Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

09/07/2019

The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the First Minister

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Vikki Howells.

School Uniforms

1. Will the First Minister provide an update on how the Welsh Government is supporting families to meet the cost of school uniforms? OAQ54194

Llywydd, financial support for families who most need help with the costs associated with the school day was reformed and broadened in 2018-19. In the current financial year, we have more than doubled the funding for these purposes to more than £5 million. 

Thank you, First Minister. It's really useful that the pupil development grant—access can be used for funding things like equipment, sports kit, and also kit for activities outside of schools too, especially when we remember that household incomes are now £1,500 lower than they were three years ago due to the ongoing impact of the Westminster austerity agenda. How is the Welsh Government working with councils to promote uptake of the grant, and how are you working to raise awareness of the many ways in which it can be used?

Well, Llywydd, I thank Vikki Howells for that, and particularly for making the point that the PDG—access fund is extended beyond the scope of schools themselves, to youth clubs, for example, for funding for kit and equipment. And the Welsh Government, of course, is anxious to publicise the fund. On 10 June, we launched an integrated communications campaign, aimed at raising awareness amongst parents and carers. In the month since that campaign began, the PDG—access website page is the fourth most popular page on the entire Welsh Government website. And we want to do more, working with local authorities, to raise awareness of the grant. 

Let me just quote one reply that we received as a result of the campaign. It was from a parent who said,

'I've just had a letter telling me that my seven-year-old is entitled to the help for school uniform in year 3 this September. I've been worrying for weeks about the cost of uniform. This relieves so much financial pressure for me and the worry that I've been experiencing.'

We want more parents to know about the scheme and to be in the same position as the person I've just quoted to you. 

Afternoon, First Minister. In the summary of responses to the consultation on the school uniforms—we saw the summary of responses last month—one of the questions was whether people agreed that school governing bodies should have regard to the affordability of setting school uniform policy. A very sensible question. But value for money and affordability aren't always the same thing. Clothes that last longer may be good enough to pass on to other members of the family, are better for the environment and, quite often, are more ethically sourced as well. Can you confirm that the terms of the grant will not disadvantage families whose children go to schools where governors didn't just choose simply the cheapest option but the value-for-money option?

Well, I think the Member makes an important point that schools need to think carefully about all the things they can do to keep school uniform costs down. And that isn't a simple matter of cost, but cost is a very important matter for many families who live in Wales. Members will recall, Llywydd, that the children's commissioner's office published a report on the cost of the school day earlier this year, and there are some very important observations there about things that schools can do to make sure that they don't expect things of parents that make parents' ability to produce their children in school in a way that does not cause the children and parents anxiety and difficulty, that those things are properly observed. I expect schools governing bodies to think of that in the round, and the grant that we have instituted allows them to do that. 

Plaid Cymru was pleased when your Labour Government performed a U-turn last year on your ill-judged decision to scrap the school uniform grant. The replacement pupil development grant now entitles parents with children with eligibility for free school meals to apply for the grant when their children are in reception years, year 3, year 7 and year 10. I'm not surprised to hear you say that the website is very popular, because need is very high. Unfortunately though, the scheme is not enough due to issues such as full uniform costs being anything up to £250 in some cases, and children can grow a lot in between those ages where financial help is available. We then have the controversial decision by your Labour Government to lower the income threshold for free-school-meal entitlement. So, First Minister, are you aware of the networks that have been set up on social media for school uniform donations, for families unable to clothe their children? And if this doesn't focus your mind on the need to develop an anti-poverty strategy for Wales, what will it take?

13:35

Well, Llywydd, I could thank the Member for the graciousness with which she welcomed the improvements that are being provided to families across Wales. [Interruption.] It's not a matter of scrutiny, Llywydd, whatsoever; the Member's entitled to ask what she likes. I simply point out to her that the scheme that we have developed is welcomed by parents across Wales, and they welcome it in a good deal more generous spirit than she managed to assume this afternoon. I want the scheme to go further; I want the scheme to do more. I'm very glad we were able to double the number of school years that benefited from it in this year, and I'm working hard with colleagues to see what we can do further.

I'm always baffled by her point on free school meals, given that this Government has provided £5 million to schools last year, and £7 million to schools this year, so that thousands more children in Wales can benefit from free school meals. That's the truth of what we are doing, and the Member's obsession with criticising the fact that thousands more children in Wales will benefit seems to me to be part of the perversity with which she has approached this question this afternoon.

Of course, I'm aware of measures that happen in many communities to make sure that school uniforms can be reused and recycled. That's absolutely right; we want a circular economy in relation to schools, as we do in everything else that we have in Wales. Our focus is on a child poverty delivery plan, in the way that the Children's Commissioner for Wales recommended in her report. And it's delivering improvements in the lives of families that allow children to benefit that this Government has at the forefront of our planning.

Public Services in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney

2. Will the First Minister provide an update on how the Welsh Government’s annual budget supports the delivery of public services in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney? OAQ54203

Llywydd, the Welsh Government supports public services in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney through a series of budget measures: the annual revenue support grant, the pooled approach to business rates, and specific grants across a range of responsibilities. The Minister for Housing and Local Government has recently announced a package of further support for Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council.

Thank you for that answer, First Minister. It's clear to me that the Welsh Government continues to deliver on its promises for my constituents, and yet we also know that far more could be achieved had we not suffered a decade of Tory cuts to our budgets. Yet, in recent weeks, we've heard those competing to be the next Tory leader suggest a series of spending commitments around infrastructure, public services, policing, and tax cuts for the wealthy. Can the First Minister tell us if any of these funding promises from the Tory magic money tree has yet been promised to Wales? And isn't it now clear to everyone that those Tory cuts were, and always have been, a matter of political choice, and not an economic necessity?

Well, Llywydd, I entirely agree with what Dawn Bowden said at the end of that question. It's the biggest deceit in politics, the claim that there is no alternative, because there is always an alternative in politics, and there was an alternative available to Governments back in 2010. The Government of the time chose the path of austerity. We were promised, as you'll remember, that the sunny uplands would be restored to us by 2015. Now we're told it will be 2025—fully a decade later—before we see any benefit. And Dawn Bowden is right as well, Llywydd, isn't she, that we have had a 40-year project of neoliberalism to shift the economy away from working people, and inequality has risen year on year as a result. It's astonishing, it's surely astonishing, that a decade of austerity should culminate in tax cuts for the wealthy. Where is the sense that we were promised, that we were all in this together, that everybody was forced to share the burden? At the end of it, when the burden has been very unfairly shared, we see the rewards are to be as unfairly shared as well.

To answer Dawn Bowden's question directly, of course, there's been no money promised to Wales. Instead, what we have seen is one of the two contenders in the Tory leadership race saying that the money we do get will now be controlled by London, and by the Conservative Party, rather than this institution and people who elected this institution here in Wales. 

13:40

First Minister, Merthyr Tydfil council used £560,000 of its reserves last year to help plug the deficit in its budget, mainly caused by the enormous pressure on its social services due to helping children in care. The Wales Audit Office raised concerns about this and warned that the authority should not keep raiding its reserves. First Minister, do you regret telling local authorities when you were finance Minister in 2017—and its your quote now:

'Local authorities will need to look at their reserves as well as to see if they can squeeze some money out',

and do you now accept that the current difficulties faced by Merthyr Tydfil council are the direct result of your cuts to local government? And please stop blaming London. 

Well, Llywydd, I'm afraid nothing that we've just heard bears examination. The problems experienced in local authorities in Wales are not the result of decisions made in this National Assembly. They are the result of a year-on-year-on-year reduction in our budgets that are made by his Government, by the deliberate decisions that his Government makes, and it's no surprise to anybody to see those decisions creating the difficulties that they do for public services here in Wales. 

Merthyr borough council received amongst the largest uplifts in funding of any council in Wales last year. This Government is responding to the advice that that council has received from the Wales Audit Office. It is very serious advice, Llywydd. It points to that council's real difficulties in managing the services for which it has responsibility. We will use the powers we have in order to give them further assistance. But nobody should be in any doubt about the scale and the depth of the difficulties that that council faces.  

Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders

Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the opposition, Paul Davies. 

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, will you provide an update on the delivery of the Wales and borders rail franchise? 

The Wales and borders franchise continues to be delivered in line with the plans that were already agreed—a most ambitious plan for improving rail services here in Wales. Members will be aware of actions that have already been taken to improve those services. There are many more that will follow over the lifetime of the franchise. 

First Minister, I received an e-mail last week, and I'm sure that sounds familiar from a leader of the opposition. I received an e-mail from Gill and Antosh, who run a bed-and-breakfast in my own constituency. They have received correspondence from two of their guests about their train journey from Newport to Haverfordwest. Now, the guests had a fantastic time walking our coastal path and thoroughly enjoyed our famous Pembrokeshire hospitality. However, despite booking seats, they described their train journey as being 'squeezed' and 'packed to the gunwales' with one of the guests, recently recovering from shingles, being wedged between the catering trolley, other passengers and the door. This was incredibly painful for her, so much so that she felt like cancelling the holiday as she felt she couldn't go on. 

Now, 75 per cent of the guests to this B&B are from overseas, and more than 60 per cent rely on public transport to get to Pembrokeshire. Is this the welcome to Wales that people should be receiving at a time when we should be boosting our tourist numbers? And is it right that guests to our country should be treated so badly? And what is your message—[Interruption.] I know the Labour Members don't want to hear the realities of our train services, but what is your message to Gill and Antosh? What is your message to Gill and Antosh and to the other tourist operators and businesses who rely on visitors coming to Wales?    

Well, Llywydd, I'm well used now to the irony-free way in which questions in this Assembly are put to me—questions from the leader of the opposition here about rail travel west of Cardiff from a party that cancelled rail electrification to west Wales. Has he no sense of shame at all in the questions that he asked me, when his party have been responsible for one of the greatest setbacks to rail travel in that part of Wales that we have experienced during the whole of this Assembly?  

What I say to the people who have e-mailed him is this: that this Government has a plan to expand capacity on that line and on other lines in Wales. That is the result of the neglect that was caused by the franchise that his Government signed with the previous operator. That's not going to happen in six months; it's going to happen over the lifetime of the franchise. There are ambitious plans in place so that there will be extra capacity west of Cardiff down to other parts of Wales. We wish we could bring it on faster, but there are constraints in terms of how quickly you can get trains delivered. There are funding constraints as a result of his Government's decisions as well. But, we will use the power of that franchise to bring about those improvements. When will his Government honour their promises to Wales? I don't see a single one, Llywydd. I don't see a single one of the announcements that the Secretary of State made when he was cancelling electrification and set out a string of business cases. I don't see a single one of them coming to fruition. When will we see that for people in the west of Wales?

13:45

The First Minister needs to calm down, I think. And just in case you don't understand, First Minister, I'm not here to defend the UK Government; I'm here to hold your Government to account and make sure you are delivering—[Interruption.]

Too much excitement. We can't hear what the leader of the opposition is saying. In particular, the First Minister can't hear what he's saying.

I'm here to hold your Government to account, to make sure you are delivering for the people of Wales. However, too often in this Chamber, we keep highlighting your Government's failures. Now, with the disruption of last autumn and the ongoing failures, public confidence in the ability of the new franchise to deliver is low. Only 72 per cent of commuters were satisfied when asked about the overall journey satisfaction in the latest national rail survey.

This is not good, First Minister, given that we now see the reintroduction of a train on the Rhymney valley line that was last used in Wales in 2005, having previously been in service since the 1960s. Transport for Wales decided to promote this by claiming that a popular train was back with smiles. First Minister, this is not a smiling or laughing matter. Commuters are frustrated and fed up with a lack of action and waiting for the new improved service to come along. What is your Government doing to ensure that the bodies responsible for the delivery of the new franchise have the technical, managerial and financial support necessary to ensure that they are able to help deliver a new world-class rail service here in Wales?

Well, Llywydd, it's good to know that the leader of the opposition has given up trying to defend the indefensible. That will save us some time on the floor of the Assembly, no doubt.

The Welsh Government works with the powers that we have and the funding that we have. We wish we had more powers, we wish we had more funding to go with it, because then we would be able to make a better job of public transport here in Wales. Good to know when his Government finally decides to transfer the Valleys lines is going to be agreed, after months of prevarication on that issue too. We use everything; all the powers we have, Llywydd, we use to improve services for passengers, to build up capacity, to deliver the franchise that we have agreed—one of the most ambitious franchises agreed anywhere in the United Kingdom. When the leader of the opposition reports to me that public satisfaction in his performance is 72 per cent, I will be inclined to listen to his criticisms of others who are in the same position.

Diolch, Llywydd. First Minister, earlier this year, Machynlleth town council, seat of the first Welsh Parliament, of course, became the first council in Wales to declare a climate emergency, and a few months later, this Parliament and your Government followed suit. Two months ago, Machynlleth town council became the first council in Wales to declare its support for independence. I think you can see where I'm going with this one. After your comments last week berating colonialism and your statement yesterday that your support for the union was not unconditional, are you now officially indy-curious?

Llywydd, let me make clear to people in Wales what the choice in this Chamber is. On the one hand, you have a party that is a barely reformed party that is scarcely reconciled to devolution, and that's what I meant when I described the Prime Minister's speech in Edinburgh as 'colonial' in nature. If she believes that the way in which to improve the union is to strengthen the offices of Secretaries of State and to fly the union jack more vigorously in Wales, then I'm afraid that's not what I see the United Kingdom being in future.

Here, in this party, we are a devolutionist party. We firmly believe that decisions that are made on the future of services that are pertinent to Wales should be made only by people who live in Wales. But we believe in a successful United Kingdom as well. Plaid Cymru stand unambiguously for independence. That's what they will be offering the people of Wales in any election, an ambition and a determination to take Wales out of the United Kingdom, and everything they do and everything they say, as we saw yesterday, is seen through that lens. I'm very happy that that is the case, because I do not think for a moment that the people of Wales are in that position, and I certainly am not.

13:50

So, if I can summarise your answer, we're unambiguously in favour of independence, you're ambiguously in favour of it. It's a definite maybe from the First Minister.

But one policy area—[Interruption.] One policy area in which there has been some—[Interruption.]

I think I've touched a nerve here maybe. One policy area in which there has been evolution is Brexit. Today, the Labour Party's put out a statement confirming it would campaign for remain in the event of a referendum called by a Tory Prime Minister, but it leaves open the question as to whether it would do the same if Labour were in Government. Do you support that position, or are you able to confirm today that if a Labour Government put a renegotiated deal to the people, you, the Labour Party in Wales and your Government, would still campaign for remain whatever the UK Labour Party decided? 

Llywydd, the Welsh Labour Party is in favour of Wales remaining in the United Kingdom—there's no ambiguity about that—and we are in favour of Wales remaining in the European Union. I have said before, I say it again: if there is an opportunity for people in Wales to vote again on whether or not we should remain or leave the European Union, we will be campaigning to remain. 

I think that's the second question I haven't had a clear answer for, but it does beg the question if you are claiming to be an out-and-out remain party why you are the only one that hasn't stood down to maximise the chances of defeating a pro-Brexit party in Brecon and Radnor. [Interruption.] 

Could I finally turn to some news that has broken in the last few hours, which is the interim administration order against the company involved in the Afan Valley Adventure Resort? The judge in that case has today said of the company, Northern Powerhouse Developments, that theirs was

'a thoroughly dishonest business model and a shameful abuse of the privileges of limited liability trading.'

I will be writing to the Serious Fraud Office today to ask them to initiate an immediate inquiry. But in the meantime, can the First Minister say, given what we've heard from the judge, why the Welsh Government expressed enthusiastic support for the company and its project on several occasions, including the economy Minister appearing in its promotional videos?  

Llywydd, I'm keen to assist the leader of Plaid Cymru, so I'll tell him again what I've said to him twice now in the hope that he has a chance to catch up. First of all, the Labour Party in Wales unambiguously believes that the future of Wales is best secured through continued membership of the United Kingdom. We are unambiguously in that position, just as you are unambiguously in favour of taking Wales out of the United Kingdom. We are unambiguously in favour of Wales remaining in the European Union, and we will campaign to do that if we ever have the opportunity, just as we say so in Brecon and Radnor, where we put up a candidate because there are Labour voters and Labour members in Brecon and Radnor who deserve the opportunity to vote for a candidate who represents those views. I understand that he has taken a different course of action and that those people who would otherwise have voted Plaid Cymru will now not have an opportunity to vote for the Party of Wales—an astonishing decision, it seems to me, for the so-called Party of Wales not to allow people who might wish to support it that opportunity in a Welsh election. There we are. Labour Party supporters and members will have that opportunity, and I'm very glad that they do too.

As to the company that he mentioned, let me give Members this assurance: not a single penny of Welsh money from this Government has gone to that company, and I'd be grateful if the Member would make that clear in any letter he intends to write.

13:55

The leading contender to be the UK's next Prime Minister said on Saturday that the decision to cancel the M4 relief road needed to be reversed. He also said, as you said earlier, First Minister, that there should be a strong Conservative influence on how the shared prosperity fund is spent. First Minister, you said that lack of money stopped you proceeding with the M4 relief road. Would you therefore welcome an offer from the UK Government to fund it through the shared prosperity fund? [Laughter.]

Well, first of all, Llywydd, let me just set the record straight. When the detailed statement that I made on the floor of this Assembly said that there were two reasons why I had decided not to proceed with the M4 relief road, one was because of the impact it would have on our ability to fund other essential projects here in Wales and, secondly and separately, because I was not convinced that the damage done to the ecology and the environment in that part of Wales was sufficiently outweighed by economic gain to allow it to go ahead. So, extra money by itself would certainly not solve the second of those reasons.

My message to the leading contender, as you put it, for the Conservative Party is that he needs to win an election in Wales and then he will be entitled to instruct us on what we should do here. His party has never won an election in Wales in the whole of the era of universal suffrage, and for him to come here and instruct us as to the responsibilities that we have and how we should discharge them, and then to announce that he intends to repatriate responsibilities that have been established here, not to the UK Government you'll recall, if you read what he said, but to the Conservative Party, well I think there are real issues of democratic legitimacy in the way that those points were expressed.

Perhaps, First Minister, he could run on a manifesto, promising to deliver a relief road for the M4 and then do the opposite, as you are. You strongly oppose any UK Government role, yet you never objected to the EU role in how these amounts were spent. Last week, you told us that unionists were imperilling the union, after the Foreign Office denied you the use of a car in Brussels. Isn't the real threat—[Interruption.] Isn't the real threat to the union the 20 years we have had of Labour appeasing Plaid Cymru? Today, they are crowing because, yesterday, you told them that your support—Labour support for the union—was subject to review; now, you criticise them, not for their support for independence, but for the fact that it's unambiguous. First Minister, since Wales supports the UK and voted to leave the European Union, why are you as First Minister acting as one with nationalists and Nicola Sturgeon?

Llywydd, I do not see for a moment how it undermines the union when people in Wales in successive elections have been able to choose the administrations that they wish to see in charge of devolved responsibilities here in Wales. That is simply the operation of democracy, and people have made their decisions, and we arrive here as a result of them. There is nothing in that at all that has the effect of undermining the union. In fact, it's always been my belief that strong devolved institutions, democratically elected by people who are affected by the decisions they make, strengthen the union and do not undermine it. I think that has been the history of devolution here in Wales.

On the issue of the European Union, the Member knows our position clearly. We have reviewed and reviewed the evidence that tells us that if Wales is to leave the European Union, and particularly if it's ripped out of the European Union in the way that his party and he would like to see, the economy in Wales would be 8 per cent to 10 per cent smaller than it is today with all the damage that will do. We've seen figures in Northern Ireland yesterday that suggest that Northern Ireland may already be in a recession. There are figures that show that if we leave the European Union without a deal on 31 October the rest of the United Kingdom could be in a recession before the end of this calendar year. Think of the damage that that will do to families, to communities and to futures here in Wales. We will not stand by and not provide people in Wales with the advice and the facts that we believe demonstrate to them that their futures are better secured through continued membership of the European Union. That's what we believe to be the case and that's why we will not shrink from expressing that whenever we have the opportunity.

14:00
Ambulance Response Times

3. Will the First Minister make a statement on ambulance response times? OAQ54197

I thank the Member for that. The Welsh ambulance service has now exceeded its target response time for red calls for 14 consecutive months, with a typical response time of around five and a half minutes. We continue to work closely with the chief ambulance commissioner, LHBs and the Welsh ambulance service to achieve further improvement.

Thank you for your answer, First Minister. In the eight years that I've been an Assembly Member, it's the last couple of years that my office and I have received the most significant concerns in regards to slow ambulance response times. In a letter to me last year, the chief executive of the Welsh ambulance service confirmed for my constituents that the average ambulance handover time was nine minutes for Telford, 26 minutes for Shrewsbury, and one hour and two minutes for Wrexham Maelor. Now, clearly, handover times are a significant factor in ambulance response times. Now, I have received some reports that Welsh ambulance crews are repeatedly being held at Shrewsbury and Telford for longer periods of time while English crews are released after a set target time because the English ambulance service cross-charges hospitals for looking after their patients in excess of this time. So, I would be grateful if you could investigate this particular issue and consider if such measures should, or indeed could, be put in place for Welsh crews and Welsh patients.

Well, I thank the Member for that point. He will know that ambulance response times in Powys are generally amongst the best in Wales. Last year in Powys, the standard waiting time for a red call was four minutes 37 seconds and amber calls were the best in response times in the whole of Wales. But he makes an important point about handover times and work is going on very purposefully through the chief ambulance commissioner to improve handover times in those Welsh hospitals where that has been a cause of concern. I wasn't aware of the point that the Member raised about Shrewsbury and Telford. Of course, my colleague the health Minister will investigate that and provide him with an answer.FootnoteLink

First Minister, last month, over 10,000 people waited more than 30 minutes for an ambulance response to an amber call. Two weeks ago, a friend of mine, a constituent, waited almost three hours for an emergency response following a suspected stroke. I'm sure you'll agree with me that this is unacceptable. First Minister, when can the people of Wales expect to see an end to waits of more than 30 minutes for an ambulance or emergency response?

Well, Llywydd, the all-Wales amber standard response is actually 26 minutes and 42 seconds. We have a plan following a report into amber waits. It made nine specific recommendations and there is now an implementation plan to take all of those recommendations forward. There is a particular focus on stroke because stroke patients depend not simply on speed of response but they depend on the nature of the response that is made both in the ambulance and then with the handover, based on what the ambulance staff have been able to do, so that that can be built on rapidly when patients arrive at their destination. So, I take seriously the point the Member has made about waits when people have had a stroke, but it is recognised in the report that was commissioned into amber calls, and there are particular actions that are being developed to make sure that stroke sufferers in Wales have both a timely response through the ambulance service but also a response that is equipped to deliver the immediate response that we know makes a significant difference to their long-term prospects of recovery.

14:05
Wales's Economic Performance

4. What assessment has the First Minister made of Wales's economic performance over the past twenty years? OAQ54217

Llywydd, amongst the achievements of economic performance since devolution we have 300,000 more people in work than we did in 1999 and more active enterprises here in Wales than at any time during that period. 

I thank the First Minister for his answer, but when judged by all normal parameters—GVA, GDP or productivity—we see that Wales appears to be performing less well than any other region of the UK apart from the north-west of England. Does the First Minister agree that this runs contrary to the ambitions laid out in the Government's 'Prosperity for All' economic action plan?

Well, I'm afraid the assertions made by the Member simply aren't true, Llywydd. As well as having unemployment down faster than the rest of the United Kingdom, employment rising faster than the rest of the United Kingdom, and inactivity rates down more than the rest of the United Kingdom, Welsh productivity since 2011 has been the fastest in growth of all UK countries and regions. So, I just don't accept the assertions that the Member makes, but I do say this to him: that if the plans of his party were ever to come to fruition and this country were to leave the European Union without a deal on 31 October, then all the gains that have been made during the devolution period will be under renewed and very significant threat.

First Minister, can I congratulate your Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport for the refreshing honesty that he displayed last month when he admitted that your Government and, indeed, the predecessor Labour Governments did not have a clue what they were doing on the economy? Now, I understand that he's since apologised for those comments and backtracked on them. He's not the only person to climb down from comments that he's made previously, and we saw some yesterday in north Wales, but that sort of honesty is what we like from our politicians.

Now, one of the areas that has really suffered quite a lot over recent years is north Wales, and one of the reasons that the economy in north Wales has been suffering is because of the A55 trunk road and its lack of capacity to be able to shift traffic along it, particularly in our peak holiday periods. Can I ask the First Minister whether, given the fact that you have decided no longer to spend significant sums of money on the M4 relief road, you will look at investing in our key artery in north Wales, the A55, to ensure that it is fit for purpose and it can cope with the increasing traffic that we're seeing in north Wales as a result of people being attracted to come and visit us and to do business there?

Llywydd, it's always disappointing to me when a local Member talks down the achievements of their part of Wales. North Wales has higher employment rates than the whole of Wales and the whole of the United Kingdom, it has lower unemployment rates than Wales and the whole of the United Kingdom and its economy in many ways is a thriving economy, from Airbus in the north-east to the very encouraging tourism figures in which north Wales leads Wales this year. Of course infrastructure is important; it's why we carried out the resilience survey of the A55 and are putting into implementation the recommendations of that. We continue to invest significantly in transport infrastructure in north Wales, whether that is the Flintshire corridor in the north-east or the bypass at Caernarfon in the north-west.

Rural Communities

5. Will the First Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's Rural Communities - Rural Development Programme 2014-2020? OAQ54210

I thank Joyce Watson for that, Llywydd. The programme continues to make good progress with 80 per cent of RDP funding already committed, providing almost £700 million to projects. We expect to achieve full commitment of the programme by the end of 2020.

14:10

Thank you. I know that that funding is making a real difference to the community that I serve. One of those projects that do benefit from the investment is Connecting Communities in Wales. It is being delivered through the Community Transport Association and funded through the rural development programme. From what I gather, those delivering projects are able to apply for funding to deliver those very local transport solutions. The Community Transport Association have contacted me as they're currently in the process of trying to extend their Wheels 2 Work scooter scheme in north Pembrokeshire that allows people who have no transport whatsoever to get on a scooter and go to work. But what they have informed me is that the process itself—not necessarily the application, but the process in which that application is being dealt with—is now holding the whole project in jeopardy, because those people who had originally signed up to helping them are now walking away because of the lateness in that money coming forward. So, my question to you, First Minister, is: does the Welsh Assembly Government know about any delays that are causing this to happen? And would you use your good offices at least to look at what it is that's causing this block to what is a very good scheme and has been operating in the past?

Well, Llywydd, I thank Joyce Watson for drawing attention to the innovative work that goes on in community transport, particularly in south-west Wales. There are a series of initiatives that have been taken in that part of Wales, which allow us to build on those as we develop further ideas in community transport that can be applied elsewhere in the nation. It is important, isn't it, Llywydd, always to remind Members that this is public money that is being invested, that it has to be accounted for properly and that sometimes there are requirements that we have to insist upon from people who are the recipients of that public money before that money can be released to them. I'm not directly aware of the Wheels 2 Work scooter scheme, although it sounds a very interesting idea, and if the Member wishes to write to me with further details of the delays, as the programme sees it, then of course I will be very happy to investigate them.

First Minister, you were quite right to identify that this is public money, and scrutiny is required to make sure that it delivers value for money, but one scheme that has proved problematic with the rural development scheme—and I have raised it with the Minister as well—is the woodland grant scheme. It is a very bureaucratic scheme. People have open windows when they can plant in the season; it's not something where you can plant trees 12 months of the year. And I'd be grateful, if you do have an understanding of that particular scheme, whether you would indicate whether you are satisfied with the progress that's been made getting money out the door, as it were. Or does this scheme need a review so that the Government can get back on track with its own target of 100,000 hectares of woodland to be planted in Wales by 2030?

Llywydd, we are very determined that we will increase the rate at which woodland in Wales is planted. We want to make full use of that woodland grant scheme, and where there are inefficiencies in the way that it operates, we are very keen indeed to eliminate them. Let me cheer the Member up briefly by saying that if there is any silver lining to Brexit, it may be that if the United Kingdom—and it's an 'if', isn't it—leaves the European Union and we have the administration of funds in our own hands, we recognise that there are some ways in which we might be able to administer those funds that would make it easier for money to leave the Welsh Government and to be deployed for the purposes for which we intend it to make a difference.

Children with Special Educational Needs

6. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve the educational outcomes for children with special educational needs? OAQ54212

Llywydd, equity and inclusion are at the heart of our national mission for education. We are committed to ensuring all learners experience a high standard of education and reach their full potential. This is the purpose of this Assembly's Additional Learning Needs and Education Tribunal (Wales) Act 2018.

14:15

First Minister, Welsh Government figures show that children with special educational leads are being significantly over-represented in permanent and temporary exclusion from Welsh schools. Pupils with SEN made up to 60 per cent of all permanent exclusions from maintained schools in Wales, despite being only 23 per cent of the school population. These figures suggest that exclusions are not being used as a matter of last resort for children with SEN, but as a norm. Does the First Minister agree that there is an urgent need for overhauling how the educational staff deal with pupils who have special educational needs who are disruptive and to work with schools and local authorities to get the number of exclusions down in Wales? Thank you.

Llywydd, I share the Member's concern, and I know that the education Minister does as well, at the over-representation amongst school exclusions of pupils with additional learning needs. It's partly why we are investing £20 million to prepare the system and staff for the new regime that flows from the Act that was put on the statute book in this Chamber, and, in doing so, we certainly look to those figures to see a reduction in the proportion of school exclusion that comes from pupils that have those additional learning needs.

First Minister, whilst I appreciate very much the legislation that Welsh Government's put into place to ensure that families are able to benefit from the additional learning needs support that they should be getting, we still get many letters from constituents expressing the challenges they face on a daily basis in being able to ensure that their children can get access to that support. Last week, I had a constituent who contacted me and said they had a diagnosis for their child, but they were getting difficulties in getting the local authority to actually deliver the support that diagnosis identified. Now, one of the important things, therefore, we need to ensure is that, whilst we put the legislation in place, we are able to ensure and enforce that that legislation is delivered by local authorities so that families no longer have to face the challenges that the legislation was there to change. Would you therefore look in the Welsh Government and see how we can actually ensure local authorities deliver the support needed when a child has a diagnosis, has those needs identified but, in a situation like this—he's going into a new school in September and doesn't know whether the support that has been given in a statement will be given to him yet.

Well, Llywydd, as David Rees knows, I know the Act itself is to be phased in from September of this year, so the Act is not yet—September of next year, I beg your pardon. So, the Act is not yet delivering the benefits that it's designed to achieve and which were endorsed on the floor of the Assembly. There is a mandatory phased introduction of the Act from September 2020—that's why we are upskilling the profession in advance of it.

The point, I think, that I want to underline in what the Member says is that there is an existing regime, and local authorities must comply with that existing regime. They have legal duties that they must discharge, and we have asked the five transformation leads that we have appointed to help smooth the path to the new regime to emphasise to local authorities their continuing obligations to meet the needs of young people with additional learning needs under the existing system right through until the new regime begins to make its impact.

The Arbed Scheme in South Wales Central

7. Will the First Minister provide an update on the delivery of the Arbed scheme in South Wales Central? OAQ54213

Llywydd, over its lifetime, to date, Arbed has delivered schemes in South Wales Central to tackle fuel poverty benefiting over 3,000 properties. There are nine schemes in development for this year, in all parts of the region. 

First Minister, there's an old joke about how many people it takes to change a light bulb, but the question should be: what does it cost your Welsh Labour Government to change a light bulb in Wales? The answer is up to £245 under Labour's Arbed scheme, because that is what contractors have been encouraged to charge for 'soft' lighting measures—in effect, changing light bulbs. And for water measures, which simply involves screwing an aerator into a tap, less than a couple of minutes' work, the price is up to £124. Are you also aware that your Government, in the fight against climate change, is paying Arbed to change boilers that can basically be brand-new, and they're installing less energy-efficient boilers? And that's the contractors themselves telling me that. This is because, once an area is identified for Arbed support, every house in the area is eligible to apply, with no due diligence, regardless of circumstances. So, I would say that your due diligence on Arbed is an embarrassment. People in Wales are struggling, facing costs across the board, and yet your Government is paying £240 to change one of these—up to £240, and £124 for an aerator. Do you acknowledge these figures? How can you justify them? And will you now launch an inquiry?

14:20

Llywydd, the Arbed contract was extensively scrutinised on the floor of this Assemby. The award of the contract was challenged by Members of this Assembly. Meetings were organised and reports produced in order to giver confidence to Members of the Assembly that the contract had been properly awarded, and that it would continue to add to the 54,000 homes in Wales that, as a result of the Arbed scheme, are now prospering as a result of it, and that 6,000 more homes in Wales will benefit from Arbed 3. That is the big picture here. There are families who were living in fuel poverty that are not living in fuel poverty today. They were people who were living in unacceptable conditions. They now live in homes that are well insulated and well heated. I think that's a matter to be proud of. I understand that the Member doesn't.FootnoteLink

A Community Bank for Wales

8. Will the First Minister make a statement on how a community bank for Wales would benefit communities in Caerphilly? OAQ54232

Llywydd, bank closures continue to have a detrimental impact on access to banking services for individuals, communities and small and medium-sized enterprises across Wales. Community banks have a potentially important role in regionalising and localising financial flows, and to continue the provision of banking services in communities such as Caerphilly.

On Wednesday last week, Lloyds Banking Group announced that they were closing their branch in Bargoed in my constituency. Previously, HSBC have pulled out, NatWest have closed their branch in Ystrad Mynach, and Barclays have closed their branch in Nelson. We are seeing a desertion of the northern Valleys by the commercial banks. Only a few weeks ago, we held, with the Welsh Government, in Bargoed, a business advice and support surgery for the community of Bargoed, not only to showcase what Bargoed can do but also to support those businesses that want to grow. So, this makes Lloyds's decision even more grimly ironic.

The Economy, Infrastructure and Skills Committee is currently exploring this very issue, and particularly a community bank. So, with that in mind, could he outline what benefit a community bank will have specifically for a community like Bargoed? Also, how will that community benefit be spread across the constituency? To also be clear: is this a Welsh Government policy, to support a community bank?

Llywydd, it certainly is a Welsh Government policy to support the development of a community bank for Wales. Those who have promoted it are very clear that it has to be a community bank. In that sense, ownership of it has to belong to those communities where we hope new bank branches will open. Hefin David is completely correct that conventional banking is deserting communities right across the country—250 or more bank branch closures since 2015. A community bank of the sort that we are designing—. And Hefin David and other Members who have taken an interest in this topic will want to know that there was a visit yesterday from a delegation from Wales, including a representative from my office, to Bicester, where there is a demonstration unit showing how all the technologies and user equipment needed to support the new idea of a community bank can be there for people to go and see it in operation. They came back from that visit with a renewed confidence that it would be possible to design a community bank for Wales that will focus on Welsh citizens and SMEs, not on large corporate customers, and will focus on providing those savings and loans services on which individual citizens and small businesses rely. 

14:25
2. Business Statement and Announcement

The next item, therefore, is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Trefnydd, Rebecca Evans, to make her statement. 

Diolch, Llywydd. There is one change to this week's business. Later this afternoon, the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs will make a statement on 'Sustainable Farming and Our Land'. Draft business for the next three weeks is set out in the business statement and announcement, which can be found amongst the meeting papers available to Members electronically.

Minister, please could I ask for a statement from the Welsh Government on what more can be done to assist our armed forces veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder back into employment? Last week, I was greatly saddened to read about the case of my constituent, Mr Anthony Lock from Newport. Mr Lock is a former soldier with the Royal Welsh who was injured in two blasts in Afghanistan, and suffered from PTSD. Mr Lock has a citation for exemplary leadership and bravery and yet remains unemployed in spite of submitting hundreds of applications for jobs. He believes he is being discriminated against because he suffers from PTSD.

Further, I am also concerned that staff at job centres appear to be unaware of the armed forces champions scheme in helping veterans into work. Please could we have a statement from the Welsh Government on what more can be done to help Anthony Lock and all veterans who find themselves in a similar situation so we can repay the debt we owe them for their service to our nation and great bravery and gallantry? Thank you. 

Mohammad Asghar raises a really important issue, because we know our armed servicemen and women leave the forces with a whole myriad of skills—the leadership skills, for example, that Mohammad Asghar spoke of, which would be absolutely invaluable in the workplace. I know the Minister with responsibility for local government, who has some oversight of the armed forces champions within local government, is really passionate about this area, and is interested in looking at the way in which military skills and civilian skills need to match up better so that the individuals on leaving the armed forces are able to use the skills and qualifications that they've gained in that setting in civilian life in order to enter more smoothly into the workplace. But if there is further information to share with you, I will make sure that the Minister does so. 

I have two important health matters I'd like to raise with you this afternoon. Last month, I raised my concerns that the Government had yet to open its promised gender clinic. It was expected in April of this year, following the budget agreement between Plaid Cymru and the Labour Government, and I was pleased to see the long-overdue announcement yesterday that the Welsh gender service will start seeing patients in September. This will be a major step in ensuring that our trans citizens are given access to high-standard and potentially life-saving healthcare in Wales. 

However, concerns have already been raised with me about the viability of this service, with the possibility that the service will deploy psychiatrists untrained as gender clinicians to plug the resource gap. With only a week to go until recess, and no opportunity before September to scrutinise the health Minister on the new service, we need urgent assurances from that Minister that the clinic will open with adequate resources and properly trained clinicians that can provide its patients with the healthcare that they need. So, could the health Minister therefore please bring forward a written or an oral statement, or could he write to me outlining how the Government will ensure that these concerns are addressed? 

I also want to raise a sensitive issue that has been brought to my attention over the weekend, from a woman in the Rhondda who lost a baby at 13 weeks into her pregnancy following a car accident. To say that this was a deeply distressing experience for her and her family would be a gross understatement. This women approached me because she has had to fight, amidst all-encompassing grief, for the right to take ownership of her baby's remains so that she could organise a funeral. After a series of errors in terms of her care, she says that persistent pressure was applied on her at the hospital for them to take responsibility for the baby's remains. She also said that neither counselling nor bereavement support was offered to her during her initial stay in hospital. She wasn't even sent home from Prince Charles Hospital with any leaflets. She has been offered these services subsequently, though she will have to travel to the Beresford clinic in Newport to receive those services, and that isn't straightforward. 

I'd like this Government to outline what policy and guidance there is for hospital trusts to ensure that would-be parents like the woman who has approached me are treated with full compassion and dignity at times of such tragedy. 

14:30

Thank you for raising both of these important issues. Clearly, the experiences of your constituent are extremely distressing, and nobody should leave hospital in that kind of situation without the kind of support wrapped around them that they would need at a time like that. The health Minister has heard your comments and he'd be grateful if you would write to him with further details about the particular case so that we can look at that. 

The second issue you raised related to the gender clinic. The health Minister did provide a written statement yesterday on the gender clinic, which is due to open in the autumn, but the specialist is already in place and working in the community. And the health Minister is very aware of the importance of getting the balance right between general psychology and specialist support. But if I can refer you to the statement of yesterday, and, if there are further issues following from that, I'm sure that the Minister would be happy to answer any of your questions.FootnoteLink

Trefnydd, last week, obviously, we're fully aware of the tragic circumstances in the rail incident in Margam in my constituency and the loss of life of two individuals. I appreciate the Deputy Minister made a statement last Wednesday on that, and I understand fully that the investigation has to take place and we will be awaiting those results. But I've been contacted by Network Rail to indicate that, tomorrow, they will be holding a minute's silence at 10 a.m. in respect of the loss of life of those two individuals, and perhaps the Welsh Government could join in that minute's silence tomorrow to mark the loss of life and the incident, and ensure that we get as much out of this to ensure that no-one who goes to work on a railway in the morning has to lose their life simply because they're doing their job. 

On a second point—the steel sector; we had a presentation today on the future of the steel sector, which John Griffiths hosted. And, clearly, there's a question mark over the global implications on steel. We've also seen recently the change of Tata leadership in Tata Europe, and we also understand the global changes in steel very much. So, when we have a new incoming Prime Minister, whichever one it is, it will be a new Prime Minister, and probably a new Secretary of State. So, can I ask the Welsh Government for a statement from the Minister for Economy and Transport? And, hopefully, he will have met the new incoming Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy in the summer to talk about the future of steel. Steel is crucial to the Welsh economy. It is important in my constituency, as you fully well know. And the loss of the British Steel business, or the uncertainty of the British Steel business, doesn't help the UK steel sector as we move forward. Brexit is another example of who knows what's going to happen. So, I hope that the Minister will actually have discussions during the summer recess—and I'm more than happy to have a statement during the summer recess—to discuss how the Welsh Government will be working with the UK Government to ensure that our steel sector, our steel industry, remains strong and competitive in the years ahead. 

Thank you to David Rees for raising those issues. On the first, you know that we were deeply shocked by the news that the two Network Rail team members had lost their lives in a tragic accident. As David says, nobody goes to work and expects to lose their life in that way. It's extremely tragic. I know that there are investigations ongoing at the moment, but I will certainly speak to the Llywydd about how Welsh Government and the Assembly might most appropriately join in with that minute's silence at 10 o'clock tomorrow.

In terms of steel, there'll be, no doubt, some incoming Ministers now in the new UK Government when the new Prime Minister is in place. And it's certainly Welsh Government's intention to ensure that issues affecting Wales, and issues of importance to Wales, are very much high on the agenda, and brought very much into sharp focus for the UK Government incoming Ministers. I'll ensure that the economy Minister, as I think he naturally would, will highlight the importance of the steel industry to us. 

Could I ask for a statement, please, on the massive funding cuts that your Government have imposed on our national parks? The oldest national park in Wales is now under threat. Snowdonia is home to over 26,000, attracting 6 million people annually to enjoy its breathtaking scenery and world-leading attractions. Our unique landscape is a global attraction, and requires careful management to ensure a sustainable future. However, due to the year-on-year funding cuts imposed—they had well over £5.5 million—the budget now, they're looking to cut the authority's budget to just £4.4 million. So, this is going to result in, without a doubt, paths on Snowdon not being repaired; closure of all three information centres; the end of the Sherpa bus, which creates an invaluable link between the six main routes that travel up Snowdon, as well as the main car parks, villages and tourist attractions; closure of public toilets; loss of staff; and serious questions about the financial robustness of the authority. As should already be clear to you, the Welsh Government's financial plan is one of the greatest threats Snowdonia national park has ever seen, and the damage that's going to be imposed is to tourism, and, indeed, the Welsh language. Will you, or the relevant Minister, make a statement on funding to Snowdonia National Park Authority? Will you commit to investigating the devastating impact that these year-on-year cuts are having? And will you also explain how the Welsh Government will actually help our national parks financially to deliver on their own priorities? Thank you.

14:35

I'm aware of the pressure that the national parks are under, I'm aware of the pressure education is under, I'm aware of the pressure health is under, I'm aware of the pressure local government is under. And, if we want to talk about massive cuts, we can, because, on a like-for-like basis, the Welsh Government's budget is 5 per cent lower in real terms in 2019-20 than it was in 2010-11, equivalent to £800 million less to spend on public services, such as those with which Janet Finch-Saunders is concerned. Our revenue budget is 7 per cent lower per person than in 2010-11, so that's £350 less to spend on front-line services for each and every person in Wales. And, if our budget had grown in line with the UK economy since 2010, we'd have £4 billion more to invest in public services in 2019-20 than was available to us in our last budget. Now, the Member might sigh, but the blame for this lies entirely at the door of the UK Government and its austerity agenda. If Members don't like austerity, then they need to take it up with their party.

Trefnydd, as we heard earlier, you will be aware of recent events that have resulted in uncertainty with regard to the development of an adventure resort in the Afan valley by Northern Powerhouse Developments. This planned £200 million development, which received planning approval from Neath Port Talbot Council earlier this year, set out to create hundreds of jobs, and would clearly result in a significant boost to the local economy in South Wales West. However, media reports into the business affairs of Gavin Woodhouse, the lead developer, and legal proceedings, as we heard earlier, have meant that the High Court on Thursday decided that three of Gavin Woodhouse's businesses, including Afan Valley Limited, should be put into interim administration. I am aware that the Welsh Government has not, to date, provided any funds to the development of the resort, but the Minister for economy has publicly supported the concept, and indeed has previously visited the site to discuss the plans with Mr Woodhouse. Therefore, given the uncertainty around the development following the events of the past fortnight, will the Minister for the economy make a statement to the Chamber in terms of what action he has taken on this over the past two weeks, what discussions his officers have been having with the company, with the administrators—Duff and Phelps—with Neath Port Talbot Council and others? And what is his current view in terms of the deliverability of the scheme, going forward?

Officials and Welsh Government Ministers are aware of the investigation and we're clearly monitoring the situation very closely. So, at the moment, we wouldn't be in a position to set out the next steps, because the investigation is ongoing. But we haven't promised or provided any funding to Gavin Woodhouse or Northern Powerhouse Developments for the proposed development of the Afan valley adventure resort, as Dai Lloyd recognised. And the offer made to support the Caer Rhun Hall proposal was for a spa, restaurant and conference facilities, and that was subject to a full business plan and due diligence. Any release of Welsh Government funding is obviously subject to ongoing monitoring, but no money has been released for the project to date. And, should that situation change, I'll ensure that the Minister does provide that information to you.

Minister, I would like to ask for a statement and a debate. Could I ask for a statement on bus services? All of us are aware of the work that the Welsh Government have been doing in terms of consulting on legislation, which I hope will lead to the re-regulation of bus services in due course, but we're also very aware, of course, that this will take some time. And there's a very real crisis facing bus services, particularly in my constituency, in Blaenau Gwent, where people tell me that they can no longer reach key services, whether it's an optician's or a hospital appointment. They cannot reach the shops, they cannot reach local training or job opportunities, because the bus services simply do not exist that enable them to lead their lives. So, there is a very real crisis at the moment facing bus services, and I don't believe that we can simply wait for legislation. I believe we do need to find a response to that crisis immediately. So, I would appreciate a statement from Government on how the Government can support local people in accessing these services and support local bus services. 

The second debate that I'd like to ask for, Minister, is on abolishing the Wales Office. I think many of us have seen, over the years, how the Wales Office has blocked legitimate demands of Welsh Government. And we've read, this morning, that the sports Minister is having extreme difficulties ensuring that Wales is represented on the UK Sports Council. This is unacceptable, Minister. It is unacceptable that a Wales Office continues to create difficulties in the relationship between Welsh Ministers and UK Ministers. It is unacceptable that we have a Wales Office that sits somewhere in Whitehall issuing diktats preventing the good governance of the United Kingdom from taking place. And I hope that it is time now that we'll be able to debate this matter in Government time, pass a resolution and tell Theresa May, when she's reviewing devolution—how she does that without telling devolved Governments, I don't know, but tell her very clearly that the biggest problem facing devolution in Wales is sitting around her own Cabinet table. 

14:40

Thank you, Alun Davies, for raising both of those issues. In terms of the bus services, clearly, it's an important priority area for Welsh Government. We're coming to the end of this Assembly term now, so we'll be looking towards preparing our programme of statements and debates for the next term, taking us up through the autumn term, so I'll certainly ensure that colleagues consider both of those particular requests for inclusion potentially in a future debate or statement. 

Trefnydd, I hope you can help me with this. After several months of—during the Pinewood experience, if I can put it like that—waiting for replies to written Assembly questions and not getting them, I'm sorry to say that the situation has arisen again. On 24 May, my office tabled a question asking the First Minister for details of stress leave taken by Welsh Government staff, and, on 3 June, I received a reply saying that those are matters for the Permanent Secretary and that I would receive a full reply in due course. Obviously, time has moved on, and I wonder if you could take this opportunity to reassure me that I'll get a response by the end of the week—we're now in July—for a question asked in May, and whether we could consider at least some reassurance from Welsh Government that they will take no longer to answer written Assembly questions than freedom of information questions, otherwise you're going to be getting a lot of FOIs. And perhaps you could also assure us that the reason for the delay in this case isn't because a Welsh Government official is away with stress leave? Thank you. 

Thank you. I'll certainly make it a personal responsibility to ensure that you do get a response to your question about stress leave. Obviously, Welsh Government does endeavour to respond to written questions as quickly as we possibly can, but often the level of detail required in some of those requests is quite in-depth. But, if Members do have a problem such as the one that you describe in not having a timely response, I'm always happy to try and move things along. 

The Government in London is about to announce that schools in England will receive £3 billion in addition. Therefore, can we have a statement explaining what discussions your Government and the education Minister have been having with the Treasury in London on this issue—namely, from the point of view of the Barnett consequential? If schools in England are to receive more funding, then certainly we need more funding for schools in Wales, and they need to know that as soon as possible, too, in order to plan for the future. So, can we have an update in some form—a statement, a letter, whatever it is—demonstrating what discussions have taken place on this issue and what exactly the situation will be once that announcement is made by the Treasury?

14:45

Yes, we don't yet know the detail of any announcement or have any confidence that the announcement will be forthcoming, but when it does, we’ll be very keen to ensure that any additional funding is done in the proper way, through the Barnett formula, through the statement of funding policy, which we have agreed with the UK Government, because Siân Gwenllian will be aware, for example, of the statement I put out last week, which demonstrated that the UK Government, although it took a decision on public sector pensions, failed to fund the Welsh Government with the full amount of money it was going to cost us, leaving us with a £36 million gap, which we had to fill, and we did so by diverting money from other things that we would want to spend it on. So, certainly, if there is additional funding for education, we need to ensure that every penny we are due does come to Wales, and then we’ll be able to consider our response to that, in terms of how we allocate that funding. It can’t be another situation where the UK department manages to find extra funding down the side of the departmental sofa; it needs to be very clearly and transparently demonstrated where the funding is coming from, and Welsh Government needs to have its fair share. But as and when I have further information, I will, obviously, include the details in the normal way, in terms of the budget process.

We had a well-attended meeting by the Food Standards Agency in the Oriel this afternoon, and the chair, Heather Hancock, outlined some of the measures that the Food Standards Agency is taking to protect consumers and to ensure food safety in light of the threat of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. And I wondered if it’s possible to have a statement from the health Minister on the possible legislation that may be required, were we to leave the European Union, on how we can ensure that consumer confidence, food safety and, indeed, food security can be safeguarded as a result of this possible existential threat to our well-being.

Thank you, Jenny Rathbone. The health Minister tells me that a great deal of legislation has already been made to ensure that our law operates correctly on the day of a Brexit, be it a ‘no deal’ Brexit. I know that the FSA has been doing a great deal of work in order to prepare us for the potential of a ‘no deal’ Brexit and also to map out the challenges which do face us, but the health Minister has said that he would be happy to provide a further statement in the autumn.

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.

Organiser, can I seek some assurance from you? You’ve highlighted what the planning of the next Assembly term is going to be regarding Government statements and Government business. The Minister for rural affairs brought forward a consultation, which closed in May, around third-party sales of puppies and domestic animals. I’d be grateful to understand how the Government now is going to respond to that consultation, the time frame its working to, and will that be via some form of statement in the Chamber, or will it be some form of formal response that is posted on the Government website? I ask the question because there was a launch of a companion animals all-party group last week, and this was raised by many of the participants as to understand exactly how this important piece of work will be taken forward, given, obviously, that this has gone through the UK Parliament and is on the statute book in the UK Parliament.

Thank you. There’s a great deal of interest in this particular agenda, and I know that the Minister for environment will be able to say more about this before the end of term, I believe through a written statement next week.

3. Statement by the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs: The Wild Animals and Circuses (Wales) Bill

Item 3 on the agenda is a statement by the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs: the Wild Animals and Circuses (Wales) Bill. I call on the Minister to move the statement—Lesley Griffiths.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am pleased to be introducing the Wild Animals and Circuses (Wales) Bill for the National Assembly for Wales’s consideration. Travelling circuses have toured the United Kingdom for over two centuries. The number of circuses using wild animals, and the number of wild animals in those circuses, has greatly declined in recent years.

Society has moved on and the demand is no longer there. Animals are sentient beings and the majority of us no longer think it is acceptable to use wild animals in this way. There are now just two circuses touring the UK with wild animals. The wild animals they keep include camels, zebras and reindeer. Both circuses are based in England but regularly visit Wales. Each time they visit here, there are renewed calls to ban the practice.

Last year, I consulted on a draft Bill aimed at addressing ethical concerns by banning the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. The consultation attracted over 6,500 responses with the overwhelming majority of respondents supporting the introduction of this legislation. The purpose of this short, important Bill is twofold. First and foremost, it bans the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in Wales, an outdated practice that has no place in modern society. Secondly, it makes some important amendments to the legislation relating to the licensing of circuses.

The Bill makes it an offence for an operator of a travelling circus to use, or cause or permit another person to use, a wild animal in a travelling circus. A wild animal is 'used' if the animal performs or is exhibited. This definition captures, for example, the deliberate positioning of a wild animal in any way intended to promote a travelling circus. If an operator is found guilty of an offence, the court may impose an unlimited fine. In the Bill, a 'wild animal' means an animal of a kind not commonly domesticated in the British islands. The definition is similar to the interpretation of 'wild animal' in the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. This avoids a situation where the same species could be considered 'wild' in a zoo but 'domesticated' when kept in a circus. 'Animal' has the meaning given by the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and applies to vertebrate animals only. A 'travelling circus' means a circus that travels from one place to another for the purpose of providing entertainment at those places, despite there being periods during which it does not travel from one place to another.

Under normal circumstances, these definitions should be sufficient and are in-keeping with other established legislation and the commonly understood meaning of these terms. However, it is possible there may be uncertainty or conflicting views regarding whether a kind of animal is to be considered wild or not, or whether a type of undertaking, act or entertainment is or is not regarded as a travelling circus. For such scenarios, should they arise, the Bill includes powers to make regulations to specify what is or is not to be regarded as a wild animal and what is or is not to be regarded as a travelling circus. These powers to make subordinate legislation are discretionary and there are no plans to use them at present.

Although the purpose of the Bill is to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, circuses may still keep wild animals provided they are not used in performances or exhibited as part of the travelling circus. The Bill makes changes to the licensing regime for circuses by removing the exemptions circuses currently have from the licensing requirements of the Dangerous Wild Animals Act 1976 and the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. Any circus, be it travelling or static, keeping but not using a dangerous wild animal will require a licence under the 1976 Act, unless it is alternatively caught by provisions of the 1981 Act.

The powers of enforcement are set out in the schedule. The Bill, should it become law, will be enforced by local authority inspectors. I expect breaches of the provisions of the Bill, either by contravening the ban or by intentionally obstructing an inspector in exercising their duty, to be rare. Any breach will be relatively easy to detect, and I expect travelling circuses to comply with the provisions of the legislation.

I have explained the purpose of the Bill, and it is important I am also clear about what the Bill will not do. The Bill will not affect the use of domesticated animals in travelling circuses, nor will it prevent wild animals being used for entertainment in other settings. However, the welfare of these animals is very important to me, which is why I recently announced my intention to consult on a licensing scheme for all animal exhibits. The scheme will provide an opportunity to set appropriate welfare standards and ensure the exhibition of animals in a respectful and responsible way. I expect to launch the public consultation before the end of summer recess.

The majority of travelling circuses do not use any animals. The small and declining number of wild animals kept by those that do is a clear indication that the public appetite for this type of entertainment is not what it once was. Keeping wild animals in travelling circuses, purely for our entertainment, cannot be justified. Not only are the animals unlikely to have a good quality of life, but it contributes little to further our understanding of wild animals or their conservation.

The Scottish Government banned the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in 2018, and the UK Government recently introduced a Bill to do the same in England. That Bill has made it through the House of Commons and is quickly progressing through the House of Lords. If there is no equivalent ban in Wales, Wales would be the only country in Great Britain where wild animals could still be used by travelling circuses. This would not be acceptable. I look forward to working with Members and Assembly committees to secure the Bill’s passage onto the statute book.

14:55

Thank you. There are a number of speakers in the statement, and I make that plea that perhaps people may just think about that, and hopefully we'll get everybody in. Andrew R.T. Davies. 

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Thank you, Minister, for the introduction of this important piece of legislation, albeit a small piece of legislation when it comes to thinking of some of the Acts that Government and backbenchers have brought before, but a very important one. As you highlight in your statement, 6,500 respondents to the consultation for evidence shows that this has an important part to play in many people's priorities, and we support you wholeheartedly in the endeavours that the Government is seeking to achieve with this piece of legislation, as it was part of our manifesto back in 2016. 

Just a couple of questions, if I may. I'm a little bit concerned about the aspect of subordinate legislation that you highlight in your statement, and the ability to have this as a discretionary power. I appreciate that you as a Minister don't envisage using these powers at the moment, but, from definition and other interpretations, there is a whole range of scenarios you could think of where maybe a future Minister in a different environment might choose to broaden the scope of this Bill from what your intention is as the Minister to achieve in this Bill at the moment. As you highlighted, there are but two circuses travelling with wild animals at the moment, and I think most of us in this Chamber, if not all of us in this Chamber, can clearly understand that. But could you give us an understanding of why you think it's important that that provision is included in the Bill, as I would much prefer to see, obviously, a referral back to the Assembly, and Plenary in particular, if such a change in particular around the scope of the Bill and interpretation was to be considered by a future Minister? 

You quite rightly point out in your statement that Wales obviously is joining the rest of the United Kingdom in the way that they have legislated in this particular area—Scotland, now the UK Parliament and the Assembly. Can you give us an indication of whether this is within the scope of the other Bills passed in other Parliaments of the United Kingdom, or are there areas that you have looked at that either aren't covered by the Welsh Bill or, indeed, where you've increased the scope of the Welsh Bill to be a far broader catch than maybe what Scotland looked at, or what the UK Parliament has looked at as well?

The licensing scheme that you talked of in your statement around domestic animals—or domesticated animals, should I say, sorry—that you're looking to bring forward in the future, could you also give us a taste of what you're hoping to capture by that consultation, and the areas that you think need to be covered by that particular exercise that can't be covered in some of the aspects that you have in legislation at the moment? Because that is a substantial piece of work, I would suggest, going into all sorts of areas. 

And I'd be grateful, finally, if you could confirm that it is the case that this is about travelling circuses and wild animals, and it certainly isn't the intention of the Government to increase the scope of this Bill beyond what you've stated today. Because I appreciate, from some people's perspective, actually, the showing of any type of animal, whether that would be a farm animal or domestic animal, should be captured by this piece of legislation. But, as I understand it, and certainly from the conversations that have been had leading up to this Bill today, it is entirely in the gift of the Government to capture the circuses that are travelling at the moment and wild animals that perform, and the definition of wild animals, as I understand it, is pretty clearly understood. Thank you.   

Thank you, Andrew R.T. Davies, for those comments and questions, and I'm grateful for your support and your party's for the Bill. I'll be very clear in answer to your last question: the objective of this Bill is to prevent the use of wild animals in travelling circuses on ethical grounds. That is absolutely the purpose and the objective of the Bill.

You asked about regulations, and I suppose that sort of ties into your second question around the Scottish Bill and the Bill that's currently progressing through the UK Parliament. Our Bill is very similar to the Scottish Bill. A big difference is the fact that we do have that ability to bring forward subordinate legislation and regulations. One of the reasons I thought it was important to have that in the Bill is that, for instance, I was asked, 'Why don't we have a list of wild animals on the face of the Bill?' That would be a very, very long list. If you look at the wild animals that are currently being used in the two circuses at the current time, I don't think there's a need to have a list, but I do think that, as time goes on, it could be that other animals would need to be listed—other wild animals—and therefore we should have those regulations in place. So, that is a big difference between us and the UK Government Bill. Scotland do have that ability.

You asked about the licensing of animal exhibits and, as I said in my original statement, last year I went out to consultation on the licensing of animal exhibits, and we tied in the issue around banning the use of wild animals in travelling circuses. I want to make sure that we capture all loopholes that there may be in relation to other pieces of legislation. So, as I said, the Bill, for example, will not affect the use of domesticated animals in travelling circuses, and nor will it prevent wild animals being used for entertainment in other settings, for instance. So, the welfare of these animals is very important and that's the reason why I announced my intention to bring forward the licensing scheme for all animal exhibits that meet given criteria in law. I will be going out to further public consultation before the end of summer recess. Certainly, the amount of responses we had to the original consultation last year, from where this Bill has been derived, shows you the passion people have for animal welfare in Wales, and I think it's really important that we have this scheme going forward.

It's not being done in isolation; it's being done in conjunction with stakeholders and other enforcement agencies and working collaboratively with my counterparts in England and Scotland. The approach that will deliver the scheme will have a lasting impact on the welfare of animals that are being used in exhibits, and you mentioned some examples. There are a significant number of animals that we probably don't know about that are going round schools, for instance, and we often see them at agricultural shows and in other settings. So, I think it is really important that we have this scheme. But I think also it's important for our ongoing attitude and that of future generations regarding the welfare of animals.

15:00

May I thank the Minister for her statement? I welcome it—and that's not something I've said very often over the past few months—but legislation of this kind was a manifesto commitment for Plaid Cymru in 2016, so we certainly support the principle of legislating in this area.

It's disappointing, or perhaps frustrating, that it's taken so long for us to reach this point where the Bill is to be introduced this week. I know that we lost some time waiting for the UK Government to take action in this area, and there may be a lesson for us there: if we truly feel that we need to act in any particular area, then we need to look to do so ourselves, I would say, in future.

May I ask—? You make reference to implementing this legislation from 1 December 2020 onwards. That would mean that there is a possibility that there'll be another summer next year where travelling circuses will be possible and that wild animals will be used in their visits to Wales. It's a plea to the Minister to see if there's any possibility that we can hasten this process, because I would love to see legislation being passed before that point, so that we can be in the situation where this is the last summer where we would see these travelling circuses in Wales.

I have referred to the fact that, in principle, we are supportive of what the Government is doing. It's possible, as we've already heard, that there may be a discussion required around definitions in terms of various terminology in the legislation, and perhaps the powers or the extent to which powers are handed to Ministers to interpret and to outline those. I'm relatively relaxed on that at the moment, but I do assume that that’s where much of the debate will centre.

You mentioned loopholes earlier, and one obvious loophole that's been flagged up is that travelling circuses might be rebranded as some sort of mobile animal exhibition and I'm sure you're aware of that and I'd like to hear from you that you are addressing those issues through your proposed licensing scheme. The other thing I'd like to know, of course, is when do you anticipate a licensing scheme being enacted because not only am I agitating for this legislation to be implemented sooner, I would like to make sure that that licensing scheme is introduced as early as is possible as well.

You've already touched on this, really. I mean, there have been calls, of course, to ban all performing animals, and I'm certainly yet to be persuaded on that, but you do say in your statement that animals are sentient beings. So, I'm just interested in why you are differentiating between wild animals and other animals and whether this legislation is an opportunity, maybe, to broaden that proposal.

And, finally, of course, you note, I think it was in the explanatory memorandum that was published with the Bill, that nearly two thirds of responses to a previous consultation came from an online campaign. I've raised this in other contexts previously and I'd like to ask you whether you'd be willing to publish how many—not information about individual responses, but what percentage of all responses to the previous consultation were actually from Wales because I think that is an important consideration for us across all consultation. And whilst in some circumstances there will be very valid reasons for taking on board consultation responses from other countries, I'd like to understand what weighting in this particular context the Welsh Government is giving to those responses from outside of Wales. And, I think, as a matter of course and a matter of process, I think the Welsh Government should be making these statistics available. It shouldn't be an onerous task because I presume there is a database somewhere because you correspond back with those who have presented responses to consultations. So, it shouldn't be too onerous a task.

15:05

Diolch, Llyr, for your support for the Bill, and certainly I welcomed the conversation I had with both yourself and Andrew R.T. Davies before this statement today. Regarding your questions about the time it will take for the Bill to come into force, I anticipate, with support, the Bill proceeding to a stage where we would get Royal Assent in May. As I've stated, the Bill will come into force on 1 December 2020. By that time, both the circuses that currently travel and use wild animals will be expected to have completed their touring and then returned to their winter quarters. Certainly, I think, I'm very open to bringing that date forward if at all possible and I think there may be an opportunity to do that if the UK Government delivers on its commitment to introduce a ban in England by the time that their licensing regulations expire, because, obviously, it's the UK Government that's responsible for the licensing of circuses, not us. If they do the ban before their licensing regulations expire in January 2020, I think there would be a possibility of us bringing that date forward. So, again, any decision to do that, I'm very happy to look at that.

In relation to your question around loopholes, certainly, if you think about it, there are far, far more animals that are being used as animal exhibits than, obviously, animals in circuses. So, that's why the animal exhibits scheme is so important, and I mentioned in my answer to Andrew R.T. Davies that I will be going out to consultation before the end of summer recess and I would certainly want to see that scheme come into play, I would say, as early in 2020 as possible.

In relation to, 'Why does the offence only apply to wild animals and not all animals?'—and I'm aware of the petition that's recently been started—there are not the same fundamental, ethical objections to the use of domesticated animals in travelling circuses or other similar settings. The ethical argument for a ban in the case of wild animals, I believe, is very strong; I think the argument for a ban on domesticated animals is less than clear cut. And if you think about it, there are many activities that involve domesticated animals travelling for the purpose of giving performances or exhibitions with little obvious wider benefits, which are considered to be perfectly acceptable by society in general. The example I'm always given—and I think we discussed this—is horses and show jumping, and I think it would be very difficult to argue that they should not be used to perform a similar activity in a travelling circus.

Somebody asked me about what would happen if we had, then, a static circus. As far as I'm aware, there certainly was one static circus in the UK, I'm not sure it's still there, but again, it's about ensuring that there are no loopholes in any legislation. So, certainly, the legal advice I was given is that it would then probably have to be licensed as a zoo, for instance, but there is legislation to cover such things.

You asked me about respondents in relation to ones who came from Wales, and certainly, I'd be very happy if it's possible to provide that information. However, I have to say I think it was something like 97 per cent of respondents were for us bringing this Bill forward, so therefore, I don't think you would need the weighting in perhaps a way that you would need in other legislation.

15:10

I very much welcome the Minister's statement. There has been a long-running campaign, but I have fully supported it over several years to ban the use of wild animals in circuses. A ban already exists in Scotland.

In 2006, which is a long time ago now, in a public consultation across the UK, 94.5 per cent of people responding thought banning the use of wild animals in circuses would be the best method to achieve animal welfare. The majority of respondents to the Minister have said 97 per cent, and Wales last year supported the ban. There is one thing we can be certain of: we've got the public on our side. I welcome the proposed ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses; I think its time has come. We're in the twenty-first century and not the nineteenth.

Two questions: why is it intended that a circus will still be allowed to keep wild animals as long as they are not exhibited or used in performances? I find that is what's normally described as a loophole. And the second question is: will the use of birds of prey for outside exhibitions still be allowed?

Thank you, Mike Hedges, for those two questions. So, answering your second question first: birds of prey would then be captured under the animal exhibit licensing scheme that I'm bringing forward next year, following a public consultation.

In relation to why can't we ban circuses from just keeping wild animals that they then wouldn't use or exhibit, that would require a loss of ownership—it would be a deprivation of property. We don't really think that's in the public interest and it would be very difficult to justify because if that person was caring for the animal properly, and if that person wasn't caring for that wild animal properly, that would be captured in other legislation. It's obviously very difficult, then, to justify that.

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. I'd like to warmly welcome your statement, and I know that very many of my constituents will too. My first question is regarding the extra requirements on local authority inspectors. I accept your very valid point that breaches will be easy to detect, but what discussions have you had around the capacity of local authority inspectorates, and is there any training or support that Welsh Government could provide? For example, I've discussed with one animal welfare charity the creation of a centralised animal welfare inspectorate. So, I'd be interested to hear your views around that and whether you think that it could be helpful.

I'd also like to discuss some novel alternatives as well. For example, there's been a lot of focus on social media lately around Circus Roncalli, which is a German circus using holograms of wild animals as part of their show. This allows them to replicate traditional circus acts, but also more fantastic scenarios, and to do so at a fraction of the cost involved in transporting live animals. Now, to my knowledge, this has not been brought to the UK yet, so would you welcome the use of such technology, which is entirely cruelty free, here in Wales?

And finally, it seems to me that the publicity around the introduction of this law could provide us with a good opportunity for Welsh Government to promote the many excellent animal-based tourist attractions here in Wales, such as Folly Farm to mention just one, where people can observe animals in a natural-style habitat in the context of conservation work. So, I'd be interested to know what discussions you might have had or might consider having with your colleagues in Government around that, and of course that could provide an economic boost to Wales, particularly as the summer school holidays approach.

15:15

Thank you, Vikki Howells. In relation to the impact on local authorities, of course, there have been conversations with local authorities, because should the Bill become law it will be enforced by local authority inspectors, and they certainly were part of the consultation we had. There will be minimal impact on local authorities. I think breaches are unlikely to arise often, if at all, and I do expect travelling circuses to comply with a ban, because it will be very obvious if they're not doing so. Certainly, if the UK Government delivers on its commitment to ban the use of wild animals in travelling circuses in England, there will be nowhere in Great Britain where wild animals will be able to be used in travelling circuses. So, certainly, the discussions that my officials had with local authorities were that it wouldn't constitute any additional cost, for instance, and it would just be conducted alongside existing enforcement activities, which are already being carried out in respect of the two circuses, one of which you named. In relation to the holograms, that's not something that I'd considered. I suppose it depends what the holograms depict the animals doing. I would be very interested in having a look at that, but certainly, it's something that we can look at as the Bill progresses through the Assembly. I think you're right about promoting animal tourist attractions. Of course, the majority of animal tourist attractions—you referred to and I heard you mention Folly Farm—are, again, regulated, they're legislated for and we should encourage people to go to be able to see animals at very close quarters.

I too welcome this statement from the Minister, and welcome the Bill, too. It is a shame that it has taken so long for the Government to act. It’s a full 12 months since the former First Minister stated that the Government would support a ban on the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, but better late than never. I am pleased that Wales, at last, is catching up with Scotland and England. Many of the questions that I wanted to ask have already been asked and answered, but I will just conclude by saying this: this kind of political change wouldn’t be possible without campaigners, and one campaigner that’s been crucial to all of this is Linda Joyce-Jones from Nantlle, near Caernarfon in my constituency. She has been campaigning for this change in the legislation over many years. She did introduce a petition to the Assembly in February 2017, calling for a ban, and she has lobbied each and every one of us, I think. Everyone here will have met Linda at some point. So, will you join with me in thanking her for her work and to the other campaigners who have worked so hard for this change? The fact that there have been 6,500 responses and the vast majority in favour of the legislation speaks volumes, I think. It is a clear sign of the change of attitude among the public, and campaigners such as Linda have succeeded incredibly in changing public opinion. We should congratulate them, and I hope you will join me in doing that.

Diolch, Siân Gwenllian. I do join you in thanking Linda Joyce-Jones and all the other 6,500 people who responded to our consultation. I think it just shows that Wales is a country of animal lovers. I am very pleased that we've brought this piece of legislation forward in this term of the Government, and I look forward to working with yourself and other Members as the Bill proceeds through.

Thank you for your statement, Minister, and for providing us with advanced copy of the Bill and explanatory memorandum. Putting an end to the exploitation of wild animals for the pleasure of the viewing public is well overdue and I thank the Minister for introducing legislation to achieve this in relation to travelling circuses. Wales will soon be joining a growing list of countries that ban acts that force wild animals to perform for entertainment. Unlike one of the candidates to be our next Prime Minister, Jeremy Hunt, who wants to take out time from negotiating our orderly exit from the EU in order to lift the ban on fox hunting, as someone who abhors animal exploitation and cruelty, I welcome this legislation.

However, I do ask why it hasn't gone just that one step further, Minister. This legislation does not cover wild animals being used for entertainment in other settings, and, as such, does not cover some mobile animal exhibits. I say 'some' because some mobile coverage of animals is obviously not abusive or insensitive. So, can you outline why you opted to stick to travelling circuses, and when can we expect to see some measures to safeguard wild animals in some mobile exhibits?

Minister, do you agree that the welfare of animals should be paramount and that the exploitation of wild animals simply for profit should be banned in any circumstances? If so, can you expand upon any other actions your Government will be taking to safeguard both wild and domestic animals being used for entertainment purposes? Finally, Minister, what discussions have you had with UK Ministers about stronger licensing regimes covering the use of domesticated animals in travelling shows? Because some domesticated animals have been known to die through heat exhaustion and so on, whilst travelling. So, I look forward to the swift passage of the Bill through the Assembly and to the day that wild animals cannot be exploited on Welsh soil. Diolch yn fawr.

15:20

Thank you very much for those questions. I hope I've answered very concisely around how the new animal exhibits licensing scheme that I'll be bringing forward next year, following consultation, will ensure that there are no loopholes and that all—pardon the pun—animals are captured in that. I have had discussions with Lord Gardiner who is the UK Government Minister in relation to other licensing for circuses, and, again, that's something I think we can look at in other pieces of legislation to ensure every animal is covered by legislation and/or regulations.

I absolutely agree with you around fox hunting. It's just appalling, and this Government is totally opposed to fox hunting.

We will be joining a growing list of countries, and as I said in my original statement, if we didn't bring this Bill forward, we would be the only country in Great Britain that would allow the use of wild animals in travelling circuses, and I did not want Wales to become a sanctuary for travelling circuses in that way.

I welcome the Bill, and you're absolutely right, we can't be the only nation to allow wild animals in circuses to just be exhibited for people's pleasure without thinking that it's fundamentally wrong. So, I look forward to the Bill coming forward. I'm not going to ask all the questions that have been asked, but I am particularly interested in what is wild and what isn't wild, and how that's going to be determined, because I think most people are thinking about wild animals being exotically wild, and yet we've got native animals that are clearly wild, and so I'm interested in how that's going to move forward.

In terms of the licensing scheme, I'm also interested to see how that is going to go forward. You're going out, you said, to further consultation. It's about what should be included within that licensing scheme. I'll just put an idea forward: there is breeding for export of wild animals that currently takes place, and one of those is birds of prey, and they're being exported to the far east. Well, quite clearly, they don't live in the far east for very good reasons: there isn't any food source for them, it isn't the right climate for them. So, should we be licensing the breeding of animals to be exported, in the first case, under huge duress in that journey, and, secondly, in conditions that are clearly not conducive to their well-being? So, I would like to add that into your licensing scheme.

I would be interested to know how long those licences would last once people have had them issued, and how easy it is to revoke a licence, should you find that people have already committed acts of cruelty. I raise that because we have some dog breeding establishments currently, and they have been found to be guilty of cruelty, and yet the licence just passes to another family member if it's revoked at all. And if we are talking about licences and people being of the right character, we should also be looking at the legislation that follows that, and the sanctions that follow. At the moment, you can be as cruel as you like, it seems, to an animal, and you are not going to get more that six months under Welsh legislation, yet you could get five years if we did something about it. So, I think that, when we are looking at licences, we also need to look at the sanctions that follow. So, those are the things that I would like to add, following all the questions that have already been asked.   

15:25

Thank you, Joyce Watson. You ask about the meaning or definition of a wild animal. It's similar to the interpretation of a wild animal in the Zoo Licensing Act 1981. So, this avoids the situation where the same species could be considered wild in a zoo but then domesticated when kept in a circus. So, that's the legal definition that we are using. But you are quite right. I remember in my discussion with Andrew R.T. Davies, we were talking about reindeer, which people perhaps wouldn't think immediately of as a wild animal, but they are. I'm sure that we are all aware that, sometimes, reindeer are used—obviously at Christmastime—in different ways, in garden centres or parades. They would then be covered in the animal exhibit licensing scheme. That's why it's so important to get that scheme up and running too. And I absolutely agree with what you are saying about birds of prey. We need to ensure that the consultation specifically mentions that.

You ask about how long licences last. Certainly, the Performing Animals (Regulation) Act 1925 requires anyone who trains or exhibits animals to register with a local authority, but it is a lifetime registration. So, there's no specific inspection requirement. As such, it's unlikely that the welfare standards of an animal would be regularly assessed or checked. So, this is what I mean when I say that we need make sure that we close loopholes. I think this is an area where there is perhaps a loophole that does need closing. So, I very much look forward to going out to consultation on the scheme. As I said in my answer to Llyr, I hope to bring it forward early next year.

I've previously raised the visit of Circus Mondao to my constituency, which happened just a couple of months ago. I would say to Siân Gwenllian that I first got to know Linda Joyce-Jones when, as a county councillor, a wild animal exhibit visited my council ward. At that point, I wrote to Rebecca Evans, who was then the Minister responsible, and we had some dialogue about this. So, it's really good to see this legislation making it onto the statute book. That visit was by Thomas Chipperfield before I was elected here. They had their circus licence withdrawn in England because DEFRA were unhappy with the conditions in which some of their animals were being held, but they were still able to exhibit in Tir-y-berth. So, this will close that particular issue as well. We know that the circuses are in town because they are fly-posting. They have shown no adherence to fly-posting rules, so I wonder to what extent are they going to show adherence to this law. We've had two visits in the Caerphilly constituency, in Tir-y-berth. Can we have the assurance that this law will ensure that there won't be a third visit?

Thank you. I was aware of the circus that you mentioned having its licence revoked. As I say, we don't have powers to license circuses. That is a matter for the UK Government. Certainly, as I mentioned in my answer to Llyr, this Bill, I hope, with the support of this Assembly, will get Royal Assent in the May. I am very happy to look at enforcing it earlier than is stated on 1 December, but the UK Government do have to do that with the licensing regime, as I set out. But, I am very open to doing that. 

4. Statement by the First Minister: Social Partnership

The next item is a statement by the First Minister: social partnership. I call on the First Minister, Mark Drakeford.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I wish to make a statement regarding the Welsh Government’s plans to develop and strengthen social partnership. Our partnership with the unions and employers is crucial to the way that we work as a Government. By coming together to discuss and collaborate, we solve problems and find solutions to the economic and social challenges currently facing Wales. This way of working is based on robust principles. It is a way of working that is effective and very relevant to current conditions.

Dirprwy Lywydd, throughout the devolution period, the Welsh approach to engagement with trade unions and employers has been defined by partnership. Indeed, our ability to navigate the global crisis of 2008, and the subsequent imposition of austerity, has been predicated on our model of social partnership, and the recognition that meaningful tripartite involvement is fundamental to delivering progressive outcomes and preventing conflict and dispute. A decade into unremitting public expenditure retrenchment, however, the present model has reached the limits of its effectiveness. The time has come to develop it still further in order to tackle the social and economic challenges facing Wales today.

These new advances will build firmly on the social partnership record across legislation, policy and investment. From restoring sectoral bargaining via the agricultural advisory panel, to introducing the code of practice on ethical employment in the supply chain, we have worked creatively to deliver more protection and a greater voice for working people in Wales. Earlier in this Assembly term, I was proud to take the landmark Trade Union (Wales) Bill through this National Assembly, rolling back UK legislation designed to strip away the rights of public service workers.

The ongoing nature of the challenges we face is well known. The growth of in-work poverty, false self-employment and compulsory zero-hours contracts have a corrosive effect on the health and well-being of too many people in Wales. What is more, these unfair practices serve only to deepen existing inequalities in our society, as those with the least power in the workplace are affected most. And, Dirprwy Lywydd, they sharply disadvantage those many socially responsible and committed businesses that find themselves at risk of unfair competition from less scrupulous employers.

These are challenges, moreover, that face us today find new forms in our own time. The advent of automation and digital platforms have proven how easily the burden of risk can be shifted onto workers without the protection afforded by conventional employment relationships, and how small businesses on the high street can find themselves undercut by tax-avoiding multinational organisations operating beyond our borders.

What, then, Dirprwy Lywydd, do we now plan to do? Well, firstly, we will put social partnership on a statutory footing by bringing forward a Bill in this Assembly term. That Bill will enshrine the current non-statutory social partnership model and ensure that the agreements reached are clearly enforceable. The Wales TUC have made some specific proposals about how best to deliver this, and we will discuss these proposals with the other social partners over the coming months.

Secondly, we will use the power of the public purse to deliver new social benefits through enhancing the return we receive from those who receive public funding from us via the economic contract. We will scale up best practice learned through the Better Jobs Closer to Home pilots, and we will embed fair work through public procurement and by taking forward our new and innovative approach to the foundational economy.

Thirdly, we will create an effective system of monitoring and enforcement. There are a number of existing agreements that have been reached in social partnership, such as the two tier code. While we have systems in place to monitor their implementation, we know that those systems can be improved, and we lack sufficient means of enforcement when breaches of those codes occur.

Fourthly, we will put in place new machinery of government to underpin the work of social partners. We will implement the recommendations of the Fair Work Commission to establish an office for fair work. The practical plans to set up a directorate within the civil service are already in place, with the head of that unit already out to advert.

And fifthly, we will enact Part 1 of the Equality Act 2010, the socioeconomic duty. We will take the steps required to commence the duty, including new guidance that will be needed to ensure that its implementation is effective and takes full account of the existing Welsh legislative context. We will draw together the relationship between the socioeconomic duty and the social partnership Bill. Both will help to address inequality from different perspectives, and we will ensure that they fully complement each other.

What, then, Dirprwy Lywydd, will all these actions deliver? Well, firstly, they are designed to reverse the decline in collective bargaining. The International Labour Organization, amongst others, has clearly articulated the role that collective bargaining plays in reducing inequality and extending labour protection. We fully endorse the principles set out by the ILO on collective bargaining and freedom of association, and we wish to see these benefits extended to more working people here in Wales.

Secondly, these actions will deliver practical improvements in the workplace. Today, the Minister for Housing and Local Government has issued the Government’s response to the recommendations from the Fair Work Commission. The commission has focused directly on the role of trade unions in the workplace, and the benefits that this can bring to workers. Our approach to fair work will mean new approaches and new actions to drive up the quality of work and access to employment rights.

Thirdly, these actions will bring better outcomes for employers. Because with a committed workforce, encouraged by employers who invest in skills and good management at all levels, we can build a stronger and more resilient economy, with improved productivity, which is fit for the challenges of the future. Social partnership, Dirprwy Lywydd, enables employers to be active partners in changing our economy for the better. And we are fortunate in having many employers here in Wales committed to playing just that part.

Finally, these actions will bring the social partners together in a system that is streamlined, purposeful, and has the powers it needs to translate agreements reached into actions on the ground. By providing the means of monitoring any agreements, we will secure trust and confidence that the investment that partners make leads to tangible outcomes that deliver benefits for all.

Tomorrow, Dirprwy Lywydd, I will chair a meeting that brings together members of the Government, the Workforce Partnership Council executive, and the social partners strategy group. This shadow social partnership council will encourage social partners to engage on the immediate steps we need to take to deliver on the commitments I have outlined this afternoon. That will include discussion of a shared protocol that describes the expectations for Welsh Government, the Wales TUC, and employers on how our engagement will work in practice.

Now, Dirprwy Lywydd, none of this will be easy. Social partnership is the opposite of the confrontational approaches preferred by the Conservative Party whenever they are in Government. But it is also the opposite of problem-avoiding cosiness as well. To succeed in making working life fairer, it requires all partners to be focused on innovation and negotiation. It puts trust, engagement and dialogue at the heart of problem solving—together, the problems that face us all, are best addressed. It is a way, moreover, rooted in both the long collective and co-operative history of Wales and the history we have written here in the far shorter era of devolution. It is an approach, Dirprwy Lywydd, which this Government is determined to strengthen still further and to make it fit for the challenges that the future will provide. 

15:40

Can I thank you, First Minister, for your statement? And I look forward to further scrutinising the details of your proposals in the coming months. However, I must say, from the outset, that I am very disappointed that you have chosen to politicise this statement and to suggest that Conservatives, whenever they are in Government, take a confrontational approach. That is not right, because, as a Conservative, I very much agree with you that these issues should be approached in a collaborative way. I believe I speak, though, on behalf of all businesses who are disappointed by what you had to say today who have undertaken this collaborative approach, and will probably now feel more pressure to comply with these plans.

Now, the businesses I've spoken to believe this voluntary approach has worked over the years, and indeed is working. Now, as you know, the 'Good Work Plan' already commits to ensuring that workers can receive fair and decent work, and I understand legislation will be brought forward at a UK level to provide workers with the right to request more stable contracts. Now, in your statement today, First Minister, you make it clear the present model of a voluntary social partnership has reached the limit of its effectiveness. Are you saying that this model has, therefore, failed, given that this has been the policy of successive Welsh Labour Governments over the last 20 years? I'm sure successive Welsh Governments would disagree with you on that.

First Minister, I'm sure you will agree with me that this approach needs much more work, and therefore shouldn't be just rushed through this Parliament. Now, whether we like it or not, 43,000 people are currently employed on zero-hours contracts, and, of course, the effects of the social partnership Act should be carefully considered through a consultation, in my view, as should all aspects of the effects that the Act will have on both Welsh workers and businesses. Surely only when a comprehensive consultation is completed and reported back to the Assembly should it then decide on the most appropriate course of action, rather than just first legislating for a Bill that has not yet been consulted upon with those that it would impact the most. Will you, therefore, First Minister, commit to holding a comprehensive consultation with all stakeholders so that everyone's views are actually taken into consideration? And if you don't commit to this, what steps will you be taking in order to ensure that trade unions act in the interests of their members, that business organisations act in the interests of their members, and that the public voice is heard loud and clear as well? 

Now, I appreciate people will have different views on zero-hours contracts and the effect this can have on working people. And you will be aware, First Minister, that the Taylor review of modern working practices reports that one fifth of people on zero-hours contracts are in full-time education. And, apparently, 68 per cent of those on such contracts do not want more hours. Therefore, it's crucial, I think, that we continue to create opportunity for flexible employment for those who want it. Can you therefore outline how this proposed social partnership Act will continue to allow for flexible employment for those who rely on flexible employment, but at the same time still protecting workers' rights? I'd be grateful if you would perhaps expand on this, because I agree that we must deal with less scrupulous employers, but we must also ensure a flexible economy going forward as well. 

First Minister, the Minister for Housing and Local Government's written statement this morning said that the new social partnership and fair work directorate will be positioned within the office of the First Minister and Brexit. However, the report recommends that the office of fair work not be positioned within a particular department. Will this mean, therefore, that you, as First Minister, will have direct control over the establishment and direction of that directorate? And how will you ensure that this new department will actually operate across the whole of Government, given that it will actually be located under you? 

So, with that, Deputy Presiding Officer, can I thank you, First Minister for your statement this afternoon? I and my colleagues look forward to scrutinising your plans further over the coming weeks and over the coming months.

15:45

I thank Paul Davies for that constructive response to this afternoon's statement. I'm afraid, I think, that the record speaks for itself. When I was the health Minister here in this Assembly, doctors went on strike in the English NHS, nurses went on strike, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, porters were on strike. Not a single one of those occupations went on strike here in Wales and that's because we have a different approach. It's not an accident that, across our border, those dedicated public servants and professional workers went on strike, whereas here in Wales we were able to avoid it. It's because we have a social partnership approach and, across our border, where the Conservative Party is in charge, they do not.

I was very keen, Dirprwy Lywydd, in what I said to emphasise the contributions that employers in Wales have made to the social partnership agenda, of the positive way in which they come to the table, and that is absolutely the way in which we intend to craft our proposals here in Wales. When I said that we had reached the limits of our current arrangements, it is because I believe we have made the very most of them, not because they are not working, but because they are working flat out and working as fast as they can within the current parameters. It's why we want to strengthen the current arrangements by putting the force of statute around them. And when Paul Davies says that, like it or not, we have zero-hours contracts, it won't take a careful or comprehensive consideration for us on this side of the Chamber to know that we don't like zero-hours contracts, but the way that we have approached it is the one we have adopted in relation to social care and the legislation we've passed here in this Assembly. There we have recognised that there are reasons why, as trade unions have recognised, a period of 12 weeks, an introductory period when someone is deciding whether or not they want to continue in that occupation, and when employers are gauging the level of skill and capacity that somebody has—12 weeks can be organised on a zero-hours basis, but then the employee must be offered a fixed term, fixed-hours contract. They can choose to remain on a zero-hours contract if that's what suits their circumstances the best, but they have the choice; they are not kept on a compulsory zero-hours contract basis.

But more generally, of course, I give the Member a commitment that there will be careful and comprehensive consideration of the proposals we bring forward, that they will be developed in a spirit of social partnership by making sure that all of those who have an interest in the proposals will have an opportunity to consider them, to shape them, and then they will be debated and scrutinised on the floor of the National Assembly.

And, finally, to assure the Member as well that the decision to place the directorate for social partnership and fair work in the First Minister's office was a direct response to the recommendation of the Fair Work Commission that it shouldn't be placed in a particular department. It is indeed, as Paul Davies said, an essentially cross-cutting agenda, and putting that office or directorate in my office is a way of making that cross-cutting nature explicit and effective.

I welcome the statement and the general framework that the First Minister has set out. I’d be interested to hear from the First Minister, in developing this model of social partnership, what other models across Europe or even further afield the Government has looked at. Of course, we classically are very familiar with the model of social partnership in Germany, for example, and in Scandinavia, in Ireland too—until the financial crisis at least. What’s interesting, I think, about those examples, is that they all contributed towards economic prosperity. There is some sort of sub-context in the criticism of social partnership that it somehow leads to inefficiency. Well, the opposite is true in those cases. To what extent would the Welsh Government consider commissioning research that would look at this question at an individual company level in terms of the productivity and economic success of individual companies that do recognise unions as opposed to those who don’t? Because there is some broader academic evidence that would suggest that, and I do think it would be useful, as we build this framework for Wales, for us to demonstrate that there is an evidence base to the argument that it is beneficial at the bottom-line level for companies, because it does create a workforce that is motivated—there is more investment in training, there is less absence from the workplace, and so on and so forth.

And just one brief question on the timetable: does the Government intend to introduce this legislation and this framework within this term? And, finally, one of the fairer criticisms, perhaps, made of the social partnership model in recent times is that is there a risk, in focusing on employers, unions and Government, that you fall into a corporatist trap and that you exclude other elements of society that perhaps aren’t reflected in those structures? Is there scope to ensure that this partnership is all-inclusive and that it does look at the question of social inequality and injustice in its broader context—the broadest context, in fact—not just in the workplace?

15:50

Thank you, Adam Price, for your contribution this afternoon. What Adam said was correct, of course. What we’re suggesting here in Wales are things that do happen overseas in other nations every day. I was speaking in FMQs this afternoon about the community bank, and of course that’s part of what other people do on a daily basis. So, what we’re doing is drawing upon other good examples, in Germany and in the Basque Country as well. There’s a group of people from the Basque Country, from the Government there, in Wales today. I’m going to meet them tomorrow, and that’s happening after I and other Ministers have gone to the Basque Country to hear from them about how they do things, and the prosperity of their economy and how we can learn from the lessons that are available in other nations.

And, of course, what Adam Price was saying about research is also true. There is a great deal of research available in this field. I referred to the ILO, and work is being done by the World Bank on this as well, and a great deal of work has gone on in the academic sphere as well. The first step, I think, is to draw together the information that we have at present, to share that with the partnerships and to see whether they think that there are gaps in the research that we currently have, and whether there is a case to fill those gaps. I’m very happy to confirm that the Bill will be brought before the Assembly in this term, and I very much look forward to the scrutiny process. I’ve heard what Adam Price said about the number of people around the table when we create a new system, and there will be an opportunity for me tomorrow, in the meeting that I have with the unions, and with employers as well, to put that point to them as well.

15:55

Thank you, First Minister, for the statement. It'll come as no surprise to you that I'm fully supportive of your commitment to embed social partnership working here in Wales through legislation. I've seen at first hand the benefit of social partnership, for example, in delivering the living wage to the NHS in Wales, and, as you mentioned earlier in responding to Paul Davies, the way in which we were able to avoid the types of industrial disputes here that we have seen played out in England. Of course, anything in my view that encourages people to join a trade union can only be a good thing, because we know that unionised workplaces are safer workplaces and they are better paid workplaces and legislating to expand that can only be positive as well. 

Social partnership is without doubt vital in helping us to deal with the problems of the things that you mentioned in your statement, First Minister—insecure work and in-work poverty—but also facing the economic and social changes that we know lie ahead, much of which is going to be out of our control. So, my specific questions are whether you would agree that the social partnership Act must provide a secure footing for both the nature and the structure of how we work collectively in Wales, and can you confirm that you expect our trade union colleagues to be equal partners, in order to address the current social imbalance.

I thank Dawn Bowden for those questions. When I said in my original statement that I sometimes say on public platforms that social partnership is not an easy way of doing things, it's often Dawn's name that comes into my mind, having worked with her when I was health Minister and she represented Unison. I can tell you that those meetings are the opposite of cosy or collusive, but they do the hard work, and that's what you expect them to do. They are places where difficult conversations are had and messages are never pulled by those who deliver them, but they are delivered in a way that has the end point of creating an agreement, sometimes over very challenging issues, which everybody in the end is able to sign up to. I thank her both for that previous experience and for the way that she contributes to this Assembly from that experience.

Of course, the Fair Work Commission's report draws on the work of the IMF, of the World Bank, of the ILO. They all say the same thing, that collective bargaining is good for workers, employers and the economy. That's why we want to see collective bargaining extended here in Wales. Collective bargaining leads to a fairer sharing of the economy between workers and others, and fairer economies do better. It's no surprise, is it, that more equal economies do better, because they draw on a wider pool of talent as a result. That's the purpose behind our social partnership Bill: it is to make sure that the contribution of all those who help to make Wales a more prosperous place can be properly captured and put to work. The partnership structures will be reformed to support that. The Bill will define the nature of social partnership here in Wales. And, to answer Dawn Bowden's final point, of course, all those who come to the table come there as equal partners, all with something different to contribute, each with an equal value in that contribution.

Could I thank the First Minister for his statement and also for the advance copy, and also say how refreshing it is to see how many of his ministerial statements he stays for? It's not something I ever recall having seen at Westminster. I've got three areas I wanted to ask him about here. The references—. He started by praising our model of social partnership and made quite a lot of references to trade unions and the TUC, I thought rather fewer references to business and their representative organisations—I just wonder if that's something he'll look to rectify in the future. Also, more broadly, does he see Welsh Government's role as a facilitator for both the trade unions and business or primarily as a Labour Government as a supporter of the trade unions within that context? When he talks about delivering new social good through enhancing the ask of those who receive public funding via the economic contract, through public procurement—the economic contract, is that something that applies to public procurement generally, or only to a particular proportion of it? And I wonder what steps the Welsh Government will take to see if there's any impact on value for money in pursuing things in this way. Clearly, sometimes, if someone doesn't do the various things he would want, and I'm sure that many of these are social goods that we would support, would they be excluded from the contracts? And if you were to have fewer people bidding for contracts within the scope of this, is that something that could increase costs, at least over the medium term?

Finally, around enacting Part 1 of the Equality Act 2010, the First Minister says, 

'We will draw together the relationship between the socioeconomic duty and the social partnership Bill.'

I'm just wondering, are they distinct things? Will the social partnership Bill commence the duty or, when he refers to the steps required to commence this duty, are they different? Does the Westminster legislation give powers to Welsh Ministers to commence where UK Ministers are not commencing this in England? It refers to Part 1 of the Equality Act, but I also just recall during its passage a reference to this being arguably socialism in one clause. Is that what this refers to and is that why the First Minister is leading in this area in the way he has announced today?

16:00

I thank Mark Reckless for those questions. I tried in my statement to cover a lot of ground, and I tried to make sure that I paid proper regard to the contribution that businesses, both public sector employers and private sector employers, have made to the development of social partnership here in Wales. It was very pleasing to see the welcome that both the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses gave to the report of the Fair Work Commission, and my view is that businesses are equal partners around that table. And they're equal partners with Government as well. I don't see Government as a facilitator in the way that Mark Reckless suggested; Government is a partner in a tripartite arrangement. Government is there, trade unions are there, employers are there, and we come together with our different responsibilities and our different capacities to act to focus on problems that are shared between us and where our collective focus on them can lead to best outcomes. 

Of course, we do want more return on the investment that the Welsh taxpayer makes in building the Welsh economy. We are very keen to go on as a Government investing in the Welsh economy, investing in skills, investing in infrastructure, investing in assisting individual businesses, where there is a case to do so. But, in return, it is right that when the Welsh taxpayer is making that contribution, that it is able to say to those who benefit from that contribution that, for example, we look to them to provide proper occupational health facilities for people who work for them. We look to them to invest in the continuing skills of that workforce. We look to them to respond to the call that is often made around this Chamber to ensure that the mental health and well-being of people who work in those sectors is taken care of as well. All of those are public goods, all of those are objectives, I think, widely shared across the Chamber and, where Welsh public money is being spent, we think we have a right to ask that it delivers on those wider agendas as well.

When things are not delivered, does that mean that organisations are excluded from bidding for contracts? Well, it depends on what is going wrong. If companies act outside the law, by blacklisting, for example, then they cannot expect that they will get contracts from the public purse. When it is that a company is working hard to reach a point in an agreement that we have struck with them but they're not yet at that point in, for example, having an occupational health service, well, of course, that would not exclude a company from participating or bidding for a contract. So it depends on the nature of the issue at hand.

I'm very grateful to the Member for his description of Part 1 of the Equality Act as 'socialism in one clause'; it encourages me no end to make sure that we get it and the Bill in front of the Assembly. We are still working, to answer Mark Reckless's specific question, on the best way to commence it. It may be through the Bill, it may be that we can do it more rapidly, but your recollection of 'socialism in one clause' encourages me to bring it in front of the Assembly as fast as possible. 

16:05

The statement has described many of the challenges facing us in Blaenau Gwent, from low wages, insecure work to difficulties facing the high street and employers and others. I hope that what you're able to do in taking this forward is to address those issues of in-work poverty that do affect Blaenau Gwent. All too often we see press releases from various places telling us about the work that's being created without ever describing what that work is, and the impact it has on families and the wider economy. So, I hope that we will be able to use this statement and this piece of legislation to address issues such as in-work poverty.

I hope also, First Minister, in seeking to describe the solutions, we will look for collective and co-operative solutions as well. I know that the Deputy Minister Lee Waters has placed a great emphasis on the foundational economy and how we deliver a co-operative approach to these matters in his work, particularly with the Valleys taskforce. I'm very supportive of that, and I hope that we will be able therefore to use the legislation here to drive forward a greater emphasis on the co-operative solutions.

First Minister, you'll also be aware that the Lisbon treaty, of course, recognises social partnership in the European Union, and that has been used to drive forward a way that the European Union has ensured that social partners are always represented in decision making across the union. I hope that the Welsh Government will look at the Lisbon treaty, and look at how that can be used as a model for delivering social partnership in Wales today. I hope also, First Minister, that we'll be able to look at this in terms of the shared prosperity fund, so that social partnership is hard wired into that. 

First Minister, we can make the legal changes and we can change the statutory framework, but you will, I'm sure, agree with me that real change comes from cultural change, and I'd be grateful if you could outline how you believe that this statutory change—the changes to the legal underpinning of what we do—can be used to drive forward a cultural change across the whole of our economy and public sector. 

My final question to you is this, First Minister: in many ways, what you're describing is a Welsh Labour, socialist approach to globalisation and the impact of globalisation on our local economies. We've seen from the xenophobia of the Brexit Party and others that there are very different responses to the impact of globalisation on people and communities. I hope that through our partnership with trade unions and through working together on a co-operative basis we can deliver the change that you describe, and radical reform throughout the whole of the public sector.

Let me begin by saying that the creation of a more equal Wales is one of the fundamental goals of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015, and that the pursuit of a more equal nation is at the heart of everything that this Government does, and that will be true of the social partnership work as well, for the very reasons that Alun Davies articulated about his own constituency. I was very pleased recently to meet the co-operative group of Assembly Members here. There were a series of very practical ideas that came very rapidly out of that meeting, and will certainly help us to form our future thinking and be part of that wider social partnership agenda.

It's not a surprise, Dirprwy Lywydd, is it, that when we set up an all-Wales programme monitoring committee for European funds here in Wales, currently chaired by Huw Irranca-Davies, that that sense of social partnership comes very naturally to us here in Wales? All the players who have an interest in making a success of European funding around the table together, and our partners who come from the European Union to work with us, to observe what we are doing, to share their experiences and ours, they are equally at home in that way of doing things. And that's because, as Alun Davies said, globalisation demands a local response. And if you're going to give people confidence that they have a place in this globalised world, that their futures lie to an extent in their own hands, then strengthening workers' rights, strengthening social protections—they build up the confidence that then leads to those cultural shifts. And I think we have a great deal of that already in place in the social partnership experience we have built up in Wales. The Bill and the other actions that I've outlined this afternoon are designed to take that further forward, put the confidence of the law underneath it and, in that way, to craft responses that reach far into the lives of people here in Wales and, most of all, into the lives of residents of places like Blaenau Gwent, where the need for those social protections and the need for that social partnership are more urgent than ever.

16:10

Thank you, First Minister. I was very pleased to welcome your statement today and especially the mention of policies like the economic contract, Better Jobs Closer to Home and the foundational economy. All of these offer a very different model for economic development and can improve conditions for Welsh workers.

I'd like to build on the comments made by my colleague Alun Davies about the need for cultural change, and it seems to me that one of the key cultural changes we need in order to make this social partnership really work is to get more Welsh workers to join trade unions, and I say that as a very proud member of two excellent unions, both the GMB and USDAW. Looking at some stats, I can see that just over 30 per cent of Welsh workers are currently members of trade unions, which seemed quite low to me but is actually higher than all of the UK bar Northern Ireland, and in 2018 Wales had one of the greatest increases in its unionised workforce, which is obviously good news. But what I'd like to ask is what more the Welsh Government can do to encourage trade union membership.

I also welcome your mention of further steps to create an office for fair work, and I'd be interested to know what sort of mechanisms will be in place to allow it to drive change and to tackle unfair working practices.

Like other AMs, I received a copy of Oxfam's supermarket scorecard recently, which evaluates how supermarkets take action to end human suffering in their global supply chains. With your statement's focus on tackling exploitative working practices, how can these wider concerns be built into our social partnership policies to reflect our international obligations? Finally, I didn't hear any mention of the well-being of future generations Act in your statement, so I would like to ask how that interacts with the Welsh Government's ambitious social partnership priorities.

Dirprwy Lywydd, thank you very much to Vikki Howells for those questions. She is a member of the fastest growing trade union in the United Kingdom, if she is a member of USDAW. And that's very important, isn't it, because we are used in Wales to having high densities of trade union membership in public services and public sector settings, but USDAW is a trade union that operates in the sector that she mentioned, in the retail sector, in shops where the Oxfam report focused its attention. I've been very pleased with many others here to be part of campaigns that USDAW has run, both locally in constituencies and nationally, and it's succeeded in being a growing trade union because it goes about its business in a new way. It relies on persuading people of the direct benefits that trade union membership brings to them and then the collective advantages that they get from working together. I know that there are some important lessons for the wider trade union movement, which the TUC nationally has been keen to draw on.

And, of course, there are many other ways in which, as a Government and as individuals, we are able to support that effort. I know many colleagues here will have taken part in the young workers campaign, run by Unison, which was here in the Assembly only a week or two ago and which aims to do the same thing for new workers—young people coming into industry and into public services—and again to explain to them and to recruit them into the advantages that union membership brings.

As far as the directorate we are establishing is concerned, I was keen that it should be in the First Minister's office for the reasons I outlined earlier, that it should have sufficient seniority at its head, but that it should operate as well with a significant number of secondees who come into its work directly from the trade union movement and directly from employers as well. If this is a directorate about social partnership, it needs to operate on a social partnership basis, and that means having the Welsh Government there, but it also means having the direct participation of people from that wider world. We're already talking to both the Wales TUC and to employer organisations about them finding the right people to come and work with us on this agenda.

And, finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, I didn't mention the well-being of future generations Act in the statement itself, but I did mention making sure that what we do fits into the wider legislative landscape. It was the well-being of future generations Act I had in mind, and I had it in mind in the way that I responded to Alun Davies—that at the heart of the Act is, as one of its seven goals, that creation of a more equal Wales. That is the ambition that drives social partnership here in Wales and drives our ambition to bring forward a Bill for this Assembly's consideration.

16:15
5. Statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government: The Welsh Government response to the Independent Affordable Housing Supply Review

The next item on the agenda is a statement by the Minister for Housing and Local Government on the Welsh Government's response to the independent affordable housing supply review. I call on the Minister for Housing and Local Government, Julie James.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. It has been clear to me since I was appointed to this portfolio that we have a shared desire right across this Chamber to see an increase in the delivery of affordable housing. And, Dirprwy Llywydd, I've been equally clear that social housing in particular is my priority. The positive impact good-quality social housing has on someone’s life cannot be overstated. This is why my predecessor Rebecca Evans commissioned an independent review of our affordable housing arrangements last year to look closely at the approach we are taking and suggest changes that would help us deliver more.

On 1 May, I received the final report from the affordable housing supply review. The review made a number of recommendations about how we can ensure we are maximising the number of affordable homes we deliver in Wales whilst not compromising on energy efficiency, quality or affordability for tenants. The independent panel, chaired by Lynn Pamment, spent a significant amount of time looking at all aspects of affordable housing supply and today I'm very pleased to share the Government’s initial response to the recommendations with you. This is the first of what will be a series of responses to reviews and consultations that are due to report over the coming months. I will have more to say in due course on decarbonisation, planning matters and building regulations. I'm acutely aware of the need for the policies in all of these areas to be closely aligned. 

I want to, once again, thank the independent panel for their work. They engaged right across the housing sector and with Assembly Members. The time they invested in this review, regularly taking them away from their day jobs over the course of a year, is hugely appreciated. They have made a real and lasting contribution to Welsh housing, which I believe will have an enduring positive implication for years to come. It was very important to me that this was not a report that gathered dust on a shelf. I've been anxious, therefore, to respond quickly and decisively. I want you all to be aware of the Government’s intentions, which is why I supplied you with a written response to all recommendations earlier today.

I'm pleased to say that we've accepted or accepted in principle every recommendation, with one exception in respect of the future of Help to Buy. We're not in a position to respond until the autumn, when we are aware of the consequential funding we will receive from the UK Government. It is not my intention to go through each and every recommendation today. I do, however, want to offer my comments on some of the key findings.

The panel highlighted the importance of understanding housing need and some of the challenges local authorities face in this area. They highlighted the strong role Welsh Government could and should play, and the importance of strengthening the links between housing need and the planning process. I accept this critique and welcome their support for the work we have done on assessing need at a national and regional level. Their suggestion that this work should now be extended to a local level is one I support and intend to pursue.

I know that the setting of rent policy was one of the most challenging and contentious aspects of the review, with strong and conflicting views expressed from different parts of the sector. I agree with the review panel that there is a continuing need for a rent policy to provide certainty for tenants and landlords and that landlords should be considering value for money and efficiencies to justify rent increases. As a result, prior to the summer recess, I will be announcing what the five-year rent policy will be once I have received all of the necessary data. I will ensure my decision balances the need for landlords to have certainty about the rental income they can expect, together with affordability secured for tenants.

Another area of the review that I know provoked robust debate was around the nature of grant funding available to partners and the way in which this is distributed. The panel have recommended a new approach, moving away from our standardised approach to grant allocation to one of longer term funding certainty and a more robust assessment of value for money. Whilst I do not agree with all aspects of the approach the panel have advocated in their report, I accept the recommendation for change and greater flexibility. Some schemes do not require the amount of subsidy they currently receive, while others may not currently come forward because the level of subsidy is insufficient to make them viable. A team that will work with local authorities and housing associations has already been established to develop a new approach. This will ultimately allow us to ensure our significant investment in affordable housing is used as effectively as possible in the places it is needed most.

One of the key ways in which we can increase the supply of social housing is through local authorities getting back to building council houses at pace and scale. The long-overdue lifting of the borrowing cap will be an important catalyst for this, as will access to grant from Welsh Government, as the review panel recommend. Where appropriate, I am prepared to make grant available to ambitious authorities, to be used alongside the flexibilities the lifting of the borrowing cap creates. Clearly, the fine detail of this arrangement is something I will wish to agree with the WLGA. This is a huge opportunity to build more affordable homes over the next decade and beyond. Working in conjunction with partners to make the most of limited resources, I want to see local authorities really grasp this opportunity.

I accept the panel's view that more should be done to use the land available across the public sector more effectively and more quickly to support house building. I also agree that some central resource to help local authorities and others in the public sector bring forward their land is needed. I accept the principle that a land unit of some description should support the more effective use of public sector land. This is an issue on which the whole of the public sector needs to up its game. We need to be far more sophisticated in the way we use public land to support a wider range of objectives than simply generating the highest capital receipt, and I want to see stronger joint working across organisations to help achieve this. Along with my colleagues, the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd and the Minister for Economy and Transport, this is a matter on which I will have more to say over the coming months.

Given the panel's principal remit was to advise us on how to build more homes without additional resource, it would have been easy for them to recommend changes that compromised the standards we currently expect for affordable homes that receive Government subsidy. However, they recognised the quality and space available in a home is an essential component of the positive impact new homes deliver. They also recognised the flexibility this offered, should someone's needs change in the future. I commend them for this and accept the need to simplify standards and extend them to section 106 properties. Our aim must be to ensure that homes delivered via the market should be of equal quality to those we grant fund, whatever the implications for developer profit.

I absolutely accept the need to move quickly towards zero-carbon homes in both the affordable and market sectors. Moving towards zero carbon is a priority for this Government; we need to achieve this as quickly as possible. We will work with housing associations and local authorities in Wales to determine whether we can achieve the 2021 target proposed in the review. But in the meantime, we continue to support and develop new approaches to the delivery of housing that depart from the traditional approach. I am very pleased today, in response to the review, to launch our strategy on off-site manufacturing that we have called 'Reimagining Social Housing in Wales'. Off-site manufacturing, modern methods of construction, and making greater use of Welsh timber will be at the heart of our zero-carbon plans. We will continue to also invest in the delivery of these new models through our innovative housing programme. I will be announcing the next stage of this development in the autumn.

The review rightly recognised that given the scale of the challenges we face, we must scrutinise and justify all of our funding decisions to make sure we are getting the maximum return on the investments we make. This includes our investment in existing homes. Dowry and major repairs allowance worth £108 million are paid annually to large scale voluntary transfer housing associations and stock-retaining local authorities respectively. I agree with the review panel that once the Welsh housing quality standard has been met in 2020, our priority must be to consider how this considerable resource should be used to accelerate the decarbonisation of existing homes. This is, of course, the issue being considered by the separate review chaired by Chris Jofeh, which I am expecting recommendations on on 18 July—next Thursday. Even in advance of receiving that report, I am clear that this is an area where we need to make urgent progress. I believe local authorities and the stock transfer organisations share that view. 

Rather than commission a further review on this matter now, which would delay moving forward, I propose to secure a revised agreement with those organisations during the course of the next year that would apply to this investment once our existing WHQS has been achieved. Commissioning a stand-alone review is of course something I would be prepared to return to later, should we fail to reach an agreement that meets our decarbonisation ambitions. The review conducted by Lynn Pamment and her team has made a hugely positive contribution to the way in which we shape the housing agenda moving forwards. What is clear from the review, and our response to it, is that the status quo is not an option. Change can be challenging and uncomfortable, but change is essential if we're going to build the number of homes we know we need.

The changes I am proposing today are not the only ones we need to make to deliver sustainable communities. I know there are areas where we disagree, but I also believe that there are far more areas relating to housing where there is consensus across this Chamber. I hope you will therefore welcome my response to the affordable housing supply review. I recognise the need for change, and that we must strive to get more from existing resource, but we must not do this at the expense of the good-quality homes people need, if we are to build communities we can be proud of. This is an opportunity to change the way we deliver the homes we need. There is a real need for social housing in Wales and this is the time to increase the pace and scale of that delivery.

16:25

I welcome the tone, especially towards the end, about the need to work together and increase the pace and scale of social home building. But also, across the piece, I think we need to look at our targets and set a really serious ambition for the 2020s. We need to do that now so that we can get all the necessary approaches in place so that we can see an increase at scale, then, in house building. I do welcome the review as well. I think it asked some serious questions and has provided some valuable insights. Some other areas that the Minister has touched upon, especially decarbonisation and Chris Jofeh's review, I think that properly will get separate treatment. Can I also thank the Minister for the advance notice and indeed the initial discussion I've been able to have with Chris Jofeh on the likely direction of the review? I think that's very, very helpful and good open government. 

Can I move, then, broadly to the areas where I think there will be real agreement? I want to start, just because of my activities yesterday, on off-site manufacturing. I was really pleased to see this being stressed in terms of what we can do with modern methods of construction. Indeed, in the Conservative housing strategy published earlier this year we did look at this quite specifically, reflecting the attention that is out there, and I'm pleased to see that the Welsh Government is emphasising this in particular from the review's work. Indeed, Minister, I think following in your footsteps, actually, yesterday, I visited the Wernick Group's modular housing factory in Margam, followed by a visit to site in Bridgend where the housing association Valleys to Coast has used such manufacturing methods to build affordable homes. I went in and was amazed at the speed of delivery and just how great those three-bedroomed homes, the ones I saw, looked. They use this much more in many parts of Europe, and at the minute, it barely is 2 per cent or 3 per cent of our housing development, so I think we do need to look at this. And indeed, in the Conservative policy, we pledge to increase this type of off-site manufacturing to up to 20 per cent of house building by 2030. So, I hope that you too will be expressing that sort of ambition.

Secondly, on public land, again, I welcome your acceptance of the recommendations in the report, especially the mapping of vacant land, along with its status with regard to development potential. I was wondering whether, with regard to public sector land, we could go even further and offer discounts to developments that deliver strong social value, which, of course, affordable housing does. According to evidence submitted by the Home Builders Federation to the Lords Economic Affairs Committee, between a quarter and a third of all potential residential land is currently controlled by the public sector. By prioritising social value for discount, for instance, public land can be put to the service of long-term public good and this type of scheme could be extended to housing for vital professions like nurses, housing for older people and general affordable housing developments and co-operative housing schemes and the like. There's a lot we can do by the way we release land and use it as an incentive and a real resource. If I look at rent, I do welcome this five-year cycle. It's something that the sector has been calling for. And as the Chartered Institute of Housing, in their response to this statement today, said, we need the right balance that provides affordable rent levels whilst allowing housing organisations to continue planned development.

So, I look forward to receiving the actual details of what your five-year rent policy will look like, but I do think that, again, that's the right strategic approach that will allow us to develop long-term solutions. Finally, on council homes and the removal of the borrowing cap—again, I think this is a very welcome development. We need it at the moment, it will help us to increase the number of homes we are building, but I do think we need to emphasise that councils can also work with housing associations and others to use these flexibilities, so they don't necessarily have to build and manage the homes themselves, though where they want to do that and they're demonstrating real value and, obviously, more flexible and smaller schemes than, perhaps, what we saw in the 1950s and 1960s—. But it's definitely part of the mix that we can have.

And, finally, I would like to put on record, as the Minister has, my thanks to the panel and Lynn Pamment. As you rightly pointed out, these people have done really good work for the public good and have given up much of their time in doing that and sacrificed, obviously, what they could have been doing in their professional careers. But we really do welcome their contribution.

16:30

Well, thank you very much for that contribution. As I said, I wanted to emphasise that I do think there is much more, across the Chamber, that connects us together on this, and very small areas of disagreement that are not really that important in terms of what we're talking about here.

In terms of the modular homes, I'm very keen on the slogan 'Not prefab but ab fab', as they call it. I was very impressed by the modular homes that you mentioned in your visit—I'd been there not very long before you—and impressed for a number of reasons: first of all, the speed with which they were built, but secondly the very low-carbon footprint, the local nature of much of the material. I think we're very much emphasising in our innovative housing programme not just the modular off-site manufacture nature—so, obviously, people who work on the homes are building them inside a factory in a warm environment, not in all weathers, not at height and all kinds of other issues there. The industry is fond of saying you wouldn't build a Ferrari in a field, so why build a house in it, and I think that's a reasonable analogy.

But also, I wanted to emphasise the sheer range available in terms of the modular homes, and just the ability to build at serious scale and pace once we've got the factories up and running. I'm very keen on making sure that we have local factories right around Wales, so we're using local materials, particularly Welsh timber, and that we help them have the lowest possible carbon footprint, both in the supply chain and then in the house as it's built. We're also very keen on stressing, as you saw in the ones that you visited, that these are homes for life, that they're easily adaptable inside, that they can be adapted to different life stages and all the rest of it, and, indeed, you can add on, Dirprwy Lywydd, three more modules at the side when your grandchildren want to come and stay, which is something I know you'll be very interested in. So, I couldn't agree more.

In terms of the public land, we are very keen to ensure that we get the best value in the best possible sense for public land, so we are looking again at our asset management guidance for local authorities and health boards to see that we are emphasising the social good that comes from the use of the land, not just the cash that can be brought forward from the land.

We do need to get the balance between using the capital receipts for delivering essential public services and being able to use the land for building the right kind of housing, so working with the emerging public land unit to get the best balance between those. I've been working very hard with Rebecca Evans and Ken Skates on a piece of work that looks at that strategic approach across the Welsh Government piece and with local authorities on what can be done to pool public authority-owned land across Wales, especially around border areas, to make sure that we can assemble the right kinds of sites.

I couldn't agree more with him about the kind of flexibilities that could be got across those pieces of land. We're not talking about a one-tenure estate in any way; we are talking about mixed-tenure estates that allow people to move around in the same community, depending on what their current life requirements are. They will be a mixture of everything from full owner-occupying to co-operatives to mixed equity to social housing and so on. My view, though, is that those houses should all look the same, it doesn't matter what the tenure is, and they should have the right space and standards and the right kinds of insulation and the right kinds of carbon neutrality so that you can seamlessly move between them.

Finally, on the rent, I think that David Melding said exactly what I think in saying that we welcome the certainty, but we do have to get the level right. So, we have to make sure that we balance off affordability for the tenant with the ability to get the income stream for the builders so that we can build the houses of the future.  

16:35

We in Plaid Cymru welcome the recommendations of the affordable housing review, and there is considerable overlap with their proposals and our proposals, which we published back in February this year. So, we're pleased to see that the Government is accepting the recommendations as well. We are particularly pleased with the recommendations that more attention should be given to the requirements of people with disabilities, and other needs should be part of the local housing market assessments. We're also pleased about the focus on improving standards of new builds with minimum space requirements, and also the recommendation of making new homes close to zero carbon by 2021. You've pretty much accepted all of these recommendations, subject to the building regulations review. I'm also aware—and you mentioned this in your statement—that you are soon to receive a report with recommendations for decarbonising the existing housing stock, and I look forward to hearing your response to that report.

I'd like to ask you, Minister: do you accept that, in order to really achieve the outcomes of these recommendations here, that is going to require a fundamental change in how the planning system works? Clearly, social housing has a role to play in terms of delivering these new units, and therefore should be far more involved at the LDP stage of planning. Furthermore, I'd like to ask whether you think the planning of public services to serve these new communities needs to play a more central role in these local developments. We achieve nothing by building homes without the communities that we need to go with them.

I'd also like to ask whether you think the developments that we've seen over the last decade have taken a step backwards. How many of these developments have been characterised by large developers using their monopoly power to exploit consumers with leasehold homes, estates going unfinished and being unfinished for years, and all the broken promises of affordable homes, new facilities via section 106 agreements and so on? Will you therefore act more urgently to prevent these problems characterising the developments that are currently going through the planning system, as the timescale of you implementing the recommendations of this report won't prevent those current developments also being characterised by this problem?

Furthermore, you'll be aware that some local authorities are reviewing and updating their local development plans. Can you confirm that those local authorities should now be doing this work, based on the principles that you'll be formalising in the various new standards and guidelines that you'll be producing as a result of accepting this report?

Finally, the panel recommends that Help to Buy should be focused more on first-time buyers with properties of a lower price. Your response says you cannot accept or decline the recommendation until you're clearer about the funding situation for this. But can I ask whether you accept the principle that a scheme subsidising homes being sold for over £200,000 to people who are already on the housing ladder should not be considered as counting towards an affordable homes target, as the panel clearly agrees that this is distorting?

I am happy to start with that last one. What we're not accepting is the detail of the Help to Buy recommendations. I just don't know what—or whether there is a consequential, so I don't know whether we can continue it at all or what the situation is. If we are going to continue it, however, we will be continuing it in a very different form to the form that we currently see. We have had a lot of unintended consequences with the Help to Buy funding, which I will be looking to close off. I've had long meetings with various officials and others about where our legal powers lie, for example, to cover off standardised 106 agreements, so that we have adoption of roads, just as one example. There are a number of others where we can assist with qualifications on the accessibility for the scheme in certain circumstances and on certain sites. So, I'm very keen on doing a lot of that. I'm just not in a position to give any detail, because I don't know whether we'll be able to do anything because we may not have any money. So, that's the only caveat, but I can assure you that it will not be the scheme that we have currently in situ.

Going through some of the others, I absolutely agree that, as I said at the beginning, I think there's a lot of consensus around the Chamber with where we are. The paper that you put out broadly coincides with ours in all but specific detail, and I'm sure even there we can work out most of it. I completely agree about the disabilities point. One of the things we'll be very keen to do is to make sure that, as we bring forward public land for these kinds of developments, we have social housing front and centre of that, but all the other tenures in that development as it comes forward matching with that, so that people can, as I said to David Melding, move around in the same community when they are at different stages of their life, and don't have to move out of their community in order to access disability-friendly accommodation when they're old or if they have somebody with disabilities in their family, or whatever. So, we're very keen on those homes for life, as they're called, and the modular housing, if you get a chance to visit any of it, is very much built in that vein, and I think very impressive. So, I completely agree with all of that.

I'm very much looking at the planning system as we put the national development framework out. It's now delayed because of the Brecon and Radnorshire by-election. I will be launching it, I hope, at the Eisteddfod, the week after the election, and then we'll be having the consultation. The whole point about the planning process is that we'll then have that and the strategic level when we put the local government framework in place, so we will have all of the levels where you get housing need right down to the local level, and it will allow the LDPs to become the local plan that they ought to have been in the first place. But we haven't had the top ends of those planning systems. The planning system is designed to be a planning system in its entirety, not just at one level. Then, as the LDPs are reviewed, Leanne was quite right that we need to make sure that we review properly the way that the specifics of the local plan work in terms of the infrastructure and what the local authorities are then able to do in terms of putting in place the various section 106 obligations and so on, and on its own land, making sure that the planning process is taken as far as it possibly can be upfront, so that when people come forward to build on that land, they know what the planning situation is already, and we don't have the problems that we have at the moment.

So, I think I'm broadly agreeing with pretty much everything you said. The only thing you didn’t mention, but I will mention, is that we are very interested in looking again at the powers and the capabilities of people to do compulsory purchase as well, so that we can assemble sites in just the right way. We know there's patchy ability across Wales to do that, and we will be reviewing the CPO process to match the LDP process.

16:40

Thank you, Minister. Can I say that I'm very encouraged that the package of work that you're announcing will lead to further initiatives coming forward as Welsh Government acts to deliver more homes for the people in Wales, including, as we've already seen, the greater provision of zero-carbon houses, more council house building—that can only be good for areas like mine in Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, particularly if, when we have such a house-building programme, we're encouraging the use of local builders as the primary contractors, because that obviously will help the local economy as well, and that's very much the direction of the work in the Valleys taskforce, as you know.

As an aside, Minister, can I also welcome your recent announcement on the extension of the notice periods for a section 21 in the Housing Act? I know that's not part of this statement and part of this review, but, nevertheless, I think as an overall package in terms of housing measures in Wales, I hope that that will eventually lead to the abolition of section 21 and the improvement of conditions for the most vulnerable people in the housing sector.

However, returning to your statement, and not wanting to repeat what others have said, or what you've already dealt with, there's one aspect of the report that I would be interested to hear more about from you, and that's the idea of an arm's-length body to act as a hub for public sector land management. I'd be interested to hear about any early thoughts that you have about such a body. The need and purpose of those powers clearly need some careful consideration, so can you tell us what benefits you would expect to accrue from it, and how you would see it operating in relation to the city region deal or the Valleys taskforce, or even local government, and in particular any of the empty homes initiatives that local authorities have at the moment?

Thank you very much. On that last one, what we're looking to do—in my statement very recently on local government regional working, I did outline that we are putting in a new vehicle for regional working for local government in that Bill, and that's something called a statutory joint committee. The word 'statutory' doesn't mean mandatory; it just means that the committee has a legal entity in its own right—it can employ its staff directly and so on. It's a perfect vehicle for this kind of economic development and land use because it allows us to pool the scarce huma