Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd07/11/2018
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
Before we begin today's proceedings, I'm sure Members will want to join me in marking a year since the death of our former colleague Carl Sargeant. On behalf of all Assembly Members and staff, I'd like to send our deepest condolences to our colleague Jack Sargeant, and his family, at this very difficult time.
The first item, therefore, on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, and the first question is from Llyr Gruffydd.
1. What is the Cabinet Secretary's vision for the future of agriculture in Wales? OAQ52877
Diolch. Our vision was set out in the 'Brexit and our land' consultation. We want a thriving and resilient agricultural sector, where farmers produce outcomes of huge importance to Wales as a whole. Many of these can only be produced by Welsh farmers on Welsh land.
Thank you for that response. The agricultural sector is one of the key pillars of the Welsh language here in Wales, and you will be aware of the Government's responsibilities in light of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, where cultural and linguistic considerations are to be equally balanced with economic, environmental and social considerations. With that in mind, and being aware of the response from Cymdeithas yr Iaith Gymraeg, from Cytûn—Churches Together in Wales, from the Welsh Local Government Association rural forum, and the concerns expressed by some on the impact that the recommendations within 'Brexit and our land' will have on the Welsh language, will you confirm that the Government will carry out a thorough assessment of the linguistic impact of any changes that you will introduce and that, if the impact assessment shows that there will be damage to the future of the Welsh language, the Government will change course?
Thank you. We certainly will carry out an impact assessment in relation to the Welsh language, probably over the next few months before we introduce the White Paper. The Welsh language is probably used more by the agricultural sector than any other sector in Wales, and I think one of the best ways of preserving the language is to keep farmers farming on our land.
One of the resilience issues that have been exposed by the whole discussions about what can happen as a result of Brexit is the shortage of fruit and vegetables grown in this country. Obviously, this is an important issue both for the well-being of all of us, but particularly for our ability to supply our schools, our hospitals and other public services with fresh produce. So, I just wondered what your plans were for ensuring that we have sufficient supplies of vegetables and fruit, which have been rather undermined over the last 20, 30 years.
Thank you. I should have probably mentioned in my opening answer to Llyr that we've had 12,000 responses to 'Brexit and our land'. So, we are currently analysing the responses and we'll have a more detailed consultation again in the spring, and, obviously, it will determine our policy. But I think there is a real opportunity around fruit and vegetable production, probably for the first time. We'll be able to look at schemes that can increase market potential, that can drive improvements in productivity, diversification. So, I think it's an area where we'll certainly want to support farmers to be able to diversify into areas such as horticulture or agroforestry.
2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support people who are facing difficulties following cavity wall insulation under Welsh Government schemes? OAQ52882
Thank you. We've been notified of a very small number of complaints relating to cavity wall insulation installed under Welsh Government-funded schemes. All work undertaken through our Nest and Arbed schemes is delivered by registered installers. In the event of failure, beneficiaries are able to seek remedial work to be done by the contractor. In the event that the contractor is no longer trading, consumers are referred to the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency for remedial work to be undertaken where appropriate.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary, and I'm sure the small number that you refer to are probably all in my constituency, because I've got large numbers of people who have faced problems as a consequence of cavity wall insulation failing, and, therefore, they are now facing large bills because of the work that has to be done. Now, as you said in your answer, they went back to the builder, but most of those builders seem to have disappeared all of a sudden. Whether they were only in it for their own cash is another question. Then they went to CIGA, as you said, and CIGA are not really being supportive of their guarantee. In effect, CIGA are very much saying that, 'Sorry, this is a problem with the maintenance of the property. It's nothing to do with the cavity wall insulation.' And these individuals are vulnerable individuals who have not got the money to actually pay for the work that needs to be done. Will you take action against CIGA, please, to make sure they meet their obligations? They put a guarantee in place to reassure people who took on these Welsh Government schemes, so that, if there was a problem, they knew they would have that backing. Unfortunately, that backing is not there.
I thank David Rees for that question. I mentioned that CIGA has been the traditional and main guarantee provider in this issue. You'll remember we had a debate—probably about a year ago, actually—where there was some criticism levelled at CIGA, and, following that debate, I met with the chief executive, to discuss the concerns raised, to understand what action they are taking to alleviate these issues. And I am aware they have addressed a lot of previous concerns; we are monitoring it much more carefully. I have to say, in recent months, correspondence around problems have reduced, but I think it's really important that I am aware of the problems. So, if you have any individual cases, please do write to me, and I'll certainly take it up with CIGA. We are continuing to work with the UK Government, and CIGA and other agencies, so that we can encourage effective consumer protection; I think it's really important that people do know where to go. But I'd be very happy to look at any cases that you have. If want to write to me on a case-by-case basis, I'd be very happy to do that.
I think that David Rees has raised a very important issue, very forcefully, and it's not just your constituents who've been affected by this, David—it's constituents for AMs across Wales. Cabinet Secretary, this really does highlight the problem when you retrofit existing housing stock in a way that deviates from the original standard, and isn't done in the way that it should be. And it's very important that companies who do this sort of work really do know what they're doing, and that lessons have been learned from this. It may well be that we don't know the full extent of this problem yet, as it can take some time for problems to surface, and it might even be that some of the vulnerable people who are living in these houses that have been poorly retrofitted haven't even been made aware of the problem yet. So, what are you doing to make sure you fully do ascertain the number of people who do need assistance in this regard? And, as I said before, what lessons have been learned by the Welsh Government and, indeed, the companies retrofitting, to make sure that this problem isn't happening now and that different but associated retrofitting issues in the future won't emerge?
Well, you ask what we've done as a Government, and, certainly under the new contracts that we have for Nest 2 and Arbed 3, we further strengthened the process by including strict minimum guarantee requirements, robust monitoring—because I don't think the monitoring was as robust as it could have been in the beginning—and assurance, and we also obviously inspect all installations.
Questions now from the party spokespeople to the Cabinet Secretary. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Thank you, Llywydd. The news that the Planning Inspectorate for England and Wales intends to scrap the role of the executive director for Wales is clearly going to come as a surprise to many people, and it will send a clear message in terms of the risk that Wales is being downgraded within that inspectorate. Can I ask the Cabinet Secretary what role she and the Welsh Government played in that decision?
I quite agree with you—any downgrading in the status of the Welsh arm of the inspectorate, I think, is completely unacceptable. Previously, Llyr may be aware that we considered having a fully separate planning inspectorate for Wales in 2015. I've kept that under review, and I'm very grateful that my predecessor did and that I've been able to consider that also. We've expressed concerns that the removal of the post of director for Wales should not happen without any discussion with us. We have to be consulted formally before any proposals are finalised.
But what does that say about the relationship between the Government here, and other partners within the Planning Inspectorate, that such a decision can be considered without there having been adequate consultation with you as Cabinet Secretary and with the Government here? Our party, of course, has been calling for a very long time for an independent inspectorate for Wales. We see, in light of devolution, how the Planning Inspectorate has been evolving in very different directions in Wales, as compared to England, and particularly in light of the Planning (Wales) Act 2015. So, you say that you're keeping this under review, your predecessor said that it was under review, and his predecessor also acknowledged that there was scope to accept that, if the situation were to evolve in different directions, having one inspectorate to oversee two very different regimes wouldn't be sustainable. At what point will you come to a conclusion? If this isn't a clear message of the direction of travel, at what point will you come to the conclusion that the time has come to have an independent planning inspectorate for Wales once and for all?
Well, I think now that, obviously, the chief executive is currently consulting staff on that restructuring exercise, as part of that programme, they are looking at—as I say, consulting on—the structure. We have to be formally part of that consultation. But, as you say, I think the time certainly is now, isn't it, in answer to the question of when will I do something about it in the way that you want to. I certainly think we need to look at that much more seriously now.
I think I hear you saying that the time has come for an independent Welsh inspectorate. Could you confirm whether that's the case?
Well, I said I think the time has come now to look at something that we've been monitoring for the past three years, in light of this consultation.
The Conservative spokesperson, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Cabinet Secretary, you recently took the decision on the Hendy windfarm to allow permission for that to be granted, despite the local authority's planning committee refusing the application and the planning inspectorate's own appeal inspector refusing the application. As I understand it, Welsh Government officials have been involved with Powys County Council in the zoning of areas that would be acceptable for windfarms to be developed. The unitary development plan or the local development plan up in that neck of the woods clearly identifies certain areas, and Hendy, as I understand it, falls outside of those areas. What confidence can local people have that the system is working on their behalf when you go in and override the local planning committee and also the planning inspectorate, who have stuck to the rules?
I don't think it's a matter of overriding; I'm satisfied the planning inspector considered the relevant issues, but I disagree with the conclusion. I'm also the Cabinet Secretary with responsibility for energy. We have set renewable energy targets. We have to make sure that we deliver on those targets and, for me, the benefits of the proposal in terms of delivering renewable energy are material considerations that are sufficient to outweigh the identified impacts of the scheme on both the landscape and the visual amenity.
I think in your reply to me there, Cabinet Secretary, you indicated that the planning inspector did stick to the rules but you disagree with his conclusion. Your department recently, as well, when it comes to shooting on public land, disagreed with the independent report that was commissioned at a cost of £47,000. Can you give us a sense of why the department is going against the evidence, in particular when it comes to this particular application? As you said, the planning inspector stuck to the rules; it was just that you disagreed with those conclusions. What part of the conclusions do you fundamentally disagree with that overrides the planning imperative here that local residents need to have confidence in when these applications come into their areas?
Well, I mentioned in my original answer to you why I believed the proposals around delivering renewable energy—. Our material considerations—they are sufficient to outweigh the identified impact. So, I think the balance, therefore, weighs in favour of the appeal. But I think, also, wind energy is a key part of Welsh Government's vision for future renewable electricity production, and I think that has to be taken into consideration by decision makers.
I do take the point that Welsh Government, in fairness—we can disagree or agree with the policy—has had a policy of promoting wind energy, but they've had a policy of promoting wind energy within certain areas and certain zones that are proved for the development of these windfarms. Here, this particular development was outside of that zone and, as I said in my opening question to you, the Government have been involved in identifying those zones and the local authority have engaged in that discussion. How can communities and, in particular, local authorities have confidence that they will not be undermined and will not face huge costs from developers when you take such an arbitrary decision as you have on this particular application, because the planning permission that was refused stuck to the rules, the appeal inspectors, as you said in your own answer, stuck to the rules—the planning guidance that was given—and yet you came in and overrode that? This is causing huge frustration in this part of mid Wales. Other areas of Wales where they see that you will not intervene when you are requested to intervene are completely bemused by the decision that you have taken. So, can you clarify whether it is now open season to develop windfarms the length and breadth of Wales, because, as I said, this application is outside of the zone that you, as a Government, have approved with the local authority?
It's certainly not open season. I think one of the ways of ensuring the public do have confidence is not to have conflicting policies. And I think one of the things that has become very apparent to me over the two years that I've been in this portfolio is the conflict in policies, and we are taking steps to ensure that that's not the case.
UKIP spokesperson, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Llywydd. Hendy windfarm is being built in an area of outstanding natural beauty. It's perfectly clear from the answer that you've just given, Cabinet Secretary, to Andrew R.T, Davies, that your mind was made up on this even before the planning inspector was appointed, because you've said, in effect, that the Government's policy on renewable energy outweighs any planning considerations. So, what on earth is the point of having planning inquiries in these circumstances because it's evident from your decision that this was merely a charade—a pretence—of taking local opinion into account, when you had no intention of doing so?
It certainly wasn't a charade or a pretence.
I think others will judge your actions rather than your words. But let's look at the decision that you've made and the reason that you've given for it. Yes, I understand that the Government has a commitment to renewable energy, but even if one accepts the Government's view of global warming and its causes, I cannot understand how the desecration of an important beauty spot in mid Wales can be outweighed by renewable energy considerations, because whatever the United Kingdom does in relation to global warming is immediately extinguished by what's happening in the rest of the world.
In China, for example, they are currently in the process of building another 210 GW of coal-fired power station. Now, at the moment, we are consuming in the United Kingdom 37 GW, so the Chinese are going to add, in the next few years, seven times the entire consumption of electricity in the United Kingdom on a dark and dull day, like today. So, whatever reduction in carbon emissions and whatever contribution that might make to solving the problems of global warming, it's going to make absolutely no difference whatsoever, but it's going to make a vast difference to the people of mid Wales.
I think most people, apart from Neil Hamilton and members of UKIP, do accept that climate change is happening and the reasons for it. I was waiting for you to mention China, because you always mention China when we're talking about renewable energy. You can't just sit back and do nothing. We, in Wales, may be a small nation, but I think we take our proposals to do all we can to mitigate climate change very, very seriously. I was out at the global climate action summit in San Francisco in September. People were looking at us because we are held up as best practice, not just in renewable energy, but in things like waste and recycling. You can't just sit back and say, 'Oh well, China are doing this, so we shouldn't do anything.' I really don't accept that. But I really do wish that you would look at what we're doing in climate change mitigation and join the rest of us in accepting that we have our role to play.
The Welsh Government may be leading, but nobody's following. That's the problem—that's what I'm arguing here. If this was going to make any difference at all and if people were actually going to be impressed by what's happening in Wales in parts of the world where it matters, if you were going to sort out the problems of global warming on the basis of the theories that you espouse, I could understand it, but that isn't happening. You say I always mention China—yes, I do, well, let's mention India as well. In addition to China, India is currently in the process of the construction of 130 GW of coal-fired power stations. So, 130 plus 210, that's 340 GW—that's 10 times the entire British consumption of electricity. Those are just new power stations in construction, fired by coal. So, whatever difference Llandegley Rocks wind turbines are going to make, it is a minute fraction of 1 per cent. It's going to make no difference, but what you've done by your decision, is to wreck and desecrate one of the most beautiful parts of mid Wales.
You say nobody follows, but at that conference that I just mentioned that was held in September, there were 100 states and regions of which, I would say, most are coming forward with actions similar to Wales's. So, you mentioned India, I shared a platform with the mayor of Delhi who is desperate to do what we're doing in Wales, and is actually achieving that. So, I'm sorry, but you can't just sit back and blame everybody else. You have to take action and you have to show leadership.
Question 3 [OAQ52884] is withdrawn. Question 4—Rhianon Passmore.
4. What measures is the Welsh Government taking to support the dairy industry in south-east Wales? OAQ52867
Thank you. I'm committed to supporting the long-term development and profitability of dairy across Wales. Market support includes trade development in the UK and overseas markets. Business support includes benchmarking, technical support, business clustering and significant resources training.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. And as you stated at the recent annual dairy show, the need to prepare for a post-Brexit world has never been more essential, as Wales is set to be buffeted by the tsunami of its impacts. Cabinet Secretary, how does the Welsh Government assess that the new HerdAdvance project, which is part of the Welsh Government's £6.5 million dairy improvement programme, is going to aid farmers in my constituency of Islwyn? And what can the Welsh Government do to ensure that the new project, delivered by the agricultural and horticultural board, is embraced fully by as many farmers as possible in south-east Wales?
Thank you. You referred to last week's dairy show, and that's where we launched the first phase of the dairy improvement programme. So, now dairy farmers are able to apply for support to help them improve the health of their herds and the profitability of their businesses. The HerdAdvance project to which you specifically referred has been allocated £5.5 million over the next five years, and that aims to pilot how a farm can have a holistic approach to disease prevention and also can improve the efficiency and profitability of farm businesses.
It's become very apparent over the last two years, since we had the vote to leave the European Union, that we need to do all we can to support our farmers ahead of Brexit to make sure that they are resilient, that they are sustainable and that they are productive. So, we did some benchmarking, for instance, with the dairy sector last year. We had some funding from Europe, and about 75 per cent of dairy farmers took advantage of that money; it enabled them then to learn a great deal about their business.
5. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government's policy on fracking? OAQ52859
Thank you. In Welsh Government’s 'Taking Wales Forward 2016-2021', we made clear our opposition to fracking. Over the summer, I held a public consultation on petroleum extraction in Wales that set out not only a policy to oppose fracking, but also proposed there should be no new petroleum licensing in Wales.
I recently sponsored an event in the Senedd with Friends of the Earth Cymru and Frack-Free Wales, Cabinet Secretary, and I am strongly opposed to fracking and have worked hard to stop it happening in the Vale of Glamorgan. You said recently in Welsh Government's 'Taking Wales Forward'—and you restated today your clear opposition to fracking. You noted that Welsh Government has powers over fracking and that you believe this type of energy production is counter to well-being goals and our environmental aims. So, I welcome the current moratorium on fracking and the consultation to remove fossil fuels from our energy mix, and not to support applications for hydraulic fracturing and petroleum licence consents. So, will the Welsh Government commit to permanently banning fracking in Wales?
Thank you. I'm determined to use every possible lever to ensure fracking does not take place in Wales. This includes strong opposition to issuing new petroleum licences, or consents for fracking, and the introduction of a much more robust planning policy. So, taken together, I think these will represent the most robust approach taken by any country in the UK to ensure fracking doesn't happen.
The policies that we've had in place have prevented any fracking occurring. I will be making an announcement before the end of term. So, we've got the 'Planning Policy Wales' revision, and we've also got our petroleum consultation summary, and that will ensure that Welsh Government's policies mean no future fracking in Wales.
Cabinet Secretary, thank you for that answer to the previous question, because I was going to ask you the timeline that you're working to. You indicate that you're bringing forward a statement before the Christmas recess. Will that statement include a timeline of delivery? Because, at the moment, the moratorium, in effect, has been brought forward by the prevention of new planning permissions in this particular area. Obviously, that can only last a certain period of time, and given it is a Government commitment, what sort of timeline are you working to to implement these stronger safeguards that will obviously enhance the ability to stop fracking and shale gas extraction here in Wales?
Thank you. Yes, I confirm I will be making a statement before the end of this term—so, within the next month and a half—and it will contain a timeline.
Cabinet Secretary, I welcome your Government's stance on fracking. Regardless of whether the fracking process can be made safe for the environment, the end product is still a fossil fuel. Cabinet Secretary, will your Government also be opposing any, and all, licences for underground coal gasification in Wales, as well as licences for new coal extraction?
As I say, I will be making a statement before the end of term to keep Members updated.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the impact of the proposals outlined in 'Brexit and our land' on the Welsh language? OAQ52861
Diolch. The proposals in 'Brexit and our land' are designed to keep farming families on the land and communities intact. Supporting the Welsh language within those communities is an integral part of what we are seeking to achieve.
Almost a third of Welsh farmers are Welsh speakers, which is 50 per cent higher than the average of all Welsh speakers in Wales. The agricultural sector and farming families make a crucial contribution to the Welsh language and safeguard the Welsh language in our rural communities. Therefore, the proposals in 'Brexit and our land', which suggest ceasing direct payments to farmers after Brexit, are a threat to the viability of agriculture in Wales, and therefore the Welsh language. How, therefore, can the proposals outlined in this consultation correspond to the Government's million Welsh speakers policy? Isn't putting the future of the Welsh language in our rural communities at risk, where the Welsh language is alive and well, entirely contrary to those objectives?
Diolch. Well, you will have heard me mention in my answer to Llyr to question 1 that I believe that the best way of preserving the Welsh language—. You're quite right, the agricultural sector, I think you said 50 per cent uses the Welsh language, 50 per cent more than other sectors, and it's an absolutely inseparable part of the social fabric for parts of rural Wales. So, again, you will have heard me say that we will be doing an impact assessment.
But I just want to address your questions around the basic payment scheme. There's absolutely no link whatsoever between the BPS and a farmer's efforts, the performance of the farm business or the outcomes that the farm business achieves. I think the BPS delivers neither resilience nor long-term prosperity. I think it's time for change. Many people have said to me it's time for change. I was at the National Farmers Union conference last week and took the opportunity to speak to many farmers—we've had 12,000 responses to our consultation and they're just now starting to be analysed. But, again, amongst them—I've seen some of them—there are people who absolutely support what we're doing. But what I want to make really, really clear is that there is a need to support farming businesses—I've said that from day one since I've been in this portfolio. Support will continue; it'll just be done in a different and a smarter way.
'The Welsh language is an inseparable part of the social fabric of parts of rural Wales. Cultural connections with farming across Wales are strong and agriculture plays an important role in sustaining the Welsh language.'
That's it. That's the quote in 'Brexit and our land'. There was no more than that.
Having said that, though, I think you would agree with me that young farmers' clubs in particular are a great place for farming to grow and continue with youngsters progressing in the industry, and, of course, sustaining life and lifestyles in parts of rural Wales, providing the society, if you like, preventing loneliness, taking on community roles and nurturing an understanding of personal and mutual responsibility. So, I'm wondering if you will look again at the direct cuts that have been made to young farmers' clubs and speak to local government colleagues about the cuts that they're making to youth services' budgets and so on, which have indirectly supported young farmers' clubs.
I absolutely think young farmers' clubs are—it's a fantastic organisation. I've met with many members over the past few years. I don't want to make cuts; I didn't come into politics to make cuts, but you'll be aware, because of austerity, we've all had to make very difficult decisions and nobody more so than the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services. I will do all I can to support them. I have conversations with them about how they can support us in return for that funding and I'm very keen to do all I can to support them.
7. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the 'Brexit and Our Land' consultation? OAQ52873
Thank you. The 'Brexit and our land' consultation closed on 30 October. We've had over 12,000 responses from individuals and organisations. We will now thoroughly analyse all responses ahead of a planned further consultation in the new year.
Thank you. I appreciate that you and your Government officials will now be wading through those 12,000 responses that you have received. However, we know, as AMs, from our mailbags, that our farmers have been very clear in their responses to you and they are asking for significant changes, including greater emphasis on actively farming the land; for productivity to be at the heart of the legislation; for food production to be regarded as a public good; for revised schemes to be accessible to all farmers, including tenants; and that a form of direct payment be continued. The lack of direct payments in your plan is a source of great concern, because, if unchanged, it could see numerous farms across Wales lose stability, confidence and ability to invest going forward. Cabinet Secretary, you don't need me to tell you that for every pound invested in our farms, there is a return in the local economy of around £7.40. Therefore, I am perplexed as to why you would even consider pursuing a policy that could see farmers lose this stability. You recently stated in a Farmers Guardian interview that implementing any form of direct payments would not be an option, even if an overwhelming majority of respondents have requested it. This is alarming. Please, will you give assurances to Members here and to our farmers that you will not make a farce of this Brexit consultation? And I can assure the Cabinet Secretary that I myself have responded; I'm one of those 12,000, and I write on behalf of every single farmer in the constituency of Aberconwy.
I'm not sure you could possibly respond for every single farmer in your constituency with one view, because that's clearly not the case. I mentioned we've had 12,000, and I'm not disrespecting what you're saying about your mail bag, but I've seen a lot of correspondence that absolutely agrees that basic payment schemes shouldn't be kept. So, we can't generalise; we have to analyse all the responses.
If I can just address some of the points you make. Active farming is really important, and active farming will be absolutely at the heart of our new land management scheme. Food production cannot be a public good; it's got a market. There is no market for public goods, and what we're attempting to do with the public goods scheme, and what we want to do, is make sure that farmers are paid for public goods, for which there is no market at the moment. So, the air quality, the soil quality, the water quality—they don't get paid for that at the moment. We need to ensure that that changes.
Food production—I've made it very clear that the economic resilience scheme is around productivity. We've seen productivity go down in the agricultural sector, and we want to ensure that it's now raised. So, food production is absolutely at the heart of the economic resilience scheme. Again, I'll go back to what I said in a previous answer: I don't want anybody to think that there is not a need for farming businesses to be supported; we've made that very clear. Both the First Minister and I have said, any agricultural funding—. And let's be clear about this—your Government in London hasn't told us of any funding that we're going to get post Brexit for agriculture, so ring fencing nothing is not going to do anything for our farmers, is it? So, until we get that assurance, I suggest the Conservative Party are very, very careful.
8. Will the Cabinet Secretary consider introducing a legal ban on the shooting of Greenland white-fronted geese? OAQ52845
Greenland white-fronted geese are categorised as endangered under the International Union for the Conservation of Nature global red list criteria. The African-Eurasian waterbird agreement has recently raised the issue of a statutory ban in Wales and England, and I will consider and respond later this term.
I thank the Minister for that response. At the last count, there were only 22 Greenland white-fronted geese on the Dyfi, and there's limited protection for those birds wintering in Wales outside of areas of voluntary moratorium on shooting. So, given the very low population and that limited protection in Wales, I would be very grateful if the Minister did introduce a legal ban, and I'm grateful that consideration will be given.
I thank the Member for his question and his considerable interest and work in this area himself. I recognise that the existing year-round voluntary moratorium on the shooting of Greenland white-fronted geese in Wales is working effectively and being adhered to by wildfowling clubs in Wales. The African-Eurasian waterbird agreement also recognises this success and the work of the Welsh Greenland white-fronted geese partnership has been a fundamental part of this. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds is also an active partner in the partnership, and in recent years has actually reported rises in numbers of such geese at sites in north Wales.
As I said in my first answer, the African-Eurasion waterbird agreement has recently raised the issue of a statutory ban in Wales and England, and I intend to respond by Christmas.
Minister, the Government has already had two consultations, in 2013 and 2016, on this particular issue. At the time, the Cabinet Secretary, Lesley Griffiths, said that there was no evidence to indicate that Greenland white-fronted geese are currently being shot in Wales. I think, from your answer to John Griffiths, there's an indication that the Government is minded to pursue legislation in this particular area. Given the assertion from the Cabinet Secretary that there is no evidence to indicate that, why does the Minister believe there is a need to move from the voluntary moratorium that currently exists?
The Member—[Inaudible.] We received a complaint made under the African-Eurasian waterbird agreement, alleging non-compliance with certain provisions of the international agreement in respect of the measures taken in Wales concerning the conservation of Greenland white-fronted geese. Our initial response to the AEWA complaint stated our view that, as there was no evidence of shooting, these voluntary measures in Wales were proving sufficient. However, the AEWA has considered this position and has not accepted it as sufficient. We take this complaint seriously, and so we are considering the course of action best needed to safeguard Greenland white-fronted geese for the future.
Question 9 [OAQ52883] was withdrawn. Question 10—Dawn Bowden.
10. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on Welsh Government policy for common land? OAQ52863
Thank you. Common land is valued for its contribution to the natural and national heritage of Wales. Common land policy aims to protect such land, promote sustainable farming and public access to the countryside, balanced with wildlife and conservation interests. Our future policy will be influenced by the 'Brexit and our land' consultation.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, and I'm very aware of the great value of the extensive common land in my constituency, which includes the Merthyr and Gelligaer common. I'm sure you'll know that EU funding has been available both to help in the management of the common land and for local farmers to co-operate and to market their produce through a local butcher's shop, Cig Mynydd Cymru, in Treharris. Will the new farming and land management system that we introduce in Wales after Brexit continue to support this type of rural enterprise?
I suppose the short answer is 'yes'. We certainly want to see more collaboration and ensure that we have robust supply chains. As you've heard me say a couple of times this afternoon, we are currently analysing all the responses to the consultation, so I can't give comment on the content of any specific future scheme. But, of course, organisations such as Farming Connect, for instance, which I know has provided support in establishing the co-operative to which you referred—. I'm certainly very keen for Farming Connect to continue post Brexit to support farmers and foresters.
A significant part of Gower within my region is made up of common land, as you know, and I have asked you before to have a look, maybe, at secondary legislation and the powers it might give you to curb irresponsible exercise of those rights. I know that my colleague Andrew R.T. Davies and, indeed, Hefin David have raised with you the opposite problem in the past, where some farmers have been stopped from exercising rights on common land. If I'm right, I think you've met with some Assembly Members about this, so I'm wondering if you can update us on any action taken on the back of that meeting to support farmers with their grazing rights and adjacent landowners, and whether there is anything in regulation that might assist you to solve some of these ongoing problems.
Thank you. You're quite right. I met with Hefin David and Andrew R.T. Davies and Mick Antoniw—I'm trying to think if there was anybody else; I don't think there was—probably last year. I'd certainly be very happy to share the correspondence with the Member following the meetings we've had.
11. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government’s role in protecting rare and endangered species in Wales? OAQ52856
I am committed to maintaining the protections and safeguards in the current EU standards of species protection and building on this through the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. We aim to embed nature recovery across all of our policies and programmes.
Of course, rare and endangered species are not just in the Welsh countryside. They are also resident in many of the zoos across Wales, including the Welsh Mountain Zoo, which is the national zoo of Wales, of course, in my own constituency. It has endangered species programmes that are working to conserve the red squirrel population, of course, which I am the species champion for, but also red pandas, snow leopards, chimpanzees and many other species. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support such conservation work, where there are globally threatened species that are resident in Welsh zoos, and what specific support is the Welsh Government doing with the Welsh Mountain Zoo in my own constituency?
I thank the Member for his question. I remember many childhood trips to the Welsh Mountain Zoo myself, and I know that you are a proud champion of the red squirrel, which can actually be found in your own constituency in Clocaenog. When I actually went to visit there on a brisk north Wales day earlier this year, the seven red squirrels that have been released in the forest were feeling quite camera-shy that day, and I unfortunately didn't get to see any of them.
The Welsh Government is absolutely committed to supporting such projects, in terms of working with endangered species. I can't comment specifically in terms of the Welsh Mountain Zoo, but it's certainly something I'm willing to look into for the Member and perhaps to meet to discuss at a future date.
12. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on fishery protection in mid Wales? OAQ52843
Thank you. Responsibility for freshwater fisheries protection resides with Natural Resources Wales, who have a statutory duty to maintain, improve and develop freshwater fisheries. Welsh Government has a similar responsibility for marine fisheries protection.
Thank you for your answer, Cabinet Secretary. Anglers have been in contact with me for some time with regard to the lack of capacity within Natural Resources Wales with regard to the protection of our fisheries and lakes in the catchment area around mid Wales in particular. Now, I'm told that poaching for salmon is becoming more widespread, which of course ruins the future of fishing stock. The concern is partly attributed to the lack of officers in the area and residing in the area to police the situation and to also work with angling clubs, farmers and fishery owners. So, do you recognise that there is a lack of policing power within NRW in this area? And if so, if you do agree with that, what can be done to resolve the situation?
Obviously, we provide core funding to NRW to make sure that they can fulfil their statutory responsibilities. They also receive about £1 million per annum from rod licence funding. I know you have written to me about this, and I'm awaiting a response to send back to you. I'm also meeting with the interim chair and the chief executive, along with the Minister for Environment, with NRW—I think it's next week. I will certainly raise it with them. But the short answer is: no, I don't agree with that.
13. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the environmental impact of the UK Government's decision not to back the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon? OAQ52866
Diolch. It would be for the UK Government to assess the environmental impact of not supporting this national energy infrastructure. Welsh Government has been clear and consistent in its support for tidal lagoons. We remain keen to see the recommendations in the Hendry report supported by UK Government.
Thank you for that response. Further to that, will you as Welsh Government support the development of a public energy company for Wales in order to tackle the issue of developing Swansea bay tidal lagoon?
Well, the Member is probably aware that I did some previous work with another member of Plaid Cymru around this, and it was decided that we did not think that was the most appropriate way forward.
14. What support does the Welsh Government provide to farmers? OAQ52846
Thank you. The Welsh Government provides a range of support to farmers in Wales, helping them to become more profitable, sustainable, resilient and professionally managed. This includes over £300 million a year support for farming, animal health and welfare, and rural development via the common agricultural policy. Agricultural businesses also benefit from Farming Connect grants and advice.
Thank you. I congratulate you on being the first Cab Sec or Minister to complete questions in a very long time. [Laughter.]
In August I joined the National Trust, the RSPB and a farmer on a National Trust farm, and they told me that a new sustainable land management scheme is needed that's fair to farmers, provides food, manages diversity and protects data and the environment. During the recess last week I had a meeting with NFU Cymru Clwyd county chair and their county adviser. They told me that within your proposals, the missing ingredient was the need for a stability mechanism to futureproof agriculture policy if we are to ensure a continued supply of quality, affordable food alongside public goods because of the economic resilience that the two together can provide. How do you respond to their call for that missing ingredient, for a stability mechanism within that, to help them now in planning for their investment in the future, given the uncertainty ahead, but also recognising that the whole principle behind agricultural support, going back to the 1940s, was recognition that, on occasions when the rain does fall, when the international disasters occur, or even conflict arises, we're going to need them again and we can't afford to lose them in the interim.
Thank you, and thank you for your comments. You've certainly laid down the gauntlet to the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services to follow me.
I think you've raised a very important point around stability, and certainly I've had discussions with farmers over the last couple of years around volatility. Clearly, this year, with the weather, we've absolutely seen that to the full. We had that very long, wet winter, we had heavy snow in the spring, and then we had the very dry and hot summer. I don't want to presume anything, because, as I say, we're analysing the responses to the consultation at the moment, but certainly the common agricultural policy has not provided the stability and the protection against that volatility that I think farmers want to see. And I think it's very important that, when we bring forward our Welsh agricultural policy, we do that.
Top marks, Minister.
And let's see how well you can do, Mr Davies, in answering your questions. [Laughter.]
Questions, therefore, to the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services.
Forty-five minutes starting.
First question from Siân Gwenllian.
1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the implications of the local government settlement for 2019/20? OAQ52872
5. What assessment has the Cabinet Secretary made of the adequacy of funding for local authorities in Wales? OAQ52853
8. How much extra funding will be made available to local authorities following the increased funding recently allocated to Wales in the UK Government’s budget? OAQ52874
Thank you, Llywydd. I announced the provisional local government settlement for 2019-20 on 9 October. It is for authorities to determine how they spend this funding, together with their other income from specific grants, council tax and other sources, according to local needs and priorities.
Gwynedd Council is facing an £11 million cut in light of the fiscal policy of your Government, which will impact on services for the most vulnerable people in my constituency. The Government has announced that an additional £15 million is available for schools and £13 million for social care, but this is restricted by certain conditions. You, like me, have argued consistently for stronger local government and giving more powers to local authorities. Why, then, is this additional funding not reaching the councils through the revenue support grant—the core funding of local authorities, and funding that could be used to safeguard basic services and crucial services at this time of austerity and huge cuts?
All the funding does go towards these core services that you've described. I don't believe that anybody here wants to argue that the funding shouldn't go to schools or social care. I don't believe people want to see that, and that's exactly what we are doing. But, if I could return to the purpose of your question, when you talked about the policy of this Government, this settlement is part of a formula that has been agreed by local government and it's something that we administer jointly with local government.
Could I ask you to confirm, Cabinet Secretary, that you wish to group questions 1, 5 and 8?
Question 5, therefore, Darren Millar.
Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, people have just listened to your question, and they will be absolutely astonished at the complacency of your response. The Government in the UK, the UK Government, made some £550 million-worth of additional investment, which is coming to Wales as a result of their budget just last week. That means that there are extra resources available to the Welsh Government, and the Welsh Government's own First Minister has said that local government would be at the front of the queue if any additional resources come as a consequence of the budget. So, can you tell us: is any additional resource going to come into your portfolio that you can pass on to local government? And will you also rise to the question of leadership on the revenue support grant settlement, because, quite clearly, you're obfuscating on this particular issue and refusing to actually show some leadership in recognising that that revenue support grant is unfair? When you look at the settlement, it's delivered significant cuts to local authorities in north Wales, significant cuts to local authorities in rural parts of the country, and what appears to be the case is that there's cronyism, because most of the increases are going and the smallest cuts are going to Labour-led local authorities. People aren't stupid, they see the evidence of this year in, year out, when these settlements are presented through this National Assembly.
So, will you show some leadership? And what extra resources are local government going to get as a result of the bonanza of £550 million that has been awarded to Wales as a result of the UK Government's budget?
Presiding Officer, the Member for Clwyd West is right, people aren't stupid, and they'll see through his shouting and his bluster. They'll see the reality of what austerity has done, not just in local government, but to other parts of the public sector as well. And let me say this—let me say this—he talks specifically about the local government settlement in Wales. When we made that announcement on 9 October, the University of Cambridge also published some data on local government on that date. What they showed was that, in Wales and Scotland, local government had been protected by the Governments in both those countries. In England, where the Conservatives have the opportunity to take these decisions, local government has been cut by 26 per cent—26 per cent. So, when he and his party come here with their crocodile tears telling us about what is happening in local government, I say to him, 'Physician, heal thyself'—you go back to your Government in London, you go back there and talk to them about austerity. You go there—[Interruption.] You go there—[Interruption.] You go there—[Interruption.] You can shout as much as you like; I've got time on my side. You go there. You go there and you tell them about the impacts of austerity on people, and I'll tell you, when you do that, that you're doing the right thing. But, up until then, don't come here making allegations that you cannot sustain about matters you do not understand.
Cabinet Secretary, I have recently raised, on behalf of my constituents and all those working in local government across Wales, concerns in this Chamber about the funding settlement for our local authorities. Pre UK Government budget, there was strong condemnation from our local authority leaders and the WLGA itself about your lack of understanding about the essential moneys needed to support our social care, schools, housing and mental health support. Then you compounded this problem by likening our council leaders to Oliver Twist, wanting more. Your comments were a staggering insult and a betrayal to those working in our hard-working, front-line services. They were offensive and, frankly, they should be withdrawn.
Now, given the additional £370 million—. And, yes, forget the word 'austerity' now and stop hiding behind it—£370 million is coming, courtesy of the UK Government, for spend on public services. Why can't you guarantee that this funding will go where it's actually needed, to fund our schools, to fund our social services, to fund our housing and to fund our mental health support? But, most of all, will you, Cabinet Secretary, for once show some humility and apologise for those dreadful comments likening our local authorities to Oliver Twist?
The Member for Aberconwy says she's speaking on behalf of local government employees and workers. I don't know which trade union you're a member of. [Interruption.] I'm a member of Unison, which isn't just the biggest union in Wales but also the biggest union in the public sector in Wales. Let me tell you, when I talk to colleagues in Unison—[Interruption.] When I talk to colleagues in Unison, what they don't do—what they don't do—is say to me, 'Do you know, Alun? What you should be doing is following the same approach as is taken by the Conservatives in England.'
Do you know what else I hear—[Interruption.] What else I hear—[Interruption.] And what else I hear from Conservative council leaders across Wales is that they don't want us to follow Conservative policies either. The only people who want us to follow Conservative policies are the people sitting behind me. Their council leaders don't want to see the same cuts in Wales as we're seeing across the border in England. They don't want to see Conservative policies implemented here. The only people who do are the Conservative group.
It's time that the Conservatives were honest, were absolutely honest, with people about the impact of what austerity is doing to people. I can understand that they don't want us to keep coming back to it. I can understand that they don't want us to talk about austerity, but, if she understood the UK budget, if she read the UK budget, she would know this as well—that spending on most public services will be reducing and not increasing, and, as time goes by, this time next year, there'll be more money spent in supporting local government in Wales than there will be across the whole of England. That's what Conservative policy leads to.
The Cabinet Secretaries covering areas such as transportation, education and the economy can provide funding to local government to spend in the areas of their responsibility. What financial support from other Cabinet members, out of their budgets, has the Cabinet Secretary asked for to support local government, which is in desperate need?
Let me say this: the point that's made by the Member for Swansea East is well made, because, of course, local government isn't just receiving the funding through the RSG but is also receiving funding from other elements of the Welsh budget. Others have spoken already—I think Siân Gwenllian from Plaid Cymru spoke about the £15 million that's going into education. That of course is also going through local government. The Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services and the Minister for social services have also made significant statements on the funding going through local government to support social services and to support regional working. So, there are significant sums of money that are going into local government that go beyond the RSG and, in total, I suspect that that will be over £70 million in the next year.
2. What support is the Welsh Government giving to help veterans in Islwyn? OAQ52865
In my oral statement yesterday I outlined the progress that we have made in improving services and support for veterans, which includes those living in Islwyn.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. The communities of Islwyn will, this week, pay their respects to those who have fallen and to those brave men and women of our armed forces who have been willing to sacrifice everything to defend our precious freedom, which we treasure so deeply. Alongside many thousands of our citizens, I will be attending remembrance services across the breadth of my constituency and beyond. Cabinet Secretary, what update can I give to my communities of your avowed aim earlier this year to strengthen the veterans' unit within Welsh Government and the now benchmarked assessment the Welsh Government has made of any gaps in service delivery? And, further, how can these potential gaps be addressed?
Presiding Officer, I did make a statement yesterday, which outlined many of these matters, and I know that the Member took part in that debate yesterday. In addition to that which we discussed during that oral statement, I will say that we have recruited additional members of staff to work and support and strengthen the Welsh Government's team supporting the work of the armed forces. This will enable us as a Government to undertake further work to enhance services and support for the armed forces community, including work to support the programme that is being taken forward by the armed forces expert group, including that work that I announced yesterday in taking forward an employment pathway.
Can I also say, though, that we are going to be looking towards creating a new funding stream to sustain and support the local authority work that is going on, the liaison officers that will be appointed and who will work with the Welsh Local Government Association to ensure that those people who are delivering services at the heart of our communities also have the support that they require in order to deliver for the armed forces community? I should say, Presiding Officer, that, although we remember the sacrifice of our armed forces during this week in November, the real way in which we pay tribute to our armed forces is by delivering on our commitments in the covenant week on week, month on month, year on year.
The Cabinet Secretary will be aware that unpreparedness for civilian life can result in veterans facing considerable obstacles, including getting a job. In your statement in April, you said the armed forces expert group is leading on the development of an employment pathway and employer's toolkit to help veterans to access meaningful employment. Good thinking. Could the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on this work, and when does he expect to publish the group's proposals?
I made that announcement yesterday.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservatives' spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Lywydd. Why do you feel that the current local government funding formula is fit for purpose, has the full support of local authorities across Wales and is able to keep pace with changing priorities of local government services?
The formula is owned, if you like, by the partnership council for Wales and is updated regularly by the work of the finance sub-group and the distribution sub-group, upon which the whole of Welsh local government is represented. I don't think that the formula is fixed, if you like; it's constantly being reviewed and it's constantly being amended, year on year on year. The Member will understand that the distribution sub-group produces a report, which is made public, every year, which outlines the work that the distribution sub-group does do, or leads on at least, in order to ensure that amendments are made on an annual basis to the formula. So, I would say to him that I don't believe the formula is fixed in the way that he sometimes describes, but is constantly kept under review and is constantly updated by local government and Welsh Government working together with independent members.
Thank you. Well, I can note that, following my lead, the Welsh Local Government Association coined a term for you—'Mr Bumble'. And, despite what you and the finance Secretary have claimed about agreement by the WLGA and the finance sub-group, the WLGA's chief executive stated before committee just a few weeks ago that the formula as it currently stands is held together by duct tape and sticking plasters, and that it probably needs a long hard look at it, and he further explained that such a review could take three to five years. Your own colleagues, including the Minister for Environment, recently called for the Welsh Government to undertake a review of the support given to council services. The First Minister met with Labour council leaders about funding, which we believe should have been open to all Welsh council leaders. The Welsh Conservatives have been calling for a review for years, but all the Welsh Government has done is divert the blame to local authorities and tinker around the edges, and, of course, the leader of the Conservative group in the WLGA tells me the standard response is that the WLGA were party to creating the formula. That's true, but it was constructed in partnership with the Welsh Government a long time ago and it's not now fit for purpose.
Will you, therefore, now listen, to this growing chorus of voices from all parties and political persuasions and initiate a review of the formula? If not, please tell those bodies why you still tend to repeat what we've heard from you in your earlier responses.
Almost all the people that you've described—and there are very few people in Wales who have reviewed the formula as hard as the outgoing chief executive of the WLGA; I think he's sat through more meetings on this formula than any Minister has at any time—. Can I say this: the formula is open to review year-on-year-on-year? And it is reviewed year-on-year-on-year, and Conservative leaders take part in that. Now, if they wish to ask for a fundamental root-and-branch review of the sort that you have described, then they are able to do so, except, of course, they do not do that when they are in the meetings having these conversations.
I'm very happy, Presiding Officer, to ensure, and I make an undertaking that, if these minutes are not already in the public domain, I will place them in the library so that Members on all sides of the Chamber can understand the work that is being done by the finance and distribution sub-groups, and to ensure that this information is made publicly available.
Well, that's a very timely response, because, since you took your post a year ago, you have continually peddled the story that Conservative councillors in Wales are happy with the funding they've received and that they wouldn't want Conservative policies in Wales. You told my colleague, Russell George, last month,
'I tell the Conservative group that their councillors do not want Conservative policies in Wales; they are delighted to have a Welsh Labour Government delivering support and funding to local authorities that Conservative councils in England could only dream of. So, when I meet Conservative councils, what they tell me is that what they need is a Labour Government.'
Something pretty much like what you've already said to us today. So, I put that to the Conservative group leaders across Wales. The first response I got was, 'A bit of a joke.' The second,
'He's demonstrated again and again that he has no real comprehension of the issues we're facing in local government',
and then terms like, 'The funding formula is a total disaster, not fit for purpose', and they said your claims were both 'ludicrous' and 'nonsense'. I quote.
Furthermore, it seems that even Labour councillors have been supportive of some UK Conservative policies, such as tomorrow's democracy event. On Monday, the Labour leader of Newport came out to support the devolving of business rates to local authorities, and revealed that the Labour leadership contender that you endorse is also in favour of devolving business rates to local authorities.
Therefore, will you now stop trying to deflect the serious issues facing local authorities, drop the adversarial position you've built up over the last 12 months, and work with councils of all persuasions, many of which are coalitions, to find a way forward so that their funding is fair, acknowledging that the points I've raised today were not something I plucked out, as you might say, from a party lines-to-take paper, which I rarely ever look at and almost never use. These were given to me first-hand by the persons I quote, either in committee or in response to my requests from the bodies concerned.
I seem to be being accused of consistency, which is certainly an original allegation to make. Can I say this: I understand that it is the role of the Conservative spokesperson in this place to make the worst possible case for the policies being pursued by this Government and to scrutinise us on the basis of that? But to come here and suggest that any council leader, of any colour, is coming to Welsh Government and saying, 'We want to see the same depth of cuts to local government funding as we've seen across the border' is frankly incredible. And it simply isn't a credible position to take. There is no suggestion that I hear from any local authority leader, of any political background, that they want to see their budgets cut by 26 per cent, which is exactly what's happened across the border, and I don't believe that the Conservative spokesperson does himself any credibility at all in order to try to sustain that argument. The issue that many of those people raise with us is the quantum of funding available—not simply the distribution of it, but the quantum that is available to us. And we know, from the Chancellor's budget last week, that funding on public services is going to be cut in this area time and time again. And perhaps, when the Conservative Government finally abolish the rate support grant in England, he will learn the folly of his position.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Dai Lloyd.
Diolch, Llywydd. Clearly, Cabinet Secretary, you are well read, and a fan of Charles Dickens. So, if local government is Oliver Twist, does that make you Mr Bumble?
I would suspect that the Member opposite represents Harry Secombe in a way that I could only hope to.
Just moving away slightly from any Dickensian wordplay, do you accept that local government has suffered in funding priorities, compared to other portfolios here? 'Hard times; for these times', as Dickens would say.
In terms of where local government is, clearly, we would want—. The Welsh Labour Government is not a Welsh Government that seeks to pursue a policy of austerity; that is not what we seek to do. What we want to be able to do is to fund local government, and other public services, properly, to enable us to deliver the high-quality services that we all want to see. But it is not credible to come to this place and argue that we can increase local government funding whilst not cutting funding elsewhere. And if the Member is arguing that we should change completely the budget, then he's welcome to make that argument, and I look forward to him telling me where he would want to make the cuts.
With the UK budget announcement last week, can local government have 'great expectations', or will they end up with 'little Dorrit'?
I am very impressed with Dr Dai Lloyd's literary knowledge—he puts me in my place. Can I say this: the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will be making a statement on the final budget, and on the consequentials, as a consequence of the budget of the United Kingdom Government? That will be made in due course.
The UKIP spokesperson, Gareth Bennett.
Diolch, Llywydd. Good afternoon, Minister. There are some events commemorating Carl Sargeant, your Welsh Government predecessor as the housing Minister. Of course, he did many good things in that field. I've just gone through a file of questions that I asked—[Inaudible.]—and I see that—[Inaudible.]. I was specifically asking on that date about the use of publicly owned land in Wales that might be used for brownfield housing. The Minister stated that his team at housing were in discussions with Ken Skates and his department, looking at what land the Welsh Government owned that might be available for housing development. These discussions also involved the health department. Now, I don't recall any mention of this idea of developing publicly owned land from the Welsh Government since then. This was back in April 2017. So, are you in a position to give any update on this idea for brownfield housing on publicly owned land?
Thank you very much for that question. I can certainly confirm that the Welsh Government, since that time, has been working on the agenda of identifying and freeing up publicly owned land for housing. There is a specific ministerial group that works together, also including my colleagues Lesley Griffiths and Ken Skates, and we work together to identify those parcels of land that Welsh Government owns, but also now we're seeking to look at land that is owned by the public estate much more widely—so, land owned by health boards, for example, local authority land. We've identified three parcels of land thus far that we think will be appropriate for housing, and we look, therefore, to bring those forward as soon as possible. I'd also add that we have the affordable housing group, which has a specific work stream under that which looks at land for housing.
Before you ask your question, Gareth Bennett, with the exception of the Cabinet Secretary's microphone, no other microphone is currently working. [Laughter.] So, we're not able to resolve that without postponing the session. So, the session is now postponed.
Plenary was suspended at 14:40.
The Assembly reconvened at 15:30, with the Llywydd in the Chair.
We may now reconvene our discussions. And, therefore, I call Gareth Bennett.
Diolch, Llywydd. Good afternoon, again, Minister, and apologies if my first question sounds somewhat familiar, but the record didn't pick it up so I will rehearse it again. We have had some events today commemorating Carl Sargeant, who did much good work as your predecessor as the housing and communities Minister. I've just been looking through the file of questions from when I used to shadow Carl, and I see that 18 months ago, we were discussing various brownfield site initiatives. I was specifically asking about the use of publicly owned land in Wales that might be released for brownfield housing. The Minister stated that his team at housing were in discussions with Ken Skates and his department, looking at what land the Welsh Government owned that might be available for housing development. These discussions also involved the health department at the time. This was in April 2017. I just wondered: are you in a position to give any update from the Welsh Government on this idea of releasing Welsh Government land for brownfield housing?
Thank you very much for that question, and I can confirm that the work has been continuing since you had those initial discussions. There is a cross-Government group, which includes myself and the Ministers with responsibility for planning, economy and finance, that is looking right across the Welsh Government portfolio to identify parcels of land that we could bring forward for housing. And we're looking at them in a strategic way alongside our other priorities, for example, the proposed metro and so forth.
That group has identified three parcels of land thus far, although there are several others that we are looking at, and, of course, I recently announced the review of affordable housing, which has a specific sub-group under that, that is looking at land for housing and what more can be done to bring forward land for housing. I should add as well that the ministerial group is not just looking at Welsh Government land; we're looking at land owned by local authorities, health boards, and the public sphere more widely in order to identify those parcels that are strategically important and that haven't yet been brought forward for housing.
Thanks for the response, and it's encouraging that you are taking on this as an ongoing project, and, also, involving other parts of the public sector. There is also a UK Government scheme, whereby they're getting local councils in England to compile a register of all their available brownfield sites—the idea being that this will make it easier for developers to know what land is available. That idea may well fit into what you're doing, as you just explained.
But local councils, as we know, are somewhat strapped for cash, both in England and Wales. So, if we followed a similar course here, then funding would presumably have to be released to the councils to allow them to compile those brownfield registers if they are the bodies that are going to be doing the compilation. So, what thoughts do you have on the scheme in England, and how it fits in with your plans in Wales?
Thank you again for that question, and it reminds me of the work we're doing to release stalled sites. So, stalled sites specifically include brownfield sites, which might be infill sites, or windfall sites, for example, and those are well known to the local authorities. Our stalled sites fund is a £40 million fund, which will be recycled over the period of the grant fund to achieve £160 million of investment, and that's informed by some research that was undertaken that demonstrated around 7,600 homes could be built across 400 sites in Wales, were there the opportunity to release those sites because they've been stalled for reasons such as groundworks or infrastructure being prohibitively expensive. So, that fund is there specifically for small and medium-sized builders to access in order to be building on those plots of land that aren't attractive to the volume house builders, but, equally, are important in terms of using sites that perhaps might be eyesores, for example, within local communities.
Again, you mentioned in your statement a few weeks ago that you saw a big role for small and medium-sized enterprises in providing housing. Of course, they haven't played a major role in the housing sector in Wales in recent years, so I'm glad that you've again mentioned that today. And what you've said in that response was again encouraging. Are there any other specific incentives that you're providing for the SMEs in order to encourage them to participate in the house building schemes?
Yes, we have our £40 million property development fund, which is specifically there—it's a loan fund at an attractive rate for SMEs. It's run through the Wales Development Bank. It was originally a fund of £10 million, but actually the demand was so high for it and it was so popular that we were able to increase the funding available to it. And, again, that's money that will be recycled over the lifetime of that scheme.
I also see a real role for SMEs in terms of helping us meet our decarbonisation ambitions. Lots of SMEs moved out of building houses to move into house repairs, and renovations, and so on, but, actually, in future, I'd like them to be part of the ambitious programme that we're trying to develop, in terms of retrofitting existing homes, and I hope to be able to say more about that in due course.
3. How does the Welsh Government ensure good governance by local authorities in Wales? OAQ52849
Local authorities are democratically accountable for the performance of their services, including their governance arrangements. They are supported through external audit, inspection, and regulatory bodies, who have a key role in ensuring the quality of our public services.
Thank you. Two months ago, a councillor in Flintshire said he would name and shame officers who did not reply to calls and e-mails if further action wasn't taken, stating that, after he'd previously raised this in 2017, new guidance was introduced, but it hadn't had the desired effect. Councillors voted to take action over these concerns, subsequent to which the chief executive pledged to tackle the issue by speaking to chief officers. However, in my experience on behalf of constituents, such delays are commonplace—I've had to refer them to the ombudsman in the past. I have one case with the chief executive himself, where an autistic adult had to go to the ombudsman to get the action after this non-response was escalated to stage 1 and stage 2 complaints, which were never responded to either, despite judicial review proceedings in May finding the council had failed to assess and meet the needs of a different autistic person, in terms of the care and support they needed. In these circumstances, and the further ombudsman's case last month, where a complaint was upheld against the council, having removed and destroyed a vehicle without notice, and it was recommended the council should review and amend procedures to ensure appropriate records are created, something we've heard repeatedly, with the internal audit manager whistleblower scandal, the housing maintenance scandal, the AD Waste scandal, and on it goes, when is somebody going to get a grip of these circumstances, and ensure that this culture no longer continues?
Presiding Officer, the Member seems to have a large number of issues with his local council. I would suggest to him that he takes those matters up with that authority. It is not a matter for the Minister here in Cardiff to second guess the decisions of a local authority in any part of the country.
4. What support is the Welsh Government giving to local authorities in South Wales West who are facing challenges as a result of austerity? OAQ52876
We continue to protect local government funding from the impacts of austerity within the resources available to this Government.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. It seems that austerity is still the ideology of the Tory party in Westminster, and it continues to affect and impact upon our public services here in Wales. Now, since I've been a Member of the Assembly, the Welsh Labour Government's successfully been attempting to ensure that the impact is minimised as much as possible on local government. If you compare that to England, you can see the different impacts upon it. However, when I meet with local councillors and their officers—and I met with them in September at a meeting in Neath Port Talbot Council—they clearly emphasise—not just councillors, but employees—that they are now in a situation where they are down to the bare bones. They can't make any more cuts—they are really going to start hitting services that people rely on so dependently. Now, you've already answered this afternoon that the Cabinet Secretary for Finance will come back to the Chamber with plans for using the consequentials that we expect from the budget from the Chancellor last week. But will you be discussing with your Cabinet colleagues how we can look at all the grants that are going to local authorities, or to services that local authorities provide, to ensure that we can improve those as much as possible, but also where grants can be transferred into the RSG, so that we can minimise the paperwork required on grants, and also release the flexibility to local authorities to use that funding?
Presiding Officer, all Members in the Chamber will be aware of the differential policies that are being followed by the different Governments within the United Kingdom. We debated earlier the consequences and the impacts of those differential policy decisions, and I felt that the research published by the University of Cambridge, on the same day, ironically, as we published the draft local government settlement for the coming year, demonstrated clearly that, in this country, we value local government and we value local services. We value the people who deliver those services, and the people who receive those services are at the centre of our thoughts. The fact that local government in England is being cut to the bone has an impact on us here. The fact that local government in England has seen a quarter of its budget taken away demonstrates that the United Kingdom Government does not share the same values or outlook as this Government here.
Members will also be aware that we have given some very clear commitments that we will look at the financial situation as we move through the debate on the budget. The Cabinet Secretary for Finance is in his place. He will have heard these exchanges, and we are debating and discussing how we take forward the budget. And I will say this, because I think sometimes there's some confusion about these matters, there is no differential view, if you like, within the Cabinet on these matters. All Ministers want to see this money delivered to front-line services. There isn't a single member of this Government who wants to see the policies of austerity ripping their way through public services in Wales as they have done so across the border. It is the purpose of this Government to protect, invest in and enhance public services in Wales and that is what will guide all of our debates, all of our discussions and all of our decisions.
Well, not all employment issues are down to how the Welsh Government chooses to spend the £16 billion that it gets. Research earlier this year by Wales Online shows that, between them, the three local authorities in my region spent almost £2.3 million paying staff who were suspended for a variety of reasons. Now, of course, I don't expect you to comment on individual cases, but do you think that there's more that Welsh Government could do, perhaps, in terms of guidance to help both councils and individuals deal with allocations and incidents? I'm very conscious of the work that we're doing here on respect and dignity, and I'm wondering whether councils are picking up on what we're doing and whether Welsh Government might be able to point them in this direction for good advice.
I'm always happy to work with all local authorities and work with the WLGA, as a representative body, in order to deliver the sorts of respect policies that we would all want to see both within this place and all our democratic institutions. I'm very happy to continue working with local authorities to deliver that. If the Member has specific issues she wishes to raise with me, I'd ask her to do that via correspondence.
6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on strengthening local democracy in Mid and West Wales? OAQ52868
I intend to introduce a Bill in the next calendar year that will give effect to a number of proposals set out in the 'Electoral Reform in Local Government in Wales' consultation paper that will contribute to strengthening local democracy across the whole of the country, including Mid and West Wales.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response. In reply to Mark Isherwood, a moment ago, he said that it wasn't the role of Ministers in this place to second guess the decisions of local authorities. But, of course, that's exactly what his colleague, the Cabinet Secretary for energy, has done in respect of a planning decision at Llandegley Rocks in Radnorshire. I think he heard the exchange that took place between us earlier on. In this particular instance, the local authority turned the planning application down by an almost unanimous vote. Does he agree with me that it does tend to undermine local democracy if Ministers, for reasons that cannot be described as of overriding national importance, overturn the decisions of those who are elected on the ground to represent the interests of the people who themselves overwhelmingly opposed this proposal?
Presiding Officer, the Member is tempting me into a terrible indiscretion. I have learnt through bitter experience not to speculate on decisions on any planning issue and it is not my intention to do so this afternoon.
Powys County Council recently unanimously passed a motion that stated that local authorities too often lose the confidence of the electorate, because they appear detached and unaccountable, and councillors of all parties supported this motion put forward by Dolforwyn county councillor Gareth Pugh. It was agreed that more needs to be done to engage and enthuse the electorate to make local government a more vibrant and relevant part of our communities. These concerns come about as a result of the local authority not engaging as sufficiently as perhaps they could have with regard to a large recycling facility planning application at Abermule in my constituency. From your perspective, Cabinet Secretary, is there anything that you can do in terms of providing local county councils with guidance in terms of how they can improve their engagement with the electorate when it comes to large, major decisions?
With the consent of the Presiding Officer, I won't refer to individual decisions of individual authorities, but what I would like to be able to say is that all of us, on all sides of the Chamber, want to see a vibrant democracy in all parts of this country and that means local authorities, ourselves as local Members, and Members of the UK Parliament as well, all participating in local debates about the future of our communities.
I very much welcome the decision of the National Assembly to introduce the Welsh Youth Parliament and I know that I'm seeking to talk to the people who are standing for the Blaenau Gwent seat, where I have a particular interest in seeking to—[Inaudible.] I don't think my days of standing for any youth institution are ahead of me, let me say. [Laughter.] I hope we will all be participating in that debate—
We were the future once.
We were the future. [Laughter.] And I hope we will all be able to join with those young people to engage in a debate about the nature of our democracy.
The proposals that were put forward by my predecessor, the current Cabinet Secretary for Finance, and I, in terms of strengthening local democracy, were to do exactly that: to strengthen political participation, to strengthen participation in decision making and to strengthen accountability of decision makers locally. I hope that, when it comes to a debate on this Bill, we will all, on all sides of the Chamber, participate in that discussion and ensure that we reflect on how we further strengthen democratic accountability in all parts of this country.
I believe that community councils can have a very important role in strengthening people's democratic participation and feeling that services are delivered in a way that's relevant to them. One of the recommendations of the independent review panel on community and town councils was that the whole of Wales should be covered by community and town councils—of course, that's not the case now—in order to provide place-based services as envisaged in that report. I wonder what your view of that is, Minister. In order to strengthen community councils, are there steps that the Welsh Government can take to increase the pool of qualified and appropriate town and community council clerks across Wales? I know that, particularly, some of the smaller community councils in mid and west Wales sometimes struggle to find the right person to support them.
Can I very much welcome the report of the panel on town and community councils, which reported to us on 3 October? The recommendations, I thought, were very persuasive in many different ways. I'm a great fan of local community and town councils. I know we've benefited greatly from the work of Tredegar Town Council at home. Can I say that I think there are a number of ways in which I want to take forward the reports and the recommendations? I'm anxious to ensure that we do have that conversation about the role of town and community councils and do so in the informed way that the panel have been able to go about their work. I will be asking the views of Members on how we wish to take this forward. We have proposals to make on doing so, but what I hope we'll be able to do is to engage in a positive debate about the positive impact that town and community councils can have, both on our accountability and our democracy and also on how we deliver services across the country. Whether we wish to create new councils or merge existing councils is a matter for conversation locally. There is current law that will enable that to happen. But I will look towards bringing together amendments to the Bill next February, if that is necessary, in order to give life to some of those recommendations.
7. In light of the Welsh Local Government Association's rejection of Welsh Government plans to reduce local authority numbers, what are the Cabinet Secretary's plans for local authority reorganisation? OAQ52850
I set out my plans for the next steps for local government reform in my statement on 17 July.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that non-answer. The WLGA, which is of course yet another unelected body that costs the public purse some £7 million per annum, seemed to be totally confused at your proposal to reduce local authorities. Was this because they were in the throes of responding proactively to the previous reform programme, as well as progressing the city deal agenda? Was their confusion further exacerbated by the fact that the Welsh Government had informed them, just a short time previously, that no local government reorganisation would take place for at least 10 years? Is it any wonder then, Cabinet Secretary, that local authorities responded by saying this announcement had caused disquiet, confusion and showed a lack of clarity at the heart of this Welsh Government, and that you had failed to make the case that the proposed mergers would deliver the savings envisaged?
Presiding Officer, I'm not sure the WLGA are confused, but I think the Member is. He's confused a number of different issues in a single question, which I accept is quite an achievement. Let me say this to him: I set out my intentions in the statement on 17 July. It appears he doesn't know that, and perhaps he should know that. I will be meeting with the working group next on 30 November to progress these matters. We have agreed terms of reference for that work and that work is being continued. I would suggest the Member tries to keep up.
I think we're all aware how your Welsh Government and previous Cabinet Secretaries have churned out three different proposals for local government, each of which have been widely rejected with 21 of our local authorities coming out with lots of criticisms about these proposals, and, indeed, by council leaders and the WLGA. If I may, I'll just—Carmarthenshire came out and said that they were very disheartened after the much-welcomed assurance that there would be no structural change for a decade. Ceredigion—'It wouldn't be of any benefit to our residents.' Conwy—there is no compelling evidence that bigger is necessarily better; on the contrary, the experience in north Wales is that creating a large, single health board—well, we know what's happened there, don't we—has created problems that will continue to have negative impacts for years. At what point will you listen to local authorities, work with them across all the political groups and across all the council leaders, and come up with a sensible plan to help local authorities to work on a more regional basis, to collaborate with the partners that they see fit to work with, and actually allow them to take the lead on any local government reform going forward?
The Member asks me to allow others to take the lead in her question. In a previous question, of course, she demanded that I take the lead. I think she needs to make her mind up.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary.
The next item, therefore, on our agenda is the topical questions, and to ask a question of the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services—Rhun ap Iorwerth.
2. What discussions have taken place between the Welsh Government and the UK Government regarding the training of pilots from Saudi Arabia in RAF Valley? 227
No discussions have taken place on the use of RAF Valley for training purposes with pilots from Saudi Arabia. The use of RAF Valley for training purposes is a matter for the RAF and the Ministry of Defence. However, I did meet with the Ministry of Defence earlier this week and I will be meeting with Ministry of Defence Ministers again next week.
The RAF Valley site is a centre of excellence for the training of RAF pilots. It's also a centre where pilots from other nations do spend time—we know that. But in response to a parliamentary question in Westminster from Plaid Cymru last week, the Ministry of Defence did confirm that pilots from Saudi Arabia were being trained there at the moment. Now, given the grave moral questions raised about the actions of Saudi Arabia internationally at the moment, does the Welsh Government agree with me that it is inappropriate to welcome pilots from the Saudi Arabian air force to train here?
We could talk about the abhorrence internationally about the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, but what is most relevant here is the part played by the Saudi Arabian air force in attacks on Yemen, where war has created an appalling humanitarian crisis, and whilst humanitarian forces try to respond to that, many ordinary people, including children, have been killed in air strikes. Amnesty International said recently that they have recorded 36 air attacks that appear to contravene international humanitarian law, including attacks on hospitals and schools, and we know that the Saudi air force is leading those strikes. The US Government has also been criticised for its role in supporting and training the Saudi Arabian air force. Will you, and will the Welsh Government, also condemn the use of RAF Valley for that purpose?
In addition to the ethical and moral issues, there is a practical element here too. In the past few days we have heard the police and crime commissioner for north Wales raising questions about the pressure that the presence of Saudi pilots could place on north Wales police officers. So, no, defence is not devolved, and policing is also non-devolved, but given the protests happening in Valley this evening, as it happens, I think there is scope for an intervention here from the Welsh Government in order to raise a voice in the name of justice.
Presiding Officer, the Member is aware, and I think Members on all sides of the Chamber are aware, that operational matters for the Royal Air Force are not a matter for this place, and it's not properly a matter to be discussed here. We will all have our views on world events, such as those taking place in Yemen and elsewhere, and we will all have views on that. What is a matter for this place, and what I believe is a proper matter for discussion here, is the role of all our armed forces and the bases that exist in Wales in sustaining and supporting British armed forces and to ensure that British armed forces are available to take part in operations in any part of the world, at any time. This Government supports the role of the Ministry of Defence in its bases in Wales, and I assume that the Member for sir Fôn supports the role of RAF Valley in his constituency, and I don't think he would want to be seen to be undermining the role of RAF Valley in any sense at all. What I will be debating and discussing with the Ministry of Defence is the basing of serving personnel in Wales. I would like to increase the MOD footprint in Wales. I am discussing with the MOD how we sustain and support additional bases in Wales. I want to see the barracks in Brecon maintained as a national headquarters for the armed forces in Wales, and I think all of us have very great reason—particularly this week, but not only this week—to be grateful for the service of all of our armed forces.
Last Friday, I was in Alice Street mosque in Butetown, speaking after Friday prayers. There's a Yemeni centre there and an established Yemeni community going back centuries. People told me how proud they are to have somebody with an Arab Yemeni background being elected to this Assembly for the first time. It was more than disappointing to find out that, at the other end of the country, in Anglesey, Saudi Arabian pilots are being trained to bomb Yemen, leading to thousands of civilian deaths. Now, some of these civilians being killed are family members of some of the people I met in Alice Street mosque. I find it an absolute disgrace that our country is being used to train pilots to bomb Yemen, a country with which we have such a strong connection historically. So, will you now, please, take urgent action to demand that the training of those Saudi pilots in Wales ceases? Diolch.
Presiding Officer, as I've already stated, Members on all sides of the Chamber will have their own views on world events and those taking place in Yemen and elsewhere, and I think we would all share similar views on the impact of warfare on civilians, wherever they happen to be, and we recognise that. It is not, however, a matter for this place to debate or discuss the operational decisions taken by the Royal Air Force in the deployment of UK resources. That is quite properly a matter for the Ministry of Defence, and it is quite properly not a matter that is devolved to this place. We may have individual views as individuals. However, it is right and proper that we support our armed forces, support the ability of the Royal Air Force and other parts of our armed forces to take the operational decisions that they believe they need in and within the structures that are established for them by the United Kingdom Government, which is accountable to the United Kingdom Parliament.
The next item is the 90-second statements, and the first statement from Bethan Sayed.
I wanted to take this opportunity today for each and every one of us to remember our friend and colleague Carl Sargeant, on this, the anniversary of his passing. I know that we are all thinking about his family and friends here today, and we all remember him in our own unique ways—from his mischievous grins to his unconventional speeches, to the care that he had for others. He always had your back. I wasn't able to pay tribute to Carl in the Senedd last year; I broke my arm at the very same time, and watched all of your heartfelt tributes on Senedd.tv. I first met Carl when I was a student president, lobbying Ministers and Assembly Members as they entered Tŷ Hywel, at the time, for debates, and he always stopped and talked to me when other Assembly Members actually didn't—and I will name no names here today. He tried and failed to recruit me to the Labour Party, but in recent years he became a really good friend, a confidante, and someone I could always rely on to listen to me and support me when I had my own personal challenges in my life. And I will always respect that friendship, and I hope that I can take that friendship forward with his son, Jack Sargeant.
That day last year changed politics forever. It made me think about how we treat other people, and how we can develop long-lasting bonds beyond the confines of narrow party politics. I know that Jack Sargeant's work on talking about a kinder politics can help and assist all of us—all of us—in this room today.
I think it's important also for us to remember Carl's dedication to the White Ribbon campaign and the initiatives he took to tackle the scourge of domestic abuse in Wales. After his death, Welsh Women's Aid said, and I quote, Carl
'was a charismatic and influential leader, and was a supporter of many domestic abuse services across Wales.'
He played an
'instrumental part in the Welsh Government’s work to end violence against women, and was rarely seen without a white ribbon on his lapel'.
Well, Carl, if you're up there listening to us, we are all right, mate, but we will always remember you, and we will do justice to your legacy, but we miss you terribly here today. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Llywydd, I want to pay tribute to women in the first world war whose roles and lives were brought to light by my constituent and Welsh historian, Professor Deirdre Beddoe, last Sunday on BBC2. As Professor Beddoe told us, at the start of the war, women were encouraged by Ministers, including David Lloyd George, to say goodbye to the men they loved in every street and every community in the land, with government propaganda stressing that mothers, wives and sweethearts should send their men to the war. Professor Beddoe has highlighted the key role that women, particularly Welsh women, played in winning the war. She described how women were feeding the nation in the Women's Land Army, nursing, and working in often dangerous roles in 11 munition factories in Wales, and she discovered that the suffragettes were the first port of call for recruitment to the police.
At the start of the war, women who worked often did so for a pittance as domestic servants and waitresses, so the opportunity to work in a range of different workplaces was liberating, and, by the end of the war, 80 per cent of the workforce was made up of women. Women played their part behind the front, but entered the war without the vote. When the war was over, they were told, 'Your place is in the home.' But women won partial suffrage in 1918, a victory we've celebrated in this Senedd and in the centenary this year. In this very significant week of remembrance, we must remember the sacrifices and contributions women made, as well as remembering the devastating loss of their menfolk in the first world war.
Diolch, Llywydd. Ninety-three years ago, on 10 November 1925, Richard Walter Jenkins Jnr was born in the family home in the Afan Valley. We know him as Richard Burton. Now, today, I'm not highlighting his life, as I hope to be here on the centenary of his birth to do that, but rather celebrating the thirty-sixth running of the Richard Burton 10K. The inaugural road race took place in 1982, following much work undertaken by the committee of the Cwmafan Welfare Association, who continued to operate that race for many successive years. The first race travelled the 10 km through my own village of Cwmafan, and it was used to raise money for the communities and facilities. Those early races raised sufficient funds to develop a gym for sporting clubs and local people to access, and thus we saw real benefit coming to the community from this race.
Since 1982 we have seen the race grow in stature, and, last Sunday, in its thirty-sixth year, it attracted approximately 1,800 runners—and that's not including the 400 plus mini-milers who took part in an earlier race on the same day—from all over the UK, running one of the oldest 10 km road races in our nation. Now, everyone is—. Quite a few people are involved: councillors, MPs—and one Assembly Member's actually run that race as well, and Bethan Sayed is that one Member. My stature does not match into road racing, so—. [Interruption.] No, I think I'll give that one a miss.
But whilst becoming a recognised race in the Welsh athletics calendar, it still remains true to its original concept and raises funds for local groups. Today, it's organised by a couple called Shaun and Anna Tobin, supported by a very active committee of volunteers, and they've transformed that route now to encompass both Cwmafan and Pontrhydyfen along the Richard Burton trail. It's a race that epitomises the spirit and beauty of our famous Welsh valleys with the spirit of the legend that is Richard Burton. Long may it continue to do so.
The next item is the motion to elect a Member to a committee, and I call on a member of Business Committee to move the motion formally—Darren Millar.
Motion NDM6857 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Orders 17.3 and 17.13(ii), elects Llyr Gruffydd (Plaid Cymru) as a Member of the Committee for the Scrutiny of the First Minister.
Does any Member object to the motion? The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
That brings us to the debate on the Children, Young People and Education Committee report on targeted funding to improve educational outcomes. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Lynne Neagle.
Motion NDM6852 Lynne Neagle
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the Children, Young People and Education Committee Report, 'On the Money? Targeted Funding to Improve Educational Outcomes', which was laid in the Table Office on 20 June 2018.
Diolch, Llywydd. I’m very pleased to open this debate on the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s inquiry on targeted funding to improve educational outcomes and our report, 'On the money?', which we published in June. The aim of our inquiry was to focus on whether Welsh Government's work on using a targeted approach to support disadvantaged pupils to reach their full potential and raise school standards more generally is truly on the money, and what more can be done to get the greatest impact and value for money from a targeted approach. If Wales is to have the first-class, heralded education system we all aspire to, we cannot and should not leave any pupils behind. That is why I'm pleased that the Cabinet Secretary for Education welcomes our report and has accepted 24 of our 31 recommendations and a further three in principle.
The Welsh Government has a well-established approach of targeting additional resources at particular groups of pupils who are at risk of not reaching their full potential. Tackling the negative correlation between deprivation, as measured by eligibility for free school meals, and attainment has been a priority for many years. Of course, some pupils from deprived backgrounds do very well and flourish academically, but we know many more do not. Pupils who are eligible for free school meals—eFSM—who often do well often do so against the odds and in spite of, rather than because of, their circumstances. This is why targeted support and intervention to break these structural inequalities, such as the pupil development grant, is so vital. This is why the committee’s report expresses general support for the principle of targeted funding. However, at £94 million per year, the PDG takes up a significant chunk of the education budget and it's crucial that we get the best possible value for money.
Our report also looked at the Welsh Government’s targeted school improvement programme, Schools Challenge Cymru, which between 2014 and 2017 worked with 39 underperforming schools in Wales.
Firstly, on the PDG, which is intended to be for every eFSM pupil, including those who are high-achieving but could achieve even more, our inquiry found that the PDG is predominantly being targeted at low-achieving eFSM pupils, and not at more able and talented ones. I am pleased that the Cabinet Secretary has accepted our recommendation on this and has already taken steps to address it.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
The Welsh Government has also committed to closely monitoring the impact of the PDG and ensuring value for money, which we welcome. Estyn told the committee that two thirds of schools were using the grant effectively. Both Estyn and the Cabinet Secretary indicated that this was to be expected as it reflects the proportion of schools with good or better leadership. However, the committee believes that we should not be satisfied with a position whereby a third of schools are not using the PDG effectively and would seek further assurances from the Cabinet Secretary on this point.
The PDG has been in place for over six years now, and almost £400 million has been invested in it. The school improvement consortia have now appointed PDG leads in each of the four regions. We recommended that they should do much more to challenge ineffective use of the grant. This is something that the evaluation by Ipsos MORI and the Wales Institute of Social and Economic Research, Data and Methods found was not happening sufficiently. I welcome the Cabinet Secretary’s acceptance of our recommendations in this area, particularly on how the PDG can be used to improve eFSM pupils' attendance and engagement with their education.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I will now focus on a couple of the recommendations that the Welsh Government has rejected. From 2018-19, the Welsh Government expects schools to use the PDG on pupils who've been eligible for free school meals in either of the previous two years; this provides welcome flexibility. However, schools have not been given any extra money to do this, as their PDG allocations are still based on a one-year eFSM headcount. If the Welsh Government wants schools to adopt a more flexible definition for targeting the grant, the committee recommended that it should commit to fully funding this.
Furthermore, in relation to allocations, the committee recognised the rationale for using the 2016 annual school census data: eFSMs figures were higher in that year, which had enabled more money to be drawn down for the PDG. However, we were concerned about schools that buck the trend and may have had a higher number of eFSM pupils in 2017 or 2018. As such, we called for schools' PDG allocations to be determined by whichever is the higher of their 2016 eFSM headcount or the latest available.
The committee made a number of recommendations about the impact of the PDG on attainment of eFSM pupils and unintended consequences of changes to key stage 4 performance measures. Attainment data shows encouraging progress in narrowing the gap in the attainment of pupils eligible for free school meals and non-eFSM pupils, at least up to 2016. However, the committee was very concerned by what happened following the Welsh Government’s changes to key stage 4 performance measures in 2017, which reduced the weighting given to vocational qualifications due to concerns that pupils were being excessively entered for these.
I know that rates of achievement of the level 2 threshold measures are not comparable between 2017 and previous years. However, what really concerned the committee was the widening gap between eFSM pupils and their peers. We found that there's now a disincentive to schools to enter pupils for vocational qualifications, even where it might be right for that pupil, and this has affected eFSM pupils disproportionately. The committee recommended that the Welsh Government urgently investigate this unintended consequence and learn lessons at the earliest opportunity. We recognise that new interim performance measures have been announced for summer 2019. However, given that the provisional 2018 results show a similar position to 2017, we'd welcome further assurances from the Cabinet Secretary that the 2017 and 2018 eFSM cohorts were not unfairly and adversely affected by the previous changes. How has the PDG mitigated, or failed to mitigate, against this?
The same can be said for looked-after children; their attainment relative to their peers has widened since 2016 after years of good progress in narrowing the gap. Moving on to the element of the PDG for looked-after children and adopted children, I welcome the Welsh Government’s commitment to using the evaluation it has commissioned from ICF Consulting to improve the programme going forward. The committee heard that this aspect of the PDG has been insufficiently strategic until quite recently, when the regional consortia have improved the way they target and administer the grant.
The committee's biggest concern, however, related to the way the PDG is used or not used on adopted children. There are around 4,000 looked-after children in Wales, and an estimated 3,000 to 3,500 adopted children. Whilst the Welsh Government expects consortia to target the PDG at adopted children as well as looked-after children, the funding allocation is based only on the numbers of looked-after children. This means one of two things: either the PDG is not being used for adopted children or if it is, then the per-head amount of £1,150 is effectively diluted by almost half.
I'm really pleased that the Welsh Government has said it will look at how adopted children can be more proactively identified and subsequently supported through the PDG. However, we are disappointed that our recommendation that the PDG is allocated to consortia based on the numbers of both looked-after children and adopted children has been rejected, although we note that the Cabinet Secretary will keep it under review.
Turning to Schools Challenge Cymru, I am pleased that the Cabinet Secretary has accepted our four recommendations, albeit one in principle. Whilst the improvements shown by schools involved in the programme were variable, some schools did extremely well as a result of the extra challenge and support, particularly in the central south Wales region. It is vital that there is no loss of momentum in these schools following the closure of a programme, and I am glad that the Government has agreed that the regional consortia should closely monitor the position. We did hear different interpretations of whether Schools Challenge Cymru was always intended to be time limited, but there was general consensus in our evidence that a programme of this kind really needs to run for longer than three years to have a lasting effect.
The committee noted the Cabinet Secretary's position that Schools Challenge Cymru served its purpose while the consortia were in their infancy and that they can now take on the baton of targeted school improvement in specific schools. But what the committee couldn't really understand was why the decision to discontinue Schools Challenge Cymru came seven months before the evaluation, which the Welsh Government itself commissioned, was completed. We were also concerned to be told of a lack of engagement in learning lessons from Schools Challenge Cymru with those central to delivering the programme, who told the committee that they felt somewhat frozen out.
The committee recommended that the Welsh Government and the consortia do more to learn lessons from Schools Challenge Cymru in order to apply these to school improvement more generally, and I am pleased the Cabinet Secretary has agreed to do this. The committee was concerned that, following the closure of the programme, its annual budget went back to reserves, rather than elsewhere within the education budget. Indeed, this inquiry has highlighted the wider issue of school funding, which has come up time and time again in various inquiries the committee has undertaken. The committee will be examining these issues and the process of allocating school budgets in its forthcoming inquiry into school funding, and this is, of course, a key issue for the 2019-20 draft budget, particularly given the concerns expressed over the level of funding for school budgets.
Finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, I'd like to thank stakeholders for the way they've positively engaged with the inquiry and their invaluable contributions, as well as the schools that we visited. I'd also like to thank the Cabinet Secretary for her positive response to this inquiry and our recommendations. I know the Welsh Government is committed to supporting disadvantaged pupils to reach their full potential and raising school standards more generally. I hope that our report has shown the value of regularly monitoring that Welsh Government's approach is truly on the money.
All our pupils, whatever their background, deserve to receive the greatest impact and value for money from a targeted approach. Thank you.
Thank you to the committee for this report. As a new member of the committee, I've found this a really interesting read and, with that very necessary focus on school budgets now, I think we all welcome this scrutiny of the effectiveness of particular activities and the stability of the income streams that underpin them.
I'm interested, too, in whether school leaders make spending decisions on the basis of what they think will work best and hope that they can then resource those decisions sufficiently a bit further down the line, or whether it's finance first, resulting, maybe, in an offer to children that is less than optimum. Because, arguably, in both those cases, neither decision is as effective as it needs to be. In the first, the quality is there, but may be unaffordable and therefore not achievable, and in the second, the cheaper option may not quite hit the mark for the more challenging objectives for particular children. Obviously, I realise this is an oversimplification of the dilemmas that school leaders face—it's not all about money—but as recommendation 1 in this report does make clear, value for money and opportunity cost are considerations for this Assembly, considering the financial constraints we're under.
We recognise what you hope to achieve through the PDG, Cabinet Secretary, and would expect, of course, a robust defence of it when it appears to be falling short, but what we will be looking for in particular is a credible explanation of why it works when it does and an honest appraisal of why it doesn't when it doesn't. Because, if it is literally just about money, we'll support you in your arguments to the finance Secretary to get more money. However, if it's about weaknesses within school leadership or consortia or local authorities, or even within Welsh Government or Estyn, you need to be frank with us. So, while I completely accept the value of tracking systems and data gathering, which I see you mentioned in your response to recommendation 1, I'm also interested in what you might call—'performance management' is not quite right, but how you gather meaningful information about that, on which you can then act.
As you know, Welsh Conservative believe in more direct funding of schools and trusting teachers and other staff with decisions, but with that comes a greater responsibility for transparency and governance. Because we can hold Welsh Government to account until the cows come home, but, as we see time after time, that is not the same as Welsh Government accepting accountability and acting when this Assembly calls it out. So, it's pleasing, Cabinet Secretary, that you've accepted so many recommendations in the report, which speak to concerns about mission slip, really—not entirely across the board, but in some instances.
And the point about loss of focus on more able and talented children from the PDG target groups is an observation that matters particularly to me, I must admit. Just to be clear, I'm not going to be running any grammar school arguments in the course of this debate, so please don't be distracted by that, but this question about what has happened to working class, non-affluent Wales's status as an acme of educational achievement still hovers over us. And while we can talk about our greater understanding of the effects of poverty and other adverse childhood experiences, it's not as if they didn't exist before, and yet our education system doesn't seem to capture and raise up more of those poor but really able young people to reach the opportunities to an extent that they were able to do previously. So, we will expect to see that acceptance of recommendations, including recommendation 3, turned into action and attainment improvement, and we'll also be expecting assessment of the attributable effect of your PDG strategic advisers.
Finally, your approach to stopping some of the schools gaming the system—this move from BTECs to GCSEs for the cohorts of pupils that we're talking about in this debate, and the apparent effect on grades and the nature of vocational qualifications. It's been raised previously, and I'm sure we'll hear a bit more again today, that entering the children that we're talking about for GCSE equivalents rather than GCSEs made the narrowing of that attainment gap look a bit more impressive than it's actually been. So, I admire you for not accepting that, but I'm not sure what happens next for the young people who are on the wrong side of that attainment gap, and what you now need to do with the PDG—because it's funding we're talking about—as well as other strategies.
What it has exposed, though—or confirmed prejudices, if you like, Diprwy Llywydd—is that pre-16 vocational qualifications have been treated as lightweight qualifications, and, having seen copies of the relevant science papers in my own household, I can see why. Vocational courses and exams surely should be about responding to learners' different aptitudes and learning styles, and they should still be about achieving excellence, but in a different way with different ways of achieving high levels of practical applicability. We are never going to get anywhere near parity of esteem if the establishment treats vocational exams as the 'That'll do' option, especially for those who are in the greatest need of social mobility.
I think the issue that most concerns me is how we manage to use this targeted money to level out the opportunities for young people in more deprived areas, or the pupils within schools who don't have the range of possibilities that better off households can provide for their children. I think there's a big challenge for those schools in my constituency that have significant numbers of mobility within year and within the period of the lifetime of the child's presence in the primary school. So, for example, at Albany school in Plasnewydd, there's a huge range of movement in and out of the school that occurs throughout the year. So, if we only have a snapshot of eligibility, this can lead to very challenging fluctuations in funding from one year to the next. So, for example, in a particular year, the lowest year they had was 80 pupils eligible for free school meals. Then, in the following year, there were 100 pupils. The school had planned for the current year that there would be funding for 100 pupils, but has now got to cope with £30,000 less in its budget with very little warning. That makes it extremely challenging for headteachers to ensure that they are providing for deprived children without overspending a budget they haven't got. So, I think that if there could be more monitoring over a slightly longer period, rather than just a snapshot on a particular day of the year, that would help those schools that do experience huge levels of mobility to be able to plan a bit better and not have surprises. Overall, though, I think that the pupil deprivation grant is hugely important in ensuring that every child gets the opportunity to succeed to the best of their abilities, because that simply isn't going to happen if we simply have per-pupil funding.