|1. Questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs|
|2. Questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government|
|3. Topical Questions|
|4. 90-second Statements|
|5. Statement by the Chair of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee: Brexit Priorities|
|6. Standards of Conduct Committee Reports|
|7. Motion to note the annual report on the Assembly Commission's Official Languages Scheme for 2018-19|
|8. Debate on the joint report of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee and the Finance Committee: Assessing the impact of budget decisions|
|9. Welsh Conservatives Debate: Autism|
|10. Voting Time|
|11. Short Debate: Tax Devolution|
The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs, and the first question is from Siân Gwenllian.
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the assistance available for water energy projects? OAQ54241
Diolch. The Welsh Government continues to provide technical support and funding for community and public sector energy projects, both onshore and offshore, through the Welsh Government energy service. Five local authorities and 12 community groups have received support for hydropower and water source heat schemes from our Welsh Government energy service.
Thank you very much. As your Government declared the climate emergency and a desire to take action in this area, the people of Wales are looking for proof that those aren't just empty words. And, as you know, I've raised the issue of rate relief for hydro energy projects in this Chamber previously, and Plaid Cymru has so far managed to convince you to continue with this relief until March of next year. What isn’t clear is what will happen after March of next year, and that creates uncertainty for community energy projects, such as Ynni Ogwen in my own constituency. So, can you, as part of your commitment to tackle climate change, give us an assurance today that you will scrap taxes on these community hydro schemes, and do so permanently?
Well, I can assure the Member, and everyone across Wales, that it didn't take Plaid Cymru to persuade me. We provide 100 per cent rate relief for community hydropower schemes, as you know, and that rate support is also available to other hydropower projects with a rateable value below £50,000. I'm very aware of Ynni Ogwen, which is an excellent scheme in your constituency, which I've visited. You will be aware that we don't know what our budget is for next year yet. We have no idea from the UK Government, but clearly it is an area where I feel we did need to have that support for hydropower schemes. I'm very keen that—. As part of the climate emergency, obviously, renewable energy is a huge part of us achieving our climate targets. So, I'm going to continue to ensure that renewable energy is absolutely part of our vision for a more sustainable future here in Wales.
Minister, you'll be fully aware that, off the coast of Pembrokeshire, there is huge potential to produce wave and tidal energy, especially given the tidal streams in and around Ramsey Sound. Now, the Welsh Government strategy, 'A Low Carbon Wales', states that Wales is well placed to take advantage of the opportunities associated with the blue economy, including wave and tidal energy. And, of course, the Government received consenting powers in April of this year for onshore and offshore projects up to 350 MW. However, the strategy contains generic policies, such as implementing energy consenting, planning and permitting policy, and developing routes to market for renewable technologies, but doesn't give any detailed information how the Government will actually implement these policies and what support is actually available. In the circumstances, can you outline the specific support the Welsh Government are able to provide potential energy producers who could actually be operating off the coast of Pembrokeshire?
As the Member knows, we do have two of the largest zones for demonstrating wave and tidal stream arrays, and one is in Pembrokeshire, as you'll be aware. You are right; we have had extra consenting powers through the Wales Act. Just last week, the First Minister and I met Natural Resources Wales to talk about licensing and regulation in relation to wave and tidal. And I'm very keen that the Welsh energy service continues to support organisations looking to bring much more of this type of renewable energy in. You wouldn't expect to see how we would get there in the low-carbon delivery plan. One of the things we are doing in light of the climate emergency declaration is going back to ensure that those plans, policies and proposals that are outlined in the low-carbon delivery plan are the correct ones to ensure that we do meet our climate change targets.
We know that all rivers flow downhill and they all flow down to the sea across the land surface. And we also know this can be converted into electricity by either building dams across the river, and then releasing the water, or by using the river current to generate electricity. We know this is done across the world—USA, China, Russia, across South America. Does the Welsh Government have any plans to do this across south Wales?
Hydropower schemes can be very complex, and they need to be designed and managed very carefully to avoid unacceptable impacts on communities and river environment. There are implications for our rivers, and, in fact, I think, at the moment, you will see more barriers being taken out of rivers than dams being installed. Again, I will mention the Welsh Government energy service. We're very keen to ensure that we support a range of Wales-owned projects. Many of Wales's largest dam systems do utilise hydropower to harness the power of water. We've got Llyn Brianne, for instance, and also the Elan valley. Unfortunately, I think because of the geography of Wales, there are now very few remaining large-scale opportunities for hydropower to make a major contribution to our energy supply, but I'm certainly very keen to hear of any specific projects.
Minister, now that the UK Government have shelved the Swansea tidal lagoon, what consideration has your Government given to looking at alternative, smaller-scale proof-of-concept schemes? A tidal lagoon could assist with the decarbonisation of the Port Talbot steelworks. Has your Government discussed this possibility with Tata?
I'm due to visit Tata later this month, and if they want to discuss that with me, I'd be very happy to do so. I know there are ongoing discussions with the Swansea bay city region group as well, in relation to dragon island—some opportunities they've come forward with there, which I understand Welsh Government are currently considering.
2. How is the Welsh Government supporting the farming community in mid Wales? OAQ54260
The Welsh Government is supporting the farming community in mid Wales, as in all parts of Wales, to become more profitable, sustainable, resilient and professionally managed. Over 5,000 individuals in the region have signed up to Farming Connect, a vital element of our support to farming, food and forestry businesses.
Thank you, Minister, for your answer. I recently met with the executive officer of the Farmers Union of Wales Montgomeryshire branch, and, on behalf of members in Montgomeryshire, a number of issues were raised, which included an increasing spate of theft of farm tools and farm equipment, also the introduction of nitrate vulnerable zones, and also their campaign to minimise dog attacks on livestock. In regard to NVZs, their concern is, of course, the amount of red tape that will come along with that, and I'd be grateful if you could outline your comments around that concern. I'd also be grateful if I could also learn how the Welsh Government is working alongside the police and crime commissioner for mid and west Wales to tackle the issue of theft of farm equipment, machinery and tools, which, sadly, in recent months, has been an increasing factor.
Thank you. You raise three points, so let's start with agricultural pollution. I've announced that it is my intention to introduce regulations. I didn't really want to do that, but I don't think the voluntary initiatives have worked in the way that we would want, and we've seen far too many agricultural pollutants—we had another one just at the end of last week. So, I will be introducing the regulations to address agricultural pollution in January of next year. I will be working with stakeholders, to develop the regulations, so I'm sure we will cut out as much bureaucracy as we possibly can, and red tape, and I will certainly listen to concerns as to how we can simplify the regulations.
In relation to rural crime, I'm committed to tackling wildlife and rural crime in Wales. You'll be aware there's been a very long-standing rural crime team in north Wales; I'm now very pleased there's one in Dyfed-Powys too. I think also the Wales wildlife crime and rural affairs group, which has been set up, do some valuable work, which I really appreciate, and they are very committed to working with Welsh Government and police forces. Again, I would just urge farmers and other rural businesses to ensure their equipment is locked up. I've been on many farms myself where the farmers have embarrassingly pointed out to me that the keys shouldn't be in the quad bike, for instance. And I think, again, they—[Interruption.] Well, I don't think they do it now; I think they've realised that that was something that they need to do to, just as we all do, in relation to our own property.
Minister, I've been contacted by the Powys agricultural well-being network, and I believe they've written to all the Members here who represent Powys. They're very concerned about the emotional and mental well-being of people working in the agricultural sector, at a time of great uncertainty, with real concerns about future markets. Can I ask you today to discuss with the Minister for Health and Social Services what more your Government might be able to do to support farmers and farming families through this very difficult time? It's not a section of the community that often finds it very easy to ask for help or to admit to strain, but there are, of course, some very good voluntary organisations working in the sector. So, can I ask you to speak to your colleague, and to make sure that some of those very effective local organisations continue to get access to funding to provide the sort of support that farming families may need through this very difficult time?
You raise a very important point and something that has been of great concern to me, probably since I came into portfolio, and, as we've seen the Brexit fiasco played out, it's something that I've become even more concerned about. I've already had those discussions with not just the Minister for Health and Social Services, but other colleagues in Government.
Last year, I gave £500,000 to three rural charities following the drought. There were lots of concerns in relation to the mental health of farmers following the drought. I've also given some additional funding to the DPJ Foundation, which you may be aware of. The DPJ Foundation have, I believe, an amazing counselling scheme, where they go into the homes of farmers, because farmers are very often isolated, and they work on a one-to-one basis in the farmer's own home. We're rolling that out. The funding that we've given as a Government to the DPJ Foundation means that they're now rolling out that scheme in north Wales.
I've also put a bid in for some funding in relation to mental health counselling and provision in the latest EU transition bid. So, I'm waiting to hear if that's been successful.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. The Conservative Party spokesperson, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, you will obviously be aware, as all Members and the general public are aware, of the disruptions at the heart of Cardiff centre today and yesterday and the day before. One of the accusations that the protesters have put against governments of all colours, but in particular here, is that the governments are not taking enough action on the agenda on climate change, and residents, obviously, are at the brunt of the disruption that's being caused. What would your message be to residents of Cardiff who have been disrupted, because the protestors are levelling that accusation against your Government?
The protesters haven't tried to engage with me directly, but, previously, officials have met with some members of them, so I'm very aware of the protest that is going on.
I think the South Wales Police and Crime Commissioner, Alun Michael, highlighted the issues: it's about a balance—it's about a balance in the protection of the right to a peaceful protest, but of course, it's not allowing things to go too far in terms of disrupting the lives of ordinary people. So, I think it is very important to recognise that.
As a Government, I believe that just declaring the climate emergency and seeing how that galvanised local authorities, town councils, individuals and businesses into action shows that we take this very seriously, and the level of work we are doing—. We're doing a huge amount of work in this area. I would encourage the protestors, for instance, to read the low-carbon delivery plan, which sets out those 100 policies and proposals as to what we intend to do over the coming years.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I think quite a few residents, if not many residents and businesses, would be surprised that the protesters have not engaged with you at all, given that their explicit request is obviously that Government achieves more in this particular area, and so, instead of protesting and blocking roads, perhaps engagement is a far better way of protesting in this instance.
But it is a fair accusation to lay at the Government's door. When the current First Minister was campaigning, he said he'd bring a clean air Act forward, and, in response to questions from the leader of the opposition back in May, he indicated that you and he had had a discussion on this and that Welsh Government were working up proposals in this particular area. Regrettably, yesterday, in the legislative statement, we did see no announcement at all in this particular area. Two thousand lives a year are taken prematurely in Wales—five a day, Minister. Action is required in this area, so when protesters say they're not seeing action, do you not see that, in this particular area, there is a lack of action and a lack of urgency from the Welsh Government?
No, I don't. I'm not sure if the Member was in the Chamber when I made a statement on clean air just, I think, a fortnight ago—
If you responded to it, then you'll know what I said, and you'll know that I said we will be going out to consultation in the autumn. Depending on the responses, that will then feed into a possible plan and Bill.
Well, with respect, the First Minister, in his legislative statement yesterday, made no mention of this at all. Given that we've only got about 18 months of this Assembly term left, it's quite clear that the Government will not be legislating in this particular area. And as I've said, given the urgency in this area—2,000 premature deaths; five a day—surely, that has to be one of the top priorities of the Government to make progress in this area.
But the other point that needs to be addressed here is that, obviously, all the announcements that Welsh Government have made this term, in particular around the climate emergency and the way that we're going to progress to zero carbon emissions by 2050—supported from these benches—require a dialogue with business and enterprise across the length and breadth of Wales. If you take Port Talbot steelworks, for example, 15 per cent of Wales's carbon emissions comes from Port Talbot steelworks. It's critical that businesses have confidence that the journey that they are going to have to undertake can be achieved and Government will be supporting them. Will you commit to launching an economic summit with Ken Skates, the economy Minister, to engage with business, call them around the table, so that a clear plan of action that is costed and understood can be brought forward, rather than the rhetoric that we're hearing from the protesters at the moment, which is saying that there just simply is not enough happening in this area and the battle for hearts and minds is in danger of being lost on this important agenda?
So, I've already attended the economic council that is chaired by my colleague Ken Skates at the invitation of businesses to discuss how they can help us respond to the climate emergency that we declared, and also how we can get to net zero by 2050, which is our ambition, going further than the UK Committee on Climate Change advised us to do. So, if it's something that businesses would like us to do, then I'm sure Ken Skates and I would be happy to do it, but I have to say I was very pleased to be invited to the economic council at the request of businesses, because they see that, if we are going to achieve those net zero reductions, they are a big part in helping us do it.
Minister, you will be aware, of course, that there are a number of factors currently having a negative impact on the beef sector as it currently stands, with major concerns about prices and the impact of the stockpiling that happened in the expectation that Brexit would happen earlier, and that's now hitting the market and having an impact on the viability of what's being produced here in Wales.
Now, there have been demands for the Welsh Government and Hybu Cig Cymru, processors and retailers to come together in order to work with the industry to tackle some of these problems. Beef farmers in Ireland, of course, will see €100 million being directed towards them through the European Commission and the Irish Government, so may I ask what you as a Government intend to do to respond to the situation faced by the sector?
Well, I'm not aware of having a request for us all to come together, but you'll be very aware that, next week, we'll be at the Royal Welsh Show, where all the people that you've just mentioned can come together to discuss this. I've seen the press release from National Farmers Union Cymru. I've also had a discussion, very briefly, with NFU Cymru on this issue. Farming is an industry where market changes are commonplace, but the beef sector has experienced a really turbulent time, I think, over the past few months and, clearly, lower prices are a concern. So, I'm very happy to discuss this with anybody who has an interest in it. As I say, we'll all be in the same place next week, so maybe that will be the opportunity to do so.
You mentioned Ireland, and, obviously, the Republic of Ireland, the prices are low in a historic context and the evidence does suggest that the uncertainty of our exit from the European Union is harming Irish beef producers too, and I know their prices have been consistently low, but I think there is a parity there at the moment that we haven't seen before.
I think people would have expected you to have been a little more proactive than saying that you're available to have discussions if people feel those discussions are necessary. In Ireland, they've gone out of their way to find this money, so I do think that that does perhaps suggest what the Government's attitude is to the situation as it currently exists.
One other area where people feel you should be more proactive is in tackling TB in cattle. We've seen the statistics, of course. We know that there was an increase last year—12,000 cattle were culled in Wales—that's 12,000 in Wales last year. Now, that's a statistic, of course, but, underneath those statistics, we know that there is an economic impact on those businesses and on the rural economy more broadly as a result of TB. There is a social impact, as we see the disease spreading further than anyone would wish to see it spread. And, of course, there is a personal impact, and that very often highlights itself in terms of mental health problems. Now, this, again, will be the subject of debate at the Royal Welsh Show next week. But one element that impacts a number of people in the sector is the feeling that Government isn't using every tool possible to tackle this disease. Hasn't the time now come, Minister, in light of the situation as it currently exists, for this Government to step up and to be willing to introduce a stronger element of a badger cull as part of your strategy? Do you accept that there is more that you could do? Because the sector certainly feels that way, and they also feel that the time has now come to do that.
If I can just go back to your first question, I don't have £100 million that I can just give to the agricultural sector in relation to beef prices. So, if that's what people are looking for, then, unfortunately, I do not have that level of money, and I don't think anybody in these times of austerity would expect me to do so. What I did do last year was give £2 million to the red meat sector for them to do some benchmarking. Unfortunately, not all that funding was taken up by red meat businesses, so I think that also shows something that we should take on board as well.
In relation to your question around bovine TB, and I absolutely accept the personal side of this and the distress it causes, you'll be aware of the TB eradication programme refresh that we had, and we're working through that. And the short answer to your last bit—'Do we think we should introduce a badger cull?'—the answer's 'no'.
I have to say, in response to your first comment there about the take-up of the benchmarking, the question is—well, you're blaming the farmers again, aren't you? And that's the culture of this Government: it's blame the farmers, it's point the finger at the farmers. Okay, the take-up wasn't there, but are you not reflecting as to why that was the case? Maybe it wasn't presented properly, maybe it wasn't the most appropriate way to do it. But it's the default position of this Government to blame the farmers, and I really—[Interruption.] I really do feel that that's a shame.
We've seen it with the TB stuff as well. I hear Members—well, I'm not sure what they're saying, but they're making noises. With the TB stuff, in, I think it was, the last statement you made, you were telling farmers that they really have to work harder, really try harder to stop this happening. Yet they're seeing this Government not utilising all of the tools that they could utilise, that are being utilised in other countries. So, surely, you have to admit that that adds to the feeling of frustration, to the feeling of despondency, ultimately leading to despair and mental health issues, on those farms where they do come across or find themselves being locked down by bovine TB.
Now, add to all of that, of course, Brexit, and a dark picture gets even darker still. If the prospect of a 'no deal' is increasingly likely at the moment, then you have already warned us, and I'll quote, that:
'A "no deal" would be absolutely catastrophic for farming, for farming families and for our communities in Wales',
and I don't see anything there that I disagree with. You, as a Welsh Government, have to commit to doing absolutely everything you can to mitigate the impacts of Brexit, but particularly of a 'no deal' Brexit, so will you today commit, in the event of a 'no deal' Brexit, to diverting all of the staffing and financing resources that you have as a department to try to mitigate the effects of that 'no deal' Brexit? That would mean, of course, pausing the consultations, such as the 'Sustainable Farming and our Land' consultation, so that this Government strains every sinew to protect the sector and the rural communities that we all hold so dear.
So, let's start with the beginning, shall we? I certainly don't blame farmers. There is no blame culture coming from me. What I've always said, and what they agree with, is that we work in partnership. So, we work in partnership to address many of the problems that the agricultural sector are facing, and TB is one of them where I think we have to work in partnership. I do not blame them for the beef prices. I do not blame them for asking for every tool to be used. What I do rule out is a badger cull, because the science, for me, is not there. Nothing I have seen since I've been in this post for three years makes me think that a badger cull in the style that they do in England would be beneficial here in Wales.
In relation to 'no deal' Brexit, this Government has been working to mitigate the impact of a 'no deal' Brexit for months. We were ready when we thought that was going to be at the end of March. That was then delayed until 12 April, and it's now delayed till 31 October. What we've taken the time to do is pause and reflect on and review and refine all the policies and proposals and projects that we had in place ready for the end of March. However, things could be different at the end of October. So, if you think of the sheep sector, for instance, clearly, if we'd come out at the end of March, the impact it would have had on the sheep sector would have been serious; at the end of October, it goes to another scale, and I'm sure you will understand that.
Will we pause the consultation? No, we won't pause the consultation. The consultation is due to finish on 30 October. The significant work that's been undertaken to bring that consultation forward—a 400 page, very detailed consultation document—that is now out there, and there's now about 14 or 15 weeks for people to respond to it. Next week, certainly, at the Royal Welsh Show, and at all the agricultural shows, I'm sure there will be lots of discussions. I think I'm doing at least three events next week in relation to the consultation. But, no, we won't be taking people off it, because, if you think about it, a significant amount of work has already been done.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to help pollinators? OAQ54267
Thank you. The Welsh Government’s action plan for pollinators, revised in 2018, aims to reduce and reverse the decline in pollinators. The plan was developed with stakeholders and has been recognised as an exemplar of co-design and co-production in the UK. Welsh Government and stakeholders share responsibility for its delivery.
I do welcome all those initiatives by the Welsh Government, and I know that they will help pollinators, but there are other things that can be done. We only have to open our eyes and look around the cities, the towns and the villages, and we can see an abundance of manicured, green, sterile spaces alongside roads and parks and on land surrounding public buildings, like hospitals, schools and offices. I'm sure that, if those areas were well managed, they'd all add up to a substantial amount of habitat that could be helping our pollinators thrive. Cutting grass less frequently would help significantly and allow wild flowers to grow. It's cheap, it's effective, but it also would save the local authorities money. In Holland, they've gone a step further, and they've planted flowers on the rooftops of bus stops, as an example, so we could look at roof space on other buildings. So, what actions are the Welsh Government currently taking to encourage public sector bodies to adopt pollinator-friendly policies when it comes to managing the land around their buildings and the land that they are responsible for?
Thank you. In my opening answer to Joyce Watson, I mentioned the Welsh Government's action plan for pollinators, and we have a taskforce that works to deliver the action plan. The Member will also be aware of Caru Gwenyn, our Bee Friendly scheme, which encourages communities to take positive action for pollinators. I think the point you raise about not cutting verges—we're also seeing a lot of wild meadow roundabouts as well. Interestingly, I read about the bus stops with the gardens on top of the bus shelters at the weekend, and asked officials on Monday if they could look at that. I understand also that some local authorities are now directing the finance that they would have used to cut verges into litter picks, which I think is a bit of a circular system, which I think could be very beneficial, but I think there's a huge amount that we can all do. We can all monitor pollinators to make sure that we're contributing as well.
Minister, would you join in congratulating the Assembly Commission with me on the action it has taken? I clambered up to the top of the Pierhead building a couple of weeks ago, with our excellent staff there, some of whom are now expert beekeepers, and indeed I think some Assembly Members' support staff also have joined the programme. I saw our two hives, and they were very active and, I'm told that we have some of the best bees in the bay—though they go for many miles around, apparently, in their work. That's just one example of what we could be doing.
On a recent private visit to Chicago, I saw what they're doing with green roofs, and they look fantastic—a great amenity. And that's another area. And can I say, if anyone has seen my desk, they know how committed I am to rather messy approaches to our daily lives? We could replicate this, indeed, on the grass verges and other open areas we have around, to great benefit to the wildlife.
Thank you very much. Yes, sometimes tidy isn't best, is it? I very much welcome what you say about the Assembly Commission. It's very good to hear there are some beehives—I, too, will now clamber up. We've got four Welsh Government offices, now, around Wales, that have beehives in them—or outside them. I think it's great that staff have taken this on in a voluntary role. I know, certainly, that the—. I'm trying to think. I think it might have been the Merthyr offices where I went, and there was an education official who has now become an expert in looking after beehives because she volunteered for the role to do that. I'm very interested in green roofs, as I said. Again, we have got a pilot project, Nature isn't Neat, which is funded by our Rural Communities LEADER scheme from the rural development programme. That develops an area-based approach—so, it can either be a village or a town that becomes a pollinator-friendly area. I know that the pilot is going to focus on Monmouth town in Nick Ramsay's constituency.
I was recently at the opening of a community garden in Wharf Road in Newport, Minister, which I think was a valuable example of how you turn waste ground into an area with flowers and bushes and plants generally that's a valuable contribution. But what I wanted to ask about really was: would you agree with me that, where we have areas of land that are very important for biodiversity and have protections—and I'm thinking of the Gwent levels, which has a number of SSSIs—we must look to how we can further protect those areas? The Gwent levels are home to the shrill carder bee, which is endangered, sadly, but home to many other pollinators and many other valuable wildlife and plants and flowers and ecosystems. So, would you join me in looking to provide further protection and perhaps consider making the Gwent levels an area of outstanding natural beauty?
I am aware that there has been a request for the Gwent levels to be given more formal designation and protection as an area of outstanding natural beauty, and that's obviously being considered. But, I think that you make a very important point about wasteland. I suppose that the point that I was trying to make about us all monitoring pollinators and seeing what we can do in those areas is something that I think is—. You know, we need to make sure that—. Pollinators are our responsibility. We need to ensure that we all do that extra thing to make sure that they are sustainable.
4. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that the proposed new farm payments system will have on the rural economy? OAQ54285
'Sustainable Farming and our Land' is underpinned by 400 pages of detailed scientific assessments, produced in collaboration with universities around the UK. However, until we have certainty on budgets from the UK Government, we cannot produce an impact assessment. Changes will not be introduced until an impact assessment has been completed.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. The Farmers Union of Wales has forced the Government to admit that the proposed new system may create a postcode lottery of funding for farmers. Some farmers may struggle to identify enough environmental actions to justify adequate payments, while others may find plenty of green opportunities. One of my constituents has a farm that has, for years, been undertaking positive environmental actions, but some of them may not be able to continue once you build the red route relief road through his land. What compensation or adjustments will you put in place for those farmers whose land cannot hit the environmental targets that you set, or find it more difficult to achieve the outcomes that you desire because you have compulsory purchased and built on parts of their farm, vastly increased pollutants and caused environmental damage to the rest of their land? And, if you are going to make a farmer's income dependent on their environmental actions, should you not also be operating by the same rules, and not destroying swathes of our environment? Or is this a classic example of, 'Don't do as we do; do as we say'?
The FUW has not forced me into saying any such thing, and I have no idea where you got that piece of information from. You will be aware that our consultation now looks at both sustainable food production and environmental outcomes. I have not visited a farm in Wales—and I have visited many, many farms in Wales over the last three years—where environmental outcomes could not be produced on that farm. I haven't come across any farmer who has said to me, 'I cannot produce any environmental outcomes on my land'. I think that the basis of our consultation shows just what farmers do already, for which they are not rewarded, and they should be rewarded. There is no market for environmental outcomes, and it is only right that if farmers provide excellent water quality and air quality, and if they are storing carbon, they are rewarded.
You'll forgive me for not missing an opportunity, Minister, to invite you to a farm in my constituency, given that you have been visiting farms across Wales, to hear some of their issues and their concerns. It's a very good initial question by Michelle Brown. There are concerns out there and the farmers unions have highlighted some of them. I appreciate that there are issues around the Brexit process and uncertainties, issues that are currently outside of your control, but things like the new land management scheme are within your control. Can you give us an assurance, and farmers an assurance, that, yes, the environmental factors that are very important are going to be there in the way that they deserve, but also that issues like production will come into this scheme as well? Because I think we do need to see farmers being recompensed, or however you want to call it, instead of the current subsidy system, but supported for producing food, which is of course their primary aim.
I'd be very happy to visit a farm in your constituency. I think it's really important that I'm out there, visiting farms and listening to farmers' concerns. You'll be aware of the extensive consultation we had last year in relation to 'Brexit and our land', and obviously 'Sustainable Farming and our Land' is part 2 of that consultation. Both unions, I think, welcomed the consultation. I think they could see that there had been a move from what was proposed in 'Brexit and our land' to 'Sustainable Farming and our Land'. One of the things is about having one sustainable farming scheme rather than the two schemes that we propose, so I hope it showed that it's a very meaningful consultation last year, that we listened to farmers' concerns, and I can assure them and everybody else that this consultation will be just as meaningful. It's open till 30 October and I would urge people to put forward their consultations, and certainly, as I said in my answer to Llyr Huws Gruffydd, over the next few weeks when we're attending summer shows, I'm sure that will be a topic for conversation. To be able to reward farmers for sustainable food production I think is very important. Again, it was something that came out of the 'Brexit and our land' consultation. What is very clear to me, and I'm sure to many people here, is that the basic payment scheme and the common agricultural policy have not given us the environmental outcomes that we would want, and that is what we're looking to do with sustainable farming.
5. What measures will the Welsh Government introduce to support Welsh farmers in the next twelve months? OAQ54244
We will continue to provide the range of support currently available, including our Farming Connect advice service, the basic payment scheme, and a range of other Welsh Government support, such as the sustainable production grant. We continue to call on the UK Government to provide further clarity on the level of agricultural funding that will be returned to Wales after Brexit.
Thank you very much for that reply, Minister, but your Government's latest farm income forecasts in Wales show that the average farm income is expected to decrease by 15 per cent compared to the previous year. Income from dairy farms is down 23 per cent, LFA cattle and sheep farms are down 9 per cent, and lowland cattle and sheep farms are down a massive 29 per cent. Given the vital importance of farming to the Welsh economy, to our rural communities and environments, what measures are you going to take to reverse the downturn in farm income and ensure the future viability of the farming industry in Wales? Please don't forget that we are an agricultural economy in the United Kingdom. We have to look after our farmers in Wales. Thank you.
I absolutely agree with you that we need to look after our farmers in Wales. The biggest threat to them is Brexit, and the uncertainty around Brexit. So you ask what we'll be doing in the next 12 months; well, one of the things that we might have to do is a rescue package for the sheep sector, because as farmers say to me, 'What happens on 1 November if we do crash out of the European Union with no deal, and I take my lambs to the market and there's nobody there to buy them?' So that is one thing that we may have to do over the next 12 months.
What we have been doing is trying to make our farms as productive as possible, so I mentioned the funding I gave to ensure that red meat benchmarking was undertaken. We'd previously done that in relation to the dairy sector, so there's a huge amount of work going into the agricultural sector from this Government to ensure that the future is bright for the sector, which is so important to Wales. But I have to say, the biggest threat at the moment is a 'no deal' Brexit.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on renewable energy in South Wales West? OAQ54272
Renewable energy is a critical part of the efficient and reliable low-carbon energy system that will support a prosperous low-carbon Wales. The Welsh Government continues to work with a range of partners across South Wales West to develop and deliver a strong and positive future for renewable energy.
Thank you very much for that answer, Minister. You may have heard yesterday during the business statement that the Trefnydd told me that the £200 million originally earmarked by Welsh Government to support a Swansea tidal lagoon was still available in reserves, but, of course, it would depend on the details of any project brought forward before any future commitment could be made for all that money. I hope that the new proposed model—that would see long-term energy supply sold to the large companies in advance—is a model that could be supported by the Welsh Government, subject to detail of course. So, I wonder if you could tell me whether you agree in principle that this new model for a Swansea tidal lagoon could be support by Welsh Government, but in particular whether you can update me on progress by Natural Resources Wales in the granting of the marine licences that need to go alongside the current planning permission. As you know, that’s due to expire shortly, and I’d hate to think that it fails simply on the ground that the marine licences are very, very slow coming forward. Thank you.
Thank you. I did hear the Minister for Finance and Trefnydd say that yesterday. I clocked that. And you’ll be aware of the huge amount of work the Welsh Government’s been doing, particularly with the Swansea bay city region, to support them to review the strategic options for the development of lagoon technology. And I think what the report does show is an encouraging, innovative approach to develop a financially viable project. So, that work is currently being considered by officials. In relation to your answer around Natural Resources Wales, I’m not sure of the progress of that specific licence. I’m meeting with the chair and chief exec of NRW in the morning, so I will ask them and I will write to the Member, but you may have heard me say in an earlier answer that the First Minister and I met with Natural Resources Wales last Thursday in Bangor to discuss licensing in relation to tidal energy in particular.
7. Does the Welsh Government have any plans to review dog breeding legislation? OAQ54250
The consultation on third-party sales of puppies and kittens, which included wider dog breeding issues, closed on 17 May. Officials have been analysing the responses to determine the most appropriate interventions required, and I will be making a statement on this issue before the end of term.
You've pretty much answered my question then, if you're going to be making a—. Well, it doesn't give you much time, actually, to make a statement, does it? In 2015, the Assembly, obviously, passed the regulations on dog breeding, and there were similar measures in England. And as you said, there’s been a fair amount of work done in this area. I was contacted by a constituent recently who was concerned about the robustness of some of the measures in place, and said that there was still some activity that we wanted to outlaw, in terms of puppy breeding, that was ongoing. So, my constituent asked me if there was going to be a review in the pipeline. You're obviously going to give a statement on this, so perhaps you could update the Assembly as soon as possible on when that review will happen and the scope of it, so that we can deal with all these issues.
Thank you. There’s certainly some activity that we would not want to see continuing to be undertaken in Wales. I had hoped to make a statement by today, but I will be making a statement and updating Members imminently.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on engaging communities in protecting biodiversity? OAQ54263
Our Environment (Wales) Act 2016 principles recognise that participation and collaboration are essential for the sustainable management of natural resources. Community engagement is therefore integral to our approach, as shown by our Caru Gwenyn scheme, which encourages communities to help make Wales one of the most bee-friendly nations in the world.
Minister, thank you for that answer. There’s a bit of a buzz in the air in Pontypridd, because Pontypridd has been named by Natural Resources Wales—it’s been given the status of official bee-friendly town with support of Pontypridd Town Council and the Pontypridd business improvement district, as a result of all the schemes. But there is a sting in the tail, Minister—[Interruption.]—and that is that there is no way of really recognising it. And I really wonder if you could do two things, Minister—firstly, to write to Pontypridd Town Council and to the Pontypridd BID to congratulate them on the wonderful work they’ve been doing, and secondly, surely there should be some way that Welsh Government should be facilitating plaques to go up in towns and enable this to happen. That will certainly increase the buzz.
I was trying to think how I could get one in, but I couldn’t think quick enough. I'll concentrate on the answer. And the First Minister's quip—you, sadly, already said it. I certainly offer my congratulations to Pontypridd in receiving their bee-friendly award. I know the community worked really hard to create those pollinator-friendly food sources—the spaces. And also they raised awareness in an excellent way of the need for pollinators. As I was saying in another answer, I think it's really important that we all monitor that, so I think just raising awareness will help that. I certainly hadn't thought of plaques, but I'd be very happy perhaps to speak to Keep Wales Tidy, who do the eco-school project, for instance, to see if there's any way we can look to doing that. But I certainly am very happy and I will write to Pontypridd Town Council.
The LIFE and biodiversity fund of the European Union for reviving certain species and funding environmental projects has invested €65 million in Wales over the last 25 years, and the fund bridges research, development and inclusion, and it funds innovative technologies too. There are a number of projects that have been funded through this, including Celtic forests and essential peat bog restoration. So, I'd like to ask the Minister, therefore: have you asked for assurance that the Westminster Government will fill the funding gap? And, if so, will the European Union have the right, and how will the Westminster and Welsh Governments respond to that?
Thank you. You raise a very important point. You'll be aware that we were promised we would not lose a penny if the UK did vote to leave the European Union, and that's certainly a promise not just myself but all ministerial colleagues, led by the First Minister, are ensuring happens. I know I've had conversations around funding for LIFE. I've been to a fantastic peat bog up in north-west Wales and seen the excellent restoration work that the LIFE funding had provided. So, it's really important that if we are going to meet our carbon reduction targets, react to the climate emergency in a way we would want to, that that funding is still available. So, those discussions are ongoing.
Biodiversity is an important part of the consultation exercise you're undertaking at the moment into supporting farms, and the farming community obviously will play a really important role in developing that biodiversity. One thing that is central to your consultation document is specific on-farm plans, individual farm plans, and individual land manager plans. What assessment have you made of the capacity to develop these plans if they are taken forward?
I appreciate they're in the consultation at the moment, but surely before you've put that proposal forward you've done some assessment as to the level of capacity that Government and whoever you contract this service out to have. Because we could potentially go from 16,000/17,000 applicants at the moment who've received support up to evidence we've received in committee of 40,000 applicants coming in, if you broaden it right out to that land manager interpretation that the Government employed in the first consultation.
Thank you. Farmers certainly are part of our response in relation to biodiversity. The farm I visited to launch the consultation, the field I was standing in, the farmer told me very proudly that there was between 90 and 100 tonnes of carbon per hectare stored in that field. So, you can see why farmers are so important in relation to biodiversity. Of course, we have looked at the capacity. We're not starting from a blank page. We've got Rural Payments Wales. We have always said that it is Welsh Government that will obviously bear the brunt of those resource issues. So, I am confident that if the consultation goes the way that we think it will, and people will want that single scheme, because certainly that was what farmers and land mangers who responded to the first consultation told us, that we will have the capacity to do it. But, I'm not underestimating it; it is a huge undertaking.
The next item, therefore, is questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government. The first question is from Jayne Bryant.
1. What discussions has the Minister had with Royal Mail following the launch of its five year strategy? OAQ54279
Officials met with Royal Mail earlier this month to discuss the potential implications of this strategy on Welsh communities. I intend to meet both with Royal Mail and the trade unions as soon as is practical.
Thank you, Deputy Minister. Since the privatisation of Royal Mail, there's been a pressure on the company to find profits. The Communication Workers Union, of which I'm a member, has raised concerns that the universal service obligation, which guarantees an equal six-day service to all in the UK, might be reviewed. To many who are isolated and lonely, postal workers can be one of the only few regular points of contact, especially in rural areas. Even in cities such as Newport, local posties are often the first to notice if something is wrong and are very much appreciated by their local communities. The universal service obligation is a fair and much valued service. If this is taken away, there is a fear that the link that community postmen provide will be lost. Can the Deputy Minister assure me that the Welsh Government will be making representations to Royal Mail to highlight the value it puts on the equal six-day service, ensuring that it does all it can to protect the role of the community posties?
Yes, absolutely. As the Member said, I'm very much aware, and the Government is, of the important role that posties play in communities across Wales in terms of not just the service they provide, but almost that link to people, that lifeline to people as well. I will be meeting Royal Mail shortly to discuss this, but also I place equal importance on meeting both the CWU and Unite trade unions, and in both those meetings I'll make sure that the universal service obligation and the role that posties play across our communities are on the agenda at those meetings.
I welcome the news that the Royal Mail is investing around £1.8 billion over the next five years into the postal service as a part of its five-year strategic plan. As a part of Royal Mail's plan to restore its fortunes, the group intends to expand its parcel service and introduce a second parcel delivery. However, Ofcom has warned that Royal Mail's financial position could threaten the sustainability of the universal postal service. What assurance has the Minister received from the Royal Mail that it will continue to meet its legal obligation to deliver letters to the whole country for a fixed fee? Thank you.
Clearly, Royal Mail services find themselves under pressure because of what has happened in the recent past in terms of privatisation. But, as I've already said to the Member previously, we place great emphasis on retaining the universal service obligation. We know the value that brings to our communities, particularly rural communities across Wales. And that is something that I will certainly be raising in my meetings with both the Royal Mail and the relevant trade unions. I know, in terms of the proposals, there are some positive proposals to make it easier for customers to post parcels, with the introduction of parcel post boxes, and to be able to return them. I think that in particular may help customers in more rural areas. But, absolutely, on our agenda is actually the retention and the value of the universal service obligation and the role that the posties play in our communities across the country.
2. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government interventions to reduce incidences of wild fires? OAQ54248
Our fire and rescue services continue to take a range of actions to reduce the number of wildfires in communities across the country. Many interventions are directly funded by the Welsh Government, and these have resulted in a 60 per cent reduction in the incidence of wildfire since 2009.
Thank you, Minister. A short while ago, I had the privilege to meet with Craig Hope and other members of the South Wales Fire and Rescue Service at Aberdare Fire Station to discuss their innovative approach to tackling wildfires. Craig is internationally renowned for his approach to the issue, for example through the development of the wildfire toolbox and the focus on taking a year-round approach as well. We know that overall numbers of wildfires are currently declining, but the ones that are occurring are on a larger scale, which provides a different set of challenges for fire services and for communities as well. There was another major wildfire in my constituency on Abernant mountain just last week. How are the Welsh Government working with partners to reduce the incidence of wildfires, for example, through land management, the spread of best practice and the adoption of a 365-day approach so that lives and property aren't at risk?
I thank the Member for her question. South Wales Fire and Rescue Service are indeed internationally renowned for the work they're doing, and have actually provided support to fire services across the UK in terms of the expertise that they have built. And I know it already works hard to find that extra support for the specialised equipment that they need in the area. The Member is absolutely right that the emphasis needs to be on year-round and working in partnership. So, while the fire service are the ones on the front line, so to speak, a lot of support has been placed into prevention, the education programmes within schools and those groups deemed at risk, and that can only be done, like you said, in partnership with other stakeholders, such as Natural Resources Wales, the police and community stakeholders. And that is something that has come on since the rise in incidents we saw at Easter a few years ago, and that is some partnership working that we continue to emphasise the value of and take forward, and that's something I will certainly be following up on as the Minister responsible.
Minister, residents who live on or near to Kilvey Hill in Swansea have spoken about living in constant fear of forest fires on the hill. Some of the owners of the smallholdings there have taken to installing their own fire bricks, while Natural Resources Wales, as you've mentioned, have taken steps and, in this case, have taken down trees to reduce the risk to people's properties. I remember, growing up in Vikki Howells's constituency, getting people coming into schools and telling us about the dangers of mountain fires. Judging by the statistics you've given us to date, that probably seems to have worked for a certain generation, anyway. But is there any intelligence out there now that it's different people who are being implicated in the mountain fires that we do have, and whether education needs to be directed in perhaps a slightly different direction?
For your constituency you raise that you live with that apprehension about potential wildfires. Deliberately set grass fires of any shape or size are totally unacceptable. They're irresponsible, dangerous and criminal. They not only put communities at risk, but they put them in that position of fear, which is why the preventative approach is so, so important. We do full collaboration with schools, police and other agencies, but also other programmes such as Crimes and Consequences, and the Phoenix Project works with small groups that are identified as being at risk of offending to try and reduce that offending as well, and target that support, training and funding in those cases.
Also, we do hear of cases where they've been deliberately set by young people, but there are also cases perhaps when it's arisen from a landowner themselves as well. So, it's actually about keeping going with that cross-partnership working and looking at the preventative agenda. Sure, if any Members have any further evidence or suggestions in terms of how we could take that forward, I'm always happy to receive them as well.
Questions now from the party spokespeople. Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Llywydd. Last week, you accepted in principle the recommendation that all new affordable homes should be as close as possible to zero carbon by 2021, subject to the outcome of your building regulations review. However, the homes likely to be completed and available in 2021 are those homes that form part of the applications going through the planning process at the moment. Will you therefore put on record that planning departments evaluating these applications at the moment should be securing zero-carbon homes, and making decisions now that are self-evidently in the framework for housing that you've set for the future?
We've recently written to planning authorities asking them to review some of the policies in the light of 'Planning Policy Wales', but it is a plan-led process and the plans have a lifetime of their own. So, we're asking through the Welsh Local Government Association and through local authority leads for them to review the local development plan process. And as you know, we're about to go out to consultation on the national development framework that will put the overarching strategy in place. It's not possible to instantly change the planning system in the way that you say, but we are taking all the steps to change it as fast as we can and keep the plan-led process in place and sustainable—clearly with a view to going to the place where you want us to be, but we do have to do that in accordance with the plans themselves.
A climate emergency means that decisions being taken now have to be consistent with the aspirations for a zero-carbon economy; it's not good enough to just keep delaying things, Minister. But moving to the issue of planning, you'll be aware that my colleague wrote to you recently asking to adjust planning policy to reflect the fact that, when considering the issue of the M4, the First Minister attached greater weight to environmental considerations than the planning inspector did. It seems that your reply didn't quite understand the issue. If the view of the Government, as expressed by the First Minister, is that the declaration of a climate emergency means that environmental considerations should have greater weight in planning than the planning inspector was prepared to attach to them, then surely you should accept that all planning decisions should now be attaching greater weight to environmental considerations than would have been the case six months ago before you declared a climate emergency? Will you therefore put on the record that that is your Government's view, and if you're not prepared to do that, can you explain the inconsistency that will invariably result?
I don't think there is an inconsistency. The planning process is not a science; it is a set of judgments based on a set of plans in a system that is plan-led. And so, you have to look at the system in the round, and each person who makes a decision, or each committee that makes a decision, will bring some human subjective judgment to how they see the plans. We put out guidance for that, but you can't take away the decision makers' individual weighting for that inside the plan-led process. The First Minister made it very apparent that it's perfectly possible to view that process in that way. We have regular conversations with all levels of the planning process about how those plans should be applied. But in the end, it's the individual decision maker's ability to bring that subjective judgment to bear inside the planning process. Now, I am not in a position—and I understand what you're trying to say—nor would any other decision maker, nor any other Minister anywhere in a plan-led process, be in a position to mandate the decision maker at any point in that system to give a specific sort of weight to a specific policy. Clearly, we have made it very clear that we want environmental considerations to be absolutely at the top of that tree in the consideration, in the round of that planning decision, that individual planning decision.
The most important part of that process is in the plan itself, and this is the thing that we're always trying to get across—that people need to be engaged in the plan itself, so the plan itself sets out the parameters for that. So, when the local authority sets out its plan, or revises its plan, or puts its specific planning policies in place, that's the point in time that you want the greatest emphasis put on the kinds of environmental outcomes that you and I would both like to see in this process. And as we go forward with the national development framework, and then, subsequent to that, the strategic planning arrangements, and we have a full planning process in Wales, that plan will lead people through that process in that way. But you can't eliminate completely the decision maker's ability to bring their subjective judgment to a set of plans. It's not a science.
I'd like to look even further now beyond 2021, Minister. It's clear that some of the technology that's going to be used in housing will effectively turn some houses into mini power stations, capable of generating the electricity that those communities will use, and even, in some cases, make those houses profitable. This, of course, is really exciting, but there's a risk that if we don't embrace this concept in a planned way, it could exacerbate existing social divides. Wealthy people will buy homes that will generate income for them, but those on the lowest incomes will either be left with the oldest housing stock that are expensive to run, or if they do live in newer homes, the income from such energy will be passed on to housing associations or private landlords. Will you therefore outline how your Government intends to ensure that the poorest people in our society will benefit from a green revolution?
Certainly, and I completely agree with you about the excitement of a distributed energy system, and the ability of that to bring a social justice element into that system that the old centralised system would never have been able to achieve. And we're very excited to be able to do that. Tomorrow morning, I will be receiving the reports of the decarbonisation working group, and I've had some meetings with the group, so I have a little bit of a trail, I suppose, of what they're going to say. And I know that they're very interested in much of the thing that you've just set out there, the ability to exploit the technology of the future in making homes into power stations. It's part of the proposed plans for the Swansea city deal. I'm sure you know that the homes as power stations element of that is in there, and we're very keen on doing that.
One of the other things that I'll be doing shortly, when I've got all of these reports back on housing in the round, is looking again at the setting of our rent policies. And in the setting of our rent policies, one of the things we'll want to look at is the social justice of the kind of thing that you're talking about. So, where somebody's home is used as a power station, and they're a tenant in a social rented place, I would like to see the benefit of that power coming back to that tenant, either in very much reduced bills, or in reduced rent, or a trade-off between the two. So, I'll be looking very carefully at the rent policy, to make sure that the kinds of injustice you're talking about do not occur in that system, and that the people who run their homes in that way get the benefit back to them, either, as I say, in reduced bills or shared services, or in reduced rent in certain circumstances and so on. And we'll be looking to have a flexible rent policy, without preannouncing the policies that I'm looking at. But, in the round, we'll be looking to have a flexible rent policy that gives credit to registered social landlords and councils that put those kinds of mitigating things in place, and that that should be reflected in the terms and conditions of the tenants that live in those homes.
And in terms of the private rented sector, of course, we will also be, in responding to the affordable homes and the decarbonisation agenda, putting measures in place about what we expect the private rented sector to do in that regard as well.
Diolch, Llywydd. I want to focus my questions on your responsibilities as Minister for fair work and welfare reform. I note the Welsh Government website says your fair work responsibilities include both opportunity for access, growth and progression, and for safe, healthy and inclusive working environments.
On Monday, as you may be aware, I was privileged to sponsor the young disabled persons political skills day event in the Welsh Parliament to celebrate UN World Youth Skills Day and the skills of young disabled people in Wales, organised by Leonard Cheshire Cymru, Children in Wales, and Whizz-Kidz. As I said, disabled young people are currently one of the most marginalised groups, and, all too often, society has failed to recognise their talent, their creativity, their ability to see the world in a way that's often different to others, their lived experience, which can help identify and tackle the barriers of access and inclusion they face. And those young people raised many matters with me and other members of the question panel later that morning, particularly—not exclusively—around the barriers they face, not only to employment, but to the type of employment that maximises the skills that each of them individually has. For example, one of the questions was: 'What more should be done to help us understand our benefits to make informed choices about work, and how are people with disabilities expected to get a job when there's a lack of accessible facilities such as Changing Places toilets?'
So, how will you incorporate those needs, those wants, those ambitions, those opportunities, into your work on fair work and welfare reform, noting, for example, the joint work you've done with the Department for Work and Pensions on Communities for Work, the work that Remploy Cymru is doing with the work and health programme, the DWP disability confidence scheme, and, of course, the Access to Work scheme?
Yes, it's a very important point. I too have had the real pleasure of working with some of the young people who work with Leonard Cheshire, including last year, in my previous portfolio, meeting with a young man who I very seriously hope to see here amongst us very shortly, who told me that his ambition to be a politician was thwarted by his use of a wheelchair. And I went to some great length to explain to him that, on the contrary, it was a real benefit, and would be a real boon to us as decision makers to have a young person such as him in our number. So, I really do hope, if he's listening, that he's continuing to pursue that. So, I completely agree with what you say.
There are a number of things that we're doing through the fair work agenda, but actually across the Government in other ways as well. Many of the things you mentioned are not directly in my portfolio, but I work closely with my colleague the Deputy Minister on some of those matters, around making sure that our employers become disability-inclusive employers, that they are aware of and make the right kinds of reasonable adjustments for people, and that disabled people—of any sort, whatever their disability—do not face additional hurdles, but actually have a workplace levelled out, so that they do not have to jump through any hoops, but that those hoops are removed for them. And we will be looking, as part of our fair work agenda, through the economic contract and otherwise, to reward companies that step up to that plate, and to make sure that, through our trade union colleagues and through our social partnership working, we drive the kind of culture and behaviours that encourage and reward good employers to come forward, and make sure that they do that in that way.
We're also looking, through the Parents, Childcare and Employment scheme and other mechanisms, at a whole series of other interventions across the economy portfolio and my colleague the Chief Whip's disabilities and equalities portfolios to make sure that we make sure that the employers themselves are aware of the assistance that they can get in making those reasonable adjustments, and that they regard the people who are applying to them who do have a disability as an asset and not as a problem. Because I do think that that cultural shift is really important, so that people can see the talent in front of them, and not just the wheelchair or the disability. So, I think I'm largely agreeing with what you're saying. I'm more than happy to look at any other suggestions that either Leonard Cheshire or you, Mark, want to put forward.
Thank you. And I think the key message that came through was that the young people—many of them were unaware of even the schemes that exist currently, so it's how we can engage with them in the design and delivery of those programmes, rather than as recipients, if somebody chooses to tell them about this. And I think the young man you refer to might have been the person who chaired, brilliantly, the question-time panel that we had on Monday morning.
Speaking here in October 2016, I highlighted concerns expressed by Oxfam Cymru, which they then said remained unanswered in the Welsh Government's programme for government, 'Taking Wales Forward'. And they suggested reforms based on something I think I've heard you refer to in committee—the sustainable livelihoods approach. Their three-year building livelihoods and strengthening communities in Wales project had helped over 1,100 people to get their lives on track, helping them identify their strengths and assets, in order to identify the root problems preventing them from reaching their potential. And they said it also made financial sense, securing an average return of £4.39 for every £1 spent. How do you therefore respond to their statement that embedding the sustainable livelihoods approach in all policy and service delivery in Wales will help people to break out of poverty and into fair work, and assuming—and I think you will—you agree with that statement, what work are you doing to incorporate that as you go forward?
I do agree with that statement very much, and, actually, that specific piece of work is in the Deputy Minister's portfolio. I did have responsibility for it in my previous portfolio, so I'm very much aware of it.
In terms of what we're trying to do with a broader fair work agenda—what we're trying to do is make sure that, through our social partnership working, we change the culture in Wales so that companies are much more likely to take people who are coming off programmes such as that in, either on work experience or on extended paid internships or on apprenticeship schemes, shared or otherwise, and so on.
I will say that we also very much encourage young people of that sort to join a trade union. The trade union movement is excellent at helping people access the benefits that they're entitled to and to working with our employers to make sure that the employers themselves are also aware of what their members are entitled to.
So, my message would be: of course, we are very interested in working with Oxfam Cymru. I was very familiar with that scheme before, particularly their work with young women. I know that my colleague the Deputy Minister is taking that work forward as well. But young people in those circumstances should definitely join their local trade union and make sure that they get access to all of the benefits that that kind of working life can bring.
Clearly, it's important, as you indicate, that we see people's strengths and utilise their own understanding of themselves and the barriers they encounter in order to turn those barriers into opportunities.
But, again, in referring to and bringing all these points together—welfare reform and the sustainable livelihoods approach—the partnership project being implemented across Wales between Oxfam Cymru and the DWP delivers poverty awareness for Wales to DWP front-line staff and managers and introduces an evidence-based toolkit and resource pack using the sustainable livelihoods approach. Originally, it was delivered by an Oxfam staff member, to train DWP staff, and last September, a DWP staff member was seconded to Oxfam as training project lead across Wales. The interim evaluation found that 90 per cent of trained DWP and community partner staff, trained in the sustainable livelihoods approach, reported an increase in awareness of poverty issues in Wales, and 80 per cent reported that they will regularly use the sustainable livelihoods approach. So, how, again, will or is the Welsh Government engaged with this project? And whether it is or it isn't—it's not named here as a partner—how will it integrate this sort of work into its own fair work work as it goes forward?
So, again, that's not particularly in my portfolio, so I'll have to ask the Deputy Minister to come back to you about the specifics of that particular programme, which I'm not familiar with, I'm afraid.FootnoteLink
We have been, through my Deputy Minister, Hannah Blythyn, in communication with the UK Government on a range of issues to do with welfare. And can I say that I very much welcome the approach of the DWP in Wales for that kind of person-centred approach, which we can only recommend.
But I have to say that, one of the biggest reasons that we have poverty in Wales is because the welfare benefits system is not fit for purpose and simply does not deliver the kind of money to people that they need to live on. And the very cruel bedroom tax and capping system has a particularly detrimental effect on people who live in poverty. So, actually, my own view would be that the very best thing you can do with welfare, although I welcome the trauma-centred approach that you're talking about, would be to make it enough money for people to actually live off.
3. What changes will the Welsh Government make to its housing and planning policies as a result of declaring a climate emergency? OAQ54251
The latest version of 'Planning Policy Wales' puts decarbonisation at the heart of our national planning policy. The forthcoming national development framework will have a similar focus. Our work on the energy efficiency of new homes through building regulations will also contribute to our response to the climate emergency.
Thank you, Minister. My question ties in, in a small way, with one of Leanne Wood's earlier spokesperson's questions. I raised this with Lesley Griffiths, with her hat on as the environment Minister, last month. I had a query from a constituent who was looking to build an eco-house, effectively a carbon neutral house in the countryside, but in an area where there had been a previous house, and the application was turned down, but they were allowed to restore an older building that was there and less environmentally friendly. So, I was asked whether I'd pass on to the Welsh Government concerns, with the new climate change emergency having been declared, about whether there will be any review of the planning system so that, when local authorities are following planning guidelines and making planning decisions, they do take into account that, if people want to build carbon-neutral, eco-friendly homes, then those will be pushed a little bit higher up the planning process—appreciating, of course, that there are other mitigating planning aspects as well, but I think it would be helpful if the climate emergency was well and truly embedded within the planning system.
Yes, well, I don't disagree with the sentiment behind that. There are more complex reasons behind it, and I don't want to comment on an individual planning application about which I know nothing, but there can be other complex issues. It's not always entirely carbon-neutral to remove an old building that is made of completely unrecyclable or unsustainable materials. And that can often create a higher carbon footprint than the house itself that you're proposing to build. I'm not suggesting that that was the case in that case—I know nothing about it—but it's important to look at the entire life-cycle of such a thing when you're looking at a carbon-neutral approach to things. When we are responding to the decarbonisation working group and once we've had a chance to digest their report, which we'll be receiving tomorrow, I know, because I've had some preliminary conversations with them, that they are very concerned about that life-cycle issue as well, because replacing an older, less efficient home with a new one superficially sounds good, but what are you going to do with the material in the old home if it's unsustainable and unrecyclable, for example? So, there are bigger issues there.
What I would say is that that's not really the planning process, although each individual planning authority will take its own view. The policies are in place to allow eco-houses to be built right now. What we are doing is reviewing our building regulations, so that, in building your house, you have to do certain things. You'll know that we're doing that partly in response to the Grenfell tragedy, and so we're looking to make sure that our fire safety processes are up to scratch, but, in doing that, we are also looking at decarbonisation of the building process itself, so that when you are granted planning permission you do, of course, have to build whatever it is you have planning consent for in accordance with the building regulations. So, the building regulations are an important toolbox in that, and I will shortly, Llywydd, be bringing forward proposals to consult on proposals to change the building regulations, which we will then be taking through the Senedd, so you'll have an opportunity to scrutinise our plans in that regard as well.
Well, about time, too, because the last time this Government brought forward proposals to strengthen part L building regulations, Plaid Cymru, my colleagues and I, argued fervently that the Government should be much more ambitious. Despite consulting on a 40 per cent or a 25 per cent strengthening of energy efficiency, your Government plumped for a measly 9 per cent increase. Now, we argued against, you voted us down. Three years later, we have a number of houses that have been built in the meantime that are actually locking in that energy inefficiency that you supported and which we opposed. Do you regret that?
As I say, we are about to review part L of the building regulations. A lot of things have changed in the last several years around the materials that are available in order to achieve energy efficiency, and there are other issues around the climate emergency, actually, that are really interesting, because one of the biggest issues for Welsh houses now is not heating, it's cooling. So, actually, strengthening the building regulations at this point in time, we are able to take cognisance of technology that hasn't existed other than in the last few months around making sure that your home is both cool and hot. I'm sure, Llywydd, we all welcome the pleasant weather we've been having, recently, but a number of people will now be cooling their homes all night as well as heating them, and the energy inefficiency of that is something we very much need to take account of as well. The building regulations are now able to take that into account in their first iteration in 2020, but there will also be futureproofing in there so that, as technology changes, we'll be able to keep the building regulations up to date with the latest technology without having to redo the entire process.
Diolch, Llywydd, but I think my question has just been answered, because it was on heating and cooling. So, thank you.
4. How will the Minister respond to the emergence of declarations in favour of Welsh independence by some councils in Wales? OAQ54262
The Welsh Government’s position on the question of independence is very clear: we believe Wales is best served by being part of the United Kingdom. But the union has to change to successfully meet the unprecedented challenges it faces. Local democracy will continue to play a vital role in this.
Thank you, Minister. Eleven community and town councils have now passed motions supporting an independent Wales. So, that is 11 out of well over 700 individual bodies. Now, the chair of Nefyn town council has been quoted as saying that he hopes the town council's decision will cause a tsunami of excitement and confidence throughout the nation. He's right about one thing: independence would be a destructive tsunami for Wales. For example, this Parliament and your Welsh Government—[Interruption.]
The Minister cannot hear the question that is about to be asked.
—and your Welsh Government benefits greatly from Wales being an integral part of our United Kingdom. Whilst I appreciate that independence has only won support of around 1.5 per cent of all town and community councils in Wales, I believe that a strong—[Interruption.]—response is needed from your Government. Will you, therefore, confirm that the Welsh Government will not use these votes as an excuse to reassess Wales and its place within the union?
Well, Llywydd, town councils are local democracy in action, and if they want to make declarations about a number of things that are outwith their powers, I'm not in any position to say one way or the other whether they should do so. The Welsh Government has always been very clear that we think that Wales's best interests are best protected as part of a well-functioning union. We've consistently been at the forefront of efforts to try and reform those aspects that don't work for Wales's interests. We were the first Government to set out a vision for the future of inter-governmental relations and the constitution in 'Brexit and devolution', and as part of the review of inter-governmental relations, we took the lead on the development of new principles for relations between our Governments, which have now been published. If town councils feel differently, that's entirely a matter for their local democracies.
Minister, only yesterday, the Finance Minister warned us that Wales faces the twin threats of the UK Government's continuing programme of austerity and a 'no deal' Brexit, which could do great harm to Wales's interests. Indeed, we've also seen over recent years our home city of Swansea being neglected in terms of UK Government priorities—electrification of the rail cancelled, tidal lagoon not being funded. Even the Welsh Government's transport Minister has consistently complained about Wales's rail infrastructure being neglected by the UK Government. We're simply not getting our fair share of investment. We see the Welsh Government being refused powers over air passenger duty, over policing, and refused powers over criminal justice. Why are we incapable of running these things? Minister, is it not totally understandable that people are starting to ask themselves, 'Is there another way?', 'What about being independent?', 'What about being in control of our resources and our future instead of having to continually bleat about a litany of injustice, unfairness and broken promises, which is our lot with the current constitutional settlement?'.
Well, Llywydd, as the Minister for Local Government and Housing, I don't often get to comment on matters of these sorts, but I share Dai Lloyd's frustration at some of the things that the current Government of the United Kingdom is doing without sharing his concerns about the United Kingdom itself, and that is the essential difference between us.
But I also don't share his constant running down of various cities that we both love. So, at this point in time, since we seem to be a little off the topic of local government, I will take the opportunity to say that, only yesterday, Swansea came second in a list of the best places in Britain to live, with 75 per cent of people in Swansea saying that it was the best place on the entire planet to live. It's proving to be a popular city to live in, with good rates of employment for professionals, an excellent climate and a very lovely set of people. And I, for one, second that.
That will forever be known as the Nefyn and Swansea question. [Laughter.]
Question 5, Mark Reckless.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of the Help to Buy scheme in Wales? OAQ54281
I am not able to make an announcement about the future of Help to Buy in Wales until there is clarity about the level of consequential we'll receive from the UK Government. I do hope that we will have that clarity in the autumn.
The UK Government made a statement about the future of Help to Buy at least in England last autumn, and I think the lack of certainty is becoming more and more difficult for house builders in terms of their planning, whichever way the decision goes. I wonder, as the Welsh Government funds this scheme, whether it expects to make a profit on the eventual resale of houses, or whether it's concerned that first-time buyers may be putting themselves at risk of negative equity through paying so much more for new homes.
No, I don't share those concerns. We know that some 6 per cent of all completions on Help to Buy were, in fact, by first-time buyers, and they have proved an important element of the additional 20,000 affordable homes, with many of them being at affordable rent. The number of purchases at the scheme's inception stood at 8,731, and we've got another 827 applications for loans in the pipeline, and there have been 5,645 purchases during this term of Government. So, we can see, Llywydd, that this is a popular scheme. If we are to announce a further tranche, and I will not be able to do that one way or the other, then, there will certainly be some changes to the scheme to reflect some of the climate emergency issues that we've discussed in this Chamber, but I'm just not in a position to say one way or the other at this point in time.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of the planning system in Wales? OAQ54255
Certainly. The future of the planning system will be based on the 'Planning Policy Wales' document, published last December, and the national development framework, which we will consult on over the summer. They align the planning system directly and systematically with the requirements of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Like many Members in this National Assembly for Wales, I've been approached by constituents with disputes with their neighbours in relation to the height of hedges, and I was wondering whether this might be something that the Welsh Government might look at as part of its future planning policy, because it is a serious issue; it does cause significant neighbourhood dispute levels for the police sometimes to have to deal with. And the lack of guidance around hedge height and what constitutes a hedge sometimes is actually causing some problems for planning departments around Wales, including in my own constituency in Conwy. So, I wonder what action the Welsh Government might be able to take to help bring some clarity to resolve these issues.
Yes, actually, already the local authority can take quite a bit of action in terms of what it says in its local development plan, so I would very much encourage the Member to ensure that his local planning authority takes cognisance of any of the things that are raised through his constituency office, and actually looks locally to make sure that it has all of the right provisions in its own local development plan that will assist him.
Minister, clean air, pollution matters and emissions can be helped by planning departments. I understand your answer to Leanne Wood earlier on in saying environmental issues can't be addressed on a sole basis, but the Government can actually help by putting some guidance in place, particularly when it comes to written things like emissions in any applications. If we want to reduce emissions in an area, particularly in Port Talbot, for example, where we are always criticised for the air quality, you could talk about having cumulative levels of emissions written down and, therefore, an application that goes in for adding to that can be challenged and based upon that factor. Will you look at this matter to ensure that we can introduce this concept so that when applications come in that could actually be detrimental to the overall air quality, they can be dealt with as a collective, rather than just a single application?
Yes. I'm delighted to be able to tell the Member that the local authority could already do that. We completely revised 'Planning Policy Wales' to reflect the goals and ways of working set out in the well-being of future generations Act just last December. And if the local authority wants to revise its LDP in the light of that new document, which has placemaking at the heart of the national planning policy, then they, of course, can do so. The whole point of the revision of 'Planning Policy Wales' is for the sort of placemaking that David Rees highlights, and so the local authority is already able to do that if it wishes to revise its plan accordingly.
Minister, I have asked on a number of occasions with regard to the planning system, particularly with regard to large housing planning applications, about the issue of broadening the statutory number of consultees, particularly, for example, those that would have to deliver, for example, GP services and so on. Now, local health boards haven't been very efficient at this, but clearly, there are major impacts often on the deliverers of primary public services. I wonder whether any progress has been made in that respect, and also on my suggestion that there should, perhaps, be a levy on major planning applications that would actually fund representation for community groups where it's clear large applications are going to have a massive impact on local communities.
So, a range of things there. In terms of broadening the list of statutory consultees, statutory consultees are expected to provide a substantive response to the local planning authority within 21 days when consulted on planning applications, and 28 days of a pre-application consultation. That can be a significant undertaking. We do need to be sure that the local health board would be in a position to meet those expectations consistently, and we are very happy to have those conversations. Indeed, we have been having those conversations for some time. That's not to say, however, that the local planning authority cannot consult the health board outside of it being a statutory consultee, and we certainly recommend that as good practice. The local authority can, of course, put a section 106 agreement in place on a development where it can show that the infrastructure contribution is necessary, and we do encourage local authorities to do that in terms of the overall plan for their infrastructure.
GPs' first-hand experience of the capacity in their area—we would expect that to be channelled through the local health board and, indeed, through the regional partnership board so that the area planning arrangements have a good basis on which to put in place the local development plan in the first place.
I can't emphasise enough to Members in this Chamber that the purpose of a plan-led process is to make sure that local people are engaged in the plan, so that, at the point that the local authority comes forward and earmarks sites for various sorts of development, people can come forward and say, 'But that will have this effect on this school or this infrastructure' and so on. That is the purpose of a planning system, not to have a random system where each planning application, on its own, is looked at. The whole purpose of the plan is to look across the piece at the infrastructure, and so I can't emphasise that enough, and, if we can get that message out more and more as the LDPs go through their review processes, we will have done the people of Wales a really good service.
In terms of support for residents in the appeal process, as I say, the residents need to be involved at the planning stage, where at all possible. Of course, it's open to any individual group to participate in their planning appeals process. They need help to make sure that their representations are based on sound planning reasons. It is not enough to just object because you don't like something; you have to base it on a relevant planning consideration, and people can be helped with that. We do have Planning Aid Wales, which is a charitable organisation that seeks to support community engagement in the planning process. It provides guidance and, in some cases, direct support to community groups, and I'm happy to direct any groups of residents that you feel may need that support to Planning Aid Wales.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of non-statutory services by local authorities? OAQ54249
Yes. Local authority services play an important role in the lives of the people of Wales. The Welsh Government continues to protect funding for our local authorities so that those vital services, both statutory and non-statutory, can continue to be provided.
As local government's budgets have reduced and increasing social care demand and education needs have had to be met, non-statutory services, or services with a minimum statutory duty, such as libraries, have been cut, and cut severely across Wales. Such cuts have seen library hours cut and libraries closed, which impacts on the poorest most; leisure facilities reduced, when increasing physical activity and reducing obesity should be a priority in order to improve people's health; youth services cut, which affects the lives of young people. Does the Minister agree with my analysis and, if so, what is she going to do to try and increase the amount of money available to local authorities next year? If the Minister doesn't agree with what I've said, can you explain why?
I do entirely agree with your analysis. The Member Mike Hedges is very aware that the Welsh Government has done its very best to protect local government in Wales from the worst of the budget cuts imposed by the UK Government. I'd just reiterate again, in case Members of the opposite benches are too bored with this, that the Welsh Government's resource budget this year is almost £1 billion lower in real terms than it was in 2010-11, and so trying to maintain vital public services in the teeth of cuts such as that has been a very large challenge. My Cabinet colleagues and I continue to engage with local government through our well-established channels to deliver the best settlement that we can for the people of Wales. However, with Brexit and the lack of clarity around any potential spending review, the levels of uncertainty around our plans for the future are even more pronounced now than they have been in the past, and I would urge the UK Government to sort itself out and tell us, at the very least, what it's going to do with next year's budget.
Of course, when times are tough, we need to be far more creative, and I'd like to bring your attention, Minister, to an organisation called Dr.M'z in Carmarthen. It's a youth project. It's highly successful. It's extremely popular. It has fought tooth and nail to carry on surviving. And it is funded by Carmarthen County Council in part, but also by about seven or eight other large organisations to whom they've applied for grants. They've been very creative in trying to sustain the invaluable service that they provide to 12 to 25-year-olds, young parents, difficult-to-reach and vulnerable adults, and I would ask you to perhaps look at what you might do to encourage other organisations, and indeed the county councils themselves, to be far more creative in teaming up with organisations and charitable trusts that do have some funds, ranging from the Big Lottery down to some of the more obscure but large charitable organisations, because all of this money combined together will help, in some part, to keep some of our services going.
Yes, I very much welcome that approach, and we do have some very innovative schemes right across Wales, where local authorities have really worked very hard to keep services going in a range of different ways, through third sector and other organisations, local community organisations, town and community councils and so on. There's a range of very creative ways forward. The youth work strategy is in fact in the portfolio of the Minister for Education. I'm very pleased that the youth work strategy for Wales was launched in June of this year, and what we're looking to do with that strategy is to develop a greater understanding of the services in Wales to ensure a more consistent offer, grounded in a youth work approach—so, learning from examples such as that, because they are patchy across Wales, because local authorities are very pushed, where the service is not statutory, to give some of the funding. I am very pleased that more than £10 million has been made available via the youth support grant to support that activity, including £2.5 million for mental health and emotional well-being in young people, and £3.7 million to address youth homelessness in particular, from the other part of my portfolio. Because we know, and I agree with Angela Burns entirely, that youth work has an important approach to play in ensuring that the personal, social and emotional development of young people in Wales stays on track to make sure that people are able to become the best people they can be. So, I agree entirely with the sentiment, but I do think that having that vital core funding can mean life or death, and so, actually, there has been a real problem with austerity cutbacks in non-statutory services, because that vital core funding has been removed, and then the service really struggles to get the kinds of support that she has highlighted.
8. What assessment has the Minister made of the effect that removing the ability for landlords to enact no-fault evictions would have on the rental sector? OAQ54284
We'll be implementing the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016 during this term of Government, and I'm also consulting on proposals to extend the minimum notice period under section 173 of that Act.
Thank you for that answer. In April this year, the First Minister said that he wanted to remove no-fault evictions when new occupation contracts are in force, and you've already mentioned that you've introduced a consultation to extend the period a landlord needs to give tenants to quit from two months to six. So, can you tell me, and those who live in a rented home, and people who are looking for or who want to rent out their own home—and thus add to the available housing stock in the rented sector—whether you really disagree with the First Minister's policy of banning no-fault evictions, or are you just waiting until there's sufficient Assembly time to bring in a ban that will damage the rental market and leave many more families in emergency accommodation?
Well, neither of those options, because the Member has entirely forgotten that this Assembly has already passed into law the Renting Homes (Wales) Act 2016. It's a very radical Act, which I'm very proud of. We have not been in a position to implement that Act, unfortunately, because of some arcane issues, which I won't go into because of the time, around the IT systems in the courts, but we have solved that problem now and we are now consulting on the last piece of the jigsaw to bring that Act into force. I'll just remind the Member that it brings in mandatory occupation contracts, making renting more transparent. It introduces the requirement for a dwelling to be fit for human habitation, which I'm particularly proud of, and the benches behind me were very keen on seeing as well. It includes specific requirements for smoke and carbon monoxide alarms and electrical safety testing. It provides protection against retaliatory evictions, which is when a landlord evicts a tenant in response to a request for repairs or maintenance. It has a number of other things around the length of the contract and so on, which I won't go into, at the risk of incurring the Llywydd's wrath. We are now consulting on extending the period for ending periodic contracts in Wales, because the shorthold assured tenancies that she mentions will no longer exist in Wales once this Act has gone into force, so we will have mandatory two-year tenancies. So, these restrictions are in a completely different set of legal arrangements to the section 21 notice that she is talking about in the Housing Act 1988. Llywydd, here in Wales, we have moved a long way from there, and we have rebalanced the power relationship between landlords and tenants, and in implementing this Act we will be putting right many of the wrongs that the old housing Act had. We've consulted extensively with the—[Interruption.] We have consulted extensively with the Residential Landlords Association and they are very happy with these arrangements.
Perhaps I can bring a little calm consensus to this matter. It is important that we strike the right balance here—that we don't put off potential landlords and existing landlords and ladies from making available housing for rent. But we do need a rebalance as well, and the UK Government has been part of a similar approach. I do urge you to remember what Richard Lambert said—who is the CEO of the National Landlords Association—and it's very apposite, given what you said about the 2016 Act. There, they ensured that the core procedures were reformed in Scotland—sorry, he was referring to Scotland, where they'd ensured that the core processes were put in place, and therefore tenant and landlord knew the recourse that they had should they have to use the court system. I think that that is a good lesson, because this system does have to work effectively and be fair to both sides.
Yes, indeed, and of course it goes alongside our Renting Homes (Fees etc.) (Wales) Act 2019, which we've only very recently passed through the Assembly, which sets Rent Smart Wales out as the organisation that 'polices' it for Wales. We did of course look carefully at the experience in Scotland as well, and there is an issue about local authority capacity to police the systems there. But I'm very sure, Llywydd, that this system will introduce a completely different set of arrangements in Wales, which this Assembly passed through because it was very visionary in doing so. Our new arrangements and the consultation on section 173 will make sure that we don't have any loopholes where tenants can be evicted on a short turnover. The fees Act prevents them from being recharged the fees. We have the security deposits arrangements. There are a whole series of other things that I urge Members to renew their acquaintance with in that Act that protect tenants from the kinds of things that section 21 is being used for in the old housing Act.
The next item was supposed to be topical questions, but no topical questions were received.
Therefore, the 90-second statements. The first statement is from Hefin David.
You won't believe this, Llywydd, but I always wanted to be on the stage and never had the opportunity, which is why I was delighted to attend the fifteenth annual suppers show of the Bedwas Theatre Group last weekend. Bedwas Theatre Group has been in existence since 1982, and they are a community-run organisation that provides entertainment, pantomimes, fundraising events for the community. They welcome people of all ages, regardless of ability, and they've got around 30 members, with people across all ages.
If anyone wants to work in a theatrical environment, whether it's on stage, acting, singing, dancing or comedy, they have a chance with the Bedwas Theatre Group. If anyone is more inclined to the production side, then the group has the theatrical equipment and technical equipment and knowledge to show them and give them a start to what will be a very entertaining career. Bedwas Theatre Group believes there is a star in everyone, and that everyone can do something. The group has members who join who are very shy, and some who are restless and hyperactive, and all have gone on to succeed in doing something that they wanted.
Much of what Bedwas Theatre Group does could not be done without the hard work of Caroline Hampson. Caroline is the group's chair and president, and has been a member since 1987, and the group's director and producer since 2001. During her time with the group, Caroline has been an inspiration. She has taken on the role of seamstress, make-up artist, as well as being a member of its management committee.
In the Queen's birthday honours this year, Caroline was delighted to receive a British empire medal award for her voluntary work with the Bedwas Theatre Group. To people who know her, however, it was not a surprise—an award that was richly deserved. It's thanks to Caroline that the theatre group plays such a pivotal role in the heart of the community, and, whatever your age, the group says that it must be the magic of the stage that helps you succeed.
Last week was Seafarers Awareness Week. The city of Newport has a very proud maritime heritage. On Sunday, a special service was held to remember the sacrifice of Newport seafarers who took part in D-day landings 75 years ago. The service was held alongside the unveiling of a commemorative anchor at the Mission To Seafarers near Alexandra Dock. This year also marks the twentieth anniversary of the establishment of the Newport branch of the Merchant Navy Association. Special mention must be given to Alan Speight, chair of the branch, for his dedication to the association, and to other stalwarts like Edward Watts for their contribution to the local community. Over the last two decades, the Newport branch has worked to commemorate members of the mercantile marine and the merchant navy. The branch is very active, and their work includes plaques dedicated to Newport seafarers lost in the first world war, a monument to the members of the arctic convoys famously described as the worst journeys in the world, and a monument to Raymond Victor Steed, who at just 14 years old was the youngest Welsh person to be killed in action during the second world war when his ship, the Empire Morn, was mined off the north African coast. Newport lost more merchant seamen in world war two than it did of all members of the army, navy and air force put together. I know that the Merchant Navy Association in Newport will continue to work tirelessly to ensure that, as a city, we will never forget those lost at sea.
Last week, two Welsh men were crowned world champions in their field. In a competition between 35 nations and 300 competitors in France, the Welshman Richard Jones from Glyndyfrdwy in Denbighshire became a world shearing champion, the first from Wales ever to have won that championship. He had to shear 20 sheep, and he did that in 15 minutes and 30 seconds, and although two other shearers—two former world champions—had finished in a slightly quicker time, it was the quality of the shearing that ensured that Richard took the title. He was part of a team of seven Welsh people, with another member, Aled Jones from Powys, becoming a world wool handling champion—only the third from Wales to hold that title. Richard and his partner, Alun Lloyd Jones from Llangollen, came to within a hair’s breadth of winning the world team shearing championship. If you haven't seen their story on Ffermio on S4C, it is worth catching. There will also be an opportunity to see members of the Welsh team working in the Royal Welsh Show in Builth Wells next week, and I'm sure there will be quite some celebration. But there will be no rest for Richard because he will defend his crown as the Welsh shearing champion in the Royal Welsh. On behalf of the National Assembly for Wales, may I extend our congratulations to the Welsh team, and particularly to Richard Jones and Aled Jones, Wales's latest world champions and a source of pride for each and every one of us?
The next item, then, is the statement by the Chair of the External Affairs and Additional Legislation Committee on Brexit priorities. I call on the Chair to make his statement. David Rees.
Diolch, Llywydd. I've brought forward this statement today in order to give the Assembly an update on our priorities for Brexit for the remaining months of 2019, and hopefully to take some of the politics out of this as well. Members might have heard this said before many times at various points during the Brexit process, but nevertheless we are entering a critical phase between now and 31 October of this year. The decisions made over the coming months will have far-reaching consequences that will shape our politics for many, many years to come, and although many of these decisions will take place in Westminster, there are still a number of areas where we as a committee will focus our efforts on behalf of Wales.
Yesterday we heard again from the Brexit Minister a statement, and I appreciate very much the continual updates we receive from the Minister. But as we heard yesterday, it was very much a stagnant position in Westminster because not much is going on there. Llywydd, in my statement today I would like to focus my comments on three priority areas that we believe are important for Wales: Brexit preparedness, particularly in terms of the implications for our economy; the risk to devolution and the future of the union of the United Kingdom as a consequence of what may come; and the impact of Brexit on EU and EEA nationals living in Wales.
During the last two and a half years, we have regularly examined the preparedness of key sectors in order to highlight the issues that are of particular importance to Wales. We have always focused on the issues that are relevant to Wales, and that's important for Members to remind themselves. This has included looking at the implications of Brexit for Welsh ports; taking a look at how public services in Wales are preparing; and examination of some of the implications for key sectors of the economy. Whilst much of this work has been done, it has to be noted that our work in this area, particularly in relation to no deal, cannot be considered to be an exhaustive list of the potential risks and benefits. In particular, it remains the case that the implications of leaving the EU without a deal could manifest themselves in unpredictable and damaging ways.
Which brings me to the challenges of the next three to four months. And it is important that we discuss this today, because we are going to have recess on Friday, a new Prime Minister will come into force next week, he will form a new Government, and we will not be returning until mid September. A lot can happen in that time. Businesses in Wales lack clarity on our future trading arrangements, and are currently wrestling with preparations for a damaging 'no deal' Brexit. The risks to the food and drinks industry, particularly the red meat sector, are considerable. We know that 88 per cent of food and drink exports currently go to the European market and that the tariffs that would be placed on these exports in the event of no deal and World Trade Organization rules could be crippling. And, moreover, the effects of non-tariff barriers and of sanitary and biosecurity checks at our borders and ports would pose a significant threat to the Welsh economy and the flow of goods and services with our nearest markets. And whilst we have been assured to some extent of the Welsh Government's planning as regards these matters, we will continue to scrutinise their activities in these areas during the coming months, and it must be said that no amount of planning—no amount of planning—can prepare us for such a scenario fully.
Turning to our second priority, leaving the EU necessitates the need for the Governments and legislatures of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom to transform the way they work together, and to ensure the interests of their nations are managed fairly as we leave the range of EU-wide common policy frameworks. Fundamentally, there appears to be a consensus emerging from all, except the UK Government, that existing inter-governmental structures must change to keep pace with our future outside the EU. We, and the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, have previously highlighted that inter-governmental mechanisms within the UK are inadequate. That's a gentle word, because we were stronger in some of our other condemnations of it. And it is the inadequacy of these mechanisms that is likely to cause the increasing strain in the relationship between the UK and devolved Governments in the months and the years ahead. There are two new scrutiny challenges that we, as an Assembly, must address with some urgency, and that's the the emergence of UK-wide common policy frameworks and the impact on devolution of UK international agreements.
Llywydd, I am pleased to note the action the Chairs' forum commented upon last week. They've agreed to take work in relation to the frameworks forward, and Chairs of their respective committees will pass it on with their committees. I'm very much appreciative of that fact. I look forward to working with colleagues from across the Chamber and other Assembly committees as we meet those challenges posed under these new scrutiny tasks. And a very serious question we must ask ourselves is: how do we scrutinise these? And perhaps how do we do so with other legislatures as well. In doing so, we must keep in mind that decisions on frameworks and international agreements will have a profound effect on our ability to implement policies for the people of Wales in devolved areas, which are obviously of importance. For example, agricultural policy, environmental protection, and aspects of healthcare and transport policy—they can all be impacted upon by international agreements and the Welsh Government would be required to discuss the implementation of those through its policies.
Our third priority relates to the freedom of movement and the continuation of citizens' rights after Brexit. And although there's broad consensus that there should be a reciprocal guarantee on citizens' rights after Brexit, there are still large areas of future policy that need to be considered and agreed. And it's for that reason that we have launched a consultation into the implications of the UK Government’s White Paper on the future of immigration rules after Brexit. We will also be launching an online conversation through the Dialogue app in the coming weeks, and holding focus group sessions with those most likely to be affected by changes to these rules in the autumn term. We cannot fail to do so. It is critical that we support our EU citizens living in Wales, because throughout this process, the important thing for us as a committee is to state clearly to EU citizens living in Wales, 'You will always be welcomed here. The contribution you make is valued, and we hope that you will continue to make your lives here as part of our communities up and down this great country of ours.'
This was the message that I relayed during the recent visit of His Excellency the Romanian ambassador to the UK. It was frightening, in an unofficial discussion we had with him and his accompanying group from the honarary consulate in Wales, to hear them highlight how they as a family, or their children, were actually still told to go home—and they were children going to a Welsh-medium school. It's a message I want to continue to relay during the months ahead of us. It's something I think every Member in this Chamber will want to join with me in relaying—that Wales will always be a home to people who want to live here and work here and actually help us serve our people. Diolch yn fawr.
Can I begin by thanking David Rees for the way he Chairs the committee? I think it's a monumental task in a most remarkable period of our political history, and we have a very necessary part to play here in Wales, and David's leadership has been instrumental in getting that committee to work with incredible effectiveness and really deep agreement on many, many issues, which, given the passionate views that are held by people, is a remarkable feat.
I have to say, having started on that positive note, I'm very disappointed by the poor attendance of the Welsh Government for this session. I think all the Ministers with the relevant responsibility here should have attended. I'm not sure why they haven't, because to balance my remarks, there's been excellent participation from the Welsh Government in the work of the committee and some high-quality, candid, wise evidence from Government Ministers. So, again, I think it is out of character in terms of the way they've behaved so far in our role in scrutinising their effectiveness as a Government. But, I do think it's appropriate to put those remarks on the record.
I believe that a 'no deal' outcome would be a grave risk. I can't see how any rational person could possibly come to any other conclusion. Even if Brexit becomes more settled in the medium to long term—and it might; you can make those predictions—short-term turbulence would be severe. We've got no right to make decisions that expose the most vulnerable in our society to those risks, far apart from what we might do in a longer term economic capacity in this country. So, I think that needs to be noticed. And it's been a real problem for those who are, beyond rhetoric, committed to a 'no deal' outcome, at least as being held as a prospect. Because the other side simply see it as something that holds very little credibility given the damage it would cause to those that propose it.
There's a danger of triggering a recession with a 'no deal', perhaps even a severe recession. What is certainly the case is that any recession would hit probably hardest in Wales. We are the most exposed part of the British economy. The pound is predicted to fall to parity with the dollar by many analysts. If anyone heard the Radio 4 financial news this morning, it was not a nice way to start your day. That would be a level last seen in the recession of the early 1980s. It would have a big impact on effective income levels in this country as so much of the global economy is enumerated in dollars. We would see our wage rates, in effect, fall quite considerably. As the Chair has said, the lamb, steel, auto and aeronautical sectors face particular challenges, and I commend the work that's been done in particular in these areas and the response of the Welsh Government in trying to prepare as much as it can to soften the impact in those areas.
And in the world after Brexit, UK inter-governmental structures will need reform, a reform that strengthens the union and allows common frameworks to work effectively. I again commend the Welsh Government for its balanced approach. It has conceded where it has considered the UK Government to have been really constructive, and it has also inevitably brought our attention to areas that it considers deficient. But I do think there's a level of genuine goodwill on both sides—both the UK Government and the Welsh Government—in terms of navigating this period and ensuring that we do have structures that are going to be robust for the future.
But I do believe the following situation, or the circumstances that may emerge in the next three months, could be particularly damaging to the union and to Wales. We need to be aware that the next three months will be like no other period potentially in our political history in the last 100 years in peacetime. And that we have to realise—. This is not a normal situation; it's taken three years to get to this stage, but what happens next could be very quick and dramatic.
I think we should rule out now a 'no deal' Brexit and make that clear across the Chamber. How has it become the default position that we could tolerate a 'no deal' Brexit? Whoever voted for it? How many of us heard "'no deal' Brexit" in the referendum campaign? Not a whisper, and plenty of evidence amongst those that proposed ending our relationship with the EU that that would not be the way that divorce would be arranged.
Proroguing Parliament—well, we do have a popular, or at least a character who is regarded by many as popular, and he's referred to as the eighteenth century member. Well, proroguing Parliament would be a seventeenth century measure it seems to me. A Charles I approach to dealing with Parliament. But—
But Parliament is the national forum of the British state. Now, I know some of you don't sign up completely to that, but just as we are the national forum of Wales, Parliament is the national forum of the British state, and at this time of supreme domestic crisis, to even tolerate others proposing proroguing Parliament as an option to get you over the line of a 'no deal' Brexit is utterly preposterous and it should be ruled out by all responsible politicians.
Another thing that should be ruled out is any situation, any approach, that leads to immediate acrimonious relations with the EU. We are leaving. It's for us to convince them that we're doing it with respect to all the vital considerations and interests that are out there with our partners and with ourselves. And I do fear a very ugly form of nationalism developing, in certain quarters anyway, that suddenly turns any failure on the part of the UK Government to somehow be the fault of Johnny European foreigner, and that needs to be called out. We need positive relations with the EU from day one. How are we ever going to get the sort of trading relationship that we require?
If I may conclude, the best outcome has always been a deal. I urge all those to be as generous as possible in getting a deal over the line. It has to be, in essence, what is there. What is there is not Mrs May's deal; it is the EU's deal proposed with the British state. It is above any particular politician. I know the Welsh Government has had some reservations, but we are facing the prospect of 'no deal' or the current deal perhaps slightly modified through a political statement. That's where we are. And that current deal would respect the Brexit referendum and it would also respect the economic and trading realities that currently exist, and will likely exist for many years to come. And to fly in the face of those and pretend we live in some seventeenth century world, where British dominance over world trade is emerging, is preposterous and needs to end now.
Can I thank David for his contribution, and particularly for his kind words at the start of that? Just to inform everybody, I have received apologies from the Counsel General. I do agree that perhaps Ministers are Brexited-out a little bit, but it is an important area that we need to ensure—. And, to be fair to them, it's quite right that Ministers have never shied away from coming to the committee and being full and frank with the committee, and the odd UK Minister has done that as well.
He also highlighted concerns again that the next three months are critical three months—August, September, October. I think, actually, four and five months, because I think November, December, after we leave, if we do so without a deal, are going to be just as bad, facing some challenging times for us. But there are going to be critical times ahead. He's also highlighted a strange task of claiming democracy, but yet proroguing Parliament, which denies democracy in one sense. So, it's something we can't have a say on, unfortunately, because we are not able to stop that, but it is an impact that we should be fully aware of, because the consequences of that are serious to us, because if they prorogue Parliament, clearly nothing gets done in Westminster for those months. It impacts upon what we do—we don't know where we will go. We clearly wouldn't understand one thing is the purpose of it is a 'no deal' exit, and that is something we would therefore clearly have to accept is going to happen. But the consequences beyond that are something we really don't understand. Because, as David highlighted, what's important is to strengthen the union through the reform, and if you prorogue Parliament, I somehow struggle to see how that will strengthen the union through reform. So it is a very serious question we have to watch.
He has made quite clear again the challenges that a 'no deal' would bring to the UK as a whole, and the risks that we would be facing. And he's quite right on the parity of the pound; I read this morning that they anticipate the pound will drop to $1. I remember the time when it was $4 something to a pound; actually, I do remember an awful lot $2.50 to the pound. I know it's dropped dramatically, but I've never seen it to $1 to a pound—that's absolutely crazy. And those are the figures they're talking about. So we do need to be very wary of the consequences, because, yes, a lot of global products are actually purchased in the process through dollars—oil being a perfect example of that—and that will impact upon everything we do, because it impacts upon the transport costs of everything we deliver. So, it is challenging ahead of us if that does happen as a consequence.
I'd also like to thank David Rees for his excellent chairmanship of the committee, and the officials who do such a sterling job in assisting our work. I consider it a privilege that I'm able to play a part of a committee that's doing this important work relating to Brexit in this crucial, bizarre time in our politics, and with people from across different parties who want to take the issues we face seriously, and want to work constructively, to scrutinise decisions, and put forward suggestions for the future. And in that regard, I'd like to associate myself with much of what David Melding has said.
Chair, these are worrying times, and something I've talked about before is the opportunity cost that's been thrown up by all of this planning for 'no deal', and all of the resource that we could have otherwise spent on building up our nation and improving services. The Wales Audit Office, I know, are alive to this—they gave evidence to us along those lines. Do you agree that when we finally get to the other side, whether it's 'deal' or 'no deal' or 'remaining'—whatever it is that faces us—that that's going to be a big job of work for us to look at?
You've also talked about the absolutely vital role that our committee is going to be doing in speaking to EU nationals living in Wales, and the impact that the uncertainty has on them. A few weeks ago, I met a constituent of mine who is an EU national and she presented me with a book of Brexit testimonials, called In Limbo. The name says it all, doesn't it? So many people's lives have been just caught in suspension at the moment because of this uncertainty. And you referred, Chair, to the fact that one person we were speaking to recently had spoken about how their child had been told to, 'Go home.' Well, some constituents who are EU nationals have said very similar things to me as well. It's not right and I'd like to associate myself with the remarks that you've made to all the EU nationals living in Wales—please know that you are welcome, that your contribution to our economy and our society is valued and it enriches us profoundly.
I'm delighted that, as a committee, we will be considering the future of the union as part of our future work programme. There is a pressing need to scrutinise inter-governmental structures, and to keep the UK Government's feet to the fire, in terms of the draft principles that were published recently, given that, so far, they've given no indication that they intend to change their brazen ways. I look forward to scrutinising the common policy frameworks and working to ensure Westminster does not get away with signing international agreements that have the potential to degrade devolved services without Wales having a voice.
At times like this, with revolution almost in the air, it is the duty of this place, and the Government, to prepare for the future. Yes, this means preparing for all sorts of different Brexit eventualities, but it also means preparing this country for different constitutional eventualities. The First Minister himself told the committee that there are moving parts to this union, of which the Welsh Government is not in control, and that it may be possible that Wales will need to consider its constitutional future very soon, were Scotland to become independent, for example. There is therefore a duty on the Welsh Government to prepare the groundwork for this eventuality—something that, I accept, is outside the scope of our committee.
So, I repeat my call—speaking as an individual member of the committee, rather than for the committee as a whole—for the Welsh Government to give urgent consideration to convening a constitutional convention to consider the different constitutional options available to Wales. There’s no point calling for a UK-wide convention of this sort. The former First Minister spent years trying his best to achieve this and got nowhere. Scotland are on their own constitutional path and England has no intention of playing fair. As far as we can see, this is something we have to do for ourselves.
This convention, which could be similar in scope to the Kilbrandon commission, convened by Wilson’s Labour Government, should consider the different possibilities available to Wales and how these would function in practice: from home rule to devo-max; from federalism to confederalism; and, yes, independence too. If this work is not done, we may find ourselves sinking as part of a dysfunctional and unbalanced England and Wales ship of state, ruing the fact that we did not build a lifeboat when we had the chance. We have a duty to our citizens and future generations to give very serious consideration to this matter. The time to prepare for the future is now.
I thank Delyth for her contribution and the points she's made. I think the opportunity costs are something that we should be looking at, because I don't hear any Brexiteers challenging the costs that have been put towards leaving the EU, other than the divorce bill. But there are additional costs behind that. We all talked in the referendum about the costs of being in the EU, but we don't get any figures for how much it's actually costing us now, the amount of money that's being spent, the departmental disruption that's being caused, and those figures. That's something perhaps we will want to ask the Welsh Government at some point, as to the type of figures that they're spending on this, irrespective of the transformation fund, Minister, because I can see you looking there, but the amount of money that you're spending on other activities as well.
I'd also agree with Delyth on the EU nationals—they're still in limbo. We are not a nation of Donald Trumps, where people say, 'Go home.' People come here and are welcome here and want to be a part of here, and we want them to be part of here. I think we've always been a multicultural society. I'll open up. My mother's from Belgium. She came over just after the second world war. We are a nation of people who've always welcomed others, and we should never, ever, ever change from that. If anyone wants to emulate Donald Trump, I suggest you go to America and not be here.
The future of the union is a very strong thing. We may have different views on what a constitutional convention should be, but at some point, we do really need to get to grips with: what will the union look like? And if we don't do it, what could it look like? We need to get to that position, because I do fear that there are some ostriches in Westminster who keep burying their heads, who do not want to know and don't want to look at what it could look like if we don't take action now.
I thank the Chair of the committee for his statement. It's good to see that the Counsel General and Brexit Minister is in this place now as well. Also, I thought the statement was very considered actually, and was less partisan and more balanced than the contributions we've heard so far from the floor. Also, I thought, better than what I saw at his committee on Monday, where the future work programme had a section on having a referendum Bill work programme, as if Wales and the UK hadn't already voted to leave, and it was coloured in green for September and October for evidence gathering. [Interruption.] This is not a debate; this is a statement, David, and the remarks we heard from you, David Melding, I thought were more suited for a debate than a statement, but this is a statement and I will try and reply appropriately.
And then apparently, we're going to have red reporting in November on a referendum Bill. We voted to leave, and to date, you've been very good about that and recognising that we need to leave, David. But it's hardly a surprise, when there's such a consensus on the committee, if that's the contribution from the Conservative benches.
What we see about this is, I think, something that just is not a balanced contribution. We've never seen parity with the dollar and to suggest that the early 1980s recession led to parity with the dollar is just so ahistorical and wrong. In the early 1980s recession, we had a $2.40 or $2.45 peak in the sterling/dollar exchange rate. Many blame it for the shutdown of much of heavy industry across Wales. It was a high exchange rate, not a low exchange rate, that was the problem with that recession. It was in 1986-7 that we saw the lows in the currency with the fall in the oil price.
You speak about proroguing, but, actually, it's a fairly standard thing in the politics of some other countries with our system. Canada, for instance—you're not aware of the situation in Canada, with Stephen Harper, the Prime Minister there? He prorogued in 2008, and he prorogued again in 2010, and then for three months in 2013—all to help him get through political—[Interruption.] But not unprecedented, not unprecedented. [Interruption.] We will see what your new leader says, David, which I think will drive much of what happens in politics over the next few months. But I think what we're hearing—[Interruption.] I think that's totally fair, Llywydd. What we have, in terms of this statement and the preparation for 'no deal', I think were very sensible comments, and I agree with what the Chair has said on that.
What I would like to say, in terms of looking at the meat sector, we talk a lot about lamb, and I think it's right to do so, because it is a sector that will face some of the toughest challenges if we do exit without a deal. What I wonder, though, is: should much more be done to market lamb within the United Kingdom? I remember the beef war that John Major had, and we actually saw an increase in domestic demand for beef, particularly of prime cuts. If we were to see those difficulties for lamb farmers, surely you should be working to try and say to the majority of voters in the UK who voted to leave, 'Actually, this is one sector that's suffering difficulties, actually—if we buy more Welsh lamb across the UK, it will help to mitigate those difficulties.' And what about the beef sector? We were hearing earlier about Ireland and beef prices falling. Well, yes, because they fear there may be a tariff against their exports into the UK. I hope not as high as we see, in terms of the maximum tariff it could be, but if there were, beef prices here would go up. What are we doing to help Welsh farmers benefit from that, increase their production and mitigate that increase in prices for consumers?
The institutional architecture of the UK—the UK Government is not giving it enough attention. It's a lot of other pressures—I know that the Member understands that as well. But I would like to see it do more, and, to the extent that the Scottish Government and the Scottish Parliament agrees with us, why not work with them on this issue? The only times we seem to work with them is when an anti-Brexit alliance wants to try and stop the result of the referendum, as if Wales voted to remain and wants to leave the UK. That's not the case. But why don't we more constructively work with the Scottish Parliament on the frameworks? [Interruption.] Why don't you listen to what I'm saying, Lee? I'm talking about these frameworks, and why we've got to co-operate across the UK. If we agree with Scotland, why don't we work with them and try and do something jointly, to get the UK Government's attention, to make sure things are dealt with appropriately in this area?
And finally from me, I'd like to associate myself and my party entirely with the latter remarks made by David that people from the European Union and the European Economic Area who are in Wales are welcome, we want them to stay—[Interruption.]—and that message should go out from across the political spectrum. And when some people heckle, and when some people suggest our party isn't in any other position but that, it is very unhelpful, because it mutes that—[Interruption.] It mutes—[Interruption.] It mutes that message.
You are muting that message, which should go out from everyone across this Chamber, from all political parties and groups, that we want those people to stay. They are welcome in Wales: please stay. [Interruption.]
Llywydd, I welcome the last point made by the leader of the Brexit Party in the Assembly, because it is important that people understand that, hopefully—everyone—and that when they use language in debates, they continue to use that same language that people are welcome, that they're not foreigners, that they are individuals who are here and who are here to help and work with us. So, I welcome those views made by the Member.
I am disappointed that he used the issue of our forward work programme, in which we highlighted the concept of a referendum, but because we don't know what's coming, and we wanted to make sure that this was available in our forward work programme as a possibility. And it was therefore important that we didn't leave it out, so that we were in a position, as a committee of this Assembly, to be ready to address issues if and when they arise. It was clear that this was still a possibility, because we do not know what could happen in the future, whether it's proroguing Parliament, and what would be the consequences of that? It could be a general election, as a consequence of that—who knows what happens then, otherwise than that. We don't know whether a general election will be called before that situation, in which a party may win and which actually puts forward another referendum. We just don't know, and we needed to put in position, in our work programme, the possibility that we may need to address this if it came along. And that's why it's there, not because the committee or members of the committee thought that this was a great idea. This is a committee being responsible in the way it takes things forward, and that's important. It's disappointing the Member tried to belittle that responsibility. [Interruption.]
On the exchange rate—well, it was interesting to hear that he believes low exchange rates are good, because clearly that puts our exports at a disadvantage, but there we go. And he challenged proroguing as acceptable because it happens elsewhere. To me, personally, and I think to this institution, if someone tried to tell us, 'I'm sorry, I'm going to stop you sitting for the next two or three months', so that they could get a piece of legislation through, we would not be happy. We would think that that was a failure of democracy and, therefore, just because it's being used elsewhere doesn't mean it's acceptable or should be used by the UK Government. And anyone who thinks that way—and I have heard, and it's only a rumour, I accept that, but I have heard the rumours that those supporting Boris Johnson are keen to see the proroguing of Parliament, and I think that that would be a huge mistake for the new, incoming Prime Minister, if he becomes that, but let's wait and see, and let's hope he comes to some sense in that position.
Other than that—oh, the market lamb. I want to highlight one thing: we often talk about our markets and our exports, and our lamb does go abroad, large proportions go abroad, but we all accept that, actually, one of the biggest markets is next door to us, it's England. We understand that, but we also understand that we have to get into that market and be competitive as well. And if you are going to a 'no deal' scenario and, whatever happens, if you go to WTO rules and you decide to go for getting rid of tariffs, you open up the markets for exports from other countries across the world, which would then also be challenging the lamb we put in as well. So, you've got to look very carefully at what those markets will be acceptable for and how you can get into those markets as well, and the decisions of the UK Government to allow that to happen. So, I think it's going to be more challenging than simply to say, 'Let's go to England to sell our lamb.' It's a bit more complex than that.
I'm grateful to the Chair for bringing this statement this afternoon. I'm also grateful to him for the way in which he chairs the committee, and to the secretariat, who provide support for the committee. Presiding Officer, Members will be aware of the wide range of issues that the committee tries to cover in its time, and I've found my time on the committee to be one that has provided me with an insight into both the work that's being undertaken at the moment in dealing with Brexit, but also in being able to scrutinise Government across a broad range of its activities.
Now, it isn't my purpose this afternoon to rehearse arguments over Brexit itself. I had intended to make a point in this statement that we do need to focus hard on the rights and position of EU citizens in our country. I was glad to hear that that point has been repeated already today. But I will say to the leader of the Brexit Party that his party has introduced language into this Chamber and into our debate that I have never heard before. I've never heard members of our society, our communities, being referred to as 'foreigners' prior to you sitting in this Chamber. I'd never heard a differential in any debate we've ever had from any part of this Chamber where the words 'foreigners' and 'immigrants' have been introduced into our debate. In the years that I've been a Member here, all people living in Wales have been treated equally until you arrived in this Chamber. It is your language, it is your tone and it is your attitude that leads directly—directly—to attacks on people in this country and to people feeling unwelcome in their own homes, and you should be ashamed of that. And you should be ashamed of what you've done to debase the political debate in this place and in this country.
Let me say this: in terms of taking forward the work of the committee, I agree with those who spoke in this statement about some of the extraordinary statements we've heard about our democracy in the United Kingdom. Whatever our feelings on the nature of the UK and British democracy, it is ours and it belongs to all of us. It is not the plaything of the leaders of the Conservative Party or for those people seeking the leadership of the Conservative Party. They have no right to attempt to undermine our parliamentary democracy, or to use that parliamentary democracy to deliver a purpose for which there is no majority and no support. It may be acceptable in some places, and it may be acceptable in some political parties to prorogue the UK Parliament because the views of parliamentarians are inconvenient to their political purpose, but I do not believe that that is what people believed when they wanted to take back control. I remember no conversation and no argument being made—'If you vote to leave the EU in this referendum, do you know what we'll do? We will cancel parliamentary democracy, we will prorogue Parliament, we will prevent Members of Parliament from voting.' Nobody ever said that, and anybody who makes that argument should be deeply, deeply ashamed of the deceit that they are perpetrating on the people of this country, and I want no part of that at all.
There has been a recklessness, a carelessness and an un-British care for the people of this country in the debate we've had over a 'no deal' Brexit. I care deeply about people in all of the communities of this country, not simply the community I represent. And it is not good enough for people simply to say, 'We will have a "no deal" exit and damn the costs, damn the consequences, and damn the futures of people's lives that we are wrecking.' That is not good enough in any debate at any time. Let me say that this is an un-British—[Interruption.] It is not simply a criminal carelessness, it is deeply un-British in your approach. So, I care deeply for the future of agriculture and for manufacturing. I care deeply for the communities that are sustained by those industries. I care deeply for the families that are sustained by that employment, and I will never, ever use my vote and my place in this place in order to undermine their futures.
But can we also say that we do need a real debate about the future of the United Kingdom. I'm grateful that the Minister has been able to join us for this conversation this afternoon, and I'm grateful also to the Minister for his remarks and his openness in attending committee, and not simply answering questions but actually seeking to have a conversation, a debate and a discussion with the committee. I think Members on all sides of the Chamber are grateful to the Minister for his approach.
But we are seeing a very profound change in the nature of the United Kingdom, the creation of new structures where I do not believe we have the certainty of openness, transparency and accountability that we require. I welcome many of the changes that are being seen, which will create a far more equal United Kingdom with home rule Parliaments, particularly here and in Edinburgh, taking decisions that will shape people's lives in our countries, but working together with the Parliament in Westminster in order to ensure that we have an equal arrangement where we are all able to contribute to the future of this UK.
I hope that part of that will be democratic oversight and scrutiny, and we need to work hard—and I may address some of my remarks to the Minister here. I think it's a matter for all of us, Presiding Officer, and perhaps even you as the Presiding Officer, to ensure that there is institutional democratic accountability within the United Kingdom that holds the structures that are being created by the common frameworks to account for their decisions.
Let me just make one final remark, and I know I'm testing the patience of the chair, if not other Members. It was Gwyn Alf Williams, of course, who famously asked, 'When was Wales?', and I think it's for us now to ask a similar question, but 'What will Wales be?' For me, this country's always been a country that has looked outwards and looked at the world and embraced the world. We experienced globalisation before anybody had coined the phrase. We understood what internationalism is, and here in this place, in Cardiff Bay, was one of the first metropolitan, cosmopolitan communities in the world. And we have a responsibility, I believe, not simply to play our full part within the United Kingdom and other structures, but we have a responsibility to work alongside the Welsh Government to ensure that Wales continues to be represented in international capitals and in international affairs. I hope that the Welsh Government will work alongside the UK Government and others to ensure that we strengthen Wales's position internationally on the international stage, and we strengthen Wales's representation across the world.
Presiding Officer, I'm grateful to you for allowing this statement this afternoon. I do believe it's essential that committees are able to bring these statements to the Chamber, and, with certain exceptions, I think we've had a very positive debate on this statement.
Can I thank the Member for his comments? I also want to praise the fact of the experience he brings to the committee in understanding the workings particularly in the inter-governmental relationships side of issues and how we need to address the weaknesses that are starting to show as a consequence of Brexit and the realisation of, without the EU, what devolution actually now does mean. Because we've always operated devolution under the concept of the EU, and now we have to look at it in a different structure, so his input into that work is very much appreciated in that sense. He also, once again, highlights the importance of citizenship and the importance of people who come to this country who want to be part of this country who are active and bring life to this country, and we should always be welcoming to that.
Llywydd, I did think actually that I did say previously that anybody should go to America—I think I shouldn't have said that. I think we don't want to see anybody necessarily go, but it's the mental attitudes we don't want in this country. And those attitudes need to be disposed of, and so everyone should be as welcoming as possible.
Can I—? I'm not sure if there are any other Members speaking.
Then, can I thank all Members for their contributions? Can I also put on record my appreciation of the clerking team, because they do tremendous work, and this has been very complex—it's not just the clerking team; it's the team representing the Assembly in Brussels as well, the research team. They do a tremendous amount of work and, when you consider the to-ing and fro-ing that's going on, the ability they have to keep up with what's happening both in Westminster, in Cardiff and in Brussels—I think they do a fantastic job on behalf of this Assembly in keeping us updated on what's going on, and I put full praise to their efforts.
It's been an interesting set of contributions, but I think what's clear is that the work of the committee is critical to understanding the implications for Wales. I do appreciate Ministers—all of them, and I know that the Brexit Minister is there—for their frank and open discussions with us, and that has to continue because, if we want to serve the people of Wales, we have to have the answers and that discussion. And it's always been good in the committee that Ministers have come and done that for us. I look forward to them continuing to do so, and I look forward to them reminding their UK counterparts that they can also come and do so, because sometimes it's not so easy to get them to come as well. Thank you.
The next item is Standards of Conduct Committee reports, but no motions were tabled today.
So, we move to the motion to note the annual report of the Assembly Commission's official languages scheme for 2018-19. I call on Siân Gwenllian to move the motion.
Motion NDM7126 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with paragraph 8 (8) of Schedule 2 of the Government of Wales Act 2006:
Notes the Annual Report on the Assembly Commission’s Official Languages Scheme, laid before the National Assembly for Wales on 10 July 2019.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. It gives me great pleasure to introduce this annual report on the Assembly Commission's official languages scheme. It's wonderful to have an opportunity to share an update on our work over the past year. Now, the report celebrates successes, but also notes those occasions when we have not always succeeded in meeting the high standards set by the scheme.
I would like to begin with the themes that provide the structure for our work for the fifth Assembly. Last year saw a great deal of debate on our ambitious plans to transform the recruitment system in order to improve the process of defining and setting language skills levels for posts, introducing a requirement for basic language skills for every post advertised. The revised system has now been in place for a year, and the report includes details on the number of posts advertised at different levels, and in annual reports from this point on we will be able to compare those figures.
Now, with regard to the language skills theme, the language skills team has continued to provide bespoke training to Assembly Members and their support staff as well as Assembly Commission staff. Over 150 learners are now receiving training from the team. This year, thanks to the dedication of our learners and the team's innovative training methods, 11 learners have sat WJEC exams on the access, foundation and intermediate levels, with many more climbing the skills ladder but choosing not to sit an exam.
On the whole, the official languages team's work this year has focused on linguistic planning, which is the third theme, following the implementation of the new recruitment system. Heads of service and official languages co-ordinators are currently amending the language schemes of their respective services, noting the language skills requirements of each post. And, in tandem with this work, we're in the process of recording the language skills of all members of staff. This work is being done by each service in turn on a self-assessment basis, and the language skills team will be providing support to individuals and teams as necessary. All of this will provide certainty for the chief executive, and for me as commissioner with responsibility for official languages, that we are planning the organisation’s bilingual capacity appropriately to provide excellent bilingual services at all times.
Now, the Assembly’s proceedings are the fourth theme. Our work has focused on supporting Assembly Members to work and participate in proceedings in their chosen language. This year, the survey of Assembly Members and their staff yielded particularly good results in terms of their ability to work in their chosen language. However, we must not rest on our laurels, and nor will we do so. We will continue to listen to feedback from Members and their support staff to ensure that we maintain these high standards.
Unfortunately, there was no improvement in the number of monolingual documents laid in the Table Office, which means that it's difficult for Members to prepare for proceedings in their chosen language. However, we continue to work with the Welsh Government to seek opportunities to improve their provision. We welcome the commitment made by Shan Morgan, the Permanent Secretary, last week, during the Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee’s scrutiny session, to increase the number of documents laid bilingually, and it would be good to be able to report on progress on this matter in next year’s report.
The fifth theme is the most wide-ranging with regard to targets, and, even though they are reasonably simple in nature, taken together they will make a major difference to the culture and ethos of our organisation. These are the targets that will enable us to make the changes required to ensure that we achieve our ambition of being recognised as an innovative and proactive organisation in the provision of bilingual services.
In terms of the service standards, you will remember that we included a number of statistics on elements of the services that we provide last year, and this year we have added to those tables to allow comparisons to be made between years. During last year’s debate, Members requested details about the number and nature of the complaints received. It's heartening to note that only a small number of complaints were received and that we successfully resolved the majority informally without the need for a formal inquiry. However, I would like to assure you that we will use any feedback to learn and to improve our services. Positive feedback is also important, and the report includes a number of quotes from individuals, which will, again, assist us to learn lessons and to share good practice across the organisation. I look forward to hearing your response to the report.
May I thank you, Siân, and members of the official languages scheme team, for this report? Once again, it reflects an organisation where increasing numbers of people feel comfortable working and being included in a bilingual environment. But this is the first time that I've felt that it's actually captured the perspective of our learners.
Yes, the scheme has always been clear about the bespoke training available to Members and their staff and to Commission staff, and many of us have been delighted to be fortunate enough to benefit from this service. However, if you're learning the language of your own nation, you're in a unique situation that doesn't always emerge in policy discussions, be that about adult learners or Welsh language rights, perhaps because learners haven't always been involved in shaping those policies.
To be fair, the 'dysgwr' or 'learner' lanyards were an early development. When I was wearing my ‘iaith gwaith’ lanyard, learners wouldn’t necessarily speak to me, but when I wore my ‘dysgwr’ lanyard, they were willing to speak to me in Welsh, and I was, perhaps, also less intimidating to them.
So, I welcome very much the new method of setting language skills levels when defining requirements for posts. I rattled a few cages when I tried to raise this in a debate a few weeks ago, in the context of standards, but the principle is the same. But, here, our own Commission admits that people may choose not to apply for posts that are advertised as being ‘Welsh essential’, when the general understanding of the word ‘essential’ doesn’t necessarily accurately reflect what is essential. The same risk applies to bodies that are subject to standards, but the point is, in this place, the Commission has introduced a recruitment process that is far more nuanced, fairer and more accurate, seeking skills levels that are genuinely required from the outset, but also providing opportunities to improve and develop those skills in post. This makes the workplace a place to grow citizens who are increasingly bilingual and citizens who are increasingly confident in using both of their languages.
I will take the example of the new director of communications, which is in the report. The level 3 requirement was noted as the lowest level that was required. Now, working here, in that role, surrounded by fluent Welsh speakers, it wouldn’t be long before a level 3 applicant could develop their skills to reach levels 4 or 5. And I know that someone has now been appointed to that role. But, if that post had been advertised as being ‘Welsh essential’, then perhaps a level 3 speaker wouldn’t have applied, and perhaps they wouldn’t have improved their skills. So, I really do appreciate this as a way forward.
By the way, as we all know, women are less likely than men to apply for jobs where they don’t meet all of the criteria. So, it is possible that this matrix approach will eradicate unconscious gender bias as well as unconscious bias against those who are not wholly confident in their skills.
I was very pleased to see that you have already shared this approach with the National Centre for Learning Welsh, with unions and with some public bodies such as Swansea council. May I recommend that you approach the other two councils in my region too, where there are still problems in terms of culture and misconceptions surrounding the Welsh language?
At the other end of this linguistic spectrum, introducing a requirement for all staff to reach a courtesy level of Welsh has had a clear impact. Almost every day, I will hear at least a ‘bore da’ at the gate, and the majority of staff are not backwards in coming forwards with their new skills when they can. And some, such as a member of the night duty staff last week, are determined to show how much they have developed beyond a simple ‘bore da’ to becoming more fluent in their own particular field. This is another good idea for other public bodies to consider.
Clearly, we have the resources to do all of this. We cannot take for granted that it will be as easy for others to follow suit. But it may not cost that much. Of course, we have the resources to offer an entirely bilingual experience to staff, visitors and anyone who engages with this Assembly.
Just one other thing, if I may, Llywydd. Other than a continuing problem with some documents not being laid bilingually—and it appears to me the reasons for that haven't changed at all—I don't want us to forget the fact that there is good work being done here. I do hope that this contribution will be a slight nudge to the statistics in terms of the use of the Welsh language in the Chamber and I encourage others to give it a go. Thank you.
As someone whose lack of the Welsh language comes as a direct result of suppression of the language at the beginning of the last century—my mother was actually caned in school for speaking Welsh in school—I wholeheartedly support any moves to increase the use of the language. And where better to promote its use than in this establishment? I therefore welcome all the measures taken by the Commission in these matters. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you very much. Perhaps I’ll start by responding to that last comment and the fact that you had said, David Rowlands, before the whole Assembly today that your mum indeed had suffered as a result of the historic issues that were happening in our schools, where people were punished physically for speaking Welsh. I’m still incensed about that, but one turns that anger into constructive action and I’m very pleased at the innovative work in this area.
I thank Suzy for her constructive and positive comments here, endorsing and praising the work that has been done in terms of linguistic planning in this workplace. There are people from Norway and Finland who have come here to Wales to see the innovative work that we’re doing on linguistic planning and who are eager to learn from our experiences and from our practices with minority languages in their own nations.
I’m pleased that you agree that getting rid of that ‘Welsh essential’ tag has been a positive step. We know from experience, not just in the Assembly, but in other fields as well, that people choose not to apply for posts because they were concerned about that ‘Welsh essential’ tag. But, since introducing descriptions on different levels of skills, we’ve seen advertisements being developed in terms of the specific needs of posts and we’ve seen an increase in the number of Welsh learners who have been appointed to posts, which shows the value of investing in language skills training for those individuals and for the organisation as a whole.
In terms of the courtesy level Welsh, well it's excellent to see that in practice. I’ll never forget, in the National Eisteddfod, seeing the security officers taking great delight in using Welsh, saying, 'Bore da' and 'Prynhawn da'. One thing that is used often is ‘Popeth mewn trefn’—'Everything in order’. I hear that now, and it’s excellent hearing that courtesy level Welsh being used. I see that I am out of time. So, I’m very pleased to introduce this report. The work will continue. It’s far from being perfect, but we will continue and will maintain momentum.
If I can say just one brief word before concluding, as I wouldn’t like to finish today without naming one official specifically. We don’t usually do this, I know, but I would like to pay tribute to Craig Stephenson, the Assembly Commission’s director of engagement, who is retiring. He has been a tireless champion over the years and a passionate advocate of every aspect of the official languages scheme, thereby ensuring that providing excellent bilingual services is at the heart of everything that the Assembly Commission does. So, thank you very much, Craig, and best wishes for the future.
Indeed. The proposal is to note the report. Does any Member object? The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The next item, therefore, is the debate on the joint report of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, Equality, the Local Government and Communities Committee and the Finance Committee. That report is on assessing the impact of budget decisions. The Chair of the Finance Committee will move the motion—Llyr Gruffydd.
Motion NDM7119 Llyr Gruffydd, Lynne Neagle, John Griffiths
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the joint report of the Finance Committee, Children, Young People and Education Committee and the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, 'Assessing the impact of budget decisions', which was laid in the Table Office on 25 March 2019.
Thank you very much, Llywydd. I move the motion, jointly tabled by me, Lynne Neagle and John Griffiths. I’m very pleased to be opening today’s debate on a new cross-cutting approach to facing a challenge that we have faced many times as Assembly Members, namely assessing the impact of the Welsh Government’s budget decisions on the people of Wales.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) took the Chair.
In addition to our respective committees' scrutiny of the draft budget for 2019-20, this year the Finance Committee, the Children, Young People and Education Committee and the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee felt the time had come to combine our efforts to examine the impact of the Welsh Government’s budget decisions, focusing on equalities, children and young people. We therefore jointly gathered evidence from the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales, Mark Drakeford AM, who was at the time the Cabinet Secretary for Finance, and Julie James AM, who was the then leader of the house with responsibility for equality. We have also sought the views of the Future Generations Commissioner for Wales throughout this process.
As this is a joint debate, I will focus my contribution on our principal findings, allowing Chairs Lynne Neagle and John Griffiths to share the perspectives of their own committee portfolios. Our report makes five recommendations, all of which the Welsh Government has either accepted or accepted in principle. We have reached one overarching conclusion, namely that we need to go back to fundamental principles. That’s the overarching conclusion that we've reached, but there are a number of specific recommendations emanating from that.
Our first recommendation asks the Welsh Government to clearly set out in greater detail the strategic integrated impact assessment process, its purpose and the expected outcomes, following, of course, engagement with and agreement from the relevant statutory commissioners. We do feel that the Welsh Government needs to be clear about why it conducts an assessment, who uses that assessment, what they hope to understand from it, the best method for presenting it, and what the process is. This needs to be done, of course, with the assistance of the various statutory commissioners, and we are concerned at the lack of involvement they reported having in the development of the Welsh Government’s integrated impact assessment tool.
We feel that these tools should be used to inform, steer and influence change. Collectively, the commissioners were concerned that they appear to be used to reflect or justify decisions that have already been made. We therefore welcome the Minister’s commitment to work with the relevant statutory commissioners to provide greater clarity on the purpose and expected outcomes of the SIIA process. Of course, we acknowledge that amalgamating many different impact assessments is no easy task, and we recognise the Welsh Government’s efforts to draw a multitude of information into one SIIA. However, to provide a credible foundation for scrutiny, impact assessments need to clearly demonstrate the evidence base on which they draw, and we must ensure that this is not diluted as a result of this integration.
Impact assessments are critical tools for Government transparency and, if they are to have any value, they must meaningfully inform financial allocations. More detail is required as to how decisions have been reached, and we have repeatedly called for the Welsh Government to detail where spending decisions may have negative as well, of course, as positive impacts, which are the ones that we usually hear about. As things stand, it is not clear what factors have steered decision making without seeing the work behind the SIIA. Consequently, we have recommended that the Welsh Government publish all of its individual impact assessments to a central location, which can then be referenced by the SIIA. In her response, the Minister says that,
'Individual impact assessments on significant decisions are generally published as part of policy documentation on the Welsh Government website.'
However, there does not appear to be any systematic publication of those impact assessments. The Minister has agreed in principle to this recommendation, indicating that she needs to consider further whether publication in a central area would aid accessibility, understanding and transparency. We fully acknowledge the value in publishing impact assessments alongside the related policy documents. Of course, the same is also true of publishing individual impact assessments alongside the SIIA. During our joint scrutiny, it became apparent that expert stakeholders are unclear about the basic principles and processes behind the Welsh Government’s approach to the budget impact assessment and the distinction between the SIIA and the new integrated impact assessment tool.
Our third recommendation calls on the Welsh Government to undertake a focused piece of work to consider the progress made in relation to SIIAs at the end of this Assembly, including the integrated impact assessment tool that it has developed. The Minister has accepted this recommendation, acknowledging the need to review and improve the process and the tool. Her response refers to testing alternate approaches alongside preparations for the forthcoming budget and looking at whether this work could be supported by the future generations commissioner’s journey checker. It would be helpful if the Minister could provide more information on the alternate approaches being tested and the timescales involved, as well as, perhaps, indicating when she anticipates completing the 2019 review of the integrated impact assessment tool.
Our remaining recommendations relate to the integration of legislation and fears that specific duties are minimised or displaced by others in decision making. Our fourth recommendation seeks a commitment from the Welsh Government to using the well-being of future generations Act as a framework for the SIIA. Given the focus of our joint scrutiny, we believe that priority should be given to working with the children’s commissioner and Equality and Human Rights Commission to ensure that the legislative requirements in relation to equality and children’s rights are fully and effectively reflected in the assessment process.
The Minister has committed to continue to use the Act to frame and inform budget proposals and the integrated impact assessment tool, but she acknowledges that further work is needed. Indeed, the future generations commissioner does not consider that this has happened sufficiently to date in the budget process. We welcome the Welsh Government’s commitment to continue the dialogue with key stakeholders and with statutory commissioners, which will be crucial to ensuring that satisfying its various legal obligations is not weakened in an integrated approach and that transparency in its decision making is improved.
During our evidence session, the then leader of the house indicated that she had commissioned a piece of research exploring the best way of incorporating various international treaties and the equality Act’s socioeconomic duty into Welsh law alongside existing duties. She also explained that a meeting of the future generations commissioner’s advisory committee in November of last year would allow all of the commissioners to collectively discuss the opportunities and challenges of the integrated impact assessments. So, our final recommendation sought an update on the outcomes of the November 2018 meeting of the commissioners, and when the research commissioned on the integration of duties is anticipated to be published.
We are concerned, but not surprised, to note that during the meeting last November some members voiced concerns about the potential dilution of the integrated approach. As a result, Welsh Government officials were subsequently due to attend the future generations commissioner’s advisory panel meeting in July, and we are keen to know how that meeting progressed. We understand that the Minister will commence further substantial research by September on the integration of new duties and we look forward to receiving further updates on how this work is developing. I, as Chair, also look forward to hearing the contributions of Members to this debate, as a constructive contribution to this continuing work and this continuing important debate on assessing the impact of budgetary decisions made by the Welsh Government. Thank you.
I call on the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee, Lynne Neagle.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm pleased to contribute to today’s debate as Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee. In our committee’s recent budget reports, we have highlighted our concerns about the level of attention paid to the rights of children and young people in important financial decisions. We have called repeatedly on the Welsh Government to undertake a children’s rights impact assessment, or CRIA, as it's called, on its draft budget as a matter of course. To date, these calls have been rejected on the grounds that a wider integrated impact assessment of the draft budget is undertaken.
In recent years, each of our respective committees has commented on the need to improve how the Welsh Government considers the impact of its budgetary decisions on different population groups. As such, and as Llyr has already explained, we wanted to work together as three committees to shine a spotlight on this recurring theme.
We recognise that assessing the impact of budget decisions on our population is no mean feat, but we also believe that it is essential to do all we can to consider how the decisions we make about money translate into the real life experiences of the people we all represent, and the youngest members of our society are no exception.
Children and young people were my focus during the joint scrutiny, and they will be my focus today. I recognise that the needs of children sit alongside a number of other considerations when budget decisions are made. But in my view, two things make them unique in their need for attention. First of all, the youngest members of our society cannot vote. In the absence of the franchise, it rests with us to ensure that their voices are heard and their interests considered. Secondly, the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 took the groundbreaking step of enshrining in statute a duty on Welsh Ministers to consider children’s rights in everything they do. But a law is only groundbreaking if its aspirations are delivered. In the case of draft budgets, we believe there is still some considerable distance to travel before we can be confident that the decisions that are taken are fully in keeping with the spirit of that law.
I welcome the Welsh Government’s acceptance of four of our five recommendations, and the acceptance of one in principle. I further welcome the Government’s commitment under recommendation 1 to work with the relevant statutory commissioners to provide greater clarity on the purpose and expected outcomes of the strategic integrated impact assessment process. I would like to place on record my thanks to the commissioners for their contribution to our joint scrutiny, and the views they have shared to inform this debate. There are, nevertheless, a number of concerns I would like to raise in relation to children and young people specifically. Many of these I share with the children’s commissioner.
In response to recommendation 2, the Government has suggested that publishing individual impact assessments in a central location would cause confusion. I am unconvinced about this. As joint committees, we agreed that transparency is key. To date, there has been no systematic publication of individual impact assessments. Last year’s decision about the school uniform grant is a case in point, and one we highlight in our budget report. I would be grateful if the Minister could reflect further on this.
With respect to recommendations 3 and 4, as a committee, we are concerned that the quality of CRIAs remains variable. We stand by our assertion that impact assessments sometimes appear to be used to reflect or justify decisions that have already been taken. I would be particularly keen to hear the Minister’s view on the children’s commissioner’s comment—and I quote—
'We have seen examples of CRIAs which do not actually attempt to answer the broad question over whether and or how the policy will have an impact on children and young people, let alone attempting a fuller process.'
Finally, in relation to recommendation 5, while I welcome the commitment to commissioning research on the integration of duties, I note with concern that this work has not yet started. I urge the Government to progress this as soon as possible.
In closing, I would like to thank my fellow Chairs and committee members for their willingness to work jointly on this. This is the first time we have worked together on the draft budget, and I believe it provides a useful and innovative model for future scrutiny of shared areas of interest across committees.
Finally, I would like to thank the Welsh Government for its engagement in this work. Our overarching aim as committees is to provide a constructive and helpful contribution to an area that we acknowledge is both complex and challenging. I look forward to working with them, and with the relevant statutory commissioners, to continue our cross-cutting work in this area in future financial years. Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Thank you. I call on the Chair of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, John Griffiths.
Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'd like to start by echoing the comments made by the Chair of the Finance Committee and the Chair of the Children, Young People and Education Committee about this new approach to budget scrutiny, and it being a model, perhaps, for future work, and I'm sensing that I'm sure other committees will want to take a careful look at it. It was very, I think, constructive for three committees with different expertise and different interests to come together and consider this very important aspect of the way Welsh Government formulates its budget, and seeks to ensure that vulnerable people in our community are protected in the budget-setting process, and all those equality issues are factored in in a meaningful way that actually helps produce the eventual budget.
I'd also very much like to thank the stakeholders and the Welsh Government for engaging in this work, because I think that's been very constructive and progressive too. And it is clear, I think, that everybody wants to see the budget process made more transparent and more effective, and that's a very good starting point for this discussion and this debate as we go forward. In fact, our committee and, indeed, the predecessor committee have long had reservations about the effectiveness of the budget process and, particularly, the impact assessment process. Those impact assessments must inform the decision-making process. As I think Lynne has just said, it shouldn't be a matter of justifying decisions that have been made, but informing decisions yet to be made, and being used in the earlier stages of the process, if it is to be meaningful and all the stakeholders that are interested are to believe it to be meaningful. But I do welcome the Welsh Government’s commitment to reflect on the evidence we considered in relation to those single integrated impact assessments, and I hope this will lead to improvements in the process and, ultimately, improvements to the decisions that follow.
If I might move to some specific issues, Dirprwy Lywydd. Welsh Government officials recently received a briefing organised by the Equality and Human Rights Commission on the cumulative impact assessment model. And I think many us are concerned with this, because when we look at austerity, for example, the cumulative impact over a period of years gets ever greater, and you do reach the stage where it's extremely alarming indeed. And the EHRC said that the Welsh Government showed a willingness to explore this model further. So, I'd be interested in hearing from the Minister as to whether you are likely to take forward that model.
An ongoing issue across a range of our committee’s work is integration of legislation, and the differing requirements placed on public bodies by different pieces of legislation. This was a key theme in our work. We heard of the layering effect of different requirements, which can lead to matters falling through the gap. This is before further new duties, such as the Equality Act 2010’s socioeconomic duty, are incorporated into Welsh law.
In our work on parenting, maternity and work, we called for a refinement of the public sector equality duties. In responding to this recommendation, the Welsh Government told us that the Minister would be receiving advice on the regulations and reporting arrangements, particularly the relationship between the duties and the future generations Act.
The EHRC have called for the equality duties to be amended and strengthened so that they are more focused on outcomes for individuals. They note that they held a symposium earlier this month to help inform the Welsh Government’s thinking for this review. So, if the Minister could provide an update on the outcomes from this symposium and indicate the timetable for reviewing these duties, we would be grateful as a committee.
As we say in our report, now is a good time for changes to be made to the impact assessment process. The well-being of future generations Act gives a clear policy framework, and in recommendation 4 of our report, we called for the Welsh Government to commit to using this as a basis for its approach to impact assessments. This recommendation was accepted by Welsh Government. In responding to this, the future generations commissioner said this had not happened sufficiently to date in the budget process. So, I'd be interested in how the Minister responds to that particular analysis.
Finally, we see in the Welsh Government’s response that the review of the integrated impact assessment tool will be comprehensive. It also states that it will include engagement with a number of external stakeholders, including the commissioners and the budget advisory group for equality. The EHRC in commenting on this said external engagement with people from protected groups would be key, suggesting that such engagement should go beyond the advisory group. Would you be able, Minister, to outline how you will be engaging with stakeholders outside of the advisory group on the toolkit review?
Are you finishing?
I am now. The last couple of sentences, Dirprwy Lywydd. Diolch yn fawr.
I would like to close by stating that this is not the end of this work. Obviously, we will continue to pursue these issues in our budget scrutiny and indeed our more general policy scrutiny. Meaningful impact assessment is vital for the development of effective budget decisions and policy. Diolch yn fawr.
Thank you, all, for bringing this report to the floor of the Chamber. I took part in the joint scrutiny session that informed part of the creation of this report. I don't mind saying that, in the nine years that I've been an Assembly Member, I've found the process of budget scrutiny to be one of the least satisfying elements of my work as an Assembly Member. Trying to connect spending decisions with targetless ambitions and then with outcomes—following the money, basically—I find it all but impossible. I just hugely hope that my colleagues in the Finance Committee and the Public Accounts Committee find it a little bit easier. That's why I wanted to be part of this scrutiny panel on that occasion.
I think we should worry that the Welsh Government's commissioned report by the Wales Centre for Public Policy said that integrated assessments are only 'potentially' applied to significant investments. That came as something of a surprise to me. I would expect them to be applied to all significant investments. Obviously, we heard what Lynne Neagle had to say on the reluctance, shall we say, to introduce CRIAs in all budget decisions, particularly the most serious of them. But essentially I wanted to get some sense of how impact assessments actually influence spending decisions. Because when I had the culture and heritage portfolio, the impact assessments done at that time routinely came back with the information that failure to invest would impact negatively on young people and people from deprived backgrounds, but the investments weren't made anyway, so I concluded that probably the same impact assessment results were found for other policy areas. I was just interested to see how Welsh Government weighed those two competing assessments, if you like, to decide who was going to be the loser. But, actually, after our scrutiny session, I'm afraid I was none the wiser on how that actually worked, and I draw Members' attention to recommendation 3 of the report.
I also hoped to discover how investment from, say, the educa