|Statement by the Llywydd|
|1. Questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs|
|2. Questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|3. Topical Questions|
|4. 90-second Statements|
|5. Statement by the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee: Maintaining Confidence in the Standards Procedure|
|6. Debate on a Member's Legislative Proposal: Non-carbon-emission public vehicles Bill|
|7. Member Debate under Standing Order 11.21(iv): Healthy School Meals|
|8. Welsh Conservatives Debate: Young Adult Carers|
|9. Voting Time|
|10. Short Debate: Longer learning for better, safer lives: The case for raising the age of participation in education in Wales|
The Assembly met at 13:29 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
Before I call the first item on the agenda, I wish to inform the Assembly that I have received a letter from four Members notifying me of their wish to form a group in accordance with Standing Order 1.3. I am considering this issue, in accordance with my duty under the Standing Orders, and I will notify the Assembly of my conclusion in due course.
Point of order, Alun Davies.
Further to that statement, which I appreciate, Presiding Officer, I would also like to ask you to consider these matters under Standing Order 1.4, where you are given a level of discretion. There are Members on all sides of this Chamber who are deeply disturbed at the undermining of our democracy by events today. These chancers did not stand for election under any party label they are using today. They are using this in order to access public resources and public money without standing for election or seeking the consent of anybody in any constituency or region in any part of Wales. None of them have had their names on a ballot paper. It undermines the democracy we were celebrating only last week. Members on all sides of the Chamber have very deep reservations and concerns over this matter, of which I know you are aware, Presiding Officer, and I hope that you will be able to use some discretion available to you to consider these matters over a period of time that will allow Members to consider their own thoughts and their own responses to this announcement.
I’m grateful to the Member for his advice at all times, and I can assure the Member and other Members that I am most aware of every element of the Standing Orders that will advise and guide me in coming to conclusions on these issues.
Also before the first item of business this afternoon, I wish to inform the Assembly that the Renting homes (Fees, etc.) (Wales) Bill, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, was given Royal Assent today.
This now brings us to the questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, and the first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's response to the forecasted decrease in farm income? OAQ53843
Thank you. Volatility is a feature of the farming sector, and businesses need to be resilient to deal with price and cost fluctuations. Welsh Government continues to support and equip farming businesses with tools to improve their understanding and control their cost of production.
Thank you. The recently published forecasts of farm incomes in Wales provides very worrying information about the sector. It reports that the average farm business income for the combined all-farm types is expected to decrease by 15 per cent to £29,500 per farm from the previous year. The situation is even more serious for dairy farmers, who are forecasted—sorry, I need my specs—a 23 per cent fall, and lowland cattle and sheep farmers, who are expected to have an average income of just £17,000. As John Davies, National Farmers Union Cymru president stated, the forecasts show the volatility all farm types in Wales are subjected to and reinforce the need for future agricultural policy in Wales to include a central volatility stability component. Will you consider introducing an agricultural volatility grant that farmers can turn to for support when market changes render continued business operation and food production financially perilous? Thank you.
Thank you. I'm obviously very aware of the information that was published. I think there's been a call—. Since we went out to consultation on 'Brexit and our land' last year—the first consultation—there's certainly been a call to have a component for volatility. I think it also shows that the basic payment scheme hasn't provided that cushion that farmers want to see. Members will be aware that I'm doing an oral statement very soon around the first consultation from 'Brexit and our land', and I have committed to go into a second consultation ahead of the Royal Welsh Show. So, obviously, these are things that can all be considered in that consultation.
2. What assessment has the Minister made of the United Nations report which states that one million species are at risk of extinction as a direct result of human activity? OAQ53855
Thank you. Llywydd, I understand that you've given your permission for questions 2 and 3 to be grouped.
Yes, I had, but the Member asking question 3 is not in the Chamber. So, the grouping cannot therefore be grouped. So, answer the question as question 2.
Thank you. I hadn't noticed the Member wasn't present, sorry.
I'm gravely concerned about the global loss of biodiversity. The legislation we have introduced requires all public bodies, including Welsh Ministers, to proactively maintain and enhance biodiversity through the decisions they make. We also provide financial and practical support to community groups to take action in their local area.
I thank you for that answer. Minister, the inter-governmental science policy platform on biodiversity and ecosystem services report ranked five direct drivers of change in nature with the largest global impacts being change in land and sea use, direct exploitation of organisms, climate change, pollution, including slurry, pesticides and herbicides, and invasive species. The impacts of these human activities on biodiversity have been catastrophic, particularly in recent years. However, despite that, the report does go on to be quite positive and it does say that it's not too late to make a difference, but only if action is taken at every single level, from local to global. And through that transformative change, nature can still recover.
I know that you've outlined some of the changes that are being made, and you know that I repeatedly call for action on slurry and other usage. So, what immediate action is the Welsh Government planning now to at least halt and then also reverse the damage that is being done?
Thank you. Certainly, the report that was published last week is deeply worrying, but, like you, I was very pleased that the global assessment did recognise that it's not too late to reverse a trend, but it does require that transformative change to which you referred. I do think that we're ahead of the game in recognising that biodiversity underpins our economic and our social well-being, and it's, I think, as big a challenge as climate change. We've got our world-leading and groundbreaking legislation and our policy to manage our natural resources sustainably.
We've got our natural resources policy, which sets out our priorities to enable us to reverse decline. I want to achieve more resilient ecosystems, and we'll do that through the policy. We've also got our nature recovery action plan, and I've asked for a refresh of that. That's currently under way, and that's going to report back before the end of the year.
I absolutely hear what you say about slurry and agricultural pollution, and you'll be aware of the regulations that I'm bringing in next January. I'm still working very closely with stakeholders on the voluntary initiatives because I think it's better to have that twin approach.
Minister, I'm sure everyone in the Chamber will agree that the UN report makes for very sober reading and highlights the urgency that is required in protecting our wildlife.
The report identifies that one of the direct drivers of decline in species is pollution, which, of course, includes plastic pollution. Plastic pollution is a huge problem and, as the Atlantic puffin species champion, I am concerned about the impact marine plastic may have on the puffin population in Wales, particularly those on Skomer island.
Puffins, whilst they are doing relatively well in Wales, are currently on the amber list of UK birds of conservation concern as they are vulnerable to adverse changes in the environment because their breeding population is concentrated on a small number of sites. As such, increases in marine plastic pollution puts pressure on puffins in both Wales and the wider environment. In the circumstances, what specific work is the Welsh Government doing to reduce the amount of waste that actually ends up in our ocean so that we help to clean up our seas to protect our marine wildlife for future generations?
Thank you. I think I'm going to hear from a lot of Members about the species that they're champions for this afternoon, looking at the questions.
I think the Member raises a very important point about marine pollution, and certainly there have been several campaigns that have highlighted that. I'm working very closely with my colleague the Deputy Minister for Housing and Local Government around the waste agenda. There are several initiatives that we're bringing forward, but we do appreciate that we're going to have to do far more in regard to this. I think behavioural change is also very important, in the way that we did it with recycling, and that's something that we're looking at this year also.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, I do understand the position you've taken on farm plastics and the disposal of farm plastics. It is a commercial decision, in the relationship between operators and farm businesses. But the regulations that surround farm plastics and the storage of farm plastics is obviously a Government regulation. Have you given any consideration to being a facilitator to try and overcome some of the blockages in the system at the moment, which obviously mean that there is a considerable amount of on-farm plastics now being stored, because the market, basically, has dried up on its disposal? As I said, I'm not looking to you to put financial solutions in place, but there is a role for Government in understanding the regulations that they impose on the industry and trying to be a facilitator to try and break the deadlock so that a solution can be found.
Thank you. You are right—it is a commercial matter between the farmers, the collectors of the plastic farm waste and the plants that can, and do, recycle it. Obviously, farmers have a responsibility to ensure their plastic is disposed of correctly.
I think farmers also recognise, of course, it's important to collect and treat the waste, and all other businesses have to pay for their recycling here in Wales. Having said that, officials have been in discussions with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. DEFRA, specifically, didn't include farm plastic film on the list of candidate products for extended producer responsibility. We thought that was something that perhaps should be covered in a UK- wide scheme, and I've asked officials to continue to look at that. I can't guarantee that DEFRA will do it, but I think it's something that we could make, perhaps, some progress on.
We could look at introducing an EPR scheme ourselves. So, again, I've asked officials to look at the options for that.
Any assistance, obviously, the Government can give to being a facilitator to solving the problem, I think, would be very welcome, as I said, given the amount of on-farm plastics that are used and, ultimately, moving to a scenario in years to come where plastics aren't used and there are alternatives.
But I would like to take you up on the statistics that you gave me in the last questioning that we did on farm pollution. You very kindly corrected the record, because, at that time, you said there'd been a 200 per cent increase in the instances when, in fact, it was just under 200 instances. If you look back over the 20 years' worth of figures that Natural Resources Wales provide, they clearly show that the parameters are, in a good year, about 100 instances, and, in a bad year, under 200—194 is the highest, which, I believe, was hit in 2012-13. Given that these parameters have been relatively constant over the last 20 years, do you think that it is right that you've brought such draconian measures in rather than listening to, obviously, your own working group, which you set up yourself, that set up this document for you to consider with cross-sector buy-in to the recommendations that were brought forward? And, surely, the recommendations contained in this report offer a blueprint to go forward for the agricultural industry, given the evidence that this group collated.
Thank you. Llywydd, I also wrote to you and placed a copy of that letter in the library for Members to be able to access.
I don't see it as draconian. I have heard that word used. We have seen an increase in the number of major polluting incidents, and I'm sure you yourself have seen them, and, certainly, in my discussions with the farming unions, they themselves accept that this is unacceptable and more needs to be done.
I've had a lot of correspondence on the incidents. The new regulations will come into force next January. There will be transitional periods for some elements. But you will have heard me say in my answer to Joyce Watson that I'm continuing to work with the group that you refer to. Obviously, I've had their report. NFU Cymru have employed somebody specifically to look at this. I've met with her, and officials are still continuing to have discussions. But I think it's really important that we stop these major agricultural pollutants. I'm also the Minister for environment, and I have a lot of correspondence from people, particularly about the state of rivers, following some of these major incidents.
I think we'd all agree that we want to see pollution incidents pushed back and down, and, hopefully, towards zero level, but, sadly, we know that's most probably impossible. But, as I said, with the 20- year projection, which is shared by Natural Resources Wales, there hasn't been this massive increase and, in fact, it's in line with pollution instances over those 20 years. As I said, you did bring this working group together, and they did bring a blueprint out, which had recommendations contained in it. You chose not to sign up to those recommendations and go for the belt-and-braces approach that, basically, could put many businesses out in vulnerable communities the length and breadth of Wales because those regulations are so draconian.
I'd be pleased to understand—I'm sure many would be pleased to understand—why you did not take up the recommendations within this report that was brought together from all sections of interested parties and, as I said, was a blueprint to take these regulations forward, which everyone has signed up to do, to drive down agricultural pollution across Wales.
Well, when I first came into post, which was three years ago, I was very keen to have a voluntary approach. I worked with the farming unions, with other stakeholders, to do that, but we did see an increase in the agricultural pollution. And we're still seeing—[Interruption.] No, we're still seeing a significant number of major polluting incidents. We had one—I think it was the week before last or the week before that—where the entire slurry store, unfortunately, was there polluting the land and the water. So, I think it's really important that we get to grips with this, particularly in light of Brexit. This will damage our sustainable value brand if we don't get on top of it now.
Thank you, Llywydd. Minister, I want to refer, if I may, to the consultation document of your own Government on disposing of radioactive waste—geological disposal. Now, I will quote from that document, and it says:
'Radioactive waste disposal is a devolved matter—the Welsh Government is responsible for determining the policy for this within Wales'.
But, looking at paragraph 99 of Schedule 7B to the Government of Wales Act 2006, that states that powers over nuclear energy and nuclear installations are reserved. That reservation includes nuclear safety and accountability for nuclear incidents. There are no exceptions as far as I can see, no carve-outs, as there are in the Scottish context, and, in the explanatory note of the Government of Wales Act 2017, it states entirely clearly in paragraph 99 that it reserves all related issues to nuclear energy and nuclear installations. Can you therefore confirm to us this afternoon that legislating on disposal of radioactive material is beyond the competence of this Assembly, which is contrary to what you claim in your own consultation document?
The radioactive waste management disposal, which I think is what you're referring to, is not the same as nuclear waste. The higher activity radioactive waste has been created in Wales, and that's why Welsh Government agreed to take part in the UK Government programme for its disposal.
Well, perhaps you can explain to us, therefore, what the role of the Welsh Government is in looking at where that nuclear waste, which has been in the news recently, is going. Because it’s clear to me that that is not devolved. Indeed, paragraph 3(2)(4) of Schedule 23 to the Environmental Permitting (England and Wales) Regulations 2016, and I will quote in English, states:
'If it appears to the Secretary of State'—
on a UK level—
'that adequate facilities are not available for the safe disposal or accumulation of radioactive waste, the Secretary of State may—
(a) provide such facilities, or
(b) make arrangements for their provision by such persons as the Secretary of State may think fit.'
I will ask again, therefore: does the Welsh Government have sufficient powers in order to veto any site that is identified for nuclear waste—radioactive waste, to make the distinction that you made in your previous response? Because, again, it appears to me that the Secretary of State has the final say.
We made it very clear as a Government—and certainly the UK Government as well—that we didn't identify any sites, the UK Government didn't identify any sites. It was for a community to decide if they wanted to be a site. So, the work that was undertaken, the consultation meetings—well, they were then done on a webinar, as you know, one in south Wales and one in north Wales—were for communities to come forward if they wanted to put their community forward. It's not for the Welsh Government to veto or the UK Government to veto; it's absolutely for the communities themselves. And we did not have a view on whether there should be any site here in Wales; it was for the community to be willing to host it and in those discussions going forward. So, it's not for anybody—either Government—to veto it.
Well, I don’t quite understand the point that you’re making, because, at the end of the day, it's a decision for Government. I understand the fact that you wish to respect the views of communities, and I would agree with you in that regard, but the environmental licensing regulations make it entirely clear, and I will read again:
'If it appears to the Secretary of State that adequate facilities are not available'—
that is, where a community doesn’t want responsibility in this area—
'the Secretary of State may—
(a) provide such facilities'—
a veto, so it’s going to happen come what may—
(b) make arrangements for their provision by such persons as the Secretary of State may think fit.'
It appears to me, Minister, that there is confusion here. We should have far greater clarity, and certainly the Welsh Government should should be far clearer on where responsibility lies, and throwing it back and saying, ‘Well, it’s not up to us; it’s up to the community’—the principle is fine, but, at the end of the day, you are the Minister, you are the Government, and you should be making the case for the people of Wales.
So, I absolutely agree that it's right that we manage the waste now. I don't think we should leave it for future generations. Certainly, when I came into this portfolio and this was a question that was sort of bubbling around, and there would be these consultations going forward, I felt it was absolutely right that we dealt with it now, even though it's probably in 20 years' time that this would actually happen, rather than leaving it for future generations. My understanding is, as I set out to you in my earlier answers to your questions, that it would be for a community to be willing to host it, it wasn't for Governments—either Government; UK Government or Welsh Government—to impose on it. I'd be very happy to write to the Member if that is not clarifying his questions enough, but, certainly, a geological disposal facility can only be built in Wales if a community is willing to host it.FootnoteLink
3. How will the Welsh Government respond to the threat posed by species decline? OAQ53860
Thank you. I am gravely concerned about the global loss of biodiversity. The legislation we've introduced requires all public bodies, including Welsh Ministers, to proactively maintain and enhance biodiversity through the decisions they make. We also provide financial and practical support to community groups to take action in their local area.
This month's United Nations report on species decline will, hopefully, be a wake-up call for leaders right across the world. One million species may be pushed to extinction in the next few years. Unless we take drastic action, we as a human species are going to follow them. This isn't a far away problem, for we've seen the same trends here in Wales. The state of nature report reveals that, in Wales, one in 14 species is heading for extinction. Fifty-seven per cent of wild plants, 60 per cent of butterflies and 40 per cent of birds are in decline. The 'State of Birds in Wales 2018' report highlighted that almost a third of birds in Wales are declining significantly. The picture isn't any rosier for fish stocks, as many species, such as salmon, sea trout and sewin, are all at risk all over Wales.
Now, I welcome the declaration of a climate emergency by this Government, but I cannot reconcile this position with the First Minister's assertion that it did not represent, and I quote, 'a sharp difference in policy.' Was that declaration a public relations stunt, and, more importantly, is your First Minister, and indeed this Government as a whole, not paying attention to the warning signs?
Absolutely not. I think the First Minister, from the day he came into post back in December, has made it very clear that biodiversity and climate change mitigation are absolutely one of his top priorities. We all have to look at biodiversity right across Government in relation to our policies.
You're absolutely right—that report last week was hugely concerning. I was saying in my answer to Joyce Watson that it's certainly very sobering reading. You'll be aware that we have the low-carbon delivery plan; again, the First Minister launched it back in March. The proposals and policies—there are 100 policies and proposals in that that, if we implement them, will make great strides in relation to biodiversity and climate change. I was saying that I think biodiversity is as much of a threat as climate change; it's right up there.
You'll also be aware that I, myself, and my Scottish counterparts and UK Government counterparts, asked the UK climate change commission for some advice on the back of the inter-governmental panel report into whether we would reach the levels required by the Paris agreement. I received that advice a week last Thursday. I've met with the UK Committee on Climate Change, some of the members, on two occasions in the past fortnight. Officials are now digesting that advice—it's about 300 pages—to see whether we do need to change our policies, but you will appreciate the low-carbon delivery plan was only launched in March, and I think we need to carry on with those policies and proposals. But it could be that we need to change.
The declaration, I think, was a very positive and strong declaration. I think you can only use the word 'emergency' very sparingly; it's not a word that you can throw around. So, a great deal of thought went into that, and I was very pleased that this Parliament voted then to be the first—we were the first Parliament in the world to endorse that climate change emergency. So, there's a huge amount of work to do. We need to check all our policies and proposals, but I do think we need to start with that low-carbon delivery plan, ensure that we take that forward. But it is absolutely something that we're all looking at across Government.
I'm pleased that Leanne Wood has asked this question. As you're probably aware, I'm delighted to be the Assembly's species champion for—I can see you leafing over to your page on species champions; well versed—the freshwater pearl mussel, one of the lesser known of the protected species, which is arguably Wales's most endangered species, and one of the most critically endangered species in the world. Now, a healthy population of freshwater pearl mussels is actually a barometer of a healthy river ecosystem. Their decline is due to the fact that they do need very pure water. So, I wonder if you could explain to us, Minister, in addition to what you've told Leanne Wood, what measures is the Welsh Government taking to seek to improve water quality in our rivers across Wales, in a way that will have a positive impact on the survival chances of my species, the freshwater pearl mussel, but also other species as well?
Thank you. As I say, I think the report was very sobering and very concerning, but I was pleased that it recognised that it's not too late to reverse the trend that we have seen. It's not just up to Government, it's up to everybody, and I think, going back to Leanne Wood's comments around the climate change emergency, that was about galvanising not just Governments but individuals and businesses and communities into action to realise that it is indeed an emergency and we don't have that long to reverse what is happening.
What we're doing is mainstreaming biodiversity into all our decision making. So, when I'm looking at marine policies, for instance, I need to ensure that we are supporting the ecosystem that will ensure that your species does not go into further decline.
The ecosystem runs in equilibrium, but the loss of predators at the top of the food chain is going to lead to some species expanding, causing further damage to the ecosystem. We're amidst the largest period of species extinction in the last 60 million years. Habitat destruction, exploitation and climate change are driving the loss of over half the world's wild animal population. What is the Welsh Government doing to protect the natural habitat of Wales? Especially, what are you doing to stop people taking action that stops birds nesting? I'm not a species champion for any bird.
Thank you. We have our natural resources policy, and that obviously sets out our priorities to enable us to reverse the decline in biodiversity and achieve more resilient ecosystems. I mentioned in my answer to Joyce Watson that we're refreshing the nature recovery action plan, because that will then give us the key actions and mechanisms that we will need to take forward to make that real difference.
Netting is an issue that's come across my desk quite frequently in the last few weeks, and I think it's really important that developers understand that that policy is there only to be used very sparingly and very specifically, and I will be writing out to local authorities to remind them of that.
4. What steps will the Welsh Government take to halt and reverse biodiversity loss? OAQ53864
10. Will the Minister outline what actions the Welsh Government is taking to promote biodiversity? OAQ53839
Thank you. Presiding Officer, I understand that you've given your permission for questions 4 and 10 to be grouped.
Halting and reversing biodiversity in Wales requires transformational change, and this Welsh Government is determined to be the catalyst. Our focus now must be on building on the actions already under way. We will build on the action we are doing through major new policies, including our Wales marine plan, a refreshed nature recovery action plan, a national forest for Wales, and a new system of support for farming post Brexit.
I welcome that response. As many others, I'm a species champion. I'm the species champion for lapwing here in the Assembly, and we know that we've gone from 7,500 breeding pairs within Wales since the 1980s to now fewer than 700, despite good work by people such as the Wildlife Trusts and others. The IPBES report shows the scale of the challenge, and we do face—. Whichever way you want to frame it, it is a crisis, it is an emergency, and it's not a new one. It's one that we've faced repeatedly through successive Governments as well, at a UK and a Wales level.
One appeal that I would make to the Minister in seeking to galvanise her and seeking to help her in terms of discussions with Cabinet colleagues is that we should try and address climate change and biodiversity together. Whilst they will have separate strands, there is a great deal of overlap in this, and too often within Government we've done one or the other and focused from time to time. Both need to be done together.
Secondly, and recognising the good work that the Government is doing already, about how we're going to need to step this up, and recognising that we have a progressive Minister here in front of us, could I suggest—just make some suggestions? And the First Minister, I hope, will be listening, so I'm adding to her strength here around the Cabinet table. We will need to look at the resources going forward and increasing the resources towards funding of halting and reversing biodiversity loss and the loss of nature. We will need to commit, carte blanche, to say that we will restore, enhance, connect all our important habitats, and actively invest in the recovery of species. We may need to consider legal targets for nature's recovery. We will need to look at ramping up step change in sustainable biodiversity-based food systems within Wales, and all that brings with it, and using nature-based solutions in a real, meaningful way, as highlighted in the IPBES report.
Indeed. Could I then ask, after those helpful suggestions—? Diolch, Llywydd. I'm sorry. I've tested your patience. Could I then ask: would she explore with Cabinet colleagues radical action that could include using our tax-varying powers in Wales to look at banning, taxing or even putting environmental levies on environmental bads to fund environmental goods?
Thank you, Huw Irranca-Davies, for your helpful comments and, certainly, your help with my ministerial colleagues. Certainly, I don't think that I need any help with the First Minister. As I said in my answer to Leanne Wood, the First Minister, from the day that he came into post, has made it very clear that climate change and biodiversity—and I think you're quite right, it is a twin-track approach—is one of his top priorities. Certainly, as we go through the budget process, biodiversity is a theme that will be looked at very closely, alongside all colleagues who are making budget agreements and policies, going forward.
You will have heard me say that the report was deeply concerning, but, as I say, there was a positive element to it, in the fact that it's not too late to do that. You do make two very helpful suggestions. The one about legal targets: I remember when the environment Act was going through this place about four or five years ago, it was looked at whether and introduction of biodiversity targets into that Bill would be an effective method of improving biodiversity in Wales. But, I think that it was decided that it would not—that, in fact, it could have a perverse outcome. So, that wasn't the way forward.
In relation to using our new tax-raising powers, again, I can give full consideration to that, along with my colleague the Minister for Finance, as to whether that would give us an opportunity. We've already got the landfill disposals tax scheme, which the Member will be aware of, and we've seen some significant funding going into those schemes to help in that way.
Thank you, Minister. I, too, wanted to ask a question on the IPBES report, and note your earlier answers. I think the fact that so many of us have asked questions around biodiversity today shows just how important the topic is to all of us. So, I would like to ask you about how you intend to retain and enhance environmental protections derived from the EU. I know that the RSPB has mentioned creating a strong, independent watchdog to receive and act on citizens' complaints, and the need to guarantee that our laws are as strong, or are stronger than, as a member of the EU. So, what are your thoughts on this?
Thank you for that question. Certainly, I've made it very clear that we don't want to see any diminishment of our environmental protections that we've had in the EU. If anything, we want to enhance them. The Member will be aware that we are out to consultation on governance and principles at the current time. That consultation closes on 9 June. I would encourage everybody to put forward their responses. Certainly, I am working with stakeholders and seeking their views and advice in relation to post Brexit.
You will be aware of the ministerial round-table that I have, and the RSPB are a member of my round-table. They've certainly mentioned that we could look at a strong, independent watchdog. Clearly, there are organisations in place at the current time that could look at that, but we want to ensure that there's no gap from leaving the EU. So, when we have the consultation responses, and we've had a chance to consider those, then we will be able to come forward with whether we think that that is actually the way forward. But, certainly, there has to be somewhere where citizens can go, post Brexit, if they can't go to the European court like they can at the current time.
Minister, the red squirrel is the species that I'm the species champion of, and I'm very fortunate to have a good red squirrel population in the Clocaenog forest in my own constituency and, indeed, a breeding centre in the Welsh Mountain Zoo in Colwyn Bay. But the red squirrel population has fallen to about 1,500 red squirrels across Wales at the moment. Most of them are on the isle of Anglesey. I've been fortunate enough to have visited the projects both in Anglesey and in Clocaenog, and I know that one of the challenges that the projects face is the continuity of funding from one project to the next. So I wonder what action the Welsh Government can take in order that there can be a more sustainable approach to funding for the core activities of organisations like the Clocaenog Red Squirrel Trust and the Red Squirrels Trust Wales, which has undertaken some very important work in protecting this iconic species here in Wales.
Thank you. I'm very pleased, Llywydd, that I brought my list of species champions for Assembly Members this afternoon. I'm obviously very aware of the red squirrel population in the forest that the Member refers to. NRW are working very closely with the Red Squirrels Trust Wales through their Red Squirrels United project, and that's really engaged a significant number of volunteers to establish the Clocaenog Red Squirrel Trust. Obviously funding is an issue that I have to look at on a case-by-case basis. I want to make as many projects like this as I can sustainable, so we will be looking at that in the next round of sustainable management grants.
5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to address climate change? OAQ53862
'Prosperity for All: A Low Carbon Wales' sets out 100 policies and proposals to meet our current carbon budget and set a longer term decarbonisation trajectory for Wales. We have subsequently become the first parliament in the world to vote in favour of the declaration of a climate emergency.
Diolch, Weinidog. It's one thing to declare a climate change emergency, but as I'm sure you would admit, it's more difficult to take the difficult steps to deal with that. As former American Vice-President Al Gore described it, it's an inconvenient truth that we all must face up to. Promoting electric cars and charging points, as Rhun ap Iorwerth has been doing outside the Senedd today, is clearly one way forward to try and address things on the ground. There's also some radical work going on on the issue of climate repair at Cambridge university, which has been looking at carbon sinks and issues such as reforestation. What are you doing to promote similar research here in Wales, and how are you promoting the development in future of carbon sinks such as new forests to make sure that we don't just deal with the issue of the problems you've got at the moment, but in the future perhaps we can turn the clock back in some ways and try and improve the climate, not just stabilise it?
Thank you. You will have heard me mention in an earlier answer that the reason we declared a climate emergency was to ensure that we did galvanise not just Governments but businesses, communities and individuals to take action now. It's very important we take action now. You suggest a couple of ways we can do this, and I go back to the low-carbon delivery plan. There are 100 policies and proposals, some of them for the future, that we need to do if we are going to decarbonise and have this positive impact on climate change.
I mentioned businesses. I was very pleased to meet with Hafren Dyfrdwy, which Members will be aware of—the water company—last week. They were telling me, for instance, they've taken a triple pledge to achieve net zero carbon and 100 per cent electric vehicles, going back to what you were saying about electric vehicles, and 100 per cent energy from renewable sources by 2030. It’s that sort of action that we need to take in order to address the climate change emergency. So, I'm looking very carefully at those proposals and policies that the First Minister introduced in March. I mentioned about the UK Committee on Climate Change advice that we've been given, and officials are currently looking at the 300 pages of advice. They've suggested that we are able to achieve 95 per cent carbon emission reduction by 2050, so I need to look at that very carefully, and then we'll bring forward a further statement.
Minister, the Welsh Labour Government has shown strong strategic and stable leadership for the Welsh nation by declaring a climate emergency, as acknowledged by climate extinction activist Greta Thunberg. Recently the Welsh Government received advice from the Committee on Climate Change recommending that emissions of greenhouse gases in Wales can and must fall by 95 per cent over the next 30 years to make our ambitious contribution to the commitments made in the Paris agreement. Minister, you've also stated that the Welsh Government has agreed to review Wales's 2050 target and report back to the National Assembly before setting the third Wales carbon budget by the end of 2020. So, therefore, what further strategic initiatives are the Welsh Government considering to proactively meet the climate emergency, so that Wales can lead by example, showing up the shocking vacuum of leadership from the likes of climate denier Donald Trump and those in the UK who share that political view?
Thank you. I mentioned that officials are currently digesting the advice we had from the UK CCC, but we are also reviewing the urgency of actions in our low-carbon plan to see where we can take further action following the declaration. I chair the ministerial task and finish group—which is a cross-Government group—and I've made it a priority for that group to have a look at how we can address that. We fully recognise the urgency of tackling climate change. We may be a small country, but we take our responsibility globally very, very seriously, and we need to do it in a way that maximises the wider benefits for society as we move to a low-carbon economy.
I go back to what I was saying. I think it was really important to make that declaration, to galvanise others to have that trigger—a wave of action at home and internationally, for everybody to come together to recognise the crisis that we do have. Wales is part of the Under2 coalition—we're actually on the steering group—and I've been very fortunate to attend conferences with other states and regions to see the work that's done right across the world. The coalition is made up of about 220 governments right across the world, and they represent over 1.3 billion people and 43 per cent of the global economy. It's important that we learn from other countries, but I think it is only through taking action at home that we can stimulate other actions right across the world.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government supports and promotes the food and drink industry in mid Wales? OAQ53838
Thank you. The Welsh Government is supporting the growth of the food and drink industry across all of Wales. A £10 million call for proposals for investment in food businesses opened at the beginning of May. I intend to publish a consultation on future plans to develop the food and drink industry beyond 2020 by July.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. Later today, I'm a supporter of Jenny Rathbone's motion in regard to healthy school meals. In particular, I would like to see an increase in the amount of food for schools being procured locally. Can I ask, what is the Welsh Government doing to assist local authorities, such as Powys County Council and others, to source ingredients locally, where that is, indeed, possible, to improve food traceability, reduce food mileage and to ensure that school meals can be fresher, tastier, more nutritious, better for the environment and better for the local economy?
Absolutely. So, again, this is cross-Government working with several Ministers to ensure this happens. I think procurement is an area where we have a big opportunity. If we're clutching opportunities post Brexit, I think this is one area that we can do that. And as you say, if we buy local produce, it helps not just our farmers and our food producers, but also our climate.
Thank you very much. I think one thing that’s important in terms of food production companies in mid Wales, like my constituency in Anglesey, is to ensure that there is enough appropriate property available for businesses who wish to develop in this area. I do have a letter that’s ready to be sent to you—and I will do that today—about the principle of ensuring that there are adequate premises available. And I would welcome a pledge from you that you would be willing to work with me, as with other Members representing mid Wales, on ways of ensuring that those kinds of premises are available. Because in my constituency recently, a number of businesses have grown in the food sector, but I still think premises provided specifically for them would work better.
I think the Member makes a very important point. We've had discussions about this over the last two or three years, and if we're going to see these hubs developing, I think it's really important that we have food production standard buildings to go along with it. Obviously, we've got the food innovation centre in Llangefni, so I think it does lend itself to having that sort of food zone, if you like. So, I'd be very happy. I'll await your letter, and then we can take it from there.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's national strategy for the management of natural resources? OAQ53841
Thank you. I published the natural resources policy in August 2017. This was the second statutory product of the Environment (Wales) Act 2016. The focus of the natural resources policy is the sustainable management of Wales's natural resources, to maximise their contribution to achieving goals within the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
One of the huge opportunities that our natural resources afford us is recreational opportunities that are linked in with the ambitious plans to improve tourism here in Wales. Our forests, I think, are one part of our natural resources that are underutilised for tourism and recreation purposes. We're very fortunate in north Wales, both in the Llandegla forest and in and around the Clocaenog forest, to enjoy some wonderful mountain biking opportunities, which are growing in their popularity. What work is the Welsh Government doing to support those very small organisations, very often, that are trying to open up further opportunities for mountain biking in particular in Welsh forests where Natural Resources Wales are managing them?
Thank you. I think you make a very important point about our forests and you'll be aware that one of the First Minister's manifesto commitments was to bring forward a national forest. At the moment, he and I are going to consider options as to how we bring that forward. Obviously, I know Llandegla forest very well, I live not far from it, and certainly the extra funding it brings into the economy, for instance, with the mountain bike centre and other facilities is to be welcomed. I think I can certainly continue to work with my colleague the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism to see what else we can do to enhance that.
Question 8 [OAQ53846] was withdrawn, even though the Member Caroline Jones is in the Chamber to have asked it.
Question 9, Dai Lloyd.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on tackling air pollution in South Wales West? OAQ53833
Thank you. Tackling air pollution in South Wales West and across Wales remains a top priority for the Welsh Government. Actions to improve air quality across a range of sectors, including agriculture, transport and industry, will be in our clean air plan for Wales, which will be consulted on this autumn, building on our clean air Wales programme.
Following a very effective campaign by local residents, an application for a waste-to-energy incinerator in Llansamlet was thankfully rejected by Swansea council's planning committee last week. However, what has become apparent is that current Welsh Government policy on incinerators is not in keeping with the concerns of local people on air pollution, toxic ash and carbon dioxide, particularly when they are proposed close to residential areas and schools. We have heard of similar concerns in Barry and people are understandably calling for a tightening of Welsh Government policy on this issue. Do you recognise those concerns and is the Welsh Government prepared to reconsider its policy on incineration to bring its waste management policy in line with more sustainable solutions?
This is a matter that falls within the remit of my colleague the Minister for Housing and Local Government, who is now going to answer questions. But I'll be very happy to have a discussion with her and write to the Member.
Minister, as you know, I've raised the issue many times about pollution in my constituency from industrial emissions. One of the agendas we want to look at is the cumulative effect of any proposal that comes forward for any incinerator or any other aspect, to look at how that impacts upon the community in addition to what's already there. Will you meet with your colleague from Cabinet Julie James to discuss how the planning rules can be looked at to show that cumulative effects have to be taken into consideration, so that when it comes to any industrial emissions we're looking at what's already there as well, not just that single proposal?
Yes, absolutely. Having been the planning Minister not that long ago, I'm very aware of that and the impact on policy. The Minister heard your request and will be very happy to do that.
At the start of February, Minister, I asked whether Welsh Government would consider putting money into helping councils upgrade their public transport to make them greener and less polluting. At the time, you told me that the idea was something that you'd be very happy to discuss with the transport Minister Ken Skates. That's three months ago now, so I'm wondering if you can update me on how your conversations are going.
I will write to the Member with that, because off the top of my head I'm not aware that I've actually had that meeting. So, I will ensure that happens and write to the Member.
The next item is questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government. The first question is from Lynne Neagle.
1. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to ensure that local communities have a voice in the planning system? OAQ53865
Communities have a central voice in the planning system when local development plans are prepared and planning applications determined. Local planning authorities and developers are encouraged to go further than the statutory minimum to realise the benefits that collaboration and involvement brings to the quality of the built environment.
Thank you, Minister. I know that you're aware of the huge opposition to the proposal to start recovering aggregate at the much-loved beauty spot called 'The Canyons' in my constituency. I, of course, understand you can't comment on a live planning appeal, but, as you know, residents were deeply concerned about whether their voices had been fully heard at the lengthy public inquiry. I've had complaints about key documents being submitted late by developers, statements of common ground being submitted just the night before the inquiry, and no verbatim record being taken of proceedings, to name but a few. Minister, would you agree with me that it is crucial in contentious planning inquiries that the voice of the community is fully heard? And what steps can you take as Minister to enure that this happens and also that the whole process becomes more open and transparent?
Yes, I'm very grateful for the Member's well-articulated views on the involvement of communities in planning appeals, which she shared with me in the meeting that we had. I have raised these concerns with the Planning Inspectorate's director for Wales. I know my colleague is well aware that the planning appeal is currently before the Welsh Ministers for determination, and understands that I can't comment on any aspect of the case because to do so could prejudice the outcome of the decision or risk a challenge to the decision itself.
Minister, last year, the Local Government and Communities Committee of the Scottish Parliament reported on the Planning (Scotland) Bill. They called for the Bill to encourage more meaningful engagement on planning applications. This approach was welcomed by the Royal Town Planning Institute Scotland, which said that they wanted to create a more collaborative planning system, where communities and other partners are engaged at the start of the process to identify and agree what is needed. What study has the Minister made of the proposals contained in the Planning (Scotland) Bill to see what lessons can be learned to enhance the voice of communities in the planning process in Wales, please?
I'm very aware of the process going on in Scotland. We have a very transparent and comprehensive engagement with local communities, businesses, stakeholders and neighbouring authorities in our local development plan process already to ensure all concerns and aspirations are taken into account. We also have a community involvement scheme, which sets out how local communities can engage in the LDP process. The planning legislation here in Wales already says that the views of local communities must be taken into account when preparing the local development plan.
As you know, I'm sure, local development plans must be adopted by a resolution of the full council, which ensures a democratic process, taking into account local views to be incorporated in that decision-making process, and they are adopted following a full public scrutiny process where all interested parties can, and very frequently do, make their views known to an independent inspector. There also follows a six-week challenge period after the plan is adopted, enabling any person to object if they consider the correct preparation procedures have not been adhered to.
Many Members, however, have made some other submissions to me over the years about how various bits of the planning system, particularly the development control system, could be made more open and transparent. I've recently announced that we're looking at seeing whether we can have an independent planning inspectorate for Wales, separate to that for England, and we will be taking those two proposals forward when we look at our planning law. Also, the Counsel General has said that the first consolidation measures that we would look at in Wales are likely to be in the planning field.
May I support the comments made by Lynne Neagle? It is important that we strengthen the voice of the local community within the planning regime. What’s disappointing, of course, is that Plaid Cymru did table amendments to the planning Bill in this very place in 2013 to do exactly that, but that was rejected by the Labour Government, and they voted against those amendments, as they did, by the way, when we tabled amendments to the same Bill calling for an independent planning inspectorate for Wales. Just last week, I welcomed your written statement that the Welsh Government had carried out a u-turn on that issue and now supported the Plaid Cymru policy, having been calling for that over many years. Will you carry out another u-turn, therefore, and support what we were calling for in 2013, namely to give the right to communities to appeal planning applications, which then, as we would all wish to see, would give a far stronger voice to our communities within that system?
Well, I'm pleased the Member is pleased about the announcement—if that's not too many affirmatives—and welcomes the recent announcement that we're looking into the feasibility of separating the Planning Inspectorate for Wales. And we're doing that for a number of reasons, which he'll be familiar with, but not least that the position is changing rapidly in terms of the divergence of law as it's applied. I'm committed to looking at all aspects of the planning process to see whether we can improve the voice of the community, particularly in the development control process, so in the specific application process. I'm personally not convinced of the need for a third-party or further appeal, but I do think that there are strengthening measures that can be taken, particularly in terms of site inspections and so on, to allow the voice of the community to be heard. I think the current process can seem very arcane from the outside. So, we are looking to see what other amendments to the development control process we can make, and we will very shortly be going out to consultation on a national development framework to put the overarching plan in place as well. So, I'm very hopeful that we will see a full development of the planning process in Wales with all of the strategic levels of the plan in place, and with the voice of the citizen heard at the planning stage for all of those, but I'm not yet convinced that a third-party appeal ought to be part of that process.
2. What action is the Welsh Government taking to increase the number of new homes being built? OAQ53832
Increasing the number of homes being built, particularly for social rent, is a fundamental priority for this Government. We are taking action, considering new ways of doing things following the review of affordable housing supply, and making record levels of investment in the home building industry.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Steve Morgan, the founder of Redrow, said recently that the best way to combat the housing crisis is to speed up planning permission to enable more houses to be built. He went on to say that the rules and directives have choked the system, meaning fewer houses are being built, which, in turn, makes it difficult for first-time buyers to get on the housing ladder. Does the Minister agree that the planning process for new housing is too slow and has a lot of red tape in it? Minister, what action are you taking to remove the barriers delaying the delivery of new affordable homes in Wales, please?
I partly agree with the point that the Member is making, but I have to say I don't agree with it when we're talking about the large house builders. So, I think that there is a case to make sure that we simplify the planning process, perhaps by rather more site-specific planning approaches for SME builders across Wales, and our stalled sites programme, for example, is looking to do exactly that to bring those smaller sites into play. However, I must say I disagree with, I think, the Member's proposition that the large house builders need assistance with planning. My view, actually, is that we need to strengthen our planning rules around size, type and demand for those kinds of developments, so that we have sustainable communities being built with the right kinds of infrastructure alongside the houses, and not just urban sprawl, which can occur where you remove planning consent regimes. So, I think I'm partly agreeing with the Member, but not entirely.
We know that only twice since the first world war have houses been built in the numbers necessary to meet demand. Once was in 1930 when there was very little control over development; I think that was what Mohammad Asghar was asking for earlier. And the second time was in the 1950s and 1960s when we had the large-scale building of council housing, and not only large-scale building of council housing but the necessary infrastructure to go with it. I wish to stress the importance of large-scale council house building to meet housing need; I believe it's the only way we actually are going to be able to meet the needs of housing, because it's not in the best interest of private developers to build sufficient because that would depress prices, and their aim is to maximise profit. So, they wish to increase prices as much as they possibly can. That's how Redrow made just under £400 million profit last year. What is the Government doing to enable this to occur?
I agree with Mike Hedges; I think we're on the same page entirely. Traditionally, local authorities were indeed the prime providers of social housing across the UK with, of course, the massive house building programme that came in the post-war period. And those houses are still very popular homes today for some of the most vulnerable residents in our communities. But the building programmes were curtailed by financial restraints imposed by the UK Government on Welsh and other local authorities, and that has largely meant that large-scale council housing has been severely limited for a generation; in fact, since Margaret Thatcher introduced the right to buy legislation back in the late 1980s.
So, we do recognise the important role councils have in building new homes for local people, and I'm very enthused that we are potentially on the cusp of a new golden age for social housing in Wales. The Member, Mike Hedges, is completely right that the biggest increase in the scale and pace of social housing is expected to come from our local authorities, now they're able to build once again. The borrowing cap has finally been lifted by the UK Government, who've seen the light it seems, and there is an opportunity to turn council house building ambitions once more into results.
I've just had the affordable housing supply review published, and I'll be responding to those recommendations shortly. That review specifically considers what support local authorities will need to help them build again at pace and scale. We are welcoming of both the review and the lifting of the cap. We want to work very fast now to see whether we can get a revolution in social housing once again in Wales.
Minister, I recently had the pleasure had the pleasure of visiting Rhondda Housing Association's Lle Ysgol development in Hirwaun that was built by a local small and medium-sized enterprise house builder, WDL Homes Ltd. And this brownfield development used a social housing grant to develop 12 homes, but also a commercial unit, which is, essentially, a village shop. How is the Welsh Government engaging with social landlords to encourage the development of retail units like this within their builds, which provide income for the landlord, but more importantly are a real asset to the local community, when we know that so many of our communities have suffered or are concerned about the potential for the loss of their village shops?
Yes, absolutely; it's a lovely project, actually. The Rhondda Housing Association, as she said, and the scheme at Lle Ysgol shows the benefits of partnership working in improving local communities. And as I said, we are very concerned to build communities, not just housing estates, and it's very important that the right infrastructure, including shops and other facilities, is there. The scheme, as you know, has regenerated a vacant site for that community. It has 12 homes, an adapted wheelchair bungalow and a new co-operative retail unit. We provided the social housing grant and housing finance grant, totalling about £1.1 million, towards the development of the homes there, and we encourage registered social landlords and councils across Wales to look at developing a community rather than a set of houses, for exactly the reasons that she outlined.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Llywydd. Do you think it's acceptable for rough-sleepers to have their only shelter, i.e. their tent, taken from them and their few belongings thrown into a van and taken elsewhere?
No, of course I don't think it's acceptable to do that. I think she's probably referring to the clearances that Cardiff council have seen recently. She and I became involved in a social media chain on that, which I have to say didn't always show social media to its best advantage, certainly in terms of some of the trolling I had as a result of that.
I have met with Cardiff council on several occasions subsequent to that, and, actually, also with Cardiff prison, to see what we can do to get the pathways better for people coming out of prison. In those instance, I'm assured by Cardiff council that the homeless engagement team have been out to meet with all of those people on at least two, if not more, occasions.
Minister, I'm stunned that you're not prepared to condemn this practice. We've seen earlier this week that Juha Kaakinen, one of those people involved in the Helsinki Housing First scheme, has accused the Welsh Government of a lack of vision and a lack of focus in terms of ending homelessness. It's over a year since your Government said it was reviewing priority need, and that's despite every organisation working in the sector, and your own Government's White Paper from 2012 saying that you needed to abolish priority need. It's almost a year since Crisis published the most detailed plan to end homelessness that is available, with recommendations for all Governments, but we haven't seen any commitment from the Welsh Government in implementing those recommendations, despite the fact that you would save money from doing so. When are we going to see real action on tackling homelessness and the implementation of that plan?
Well, I just don't think it's true to say that we've seen no commitment at all. We have a task and finish group, chaired by Crisis itself, looking at our Housing First pilots. It is the policy of this Government that we roll out Housing First. We have to roll out Housing First in a way that means that we give the right lifeline to people, with the right support around them, in the right way. It's impossible to just replicate the Finnish system. And on the gentleman in question, who featured on a programme on the BBC on Monday, which I'm sure she saw, as did I—I have had no contact with that gentleman, and I'd welcome such contact, but he did not have the policy context for Wales right. One of the issues driving homelessness in Wales is the universal credit system, over which I, unfortunately, have no control. So, we have a system in which we have been praised the world over for our preventative programme in maintaining people in housing. We are continuing to do that. We have managed to hold the tide at 65 per cent of homelessness prevented in Wales. We're working very hard on the rest of it, and, of course, Housing First is our preferred option. You cannot just turn the ship of state around in two weeks and replicate an entire system from Finland. So, we have to make sure that our pilots work, that they reach the most vulnerable, and that we do it properly, so that we get a system that's sustainable and makes homelessness rare, brief and non-recurring, which is obviously the aim of all of us.
Two weeks? Minister, time and time again, we see your Government delaying and dragging its heels on even basic social justice issues, whether that's homelessness, air pollution or banning unfair letting agent fees. We only see action several years after the issue comes to your attention—endless task and finish groups, which don't end up finishing anything, reviews that tell us what we already know, and finding 'balances' that have to be struck between the rights of vulnerable individuals and large organisations, which don't like the fact that rough-sleepers are ruining their retail experience. Is this what twenty-first century socialism is all about?
Well, Leanne, I'm really sorry to see you descend into that kind of hyperbole, because that is not at all where we are and you well know it. I’ll be sure to pass on your thoughts on the task and finish group to the hardworking experts who are helping us with that policy. I’m sure they’ll be really helped by that kind of attitude.
Our attitude is entirely different to that. We want to roll out the best solution for people, as fast as possible, so that that solution is efficient and effective in dealing with their problems. This is not about money; this is about social justice and making sure that people have the unique solution to their problem that they richly deserve—not some one-size-fits-all solution that we can just slap on to the system and say, ‘There we are; we’ve done it.’ That’s not what we’re about. We’re about making sure that each individual receives the social justice that they deserve and a system that supports them in maintaining their home once we get them into it, and supports their mental health, substance misuse, loneliness, post-traumatic stress disorder—all the myriad of problems that people experience when they experience homelessness.
Getting them into the house isn't the problem—sustaining them there and making sure that they have all of the services necessary to sustain that tenancy into the future, including the right packages of support, financially—benefits and so on—is essential. I’m not going to be bounced into doing something fast, when what we want to do is do it properly.
Diolch, Llywydd. My questions will focus on your role as Welsh Government lead on policy and relations with the armed forces and veterans in Wales.
In February, I hosted an event in the Assembly, celebrating the launch of the first national Welsh Veterans Awards, celebrating and rewarding armed forces veterans or ex-forces personnel that have made the transition to civilian life and have gone above and beyond and excelled in their relevant fields and will act as role models for future service leaders. The award teams were looking for people who, even during the most difficult periods, have excelled in business, fitness, sport and the wider community. They e-mailed me last week to say they'd just released their shortlist of finalists for the awards at the Village Hotel Club, Swansea, on 26 June, sponsored by Flintshire-based TASC Holdings Ltd and in support of ABF The Soldiers' Charity. What engagement has, or will the Welsh Government have of this positive initiative?
I'm not sure I know that much about that specific initiative, but we’ve had good, positive initiatives from right across our contacts with the armed forces. The First Minister and I met with the brigadier for Wales very recently to discuss our continued relationship with the armed forces here in Wales and what we can do to mutually assist each other to get the best out of that relationship.
We have a long, proud tradition of supplying people into the armed forces. I’m very pleased to say that I was recently at a parade of the Welsh guards through Swansea, which I was very proud to attend. So, I’m afraid I don’t know the specifics of what he just set out. I’d be very glad to know more about it. It sounds great and I’m very happy to have more involvement in that, if he wants to supply the details to me.
Great. As I say, they want to inspire our future service leavers that great things can happen.
In February, the UK Defence Secretary announced that service leavers and their families will now be able to access military accommodation for up to a year after leaving, giving them more time to look for permanent accommodation as they transition back to civilian life, where housing is clearly key to armed forces veterans and their families.
We know that, in Wales, First Choice Housing Association and Alabare Wales Homes for Veterans have led on housing for ex-forces personnel and their families, but how do you respond to concern that the Welsh Government’s housing referral pathway for veterans doesn’t address the concerns of how housing officers can provide the necessary support to manage the complex cases of rehomed veterans with better integration of housing, health and care services?
We have a pathway specifically for people coming out of the armed forces. I'm very keen to make sure that that works and to have better involvement with armed forces personnel in the year leading up to their leaving the armed forces. So, I'd very much welcome better involvement in that specific process for my officials. So, what we want to have is a seamless pathway so that we can hand people on to the right agencies in the area. We're very keen to make sure that we maintain local connections so people can go back to any community that they feel they have a local connection with, or indeed if they've made a life as part of being in the armed forces quarters somewhere else, that they're able to maintain a connection with family and friends. My understanding is that people transition best out of the armed forces when they are transitioning into a community happy to receive them and in which they have a lot of connections. So, I'm very happy to work with the Member if he wants to put me in touch with anyone who's got concerns in that area to make sure the pathway is correct.
Just on that, I'm reminded by the Deputy Minister that she's launching the Welsh Government's covenant annual report tomorrow, which has had a lot of input from the armed forces expert group. So, we're very delighted to be part of that as well.
Well, I hope your response means that you will now actually address this within the pathway with your officials.
Given your previous response, you may have heard of Project360—a partnership between Age Cymru, the veterans charity Woody's Lodge, and Age Alliance Wales—providing a welcoming space for armed service veterans, recent leavers and reservists, funded by the UK Chancellor's aged veterans fund, supporting older veterans across Wales.
I recently received correspondence from Age Cymru regarding a Conwy carer talking about the extra challenges she faces caring for her veteran husband with vascular dementia. She said that while he visits social groups for veterans, such as Woody's Lodge in Colwyn Bay, where he feels comfortable enough to chat with fellow visitors about their time in the service, they've also attended non-veteran support groups, which don't meet his needs. Although he enjoyed the exercise classes, he didn't want to chat to anyone there that he felt he had nothing in common with. He said, 'I would love to see more veteran-based activities as they offer such person-focused support.' And Project360 suspects there may thousands of people like this in Wales, with full-time carers striving to meet the needs of their loved ones with chronic conditions and the added complication of being a veteran who struggles to interact with civvy street. How do you propose to address that concern as you look ahead with your colleagues in related departments?
So, this is something the Deputy Minister's been taking forward. She's reminded me, once more, that she's launching the report at Woody's Lodge to see first-hand what can be done as part of making sure that veterans do receive the sorts of services that will allow them to have the kind of experiences that Mark Isherwood has just set out in his answer. I'm very happy to get the Deputy Minister to write to the Member with any details of any other projects that she's been looking at recently,FootnoteLink and if he wants to supply to me the individual details of the constituent that he mentions, I'd be more than happy to look into that as well.
Question 3—but David Rowlands is not in the Chamber to ask his question No. 3. So, question 4—Paul Davies.
Question 3 [OAQ53868] not asked.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on whether the Welsh Government's rural housing policies are fit for purpose? OAQ53844
The Welsh Government continues to make funding available across all parts of Wales to support our housing objectives. In addition, we recognise that there are some different challenges in rural areas, which is why we have continued our long-standing commitment to funding rural housing enablers.
I'm grateful to the Minister for that response. Now, the Minister will be aware of concerns in Pembrokeshire regarding the Welsh Government planning policy around One Planet developments, as she's received correspondence from me and, indeed, constituents on this particular matter. Some of my constituents, and indeed Pembrokeshire County Council, have expressed concerns on a number of fronts, but they predominantly relate to the monitoring of the business plans and the pressure this is putting on local planning authorities to ensure that buildings are actually developed in an appropriate way. Would the Minister agree with me that, in light of the immense burden on local planning authorities, and indeed concerns from my constituents, it is time to review the One Planet development policy?
Well, as he I'm sure knows, the One Planet development guidance is set out in 'Technical Advice Note (Wales) 6: Planning for Sustainable Rural Communities' and the One Planet development practice guide—that's surprisingly difficult to say: One Planet development practice guide. The planning applications are determined in accordance with the approved adopted development plan for the area, unless material considerations indicate otherwise, and obviously the planning system itself isn't designed to stop people making planning applications; it's designed to deal with them once they've been made. 'Planning Policy Wales' encourages local planning authorities and applicants to discuss proposals through the pre-application discussion prior to the formal submission of the planning application, and, as he knows, as I think he set out in his question, there are strict planning criteria applying to OPDs, and planning applicants must provide robust evidence in the form of that management plan, including the business and improvement plan, the ecological footprint analysis, carbon analysis, biodiversity and landscape assessment, community impact assessment and transport and travel assessments.
What I would say is that, if Pembrokeshire is having a spike of these or is struggling with particular expertise, then I'm more than happy to work with Pembrokeshire to ensure they have the expertise to be able to deal with it, and I'll happily make contact with the chief executive there to ensure that they feel that they do have the right skill set to be able to manage that. I understand the Member's concern here, but, of course, we do want to encourage passive, eco-friendly houses and innovative development across Wales, but I take the point he's making, and I'm more than happy to contact the local authority to ensure they have the skill set that they need.FootnoteLink
A shortage of affordable housing is a particular problem in rural areas, but where there are affordable homes built—and I can show you examples in my own region in north Wales—even those, although they are built with the best of intentions, remain vacant for a number of reasons, including, of course, the need for a deposit, which is too great for local people to afford very often. So, as one practical solution in providing assistance to rural communities in this context, may I ask the Minister whether she'd be willing to consider creating a particular capital fund for rural areas in order to assist local people, particularly young people, to afford to buy or rent homes in those rural areas?
Yes, it's certainly an interesting point. I've just received—in fact, I was holding it in my hand—the Help to Buy Wales evaluation report, and one of the things we are looking at is what we will replace that scheme with or whether we renew it and what we do with the renewals. One of the things I'm very interested in doing is seeing what we can do to bring empty properties back into use and to encourage development outside of the conurbation areas to support the needs of local people. We're also working very hard with the registered social landlord providers and councils, depending on which is the housing authority in your area, to make sure that they're bringing forward the social housing plans necessary to enable local people to stay in their local communities. I'm very keen to work with local authorities and RSLs in this regard. We are particularly looking to have development suitable for local people to stay in the communities they want to live and work in and make sure that we build those communities as sustainable communities inside the community envelope.
So, I'm very happy to say that I'm happy to look at anything in that regard. I have the report, and you can see I was just starting to read through the meat of the report to see what's being recommended there. I've had meetings already with several local authorities in north Wales around the need to get social housing and affordable housing in its wider sense into those committees as well. So, I'm very happy to look at it, and I'd be happy to have the Member involved in that as we take it forward.
5. What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities following the Welsh Government's publication of the independent review into housing? OAQ53863
The independent review panel for affordable housing supply published their report on 1 May. I'm actually attending the Welsh Local Government Association’s housing cabinet meeting tomorrow, where the panel’s report will be the first topic for discussion. I'm engaging across the housing sector as I consider my response to the recommendations.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Recent figures have shown that some families are spending three years in temporary accommodation, so the average time to wait in some areas is months and not days. People are waiting a long time for proper accommodation, and I'm sure you empathise with those people. Under the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, local authorities have a duty to find accommodation for people who are, or are at risk of being, homeless, but there's no limit on how long that should take. What more can you do to reduce the time families are in temporary accommodation, and should the housing Act be amended to include a time limit on how long an authority can take to find a family a much needed home?
Dealing with the last point first, wouldn't it be lovely if that were an easy solution? But, of course, it isn't, because, if you put a time limit on it and there isn't a permanent home available, what is the local authority to do? We don't want people moved away from their communities in pursuit of something that would have, it seems to me, quite a lot of unintended consequences. The only actual way to deal with problem that the Member outlines, which is a real one, is to increase housing supply. The Member's heard me talking at great length today already about increasing that housing supply, using all of the levers in our control, but, more specifically, to get scale and pace into the building of social housing once more, which is the only permanent solution to that problem.
Mike Hedges suggested that there were some issues for private developers bringing housing forward, but what's really interesting is that if you look historically at the pattern of housebuilding, more private housebuilding has taken place in the years where the most social housing was built than in other eras as the market is forced to deal with the competition from the social house building. So, it's a really interesting counterintuitive spike, which I've been most interested to see, as it forces housebuilders to consider that theirs isn't the only game in town. So, we're really keen to get the market to move in that way, both by building the social housing and by getting developers to bring their plots into use.
Obviously, there's quite a difference in rural housing and the supply of rural housing, which very often falls foul of some of the sustainability goals, such as bus services, for example, that regrettably have been withdrawn over recent years, and we can have a debate and discussion about that. But, very often when people put forward applications for new housing in rural areas, they fall down on the sustainability test because very often it's a car that's required to access services and such. That's just by the very nature. Do you accept that argument, Minister, and do you think that there is cause to look at some of the rules and regulations because of the unique circumstances that the rural environment presents to get more rural development so that more housing stock can be made available?
So, it's a complex picture. I mean, he's right to say that sustainability has to be one of the issues. What we don't want to have—and I take the point he's making entirely—but what we don't want is to build houses, put people in them and then find, actually, they're suffering from serious fuel poverty or other things because their transport costs are so high, and so on. So, it's a rounded picture that needs to be taken, and, as I said in response to Llyr, one of the things we need to look at is the variety of housing that's being enabled in rural communities, because it's not always just private housing that's required.
I live, as he will know, in a small village on Gower in my friend Rebecca Evans's constituency. That used to have a small amount of social housing, which was mostly occupied by the children of the people living in the village, but it's all been sold. So, we need more of that so that the children who grew up in those villages can access housing that they can readily utilise to stay in their communities. So, it's a mixed picture. So, I think we do need to look at some of the rules and regulations around this, but there are good reasons for the sustainability arguments, not just to stop the housebuilding, but to prevent the people in them falling into unintended areas of fuel poverty, for example, and other issues.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of affordable housing in mid Wales? OAQ53836
I detect a theme developing in today's questions, Llywydd.
Yes, of course. The provision of affordable housing in mid Wales is a priority, as is building more affordable homes across all parts of Wales. I recognise that supply is not currently meeting demand. Stock-retaining local authorities, such as Powys, and housing associations have a key role to play in bringing stock forward.
Thank you, Minister. There was certainly no co-ordination in terms of the theme. But, certainly, housing association tenants have contacted me in numbers in recent months in regard to what they see as the unaffordable levels of their rent going forward. The rent rises are within Welsh Government guidelines. That's an issue that I've written to you about, and, as I understand it, it allows for a minimum rise of inflation plus 1.5 per cent, and £2 per week. What more are you doing to ensure that rental rates are not so expensive for those who are often on low incomes, and what consideration have you given to introducing a value-for-money assessment, such as what occurs in England to give tenants the confidence that any rental increase is justified?
Yes, we're currently looking at the rent policy for Wales, so I will be announcing a new rent policy for Wales once we've completed that review. The Member rightly says there are a range of factors in play. One is social justice for the people paying the rent. The other is the fact that the landlords who we wish to build the much-needed social houses use the rent, obviously, as a way to fund the borrowing that they need to get the capital to build more houses. So, it's a nice balance between the two. The review is looking at all aspects of rent policy, including the social justice arrangements. The Member will know that I won't be able to let this go without saying that he also could play his part in looking to get his Government to change some of the regulations in universal credit that are driving some of the issues that he outlined in his question.
7. How is the Welsh Government supporting fair work in Wales? OAQ53854
The Welsh Government already promotes fair work in areas such as procurement and social care. We have also welcomed the Fair Work Commission’s recent report and will be working in social partnership to consider taking forward its recommendations.
Can I interrupt you, Mark Isherwood? I'm terribly sorry. Llywydd, my fault entirely—the Deputy Minister was going to take this question, so can I apologise profusely and allow her to do this?
You're far too keen, Minister. The Deputy Minister to respond. Carry on with your supplementary.
Okay. Responding to your colleague the Minister's statement here last week on the Fair Work Commission report, I also refer to the UK Government's 'Good Work Plan'. This follows recommendations made by Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the royal society of arts, the mission of which is to enrich society through ideas and actions, so, clearly, not a partisan report. The plan outlines action to implement his recommendations in review of employment practices and modern working to ensure employee rights are protected and upgraded as we leave the EU and that the UK labour market remains successful and competitive into the future. What consideration, therefore, will the Welsh Government give to the 'Good Work Plan', alongside its consideration of the consultation outcome on its own Fair Work Commission report?
Can I thank the Member for allowing me to answer the question and for asking the question? The Member raised some very interesting points there in terms of Matthew Taylor, previously of Institute for Public Policy Research background. Clearly, we're proud of the record we have in Wales in terms of how we've worked with social partnership and the things that's been able to deliver before in terms of a living wage in the NHS to the agricultural advisory panel. But now we want to look at what's on the table and build on the previous work in a way that works for workers and works for Wales, and looking at those 48 recommendations of the Fair Work Commission and outlining how we can drive forward fair work in Wales. I know that my colleague the Minister announced that we accepted the six of the commission's priority recommendations, and what we'll need to do now is to—. Our task will be to consider carefully each of the wider recommendations and determine the best way forward in terms of implementing them.
Minister, for many years young people have been discriminated against in employment. Would you welcome the commitment by the Labour Party now to end that discrimination against 16 to 18-year-olds so they will be paid the rate for the job not a rate attributable to their age, and end this long-standing injustice young people have had to face in the workplace?
In a word, 'yes'. When the minimum wage first came in, it was groundbreaking legislation but it was meant to be a minimum. We see now, and we've heard recently—some students came in to talk to us—how 16 to 18-year-olds also have caring responsibilities, and may also need to pay rent. So, also, we need to make sure, on the other side of the coin, actually—. Some more unscrupulous employers may use that to potentially not employ perhaps mature students and only employ younger students because they can pay them less money. The Member will be familiar probably with the Fair Work Commission recommendation that believes workers should be fairly rewarded the rates of pay of the Welsh living wage and should be provided the minimum wage for all working hours and all workers.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government plans to improve financial inclusion in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ53850
The financial inclusion progress report and forward look, published in December 2018, provides an overview of some of the key activities since publication of the strategy and delivery plan in 2016. These include our ongoing support for advice services, credit unions and the discretionary assistance fund.
Thank you, Minister, and I'm very aware of the good work that is done by organisations like the citizens advice bureau in my constituency. Yet, there are Valleys communities that are facing a steady withdrawal of many vital services, and many of us will have seen that. Working with my colleague Gerald Jones MP, we've campaigned to save some of the commercial banking services in towns like Rhymney, and we're currently looking to retain access to a network of free cashpoints, cash withdrawal machines, and also supporting the work of local credit unions. In what further ways can the Welsh Government deliver support to ensure financial inclusion in these communities?
Can I start by also reflecting the Member's comments and recognising the work the citizens advice bureau provides in providing advice and promoting financial inclusion and that support for people in communities across the country, and also recognising the work both you and your colleague Gerald Jones have done in trying to prevent bank closures and best mitigate the impact? I know it's something that probably all Members in this Chamber will be familiar with, and familiar with having to campaign in that way as well. And, unfortunately, whilst we don't have the levers at our disposal in terms of regulation in terms of preventing banks from doing that, there is actually action we can take within Wales to make sure that financial inclusion doesn't suffer as a consequence of that.
The Member mentions about the—[Inaudible.]—access to ATMs through Link. We will continue to liaise with Link—as Welsh Government—the cash machine network to help ensure that there is adequate provision of free-to-use cash machines maintained locally, whilst focusing on our work with credit unions. There are 19 credit union providers we're supporting between April last year and March 2020, and Merthyr Tydfil is one of these as well. The Member is also familiar with the work being led by my colleague the Minister for Economy and Transport on developing a community bank in Wales. Banking professionals are currently working with the Development Bank of Wales, who support this work, ensuring that the creation of a community bank integrates with existing financial institutions, including the development bank and, of course, credit unions. Hopefully, this will go some way to supporting financially inclusive communities.
Minister, Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, like many other communities in Wales, has suffered bank closures in recent years, such as the Barclays bank branch in Aberfan and Lloyds bank in Rhymney. This has made the availability of cash machines even more important to enable people to access their cash. However, a report in the magazine Which? found that free-to-use cash machines were disappearing at a rapid rate, with nearly 1,700 machines across the United Kingdom starting to charge for withdrawals in the first three months of this year. Minister, do you agree that charging for cash withdrawals will have an adverse effect on financial inclusion and will you make representations to those companies that provide cash machines, stressing the importance of free transactions to communities such as Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney?
The Welsh Government continues to work with Link, the cash machine network, to help ensure that there is adequate provision of free-to-use cash machines maintained locally and a regular network across communities across Wales. As I said to the Member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, it is that Member over there's Government that could take action to regulate banks to prevent communities from suffering in this way as well.
Question 9 [OAQ53847] is withdrawn. Question 10, Leanne Wood.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on funding for local government? OAQ53853
Certainly. Local government services are funded through the revenue support grant, non-domestic rates, council tax, specific grants from Welsh and UK Governments and authorities' own income, including fees and charges. In 2019-20, the local government settlement provides £4.2 billion of general funding, with a further £900 million in specific grants.
Recently, there have been pockets of anti-social behaviour incidents in my constituency. Ystradfechan cricket field in Treorchy is the scene of large gatherings of youths, which have escalated in seriousness in recent times. Drug paraphernalia and smashed alcohol bottles are frequent sights at this beautiful park in the aftermath of these gatherings. Furthermore, the threat of large-scale disturbance involving young people from the Rhondda, the Cynon Valley and Pontypridd was, thankfully, averted due to proactive policing in Pontypridd town centre over the last couple of weeks.
Local authorities have a vital role to play in tackling anti-social behaviour at source with their responsibility for youth services. Now, in England, a link has been established between areas with the biggest cut to youth services and the sharpest increase in knife crime. Now, I value youth services. I personally benefited from them, as did my friends. In Rhondda Cynon Taf, youth services have been hollowed out as a result of cuts, because the Labour administration simply hasn't prioritised youth services. And the result is that young people are left with very little to do and now we're seeing the fruits of that. So, what value does your Government place on youth services? And, if you agree with me that youth services are vital, will that be reflected in the next local government settlement, and would you also consider issuing guidance to local authority leaders on this matter?
Youth services are not actually in my portfolio, but I'm familiar with—
Youth services. But I'm familiar with the issues the Member raises. I too regret the decimation of the youth services across Wales as austerity bites across all local authorities. The First Minister, in his programme for government, has announced a welcome boost to youth services across Wales, because we recognise the preventative effect that youth services can have, which the Member ably outlined in her question, and I agree with her entirely, I too benefited from youth services as I grew up. We do have a youth engagement programme still in place in all local authorities in Wales in order to help those most vulnerable in our society, but she's right that a more general youth service also assists across the piece with all kinds of issues around being a youngster before you're old enough to go to establishments that are licensed and so on and what on earth do you do between the ages of 12 and 18. So, I'm very familiar with the issues that she raises.
The First Minister has been very keen to emphasise that we want to put back the heart into youth services in Wales, and we are having discussions with local authorities and the youth service itself and our youth workers across Wales about what the best way to do that is, and I'm sure that—. I think it's the Deputy Minister for Health and Social Services, is it—I'm not sure, actually, but I'll find out—who is looking at that. I did have that in my portfolio one portfolio ago, so I'm very keen to find that out. It is a constructive conversation we're having with local authorities, who also see that those preventative services prevent the acute and of the chain happening in the first place.
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the progress of the Welsh Government's ministerial task-and-finish group on leasehold reform? OAQ53869
Yes, the independent task and finish group is on schedule to deliver its report and make recommendations to me this summer. It has prioritised a number of issues that will complement the work of the Law Commission and the unadopted roads taskforce.
I recently met with the Chartered Institute of Housing Cymru, who are feeding into the task and finish group, together with residents of Cwm Calon estate in Penallta, Ystrad Mynach, in Caerphilly constituency. There are still a number of unresolved issues relating to the escalating estate management charges that residents are expected to pay, and I know that that is a specific area of responsibility for the task and finish group. Residents in Cwm Calon—and there are many other housing estates across Wales with these problems; Members across the Chamber will know that they have the same issues in their constituencies—want the Welsh Government to take action. Can, Minister, you tell me when precisely will the task and finish group report and can you also give the guarantee that estate management charges will be dealt with?
I can't tell him precisely when, because I don't have that information in front of me, but I know it's before the end of the summer term of the Assembly. If I have more specific information, then I will certainly let the Member know. It is a specific task of that task and finish group to look at those specific issues, and, actually, my colleague Ken Skates has also had a group looking at unadopted roads, and we've combined the two in order to make a joint statement on the overall effect, because it's not just a transport issue, as you rightly say; this is an estate management issue, it's an issue for housing developments coming forward, it's an issue about the way that we manage residential developments and so on. So, the taskforce is indeed looking at that, as we are well aware of the concerns of his residents and residents across Wales who find themselves with management fees when they thought they'd bought a freehold property and so on. So, I assure him it's very much front and centre of what we're looking at.
We are looking at a wider piece on leasehold reform as well. My predecessor in this portfolio, Rebecca Evans, established a specific sub-group to look at this and also secured an agreement from all of the major Help to Buy builders that they would not use Help to Buy to put leasehold properties on the market, and that's been very effective. But there are these other bits of the estate that we need to tie up in an appropriate fashion to ensure that people don't have a whole system of fees that they did not anticipate and that they have no control over going forward, and actually to ensure that the local authority has the ability to adopt and maintain those roads in the right fashion with the right kind of street marking and facilities and so on, and we don't have abrupt changes of a surface and all that sort of stuff as you go into the estate.
The next item, therefore, is the topical questions. The first topical question is from David Rees.
1. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the announcement that the joint venture between Tata Steel Ltd and Thyssenkrupp AG is likely not to be approved by the European Commission and thus any further process on the joint venture will be suspended? 310
Can I thank the Member for his question and assure him that I've spoken with Tata Steel and with trade union representatives, along with the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy? It's too early at this stage to say what this might mean for Tata Steel in Wales, but of course, Llywydd, this Welsh Government stands ready to secure a sustainable future for iron and steel production in Wales that protects employment and steel communities.
Can I thank the Minister for that answer and the commitment he's given to supporting the steel industry here in Wales? Now, many will remember that, in 2016, the beginning of it, we saw the threat of closures of Port Talbot works. Following the decision by Tata then not to close it, in the commitment to seek a joint venture or merger with ThyssenKrupp, indicating it would be that offer that would give steel making a strong future, the trade unions accepted that—maybe reluctantly, but they accepted it—and that was reinforced this week by the Tata Steel European Works Council in the 10 May statement, saying that they supported that path. Now, that's gone, and I agree with your statement yesterday, and I thank you for that statement. It's a worrying time; there's no question about that. Grey clouds are once again on the horizon over Port Talbot, with the fear that they're moving in our direction. I think it's time to have cool heads, as you pointed out. It's not time yet—take time; cool heads. We must look and set out our own visions for ensuring that Wales has a sustainable steel sector.
I also agree that UK Government has a critical role to play in this, and you highlighted those points, whether it's a steel sector deal they need to get on with, or whether it's the attack on high energy costs, which we've been calling for for many years so that we can strengthen the financial position of companies in steel. That's one agenda. But I want to ask: what are the intentions of the Welsh Government to support the sector? You've done a fantastic job to date. I can't dispute the support this Government has given, both in this Assembly and the previous Assembly, to the steel industry, but we now need to see where we're going. I haven't seen a specific Welsh steel strategy, so can I ask whether you will be publishing a specific Welsh steel strategy for the future?
Can I also say that steel is being supported by increasing income? You know, we talk about costs—lowering costs—but we can also talk about increasing income. One of the ways of increasing income is improving investment through CAPL galvanising lines in Port Talbot, for example, so the higher end products become more expensive and you get more money in as a consequence. So, the question I'm asking is: are you looking at future investment into the sector? Are you going to look at greater use of research and development? Are you going to be innovative and creative in your approach to supporting environmental projects? Because we've often argued that it's state-aid rules, but there are ways around state-aid rules so that you can help companies—environment and R&D being two of those ways. Now, both of those, actually, will help not just the industry but actually help constituents in my town on a wider basis as well. So, again, will you look at that and can you tell us what your plans are for that type of approach?
Can you also—? We've had people call for a summit from the First Minister. Well, to be honest, steelworkers and their families in my constituency don't want more talk. They want positive action that will remove the uncertainty they are now facing. That's definitely returned. We know it's there. We are fearful that it's there. We want a commitment from the Welsh Government of that continued support, and I want to ensure that, actually, perhaps that can be reinforced by somebody going to Mumbai to talk to the Tata board in India to reinforce the commitment this Welsh Government gives to the steel industry here in Wales.
Can I thank Dai Rees for his question and, as always, the passion with which he speaks for Welsh steel and iron facilities across the country? I'm going to touch on a number of really important points that he has raised, including investment by Welsh Government and the role of UK Government, but, first, can I say that, in terms of any grey clouds on the horizon, we are in a different place to that which we occupied in 2016? We are not back to the same position as in 2016, and that's largely as a consequence of the investment that Welsh Government immediately offered to Tata, some of which Tata has drawn down and much of which Tata has matched with investment, to ensure that primarily the Port Talbot operation is more efficient and sustainable. In turn, I think it's absolutely essential that no rushed decisions are made, and this was something that I pressed upon Tor Farquhar when I spoke with him on Friday. It was a message that clearly came from the European Works Council as well, on Friday. It's my intention to travel to the Netherlands to speak with executives to ensure the message that no rushed decisions are made and also that the steel footprint of Europe is secured and not dismantled, as far as Tata is concerned.
I'm going to move on to touch on the role of UK Government. Dai Rees rightly raised the important need of a sector deal for steel. This is a matter that I raised with Greg Clark when I spoke with him on Monday. Clearly, a sector deal is needed that can lead to significant investment in the sector. It requires UK Government funding, and it also requires funding from the sector itself. I am hopeful that we can, working together, ensure that a sector deal is delivered. But, that won't be enough in its own right. There are clear and immediate challenges concerning energy prices that need to be addressed by the UK Government. While I welcome the announcement in the 2018 budget of an industrial energy transformation fund, that in itself will not deal with the volatility within the energy markets, nor will it deal with the disproportionately high prices that energy-intensive companies in the UK have to shoulder. Therefore, the UK Government must do more on this vitally important matter.
In terms of the support that we have given and will continue to give, I can assure the Member that we stand ready to help in any and every way, just as we said that we would back in 2016. We have offered £21 million to date to Tata, covering a range of functions and modernisation programmes, including skills training and, importantly, research in development, which the Member pointed to. The strategy, going forward, for steel is encompassed within the economic action plan. We wish to support the industries of tomorrow by ensuring that they are decarbonised, that there is heavier investment in research and development, and a stronger focus on export opportunities. Through the prism of the economic contract and the calls to action, we will ensure that those industries of tomorrow are modernised and competitive. But to do so with maximum effect, we need to ensure that businesses themselves are willing to invest. That's why my message to Tata will clearly be: continue the investment—not just in Port Talbot, where it is vitally needed, but across the entire estate in Wales and, indeed, in England.
Can I just say thank you for reassuring us that we're not back in the same position that we were in in 2016? I think the investment in the blast furnace and, actually, the company's interest in producing more of its own energy are a good sign that that's actually the case. I just had a couple of questions, because my colleague Russell has some as well. I suppose I'd like to repeat some of the questions that I asked when the merger or the joint venture was looking as if it was very probable. One of the things that I asked at the time then was: what's likely to be happening with R&D? I think you might have answered that in response to David Rees. At the time—I think it was in response to an emergency question or a topical question from Helen Mary—you said that you would be circulating a note of the conditionality of the terms that have been offered to Tata already. At the time, we were asking, 'Well, will they apply to a merged venture?' But, I don't think we've had that note yet, and I think that it would be useful, not least because it will stop us asking this same question over and over.
On the principle that I'm asking the same questions that I would have asked if there had been a merger, you did say at the time that you were hoping that the employment pact would be extended to 2026 with the joint venture. If that doesn't happen, would you still be seeking that extension from Tata as it is—on the same terms, probably? You also mentioned the competitiveness of Welsh steel—that what we're looking for is something that's efficient and productive. I suppose that what I'm asking is, is there a plan B here? Say this merger doesn't go ahead, I think that what I'm seeking is that there has been some sort of reassurance about what would happen if it doesn't go ahead, in the sense of, are there any escrow agreements drawn up about an extension to an employability pact? Was there anything else that was done in draft, if you like, so that, should the merger not go ahead, we weren't immediately just thrown back into a position where we were all asking, 'What next?' Now, I appreciate that it is a bit too early to be asking that question, but I would have liked to be certain that there was a back-up plan. I suppose that's what I'm asking. I think that that's all I want to ask at this moment. I will be listening to what other Members say as well—particularly, I suspect that Trostre might come up in other people's questions as well.
I was keen to understand what the alternative plan might be as well when I spoke with Tor Farquhar on Friday, and he assured me that the endgame, the ultimate goal, remains the same, and will remain the same, and that is to ensure that sufficient investment is made, particularly in Port Talbot, to give Welsh steel and iron making a sustainable and strong future, and of course we have a role in that. We've already played a part in that; UK Government must play a part as well, and that is still the plan. Therefore a plan B is not absolutely necessary at this stage because Tata are still in a position to be pursuing the goal of sustainable production.
In terms of the conditionality that's attached to our support, I'm sorry that you've not received a note. I assure you that the details that we are able to provide to you we provide to you in a timely fashion, but the conditionality relating to employment will continue, regardless of what happens with the merger, and I think it's absolutely right that we do apply tough conditions. And it's right that, whilst Tata's been able to draw down a significant package to date, the remaining funding that we have put on the table is met with a willingness to commit to employ dedicated, loyal and skilled staff for a good number of years.
I'd like to pick up on your comments that you will be heading to the Netherlands to speak to Tata executives there and to just ask you what discussions you have had to date with Tata operations outside the UK, not just on a European level, but worldwide, too. There is an article on Bloomberg in which Tata's chief finance officer has been quoted saying that Tata will be shifting its focus to the Indian steel market, and that the European operation must not draw resources away from the expansion in India, even going so far as to say that assets would need to be sold off to make business more profitable, putting the future of Welsh steel in even further doubt. I certainly would categorise that as serious clouds on the horizon.
Now, the collapse of the merger has meant that of course the European operation will in a way be more reliant on the Indian operation's resources, meaning that, in the near future, Tata could or will have to look at deinvesting in Europe based on the priorities set out by the chief financial officer. So I'd like your comments on that. Tata has also stated that they will also be looking at partnerships with non-European companies. Can I ask what discussions you have had with regard to that possibility?
On partnerships with non-European countries, we've asked about any alternatives to the proposed joint venture and merger. It's a commercial matter for Tata, of course, but we are keen to understand what alternatives there might be, and what interest there might be. That's one of the reasons why I'm keen to go to the Netherlands and speak with senior executives. The shifting focus away from Europe and towards India means that the steel family within the European Community will act more distinctively, potentially, in the future, and that is why I believe that engagement at a European level is absolutely right. We have good relations already with Ratan Tata and with senior executives in India. We stand ready to go to Mumbai if necessary. For the time being the advice that we've received from Tata is to ensure that we thoroughly engage at a European level. That's what we are doing, and that's what I'll continue to do.
Can I thank the Member, Dai Rees, for tabling this very important question? I also welcome the Minister's commitment towards the steel industry—continued commitment towards the steel industry. We simply can't afford a situation where we lose jobs in the steel industry like we did at Shotton in the 1980s. It's been a roller-coaster ride of uncertainty for workers and their families, so I do welcome again the Minister's commitment to ensure that they have the support they need right across Wales.
Minister, can I urge you to continue the work you're doing to ensure that we don't lose investment here, and maybe sit down with the Members who have steel in their constituencies post your engagement visit to the Netherlands? Also, just to focus on a few points that were mentioned earlier in this question, the UK Government does need to do more to address the underlying problems facing the UK steel industry, so would the Minister agree with me that it is the sky-high energy costs that are leaving steel makers within the UK and the European markets—? They're competing with the European market, leaving the UK steel industry with one hand tied behind their backs.
Finally, Minister, would you also agree that procurement is also important? We've got projects within the UK, like the Royal Navy's new fleet solid ships, which gives us an opportunity here in Wales, here in the UK, to use our steel. Overall, Minister, we do need to do more. The uncertainty for the families of the steelworkers needs to end, and we all need to work closer together to ensure that steel making is a success within Wales, as it can be, as it has been in the past, and as it needs to be for the future.
Can I thank Jack Sargeant for his contribution and for his questions? I can assure the Member that I'm maintaining a keen interest in all of Tata's sites across Wales, and tomorrow morning, I will be visiting Tata Shotton to meet with local union representatives and, of course, executives at the plant. I think it may be a timely moment for the cross-party steel group to reconvene here in the Assembly to consider the various matters that are being discussed this afternoon, and I would absolutely agree with the Member that sky-high energy costs are the major challenge, not just to Tata's operations, but to the whole of the steel community across the United Kingdom, and, indeed, to a huge number of energy-intensive firms. It's therefore absolutely vital that the UK acts on volatile and often extraordinarily high energy costs that leave businesses in Britain at a competitive disadvantage.
Jack Sargeant also makes the important point concerning procurement and, of course, there are some major infrastructure projects at a UK and, indeed, at a Welsh level that we would wish to see Welsh steel used in. For our part here in Wales, they include road-building projects, they include, of course, the metro as well. And at a UK level, projects such as HS2 should, in my view, utilise steel made here in Wales.
Minister, these are worrying times for the steel industry right across Wales, and, obviously, your concern is for all Tata plants right across the country, as you've stated. For me, obviously, Llanwern and the Orb works are particularly concerning because they provide many high-quality, well-paid jobs locally, and other jobs in the supply chain and so on depend upon them. The Orb works is up for sale at the moment, which puts it in a particular position. I just would like your assurance, Minister, that those plants will receive your full consideration in your work with Tata, with the trade unions, with UK Government, with local politicians and all others with a stake in these matters. And if you are meeting at plants in Wales, Minister, to discuss these matters, I'd be very grateful if you could also meet in my constituency.
I'd be pleased to meet with the Member at the plant that he represents. I raised queries with Tata on Friday concerning all of the sites, and I was told that the Orb works sale continues. It's a different situation for Trostre—the disposal of that particular site is off the table if the merger doesn't go ahead. But I will keep Members updated regarding each of the sites whenever I receive information from my officials and from Tata, and, whenever possible, I will also endeavour to visit steel facilities in anyone's constituency.
The Presiding Officer has indicated that I must be short, and there are a number of questions around energy that have been asked this afternoon, but in terms of how the Welsh Government can help and support the industry in terms of business rates and help on business rates, I'd be grateful for any update in that regard. And also, have you any indication about how this announcement may affect the commercial investment to secure a long-term future for the Trostre site as well?
In terms of energy, of course, the UK Government, as has been said, have a huge role to play, but also I know that Members are keen for us to respond to the recently declared climate emergency. I think it's worth saying that, based on the recently published report from the Committee on Climate Change, it's very clear that it is in our interest to ensure that we do not lose steel making, even given the fact that it is a heavy carbon contributor. Why is that? Well, it's because the Committee on Climate Change clearly states that scenarios for reducing UK industrial emissions are dependent on retaining our industrial base and decarbonising it, rather than losing it to another country where it might not be decarbonsied. And, so, it's absolutely vital that we play our part, all of us, in ensuring that the heavier contributing industries in our country contribute less in the future, through investment.
In terms of business rates, this is, of course, a matter that falls within the remit of my friend and colleague the finance Minister, and I'm sure that she'll be willing and enthusiastic to respond to questions concerning this matter. The most important thing for Tata, and the Member rightly raises commercial interest and commercial viability, the most important thing for Tata is that Tata Steel Europe maintains a focus on delivering the plan that was always in place, which is to ensure that sufficient investment is secured in order to modernise the facilities and to put them on a stable, long-term footing.
Thank you, Minister. The second topical question is from Rhun ap Iorwerth.
2. Further to the written statement yesterday, will the Minister provide an update on HMRC's error regarding Welsh Rates of Income Tax? 311
I issued a written statement yesterday on this matter to ensure that Members were aware of the situation. HMRC identifies Welsh taxpayers and issues tax codes to employers who are responsible for applying their employees' tax codes. Some employers did not apply the correct codes. HMRC is supporting employers to fix this.
Thank you very much for that response. I'm pleased that we are having an opportunity to ask a few further questions on this. The shame here is that we are in that process now of introducing these historic new taxes—
No problem at all.
What’s a shame here is that we are seeing the introduction of these historic taxes for the first time, and we need to ensure that that process works as smoothly as possible, because we will need to generate confidence among people that this process is going to work. We saw from the experience in Scotland, which introduced its taxes before us, that problems had arisen with coding, and one of the things that we asked for as the Finance Committee was an assurance that lessons had been learned from that. And the assurance given to us was that those lessons had been learned and that we should be fine. I have some copies here of correspondence between the committee Chair and HMRC. The Chair asked for an assurance and HMRC provided those assurances:
'We are confident that we have a robust approach'
—and so on. But this kind of thing is perhaps going to undermine people’s confidence, although it’s fair to ask who is to blame: is it the employers for failing to use the correct code, or is it the system, including HMRC, for failing to realise that at the time that the incorrect codes were being used?
So, I wanted to ask for further assurances on particular actions that the Welsh Government will take now, specifically in order to restore the confidence of Welsh taxpayers in this process. And, what further work will the Welsh Government do with HMRC in order to ensure that there is what you might call an early warning system in place where the incorrect codes are used?
Now, as it happens, we're not talking about large financial sums here. I think people may have overpaid or underpaid somewhere between £2 and £10. So, they're not huge amounts of money, but confidence is the issue that we're talking about here, and I would ask for a few words of assurance on the steps taken by the Government from here on in.
Thank you very much for the question and the opportunity to provide some further clarity on this issue. Rhun ap Iorwerth is right: this was a historic thing that we did on 6 April in terms of setting our own tax rates, and it is important that people are able to have full confidence in the system that underpins that. I think it might be helpful if I just set out what happened, to bring us to where we are.
So, HMRC assigns the correct tax codes to all UK taxpayers through the annual coding exercise. HMRC then issues a P9 form to employers, which confirms the tax codes to assign to each of their employees. It’s then the responsibility of the employer to correctly apply this tax code using whatever software or process that they have adopted. And some payroll providers, in this case, incorrectly applied the S code to Welsh taxpayers. We're awaiting further detail on how this happened, but it does appear that, in some cases, payroll providers haven't updated their software to enable the C code to be applied.
That’s particularly disappointing because HMRC did do extensive work with employers and payroll software providers throughout the preparations for the introduction of Welsh rates of income tax, using their established communication channels and also bespoke presentations, as well as providing technical specifications and test data to ensure that employers and payroll software providers had all the information that they needed. So, there’s no evidence at this stage that HMRC made any errors in allocating the codes to individuals. As I say, it’s disappointing that this error occurred, but beyond that, I think that we can say with some confidence that everything else went smoothly, so I think that certainly is a positive.
In terms of the actions: one of the things that we set out early on, before WRIT came into place, was that there would be the system tests. One of those will be undertaken in June and that's the earliest date that the relevant data will be available for all employers because of the deadlines for employers to submit their payroll information to HMRC. So, once HMRC has performed these checks, we'll be able to identify any inconsistencies and then identify those employers who will need to update their employees' tax position.
Rhun ap Iorwerth is right to say that we're not talking about large financial sums. So, typically, where taxpayers have underpaid tax, or been overpaid, they would have been underpaid by no more than £2 or where they'd overpaid, it would be by no more than £10. And in some cases, even though taxpayers had the incorrect code, they would have paid the correct amount of tax.
All errors will be resolved by HMRC, so there's no activity or no action required on the part of taxpayers, and obviously, I'm very keen to keep colleagues up to date in terms of any further developments and certainly once we have the results of the tests, which will be undertaken in June.
We know about the problems that exist, which Scotland had when it first had income tax devolved, and if this is the only problem that we have, then I think it should be solved fairly quickly. But when you see a problem occurring like this, there's a nervousness as to whether other problems might have occurred as well.
We know the bigger problems in Scotland were the failure to allocate Scottish taxpayers to Scotland and to accurately predict the income tax income and receipts that were going to come into Scotland. Is the Minister confident that everyone who should be a Welsh taxpayer, apart from those who have just been identified, are paying the correct Welsh rate of income tax, especially those who do live in Wales, but work in England?
Thank you very much and this is something that we've explored in the Chamber before the introduction of the Welsh rates of income tax, so it's good to come back to it again. Welsh Government and HMRC undertook a large amount of work to ensure that we could identify everyone who is eligible to pay their taxes in Wales. We have no reason to suggest that we feel that there is an issue with that piece of work in terms of identifying those individuals who should be paying Welsh rates of income tax.
Thank you, Minister. The next topical question is from Andrew R.T. Davies.
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, in light of comments made today by Rhodri Williams QC describing the legislation as 'toothless'? 314
The Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act contains binding legal obligations and is driving a positive change in how public bodies make and implement decisions that affect the people of Wales and our environment now and in the future.
Thank you for that very broad response, Deputy Minister. It is a fact that a judgment does sit there now that has been handed down by the High Court, which calls the Act,
'deliberately vague, general and aspirational and which applies to a class rather than individuals.'
What is really important is that, in light of this judgment, do you as a Government now believe that the Act does need to be tightened up so that it does confer stronger rights to individuals and communities, given that that judgment sits there, or do you believe the judgment is correct and that you, as a Government, deliberately put an Act down that was vague and was general and was more aspirational?
The well-being of future generations Act is about improving the social, economic, environmental and cultural well-being of Wales, now and into the future. Of course, the interpretation of the law is a matter for the courts, but the Act does provide for enhanced scrutiny, not just of the Welsh Government through the powers of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales—an independent commissioner—but also the examination duty on the Auditor General for Wales, and it's improving decision making, both in the short and longer term through the five ways of working. It's designed to support 44 public bodies in Wales to make decisions.
The well-being of future generations Act is well regarded, not just in Wales. I met with the third sector today keen to embrace those ways of working, keen to make it work. Worldwide, it is highly regarded as something where Wales is leading the way, and indeed it is an opportunity in terms of making real change. And if you look at the powers of the future generations commissioner, they're very clear. The commissioner's role is to act as a guardian for the interests of future generations in Wales and to support those public bodies.
Well, I do know that, in fact, Andrew R.T. Davies didn't actually vote for this piece of legislation in the final stages—
—but I think that the well-being of future generations Act is already standing up to the test, and I would very much like to actually organise a meeting with, not only the Member, but all Members, to update on the impact of the future generations commissioner's work and the well-being of future generations Act.
The Welsh Government is spending millions of Welsh tax pounds on the well-being of future generations commission, run by a Labour insider. The High Court—the High Court—has now stated what many of us already knew: the well-being of future generations Act is 'deliberately vague'. A senior barrister in Wales has described the Act as both 'toothless' and 'virtually useless'. The well-being of future generations commission is nothing more than an expensive talking shop. A place where yet another Labour person can get yet another six-figure salary package.
Instead of spending millions on something said by an eminent QC to be 'virtually useless', why not fund front-line services, which will really make a difference to future generations? You can invest in sustainable infrastructure, you can invest in public transport, install electric charging points for cars, you could even put the money into the NHS to save lives. Do you agree with the High Court? It seems not, actually, but I'll ask you the question: do you agree with the High Court that your legislation is deliberately vague and will you change it?
This Assembly passed this pioneering, world-breaking well-being of future generations Act, and also it has already had a powerful impact in terms of examples in the way that the well-being of future generations Act is driving a renewed focus on how we can improve and engage with the diverse population of Wales. I'll give you some examples, really important examples. For example, in terms of the strong leadership that's needed to engage with our communities, those affected by decisions, affected by policy: making the Valleys regional park, for example, in terms of making that landscape and the heritage of the Valleys more accessible to people. They used the principles of the ways of working and the well-being objectives in the Valleys taskforce to ensure that we looked at this using the examples of the well-being of future generations Act. Transport for Wales: ensuring that their decision-making process is focused on sustainability. I mentioned yesterday, in answer to questions, that our national planning policy, which I know the Member always raises in this Chamber, has been re-framed using the Act, and it puts placemaking at the heart of the planning system, ensuring that people's well-being is considered as part of the planning process. In fact, people are looking to the well-being of future generations Act to do what the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales aims to do: advise, encourage and promote, carry out reviews, make recommendations, report, and also ensure that we do deliver for our future generations. I think that is the key purpose of the well-being of future generations Act.
It's interesting that you describe the Act as 'well regarded', because, usually, Government Ministers tell us it's 'world-leading' and 'groundbreaking' legislation. I remind you regularly that it'll only be as much if it leads to groundbreaking and world-leading change. I have to say that this doesn't augur well, but I suppose the jury's still out on that. We clearly tried to strengthen the Bill when it was a Bill but we were voted down, but we didn't want to throw the baby out with the bath water, because it's not necessarily about transforming the legal landscape. For me, the main thrust of the Act was to effect that wider cultural change, which was about putting sustainable development as the central organising principle, if you remember that term, of the whole public sector in Wales. Now, I'm waiting to see the evidence that I'd like to see in terms of that being achieved still, although I think it's work in process. I suppose the M4 decision around the black route to me will be a litmus test. If you fail that test, then the Act won't be worth the paper it's written on, as far as I'm concerned.
The important thing here is, of course—I'd like to ask whether the Government is committed to undertaking post-implementation review of this legislation so that we can be confident that it actually does what it said on the tin. And if it does show up deficiencies, and we've already heard one, then would you as Government be committed, then, to look again at the Bill and to maybe introduce further legislation to correct it, so that it can be the strong legislation that we all want it to be?
I'm very grateful for the Member's comments on this, and I do fully remember his engagement and his party's engagement in these discussions. You're quite right, this is about the cultural change and the leadership that is required to ensure that we do deliver on our sustainable development principle. In fact, if you look in the Act, it says quite clearly:
'any reference to a public body doing something “in accordance with the sustainable development principle” means that the body must act in a manner which seeks to ensure that the needs of the present are met without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.'
That's now in statute. It was important to build on our original principles in terms of sustainable development in the Government of Wales legislation. So, yes, it's early days, clearly, and we do need to assess the impact of the future generations commissioner's role and, indeed, the legislation.
I have to say, when I was a member of the Finance Committee, we more than once had the future generations commissioner helping us, coming along and actually being extremely helpful in terms of looking at our budget-making process, for example. She has had a powerful influence, for example, on moving towards a more preventative approach to our budgets and looking in terms of health in terms of how we can address the long-term needs and not just crisis-manage the health service—crucial in terms of prudent healthcare, and, indeed, crucial in terms of the aims of the cross-party parliamentary review in terms of the well-being of future generations Act.
There are 44 public bodies that are subject to the well-being of future generations Act, but others—the police, for example—are not devolved. They have embraced the core principles of the well-being of future generations Act, because they see it as a way in which they can improve the way they deliver services. I know that the commissioner herself in a recent article said
'this is the biggest cultural change programme that Wales has ever seen.'
We have to make it as such. We do need to invest in how we go about changing the culture so people will start thinking more about the long term. In Government, we so often think about the short term, the crisis—it's about the long term. Others do look across the world to see how we are delivering on this new piece of legislation. But we will report—she has a duty to report anyway in terms of the future generations report—assessing each step of the way how this is being delivered and learning the lessons.
Minister, I've heard a lot of huffing and puffing on this and I think it's perhaps time for a little bit of perspective on this. This is a judgment that's based purely on the papers submitted for a preliminary application for a judicial review. It's not a binding judgment, it does not set any particular precedent, but there are one or two particular points in it that are quite important.
It raised the issue of justiciability, but what the judge very clearly says is this: he said, 'Well if it is justiciable, they have complied with the Act in any event.' That is, they did apply the well-being objectives and have satisfied them. That, in itself, confirms that the Act has actually worked in this case in terms of the culture and the processes that were actually gone through. I was involved in the early stages of this legislation and there were many arguments on this legislation as to how such a difficult area could be drafted, but this has been commended at United Nations level. Now, the real test of the effect it's having and how it's working is when we have an opportunity to debate the annual report of the sustainability commissioner, and you can look at the overall picture.
I actually commend the legislation, because I think it is important legislation, and it's a little bit disappointing that this rather preliminary judgment that would probably have been appealed if it wasn't for the finding that the Act has been complied with in any event—. And it may be at a future stage that the justiciability issue needs to be looked at, but I don't think that is any grounds for undermining and some of the poisonous and bilious comments that have been made about the individual involved, the sustainability commissioner, which I think is very regrettable in this case.
I'm very grateful to Mick Antoniw, the former Counsel General and esteemed lawyer, and I'm glad it was you as the Member who responded and put the record straight in terms of the impact of this legal judgment. As I said, it's an interpretation of the law and interpretation of the law is a matter for the courts. And, again, I don't wish to return to this, but Members can read that judgment that was made and see for themselves how that judgment was made and the justification. But I think it's very important also to say that we must ensure that we see what the impact of this legislation is.
And let's just look at some of those duties of the commissioner. The Act gives the commissioner the power to conduct a review into how public bodies are safeguarding the ability of future generations to meet their needs and make recommendations. The commissioner can intervene, review and, indeed, as she has done, make comments on policy matters. She's done that formally in terms of planning policy, the economic contract, Transport for Wales, the Valleys regional park and also in terms of housing—she herself has engaged in the development of the affordable housing supply review panel, looking at ways in which they can consider the important issues in terms of future housing needs for future generations. But I am grateful to the Member for making those points. Let's focus on this legislation, on the pioneering role that the first independent future generations commissioner is undertaking, and I'm very pleased that we have got the opportunity today to put the record straight on these issues.
Well, Deputy Minister, you say that it's up to the courts to interpret this legislation, but it's also incumbent on this legislature to have made its legislative intention clear. And one of the reasons our party were not particularly keen on this Bill, as it was at the time, is that it was never clear to us how it could be enforced and, even now, those duties to which you've been referring in this exchange today—it's not clear to me quite how action can be taken against any of those public bodies should they fail in those duties, apart from judicial review, which in my view is absolutely not the easiest route to access justice for any of our constituents, actually.
It's not the first time I've disagreed with, shall we say, a legal opinion. The judge in this case—. I don't know the specifics—obviously, I know about the closure, but I don't know the detail that was presented to support the judicial review application, so I don't know what she actually saw, but I can say categorically that, in the case of Craigcefnparc school and Felindre school in my own region, when we sought advice from the commissioner, she gave us a very, very comprehensive set of guidance and advice on how public bodies should not just observe those duties to which you refer, but how to demonstrate that they had complied with those duties, and that certainly wasn't the case with the two schools that I mentioned, which as far as I'm concerned—personal view—would probably still be open to judicial review proceedings should the local community wish to do that.
So, when we're talking about the strength of this Act, I appreciate what you've been saying about culture change, but there's a way of actually strengthening it as a legal instrument as well, and perhaps I can invite you to look at this—it's a chunky piece of paper we've had from the commissioner with this advice—to see whether it would be worth introducing secondary legislation to make some of this advice statutory, so that all public bodies—the 44 to whom you referred—will know precisely what they have to do in order to demonstrate that they've complied with these duties, and not rely on, shall we say, communities who will struggle to get money together for judicial review to push it all back into their court, on the basis that they're probably too poor to take action against poor decisions.
I welcome the fact that Suzy Davies has commented on the advice that was given by the future generations commissioner—advice and guidance in terms of her powers, and the opportunities particularly to engage with those affected by those decisions about those particular school closures. I think we have to recognise that whatever the situation is, this legislation was never set up to bypass existing regulations in terms of change—difficult decisions such as school reorganisation. The school organisation code, which obviously the people and the communities you were involved with would have to have responded to, as indeed in the case that's set out as a result of this question, sets a very high standard of consultation, and it is a public consultation. The Act was never designed to bypass consultation processes such as those laid down in that particular code, which are difficult decisions. So, this Act was never set up in order to bypass or even set the stage for those kinds of legal challenges.
Now, what is clear is that we have to see how the impact of the legislation, what the outcomes of that are in terms of—. I think Llyr Gruffydd made an important point—does this make a difference to our sustainable development principle in terms of social, environmental and cultural well-being making a difference? Will it make a difference to the long-term decision making of not just this Welsh Government, but all those public bodies who are willingly engaging in the new ways of working, looking at the seven well-being goals, and seeing that this actually provides them with a backdrop for a new way of working to look towards our future generations, as well as the well-being of Wales today?
I don't agree with the comments from the QC. I don't believe the legislation is toothless. I do believe and agree with Mick Antoniw. This legislation has made us a world leader in thinking differently, so would the Minister agree with me that we do need to keep flying the flag for this piece of legislation, because it's why countries right now, as you've rightly said, Deputy Minister, are looking to Wales and are interested in Wales and this piece of legislation, and they want to follow Wales's lead? So, we do need to keep flying the flag.
Deputy Minister, I was very proud recently to launch a report alongside the Civil Engineering Contractors Association and also be at the launch of a report from Coleg Cambria in my own constituency. They don't need to follow this piece of legislation, but what they have done is to take the piece of legislation, looked at how it works, realise the benefits and implemented their own plans. And I do believe they are doing some incredibly positive things because of this legislation. So, would you agree with me, Minister, that this is another example of the legislation making a difference right here on our doorstep in Wales?
To finish, again, I do not believe this is a piece of toothless legislation. I think drafting a world-first piece of legislation that changes the way we work, that protects our planet, that looks at the way we monitor and maintain our budgets for the future is something that we should be proud of, and I think it's something that our future generations will be proud of moving forward.
I thank Jack Sargeant for flying the flag today with a concrete example of how this legislation is being used by Coleg Cambria and how—. These are early days, and we need these examples of case studies of how the public sector is embracing this. I said I'd met with the third sector today. They are embracing it; they see that, particularly in terms of the five ways of working, involvement and engagement is crucial. We know that we haven't done enough of that in terms of getting people's views. So, it is also very important to recognise that people outside of Wales are looking at this legislation, and certainly they will be expecting us, who passed this legislation through this National Assembly, to stand up for it. So, there may be a private Member's Bill being considered by Lord Bird of The Big Issue, a Member in Westminster. The New Zealand Government sending a delegation to Cardiff to learn more about the innovative Welsh model, Sophie Howe being at the World Government Summit talking about this, and, indeed, Eluned Morgan, Minister for International Affairs and the Welsh Language, in the UN in New York speaking about the well-being of future generations—isn't the Assembly proud of that? But, clearly, we have got to demonstrate the impact of it on the ground here in Wales in our public bodies and in our communities.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. Deputy Minister, I would counsel very gently that the Government doesn't simply defend the piece of legislation and not consider criticisms that are made of it. The nature of legislation is that it should be reviewed, and the Government has in the past, certainly in my day, accepted reviews of legislation. Post-legislative scrutiny has been a positive part of the legislative process. So, I would hope that the Government would take a more open approach to this. Members will be aware of my own concerns about a piece of legislation—you know, you don't make Wales bilingual in 50 years by declaring that you're going to make Wales bilingual in 50 years; you do it by legislating in different ways to do it, and the Government, of course, has dropped the legislation that might have achieved that. So, I would counsel caution to the Government on this matter. Many of us find declaratory statements given the weight of law to be little more than pious hopes, unless it's actually backed up by real action. Certainly, my concern would be that the Government would review the workings of this piece of legislation that the relevant committee—I think my colleague from Pontypridd mentioned that the sustainability committee could do that, and certainly I think it would be good practice were it to do so. But simply passing legislation and defending it, I think, is a very poor way of operating. We need to look hard: does this achieve the ambitions set for it? Does it achieve the visions set for it? Is it the legislation today that we hoped it would have been when we voted for it? Is it achieving the objectives set for it? And, were we to do that, I'm less confident than the Minister that we would give ourselves 10 out of 10. We might get over the 50 per cent, but, certainly, we need to think much harder about the impact of legislation, and certainly my experience in Government is that this piece of legislation is worshipped more in the theory than the practice.
I thank Alun Davies for that question. In fact, I also thank Andrew R.T. Davies for the question, because I think it was important that I could come here and answer the question, because it should be a matter of public debate. This is about scrutiny, after all, of our legislation, legislation that we passed, and I completely agree with Alun Davies and with his experience in terms of legislation that we have to consider it in terms of scrutiny and the outcomes. I think I've made that very clear this afternoon in terms of reporting examples of where it's working, as Jack Sargeant has identified. It is early days, and, yes, we can proclaim this as a pioneering piece of legislation, I believe—certainly others are, including the United Nations—but we now need to take stock of the considerable debate this afternoon that has arisen as a result of this. Certainly, I would be very pleased—in fact, I think it would be helpful if committees were able to do this in terms of scrutiny and reporting, but also that we set up a seminar or a meeting where we can discuss the legislation further to explain how public bodies are delivering on it.
The next item, therefore, is the 90-second statement, and that statement comes from Dai Lloyd.
Diolch, Llywydd. Coeliac UK is marking its annual awareness week this week. Coeliac disease is a serious lifelong autoimmune condition caused by a reaction to gluten in wheat, barley and rye. People diagnosed with the condition must stay gluten-free for the rest of their lives if they are to avoid very serious complications, yet, whilst one in 100 people are estimated to have coeliac disease, of these, only 30 per cent are currently diagnosed, meaning there are nearly 22,000 people in Wales with undiagnosed coeliac disease. The average time it takes for someone to get a diagnosis is 13 years from the onset of symptoms, by which time they may already be suffering with added complications caused by the disease. With only 3 per cent of adults aware that the symptoms of IBS, irritable bowel syndrome, are also common symptoms of coeliac disease, Coeliac UK is calling for greater awareness of the similarity of symptoms and urges anyone with IBS to ask their GP for a coeliac disease blood test if they have not already had one. This blood test, carried out in primary care, is simple and inexpensive, yet thousands of people are not getting the necessary testing. As chair of the cross-party group on coeliac, I'd invite Members to join me in raising awareness of this serious condition, and if you or someone you know has symptoms such as ongoing bloating, diarrhoea or constipation and has been given a diagnosis of IBS but not been tested for coeliac disease, think, 'Is it coeliac disease?' Diolch yn fawr.
The next item is the statement by the Chair of the Standards of Conduct Committee on maintaining confidence in the standards procedure. I call on the Chair to make her statement—Jayne Bryant.
Diolch, Llywydd. The work of the Standards of Conduct Committee is integral to ensuring that we, as elected representatives in the National Assembly for Wales, maintain the confidence and trust of those who put their faith in us to represent them.
The system of an independent commissioner was introduced in 2011. The statutory post of commissioner for standards held important powers to carry out rigorous investigations of complaints against Assembly Members before reporting to the Standards of Conduct Committee. The creation of this post was significant. It aimed to give the people of Wales increased confidence in their elected representatives by enshrining in law the powers and independence of the Assembly’s commissioner for standards.
We are now in a different climate to 2011. As Members are aware, there's been extensive coverage about inappropriate behaviour and sexual harassment throughout society. The MeToo hashtag, a step that has allowed people across the globe to speak out and voice their concerns, has demonstrated that the need for change is undeniable. Politics is certainly no exception. A key factor in achieving this change is ensuring people have confidence to confidentially come forward and raise concerns without a fear of this often sensitive information being shared. It's also incumbent on us to make sure that we're encouraging wider representation in the political system. This will only be possible if we have a culture that is truly inclusive and enabling.
It's therefore deeply disappointing that recently a number of complaints to the commissioner for standards have been released to the media prior to the process having been concluded. In the last two instances, this has happened before the committee had even begun its consideration into the complaint. The committee’s work is significantly impacted when a complaint or the contents of a commissioner's report appear in the public domain before we've considered the matter. It greatly undermines the system and results in the committee considering a report against a backdrop of external comments and speculation. This is not fair on complainants or those who are subject to a complaint.
We have great concerns that the publicity and media coverage resulting from such breaches of confidentiality may act as a disincentive to making a formal complaint, particularly if it's of a sensitive nature. This is troubling and contrary to the work being undertaken across the Assembly to ensure confidence in how concerns and inappropriate behaviour are dealt with.
As elected politicians, we have a responsibility to ensure that we set the highest standards as an example to wider society. It's imperative that every one of us takes responsibility in achieving this. I'd like to remind all Members that we must not disclose, communicate or discuss any aspect of a complaint with the press or other media until the committee's report is published. This may include the discussion of any potential complaints before they've officially been made. Failure to adhere to this procedure is a breach of the code of conduct and will be treated as such.
I welcome this statement today from the Chair of the standards committee. The setting up of the independent standards commissioner of the Assembly was sadly needed, and, in the current climate, it'll probably be needed more than it was when it was initially set up. Investigations must be seen to be rigorous and conclusions that are then presented to the committee for due consideration have to remain confidential to allow them to carry out considered actions unimpeded by outside influences.
The two leaks to the media were, in my opinion, deliberate acts that served to undermine that particular process, and I agree with the statement today that that is deeply troubling, and that it's imperative that any AM, be they the complainant or the complained about, must expect to find themselves in breach of our code of conduct. My question is—to you as Chair—how can the Standards of Conduct Committee expect to be able to enforce that particular ruling.
Thank you, Joyce, for your comments, and I really appreciate the opportunity to make this statement, again, as I said, today, Llywydd, and I want to assure all Members and the public that this hasn't gone unnoticed. We've been very concerned about it and we have taken action when we've needed to. We did have leak inquiries around this, around the two points that Joyce has said today, and, from that, we've—those leak inquiries were able to suggest a number of improvements to the security processes, which have now been implemented.
But, just to reiterate, it is so important that we are clear that any leak greatly undermines the system and results in the committee considering a report against a backdrop of external comments and speculation, and it's not fair on the complainants and it is not fair for those who are subject to the complaint.
The next item, therefore, is the debate on a Member’s legislative proposal, and today we’re focusing on the non-carbon emission public vehicles Bill, and I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to move the motion.
Motion NDM7020 Rhun ap Iorwerth
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes a proposal for non-carbon-emission public vehicles bill.
2. Notes that the purpose of this bill will be:
a) to promote the use of electric vehicles or non-emission vehicles in Wales in order to help reduce carbon emissions; and
b) to place a duty on the Welsh Government and other public bodies to develop a strategy to move towards using electric vehicles or non-emission vehicles in the public fleet in Wales.
Thank you, Llywydd. Well, a little over a week ago, this Senedd voted to declare a climate emergency—an important symbolic step. It was Plaid Cymru that had tabled the motion, and, shortly before that, the Government stated that they were willing to make that statement. It was a very important symbolic statement, and I look forward to discussing that with environmental campaigners in my old school, Ysgol David Hughes, tomorrow.
But, whilst the symbolism was significant, our willingness to take action will be the measure of our success in tackling that emergency. And, in the Chamber yesterday, we listened to a statement from the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport on active travel. The Welsh term is better than the English, 'teithio llesol', rather than active travel. 'Llesol' in Welsh means 'beneficial', and, through that legislation, what we’re doing is to ask people to make travel choices that are more beneficial to them—in terms of their health, yes, but we are also talking about benefiting the environment.
The Minister gave this statistic yesterday: 13 per cent of climate change emissions in Wales come from transport, and virtually all of those come from the private car with its petrol or diesel engines. Now, yesterday, we had a discussion on how to help people to choose active travel, either on a bike or walking. That’s one way of tackling emissions. More significant is encouraging people to use public transport, to get out of their cars and to choose mass transport options that are kinder to the environment. And I do agree 100 per cent with that. We must invest in creating networks and travel systems that are attractive, efficient, clean, that can drive that kind of change in the way we get from A to B. We can also discuss ways of preventing journeys from A to B, so that people can work at point A and live there, too, rather than having to travel to point B in the first place.
But, in the midst of all of this, the private vehicle will still be an important feature of our transport landscape for years to come. There will be changes. There will be more car sharing, hopefully; automation will take place, whereby vehicles can arrive without a driver. But, for some years to come, I’m sure we will have cars on our roads. And not just cars, of course; there'll be vans, goods lorries, heavy goods vehicles maintaining public services, and so on and so forth. Therefore, we have to make them cleaner. Outside the Senedd earlier today it was wonderful to welcome Audi, BMW, Hyundai, Kia, Nissan and Renault, who were demonstrating their latest electric vehicles. The technology is making progress very quickly, with wholly-electric vehicles being able to travel further—200 miles and more on one charge, and 300 for some. Charging can take place more quickly, but there are urgent steps that need to be taken in order to normalise low-emission vehicles.
Earlier today, I also published a report that drew on my visit to Scotland and outlined the lessons that we can learn from Scotland for the future of electric vehicles in Wales. I presented a copy to the Chair of the economy committee, Russell George, and I’m grateful to that committee for carrying out an inquiry in this area. I hope that my report will be of some use to the committee. But, perhaps, the main thing I learned from Scotland was that we need a clear focus, a particular strategy. We need determination to drive that strategy forward, to introduce far more charging points, to ensure that they work, to gather data on their usage, and so on and so forth, and also to provide further incentives in different sectors—taxis, for example—to think how we can combine the use of electric vehicles in our cities.
Thank you for allowing me to speak. I have had an opportunity to look at the report that you’ve written. I think it’s an excellent report, and it shows the kind of ambition that we need. I will be supporting you this afternoon when it comes to the vote. Do you agree with me that what we need now is a strategy and a timeline and funding to ensure that we can achieve the kind of ambition that you describe in your report?
Thank you very much for those comments. It was good to see the Member for Blaenau Gwent in the event outside the Assembly earlier, and I do appreciate that support. Yes, certainly, we do need a clear strategy, and that’s one of the concerns I have: that we are falling behind.
But, for this Senedd as a legislature, in responding to the fact that we have made that statement on the climate emergency, we need to consider how we can use the tools that we have. One of the things that we can do as a legislature is to legislate. Last year, I made a legislative proposal on a planning Bill to put guidance in place for the infrastructure for charging systems in new developments, and I was very pleased to see the Welsh Government reflecting some of those priorities in their recent low-carbon plan. But what I have this time is a Bill for public vehicles that are non-carbon emission. The hope is to promote the use of electric vehicles or non-emission vehicles such as hydrogen by placing a duty on the Welsh Government and other public bodies, from councils to local authorities, to develop a strategy to move towards specifically using electric vehicles and non-emission vehicles in their own public fleets. And it’s important to say that there are signs of good practice emerging in several councils across Wales.
One thing I learned from Scotland, in Dundee specifically, is that you need a few determined individuals. In Dundee, it was those individuals that have driven innovation. We need to identify those determined, enthusiastic individuals in Wales. But, I do think that legislation can be a tool that we should use, and I am proposing that a boost should be given through legislation to ensure that every public body publishes a strategy as to how they are going to move in the right direction. NRW, as it happens, has carried out an assessment of its own situation and has come to the conclusion that it can change a little over half of its fleet—. They can't change all their vehicles at the moment, but if they changed about half of their fleet, they would save 413 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, and on top of that would save £136,000.
So, let’s make progress. Let’s vote for this motion today and support the idea of developing legislation—because we are a legislature—to push a strategy that we all agree with in principle, but where we consider what we can do specifically as elected Members in our national Senedd.
Thank you for putting forward the legislative proposal this afternoon. Can I say that the Welsh Conservatives and myself fully support the legislative proposal put forward by Rhun ap Iorwerth this afternoon? I was also pleased to support the event that Rhun mentioned earlier today, where he launched his report talking about the Scottish experience, and indeed I was very grateful to him for supplying me and committee members with an advance copy of that report, because the Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee is currently doing a piece of work on electric vehicle charging infrastructure. In that piece of work that we're doing, we've taken a slightly different approach to normal, in that we've taken evidence and, rather than publish our findings with recommendations and conclusions, we have published our report in draft with our emerging conclusions and recommendations to further consult, and that approach has seemed to have worked. There'll be another opportunity for me to talk to some of the emerging conclusions when we come to debate that in this Chamber.
But I would pick up on one point. One of the emerging themes, or certainly one of the responses that we received recently, was that Wales is a charging desert and that, currently, infrastructure is insufficient in coping with existing demand, let alone increased demand. I regret, actually, not using the screens we've got here today to show the Zap-Map, which, indeed, Government uses as well to obtain its own information of coverage and charging points across England and Wales, because if you saw that map, the story would speak for itself. England is quite well serviced, certainly in urban areas, but Wales—we've got a scattering in the north, a scattering in the south, with a big desert in the middle.
Now, the Government's announced £2 million of investment to improve charging points and charging point infrastructure, but we note that in Scotland the Government there has committed £14 million to support infrastructure and to support the low-carbon agenda, £8 million of which has been dedicated towards charging infrastructure from the UK Government's Plugged-in Places scheme. I think that we, or certainly the Welsh Government, should also be promoting private sector investment as well as public subsidy, particularly in rural areas as well, and in some cases, the Government might not even need to promote public funding, because that'll come itself through the normal channels. But what we do need to address is the infrastructure in rural Wales, and we don't need infrastructure in rural Wales just for those who live in rural Wales, but, of course, to get anywhere, if you're going to go from north to south, you're driving through rural Wales, so you do need infrastructure there to support the network.
I was also pleased, as well—very grateful to the Minister for allowing his official to come to a meeting on Monday in Newtown, where I got a Welsh Government official, Powys County Council and other stakeholders together to explore some of the issues and exchange information as well. The key issue that was driving through that meeting was the lack of charging infrastructure in rural Wales and making sure that any strategy that does come forward, as it will do, as the Minister has said it will come forward in 2020, will address some of those issues. I'm over time—I'm so sorry, I've not said as much as I would like to say—but I will have another opportunity when the committee comes to debate this report later in the year, no doubt.
Thank you for introducing this proposal for a Bill. I agree that we must find a cleaner way of getting from A to B, and I'll be supporting the motion. However, although many people dream of the day when we're all diesel and petrol free, and I would join them on that, we have to be careful about rushing ahead with the promotion of electric vehicles and seriously consider the realities of mass electrical car roll-out. So, in my contribution today, I'm just going to focus on electric vehicles. When it comes to the environment, we often talk about our responsibility for the sake of not just Wales but the rest of the world also, and we need to be mindful of that when promoting electric vehicles.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.