|Statement by the Llywydd|
|1. Questions to the First Minister|
|2. Business Statement and Announcement|
|Motions to Elect Members to Committees|
|3. Statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance: Update on European Transition|
|4. Statement by the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning: Progress Report on the Employability Plan|
|5. Statement by the Minister for Housing and Regeneration: Park Homes|
|6. Debate on the General Principles of the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill|
|7. Motion to agree the financial resolution in respect of the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill|
|8. Voting Time|
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I call Members to order. I would like to welcome a new Member this afternoon—Helen Mary Jones—who is the new Member for the Mid and West Wales region. We look forward very much to your contributions, Helen Mary Jones, both here in the Siambr and beyond. I call on you to make an early statement. Helen Mary Jones.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. It goes without saying that nobody would wish to find themselves returned to this Chamber under the circumstances that I face. And I have to say that it was a difficult decision to make to return. I want to express my gratitude this afternoon to Swansea University for releasing me from my commitments to them early, to enable me to be here today. And I want to thank all of those who have supported me through the transition—to the staff of the Plaid Cymru group and my fellow Plaid Members. I want to say a particular thank you to some of the Assembly staff. I want to mention Jodie Franklin, who was the best buddy in the world, in terms of getting me through all the processes, and the amazing AnnMarie Fray, who has the unenviable job of trying to get me sorted out with my IT.
Once the decision to return had been made, it felt like the right thing to do, and I would not want to leave this Chamber, Llywydd, with the impression that I am taking on this role with any sense of reluctance. On the contrary, I am looking forward to serving my constituents in Mid and West Wales, working for them, advocating for them, on the broad range of issues that are of concern to them in this challenging time, and I'm looking forward to holding the Government to account on their behalf and on the behalf of the people of Wales.
Llywydd, I am aware that times have changed since I last stood in this Chamber; my values have not. At the heart of what I will do will continue to be my commitment to the struggle for social justice, particularly for the rights of children and the liberation of women and girls.
It gives me great pleasure also to announce, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, that the Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Act 2018 was given Royal Assent on 9 August 2018.
So, that brings us to item 1 on the agenda, namely questions to the First Minister, and the first question today is from Joyce Watson.
1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the roll-out of universal credit in Wales? OAQ52616
Well, I remain deeply concerned about the fundamental flaws of universal credit. I'm disappointed that the UK Government is persisting with its roll-out. The National Audit Office’s findings on universal credit highlight many issues that we have also repeatedly raised with the UK Government.
Thank you for that. I arranged a poverty round-table during the summer in Carmarthenshire, and there were representatives at that round-table from the Trussell Trust. They told me that demand for food parcels has increased by 52 per cent where universal credit has been rolled out. There has been a 13 per cent increase in Carmarthenshire in the past year alone. We all know that one in four claimants fall into debt because they haven't received their first payment on time, and that four in 10 claimants are struggling to pay council tax, rent and bills. And Disability Rights UK has said, given the dire state of the universal credit system, that they find it beyond belief that a responsible Government would carry on migrating people into a system that clearly doesn't work. Given all of that, and I'm sure that you agree with most of it, in the meantime, what is the Government—this Government—doing to support my constituents who are already in receipt of universal credit and those who are to find themselves in that position very shortly?
Well, we remain committed to ensuring that the most vulnerable people in our society have access to free and independent advice on social welfare law issues, including debt, welfare, and money management. Through our financial inclusion work, we provide around £6 million a year, which is used to fund projects that deliver advice services within all 22 local authority areas, and we know that the funding is making a difference to people's lives. During last year—in other words, between April 2017 and March 2018—the funding supported over 73,000 people, helping them to access over £53 million of welfare benefit income for people supported. And I know that universal credit advice events have taken place across several areas around Wales.
As you might be aware, the Department for Work and Pensions has recruited community partner teams from people with lived experience of disability from external bodies, primarily third sector bodies, on a 12-month project to shape the support for disabled people and people with health conditions. Last Friday, at the Assembly cross-party autism group meeting held in Wrexham, there was a presentation from the DWP community partnership team for north and mid Wales—again, not civil servants; these are people who work in the disability sector, some of whom are disabled themselves. They told us that they are providing advice and training to job coaches in job centres to enable a better understanding and support, but it's only a 12-month project—2018 to 2019. What, if any, involvement or oversight has the Welsh Government had in this programme, and will you join the cross-party autism group in considering a call for that 12-month programme to be extended?
Well, it's not clear whether that programme is one that we have funded directly through local authorities, but the Member will have heard the answer I gave earlier. I can say that around £3 million per annum of debt advice funding currently administered by the Money Advice Service via the financial levy will be devolved to Welsh Government when the single financial guidance body will be set up We expect that to happen in January of next year. And that, of course, will assist us in making sure that we have the right level of support in place.
In correspondence to the UK Government in July, the housing and regeneration Minister wrote to the UK Government expressing concerns with universal credit, and the Minister in that letter called for, for example, greater support for those less digitally literate. I would say that that's something that could have been done easily if you passed the financial inclusion Bill that I had put forward. Other concerns were raised, such as being consistent with alternative payment arrangements. These are, fundamentally, administration changes that this Government could do for those vulnerable people, if you chose to do so. So, why do you, time and time again, refuse to take responsibility for wanting those administration changes to be brought upon the Welsh Government when you could be helping the most vulnerable in our society? Surely, we should take anything you say on universal credit with a pinch of salt.
But at a cost, because with administration there always comes a cost, and the costs are usually significant. I would rather see the issues dealt with in this way—instead of costs going on administration, that money being given to universal credit claimants, and secondly, of course, to see a Labour Government elected in London who will rectify the situation properly.
2. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government about the future of regional policy in Wales? OAQ52611
Well, we take every opportunity to discuss with the UK Government the interests of Wales, including our devolved responsibility over regional policy, and, of course, it would be important that whatever happens in the future respects devolution.
I thank the First Minister for that response, and I'm sure the First Minister would agree that European structural funds have been hugely beneficial to Wales, both in helping individuals, helping communities, supporting infrastructure projects, creating jobs and developing partnership working. Does he have any knowledge about how the UK Government plans to operate the shared prosperity fund in the future?
Well, there's been some discussion between officials, but the detail is scant. Our position remains clear that economic policy is a devolved responsibility in Wales. We should be given the replacement funding we were promised two years ago: Wales would not lose a penny of funding. The reality is that the UK Government has very limited powers to directly fund and deliver regional economic development in Wales, in any event, without further legislation. It would drive a coach and horses, of course, through the devolution settlement that people have voted for on two occasions.
Now, we, of course, will continue to develop our own policy in terms of developing our economy, but it's absolutely crucial that there's no attempt at a power grab if the shared prosperity fund fails to respect devolution.
First Minister, I fully appreciate that the Welsh Government is still awaiting details, the finalised details, of the shared prosperity fund, and its vitally important that, within Wales, we do have an effective replacement to the structural funds that we have benefited from, depended upon for a very long time. Albeit we are in the situation we are, can you give us that assurance that your officials are doing their best at this moment in time to develop at least a framework going forward so that when we do have full details of that shared prosperity fund, the people of Wales, and industry within Wales, are best placed and on the best footing to take the most advantage of it and get on with the job for Wales?
The difficulty is, of course, the lack of detail as to how the fund will operate: how much money there'll be in the fund, for example; whether it'll be a fund where there will be a bidding process, which, of course, would cut across devolution; whether it will operate in the same way as the current European funds operate. In the absence of that detail, of course, it's difficult to put forward proposals as to how that fund might operate in Wales, but I can say that the finance Secretary is scheduled to deliver an oral statement next month, which will set out the next steps for the development with stakeholders of a regional policy post Brexit.
First Minister, I appreciate it may be rather difficult to be negotiating with the Brexit process as it stands. Will you agree with me that you could, of course, have strengthened your own hand by rejecting and refusing to accept what you've described as a power grab? Have you any idea—I would fully accept that this is not within your gift—of the time frame by which we will know more about the shared prosperity fund and the extent to which your Government will be able to deliver it in Wales?
I can't give a timescale on the shared prosperity fund because it's not our timescale and not our fund. In terms of the situation that she—. I should welcome her, of course, back to the Assembly—forgive me for that.
In terms of what the Member has described, the Scottish Government now finds itself in court. We don't know what the outcome of that will be, but, of course, if the Supreme Court rules against the Scottish Government, that opens up any number of difficult avenues as far as devolution is concerned.
We took the decision that we did on the basis that we felt that it was a good agreement for Wales—not everything we would've wanted, of course, but that's the nature of an agreement. The Scottish Government at the moment—well, is it in a more powerful position? I'd argue not, because, of course, it's fighting its case in court.
Questions now from party leaders. The leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, can you tell us why you vetoed some of the proposed recent changes to the operational protocol recommended by Paul Bowen into the independent Queen's Counsel inquiry into the events surrounding Carl Sargeant's death?
Can I welcome the Member to his position as leader of the opposition? He's asked me questions before, of course, and now he is officially in place. No doubt we will tussle in this Chamber over the next few months.
The answer to his question is: I haven't vetoed anything.
Well, let me remind the First Member what he said in his statement last week. You made it clear in your statement that these proposals were significant and that you agreed with the majority, which means you did not agree with all. In that case, and in the interests of openness and transparency, can you tell us what you didn't agree with and will you now publish all of these proposals, including the ones that you rejected?
That's a matter for the investigators, not for me. There are two issues particularly that have been mentioned. One is cross-examination of witnesses—that's not appropriate for an inquisitorial process. That happens in a trial—as a lawyer, I know that.
Second is the suggestion that witnesses should be compellable. Again, there's no legal basis for doing that in a non-statutory inquiry. So, there is a restriction on what can be done in terms of the law.
First Minister, this is all about openness, transparency and accountability. You claim in your statement that the investigations are conducted at arm's length from you and your office, yet it is clear that you are having a significant involvement in the direction and remit of this inquiry. Surely, this diminishes any integrity connected to this inquiry, given that you are included in this investigation and you are, at the same time, controlling the terms of reference. That cannot be right.
We've seen a succession of so-called independent inquiries relating to your Government. We've seen time and time again your Government seeking to protect the Government from criticism at all costs. Therefore, how can you reassure the Welsh people that this is not just another inquiry that ultimately leads to accusations of a Welsh Government cover-up?
First of all, there's no evidence at all to back up what he has just said. The inquest, of course, will take place—it will take place at the end of November. That is the primary procedure in this process.
Secondly, I've not interfered with the protocol at all. It's been in the hands of the Permanent Secretary. I've set the terms of reference—that is true. If it is the case that that's right, then the court will say so.
The reality is that I did not have to set up this investigation—I didn't have to set it up. There was no legal responsibility on me to do it. I did it in terms of transparency. The QC was agreed by the family, the protocol was agreed by the family at the time, the QC is fully independent and under no pressure from Government, and the QC is in a position to ask whatever questions he wants of me as a witness, and that is a fundamental principle of independence that is preserved as part of the investigation.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, I note that the Welsh Government has been developing its intention to turn Wales into a nation of sanctuary for refugees and asylum seekers. Is this a major priority for your Government?
Well, can I welcome the Member as the latest leader of UKIP in this Chamber? I have absolutely no idea why he has such a problem with refugees. We have a proud record of giving sanctuary to people who've been persecuted around the world, children, particularly, who have seen things that he has never seen, he has never seen—adults who have seen people killed in front of them, people who have seen war, people who have been the subject of persecution, sometimes of genocide. And there he is, saying that somehow a nation of sanctuary is not something we should pursue.
Actually, I asked you a question. I didn't make any assertion, but I thank you for your—[Interruption.] I thank you for your reflections. It does sound from your answer, First Minister, that this is going to be a major priority for our Government, so that's very interesting. As you may recall, I was the only member of the Assembly's communities committee who opposed the nation of sanctuary idea. Now I have made an assertion. I thought that we should be looking after our own people first. [Interruption.] Obviously, a strange idea to many people in this Chamber. There are massive problems of housing, destitution and access to mental health provision in Wales already before you agree to encourage another very needy group of people to come here in greater and greater numbers, which is what you are doing with your nation of sanctuary status.
Now, when I raised this issue a year ago, the Welsh Government didn't—[Interruption.] When I raised this issue a year ago, the Welsh Government didn't like what I had to say. I did—[Interruption.] I did get a lot of support from the general public. I had a whole load of supportive—[Interruption.] I had a whole load of supportive e-mails on this point. So, your Government may not be in sync with the opinions of the people of Wales on this point.
Another issue where you may, once again, be dangerously out of touch is on the issue of the burka. Now, I commented on the burka issue recently, because I was asked to by members of the media, and you didn't like what I had to say. Now, do you think that this whole issue of the burka is taboo and that nobody has the right to comment on this?
Is it right that a man should tell a woman what to wear? He thinks so—he thinks so; it's typical of his position. And what on earth does what people wear have to do with politics? We are a free country. It is a very un-British thing to say that people do not have the right to wear a particular item of clothing. That belongs in a previous time in a previous country, if I can put it that way.
Let me remind him that each and every one of us in this Chamber is the descendent of an immigrant—each and every one of us. It's all a question of when our families originally came. This country is a country of immigrants. There were no people here; people arrived here from elsewhere. The Welsh language has its roots in Sanskrit. That's how far the Welsh language has travelled over many, many millennia. I do not see why offering sanctuary to a very small number of people should be taboo for him.
He talked about services like mental health services. Many of them are delivered by immigrants. We would not have a national health service if we didn't recruit doctors from abroad. I have to say, given the tone of what we've heard in this Chamber this afternoon, the question must be asked as to what the difference is between UKIP and the BNP.
The problem you have, First Minister, is that, once again, you are completely out of touch with your own people. [Interruption.] Sky News conducted a recent poll that indicated that 60 per cent of the British people support a ban on the burka. So, let's just summarise your position here: you've said publicly that my comments on this were racist, yet 60 per cent of the public appear to agree with me. By implication, you appear to believe that 60 per cent of the British people are racists. Going forward, how does your Labour Government expect to be re-elected if it goes around telling 60 per cent of its own voters that they are racists?
Four Members and dropping: 29. There's the answer to you in terms of popularity, and that's the answer to you in terms of where we sit in terms of public support. You start with the Muslims and then you move on to Jewish people. 'The orthodox Jews dress in a strange way; we can't have that.' Then you move on to people who wear skull caps. You know, 'Why should they dress in a different way?' Then you move on to other sections of the population—people perhaps who are Christians who are members of particular churches who dress in a particular way. This stops now. This stops now. Nobody has the right to tell anybody else in Britain, in Wales, a free country, how they dress. If that's the way that UKIP is going then it's going down some very, very dark alleyways indeed. It's going down the alleyway of racism, and that's what all of us in this Chamber, apart from the famous four over there, will certainly object to and fight. [Assembly Members: 'Hear, hear.']
I'd just like to say that I'm proud to lead a party that stands up for every single citizen in Wales regardless of where they were born, and we stand against everything that was just said by the leader of the far right.
First Minister, 'a lack of ambition', 'taking the easy way out' and 'a matter of fairness' were all phrases used to describe your Government's refusal to introduce universal free school dinners for infants. Those are words from your current Cabinet Secretary for Education. You now plan to restrict the number of eligible children even further. Do you think it can be described as a matter of fairness that, if your household has a net earned income of £7,401, the Welsh Government will cut your free school meals support?
Well, first of all, the consultation's just ended on this. I don't know whether she put submissions into that consultation, but we will look at the responses to that consultation and develop policy accordingly.
First Minister, your poverty of ambition is exacerbating the poverty of our pupils. You are instituting a policy here that is harsher than the Tory Westminster Government's. Just one year after a prominent promise on page 38 of the Labour manifesto, which read
'we will introduce free school meals for all primary school children',
you are about to break that promise.
First Minister, the Welsh Government received £15 million extra in funding due to the introduction of free school meals in England, and this has funded the Schools Challenge Cymru scheme, the scheme that closed in July 2017. So, can you tell us what is this extra £15 million now going to be spent on?
Well, the reality is that it wasn't really extra money. We were already, of course, providing free school breakfasts. So, we were already providing free school meals in our schools. That was something that we funded ourselves. Now, we got that consequential. That money, along with any other consequentials that arrive, will form part of the budget and its development over the course of the next few months. But I have to say that, if we look at our education system, we see schools being built all across Wales—I saw two only last week. We saw good results at A-level, good results at GCSE, the development of an all-Wales curriculum. I don't believe that we are letting our children down at all. We're seeing more investment now than ever, and the education system is going from strength to strength.
I'm asking you about food in children's mouths, not about school buildings. Now, the take-up of free breakfasts remains low, and experts from the Bevan Foundation and the Children's Society and the Food Foundation have all highlighted the need for universal free school meals. Free school breakfasts do not preclude the Welsh Government from offering free school meals. Now, First Minister, the Children, Young People and Education Committee confirmed that you have taken £15 million from educational investment. You're snatching money away from children's futures, and soon you will be snatching away their school dinners as well.
Of course, the chaos of universal credit and the effect of austerity is going to make life harder for families right across Wales. Fifty-five thousand children living in poverty will not be eligible for free school meals under your proposals. That's more stigma, more hunger, more food banks. If enacted, the Labour/Liberal Democrats will have imposed the most regressive free school meals policy in the whole of the UK, and that is a point that has been made by the Bevan Foundation, which, along with the Children's Society, is calling for you all to think again.
First Minister, do you agree with the experts that free school meals deliver better health, welfare and educational outcomes? Or do you believe that this investment in our children isn't worth it?
Well, the leader of Plaid Cymru seems to think that we don't have free school meals in Wales. We do. We have free school breakfasts. That point is glossed over. Secondly, we are providing an extra £10 million a year between 2019-20 to 2022-23, providing free school meals. That's despite having no additional funding from the UK Government. The reality is—. And she points out, as she's done before, the general election manifesto for the Labour Party—of course we'd like to be more generous, but we need to see the election of a Labour Government in London in order for that to happen. The reality is she couldn't be more generous; Plaid Cymru haven't got more money hidden in a stash somewhere. We need to see a Government across the whole of the UK that's committed to fairness, committed to social justice and committed to opportunity, as we are here in Wales.
3. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve economic links between Wales and south-west England? OAQ52568
Our investment in transport connectivity, together with the economic action plan, demonstrates our commitment to more cross-border working and growing the economic links with our neighbours.
I thank the First Minister for his response. Last week, I chaired a Wales policy forum in Newport on building a western powerhouse, and I was surprised to listen to quite a lot of negative commentary from particularly the Plaid Cymru benches about this. And, yesterday, I think, a Plaid economist said it was 'an attack on the integrity of Wales'. Will the First Minister for the Welsh Government confirm that he supports our working more closely with the west of England, and in particular with Marvin Rees and with Tim Bowles, the two directly-elected mayors we have there, and will he ensure that the Welsh Government, to the extent it has powers, as well as the Cardiff city region, will work with those directly-elected mayors and with the UK Government to do everything possible to ensure we get the best benefit we can from the abolition of the tolls and the strength of the economy over the Severn to link in with us here in south Wales?
Well, there is no difficulty with working cross-border. Everyone else does it. If we say we're not going to work across the border, it's a sign of an inferiority complex. And so we are more than happy to work not just with colleagues in England, but in Ireland as well and, indeed, with our European partners, who are incredibly important to us. We are an internationalist Government—we look out, and that means looking beyond Wales's borders in every way. What this can't be, though, is a power grab by the UK Government to set up some kind of cross-border body that escapes the control of the Welsh Government. That we will not put up with. One of the problems is, of course, that there's no equivalent level of Government in England that we can talk to, in reality. There's only the UK Government. The mayors don't have the powers that we have got, and it's a shame for people in England. And we saw this: there was a great opportunity for us when the regional development agencies went—all our competition disappeared. It was great news for us; it was not good news for the English regions. So, yes, of course we will work with partners outside Wales, but there has to be a defined way of doing that that doesn't impinge on the powers and responsibilities of the Government and the Assembly.
It's just now becoming clearer that the impact of reducing the tolls on the Severn Bridge will increase traffic by around 20 per cent, as driving becomes a cheaper and more attractive alternative to public transport, as well as the impact on property prices around south-east Wales from the measure. What assessment has the First Minister made of the new public transport and active travel measures outlined in the report published last week by the future generations commissioner?
Well, first of all, I have to take the decision as to whether the black route should proceed. I always look at alternatives. Some of them are not clear, from the report, as to how they'd actually operate in practice, but, as a Government, of course, we've been very, very committed to investment in public transport. We see that, of course, through the rail network and the substantial investment that will be put into the south Wales metro and other parts of Wales over the next few years.
The First Minister is right, of course: there is a broader political purpose at work here. In creating these two vast conurbations, Mersey Dee in the north, Severnside in the south, straddling the Welsh border like a colossus, they're there to reintegrate Wales into England's political economy. But this has been part of your Government's agenda as well. Can the First Minister honestly say that turning Newport into a commuter suburb of greater Bristol does anything—anything—positive for people on low or average wages in Newport? And, instead of this obsession with cross-border linkages and cross-border connectivity, how about some connectivity within Wales? How about actually having transport links in Wales so that actually trying to get from the south to the north of our country isn't like an odyssey of classical proportions?
Well, I don't think building an economic Berlin wall is the answer, if I'm honest. The reality is that the economic and commercial flows go from west to east. That doesn't have to interfere with our identity. That's something that we should be proud of. That doesn't mean that it's a threat to Wales. If we see it that way, we're victims of our own inferiority complex. There are much better links to the north than there ever were. We've got a flight twice a day and the trains run every two hours; when I came here in 1999, there was no train going north at all—there was no direct train. That has improved. We've seen incremental improvements on the A470 as well, but, you know, a road is not the answer as far as north to south is concerned. But really, not even the unionists of Northern Ireland would say, 'We don't want to work with the Republic'. They see the value of cross-border working; they don't see it particularly as a threat to themselves. We should embrace it—control it and embrace it—and make sure that it works in favour of our own people.
4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve air quality in and around Port Talbot? OAQ52615
A tailored programme of work is under way to independently review the clean air action plan for Port Talbot and develop a future plan of work to further improve air quality in the region. In addition, officials had a meeting this morning with Natural Resources Wales and Neath Port Talbot council.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. I'm sure that there are many issues that you are taking on board. The monitoring of air quality has been focused upon PM10s and PM2.5s—understandable, because they're the ones that are recognised to have the biggest impact on people's health—but we have seen a large increase in what is known as nuisance dust fallout from the Port Talbot steelworks across the whole Port Talbot area. Now, I recognise that this perhaps is not considered a health issue, but it is definitely a health issue—people are breathing this in, they're walking it through their houses, they've got it on their cars and properties—and it is a real problem for many of my constituents. There's also no doubt that this comes from the Tata steelworks, and I've had discussions with the management of Tata to look at what they're doing about this. There are plans for longer term problems to be resolved through improving the environment, but there's a short-term issue about doing it now. What can we do about the production processes to ensure that this product is reduced and limited as best we can? Will you as a Government actually look at the ways you can work with Tata to look at the long-term solutions? I'll just remind you that the state aid of the EU doesn't affect environmental options, so it's a possibility of looking at those longer-term solutions. But can you also have discussions with Tata to look at how they can be a responsible neighbour to ensure that the fallouts that we are experiencing in Port Talbot are reduced so that we don't get a situation where, every morning, people wake up to either black or red dust on their gardens, on their cars or on their windowsills and have to look at that every single day? This has gone on and it's unacceptable. We need, now, action to ensure that Tata takes their responsibility seriously.
I know that NRW regulates the steelworks in accordance with the permit issued under the environmental permitting regime. We, of course, have our commitment to improving and proactively tackling poor air quality in the area. In April, the Minister for Environment set out plans to re-examine the action plan—the approach it takes and the evidence that underpins it—and I understand that the Minister will be meeting with Tata, with NRW and with Neath Port Talbot council soon to support that process.
First Minister, it has been just over six months now since the 50-mph zone on the M4 was extended between Port Talbot and the Earlswood turning for Swansea, at the time, your Minister telling us that this was in advance of completed detailed modelling that would be taking place in the summer. Well, summer's over, so can you tell us what those three months have produced in terms of data, whether the detailed modelling has actually been completed, and in particular, whether any of the traffic has been diverted to the distributor road?
That data is being analysed at the moment. The output will be published so that Members and the public can see it, and that will be done as soon as possible.
First Minister, obviously, as well as industry, as we've heard, it's clear that transport-related pollution from the M4 and local roads adds to the air quality challenges in Port Talbot. Now, the Swansea bay and western Valleys metro could significantly reduce the number of cars on the roads, but clearly this requires funding. Therefore, what discussions has your Government had with the UK Government and Network Rail since the publication of Professor Barry's 'The Case for Investment' report in July? And how confident are you currently that the UK Government will listen to requests for fair rail funding for Wales, being as we've never had fair rail funding in Wales?
Well, he asked me whether I'm optimistic about fair rail funding, and the honest answer is 'no', because history tells us otherwise. We've received 1.1 per cent of the investment in infrastructure, despite the fact that our population share should be far, far higher. That's England and Wales, of course, without Scotland as well.
In terms of Swansea, much of Swansea's rail network, of course, was taken up in the 1960s, so much of the solution will lie in non-heavy rail options. Discussions are ongoing between officials—and, indeed, with the Minister—with, for example, local authorities and, of course, the authorities that are dealing with the city deal. What is hugely important, of course, is to make sure that all communities are properly served. I know that there was a suggestion at one point that Neath would no longer be on the main line. That was never true; I can give people that absolute assurance. That is absolutely clear. So, we need to make sure that we are able to connect more communities via a number of modes of transport in the Swansea bay area.
5. Will the First Minister provide an update on the latest preparations for leaving the European Union? OAQ52585
Yes. There are three things that I can refer to. First of all, we are keeping a very close eye on what legislation might be needed and the timing of any such legislation in advance of Brexit. Secondly, we're working on, for example, providing support through our £50 million EU transition fund. We will launch a new business portal shortly, and, on top of that, we're expanding our overseas operations to protect existing markets. We will also be recruiting more officials. Thousands have been recruited in Whitehall. We can't reach that level, but we are looking to recruit an extra 198 members of staff in order to deal with what is the most important issue that we've faced in the last 20 years. Indeed, it's 21 years ago today that the referendum took place.
I thank the First Minister for that answer. Of course, crucial to preparations for leaving the European Union will be future migration policy, and today the Migration Advisory Committee has published a report. They say that EU migrants paid more in tax than they took in benefits, contributed more to the NHS workforce than the healthcare they accessed, and they had no effect on crime rates. Sadly, of course, the latest migration figures show that net migration from the EU is at its lowest level since 2012. As the First Minister stated yesterday in front of the external affairs committee, we have, effectively, full employment in Wales, but growing demands on public services and, of course, labour needs in the wider economy. So, as the Tories pull up the drawbridge on fantasy island Britain, is the First Minister any closer to progressing the suggestion for a Welsh work permit system?
As he will know, I've not been opposed, in principle, to such a system. There have been no further discussions on it since it was last raised by David Davis with me. I think today is a timely opportunity to look at that once again. But I don't agree with the findings of that report. Everybody says, 'We need to attract professionals.' No-one disagrees with that. But the reality is we need to attract people in many areas of the economy. The reality, if we look at food processing, if we look at our abattoirs, which are not everyone's cup of tea in terms of somewhere to work, is that huge numbers, if not the majority of the workers in those industries, are actually from other countries. If they weren't able to come here, those abattoirs would close and local people who worked there would lose their jobs. That is something that's often overlooked. It's not a question of, 'Well, let's just get the most highly skilled people'; we need the people that the economy needs in order for the economy not just to prosper, but to function.
First Minister, would you agree with me that Wales needs to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Brexit, as well as dealing with the potential adverse consequences? One of those opportunities, in addition to the overseas trade opportunities—which you've already identified, to be fair, as a Government, and you've invested in your overseas offices—is changes to the procurement processes that the Government might use in Wales. Now, clearly, the EU regulations at the moment cause significant problems, particularly for small and medium-sized businesses, which very often want to do business with the public sector. What is your Government doing to look at the procurement processes that are at large here in Wales in the public sector in order to take advantage of the opportunities of leaving the EU?
Can I thank the Member for his praise for the overseas offices that in previous years we were roundly criticised for opening? But I welcome the conversion. The National Procurement Service has, for some years now, provided an excellent service for businesses to take advantage of procurement opportunities. We've seen, for example, the amount of locally procured services increase in local government and in terms of what we actually procure. Yes, we have to be prepared for what Brexit might throw at us, but, two years on, I can't see exactly what the advantages of Brexit are. I don't see any trade deals on the table, I don't see any opportunities for Welsh exporters that would replace the barriers that we're putting up to the European market, so let's hope that in November there is a deal that's reasonable, a deal that is agreed, and a deal, importantly, that works for Welsh workers.
First Minister, do you agree with the Trades Union Congress general secretary, Frances O'Grady, who said last week that workers' rights and employment protection are at risk under Brexit and the alarming prospect of a 'no deal'? Do you agree that a 'no deal' would be disastrous for workers in Wales?
Well, of course, the deception is that, two years ago, at the time of the referendum, nobody said—nobody said, even those staunch leavers—'Of course, there'll be no deal'. No-one said that. Everyone said that of course there'll be a deal, the EU will fall over itself to give us a deal and the German car manufacturers will ride to our rescue—I met with some of them a fortnight ago, and they're not going to do that—and force the hand of the German Government and, therefore, the European Union. It hasn't happened. It hasn't happened, and this is what we all feared, at the time, two years ago. If we cannot strike a deal with our closest, biggest market that we already have substantial regulatory alignment with, we've got no chance of doing it with anyone else—no chance. People talk of a free trade deal with New Zealand; well, fine, but New Zealand is a market with only 4.8 million people and it's 12,000 miles away. It will never replace the European market of 450 million, with whom we have a land border, and that's sometimes overlooked. So, yes, by all means, look at other free trade agreements, but the reality is, unless we get our relationship with Europe right, nothing else will work.
6. Will the First Minister provide an update on what action the Welsh Government is taking to improve cancer survival rates? OAQ52610
Our approach to improving cancer survival is set out in the cancer delivery plan for Wales. That includes a specific focus on detecting cancer early, timely access to treatment and the delivery of high-quality care.
Thank you. First Minister, the key to improving the cancer survival rates of Wales's cancer patients is early diagnosis. I have been contacted by a GP expressing concern over the number of cancer referrals that get routinely downgraded by a consultant. The GP who raised this issue with me believes, as I do, that the GP should be informed of this decision so that they can challenge the decision. A GP knows their patient far better than a consultant who has never seen the patient, and while the consultant might have specialist knowledge about cancer, the GP has specialist knowledge about the patient. So, First Minister, will you make it a mandatory requirement that GPs are informed of any decisions to downgrade a cancer referral?
Well, I'm reluctant to step into the place of an oncologist in terms of what that oncologist might think. I would assume that it would be good practice anyway for a GP to be informed of progress with regard to a patient. Now, people have different tumours; they react in different ways with different cancers. We know that, which is why, in the future, it's gene therapy that carries the spark of great hope for many, many people. Whilst I'm surprised to hear about the example—and if she wants to share more information with me, then I'll be glad to look at that—I would think that it would be good practice for the flow of information to be two way.
First Minister, for a number of years now, I have used First Minister's questions to ask you to address when your Government plans to meet its cancer waiting time targets, and you have, to be fair, given me regular assurances that it will happen in the very near future. But the latest figures for June 2018 showed that the target for patients referred via the urgent route is being missed by close to 10 per cent. It is clear that one of the barriers to meeting these targets is poor workforce planning for the diagnostic roles. What assurances can you provide that the newly created Health Education and Improvement Wales will focus on more effective workforce planning? And as your tenure as First Minister nears to its end, can I ask one final time: when does your Government aim to meet its cancer waiting time targets?
Well, all I can say is that we have the highest survival rates yet reported, and that surely is something that we should welcome—72.7 per cent of those diagnosed between 2005-09 and 2010-14 survived at least one year, 57.1 per cent are expected to survive at least five years, and premature death caused by cancer has fallen by around 10 per cent in the past decade. Those figures speak for themselves in terms of what's happened with cancer delivery. [Interruption.] Well, she talks of targets—that's a fair question—but the answer I give is, 'Look at the results'. The reality is that there are more and more people who are not just being cured—that's five years free of cancer—but also living with cancer in a way that was impossible 10 or 15 years ago, and I think that that is something for us to celebrate. Yes, of course, we want to make sure that more people are seen as quickly as possible, and 85.9 per cent of people newly diagnosed with cancer via the urgent route started definitive treatment within the target time in June, 97.4 per cent of those not via the urgent route. But we can see from the survival rates that things are moving in the right direction.
There was a story in the media yesterday, as it happens, about a patient who had survived cancer but who had found a new growth. There was an application for a PET scan, and that was rejected. The reason for that rejection has not been given, but according to the community health council in north Wales, it’s far easier to access PET scans in certain areas than in others. There is inconsistency.
Now, as we know that early diagnosis is a key driver when it comes to surviving cancer, isn’t it clear that we need, first of all, access that is as swift as possible, particularly for people who have survived cancer in the past, but also that there is clear inconsistency, as we saw with mpMRI scans recently? Will you admit that the lack of consistency means that some people in some parts of Wales have less chance of surviving cancer than others?
No, I don’t accept that there’s a lack of consistency. I know that the scanners are available—there’s one in Cardiff and there’s one in Wrexham. We know that the system is not subject to the amount of capacity available. So, there is capacity in the system. It’s very difficult, of course, to know the reason, and why the individual was given that response, but there is no evidence that people in north Wales, for example, are in a worse position than those in south Wales. But without knowing all the details, of course, it’s very difficult to talk more about it.
7. What is the Welsh Government’s vision for the future of financial support for the agricultural industry? OAQ52576
Well, the first thing we'd like is a commitment from the UK Government to provide the money post 2022, because that's not been done yet. We've made a suggestion that the UK Treasury should make that money available—that a pot of money equivalent to the pot of money available for the UK from the EU at the moment should be set to one side and the money distributed in the same way as it is now, unless and until there is agreement across the UK administrations to change the system. On the basis that we will have the money that we were promised, we have of course set out our vision in 'Brexit and our land', our consultation document, and our new land management programme, comprising an economic resilience scheme and a public goods scheme, which will provide support to enhance the benefits that the people of Wales receive from the land.
First Minister, unfortunately you can't lay all of the world's ills at the door of the UK Government, much as you might like to, and, of course, when the Welsh Government does get money there are numbers of devolved areas such as farming where it is your responsibility to make sure that adequate funding is there. You'll be well aware of the deep concerns of farmers, certainly farmers I met over the summer at various shows across my constituency, who are very concerned at the current consultation into plans to change the direct payment system. Now, whilst we all accept that there is a consultation there, why is it the case that that consultation did not include an option to retain the current direct payments, albeit in a modified form? Is it not the case that this is not the time to use Brexit as a cover to change the current system, because you wanted to change it all along to squeeze money out of the farming budget and put it elsewhere? This is too much and it's too complex at this point in time.
Well, the farming budget is in effect ring-fenced, so money can't be taken out of farming subsidies and put elsewhere anyway. The £260 million that comes into farming subsidies in Wales is not spent anywhere else, it has to be spent on farming, and, to my mind, that would be a good system for the future. I don't think farmers want to find themselves in a situation where they're competing with education and health for funding. They all told me that, anyway. Secondly, the last thing we want is to be funded on the basis of Barnett when it comes to farming. That would be an enormous cut in funding as far as Wales is concerned. So, to brush to one side the issue of the money as if it was a minor inconvenience is simply wrong, because we know that without the money there is no money for farming, there is no money for farming subsidies, and the promise that was made is breached straight away. There is a consultation, of course, that is taking place. We'll take cognisance of what is said in that consultation, but the bottom line is to look at ways of making Welsh farming more sustainable in the future, and that is something that we will always strive to do.
8. Will the First Minister make a statement about Welsh Government plans to deal with the problem of essay mills? OAQ52612
I'm concerned about the findings of the study by Swansea University that shows an increase in the use of essay mills. New guidelines have been issued by the Quality Assurance Agency and we'll continue to work with partners to consider what further steps can be taken.
Just about an hour ago I visited editmygrammar.co.uk, which is a website that says it offers secure and trusted help for academics, and posing as a first-year undergraduate I had an online chat with a chap called 'Frank McAllister', who described himself as a senior academic adviser. The chat went like this: I asked him, 'Do you write essays?', and he said, 'Yes, we can surely have your essay completed for you.' I said, 'Will I get caught cheating?' He said, 'No, you will never ever, unless you tell anybody yourself.' So, I'm telling you all now. And then I asked, 'Will you write the whole thing for me?', and Frank McAllister said, 'Yes'. And I said, 'How much?', and he said the original cost of the essay was £250, but we're running a promotional discount and you can have it for £120, and for that you get contact with the writer.'
It's the start of a new academic term, and you've identified, First Minister, the Swansea University study that said that one in seven admit paying for their essays. Other countries have brought about legislation. Do you think UK-wide legislation would be appropriate and will you contact and liaise with the UK Government to do that?
Well, firstly, can I suggest to the Member that he has a budding career as a private investigator—[Laughter.]—if this doesn't work out for him, but I'm sure it will. And secondly, he raises an important issue. Where students get the money from, I don't know, but plagiarism has been an issue in higher education for as long as higher education has been there, but it's got worse, there's no question about that.
He asked the question—'UK-wide legislation'. I'm open to that idea. I think it has to be UK-wide—I don't think it would work just in Wales. I'm open to that idea, but I think universities, of course, need to take their own steps first to see if that works first, and they are, in fairness—there are a number of checks that are put in place by universities. But if that does not work in the long term, then for the integrity of the higher education system, legislation may then be needed.
It's an enormous risk for students. If you're caught doing this, it's not just plagiarism, it's an admission of dishonesty, and you will carry that around for the rest of your life. So, there are huge risks for students, but if universities feel, as it's primarily a matter for them, that this is an issue that is beyond their control, then the legislative option may then emerge.
The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement. I call on the leader of the house to make the that statement—Julie James.
Diolch, Llywydd. There are two changes to this week's business. Added to today's agenda are statements on the update to European transition and a progress report on the employability plan. And as usual, draft business for the next three weeks is set out on the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, the Welsh Government's lack of transparency over the ongoing delays to the second phase of Superfast Cymru is causing concern. I would be grateful if you could bring forward a statement on this. Over the summer recess, as you know, I've written to you on a number of occasions in an effort to understand the reasons behind the delays to implementing phase 2 of the scheme, which has been underpinned by £80 million of public money, and was supposed to be awarded to the successful bidder by the end of July this year. All you have said so far is, and I quote here, is that
'Work on the procurement exercise for the successor project has been complex, with a number of unforeseen issues arising during the process, and that due to commercial confidentiality I'm unable to update you on the complexities and issues which have occurred.'
The excuse of confidentiality is not good enough. There's a significant amount of public money that has been devoted to the scheme, there are thousands of premises that remain stranded, and the question has to be asked as to why the Welsh Government didn't ensure that there was a seamless transition from phase 1 to phase 2 in the very first place. So, there is so very little detail on when the contract is going to be awarded, let alone on when it's going to be implemented. I think this is very, very poor, leader of the house, and can I ask you to bring forward an urgent statement so that we can have some answers to this question?
Yes, I will be bringing forward a statement as soon as I'm in a position to do so on where we are with the second phase, and the situation does remain as in the written answer that you got over the summer.
Leader of the house, you will be aware that there are sensitivities in Swansea with regard to the proposed residential development linked to Mumbles pier, an issue that the city has debated for a decade or more. The sensitivities, obviously, are understandable. Residents clearly want to ensure that the pier is protected, but they also want to ensure that the headland’s character is not lost. The Mumbles headland is clearly an iconic landscape, which is known internationally and is used by Visit Wales and others in attracting visitors to the area. It also, of course, abuts the area of outstanding natural beauty, and so the area is of strategic national importance.
With all that in mind, will the Cabinet Secretary for planning be able to bring forward a statement on this issue, and confirm whether she is considering calling in the planning application? Further, with a focus on preservation of environmental and natural heritage, the statement could also be an opportunity to outline any work that she is undertaking in conjunction with the Minister for tourism to ensure that planning developments do not impact negatively on heritage and tourism destinations in Wales. Diolch yn fawr.
Individual planning decisions are obviously not suitable for an open oral statement on the floor of the Senedd, so I suggest the Member writes to the planning Minister, and she'll be able to tell him what's happening about that specific application.
Leader of the house, can I ask for two statements from the Welsh Government? The first one relates to education and it's linked to the decision by Neath Port Talbot council to close Cymer Afan Comprehensive School. We had a recent statement from the Cabinet Secretary relating to closures of rural schools and the consultation and the outcome of that. Clearly, I would like to have a definition of what is deemed a rural school, because there are Valleys areas that may deem themselves in that category. I also understand that that will take effect as of November, but the decision has been taken in the summer, so how does that impact upon that? I think there's an opportunity to ask questions in relation to that particular aspect to see how this impacts, because the closure proposal is not until next September, so it actually will take place after November, so there needs to have a very careful look at that.
The second one is the question of Orkambi; that drug is for those who suffer with cystic fibrosis. I understand that that drug is effective for about 50 per cent of those with that condition. I wrote to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Well-being during the summer with written questions, and I've had replies that indicate that he hasn't had discussions with Vertex itself, but he has asked the All Wales Medicines Strategy Group to actually go and communicate with them. We need to look at what the implications are. That drug can help people with cystic fibrosis, and what's important is it helps young people and therefore can change their futures. So, can I have a statement from the Cabinet Secretary on the position with Orkambi in the Welsh NHS to ensure that, wherever we can, we help these young people overcome a condition that is really debilitating for them and can shorten their lives?
On the first one of those, obviously the closure of a school in a Member's area is a significant issue, always, but it's not something that the Government makes an oral statement on. I would suggest that you take this up with the Cabinet Secretary for Education—the specifics around that closure—to see if there is a matter for the Welsh Government. Ordinarily, as the Member knows, it is a matter for the local council. We don't normally comment on such matters, especially such a long way in advance.
On Orkambi, I know the Cabinet Secretary has already made a written statement. He's heard your remarks today. I'm sure if there is something to update Members on he'll be happy to do so.
Leader of the house, may I ask for a statement on the ongoing delays to the rolling out of the second phase of Superfast Cymru high-speed broadband? The second phase is designed to extend availability of superfast broadband to those premises not covered under either the original Superfast Cymru scheme or the commercial roll-out of telecommunication companies in the next three years. However, the project has met with what the leader of the house called 'unforeseeable issues'. While I have already written to the leader highlighting a case, Openreach's decision not to roll out superfast broadband is hampering a company's wish to expand in Cardiff. Can I ask the leader of the house to come and make a statement in this Chamber on this very important issue, please?
Yes, well, as I responded to Russell George, the situation is still that we're in the process of sorting out the procurement, and as soon as we're in a position to report back with a statement I will certainly be doing so.
I raised the issue of a shock rise in drug and drug-related crime before recess and would like to point out another statistic that became available in August, while we were away, and that is a 29 per cent rise in the number of deaths linked to fentanyl in England and in Wales, and that's something I think we should all be concerned about. Particularly worrying is a rise in the use of—I don't know if I can say it correctly, but it's carfentanil, which is actually used as an elephant tranquillizer. So, some types of drug use are falling while others are rising.
I've asked for an update from Welsh Government on their drug policy and once again pressed for an idea of controlled substance use rules, as argued by our police and crime commissioner Arfon Jones. I don't think it's something that we can sit on now. I've shadowed the police—I know that other Assembly Members have done so recently—and they are telling me about the rise in drug crime. There is something called 'cuckooing', where they're taking over elderly people's homes in Port Talbot—coming from Birmingham and other places in the UK, taking over their homes, and using that house as a place to deal drugs. This is something we have to be talking about now, much more mainstream, and I hope that we can get some progress from the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services.
The second request I wanted today was also to do with the health Secretary—I promise I'm not focusing too much on one person. But I saw minutes from ABMU's community health board that there is a £32 million deficit in relation to that particular health board, and that they're currently in negotiations with Welsh Government about future plans. I would like to have a statement from Welsh Government telling us how they are intervening in these issues, because if our health boards are continuing to be financially mismanaged in this way—which I would say that such a deficit is systematic of—then we should be knowing that as Assembly Members, and knowing how you are dealing with that as Welsh Government.
I don't think it is systematic. The health Minister is actually answering questions in the Chamber tomorrow, so you'll have the opportunity to put questions to him tomorrow. If you're not able to get to the bottom of those things tomorrow, then I suggest you write—I haven't heard of the drug that you mentioned; what did you say it was—an elephant tranquilizer? It sounds horrendous. So, if you want to send me some more details of that, I'm happy to take it up with him, if he's not able to answer it in questions tomorrow. I'd not heard of that before.
Leader of the house, I've been contacted by a constituent whose child was born with a genetic condition called achondroplasia, which is a form of dwarfism. And my constituent is extremely concerned about the dwarf wrestling shows that are being brought to the UK next month by a group touring from the US. It refers to people with dwarfism as 'midgets', which is a very offensive way to speak about people in that sort of way, and really they do seem a bit akin to a Victorian freak show. I'm extremely concerned about this, and my constituent is very upset, because she has a child who has dwarfism, and unfortunately one of these shows is planned for Cardiff, and another one in Swansea. So, I wondered whether there was anything that the Welsh Government could do in terms of giving a view about these sorts of shows being carried on.
Well, thank you for bringing that to our attention. I think that that sounds absolutely appalling. No wonder your constituent is very concerned. Obviously, we're completely committed to ensuring that anyone, with any kind of diverse condition, is treated as a full and equal member of our society, and that does not sound like the sort of thing we'd like to have encouraged at all. I wonder whether we could have a chat outside, to see exactly what details you have, and so I can take it up with various Ministers who might be able to—we can work out a way of finding out how that's licensed or anything, because I don't know anything of the particulars. But I'd just like to take this opportunity to reiterate that we take very seriously our duty to consider the impact of anything of the sort on equality, for anyone, with any diverse condition, background, or anything else. I'd be quite horrified to find that that sort of thing was happening—it's not the sort of thing we'd like to encourage at all. So, I wonder whether we could have a chat about the details, and then we'll see whether there is some Government response that might be appropriate.
Two things from me, leader of the house. Firstly, when can we expect an update on the Welsh Government's decision on the M4 corridor around Newport, and will that be brought to this Chamber? We've had the public inquiry, which ended earlier this year. And we've also, I believe, had the due diligence over the summer period—that was the original plan anyway. So, if you could update us on a time for that. Because, whatever the decision of the Welsh Government is on that, it's going to be critically important to the people in Newport and south-east Wales, and indeed the wider Welsh economy, that either the Government's preferred black route is adopted, or, if that is not the case, that the Government starts as quickly as possible to make contingency plans for an alternative, which I know is backed by many people in this Chamber.
Secondly, tomorrow it's my pleasure to welcome Chief Chinamhora from Zimbabwe to the Assembly, tomorrow lunch time, for a reception. It's his first visit—well, firstly to the Abergavenny Food Festival, and secondly to Wales. He's very much looking forward to his visit. I'm not sure whether a Welsh Government representative will be there, but, if not, then perhaps the Welsh Government could send their best wishes to Chief Chinamhora, who is very excited about meeting everyone here. It's very important that this is seen as a way to enhance relations between Wales and Zimbabwe, and the wider African continent as well. I know that John Griffiths has also played an important part, along with myself and Love Zimbabwe, to make this visit possible.
Well, that sounds tremendous. Alun Davies is just indicating to me that he's attending, so there will be a Government presence there. I'm delighted to hear that he's also been to the Abergavenny Food Festival. Anything we can do to showcase the enormously good food and drink around Wales to colleagues across Africa and the world is very welcome indeed, so I'm very pleased to welcome him here.
In terms of the M4, we expect to receive the public inquiry report shortly, and then the decision would have to be made on whether to grant planning permission and the statutory orders. This, and the inspector's report, will be the subject of a committee debate and vote in this Chamber, as was agreed, to inform the final decision on whether to proceed. I'm not in a position to give exact details of the timescale for that, but we are committed to doing that on the floor of the Senedd.
Two issues, leader of the house. One is that I'm very concerned at the two reports recently issued by the United Nations Children's Fund about the extent of the damage to children from air pollution. One report says that children in around 2,000 schools across the UK are being exposed to illegal and unsafe levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution. I'm sad to say that several of them are in my constituency. They highlight the exposure that children suffer on what's misnamed 'the school run'. The second report highlights the damage to the unborn child through the impact on the placenta, and the dangers of premature birth, of low birth weight and of respiratory diseases in children.
So, I wondered whether it's possible, given that we all have an absolute duty to do what we can to protect children, whether we could have a debate in Government time on this complex issue. It isn't just about laying on more public transport; it is about changing people's behaviour. That is complicated, and not something that we alone can do, but it seems to me that this is an increasing problem and something that we are going to need to do a lot more about.
The second issue is that I wondered whether we could have an open debate on the future of community-based adult learning in Wales. I appreciate that the consultation is now closed, and we look forward to hearing the results of that consultation, but it seems to me that, having met the leaders of Adult Learning Wales this morning, this is a very complicated matter around the most appropriate way of ensuring that all adults across Wales have access to high-quality learning to deal with the challenge of the future of work. I don't think that there are cast-iron answers to this, and it would, therefore, be useful to have a debate before the Government has to make up its mind on exactly what action it's going to take.
Thank you for that. In terms of air quality, obviously we recently consulted on the clean air zone framework for Wales, and we're currently considering the responses. That builds on a range of actions to improve air quality, including a new £20 million air quality fund and action to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels.
We will be publishing our own clean air plan, which incorporates more than road traffic pollution—some of the issues that Jenny Rathbone just raised—for consultation early in 2019. That is to reduce nitrogen dioxide levels and set out the actions we're taking to comply with air quality limits in the shortest time possible. In April, we relaunched our air quality website to include improved air quality forecasting capability, with a new section for schools and health advice. So, I think we've got a lot of action currently ongoing with that. As I said, we will be publishing the plan for consultation early next year.
In terms of community-based adult learning, the Minister is actually making a statement on the employability plan, which includes issues on community-based learning, just this afternoon, so it's very good that you've raised it now.
Leader of the house, you will have seen over the past couple of years the statements from Baroness Hale, the president of the Supreme Court, and you will have seen the statements from senior judiciary and many lawyers, about the way in which the Tories have actually destroyed the legal aid system, consequently disempowering whole communities, and some of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society, from having the sort of advice and support that should naturally be available to them in any civilised society. The Welsh Government has over the years provided, through Citizens Advice, through funding of third sector groups that provide advice, areas to counter that deprived—some form of counter to those destructive cuts. But I wonder if we could have a statement from the Government on the issue of access to justice in Wales and also the issue of how we can actually start pulling together and reconstructing a new Welsh legal aid system—a system that will actually provide empowerment and advice and support to people within Wales, because the Tories won't do it and we know that we clearly have to do something about the empowerment of some of our poorest communities.
I completely agree with Mick Antoniw that the destruction of the legal aid system has been detrimental across the board, actually to our democracy, because without access to the rule of law you really don't have a democracy. We now have a situation where a large number of people cannot access legal rights because they simply cannot afford it. That has a very detrimental effect on social policy and justice across the board, not just in the lower end. For example, the lack of access to proper legal aid in terms of domestic abuse, housing and fleeing domestic violence is a really serious issue. The Member highlights that we've already done quite a bit in terms of assisting advice agencies to step into the breach there a little, but nothing like enough. I would certainly be happy to discuss with my colleague the Minister for public services what we can do to pull together a comprehensive look at that and bring something back to this house when we've done so.
Leader of the Chamber, the latest scientist to say that, in the interests of health and safety, the dredging and dumping of mud from the seabed outside of Hinkley Point nuclear power station should stop is Emeritus Professor Keith Barnham, distinguished research fellow of the physics department, Imperial College London. He is a high energy particle physicist—they used to call them nuclear physicists. He says, and he said yesterday on the record in a press conference, that the hot particles of uranium and plutonium—which could be in the mud because of the incidents in the 1960s, which Magnox have confirmed—that they would not be detected by gamma spectroscopy, which was the only way that the mud was tested. So, in layman's terms, there was only gamma testing; there should have been alpha testing and mass spectrometry as well. So, a very simple question and I'd like an answer or statement off the Government: is this eminent professor, another scientist—? Could you give us a statement on if he is correct, is he scientifically correct? That's all we want to know.
Well, Llywydd, I'm not in a position to say whether a scientist is or isn't scientifically correct. I am in a position to say that the head of NRW has already made a statement on the Welsh Government's position on the mud, which she says is not radioactive above normal background levels.
Two questions for the leader of the house, one I think that the leader of the house must be getting used to by now: can I request a further update on Welsh Government action on the Virgin Media closure in Swansea? Unfortunately, I say now 'on the closure'; before we broke up for the summer it was 'the proposed closure'. Can I ask for a statement on that?
Can I also request a statement on banks and UCAS acceptance letters in Welsh? Last year, I had clarification that Lloyds Bank would accept it after initial refusal. This year, I've had Santander clarify they accept it after initial refusal. Either I can, on an annual basis, get clarification from the major banks one at a time or the Welsh Government can hold a discussion with them and make a statement to a Plenary session.
Yes, well on that one I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be able to do that. I'll certainly look into that. I don't understand why we have to go through a process of them refusing and then us getting in touch and then being told 'yes'. I think several Members in the Chamber have had a similar conversation, so I'm happy to see what I can facilitate in terms of the service across Wales on that one.
In terms of Virgin Media, yes, absolutely. It's now clear that the site will close. The taskforce, as I understand it, is in position but I will discuss with my colleague Ken Skates bringing an update, now that the closure's been confirmed, to the house, as a large number of Members have constituents that are affected by it.
I've got two questions for the leader of the house. It would be helpful to have a statement from the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs on the Hinkley Point mud dumping off Cardiff Bay, which commenced last week. My constituents have raised concerns about the lack of an environmental impact assessment and inadequate sampling of deeper layers of mud.
My second question is whether I could request an update from the environment Minister with regard to the Barry biomass plant. Would she be able to release all correspondence with the developers and announce her decision as to whether the proposed development falls under Schedule 1 of the regulations? And is the Minister for Environment aware of the application to the Vale of Glamorgan planning committee by the developers for a lawful development certificate in respect of berth 31, Wimborne Road, Barry, which represents a significant development in plans for the biomass plant in Barry docks and the facility for storage of woodchip feed prior to approval of this facility?
Thank you for those two questions. At the moment, it would be inappropriate for the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs to make a statement as there is an ongoing legal process that is seeking an injunction to suspend the marine licence. So, as I said earlier, Natural Resources Wales have already confirmed their position, but there is an ongoing legal process, so the Cabinet Secretary will not be able to make a statement while that process is ongoing.
In terms of the second question, the Minister for Environment will be making a decision shortly about the need for an environmental impact assessment to accompany the planning application currently before the Vale of Glamorgan Council. With respect to the release of correspondence, we did release it up to July after your last request. I'm sure we can look again to see whether there's any more.
An application for a certificate of lawfulness to the Vale of Glamorgan Council is a matter for the authority. We're unable to comment to avoid prejudice to our formal role should the case come before us later by way of an appeal. But the short answer to your question is that the decision will be made shortly as to whether there should be an environmental impact assessment.
The next item is the motions to elect Members to committees and, in accordance with Standing Orders 12.24 and 12.40, I propose that the motions to elect Members to committees are grouped for debate and for voting. Therefore, I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motions formally—Paul Davies.
Motion NDM6783 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Neil Hamilton (United Kingdom Independence Party) as a Member of the Business Committee in place of Gareth Bennett (United Kingdom Independence Party).
Motion NDM6784 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Darren Millar (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Business Committee in place of Paul Davies (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6785 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Suzy Davies (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Children, Young People and Education Committee in place of Darren Millar (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6786 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Janet Finch-Saunders (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Children, Young People and Education Committee in place of Mark Reckless (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6787 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Andrew R.T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee in place of David Melding (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6788 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects David Melding (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee in place of Suzy Davies (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6789 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Mohammad Asghar (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee in place of Mark Isherwood (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6790 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Mark Isherwood (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee in place of Janet Finch-Saunders (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6791 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Suzy Davies (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee in place of David Melding (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6792 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects David Melding (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee in place of Suzy Davies (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6793 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Mark Reckless (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee in place of Mark Isherwood (Welsh Conservatives).
Motion NDM6794 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects:
1. Andrew R.T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives) as a Member of the Standards of Conduct Committee in place of Paul Davies (Welsh Conservatives), and
2. Darren Millar (Welsh Conservatives) in place of Andrew R.T. Davies (Welsh Conservatives) as alternate member of the Standards of Conduct Committee.
The proposal is to agree the motions. Does any Member object? No. The motions are therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The next item is a statement by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance: update on European transition. I call on the Cabinet Secretary to make the statement—Mark Drakeford.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. The Welsh Government last reported to the Assembly on matters related to the UK’s exit from the European Union at the end of the summer term. The purpose of today’s statement is to provide an update about the many developments that have taken place in the meantime.
The first matter I'll deal with this afternoon is the nature of the separation deal and the future relationship with the European Union sought by the UK Government, as set out in the Chequers White Paper. Our own preferences are unchanged since the publication of 'Securing Wales’ Future' with Plaid Cymru in January 2017. The Chequers White Paper moved the UK Government’s position incrementally towards our own, enabling us to offer some of its proposals a modest welcome.
Chequers concedes the principle of a customs union; it makes a commitment to ongoing regulatory alignment for goods and agricultural products. The nature of the Welsh economy, as we have said many times, means that barrier-free trade for the manufacturing industry and the rural economy is especially important. The Chequers proposals are an improvement from that perspective, as the Confederation of British Industry and the National Farmers Union have both acknowledged.
However, Llywydd, Chequers leaves unanswered a whole series of significant practical and political questions. In policy terms, it fails to resolve at least three fundamental issues. While it agrees that the end objective must be a form of customs union between the UK and the EU, it fails to set out the means by which this can be achieved. The Government's own practical proposals are convoluted, heap new costs onto businesses, rely on untested technologies and are straightforwardly unacceptable to the EU 27.
As both the Welsh and Scottish Governments said at the JMC last week, the policy answer is simple. Let the UK Government say it plainly: 'We are already in a customs union; let’s stay in it.' And rather than pretend that we can have a buccaneering trading policy while staying in the customs union, let’s commit to continued alignment of our trade policy with that of the European Union for the wider benefits that brings.
The second practical problem with Chequers lies in the attempt to separate regulatory alignment between goods, which are to be aligned, and services, which are not. That distinction, of course, strikes at the heart of the four freedoms, which the EU regards as indivisible. But this distinction simply won’t work in the real world. People who buy goods also buy services alongside them. You buy a car and a finance package to fund it. People who sell goods also sell services with them. In the aerospace sector, the servicing of an engine—a service contract—is an integral part of the sales package and is of greater value than the sale of the engine itself.
That distinction, of course, strikes at the heart of the four freedoms, which the EU regards as indivisible. But this distinction simply won’t work in the real world. People who buy goods also buy services alongside them. You buy a car and a finance package to fund it. People who sell goods also sell services with them. In the aerospace sector, the servicing of an engine—a service contract—is an integral part of the sales package and is of greater value than the sale of the engine itself.
And, finally and most intractably of all, Chequers does not yet resolve the Irish border question. This much, at least, is clear, Llywydd: you simply cannot have all three of the things on the UK Government’s wish list at the same time. You cannot have at one and the same time an independent trade policy, no border on the island of Ireland and no border in the Irish sea.
Llywydd, these policy problems are real, but they sometimes pale in comparison to the political challenges which the Chequers White Paper has posed for the Prime Minister. She is trapped between the Scylla and Charybdis of the Conservative Party. Every millimetre she edges towards the ground she needs to occupy to conclude a deal with the EU, she provokes a stream of abuse from the irreconcilables in the European reform group. Every time she makes a hopeless concession to the Europhobic wing of her party, it guarantees that she loses the support of those remainer Tories whose support she needs to get a Chequers-based deal through the House of Commons. Little wonder, then, that so much of her summer has been taken up in a debate about how to resolve a deadlocked House of Commons unwilling and unable to endorse any deal the Prime Minister might conclude.
The Welsh Government’s position was clearly set out by the First Minister in his lecture to the Institute of Government last week. If the UK Government cannot secure a vote in the House of Commons in favour of the deal it has negotiated, then the decision must pass to the people. Our preference as a Government is that this decision is resolved through a general election. If the current House of Commons cannot conclude matters, we need another one which can. If the current rules of Parliament are manipulated to prevent an election, then the case for a second referendum strengthens. Either way, the people must decide. And that decision, Llywydd, will take place against the background of the final great theme of the summer: preparation for a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
Let me say again: for Wales, ‘no deal’ is unthinkable and unworkable. The technical notices published so far demonstrate in starkest possible clarity what a crash-out Brexit would mean for Welsh citizens and businesses, even though some of the most difficult issues are yet to be addressed in those notices. For citizens, for example, it means driving licences that no longer work in Europe, baggage delays at every crossing point, the end of guaranteed surcharge-free mobile phone use in the EU, and passports that cannot be used six months before their expiry date. For Welsh firms, it means new, complex burdens whenever they want to export to the continent. Instead of a single rulebook covering all EU member states, Welsh businesses would have to find and navigate the rules that apply, separately and differently at each border.
There is nothing, Llywydd, in these technical notices that will make life better or easier for Welsh business. They show up instead the disruption and damage to our economy and jobs, which would be the result of the catastrophic failure to reach a negotiated deal with the European Union. In the longer term, such conditions would be a huge disincentive to multinationals with complex supply chains to invest here, and a ‘no deal’ could easily result in many smaller firms that currently export only to the European Union withdrawing from exporting entirely.
Now, Llywydd, because the clock is indeed ticking and because the UK Government is so mired in difficulties of its own making, we have stepped up contingency planning here in Wales over the summer period. We have made allocations from the £50 million EU transition fund, the launch of the Brexit business portal is imminent, we have sent supplementary advice on the technical notices to organisations, and we are in dialogue with the UK Government and partners in Wales on potential civil contingencies implications. I repeat what the First Minister has said so often here: there is no sense in which ‘no deal’ can be reduced to just another point on a Brexit spectrum, where good planning can turn it into a triumph of the fevered imagination of the Brexiteers. Whatever mitigation is possible, however, we will put that in place to respond to the disaster that a 'no deal' represents for Wales.
Finally and briefly, Llywydd, to the detail of the summer period. Ministerial engagement with the UK Government has continued and intensified. More than a dozen formal meetings have been held in London, Cardiff and Edinburgh of the ministerial forum, the Joint Ministerial Committee on European negotiations, and the inter-ministerial group attended by my colleague Lesley Griffiths.
At official level, inter-governmental work on common frameworks intensifies, with one of the first fruits being the announcement that freezing regulations under section 12 of the withdrawal Act will not now be needed at all in respect of funding of agriculture. Our engagement with stakeholders has continued throughout the summer. The European advisory group will meet again on Thursday of this week. Ministers have held face-to-face discussions with key representatives from businesses, higher education, the health service, the rural economy and others to go on ensuring that our approach best reflects the advice we get from those most directly affected by Brexit. The First Minister has opened our new office in Berlin, the latest of a series of new sources of support for Welsh businesses and Welsh public services, as we carry out our determination that Wales will remain open to the world.
Over the summer, we have also continued to publish Brexit policy papers, the most recent being about the financial impact of Brexit, which itself followed a major statement about our approach to the rural economy. And finally, Llywydd, a huge effort continues to identify deficiencies in the current statute book that will need correcting as a result of Brexit, involving hundreds of pieces of legislation.
I am very grateful to the chairs of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee and the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and to the Assembly Commission for their close engagement with the Government over the summer on the practical arrangements we will need to achieve a coherent and workable statute book for Wales in a way that safeguards the scrutiny role of the National Assembly.
Llywydd, the coming weeks will bring to a head the consequences of the decision taken in the referendum of June 2016. Our future prosperity, security and influence in the world will be indelibly shaped by what takes place. I am grateful for the chance to have provided Members with this update, as our own new term begins.
Can I thank the Cabinet Secretary for the advance copy of his statement that I received this afternoon? But I have to say I'm absolutely none the wiser as to why he's actually made it, because, of course, it has simply been a repetition of the kind of diatribe that we've been used to expecting in recent months, particularly as the election for the leadership of the Labour party moves forward and we get closer to December. I think it's worth reminding everybody in this Chamber, particularly those who are heckling from sedentary positions, that Wales voted to leave the EU and leave the EU is precisely what we must do.
Now, I heard lots of prophecies of doom and gloom from the Cabinet Secretary in his statement: prophecies of doom and gloom around driving licences—driving licences that we can use outside of the EU now without any problems whatsoever; prophecies about problems with baggage delays—well, frankly, we have no problem with baggage delays coming in from outside the EU or going to countries outside of the EU now, so why would there be in the future? Mobile phone surcharges. I know what people are trying to do—it's another round of project fear about this project that the British people and Welsh people specifically voted on at the time of the last referendum. And, of course, we all remember, don't we, the prophecies of doom and gloom about immediate, tragic and serious consequences in the aftermath of the vote that the people of Wales and the rest of the UK took previously—so-called experts telling us that we'd have a collapse of the economy overnight and that we would already be paying a serious price for Brexit, but we've seen absolutely none of it. In fact, the economy is continuing, of course, to grow.
I was very surprised that you made no reference whatsoever, Cabinet Secretary, to the Joint Ministerial Committee meeting that was held last week, which you participated in. If you're going to update—. If you're going to provide an update—[Interruption.] No, he didn't. No, he didn't. I can hear people saying you did. No, you didn't, frankly. So, I think that you ought to, if you're going to bring a statement forward, make sure that it's actually meaningful and that there are things that you're updating us on.
Now, as you know, the mood music in Brussels around the opportunities in terms of a deal have been changing significantly in recent weeks. We're moving closer to an opportunity where a deal is much more likely. Michel Barnier and many others are confirming that we are now close to a deal. You made no reference to that in any way, shape or form whatsoever. The EU, of course, has been talking up the opportunities to put in place technological solutions around the UK border between the UK and the EU, including between Northern Ireland and Ireland. They've been talking these opportunities up, so quite why you're having to rehearse the old arguments and trying to belt out your greatest hits of doom and gloom, I really do not know.
Now, we also know—we also know—that it's in the interests of the EU to do a deal with the United Kingdom. The International Monetary Fund has warned the EU that, unless they do a deal with us, 0.7 per cent of the EU workforce could be put at risk and that economic growth across the remaining EU states could be affected by up to 1.5 per cent, with, of course, Ireland being the hardest hit.
That's why, on these benches, we will continue to support the UK Prime Minister as she seeks to get the best possible deal for Britain through the pragmatic approach that she has taken in setting out her stall with the Chequers agreement. That's the one that she and her team are pursuing, and, frankly, it's about time you got on board and started playing team UK, rather than trying to cause problems and to frustrate the will of the Welsh people. It's only a deal like the Chequers agreement that will continue to allow us to trade with the EU in as frictionless a way as possible while still having the opportunity to do bilateral trade agreements.
So, can I ask you, amidst all your doom and gloom, what on earth are you doing to prepare for the opportunities that Brexit presents for Wales and the Welsh economy? Why is it that we've heard nothing about the preparations that you're making to change the procurement processes to support small and medium-sized firms, which currently can't get a look-in, very often, in terms of public procurement processes? Why is it that you aren't talking up the opportunities for Wales in terms of the potential new trade deals that might be done in other parts of the world outside of the EU?
Now, to be fair to the Welsh Government, I've seen that you've been ramping up the ability of the Welsh Government offices in different parts of the world to be able to engage in those trade discussions, and I think that that's a very positive thing. You didn't speak about it specifically in your statement, because you wanted to concentrate on doom and gloom and everything that might possibly go wrong. However, I would be grateful if you could tell us what's the size of that workforce at the moment. In what ways are they currently involved in discussions with the Department for International Trade?
Can you also tell us—? You've got this £50 million transition fund. I would be grateful to know where you're intending to spend the rest of that money. You've only announced a very small slither of it to date, and I would be interested to know, and I'm sure the people of Wales would be interested to know, where else you're going to spend that in order that we can maximise these opportunities. So, instead of the doom and gloom, why can't we have someone who's more optimistic about the future, particularly given that you're wanting to become First Minister of this nation in the future?
Well, Llywydd, diolch yn fawr. The Member began by saying that he was no better informed about Brexit, and I think the rest of his contribution allowed us to see how true he was in how he opened. [Laughter.] It will come, I am sure, as good news to people in Wales that, when their driving licences don't work in the European Union, the Conservative Party doesn't mind, that, when they're left waiting, as they will be—. These are not my ideas, by the way; these are the documents published by your Government. That's what their documents last week said. They said, if there is no deal, your driving licence will not work. They said, if there is no deal, you will queue every time you cross a border in the European Union, where you do not queue today. They said that while now you are guaranteed to have no roaming charges, by legislation of the European Union you will not have that protection in the future. But we've heard this afternoon that that really will not matter.
The Member said that there had been no impact from Brexit on the UK economy so far. The UK economy is 2 per cent smaller, Llywydd, than it would have been had we not made the decision to leave the European Union. That costs every household in Wales £900. That's the impact already. It is nonsensical to say that the decision has been cost-free in economic terms, and, again, that is the advice that the UK Government publishes through the Chancellor of the Exchequer.
Now, the Member said that I hadn't mentioned the JMC that took place last week. In fact, it dealt with exactly the three issues that were covered in my statement. We talked about the deal that the Prime Minister wishes to take as a result of Chequers and the barriers that exist to successful delivery of it, we talked about preparations for 'no deal', and we talked about the legislative impact of leaving the European Union on the House of Commons, on the Scottish Parliament, on the National Assembly for Wales, and how we can work together to try to mitigate that impact. I'm certain that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom will be very grateful for the fraction of the Conservative Party's support that she enjoys here in the National Assembly. It will come as a welcome change to her, no doubt, from the difficulties she faces on her own benches.
The Member asked me a small number of questions at the end. On procurement, he will know that I announced a review of our procurement policies last year precisely in order to take account of the impact of Brexit. I issued a number of written statements on progress in that review over the summer period, and we will look to see where there may be some opportunities that we can take in Wales to realign our procurement policies in the post-Brexit world.
The Member asked me how many members of the European transition team we now have working in the UK Government—in the Welsh Government, rather. There are 30 members of staff currently employed on those matters. The First Minister referred to the nearly 200 additional members of staff we will need to take on to work on these things, particularly in the field of agriculture and environment.
In relation to the EU transition fund, we have made one tranche of allocations already. A second tranche of allocations will be made very shortly indeed. It will reflect the same broad pattern. There will be allocations that will directly support the rural economy, there will be allocations that will directly support preparation by businesses in Wales, we will find additional help for the higher education sector, and we will invest in the capacity of our third sector to be prepared for the impact of Brexit on the work that they do.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his statement today and for updating the Assembly, but, despite the flurry of apparent activity over the summer in relation to our separation from the EU, we are no closer to answers to fundamental questions—questions so fundamental that they range from the future of an international peace treaty to food security. What is becoming very clear, however, is that we are being held hostage by a bunch of ideological separatists in Westminster.
In terms of the specifics of his statement today, can the Cabinet Secretary clarify a few points—specifically the points he has made about the customs union or a customs union? He has stated in his statement that we should stay in—. Well, I believe he is saying that we should stay in the customs union. The text I have in front of me says that we should stay in a customs union. Is he able to clarify whether he wants to stay in the customs union or whether he wants to negotiate a new customs union?
That is linked to my second question, which is on the point he raises on the need for a UK general election in the event of the Prime Minister failing to get a deal on separation through the Westminster Parliament. Presumably, the Cabinet Secretary would want the outcome of that general election to be a majority Labour Government, but, if that is the outcome, then we will definitely be leaving the customs union and we will definitely be leaving the single market. So, I wonder if he can clarify why it is tactically in the interests of the people of Wales, and even the Welsh Government, for there to be a majority Labour Government taking us out of the customs union and the single market. How can he reconcile those apparently contradictory positions?
The other point I'd like to raise is the question—and I think this is something that is coming to a head; it will, certainly, in the coming weeks—of the border in Ireland. Given the impossibility—. Regardless of the utterances of the spokesperson for the Conservative group today, given the impossibility of having an open border on the island of Ireland as there is now if one part of Ireland is outside the customs union, is it not more likely that we will see therefore a hard border in the Irish sea, in which case, what mitigating steps—? Well, I say 'mitigating'; there are no mitigating steps there. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to avoid that outcome, that Northern Ireland—? The fallback position is that Northern Ireland will remain in the single market and customs union in order to maintain the Belfast agreement, and that means a hard border in the Irish sea, which would be a disaster for communities in Wales.
The other questions I'd like to ask relate to contingency planning on behalf of Welsh Government. I of course welcome the Brexit business portal—of course a Plaid Cymru policy and suggestion made quite soon after the referendum. Indeed, it's a great regret that the Brexit business portal couldn't have been introduced sooner, but I wonder—. I know he is going to formally announce and launch this soon, but can he tell us when he will be launching the Brexit business portal and how businesses will be able to engage in it? I think we would find it also very useful as Members of this Assembly if the Cabinet Secretary were in a position to publish, maybe in the Assembly Library, a comprehensive list of contingency plans that the Welsh Government is undertaking. He said in his statement that they have been enhanced during the summer period. I think a list, perhaps along the lines of the format of the UK Government publishing its papers in the event of a 'no deal'. We could have a similar system in Wales, where Welsh Government is publishing more detailed information on contingency planning, not just for no deal, but for a possible deal as well.
One aspect that I think is missing from the statement today is the question of contingency planning in the Welsh NHS. I have raised this on a couple of occasions because, of course, this is a very complicated situation, because we have drug control that is, of course, not devolved, but, of course, you can't run a national health service that is devolved without drugs and without treatments. I declare an interest as somebody who's currently benefiting from treatment on the national health service. And the treatment that I personally received through chemotherapy—I understand that those drugs at the moment come via Munich, are distributed across the European Union via Munich, and are sourced from around the world. Now, that's a very—. And this is something I would urge people to think seriously about. When people are flirting with the idea of no deal, a 'no deal' Brexit, that means no deal on cancer drugs that people in this country rely upon. This is not playing political games or political football—that's a serious issue. If we don't have a deal on the future of cancer drugs that make up the composition of chemotherapy, cancer patients in this country are going to suffer, and that is not something I think anybody in this Chamber wants. So, can I ask the Welsh Government what discussions are ongoing with the UK Government, who hold control over drug control, with Welsh Government, who are, of course, responsible for the Welsh NHS and for future drugs and treatments?
Finally, it would be amiss for a Plaid Cymru spokesperson not to raise constitutional matters, particularly when we have an opportunity to do so on the issue of separation from the European Union. I note, in his references to meetings of the JMC and the ministerial forum, that it continues to be the case—and we saw it yesterday in evidence given by the First Minister to the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee—I think, that Wales is treated as little more than a consultee rather than as a partner nation in the so-called United Kingdom. We have seen in this whole process that the United Kingdom is constitutionally flawed. Some of us believe that it's been constitutionally flawed since 1707, but this process has certainly underlined that. With developments in other parts of the UK—the prospect of a united Ireland, the prospect of a second referendum on independence in Scotland—what contingency planning is the Welsh Government undertaking at the moment for the very real, I suggest, possibility of there not being a United Kingdom at all at the end of this process?
Llywydd, can I thank the Member for his questions and say how good it is to be having today's opportunity to pick up conversations held with him earlier in the year? He began with a reference that echoes something that the director of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, said recently when she described those who advocate a hard Brexit as the triumph of ideology over evidence, and I think he made that point very well in the outset. I'm not going to quarrel with him today over the difference between a definite or an indefinite article. If the text said 'a', then that's what I ought to have read out, so he can assume that the written word is more reliable than my rapid reading in the Chamber this afternoon. In a general election, of course, I hope there will be a majority Labour Government, and that would bring with it a whole series of advantages for Wales, including a sane approach to Brexit, but going much further than that, of course.
He makes a very important point on the Irish border. The Prime Minister herself said that it would be unthinkable for any Prime Minister to agree to a hard border in the Irish sea, and that is one of the things that she now has to deliver in finding a solution to the Irish border question. And from a Welsh perspective, while we say every time—and I'll say it again this afternoon—that nothing that we will say or do will ever be done in the knowledge that we are creating any difficulties for the very important ground that has been gained in Ireland in recent years, from a Welsh perspective, we are, nevertheless, entitled to point to the additional difficulties that we would face were the border to be down the Irish sea, because of the ports of Holyhead, Fishguard and Pembroke Dock and so on, and we make that point to the UK Government whenever we have a chance to do so.
The Member mentioned the Brexit portal and it was, indeed, part of the two-year budget agreement between the Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru. It has been taken forward by a sub-group of the council for economic development because we were very keen that the portal would provide for businesses the things that businesses themselves tell us that they are most in need of when it comes to information and advice. And the portal will indeed provide the most up-to-date information that we can and provide advice on a range of relevant business topics. It has been difficult to settle on the content of the portal because of the significant uncertainty about the final form of Brexit and the implications that that has for Wales, but we're imminently hoping to be able to publish it. I'll think about what the Member said about us putting it in the library—the supplementary advice that we have provided over and above the technical notices when there are Welsh specific issues at stake.
Of course, he made a series of very important points about what a 'no deal' would mean, not just in some theoretical sense, but in the absolute day-in-day-out services that people in Wales rely upon. I can assure him that my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for health is discussing these matters very, very regularly with the advisers that he has in the pharmaceutical field, with the local health boards that provide services on the ground and with the NHS Confederation in Wales in relation to staffing matters, and we take a very close, direct and detailed interest in the way that Brexit could impact on the Welsh NHS.
Briefly, in relation to constitutional matters, what we have to do, Llywydd, is we have to move on from a grace-and-favour approach to devolution, which too often characterises the attitude of Ministers in the UK Government, where they appear to regard devolution as something that they have been good enough to give to people in Wales and in Scotland, and that they could take away again at any point when they appear not to like what we do with the responsibilities that we have. We have to have, the other side of Brexit, a far more formal, a far more reliable and a far more impartial form of interaction between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom. Of course, I don't follow the Member down his path of the break-up of the United Kingdom—we think that a successful future for Wales is best secured through a successful future for the United Kingdom. But we will not have that successful future unless, the other side of Brexit, we are able to conduct business between the constituent parts of the United Kingdom in a way that is based on parity of participation and parity of esteem.
I welcome the statement from the Cabinet Secretary in some respects, and I can certainly agree with his evisceration of the Chequers agreement and its internal contradictions. It's quite clear that this is a political exercise not to seek the best outcome for the United Kingdom but to try to paper over the cracks of the warring factions within the Conservative Party, and the dog's breakfast that has emerged from this process in the Chequers agreement just shows what happens when you conduct a negotiation through people who don't really believe in what they're doing. The majority of Conservative MPs voted for remain, an even bigger majority of Members of the Cabinet were remainers. We have a collection of people who fundamentally don't really want to leave the EU, and the Chequers agreement is designed to achieve that particular objective. We will remain in the EU in all but name. So, I'm surprised, in many ways, that other parties aren't more cheerful about it, because it actually delivers for them what they want.
Steffan Lewis, in the course of his contribution this afternoon, talked about the country being held hostage, Wales being held hostage, by irreconcilable ideologues at Westminster. Actually, the people who are holding us all in the United Kingdom hostage in this process is the European Commission and their mouthpiece Monsieur Barnier. Nobody can promise an agreement because of course we can't control the reaction of the European Union to British proposals. So, the First Minister was quite wrong when he said earlier on that we all confidently promised a deal from the EU; I certainly didn't promise confidently any deal with the EU, knowing that actually we're speaking different languages in political terms. We've been talking the language of economics, the European Union negotiators were actually talking the language of politics. For them, the fundamental necessity is to maintain the political project of moving to greater unity politically, and that is one of the main reasons why I have always been opposed to Britain's membership of the EU. I do not want to be part of a federal superstate in the EU, and that is what the permanent bureaucracy of the European Union is determined to achieve. So, this negotiation was always doomed to fail if they had the upper hand, and the British Government's weakness in this regard has actually given them an even greater advantage than they enjoyed naturally.
The Cabinet Secretary very quickly lapsed from that analysis, in which I can agree with him, into his usual jeremiad. I always enjoy his classical illusions, although I wonder how many secondary school children today would understand who Scylla and Charybdis were. Sadly, I don't suppose they even know who the prophet Jeremiah was either. But if ever there's an updated version of the Book of Lamentations, I can think of nobody better to write it than the Cabinet Secretary himself. As Darren Millar pointed out in his contribution, the extravagant claims of project fear go beyond absurdity. The idea that we won't be able to use our passports or that aircraft will not be able to fly over European air space or land at European airports—and, of course, that the reverse would perhaps be true in those circumstances—I think is so ridiculous that we don't need to spend much time on that. I didn't regard it as a refutation of what Darren Millar said that it's in his own Government's documents, because the Government itself is actually part of project fear in this respect, because that helps them to achieve their political objectives as well.
We've heard from Monsieur Barnier himself in the last 48 hours that a solution to the Northern Irish problem is easily available. He doesn't say so directly, but what he did say just two days ago in relation to solving the problem of east-west trade from Ireland, which is equally applicable to north-south trading, is that whether technology could help east-west trade is a different question from north-south. His aim is to make checks as simple and dedramatised as possible, but that's a matter for the negotiating teams. Of course, he heads the negotiating teams, so he is actually working towards a solution that can easily be found. There's no reason to think that that wouldn't be available for north-south trade as well. After all, only about 1 per cent of Irish trade is conducted north-south, and there are well established mechanisms in other jurisdictions throughout the world that could make that as undramatic as possible—automatic customs clearing, electronic border checks and occasional physical checks away from the border areas. So, if there's a will there's a way, and that can easily be achieved. Ireland is actually being used a bargaining chip by the EU, as a means not only of undermining our negotiating position in this Brexit negotiation but also as a means of trying to break up the United Kingdom and, in particular, to create political unity in Ireland, which would, clearly, be a disastrous effect of the Brexit process. But, they're the ones playing with fire, not us. My solution to that would be to say, 'If you want border checks on the Irish border, you put them up'. Let's put the ball back into their court, and let's see what happens then. We could unilaterally decide to have no border and let them cope with the consequences.
The Cabinet Secretary, in the course of his statement, said that he couldn't see any advantages from a 'no deal' Brexit. It's inevitable that there would be costs of a 'no deal' Brexit—nobody's ever denied that there would be transitional costs of leaving the EU, in the same way as there were significant transitional costs of joining it in the first place. But the protectionist policies of the EU bear down most heavily upon those at the lower end of the income scale in this country, from a protectionist agricultural policy where tariffs are as high as 50 per cent on the one hand, to taxes on footwear and clothing, and even, through the VAT code, on things like sanitary products and many others that we've frequently referred to in the course of this debate. We will have the freedom, once we're out of the EU, to make our decisions for ourselves in all of these areas, and to get rid of the regressive elements in the trade and tax codes that the EU has forced upon us. I've no fear of the trade consequences of leaving the EU for the longer term.
He referred, as the First Minister did earlier on today—[Interruption.] I've asked several questions up until now and I'll ask a few more as well in the short time that remains to me. It's the EU that will be fundamentally the loser from cutting off trade flows or restricting trade flows, because we have a massive trade deficit with them. Eighty-eight per cent of the cars that are registered in Britain every year actually originate from the EU. We have a trade deficit in cars amounting to millions with Germany alone. Admittedly, there will be problems for certain agricultural sectors if there is no deal, particularly, as we know, for lamb producers, but the sums of money involved here in global terms are small, and can easily be dealt with by a Government that has the will to put in place a system that protects the interests of those who would be disadvantaged. After all, the figures are that we import from abroad £0.4 billion worth of lamb, and we export £0.3 billion, so there was a deficit on imports of lamb. There's massive opportunity for import substitution for British farmers generally if the EU is so stupid as to try to force us into a position where there is no deal, to which they are actually legally committed to find a way to achieve through the Lisbon treaty itself. So, they would be breaking their own laws if they were to carry on the road that they are on.
So, what I ask the Cabinet Secretary to do, with no confidence whatsoever that he'll take my advice, is to become a bit more cheerful and optimistic about the future. Whatever the short-term costs, the long-term gains in democracy for the British people are what this is all about. Why should we want to outsource the making of our laws to a collection of international technocrats who not only do we not elect and cannot dismiss, but we can't even name? This is the very reverse, I think, of what the Labour Party was set up to achieve—to use the forces of parliamentary democracy to benefit working people in this country. The idea that the sort of people who are in international business organisations, like Carolyn Fairbairn, representing the Confederation of British Industry, a body that has been absolutely wrong on every major issue economically in my lifetime, from incomes policy to the European monetary system—the idea that their advice is worth taking seems to me to be bizarre for a Corbynite. Perhaps these contradictions will be explained in another forum.
So, the last question I want to ask the Cabinet Secretary relates to the possibility of a second referendum, because it's quite clear now that the direction that the Labour Party is going in is actually to have a second referendum. Because, whatever deal is done, or if no deal is done, they hope that the British people will take a different decision next time from the one that they took last time. But how many times do we have to have a vote on this issue? They spent 40 years denying us one—since 1975. If we have a second referendum, the British people must be forced to keep on voting until they provide the Labour Party with the result that they want. If we have a second referendum, why not a third, why not a fourth, why don't we make it an annual event like Christmas, because then we will have something to look forward to as politicians every year, something to keep us all in business? So, where does it end? That's what I ask. The British people decided, including the Welsh people, by a majority—they rejected the policies of Plaid Cymru, they rejected the policies of the Labour Party, in the referendum in May 2016. And, therefore, will the Cabinet Secretary not take the votes of the Welsh people, and the British people, at face value, and give them what they want, which is freedom from the EU?
Well, Llywydd, I think I heard two questions in that. The first question was: why don't I cheer up? And I hope I set out for you all the reasons why a sensible person will not be approaching this autumn in a spirit of empty optimism.
The second question was about a second referendum. I've said plainly that my own belief is that, if you have a deadlocked House of Commons, you need a new House of Commons, through a general election. As I understand it, to talk of a second referendum is not about reversing the first referendum, although I think we can speculate—and it would not be unfair of us to speculate—that, had the Member found himself on the losing side of the last referendum, by a very narrow majority, he would not be sitting there, saying, 'Oh, well, the British people have spoken, I will never ask that question again.' But, of course, it's apparently impossible for people on the other side to ask the same question again. The question of a second referendum is not on whether to leave the European Union—it's whether the terms of the deal negotiated are satisfactory to people. I think that's a different question, and I think it's not improper for people to think that that is the right way to ask people, as to whether or not, having decided to leave the European Union—is this what you thought it would mean and is this what you thought you were voting for? That's not an unfair question to ask people. If I buy a vacuum cleaner in a shop today, I have 28 days to take it back to the shop if it doesn't do the job that I thought it was going to do when I bought it. And if I can do that for a vacuum cleaner, then asking people, 'Having made the decision to leave the European Union, is this particular deal what you think you were voting for?'—I don't think it's right simply just to dismiss that.
In amongst everything else, Llywydd, I think you hear two or three of the emerging narratives of those people who tried to persuade people in the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. When it all goes as badly wrong as some of us fear that it might, the accusations will be of betrayal at home and intransigence abroad. Everything would have been fine if it wasn't for the fact that those people in charge of it—David Davis, Boris Johnson, those well-known people, determined to stay in the European Union—. If it hadn't been for them, everything would have been fine. And if it isn't for them, it's all the fault of foreigners. We heard that emerging clear as you like this afternoon. Then we hear, on the one hand, of course it will be fine anyway. Apparently, driving licences will work, although we're told they won't if we have a no-Brexit. I wonder if the Member had spotted today, in his talk of German car manufacturers, that BMW has said that it will shut its main British manufacturing factory for several weeks immediately after 29 March next year. It's a decision they've already taken, because they fear that the channel tunnel will be blocked for two weeks—that they will not be able to move parts from one part of the European Union to another. Far from German car manufacturers being in favour of new free trade deals with the United Kingdom, they are taking steps now to deal with the consequences of the course of action that he and his party have advocated.
And then we hear, if it's not going to be fine straight away, then don't worry—in the longer run, it will all be fine. Well, I wonder whether people who heard messages during the referendum campaign, and saw busses going up and down their streets with large sums of money advertised on the side of them, realised that this wasn't going to happen as a result of leaving the European Union—it was as a result of of some long-distant future when a period of immiseration had been survived and everything would be fine for those who were left. Really, it doesn't stack up. The Member knows it doesn't stack up, but he makes his normal attempt to persuade us of it this afternoon.
Cabinet Secretary, you'll have heard Frances O'Grady, general secretary of the Wales TUC, recently. She said:
'I warned the prime minister that if her deal doesn’t protect jobs, rights at work and peace in Northern Ireland, the TUC will throw our weight behind the call for a vote on the terms of Brexit. We’re all trade unionists—when we do a deal, we go back to the members to get their approval. So whether it’s through a general election or a popular vote, Mrs May must put her Brexit deal back to the people so they can decide whether it’s good enough.'
Now, it seems to me, Cabinet Secretary, that is something that sounds and is very reasonable. I wonder whether you agree with that.
In terms of your statement, one further point is this: we've been hearing a lot about shared prosperity before the summer. There doesn't seem to be any talk of shared prosperity in the various discussions that have taken place. Now, we know that the Tories, when they talk about shared prosperity—the only prosperity they've ever shared is prosperity amongst themselves and those who support them. But I wonder, is there any prospect of any shared prosperity whatsoever heading its way towards Wales, as was promised before the referendum?
Well, Llywydd, let me say at the beginning: I hope there will be a deal. I hope the Prime Minister will negotiate a deal that delivers what she says she wants to deliver and that she can bring it back and that she can persuade the House of Commons to support it. What Frances O'Grady was referring to, and what I've referred to this afternoon, is what happens if she can't do such a deal—and then the things that the TUC have said that were very largely reflected in what I've said this afternoon—in those circumstances, then it is right that people should have a chance to decide.
On the shared prosperity issue, let's be clear: Wales benefits from our membership of the European Union to the tune of some £660 million a year. We qualify for that money by the rules, we get money because we have needs that need to be met and we get funding from the European Union to help us to do that. Those needs will not have disappeared the day after Brexit and the funding must therefore flow to Wales to allow us to continue to deal with the issues that have been identified here.
If the Conservative Party think that a shared prosperity fund is about taking money that comes to Wales today and sharing it out to other people, so that we are worse off as a result of our membership of the United Kingdom than we have been as a result of our membership of the European Union, then they are on a very foolish path indeed, and I make that point whenever I have the opportunity.
Cabinet Secretary, thank you for your statement this afternoon. I had hoped to speak a bit longer but I think the 10 minutes taken up has damaged a lot of our opportunities.
Can I highlight also a couple of points of thinking? I think Steffan Lewis made a very clear argument and nothing could be more stark than what he said about the implications of a 'no deal' Brexit. I wish that the officials in Westminster and Whitehall would listen to that type of argument when they produce these technical papers, because technical papers, to be blunt, are very light on any solutions to the problems they've identified, and they're the only ones we've seen to date.
But can I ask you a couple of questions in relation to that? Obviously, 'no deal' is very much on the agenda now and we risk getting closer and closer to a point in time at which we have to either agree a deal or we end up automatically, by default, in a 'no deal' situation. You've had these technical papers from the UK Government: have you had a chance to ask your officials to look at those, particularly the ones produced perhaps on 28 August, which are the earlier ones—I know some were produced last week and there are more to come—to look at the implications for Wales and how Wales can tackle the issues and maybe respond with positive outcomes based upon what 'no deal' scenarios are likely, so we are prepared for that?
Can I also ask that perhaps—you mentioned in your statement how, I think, a dozen-plus meetings have been held, but they're not just the ministerial forum and not just the JMC(EN); they also have other ministerial meetings. Have you got a situation where we now have cross-portfolio look at all these things, so we can put them together? Very often, we get governments working in silos. It's a situation where we need to have a cross-portfolio picture as to what's happening for Welsh Government to ensure that what's been said in one forum is being replicated in another forum and so we have consistency in those discussion.
Now, I will agree with Darren Millar in one sense, and I welcome him to his new role as spokesperson on this, and my sense would be that you had limited discussions of the JMC(EN) in your statement from last Thursday. Does this reflect the fact that there's very little going on in the JMC(EN). We have, in the past, commented upon how effective it is. Is it really effective? Did you have any detailed and successful discussions last Thursday or are we back to the world where JMC(EN) is actually producing nothing, we're not getting any further and we're only six to eight weeks away from a position where negotiations will be ending?
Again, on the 'no deal' scenario, we're talking about frameworks—the officials are talking about frameworks. Are they actually looking at the situation of what happens if you have a 'no deal'? How are the frameworks going to progress? What will happen on 30 March 2019 if there is no deal with regard to those common frameworks?
And you haven't commented in your statement, perhaps, on the actions the Welsh Government is taking with the regions? I recognise the difficulties we have, sometimes, not being the member state in those discussions, but we are discussing with the regions our future relationships. Could you comment upon the future relationships Wales is having with other regions so we can see where we're going in that direction in the situation where we do leave?
Perhaps, finally, we can talk about where we are—Mick Antoniw mentioned the shared prosperity fund. I think that's a fantasy world at this moment. We haven't seen anything on it yet. But what actions are you putting into place to ensure that the regional policy and the regional funding—the First Minister mentioned that you'll be talking about that later—. Where are we with the regional funding to ensure that our regional policy and our regional funding can deliver for Wales? Because we are going to be losing that, as of Brexit, and we would have had transition funding, there's no doubt about that, in the next tranche. So, where are we on that matter?
I thank the Member for those questions. Much of what I have said this afternoon has been critical of the UK Government, and rightly so. So, let me try and make a small number of more positive points, and first of all to say that, with the technical notices, Welsh Government officials did have an opportunity to read and comment on those notices during the period of preparation. So, we didn't simply see them on the day that they were published. We were able to make sure that they were accurate from a Welsh perspective, and therefore we have had a greater level of involvement in their preparation than we have in some other examples of European Union negotiation matters.
As far as the JMC last week is concerned, I did spend the bulk of what I had to say reflecting the agenda of that meeting, because it dealt separately with developments in relation to the proposed deal for the Chequers White Paper. We had a discussion with the new Secretary of State at the Brexit department about the many meetings that he had held over the summer with the EU on that matter. We had a substantive discussion in relation to preparation for a 'no deal' and the technical notices and other preparations that the UK Government is conducting, and we had an opportunity to review the progress made in relation to framework discussions.
Does the forum provide a proper place where there is genuine engagement on a sense of parity participation? No, it doesn't, and I've said that this afternoon—it has to be reformed and improved—but was it a worthwhile encounter? Yes, it was, because it allowed me as the Welsh Government representative, and indeed my Scottish colleague Mike Russell, to make a series of important points representing the interests of our nations, and it was worth while from that point of view. And it is the first of a series of JMCs that are now timetabled through the autumn, and that's an improvement as well, where we have a series of agreed dates in advance that allow us to be more involved in prior preparation for those meetings. So, they are by no means perfect but they remain a place where we take every opportunity to advance Welsh interests.
Thanks to David Rees for pointing out an area that I wasn't able to cover in the statement, and that is the continuing work that we are doing to identify those regions in the European Union with whom we will want to have particular relationships the other side of the European Union. I was lucky enough to be able to welcome a delegation here from the Basque Country, returning visits that I had made and that Lesley Griffiths had made. The President of the Basque Country was here earlier in the summer, and that's a very important region for the future of us in Wales. The First Minister has visited a number of other regions over the summer period—part of that ongoing programme.
In relation to regional policy, let me underline a point that the First Minister made earlier, because I think sometimes the importance of it isn't emphasised enough. When we, as a Welsh Government, say that provided money comes to us through whatever mechanism is agreed for the purposes that European funding is used today, we are providing a guarantee, in advance, of two things. First of all, the money will be kept for those purposes. It will not simply just become absorbed in the wider Welsh Government budget. We get money for rural Wales, we get money for the reform of our economy. The money will be kept for those purposes, and we don't say that about other money that comes to the Welsh Government. We always say, quite rightly, that it comes through Barnett, but it goes into the pot and we decide. And we are prepared to offer a multi-annual guarantee. In other words, because the European Union money comes with seven years' worth of guarantee and allows people to plan ahead for their futures, we would provide the same guarantee here in Wales for money that came for those purposes from the UK Government. Neither of those things do we say in other contexts. The First Minister repeated some of that here this afternoon, and I'll be reflecting that, I hope, in a statement that I hope to be able to make in the next few weeks here on the floor of the Assembly on the future of regional policy.
I was pleased to hear Steffan Lewis, in his remarks, mention food security as one of the major issues that we need to consider in the possibility of a 'no deal' with the European Union situation because I, like you, would hope that Mrs May can come up with a deal that we can all sign up to, but the Parliamentary arithmetic in Westminster makes it very difficult to see how that's going to happen.
So, just going back to food security, I've had a quick look at the technical notices that the UK Government has issued about the implications for fruit and vegetables that we currently import, in the vast majority, from the European Union. I can find quite a lot about how I could import a ferret, but not very much on fruit and veg. I can import 2 kg of fruit and veg from outside the EU. Now, presumably, that would apply to all countries that are in the EU if we have a hard crash out of Brexit. There's nothing about what I really want to understand, which is the implication for the wholesalers, the retailers who currently supply the high street to enable us all to have the food we need on a daily basis, particularly the perishables. So, Cabinet Secretary, you may have had longer to look at these technical notices, and I wondered if you can tell us what they say about this matter and what we can do to mitigate some of the worst effects, i.e. planting now for spring crops, possibly using the LEADER programme within the EU programme, or other money that might be made available, to encourage citizens and companies, businesses, to start growing more fruit and veg now.
Llywydd, I thank the Member for those very important points. The real way to mitigate the disasters that she points to is to have a deal that we can all sign up to as we leave the European Union. I think it was the former governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, only a couple of weeks ago, who pointed to the utter absurdity of the sixth richest nation on the face of the globe having to prepare for a situation where we have to stockpile food and medicines as though we were about to enter some sort of wartime period. He was ridiculing the idea that we have manoeuvred ourselves into that sort of position, and this by a man who advocated that we ought to leave the European Union. So, the real way of mitigating the difficulties that the Member points to is not to find ourselves in the position of a 'no deal' with all the difficulties that she describes.
I think she has probably looked in vain for advice from the UK Government on this matter because, from memory—and I will check it to make sure that I've got this right—this is one of the areas that is yet to be addressed in the technical notices. There are a series of other matters, many of them pointing to even greater areas of difficulty, I believe, on which the UK Government is yet to provide advice to businesses or to the public as to how those matters will be navigated on a 'no deal' footing, and I think the reason we haven't seen some of those things is because, in those areas, the messages will be even starker than those pointed to by Steffan Lewis earlier.
Thank you for your statement, finance Secretary. As you know, I've consistently raised my concerns about the impact of Brexit on workers' rights and equality in terms of EU law, and backed the positive role of structural funds to widen equality of opportunity in the labour market, exemplified, for example, in your recent announcement of £17 million for young people in south-east Wales to help unlock their career potential.
I've been studying the technical notices—very brief, they are, I have to say—in the event of a 'no deal'. The guidance on workplace rights if there is a Brexit 'no deal' reminds us of the range of EU law that has benefited workers' rights, including: working time regulations; family leave entitlement including maternity and paternity leave; legislation to prevent and remedy discrimination based on age, sex, disability, sexual orientation, religion or belief, race or ethnic origin in the workplace; legislation to protect part-time and young workers, and much more. The technical notice says that the UK Government will continue to work with the devolved administrations to ensure that workers' rights continue to operate across the UK. Again, can you confirm that this engagement is taking place and provide any reassurances on these rights and protections in the event of a 'no deal' outcome?
Reassurance is also needed in relation to the European social fund grants in the event of a 'no deal'. Again, the technical notice states that,
'In the unlikely event of a no deal scenario, the UK’s departure from the EU would mean UK organisations would be unable to access EU funding for European Social Fund projects after exit day',
March 2019. Have you secured a guarantee from the UK Government that there will be no gap in funding for regional growth, and that EU projects would be guaranteed, including the European social fund, in the event of a 'no deal'?
Finally, I do want to ask a question about the £50 million EU transition fund provided by the Welsh Government. It was mentioned in scrutiny of the First Minister yesterday in the external affairs committee. Can you confirm that the consequential from the UK Government will not be enough to fund all the activity related to Brexit that we need to undertake, so we're having to meet these needs in terms of transition preparation out of a very constrained budget as a result of austerity and the UK Government is not providing the funds that we need in terms of that transition?
Thank you, Llywydd. I'll take the final question first. The Member is absolutely right: the £50 million EU transition fund is not simply a pass-on to Wales of money that comes from the UK Government in this regard; we are having to provide money from existing sources in our capital and revenue budgets. We do so willingly because the need is urgent. We are using money that comes from the UK Government, but that is certainly not the whole of it; money is being used from elsewhere in the Welsh Government because we know that the need to prepare for Brexit spans all of our public services and is of real importance to jobs and prosperity.
As far as the future of structural funds is concerned, I welcomed the Chancellor's original guarantee when he provided some assurances in the immediate aftermath of the referendum about structural funds, and I've welcomed his further decision to guarantee structural funds for the whole of this period. That has helped to give certainty to current participants and has given confidence that we will be able to make the best possible use of funds in the current round. It's what lies beyond the current round, in the way that Mick Antoniw asked about the shared prosperity fund where we now need—and urgently need, as time goes by—equal clarity that the money that Wales has enjoyed in the current round will be available to us for those purposes beyond Brexit.
Finally, on the question of workers' rights, of consumers' rights, of citizenship rights and of human rights—all those things that we have gained as a result of our membership of the European Union—the problem here, Llywydd, is this, isn't it: Mrs May says to us that in the event of a 'no deal', all those rights would be guaranteed, but if there is no deal, there will be no Mrs May, and the problem then is that the promises that she has provided will fall to those people on her backbenches who have promoted 'no deal' to deliver. Do we believe that they share those same beliefs? Do we think that a Boris Johnson-led Government would be equally committed to securing the rights that British workers and British citizens have enjoyed through the European Union? Well, of course not; of course we could not have that confidence. When Mrs May says so, I'm prepared to believe her. She said from the beginning that those rights would be guaranteed, and it is perfectly possible to pick those rights up and drop them into UK law so they go on being observed here instead of through EU law. But in the event of a 'no deal', the people making those promises are very unlikely indeed still to be in charge, and that's the danger that is posed for workers and others here in Wales.
The next item, therefore, is a statement by the Minister for Welsh Language and Lifelong Learning on the progress report on the employability plan, and I call on the Minister to make a statement—Eluned Morgan.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. In March this year, we published a cross-Government employability plan that set out our vision for making Wales a full-employment, high-tech, high-wage economy. That plan presented an ambitious strategy to create a highly trained and inclusive workforce, one that can respond effectively to national and regional skills needs, and adapt well to the future of work.
At the centre of this ambition, we committed to helping everyone achieve their full potential through meaningful employment, regardless of their ability, background, gender or ethnicity. The plan also made it clear to employers that they have a responsibility to nurture, train and sustain their employees to ensure that the future of the Welsh workforce is a stable and forceful one. Aligned closely with that economic action plan, we have ensured that, together, we are driving inclusive growth, that we're improving productivity and that we start to prepare to futureproof our economy against those future challenges.
We set out a wide-ranging programme of actions and commitments in that employability plan, as well as stretching 10-year targets, in order to achieve that vision for Wales. Six months on—and it's only been six months—I'm pleased to announce the publication of our first progress report on the delivery of our employability plan. The report sets out highlights over the past six months, showcasing our key achievements so far, as well as giving a flavour of work ongoing and future developments to come.
One of the things we've done is to launch a new £10 million skills development fund that will boost regional skills provision and target skills gaps. We've invited bids from across Wales, and those who were successful will begin delivery this month for this academic year.
We're also making progress on delivering a radical review of the current funding formula for further education, and we'll look to implement changes in the 2019-20 academic year in order to make the system more efficient and, again, more flexible for regional skills needs.
Our apprenticeships programme continues to go from strength to strength, now providing high-level opportunities in new sectors, including clinical therapies and healthcare sciences. By the end of this year, we plan to deliver a new apprenticeship pilot within the forestry sector that will help tackle the future skills and recruitment needs for a revitalised timber industry.
We've got a £2 million initiative to trial an individualised placement support approach, and that has already started. That will support 450 individuals experiencing mild to moderate mental health issues, helping them to access both mental health and employability support in a joined-up way. So, that's working with the UK Government’s work and health unit and Jobcentre Plus, and what that trial does is to offer a groundbreaking opportunity to integrate healthcare and employability services.
At the centre of our new individualised approach to employability support, we're making excellent progress in developing more streamlined access to advice and support and we're doing this through the employment advice gateway, which will be launched from February next year. That'll be delivered by Careers Wales. Our new employability support programme, Working Wales, will be accessed via that gateway and, again, will be ready for launching next year. The procurement of contractors for the delivery of Working Wales is well under way, and the award of contracts are expected in November. We continue to develop proposals with Careers Wales around the shape and delivery of the gateway.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
As the report illustrates, we are laying the foundations for a more holistic, cross-Government approach to employability. We recognise the need to better connect different public services, including transport, health, housing, childcare and employability support, and ensure that these services work together to enable more people to enter and retain employment. We are already seeing the benefits of co-location in the work of the Valleys taskforce and our Communities for Work programme. We are doing that through the development of community hubs, and we will continue to develop this approach through the new gateway.
We have also made good progress in working with the Department for Work and Pensions and the Community Transport Association to explore how we might enhance transport options to improve employability in local areas. We are now developing plans for a pilot in the Valleys that will help to reduce barriers to work arising from a lack of flexible or affordable transport options.
One of the key commitments that we made in our employability plan was to set a new national target to increase the number of disabled people in employment. Improving employment opportunities for disabled people is a priority, and it's very important for this Government. We are determined to drive the step change needed in workplaces and in society to break down the barriers and challenges faced by nearly 75,000 disabled people in Wales who are not in employment but who would like to work.
I am pleased with the progress that we've made so far working in close partnership with disabled people and their representatives, who have been advising the Welsh Government on the best approach to take. I have also been very pleased with the co-operation of employers I have met with in our efforts to break down the existing barriers to work faced by disabled people and those with work-limiting health conditions.
We aim to publish a target by the end of the year that will look to reduce the employment gap in relation to disabled people, together with further details on how we plan to achieve this ambition.
Through my meetings with anchor companies and business networks I will continue to challenge employers to do more and to explore how we can work together to help all individuals with protected characteristics to enter employment that is sustainable and fulfilling.
This autumn, we will also be publishing a new version of our framework for action on independent living. That will set out a wide range of Government actions under way to tackle some of the key barriers identified by disabled people in the areas of transport, housing and employment.
So, the report illustrates that we've accomplished a lot in the six months since our plan was published, setting in motion a far-reaching new approach to improving employability across Wales.
As part of the Welsh Government’s national strategy 'Prosperity for All', effective cross-Government working remains at the heart of delivering the employability plan. We are putting in place channels of communication and joint working across Welsh Government and our delivery partners in order to ensure that we continue to work in a co-ordinated and efficient way, united by common goals. I’m indebted also to the work of my fellow Ministers and their willingness to work together to ensure positive progress is made on issues that are relevant to several different portfolios.
This is the first of a series of annual reports on the implementation of the employability plan, and I look forward to continuing this work to create an economy founded on high-quality skills and that allows people to prosper along with the economy of Wales. Thank you very much.
I thank the Minister for her statement today. It is clear that if we are to ensure workforce supply needs and business needs are met there has to be better collaboration between industry and education. Local colleges, training providers and universities need to understand and respond to the requirements of businesses by providing training programmes tailored to meet existing skill demands in Wales. Research for the south-east Wales regional skills partnership reveals that while some colleges are making great progress in building a relationship with employers, others are offering training without understanding the needs of local businesses. So what is the Minister doing to address this problem and to ensure greater collaboration and communication between businesses and education is maintained and achieved here in Wales?
The construction industry is a case in point. In July, the Federation of Master Builders Cymru found that construction SMEs reported slower growth in activity in the second quarter of this year. One of the reasons given for this was the shortage of skilled labour. Two thirds of businesses reported difficulties in hiring bricklayers and 60 per cent in hiring carpenters and joiners, while SME builders reported a rising workload. What is the Minister doing to address the shortage of skills in the construction industry, please? What is she doing to change the poor perception of the construction industry as a clear option amongst young people? Young people need a clear and compelling technical pathway through post-16 education, with equal esteem and equal reward as other, more traditional routes. How does the Minister intend to promote apprenticeships to young people as a viable career option, and what financial support will she offer to older workers, as well as young people, to improve training and skills?
Finally, Presiding Officer, I would like to mention the subject of digital skills. Digital skills are having a huge impact as new technologies are adopted, but change is taking place at a rapid pace. What consideration has been given to colleges partnering up with industry to gain access to the latest technology and equipment to ensure that training is up to date and goes with the times? This is vital if we are to meet the demand for workers with digital skills, particularly in specialist areas such as cyber security. Minister, I appreciate the new £10 million skills development fund, but I would like to ask you how much you are spending in the south-east Valleys on BMEs, LGBTs and people over the age of 50, and how it's going to be allocated in certain areas where people have been unemployed for generations. I look forward to the Minister replying on this area. Thank you.
Diolch yn fawr, Mohammad. Yes, I think this development that we've put on the table, £10 million, really has made the further education system sit up and take notice and understand that we are dead serious about the need for them to respond to the skills needs of the local economy. What has happened as a consequence of that is that, actually, people are getting much more engaged with the regional skills partnership, because they understand that, if they want to access that money, they can only access it if they're responding to what those RSPs are saying. The issue we have now is to make sure that we are getting the right labour market intelligence into those regional skills partnerships—so, getting the right people around the table. And, whilst we can have big companies, I think it's really important that we also focus on SMEs and making sure that we hear what they've got to tell us about their skills needs. Now, we can do that partly, perhaps, through sector skills; we can read the labour market intelligence and make sure that's being built in. So, we have gone a long way and, of course, it will be relevant in the review that we're doing in relation to further education, because we need to be training people for jobs that exist, or will exist, rather than providing people with training for jobs that simply don't exist. So, that is an interesting shift that I think—. I'm really pleased to say that further education colleges are responding very positively.
I think the other issue that you touched upon is apprenticeships. Now, I think we've got a very proud record on apprenticeships in Wales. We're on target to meet our 100,000 apprenticeships, and, of course, what you have to remember is that these are all-age apprenticeships, so only about 25 per cent of them are for people under the age of 25.
In-work poverty is probably one of the biggest challenges we face in Wales today, and so the issue is how do you get people to take on better roles within their jobs and therefore earn more money. And the answer is training. Now, we can go some way to helping to provide that training, but part of what we have to do is to make sure that employers also take up their responsibility, and that's something that we've made very clear, and I make very clear, every time I meet the employers that I meet with.
It depends on if you listen to someone like Klaus Schwab from the World Economic Forum—or Mark Carney over the past few days—to decide at which pole you are in terms of pessimism or optimism in terms of the potential of automation to destroy jobs. But everyone would accept, of course, in terms of the need for skills, that this is the greatest revolution we have seen for generations. Does the Minister feel that we have a regime that is prepared for this challenge? Because, if we think in traditional terms, in terms of education and skills the trend has been to focus on young people—although lifelong learning is part of your portfolio—and then, in terms of adults, to focus on the unemployed. But, in the context of automation, the greatest need will be to train people who are halfway through their careers, and already in work, to retrain for the positions that will emerge.
Now, the system we had for that in the past, we would have called 'adult education’. Wales, at one point, was in the vanguard with adult education, but look at where we are now. Coleg Harlech is in decline as a symbol of a lack of investment—not only in Wales; the same pattern has existed in England too—in terms of evening classes and so on and so forth, where people would go of their own accord to climb the ladder, either in the same sector, or to retrain in preparation for another sector. If we look at the figures, we see Working Wales, the procurement process—some £600 million invested in that. How much is put into community learning? I know that you’re currently consulting, or have just concluded a consultation. It’s just a few million going to that sector, but, again, that is the sector that is the most appropriate place for doing the work of preparing everyone for the challenge that we are facing. So, will we see a change in the balance?
And just finally, Deputy Presiding Officer, just a few further points in terms of the Welsh language. We have discussed this previously: 0.3 per cent, or whatever the figure is now in terms of apprenticeships, provided entirely through the medium of Welsh. That is entirely unacceptable. Can we be given a clear pledge that the provision in terms of apprenticeships will reflect the linguistic reality of Wales, never mind the million Welsh speakers that we are seeking to create for the future?
And finally, in terms of employers, could the Minister look at a programme in Singapore that has generated a great deal of interest globally, namely SkillsFuture? It uses employers in the process of predicting the future. It’s going to companies in certain sectors who are providing employability advice and saying, 'Can you tell us what skills you as a company, as a business, believe that you will require for the future?’ Then they use that information in their skills portal in order to provide more direct information to those people who want to train for the future.
Thank you very much. I don’t think that it matters whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist; it’s going to happen, and so we have to prepare for automation and how that’s going to have an impact on us as individuals and as a society. There’s no point in us pretending that we can do anything about that; it has started and there will be progress, and it will move very quickly, I think. So, it is important that we do prepare for that.
One of the things that we’ve scoped out at present is the possibility of creating individual learning accounts, where people would have the right to have credit to go and study where they’re in work, but we’ll only give them an opportunity to study where we know we have a deficit in the workplace. So, of course, digital skills will be part of that. So, we’re aware, of course, that there’s always an issue of funding and where we’re going to obtain it for that kind of scheme, but in terms of the thinking and what we’d like to do, then that’s the direction that we’d like to move in.
Of course, adult learning, of all the things that have had an impact as an outcome of austerity, is an area that has been dealt a huge blow. We heard yesterday in England that they’ve done some analysis, and they’ve also suffered. So, we’ve had to focus our work there on vital skills in order to ensure that we can have something out of this area, but you will be aware that we are waiting to hear now what the outcomes are of that review that we’re carrying out. To me, what’s important is that we don’t take all of the responsibility as a Government. We all have a responsibility, and there’s a responsibility on employers as well to ensure that they also help to develop the skills of their workforce. So, it’s not right for this to just only fall on our shoulders.
In terms of Welsh language apprenticeships, we’re keeping a detailed eye on that, and one of the issues here is that employers have to be part of that. So, it’s not something where we can say, ‘Do this’; they create the apprenticeshipes and the people who take the apprenticeships decide whether they want to do it through the medium of Welsh. So, it’s very difficult to say, ‘You have to do this’. Of course, we want to see an increase, and the percentage of those who do a part of their course through the medium of Welsh is higher than the figure that you mentioned.
In terms of the SkillsFuture scheme in Singapore, you will be aware that the chair of our panel on the review of digital innovation is an expert on this area in Singapore, so I do hope that something will emerge from that. We’ll see whether we have more details from him.
Thank you for your statement, Minister. I note the content of your statement, but I must say it's rather lacking in detail. So, consequently, I've got quite a number of questions for you. For instance, you claim that you're making progress delivering a radical review of the funding formula for further education—I think that's a good idea, brilliant—but, you've not said anything about what that progress is. So, can you please provide some detail on the actual progress that you've made, where you've gone with it, what are the outcomes, what changes have you made, what changes are you considering?
I note also that you've announced the launch of a £10 million fund to boost regional skills provision and target skills gaps. Boosting skills and identifying skills gaps is a necessary and essential thing for Government to do, so, again, good thinking on this one. But, what's your assessment of the skills gaps in the various regions, and how did you come to these conclusions? How are you assessing the skills needs in the regions? What method are you using? What's your assessment of the needs of future business investors in terms of future skills in the different regions?
Turning to the apprenticeship programme, how many apprenticeships have being created in return for the money spent so far? What's your assessment of the long-term prospects for apprentices going through the scheme and how will you actually measure the outcomes of the scheme? With regard to the individualised placement support, can you tell us when you'll be able to report back on the results of the trial? Again, how will you measure success? You state that we've already seen the benefits of co-location. It's all very well saying that we've already seen the benefits, but can you tell us, please, what those benefits are that you've seen so far? I also note that you're endeavouring to increase the number of disabled people going into employment. I really, really do applaud your intentions on this. Anything that can be done to get disabled people into employment to be independent is really, really to be applauded, but can you give us some information about how many disabled people are likely to be helped under this scheme? How many are likely to be helped into employment?
You're stating that your employability plan makes clear to employers their responsibilities to nurture, train and sustain their employees and ensure the future of the Welsh workforce, but I have a question for you, Minister. Can you please explain to us what makes you think that you're qualified to be lecturing employers about training their staff? Are you just looking for a way to offload the responsibility for assessing training needs and providing the education to cater for those needs onto employers? Training and coaching employees also costs money, not just in paying for the training but in the cost of the time taken out during the training. Is this a cost that you're expecting employers to shoulder, or will it be the state?
My one overriding question is this, and I think that you've probably gathered this from my foregoing comments: how are you going to assess the results of the employability plan? What sort of performance will you consider to be a success? How will you monitor not just the uptake but the long-term outcomes of the plan? Thank you.
Thank you. First of all, we have had quite an extensive discussion with further education colleges in relation to the funding formula. They have now responded to that consultation. I'm expecting to hear the results of that in the next few weeks, because we know that it'll take—we need to give further education colleges probably a year to prepare for any funding changes that may come their way. So that, I'm very confident, is in hand.
In terms of the response on regional skills, you'll be aware that there are three regional skills partnerships. They are specific to the region, so they are responding to what happens in their area. We are hoping—we are expecting and we encourage local businesses to feed into that and to tell us what their skills needs are. There is a panel—there are lots of people on that regional skills partnership board, and they then produce a report that is given to colleges so that they can respond. How many apprenticeships? Well, we produced about 24,000 apprenticeships in 2016, and about 16,000 in the first half of this year. So, I think we are ahead of target, actually, in terms of our 100,000 apprenticeships.
How many disabled people are we going to help? Well, it's a very interesting question, because this, again, is not something that we can do by ourselves. The discussions I've had with employers—I had a very interesting meeting last week with the human resources group the CIPD. Just listening to them—we created a workshop to find out what it is that they can do to help. What's clear is that, actually, we do probably need to think about switching the emphasis so that we're giving more support to businesses and to industry so that we can help them to adapt. They want to help us, and one of the things we've done now is we've created a new portal on Business Wales so that all of the information is in one place. So, Access to Work, for example, is a programme that the Department for Work and Pensions produces. We need to make sure that all of that information, and things we do in Welsh Government, is in one place.
Do we expect employers to train staff? Yes, we do. It's their staff—it's in their interest to employ them. I think part of the problem we've had in Wales—we've had a lot of European funding in this area and we are going to have to start weaning them off an assumption that the Welsh Government will be constantly training some of their employees. So, we need to get a better relationship and a better understanding that it's in their interests to invest in their employees. The 10-year goals are pretty clear; I think they've been set out. The important thing here is that we keep the pressure on, so that's why I'm determined that we're going to have an annual report to make sure that we are going to hit these targets.
The Minister has mentioned the launch of Project SEARCH, which helps young people with additional learning needs and disabilities into work by providing them with supported internships with the aim of getting them secure paid employment at the end of the placement. The initiative is to be welcomed, but I wanted to ask the Minister specifically about page 15 of the plan, which includes a commitment to reduce the number of disabled people out of work. The plan says:
'Working with partners, we will establish appropriate ten year targets to focus our efforts. Where adaptation to mainstream provision is appropriate, we will encourage organisations funded by Welsh Government to provide tailored traineeship opportunities for those disabled people who need it.'
Figures provided to me by the National Autistic Society show that the number of autistic people in full-time employment is lower than the average disabled cohort. For example, 32 per cent of autistic adults are in some kind of employment compared to 40 per cent across all disabilities UK-wide. So, would the Minister provide the Chamber with an update on progress with regard to that specific commitment?
I think, probably of all the issues in this employability plan, this is one of the issues that, I think, as a Government, we really need to focus on. Project SEARCH is a great project; I went to visit it last week in Bridgend. So, this is a project with the local health board; they've worked with the local college, with people with learning disabilities, and they have provided them with a whole year's work experience, effectively, with a view that they will in the end get into jobs. I think that's precisely what we need to be looking at. The figures that I heard, actually, while I was there, were even more dramatic than the ones you've set out. So, the number of autistic people that they suggested, in the UK, who were without work was about 18 per cent. So, we've got a lot of work to do in this area and I think we need to be thinking very creatively in terms of how we can use our Welsh Government funding to maybe think about reserving jobs for people with certain learning disabilities. That's something that I will be looking into in the next few months, because this is a really, really challenging area for us, but I'm really pleased that you've brought that up as an issue.
Minister, I was very interested, actually, in the comments that started off from Adam Price with regard to Coleg Harlech, because Members will remember the actual role that played in the actual training of workers and trade union representatives and so on in exactly these sorts of issues that we're discussing now. Of course, there has been demise of many of these other similar courses that were in colleges and, in fact, in many ways a sidelining of the Workers' Educational Association, which actually carried out many of these functions as well.
I welcome very much what you've said. The only point that seems to be the glaring omission is there's barely a mention of the Wales TUC or mention of the trade unions. It seems to me that they are fundamental in this. So, when we talk about training, apprenticeships, equality, lifelong learning, job progression, the economic contract, low pay, better jobs closer to home and issues like that, those are all issues that the trade unions have been specifically involved in and have a great deal of experience in, but quite frankly it seems to me that they are being sidelined in some way, because there was nothing specific about what their role is. I wondered if you could help by outlining precisely how you see the role of the trade unions within this. What exactly is their position within it, what functions are they being given, where are they within this social partnership? My concern is that the social partnership is becoming rather imbalanced towards one side and not recognising that if you don't have the workers and the trade union organisations on board, you've already got one ball and chain around one of your legs, and the ability to actually deliver is significantly undermined.
Well, you'll see that there is a reference to trade unions on page 19, and I think—
Yes. So, I think what's important is that we do understand the really important role that the trade unions could play in the workplace, and through funding things like the Wales Union Learning Fund programme, what we found is that, actually, a lot of people who may not have the confidence to go about looking for support from their employers are willing to do that through the trade union route, and it's given a real opportunity for people within work to develop. And we've given that money specifically to the trade unions.
Now, I think you're right: we need to broaden our approach to trade unions in relation to the broader programme. So, what is it that they can do to help us, for example, to convince people within their organisations that, actually, they can be helping us to drive the number of people who are disabled in the workplace? So, I think we need to kind of mainstream them and work with them to work on the employers, because I do think that that's the area, when we've spoken to them—people seem to be open to helping us out, but somebody needs to push from within the organisation. So, I'm hoping that that's a role that the trade unions might be willing to take on.
In relation to the impact of automation and digital, which has been discussed already this afternoon, I too am looking forward to the report of the Brown review in the new year, and I think the Welsh Government deserves congratulations for assembling such an impressive panel of experts, and that does look promising. But it's been clear for about a year now that the regional skills partnerships themselves aren't fully alert to the threat that automation presents. Only one of the skills partnerships identified automation as a long-term issue for them. So, given that the Welsh Government has known that they are lacking in this area, can you update us on what's being done to get them to refresh their analysis and what steps they're going to put in place themselves to remedy this?
In terms of targets, which I know the Minister is very keen on getting into the employability plan, we've discussed previously that, of the five targets, they're not SMART targets, and two of the five are about creating new sets of targets. So, can you just update us on the progress in achieving the targets? In the progress report, you set a target on disabled people, which is welcome, but on the second target you set—the number of employers engaged in the Healthy Working Wales programme—a target of 40 per cent of them, there is no target for when that is going to be achieved by that I could easily see. So, I wonder whether you could update us on making that target smarter? Thank you.
Yes, I'm also looking forward to receiving the results of the Brown report. I have written to the regional skills partnerships to ask them specifically: will you consider digital in your next reports? And I'm expecting them to report in their next annual commitment, so that should be published very, very shortly, and I'm expecting to see a change and a response in that. So, that is something that we very much push them on.
In terms of where we are at on targets, well, our unemployment figures, you'll be aware, dropped last week to 3.8 per cent, which is actually below the UK rate, and we've got 42,000 more people in work than this time last year, but we've got to be careful—these are volatile figures. But I think we can be happy that it's going in the right direction. It's the same thing for economic inactivity, but that's a mountain to climb, and we are hoping that our Healthy Working Wales programme will help us. What we've done now is to really break down those figures to work out what exactly—how many people do we need and in which areas to get into work in relation to economic inactivity? It's going to be difficult, but we are confident now that we have the right programme to see if we can make a dent in those figures.
On Healthy Working Wales, we have set up now a target, which is 40 per cent. I think that's something—. I think we are at about 36 per cent now, and obviously the easy fruit has been picked already so this is going to be much more difficult, so that will be a target by 2020 as well.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 5 on our agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Minister for Housing and Regeneration on park homes, which will be issued as a written statement.
The next item, therefore, is a debate on the general principles of the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill, and I call on the Minister for Children, Older People and Social Care, Huw Irranca-Davies.
Motion NDM6777 Huw Irranca-Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with Standing Order 26.11:
Agrees to the general principles of the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill.
Diolch, Dirprwy Llywydd, and I move the motion.
I'm very pleased to open this debate on the general principles of the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill. I would like to begin by thanking the three committees involved in the scrutiny of this Bill for their time and their hard work. It is in recognition of their efforts that I wrote to all three committees, in advance of today's debate, setting out in some detail my thoughts in response to their recommendations and conclusions, and I hope that the committee Chairs and Members have had a little time—albeit a little time—to reflect on the detailed responses.
I'd also like to thank all the stakeholders who provided written and oral evidence. I want particularly to highlight the work of the Children, Young People and Education Committee for its diligent and detailed scrutiny of both this Bill and also the underlying policy. I want to say at the start of this debate that I very much value the evidence the committee took during Stage 1 and the amount of work it has put into its report and its recommendations, and I look forward to the opportunity of working with the committee further on its wider recommendations about childcare and the sector in general, and those specific areas where it is highlighted that we as a Government need to do more to make it clear what support is available to help parents while working or training, for example.
Now, the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill in front of us is a short and technical Bill that we introduced to support the roll-out of a single, national application and eligibility checking system for our childcare offer for Wales, and, of course, the childcare offer is a key commitment for this Government. It was first set out in the Welsh Labour manifesto, and it was restated in our programme for government, 'Taking Wales Forward'.
So, we are committed to providing 30 hours of Government-funded early education and childcare a week to working parents of three and four-year-olds in Wales for up to 48 weeks a year. We made this commitment because parents told us that they needed help with the costs of childcare, particularly those families on lower incomes where the costs of childcare make up a larger proportion of the weekly budget. But to be absolutely clear, we do not need to bring forward legislation to deliver the offer. We are already delivering it in parts of Wales, testing how it works for parents, for providers and for children. But this Bill will create a simple, 'once for Wales' process to check a person's eligibility, enabling them to access the childcare they need, simply.
Local authorities involved in the first year of the childcare pilots are doing a great job delivering the offer, but they tell us that the administrative burden is much larger than anticipated, and at a time when public services are stretched as a result of ongoing austerity pursued by the UK Government, I cannot—simply cannot—ask the local authorities to maintain such a paper-based, non-standardised, burdensome approach to checking eligibility for childcare. So, it is right and proper that we seek to take advantage of digital technology by developing this single 'once for Wales' system to process applications and to make eligibility checks, and this Bill will do just that.
I would like to thank the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, the Secretary of State for Wales, the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions for their support in developing this Bill. The intention is to appoint Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs to carry out the eligibility checks for the offer, enabling us to use the same system as the one being used to carry out such checks in England currently. It will mean parents in Wales will be able to apply for support with childcare costs under the tax-free childcare scheme at the same time as they apply for this offer, but working with HMRC now does not mean we could not look at a bespoke, Welsh solution in the future, if and when public finances allow.
Dirprwy Lywydd, the three committees made a number of recommendations about the Bill, and I'll attempt to respond to many of these in the time I have. The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee and the Children, Young People and Education Committee both raised the matter of consents. I can confirm consents for the Bill are in place and that I wrote to the Llywydd to confirm this on 9 July. Copies of the letters are available on the National Assembly website. Members will be aware that some of the regulations to be passed under the Bill also require the consent of relevant UK Government Ministers, so I'd like to reassure this Assembly that we are indeed working closely with the relevant UK departments, and I'm confident that the necessary consents to the regulations under the Bill will indeed be secured.
As you might expect, the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee asked that I review the balance between the provisions on the face of the Bill and those left to regulations. Now, I understand the reasons for this, and a number of its recommendations touched on areas where more detail on the face of the Bill would be helpful. In fact, these comments were echoed in some of the recommendations from the Children, Young People and Education Committee as well. So, I can confirm that I will bring forward Government amendments during Stage 2 of the Bill to provide more detail on the definition of a 'qualifying child' in line with the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee's recommendation 5. However, I am continuing to explore further how to address the various calls for the childcare offer to be included on the face of the Bill, and I will write to both the Children, Young People and Education Committee and the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee with further proposals as we develop these.
Now, many recommendations addressed operational details such as the hourly rate payable to providers, the split between childcare and education, the arrangements in school holidays and who can deliver this offer, calling for these details to be brought within the scope of the Bill. I remain of the view that such details would be better dealt with in the administrative scheme, rather than in the Bill itself, and I have explained the reasons why in my letters to the three committees. I have nonetheless committed to making an initial framework administrative scheme available to the Children, Young People and Education Committee ahead of Stage 3, and would welcome the opportunity to return to the committee in the spring to discuss the scheme in more detail.
Turning to the Finance Committee's report, I have accepted its recommendation that an update on the costs of working with HMRC be provided. The development of the application system will take place over the next 18 months, with regular review points. The appropriate governance and arrangements have been put in place and we're using the expertise of the Welsh Revenue Authority in this regard. I can also confirm to Members that HMRC is committed to providing a truly bilingual service and we are committed to taking every possible step to bring these jobs to Wales.
Dirprwy Lywydd, at the start of this debate, I mentioned that we have just started testing our childcare offer. In May, we extended the offer into seven more areas of Wales; it is now available in 14 areas in Wales. We are committed to learning from this phased roll-out and an independent evaluation of the first year of the programme will be published in November. I have agreed to make arrangements for members of the Children, Young People and Education Committee to have early sight of the evaluation findings to help its ongoing scrutiny of this Bill. I have also agreed to provide the committee with information about the take-up of the offer in the first year of delivery, and to keep the matter of additional charges under review.
Following issues raised by the Children, Young People and Education Committee, I will also be reviewing the Child Minding and Day Care Exceptions (Wales) Order 2010, which includes provisions setting out who can and cannot provide childcare, and I will share the findings with the committee.
I was pleased that, with the exception of one Member, the Children, Young People and Education Committee has recommended support of the general principles of the Bill, and clearly I'd urge the one Member to reconsider on this Stage 1 general principles debate. It is a recommendation I wholeheartedly support and one I commend to all Members, and I look forward, genuinely, to continuing to debate the Bill and hope the Assembly will today support its general principles. Thank you, Dirprwy Lywyddd.
Thank you. Can I now call on the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, Lynne Neagle?
Thank you Deputy Presiding Officer. I’m pleased to contribute to this Stage 1 debate to outline the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s main conclusions and recommendations in relation to the childcare funding Bill.
You will see from our report that seven of our eight members support the general principles of this Bill. As you've heard, Llyr Gruffydd did not support the Bill progressing beyond Stage 1, and I’m sure he’ll outline the reasons for this shortly.
It is fair to say that a number of us shared some of Llyr’s concerns about the childcare offer as it’s currently shaped. I’ll expand on some of those areas a little later. However, on balance, we didn’t feel that these concerns warranted the committee recommending the Bill should fall at this stage. We came to this conclusion based on our belief that the Bill is necessary to enable data held by UK Government departments, including HMRC, to be used to assess eligibility for the offer. Evidence presented to us indicated overwhelming support for this approach.
This support was based on one main argument. Everyone recognised the childcare offer could be rolled out nationally by asking parents to prove their eligibility by providing relevant paperwork to local authorities. However, there was a broad consensus, based on experience in the current pilot areas, that this has been burdensome for parents, providers and local government alike. Many also argued that roll-out on the basis of manual checks could increase the potential for inconsistency and abuse of the system.
So, it’s on that basis that the majority of our committee supported the general principles of this Bill. Nevertheless, we identified a number of areas where we believe improvements should be made. This afternoon, I’ll outline some of the steps we think the Minister should take to improve the Bill.
Before I do that, I should be clear that we made our recommendations based on the firm belief that it is not possible to separate the Bill’s provisions from the detail of the childcare offer itself. This Bill provides broad powers to Welsh Ministers to make secondary legislation to specify the detail of their childcare offer. While we may not doubt the stated intentions of this Government, it is incumbent on us to remember that if this Bill is passed, the powers are there for any future Government to do with them as they see fit. It is our responsibility to make sure that we’re clear about what we’re legislating to allow, and whether there's sufficient detail on the face of the Bill to ensure that the Assembly’s intentions are clearly defined in the legislation it passes.
Moving now to the detail of our recommendations, first of all, we're keen to ensure that the lessons learned from the evaluation of the current pilot offer inform this legislation. While we recognise that achieving national roll-out involving the data held by UK departments requires the Assembly to move with pace to legislate, we remain disappointed that the evaluation of the pilot offer was not completed before this legislation was brought forward. We are concerned that the main reason cited by stakeholders for leaving much of the detail underpinning the Bill’s provisions to regulations was the need to remain flexible while we await the results of the evaluation. Both the Minister and stakeholders have attached significant weight to the learning that will emerge from it.
In light of this, we believe the evaluation’s findings should be available for our consideration before the start of Stage 3. This is to afford sufficient opportunity for all Members to propose and consider any amendments to the Bill that may be required as a consequence of the evaluation. We welcome the Minister’s indication in his written response and his assurances today that efforts will be made to share the findings before Stage 3 begins.
Another of our key recommendations relates to whether the Bill’s provisions should be restricted to the children of working parents only. In the evidence we received, some significant concerns were expressed that restricting the Bill to this group only could increase inequality between the children of non-working and working parents, particularly in relation to the school readiness gap and educational attainment.
To mitigate the impact on some of Wales’s poorest families, we recommended the Minister extend the Bill’s provisions beyond working parents, particularly to those undertaking education and training linked to securing employment.
We are disappointed that the Minister has not accepted this recommendation. We recognise that other programmes exist to support non-working parents, including Parents Childcare and Employability and Flying Start, and welcome the Minister’s commitment to making clear what support is available and to whom. However, we remain concerned that such programmes do not currently reach all who need support. After all, our recent inquiry into Flying Start showed the majority of children living in poverty fall outside defined Flying Start areas. I urge the Minister to reconsider this recommendation.
During the course of our scrutiny we learned that important matters such as what funded childcare an eligible child will be able to receive, where the childcare will be provided, by whom it will be delivered, and at what hourly rate, will be specified in an administrative scheme. Under current plans, the administrative scheme has no legal status. We believe this needs to be addressed.
Recommendation 6 called on the Minister to amend the Bill to require the administrative scheme to be made by subordinate legislation so that it is on a statutory footing. I would invite the Minister to reconsider his response to this recommendation. We did not specify that this detail should be on the face of the Bill or in regulations. We simply want to make sure that there is a legal duty to create this administrative scheme if such important detail is to be provided by this document.
More generally, we agree with the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee that the balance between what is on the face of the Bill, what is left to regulations, and what is contained in the admin scheme requires further work. We have called on Welsh Government to put more of the detail of its planned offer on the face of the Bill, with a power for Ministers to amend details in future by regulations subject to the superaffirmative procedure.
We welcome the Minister’s indication that he is exploring the options available to him. But, we maintain the view that if such steps are not taken, the regulations made under section 1 of the Bill should be subject to a superaffirmative procedure given their significance.
With the time I've got left I would like to concentrate on two issues that caused us particular concern during our scrutiny and on which I would welcome further clarification. Firstly, can the Minister assure me that he will undertake a revised children’s rights impact assessment that considers the impact of the Bill on those children who are not eligible under its provisions? As a committee, we believe this is just as important as assessing the impact on eligible children, and the written response did not clarify this. Secondly, I urge the Minister to reconsider carefully the ability of providers to apply additional charges to parents. We are really concerned that being faced with a bill of up to £162 per month could render the childcare offer unaffordable for the lowest paid working parents. We believe this requires reconsideration.
In closing, I'd like to thank the Minister for his engagement with our report. While some of our recommendations have not been accepted, I recognise that the majority have, and I look forward to the committee continuing to engage constructively with the Minister to try to find some solutions to the most pressing issues we identified. Thank you.
Thank you. Can I call on Jane Hutt to speak on behalf of the Finance Committee?
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm pleased to speak in this debate today on behalf of the Finance Committee on the financial implications of the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill. Firstly, it's worth noting that our scrutiny of the Bill has been limited to the financial information provided in the regulatory impact assessment, which sets out the costings for administering the scheme, and not the cost of delivering the childcare offer itself.
The RIA includes four options for administering a national system for processing applications and making eligibility checks, with the Welsh Government's preferred option being to adapt HMRC's current English service to meet Welsh needs. The RIA explains that this requirement is not clearly defined. The figures provided are early-stage general approximations, rather than detailed cost estimates. We therefore welcome the Minister's commitment to regularly review and update costs as the financial impacts are established further, and acknowledge the Welsh Government's engagement with HMRC and the work undertaken by the early implementer local authorities in developing these costs. In his formal response, the Minister has indicated a change to the delivery arrangements for the second year of early implementation, with one local authority accepting and processing applications, and making relevant payments on behalf of other authorities. We welcome this approach and the Minister's assurance that this will be reflected as a new option in the RIA during Stage 2.
The main area of concern highlighted in our report relates to the high-level estimates provided by HMRC. We accept that the Welsh Government has applied an optimism bias uplift to these estimates, to account for the relative level of uncertainty associated with outsourcing the system. However, we have recently seen HMRC costs escalate in relation to the implementation of devolved taxes, and we are concerned this may happen again.
Indeed, the letter from the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, shared with the committee on 9 July, makes it clear that estimates are subject to change once delivery begins, and that
'any changes to the operation of the 30 hours childcare scheme or eligibility criteria would generate further costs and will affect the timelines for delivery.'
Therefore we have recommended that the Welsh Government provides an update on the costs of developing and delivering the Welsh childcare offer within HMRC's existing platform as the proposal moves forward, which the Minister has accepted.
The Minister's response to recommendation 29 of the Children, Young People and Education Committee's report, which signals that a change to the proposed earnings threshold could attract an initial one-off cost in the region of £1 million, and a delay of between 12 to 18 months, clearly demonstrates the volatility of both the costs and timescales. Whilst acknowledging the Welsh Government's rationale for using HMRC as the delivery agent, we did question whether HMRC staff in Wales would carry out the service. We were told that it had not yet been discussed in any detail, and we concluded that the Welsh Government, as part of its negotiations with HMRC, should demand that the Welsh service operates in Wales in order to secure Welsh jobs and support Welsh-language standards. We are pleased that the Minister agrees with this conclusion and will be encouraging HMRC to operate aspects of the Welsh childcare offer from one of its offices in Wales.
In the same vein, we welcome the potential that the Bill provides for developing a bespoke Welsh service as this would ensure that Welsh Ministers have control over service delivery and the creation and retention of Welsh jobs. With this in mind, we concluded that the Welsh Revenue Authority should have oversight of the HMRC-operated model in order to build expertise and experience in the Welsh context, should the Welsh Government decide to develop its own system in the future. The Minister has provided assurances that close working between officials and the WRA is in place, such as involvement in the testing of the application and eligibility checking system, and representation on the official-level project board. The Minister's response also explains that new legislation would be required to enable the WRA to administer Wales's childcare offer. However, during evidence to both the Finance Committee and the Children, Young People and Education Committee, he indicated that there is scope within the Bill to develop a bespoke model. We would be grateful for clarification on this point. Diolch.
Thank you. I call on the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, Mick Antoniw.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. The Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee reported on the Childcare Funding (Wales) Bill on 28 June and it made 12 recommendations. As an aside, we have received yesterday the response to a number of those recommendations from the Minister, for which I'm grateful, and for the positive response to many of them. So, this report is very much on the Bill as it stands, and I will make comments in respect of some of the Minister's responses as best I can as we go through it.
It's not generally our role to comment on the general principles of a Bill. That's not the function of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. However, the need for legislation is a consideration of the committee. The Bill is a skeleton Bill. It contains seven powers for the Welsh Ministers to make subordinate legislation, and in a 13-section Bill, this is extensive. In our view it lacks clarity and a clear statement of purpose. With so little detail on its face we believe the Bill does not satisfy the key principles of legislation. Primary legislation should not be framed so broadly with the intention of using it as a vehicle to introduce subordinate legislation to deal with what may happen in the future. This approach limits the ability of the National Assembly as a legislature to scrutinise and to debate suggested improvements to significant policy matters in a democratic forum.
We're not alone in expressing such concerns about legislation. Our counterpart committee in the House of Lords, the Constitution Committee, has recently similarly criticised the UK Government, and we agree with its comments that Bills that grant broad powers to Ministers are difficult for Parliament to scrutinise, and present a fundamental challenge to the balance of power between Parliament and the Executive. We have concerns that the National Assembly is being asked to grant wide regulation-making powers to Welsh Ministers that could be used to make provisions not anticipated by the National Assembly during its consideration of the Bill, and we're also concerned that the approach adopted in this Bill is not consistent with the Welsh Government's objective of making the law in Wales more accessible.
As we set out in our report, an alternative approach would be to include the necessary detail on the face of the Bill and also to include a provision that permits that detail to be amended by subordinate legislation subject to the affirmative procedure. Including such a Henry VIII power is not an ideal approach to law making, but it may be a reasonable compromise if the Welsh Government considers such flexibility to be necessary. Adding more detail to the face of the Bill would strengthen it considerably and would provide a clearer foundation for the policy that it seeks to deliver.
Our second recommendation suggested that the Minister undertake a fundamental review of the balance between what is on the face of the Bill and what is left to subordinate legislation. And I take this opportunity to thank the Minister for his formal response to our report, which I've already referred to. I welcome the fact he has listened to the concerns of the committee and has undertaken a review of the balance of power. I look forward to seeing the amendments the Minister intends to bring forward at Stage 2 in this respect.
Moving on to the childcare offer, the Welsh Government is legislating for its offer before the conclusion of the relevant pilot programmes and the consequent appraisal of the effectiveness of the policy. For that reason, we believe there is merit in considering whether a review requirement and a sunset provision should be built into the Bill. Such provisions would follow an approach already adopted by the Welsh Government in the Public Health (Minimum Price for Alcohol) (Wales) Bill.
Recommendation 3 of our report highlighted these issues and asked the Minister to update the Assembly on his consideration of these issues during this afternoon's debate. I welcome the Minister's commitment to explore the options available in respect of this recommendation and I look forward to receiving the update in due course from the Minister as proposals are developed.
Now, during our scrutiny of the Bill, it was not clear to us why issues of principle relating to the Welsh Government’s childcare offer cannot appear on the face of the Bill. As such, we recommended that the Bill should, on its face, commit the Welsh Government to providing its childcare offer, whatever that may be.
Recommendation 4—again, I welcome the Minister's commitment to exploring the options available in respect of this recommendation and look forward to receiving an update from the Minister in due course.
Recommendation 5 of our report further recommended that the core eligibility criteria concerning who is a qualifying child or a working parent should appear on the face of the Bill, accompanied by a provision enabling these criteria to be amended in the future by regulations that are subject to the affirmative procedure. We disagree with the Minister that the eligibility criteria will be technical in nature and therefore consultation on draft regulations concerning the criteria may not be suitable. We believe that failing to consult on such substantive matters would be contrary to public law principles. I am pleased to see that the Minister has accepted our recommendation and will be bringing forward amendments at Stage 2 to provide clarity in relation to who is a qualifying child.
Moving on to the administrative scheme, the scheme will have no legal status and yet will detail very important matters. We are concerned that these important issues will be left to a document that is not subject to any requirement of scrutiny by the National Assembly. We do not consider that either the hourly rate payable for the childcare or who can provide such care are matters that should be decided without scrutiny by the National Assembly. We recommended that amendments should be brought forward at Stage 2 to ensure that such provisions will be made in regulations subject to the affirmative procedure. That was recommendation 7. The Minister hasn't accepted this recommendation. However, I do note that he has offered to provide the Children, Young People and Education Committee with an initial draft of the scheme ahead of the Stage 3 proceedings.
And, finally, I will briefly mention recommendation 12, that the Bill should be amended so that any commencement Order made under section 12(1) of the Bill is subject to Assembly scrutiny and the negative procedure. The Minister has not accepted this recommendation, on the grounds that the making of the commencement Orders is not normally subject to any procedure in the Assembly. In response, I would just reiterate the conclusions made in our report. For commencement Orders that will derive from a Bill that contains such little detail on its face, it is important that the primary legislation empowers the National Assembly with a right to scrutinise those Orders. We consider that a skeleton Bill should not make use of a procedure that inhibits future scrutiny by the legislature.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
I'm pleased to take part in this debate on the childcare funding Bill this afternoon in my new capacity as the shadow Cabinet Secretary for social care, children, young people and older people and I'd like to place on record my thanks to our new leader, Paul Davies, Assembly Member, for his confidence in me in appointing me to this important role. I would like to thank all the other AMs sitting on the committee and the clerks who've assisted in the legislative process thus far. We as Welsh Conservatives will be supporting the motion today and accepting the key principles of the Bill. However, I do urge the Government to be mindful of the administrative cost to implement this legislation and to be mindful also of any potential for the offer to be exploited at the cost of parents. Helping parents of young children who may find going back to work after having a child a financial impossibility is a worthy goal. However, it is not a given that that goal will be met without due consideration on how we go about that.
We do have to make sure that the Bill does in fact make it easier for mothers to get back into the workforce and does not provide too little too late. I believe that the recommendations outlined in the Stage 1 CYPE committee report are vital to ensure those positive long-term outcomes for our parents in Wales. I was disappointed to see that the Minister rejected recommendation 7 in his response to the report on this Bill. To exclude and to disadvantage parents in education or those looking for work flies in the face of the rhetoric that we hear so often from this Government on a daily basis on equality and fairness. The Minister points out in his response that there are alternatives for parents in education in the form of PaCE, which expires in 2020, or Flying Start, which we know the vast majority of children living in poverty are ineligible for due to a postcode lottery.
The Government has an opportunity to encourage the aspirations of those people who choose education as a path to upward social mobility—an opportunity they simply have not taken. Having an array of programmes will only lead to further confusion among parents, especially for those transitioning from education or unemployment into full-time employment. We should be mindful of the stress that can be caused due to unnecessary inefficiency and complexity of multiple, disjoined systems. Would it not be more practical to give this offer to parents regardless of whether they are in employment or education and take away any barrier to entering the workforce? I fear that limiting this offer to parents in employment does risk disadvantaging children with unemployed parents before they have even stepped foot into a classroom.
I also have concerns in regard to the effectiveness of the legislation once implemented and whether it achieves its goal. Despite this legislation being well intended, we do have genuine concerns that the offer in its current form closes the stable door long after the horse has bolted, offering support to parents too late and long after decisions have been made on the future career plans of one or both parents. I am sure everyone, myself included, who has had young children will all be aware of this reality. I understand that the Minister has agreed to keep under review the age of the qualifying child, and that I do welcome. I look forward to hearing more from the Minister in relation to a change to the qualifying age.
Finally, I would like to bring the issue of additional charges in relation to the childcare offer. Without restricting additional costs, there is a possibility for childcare providers to charge an additional £162.50 per month per child, and that cost will certainly be passed down to those who can least afford it. Allowing additional charges risks pricing out the lowest income families from accessing this offer and returning to work as the Bill intends. A free childcare offer should not disadvantage those it is actually designed to help. I don't think we can be shocked if nurseries do decide to go ahead with implementing additional charges. Between rising business costs and Welsh nurseries already having the lowest hourly rates in the United Kingdom, they do face real challenge. A survey conducted by National Day Nurseries Association Wales found that 41 per cent of nurseries said that the £4.50 figure was lower than their usual fee. There is a clear incentive for the nurseries to make up the shortfall by passing additional costs on to parents, and this Government is not taking action to prevent that.
In conclusion, I am pleased to see that the Minister has accepted the majority of the recommendations made in this report by the committee. I look forward to actually taking part now in the Children, Young People and Education Committee, which I know that Lynne Neagle AM so admirably chairs. Thank you.
I will start by disappointing the Minister in saying that I won’t be changing my view on my intentions, and Plaid Cymru’s intentions, in relation to opposing this Bill. He referred to the fact that the Bill is brief and technical, and that’s quite right, and there is some disconnect between the Bill and the Government’s policy. But, of course, whilst the words in the first clause of the first section talk about restricting this offer to working parents, I have a fundamental problem with the Bill.
Plaid Cymru doesn’t oppose offering free childcare—indeed, one of the cornerstones of the Plaid Cymru manifesto was to offer this free childcare universally to three and four-year-old children. My problem is that the Labour Government is restricting that offer.
It's not right that families earning up to £200,000 a year can get free childcare when, of course, the poorest children from workless households are excluded from enjoying those very same benefits. We know that the poorest children, by the time they're three years old, are already 10 months behind their better-off peers in terms of vocabulary, literacy and speech development. Indeed, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists tells us that the poorest 20 per cent are, in fact, 17 months behind the highest income group by the time they're three years old.
Not giving those poorest children access to high-quality childcare entrenches inter-generational poverty. It doesn't break the cycle; it makes it worse. That's not a sentiment that just I and others hold here in this Chamber—the children's commissioner shares those concerns. She's described the policy as a 'large subsidy for some of Wales's highest-earning families' that is 'likely to reinforce inequalities in outcomes for different social groups'. Save the Children and other children's organisations have expressed concerns, as have, in fact, some of the teaching unions as well.
Now, we've heard it said a number of times that Flying Start is there for the poorest areas to support them, and the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee has already reminded us that the majority of poor children in Wales live outside of the Flying Start areas. That's a huge cohort of young people—or children, I should say—who fall through the gaps in this Government's policies, and that isn't acceptable to me or my party.
There have been references to the evaluation of the pilots that will be available this autumn, and I'm grateful that the Minister is saying that he will give us early sight of the evaluation. But, of course, he's already tabled the Bill, so we don't really have the evidence to back up the anecdotal stuff that we're being told in committee and in this Chamber that it is the right policy and that it does work. I want to see the evidence before we approve this piece of legislation. In fact, another committee in this Assembly has—and we have, as a committee, as well—heard that targeting three- to four-year-olds isn't necessarily the right place to target this investment, that we need, maybe, to look at doing it before and that, actually, from one year old onward is where the greatest need is in terms of investing in allowing those parents to get back to work. That's a challenge back to us a party, as well, to look at our policy, but that's something that we're willing to do, and not just plough on regardless with our eyes closed and our heads down.
I have to say, as laudable as the Minister's pitch to lead his party was, he made it clear that his big ambition was universal preschool provision. Well, we have an opportunity to do that, and you were perfectly right to say that that provision would address the impacts of poverty. You were perfectly right to say that it would narrow the attainment gap when children start school and that it would transform the life chances of those children. Well, do you know what? Had you voted for Plaid Cymru in the last Assembly election, we may already have started delivering that.
Providing state-subsidised childcare in appropriate circumstances may be a good idea in principle, provided it's targeted in the correct way. It may support parents in employment and may go some way to helping many working parents into work, especially women. But it remains to be seen how this particular childcare scheme will work and how successful it'll be.
I think what the people of Wales really need to understand is that the Welsh Government is effectively buying votes with taxpayers' money on this one. It exposes the foolishness of giving the Labour Party spending powers without them being forced to accept the accountability that comes with having to raise the taxes to pay for their plans. It's like giving a child the keys to the local sweetie shop in the knowledge that the child will make itself sick.
When it comes to the childcare offer itself, where are your priorities? There are parents who need the help that state-subsidised childcare gives, such as the unemployed. These parents are absent from this Bill. There's no help for parents needing childcare to cover training to help them back into work either. That's a glaring omission and one that the Minister has repeatedly refused to address. In rejecting recommendations 7 and 8, the Minister says that there are other schemes to give support, and I'm sure that's true, but the fact that the committee has called for such parents to be included in the childcare provision is an indication that those schemes aren't addressing the specific problem. But for the sake of so-called universality, parents in the 40 per cent tax bracket and substantially wealthier than that will receive free childcare. Is this really about universality though? Welsh Labour have no problems in other areas discriminating against those they regard as rich, so is it really because Welsh Labour don't have the imagination to differentiate between parents who need help and those who don't? The Minister has missed an opportunity to rationalise and streamline the schemes he has in place to help parents trying to get back into work.
Another serious omission in the Bill is the failure to include schools. Why? I just don't understand it. Children spend a major part of their lives in school, and it makes no sense whatsoever to prevent schools from providing childcare. Indeed, it's entirely logical that they should. So, perhaps the Minister in his response to this debate will explain the reason for this without referring to a technical difficulty that could have been addressed in the Bill. The Minister seemed to have an odd response as well to recommendation 17 of the CYPE committee's report into the Bill. The committee recommended that the Minister conduct a children's rights impact assessment that covers all children, not just those eligible under the childcare scheme. the Minister has accepted this recommendation in principle, but what exactly do you mean by that, Minister? Because there's no sign in your response to recommendation 17 that any future impact assessment will consider the impact on all children and not just those eligible under the Bill. Surely, you understand that the children's commissioner is very, very concerned that the way this childcare offer is being targeted is going to disadvantage those very children who need the help most. Please, please, please explain. If you're going to consider the impact on all children anyway, why not say that in your response?
Turning to the actual form of the Bill, I would describe this as an enabling Bill on steroids. Rather than setting restrictions and limitations on the powers and setting the parameters of the childcare offer—rather than setting out the parameters and setting out some detail and some guidance about what Welsh Government are being authorised to do here, so that the scheme can be judged in this place on its merits, they've produced a Bill that allows them to make it up as they go along. It gives Welsh Labour carte blanche to introduce whatever scheme they choose with minimal scrutiny from the Assembly. Consequently, we'll be voting against this Bill because it's too wide,