|1. Tributes to Steffan Lewis AM|
|Emergency Question: Bridgend Engine Plant|
|2. Questions to the First Minister|
|3. Business Statement and Announcement|
|4. Statement by the Counsel General Designate and Brexit Minister: The UK Government's current proposals for EU Withdrawal|
|5. Debate: The Setting of 2019-20 Welsh Rates of Income Tax|
|6. Debate: The Final Budget 2019-20|
|7. Debate: The Local Government Settlement 2019-20|
|8. Voting Time|
The Assembly met at 12:45 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Good afternoon. Just two and a half years after his election as an Assembly Member for the south-east of Wales and at just 34 years of age, it’s my sad duty today to state in the Senedd that we have lost our fellow Member and friend, Steffan Lewis, over the weekend. His dear family and friends have joined us today in the gallery as we pay tribute to him. May we all rise here in the Chamber and across our whole estate to commemorate Steffan Lewis?
Assembly Members stood for a minute’s silence.
To begin the tributes this afternoon, Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru.
Thank you Llywydd. Wales is a small nation, but every now and then we breed giants. I got to know Steffan Lewis first over 20 years ago in light of the Islwyn by-election. We heard talk of this incredible young boy from the Gwent valleys who was not only a member of Plaid Cymru, but of the SNP and Mebyon Kernow too, and had managed to get the WRU to note this in the programme for the Wales-England game when Steffan was a mascot for the Wales team. Steffan never did things by halves.
Within a few years, Steffan was addressing the Plaid conference for the first time, at 14 years of age—two years younger than William Hague and, as he was keen to point out, he was far more effective. And, even at that time, he wasn’t little Steffan—Steffan was to be great. There was incredible depth to his character from the outset. His mother, Gail, at the ironing board, and him as a nine-year-old asking all sorts of questions, flowing like water from a well. Where, why and when—and most often, the 'why', like some sort of apprentice Vincent Kane. The potential was spotted and the roots were nurtured and took hold. Gail would highlight articles in the Western Mail and would buy him books on Welsh history. But writing stories or history books wasn’t his destiny; he was to make history.
Steffan was every bit the definition of a passionate Welshman. But he was also a man of Gwent, and he saw in the triumphs and tragedies of that great county the key to understanding the problems and possibilities of the nation as a whole. It was Gwent who brought the first blossoming of Welsh nationalism in the form of Cymru Fydd to a shuddering halt in a stormy meeting in Newport in 1896. But it also produced, in Steffan and, before him, Phil Williams, two of the most cerebral and creative minds in 100 years of the modern national movement. If our task was to forge a new Wales, then the die would be cast in Gwent—the social laboratory that gave the world socialised medicine. His county was not just the gateway to Wales but the key to its future.
Steffan was obsessed by history, as his sister Nia soon discovered—whose summer holidays growing up were a Wales-wide odyssey of castles, battles and the birthplaces of famous Welsh heroes. But whilst Steffan wanted us to learn, he didn't want us imprisoned by it. He tried in vain to get a party that, up until recently, still had Lewis Valentine's lyrics to Sibelius's Finlandia as its official party anthem, to adopt instead Fleetwood Mac's 'Don't Stop Thinking about Tomorrow', famously used, of course, by Bill Clinton in his 1992 presidential campaign. For Steffan, it was the mirror of our past that often offered the vision of our future. A speech he made to our conference after being selected as a candidate for the 2016 election sums this up best, and I'd like to read the closing section now. Here is Steffan in his own words:
'You know I'm a historian myself by training, and I take a great deal of pleasure looking and learning about our past but, in a few months, I am due to become a father for the first time. That's made me think an awful lot more about our future, rather than our past. What inheritance will there be for the next generation? What accomplishments will that generation look back upon and mark out as decisive points in the course of our country? Friends, all of that is in our hands now'.
He went on to talk about the great inspiration he had drawn from the referendum in Scotland, but the point for Steffan is the choices we made here in Wales. Here's Steffan again:
'As much as we take inspiration from others, we will thrive as a movement and as a nation only when we find our own path, when we inspire one another, when we come together to resolve to build a new society and a new state. We are going to walk that path together, north and south, local and newcomer, together as one Wales towards the free Wales.'
Steffan, sadly, will not see the Wales of which he dreamed. But for his son, Celyn, and his generation, he has laid the foundation, and it's we now who must build the road. He understood, like that other Welsh giant, Brân, that the essence of leadership is to take people with you, to build bridges. In the words of one of his favourite poets, Harri Webb, if we Welsh could only be inseparable, we would be insuperable.
Steffan ended that speech by saying that he wasn't going to be the typical politician and reel off a long list of promises to the electorate. Instead, he was going to make just one promise: he was going to make us proud. Well, you made us all proud, Steffan—proud of you, proud to have known you, to have called you a friend and colleague. You made us proud to be Welsh by your example, that will endure. You may not get there with us, Steffan, but we will get there because of you. Steffan had all the qualities to become, one day, the father of the nation. That, sadly, cannot be, but he was the nation's perfect son.
Our thanks is unending to you, Steffan, to your mother for giving you to us, and to Shona for sharing you with us all.
The sense of sadness and of loss is profound in the Assembly this afternoon, as we think first of Steffan's family and his friends, but we think as well of the loss to this Assembly and to the future of our nation. I'm very conscious that, unlike other Members—unlike Adam, who has just spoken—that I didn't know Steffan at all until I met him here after his election. And in the way that chance has it, Llywydd, the responsibilities that he discharged over that brief period for Plaid Cymru in the Chamber, speaking on Brexit, speaking on finance, happened to be the responsibilities that I held in the Welsh Government at the same time. And as a result, and much more than would normally be the case, I found myself in his company. And he was, without any shadow of a doubt, one of the most decent and able politicians of his generation; somebody who, as Adam Price has just said, when he came through the door to discuss something that mattered passionately to him, his ambition always seemed to me to be to see where common ground could be forged and where we could agree together on the important responsibilities that fall to us all. That's how I ended up working with him on 'Securing Wales' Future', a document that has served us so well in the past two years and will go on, I know, being a touchstone of the sort of nation that we want to be in the context we find ourselves in today, and beyond that as well, conversations about finance, about tax, about Gwent and the things that mattered to him there.
Inevitably, like all of us, when something awful like this happens, you find yourself remembering and you think of conversations that you've had. I thought over the weekend of an occasion where we had talked together about the importance of us jointly being able to present a copy of 'Securing Wales' Future' to the UK Government. It was a product of both our parties, we both had a lot to do with its production and we wanted to go together and make sure that we presented it to the UK Government, and, lo and behold, a senior Secretary of State in the UK Government was visiting Cardiff and we were able to go and present the document to him. Steffan introduced the document in the way exactly as you would expect—articulate and to the point. We received a reply from the Secretary of State and, as we left the room, Steffan said to me, 'Well, if I wasn't a nationalist before I came in this room, I'm definitely one as I leave it'. [Laughter.]
He was, as you all know, a thoughtful, sensitive and committed individual, but he was a funny person, somebody whose company you wanted to be in, somebody who you learnt a lot from, even in those more casual moments. It's very difficult, isn't it, to remember that it is barely six weeks since he last spoke in this Chamber, and difficult to remember that it's only six months ago since many of us here in south Wales and in the north, where a number of us were, across parties in the Chamber, set off to walk together across the front in Llandudno. It was a beautiful day; it was one of those high summer's days when the sun shone and you couldn't but be optimistic about the future. And here we are, barely six months later, in the dark winter days. A day when
'The sun, for sorrow, will not show his head.'
And neither, for a long time, Llywydd, will we.
I, too, rise with a heavy heart to pay tribute to Steffan this afternoon, and, on behalf of the Welsh Conservatives, I'd like to extend our sincere condolences to his wife Shona, son Celyn and to all his family and close friends. Nothing can prepare you for losing someone at such a tender age.
Even though he was only elected to the Assembly in 2016, I was very much aware that he was a rising star within his party, well before being elected, from the conversations I'd had with some of my colleagues in Plaid Cymru. Steffan described being elected to this place as his dream job, and he fulfilled the role with distinction right up until the end; always ensuring the voices of his constituents were heard. As the First Minister said, it was clear to everyone that he was a very able, talented and committed politician, with so much more to give.
He was never known to raise his voice when he delivered a contribution, as the Chamber always fell silent when he spoke, as people genuinely wanted to hear what he had to say. Perhaps sometimes I didn't want to hear what he had to say, because he always had something powerful and intelligent to say, which sometimes countered strongly the arguments we were putting forward on this side of the Chamber. But not only did he put forward powerful and intelligent arguments, he also had always something new to add to the debate, something that none of us had thought about. He would always approach a debate from a different angle. This, I believe, was one of his greatest strengths. Even though we were on different sides of the political spectrum, I had enormous respect for his principled stance on the issues that really mattered. He will be remembered as a politician who was always true to his principles. It was absolutely clear to me how dedicated and committed he was to his constituents in the way he never allowed his illness to prevent him from coming here to represent his constituents. The bravery and courage he demonstrated throughout his illness will be an example to us all.
I am sure that Steffan's legacy will live on through his family and, indeed, through this Assembly, and I hope that more people like Steffan will enter politics to make a real difference to the people of Wales. It was a privilege and an honour to have known Steffan, and my thoughts and prayers are with Shona, Celyn and his family at this very, very difficult time. Llywydd, every Parliament should have a Steffan. We're just very sad that we've lost ours. He will be sorely missed on all sides of this Chamber.
Diolch, Llywydd. I first met Steffan at a hustings in Blaenau Gwent during the last Assembly elections, but it was obvious to me at that time that he was an exceptionally gifted person. Over his two and a half years in the Assembly, I believe we have all witnessed his special capabilities, and I know that all in this Chamber will agree with me that we have lost one of our most able AMs.
On a personal level, although we of course disagreed politically, he was always polite and friendly whenever we crossed paths on the Assembly estate. I, for one, am deeply saddened by Steffan's passing, and my thoughts go out to his family at this very distressing time. But I hope that they shall find solace in his very considerable achievements.
This is possibly the most difficult contribution I've ever had to make in this Senedd in the 15 years that I've been an Assembly Member. All of us in the Plaid Cymru family are beyond devastated that we've lost our friend and colleague, and our hearts go out to his family, who I know are in incredible pain at his loss. But Steffan is a loss to our nation too, to our democracy—he's a loss to our future.
Steffan had one of the sharpest political brains in Welsh politics. He was incredibly well read, and he had an international understanding, which meant that he was always able to draw on examples—sometimes pretty obscure examples—to highlight or prove his point. As others have said, his contributions, especially on Brexit but on other matters too, were always considered, measured, well informed, and more often than not—not always, but more often than not—Steffan would end up being proved right.
Plenty of people have paid tribute to Steff's public political contribution, and many of you here will be well aware of that, but I'd like to focus my brief remarks on Steffan as the person. We worked very closely together for around three years before he was elected as an Assembly Member. He was thorough, he could think outside the box, and he could think strategically. He was incredibly loyal and honest, and he was very prepared to say when he disagreed with something or he didn't like something. But he was also a team player, prepared to work extremely hard for the success of all of our shared goals. With Steff, no matter how difficult or insurmountable a problem might seem, he just would not accept that there was no solution. We tackled many tricky problems together, we made some fabulous political interventions together, and I've got some amazing memories of my work and friendship with Steffan, which I will now be able to keep forever.
All of us are privileged to have memories, we're all privileged to have been part of his life, and we all want to pull together now to support his family and each other through the difficult weeks and months ahead.
Nos da, Steffan. Sleep well, my friend.
I only knew Steffan, like many others in this Chamber, since he was elected in 2016 to join us here, and in that short time, his decency and his intellect have made their mark on myself and many others, as we are hearing across the Chamber today. My colleague Jack Sargeant came into this Chamber with the thought of a kinder politics. Steffan embodied that kinder politics he wanted to do. He was decent, he was well thought of, he considered his arguments and he put forward a strong case, as has been highlighted already.
Llywydd, Steffan's contribution to the Assembly has been recognised by all Members, but his contribution to the external affairs committee on which he sat was enormous. He brought to us the thoughtful consideration of the arguments and he put that thoughtful consideration not with an agenda of anything else other than the best for the people of Wales. That was his contribution.
Now, we all know his political thinking and what was paramount to him was the existence of an independent Welsh national state. But more important to him was the actual improvement of the lives of people in Wales, and that's what he chose to achieve and work towards, and everything he did was for that. He brought to us cutting ideas, and scrutiny of Ministers, which sometimes they didn't enjoy either, because they were sometimes very wary of Steffan when he was in the committee because they knew what was coming. He went everywhere to try and get that information. I remember him telling me he went to London to go all round the embassies and the consulates to get information about what a future Europe would look like. I even remember him telling me that he was planning a trip to Norway with his family with the real intention of going to the Sweden-Norway border to see what went on on that border.
Whilst we will miss his intellect and sharpness here in this Assembly, that is nothing compared to the loss that his family will be experiencing at this difficult time. My thoughts and prayers are with his family now and in the future, but one thing I do know is that his son will grow up to see his ambition realised at one point; I do believe that. Steffan's time might have been short, but his legacy will live on.
I raise to speak with a heavy heart on behalf of the Labour group. First, I'd like to extend all of our condolences to Steffan's wife, Shona, his son, Celyn, and the rest of his family and friends. Steffan was so widely respected by Members of all parties across this Chamber and held in really great esteem. His razor-sharp intellect was clear to see, as was his grasp of the key issues and his genuine passion to make Wales a better place. And in the work that he did on first proposing the EU continuity Bill, and his work thereafter on 'Securing Wales' Future', he will undoubtedly leave a strong legacy here in Wales.
I'd also like to say a few points personally as well, because I arrived in this Chamber in May 2016, at exactly the same time as Steffan, and I was struck very quickly by how non-partisan a place this Chamber is. It was actually Steffan who played a key role in first showing me that, as we both served on BIPA together—the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I remember meeting with him and the other representatives prior to our first trip and feeling somewhat trepidatious about how I would get on with Members of other parties during that trip. But Steffan actually jumped over the security barriers in Tŷ Hywel, such was his enthusiasm for the work we were about to undergo, and that certainly did break down any barriers that there were.
From then on, I found that there was nothing that he could not talk about and show a huge amount of knowledge on, as other colleagues have said, from international examples to national and to local. The depth of knowledge and passion he had across all different areas of politics was really quite incredible. But virtually every conversation that I had with him would always come back to his family, and that was something that really struck me. He was, clearly, very much a family man, a very proud father, and spoke with great affection of his wife and his parents too, and how they had shaped his politics.
His talent will undoubtedly be a great loss to the party, Plaid Cymru, and a great loss to Wales as a nation as well, but of course, more importantly, a loss that is felt by his family and his friends too. Like Steffan, I too am a historian at heart, and I am confident that, when the history of this fifth Assembly is written and this chapter of the history of Plaid Cymru, Steffan's role will be a shining light.
There is an empty chair behind me. It’s a chair that’s been kept warm for Steff ever since he started his battle with cancer a little over a year ago. It feels like yesterday. I was looking at his text the other day: ‘Can you come out of committee to speak to me?’ he said, and that was a dark day.
But Steff was determined to continue to cast his light upon us. He would still come here, as we’ve heard, particularly for discussions on European matters or to demand fair play for some cause or another in Gwent and the south-east, the area where he was raised, which was so dear to him.
In his early 20s, he made an impression on me for the first time. I was introducing a television hustings programme from Ebbw Vale during the Blaenau Gwent by-election, and Steff was a very young Plaid Cymru candidate at that election—I think he was just 21. I remember thinking at the time, ‘Wow, he’s good.’ And he was very good. He was very special.
It was a huge pleasure then to become a colleague of his in due time and to call him a friend. I was an elected member first of all, although he was in Plaid Cymru way before I was, where he was a key member of the team, and then he too was elected. Becoming a Member of our national Senedd meant everything to him. For Steff, it was a privilege to be here, serving his community and serving Wales. But it was that community's privilege, Wales’s privilege and all of our privilege that Steff had decided to commit to serve the nation in its Parliament.
He was a dear man, a fair man, a fair politician. He was unselfish. We saw that in the way in which he was so eager to help other patients in speaking openly of his cancer. He was a mindful individual, choosing his words carefully. It reminded me of my late mother in that regard. She had given so much to Wales in so many ways. I heard in tributes to her that my mother would hold back, but when she spoke, we would know that she had something to say, and everyone would listen. And that’s how it was with Steff. Steff, I cannot pay you much greater tribute than to say that you remind me of my mother. Steff’s contribution was always valuable.
Steff's role in public life in Wales has been cut way, way too short. In a few short years, he made a contribution that made him stand out as a politician with rare ability, with real clarity and vision for his community and his nation, and as a man of integrity, fairness, sincerity, determination and total selflessness. He brought people together, and in that, he's an example to all of us.
Today, we say, ‘Thank you, Steff'. We miss you and miss what you would have done for us. But we give thanks for everything that you did and for laying the foundations for an independent Wales. We thank you for your vision and your leadership in such a brief life. Yes, we kept your seat warm, but that wasn't to be. Now, we will do everything to keep your flame alight. Rest in peace, Steff.
I'd always heard about Steffan Lewis from my former ministerial colleague and fellow Assembly Member, Jocelyn Davies, who was so proud of this young political activist who volunteered in her office. And when she told me she was standing down at the 2016 election, she actually said she was glad that this would provide an opportunity for Steffan to take his place in the Assembly as her successor Plaid Cymru Assembly Member for the South Wales East region.
Of course, Steffan was known by many of us for his work behind the scenes before 2016, working for Leanne as her speech writer, and we knew—we knew—he would be formidable when the time came for him to enter the public world of politics as an Assembly Member. And, of course, he made his mark from day one as the youngest Member elected in 2016. I recall, as many will as well, Steffan taking his seat here in the Chamber with great confidence, clarity, but also humble about his role and the opportunity he'd had—clear about his politics, of course. I remember he said—and you can recall that, and his colleagues—that he wouldn't be using his computer, because he wanted to be fully engaged in debates. He didn't want to have that charge we often get: 'What are you doing staring at your computer all day?' And I think he stuck to that promise. So, if we wanted him, we had to get him out of the Chamber or text him.
He was ready from the start to work outside the party confines to achieve shared goals and aims, and he took the lead as we quickly moved into the pre-imposed referendum world as the party spokesperson, working with Labour on 'Securing Wales' Future', and of course that has stood the test of time today, as the First Minister said today, and indeed last week. But he was also expert and steadfast as finance spokesperson. He sat on both finance and the external affairs committees, as I did, and when I joined those committees last November, I enjoyed them so much more when he was able to join us, as Dai Rees has said, despite his advancing illness and arduous treatment, which he faced with such courage, which all of us will have learnt from. But he did, as has been said, never let any Labour Minister or colleague off the hook in terms of his scrutiny, but was always supportive when he saw common cause.
I also want to pay tribute to the role Steffan played in promoting the importance of Wales in the world, and the importance of external affairs. So, he handed over to me the rapporteur role he'd played with Jeremy Miles, when he was on the committee, looking at the opportunities for Wales in the world as part of our responsibilities towards international development—and I know Eluned Morgan will be taking this forward—but also post Brexit, determined to ensure that Wales was not bypassed and was recognised diplomatically, culturally, socially and economically.
The walk with Steff has been mentioned, organised by Nia last July. I remember walking with Dai Lloyd and Jeff Cuthbert along the canal to Blackwood. It will be a lasting memory for all of us, and I remember that hug with Steffan on that walk. For Steffan, it was so important that he was raising those funds for Velindre. And of course, with that, my heartfelt thoughts and sympathies are with his family today, and in the weeks and months and years ahead.
Steffan, you've left a great legacy as a passionate Welsh European, an international citizen of the world, and we'll continue to help pursue those goals in your memory, because you were far-sighted in your political vision as a proud and outstanding person and politician of Wales.
May I begin by paying tribute to Steffan and his family, and to extend my sympathies to the family in their loss? Although, of course, you might be expecting something to happen, the loss is still a bitter blow.
It's difficult to conceive that Steffan was a Member of the Assembly for such a short time, so great was his contribution. We sat here in this Chamber and in committees and we saw how considerable his knowledge was and, of course, his desire to service his country. He quite quickly became respected by so many around this Chamber in all parties, and when he spoke, what he said was always incisive and thought-provoking. Steffan was always worth listening to.
He offered so much to the debate on Brexit through his work on developing a vision from how Brexit should work to the suggestion of a continuity Bill. And I believe he was the first Member in this Chamber to suggest a continuity Bill and he deserves the credit for that.
On a personal level, I think it's entirely right to say that Steffan was well liked by all. He was a proud member of Plaid Cymru. We've all seen, of course, the photograph of him addressing the Plaid Cymru conference in 1987 when he was, I think, 14. That would have taken a considerable feat of confidence to be able to do that. But despite, of course, his strongly held principles, he was always ready to work with other parties when he felt it was for the good of the nation. We often aspire, don't we, as politicians, to work with others? But Steffan didn't just aspire to do that; he practised it as well.
I, for one, found his contribution to the debate on Brexit to be invaluable, and some of you will know that I was asked before Christmas in a tv interview to name those I respected in other parties. Without disrespect to others in the Chamber, Steffan was one of those names that I mentioned.
The news that Steffan had been diagnosed, of course, with cancer, was a great shock to him and to his family. There's no doubt about that. He shared his diagnosis with me. He knew that my wife, Lisa, worked for Macmillan. He knew that it was a very difficult prognosis, but, despite that, he carried on with his work and worked hard to raise money for those who are living with cancer, and those memories, of course, will be there amongst so many Members who remember the work that he did to raise money for Velindre. There would of course have been low moments in his fight against cancer, but one thing we do know is that he found the resolve and the strength to inspire others. There are very few people with those qualities. Steffan was one of them.
We have lost a future star of Welsh politics, but his family have lost a son, a brother, a husband and father, and today we stand with them and remember Steffan.
Like everyone in the Chamber today, I too send my deepest condolences to Shona, Celyn, Gail, Nia and the whole family, and I wish to thank you for sharing Steffan with us. He was taken away far too soon and his loss is great to his family more than anyone, of course, but also to Plaid Cymru, the people of the south-east of Wales, this Assembly and to Wales. He contributed so much, and his intellect will light the way for us. He will be an inspiration and he will walk with us on the journey towards a free Wales.
I first came across Steff at a public meeting in Pen-y-groes in the Arfon constituency. Alun Ffred had insisted that this bright young boy from Gwent should join us to share his vision, and that is what he did, in a thoughtful, detailed, intelligent and quiet way, but in an entirely convincing and credible way. He had a dream and he believed that that dream would be realised. Over ensuing years, I would meet Steff at conferences and Plaid events, and in 2016 both of us were elected Assembly Members for the first time, and I had the privilege of sitting next to him until quite recently.
As we’ve already heard, he didn’t like the computer screen, and therefore, if he wanted to send a message to the Llywydd, very often he would have to go through my computer screen, and then I would pull his leg and say, ‘Well, I’m not your personal secretary, Steff’, and he would tease me too. For example, when I took every possible opportunity to press for a medical school for Bangor, I would hear, ‘You gogs are far too noisy.’ And that was one of his favourite phrases. I delighted in those phrases. I loved to hear his powerful, carefully constructed speeches, but those asides when another Member was speaking would always put a smile on my face. ‘This is terrible’, when a Minister was refusing to answer a question or was rambling on, and he would hate to hear Members referring to the UK as ‘our nation’ or ‘our country’. He would always correct that—'Wales is our nation. Wales is our country.’ And another thing that wound him up was references to Wales as a 'small nation'. ‘We’re not a small nation’, he would insist, ‘We are a bigger nation than many other independent nations.’
In walking to the Chamber or whilst waiting to deliver a speech backstage, Steff would say this to me, ‘Here we are, Siân Gwenllian’—he’d never call me ‘Siân’; he’d always call me by my full name—‘Here we are, Siân Gwenllian, the woman from Gwynedd and the boy from Gwent. We’ll go for it. Let’s go, let’s show them how it’s done.’ I will never forget those words. We represented very different areas, but the boy from Gwent made quite an impression on me, and that bright, principled boy will always be with me in our Senedd, in our conferences and in my daily life, because that boy from Gwent will always be in my heart, in all of our hearts. Steff, your dream lives on and that dream will be realised. Rest in peace, dear friend.
Like everybody else in the Chamber, I'll miss Steffan. I sat on the Finance Committee with him and we had some interesting times—I'm not sure that others would think it—when we were discussing land transaction tax and cross-border matters. I'm sure that Steffan and I engaged in very much a dialogue on this, much to the chagrin of other people sat in the Chamber. His encyclopedic knowledge of other borders—when I said about 'cross border', we eventually ended up with a 1,000 pieces of land crossing the England-Wales border, he said, 'That's nothing—how do you think they manage in Portugal and Spain, or the Walloons and the Flemish? How do think it works in the rest—?' I said, 'I don't know', and he said, 'Well, I've been there. I went on holiday to visit it to see.' I said, 'Well, I don't think I'd convince my wife to go on holiday to see borders but—.'
The other thing about him was his refusal to use his computer in the Chamber, which I found incredibly infuriating—not as infuriating as Siân Gwenllian did, because the only way you could contact him was by sending Siân a message: 'Siân, can you ask Steffan if I can talk to him about land transaction tax outside?' She would say, 'I am not his secretary.' In fact, that must be one of the things she said most to him during her time here—'Steffan, I'm not your secretary.' But you did a fine job as his secretary. He had that belief that you should not use a computer in the Chamber. He had that belief and he stuck to it. However annoying it was for the rest of us, he stuck to it.
I knew Steffan when he was working in the Plaid Cymru office. I shared a kitchen with him. It's amazing how you know people from the strangest of things within the Assembly. I use the same kitchen as Plaid Cymru do and what I remember of Steffan is he was always pleasant, always polite and always had a smile on his face. I'll miss him, but not half as much as his family.
I didn't know Steffan very well, but I just wanted to rise very briefly to say what a wonderful man he was. My enduring memory of Steffan is meeting him just by chance out walking with his family on the Cardiff barrage one balmy October day during that Indian summer that we had. And it was one happy family, out with Shona and their son, enjoying the sunshine. But, for me, it was such a poignant moment, for me, because I wondered how many more of these happy memories they were going to be able to share together. I just—. I think it's an absolute tragedy for his parents that they're having to bury their son before their time; that is just not the normal order of things, and that is, obviously, unbelievably painful. But, obviously, for Shona and Celyn, it leaves a huge gap in their lives. And I just wanted to say to Celyn that he was a truly amazing politician, as, hopefully, he will appreciate when he is a little bit older, and that he was such a courageous man and really did practice the kind of politics that Jack Sargeant promotes so regularly. 76
And I just want to say that it was such a privilege to know him, and I hope that he will inspire us all to up our game and to improve the level of debate that he showed us was perfectly possible without being cantankerous and party political. So, thank you so much, Steffan, and our condolences—I'm sure all of us—to his family.
I was about to enter the Newbridge memorial hall on Friday evening when the news broke that my political opponent in Islwyn, and my also dear colleague, Steffan Lewis AM, had passed away. So, as many have said, my heart does go out to Steffan's wife, Shona, and son, Celyn. At our Islwyn Labour Party meeting of members, there was a genuine sadness at this tragic news, and that is because of the personality who Steffan is. The Islwyn Labour Party held a minute's silence for Steffan and tributes were paid to our countryman. He was highly proud of hailing from Islwyn, as we've already heard, having grown up in Cross Keys, and I know he is fondly remembered from his time as a child in Ysgol Gynradd Cwm Gwyddon in Abercarn, where my daughter also attended. And, today, we mark our respect for this true son of Wales and a true son of Islwyn, who I also respected greatly as a colleague in the Welsh Parliament, even though, as I said, we were ultimately political opponents. But there was much that we also agreed upon, and, as a sentiment in today's speeches, I think that we hear that loudly and clearly.
But, ultimately, Steffan was a kind and sensitive human being, with a razor-sharp intellect. We were both elected to the National Assembly for Wales, as many have said, for the first time in 2016, and, as a member of the class, I also vouch loudly that Steffan was an energetic and principled politician who had so much more to give to Welsh public life. And we've already mentioned a kinder politics, which Jack Sargeant has already talked about at great length, and Steffan was the embodiment of that kinder politics. In the all too short time that he was able to serve as an Assembly Member, he demonstrated this with everything that he said and everything that he did—his ability and his calm manner. He used his considerable intellectual powers to make the case, as we've heard earlier in this Chamber, for the Assembly for Wales's rights to be respected following the Brexit negotiations. And it is probably Steffan's work on Brexit, in his capacity as party spokesman on the subject, where he had his biggest impact. But I will personally always remember him as a principled and decent politician and a decent human being—a sincere and dedicated servant to the people of Islwyn, and I believe we will all miss you. God rest you, Steffan.
I remember hearing Steffan on the radio for the 2006 by-election in Blaenau Gwent—his speech for the declaration. I was in bed and I sat up in bed because his words were electrifying—really, really inspirational. I worked with Steffan in 2008, in the Caerphilly council elections, and we got to know each other better when we were first elected for the first time in 2016. And, some afternoons, we'd just pop over the road and have a quick drink and a quick chat and just talk about all kinds of things, especially politics and how things could be done better, and football—Celtic, Cardiff City. I'm really grateful to Steffan for those conversations. He was a really good man, who showed so much courage and dignity in the way that he came here, and in the way that he did things his way. His far too early passing is a real loss to our country, and I really hope that his family can take some comfort in the fact that so many people—everyone of us who knew Steffan—thought so highly of him.
Llywydd, Steffan's voice was a strong voice on the constitution. He had a depth of understanding that allowed him to soar to the heights of political thought. Llywydd, we were both elected in 1999, and I don't think I've ever heard a more generous voice on fundamental matters. His knowledge and use of the parliamentary process allowed him to promote the concept of the continuity Act, as we've heard, something that put pressure on the Welsh and the UK Governments at a key moment in our history as an institution.
Steffan's authority, however, on constitutional matters was no dry or abstract thing; he spoke with energy and passion. But he also respected the views of others, like myself, who often reached different conclusions. What I found most noble and convincing in Steffan's constitutional insights was the need for a deliberative parliamentary democracy. That is what has been forged by the home nations of the United Kingdom. It is our taproot—something we should all cherish, whether our ultimate goal is an independent Wales or a rejuvenated devolved UK. How we need such wisdom today of all days, as Brexit arrives at a decision point in Parliament.
One of the last conversations I had with Steffan was about Alan Watkins's funny and irreverent account of the fall of Mrs Thatcher, A Conservative Coup. And Steffan had that mischievous humour too, seeing the foolishness of politics when it drifts from its firm foundations, as that book masterfully describes.
I extend my heartfelt condolences to Steffan's family and friends. Please be comforted by the knowledge that Steffan's was such a true voice it will never be lost to our memory.
To lose Steffan at such a tender age is obviously a tragic blow to his family and friends, to his party, Plaid Cymru, to the Assembly as a whole, and to Wales, given the significance of Steffan Lewis as a political figure and the ability that he had, the commitment that he had, which we've heard about across the Chamber today.
For me, Llywydd, my first memory of speaking to Steffan after he became an Assembly Member was when he brought those qualities to the fore, and that great concern that he had for Gwent, as we heard from Adam and others, when Steffan came up to me early on and said how committed he was to working across the political parties and how committed he was to understanding Gwent, representing the interests of Gwent, and being a champion for that geographical part of Wales. And it subsequently became very clear that he was absolutely genuine about that, as he was about everything else as well. So, I know that I speak for all of my Labour Gwent AM colleagues—Rhianon Passmore has spoken for herself, as it were—but all of us recognise that, that Steffan was so committed and genuine in that concern for Gwent and that determination to do all that he could for Gwent, but to work across the parties, and indeed with a variety of organisations, to that end.
As with others, I remember the walk to raise money for Velindre, where it was so clear what widespread support, and what important support, Steffan had from his family and friends, the political parties—again, across the Chamber—different organisations that he'd worked with over the years, and many others. It was also clear what a comfort that was to Steffan, how important it was to him to draw strength from that support, evidenced on the walk, but evidenced much more widely and generally as well.
Also, Llywydd, I just wanted to echo what others said in terms of how brave Steffan was in using that horrible experience of suffering from cancer for a greater good—to be so willing to talk about the experience, to do interviews, to make public statements, to take part in debates, knowing how important it was for other people suffering from cancer and their families and their friends. He went into detail, which I think must be so important, significant and beneficial for other people suffering from cancer and their families and friends.
Obviously, it was very, very moving as well to read about the memoir that he was preparing for his son, his young son, who could read that when he was older and understand his father better and understand his father's beliefs and values and principles and draw from those in living his own life and making his own contribution.
So, I just wanted to echo, on behalf of my local Labour colleagues, Llywydd, what so many others have said: what a nice, genuine, committed, able, talented human being Steffan Lewis was and how significant he was to his country. I, as others have said, hope that's some comfort to his family and friends at such an incredibly difficult time.
I last spoke with Steffan on his last visit to the Assembly before Christmas, when I remember speaking to him outside the Chamber here in a break in debate. It was clear at that point how ill he was. I told him that we were—all of us, every one of us in the Chamber—rooting for him. He thanked me for that and he said it was the work as an Assembly Member that was keeping him going, that was inspiring him, and the affection, the love, that he felt from all of us Assembly Members was making that difference to him.
As has been said by his own party, who he loved dearly, and other Members in this Chamber, he was a boy of Gwent. He used to call me 'the boy of Monmouthshire'. I did point out that I was from Cwmbran originally and I could see his little eyes light up as he could think of all sorts of new insults or expressions that he could use in debate across the Chamber. [Laughter.] Sadly, those debates are not to be. But the legacy he leaves, and the feeling that he inspired all of us to feel, from whatever part of Wales that was, is something that will live with me forever.
Mike Hedges mentioned the Finance Committee. I had the privilege of sitting next to Steffan—it seems for a very long time, but, of course, it was only a couple of years since 2016 that we were on that committee together. And you're right, Mike, he used to love talking about the border, or, really, attacking people who wanted to talk about the border, and he would point out there were borders all across the world that didn't cause any problems at all in terms of trade and in terms of countries being separate. He was right there. Also, whenever there were discussions about Brexit or austerity, I'd hear this little voice in my ear, which was his voice, and he'd be prodding me, and he'd say, 'That's your lot, again, that is, isn't it? That's your lot in Westminster. How can you live with yourself?' Eventually, I just used to move the chair slightly to the right so he couldn't quite reach any more.
But it was a privilege to know Steffan since he got elected in 2016. I think it is very easy to say that people leave a legacy, but I think, as the former First Minister, Carwyn Jones, said earlier, his legacy is an immense one. I think, in his own way, he has had an effect on everyone in Wales, and, whether you agreed in the nationalist policy, or whatever party political view you aspire from, I think that he sold the message of his party so well that he drew everyone else in Wales a little nearer to his dreams, and I think, whatever happens down the road for this great country of ours that he was so proud of, he brought his dream a little closer to everyone's reality.
This is a very dark day. It is an honour for me to be able to stand here to pay tribute to you, Steffan. Naturally, we sympathise deeply with your friends and your family, and there is an empty space in the chair next to me. The screen is still black. But there's a huge gap in our group, in our hears, in our lives—a gap where Steffan used to be. Steffan was the youngest Member of the Plaid Cymru group. He was the baby of the group, with a young family, and we are heartbroken.
You were an inspiration to us all, a hard and committed worker, living every minute for Wales and for the future of our nation. I will remember the endless discussions and debates over the very many years that I knew you, since the by-election back in the 1990s—I was there in Islwyn too—the discussions, many a time, about the history of Wales, the honourable history of our country, as a way of inspiring a nation. And how do you inspire a nation that knows not its history?
And a man of detail, too, of exquisite legislative detail, and creator of Wales's continuity Bill. Steffan was very conscious of the threat of Brexit to the very existence of Wales, and worked tirelessly to construct a protective legislative shield for our people. Steffan was a total inspiration to me personally, to this party of ours, to this Senedd and to Wales; a shining star, as many have said, with a huge talent and courage, especially these last months, as well as resilience of spirit, a resilience that we all need now. Our prayers are with Steffan's family, yes. Our loss is as nothing compared to their loss.
We often say on these Plaid benches, chairs, that we stand on the shoulders of the heroes of Welsh history longing for national freedom, the noblest of causes. Steffan is one of those heroes now.
Rest in peace, young Steffan.
Thank you to all Members for your tributes. It's clear that in his too short a time here, Steffan made an impression across this Chamber. Sitting here as I do, I watch many of you typing away as debates carry on around you. Steffan, as we've heard, didn't type. He had his computer disabled when he took his seat so he could listen to debates and take part in debate. Of course, he learnt there was a downside to that, as he then couldn't message me to ask to be called in a debate. However, he quickly learnt that a cheeky smile or a phone text, or Siân Gwenllian, were just as persuasive to get himself called to speak.
And who wouldn't call Steffan Lewis? What he had to say was worth hearing. I'd watch you all, First Ministers past and present, Ministers, backbenchers—you all listened to what Steffan had to say. He spoke with a quiet authority, a clarity of thought, always with something original to say. Steffan was the one to challenge the orthodoxy of the day, and that happened as much within Plaid Cymru as it did within this Chamber.
I first met Steffan during the first Assembly, when he was on work experience with Jocelyn Davies in his early teens. Steffan started his political life at a very young age. He was passionate about his politics then, and he realised his dream in 2016 when he was elected to his national Senedd as successor to Jocelyn Davies. Although his life was brief, Steffan packed a great deal into it, and he reminded us that we don't really measure the value of a life by its length.
Unlike a number of us, Steffan knew every detail of the history of his country, and a number of other countries too, not in order to romanticise that history, but rather to understand the history in order to plan the future, where everything would be possible for that country. And, although he was a very strong advocate for Gwent and the eastern Valleys where he had been brought up, and where the heritage of both languages—English and Welsh—were important to him, one of his continuous messages was the unity of Wales. He used to get annoyed if he heard too much talk about the north or the west. To him, Wales was one.
Steffan was both ordinary and extraordinary—he was kind and sincere and completely serious about his ambition for his country. His example will drive a number of us to work harder to realise his dreams for his nation and his community in his name.
In closing this meeting of tribute, I take this opportunity once again to sympathise on behalf of all of us with his family: his wife, Shona, and his young son, Celyn; his mother, Gail; his sister, Nia; and Neil, who are with us today. We will be thinking of you in the very difficult days and months to come. We will remember most dearly our friend Steffan, and thank the family for sharing him with us. To paraphrase Annest Glyn, the poet, from the past few days:
A soul who will shine forever bright,
And never shall be dimmed his light.
Thank you, Steffan, and thank you all.
Plenary was suspended at 13:51.
The Assembly reconvened at 14:00, with the Presiding Officer in the Chair.
I call Members to order. The first item will be an emergency question. I've accepted that question under Standing Order 12.67, and I call on Carwyn Jones to ask that emergency question.
What assessment has the Minister made of the current situation in Ford Europe and its potential effect on the Bridgend Engine Plant? (EAQ0003)
Thank you. I've spoken with Ford UK and also with UK Government Ministers, pressing the case for the Bridgend plant. We'll continue to work closely with Ford to protect the highly skilled jobs and supply chain, as well as look for other high-tech opportunities for the Bridgend site.
Could I thank the Minister for his answer? He will understand, of course, that the announcement has caused great uncertainty amongst workers at the Ford plant and their families. Minister, will you commit to monitoring the situation closely, and to work with Ford Europe, with the management and unions at the Bridgend plant, and also with those who represent Bridgend to secure the future of the plant and, of course, its dedicated workforce?
Yes, indeed. Can I thank the Member for his question and for his keen interest in this matter, and for the dedication that he's shown to the Bridgend Ford plant? I do commit to monitoring the situation across Europe, but particularly in the UK and at Bridgend. The First Minister will be joining unions tomorrow morning at the Bridgend plant, and following my discussion today with Ford UK, I'm arranging to meet with Graham Hoare, the director of global vehicle evaluation and verification for Ford, to discuss the situation at the Bridgend plant.
I think what is clear is that the automotive sector is undergoing dramatic and rapid change, and, in the last week, we've seen the impact of that on Ford's decisions in terms of a Europe-wide review, with various decisions to be made over whether to reduce lines in Germany, whether to close a plant in Bordeaux, whether to cease the joint venture agreement in Russia. What makes the Bridgend plant strong in regards to future considerations is that the productivity levels have been improving. There are now very, very good industrial relations at the site and, of course, a new Dragon engine has begun being manufactured.
As we look to the future and the dramatic change in the automotive sector, I'm confident that as Ford considers hybridising powertrains, the Dragon engine being built new at Bridgend will place that particular site and the loyal, committed, dedicated workers at the forefront of considerations for Ford Europe, as it determines where is most suitable to hybridise future powertrains.
Thank you for the response to the question on this. Just a couple of questions from me, based on promises that you made back in 2016. At that point, when Ford was potentially in trouble at that stage, you said that Welsh Government would be prepared to invest in the plant, and I'm glad to hear you praise it yet again for the high level of commitment of the workforce there, but that you would be expecting a minimum of five years of sustainable and secure employment for a specific number of workers there. So, perhaps you can just fill us in a little bit on what support, financially in particular, you have given them in the interim, and whether you're confident that the promises they will have given you—obviously, that finance would have been conditional—whether those promises have been fulfilled.
You've mentioned that you've been talking about new technology since then, and you've mentioned the Dragon engine; obviously, there's a question mark about the long-term sustainability of that work because of Jaguar Land Rover's announcement—but what other technology, apart from electric cars, have you been talking about? Because one of the considerations I'm sure you've thought of is, of course, that Ford globally is now working in partnership with Volkswagen, and Volkswagen itself already has the infrastructure available to produce electric cars, which, for me, places a question mark over the possibility of Bridgend being used for that. But there are other options; you've probably come across Projekt Grenadier and the potential for off-road vehicle development. Obviously, Jaguar Land Rover has had its problems, but there were huge pre-sales for the Suzuki Jimny announced relatively recently. So, I wonder what kinds of conversations you've had about that, alongside anything to do with electric cars.
And then, finally, from me, when Tata was in trouble, Welsh Government was very keen to talk about the new opportunities it would offer anybody who was made redundant on the back of Tata changes, particularly in retraining. We've already had, for some months now, criticism of Welsh Government because it doesn't have a skills strategy, but I'm hoping that this may have concentrated the mind and that you have some idea of what you might tell Ford plant workers, should they be made redundant, about the training opportunities that they can be offered at this stage. Thank you.
Can I thank Suzy Davies for her questions? There are a number of important points and potential products, particularly powertrains, that could be considered in the years to come for the Bridgend site. First of all, in terms of conditions that are attached to support from Welsh Government, of course, the Dragon engine was brought to Bridgend as a consequence of support offered by the Welsh Government, and conditions attached to that support in terms of the security of work for five years minimum will stand. The Dragon engine actually is a safe and secure engine because it can be hybridised. Within the new product cycle that Ford are looking at, it's hybridisation rather than a complete move immediately to full electrification of powertrains that would be their priority. That's why I think the Dragon engine actually is probably one of the most attractive products that they currently produce, to hybridise for a global market.
What we want to do is ensure that hybridisation of the Dragon engine comes first, before other powertrains, and that that work is carried out in Bridgend. There is, of course, potential for increasing capacity with regard to the Dragon engine. At the moment, about 125,000 units are being manufactured. It could increase to 250,000 units. There is a question mark over Ford's operations in Russia. If Russia were to be taken out of the equation, then that would clearly give a huge opportunity to increase production of the Dragon engine at the Bridgend plant. These are all factors that are currently in motion that we are monitoring and that we are clearly trying to influence with a view to making sure that we get the best outcome for Bridgend.
The Member rightly raised the question of what support can be given to workers affected by any decision by a company to reduce head-count numbers. In terms of the support that we can offer, clearly we would seek to deploy the same sort of support that was offered to Tata workers, primarily through our employability plan and with a special regard to the new Working Wales suite of interventions to make sure that people can be trained up with new skills if necessary to get them straight back into work or signposted to immediate opportunities already within the sector that they are specialists in.
The Member also raised perhaps the most important potential project for the site—it's actually project Seagull. 'Grenadier' is the product name that has been attached to the rugged 4x4 off-roader. This is a potential investment by Ineos. Welsh Government has worked tirelessly in collaboration with Ford and Ineos to ensure that we are best placed to secure that investment. If we bring production of that vehicle to Bridgend, it will provide work for hundreds upon hundreds of people and potentially thousands in the supply chain. A decision will be made next month. The big question is whether Wales can win that contract ahead of one other site in Europe as we leave the EU. It will perhaps be the biggest test of whether the Welsh economy can withstand the challenge of Brexit that we will face in the coming months ahead.
Can I also express my deep concern at this announcement and what it means for both the workforce at Bridgend and also the wider Welsh economy? Can I also seek assurances from Welsh Government that you will leave no stone unturned in seeking a new future for the plant at Bridgend? Can I also seek assurances about the use of public funds—both money that has already been invested at Ford Bridgend and also public funds that may need to be invested in future, considering the uncertainty that has surrounded the Ford Bridgend plant at various points over the past few years? And also, can I suggest that is it perhaps not time, considering the seriousness of the situation we face at Bridgend and elsewhere, that a major summit is convened to look at some of the threats that we face in the Welsh economy, not just the announcement at Ford Bridgend but also the deep uncertainty surrounding Wylfa, an issue I hope to be able to raise with the Minister later today or this week, plus the threats in the longer term, perhaps, to Airbus at Broughton, due to Brexit, and indeed the wider issues linked to our planned departure from the European Union?
Well, can I thank the Member for his questions and say that it's largely as a consequence of the support that the Welsh Government has been able to provide over many years and the public-private collaboration that we've seen between Ford and the Welsh Government that the site is still in Bridgend, alive and well, producing some of the world's most cutting-edge engines? And we stand ready to support further production at the Bridgend plant, and we are certainly keen to ensure that further investment is secured for the area. Indeed, the investment that we could be looking at from INEOS amounts to many hundreds of millions of pounds, and that would be a huge win for the Welsh economy if we can secure it next month.
The Welsh Automotive Forum acts as a very important forum for horizon-scanning of trends and emerging technologies and for advising Government on the situation that the sector is currently positioned in and also the potential challenges and opportunities that are coming down the line. The forum continues to do excellent work in advising Ministers, both here in the Welsh Government and in the UK Government. And in terms of working together—if you like, a summit to assess future trends and opportunities and challenges—well, I can tell Members that a working group had already been established prior to this week's news to look at what the potential opportunities are, particularly for Ford in Bridgend in the context of a rapidly changing automotive sector.
I can also assure the Member that, with regard to other major projects that there is considerable speculation over at the moment, I have asked for the North Wales Economic Ambition Board to convene urgently, and I'm keen to meet with the ambition board to discuss the decision that Hitachi is due to make on Thursday. It's my intention to be in north Wales on Thursday, ready to meet with the economic ambition board, if all stakeholders and local authority leaders are available. If that can't take place immediately after the decision taken by Hitachi, then I will be asking for that board to be convened at the earliest opportunity.
I spoke with UK Government Ministers today about the situation at Wylfa. I also spoke with Horizon. I think that what's pretty clear is that the Prime Minister let Wales down, I'm afraid, last week in failing to raise this crucially important matter with the Japanese Prime Minister and with key stakeholders in Japan. The Prime Minister said that this was solely a commercial matter for Hitachi. That is not true—that is not true. This project is something that the UK Government is willing to take a £5 billion-stake in. It could provide up to 10 per cent of the UK's energy. It could provide hundreds upon hundreds of incredibly valuable jobs for generations to come. It is not purely a commercial matter for Hitachi. This is about securing our security over energy, and it's about securing the economy of north Wales, Wales and beyond.
The Minister has given us some degree of optimism, certainly in the respect that, again, the Welsh Government is making sure that it stands by Ford Bridgend, which it has done over many, many years. As to why Ford has been a success, its two biggest strengths are (1) the Welsh Government standing with it, but paramount the skilled, committed, highly motivated workforce, which have adapted previously to challenging circumstances and to change, and they've come through in difficult times and have put this company, year after year, back on its feet and doing very well. And it's doing well at the moment, even though it has declines in some production lines.
Much of this does rely on Ford Europe and their decisions, but I think it's helpful that the Welsh Government is signalling that it is there to help in any way it possibly can. Could I ask what role, if any, there is for the UK Government as well? Because the worry would always be that we'd want the UK Government to be here, equally standing as strong as the Welsh Government is, knowing the regional importance of this not only in the constituency of Bridgend and Ogmore, but in the wider supply chain throughout south Wales and, indeed, up into the Midlands as well, and into north Wales. So, we want to know that the UK Government can also play a role and doesn't see this in any way as a threat to other parts of the UK. It is of paramount importance to the regional economy in south Wales.
Well, can I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for his question? There are, of course, a number of areas that the UK Government could be of great assistance in right now. First of all, Brexit is a factor that needs to be considered. Because of sterling weakness, there's been impact to the tune of £600 million on Ford UK's turnover. That, in turn, of course, has affected profitability. Secondly, there is a role that the UK Government can play in ensuring that Ineos decides to invest in the UK rather than continental Europe, thereby providing a huge number of highly paid jobs for well-skilled people. And thirdly, there is a role for the UK Government, and in particular the UK industrial strategy, in promoting opportunities for Welsh research institutions and, crucially, Welsh businesses to take full advantage of some of the grand challenges. I'm thinking, in particular, of the Faraday challenge. I know that the Member has shown a great interest in the potential production of batteries for vehicles at the Ford Bridgend site. At the moment, what is quite clear from industry is that the production of batteries within the UK for the automotive sector could only take place if there is collaboration between manufacturers and with a significant degree of assistance from UK Government. I know that this is an area of work that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Greg Clark, is very interested in and very committed to, and my call on UK Government would be to engage as much as possible for Welsh companies and Welsh research institutions to make sure that we get maximum benefit from the Faraday challenge and the industrial strategy as a whole.
The next item is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Lynne Neagle.
1. How will the First Minister ensure that the emotional and mental health of children and young people is prioritised for the duration of this Assembly term? OAQ53224
Llywydd, the Government announced yesterday that a further £7.1 million will be invested from April of this year to support the emotional and mental health of our children and young people. This commitment underpins our response to the recommendations contained in the 'Mind over Matter' report.
Thank you, First Minister, and I was delighted to hear about that extra £7.1 million that was announced yesterday. As you'll be aware, 'Mind over Matter' enjoys strong cross-party support, and I believe that it sets out a clear road map for transforming the emotional and mental health of our children and young people. That said, I'm under no illusions about the scale of the challenge we face, and a particular concern is the rise in the number of young people dying by suicide in Wales and an overall rise in the suicide rate of 12 per cent that goes against the trend of a reduction in the number of suicides in the rest of the UK.
Would the First Minister agree with me that if we are to stem that trend, investing in the emotional and mental health of our children and young people is absolutely crucial? And what assurances can you give that some of this extra money—a good chunk of this extra money—will be directed at the early intervention and prevention that is advocated by 'Mind over Matter'?
I thank Lynne Neagle for that supplementary question and thank her for the work that she has led, through the committee, which has been so widely supported across the Assembly Chamber. She will know that a whole series of actions are being taken forward, in which she herself is playing a direct part, for example, through the ministerial task and finish group on the report, and further actions that will happen through others, including young people themselves, who we want to make sure we involve directly in the way that these services are developed in the future, because those young people make exactly the point that Lynne Neagle made in closing there—that when they are going through the tough times that are often involved in growing up, what they want is a response that recognises that. They don't want a mental health response; they want a response that any young person would be able to use. It's why we've provided, as we'll hear later on this afternoon, an extra £2.5 million next year for the youth service, so that it can play its part as a universal service, making sure that there are adults available that young people facing difficult times in their lives can meet and can explore and be provided with the help that they need.
As far as suicide is concerned, of course we are right to be concerned when there is any adverse change in the numbers of suicides, particularly amongst young people here in Wales. The numbers do fluctuate from year to year. This year's fluctuation was small numerically and not statistically significant, but 'Talk to me 2' and the other actions we are taking in this field remain central to making sure that we have a response that matches the challenge that young people face in their lives.
First Minister, I join you in commending the work of Lynne Neagle and her committee, which I think has been key in this area. Can I highlight the increasing pressures caused by internet use, particularly social media? Children in the UK now spend more time on the internet than any other country apart from Chile in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and we are way above the average of the OECD. I think these are causing pressures that a lot of other people, like parents and teachers, are possibly unaware of. And I'm afraid we are now seeing some extreme events as well as a result of this, sometimes. So, we really need to ensure that we have a good policy in giving our young people the sort of assistance they need to use these wonderful new tools responsibly.
I thank the Member for that additional question, because he's right that we need to think about how we explain the surge of mental health concerns amongst young people that are reported in Wales, but also across the United Kingdom as a whole, and to try to identify those factors in contemporary circumstances that might help us to explain that phenomenon. Every age faces new challenges of a sort that young people have to absorb. You can go back 150 years to find newspaper accounts of how penny dreadfuls made available to children through circulating libraries were making a difference in the lives of young people, and you see that right through the ages, whether it's the onset of cinema or radio or television or, in our own time, as the Member has said, the internet. But the internet is a different phenomenon in many ways. When used badly, it has an insidious ability to enter the lives of young people and to cause them anxiety and distress. So, of course, we have to make sure that the way in which we shape our policies takes account of new factors and new phenomena of the sort the Member pointed to.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on security arrangements at Cardiff Airport? OAQ53165
I thank the Member for the question. The management team at Cardiff Airport monitors security arrangements actively and regularly. They work with local residents and South Wales Police, as well as promoting safety campaigns with airport passengers. Vigilance and awareness in and around the airfield is a shared responsibility amongst all connected to it.
Can I thank the First Minister for his answer? Following the recent drone-related disruption at both Gatwick and Heathrow airports, and, of course, the incident on the Severn crossing bridge, will the First Minister outline what measures he has taken to ensure that Wales has a strategy in place to minimise the disruption caused to vital Welsh infrastructure in the event of future inappropriate drone use?
I thank the Member for that supplementary question. Specifically at Cardiff Airport, there is an airport watch group. It involves local residents, but also those people with a particular interest in aviation who are regular visitors to the airport. They are part of a group that the police work with in order to make sure that there is good intelligence available and easily collected about activity at the airport. And there is a drone code campaign—again, specifically at Cardiff Airport. It provides a 24-hour dedicated help telephone number for members of the public, who are able to report any suspicious drone activity. So, Cardiff Airport is well aware of the issues and it has measures already in place. Of course, we work closely with the UK Government as well. We responded to its 'Taking flight' consultation, and we hope that the promised Bill, which is due to be published in February and that will put into place new measures on a UK-wide basis—we hope that that Bill will be produced and that it will take the necessary measures to assist in addressing this phenomenon.
Questions now from the party leaders. Leader of the opposition, Paul Davies.
Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, will you now take the opportunity today to publicly apologise to those farmers whose confidential details were released last year by the Welsh Government to animal rights activist groups?
This has been well rehearsed as an issue. I don't think there's anything further that I need to add to what has already been put on the record many times in relation to it.
Well, I'm extremely disappointed that the First Minister can't say 'sorry', even though this was an administrative error by your Government. The buck stops with your Government, and it's not difficult to say 'sorry', First Minister, so I would expect you to say 'sorry' on behalf of the Welsh Government. Let's not forget; the farmers whose details that were revealed by the Welsh Government were acting completely within the law here in Wales, in an attempt to protect their livelihoods from the spread of TB.
Now, in the 12 months to September 2018—these are the latest figures—Wales has seen an increase in the number of cattle slaughtered because of suspected TB, with 9,700 cattle lost. This has had a devastating impact on farmers, their livelihoods and the localised economy, and is costing the taxpayer huge amounts of money. You are clearly not doing enough to tackle this problem, given that the number of cattle being slaughtered is increasing. Therefore, under the circumstances, do you accept there is absolutely no prospect of bovine TB being eradicated in Wales by your target date of 2041? Surely we should be tackling this awful disease well before then.
Well, Llywydd, let me respond again to the opening part of Paul Davies's second question by saying that, of course, when things go wrong, we recognise them, as we did at the time, and said the necessary things then. In his general point, of course, I agree with much of what he has to say; bovine TB is an awful experience for farmers who have to encounter it, and the Welsh Government works really closely with the industry to make sure that we are able to do all the things that we can put in place that we think are effective in tackling the disease. There are many good things that have happened as a result of all those endeavours, including better biosecurity at farms, including better traceability and better testing as well, which partly explains some of the ways in which the numbers that he referred to rise. Because if you have a better understanding of the disease, know its prevalence, know where it is to be found, then—hugely difficult as I understand it is for farmers involved—dealing with cattle who are infected has to be part of the way in which the long-term eradication of the disease is brought about.
Well, clearly, your Government policy is not being effective; otherwise we wouldn't be slaughtering the number of cattle that we're actually slaughtering. Let me highlight the situation to you in the south-west of England. In Gloucester and Somerset, there has been a 50 per cent reduction in the number of TB incidences in the last four years, which is in stark contrast to south-west Wales, where, despite having strict biosecurity measures in place, prevalence of TB in herds has not changed. In fact, we have seen the number of cattle slaughtered increase due to bovine TB. Now, in light of the growing body of evidence, will you now reconsider your Government's position on a TB eradication strategy and support a strategy that both protects our wildlife and cattle populations from this dreadful disease in an urgent manner?
Well, I agree with him again, Llywydd, about the awful nature of the disease and the impact that it has in the farming community. I think he implies in his question that there is some sort of straightforward and easy answer waiting on a shelf simply to be deployed here. He knows, doesn't he, that that is not the case. Where there are lessons from elsewhere, then of course we want to learn them, just as others learn from some of the experience that we have had in working successfully with the industry here in Wales. My colleague Lesley Griffiths will report on the current regime we have for testing and eradicating the disease in Wales, and where we can do better, then of course, we all have a shared ambition to do just that.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I'd like to take this opportunity to further put on record the huge contribution made by our friend and colleague Steffan Lewis to our national life by asking about three of those issues that were very close to his heart.
Steffan Lewis's first contribution in this Parliament was in support of mining communities across Wales and, in particular, the injustice of the Mineworkers' Pension Scheme. As the First Minister will no doubt be aware, a deal in the 1990s saw the UK Government agree to underwrite mineworkers' pensions, but in exchange it can receive 50 per cent of the surplus each year. Over the decades, the UK Government has benefited from £8 billion from this surplus, at a rate of £1 million a day. Steffan was a champion of the cause of mineworkers, supporting their petition and making countless representations to the UK Government. The Minister of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy said in July last year that she would explore options for the future of the scheme, with little progress being made to date, it seems. So, is the First Minister able to commit today to supporting the endeavours of former mineworkers, and will he meet with a delegation of the campaign to map out how we can achieve a fairer settlement, giving miners a greater share of the surplus the scheme generates?
I thank Adam Price for that question. Of course, I recognise that it is appropriate to focus this afternoon on those issues that Steffan Lewis had supported here in this Chamber.
I do remember, Llywydd, not long after Steffan had arrived in the Assembly, I was responding to a short debate here in the Assembly, and for reasons I cannot now recall, I made a reference to Mabon's Monday. And I thought when I did it, 'Well, whoever else will know here?' And I looked up, and there were Steffan and Dai Lloyd sitting in the back row, both nodding, and I thought, 'Well, what other democratic forum are you likely to come across where you can make a reference to something steeped deep in our history and know that there will be people elsewhere in the Chamber who are as familiar with it as you'd hope people would be?'
So, specifically in relation to his question, then, of course, this Government wants to support the endeavours of former mineworkers, and I'm very happy to make a commitment to meet with the delegation of that campaign to map out ways in which we can work together in the future.
I'm very grateful to the First Minister. As part of the 2018-19 budget, Plaid Cymru, at Steffan's behest, negotiated and secured a commitment from the Welsh Government to reinstate an in-patient perinatal mental health ward in Wales. Steffan was so passionate about perinatal mental health services that the First Minister, during his time as finance Minister, included funding for the re-establishment of the service. Can the First Minister today confirm that, in response to Steffan's efforts, his Government will do everything necessary to ensure that all expectant or new mothers in Wales will have the perinatal mental health treatment they require in Wales, and that no-one will be put in the tragic position of having to potentially be separated from their baby and families for treatment?
Would he also consider exploring Steffan's idea for creating a centre of excellence for healthcare innovation in Tredegar, celebrating its past, of course, as the NHS birthplace, and making it a base also for shaping its future?
Well, Llywydd, I'm probably more familiar with the first of those two propositions than the second. A lot has been done in Wales to improve perinatal mental health, concentrating, in the first instance, on improving community services. Because most of all, we wouldn't want women and their babies to have to be looked after away from their own homes when they are going through those sorts of experiences. But the discussions we had—and I remember having them with Steffan Lewis as well—was that, where in-patient treatment is needed, then of course we want that to be as close to people's homes as it can. I know that Siân Gwenllian has this week raised concerns about those services in north Wales, and that the Minister was answering questions in front of committee on these services as well. So, we have an ongoing and shared commitment to the improvement of perinatal mental health treatment, both in the community, and in those rarer occasions when women and their babies need more intensive and in-patient care, and to try to make sure that that is properly available for them as close to their homes, wherever that might be in Wales.
Well, certainly, from our side, we would be grateful for opportunities, perhaps, to sit down with the First Minister and the health Minister to continue this discussion.
We’ve heard earlier, of course, just how much influence Steffan had in terms of shaping this place’s response, the Government’s response, and Wales’s response to Brexit. He was a voice of great authority, of course, who had respect and credibility beyond party lines. It was clear from my visit, along with Rhun ap Iorwerth, to Ireland last week that Steffan had made quite an impression, and had gained respect, on the international stage too. And Ireland was, of course, a nation that was so dear to him.
And in his final press release, Steffan called for a summit of the nations to be brought forward within these isles in order to find a way forward in terms of Brexit. Would the First Minister be willing to consider extending an invitation to the other Prime Ministers and First Ministers, making right Steffan’s calls, if that proved necessary, over the next few days?
Thanks, of course, to Adam Price. We’ve heard more than once in this Chamber this afternoon about the work that Steffan did abroad, and I remember speaking to him when he returned from Ireland about the people he’d been speaking to over there, and the ideas that he had raised with them, and about the work that he was doing to try and strengthen the relationship between ourselves and the Government in Ireland too. And, personally, I have received a very warm letter from the Taoiseach, and, of course, I have responded in similar terms.
My office has been working very closely with the office of the First Minister of Scotland over the past few days, discussing what we can do jointly following the vote in the House of Commons today. And I am of course willing to consider Adam Price’s suggestion, and that we should do that in the context of the work that we’re already doing with others in the United Kingdom and abroad too.
Diolch, Llywydd. And can I also take the opportunity to add my condolences to the family of Steffan Lewis?
First Minister, this is the time of year when many people have to complete their tax returns, and, therefore, the subject of taxation is in their minds. Of course, we know that governments wouldn't function if we didn't have taxation, but I would add, from my own observation, that most ordinary people are rarely enthusiastic about the prospect of taxes, and particularly of new or additional taxation. I did notice, in your previous role as the Finance Minister, you did seem to get quite excited about the Welsh Government's new tax powers. I quote what you said at one point:
'It's what devolution was always meant to be: a living laboratory in which different parts of the United Kingdom are able to try out new ideas, to learn from one another, to see what is effective.'
Do you still believe that here in Wales we are all part of a living laboratory? And do you think, First Minister, that all Welsh residents should happily accept new taxes and tax increases from your Welsh Government because we are all part of some exciting experiment?
Wel, Llywydd, I definitely do believe that one of the great advantages of devolution is that it does provide a living laboratory inside the United Kingdom and an opportunity to try different ideas in different places and to learn from one another in doing so. And I also completely stand by what I said previously, that the process of the maturing of devolution is assisted by the changes in which this Assembly becomes not simply a spending body, but a body that has to take responsibility for raising some of the funds that it disperses.
I thank you for clarifying your position on that. Now, on the issue of income tax variation, that's something that's coming up later on today—it does sound as if your long-term view may be that a variation of the income tax rate in Wales may be a lever that you can legitimately use, and which you may be enthusiastic about using in the future.
Well, I've never said that, Llywydd, to my recollection. I've said that it's my intention to stick to the manifesto commitment that our party provided at the last election—that we wouldn't use the power to vary income tax during this Assembly term. I'm sure I remember debating in this Chamber with the Member's colleague in UKIP that growing the economy is a better strategy for collecting more money in to provide for public services than obsessing about whether we can use the incremental powers we have in relation to varying income tax. If we had a stronger economy, with more money coming in, the debate would be different.
I think that's an excellent point, First Minister. However, we do have the evidence of 20 years of a devolved Wales in which the economic performance of the region has signally failed to improve. [Interruption.] The region, the country—call it what you will. Call it what you will. The economic performance of Wales has not signally improved over the past 20 years. The latest gross value added figures show that, once again, Wales is bottom of the four nations of the UK, by doing even worse than we were before we had your Labour Party running Wales through the Assembly. So, given that, do you conceive that under your leadership over the next few years we are going to get a quick turnaround and these figures are going to change, and at some point we are going to get some improving statistics regarding the economic performance?
Well, I'm afraid, Llywydd, that the greatest threat to the Welsh economy is the policy that has been so much promoted by his own party. If there is to be a quick impact on the Welsh economy, it will be if we were to leave the European Union, and to leave it on the terms that his party has so long advocated. In fact, the Welsh economy is robust, it has withstood the difficulties of the period of austerity, it goes into the next few years with levels of employment higher than for many years past, and with levels of unemployment that are lower for many years past. We will do everything we can, but we will be doing it in the teeth of the policies that his party advocates, rather than being assisted by them.
3. What recent discussions has the First Minister had with the Minister for Education about Welsh Government support for higher education in Wales? OAQ53202
I thank the Member for the question. I hold regular meetings with the Minister for Education, including discussions on key issues relating to higher education. We continue to provide support to the sector through the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, which, together with our student support reforms, will create a stronger and more sustainable higher education sector in Wales.
I thank the First Minister for his answer. You'll be aware that I have on a number of occasions raised concerns about the current situation with regard to governance at Swansea University. Now, obviously, as the education Minister has rightly said, our universities are independent bodies, but it is also true that they are in receipt of very substantial public funds in Wales, and that they are very important national institutions. Can I ask you today, First Minister, to have some private discussions with the education Minister about this issue, to reassure yourself that the higher education funding council, HEFCW, are applying the appropriate level of challenge and support to the university at this difficult time? It is, of course, of strategic importance, and longer term, will you undertake to look with the the Minister for Education at whether or not, when this current situation is resolved, there are lessons that need to be learned about the robustness of the governance arrangements at our higher education institutions?
Well, I thank the Member for that supplementary question. I absolutely recognise her own commitment to that institution and the part that she's played in it in the recent past and the concern that leads her to the questions that she has raised with me and with the education Minister. I know that she met with Kirsty Williams prior to the Christmas break. I can give her an assurance that HEFCW, as the regulator in this field, is taking a very close and direct interest in the developing story at the university in Swansea. While those matters are unfolding and being investigated, there's inevitably nothing that I can say or the Minister can say directly on the floor of the Assembly, which I know Helen Mary Jones understands. But I give her the assurance that we continue to be closely involved through the regulator in the unfolding story, and that when the point comes at which lessons about what has happened are there to be drawn, we will work with the regulator to make sure that that happens.
Actually, I share Helen Mary's concerns about this, about the invisibility of things that might be being investigated there. So, time is marching on, so thank you for your answer on that.
Since scrapping the cap on the number of Welsh students going to Welsh universities, do you know whether we have seen more Welsh students with the top grades now entering Welsh universities, or applying for them and getting those places, particularly in STEM—science, technology, engineering and mathematics—subjects and in medicine? And do you think that committing now to the recommendations of the Reid review would actually help those premium Welsh students stay in this country rather than going over the border? Thank you.
Well, Llywydd, the number of 18-year-olds in the Welsh population is going to be at its all-time low in modern times in the year 2020. It's gone from 40,000 to down close to 30,000, but the percentage of 18-year-olds who go to university from Wales continues to be at the top end of historic levels, and we're very glad to see that. As far as the Reid review is concerned, we're already committed to one of its key recommendations, in making sure that we strengthen our position in London through our office that we have there, and that's a necessary thing to do because the future for research income for Welsh universities the other side of Brexit depends upon our ability to help them and them to help themselves in competing for other strands of research income, including new strands, for example, through the industrial strategy.
I welcome those comments in response to Professor Graeme Reid's report, which was a little while ago—not too long ago. He said in that report that he encountered
'long-standing structural weaknesses in the research and innovation ecosystem that put Wales at a disadvantage compared with other parts of the UK in funding competitions.'
And he pointed to the fact that that had been somewhat
'masked by the availability of EU structural funds,'
as he said,
'whose future remains unclear.'
So, I wonder if the First Minister could give us some further reflections of his, now that a little time has passed on Professor Reid's recommendations. He made three recommendations. Is there more, either in response to those recommendations or something separate, that we can do to enhance our ability to access UK Research and Innovation funds or other sources of funding to establish our research base, which, actually, does quite well in what it's done, but, as that point said, it's masked somewhat by accessing European funds?
Llywydd, I want to congratulate Welsh universities on the way in which they have been able to use those sources of funding from the European Union, both those ones that come direct to Wales, but, for example, through the interterritorial co-operation programme that we have with the Republic of Ireland, where our universities have been doing world-leading research, for example, in the marine environment and marine energy. While those sources of funding have been available to us, I think it is completely understandable that our higher education sector has made best use of the funding that is closest to hand. And we know, through the work of the chief scientific advisor to the Welsh Government, that the impact that Welsh universities make with the funding they have in research puts them at the top of the league in terms of best use of that funding. Now, the other side of Brexit, we have said in response to the Reid review that any further consequentials that come our way will be put directly to the Cabinet to discuss to see whether we can strengthen the position of research and innovation here in Wales through our universities. It is a challenge for them, as it's a challenge for us all, to move into that new world, but through the Reid review we have recommendations that we can use to try and make sure that we position ourselves in the strongest way we can.
4. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to meet affordable housing need? OAQ53163
I thank the Member for the question. The Welsh Government takes a widening range of actions to help meet housing need across Wales. In this term, we are making a record £1.7 billion-worth of investment in housing.
Diolch. As you know, 'Planning Policy Wales' requires local planning authorities to set capacity thresholds for residential developments, above which a proportion of affordable housing should be sought from developers. In Flintshire's case, the policy seeks to provide at least 30 per cent affordable housing on sites with a minimum of 25 dwellings. Well, despite evidence of local affordable housing need, the circumstances and apparent contradictory evidence applying to an application in Buckley has led to a site of 28 units going forward without affordable housing inclusion. What consideration will you therefore give to the call from Buckley Town Council for an investigation into the circumstances that allowed this to happen and the precedent this sets if not nipped in the bud?
I thank the Member for the general point that he made at the outset about the importance of the planning regime in making sure that we are able to maximise the opportunities that there are for additional affordable housing across Wales. He will know that my colleague Lesley Griffiths, then responsible for that matter, published 'Planning Policy Wales: Edition 10' shortly before Christmas, which attempts to draw together some key strands in planning policy and to align them with the purpose that Mark Isherwood outlined. I'm not directly familiar with the call that Buckley Town Council has made in relation to the specific scheme that the Member outlined, but the Minister with responsibility for housing and planning is in her place and we'll make sure that we follow up the specific issue that the Member has raised this afternoon.
Is it not time for real innovation now—modular homes, container homes, prefabricated homes that are temporary and available to move if, say, land is sold by councils or private land owners? Bristol City Council recently went against its own planning policy for a small development of one-person homes. It was encouraged to set new precedents by the applicants in the interest of dealing with the housing crisis; that is exactly what it did. Similarly, pods for rough-sleepers could go some way to starting to give rough-sleepers shelter and the support they need to move on. Some of these housing solutions are already made in Wales and all of them can be developed into businesses here. Why does your Government not support them?
Well, Llywydd, I think we do support innovation in the housing field. We have a specific funding strand to support innovative ways in which the housing needs and demands here in Wales can be met. In the debate that was held in the Chamber here last week, a number of Members made contributions that talked about the opportunities there are for manufacture off site and new construction methods that we can deploy in that way. I wouldn't be in a position to commit to the specifics that the Member has outlined this afternoon, but the general point that she makes I think is one that is very consistent already with Government policy.
5. Will the First Minister set out the Welsh Government's initial priorities for tackling poverty? OAQ53173
Thank you. Llywydd, our immediate priorities focus on those mitigating measures directly available to the Welsh Government that have a practical impact on the lives of children and families experiencing poverty in Wales.
First Minister, universal credit is too often a cruel and inhumane system in practice that causes misery for families and communities, whether it's the waiting times for initial payment and the loan system that accompanies that, or the lack of ability for direct payment to landlords in terms of housing benefit, or conditionality and sanctioning, which is often draconian. It often leads to debt, homelessness, queues at food banks, and weeks if not months spent without any income at all. Will Welsh Government consider the devolution of the administration of universal credit for a more humane system in Wales?
I thank John Griffiths for that, and of course he points very vividly to the history of universal credit implementation to date. I'm aware, of course, of the work that his committee has done and the reports that have been produced suggesting that we should explore the devolution of administration of benefits here in Wales. I've heard as well, in this Chamber, other Members point quite rightly to the difficulties that might lie in its path, and there is a history, isn't there, that we're all familiar with—for example, in the forced devolution of council tax benefit, where we took on the administration, but the UK Government badly short-changed us in terms of the amount of money required for the benefit itself, and nothing at all to pay for administration. But, having pointed to those warnings, then my view is that we ought to explore the devolution of administration. We want to do it carefully, but I think the case is made for exploration, and I'm happy to give him that assurance this afternoon.
What consideration has the First Minister given to appointing a Minister for poverty who would set clear and measurable targets to address poverty and deprivation in Wales and who would be accountable for the Welsh Government's anti-poverty strategy, please?
Well, accountability for anti-poverty measures in the Welsh Government has been allocated to the Minister for housing, planning and local government, and she will be able to answer questions and be held accountable in the way that the Member suggests.
First Minister, I was interested to hear all the things that you listed happening in and around Ebbw Vale during last week's First Minister's questions. You mentioned the starter units at Lime Avenue in Ebbw Vale, planning consent having been secured for a 50,000 sq ft advanced manufacturing facility at Rhyd-y-Blew in the town, and the refurbished 174,000 sq ft derelict building at Rassau in Ebbw Vale for the private sector. Your economy Minister has previously said that £100 million will be allocated to the Tech Valleys in the area over the next 10 years, with the aim of creating 1,500 jobs.
Now, what I, and probably many other Assembly Members representing communities in the former coalfield area, would like to know, is: what about my constituency? The Rhondda is in a similar position to Blaenau Gwent in terms of unemployment statistics and deprivation levels, yet we have been largely ignored by successive Governments, and that's a fact that is confirmed by the Valleys delivery plan. So, what are your plans to make sure that employment opportunities and income generation are spread equitably, and when can we expect to hear an announcement about investment in job creation for the Rhondda?
I thank the Member for that question, which no doubt does have a relevance to tackling poverty in the way that she put it. Thank you for—[Interruption.] I thank her for the careful attention she paid to what was said in questions last week, and she will have noticed that further announcements have been made this week of investments in Ebbw Vale. It's not a competition, Llywydd, is it, and I know the Member didn't suggest that it was. Of course there are things that we want to do in other parts of Wales. That's why the Valleys taskforce was set up, to take that pan-Valleys look at the different things that we can do in different parts of Wales, and the Rhondda and the needs of that community are certainly not forgotten in those considerations.
6. Will the First Minister outline the Welsh Government's economic priorities for South Wales Central? OAQ53167
I thank the Member for the question. Our economic priorities are set out in the Welsh Government's economic action plan. These include investing in people, places and businesses through skills, infrastructure and business support.
Thank you, First Minister, for that answer. Obviously, people, places, require good transport links. We know much about the metro system that is promised over the coming years. But a decision that was in your predecessor's inbox and is now in your inbox, the M4 relief road, is desperately required. It will dramatically improve the fortunes of the area that I represent, South Wales Central. Because, time and time again, when I talk to business, the logjam around Newport seems to be stopping goods and people moving around the south Wales economy. Can you give any indication on the timeline when your Government will be making a decision on this important infrastructure—and, if it is to be a negative decision, allow the Government to bring forward other proposals so that people can have confidence that the car park that is the M4 today will be relieved and businesses can get on with investing in their businesses and creating job opportunities in South Wales Central?
Well, Llywydd, I entirely recognise the challenge that is faced in that part of the south-east Wales infrastructure. I remain in the position that I explained the last time I was asked here in the Assembly. There is advice that needs to come to me as First Minister, following receipt of the independent local inquiry inspector's report. That advice is yet to be concluded. When it is received, I will approach it in an entirely open-minded way, relying on the report itself and all the other considerations on which advice will come to me.
7. What is the Welsh Government doing to aid social landlords to invest in new social housing in Islwyn? OAQ53225
Llywydd, thank you. Amongst the policy measures that the Welsh Government deploys in Islwyn is the provision of social housing grant to social landlords. This measure alone produced over 50 new affordable homes in the area in the last financial year, with more than 50 more to be completed in 2018-19.
Diolch. First Minister, the right to buy and associated rights will finally be abolished throughout Wales on 26 January 2019, thanks to the Welsh Labour Government. Between 1981 and 2016, over 139,000 local authority and housing association homes were sold under the right to buy, with no ability or capacity for replenishing the social housing stocks to the same levels. This has severely depleted council and social housing stock. First Minister, I tell my constituents in Islwyn that their Welsh Labour Government is committed to creating 20,000 more affordable homes by 2021. What is the Welsh Government doing in Islwyn to support social landlords further, and the local authority, to help us achieve this highly ambitious goal?
I thank Rhianon Passmore for that. She's absolutely right to point to the depreciation in the number of houses available for social renting as a result of the right-to-buy scheme, and I'm glad that she tells her constituents about our 20,000 more affordable homes, because we are confident that we are well on track to providing that number. In her constituency, she will know—and she will be able to relay to her constituents—the investments that the Welsh Government is making through the social housing grant, through the affordable housing grant, and through our land for housing scheme, which we are confident will help in her constituency to bring more land—we talked here last week about the importance of land in housing—to the market in order to support our ambitions in this area.
8. What is the Welsh Government doing to promote a kinder politics? OAQ53166
I thank Jack Sargeant. The Welsh Government will take measures in our forthcoming local government and elections Bill to promote a more diverse, inclusive and respectful politics in Wales. At the same time, we will stand alongside others to resist the tide of intimidation and bigotry that threatens to disfigure parts of public life in the United Kingdom.
Can I thank the First Minister for his reply and say that I was very pleased to see him refer to a kinder approach to politics in his first speech as First Minister? He will know that I've been working hard to see a positive change in our politics, and I agree with him completely that the way in which we conduct ourselves makes a difference in a fractured and uneasy world. Now, Llywydd, we all have a part to play to promote a kinder style of politics, and I feel it's only appropriate that I do mention, as so many have today, the impact our late friend and colleague Steffan Lewis had on this topic. And Llywydd, again, we would go a long way if we were a little bit more like Steffan. Now, the Welsh Government, of course, has an important part to play in such change, including the culture and the way in which we bring kindness into public policy making. Would the First Minister agree with me that, in order to reach this ambition, we must all work together, including Members from across the Chamber, Ministers, the civil service and others?
Llywydd, I absolutely agree that it is the job of us all to do what we can to promote the sort of kinder, more respectful politics that Jack Sargeant has spoken about this afternoon and, of course, has promoted during the whole time that he has been an Assembly Member. I was able to be in the Chamber during the first short debate that Jack held on a kinder politics here in Wales and, indeed, in the very sad context of today, I revisited that debate over the weekend and read again the contributions that Jack made, primarily, but there were contributions from across the Chamber. Julie Morgan spoke about the importance of a politics that has passion without poison. Adam Price drew attention to the work of that great black gay American novelist James Baldwin, and what we can learn from his experience. And Darren Millar said in his contribution that, challenging as it can be in the cut and thrust of debate here in the Assembly, our ambition as Assembly Members should be to be people who disagree well. And in the context of today, I think that ambition that we should be people who disagree when we do, but we do it in that spirit, is a good thought to leave with us this afternoon.
The next item therefore is the business statement and announcement, and I call the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans.
Diolch. There's one change to this week's business. The Counsel General and Brexit Minister will make a statement shortly on the UK Government's current proposals for EU withdrawal. 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.
During the recess, on 27 December, the UK Government launched a consultation proposing that the carrier bag levy should be doubled from 5p to 10p and extended to all shops. Given that Wales originally took the lead on this and the collective wish to drive against plastic waste, can we have a statement from the Welsh Government in response to this, and how it might independently, or in parallel with the consultation in England, propose to go forward on this matter itself?
Similarly, during recess, there was news from the UK Government that cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid training are to be included as part of the school curriculum in England. Could I call therefore for a statement from the Welsh Government in that context where, in February 2017, our colleague Suzy Davies held a debate to propose that all children and young people should receive age-appropriate life-saving skills as part of the school curriculum in Wales, backed by Members of all parties but, thus far, the Welsh Government hasn't delivered on that proposal? Again, we hope that we are not going to have a differentiation across the border, particularly given some of the comments made about borders in a different context earlier.
Finally, we've heard reference to Wylfa Newydd. Could we have an oral statement, preferably involving the First Minister in the statement, regarding the concerns over Wylfa Newydd if the speculation is borne out later this week, in a decision by Hitachi either to not go ahead, or simply to put proposals on hold? We've had a written statement in which the Minister for Economy and Transport rightly says that Wylfa Newydd is a major project with potentially significant benefits to Anglesey, north Wales and the UK. But we know that, in the past, the new First Minister has himself personally opposed nuclear power, and we know that shortly after he took on his new role, the Welsh Government called in plans to prepare the 740 acre area in Anglesey to build Wylfa Newydd, about which Hitachi's subsidiary, Horizon, said it disagreed with the Welsh Government's reasoning. I am very well advised that that is one of the factors that have led to Hitachi considering the situation currently. This is too important to north Wales, Wales and the UK to simply be dealt with by a written statement, and I call for a proper oral statement in Assembly time, here, so the full Assembly can contribute. Thank you.
Thank you very much for raising those issues and, in the first part of your contribution, for recognising the leading role that Wales has played in terms of reducing the plastic that we use through the carrier bag levy, which we introduced. I know that the Deputy Minister is now exploring where we do take this next, because, clearly, having led the way, we want to certainly be maintaining the momentum that we have started in this particular area. But not just with plastic carrier bags, of course, but looking at reducing plastic in many other walks of life and aspects of life as well.
In terms of CPR, I know that there are many opportunities currently within the existing curriculum for CPR to be taught to pupils and it's making good progress in terms of the work that's being undertaken for curriculum reform. I know that the Minister is keen to ensure that schools have the flexibility they need to deliver a programme of education to the pupils that's appropriate for them and that will give them the best possible support, and without seeking to overcrowd the curriculum as well. So, there's certainly a balance to be struck there, but the point you make about the importance of CPR is well made.
On the issue of Wylfa Newydd, I know that a written statement has just gone out from the Minister for the economy. There'll be important decisions to be made later this week, as the Minister said in his response to the question on Ford, but he did refer to Hitachi there. So, I'm sure that the Government will explore how best and most appropriately to respond to those decisions that are made later this week.
Trefnydd, can I support, first of all, the concerns raised earlier about Ford in Bridgend, and I also look forward to further ministerial statements on work done and progress made, because it's a huge issue locally?
My second point is, you will be, Trefnydd, no doubt aware that the Auditor General for Wales has today published a report calling for urgent action following financial and governance concerns within the town and community councils sector in Wales. The report shows that the number of qualified audit opinions has doubled in the past financial year to 340 councils, nearly half of all councils. We also know that the auditor general had to issue reports in the public interest or make formal recommendations to eight councils in 2018. Now, in a sense, this shouldn't come as a huge surprise. We have heard of concerns over a number of years around lack of governance, bullying and of community councils being disbanded due to local in-fighting. The Welsh Government have known of these issues for quite some time. Now, the report by the independent review panel on community and town councils, which reported in October 2018, shows that there are options available to Welsh Government in terms of trying to reform the sector. It is vitally important that the Welsh Government now gets on with that task and gets a grip on this important sector. With that as a backdrop, will the Minister for local government agree to bring forward a statement on the Wales Audit Office findings and use that statement to set out how the Welsh Government intends to ensure that this important tier of democracy is put on a sustainable footing, going forward?
Thank you very much for those issues and for putting on record your concern regarding the announcement relating to Ford. I know that the economy Minister is very much engaged in this issue and will certainly be bringing forward the appropriate updates to Assembly Members as and when that would be useful.
In terms of the report that has been published today regarding town and community councils, I know that the Minister clearly will be considering that report. Members will have the opportunity to question her on that in her question time next week.
Could I ask for time for one debate and one statement? I wonder if there'll be time for a debate on the importance of grass-roots community groups to regeneration. I attended a meeting last night of the Ogmore valley community forum, which brings together clubs and organisations and residents from all parts of the valley, from Evanstown to Lewistown, Blackmill to Nantymoel and all points in between to develop a shared vision for the valley, based on the priorities they themselves develop. At the next meeting, they're going to work their ideas up, and they're going to bring more young people in to help shape these ideas as well, organised by the very able Councillors Dhanisha Patel and Lee-Anne Hill, the community council chair. A debate will allow us to celebrate the role of these community groups and fora right across the country in regenerating our communities.
Could I also ask for a statement or debate on the importance of culture and traditions to Wales? On Sunday, on Nos Galan, the Mari Lwyd made an appearance at the Corner House pub and restaurant in Llangynwyd. It terrified and delighted the children, who were out way beyond their bedtime, in equal measure, as well as the adults, by the way, who packed this hilltop hostelry out, myself included. Now, the sight of a dancing horse's skull, draped in white sheets and bawdy decorations being led by a singing Gwyn Evans in top hat and tails is part of what makes us very Welsh—it's the uniqueness that draws visitors and tourists to stay with us and spend their money, and it's what reminds us of the Celtic roots, which go deep in our pre-Christian culture. So, I'd like to pay tribute to those who continue these remarkable traditions, sometimes passed down, as in this instance, through generations. And a statement or a debate would allow us to celebrate this and encourage the sustaining of these traditions for many generations to come.
I thank Huw Irranca-Davies for raising both of these important issues and giving us a sense of the vibrancy that's going on every day within our own communities. I'm really delighted to hear particularly about the grass-roots regeneration conversations that are going on at a local level, because this level of engagement is exactly what we envisaged when we set up the Valleys taskforce. It really is a ground-up piece of work, and so what we've heard really describes that kind of ethos.
I'm aware that Councillor Patel has had some very good discussions around the work of the taskforce, and she did speak at length to the former Minister with responsibility for the taskforce. The community hub approach, which you describe, is very much a priority under theme 2 of the taskforce delivery plan, and we know that those community hubs are very much a key asset to us when we're seeking to improve public service delivery. So, following a networking event last year, a community hub working group has been set up to map those existing hubs that already exist across the Valleys, highlighting good practice where it exists, and I think that we've heard of some of that there, and also exploring what communities and organisations need to do to develop a sustainable hub model. So, we're working with the Wales Council for Voluntary Action, county voluntary councils, the Welsh Local Government Association, Interlink RCT, local health boards, the Building Communities Trust, the Learning and Work Institute and others in order to take that piece of work forward, but always with local residents and tenants being at the heart of that.
On the second part of the statement, I absolutely agree that the importance of our culture and traditions is very much what makes us very Welsh, as Huw Irranca-Davies said in his contribution, and we do have a wealth of poetry and prose, and our National Museum of History at St Fagans and the National Library of Wales both have collected this through the years to ensure that this wealth is not lost on us.
May I ask for a statement from the Minister for Housing and Local Government on a matter of great concern to local residents living in Caerphilly County Borough Council? The council plans to increase council tax in the borough by nearly 7 per cent and cut its spending by £50 million. However, last month, the Labour administration voted to spend £242,000 on an investigation into pay rises for senior officers in the borough. This investigation began in 2013 and will have cost the taxpayer over £4 million this year. Please could we have a statement from the Minister on what action she intends to take to protect taxpayers from the consequences of the Labour Party's mismanagement of Caerphilly council?
Thank you for the question. There'll be two opportunities open to you to raise this directly with the Minister for local government. There'll be a statement later this afternoon on the local government settlement and, obviously, opportunities to table questions to the Minister for answer in next week's session.
I'd just like to begin my brief comments by saying how pleased I think Steffan would be to see us just all getting on with things after a very emotional start this afternoon.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
I'd like to request consideration for two statements, please, Trefnydd. One is with regard to the ongoing problems with Powys County Council's children's services. Now, I'm very grateful for the written statement that we have all received from the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services and, though she's not here, I'd like to put on record my congratulations to her in her new post and welcome somebody with the level of expertise that she has to this role, where I'm sure she'll make an invaluable contribution. But I'm sure that there are many Members in this Chamber who represent Powys, as I do, who will be very concerned at the lack of progress after a whole 12 months of intervention. I wonder, Trefnydd, if you could ask the Deputy Minister whether she'd consider making a statement, perhaps in about eight weeks' time, when the administration at Powys County Council will have had an opportunity to respond to the inspectorate, to respond to concerns that she and her officials are raising, and I'm sure the correspondence that she will have received from me and, I'm sure, other elected Members. Because I suppose my concern is that, after all this time, we have not seen progress and, in the meantime, the childhoods of these children in Powys are passing by without the support to which we would all believe they are entitled, despite, in fairness, the support that I know they have received from the Welsh Government to enable them to address these issues.
The other issue that I would like to ask you to raise with one of your colleagues is that I would like you to ask the health Minister himself if he will make a statement following the press coverage today of the aftermath of the issues in Tawel Fan. Members will have seen the correspondence released under freedom of information between Donna Ockenden, who, of course, conducted the original, very critical report. Now, in that exchange of correspondence with the Minister, Ms Ockenden says, for example,
'My concern is that the BCUHB board and senior management team within mental health at BCUHB do not currently have the capability and capacity to deliver upon the root and branch systemic review that is needed'
to make the changes for older people's mental health services. She further then reports a nurse telling her of a recent visit to an elderly persons mental health ward, during which the senior member of staff did not speak at all. The senior member of management did not speak at all, either to a single member of staff or to a patient, though that will be reported as them having actively engaged with the service.
The response from the health board to these concerns in that article—and, of course, it is only a press article—are beyond concerning in their complacency. I believe we need to hear from the Minister about how he responds to those criticisms. Essentially, Ms Ockenden is telling him that no progress has been made in the last six months. How does he respond to those concerns and what steps is he taking to ensure that the health board does have the capacity to address these very serious issues?
Thank you for raising both of those issues, and I can give you my commitment that I will speak to both the Deputy Minister and the Minister in terms of what would be the most appropriate way and the most appropriate time to update on both the issues of the Ockenden review and the issues that Powys County Council have been facing in their children's services.
Trefnydd, I listened with interest yesterday to the statement by the UK environment Minister on measures to improve air quality across the UK, and whilst the measures to clean up wood and coal in open fires and stoves, as well as polluting substances in scented candles, carpets and paint, may be laudable, the major challenge in my constituency is pollutants from vehicles. So, I was disappointed that the UK Government is not planning to do anything further beyond the ban on diesel vehicles by 2040. So, I wondered if we could have a statement from the Welsh Government on how Welsh Government policy relates to this new statement from the UK Government, which also includes measures to reduce ammonia emissions from agriculture, which may be of interest. But I'm just concerned about the very slow pace of reform, given what we now know about the impact of air pollutants on really important issues like miscarriages, heart disease and dementia. Therefore, there seems to be a lack of urgency about what the UK Government is doing. So, I'd be very keen to understand the Welsh Government's response so that we can then scrutinise that. So, I wonder if we can have a statement on that.
Thank you very much for raising this issue, because clean air clearly has a central role to play in creating the right conditions for better health, for well-being and for greater physical activity across Wales as well. And I think that this is recognised in our commitment to reducing emissions and delivering vital improvements to air quality, but doing it through planning, through infrastructure, through regulation and also through health communication measures.
The Member will be aware that, in summer 2018, the Welsh Government established the clean air programme for Wales to reduce the burden of poor air quality on human health and the natural environment, and that programme is very much considering the evidence and developing and implementing actions right across Government, and across sectors including the environment, health, education, decarbonisation, transport, local government planning, agriculture and industry, to try and achieve clean air for Wales. The work being developed through that programme will inform the development of a clean air plan for Wales, which the Welsh Government intends to consult on and publish during 2019, and I would encourage Members to have an interest in that to engage with that consultation.
I would like to request a statement from the Minister for Health and Social Services on the case of my constituent, Mr Barry Topping-Morris. Mr Topping-Morris was the head of nursing at the Caswell Clinic in the then Bro Morgannwg NHS Trust when he was removed from post in 2005. He had brought to the attention of senior management what he considered irregularities in the assessment and treatment of a patient. These concerns emerged when Mr Topping-Morris conducted an internal review into a serious case and in preparation for a visit by Health Inspectorate Wales. I am concerned that Mr Topping-Morris's subsequent treatment as an employee might have been adversely affected by the way he sought to exercise his professional judgment in applying constructive challenge in this difficult case.
A number of reviews have been held, but none on the employment practices. The most recent review carried out on behalf of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, in March 2015, stated that the employment concerns, and I now quote:
'were not within scope of the review'.
It appears that Mr Topping-Morris's employment concerns have never been properly investigated, and given that these might be relevant to wider issues of public interest, I would urge the Minister to commission a further review so that closure can at last be made to this case.
I thank you very much for raising what is a very sensitive issue, and I appreciate the distress that has been caused to your constituent, if he feels that his concerns haven't been fully investigated and addressed. You'll appreciate that the health Minister can't become involved in individual employment matters, but he has indicated to me that he would be prepared to write to the chair of the health board on this matter, specifically on the issue of whether all of the employment issues raised by your constituent about employment practices and so on, as you've described, have been properly considered and effectively addressed. I'll ensure that he shares that response with you when he receives it.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is a statement by the Counsel General and Brexit Minister on the UK Government's current proposals for EU withdrawal, and I call on the Counsel General and Brexit Minister, Jeremy Miles.
Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. As we sit here, our colleagues in the UK Parliament are reaching the end of their elongated debate on the Government’s proposed EU withdrawal deal. They will vote later and it’s likely the Prime Minister’s deal will be defeated, probably quite heavily. We are scheduled to leave the European Union in 73 days, and there is no kind of deal in place.
We have been led to this cliff-edge by an inept Government more interested in its increasingly desperate attempts to hold its own party together than the national interest. This situation is truly appalling. Importers and exporters have no assurance at all as regards the basis on which they can conduct their business in just a few weeks' time. Agricultural produce faces crippling tariffs, and the risk of chaos around our ports could impact on supplies of anything from spare parts for cars to medicines to fresh fruit and vegetables. This could affect all parts of our communities. It poses a real threat to the most vulnerable in our society and will place needless additional pressure on our public services.
European citizens already living and working here in our community are inevitably unsettled and vulnerable. Those with job offers to fill much needed vacancies, for example in our health service and universities, after 30 March, have no idea of the basis on which they will be allowed to work here. Investors who have seen the UK as their best base for operations for supplying the European market are now avoiding us. Jobs are at risk. Indeed, some are already being lost. Economic growth is grinding to a halt and nobody knows what will happen next. Deputy Presiding Officer, the UK Government is gambling with this country’s future.
It took two years to come up with the Chequers proposals—effectively, the Government’s opening gambit on the long-term relationship—which should have been in place at the point at which we triggered article 50. This was time lost posturing over red lines and playing to the gallery at party conferences, and even in the last few weeks, in retreat, time was lost in pleading for assurances. All of this instead of developing a viable strategy and building coalitions of support, including those, like the Welsh Government and this National Assembly, who advocated a post-Brexit relationship based both on respect for the European Union and the vital interests of this country.
The result is a deal which represents an obvious retreat from the Prime Minister's arrogant red lines and her pretence that we can have the same access to the single market without subscribing to its rule, but which fails in the cobbled-together political declaration to secure firm guarantees over this country's economic future. The deal does not remove the threat of a perilous cliff edge; it simply postpones it. The Prime Minister's deal creates ambiguity in trading relationships, and excludes services where the UK actually enjoys a trade surplus with Europe. It fails to guarantee alignment with future EU social workplace and environmental protections. It fosters uncertainty for citizens, both Europeans living here and UK citizens living in Europe. And when taken together with the wholly misconceived proposals in the White Paper on immigration, it positively inhibits the ability of employers to recruit workers in shortage areas in both the public and private sectors. As a result of this incoherence, the UK Government has been forced to accept the convoluted Northern Ireland backstop arrangement. The UK Government's own analysis, and those of independent institutions, including the National Institute for Economic and Social Research and the London School of Economics, shows the UK Government's approach will damage the economy. No-one voted in the referendum to be poorer.
Now, if we're cricitising the UK Government position, it's entirely reasonable to ask what we propose instead. On that, we can be very clear. Almost exactly two years ago, we,jointly with Plaid Cymru, published our proposals in our White Paper 'Securing Wales' Future'. And I'll associate myself, if I may, with the comments the First Minister made in tributes earlier to Steffan Lewis, in particular his integral role in developing those proposals jointly. But if the Welsh Government was able to publish a comprehensive, strategic position for EU exit two years ago, why was the UK Government unable to do the same? We had to wait until the summer of 2018 before we had any serious inkling of where the UK really stood. 'Securing Wales' Future' represented as well an effort to reach out beyond the confines of one party to seek a broader consensus, an approach that the Prime Minister has rejected in formulating her own position.
We believe Wales's vital interests are best preserved through participation in the single market across the whole economy, including services. That's what business wants and that's what investors need. We should remain in a customs union, which is essential to avoid increased friction at the border and which delivers free trade with so many countries. We should preserve social protections and mutual rights for UK and EU citizens living in each other's countries, and continue to match environmental standards and social and labour rights as they develop across our continent. Fair movement should clearly link migration from the EU to work opportunities and should be accompanied by vigorous measures to prevent the exploitation of workers. If we follow these measures, as we outlined in our White Paper, the need for a Northern Ireland backstop simply melts away, and the integrity of the UK, which has been taken for granted in the UK Government's negotiating position, is protected.
Llywydd, I have no idea if the Prime Minister has a plan B. In the national interest, I hope she has—it is essential. We urge her now to commit to a new approach, based on working with the devolved administrations, and on a cross-party basis, and, at the same time, to ask the European Union for an extension to the article 50 deadline of 29 March. This country is in deep turmoil, and it cannot be right that fundamentally important decisions about our collective future be taken in these circumstances. The clock needs to be put on pause while Parliament regroups, while we all regroup, and think carefully about the best way forward for our country.
And I say this with great respect to all shades of opinion. Wherever people stand on Brexit, it cannot be right for the country if we simply fall out of the EU without any sort of deal, based on a random date at the end of March. That is the first choice of hardly anyone, and would be a travesty. But the stark reality is this: we face leaving without a deal on 29 March, and we must prepare for that. As the First Minister outlined last week, most of the key levers for 'no deal' Brexit preparation are in the hands of the UK Government. In spite of our policy disagreements, we are committed to working closely with them, and with the other devolved administrations, and other partners, to make preparations.
We have consistently said it would be extremely difficult to mitigate the effects of a 'no deal', but we have a responsibility to prepare for such a bleak situation. We are working with other organisations across Wales to do all in our power to prepare. To inform citizens and organisations, we have created a Preparing Wales website, bringing together the latest advice and information. We anticipate launching that in the coming days, taking into account developments in what is a very fluid situation.
Members will know that we are working hard to make sure that our statute book is up to date. An enormous amount of work is being done, here and in collaboration with the UK Government, to ensure that legislation necessary to function outside the European Union is in place before 29 March. The work is being tackled in extraordinary and unique circumstances, and we look to colleagues here in the National Assembly to play a part alongside us as a Government. We have activated the well-established networks for civil contingencies management in Wales, and we are linked in to the wider UK contingencies network. We are also working with local resilience fora across Wales. NHS Wales is working with the Department of Health and Social Care to facilitate their necessary preparations. Information useful to business is posted to our Business Wales Brexit portal, and further information will be provided as it becomes available.
Llywydd, there is no avoiding the serious reality of the difficult position we now face. 'No deal' is a very possible outcome, and, as a responsible Government, we must do all we can to work with others to prepare and mitigate where possible. But this is not the outcome we want. Even now, we remain ready to work with the UK Government, and others, to secure a sensible deal with the EU. We will find out soon how the UK Government and Parliament intend to resolve the position. We have already called for the article 50 deadline to be extended.
The UK Government has perplexed its friends, undermined our country’s interests, caused anxiety to Europeans in our community, and exacerbated deep division amongst its own citizens. If the UK Government can't bring forward a deal that commands strong support, then it should stand aside. The current chaos cannot continue.
Can I thank the Counsel General, or Brexit Minister—whichever role he's making the statement today in—for making a copy of the statement available to me? I have to say, I'm a little bit disappointed at the tone of the statement that's just been delivered, because of course we all know that Theresa May has been working incredibly hard to be able to build a consensus of support in the UK Parliament—[Interruption.]—in the UK Parliament, in order to deliver a Brexit that realises the outcome of the referendum back in June 2016. And yet it appears that we have a Labour Party, both in Westminster and here in Wales, that looks set to try to frustrate Brexit and to frustrate the will of the people. And let's not forget; the people of Wales voted to leave the EU. I know that that's an inconvenient truth for some people in this Chamber, but it is a statement of fact. And, of course, in your own constituency, Counsel General, it was very clear that there was a margin of almost 14 per cent of people voting in favour of leaving the EU.
Now, we can't ignore those facts. We have to deliver on the outcome of the referendum whether people voted to leave or to remain. What the Prime Minister has done is she's gone to Brussels, she's engaged with stakeholders, she's listened to people's concerns and she's come back with a deal that is a compromise deal, that not everybody is happy with. But it's a deal nevertheless that will avoid the sort of turbulence that you have described that could happen if we leave the EU without a deal on 29 March. [Interruption.]
It's all very well of you to be crowing and criticising the fact that article 50 was triggered, but let's not forget that article 50 was triggered with the support of the Labour Party and, in fact, it would have been triggered even sooner had Jeremy Corbyn had his way, because it was the day of the referendum he wanted to hand our notice in. So, what we have is a Prime Minister who's trying to steer and steady the ship at a difficult time in British politics and we ought to be working collaboratively on a cross-party basis—this is where I do agree with the Counsel General—in order to deliver a Brexit that will work in the interest of everybody here in Wales.
We need some mutual respect, and I don't feel that the tone of the statement that you made is giving that mutual respect in terms of the UK Government, because we know that, of course, the UK Government is trying to include the Welsh Government in taking the situation forward. I know, for example—and you could have given us an update on this, but you didn't, and I would appreciate it if you could tell us what the outcome of the meeting was that you had on 19 December, when you attended the national security council meeting.
Perhaps you could have given us an update on the weekly meetings that the First Minister and the Welsh Government have been invited to participate in in terms of the new EU exit preparedness arrangements. You could have told us about the numerous statutory instruments that have been passed with the agreement of the UK and the Welsh Governments—75 of them in all, which have been laid before the UK Parliament. You could have decided to inform us about the arrangements that you have in place, under the contingency plans, for Holyhead and Pembrokeshire ports. You could have told us about the daily communication that's taking place between the Welsh Government and the UK Government in terms of your communications teams, which I understand is working very well. But instead what you've done is you've simply repeated the same old, same old claptrap, frankly, that we've heard time and time again from the Welsh Government, without adding anything new to the mix today.
So, what I would like to know is: how are you working with the UK Government? Where are you collaborating? What can you give in terms of assurances that you will continue to engage with the UK Government to deliver a successful Brexit? How is the Welsh Government going to deliver on the outcome of the referendum in a different way than that which has been described by the Prime Minister's deal? Because we know that the Prime Minister's deal will enable us to take control of our own borders and it will end free movement. Your arrangements, as set out in 'Securing Wales' Future', will not be able to do that.
We know that the Prime Minister's deal will protect jobs. We know that there will be no rolling back of environmental protections or employment protections. You've suggested we ought to continue to be wedded to the EU in terms of their environmental and employment protections, even if they are eroded in the future. Well, the Prime Minister's given an even better guarantee: she said there will be no erosion, and I think that it would be good to know that you would also like to make that statement too. In addition, of course, the Prime Minister's deal will enable us to strike free trade agreements around the world. Your proposals wouldn't enable us to do that by tying us to a future customs agreement in the way that's set out in 'Securing Wales' Future'. And, of course, the Prime Minister's deal protects the integrity of the United Kingdom. That's why I'm supporting the Prime Minister, and I think that the UK ought to be working on a cross-party basis to deliver the Brexit that the people of Wales and the rest of the UK voted for.
The member talks about the inconvenient truth. I'm afraid the inconvenient truth is this: that people in Wales were promised there would be no damage to their job prospects as a consequence of leaving the European Union; they were promised there would be not a penny less coming into Wales from European funding sources; they were promised sunny, sunlit uplands by those campaigning to leave the European Union—and the Prime Minister's deal offers none of that. It offers none of it. It offers two years of seeking to stick to red lines, which were never going to be defendable, and spending the time that could have been spent in the kind of cross-party initiatives that the Member has been describing, to reach across to other parts of the House of Commons to seek to build, in admittedly difficult circumstances, a consensus around the kind of Brexit that people in the UK have voted for—that is not what the Prime Minister did. She focused her efforts on managing her own party and managing the tensions in her party, rather than seeking to build that expansive consensus in admittedly difficult times. It's no good, at the eleventh hour, calling up union leaders to give the impression that she is seeking to reach out; it is not credible at this point. The work should have been being done for the last two years. The eleventh hour is not the time at which to be doing that.
The Member talks about working together. As a constructive partner, we do work together with the UK Government in terms of preparedness and in terms of many other things. He mentioned the legislative programme; there has been a high degree of co-operation in parts of that. We have had to press for an awful lot of that co-operation, and I have to say, where it has been delivered, it has delivered progress for us. You will know about the inter-governmental agreement, which we worked together on. The point I'm making is this: in putting together the vision—not simply the way it happens, but the vision—for the future of the UK's relationship in the European Union, the Prime Minister had it open to her to reach a broad consensus, and she chose not to follow that path. We have been clear. He asks what we would do if we were in her situation. We have been very clear about this. The time now has come to extend article 50 and create space to enable that kind of discussion to take place, which reflects the principles that this Assembly have supported, to reflect the principles in 'Securing Wales' Future'. Also, we know that senior leaders in the EU will be happy to negotiate on that sort of basis. She has missed that opportunity so far. It is not too late to take that opportunity, and we encourage her to do that.
I’m very grateful to the Counsel General for the statement, and I welcome also the Government’s endorsement, and its appeal to the Government of the United Kingdom to extend article 50 on the basis of the motion passed before Christmas.
Just on that point, it’s one thing to appeal to the United Kingdom Government, even though there’s been no hearing given to that at present, but it’s important also that we reach out to other member states of the European Union that will have to respond to any proposals. Does the Welsh Government consider forging those relationships with member states—such as the Republic of Ireland—to ensure that they’re aware that there are some in the United Kingdom who are pressing for the timelines to be extended?
One thing that is missing in the statement, even though the Counsel General did start touching on it, was: an extension to what end? Of course, the Counsel General has just reflected perhaps some of the language that we’ve heard from his fellow members of the Labour Party in Westminster—namely to extend it, to find an opportunity to have renegotiation and a better deal. The truth is—and that was endorsed, certainly, in the discussions that we had with the Government of the Republic of Ireland—that isn’t an option. The time has passed for that. So, it’s only to extend for something fundamentally different, such as membership of the single market, or, of course, a people's vote.
And on this, of course, we are some four hours away from the vote this evening. Things will accelerate, and I understand why the Labour Party has tried to keep all options on the table, but over the coming days we are likely to have a vote of no confidence, and the likelihood is that that will be lost. In that particular situation, would the Welsh Government move swiftly to make a decision and a statement with regard to what should then happen? We could be talking about developments by the end of this week, that is not something that will happen over the coming weeks—there aren’t many weeks left. So, can the Counsel General walk us through the steps to be taken over the coming weeks with regard to the loss of this evening’s vote, or the failure of it?
And finally, one of the things that we also discussed in Dublin was the need, regardless of what happens with Brexit, to intensify and to strengthen the links that we do have across the Irish sea in the Celtic nations where we have so much in common, so many joint interests, and to use the capacity that is there under the Good Friday Agreement, under strand 3, to create a multilateral relationship between Ireland, Scotland and Wales, so that, whatever the mess that should enfold in Westminster, we at least, together, can collaborate for the future, for the benefit, of course, of all those nations.
I thank the Member for his question. On the point of extending article 50, we have been calling for this because it is evident that we need more space in order to arrive at the right point with regard to a deal that works for Wales and for the United Kingdom. Having an opportunity to have those discussions would be a prize worth winning for all, and that we have a plan that gives the interests of Wales and the UK an opportunity to be respected and supported, and also a relationship that recognises the crucially important role of the European Union as a trading partner and so on for us as a nation. And having an extension of article 50 would give us an opportunity to try and attract more support than what the deal that the Prime Minister in Westminster has on the table has at the present time.
With regard to the next steps, we anticipate, of course, that the Prime Minister will lose the vote this evening and that a motion of no confidence will be tabled within a period of time of that. It’s a question of when not if, and we know, of course, that in the light of the Dominic Grieve amendment to the recent motion that the Prime Minister has to come back to Westminster within three days with a further statement. So, that will give a moment of further clarity to us.
With regard to collaboration and joint working with Ireland, for example, as he mentioned in his question, the First Minister has already been in contact with the Taoiseach. I have written to my opposite number in the Irish Government too. These links are important ones within the European Union and beyond the membership of the European Union, and we must take every opportunity possible to strengthen those links. I attended, with the former First Minister, the British-Irish Council to discuss this issue at the tail end of last year, and it’s very encouraging, I think, in the context of the question that the Member has raised, that there is now a portfolio allocated for this kind of work within the Cabinet, under the First Minister.
These are deeply concerning times for the communities we represent, for businesses, for the country as a whole, and they're looking for this Government and other governments to plan our way through it. Now, in the welcome statement this afternoon, you've made—the Counsel General and Brexit Minister has made—very clear that should there be a defeat in the vote tonight, as most commentators, most politicians, most of the public, and old Uncle Tom Cobley and all are expecting, then depending on the scale of that defeat, depending on what the outcome of that defeat will be—and there are a number of different scenarios—the Welsh Government would hold a hand out for further discussions amongst other devolved administrations, on a cross-party basis, which would look at discussions based on the idea of a customs union, of a fair movement of workforce, on fair immigration and so on. But there are other possible scenarios as well, and depending on the scale of defeat tonight—if there is a defeat tonight, because we can't forecast it, but most are thinking that this is what's going to happen—we could be in negotiation again, we could be in a situation where we have Government collapse, we could be in a situation where we have a Prime Minister removed or a Government stepping down, it could be a general election, and we could be looking at scenarios including that of a further public vote.
Most people in this Chamber—not all, I appreciate that—but most people in this Chamber would want to avoid the situation of simply stepping out of the EU, whichever way you would call it, a hard Brexit, a 'no deal', crashing out of the EU—not a managed transition. But I'm struggling to see a way now in which we can avoid that in any of those scenarios without actually an extension of the article 50 deadline. Any of those discussions, negotiations, general election, public vote et cetera, et cetera, et cetera all seem to require an extension to article 50. So, I'd ask the Brexit Minister and Counsel General: am I missing something, or isn't that now an absolute prerogative, unless we accept that we are going to step right off that cliff edge?
But it is right that, meanwhile, we do continue planning in detail here in Wales and at a UK level for that 'no deal'. So, could I ask the Counsel General and Brexit Minister to expand on the work that he is doing in different ways, and fellow Ministers are doing in different ways, on those 'no deal' preparations right across the business of Government, but also with businesses and other stakeholders, on civil contingency planning and also on communications? Because the concern that the business community, residents and the people of Wales have at this moment—they need reassurance that that proper 'no deal' planning is taking place.
Finally, could I ask if he has more up-to-date detail for us on the use of the European transition fund to address pressing priorities in the case of a 'no deal' scenario? I know the Government has been thinking though this. He and other Ministers have been keen to address the top priorities in the case of a 'no deal' scenario. How is that European transition fund being used? It is right that we plan for a 'no deal', but I'm struggling to see a way now, frankly, in any managed transition or any eventuality that doesn't simply step off the cliff that does not need an extension of the article 50 deadline.
I thank the Member for that question. Firstly, with regard to the extension of article 50, I think he's right to say that. I think that finding a resolution to this is going to need an extension to article 50. That's certainly what we've been calling on the Government in Westminster to seek from the other European Union members.
In relation to the work of preparation, he's absolutely right to identify this as a cross-Government responsibility. There isn't really a part of Government that this doesn't touch, and all Members of the Government are responsible for ensuring that we are looking at the various consequences of different scenarios and preparing as best we can for those. Preparedness work comes in four strands, if I can summarise it in this way. Firstly, the sort of work where, as I mentioned in my statement, the UK Government is leading on aspects of it because the levers are in their control, for example, but we have a strong interest in some of those areas and therefore we're participating with them—supplies of medicines and so on would be an example of that. There's the work we've been doing on the legislative programme. We've consented in this place to around half of the volume that will need to be passed through Westminster, and we've begun, over the last few weeks, to lay Welsh-specific regulations here in the Assembly as well, as he knows. Work on that is on track. Obviously there is some work here that is dependent on work that is happening at Westminster, but providing that continues to happen to the current timetable, then we are reasonably well placed to make sure that that's done in time. There are civil contingencies work that he refers to there. Those are very established structures, as he will know, and they engage the UK Government and all devolved administrations and local government and other partners as well. Clearly it's incumbent on all the Governments in the UK to look at different scenarios and to ensure that those civil contingency arrangements, in ways that may be familiar, are able to be activated should they need to happen. Clearly, the objective is that that should never be the case, and the preparedness in other areas means that the risk of those procedures needing to be activated is minimised.
That takes me to the fourth area in which preparedness is under way: projects that are specific to Wales that perhaps reflect characteristics specific to Wales—the nature of our economy, the fact that we have a high number of small and medium-sized enterprises, for example. So, those projects are the sorts of things that have been supported by the Welsh Government through the European Union transition fund, and that's touched all sectors of the economy, private, public and third sector as well. He may have seen the announcement today of further support for police liaison for social services and for the future planning of regional investment, in which he will have an interest given his new responsibilities. We're also discussing with the Welsh Local Government Association what further support we can give to local government, and there'll be announcements about that in due course.
Thanks to the Brexit Minister for his statement today. To quote from page 3 of your statement:
'we face leaving without a deal on 29 March and we must prepare for that.'
I think that's a very sensible approach. I take on board what you say, that many levers, in terms of preparing for Brexit, are in the hands of the UK Government. But I think that there are a lot of contingency plans that you can set in motion now, and I do welcome the fact that you are actually making plans for us to leave the European Union. I think it can be no bad thing if contingency plans are made for the date that we're working with, of 29 March, which is in only nine weeks' time, and hopefully that will be the date when the United Kingdom leaves the European Union. I see that on Sky News they now have a countdown on the screen, which is today showing that there are only 73 days until Brexit. Given the time frame, and given all the plans that you could conceivably make, is it your intention to give us a Brexit update each Tuesday? I think that would be helpful, bearing in mind the comments that Darren Millar made about all of the meetings that are taking place between different levels of government that we don't always hear about in this place. So, I think it would be a good idea if we did have a weekly update of what your contingency plans are exactly, given that we now know that we do face this prospect of leaving on the correct date of 29 March, and given the fact that you're now accepting that as a very real possibility.
As I say, I think there are things that the Welsh Government can do to plan. For instance, you've set up the website. I think that's a good idea. Working with the ports authorities is very important, so it would be good if you could give us some updates on that as we go along, if you can't add anything to what you've said this afternoon on that issue.
As I say, on this side of the Chamber we are very much committed to leaving on the date of 29 March. I'm glad that you've now put in your statement that that is a possibility you are countenancing. I hope that your efforts are now going to be concentrated on making these contingency plans and giving advice to people and to businesses, rather than on lobbying the UK Government not to leave the EU or to delay the leaving date, which is what you've been doing for the last two and a half years. The best thing is to focus your efforts on making your contingency plans, accept firmly that 29 March is the date that the UK will leave the EU, because, as you've said yourself today, that is now a very real possibility. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Clearly, unless there's an extension to article 50, 29 March has always been the date at which we leave the European Union. The question is on what basis does that happen? I'm afraid that the notion that leaving without a deal is just one scenario that we could just plan for is for the birds. The truth of it is that leaving without a deal is very bad news for Wales and very bad news for the United Kingdom. Even the Government's own economic projections tell you that, and we face an economy that is 10 per cent smaller than it would have been under a 'no deal' scenario. That's not just a statistic. That's people's jobs, people's livelihoods, people's businesses and so on. [Interruption.] It's not scaremongering. The Government's own figures tell us that there will be economic damage as a consequence of that outcome. So, this is not just one modelling scenario where plans will be able to deal with this in its entirety. What we are doing is making sure that the plans that we are able to make—either here in Wales on our own, or working together with the UK Government and other devolved administrations—are being put in place. And, as the likelihood of a 'no deal' Brexit has become more apparent, so our preparations have been intensified to deal with that. But I just want to be absolutely clear: no amount of planning and preparation is going to be able to mitigate the damage that a 'no deal' Brexit would cause to Wales and to the United Kingdom. I'm afraid that's just the reality of it.
On the question of communications, it will be important for us in the weeks ahead to make sure that the Assembly is kept appraised of developments and has the opportunity, obviously, of holding Ministers to account in relation to that. I am afraid that I didn't respond to the point that Huw Irranca-Davies mentioned at the end of his question. So, since it relates to communications, I'll touch on that as well now. I mentioned in my statement the launch in the next few days of the portal, Paratoi Cymru. The objective there is to provide an authoritative, comprehensive and single source of information for people in Wales to understand what actions we are taking as a Welsh Government in relation to preparedness, and it'll contain material from the UK Government where that provides a fuller picture. We want to make sure that that is provided in a way that is both timely, but also contextualised, and in a way that takes into account communications from the UK Government and others as well.
I greatly welcome today's statement by the Counsel General and Brexit Minister. Let us be in no doubt that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Government has made an absolute hash of negotiating the UK's exit from the European Union. If it wasn't so dangerous, it would be almost funny, like Boris. But, anyway, irrespective of this dangerous flux caused by the Tory leadership, it is vital for businesses and the economy, and for communities throughout my constituency in Islwyn, that the Welsh Government continue to do all they can within their capacity to safeguard our prosperity.
Two years ago, the Welsh Government, as has been stated, jointly published with Plaid Cymru its proposals in the White Paper, 'Securing Wales' Future', and it is also right to properly mention Steffan Lewis's input into this important document, which has been around for two and a half years. Throughout the tortuous last two and a half years, the Welsh Government, whilst respecting the outcome of the 2016 referendum, continued to strongly stand up for Wales and the best interests of our people. As has been said, and rightly stated, no-one voted in the referendum to be poorer. Equally, as we discussed Ford earlier today, no-one voted to lose their jobs, lose their homes, pay more for food, lose access to essential medicine, or be less secure from the threat of terrorism.
Presuming that, as is widely expected, the Prime Minister loses tonight's vote, she has options to do the decent thing. She could recommit to working with the devolved administrations, genuinely and on a cross-party basis, and ask the European Union, as has been stated, for an extension to the article 50 deadline, as we have. But morally, ethically and democratically, with no control of Parliament, will the Minister and Counsel General agree with me that the next thing that the Prime Minister should do, which would aid the people of Wales, would be an audience with Her Majesty and request a swift dissolution of Parliament for a general election to be held? Our people deserve no less, and I believe we deserve much more.
I thank Rhianon for her question. The notion that a Government that is unable to take through the House of Commons its policy on the defining issue of the day should not seek a dissolution of Parliament would be very novel in our constitution. It would be exactly what follows, as night follows day, in any circumstance. So, it is right that the Government will face a motion of no confidence. As we have said, and as our colleagues have said in Westminister, it's a question of when, not if, that should happen. And we have said that, even at this late point in time, it is possible for the Prime Minister, should she choose to, to seek a different kind of deal with the European Union for Brexit, one that reflects a much closer relationship with the single market and the customs union, continued commitments of funding, a fair migration policy that works for the whole of the UK—not the principles that are set out in the immigration White Paper, which fundamentally do not work for public services, the private sector, here in Wales or across the UK—and a commitment to secure the rights of people on a progressive basis, keeping pace with developments across Europe, not simply frozen as they are today. It is still open for her to seek that sort of deal from the European Union.
Thank you. Finally, David Rees.
Diolch, Dirprwy Llywydd. Can I thank the Minister for his statement this afternoon on the future relationships and where we go with EU withdrawal? I've heard voices across the Chamber this afternoon trying to indicate that this Prime Minister has done a wonderful deal. Well, the reality is she hasn't, and the delay she's experienced—in contradiction to what you just said in your answer to Rhianon Passmore, the delay in my view is—. She's created five weeks' delay as a consequence. It's time to go back and renegotiate, but don't forget, when you renegotiate, you have to renegotiate with the 27 members as well, and they'll have to ratify any new deal. So, timescales to actually get something done by 29 March are very, very tight, so an extension is more likely if that's what she wants to do so. That's crucial.
Minister, I can also assure you that the committee that you used to be a member of will continue to play its part in the process, particularly in regard to legislation, but not at the price of losing any scrutiny of the legislation. We will ensure that that scrutiny does take place.
Can I ask a couple of questions of the Minister? Perhaps, for yourself, we've submitted reports as a committee on preparedness, which I know went to the First Minister, but perhaps you can ensure that we have those responses to those reports urgently because, clearly, if the vote tonight is to defeat the Prime Minister's deal then, as the First Minister alluded to last week, we are likely to have updates next week on preparedness, and we would like to see what the Government's response to our reports is in that sense.
Has the Minister had discussions with the other UK nations as to what jointly we can do to actually address a 'no deal' situation and a defeat in Parliament tonight and perhaps, even so, as Adam Price alluded to, with our immediate neighbours, particularly Ireland, to ensure that we are in tune with actions that we can take to mitigate any damage that a 'no deal' will cause?
Have you had discussions with the Treasury, because, if we do have a 'no deal' situation, they have guaranteed—? The UK Government has guaranteed they will cover the EU funding projects. So, have you had discussions with the Treasury as to how that would happen? What's the process? Are mechanisms in place to ensure that organisations that are currently being funded by Europe and programmes that are currently being funded by Europe will be able to have that money, or have confidence in that money not coming down in two years' time, but be in a position where they can actually pay their bills to ensure that they can be delivering those programmes?
You highlighted medicines and the department of health and social services. Can I highlight also not just medicines but equipment? And I'll give you an example. The recent Gatwick experience delayed Gatwick not because of the EU, but because of a drone, but as a result of that I know of nuclear physics examinations that were cancelled because they didn't have the isotopes in place, because the half life was too short for them to actually get things in place. So, again, there are issues that we have to look at on other aspects.
And perhaps I can ask one question—
We're running out of time.
—on his other role, which links into this, because you're Counsel General. The Tusk and Juncker letter yesterday, which was displayed and produced by Theresa May in her statement, and she questioned or she indicated the legality aspects of that, have you done an analysis on the legal aspects of that, and what its legal position is in relation to the assurances that were given in that letter? And would those affect Wales?
On that last point, I am reflecting on the legal context of that discussion.
Can I firstly say, in relation to the reports that the committee that he chairs has produced on a range of preparedness issues, in particular towards the latter part of last year, that I've found them very beneficial? And I know that colleagues in Government are considering them with a view to issuing, obviously, responses on behalf of the Government.
He asked about discussions with Ministers in the UK Government about 'no deal' preparedness. Yes, those conversations are ongoing. As I say, in some areas, the information has been flowing perhaps more freely than in other areas. Those departments that have more familiarity with dealing with devolved administrations perhaps have found it easier to be more open in their information sharing, but we have been pressing for that to become a more consistent approach across UK Government. Actually, where that happens, it obviously leads to better outcomes and better processes.
In relation to funding, well, you know, we miss no opportunity to press the UK Government on its commitment in relation to funding. But, in a 'no deal' scenario, I think we just have to be very clear that significant additional funding would need to be made available from the UK Government, not in the conventional Barnett sense, but entirely outside that, in order to be able to deal with the consequences of that outcome.
Thank you very much, Counsel General.
Item 5 on the agenda this afternoon is a debate on the setting of the 2019-20 Welsh rates of income tax. I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to move the motion, Rebecca Evans.
Motion NDM6915 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with section 116D of the Wales Act 2014, agrees the Welsh rate resolution for the 2019-20 Welsh rates of income tax as follows:
a) the proposed Welsh rate for the basic rate of income tax is 10p;
b) the proposed Welsh rate for the higher rate of income tax is 10p; and
c) the proposed Welsh rate for the additional rate of income tax is 10p.
Thank you for the opportunity to open the debate on the Welsh rates of income tax, which will be introduced from 6 April 2019 and will apply to income tax payers living in Wales. Welsh income tax payers are defined as people who live in Wales for most of the year, regardless of where they work. The Wales Act 2014 provides a detailed explanation to address the range of possible situations, including AMs, MPs and MEPs representing constituencies in Wales, who will pay also the Welsh rates of income tax no matter where they live.
While income tax will be partially devolved to Wales from April, it will remain a UK tax. Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs will continue to administer income tax in Wales and the UK Government will continue to retain full responsibility for income from savings and dividends. The Welsh rates of income tax will apply to income earned from employment or self-employment, taxable benefits and pensions. My officials continue to work with HMRC on the detailed arrangements for the administration of Welsh rates of income tax to ensure a smooth and orderly transition to the new arrangements.
The rates were first announced in the outline draft budget on 2 October. It's not my intention to raise income tax levels in 2019-20. This will mean that Welsh taxpayers will continue to pay the same income tax as their England and Northern Irish counterparts. This will provide stability for taxpayers during a time of economic uncertainty and ongoing austerity. Together with the block grant, Welsh taxes will fund the vital public services that many in society depend on. From April 2019, around £2 billion of the Welsh budget will be funded by Welsh income tax receipts. This should and will change the nature of our debates about revenues and budgets in the future, and I look forward to these discussions.
The Assembly is asked today to agree the Welsh rate resolution that will set the Welsh rates of income tax for 2019-20, and I ask Members for their support this afternoon.
Thank you. Can I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee, Llyr Gruffydd?
Thank you very much, and today is a historic day, of course, because we will vote today to set the Welsh rates of income tax in Wales for the first time in many centuries. Now, the powers in question expand on the tax-raising powers devolved in April of last year, and these powers, as we’ve already heard, should provide the Welsh Government with the ability to make important decisions and to have greater influence on the needs of Wales and the Welsh people, and so we need to effectively scrutinise these decisions. And the Welsh rates of income tax, as the Minister has said, will raise around £2 billion, so effective scrutiny has never been more important in terms of this institution.
So, as we scrutinised the draft budget as a committee, we did hear about the forecasting problems in Scotland on the Scottish rate of income tax. Whilst we recognise the protection afforded to Wales in this first year of Welsh rates of income tax, the committee does believe that we must learn from what happened in Scotland. We received assurances from the previous Cabinet Secretary that he was working to learn lessons from those experiences. But, as a committee, this is something that we will be monitoring in future as well.
Now, the final budget shows a reduction of £40 million on the income tax forecasts due to personal allowance changes in the UK budget. And the protection measures afforded to the block grant this year do, of course, protect the Welsh Government from this reduction, but we must be mindful of these types of changes in future years. Now, one of the differences between Wales and Scotland in terms of income tax is the dynamic nature of cross-border movement between Wales and England, with around 100,000 people migrating back and forth each year. Now, we heard references to some comments that Steffan Lewis had to make on this particular issue in the previous tributes, and it's entirely right, of course, but the committee does believe that it is essential to ensure effective monitoring of the number of Welsh income taxpayers in-year. The committee recognises that HMRC have been contracted to ensure accurate taxpayer identification, but we would urge the Welsh Government to undertake continual and robust oversight to ensure that the flagging system is fit for purpose on an ongoing and long-term basis, because this isn't a temporary measure. This will be an ongoing process. And the way that the system will work is that anyone who is not identified as a Welsh taxpayer or a Scottish taxpayer will be, by default, an English or Northern Ireland taxpayer, and the result of that, of course, is that income tax from anyone falling between the gaps will be allocated to Westminster.
I welcome the Welsh rate resolution before us today, and, as a committee, we are pleased that this motion links to the annual budget motion, to ensure, of course, full accountability of revenue raising and doing so side-by-side with the spending plans.
I will begin my brief comments by alluding to the Holtham commission and the Silk commission. One of the most important recommendations outlined by them is the value and importance of taking financial responsibility and accountability, and, without a doubt, today we are a step closer towards that accountability and responsibility by being able to set our own income tax rates. We on these benches look forward to seeing how the current Government will use these powers in the ensuing years, and we certainly are looking forward to presenting our own ideas and contributing to that debate and actually being in Government in ensuing years.
As has already been mentioned, this is a historic moment for our Senedd. The people of Wales will now be able to see in real terms on their pay slips the importance of the Senedd and the Government of Wales and how our institutions have a direct impact on their everyday lives. We as a Senedd are strengthening and, therefore, as a nation, we are getting stronger and more mature.
As regards the rates that are proposed before us today, we tend to support the rates listed in this motion, as these are the first for the Government to set. We are laying the foundation for the future, and I am certain that we will see many changes in future as we grow in maturity and confidence as regards how to use these tax-raising powers for the benefit of the people of Wales. Because with these new powers, comes great responsibility, and that's a responsibility for us all as Members of our national Senedd and as members of our political parties, not only to respect these responsibilities but also to respond to the fact that we have been given these responsibilities and to use them in a responsible manner but also in a creative manner—in a manner that will develop a Welsh method or means of setting taxes or tax rates not only to respond to the fundamental problems in the society of Wales but also, I hope, to be innovative in our ideas and ambitious in creating a taxation system that will be fairer for the people of Wales than the current one.
This is a historic day for Wales with, for the first time ever, before us, this motion to set income tax rates. If I can ask two quick questions of the Minister—I was about to call you Cabinet Secretary for a moment. First of all, you said in your opening comments that you don't believe that there should be any changes to income tax rates relative to England—I think you said up until 2020. Can you confirm that that is up until the next Assembly election, which I think is what the previous Cabinet Secretary said? And, also, does that continue to apply if there are variations over the next couple of years in the rates of income tax from the UK end—in other words, the base rate, whether that be up or down?
Secondly and finally, the way that this is being presented today in terms of the income tax debate that we're having now and the budget debate that we're about to have—is that how you will continue to proceed in the future? Because I know that in the past, the Finance Committee has looked carefully at the issue of a finance Bill and how you would actually present any possible changes in tax rates vis a vis the budget to the Welsh people.
Can I now call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to reply?
Thank you very much for those questions and contributions to the debate. The Chair of the Finance Committee began by recognising how important scrutiny is, and I absolutely recognise that and I welcome that. Then he went on to talk about the experience of Scotland. So, I'll take this opportunity to inform Members that I have met with the heads of devolved taxes at HMRC, who have reassured me that they have learned lessons from the experience in terms of devolving income tax to Scotland, and it will be absolutely essential that HMRC fully recognises the different circumstances that we have here in Wales, such as those cross-border issues and compliance activity in particular.
Full and accurate identification of Welsh taxpayers is understandably critical, so we have sought and obtained those assurances from HMRC that it has learned those lessons from its experience of devolving income tax to Scotland, and, more specifically, on the parameters of initial automated data scan of HMRC systems, which was behind the problem of omitting those 420,000 Scottish taxpayers. So, we have had those conversations and we are reassured that these issues will not apply in Wales, not least because our system collates that information about addresses in a different way. So, in Wales, we will be doing it by postcode, whereas they did it slightly differently in Scotland.
Obviously, that's important for forecasting, as too is good and accurate information more widely. So, HMRC will continue to produce a public version of its key analytical data set: the survey of personal incomes. Welsh Government officials are working with HMRC to ensure this is produced in a timely and useful way, together with the Scottish Government, the Scottish Fiscal Commission and the Office of Budget Responsibility.
HMRC will also provide monthly reports on pay-as-you-earn income tax liabilities via its real-time information system. This will not provide complete coverage of the Welsh rates but it will be a useful and timely indicator of revenue collection. It will also publish audited outturn information on WRIT as part of its annual accounts in July. Welsh Government is currently in discussion with HMRC about the level of detail that it'll be able to provide alongside that document. All of these arrangements and agreements in terms of data will be set out in a service level agreement between the Welsh Government and HMRC.
There were some questions about taxpayer identification. The identification and maintenance of the WRIT taxpaying population will be formalised, again as part of a performance measure, within that joint service level agreement that is being developed by our respective organisations and will certainly be in place in good time for when the taxes start to be collected. I was able, in our committee session just last week, to set out some of the ways in which HMRC is working to ensure that information about individuals is accurate and is collected in a timely basis throughout the year as well.
In terms of setting out those tax rates for the rest of the Assembly term, I would refer Nick Ramsay to the comments made by the First Minister during First Minister's questions today, where he did reiterate again our commitment, which was made in the Welsh Labour manifesto, in terms of not raising income tax levels. And he's been very clear, when he was in this role—through his evidence, which was given to committee—that any decision to change tax rates would clearly be a major decision that should be taken on the basis of evidence and a great deal of thought.
Thank you very much. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
We now move on to item 6, which is a debate on the final budget, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.
Motion NDM6902 Rebecca Evans
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 20.25, approves the Annual Budget for the financial year 2019-20 laid in the Table Office by the Cabinet Secretary for Finance on 18 December 2018.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. It is a privilege to lead the debate on the final budget today, and I pay tribute to and thank my predecessor, Mark Drakeford, for his work on the budget over the last year.
I also thank the Finance Committee for its work in scrutinising the budget and I have responded formally and positively to the recommendations put forward by the committee. I look forward to working with the Finance Committee and with the future generations commissioner, as we develop the budget for 2020-21 and move into a comprehensive spending review.
The context of this budget will be familiar. The budget was crafted in the long shadow cast by nine years of austerity; a political choice by a Conservative UK Government that has caused damage and harm to the fabric of our public services. Wales has £850 million less to spend, in real terms, on public services in 2019-20 than in 2010-11, as a result of UK Government cuts. If spending on public services had kept pace with gross domestic product growth since 2010-11, we would have £4 billion more in 2019-20—that's 20 per cent up on our current budget.
When the draft budget was published in October, the Prime Minister was promising that austerity was over and that a Brexit deal was in reach. Yet, only today, Parliament holds its meaningful vote and the prospect of the UK leaving the EU without a deal is very real. In the UK autumn budget, there was little evidence that austerity was over. Of the additional funding that we received, the majority of the already announced consequential funding was for the NHS. Our capital budget in Wales will increase by just £2.6 million in 2019-20. As a result of austerity, funding per person for day-to-day devolved public services in 2019-20 will be 7 per cent lower in real terms than it was in 2010-11.
In spite of these challenges, we continue to deliver in difficult times. We continue to prioritise investment in the Welsh NHS, education and social care. We are investing in our schools and colleges, creating the health service of the future, building an economy with real social purpose.
When we published the draft budget, we recognised it represented a challenging settlement for local government. We worked hard and quickly to announce in November an additional package of funding for local authorities worth £141.5 million over three years, including extra funding for education, children's social services and a £100 million increase in capital funding. And we will debate the final local government settlement later today.
The final budget delivers on our commitments. It includes a further £26 million to increase support for high street retailers and other businesses to help them pay their rates bills. Local authorities will receive an extra £7 million to meet our flagship commitment to raise the capital limit to £50,000 two years early. From April, people will be able to keep more of their hard-earned savings before they have to pay for residential care.
I'm also pleased to confirm an extra £6.8 million to support our commitment to create 100,000 all-age apprenticeships over the course of this Assembly. The final budget contains some specific allocations to helping tackle child poverty, above and beyond what was announced in the draft budget. A further £1.6 million will be available in 2019-20 for the pupil development grant access scheme to ensure that parents can meet the everyday costs associated with sending their children to school and wider activities. And, an extra £0.4 million will be used to extend the Fun and Food programme, providing children with a meal and learning opportunities during the school summer holidays.
There are some smaller allocations in this final budget that I would like to put on record this afternoon: an extra £0.5 million to enhance support for music activities for young people; an extra £0.9 million to further reduce food waste, building on the £15 million announced in the draft budget; and an extra £0.8 million revenue and £3 million capital for Natural Resources Wales.
This budget also marks the second year of the two-year budget agreement with Plaid Cymru. I thank Plaid's finance spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth, for the early engagement that we've had about finance matters. In line with our agreement, we have provided additional capital funding to refurbish the Urdd camps at Llangrannog and Glan-llyn. We're also providing £10 million in 2019-20 to take forward the results of the feasibility studies into a national museum and art gallery.
We continue to develop plans to use financial transaction capital funding, including measures to stimulate our housing and property market. We will provide financial transaction funding this financial year to set up a £40 million Wales self-build fund. The scheme will start in earnest in 2019-20. Further details on our plans will be provided in the second supplementary budget.
This is a budget developed against the uncertainty of Brexit. The chaotic shambles around the Prime Minister's deal has moved us towards the possibility of no deal and the risk of significant disruption, risking jobs and livelihoods. If we leave the European Union on 29 March without a deal, the UK Government must provide us with the resources we will need to respond to this catastrophic scenario.
We have been working hard to prepare for Brexit and to ensure Wales's public services, institutions, businesses and partners are ready for all outcomes. To do this, we're investing up to £50 million in a dedicated EU transition fund. Today, I can announce the next pipeline of projects from this fund to provide support to our key sectors, partners and communities. Projects include funding for the Association of Directors of Social Services Cymru to support our social care sector from the impact of Brexit. We will also provide funding for police partnership resilience, to enable Wales's police services to support Brexit preparations. We will expand preparations for successor arrangements to EU structural funds, building on work to support implementation of a post-EU regional investment model for Wales. We're also in discussions with the WLGA about Brexit support for local government, with further details to follow.
We do not have a budget beyond 2021, and face a comprehensive spending review this year. The Chancellor has also been clear that if the economic or fiscal outlook changes materially as a result of Brexit, the spring statement could be updated to a full fiscal event. I am realistic that we may have to amend our budget plans, and if this is the case I will of course keep Members fully updated. This year marks another milestone in our devolution journey. For the first time, this budget includes revenues raised from Welsh rates of income tax. From April, more than £2 billion of the Welsh budget will come from taxes raised in Wales, strengthening our accountability to the people of Wales. Today, the National Assembly has made a decision about the Welsh rates of income tax. In line with our manifesto commitment, we have agreed not to increase the rates of income tax this year.
Deputy Presiding Officer, this budget seeks to provide and protect the vital public services people in Wales rely on. It does this by carefully managing our resources and pursuing the progressive policies and priorities that define this Welsh Government. I commend the final budget to the National Assembly.
Thank you. Can I call on the Chair of finance, Llyr Gruffydd?
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I’m very pleased to speak in this debate today on the final budget, which has changed, of course, from the draft budget that we scrutinised as a committee in the autumn. The final budget does show the consequentials that came from the UK autumn budget, of course, in 2018. It also shows a reduction of £40 million in income tax forecasts, a £2 million reduction in land transactions tax, and a £3 million upward revision in landfill tax revenues.
We welcomed the previous Cabinet Secretary’s early indication during our draft budget scrutiny when he said that local government would be at the front of the queue if additional consequentials came following the UK Government's budget. I'm pleased to see that allocations included within this final budget have met this commitment.
Of course, the powers of this place in this context are still developing and evolving, and the committee will also continue to develop our approach to scrutiny on taxation powers in future. And we will also review what options are available in terms of budget processes available to the Assembly in future years.
There are a number of allocations made in this final budget that won't have been subject to scrutiny, of course, and the Finance Committee has raised this issue with the previous Cabinet Secretary. When financial decisions are made in year, there must be sufficient financial information available. I would urge the new Minister for finance to consider this in the future, and I would also urge my fellow committee members here today to ensure that they consider any changes in allocations in upcoming scrutiny sessions, because financial scrutiny doesn't only need to take place during the formal autumn budget scrutiny.
Finally, I'm also pleased to have received the response of the Government to the committee report on the draft budget. But, unfortunately, this was only received this morning, and, as a result, I haven't had an opportunity to consider the content. I also understand that the policy committees have only received their responses this morning, and whilst I fully appreciate how much work it is for the Government to move from a draft budget to a final budget, it isn't acceptable that these responses have been received so late in the day.
As a committee, we will be reflecting on the budget scrutiny in our meeting next week, and I'll also hope to discuss with the new Minister for finance how we can avoid a situation of this kind in future.
Can I thank the Minister for her contribution to today's debate—and, indeed, the briefing that you provided me with earlier in the footsteps of your predecessor? I appreciate you've come in almost towards the end of this budget-setting process, so I don't expect you to be an expert on everything. It was good to see, however, that the blame game with the UK Government continues apace as it did before. No Welsh Government debate seems to be complete without blame towards the UK Government and what's happening in England, but there we are.
It won't surprise you to hear that the Welsh Conservatives will not be supporting this budget today. On the bright side, this year, the Welsh Government will be in control of the biggest budget since devolution, at over £16 billion by 2020. Even before adjustments for tax devolution, the Welsh Government has more scope to spend money where it matters. For the first time, the Welsh Government will be able to raise £2.1 billion in taxes, as we've heard from the Minister. The abolition of the Severn bridge tolls will benefit the south Wales economy by over £100 million a year. Those aren't my figures; that's the Welsh Government's own estimates. The fiscal framework agreement between the UK and the Welsh Governments is delivering for Wales. Within the 2018 budget, more than £550 million of extra money has been pledged to the Welsh Government, as well as over £100 million for a north Wales growth deal, which will generate investment, jobs and prosperity in the region. And, of course, we've got continued support for a mid Wales growth deal.
Now, whilst we accept that the Welsh Government ship has been sailing through challenging times, Government is about priorities and it is now the role of the Welsh Government to ensure that consequentials from the UK Government's budget do find their way to the areas that matter, and, most importantly, to the front line. The Minister mentioned the NHS, the Welsh people's priority, and our priority too—at least, it should be here. The Welsh Government are finally the heeding Welsh Conservative advice from a number of years ago that we should be increasing funding to our health service. We know that between 2011 and 2016 the health budget was not protected in real terms and, as a result, we are playing catch-up. But we are where we are. The Welsh Government will receive an additional £550 million in their budget. As I say, there will be an NHS funding uplift along with increased pay for NHS staff and a pay award for staffing there.
The final budget does not fully address the significant concerns outlined by committees. We've heard the comments from the Chair of the Finance Committee. I do welcome the additional funding for Natural Resources Wales. We know the difficulties that that organisation has been through over recent years, having its accounts qualified for yet another year running. Can we have an assurance that this money comes with conditions, and that the Public Accounts Committee's recommendations will be fully implemented so we can avoid some of the havoc that we've seen over recent years in that organisation?
The Minister has outlined some of the changes between the draft and the final budgets, and I'm pleased that the Welsh Government has decided to spend some extra £13 million on the local government settlement—you mentioned that would be coming up later—which provides local authorities with some more money. Still, in many cases, these are cash-flat settlements. We're not looking at real-terms protection. But, nonetheless, it is finance that will be welcomed by local government across Wales.
You've mentioned support for businesses. There are UK Government consequentials available for high street rates relief. I know we've had discussions in this Chamber about the form that that relief might take. We have had numerous warnings and reports over recent years on the state of our high streets and the problems that they face, so we look for assurances that the Welsh Government will provide the sort of fair rate relief that businesses have been crying out for.
If I can just mention social care, whilst there has been additional funding for social care, which is to be welcomed, this falls far short of what we all believe is needed to keep pace with demand over future years. Projections suggest that there will need to be a near doubling of spend on local authority social services for older people between 2015 and 2030. The WLGA estimates that there will be £344 million-worth of service pressures in social care by 2021-22, the subject of a recent Finance Committee report and debate in this Chamber.
Briefly, on housing, I welcome the new self-build proposals that you mentioned to me earlier, Minister; that's really innovative and to be welcomed. I think we all agree that in the light of recent debates on housing, we certainly need to increase the housing stock available in Wales and the level of appropriate housing as well. So, we welcome innovative proposals. Whatever happens, we do need to see an increase in the housing stock, and most importantly in housing stock of the affordable housing variety.
I haven't mentioned the future generations legislation—I know I haven't got time to—and you mentioned the commissioner. In the past, we've called for budgets that tie in with the future generations legislation and put Wales on a sustainable footing for the future. We do need to see budgets do more of that over the future, so I urge you and the Welsh Government to make sure that budgets here are sustainable both now and into the future.
Yes, the final budget, and quite a few change since the draft budget. Unfortunately, not sufficient changes from the draft budget, particularly when it comes to funding for local government. As I welcome the new finance Minister to her post, we could point out that it's possible to do things differently when there’s a change of personnel in a post, but it's possibly rather difficult to do that when your predecessor is by now the boss. But certainly, there are weaknesses that will cost us dearly, particularly in the field of local government.
I appreciate the comments of the finance Minister welcoming the discussions that we have had on this budget before today, and I will once again pay tribute to Steffan at this point, because he, as my predecessor as finance spokesperson, laid the foundations for the agreement between ourselves as Plaid Cymru, and the agreement demonstrates its success by what has been presented to us today.
We’ve worked closely with the Government over the past two years, and I certainly speak on behalf of us all on these benches when I tell the Chamber that we are extremely proud of what we have achieved through our agreement that was agreed between Steffan and the current First Minister, the former Finance Secretary, which is £0.5 billion of investments that have allowed us to take forward our manifesto from the back benches.
They include a great number of things that we're extremely proud of: £40 million for mental health services, further funding for the development of medical training that has led to the establishment of medical education for north Wales, support for businesses during Brexit and post Brexit, the football museum and the contemporary art museum being developed further, and funding for Glan-llyn and Llangrannog—things that will have a great impact on the lives of young people in Wales. And if we can do that in opposition, imagine what we could do in Government.
We will be abstaining on today's budget in order to reflect the agreement that we have made, but the context has changed fundamentally since the agreement. The major change, of course, is that this Government has a working majority by now, and so it is a Government budget without the ability to be defeated by the opposition parties, and we certainly regret very much a number of elements contained within it. The Government still fails to realise the depth of the difficulties of local government. Yes, some additional funding has been given to them, £50 million more since the first budget, but this doesn't come anywhere near what is required. The core grant for local government has been reduced by 22 per cent since 2010, and although, according to the headlines, no local authority is seeing a great decrease in their budget—they say it's 0.53 per cent—that is a barefaced lie, because the cuts are swingeing.
Yes, we do agree with you that we need to point the finger at the cruel Conservative Government in Westminster, and what has been done by their inequitable and unjust policy of austerity. But it was the political choice of the Labour Welsh Government not to make the investment in local government when you had the opportunity to do so in the budget this time. You cannot avoid the blame for not taking that alternative decision that failed to give that support to our councils.
Health has seen an increase of £0.5 billion since the first supplementary budget, but, of course, the health service can't work in a vacuum. We need a well-funded local government that can give the right support to social services in order to ensure that the health service is able to operate in a sustainable fashion, and that is not the situation that we have today.
We have raised these issues time after time. This Government knows that people within its own party feel the same as us. Anthony Hunt, the leader of the WLGA, and the leader of Torfaen have also expressed concern that the Government has taken the wrong decisions with this budget. And later on today we will vote against the local government settlement, because we don't believe that the right decisions, the decisions that had potential to transform local government, or to take the pressure off them at least, have been made this time. But we will be abstaining on the budget, but this will be the last time.
As austerity continues, the amount of money needed to run public services to the level the public want and need is not being provided. I'm sure the Minister will agree with me that austerity is not an economic policy but a political direction of travel. The Conservatives at Westminster want to reduce public expenditure and roll back the state provision of services.
As we pass the tenth year of at best sluggish economic growth, we need a change of direction and we need economic growth. The amount of money available to run the public services in Wales is inadequate. Unfortunately, we have to have a budget based upon what is available rather than what the people of Wales need.
I will be supporting the budget today but I would be failing in my duty to my constituents if I failed to raise the serious concerns I have. Firstly, I have seen no evidence that the budget has been driven by either the programme for government or by the future generations legislation. What this budget has done, in line with all recent ones, is increase the share of the Welsh Government budget spent on health and reduce the proportion spent on local government and other services, with some protection for the economy and transport. At a recent Finance Committee meeting, Michael Trickey identified when the percentage of the Welsh budget allocated to health would reach 60 per cent if the current policy continues.
Health is, in my opinion, a misnomer. The money is allocated to health, then it goes to the health boards, then it goes mainly to hospital services. The proportion of the health budget spent on primary care is decreasing. The Royal College of General Practitioners regularly identify the relative reduction in primary care expenditure. This is affecting primary care practices. Between October 2015 and October 2018, 21 GP practices closed, 37 submitted a sustainability application to the health board, and 45 practices were at risk. Too many people are now using accident and emergency as their primary care service, which is causing huge problems in A&E. There has been discussion on prudent health: diet, obesity, exercise, not smoking, limiting alcohol intake—all reduce ill health, and I think we need to talk far more about reducing ill health than we do about trying to treat people at the end of it. Let's have fewer ill people.
The auditor general, in about 2015, produced a report on medical interventions that do no good to the patient estimated at that time at several hundred million pounds. This did not include expenditure where the operation was successful but, following hospitalisation, the individual was no longer able to look after themselves and ended up in a nursing home. Elderly people who are just about able to cope at home with community care support, too often end up in a care home after a successful operation. And I had one of my constituents who didn't end up there, thankfully, because he was only in hospital for one week—he came back having lost 10 lbs, having lost a lot of mobility, but he recovered. If he'd been in hospital another seven days, he almost certainly would have ended up in a nursing home. I think this is where one of the problems is: we treat parts of a person, not the whole person. I'm sure that a lot of elderly people, if you told them that the choice was to continue having pain with their knee or end up in a nursing home, might well decide that they can continue to live with a little bit of pain in their knee.
The late Dr Julian Tudor Hart, with others, identified expenditure on things such as reducing slightly raised blood pressure that do no identifiable good to the patient, yet we still pay substantial sums for the medication. The First Minister, whilst health Secretary, identified the different intervention rates for the removal of tonsils between two areas in the same health board—twice as likely to have tonsils removed in one than the other.
The Nuffield Foundation produced research showing that there has been a reduction of over 25 per cent in total in-patient admissions per hospital community health services doctor between 1999-2000 and 2011-12. Now, I'm not saying health is not important, but health boards do tend to act in a vacuum, and there is an awful lot of other things happening out there that need to be dealt with. I have not got time to expand on this statement, but I believe that the current structure of health boards and the ambulance trust is less than optimum.
On the rest of the budget, local government continues to be under pressure, despite providing services that can improve lifestyle and, hence, health. The importance of community care to allow people to leave hospital and also to keep them out of hospital—. I think that we underestimate the work done by a number of relatively low-paid, predominantly women in the social care service, which keeps people in their home and gives them a good lifestyle. I think we underestimate how much use they are, and I think it's unfortunate that, because of budget pressure, too many of those have been moved out of being directly employed by local authorities and have been moved into the private sector.
Also, local government provides the services we use continually: the roads, the pavements, the rubbish collection, street cleaning, parks, libraries, as well as education. That really is, for many people, the way of improving the lifestyles and life chances of them and their families. I think that we need to talk more about providing additional resources to education, so that every child gets the opportunity to do the best they can.
I'm delighted to follow Mike Hedges because I think he made some very important, as well as some very sensible points about the need to spend more on preventative health, so that we reduce the burden that the NHS is going to have in the future. I would like to see, as he would, the priority given to spending in this area increased within the current Welsh budget.
I should also welcome the Finance Minister to her post—I don't think I've had the opportunity to do that on the record in the Chamber as yet—and to congratulate her upon the assured start that she's made, both in giving evidence to the Finance Committee and today in this Chamber. I wish her well in her job, and I hope I shall be able to continue the constructive arrangement that I had with her predecessor as Finance Minister, where, from our different political perspectives, nevertheless, we can combine together to seek the common good for everybody in our country.
Against the background, of course, of so-called austerity, and given the nature of the current situation, whereby the Welsh Government is overwhelmingly dependent on a block grant from Westminster, the degree of freedom that the finance Minister of Wales has is inevitably limited, and the big ticket items are always going to gobble up the major share of the budget. Health is now half of the budget, virtually. Local government is getting £4 billion out of the current budget, and education another £2 billion. There isn't much that one can do about those figures, so what we are arguing over in these budget debates, generally, is the very small minority of discretionary spending projects that the finance Minister has to decide between.
I, personally, don't think that the Government's policy of retrenchment—the UK Government's policy, that is—is a political choice. I think it's an absolute necessity. In 2010, the Government was borrowing an amount every year equivalent to 10 per cent of our gross domestic product. That clearly was totally unsustainable, and it's had, over the years, to whittle it down. This year, it's at a more sustainable 2 per cent. I don't regard a borrowing figure of 2 per cent of GDP as austerity. I mean, that's the long-term average that the British Government has had. That is just living within your means, which everybody ultimately has to do, unless you are going to embark upon the kind of Zimbabwe policy of simply printing money, which ends up in destroying the economy eventually, because after a while, of course, you run out of other people's money to spend, effectively. So, I think that a policy of prudence, which is what Gordon Brown preached 20 years ago but then departed from disastrously in the early years of this century, is one which is vitally necessary. Having said that, Wales has fallen down the scale, as was pointed out today by my colleague Gareth Bennett, in First Minister's questions, and now languishes at the bottom of the list of nations of the UK and regions of England, having been overtaken by Northern Ireland in the last 20 years. And there is still significant pockets of poverty in Wales—it's not just the poorest part of the United Kingdom, but one of the poorest parts of western Europe—and the Resolution Foundation estimates that the poorest tenth of households in Wales will be £30 a week better off as a result of tax and benefit changes in 2019-20, which is a 0.33 per cent rise, whereas the richest tenth will be £410 a week better off—a 41 per cent rise.
So, in terms of inequality, Wales is actually going backwards rather than forwards, and the Welsh Labour Government has a policy of attempting to reduce inequality, but that is simply not happening. We know, as was pointed out earlier on by Leanne Wood in her questions, that there are pockets of unemployment in Wales that are very significant indeed. In the year to June 2018, unemployment was substantially above the Welsh average in Rhondda Cynon Taf at 7.2 per cent, Caerphilly at 7 per cent, and Cardiff, surprisingly, at 6.8 per cent. It's especially high amongst young males—14.7 per cent for Wales, rising to nearly one in four of 16 to 24-year-olds in Rhondda Cynon Taf, and 21.6 per cent in Neath Port Talbot.
So, we still have a lot to do as a Government in Wales to alleviate poverty, and relative poverty as well. The only way we can do that, as Mark Drakeford alluded to in his response to Gareth Bennett earlier on, and as I've advocated many times before, is to grow the Welsh economy by using the new tax powers that we have imaginatively to encourage wealth creation—to encourage more rich people to come into Wales, if you like—and to set up businesses and to expand existing businesses. Fifty years ago, Singapore was a small offshore island in Malaysia with an average income of $500 a year; this year, the average income in Singapore, the richest country in the world, is $55,500. That has not happened by accident; it's happened because of the policies of the Singaporean Government.
So, I commend the finance Minister on her promising start, and I hope that she will perhaps take some of the points that I've made on board, and we'll be able to agree on more in the years to come.