Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

16/10/2019

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Finance, and the first question is from Jayne Bryant. 

The Health and Social Care Portfolio

1. What additional budget allocations will the Minister provide to the health and social care portfolio to support people diagnosed with severe mental impairment as part of the Welsh Government's budget for 2020-21? OAQ54552

Through schemes such as the council tax reduction scheme, we are committed to supporting people with severe mental impairment. I'll be publishing our budget proposals for 2020-21, including for health and social services, on 19 November.

Thank you, Minister. I'm really pleased that Welsh Government is leading the way to ensure that those living with a severe mental impairment diagnosis can access this vital council tax discount. It's very welcome that this is in partnership with the money-saving expert, Martin Lewis, and I think this is something that will really resonate with people. Prior to this approach, one of the major downfalls of this discount scheme was that nobody knew about it, and I hope that anyone applying for this discount will have it backdated to the point of their diagnosis. Can you outline what is being done at a Welsh Government level to ensure that people are aware of the support available, and, furthermore, what is the Welsh Government doing to work with and support local authorities in Wales to ensure this process is easy to use and consistent?

I thank Jayne Bryant for raising this particularly important issue in the Chamber this afternoon. The Welsh Government's been working really hard to ensure that everybody who is eligible for a council tax reduction as a result of being classified as seriously mentally impaired—. And I have to say I absolutely hate that phrase; I think it sounds like an awful way to refer to people, but it is a medical phrase that doctors will use. Once somebody has that diagnosis, then they will be eligible for between 25 per cent and 100 per cent of their council tax discount. And we've been working really hard with local authorities to ensure that everybody who is eligible is able to access that, and we've been working hard with the money-saving expert as well. There's been quite a big social media campaign involved, and, since that social media campaign began in April, and Martin Lewis's visit here to Senedd, the provisional figures suggest that exemptions have already increased by 416, from 4,615 in March, to 5,031 in September. By comparison, the whole year before that only saw an increase of 385. So, I think the social campaign is making a difference. 

And just to put it in context, an SMI exemption is worth, on average, £1,590 to a household in an average band D property, so it's certainly something, if people think that they or a family member might be entitled to it, they should certainly ask the local authority about. 

Minister, of the 45,000 people suffering from dementia, 17,000 people live in a rural area. People with dementia living in rural areas face additional challenges, such as poor transport links making it harder to access help, carers feeling more isolated and unsupported, and, finally, support services being less likely to be available. That's a sad scenario for those people. Minister, what consideration has been given to the needs of people suffering from dementia who live in rural areas in Wales when allocating the budget to the health and social care portfolio?

A key commitment of our programme for government, 'Taking Wales Forward', was to develop a specific dementia action plan, and that was published in February of 2018, and that covers up to the period 2022. And a key aim of that plan was to support people living with dementia wherever they live in Wales, and to do so as independently as possible, in their communities, which we aim to be dementia-friendly communities, and also to avoid unnecessary admissions to hospital and ensure that people who do find themselves in hospital are able to be discharged from care as soon as possible. And to support the implementation of that plan, we have committed £10 million a year from Welsh Government from 2018-19, and £9 million of that was targeted through the regional partnership boards. And, of course, the regional partnership boards will be best placed to understand the local challenges of service delivery within their areas—so, for example, the specific rural challenges to which you've referred. And I think that having the extra funding diverted or allocated through those regional partnership boards is certainly the most positive way to address those specific local needs. 

We hear that front-line staff in social care are concerned that cuts to social care funding are undermining the independence and well-being of disabled people physically and mentally. Now, austerity means that care packages are reduced to the most fundamental and basic tasks, and social workers have to battle for funding to support social and community needs. Do you accept, therefore, that the shortage of funding provided by the Welsh Government to local authorities over the last few years has contributed to this situation, which impacts on our most vulnerable people? And what discussions are you having with your fellow Ministers to put this situation right?

13:35

Well, there's no argument from me that the settlements for local government over recent years have been extremely challenging. And even with the additional funding that we have this year, clearly things will continue to be particularly difficult in terms of meeting all of the social care needs that have been identified. And, of course, the demographic changes mean that that need is growing, and the complexity of people's needs are becoming more pronounced as well. So, if you look at the recently published data from local authorities, they show an increase of 6 per cent in spend on social services just in the last year. So, it does demonstrate the kind of challenge that they're facing, and it's one of the reasons why, alongside prioritising health within our budget discussions, we have said that we will aim to give local government the best possible settlement.

The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015

2. What consideration has the Minister given to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 in preparing the Welsh Government's budget for next year? OAQ54525

I've met with the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales on a number of occasions to discuss how the Act can inform our draft budget preparations to maximise our available resources to have the greatest impact over the longer term.

Thank you, Minister. Obviously, since the Government declared a climate emergency, back in April, which has been fully endorsed by nearly all Members of the Assembly, how does the Welsh Government plan to assess the upcoming budget in the context of the climate emergency and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015? And what analysis is being done about the impact of budget decisions on our goal of achieving zero carbon?

The well-being of future generations Act has very much been at the heart of all of our budget discussions so far. So, when I've met with each of the Ministers in Welsh Government, I have been asking them specifically what they are doing within their portfolios to bring to life all of the ambitions within the well-being of future generations Act and how they're using that to help inform their decisions in terms of their own departmental budgets at an early stage. We've had excellent meetings with the future generations commissioner, and we're working with her to develop a journey checker—so it's part of our budget improvement plan—which will show what actions we're going to take in the short, medium and longer terms to fully embed the well-being of future generations Act within our budget process. And that responds, I think, very much to one of the Finance Committee's recommendations that they put forward.

Overall, across Government, we've looked at this particular budget through the lens of our eight priority areas, and one of those is decarbonisation. And I think one of the ways in which we can really make some good strides with decarbonisation is looking at how we spend our capital funding in particular. So, this is an area that I've been working very closely with colleagues on to ensure that we have positive news in terms of the capital element particularly of our budget.

I note that Lord Bird, the founder of The Big Issue, is introducing a future generations Act into the House of Lords, inspired very much by the work of Welsh Government. So, a big tick for that. I think this is a really good process, but I have to say, in the financial scrutiny I've been involved in in committees, when you ask the senior officials what training they have had in the use of the Act in budget formation, what decisions have been made that have been different to previous decision making, where the shift's occurring, we get sometimes an embarrassed silence. So, I do hope there'll be some rigour in your monitoring and evaluation of how this Act is used in the budget-making process.

I hope that when committees ask officials this during this year's budget scrutiny they won't have that silence. Because we've been working hard to ensure that officials across Welsh Government, not just within the finance department, understand the importance of embedding the Act within their decision making. And one of the meetings with the future generations commissioner has been among senior finance officials across Welsh Government—so, not just within the finance department—and that's to ensure that officials working in finance in the various different Government departments have a consistent understanding of the need to embed the Act within decision making.

13:40

Can I thank Jenny Rathbone for bringing this question forward today—a crucially important question at a crucial time for our planet and for our future generations? Minister, I welcome your comments, but can you tell me specifically what you are doing to assess and analyse the carbon impact of existing spend as well as any new spend, and how do you plan to publish this to allow Members and others to scrutinise?

Well, you'll be familiar with our 'Prosperity for All' low-carbon plan for Wales, which sets out 100 of the different actions that we are taking across Government in terms of ensuring that decarbonisation is very much at the centre of the work that we are doing. But I think it's important to do this within the context of our Environment (Wales) Act 2016, and that puts in place a really robust governance system for Welsh Ministers

So, following advice from the advisory body—the UK Committee on Climate Change—we've increased, as you know, our long-term pathway to respond to a climate emergency: so, from 80 per cent to 95 per cent by the end of 2050, and the Welsh Government is committed to putting a higher emissions reduction target of at least 95 per cent into law. And that really does mean that our pathways have to change and that the decisions that we make have to be made in a different way.

But I think that our low-carbon delivery plans, going forward, will also continually need to show how each Minister's contributing to the actions within our carbon budget, and, as a result, all Ministers will need to reflect on the spending decisions that they have made and that they will make in setting their detailed main expenditure group spending plans.

Within my own portfolio, I think that we can look particularly to the work that's going on in procurement, and that plays a really important role in helping to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. And one of the things that we've done to assess those decisions that we've already made and then to inform better decision making in future is to introduce a decarbonisation dashboard that was developed by Value Wales, and that shows the carbon dioxide emissions for categories of various spends across Government. So, that allows us to look at the decisions that we've made and then seek opportunities to make better decisions in future.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Nick Ramsay.

Thank you, Llywydd. Good afternoon, Minister.

How can we expect to see the extra funding for the Welsh Government, resulting from the recent UK Government spending review, deliver benefits for Wales in the coming Welsh Government budget?

Thank you. Well, we've already set out in the statement that I made on the spending review that Welsh Government's priority will continue to be the NHS in Wales to ensure that people have access to excellent healthcare wherever they live in Wales. But, alongside that, we're very keen to ensure that local government does get the best possible settlement for many of the reasons that we’ve already discussed this afternoon—so, the importance of social care, for example, and the importance of all of those services that keep our communities going.

So, those are our two priority areas, but I’ve been having discussions with all Ministers across Government to explore how we can assist them with the pressures that they’re facing. Because, as you know, one of the big areas of spend—around 50 per cent of Welsh Government’s budget—actually goes to pay. And it’s fantastic to see pay increases, but if the additional funding doesn’t come in full from the UK Government, which is hasn’t done, then that does put greater pressure on Welsh Government.

We’ve also been looking, though, across Government, through the lens of those eight priority areas, to explore where there are areas where we can potentially make new and additional funding commitments that will be able to make a difference in those particular eight areas that we have identified as being the ones that could have the greatest impact for people in Wales.

Thank you, Minister, I appreciate it’s early days and I’m looking forward to scrutinising you on the Finance Committee, with my colleagues as well, on the subject of the budget. You just said that you’re lacking money or you haven’t received money from the UK Government, but, as I’m sure you would recognise, the Welsh Government’s resource budget will increase by over £485 million through 2019-20, and the capital budget will also increase by nearly £70 million through 2020-21. So, whilst you might not have received that money today, as we stand here, that has certainly been earmarked for this institution. So, I’d like to hear from you what you intend to do with that to put it to good use.

You mentioned local government. I appreciate that local authority budgets have been under stress, as you said yourself. The Welsh Local Government Association have recently reported that core grant funding has reduced by 20 per cent after adjusting for inflation in 2019-20. If you don’t include school funding, as is the case in English local government, core funding is even lower than that, so, clearly, local authority budgets are under stress. How are you planning, in your budget, to try and make up to local government some of the money that they haven’t been getting, so that they do have that all-important money for public services locally in Wales?

13:45

Well, I think it’s important to reflect on the reasons why local government have been struggling in recent years, and that’s very much because of the fact that their budgets have been decreasing as Welsh Government’s budget has been decreasing. Last year, there was funding that was well below the funding that they would have had even 10 years before that, so I think that it’s important to reflect on the difficulties there. It’s also important, I think, to remember that whilst the Barnett formula giveth it also taketh away, and this is one of the issues that we are trying to grapple with at the moment, in terms of the most recent spending rounds. So, there was a negative adjustment by the UK Government of around £180 million. Now, we can understand about half of it, but there does remain an outstanding amount, of £90 million, which we just can’t account for. So, we are in dialogue with the UK Government to explore whether we can find some answers to that. But if nothing’s forthcoming, obviously we’ll have to take that through the disputes to the Joint Ministerial Committee.

Well, I see what you mean when you say that the Barnett giveth and taketh—that’s a good expression in many ways. I got the document yesterday—'Reforming our union', which featured in the First Minister’s statement—and there’s an interesting section on finance here where the First Minister or the Welsh Government recognises that the Holtham floor—the fiscal framework that came out of those discussions—has actually been delivering for Wales, and we’re receiving more for each pound in Wales now as a result of that. I think you’ll be able to confirm that that’s originally £1.05 for every pound, looking to rise to £1.15. So, that money is coming to us, Minister. So, I was a bit disappointed with your answer when you said that the local authority funding has been decreasing with the Welsh Government's, because that’s certainly not the case at the moment.

If I can broaden that out a little bit to the funding formula, which I mentioned before, and can I make another plea? Because if you look in detail at the funding of local authorities across Wales, it’s clear that rural authorities have come off particularly badly over recent years. So, when you tell us that you’re looking to put money into social services and money into local authorities in the future, can you guarantee that there will be an even spread of that cake and that local authority budgets across Wales, in rural areas, will also get a better deal than they have in the past, so that in future the Welsh budgets for local authorities are fairer than they have been in the past?

Well, the local government Minister has been really clear with local authorities that she and I are very open to discussions if local authorities see a better way for distributing the funding that is given to local authorities. And, obviously, the funding formula, as it is, takes into account a wide range of things—rurality being one of them. But we’ve been very clear: if there are ways in which local government can come to a consensus as to what the changes should be, then we’d more than happy to look at those changes. But we’re keen, as I say, to ensure that local authorities do have the best possible settlement within all the challenges that we face.

Thank you, Llywydd. Will the Minister summarise the main factors and values that determine the financial priorities of the Welsh Government?

Thank you very much. So, the main factors and priories that determine the priorities of the Welsh Government will be found in our programme for government, and where, as I say, we’re looking through this particular budget, through the lens of those eight priority areas that Welsh Government has identified as being the ones for which if we can work more closely and in a more co-ordinated way across Government, then we can have the greatest impact on people’s lives. So, those include things like housing, early years, social care, biodiversity, decarbonisation, employment and skills, and so on. So, those are the areas that we’ve identified as being the key ways in which we can make a difference. But as a Cabinet, we have come to the decision that health will remain our priority within this next budget and, again, as I’ve said, giving local authorities the best possible settlement.

Thank you for those remarks, and with reference to that long list of values that you mentioned, I think we could agree that those could be labelled as 'well-being', and I welcome your comments in that regard.

Can I quote the economist Joseph Stiglitz who said last year:

'If we focus only on material wellbeing—on, say, the production of goods, rather than on health, education, and the environment—we become distorted in the same way that these measures are distorted; we become more materialistic…If we want to put people first, we have to know what matters to them, what improves their wellbeing and how we can supply more of whatever that is.'

I think you would agree with that kind of analysis. The well-being of people is important to us. Famously by now, New Zealand has introduced a new way of budgeting that focuses specifically on seeking to deliver on what’s important to the population’s well-being. Closer to home, the Scottish Government is also measuring its attainment and its performance through the national outcomes, with a statutory emphasis placed on those through the Community Empowerment (Scotland) Act 2015.

Can you, as Minister, confirmed to me whether any application has been made, or any invitation has been given, to the Welsh Government to join an international well-being alliance, where a number of countries work together to develop exactly the kind of well-being budgets that I have mentioned as existing in Scotland and in New Zealand?

13:50

Thank you very much. I'm familiar with the situation in New Zealand, and Welsh Government officials have been working closely with officials from New Zealand to better understand each other's approaches, because, actually, many of the things in the New Zealand budget setting approach are incorporated in our approach to the legislation of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. So, there are lots of mirrors there, I think.

And in terms of Scotland and their approach to measuring well-being, well we, of course, have our national indicators, which sit underneath the well-being of future generations Act. So, again, I think there's lots of synergy, and, of course, we're open to learning from other nations and sharing our best practice too.

In terms of the particular organisation and the network to which you referred, I'm not personally aware of an invitation, but that doesn't mean that it hasn't been extended. I will certainly look into that, because, as I say, we're keen to learn from others.

Thank you. I understand that an invitation has been made and that the Welsh Government turned down the invitation to join this well-being alliance. I'll write to you as a Minister to share more information about that. And if that is indeed true, I think it's a matter of regret. We do have the well-being of future generations Act, but we cannot rely on that.

I think a few weeks ago, in the Finance Committee, you said that budget adjustments are always made in the context of the well-being of future generations Act. I think the response that came from one former Minister, Alun Daives, was that he was involved in conversations about some of those adjustments and he doesn't remember any conversations about either the future generations Act or 'Prosperity for All' in any of those conversations. So, there are real questions about what is actually happening on the ground. Would you agree with me that, as we have said in Plaid Cymru that we would, as a Government, very much want to join the kind of alliance of well-being budget Governments that I mentioned, Welsh Government would be missing an opportunity if it were not to take every chance to learn from others in implementing the kind of budgets that actually work towards improving the well-being of the people of Wales?

Well, as I say, I'll look into that particular case of the network to which you refer.FootnoteLink As I say, it's not something that has come across my desk, but Welsh Government is particularly keen to engage in networks and learn from others, especially now in the context of Brexit, of course, because our international relationships are as important as they've ever been now in terms of being able to demonstrate what we are doing in Wales and the values that we have here in Wales, which I think are shared by many across the world, and in terms of also learning from others, because we certainly don't have the monopoly on good ideas.

Diolch, Llywydd. Finance Minister, you describe the increase in the Public Works Loan Board interest rates as a retrograde move. In doing that, were you reflecting the Treasury's press release, saying that, by increasing the margin that applies to new loans by 100 basis points, it was restoring interest rates to levels available in 2018? And would you agree with my assessment that the Treasury is looking to rein in quite a large number of local councils? Some I'm aware of on the English side of the border, who've been building very substantial commercial property portfolios, sometimes beyond their council areas, sometimes paying really very substantial sums for retail properties that have been out of favour in the commercial market. And one example: Spelthorne Borough Council borrowed £405 million from the Public Works Loan Board, which was to buy BP's global research centre. And may this reflect the greater degree of austerity that English local authorities have generally seen? For instance, in Spelthorne, its overall budget is only £22 million, yet this £405 million is a vast multiple of that, and they're expecting, I think, this year, to get £10 million of their £22 million budget from net profits on their property portfolio. Is that something that the Treasury have taken action against and have we in Wales been caught up in that?

13:55

Well, as you say, the interest rate changed without notice from 1.8 to 2.8 per cent with immediate effect last week. And that does cause difficulty for local authorities in Wales, of course, because they will have to reassess all of their borrowing plans and the plans that they have for strategic investment in social housing particularly, but also in schools and other capital projects particularly in Wales.

I think it's important to note as well that Welsh Government, over a long period of time, campaigned for the removal of the cap on borrowing for local authorities and to allow local authorities to be borrowing to a limit that was sensible for them. You certainly didn't give any examples in Wales where we've seen borrowing to an extent that is irresponsible in any way. So, I think that it is a big problem for local authorities in Wales, because of course it does mean reassessing their plans.

Minister, you referred to regeneration activities and social housing as positive examples where local government in Wales might be borrowing money, but there are also—there's some evidence, at least, of local government borrowing in Wales motivated by the commercial property portfolio investment. One example is Monmouthshire, and we've heard in this Chamber quite frequently how tough Monmouthshire has found the budget in terms of the far, far lesser amount it gets from Welsh Government than many other councils. And I just wonder whether this is their response to it in the way we've seen from these English councils.

It was quite a significant commercial property portfolio that Monmouthshire already had, but there have been two deals this year where they've added to it, funded from the Public Works Loan Board. There was a £7 million purchase of Castlegate Business Park in Caldicot, and then in March, a larger £21 million purchase of the Newport Leisure Park, which is outside the Monmouthshire council area—£21 million spent on that, and they're hoping that there'll be £1.4 million of rent coming in. So, if we have got councils borrowing at 1.8 per cent, now at 2.8 per cent, and potentially getting yields of 6 or 7 per cent, isn't this something that's potentially going to continue and get larger, and what is Welsh Government doing to ensure that such borrowing is appropriate and that the local councils involved have the necessary expertise and aren't taking excessive risks for which they might, at some future date, look for assistance from Welsh Government?

Local authorities, in terms of their own spending decisions, will have to justify those to their local electorate. So, for the examples you gave from Monmouthshire, it would be for the local electorate to explore, or to decide, really, if they're comfortable with the decisions that local authorities are making. But in terms of the overall impact of this decision on local authorities in Wales, of course, the Minister for Housing and Local Government and I will be meeting again with the finance sub-group, as we regularly do, so this will be an item that we can explore with them. And I'd be happy to send you some more information in terms of the guidance that we, through the local government Minister, give to local authorities in terms of borrowing.

Question 3 [OAQ54543] has been withdrawn. Question 4, Siân Gwenllian.

Second Homes

4. Will the Minister provide an update on how the Welsh Government ensures that second home owners pay council tax? OAQ54553

There are robust collection and enforcement arrangements in place to ensure all householders pay the council tax for which they are liable. We work closely with local government to improve these processes, wherever possible.

There is an issue of fundamental unfairness here. There are many second homes in Wales. These are domestic homes that are used as second homes while the main home is elsewhere, so I’m not talking about business units, commercial caterers or holiday businesses here. But there is a loophole in the law, and I think your Government is aware of this. There is a loophole that means that an increasing number of owners of second homes have found a means of not paying council tax or business rates. Do you agree that we need to find an urgent solution to this problem, and do you agree that reforming section 66 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 would be one way of doing away with this unfairness?

14:00

Well, I'm not sure that I would agree that there's a loophole in the law, because the law is very clear in terms of whether a property is a dwelling for the purposes of council tax or whether it is a business for the purposes of non-domestic rates. I appreciate that some of those will be classified as small businesses and then will be eligible for rates relief. But I did meet with the Valuation Office Agency recently to discuss these specific concerns, and they showed me the forms that businesses have to fill in to demonstrate that they are genuinely meeting the conditions of a business—so, the 70 nights' occupancy and then 140 nights' availability for that property. But I know as well that we've invited local authorities to give examples of where it's not happening. So, Gwynedd, I know, gave a number of examples to the Valuation Office Agency and they investigated each of those, and they found that in none of those cases were the owners of those properties operating outside of the law.

Because there's a loophole. They're able to do it. That's where the loophole is.

As you know, the non-domestic rating Order specifies the terms you've just described—140 days' availability, 70 days' occupancy—in order to qualify as a self-catering business. And you referred to the gate-keeping role played by the Valuation Office Agency and the documentation they require, and that they'd investigated a few cases referred by Gwynedd. But what tripwire is in place within the system to ensure that the valuation office is routinely investigating and checking at least a sample of claimed self-catering properties to ensure that they are what they claim to be, whilst also recognising that the terms the Welsh Government implemented were a compromise with the industry to protect legitimate businesses?

If local authorities particularly have any concerns about any property at all, they should draw it to the attention of the Valuation Office Agency and they will assess it in detail. I think that we need to reflect as well that, actually, it's very serious if an owner of a property seeks to evade and avoid tax by claiming that their property is a holiday let as opposed to a domestic residence, because, of course, if they are found to have been doing that, then they can face a very large backdated bill for council tax. Actually, any attempt to mislead an authority or the VOA, or knowingly provide false or inaccurate information, could lead to prosecution for fraud. So, seeking to avoid or evade paying tax in that way is extremely serious.

Business Rate Relief

5. How effective has business rate relief been in helping businesses in Wales? OAQ54533

The Welsh Government’s package of rates relief is providing over £230 million of support to businesses and other ratepayers with their bills this year. Half of all businesses in Wales pay no rates at all.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. Rhyl High Street and town centre have declined over the years, like many town centres in Wales. Once, it had a thriving town centre, now it looks like many of the towns that have decayed under this Government's watch. Shop owners are losing out to out-of-town retail parks, which offer free and convenient parking, and outlets that have, more than likely, been offered a discount on rent or their business rates to tempt them away from the town and into the park.

Whenever this Government is asked about business rates and business rate relief, and how it can be used better to reinvigorate the high street, you always reply that local authorities are best placed to decide how to improve town centres in their patch. That may be so, but they're not doing it. Isn't it now time for the Welsh Government to show leadership on this issue and show local authorities how they can save the town centres and preserve them, particularly for those small and medium-sized retailers that are based in the town centres and are likely to lead to job creation and thriving high streets? The review of rate relief is taking way too long. Town centres are dying while you bat away any serious scrutiny by hiding behind what seems to be an internal review. 

14:05

Well, I don't think it's fair to say that, whenever asked about this issue, I say it's for local authorities because, of course, we have Wales-wide schemes that are administered and there is no discretion to some of these schemes. So, for example, small business rates relief, that's a permanent small business rates relief scheme in Wales, providing over £120 million of relief this year. It's fully funded by Welsh Government, as opposed to across the border, where you'll find businesses subsidising other businesses. And more than 70,000 ratepayers across Wales receive assistance and, as I say, half of them pay nothing at all. That compares to a third of those in England. Alongside that, we also have our high streets and rate relief schemes. That's an additional £23.6 million available to support and enhance high streets, and we've expanded that so that it just doesn't involve shop and retail in that sense; it's expanded to pubs, to restaurants, to ensure that it supports the cafes and those other businesses that give our town centres a vibrant character. 

Where there is discretion for local authorities is in the additional £2.4 million, and that's where they have the discretion to target that support to specific local businesses or sectors that they think are particularly important to the life of their town. And I think that it really is appropriate for them to have that discretion there. Of course, rate reliefs themselves aren't going to be the panacea for all of the problems facing high streets, and that's why we have things like our loans for high streets, which is an extremely popular scheme, and that's revitalising high streets. We've got our town-centre regeneration work that is going on across Wales as well. So, there are many things that we are doing to revitalise our high streets, but I don't think any of us underestimate the challenge of that.  

It's on that point, actually. In July, you may remember, actually, that you were kind enough to write, or correspond, anyway, with Bridgend County Borough Council about their high street retail rates relief. They finally told me in July—and it was after you'd contacted them—that 90 per cent of businesses that had applied to them for this kind of rate relief had actually been successful, so thank you for contacting them. However, if the measure of success of this policy is the number of high street businesses that have either opened or stayed open, I'm not sure that you can claim success in this particular borough. So, in this review that you're doing and the evaluation of the policy, what are going to be the main criteria for success? Is it going to be the number of businesses that have stayed open, rather than comparisons with England on how many people are paying rates and so forth? And will you be comparing the effects of your particular policy with alternative policies that are being offered here by other parties?  

So, next month I look forward to bringing forward a statement to the Assembly on local government financial reform, and that's looking at local taxes in the round, so it will be looking at both council tax and also non-domestic rates. And it will be describe the research that we've commissioned across both of those areas to help us better understand what the opportunities are for more long-term reform of both of those things.

In terms of some of the ways in which we can measure success, in answer to Rhun ap Iorwerth's question earlier, we talked about how you measure value for money. Measuring value for money in just purely monetary terms is one thing but, actually, if we measure it in a more creative way, ways that seek to promote the Welsh Government's wider agenda in terms of biodiversity, for example, or our economic action plan, then I think there are great opportunities there to target investment and support. But I do think that this is a longer piece of work. Suzy asked if we'd be looking at other ideas. I'd very much welcome this consversation to be something that we can continue, to explore areas where we have common ideas and where we can share ideas.    

Devolved Taxes

6. Will the Minister provide an update on the collection of devolved taxes? OAQ54524

The Welsh Revenue Authority regularly publishes outturn information about the revenue collected from land transaction tax and landfill disposals tax. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs is due to publish the first full year of outturn data on the Welsh rates of income tax revenue for this financial year in summer 2021.

I look forward to the publication of that data, Minister. We are now six months into the devolution of the Welsh rate of income tax—the creation of that Welsh rate— and we are, as you said, significantly longer than that into the devolution of stamp duty, now land transaction tax, and land disposal tax. So, have you made any preliminary assessment of the collection rates of those taxes, particularly the ones that have been devolved longer, and are the amounts being raised from those taxes in line with Welsh Government expectations? I know that some of the early data from—I think it was from—land disposal tax shows that more was being collected, much more than originally anticipated, at least for the first quarter, for a variety of reasons. So, I wondered whether we were seeing any other similar strange but welcome anomalies or otherwise in some of the other data for the other taxes.

14:10

In terms of land transaction tax and the outturn for 2018-19, well that is £12 million lower than Welsh Government's final budget forecast in December of last year. That was £239 million. And a more recent forecast by the Office for Budget Responsibility, published alongside the spring statement in March, had revenues for 2018-19 to be £234 million. The next revenue forecast will be published alongside the Office for Budget Responsibility's work alongside the draft budget in November.

The latest data published by the WRA show LTT revenue between 1 and 31 August 2019 to be £88.5 million. That's 4 per cent down on the same period last year. And I think that it's fair to say that land transaction tax is by its very nature quite a volatile tax, so it's perhaps more difficult to forecast. And, in terms of landfill disposals tax, the OBR forecast for 2019-20 is £41 million. So, that's £2 million lower than the Welsh Government forecast back in December 2018, but, again, as we move towards our goal of zero waste, the amount of money that is received through landfill disposals tax will naturally be declining over time.

The Shared Prosperity Fund

7. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding the Shared Prosperity Fund? OAQ54547

I continue to raise the importance of replacement EU funding in full and for the Welsh Government to retain the autonomy to deliver it. I pressed the Chief Secretary to the Treasury on this matter when I met with him at the most recent meeting of the finance Ministers.

Well, thank you for that answer, Minister. Of course, I appreciate the difficulty you have in getting a response. Now, for those of us who watched live broadcasts of the Conservative Party conference, we would have had a very adequate answer, because the Minister was actually there in public giving public pronouncements at meetings, making it absolutely clear that the shared prosperity fund is something that is going to be controlled and regulated in order to strengthen the union, and that means very clearly, I think, that it's going to be used in a way that undermines the whole principles of our devolution settlement. Now, bearing in mind that the Minister seems to be capable of doing that live on television, I wonder if, perhaps, an urgent response is required from Welsh Government demanding that we also be given the same privilege or luxury of an answer so at least we can tackle those issues head on.

Yes. I can confirm that the Counsel General and Brexit Minister reinforced our position as a Welsh Government—and one which I know is shared across parties in this Chamber—with Ministers at a meeting of the JMC last week on 10 October. And, of course, we've been very active raising these points consistently, reflecting the views of Welsh Government, but, as I say, the shared views that we had the opportunity to put on record through a debate in this Assembly, which said that the Welsh Government should retain the autonomy to allocate the funding for those schemes because we have the experience, the networks and so on in order to do that most effectively, and also that principle of 'not a penny less'. I was very concerned when I raised this with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and he almost batted that off, saying, 'Well, that was a leave campaign promise, not a Conservative Government promise', but, of course, the Prime Minister was the leader of the leave campaign, so I think that we can certainly be reasonably expected to hold him to account on that.

Supporting 16 to 18-year-olds

8. What consideration has the Minister given to supporting 16-18 year olds when setting the Welsh Government's budget for 2020-21? OAQ54545

We continually assess the impact of a range of factors on the Welsh Government’s spending plans, including the latest demographic projections. I met with the Children's Commissioner for Wales on 23 September as part of my engagement with relevant stakeholders ahead of the forthcoming budget.

14:15

I thank you for that. But, despite many years of Tory austerity, the Welsh Government have been committed to helping children from low-income families to remain in education if that's what they choose to do. And that's evident from the continuation of the education and maintenance allowance for 16 to 18-year-olds in the current budget plan and the mytravelpass, which gives a 30 per cent discount on bus travel in Wales to 16 to 21-year-olds, helping with affordability to their place of work or education. So, when you're setting the next budget, will you commit to helping young people in whatever way you are able to, in complete contrast to what's happening where the Tories are in control elsewhere?

Thank you very much for raising the importance of holding the best needs of young people very much at the front of our minds during all of our budget discussions, and that was certainly a message that the children's commissioner was keen to reinforce with me when we had that opportunity to meet very recently.

Education maintenance allowance is certainly one of those areas where we have been able to support young people, particularly those from more disadvantaged backgrounds in order to help them stay in school. Because obviously we know that having that support to stay in school is the most important thing in terms of helping them onto a positive path in life where they'll be able to reach their fullest potential. We've invested more than £360 million in the EMA scheme since 2004-05 when we first introduced it. I think that's really positive, so we've been able to help over 20,000 young people in that.

We've also allocated £6.3 million via the financial contingency fund scheme to further education institutions in Wales. I think that's really important as well, because it does allow those further education institutions to be able to target support at the young people whom they understand need it most.

2. Questions to the Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language

The next item is questions to the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, and the first question is from Russell George.

Selling Wales to the World

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's progress in implementing the recommendations from the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee’s report on Selling Wales to the World? OAQ54517

Member
Eluned Morgan AM 14:17:45
Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language

Thank you. We're making good progress implementing the recommendations. For example, I have focused on growing exports in the international strategy, and an export growth strategy is part of that work. You will have noticed, I'm sure, that the first recommendation, establishing a specific post both for international relations and trade and a post on Brexit, was one of the first acts of the First Minister on taking office.

Thank you, Minister, for your answer. I did also notice that during the external affairs committee on 23 September, you did seem to suggest then—and I think you're backing this up in your answer now—that the Welsh Government would be placing more emphasis on supporting exports rather than attracting inward investment. If that is correct, I wonder if you could explain the rationale for this approach and provide your view of the relationship that exists between export and investment in terms of delivering benefits to the Welsh economy for those different business sectors.

Well, I think it's really important to underline that in no way are we moving away from encouraging investment into Wales, but it's pretty clear at a time of this kind of economic flux, where we don't know what our relationship will be with our nearest economic partner, that it makes sense for us to focus on exports, as indeed the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has done and the Department for International Trade has done. And therefore, what we've done, we've been very pleased to have received additional funding from the funding that has come as a result of Brexit to help to encourage more exporters from within Wales, particularly targeting small and medium-sized enterprises, and we've been making considerable progress on that and we're delighted that there has been a very positive response.

I wanted to focus on recommendation 5 and the remit of overseas offices and how they should be communicated to businesses and how they can be maximised. I know, for example, that you have three offices in India, but I'm also aware of many businesses with Indian bases here in Wales who don't have any communication whatsoever from Welsh Government, and they do their own missions to India, and would welcome support, I think, from Welsh Government to know how they could be able to link up with those offices. So, what is the remit, and if they are doing work with businesses, what are those businesses, and how can we make sure that businesses that want the support of Welsh Government in these countries are getting what they deserve?

14:20

Thank you. Last week, I sent a very clear notice of the remit of those offices to the responsible committee to set out exactly what our expectations are of those overseas offices. We've got a much more robust method of ensuring that we are looking at the performance of those offices. In fact, we have appointed a new performance manager who has to come up with bespoke plans for each of those 20 offices overseas. Of course, we're trying to increase the visibility of those offices, and that's something that I'm sure you'll have seen in the international strategy. We've made sure that there's visibility for them, that people know that they can approach them directly. So, we're very keen to make sure that those companies in particular in Wales, and we don't have to be there holding the hand of any company that wants to go and export abroad, they can do that directly, and we would encourage them to contact the Welsh offices overseas directly. 

Islwyn as a Tourist Destination

Diolch, Llywydd. Deputy Minister, in the first three months of 2019, figures show—

Oh yes, of course, sorry. I'll get it in a minute. Sorry, Llywydd.

2. How is the Welsh Government promoting Islwyn as a tourist destination? OAQ54549

Diolch, Rhianon. The tourism strategy of Welsh Government sets out priorities to support the tourism industry across Wales. This includes marketing campaigns in the UK and overseas, and significant capital development funding for new and existing tourism businesses, along with revenue funding for significant regional projects.

Okay. In the first three months of 2019, figures show that there were 16.6 million day visits to destinations in Wales, with a related spend of £874 million. Over the 12 months ending March 2019, there were 10.1 million overnight trips to Wales, which is up by 11 per cent, with expenditure of £1.848 million, also up by 7.8 per cent in just one year. So, Deputy Minister, these figures show how vital to the economies of Welsh communities domestic tourism alone is within the United Kingdom.

The Welsh Government has already earmarked the stunning natural landscape of the Cwmcarn forest scenic drive in Islwyn as a discovery gateway that will benefit from Valleys taskforce funding, and Crumlin itself stands with its Navigation colliery as testimony to the toil and sweat of the people of Islwyn to Wales and the United Kingdom's historic legacy. So, Deputy Minister, what actions does the Welsh Government propose to take to continue to promote the wonderful communities of Islwyn and their world-class attractions as a place for tourists, local and international, to head towards? 

What I'm particularly anxious to promote is the link between the amazing landscape and the very significant industrial heritage. Since you've mentioned Cwmcarn, you'll remember that I opened the lodge and adventure hub there, which was funded via the tourist attraction destination programme, in July this year. I think Cwmcarn does represent a significant attraction in itself, and I'm delighted to say that work that has had to take place on the 160,000 diseased larch trees at that site is almost complete. So, we will then be able to celebrate, yet again, the significance of that site.

Deputy Minister, I heard you saying about Cwmcarn. I welcome the investment by Visit Wales in a new attraction at Cwmcarn forest drive, including an adventure play hub and new luxury lodges, which you opened in July. You will also be aware that Cwmcarn forest drive has been closed for the last five years, due to the need to remove diseased trees. Natural Resources Wales hope to reopen Cwmcarn forest drive as soon as possible early next year. When this happens, Minister, will you commit to working with Visit Wales to widely promote and publicise Cwmcarn forest drive so that as many people as possible come and enjoy the scenery and the beauty and the activities at this wonderful venue in south-east Wales?

14:25

Thank you. Let's understand the position: I don't have to work with Visit Wales; they work for me as the Minister for tourism, and I'm pleased to say that I have a most excellent relationship with Visit Wales and its management, and that extends, of course, to Natural Resources Wales, because it's clearly important that all the agencies work together. I'm not going to give you a date as to when the forest drive will be re-opened because then you will stand up and ask another question asking why it hasn't been opened. [Interruption.] But we do recognise that Cwmcarn—. No, I am not going down that route, because clearly it was a serious case of disease in larch that is not unique to that part of Wales or indeed anywhere else in European forestry. So, what we have there is an example of a site that is managed jointly between Caerphilly County Borough Council and Natural Resources Wales. As you said, it's seven miles of scenic route and it offers all kinds of outdoor activities: mountain bike trails, walking trails, accommodation, as you've described. It is now part of the Valleys regional park discovery gateway, and we intend to continue to promote Cwmcarn, I can promise you that.

Would the Minister join me in congratulating the pressure group the Friends of Cwmcarn Drive on proving the case for reinstating the facilities at Cwmcarn forest drive to Natural Resources Wales, and the time and effort the people who constitute the group put into securing the drive for the benefit of the Wales tourist industry in general, as well as the local economy?

Of course I will warmly support any voluntary activity that takes place in support of the Welsh environment, and in particular of our distinctive forest environment. I wish to thank the voluntary organisation that has been involved, and other voluntary organisations throughout Wales that support our landscape policies and our landscape vision, for the work that they do on a voluntary basis.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservatives spokesperson, Suzy Davies.

Thank you, Llywydd, and good afternoon, Minister. According to the programme initiation document for your programme board on 20 March 2019, we are expecting a number of steps from you during this month. One of those is to develop and to implement a Welsh language strategy communications plan across departments of Government. It's three years since this Assembly started, so why hasn't this happened yet?

Thank you. A lot of work has been going into the communications plan across Government. You are aware that during the Eisteddfod we launched the 2050 project. This was a plan to ensure that we can mainstream the Welsh language across Government, but I hope there will be, during the next month, a plan coming forward, and this, of course, is work for the Permanent Secretary to bring forward something of substance as to how we are going to move forward within the Welsh Government with our plan of Welshifying the civil service here in Wales.

Well, thank you for that response, but you haven't quite answered the question as to why it’s taken so long. We are also expecting the publication of the policy on language transmission within the family and an oral statement on language infrastructure. I'm hoping that I'll get something from you on those also, because they too are on the programme board timetable.

Now, if I could just move on. The Welsh language partnership council advises and makes comment to Welsh Ministers—just to you—in relation to the Welsh language strategy. Since your plans for a new Bill were shelved and the programme initiation document was issued, I can find only one set of minutes, which were incomplete, of the partnership council’s meeting in April, where, after the usual audit of risks, there was a presentation on second homes and policy in Cornwall. How has the partnership council assisted you in promoting the 2050 strategy since the Bill was shelved?

14:30

Well, the partnership council provides expert advice to us on the Welsh language. The minutes are published now and, certainly, the work that they do for us is a great assistance to ensure that we are on the right path to achieve our aim of a million Welsh speakers. One of the things, for example, in the last meeting, was that we were talking about the economy and how we look at the economy in the more Welsh areas and to ensure, as a result of Brexit, how we’re going to continue to ensure that those areas can move forward and keep young people, particularly in our strongholds.

Thank you for that, but, once again, I’m talking about three years into this Assembly, and I’m talking about almost six months since you shelved the Bill. It doesn’t appear to me that a great deal has changed in the meantime. Furthermore, perhaps you could tell me how many members of the partnership council have personal experience of being Welsh learners themselves? One of the three themes is to increase the number of Welsh speakers. Will that include learners already in the current education system or in the workplace? Only 12 Welsh teachers have qualified this year. There are almost as many Members of the partnership council as there are new Welsh teachers. Why isn’t your strategy grasping the attention of incoming teachers?

It is a challenge to recruit teachers across the world currently, and I have been working very closely with the education Minister to ensure that we look at how we can help to attract more people into following a Welsh teaching course, and a lot of money has been going into it. For example, we have provided an additional £150,000 to ensure that more people undertake Welsh A-level because we know that many of those go on to teach and learn through the medium of Welsh. And I do also think that it’s important that we let people know that we have provided an additional £5,000 to ensure that more people understand that there is an additional incentive for them if they train through the medium of Welsh. So, we are taking specific steps. It is difficult, especially in terms of secondary education, but in terms of primary education, I think we are certainly in the right place.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, I know the Kurdish community in Wales would wish me to thank you for raising concerns with the UK Foreign Secretary about Turkey's decision to invade Kurdish territories in Syria. I know that you care about the plight of the Kurdish people, as do we in Plaid Cymru, and I'm glad to see the Welsh Government taking action on this. Donald Trump's decision to allow Turkey to unleash a brutal and murderous assault on the Kurds will go down in history as an act of senseless evil. The brave Kurds stopped ISIS in their tracks. They have been reliable allies to western countries over many years, but instead of being supported, they've been stabbed in the back once again. No wonder the Kurdish people say they have no friends but the mountains. But, Minister, the UK has finally suspended arms sales to Turkey, and, as a member of the Council of Europe, Turkey is bound by the European Convention on Human Rights, which places a duty on member states to refrain from unlawful killing. Now, since Turkey's actions clearly contravene these duties, do you agree with me that there's an argument for bringing a case against Turkey to the European Court of Human Rights?

Well, thank you very much, and I'm glad that you referred to the fact that we have written to Dominic Raab, but I think it is worth underlining the point that, actually, foreign affairs is an area where the UK Government takes the primary responsibility. But I think we are super sensitive to the fact that there is a large Kurdish community within Wales, who have real concerns about what's going on in that area, and I am also delighted that the UK Government have stopped issuing further arms export licences to Turkey. In terms of whether we should take further moves, I think that is going to be a decision for the UK Government. That has to be their responsibility, and they are in the driving seat in relation to foreign affairs. 

Okay. Thank you, Minister, for that. I would say that, again, it's very welcome that you have taken the action that you've taken, but I think this is, as you've acknowledged, a very large issue, and it would be good to hear your opinion on that.

Some companies involved in the arms trade, including sales of arms to Turkey, have bases of operation in Wales, and some have received Welsh Government funding. Now, some of these companies are very large manufacturers, and those arms activities are a small part of their work. However, I am concerned at the possibility that Welsh Government funds could, in theory, have been used to facilitate the selling of arms to Turkey, which again could now be being used against the Kurdish communities. Could you give me an assurance, Minister, that, when your Government gives funds to companies that have these arms-manufacturing components to their work in future, you will do everything you can to ensure that these funds will not be used to facilitate the arms trade in any way? I simply want to make sure that there's no blood in the supply chains, as I'm sure you would agree with.

14:35

Well, this is one of the reasons why I was particularly pleased to hear Dominic Rabb say yesterday that he was going to suspend issuing further arms exports, because, actually, it's very difficult for us to do anything unilaterally in Wales. We come under the UK Government, we have to comply with those rules and those laws, and that's why I was delighted to see that that action was taken on behalf of the whole of the United Kingdom. So, it is very difficult for us to do things separately. But I also think it's probably worth underlining that there are a lot of jobs involved here as well in Wales, and we have to be very sensitive, I think, in terms of treading this very, very difficult and delicate path, because, of course, I don't think we would want to see a situation where those arms were being used on innocent civilians, certainly, in that part of the world.

Thank you, Minister. Obviously, the jobs that are involved are going to be important, but, again, in terms of these component parts of the work that's being put into the selling of arms, I think it would be good for the Welsh Government—well, it would be not just good, it would be thoroughly important for the Welsh Government—to do everything it can to make sure that that isn't an indirect way that we are funding that.

But finally, Minister, I'd like to turn to an issue that's closer to home, which is the Spanish state's jailing of the Catalan independence campaigners. It is unconscionable that political jailings are happening in Europe in 2019. Western countries have rightly criticised China for clamping down on protesters in Hong Kong, yet we have a European Union member state sending politicians to prison for delivering a legitimate, democratic mandate. Minister, will you join Plaid Cymru and, indeed, some of your own Labour backbenchers, in condemning Spain for their actions? And will you send a message of solidarity to the nine Catalan politicians and campaigners who are now in prison for taking actions that ought to be protected under the United Nations charter's enshrinement of the right to self-determination?

Thank you once again. It is the United Kingdom that takes the lead on foreign affairs, but I have already written to the Foreign Secretary to ask what representation they've made to the Spanish Government about the prison sentences handed down to the Catalan politicians. And my understanding is that we'll be having a further question on this during topical questions.

Industrial Heritage in Caerphilly

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the preservation of industrial heritage in Caerphilly? OAQ54541

Thank you very much. Caerphilly has a very significant industrial heritage—indeed, a very significant built heritage generally. And, for me, the industrial structures and sites—over 40 of them—in the authority that have been designated as listed buildings and scheduled monuments indicates that the industrial past represent for us a way to understand where we have come from as a people. And we must pay them, I would say, even more respect than the great castle of Caerphilly itself.

I absolutely agree with that. It's not just about the castle in Caerphilly; it's also about some other sites as well. And we welcome the £900,000 of funding for the Penallta park, which the Deputy Minister sitting next to you has signed off, and we're grateful for that. But opposite that is Penallta colliery, and the winding wheel and the pit baths there are a historic remembrance of that past, but also becoming something of an eyesore, around the pit baths and around the winding wheel. It's not included in support packages, and the reason for that is that they are privately owned. And what I would think would be a very helpful idea is if the Valleys taskforce could bring together Welsh Government, the local authority and the owners of the winding wheel and pit baths to discuss the future of those sites of historic interest. It's a difficult challenge, but I'd be more than happy to meet with the Deputy Minister, and his colleagues if necessary, to discuss what more we can do there. Would you commit to working across portfolio to achieve that, and possibly even having a meeting in Penallta to discuss?

14:40

Well, you will know, Hefin, that there is already permission in place for residential use on that site. And also my understanding is that Caerphilly County Borough Council and the private developer are in continuing discussions about the future of the site. However, the relevant Minister, sitting next to me, has heard what’s just been said. The Valleys regional park includes Parc Penallta as a discovery gateway, and these designations, whether in areas of industrial heritage or of landscape heritage, must be regarded as more than a mere designation; they have to have clear policy driving them forward in terms of their own conservation. I’m confident that £900,000, which you gratefully welcomed for the new visitor centre and the programme of community-focused activities on that site, will lead to that happening.

Deputy Minister, areas like Caerphilly, as you say, are immensely rich in their industrial heritage, and I think, all over those industrial parts of Wales, industrial heritage is often in the hands of local groups, and obviously local councils. I noticed recently Aber Valley Heritage Group and what they’ve done in the past to raise awareness of the Senghenydd disaster and keep that memory alive through local displays and such. But displays, records, photographs, education materials, memorials, public art, walking trails are all vital in retaining our memory as a living thing of our past. And I do hope that you’re working with the councils to ensure that these groups of people coming together have that level of expertise, perhaps, in the maintenance of websites and the like, but also signage, public art—these things are open to local initiative, because, really, they do produce some outstanding examples of how to take care of our heritage.

Thank you very much for that, David. I have spent some time visiting, in particular, the local museums, and what I'm encouraging societies and voluntary groups that are concerned about either the built heritage or any other aspect of the environment or of our industrial memory to do is to work closely with our local museums and also with the national museum itself, because clearly there’s an expertise there that can always be made available to assist local societies in their conservation activities. But if you have any particular examples in your region, which I know is full of this form of heritage, I'd be very grateful if you could draw it to our attention, if you feel that there is a failure to deliver here in support of local voluntary initiatives.

International Trade Priorities

4. What engagement has the Minister had with organisations in Ogmore on the Welsh Government’s international trade priorities? OAQ54535

Promoting exports and international trade is a priority in the international strategy, and we've enhanced our support for Welsh exporters and we're working with a number of businesses across Ogmore to help them export.

That’s really good to hear, and, with eight days to go to close on the draft international strategy for Wales, I just wanted to make sure that all businesses, big and small, and education and training providers, within the Bridgend and Ogmore area have been fully engaged in the process, so that companies like the multi-award-winning Wales Interactive digital games developer and publisher, Airborne Systems of Blackmill, which are a global leader in parachute design, manufacture and training, Sony Bridgend and others, and the double 'excellent' Bridgend College, have all been involved in terms of putting their two-penn'orth into this strategy.

Can I invite the Minister, with my help and support, to come and visit us as soon as she can to discuss the international stagey, when it is signed off, to draw on the experience and knowledge in the Ogmore and Bridgend area? And I’m sure that the Bridgend Business Forum would be very happy to help facilitate a visit and a discussion, because the experience and the knowledge we have in what is still one of the biggest manufacturing areas in the whole of Wales, if not the UK, I think would be helpful to the Welsh Government.

Well, thank you very much for that invitation; I’ll certainly take you up on that. I think that there’s a huge amount of activity already being undertaken in Bridgend. You’ll be aware that, earlier this week, the Cabinet met in Bridgend, in solidarity partly with the workers in Ford. But one of the key sectors that we're hoping to promote in the international strategy is quality tv and films, and you’ll be aware that the studio in Llanharan will be a major sales point for us. I know that there’s been great activity going on there with the filming of Brave New World. Also, on a recent visit to Germany, I met with a German company that has already invested in Bridgend and is interested in expanding that investment. So, there are real opportunities, I think, for Bridgend, and I’d be delighted to take up the Member on that invitation.

14:45
Developing the Welsh Language

5. What further steps will the Welsh Government take to develop the Welsh language in areas where there are fewer Welsh-speakers? OAQ54551

Thank you very much, John. I'm pleased the south-east has benefited from capital funding to expand Welsh-medium education and childcare provision that are provided in the area. This, of course, will nurture new Welsh speakers. And also, through the Urdd apprenticeship schemes, 35 young people are working in the Valleys taskforce areas to support Welsh language opportunities for children and young people in the community.

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

Thank you very much, Minister. Welsh in Newport today is far more often heard now than when the Assembly came into existence. Welsh-medium education continues to grow, and pupils in all English-medium schools also learn Welsh. Signage and announcements are bilingual and there are opportunities for adults to learn and use the Welsh language, but the language is still relatively weak and only a little Welsh is spoken on the streets.

The Welsh Government has ambitious targets to increase the number of Welsh speakers, and we will need to see a great deal of progress in areas such as Newport. What steps will the Welsh Government take to deliver this progress?

Well done, John, and thank you very much for that. I think you’re an example of how the Welsh language captures the imagination of people in areas such as Newport, and you are an example to other people in the area. So, thank you very much for the effort of learning Welsh. If more people did the same, we would reach the target of 1 million quite easily.

What's interesting is that aim of reaching that target is something that has been recognised by the council on the local level, and the fact that they will be establishing a fourth Welsh-medium school in the area is an acknowledgement, I think, that there is a need to step forward.

So, currently, about 6 per cent of children in year 7 from the area attend Welsh-medium schools. In 10 years’ time, we hope there will be 11 to 15 per cent of children of that age attending Welsh-medium schools. And the fact that we’ve been able to provide capital funding to help develop the new school is an important step, I think, in the right direction. On top of that, we are supporting a number of students to ensure that they continue to speak Welsh once they have left school. So, just to give you an example, 140 students are on early years care and health and care courses, and they have completed 10 hours of Welsh in the workplace. So, ensuring that they can use the Welsh language once they have learnt is also essential.

Minister, the commissioner’s report 'Hawlio cyfleoedd'—'Rights in use'—shows that only 37 per cent of people believe that opportunities to use the Welsh language are increasing. So, clearly, more needs to be done to raise awareness of Welsh language services and more needs to be done to identify and improve Welsh language skills, especially in the workforce.

In response to this report, can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing to help public bodies to improve their internal processes to ensure compliance, and what specific steps the Welsh Government is taking in areas where there are fewer Welsh speakers, in order to ensure that public bodies do have sufficient staff to provide Welsh language services in the first instance?

14:50

Thank you very much. I do think that the opportunities to use the Welsh language in the workforce are increasing. You will be aware that the National Centre for Learning Welsh provides special courses for people who want to speak Welsh in the workplace. Therefore, ensuring that more people can learn is a great help, I think. But also, the work of the commissioner is to ensure that the standards in all the departments and areas where there is a need for them to comply with the new standards—it's important that they have an opportunity as well. What we have been discussing with the commissioner, and what he’s keen to do, is to ensure that not only do they police the standards but also ensure that there is an opportunity for people to promote the Welsh language, to use the Welsh language, and that that support is additionally in the system.

Promoting the Welsh Language in Monmouthshire

6. Will the Minister make a statement on the promotion of the Welsh language in Monmouthshire? OAQ54522

I hope, with a wide range of partners, to promote the Welsh language in Monmouthshire. The Welsh Government has provided additional investment of £2.5 million through the Welsh-medium education and childcare capital programmes to expand provision in the local authority.

Very much following a similar vein to John Griffiths's question, Minister, one of the challenges, I'm sure you'll agree, in delivering Welsh-medium education, particularly in the larger rural authorities, is the travel time from home to school. I'm pleased that Monmouthshire County Council is progressing with plans for a new second Welsh-medium education school in the north-east or north of the county, which should reduce travel times for many younger children and ensure that more parents have more choice when it comes to how their children are educated.

You mentioned capital that's available for schools—I know that Welsh Government is pledging a large amount of money for that new school in Monmouthshire, but I don't think the same applies for revenue. So, when an authority like Monmouthshire builds more schools using capital money, obviously the money they have is then spread across the area. So, could you tell us, in terms of managing and running those schools once they're up and running, what support is the Welsh Government giving to local authorities to try and keep the learning of Welsh going? Because, obviously, it's not just making an initial effort, it's then making sure that that's sustainable over months and years to come. I'm asking you, Minister, but I'm also looking at the education Minister, because the two areas are linked. 

Thank you very much. I think it’s clear that we have been able to provide that additional capital funding; £2.5 million has gone in to increase the capacity in Ysgol Gymraeg y Ffin in Caldicot. What’s clear, in terms of revenue, is that if these children don’t receive their education through the medium of English, then the money will be spent on Welsh-medium edcuation. So, in terms of revenue, there shouldn’t be any difference in terms of where they are and what language they’re being taught in. Therefore, it’s up to the local government to plan on the basis of the fact that they know that they have to move along the pathway where we expect more children to attend Welsh-medium schools, and they need to plan their revenue on the basis of that plan. 

I also want to take advantage of the fact that the education Minister is in her seat this afternoon. You will be aware, Minister, that Blaenau Gwent council has made an application for a new Welsh-medium primary school in Tredegar. Now, I’m not worried whether it’s in Tredegar or in any other community within the county, but I am aware that Blaenau Gwent does have to deliver on its own proposals to establish a Welsh school within the area. So, can you, Minister, ensure that the local authority does adhere to its expressed intention to ensure that there is a new Welsh-medium primary school in Blaenau Gwent, and that the Government is clear in its ambition to enable people and children in my constituency to receive the same kind of education as is available to others across the country?

14:55

Thank you very much. The council in Blaenau Gwent had been very clear that they wanted to see an expansion—they’d signed an agreement to say that they wanted to see an expansion in Welsh-medium provision. The Welsh Government has provided 100 per cent of the capital funding to open a new school, but it looks likely that they are trying to pull back from that situation. I’m aware that the Minister for Education has already spoken with the person responsible for education in Blaenau Gwent. They had agreed the strategy, it’s their strategy now, and we, as a Government, will expect them to ensure that they do give priority to that and deliver what they said they were going to do.

Tourism in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

7. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government promotes tourism in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ54540

The transformation of Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney in recent years into an area offering a rich, world-class visitor experience has been a great inspiration to me in developing industrial heritage throughout Wales. In addition to that, the investment that Welsh Government has made in exciting projects, both Rock UK and BikePark Wales, emphasises the importance of recreation within a traditional industrial area.

Thank you for that reply, Deputy Minister. Of course, you've been no stranger to my constituency. You've visited many times, and you've already talked about the excellent attractions of BikePark Wales and Rock UK, and of course we've got the Brecon Mountain Railway, Cyfarthfa castle, and I could go on. It doesn't just put Merthyr Tydfil on the tourist map, it puts the Valleys on the tourist map, and that's something that I want to see continue.

Like me, I'm sure that you're keen to see the potential of both activity and cultural and heritage tourism develop. And the story of our towns and their people are part of that vision. In that context, clearly I'm very pleased that the Welsh Government is now investing in Cyfarthfa Park as part of the vision for the Valleys Regional Park, and, of course, there's an emerging vision for the role of the wider Cyfarthfa experience with the Crucible project and the part that that can play in attracting far more visitors to the constituency. But in particular, I'm aware that there are some significant proposals to develop and expand some existing attractions that I referred to earlier. So, can you assure me that the Welsh Government is taking an active interest in these and is going to be a willing partner, as the business cases for further tourist developments are prepared, so that we can actually see the strategy of the Valleys taskforce around tourism being played out and that these areas reach their full tourism potential?

I'm very grateful for your appreciation of what we have been attempting to do. It's a very difficult situation here, Deputy Chair: do I look at the Member and reply to her, or do I look to you? I don't want to be declared out of order. [Laughter.]

As you mentioned, the investment that we've already made is an indication of our support for activities in Merthyr. I have visited Cyfarthfa on a number of occasions, and I think the whole Cyfarthfa Park development and, indeed, the development of the building on the site are key to our approach. The Crucible report was an essential catalyst and, of course, we have to look to the way in which we deliver at least part of the £50 million that has been earmarked—not earmarked, proposed, as necessary to transform Merthyr into a tourism destination.

But what is key to this, now, is the role of Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council, and I'm very grateful to them for commissioning the feasibility study into the project relating to Cyfarthfa, the link with the furnaces and the viaduct across the River Taf. And I must say again—and I don't want to get into an argument with colleagues in the other kinds of heritage—but I thought that the remains of the amazing furnaces were as redolent of our heritage as any castle I have seen anywhere, north or south. So, we need to make sure that the links between Merthyr and the Blaenavon World Heritage Site, and also the link through to the National Waterfront Museum in Swansea, are developed as part of an experience of celebrating our industrial heritage that will rival the experience of our colonial heritage.

15:00
The Healthy and Active Fund

8. What role does Sport Wales play in delivering the objectives of the Healthy and Active Fund? OAQ54526

The Healthy and Active Fund is delivered through a partnership between the Government, Sport Wales and Public Health Wales, with Sport Wales playing the lead role in the administration of the fund. The result of that is that all partners will be part of the monitoring of the project and the oversight of the fund.

Excellent. Since the Government decided to revise the free swimming offer and make it more explicitly targeted on areas of deprivation, I've had lots of correspondence from some of the 6 per cent of over-60s who've enjoyed the untargeted free swimming offer, but no correspondence at all from young people or their parents who may have been affected by the revised scheme for under-16-year-olds. 

I'm quite keen to understand how the new, targeted offer is going to benefit more of the sorts of people who really do need to take up that offer, because, unfortunately, it's been rather a well-kept secret. In the area that I represent, we've got Pentwyn Leisure Centre, which is at the heart of a super-output area of deprivation. So, I'm really keen to understand how this new offer is going to affect them.

How is the Welsh Government, in conjunction with Sport Wales, going to measure the success of the revised scheme to ensure that those who most need to benefit—i.e. young people who have yet to learn to swim—are going to take up that free swimming offer and not be further disadvantaged by the reduction in funding?

The reduction in funding is a reduction specifically on a scheme that was clearly not reaching the populations for whom it was intended. But it certainly is our intention that the younger people should benefit from this initiative. The key, to us, is working with the leisure centres themselves and with the local authorities, and this is Sport Wales's intention.

Our Healthy and Active Fund remains a key to this, to stimulate more innovative approaches to all forms of physical activity. And, in that approach, we are also encouraging all of the authorities involved to be monitoring the response, and we will have an evaluation from Sport Wales of the impact of the changes that we have made on their recommendation.

The Kurdish Community in Wales

9. How will the views of the Kurdish community living in Wales inform the development of the Welsh Government's international relations strategy? OAQ54528

The draft international strategy is currently out for public consultation. I'd encourage everyone with an interest to respond and would be more than happy to receive feedback from all communities represented in Wales. All responses will be considered and evaluated as a part of that consultation process.

This Government has a duty to represent everyone living in this country, no matter what their background. We have a significant and influential Kurdish community living in Wales, who are, naturally, worried about the Turkish forces in northern Syria following the withdrawal of US troops. Turkey's actions risk throwing a lifeline to the far-right ISIS. ISIS prisoners have already escaped as a result of the Turkish military operation.

More atrocities will be committed in northern Syria against the Kurds unless the international community does something, not just in condemning the actions of Turkey but in terms of its dealings with companies that sell arms to that country. In Wales, we have at least three companies that deliver military equipment to Turkey. Some of them will have received public money, which means that our taxpayers have invested in companies dealing with an authoritarian state with blood on its hands.

I heard your answer earlier to my colleague, Delyth Jewell, and you didn't answer her. So, for the sake of peace, for the sake of the Kurds and everyone else who supports them, will you answer this question now, please? Will you please make sure that all Welsh Government expenditure, particularly investments in companies that could be dealing in arms to Turkey, be reviewed and stopped as a matter of urgency?

Thank you. Just to make it clear, I have written to Dominic Raab already to set out that, actually, we have concerns relating to the concerns that have been expressed by some of the Kurdish community in Wales about the situation that's ongoing in those areas. Whilst we acknowledge that the UK leads on foreign affairs, we are undertaking a review of our entire export strategy at the moment and, of course, there will be issues that we will need to look at in relation to that. But I think it is clear that the announcement made by the Secretary of State today has made it clear that there will be no further arms announcements being made for the future to be sold to those areas where Syria is being attacked.  

15:05

It's not just the Kurdish community, of course, who are living here in Wales; we also have a significant Polish community. I met with the Polish ambassador in London last week, and I know that the number of Poles here in Wales is significant. In fact, of the 3 million EU citizens—

It's a question about the international relations strategy, with respect. 

It is. It is about the Kurdish community, and, if you can loosely tie it in, then I will listen, but—. The question is—[Interruption.] The question is about the Kurdish community living in Wales and the international development strategy. 

Precisely, and that is why I'm referring to other communities that also live in Wales and want to have a contribution to the international relations strategy. So, of the—[Interruption.] Of the 3 million—[Interruption.] Of the 3 million EU citizens that live in the United Kingdom, a million of those are Poles, tens of thousands of which are here in Wales and want to help shape the international relations strategy that you have. What engagement has there been with the Polish community and diaspora here in Wales in informing your international relations strategy? 

Thank you. There has been consultation with the honorary counsels, including the people representing Poland, so they've all received a copy of the strategy. We've also sent it to embassies throughout the United Kingdom, but I think the key thing for us to underline—and what is underlined very clearly in the strategy—is we want to celebrate those diaspora communities from abroad who have made Wales their home. One of the things that we're suggesting is that every year we will really establish and celebrate a particular community that has made a major contribution to Welsh life. So, hopefully, at some point, the Polish community, which is one of the biggest in Wales, will be one of those celebrated. 

I welcome the comments that have been made about the situation with regard to the Kurdish community, and what Welsh Government can do to represent their interests. It has been a bit of an issue where we've had argued in this Chamber in the past, 'Well, because foreign affairs isn't devolved, et cetera—'—whether we can or can't debate these issues. The fact of the matter is that it is almost impossible for us as a Parliament to properly represent the views of the various minorities that live within Wales, and the international implications and connections with them. So, firstly, I welcome the fact that we are now clearly having more debates on these issues, because they are important to our communities that we do represent, and they are also very integrated with broader international issues. So, the situation with the Kurdish issue is very much tied in with relations with America at this time. There's also the whole middle east situation; we had today the Palestinian ambassador visiting, et cetera. So, can I just say I do welcome that, but if you would perhaps just confirm that you are very much supportive of the view that, those minorities that exist within Wales, we should be able to represent them in terms of the international issues that impact on those communities and their interests?

I think that's absolutely right. I think that the whole agenda here is changing. I think there's recognition that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office leads in this area, but you will have heard the First Minister talk yesterday about the new constitutional settlement that we're looking for in relation to the United Kingdom, and it's clear that we will need more of a say and more of an input into, in particular, trade negotiations and areas where we have devolved responsibility. And, of course, where we have significant representation from other communities around the world living here in Wales, then of course it is absolutely right that they should have a hearing, if possible, within this Chamber as well. 

15:10
3. Questions to the Assembly Commission

The next item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Assembly Commission. Question 1 and question 2 this afternoon will be answered by the Llywydd. Question 1—Mick Antoniw. 

Pension Arrangements

1. Will the Commission make a statement on pension arrangements at the National Assembly for Wales? OAQ54555

There are three pension schemes associated with the National Assembly for Wales: the Assembly Members' pension scheme, the Assembly Members' support staff scheme and the civil service pension scheme for Commission staff. 

Thank you for that answer. Of course, the Commission will be aware that, in addition to the pension schemes for Assembly Members and civil servants, there is a third scheme that provides for Assembly Member support staff, as you've just mentioned. Now, my understanding is that this scheme has not been reviewed since its introduction, and, at first sight, compares very unfavourably with the other schemes. Could I ask the Commissioner for guidance on how the process of reviewing the staff pension scheme might be instigated so that we can be sure that it is fair and reflects the contribution that all our support staff make?

Thank you for that question. For clarity, the pension arrangements that Assembly Members' support staff have and the employer contribution rates to that scheme is a matter for the remuneration board, not the Assembly Commission directly, and the remuneration board did recently publish its review of staffing support but didn't put forward any proposals to change the AMSS pension scheme during that review, as, I think, you've just outlined there.

You'll know, of course, as all Members will know, that the remuneration board is undertaking a review of the determination for the sixth Assembly and its consultation of that review, covering staffing support, closed on 11 October, but I understand that Members and support staff are free to raise with the remuneration board any matters relating to the review, which would include employer contribution for the support staff pensions, and I urge any interested parties to do that.

Promoting Awareness and Understanding Of The Work of the National Assembly for Wales

2. Will the Commission explain how the money allocated to promoting awareness and understanding of the work of the National Assembly for Wales in the 2019-20 budget is being allocated? OAQ54542

Engaging with all the people of Wales and championing the Assembly is one of the Commission’s strategic priorities. Promoting awareness and understanding of the work of the National Assembly is part of that. There are a couple of ways we allocate money to these priorities—through the regular budget and through the project fund. Regular funding includes support for the Youth Parliament, the Senedd shop, school visits, marketing and publicity, and that all adds up to £311,000. There are three relevant projects in the project fund for 2019-20, with a total amount of £520,000.

Diolch, Llywydd. According to the 2019-20 budget, the priority projects for this financial year, of course, are based on the organisational priorities, including the provision of increasing engagement with the people of Wales and using our resources wisely. Having considered the budget, I note that £311,000 was allocated to promoting awareness and understanding of work. Similarly, around the same amount is budgeted for the next financial year and was also spent in 2018-19. So, that's around £1 million dedicated, technically, to promoting awareness and understanding. It is quite a significant amount, so, really, what I'm asking, Llywydd, is how is the Assembly Commission ensuring that this spend is subjected to fairly robust scrutiny and that there is a wise use of resources that is delivering on raising awareness of the work of the National Assembly for Wales and, indeed, its Members in constituencies and across the regions of Wales? 

Well, the Assembly Commission's budget is voted on by this Assembly, by all Members here present, and is scrutinised as part of the annual budget scrutiny within the Finance Committee, and I think the commissioner, Suzy Davies, has recently been in front of the Finance Committee being scrutinised on our budget proposals for the next year. We look, at all times, to do our work as effectively as possible. We welcome comments that Members have on how we can improve that and to do that as part of the scrutiny processes and in questions here. And I'm forever looking at ways where we can improve how we do our information sharing and work with the people of Wales in all parts of Wales. I seek to do that in as radical and as effective a way as possible, always being aware, of course, that we need to spend wisely.

15:15

Thank you. Questions 3 and 4 are to be answered by the commissioner, David Rowlands. Question 3, Jenny Rathbone.

Electric Vehicle Charging Points

3. What usage has been recorded of the Assembly's electric vehicle charging points? OAQ54527

The Commission installed four charging points in the Tŷ Hywel car park in spring 2018 for use by staff and visitors. Since then, they have been used 692 times to supply over 6,500 kWh of power to electric cars. This has saved more than 5.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted to the atmosphere. The Commission believes that the designated parking spaces provide an incentive to use an electric vehicle and charging costs are recovered from users by the Commission.

Thank you. I'm delighted that we've saved 5.5 tonnes in the 18 months or so since they've been used, but I'd be really keen to understand exactly what type of electric charging they are, given that there are two different types of electric vehicles, because I genuinely would like to move towards using a non-polluting vehicle, as I represent one of the most polluted areas—or probably the most polluted area—in Wales. But I've not seen them, I've not seen a notice saying, 'Electric charging this way'. Do you think they could be better promoted?

Well, it's absolutely right, there are two systems of charging. I can't exactly answer your question with regard to that, but can I tell you that the Commission staff are there to give information with regard to CV cars to anybody and everybody in the Assembly, as both Assembly Members and the staff themselves? They do have extensive information that you can glean from them, and if you are contemplating it, as indeed there are many now contemplating going to using these EVs—electric cars, not CVs—they are actively seeking the information, I can assure you.

I have used a charging point myself. I did so when I was doing a film on coming on a journey from my constituency to the Assembly, to demonstrate the challenges of using an electric vehicle because of weaknesses in the charging network across Wales. I am pleased to hear that there is work being done to encourage staff to use electric vehicles. First, can you tell us are more electric cars—? Can you tell us whether there are plans to have more electric pool cars? Recently, I think there is one on a three-year lease that was available from the Commission, and it would be a good idea to expand that fleet. Can you also tell us what discussions there have been with Government on allowing room on the estate to provide charging points for the current diesel fleet?

Well, can I say, again, that there's a lot of technical information that you require there? And can I say that the information is available from the staff of the Commission, who are very au fait with exactly what's going on with regard to the charging facilities and the ability to use CV cars in general?

The Climate Emergency

4. What is the Commission doing to fulfil its obligations to tackling the climate emergency? OAQ54523

Since its formation, the Commission has sought to reduce its environmental impact. Our environmental strategy has resulted in carbon emissions reducing by 42 per cent since 2012, building on our previous achievement of a 30 per cent reduction. We have minimised single-use plastic cups and cutlery, replacing them with biodegradable alternatives, and food containers where currently possible.

As part of our new set of performance indicators, we've introduced a stretch target to reduce business-related car travel. Having achieved our current targets for carbon emissions and waste to landfill, we are working in collaboration with other UK Parliaments to develop a new set of annual environmental targets, always being mindful of the Welsh Government's 2030 target date for carbon neutrality in the public sector.

15:20

If we are to lead the way in tackling the climate emergency, we must set an example for other public bodies and businesses to follow. Now, while this Senedd building has been named the greenest Government in the UK, the Tŷ Hywel building doesn't fare so well. It has an energy rating of E. While improvements to energy efficiency have been made on the estate in recent years, what more can be done, for example, to heating, to lighting, food, et cetera, to improve this rating to ensure that in a climate emergency our working environment provides a good example for other people to follow?

Well, can I say the Assembly Commission has signed a memorandum of understanding to join the proposed Cardiff district heating scheme to invest in our estate—? Sorry, this will remove a significant proportion of our carbon footprint from the otherwise hard-to-tackle activity of heating on the estate.

4. Topical Questions

Item 4 is topical questions, and the first this afternoon is to be answered by the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport. Llyr Gruffydd.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Of course, the context of this question has changed slightly since it was tabled, but it remains valid.

1. In light of the uncertainty regarding the Tomlinsons Dairy milk processing plant, and the fact that 70 dairy farms and hundreds of jobs are dependent upon it, what steps is the Welsh Government taking to support the company and the workforce? 351

Diolch yn fawr iawn. Clearly, it's very disappointing news that the company has gone into administration, and this is distressing for the workforce and the wider supply chain, and our thoughts are with those affected. We understand some 331 people have been affected: 247 of them were laid off yesterday and the remainder retained for a short time. As I say, our thoughts are with them, as is our support. The Welsh Government is working with Wrexham County Borough Council to help all staff affected. We've set up an immediate taskforce to respond to the redundancy situation at the company, and the support and signposting event for staff will take place on Monday at Plas Pentwyn resource centre in Wrexham.

Thank you for that response. Of course, there are a number of questions emerging from what has happened. First of all, people are scratching their heads and asking themselves, 'What went wrong?' Because, just in 2017, the company was given £22 million in investment—£5 million of that from the Welsh Government, a further £2 million from Finance Wales—and then, months later, at the end of the financial year up to March 2018, the company was registering losses of £5 million and then £2 million again in the last financial year. So, we want an assurance from Government, and we would want to see the Government showing evidence that you have done the work of researching into these plans before making that investment.

The Government, as I've seen in press reports, have said that you were aware that there were difficulties within the company and that you had been working with them for 18 months to try and work through those issues. Can you explain, perhaps, what kind of resources you provided to that end and why you didn't succeed in turning the situation around?

You mentioned the future of the workforce, and we hope very much, as you suggest, that the Government will turn every stone to ensure that there are employment opportunities for those who will lose their jobs. But the greatest question is on the future of the site. After such a substantial investment, then clearly it is a site that has brand new kit. I would assume that there would be potential to attract alternative investors to try and process milk on that site. I would want to hear what steps you are taking to attract those investors.

And the timing of going into the hands of administrators also means—it happened, in fact, just at the time when the farmers and milk producers were supposed to be provided with their cheques for milk provision in September. That means that the company has had six weeks of milk free of charge, and that will cause great losses to those farmers. So, what work is the Government doing to try and ensure that they will be paid, or receive some sort of payment, or at least be compensated in some way for that milk?

And what does this development tell us about the state of the milk processing sector in Wales? Last year, we lost Arla in Llandyrnog, now Tomlinsons in the same part of Wales, to all intents and purposes, has gone. The Government, and all of us, put great emphasis on the importance of developing a Welsh brand. Well, as a result of this, the milk won't be branded as Welsh milk but as British milk. So, it does, of course, undermine the efforts of Government to build the food and drink sector in Wales, and I want to know what you are doing to build a more viable dairy sector here in Wales.

15:25

Thank you for those questions. I share the Member's concern and frustration, but one could be forgiven for thinking, from listening to the tone of his contribution, that this was somehow the fault of the Welsh Government. This is a commercial company. The Welsh Government has bent over backwards to help this company, as have the company's own commercial lenders. The majority of the funding given came not from the Welsh Government or the development bank, but from the banks—the banks who, we can only assume, did their own due diligence and made their own commercial judgments about whether or not investing multiple millions of pounds in this business was a sound judgment to make. They judged it was. Both the commercial lenders and the Welsh Government and the development bank reached the point towards the end of last week where clearly we thought that providing more and more credit to a company that is racking up debts and that is yet to produce any recent accounts was no longer a prudent thing to do. 

Now, you asked for evidence of our support, and I can assure you that, as the local Assembly Member, Ken Skates, and Lesley Griffiths as the Minister, have ensured that Welsh Government have been paying close attention to the company. We have been in constant dialogue with them. You mentioned some of the practical support we've given them—a £5 million grant in 2018 that they fully discharged. We helped them to divest themselves of a bottling plant, which they were able to sell for around £6 million. We helped to release some of the grant obligations in that site to help give them the best possible chance of survival. The development bank themselves provided loans, not all of which have been repaid. So I don't think you can reasonably say that the Welsh Government hasn't done everything within its power to help what is a commercial company.

Now, you're right to be concerned about the impact on the industry at what is already a difficult time for the industry. Our view remains that this is a sound business if properly run, and we are hopeful that the administrators will be able to find a buyer who will be able to continue to run this facility on the site and to re-employ as many local people as possible. We have, I think, reason to be optimistic about that: GRH Food near Porthmadog was taken into administration some six months ago, and is now back functioning. So I think, in terms of the capacity of the food industry and our strategy, we can have confidence that that is in the right direction, but we can't micromanage every business nor be responsible for every management decision they make. We can do our best through our offices and through our partners to support and help, and we are confident we've done that.

The Llywydd took the Chair.

Thank you for your statement so far, Minister. I'm speaking, obviously, as the rural affairs spokesperson, and obviously the support to the workers who've lost their jobs is of critical importance. To hear the drop-in event that is arranged for Monday—hopefully it will be a first stepping stone to getting many of those individuals back into employment.

But if I could just raise two issues with you, the NFU upstairs had an event at lunch time that highlighted the impact on the dairy farm sector. About 100-plus producers were supplying the factory, as I understand it. Many now will have to take their line in the queue of creditors to the company that's in administration, and it's looking as if six weeks' worth of supply of milk most probably won't be paid for. What support can the Welsh Government give to try to make sure cashflow isn't interrupted through the autumn via the single farm payment scheme? There was an example that was highlighted to me that, under the loan scheme that the Government have made available under single farm payment, if you've had that loan within the last three years, you wouldn't be eligible for this year. I don't know whether that's correct or not, but if you could confirm that I'd be most grateful. Because apparently if you've had the loan in the last three years you are unable to, but given these force majeure circumstances for these dairy farmers, it is vital that cashflow is maintained.

Secondly, it was pleasing to hear that you're reasonably optimistic about the future of the plant, because we do not have much processing capacity regrettably for liquid milk here in Wales. Are you able to update how optimistic you believe you are in securing the long-term future of this plant so it can be put back to good use, and turn Welsh milk back into a drinkable product that can arrive on consumers' shelves and into fridges as quick as possible? Because if we do lose this plant, I believe I'm correct in saying we will not have a major liquid milk processing facility here in Wales.

Thank you for the questions. We're as confident as we can be, but, obviously, that depends on all other things being equal, and all of the things are not equal. We know that the industry is under considerable strain. The company has faced some issues unique to the company, but also faced the issues that others are facing. The volatility of the exchange rate since the UK Government failed to deliver the deal it negotiated with the European Union, and the uncertainty that has caused, has been a significant factor in the company's position, especially in the availability of cash flow. That is a problem across the industry. [Interruption.] I'm afraid I can't hear the honourable gentleman heckling me, but I'm trying to answer the questions he poses; it may not be the answer he was looking for, but it is the truth. The impact of the uncertainty of the position with Brexit is having a palpable and real effect on the industry, and has had a specific effect in this case. It was not the only factor, but it is a significant factor. [Interruption.] The gentleman is saying it is a scandal. I would say to him that it is a scandal that he's sticking his fingers in his ears and not seeing what is happening around us and the impact of the reckless policies he's pursuing, and has been pursuing with abandon for the last three years. Well, this is the consequence of it. This is what it looks like—jobs, livelihoods, the future of industry in our country, in north Wales—the consequence of the uncertainty and the fluctuation of the exchange rate, and the impact on cash flow of businesses. Now, we can do all that we can, but that's all we can do. We cannot stop these forces that are being unleashed by him and his reckless colleagues.

In terms of the specific comments that he makes—[Interruption.] He says 'utter rubbish'. Well, I'm afraid, he quoted a loan scheme that he says has been going for three years that's only been going for one year. So, if he wants to exchange comments of 'utter rubbish', we can both play that game. I'd be happy to write to him on some of the detailed points he made.FootnoteLink I can give him a sincere commitment: we will do all we can to secure the future of this industry, and this business, but there are limits to what we can do.

15:30

Five million, I believe, of the £22 million investment in Tomlinsons in 2017 came from the Welsh Government, and, of course, that raises questions about the degree of contractual protection for the public pound. But, as we heard, this is the second milk processing plant in Wales to close, meaning that more than half of milk production is now having to be transported elsewhere. The dairy leadership board last met four years ago, but its conclusions still stand, including the need to attract top-end processors into Wales. Wales is a top milk producer across the European continent and beyond. Milk production is moving north and west because grass grows better here. How, therefore, are you, or have you, since that recommendation from the dairy leadership board four years ago, taken the actions necessary to develop and protect the processing sector in Wales, not only in terms of milk, but also in maximising the commercial opportunity to develop the components of Welsh milk, which offer exciting chances to deliver rural economic growth in the future, and marketing that to new potential owners, as you seek someone who will take it on as a growing concern?

I do find it curious that the thrust of the criticisms is that we haven't done enough to protect the company, and then he questions the support that we have given. The two pieces of support we've directly given—the £5 million grant was for a specific scheme to help them develop and become more resilient, and the food business investment grant, which was carried out in line with due diligence and all the grant conditions were discharged—the additional support was from the Development Bank for Wales, which was to help them with cash flow and other matters, and, clearly, along with the commercial investors, we have been not able to secure the full repayment of that. But if we can be accused of anything, it's certainly not of not offering enough support to the company.

But there are things that we can't control. We often hear the gentleman talking about the merits of market. Well, the markets are at play here, and commercial, individual companies make decisions, management make decisions, and there are consequences to those decisions. We remain confident that there is a good business to be run here, and we hope the administrators are successful in providing alternative providers. We'll work with them to continue supporting them. On the broader points that the gentleman makes about support for the industry, I'll ask my colleague Lesley Griffiths to write to him to provide a detailed response.

Thank you, Deputy Minister. The next question is to be answered by the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, and the question is to be asked by Alun Davies.

Catalonia

2. What representations has the Welsh Government made following the imprisonment of Catalonia’s elected political leaders? 352

15:35
Member
Eluned Morgan AM 15:35:06
Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language

The lead for all matters relating to foreign affairs sits with the UK Government. But I have already written to the Foreign Secretary, to ask what representations the UK Government has made to the Spanish Government about the prison sentences handed down to Catalan politicians.

Presiding Officer, I think all of us were shocked by the news this week of the imprisonment of Catalonia's political leaders. And since then, we've been shocked by the images of state violence that we see coming from Catalonia. Many of us have felt that our democracy is secure, our rights as European citizens secure and guaranteed. But we all know that, in recent years, we have seen with a terrifying clarity that these freedoms and rights that we've taken for granted are not safeguarded, and that perhaps we need to fight once again, as others have done so in the past, to secure democracy and liberty on our continent. Recent events in Catalonia have left many of us feeling frightened for the people of that country. This, Presiding Officer, simply should not be happening in Europe. It should not be allowed to happen in the European Union, and we, the peoples of Europe, must stand in solidarity with the imprisoned political leaders of Catalonia and the people of Catalonia.

The right of self-determination is a fundamental human right, incorporated into article 1 of the Charter of the United Nations. It is one of the guiding principles upon which international law, and the international order, is based. It is a right that we in Wales have exercised twice in recent years, and which the people of Scotland are debating today. Wherever one may stand on the answer to the question of independence, the right to take such a decision must be beyond question. The Government of Spain has broken this fundamental principle, and there must be consequences for its actions. Presiding Officer, the brutality of the Spanish state I believe is not compatible with its place at the European top table. The combined actions of the Spanish state, including its army, police and justice system, stand to be condemned by all those who value liberty and democracy.

I believe it is clear that crimes are being committed by the Spanish state against the Catalonian people. And it is this place, and our Government, which cannot stand by whilst allowing such crimes to be committed in our European home. I recognise that the lead for foreign affairs is with the United Kingdom Government, but I do not believe that any of us sitting here, or the people we represent, would want us to stand by and allow these things to happen on our doorstep. I believe that the Welsh Government must be saying this clearly, and using all the means at its disposal, to stand up for basic human rights in Catalonia, and our European home. I hope, Minister, that you will take these matters further with the UK Government, but also directly with the Spanish Government. It is not good enough to see Spanish police beating the people of Catalonia, and imprisoning elected leaders, because of the views they hold, and because they tried to carry out a political mandate and exercise their fundamental human right to self-determination.

Well, I've noted the passion with which the Member's expressed his concern for the people of Catalonia. But I think it is worth emphasising that politicians in a democracy have a particular responsibility to work within the law, and the courts have a responsibility to enforce that law. But as the First Minister emphasised yesterday, there should be no place in a democracy for the sort of law that results in politicians being imprisoned for expressing their constitutional views. So, that has been very clearly expressed, and I think that would chime with many people's feelings within this Assembly.

Whatever our views as individuals about independence for Wales, whatever our stance on the principle of smaller nations on these isles, or across Europe, insisting on their right to liberty, and to take responsibility for their own futures, the actions of the Spanish state this week, in imprisoning nine democrats for a total of 100 years for the crime of insisting on a voice for their people, should shock and appall us all.

I was in the Catalan Parliament some two months ago; I am grateful for the welcome that I and my family received there. I stood in the Chamber, where the political leaders insisted that they put their faith in the people that they represent. I stood under pictures of the speakers of that Parliament over the years—politicians who have insisted that Catalonia should be a nation and that it should have its own Parliament to safeguard its interests and give voice to its aspirations. Among them was Carme Forcadell, who is today in prison, guilty of the crime of allowing a debate in that Parliament.

That day too I was wearing this particular badge—a symbol that is to be seen in all parts of Catalonia: on houses, on cars, in windows, on the roads and pavements, and in the hearts of millions of Catalans. The symbol of unity and support for those people—people like you and me—who are imprisoned in the name of democracy. I know full well that there is a difference of view in Catalonia on the future of the country and on its relationship with the Spanish state, but that state, of course, is denying a voice to those people to decide on their own fate.

No matter on what side of the debate we might be on the principle of the quest of smaller nations, like ours, to set their own direction as free nations, we cannot just accept what we have seen happening in Spain. We cannot ignore these actions by a so-called modern European state, holding political prisoners—elected representatives; a Parliament's Presiding Officer in jail. These shameful actions have already sparked protests the length and breadth of Catalonia, and they should spark outrage among all democrats.

I'm calling for a firm and unambiguous statement from Welsh Government. Minister, will you echo my call and that of my party that all of us, as parliamentarians, should condemn these incarcerations, that we call as an international community at all levels—here in Wales, on a UK level and the European level—that our colleagues are given back their freedom and that we demand respect for the fundamental human right, the right to self-determination?

15:40

Thank you very much. There's a long and close history between Wales and Catalonia and we're very eager for this situation to continue. We share a number of political priorities, through our networks that we share with Catalonia. When I was preparing the Standing Orders for this new Parliament, many years ago, one of the things that I did as a member of the National Assembly advisory group was to have a long conversation with the speaker of the Catalonian Parliament to learn from them how they were organising their Parliament. So, that relationship does go back a long way. I do think that it’s very important for us to emphasise the fact that we do see this as a political problem and not, perhaps, as a problem that should be dealt with in the courts.

Would the Minister agree with me that the events in Catalonia this week are an example of state terrorism? It's absolutely incredible that a modern European state could behave in the way that it has and sentence politicians to draconian terms of 10 or 12 years merely for holding what is, in effect, a national opinion poll.

The one glaring omission that there has been in the answers that we've heard this afternoon is what representations the Welsh Government is going to make to the European Union about the events in Spain? Because, after all, there is in the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, article 11, the term:

'Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers.'

And so, what the Catalan separatists have done in Catalonia is no more than exercise their rights under article 11. But this fits in, of course, with the scheme of politics that the EU envisages for the Europe of the future. Guy Verhofstadt said the other day:

'The world of tomorrow is not a world order based on nation states or countries. It is a world order that is based on empires.'

That's something he said at the Liberal Democrat conference in the United Kingdom just a few days ago. And Jean-Claude Juncker said, notoriously, some time ago that there could be no democratic choice against the EU treaties. And so, what the Spanish Government is doing is simply following the line of the EU leaders that there could be no democratic choice against the dictatorship of Spain. Will she give the Welsh people's view, on behalf of us all, that no modern European state should be allowed with impunity to behave in this way?

15:45

I find it really strange that somebody who's proposed Brexit, who's encouraged Brexit, now wants us to go and tell the European Union what to do. I find it very odd. That is a strange way to approach politics, and, if you think we didn't have much influence before, I can suggest to you that we'll have very, very little, if the current Prime Minister succeeds in his plans to take us out on 31 October. I think it is important that we express our view to the UK Government, which is the appropriate authority. We have done that, and we have asked them what measures they are going to be taking in relation to this. They're the appropriate forum for us to express this view. 

Thank you, Minister. The next item is a question to the Minister for Economy and Transport, and the question is to be asked by David Rees. 

Hi-Lex

3. Will the Minister make a statement following the announcement of the closure of Hi-Lex and the loss of 120 jobs in Baglan Energy Park? 355

Member
Ken Skates AM 15:46:26
Minister for Economy and Transport