|Statement by the Llywydd|
|1. Questions to the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd|
|2. Questions to the Minister for International Relations and Welsh Language|
|3. Questions to the Assembly Commission|
|4. Topical Questions|
|5. 90-second Statements|
|Motion to elect a Member to a committee|
|6. Statement by the Chair of the Public Accounts Committee: Scrutiny of Accounts 2017-18|
|7. Debate on the Petitions Committee Report: Petition P-05-784 Prescription drug dependence and withdrawal—recognition and support|
|8. Welsh Conservatives Debate: The Economy|
|9. Voting Time|
|10. Short Debate: Breathing easier in Wales: Pulmonary rehabilitation and smoking cessation services|
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
I wish to inform the Assembly that, in accordance with Standing Order 26.75, the Public Services Ombudsman (Wales) Bill was given Royal Assent today, and that, of course, is the first Bill to be brought forward by a committee of this Assembly to have received Royal Assent.
The first item on our agenda is questions to the Minister for Finance, and the first question is from Michelle Brown.
1. What discussions has the Minister had with local authorities regarding how the collection of business rates and the discretionary awarding of business rate relief can be used to improve Welsh high streets? OAQ53915
We have worked closely with local authorities to improve the administration of non-domestic rates and rate relief and will continue to do so. The Minister for local government and I discussed this with local government leaders at the finance sub-group meeting this morning.
Thank you for your response, Minister. There are some imaginative ways that rate relief is being used to make town centres better places to be. For example, in Flintshire, they've offered a rate reduction to businesses that give public access to their toilets. Another way that rate relief and the business rate system could be used is to incentivise the growth of job-creating businesses over those that don't, for instance by giving start-up businesses a rates-free period, or offering a discount to businesses in return for job creation. Do you agree with me that the business rates system should be reformed to strategically target the system to actively encourage new business investment and job creation?
Thank you for raising the important issue of non-domestic rates this afternoon. In total, over £210 million of relief is being provided in 2019-20 to support businesses across Wales with their bills, and these reliefs are available to all eligible ratepayers, including those on the high street who meet the criteria. But, as you say, we have introduced an extra £23.6 million of support to enhance our high-street rate relief scheme, and that's been extended now for a further year into 2019-20. But I think one of the most important things that we have introduced is that additional £2.4 million to local authorities to offer that discretionary rate relief to businesses and other ratepayers. But I do think it's important that it does remain discretionary in the wider sense because local authorities are best placed to understand where the local pressures are and where the local opportunities to make a difference are. You've given an example already about the way in which Flintshire is using its rates to try and open up access to public toilets within the town centre. So, the whole point of it being discretionary is for local authorities to be agile and respond to local need.
Minister, there's a difference between looking at something as a discretionary rate relief and something that, actually, should be hidden from public view. Within my own region, there seems to be some confusion about how this is awarded, with, I understand, two of the councils in my region proactively seeking out businesses that could benefit from this, advising them and then administering the mitigating monies quite straightforwardly. And, yet, another of them don't seem to be telling very many people about it—there's definitely a culture of businesses having to proactively themselves seek out whether this thing is available to them or not, and, as a result, in one particular council, only a third of those eligible for this relief are getting it.
So, I wonder if you have any idea why Bridgend doesn't seem to be following what I hear is good practice in Swansea, Neath Port Talbot, the Vale of Glamorgan and Cardiff, to ensure that people in Bridgend get the benefits in the way you intended them to get. And if you don't have any idea why they're doing that, can you explain why not? Perhaps you could be discussing that in the sub-group meetings you're having.
So, as I say, we had a meeting of the finance sub-group this morning, where I was able to thank local authorities for the work that they have done in terms of introducing the new schemes. As you say, you've given some examples where you believe that good work is happening. Swansea is one of those. I'll certainly take up the issue with the leader of Bridgend council to understand what the situation is there and to see if it does reflect the perception that there is not the promotion of the discretionary rate.
Minister, with declining footfall to our Welsh shopping destinations continuing to cause a major headache for retailers, and with shop vacancy levels among the highest in the UK, we do need urgent action. I see you follow the Scottish Government on quite a bit of stuff, and campaigners in my area have approached me with the example of the Scottish Government, which has introduced a below-inflation increase in business rates. Does the Welsh Government acknowledge the tough times the retail industry is facing and what support will you be providing?
Welsh Government will always take decisions in terms of what’s best for people in Wales and for businesses in Wales, but we have a generous approach to rates relief in Wales. Our average rateable value is different to that in England and it will be different to that in Scotland. So, it’s important that we take the decisions in terms of rate relief that are right for Wales and that do reflect our Welsh context.
Our enhanced scheme this year goes significantly further than in previous years. We provide support to over 15,000 retail businesses across the country. It’s fully funded by the Welsh Government and provides support of up to £2,500 towards non-domestic rate bills for retail properties with a rateable value of up to £50,000. The scheme reduces rates bills to zero for retail properties with a retail value of up to £9,100. So, it certainly is a generous offer, but we have to remember that non-domestic rates, alongside council tax, play a really important part in allowing our local authorities to continue providing the kind of services on which we all rely.
Minister, the Welsh Labour Government has been proactive on the issue of high-street rate relief and it’s clear that a busy and productive high street is of fundamental importance to my constituency, including the towns of Blackwood, Risca, Newbridge, Crosskeys and many others across Islwyn.
Indeed, the First Minister, whilst Cabinet Secretary for finance, in December last year issued a statement announcing that the Welsh Government was extending the high-street rate relief scheme for a further year and extending the relief available through the scheme to businesses, with a further £2.4 million to be allocated to local authorities to provide additional discretionary rate relief for local businesses and other ratepayers. So, isn’t this yet further evidence that the Welsh Labour Government is on the side of local businesses?
It absolutely is, and I thank Rhianon Passmore for that contribution. Of course, our work on non-domestic rates is just part of a package of ways in which we support our regeneration of town centres and support our high streets in Wales.
Of course, we have our targeted regeneration investment programme, in which we’re investing capital funding of up to £100 million over a three-year period. That goes alongside the work that we’re doing in terms of promoting business improvement districts. So, in October, in my previous portfolio, I announced a further £262,000 funding for the development of an additional 10 business improvement districts, to add to the 13 that are already making a difference in town centres across Wales.
2. What discussions has the Minister had regarding the options available to solve the problem of second home owners avoiding paying tax? OAQ53910
As outlined in our tax policy work plan, officials are working with local authority colleagues to review the use of their discretionary powers to apply council tax premiums and ensure the legislation is operating as intended.
You will be aware that nine Welsh councils have suggested a simple solution to the increasing problem of second homes being exempted from paying any sort of tax whatsoever into the public purse. They argue that the Welsh Government has the powers to adapt section 66 of the Local Government Finance Act 1988 through secondary legislation. Now, fundamentally, we need to remove the current criteria, as set out in section 66, related to self-catering units, and replace it with a principle that every property that is used as a domestic property should remain as a domestic property, whatever its use. Do you agree that we need to amend this legislation, and will your Government proceed immediately to doing so?
I've had exactly this conversation with local authority leaders in our finance sub-group this morning, where we were discussing this specific issue of concerns relating to individuals who decide to change the status of their property to move themselves out of council tax into non-domestic rates, where they could then potentially benefit from our rate relief schemes.
So, as you know, because we've had some discussions on this before and I know that you will be meeting with my officials with Llyr Gruffydd on 4 June to discuss the issue further, a working group of local authority practitioners has been set up to discuss the issue of council tax premiums and discounts and to consider the current position across Wales. There is a further meeting for early June, and I'd be more than happy again to meet with you after that meeting to discuss the findings of that. This is an issue that we are very alive to, and we're very keen to ensure that those who are able to pay council tax and who should be paying council tax certainly do so because, as I've outlined, it's extremely important in being able to support our local authorities to undertake all the work that we require them to do. But, we are absolutely alive to this issue and discussions have been had as recently as this morning.
Minister, it's legitimate to have a second home. However, it's only fair that you make a contribution to the community you're in, especially at times of restricted finances and housing shortage. We also need to ensure that we don't create perverse incentives for people to redesignate domestic dwellings. So, I think it is time to have a comprehensive look at this and just see how we can have a more consistent policy that sends the right messages to people that, if they are privileged enough to have a second home, then that comes with obligations.
I'd just like to reassure David Melding that this is something that we are looking very closely at. Of course, Wales is the only part of the UK that has introduced rules to allow local authorities to charge those premiums on second homes. We're gathering data at the moment to explore to what extent local authorities have charged premiums or applied discounts, which they're also able to do in respect of second homes. Of course, those discretionary powers really were brought in to help local authorities bring underused properties back into use and tackle issues of housing supply. They weren't particularly a revenue-raising power, but, nonetheless, any revenue raised by local authorities is clearly welcome.
HMRC has a clear set of rules to ensure that holiday homes only benefit from its more generous tax treatment when they are genuinely used as businesses, and their rules, which are tried and tested, say that the home has to be available 210 days a year to let and actually let for at least 105 days. Would there be any merit in officials at least considering whether that definition could be usefully imported to reduce the tax avoidance that clearly has been going on in this area?
In Wales, to qualify as self-catering accommodation, a dwelling must be available to be let for at least 140 days in a 12-month period, and it must actually be let for 70 days, and that definition was set out in the Non-Domestic Rating (Definition of Domestic Property) (Wales) Order 2010. I do think that it is timely to review those figures and certainly would look at the work that HMRC is doing in this area as well as a potential model, but all of this is very much in the mix as we have these discussions regarding rate relief particularly relating to second homes, holiday homes and so on.
Well, I'd like to add a third suggestion, not disagreeing with either of the first two. We've got a blanket rate relief scheme is the problem, and I don't believe houses should be part of a blanket rate relief scheme. So, why can't the Welsh Government exclude houses from rate relief and refuse to accept housing except in designated holiday villages as businesses so they would then have to pay the council tax on those buildings? It is something that annoys the vast majority of people in this room today that people are redesignating their second homes as holiday homes and getting away without paying any council tax.
We have been trying to secure evidence that properties have been transferred from the council tax list to non-domestic rating lists and have done so improperly. As yet, we haven't had evidence for that, but we understand certainly anecdotally that it's something that people perceive to be happening, and we have asked local authorities again as recently as this morning to provide us with the evidence. Some commitments were made at that meeting to provide that kind of evidence. In terms of designating holiday villages, that potentially could be adding a level of complexity to the issue, and I think it's something that we'd have to certainly think right through in terms of what that might mean for tourism and any impact it might have on the holiday market.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Paul Davies.
Diolch Llywydd. Minister, can you provide an update on the resources and work plan of the Economic Intelligence Wales unit that now actually sits within the Development Bank of Wales, which of course will have a role to play on any future tax proposals?
Thank you very much for that question. Unfortunately, the Development Bank of Wales sits within the portfolio of the Minister for economy, so I'm unable to provide you with that update today, but I will certainly ensure that it is forthcoming as soon as possible.
Well, Minister, surely the Economic Intelligence Wales unit will have a role to play on any future tax proposals, and therefore this unit is important to your portfolio as well. Effective economic intelligence is required to provide public policy makers with a proper foundation in order to ensure that policy measures taken by Government are targeted, impactful and properly understood. Ideally, this activity should be completed under one roof, and by an expert body. Wales has lacked this capacity for many years and it's still somewhat regrettable that it has taken so long for this capacity to finally now be put in place. However, the new Economic Intelligence Wales unit within the Development Bank of Wales will now be completing important work analysing the Welsh economy. As the Economic Intelligence Wales unit is so vital for tax policy, and therefore for your entire brief, Minister, could I please then ask you again what is the work plan of this unit going forward, and how do you anticipate this new unit impacting on your own proposals for tax in Wales for the future?
Well, I've had some discussions with regard to the impact of the work of the unit in terms of looking forward and identifying potential businesses at risk, so this is something that it does monitor frequently with regard to advising Welsh Government on the kinds of investments that it wants to take. The specific context I had those discussions in related to procurement, so ensuring that where Welsh Government is procuring, it is doing so with good knowledge about the sustainability, I suppose, of the businesses with which it's engaging.
Minister, what is vital, of course, is that Wales uses the new tax powers at its disposal to boost the Welsh economy, and the devolution of income tax powers, for example, presents, I think, an exciting new opportunity to support and grow the Welsh economy. As such, what research or modelling has the Welsh Government undertaken to assess the impact of changes to income tax rates here in Wales, on both tax revenue and, indeed, the performance of the Welsh economy as a whole. And, perhaps, going forward, this is something that the Economic Intelligence Wales unit could also be involved in.
Thank you for raising that. Welsh Government has done significant work, in conjunction with the chief economist and the Wales Centre for Public Policy, in terms of mapping out our current tax base and then looking at what the future of our tax base might look like in Wales, were we to undertake various interventions. There are various choices that we can make in terms of Welsh rates of income tax, but also in terms of growing our tax base, we need to be looking at how we use the levers at our disposal in the housing department, for example, in education, and how we attract the right kind of people into Wales who are going to be able to make a good, strong contribution to our economy through growing our tax base here.
Thank you, Llywydd. The Scotland Act 2016 prepared the ground for the devolution of responsibility for 11 benefits to the Scottish Government. The new welfare agency has been established in Scotland now. A recent report from the Wales Governance Centre reported that the devolution of elements of the welfare state to Wales on a similar model could provide a boost of some £200 million to the public purse in Wales. It is a very substantial sum. Does the Minister agree with that analysis from the Wales Governance Centre, and if she does, isn't it now a priority to proceed to seek these powers as a matter of urgency?
Well, as the First Minister set out in his letter to Leanne Wood earlier this month, he was keen to reassure that the report by the Wales Governance Centre will be taken into consideration as part of the work that we have already outlined in Plenary on 5 February, which relates to the process of considering the case for devolving the administration of parts of the welfare system. Of course, the First Minister has agreed that an early milestone in this process will be an assessment of the case for change by the Wales Centre for Public Policy, which will be undertaken as part of their work programme for 2019-20. And he's asked the Wales Centre for Public Policy to meet with Leanne Wood in her spokesperson role, and I understand that meeting is scheduled for next month.
And I was pleased, certainly after years of my party campaigning for the devolution of the administration of welfare, to hear positive sounds from Government, and I'm pleased that we are at a point where this is under consideration. But really the truth is that this is a no-brainer, especially when the report from the Wales Governance Centre made it clear that there are elements of welfare that you can safely predict, that there won't be fluctuation, or too much fluctuation, in coming years, where we can very confidently say that there is no real risk to the public purse in Wales. So, once again, maybe it's the case also that Welsh Government has decided to wait for a report from a committee in this Assembly, but of course we've had two committee reports already that have suggested that we move forward towards the devolution of welfare. Why is it that Government has not been able up to this point to even consider, and why is it that we should believe that you are willing now, when you have not been in the past, to take this hugely sensible step, which the evidence is now absolutely clear on, that we can look after the most vulnerable in Wales by doing this?
Clearly we would want to take an evidence-based approach to this issue so the more the evidence base grows, the more it helps us in terms of determining the way forward. But I think it is fair to say, as the paper to which you refer concludes, that the uncertainties that remain at this relatively early stage in consideration of the benefit that devolution of benefits could bring means the idea will be approached with justifiable trepidation. I think it is reasonable to take a cautious and informed approach to this particular issue, because there are potentially big risks there for the Welsh Government in terms of taking on various benefits.
Trepidation and caution, yes, but we're seeing evidence that is quite clear now that there could be a surplus of £200 million for the Welsh purse from doing this, and that is £200 million that can be used to mitigate the worst effects of austerity, which has been imposed by the Conservatives and, before them, the Liberal Democrats at Westminster. This is an opportunity that, thus far, Welsh Government has failed to grasp. Now, with the evidence that we have in front of us, and as we celebrate 20 years of devolution, is it not the time to say now that for the next 20 years we are going to be in a position, by taking these responsibilities confidently, of being able to mitigate and help the most vulnerable people in our societies in Wales, as they're doing in Scotland?
Of course, this isn't an issue that can be resolved very quickly, as I think the Member is suggesting it might be, because of course the report to which you referred in the first question refers to the so-called S-benefits, so the specific set of benefits that have been devolved to Scotland, and actually it's only now that the Scottish Government is in the very early stages of their journey to manage and integrate those benefits. So, I think the suggestion that this is something that could happen almost overnight is fanciful, but it is something that the Welsh Government is taking seriously and we look forward to working positively, I would hope, with Plaid Cymru and with other interested parties as we develop our thinking on this agenda.
3. What discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Housing and Local Government regarding the capital funding provided to local authorities? OAQ53924
The Minister for Housing and Local Government and I meet regularly to discuss a wide range of financial issues. Today, the Minister and I met with representatives of local government at the finance sub-group, where we discussed a range of matters including our investment in social housing.
Minister, in terms of tackling climate change and promoting sustainable transport, local authorities have a crucial role to play, naturally. Within the statement on the local transport fund last week, only a few local authorities were provided with funding for providing rapid charging points for electric vehicles. I was disappointed that there were no named developments in Neath Port Talbot or Bridgend in my own region. Do you agree that the Welsh Government needs to do more, jointly with local authorities, in order to develop a network the length and breadth of Wales? And how are you going to deliver that?
Our budget plans, which were approved by the Assembly in January, provide for more than £375 million of capital investment in local government over 2019-20 and 2020-21. And as part of our mid-point review of the Welsh infrastructure investment plan, we agreed £78 million for the local transport fund over three years. So, I think it is important to recognise the level of support that is going into the transport agenda through local authorities.
Of course, in our budget agreement, we have a Plaid Cymru-Labour commitment to invest £2 million in electric charging points, and that work is under way. You would have heard from the transport Minister yesterday in the Assembly that, actually, that £2 million allows us to lever down even more funding to invest in this agenda. But, clearly, there is a momentum now, I think, building behind electric vehicles and we would want to capture that.
The Welsh Government's written statement on the final local government settlement for 2019-20 identified capital funding for local government in Wales, including general capital funding of £193 million, falling to £183 million in the following year, but including £20 million for the public highways refurbishment grant. We all know that adverse weather has had an impact on potholes across Wales, which, presumably, is a consideration in the Welsh Government's delivery of these funding sums, but what actual assessment has the Welsh Government carried out of the total level of pothole action need across Wales? And how will it ensure that the funding that is available is being targeted where it's needed most?
Well, I've recently had discussions with colleagues across Government about the balance that we strike between road and infrastructure maintenance, and then the investment that we might want to put into new infrastructure, because it is important that we take good care of the infrastructure that we already have. In terms of the level of funding that might be needed to deal with all of the potholes that we have across Wales at the moment, I would certainly explore that with my colleague with responsibility for that—the Minister for Economy and Transport.
4. What consideration does the Minister give to the funding of prefabricated housing when allocating the Welsh Government's budget? OAQ53918
More than £1.7 billion is being invested this Assembly term towards our 20,000 affordable homes target. The Minister for Housing and Local Government supports modular and prefabricated housing projects through the innovative housing, three-year, £90 million programme, currently in its third year and on track to deliver 2,000 new homes.
Minister, you may have seen that last week it was announced that Japan's biggest house builder will move into the UK housing market with immediate effect after striking a multi-million pound deal that will see it work with Homes England and Urban Splash to deliver thousands of new homes across England. The £90 million deal comprises of total new investment of £55 million into regeneration company Urban Splash's house development business. And it provides a significant boost to the UK's modular housing industry and will help to speed up production of much needed new homes. I just give this as an example of how government and the private sector can work together, and I just wonder if you are looking at some of these innovative ways, and perhaps you could have discussions with the Japanese provider as well, because I think Wales would be a great place to do business too.
Well, the affordable housing supply review, which I announced in my previous portfolio, has recently reported. And, of course, it had a specific workstream looking at the potential of off-site manufacturing and modern methods of construction. And as a result of that, the off-site manufactured social homes for rent strategy will be formally consulted on shortly, and that's been developed in tandem with the Welsh housing sector and commercial providers. It will set out ministerial expectations for the design and the standard of manufactured homes. So, we're certainly keen to be working across the sectors in order to promote this particular agenda, because we believe that the investment that we're making through our innovative housing programme will help us to pinpoint potentially two or three types of modular housing and types of off-site manufacturing that will work best for the Welsh context, and then which we can scale up because, clearly, we want to see this kind of housing become mainstream, rather than a novelty project that we all get very excited about.
Not as far as Japan, but actually much more locally, I was very pleased, David, on Monday, to join housing Minister Julie James on a visit to a project led by Valleys to Coast and the modular building specialists Wernick Buildings, delivering eight new modular homes in Sarn and Tondu, after being awarded funding from Welsh Government's £90 million innovative housing grant and supported by Bridgend County Borough Council.
These homes, as David was saying, are made up of individual modules, pre-manufactured at Wernick's factory at Kenfig industrial estate—so, local jobs, local economic benefits—before being combined on site to make a whole house. It took at little as three weeks to produce these modules, arriving on site fully fixed with appliances, heating, electrics, substantially increasing the speed of housing delivery.
So, my question to the finance Minister is: with those 50 per cent faster production times, reducing costs, environmental impacts and disruption to local residents, how do we upscale that, beyond the innovation grants and so on? How do we get it to a scale where this is the mainstream normal pattern of housing construction?
I think part of the answer is in taking forward the recommendations of the affordable housing review and the work that I've just outlined to David Melding. There's work to do, I think, in terms of consumer expectations and consumer understanding of the benefits of modern methods of construction, and there's also work to do with the financial industry as well in terms of giving the certainty that they require in terms of being able to issue mortgages for these kinds of properties and so on, which will certainly stand the test of time.
You've given one great example of what's been achieved through the innovative housing programme. I was able to go and visit Wernick myself. I would advise or encourage any colleagues who have yet to see modern methods of construction in action to go along and see for themselves what's being achieved.
Just a couple more examples: we've got the extra-care facility in Aberaman that is being built using modular components being manufactured in Newtown, and that obviously saves time and cost over traditional on-site construction, and it allows construction year-round and so on. Also, we've got a number of schemes being built to the Tŷ Solar, homes as power stations and passive standards, and they all demonstrate very high energy efficiency in the building fabric. And also, there's smart integration of renewable energy and heat, reducing carbon emissions and reducing the energy bills of their occupiers. There are so many benefits to be realised from this exciting piece of work.
5. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government efforts to make council tax fairer? OAQ53913
As I outlined in my written statement on 18 March, we continue to make progress with our programme of work to make council tax fairer. I am grateful to colleagues in local government and our other partners who are supporting this important work.
With recent increases in council tax in some local authority areas, I'm sure that that will be very welcome to very many individuals and their families who are already struggling financially. The council tax reduction scheme provides support for almost 300,000 households in Wales with their council tax bill. Making care leavers exempt from paying council tax up to the age of 25 does allow some concrete support to some of the most vulnerable people at the most vulnerable time in their lives. The advice that's being developed will of course be a very big help to those who are eligible. Will you, Minister, give a regular update on how the uptake of this scheme and other schemes is developing, just to make sure that we can help and assist where that might be needed in our own areas?
Thank you very much for raising these important issues. I agree completely that awareness raising of the support that is available out there is absolutely crucial. We have a national council tax reduction scheme, as Joyce Watson said, and that maintains entitlement to support for low-income households. The Welsh Government is providing £244 million to reduce those council tax bills for some of the households across Wales who are struggling the most. Our decision to maintain those full entitlements ensures that around 300,000 vulnerable and low-income households in Wales continue to be protected from increases in their council tax bills, and, of course, of those, around 220,000 households will pay nothing at all. I was really delighted that we were able to ensure that council tax is no longer charged to care leavers up to the age of 25, and I'm really pleased with the leadership that local authorities showed in deciding to do this on a voluntary basis, because they saw the value that it could give. But I'd be more than happy to provide any updates that I can in terms of ensuring that people are getting the help that they are fully entitled to.
The council tax system is undeniably regressive. In Plaid Cymru’s last Assembly manifesto, we proposed reforming the system, which would have saved those in the lowest council tax bands up to £400 a year, and the policy would have seen anyone living in properties rated band A to D paying less. This redistribution of wealth would have been funded by those living in the most expensive properties. Do you not agree that, in the light of the latest damning figures on child poverty in Wales, showing that we're the only nation in the UK to see an increase in child poverty in the last year, that the time for talk on reform of council tax is over and that action in terms of the redistribution of wealth needs to be taken swiftly?
I point out, really, to the Member that there are actually very few properties in the top band, band I—so, only 5,400 of those across the whole of Wales—and those are unevenly distributed, so simply creating an additional upper band or a mansion tax, or some kind of additional tax on those particular properties without changes to the wider system would have limited benefits. So, we are looking at the wider system.
In October, we published a detailed update on reforms to local taxes and local government funding in Wales, and I intend to publish a further update on this in the autumn. But we are examining options for medium to longer term reform of local taxes to ensure that they are designed to best meet the needs of people in Wales. And we obviously will want to take a progressive and fair and transparent approach to local taxation, which provides funding for local services.
So, to give you a flavour of the kind of work we are undertaking, we are undertaking a substantial research project using external expertise to understand the impact of universal credit on the council tax reduction scheme, patterns of debt and rent arrears in Wales, and this research is essential in informing our legislation that supports council tax payers in the coming years. The Institute for Fiscal Studies is undertaking an in-depth assessment of the impact that the revaluation and rebanding exercise could have on Wales's domestic property tax base, if one were to be carried out, and, through this, we’ll be able to understand the viability of making the band structure more progressive. But we certainly can't do that without the kind of information that would allow us to take informed decisions.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's approach to budget monitoring and management? OAQ53923
Individual Ministers are responsible for budget monitoring and management within their own portfolios, but I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues throughout the year and receive monthly financial reports. The budgetary position is also monitored monthly by the executive committee of the Welsh Government.
Thank you very much for that, Minister, because as you have oversight of this, I'm sure you'll bear in mind that budget decisions are supposed to give regard to the principles of equality and, of course, bear in mind the 2050 target for 1 million Welsh speakers. So, can you tell me what discussions you've had with the Minister for Education about financial support for those who can deliver the new childcare qualification in non-maintained nursery settings through the medium of Welsh, particularly as those both seeking and delivering the qualifications are more likely to be women?
Thank you for raising that issue. Of course, equality and our responsibilities to people who choose to communicate through the medium of Welsh and also our obligations under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 are at the very heart of the discussions that we have with colleagues. I’ve been having my first round of budget bilaterals over the past weeks and I’m very clear and very careful to include issues of impact assessments in those discussions and also to be exploring how the well-being of future generations Act is informing decisions that individual Ministers are making, how they're responding to the climate emergency and also how they’re taking on board their responsibilities in terms of decarbonisation and biodiversity and so on. But I have not had any specific discussions regarding financial support for individuals who are participating in the childcare offer with the Minister. I will discuss with her whether it is a pressure that she’s identified within her budget.
Question 7 [OAQ53901] has been withdrawn, therefore question 8—Delyth Jewell.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on the allocation of funding in the budget for the proposed M4 black route? OAQ53922
Whilst modest costs have been incurred to complete the statutory decision-making process, no funding has yet been allocated from reserves in the 2019-20 budget for construction of the M4 project. Funds are held in reserves pending the decision on whether to make the orders necessary for the project to proceed.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. If, as expected, the First Minister decides not to move ahead with the black route following your Government's declaration of a climate emergency, can you confirm that the money currently earmarked for the project—and I'm referring specifically to the money available through borrowing powers—will be available for use for alternative infrastructure projects? I'm looking for confirmation that it would be possible for Welsh Government to use these funds to invest in green transport projects, such as the south Wales metro and improving bus and train links all over the country?
I'm afraid I really can't be drawn into speculation on what the First Minister's response might be to the decision that he has to make regarding the M4 relief road and what may or may not happen to funding beyond that. The First Minister has set out that he will make the decision shortly. I know that he issued a written statement that set out his timescale for that, so further discussions, I think, would be more appropriate at a future date.
Surely, Minister, you are the finance Minister—. We on these benches, want to see an M4 relief road delivered as soon as possible, but if that's not going to happen, surely there's got to be a plan B in place. You, as the finance Minister, should be aware of what your plan B is.
With respect, I am not going to get drawn into any speculation on what the decision might be from the First Minister with regard to the M4 relief road.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the allocation of capital funding for North Wales? OAQ53926
Within the Minister for Economy and Transport’s portfolio alone, more than £600 million is being invested in transport infrastructure improvements, including the £135 million Caernarfon to Bontnewydd bypass and improvements to the A55 and A494.
Thank you to me—thank you for that response, rather than thanking me for the question, as I had done initially. [Laughter.] Thank you for that response. It’s interesting that you referred to the Minister for Economy and Transport, because the Minister earlier this week announced the local transport fund allocations, which is a fund of almost £33 million. Only £3.6 million is to be allocated to projects in north Wales, and my questions is: is there a policy within Government to ensure that funds such as this are used in a way that brings benefit to all parts of Wales?
All funds from the Welsh Government should be used in a way that recognises local need. So, it would be, I think, worth while looking back over the local transport fund and looking at funding that has been allocated over recent years. I'm sure that you will see significant funding to north Wales there. Obviously, we don't know which projects were submitted to that scheme as well, so I think that it's probably unfair to take an overview in terms of Welsh Government investment in north Wales based on just one bidding round.
But, again, within the Minister's portfolio, we have £20 million in the Menai Science Park, which is the first of its kind in Wales; we've got the new Wales and borders rail service, which will deliver more services on the Wrexham to Bidston line, direct services to Liverpool and also investment in stations; the new £18 million neonatal intensive care unit for north Wales at Ysbyty Glan Clwyd was opened in September; we're currently consulting with the public on our preferred option for the A494 River Dee bridge replacement; and, of course, the plans for the third Menai crossing continue to progress.
One of the reasons that cash often isn't allocated to different local authorities is, of course, the lack of proactivity in applications coming forward from those local authorities when Government funds are available for distribution. What work is the Welsh Government doing to make sure that local authorities and other partners do actually make the applications for funding when these cash funds are available? I do know that, sometimes, when the Welsh Government puts cash aside, it's not drawn down because there are insufficient applications that are actually made. So, what are you doing to work with local authorities to make sure that, where cash is available, you can get as much out of the door as possible?
We're certainly keen to work with local authorities to highlight what funding is available to them. Again, we had discussions at the finance sub-group this morning about the importance of grants. Also, there was a strong message to Welsh Government from local government about the importance of getting those grants out of the door as early as possible within the financial year.
Clearly, local authorities are very stretched at the moment. There are huge pressure and capacity issues across local government. But I think it's important that we make applying for grants and applying for Welsh Government funding as easy as possible for local authorities in order to ensure that it takes the least possible time and least possible resources away from their day-to-day responsibilities.
The next item therefore is questions to the Minister for International Relations and the Welsh Language, and the first question is from Dai Lloyd.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on promoting the Welsh language within South Wales West? OAQ53925
We are working with a wide range of local and national partners to promote the Welsh language across the South Wales West region in line with the vision set out in 'Cymraeg 2050'.
It’s a cause of disappointment in my region that Neath Port Talbot council hasn’t opened a single new Welsh-medium primary school in the county since local government reorganisation in 1996. Do you agree that the record of Neath Port Talbot council has been weak in this area, and what are you doing in partnership with the council to change the situation?
Thank you. Of course, we have a strategy in place—the Welsh in education strataegic plans—and under that it’s a requirement for every local authority in Wales to ensure that they provide more opportunities for people to learn through the medium of Welsh. I am pleased to say that a new primary school will be opened in the Neath Port Talbot area and, of course, we’re very keen to see an increase. Of course, that will now be discussed when we see the new WESPs, and that strategy will be submitted within the next few days to look at what we intend to do in the long term.
Minister, two months ago I asked you about your 20 Welsh for Business officers and your helpline, and you said that you thought—quote—that you needed to do more marketing in this area, and I agree with you 100 per cent, particularly in my own region. Now, in the new financial year, how much new work are those officials carrying out, and how many new enquiries has the helpline had as a result of improved marketing?
One of the things that we will be doing during the next few weeks is to ensure that the Welsh Government’s department and the commissioner’s office are working together much better to ensure that people know where to go in terms of provision. We hope that that helpline—more people will be led towards it and we will see then a better use of that line in the future. But it’s just the beginning.
I believe that the best way of encouraging children to learn Welsh is to start at an early age. Will the Minister outline the support that’s being provided to Ti a Fi and Mudiad Meithrin in Swansea?
Thank you, Mike, once again, for using the Welsh language in the Chamber. I think it is essential that we see that there is more provision in terms of getting people to start their education at a very young age, and that’s why we’ve provided £1 million to nursery schools throughout Wales. Of course, we are having discussions with local authorities, including Swansea—and with other areas— to develop 14 new cylch meithrin. It is a special situation in Swansea, because, traditionally, the council has been providing nursery education in the schools, but we do hope that the new childcare offer will allow us to see more of an increase in the fact that there’ll be more provision in terms of Ti a Fi. I think that is the route to ensure that people continue then to Welsh-medium education through those nursery schools.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to promote tourism in west Wales? OAQ53885
Thank you very much, Paul. Our research shows that west Wales had a very strong Easter in terms of visits, and, indeed, the west of Wales—and the south-west of Wales particularly—is a key part of marketing for Visit Wales, particularly in the UK, Ireland and in Germany. We also support local partners in marketing within the region and within Wales.
I know that the Deputy Minister appreciates how important tourism is to my constituency, and I agree with him, after seeing the latest figures: the latest figures do show that businesses in west Wales have had a good Easter. As the Deputy Minister will be aware, last week was Wales Tourism Week, and, as part of those celebrations, I visited a fantastic business called Hampton Court Holiday Park in Pembrokeshire, and I saw how Pete Russ and his family run a business that offers inclusive holidays for disabled people. The business is looking to expand, but, unfortunately, the business took about 10 years, between everything, to get planning permission. It’s important that we all do everything we can to support businesses like this. So, can the Deputy Minister tell us what specific support the Welsh Government is providing to tourism businesses that are providing for disabled people?
I’m extremely grateful for that supplementary question. Unfortunately, I can do nothing about planning consents, but, as an Assembly Member—rather than speaking as a Deputy Minister for a few moments—I do understand the pressures that exist in terms of planning within national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. But what I can do is propose, if he's available, that we both visit this business so that I can have a personal conversation to see what their needs are, report back, and see what further we can do.
To slightly develop the theme that the Minister has already responded to Paul Davies about, a key market, of course, potentially, for tourism in west Wales and throughout the nation, are disabled people and their families. Building on the kind of business that Paul Davies has just referred to, what further steps can the Welsh Government take to ensure that we have the best possible information available to disabled people and their families as to what facilities are available in our communities? I'm thinking here of accommodation, but I'm also thinking of leisure activities that would be suitable. Are there steps, for example, that the Minister could take, working with organisations like Disability Wales, to ensure that we use their networks, both to make disabled people aware of the excellent opportunities that are available to them, but also to make sure that we make the best use of that market, when we bear in mind that, certainly within Wales, we know that one in six of our citizens has a disability of some kind?
Thank you for that supplementary question. When we do fund tourism developments, we, of course, encourage developments that promote equality of opportunity in terms of their access, but, as the specific question has been asked with a particular reference to Disability Wales, then I am more than happy to meet with them to discuss the issue of trying to promote holidays in Wales to people with particular travel needs or disabilities, because enjoying the Welsh landscape on holiday is important for everyone in Wales and outside Wales and for everyone of all abilities too.
Does the Deputy Minister—? Does he believe it has been of benefit that west Wales has become more cost-competitive compared to overseas destinations, with a lower exchange rate since the EU referendum, and what proposals does he have to further capitalise on this at least potential advantage?
I'm not going to be drawn into discussing fiscal policy. I will confine myself to the tourism implications of international changes, and I think it is essential that we do market Wales, in terms of the offer, to every segment of the market. It is not just a cheap holiday. It's not just an expensive holiday. It's an appropriate choice for people of different levels of income so that they can enjoy appropriate accommodation and appropriate facilities.
I now call the party spokespeople to question the Minister. Plaid Cymru spokespeson, Delyth Jewell.
Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, there is a general consensus that Wales isn't doing enough to engage with its diaspora. There are likely tens of millions of people with Welsh ancestry living across the world, including over 10 million people in the US alone, according to a 2006 study. Better engaging our diaspora has the potential to increase Wales's profile, provide expertise, bring investment and boost exports. World leaders in engaging diaspora include New Zealand's Kea initiative and Scotland's Global Scot. Both exploit the expertise of diaspora communities to the benefit of local enterprises. Minister, will your soon-to-be-published 'Wales and the World' strategy include a specific action plan to better engage the Welsh diaspora, and do you agree with me that this should be Government led, although, of course working in conjunction with the excellent work currently undertaken by organisations such as GlobalWelsh?
Thank you. I think there's a recognition that we need to do more to engage our diaspora. I think that figure of 10 million is quite ambitious, and whether we'd be able to reach out to all 10 million people who have some kind of association with Wales is questionable. But I do think that the best people to tell our story are people who have a passion for our nation. We've looked already at the models of New Zealand and Scotland, and we've been looking at what they do in terms of best practice. So, we are looking at how and what the best model is in relation to our activities. But also, whilst recognising that, actually, there are other actors in this field already, we need to make sure that we're not stepping on each other's toes, so we respect each other's areas. But there are clear areas where the Welsh Government will need to be taking a lead and, of course, this will be referred to in the international strategy.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. Engaging the Welsh diaspora is also crucial in order to boost Wales's profile on the international stage, as you've alluded to. There is a meme currently doing the rounds online where a couple of Americans—I'm not going to try and do their accent, but they ask their friend whether he comes from England or Wales, and when he replies, 'Neither; I'm Welsh', they look confused and they ask him, 'So, is that in England or in Ireland?' Now, it's a joke, but it does reflect a sad truth, which is that Wales isn't as widely recognised as other nations of the British Isles. It's surely time that Wales became one of the most recognised substate nations in the world.
Your global strategy, therefore, has to include a plan to increase Welsh Government presence abroad from the current 15 offices in seven countries to many more. Will you commit to this? Smart solutions could be considered as part of this work, such as looking into co-locating with Foreign and Commonwealth Offices, and more needs to be done as well to bring high-profile major events to Wales. Hosting the Champions League Final in Cardiff was an unqualified success. So, will you give serious consideration to bringing the Commonwealth Games to Wales as soon as practicable, as well as looking at what other major cultural, industrial and diplomatic events could be attracted here?
Thank you. I think you're absolutely right that we need to raise the profile of Wales internationally. What is clear is that we are recognised in different markets very differently—so, areas where there is a big rugby tradition, we're pretty well known, but there are other areas and parts of the world where we have very little in terms of common historic background, and those are the areas that are much more difficult to access, which is why, I think, we do need to go back to diaspora. But also I think we do need to recognise we will not be able to do everything with a limited budget. So, part of what we do need to do in the international strategy is to recognise that we will need to focus and we can't do it all. Of course, we do have those 20 offices around the world at the moment. We need them to make sure that they are delivering in raising that profile, in landing inward investment, and, of course, they are currently, the vast majority of them, co-located with the FCO.
In terms of major events, yes, this is an opportunity always for us to get global attention onto our small nation. That has worked spectacularly well in terms of football in the past. Of course, if we want to attract these events, then there is a budget that goes with that. The Commonwealth Games is a pretty significant budget, so we do need to look at the restrictions we have in this age of austerity, but, of course, we shouldn't lack ambition. In the meantime, I think we've got to make sure that we take every opportunity—for example, in things like the Rugby World Cup in Japan—to really use that as a platform for us to bounce off and to really make sure that we are recognised globally, not just for sport, but also using that as an opportunity to increase inward investment.
I'd like to turn now to trade links, which are, of course, crucial in order to secure Wales's economic health, especially in terms of exports. I noted with interest your recent trip to the United States, where you made the case for inward investment by selling Wales as an attractive place to do business. That was a welcome move. But I wonder whether your strategy of building trade links is not completely undermined by your Government's Brexit policy. We currently have the best possible trading relationship with the EU, including trade deals with third-party countries. Isn't remaining in the EU, or at least in the single market, absolutely crucial in order to avoid undoing everything you're trying to achieve with trade? And if so, how do you justify your Government's policy of wanting to leave both?
Thank you. Well, clearly, we have an ambition to increase inward investment, and that is difficult when investors don't know what that relationship with our largest market—500 million people—will be in the future. So, I think there is a break in terms of investment, although, if you look at the absolute figures, we are actually performing very well at the moment. But if you look at why people traditionally have come here, then, yes, they have come here as a launch pad, very often, to get access to that market of 500 million people. That's why we are slightly shifting our emphasis at the moment to really focus on exports, because that is significant; we've seen significant growth in that area in the past couple of years. So, we want to do more in that space. But also, what we'll be doing is to concentrate on those areas relating to inward investment that will not be impacted in quite such a significant way by Brexit. So, we need to take that into consideration when we look for where we are looking to focus in the new international strategy.
Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Minister, can I ask you about the relationship between Wales and Japan? You've already hinted at the fact that we've got the Rugby World Cup coming up later this year. What action has the Welsh Government taken already to prepare for engagement during the Rugby World Cup in Japan?
We've already done some significant organisation. In fact, I am, later on this afternoon, meeting our official who is based out in Japan, who has come back to discuss this very issue. I think it's important that we recognise the long-established relationship that has been between Wales and Japanese companies that have been coming here and investing here for the past 30 years. We want that relationship to continue. I'm afraid we've seen Sony and Panasonic move their European headquarters from the United Kingdom already. So, those people who say it's not going to have an impact, I think you just need to look at that. But that's not to say that, actually, those relationships we have in Wales, where there is a real affinity and a love for Wales in Japan—the hiraeth society is quite famous. And one of the things we'll be doing, of course, is to see what we can do—. We're not waiting until the world cup; we are already bouncing into those markets now. I know that Lesley Griffiths is doing a huge amount of work in terms of promoting food and drink into Japan. So, those opportunities are there, and what we'll be doing now is to really work out exactly what we are trying to achieve during that period of the world cup, because this is a launch pad not just for Japan, but I think for the broader Asian community as well.
You've already made mention of the fact that we have those opportunities later this year. We've got, of course, the UK-Japan Season of Culture, which is also coming up, including events that are going to be held here in Wales. One of the other things that we've got in common, of course, with Japan is that we're both nations with monarchs, and I'm sure you'd want to congratulate Emperor Naruhito and the Empress Masako on the Emperor's recent enthronement on the Chrysanthemum Throne, something that we on the Conservative benches welcome very much indeed. Will you take every opportunity to do what you can to work on the good relations that we've already got with the nation of Japan, given those historic links, given the major events that have taken place in Japan, and the sporting and other events that are coming up in the calendar this year? We know that in excess of 6,500 jobs in Wales are dependent on the Japanese investment that has come in, and we know that Japanese companies are still investing in the UK, in spite of some of the uncertainties around Brexit. We recently saw significant investment by Toyota and, indeed, Nissan in the UK. But Wales doesn't seem to getting dollops of that cash. So, can you tell us specifically, in terms of trade strategy with Japan, how are you going to make sure that Wales punches above its weight as it did under the Conservative Governments in the 1990s?
Thank you. Well, I think it was rather grand—the Emperor's installation—but I think what is important, though, is that we look to how we can build on those relationships, as you suggested. We have the Japanese ambassador coming to Wales for a two-day period in June. I'll be hosting a reception with him and entertaining also many of those Japanese companies that have made their homes here in Wales. I think we have to be realistic in terms of the trade relationships. You’ve got to remember that the EU has just signed a trade deal with Japan and we will have access to that trade deal for as long as we are a member of the European Union. But the moment we leave, then we will have to start developing our own trade relationship, and clearly when you’re negotiating a trade deal on behalf of 60 million people, it’s very different compared to negotiating a trade deal with 500 million other people. So, we do have to, I think, be realistic, but I think the fact that we have this long-established tradition and that we have those close relationships that have been built up over many years—. I know that there’s a real love for Conwy castle in north Wales amongst the Japanese, for example. So, there are great opportunities for us to, I think, exploit that relationship further, but more than anything to develop on the friendship between our two nations.
I'm very pleased to hear about the ambassadorial welcome that you're going to give later in June, because I think that these relationships are incredibly important to raising the profile of Wales, not just in Japan but in wider Asia and the world as you've already mentioned. You'll be aware that cherry trees are being planted across Wales at the moment, as part of the Japan-UK initiative. In fact, we're getting more cherry trees, as I understand it, than any other nation within the UK, in terms of our size.
One of the things that the Welsh Government has done historically to promote relationships between Wales and different nations around the world is to explore the whole idea of memoranda of understanding. I understand that the first one of these was signed with the Republic of Latvia a number of years back, but it does appear that those memoranda are not really being regarded much. I wonder whether this is a tool that you could use and usefully bring to the attention of the Japanese Government in terms of a way forward of promoting links between Wales and Japan and looking at those specific areas where we've got good relationships and working on those where we could have even better relationships going forward in the future. So, I would point you to the memorandum of understanding between Latvia and the Welsh Government as something that could be repeated with many other nations, including Japan, in the future. And will you also extend an invitation to the new Emperor to visit Wales at the earliest opportunity?
My goodness, we'll have to roll out the red carpet for that, won't we? But thank you very much. I think, in terms of memoranda of understanding, different nations like to use these in different ways. Some nations are very keen on these; others are not so keen and they would rather action plans. So, I think we've got to look for horses for courses, and see what works best for both our nations, rather than just run around and sign MoUs. If we are going to sign MoUs, I'm very keen to make sure that they are a delivery body rather than simply a friendship relationship. So, one of the key things that I'm really keen on doing is to focus and to get more out of things. So, I don't really want to go trotting around the world signing memoranda of understanding with every nation in the world. That will not be the approach that we'll be taking in the international strategy.
3. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to encourage community sport and active recreation? OAQ53914
Thank you very much, Jayne. Making our communities more active continues to be a priority area and, indeed, is a responsibility for me as a champion for physical activity on behalf of the Welsh Government. Last year through Sport Wales we invested over £10.9 million in local authorities across Wales to support the development of community sport and active recreation and helping to meet local needs. I look forward to joining you on Saturday at a very important venue and wish Newport County well.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Diolch, Deputy Minister. I'm very pleased that you've mentioned Newport County AFC. Walk Newport in my constituency is an excellent example of the health and well-being benefits of active recreation. Organised and led by volunteers, they lead walks of varying difficulties across Newport and the wider area twice a week. With over 100 members, they arrange day trips and have been running successfully for many years. Participation in the group has had a hugely positive effect, addressing loneliness and social isolation and the physical health benefits are evident. Aneurin Bevan University Health Board refer cardiac patients to the group, helping people living with long-term health conditions keep active in a relaxed and enjoyable way. Groups like these really are invaluable and very much part of the preventative agenda. Sadly, the group has seen its small allocation of funding withdrawn, which has caused great concern. Could the Deputy Minister investigate what more can be done to ensure that groups like Walk Newport get the recognition and funding to continue?
Thank you for that supplementary. I have, indeed, joined a number of walking groups recently. I think the Treorchy strollers was the last one. Of course, it combines physical activity in a beautiful, natural environment—and as someone who walked the Gwent levels only the other Sunday, I know how important the environment in Newport is. So, at the risk of inviting myself everywhere, I will be very happy to meet with Walk Newport to discuss with them. We deliver, through our healthy ageing programme with Age Cymru, a programme to increase physical activity, especially among older people across Wales, and we are looking, in the Government, for refreshed guidelines from the chief medical officer on physical activity, which will indicate the importance of encouraging greater movement among the population. As I've said before in this Chamber, some 30 per cent of the population of Wales don't do anything—any physical activity, I mean—and I think it is important that we should both set an example and also encourage people.
Minister, I do hope you'll have the good grace to join me in congratulating Cardiff Metropolitan University football club, which is celebrating becoming the first university to reach the UEFA Europa League after an exciting play-off against Bala Town on Sunday—I do apologise—where they won 3-1 in a penalty shoot-out. This means that Cardiff Met will move into the preliminary rounds, joining clubs from Luxembourg, San Marino, the Faroe Islands, Andorra, Kosovo, Gibraltar and Northern Ireland. I think the important point here is that it's a fantastic feat for a university club and will inspire many of the students at the university who are not elite sports people to take up some sport and get involved in active recreation. So, will you congratulate Cardiff Met?
Well, as the Assembly Member for Bala—although not a regular supporter of Bala Town, except on occasion—Bala Town have had their moment in Europe, as have Bangor City and others. But it is a great opportunity for Cardiff Met, and I do sincerely congratulate them. I benefit from living close to them when I'm here in Cardiff, and I do think it's important that we emphasise how the activity of sports science and the inspiration that is delivered from academic sports study permeates the whole of the university culture. There is an important issue, I think, in the life cycle here: that, very often, pupils of school age will be very active physically, but only those who get involved with clubs tend to continue their activity into the teenage years and student life. And I think it is important that we celebrate the culture of sporting success and the culture of successful clubs across our further and higher education system.
I'm sure that the Minister will agree with me that one of the biggest challenges is to encourage women and girls to carry on participating in physical activity, particularly, as he's just said in his response to David Melding, after leaving school age. Amongst that group, women from minority ethnic communities are particularly vulnerable and often particularly excluded. Will the Minister undertake today to have some further discussions with the Minister for equalities to see what more can be done to encourage local authority facilities to actively promote the participation of women and girls from minority communities? I would also, in that context, suggest that there is a continuation of provision of women-only facilities for some activities, such as swimming, because for some women from some of those communities it isn't possible for them culturally to participate when there are men present? I think this is particularly important in the context of providing appropriate changing facilities, as well, since there is an increasing tendency to have open facilities, which, while those might be beneficial for families, may not be suitable for women, particularly women who have particular reasons to protect their bodily privacy.
Thank you for that. I'm very happy to formally agree that we should meet to discuss this issue specifically, but I'm pleased to say that, among the major sports that we promote, netball, which is an activity mainly, but not wholly, pursued by girls and women, is the fourth major sport that we fund. And, therefore, I think it is essential that we should always provide for gender equality to the extent that we can in participation in sports. That is partly through encouraging women's rugby and women's football, but also encouraging, indeed, separate opportunities for people to participate at a time convenient and suitable and acceptable to them, and we will pursue this discussion and, no doubt, we will both report back to you.
4. How is the Welsh Government increasing cultural engagement in North Wales? OAQ53889
The Welsh Government recognises cultural engagement impacts positively on well-being and seeks to increase the availability of the cultural offering through various means, including supporting engagement with communities locally and on the heritage and culture that are important to activity in the region.
Diolch. After the Welsh Government commissioned a feasibility study on a national football museum, I said here two years ago that the people of north Wales deserve to have a Welsh national football museum on their doorstep. As I'd also said in the previous Assembly here,
'Wrexham has an excellent local museum...But people in north Wales can only visit one of the seven free-entry National Museum Wales sites within a realistic 60-mile radius travelling distance, whereas people in Cardiff and Swansea can visit six.'
In supporting a national football museum in Wrexham, I also referred to the illustrious history of Wrexham's Racecourse,
'where the first international match was played in Wales; where the oldest international ground in the world is located; where the Football Association of Wales was formed; and home to...one of the world’s oldest football clubs'
—Wrexham AFC. You issued a statement 12 days ago in writing on the future priorities relating to the feasibility studies on a sport museum and contemporary art gallery, and although the supporter-owned Wrexham football club had previously called for a national football museum to be located within the Racecourse, you stated the consultants' report,
'concluded that developing new facilities at Wrexham Museum would be the best option to... showcase...our football heritage',
'The realisation...lies not...with the Welsh Government and discussions have now begun with the key partners.'
You also referred to a recommendation by the consultants that this be done in partnership with National Museum Wales/Amgueddfa Cymru. So, I'll cut to my question—I'm sorry I've gone on for so long—how will the involvement of National Museum Wales, in your view, work out? Are you proposing that this becomes part of the National Museum Wales or it's a partner arm's-length organisation? And how will this impact on the physical provision within Wrexham museum—a great museum, but quite small in size? So, are you considering relocation or enlargement, or how might you address this?
The intention is that there should be a strong sporting museum in Wrexham. The question of its location is a matter for discussion with the existing Wrexham museum and the Wrexham local authority. Those discussions are still continuing. What I'm keen to ensure is that the sporting activity of Wales is represented in the regions of Wales. So, in north Wales, it would be in Wrexham. There is, I think, an opportunity for further celebration of sporting heritage in St Fagans, apart from the national museum, but the relationship that I envisage, and it's with the agreement of the national museum, should be a relationship where the national museum at its seven or eight sites, if we include Treforest, relate to the regional and local museums in support of their activity and that, when we have national collections, the museums are of sufficient quality—and this applies particularly to contemporary art as much as to sport artefacts—the galleries and museums are of sufficient standard to be able to receive the national collection. And that will require further investment. So, I am still continuing to develop our action plan in relation to both a sport museum and a contemporary art museum in a way that ensures that there will be a distributive model that will work to enable as many people in Wales as possible to see the national treasures.
5. What recent discussions has the Minister had with the Minister for Education regarding the provision of university courses through the medium of Welsh? OAQ53903
I have regular meetings with the Minister for Education where we discuss issues relating to Welsh-medium education. Ensuring the provision of Welsh-medium courses within universities is a key priority for the Welsh Government, and the role of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol is, of course, vital in securing this aim.
I'm grateful to the Minister for her answer, and I'd associate myself with what she says about the role of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. It's beginning to deliver a transformation. However, I have had brought to my notice by an individual constituent—and I won't even mention the university concerned because this young person is concerned about being exposed—that when she raised the possibility of undertaking part of a course through the medium of Welsh, she was met with a really unhelpful and dismissive attitude, and it was perfectly possible for her to do that because there was a tutor available who could have delivered part of that course. This reflects a concern that has been raised with me by others that there are some parts of our universities that are still culturally resistant to this and that they don't see the provision of courses through the medium of Welsh, particularly perhaps in non-traditional subjects, as something that's for them. What further steps can the Minister take, working with the Minister for Education and obviously with the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol but also with the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales to help challenge the remains of this negative and, I think, now very much a minority culture within some of our universities and to emphasise that there is nothing for a university to lose and everything for it to gain by making this provision available?
Thank you. I think you're absolutely right that there has been a transformation as a result of the establishment of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, but it's still fairly new, and so that cultural embeddedness really still needs to deliver. It is delivering very significantly in terms of modules in certain specific subjects, but you're right that there are pockets where that is proving more difficult than others. What we will continue to do, of course, is to work through the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, which receives a significant sum of money, because, actually, this is not just about the courses they do; it's about their opportunity to live and work and speak in Welsh. And what we have found is that there is this huge drop-off that comes the moment people leave their Welsh-language schools. So, unless we provide that opportunity to continue, even if it's just on a modular basis, which the Member recognises—we're not talking about complete courses here—. I think that has to be a step that we keep progressing, but I will undertake to discuss that further with the education Minister.
Students from the age of three to 18 are taught through the medium of Welsh. They learn all the technical words through the medium of Welsh and therefore they don't know the technical words in English. It's not that they can't speak English, but the technical words are words that are specific to the subjects—they only know the Welsh versions of them. Will you work with the education Minister and Welsh universities to produce a road map to increase the number of subjects available in Welsh universities through the medium of Welsh, especially in those very popular subjects that every university runs?
Already there has been a huge increase, so we're up to about 6,800 students now who are already studying part of their degree through the medium of Welsh. Of course, what we've done is to enhance the offer beyond higher education now; it's going into further education, which I think is essential. But what's important also—. I think there is a debate to be had in terms of the technical language and making sure that people understand and have a bilingual understanding of the technical terms. I think that is a discussion that does need to be had, particularly if people, of course, are going on to study in non-Welsh universities, so they will need to be equipped with that. But what is important, I think, is that we continue down this path that the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol has been delivering, but let's have a look now at how they can deliver in the further education sector.
6. Will the Minister make a statement about the Welsh Government's relations with Turkey? OAQ53908
Wales and Turkey enjoy a cordial relationship focused on education, trade and cultural links. The Turkish ambassador to the UK visited Wales in the new year, and last week we received a delegation from the Turkish ministry of education.
Thank you, Minister, for that. You'll be aware that Imam Sis, a Kurdish citizen now residing in Wales, has been on hunger strike for 157 days. I know you're aware of it because I know that the community much appreciates the private visit that you made to talk to him. But I wonder what progress, if any, has been made on persuading the Turkish Government to end the total isolation of the Kurdish leader Abdullah Öcalan, which is the reason why Imam Sis is heading for taking his own life in the cause that he feels so passionately about. As this is not a devolved matter—foreign affairs are largely the responsibility of the UK Government and the UK Parliament—have you been ascertain what the local MP, Jessica Morden, has been able to do in the UK Parliament, and what Jeremy Hunt's response has been to the plight of our citizen, which I know is a cause for huge concern amongst my constituents and many other people's?
Thank you. We are, of course, extremely concerned about the condition of Imam Sis, and that's why, a few weeks ago, I wrote to the Foreign Secretary asking him to consider the situation and the concerns that were expressed here in the Assembly. Of course, we do recognise that foreign affairs is a reserved area, but it is important, when people feel strongly about a particular area, that we can communicate that to the Foreign Secretary. We did that. I still haven't had a response from the Foreign Secretary on that matter, but what I can report to you is that I know that the UK Government raised the Öcalan case with the Turkish authorities and the Turkish ambassador last week. I know that Öcalan has had access to lawyers, on 2 May, and that was the first time in a number of years that that has happened, but he's also asked the hunger strikers not to continue to the point that it threatened their health or they risked death. So, we are extremely concerned about the situation with Imam Sis.
I'm sure, like me, you'll want to thank the UK Government for raising concerns about human rights abuses in Turkey. You've quite rightly said that this is a non-devolved matter, but one thing about Turkey is that we've obviously got a significant Turkish diaspora here in Wales, and I think it is important that we use the opportunities that are there in terms of those links with the Turkish diaspora and their links back home to promote positive relationships with Turkey, where Wales can have a positive impact on social attitudes in that country. So, can I ask you what work you and your officials are doing with the Turkish diaspora in particular in order to promote those civil society links, in order to change some of the attitudes towards human rights and other matters in Turkey that perhaps don't fit with our social values here in Wales?
Thank you. Well, I spoke initially about the fact that we are focused on education, trade and cultural links with Turkey. Turkey is indeed the country where we send—. It's the eleventh biggest export market for us, so it's not an insignificant nation in that sense. Of course, we are keen to ensure that we continue our dialogue with civil society, and that visit by the Turkish ambassador also meant that he was able to go and speak to and visit some Turkish companies that have been based here and have invested here in Wales.
7. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the Economic Partnership Agreement between the EU and Japan on Wales? OAQ53892
Japan remains a key trade partner for Wales and it is important that Welsh companies can continue to trade with Japan in the future. The Welsh Government continues to assess and monitor the impact of the economic partnership on Wales.
I thank the Minister for that reply, and I'm sure she'll agree with me that it is important that we conclude a successor agreement to the EU agreement as soon as possible when we leave. She said earlier in response to Darren Millar that it's easier to create a trade deal when you've got 450 million people than it is with 50 million. I'm not sure there's any historical evidence to justify that assertion, but what is incontestably true is that it's easier to conclude a deal if you're negotiating on behalf of one country than 28 countries, as the progress of the EU-Canada trade agreement certainly demonstrated.
Will she agree with me that trade with Japan is very important, particularly for the automotive industry, because there was a 25 per cent increase in the demand for British-made cars in Japan last year? As the British economy is doing pretty well internationally, there is every reason to expect that we will be able to increase our trade with Japan significantly. The latest GDP figures for the UK show 0.5 per cent growth, business investment up 0.5 per cent and manufacturing growth up 2.2 per cent, compared with 0.4 per cent in the EU, and the German Government has recently slashed its growth forecast for this year from 2.1 per cent to 0.5 per cent, so outside the EU, and trading with the 85 per cent of the global economy that is not in the EU, offers us the best chance for Britain to succeed in the future.
Well, we hark back to this continual bleat that we hear: 'Let's go and make these trade deals with people all round the world.' The fact is that 50 per cent of our exports go to the EU. You cannot—[Interruption.] In trade in goods, in Wales, it's about 50 per cent, which is different from the UK, which is about 40 per cent.
I think what is important is that we understand that you cannot simply sign these trade agreements overnight. Sometimes they take years and years and years to develop, as we know from the attempt by the United States to make a trade deal with the European Union. So we know that this is going to be extremely difficult, and we know that we are likely to get a better deal as a member of a group where you can buy and sell goods with 500 million people.
Now, I think what's important is that we don't lose faith and we don't lose hope. I think we have got a strong relationship with the Japanese, and we need to build on that and make sure that we develop those bilateral relationships to continue with the investment that we hope that they will continue to make in our country, but also that we take the opportunity to increase our exports to Japan, and that's certainly something we hope we'll be doing during the world cup.
Earlier in the question session, people were highlighting the Rugby World Cup in Japan and the long-established trade links that we have with Japan, Minister. What benchmarks have you set for success with the various missions that will be going out on the back of the world cup to Japan? Rather than just measuring it in cups of coffee and Welsh cakes drunk, it is important that we can measure true success when the world cup finishes, and that the profile of Wales and the penetration of the Japanese market is far greater than when the world cup began.
I think you're absolutely right. What we need to see is some really hard delivery figures. That's why I'm having a meeting immediately after this to discuss with our representative who is out in Japan and who's come back to Wales to have discussions on this, to really work out exactly what it is we're trying to land as a result of this opportunity, this one-off opportunity we have, to expose our nation on an international stage. I don't think we should limit ourselves to Japan. I think there's an opportunity for us to show ourselves more broadly in the far east. I think, if you look at benchmarks for success, I would certainly hope to see at the end that we would increase the amount of food and drink, for example, that we're able to export. And of course we're looking, in particular, to see if we can open the lamb market there and that we can really bounce into that market on the back of that.
Thank you very much, Minister.
Item 3 on the agenda this afternoon are questions to the Assembly Commission. The first question this afternoon will be answered by the Llywydd. Janet Finch-Saunders.
1. Will the Commission make a statement on the Assembly's involvement in the Urdd Eisteddfod 2019? OAQ53898
It is a pleasure to see the Urdd Eisteddfod being built around us in the bay. Next week, the art, design and technology exhibition will be held in the Senedd, and that is also where members of the Welsh Youth Parliament will also be promoting their work throughout the week. Visitors will have the opportunity to learn about the Assembly’s work and have their photograph taken in the Chamber during the week. The Welsh learners pavilion will use the Pierhead. And if I could take this opportunity to wish the Urdd well and all those young people who will be competing and taking part here in the Urdd Eisteddfod in Cardiff Bay next week.
Diolch yn fawr. I think that's the first time I've asked a question in this Assembly where I really felt the need not to ask a supplementary because you've actually addressed many of the points.
But I would also like to endorse the thanks and congratulations to everybody taking part. Obviously, this is the heart of the Urdd Eisteddfod next week, with this institution of Welsh democracy becoming the home for the art, design and technology exhibition. And I think it's fantastic to note that over 100,000 visitors will be here, many frequenting this building, and will learn about the work we undertake.
The question I was going to ask, anyway: given that the Eisteddfod coincides with the 20-year anniversary, what consideration has the Commission given to commemoration in the presence of the event in the Senedd, such as through exploring the possibility of retaining an art exhibition or inviting attendees to perhaps create a piece of creative work that could actually then be put on display here? Diolch.
Thank you for that contribution and the question in terms of what is the longevity of the presence of the Urdd here following next week's events. There will be excitement in Cardiff Bay next week. There will be young people from all over Wales, from every constituency in Wales, competing and taking part here, and that is to be welcomed greatly. And I hope that as many Members as possible will be able to see that happening as well. But, of course, we will be ensuring that the members of the public who visit our Senedd here, perhaps for the first time, have the opportunity to learn something about the work and what we've achieved over the last 20 years as we recognise this. And, of course, we have to remember that the Urdd camp is next door to us permanently here, and Urdd members are always welcomed here in the Senedd—their Senedd—as are all young people in Wales.
Thank you. Question 2, which is to be answered by the Commissioner Siân Gwenllian. Dai Lloyd.
2. Will the Commission make a statement outlining the steps being taken to ensure that the Welsh Government lays documents before the Assembly in Welsh? OAQ53911
Thank you very much for the question. The Table Office checks every document that is laid. If a bilingual version has not been provided, a member of staff will get in touch to ask whether there’s one available. According to Standing Order 15.4, documents can be laid in one language if it is not appropriate in the circumstances, or not practically reasonable to provide a bilingual version. The Welsh Government is subject to this Standing Order.
When collating the statistics for the annual report on the Commission’s official languages scheme last year, a substantial proportion of documents laid by the Welsh Government were found not to have been laid bilingually. The majority of these documents were explanatory memoranda, and the reason for not submitting them bilingually according to the Government was because it was not practical to do so. I was not happy with that, and in my capacity as the Commissioner with responsibility for official languages, I wrote to the Business Committee for further guidance. And the Business Committee requested that officials discuss the matter. Assembly Commission officials met with Welsh Government officials in March. During the meeting, they discussed how the Welsh Government could improve the number of documents laid bilingually, and the possibility of setting targets for this increase, with the aim, ultimately, of laying all their documents bilingually.
I thank the Commissioner for that response. The background to this question is that the Minister for health and his department had laid regulations placing duties in terms of the Welsh language on primary care service providers as well as an explanatory memorandum, and they were tabled in the Table Office on 9 May this year. The explanatory memorandum laid was monolingually available in English. This is staggering, in my view, particularly given the subject of the document. Members of the constitutional affairs committee shared my concerns about this and we will be writing to the Government to express those concerns. I've also received advice from the Welsh Language Commissioner, who more or less confirms that the Government is in breach of its standards in this case. If the Government doesn't think that it’s reasonable to ensure that we as Members representing the public should be able to see a document of this kind in Welsh, what further steps can the Commission take to ensure that it isn't possible for the Government to act counter to the spirit of the official languages Act and to its own Welsh language standards in laying business before this Assembly?
Thank you to Dai Lloyd for that supplementary question and for drawing attention to this problem. In the first place, may I say that I share your disappointment that the Government has failed to provide a Welsh language version of the explanatory memorandum to those specific regulations relating to the Welsh language in primary care when that memorandum was laid? It does not comply with the spirit of the scheme. I do understand that Assembly officials have gone back to ask the Government whether there was an intention to provide a bilingual version of the memorandum, and there was confirmation that there was no intention to provide a Welsh language version.
The Commission does expect the Welsh Government to respect the right of our Members to work in their language of choice, and it is not possible for Members to have that choice in preparing for proceedings if those documents aren't available. We also expect the Welsh Government to submit documents in both languages at the same time. It is not acceptable for those who wish to read documents in Welsh to have to wait longer—a very long time sometimes—for the Welsh language version.
As I said, I have already written to the Business Committee about this and I understand that discussions between Welsh Government officials and Assembly Commission officials, on the request of the Business Committee, have been positive ones. But, this specific case suggests that there is a need to take further steps, and I will ask officials to look at what further steps can be taken.
Thank you. Question 3 is to be answered by Commissioner David Rowlands. Huw Irranca-Davies.
3. Will the Commission explore the potential of using cargo bikes for deliveries to the Assembly? OAQ53888
I must admit, when I first considered this question, I had a startling image of a whole cortege of Granvilles turning up outside with their baskets fully laden, but of course these are purpose-built vehicles. The Commission agrees that they have a potential for reducing the impact of delivery vehicles in an urban environment, particularly for the so-called 'last mile' section of a delivery. In keeping with this, I'm pleased to report that we already use a cycle courier service for the transport of documents across Cardiff. In addition, I can confirm that we have spoken to our most frequently used delivery courier about the possibility of using cargo bikes, but given the distance from their depot and their need to remain economically competitive, this is not a feasible option for them at this present time. However, we shall keep this situation under review with them and all our suppliers.
I really welcome that answer and the optimism that lies within it. As you will know, David, these cargo bikes are not some strange little niche area, they're actually in many of the European capital cities now. They've become a fundamental part of that last-mile delivery within cities and urban areas. They don't have to deal with parking tickets. They don't have to deal with problems of congestion. As long as there is a good cycle infrastructure, they can get places faster than delivery vans and so on. So, I wonder if I could, with that note of encouragement that I've just heard, ask the Commission to work with Welsh Government—and I notice our Minister for active travel is here as well—to look at the potential combined between the Commission and Welsh Government to support a growth in cargo bike deliveries across Cardiff—Cathays Park to here, to the fifth floor, and the Commission's work as well—and see if we can build that economic case that will cause either an independent provider or, perhaps, the first Welsh co-operative of cargo bikes here in Cardiff to start that delivery mechanism going within our capital city.
Well, I noted in the papers and in the background to this you mentioned a lorry turning up outside the gates with one single parcel in the back, and I actually, by coincidence, witnessed that myself and it did seem a very lonely parcel and a huge lorry, I can assure you. But, of course, that was probably at the end of the delivery schedule that the lorry had. But I can assure you that we are exploring all ways of encouraging couriers and delivery companies to look further into the possibility of delivering, particularly, as we said, on that last mile, and we will keep on. We're in constant contact with those who deliver to the estate and have indicated to them that, should they contemplate initiating such a service in the future, we would be very interested in being involved in such a service.
It's not only a single parcel turning up in a van, but very often there's one member of staff or one—
It’s not only a single parcel turning up in a vehicle, but very often there are individuals turning up in vehicles, be they staff or Members of this place. May I ask, therefore, in light of the fact that this Assembly has declared a climate emergency, that the Commission should look at wider transport policies in this place and should do more to encourage initiatives that not only encourage Members to use more environmentally friendly means of transport, but also make more of an effort to ensue that we share vehicles when there is an opportunity to do that?
Yes, I'm sure that, in questioning in the past, we've indicated that the Commission does take these matters very seriously. Obviously, with the provision of parking for bikes et cetera, that's one of the things that we've been looking at and, of course, again, we're looking at the fact of installing electric charging points; as soon as the spaces become available, we'll be exploiting that as well. So, the Commission is very much committed to reducing the carbon footprint of this Assembly in general terms.
Thank you. And question 4—Helen Mary Jones—which will be answered by the Llywydd.
4. Will the Commission make a statement on the accessibility of the Senedd to members of the public? OAQ53912
The Commission is committed to ensuring that members of the public are safe when they access the Assembly estate. An essential part of delivering against this commitment is the continual review of security and safety procedures to ensure that they allow us to balance our desire to welcome the public to the estate with our duty to keep everyone safe and ensure that Assembly business can continue uninterrupted.
Well, I'm grateful to the Llywydd for that answer and, obviously, there is a balance to be made between safety and security and access, but the Llywydd will be aware of an incident on 1 May this year, when there was a very good-natured and very cheerful demonstration by climate change protesters outside this building, just as this Chamber was debating whether or not we would adopt the policy of a climate change emergency. Those protestors then wished to come in to view the debate from the public gallery. The public gallery at the time was largely empty, and many of them were refused admittance to the building. I am not in a position to establish this one way or the other, but it was certainly the impression of some of those people that whether or not they were admitted depended on their appearance, on whether they were perceived to be respectable. Now, I have to tell the Llywydd that some of the people who were allowed in were women who had gone to Greenham Common with me in the 1980s and would be anything but respectable, where I'm sure that some of the younger people who were excluded were quite possibly very respectable citizens.
But lighthearted comments apart, I am concerned that we should not be making generalisations. I do not understand why there was any fear that those people who were not admitted would have been any kind of risk. The gallery was almost entirely empty, they had come to make representations to this place about a matter that this place was debating. I, and certainly other Members on this bench, feel that it's highly unfortunate that they weren't admitted, and I'd seek the Commission's assurance that, if there is any policy that if you're protesting one minute, you can't become a member of the public observing the proceedings the next, that policy will be changed.
Thank you for the question, and I remember the event. Of course, some Members drew attention to the fact on the day that there were protesters who are also members of the public who were keen to access the Senedd during that debate and to be in the public gallery, and there was space in the public gallery for people to do so.
As I noted in the initial response, this is a matter of balance, of course, between security matters and the need to allow the people of Wales to be able to visit us in a safe manner and to listen to our proceedings here. There is a clear code of conduct for visitors, and one that also deals with protests. The code states that, in order to maintain security and safety, only six delegates from a protest group can be granted access to the inside of the building at any time. As a result, in this case, a delegation of six was given access to the estate, but access was not allowed to other members of the group, as you noted in your question.
On this occasion, during the proceedings, a strategic decision was taken to allow more protestors to enter the Neuadd, but, of course, that was as the afternoon was going on, with the debate having come to an end.
The problem that arose on that day—the fact that a number of Members drew our attention to what was happening, and now your question—. We have asked—I have asked for a review of the policy as it exists currently, and the Commission will look at that in due course. May I ask you, as Members in this Chamber, to draw the attention of the Commissioners from your parties to what you believe is the right balance to strike as we review this policy?
If I can assure you, Helen Mary Jones, we are doing so—we are doing our work in terms of security that treats everybody equally, and I would say, on the whole, we are quite successful in having that balance between security and access to all to visit our Senedd here. If we have got it wrong in the past, then we need to learn from that experience, and I look forward to discussing these issues further so that we can ensure that we are a safe location for people to visit, as well as being a safe place for us and our staff, but also that we're somewhere that’s open, and that our public gallery is as full as it can be on every possible occasion.
Thank you for the remarks you've made so far, Presiding Officer. It seems to me that as there was absolutely no breach of the law when all of the protests took place in London earlier that week, it seemed absurd to assume that just because they were from Extinction Rebellion there was going to be, in some way, a breach of the peace.
One of the things we don't have in this Parliament that they have in the UK Parliament is the right of Members to have personal visitors, because I tried to ask the security people to allow me to invite several members who I knew personally, who are members of my constituency, to be allowed to attend the debate. That was not granted—firmly, they said, 'No, we've been told that only six people can come in and they've already been allowed in.'
I'm glad you've agreed to invite us to comment on this particular Standing Order, but it seems to me that our commitment has to be to make this Parliament as open as possible, and those who are protesting on the steps probably have an interest in the debate that's occurring on that matter.
Yes, absolutely. Just to reiterate, the current policy is that where there is a protest, six people from that protest are allowed into the Assembly to either have a conversation with whoever they need to have a conversation or to attend any debate here. The number six is in the policy—it's not related to Extinction Rebellion or any protest group, or anybody from anywhere in Wales who is protesting on our steps. But, obviously, we'll learn from the experience and I invite you again to make sure that the Commissioners here who represent you are fully informed of how you want us to strike the balance appropriately in the future.
Item 4 on the agenda this afternoon is the topical questions, and the topical question this afternoon will be answered by the Deputy Minister and Chief Whip. Leanne Wood.
1. Will the Welsh Government make a statement on the impact that the UK Government's rejection of the definition of Islamophobia has had on community cohesion? 315
At the faith communities forum this morning, the First Minister highlighted the Welsh Government's consideration of the definition of Islamophobia. We're in discussions with Scottish Government, with a view to adopting the definition. Those of us in positions of power need to stand up for people being stigmatised or abused.
I'm sure that you share my disappointment at the failure of the Tories in Westminster to sign up to that definition, which is based on the United Nation's definition of racial discrimination and the Runnymede definition. I wonder if it's got anything to do with a certain leadership hopeful and his disparaging remarks against Muslims, with comments about women looking like letterboxes as just one example of that individual's intolerance.
You may also want to congratulate the young Welsh people featured in the BBC programme, Young, Welsh and Pretty Religious, and in particular, the work of anti-Islamophobia activist, Sahar Al-Faifi, who has endured plenty of abuse and threats for speaking out about the need for this definition of Islamophobia, not least just last week from notorious far-right social media commentators.
Plaid Cymru as a party has signed up to recognising this definition of Islamophobia, and I welcome the statement that you've just given, Minister, about the Welsh Government being prepared to consider this as well. Will you congratulate Sahar and the others tackling racism and Islamophobia and give an undertaking to give protection to people of colour and of religion when they face daily undermining, discrimination or abuse? And will you also join me in condemning those people who peddle the hateful, dog-whistle politics that leads to such acts?
I thank Leanne Wood for bringing this question to enable us to be very clear about our position. The Welsh Government is unequivocally opposed to Islamophobia and all forms of religious hate crime. It is back to our positions of power that we must take responsibility.
It's sad in a way, in terms of the situation that emerged in terms of the UK Government, because in fact it was an all-party parliamentary group that brought together a report, bringing forward a definition of Islamophobia. So, I hope that the UK Government will come to accept this definition. It is a non-legally binding, working definition of Islamophobia that's been rejected by the UK Government at this stage, but it has been adopted by the Labour Party, I understand, the Liberal Democrats, and the Scottish Conservative Party. So, it's clearly being debated by political groupings. I understand that the inquiry was by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on British Muslims, who held this inquiry in several cities in England, where they heard about a range of Islamophobic experiences, including physical and verbal abuse.
What is clear is that we have to now look to our responsibilities in Wales. I was very saddened to hear about Sahar's experience because I think she is one of nine young believers who are highlighting their lives on that BBC Wales programme, Young, Welsh and Pretty Religious. That's not the Wales that we want young Muslims or anyone of any faith to experience.
I think the concerns are being now—they were discussed this morning in our faith communities forum, and we looked at ways in which we're addressing hate crime. It's interesting, in terms of online abuse, that Cardiff University are working with the Welsh Government and the police to look at ways we can detect hate crime and online abuse on social media, which will need different kinds of reporting mechanisms, because this is part of our tackling hate crime programme. In terms of comments that are made—I don't really wish to give them more airtime, in terms of the Boris Johnson comments, but I think what's very important is that it was the equalities watchdog, the Equality and Human Rights Commission, who branded Boris Johnson's comments on the burka as inflammatory and divisive.
Can I join you and others in this Chamber in condemning utterly Islamophobia of any kind and religious intolerance of any kind? Because it is pervasive, unfortunately, in our society, and it's happening; we see it, and it's completely unacceptable. I think the one issue that we do need to reflect on with this particular definition is that, of course, it's not been widely adopted as yet, and I think there is contention over whether another working definition might be a better definition for public sector bodies and Governments to be able to work to. Can I put on record that we do not yet have a position as Welsh Conservatives on this issue, but we are actively considering the all-party group's proposal? I'm not saying that we're going to reject it or accept it at this time, but I do think that it needs further thought, simply because of the number of voices, the chorus of voices, that there have been raising concerns about the potential implications of the application of this as a working definition. And I say that because, of course, we all know that the working definition of anti-semitism that was put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has been widely adopted without issue, apart from, of course, the Labour Party at the time, which simply took a longer time to be able to adopt it. So, do you have any concerns? What would your response be to those who have raised concerns about the potential implications for their working practices should this particular definition be adopted? Because, as I understand it, there were over 40 individuals who co-signed the letter, including academics, writers, campaigners against religious intolerance, Muslims themselves, who wrote to the Home Secretary to say that this particular definition—whilst they condemned Islamophobia of any kind, this particular definition was unfit for purpose, and that its hasty adoption could lead to an aggravation of community tensions, not a reduction in them.
I thank Darren Millar for raising your support and the fact that your group is going to consider this definition. I did say in response to the question that we are working on this with colleagues in the Scottish Government, because I think this is something where we are taking responsibility. But we, very fortunately, have got a faith communities forum here in Wales, and it's good that today, this morning, we had representation from not just Muslims—we had Sikh, Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, Bahá’í, Catholic Church, Church in Wales, Churches Together; we had everyone around the table, chaired by the First Minister and myself, where we were discussing these issues. And we had discussion about hate crime, and hate crime is racist, but it's also crime that is reflected in terms of faith and religion, and, of course, unlawful under the Equality Act 2010.
So, we do need to look at this definition of Islamophobia. We have to be very clear that we are addressing this, as we are very clear in the way that we're addressing anti-semitism. So, it's the Government that has to stand up and make this point, and I'm grateful again, as I said, that Leanne Wood has given us the opportunity to respond today. It is something that we are standing up for and we need to take forward.
I thank Leanne Wood for raising the issue and also for Darren Millar's contributions. It seems to me that the UK Government's timing is unfortunate in the context of attempts by the far right to whip up hatred of difference at this time. And, therefore, I'm not taking a position on the wording; it's just that we have to be mindful that our words can have an impact beyond this house. And I think it's really important to realise just how seriously Muslims take their religion at this important time of Ramadan. Having visited several mosques to help assist in the breaking of fast at sunset, I've been so impressed by the adherence of Muslims to their faith, as well as their commitment to give charitably to good causes. So, for example, there's twice been a sharing of food in front of City Hall in Cardiff with the homeless community, and providing them with goods as well as food. So, I just think that we need to ensure that we promote the respect for difference, and celebrate the richness and diversity of the culture and the religions that we have in Wales.
Thank you, Jenny Rathbone, and our First Minister this morning spoke of the Iftar outside City Hall, which he attended on Sunday night. He spoke of the importance of Ramadan this week and of the contribution made by the Muslim community. This is a time when we're marking 20 years of devolution. On Monday night, some of us were at a lecture given by Aled Edwards, who is a pioneering—and I know that there were many here at that lecture—who's had such an impact in terms of developing this inter-faith dialogue. And he—. But we did say, and, in fact, I said in response to him that, unfortunately—his lecture, which was very inspiring—we have a noise of bigotry, racism, hate speech and extremism that is very loud just now. And the First Minister talked about the threat of the extremism that we see now from the right, because that now is an extremism that the police are now engaged with. So, we want to make sure that people in Wales recognise that we have those values that we've upheld of community, fairness, hope and compassion, and that's why we are a nation of sanctuary—recognised, I have to say, only recently by NBC News, who said, 'Thank goodness, Wales is a nation of sanctuary'—a message from the United States.
I'm grateful to Leanne, Darren, Jenny and the Minister also, at least understanding this is an Islamaphobia problem. Minister, a diverse range of 44 campaigners—academics, writers and other public figures—have signed an open letter criticising this, and I quote, ‘uncritical and hasty adoption' of this proposed definition of Islamaphobia. They went on to say that the definition was, quote,
'being taken on without an adequate scrutiny or proper consideration of its negative consequences for freedom of expression, and academic or journalistic freedom.'
Quote closed. Adoption of this definition would—quote again—'aggravate community tensions' and
'inhibit free speech about matters of fundamental importance.'
Quote closed. Signatories of this letter include people of all religion and none, such as Professor Richard Dawkins, Peter Tatchell, the LGBT leader, the Liberal Democrat peer, Lord Alton, Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali, and the founder of Quilliam International, Maajid Nawaz. They are all dignitaries and very important people who talk about public relations globally.
The chair of the National Police Chiefs' Council said that the adoption of this definition—
Could you ask a question, please?
—could hinder counter-terrorism efforts. Does the Deputy Minister recognise that adoption of this vague and extensive definition without adequate scrutiny or proper consideration of its negative consequences will undermine social cohesion and fuel the very bigotry against Muslims that it's designed to prevent? Thank you.
Well, Mohammed Asghar, I think Darren Millar has said that you will consider this definition in your—Welsh Conservatives will consider it, which I'm grateful for. We're considering—the Welsh Government is considering—it, with the Scottish Government. So, this consideration obviously will take into account points that have been made in terms of operational issues. But I would hope that we could finish this debate, in terms of response to this important question today, by uniting across this Chamber, as we did a few weeks ago, when we worked together and struck a motion, supported by the three main parties in this Assembly, to wholeheartedly root out racism and racist ideology and strive towards a more equal Wales, tackling all forms of racial inequality. And I know that that's what I feel is the message we would want to take from this afternoon—we, together, and not just the Welsh Government, are unequivocally opposed to Islamaphobia and all forms of religious hate crime.
Thank you very much.
Item 5 is the 90-second statements, and the first this week is Jayne Bryant.
This week is Dementia Action Week—a week that unites individuals, workplaces and communities to take action and improve the lives of people living with dementia. One person develops dementia every three minutes, and it's predicted that, by 2055, there will be over 100,000 people in Wales living with dementia. It's our responsibility to make Wales a dementia-friendly nation that supports people to live well within their communities for as long as possible.
At the most recent counts, there are now almost 150,000 dementia friends across Wales. In my own constituency of Newport West, dedicated volunteers, like Ray Morris, have delivered the training to hundreds of people in schools and colleges across the city. Ray's determination to build dementia-friendly communities is an inspiration.
Last year, I reminded the Assembly that we pledged to become dementia-friendly in 2015, and at this point a year ago 26 of us were dementia friends. I'm pleased to say that now 42 of us have become dementia friends. However, that's still not enough. We need all 60 of us to become dementia friends in order for the National Assembly for Wales to become the first dementia-friendly Parliament in the world. It's quick and easy to do, yet it has a huge impact, increasing understanding and awareness of dementia. My challenge to you is, if you have not yet become a dementia friend, to do so as soon as possible. Let's make this Assembly dementia-friendly.
Thank you. Leanne Wood.
I was thrilled to discover that this year's Welsh Headteacher of the Year award has been won by a headteacher from the Rhondda. Ysgol Gyfun Cymer Rhondda's Rhian Morgan Ellis has been awarded this accolade, which, in my opinion, is more than well deserved.
Rhian was raised in Pontygwaith and Penrhys in the Rhondda. She excelled at Ysgol Gyfun Rhydfelen, and later graduated from Aberystwyth University. She taught at Llanhari, before joining Ysgol Gyfun Cwm Rhondda, where she has been teaching for the last three decades. During that time, she climbed the ranks and became headteacher at a very difficult time for the school, and her influence as head has transformed the school. She's not just a great champion for excellence in teaching, but she's also a great champion for the Welsh language. We are lucky to have her in the Rhondda and at Ysgol Gyfun Cymer Rhondda, as many of her past pupils have pointed out when saying llongyfarchiadau to her.
There is no doubt Rhian would say that her award would not have been possible without the support of her staff and the hard work of her pupils and their parents. These are the hallmarks of a great headteacher. Lifting those around you is an essential element of leadership and Rhian excels at doing this. As a parent of a child at that school, but also on behalf of the Rhondda and all past pupils, I would like to say: diolch am bopeth, Rhian.
Thank you. Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Thank you. I'm pleased to highlight an astonishing charity bike ride, which is now drawing to its close, and to congratulate the three constituents who have been cycling tenaciously since the end of March.
Andy Fowell, Steve MacVicar and Roger Thomas got in the saddle in Istanbul on 28 March, and since then they’ve cycled an average of 65 miles a day, 5,500 miles in total, through four mountain ranges on what’s known as the iron curtain cycle trail. Now, the ride finishes in Holyhead tomorrow. I’d hoped to ride the last leg with them. Assembly business means I won’t be able to—[Interruption.] But I am pleased to be able to commit to the far less energetic act of sending this message of support.
I have done some fundraising cycle rides myself. Sadly, thanks to Andy, Steve and Roger, my 200 mile rides from Anglesey to Cardiff no longer seem impressive. But I do know that raising funds for good causes in this way has a remarkable power of focusing the mind and the body on the task ahead.
They’ve raised over £13,000 for two charities. I know the Motor Neurone Disease Association will be hugely grateful to you, and all of us who support the St David’s Hospice will be delighted to see such a substantial donation being made, as they plan to open a new centre in Holyhead.
Now, the three adventurers will cross the Menai suspension bridge around one o'clock tomorrow, arriving in Holyhead around five o'clock. So, go on, go and cheer them along their way, search 'Asia to Anglesey' on Facebook or Just Giving to add to their fundraisinig total. And, on behalf of everyone, diolch—thank you—and I hope you enjoy your very, very long hot bath tomorrow night.
The next item on the agenda is the motion to elect a Member to a committee and I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motion formally.
Motion NDM7056 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.13(ii), elects Caroline Jones (Brexit Party) as a Member of the Business Committee.
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Therefore, we defer voting under this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Item 6 on our agenda has been withdrawn.
So, we move to item 7, which is a debate on the Petitions Committee's report, 'Petition P-05-784 Prescription drug dependence and withdrawal—recognition and support', and I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion. Janet Finch-Saunders.
Motion NDM7053 Janet Finch-Saunders
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Petitions Committee on Petition P-05-784 Prescription drug dependence and withdrawal—recognition and support, which was laid in the Table Office on 21 March 2019.
Thank you. Diolch, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm delighted to open my first debate as Chairman of the Petitions Committee. I'd like to thank the clerking team, the legal team, and my fantastic committee members for all the support and assistance that I've received in my position as Chairman. I'd also like to thank those who continually send in fantastic petitions to this committee.
Today’s debate is about a petition submitted by Stevie Lewis, which calls for better recognition and improved support for people adversely affected by dependence on prescription medication. I would like to personally thank Stevie Lewis for bringing the petition forward. She provided powerful—and often highly personal—evidence in support of the petition, and we are very grateful. I would also like to thank everyone who provided evidence to us. These included our health boards, professional bodies such as the Royal Pharmaceutical Society Wales and a number of people with personal experiences of prescription drug dependence and withdrawal. All of this evidence was invaluable to the Committee and has influenced a rather promising Government response.
The petition calls for greater action to be taken to recognise the issues relating to prescription drug dependence and for improved support services to be available to people adversely affected by dependence on and withdrawal of prescription medications, especially antidepressants. This is when people who take prescription medication become dependent upon those very same medications, even when they have used that medication exactly as prescribed. Most concerning is that patients can also experience symptoms when they seek to reduce their dosage or stop taking medications entirely. These symptoms can sometimes be severe and debilitating. Indeed, the petition highlights specific concerns relating to antidepressants and benzodiazepines. Stevie Lewis has highlighted her own personal experience of being prescribed an SSRI antidepressant. After several unsuccessful attempts to stop taking the drug, she discovered she was physically dependent upon it. In her own words, she experienced a 'long and crippling withdrawal' before eventually stopping the medication after 17 years. Stevie Lewis’s testimony is not unique. It is echoed by many people who responded to an invitation by the Petitions Committee for people affected to share their experiences with us.
I want to state at this point that these medications can have a positive impact for many people who are prescribed them. The committee is not suggesting that all prescribing of these medications is problematic—far from it. Rather, it is vitally important that patients have access to the right information and support, certainly at the beginning of their treatment, and also when they want to reduce or stop taking this medication. Also, medical professionals need to ensure that they sufficiently discuss approaches and therapies with patients that are considering an SSRI and are trying to manage their difficulties with mental health. I echo the aspirations of the Royal Pharmaceutical Society that patients should feel empowered when making decisions regarding their care.
Now, I would like to focus on the committee's findings and recommendations for the remainder of this contribution. Recognition of prescription drug dependence. Firstly, the petition calls for greater recognition of the issue of prescription drug dependence, particularly amongst policy makers and health professionals. This includes acknowledgement of the scale and impact of this issue and acceptance of the types of medications that can cause dependence and withdrawal issues. The committee was aware that it is not universally accepted that antidepressants are one of these medications. However, the experiences of the petitioner and others are evidence that dependence does exist and that many people do face difficulties in stopping their use of antidepressants.
The Llywydd took the Chair.
We welcome the Welsh Government’s positive responses to our report, and I would like to thank the Minister for his recognition in doing that, and especially the recognition that antidepressants are associated with withdrawal symptoms in some cases. The petitioner has described this and other acknowledgements in the Minister’s response as an enormous step forward.
The petitioner also expressed concern that policy and treatment for prescription drug dependence is placed under the umbrella of substance misuse. We agree that this is not appropriate, and services designed for treating drug and alcohol addiction are unlikely to be the best place to support people dependent upon prescription medication. We recommended that the Welsh Government should clearly distinguish between such issues in the future and should also identify specific actions to prevent and support those affected by prescription drug dependence. We welcome the Minister’s acceptance of this recommendation.
Guidance. The committee also considered the professional guidance covering antidepressant prescribing. Concerns were raised with us about the potential of overprescribing and a lack of advice for people seeking to reduce their dosage. We recommended that the Welsh Government should further emphasise guidance about these matters, including that antidepressants should not be routinely prescribed for mild depression. In response, we note that the Minister has committed to ensure that NICE guidelines, which are currently under review, will be circulated widely within Wales. However, I am slightly concerned that this does not go far enough. We believe that the Welsh Government has a role in ensuring that health professionals adopt a more consistent approach to prescribing antidepressants and providing advice to patients. The petitioner has also proposed that further training materials may be required if the NICE guidelines are substantially revised.
There are two other recommendations that I want to address this afternoon in terms of monitoring. The Petitions Committee has called on the Welsh Government to introduce a national prescribing indicator for antidepressants. This would improve the information about prescribing patterns available to health boards and the Welsh Government. We also believe that this information would enable the Government to better understand the scale of any problems and would support improved targeting of other types of treatments for depression, such as psychological therapies. We are disappointed that the Government has rejected this recommendation. In his response, the Minister recognises the importance of improving prescribing patterns. Therefore, given he does not consider a national prescribing indicator to be the correct approach, we would welcome his clarification as to how the Government intends to monitor this.
Finally, the committee received a number of positive references to the prescribed medication support service run by Betsi Cadwaladr health board. Through this, therapists work with GPs and pharmacists to carry out face-to-face assessments of patients and they produce personal programmes. These will sometimes include tapering advice and withdrawal support. Within Wales, this targeted support is unique and appears to be a low-cost intervention. Therefore, we recommended that the Welsh Government should explore the potential of a national roll-out of this service. The Minister’s response indicates that he considers this to be the responsibility of local health boards to take forward. However, several health boards expressed to us that they would welcome greater opportunities to learn from best practice in relation to how they can best support patients. I continue to believe that the Government should take a greater leadership role in this regard. So, as is envisioned by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society, individuals that have inadvertently become dependent on prescribed medications—that they then have access to timely and appropriate support to clinical and psychological therapies in their own areas without fear of judgment and conflation of prescribed dependence and substance misuse.
In conclusion, Llywydd, it was clear to the Petitions Committee that prescribed drug dependence is a serious issue and one that has not always received the attention or recognition that it deserves. I certainly hope that this is a starting point for change and I certainly look forward to listening to the the other comments made by Members of the Senedd here today in this afternoon’s debate. Diolch yn fawr.
May I thank Janet Finch-Saunders and her committee for this very impressive and important piece of work? I have to say that it's often my experience that the work in the Petitions Committee is amongst some of the most important things that this Assembly does—the way in which our system empowers the voice of citizens to be heard directly. One of the most positive things I think I've heard today is what Janet Finch-Saunders has just told us about the petitioner's response to the whole of this process, because that multiplied many times, of course, grows a faith in this as a democracy that really listens to people and takes their concerns on board.
Reading the report was a very personal experience for me, because many years ago, we had an experience in my own family of a family member who became dependent on medicine that had been prescribed because of mental health issues. We went through a process that felt like taking a family member through the horrible cold turkey that you see of heroin withdrawal. Now, this was back in the very early 1980s and what disturbed me, I think, was to read in the report that some of these problems still persist—that there are still some issues about the appropriateness of providing, that there are some issues about the understanding around the potential of some of these medications to develop a dependency. And it is really important that these issues are addressed. I'm very grateful to the petitioner for her individual courage in bringing these issues to the Assembly's attention, and I'm sure that all of us, including the Minister, appreciate the courage that it must have taken to speak so openly.
I'd just like to respond to a couple of particular points. One is a very important need, which obviously the committee Chair has already touched on, about making a difference between the right sort of services to support somebody who has developed an addiction either to illegal drugs or to alcohol and people who have become dependent on prescribed medications. The paths that people will have taken that have got them into those unfortunate situations will be very, very different and the help that they need and the support that they need will also therefore be different. And I think the important points that are made about not conflating the language—these are things that we all need to take on board. I feel I need to think about that in terms of my own personal discourse and the way I might talk about some of these issues.
Like Janet Finch-Saunders, I want to come to recommendation 6, which the Welsh Government has rejected. I appreciate the reasons that the Minister has given, but I'd appreciate it if he could inform us today about how the concerns that lie behind that recommendation are to be addressed if they're not to be put on the list of drugs targeted for drug reduction. It is really, really important that we do acknowledge that these medications, as Janet Finch-Saunders has said, can make a huge positive difference for people, but they can also, of course, create difficulties, and people must know, when they are having those medications prescribed, what the options are and potentially what the risks are, and they must have support to manage those risks.
I also wanted to make a reference to recommendation 7, which the Minister has accepted in principle, but has said that it should be a matter for local health boards. I think what I would put to the Minister—and it's a point that was raised by Members across this Chamber—is that we're not always very good in Wales about seeing something that works well in one place and replicating it and learning from it elsewhere. Now, I can't claim, as an individual, to be sufficiently familiar with this particular model, though I've obviously read what the report has had to say and I've heard what Janet Finch-Saunders has had to say. But given that the health boards are asking for some strong national leadership on this, I wonder if the Minister can say a little bit more—having accepted in principle, which I take to read that he's accepting in principle that there is a need for some more national guidance—whether he would ask his officials to look again at that model and see if it could be effectively replicated elsewhere. It may be that it isn't suitable. It may be that, for geographical reasons or whatever, it wouldn't work particularly well perhaps in more urban environments, but when we have this level of knowledge, I think it's a good idea to pick up and run with it. And that approach, of course, fits with some of the work that the Minister himself is trying to achieve through the transformation fund, which is all about developing good models that can then be effectively delivered elsewhere.
The extent to which, of course, some of these antidepressants do cause dependency is still a matter of debate, but I think it's very important that we create a culture of honesty around this, and the fact that a medication can create a dependency is not a reason not to use it, it's a reason to use it with care. We use morphine to manage extreme pain relief in hospitals all the time, but when that is being prescribed, the people prescribing it know the potential risks, the people taking it know the potential risks, and the management system around it is there to prevent danger. I really think that we need, with these substances, which were, of course, sold to us as safe antidepressants—well, I think we know that there cannot be a medication that affects one's emotional well-being that is entirely safe, and we need to ensure that when people are making decisions about treatment, they are making them effectively.
I will end, Llywydd, as I can see my time is running out, just by saying that this is in some way reflective to me of the problems we have with our mental health services—that we know that many of the people who are being treated with these medications are being treated with these medications because there are no suitable talking therapies that might actually be much better. I'd urge, therefore, the Minister to look at dealing with this particular issue in that wider context, of which I know he is aware. We know that mental health services across Wales are not consistent; we know that talking therapies are available to some and not to others. Many of the people perhaps facing this difficult situation should never have had to take this medication in the first place if better alternatives had been available. I look forward hearing the Minister's response and to Janet Finch-Saunders's summing up of the debate and others' contributions. Diolch yn fawr.
The Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething.
Diolch, Llywydd. I'm very happy to take the opportunity to respond to the Petitions Committee's report and the debate today. Tackling dependence on prescription-only and over-the-counter medicines remains a priority for this Government. The budget for substance misuse has increased to almost £53 million a year to provide a range of services and actions to respond to all forms of drug use, including prescription and over-the-counter medicines. We've also ensured prescribers across Wales have comprehensive guidance and advice in this area, so we are happy to note the motion today and we accept or accept in principle all but one of the recommendations, as Janet Finch-Saunders has set out.
The committee's recommendations are very much in line with the work already under way, which is led by both the Welsh Government and our partners across the national health service and area planning boards, bringing in a wider range of partners, including members of the third sector and the police.
Recommendation 1, which seeks recognition around prescription drug dependence in both national policy and strategy, I'm pleased to give that recognition and outline the support that is already in place and work under way. I agree with the need to distinguish between substance misuse and dependence. So, our 2019-22 substance misuse delivery plan, which we'll be consulting upon in the coming months, will make that distinction clear. In recognition of this, our work in responding to the issues of prescription drug dependence going forward will be overseen jointly by our pharmacy and prescribing as well as our substance misuse teams within the Government. Research is being undertaken at the University of South Wales, and the Welsh Government aims to gain a better understanding of the causes, characteristics and consequences of prescription and over-the-counter medications. That work will inform policy and identify best practice for us in the delivery of treatment and, hopefully, we expect this should lead to the development of a treatment framework on this issue.
Turning to recommendation 2, the Government recognises SSRI and SNRI antidepressants are in some cases of discontinuation associated with withdrawal symptoms, and they can be consistent with symptoms of inadvertent dependence. We also know that some antidepressants are more likely to cause symptoms than others, but this is a complex issue where caution should be exercised so we don't conflate the problems of dependence with those of discontinuation. Our position reflects the evidence that indicates discontinuation effects can be minimised through the structured tapering of those medicines, overseen with the support of the prescribing clinician.
In recommendations 3 and 4, I know clarity is sought on the guidance on not routinely prescribed medication and on the tapering of prescription medicines. As Janet Finch-Saunders set out, current guidance from NICE advises prescriptions and antidepressants are generally not recommended for mild depression, but they're more likely to be effective for moderate to severe cases of depression. And those guidelines are, of course, being reviewed, and we will ensure those guidelines, which are expected in February next year, 2020, are circulated widely to clinicians in Wales for their adoption. I understand that the Royal College of Psychiatrists are planning to issue a new position statement on antidepressants and depression, including specific reference to how best to manage discontinuation. We will, of course, work with the Royal College of Psychiatrists in Wales, which will be making recommendations specific to Wales.
Recommendation 5 requested an update on our actions in responding to recommendation 8 of the Health and Social Care Committee's inquiry into alcohol and substance misuse, which was published in August 2015. I can confirm that the All Wales Therapeutics and Toxicology Centre has produced or contributed to a range of relevant guidance and good practice on prescription-only and over-the-counter medicines since that inquiry. I provided a list of that comprehensive work to the committee. I can also confirm specific action relating to the recommendations of the former advisory panel on substance misuse were included in the substance misuse delivery plan that just ended last year. The recommendations made in the advisory panel's 'A report on: Harms Relating to Prescription Only Analgesics', published in December last year, are being taken into account in the drafting of the new delivery plan for 2019-22.
As you've heard, I don't accept recommendation 6. Depression is a common, recurrent and, in some cases, debilitating illness. For many people with depression, prescribing an antidepressant will be a safe and effective treatment option. We believe that a national prescribing indicator that intends to reduce prescribing could have the unintended consequence of discouraging the appropriate use of antidepressant medication and result in some patients not starting treatment and others stopping prematurely. We know that such medications can have an effective role to play in managing depression. Our interest is in the appropriate prescription and management of medication. I'd be concerned that targeting those for wholesale reduction would not lead to a positive outcome for the person. We remain of the view that improvements to prescribing practice, patient review and safe tapering will achieve the desired outcomes outlined by the committee that we share in terms of the outcome and the impact on the person. Alternative psychosocial treatment options, such as counselling, should of course be available and considered. Our investment to improve access to and the range of psychological therapies in Wales continues to increase. We are also testing new approaches to improve access to non-clinical support to improve mental health through, for example, our social prescribing projects.
And, as you know, I've agreed recommendation 7 in principle. I recognise and applaud the work of the Betsi Cadwaladr prescription medication support service, but I'm not convinced of the need for a national programme based upon that particular service. I continue to believe that that should be addressed at a local level in response to local needs as part of the needs assessments of area planning boards to ensure that the issue is considered including ensuring that local drug treatment services engage with general practice to provide additional support when needed. There are different but positive approaches across Wales—for example, in Aneurin Bevan on tramadol reduction. Rather than endorse one approach across the country, I expect that practice to be shared between different area planning boards to understand what further improvement can be made. Patients should of course in the first instance be supported by their clinician appropriately, whether that is by prescribing medication and indeed the regular monitoring of any side-effects and providing support for safe tapering of the medication.
We of course recognise that sharing information and best practice in relation to drug dependence will improve support for patients as proposed in recommendation 8, and our All Wales Medicines Strategy Group has a key role to play in this, and we'll continue to work with them to share best practice and drive improvements.
Recommendation 9 is for NHS Wales, but I very much support all opportunities for the NHS to benefit more from pharmacists' expertise. We'll have more to say on that in the coming weeks and months. I encourage health boards, trusts and primary care clusters to work more consistently with pharmacists to support patients. Our pharmacists have a vital role in providing medication reviews and professional advice, including crucially, in light of this report, helping patients end prescribed treatment.
In response to recommendation 10, my officials will work with DAN 24/7 to evaluate if further training on prescription-only medication is required for staff and to ensure the website includes content on dependence on these medicines.
I'd like to close by thanking both the Petitions Committee for their work and all those people who gave evidence, but most importantly to put on record my gratitude to Stevie Lewis, whose personal experience has brought to our attention the difficulties that can arise when withdrawing from prescribed medication.
Janet Finch-Saunders to reply to the debate. Janet Finch-Saunders.
Diolch, Llywydd, and I would like to thank the Minister for what was actually a very detailed and quite a positive response, which is heartwarming for me as Chairman on our committee, but also for Stevie, who actually brought this petition forward because of their own experiences. I would also like to thank Members for their contributions and, in particular, Helen Mary Jones, who gave an excellent contribution as always. You spoke with much personal experience—your own life experiences with a member of your own family—and you also, very ably, provided us with recognition of the different approaches that are needed, and to avoid conflation between prescription drug dependence and substance abuse. I agree with you. I cannot see any earthly reason why, especially a health board that's been in special measures for four years, where they can be seen to have, and it's proven that they have a good model to be working, why the Minister actually leading those special measures isn't convinced that perhaps the roll-out of those to where there isn't this good practice in evidence, where that can't be provided at the moment, to certainly help other health boards and help other individuals like Stevie with their concerns.
I would just—. In your response, though, you didn't touch on this, so I would like, even if you write to me at a later date on this, Minister, if you could give some further guidance that the Welsh Government could give to ensure that you will fulfill a leadership role and, by doing that, endorse the proposed model from the Royal Pharmaceutical Society that effective communication is now required between pharmacists and GPs, from the initial administering of medication to reduced dosages. How does your Government intend to monitor and vocalise the requirements of pharmacists and the pharmaceutical industry in ensuring the safe use of prescription drugs? I'd also like to know a little bit more about what support services will be made available across Wales going forward, in this regard, so I would really like you to write to me on that.
In conclusion, though, Llywydd, I would like to thank Stevie Lewis and everyone who has worked very hard in bringing forward this very important issue to our attention. I do hope that this debate, and indeed the work of the petitions process as a whole, has been a positive experience, and I do hope that the Welsh Government will give further consideration to the additional points raised this afternoon and that action is taken to provide better advice and support to people affected by prescription drug dependence in the future.
As I mentioned, I am very pleased by the number of recommendations that you have agreed to in principle: a large number of those—only one, really, that we beg to differ on. But to me, recommendations in principle are only as good as the actual action that is carried out afterwards. So, thank you again, Minister, and thank you, Members. Diolch yn fawr.
The proposal is to note the committee's report. Does any Member object? The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Rebecca Evans, and amendments 2, 3 and 4 in the name of Rhun ap Iorwerth.
That brings us to the Welsh Conservatives' debate on the economy. I call on Russell George to move the motion. Russell George.
Motion NDM7055 Darren Millar
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the Welsh Government’s failure to realise Wales’s economic potential over the past 20 years.
2. Does not believe that the Welsh Government’s Prosperity for All: Economic Action Plan is sufficiently ambitious to deliver significant improvement in the Welsh economy.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to take further action to improve the economy, including:
a) simplifying and improving access to business support;
b) ensuring policy is aligned with an effective industrial strategy;
c) reforming public procurement to support SMEs;
d) upskilling and re-skilling the workforce to take advantage of new opportunities; and
e) improving infrastructure.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I formally move the motion today in the name of my colleague Darren Millar on the economic performance of Wales.
We won't be supporting the Government's amendment today, as it deletes our entire motion, and it is unfortunate that opposition debates are subject to 'delete all' amendments from the Government. I'm sure the Government could have stretched itself to supporting at least point 3 of our amendment, which calls for more action to improve the Welsh Government through its own economic action plan.
With regard to Plaid's amendment on regional inequality, I agree that the gap between the richest and the poorest parts of the country are a national embarrassment. I'm yet to be convinced that the suggested measures of convening a national economic summit and legislating for a regional renewal Bill are the correct ways to bridge this gap, but we on this side are open to listening to the debate this afternoon and listening to the argument in more detail.
But we agree that there is a necessity to end regional inequality across Wales. In turn, of course, that will boost living standards and properly planned and funded health, education and local government services in all parts of Wales.
Last week, Presiding Officer, we celebrated 20 years of devolution, of our Parliament here. Devolution was intended to significantly improve the economic performance of Wales, but, by any measure, the economic data, without question, indicates that the Welsh economy has underperformed over the past two decades, and has comprehensively failed to catch up to the UK economy as a whole. That said, the Welsh Government's latest economic action plan marks a shift away from a failed approach, which I think is welcome, and perhaps the Deputy Minister and the Labour benches will be surprised by what I'm going to say next, but there is much to be applauded, I think, about this plan. So, my opening remarks are not intended to be a party political attack on the Government this afternoon, but I genuinely believe that the plan lacks detail, which is why we are calling for more ambition in improving the Welsh economy so that we deliver a better deal for Welsh businesses, their employees and the country's taxpayer. I'm sure we can all agree that we want to see the true potential of devolution realised in Wales, which we need to achieve through an ambitious policy programme, in order to shake off the place that we're currently at, at the bottom of the UK league tables.
Now, of the three economic plans that have been launched since devolution, not one—not one—has succeeded in improving earnings or economic output, and the Welsh economy is still the weakest economy in the UK. It has the lowest productivity levels across the UK and, of course, those stagnant pay packets are holding us back. And regarding those stagnant wage packages, it's disappointing that when we do have those tweets, as was listed on the trade and investment tweet—'Come to Wales, we've got 30 per cent lower salary costs than some other parts of the UK'—this kind of culture needs to end within Government and the civil service. This is the wrong approach.
Now, the Welsh Government's economic strategy over the past 20 years has largely focused on attracting foreign direct investment, and while I would, and we on these benches would, welcome countries from across the world investing in Wales, the raw economic data shows us that the Welsh Government hasn't made the most of this opportunity. We would like to see new overseas offices and dedicated trade envoys to boost Welsh trade and connect a strong Welsh economy with the world. Now, of course we have a UK industrial strategy, and I firmly believe this plan will ensure that we have jobs and opportunities spread across the whole of Wales, and this is helping the whole country get ready for the economic change by investing in our infrastructure, driving up research spending and boosting the skills of our workforce. I'm sure that the Deputy Minister will agree with me—that it's important that the Welsh Government's policy is aligned with the UK Government's industrial strategy.
Data on the performance of the economic action plan has been incredibly hard to get hold of. I put in written questions at the back end of last year, but didn't get substantive answers to those questions. We've had very few, if not no, statements at all in regard to performance when it comes to the economic action plan.
Reforming public procurement to support small and medium-sized enterprises is also an important strand of an effective Welsh economic action plan. For example, when we look at the way public procurement has been handled in Wales: in 2018, 22 per cent—22 per cent—of procurement spend by the Welsh Government on construction contracts, worth over £0.5 million, went to firms based outside of Wales. So, this represents a lost opportunity for investment in the Welsh supply chain and, consequently, opportunities to further strengthen the economy of Wales.
Next, a strong, forward-thinking and diverse economy is built by a strong workforce, so I certainly believe that there is a need there to focus on adult learning, upskilling and reskilling, and this provides the workforce with the ability not only to gain new skills and knowledge within their sector, but also the added, indirect benefits of improving the social capital and integration, integrating our health behaviours, skills and employment outcomes. So, it's therefore imperative, I think, that adults are encouraged to participate in learning at any stage of their career, whether it's through work-based learning or personal study.
Improving our infrastructure is also important. It's essential to see the consequences of that to improve our economy. It's high time, I think, that the Welsh Government turns its sights on the delivery of a robust and futureproofed transport network. There are good infrastructure projects that have been delivered, and delivered on time right across Wales, but still we have too many transport projects that are delivered late and over budget. And the stalling of the delivery of major schemes, such as the M4 relief road—that is a problem to our economy. Without addressing the congestion on that stretch of the motorway, the Welsh economy will continue to be hampered by chronic levels of congestion and the delays that it creates.
Finally, it's crucial that we also strengthen the country's growth deals as well. We've got some really good growth deals across the country with a regional focus, a good partnership between local authorities as well. This is an area where I think the Welsh Government has got it right, as has the UK Government as well, making sure that the growth deals are measured and that proposals are coming forward from the ground upwards—that we don't have either the UK Government or the Welsh Government imposing projects on the regions of Wales, but that these projects are coming from the very communities that they come from.
So, we've got to get, I think, that right, and I think that we look at—. Obviously, there's a Swansea bay deal as well, which perhaps other colleagues will talk to later, and there are the recent Government reviews into that. So, I think we do need to implement the outcomes of those reviews. We've got the Cardiff growth deal, we've got the mid Wales growth deal, which is on its way as well, and also, of course, the north Wales growth deal, which is expected to create more than 5,000 new jobs and almost double the value of the north Wales economy by 2035.
So, to conclude, Presiding Officer, we on this side look to the economic action plan and we see the merits in it, but there needs to more action, and there needs to be more detail on that plan, and we need to see performance come forward and see what the performance is as we go forward as well. I very much look forward to the debate this afternoon and look forward to Members contributing.
I have selected the four amendments to the motion. I call on the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport to move formally amendment 1 tabled in the name of Rebecca Evans.
Amendment 1—Rebecca Evans
Delete all and replace with:
1. Notes the actions taken by the Welsh Government to support the economy of Wales over the last twenty years which have helped lead to:
a) 300,000 more people in work in Wales since 1999;
b) economic inactivity rates now broadly comparable with the UK average for the first time in history;
c) the proportion of working-age people with no qualifications more than halving since 1999;
d) the proportion of working age people with higher education qualifications increasing from around one-in-five people to more than one-in-three since devolution;
e) the numbers of active enterprises in Wales the highest on record.
2. Notes the Welsh Government’s plans to drive inclusive growth through the Economic Action Plan including the new Economic Contract, major infrastructure investment such as the new £5bn rail franchise and metro as well as the new £1bn Development Bank of Wales.
3. Recognises many of the economic concerns expressed in the EU referendum and the Welsh Government’s focus since publication of the Economic Action Plan in 2017 on nurturing the foundational economy as a driver for inclusive growth.
4. Recognises the fundamental importance of fair work to Wales’s future and the Welsh Government’s commitment to work in social partnership to make Wales a fair work nation.
5. Regrets the lack of UK Government investment in Wales over the last decade as well as cancelled rail electrification, rejection of tidal lagoon plans and failure to secure Wylfa project investment.
Amendment 1 moved.
I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to move amendments 2, 3 and 4 tabled in his name.
Amendment 2—Rhun ap Iorwerth
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to:
a) convene a national economic summit to discuss with key stakeholders and industry the future of the economy; and
b) legislate for a regional renewal bill, that will impose upon government the requirement to consider regional fairness and equality in its expenditure decisions.
Amendment 3—Rhun ap Iorwerth
Add as new point at end of motion:
Expresses concern for the future of the Welsh economy post-Brexit.
Amendment 4—Rhun ap Iorwerth
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the failure of the UK Government to deliver detailed proposals or consult upon a new post-Brexit Shared Prosperity Fund to replace EU funding, given its place as a key component of the Welsh economy.
Amendments 2, 3 and 4 moved.
Thank you, Llywydd. This is one of those very important debates as we mark 20 years since the establishment of devolution. I recall making comments as a young journalist 20 years ago that one of the measures of success of devolution, and the success of the Welsh Government in due course, would be its impact on the Welsh economy. And I think, generally speaking, in looking at where Wales is in terms of the economic tables, not only on these isles but beyond these isles too, we can’t say that Wales is anywhere near reaching its potential as of yet.
There has been no lack of ambition expressed by me and predecessors and at times, possibly, even by the Government, but in terms of action, we’re not getting anywhere near the kinds of steps that we know need to be taken in order to take Wales forward into the future that I know it has economically as a young, prosperous nation.
There is much in what’s contained within the Conservative motion that I and other Plaid Cymru Members would certainly agree with, but we have tabled a series of amendments in order to highlight a few areas that we believe are important to emphasise this afternoon. In amendment 2, we are making the case, as I have done in the past, for having this economic summit. We are at that point, I think, where we need that opportunity to air some new ideas for the economic future of Wales in the most dynamic and the most public way possible. There are so many consultative groups that have been established by the Government over the years, and so many people have been drawn into work on a working group here and a working group there, but I think we have reached the point where we would have a real benefit on a national level by having the kind of summit that we talk about in our amendments, in attracting the best ideas and sharing those ideas with the people of Wales, so that they too can contribute to this discussion. So, I very much hope that the Assembly will support us in that regard.
And that amendment also makes reference to this policy that we have espoused for quite some time in this place, that we need legislation in place that would drive the kind of economic fairness and equality across Wales that the people of Wales do insist on having. I know as a Member representing north Wales that there are feelings that north Wales doesn’t get its share, and I’m sure there are similar feelings in west Wales, and even in areas close to this capital city, that prosperity isn’t fairly shared across the nation. I’m not one that wants to divide Wales; I want to unite us and to show that we can work as one nation.
I do think that this regional Bill that we are suggesting would be a means of ensuring, just like the future generations legislation has done, and require the Government to think in a particular way. A regional Bill would require the Government to consider, in everything it does, whether those decisions taken are truly going to lead to action that will benefit the people of Wales, wherever they are, so that we can remove these concerns that prosperity is centralised in just a few areas.
I will turn to the Brexit-related amendments. I think it was important for us to note this. I don’t need to expand too much on the amendment that states that we are concerned about Brexit. I want people to think about the European question in a Welsh context. Over the past few days, I’ve been having discussions with politicians from Gibraltar, and Gibraltar considered Brexit in the context of Gibraltar, and they asked, ‘Is this good for us?’ And 96 per cent of the population there rejected Brexit because of the damage it would cause to Gibraltar. Brexit is damaging to Wales, and I want the people of Wales to think in that way, because what’s bad for Wales as a nation means, of course, that it will be bad for our communities, for families and individuals across the country.
Just a brief on the shared prosperity fund. I do think that the UK Government had pledged to conclude its consultation on this funding that would replace European funding by December of last year. There’s been no consultation done, if truth to be told, which again is one of those elements that causes so many doubts, in my mind, on this question of leaving the European Union.
I will summarise with these few words: I have confidence in the potential of Wales. We are not delivering that potential at the moment. We’re not yet on the pathway that will enable us to deliver that potential. I don’t think that we’ll be able to start to fly as a nation until we are an independent nation. But on whatever side of that debate you are, whether you’re convinced or not on that, we should all be agreed that we should be doing far more and setting the bar far higher in moving to a place where we have firm foundations in place for that day when Wales does get its freedom.
As I note that we still haven't had sight of the report on kukd.com yet, I think I'll begin with the First Minister’s response to last week’s FMQs when he accused my party of not being prepared to take risks when it came to supporting businesses. I think he forgot he was talking to the Conservatives. This is the very group that been exhorting this Government for years and years to be bolder and braver, because our economy has needed it, and it still needs it—Brexit or no Brexit. I think you know as well, Deputy Minister, what we all know, that the reputation of the Welsh economy is the sore that refuses to heal, infecting attempts to spread wealth, to raise the ambition of our young people, to tackle poverty and to persuade the brightest entrepreneurs that it is worth doing business in Wales. And the point my leader was making is that, the greater the risk, the greater the number of stones that need to be turned over. We cannot afford a slot-machine economy, where it doesn't matter if you're investing £10 or £10 million; the greater the risk, the more you show us, this Parliament, your workings. And I think Pinewood was the classic example of that: an idea that excited us all but whose delivery was hidden from view. And the sad thing is, if we'd all had earlier sight of what was going on there, this Parliament would have had the chance to offer some insight, to support Government and share responsibility for the next steps, instead of leaving us with absolutely no option but to reveal the Government's inability to manage risk in that case, and that is not a good advertisement for our nation. The global operators see that as, 'There's a quick buck to be made here', and our aspiring small businesses lose confidence that they're getting the best advice and the most strategic support.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
Now, unlike Israel or the US, our culture doesn't accept failure as the next step towards success, and I think that's unhelpful; it depresses wealth creation. But, when you are using my constituents' money to back a horse, you'd better know how to read a form book. It's your record that we are not confident about on this. You might find that simplifying and improving access to small business support, as suggested in our motion, will make due diligence a more straightforward matter and it means that Government can then focus effort on the scrutiny of business models and the books, if you like, of bigger players like Dawnus. Because their resilience may have greater influence over the survival of small businesses in their supply chains than any small business support that you can give.
So, there was no need to delete our motion, not least because it denies us, really, the opportunity to say anything nice about you. Of course we're pleased to see that there are more people in work and people finding opportunities that they can seize and take advantage not just of that sense of achievement, but all of the other things that come with being in paid work, but also the fact that fewer of them have to pay tax, thanks to the UK Conservative Government. Perhaps it would have been a little bit more honest to pay tribute to both Governments, as the UK as a whole has the highest ever number of people in work, including the highest number of women, with more tax being paid by the top 5 per cent than before. But I suspect you’d rather not focus on those specifics, because, despite the growth in the number of people in Wales in work, productivity and the pay packet are still the lowest in the UK. And every time your backbenchers stand up and complain about zero-hour contracts and low pay, they should ask themselves why it is in Labour’s Wales that these are most evident. There is little joy to be gained from points 1c) and 1d) in the Government amendment if those people aren’t seeing their endeavour reflected in their pay packet or their career progression.
If we don’t look like a nation on the up, we will not attract investors prepared to stay the course. Now, I would agree with you, Deputy Minister, the foundational economy is a big part of a bigger picture, but when you consider the record of our universities, fighting above their weight here in spawning start-ups, we want them to grow here in Wales. I worry that these seeds will just get a bit clogged up in the clay of red tape—red tape in the wrong place. And I think that's a lesson, actually, for our city and growth deals to consider too.
Finally—and I have to say I think this deserves more time than I can give it today—is the dead hand of the familiar. Diversity is not just about the different types of businesses we have here in Wales but the variety of people who populate the economy. Just look at the Chwarae Teg reports, the Women's Equality Network manifesto, reports by the Prince’s Trust, Prime Cymru—a host of reports coming out, representing people with different disabilities. Innovation and how we look at opportunity is the driver of growth, and I hope that we will stop wasting huge social and economic capital by changing the way that we look at the economy’s prime asset, and that is its people. Thanks.
The post-war Welsh economy was initially based upon agriculture, coal and metal manufacturing and processing. We then had a growth of light manufacturing and, by the late 1980s, Wales was attracting more foreign direct investment than any other region or nation in the UK. This flowed particularly into light manufacturing.
A combination of proximity to markets, cheap labour, and often direct Welsh Development Agency support, meant that suppliers looking to establish new plants found Wales offered a compelling package for investment. Unfortunately, many of these branch factories closed when either markets reduced or it became cheaper to relocate elsewhere. Whole plants moved from Wales as manufacturers shifted to cheaper locations. One hundred and seventy one plants closed between 1998 and 2008, with job losses amounting to 31,000.
It would clearly be a mistake for Wales to fixate on winning new flows of overseas investment. Some may, of course, be attracted, but it is extremely unlikely that anything approaching the golden age of the 1980s and 1990s could, or should, be replicated—attempts to do so by either reducing wages or reducing environmental or safety laws are entering a race that Wales cannot, and I believe should not, enter.
Using the most recent business register and employment surveys that I was able to access shows that the Welsh economy employs substantially fewer people in the following areas classified by the Office for National Statistics: information and communications; finance and insurance; professional, scientific and technical; and business administration, including support services. I think that if you were to make a list of those areas that paid the most in the economy you'd have most of those on it. There are structural weaknesses in the Welsh economy—if there weren't, our gross value added would be higher. Some solutions to Welsh economic problems have to be reached. Firstly, there needs to be an upskilling of the economy department. We cannot have another Kancoat, where those assessing the scheme cannot see that colour coating is not advanced manufacturing, and do not know that two colour-coating plants had previously failed in south Wales and that Shotton colour coats steel.
Secondly, we need to learn from what previously worked and worked well. In the 1990s, Wales experienced a golden age of animation production. S4C was integral in helping to produce a number of popular animated shows, which I mentioned a couple of weeks ago: SuperTed, Fireman Sam, The Gogs. These were high profile and they actually got translated into English. S4C rapidly gained a reputation, nationally and internationally, for their commercially successful and award-winning animation programmes. As S4C expanded, a whole host of other popular characters came: Wil Cwac Cwac, Toucan 'Tecs, Funnybones. This is an example of where money put into the demand side generates new industry, but needs initial demand. Far too often, we fixate on putting money into the supply side and then we oversupply—we need the demand side to be up there as well.
On a further thing: it must seem to you all rather odd that the world's biggest-selling video game, Grand Theft Auto, started life in Dundee, but there's an economic logic to the way that, in 20 years, the Scottish city has become a notable cluster for the world's video games industry. Abertay University in Dundee found political and financial backing to establish a department offering the first computer games degree in the world in 1997. There are now a clutch of related degrees, including games design and production management. There's also a large computer games industry based in Dundee. Is anybody surprised at the fact—money has been put in, it was there at the beginning—that it now has a very successful industry in an area that pays very well and that is growing? This outlines three points that I continue to make—and I'll probably make them again this time next year—first, a university can be a driver of the economy and the local economy; secondly, that industries tend to cluster; and, third, geography is less important than skill availability. If you're ever picking a place to locate—no disrespect to Dundee, but it isn't top of anybody's list of geographically the most central.
Thirdly, like Gordon Brown, I'm a believer in endogenous growth theory, which holds that investment in human capital, innovation and knowledge are significant contributors to economic growth. The theory also focuses on positive externalities and spillover effects of a knowledge-based economy, which will lead to economic growth. The growth theory primarily holds that the long-run growth rates of an economy depend on policy measures—for example, subsidies for research and development or education increase the growth rate, using the endogenous growth model, by increasing the incentive to innovate. And that's what we lack, really. We talk around it, but what we have not got is enough highly paid jobs, we haven't got enough innovation and we haven't got clusters in high-paid industries. If we can accept what that problem is, then we have to work out how we're going to address it.
I've tried to outline, briefly, some ways of improving the Welsh economy, and I'm, of course, available to discuss these in greater detail with the Welsh Government or anybody else who wants to talk to me about it, but we really have to become innovators—we really have to get into the high-value parts of the economy. You're not going to become rich by having lots of employment with low pay. We can knock our unemployment rate down, we can increase our employment rate, but it doesn't do much for our GVA until we start getting some highly paid jobs in there.
Well, despite inheriting economic crisis and empty coffers, prudent UK Governments since 2010 have successfully exploited opportunities to realise the UK's economic potential. Just this month, official figures for the UK have shown construction output up, production output up, services output up, employment rates up to the joint highest figure on record, unemployment down to the lowest level in 45 years, UK economic inactivity lower than the year earlier and close to a record low, and average weekly earnings, with and without bonuses, up both before