that perhaps you do meet with the operators together, because they would be able to tell you what their barriers are. They tell me what the barriers are, and I think they need to explain some of these barriers to you. You said yesterday that you disagreed entirely with my analysis of the situation with mobile, but what I think is more important to the people of Wales is that the mobile industry seems to agree with my analysis.
Now, you did also say yesterday that the geographical problems in Wales are unlike anywhere else in the United Kingdom. Well, I entirely agree with you on that, but that is precisely why you need to foster the right conditions for the industry to roll out its infrastructure here in Wales, and the operators are saying that continued delays in the reform to the existing planning laws are delaying and adding additional costs for them. I think this is the issue, particularly in rural Wales, which is causing us issues. Now, with changes to the planning rules already in place in England and in Scotland, we're now playing catch-up in Wales. You talk about needing more evidence from the industry, but I would ask you what evidence you need on top of what they've already provided you. That's my specific question.
Last year, the economy committee undertook an inquiry on this and we made some recommendations on mobile and you accepted them all, I'm pleased to say. One of those recommendations was that you should explore the feasibility of using the planning regime to encourage operators to share infrastructure. You agreed with that, so I'd like an update on that. You also accepted recommendation 9, which said that Welsh Government should consider offering non-domestic rate relief for new masts. Well, you accepted that, I'm pleased to say, as well. And you did say in your response at the time—nine months ago—that you were examining the scope for changes at that time and that research would be completed in November 2017. So, can you please also update us on progress in this area?
Yes. A large part of that is actually in the portfolio of my colleague, the Cabinet Secretary, who is also here to hear what you've got to say, but I think I did go through a lot of it yesterday. Just to be clear, one of the big problems we have in terms of giving you concrete things that I've done, is that it's not actually devolved. We have a fundamental disagreement with a Government of your colour in the UK about whether this is infrastructure or not. The mobile phone operators, I'm very well aware, will tell you that all they need is to be able to build bigger masts and everything will be fine. But I don't want to see, and nor do most of the people of Wales, a forest of masts right through the national park, because they can't be brought to share those masts and infrastructure, or indeed use the Home Office masts instead. So, there is a real balance here between the number of masts necessary in order to ensure there's competition in something that ought to be an infrastructure and ensuring the coverage for Wales, and actually people behaving sensibly in sensible areas.
As I said, this is a commercial imperative by them, so what they're basically saying to me is they want me to get my Cabinet colleague to allow them to build any size mast they like, anywhere they like, and take all of the tariffs away that they have to pay to go there, and then they'll build a whole network right across Wales. Well, I'm sorry, that doesn't stack up in business terms. We've asked them for the evidence to show why the current charging regime makes such a difference to their commercial case, and why they can't share, and why they won't allow roaming, and I'm afraid the evidence we've had back has not been good. So, we've gone out again to do that. At the same time, we're out to consultation on 'Planning Policy Wales'—that's about to come in—and we're about to consult on changes to the permitted development regime. But it will not be a free-for-all, because that's not what the people of Wales have indicated to us, in any consultation, they actually want.
Well, you keep saying that these issues aren't devolved. The two specific issues that I asked you about are absolutely devolved. I asked you about offering non-domestic rate relief for new masts, which you didn't address. I also asked you about changes to the planning regime. You talk about how this isn't in your portfolio, but you should be answering—you've already discussed this with the Cabinet Secretary—and giving us an update in that regard. So, I think it is frustrating that so little progress has been made.
New research from O2 reveals that the UK could benefit from £6 billion of productivity savings to essential services from 5G. Can I ask you how you're going to work with the industry to ensure that Wales is at the forefront of this next generation of mobile technology and does not lose investment to other parts of the UK?
Right, well, I'll reiterate it, because I thought I had answered it very clearly. I have not seen any concrete evidence of why the business case is that they can't share masts, that they need to build their own separate infrastructure, and that that infrastructure is not viable without non-domestic rate relief. So, I have not yet seen that evidence, although we've asked for it many times. We are out to consultation. We've had the research; we are out to consultation on the back of that research. That consultation finishes in June, and we're about to start the permitted development rights. So, I think that is the answer that you've asked for. It might not be the one you like, but that is the answer.
And the next answer on 5G—and I've said this many times in this Chamber—is that if we have the same situation as we have with 4G, where we have, effectively, landbanking, where you have one operator that owns 4G for Wales and if it doesn't think it's commercially viable, it simply doesn't roll it out, it is not acceptable. So, if they buy it and they haven't used it within a certain amount of time, we've asked the UK Government many times to put an axe on that to say, 'If you haven't used it in this specific area by then, give it back and let the public sector do it as a market intervention'. Now, that will reduce the amount of money that the spectrum is sold for, and that is a big issue because we don't think it should be used as a cash cow, and I'm afraid that's not what the UK Government thinks. So, we're having a big argument with them about that, which is a fundamental issue, because this is not a luxury product; it is an infrastructure. As long as we have that argument, we've got a real problem.
The UKIP spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd, and I promise you, leader of the house, I will not mention digital infrastructure at all. In October 2017, Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary produced a report entitled 'Stolen freedom: the policing response to modern slavery and human trafficking'. In that report, it says that today and every day, thousands of men, women and children are being degraded and dehumanised. Whilst this is a UK-wide report, can the leader of the house give us an update on efforts in Wales to combat modern slavery?
Yes, indeed. We have the first anti-slavery co-ordinator in Wales, and he's been working very hard on a system, alongside all of our partners, to make sure that we have the multi-agency hubs working together to ensure that, when people do come forward, we're able to swiftly process them, take them to places of safety, and get the prosecutions in place as swiftly as possible. There have not been many so far, but we're very confident that more are coming. There are three problems, however, the first of which is the issue around the hostile—now called 'compliance'—environment. We do not want people who come forward and who have been the victims of modern slavery to find themselves without any status and, in the worst of cases, faced with deportation. We particularly don't want women who are trafficked to be in that position, often fleeing domestic violence as well. So, we have had liaison with the Home Office to discuss unintended consequences of the several regimes coming together, which we fear are stopping people coming forward because they fear that they'll be put into a worse position. But we have been very much praised in Wales for our anti-slavery co-ordinator and his efforts to bring the services together, and we're very pleased with that.
Well, I thank the leader of the house for those comments, and I fully endorse exactly what she has just said about those complexities, and that anybody who comes forward should have the necessary help and should not be punished for the situation they're in. But the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner, Kevin Hyland, highlighted that those in modern slavery are hidden in plain sight, housed in squalid conditions and working in high-risk industries, including building sites, car washes and nail salons. Given that all of these industries are prevalent in Wales, is it not incumbent on the Welsh Government to ensure that Wales will not tolerate the abuses that come with these practices?
Yes, indeed, and we make very sure—. We've been running a number of publicity campaigns—the 'Don't be a bystander' one, which was launched last week, for example—highlighting to people what they should look for, both in domestic and sexual violence cases, but also in slavery cases, and putting studies out across network television and so on, so that if people recognise themselves, they can come forward and they can understand where to get that help. A large part of this is actually people not understanding that that's what happening to them because they don't understand the system into which they've been trafficked or moved. My colleague Joyce Watson has done an enormous amount of work in getting this sort of publicity out as well.
You're absolutely right that we have to make sure that people are aware of their circumstances and know what to do in order to come forward, and can escape, if you like, from those circumstances, with some degree of safety in order for that to happen. For that to happen, we have to make sure that all of the citizens of Wales are aware and actually recognise it when they see it, so that they can come forward and report. I would say at this point, Llywydd, that we always encourage anyone who has any suspicions of that sort to contact their local police immediately.
Well, again, I thank the leader of the house for her answer, and I fully endorse the fact that Joyce Watson has done a great deal of work with regard to this, and I acknowledge that, of course.
But there have been numerous observations on the inadequacy of the agencies concerned in obtaining convictions of those engaged in the various aspects of exploitation, particularly with regard to immigrant workers, and can I make it known here that we really do have to have a definition of what slavery is? It's all right to say that people should come forward if they recognise it and they see it, but unless we have a true description of what slavery is, then that's not going to happen. So, could the Minister update us on the number of convictions, not referrals—convictions—there have been in Wales involving slavery or quasi-slavery?
Yes, I don't have the statistics to hand, so I'll write to you with the specific statistics. But there aren't enough of them, and that's why we've continued to develop the multi-agency service hubs, in order to bring together the data necessary to make the prosecutions much more likely to happen. There are a large number of reasons for why the prosecutions haven't happened, largely to do with the reliability and availability of data for evidence. This is about getting the agencies together so that we have the data necessary and we don't expose people to further threats and difficulties in coming forward. We're very hopeful that the number of prosecutions will accelerate as we go forward, now that we've got the multi-agency hubs being rolled out right across Wales. But I will write to the Member with the specifics, which I don't have in my brief at the moment.
4. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on the Talented Women for a Successful Wales report? OAQ52181
Yes. Work to implement recommendations from the report is under way across the Government, business, education and academia, and good progress is being made in a number of areas.
Thank you. You may be aware that the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee is undertaking an inquiry into pregnancy and maternity and returning women back to work in Wales. It is fair to say—if any committee members are here—that we're having some very startling findings, really, about the lack of support for women and getting back in the workplace. The 'Talented Women for a Successful Wales' report makes a number of recommendations for the STEM sector, including the development of keeping-in-touch strategies for those away from work or research while on maternity or parental leave. We found too many examples where people were not kept in the loop whilst they were off looking after baby, and then it was a long time afterwards that they were expected to go back to work and pick up where they left off. That is not a good way to operate in any business.
The Welsh Government has responsibility to encourage and facilitate the recommendations and actions, and I wonder if you could update the Chamber on progression as regards this 'Talented Women for a Successful Wales' report, and advise us as to how your Government is facilitating improving the conditions for pregnancy, maternity and paternity in STEM workplaces across Wales. Because one thing that did come out of the evidence we took: men have a part, fathers have a part to play in the bringing up of their children too. They want to, but the mechanisms there are not as easy for them. So, it's not just about a women's issue.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
No, I couldn't agree more with that. This is about parents, not mothers, as we keep saying. I chair the board that implements the report, the women in STEM board, and there've been two meetings so far. At the last meeting we broadened the membership of the board, particularly with a view to bringing in more than academia and public services, and to include a range of other people as well. As you rightly said, I accepted all the recommendations from the report and did a written statement to the Assembly to that effect.
The Cabinet Secretary for Education provided a progress update to the board at its last meeting on actions taken within the education sector to implement the recommendations. We recently wrote to all Welsh universities requesting a further update from the one that they gave us in September, at the first meeting of the board. We've also written to all anchor companies and key business networks to request feedback on their progress with the 12 recommendations from the report. We're following that up at the moment. And we have a cross-departmental working group of officials leading the co-ordination and implementation of the recommendations directed at the Welsh Government itself—although there weren't that many for the Welsh Government itself—to support and facilitate those by outside organisations.
My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport has written this into the new economic contract as well, and we're also working on the fair work criteria, which will also have that. One last thing to mention to you is that we also have our Sêr Cymru programme, which we're very proud of indeed, one of which is specifically aimed at returners to STEM—returners into the academic world, but for STEM. And you'll be amazed to discover that, of course, about 98 per cent of those have been women going back into it. So, that's particularly aimed at returners, and we're looking to see how we can roll that successful programme out in other areas of economic activity, such as our big anchor companies.
5. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on support for victims of domestic violence in Mid and West Wales? OAQ52185
Yes, certainly. There are several domestic abuse services across Mid and West Wales, supporting both male and female victims. The region’s first joint strategy, 'Safer Lives, Healthier Families', will be published by the end of July this year.
I thank the leader of the house for that reply. I was very pleased to hear her say that domestic violence and abuse can apply to men as well as women. Welsh Women's Aid and other organisations do wonderful work to provide refuges and helpline services, and of course we commend their work, but there is a hidden—again, in plain sight—problem with men who are victims of domestic violence and abuse. In 2016-17 there were 713,000 such cases that were reported in England and Wales. One of the problems here is that—and it especially applies to men—there is a reticence in coming forward to reveal what has actually happened so that it can lead to some sort of remedial action. This is particularly the case, perhaps, in rural areas where there is a greater sense of isolation, and people feel as though they're beyond the reach of essential domestic abuse services, which are very often provided in urban areas. So, can the leader of the house perhaps tell us what steps the Welsh Government are taking to remove the stigma that is falsely felt by many male victims of domestic abuse, and therefore enable a greater number of men to report such incidents, and also that these services will be provided confidentially, especially in rural areas?
Yes, absolutely. We run several campaigns, which I've already mentioned, but I'm more than happy to highlight them again. We run the This is Me campaign, which is deliberately done to challenge gender stereotypes of the sort that you're describing, and to highlight gender inequality as a cause and consequence of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence, which I launched in Gower College in January, and that is specifically done to ensure that men don't feel that they have to live up to a particular brand of masculinity and can come forward in those circumstances.
I was very pleased to launch the Don't be a Bystander campaign at the Pierhead in April. A large number of you were present during that launch and we've run a number of photo opportunities here, and so on. We would be very happy to assist any AMs who want to publicise that further in any area of Wales to do so, because the whole point of it is to allow people to recognise themselves and to come forward and to report anything that they see. But we specifically also fund the Live Fear Free helpline for both men and women, which is a confidential service that runs in all parts of Wales. And we also specifically fund the Dyn project, which is for male victims of domestic abuse, which also runs those helplines right across Wales.
6. What further steps will the Welsh Government take to extend broadband coverage in Wales? OAQ52169
My aim has always been to bring people together digitally by providing access to fast reliable broadband to all properties across Wales. We aim to continue to achieve this through the Superfast Cymru successor scheme, our voucher schemes and a new community-focused scheme.
Thank you very much, leader of the house. Obviously, it's very important that we have as full an access to broadband as possible in Wales, given its importance in terms of full citizenship today, accessing goods and services and educational aspects, for example. So, obviously that's why the Welsh Government is, I hope, as keen as I am to reach all communities in Wales. And in that context, on the difficulties in Newport East at the moment, reaching some of the outlying areas such as Llanvaches, Bishton and Goldcliff, I held a recent meeting with representatives of those communities, Openreach and others. Leader of the house, I just wonder what you are able to say at this stage in terms of phase 2 of Superfast Cymru and any other developments that might give some comfort to those communities.
As you know, John, without specific addresses, it's very difficult to comment. But we do know that many of the properties in the three communities that you mentioned can already access superfast broadband and, as I've said to you before, I encourage you to give me actual addresses and then we can address specific problems. Some of the premises that can't currently access superfast broadband have been included on the list of premises that might, potentially, be served by the successor scheme, I'm delighted to say. And for others, through the open market review process, we're trying to identify individual properties that may be in the 'almost completed' category, if I can call it that. That's not very accurate, technically, but you know what I mean, and we'd be pleased to help you identify those. And we can also, as I said earlier in response to another question, help with some community solutions that might be available for some of those villages where the actual fibre programme might not get to them. But, there are other suitable programmes, and we've deliberately kept a very large part of the successor scheme money back to get such community solutions in place. So, I'd welcome the opportunity to have the details off you, so that we can look into that further.
7. Will the Leader of the House provide an update on the installation of broadband at the St Davids RNLI station? OAQ52187
Yes. Discussions between Openreach and the station at St Davids are ongoing to identify suitable solutions for this essential connection. My officials continue to work closely with station representatives to explore the provision of a dedicated fibre optic line, which will ensure greater levels of security, network resilience and guaranteed speeds.
I thank you for that answer and also yesterday's update on digital connectivity in Wales. Overall, it has been a successful programme. Some have been harder to reach than others and St Davids RNLI station is one example of that. I wonder, Cabinet Secretary, if you'd be prepared to join me at a meeting in St Davids to speak to the RNLI, so that we can at least discuss the way forward.
Yes, I'd be very delighted to do that. There have been a number a conversations already, but I'm more than happy to join you in them. We have looked at why the superfast connection wasn't possible in the first place and what current the connectivity is, and there are some technical issues. It will be well-worth coming to see for myself. So, I'd be very happy to take you up on that invitation.
8. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on developing digital infrastructure in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ52173
Yes. I announced a suite of measures in my oral statement on 30 January to further extend fast broadband coverage across Wales. And the mobile action plan I published last October set out how we will work with others to improve mobile connectivity as well.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. I know that you agree that it's vital we continue making sure that all our communities can benefit from broadband and digital roll-out. So, can I ask you what further benefits you feel will arise for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney in particular from the recent Tech Valleys announcement, which is clearly going to be based in the Ebbw Vale area, but is hoped will have a benefit across the whole of the Heads of the Valleys?
Yes, that's £25 million over three years to look at digital innovation, particularly in the automotive field, and my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport is also very involved in this. We're also looking at the exploitation of the 5G possibilities, especially on fleet, and in Blaenau Gwent they've been successful in securing a UK Government grant for exploiting 5G technology and data collection. I believe they are about to attach it to their fleet so that they get better data on the state of all of their roads and refuse collections and so on. So, we will be looking with interest to see how that innovative technology works. We've appointed, as I said earlier to Russell George, I think it was, Innovation Point to advise, stimulate and co-ordinate activity on 5G in Wales.
As I said earlier, Merthyr and Rhymney will be particularly benefiting from the Valleys taskforce's three ways forward. The three pilots that we're looking at, if I didn't say earlier, are: an Uber-style operation, run by the public sector, for NHS non-urgent patients to get to hospital appointments and so on, which we're very excited about; rolling out the Lle Government geographical database to allow SMEs access to that open data to see what they can come up with by way of innovative use of it; and rolling community Wi-Fi out in various points, small shopping centres, villages and so on, to see what we can do by way of data collection.
And there are some really innovative things there around allowing people to put digital vouchers online, for example, for sale offers and so on. It allows the traders to see which of those have been successful and which have not, because you get direct feedback from whether somebody uses it or not because they bring it into the shop. So, there's some really good stuff.
There's a really good example of a community Wi-Fi system in Llandrindod Wells, if Members are interested in visiting. When you go there you can log onto it and it tells you all kinds of information about what's available in the shops and what vouchers are available and so on—very, very useful indeed. So, there's some really good innovations coming; all based, of course, on our massive investment into the broadband infrastructure that underpins all of this.
Thank you very much, leader of the house.
Item 3 on the agenda is questions to the Assembly Commission. The first question this afternoon is to be answered by Commissioner Joyce Watson. Question 1, Neil Hamilton.
1. Will the Commissioner provide an update on progress towards objective four of the Assembly's Diversity and Inclusion Strategy 2016-21? OAQ52199
We have made good progress in this area by embedding diversity and inclusion considerations into service and project planning, policy development, procurement and any changes to the Assembly estate. We've also increased the number of equality impact assessments that have been undertaken, including, for example, one reviewing the Commission's recruitment process and one for the youth parliament.
I thank the Commissioner for that response. It's clear from the statement of objective 4 that it applies to integrating diversity and inclusion into all our work and the work of the Commission. Does the Commissioner therefore agree with me that it's very important that Commissioners themselves should lead by example in this area? Although everybody thinks immediately in terms of racial equality, gender equality, sexual orientation equality, et cetera, et cetera, that also the question of political orientation is equally important. Therefore, describing other Members—
No, I'm sorry. No, I'm sorry that's not for the Commission. That is not for the Commission to answer. Mr Hamilton, sorry, that question was not for the Commission to answer. Therefore, we will move on. Question 2, Jenny Rathbone, to be answered by the Llywydd.
2. Will the Commissioner explain why the number of events that can be sponsored by Assembly Members has been limited to 10 per year? OAQ52193
After a consultation held during the review of events on the estate, some Assembly Members suggested that there should be a cap on the number of events. A cap would help them to manage their time more effectively, encourage more diverse use of the estate and avoid block bookings. Based on Members’ use of the estate in the past, only four Assembly Members would be affected by a limit of 10 events. It doesn’t affect bookings already made, and neither does it effect cross-party groups.
Thank you, Llywydd, I'm grateful for the clarification. I'm obviously concerned to know whether I might be affected by this. My position as the Assembly Member for Cardiff Central does make it possible for me to host an event, for example, on a Friday, which I appreciate would not be possible for most Assembly Members, whose constituencies are too far away for that. I absolutely agree that we need to keep the Assembly estate for policy-related issues—things that we think are important to enhance the work we do on behalf of the people of Wales. So, I just wondered if you could clarify—. I believe I'm not one of the people who've had more than 10 bookings, but, obviously, I'm a bit anxious that I might have to say 'no' to constituents, who—. For example, I've sponsored the Armenian exhibition that's upstairs at the moment, which is not directly relevant, but it's a lovely way of celebrating the fact that the Armenian diaspora is made to feel welcome in Wales. So, I just wondered who is going to be affected by this, and whether this is genuinely an attempt to ensure that we're not having the estate used inappropriately.
It's most genuinely an attempt to try and ensure that the use of the estate is in line with our parliamentary working, our need to have public and policy discussions happening within our estate. The upside of allowing more than 10 events is that there is more happening on the Assembly estate, which is a good thing. Historically, there have been—as I mentioned in my earlier response, there are some Members, as you've hinted, quite local to Cardiff Bay, who are high users of the booking of events. Whilst that's a good thing in itself, it can also then stop others who are more occasional users of the booking for events from having space. So, making sure that we ensure that we have equality of access to all Members is particularly important.
But if there are negative effects of the policy that we are putting in place then we need to look at those. We're already putting an early review into place to see how the new system of booking space on the Assembly estate has had any negative impact on the work that Assembly Members do. So, we'd be very keen to hear from Assembly Members as to whether there has been a negative impact on their work as they see it, and how we can learn from that experience and put things right if need be.
Well, I know I'm certainly one of the ones who books more than 10 events a year, and I certainly don't want to stop anybody else being able to book an event, but I certainly wouldn't want the place not to be used and left empty. Because this is the heart of our democracy, we want people to be here all the time, as much as we possibly can. And I just have a fear that this policy may turn out to be a bit too rigid. I'm not thinking necessarily of the numbers of events that you're able to have, but in terms of what type of event is appropriate. Would the Llywydd be able to say who actually decides whether an event is appropriate or not? And wouldn't that be best left to the decision of the Assembly Members?
Well, just to say, to reiterate the point I've already made, if there have been negative impacts on the work and the priorities that Assembly Members feel from changing the policy of booking space on the estate, then as we undertake this review we'll let Assembly Members know of that review and we would like your feedback formally into that so that we can learn. There was consultation with Assembly Members in designing the policy to start with. Not everybody engages at that point, of course, because we—and I'm as guilty as anybody else on this; I engage when I meet a problem. Therefore, hopefully, people will engage with the review that we are putting in place.
As a result of that review, the Commissioners will discuss with their political parties what the priorities of the political parties and Assembly Members are before we take a final view on a long-term solution for this. The point that you make about whether it's an individual AM that decides what the priorities are and who gets to decide is an important point. We've tried to put some priorities in place. They relate around policy-focused activity, they relate to work that's linked to Parliament's democratic work, and the role of cross-party groups in particular is important in that, and also to minimise an issue that's been raised quite often by Members in this place: to minimise the likelihood of similar events being scheduled at the same time demanding the presence of the same AM at one or two or three events, and then the organisers of those events being disappointed that not enough Members are staying for long enough for their events. So, it's a complicated issue, on a limited estate, to get right. We may not have it right at this point but we're keen to review that with Assembly Members' engagement into the future.
Item 4 is topical questions. The first topical question this afternoon is from Dai Lloyd, to be answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport. Dai Lloyd.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement following confirmation that the Welsh Government welcomed proposals to rename the second Severn crossing the Prince of Wales bridge? 173
The second Severn bridge is a UK Government asset. The UK Government wrote to inform the First Minister of the name change in 2017; the First Minister did not object to the proposal.
When the Secretary of State declared his intention to rename the second Severn crossing, a few months ago, the Prince of Wales bridge, I don’t think that either he, you or the royal family had expected such opposition to the proposal. Now, over 40,000 people have signed a petition opposing this proposal, and a recent opinion poll shows that only 17 per cent of the people of Wales support this idea. That, of course, entirely contradicts your claim, Cabinet Secretary, when you said that very many of the people of Wales supported these proposals. But, following the original statement, when the Welsh Government’s response was requested, your response was that the Welsh Government didn’t raise any objection, and I am quoting there. But freedom of information requests recently submitted reveal a letter from the First Minister to the Secretary of State welcoming the decision enthusiastically, and even asking for an invitation to the official opening. The First Minister’s response in this letter is a long way from the Government’s initial response, so I have just one question: has the Government misled the public?
No. Do you know what—it's not just myself, it's people out there—find really depressing sometimes about this place is the lack of relevance to their lives? The Member could have asked a question about hundreds of jobs that have been lost in the region he claims to represent recently. A question could have been tabled on unemployed people. No, it was about the naming of a bridge. Not just once, but twice—[Interruption.] Not just once, but twice.
Thank you. I've turned your mike off because I can't hear what you're—[Interruption.] Excuse me. [Interruption.] Excuse me. I do not need any help from any Member in this Chamber to keep order in this Chamber. However, some of you are starting to behave like children, and if you want to be treated like children then I will treat you like children. I don't want to do it. I will now put the microphone back on to hear what the Cabinet Secretary was saying, and I want to hear his answer.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. The people of Wales look to this Chamber for relevance—relevance to their lives, relevance to their jobs, relevance to their communities—and instead we have people in self-indulgent debate on the naming of infrastructure. The answer to the question, I repeat, is 'no'.
I put in a written question yesterday about the second Severn crossing and all you said in reply was—the First Minister—the second Severn crossing is a UK asset. But, as we've heard, you knew about it a year ago, you welcomed it, you wanted to be involved in the celebrations. If you're a royalist, why don't you come clean? Why aren't you open and transparent with the people of Wales about this issue? You supported it: stand up and say so. Stand up and say so.
The Member knows that I'm not a royalist. The Member knows I'm a republican, but what this naming does is recognise the contribution that the Prince of Wales has made to Wales and the global profile that the Prince of Wales has. I think the Member's behaviour, once again, is pretty disgraceful: casting around aspersions, throwing around claims, without any evidence whatsoever. And, insofar as 40,000 or so names on a petition is concerned, there was another topical question submitted today regarding an issue that affects 27 million passenger journeys per year, and I'm delighted to say that the next rail franchise will commence as planned in October this year.
Thank you very much. [Interruption.] Thank you. The second topical question this afternoon—Vikki Howells, to be answered by the Health and Social Services Cabinet Secretary. Vikki Howells.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the GP professional indemnity scheme for Wales, following the announcement on Monday? 175
Thank you for the question. A state-backed scheme will be introduced to provide clinical negligence indemnity insurance for GPs in Wales. The scheme, which is planned to come into force from April 2019, will cover all contracted GPs and other health professionals working in NHS general practice.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Both the British Medical Association and the Royal College of General Practitioners have responded positively to this move from the Welsh Government, and, indeed, I had a personal e-mail from the BMA just this morning saying how delighted they were with the move, which I know will also be warmly welcomed by GPs in my constituency too. When will you be in a position to provide AMs with a further update on the working of any future scheme?
Thank you for that follow-up question. I'm delighted for the acknowledgement of the support and the welcome that GPs have provided both through the Royal College of General Practitioners and in particular through the British Medical Association. We've worked alongside the BMA, as the trade union for general practitioners, to work through not just the challenges of indemnity, but how we actually provide an answer. We've got two particular potential choices: one is to potentially have a Wales-only scheme. The second is to work alongside a scheme across England and Wales. What we need to make sure is that a scheme is affordable, that a scheme is in the best interests of GPs and their patients here in Wales, and that scheme, as I say, will cover all healthcare professionals, including locums and other health professionals working in general practice. So, over the coming months, my officials will work with GPC Wales, the General Practitioners Committee of the BMA, medical defence organisations, the Welsh Risk Pool, and the UK department of health and social services, and I will be in a position to provide a further update to Members in September of this year.
Further to the question, can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for health for responding? I mean, these are huge costs borne personally by GPs. You may recall I did raise this matter under business statements last week, and I'm grateful that some of my questions in this Chamber have elicited a positive response from a Cabinet Secretary. So, I'm grateful for that, but, more importantly, I'm grateful for medical colleagues everywhere in Wales who responded in a very positive fashion to this, raising the huge cost burdens and putting people off going part-time working as locums and, in fact, positively encouraging early retirement unless there was an indemnity solution to this whole personal cost situation. So, I'm very grateful for a positive response from a Cabinet Secretary.
Well, this has been work that has been ongoing over many months through direct engagement with the ministerial taskforce that I set up to look at primary care, not just about recruitment issues, but a wider range of issues, and I look forward to the BMA coming back to present matters in the coming months for that meeting. And there's something here about the time that Ministers engage in in trying to lead and deliver answers, and I've spoken, of course, to the Member for Cynon Valley about local healthcare challenges in her own constituency where she's been elected, as well as this broader challenge across the whole country, and it should lead to GPs being able to remain in general practice, in full-time, in part-time, or doing out-of-hours or as a locum. It should be positive, not only for them, but ultimately for the people of Wales who rely on the national health service.
Cabinet Secretary, as you know, I've raised this issue with you several times in the past and I'm delighted that you've introduced this scheme in Wales. It helps address one of the big concerns of many of our hard-working GPs. Cabinet Secretary, you said in your written statement that the Welsh scheme will be aligned as far as possible to the English scheme so as not to affect cross-border activity or recruitment. What consideration have you given to offering an enhanced scheme in Wales in order to attract more GPs to work in Wales?
We'll be looking for the best scheme possible, bearing in mind the interests of the service, the staff who work in it and, of course, the people who rely upon it. I want to make sure that GPs in Wales are certainly not disadvantaged compared to their counterparts in England. Any of these questions, though, must rely on us doing the due diligence to look at the potential liabilities that may be transferred from medical defence organisations, who themselves have welcomed our announcement here in Wales. But we also need to think about some of the wider changes as well, for example the change to the personal injury discount rate, announced by the Lord Chancellor in February, which provides real challenges in a range of these different areas, in particular about the significant increases that led to in premium costs as well. So, I remain true to my commitment that I've made both today and previously, and in the written statement: GPs in Wales will not be disadvantaged compared to counterparts in England. This is about having a good deal for them and, of course, as I said, on more than one occasion, for the people who rely on local healthcare services here in Wales.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.
Item 5 on the agenda is the 90-second statements, and the first this afternoon is Jane Hutt.
Last week, I helped launch the toward-fiftieth anniversary celebration of the Vale of Glamorgan music festival, founded and sustained by its inspiring artistic director, Welsh composer John Metcalf. I want to thank the festival for featuring the music of David Roche from Tredegar with his world premiere of Leading by Example at a concert I attended last Saturday. In his programme notes, David said:
'This is a celebration of the power of education and an expression of gratitude to the people that acted as role models and gifted the means to pursue the path I am on today.'
With composers and musicians from China, Denmark, Holland and the US featured at the festival, David’s piece was played by Cuban flautist Javier Zalba and Dutch pianist Jan Willem Nelleke, at Penarth pier pavilion. Javier Zalba also played a new piece by Cardiff composer Helen Woods. Welsh composers Huw Watkins and the late Peter Reynolds were featured in this year’s festival at Ewenny priory.
Steph Power, a composer featured at the festival and chair of Tŷ Cerdd, backs my message about the importance of the festival, not just to the Vale of Glamorgan, but to Wales and the world. But the festival also has strong roots in our community and plays an important role in inspiring children and young people, with musicians and composers involving pupils at Ysgol Sant Curig and Gladstone and Jenner primary schools in Barry this year. Steph Power says—and I agree—that
'the festival’s engagement with the dialogue about the future of music, together with its commitment to presenting a cultural profile of our country that is international and forward looking, mark it out as one of the great success stories of the arts in Wales.'
This week is Coeliac Awareness Week. The focus is on getting early diagnosis for more people, because research shows that delayed diagnosis can lead to irreversible neurological problems affecting speech, balance and co-ordination. Coeliac disease is a serious lifelong autoimmune condition caused by a reaction to gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and some oats. People diagnosed with the condition must stay gluten free for the rest of their lives if they are to avoid very serious complications such as osteoporosis, infertility and a rare small bowel cancer.
One in every 100 people in Wales has coeliac disease, but less than a quarter of these have been diagnosed. Indeed, Wales has the lowest diagnosis rates—at 22 per cent—for the condition in the whole of the UK. On top of this, it takes an astonishing 13 years on average for a person to be diagnosed.
Coeliac UK is 50-years-old this year. It carries out sterling work on behalf of coeliac sufferers, but there is an urgent need for more money and research. In March this year, Coeliac UK launched a £5 million research fund appeal and with public support hope to deliver more research into the disease. I am proud to chair the cross-party group on coeliac disease and have seen up close the impact the condition can have.
As a GP, I know the importance of early diagnosis and the difference it makes to patients' lives. We can all do our bit by raising awareness of coeliac disease and I'd encourage you all to support the work of Coeliac UK and its local groups across Wales.
Item 6 on the agenda this afternoon is a debate on the Assembly's dignity and respect policy. I call on the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee to move the motion—Jayne Bryant.
Motion NDM6724 Jayne Bryant
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Approves the National Assembly for Wales's Dignity and Respect Policy.
2. Notes the guidance of the National Assembly for Wales's Dignity and Respect Policy.
Diolch, Deputy Llywydd. I am pleased to bring before the Assembly today this dignity and respect policy. It brings clarity to the provisions already in the code of conduct around the high standards of dignity and respect everyone can and should expect from contact with AMs and those associated with the Assembly.
This is being put forward today as part of the standards committee’s ongoing work to create a culture free from harassment of any kind, a culture where everybody feels empowered to call out inappropriate behaviour if it happens to them or if they see it happening to somebody else. The committee has concluded this policy to be necessary as a result of evidence gathering and reports in the media. It's a positive step in the right direction on the path to meaningful change.
The policy and associated guidance make it clear the type of institution we are and must be. It sets out steps to ensure that everyone feels safe, respected and comfortable when they engage with the National Assembly for Wales, and it makes the options for raising concerns or making complaints clear. It has been drafted with input from across the Assembly Commission, Assembly Member support staff and the standards commissioner, in addition to external consultation with people and organisations outside of the Assembly.
Today, we're asking Members to sign up to the standards set out in this policy. As representatives of the National Assembly for Wales, we need to show leadership and take responsibility for tackling the issues around inappropriate behaviour. Signing up to this policy today is an important step in doing so. This policy is part of an ongoing process. The Standards of Conduct Committee are determined to ensure it's explicitly clear that inappropriate behaviour has no place in the Assembly and that people are empowered to come forward to raise concerns or make complaints.
Would you give way?
Are you giving way?
Thank you. I hear this phrase all the time—'inappropriate behaviour'. [Interruption.] Could you define what it is? Probably the most inappropriate behaviour is making false allegations, for example. This seems really nice on paper, but if you look at the lack of respect in this Chamber, as I uttered a few words then—the complete lack of respect from across the way—it doesn't seem to be worth the paper it's written on. So, what is 'inappropriate'?
I think you'll find that if you have a read of the policy—
You give respect, Minister, and you give it back.
Thank you. You've made your contribution. I don't need you to end it from a sedentary position.
I'm talking to the Minister, sorry.
No, I don't need sedentary contributions, thank you. Chair.
As I say, I'd like to stress that this work is ongoing. I do not want to predict the outcome of the committee's deliberations, but will briefly outline the broad intentions of the committee. We are convinced of the need to ensure that individuals feel able and willing to come forward and discuss their concerns. To do this, the committee is seeking input into the inquiry from a wide range of expertise around cultural change, diversity and respect. It's important that the committee makes robust evidence-based conclusions and recommendations that can shape the enabling culture we expect the Assembly to foster.
Currently, our focus is on ensuring that we have the right structures and facilities in place for the longer term. This includes considering the provisions in the code of conduct and the complaints procedure to make sure they're clear. We hope Members will agree to incorporate this policy into the code later this year once the committee draws its conclusions on the wider changes to the code of conduct. We're also considering the support provided to the standards commissioner’s office and the need to ensure that this is sufficient and appropriate to deal with the sensitive nature of complaints.
Following the November statement, the standards commissioner was asked by the Llywydd to work with each of the political parties represented in the Assembly. It was encouraging to hear at a recent Standards of Conduct Committee meeting that the commissioner had met with each of the parties and that progress was being made. Processes must be clarified, whilst not absolving any group of their responsibilities.
We're confident that the provisions put in place to date in the Assembly are moving in the right direction. All of us are required to act with dignity and respect towards everybody in all aspects of our lives. This attitude must underline all future discussions. I believe that this dignity and respect policy sets clear standards and robust expectations. It has come before you today as the starting point in a process that ensures greater clarity for everyone. I hope everybody in this Assembly Chamber will support the policy when we vote on this later today.
I call the Llywydd, Elin Jones.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate today as Chair of the Assembly Commission and also as Llywydd. Though neither the Deputy Presiding Officer nor I are able to vote in today’s debate, I want to put on record our absolute commitment to this important area of work. I am grateful that the Business Committee has agreed that this isn't a policy that should simply be adopted by going through on the nod in the Chamber. So, a recorded vote will be required on this motion later this afternoon to demonstrate and underline Members’ commitment to this policy.
The policy before us today signifies a milestone in the journey upon which we have embarked since last October to improve the way we deal with complaints about inappropriate behaviour. We have listened, consulted upon, and adapted our plans. We have also benchmarked our action against best practice elsewhere to give us assurance that we have a policy in place that is fit for purpose as we move forward.
I would like to thank the staff and trade unions at the Assembly for engaging in the constructive dialogue that has enabled us to reach this point today. We are now in a position where a Commission policy has been agreed through the trade union partnership. The remuneration board that is responsible for terms and conditions of the staff that we employ as Assembly Members has also agreed the policy. Again, Members' support staff, through the reference group and their trade unions, have participated constructively and effectively to get us to this point.
As Llywydd, I undertake that this policy and the Commission staff policy will remain aligned. Despite there being different approval processes, the policy content remains the same, and importantly, we are now in a position where each group of staff—Commission staff, Members’ support staff, our contractors and Assembly Members—will be held to the same high standards of conduct. I was pleased to hear from Jayne Bryant that we will adhere to the original intention of aligning the dignity and respect policy in relation to Assembly Members with to the code of conduct for Assembly Members once the standards committee has completed its work.
The dignity and respect policy is just one of the pillars that will help build greater trust in the system and in the institution. But this is not just about the policy and complaints procedures that we have in place; it is the culture of the organisation and how we respond to allegations that will make the difference. That responsibility falls upon all of us as Assembly Members, Commissioners, the standards commissioner and our political organisations. Political parties must never brush these issues under the carpet, and I look forward to hearing from the standards commissioner in due course about the review I asked him to undertake to align our party complaint procedures and our own complaint procedures in the Assembly. It's clear to me that we are moving in the right direction, but I fully accept that there is much more to be done. We will therefore need to review our position on an ongoing basis from now on.
We have heard in the media about women who have been subject to inappropriate behaviour but who hadn’t come forward through our complaints procedures. There have been concerns expressed about processes not being clear, the support not being sufficient and a perception that very little could be done if allegations were reported. This has concerned me greatly and they have informed the work that we have undertaken to date. As an institution, we want to ensure that people feel empowered to come forward and, should they choose to report the matter formally, feel confident that their complaint will be investigated and dealt with properly. We have also introduced trained contact officers in recognition of the fact that people may need confidential advice and support before deciding whether to make a formal complaint.
I am also pleased to report that awareness training is being rolled out across the political groups. I want to reiterate today what we said in our statements in November and February, namely that inappropriate behaviour by Members, their staff or our Commission staff will not be tolerated. Collectively, we all have a responsibility to ensure that the National Assembly for Wales is a safe environment for those who work here, for those who visit the estate and for anyone who has dealings with us. Those principles apply wherever we undertake our work.
To conclude my contribution, it is worth acknowledging that we are a culturally diverse organisation and that we have received many awards for being an inclusive Parliament. I am proud of this, but we cannot rest on our laurels—we must keep striving to do better. To establish public confidence and trust, we must build a culture that is inclusive and free from harassment and we must have the right procedures to respond effectively and appropriately when incidents occur. That does not mean just having a policy in place, as important as that is; it means changing the way that we, the 60 Members in this Senedd, conduct ourselves, every day, in every way and on every platform, with dignity and respect. That's what the people of Wales expect from us.