Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd02/04/2019
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister. The first question is from Llyr Gruffydd.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on burying radioactive waste in Wales? OAQ53729
Thank you, Llywydd. The Welsh Government has not identified any sites or communities where geological disposal of radioactive waste could take place, and there is no intention to do so. A facility can only be built in Wales if there is a community willing to host it, and it secures full planning, safety and environmental consents.
Thank for your answer. According to your Government's geological disposal of radioactive waste consultation document—and I quote,
'Radioactive waste disposal is a devolved matter—the Welsh Government is responsible for determining the policy for this within Wales.'
Now, I'd ask for greater clarity on that, because I've been given contradictory advice on that particular issue. We know that it's the case for both Scotland and Northern Ireland, but my understanding is that this isn't necessarily the case for Wales. Pre the Wales Act 2017, Wales had competence over, for instance, environmental protection, including the disposal of hazardous waste, so you could argue that maybe there was relevance there, but of course it was silent on nuclear. And the Wales Act 2017 makes it explicitly clear that all matters relating to nuclear energy are reserved and not devolved. So, I would like a firmer explanation as to why you think this matter is devolved to Wales, but also of course, more importantly, whilst you say that it's up to communities to will it to happen, then clearly I would encourage you to follow the lead of other Governments in the UK that have said that they just don't want it.
I thank the Member for that question. I can say to him quite straightforwardly that the advice that I have received is that geological disposal of radioactive waste is a matter for the Welsh Government in Wales, and I've never seen anything put to me that suggests that there's any ambiguity about where responsibility for that lies. That is why we published our document on 25 January, which was a Welsh-specific document.
Now, the position we have set out is the one that Llyr Gruffydd referred to, in which we say that the only way in which geological disposal of radioactive waste in Wales could take place would be if a community itself came forward with that proposition. The local authority within which that community lies also has rights under the policy that we have proposed, and a local authority could declare that it does not want to see any geological disposal within its local authority boundaries, and that would override anything that that local community might say. So, it is entirely in the hands of local people and local authorities as to whether or not this would go ahead, and the Welsh Government quite certainly has not identified any sites or communities, and we have no intention of doing so.
The point I would just make in the answer to the Member's final point, though, is this: this radioactive waste has been created by us. It is in the lifetime of people in this Chamber where this waste has been created. And we do have a responsibility to deal with the consequences of what we have done, rather than simply saying that we will play no part in bearing that responsibility, that somebody else must do it instead, or that we hand it on to future generations that come after us to clear up the mess that we have left. Because that mess is there; it has already been created. And while I agree with almost everything that the Member said when he introduced it, I also say to him, and to others, that it's not a responsibility that we can simply look away from and say that we will play no part in its solution.
Well, as you say, this is about higher activity waste that's been accumulating over 60 years, and you referred to the statement by the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs. I understand that she said a geological disposal facility provides a permanent solution to the long-term management of higher activity waste, rather than leaving the responsibility to future generations. Given that the UK Government, through the radioactive waste management subsidiary of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, has carried out geological surveys, and has been carrying out consultation events in Swansea, Llandudno and at six sites in England, what engagement are you having with those other potential six sites as you said there's a collective responsibility to address this, and geology will ultimately determine where it's safe to put this stuff?
Llywydd, the Welsh Government will have no engagement of that sort, for the reason that I set out in opening my answer to Llyr Gruffydd. We will not and have not identified such sites, and we don't intend to do so. It is for any local community that is willing to come forward to do so, and if no community comes forward, there will be no disposal here in Wales.
Even if a community does come forward, there is a very strict and lengthy process, lasting up to 20 years, in which any initial expression of interest would have to be negotiated. That local community would have the right to withdraw from those discussions at any point in that 20-year process, and that process would come to an end. And, as I said, any local authority within which such a community were located would have the power to override that expression of interest by that local community by declaring that, as a local authority area, it is not prepared to see geological disposal within its boundaries.
2. Will the First Minister provide an update on integrated transport in South Wales West? OAQ53741
Thank you to Suzy Davies for the question. Active travel measures, rail investment and reform of bus regulation all form part of the Welsh Government’s effort to create integrated transport arrangements in South Wales West.
Thank you for that answer, and I'm glad you mentioned active travel there. Your Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport said last week that he was looking at getting people out of their cars for short journeys and travelling in a way which improved their health. And, of course, encouraging people to cycle or walk to a convenient train station for longer journeys for work is one way of keeping people active, as well as the benefits of avoiding congestion and pollution, of course. And that promotion of active travel is part of my support for campaigning for a Swansea parkway and Brackla station in Bridgend.
Now, Welsh Government is looking now at how integrated transport can support the city deal. The review of the Swansea bay city deal recommends that projects should be allowed to change and evolve, and I imagine that principle applies to Cardiff as well. So, will you be encouraging the economy Minister and his deputy to look at these two station ideas with a fresh set of eyes, to see how they can contribute to the promotion of active travel as part of an integrated transport system?
Well, let me agree with what Suzy Davies has said, Llywydd, that both the Swansea and the Cardiff city deals are designed in a way that will allow them to evolve over the period that they will be in operation, and that transport matters are at the heart of both deals. The idea that we locate stations and invest in railway stations in ways that contribute to the active travel ambitions of the Welsh Government is very much part of what the transport Minister and the Deputy Minister are intent on doing. And where those opportunities arise, where existing stations are in place and we can do more to encourage people to cycle or walk to those stations, we want to do that. And where new opportunities will arise, as with the south Wales metro, then that is integral to the way that we are planning locations of those stations to make sure that, in the round, they do as much as we can to encourage people to use public transport, and to use public transport in a way that cuts down on the emissions and other harmful effects of overuse of car transport.
As we've heard from Suzy Davies, the UK Government recently set out plans for a west Wales parkway railway station on the Felindre site near Swansea. And whilst I fully support this speeding up of east-west links, what you cannot do is forget the importance of north-south routes. So, what work are you doing with the UK Government to ensure that the Felindre proposal fits in with the need to develop rail services into our valley communities in south-west Wales?
I thank Dr Lloyd for that. On 21 March, Llywydd, a meeting took place. It was organised by the Wales Office, but representatives of the Welsh Government were there as well. It heard from Professor Stuart Cole in relation to the ideas that he has developed around a new parkway station at Felindre, but it also looked at the Arup assessment of other potential parkway solutions—at Llansamlet, for example, looking at the advantages that it may have. The meeting ended with an emerging consensus that the success of any new station, as well as improving the attractiveness of existing ones, is dependent on additional regional and local services. And those services are needed, both to Swansea High Street and along the Swansea district line, in order to reduce journey times beyond Swansea to Carmarthen and further west. In that way, I think we have some emerging consensus that focusing on—in a way, the point that Dr Lloyd was making—the services, as well as the location of stations, is the way that we need to move this agenda forward.
First Minister, an integrated transport system is fantastic if you have an effective public bus transport system. In South Wales West, actually, most of the transportation is by bus, not by rail. And I've raised many times the issue of the Afan valley. I've got constituents in the Afan valley who have a bus every two hours—and that's in the daytime—and nothing in the early morning, nothing in the late evening. Now, will the Welsh Government look at proposals to actually encourage local authorities to support and prioritise the bus transport systems in those communities that rely upon buses only as a means of public transport?
Well, Llywydd, David Rees makes an important point in opening, which is that far, far more people use bus services in public transport in Wales than use rail services, and rail services are sometimes thought as the glamour end of public transport. The day in, day out services that people rely on are often bus services. It's partly why the metro concept has always been multimodal. It always was intended to integrate a range of different public transport possibilities.
David Rees will know, Llywydd, that the consultation on the Welsh Government's White Paper, 'Improving public transport' closed on 27 March, and that White Paper, of course, proposes new powers for local transport authorities to regulate bus industries in local areas in the public interest. When local transport authorities have those powers to plan properly the way in which the very substantial public investment in bus services can be put to use so that local populations are properly served, then the interests of the Afan valley and others will be at the forefront of the way that those new powers can be deployed.
Questions now from the party leaders. The Plaid Cymru leader, Adam Price.
Diolch Llywydd. Last night, the House of Commons rejected the idea of a confirmatory referendum as a means of unbreaking the parliamentary logjam by just 12 votes. Does the First Minister join with me in regretting the fact that 24 Labour MPs voted against? Had they voted in line, of course, with Labour Party policy and indeed the Labour whip last night, it would have given a clear majority in favour of a people's vote. In particular, do you regret, as leader of the Labour Party in Wales, that your deputy, Carolyn Harris MP, failed to back party policy? And is it your view that her position is now untenable as deputy leader of the Labour Party in Wales?
Well, Llywydd, let me say that I regret the fact that the House of Commons was unable to find a majority for any of the propositions put in front of it last night. I was very glad that Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party—that our positions in the House of Commons was to support both common market 2.0 and the proposition that Adam Price has referred to, because that is entirely consistent with the position that the Welsh Government has advocated over recent weeks and months.
The message I want to give to Members of Parliament of all parties is this: we face the most serious moment in this whole Brexit journey, where the risk of crashing out of the European Union without a deal, with all the catastrophic impacts that we know that Sir Mark Sedwill has warned the UK Cabinet about this morning, that those risks would become realities for people in Wales. And faced with those realities, what I urge Members of Parliament to do is not to go on simply being willing to support the one option that is the closest one to their preference, but to be willing to vote in favour of a range of possible possibilities that mitigate that risk and that lead us to a form of Brexit, or a second referendum, that would be able to protect the interests of people not just in Wales, but across the United Kingdom.
I note the First Minister didn't respond to my specific question, and I know that it's become normal, of late, for leaders and deputy leaders in the Labour Party to have diametrically opposed views, but I wasn't aware up until now that that malaise now seems to be infecting the Labour Party in Wales. I interpret the fact that he didn't answer that he doesn't have full confidence in the deputy leader of the Labour Party in Wales.
He referred to the Cabinet Secretary's letter outlining the consequences of a 'no deal' Brexit. Indeed, you have yourself previously described this scenario as catastrophic. In the light of that, can you say why you and, indeed, your frontbench colleagues at Westminster—in contrast, it has to be said, to a very substantial number of backbench Labour MPs—decided not to support a revocation amendment, which would, at the very least, provide us with an emergency break to prevent the catastrophe that you describe?
The Prime Minister this morning has reportedly briefed the Cabinet that if her deal is once more rejected, then the choice will be between no deal and revocation, and in that scenario she prefers no deal. If that is the choice we are facing, possibly in a matter of days, will you and your party continue to oppose revocation when it may be the only lifeline left?
Well, Llywydd, I think the Members of the Assembly will want to consider the deep seriousness of a revocation decision, because the ruling of the European Court of Justice was very clear on what revocation would mean. Revocation cannot be used as a tactic. Revocation cannot be used to buy time for further discussions. The ECJ's ruling said that any member state that used revocation could only do it on the basis that it was—and here's what the court said—'unequivocal and unconditional'. In other words, revocation would overturn the referendum. It would reverse the referendum without the possibility of going back to ask people in this country what they thought of that decision. It would have to be unequivocal and unconditional. You are removing the intention to leave the European Union in a way that you could not go on to reverse. So, it's really important that people grasp the seriousness of that course of action.
Now, Adam Price puts it to me as to what my view, at least, would be if we were in that very final moment where the only choice was between a crash-out Brexit or revocation. Because of the serious impact that a crash-out Brexit would have on people here in Wales, at that point, if I were casting a vote, I would cast it for revocation, because the consequences are so catastrophic for families in Wales. But for me, it would absolutely have to be that we knew we were in that final moment, because the constitutional and political consequences of using that course of action are really very, very profound.
I welcome what the First Minister has just said, and I urge him now to carry that message on revocation as a final means of avoiding catastrophe, and also to urge the deputy leader of the party in Wales here to vote for the second referendum, because, as we both accept, the consequences of inaction at this stage of abstention are really too horrendous for us to contemplate.
Can I turn to another matter? Last week, the High Court found that the Welsh Government acted unlawfully and breached the promise of independence in relation to the inquiry by Paul Bowen QC, made in a press statement of November 10 last year. Can you confirm that the Government accepts the ruling of the court in full, and whether you have issued an apology to the Sargeant family or plan to do so? Do you intend to waive your right to appeal? Are you able to tell the Senedd how you propose to respond substantively to the judgment in the case in relation to the arrangements governing the inquiry? In particular, do you intend to accept the suggestion made in the judgment that the Presiding Officer nominates a person to make final decisions on the operating protocol of the inquiry, or, as suggested by Mr Bowen, that the inquiry be converted into an inquiry under the Inquiries Act 2005?
Can you say when you personally first became aware that a prior remit of the operating protocol for the inquiry was given to the Permanent Secretary on 9 November, and that the former First Minister continued to have direct influence over the protocol, breaching the promise of independence? Finally, in view of the damage done to the reputation of the Welsh Government for transparency, openness and honesty, will you now publish a redacted version of the leak inquiry report as previously requested by the Senedd and recently requested by backbench Members of your own party?
Llywydd, I'm able to answer a number of those questions. First of all, I can confirm that the Welsh Government of course accepts the judgment of the High Court in full. I can confirm that I first became aware of the terms of the judicial review and the issues at stake on it when I was briefed on that matter on becoming First Minister. I can also confirm that I am in the process of receiving substantive advice on what the judgment says and the courses of action available to me. As soon as I'm able to resolve those issues, I will issue a statement to the Assembly setting out my decisions.
Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. Why has your Government failed to support GPs at a time they are describing as a crisis for the profession?
Llywydd, this Government has always supported GPs. It's why we have in successive years negotiated successfully new terms and conditions and new contracts with GPs year after year. It's why we provided a significant uplift to the contract last year, and why we wanted to provide a further significant uplift in the contract for next year as well—a 5.4 per cent uplift in 2019-20, well beyond what was available to their counterparts in other parts of the United Kingdom. Our discussions with General Practitioners Committee Wales will resume, we hope, very shortly, and we look forward to agreeing with them further significant investment in GP services in Wales.
Come on, First Minister, you can't ignore what you're being told by GPs. The British Medical Association in Wales spoke out at the weekend with what they called sadness over how recent contract negotiations with your Government had gone. Chairwoman of the general practitioners committee, Charlotte Jones, said that your overall approach to discussions had been disappointing and that the result—I quote—fell well short of a deal where the committee could actually look doctors in the eye and say it was good for the profession. Now, your Minister issued a statement yesterday about the launch of the scheme for general medical practice indemnity, despite it being so loudly rejected by the committee. This same voice says the Welsh Government has failed to support it at a time of crisis.
But it's not just GPs, First Minister. We've asked you to act to tackle the drop in the number of midwives in Wales, and now we see recent figures that, despite increasing strains on the NHS, there is a decrease in nursing and health visiting staff numbers, too. Why, First Minister, are people being driven from the healthcare profession here in Wales? What does this mean for the people of the country and what are you doing about it?
Llywydd, let me put on the record for Members something of the discussions that we have had with GPC Wales over the last month, and indeed with Dr Jones, with whom I've worked, and I know the current health Minister has worked, very closely and very constructively over the many years that she has provided leadership to the GP community in Wales. So, the Welsh Government first provided a set of proposals to the GPC in Wales at the beginning of March. Initial comments were received from GPC Wales on 11 March and again on 13 March. Further discussions went on and by 25 March, GPC wished to explore an alternative set of ideas with us. We remain ready to do that. We look forward to a further meeting with them. The leader of the opposition is quite wrong when he suggests that GPC Wales have rejected the state-backed indemnity scheme that we have proposed. It's as a result of their coming to us to talk about the pressures that indemnity insurance places on GPs that we have developed such a scheme, and done it in very close negotiation with his Government in England, who have proposed a very similar scheme for GPs there. We look forward to those discussions continuing and them coming to a successful conclusion.
In relation to the second point that the Member raised, Llywydd, last week there were figures published for staffing in the Welsh NHS. In 2017, for the first time, the number of people employed in the Welsh NHS went above the 90,000 mark. The figures published most recently show that that's 92,500 people, and a further significant increase in the number of doctors, in the number of consultants, in the number of therapists, in the number of scientific and technical staff who work in the NHS, in the number of ambulance staff. I notice the Member doesn't mention any of these. He doesn't mention any of those groups where we have had significant rises in the number of staff in the NHS. The figures show a very small reduction in the number of nurses and midwives, and we are very confident that the training programmes we have in place, which have very significantly increased the numbers of nurses and midwives in training, will reverse that trend and that there will be increases in those staffing numbers as well in the coming 12 months.
Well, let me give you some figures, First Minister. Recent figures from the national survey show that nearly half of people in Wales admitted to having trouble seeing their GP last year. This number has increased over the years. And your own Minister has actually quoted these figures in a recent statement that he actually issued to this Chamber. Now, despite being warned of this by professional bodies like the British Medical Association and Royal College of General Practitioners Wales, as well as being challenged by us on these benches on several occasions, your party has looked the other way and failed to address this problem. We even saw 15 GP practices close across the country last year. Patient satisfaction figures have slipped over the years, and community doctors are leaving the profession with an almost 20 per cent drop since 2017, forcing practices to close. Now, your Minister may well have put out a recent statement acknowledging that people's expectations are not being met, but it's not good enough, First Minister. How will you here today reassure the people of Wales that your Government supports the continuation of local healthcare in all communities across the country?
Well, Llywydd, it is absolutely the policy of this Government to strengthen local provision of services and to bring services closer to people. It is no surprise to anybody, nearly a decade into austerity, that public services feel the stresses and strains. And, of course, confidence levels in the Welsh NHS are significantly above where his party is in charge of the health service, in England. And those figures are particularly true when it comes to primary care. So he's quite wrong to suggest that the services that GPs provide are not appreciated by their patients; we know that they are every day.
But, we also know that our GP community has to do more to match the expectations of patient populations as far as access is concerned. And we also know that the way in which individual GP practices organise access varies very considerably and that there are some practices that are a good deal more successful in finding systems that allow them to meet that demand than others. That's the standards work that the health Minister published only a week or so ago. It says to our GP community that, in exchange for the very substantial investment we make in primary care and want to go on making in primary care, we expect, and patients have a right to expect, that there will be a set of common standards—that if you rely on the telephone to contact your GP practice, that telephone will be answered in a timely fashion, that if you expect to have a service through the medium of Welsh as well as in English, that you have a proper expectation that that service will be provided bilingually, and a set of other measures that were set out in Vaughan Gething's statement. We want to work with the GP community to secure those standards, because in that way, the very high levels of satisfaction that patients have in Wales with those services will go on being secured.
Leader of the UKIP group, Gareth Bennett.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, April is the month where we often experience a rise in grass fires. The vast majority of grass fires in Wales are, unfortunately, started deliberately. Can you outline what the Welsh Government is doing to educate people about the dangers of starting grass fires?
I thank the Member for that question. It's timely in the sense that, as we go into the Easter period, we know that that is often a moment when grass fire numbers go up. There has been very significant success by our fire service in Wales in this aspect of what they do, as well as in many other aspects, to take preventative measures to find ways of better protecting those areas so that fires don't get started in the first place. We have employed some experimental work, using behavioural science methods to find a way of communicating with those people whom we know are most likely to be involved in setting fires in these circumstances, and to expose them to some of the risks that that poses to others and to try to influence their behaviour in that way. So, our primary method is by working closely with the fire service and using the success that they have had, but also to find other ways in which we can have access to and influence those groups that are most likely to be involved in activity of this sort.
I thank you for that answer. I think that that is a good approach, and I look forward to more information on that from the Government as and when you have it. Now, most of these fires, by their nature, tend to occur in rural areas or above Valleys communities. Most of the firefighters involved are, therefore, retained fire officers, meaning that they are people who have other jobs as well. Two years ago, we did have a crisis of a sort with the number of retained firefighters in Wales at an all-time low. What more can the Welsh Government do to support retained firefighters and the companies that employ them?
First of all, Llywydd, can I pay tribute to the work of retained firefighters in all parts of Wales? They provide an essential service. They do so in the way that Gareth Bennett has said, often as part of other work that they do. We want to emphasise to those employers the public service that those people provide, and to try to persuade them to make their contribution as well by making it easy for people employed in those circumstances to be released in those emergencies when their services are needed, and to think of that as a contribution that they, as employers, make, and that's both public sector employers and private employers as well, to regard that as part of their corporate social responsibility, as it's usually described.
More generally, as the Member will know, the fact that there are fewer fires in Wales, and that the fire service has succeeded to the extent that it has in preventing problems from arising, inevitably produces some challenges to retaining the workforce that has been there in the past when their primary task is in decline. What we have wanted to do in Wales is to find other ways in which we can deploy the talents and the skills of those people, particularly looking for ways in which they can assist other emergency services, and the health service in particular.
Again, yes, there's much in that answer that I would welcome. Grass fires, obviously, are a menace. They can destroy habitats, they kill livestock and they even threaten properties and businesses. First Minister, you did mention the educational side in an earlier answer, which I welcome, as I say. Is there a need for a cross-cutting strategy, going across the various ministerial portfolios, in order to deal with this problem?
Well, I'm perfectly happy to think about that, but I think, actually, this is one of the areas where the success that we have seen suggests that that work is already being successfully undertaken. I know that the way that local authorities, as well as education interests, work with the fire service and other emergency services has been at the heart of the way in which we have approached trying to deal with grass fires and other examples of anti-social behaviour involving arson conducted in Wales. I think, Llywydd, it is a testament to the way in which authorities already work across boundaries and with the Welsh Government that we've seen the success that we have.
3. What discussions has the First Minister had to strengthen the accountability of universities? OAQ53719
I thank the Member for that question, Llywydd. Universities are autonomous bodies whose accountability lies with their governing councils. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales regulates the sector on behalf of Welsh Ministers, and discussions are under way to identify ways in which its guidance to governing bodies can be strengthened.
I'm grateful to the First Minister for his answer, and I will be interested to see the strengthened guidance. However, the First Minister will be aware that there are issues in the sector now that need addressing. I refer particularly, of course, to the situation in Swansea, of which I know he is well aware, and I entirely accept the First Minister's point that universities are autonomous and, of course, we would all wish them to remain so. But they are, nevertheless, in receipt of very substantial amounts of public funding and they perform an economic function and importance, particularly in poorer communities, that outweigh that.
The First Minister will be aware that HEFCW has in the past raised concerns about the robustness of governance arrangements at Swansea University, and I seek the First Minister's assurance today that the education Minister will be working with HEFCW to address any of those weaknesses. In particular, the outstanding situation, where we have senior staff who've been suspended for months on end with no due process, is surely evidence of an organisation that needs more support than it appears to be getting at the moment. I appreciate the First Minister may not feel that he's able to give a public answer today, but I do hope that, through HEFCW, he and the education Minister are ensuring that those ongoing processes can be brought to an end as quickly as possible, for the sake of both the institution and the individuals involved.
I want to thank the Member for the question. I want to respond to the important general points that she makes, and I understand both her strength of feeling and the knowledge that she has of the specific matter that she has raised. But in relation to the general point, the Welsh Government funds higher education provision and HEFCW monitors institutions. And that split of responsibilities is there in order to ensure that the autonomy of those institutions is respected for the reasons that Helen Mary Jones recognised in her supplementary question.
But it is because of concerns about the quality of provision and academic integrity that the Minister in her remit letter to HEFCW for 2019-20 sought new assurances from them that institutions are taking these matters seriously, and that there are strengthened measures being put in place. Officials of the Welsh Government are in discussions with HEFCW about how to make sure that there are strengthened risk-review measures in place, and that we can strengthen the guidance that HEFCW provides to those governing bodies. They do, as the Member said, spend very significant sums of public money. They do so in a way that has a direct impact on local economies and the prospects of local populations, and it is absolutely right and proper that the standards to which those governing bodies respond are the ones that we would expect to see, and that we can have confidence that they are doing so in a way that would stand up to examination.
First Minister, it would be rude of me to ask here what your current pay rate is, but I think it's fair to say that if you were a vice-chancellor you'd be the poorest paid in Wales, and I do think this is something of a measure. When the pay of senior officers at universities is considerably above what you get, then they need clear justification for that, and they do need to be held accountable. They are challenging jobs, and sometimes this can be appropriate, but they certainly need to be aware of the ratio of top pay to median pay in their organisations.
Llywydd, I entirely agree with what David Melding has said. I, myself, am very convinced that a standard ratio of top to median pay is a way of demonstrating to everybody who works in that organisation the value that those organisations place upon the contribution that they make. And when you have people at the very top of an organisation doing, I agree, demanding and challenging jobs, but when those people are in a position to see their own pay pull away from the remuneration that is available to everybody else who makes a contribution to that organisation, whatever part they play in it, then I think that does not send a helpful message to everybody else that their work is valued and that their contribution is just as important in its own way as the contribution made by any other person working for the organisation.
4. What is the Welsh Government doing to combat climate change? OAQ53737
I thank the Member for that. In March, the Welsh Government launched our first Government-wide statutory decarbonisation plan. It sets out 100 policies and proposals, across all sectors of our economy, to meet our current carbon budget and to set a longer term decarbonisation trajectory for Wales.
Many would agree with what young people are telling us, that climate change is the biggest threat that we face on our planet. Wales has a small but very important part to play in this. The fact that we're missing our carbon reduction targets shows that Wales is not on the right track when we could and should be driving the agenda and setting an example for the world to follow.
Speaking at the launch of your Government's decarbonisation plan last month, former environment Minister, Jane Davidson, said environmental non-governmental organisations were becoming excluded from the decision-making process in Wales. When the Climate Change Commission for Wales was in operation, NGOs and young people had a seat at the table. Now the climate change commission has been scrapped and replaced by the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, there's a real danger that the expertise of civil society and the voices of young people will be locked out of the room. Do you share my concerns and the view of Jane Davidson that a problem like climate change warrants all hands on deck, and if so, how will your Government ensure that civil society's voices will be heard?
Well, I thank the Member for that because I absolutely agree with the point that she makes that the emergency of climate change is something that can only be addressed by absolutely every individual and every organisation committing to playing their part in combating it. I was present at the event that she mentioned. I didn't hear Jane Davidson say that, but I wasn't there for the whole day either. The well-being of future generations Act commissioner was also addressing that conference. Really importantly, to take the first point that Leanne Wood has made, young people had a really important part to play in that conference, in preparing for it, in planning for it and in speaking directly to it. It was a great privilege for me, having made my contribution, then to spend more time at the conference specifically meeting the groups of young people who had been involved in preparing for the conference itself. I met a whole range of young people who had fantastic stories to tell, things that they themselves were doing in the schools and colleges that they belonged to, with ideas that they wanted to put to others, with challenges to those of us who have, as they would undoubtedly see it, helped to create the legacy of issues that they will have to work through in their lives, and the contribution that they have to make to shaping this agenda is very important indeed.
I'm quite certain that the well-being of future generations Act commissioner makes really strenuous efforts to make sure that she engages with young people, that their voices are absolutely not excluded in the way that she shapes the advice that she gives to us. I know how busy she is in engaging with civic society of all sorts across Wales. I'd be very disappointed if this important agenda was in any way excluding important voices in Wales. I'm very happy to have a conversation with the commissioner to make sure that she is aware of the points that the Member has raised this afternoon.
First Minister, your plan had 100 action points in it and obviously it brought all the action points together for the first time, I believe, in one document. One of the targets is to increase tree planting and the environment committee here has looked at that. You have missed that by a country mile and when you look at Natural Resources Wales, they have over 6,000 hectares and more of unplanted forestry ground. Can you give a commitment today, because I appreciate some of the other things in the plan are far more long term, but you have all the levers to undertake this—can you give a commitment today that your tree-planting programme will be back on schedule by the end of this year and that we will be hitting the targets that your own Government has set itself, and in particular NRW will get their replanting rates back up to scratch?
I'm very keen indeed that that should happen. I recognise what the Member has said about targets not being reached recently, and I'm very determined that we will reach them in the future. A new round of rural development programme funding for Glastir woodland creation was launched yesterday, with expressions of interest to be submitted by 10 May. I know the Minister is watching that development very closely in order to make sure that we do reach those targets. I made a commitment during the leadership election in my own party to the creation of a new national forest here in Wales, and I think that that is an idea that will help us to make sure not only that we reach the targets that we have now for tree planting but that we are able to do even more to capture the contribution that greater tree planting in Wales can make, both to the carbon and climate change agenda but to other agendas as well.
5. Will the First Minister make a statement on the future of NHS services at Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny? OAQ53716
Nevill Hall Hospital will continue to play a key role following the opening of the Grange university hospital in 2021. Its new role is set out in Aneurin Bevan University Health Board’s clinical futures strategy.
Thank you, First Minister. As you know, I attended the topping out of the new critical care centre in Llanfrechfa last week. You mentioned Gwent clinical futures. That new critical care centre at Llanfrechfa only works as the top of the Gwent clinical futures pyramid, with general hospitals operating, such as Nevill Hall, at the second level, and community services as the base level—at least that was the original plan. We know there have been some concerns locally around Abergavenny and, indeed, south Powys, about the relocation of certain services, such as paediatrics, obstetrics et cetera from Nevill Hall to the new critical care centre. What reassurance can you give my constituents that Nevill Hall will be redeveloped in a modern general hospital form and will not lose further important local services, thereby allowing the new critical care centre to get on with the job that it has been built to achieve and which hopefully it will achieve in the future? It's a fantastic facility that I was pleased to visit last week.
I thank the Member for that question. He's quite right to say that the vast majority of health services at a hospital level will continue to be provided by that network of local hospitals—Ysbyty Ystrad Fawr, Ysbyty Aneurin Bevan, Chepstow and county hospitals, as well, of course, as the very important role that Nevill Hall Hospital will go on providing in the future, delivering the majority of hospital services, a minor injuries unit, a midwife-led maternity unit, diagnostic tests, therapies, in-patient and out-patient care, continuing to be an out-of-hours primary care centre, diagnostic services in respect of MRI, CT and medical assessments. That is the vision that Gwent clinical futures set out. That does mean—and change is always challenging in the health service, as he knows—that consultant-led obstetric and paediatric services will in the future be at the Grange hospital, but that's how it should be because that hospital will provide complex specialist or critical care, providing the very best services for those people who need them at that level of intervention, while allowing that local hospital network to go on providing the bulk of services needed by those local populations.
Finally, question 6—Delyth Jewell.
6. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government efforts to tackle climate change? OAQ53743
I thank the Member for the question.
The latest state of the estate report shows that, as of 31 March 2018, the Welsh Government has reduced emissions from our own administrative estate by 57 per cent against a 2010 baseline and that already exceeds the target we set then for 2020. We also made significant reductions in the consumption of electricity, water and waste as part of our own efforts to tackle climate change.
I thank him for his answer. First Minister, your party has now declared a state of climate emergency. If the Welsh Government declare this officially it will be first Government in the world to do so. Can I ask: does declaring a climate change emergency mean that the Government won't be able to go ahead with its plans for the M4 relief road, and, if it doesn't, what exactly is the point of declaring the emergency?
Well, the Member is aware, Llywydd, I know, that I cannot make any comment today in relation to the M4 relief road because I'm bound not to by the rules that Governments are bound by during a by-election period. The general point the Member makes is an important one, of course, that global warming is a genuine challenge that faces the whole of the globe and that the actions that any Government makes in major investments have to be treated against the impact that they have on creating a global future for generations that come after us and make a genuine inroad into the problems that climate change poses.
Thank you, First Minister.
The next item is questions to the Counsel General, and the first question is from Huw-Irranca Davies.
1. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government on consolidating existing legislation in order to enshrine the rights of Welsh citizens to challenge environmental decisions after Brexit? OAQ53692
Our consultation on environmental principles and governance, published on 18 March, seeks stakeholder views on citizen complaint procedures to hold Government to account on implementing environmental legislation. This work is ongoing and, working with stakeholders, we will be aiming to ensure coherent and effective governance arrangements for Welsh citizens.
I thank the Minister for that answer. I'm sure he'll agree with me that one of the critical protections afforded to citizens of the EU under the current arrangements is the ability to legally challenge Governments, as we've seen with landmark legal judgments such as those in air pollution brought by Client Earth repeatedly. In terms of a 'no deal', Client Earth's legal team have already warned that the UK Government claims that European Union protections will be fully maintained after Britain leaves the EU are false, and warned that a 'no deal' is the worst possible scenario for Britain's natural environment, climate and air quality. But I want to ask the Minister to try and give me as clear an answer as possible at this moment on what protections will remain for the citizen to legally challenge Governments under different forms of so-called 'soft Brexit' and, indeed, Theresa May's deal itself if it is brought back. Will the rights of the citizen to take on Governments be weakened or will they be maintained under these different scenarios? If the answer is that we don't know that yet today or it's too complex, I think I and other Members would be really grateful if the Minister could write to us when it is clear.
Well, I'm certainly happy to write to the Member with more detail, but as he will know, one of the tasks in which we have been engaged for many, many months is the task of ensuring that the statute book, which contains much of the legislation that he is referring to—the European statute book—becomes part of the Welsh statute book, if you like, the UK statute book, and that has been operating on a 'no deal' basis from the start. The point of that, as he may recall, is to ensure that as of the first day after we leave the European Union the rights that exist in law are preserved, if you like. So, that is the intention of that exercise. Obviously, leaving the European Union will mean that we will lose the role of the EU Commission and its oversight role, and, clearly, one of the objectives that we are working on at the moment is ascertaining how best to put in place arrangements in Wales that enable a Government to be held to account.
There are discussions ongoing and have been for some time between the Minister for the environment and UK counterparts in relation to some of these arrangements. Legislation is being proposed at a UK-wide level, but the landscape here in Wales in terms of environmental protection is very different in many ways, as I know the Member knows very well. We have the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015; we have our own environment Act here and other specific legislation. So, the task is to ensure that the arrangements that we have here in Wales recognise the different landscape within which we already operate—we would describe it as a more protective landscape—and there will be an opportunity to ensure that members of the public can contribute to our thinking in relation to that during the consultation period, which closes on 9 June, and I'd encourage the Member—all Members—and members of the public to engage fully in that process to inform the Welsh Government's views as fully as possible.
The truth of the matter, of course, is that you've had two years to sort this out—over two years, in fact. The UK Government published their plans for an environmental safeguarding office last year. The Welsh Government was supposed to publish something in the summer, that became the autumn, and then it moved into the New Year—10 days before what was to be the Brexit departure date, your Government published a consultation. Now, you've said that you were approaching this and looking for effective and coherent arrangements. Well, there’s nothing much effective and coherent about the way in which the Government has dealt with this issue to date. So, can you tell us when legislation will be brought forward and arrangements put in place. If there’s anything that’s a risk to the Welsh environment, then the way your Government has dragged its feet on this issue is the greatest risk of all.
May I thank the Member for his question? I do not accept the premise of his question. As I was saying, this process has been ongoing for some time in order to ensure that we secure the principles that are appropriate for us here in Wales. It’s not appropriate for us just to accept without any further consideration the arrangements that are UK-wide. They have to be appropriate to our legislative landscape here in Wales, and the rights that the people of Wales have here, which are different to the rights that people across the UK have in many respects.
The process of ensuring that legislative basis has, as I said in my response to Huw Irranca-Davies, been ongoing for a significant amount of time. And as the Member will know, there is also a process of ensuring that future developments happen in parallel with the other Governments in the United Kingdom. I know his party opposed the basis on which that has been happening, but it has been happening in a very effective manner, and we hope that that will come to fruition in due course.
Question 2—Huw Irranca-Davies.
2. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government on ways to improve protection of human rights for citizens in Wales after Brexit? OAQ53693
Devolution was built on human rights foundations. The Welsh Government has insisted that Brexit should not lead to any regression of rights. Discussions have begun on strengthening and advancing equality and human rights for all citizens in Wales, starting with the commencement of the socioeconomic duty.
I wonder if I could ask the Minister about one specific aspect, which is the EU charter of fundamental rights. One of the consequences of leaving the EU, of course, is that citizens of Wales and the UK will no longer have the protection of the charter of fundamental rights. The charter, of course, has many areas that overlap with our Human Rights Act 1998, but it goes further, providing a right to asylum, rights to dignity, protection of personal data and health and protections for workers against unjustified dismissal and a free-standing right to freedom from discrimination. The latter is important because our Human Rights Act only protects against discrimination carried out by the state, whereas the discrimination protections in the charter apply to situations between individuals and organisations, such as between two people on Twitter. And because the charter is a living instrument, it means the rights it provides must reflect social change. So, it's seen in the creation of important rights such as the right to be forgotten, for example. And bearing in mind that when the Human Rights Act was made law, only 9 per cent of households in Britain had access to the internet, the ability of the charter to introduce new rights around issues like data protection is an important strength. So, when we leave the EU, Minister, what can we put in place here in Wales, and in the UK, to protect those hard-won additional value-plus human rights and those enhanced rights that are enshrined in the charter of fundamental rights too?
Well, I'm pleased the Member has raised this question because although it's a topic that we discuss in the Assembly reasonably frequently, it's an unexplored dimension, I think, to the process of Brexit. And I know from my previous discussions with him, and indeed his question, how he recognises the central role of the charter of fundamental rights. He'll recall that in our version of the continuity Act here in Wales, we included additional protections—although we don't have the competence to reinstate the charter here in Wales, we were able to find a mechanism by which the principles of the charter would have been available to interpret legislation. As he knows, that Act was repealed as a consequence of a broader set of arrangements. But the principles that underpin that charter, and the broader principles to which he refers in his questions, are very much in our mind about how we take things forward from here.
There are a range of rights that are described in the charter that are encompassed within the broader socioeconomic activity and rights analysis the Government is currently undertaking. There is a piece of research under way, initially linked to the gender equality review, but of a broader compass than that, which will clarify for us the framework that we have available to us as a means to legislate here in Wales. There is another set of discussions and reflections going on within Government about the extent to which we can incorporate some of the conventions that overlap—some of them certainly overlap with some of the principles that he outlined in his question. There's a piece of work under way to understand the scope, the potential, that we have for acting in that broader legislative way, not simply on a piecemeal basis, but on a perhaps more coherent basis.
3. What discussions has the Counsel General held on whether the Assembly has legislative powers in relation to changing the oath of allegiance? OAQ53708
I've had no such discussions. The Assembly does not have legislative competence to amend the oath of allegiance, and we have no proposals to seek to expand the Assembly's competence in that regard.
Well, I just heard from a sedentary position somebody shout, 'Disgraceful'. But, as somebody who is a republican, I'd like the option to have that oath of allegiance to the citizens of Wales and not a body that embodies hereditary privilege and power that is often an anathema to the people of Wales. My paramount loyalty is to the people. Can you outline whether the Welsh Government could request the powers over the oath of allegiance to change, and whether you would be minded to consider amendments within the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Bill, which is looking at the changing of voting for 16-year-olds, is looking at changing the whole system, to allow the option to exist—I'm not saying to scrap it, for the monarchists in the Chamber—to allow the option to exist for those of us who do not wish to have an oath of allegiance to the monarchy to do a different type of oath, for a modern-day Wales?
Well, I thank the Member for that question. And the point brings to mind the petition that the Member of Parliament for Cardiff West, Kevin Brennan, presented in Parliament in 2006, which called for a law change to give Welsh Assembly Members the opportunity of pledging allegiance to the people of Wales, rather than to the Queen. The Welsh Government has no policy intention to seek to change that position. The legislation in Wales is mirrored, in a sense, with legislation in Scotland in terms of the restriction prohibiting the Parliament—the Assembly here—from amending the relevant legislation. [Interruption.] It is of course—as she mentions from a sedentary position—different in Northern Ireland, for reasons that are perhaps specific to Northern Ireland, and that is, I think, a rationale for a different approach. I happen to share her view that we would be better off with an elected head of state, but I would also say that, if you were to ask me to list perhaps the 10 main barriers to a better constitutional settlement here in Wales, I would easily be able to identify 10 that perhaps are more pressing and far-reaching than that particular point.
4. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the work of the Welsh Government's legal services department? OAQ53700
The legal services department is responsible for the delivery of all legal services to the Welsh Government, including advice on complex matters of public law, employment law and commercial law, the drafting of instructions to the Office of Legislative Counsel to draft primary legislation, the preparation of all Welsh Government subordinate legislation, and the handling of high-profile litigation.
Thank you. Of course, the Welsh Government is fortunate to be able to turn to a team of legal advisers on varying matters. But I was quite surprised, through the results of an FOI recently, to find that external lawyers conducting work for Ministers have been instructing counsel at rather an astronomical cost to taxpayers. For example, I found out that, during the last three financial years, almost £1.5 million has been spent by the Welsh Government on barristers. Also I'm aware that this is the minimum figure given for the spend, as expenditure on some instructions are not recorded. Now, whilst I appreciate that details of any instructions are protected by legal professional privilege, would you explain what actions you are taking to ensure that each instruction is considered essential, and that some transparency is introduced to the procurement of legal advice to the Welsh Government, so that a fully costed audit trail is evident?
I thank the Member for that question. The judgment on when to instruct counsel is obviously very carefully taken on a case-by-case basis. Counsel is instructed, for example, in relation to matters where advocacy is required in higher courts, or where legal advice is required on matters that are particularly complex or which raise novel points of law that perhaps may not have been addressed by Welsh Government lawyers in the past. What I would say to the Member is that there is a significant, a vast, amount of expertise within the Welsh Government in relation to a number of the areas that are outlined in my initial question to her, and that, as a result of that, we send out fewer instructions to counsel than we might otherwise do. And I often hear barristers in practice in Wales saying to me that they wish that we would externalise or send out more work than perhaps we do. But these judgments are careful judgments to balance value for money on one hand with the need for expertise and the level of advocacy required in some of the higher courts on the other hand. This is an area that I keep under review consistently, in relation both to the instruction of barristers and solicitors, and I do so with those two critical principles in mind.
5. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Minister for Education in relation to steps the Welsh Government could take to improve the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008? OAQ53699
Well, as the Member knows, whilst I don't go into the specifics of legal advice, in delivering the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, the Welsh Government has demonstrated that the safety of children when travelling to school is of paramount importance, and will continue to be.
Thank you. The reason I've asked you this question is I've been dealing with a number of cases within my own constituency where school pupils are being denied transport directly from their home, despite the stress caused by sometimes quite a lot of walks along forest trails and quite isolated areas. According to section 3 of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008, local authorities must take into account the fact the travel arrangements they make must not cause unreasonable levels of stress. Well, I can tell you, in some of the families that I am dealing with, this is causing a lot of concern for the safety of the child. And it's seen as subjective as to what is considered safe or unsafe: badly lit roads, roads that are completely isolated, and we're talking, in some instances, farm tracks and forest trails. So, this is problematic, because there is no definition of stress nor a definitive list of what criteria could be considered. So, it comes down to the local authority to determine how stress assessments are carried out, in accordance with their own learner travel policy. Counsel General, will you work with the Minister for Education to perhaps provide a list of what criteria local authorities should be taking into account when dealing with stress as a measure, as regards the 2008 Measure itself?
I thank the Member for that question. The Measure, of course, provides a baseline obligation on local authorities to provide transport in specified circumstances, as the Member will be aware, and, obviously, equally, there is an element of discretion for the local authority to make judgments within that framework. She will, I think, be aware the Minister for Education has committed the Government to a wider refresh of the operational guidelines in relation to the learner travel provision, and I'm sure that's the sort of thing she'll have in mind as part of that broader process.
I thank the Counsel General.
The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement. And I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to make the statement—Rebecca Evans.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are two changes to this week's business. The Counsel General and Brexit Minister will make a statement shortly to update the Assembly on EU negotiations. Additionally, the Business Committee has agreed to seek a suspension of Standing Orders tomorrow to enable the Standards of Conduct Committee report 01-19 to be debated. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Minister, please could we have a statement from the Minister of health on the risk to future cancer facilities presented by the shortage of specialists in Wales? Figures produced by the Royal College of Radiologists show that only three extra cancer doctors joined NHS Wales in the past five years. We can see the vacancy rates for clinical oncologists are also the highest in the United Kingdom. A spokesman for the royal college said, and I quote:
'Our shortage of cancer specialists poses a real risk for the future. This impacts on clinical care, research, education, leadership and service development.'
Quote closed. Please can we have a statement from the Minister of health on this very serious issue?
And my second statement, Minister, I would like to have, because Welsh Government—. We are asking in this Chamber to devolve more legal powers to our Chamber and this great institution. On the other hand, when there are some high-profile cases in England that this Assembly goes for, we hire an English barrister. Is there any shortage of Welsh barristers with the competence and the quality? Why don't we hire them and use our own home-grown talented barristers and face those legal wranglings in the High Court in London?
Thank you very much for raising the issue, particularly of clinical oncologists. I would suggest that the earliest opportunity for you to raise that with the health Minister would be this afternoon in the statement on 'Train. Work. Live.', which is the Welsh Government's efforts to ensure that we do have the appropriate staff within the NHS with the skills that we need for the future.
And, on the issue of the Welsh barristers, I would imagine that availability and skills and expertise might have something to do with this, but I would suggest again that you raise this directly with the Counsel General, who'll be able to provide a view on that.
Trefnydd, last week, I raised with the Minister for environment what the latest position was in terms of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. Now, it seems a long time ago since the Hendry review reported that the lagoon was a no-regrets option—in fact, a 'no-brainer', as I recall him saying at the time. Now, clearly, the UK Government's refusal to contribute funding has meant that alternative models are being looked at, as you know. But, unfortunately, I am also sensing that Welsh Government enthusiasm for the project is also faltering. Gone are the public announcements around the commitment to invest and we have heard next to nothing from the Welsh Government in terms of what practical actions they are taking to help deliver the scheme. Last October, the then Cabinet Secretary for Finance, now First Minister, told the Ocean Energy Europe conference, and I quote, some moving words:
'We are striving to make Wales a leading player in the marine energy field with energy generated from waves and the tide playing an important role in our ambitions for a low-carbon economy.'
End of quote. I would argue that the Swansea bay tidal lagoon is vital in terms of delivering that ambition. Therefore, will the Government commit to bringing forward a debate in Government time on the Swansea bay tidal lagoon and provide clarity as to the level and type of commitment towards that scheme? Plaid has always argued that the people of Wales should benefit from any wealth generated from our natural resources, and I would be interested to hear what action, if any, the Welsh Government is taking in this regard.
Welsh Government continues to remain an enthusiastic supporter of the proposal for a Swansea bay tidal lagoon, and we're pleased that there are other options and other ways of funding that being looked at at the moment. There's no lack of enthusiasm here, and we are still keen to ensure that Wales can be a world leader in marine and tidal technology. I think that the enthusiasm certainly is here across Government to make that happen and, should a viable proposal come forward, then Welsh Government would certainly be keen to have those discussions. The funding that we identified previously still remains on the table for that scheme, should a viable proposal come forward. Of course, the environment Minister will be intending to make a statement on a low-carbon Wales before the summer recess, which might be another opportunity to explore this issue.
Trefnydd, can I ask for two statements from Welsh Government, the first on the report published last week by the chief inspector of probation in relation to the youth justice and early intervention services in the Western Bay area.?The report was quite damning. It actually highlighted that, out of 12 areas, nine were considered to be 'inadequate', with a tenth being 'room for improvement'. So, basically, you've only got two out of 12 they could actually give any credit for. And we are talking about the lives of young people and the protection of those young people and the vulnerability of those young people and this report is highlighting the concerns being expressed, and it is important that the Welsh Government gives a response on that. So, could we have a statement from the Welsh Government as to what actions they're going to take on the basis of this report?
On the second point, I just want to request a report or perhaps a statement from the Welsh Government on air pollution again. Emissions from Tata—I know last time I raised this, the then deputy Minister for the environment highlighted that he was attending meetings, but it's nice to have a report or a statement from the Welsh Government as to the outcome of those meetings, because, again, my constituents are facing daily pollution from the steelworks, noise pollution from the steelworks, on a regular basis. We understand it's an industrial complex, we understand it is a huge aspect of the economy, but there's also the aspect of being a reasonable and well-behaved neighbour, and on this occasion we seem to be falling down on that, and we need to have a report as to how the Welsh Government is interacting with Tata to ensure that it behaves itself.
Thank you very much for raising both of those issues, and, of course, it's the Ministry of Justice that oversees the youth offending teams in the three local authority areas run by Western Bay. It must take urgent action as a result of the findings set out in the HMI probation report. We want to ensure that services are in place to support young people who are at risk of entering the criminal justice system and to ensure that they are robust and reliable and fit for service. I can tell you that Welsh Government officials have been in discussion with their counterparts, and it's the intention of the Minister, Jane Hutt, to write to the Ministry of Justice on that particular issue.
And, on your concerns regarding clean air, I'll certainly ask the Minister to write to you with an update, but I can say again that I've been having discussions with colleagues across Government in terms of shaping our programme of statements and debates as we move forward towards the end of the summer term, and the Deputy Minister has been clear that she'd like to bring forward a statement on clean air during that time.
Will the Trefnydd make a statement, please, on procurement in the Welsh health service in terms of its adherence, really, to local procurement in Wales? With health boards currently reporting a £90.4 million overspend for 2018-19, it is clear that finances are teetering on the brink. I was really disappointed, therefore, to learn quite recently that potentially more expensive blood glucose meters and test strips are being procured across Wales. For example, I understand that the cost of strips currently being purchased by the Welsh NHS are actually costing in the region of 70 per cent more than is necessary and that these can actually be procured locally in north Wales by a company that is encountering significant difficulties in being accepted on the preferred list. Now, this is despite the fact that they supply their products internationally and are used in the health sector across other parts of the UK. Given the potential to save money and support Welsh business, I would be pleased if you would be willing to investigate this situation more should I provide you with more information, and explain what steps you are taking to ensure that all procurement in our health service is based on a measure of value for money that also fits in with the principles of local Welsh procurement.
Thank you for raising that. Of course, you'll be aware of the statement that the First Minister made in September regarding the National Procurement Service and Value Wales and the importance that we put on good procurement practice across Wales. You mentioned the state of NHS finances, and the current NHS forecast represents a material improvement from the 2017-18 outturn, and, again, we would look forward to continued improvement next year. NHS organisations collectively have made over £1.5 billion-worth of efficiency savings since the new organisations were established at the beginning of the decade. And, in the last financial year, over two thirds of these savings of 71 per cent were found on a recurrent basis and we would expect that to be maintained in 2018-19.
On the specific issue of the blood glucose strips, if you do send me some further information, I'd be certainly happy to explore that with the health Minister.
I'd like to raise the matter of the Welsh independent living grant with you, Trefnydd. I wrote to the Welsh Government in the middle of last month asking for a clear timetable for carrying out assessments and restoring financial packages for disabled people who lost out when the independent living fund was abolished. I've not yet received a reply. On behalf of disabled people and their families who welcome the Government's change of heart on this matter, can you give any indication as to when those warm words will be matched by deeds? I would very much welcome a statement.
I want to raise the issue of poverty and neglect in our former industrial areas, especially in the Valleys. Unemployment is too high, food bank usage is unacceptably high, opportunities are few and far between, and too many young people are desperate to leave. To compound matters, austerity has put paid to many of the support networks that were once able to catch people when they fell. This has become a critical issue now for many communities. In my street surgeries in the Rhondda in recent months, I've found plenty of people who feel like they're under siege. 'We've nothing left' is how one woman in Maerdy summed things up; 'Our communities are being allowed to die' said another. So, what can the Valleys taskforce do to help places like the Rhondda that have unemployment levels almost twice as high as the Welsh national average and more than twice as high as the UK level? There are some fantastic projects being carried out by volunteers. How can they be supported, rather than hindered? Can, for example, funds be set aside to enable local authorities to take back some of the services that they abandoned in recent years? After all, we have been told that austerity is over. We can't just abandon these communities. You've got a part to play in making sure that unemployment and poverty are tackled, yet I'm seeing nothing radical enough to do the job. So, I would appreciate some concerted action, a clear plan on what you're doing to help prevent some of our communities from sinking.
With regard to the first query relating to your correspondence with the Deputy Minister on the Welsh independent living grant, I understand, as you say, you sent the letter in the middle of the month, so, perhaps if we let the standard 17-working-day response time elapse and if you haven't had a response within that time, I'd be certainly pleased to ensure that you do receive a timely response from the Minister.
On the issue of your concern about unemployment in the Valleys and your recognition that there are fantastic projects taking place there, I know that it is the intention of the Deputy Minister to bring forward a statement that encapsulates the work that is being undertaken by the Valleys taskforce, our Better Jobs Closer to Home schemes and also the foundational economy, again, this side of the summer recess.
I wonder if you could give me an assurance that the Government will make time available for a debate on one of the most important issues affecting all our communities, and that is the issue of housing, but specifically on the desperate need I think we now have in our communities for a twenty-first century ethical housing policy. We've discussed a number of matters around housing, whether it be leasehold and the problems associated with that. Many of those are still ongoing, but we now are coming across what I think are almost the equivalent of scams by some of our housing companies—freehold housing that is now being subjected to all sorts of management arrangements in terms of local services around those houses that encumber and often blight freehold housing in our communities. It seems to me that these are things that we actually need to prohibit, to have no part in an ethical housing policy.
We also need to look at what is happening, also, on the land that is being banked by these housing development companies. Now, you will have seen the reports, as I have—and I'm not sure whether this is happening yet in Wales, but it doesn't mean it will not do—of netting of those areas to actually prevent the development of wildlife in those areas for future planning applications. This is something that I think just highlights the extent to which the small number of large housing companies are not only exploiting their monopoly, making excessive profits, but are also, I think, out of control, and what we need is a broad housing policy to make our housing, in whatever form it is, twenty-first century housing—fit, unencumbered, of the highest ethical standards. I think we need to pull this together, we probably need legislation, but it would be a start if the Government would make its own time available for us to have a discussion on all these issues around housing so we can start looking at setting the parameters for the development of future housing policy.
Thank you for raising your concerns about leasehold and also the issues facing many people who own freehold properties that are subject to management fees on various estates across Wales. I know it's something that you've raised many times in this Chamber. As a result of some of the discussions that we had early on, I was able to take some early action in my previous portfolio to deal with some of the issues in the leasehold market. So, we came to an agreement with the developers that no new houses would be brought forward through Help to Buy and no new houses would be brought forward by developers as leasehold unless absolutely necessary. So, the latest statistics show that only three houses have been sold as leaseholds through Help to Buy now, and all of those three were bought off-plan prior to the new rules being introduced. So, we're managing to have some success, certainly in changing the way that the market operates through the levers that we have with Help to Buy, but I know that there are much wider concerns about people who already own leasehold properties. This is one of the reasons that the Minister is working with her multidisciplinary task and finish group on residential leasehold reform, which is working alongside the work being undertaken by the Law Commission to explore what changes might be needed through legislation, but also what else we could be doing more urgently to address some of the issues. I know the Minister will be keen to update you as and when the leasehold group does report, which I understand won't be too long.
I call for two statements, firstly on diet as a treatment for diabetes 2, following the encouraging results from two diabetic diet trials conducted by diabetic dietician Claire Chaudhry at Wrexham Maelor Hospital. Last Friday, I had the pleasure of visiting the hospital to meet the dietetic service lead for diabetes in Betsi Cadwaladr, together with the head of dietetics east and the assistant director for therapies in the east. They made the point to me that diet is the cornerstone of treatment for diabetes. With 30,000 to 40,000 people in north Wales alone with diabetes 2, this is costing 10 per cent of the NHS budget, much of it due to complications, but the pilot work has seen patients coming off insulin, losing weight, and increasing patient understanding of their own physiotype and changing lifestyles. They emphasise this is invest to save: blood pressure tablet use dropping, people coming off £3,000 sleep apnoea machines, amputations reducing, and beneficial impacts for sight loss, kidney dialysis, stroke and much else besides. They've taken the lead on this in Wales. GP referrals are up accordingly, but they don't currently have the capacity to meet that demand. As an invest to save, I think it's a wonderful initiative, which merits attention from the Welsh Government alongside the health board that has led on this.
Secondly and finally, could I call for a Welsh Government statement on its engagement with autistic rights and the autistic rights movement? I'm sure you in particular will be aware that today is World Autism Awareness Day, part of World Autism Awareness Week, encouraging people to raise awareness of autism. Today, I have sponsored an event, just above us in the Senedd—a Going Gold for Autistic Acceptance 2019 event, where user-led organisations are promoting autistic acceptance and strengthening the autistic voice. As they say,
'nothing about autism without autistics.'
Acceptance is an action. Don't just be aware, act. And if all we're going to do is simply raise awareness, we're just going to make waiting lists grow longer and longer. We need to move to understanding, acceptance, representation, inclusion and equality. Where autistic adults are speaking, are we listening? Therefore, I would welcome a statement, not simply in the context of the normal service-led or medical discussions we have here, but in terms of that engagement with the authentic autistic voice and the autistic rights movement on World Autism Awareness Day.
Thank you very much. On the first issue of the dietetics work, it sounds very interesting and certainly extremely encouraging, so I'll discuss with my colleague the Minister for health in terms of the best way to better understand that and the potential that it has for people affected by diabetes and the prevention of diabetes across Wales. I know it's the intention of the health Minister to bring forward a statement on diabetes, again before the end of the summer term, so this is something that could be considered within that context.
And, on World Autism Day, I'm very happy to join you in outlining how important it is, when designing services for people with autism, to do so in a way that is co-produced. I know that you, like I, are a big fan of co-production as a way of developing services and support for people. We acknowledge that there is a long way to go. However, I do think that we have made some real progress, including through the £13 million investment in the integrated autism service, which is currently being rolled out across Wales. To mark World Autism Day, or certainly through the week, we will be publishing the full independent evaluation of the roll-out of the integrated autism service, and I think that will be useful in terms of identifying the most important next steps forward. We've also commissioned an additional review of the barriers to reducing diagnostic waiting times—that review will be also published shortly—and have also consulted on the contents of an autism code of practice under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014. It's really important that the voices of people with autism come through in that consultation, so that the code can set out what support will become available because of what people have told us. But I completely agree with you that the authentic voice of people with autism should be at the heart of that work.
On 20 March, this Assembly instructed the Welsh Government to write to the European committee for the prevention of torture to raise the concerns of Imam Sis and the other Kurdish hunger strikers on the international stage. Imam, who lives in Newport, is now on his one-hundred-and-seventh day of hunger strike. The situation is now beyond serious. It's profoundly immediate. It's urgent. I note that the motion, though passed, is not binding on the Government, and so I'd like an update, please, on whether the Government have acted on the instruction given to it by the Assembly. I'd also note that, during the debate, the Minister told me that the Welsh Government would not be willing to take action on this because it isn't a devolved matter. But since that principle was waived in the debate immediately following that, relating to the WASPI women, where the Government indicated it would write a letter, could we please be reassured that the same principle will be followed here? I'm very worried about Imam.
Thank you for raising this issue again. I think, as the Minister was able to outline in her response to the debate, it is an extremely serious and concerning situation, and it's a situation that many people across Wales feel extremely passionately about as well. The Minister did set out that it would be for the Assembly to send any letter on behalf of the Assembly. It wouldn't normally be the Welsh Government that did it on its behalf. But I'll certainly have a further conversation to explore what action might be taken.
Today the Business Committee met and discussed my motion to use section 37 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 to compel the Permanent Secretary to release the leak inquiry into the sacking of Carl Sargeant. They're going to return to the motion after Easter, and I hope they can support it. In fact, I'd encourage all AMs here to support it and sign up as supporters to the motion. I'd also like a Government statement on this, because why don't we just act with some openness and transparency and publish the report when it's clearly in the public interest?
I'd ask you to look again at the response that the First Minister gave to the leader of Plaid Cymru when he asked a question on this precise issue just earlier on this afternoon. The First Minister set out that he is currently considering the judgment that was made and taking some further advice with a view to updating the Assembly in due course.
Trefnydd, I would like to support David Rees's request for a Government statement on the very problematic inspection report on youth offending services in Western Bay, and I would ask you and the Government to reconsider your decision not to bring forward a statement. I won't reiterate the points that David Rees has already raised about the seriousness, but I would point out to you and to others that out of the 14 recommendations that the inspectorate made, six of those are for devolved organisations—they're for local authorities, they're for the health authority, they are for children's services. Now, as David Rees has rightly pointed out, these are some of our most vulnerable children and young people. I think we have all, actually, probably most of us across this Chamber, been glad to see Wales taking a slightly different approach, despite the fact that this isn't a formally devolved matter. It must, therefore, be a concern of us all—and I very much hope it would be a concern of the Welsh Government—that this report is telling us, for example,
'The service and partner agencies do not always undertake actions to reduce vulnerability. Some children and young people are not safe.'
Now, that is surely something that we cannot dismiss as a non-devolved matter, when six of the actions are for devolved organisations, and I would ask you and the Government to reconsider whether it would be possible to bring forward a statement in Government time to reassure us all that these very serious matters will be adequately addressed. I'm aware, of course, and you will be aware, that there is a planned reorganisation that may help to alleviate matters, but this inspection report makes it clear that there is actually no plan for that planned reorganisation that was supposed to begin yesterday in terms of the services being taken back under direct local authority control. I would submit, Trefnydd, that this is not a matter, even though it is not a formally devolved matter, where the Welsh Government would want to simply pass the buck back to Westminster, and so I'd ask you to have further discussions with your colleagues and consider, given that both David Rees and I, and, I'm sure, others in this Chamber, would wish to ask questions about this—I would ask you to reconsider and consider a Government statement.
I did have the opportunity to discuss this briefly with my colleague Jane Hutt just this morning. Clearly, there are very concerning issues within the report that do need to be responded to. Welsh Government officials are, as I said in response to David Rees, in contact with their counterparts, and I know that Jane Hutt wants to take this up directly with the Minister in the Ministry of Justice. But given that we are just about to go into recess, perhaps it would be best if, certainly in the first instance, I ask my colleague to write to all Assembly Members with an update on that action.
I thank the Trefnydd.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the Counsel General and Brexit Minister: update on EU negotiations. I call on the Counsel General to make the statement—Jeremy Miles.
Over the past few days, we have seen an attempt by Parliament to try and navigate the UK out of the stormy seas that have come close to capsizing our country. In a series of votes, we have seen the House of Commons edging gradually towards a different vision for Brexit. We have very little time left, but in a few days Members of Parliament have achieved a more widely shared perspective than the Prime Minister and her Cabinet have achieved in almost three years.
So, let me start, therefore, unusually, perhaps, by paying tribute to some of the MPs who have put their country above partisan loyalties and have genuinely sought to find an approach that can command a majority in the Commons. Often, that sometimes means putting their own political careers on the line—MPs such as Nick Boles on the Conservative side, Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn on the Labour side, and indeed Plaid Cymru MPs who drew attention during voting last night to ‘Securing Wales’ Future’, a document supported by this Assembly as one way forward through this. But, there are still too many Members, I’m afraid, who are indulging a double-or-quits approach. They’re only willing to vote for their favoured options, rather than the wider options that would enable a consensus to be found to prevent a ‘no deal’ outcome, and would at least shelter us from the majority of the economic and social damage that a hard ERG Brexit would do.
It is entirely clear now that the principal obstacle to finding a widely supported solution is the UK Government. This is a Government that simply won’t take 'no' for an answer. A Government that called the vote on Friday not because they had any serious prospects of winning, but because they wanted to be able to blame Parliament for the failure to come to an agreement, rather than their own obstinacy. Ministers more motivated by their own leadership ambitions than what is best for the country’s future.
The opposition parties all voted down a legally binding withdrawal agreement that almost all of them, in contrast to the ERG and the DUP, would have signed up to. And this was because the Government had not even tried to address the legitimate concerns that the political declaration—an integral part of the Prime Minister’s withdrawal deal—was too vague and gave no guarantee that, in the next phase of the negotiations, the UK’s fundamental economic interests would be put first. Rather, they simply detached the political declaration entirely. What Government could possibly believe that replacing a list of vague aspirations with a blank sheet of paper could ever convince the doubters that the future of our country’s relationship with Europe was in safe hands? This is a Government of gimmicks.
And this less than 48 hours after the Prime Minister had promised, or threatened, to step down if her deal went through, opening the way, unless there is a general election and a change of Government, to a Prime Minister Johnson, Raab or Rees-Mogg, any one of whom would be happy to put the pursuit of a mythical sovereignty ahead of real jobs, real livelihoods and real incomes. As a result of this unprecedented failure of leadership and governance, we are again barely a week away from a potential ‘no deal’ Brexit, with all the short-term chaos and long-term economic damage that would entail. And let me remind colleagues of a few aspects of political realities that too many of the British commentariat find inconvenient.
There is absolutely no guarantee that the EU27 will grant any extension if we do not have a clear strategy for the way forward, with a majority in Parliament and a Government committed to delivering it. As I found in Strasbourg last month, many politicians across Europe just want to be rid of the endless uncertainty and disruption caused by the failure of the political establishment in the UK to grasp even the basic truths of international negotiations—for example, that you have to start by understanding the fundamental interests of the counter party and to identify and build on areas of mutual advantage, that the economically weaker party will always have to yield more, that no-one can get everything they want, particularly when some of the negotiating objectives are mutually exclusive, and that you always have to deliver on undertakings you have made. It would not be odd for them to conclude that the economic damage to the EU27—significant but manageable—and any political fall-out would be worth tolerating if they were left to get on with addressing their own priorities, not ours.
The Prime Minister’s deal is really dead. There is no prospect, as confirmed repeatedly in recent days, of the DUP backing it, while after last night the advocates of ‘no deal’ will scent victory. All the other parties will only let it pass if there is movement on the political declaration and/or a second public vote. The Prime Minister’s latest threat of a general election—now, apparently, to be linked through a confidence motion to her deal—is a hollow threat. She has no authority to write a manifesto or lead her party, and a Tory leadership contest before we either conclude the withdrawal agreement or crash out with no deal would be a self-indulgence of staggering proportions.
If there is a longer extension, there will have to be European elections, and the deadline for firing the starting gun for those elections is in nine days’ time. Though the risk of a legal challenge to the legitimacy of the European Parliament might be slight, it is a risk our European neighbours are not prepared to tolerate, since it could end up with the European Commission itself being declared invalidly constituted. They want a solution that can be delivered before the new Parliament convenes on 2 July. That, if it holds, would rule out a general election and, indeed, a referendum.
Revocation is not an easy way of buying more time. The European Court of Justice, in its recent ruling, was absolutely clear that a revocation must be ‘unequivocal and unconditional’. So, a revocation is not a way of simply pausing the Brexit process to give more time for a referendum, citizens’ assemblies or a renegotiation. So, our options continue to narrow.
The Welsh Government recognises the vital importance of achieving a compromise. We urge Parliament to find a stable consensus. The votes of the last few days show support for a different outcome—a closer post-Brexit relationship through a customs union and European Economic Area membership. Whereas we continue to believe that the best outcome would be a future economic relationship that guarantees full participation in the single market across the whole economy as well as participation in a customs union, we strongly welcome what I hope is an emerging coalition in favour of that kind of customs union. If this is clearly understood to be in addition to the commitments that the UK Government has already made in terms of maintaining alignment with single-market rules in terms of goods and agriculture, we could support a political declaration rewritten to reflect this as the basis for passing the withdrawal deal.
The Welsh Government has shown how the commitment of the UK Government to these negotiating objectives could be enshrined in legislation, and we welcome the indication of the Prime Minister and the Attorney-General in the House of Commons last Friday that the Government would be minded to accept such an approach. Such an outcome would, of course, make it virtually certain that the backstop would never be needed. I have also written to David Lidington to urge the UK Government at the same time to commit to a statutory role for the devolved administrations in those future negotiations.
As well as an emerging substantive outcome, there is increasing support on a constitutional outcome—a confirmatory vote. We have always advocated more than one route to resolving this crisis and it is good to see Parliament now adopting this approach. While we continue to believe that uniting around a soft Brexit will deliver the quickest route to a less damaging Brexit, Parliament must also back the option of a referendum as an alternative. Compromise is now essential. So, whilst every day without agreement is a day nearer to a 'no deal' exit, and with 12 April almost upon us, it is now a very, very real prospect. Equally, if Parliament could come together and work in the way we suggest, we are potentially not that far from an agreement that could remove that cliff edge, but there is absolutely no time to lose.
Thank you to the Minister for an advance copy of the statement that has been made. I have to say, we haven't learned anything new from the Government in terms of the statement. I'm not quite sure why you feel it absolutely necessary to keep bringing statements forward to the National Assembly on such a frequent basis when you have nothing new to say, but given that you have managed to speak for around 10 minutes to say nothing, I will attempt to actually ask you some, what I think are, important questions.
One thing that we do know is this: there's nobody else in British politics, other than the UK Government, that has a detailed plan for our future relationship that delivers on the instruction of the British people and has been negotiated with the EU. The Prime Minister's withdrawal agreement will secure us being able to leave the EU now on 12 April. It will end free movement. It will enable a new business-friendly customs model with freedom to strike new trade deals around the world. There are clear commitments in there on consumer and employment rights, and on the environment. And, of course, we'll be able to leave the common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, we'll be able to end the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, and there will be no need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
You say as a Government that you want to end the uncertainty—so do I, as much as you do—but there's only one way to end the uncertainty very quickly, and that is to vote for the withdrawal agreement, the deal that has been secured between the Prime Minister and the European Union. So, I will ask you again, Brexit Minister, as I have done on many occasions in this Chamber: why is it that you cannot support the deal that has been negotiated, that the EU wants you to support, that the UK Government has managed to deliver and to negotiate with the European Union, that will put an end to all of this uncertainty that you're constantly bleating we need an end to?
You've said that the Prime Minister's deal is dead but, of course, we know that in terms of the total number of votes cast, it secured more votes in terms of support in the House of Commons than any of the other alternatives, including your preferred route of a customs union. There's not sufficient support for a second referendum or for a common market 2.0, but what we do have is more people voting in the meaningful votes that have been presented to Parliament for the withdrawal agreement, including in the meaningful vote that took place last week, than for any of those other alternative options. So, I would suggest that what we actually need is an end to the dithering on your benches, and allow for some support to come from the opposition in a responsible way to ensure that we can put an end to this uncertainty and move forward with our lives.
You seem to be afraid of a general election. The Prime Minister is not calling a general election. I think you're more afraid—. [Interruption.] Frankly, most of you are more afraid of having Jeremy Corbyn as Prime Minister than anything else, which is probably why you're trying to talk down any idea that a general election would be a good idea. I don't want to see a general election either; I would far rather see this Government take us through with a decent withdrawal agreement, which is what I believe that we have, which, of course, is a compromise.
Now, do you accept that if your approach to Brexit were to be pursued, you would be betraying, as a party, many of the things that you have promised to deliver in terms of the commitments that you have made and your leader has made—and I refer to Jeremy Corbyn—in the past? He's talked about sorting out this issue of freedom of movement, making sure that the jurisdiction of the ECJ doesn't apply in the UK and not allowing for significant sums of money to be paid into the EU for the access to their markets. He's said all of these things on the record in the past, and yet for some reason you think that it's acceptable to now reverse all of those comments and promises that have been made in order to keep us in a customs union that would stop us being able to do our free-trade deals around the world—one of the things that people voted for in the referendum.
Do you accept that your party, the Welsh Labour Party, is simply a party of 'remain' that wants to try to keep us locked into the EU and wants to reverse the outcome and certainly not implement the outcome of the referendum of June 2016, in which the people of Wales and the Minister's own constituency voted to leave the EU? I don't know about you, but I'm a democrat and I believe that when the people of Wales vote in a referendum, we should obey their instructions as Members of this Assembly, and our Members of Parliament should also follow suit. It seems to me that all you're trying to do is to frustrate the process of delivering on that instruction by not supporting the Prime Minister's deal, which will deliver on the instruction of the British people and the people of Wales in voting to leave the EU.
So, when will you change your tactic? You're telling everybody else to compromise. When will you compromise and accept that there is a compromise deal on the table that delivers on the referendum result and will ensure that we leave the EU in an orderly fashion, with sufficient time to be able to negotiate a new relationship post the end of that withdrawal period?
Well, I will resist the temptation to make the obvious point about new content, but I regret that he feels it's inappropriate for the Assembly to have an opportunity to discuss what is the most important issue that most of our constituents face, including his own constituents, at a time when the situation that Parliament faces and we face here in Wales is so perilous. I think it's important that people look to this place to express an indication of how we feel this process should unfold in the best interests of Wales. I welcome the opportunity to have this discussion with him in this Chamber.
He makes points about supporting the Prime Minister's deal. The Prime Minister's deal comprises two parts, although she would like us to think at the moment it only comprises one part. But we know the fundamental flaws in the political declaration: it does not contain that commitment to a long-term, permanent customs union, does not contain a full commitment to regulatory alignment with the single market. It's fundamentally not in the interests of Wales. But what we are doing is we're looking at what is happening in Parliament and we are seeing where a consensus, or a sense of compromise, is beginning to emerge.
The Prime Minister has made a number of commitments in addition to what's in the political declaration, which aren't in the declaration. If they were in there—commitments around regulatory alignment to the single market on a dynamic basis and the customs union arrangement that Kenneth Clarke and others have brought forward in Parliament—and were to be capable of being enshrined in a new political declaration, that is the sort of agreement that we could endorse. You ask where our compromise is; that is an exercise of compromise in practice. It is not a question of sticking to the red lines. It is not a question of putting one's head in the sand, as the Prime Minister is doing, and ignoring what's happening all around her in Parliament with just over a week to go. That is the absence of leadership. That is the absence of compromise.
He says we fear a general election. I say, 'Bring it on', frankly. I would welcome the opportunity of replacing Theresa May with Jeremy Corbyn in Parliament and campaigning in constituencies right across Wales. I'd be absolutely delighted to be in that situation. But let's be clear about that. The Prime Minister, while she says she will link a confidence motion to her dead deal, is in no position to lead the Conservative Party into a general election. She lacks all authority. How would she go about writing a manifesto? How would she corral a Cabinet that's falling apart? She has a Cabinet voting in three different directions on things. She's in no position to call a general election.
The Member asks, finally, about a betrayal. He uses that language. I don't want to use that language. I think that sort of language is language that really coarsens the debate in a way which we have seen where that can lead. I accept that wasn't the intention, but I think we should be careful about that sort of language. But if he is to use the word 'betrayal', let me say what is a betrayal: it's the kind of 'no deal' Brexit the Prime Minister's driving us towards. That will be a betrayal of those who voted leave and those who voted remain. It was not what was promised, and that is not surprising because it is a devastating outcome. And for each person who voted leave, they would not expect to be losing their job as a consequence of that, but that is the sort of situation people will be facing in Wales if we get to that point next Friday. And that is the responsibility of the Prime Minister to acknowledge that and to lead a coalition of support in favour of a different kind of deal.
I'd like to thank the Minister for his statement today. I welcome the fact that you've written to David Lidington to try to secure a statutory role for the devolved Governments in the future negotiations, but I do find it remarkable that confirmation of this only comes now, four days after we were meant to leave the EU. The Government should have issued this as a demand during negotiations around the inter-governmental agreement, rather than as a request after giving our leverage away, because experience tells us that the British state will only give concessions if the other side has something it wants. Appeals to fairness always fall on deaf ears.
We are now just 10 days away from the next designated day for leaving the EU. The final deadline in terms of making a decision is fast approaching and if we're to find a workable solution that avoids the catastrophe of a 'no deal', Labour is going to have to get its house in order. There is no point expecting the Conservative Party to support any reasonable proposals in Westminster because they've long since left the real world and are at war with themselves in a fantasy land of their own making. The MP for Grantham and Stamford, Nick Boles, came to the same conclusion yesterday and resigned the Tory party whip as a result.
In terms of the proposals put forward last night, Plaid Cymru MPs, in the spirit of constructive compromise, voted for three options that are acceptable to us as a way forward. We didn't support the Clarke amendment, which simply calls for membership of the customs union, because it doesn't offer the guarantees that we require in terms of the economy, workers' rights and environmental protection. Our MPs voted for the common market 2.0 proposal and a confirmatory vote, and we believe these two options should be combined so that a referendum could be held between a single-market-based workable Brexit plan and remaining in the EU. Of course, both these options would have passed last night had all Labour MPs supported them. Labour has got a lot to answer for in this regard, and I find it particularly astonishing that the deputy leader of Welsh Labour, Carolyn Harris, was one of the MPs to abstain on a referendum, and even more astounding that Ms Harris and the other Labour MPs who defied the whip have not subsequently lost the whip.
The other option discussed last night was Joanna Cherry's proposal, the Brexit insurance policy—a safety net designed to make the revocation of article 50 the default option instead of 'no deal' if neither 'no deal' nor an extension has been agreed by 10 April, with a full public inquiry to follow to see whether a further referendum should be held on a Brexit deal that could be both workable and garner public support.
The Minister in his answer to me last week suggested that I had misrepresented the situation in this regard, since he believed revoking article 50 with a possible further referendum to follow this was impossible. I wonder whether he would be willing to make a clarification about this, since his colleague Keir Starmer said very clearly yesterday that he did not reject the principle behind Joanna Cherry's revocation proposal, or, to put it another way: does the Minister agree with Mr Starmer or himself on this point? It is a simple point of logic that the right to revoke cannot be both unilateral and conditional, and EU law experts have said that there would be no legal avenue to challenge revocation in the European courts, since the only conditions it needs to satisfy are in relation to the revoking member state's constitutional requirements. Mr Starmer said that Labour's reason for not backing the proposal last night was because the time to confront the issue had not yet arrived. I welcome the First Minister saying this afternoon that the Welsh Government would prefer revocation to no deal, but I would suggest strongly that the time to confront the issue has indeed arrived and that it is now time to act.
I'd like to close by asking the Minister to state for the record Welsh Government's top preference in terms of the options now on the table and also whether the Minister agrees with Plaid Cymru that, if a Brexit option does end up securing a majority, this should be put to a confirmatory referendum with an option to remain.
I thank the Member for a number of questions. I hope I manage to do justice to all of them. Just firstly in relation to the point that she opened with, around the statutory protection for devolved administrations in negotiations, she'll know from previous statements that I've made here, and the First Minister has made, that it's been a consistent theme of the Welsh Government's engagement with the UK Government in relation to this that we feel that, on the ongoing negotiations into the future, the Welsh Government, and the Scottish Government, and the Northern Ireland Executive, have a fundamental role to play.
The reference I made in my speech was a letter I sent in response to comments made by the Prime Minister at the despatch box on Friday, where she committed to giving a statutory footing to the negotiations of the political declaration itself—not the future negotiations more broadly. The Member will know that, about a week or 10 days ago, I made a statement, and wrote to David Lidington and Stephen Barclay in the UK Government, proposing language that could be used by way of amendment to the withdrawal agreement Bill, which would do that job, which would provide Parliament with oversight, but also provide a role for the devolved institutions in the reform of the declaration itself. Having heard the Prime Minister and Attorney General give a commitment to some of that, I felt it was important to seek a commitment to the balance of it, which is the reason that I wrote.
She refers to the inter-governmental agreement. She will perhaps recall that the purpose of the inter-governmental agreement was indeed to secure a significant number of statutory concessions. And it is that inter-governmental agreement that has enabled frameworks to be developed between the administrations in the UK, on a way that has, by and large, been very productive. She—and her colleagues, perhaps, prior to her joining the house—routinely used to say that it was a mechanism for taking powers away. I have yet to hear a single power enumerated in that list of powers taken away; the very simple reason for that is because there aren't any.
In relation to the votes in the House of Commons last night, I was hoping to have made it clear in my statement that the Clarke amendment, when taken together with other commitments that the Prime Minister has subsequently made, would need to be together taken into account in a reformed political declaration. I welcome the tone with which her parliamentary colleague last night engaged in the votes around this, and made a particular point of advocating 'Securing Wales' Future' as principles that Plaid Cymru still endorse, and I welcome that continued commitment, even in the House of Commons.
She mentioned the comments made by Keir Starmer around the interpretation of the European Court of Justice's decision in Wightman, which is the relevant case here. The judgment is clear: that the revocation needs to be unequivocal and unconditional, and that it isn't a mechanism by which a member state can simply pause the article 50 process. And the reason for that is obvious, isn't it? There is a mechanism in the legislation that gives other member states the power to consent or not. If a member could simply exercise that right independently, that would drive a coach and horses through other member states' rights. So, it's not surprising that that is the conclusion of the court.
And I will simply echo, if I may, the comments the First Minister made earlier in the Chamber: this is not the time at which a decision of such constitutional magnitude can possibly be made. In the final analysis, there may be a different conclusion around that, but at this point in time, we haven't reached that moment of decision where the alternatives are revocation or no deal.
Unlike Darren Millar, I welcome these opportunities, because it gives us another demonstration of how out of touch this institution is—as indeed the House of Commons is—with popular opinion. The fundamental problem that has created this chaos and confusion is that we have a remainer Prime Minister, with a strongly pro-remain Cabinet, and a parliamentary party—the Conservative Party—in the House of Commons that has a majority of people who wanted to remain, that in Wales we have a Government that's strongly pro-remain, every single Labour AM, every single Plaid Cymru AM was for remain, and still is. And what's happening here, with all the chaos and confusion in the House of Commons over the last few weeks, is that implacable remainers are just trying to string out the process until, ultimately, they hope, they can undo the referendum result. The statement says that the problem is a Government that simply will not take 'no' for an answer—and of course that's true in relation to the Theresa May deal. But beyond that, the problem is that it's a Government that will simply not take 'leave' for an answer, and that is a problem with Welsh Government as well. We know that the majority of the public in Wales and the United Kingdom, and some areas represented by Labour MPs, by very, very large majorities, were for 'leave', and there's no real evidence that public opinion has shifted in the last two and a half to three years. The problem is that we cannot deliver on the referendum result, which occurred despite the best efforts of the Government, big business, the media and so many other vested interests in favour of 'remain'. The famous booklet, which the Government sent at our expense to every household in the country, which said, without qualification or equivocation, 'This is your decision'—to the people—'the Government will implement what you decide, with no ifs or buts'—the problem is that nobody who is in a position to deliver wants to deliver, and the consistent attempts of the establishment, in one shape or form, to frustrate that decision is ultimately what has produced the situation that we're in today.
As regards to the customs union proposals of various kinds, the latest ComRes opinion poll on this was published yesterday, and 57 per cent of the public say that staying in a customs union means that we haven't left. So, there's no point in fantasising that, if the Welsh Government were to succeed in its ambitions that we effectively do not leave the EU, that's not going to produce widespread public anger, which could turn very nasty indeed, which we would all—[Interruption.] I'm not saying this is what I want to happen, but we do know that there is a very significant proportion of the public that feels betrayed, not just on this particular issue, but on a whole range of issues, by the political establishment. And the Brexit vote was very complicated, and it wasn't just, for many people, about the EU, but it encapsulated a feeling of alienation from the political processes altogether. If we do not deliver on the Brexit result of the last referendum, that will be exacerbated further, and if we were to have another referendum, why would we think that that should be definitive if the first one wasn't definitive? Should we make it the best of three? Best of five? Best of 10? Should we make it an annual event like Christmas, which we can celebrate consistently every year?
Ultimately, this is a question of trust between politicians and the people, and fundamentally I think that is now what is has resolved itself into. The British public generally feel—[Interruption.] Yes, you are being lectured by me, because you're the one who wants to betray the trust of the Welsh people and the British people, because you take a different view from them that Parliament at Westminster—
You don't need to respond to Members who are sitting—you're not responsible for responding, Neil Hamilton.
Parliament at Westminster decided, when the referendum decision was taken, that they couldn't take that decision at Westminster, for reasons that have amply been borne out in what we've seen in the last couple of weeks, and, therefore, it was the people who would decide. And the Government said unambiguously, 'We will implement what you decide', and because they do not want to do that, and because the establishment doesn't want to do that, this confusion is being perpetuated.
So, I do hope there is no deal on 12 April, because there's no prospect of anything else on offer that will work, because then Britain strong and free can make its way in the rest of the world with countries that do want to do trade deals with us in the part of the 85 per cent of the global economy that is expanding, unlike the EU, which is now in recession.
Well, I'm sorry to disappoint the Member, but the notion that he's not part of the establishment is really quite ridiculous, and I'm certainly not going to take any lessons about integrity and trust from him, and I think we'll see on Thursday how closely attached he is to popular opinion when the voters of Newport give their opinion. The point, in all seriousness, which he makes—the notion that people are going out of their way not to respect the result of the 2016 referendum is part of a broader narrative that has created the corrosive nature of the debate around Brexit in this country.
What we actually have happening, in Parliament principally—and I hope that he would have known this, as a former Member of Parliament, and acknowledged it—is people wrestling with a very complex set of judgments around how best to respect that referendum in a way that doesn't damage the livelihoods of the individuals and communities that they and we represent. 'Securing Wales' Future' was our attempt to do that—recognising the result of the referendum and describing a kind of relationship post Brexit between Wales and the EU, which works best in the interest of Wales. And the, sort of, reductionist view that 'leave equals leave', as though that had some kind of independent meaning from this complicated process, I think does no service to the debate at all. And I will just repeat the point I made to Darren Millar clearly, that, in our language, it is no part of public leadership to be throwing around words like 'betrayal' in a particularly febrile context. These are people of goodwill reaching difficult judgments in a very, very heated environment, and we should all do our best to seek to engage with the issues on that basis.
Can I thank the Minister for his statement? It is important that we in this Chamber have an opportunity to discuss these events because they are fast-moving, fast-changing, and they have huge implications upon the constituents we are here to represent, and, therefore, I very much appreciate the statement from the Minister regarding the current situation. I know also that there were discussions last week—the First Minister in London discussing various matters. It's crucial we have an opportunity to ask questions of the Welsh Government in relation to events going on, and it is particularly important that we look at the chaos in Westminster and the shambles that we see in Parliament. Darren Millar was right—I checked the figures—the last vote actually did claim the most. The two previous ones, of course, were some of the worst, but not one of those votes last night got against them the number that the Prime Minister's deal had against her. Not one. The Prime Minister's deal went down by 58, and that was the best time she had it. These deals last night were three, 12 and 21, of the three major ones, so it's clearly close and within this range.
But there are some questions we need to be realistic about because what we haven't yet discussed is the possibility that the deal will come back, because I think Darren Millar's quite right. I saw the face of the Prime Minister last week, on Friday, and I got the clear impression she was not finished yet with this deal. It might come back, and she might manage to twist enough arms and blackmail enough people to actually get them to vote this deal through. Now, if that is the case, and the agreement is reached, can you tell me what timescales the Welsh Government will be working to to deliver a verdict on any necessary LCM that will come as a consequence of a withdrawal Bill that will be laid? On what timescales have you had discussions about on that withdrawal Bill? Because, clearly, we may still well be working to the 22 May date for the European Union, which means that we'll have a long period of—. We're in recess for three weeks. We need to understand when we need to come back and discuss LCMs and the implications of that withdrawal Bill, particularly as I know the Welsh Government did suggest some clauses on that Bill. We don't even know if they've been included yet or the implications of that.
Also, could you tell me what further preparedness for 'no deal' we've had? Everyone knows the preparedness. The EU's now saying it's ready—it doesn't want one, but it's ready for a 'no deal' exit. Michel Barnier said this morning, in fact, he believes that we are far closer to a 'no deal' Brexit than ever before. So, where is the Welsh Government in preparing for a 'no deal'? Are we in a position now where if it does happen, we can secure ourselves in the thought that we've done everything possible to protect Wales as best we can in those circumstances? I appreciate the First Minister has on many occasions indicated we could never protect ourselves against all the issues, but we can look at what we can do to mitigate some of the issues that will arise.
I appreciate the political declaration is where we have very much a weakness, and I personally believe that that is the area that needs to be addressed. Can you give confirmation as to what type of discussions you've had with the UK Government, because where we have Theresa May giving promises, we all know that she won't be there following the situation, and any political declaration she may sign up to may not be honoured? So, what commitments do you have from the UK Government that they will honour any political agreement that is reached, irrespective of who is Prime Minister in the Tory party, because the Raabs or the Boris Johnsons or the Michael Goves—we want whoever is there, if they continue in power, to actually honour a commitment that works for Wales.
I also agree with you on the language used, but I will also highlight, unfortunately, the language used by Nigel Farage when he indicated last Friday—'Here we are in enemy territory'. He was inciting people against the Parliament and parliamentarians, and I think that is disgraceful for any politician. I hope that no-one in this Chamber repeats language like that either inside or outside of this Chamber. I also welcome you writing to David Lidington. You know full well that the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee and the CLAC committee have been pursuing this agenda for a statutory commitment, because, again, if we don't have that statutory footing, where do we have the commitment and honesty from a future Prime Minister to deliver that type of relationship that is needed for Wales to be partaking in these negotiations? It's not just the UK's future, it's our future, and it's our citizens' future. We need to have it, and we need those commitments.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I thank David Rees for those questions; I heard them come in three categories, really. Firstly, in relation to the withdrawal agreement Bill, we have been consistent as a Government in pressing the principle that the constitutional conventions should be observed in full—i.e. that an LCM is presented to the Assembly, and we've obviously had that commitment from the UK Government. But the timescales are the question that he's addressing himself to, and I think that is a serious question. What is clear is that, if and when that is brought forward in Parliament, it will obviously be going through Parliament in a very, very, very shortened time frame. So, what would be going through customarily in months will be going through in weeks, perhaps less. So, clearly, our time here for reflection, for consent, will also be curtailed proportionately as well. So, the period that we would expect to enjoy to consider these things is likely to be very significantly curtailed, given where we are at the moment. I think we need to recognise that that is just a political reality of the situation in which we find ourselves at this eleventh hour without settled arrangements for resolving the situation that we're in. It certainly will have an impact on the time available to us here to consider those important questions.
In relation to 'no deal' preparedness, he asks: is the Welsh Government doing everything possible? Well, we are doing all we can, but there are constraints of powers and constraints of resources, and there are constraints of the general exigency of things—just simply some things not being within our control. But there is an immense amount of work going on within Government and a reallocation of resource in order to prepare for that sort of outcome that is the last outcome that we want to see for Wales. But, as we have said consistently here, despite that, it's our responsibility as a Government to take those steps. But we would all feel, I hope, that that money and time and resource and energy, whilst necessary to be spent, hopefully will not be needed in due course, and just reflect, I think, on the other purposes to which that could have been put if we'd had a more orderly set of discussions than we are currently looking at.
In relation to ongoing commitments, well, I think, in a sense, that comes back to the point that the Member started with—a statutory footing. The whole point of seeking a statutory footing for the involvement of the devolved administrations in the political declaration, in the supervision of that—which is the language that Welsh Government has suggested as a means of amending the withdrawal agreement—the whole point of that is to provide that level of assurance. Clearly, what we seek is a set of relationships that can survive any one individual or any group of individuals—that's a stable basis on which we want to be able to proceed. And the reason I know that's so important is because I felt the chill running round the Chamber when I said the words Prime Minister Johnson, Rees-Mogg or Raab.
Can I thank you for your statement, Minister? Unlike some in this Chamber, I think it's vitally important that we have regular opportunities to discuss what is the biggest threat we have faced for decades. I also very much welcome your calls for some in this Chamber to ramp down the rhetoric on Brexit because, as you know, some of the rhetoric that we hear here—the talk of betrayal, et cetera—is being magnified and addressed at elected representatives on an ongoing basis.
I did just want to ask, because I don't feel you did give a clear answer to Delyth Jewell earlier when she asked you: if a compromise approach is agreed in the House of Commons around common market 2.0 or a customs union, which are both a long way from what people voted for in the referendum, do you believe that any compromise needs to be put back to the people in a confirmatory vote?
Well, yes, thank you for the points that the Member makes in relation to the language and the magnification of what happens, what we say, in these places in terms of politicians here and elsewhere. We've been clear that there are two means of resolving this impasse. One is the sort of principles reflected in 'Securing Wales' Future': a customs union, common market 2.0, Norway plus. Those are all sets of arrangements, relationships, that are in a similar place, and I think, in terms of the precise detail of that at this point, all of us should be looking at ways of compromising around that. If Parliament comes forward with a confirmatory vote for that, we would support that. Our view, as a Government, is that that isn't essential, so, if there was a means of agreeing a deal that commanded the support of Parliament and reflected the sort of principles we've described, we don't feel that that requires endorsement, a second referendum. But, obviously, if Parliament feels that that is the best way of resolving the impasse, we would support that.
Thank you very much, Counsel General. Diolch.
The next item is a statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government on building safety. I call on the Minister, Julie James.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. The Welsh Government is fully committed to making people safer in their homes. We have a strong record in doing just that. Since responsibility for fire was devolved in 2005, the number of fires in dwellings has fallen further and faster in Wales than anywhere else in the UK. That said, we cannot and we will not be complacent. Much evidence has emerged following the tragic fire and failings at Grenfell Tower. Indeed, it continues to do so, and it will be reflected in our approach.
That evidence includes submissions to the public inquiry, the continuing tests, as well as those so far conducted, on building materials and fire doors, and, of course, the recommendations as part of Dame Judith Hackitt’s review of building regulations and fire safety. Although her review was commissioned by the UK Government and relates to the position in England, we recognise its validity in a Welsh context, not least because, in 2012, we inherited the same system as that in place in England. We therefore recognise Hackitt’s description of a system that is not fit for purpose. That is a damning assessment.
Dame Judith Hackitt was clear in her recommendations that an effective response must be both broad and coherent. This recognises the complexities of the current system, one in which legislation overlaps and roles and responsibilities are often unclear. It is a system typified by inadequate, inconsistent gatekeeping and weak enforcement. It is an environment often characterised by a race to the bottom, by a chase for profits at the expense of standards. There has been a sometimes shocking disregard for the voices and concerns of residents. In short, there is a lot to put right and a recognition that doing so requires a whole-system challenge. We are committed to setting a legislative and policy context that reflects and addresses the risks and the evidence—an approach that will make abundantly clear our firm expectations and supports and drives high standards and full compliance.
Clearly, we need to take our partners with us to make sure our intentions are grounded in experience and reality, that they can be realised. We need effective systems to deliver on our shared aims. As part of that process, the Welsh Government established an expert group last year. It has played a key role in recommending a way forward. In January, I confirmed that I would share the expert group’s road map with you and I was pleased to publish it this week. My immediate response is that it offers a broad and helpful analysis. I would like to place on record my thanks to the group for their time and their lively and careful consideration of a wide range of difficult issues. The group’s composition means we have been able to tap into expertise from across professions and sectors. In turn, the group also benefited from the input of UK and Scottish Government officials, builders, the Health and Safety Executive, academics and others.
For my part, I will now take time to reflect on the group’s recommendations before sharing my response with you in May, as I have previously indicated. I will include, as part of that response, a clear project plan, establishing priorities and timelines for our next steps. It will also take account of work being developed in other parts of the UK but that will be valuable in the Welsh context—for example, the work of the National Fire Chiefs Council in establishing a clearer understanding of risk, and that of the industry response group, identifying industry-led solutions to setting and achieving consistent professional standards.
I have said before that I am committed to finding workable, proportionate solutions, and some of those will draw on work being undertaken at UK level. I do not intend for us to be different for the sake of being different, but I will not hesitate to diverge where we can be more effective and make people safer. An immediate question, then, is: which buildings should be in scope in a new Welsh system? Like many of the issues, this is complicated by numerous factors and currently with little in the way of hard, supporting evidence.
Dame Judith recommended that what she calls ‘higher risk residential buildings’ should be those of 30m or more in height. We are clear that that does not go far enough. In common with England, our work identifying tall buildings took as a starting point the current regulations, which kick in at 18m. Hackitt recommends 30m or taller, and there are other views that would set the bar at 11m, typically four storeys. Height alone, though, does not necessarily tell us enough about risk and particularly about risk to vulnerable people. We will look thoroughly, therefore, at the emerging evidence about risk and the practical implications as we reach a balanced, effective and practicable conclusion.
In terms of buildings in scope and elsewhere, the road map points to several complex areas that will benefit from a more in-depth analysis. I will consider the best way to assess the emerging evidence and frame firm proposals. The decisions we reach will help drive an informed, whole-system solution. It is clear to me, though, that, as we move to the next phase of our work, we are building on strong foundations. Our decision to require all new and converted housing to feature fire-suppression systems was very clearly the right move, and I know that, Deputy Presiding Officer, you'll be particularly pleased to hear me acknowledge that.
One recommendation from the road map that I will accept here and now is that we promote the retrofitting of sprinklers. Hard evidence supports sprinklers’ effectiveness in preventing fatalities. I've asked officials to draw up options for how we can further promote retrofitting in high-rise buildings across sectors.
With our partners, we have previously identified the high-rise residential buildings in Wales, that is, those that are 18m or more. We are now augmenting the database we shared with local authorities with robust information about the coverage in those buildings of sprinkler systems. It is essential that our fire and rescue services and local authorities and others continue to develop and share key information. Indeed, that is a key feature of what Dame Judith Hackitt calls the ‘golden thread’.
As effective as sprinklers can be, we have also looked carefully at the evidence about cladding. Accordingly, we consulted on banning combustible building materials from being used on high-rise residential buildings. Working alongside specialist consultants, we are currently reviewing consultation responses and, more particularly, a number of technical issues they have raised. I anticipate bringing forward amendments to the regulations this summer.
I'm pleased to say that work to remove and replace aluminium composite material cladding continues apace. All identified buildings have now either been remediated or there is activity in train. Leaseholders and residents have not been asked to fund this work. I welcome the role and decisions of responsible building owners and developers in bringing this work towards a conclusion.
Across the system, it is, of course, essential that there is a competent workforce with appropriate capacity. We await the conclusions of the industry response group and its work on competency, but already we’re engaging with Welsh training providers to address the needs of our future system. Providers are developing new courses to improve professionals’ understanding of critical fire safety matters. My officials will continue this dialogue. We are keen that the Welsh Government can both support the necessary work and ensure that it is fully integrated into wider measures to enhance professional competence.
I've referred to the importance we attach to fire-suppression systems. We have long funded our fire and rescue services to carry out safety checks in people’s homes and to provide free equipment such as smoke alarms and fire-resistant bedding. There is ample evidence that these checks save lives and protect property. Every year, the service completes between 50,000 and 60,000 such checks, focusing on those most at risk.
As I said at the outset, we are far from complacent. We will continue to build on our strong record. Where possible and appropriate, the Welsh Government will take forward immediate or short-term actions. But, as I have said before, some issues will require more in-depth analysis and consideration. In certain cases, that will require and lead to legislative change. Inevitably and properly, this will and absolutely should take time. It’s essential we get it right. You'll be able to see from my detailed response in May and from our project plan, with transparent timescales, that we are moving with the appropriate reflection and pace to bring about truly meaningful change.
I will look forward to putting that information to you, but, in closing today, I want to reiterate my thanks to the expert group for grappling with these difficult, wide-ranging challenges. Their work will help us shape and refine our response to the issues and, ultimately, ensure we keep our residents safe in their homes. Diolch.
Can I thank the Minister for this statement today? And can I, Deputy Presiding Officer, also acknowledge the outstanding contribution that you've made in this field, which has gained international recognition?
I believe that the publication of this expert group's road map is a landmark for everyone concerned to ensure that people living in high-rise buildings are safe and feel safe, and I do hope that the Minister will continuously update the Assembly on the progress the Government now makes towards implementing its recommendations, and we will have a full response in May. This is very important work and does require full analysis. I'm pleased to hear that the Minister has already accepted the panel's recommendations regarding the retrofitting of sprinklers in high-rise buildings, as this is something that was recommended by the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee's report into fire safety in high-rise buildings. I was part of the committee when it did that work, and I know it has influenced the work of the panel.
Something that's been very clear to me since the tragedy of Grenfell is that the current system simply isn't fit for purpose, as the Minister indeed repeated today, and as the Hackitt report also found. The fact that a tragedy on this scale could happen in the twenty-first century shocked all of us, and focused attention on other high-rise developments across the country, including the private sector—not just the safety of how we design, build and manage high-rise residential buildings, but also how we listen to and respect the views of the people who call a high-rise building home. We in the Conservatives completely agree with the conclusions of both the committee report and the expert panel's report, whose recommendations should now be the basis for a more robust system.
A worrying gap at the moment is the absence of a clear duty holder during the building design and construction process, confusion during hand-over of responsibility once building work is completed, and a confusing overlap on the responsibility of the various regulations. Additionally, I was concerned to find out that there is no clear set of standards or expectations for many of the professions involved in the design and construction of these buildings, or the maintenance of fire safety in occupied buildings, and the capacity issues, which can impair the ability of regulators to undertake their work. These are very serious matters indeed. Yesterday's road map itself states,
'We need to ensure that reform is ambitious and promotes adequate culture change within the sector.'
I think that the fact that many of the recommendations overlap with the committee's report is testament to that need to change culture in regard to safety. Throughout this report, there's a clear need for significant new legislation to deliver on many of the recommendations for change, and it's important that a future legislative programme is coherent. But I do hope it can be done as quickly as possible, paying regard to due diligence of course, and I'm sure the Minister will get the full co-operation of all parties in this Assembly. If that legislation could come in this Assembly, I think that would be a marvellous testament to the urgency we all give this work. But I do realise that's an ambitious call.
As the panel have stated, it will of course take time to get this right, and the Minister is quite correctly looking at all these matters with due seriousness so that we can have the fullest of responses. But the need for interim work is clear, and I do hope that the energy that the Minister indicated this afternoon is taken forward in May, so that we do as much as we can as quickly as we can. For instance, in the first place, reform or merging of databases, and the better engagement of residents—I think that's very important. I was pleased to hear the Minister refer to that a moment ago. I met with representatives of housing associations just this morning, and they indicated that they would be undertaking this engagement exercise as a matter of priority. I hope that that spirit will be seen in the Welsh Government's response also.
To conclude, Deputy Presiding Officer, I'd like to take this opportunity to thank the panel for their thorough work. It's now for us to ensure that the recommendations are taken forward. I know that the Welsh Government can rely on the support of the Conservative group here to get this right, but it does need to be got right quickly. Thank you.
I very much welcome David Melding's contribution. I completely agree with everything he's said. We will be looking to take forward changes to the building regulations—part A, I think it is, of the building regulations—as soon as possible. But, as he acknowledged, we do need to make sure that when we make those changes they are the robust changes that will deliver the system change that we require.
Deputy Presiding Officer, for those Members who have had the chance to see the outline route map, there is, on page 15 of that route map, a quite handy reckoner of the proposed new system for Wales and the various points along that map that we'll want to consider. There are some parts there that will require some legislative change, but others are guidance and other industry standards, and some of it is, as he rightly said, the professional standards that I too was quite shocked to find were not already in the system.
I had the privilege of having a presentation from the building safety expert group who presented their findings to me, and we had a small discussion around it. I was really impressed by both the extent and range and detail of their consideration, but also with the really practical solutions that they were putting forward. These were not gold-plated, don't-move-at-all kind of solutions; these were really practical solutions born out of industry, knowledge and the need to build or retrofit buildings with some speed that then had a resilient system in place that stood the test of time. So, I welcome his comments and I look forward to bringing back detailed proposals about the timescales and so on in May when we make the full response.
I understand that you are going to update us later on in May about the Government's response to the expert group, but I do have a number of questions that I'd like to ask you now. You say that you accept now the recommendation that the retrofitting of sprinklers should be promoted, and you're asking officials to draw up options for further promoting retrofitting in high-rise buildings, but I wonder if you would accept that it isn't just high-rise buildings that we should be promoting retrofitting of. If you do accept that, will you ask your officials to include how they can encourage retrofitting in the PRS as part of the general effort to raise standards there? Will the detailed response in May include SMART targets rather than aspirations? Then, more generally, the UK is one of the few countries where there isn't a compulsory licensing system for builders, which is something that we have had raised with us, so will the Government give consideration in its response as to whether Wales needs to move ahead and start licensing builders and building companies? We know that safety will be compromised when the wrong work is carried out. Diolch.
Thank you for those very important questions indeed. As I hope I made clear in the statement, we haven't decided what the level of risk that we're going to be looking at is. The group has made a number of recommendations that we want to explore. I think I made it clear that I didn't think that Dame Hackitt's recommendation was fit for Wales as it was too high. But, absolutely; a two-storey hospital could have a number of issues attached to it that a four-storey, single-stairwell house might not, and so on. So, we are looking to see what the range of vulnerable residents is and what we might do to promote that. Residential homes and so on clearly fall into different categories. That will be part of my detailed response, going back to where we think we need to take the system. That's what we're looking at.
The road map will then look at the private rented sector and the retrofit, and actually I've got another group looking at decarbonisation of the housing stock in general. So, I'll be looking to see how we can bring the two things together. Because there's a thing here about fire safety, Deputy Presiding Officer, which you'll be very familiar with, but it also includes the kind of insulation that you have and the air ingress into a building and so on. So, actually you can see the synergy between the two reviews and I'll be really glad to be able to pull those two things together.
In terms of the licensed—. On the SMART targets, definitely. We'll be looking to put targets on the road map proposals and put forward timescales for when we ought to be able to comply with that. As I said in response to David Melding, we'll be looking to see whether we can get legislation or regulation change into this Assembly term, and if not, how fast we can put it in place as drafts at the very least for the next Assembly. I don't think this is going to be party political in any way. So, as fast as we can prepare it, we'll get it through.
In terms of the licensed builders, there is a whole section in the road map around standards and approved inspectors and the way the system holds together. So, I'm interested in the points that Leanne Wood made. They're very valid points, but I don't want to respond right now because that's part of how we're responding to the way that both the building inspectors are licensed and the builders themselves carry out their work. So, I'm afraid that will be part of the response in May.
I too would like to welcome the publication of the road map as an important step forward in building safety in Wales. The Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, which I chair, has been looking at the issue of fire safety in high-rise buildings since the awful tragedy of Grenfell Tower in 2017.
As David Melding touched upon, we've looked at many of the issues that are the subject of the road map and, indeed, the express purpose—or one of the purposes—of our report was to inform that road map, as well as inform the general Welsh Government policy and action in relation to these matters. So, I'm very pleased that, from an initial reading of the road map, it does seem to be very much on the same footing as our report conclusions and recommendations.
In particular, the recommendation to replace the fire safety Order is something that the committee has been calling for since 2017, and we did call for new legislation in the current term. I hear what the Minister has said in response to David Melding and Leanne with regard to those matters. The committee was certainly clearly of the view that, if it could be done in this current Assembly term, that would be very beneficial indeed.
And yes, we will, obviously, have the full response to the road map in May, Minister, as you've outlined. Nonetheless, I wonder if there's anything you could say now in relation to a couple of other matters. One is the annual fire-risk assessment for those buildings in scope, which the road map recommends legislation on. Again, this mirrors our recommendation in our report, and I wonder whether you could say anything more about when that legislation will be brought forward, beyond what you've already stated.
And in terms of the capacity in the building control sector, which Members have touched upon and which is obviously very important from that road map and your own comments, we heard that regulatory services within local authorities have often borne the brunt of local authority cuts, which is a matter of real concern. Is there anything else you could say, Minister, in terms of how Welsh Government can best address the recommendations in the road map around those capacity issues and building up competence within that building control sector?
And finally, in relation to the use of sprinklers in high-rise residential buildings and the recommendation you've accepted from the road map, and, indeed, my own committee's report, I wonder—. In terms of the response to our report, Minister, you stated the Government was considering how else you might encourage the retrofitting of sprinklers, and I wonder if at this stage again you're able to say anything more about how you could most effectively take forward those recommendations.
Well, starting with the last one there, I very much welcome John Griffiths's comments and I agree with him entirely that it's very much in the same space as the committee report, which is really pleasing—that we are able to take it forward together.
Going backwards, some of the things that he raises, rightly, are things that we will need to respond to in the round in the report overall. I think the issue around invasive fire-risk assessments, which I think David Melding has raised on a number of occasions and which the committee certainly looked at, will be something we look at in the round in the process that the road map sets out. It's quite comprehensive, the process that's set out, with some stops in it for checks, and so on, so we will be looking to see what can be done with that.
And it has the phases in it. So, it's got the new build—how you put the building regulations in place for a new build—but it's also got the occupancy phase recommendations in it, and I'm very keen to look carefully at the occupancy phase: what should be undertaken by way of retrofit, but then what the ongoing inspection regime should be, as he said. Because actually, as the technology changes and as knowledge changes, it may well be that something comes up that's brilliant in three years' time that nobody in this room has yet thought of, and we want to be able to incorporate new fire safety things, digital things, perhaps, or whatever, into that assessment and not have to rely on legislation to bring them forward.
So, it's partly that we want to think about the response and the way we bring forward the regulations to try to futureproof them as much as possible and to allow fire-risk assessments to look at best practice as it is right now as you do the assessment, so that each time the assessment is done, you're looking again, afresh, at best practice, so that if things have changed in the intervening years, actually you'd expect people to upgrade to that level, because I think that's the real issue. We would have to look to see what can be put in place to finance that. If we're going to do it through the private rented sector, for example, we will need to be able to understand the effects of the needed capital investment, or whatever it is, that might be required. We will need to carefully consider how the system balances the proportionality with making sure that people have the best fire safety.
So, that's why I'm reluctant to answer right now, because we want to look at a lot of those issues in the round before we bring forward the proposals for both the regulations and for the kind of culture change, if you like, that goes with them.
One of the areas where we were definitely forward thinking—and it's thanks to our Deputy Presiding Officer's legislation—was in putting sprinklers in buildings. It was her foresight and experience that helped drive that forward. I'm sure everybody will join with me in congratulating her on both of those things.
Moving on from that to futureproofing, one of the issues—I don't want to repeat what other people have said, so I'm going to focus on two areas. One of the key areas is training the workforce going forward. As you've quite rightly mentioned, things move apace, and the materials and the systems move equally quickly. So, one guarantee that will be needed is that the workforce will be trained in such a way that there's confidence for them to carry out those jobs. That confidence, of course, will come from the industry response group, and I know that you're waiting for responses from them. So, I ask when it is, if you do have a time frame, that we can expect those responses to come forward.
Of course, the other key thing is the materials that will be used. Again, materials evolve and they get used, and that was, sadly, what happened in this case that caused all those problems. So, again, the testing of those materials is critical, but also the construction of the buildings into which they're going, so that we are fully satisfied that they're constructed in such a way that should a fire break out those people within those buildings are as safe as they can possibly be.
Moving on, within that, we've got the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016. It makes provisions to carry out electrical safety testing at least every five years. Considering that that has been delayed, I hope that there will be consideration within there about the electrical testing of equipment, because very often—in fact, in many, many cases—it is electrical faults that cause the fires in the first place.
Yes, I think Joyce Watson makes a number of very important points there, and overlapped with a point I didn't respond to in John Griffiths's submission, actually, which I've just realised, which is the issue about the competence and the building inspectors. So, there is a whole section in the road map around approved inspectors and their competency, and how a joint competent authority might work between the local authority, the inspectors and the construction industry group.
One of the reasons we're responding in May is because we want to have the benefit of the group's response and recommendations before we go forward. We are looking to ensure that people do employ people with the right competencies, and that the building inspectors are enabled to carry out a proper inspection not just of the work but of the workforce, if you like, so that you can't just, you know, get anybody along, pay them a minimum wage and get them to do it, unless they're supervised by a competent qualified person and all of those kinds of things. We are waiting on the group's response to that.
There is an interesting suggestion in the road map around the joint competent authority, which we want to look at very carefully. It does introduce a whole new tier of bureaucracy, I guess, and we will want to see whether that works and whether there are better ways to do it in Wales. But, the principle I completely accept: that there has to be a severing—I think David Melding and Leanne actually mentioned this as well—of the role of the builder, the inspector, the approver and then the inspection. So, in the route-map, there are stop points where an independent assessment can be carried out. So, we do need to look at the system.
I'm also very interested to look at the system by which local authorities are remunerated for building inspection work and whether that represents a conflict of interest, and if it does, what we can do about it, and that's the proposal around the joint competent authority. So, we have much to consider before we come forward with the detailed proposals, which is why we want to take our time in making sure that we get the system that we put in place right, so that it is fit for purpose and that we run some test cases through it to make sure that we haven't got unintended consequences, and so on. Again, it's about proportionality, isn't it, expecting people to invest the right amount in the fire safety of their building, without making it virtually impossible for anybody to be able to comply? So, it is about getting that proportionality right.
Thank you very much, Minister. Diolch.
Item 6 on the agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services, an update on the 'Train. Work. Live.' campaign. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
The Welsh Government commitment to our NHS workforce was set out clearly in our programme for government, where we pledged to recruit and train more doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals. Last summer, I published our long-term plan for health and care, 'A Healthier Wales'. It emphasises how fundamental our workforce are to delivering successful health and social care in Wales. Planning for a skilled and sustainable workforce has never been more important than in recent times.
The most recent official workforce statistics, published last week, show there are now more staff working in NHS Wales than ever before. That reflects our ongoing commitment and investment in the NHS workforce, even against the backdrop of ongoing austerity, now going into its tenth year. But success is not always about adding more. In line with prudent healthcare principles, it is vital that NHS Wales makes effective use of the skills of each profession in the role that they are qualified to undertake, supporting staff to work at the top of their skill set, and working as part of sustainable multidisciplinary teams.
For the fifth consecutive year, funding to support health professional education and training in Wales has increased. In this financial year, we will invest £114 million, an increase of £7 million available from 2018-19. That will support a range of education and training programmes for healthcare professionals in Wales. This is a record level of funding, and will support the highest ever number of training opportunities here in Wales.
Following the publication of 'A Healthier Wales', Health Education and Improvement Wales is developing one of the key actions, which is a national workforce strategy for health and social care, to be completed later this year. This will provide a more strategic framework for planning and developing the workforce, including, of course, recruitment and retention.
Alongside our continued investment and longer term priorities through the workforce strategy, our flagship national and international marketing campaign, 'Train. Work. Live.', has been supporting health boards, trusts and Health Education and Improvement Wales in their activities to attract additional staff to train, work and live here in Wales. The campaign is supported by a range of stakeholders. It has put Wales on the international recruitment map for healthcare professionals, showcasing the benefits of training, working and living in Wales. The campaign has targeted a number of countries through digital marketing, featuring images and personal stories of healthcare professions working within our NHS, many of whom have relocated to Wales and put down roots here.
As part of our actions to support general practice and primary care, GP training has been incentivised through two schemes, which are already proving to be successful in attracting doctors into areas of Wales where there have been vacancies for a number of years previously. Since the launch of the medical phase of 'Train. Work. Live.', the number of doctors choosing Wales to undertake GP speciality training has increased significantly. In 2017, we overfilled our allocation with the 144 places filled. Last year, we had 134 from 136 places filled. Health Education and Improvement Wales has already begun to introduce measures to enable an increase in the number of GP training placements advertised in 2019, with the increase in advertised places greatest in areas of Wales that, until recently, have had the most pressing issues with GP training capacity.
As a result of a combination of these actions, I am pleased to be able to confirm to the Chamber today that following only the first of the three recruitment rounds for GP speciality training in 2019, we have filled 131 places—28 more doctors than at the same stage last year. I am also pleased to confirm more positive interest from doctors applying through the round 1 re-advert recruitment window in 2019, with over 50 per cent more applications received than at this stage in 2018.
I have agreed further funding for Heath Education and Improvement Wales to enable them to offer additional places above the allocations where we are able to capitalise on this increased level of interest and secure additional GP trainees in 2019. This is in line with my long-standing commitment to ensure that we could accommodate additional trainees where it was possible to recruit them and not be constrained by fixed targets. In autumn, once this year’s specialty training recruitment rounds are all complete, I look forward to providing further positive news about the total number of doctors appointed to GP speciality training.
I have also asked Health Education and Improvement Wales to undertake a review of GP training schemes to establish whether the current arrangements are fit for purpose in terms of their size, location and quality to deliver an increased number of GP trainees in Wales and meet the future needs of our model for primary care. Their advice will inform my future decisions, including long-term investment plans in this area.
I am pleased to say that we're seeing improved fill rates in the other medical specialities too, which have featured as part of the 'Train. Work. Live.' campaign, including core psychiatry and core medical training. Final preparations are under way to launch the pharmacy phase of 'Train. Work. Live.' to ensure that Wales remains competitive against a backdrop of increasing competition amongst UK organisations recruiting pre-registration pharmacists. This action will ensure our ongoing commitment to support multidisciplinary team working in general practice and primary care more widely. The marketing activity for the pharmacy phase, supporting Health Education and Improvement Wales and health boards, will launch at the British Pharmaceutical Students' Association later this month.
In May, the third year of the nursing campaign will launch at the Royal College of Nursing congress in Liverpool. The campaign is having a real impact through raising awareness of the career and lifestyle opportunities that are available here in Wales. Plans are also under way to further extend the campaign to include allied healthcare professionals. The campaign will promote the role of allied health professions, in particular as part of multidisciplinary teams in primary and community care. And I look forward to keeping Members updated.