Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

17/09/2019

The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

Statement by the Llywydd

Before calling the First Minister, I wish to inform the Assembly, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, that the Legislation (Wales) Act 2019 was given Royal Assent on 10 September.

1. Questions to the First Minister

We move to questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from David Rees.

The Future of the Steel Industry in Wales

1. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with counterparts in the UK Government about the future of the steel industry in Wales? OAQ54303

Llywydd, can I thank the Member for that question, and for his consistent advocacy of the importance of the steel industry in Wales? As he will know, we are in regular discussions with the UK Government. We continue to press them to discharge their responsibilities to support strategic manufacturing in Wales and to play their part in securing a long-term future for our steel industry.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. You rightly point out that the UK Government needs to play its part. It hasn't even done a steel sector deal yet. The previous Secretary of State and the current Secretary of State seem to be oblivious to the importance of addressing this issue of our steel sector. Now, as you know, Port Talbot steelworks is crucial to my constituency. Many steelworks across the areas in Wales are actually the lifeblood of many local communities, and, whilst I want to talk about Port Talbot, I think it's more important we talk about the wider steel agenda and the recent announcement by Tata on closing the Orb works. The Orb works is part of the steel family in Wales, is part of the structure of Wales. What actions are the Welsh Government taking to look at the help it can give to the workers of the Orb works, because even though Tata are saying they will relocate many, actually what that does is take away jobs from other people and the jobs of future people coming into the Orb works. Opportunities will disappear. So, what's the Welsh Government going to do to ensure that the Orb works and the workers have a future?

Well, Llywydd, I thank David Rees for that follow-up question. Of course, he is right; it is deeply disappointing that the UK Government has failed to deliver a sector deal for the steel industry, despite the many opportunities that we have taken to put that case to them. And they won't do it because they have failed to solve some of the issues that lie directly in their own hands. Time after time, the industry and the Welsh Government have urged the UK Government to tackle the issue of industrial electricity price disparity between the United Kingdom and competitors of Tata on the continent of Europe. As recently as 27 August, my colleague Ken Skates was discussing this with the new Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial strategy. It's time for the UK Government to step up and to play their part in supporting the steel industry in Port Talbot and more widely in Wales. And, of course, it is disappointing to have had the news on 2 September that no buyer has been found for the Orb site in Newport. It's disappointing for Wales and it's extremely worrying for workers at that plant. 

Now, I welcome the fact that Tata have said that they aim to avoid compulsory redundancies and to offer alternative employment at other sites. But that consultation that's being carried out with staff needs to be real, it needs to attend carefully to the case being made by the trade unions on behalf of their members, and, as a Welsh Government, we will work with the trade union movement, as well as with the company, to do everything we can to support that very loyal and very skilled workforce. 

Speaking here in 2015, in the debate that called on the Welsh Government to adopt a charter for British sustainable steel, I noted that Tata Steel Colors in Shotton were not only critically dependent upon the supply chain for sustainable British steel, but also had an emphasis on commitment to investment in improving their environmental performance and sustainability, where they were working with Welsh Government and Natural Resources Wales to meet the industrial emissions directives. What engagement has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government since its March announcement of a consultation on an industrial energy transformation fund to help businesses with high energy use cut their bills, particularly steel, backed up by £315 million of investment?

Well, Llywydd, the Welsh Government was the first signatory of the steel charter earlier this year. And, of course, we work both with the industry and, where there are opportunities, with the UK Government. The industrial energy transformation fund was discussed by my colleague Ken Skates at the opportunity that I mentioned a few moments ago. And we will pursue as well the clean steel fund that was announced on 29 August, not intended to be operational before 2024, but offering opportunities across the United Kingdom. And I think it is very important indeed that we emphasise that to the UK Government—that this is to be a fund that is to be spent in Wales, as well as elsewhere, to assist the sector in its transition to low-carbon iron and steel production through new technologies and processes. And that will be very important for us here in Wales.

13:35

The announcement about the Orb works in Newport, obviously, was devastating for the workers involved, but it's also devastating for the potential of the steel industry in Wales. I think Tata said that converting the site to producing steels for future electric vehicle production would cost in excess of £50 million. Now, what negotiations did Welsh Government get involved in, in either finding, or making, or contributing towards that kind of investment? Because £50 million would have been an absolute bargain in terms of securing the future of the plant and the potential that it offered in terms of this key sector.

Well, Llywydd, the £50 million investment is only one part of the set of reasons that were identified by Tata in coming to their decision. Not only did they say that it would require an investment of that scale, but they also pointed to the fact that Orb Electrical Steels is part of the Cogent Power group, and Cogent have a plant in Sweden that already manufactures steel that is used in electric vehicles. So, the money by itself was not the issue; it's an issue of the global construction of the steel industry, and where companies choose to make their investments and where they choose to source the steel that they need. Now, of course we would like to see that investment in Wales. Of course we think there is a powerful case for making sure that there is a UK supplier of the sort of steel that will be needed for electric vehicles and the wider automotive industry, and we make that case to Tata and with our trade union colleagues. But the steel industry is in a global set of difficulties and concerns, and Tata Steel and the events at Orb cannot be isolated from those wider considerations—wider considerations for which the UK Government has to take a responsibility.

First Minister, steel has been made at the Orb site in Newport East since the end of the nineteenth century, and over that 120 years or so, the workforce and production have continually changed and adapted, and investment has been made, to meet the evolving demand for steel. And I do think that, given that track record, it's perfectly possible for further change and adaptation to occur, with necessary investment, to produce electrical steel for the mass production of electric cars in the future. And surely there's a strong case for that electrical steel to be produced here, in the UK, and at the Orb site. So, I would be very grateful if you would redouble your efforts, First Minister, to work with UK Government, the trade unions and industry to look at facilitating and encouraging that investment and that strong future for the Orb works.

I thank John Griffiths, who speaks, I know, on behalf of those many individuals and families in his own constituency who are affected by the announcement. The Minister for Economy and Transport spoke to Tata Steel immediately following the announcement to make these points to them—that they have this long history of an immensely loyal, committed workforce, who've gone through many changes in that past and would be with them on a journey of change if they were willing to pursue it in the future. And there is, as John Griffiths said, and as I said in my answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth, a strategic case for ensuring that, in the United Kingdom, there is a capacity to manufacture steel that will be needed for new forms of vehicles and new possibilities in the future. We make all those points to the company, where we have those opportunities, while at the same time making it clear to that workforce that, should the assistance of the Welsh Government and the approach we put in place when people need to find new skills and new job opportunities be needed, we will be there to support them when that time comes.

Additional Funding to the Welsh Government

2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the additional funding recently provided to the Welsh Government by the UK Government? OAQ54326

13:40

Well, Llywydd, even if the additional funding to which the Member refers materialises, the Welsh Government’s budget will be 2 per cent or £300 million lower in real terms than it was in 2010-11. Unreliable one-year funding, even when additional, fails to make up for nearly a decade of austerity. 

Well, first, First Minister, perhaps I should have welcomed you back from your Brexit bunker today. But I thank the First Minister for that answer. We all understand that whatever funding is given is never enough, but isn't it true to say that a less profligate approach to financial control by the Welsh Government would release more funding into our public services? By this I mean the losses sustained with Government projects such as the M4 relief road, the Cardiff land deal, the Year of the Sea, the Circuit of Wales and Communities First, which together cost just under £600 million—a  figure that about matches the sum afforded Wales by the UK Government. And there are, no doubt, many more examples of poor financial management by the Labour Welsh Government that I could have cited. Surely we should be looking at the way we approach financial control, rather than looking for largesse from Westminster.

Well, I entirely disagree with the Member. He completely misses the point and the examples that he cites don't stand up to examination either. The money that was spent in Communities First did fantastic work in many communities right across Wales. The scheme had reached the limits of its possibilities, and we have reformed and changed it. The decision in relation to the Circuit of Wales was not to spend money, not to throw money away. It was to make sure that money wasn't badly spent.

The Welsh Government has the best record of any part of the United Kingdom in spending the money that comes to us in Wales. We spend over 99 per cent of the budget that is available to us in Wales, and we do so by investing in our very hard-pressed public services—public services that have had to endure a decade of not having the money through the UK Government that was necessary to sustain them in the face of the demands that we know are there in Welsh society. It would be a lot better if the Member were prepared to speak up for people in Wales and for the investment that they need. 

Well, First Minister, you should be on the stage. The way that you managed to put a negative spin on those statistics without breaking into even a wry smile, you're to be commended on that. I hear what you're saying that there has been a period of cutbacks in Westminster, which saw cutbacks in the Welsh Government budget as well for a period of time, but even you must accept that the recent spending review will deliver next year, like it or not—it will deliver—a real-terms increase of 2.3 per cent over and above the money that's currently in the block grant coming to Wales. That's around £600 million a year, as Dave Rowlands referred to. If you look into the deeper figures of that, that's around £195 million that's being earmarked for education in Westminster, £385 million earmarked to health. Your advisers will know this as well as I do.

Can you give us a guarantee that it's up to the Welsh Government now to decide how you spend that money? Can you give us a guarantee that that money will be passed on to the public services in Wales that need it most, so that you can get on with the job, which you were charged to do, of defending public services in Wales, of defending the Welsh way of life, because people in Wales haven't always been convinced that that's happened in the past? You have a golden opportunity here, in a perfect position, to prove people who are negative wrong and to show that you can stand up for public services in Wales. 

Llywydd, for a decade we have been lectured by Members on that side of the Chamber: austerity was unavoidable, austerity was something over which there was no choice. There was, apparently, no magic money tree. Now that they've shredded all of that and finally taken decisions to turn their back on it, they expect us to be rejoicing on this side of the Chamber. A little more humility on the part of the party opposite would not go amiss. And let me tell Nick Ramsay why it is that we are not prepared to enter into the spirit of his question. First of all, what guarantee do we have that this money will ever arrive in Wales? Governments can only spend money that parliaments vote to them, and this Parliament has not voted on the sums of money announced last week. When will this Government put a money Bill in front of the Westminster Parliament so that we could have confidence that these sums of money will arise? They're not going to do that while Parliament is prorogued, they're not going to do that while the Prime Minister seeks a general election, and they're not going to do it when they don't have a majority on the floor of the House of Commons for anything that they announce.

So, first of all, I don't feel that we can be confident that this money will arrive at all. When it does arrive, Llywydd, of course, the Westminster Government will have spent large sums of it on our behalf. We now learn that the 85 per cent contribution to the pension costs that that Government has imposed on us is to be put into our baseline. So, not only did we lose out by £50 million this year, but we're going to lose out by £50 million every year into the future. So, that money's already been frittered away by decisions made by the UK Government. And why is it, Llywydd, that whereas public services in England are told that they have a three-year settlement and they know how much money there will be for education, not just next year, but for two years after that, we in Wales are not given a three-year settlement at all? Of course the money we get will be invested in public services. That's exactly what we do with all the money that comes our way. It would be nice if we were treated on the same basis as departments elsewhere and given the same opportunity.

13:45

Welcome back to all here today.

The First Minister, of course, is right in that we haven't seen a penny piece of this money yet. We wait to see it. We hope that it will be seen, but it goes no way towards making up the widening austerity gap that has emerged over a decade. But this adds too, of course, to the lack of certainty over the future of the shared prosperity fund, the lack of sign-off, because of prorogation, on the previous Chancellor's commitments on sustaining existing EU funding commitments, which are vital for supply chain as well as higher education, training and so on, and also, of course, the fact that he's alluded to that we have no long-term multi-annual comprehensive spending review settlement because Parliament is not there to sit and do it. Nothing has been ratified. There is one thing, however, that we do have increasing clarity on, and that is the implications of a 'no deal' Brexit. I wonder if he's had time to read the report by the UK in a Changing Europe group, 'No Deal Brexit: Issues, Impacts, Implications', because that makes crystal clear what the effects in Wales and every part of the UK will be if we crash out in a 'no deal' scenario.

I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for that question. There were two shocking things about the CSR announced earlier this month: first, that it only lasted for one year, whereas we were being promised by the Conservative Government at Westminster right up until July that it would be a three-year settlement that we would have, and that evaporated in a matter of weeks. And surely it was shocking to everybody in this Chamber that the Chancellor made not a single mention of the shared prosperity fund.

Month after month after month, we are told by UK Ministers that they will honour their promise to Wales that we would not be a penny worse off as a result of leaving the European Union because they have a shared prosperity fund. Month after month, we are told that it's only round the corner that they will have a consultation on that fund, and we will be able to see the colour of their money. Now we know that we're not going to hear anything until the next calendar year, and the Chancellor failed to mention it even once. The amount of money we expect to get through the shared prosperity fund would be in excess of the £600 million that Nick Ramsay mentioned as coming through the CSR. Huw Irranca-Davies is absolutely right to point to the fact that without that certainty, our partners here in Wales are unable to plan ahead in the way we would want them to do.

I have had an opportunity to see the UK in a Changing Europe report. A 'no deal' means a prolonged period of uncertainty; half of UK goods exports will face disruption. It will reduce the safety of UK citizens; the UK's international reputation may suffer. Is there any wonder why time after time after time on the floor of this Chamber we have warned about the catastrophic effect that leaving the European Union without a deal will have here in Wales?

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, do you believe that your Government responds appropriately and immediately to the needs of the people of Wales?

13:50

This Government responds every day to the needs of people in Wales—in the health service, in providing housing for people, in the education services that we provide. It's at the core of what we do as a Government.

Well, First Minister, let's discuss some of your immediate proposals, shall we? Back at the start of June, you made the decision to cancel the M4 relief road and waste £144 million of taxpayers' money in the process. Now, as part of that statement you made it clear that a commission would be created and would come forward with a first set of immediate proposals that can be put to work to begin to alleviate the problems experienced on the M4. You even said that you recognised that the action is required more than ever given the significance of these problems, and you concluded by saying

'we will begin on that work immediately.'

However, since 25 June there has been no further update about the work of this commission, the membership or what immediate proposals are taking place. In fact, as I understand it, the commission's initial report has now been pushed back to spring 2020 instead of December this year, and your Government has been squabbling over its budget. Your Government delayed making the initial decision, and even hid behind the Newport West by-election. So, First Minister, what is the excuse now for this further delay?

It's disappointing to hear that the leader of the Conservative Party here in Wales is as careless with the necessary conventions of our political life as his leader is in Westminster. The reason we delayed the announcement because of the Newport by-election is because that is what the rules of by-elections require. Now, I know that his party isn't keen on rules. I know that they don't care about whether or not they observe the way that things ought to be conducted. But it's disappointing to hear the leader of the opposition here align himself with that way of conducting public life here in Wales. While he talks about the waste of public money on major public infrastructure projects, presumably he wasn't reading when his Government made an announcement on HS2 and the billions of pounds that have been squandered by his Government on that. The Burns review has been working hard over the summer. It is working actively, it is recruiting the other members of the commission it will need. We will announce those names very shortly. It will hold its first public engagement event next month, and I expect that the next set of proposals from the review will be with us by the end of this calendar year, as we have said all along.

Well, you have been squabbling over the money that is actually available to this commission, because on 12 July you said that Lord Burns has the first call on all of that £1 billion, but five days later, your economy Minister said

'we're not going to be inviting the commission to spend £1 billion.'

So, as a Government, First Minister, you're all over the place on this. Who is right? You or your economy Minister?

Now, another area where your Government wanted immediate action is on the climate change emergency. So far, you have failed to bring forward substantial immediate proposals to tackle the climate emergency. What has been announced has been more of the same when we know that what we need now is not more of the same, but innovative ideas to reduce our damage to the planet.

Now, the £30 million for active travel will do nothing to help if the trains and buses across Wales are constantly delayed, full to bursting, and put people off rather than encourage them on board. The latest bus journey figures show that 20 million fewer bus journeys are being taken in Wales. What radical ideas did your Government have in mind when it declared the climate emergency, and when will you be bringing them forward? Because other nations have, for example, banned single-use plastics, and yet all your Government can say is that it is committed to a ban. When will your Government, First Minister, be introducing a ban and stop just thinking about it?

It's difficult to pick out much sense in what I've just been asked, Llywydd. On the issue of the money for the Burns commission, the Burns commission has first call on the £1 billion that was originally set aside for the M4 relief road. Lord Burns, when he met me, as a former permanent secretary at the Treasury, made it clear that that did not mean that he expected to spend £1 billion. He wasn't aiming to spend £1 billion. What he knows is that if he needs £1 billion it will be there at his disposal. It doesn't mean it's an ambition for him to do so.

The climate emergency question linked to the M4 relief road suggests that irony has long been lost on the benches opposite. How does he on the one hand want to complain about not building an M4 relief road, and then complain that we’re not taking a climate emergency seriously? The two things simply cannot be held in the mind at the same time. We have published a whole series of other practical proposals that we will take as a Government to respond to the climate emergency. We will introduce 20 mph zones as standard in our urban areas and we will introduce regulations to tackle agricultural pollution in January next year. We are focused on those practical things that the Welsh Government can do, and we will deliver against them here in Wales.

13:55

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, which do you think represents a brighter future for Wales: Brexit or independence?

Well, it’s clearly not a choice that any sensible person would seek to make, Llywydd. The bright future for Wales lies in a strong Wales with an entrenched devolution settlement, taking domestic decisions here in our hands, in a strong United Kingdom and in a successful Europe. That’s what I believe the best future for Wales will be: Wales in the United Kingdom, the United Kingdom in the European Union.

As we saw over the summer, from Caernarfon to Merthyr, thousands are on the march in Wales, and on independence the tide is turning. And, you know, you risk, First Minister, being overtaken by events as history is accelerating. It’s happened, of course, on more than one occasion against the backdrop of Brexit. Over the summer you still said in one of your first ministerial videos that you wanted to leave the European Union on the best of terms. The shadow chancellor, who wanted to back remain, has been rebuked by Len McCluskey, Labour’s largest donor. Even your own health Minister says your party’s policy of being both 'leave' and 'remain' deserves ridicule. Do you?

Well, Llywydd, let me begin by saying that I understand the frustration and the anger that many people here in Wales feel at the current UK Government and at the way in which events since the referendum have unfolded. It’s no wonder, I think, that people feel let down. But I am clear in my mind that the answer to those feelings of frustration and anger is not independence. Surely, Llywydd, the answer that people ought to draw from the Brexit experience is that borders create divisions, they create divisions inside societies and between societies, that they damage economies and that they reduce protections. The power of the union, as people on this side of the Chamber understand, is a power that exists inside the union of the United Kingdom and inside the union of the European Union. That’s the message of the Labour movement, and that’s why we believe that the answer to the frustrations and the anger that people feel is to create a successful future for Wales as part of both of those wider set of arrangements. And that’s the position of the Welsh Labour Party. The Labour Party will offer people in the United Kingdom a chance to vote again—a call that he has made in this Chamber many, many times. A Labour Government will deliver that, and in a second referendum, the Welsh Labour Party will campaign to persuade people in Wales that our future is better off in the European Union.

There are 44 days now, of course, until Boris Johnson tries to force through a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Now, our clear preference, to prevent this from happening, would be to hold a people’s vote before an election, but if we have a general election instead, it will become the people’s vote by proxy, with a Tory 'no deal' on the ballot paper. Now, if this does happen, then it seems vitally important to me that there is a clear 'remain' option on the ballot paper too. Now, your Brexit Minister, the Counsel General, said in July that the Labour Party

'should be advocating remain in that manifesto rather than a referendum'

and seeking a mandate to revoke on that basis. 

You didn't answer whether you disagreed with Vaughan Gething, but do you disagree with Jeremy Miles?

14:00

I've put the position of the Welsh Labour Party, Llywydd, and I put it again. I've put it in the Welsh Assembly, because I am responsible for the position of the Welsh Labour Party. In a general election, the position here in Wales will be clear: the Welsh Labour Party believes that our future is better secured inside the United Kingdom and we will say that loud and clear. You will argue to take Wales out of the United Kingdom and we will argue that Wales should remain in a United Kingdom that remains in the European Union. Both of those things are right for Wales. Only the Labour Party will argue for them both and I look forward to the chance to do exactly that.

First Minister, 12 days ago, you made a calculated decision to allege that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom had lied. How would you describe the statement

'We will deliver a relief road for the M4'?

Llywydd, I've dealt with the relief road question. I have it from a man who has stood on a number of manifestos for different parties and is so attached to the promises that he made that he was willing to betray them on the floor of the Assembly and to zig-zag across the floor here. So, I don't need to hear questions from him on that sort of issue because his own history simply illustrates how hollow those questions are.

I didn't accuse the Prime Minister of lying. I put him right on that the last time he said that. I pointed out that the official spokesperson of the Prime Minister had been put up to say something that documents which were then revealed in front of a Scottish court turned out to be untrue. I don't think it is wrong to point that out.

On the M4 relief road, we have rehearsed the arguments here. I came to my decision, I stand by that decision, it was the right decision to make. 

So, you stand by your decision. You said just now it's to do with the climate change emergency but you didn't say anything about that in your decision notice, did you? [Interruption.] The decision notice talked about the environment and the Gwent levels; it did not mention climate change. [Interruption.]

We need to hear the question. Can the question be heard in some silence, please? Mark Reckless.

I have always backed Brexit. I've never lied about it. Now, you used that word—at least that's what I recall you using, or the meaning of what you were saying—yet your party, you and almost everyone behind you, said that you would respect the referendum. Yet, now, your policy is to go to the European Union, if I understand it correctly, and negotiate a deal so you can come back here and campaign against it. And that deal you are looking to negotiate is even more of a Brexit in name only than what the Conservatives have been offering us.

It will be, frankly, an in/in referendum. It's very difficult to judge whether it's the Lib Dems or Plaid saying, 'Revoke, just ignore the referendum, we know best', or it's you forcing people through the charade of an in/in referendum that would be more of a betrayal of the people of Wales.

Could I just read the First Minister two statements? The first is from his predecessor, Carwyn Jones, from the foreword of 'Securing Wales' Future':

'A majority in Wales voted to leave the European Union...and the Welsh Government has been clear from the outset that this democratic decision must be respected.'

Then, the Counsel General, shortly before that, for the Government, said:

'The people of the UK voted to leave the European Union. I respect that decision and we will not work against the referendum result.'

First Minister, weren't they lies?

Llywydd, for two years and more, this Labour Government argued for a form of leaving the European Union that would have respected the result of the referendum, but would have protected jobs and economies here in Wales. He attacked those proposals time after time after time, describing them as he has again today as leaving the European Union in name only.

We put forward those proposals because, with Plaid Cymru in the aftermath of the referendum, we understood that people in Wales had voted to leave the European Union, but as Steffan Lewis, our colleague here said at the time, they never voted to take leave of their senses. And that meant that if we were to leave the European Union, it had to be done on terms and in a way that would have protected their futures, and that's what we tried to promote.

It became clear to us, particularly as a new leader of the Conservative Party was elected, that that possibility had simply evaporated—that no matter how hard we argued for it and no matter how cogent our position was, it was never going to make a difference to somebody who, as the Member here said, wasn't interested in the arguments. He's always been in favour of Brexit. Say what you like about it, demonstrate how harmful it will be, he'll be for it come what may.

So, we decided at that point that the decision should go back to the people. A Labour Government will deliver exactly that. There will be a credible 'leave' option on the ballot paper, so he will be able to go on campaigning to leave the European Union, misguided as I've always believed him to be. But, for those of us who believe that Wales's future is better off inside the European Union, there will be a second opportunity to put that to people, to make those arguments and to persuade people on the basis of everything that we have learnt in the three years since that referendum that that's where our future lies. I look forward to us being able to do just that. His argument, I think, will be exposed yet again for the ideologically driven, evidence free, careless-of-the-future set of proposals that it has always been.

14:05
Safety on the M4 in the Swansea Area

3. Will the First Minister make a statement regarding safety on the M4 in the Swansea area? OAQ54294

Llywydd, the Welsh Government continually monitors the safety of the M4 and addresses any immediate issues as a matter of urgency. A wide range of measures to improve safety and transport opportunities along the M4 west corridor has now been identified and we will make that report publicly available by the end of September.

Can I thank the First Minister for that response? As he's well aware, a large number of accidents of various degrees of seriousness have occurred between junction 45 and junction 47, which cover my constituency. I could continue it on into David Rees's constituency as well, but I won't do that—I think he'll have an opportunity later.

I think that it is a problem there. A number of regular users of the road have approached me concerned about drainage and the road surface, which they believe have contributed to accidents in this area. Will the First Minister arrange for an investigation into those concerns and, if they are proved to be correct, arrange for the problems to be rectified?

I thank Mike Hedges for that question. He's right to say, of course, that anybody who has followed the news over the month of August in particular will be aware of accidents that have happened between junctions 45 and 47 on the M4. That's why the Welsh transport appraisal guidance stage 1 study is important, Llywydd, because it has identified potential improvements to safety and other matters on that part of the road, and that's why we will publish those proposals this month.

Issues of drainage and the way in which road surfaces are constructed are a matter of safety. The 'Design Manual for Roads and Bridges' sets out the standards that we use in Wales, but I will certainly ask officials to investigate whether issues of drainage and the state of the road surface did contribute, or were believed to contribute, to the accidents to which Mike Hedges refers.FootnoteLink

Thank you for that reply. I look forward to seeing that report, First Minister. The safety, of course, of the air that we breathe remains an issue around certainly the western part of the M4 running through my region. You'll recall that the extended 50 mph temporary zone west of Port Talbot is no longer temporary. However, I seem to recall that Government officials advised that the legal change doesn't necessarily mean that the reduced speed limit will be permanent, stating that once air quality has improved beyond required levels, the Government will revisit the question of the speed limit in that area.

Listening to your response to Paul Davies earlier, can you just confirm that it's still your intention to possibly increase that speed limit if there is a reduction in air pollution caused by vehicles? In the meantime, what active steps are you taking to encourage the use of less-polluting publicly procured and publicly licensed vehicles in that part of my region?

I thank Suzy Davies for that. We don't introduce a 50 mph zone just for the sake of reducing the speed of traffic. As she says, it's there for a particular reason, because of the evidence that we have seen and believe to be compelling that reducing average speeds to 50 mph will make a difference to air quality—necessary differences to air quality—and, of course, we will monitor that very carefully. We would not want to be in a position where we achieve improvements in air quality then raise speed limits to find that the air quality has gone back down again. So, I don't think we can offer an immediate assurance that if air quality standards improve that that will mean that speed limits will go back up again. But what we do provide an assurance of is that we continually monitor it, and we'll keep that question properly under review.

Of course, Suzy Davies is right, Llywydd, that beyond speed limits, we need vehicles that emit less pollution, and that's why it's been such good news that Wales has done so well in the competition to get funding for electric buses in Wales. And by changing the nature of the vehicles that we use, we will make a difference to air quality not just in Swansea and in the part of the M4 that Mike Hedges referred to, but right through to Cardiff and to Newport as well.

14:10
Operation Yellowhammer

4. What further contingency planning has the Welsh Government undertaken for the people of Islwyn following the publication of the Operation Yellowhammer document? OAQ54347

I thank Rhianon Passmore for that. Yesterday the Welsh Government published our 'no deal' Brexit action plan. It reflects our engagement in Operation Yellowhammer and, for the people of Islwyn, our close working with local partner organisations, including Gwent Police, local authorities and the Gwent local resilience forum.

First Minister, the forced release of the Operation Yellowhammer document confirms what the Welsh Labour Government has been consistently stating publicly for many months, namely that a 'no deal' cliff-edge Brexit could have enormous detrimental consequences for Welsh people, their families and our communities. Amidst the document's pages are non-worst-case-scenario warnings that some fresh supplies of food will decrease, and that critical dependencies for the food chain, such as key ingredients, may be in shorter supply. Further, that UK citizens enjoying their holidays abroad to European Union countries may be subject to increased immigration checks at EU border patrols causing serious delays and, critically, medical supply shortages. There may also be a rise—these are not my words—in public disorder and community tensions.

First Minister, these are just some of the Halloween horrors that the Tories are willing to inflict and wanting to inflict on my constituents, even though, as David Cameron has admitted this week, Boris Johnson didn't believe in Brexit and backed the 'leave' campaign only to help his political career. What hope can you give to my constituents in Islwyn that this dystopian future caused by a 'no deal' cliff-edge Tory Brexit can be in any way mitigated by a Welsh Labour Government on their side always?

Llywydd, the document that we published yesterday sets out the many actions that the Welsh Government has been working on over months past to do everything we can to mitigate the impact of a 'no deal' Brexit. The fact that we've developed a 12 to 15-week supply chain of medical devices and clinical consumables, that we have a bank of animal vaccines set up in case there is an outbreak of disease, that we have worked closely with all the major supermarkets about food supplies here in Wales and, in particular, the things that we have done to safeguard the future of vulnerable people in Wales in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit.

The Yellowhammer document sets it out: a 'no deal' Brexit will fall more harshly on the shoulders of those least able to bear that burden than anybody else. There will be rises in food prices, there will be rises in fuel prices, there will be rises in energy prices, and these will be borne by families in Wales who have had their benefits frozen since 2015. And the things that we are doing as a Welsh Government, set out in our action plan, demonstrates our determination to focus upon the most vulnerable in our society in aiming to protect them from the self-inflicted harm that leaving the European Union without a deal would mean.

First Minister, do you accept that the Operation Yellowhammer document is not a prediction of what is likely to happen, but it describes a worst-case scenario for the purposes of Government planning? And do you also recognise that the UK Government in London has stepped up preparation to mitigate any impact of a 'no deal' Brexit for the whole of the United Kingdom, including Wales?

14:15

You see, Llywydd, this simply doesn't stand up to examination. Yellowhammer is what the Government describes as a 'reasonable worst case'. It's not the worst-worst case; it's not an exaggerated account of the harm that will come to the United Kingdom. It is what a reasonable person would assess to be the impact of Brexit in a worst case, and we are heading into that worst case. And any idea—any idea—that this UK Government has been working hard in a way that will simply mitigate and wipe away the impact of a 'no deal' Brexit—they don't believe it, I can tell you that. They don't believe it at all and neither should anybody here.

First Minister, I'm particularly concerned with the supply of drugs and medicine to those who need them post Brexit. [Interruption.] How did I know you'd all—?

Thank you. There appear to be claims, counter-claims and claims again about security of supplies. Can you please allay the fears, the real fears that many constituents have because of all these things that people keep saying, and confirm that your Government has secured the medicine it needs to keep the Welsh NHS working, mitigating all the stress that people are listening to?

Well, Llywydd, let's be clear with Mandy Jones and other Members here that medicines that we rely on here in Wales come through the short straits and that the UK Government in its own predictions say that EU-UK traffic could fall by 40 to 60 per cent between Calais and Dover in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit. That's why we have had to take the actions that we have taken to try to mitigate the impact that that would have on the supply of medicines here in Wales. It's inevitable—it's not a matter of shaking heads and sounding as though this is some sort of ideological point, it's an intensely practical issue: if those ports cannot bring in the supplies of medicines as they do today, there will be an impact on the availability of those medicines in the United Kingdom. And there are some medicines on which we rely that can't afford to sit and wait in a queue because they have short shelf lives, and that's particularly true of radioisotopes in the treatment of cancer. That's why there is a plan with the UK Government to get around the ports issue by flying those supplies into the United Kingdom. But if those supplies arrive at an airport and then there is logistical chaos because the lorries you're relying on are caught in a queue somewhere in Kent or aren't able to move back from the continent in the way that was expected, there's no guarantee that anybody can offer that those plans will deliver everything as they are today. Who would possibly embark on this course of self-harm? This is not inevitable—this could be stopped. It ought to be stopped, and then we wouldn't be having these conversations.

I think, reading through the document that the UK Government was forced to release by the courts, you understand why the UK Government didn't want the public to see this. I'm reminded of Aneurin Bevan when he told us:

'How can wealth persuade poverty to use its political freedom to keep wealth in power?'

This is a document that describes the impact of Brexit on the poorest people of this country. It describes the impact of 'no deal' on the sick, on the vulnerable. It describes how the people who can barely afford to buy food today and rely on foodbanks will see increases in food prices and a reduction of access to fresh food. This is a document that the UK Government sought to keep secret. It is also, First Minister, of course, a document that doesn't mention Wales. Devolved administrations are mentioned in the penultimate paragraph in terms of fishery protection. There is nothing here, yet the UK Government, you would have hoped, would understand that many of the matters here are the responsibility of the Welsh Government. Many of the responsibilities in dealing with these matters are the responsibility of the Welsh Government. And, First Minister, can you reassure us that the United Kingdom Government understands in any way the impact of a 'no deal' Brexit on the poorest people in this country? And can you reassure us, First Minister, that this Welsh Labour Government will continue to stand up for people in communities up and down this country?

14:20

Well, Llywydd, I thank Alun Davies for that question. I hear Members around the Chamber who persuaded people in Wales to leave the European Union now trying to deny the impact that that will have in their lives, and there is no denying it. If you read Yellowhammer, it is as clearly set out there as you could wish. People who live on the smallest incomes in our society spend a larger proportion of their incomes securing the basics of everyday life: food, energy, fuel. It takes a far higher proportion of their incomes than it does people in this Chamber. They will have to find money to deal with the consequences of Brexit, and they will be the least able people to do that. I can give Alun Davies an absolute assurance—I attended a meeting of the latest UK committee myself last week: I pointed to that paragraph in Yellowhammer, I asked the UK Government what plan it had to put money into the pockets of those families in Wales and in the United Kingdom whose incomes have been held down, who have seen prices rising and will now be asked to pay the cost of a 'no deal' Brexit. It's their responsibility to do that; it's the very least that they should do to protect those most vulnerable people.

The A470 Corridor

5. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of nitrogen dioxide levels along the A470 corridor in South Wales Central? OAQ54316

Llywydd, nitrogen dioxide levels have been monitored before and after the initial implementation of that 50 mph speed limit. Findings will be monitored and reported before the end of this month, when a full 12 months’ worth of post-implementation data will have been collated and analysed.

Thanks. Thank you for the answer and, of course, there are major concerns over the amount of pollution emanating from the A470. I was listening to your answer earlier to Suzy Davies's question, which was a related one, although hers was about the M4. Now, you say there's compelling evidence; we can have a look at that, of course. The observation of many of my constituents who regularly use that road to commute is that they're seeing an increased occurrence of traffic jams and, of course, there is the danger that traffic jams could tend to worsen the amount of polluting toxins in the air. So, when you do monitor the evidence that arises, if it transpires that the situation has worsened, would you be of a mind to consider possibly removing the 50 mph zones?

Well, Llywydd, we will certainly monitor the position very closely. The evidence is that 50 mph zones, when properly preserved, prevent queues rather than add to them. A section of the A470 between Upper Boat and Bridge Street interchanges is an area where we know that the figures demonstrate that there is an urgent and immediate need to bring about improvements in air quality. We will do more over this autumn to put up information that explains to people why they are being asked to observe that 50 mph speed limit and to explain to them that they are being asked to do it because the scientific evidence demonstrates that they will be making a contribution to improving air quality for those communities that they are driving through.

I think we've always been able to make an appeal to people in Wales to understand that collective effort has an impact on the lives of other people. We haven't explained that well enough and persistently enough to people so far. I am optimistic that when we do that, we will see people observe that 50 mph speed limit and that it will both improve air quality and reduce queuing and do good in the lives of people who, today, suffer the impact of the actions that other people take in travelling through those communities.

Transport for Wales

6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the performance of services provided by Transport for Wales? OAQ54313

14:25

Llywydd, Transport for Wales will deliver the Wales and borders rail franchise through a £5 billion investment in Welsh railways over the next 15 years.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister. The level of service on the rail network in Wales has been wholly unacceptable over the summer. I have received dozens and dozens of complaints, either with people copying me into their own correspondence to Transport for Wales, or constituents contacting me directly—not to mention the issues aired over social media. Complaints fall into a number of categories that include cancelled trains, lack of staff, delayed trains, overcrowding and standing room only, signalling problems, a lack of appropriate carriages and a lack of quality information when issues do occur. When Transport for Wales took over the franchise last year, they raised expectations and the Welsh Government also told rail users they would see improvements. Can you tell rail users today when they can expect to see the improvements that you promised last year?

Llywydd, I saw information put out by the Member over the summer in which he complained that only 97 per cent of trains on the Cambrian line had run over the summer. I think there are people in Thameslink who would think they'd arrived in rail heaven if his Government was able to deliver 97 per cent of all planned services on that line. The Member will have seen yesterday the announcement made of £194 million-worth of investment in railway stations across Wales, and that will certainly attend to the point that the Member made, which was a fair point, about—

The Member will need to listen rather than speak and then he would have a chance of hearing the answer to his question, wouldn't he? The £194 million investment announced yesterday will certainly attend to the fair point the Member made—that's what I was about to say when he started interrupting me—about information being provided to passengers. The Member said when he was interrupting me that Transport for Wales has said that the performance on some lines, including the Cambrian line, has not been acceptable over this summer, and they're working hard with Network Rail to make sure that signalling difficulties that were experienced on that line are being put right. Of course we want to see further improvements. The £5 billion investment that I referred to earlier will certainly deliver that. People, I believe, are already seeing improvements in many parts of the rail service in Wales and that's what they will continue to see as the franchise unfolds.

Council Tax on Second Homes

7. What measures are in place to prevent avoidance of extra council tax on second homes? OAQ54350

The measures to which the Member refers are set out in the revised and strengthened non-domestic rating Order, passed by this Assembly in 2016. Responsibility for the effective operation of these procedures lies with local authorities and the Valuation Office Agency.

First Minister, while listening to the radio last week, I was struck by an advert I heard on a commercial station that began by informing people of how they could create an extra income out of their second homes and ended by saying, 'Take action now in order to avoid the extra council tax on second homes.' Will the First Minister agree with me that it is morally repugnant for companies or businesses to be offering this kind of advice? It is something that creates a situation where tax can be avoided and it encourages people to buy second homes in order to rent them out to holidaymakers, thus, of course, creating a situation where young people particularly can't afford to live in their own rural communities. Does the First Minister share my abhorrence of the message that that advert gave and will he condemn any attempts to try to get around the law?

Well, I certainly do that and do it as strongly as the Member just has. Tax avoidance is morally repugnant. Tax evasion is straightforwardly criminal and against the law. I didn't hear the advert myself, but I would have to warn anybody listening to it that if they think they are going to enter into a contrived arrangement in order to evade the council tax, then they will find themselves in receipt of very large accumulated bills when that is found out. And if any firm were to offer advice to somebody with the express intention of contriving an arrangement in which the law of the land can be avoided, then they would be, I believe, vulnerable to criminal prosecution for fraud. There is a very clear and legal set of requirements. If you are to let your house as accommodation that is self-catering, you have to make that property available for 140 days in any year, and it has to be let for 70 of those 140 days as a minimum. Those are legal requirements. They are set out in that way in the Valuation Office Agency's forms that people have to fill in, and there is a dedicated team here in the VOA in Wales that validates the evidence that's produced about self-catering premises and carries out regular spot checks to make sure that the law is being observed.

Anybody who thinks that the law is a soft touch in this area and that you can evade it or avoid it easily will rapidly come unstuck. [Interruption.] Every single—. I'll just say, every single example that local authorities in Wales have provided to the VOA have been investigated by the valuation agency. And I invite local authorities—as I know my colleagues did yesterday, in a meeting with them—I absolutely invite local authorities to provide that evidence. If there is genuine evidence of the law not being properly applied, and the dedicated team that the VOA have to make sure that it is, then, of course, we will take action. But we can only take action if the evidence itself is supplied, and only local authorities are in the right position to do that. Please make sure that, if they have the evidence, they send it in.

14:30
The Free Swimming Scheme

As much as I would like to have joined in that discussion, I will ask my own question.

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on the decision to end the current free swimming scheme? OAQ54351

Thank you for the question. The free swimming initiative has not ended. Following an independent review commissioned by the Sports Council for Wales, it has been revised. The new version will provide more opportunities for young people and the over-60s from the more disadvantaged areas of Wales.

The current scheme has come to an end, of course, and there are implications to that. Rightly or wrongly, the free swimming scheme has become a crucial part of how local government pays for its leisure services, because of the unsustainable cuts that have taken place in funding. Now, free swimming funding in Anglesey, for example, is cut in half by the decision to revise and, quite simply, the council won’t be able to afford to fill that gap of £30,000—some 20,000 people per annum take advantage of this, and that figure will go down.

First, we must have a commitment of real additional funding for councils next year, but, on the specific issue, given the preventative value of free swimming in improving health today, tackling obesity today, in order to prevent ill health and to save money for the NHS tomorrow, will the First Minister admit that revising this programme and cutting the budget so much is sure to lead to a reduction in the number of users and is contrary to the principles of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015?

Well, I don’t believe that the evidence demonstrates that to be true, Llywydd.

It was right to reform the scheme. When the scheme was first introduced in 2004-05, over 800,000 swims took place by young people under the scheme. Last year, it had fallen to 126,000. If you don't think that those figures deserved a review, then I don't think that would be a fair conclusion to draw. And yet the number of swims by young people has gone up in Wales over that period. So, the idea that, by removing the scheme as it currently stands, it automatically leads to the unintended, and, as I see it, not to be realised consequences, doesn't stand up to examination. More people under the age of 16 are swimming in Wales than ever before, and yet fewer and fewer and fewer of them were taking advantage of the free swimming initiative. 

The money that is not being devoted by the sports council of Wales to this scheme is being spent by them instead on a series of healthy and active fund projects. Four of those new projects will be happening on the island of Anglesey. It's not that money is being taken away from these purposes; it's just that it's going to be spent in a different way, precisely in order to deliver the sorts of outcomes that Rhun ap Iorwerth referred to in his supplementary question.

2. Questions to the Counsel General and Brexit Minister (in respect of his "law officer" responsibilities)

Thank you, First Minister. The next item is questions to the Counsel General and Brexit Minister in respect of his law officer responsibilities. And the first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders. 

Legal Action With Regard to Prorogation

1. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the Welsh Government’s recent application to the High Court to intervene in legal action with regard to prorogation? OAQ54312

14:35

3. Will the Counsel General provide an update on the Welsh Government's intervention in the High Court prorogation case, ahead of the Supreme Court appeal? OAQ54308

Presiding Officer, I understand that you've given permission for questions 1 and 3 to be grouped. I refer the Members to the written statements that I published yesterday and on 2 September. I intervened in the case because it is appropriate, necessary and proportionate to do so in order to safeguard the interests of Wales and this Assembly.

Twice your Welsh Government has teamed up with an individual—Gina Miller—to challenge the actions of our UK Government. Most recently, you have intervened in legal proceedings in the High Court, supporting the legal case against the Prime Minister's advice to the Queen to prorogue Parliament. You claimed that you did not make the intervention lightly and stated:

'As the law officer, I have a duty to uphold the rule of law and the constitution'.

Now, whilst I appreciate that the matter is before the Supreme Court now, the High Court concluded that the decision of the Prime Minister was not capable of challenge. Will you therefore disclose to this Chamber how much of our taxpayers' money has been spent by the Welsh Government in your attempts to subvert the very source of our democratic sovereignty?

Well, I think the Member fundamentally misunderstands the situation. The Welsh Government hasn't teamed up with anyone. As law officer, I have intervened in these proceedings, and I have had permission to do so by—

—the High Court and the Supreme Court. The Member may remember that the last time the Welsh Government intervened in a Miller case the Supreme Court found in favour of Miller, because the Supreme Court understood that the actions of the UK Government were designed to sideline Parliament. Those circumstances are the circumstances we face today, with a new Prime Minister seeking to sideline Parliament at exactly the time when Parliament should be sitting to scrutinise his actions and the Government's actions, and also to pass legislation to prevent the catastrophe of a 'no deal' Brexit. So, I make no apology for intervening on behalf of this Assembly. And Members here have sat and debated and considered legislation and asked Parliament to legislate on our behalf in order to ensure as smooth as possible a legislative statue book after Brexit.

And that opportunity has been denied Parliament to sit and consider that legislation by the prorogation. So, I make no apology at all for standing up for the rights of this Assembly.

She shouts at me from a sedentary position the question of costs. The costs of intervening in the High Court stage were £8,937.91 plus VAT—with apologies to Mark Reckless for the question he'll be asking me later.

The Scottish Court of Session found that Boris Johnson misled the Queen about his reasons for wanting to prorogue Parliament. The Prime Minister had said that it was so that a Queen's Speech could be introduced, but the judgment made it clear that there was documented evidence that the true reason was to stymie parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive. The English High Court did not contradict this, so there is no debate about whether Boris Johnson lied to the Queen and everybody else about the true nature of his reasons for proroguing Parliament—he did. The point at which the judgment of the High Court differed to the Court of Session was about whether lying about the reasons for prorogation is justiciable or not—that is, whether it's a legal or a political matter. Is the Counsel General in a position to explain his legal basis for believing that this is a justiciable matter and whether, if the Supreme Court finds in his favour, a judgment that prorogation is unlawful in this instance will be enforceable? I ask because of the briefings from No. 10 that they may seek to prorogue Parliament for a second time, regardless.

I thank the Member for that supplementary question. She is right, of course, to point out that the Court of Session in Scotland concluded that, whatever the reasons the Prime Minister gave publicly for seeking the prorogation, the actual reason was to stymie, as they put it, Parliament's consideration, which they concluded to be constitutionally unacceptable and unlawful. She is right to say that, for both the High Court and the Court of Session in Scotland, the question of justiciability was at the heart of their considerations. The submissions made on my behalf in the Supreme Court will say that the divisional court—the High Court—was incorrect in its conclusion, and that the Court of Session was correct, in the way that both courts approach the question of justiciability, i.e. that Executive action shouldn't be undertaken other than in accordance with public law standards, and, where political subject matter is a basis for judicial restraint, it isn't a basis for Executive immunity, and those are some of the submissions that will be made on my behalf in the Supreme Court later this week.

On the question of the conclusions of the Supreme Court, I will say clearly now that this Government will abide by whatever the Supreme Court concludes, as would any Government worthy of that name, and I hope that the evasion that the Prime Minister has shown on that question, on reflection, he will realise is inappropriate, and that he will act in accordance with the outcome of the Supreme Court's judgment, as soon as it's given.

14:40
Vehicle Emission Reductions

2. What discussions has the Counsel General had with cabinet colleagues in developing legislative proposals to deliver vehicle emission reductions? OAQ54325

Welsh legislative powers do not extend to regulating vehicle emissions. However, the Government supports the use of challenging new vehicle standards to reduce emissions from transport and the Government is acting in areas where it has competence and has consulted on the clean air framework to lead local government actions to improve air quality and reduce emissions.

Thank you very much for that response. As you’ve said, clearly there is a range of legislative options available to the Welsh Government in pursuing this agenda. You will be aware that the UK Government, on 15 July, announced its intention to introduce legislation that makes it a requirement to put charging points for electric vehicles in all new homes in England, as part of efforts to reduce emissions by 2050. The proposals include changing building regulations for new residential buildings to provide for electric charging points and for infrastructure for charging points in non-residential buildings. So, what discussions have you been having within the Welsh Government on the best legislative route to secure similar outcomes here in Wales?

Well, I won’t elaborate on any legal discussions, for reasons that the Member will understand fully, I believe. But the question of the steps that Welsh Government can take to secure a low-carbon society is a very lively discussion that is held often within Welsh Government. I would refer the Member to the ‘Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales’ policy document, which describes in detail the wide range of steps that the Government is taking at the moment, and the steps we intend to look at in future in this area and in other relevant areas.

The High Court Case concerning Prorogation

4. Will the Counsel General make a statement on the cost to the taxpayer of the Welsh Government joining the failed High Court case concerning prorogation? OAQ54307

The cost of intervening in the High Court stage was £8,937.91, and VAT. I consider this proportionate to the fundamental importance of the issue, both for this place and its ability to give voice to the interests of Wales, and to the rule of law and the constitution more generally.

Isn't an important part of the rule of law that our First Minister should accept the decisions of courts within our jurisdiction? And, following the decision of the divisional court in London, within the jurisdiction of England and Wales, that the decision to prorogue was lawful, is it appropriate for the First Minister to describe the decision as unlawful?

Well, the judgment in the Court of Session in Scotland, which, contrary—[Interruption.]—contrary to the comments of many Conservative backbench Members of Parliament, is actually a superior court to the High Court of England and Wales, found exactly the opposite proposition, which is, in accordance with the submissions we have made, that the decision was unlawful. And he mentions, from a sedentary position, that this is not our jurisdiction, as he put it. The Parliament that is prorogued is the Parliament of Scotland in Westminster, as it is the Parliament for Wales in relation to reserved matters, and the decisions of the Court of Session are not to be lightly derided as the Member is seeking to do. I hope that the Supreme Court will take full account not just of the conclusions of the High Court, but also of the arguments that prevailed in the Court of Session in Scotland and support the arguments made on behalf of Miller and Cherry, in which I was glad to intervene.

14:45
The Future of Devolved Powers in Wales

5. What legal advice has the Counsel General provided to the Welsh Government on the future of devolved powers in Wales? OAQ54314

Whilst the Member will appreciate I don't disclose advice that I give to the Government, the question of the devolution settlement and how it might be improved in the future remains a live discussion within Government.

Thank you. Last month, you had the pleasure, as did I and many here, of attending the National Eisteddfod of Wales. Now, despite the Secretary of State, the Right Honourable Alun Cairns MP, having worked hard to deliver a clear and stable devolution settlement, you really did have quite a moan. In fact, you stated, and I quote,

'it is clear that the attitude of the UK government to devolution needs to change fundamentally. Currently, it seems still to have a profound ambivalence about devolution. Or worse, an attitude that if we behave ourselves, the UK government will out of the goodness of its heart, allow us some limited powers of self-government. A "get what you’re given" type of devolution.'

Now, whilst you did note that your priority is to remain and reform within the union of the United Kingdom, my question to you is whether it is actually the case that the Welsh Government will not be satisfied with devolution until there is actually a break-up of this union.

Can I first thank the Member for drawing attention to the speech that I gave in the Eisteddfod, which I feel otherwise might have had a slightly more limited audience than she will now have given it? So, I thank her for that. She mentions the efforts of the Secretary of State for Wales to deliver a stable settlement for devolution. I'm afraid I see it slightly differently from her, and I take for example the discussion that the First Minister mentioned earlier on the shared prosperity fund, which is a matter that should be entirely devolved to Wales, and he has not championed that position in my discussions with him. We have called on several occasions for there to be full engagement in the question of regional funding following the departure from the European Union, and that has not been taken up. That is one of many, many examples of where the current devolution settlement falls short and where the UK Government's commitment to a stable devolution settlement falls short.

She mentions in her closing question the break-up of the union as though that would be a thing that we would advocate. Let me be absolutely clear to the Member that the people taking the wrecking ball to the British constitution are people like the Brexit Party and people like her who are advocating the kind of hard and 'no deal' Brexit that runs a very serious risk of tearing the UK apart.

3. Business Statement and Announcement

The business statement and announcement is next, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to make the statement—Rebecca Evans.

Diolch, Llywydd. There are three changes to this week's business. Later this afternoon, I will make a statement on implications for Wales of the UK Government's 2019 spending round, and the Counsel General and Brexit Minister will make a statement on Brexit. To accommodate this, the statement on Designed to Smile—10 years of improving children's oral health in Wales will be issued as a written statement. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Can I call for a statement from the Minister responsible for transport on the A55 trunk road in north Wales? The Trefnydd will be aware that there have been many complaints coming in to Assembly Members from across the North Wales region because of significant roadworks that are taking place in the Llanddulas area. Now, I appreciate that these roadworks are necessary in terms of restoring safety to the bridge in Llanddulas, but the organisation of those roadworks, without any appropriate diversions in place to encourage motorists to take alternative routes, is causing absolute mayhem in local communities and towns throughout my constituency, including Abergele, Old Colwyn and Colwyn Bay. We've had children not able to go to school on time, we've had people not able to get to work on time, we've got tourists who are having a very poor visitor experience of north Wales as a result of these roadworks, and I'm very concerned that it's damaging now the reputation of north Wales and our economy. So, can we have a statement on what the Welsh Government is going to do to make sure that it plans these things better in the future so that we don't have the sort of disruption that we've been experiencing?

14:50

I thank Darren Millar for raising this issue this afternoon. As he recognises, the work that is being carried out on the A55 is very much being done in order to ensure the safety of that stretch of road, but clearly any disruption to people's lives is concerning. So, I will ask in the first instance Welsh Government officials to investigate the situation with a view to providing some advice as to how we can best avoid that kind of situation in future.

I'd like to add my name to the growing number of people who are calling for a summit on adult social care services on a national basis, into the provision of care for older people. I'd also like to see a moratorium in the interim on the closure of further facilities, because many local authorities have closed or are closing their day and residential care centres, and spaces are being lost everywhere. On the other end of the age spectrum there's a shortage of care places for younger people, and private care homes that prioritise profit seek to take advantage of this situation. We need good-quality, publicly provided care for older people, disabled people and looked-after children. At present, privatisation is happening by stealth. Can we have a Government debate and a response to this request for a summit and a moratorium as soon as possible, please?

The Government is well aware of the long-running campaign to reopen the Rhondda tunnel as a walking and cycling route. Its potential to attract tourism, facilitate active travel and to encourage physical activity is massive. That's why it's such an integral part of this policy document that I produced in conjunction with Sustrans this month. The main stumbling block to opening that tunnel comes from the question of its ownership. It's currently owned by the English Department for Transport and managed by Highways England—a bizarre anomaly that really should have been corrected by now. Until the ownership question is resolved, efforts to raise money for the project and take it to the next stage are hampered, thus endangering its chances of success. The project is also hampered by not being designated as part of an active travel route.

I have to declare an interest as a member of the Rhondda Tunnel Society, and, like my party colleague Bethan Jenkins AM and your party colleague David Rees AM, I've been working closely with the Rhondda Tunnel Society to bring this project to fruition. I first raised the issue of ownership with the Welsh Government more than three years ago, and we haven't moved on a great deal since then. So, can we have a statement explaining how the Welsh Government can help this project and resolve the ownership question? Guarantees could be put in place for the Welsh Government to avoid financial liability. The question now is: is the political will there?

Thank you for raising those two issues. I know the Minister with responsibility for social care is here in the Chamber to hear your request for a statement and a view on the proposals for a summit. I know that she'll give that due consideration.

With regard to the Rhondda tunnel, I think it's a tremendously exciting proposal. Clearly, there are issues in terms of the ownership and how any work would be funded in future—something that Welsh Government's very much alive to. I had a discussion only today with the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport about this, and I know that he's engaging with Sustrans as well to ask them to do a piece of work to explore how we can move this forward, because I think that we all share the enthusiasm and the understanding of what could be achieved.

Minister, can I add my voice to the last question by Leanne Wood in relation to the Rhondda Tunnel Society and the Rhondda tunnel ownership? I won't go any further because you've already answered the question, but I do put my voice to that call.

Can I ask for three statements, if possible? The first one is on the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008. Now, earlier this year Neath Port Talbot council actually put proposals forward that would have increased charges upon post-16 education travel for those going to Welsh-medium education, going to faith schools, and also in the additional learning needs areas. There is an opportunity here now—and I welcome the decision of the council to actually defer any decision on this for the local people—to look at the learner travel Measure as to whether we can actually look to amend the learner travel Measure to ensure that post-16 education becomes part of the travel requirements, to ensure that these people can go to schools or places of education without the extra charges that are being considered by local authorities. Will you, therefore, ask for a statement from the Minister for Economy and Transport, who I believe has responsibility for that area, to look at whether we can review the learner travel Measure to see what updates could be put into place, what amendments could be put into place, to ensure that those children can get the free transport to school, as it happens in the future?

Can I also look at a question in education as well—the supply teacher frameworks? I understand new frameworks are now in place. Well, I have seen e-mails from one of the agencies that has benefited from those frameworks, indicating that they are slightly encouraging schools to go off-framework, to encourage them to take people out of the frameworks and therefore pay them lower rates than they would be entitled to. That’s from an agency that’s been given permission in the frameworks and actually has a position on all 22 across Wales. We need to look at the monitoring of the supply teacher frameworks to ensure that teachers are not being abused by this system and that agencies are not taking an option to try and encourage schools to avoid and circumvent the actual requirements, to ensure that teachers get a decent wage and the decent conditions that they deserve as a supply teacher. And, therefore, can we have a statement from the Minister for Education as to what is being done about that framework?

Finally, it’s been mentioned by Rhun ap Iorwerth in his question to the First Minister this afternoon on free swimming. We had a written statement, and I thank the Deputy Minister for the written statement last week, giving us some indication as to what’s happening. But we need to ask questions in relation to the free swimming concessions and the changes that are being applied, because, if you look at it, they are actually not huge figures we’re talking about, but this is actually crucial to many constituents of mine, and they have written to me in quite large numbers saying, 'Why are we doing this?' We need, therefore, to be able to ask the Deputy Minister questions about the concessions, as to how we can move forward. It’s not just a matter of free swimming for everybody; this gives them opportunities, it takes them out of their homes, it gives them social interaction, it improves their health, and every opportunity like that is crucial to ensure our people over 60 are able to be active participants in our society. And this decision actually is going to remove that from some. I would therefore like an oral statement so that we can ask the questions specifically on the free swimming concession changes.

14:55

I thank Dai Rees for raising those issues. I know that you have also written directly to the Minister for Economy and Transport outlining your support for the Rhondda tunnel proposal and your concerns about the ownership, and so on. I can say that, as you’re probably aware, Welsh Government has funded work on a high-level business case for the project as well as providing subsequent funding to undertake an ecological assessment, a bats survey, a tapping survey to assess the condition of the tunnel, and also work to improve access to the tunnel for the survey work to be undertaken. So, I think that we can demonstrate our clear support for the proposals, although those issues of ownership and how the project could be funded are yet unresolved.

In terms of the learner travel Measure and your concerns about how that impacts on the ability of those learners over the age of 16 to get to their learning environment, and I think particularly those who are disabled are of concern to you, I will ask the transport Minister to write to you with an update on that, but also to take into consideration the case that you’ve made this afternoon.FootnoteLink

On supply teacher agencies, I can say that officials in the education directorate have worked closely with the National Procurement Service to address and incorporate a number of additional requirements in the framework contract specification to support supply teachers’ pay and working conditions and our fair work and social partnership principles. But, on the particular issue that you raised, the NPS has issued contract guidance to all of the appointed agencies, requiring them to report situations of non-compliance so that they’re able to have as much information as possible regarding the framework's uptake and effectiveness, and if a framework agency is consistently attempting to subvert the framework rules and, I think, the spirit of those rules as well, the NPS will take action.

And in terms of when the earliest opportunity would be to question the Minister on the issue of free swimming, I know that there is a question to the Deputy Minister tomorrow afternoon.

Trefnydd, I'd like to ask you for a couple of statements, if I may. First of all, could we have a statement from the Minister for Economy and Transport relating to public transport particularly in south-east Wales? I've received correspondence from constituents about difficulties in commuting from Monmouthshire to Newport and Cardiff—the city region area—and the frequency of those services. I myself drove to the Assembly today. If I hadn't driven, then I could have got the bus and the train here, but I wouldn't have been able to get back after 5 o'clock because there's no linking bus service after 5.30 p.m. from Newport or 5.45 p.m. from Abergavenny to Raglan. Sorry to bore you with my domestic issues, but that's an issue that affects all sorts of people commuting down to Cardiff. I appreciate that the metro is looking at this. Perhaps, as I've raised with the Minister in the past, the possibility of a metro hub at the new convention centre at the Celtic Manor could alleviate that. So, if there have been any discussions in that area, that would be interesting to hear.

Secondly, Members may be aware that there's been an issue in the United States, which is currently in the process of banning most flavoured e-cigarettes. Hundreds of people are suffering from a mysterious lung illness. I know that vaping products in America are different to the vaping products here—the nicotine is much stronger, the other chemicals in them are stronger—but nonetheless, there's an issue there and some of my constituents have been asking me what my opinion is. I'm not an expert on vaping, but I wonder whether we could have an update on the guidance of the Welsh Government in the light of those concerns.

And finally, it was the Usk Show recently—a very well attended event—and farmers there raised the issue of bovine TB with me and are concerned about recent increases in that disease. If we could have an update from the Welsh Government on efforts taken to tackle the disease, both in livestock but also in the animal reservoir.

And very finally, Llywydd—you've indulged me—yesterday was United Nations world ozone day, which I Facebooked and tweeted about. It's the thirty-second anniversary of the Montreal protocol that banned ozone-destroying CFC chemicals from aerosols and fridges and other utensils and household appliances. That was an enormous success. It was a positive that showed that when the world community gets together they can tackle really big environmental issues and it can be done in a way that here we are, 30 years on, and not only is the ozone hole in Antarctica now repairing itself, but it's estimated by 2060 it will be completely healed. That's brilliant news. Hopefully, your climate change emergency and that of local authorities in Wales will be able to deal with the issue of global warming and in the future we'll look back and say that was a similar success.

15:00

Thank you very much to Nick Ramsay for raising those issues. The first related to public transport in south-east Wales and your interest in a hub at the Celtic Manor at the new convention centre, and also ensuring that public transport is at a convenient time for people to be able to get both to and from work. I'll ask the Minister for transport to provide you with an update on the latest work regarding the south Wales metro and also thoughts in terms of public transport more widely and more imminently in the area. 

In terms of e-cigarettes, I know that reports from the United States of the cluster of serious pulmonary disease amongst people who use e-cigarettes are very concerning. However, I think that it's fair to say at the moment the exact cause of the disease is unknown. But we're very clear in Welsh Government that e-cigarettes shouldn't be used by non-smokers, they should not be used by young people. At the same time, we recognise some people have found them to be helpful in terms of helping them stop smoking, but we're very clear that evidence of the longer term health affects of e-cigarette use is currently very limited. We are working with partners across Wales to develop a shared consensus about e-cigarettes that is evidence based and I'm sure that we'll have more to say on that in due course, but in the meantime we'd certainly encourage anyone who wants to quit smoking to call our free national helpline, Help Me Quit, on 0800 085 2219. We also have our helpmequit.wales website, which you can also visit as well, should anybody be interested. 

In terms of bovine TB, I know the Minister for environment and rural affairs does provide regular updates to the Assembly on that issue and I know that she'll seek to provide a further update as and when she's able to.

And I share your enthusiasm for UN world ozone day and it certainly is an example of the power that can be drawn upon when countries work together for an important reason.

Before the summer recess, there was a commitment from you, and I quote, that

'there'll be a debate on 'Designed to Smile: 10 years of improving children's oral health in Wales' on the first day back in September'.

Well, today is that first day back and there is no debate. I know that the health committee is to bring a debate forward at the beginning of next month, but the Government has already rejected their recommendations for providing more funding for dental services, which makes no sense whatsoever to me.

It is critical. At the moment, only 15 per cent of surgeries in Wales are taking adult patients through the NHS and only 27 per cent take children. There are no dental practitioners in Arfon taking new patients on the NHS, and that includes children.

The Government here needs to face this reality, but at the moment you’re not even willing to hold a debate on the matter. So, may I ask for a debate and update as a matter of urgency, and an explanation of what the steps that you will take are and how you’re going to tackle this crisis across Wales, including in Arfon?

15:05

Unfortunately, we did have to move the item, as I illustrated at the start of the business statement today—the item on oral health amongst children—to a written statement, and that was to accommodate the statement that I'll be making this afternoon on the impacts for us of the spending round and, obviously, the statement that the Minister will be making on Brexit.

I understand, probably as much as or more than most people, the huge pressures that there are in order to accommodate all of the requests that we receive in the business statement. I often receive four requests from a single individual during a business statement. Clearly, on a normal business day, we would only have four debates or statements. So, we do our best to accommodate Members as much as possible.

On this occasion, we have, unfortunately, had to turn that proposed statement into a written statement, but the Minister has been here to hear your comments and I know that he will be keen to provide an update on dental issues in an appropriate way as soon as possible.

Could the Minister make a statement on the problems encountered by my constituents with regard to the obligatory application to renew their bus pass, which has to be completed by the end of December? Apparently, there has been a complete shutdown of the site where they could complete the application online, and the telephone service has also crashed. Surely, the volumes of applications should have been anticipated and the structures put in place to cope with the high volume of demand. A fundamental question has to be asked: why was the operation necessary in the first place? All of the necessary information would already be held by the local authorities, so the information could surely have been gleaned from these sources. It would only have been necessary for those whose details have changed to reapply. Surely, this is just another example of taxpayers' money being wasted, not to mention the anxiety caused to so many people who rely on their bus pass to move around.

Transport for Wales is managing the issue of the new-style concessionary travel cards across Wales on behalf of the Welsh Government and the 22 local authorities. The scheme is still owned by the local councils. The new-style cards will offer the same free travel rights and benefits as the current card, and the new-style cards are required because the current bus passes won't be recognised on electronic readers on buses after 31 December this year. The new cards, crucially, are also designed to work as part of an integrated travel network in the future. It's true to say that Transport for Wales has experienced an exceptionally high volume of hits to their new concessionary travel card site since its launch on 11 September. I've had, as many Members will, many members of the public contact me about this. Transport for Wales has taken down the new website to boost the capacity to better manage the traffic, and I understand that it will be back in operation today. But, really, the message to current cardholders is that there really is plenty of time to apply for those new cards. Their cards will be accepted right through until 31 December 2019, so we do encourage applicants to visit the website in the coming days, once demand has reduced.

I would like to ask for a Government statement on the role of planning inspectors and the rules under which they work. It is well known that I do not believe that there is a role for planning inspectors overruling democratic decisions made by council planning committees, as opposed to the ombudsman and judicial review for all other decisions made by councils. I do not understand why inspectors ignore supplementary planning guidance that has been approved by the Welsh Government. Perhaps the statement could explain why both local and nationally agreed policy can be ignored by planning inspectors.  

15:10

Thank you, Mike. I think in the first instance it might be helpful if I liaise with my colleague Julie James to offer a technical briefing from the appropriate officers within planning in order to have that opportunity to ask the detailed questions that you have. 

Minister, may I ask for a statement from the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip about the Welsh Government action plan to advance equality for transgender people published three years ago, in 2016? The Assembly will be aware that the equality impact assessments are a process designed to ensure that a policy, project and scheme does not discriminate against any disadvantaged or vulnerable person or people in our society. However, in response to a Freedom of Information Act 2000 request for a copy of the assessment relating to this action plan, the Welsh Government replied that they do not hold the required information. When pressed for further comments, the response received was—and the quote is, Minister—

'I understand that at the time of the development of the action plan an equality impact assessment was undertaken, to be updated throughout the consultation process.'

The quote continues:

'We have undertaken a thorough search, unfortunately, it appears that this document has since been deleted from our electronic record system and is not available to access.'

Minister, can we have a statement from the Deputy Minister on this unsatisfactory situation, and what action she intends to take to review the plan to ensure it meets its objective of advancing equality for transgender people in Wales, please? 

Thank you, Mohammad Asghar. Of course, the Deputy Minister is here to hear your comments, but clearly it is a matter of regret that the equality impact assessment relating to the 2016 action plan to advance the equality of transgender people cannot be located. However, it is important to note that the action plan focused on training, support and awareness raising, and challenging transphobic attitudes, rather than being operational guidance. Safeguarding is paramount, and all organisations are bound by relevant and appropriate safeguarding procedures. But I know that the Deputy Minister has heard your concern on this issue. 

On the first Saturday of this month, thousands gathered in Penderyn Square in Merthyr for a march for independence. However, many were unable to attend due to the lack of sufficient capacity on train services to Merthyr. Many trains were packed to the brim, with some trains bypassing some stations altogether due to the carriages being full from Cardiff Central. It simply isn't good enough to have a small number of carriages on days when major events are taking place, and this wasn't a one-off. When rugby internationals are held in Cardiff, there are often similar issues. What message are we sending to the world about Wales when we can't provide train services to an acceptable standard? I accept that improvements take time, but we are well over a year into the new contract, and it seems that although there have been improvements on some services, some are still Arriva trains in all but name. Will the Welsh Government provide a statement on what it will be doing in partnership with Transport for Wales to ensure there is sufficient capacity in future for major events of this sort that have been publicised well in advance?   

The Minister for Economy and Transport will be making a statement on a railway for Wales in Plenary next Tuesday, so this would be a good opportunity to hear from him on those concerns. 

Trefnydd, I would like to request an update from the Welsh Government on job losses that have been announced by BSW Sawmills Ltd of Newbridge-on-Wye in Powys. I received correspondence on this matter and it does say that there'll be a total of 33 redundancies, and 11 of those are people who are employed on a temporary basis. I know that this figure doesn't seem really high for some people in this Chamber, but for an area of Powys where there are very few jobs that are well paid, this is a very high number, 33 redundancies. So, I'm keen to know what discussions Welsh Government have had with the sawmills on this particular matter, and what assistance might or is being given to those impacted by this news. Constituents are concerned that further job losses may be announced in the very near future.

15:15

Thank you, Joyce Watson, for raising this issue. She's quite right that 33 job losses in a fairly small community can have a huge impact on that community and the life of that community. I'll ask the Minister for Economy and Transport to provide you with an update on the discussions that Welsh Government has had and any support that can be given to the affected workers.

Can I call for two statements? Firstly, on drugs, related to drug poisoning in Wales. This follows the publication during the Assembly summer recess of Office for National Statistics figures showing deaths related to drug poisoning in England and Wales 2018. These revealed that Wales has the second-highest figures amongst 10 areas—nine English regions and Wales. Wales had both the second biggest increase in its rate over the last 10 years, an 84 per cent increase, and the second-highest age-standardised mortality rate for deaths per million related to drugs misuse by country and region registered in 2018. Given that the Welsh Government has been responsible for tackling substance misuse policy in Wales for two decades now, Llywydd, this merits a statement and I hope this might be forthcoming.

Secondly, and finally, I call for a statement on funding for a social enterprise accelerator in north Wales. For the past five years work involving Bangor University and colleagues in Wales and Ireland has been ongoing to develop a social enterprise accelerator. They've been told several times over the last two years that €3.4 million of INTERREG funding has been ring-fenced for their project. However, repeated delays from the Welsh European Funding Office, part of the Welsh Government, have now led to a situation where the ring-fenced funding could possibly be returned to Europe unspent. They say that if WEFO had decided there were better projects to fund, that would be understood, but the social enterprise accelerator has already had its initial application and its stage 1 business plan approved, but the process of approving the project has taken so long that it looks like they could now run out of time when there were times when they were waiting three months even to receive a response to correspondence. They say that if nothing can be done the unacceptable delays from WEFO will have cost the economies of north and west Wales over £1.7 million in funding when a similar project in the south-west of England has already delivered over £16 million of economic value and supported the creation of over 1,000 jobs. So, will you provide a statement noting that they've said to me that if we're not too late, they'd be grateful if you could see whether anything can still be done to ensure the project proposal is assessed in time to secure this ring-fenced funding?

Thank you very much for raising those issues. The Minister for Health and Social Services is currently consulting on the next substance misuse delivery plan, so I think that would be an opportunity for Mark Isherwood to explore that plan to ensure that he's satisfied that it addresses the kind of issues that he described relating to drug poisoning. So, any contribution that he would have to that consultation, I know, would be welcomed, and then the Minister will obviously update the Assembly on the issue when the consultation has closed.

Regarding the social enterprise accelerator, I'll certainly look into that matter myself and then try to get to the bottom of what the delay is.

I'd like to ask for an update on what's happened in terms of the discussions between the Welsh Government and Ineos on the potential for the creation of 500 jobs when Ford—. Well, Ford have said that they are to leave the Bridgend site. If that does happen, we're given to understand from the Financial Times that Jim Ratcliffe is interested in that site. I have to say that I do have some reservations in that regard in terms of his track record on workers' rights, but according to that article, there have been discussions and I would like a statement from you as Government to inform us as Members—not just Members representing that area, but each and every one of us—so that we know what the state of those negotiations is.

The second request for a statement is—and I'm pleased the health Minister is here to hear me because I'm getting increasingly frustrated—about the fact that we are having no progress at all on the announcement as to what is happening with the eating disorders framework. I've been pretty tolerant, I think, in trying to wait for the outcome of the framework, but I've come to the point now where I've had to write an open letter to the Minister because he hasn't answered a letter that I wrote to him in July, with campaigners, with sufferers, who took part in good faith as part of that eating disorders framework review, who want to see positive changes, who want to work with the Minister, but are deeply frustrated at feeling ignored by him and his team. Please, I do not want to stand up here week in, week out asking for a statement on this. These are people's lives, people who have suffered eating disorders all their lives. Please, please act.

15:20

With regard to your interest in Ineos—and I'm aware of the FT article as well—I know that when there is an announcement to be made, the economy and transport Minister will make that announcement.

With regard to the eating disorders framework, I'm advised by the health Minister that he will be making a public statement in the coming weeks.

First, I'd just like to associate myself with the concerns expressed by Nick Ramsay on e-vaping. It's interesting to note that Peter Black, who opposed the legislation on e-vaping that was presented by the then health Minister, now First Minister, to give it the same regulatory controls as smoking cigarettes—. So I'd be keen to understand clearly why the regulations in the UK protect us from the serious risks that have occurred in the United States. I think that's the specific thing that I'd like to see. Is it that regulation is better in the UK, and specifically in Wales, to ensure that we're not getting the deaths that have been associated with vaping in the United States, and people becoming seriously ill who were otherwise healthy in every respect?

Secondly, I want to highlight the fact that Cardiff University recently secured £3.6 million in European funds for its electron microscope facility to develop cutting-edge research in catalysis, which will speed up cleaner, cheaper, safer ways of manufacturing goods, and entirely relevant to John Griffiths's points made in the First Minister's questions about electrical steel. This is exactly the sort of research we need, and I want to contrast that opportunity for developing safer, more sustainable, greener manufacturing in Wales, which we are getting as a result of that EU grant, with the alarm being expressed by university vice-chancellors. Four in five university vice-chancellors are having to worry about where they're going to source their toilet paper or how they're going to feed their students who are in residential halls were there to be a 'no deal' Brexit. In Cardiff, in particular, over 700 staff are EU citizens, and how are they going to be replaced? They are engaging in really important research, so it'd be really useful to have a statement from the Government about the impact of 'no deal' on our university sector, not just Cardiff University.

And lastly a specific question about the 'no deal' preparations the Government is making in relation to our clean water because, from the Welsh Government statement, I understand that there are chemicals that are sourced from Europe that help to keep our water clean. So, I'd like to know the specifics on what are these chemicals, why it's not possible for us to produce them in the UK, and how, under these very catastrophic circumstances, we are going to maintain a clean water supply for our citizens. Because that, ultimately, is the most important thing that we have to do.

I thank Jenny Rathbone for raising the issue and for associating herself with Nick Ramsay's comments on e-cigarettes and the concern about what we've seen in the United States. We are working with partners to agree a common position, based on the best and most recent evidence. And, obviously, I think the Welsh Government will be keen to share that common position when we have arrived at it.

There's a statement from the Minister for Brexit later on this afternoon—I think it's the next item of business—so that would be an opportune moment to ask some of the questions you've just raised in the most recent contribution. But I think the way you've described our membership of the European Union—the support we've had for innovation and for safe, sustainable manufacturing and the exciting potential future there—and then contrast that with the concerns that you've described about the things that university vice-chancellors are having to concern themselves with and spend their time on, that really does demonstrate the kind of impact that Brexit will have on us and what we would be losing were we to leave the European Union.

On the issue of water, you'll be aware that Welsh Government did produce the action plan identifying the strategic risks that we're aware of and setting out what we are doing in those areas, and I can confirm that Dŵr Cymru is working with the Government and the wider water industry to ensure a continuous high-quality supply of drinking water in all eventualities.

15:25

I'm looking at the Government's statement on making the fight against knife crime an absolute Government priority. I attended a very well-attended vigil in Cardiff recently with lots of parents and lots of young people, and it was an education to listen, especially to the young people talking about how they are affected by knife crime. I'm wondering whether or not Government Ministers or officials will sit down and meet with campaigners to discuss ways of taking action in the future, because this needs to be an absolute priority.

Thank you for raising this really important issue of the fight against knife crime. I know it's something that the police and crime commissioner has also taken a particular interest in—the south Wales police and crime commissioner who covers your area. I'll ask Ministers what might be the best and most appropriate way forward in terms of engaging with the interested parties on the fight against knife crime.

Can I request a Government statement on the role that sport plays in dealing with mental health? Last week marked World Suicide Prevention Day and I was very proud to lead an awareness-raising campaign—a successful campaign—with Cardiff City Football Club, Swansea City Association Football Club, Wrexham AFC, Newport County AFC and the Offside Trust charity. Unfortunately, we all know that by the end of a Premier League match on a Sunday, 84 men will have committed suicide that week. Now, to me and many others in this Chamber, those statistics are shocking and clearly unacceptable.

Many of us also know, those who struggle with mental health, that quite often it's our thoughts that cause more pain than any object, so I would like to thank, and for the Trefnydd to thank as well, any of those who joined in different campaigns on that day and do so on a daily basis. I certainly know the pain I felt during that day and during the run-up to that and even now as I stand here in the Chamber.

We need to recognise that mental health and suicide are actually now a national crisis. I've heard some say, Llywydd, 'When does the support end?' Well, let me be clear in this Chamber: to me, the support doesn't end. The support that we show people never should end, because we are talking about people's lives and the lives of their families and friends. My message to people out there in Wales today and across the UK is if you are worried about a friend or a family member, reach out. If you are struggling yourself, don't be afraid, there is support out there. So, let's work together for better mental health and suicide prevention, and that's as a Government, as Assembly Members, as friends, as family, but just basically as human beings.

Thank you, Jack, for raising that and I think that you've said that much more eloquently than I could, but I would certainly pay tribute to everything that you've said and give our backing, as Welsh Government, to the concern that you have for this issue and share your gratitude and your thanks to everybody who does provide that listening ear to people who are in those very dark situations.

We are currently consulting on the mental health delivery plan and I was quite taken by your suggestion at the start that we need to ensure that sport and that area is made the most of in terms of supporting mental health as well. So, I think we'll be checking that the mental health delivery plan does have those synergies across to sport in the ways that we already know it has across to things like substance misuse and homelessness. So I think that's a really important point that we'll take forward.

I wonder if you could let me know, Trefnydd, whether Welsh Government is planning a debate or statement on the skills needs of Wales any time soon. There's a report to be launched next week by ColegauCymru called 'Building a better Wales—lessons from Europe', which is about the future skills needs of Wales, that explores the connection between higher level skills and regional economic resilience. It's based on evidence and interviews across six countries in Europe, and also here in Wales itself. And this research aims to contribute to Welsh Government policy and the conversation that takes place in Wales around skills needs. It's made possible, the report, by European Union funding, and it includes a number of key recommendations, including that a broader range of business organisations, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, should be involved more closely and effectively in deciding what future skills should be provided, and how we could have effective mechanisms to achieve that. And it also calls for a review of post-16 skills training in Wales, to provide longer term funding arrangements that support collaboration, and that there should be longer term planning and succession planning in terms of future skills needs on a more effective basis.

This will be the subject matter of the next cross-party group on further education and future skills meeting, which takes place next week, and it would be good if as many AMs as possible could get along to engage in that. But, essentially, Trefnydd, I think that with Brexit still a real possibility and the economic shocks that could bring, we really need to concentrate our minds on the future skills needs of Wales and make sure that we provide them as effectively as possible.

15:30

Thank you, John Griffiths, for highlighting that report. As you'll be aware, the First Minister has asked every member of the Cabinet to take responsibility for one of the cross-cutting areas of Government, to ensure that we are maximising all of the work that we do across different departments. I was given the role of taking on the employability and skills agenda as part of that cross-cutting work, so I'll certainly be really interested in receiving a copy of ColegauCymru's report to help inform our thinking as we develop that, and I'll explore as well what might be the best way to update on the work being done on skills. 

4. Statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government: Improving Security of Tenure

The next item is a statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government on improving security of tenure. And I call on the Minister to make her statement—Julie James. 

Diolch, Llywydd. This statement provides an update on the Government’s proposals for extending the minimum notice period for no-fault evictions under the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016. The consultation closed earlier this month and the responses are currently being considered, and I will, of course, update Members further in due course. Ahead of that, I want to make clear what is being proposed. Our approach is to amend the 2016 Act in order to deliver on the commitment to improve security of tenure in the private rented sector, and for the amended Act to then be implemented before the end of the current Assembly term.

The consultation proposed tripling, from two months to six months, the notice that a landlord must give when seeking to end a standard occupation contract under section 173 of the Act. This would apply in those cases where a landlord does not have to provide a reason for ending the contract. The consultation also proposed restricting the issue of a section 173 notice until six months after the occupation date of the contract. The Act currently sets this at four months. Taken together, the effect of these two key features would be that contract holders would enjoy 12, instead of six, months' initial security of tenure, subject to compliance with the terms of their contract. I appreciate that some Members may feel this falls short of a ban on so called no-fault evictions, but I want to stress that the dual impact of implementing the renting homes Act and seeking to extend the notice period for section 173 possessions will deliver substantial benefits to contract holders. Improving the security of tenure is our aim, and I firmly believe that is what these proposals deliver and that contract holders in Wales will not be short-changed compared to their counterparts in other parts of the UK.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

In Scotland currently, and under the proposals being consulted on for England, there are grounds where tenants who are not at fault can still be evicted with only two months’ notice, such as when the landlord wishes to sell the property or move into it themselves. Under our proposals, in all circumstances, other than when the landlord is seeking possession for a specified breach of the contract, the tenant or contract holder will be entitled to a minimum notice period of six months.

Ultimately, I consider the length of time that someone has to find a new home is more critical than whether or not the landlord has a reason to seek possession. Therefore, under our proposals, even where a landlord intends to sell the property or live in it themselves, contract holders will have much more time to make the necessary arrangements for themselves or their dependants, such as their child’s school or for those they care for, and to find a property more suited to their needs. It would also give those who are able to do so more time to save, and those who are less able more time to engage the necessary support and assistance.

I have also considered how best to maximize improvements to the private rented sector at the earliest opportunity. It is my view that, to do this, we need to ensure the many benefits of the Renting Homes (Wales) Act are implemented without further delay. I'm sure I need not remind Members that, since the legislation was passed, we have been held back on implementing it due to the need for court systems to be changed. Having now reached a solution, I am keen to press ahead with full implementation by the end of the current Assembly term. I will shortly be writing to every Member, reminding them of the positive changes for every tenant in Wales as a result of this Act, but I want to set out some of the main ones now.

The Act will improve security by replacing the current complex areas of housing law with a fairer and simpler legal framework. It will also require landlords to issue a written statement of their occupation contract, which clearly sets out the rights and responsibilities of landlords and those renting from them. The Act will also provide other benefits, such as setting out the landlord’s obligation to ensure the dwelling is fit for human habitation. Here, regulations can be used to prescribe specific matters and circumstances to which regard must be had, for example including requirements for electrical safety testing, smoke alarms and carbon monoxide detectors. These are provisions that will make it easier for a contract holder’s dependants or relatives to succeed to a—there are provisions; excuse me, Deputy Presiding Officer, I've got my tongue in a twist. There are provisions also that will make it easier for a contract holder’s dependants or relatives to succeed to a contract. Those in supported accommodation will also, for the first time, have a clearly defined set of terms underpinning their occupation, helping them to understand and enforce their rights. To help ensure abandoned properties are re-let as quickly as possible, the Act also specifies a new procedure for the possession of abandoned dwellings.

There are, therefore, two strands to our plans to improve security before the end of the Assembly term: to implement the renting homes Act and to provide further protections for contract holders when subject to a section 173 notice, which is the matter upon which we have just consulted.

Returning to that consultation, I am pleased to say that over 850 people or organisations responded. Responses were weighted heavily on the side of the landlords and agents, which is understandable, given the direct link we have to them through Rent Smart Wales. But whilst we did receive some responses directly from individual tenants, we are aware that organisations such as Shelter Cymru ran their own consultations to formulate their response as well. I'm not surprised by this level of interest because how a landlord can seek possession, and the impact any resulting eviction can have on tenants, has always been an issue that generates strong feelings. I'm therefore pleased by the level of response, and officials have been meeting with key stakeholders to gather further views that can be considered alongside the analysis of consultation responses.

Ahead of that consideration of the responses, there are two important things to remember. Firstly, whilst it is not my intention to remove section 173 entirely, the changes being proposed, if implemented, would remove the incentives for landlords to use it in the same way that they use section 21 of the Housing Act 1988 now. I expect this to significantly limit the circumstances in which it can be used. This is because the changes would mean that, if tenants pay their rent on time, look after the property and are not breaching any terms of their tenancy agreement, then they will have significantly increased security of tenure—twice as much, in fact, as there would be 12 months’ security at the outset rather than six. They will also no longer have the constant worry of potentially needing to move with only two months’ notice.

The second important thing to remember is that landlords will retain their ability to seek possession where there is a breach of the contract, including in the case of rent arrears or anti-social behaviour. The Renting Homes (Wales) Act already contains the necessary provisions, and the consultation did not propose extending notice periods in these circumstances.

Deputy Presiding Officer, we've already done a lot to ensure the private rented sector is well regulated and able to offer high-quality homes to those who choose to rent. But there is more that can, and should, be done. That is why we are committed to providing greater security for tenants, and I believe that my proposals do just that. Should they be enacted, their impact will be kept under review so that we can identify the impacts of the policy on the rental market, whether it has improved security for contract holders and whether further change is needed. Diolch.

15:35

Can I thank the Minister for her statement on this important area of public policy? I'd just like to ask, as the Minister said responses are now being considered, quite how firm is your policy, because I think what you've just outlined seemed to be a very clear path that you want to take. So, I would like to know how contingent it is, and how those consultations may now alter your views, if at all. I think we all agree that the system needs to be fair to both tenants and landlords. It is an area that requires reform and the UK Government is itself consulting on housing policy in this area for England, and that consultation, as you may know, closes on 12 October. I do think it may be wise to pay some regard to that consultation exercise, and indeed for them to do likewise to ours, as what is proposed in England differs a fair bit, but is, in other ways, related also in terms of the policy objective.

The Minister is not in favour of the proposal in England to allow eviction at two months' notice to permit sale or residential use by the landlord, and the Minister I think cogently argued that a reasonable period was required for a tenant to find a new home, and that, to her, is uppermost, and I don't disagree with that. However, as the Minister rather tangentially acknowledged, otherwise in England no-fault evictions will end, and that's a big difference between what you're proposing and what will happen in England. Instead, in England, during the contract period, landlords would have to rely on provisions permitting eviction where contracts have been broken, and it is the UK Government's suggestion that the court system be speeded up to ensure such redress is effective, and I think that does indicate a balance between the interests of tenants and those of landlords.

So, my question is: why does the Welsh Government not favour the approach that seems to be taken in England, which is to end no-fault evictions? And what regard will she give to the consultations in England and perhaps review her primary decision not to follow up a similar path and just say, 'This type of eviction will no longer be permitted in law'?

15:40

Well, I'm delighted to hear David Melding saying that he broadly is in line with the direction of travel. Obviously, we will be looking carefully to see what the responses say. I have had a brief overview of the responses, and they are largely what we expected, because we're in pretty constant touch with the sector anyway. But, of course, we will be looking at the policy in the light of those responses. I just wanted to remind Members what the consultation was based on.

In terms of taking into account the English consultation, we will, of course, be looking at that, but, however, our renting homes Act substantially changes the landscape in Wales, very substantially away from the Housing Act as it is in England. And what they've done in England is they've taken an approach that outlines a whole series of routes to possession, but it doesn't actually end no-fault evictions. There are circumstances in England in which no-fault evictions will still be allowed. Yes, and they are where a landlord seeks possession for their own use or for the use of their family, which is to sell. So, those routes remain open here. What they haven't done in England is that they haven't got the provisions that our renting homes Act has in place to prevent thing like retaliatory evictions and so on. So, I'm very confident that the combination of our renting homes Act and our extension of the time period actually gives us increased protection here in Wales.

And the language of the sector is around abolishing no-fault evictions, but, actually, when you speak to the sector—Shelter and Crisis and so on—they acknowledge that it's not possible to always do that, because, of course, the landlord who would otherwise find themselves homeless would have the right under human rights legislation, amongst others, to possession of their own house if they were themselves to be homeless. And I think it would not be very—well, it would not be possible to have legislation that prevented you from ever getting that property back. Rather, we talk about it in terms of increased security of tenure for renting in the private sector. There are, of course, a whole series of other things that we can do for homes that are socially rented, which I will come on to in a further statement, in due course, in the Assembly.

I'd like to say I'm surprised by this watered-down policy, but I'm not. It follows a well-trodden path in which a Labour Government hints at the delivery of a progressive policy, only to lose the courage of its convictions and instead roll out something that's unsatisfactory and diluted. I may not be surprised, but that's not to say that I'm not disappointed—disappointed for the many thousands of people in Wales that are living under the threat of a no-fault eviction. These are the very people that would have benefited from this Labour Government remaining steadfast in the face of strong lobbying and delivering what was needed. On that point, is it really fair and equitable that there are two professional lobbying bodies for landlords, and just one person working unpaid to represent Generation Rent? How does the Welsh Government intend to address this and create a level playing field?

What impact could a no-fault evictions policy have in this country? We know from figures provided by Shelter Cymru that at least 42 per cent of private tenants in Wales do not have a fixed-term tenancy agreement. This means that they risk eviction if they get on the wrong side of their landlord, often for something as innocuous as asking for a repair to be carried out. We also know that the status quo is more difficult for women, because, according to research from Shelter Cymru, women are more likely to be asked for sex for rent.

I spent some time with homeless people earlier this year when I joined some Plaid Cymru members who volunteer to go out on the streets of Swansea every week to give out warm food and clothing. One woman, who had been living on the streets for some time, spoke about the hardship of sleeping rough and how, in Swansea, the police and the council seem to crack down on rough-sleeping whenever they were due to hold a major event. People are regularly arrested under the Vagrancy Act 1824. That young woman asked me a simple, but profound question: how can it be legal to make someone homeless, but illegal for someone to be homeless? That is a perverse situation, and your proposals will not solve this problem.

Ending no-fault eviction is an important tool in tackling the shocking levels of homelessness we are now seeing, and I believe that this is a golden opportunity to deliver something positive and effective, and it's an opportunity that has now been missed. Will the Minister agree to monitor the situation, and, if it's found that the Government's measures do not impact sufficiently on the no-fault evictions rate, will you agree to revisit this with a view to ending no-fault evictions once and for all?

15:45

Well, I'm sorry that Leanne Wood has chosen to politicise it in quite the way that she has, because I think there's a fair amount of consensus across the Chamber about what we're trying to do here in Wales. She listed a number of issues, having made the political points that she chose to make, none of which are actually affected by the circumstances we're talking about here.

She talked about the scourge of homelessness, with which I entirely agree, but she hadn't spotted in my statement, Deputy Presiding Officer, that I point out that our renting homes Act makes it much easier for people in domestic abuse situations where they are not the listed tenant to stay on in their tenancy, for example. So, there are a number of things that the renting homes Act does that alleviate some of the circumstances that she talked about, none of which are related to no-fault evictions.

In fact, it's not possible to completely eliminate no-fault evictions unless you say that a landlord that's rented their house, even if they need it themselves because they're homeless, cannot get possession of it, and those are not circumstances in which any jurisdiction in the UK, who are actually subject to the Human Rights Act 1998, would be able to do.

So, what we're talking about is increased security of tenure for people. Once we've implemented these provisions, subject to the consultation—I know already from the general consultation responses that people are not objecting to the length of time that we're putting in place—you will basically have much more security of tenure here in Wales than you will have anywhere else in the UK.

So, I will be writing to all Assembly Members, Deputy Presiding Officer, just reminding ourselves quite what a radical Act we passed back in 2016. I think some time has passed since we implemented it, and so we've forgotten quite how radical we were. But the landscape for tenants in Wales will change completely when the Act is implemented, and I'm delighted that we can now implement it before the end of this Assembly term.

I'm not a lawyer, so I'm keen to understand why you decided to retain section 173 in its revised form when landlords still have section 21 to call on when they need to get rid of tenants who are destroying their property. That's No. 1, and then, secondly, because like others, I want an end to no-fault evictions, because, otherwise, private tenancies are simply not a viable alternative for families with children who can then have their children forcibly removed from the school where they're flourishing, and that obviously has a huge impact on their education. Secondly, I just wondered if you could elaborate on the solution that's now been reached with the courts to enable us to implement the Renting Homes (Wales) Act, because this, I agree, has been a bugbear for some time when we've been discussing further Acts, because the Act has not been in place. So, I'd be very keen to find that out.

15:50

So, on that last one, there were severe difficulties with the court's IT system, which we've been discussing with them. The proposal across England and Wales is that the whole of the IT system will be renewed. It was due to be renewed 'within two years' about three years ago, and we were waiting on that renewal. But we've decided not to wait and to actually implement the IT changes at our own expense ourselves in advance of the whole court system being changed, as I think it seems pretty clear that it's going to take a lot longer than was originally planned, for a variety of reasons that I won't rehearse.

In terms of the section 21 and section 173 issue, it's important to remember that, once we have implemented the Renting Homes (Wales) Act, the Housing Act will no longer be in force in Wales, so section 21 will no longer be in force in Wales. So, it replaces in its entirety the Housing Act. So, we'll only have section 173, and that will limit the grounds of no-fault eviction to pretty narrow grounds. We have provisions in the Renting Homes (Wales) Act to prevent retaliatory evictions, so, if you've asked for a property to be improved and then the landlord suddenly discovers they want to sell the house, the court will be able to take that into account. Rent Smart Wales will also be able to take it into account in considering whether a landlord is a fit-and-proper person, and we intend to monitor that.

Forgive me, Deputy Presiding Officer—I didn't answer Leanne Wood's last question, which I intended to do, which is of course we will be monitoring it. We very much want this to work, and so I said in my statement that we will be carefully monitoring the changes, and, if they are not effective in the way we think they will be, then of course we will be looking to see what else we can do to strengthen it. So, I just want to make that point as well.

Bear in mind we've also passed the Renting Homes (Fees etc.) (Wales) Bill, so you can no longer charge a whole series of arbitrary fees for, first of all, getting into your home, and then for doing a whole series of other things that we've rehearsed. We also have—. The new renting homes Bill, when it's implemented, will change the—a shorthold assured tenancy, for example, will change to a minimum period of 12 months.

At this point, Deputy Presiding Officer, can I just correct the record? I said in response to a question from Michelle Brown on 17 July 2019 that the proposal, if implemented, would give a two-year security of tenure—I misspoke; it's actually a one-year security of tenure, so I just wanted to correct that—and a minimum notice period of six months; you cannot implement this within the first six months of any tenancy. So, I just wanted to correct the record there, because it has been drawn to my attention that I inadvertently said two years instead of one. But this will mean that people have the longest notice period of any jurisdiction in the UK, and, as I repeatedly say, you cannot eliminate them completely, because the vast majority of landlords in Wales only own one other property, and frequently it's when two people have got together and made a couple and they rent out the other home, and, if they split back up again, you cannot expect the person who has the house to be homeless because they've rented it out.

What we don't want is for renting properties to become prohibitive for landlords and so we just dry the market up. So, you have a human right to possess your own home if you need it for yourself. So, we would not be able to do that. So, the sector will tell you that it's a handy moniker, 'end no-fault evictions', but it's not possible to do that in its entirety, and what we're seeking to do here is to do as much as you absolutely can to provide the security of tenure that people need. So, you will not get retaliatory evictions, you'll be able to ask for repairs, you'll be able to get them done, you will not be subject to a two-month notice period if the landlord decides to sell, you will have at least six months—and, if you're a new tenant, longer than that, because you can't do it in the first six months—to find a new home, because I totally accept the point you made about children's schooling and care arrangements and all the rest of it. So, what we're trying to do is give people security, but also enough time to plan if they do find themselves in those circumstances.

Then conversely, Deputy Presiding Officer, I just want to make this point as well, just from the landlord's point of view, of course if the tenant breaches their contract then all of the usual possession routes are still open to them. So, if you have a tenant that's actually behaving very poorly, then all the usual possession routes are open.

As we all know, there's been a substantial increase in the number of people in private rented accommodation as the number of council houses has decreased, and many of those houses that would have been available for first-time buyers have been bought up by private landlords and now privately rented. So, this is a lose-lose situation. Whilst I welcome the tripling of the two months' to six months’ notice a landlord needs to give, and that a six months' tenancy must be completed—that’s certainly moving in the right direction—the effect on children’s education and family life of having to move after a year is serious.

I still support the ending of no-fault evictions. I’m disappointed with the decision not to end it. I’ve heard what the Minister has said. I still don’t understand why you couldn’t say, 'There would be no-fault evictions, but you have to do—it's six months, and then six months if you wish to move back into it yourself', rather than having it as it is now that they can give six months’ notice after six months for any reason that they care to have.

On a positive point, I'm very pleased to see action being taken over empty, abandoned houses. None of us have been out campaigning in the streets without wandering past houses with notices in 'If you don’t come back in 14 days' because they’ve obviously been abandoned. If you could explain exactly how you’re going to bring abandoned houses back into use more quickly, because not only do abandoned houses affect the landlord, they affect all those people living in the area who get serious problems from having an abandoned house next to them, and there are occasions when abandoned houses are taken over by gangs of youths and others who break in because the abandoned house has not been properly protected.

On the six months and six months, how is the Welsh Government going to ensure that landlords actually do that, that they actually follow the rules, and what will happen to landlords who don’t follow the rules?

15:55

I'll start in reverse order again. We will ensure it because of course we have Rent Smart Wales. So, in Wales, you also have to be a registered landlord. So, we have a much more regulated sector than we have elsewhere in the United Kingdom. So, it's, first of all, important to remember that. If you breach these rules—. So, the rented homes Act says that you have to give a written contract to your tenant. So, if don’t do that, and the tenant complains that you haven’t done that, you will have breached the Rent Smart Wales rules. So, you’ll not be a fit-and-proper landlord. So, there are lots of double-backs on this.

You will not be able to do retaliatory evictions. So, if your tenant is asking you to mend the gas, for example, and you decide that you need to sell the house instead, you’ll not be allowed to do that, because that will be considered to be retaliatory, for a period of time—obviously not for ever and ever, but for a period of time that couldn’t be considered to be retaliatory. So, there will be a number of protections that the Act itself does, not just this change, and I think that’s why Assembly Members are struggling with it a little bit—and I had to be reminded as well; I think we’ve all forgotten quite how radical our 2016 Act actually is and the changes that it makes.

In terms of abandoned properties, there are two types of abandoned properties. There are lots of owner-occupied or owner-unoccupied abandoned properties that my colleague Lee Waters has been actively seeking to put grants arrangements in place for, with my collaboration, in order to give people up to £20,000 to bring those back into beneficial use, with the proviso that you have to live in it yourself for five years following the grant. But there is the other problem where you’ve rented out your house and the tenant has abandoned it, but you have to go through quite a long process to prove that, and what the Act does is it truncates that process very severely. So, if you can prove the property is abandoned, you can get an almost immediate possession order for it, and that way we’ll get the house back into tenants’ use.

And the third thing we're doing, which this gives me the opportunity to highlight, is that we’re offering to private landlords in the private rented sector that, if they give their home over to us and allow us to rent it for social rent, then we will guarantee them the local housing rate for that house for the five-year period that we’re proposing to do that. In that way we’re hoping to get more landlords to come on board as being prepared to rent their house and give tenants in the sector all of the additional protections that a tenancy in the social rented sector also gives.

I must declare an interest at this point, as I am a landlord of a couple of rented properties in the private rented sector. Tenants have always had a secured tenancy agreement with myself, and rent charged has always been charged under what the property is valued at. If they have an issue, they ring the agent in charge, and the work is done immediately. So, I too believe that we should ensure security of tenure, but that it should go both ways—security for the tenant and security for the landlord. The one will not survive without the other. These proposals will further erode the rights of private landlords. I have already had a number of concerned owners of rental properties telling me that they are selling up and moving out of the private rental market. So, at a time when we are crying out for homes, the last thing we should be doing is deterring those who rent out their properties.

I have lost thousands of pounds due to bad tenants, and you would be hard pressed to find a landlord who has not, at some time or other, been in the same boat. But many, like me, believe recent changes make it untenable to continue renting out their properties and have decided to sell up. These proposals add insult to injury. Landlords who find it financially untenable to continue renting out their properties will be forced to wait even longer before they can ask their tenants to leave. This could place many landlords in greater debt. I believe this will put off future landlords, people considering renting out a second property until such time as they decide to sell. This is an important part of the private rented sector and we should be encouraging more people to do this if we are to address our housing crisis—and we do have a housing crisis.

So, Minister, you state that you will be making it easier for a contract holder's dependents or relatives to succeed a contract. Can you please expand upon that? Do you not believe that it should be up to the landlord whether or not to offer that contract? Many of the landlords who have contacted me are concerned that the Welsh Government would like to do away with private landlords. I would ask you if you could please answer those claims. Finally, Minister, if we are to tackle our housing crisis, we do need more private landlords, not fewer. How will your Government protect the rights of property owners who seek to rent out their properties in the short term? Thank you.

16:00

Well, I think we have a fundamental political disagreement about the role of the private rented sector just to start off. I think the solution to the housing crisis—for a crisis it is—is to build a lot more homes for social rent. That is a much better way of doing it, it's a much more secure route of doing it, and it provides people with the housing option that they actually want. So, we have a pretty fundamental disagreement. 

But, turning to the very specific things, I also think that—and it's usually women who are in this position—if you've been a 'tenant' in a house where you're not the named person on the tenancy and you find that your partner decides to end that tenancy, rendering you homeless, you should have rights, depending on how long you've stayed in that house and so on, and what you can show around it being your home. That's even more important where there's a domestic violence situation. So, you would not want a situation to continue where a woman in private rented accommodation whose name is not on the tenancy agreement cannot complain about domestic violence because in doing so she renders herself homeless. So, I think we at least across the Chamber will have an agreement that that should not be allowed. 

Similarly, where a carer has spent 20-odd years in a property and is not on the tenancy, or a child of that tenant has done that, they should not necessarily be evicted from their home for no reason other than the fact that they were omitted from the original tenancy agreement. So, the renting homes Act provides for that. This is not the change that I'm consulting on. We've already done that in the renting homes Act. I'm just reminding Members, and I will be writing to all of you reminding you of what we passed, and I think you'll be pleased when you see how radical it was. 

In terms of what you said about yourself and your landlord practices, I think that's the case for 98 per cent of the landlords in Wales. Most of our landlords are good landlords. What we have to do here is prevent the rogue landlords from giving the sector a bad name. So, a landlord who behaves themselves in the manner that you've just described will have nothing to fear from this Act or any of the other Acts that we've passed. Only those landlords who seek to do things like retaliatory evictions, have properties that are not fit for human habitation, or seek to manipulate the market in a way—so, for example, they seek possession of their house solely for the purposes of putting the rents up—will have problems with this. Because you cannot do it in the first six months of a tenancy, and then you need to give six months. So, everybody will have a minimum of 12. Then after that you've got a rolling six months. If you've got somebody willing to rent the house for slightly more, they're not still going to be there six months later.

So, we expect this to make a significant difference to those kinds of evictions. We also expect the Act in itself to make a significant difference, because what it will do is it will reward the good landlords. You're absolutely right in identifying that we need the good landlords to stay in the market. It will discourage yet more of the rogue landlords that we seek to have out of the sector—that's the truth.

16:05
5. Statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services: Designed to Smile—10 years of improving children's oral health in Wales

Item 5, which was a statement by the Minister for Health and Social Services on Designed to Smile: 10 years of improving children's oral health in Wales, has been issued as a written statement.

6. Statement by the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd: Implications for Wales of the UK Government's 2019 Spending Round

Therefore, we move to item 6, which is a statement by the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd on the implications for Wales of the UK Government's 2019 spending round. I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans.