Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd
Plenary - Fifth Senedd18/11/2020
In the bilingual version, the left-hand column includes the language used during the meeting. The right-hand column includes a translation of those speeches.
The Senedd met in the Chamber and by video-conference at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Welcome to this Plenary session. Before we begin, I want to set out a few points. The meeting will be held in a hybrid format, with some Members in the Senedd Chamber and others joining by video-conference. All Members participating in proceedings of the Senedd, wherever they may be, will be treated equally. A Plenary meeting using video-conference, in accordance with the Standing Orders of the Welsh Parliament, constitutes Senedd proceedings for the purposes of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Some of the provisions of Standing Order 34 will apply for today's Plenary meeting, and those are noted on your agenda. And I would remind Members that Standing Orders relating to order in Plenary meetings apply to this meeting, and apply equally to Members in the Siambr as to those joining virtually.
So, 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 Hefin David.
1. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of shop-sold fireworks on animal welfare in Wales? OQ55887
Thank you. The Welsh Government does not have any specific powers to control the sale and use of fireworks in Wales. I want the UK fireworks legislation to be tightened and there to be greater public awareness of the distress the irresponsible use of fireworks can cause animals. I have called for GB-wide action on this as soon as possible and have asked for meetings with my counterparts in the Scottish and UK Governments to progress this.
Diolch, Minister. That statement is very, very welcome, in that you are pursuing this with the relevant Government responsibility. I've been contacted by Councillor Jill Winslade, who is a councillor on Bedwas, Trethomas and Machen Community Council. The council discussed this last week, when they unanimously agreed that they were concerned about the noise that fireworks make. They were concerned particularly about the impact on those who are homeless, on those who have mental health issues, particularly post-traumatic stress disorder, and those who have additional learning needs. As a council, they feel that they have a duty of care to residents and would like silent fireworks—or at least fireworks over 120 decibels banned—to be available to the public. And they would like the Welsh Government's support in their campaign to limit the use of fireworks, with regard to the issues that I've mentioned already. So, would you, Minister, support Councillor Jill Winslade, Bedwas, Trethomas and Machen Community Council, on this wider issue, and acknowledge that support today?
Thank you, Hefin David, for that question. And I think it is right to recognise—. Obviously, it's not just animals who suffer distress, but you referred to homeless individuals and people suffering from PTSD, too. I think this is something that's got a lot of political and public support, and I'd be very happy to certainly look at the campaign that you refer to. I think it's really important that the UK Government do understand our concerns in relation to their legislation, and, as I mentioned in my answer to you, I've asked for a trilateral meeting. I did actually write back at the beginning of the year—I think it was January—to set up a meeting, but, with the COVID pandemic, I'm afraid that work then stopped. But it has now resumed, so I am hopeful that we'll be able to progress things very quickly.
I'd like to thank Hefin David for bringing this, and you, Minister, for your positive response—it's such a big issue across Wales. Now, approximately 54 per cent of cats, 55 per cent of horses, and 62 per cent of dogs show signs of distress as a result of such noise and heavy bangs. Despite 72 per cent of people in Wales recognising that fireworks can negatively impact on animal welfare, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals themselves receive an average of 400 calls each year due to fireworks. Polling has found that 67 per cent of Welsh residents agree that the law should be amended to better protect animal welfare. And as we all notice, the season for fireworks has extended now to before Bonfire Night, and sometimes into the new year, so we've got an extended season. There is appetite for change to be led by this Parliament, and for the use of fireworks to be limited to major public displays. In your workings on this, will you consider silent fireworks—the banning, as Hefin has said, of fireworks above certain decibels? But will you also look at limiting the numbers of times that people can be actually frightened in their own homes and, of course, our pets and livestock? Thank you.
Yes, I certainly recognise those figures that Janet Finch-Saunders raised. My own dog, certainly, showed distress this year. She's two, and she certainly showed it for the first time this year. So, I absolutely recognise those figures. As I said in my answer to Hefin David, it is work that we are progressing, but unfortunately the legislation and the powers are with the UK Government. But I think, certainly, public displays didn't happen this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so we certainly saw more people I think buying fireworks on an individual basis, and it did seem to be a very extended period. I heard fireworks last night here in Cardiff. So, I certainly do think people have been buying them, maybe using them later than Bonfire Night. So, as I outlined in my answer, I am very keen to progress this.
As Hefin and Janet have just said, Bonfire Night seems to get worse every year—it goes on for longer, it's louder, it's later with noise now reaching into the early hours of the morning and for days after. I'm deeply concerned about the welfare of our animals, as both the previous people have spoken about as well, both in the home and also in the field, and also the impact of firework-related anti-social behaviour and very much animal cruelty. I know it's not in the Welsh Government thing to ban the sale of fireworks to the general public, but is it within Welsh Government competence so that those can be saved for safe and licensed public displays only? Thank you.
So, no, this legislation doesn't sit with us. As I said, in my answer to Janet Finch-Saunders, I think because there weren't the public displays that we usually see this year, unfortunately we saw more people buying fireworks. Obviously, newsagents, for instance, are licensed to sell fireworks. So, therefore, supermarkets could sell them, because they were on sale elsewhere. Some supermarkets did choose not to this year, which I thought was a very good thing to do. But, clearly, it wasn't unlawful to use fireworks within the COVID regulations that we've had, but, again, it's about asking people to be sensible. But I am keen to make sure that the legislation is fit for purpose, because I'm sure we all agree that it isn't at the current time.
2. What is the Welsh Government doing to reduce the risk of flooding in the Rhondda? OQ55863
Thank you. Funding has been approved for 25 flood alleviation projects across Rhondda Cynon Taf this year, totalling £1.9 million. This includes £303,450, which I've recently approved, to install property flood resilience to 357 homes in Rhondda. I've also provided £1.6 million of emergency funding to RCT for repair works following this year's storms.
In the last month, your Government's Natural Resources Wales have published reports into this year's floods, and my interest is clearly in the Rhondda. Few people were surprised to find out that NRW found no blame in themselves in those reports. The closest it got to an admission of liability was when it said that it was underfunded to respond to the magnitude of February's events, something that I hope that you've heard and considered very carefully, Minister. Now, it is clear to me, and to many others who signed a petition, that only an independent inquiry will get to the bottom of what happened and will come up with lasting solutions that will take account of the climate crisis, and that is the best chance that we have of preventing this kind of thing happening to communities here in the Rhondda again. The Labour position in Westminster earlier this year was to support an inquiry into floods in communities in England. Why is an inquiry like this not good enough for people here in Wales? Will you now back an independent inquiry? Or will you explain to people in the Rhondda what you are scared such an inquiry might reveal?
So, I am not scared at all, and, no, I will not commit to an independent review at the current time, for the reasons I've said to you in this Chamber and for the reasons I've said to you in correspondence. We are waiting for the section 19 investigation reports. They're a duty on the local authority, as you know, and they will provide clarity on the reasons for flooding, as well as how the risk management authorities will act. I don't recognise your view of the NRW report. I thought it was a very honest assessment of their own performance, how they thought they could make improvements, and it wasn't just about funding. I thought the report—. I didn't commission that report, but I do think the findings will complement the local authority's investigations and help support future flood risk management. We all have to accept that, with the climate emergency, we are going to see the sorts of events that we saw in February, and we are trying our very best to ensure that that funding that RCT requested, they've received. I mentioned the additional funding I have given this week for the property flood resilience, so that people who feel they need it in their homes can go to their risk management authority and request that funding, and have whatever is required installed properly. I don't think—. It would be for individuals to come forward with that request, and that's exactly what we've done.
Minister, the review that NRW undertook into the flooding earlier this year identified that 12 flood warnings were late being issued and some areas didn't get a flood warning at all. Sometimes we can focus on the big infrastructure projects and some of the bigger issues around flooding, but if you can't get the simple things right, like issuing warnings to the public to be prepared and make preparations, then that's going to undermine the whole of process of preparation for floods. What action is the Government taking to interact with Natural Resources Wales to make sure that this particular aspect of the flood prevention, early warning, detection system is reliable, is robust, and does alert communities to the risk of flooding that's so devastating to places like the Rhondda and Nantgarw in Pontypridd?
So, I mentioned that I think the report that NRW have brought forward is a very honest assessment of their performance, and I have met them to discuss it just initially. And next Monday—I think it's next Monday; it's certainly next week—I will be meeting with the chair and chief executive to have a substantive discussion around the report and what actions are needed to be taken.
I think we have to recognise that the February storms, which predominantly, obviously, this report was based on, were the worst that we've seen in parts of Wales for 40 years. And that's not an excuse; I'm just saying we have to remember that's what we were dealing with. We had over 3,000 properties flooded unfortunately, and I saw the devastation, and I'm sure you did too, and we want to do all we can to avoid that. So, it's very important that we look at that report in great detail, which is what officials have been doing since we received it about a month ago. I will be having that discussion with NRW, and I'd be very happy to keep Members updated.
Minister, in the Pontypridd and Taff Ely area, we obviously look forward to the eight section 19 reports that will be prepared now by Rhondda Cynon Taf, which will be very important in determining future actions and prevention, and so on. One of the issues that has arisen in some 30-odd meetings that I and the local MP have had with communities, businesses and so on in the Pontypridd and Taff Ely area relates to the things that can be done now to actually give greater resilience to the communities that were affected. One of the issues, of course, is things like flood gates, and so on, and I understand that because it was river flooding predominantly in Pontypridd and Taff Ely, that is the responsibility of NRW. Now, I have raised with them the issue of this, and I understand that they have been meeting with you to discuss the issue of funding and provision of additional flood resilience matters to those communities who are affected in Pontypridd and Taff Ely. I wonder if you could outline the outcome of those discussions that you've had.
Those discussions are still ongoing. You will have heard me say I'm meeting with them again next week. However, the funding to which you refer is there for them to apply for. So, I mentioned I've just allocated at the beginning of the week a further £305,000 to RCT direct for property flood resilience measures, and that funding is absolutely available for NRW to request from also. So, again, those discussions are ongoing. I'll be having a further meeting next week, but the funding is available now.
The Conservative spokesperson, Janet Finch-Saunders.
Minister, in June 2018, the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee warned that there was every likelihood of a post-Brexit governance gap. NRW, as the environmental regulator, simply does not have sufficient independence, and it is felt that the future generations commissioner's office does not have sufficient environmental focus and expertise. Therefore, there is a feeling that Wales needs a new body to monitor Government actions in delivering on environmental legislation, an accessible complaints system and proper, robust and enforced legislation.
Here we are now, almost 30 months later. Now, the UK Government is in the process of appointing the inaugural chair of the office for environmental protection. In comparison, the timeline for the establishment of a successor environmental governance body for Wales remains unclear. It has been apparent since June 2018 that Wales needs this new body, and even before this, in March of that year, the Welsh Government did make a commitment to take the first proper legislative opportunity to enshrine environmental principles into law and to close this governance gap. When will we see solid details about this timeline and the establishment of a new body and why has this not been progressed already?
Well, one of the reasons is, as you're aware, that this is just one tiny part of leaving the European Union, and I just wish sometimes that you sat in some of the meetings that I did where you recognise the sheer amount of work that needs to be done in the next, I think, 42 days now before we leave the European Union.
But this is a very important point and I'm very happy to answer questions so that people can understand where we are. So, I think you have to admit that the Welsh Government was very prescient in having the Environment (Wales) Act 2016 that we had. So, the gaps in environmental governance are very different in Wales to what they are in England. Obviously, the UK Government have abandoned their UK Environment Bill at the moment—that's been paused, although I think it's just about to restart—but we have our environment Act here. So, in relation to principles, for instance, we have a set of environmental principles in our environment Act that other countries don't have.
However, as you're aware from my Brexit round-table stakeholder group, I set up a task group from that to ask them to bring forward a report, which they've done. And I think I mentioned in an answer to Llyr last week in committee that I'll be bringing forward further information on that. I'm not sure if you asked me in a written question or whether I wrote to you to say that we have gone out to advert for a person to head up this part of Welsh Government after we leave the European Union and the timeline for that was, I think, before Christmas.
Thank you, and thank you for confirming that, in July 2019, you did convene a task group of key stakeholders to work with you to further develop details of the environmental governance structure for Wales. Now, on 5 November, you stated that you intend to publish these proposals for longer-term environmental governance arrangements by the end of the year, alongside the environmental governance task group report. Whilst that itself already represents a delay to the original promise to publish the task group recommendations this autumn, it turns out that the group did actually report in April 2020. You did advise us last Thursday in committee that the report could not be made available due to lack of capacity and resources. Will you provide some more detail today as to what are the specific capacity and resource challenges that have rendered you unable to share the report for some seven months and explain why you are denying this Welsh Parliament the opportunity to scrutinise the report and recommendations ahead of your proposals for environmental governance?
Yes. I think I did explain last week that it's the same group of officials who are working on EU transition who are working on the COVID-19 response. We just haven't suddenly doubled our number of officials. So, that was what I meant by a lack of capacity and resources. And I will not deny this Senedd the opportunity. I will be publishing the Welsh Government response to the recommendations that will come out of the task group, and also the report.
Thank you, Minister. I think really what has happened here is that long-term arrangements for environmental governance have been put on the back burner. Now, with such frustratingly slow progress on future plans, it is reasonable to expect interim arrangements to be in place. Now, I am aware that you made ensuring that there is a complaints mechanism a priority and that all complains should be independently assessed, and that has to be widely welcomed. However, despite us being less than two months away from the end of the transition period, it was on Monday that the interviews for an interim environmental protection assessor were being held. By when will this assessor be in post? Have the expert panel that will be supporting the assessor been appointed, and if not, when will they? And can you confirm that the interim complaints system that should become operational from 1 January 2021 will have sufficient capacity to deal with numerous concerns at the same time? Thank you.
I wouldn't agree that it's been put on the back burner, but, obviously, we have to prioritise, and a public health pandemic, such as we have seen and are currently still in the middle of, has to take priority. So, within my portfolio—if you look right across my portfolio, you will see everything is bathed in European legislation and finance et cetera, so it's a huge piece of work that we're unfortunately having to do as we hurtle towards 31 December. So, it's not been put on the back burner at all, but, clearly, you can't do everything—I wish we could. So, just to confirm, the interim measures are designed to provide a stopgap between the end of transition and the introduction of statutory measures. As you referred to, we've been out to advert, we're in the process of advertising, and the person will be in place. What I've said is that I want a better system. This is actually somewhere where I think we can be better than the current system that we have with the European Union at the moment. You refer to it as 'numerous complaints'; well, I've looked back to see how many complains we've actually sent from Wales to Brussels, and I wouldn't call it numerous. It's also very evident it's slow, so I think it's really important that when you do get a complaint, you can expedite it as quickly as possible, and scrutinise and investigate in a much quicker way. So, I think it's really important that we get the system right. I would very much like to have brought it forward in this Senedd term, but, unfortunately, I can't. But we have made sure that the interim measures are robust and fit for purpose.
Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. I think there's an extreme irony in the fact that we have Conservatives here complaining about the grave problems caused by Brexit, and complaining about the sluggishness of the Welsh Government. I have some sympathy with that, but they need to remind their own Government at the UK level of the slowness in providing clarity to us in Wales of exactly what will face us in 42, 43 or 44 days from now.
You won't be surprised to hear me referring to another problem, because you will recall that you gave us evidence, along with your chief veterinary officer, at the environment committee on the implications of the end of the transition period on the veterinary capacity here in Wales with all the additional requirements, the export health certification in ports, all of which will mean that we will need further veterinary capacity; capacity that we don't have here in Wales, as the chief veterinary officer reminded us. Now, in light of that, you have suggested that perhaps we will need to look at moving vets from TB testing work, for example, or from dealing with bird flu, in order to meet these additional demands brought on by Brexit. So, with a little over 40 days to go until 1 January, can you explain what exactly the Welsh Government's plans are to meet that demand?
You're referring to the session we had last week around export health certification, and I raised that in a sub-committee of Cabinet this morning, because, clearly, the UK Government just seem to think that we can throw money at this, and we can recruit environment health officers, who take, I think, it's four years to train—probably not that much less than vets. When I raised it at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs inter-ministerial group on Monday, I was told, 'Well, you can just put vets onto this work'. Again, I explained, as you said, that if I take vets off TB testing—and now we've got avian flu in the UK; fortunately not in Wales, but in the UK, so that's taking a great deal of surveillance work—again, you would be taking vets off that work. So, it's hugely disappointing that that the UK's Government answer to this very critical problem.
As a Government, we have recruited more vets over the past, probably, three years now—we've had a focus on that. I'm meeting APHA tomorrow—the Animal and Plant Health Agency—because clearly they are looking at England and Wales; they have responsibility for both countries. I want to reiterate to the chief executive tomorrow—and I have to say, he has always recognised this—that they need to make sure that decisions around recruitment, for instance—. I think that, perhaps, they are waiting for the comprehensive spending review, as we all are, before they look at what else they can do to assist us, but I will certainly be discussing that with him tomorrow.
You did, of course, suggest in committee that you might have to take, as you have reiterated there, vets away from TB testing. That, of course, inevitably would mean less testing, meaning as well of course that there is a greater likelihood that tests maybe wouldn't be completed in a timely manner, which then brings the potential of greater movement restrictions facing some of our farmers. So, there are huge knock-on effects here, and I'm wondering maybe what your assessment is in terms of the impact that moving that capacity would have on your TB testing programme. Would redirecting vet capacity away from TB, for example, necessitate greater flexibility in terms of allowing farmers not to test as often, let's say? Maybe you could tell us exactly what your thinking is around that, because, clearly, I'm sure you'd agree that farmers shouldn't be penalised for something that obviously is beyond their own control.
Absolutely, and going back to the irony that you referred to, at a time when we want to maintain our animal health and welfare standards, as we are looking at trade negotiations, obviously, we don’t want to be doing that. So, this is a piece of work that the chief veterinary officer's office is looking at for me. We've been very clear during the COVID-19 pandemic that we wanted to keep TB testing going in the way that we would have done normally, and I think that we have maintained as much as we can of that. But, clearly, there have been issues where, sometimes, TB testing hasn't been able to happen because somebody is in isolation, for instance, in relation to the pandemic. So, this is a piece of work—. Because we don't want to take vets off these very important testing regimes to then do the export health certificates. So, I think that it is a twin-track approach. I'm working very closely with my colleague Julie James and local authorities around local authority preparedness in relation to trying to recruit more environmental health officers. I was referring to Holyhead in an XO UK Government meeting and the difficulties with recruitment. I can't imagine that it's just Wales that is having difficulty recruiting environmental health officers, and I'm sure it will be the same with vets as well. So, again, it’s something that the chief veterinary officer is also discussing with her other three counterparts.
Yes, with 40-odd days to go. Given the uncertainty that persists, clearly, ahead of the end of the transition period, I'd like to ask as well what the Welsh Government is doing to provide advice to animal keepers and pet owners about the availability of animal feed, given the well-documented concerns around delays to supply chains. The Government's own 'no deal' Brexit plan acknowledges supply chain issues as a major potential challenge. So, could you tell us whether your Government has plans to advise animal keepers about ensuring that they have sufficient supplies, given the potential uncertainty? And what are you doing to make sure that there are sufficient reserves of farm animal feed available as well? You don’t need me to tell you what the horrendous consequences might be to animal welfare if the Government doesn't get this right.
This is part of our contingency plans, and you will have seen that the Welsh Government published our end-of-transition plan last week. As you say, it's just like food for us, isn't it? We need that animal feed too. So, again, this is part of our contingency plans, and we'll discuss, obviously, with our stakeholders at the next round-table stakeholder meeting—this is an item that we will continue to discuss, because, as you say, it's just over 40 days now until we leave the European Union.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on the Arbed scheme in Arfon? OQ55852
In response to a Welsh Government investigation, Fortum energy services, which implemented the legacy Arbed 2 scheme in north Wales, has recently concluded a survey of homes in Carmel, Y Fron, Deiniolen and Dinorwic. I will provide a further update when I have considered their report.
Thank you very much. Constituents in those four areas—in Carmel, Y Fron, Deiniolen and Dinorwic—have been very patient, but we do need to move forward to do the work that has been promised. I have been raising this issue with you since the summer of 2017. At the beginning, the company denied that there were problems, but you did—and I am grateful to you—hold not one, but two independent reviews, with the second coming to the conclusion that it was the poor quality of the craftsmanship that was responsible for causing serious damp and damage to the roofs and walls. Now, there are 40 or more constituents who are still waiting for the work to be done, so after you look in detail at this report again, what will the next steps be?
Thank you, and I absolutely agree with you that we need to progress this, so I've asked officials to give me some advice by the end of this month so that I'm able to come to you within a month and tell you what those next steps will be.
The Welsh Government's Arbed programme, or area-based fuel poverty scheme, had to be investigated after it backfired on Arfon residents, whose homes were left damaged, unsightly and needing repair. Last month, the Welsh Government announced it has commissioned Miller Research to undertake evaluation of the Arbed programme to understand its management and delivery. The UK Government's greener homes grant scheme in England goes further than the Welsh Government's means-tested Nest and area-based Arbed energy efficiency warm homes schemes, by not only making accommodation more energy efficient and economical to keep warm for home owners and tenants, but also by having a knock-on effect within local economies by supporting local businesses, generating local jobs, and generating a need for further and vocational training locally. What consideration will the Minister therefore be giving to tackling the problems identified in Arfon by ensuring that its fuel poverty schemes are delivered by responsible local businesses?
Well, you will have heard my answer to Siân Gwenllian, that I have asked officials to give me advice based on the report that was received by Welsh Government before deciding on any further steps, so I will update Members when I've had that advice.
4. What is the Welsh Government doing to enhance biodiversity? OQ55881
Thank you. Welsh Government is committed to a green and blue recovery from COVID-19, and enhancing biodiversity, which underpins our health, economy and well-being. The renewed nature recovery action plan, the national forest and restoring Natura 2000 sites and peatlands are some of the initiatives we are taking to achieve this.
I thank you for that answer, Minister, and I'm really pleased to see that Welsh Government has now chosen the first sites for the national forest, and a number of those are in my constituency of Mid and West Wales. I was heartened to see that high numbers of people are keen to take part in planting new woodlands, with more than 350 expressions of interest regarding those projects. Enhancing and creating woodland, as well as connecting it right across Wales, I'm sure, will be hugely beneficial to nature and people. Minister, what assessment have you made about how the new national forest could help enhance biodiversity and help reverse the decline in many species that's happened in recent times?
Thank you. I was very pleased we were able to make the announcement around the national forest during a very successful Wales Climate Week, which, for those Members who didn't catch up with it, is now online, and I hope people will be able to listen to the talks and the discussions we had.
What the national forest will do, and you'll be aware this was part of the First Minister's manifesto commitment, is that it will support biodiversity through creating more mixed woodlands, enhancing existing woodlands, and bringing them into active management, and also looking for opportunities to connect those woodlands together over time. I think it's really right that we recognise there's a huge enthusiasm from partners and individuals to play their part and create their own woodlands as part of the national forest. It's really important the right trees are planted in the right places, so that we can maintain and enhance biodiverse and resilient ecosystems. So, we want the procedures to be simple, to be predictable and as timely as possible. So, we have begun work to identify the changes that will be required, but I really want the national forest to be accessible for all, and it's been great to see the enthusiasm it's been welcomed with.
I think that's a great question from Joyce Watson and I think the idea of a national forest is a really good one that is long overdue, and it's good to be developing carbon sinks like a forest. Can I ask you about a slightly different angle of biodiversity and that relating to water quality and our waterways? As the Senedd champion for the freshwater pearl mussel, I'm always eager to support biodiversity, and I know that other Members, as champions of their own species, feel the same.
The freshwater pearl mussel is under threat because its lifecycle relies on very pure river water. Many species are affected by the pollution of our rivers, and only recently, there was the issue of pollution in the upper reaches of the River Wye, emanating from poultry farms, I think, in that case. So, how is the Welsh Government protecting the quality of water in our waterways to safeguard biodiversity, both for its own sake and for future generations?
The Member raises a very important point about pollution, and there's a question further on from your colleague and my colleague Angela Burns around pollution. You'll be aware that I did lay the draft agricultural pollution regulations earlier this year and I've asked my officials to provide me with advice around the introduction of that. We are seeing unacceptable levels of pollution right across Wales and I absolutely agree that these are unacceptable and the majority of people, I'm sure, agree with us. And certainly, the advice that I've had from the UK climate change commission is that we need to bring forward regulations as a matter of urgency.
Minister, the loss of biodiversity is one of the greatest threats facing our species. We have lost so many species, and populations of the UK's most important wildlife have dropped by a staggering 60 per cent since 1970.
The ecological damage will have untold impacts on humanity and our ability to feed ourselves. We have already seen the impact of our encroachment into other habitats—the global coronavirus pandemic. Minister, how will your Government ensure that all of its policies take account of the potential impact that they will have on worldwide biodiverstiy?
Thank you. You will have heard me say that, as well as a climate emergency, we are facing a biodiversity emergency too. One of the policies is Natura 2000, which I mentioned in my earlier answer to Joyce Watson, and I'm very pleased that, as part of our COVID recovery, we have taken action to support the registration of those Natura 2000 sites. They're havens to some of our most valuable and threatened species and habitats. This is an opportunity, and we have to look for opportunities amongst all those challenges. Certainly, coming out of the COVID pandemic into the recovery phase, we need to protect the natural environment; it's absolutely essential. And as a Government, we are committed to doing that.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the catch-size limit for shellfish in Wales? OQ55883
Minimum landing sizes are an important fisheries management tool. They ensure that shellfish grow to a sufficient size to reproduce at least once before being caught and landed. Shellfish below the minimum landing size must be returned alive.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Of course, we all accept that conservation measures are necessary to protect the fishing industry in the future.
I had a meeting last week with fishermen in Swansea bay and they're very concerned about the recent increase in the minimum size that is allowed in relation to whelk fishing. It's gone up from 45mm to 65mm. They tell me that there is a great deal of variation around the coasts of Wales in the size to which whelks grow, and, indeed, in Swansea bay and surrounding seas, they rarely grow to 65mm and they can be safely harvested without danger to the conservation of fish stocks.
So, I wonder if the Minister might consider not having a one-size-fits-all policy in relation to species in the seas around Wales, but to take account of local variations and conditions, and when we get a fisheries Bill in due course, whether she might be able to base conservation measures on what we might call adapted management, which takes account of local circumstances and learning as we go, by experience, so that we can make sure that, in future, the Welsh fishing industry is able to grow and not, as it has done under the common fisheries policy, decline to disastrously small levels.
Well, shellfish are not bound by quotas, obviously, so that doesn't apply to the final comment. And my colleague Julie James raised this issue with me about three or four months ago, and the increase in minimum landing size does allow more whelk to reach breeding age and improves the sustainability of the whelk stocks. Whelks in Swansea bay are not a different species, but they are smaller in size, as growth appears to be suppressed, which, I'm told, is possibly as a result of higher water temperature in south Wales than north Wales, and I can certainly vouch for that difference in temperature. But, certainly, the affected area is relatively small, but I think we will keep the minimum landing size under review for this area.
Minister, in order to support our shellfish industry, we need a shellfish industry to support, and December not only presents a deadline for a deal with the EU but compliance with the 2017 European Commission judgment in case C-502/15, which was brought against the UK Government, de facto the Welsh Government, for failure to fill obligations relating to water treatment in the Burry Inlet. As you know, the cockles are still failing to fully mature in those waters, reducing supply. Welsh sellers have to import cockles occasionally to meet local demand. So, can you give categoric assurance that we will be in full compliance within the next seven weeks, thereby avoiding liability for a considerable fine, but more importantly, offering some real reassurance to our cockle processors?
I think you make a very important point about the shellfish industry, and the best way of ensuring that is to stay in the European Union. I'm very concerned about the shellfish industry, particularly if we leave without a deal. I'm not able to give you the assurance in that seven-week time frame here, but I will write to you, because I know I do have a meeting in the next two weeks around this issue, in particular to Burry Inlet, so I will write to you once I've had that meeting.
There's a real danger that catch size limits will become pretty irrelevant in the east of the Menai strait in just over a year's time because Welsh Government seems unable to make any progress with the new management measures for mussel farming in this hugely important area for the Welsh shellfish industry. Applications for renewal of measures for the western Menai strait were made nearly 10 years ago; in the eastern strait over two years ago. We've faced delay after delay ever since in both areas. I met with fishermen in the east just a few days ago, and let's be frank, if this isn't sorted out, the industry that's been built up over 60 years or so will cease to exist. And in fact, if Welsh Government isn't able to prioritise and deliver on this particular management Order, it brings into question their commitment to developing the sector as a whole for its economic benefits and its research collaboration and so on. So, will the Minister give a commitment here, now, to sort this out with real urgency? Otherwise, we can say goodbye to the commercial cultivation of mussels in the Menai strait.
I am sorry we haven't been able to progress this. I met with the fishermen myself in relation to this, so I will certainly go back and ask officials to have a look at this, as you say, as a matter of urgency. It is absolutely recognised that, as you say, it's over 10 years since one of the groups requested that. So, I will certainly go back and, again, I will write to the Member following that discussion.
6. What financial support is available from the Welsh Government to Welsh citizens whose properties are regularly affected by flooding and water damage for flood prevention and mitigation? OQ55878
Diolch. In response to February's storms, the Welsh Government provided a comprehensive support package totalling £9.2 million. I'm encouraging property flood resilience where it can further reduce risk, and this week awarded £303,450 to Rhondda Cynon Taf for floodgates. This year, I provided over £1 million for such measures benefiting 594 homes.
I'm grateful for that response, and, of course, any funding that has been provided is to be welcomed. I have visited the community in my constituency, Pontargothi, recently, the Minister is aware, and I look forward to meet to discuss the investments that can prevent flooding in future. But one theme that arises on a constant basis when I visit those who have been impacted is investment for preventative measures on an individual basis—so, defences for houses, where that's appropriate, adaptation of homes, where that is more appropriate. There is a scheme from the UK Government that allocates £5,000 to homes or businesses so that they can improve their defences. Will there be a national scheme available for the citizens of Wales to the same extent?
So, the funding that I mentioned in my original answer to you, the £304,000, that was—I think it was for, if I remember rightly, 357 homes. I think we funded about 85 per cent. So, that funding is available for all the risk-management authorities and NRW, so, if Carmarthenshire local authority wanted to apply for that funding, they would be able to do so. I'm not sure if you heard me say in an earlier answer that I think it's really important that individuals don't request the money and then fit whatever they decide to have themselves. I think it's really important that the equipment that they get is absolutely right for their home, and manages the risk in a way that is correct. So, the reason why we haven't given funding to individuals but to the authorities themselves is to ensure that that happens.
7. What is the Welsh Government’s latest analysis of the effects of COVID-19 on its policies for environmental improvements in Wales? OQ55876
Thank you. The pandemic has been disruptive. However, it has also forced us to reflect on the kind of future we want for Wales. We published 'COVID-19 Reconstruction: Challenges and Priorities' last month, setting out our agenda for a green recovery and accelerating our transition to a low-carbon economy.
Minister, during COVID-19, we've seen many local people connect better with their local environments, going out for a walk, perhaps, for their daily exercise and just appreciating nature more. I think there's an opportunity now to capitalise on that new recognition of the value of nature for health and well-being and better quality of life, and I wonder what you could say about more support for organisations like Maindee Unlimited in my constituency, where they've undertaken greening of urban environments and really improved people's quality of life. They now have a new project, with something like £0.25 million of Welsh Government and lottery funding, called the Maindee triangle, which will, again, green an urban area, plant vegetables, do some landscaping, provide a space for meetings and performance and possibly a community cafe. This comes on top of the work they do at Maindee library. They're a very good organisation, doing a lot of good work, and I wonder if now, in the midst of the pandemic and going back to build better into next year, what support Welsh Government will give for organisations like Maindee Unlimited.
Thank you, John. Certainly, during lockdown, we have seen an increase in awareness and interest in nature and green spaces, and it's really important that we lock in that behaviour. I've been really pleased, despite the challenges of COVID-19, one of our policies was about creating nature on your doorstep, so our Local Places for Nature scheme, where we are encouraging people—it's not huge amounts of funding that's needed, but to do something that they can access from their doorstep. So, we've literally got hundreds of projects now starting to take shape. So, we've got local nature partnership co-ordinators who are taking forward these projects, over £109 million. Even during the pandemic, we've managed to get significant funding out of the door, and we've also collaborated with the National Lottery heritage fund, so now communities can access—[Inaudible.] I'm not sure if Maindee Unlimited have accessed either of those pots of money, but those are certainly two areas where we've had significant funding out of the door in the last few months.
Keep Wales Tidy are also supporting communities to create their own place for nature. So, again, that is another organisation that maybe Maindee Unlimited could access funding from also.
—question 8. Angela Burns.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's approach to nitrate vulnerable zones across Wales? OQ55869
Thank you. I've asked officials to provide advice on the introduction of legislation in response to continued unacceptable levels of agricultural pollution from poor agricultural practice in Wales. This will take into account continued concern from Senedd Members and the public, and the impacts of COVID-19.
You will be aware that our position is that we recognise that pollution caused by agriculture needs to stop. We do have a difference of opinion as to the methodology of doing that. But what I wanted to address was the farm business grant yard covering scheme, which was launched earlier this month, Minister, to provide grants to farmers to help them to comply with the nitrate vulnerable zone regulations when they're introduced later this year. However, a number of farmers have expressed concerns that they do not qualify for this funding, and, with an overall budget of £1.5 million, with a maximum award of £40,000, it strikes me that, if every grant were to receive the maximum award, we would only be able to help 37, 38 applicants. Minister, to demonstrate the Welsh Government understands the need of the agricultural industry, and their efforts to try to stamp out on-farm pollution, will you assist all these farmers that need the support to prepare themselves for the introduction of nitrate vulnerable zones? We know it's going to be costly. And would you commit to reviewing the scheme and, in the same way as you did with establishing natural resources and welfare funding, consider making additional funding from within your portfolio available?
Thank you. Well, I'm not sure we do have a difference of opinion. A whole-Wales approach to tackling agricultural pollution would be consistent with the advice that we've received from the UK Climate Change Committee. They said that NVZs must be extended to cover the whole of the United Kingdom, and I know, if we didn't, that would undermine the whole of the UK's ambition in relation to the climate emergency.
In relation to the yard covering scheme, which I announced last month, that came about following discussions with the farming unions. They certainly haven't raised with me that farmers are struggling with the scheme, but I'll be very happy to ask them when I meet with them, which, as you know, I do regularly, and I'm sure I'll be meeting them in the next couple of weeks or so. But it's absolutely imperative that we do all we can in relation to agricultural pollution, and the majority of farmers would absolutely agree with that, and do all they can to avoid agricultural pollution. But we are unfortunately still seeing a high number of substantiated incidents. By the end of last month we'd seen 123 this year alone, and, as we head into the winter months, we expect the number of incidents to rise, as they do every year, due to the increased rainfall. So, I think, unfortunately, there's no visible downward trend.
Thank you, Minister.
The next item is questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government, and the first question is from Joyce Watson.
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the optimised retrofit programme? OQ55882
Thank you very much, Joyce. Yes. Initially £9.5 million was available this financial year but since we have decided to increase the budget to £19.5 million. I'm very grateful to my colleague Rebecca Evans for the ability to do that. Five schemes have secured support, including one large consortium, involving 26 social landlords. The schemes are pan Wales and will trial different solutions, including for those properties that are off gas grid.
I thank you, Minister, for that answer, and I do appreciate that the programme is very much in its infancy at the moment. I do welcome the Welsh Government's approach to trialling upgrades so that we can develop a good understanding of what is most effective. If, as hoped, the programme is rolled out over the coming years, the potential for skilled construction jobs is indeed hugely promising. We will of course need construction workers who have the skills to carry out this work. I'm aware that the Construction Industry Training Board will soon be launching a report that looks at that particular issue, and I look forward to seeing it.
Minister, can you tell me what actions are currently being taken to ensure that training facilities and courses are available, so that there is no delay between launching a programme and having the people with the necessary skills to carry out that work?
Yes, thank you, Joyce. Obviously, I'm very aware of your long and continued interest in skills in this sector, particularly for women, and one of the really lovely things about being able to do this this way is the diversity of the workforce that we'll be able to encourage. So, this is a trial involving over half of Welsh social landlords and helps us to quickly identify skills gaps in their own organisations, in their supply chains and in their delivery partners so we can establish the demand and put in place the appropriate training before the mass roll-out to every home. That's part of the point of having this as this scheme, so that we can test out what happens in each of the different types of property. It's a key principle, and it's sponsored jointly by me, the Minister for Education and the Minister for economy for this reason. It's a key principle that not only are we retrofitting the homes in the scheme, but we're trialling it for roll-out across Wales across all tenures. So, this is absolutely about finding out what works, what the supply chains look like, what the skills gap is and how we can ramp that up for that.
We absolutely will be being informed by the dedicated net-zero skills analysis that you've just referenced from the construction industry training board, and we'll also be considering any relevant recommendations from the green recovery taskforce, which is being led by Sir David Henshaw. And we've also been working with the regional skills partnerships, who've progressed this agenda across all three regions of Wales, identifying the local skills that they have and what support they need to support the adoption of low-carbon practices and technologies. So, this is absolutely the integrated approach that I know you'd love to see us do, and it is absolutely about making sure that we skill up the workforce in order to be able to roll it out, but we also develop the supply chains and the delivery partners and their workforces, not just the public sector workforce.
Minister, I wonder if you could tell us how you're going to identify those older properties, which are a substantial part of the Welsh housing stock, and, certainly before 1930 and especially before the first world war, very few of those properties are in the hands of social landlords, and yet probably the biggest concentration of low-income families is in that type of housing. They're also difficult to retrofit. So, we need to concentrate on these harder to get properties if they're going to benefit from what I do welcome as a good initiative.
Yes, absolutely, and you're right, there aren't very many of them in the social sector, but we are looking for those that there are. The idea is to identify a decent group of every type of house in Wales and then trial out what will work for those houses, without setting out impossible targets. So, we're not saying we'll bring every home to EPC A, what we're saying is: can we get every home as good as it can possibly be? And if that's at net-zero carbon, that's great, but if it's at EPC B and that's the best you're going to get, then we need to know that coming out of the programme, and we need to have a policy that addresses that issue going forward, because I very much doubt we want to knock down all our heritage houses on the basis they can't get to net-zero carbon.
One of the big things the decarbonisation group looked at was actually the whole lifecycle. So, it isn't just about getting homes up to net-zero carbon, it is also what happens if you knock them down. You've then got an enormous pile of carbon-intensive waste that you've got to deal with. So, that's not the solution either, never mind the historic and family connections and so on. So, it doesn't work in terms of carbon anyway. So, the whole point of this programme is to get to the best we can get with our housing stock and then to be able to develop policies that allow us to address the remaining issues. And, absolutely, we need to make sure that we've got a solution for each type of house in Wales, including the very many Victorian stone terraces and so on that you're referencing.
2. What measures will the Minister promote across the Welsh Government to alleviate child poverty in Ogmore? OQ55854
Our income maximisation plan outlines new cross-Government measures to alleviate child poverty in Ogmore and across the rest of Wales. These will ensure practical steps are taken to help families maximise their income, reduce essential living costs and support financial resilience. It will be undertaken alongside existing child poverty programmes.
I thank the Minister for that response. And right at the top of Welsh Government's child poverty income maximisation plan, objective 1 seeks to ensure that families in Wales are supported to claim all the financial help they're entitled to. Now, this is vital, because a pound not claimed is a pound poorer that family is, and it's a pound less coming back into that family and that community in Wales. And frankly, it's a pound that the UK Treasury holds back. So, can I ask the Minister what can she do to promote benefits take-up this side of Christmas for families and children in Wales and Ogmore who need that support? And how will she further develop this in the new year? And is there any chance that the UK Government might help with a UK-wide benefits take-up campaign?
May I thank the Member for his question? Ensuring that families in Wales are aware and, importantly, are able to access the support they're entitled to rightly features prominently in our income maximisation plan, published just this month. We did put a range of actions into practice in the short term. We've put into practice a communications and awareness strategy to make sure people and communities are up to date with information, support and also, importantly, the opportunities that are available there for them. We're doing that via social media, existing programmes and networks, and of course we'll be sure we share that information with the Member, and Members across the Chamber, so you're able to amplify and share that message in your constituencies and communities as well.FootnoteLink
We're also working with partners to streamline the application process for Welsh Government and local authority-administered benefits, making them much more accessible for eligible households, at the same time as developing a no-wrong-door approach, so to speak, for a more integrated system of support, so limiting the number of contacts families and individuals have to make and the number of times they have to keep telling their story in order to access the support to which they are entitled.
In response to the Member's final point, the question the Member makes, with regards to the UK Government taking forward and running a take-up strategy for social security and benefits, I agree with him. Should the UK Government do more? Yes. Would that be the right thing to do? Absolutely; it would support communities and people right across the UK. Will they do that? Well, I can say that, just this week, I have joined forces with my counterparts in the Scottish and Northern Ireland devolved administrations to call on the UK Government to do just that, in order to—. Because we know that the impact this pandemic is having is really exacerbating the impact that people are finding on their finances. And now, more than ever, that UK-wide campaign to make people aware of what they're entitled to, and more importantly enable them to access it, is needed more than ever.
Can I advise Members that the year 6 pupils of St Helen's Primary School in Swansea are watching us? So I hope we're all on our best behaviour. Deputy Minister, parents being in secure and sustainable employment is a hugely important factor in alleviating child poverty. I wonder if you can tell us how you're working with Cabinet colleagues to help match adult learners with work-based learning opportunities, in order to improve their employment prospects and support their families. Thank you.
Can I thank the Member for her question, and send my best wishes to the year 6 students, and hope they enjoy their experience watching the Senedd in practice today? And hopefully, in the not-too-distant future, they'll actually be able to come and sit in the gallery and watch in person as well.
Let me tell the Member, in answering her question, clearly we're working across Government to not just make sure that families and communities are aware of the support that's available in terms of welfare and social security, but in accessing those opportunities through things such as the Communities for Work programme and Communities for Work Plus, but also actually with the work we're doing across Government in terms of embedding fair work in communities, right across Wales. And in the not-too-distant future, we'll be looking to actually make sure people are aware of those rights and responsibilities, in terms of accessing work and how they can access further training opportunities, not just for individuals but for employers as well.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, it's been reported that a quarter of rough-sleepers who had a place to stay during the first lockdown are back to sleeping rough. Why has that happened?
Thank you, Delyth. I'm afraid that report on the BBC rather underestimated the scale of the effort that's gone on across Wales. I don't know if you caught a slightly later radio programme on the BBC, where I had the opportunity to put the record straight. What had been done there was a number—which was a spot-check of rough-sleepers in March, of 407—had been taken to be the number of people that had been helped through the pandemic. We did have 101 rough-sleepers at a spot-count again in August back on the streets, and one person is too many, so I'll come on to that in a minute. But actually, we have 3,533 at the last count of people who've been helped, so the scale is rather different to the BBC report. So it's nowhere a quarter, although I will say that any of them, that's a real problem.
I really do want to be able to get across to people in Wales the real scale of what's been achieved in Wales during the pandemic, by everybody who's been working in this sector. We had many more rough-sleepers than we originally thought. We always knew the spot-check was likely to be an underestimate. We always knew it didn't pick up young people or women particularly well, for example, and, as you know, it was always a rough-and-ready way of doing it over two set nights across the UK. So we always knew it was an underestimate. I think we were quite shocked at how much of an underestimate it really was. And also of course, we've picked up all the people who, whilst they're not actually on the streets, are pretty near it—so all the people who were sofa surfing, or sleeping in cars or in other very, very unsuitable places to be. So, it's not just about the absolute sharp end of rough-sleeping, it's about all of those people who are in insecure, unsuitable accommodation where they couldn't be kept safe throughout the pandemic. So, I really do pay tribute to all of the third sector organisations and local authorities, Government officials—absolutely everybody—who've worked their socks off to get as many people in as possible.
We do know that when the immediate restrictions of the lockdown were eased in the summer, people who had been experiencing homelessness before felt the liberation that quite a few of us felt to get out there into the fresh air and so on, and these are people with complex and complicated needs for support. And, so, we knew that there was a draw back onto the streets for people who hadn't yet been in support services for long enough and who perhaps were not in accommodation that was ideal for them. Necessarily, we had to house people with similar problems in particular areas, and that can be counter-productive. So, we do know that those problems exist. They continue to exist. I've never made any secret of the fact that this isn't a solution to the long-term problem.
We have, however, managed to get assertive outreach to every single person in Wales who's rough-sleeping, including the ones who'd fallen out of services temporarily over the summer. It will be really interesting to see what the next count looks like, in terms of who's in services and who isn't. In that same month, for example, in August, where the 101 count occurred, we also had near 1,000 new presentations for homelessness, all of whom were found accommodation, and we also moved on—I can't remember now—many hundreds of people into permanent accommodation out of the temporary. I can supply that figure. It's gone out of my head, just for a moment, but it's 500/600 people.
So, the throughput is really important, and, Delyth, you'll know that we've discussed many times that this is not some sort of linear progression. There's a phase 1 for people presenting as homeless and we need to sort that out for them—the temporary security that they have to be made safe and so on. And then the phase 2, which is to get those people into their permanent secure home—rapid rehousing—with all of the support mechanisms around them. So, this isn't just about walls. This is about the mental health support, substance abuse support, relationship breakdown, fleeing domestic violence—the myriad of problems that people have exacerbated by any amount of time out of permanent accommodation, of course.
So, I'm really glad to have the chance to put that record straight. We have complained to the BBC that they underestimate the problem by doing that and actually disrespect both the people involved in the system and the homeless people themselves.
Well, thank you for that, Minister. I would join you in paying tribute to the workers in the third sector and local authorities for all the work that they have done with this. And I'm glad that you have put the record straight. You can obviously see where we had got those figures from. But I do agree with the point that you made too that obviously one person going back to living on the streets is one person too many.
With what you've just said, Minister, in terms of the incredibly complex needs that a number of the people that we're talking about will have, and the substantial amount of support that they need, obviously I would agree with that too, but that does make me question why they hadn't been provided with that support when they were housed. Now, I take on board, of course, what you've been saying about the incredibly complex situation that we have been facing, and none of us would underestimate that. But your Government is supposed to have committed to a housing first model, so surely that support should have been something that was taken into account.
Now, looking at some of the cases, it's clear there's not been a level of understanding within some local authorities that homeless people are not a homogenous group, as you've just been saying, and that a solution for one person won't necessarily work for another. Minister, you've referred to some of this in your initial answer. We've had stories of people who've been housed together, including abuse victims who have been housed with people who have violent histories—one-size-fits-all approaches that often don't take into account individual needs. So, do you accept that far more work is needed to ensure that local authority staff are given a better understanding of homelessness, and that they receive training in how to deal with people who've experienced trauma, and that there's a recognition that providing a variety of types of accommodation, rather than one size fits all, is essential in solving the problem?
[Inaudible.]—Delyth. I'm completely with you on everything you've just said. This is an enormous culture change for a lot of the local authorities, and we all know, from our own reaction to the pandemic, that, at first, it was terrifying and really worrying, but it was also a little bit exciting, it's new and different, we haven't done it before, and we all thought it might be a short, sharp thing that we could do to get the virus under control and so on. And what's happened with all of the services, of course, is it's become very plain that this is not a sprint, it's a marathon. And, so, people are tired. They've worked really hard all the way through all of this. They have limited resources still. Even though we've put £50 million more into it, it's still a limited resource for the people that we have presenting to us. We've also got an enormous never-ending stream of people who are experiencing the same problem. And we know that one of the big problems about further firebreaks and our continuing worry about the virus, and all of the kind of recessional-type stuff that's going in the economy, drives relationship breakdown, which drives the homelessness machine. So, we've got to get on top of the pandemic, and the economic consequences of that, in order to even begin the turn the tap off, so to speak. And I'm sorry to talk about people as if they're a flood because each one of them is a tragedy, but we have got a large number of people who are still in those kinds of circumstances.
We've also galvanised the biggest kind of support mechanism across mental health, substance abuse and relationship breakdown services. We've put enormous amounts of money into the advice services as well, to try and get people to maximise their income, because when they come into this housing, they need to be able to access what universal credit there is—and that's not always as straightforward as possible—but also an income stream in order to be able to sustain their housing and all of that. It's really complicated. And, then, of course, necessarily, because we've got such large numbers, we are putting people in unsuitable temporary accommodation. I absolutely accept that. The local authorities are doing their very best for that not to happen. Not everyone tells the full extent of their story when they first come into services. Many people are distrustful for very, very understandable reasons of official-type people trying to help and so on. And every single one of those failures is a real big problem.
However, there are also heartwarming stories of success. So, many authorities who have those problems have also got people who've come into services for the first time and been a resounding success. They happen to have got the right counsellor, the right support, and they've moved on into permanent accommodation. So, I don't want it all to be—. I'm not taking away from the ones that haven't got exactly what they want, and we need to redouble our efforts to do that, but I also think it's important to encourage the authorities, because they have also got successes. So, we need to encourage the successful work and discourage the unsuccessful work. We've been running a lot of webinars for authorities. This is, as I say, a huge culture change from where people were before with a sort of gate-keeping role. So, we've made it very plain that we're not going back, and that that culture change needs to embed. But, in all seriousness, there was never any way it was going to embed in only four months in the face of a pandemic. So, I've made it plain that we have not solved the problem; we have taken the first step to solving the problem. We will all need to pull together to make sure that we're able to carry on down that road.
Okay. Thank you for that, Minister. In terms of the culture change that's needed, obviously, it's not just the staff of local authorities who design and commission services who need that understanding and that compassion that you've just been alluding to. Recently, there's been—. We've seen some unfortunate comments from a local authority councillor in northern Wales that seem to imply that people with 'chaotic lifestyles', as that councillor said, were not deserving of services that were 'expensive', again using that councillor's words. This is, of course, despite the fact that preventing and solving homelessness is always cheaper than letting it happen, and it's still unfortunate that people making these decisions don't understand this.
So, I'd ask you finally, Minister: what steps will you take to tackle prejudice amongst local authority councillors? Surely, we need compassion not villainisation.
I couldn't agree more, and the narrative on which we've had discussions many times in this Chamber about there somehow being some people who are deserving poor, and some people who are undeserving poor is an insidious scourge in our society, which we absolutely need to work together to make sure is wiped out, because every single human being who finds themselves in those circumstances did not arrive there. They weren't born into those circumstances. They're there because there's been a system failure somewhere along the line. So, we absolutely have got to get that message across, and unfortunately, we do live in a society where we have quite a lot of media along the undeserving poor-type stuff. So, I would like to take the opportunity to place on record once more that that is a scourge in any civilised society and we need to be sure that we don't, in any way, assist that narrative.
We have made it very plain that every human being that presents to a local authority, who requires a house, gets something: help immediately. They get help immediately; they get permanent help if that's at all possible, and if it isn't possible, they get temporary supported help while we sort out the permanent solution for them. And, as I say, that is a long road. That is easy to say for me standing here; much, much more difficult to do on the ground. But we have put a lot of resource into it so far. We need to continue to do that.
And I'll say on record, actually, since we're all sitting here, I have been saying to the homeless charities working in this space, as we approach the Senedd elections, that the best hope for people in this circumstance is to make sure that all of the political parties—the big political parties, anyway, in Wales—have this in their manifestos, because then we can be sure that together we can take this forward. I don't think that there's any real argument amongst the big political parties in Wales that this should happen. And so, we need to make sure that together we step it up.
The Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Diolch, Llywydd. I agree—there is no political argument amongst the big parties regarding this issue.
The recent Building Communities Trust report, 'Building Stronger Welsh Communities: opportunities and barriers to community action in Wales' is about harnessing the strength and skills of local people so that they can build the social infrastructure and shape the services they want and need in their area. After facilitating a national conversation with over 250 people who attended 20 events held across the length and breadth of Wales to influence decisions affecting their local area—[Inaudible.]—worthy words are not being backed up by action, public bodies are doing to not with people—[Inaudible.]—communities, and that entrenched public lack of trust, risk aversion, silo working, professional bias and staff demotivation are significant barriers to greater community action. And certainly my casework supports that in droves. How will you therefore be engaging with them to design, deliver and monitor a better way of local government working across Wales?
Thank you, Mark. I don't think I entirely got the whole of that question, but I think I got the thrust of it, so I'll do my best with it. So, what you're talking about there is the change of culture to what we call 'placemaking'. So, we have a number of organisations, including the one that you just mentioned, which have been working with us to make sure that we involve local communities in what their place should look like—what their communities should look like and what the facilities around them should look like. And we've very much been working on the basis of, to use the jargon, subsidiarity to get the decision making down to the lowest possible place where people can make the decisions. We've had this discussion many times, again, in this Chamber, where there is a need for some services to be universal—so, you need to have the same experience of some services regardless of where you live. But that isn't the case with your place or your local town or village or anything else, which we want to be as unique and local as we can manage to make it. So, we need the voices of local people to be loud and clear in those communities.
So, the whole thrust of 'Planning Policy Wales', the national development framework and the recovery papers that my colleagues the Counsel General and Ken Skates, the economy Minister, have been working on across all the regions of Wales are all designed to make sure that local people have that loud voice. So, again, Mark, if you've got examples where that's not working as optimally as it could, and it's a big culture change, and if you want to draw them to my attention separately, I'm very happy to look to see what we can do in specific instances to encourage that kind of co-operation on the ground.
Before you ask your supplementary, Mark Isherwood, just for you to know that your broadband connection is quite unstable. You have been cutting out quite a bit. So, we'll try your next question, but if it's not understood in the Chamber, then we may have to skip over your questions for this week. But, try again and we'll see where we get to this time.
Okay, well, I hope you can hear better and I hope that answer meant that you will be engaging them and communities not only in the design, but in the delivery and monitoring, where, as you know, I've referred a number of cases to you recently, but you felt that the Welsh Government could not intervene appropriately.
As we heard, BBC Wales reported last week that nearly a quarter of the rough-sleepers given temporary housing here during Wales's first COVID lockdown were living on the streets again. Yes, it said that more than 3,566 people were in temporary accommodation, but 101 were sleeping rough on those dates in August, compared with April when temporary placements were found for all 407 people known to be sleeping rough in Wales. The charity Shelter Cymru, who are working with real, affected individuals, said it was desperately disappointing, adding that it's the pressure on temporary accommodation that is leading some councils to have incredibly strict policies. The charity, The Wallich said that many councils were again turning homeless people away from help because of a lack of space, adding,
'We didn't solve poverty, we didn't end homelessness, we haven't solved substance misuse or mental health crises.'
And the charity Crisis is calling for a national cross-Government plan to end homelessness in a decade. How will you, therefore, be engaging with the sector to design, deliver and monitor a better, more sustainable way of addressing this?
I think I've pretty comprehensively covered some of this in my answer to Delyth Jewell, but I'll just add, for completeness, that, of course, we are following the plan set out for us by the housing action group, which has Shelter, The Wallich and Crisis all sitting on it as advisers to the Welsh Government in terms of how we structure our policies going forward. And what the pandemic did, obviously, was accelerate our response to those recommendations. So, we've completely followed the recommendations of the housing action group, including all of the organisations you've set out there, Mark, and we've been working with them, alongside them, right through the pandemic.
I think the Crisis document that you mentioned is actually Crisis talking about the UK Governments as a whole, not just in Wales, and we've been working very closely with those in terms of how we structure both the response to the pandemic and our response to homelessness going forward.
Carry on, Mark.
I hope that means—
Can you hear?
Yes. Carry on.
Thank you. Well, I hope that means that you will also be engaging with them on delivery and monitoring. Crisis did issue the report you referred to, but they've also raised a number of Welsh-specific questions. They estimate that, on any given night, around 5,200 households in Wales were experiencing some form of homelessness in 2017, and that the housing need for people with an experience of homelessness and for people on low incomes is 4,000 new social homes each year. People with experience of homelessness, they say, can find it challenging accessing and maintaining a permanent home, both in the private and social rented rectors. They say the Welsh Government's phase 2 response focused on innovation, building and remodelling to transform homelessness services to a rapid rehousing model with £15 million financial support. But they said that transformation will require long-term planning and change. So, they asked what plans the Minister has, therefore, both to ensure that people with experience of homelessness are able to access a safe and secure home and the support they need to maintain a home, and for the long-term and increased funding of homelessness services to transition to rapid rehousing and meet demand. They asked me to ask those of you yesterday.
Thank you, Mark. Obviously, I'm very aware of the report from Crisis because the chair of the housing action group was, in fact, Jon Sparkes, the chair of Crisis. So, he's been working with us all the way through this, both to design our response in the first instance to homelessness in Wales—because this was put in place well before the pandemic—and then, of course, our response to the pandemic and, indeed, our response going forward in terms of changing our policy completely so that we have that rapid rehousing approach in Wales. That's exactly what the housing action group report set out, and that's now being reflected in Crisis documents across the UK, and actually, if you read the whole thing, citing Wales as an example of what can be done when we all put our minds to it and pull together. So, absolutely we're working with them going forward, and, as I said to Delyth, we most certainly haven't solved this problem. What we've done is taken the first big step along the path to solving it and, as I also said, there's a consensus across the Chamber that we should continue to do so.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government plans to tackle the issue of second homes across Wales? OQ55860
Diolch, Siân. We are taking an evidence-based, holistic approach, giving proper consideration to the broad range of interests involved. Across Government, we continue to review all the available evidence. Ministerial colleagues, my officials and I have met with a number of Senedd Members, local authorities and academics to further develop our whole-system response to the issues.
I'm not going to apologise for raising this issue again. I'm very grateful to you for the recent discussions between our party and your Government, and I look forward to joining in a virtual meeting between the First Minister and representatives of the Hawl i Fyw Adra campaign next week. But it's one thing to have meetings and assessments and to make the right noises in terms of sympathising and understanding the problem, but it's another thing to take action to prevent the increase in second homes in so many of our areas in the west. Plaid Cymru has outlined some steps that could be taken immediately. So, does your Governments intend to take any specific steps to change the law in relation to planning or finance between now and the Senedd elections in May?
Thank you, Siân. As you know, it's a really complicated problem that we do have a lot of sympathy with, but there isn't a simple solution. We cannot take primary legislative powers between now and the election because we've simply run out of Senedd time in order to do that. So, that just physically isn't possible to do. We have a number of things that we really wanted to get through in this Senedd term and those have all had to be dropped, and we're all pretty heartbroken about it. So, there's no point in my trying to pretend otherwise. There's no chance of us getting new primary legislation through on this point, or any other point, actually, other than those that have already started their passage through the Senedd.
We have already as you know done a large number of things in Wales, including differential land transaction charges and differential council tax regimes, and so on. You'll know that, in the cross-party group that met with us, we're looking again at the data issues to see if we can isolate particular types of housing that we could take action on. It's actually much more complex than it first appears when you try to isolate which particular set of houses you're actually talking about, as you know. And so, I do look forward to the meeting with the First Minister and the campaign group, but it's much more complex than just changing the planning law, for example. So, there are a number of issues, as we discussed at great length in the group last time, that would need to be taken into account.
Can I say I share Siân Gwenllian's concern about second homes, especially when we have a homelessness problem, as we discussed earlier? I will again urge the ending of council tax exemption of houses registered for private holiday letting, which then get business rate exemption and that means people don't pay anything. That doesn't need primary legislation; that just needs action. But student accommodation and short-term lets for employment have been counted into second-home numbers on some lists. That's not particularly helpful. And you know in your own constituency that somebody came up with a third of the houses as being second homes when they're virtually all student accommodation. Does the Government know how many properties are second homes, i.e. used only part of the year or registered for holiday letting?
Thank you, Mike, and the straightforward answer to the question is 'no', because we have no way of distinguishing data for houses such as that. It's very difficult to know whether a house is let out to somebody on a permanent basis, on a holiday-let basis, on a partial holiday-let basis, or used by family and friends. For example, some second homes are permanently occupied by the children of the registered owner. That's quite commonplace in cities, for example, across Wales. There are very high levels of second-home ownership in both Swansea and Cardiff, which we don't have the data for, but it seems quite likely they are occupied by people who work in the cities in the week and go home somewhere else at the weekend. We also know that key workers right across west Wales have houses that they work from during the week and then go home somewhere else in Wales at the weekend. So, it's very, very hard to disaggregate the data in the simple way that you set out.
However, I have a lot of sympathy with the proposition about the small business rate relief not applying to some premises that have flipped, as the non-technical term is, from council tax to business rates as a result of letting out the property, and also what the thresholds for that are, and we are looking at the empirical evidence available to us to understand exactly what that would look like if we reversed it. That's a piece of work that's ongoing. I'm not yet in a position to say whether we will or won't be able to do that.
We have asked all of the authorities particularly affected by this to give us the evidence base that they have, and there are interesting nuances here. We've allowed up to 100 per cent council tax liability on second homes and long-term empty buildings, for example, but nobody has used the 100 per cent. Seven local authorities charge between 25 per cent and 50 per cent, and Powys has recently proposed a 75 per cent premium. So, we need to understand why they're not using the full extent of their powers, and there are a number of other empirical evidence pieces that we need to work through before we can come up with a policy that we know will actually do what we all want it to do. We all want it to have the effect that you set out, but I want to be sure that the policy will have that effect, and not some undesired effect around, for example, housing key workers close to hospitals and so on.
4. What efforts is the Welsh Government making to ensure young people in rural areas are not priced out of their local housing markets? OQ55877
Diolch, Adam. We've made a record investment of £2 billion in affordable housing during this Senedd term. The investment is having a significant impact on the delivery of housing that meets the real needs of Welsh communities, and we are on track to deliver our ambitious 20,000 affordable homes target this term.
Without doubt, and to build upon the responses to the previous question, a huge increase in second homes does undermine any other work that the Government is doing in terms of ensuring that young people in rural areas can access the housing market. What was a problem already, and had been for decades, has now become a huge crisis. And I understand what the Minister says in terms of the numerous technical, legal and administrative difficulties that make this situation difficult and complex, and I welcome the discussion and the analysis that's taken place, but we do need to move quickly now and we need to act. That's the nature of politics—to provide solutions, to take action. That's what we heard from you earlier in terms of homelessness more generally, so can we see the same kind of action now in terms of this crisis in rural Wales? One specific aspect is to provide powers to local authorities to place a cap on the housing stock in a community that can be used as second homes. Can you confirm that you at least support that in principle, and that that should be part of the consensus that you referred to earlier?
Thanks, Adam. I absolutely do share the concern; we absolutely do want our young people to be able to stay in the communities that they grew up in and they wish to contribute to. You'll have heard me say many times in this Chamber that I also live in a village where my children will never live in the village unless something is done about it. Not that I think we should make Government policy based on personal circumstances of Ministers, but just to display that I have a lot of empathy with where you're coming from.
However, we've got to be sure that there are not unintended consequences for some of that. So, we've been looking with interest at the example of capping numbers, for example, in other areas, and they have had some very serious downsides, especially if you go into a recession. So, we have had local people stuck in negative equity and other things as a result of such caps. I'm very actively looking at it, just to be clear, but we just want to be sure that there aren't any unintended consequences. Mike Hedges has just referred to the fact that houses in multiple occupation are very common in university cities; we know that. We have tried, for example, to put density policies in place in those cities, and then prevent other houses from turning. What happens then is that those houses are advertised at twice their normal rate for sale on the market, they aren't able to be sold and then there is a reapplication to the authority to change them into a HMO. So, we need to make sure we haven't got any loopholes and all kinds of workarounds and all the rest of it—or if you buy it through a company or your dad buys it for you—any amount of things that we would need to work through to make sure that the policy would actually work. But I have a lot of sympathy with finding ways to do this.
One of the other things I'm really actively looking at is whether we can scale up our community land trust arrangements, where local people can come together and own housing in that community in a co-operative way. And what that does is it prevents the onward sale of one of the houses to another person outside of the cap and so on. It effectively gives you a golden share so that you can prevent that happening, and it prevents the circumstance in which somebody genuinely buys the house and then meets and marries somebody from somewhere else and goes off and what you do about the fact that the house is suddenly unoccupied.
So, there is a whole series of unintended consequences we do need to work through, but we are doing that, and we've asked the data unit to come up with a lot more data at a more granular scale, so we can have a real look at what we're actually talking about. And in the meeting that Siân Gwenllian and a number of others also attended, for example, we started to look at the land transaction tax data, which I have got here. What that doesn't tell you is whether that house is already a second home, or whether it was built as holiday accommodation. It doesn't tell you anything. It just tells you what the transaction was. So, it's about whether we can get into a situation where we're getting that data, and we can actually make some informed decisions on the back of it without some of the unintended consequences that some of the policies have seen elsewhere in the world.
Minister, one of the planning improvements that was brought into the system in a previous Assembly was the implementation of TAN 6 for rural dwellings. Regrettably, my experience of TAN 6 is that it's now morphed into quite a sophisticated model. Rather than it being an easy model to develop rural properties for rural workers, there's a patchwork of delivery from planning authorities, and it does depend on the postcode that you live in. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the effectiveness of TAN 6 in developing rural dwellings, so that young people can stay in rural communities, where their employment might be based in a rural enterprise?
Thank you, Andrew. That's one of the things that we're looking at in terms of the data that we have. Again, it's one of the things where there is an agricultural requirement on a dwelling, for example, or a local connection requirement—what happens on the second and third sales. So, the short answer to your question is 'yes'; we are looking again to see whether that's actually having the effect it was intended to have, and what data is available to check whether it is effective, or whether we need to do something about it as part of a wider piece of work around this problem, which is, obviously, a very serious problem, and growing ever more serious as the pandemic bites and people realise that they can move out of the cities and into different and rather more beautiful places.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the delivery of local public services in Pembrokeshire? OQ55858
Thank you, Paul. I continue to work very closely with local government, including Pembrokeshire, and other public service leaders on the key lessons learned from the COVID-19 response that will aid our strategic longer term recovery and help define the new normal of the future.
Thank you for that response, Minister. Figures from Pembrokeshire County Council have shown that, in the last year, from April 2019 to April 2020, a total of 72 per cent of all household waste was recycled, which is 10 per cent more than the previous year. To add to that, one of the council's employees, Amanda Absalom-Lowe of Haverfordwest, has been named by BBC Radio 4 as one of 30 inspiring women whose work is making a positive difference to the environment. Minister, will you join with me in congratulating Amanda Absalom-Lowe and Pembrokeshire County Council on this achievement, particularly against the backdrop of what has been a difficult year for councils across Wales? In light of this success, can you tell us what the Welsh Government can do to help to see this good progress maintained and developed for the future?
I'm very delighted to do that, Paul. I'm really pleased with where Pembrokeshire has gone on the waste agenda. They have gone from, as you know, a sort of mixed-use bag type of arrangement to a separated-at-source arrangement. As a result, their recycling rates have rocketed up. I'm really happy to congratulate both them and the officers responsible for doing that. We will, of course, be working across local authorities to make sure that we spread out good practice of that sort much more generally in waste, as well as in every other area. I very much hope, Llywydd, that Stage 4 of my Bill will go through this afternoon. As a result of that, of course, we will be changing—assuming it does go through—to a peer-review system for local authorities, where exactly the kind of excellent practice that you have just outlined, Paul, can be spread around. We can ask the other local authorities, 'Why are you not doing it like this?' as part of the peer-review process. That's very much one of the reasons that we wanted to change the system in local authorities, so that we could do exactly the sort of learning from excellence that you have just outlined.
6. Will the Minister provide an update on the number of rough sleepers in North Wales? OQ55857
Thank you, Mandy. The latest published data is not broken down by region, I'm afraid, but shows that, at the end of August, approximately 101 people were sleeping rough across Wales. While this is unacceptably high, it remains the case that, over the past eight months, thousands have been provided with temporary and with and permanent accommodation.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Once again, I would like to place on record my congratulations for your approach to keeping people off the streets during the pandemic, with the support of all agencies and the third sector, et cetera. I listened earlier to what you said to other speakers, but I'm really concerned to hear that hostels may be forced to reduce the number of rough sleepers they can accommodate due to social distancing measures. Are you able to comment on this, and are you able to reaffirm your commitment to ensuring rough sleepers are supported in some kind of accommodation?
Yes, I'm extremely happy to reaffirm that commitment as I've been doing a number of times already this afternoon—very happy to have another opportunity to do so. Just to be clear, local authorities have been told right across Wales that they are to house everyone who requires to be housed that presents in front of them, so there is no gate keeping. There is no system in place that would allow you to say that that person shouldn't be housed.
Having said that, of course, it is proving more and more and more difficult to find the right kind of accommodation for people. We were very lucky to be able to secure a number of hotels, bed and breakfast arrangements and so on, and university accommodation, but as people go back to normal business that becomes harder and harder. As part of our phase 2 approach, we are building close to 1,000 new houses, which we hope will be up very shortly. They're modern methods of construction, so they're very rapid-build houses. These are beautiful houses; these are not some sort of temporary solution. They are lovely, but 1,000 isn't enough by any means to cover off some of this.
We still have relationship managers from the Welsh Government working in every local authority in Wales, to assist officers on the ground to find the right kinds of accommodation and to put the support packages in place alongside third sector and other partners. We're still very grateful for that. Just to give you an idea of the scale of it, on average it's £1.6 million a month to meet the costs of our inclusive 'everyone in' approach—so about £20 million of additional funding for the emergency response for the full year, just in this year alone. So, we've really committed to this. This isn't an easy thing to do, but we are absolutely funding it and working in partnership with our local authorities and other partners to make sure that we can make it happen.
Minister, over the last year you know I have been working with a number of organisations on a pet-friendly policy—or 'pawlicy', as I like to call it. You know this is aimed at making sure that nobody has to choose between, often, their best friend—their pet—and accessing accommodation. Now, I understand from your response to my policy document that local authorities across Wales are currently formulating homelessness plans. Minister, can you assure me that these plans will include being able to keep your pet and access accommodation?
Absolutely, Jack, and we're really grateful for the policy document being shared with us. We're continuing to work closely with local authorities to support people off the streets, and that includes their pets. Very often, actually, somebody will refuse to come in if it means that their pet is left out, and I completely understand that, and who doesn't? So, we absolutely are making sure that there is accommodation available for people with pets and that they can keep that pet with them, going forward. I'm really grateful to you for sharing the policy with us, and we will be sharing that across the local authorities as we work through this.
7. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government's strategy for delivering the decarbonisation agenda in the social housing sector? OQ55865
Thank you, Nick. Building on the success of the Welsh housing quality standard, social homes are an early priority for action. This will ensure tenants live in quality, energy efficient, low-carbon homes, and we use the opportunity to drive development of a new retrofit industry and innovation for our SMEs and communities.
Thank you, Minister. I think we all support the aims that you've just set out, as do our housing associations, of course. They want to help to deliver on the decarbonisation agenda, but obviously this is going to involve funding, and hopefully that can be done without the cost of rent rises being passed on to the tenants. To avoid some of the most vulnerable tenants having to pay for this policy, are you looking at a scheme that would support housing associations to deliver on this important issue and provide them with mechanisms for raising this funding without passing it all onto the tenants?
Yes, absolutely. There are a range of different things that are being done. First of all, we've got the optimised retrofit programme that I was talking about earlier, where we need to test out what technology, what skills, what retrofit works for each particular type of house. So, we've got a rapid development of that going on across Wales as we speak. We're coming to the end of the Welsh housing quality standard. We have had to extend it for a couple of councils because of the pandemic, so instead of the end of this year it will be the end of next year when we can finally say that every council and RSL in Wales has made the Welsh housing quality standard. We've got used to the Welsh housing quality standard, but when we started it, it was considered to be ridiculous and completely impossible, and yet here we are; we've largely done it across Wales. And, of course, all the money that we invested in that will then be reinvested to make sure that we do it again, but now in the light of the modern technology coming out of the optimised retrofit programme. As I said earlier in response to Joyce Watson, this isn't just a housing programme across the Government; this is jointly sponsored with myself, the Minister for Education and the Minister for economy, exactly for the reasons that I set out. So, this is about building the industry, building the skills and building the technology here in Wales to be able to solve the problem, going forward, not just for the housing, but actually for the employment and technological and skills ability that comes with it.
Finally, question 8, David Melding.
8. What progress has been made since 2016 to improve the quality of the Welsh housing stock? OQ55867
Thank you, David. Between March 2016 and March 2019, compliance with the Welsh housing quality standard in social housing increased from 79 per cent to 93 per cent. This has improved the provision of good quality, safe, secure and suitable homes for some of the poorest and most vulnerable tenants living in social homes in Wales.
I'm very pleased that we have seen great improvements in the quality of social housing, but there's been poor regulation, both in terms of the regulations themselves—the building regs—and their inspection in much of the private housing stock, particularly denser housing. And I just wonder how confident you are that we do not see in the 2020s, when we will face major demand to build more housing units, the sort of problems we've had since the turn of the century in the quality of what many people thought was the highest quality housing available to them.
Absolutely. I was saying earlier, wasn't I, in response to Siân Gwenllian, that we've lost a lot of the legislation that we were hoping to bring forward as a result of the pandemic. One of the ones that I'm most sorry about is the building regs and the revision to Part L and what will now be a White Paper going forward in terms of building standards and building safety.
I think that is consensual across the Chamber. Again, I'd urge us all to have a look at that in manifestos going forward, because I think that the more rapidly we can do that the other side of the election, the absolute better. I outlined—I think it was only a year and a half ago—what we were doing by way of working on that with the various groups, for exactly the reason that you just set out, that we want to make sure that we learn the lessons of the past, the horrible lessons of the past as well, and that, going forward, we have the best housing stock in Europe. So, I'm confident that that will be able to be put in place and I'm pretty sure that every big party in this place is in favour of it. So, the other side of the election, I'm sure that will be a high priority.
I thank the Minister for that item.
The next item is the debate on Stage 4 of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. So, don't sit down, Minister, please, you are putting forward this motion. So, Julie James.
Motion NDM7486 Julie James
To propose that the Senedd in accordance with Standing Order 26.47:
Approves the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill.
Diolch, Llywydd. I move the motion.
I would very much like to begin by thanking the Chairs and members of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, the Legislation, Justice and Constitution Committee and the Finance Committee, as well as other Members who've contributed to the scrutiny of the Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill. I'm also really grateful to all the stakeholders who responded to the consultations on both the White and Green Papers, which informed the Bill, and those who contributed evidence to the scrutiny process. I'm especially grateful to all those in local government who have worked with me and my officials to agree a shared vision for the future and to jointly develop solutions to the challenges they face, which have shaped the final Bill. Lastly, Llywydd, I would just like to pay tribute to the Bill team and the officials in Welsh Government, who've absolutely worked their socks off in supporting the Bill through its very many iterations. It's a year to the day that we introduced the Bill to the Senedd, very nicely.
So, I do acknowledge that the provisions in this Bill have been a long time in the making. The proposals for reforming local government have been subject to much detailed discussion and consultation. It may well have taken several years to get to this point, but I believe we now have a Bill that will deliver effective reform that has been designed with local government.
The Local Government and Elections (Wales) Bill, which was introduced to the Senedd exactly a year ago to the date, provides a broad package of reforms. These include a general power of competence for principal local authorities and eligible community councils and a new performance and governance regime for principal councils. The Bill provides increased opportunities for public participation and transparency in local government to give more power to local people. It includes measures to encourage greater diversity amongst office holders and members in principal councils, such as those relating to job sharing, remote working and family absence.
The Bill will enable corporate joint committees to be established by regulation. These will bring more coherence to regional governance arrangements; they will strengthen local democratic accountability by ensuring that it is local elected members making decisions together about local government services, delivering for people and communities across Wales.
Consultation on the establishment regulations is currently under way until 4 January, and I very much welcome Members' views on those regulations.
The Bill will also improve the electoral arrangements for local government. This includes the extension of the franchise to 16 and 17-year-olds and to foreign citizens legally resident in Wales, allowing them to have a say in how their communities are run. This reflects the rights of 16 and 17-year-olds and qualifying foreign citizens to register and vote in Senedd elections.
The Bill will reform the legislation relating to local government finance, including national non-domestic rates and council tax and strengthen and modernise the operation of local government over a range of miscellaneous matters.
In summary, this Bill will enable us to implement our proposals for strengthening and empowering local government in Wales. It will build resilient and renewed principal and community councils, providing them with better tools to work with each other and with us, their communities, and across all sectors to reconstruct Wales in the light of the coronavirus pandemic. I urge all Members to support this Bill. Diolch.
Corporatism is the theory and practice of organising society into corporations subordinate to the state. It is this approach that has been holding Wales back since 1999, swamping localism and thereby shackling social entrepreneurship and community innovation. This Bill, which could have driven the changes needed, has instead become a missed opportunity. In any body or organisation, top-down leadership blocks the change needed in the way that people, organisations and systems relate to one another, when all concerned should instead be elevating the voices and wisdom of people and communities, recognising that creativity, ingenuity and imagination are widely distributed amongst the population. National and local government should be developing and releasing that potential towards common goals.
In its statement today, on a framework for regional investment in Wales, the Welsh Government states that the Cabinet has agreed to transfer as much decision making and prioritisation to local areas and regions, quote, 'as possible', but then adds that their intended mechanism is the proposed corporate joint committees under this Bill. However, the Minister gave the game away during the debate on Stage 3 of this Bill here last week. As I then stated, given their role in terms of regional infrastructure and economic development, the ability to allow Welsh Ministers to mandate the creation of corporate joint committees also undermines the internal devolution and local partnership working established in areas by bodies such as the North Wales Economic Ambition Board, a coalition involving both Governments, all six north Wales councils, business and academia.
However, whilst acknowledging that principal councils have a wealth of experience in delivering economic functions, including at a regional level, through, for example, the city and growth deals, the Minister then stated that she is hoping that regions will transition their current regional arrangements into the corporate joint committees, once established. But the corporate joint committees are required, under the Bill, to have regard to any guidance that we Welsh Ministers issue in respect of their operations, including their functions, and that the Welsh Ministers will also be able to place limitations on the exercise of the economic well-being function through regulations. This therefore either misunderstands or undermines the key issues I outlined earlier, where the success city and growth deals, or any other local or regional initiatives, depends upon the seeds being planted and nurtured locally.
Effective leadership is about being respectful to others, about unlocking their innate strengths and about being able to delegate. However, throughout her responses during previous Stages to this Bill, the Minister has stated her personal belief in proposals within this Bill, which are directly contradicted by the evidence provided by the expert bodies working in the relevant fields, and then led her party to defeat all our associated amendments.
Dismissing international good practice, she rejected the minimum residency requirements before foreign citizens can vote here. Dismissing the Electoral Reform Society, she rejected a requirement for politics and democracy in Wales to be taught in all Welsh schools. Dismissing academics, she rejected provision to ensure that individuals are not automatically registered on the open electoral register, impacting those individuals who have purposely chosen not to register for fear of being identified by violent former partners or others who may wish them harm.
Dismissing the Welsh Local Government Association, the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives and the Electoral Commission, she rejected proposals to keep one local government voting system for the whole of Wales. Dismissing the Auditor General for Wales, she rejected his argument that those town and community councils wishing to exercise the general power of competence should prepare a strategy for the proper exercise of the power.
Dismissing the Electoral Reform Society Cymru, Building Communities Trust and Co-production Network for Wales, she rejected several proposals to involve local people and locally based community organisations in the making of decisions at all levels of local government in order to deliver sustainable social economic and community regeneration. Instead, as the Building Communities Trust researchers found, people in Wales feel increasingly less able to influence decisions affecting their local area. She even dismissed unanimous evidence from Welsh fire and rescue authorities that the changes to the governance arrangements that this Bill proposes would seem, quote, 'a retrograde step, not without some risk to public and firefighter safety.' And she rejected a duty on the Welsh Government to compensate local authorities for any costs incurred as a result of provisions contained within this Bill. All responsible Members should therefore be opposing this Bill, and we will be voting against it accordingly.
We, as a party, are supportive of a number of aspects of this legislation, particularly extending the franchise to young people at 16 and 17 years old and also those who have chosen to make their home here in Wales. That is to be welcomed and praised, and it's important, and we will be pleased to vote in favour of the legislation this afternoon.
But I have to say that there's been an opportunity missed here too. There was an opportunity to change the culture of local government in so many ways, introducing more equality and to change the voting system at a national level. During discussions on the legislation, the Minister committed to take a number of steps to improve equality and diversity, and we expect and very much hope that those commitments will be acted upon. We would agree with some of the things that Mark Isherwood said about the corporate joint committees too.
Thank you, again, to the clerks and the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee support staff for their hard work. We will hope that there will be further important developments to come in light of this legislation. Thank you.
The Minister to reply.
Diolch, Llywydd. Just to reiterate my thanks to everyone who's worked so hard on the Bill, including the committees and everybody here in the Senedd. Diolch.
In accordance with Standing Order 26.50C, a recorded vote must be taken on Stage 4 motions, so I defer voting on this motion until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The next item, therefore, is the topical questions, but no questions have been accepted today.
And the 90-second statements are therefore next. The first statement comes from Jenny Rathbone.
Thank you, Llywydd. This Friday is Equal Pay Day. For the rest of this year, women are effectively working for nothing because of the shortfall on what they should be earning compared to men. Barbara Castle's Equal Pay Act 1970 was inspired by the strike of Ford Dagenham sewing machinists. They were fed up that their highly skilled work earned them less than men sweeping the factory floor around them. Inspired by the Dagenham women—Ford Bridgend didn't exist at the time—women at the Hoover factory in Merthyr decided to test this new Equal Pay Act in 1970. The Hoover management were willing, but the backlash from the male workforce, supported by their male-dominated trade union leaders, as at Ford, illustrates why it has taken so long to achieve equal pay.
Twice as many women have lost their jobs during the pandemic, as both men and employers assumed that women would take on most of the additional home schooling, housework and childcare during lockdown, and that's exactly what's happened. The latest pay battle is on the football pitch. The Welsh women's football squad is demanding pay parity with the men's team. Women who represent England internationally are already paid the same as their male counterparts, but the Football Association of Wales has yet to pronounce on the merits of equal pay for the Welsh women's team.
This year, we celebrate the centenary of the Association of Wrens and Women of the Royal Naval Services, keeping friends and former comrades in touch. Warrant officer class 1 RNCS Barbara McGregor, living in Aberkenfig, is a trustee of the association. She retires this year, after an exemplary 44 years of service in the Women's Royal Naval Service. She first joined as a Wren radio operator in 1977 and, on transferring to the regulating branch, she came top of a class of 12 men. Deployments at HMS Raleigh Cornwall, the new entry training establishment, first involved training new female ratings for the WRNS, and later, after promotion to master at arms, she trained female and male recruits together for the first time, and where women first went to sea.
Returning in 1994, after the innovation of maternity leave, as office manager of the Royal Navy officers career liaison centre in Bristol, she rose through the ranks to become regional development manager for the Naval Regional Command Wales and Western England, covering armed forces careers offices from Wrexham to Redruth. She had an important role in the NATO summit in Cardiff in 2014, and she was elected to be the most senior warrant officer of the Royal Navy careers service from 2018 to the present day.
She was due to lead the AOW contingent at the cenotaph in Whitehall for the last time as a serving warrant officer, but this was not to be, due to COVID. Instead, she wore her uniform for the final time laying a wreath at the cenotaph in Bryn, near Maesteg, where she is originally from. We pay tribute to Barbara McGregor, warrant officer class 1 RNCS, and all those women who've served valiantly and honourably in our navy, and to the Association of Wrens and Women of the Royal Naval Services on its centenary. Thank you, all.
It's not every day that Wrexham is trending as a news story across the UK—but then it's not every day that two Hollywood superstars become the new owners of Wrexham football club. And since Monday's announcement that fans have voted to accept the offer by Ryan Reynolds and Rob McElhenney, it's been a rollercoaster of media coverage, and the town is absolutely buzzing. The third oldest professional club in the world has had a few ups and downs in the past—both on and off the pitch, with the famous victory against Arsenal remaining, for me, and I'm sure many others, a particular highlight.
The two new prospective owners have stressed that they understand and respect the club's deep community roots, its heritage, and its affinity with the Gresford disaster. They're fans. And unlike some previous owners, they're not in it for a quick buck. And as this chapter starts, we shouldn't forget, of course, the work that Wrexham Supporters' Trust have carried out to safeguard the club for future generations—thousands of unpaid volunteers have invested money, time and effort into their community club, and should be proud of their contribution.
I saw the First Minister congratulate the new owners yesterday, and there'll be significant increased international media coverage of the capital of north Wales over the coming months. We've also seen how the shirt sponsor—a certain Ifor Williams, or 'E-for Williams', as apparently they're now known—they've already benefited from the marketing skills of the two prospective owners. A video promoting the Corwen-based trailer firm racked up more than 4 million views in barely a few hours.
This is a great boost for the town, and for all of north Wales, after what of course has been a pretty grim and gloomy year. And I look forward, as I'm sure all Members of this Senedd do, to the next chapter in the club's illustrious history.
Very good. We will now suspend proceedings for a short period to allow changes in the Siambr. So thank you, and we'll return in a few minutes.
Plenary was suspended at 15:34.
The Senedd reconvened at 15:39, with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Neil Hamilton.
Okay. So, item 6 on the agenda this afternoon, then, is the Member debate under Standing Order 11.21 on housing asylum seekers at the Penally military base, and I call on Joyce Watson to move the motion—Joyce.
Motion NDM7455 Helen Mary Jones, Joyce Watson, Leanne Wood
Supported by John Griffiths, Llyr Gruffydd, Mick Antoniw
To propose that the Senedd:
1. Believes that the UK Government should have held discussions with the Welsh Government and local representatives before housing asylum seekers at the Penally military base, near Tenby.
2. Believes that the decision should be reconsidered because it is an unsuitable place for asylum seekers, as it is isolated from appropriate support networks.
3. Condemns the violent protests organised by far-right groups from outside Pembrokeshire.
4. Praises local residents and volunteers from across Wales who have welcomed and supported the asylum seekers.
Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I move the motion on behalf of myself, Leanne Wood and Helen Mary, who will be closing the debate. It's also supported by John Griffiths, Mick Antoniw and Llyr Gruffydd, and I thank them for that. I'm sure most of our colleagues would support our motion, as would the vast majority of people that we serve. Not all Members of this Chamber do share our view, and Neil Hamilton's shameful amendment attests to that. He describes voluntary groups opposed to racism, hate and fascism as the extreme left. But then we're talking about a man who once was the guest of honour at a private club that called for the return of civilised rule to South Africa, by which, of course, he meant white supremacy. So, I'd expect nothing less from him, and I'll move on.
As you know, Llywydd, in September, the UK Government, without consulting the Welsh Government, local authorities, health boards or residents, and without providing additional funds for either Pembrokeshire council or Hywel Dda University Health Board, announced that around 200 asylum seekers would be housed at the Penally former military camp near Tenby. It now houses around 250 men.
It should go without saying that a military camp is never a suitable place to house people who have fled oppression and war, who've experienced unimaginable hardship and trauma and been separated from their families, and especially not an old and run-down one like Penally. I know it's old, because my father used to train recruits there when he was a staff sergeant. It was pretty grim then, and, by all accounts, the conditions there are now appalling. It jeopardises the men's physical and mental health and their dignity as human beings. And yet the Home Office has repeatedly failed to address the poor living conditions at Penally. I'm afraid it's a case of out of sight, out of mind, and it's part of the Home Secretary's wider hostile environment policy that's being used to persecute vulnerable new arrivals to Britain. According to leaked reports last weekend, even Home Office officials are concerned that children's welfare is being endangered by the intention to prosecute refugees for immigration offences.
Meanwhile, it is the good people of Pembrokeshire who are looking after these men, without any money and without any expertise. It's unprecedented in Wales, let alone Pembrokeshire, let alone a small village, to process and care for such a large number of people seeking asylum in this way. We're talking about a place with one shop, for goodness' sake. We simply do not have the capacity and the capability to accommodate this sort of facility in west Wales.
There are four dispersal centres in Wales—Cardiff, Swansea, Newport and Wrexham. And I know from my work with the human trafficking cross-party group that they have well-established pathways and infrastructures to care for asylum seekers, to attend to their needs in accommodation, healthcare, pastoral and cultural support, as well as legal advice, and all those other needs. There's nothing like that, nor funding for it, in Pembrokeshire. That said, for all the difficulties, local people and public service providers are doing their very best to look after these men. Hywel Dda health board has worked tirelessly to organise and deliver core and enhanced healthcare services. At the same time, they're dealing with the unprecedented challenge of a global pandemic. Pembrokeshire council has set up a website to keep local people up to date with what's happening at the camp, and the police presence in Penally and Tenby has been stepped up to reassure residents. And that in itself is, of course, putting huge strain on their local budgets, which they're not getting any recompense from the UK Government for.
The Welsh Government continues to work closely with local partners to minimise risks and maximise the welfare of everyone affected. And voluntary organisations have lived up to our promise as a nation of sanctuary. As anyone who has ever visited Pembrokeshire knows—and, after this summer, I believe that must be at least half the population of Britain—we are warm and welcoming people. The large majority of locals have responded to the Home Office imposition with compassion and with care. A few local groups are now co-ordinating on-site support for the men, and there's a scheme to purchase mobile phones. The Home Office confiscates refugees' phones on arrival, but they are vital; they enable those refugees to contact their loved ones, to talk to lawyers if they need to, and many other things besides. But with the best will in the world, it is not a sustainable situation. Penally is not a suitable location and west Wales cannot, at this time, deliver the complex support and care that these men need, and what they actually deserve. It's not fair to anyone. The Home Office must intervene now. Thank you.
I have selected the amendment to the motion, and I call on Neil Hamilton to move amendment 1, tabled in his name. Neil.
Amendment 1—Neil Hamilton
Delete all and replace with:
To propose that the Senedd:
1. Condemns the disorder that has occurred from within the Penally military base, near Tenby, during its housing of asylum seekers in recent weeks, which has resulted in regular police attendance.
2. Notes reports of five arrests of asylum seekers resident in the Penally military base on 10 November 2020 and reports of two arrests from within the base in October 2020.
3. Further notes reports of asylum seekers resident in the Penally military base breaking coronavirus regulations and guidance and engaging in disorderly behaviour when travelling outside of it; and the consequent distress caused to Penally residents.
4. Believes that a partial cause of the situation at Penally is the failure of the UK Government to implement humane, firm and fair immigration and border controls which ensure that foreign non-UK-residents, and particularly those who have been refused asylum claims or refused the right to reside in other safe countries, do not illegally enter or remain in the UK.
5. Further believes that another partial cause of the situation at Penally is the Welsh Government's nation of sanctuary plan, which encourages foreign non-UK residents to enter the UK illegally and then make claims for asylum whilst located in Wales.
6. Strongly condemns the sometimes violent, intimidating, subversive and covert behaviour of extreme-left political parties and organisations, including Stand Up To Racism, Hope Not Hate and Far Right Watch Wales, that is directed towards people who express legitimate and reasonable political views in relation to the situation in Penally.
7. Believes that the views of Penally residents are at least as important as those people who are referred to as volunteers, stakeholder groups, and representatives; and praises the majority of Penally residents who are in favour of humane, firm and fair immigration and border controls in the UK, and applied to Penally specifically.
8. Believes that the housing of asylum seekers at the Penally military base should be discontinued.
Amendment 1 moved.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer, and I agree with most of what the proposer of the motion has just said, but it's what she didn't say that I want to focus on in this debate.
First of all, I want to focus upon our constituents in Penally, who don't share the enthusiasm in both the Labour Party and Plaid Cymru for unrestricted immigration to this country. And I think their views certainly are worthy of expression in this Chamber. The idea that my amendment should in any way be regarded as shameful is actually an insult to the huge number of people, both in Pembrokeshire and more widely in Wales, who take the same view of this problem as I do.
The second point I want to make is that there are two Governments responsible for this debacle in Penally. First of all, of course, and principally, the Conservative Government at Westminster that's responsible for dumping these people in a wholly unsuitable location. I fully agree with Joyce on that. But, of course, this is just one reflection of the total collapse of the Government's immigration policy and the fiasco of our border control system.
But the second Government—the one in Cardiff: the Welsh Government—is also partly responsible because they've been virtue-signalling about Wales as a nation of sanctuary—that we're open to all-comers—while there are hundreds of millions of people around the world who'd like to come to Britain, no doubt, in order to better their lives and who can blame them? But we just cannot responsibly have an immigration system that allows everybody and anybody to come into this country.
Now, it is important that the United Kingdom should be able to provide refuge for those in genuine need whilst deterring false claimants and removing those whose claims have been rejected. Britain has an honourable history of fulfilling its obligations under the various refugee and asylum conventions that have been in existence for 100 years. The UN convention of 1951, which is currently in force, says that we are obliged to protect anybody arriving in this country, who, if he were returned to country of origin, had some well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, political belief or membership of a particular social group. There is absolutely no disagreement between us on this point—it's basic humanitarian obligation.
But, of course, we're not dealing here with asylum seekers in the normal sense. They haven't arrived immediately from some war-torn country. Most of them, as I understand it, if not all of them, have actually arrived from France, across the channel in small boats. France is not a country where they were persecuted. France is a safe country. So, they're not seeking asylum in Britain for the reasons that are permitted under the UN 1951 convention.
Now, the asylum system in this country is now under vast strain, because of these armies of people who are trying to enter this country illegally. Just over half of all asylum cases are eventually successful and 38 per cent have their applications granted at the initial stage, and 17 per cent are granted after appeal. But well over 40 per cent are refused asylum, or have been in the years between 2004 and 2018. And of those, 40 per cent, even after their appeals have been refused, still remain in this country; they're not deported and sent back to the country from which they have come. That's about 120,000 people, over that 14-year period, who've arrived in this country illegally and are still here illegally. Asylum-related accommodation is now costing us £400 million a year, and the total costs of our asylum system are now approaching £1 billion a year. That is money that could be much more profitably applied to things like the health service than the purposes to which it is applied. What we're dealing with in the case of the residents of this camp in Penally is economic migrants. You know, they are abusing the immigration system in order to try to better their lives. I've no objection to them trying to better their lives, but they should do it within the law.
The Dublin regulation of the EU says that asylum seekers should be dealt with in the first member state where their fingerprints are stored or their asylum claim is lodged, so that country would be responsible for their asylum claim. Because of the Schengen agreement, of course, those who are arriving on the shores of Greece can immediately set off on a journey to the coast of the English channel on the French side, and I'm afraid that is the EU's problem, because they have utterly failed to deal with the asylum difficulties in recent years.
Indeed, this is recognised: Frans Timmermans, who was the first Vice-President of the European Commission in 2015, said that of 120,000 migrants who had arrived in the EU by December 2015, 60 per cent were from countries where you can assume they have no reason whatsoever to ask for refugee status. We see in the figures of those crossing the channel in small boats the same problem, but to a much lesser degree, on our doorstep. In 2018, there were 299 illegal migrants who had crossed the channel in small boats. In 2019, a year later, the figure was up by eight times, to 1,835, and in 2020, there are 8,220 who've arrived by those means so far.
Can I ask you to wind up, please? Just bring your conclusions to a close, please.
I am in fact doing that. So, I believe that what is happening in Penally and in Folkestone and in other places is unfair to law-abiding citizens of this country and to those who are legally trying to enter it through the normal immigration channels. I believe that it has brought the asylum system into disrepute and I believe it is unfair to the British people, both in Pembrokeshire and more widely.
I'd like to ask Members to imagine this: a bomb goes off and in a split second your life is turned upside down. A conflict has broken out and there's fighting in your street. The communities that you once called home are no longer safe, and your life, and your families lives, are at risk. You've got two options: to remain in your country, risk your life and the lives of your family members, or flee—get out, go abroad to live if you can. What would you do? I know what I would do if I was given that option.
And that is the choice faced by many of the people who now find themselves far away from home in Pembrokeshire. While they wait for the Home Office to make decisions, they are housed in cramped and damp conditions in a former military camp, while some people claim to know that they are bogus or illegal, despite the fact that they are yet to have their cases heard. It is a particular cruelty to force people who have fled conflict to live in an army base. It's particularly problematic for those who've witnessed unspeakable barbarity at the hands of soldiers in their home countries.
The far-right politicians who love an opportunity to attack immigrants, and who have milked this episode for all that it's worth, often cite the fact that asylum seekers and immigrants are offered accommodation while thousands of people are living on the streets. Two years ago, Plaid Cymru's Westminster team found that up to 66,000 ex-services veterans in the UK were either homeless, suffering with mental health problems, or were in prison. That's a damning indictment of the treatment of military personnel in the UK, and the homeless figures in Wales are also appalling and should be tackled with much greater urgency than we have seen, not just because this gives the far right ammunition to attack asylum seekers with, but because it's the right thing to do. It's also the right thing to give armed service personnel access to the support they need, not just when they're in active service, but upon leaving the military so that they can better adjust to civilian life.
As long as there are people on the streets and as long as there are people who are having to go without basics like food as well as shelter, people will feel aggrieved and they will feel that the system is unfair. And I would agree, the system is unfair. As a Government, the Welsh Government is partly responsible for that system, too. The Welsh Government can also do much more to influence Westminster to get more suitable accommodation for asylum seekers in more suitable locations.
As I've already said, this sorry episode has been whipped up by people with clear political agendas. One of them has tabled a set of crass amendments to the motion that we are debating today. Now I don't deny that some of these politicians were vile racists before they came to the Senedd, but some are also chancers and grifters, scrambling for a means to remain relevant and carry on with their career. People are sharing their poisonous propaganda online about asylum seekers, people who are struggling and falling for these easy explanations that people from abroad are coming here to take advantage of this fantastic benefits system that we all know about. Many of these people have every right to be angry with a society that has failed them and their families. What is not right is how they are, with encouragement, lashing out, but they're lashing out at the wrong target.
We must tackle the conditions that allow the politics of hate to grow, and that responsibility lies with this Government as well as Westminster. I have been heartened by the counter-protests and the outpouring of support from local people, who have shown that Wales can be an understanding and compassionate country. That's the Wales that I want to see more of, and that's the Wales that I will continue to work for.
It is regrettable that the motion before us, whilst saying 'not here' does not propose where the asylum seekers should go, given the sheer scale of the humanitarian crisis at present. This lack of recognition within the motion of the reach of the problem and the wholly expected intolerant tone of the amendment by Neil Hamilton has simply turned the difficult situation at Penally into a political football.
Before I address three key areas, I would like to remind Members that the UK has a statutory obligation to provide support and accommodation to asylum seekers who would otherwise be destitute. The real issues that need to be addressed are the geopolitical realities that drive most people to our shores—fear and poverty—and the wealthier countries must address these realities in a meaningful way, or this migration of the oppressed and the dispossessed will continue.
As to the situation in Penally, we all accept that the Home Office should have discussed their intention to use the barracks at Penally with the Welsh Government and should also have undertaken their normal consultation processes with the community and local services. However, we must also recognise that the Home Office is under immense pressure, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. They continue to support asylum seekers where normally their support would have stopped. They were unable to repatriate those whose applications had failed, and we must remember that the numbers of people being supported or assessed have risen from 45,000 to almost 60,000 individuals in a matter of months. And of course, all settings need to be COVID compliant.
The Ministry of Defence offered both Penally and, indeed, Napier barracks in Kent as temporary solutions and, given the pressures the asylum system is under, normal consultation processes were set aside, and the Home Office moved at speed because they literally had nowhere to put people. I have made my concerns known to the Home Office at length, and I am pleased that the Home Office are now liaising with the Welsh Government and, via a strategic engagement forum, are working with Public Health Wales, Hywel Dda University Local Health Board and Dyfed-Powys Police. I'm also pleased that officials from the Home Office took part in a local event to answer questions from the community. I recognise, and so should others, that there are very few other places available for asylum seekers in this current crisis. But whilst they're at Penally, I have asked the Home Office to fund any costs incurred by Hywel Dda and by Dyfed-Powys in the course of their support for the asylum seekers.
I turn to the camp itself. Whilst acknowledging that a military camp is not an appropriate setting for asylum seekers who've suffered internment or been in a conflict, we should also recognise that these are not individuals just landed, but have been in the UK for some time, are undergoing assessment of their cases, and have already received some medical intervention. That is why they're not in a dispersal centre—because they're still going through the process. I have sought assurances from the Home Office about the contractor and their obligations to provide warm and safe accommodation, decent food, support for their mental and physical needs, activities for the men, translation services, and help with paperwork, and I have been assured that the accommodation, which until recently was used by our soldiers, is suitable and meets existing asylum accommodation standards and complies with relevant housing legislation. I'm also assured that the contractor is acting, where appropriate, to augment what was in place, taking account of feedback from service users, and that all asylum seekers have access to a 24/7 advice, issue reporting and eligibility service provided for the Home Office by Migrant Help, where they can raise any concerns regarding accommodation.
Finally, I would like to recognise and thank the wider Pembrokeshire community. I'm very grateful to the many individuals and organisations who have offered help, from the adjoining communities of Penally and Tenby to local faith leaders and many charities. I did have e-mails raising concerns from constituents, and no wonder, because stories abound of asylum seekers behaving badly. And yet, the reality is that, like any community, the behaviour of a handful of stroppy or aggressive people tarnish the many, who recognise due process, are grateful to be in the system, and who hope for a positive future. I had many more emails from people asking how they could help or raising concerns about the stroppy and aggressive agitators clogging the lanes, weeing in their gardens and intimidating passers-by—all genuine concerns. And again, I reiterate my previous comments in the Senedd that the people of Pembrokeshire are good samaritans, they are welcoming and tolerant, and I pay tribute to them. I would also like to thank the Deputy Minister and the Secretary of State for the various discussions. I appreciate their measured stance on the difficulties of finding safe accommodation for asylum seekers in these current times, the inappropriateness of the camp and the need to meet our international obligations. I remain grateful for their willingness to engage. Finally, I'd like to thank the stakeholders who are working so hard to support all the communities involved, and I will continue to press for resources and for an end to the camp being used for asylum seekers.
I think I've already said enough, Deputy Presiding Officer, on the amendment. Overall, I feel it is regrettable that some seek to make political capital out of a desperately difficult situation, and I and my colleagues will have no part of it.
I think your mike's open, Mr Antoniw.
Okay. Thank you, Deputy Llywydd; I was waiting to hear from you.
My focus is going to be on the refugees themselves as human beings who are now the subject of attack, intimidation and persecution by the far right, sadly encouraged by a Member of this Senedd, Neil Hamilton, who I believe brings shame on this Senedd. It comes as no surprise to us that the Member has become a cheerleader for the far right, as he has throughout his entire unpleasant political career as an apologist in the past for racist South Africa, for the fascist regime in Chile, and for various far-right and corrupt movements throughout the world. As one resident said in Penally, the protest has now been taken over by far-right, out-of-town racists, and we know who their cheerleader is.
I agree very much with the statements of Angela Burns and of Leanne Wood. Leanne asked us to imagine the choices faced by these refugees, and I can imagine it, because this is the background I was brought up in. My father was a refugee from Ukraine after the war. He said he ended up here because of Hitler, but couldn't go back because of Stalin. I was brought up in a community of people who had been through oppression, torture and imprisonment. I remember the one man who, as a 15-year-old boy, was taken as slave labour by the Germans. He couldn't talk about his experience without crying. Another had been in Stalin's gulag. My father himself when he came to this country was put into a resettlement camp in Dundee. Two of my close friends as I grew up, their parents had come from Sachsenhausen concentration camp. And all I really ask is this: how are those people I was brought up with any different whatsoever to the people who are now in Penally? They are no different.
My dad and the community I was brought up in, they all spoke so warmly of the welcome they received from the people of Great Britain when they came here, and it taught me really one lesson, one lesson that carries through from my experience through to what is happening now, which is that these refugees are our brothers and they're our sisters, they're exactly the same as us, they have the same rights and the same entitlements. I totally refute the comments made by Neil Hamilton. I just have this one message: we're all brothers and sisters together and you are all welcome here in Wales, just as many refugees have been through the history of Wales. We welcome you here and we will do everything we can to support you and to look after you and to express solidarity with you. Thank you, Deputy Llywydd.
Thank you. Can I call on the Deputy Minister and the Chief Whip, Jane Hutt?
Thank you, Deputy Llywydd. I'd like to thank Helen Mary Jones, Joyce Watson and Leanne Wood, supported by Mick Antoniw, John Griffiths and Llyr Gruffydd, for bringing forward this important debate. Can I also thank those Members—bar one—who have contributed constructively to the debate? The Welsh Government's position is clearly in line with the Members' motion. The First Minister wrote to the Minister for immigration, Chris Philp, on 9 October, urging the closure of the Penally training camp. I raised this matter with the immigration Minister on 3 November, and I will discuss it again with him on 25 November, when we're meeting specifically to talk about the Penally camp. Last week, I had a meeting with key stakeholders working to address issues raised by Penally, and there was unanimous agreement that this facility is not fit for purpose. Fundamentally, placement of asylum seekers in the Penally military base is unsuitable, unsustainable and unsafe. This decision made by the Home Office, without consultation or a clear strategy to ensure that the needs of those housed at the base had been met, was wrong. The decision not to engage meaningfully with the community or public bodies was wrong, and the failure to implement adequate safeguards to ensure the site was safe and suitable was also wrong.
Decisions relating to the asylum and immigration system, of course, are reserved to the UK Government. However, the impact of that system on Welsh communities and public services makes it entirely appropriate for us to be consulted and engaged fully on this issue, and to seek an arrangement that builds community cohesion and integration. The Welsh Government was only notified of these proposals on 11 September, and even then, we were told that a decision had not been made about whether to use the camp. But, 10 days later, the camp was already open. The UK Government should have held meaningful discussions with local residents, the local authority, the local health board and the Welsh Government before deciding to accommodate asylum seekers at the Penally military base.
Our concerns about the appropriateness of the accommodation and location being used for this purpose have deepened over the past eight weeks since the camp opened. There is a clear risk of retraumatising those who have fled conflict and war by accommodating them in a military base. The specialist services required to support asylum seekers are also limited in this location, as has been said in this debate. The site itself poses inherent safeguarding and COVID-19 infection risks, and we fundamentally disagree with the Home Office; we say that this site is not COVID compliant.
We're working with all the relevant partners to ensure that these concerns and crucial public health matters are recognised and addressed. We've made repeated, reasoned approaches to the Home Office to make changes to protect the health and well-being of asylum seekers relocated to Penally. The changes are disgracefully slow to be implemented, if they're agreed at all. Public bodies are yet to receive any financial help from the Home Office to deliver services during a time when they are under unprecedented pressure from other issues such as COVID-19, as Joyce Watson said. The Welsh Government itself is committed to the vision of Wales becoming a nation of sanctuary, and I want to remind Mr Hamilton that it was this Assembly, as a result of a report undertaken by John Griffiths chairing the committee—that cross-party committee, the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee—that we actually endorsed Wales being a nation of sanctuary. I was proud to meet with refugees during Refugee Week earlier this year in June to take stock of our progress with the plan, to hear their views as how we can move forward to ensure that refugees and asylum seekers are fully supported when they come to Wales.
Can I take the opportunity to thank our Welsh local authorities, who do embrace their responsibilities in the dispersal areas, and those cities, towns, universities and villages who are committing to the nation of sanctuary principles in Wales? And I thank those authorities who are also responding to the needs of unaccompanied asylum-seeking children with the backing of the Welsh Government. Our vision is about supporting people to rebuild their lives and make a full contribution to Welsh society. It's key that people are able to access services, are protected from harm and are able to begin their integration journey from day one of arrival in Wales, but the Penally camp does not allow this to happen. Those accommodated are forced to share facilities with individuals they don't know, who are from very different backgrounds. They are experiencing stressful circumstances, and the camp management is not resourced sufficiently to support them in this way.
I've been very impressed, as has been expressed this afternoon, by the level of support that has been offered to those within the camp—the warm and welcoming people of Pembrokeshire. Angela Burns made that point a few weeks ago in the Senedd, as well as Eluned Morgan meeting with local people, and Leanne making the point as well. This support has included basic necessities and tokens of Wales, as well as informal conversations, clubs, mentoring, and the Wales TUC has been involved. We fully support the right of the local community to raise concerns about the way in which this site was implemented. And I'd actually like to thank those local residents who have submitted correspondence to ourselves, to local representatives, and also questions to the Home Office and other organisations. Expressing views about the site must be peaceful in a way that doesn't retraumatise anyone seeking due process within the UK. Everyone has the right to apply for asylum, and we should protect and respect those individuals whilst their application is being heard. The Home Office has claimed that opening Penally was necessary due to pressure on the asylum system, but the real answer to this problem is clear: asylum application processing needs to be quicker, and this is particularly the case for those living in unsuitable accommodation such as this.
But finally, Llywydd, in support of the Members' motion today, as we call for the closure of the Penally camp—and this does respond to the point that Angela Burns made—we need to call on the UK Government to come forward with a plan to halt all further transfers to the camp and accommodate the service users in appropriate settings to meet their needs, respect their dignity and commit to progressing their asylum applications as a matter of urgency. We thank the police, the local authorities, the NHS, the third sector, the faith communities—all our partners—for their flexibility and resourcefulness over the last few months. The restraint and support shown by Dyfed-Powys Police, Hywel Dda University Health Board, Pembrokeshire council—all rising up to try and address this need. But we will work with the UK Government and all those responsible for refugees and asylum seekers to progress this—this plan that we need now—within our powers, to close this camp, and accommodate all those service users in appropriate settings. I believe this will reflect the will of this Government and this Senedd today.
Thank you. No Member has indicated to make an intervention, therefore I call Helen Mary Jones to reply to the debate.