Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd18/07/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, and the first question is from Russell George.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on business rate relief for the tourism sector? OAQ52538
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. We support businesses across Wales, including those in the tourism sector, through a range of relief schemes. In the current financial year, we will provide £210 million in reliefs, supporting more than three quarters of Welsh business rate payers.
There is a system called check, challenge, appeal that operates in England, which allows businesses to check the facts about their properties and view valuations before deciding whether to challenge the valuation. This seems to minimise uncertainty and ensure businesses reach a resolution quicker. It also reduces uncertainty for local authorities, who, of course, have to set aside money to cover potential appeals. So, I wonder whether you intend to bring forward such a system here in Wales.
Secondly, I wonder whether you could comment on the need to reform business rates in the tourism sector, with the likes of Airbnb and other businesses competing with those types of businesses, and also the likes of businesses, such as in my own constituency, where some operators own, for example, four self-catering units on one site, and they're competing against businesses that have far more self-catering units but scattered across a wide area and who pay no business rates at all, but they do pay council tax at a much lower rate. So, I wonder whether you could comment on the reform that's needed in the tourism sector in this regard, and I have written to you with a proposal from a constituent about a flat rate of 25 per cent across all tourism businesses, regardless of size.
Well, Llywydd, I thank Russell George for those follow-up questions. We have recently completed a consultation on reform of the appeals system in the business rate sector, and it is an area that is ripe for reform, and we do intend to bring forward proposals. We do not intend simply to import into Wales the check, challenge, appeal system as it has been applied in England, where there are many businesses who feel that the playing field has been tilted significantly against them and that their appeals are not fairly heard. So, while I agree with Russell George there is genuine room for simplifying the system, for making it more efficient, for eliminating appeals that never end up finally being heard, I still want to retain a system that is clearly fair to businesses who have a legitimate reason for making an appeal.
The Member is also right to point to the unfairness, as many in the tourism sector see it, in competition from organisations like Airbnb, who are not physically located in Wales and therefore don't have to pay business rates, while a business on the street somewhere in a town in Wales does. We are looking to see whether it is possible to address that issue. It is more likely, I think, to be addressed by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, who has recently said that he intends to investigate changes to tax legislation to see whether Amazon—another example of an organisation that doesn't pay business rates, while a small bookshop on a high street will—. So, we keep a watching brief on that issue, knowing that there are some unfairnesses in the system.
And, finally, on his point in relation to self-catering units, I've had correspondence, as he says, from himself, I've had it from Kirsty Williams, I've had it from Eluned Morgan, and we will look carefully at the proposals that have been put to us. I think it's fair, Llywydd, for me to say that we already provide extensive rate relief to small business—it's a small business rate relief scheme. And, sometimes, organisations that have a large cluster of tourism outlets do not qualify within the rules of the scheme as it stands. But I'm aware of the issue, grateful for the correspondence, and we will continue to take a close look at it.
Cabinet Secretary, the tourism sector is a wide-ranging area. It covers places like the Glyncorrwg ponds, or the mountain bikes that are in Glyncorrwg, but those also cover the self-catering units where people stay at to use those systems. But what serves that self-catering sector also are our small businesses, which serve the community as a whole, and very often as a single business within that community, and, if that business was lost, at off-peak times we would see the community suffer as well. Will you look at expanding the opportunities to small businesses in communities that serve the tourism sector but also serve the community, because the business rate relief for some of those is still forcing them, in off-peak times, to struggle?
I understand the point the Member makes very well. Llywydd, there are just over 5,000 properties classified as self-catering businesses in the data collection exercise carried out in 2017, and, of those, 96 per cent of them, over 4,800, were in receipt of assistance from the small business rate relief scheme. The wider point that David Rees points is to the case for aligning small business rate relief with the social as well as the economic purposes of the Welsh Government. We have an indiscriminate system. Businesses get small business rate relief whether that relief is essential to their business or not, and I'm interested to look at reforms that would better align the money that the public purse provides in this area with the economic and social outcomes that we are seeking to achieve.
2. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the impact on Wales of the UK Government not reaching a deal with the EU-27 on the arrangements for leaving the EU? OAQ52535
I thank the Member for that question. The UK Government’s chaotic handling of Brexit undoubtedly risks a catastrophic 'no deal'. The White Paper published by the UK Government finally set out a change of direction. It must now move away from their red line strategy towards the right form of Brexit, as we set out over 18 months ago in 'Securing Wales’ Future'.
Thank you for that response, Cabinet Secretary. With Tories resigning almost every day, and others doing all they can to undermine their beleaguered Prime Minister, I'm sure I'm not alone in finding the whole debacle around the Brexit negotiations pretty alarming for the future of Wales. At the very moment when calm heads are required in order to deal with a tough set of negotiations, all we can see is a process that appears out of control and is plunging us towards the prospect of a disastrous 'no deal' and all the damage that that will cause. Now, as you know, Cabinet Secretary, I have much experience of negotiation, and one thing I do know is that when you're in a hole you stop digging. So, would you agree with me that, for everyone's sake, it's now time to call for a pause and to ask the EU-27 to extend the timetable so that this job can be done properly?
I thank the Member for that question. Indeed, she is a very experienced and formidable negotiator in my experience of being on the opposite side of the table to her. I agree that the chaos in the UK Government is deeply alarming. She proposes extending the article 50 deadline, and that may yet be needed, although I think we should be under no illusions about the difficulties that would lie in the path of achieving that. The real solution is for the Prime Minister to come forward, vigorously defend an approach that clearly embraces participation in the single market and the customs union, which would resolve the issue of the Irish border and the damage that that is doing to the potential withdrawal agreement. The withdrawal agreement has another deadline in it as well, Llywydd, which we discussed on the floor of the Assembly yesterday, and that is the deadline around the transition period. It makes no more sense to have a cliff edge in December 2020 than in March 2019, and we need flexibility on that issue as well.
Clearly, our colleagues in Westminster have voted as they have voted over the last few days. And, ahead of Dominic Raab's meeting with Mr Barnier, I believe tomorrow, with the aim of accelerating negotiations to complete the withdrawal agreement in time for the October deadline, officials of the UK and the EU are understood to have met on Monday to discuss the Irish border, the future relationship and final withdrawal agreement issues, and to have met yesterday, and will be meeting today, to discuss the final remaining 20 per cent of the UK exit agreement. What input have you or your officials had into this week's talks, if any?
Well, Llywydd, I wish Mr Raab well in the discussions that he will have. When the First Minister was with Michel Barnier on Monday, Mr Barnier did indeed show the First Minister the text of the agreement, showing the 80 per cent that had been agreed, and the remaining 20 per cent yet to be agreed. We had an opportunity to make an input there. We continue to have opportunities at official level. Do they come at us in a way that we think is aligned to the responsibilities that we, and other devolved administrations, exercise? And are we given the sort of opportunity that would genuinely assist in shaping the UK Government's proposition? Well, I'm afraid, we know from long experience that that is not the case. We continue to take whatever opportunities are available to us.
Cabinet Secretary, as you know, we are heading towards a situation where the chaos we have seen in London—where, last week, they were actually running through the Commons with White Papers, because no-one had seen them, and the resignations of Ministers—is pushing us towards a 'no deal' exit. Mark Isherwood has highlighted that the officials were negotiating on Monday, yesterday and today. Well, probably, they had a different set of guidelines on Monday, yesterday and today, and, therefore, they don't even know what they were talking about. That leads us to a possible and likely scenario of 'no deal' on exit. Yesterday, you indicated that you were preparing contingency plans for that situation. Have you undertaken an analysis of the priority areas for those contingency plans, so that we know how the Welsh Government will look to protect those priority areas for our economy and for the people of Wales?
Well, I can assure the Member that that contingency planning is happening, that it does involve identifying those areas that lie directly within the responsibility of the Welsh Government, that would look at the impacts of a 'no deal' Brexit that would fall more sharply on the Welsh population, and then draw up contingency plans to deal with that catastrophic outcome.
Questions now from party spokespeople to the Cabinet Secretary. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Steffan Lewis.
Diolch, Llywydd. Yesterday, we saw the publication of two documents that are significant to Wales's fiscal and economic well-being. The first one was the document from the Office for Budget Responsibility—the fiscal sustainability report. The second was the Welsh Government's paper on reforming UK funding and fiscal arrangements after separation from the European Union.
The OBR's report was a stark warning, a further warning if we needed it, that we can expect unsustainable public finances in the UK for the short to medium term at least, and that that would put significant further pressures on budgets, and that we could expect further fiscal contraction. In the Welsh Government's document, which Plaid Cymru welcomes broadly, particularly those elements that relate to fair funding for Wales, it states that Wales should not lose a single penny as a result of leaving the European Union and that future regional policy should remain devolved fully to the Welsh Government. I wonder, within the context of the OBR's forecast, if the Cabinet Secretary can update the Assembly on whether or not the UK Government has conceded the financial implications of future devolution of regional policy, and the fact of the principle that it should remain devolved.
Well, thanks, Steffan Lewis, for that. He's absolutely right to say that the OBR's latest forecast is consistent with what they have been saying for many months now. They are part of that economic mainstream that tells us that if we were to leave the European Union on a crash-out 'no deal' basis, then we're facing a contraction of our economy between 8 per cent and 10 per cent, and that is massive. Now, not everybody agrees with it, but mainstream economic forecasters such as the OBR are in exactly that position.
We don't have the assurances from the UK Government that Steffan Lewis has asked about, although I have discussed this issue directly with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, directly with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and made our point. We will not sign up to a shared prosperity fund that, for example, might offer us a Barnett share of that fund, which would undoubtedly be well below what we have as a result of the needs assessment that leads to the money that we get from the European Union. Nor will we sign up to a bidding regime for a shared prosperity fund in which UK Government Ministers set the rules, UK Government Ministers make the decisions and UK Government Ministers adjudicate on disputes when those arise. We have given the UK Treasury a solution to a problem, and they're not an organisation short of problems on their hands. The solution is the one we set out in our document: simply put into the baseline of the National Assembly the money that we get as a result of our qualification for that help under the European Union and then allow us to make the decisions that will allow us to align that money with the needs of our regional economic development for the future.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. It's disappointing though and not surprising any more that he is yet to have assurances from the UK Government that regional policy would remain devolved and that Wales wouldn't lose out on a single penny. What I think people might be interested to learn from Welsh Government, however, is its future vision for regional policy, if we continue to retain it at a national level here in Wales as a policy area, and of course continue to receive the equivalent funding too. Is the Cabinet Secretary able to elaborate on his vision for the future of regional policy?
I know that the Welsh Government hasn't had much luck with maps recently, but there will be some across the country who will be concerned that, if we have new regions in Wales to replace west Wales and the Valleys—the traditional convergence funding regions—places like Rhondda, the Heads of the Valleys, Blaenau Gwent and so on, would be in with Cardiff, the most prosperous part of the country, and that that would mask, potentially, the disadvantage and the economic aid that is needed in those communities.
There are schools of thought, of course, that suggest that there shouldn't be regions within Wales for the sake of regional policy at all and that it should be a community-based project and that's something that Welsh Government has looked at in the past. So, I wonder if he could give an indication of Welsh Government thinking when it comes to how we would administer regional policy and how disadvantaged communities will not lose out in future.
I thank Steffan Lewis for that important question. As he knows, we published a paper in the series of documents we have published since the White Paper of January 2017 on regional policy. That was not an attempt to set out a definitive set of arrangements for the future, but to sum up the state of the debate at that point, and we've had a very lively debate since, with many contributions to a consultation we've carried out on that paper. We've published those consultation responses and I hope to be in a position in the autumn to bring forward a paper that sums that up and does set a more definite set of propositions in place.
The point that he made is an important one, because it gets to the heart of a dilemma in it. In those consultation responses there is a great deal of consensus across Wales on the need for greater flexibility in the future. European Union funding, if there is a silver lining in this at all, can come to us with fairly rigid rules attached to it: geographical rigidity and, the sorts of things you can spend the money on, there are rigidities there too. And the consultation said that this is an opportunity for us to be more flexible around some of those things. But then that does give rise to an anxiety on the part of those geographical areas that have benefited from funding so far that this may be to their detriment. The Welsh Government's position is that we have no intention of operating in that way and what we see flexibility as is not absorbing areas of greater need in a wider economy that disguises that need, but to allow, at the margin, a sensible flexibility that means that you are not prevented from making good investments that will be to the benefit of those areas because you have an over-rigid set of rules.
I thank him for that answer, and I'm pleased to hear that we wouldn't have a situation in Wales where—as much as we don't want Wales as a whole to lose out on a single penny of what we could expect in regional aid, we wouldn't want any community to lose a single penny in terms of what it could expect in regional aid as well.
Another aspect that is touched upon in the latest paper published by the Welsh Government is that of state aid and, of course, this is an area where there will be a requirement for inter-governmental agreement unless, of course, the Westminster Government assumes complete responsibility for the issue and we are forced into a race to the bottom on state aid, which is something that I wouldn't rule out.
The Welsh Government White Paper states that
'Any new arrangements should be drawn up in line with our principles of agreement and consent, working collaboratively with the UK Government and the other devolved nations.'
But I contrast that with the passage in the UK Government White Paper—if it hasn't been changed in the last 24 hours—which relates to state aid, which hails the fact that the UK Government spent just 0.3 per cent of GDP on state aid in 2016, which is less than half the EU average. Had the UK Government spent the EU average on state aid, that would have made an additional £8 billion available for investment and Wales could have expected something in the region of £400 million as a result.
So, it's clear that there's a significant difference of opinion, not just between Welsh Government and the UK Government and not just on the principle of whether state aid is devolved or not, but also on what one would do with it once we leave the European Union. So, can we have an assurance from the Cabinet Secretary that the Welsh Government won't sign up to any future inter-governmental agreement that cedes state aid rules exclusively to the UK Government and that, instead, any future agreement has to be based on shared responsibility and agreement? Because, of course, we will need UK frameworks and rules, and state aid is a good example of where those will be needed, by agreement.
The Member makes two important points, really. First of all, he puts his finger on one of the ways in which those people who advocated Brexit misled the public in the arguments that they put. Because they always portray European Union state aid rules as some sort of straitjacket that prevents us from doing the good things that we would like to do. Germany has eight times the intensity of state aids of the United Kingdom and operates entirely within the European Union rulebook. So, the idea that, somehow, we were trapped into something that forced us to do things that we wouldn't have wanted to do, turns out, on examination, to be nothing like the truth.
I'm happy to provide the assurance that Steffan Lewis looked for in his second question. If there is—and I agree with him that there is very likely to be—the need for a framework operating across the internal market of the United Kingdom, we will not sign up to something imposed on us. We will expect to be at the table, we will expect to be part of those discussions, and we will expect to be in a position where the outcome is agreed between the component parts of the United Kingdom, not the result of one part alone.
The Conservative spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, the Wales Centre for Public Policy has recently published its report on the Welsh tax base, which has raised a number of salient points about the impact even small changes to the tax system can have on taxpayer behaviour, migration and inward investment.
With regard to land transaction tax, the report highlights that, although there were only 45 LTT and non-residential property transactions over £5 million in 2015-16, they accounted for 43 per cent of total transaction value of Welsh LTT. The report also notes that just 10 fewer freehold transactions over £5 million in one year could reduce revenue by £7 million. Taking all that into account, we've asked you previously, and I ask you again: will you, at the very least, monitor the top rate of LTT in this regard within Wales and consider bringing it in line with England or Scotland if the economy does show signs of suffering?
Well, I'm happy to repeat the assurances that I gave the Member the last time that he asked me that question, and of course we monitor the impact of policy on transactions, and that where there is evidence that leads us to reach different conclusions, then that's what we will do. But LTT is now just over three months old, so, the evidence base at the moment is preliminary at best, and we will continue to see what the actual results of this on the ground look like, rather than speculating on what they might be.
Cabinet Secretary, the report also showed the inextricable link between the Welsh economy and the ability of the Welsh Government to raise tax revenue in general. In particular, differences between the UK's economy and the Welsh economy have been starkly laid out: lower income, lack of high-skilled, high-paid jobs, lower productivity, and higher exposure to automation. All these things, I know, your Government is aware of.
I've raised this with you before, especially the apparent divergence between the economy Secretary's stance and yours. The economic action plan, on the one hand, mentions tax in passing just once, and yet we've repeatedly, on these benches, raised concerns about the 6 per cent supertax on commercial land transactions that could keenly affect further inward investment. You mentioned Brexit in response to Steffan Lewis earlier. Do you think at this time, with Brexit getting closer and being much more of a reality to us all, that now is not the time to be looking to have taxes like this on those very people in Wales that we're going to be looking to over the months and years to come to make sure that Wales's economy is stronger?
Well, it is a paradox, Llywydd, isn't it? It is the Conservative Party that argued the most strongly for fiscal powers to be devolved to Wales, and now the argument of the Conservative Party is that, having devolved them, we mustn't use them—that all we can do is to make sure that we don't diverge from what is going on across our border. You can't have it both ways. You either believe, as your party has preached, that powers should be devolved to Wales so that we can make decisions here, or you believe that no difference is possible across the border. We were prepared to sign up to your first proposition.
If the powers are here, the powers must be exercised here. The decisions about which the Member complains are the decisions that this National Assembly made, endorsed in the budget-making process, passing the regulations in January to give rise to them. I'll do what I said in my answer to his first question: having made the decision, we will monitor its effect. If there are lessons to learn, and if there are changes that need to be made, then that's what we will do, but we won't operate on the basis of a series of hypotheticals, where the actual evidence is barely a quarter old.
That's a very interesting answer, Cabinet Secretary, because you're right: we did, on this side of the Chamber, as did the majority of AMs, support the devolution of tax powers to this place, and we fully believe in accountability. I'm pleased that the Conservative Government—the previous UK coalition Government—did actually go in that direction.
It sounds to me that what you're saying there is that you fully intend to raise taxes where you possibly can. Of course, having taxes devolved to this place doesn't simply mean that you put them up; it also means that you can keep them the same or lower them, but, of course, you will be getting the revenue here from those taxes.
You told the Finance Committee only last week that you're sceptical that a modest tax would have an impact on inward migration. That may be the case, but if there is a 1p increase to income tax to help the Welsh NHS, for instance, as an example; a 1 per cent to 3 per cent contribution of income towards social care on top; and a continued rise in council tax and other tax increases in Wales, I repeat what I said before: as we are running up to Brexit and there are economic uncertainties, even if you believe in the future that modest tax rises may actually be beneficial to the economy and improve public services, is this really the time not to be ruling out those rises? People need stability and businesses need stability. Surely, as finance Secretary, you want to work for the good of Wales and make sure that, in the future, any tax rises are done when you have that evidence base, which you believe in so strongly.
Well, Llywydd, I said no such thing, in answer to Nick Ramsay's second question. I made no observations whatsoever about the direction in which tax changes might happen. I simply responded to his suggestion that we had to stay in line with the tax regime on the other side of our border. That is not what tax devolution is all about.
We will look carefully at the evidence. We will make decisions in the light of the circumstances at the time. The report to which he made reference in his first question, of course, suggests that there would be very little movement at the border if tax rates in Wales were to be higher than those in England, quite unlike the advice I'm sometimes offered by the Conservative benches here.
UKIP spokesperson, Michelle Brown.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Good afternoon, Cabinet Secretary. Does the Cabinet Secretary agree that if the Westminster Government delivers on the Welsh Government's justifiable demand that Wales should not lose a single penny following Brexit, it should be the Welsh Government that decides which projects receive that support rather than the EU?
I entirely agree with the Member that if the UK Government does what those who advocated leaving the European Union said would happen—that's a guarantee that Wales would not lose out by a penny—then the decisions that would be made as to how that money is best used are best made here in Wales. The First Minister has already given an undertaking that if money comes to Wales for the purposes of regional economic development, we will use it for those purposes. If money comes to Wales to sustain our rural economy, it will be used for those purposes. But, the specifics of that are best made here, rather than in London.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary, and I agree with you that those decisions are best made here rather than elsewhere. Obviously, the Welsh Government and we in Wales have a much clearer idea of what Wales needs and what the Welsh people want, rather than a distant EU and the committees on which we only have three out of 350 members, such as the Committee of the Regions, yet your Government continues to advocate involvement in the EU, even if we have to enter into reciprocal agreements and obligations with, and therefore the priorities of, the EU as a condition.
So, as the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, aren't you obliged to work out the best way of funding the priorities of the democratically elected Welsh Government, which should reflect the priorities of the Welsh people, as opposed to the priorities of the democratically deficient EU? To continue to advocate involvement in so much of the EU following Brexit goes against what you said to my colleague Neil Hamilton yesterday, when you claimed that you respect and will deliver on the Brexit vote.
Well, the fundamental difficulty with the Member's question is this, is that she blurs the line between the fundamental decision, which is to say that we are leaving the European Union, we will not be members of the European Union after the end of March next year, and the form in which we leave the European Union. It is possible to leave the European Union in a way that does maximum damage to our economy; that is well advocated by people in this Chamber whose prescriptions for Wales would leave us, as I say, with an economy between 10 per cent and 8 per cent lower than it is today, or we can leave it in a way set out in the White Paper that the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru jointly published in January of last year. That policy offers a way of leaving the European Union that does not, as she suggests, turn our back on the decision of the referendum, but which mitigates to the greatest possible extent the damage that would otherwise be done.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. I'd remind you that you and the other remainers spent the entirety of the EU referendum campaign telling voters about the doom that would supposedly hit us if they voted to leave, and if we severed control of the EU over our affairs, yet they still voted to leave. They either didn't believe you or they considered that independence would be worth the scenarios you said would take place. Since then you've been treating the electorate, as other remainers have, as if you're thinking, 'Bless them, they didn't know what they were doing'. Well, I've got more faith in the intelligence and understanding of the Welsh voters and, therefore, I ask you: don't you agree that ending the control of the EU over the affairs of Wales and the wider UK is what the electorate want, and this is what you should be advocating and working to achieve?
Well, I'll just repeat, really, that the Welsh Government from the day of the referendum accepted the decision that was set out in the referendum. We have never quarrelled with the fact of Brexit; that was determined by people in a vote. Our focus is on the form of Brexit always, and I can tell her this—that when I knock doors in parts of my own constituency, where people undoubtedly voted in large numbers to leave, they will tell you that they did not vote for the sort of chaotic, self-harming form of Brexit that she and other people in this Chamber advocate.
3. What are the Welsh Government's priorities for infrastructure investment in west Wales? OAQ52529
I thank the Member for that question. Amongst our priorities for infrastructure investment in west Wales are the £0.5 billion of investment in the twenty-first century schools programme in the area, completion of 42 separate affordable housing schemes, the £50 million we intend to invest in improvements to the A40, and the delivery of the Cardigan integrated care centre.
I'm grateful to the Cabinet Secretary for that response. Now, the Wales infrastructure investment plan's mid-point review highlights the allocation of £110 million from the Welsh Government Building for the Future programme to regenerate town centres across Wales. Of course, Milford Haven in my constituency has regularly been at the top of vacant shop rates in recent years, and so, given the historic problems in Pembrokeshire, could you tell us how this funding will actually be allocated across Wales, and what specific funding from that programme will be allocated to regenerate towns in my own constituency?
Well, Llywydd, the detail of that decision is not one that I make as finance Secretary; I make the money available to my portfolio colleagues, and then they make the decisions that Paul Davies refers to, and very important decisions they are. And I know that my colleague, the economy and transport Secretary, takes a close interest in the way in which we are able to use the funds that have been made available to regenerate town centres right across Wales, including west Wales. I'll make sure that the Member gets a note of the specifics to the question that he has asked me.
Well, before too long, the Government will receive the feasibility study emerging from the agreement with Plaid Cymru on reopening the rail line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. When the First Minister came to the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister in Aberystwyth, he poured cold water over the idea of reopening the line, which was rehearsed in the Cambrian News editorial. But now, with the announcement made yesterday by Ken Skates on how little money we’ve received in rail investment in Wales, and given the fact that you are now having discussions to have access to funds flowing from the Government here to the Westminster Government, and vice versa, isn’t this an appropriate time to make the national case for reopening this rail line, and will you and your Government lead this battle to get that investment, which is well deserved but would also be properly invested in this area of the world?
Well, Llywydd, I heard what Ken Skates said in the statement here yesterday. I also heard what other Members had to say about the investment that we’ve not received here in Wales from the United Kingdom Government in our railway services. I do look forward to the report that we will receive about reopening the rail line between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. There are a number of things that we have agreed to do to start to look at what can be done in the future, but we will have to await that study on the feasibility of the railway. But there is more than one report that we’re awaiting and we will have to take them together and then bring out the priorities that we will need to undertake, having looked at what we can and should do in the future.
4. What consideration has the Cabinet Secretary made of the Wales Centre for Public Policy report, 'The Welsh Tax Base: Risks and Opportunities after Fiscal Devolution'? OAQ52547
I thank Jack Sargeant for that question. The Welsh Government commissioned the report to which he refers and we welcome the contribution it makes to inform the debate on tax in Wales and to support the development of tax policy. The report adds to a growing body of work about Welsh taxes, including Professor Gerry Holtham’s recent report about paying for social care.
I'd like to thank the Cabinet Secretary for that answer. The Wales Centre for Public Policy report, which the Conservative spokesperson Nick Ramsay also brought up, also highlights that increasing income tax in Wales would not be a simple matter, but it did suggest that it did present an opportunity to make council tax more progressive. One opportunity highlighted would be to reform council tax at the same time to create a holistic approach to taxation. Now, you know as well as I, Cabinet Secretary, that local authorities have had to make some very tough choices in recent years and not least due to the decisions made in the UK Government. Could the Cabinet Secretary just clarify that he is considering the report and such reform and whether any discussions will take place between himself and the Cabinet Secretary for local government on this issue?
Well, I thank Jack Sargeant for that. It's an important part of the report that says to us that we must think about Welsh taxes in the round and that we must be prepared to think about ways in which decisions made on taxes on income can be calibrated alongside decisions made about taxes on property. There are some very interesting parts of the report that refer to the trade-offs that there may be between the one and the other. So, I can certainly give Jack Sargeant an assurance that we are looking carefully at that, that I do discuss it with Alun Davies, and that there is a set of work in hand to look both at short-term changes we could make to council tax to try to make it less regressive than it inevitably is, and then to look at some more profound reforms of local taxation to see if there is, in a practical sense, something different that we could use instead of council tax. I hope that that work will be completed during this Assembly term and available to the next Assembly.
Diolch, Llywydd. Does the way in which income tax is being partly devolved to Wales skew the incentives for Welsh Government in a tax-raising direction, in that we have the revenue benefit of any increase in the Welsh rate of tax, but any offsetting reduction across the tax base due to changes in behaviour as people face higher taxes—between half and three quarters of that loss of revenue on that tax base—would be felt by the UK Government, which won't be taking the decision?
Well, that issue was well rehearsed, Llywydd, during the negotiations over the fiscal framework. The fiscal framework does pass certain risks to Wales. It does in compensation protect us from some other risks, and the form of devolution of income tax that we have—and there are many other models we could have had and others who argue that it should have been taken further—but one of the, I think, positive aspects of it in the short run at least, as we take on these new responsibilities, is that it does mean that we are not as exposed to some of the risks that we otherwise would be exposed to had we come to a different set of agreements in the fiscal framework.
5. What level of priority is given to the education portfolio in deciding Welsh Government spending commitments? OAQ52531
Thanks to John Griffiths for that. Allocations to the education portfolio receive a high priority in budget setting, but in an age of unrelenting austerity have to be considered alongside the need to invest in our health and social care services, in housing and in transport, in energy and the environment, to mention just a small selection of pressing needs.
Cabinet Secretary, I do understand that it's incredibly difficult to allocate funding in this age of austerity and all the pressures that involves. Nonetheless, I do believe that education should have a bigger share of the Welsh Government's budget than is currently the case. I believe that would be very much in line with the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, because greater spend on education will equip our children to prosper in their careers and to have better health and better quality of life in general. I also believe that it's preventative spend in terms of lifelong learning. In addition, a report by Brian Morgan and Gerry Holtham looking at what works for economic development across the world found that the biggest single determinant of economic success was a high level of spend on education. So, with that sort of background, will you, in the future, consider whether education and lifelong learning should have a bigger share of the Welsh Government's budget?
Well, Llywydd, John Griffiths makes a persuasive case on behalf of education spend, and he's made it regularly in this Chamber in recent years. He will know that, on the capital side of our budget, the twenty-first century schools programme, band A and band B taken together, is the single largest investment that we make right across the responsibilities that the Welsh Government exercises, and that is a sign of the very high priority that we do attach to education and lifelong learning. Where revenue spending is concerned, where the auditor general's letter to the Public Accounts Committee confirmed that our budget has been cut by 10.5 per cent over the last decade, the choices are starker still. But I can assure him that, in making those very difficult decisions, the case he makes and the case that is repeated by the Cabinet Secretary with that responsibility is never overlooked.
Cabinet Secretary, the Assembly's education committee has highlighted concerns that the pupil development grant funding aimed at helping poorer pupils may not be delivering value for money in Wales. Given that tackling poverty is a key core aim of the Welsh Government, what consideration was given when setting the education budget to ensuring that the pupil development grant meets its aim of improving the attainment outcomes of pupils from the poorest backgrounds, not only to help their educational attainment but also their future health and well-being? Thank you.
I thank the Member for the question. I agree with the committee that it is very important to have a focus not simply on inputs—the money we spend on something—but the impact that that spending has, and I can assure him that, in the discussions that I have bilaterally with all Cabinet colleagues during the budget-setting process, not only do we consider the amount of resource that we are devoting to any area but we look at the impact and the effect that that spending has too. If we come across programmes where we don't believe that the spend is having the impact then we look to see how those can be recalibrated. I am very proud of the investment that this Government makes through the PDG in providing for those pupils who come from the least advantaged parts of our communities. I want that money to have a maximum impact, and I know that the Cabinet Secretary concerned works very hard to ensure exactly that.
I was very pleased that Plaid Cymru was able to achieve an additional investment of £30 million capital funding, as part of our agreement on the supplementary budget, to expand Welsh-medium education. By now, I have received confirmation that all local authorities in Wales have put in a bid for a proportion of that money. In fact, the total of applications is over £100 million. So, I would like to ask the Cabinet Secretary what that tells us about the demand that exists for creating investment in Welsh-medium education. What message does that send to you as Cabinet Secretary as you consider your budget for next year? Will you consider at least continuing with that type of investment in the coming year, if you’re not in a position to be able to increase it?
The message that I draw from that is the success that we’ve had here in developing the numbers that want to access education through the medium of Welsh. That’s important, and it's a cross-party issue here in the Assembly that we've worked hard to promote.
The Member will remember that one of the strongest cases for the additional £30 million upfront investment in Welsh-medium education is that it would free up resources in subsequent years so that we will be able to create a new stream of investment in the Welsh-medium sector, not just for the £30 million, but following it. So, I'm not surprised to learn that there was a greater level of application for the money than money in the fund, but because of the way that we have done it, it does mean that there will be opportunities not just in that year but in subsequent years, and I'm quite sure that those schemes that are not at the front of the queue when the decisions come to be made, and where the money may not be needed immediately—that we will also now look to see what we can do to go on investing in this sector, because that was what the money was intended to do.
6. What plans has the Cabinet Secretary put in place for a possible no-deal exit from the European Union? OAQ52556
I thank the Member for that question. The damage caused by a 'no deal' exit from the European Union cannot be eliminated, but contingency planning is being carried out across the Welsh Government and with our partners in order to mitigate the impact of what would be a catastrophic outcome for Wales.
Yesterday, Labour MPs voting with the Tories ensured that a critical amendment to the trade Bill fell. The amendment guaranteed, if negotiations failed, that the most basic customs union would still be an option, protecting our steel and agricultural industries, Welsh jobs and wages. A 'no deal' Brexit now looks more likely than ever. European nations have been told to step up planning for a 'no deal' scenario and drug companies are stockpiling medicine for the same reason. Cabinet Secretary, I have twice asked the First Minister what the Welsh Government is doing to ensure similar measures are being put in place, and twice—rather irresponsibly, I have to say—the First Minister has said that it's not possible to put plans in place to mitigate a 'no deal' Brexit, yet you say here this afternoon that you have contingency plans. Given that there are two contradictory positions given to us from the Government, will you now commit to publishing a 'no deal' mitigation plan for the sake of Welsh jobs and wages?
Well, Llywydd, there is no contradiction in the position of the Government. The First Minister has said—and I entirely agree with him—that anybody who regards a 'no deal' Brexit as just another point on a continuum, and that you can plan away the downsides of that, is simply offering a false prospectus to the Welsh public. So, I say again: a 'no deal' Brexit would be catastrophic and no amount of planning can eliminate that catastrophe.
But you can mitigate it.
But you can carry out contingency planning, and there's no contradiction between those two positions. That's what I said in my answer to the Member. She will have drawn some comfort, I'm sure, from what the auditor general said in his valedictory letter. He said that
'it is apparent that work is getting underway within the Welsh Government and many other public bodies across Wales to manage some of the more immediate challenges that the Brexit process and its continuing uncertainties are posing'.
So, it was apparent to the auditor general that that work is going on. I give her an assurance that it is. We discussed it in some detail on the floor of the Assembly yesterday. Those are plans of a contingency nature. There is no plan that can simply wipe away the effect on Wales of a catastrophic 'no deal' exit.
Can I talk about Brexit in terms of organisations that rarely get mentioned, namely local government? How is the Welsh Government helping local authorities prepare for Brexit, including the possibility of a 'no deal' scenario? Because local authorities don't often get mentioned when we talk about Brexit, but they will, in many cases, be at the front line when we come out.
I thank Mike Hedges for that question. I want to assure him that local government plays an important part in our planning and that it is very ably represented on the European advisory group by the leader of Swansea council, Councillor Rob Stewart, who regularly reports at that group about issues of concern to local authorities and action that is being taken. I was very pleased earlier this month to be able to confirm £150,000 worth of support for the WLGA from our £50 million European Union transition fund, and that's there to help local authorities in the vital work that they do in preparing for Brexit.
7. What consideration was given to service charges by local authorities when setting the budget for the local government and public services portfolio? OAQ52533
I thank the Member for that. Local authorities are able to charge for services where there is statutory provision to allow it. Authorities must carefully consider the use of charging to deliver quality services while remaining fair and providing value for money for local citizens.
Thank you very much for the reply, Cabinet Secretary. A reduction in public funding has given a greater focus on charging for services by local authorities. In November 2016, a report by the Auditor General for Wales concluded that the local authorities are not pursuing all options to generate income because of weaknesses in their policies and in how they use data and information to support decision making. What discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had with ministerial colleagues and others about implementing the auditor general's recommendations to relieve some of the pressure on local authorities' budgets caused by cuts in the Welsh Assembly's funding?
I thank the Member for that. I'm familiar with the report to which he refers and a number of the recommendations that the auditor general made to assist local authorities in this area. He will be aware that the auditor general also said that it was important for local authorities to balance the need to raise additional revenue through charges with the impact that that might have on some sections of the community and, in effect, price them out of being able to use important local authority services such as leisure centres. So, it's a difficult balancing act that local authorities have to carry out in this area. Officials of the Welsh Government have been discussing the report and the way that it's being put to use by local authorities, and they continue to do that difficult thing—looking to raise revenue—to make good the cuts that his Government has imposed on us, while, at the same time, making sure that they do it in a way that does not disproportionately impact on certain sections of the community.
Finally, question 8—Siân Gwenllian.
8. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government's efforts to tackle any weaknesses in the business rates system? OAQ52557
Thank you for the question. The Welsh Government is exploring a number of options for strengthening the non-domestic rates system in Wales. These include proposals for tackling avoidance, considering the frequency of revaluations, and reviewing the appeals system. We are also looking at the scope for more fundamental reforms in the longer term.
Some months ago, I had an opportunity to question you on the Government’s attempt to tackle the increasing pattern of the owners of second homes registering their properties as holiday lets in order to avoid paying council tax. As they are small businesses, they qualify for business rate relief in accordance with the Government’s business rate relief scheme. You said at that time that you would work with local authorities and the valuation office in order to gather data and to monitor this. Could we have an update on this to see what that data has demonstrated to date? Given that there is a substantial increase in the number of second homes in Gwynedd, for example, unless these processes are sufficiently robust, then we have to be proactive in order to ensure that the ratepayer doesn’t lose out.
I thank Siân Gwenllian for that question. I do recall the question that we had on the floor of the Assembly previously.
After that, as the Member will know, I undertook to amend our tax policy work plan for this year, and it now includes a specific commitment to monitor the implementation of that legislation, to ensure that it is operating as intended and that it does not create opportunities for avoidance. So, that work is part of the tax plan; it is being undertaken. I plan to report in October, alongside the draft budget, on the work that has been carried out this year under the tax plan, and I will be reporting on the data that we've collected as part of that exercise.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary.
The next item, therefore, is the questions to the Leader of the House and Chief Whip, and the first question is from Rhun ap Iorwerth.
1. Will the Leader of the House make a statement on Welsh Government efforts to tackle modern slavery? OAQ52542
Diolch. We are determined to do all we can to make Wales hostile to slavery. In April, we had the first prosecution in the UK for county lines using modern slavery legislation. This saw two men jailed for trafficking a vulnerable woman from London to Swansea to sell heroin.
Thank you very much for that response. Modern slavery, of course, is an immoral crime, which is affecting some of the most vulnerable people in our communities and those who are most open to exploitation. I’ve had contact with a number of organisations in north Wales—Haven of Light is one of them—working to raise awareness and to support victims. I’ve had discussions with the local council, and had discussions with North Wales Police. I know that they have been very prominent in developing one of only four modern slavery units, and others are following their lead. Now, in the national modern slavery partnership meeting in Birmingham last week, I understand that there was great emphasis on working across statutory agencies, non-governmental organisations and business. So, my question is, simply: what steps are the Welsh Government taking to encourage that sort of collaboration across various sectors, which can make a difference in this area?
The Member is absolutely right there. It's a hidden, complex and completely intolerable crime, against which we must work very hard. We are, of course, the first, and remain the only country in the UK, to have appointed an anti-slavery co-ordinator, and established the Wales anti-slavery leadership group to provide that strategic leadership and guidance on how we tackle slavery. That is the point of that. We absolutely accept the Member's premise that without working across the statutory agencies, we have much-reduced chances of actually finding and protecting the vulnerable people and prosecuting the people who put them into that position. And so it's absolutely about working with partners, but delivering consistent standards of anti-slavery training to almost 8,000 people across Wales. That is the exact purpose of that, in order to make sure that we have a consistent approach across all of our agencies that are engaged together in combating this terrible crime.
There is evidence of forced labour in hand car washes, and it's believed to be growing from 10,000 to 20,000 businesses in the UK, and many of those are unregulated. We know that the UK Government has launched a hand car wash inquiry last April, and the main goal is to look at, principally, environmental impacts and the regulations that govern hand car washes, but it is also going to look at how the UK Government is meeting its obligation to reduce human exploitation under the UN sustainable development goals. Leader of the house, will the Welsh Government consider launching a similar inquiry that focuses on the regulation of such industries, and their link to human trafficking and exploitation?
It's a very interesting inquiry. We are co-operating with the Gangmasters and Labour Abuse Authority in their input into that inquiry, and of course we will be looking with great interest to see what the outcome of the inquiry report is, and to see what lessons we can learn in Wales. We have a very open mind about what might lead on from that, once they've completed the report.
Obviously, I acknowledge the Welsh Government's interest in this and, actually, the hard work of Joyce Watson on this matter for some considerable period of time, but I'd be quite interested in hearing a little bit more about specific activity between the two Governments, if you like, since Theresa May introduced this Act in 2015. As Rhun mentioned, many agencies are involved in identifying and helping other people identify what modern slavery is, but have you had any evidence yet that suggests that the co-ordinator is helping police forces here in Wales to tackle this crime in a consistent way—that's my main question—but whether that's then cascaded down, to use those dreaded words, to some of the agencies we were talking about earlier?
Yes. We've been conducting, as I said in answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth and Joyce Watson—we have input into a large number of agencies all over the place, via the anti-slavery co-ordinator. And we've been doing the awareness raising and training to increase awareness, if you like. And one of the reasons that we think that that's working is that referrals are increasing—so, they've increased from 34 in 2012 to 193 in 2017. We've had 53 referrals in the first few months of this year, for example, and we believe that that activity is directly related to the increased working together, and the awareness raising, and the consistent approach that we've been advocating, if you like. So, it's essential: for example, we're working with partners to tackle the county lines criminals. I'm sure you'll all have seen reports in various press and media about that. The National Crime Agency and police are working with us to tackle online sex-for-sale—it's very hard to say—websites. So, absolutely, we work absolutely across the board, and this is not a crime that's confined within any kind of boundary—it's absolutely essential to work in as wide a way as possible, with all of the agencies who might become involved in this terrible crime.
2. What support can the Welsh Government offer communities to help raise awareness of issues facing asylum seekers? OAQ52549
The Welsh Government is committed to fostering understanding and good relations between the various parts of our communities, which obviously include asylum seekers. We do this through many ways, including our funding for the Asylum Rights programme and our nation of sanctuary plan.
Thank you very much. A couple of weeks ago, I visited Llanishen High School, in my constituency of Cardiff North, to present a certificate as the first school of sanctuary in Cardiff, presenting it to students who are tackling the stigma faced by asylum seekers, both inside the school and outside in the community. What support and encouragement can the Cabinet Secretary offer to other schools who want to become schools of sanctuary? Because it seems such an important way of raising awareness and tackling, sadly, the stigma that there is out there about asylum seekers.
Yes, it's a great project, and I'm delighted to see that sort of project spreading throughout Wales. We have a number of initiatives spreading through Wales. Actually, many are spontaneously arising, because the people of Wales are actually very welcoming, and very happy to have asylum seekers and refugees in their communities. We've had lots of communities coming forward to be part of the Croeso movement, for example.
Specifically, the new education curriculum, of course, supports children to become ethical, informed citizens of the world, and we expect that to include a complete understanding of other cultures. And as part of our nation of sanctuary plan, we have committed to an equality and diversity communications plan, and worked to get more balanced reporting. What we're hoping to do is pull all of those schemes together, so that a school, or any other part of our community, can come forward and become part of the sanctuary scheme across Wales, to spread it out. So, all of the publicity that we can give to all of the good-news stories like that, across Wales, help other people who want to become involved. So, it's a great project, and we're hoping to have many more in the future in Wales.
Leader of the house, many of the people fleeing from countries where there's danger and war are fleeing persecution—persecution because of their religious beliefs, usually converts from Islamic backgrounds who convert to Christianity, for example, in some parts of the middle east. Faith groups and churches in the UK have provided sanctuary for these individuals, and given them a very warm welcome, including here in Wales. Will you join me in congratulating Tredegarville Baptist Church, for example, and their pastor, Phylip Rees, here in Cardiff, for the excellent work that they've done in welcoming refugees from Iran, from parts of Kurdish Iraq, and from Afghanistan, who've been fleeing that sort of persecution, to be welcomed into the community, and the excellent ties that they have developed with those refugees? What more can the Welsh Government do to promote that sort of welcome being available in other churches across Wales?
Yes, of course, I'm very happy to welcome those programmes. As I've just said in response to Julie Morgan, we have a large number of heart-warming stories from across Wales, in all of our communities, and in all of our—you know, faith communities, and other communities of interest, and geographical communities, which shows that people reach out and want to include them. We've got some excellent stories about the benefit that asylum seekers who have become refugees—in terms of status—bring. And at the moment we're compiling some stories for the Home Office, both of the unintended consequences of the juxtaposition of some of their policies, but also of stories that we hope will change the media perception of asylum and refugee seekers—stories where people have benefited from communities such as the one that you describe, but who also have themselves contributed hugely to those communities, and enhanced both the cultural and social cohesion of their neighbourhood in so doing.
A few weeks ago, I spoke at the Centre for African Entrepreneurship's Women in Politics event that they had, about trying to get more diverse candidates in the National Assembly. But a few asylum-seeker mothers came specifically to that meeting to meet with me because they were telling me about the fact that their children are wanting to go to Gower College Swansea in the new term, but because they can't get access to the education maintenance allowance, and they can't afford the transport there, they're potentially going to be disenfranchised from actually getting an education because of the fact that they can't afford it. Now, I was at an event where they had people like Malala and Nelson Mandela all on display, and it seemed ironic to me—we all know what Malala had to go through—that in Wales, in the twenty-first century, we may be stopping asylum-seeker children, who are actually women, from getting access to that education by virtue of the fact that they have no recourse to that public finance. So, please will you look into this issue, because I would not want to see us stopping those young asylum seekers while they're here to access the education that they rightly deserve?
I couldn't agree with you more, Bethan Sayed. We would very much like to extend a number of public funds to asylum and refugee peoples, but, unfortunately, we come up against the Home Office system of 'no recourse to public funds' very often. I can assure you that we are currently actively working very hard to put a scheme together to ensure that, in Wales, we can give people access in a way that's compliant, of course, with the current law, but which also allows the access to happen. There is a raft of very complicated arrangements in place where funds are added to the list of 'no recourse to public funds', and we need to make sure that we don't unnecessarily have funds added to those because of the way we construct a scheme, whilst at the same time assisting all of the people who have come to live with us here in Wales to access the education that they, of course, rightly deserve.
I now call the party spokespeople to ask questions. Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. Only yesterday, I received correspondence from a Flintshire constituent who had received a response from Openreach saying that they would not gain access under the first phase of the Superfast Cymru programme. Another one I also received, on behalf of a constituent, from Openreach, only yesterday, said:
'I'm very sorry that residents of Llangollen have not heard any news concerning the proposed fibre roll-out in their area. I have spoken with our local fibre team and sadly the delivery of fibre broadband across the area has now been halted.'
Both of them refer to the Welsh Government's successor programme. Why, therefore, have you not, thus far, provided the statement that you stated on 10 May, in response to my written question, you would be providing within the next month? You said:
'The procurement exercise for the successor project, which is planned to close on the 23rd May, is well underway, with a view to a delivery contract being awarded in late summer of this year. I will make a statement within the next month to update members'—
which should, therefore, presumably have been by 10 June.
We have, of course, completed the very successful Superfast Cymru roll-out scheme, and as the Member knows, from the amount of correspondence that he and I have had, and a number of other Members in the Chamber have had, we have about 85,000 people who are not included in that, but the scheme has delivered to many more premises than we originally anticipated.
We have announced the successor project. It is currently out to procurement. I was very much hoping to be in a position by today to be able to give more details, Llywydd, of this, but, unfortunately, I'm not in that position. I hope to be in that position extremely soon.
Thank you. Well, I hope you'll appreciate the frustration for the constituents who received a copy of your reply and have been waiting since 10 June, and have contacted me regularly asking whether we've had the statement yet.
On a separate matter, in May the Wales Council for Voluntary Action produced a report called 'Empowering Communities'—not directly within your brief, but this bit certainly is in your brief. It said that they've
'focussed on "place-based" or locality based communities, but different groups of people live within them: different genders, ethnicities, faiths, ages.'
And they said that
'Recognising the diversity in and across communities—and building on the strengths this brings—should be at the core of community wellbeing policies. Equality is part of community wellbeing.'
In that context, and within your brief, how do you propose to respond to the comments in the valedictory letter from the Auditor General for Wales to Nick Ramsay, as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which referred to
'what has been conspicuously absent so far across the Welsh public service'
'real opportunities to reshape services and re-design delivery models in ways which enable genuine transformation and place the citizen at the centre, through working collectively in ways which transcend our inherited organisational structures'?
Well, of course, as part of our community cohesion plan, we do work very closely with our stakeholders and we are consulting on the new national community cohesion plan in the autumn that will, of course, have the intersectionality that Mark Isherwood I know feels very passionately about. We are working very hard to ensure that our forthcoming strategy fits in with the other strategies in that seamless way that the auditor general's been discussing.
Thanks. Well, I hope you'll in that recognise that some of the people at the top who represent the barriers to sharing power will be made to recognise that this is about turning the power thing upside down and designing the system backwards, with the people as the starting point and not the afterthought.
My final question relates to play and sport. Sense produced a report a couple of years ago, a play inquiry, which said that early intervention through play is vitally important for children with multiple needs and their families and brings a wide range of developmental and emotional benefits.
Play Wales, quoting a further source, said that
'Enabling all children to play, and to play together, is about a benefit to the whole community. It is not about overcoming legal hurdles or making expensive provision for a small section of the community. If any child is prevented from playing then it diminishes the play experience of all.'
How do you, therefore, respond to the evidence that disabled children in Wales are too often being denied proper access to play areas, despite the negative impact on them, where equipment suitable for all children is available but too often isn't made available, and that there needs to be a duty on local authorities to provide equipment in play areas that meet the needs of disabled children and other children? Also, alongside that is the report, last week, from Sport Wales, which found that access to sport by disabled children and adults is perceived to be patchy in many areas across many sports, with accessible changing rooms and direct access to sporting facilities often lacking.
I know you'll agree with me that disabled children and adults deserve equal access to play and to sport. How on earth are you going to make that happen?
I completely agree with Mark Isherwood. Obviously, the thing that we'd all like to see is that all play areas everywhere are accessible to all children. We don't want to have children who have to travel longer distances than any other child in order to access equipment that is the only equipment that's accessible to them. So, we are working very hard with Disability Wales, and in our framework for action on independent living, in our guidance to Disability Wales, and in a large number of engagement activities with disability groups to get guidance out as fast as possible about the redesign of any accessible areas, so that we do not have any exclusion of anyone no matter what their characteristics are. So, I completely agree with him that we need to do that.
In my overall plan for equalities, which is the four-year review that will be coming in front of this Chamber, Llywydd, in December, I hope to be able to cover off our future plans for the sort of inclusion that Mark Isherwood has just talked about.
UKIP spokesperson, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Llywydd. Leader of the house, as a former magistrate, I have seen first-hand the sometimes horrific consequences of domestic abuse. Could the leader of the house please outline the latest interventions being instigated by the Welsh Government to combat these crimes?
Yes. We're just in the process of rolling out the implementation of our groundbreaking Act. We're actually, as we speak, in the position of rolling out the regional frameworks. We've been working very hard indeed with a large number of stakeholders across Wales, including, I think crucially, survivors of domestic abuse, to ensure that we get the guidelines and pathways properly put in place so that no matter where you disclose—no matter where the disclosure takes place—you are guided to the correct pathway that has the right outcome for you as a survivor, or as a potential survivor at that point, so that we can help people to get their lives back on track as fast as possible.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I thank you for that answer, leader of the house. It has been stated by Welsh Women's Aid that victims of domestic abuse cannot leave the abusive environment because they cannot afford to do so. With the latest figures showing cases of domestic abuse in Wales rising by 23 per cent, can the leader of the house give us an indication as to the support available to victims who are caught in such a situation?
Yes. We fund a variety of programmes right across Wales, but we are currently, as I said, working with a number of stakeholders to ensure that those pathways exist everywhere in Wales. I think, Llywydd, it is not the case that we have a completely ideal framework right across Wales, but, as part of our regional strategy and as part of our roll-out, and as a result of advice from our national advisers, we are hoping to put that plan into action, and we are on target in terms of the Act for enacting the national framework plans, and that will inform our spending subsequently.
I would just say, though, that we ought to be glad that the numbers are rising, because what we hope that that means, although we haven't empirical evidence of this, is that, of course, people are more prepared to come forward. What we don't want is to have it as a hidden crime where people don't come forward. So, we welcome the rise in numbers, as that indicates a rise in the number of reported incidents.
Again, I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that, and I do acknowledge the many interventions now taking place with regard to domestic abuse. But I'm sure you'll agree with me that refuges are a key element in getting victims out of abusive situations. What will the Welsh Government do to ensure that refuges in Wales are kept open? And if funding is channelled through local authorities in future, what measures are in place to mitigate top-slicing funds to facilitate administration costs?
Absolutely, exactly as I said, there is now an onus on local authorities to produce regional plans, and the regional plan is a needs assessment, and so they must then respond to the needs assessment, which is the needs assessment of their area, and the funding follows. So, it's not just that we give them the money and then we ask them to just sort it out as they see fit; they've got to produce the regional plan, which tells us what the need in the area is and then we look to see that the funding is indeed spent in that way. As part of the new supergrant, which is what David Rowlands is referring to, there is a voluminous, I think it's fair to say, set of guidance that goes with that about what we expect local authorities to do.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Siân Gwenllian.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I want to talk about some of the conclusions of the ‘Rapid Review of Gender Equality 2018: Phase One’, which was recently published. The report draws attention to many areas where the Welsh Government needs to drive improvement and show leadership. One specific action that the report recommends is to tackle the low number of people who take advantage of shared parental leave within Welsh Government. The report specifically recommends the introduction of shared parental leave at the enhanced maternity rate to fathers who take a period of absence. Will you do this?
Yes, I'm very much hoping that we can implement that recommendation in the report. I'll just, Deputy Presiding Officer, set out where we are. We've published phase 1 of the report as it is. We have yet to respond formally to it. We are looking now to see what we can take forward rapidly over the summer, or, in other words—I don't know what cliche I can use: low-hanging fruit, if you like—something that is pretty obvious that we can get on with, and then we'll have a medium and longer term plan for some of the, as Siân Gwenllian rightly said, more challenging aspects of the report.
I'm due to have a series of meetings with the Permanent Secretary—and I'm not in any way shirking this, I would just like to hasten to say, but obviously the terms and conditions of the civil service are a matter for the Permanent Secretary and not for Ministers—but I'm due to have a series of meetings with the Permanent Secretary around a range of items in the report, which are to do with civil service terms and conditions and so on, with a view to seeing what we can do. I'm delighted to say that, alongside the Assembly Commission, the Welsh Government has now signed up to the Chwarae Teg fair-play employer benchmarking, so, that should drive some of that forward as well.
Thank you very much, and we look forward to seeing that being implemented. Now, the report draws attention to many areas where the Government has not achieved what was intended, and the report does warn that equality is often seen as a tick-box exercise that doesn't influence policy. There is one part that is particularly critical in the report, where it talks about how,
'the current budget process and structure continues to act as a barrier to effective cross-government working on all issues, including gender equality. The budget process is not aligned to the policy-making process and budgets focus on financial pressures rather than impact.'
I will repeat that:
'The budget process is not aligned to the policy-making process'.
To me, that is a damning criticism of the way that the Welsh Government sets is budgets, and the way that it has been operating for many years. But, more importantly, what are you going to do to ensure that this changes, and changes immediately?
Actually, as it happens, the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and I, just shortly before this session, attended the budget advisory group for equality, where we consult with them during the budget process. We had a spirited discussion there of the new integrated equality assessments and what we can do, as a group of people, to ensure that they are rolled out in a helpful way and not as a tick-box exercise. I have a helpful graph, Deputy Presiding Officer, that I can share with Assembly Members, about how we expect that process to work and what improvements it should bring. As part of that, we then discuss—because, as I said, we haven't responded formally to the report. When we do respond—. We discussed helpfully in that group what the group might do in order to move some of the issues forward when we do the formal response. So, it was a very helpful preliminary conversation, and, in the autumn, I'll be in a better position to be able to respond very positively to some of those.
The report also talks about the lack of ability within your Government to turn intentions into outcomes. It goes on to say that:
'Actions and objectives within equality plans, well-being plans and national policy more widely are felt by many of those we spoke to, to lack ambition and, based on an analysis of current Welsh Government policies, there is an increasing tendency to make broad, aspirational statements with limited actions, timescales and success measures to outline how these aspirations will be realised.'
I have to say that the statement, in relation to wanting to create a feminist Wales, does ring a bell there, doesn't it—that is, that they are 'broad, aspirational statements', but where are the actions emanating from that?
In terms of the best performing nations in relation to gender equality, all of them publish data and evidence regularly and accessibly, mapping out gender equality. Without actions or indicators that will promote gender equality in policies in Wales, it will be impossible for us to trace or to see the progress that takes place effectively, and it will restrict scrutiny.
Do you acknowledge that these are themes that we see time and again from your Government? We will, later on, be looking at the report of the low-pay inquiry that the committee undertook, and we also recently discussed, in terms of mental health and other subjects—this lack of data and lack of targets. So, can you show the way to the rest of the Government, by adopting quantitative targets and meaningful indicators in order to measure progress towards gender equality in Wales?
Yes, I think there's much that I can agree with there in what Siân Gwenllian is saying. I don't agree that it's an issue across the board, but there are data issues in Wales. We struggle to uplift some of the national surveys in a realistic way, and although it's not quite on the topic that we're currently discussing, I hope it will be illustrative. For example, we haven't taken part in the race disparity audit that the UK Government did, even with the Welsh uplift, because the numbers that we would have got from that would have been too low to have been of any statistical significance. So, we're actively looking at the moment at what we can do in Wales to do something that is statistically significant, and very much in terms of our response to this early phase of the gender review, and then I hope in the action plan going forward, once we've got the second-stage process, will be how we get baseline data, what data's currently available, what resource we need to uplift that, because we will have to do that, because the UK data tends not to have enough of a sample in Wales to be significant, and then what we can do to create those targets, because I quite agree with her that, unless we have those targets in place, we won't have any idea whether our policy is or isn't effective.
Also, on the point of leadership, though, it's easy to be cynical, but if you don't state that you want Wales to be a feminist place, and if you're afraid to do that because of the cynicism, then I personally think you'd never get there. So, whilst I acknowledge the cynicism, I also acknowledge the vision, and I want to work very hard indeed to make sure that we do have an active action plan that is implementable and meaningful over, as I said, the short, medium and longer term to embed those processes.
3. How is the Welsh Government tackling domestic abuse in the Rhondda? OAQ52555
We continue to implement the commitment set out in our national strategy on violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence across the whole of Wales, as well as supporting the regional boards to deliver on their strategies at both a local and a regional level.
As a former employee and board member for Cwm Cynon Women's Aid, I've got first-hand experience of the seriousness and the impact of domestic abuse. Failure to provide support can literally be a matter of life and death, and the statistics for domestic abuse in my constituency are particularly shocking. That's why I was concerned to read about the delays to the implementation of the Violence against Women, Domestic Abuse and Sexual Violence (Wales) Act 2015 in the excellent report produced by Chwarae Teg just last week. Will you make solid assurances now that the Welsh Government is remedying this and the other failures that have been highlighted within that particular report?
Since I came into this portfolio, we've had the new national advisers appointed, we've got the guidance for the local strategies published, and we've got a comprehensive communications campaign launched, which I know the Member is aware of—the This is Me and the Don't Be a Bystander campaigns being part of it, for example. We've got the consultation on regional commissioning guidance launched, we've got the consultation on a framework for engaging survivors launched, and we've got the roll-out of our 'ask and act' training for front-line workers.
We aim to consult on the draft indicators before the end of the autumn term, for the national indicators, and in future our annual reports will include progress against the national indicators as well as achievements to date on the delivery framework. So, there was a slow start, but I think we've accelerated now, we're back on target, and I think when we consult on the draft indicators before the end of the autumn term we will then be back where we should have been in the first place.
Cabinet Secretary, research has consistently shown that better outcomes are achieved for victims and their children when an integrated approach is taken by the agencies, and we know from Government stats in Wales, England and Scotland that domestic abuse counts for at least one in 10 people who require local authority support for homelessness. Some of the charities in the sector report that it's a significant factor in up to a third of the cases they deal with, because the person is simply too terrified, really, to stay, but cannot also leave the home they're in. So, can you ensure that, in all the advice lines and agencies that are commissioned to give advice, critical attention is given to the issue of homelessness and finding homes quickly for people, for women and children, under this terrible threat?
Yes, I completely agree with David Melding. I was very privileged to attend the launch of the Pobl Gwent roll-out, where registered social landlords are beginning to understand their role in tackling domestic abuse and have trained their staff to recognise the signs. This includes all staff—staff going in to do maintenance work and all the rest of it—to pick up the signs. They have an immensely helpful web portal part funded by the Welsh Government, which is actually available to anyone. If you want to look at it it's very helpful, just for you to be able to sit in your car afterwards and just run through what you can and can't do, when to ask for advice, and what other questions to ask—say you've forgotten your screwdriver and go back in and ask a question, or whatever. I'm delighted to see that being rolled out, and that is very much part of our framework and training, to enable that to happen across our RSLs. Also, we are working very hard so that we have a commitment in place, for example, that if you have a secure tenancy and you have to move to another part of Wales, we honour that. We're working very hard to ensure that we have reciprocal arrangements across borders, because the systems change quite radically, but we're working hard to make sure that we have reciprocal arrangements in place for mostly women who are fleeing. It's not always women, but it's mostly women who are fleeing that kind of domestic abuse.
4. How does the Welsh Government ensure that it is meeting the requirements of the Equality Act 2010 with regard to learning disabled young people and their families? OAQ52524
We're committed to improving the lives of everyone and addressing inequalities. The Improving Lives programme, which we set out in our statement on 3 July, builds on good practice to drive improvements in supporting children and young people with learning disabilities to reach their full potential.
Thank you. This month's 'Don't Hold Back' report by the Children's Commissioner for Wales specifically refers to the Equality Act 2010 and quotes the explanatory memo to the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, stating:
'The Bill will promote equality, improve the quality of services and the provision of information people receive, as well as ensuring the right incentives for commissioners to achieve a shared focus on prevention and early intervention.'
How do you therefore propose to respond to the report's findings, highlighting the experiences of young people with learning disabilities and their families as they transition to adult services, that, although they found good pockets of practice across Wales, the main findings highlight a lack of support for families, difficulty in accessing services, and little say for young people in shaping their futures, which, as they say, contradict the aspirations of both the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015—two flagship Welsh Government policies?
We're looking forward to receiving the children's commissioner's upcoming report on the impact of transitions. We're going to be committed to working with the children's commissioner to ensure the experiences of young people improve at the time they become adults and that will include, as the Member says, better multi-agency planning, providing clear information and support, ensuring that the young people themselves can play an active role in their own transition, improvements to transport, and meaningful employment opportunities.
Can I also thank the leader for the answer to this question, because I'm trustee of Vale People First, a self-advocacy organisation that is for and led by people with a learning disability in the Vale of Glamorgan? I was very pleased to attend an event in Barry with Andrew R.T. Davies to showcase the achievement of their Big Lottery-funded project, I Am Not Invisible. Will the leader of the house join me in commending the work of this unique organisation in my constituency, which is an important representative voice for people with a learning disability in the Vale?
Yes, it's a great project and, of course, I am very happy to join with her in commending the young people who are part of the project. It's very much part of our strategy to ensure that young people have a voice and are able to express that voice in a meaningful way to inform our strategies and our roll-out plans, and I'm delighted that she was able to attend that programme just recently.
5. Will the Leader of the House provide an update on action the Welsh Government is taking to digitise public services? OAQ52537
Certainly. Digital First sets out the steps needed to create the right environment for the delivery of effective digital public services. There are a range of improvements being made across and within all Cabinet Secretary portfolios.
Thank you for that answer, leader of the house. Councils across Wales are looking to artificial intelligence to take over some of the functions of their staff. Cardiff council are introducing a virtual assistant to handle queries from the public, and Monmouthshire council are introducing a chatbot for its online queries. A report by PricewaterhouseCoopers suggests that the move to artificial intelligence will see a large decrease in the number of people employed in admin and support services. Leader of the house, what assessment has your Government made of the impact that artificial intelligence will have on the public sector workforce?
There are mixed skill levels amongst public sector workers, which does impact on their ability to spot digital service transformation opportunities, and also to use new services that have been delivered. So, we have a training programme across the public sector to upskill staff and we're working very hard with councils who have recently expressed a view around creating a cohesive digital leadership role for local authorities, with a view to upskilling the staff, not just because of the threat of artificial intelligence, although clearly that threat exists for lower level admin tasks in particular—it's something that's been happening for a good long while now, since the early 1980s—but also with a view to actively including transformation programmes to enable those staff to be freed up for front-line service jobs that are not impacted by AI, and there are a large number of those as well. It's something the workforce partnership council has a huge interest in, and I know, for example, that they're considering making improvements to the People Exchange Cymru online service for recruitment with a view to making it a portal for that kind of activity.
Leader of the house, I'm regularly approached, as I know many Assembly Members are, by organisations that have got ideas about how they might be able to help to improve, digitise and streamline public services. Many of these organisations have proven track records throughout the rest of the UK and, indeed, in Europe, but they are finding it increasingly difficult to interface with the Welsh Government. I'm concerned that we're creating barriers, and there's a risk of us not being at the forefront of a digital revolution in public services.
What routes would you suggest as the best way in for these organisations? They do try to approach individual portfolio holders, but get stopped at the gate by officials. A 'not made here in Wales' mentality doesn't help us to become leaders or the best of, and we want to learn from other good examples throughout Europe. I am really conscious of the fact that, especially in health, there is an awful lot of very good work going on elsewhere, and we just don't seem to have a handle on it.
I'm very happy to be the conduit into Government if anybody's experiencing that difficulty. Deputy Presiding Officer, I'm always astonished when I say this, but I'll say it again here in the Chamber: my e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. It's astonishing to me how few people take up that opportunity. I'd very much welcome contact from anyone who thinks they can improve public services.
My colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services and I are working very hard on those programmes. We're delighted, as I've just said, that there are proposals for the WLGA to establish a digital leadership function, which will enable that to co-ordinate. Via the workforce partnership council, as well, we have a direct conduit to all devolved and non-devolved public sector organisations that take part in the workforce partnership council arrangements, with a view to spreading that good practice.
6. Will the Leader of the House provide an update on broadband provision in south-east Wales? OAQ52548
Certainly. The Superfast Cymru scheme has, to date, facilitated the roll-out of superfast broadband access to over 230,000 homes and businesses across the region, delivering average speeds of over 70 Mbps and investing over £63 million.
Thank you. It was a pleasure to join you and the community in Michaelston-y-Fedw earlier this month for the launch of the village's ultrafast broadband hub. The community-led project is part-funded by the Welsh Government, and it's the first of its kind in Wales. It's been a real community effort, with residents digging chambers, laying ducts and fitting out communication hubs. The hard work has really paid off, and most of the village will soon have higher download speeds.
Michaelston-y-Fedw has been a real success, but I'm aware of several other issues with broadband speeds in other parts of my constituency. So, what's the Welsh Government doing to ensure that more households have access to superfast broadband and that the timescales are clearly communicated to people?
Yes, it was a great scheme. It was great to be there, wasn't it, to see the enthusiasm for it? Deputy Presiding Officer, if I could recommend that to all other communities across Wales—it's a scheme that was completely underpinned by the Welsh Government voucher schemes, both Access Broadband Cymru and the ultrafast voucher schemes. The village crowdfunded a part of it so that they could raise the speeds to a gigabit. They're hoping to roll it out to 70 or so users. They're hoping to get a return of around £20,000 a year once it's fully rolled out to invest in community projects across the village and upgrade the entire area.
There's absolutely nothing not to totally love about the scheme. It was completely underpinned as well by my broadband team, who worked, as was acknowledged on the day, tirelessly with them to ensure that all of the hurdles that they encountered were smoothed for them. But, I have to pay tribute to the dedication of the people working on it, who really did work very long hours to bring it to fruition.
It's a scheme we'd like to see replicated, although there are many other models of it. We're happy to support such a scheme right across Wales. As I said earlier, in terms of the future, I'm very disappointed I wasn't able to announce something today. We worked very hard to try to do so, but it's not been possible. We hope to be able to do it in the very near future.
7. What progress is being made in achieving the Welsh Government's policy objectives for greater equality in Wales? OAQ52532
The Welsh Government publishes an annual report on equality, which sets out the progress we have made towards advancing equality in Wales. It includes an update on the action we have taken to fulfil our eight equality objectives. The latest report is available on the Welsh Government’s website.
Cabinet Secretary, we are lucky to live in a diverse Wales with many different ethnic minorities. There are, of course, issues of inequality amongst those communities and also with regard to the protected characteristics, and there is rightly a strong focus on those, but I believe social class is also a very important aspect of inequality in Wales and it actually cuts across the protected characteristics, for example, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities. There are particular issues, for example, with white working-class Welsh children in schools and a lack of social mobility. I just wonder what focus Welsh Government has on those particular problems, and that social class aspect to inequality.
Whilst not a protected characteristic in its own right, John Griffiths is absolutely right: it cuts across all of the other intersectionalities, so anyone with any of the protected characteristics will also be impacted by social class. We know that the multiple inequalities heaped on top of each other make the barriers that people face very severe indeed. Whilst the UK Government's ongoing welfare reform and austerity measures really are hitting people very hard, we do continue to do all that we can to increase prosperity and promote equality across Wales. Creating a more equal Wales, where everyone has the opportunity to reach their full potential and is able to contribute fully to the economy, will inevitably allow Wales to be a more prosperous and innovative place. So, it's vital we continue to support and engage with people from the protected groups and from all socioeconomic classes to address the barriers to equality and inclusion.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I know that many of us in this Chamber share the sentiment I'm about to express. This is not about climbing out of your community; it's about enabling your community to thrive and you climbing inside and with your community, and the Welsh Government is determined to ensure that all of our communities thrive and prosper in that way.
Thank you very much, leader of the house.
Item 3 on the agenda is questions to the Assembly Commission. The first questions this afternoon will be answered by the Llywydd. Question 1, Simon Thomas.
1. Will the Commission make a statement on using the Assembly estate for the National Eisteddfod? OAQ52554
The National Eisteddfod will be in Cardiff Bay for the first time in a few weeks' time. I am very pleased to say that our estate will be a central part of the activities. The Lle Celf—the arts pavilion—will be in the Senedd, in the Neuadd, the Oriel and the Cwrt, and all the meetings in the Societies Pavilion will be held in our committee rooms. The learners pavilion will take over the Pierhead. I hope that as many Assembly Members as possible will have a chance to visit the Eisteddfod this year; it will be a very different Eisteddfod in the bay.
I thank the Llywydd for that response. I look forward to the Eisteddfod coming to the bay and to the Assembly and I particularly look forward to seeing this wonderful building that was built for the Welsh public being used for cultural purposes as well as political purposes. I always thought that this Chamber would make a wonderful Cylch yr Orsedd, but it appears that we haven’t gone quite that far. Now is the opportunity to show that an Eisteddfod without a fence, without a wall and without a charge for entrance will be open to all.
And I just want to urge everyone—. When I went to my first Eisteddfod, I could barely speak Welsh. It is an absolutely wonderful immersive experience, and I want to urge people throughout Wales to come to Cardiff, come to the National Assembly, be part of a magnificent experience and living a week through the Welsh language. Diolch yn fawr.
Well, may I just echo what the Member has just said, indeed, everything he’s just said? I greatly regret that we hadn’t thought of the idea of holding the Cylch yr Orsedd here in the Chamber. I’m sure it’s too late for me now to propose that to the Gorsedd. But this will be a very different National Eisteddfod. The people of Cardiff and people all over Wales will be able to be a part of this Eisteddfod without there being a fence, without there being a wall keeping people out. So, I do hope that as many people as possible will be able to take this opportunity to visit and to see the arts and the excitement in terms of the Welsh language here in Cardiff Bay.
The National Eisteddfod is important in whichever part of Wales it may be held. In two years’ time, it will be in Tregaron in Ceredigion and that is equally as important as the Cardiff Bay Eisteddfod, and, of course, it will also be going to Llanrwst next year. But, in a few weeks’ time, the National Eisteddfod will be here in the bay, and it is my pleasure to be the Llywydd and for us all as Members to be able to contribute, we hope, to the success of that Eisteddfod by contributing from our own pockets and giving our support, also.
Thank you. Question 2 to the Commission this afternoon will be answered by Commissioner Joyce Watson. Question 2, Julie Morgan.
2. What action has the Commission taken to enable women to breastfeed in the Senedd? OAQ52550
Thank you for the question. The Senedd is recognised as a breastfeeding-friendly space, and we have signs on screens throughout the Senedd, at the entrance and in the cafe area that promote that. We have purchased a breastfeeding chair, and I'm sure the Member will be pleased to hear that, especially since she pressed us to do so. Following consultation, that has now been placed in the dedicated quiet room in the Senedd, which also has sensory toys. There is also a dedicated children's space in the Senedd cafe and all front of house staff have been informed of our family- and breastfeeding-friendly provision, so that they can direct visitors accordingly and make the experience, hopefully, a positive one.
I thank Joyce Watson for that response and I think progress is being made. I'm pleased that there is now a specially designed chair to make it easy and comfortable for mothers to breastfeed and that a designated place has been given, but I do feel that there should be more done to make mothers and the public aware that this is a place where breastfeeding is welcome. I know that Joyce Watson has said there are signs, but I feel that, if you were coming here to this Senedd and you wanted to know where you went to breastfeed your child, it wouldn't be immediately obvious. I feel that there should be more efforts made in that way. I don't know if she can comment on that.
Okay. The Commission staff are working on broadening the appeal of our Parliament and we are trying to encourage more diversity in the demographic of people who visit us here. A number of activities are targeted at families with young children and they're already programmed, and no doubt that will be the case when we host the eisteddfod here. So, linking those two things together and also putting it very firmly up there that we are a family-friendly place, who also invite women, if they so choose, to breastfeed within that space, is of critical importance. We know that when the weeping window sculpture was here we attracted more young families than was the case wherever else that had been. So, in terms of working on the agenda that you are talking about, I think that, whilst we do have some signage, it would be a good thing for us to have a look again at that and perhaps even to go back to those people that we engaged with when we decided where we would put the nursing chair and see if they have an opinion about where we might add signage so that people clearly do know. Because what we really want to be is a welcoming and engaging place to come and I think it's always wise to take the opinion of those people who want to take advantage of that.
Thank you very much.
Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is topical questions. The first topical question this afternoon is to be answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs. Lee Waters.
1. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the Auditor General’s decision to qualify the accounts of Natural Resources Wales for the third year in succession? 207
Thank you. I was extremely disappointed to learn Natural Resources Wales's accounts have been qualified for a third year in relation to the sale of timber. I welcome the Wales Audit Office acknowledgement that the response from NRW has been constructive and there is clear leadership commitment to take action. I met this morning with the chair and chief executive of NRW to discuss the matter.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. Last year, the Public Accounts Committee criticised NRW for giving a £39 million contract to BSW Timber in Newbridge-on-Wye without competition. It did not represent value for money but it was justified on the grounds that the firm would invest in a new sawmill, which would benefit the industry overall. They didn't deliver on that deal. We now discover that NRW has done it again. The Wales Audit Office now tells us NRW has awarded 59 contracts where there's no evidence this has been done at market price, and some contracts were awarded without tender. Twenty one of these were to BSW Timber, the same company that had reneged on the last deal. What is going on in NRW? To have their accounts qualified for the third year running is unprecedented and frankly outrageous. I'm struggling to think of an explanation for why this might be. Might it be corruption or incompetence? But it does appear that the forestry section of NRW is out of control; the internal audit controls are not fit for purpose. Where is the board in all of this? After the woeful performance before the PAC, the previous chief executive, Emyr Roberts, left, albeit with a large pay-off, which does stick in the throat. I'm encouraged by the auditors' view that the new CEO, Clare Pillman, has responded in a way that suggests that she does take the issues, at last, seriously, but what about the chair, Diane McCrea? Where has she been? How could she let this happen again? She was in charge last year. I think this should give us pause for thought about creating large organisations like this. If this was any other organisation—if this was a local authority, we'd be putting them under special measures. So, I'd ask the Cabinet Secretary—. I think this is an extremely serious situation. I'm really quite angry and baffled that this has happened for the third year running, and I'd hope she takes this extremely seriously, and I think there should be accountability from the senior leadership at board level and at executive level of this organisation, which does seem to be out of control.
I am completely in agreement with you that this is a very serious matter. I met first the chair on Monday to discuss her tenure, the report and NRW's response to it, and I am reflecting on that conversation. I absolutely agree with you that it is a matter of great concern.
You referred to the fact that there is now a new chief executive in place, and I mentioned that I, along with the Minister for Environment, met with the new chief executive and chair this morning. I believe, following my discussion with the chief executive, that it's very clear that she too is taking these issues very seriously. I think she's given a very strong leadership commitment to take action to ensure that this does not happen again.
You mentioned that it had happened three years in a row, and I absolutely share your concern and your anger.
I think the commitment of the chief executive is absolutely illustrated in a recent letter she wrote to Nick Ramsay, the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, where she updated on the action plan to address the issues identified previously by the Auditor General for Wales and the subsequent report from the National Assembly's Public Accounts Committee, and that letter included confirmation that Clare Pillman, the chief executive, is reorganising the commercial services function within NRW, including the appointment of a head of commercial services. The chief executive has also appointed Ernst & Young to carry out an independent review of the key commercial business areas and governance arrangements. And I just do want to assure Members that I will be keeping a very close watch on this.
There's not much I can add, really, to Lee Waters's excellent question. Speaking as Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, we are quite literally astonished, baffled—whatever description you want to give it—that the Auditor General for Wales has once again had to qualify the accounts of NRW for the third year running, and again on the basis of their transactions relating to timber sales, contracts, being irregular. We are disappointed that there is further uncertainty on whether NRW has complied with principles of public law, state-aid rules—the list goes on. The committee will be re-examining this issue during the autumn term to ensure that we are satisfied with the action being taken, and we're certainly going to monitor this.
We did hope that we wouldn't be—. Well, we assumed that we wouldn't be in this position again. It is, as Lee Waters said, quite extraordinary that we do find ourselves in this position. In terms of—. Well, I have two questions for you, actually, Cabinet Secretary. You said you had a meeting this morning, I think, with the chair or—
The chair and chief exec.
The chair and chief exec. So, clearly, you're—that was the right thing to do. At any point during this process, during the last year since we knew the previous problems existed, had they run by you what they were doing? Had they alerted you to the fact that they were dealing with the same timber company that failed to build a sawmill before? And 59 contracts were awarded—well, why 59? Have they given you any explanation at all as to why those 59 contracts were awarded and what the nature of them was? Because I share Lee Waters's bafflement. It is very difficult for us as members of the committee, and I'm sure for other Assembly Members, to begin to understand in the first instance just what on earth is going on.
Thank you, Nick Ramsay. I too had assurance from the previous chief executive that this would not happen again this year, so you can imagine how disappointed and concerned I am. I probably can't be any more specific about my annoyance in relation to this. I met the chair—what I said was I met the chair on Monday, and I met the chair and the chief executive this morning along with Hannah Blythyn, the Minister for Environment, where we did discuss matters around public law and state aid, because, clearly, those are two areas where there needs to be a focus and, again, I was reassured that the chief executive was taking this very seriously going forward. She's also strengthening the audit and risk assurance committee by appointing a non-board member with additional public sector governance and finance expertise also, and we have a planned recruitment going forward for the board. We have five new members that we'll be appointing this year also, which I probably should have said in my answer to Lee Waters.
I don't think I can add any more other than to say that I completely agree with what's been said by Lee Waters and Nick Ramsay. I said yesterday that I thought the governance of Natural Resources Wales was rotten and I had no faith in it: I repeat that just to get it on the record with you. I have no faith in the governance of this organisation at the moment. You know, making one mistake and a mistake carrying on for a second year you can kind of understand—it was a big mistake, mind you; heads should have rolled about that one—but then to do this on a number of contracts shows there's something fundamentally wrong.
Now, Lee Waters did mention corruption. I don't know whether that's true, but I've written to you with an evidenced case from a constituent of mine of how he believes a contract was constructed in such a way as to ensure that one contractor could win it, with Natural Resources Wales then paying extra on top of the contract because it had been done in the wrong way—so, the equipment was being bought separately, whereas my constituent had bid for it with the equipment as part of the contract—in other words, jobs for boys, or doing things for people that you know. I'd like you to reopen that correspondence that we've had because you, I have to be honest, gave me a brush-off and said my constituent should take it through the Natural Resources Wales complaints procedures. Well, of course he had—of course he had—and he's now taken it to the ombudsman and he's taken it to the BBC as well. But this is something seriously wrong, and these things don't happen through incompetence. You do it once or twice through incompetence. This is something that's much more fundamental. So, I want to push you even further than what you've just said. Really, can the chair continue? And, secondly, will you send in your own officials to examine these contracts, top to bottom, and make sure that every single one of them is not being done with any gifts and favours involved in them?
There were three additional questions there, which I'll answer. I'll certainly have a look at the correspondence again. Yes, I will be sending my officials in to monitor it. And I mentioned that I'd met with the chair on Monday, I discussed her tenure, I discussed the accounts, and I was reflecting on that conversation, and I don't think it's appropriate to say any more at this point.
I hope that the Cabinet Secretary will be impressed that there is a cross-party consensus on this, not only from Lee Waters in the highly commendable way in which he phrased his question, from the Conservatives and Plaid Cymru, but also from UKIP, and, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I don't think I'm alone in saying that the evidence that we've received in the past from Natural Resources Wales has been deeply unimpressive on a whole range of levels. When Natural Resources Wales was formed, there were built into its structure perhaps many conflicts of interest that cannot be remedied—on the one hand, it's a commercial operation; on the other hand, it's charged with acting in the interests of the public—and I raised a case at First Minister's questions, unconnected with any of this, only on Tuesday last week about a contract that Natural Resources Wales has let in relation to BikePark Wales near Merthyr Tydfil, which is now restricting public access to public land for private interest and is purporting to fine people for riding on their cycle tracks without permission. So, there's a lot wrong with Natural Resources Wales, not just in terms of financial governance, but also in terms of the public policy implications that often surface in constituents' correspondence. So, can I urge her, along with Simon Thomas, to leave no stone unturned in unearthing the rottenness at the heart of this organisation? And, certainly, a complete change of personnel seems long overdue.
I certainly recognise the cross-party consensus. I don't think I can add anything to my answers to the other three Members who have raised questions. As I say, we have had a new chief executive. I'm very reassured following my conversation with her just how seriously she takes this. I will be sending my officials in and I will be keeping a very close eye on it.
Andrew R.T. Davies, briefly.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, yesterday in First Minister's questions, we heard from the First Minister that, actually, the amalgamation of the three organisations that form Natural Resources Wales was a resounding success that the Welsh Government had instigated. You have highlighted a litany of failures on behalf of NRW here today, and we've heard from Members across the Chamber. Do you regard it as a success story?
I think there certainly have been some successes. I haven't highlighted a list of them. We were talking about one issue in relation to the accounts. As I've said, I absolutely can't express my disappointment and concern enough, and I hope, by the fact that I had the chair in on Monday, and I've had the chair and the chief executive in today, that Members will recognise the seriousness with which I take this. But I think there have been some highlights. Certainly, it's very difficult when you bring three organisations together, and I think there have certainly been issues—there have been issues around staff morale, for instance—that have made me keep a very close watch on it. I met with the chief exec and the chair regularly when I first came into portfolio. Obviously, it now sits within the Minister for Environment's portfolio; she meets regularly with them. So, I think there have been some successes, but clearly, this is not one of them.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary. The next topical question will be answered by the Cabinet Secretary for Education. Lynne Neagle.
2. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on the Pupil Development Grant - Access scheme? 209
Thank you, Lynne. This support is available for parents to apply for via their local authority. I'm very pleased that we've been able to introduce a new, more generous, and more flexible scheme ready for the start of the new school year.
Thank you. I was pleased and relieved that the Cabinet Secretary has confirmed the replacement for the school uniform grant, and that this is an enhanced scheme that will provide help to more families. I was also delighted that Torfaen council, in recognition of the need to get the money out to families quickly, in readiness for the new school term in September, is not going through an application process, but are proactively identifying those families who need the help and automatically directing the funds to them. As you know, the cost of school uniform is a major stress for families, and I am concerned that other local authorities may not be as proactive as Torfaen has been. What steps will you take as Cabinet Secretary to ensure that all local authorities understand that this money needs to be available for families in good time before the start of the new term in September?
Thank you. We have been working very closely with local authorities, principally through the Association of Directors of Education in Wales, to make them aware of their indicative allocations—they're only indicative because, of course, this is a demand-led grant—and to confirm with them the formal terms and conditions of that grant. We are also working with them to ensure that bureaucracy around applications in the scheme is kept to a minimum, and we will continue throughout the summer to use Welsh Government channels, as well as media outlets, to alert parents to the availability of this support.
Thank you for your answer to Lynne Neagle. I think it is important that this is widely promoted across the country, and that we don't just leave it down to local authorities, particularly over a summer period when many families may be less able to communicate directly with schools about the availability of support. Can I ask you, Cabinet Secretary—? We have another budget round coming up. One of the problems with the budget round last time was that you didn't cough up about the fact that you were actually chopping the previous grant, and there was no transparency around that, nor was there a children's rights impact assessment undertaken on the changes in your budget that resulted in the previous grant being axed. Now, of course, we're pleased that you've rowed back, that you've done a u-turn on this, and that there's actually now something that is more generous available, and that can be used for other purposes than just the school uniform grant. But can you tell us—and give us some assurances—how your budget processes are stacking up for the budget that will be presented in the autumn, and can you confirm that there will be a children's rights impact assessment on every single budget line where it affects children and young people?
Darren, I can confirm that we will be using, as I said, a variety of media channels over the summer to alert parents to the availability of this grant. Indeed, the most successful Facebook post on the Welsh education Facebook page in the last month has been the post that alerted people to the existence of this grant. That was shared more than any other post, and we will continue, as I said, to publicise the existence of the grant. You're right to say that it is more generous. It is available to those parents of children in receipt of free school meals entering into year 7, at a maximum of up to £125. Last year, it was £120. But, uniquely, it is now also available for those parents who've got children starting school. It is also available for a wider range of items that might be associated with taking up not only opportunities within school but also sporting opportunities, extra-curricular opportunities or perhaps equipment that children need to access for, for instance, a school trip, such as outdoor equipment that perhaps is quite expensive. I can confirm that as we work with my Cabinet colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Finance to finalise the Welsh Government's budgets, we will be looking to take every opportunity to enhance how budgets are portrayed to individual committees, and reviewing exactly how we carry out impact assessments on individual budget lines.
The local authorities that I've spoken to are worried that this is all very last minute, and clearly that underlines the fact that it was a bit of a rearguard action to the scrapping of the school uniforms grant. So, I too welcome this u-turn from the Government. Local authorities have told me that you published your written statement outlining the proposals for the new scheme, but there was a delay then, in terms of receiving their offer letter and being clear about the terms of reference. As a result, of course, there's been a further delay in the system for them to implement their systems locally in order to promote and put systems in place for this scheme to work. I have to ask whether you regret the way that this situation has been arrived at. Why weren't local authorities given sufficient warning and sufficient time to get ready for this? Why wasn't it, for example, properly consulted upon before the announcement was made? Why was the scheme not ready to go, instead of being clearly what it is now, a last-minute rush job?
Let's be absolutely clear: local authorities, via ADEW, were consulted throughout the month of May. I made my statement in this Chamber on 7 June. Individual directors of education were provided with an update on 8 June. By 29 June, all local authorities had received their indicative allocations and the criteria for the grant, and that was formally confirmed on 9 July.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.
We move on to item 5, which are the 90-second statements. The first up this afternoon is Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. The British Association of Physicians of Indian Origin—BAPIO—is a non-political national voluntary organisation. It was established in 1996 by its founder president, Dr Ramesh Mehta OBE, to support doctors arriving from India to work in our NHS. BAPIO Wales is BAPIO’s largest national division and, under the chairmanship of Keshav Singhal MBE, has proven to be the most active too.
Since its creation, our national health service has relied on international medical graduates for its success and stability. Indeed, there are estimated to be over 50,000 doctors of Indian origin serving in our NHS across the United Kingdom. These all make a significant impact on the health of the entire population of the United Kingdom, and that is particularly the case here in Wales. At one point during the 1960s and 1970s, almost 70 per cent of GPs in the Welsh Valleys were of Indian origin, and today, nearly a third of all hospital consultants in Wales are of Indian origin.
On Saturday 7 July, I joined members of BAPIO Wales at an event to mark the seventieth anniversary of our NHS and to celebrate the contribution Indian doctors have made. The event was held here at the Senedd, and it was a pleasure to see colleagues from across the Chamber attend. By making this statement today I, and I am sure many other colleagues in this Chamber, acknowledge the huge contribution that doctors from the Indian sub-continent have made to the NHS and will continue to make as the NHS here in Wales goes forward.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'd like to begin by wishing a very happy fifth birthday to the Keep Me Posted campaign. The Keep Me Posted campaign was set up, as I said, five years ago to protect consumers' rights to choose paper bills and statements without charge or penalty. It's not an anti-digital campaign. It's about making sure that everyone is in the best position to control their finances. As energy suppliers, phone companies and others do more online, more of us have been informed that if we wish to continue to receive paper statements or paper bills by post, then we're going to be charged for it.
Whatever businesses think about saving money in administration by getting rid of paper bills, Keep Me Posted has found that people who get a paper bill, instead of one by e-mail, are 30 per cent less likely to contact the business or organisation's call centre with further questions. Just 29 per cent of people who receive a paper bill need a reminder to pay it, compared to 59 per cent of those who receive an electronic bill, so you have to ask: is that really cost-effective?
The right to receive paper bills and statements at no extra cost gives customers a better service and lowers the chances of people falling into debt, and that really matters if you're financially vulnerable or have cognitive difficulties or simply don't have access to the internet—something that was acknowledged by the Minister when I raised this a couple of years ago. It seems, of course, that it saves on hidden back-room costs for businesses and organisations as well. Some Members will have met the Keep Me Posted team at the information drop-in session a couple of weeks ago, but I hope you will all consider signing up to the statement of opinion on this issue if you haven't already done so. It's just landing in your inboxes, I think.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. The Tenby Museum and Art Gallery, the oldest independent museum in Wales, is also this week celebrating a birthday—its one hundred and fortieth birthday. The museum was established to display rare geological artefacts collected by the Rev Gilbert Smith and purchased by the town for £100—that's £11,000 in today's money. Over the years, the museum has won many national awards and has become one of Tenby's top attractions. There is still a strong emphasis on archeology and geology, but more modern exhibitions include those on the local history of Tenby, maritime history and piracy, and an excellent collection featuring works by, among others, Augustus and Gwen John, John Piper, David Jones, Claudia Williams, Nina Hamnett and Kyffin Williams. Currently, the museum is exhibiting a celebration of the Year of the Sea by Anna Waters and Dawny Tootes. For 139 years, the museum was staffed by a dedicated group of volunteers and only last year appointed its first paid curator. Situated at the heart of the old castle in Tenby, where the only court poem of Dyfed, 'Edmig Dinbych', says,
'Addfwyn y rhoddir i bawb ei ran'—
'Splendid in granting to each their share' in Joseph Clancy's translation—the museum shares the richness of our culture with everyone who visits. Thanks to all those over the years who have supported and maintained the museum and best wishes for the future.