Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd11/12/2019
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, and the first question is from Rhun ap Iorwerth.
1. Will the Minister provide an update on discussions held with the Minister for Housing and Local Government regarding the references to energy production on Ynys Môn included in the draft National Development Framework? OAQ54845
I met with the Minister for Housing and Local Government last month to discuss the draft energy policies in the NDF, including those that impact on Ynys Môn. The NDF consultation closed on 15 November. Officials are currently reviewing the 1,100 responses received, and the Welsh Government will respond to the consultation in the spring.
Well, I hope you sounded some very, very loud alarm bells in that meeting with the Minister. As the question says, I know the development framework isn't in your brief, but I would advise you to be very careful in pressing for answers about what on earth the framework means for your area—or one of your areas—of responsibility: energy. If we look at the wider NDF, where do I start? No reference to Holyhead in there; it doesn't seem to be fitting in with the principles of spreading wealth; there's no vision there on the Welsh language; no real talk about regional hubs. Senior officers—the most senior officers—in north Wales knew nothing about what was going to be in this national development framework, I understand, until it was published. There's no reference to the third bridge on the Menai straits—it goes on and on.
Now, I understand that a committee in this Assembly is likely to propose moving away from the spatial model when it comes to energy generation in future. Certainly the spatial approach, as it applies to Anglesey, with 250m turbines—higher than the highest bit of land anywhere on Anglesey—is just ridiculous. So, I would call on you to reject what is being proposed in terms of energy generation. And would you share with me my fear that, when it comes to energy, the national development framework, as in so many other areas, is, in the words of officials that I have heard, like a very bad GCSE project?
No; no, I wouldn't agree with that. It was a consultation and, as I say, Welsh Government officials from the Minister's department are currently reviewing the 1,100 responses we received. I know an initial review of the responses has revealed that some of the public have raised concerns about the impact of the policies on their communities—I think that's obviously something that needs to be looked at—as well as the renewable energy industry. They've also put forward their views, and they've requested removal of the spatial approach to allow them to develop anywhere. Well, clearly, the Welsh Government is showing leadership by bringing forward this NDF, which will make sure that we are able to meet our targets for renewable energy. But, as I say, it was a consultation, and the responses are currently being reviewed.
The draft national development framework says, in the context of Anglesey:
'The potential Wylfa Newydd nuclear power station development could provide significant employment, training and other associated economic benefits across the whole region if a decision is made to proceed with the scheme.'
Well, when I met Horizon Nuclear Power—in my latest meeting with them—this summer, they told me the project was not dead, and that if planning and funding, including the strike price, stacked up, it actually would come back to the table, and things were quite buoyant and positive. But there would be about 18 to 24 months lead time for best-case scenario, and, crucially, they were continuing to work with both the Welsh and UK Governments to try to develop the right conditions to restore the project. Notwithstanding things being delayed at the Westminster end, what is your current understanding of developments, in the context of their engagement with you?
Well, we were obviously very disappointed the UK Government announced the delay to the granting of a development consent order for Wylfa Newydd. Welsh Government is currently in the process of reviewing the Secretary of State's letter of 23 October, and we'll provide all detail that they requested from our end by the end of December.
2. Will the Minister provide an update on progress made in tree planting across Wales? OAQ54842
Thank you. The Welsh Government’s policy document 'Woodlands for Wales' strategy outlines our commitments and objectives towards forestry in Wales. An additional £1 million has been given to the current round of Glastir woodland creation, and we are developing a national forest programme to increase woodland planting and management in Wales.
I thank the Minister for that answer. But, following on from your statement yesterday on your clean air plan, it would seem that the Government is keen on rhetoric but somewhat lacking on commitment. You spoke of such things as healthy resilience, reduction in air pollution both from industry and transport, and the desperate need to increase air quality. And, yet, you fail to mention one intervention that would help to deliver on all your objectives—tree planting. Given that the Welsh Government has also declared a climate emergency, why is the Government failing so drastically in its own tree planting targets? It is a universally accepted fact that trees are a huge potential to reduce carbon dioxide levels, and yet the targets you have set yourselves, if, indeed, you are truly committed to targets, of just 2,000 hectares per year, are in themselves derisory, but you are falling woefully short of even that target. You set aside £1 million for the 2018-19 window for planting, which amounts to 240 hectares, or just 43,000 trees—12 per cent of your annual target. Contrast this with the figures for Scotland, and even Ireland. Scotland will be planting over 11,000 acres of woodland in this year alone—that's 20 million trees. Ireland has delivered 5,000 hectares of new woodland—that's nearly 10 million trees per annum for the last four years.
Is it not true, Minister, that the Welsh Government is woefully neglectful of its duty to establish sensible targets for tree planting, and even more woefully neglectful of providing the budget to deliver anything like the number of trees needed to combat climate change? And, I repeat, Minister, is this not an example of a Welsh Government being strong on the rhetoric of combating climate change but short on delivering some of the most important interventions necessary to achieve the climate change objective? And just one last point—
No. It's Christmas, but even a question of two and a half minutes long is just stretching even me and my Christmas spirit. So, I'll ask the Minister to respond.
Well, when it comes to rhetoric, I don't think I can compete with the Brexit Party. I did talk about tree planting yesterday when I launched the consultation for the clean air plan. I will be the first to admit that we haven't been planting the numbers of trees that I would want to see and that we will need to have if we are going to reach our decarbonisation targets. There is a great deal of work going on at the present time, and has been, I would say, for the last year, around the number of trees we are able to plant. We have planted, I think, over 16 million trees in the last three years. A lot of that will have been restocking; we need to be looking at new areas. You'll be aware of the First Minister's manifesto commitment to have a national forest, and that has really been a focus for my officials over the last few months and I will be coming forward with more information around the national forest when we come back in the new year.
I think what the national forest will do is that it will accelerate reforestation, but it also will look to others. We can't do it on our own. Welsh Government cannot do this on our own. We need others to help us, and that will be part of the national forest.
Half of the answer to my question is done anyway. The Confederation of Forest Industries claimed recently that funding for tree planting is just a third of what it needs to be if Welsh Government is to meet its minimum targets. They went on to say that millions more pounds need to be put into tree planting if Wales is to have any chance of meeting the climate emergency aspiration. Minister, you just said that a great deal of work is ongoing at the moment. Is the funding available, and what is your timescale and targets to achieve what you have already promised—at least 2,000 hectares each year? So, how long will it take, and when are you going to be near the target, which, at the moment, is 80 per cent less? Thank you.
So, I go back to what I said in my answer to David Rowlands. Welsh Government can't do it on our own. We need others to help us to do this. We need others to bring funding forward. We need others to bring land forward. We put significant funding into our tree and woodland expressions of interest window in relation to Glastir. There is also funding available within the sustainable management scheme projects. Within our 'Sustainable Farming and our Land' consultation, one are where I think everyone is in agreement is that farmers could look to perhaps planting more trees on their land, and certainly they seem very keen to do that when we take forward that scheme.
I'm doing a great deal of work with NRW. The board of NRW has already approved an umbrella woodland creation programme, with funding available. That will incorporate new and existing schemes and projects.
If we're going to get large numbers of trees planted, then we need a plan, not a national target. Will the Welsh Government set annual targets at local authority level, designate land for tree planting, or ask local authorities to designate land for tree planting like they do in the local development plan for housing, and set a minimum number of trees to be planted per house for each new housing development, so we actually have a method of going forward, rather than just aspirations?
We don't currently have any plans for setting targets at the local authority level. However, I think local authorities have a very important role to play. You will have just heard me say that we can't do it on our own; we need others to work with us. I know that many local authorities are working to increase the canopy cover in their areas and they're looking to expand planting on local authority-owned land and encouraging more infrastructure. And yesterday, in the clean air plan oral statement, you may have heard me say that one thing we're looking at is tiny forests, and these are small pieces of land, and quite often public sector land in hospitals or schools, for instance, where we can look to plant just a small amount of trees. Clearly, local authorities would have a role to play in that.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, is it still your intention to bring forward the regulations and enforce those regulations on water quality from 1 January next year?
I will be making a statement before the end of term.
I thank you for that. It is regrettable obviously that it will be in written form, rather than oral, but I appreciate pressures on time. I do detect that maybe there is a little bit of movement, and that would be welcomed by the sector, I'm sure. You did a regulatory impact assessment on this particular issue. Can you confirm today how many farms and how many jobs might be lost and what that regulatory impact assessment highlighted, because surely that's what it looked at if these regulations were to be implemented as understood by the industry?
I'm not able to give you that information at this moment. There is a great deal of work going on—you're quite right. The reason I haven't been able to bring forward the statement up to now is because I've asked my officials to go back several times and get further advice. I met with the farming unions, again, I think it was a fortnight ago, to discuss the issue with them. You'll be aware of the Wales land and water management forum. They are meeting again on Monday. So, I am looking to get as much advice as I can before I bring the regulations in.
Thank you for that response, Minister. I would be grateful to try and understand from the impact assessment how many farms and jobs would be lost, and if you could do that in written format for me, I'd be grateful for that, because I would expect an impact assessment to make that calculation. But you highlighted there the Welsh land forum and the sector coming together in bringing forward 45 recommendations in this particular area that the regulator and the industry agreed would make a significant improvement to water quality here in Wales. Are you minded to take those recommendations on board in your new deliberations in this particular area? Or is it still the case that you will be just implementing the regulations as outlined but it will be the date that will be moving rather than maybe more of the substance?
I'm very happy to take all the recommendations into consideration, of course. It wouldn't be worth having them if I wasn't going to do that. So, you're right—the forum did make a number of recommendations. The NFU came forward with a number of recommendations. I think what was disappointing with some of the recommendations I received was that they were nearly all for Government. I think it's really important that the industry recognises that the level of agricultural pollution we're seeing in Wales is unacceptable. It rose significantly last year and we don't want that to continue. And I think everybody agrees that it's embarrassing for the agricultural sector to have these levels of agricultural pollution and that we need to do something about it. So, I wanted my officials to look very carefully at all the recommendations, all the evidence. One area I promised personally to look at myself was around the proposed closed periods for fertiliser applications, and I will make a final decision once the RIA has been finalised.
The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Yes, it's quite embarrassing on other sectors as well, isn't it? Their performance isn't wonderful. There were 30,000 sewage spillages in this country back in 2017, and I don't hear the Government making as much fuss about that. But, there we are—that's by the way.
But do you accept that spreading during closed periods and having set dates for spreading slurry and farming by calendar can actually be counter productive? We hear people like Tony Juniper, the boss of Natural England, saying as much. So, is that something that you now accept and that you, of course, are moving away from that kind of approach?
I think farming by calendar is always something that I've never been able to quite understand. I always said to the agricultural sector that it was one area that I absolutely really understood why they thought we should be looking at that. However, it has to be earned—that kind of flexibility has to be earned. And I think that's certainly one of the discussions that I've been having particularly with the National Farmers Union.
Well, if you don't understand it, maybe you'll ask the people who know best, and those are the people who actually farm that land day in, day out. I'm sure they'll tell you exactly what you need to know.
Now, of course, you're proposing, or we think that you're still proposing, blanket coverage across Wales for these regulations. And you'll remember, I'm sure, the 'Working Smarter' review, which, amongst its recommendations, recommended that the Welsh Government should operate a principle of a risk-based and targeted approach for the application of environmental regulations in Wales.
Now, I'd understand if you were looking to apply enhanced regulations in certain parts of Wales. I'm not sure—. I don't think we have an issue with that, if the rationale was there to do that. But your proposed whole-Wales approach isn't risk based or targeted at all. So, do you accept that introducing a closed period is likely to increase the risk of agricultural pollution? And, of course, as we've heard, the cost of meeting those new regulations will mean a cost of tens of thousands of pounds to Welsh farmers. And are you, as a Government, willing to play your part in supporting them in meeting that challenge if asked to do so?
So, if I can start with your first comment, I certainly have spoken with the agricultural sector to see what the difficulties are of farming by calendar, because I'm on their side. That's what I'm saying; I understand that.
However, I'm also the Minister for environment, and there has been an unacceptable number of agricultural pollutions. I've just had one this weekend. When I put my computer on at the weekend, invariably, I'm getting e-mails about agricultural pollution incidents. It's too many and it's embarrassing and I think everybody wants to see less pollution. I'm not saying it's just the agricultural sector, of course not, but my regulations are obviously to do with the agricultural sector.
We have been undertaking visits to dairy farms with Natural Resources Wales dairy inspectors. I think we've now—. I think it's about 250 that have now been visited and over 50 per cent of those farms are non-compliant at the moment in relation to agricultural regulations. That is unacceptable. I have always said that we will help support, with funding, the additional requirements. However, I will not give funding to bring people up to the legal position as it stands now. If they're not compliant, I'm not going to pay for them to become compliant, but we'll certainly look to provide funding, if that is what is required later on.
On another matter, I was wondering whether you could give us an update with regards to Tomlinson's Dairies, which closed, of course. And could you confirm to us which Government Minister is now leading on this piece of work, because I understand, given the fact that he represents the local constituency, that the Minister for economy isn't in a position to do that? So, some clarity around who's leading this piece of work for Welsh Government would be appreciated. And also what is the Welsh Government doing not only to support those farmers, clearly, who've been impacted by the closure, but there is a huge and modern facility there, sitting idle, so what kind of incentives and efforts are the Government making to attract alterative processors to the site?
As you know, we've done a great deal of work—my department have done a great deal of work—with Tomlinson's before the closure to try and support them, over the past 18 months, really, to try and help them resolve their ongoing business issues.
You are quite right, it is within the Clwyd South constituency of Ken Skates. At the moment, I am leading on it. Obviously, if there are decisions to be taken in relation to the ReAct programme, for instance—if that needs to be used—there is the Deputy Minister who can obviously look at those issues for the Minister for Economy and Transport. I asked for an update this morning as to whether there have been any movements around another company buying Tomlinson's and I'm not aware that that is the case. Obviously, it's the administrator that is now dealing with that.
In relation to support for farmers, I met with both the farming unions and asked them, if they had farmers who they knew had specific difficulties, to let me know, and I know that my officials have worked—. I think it was about 15 different farm businesses that we supported around the closure of Tomlinson's.
3. What efforts are being made by the Welsh Government to restore peatlands? OAQ54822
Thank you. Our aim is to bring under sustainable management all areas of peatland and a minimum of 25 per cent of modified peatland supporting semi-natural habitat in Wales. I will be launching a national peatland restoration programme in the spring of next year, which will set out our commitment to peatland restoration in 2020.
Thank you for that encouraging answer. Can I say, Minister, that last month the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service held an international conference of the title 'Manage the Fuel: Reduce the Risk', looking at the risk of wildfires? This conference did focus on land management practice internationally, and some really valuable lessons. There's also the Lost Peatlands of South Wales project, looking to re-wet former bogs in areas rather enticingly known as 'the Alps of Glamorgan', so I do hope you will be paying attention to these developments.
I wasn't aware of that conference. I might actually write to the chief fire officer and see if I can find out some more information about that, because we are funding quite a lot of activity around peatlands, because we know, again, as part of our decarbonisation plans, that we really need to make sure we restore as much as possible. As I say, there are quite a few schemes. You may be aware of New LIFE for Welsh Raised Bogs—that's an EU LIFE-funded project, which I've actually visited, in mid Wales.
Minister, will you join me in congratulating Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council and Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council on their successful project bid to the National Lottery to restore peatlands in the upper Afan Valley and over into the RCT area around Glyncorrwg? As you know, it may be part of the Glamorgan alps, as David Melding has highlighted. Will you also look, therefore, at what the Welsh Government can do to support that project, because you've just highlighted that you're looking at the whole peatland programme for 2020, and this is a perfect example of how we can work with local authorities in an area that is already going to be working on developing peatlands?
Thank you. I absolutely welcome the partnership approach from both Neath Port Talbot and the Rhondda Cynon Taf councils. It's great they had that successful bid with National Lottery funding—a really important project, as you say, over 500 hectares of historic peatland landscape, and I think they've had about £0.25 million, maybe just a bit more than £0.25 million, to develop their plans further.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's policies for supporting the rural economy? OAQ54840
Thank you. We continue to support the rural economy through a range of Welsh Government policies and regional working. This, along with the 'Sustainable Farming and our Land' proposals, will create the conditions for the development of a diverse and healthy rural economy.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Last Saturday, I'm sure you were aware, was Small Business Saturday. I, like many other Assembly Members, was out campaigning for local businesses. I visited Neil James, a small local butcher in rural Monmouthshire, whose family has been supporting Welsh farmers and supplying local produce since the 1950s. The business is frequently nominated for the Countryside Alliance awards, this year being no exception. We talk a lot in this Chamber about supporting local businesses, but what particular support are you—and I should add, the economy Minister, as well, because this is obviously a cross-cutting area—making available to small, particularly rural, firms like Neil James so that people in rural areas can go on buying local, supporting local and supporting local supply chains, local shops and, of course, the farming community that is behind all of those local supply chains?
Thank you. The agri-food sector is obviously a very important sector for Welsh Government and for Wales, and it's really important that we do have these small businesses, like the butchers you referred to, to support our farmers. Obviously, I know that farmers feel very under threat at the moment around red meat production, for instance, and I always say, 'If you want to support our farmers, the way to do it is to buy local, because you know that meat has been produced sustainably and it hasn't travelled many miles.'
I'm very glad, in that response to Nick, you mentioned the aspect of buying local, and that's what I wanted to focus on. Hopefully, the Minister—if she hasn't seen it yet, I'll send it to her—has seen the report commissioned recently by the Wales Co-operative Party and members of the Co-operative group here in the Assembly, by the Sustainable Places Institute of Cardiff University, entitled 'Working co-operatively for sustainable and just food systems'. You'll notice that, in the Labour manifesto at a UK level, they have now said that they will take forward a Bill on the right to food—sustainable, affordable, healthy, accessible food.
But I wonder—this very point about local, localism—what more can we do, regardless of Brexit, to actually deliver those local food networks where you take the small, co-operative growers, but you also take the family farms and everybody else. It seems preposterous that we are now in a situation where Wales is the most rural-embedded country of all of the nations, you could argue, in our proximity to rural food producers, and yet we still have now over 500,000 people throughout the UK relying on foodbanks, 10 per cent of the NHS budget going on treating type 2 diabetes, and 8 million people in the UK having trouble putting food on the table. Surely, in Wales, we can develop the sort of local food networks that actually put food on the table locally for people. And we don't need a Bill to do this, actually. But what we do need is to embed this within our milestones that we are currently developing—the national milestones for Wales.
Thank you. I haven't actually read the report, but I do have a copy of it, so perhaps it will be my Christmas reading, because I think, as you say, that there is huge potential for us to build up those networks. I have one in my own constituency—a food co-op—that works in a really deprived area, and it's absolutely excellent.
You'll be aware that last week—I think it was last week—I did an oral statement on food clusters, and I think that's been one of the major successes of our food and drink sector here in Wales, where we have this coming together of companies to work together, share best practice, and I think—you know, it fits in very much with the co-op ethos.
Question 5 [OAQ54820] was transferred for written answer. Question 6, therefore. Vikki Howells.
6. Will the Minister provide an update on preparations for the new Welsh Government fuel poverty strategy? OAQ54829
Thank you. I expect the new plan for tackling fuel poverty will be published for consultation in February 2020. Our proposals are being informed by the landscape review, published by the Wales Audit Office on 3 October, as well as engagement with key stakeholders, including the round-table I hosted in June.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. Obviously, there's a myriad of things that you can look at when looking at fuel poverty, and I appreciate that many of the levers are not devolved. I recently met with Smart Energy, which told me all about the work that it is doing to encourage the take-up of smart meters. Forty per cent of households in the Cynon Valley have already switched to smart meters, I was pleased to find out, and that's well above average, which is good for consumers but also positive for the environment. What reflections do you have, Minister, on the role of smart meters in tackling fuel poverty? And how could encouraging people to switch be built into future Welsh Government initiatives?
Thank you. Certainly those figures in the Cynon Valley are very welcome. I think that the national average is about 28 per cent. So, you can see that you are well above the average in the Cynon Valley, so that's very good. Smart metering can make a valuable contribution to our efforts to reduce energy waste. It helps bill payers save money. It can help reduce the energy needed to maintain a safe and comfortable home, and obviously reduce the cost if you can find a better deal through switching, because I know that some people are reluctant to switch or don't know how to switch. So, I think that the advice that's given alongside the installation of the smart meter is very helpful.
It also makes the management of supply and demand of energy easier and more cost effective. I'm hoping to meet with the company that—. Obviously, this is a UK Government initiative, smart meters, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy have appointed a company—data commissions company, I think it is called. So, I'm hoping to meet them in January to discuss what more we can do, because I'm very keen for Welsh Government to support the UK Government in relation to this.
Minister, I note that the Scottish Government has changed the definition of fuel poverty, and this following a legal challenge, so that it's now defined as a household where residents are on low incomes and they need to spend a high proportion of that income on fuel. The current definition is households that spend 10 per cent of their income on fuel, and that could capture a very wealthy couple who decide to live in a historic building and spend 10 per cent as a life choice on heating it, and that's not really what we want to capture. We need better data so that we are really getting to those who need the most assistance.
I wasn't aware that Scotland were doing that, but I'll certainly be keen to look at that. And, again, as part of the new strategy, and, obviously, the consultation, I'm sure that will be something that will come up. As you say, that's the thing with targets; you sometimes get perverse outcomes. Clearly, I hadn't thought about that, but, yes, that would be completely not what we would be hoping to improve.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the agri-food sector in North Wales? OAQ54821
We are supporting agri-food businesses in north Wales, as in all parts of Wales, to become more profitable, sustainable, resilient, and professionally managed. The new Welsh Government-funded Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at Broughton, which opened in November, will be very important for future research development and innovation in the agri-food industry throughout Wales.
Thank you for that. Minister, we're all concerned about animal welfare, and I've raised in this Chamber before my concerns about live animal exports. I'm pleased to see now that the UK Government will be stopping the live export of animals when we finally leave the EU. Will your Welsh Government be doing the same?
If we leave the EU, it's something we'll have to look at then.
8. What progress has Natural Resources Wales made with regard to forestry management? OAQ54843
Thank you. The 'purpose and role' document sets out NRW’s forest management activities in relation to the Welsh Government woodland estate. It is designed to enable the long-term sustainable management of Wales's woodlands to provide opportunities for people now and in the future to live, work and play in our excellent forests.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Forestry management obviously covers a wide range, but it also includes the consideration of harvesting and replanting of areas of the forestry. When we talk about harvesting, we also need to look to ensure that we don't leave rubbish on the ground, and that we use the wood effectively and efficiently, as many businesses actually depend upon some of that wood. In my own constituency, I see the trains being stacked with logs going to north Wales from south Wales. So, the question I would hope you would look at is: how can we support local businesses to access trees and wood from local forestry areas when they're being harvested, rather than actually having to send the wood halfway across Wales, and sometimes, all the way across Wales, and actually increasing our carbon footprint as a consequence of that, when we can reduce the carbon footprint by accessing businesses that are local, accessing the forestry, chopping it down and replanting, and then ensuring that the businesses that use that wood are also local?
The Member raises a very important point and clearly, that's something that NRW can look at within their contracts for timber. I know we're meeting later on today to discuss these issues, but obviously, if we want to reduce our carbon footprint, that's clearly an area where we should be able to do that pretty easily, I would have thought.
As you say, the management plan includes a significant amount of replanting, and back in October, you sounded very positive about the idea of NRW and schools working together so that children could learn to plant trees as part of their wider education. As it happens, on that very day, Sophie Howe, the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales, met with NRW to discuss eco-literacy, and she agreed that the suggestion was, quote, 'a brilliant idea', to contribute to that eco-literacy work. So what discussions have you had since then with NRW, in particular about how forestry management and reforestation can play a part in that eco-literacy? Is it clear yet as to who NRW should speak in order that they can influence local curricula? You may not be able to answer the last bit, I'm afraid, to be fair.
I can't remember if I discussed it with NRW after our last exchange in the Chamber or if it was before, but clearly it's something that they're looking at, and, as you say, the future generations commissioner is also keen to engage. I'm very happy to speak to the education Minister if NRW want me to, or, obviously, they can have a meeting with my colleague Kirsty Williams, if they would prefer to do that.
9. What actions are the Welsh Government taking to improve pay and conditions for farm workers? OAQ54834
The Welsh Government protected the agricultural minimum wage following the abolition of the Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales in 2013. The agricultural advisory panel negotiates and advises Ministers to ensure fair rates of pay and conditions for farm workers, and promotes agricultural careers and skills development.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I'd just like to drill down into working conditions, because farms can be dangerous places to work, and although great strides have been made in safety in other sectors such as construction, the same improvement—. There are still many, many deaths occurring on British farms. The Health and Safety Executive have reported that six people were killed on Welsh farms this year, with a five-year average of five people per year. Now, I'm sure you'll agree with me that the death of one person is one too many, but would you also agree that, as 2019 comes to an end, one of this Government's 2020 visions should be to help improve safety for farm workers, and next year could perhaps be the year that you focus on reducing farm worker deaths to zero?
I quite agree that obviously one death is one death too many, and we have seen too many deaths on our farms, certainly over the three and a half years I've been in post. It's something that saddens me greatly, and they are dangerous places. People have to respect their places of work in relation to that. There are a couple of schemes that are in position in Wales that I'm always very happy to support. At the Royal Welsh Show, we always do a piece of work around this and it's something I want to clearly continue to focus on. I have to say, within my portfolio, the fishing industry also, I think, again, we've given some funding, I know, for equipment to be used to try and ensure that people are aware of the dangers and to help protect them.
Of course, Scottish farm workers were given a positive boost this week as they are now in line for a 3 per cent wage rise. Here in Wales, the agricultural advisory panel proposed that the minimum rates of pay for agricultural workers increase by 1.8 per cent across all pay bands. [Interruption.] The consultation into this closed on 16 October 2019 and no summary of responses is going to be issued. Now, I do welcome the fact that our farm workers are set to receive more—[Interruption.] Are they not—?
Just carry on with your question, Janet Finch-Saunders.
Thank you. I recognise that it is pantomime season.
No, it's not pantomime season in here. Carry on with your question.
I welcome the fact that our farm workers are set to receive more pay, but, obviously, this will impact on increased farm costs. What actions are you taking to co-operate with buyers to help ensure that they take the increased farm payroll burden into account when setting prices for farm produce?
Well, going back to the question around salaries for our farmers and farm workers, as I say, the agricultural advisory panel was set up by the Welsh Government following the abolition of the UK Government's Agricultural Wages Board for England and Wales. I did receive some advice last week from the panel, and I'm really grateful for their detailed work, but, unfortunately, the late announcement of the national minimum wage and the national living wage rates for 2020 due to the general election may result in the panel having to revisit the agricultural minimum wage. I want to ensure that we have fair and appropriate pay and conditions for our agricultural workers here in Wales.
Question 10 was to be asked by Dawn Bowden, who is not present. [Interruption.]—I'm speaking now. Question 11 has been withdrawn. Question 12 was meant to be asked by Jayne Bryant, who is not present. That concludes your question session, Minister. And let this be a lesson to all Members who table questions, that this Minister in particular is particularly efficient in answering questions, and all questions could have been asked and answered today. Now, that's the challenge for the next Minister.
Questions 10 [OAQ54815] and 12 [OAQ54839] not asked. Question 11 [OAQ54835] withdrawn.
Questions, therefore, to the Minister for Housing and Local Government, and the first question is by Mohammad Asghar.
1. What measures will the Welsh Government introduce to support homeless people in 2020, please? OAQ54817
This Government will continue to deliver against our commitment to tackle and prevent all forms of homelessness. Our recently published strategy sets out our prevention and public service focus. This involves supporting those currently homeless into accommodation, whilst ensuring that we invest in earlier interventions to prevent people falling into homelessness.
Thank you for the answer, Minister, but the Vagrancy Act 1824 goes back to 1824 and makes it a crime to sleep rough or beg in England and Wales. This Act does nothing to resolve the root causes of homelessness, and in fact, is more likely to push someone further from the vital services that help them off the streets. Minister, do you agree with me that no-one should be criminalised for being homeless or destitute? And what action will you take to repeal the vagrancy Act in Wales?
Yes, I completely agree with you. The vagrancy Act isn't devolved to Wales—it's the Tory Government in Westminster who should have repealed it. [Interruption.] It's the Tory Government in Westminster's duty, Janet Finch-Saunders. They need to repeal it. If I could, I would. We can't.
Minister, Welsh Women's Aid have found that 77 per cent of children who experience domestic abuse did not receive support from a specialist service. Now, we know that domestic abuse is one of the factors that can cause homelessness, and Welsh Women's Aid have found that 512 survivors, many of whom will obviously be accompanied by children, couldn’t be accommodated in refuges due to a lack of space. That's 512 survivors and their dependents being forced to fend for themselves after fleeing a dangerous environment. Do you accept that this is not good enough and will you give us a cast iron pledge that this Welsh Government will ensure that everyone who seeks help in a shelter in the future gets it? And in order to achieve this, will you consider expanding the eligibility to children under 16 residing in refuges and look at what housing support grant funding can be aligned with community and children grant funding to ensure that all children impacted by domestic abuse are adequately supported?
Yes, I agree with her entirely that domestic abuse is one of the drivers of these kinds of—well, of the need for refuges in the first place, and also of housing instability. There are a whole range of issues that we need to look at to ensure that people are able, for example, to keep hold of their tenancy, so if they are obliged to leave a house in which they would ordinarily have the right to live, then it's not the abuser who ends up staying in the house and the victim isn't driven out. So, there are an enormous number of things—I do agree with you.
One of the things I said in my statement on child poverty yesterday was that we were reviewing a number of systems that we currently have in place to make sure that we don't have people falling in between the cracks, and the area that she's just outlined is one of them. It's not directly in my portfolio, it's actually in the portfolio of the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip, but she and I are working together as part of the gender review and a number of other initiatives to do that, and I'm more than happy to include the Member in those arrangements.
The Welsh Government is providing a lot of support for people who are homeless, but, as we all know, there are far too many people who are sleeping on the streets and far too many people who don't know where they're going to sleep tonight, and they're hoping a friend or relative will put them up. That is a bad state for us to be in in twenty-first century Wales. Does the Minister agree that the only long-term solution to homelessness is to build council houses on the scale of the 1950s and 1960s, which includes Conservative Governments? I understand from reading some local papers recently that Harold Macmillan seems to have been described as a Marxist.
Well, it's not my understanding of the definition of Marxist, I must say. I do entirely agree with the Member that we need to build the right combination of housing of the right type in the right place that is affordable for people. And that's obviously got to be coupled with support to ensure people can sustain a tenancy. So, it's not only about building the affordable homes; we're also being crystal clear that our ambition is to build social housing at scale and pace, and that includes council housing, and actually a large number of our registered social landlords in Wales build social housing in big numbers. It's why this Government has protected grant funding to ensure flexible tenancy support through our housing support grant as well, and it's why our Supporting People programmes are very important to ensure that not only do people get a place to live but they're able to support themselves in that tenancy.
Mohammad Asghar, in opening this, asked the Minister to look at the issues of the root causes of homelessness, and I would extend that to rough-sleeping as well. Shelter, in a study earlier this month said, despite, I have to say, despite the measures that were being taken in places like Wales and in Scotland, that there will be as many as 4,000 or more children who will be made homeless by 25 December. Would the Minister care to expand on what she understands are the root causes that, despite our best interventions, homelessness and rough-sleeping, including amongst children and young people, is now on an inexorable rise?
Yes, it's absolutely plain that one of the root causes of homelessness is the inability of people to access the right kind of social housing, because we haven't been building enough as a result of the Tory caps on the housing revenue accounts, and the way that that system worked, which was absolutely anti the building of social housing. There are also a number of issues around universal credit; the way that the local housing allowance has been capped for four years making people destitute; the rise in high levels of personal debt leading to family breakdown; and domestic violence issues, like Leanne Wood just highlighted, coming out of some of those issues. There are a range of complex issues, all based around poverty and the inability of people to earn enough money to sustain their housing. And the reason for that is because housing costs are very high in the private rented sector and the universal credit just simply doesn't cover them off, and that's absolutely the root cause of that.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s support for the housing construction industry? OAQ54814
Yes. We provide a range of support for house builders, including support specifically for small to medium-sized businesses. I do recognise housing construction is challenging; I regularly meet with builders in order to discuss some of the challenges they face. The Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport and I last met with sector representatives in October, focusing on addressing construction challenges.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. Hughes Architects is a business that operates across mid Wales, and they have said that the draft national development framework has little thought for mid Wales. They're talking about it being backward-looking with no real vision, and also that it resembles previous strategies, which they say have failed to deliver. Mr Hughes specifically goes on to talk about the continued focus on affordable housing at the expense of general housing that has hit rural regions hard, and that has very much been misunderstood by strategic planners. There's also the wider point of mid Wales being included in a much wider region, being included within the south Wales region, but they are very different economies. And I know that other stakeholders have raised this concern with you also. I wonder how you respond to these concerns, and will you commit, Minister, and your officials, to considering carefully the stakeholder responses from mid Wales that have warned that the current draft development framework policy document fails to address what it actually set out to achieve?
Well, the current document is a consultation draft, as I know Russell George knows. The consultation has now closed. We've had over 1,000 responses to it and those responses are currently being analysed. We'll then publish the report on the consultation responses and we'll be bringing forward any recommended changes as a result of that consultation. So, I assume the firm that he's mentioning has returned a consultation response.
In terms of why we're emphasising social housing, all the evidence shows that we build enough market housing in Wales. Clearly we need to carry on building that much going forward, but we're several thousand short of social homes in particular. We need to build around 4,000 social homes a year for the next 10 years. We're not getting anywhere near that, whereas we have been building sufficient market housing. So that's the emphasis, though I accept the point that he makes, which is, as I said in response to Mohammad Asghar, we need to make sure that we build the right type of house in the right place for the right people. So there are a number of complex things.
The NDF framework is also intended to be read alongside 'Planning Policy Wales', and he will know that we've just started the passage of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill through the Senedd, and that has regional arrangements specifically around strategic planning, which will address some of the issues around the spatial issues and particular areas.
So, I take the point. We are looking at the consultation responses at the moment and as soon as I am in a position to share those responses and our response to them with the Assembly, I will do so—probably, Llywydd, very early in the new year.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Dai Lloyd.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, you may have noticed that there's possibly a general election happening very shortly, but in view of that, it's emerged that students in Cardiff have been told that they won't be able to vote tomorrow because of an administrative error that is not their fault. I'm told that Cardiff council have admitted that around 200 of the 1,000 people who gave invalid addresses when they registered haven't been followed up yet. So, at this late stage, what can you do as Minister to try and rectify this unfortunate situation?
I wasn't aware of it, I have to say, so if he wants to give me details as soon as possible, I can follow it up with Cardiff council. I'm not sure of the answer, therefore, because I wasn't aware of the problem, but if you want to share the details with me, I'll see what we can do. We certainly, obviously, want to ensure that as many people are able to exercise their vote as is humanly possible.
Thank you for that. Turning back to housing and rough-sleeping matters, as you'll be aware, the housing support grant is pivotal to enabling various agencies, like Cymorth Cymru, Community Housing Cymru and Welsh Women's Aid to deliver those oh-so-valuable services to counter homelessness and rough-sleeping on our streets, yet funding for housing-related support has reduced by £37 million in Wales since 2012 in real terms, so a recent report says. So, has the Welsh Government any plans to increase the housing support grant in the next budget round?
Well, as Dai Lloyd pointed out, we're having a general election at the moment and he'll know, therefore, that we've had to delay the publication of the budget. The draft budget alongside the local government settlement—at the same time, unusually, because of the compression of the timescales—will both be issued by written statement on the Monday following the general election. So, next Monday.
Thank you for that, because statistics by the Wallich show an increase in the number of rough-sleepers on Swansea's streets, and when I've been out with the homeless soup run—and Leanne has been out as well on the homeless soup run in Swansea—the evidence is stark, actually. It's particularly poignant coming up to Christmas, as we are now. So, with the wild public spending bonanza promised by whoever wins this general election tomorrow, will the Minister commit to ensuring that preventing homelessness is a priority in any future spending decisions?
Yes. Clearly, we want to prevent homelessness. Dai Lloyd will be aware that we've got the housing action group, chaired by the chief executive of Crisis, working for us. We've accepted all of the recommendations of the first report, deliberately asked for by us in order to address rough-sleeping and the sharp end of homelessness in the run-up to Christmas. As a result of that, we've got the assertive outreach training right across Wales already. We've specifically trained all of the relevant workers in Swansea, Cardiff, Wrexham and Newport, but that's not to leave out other parts of Wales being rolled out right across those acute places where people gather.
I too have been out with various soup runs, breakfast runs, and so on, in Swansea and Cardiff. I'm not going to promise to get everybody in off the street because it's impossible to do; anybody who made that promise would be bound to break it. What we have said is that we will know who everybody is who's sleeping rough, and we will have a plan for them. If we can get them in off the street, of course, we will. Otherwise, we will have the assertive outreach workers reaching out to them. I met with two of them from Cardiff last week. Some of the stories they told me were absolutely heartwarming, but they also emphasised that it can take six to nine months to get somebody's trust enough to accept that you're giving them the right help and support.
So, we're not trying to force people to do things against their wishes, but we do want to make sure that they're safe and they have a care plan in place, and that we have the outreach workers working with them. So, what I am saying is we will know who everyone is, we will have a plan for them and, where possible, we will get them in off the street as soon as possible to one of our housing first arrangements, or the specific arrangements we've put in place in the four cities.
Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. Under the Welsh Government's local government funding formula, nine out of 22 Welsh authorities received an increase in the current financial year: Cardiff up 0.9 per cent, Swansea up 0.5 per cent, Wrexham 0.1 per cent cut, Flintshire 0.3 per cent cut, despite all having equivalent population increases. Alongside Flintshire, the councils with the largest cuts of 0.3 per cent included Conwy and Anglesey, although Conwy and Anglesey are amongst the five local authorities in Wales where 30 per cent or more of workers are paid less than the voluntary living wage. Prosperity levels per head in Anglesey are the lowest in Wales at just under half those in Cardiff, and Conwy council has the highest proportion of over 65s in Wales, at 25 per cent compared to Cardiff on 13 per cent, which has the smallest. When I questioned you about this here on 9 October, you replied,
'we offer all the time that a local authority who thinks that the measures are not right should come forward and put its suggested adjustments into the distribution sub-group formula'.
Have any local authorities come forward since you made that comment on 9 October and, if so, can you identify them?
As far as I know, they haven't, but I will check for Mark Isherwood just to be absolutely certain, but, as far as I know, no local authority has made a formal proposal to change the DSG formula.FootnoteLink But I make the offer again: if an authority wants to come forward with a change to the DSG formula, we are more than happy to look at it and to run the figures, and to put it through the democratic processes that we have in place to do that. The partnership council and the Welsh Government agrees the distribution sub-group formula every year. [Interruption.] What on earth does that mean, Darren Millar? What we believe in is local democracy and a local democratic structure. The Welsh Local Government Association and us work very carefully in the partnership council to do this.
You don't need to be answering Darren Millar. Answer Mark Isherwood.
Well, in fact, the—.
Mark Isherwood, if you can continue, and if he can be allowed to continue, especially by people in his own group.
In fact, the very week that you made that comment to me, a letter was sent to the First Minister and to yourself and to the Finance Minister and Trefnydd from Flintshire County Council, signed by its leader and the leader of all groups. It said, 'Flintshire has engaged with Welsh Government to make our case over a series of budget setting years. We still contend that as a low-funded council per capita under the local government funding formula, we're more exposed than most to the impacts of a decade of a reductive'—a term they used—'national budget. The evidence is there.' And they concluded, 'We would welcome a private discussion with you over our case to support and are resting on your judgment to make the best use of the uplift in the Welsh revenue budget to support the collective case for local government.'
You replied on behalf of the Welsh Government on 4 November, 'The Welsh Government is committed to providing the best possible outcome to local government from our budget process', but then only discussed the size of the cake when their letter was about how the cake is sliced. Therefore, in response to the letter they did send to you the same week you responded to me, and you've repeated your offer to them, have you agreed to meet them, as they requested, to discuss the agenda that they raised with you in that letter?
I've no recollection of that, so apologies. We get a large number of correspondence. I'm more than happy to look at it again.
I met with all of the WLGA executives up in north Wales, in Flintshire County Council offices. Hannah and I had a number of meetings that day, at which the leader of Wrexham was present. I'm more than happy to meet with them again. Obviously, you don't know what the settlement looks like this year because we haven't released it. But I would say, Mark Isherwood, as usual, it's all very well for you to stand there and tell me I should give local authorities more money, but you're the architect of nine years of austerity, aren't you? You're the ones who've cut our budget, you're the ones who haven't sent us enough money, you're the ones who've made sure our funding formula is lower now than it was nine years ago, so you've only yourselves to blame.
Well, I'm not going to re-rehearse the economics lesson I tried to give you yesterday on that point—
Do you want the same answer?
Yes, because you don't seem to understand basic economics, but there we are—
That's not what my question is about—
Ask your question now and the Minister can respond as well.
My question is about how the budget, whatever size it is, is sliced. It's about the formula, not about the size. We're all waiting in anticipation to hear what the next size of the budget will be—
I've been patronised by a lot better people than you, Mark Isherwood.
Wait for the question to be asked, and let's have a little bit of calm in the Chamber now, please.
So, their request to you, a letter replying from you, signed 4 November, they have requested a private discussion.
Do you want to read it out loud again?
So, I'd be grateful if you could look at that.
Similarly, I received correspondence from—I won't name them—an executive member of Flintshire this summer about the unfunded legislative impacts on local government. They said that local government has contested that the regulatory impact assessments that Welsh Government produces alongside draft legislation do not always fully estimate or project the likely implications of making a reality of legislation. They provided two examples—additional learning needs and sustainable drainage bodies—and they said that, in their case alone, the unfunded budget pressures next year would be over £0.5 million across Wales, over £10 million. Again, how do you respond to these concerns? This case was raised, actually, paradoxically, by a member of your own party, but speaking on behalf of the local government family across Wales, and is clearly, given the detail and evidence in the letter, based on evidence rather than simply opinion.
Well, Mark Isherwood, as usual, you are the one who doesn't understand fundamentally the way the economics of the local government settlement work. Wales has been underfunded by the Conservative Government for the last nine years. We only have so much money—much less than we should have in order to split it up. The splitting up of that pot is done via the democratic processes of the WLGA. We have liaison meetings with all of them, all the time. The leaders of the councils you are mentioning are present in many of those meetings. I have met with all of the council leaders and chief executives across Wales. I'm more than happy to entertain any suggestion that they want to put forward again. I just don't know how many times—. It doesn't matter if you wave pieces of paper at me. I don't know how many times I've got to tell you the same thing. Perhaps you should listen.
3. What support is the Welsh Government providing to veterans in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OAQ54844
Our support for our armed forces veterans across Wales, including those living in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire, is set out in our annual report, which was published in May. In collaboration with our armed forces expert group and other key partners, we continue to build on this important work.
Thank you for the answer, Minister. I trust this will be uncontroversial because, of course, this is an area that we all care about. We must look after these individuals who've served our country and are now turning to the state for support.
I've got one constituent in his 30s who very much answers to that description of being a veteran: he's encountered a relationship breakdown, he's struggling with addictions and isolation issues since leaving the armed forces, and is suffering from some form of post-traumatic stress, it would appear. Now, when my office have tried to engage with local services, we've found it really hard to get them to really buy into the fact that he's a veteran. There are local organisations, such as the VC Gallery in Haverfordwest and some of the churches in Pembroke, that have been absolutely outstanding and have tried to offer support every which way they can.
Now, I know you have a veterans pathway, but what could you do, Minister, do you think, to ensure that it's adequately signposted to make sure that veterans are automatically referred to the right services when seeking help from the statutory bodies?
I thank the Member for the question. I know this is something you've had a long-standing interest in and have been an advocate for. And I think you're absolutely right that it's absolutely an issue that should be uncontroversial—it's something that we should all care about, and actually recognise the importance of supporting the people who've served our country in the armed forces. Unfortunately, the example you raise, and the experience of your constituent, is not one that is unfamiliar, and it's a story that I've heard time and time again when I myself have gone out to visit the various organisations and groups out there supporting our veterans. You note the example of the VC Gallery in Pembrokeshire Dock, which is doing an excellent job. And we recently undertook a scoping exercise, which looked at things, to try and look at what we were doing now and where that was working, but also to identify some of those gaps, and signposting is one of them. So, as we move forward now in the new year, I hope that we can take those issues that were raised on board, to actually try and fill in some of those gaps. The transition and signposting was one of the things that people—. Just knowing where to go for those support services, and how people better identify people who are veterans, and making sure the right support was there, in place, in the right place—. But if the Member wants me to look into the particular experience in more detail, then please do get in touch, and I'm happy to take that up for her.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the fire safety issues identified at the Celestia apartment complex in Cardiff Bay? OAQ54825
I'm aware of the issues faced at these properties and understand plans are in place to address issues raised by relevant fire and rescue services and by the local authority.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. My request is relatively simple. I understand that, at a committee meeting, you indicated you'd like to visit the apartment block, and residents would be very keen to host you at such a visit. Are you able to indicate whether such a visit will actually take place and any diary timings that you might have made available for them to meet you, because, obviously, the issues are pressing? Some miniscule progress has been made on some of the issues, but there are 450-odd very concerned residents in that particular block. I appreciate there's a limit on what the Government can do, but, as you've indicated a willingness to visit, could you give us an indication of whether that visit might take place before Christmas?
It's unlikely to take place before Christmas because the enforcement notices served by South Wales Fire and Rescue Service have been appealed. And, unfortunately, while the appeal is ongoing, it's not appropriate for me to visit, in case the Welsh Government becomes involved in those proceedings. As soon as we are clear what's happened to the legal proceedings, I'm very happy to visit, but I'm not able to do so while that existing litigation is ongoing. So, apologies. I want to visit as soon as it's possible for me to do so, so as soon as that's complete. I've been asked by a number of Members to accompany them to visit constituents, so we'll sort out a time for me to do that.
Llywydd, I've got to declare an interest, in that I live in this complex myself, and I know several Assembly Members do, and their staff. What strikes me is the complete lack of information on this. There's been no correspondence through the letterbox in the flats or anything, there's been no notice of meetings, there's been no news apart from what I actually pick up in this Chamber. This raises the question of how residents, many of whom are renters, are kept informed. I'd be interested in your views on this, please.
It's a duty for the responsible agent to keep you informed. If that hasn't been happening, I will ask officials to just make sure that they're aware of their responsibilities. It's not the responsibility of the Welsh Government, but I'm more than happy to contact the managing agents and make sure that that is happening.FootnoteLink
5. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support for homeless shelters? OAQ54823
Yes. This Government is tackling homelessness in all its forms. We want to move away from temporary solutions like emergency shelters, to quickly supporting people into sustainable, long-term accommodation. However, in the short term, shelters remain a key element in supporting people off the streets.
I do agree with the policy thrust here and the last part of your statement—that we still need these temporary emergency shelters. Can I bring to your attention the threat to The Wallich night shelter in Riverside? As we know, rough-sleeping has increased in the last three years—by the survey measures, anyway, it seems to be the case. And we do need to ensure that best practice, like that developed by The Wallich, which has been serving this community for over 20 years, is kept going as long as it needs to be there.
Yes, I agree with that. I'm not aware of the specific circumstances, but if David Melding wants to let me know any specific circumstances, he's aware I'm more than happy to look at them. From our point of view, we are making sure that councils are adequately funded, to ensure people are given the shelter they need, that the assertive outreach is in place. And just to reiterate in the Chamber, we've told councils to just do what is necessary to do and we will sort the plumbing out afterwards. So, no council should be telling you that they've got administrative or other difficulties in doing that; the services should be delivered, and the Welsh Government has undertaken to sort out any of the charging or other arrangements afterwards, and we've also said that no authority will lose out as a result of stepping up to that plate.
Minister, you'll be aware, following a recent question I asked the First Minister, that we are now seeing rough-sleepers in all our communities, like Connah's Quay and Shotton in my constituency. Now, I must say, Minister, nine years of Tory austerity, deliberately targeted at the poorest and most vulnerable, has brought us to this point. Without a roof over their heads, it is impossible for these people to have their voices heard. So, it's our job in this Chamber, and chambers across the UK, to stand up for them loudly and proudly, and that's exactly what we should be doing.
The Welsh Government's housing support grant provides us with the sort of flexible support that enables councils to tackle the most difficult places, and getting people through shelters into real, long-term housing solutions. Minister, will a Labour victory tomorrow enable you to further fund this grant and start to tackle the reality of nine years of Tory austerity?
Indeed. We very much hope that we will have a Government that understands that targeting spending on the poorest in our communities is a measure of civilisation. You measure a society not by what it does for those at the top who are richest, but for what it does for those at the bottom who a vulnerable and poor. I have to say the record of this Government speaks for itself, with the number of people on the streets, with rising crime, the slashed police numbers, difficulties in hospitals, and the starving of local authority services. In the 'Housing Matters' report, recently submitted to us by Cymorth Cymru, Community Housing Cymru and Welsh Women's Aid, the report tells a story, as Leanne Wood also pointed out, of the pressure on services facing increased demand and reduced spending power. They raised the issues of rough-sleeping, ending evictions into homelessness and addressing the impact of violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence. They say that any Government worth its salt should have those as their priorities. A Labour Government would have those as its priorities at UK level, as this Government, this Labour Government in Wales has always had them as our priorities.
6. What plans does Welsh Government have to build on the successes of the innovative housing fund? OAQ54838
This year, the programme was heavily oversubscribed, demonstrating a real appetite amongst the Welsh housing sector to build homes in new and creative ways. I have therefore made £20 million available to support Welsh SMEs to innovatively produce more homes, and we're considering further programme funding.
A couple of weeks ago, I visited Ebwy Court in Ely, as part of a committee inquiry into fuel poverty. And the one and two-bedroomed homes that were about to be occupied by the new residents were an amazing example of what can be done with timber frame-build homes, mainly fabricated in a factory. This project was completed two months in advance of the projected date, and the zero-carbon housing, which is fuelled by both photovoltaics and boreholes of ground source heat pumps, will provide really affordable homes for people. There were lots of other exciting features as well, including the bicycle shed, and the option for growing their own vegetables.
But, I just wanted to know, given the success of these projects and just how popular they're going to be, what success, if any, you've had with persuading the six big house builders to stop building the out-of-date, twentieth century stuff that they continue to build and, instead, build these zero-carbon homes, which are just going to be so much more suitable for all residents?
Yes, I couldn't agree more. It's quite possible for private house builders to build near zero-carbon homes. Year 2 of our innovative housing programme was opened up to private companies in order to demonstrate that they can do it, and they have indeed demonstrated that they can do it, and we have a large number of houses across Wales, supported by the IHP programme, demonstrating different ways of arriving at zero carbon. We also have demonstrators for modular house building, sustainable house building, using Welsh timber, Welsh supply chains, zero carbon in the supply chain and in the eventual demolition—so, a whole-life zero-carbon house.
You'll have heard me speaking very often about my concerns regarding the quality of homes being built by some of the big private home builders, and, indeed, many of them have customers that are very concerned and speaking loudly to them about it. By the end of next year, we will, I hope, have revised the Part L requirements for house builders in Wales. Social housing is leading the way in that and sets the standard, but I'm pushing hard to ensure that we have harmonisation of standards because I think that's the game changer. So, if we can pass through this Senedd the regulations that mean that we set the standard the same for all tenures of house for new builds in Wales, then we will have gone a long way to achieving zero carbon in our house building programme for the future.
I concur with the points made by Jenny Rathbone. I think that, in the area of zero-carbon homes, Wales really can make a lead in this area if we want to. Minister, the innovative housing fund has enabled Monmouthshire Housing Association to carry on their excellent work, developing two innovative housing sites in Chepstow, working in partnership with the Welsh School of Architecture, and this comes after a previous project in my constituency in Abergavenny.
Monmouthshire Housing Association's latest development will provide flexible, sustainable living for downsizers and first-time occupiers. This housing association that I've mentioned has a track record of providing sustainable innovative housing. How are you ensuring, where good practice carried out by this housing association is happening in one part of Wales, that that good practice is being harnessed? And, as it is a product of the fund that you are providing for housing associations and councils across Wales, how are you spreading that across Wales to make sure that people from all parts of Wales can benefit from it?
Yes, there are several good projects. I visited the step-down project only very recently and spoke to a gentleman living there who was extremely enthusiastic about all of the benefits of having gone into a much more sustainable house, including the community around him. So, it's important to remember that these are people's homes. It's not just about the fabric of the building; it's about the community around them as well. So, I concur it was a really good interesting project. It's putting a smile on my face just remembering the conversations that we had there.
What we're doing, as a result of the affordable housing review, is we're looking at the way that we use social housing grants in Wales to drive various outcomes, one of which is long-term sustainable near zero-carbon housing, and what we can do to use our levers in order to assist housing associations to build the kinds of houses that we want for the future. The whole point of the innovative housing programme is to de-risk some of the more innovative models to see if they work, and then, if they do work, to scale them up.
So, in this next tranche of innovative housing, we're looking to see if we can scale some of the successes. So, the programmes you have spoken of there are relatively small builds. What we want to see now is if we can do that on a 175-site or whatever. So, the next stage is to scale it up one more leg and then to see if we can scale it up altogether, and there'll be more than one model for that. Several of them have worked out really well. So, that's the next tranche of our programme.
7. What steps is the Minister taking to enable local authority employees and office holders to stand for election to that authority? OAQ54830
Last month, I introduced the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. This Bill includes provisions to remove the prohibition of most local authority employees standing for election in the authority in which they are employed.
Thank you. In March, Minister Hannah Blythyn AM raised the anomaly that people who work in local government are not able to put themselves forward for election for that same authority and that this would be addressed in the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. Now, according to section 24, a person who holds a relevant paid office or employment is disqualified from being a member of a local authority in Wales, but would then be able to be elected as a member. But currently, for instance, local authority employees are expected to then resign from their jobs immediately so as to take up that office, undoubtedly putting teachers, school cooks and many others off.
Now, there's a current situation where if you provide a service to a local authority, such as a keep-fit instructor or a swimming instructor, and you receive remuneration from that local authority, you cannot stand as an elected member. So, what consideration will you give to amending the Bill so that we can actually really attract more diverse elected members to our local authorities?
So, the Bill does two things. It removes from the restriction a whole group of local authority employees who don't have any part in the political process—so, school employees and so on. It keeps a salary cap for those employed in the centre of the local authority and obviously for those who are involved in the political process in advising committees and statutory office holders, and so on. But, for those who are barred, it allows them to stand for election other than in politically restricted posts, just to be clear—so, several groups of people—and you have to resign on taking office. So, you can be elected, you can consider your position and then you can resign. The Bill actually says that you're resignation takes effect immediately, so you don't have any issues with notice periods and so on. So, it means that you can be elected and then, on taking office, you have to have resigned. So, it frees the way for people to stand whilst employed, because I completely agree with you that many of the people who are most interested in local authority services are those who are providing them, and this restriction has been unduly restrictive in terms of the diversity of local government.
8. What discussions has the Minister had with Carmarthenshire County Council about boosting council house building in the county? OAQ54833
We are speaking with all 11 councils that have a housing revenue account, including Carmarthenshire, about the support they require to boost local council house building at scale and pace. These are one-to-one meetings to help provide bespoke support to each individual authority, and discussions with Carmarthenshire have been very positive.
I'm very grateful to the Minister for her answer, and I'm sure she will join me in congratulating Carmarthenshire, with its ambitious plans to build 900 council houses over the next 10 years, which will almost bring them up to target, and I know that the Minister's discussions with them will help them to perhaps get that extra 100 houses in. But they are also currently bringing over 180 long-term vacant properties back into use, which is another way in which we can work to provide affordable housing. Can the Minister tell us whether the Welsh Government will be able to commit more funding to speed up the programme of bringing more long-term empty homes into use for local people?
I fully appreciate that the Minister will no doubt tell me that she can't commit to anything while she doesn't know what her budget is, but I wonder if she can commit in principle to investing in what can be a very effective way of bringing affordable housing particularly to small communities, where perhaps you don't want more big building, but you've got empty properties.
Yes, in principle, absolutely. We've been working with Carmarthenshire and a number of other authorities to do just that. So, there is a range of schemes in place: acquisitions of new properties—so, as long as they're built to the right standards, the authority can acquire them. I want to pay tribute to Llinos in Ynys Môn, actually, who was the one who put the idea into my head quite a long time ago now, because she talked about buying a property in, I think, Beaumaris, where there's a great lack of social housing. One came up on the market, and they knew that they had people who wanted a social house there and they bought it. So, it does show that it can be done with an innovative council leader, and I very much want to pay tribute to her for having put that idea into my head in the first place.
So, we're very keen that local authorities look at all avenues of doing that—so, purchasing existing properties, purchasing new builds, bringing vacant properties up to standard and back into use. We've got two schemes for that, one with my colleague Lee Waters—he's not in the Chamber at the moment—where we're giving a loan/grant mixture to people who have sub-standard housing that can't be occupied at the moment—perhaps they've inherited it or whatever—to bring it up to standard. There are rules around how long you then have to live in it. We're also encouraging them to give those houses over for social rent to the local authority for five years. I outlined that scheme just recently in the Chamber. And what I want to say is that any other ideas—so, any other ideas to up the social housing stock, we're more than happy to look at and I very much hope we'll be able to support with budget and actually expertise, compulsory purchase orders and all the rest of it.
Like Helen Mary, I welcome the drive to build more affordable homes in Carmarthenshire, but I just wanted to discuss with you the issue of distribution. Because I looked at the map of where they've built homes in the last few years and where they're intending to build many of these homes, and I wonder if you could give us an outline on what guidance you give to county councils to ensure that we end up with properly mixed communities, because we have a lot of smaller towns and villages where there are quite a lot of new homes, but there are disproportionately very, very few local authority homes or affordable homes being built. And so you end up with a community that's very skewed and has got a lot of people coming into it without having that real mix of people that you need in order to make sustainable communities going forward.
So, 'Planning Policy Wales' has changed—this time last year, in fact—to emphasise placemaking and very much part of placemaking is the building of mixed communities—so, a mixed community with a load of mixed tenures in it. We want to encourage local people to stay in their local communities—very keen to explore different ways of getting mixed tenure arrangements in there: shared equity, rent-to-own, co-op models and so on. So, we're very happy to work with local authorities to bring a whole range of those things in.
And also—I'm trying to not make this political, but I will say that we have had a bit of a blow, because, in October, the UK Treasury increased the Public Works Loan Board base rate from 1.8 per cent to 2.8 per cent and that's making it much more difficult for the authorities to borrow and then service the borrowing that we had planned for them. So, if you've got any influence at all, if you could get them to revise that, because that came out of the blue and it's really impacted some of our councils' ability to plan their build programme into the future. So, I very much don't welcome that. But, as I said to Helen Mary just now, we're supporting all 11 councils in Wales with retained housing stock to develop new social homes at scale and pace in the right place—the right home in the right place for the right people at the right time.
Finally, question 9—Darren Millar.
9. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve Welsh housing safety standards? OAQ54826
I detect a theme today. The Welsh Government is committed to taking forward a comprehensive package of legislative reforms to improve the safety of homes in Wales. We have already made improvements to the current building safety system by bringing forward amendments to building regulations that will ban combustible cladding from high-rise residential buildings.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. One area where we could take some more action, I think, is in respect of the quality of rented accommodation. We've obviously got the Welsh housing quality standard, which is a very, very welcome thing here in Wales, but one of the silent killers, an invisible killer, that's clearly taking lives in Wales and in other parts of the UK, is carbon monoxide. Unfortunately, too many homes do not have the relatively inexpensive carbon monoxide detectors in places where there are gas appliances that are present. What specific action is the Welsh Government taking to deal with this silent and invisible killer so that we can be assured that people, particularly those in rented accommodation, are protected from it?
The Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016, which this Senedd passed back then, once implemented, will require landlords to ensure their dwelling is fit for human habitation. It requires Welsh Ministers to make regulations on determining whether a building is fit for human habitation, and that includes a requirement for working carbon monoxide alarms, smoke alarms and electrical safety testing in any house in the private rented sector. So, the Bill already has that. We're in the process of implementing that Bill. Once it's in place, that regime will be in place with it.
Thank you, Minister, for those responses.
No topical questions were received today.
We move, therefore, to the 90-second statements, and the first statement is from Helen Mary Jones.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Members will be familiar with the two organisations I wish to draw attention to in this statement today: Urdd Gobaith Cymru, of course, the largest voluntary membership youth organisation in Europe, and the youth homelessness charity Llamau. On 19 and 18 December, the Urdd centre in Cardiff will open up and provide accommodation and serve Christmas lunch to 240 young people aged between 17 and 24 who are involved in Llamau initiatives. These young people may be sofa surfing, in unstable accommodation, maybe trying to leave abusive relationships. Many of them face discrimination and some are at risk of becoming completely homeless this Christmas. Their Christmas with the Urdd may very well be the only Christmas that they have.
Of course, Members will know that Llamau's central belief is that no young person or vulnerable woman should ever have to experience homelessness in Wales—an aspiration that I'm sure we all share, and I'm delighted to see the Urdd coming into partnership with Llamau to support these vulnerable young people. The Urdd themselves are providing resources for the dinner and the accommodation, but they're busy collecting gifts for young people, and there have been some very generous donations. For example, the Football Association of Wales has donated a jersey for each young person attending. But they're still looking for more gifts to make these two events really special, and Members will have received an e-mail from my office asking for any contributions that you can give for appropriate gifts. There's still time to provide those, and, indeed, we'd welcome donations too from members of staff. I'll be collecting donations in the office until early next week, so, if anybody has anything that they can share, we'd be really, really grateful.
Members will also have been invited to attend the formal launch of the partnership, which is to be held—. One of the attendees will be our First Minister. It is happening on Wednesday 18 December, so many of us will be back in constituencies, but, if anybody is around at 11 o'clock in Cardiff on that day, please go to the Urdd and congratulate these two very special organisations on their new and very special partnership.
Can I say it's a pleasure to remind the Chamber that 18 December marks the fortieth anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women, CEDAW? The convention is a bill of rights for women, and it covers everything, from the rights of women to take part in political life, to having the right to the same job opportunities as men in terms of equal pay, promotion and working conditions, as well as the rights of rural women and girls to have equal access to public services.
In 2018, the Women's Equality Network, that's WEN, in coalition published and submitted a report to the United Nations on CEDAW, highlighting key issues raised by WEN members across Wales. Those issues raised concerns about the lack of black and minority ethnic women in this Chamber, for example; the suggestion of targets for 50:50 representation in politics; the setting up of a door to democracy or access to elected office fund to ensure that we get more disabled, LGBT and BME women into politics at all levels; and, of course, addressing the price of childcare for women, among other things.
I'd like just to take this opportunity to thank all Assembly Members who continue to show their support for the incorporation of the CEDAW convention into Welsh law, and who strive to raise awareness of the issues so that we can protect and enhance women's rights, with the aim of becoming a Wales free from gender discrimination. Thank you.
A few weeks ago, Cwm Brombil Ladies WI hosted an event for Age Connect at Neath Port Talbot in Margam Abbey as part of the Women's Institute link together to alleviate loneliness campaign. I'm proud to be a member of Cwm Brombil Ladies WI.
In addition to working hard to tackle loneliness and isolation, the women in Cwm Brombil also work to reduce the impact of dementia, to raise funds for charity, and to highlight the work of our servicemen and women. Their recent coffee morning raised over £700 for the Maggie’s cancer care centre in Swansea. They also created a poppy cascade on display at Margam Abbey, honouring the sacrifices made by local men and women.
The Women's Institute is not a bunch of ladies doing nothing more than sharing fruitcake recipes. We play an active role in tackling the problems of modern society, from climate change to the exploitation of farmers. There are no greater champions for change than the WI. Cwm Brombil Ladies WI are leading the fight in south-west Wales, and I'm very proud to be a member and to be able to call them my friends. Thank you.
The motion under the next item, item 5, has been withdrawn.
Therefore, the next item is a Member debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv) on nurse staffing levels. I call on Helen Mary Jones to move the motion.
Motion NDM7215 Helen Mary Jones, Dai Lloyd, David Rees
Supported by Delyth Jewell
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the Royal College of Nursing Wales's report, Progress and Challenge: the Implementation of the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016.
2. Notes more nurses leave the NHS than join.
3. Calls on Welsh Government to set out how the Welsh NHS will increase the opportunities for ﬂexible working as part of a national nursing retention strategy.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I'm very pleased to move this motion on behalf of myself, Dai Lloyd and David Rees. It's being supported by Delyth Jewell, but I'm sure it would have been supported by more Members across the Chamber had we had more time to table it.
I'd like to commend the Royal College of Nursing report to this Chamber. It contains robust research. It highlights progress in the implementation of the Act, where that has been delivered, but it also calls out, questions, where things are not going as well as they should. It sets out a series of questions for each health board with regard to their implementation of the Act, and nine detailed recommendations for the Welsh Government covering a number of issues, including the need for more robust implementation monitoring, more support for front-line nurses raising concerns about the effective implementation of the legislation, and the development of a national IT pathway to support the implementation.
The report's recommendations also focus on retention, and this, of course, is reflected in our motion. Now we have, of course, and must acknowledge that the Minister has made, some progress with regard to nursing recruitment and with the nursing workforce—more training placements, for example. But retention continues to be a really serious issue, and this report calls for the Welsh Government to require all health boards to have a retention strategy as part of a national retention strategy. That national retention strategy needs, they say, to include a national approach to flexible working.
We must have a long-term approach to the retention of our nursing staff. We've been talking for 20 years, to my knowledge, about the need for flexible working. Of course, there are challenges, and it's very important to keep nursing settings effectively staffed. But flexible working is the norm in most professions now, and local health boards have not acted and we need national leadership. There are, of course, bodies of good practice. But, once again, we face this issue that good practice is not being effectively shared.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I don't want to take up too much time in this debate, Dirprwy Lywydd, because the case is set out clearly in the report, which I know is available to all Members. But I do hope that the Minister, in his response, will accept that, while we have, as the motion says, more nurses leaving our NHS than joining it, often going to work in agencies and in fact returning to the same settings that they've left, while we have that happening—and the nurses do that because they get better terms and conditions and very important flexibility—and while we have an estimated 1,600 unfilled nursing vacancies, we do have a crisis as things stand in our nursing workforce. I specifically hope that the Minister will accept the need for a national nursing retention strategy so that the good approaches, where they do work, can be rolled out, and we can ensure that we don't train these valuable members of staff only to lose them.
Members will have received communication from nurses in their constituencies. We've all had, I think, a number of postcards urging us to support this motion and support the calls for action in the report. They're asking us to support, among other things, a national retention strategy, and this is needed because, as one nurse from Llanelli said in her postcard to me, we need to retain staff, reduce staff burnout, and above all, keep patients safe.
I commend this motion to the Senedd. I look forward to the debate, to the Minister's response to the motion and to David Rees's response to the debate. I commend the motion to the Senedd.
I'd like to thank the Members who have brought forward this debate today, because I think it is extremely timely. I think it is worth rehearsing just a couple of the facts: that every week, nurses in Wales give the NHS extra hours to the value of 976 full-time nurses. If you say it quickly, it doesn't mean that much, but actually, if you slow it down and really think about it, you're talking about 976 extra bodies that our nurses just give freely of their own volition, because they have a commitment to the duty that they believe that they must discharge. So I'd like to thank all of those nurses for all that they do.
We know the Welsh NHS demonstrates a heavy reliance on the nurses' willingness to work overtime, but of course, endless work and endless overtime creates endless stress, and instead of incentivising our nurses to stay, instead of looking at how we might alleviate this, one of the things I have found particularly odd is that NHS Wales tries to discourage nurses from leaving by measures such as refusing to hire agency nurses who also work for health boards or trusts, or allowing nurses to move around. So you get this really perverse incentive where you might have a nurse, for example in Hywel Dda, who needs to earn a few extra hours but can't do them in Hywel Dda. He or she has to go across a border into another health board where they are registered to do those extra hours. To me, that seems absolutely illogical, especially when the health board that they are leaving is usually then going out to pay even more money to agency nurses. So much better to actually just pay people overtime to recognise the contribution that they give, to allow them to continue to work in the place where they feel the most comfortable.
There is a concern over training, but I am going to leave others to talk about that. I just did want to touch on how few registered nurses we have in the care home workforce in Wales, and I think that this is an area that's absolutely vital. Not only do we not have very many nurses in care homes—and as more and more care homes are dealing with people with more and more complex conditions, there's more need for nurses and more need for those medical professionals—not only do we not have enough of them, they're not even paid the same amount of money that a nurse in a hospital would be paid, or a nurse in the community would be paid, who is not in a care home. Again, I think we have to say that if you have reached this level in your nursing career, if you've got his much training under your belt, if you're in this band, then whether you're in this situation or that situation, there should be far more equity in the pay that you receive.
So, Minister, I wondered if you might be able to give us any information on what might be being considered in terms of those two main questions—question 1: how do we keep nurses and pay them overtime to do the overtime in the health board to which they belong rather than forcing them to travel and add to their stress, with travel hours to get to another heath board so that they could earn that extra money? And question 2: how do we make sure that nurses in care homes are not disadvantaged unfairly?
Finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, I just wanted to talk about flexible working, because there's been a really interesting report produced for London NHS Trust by Timewise, and it talks about putting in flexibility into a shift-based environment, and how it's affected by the variability or predictability of the schedule, the degree of input or control that an individual can exercise over that schedule, and the amount of advanced notice. And flexible working is really key. NHS Wales needs to find a way of tackling all of these three elements if we're going to attract and retain the staff we need to work in our shifts.
The top five causes of job dissatisfaction for UK hospital doctors and nurses very clearly said that for nurses, work-life balance came first for those aged under 35—much more important than pay—and second, for those who are 36 and over. It was second after pay. Flexible working could be a practical way to ease into retirement, and it could help to keep experienced staff on board for longer.
The project that was carried out in two English hospitals in 2017 looked at creating a team-based rostering process, and it looked at not just childcare, but all of the work-life balance needs, and their lead team collaborated, not just on rota production, but also on communicating and negotiation with groups. So, Minister, I believe that improving work-life balance and access to flexible working could have a direct impact on retention, particularly for younger clinical professionals whose expectations are very different to those of an older generation. So, I'd like to understand what concrete steps the Welsh Government are taking to improve work-life balance, and I would like to encourage you to look at this trial, this pilot, that was conducted in London, because it has been successful, and there may be positive lessons that we can learn to help retain these very, very valuable and hardworking people in our NHS.
May I congratulate Helen Mary Jones for bringing this debate forward and for her wonderful opening remarks, which set out all the decisions that need to be taken? I also congratulate the Royal College of Nursing on this wonderful report on implementing the nurse staffing levels 2016. In terms of the progress made, there has been some progress made, as Helen said, but certain challenges remain. We had a debate last week on the health committee report on nursing and community nursing and many of those factors are also relevant here. May I also pay tribute to the cross-party group on nursing and midwifery, chaired by David Rees, which has led the way and led to the report published by the health committee that we discussed last week?
We all know of the challenges in our health service, particularly from the perspective of nurses. There aren't enough of them, first of all. There are vacant posts. We need to double the number of nurses undergoing training. We have a system that’s under pressure and our staff are under pressure. Our nurses are under pressure and are overworked and are often away from work because of the stresses and strains that they face. Of course, there are new demands, new medical developments, and we're asking more of our nurses, particularly in the community, who now deal with people in the community who used to be on hospital wards but now are treated at home.
We also need to safeguard whistleblowers who express concerns about the system. We're still not particularly effective at doing that, and as others have said, we need to be far more flexible with rotas and shift hours in order to ensure that nurses remain within our NHS. And, yes, we need to implement this legislation, the nurse staffing levels legislation. May I remind you why this was necessary in the first place? Well, because this legislation protects patients. The research has shown, as this report says, that poor staffing levels have led to an increase of up to 26 per cent in terms of wards where there are better staffing levels. So, not having enough nurses leads to people actually dying and an increase in the number of degree-level nurses relates to a reduction of 7 per cent in patient deaths. And, of course, naturally, we don't only need safe staffing levels in some wards, we need them in all health placements, in the community, in children wards, not just on the specialist wards that we have now.
But, specifically the nursing staff in Wales is facing a national crisis. There are high levels of vacancies, as I’ve already mentioned—at least 1,600 according to the RCN estimate in terms of vacant nursing posts—and there is also a dire shortage in the care home sector, as Angela Burns has already mentioned.
So, there is a significant challenge facing us and as this motion says, we need flexibility in the short term in order to retain staff. Yes, we can talk about training staff now and for the future, but we also need to retain the staff that we have on our wards and in the communities at the moment, and the Welsh Government, therefore, needs to set out how the NHS in Wales will increase opportunities to work flexibly as part of a national strategy to retain nurses, as Helen and Angela have already said, because there are many nurses in Wales who are responsible for other things in their lives and they need that flexibility as well as needing the job and the salary. They are responsible for young children, older parents, and they choose to work for an employer where they can manage their working hours. That’s why they go to work for private agencies, and so on and so forth, and, therefore, the health service also has to make the same kind of provision so that we can retain nurses in our national health service. Thank you.
I thank Helen, Dai and David for tabling this debate. As I've said many, many times before, nurses are the backbone of our NHS. Unfortunately, successive Governments have failed to recruit and retain enough nurses, and Wales has an abysmal record on workforce planning, and we are seeing the results, because there are more nurses leaving the profession than joining.
The fact that we needed to introduce legislation to ensure that wards have sufficient nurses on hospital wards to allow time to care is damning enough, but the fact that the law doesn't apply to all wards and all health settings is a travesty. The nurse staffing levels Act was introduced to improve patient safety. It is a fact that low nursing numbers can contribute up to a quarter more patient deaths.
Here in Wales, we spend nearly 12 per cent of our GVA on health, our health spending—second only to Scotland at £2,310 per person—is nearly £200 more per person than in England. Yet, we wait longer, and we have had to pass legislation to ensure that we have safe staffing levels, not because we don't invest enough in our NHS—half the Welsh budget is spent on health. And this legislation of safe staffing levels was introduced by an opposition AM, precisely because mismanagement had led to unsafe practices in hospitals across Wales. A lack of nationwide workforce planning and botched reorganisation has left the Welsh NHS in a state of disarray. Health organisations and clinicians have complained about the different approaches taken by local health boards. National policies get implemented in seven different ways, with patients facing an ever-increasing postcode lottery of healthcare.
We can see this clearly in how the nurse staffing levels Act is being implemented, because local health boards are all at differing levels of compliance with the Act. Betsi Cadwaladr states that compliance with the Act is high risk and not cost effective within its existing model. In my own region, Cwm Taf has no retention plan and, despite being ruled as compliant, wards at the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend have staff shortages, which will impact upon patient safety. Swansea Bay has had 11 falls, resulting in serious harm or death, in which a failure to maintain staffing levels was considered to be a factor. This is simply not good enough.
Our constituents deserve and demand safe levels of staff in our hospitals. Welsh Government has to accept that the buck does stop with them. The nurse staffing levels Act has to be fully implemented in every health setting. We need a well-planned recruitment and retention strategy that makes nursing appealing to every person who wants to train as a nurse, in order to address the fact that nurses are leaving the profession in droves.
We have a safe staffing levels Act in place for a reason. We need safe staffing levels across all healthcare settings and not just on certain wards. How many more patients have to be seriously injured or lose their lives because of bad management and poor planning? So I urge colleagues to back this motion.
Thank you. Can I now call the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething?
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'd like to thank Members who have brought forward today's debate and the opportunity to discuss the implementation of Wales's landmark nurse staffing legislation. It's good to see the fellow of the Royal College of Nursing who was the Member in charge of that piece of legislation in the Chamber today as well.
Together with colleagues from across the Chamber, I recognise the critical role that nurses play within our multidisciplinary teams, delivering healthcare right across Wales. The delivery of safe and sustainable services relies on our ability to train, recruit and retain nurses, together with other NHS staff, within our publicly run healthcare system here in Wales. Ensuring that we have the nurses that we need is a challenge here in Wales and much more broadly across the UK and beyond. In England, for example, the vacancy rate is nearly double that in Wales in the nursing workforce. But, in Wales, we have chosen not to dilute the nursing workforce by introducing nurse associates, as they are doing in England.
The actions needed to meet the challenges we face extend well beyond the nurse staffing Act. However, the RCN's report that has been highlighted does recognise a number of the positive effects of the Act so far. For example, we know that, following the implementation of the Act, more than £17 million of additional funding was invested in increasing our nursing workforce in adult acute medical and surgical wards. That is an immediate and tangible benefit for our front-line nurses, the staff that they work with and, above all, for the patients that they care for.
We hear regularly from nurses, right up to the most senior levels, that the Act has made a clear difference to the weight attached to their professional judgment when they have what can be difficult conversations about nurse staffing levels with their colleagues. This was one of the key reasons for passing the legislation in the form that it took, and it has been really reassuring to hear that that is already making a difference.
Overall, I'm positive about how quickly our health boards have adapted to their new duties, and this Assembly should be genuinely proud of the legislation that we passed unanimously three years ago. And I was certainly proud to announce last week that this Government will extend the Act's second duty to paediatric in-patient wards before the end of this Assembly term.
My officials work closely with staff from each health board through the all-Wales nurse staffing programme. In this way, we have identified and started to address several of the issues that are included as recommendations in the RCN report. I recently allocated funding for two informatics posts within National Wales Informatics Service to work with the all-Wales nurse staffing programme to take forward a national IT solution. And that will support health boards to meet their reporting duties under the Act.
We also recognise the need to be able to accurately gauge the impact of this trailblazing legislation. And, with imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, it's good to see that Scotland have followed our lead, and there are serious conversations in England too. And I look forward to a future Government following our lead in England.
On evaluation, I will commission a robust independent evaluation that is scheduled to coincide with the conclusion of the first three-year reporting period in April 2021.
We are, however, far from complacent, and I do want to address some of the points made about numbers, but also about retention. It is tempting to point out, say, that we've retained an extra 1,900 nurses over the last five years or so because of our efforts and, therefore, when you think about it, rather than having a small fall in this last year, we've actually increased nurse numbers over five years. But I think we should leave the doublespeak to other people, because the truth is that, within this whole Assembly term, we've increased the number of registered nurses and members of the nursing family working with our national health service. But, last year, for the first time, we saw 65 more nurses leaving NHS Wales than joining.
Members, though, will be aware of the significant investment that we have made in health professional education and training, which has seen nurse training places increase from 1,053 in 2014 to 1,987, following my recent announcement on investing even more in nurse training. That investment also includes 140 places on return-to-practice programmes for nurses. And this year, 970 nurses graduated in Wales, compared to 778 in 2018. So we are making deliberate and definitive progress in training more of our own nurses. I'll happily take the intervention.
I just feel that you might be being a tad sensitive on this, because I don't recall anybody's contribution particularly saying that the Welsh Government weren't doing plans to improve retention. I think what we're trying to say is that there is such a shortfall in nurses that what more can we do, how else can we actually improve this and keep the nurses we've got, as well as recruit more, which is why I brought forward to you the pilot that's currently being run in the London hospitals and the work that they've done about flexible working.
And I'll be coming to retention later in my contribution.
But the NHS remains the only part of the public sector that has continued to increase staff numbers despite a decade of austerity, and that's a point that is difficult for other members of public services to recognise. Our colleagues in education, our colleagues right across local government recognise that health has been the big sector that has been invested in. But today's debate shows the appetite to further increase numbers is undiminished. To reach the levels we all wish to see across the UK will require significant and sustained investment from every UK nation, a different approach from whoever is the new UK Government to health and social care investment and, in particular, a different approach to recruitment from Europe and the scrapping of the nonsensical and damaging salary cap proposal, to have a real impact on our ability to recruit more staff.
Last week in my statement to the Chamber, I highlighted the positive interest generated by our 'Train. Work. Live.' campaign; there'll be more to come in 2020, which is the Year of the Nurse and Midwife. But, of course, we do need to do more to retain our skilled nursing workforce. That means providing service models that meet the expectations of our current and future workforce, an effective health and well-being offer, and flexible working options to provide a positive work-life balance, as a number of speakers have referred to. And I'm interested in what's being done both here in Wales and across the UK on doing just that. I want to see career and education opportunities, and ensure that NHS Wales is a great place to work.
So, our national workforce strategy being developed by Healthcare Inspectorate Wales and Social Care Wales will support the future sustainability of both the health and the social care workforce, in particular how we plan our workforce models for the future, identify the staff that are required with different professional groups and, importantly, how we support and develop our staff. So, I will be asking the NHS Wales partnership forum to consider together what further actions we could and should be taking both locally and nationally to support the retention of staff, including our nurses. That will consider current practice, including the best practice to spread that exists already in health boards and, of course, identifying best practice to introduce further flexible working.
I'll take the intervention before I finish.
Thank you. I'm very grateful to you, Minister, and I think we have acknowledged, as Angela Burns said, that there has been some real progress, but do you agree with the Royal College of Nursing that we do need a national retention strategy, because while there are some pockets of good practice, I think what they're asking for is for that practice to become the norm? As I said, we have been talking about the issues of retention for a very long time now, and do you feel that it's time that all that good practice that is out there is pulled together and becomes the norm?
Well, I had this conversation today with the Royal College of Nursing and, as I've just said, I'm asking the NHS Wales partnership forum, bringing together the staff trade union side, the Government and NHS employers to do just that, as I've just said, to look locally and nationally at what exists and what should exist for the future as well.
This Government will abstain today, as we normally do on Member debates. However, regardless of the voting outcome, there is much to be proud of here in Wales, and much more to do. I look forward to working alongside our nursing family to provide the care and the work environment that we would all want to see, with, of course, the right numbers of staff to provide the right care at the right time and in the right place.
Thank you. Can I now call David Rees to reply to the debate?
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd, and can I thank all Members for their contributions this afternoon? Before I go on to look at the discussion and Members' contributions, can I also join in thanking the Cabinet member, the Minister for Education, because it was her who took this Bill through the last Assembly, driving it forward, and you will remember the discussions we had in committee on many occasions? I think she should be proud of the Act as it is now, and the progress it is making. I think we should put on record our thanks to her, because it is critical that that Act is now delivering for patients.
Can I start with the contribution from Helen Mary Jones, who opened it up and outlined the important issues that this report brings to light and to our attention, particularly to assess the implications of this Act and what we as Assembly Members can do in our own health board areas to ask questions of those health boards in relation to how they are implementing the Act, where they're going? If you look at the various questions, you will see some common themes coming through those questions as well.
Helen also highlighted the retention and recruitment strategy, which is one of the big common themes, and raised the concerns about it. Particularly, I think, she mentioned one thing. We talk very often about retention and stress, but we also forget sometimes it is staff burn-out that exists amongst many of our staff, because they put in, as Angela said, the extra hours above and beyond what they normally do and what they're contracted to do. And that helps—well, it does help them burn out, because it adds more to their commitment. They come home tired, they're spending longer hours there, because of their desire to protect and help patients. It is something we need to address.
Angela highlighted again the question of flexible working. Can we look at ways in which we can look at nurses? Can we encourage health boards to look at a flexible approach to employment? They're good, agencies, because agencies offer flexible working. Can we, as an NHS, actually offer the flexible working that agencies offer and look to ensure we can keep them within the national health service, because retention is one of the critical elements in this report? We often talk about—. We've got a general election going on and we've heard the numbers from Boris Johnson saying 50,000—20,000 of which will be retention. So, even they recognise that retention is critical to ensuring that we have a proper workforce available to deliver care in our hospital settings, in this case, and in other settings as well. You're right: is it bank nursing, is it agency nursing? Why can't we give them overtime? Why can't they just work in the place where they normally work—their regular place of work? I think we need to address this matter.
Dai Lloyd reminded us of the challenges that remain. Progress has been made but challenges remain. And I think, again, this report highlights that. It says that we are looking at the fact that health boards are discussing this Act, and they are discussing the implementation and where they're meeting their duties within this Act. But there are still many challenges to go because the workforce strategy is critical in all of these discussions. He also highlighted that the purpose of this Act is to improve care and outcomes for patients, not to improve, necessarily, nurses' lives, which is what it will do, but it's actually about the patient. Because if you get the nursing levels right, you get the outcomes for patients right, and that's of critical importance.
Caroline reminded us again of the workforce planning and I will ask her sometime, in terms of some of the comments she made, to please look at the discussions we had in committee during the progress of Stage 1 and Stage 2 of the Bill. They may answer some of the points she raised, because many of those issues were raised and I think the Member who led the Bill did it for other reasons than were properly highlighted. And there are different levels of compliance across the health boards. That is an issue. We have to address that. Because compliance was one of the issues we raised as a possibility to look at, to make sure there is consistency across Wales.
She mentions she wants an Act in every health setting, but one of the arguments we put forward on that was the evidence coming forward to support which areas of health settings were actually being focused upon. It is important, if we're going to do this, that this is evidence led. The adult acute medical wards was evidence-led, and the paediatrics is being evidence-led, so I want to look at where you're going next—where is the evidence leading us to next? Is it maternity, is it mental health, is it community nursing? We need to understand the areas you're looking at, what their priorities are and where the evidence will come from, to ensure that we are using this as an evidence-led base to ensure that the settings are right. So, that's what we have to do. It's not just the whole lot, because it sounds good to say the whole lot, but we need to make sure it's right and it goes in the right places.
The Minister has clearly indicated that he is very proud to include paediatrics. We are also very pleased to see paediatrics come along since the Bill, because one of the things we said was that we wanted more areas to be included, and that's why the regulations were put in, to allow you to do that without having to do any more additional legislation. So, that's important. Clearly, we want to go further and further. I'm very pleased to hear you're going to a robust independent evaluation for April 2021, to coincide with that, so we can actually look very carefully at that evaluation, as well as the three-year evaluation that will be taking place.
And you're right, Minister, it is good to see that you've increased the numbers from 1,053 to 1,987 since 2014—very welcome, but we need more, because one of the concerns we had when the Bill went through was do we have enough nurses to deliver in all settings, or the settings that we required. We need to train more. And I'll give an example why we need more nurses. A family friend's grandchild was having a cleft palate operation, which required two surgeons, plus theatre staff. Five minutes before that surgery was to take place, it was cancelled, because the specialist nurse that was required to be with that child after the operation had to be transferred to another part because of the skills she had. Now, you can understand that's a need, required because an emergency came in, but we therefore need more specialist nurses to ensure those things. But that's a cost to the NHS, because you had a whole team already allocated, waiting there, that then had to cancel and switch off. So, we do need to look at the number of nurses. We need more specialist nurses.
So, I'm very pleased to see 1,987, but I want more; simple as that. We need more, and we need to retain more. That's an important point. And I do agree with you, by the way, about the possible implications of an immigration policy that may impact upon recruitment from overseas. It's diabolical that anything like that could affect our NHS, and we should be fighting it every inch of the way, and I expect all Members from all parties to challenge such immigration policies, which impact upon the care our patients have in the NHS.
I can reassure you, Minister, that every one of us in this Chamber is proud of our NHS. And we are proud of the staff in our NHS; you're not alone in that.
Now, I'm very pleased also that the nursing bursary is still here in Wales. That's critical, because that encourages more to come along. Thank you, and keep on going with that—never ever lose it, because I think that's a benefit to encouraging more nurses to come into the profession. But we must ensure that, once they're in the profession, they're given a healthy environment to work in, a safe environment for their patients, and a stress-free, as much as possible, environment, so that they do not burn out. And that is critical. And that is what the RCN are trying to achieve and will continue to lobby on. And can I put on record my thanks to the RCN for the work they do in this area, because they have produced not just this report on the implementation of the safe staffing Bill, but also the report on workforce numbers and community nursing? They are driving an agenda to look at the nursing profession and to ensure that it grows and it actually is there to support patients. Therefore, it's critical that we continue to listen to them and work with them.
Deputy Presiding Officer, I've never had so much time at the end of closing a session—
You don't have to use it all.
So, I won't make up words, but I think it is important that, as we move forward in this agenda, we actually remind ourselves of the real people we are there for, and that's the patients. And if we can do everything we can to make the patient care better, we should be able to do that. And if the nursing staff level Bill, Act—I've got to remember to get it right—is to actually deliver that, then we need to make sure that we are able to produce a sufficient workforce strategy that retains and recruits an appropriate number of nurses, health support workers and other allied professions that will help deliver on that, because we did talk, at one time, not just about nurses, but other staff on the ward who work with nurses as part of the team that delivers that. And, if that can also be built, it's really important that we deliver that.
So, can I thank all Members this afternoon? Can I urge the Government, therefore, to continue its progress, to ensure that it's driven by evidence, and to ensure that nurses are able to come into the profession and do what they want to do, and that's to deliver care for patients?
Thank you. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Therefore, we defer voting under this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Item 7 on our agenda is a debate on the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee report, 'Access to Banking', and I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—Russell George.
Motion NDM7219 Russell George
The National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee on its Inquiry into: Access to Banking which was laid in the Table Office on 17 October 2019.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion in my name.
This inquiry was partly prompted by the alarming figures from the consumer group Which? about the rate of bank closures, and the difficulties people have in accessing cash. There have been many questions and debates in this Chamber about bank closures, but we wanted to understand the impact on individual businesses and communities in our piece of work.
Approximately one third of people who responded to our online survey said that they had to travel an extra hour to access a bank, and, for 13 per cent, it was over an hour. Older people and vulnerable customers, such as those with autism or dementia, find it hard to safely manage their finances. Welsh speakers increasingly cannot access services in their language of choice. And we found that Wales is doubly disadvantaged because online banking is not a viable alternative for many people, either because of a lack of connectivity, or for other reasons. And the impact on businesses is severe. It is harder to deposit takings for smaller businesses, they have to close earlier to do their banking, it’s harder to get loans, bank closures affect footfall, and tourism and other businesses suffer because visitors can't access cash. So, we heard some real horror stories about towns running out of cash. And we know that Wales certainly isn't ready to go cashless—too many people will be left behind and financially excluded. LINK, the UK's largest cash machine network, told us that free access to cash for consumers is a vital national service.
Chapter 5 of our report highlighted the particular challenges Wales faces with digital connectivity. And the Welsh Government's response to our report was largely positive. Clearly, some areas are not devolved, but some policy levers are reserved—or rather aren't reserved—but there are levers that the Welsh Government has at its disposal. The response to recommendation 8 was that the Welsh Government should map the gaps in banking services in Wales, and it suggests some early work is being done in this area. So, I think that is extremely encouraging.
We heard a lot during the inquiry about the JACS group, the Joint Authorities Cash Strategy Group, led by HM Treasury. For Members who are unfamiliar with that, or what that means, this brings together the regulators of access to cash to implement the recommendations made by the independent access to cash review. And the review warned that the UK must not sleepwalk into a cashless society. The committee wants the Welsh Government to work with JACS to ensure that Welsh needs are met, but the extent of engagement is not clear from the response from the Government. It says that it
'will require JACS to establish clear channels of communication, including regular and suitably frequent opportunities for effective engagement.'
JACS was set up in May, so it would be, I think, very helpful to know how soon the Minister expects those channels to be opened up, and how confident the Minister is that JACS will be effective.
We have seen some positive moves, such as LINK's recent announcement of a delivery fund, where communities can directly request an ATM in their area. But this, of course, puts the responsibility onto communities themselves. The so-called high-street banks, which have largely disappeared from our high streets, don't deny that branch closures are impacting on customers, but they seem to be entirely focused on digital innovation, not recognising the huge number of people who are digitally excluded. And a Which? report two weeks ago said that one in five adults don't feel confident in their ability to check their balance online.
So, some banks have tried to replace branches with mobile vans—this is where I often get confused, because mobile banking can be mobile vans or mobile technology, but this is mobile vans—but we found these generally to be inadequate. And the Post Office network is held up as the alternative provider, but it doesn't really offer the same level of service, and has other disadvantages. We were troubled by the lack of awareness about Post Office banking services, so we do want to see more action to publicise them. The Welsh Government response points out that Post Office matters are not devolved, and it has no plans to reintroduce support for the network in Wales that it once did deliver. It also says that—
Will you take a brief intervention?
Just to recall, from the evidence we received, would he also remember that, when we were talking of post office branches, one of the pieces of evidence we received was that post office branches are particularly unsuitable for small and particularly micro business activity? It was one of the things that we were told.