Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

29/01/2020

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

1. Questions to the Minister for Environment, Energy and Rural Affairs

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 Mark Isherwood.

Fuel Poverty

1. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's fuel poverty strategy? OAQ54981

I expect the new plan for tackling fuel poverty in Wales to be published for consultation in February. It will be informed by the landscape review on fuel poverty published by the Wales Audit Office on 3 October.

Thank you. As you know, we were looking forward to the fuel poverty strategy consultation hopefully being published this month, and the final plan next month. Last week, the Residential Landlords Association gave evidence to the Assembly's Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee inquiry into fuel poverty, and called, quote, 'for a more holistic approach', saying that properties tackled by the current strategy have so far only been in some of the most deprived areas, and there will be many fuel-poor occupiers in homes in more affluent areas as well. And, amongst other calls, they called for the least fuel efficient homes to be targeted first, such as those properties with a low energy efficiency rating, including those in the private rented sector, and support for tenants. 

Last October, the Bevan Foundation report in this area found that the richest households benefited most from current fuel poverty or previous fuel poverty strategies, where the number of wealthier households in fuel poverty had fallen by 75 per cent, but, in the poorest households, only 25 per cent, and they said that provided an indication as to why the Welsh Government had failed in its target to eradicate fuel poverty. 

Notwithstanding the overall reduction in the number of properties in fuel poverty, this identifies perhaps a need for a particular new focus. How will your new strategy address these concerns, and when do you expect the plan now to be published?

So, I think you're right: we do need to make sure that we are tackling the most deprived households first, in my view, and, certainly, if we had more funding, then we would be able to spread it much more widely. We have made some real progress over the past 10, 11 years, and we've improved the energy efficiency of more than 55,000 homes, and we've also been able to support over 129,000 people, but there are still far too many people living in fuel poverty in Wales.

Obviously, as part of the new strategy, we can look at having that new focus, and I'd be very happy to get any evidence that's been given, and I'm very aware of the climate change committee's report into fuel poverty, and they're currently taking oral evidence. And, whilst their report will probably be published too late to have an impact on the strategy that we'll be publishing next month, I'm sure it will help us as we take the policy forward. 

I'm sure, Minister, that you'd agree with me that one key component to tackling fuel poverty is ensuring that people are able to get the right advice to, potentially, switch users—something that, particularly, a lot of older people find difficult—and also to see what grant schemes, what support, might be available. You'll be aware that the Welsh Government, from the new financial year, is making some quite big changes to the advice services, the structures of the advice services, that they fund, and I wonder if you'd be good enough to talk with the relevant Ministers about those proposed changes to ensure that people, especially those in our poorest communities, and, particularly, elderly citizens, can get access to timely advice, and advice in their own communities, and, of course, where appropriate, through the medium of Welsh.

Absolutely, and I'm very happy to have those discussions with my relevant colleagues. I think it's also something that we need to look at within our energy service, because I think people don't tend to switch users. If I look at myself, I probably should do it; we should do it regularly, I think, and certainly look at the savings that could be made. But many of us don't have time to do that; some people don't know how to access that. You've referred to elderly people; I think they wouldn't know where to go for that advice. So, I think it's really important that we look at what advice services are doing in this area. So, yes, very happy to have those discussions. 

Minister, those figures you quoted earlier—129,000 people being helped, 50,000 homes—is good news across Wales. But, of course, those programmes were underpinned very often by a guarantee offered from the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency. Now, when those developers have gone wrong—either we've had a rogue developer, or we've had faulty materials, and, as a consequence, the homes have become damp and problematic—it is important, therefore, they're able to rely upon that guarantee to ensure those errors are rectified. I still have constituents who are raising concerns that they are having difficulty in getting those guarantees assured and delivered. Will you once again look at this programme to ensure that the guarantees are there for people, so that, when things do go wrong, they're able to have that and not have to spend thousands of pounds in rectifying errors, which they shouldn't have had to do?

13:35

Yes, the Member raises a very important point, and there are clearly some examples where people who've benefited from both UK and Welsh Government schemes designed to improve energy efficiency in their home—they've experienced problems, particularly with damp, and other associated problems. I know it is a matter of concern for a lot of Members, right across the Chamber—just yesterday, I met with our colleague Dawn Bowden, who's got concerns in her constituency. We know that, when it's installed and maintained correctly, it can significantly improve people's qualities of life and alleviate poverty in the way we've discussed. So, I am continuing to work with contractors; my officials are continuing to work with relevant bodies too, and I'd be very happy to update Members when I have more information.

Managing Natural Resources in Towns and Cities

2. What further steps will the Welsh Government take to develop its policy for managing natural resources in towns and cities? OAQ54997

Thank you. The Welsh Government's 'Implementing the Natural Resources Policy: a snapshot report' is due to be published next month. Natural Resources Wales's area statements will play a key role in taking forward place-based approaches to help implement the priorities and opportunities in the natural resources policy.

Thank you for that, Minister. Most people in Wales live in urban areas, and, in our inner urban areas, there are many issues around air quality and general lack of green space. So, I think improving those inner urban environments would connect people to the natural world more strongly, and I would hope would lead to better environmental behaviours—whether it's taking part in recycling schemes more effectively, or just generally supporting the great outdoors that we have in Wales. So, I'm interested, Minister, in schemes like Cynefin, which Welsh Government ran, I think, which was quite effective in my area of Newport East, for example. And in the Maindee area now, we have a group at the Maindee library—a group of volunteers, community groups—who have ideas to green the natural environment around the area, and are very interested in Welsh Government support and assistance for that sort of work. So, I'd be interested in what further steps Welsh Government might take to support such groups and to make sure that we do get that quality environment in our inner urban areas.

I very much agree with you in your appraisal of Cynefin. I think it was a scheme that operated—. The principles have been place-centred policies and priorities, and I think it facilitated very much in that partnership working to which you just referred. Since we had Cynefin, we've also introduced the enabling natural resources and well-being grant, the landfill disposals tax community scheme, and, just yesterday, you will have heard my colleague Hannah Blythyn launch the town-centre green infrastructure and biodiversity programme. That programme will very much support the implementation of environment schemes, and reflects the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 through the sustainable introduction of green infrastructure into town centres, so that it's not just environmental benefits, there are also social and economic benefits for local communities. Local authorities will have the funding for that, so, if anybody's interested listening today, they're able to find out how they can get involved by contacting their local authority.

Minister, in our urban renewal strategy, 'Liveable Cities', we in the Welsh Conservatives pledged to ensure that there was a minimum of 20 per cent urban tree canopy covering Wales by 2030. You will see the green town and city movement is now taking off all around the world, and we could really also be part of that, and leading it. I want to see the day when some of the current major arterial ways through our cities are greened for cyclists and pedestrians. And at the minute we desperately need to get to that place where we think differently.

I've been having discussions with both Hannah Blythyn and Ken Skates around this issue. I think you're right; we can really lead the way here. I'm about to launch—probably in April—the environmental growth plan, which was one of the First Minister's manifesto commitments. And we'll certainly be identifying funding for just those sorts of policies, where people can get involved looking at it from your doorstep. So, this will certainly, I think, help us move in the right direction.

13:40
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Andrew R.T. Davies.  

Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, there has been much conversation between you and me in this Chamber around nitrate vulnerable zones and, obviously, the environmental regulations you're looking to bring forward to control agricultural pollution, as you see it. Are you able to update us on what you told us in December, where you were having a pause in the process and you were rethinking and re-engaging with the sector to see what the regulations might finally look like? 

So, I think the last time we discussed this in the Chamber—. Well, there are two things to say: it's not perceived agricultural pollution—I think we know the number of incidents that we have of that—and I said to you that I would be receiving advice before the end of January. I received that advice on Monday. As you can imagine, it's a very large ministerial advice folder, which I am now reading, and I will be making an announcement, I would certainly hope, at the beginning of next month into the middle of next month. 

So, we can look forward to an announcement some time in February, I think, from that answer—

—that you just gave me. Will you be making available, prior to that announcement, the regulatory impact assessment, because it is vital that we understand exactly the costings of this, the implications to the industry, especially for some of the livestock sectors, the beef and sheep sector in particular? And why, as I understand it, when pollution incidents actually declined in 2019, and between 2001 and 2018, there's no discernible difference between the years on agricultural pollution, you believe it necessary to bring such draconian measures forward, when obviously the working group—[Interruption.]—the working group that the Welsh Government set up itself talked and looked at bringing forward a voluntary proposal that the regulator and the sector agreed would be of benefit to reducing pollution in the agricultural sector? 

Well, I certainly don't think they're draconian. If you look at measures in other parts of the UK, I would say we're certainly not bringing forward draconian measures, if you compare them to other parts of the UK. But that's not an issue for me. And I'll just give you some figures so that you can understand that what you've said—I think I heard you rightly—is not correct.

So, the number of agricultural pollution incidents in 2019, at the current time, stands at 157. That's unsubstantiated, because we haven't got all the figures finalised for 2019. That figure of 157 already exceeds the average of the last 10 years, which is 151. It's higher than in 2015, it's higher than in 2016, and it's higher than in 2017. The figure for 2018 is the highest that we've had for the period since 2001. So, for 17 years, the figure for 2018 was the highest, and that stood at 195 incidents. I'm sure you will agree with me this is a cause for great concern. It's unacceptable—the agricultural sector recognises it's unacceptable—and we have to do something about it. And you've got to think about also the cumulative impact of these incidents. 

I agree with you. One incident is one too many, and ultimately the agricultural industry wants to do all it can to make sure that these pollution incidents are reduced. But you yourself said in 2018 there were 190 incidents reported. I think the figure you gave for 2019 was 157, which showed a downward trajectory. And can it be right to respond to these numbers with what is, in effect, a cut and paste of NVZ zones that have been put in other parts of the United Kingdom? There surely is a better way of doing this, working collaboratively with the sector to make sure that we get on top of these incidents—because, as I said, one incident is one too many; I accept that—and, above all, that there is capital funding put in place, so, whatever measures you bring forward via the regulations, the sector can apply for capital funding to make some of the improvements that the regulations will demand of them. So, can you confirm today, that, in tandem with what you're looking at with the regulations, you are also looking at the availability of capital funding and any money that might be left over in the rural development plan, or any money that you might be able to secure from the finance Minister, who is in her place this afternoon?

We'll start with the capital funding. So, I've said all along that we will be able to provide additional capital funding in relation to this, but not to bring farms up to the legal standard now, because, at the moment, we've got data that's being collected through our Natural Resources Wales dairy officer visits to the farms, and that indicates approximately 60 per cent of dairy farms lack sufficient slurry storage now. So, I'm not giving additional funding to bring those farms up to the legal capacity. However, I said all along, both in this Chamber and outside, that we will look to provide some additional capital funding. 

I go back to what I was saying about 2019: it's 157, but that figure has not yet been finalised, as some cases are still under review. So, that is not the final figure, I believe, for 2019. Again, I've spoken about this many, many times with stakeholders, with the farming unions. I want to work in collaboration with them. We've had the voluntary approach, it hasn't worked in the way that we wanted. One of the reasons—. We did say we would announce this at the beginning of January, but because we were getting more and more evidence—. You referred to the fact that there was a pause, it wasn't a pause, I just wanted to make sure that the advice that came to me was as thorough as we could possibly have.

13:45

You've just told us there were 157 incidents in 2019. Yes, 157 pollution incidents are 157 too many. Of course, there's no mention of the 30,000 sewage pollution incidents in 2018. So, I think we do need a little bit of perspective when we discuss these issues.

Now, you mentioned that you wanted to work in collaboration. I'd commend that. You might wish to collaborate with Natural Resources Wales, who told us that 92 per cent of Wales's agricultural land is not at risk of causing nitrate pollution, and their advice is that we move from the current 2.3 per cent of Wales as designated NVZ to 8 per cent.

Now, your regulatory impact assessment, or the draft RIA, considered only two options: one was the 'do nothing' option, which nobody, not even the farming unions, is advocating; and the other was to apply measures to address agricultural pollution to the whole of Wales. So, why did your RIA only focus on the two extremes, one of which was never a realistic option in the first place?

The reason I have had a pause, or a delay, in bringing these regulations forward is because, as I said, I wanted to look at the most evidence that was available to us. I certainly saw the first draft of the RIA. I am now approaching—. In my very large folder, I think the RIA is about document 18. I'm coming to that. I will see what difference there is from the draft, if any, but I'm not in a position to answer that specific question at the current time, because I am reviewing all the evidence that we've got. 

You're quite right: we see pollution right across Wales in different forms. Diffuse pollution is equally important. And, again, NRW had their 'Challenges and Choices' consultation in 2019. Again, that identified diffuse pollution from the agricultural sector as the reason for 113 water bodies across Wales failing to meet good status. So, there are lots of issues around pollution that we need to be looking at, because it's imperative that we sort this problem out now.

But the fact remains that NRW is not supporting the proposal to make the whole of Wales an NVZ, and whilst there are incidents and those need to be tackled, clearly they feel that doing so across 8 per cent of Wales would be sufficient to address the issue. We all look forward to seeing the regulatory impact assessment, because the draft one was only a 20-page document, and for a change this substantial, then we really need something a bit more robust than that. I'll leave it at that.

But of course, if you want to pursue a whole-territory approach, then we need to be convinced that that is the best way forward. I'm not convinced, and I haven't seen the evidence out there that tells us that a whole-territory NVZ will actually be effective in reducing agricultural pollution. Because information obtained, again from Natural Resources Wales, provides no substantive evidence of the effectiveness of the NVZ action programme in reducing agricultural pollution, despite designations dating back to 2002. We've seen numerous scientific research papers that consider the effectiveness or otherwise of NVZs, and they tell us that the approach has little or no effect, with some highlighting actually detrimental effects as well. One study found, and I quote:

'that 69% of NVZs showed no significant improvement in surface water concentrations even after 15 years. In comparison to a control catchment, 29% of NVZs showed a significant improvement'—

that's positive—

'but 31% showed a significant worsening.'

So, where's your evidence that a whole-territory NVZ approach will actually have the effect that so many of us want to see?
 

As I said, I'm currently—. There haven't been that many hours that I've been awake and not been in work to give me that time to read, as I say, this very, very large body of evidence, which I want to give my full consideration to.

We had a consultation on this back in 2016. This is not something that we're rushing towards. This has been a very long process. Some would say too long. But it's really important that we get it right, and I will publish as much as I can to show how that policy has been derived.

13:50

It just begs the question: how much consideration had you given to previous iterations of these proposals, or whether you had been involved at all? Because you sound as if you're disowning what we've had so far, because you haven't had a chance to look at the file that you've now been provided with. So, I think that there are big questions there about who's making decisions or bringing forward suggestions around this.

Now, I've hinted earlier that there could well be unforeseen—or maybe foreseen—negative consequences from what seemed to be your previous approach. Now, we not only know that there are huge spikes in nitrate levels in those areas where we've seen, in the past, closed periods—you know, nitrates spiking immediately before the closed period and immediately after, for obvious reasons—but also, there is concern that there could well be a loss of cattle from Welsh farms and a subsequent reduction in mixed grazing on Welsh uplands.

Now, farms with 20 or 30 suckler cows are not going to invest tens of thousands of pounds in new infrastructure to meet the requirements of these new regulations, because that is wholly disproportionate to the low levels of stock that they keep. They're telling me that the choice for them, therefore, is to go out of cattle farming, and that will bring with it, of course, the subsequent consequences to upland habitats and biodiversity, but also to the wider beef sector here in Wales.

Environmental organisations are concerned about that potential outcome. Hybu Cig Cymru is also concerned at the potential outcome to the wider beef sector. Nobody here is saying, 'Don't do anything'—that needs to be understood and heard by everyone—but as far as I'm concerned, so far, the Government has clearly failed to make the case for your proposals, or to provide evidence that justifies the approach that you seem to wish to pursue.

So, I would ask you to revisit again these proposals and, please, to look at the 45 recommendations that came from the agricultural pollution sub-group, which should have been properly considered as part of the regulatory impact assessment that has been available in draft form.

To start with your first point, I'm certainly not disowning. I've been very involved since I've been in this portfolio. I mentioned there'd been a consultation before I came into portfolio; it was one of the very first things on my desk. What came from that was a voluntary approach: working with the farming unions particularly, and other stakeholders. You may be aware of a scheme that came forward from two Pembrokeshire farmers; I worked with the farming unions to make sure that voluntary scheme had time to work. You can see by the number of incidents it's clearly not working. That's why we have to do something now. That's why we have to move to regulation. So, that's in answer to your first point. The advice that I've been given this week is the advice that I've been waiting for around regulation, and I've certainly given it my very thorough time and consideration, because as I say, we need to get this absolutely right.

Regarding your second point, every farm is different, so it's really not possible to specify exactly which measures would apply to an upland farm, for example. You're talking about thousands and thousands of pounds when we don't know what each farm will need. I've made it very clear that we will provide some additional capital funding, but not to bring farms up to legal requirement. So, I will be making an announcement, certainly by the middle of February, and obviously Members will be the first to hear.

The Urgent Review of the Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2014

3. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s response to the recommendations set out in the urgent review of the Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2014 that was commissioned in October 2019? OAQ54980

5. Will the Minister provide an update on progress towards the implementation of Lucy’s Law to regulate puppy farming in Wales? OAQ54979

Thank you. Presiding Officer, I understand you've given permission for questions 3 and 5 to be grouped. I will make a statement and publish the animal health and welfare framework group's report following February recess. The recommendations are comprehensive and include enforcement, training of local authority officials and vets, amendments to licence conditions, as well as consideration of other legislation linked to the breeding and selling of dogs.

Thank you, Minister, and thank you also for your previous response to my written questions from earlier in the month. This is really important as a stepping stone towards the introduction of Lucy's law to ban the third-party sale of cats and dogs. The perception out there of a lack of progress is causing concern amongst campaigners, with fears that, after England brings in its own Lucy's law in April, Wales will become, and I quote, 'The pet shop for sick and damaged animals.' Minister, can you give me a cast-iron guarantee that you will not let this happen, and that a Welsh Lucy's law will be introduced before the end of this Assembly term? When can we, and the many people around Wales who are following this so closely, expect the detailed timetable of the next steps to achieving this goal?

13:55

I thank Vikki Howells for that question, and I absolutely give that assurance. This is a major piece of work, and I know how many campaigners are certainly very concerned about that, because my inbox shows me that—both as an Assembly Member and as the Minister. The two sort of go hand in hand; they're very closely linked. What I want to make sure is—. I've said we will bring in a Lucy's law, I'm not in a position at the moment to give you the timetable, but I certainly hope to do so within the next couple of months.

The report, which I commissioned before the end of December, I received about 10 days ago, maybe a little bit less, and I gave you a bit of a flavour in my opening answer as to what's in there. So, I think the big thing for me is—. There's always a rush to legislation; it's about getting that legislation right, but it's about learning what isn't working in the current legislation. Because clearly there are some barriers at the moment that we need to get around. So, if it's barriers to enforcement, for instance, I'm sure that will be flushed out by the local authorities and the meeting that the chief veterinary officer had on that.

So, the two are very closely linked, and I'll certainly be very happy to update. But I absolutely give you my cast-iron assurance that we will look at the breeding legislation that's currently there, and also what we need to bring forward in relation to a Lucy's law.

The issue is, Minister, that you certainly won't be accused of rushing to legislation in this matter. Giving a cast-iron guarantee that you're going to read a report doesn't fill Members here with a great deal of confidence. We've heard these assurances before, and we've been disappointed. I think we've come to a point now, with something over a year left in this Senedd, where we want to see action, and we want to see the promises made a reality. I think what people on all sides of the Chamber want to see is not a reading list, but a commitment to actually doing this and getting this done. I think we are letting down people, up and down the country, and people are saying that they want to see this action completed. I think Members on all sides of the Chamber want to see action and not words.

Sorry, I think Member must have misheard me. I did give that cast-iron assurance to Vikki Howells that I will be making a statement after February recess, on the back of the report that the animal health and welfare framework group gave to me, and also on the discussions that the chief veterinary officer had with all—well, 21—local authorities, one didn't attend, to see what the barriers are to that enforcement, and also with the British Veterinary Association about what further training we can give to vets. Because, on the back of the programme by the BBC, where a lot of this correspondence has come from, it was clear there were several issues that needed addressing. Legislation can't be rushed—the Member knows that—but certainly I give the cast-iron guarantee that we will have that legislation in place in this term.

England, of course, is bringing in Lucy's law in April. Southern Ireland is introducing similar regulations next month. Wales, the home of the breeding farm where Lucy was rescued from, has no date for the introduction of the law.

There is significant national interest in this, and the Petitions Committee has a petition signed by 11,195 people calling for the ban of the sale of puppies by pet shops and all commercial third-party dealers in Wales. Last month, the Welsh Government stated that it needed to gain a thorough understanding of the barriers to enforcement within the existing legislation so that you could tackle the problem effectively. What barriers, really, have you identified, and by when are you aiming to overcome them?

I am aware of the petition at committee and it doesn't surprise me that it's had so many signatures—we're absolutely a county of animal lovers. I referred to the meeting that the chief veterinary officer and her officials had with local authorities, so I suppose that was the first area where we saw barriers in relation to the local authorities being able to, perhaps, visit the breeders as much as they would like to. Obviously, local authorities, after a decade of austerity, have had cuts to their budget. Unfortunately, it does appear that officers in animal welfare areas have perhaps been cut back to the very minimal numbers.

So, we're looking at—and I have to say, local authorities are very keen to do this—sharing expertise. So, you have somewhere like Torfaen, for instance, which I think has one licensed breeder, and then you've got areas like Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion that have got multiple numbers—hundreds, I think, in a couple of them.

So, it's about making sure that we have the capacity to cover the whole of Wales, and perhaps working together in a way. I think that's one very important barrier that we saw as to why the current legislation that we have isn't being enforced. So, just changing the legislation I don't think would bring an end to what we all want to see. 

14:00

Certainly from these benches, I can give you an assurance, Minister, that we would support any legislation that was brought forward to enact Lucy's law, and I hear the comments from the Labour backbench in particular. I think there is consensus around this Chamber that legislation can proceed at pace when that consensus is put to good effect. And I would implore you to make sure that, if it is the regulatory route that you go down with your statement coming in February, that you do have the enforcement measures in place, because there is little or no point in actually putting regulation, or indeed legislation, in place unless the enforcement is there. It is pleasing to hear that the chief veterinary officer has engaged with local authorities to gauge the level of support that they will require. Will you commit today to making sure that that support is made available to local authorities so that if it is regulation or legislation you bring forward, the aspects around Lucy's law to end this abhorrent practice can be brought to bear here in Wales? 

Certainly that's something that we're having to look at because it's very clear, just after that one meeting that the CVO had with local authorities—. I was very pleased that 21 out of 22 local authorities sent a representative to that meeting. So, I think it does show that there is that consensus right across all levels of Government in this area. Obviously, and I referred to this in my answer to Janet Finch-Saunders, funding is going to be a matter of concern for many of them. I don't have an unlimited pot of money, but I absolutely accept, depending on what we do when we look at those regulations and the barriers, and whether we reopen those regulations and the legislation that we're going to have to bring in, that further funding will undoubtedly be required. So, I can't give you a commitment that I will give it, or how much I will give but, certainly, I recognise that that is an issue.  

Nitrate Vulnerable Zones

4. Will the Minister provide an update on the proposed introduction of nitrate vulnerable zones in Wales? OAQ54992

I am currently considering advice on measures to tackle agricultural pollution across all of Wales. Agricultural pollution is causing considerable environmental damage and is detrimental to public health. It is not restricted to nitrate vulnerable zones. The number of agricultural pollution incidents across Wales in 2019 is unacceptably high. 

Thank you, Minister.

The proposed new regulations regarding nitrate vulnerable zones will impact on every farm, every sector and every area of Wales. You will be aware, Minister, that concern has been raised by National Farmers Union Cymru about the effect this is having on the farming community, which claims that our farmers are experiencing even higher levels of stress and anxiety. Information supplied by Natural Resources Wales as part of the nitrate review in 2016 provided no justification for the introduction of NVZs across Wales. However, the Welsh Government has refused to disclose the advice and evidence related to the proposed regulations that it has received from NRW under a freedom of information request. In view of the importance, cost and potential implications of these regulations, Minister, will you publish the advice and evidence received from NRW in the interest of security and transparency in this case? 

I'm not sure if the Member was in the Chamber, Presiding Officer, when I answered a very similar question from both Llyr Huws Gruffydd and Andrew R.T. Davies but, as I say, no evidence has been refused to be disclosed; I only received it on Monday. And when I make my announcement, probably by the middle of February, what can be published will be.  

I think it's a very important point that the Minister has made. If Members are present for questions that have been asked and answered previously, I ask all Members to listen to what's happening during a question session so that they can ask their questions and respond to the ministerial answers as they have been given. That has happened several times this afternoon. Joyce Watson. That's a challenge for you, Joyce. 

I'm not going to repeat anything. What I'm going to ask is a very pointed question on NVZs. It's been brought to my attention that concentrate of nitrates from chicken farms is more difficult to deal with because it simply stays at the bottom of the watercourse. So, in your deliberations on NVZs, can I please ask that you look at that specific issue that I have just mentioned?

14:05

Yes. I'd be very happy to do that. Joyce Watson has just reminded me of one thing I didn't say to Mohammed Asghar. He said it will affect every farm across Wales. That might not be the case, and, certainly, the number of agricultural pollution incidents—and I do really want to say this—the majority of farmers do not pollute, and I think we should absolutely recognise that, and, equally, every farm is different. But that is not the case. But certainly, yes, in answer to Joyce Watson, I'd be very happy to look at that particular point.

Minister, I welcome that comment that not every farm does pollute. I've had representations from farmers in my own constituency, which, as you know, is predominantly characterised by smaller family farms with a mixture of sheep and livestock and some arable, and they're also characterised by that greater biodiversity, which typically does come with smaller, mixed farms. Now, they share the aspiration of Welsh Government to tackle overuse and the leaching of nitrates—and other contaminates, by the way—in farming, which can degrade soil, and along with poor farming practices, can poison watercourses and marine environments. They know they've got a part to play, but these are not big dairy farms. They've heard the reassurance of the Minister today and elsewhere that the proposals will not affect the majority of smaller family farms, either in terms of cost or bureaucracy, but, I have to say, they are not convinced on the ground when I speak to them.

So, what can the Minister say in reassurance to those smaller family farms and those families? And would she at some time in the near future be willing to come with me and meet on one of the farms in my constituency to discuss the proposals? We absolutely need to tackle this problem, but we need to bring the farming community with us, including those smaller family farms, which are integral to our living communities and integral to our wider biodiversity and climate change challenges. They all need to be on side with us.

I absolutely agree, and I hope that Members do recognise that for the past three and a half years, if not a little bit longer, I've absolutely tried to do that by going for the voluntary approach, by going to several presentations from a scheme that I referred to in an earlier answer that two Pembrokeshire farmers came forward with. I've had lots of recommendations. I mean, one of the last reports I received from the sector, off the top of my head, I think it was about 35 recommendations; not one was for the agricultural sector, they were all for Government. Well, equally, it's got to work both ways. We have to do it in partnership. But I'd be very happy—. I mean, I've visited many farms and discussed this over the last few years, and it's not something that I want to stop doing.

Air Quality in North Wales

6. Will the Minister make a statement on monitoring air quality in North Wales? OAQ54990

The Environment Act 1995 requires local authorities throughout Wales to monitor, assess and develop actions to improve air quality in their area. There are 178 air quality monitors sited across north Wales. Our consultation on the clean air plan for Wales includes proposals for enhancing air quality monitoring and assessment.

In light of the recent fire at the Kronospan plant at Chirk and the subsequent pollution effect that that had on the locality—I'm told it's the seventeenth fire in 18 years, although a number of residents there assert that they're much more regular occurrences, actually, than that—can you tell me whether you're satisfied with the level of monitoring carried out by Natural Resources Wales and Wrexham council at Chirk particularly? Because residents are now mounting weekly protests as a result of this latest fire, and I share their concerns that the bodies responsible for ensuring their safety are not providing the reassurance that they require, given the plant's record. Would you agree to hold an independent inquiry into recent events there, with community representation as part of that inquiry, and also to ensure that there is permanent, independent air quality monitoring at least around the site so that the community there can have the reassurance that they deserve?

Thank you. You'll be aware that the fire that did take place at Kronospan earlier this month was in the log yard. That permit for that area came under Wrexham County Borough Council, so they're the relevant regulator for this matter and I'm awaiting further information from them around that.

In relation to NRW, they're currently reviewing the existing permit held by Kronospan in relation to the transfer of powers that we did from Wrexham County Borough Council to NRW, and I know those discussions are ongoing. So, I'll certainly be very interested to see the outcome of that because I want assurance that it is absolutely correct. My understanding at the moment is that it is, but I'm sure that further information will come over the next couple of weeks in particular.

I don't think there's a need for an independent inquiry at the present time, but I do recognise that the people of Chirk absolutely need some assurance, and I will be working very closely—. I'm having a meeting with NRW within the next couple of weeks, and I will be raising it again, and I'd be very happy to write to the Member to update him on the back of that.

14:10
High Welfare Standards in Breeding Establishments

7. What actions is the Welsh Government taking to ensure high welfare standards in breeding establishments in Wales? OAQ55004

Thank you. Officials are working with local authorities to explore opportunities to ensure consistent treatment of all licensed breeding establishments across Wales. This work, to look at ways of combining resources and expertise and improving training for local authority officers, will help target enforcement more consistently and effectively.

Thank you for that answer. But there was a recent report from Carmarthenshire County Council into dog breeding in the county, and there are 85 licensed dog breeders in Carmarthenshire. That is one of the highest numbers in Wales and England, and about 10 of those breeders have over 100 dogs. And what struck me particularly in the report is that, in some cases, officers were only carrying out checks every two years instead of annual establishment inspections, and I don't think that that is in any way at all acceptable. It does raise some serious questions as to why the council is continuing to give out licences when they don't have an adequate number of staff to carry out annual inspections, and the workload is clearly too high for two officers who are employed.

The other issue that is fairly obvious when we look at the standards of breeding establishments is at the moment, it is perfectly acceptable to put down anything, it seems to me—a shed that isn't necessarily heated and there isn't water available—just to breed animals. And part of this report mentioned that farmers need to diversify. I don't think that they are giving adequate information to farmers who do want to diversify if they're not widening the opportunities and information available and are going down this single trajectory. 

So my question is: will you consider reviewing the number of licences a local authority can issue according to the ratio of inspectors that they currently have?

I know that Joyce Watson was in the Chamber to hear my earlier answers around dog breeding, and this is clearly one of the areas that the chief veterinary officer, in her discussions with local authorities, has encountered. So, we need to look at those barriers again, making sure that the legislation we currently have is being enforced, and explore opportunities to maximise the use of existing resources. So, as I said in an earlier answer, it's about making sure that we've got that spread across Wales where we have local authorities who only have a single figure. As I say, Torfaen, I think, has one, and you've got areas such as those you referred to in Carmarthenshire that has got multiple licences.

I think the ratio of breeding premises across local authorities is absolutely disproportionate, and it means that some local authorities are really struggling to cope with demands. So, this work is to look at a way of sharing that resource and expertise, and I think that really will target enforcement much more effectively.

Minister, I recently met with my constituents David and Elaine Williams and their dog Cindy, who herself was saved from a puppy farm, to learn more about how to stop the cruel practice through Lucy's law. I know that this is something that has gathered cross-party support, and it's crucial now that as Lucy's law comes into force in England in April, Wales isn't, of course, left behind.

However, in the meantime, and following on from Joyce Watson's question, what discussions have you and your officials had with local authorities about ways in which they can better enforce the licensing of puppy farms in Wales, and how is the Welsh Government proactively encouraging dog lovers to actually buy from reputable breeders?

14:15

I'm sorry, Presiding Officer, I don't think Paul Davies was in the Chamber before to hear my earlier answers about the work we're doing around Lucy's law. I mentioned that the chief veterinary officer has met with all—well, apart from one local authority, 21 local authorities around this particular issue, to ensure that we understand what the barriers are to the enforcement of the current legislation. Just bringing in Lucy's law would not, I don't think, rid us of the illegal puppy farming that we all want to see gone.

You make a really important point at the end, though, about individuals. It really is up to the person who is purchasing a dog that they buy it from a reputable breeder—we had a campaign in the run-up to Christmas to encourage that—and for individuals to ask questions and perhaps to ask, if they're shown into a kitchen, maybe, to see the puppies, to see other parts of the breeder's property. So, it is about bringing it all together. We've already had those conversations that have started with local authorities. I will be making a statement after the February recess.

The TB Eradication Programme

8. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government's TB eradication programme? OAQ55003

Thank you. We refreshed the TB eradication programme in Wales in October 2017, and we are now seeing some long-term downward trends in key TB indicators, such as incidence and prevalence. I committed to providing a statement on the programme on an annual basis, and I will next do so in April.

I thank the Minister for that reply. In the 12 months to October 2019, 12,742 cattle were slaughtered. That's the highest figure on record; it compares with only 917 back in 1996. I heard the First Minister, a few days ago, claiming that this increase in slaughter was actually a sign that the Government's policy was being successful. I don't, myself, see the highlighting of past failures as an indication of success, although that's an important development. I do acknowledge that some progress has been made, but I hope the Minister will agree that not enough has been done and a lot remains to be done.

The Government's policy's been focused almost entirely upon farm practices and restrictions placed on farmers and cattle movements, and it has ignored one other important element in the jigsaw, which is the prevalence of TB in wildlife as a vector of infection. Until the Government does recognise that this is one part of the solution to the problem, we will never achieve what we all want to achieve, which is the total eradication of TB in Wales. The Minister often says that she is going to base her policy on evidence, and that's a very good thing, but given that she and her colleagues in previous decisions have done the opposite—the shooting ban introduced by Natural Resources Wales was done in the face of their own evidence; the imposition of windfarms like Hendy has been done against the recommendation of the Minister's own appointed inspector; the smoking ban that we were debating this week—

Like Joyce Watson, you need to get to your question also, Neil Hamilton.

—was introduced in spite of the results of the Government's own consultation. So, my question to the Minister is: how can rural Wales have any faith in this Government that it will actually base its policy on evidence when all the evidence that we have is that it does the opposite?

Well, I absolutely do base any policy I bring forward on science and evidence, and I think Neil Hamilton's cherry-picking a bit, because if you look at the TB dashboard, if you look at the short term, for instance in the 12 months to October 2019, there were 666 new herd incidents reported in Wales—too many, I agree, and I absolutely want to stress that—but it was a 12 per cent decrease on the previous 12 months, so we are seeing improvement. In the longer term, we've seen a 37 per cent decrease in new incidents from 2019 to 2018. We have seen a decrease in animals slaughtered by 4 per cent in 2009 to 2018.

I think the point the First Minister was making was around more sophisticated testing enabling us to find the TB earlier than it was before. We don't ignore any element of the TB picture, and I can assure the Member that, in our bespoke action plans, for instance, absolutely every element is looked at.

Diolch, Llywydd. Minister, the number of approved finishing units in Wales is significantly lower pro rata than in England, I'm told. And this is, of course, limiting the opportunities for farmers down with TB to sell their calves to prevent overstocking on their holdings. I wonder, Minister, what you intend to do to encourage the setting up of more approved finishing units in Wales, and also would you commit your officials to look at simplifying the regulations around them?

14:20

I'm certainly happy to look at simplifying anything. I hate bureaucracy and if it can be simplified in any way—. I know officials are working with individual farmers where they do have a breakdown, particularly if they've got different pockets of land that could be declared TB-free or are TB-free, to do that. But, yes, I'm certainly happy to commit officials to doing that.

2. Questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government

The next item is questions to the Minister for Housing and Local Government, and the first question is from Mark Isherwood.

The Post Office

1. What discussions has the Minister had regarding the operations of the Post Office in Wales? OAQ54982

I recognise the valuable services that local post offices provide to the communities they serve across Wales. Welsh Government has regular contact with Post Office Ltd to ensure we are kept aware of and raise any issues that affect Welsh communities.

Post offices remain at the heart of our communities, especially where the last bank branch has closed. During the years of the UK Government's post office closure programme between 2007 and 2009, we were repeatedly told here—and quite rightly so—that post offices had to become sustainable and that included the development of financial services.

Last October we all received an announcement that the Post Office had agreed a new banking framework with 28 UK banks, ensuring that bank customers continued to have free access to everyday banking services in every corner of Wales. It also ensured a fair and sustainable remuneration package for sub-postmasters and mistresses. So, how is the Welsh Government, therefore, engaging with the Post Office in the context of this banking framework agreement, to ensure that its proposals for a community bank do not compete with those services that simply fill in the gap, so that we can ensure that our post office network is here tomorrow and for next week, next year and future generations?

Diolch. As we both—. I think everybody here will be in agreement on the role that post offices play in our communities and in the heart of our towns across the country as well, performing not just a function and a practical role, but also a social function as well. Although post office matters are not devolved to Welsh Ministers, clearly we have a role to play in how those issues impact or affect the citizens of Wales.

Officials last met with Post Office Ltd earlier this month and actually raising awareness of the banking framework and commitment was one of the things high on the agenda, about how we can work with them, with the roles that we're doing across Government to ensure that Welsh citizens have access to the services they need.

Population Forecasts and Local Development Plans

2. What assessment has the Minister made of the relationship between population forecasts and local development plans? OAQ54991

Yes. The household projections, local housing market assessments and well-being plans are essential parts of the evidence base for local development plans. The scale of housing growth is a matter for local planning authorities to determine, reflecting the issues they have identified.

The Wrexham local development plan in my own region was rejected back in 2013 by the planning inspectors because there wasn't sufficient land allocated for housing, in their opinion. That was because the population forecasts for the county had stated that there would be a 20 per cent increase in population—the second-highest increase throughout the whole of Wales, second only to Cardiff. But, of course, the reality is very different.

Over the past five years, the increase in population has been significantly lower than the forecasts. Despite that, it appears that the Planning Inspectorate still isn't listening because they continue to challenge Wrexham council. The council is looking at a target of some 8,500 homes in their LDP, whilst the Planning Inspectorate insists that they need around 12,000 in that plan. That will mean building more homes on greenfield sites and it will create some sort of urban sprawl that will destroy the unique communities in the area.

So, my question to you, Minister, is: where does the Government stand on this issue? Are you in favour of a regime that enforces the building of unnecessary homes, or are you in favour of protecting our communities and our environment?

14:25

Well, thank you for that. As Llyr Gruffydd knows, it's much more complicated than that. He's absolutely right in saying that Wrexham had its original LDP rejected as a result of the way that it had done its housing land allocations policy. While the council does have an extant unitary development plan in place, it has expired for the purposes of calculating the five-year housing land supply. As he knows, the authority has been, and will continue to be, vulnerable to speculative development until the LDP is actually adopted. The LDP is currently at the examination stage.

The inspectors have raised concerns regarding the level of housing proposed in the plan, specifically questioning whether it is aspirational enough. The level of housing proposed by the council aligns with the 2014-based 10-year migration variant published by the Welsh Government, which is a requirement of 7,750 homes. Officials have made public representations supporting the level of housing in Wrexham's LDP, and do not consider that it should be increased further.

The level of housing is broadly in line with the past 10-year delivery rates. The inspectors have asked the council to provide additional clarification on this matter, and the deadline for that is 31 January. There will be an additional hearing session on 11 March to consider housing matters further. So, you can see that our officials agree, I think, broadly with what you're saying, which is that, given the current projections and what Wrexham is projecting in the LDP, our officials have made representations saying that we think that Wrexham is about right.

It's always a difficult balance for councils because the projections are just that: projections. They are not plan-based policies. They are based on projected population trends, but they don't take into account any economic development or tourism or other aspirations that the council may have, and they are not intended in any way to be a target. They are simply one part of a set of evidence that the authority must take into account when it sets its local housing target.

For example, in a local authority area, if the number of households being created is outstripping the level of population increase because there are growing numbers of people who want to live on their own, for example, then the housing target might be higher than the population increase and the forecast. So, it's a much more complex matter than that. But I think the simple answer to your question is that our officials agree that the plan is about where it should be and have made representations to that effect into the system.

Minister, I agree entirely with you that it is a complex picture that is painted every time an LDP goes for consideration, and the mix of housing that's required as well, from single-occupancy households to multiple-occupancy households. But it is a fact that, obviously, when councils are putting their LDPs forward, they have to have due regard to population forecasts.

One thing that comes up time and time again is that the population forecasts inform the number of units to be built but, very often, those population forecasts don't feed into the provision of doctors' surgeries, education facilities et cetera. Can you give me confidence that there will be greater weight placed on the services that are required to support these developments, which we all accept we require? We know that there is a housing crisis, and most people can be won over if they can be assured that the transport considerations are taken into account, the service provision is taken into account, and not just the number of houses that need to be built.

Yes, and the answer to your question is to look at the complex set of instructions that local authorities must follow in setting the various things. So, we can look at the housing numbers projections, for example, and the LDP has got to take into account a number of things in coming to its housing land supply and doing that, as I've just said to Llyr. But we also have, for example—. We're currently consulting on the national development framework, which has some major infrastructure things. As you know, we're in the process of putting, via the Local Government Elections (Wales) Bill, a framework in place to facilitate the regional strategic planning arrangements for local authorities, which should put the regional planning arrangements in place for those kinds of infrastructure. So, in the round, the set of plans that we will eventually have in place will do exactly that.

The way that I have been explaining it as we've been conducting a number of stakeholder meetings is that, if you set out a flat plan of Wales, you ought to be able to say, 'Well, here are the trunk roads, here are the hospitals, here are the existing schools, here is where the housing is, here's where the new school should be', and so on, and then when the council is negotiating with the house builder about their contribution to local infrastructure, there would be much better certainty about what that infrastructure should look like in advance, so that when somebody's planning to come forward with a piece of land, they know that they're likely to have to contribute to the school or the hospital or whatever it is that's nearby.

We haven't started this in the optimum place. We've started it at the bottom, and I would have preferred to start it at the top. But my colleague Lesley Griffiths started the process just before I took over this portfolio, and, very shortly, we will in a position where we have all of those plans in place, and we will be able to do exactly as you suggest. 

14:30
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. Conservative spokesperson, Mark Isherwood. 

Diolch, Llywydd. On 10 January, a letter was sent to you by, or signed by, the leaders of all six north Wales county councils regarding the local government settlement for 2020-21. And, it said, 'Even with a positive settlement this year, we'll all be looking at some service reductions and above-inflation council tax increases. In light of the continued challenges, we wish to ask you for a funding floor of 4 per cent in the local government finance settlement, to be met from Welsh Government reserves.' And they said this was primarily because, in the provisional settlement for 2020-21, four of the five bottom councils are from north Wales, and, without a floor, most north Wales councils will be faced with the biggest challenge in terms of seeking cuts to service, whereas a floor will help to protect services and work against above-inflation council tax rises in the bottom six councils. How will you be responding to this request, which I believe has also been shared with the Welsh Local Government Association and the Secretary of State for Wales?

We've asked for more evidence as to the hardship that having the biggest uplift in any local government settlement that they've ever had would bring. And you can hear from the way I've answered your question that I'm a little sceptical about that. The purpose of a floor is obviously to prevent people from having to make enormous cuts in services that they would otherwise have had to make because of population projection changes, or some other issue in the distribution formula that disproportionately affects a particular council, and where an unexpected drop of million of pounds in terms of support would mean swift changes to services. 

In this case, what we're looking at is that no council in Wales will have less than a 3 per cent uplift. Most of the councils that you're talking about are somewhere in between 3 and 4 per cent. And what we're talking about is asking for a floor to bring them up to 4.7, I think they said—it might be 6 or 8; I can't remember—per cent. I don't think that's the same point, and, whilst I understand their argument that there's an average, and that some should come down in order for others to go up, they're not facing the kinds of service cuts that they were facing during the previous nine years of imposed austerity. So, it's very difficult to understand quite what the reasoning for that is. This is above the settlement that any of them could have been expected to be predicting, and it's very hard to see how they would have unplanned service cuts as a result. 

But, having said all of that, if they want to present some evidence of what that might look like, I'm very happy to look at it. But, again, I will emphasise that, when we are looking at putting more money into that sort of settlement, we are looking at where to take it from. So, we would also have to consider how much such a floor would cost, and where that money would come from. 

Well, as I said—I won't go down the austerity line—they said that 'even with the positive settlement this year'—so they're acknowledging that, and it's cross-party signatures on this letter—they're saying that in order to meet pressures in demand-led priority services like social care and children's services, they will be facing cuts without a 4 per cent floor; it is 4 per cent this letter asked for. 

However, moving on to the integrated care fund, you produced your annual report on 16 January, which said that:

'There are now numerous multi-disciplinary teams of health, social care, housing and third sector professionals working together to develop tailored interventions'.

And, you said,

'making better use of resources through collaborative working and moving away from traditional ways of delivering services'

have been identified, but you recognised that the fund

'must demonstrate best use of public money and its impact should be clearly evidenced'

and that you would be addressing the recommendations from the Wales Audit Office review of the fund. That Wales Audit Office review said:

'A key aim of the fund is to promote joint working between statutory and third-sector organisations'

but the

'third-sector representatives that we spoke to identified a range of challenges which have affected their ability to access the fund'

and had

'left the third sector disconnected from the wider programme where they could equally have valid contributions to make to some of the larger-scale projects.'

Their particular report on north Wales was even more concerning in this context, where it says that

'the way the fund has been managed at national, regional and project levels have limited its potential to date...little evidence of successful projects yet being mainstreamed and funded',

and it specifically said that:

'Third sector representatives told us they felt they have insufficient access to the fund and that they benefit predominantly when spending on other projects slip'

and it called for

'ways to ensure fair access to the Integrated Care Fund for the third sector'.

This replicates concerns raised with me just in the last week—a debate last week here on bereavement support charities' funding. I've had a letter this week from charities supporting people with vision and hearing impairments. We're all receiving correspondence from the network of third sector bodies providing housing-related support, all of which should, and can, reduce significant pressure on statutory services for relatively small proportions of overall budgets. So, how do you respond specifically to the concerns raised by the auditor general regarding the need to better integrate the third sector, not just in the share of funding, which is critical, but also in the decision making and design of services as they go forward?

14:35

I think it's a fair point, to be honest. It's early days in some ways for the integrated care fund, and we want to make sure that we are getting the kinds of ambitious projects coming forward. And to do that we do need a good set of cross-working across sectors to make sure that we hit all the right things that we want the integrated care fund to do. And that's quite complex, because, as Mark Isherwood is rightly pointing out, it interacts with a whole series of other things that we also fund. So, I think it's a fair point. Very happy to look again at the report's recommendations, and see how we can better integrate third sector partners in the planning for that. You'll know that we've recently put housing as statutory partners onto the regional planning boards—regional partnership boards, sorry; we should stop calling things almost the same three-letter acronym, for the benefit of struggling Ministers—the regional partnership boards, I should say. And the reason for that was because we wanted a wider input into the way that those funds are looked at. So, I'm very happy to look at that. If you want to write to me with better detail of some of the issues that have been raised with you, I'd be more than happy to look at that.

Okay. Then, if I move to a specific council, if I may, it's nearly two decades now since Flintshire's internal audit manager successfully took action against the council, and at the core of his complaints were denial of access to documents and failure to respond to correspondence. A few years later, we had the housing maintenance scandal, where similar problems were identified by PricewaterhouseCoopers and the independent Roots report. A whole tranche of people left the council, allegedly with non-disclosure agreements. A few years later, we had the AD Waste scandal, a similar pattern—again, two members of staff leaving the authority, but, again, the police saying they couldn't prosecute, because of the lack of documentation.

In 2018, Flintshire council had a debate and called for action after a councillor named and shamed officers who didn't reply to calls and e-mails, and called for further action to be taken. And now we have, this month, an ombudsman's report by the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales into Flintshire County Council, which found that, despite identifying in 2014 a statutory nuisance, the council didn't open an appropriate case file until 18 months later. The council was aware from at least 2012 that they didn't have appropriate planning consent, but almost no planning records from before August 2018, failures in interdepartmental communication and co-operation, lack of records, the council failed to respond to the complaints appropriately, there was an absence of clearly established ownership at senior levels in the council, compounded by the length of the time the failures continued, and a lack of regard for the difficulties faced. These reports, going back 10 years, and 20 years, are all identifying the same problems, irrespective of the political leadership as it comes and goes. What are you going to do about it? Because last time I raised this with you, you said it's matter for the council, and your predecessors over the years have always said it's just a matter for the council. But surely this can't go on unchallenged and uninvestigated, when the same problems keep arising.

It is a matter for the council, but I understand your concern. I don't know this—because you'll know that I haven't been in work for the last week or so, but I don't know whether the public services ombudsman has raised anything as a result of the reports with the Government. So, I will look at that. We would expect, if there's a pattern emerging that the ombudsman was concerned about, for the ombudsman to flag that up with us. So, I will check that. And I'm more than happy to have a meeting with you about your wider concerns about it, if you like. So, apologies—I haven't seen that report, since I've been off work, but I will look into it.

However, it is always tempting to find a pattern in incidents over 10 years, when, actually, they're incidents. So, I'm happy to look at it with an open mind, but I'm not convinced that a set of incidents of one-offs, over 10 years, necessarily represents a pattern of culture in an authority. But I'm more than happy, Mark, to look at it, alongside you, and see whether there is something concerning emerging.

14:40

Diolch, Llywydd. Can the Minister explain why the Welsh Government is still counting the 7,129 homes sold through Help to Buy since 2016 as counting towards its target of 20,000 affordable homes, of which you've claimed 13,143 have been delivered already? 

Yes. Because Help to Buy has helped people buy a house that they wouldn't have otherwise been able to buy by assisting them with a deposit scheme that they wouldn't have otherwise had access to. And we count affordable homes in that wider sense as homes that are available to people that they wouldn't have had access to them unless they'd had Government support. So, that's the short explanation. 

Thank you for that, Minister. It seems to me the crux of the problem with the term 'affordable' is that the definition of it is so relative. So, a staggering 78 per cent of homes, so that's 5,564 that were sold through Help to Buy, were sold at a price of over £150,000. Over 1,000 homes that you count in the statistics as affordable were sold for over £250,000. I just can't see how any reasonable person can count these homes as affordable. Is that not statistical manipulation on an industrial scale? 

I don't disagree at all that the definition of 'affordable' is unhelpful and rather more flexible than we'd like in terms of what we're trying to do. And we've been very upfront about the numbers in terms of that, because I'm not disagreeing with the fundamental premise of what you're saying, which is, actually, we should build social housing or homes that actually are within people's range without having to have Government help to get them there. But the current definition is that, if you've had Government help to get you into your house, then it's an affordable home. So, I'm not going to argue with you; I don't disagree with the basic premise that you're saying. But the target we set included that definition and so it's being counted against that definition. 

Rather more importantly, we're very engaged now on trying to release land and resources so that we can build social housing. So, that is houses for social rent, and that's either via our councils who are stockholding authorities—the 11 councils who still are stockholding authorities—or via our local housing associations, or both in some areas. So, some stockholding authorities are working hand in hand with the local housing association to bring forward houses for social rent in joint or partial ownership, and in other non-stockholding authorities they're working with their local housing associations to bring them forward. And it is really accelerating fast.

So, from a slow start—if you will remember, councils weren't allowed to use the money that they got from right to buy sales in order to do this, and there were caps on the housing revenue accounts and so on. So, from having that to the Conservative Government finally seeing sense and removing those caps, we've managed to accelerate quite considerably, and I hope very much that this year will see another acceleration of growth in houses for social rent, which is the tenure that's most needed in the Welsh economy. 

Thank you, Minister. I welcome the tone that you're engaging with us on. I'm glad that you do agree with the general thrust of what we're saying here. So, just to put on the record, then, that, if we were to take a more reasonable look at the track record of the Government in delivering affordable housing in the definition in its wider sense of what it should mean, which I think that you agree with us on, we'd need to remove those homes that were beyond the price range of so many people and take out those 5,500 unaffordable homes, and that would actually mean that the Government has delivered 7,579 and you're thus on course to fail in reaching that target. So, I'd welcome your—

Okay, so my answer to that is, however, the target was set in light of the definition that was available—

I don't think the Member had quite finished her question, if you don't mind. I know you're keen, Minister, but if you allow her to finish her question. 

No, thank you for agreeing with me on that. I wait to hear your answer more fully. But, as you were just saying about social housing, I also think that that is where we really need to be focusing delivery on. I welcome again what you've been saying on that. The figures show that, since 2016, there have been just 4,397 completed homes for the social housing sector, and that's around half of the rate that we need to reach, according to most estimates, the target. So, given this, and the findings that around half of the affordable homes that were promised through planning obligations over the past decade haven't been delivered, because developers, they exploit our failing planning system, when do you think that we will see the radical changes to planning that you've hinted at? 

Okay. So, as I was saying, I don't think it's fair to say that we don't meet the target, because the target's set in the light of the definition of affordable homes that existed at the time, and the target was set in that light. So, if you're going to take the Help to Buy houses out of that you'd lower the target necessarily, because we wouldn't never have set it in that way if we weren't including those houses. So, although I take the point you're trying to make, I think that's beating us with a stick unnecessarily, shall we say? There are other sticks that you can beat us with that are perhaps more justifiable.

One of which is that one of the biggest problems we've had in the delivery of the element of affordable homes in private sector planning applications is that councils have really had their score base decimated. And so, actually, in negotiating the 106 agreements, councils have not necessarily been able to hold the line that they would have liked to have held against the house builders and developers in that negotiation. So, very much a part of the local government Bill, that we were discussing in committee together this morning, is making those regional arrangements so that we can pool the skills necessary to get councils to be able to withstand those kinds of conversations. 

But at the same time, there's a whole series of other things we need to do. Actually, I think we've done rather well considering the level of constraint there was in building social housing over the last two years. But you'll see a huge change in scale and pace now that the caps have been taken off and we've changed the way that we hold public sector land. 

So, just to remind the Chamber, Llywydd, we've changed the way that the Welsh Government holds its land. It's been centralised into the public land division with my colleague Rebecca Evans and their instruction is that all land going for housing that's in Welsh Government ownership will have 50 per cent social-rented housing on it and then an element of affordable on top of it. And that land supply makes a huge difference to the acceleration of the way that we build social housing.

We're in conversation now with the Welsh Local Government Association and health boards and other things to really sell the public sector land under a similar scheme, because the biggest problem for the building of social homes is the acquisition of the land, not just the building of the houses. So, we're very much stepping up to that plate, and I think you'll see a step change in the numbers coming forward as the starts accelerate. What you're seeing at the moment is the completion of starts done under the old system, which was obviously much more restrictive.

14:45
Second Homes

3. Will the Minister make a statement on the steps available to local government to prevent second homes being registered as businesses? OAQ55010

If a property is a second home, it is classified as a domestic dwelling. The registration of businesses is not in itself devolved.

I was in Rhosneigr at a coffee morning recently, and a group of ladies who were busy making me a cuppa at the time said, 'Can we have a public meeting to discuss the red bins issue?' I wasn't sure what they meant, so they explained: 'Oh, you know, when people register their holiday homes as businesses, they have their domestic bins changed for business ones, red ones. There are more and more of them in the village, and it's wrong, they're not paying their taxes.'

Now, in November 2018, the former First Minister told me that he didn't believe there was a loophole here. The finance Minister, Rebecca Evans, also said, 'I'm not sure that I would agree that there's a loophole in the law'. Let's have a look at definitions of 'loophole'. The Cambridge dictionary says:

'loophole: a small mistake in an agreement or law that gives someone the chance to avoid having to do something'.

The Collins dictionary says:

'A loophole in the law is a small mistake which allows people to do something that would otherwise be illegal.'

And that's the point here. Certainly, it should be illegal to buy a second home and then be able to avoid paying the taxes that other full-time citizens of that same community do have to pay, and still expect to receive the same services. What the red bins story tells us is that this is becoming more and more visible and that people are getting angrier and angrier about it. 

Now, if Government won't agree that there is a loophole here, will you agree that there is a small mistake in legislation currently that has consequences that may well be unintended, but that has to be addressed in the name of fairness and in the name of providing local authorities much-needed revenue that is otherwise lost?

So, I take the point the Member is trying to make, but I don't think it is a loophole within any of the definitions you've just said, and that's because it's intended. A loophole is an unintended consequence, and actually this is an intended consequence.

Just to be clear how it works, because I think there's a great deal of misunderstanding amongst people about how exactly this works: so, when somebody acquires a property, they have to class it as a dwelling or as a business. If they class it as a dwelling, then it's a second home if it's not occupied all the time, and then it's subject to the council tax system prevalent in that authority.

Some authorities have doubled the council tax on second homes, others have actually halved it, depending on their local circumstances and what they're trying to achieve. That's a matter for local discretion and they can do what they like.

What you're describing is when someone acquires a property and then says it's not a domestic property, it's actually part of a business and they're letting it out as self-catering or whatever. There are strict rules about what they have to do to do that, and they have to apply through the valuation office, they must complete the forms and provide documentary evidence the property met the letting criteria, and the Valuation Office Agency reviews the evidence before making a change to the lists, and then it's a registered business. Only two properties are allowed per registered business to count as a small business. So, if you're a small business, you can't have more than two properties. And if you're a small business with two properties, you can apply for small business rate relief.

14:50

Well, a holiday home is the same thing—it's still a business, whatever you call it.

The Minister is seeking to provide you with an answer, Rhun ap Iorwerth.

So, if it's not being let out and it is classed as a small business, and what you're saying is, 'This is not being let out, it's being used as a second home', and the person has done that—that's a fraud. So, that's a criminal offence and would be prosecuted. We have asked—as a result of something Siân Gwenllian asked me to do—all authorities in Wales for any evidence of that, and we have not been provided with any. And we've asked the valuation office to conduct an audit of the ones that they're aware of, and they have not come up with a single one that hasn't legitimately changed across and hasn't been able to provide the evidence necessary to sustain that.

Now, I'll say it again: if you've got evidence that that's happening, let's have it, and I'll do something about it. But so far, at this point in time, we have no—. We have anecdotes of all sorts, including in my own authority and everywhere else, but we have no actual evidence at all that that's actually happening.

I do recognise the concerns behind this question, but the boundaries between main home, second homes, multiple occupation properties and any business identity have become long blurred since the arrival of Airbnb and other similar daily-rate accommodation companies. If you support the principle of what Plaid thinks of as a second home—which is occupied only periodically by visitors who don't live there full time—being excluded from business registration, then how could you ever expect to collect any tourism tax from them? I think, actually, that's a really good reason for not even considering that tax any further.

So, I make the same point: if we have any evidence at all that properties have been incorrectly listed as businesses and not domestic properties, then let's have it, and we'll look at it and do something about it. If a residence is a domestic residence, listed as a domestic residence for occasional occupation, or never occupation—and there's nothing to stop you buying a second home and literally never going to it—as long as it's registered as a domestic premises, then it will pay whatever the relevant council tax for a non-main-home residence is in that area.

You have to positively approach the valuation office and say that you want to register this property as a non-residential property for business use in order to get into this scheme. You have to have two or less of those properties to qualify as a small business and get the rate relief. If you have more than that, you'll be paying non-domestic rates on it instead of council tax, which is not necessarily better, it might be more.

And then the other thing to say is, although the doubling of the charge for second homes in many areas of Wales was not intended in any way as a revenue-raising arrangement—but rather a behaviour modification arrangement—in fact, it's raised very considerable amounts of money across Wales. Far more than ever would have been lost if such a loophole had existed, which I emphasise it does not.

Does the Minister share my frustration that it's not clear whether Plaid are complaining about fraud or are complaining about the law? Is the issue that second-home owners are reclassifying them as holiday homes but still living in them themselves part time and not renting them out? In which case that's fraud. Is it that they're not renting them out very much and they're not actually reaching the 10 weeks a year? In which case shall we have some more enforcement? Or is there an argument that, if they're to benefit from having this zero council tax in this way, they should actually be renting them out for longer than 10 weeks a year? In which case why don't we go to the HMRC definition of requiring furnished holiday lettings to be rented out for 15 weeks a year minimum, and available for 30 weeks a year minimum?

That's a reasonable analysis. Our analysis from all of the work that we've done on this is that the amount of letting is the right level, because tourism economies are very important across Wales in very small places. So, this is a balance, isn't it, between allowing properties to be used in our very vital tourism industry, and making sure that people are not taking advantage of some loophole. But it's not a loophole if you have to evidence it in the right way. So, if you have evidence that people are not letting their accommodation out in the right way, then let us have it. I've said repeatedly in the Chamber, and I'll say it one more time: I am more than happy to look at any evidence at all that that is happening, but currently I don't have any.

14:55
Second Homes

4. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of a high percentage of second homes on housing need within communities? OAQ55005

I recognise that price and availability of homes for local people in parts of Wales are being impacted by second-home ownership. To understand this impact in their areas, local authorities are required to conduct local housing market assessments and apply strategies to meet the requirements of their communities.

There are broader issues than just the impact within the taxation system. But we do need a resolution to that, and the WLGA agrees with us that changing section 66 of the Local Government Finance Act 1992 is the way forward. So, it's not just on these benches that are talking about this; the WLGA, representing all Welsh councils, has also said that we need to amend that legislation as a matter of urgency. But you're not going to go down that route; I don't quite understand why.

But there are broader issues, of course, aren't there? Of the homes sold in Gwynedd recently, 40 per cent of them were sold as second homes. Now, that is a huge figure, and that kind of social and economic change leaves our communities much, much worse off for most of the year.

So, what general work has your Government done in order to take all of these issues into account? For example, is it now time for us to make it a requirement for anyone who wishes to convert a home into a second home—particularly in these areas where there are very high numbers of second homes—that they would need planning consent before they could make that change?

There are other changes to the planning system that could be considered. Other areas—Cornwall and the Lake District have tackled this.

I feel passionately about this, as you know, but the question is: what other changes, apart from the taxation changes, could your Government consider implementing in order to resolve this problem?

Siân Gwenllian, I hope, knows that I'm also very sympathetic to the problem, and I do absolutely recognise that that exists. We have had a look at things like trying to control it through the planning system, but when somebody is conducting the sale of a private house to a private individual or to a company, it would be very difficult at that point to say that that sale couldn't continue once the identity of the owner was known and they had declared it was a second home.

There are also all kinds of other issues that might seem trivial but are really problematic in a legal system. So, I buy the house as my main house, and then I get married to somebody who lives in London and I only come back at weekends, so have I suddenly converted it into a second home and breached the planning rule? There are lots of difficult problems. That doesn't make me not sympathetic to the problem; I think there are a number of things we can do. 

We know that rural areas have particularly high challenges with this, and very beautiful parts of the country have specific problems. Gwynedd, you're absolutely right in identifying. Gwynedd is 9.9 per cent, fourth in the list of authorities with second homes in Britain. So, you're absolutely right that it's a huge problem for us. But I think we need to attack it in a number of ways.

We have a rural strategic group that consists of rural housing enablers—housing associations, local authorities, Community Housing Cymru and the WLGA—that meets quarterly. We've got a good forum to encourage and test ideas for what can be done. We're encouraging things like the use of the council tax premiums. I'm happy to look at whether we should increase that yet again if house prices—. A house in my village has just sold for £2.8 million to a couple from London who I don't think plan to live there permanently. My children will never live in a village that has houses selling for that; I have a lot of sympathy with where you're coming from. 

So, I think what we need to do is identify land, particularly in rural, Welsh-speaking communities, where the children of the villages want to live, and identify houses that we can build that are either for social rent with a local element attached to that, or for mixed equity—so shared equity arrangements with local housing associations or with the local council—or other arrangements such as self-build with residents' requirements as a result of the grant, and various other things that we can do to encourage the building of the right kind of houses, so that local people, young people in particular, can be encouraged to stay in our communities. 

So, I have a lot of sympathy with that, but I don't think the planning system is the right way to do it. What we have to do is find a tool that works. So, I'm very happy to invite you along to one of the sessions with the rural housing enabler arrangements, and we're very happy to look at any other good ideas from across the Chamber, Llywydd, as I know a large number of people have these problems in their constituencies and regions, to look to see what we can do that would work and not involve us in endless legal disputes around the point of sale for various houses across Wales.

15:00

Minister, I remember Dafydd Wigley raising this issue in the first Assembly and talking about where they do have controlled housing markets, like the Channel Islands—that bastion of socialism in the English channel. The thing is, we do have a culture more widely in Britain of free market and second-home ownership, which I respect, but a lot of those people are also tempted sometimes to buy in Spain, in Italy, in France, where there's profound rural depopulation and villages lie empty, often. And it's a slightly different situation, to put it mildly, that we are facing, and we need a range of strategies: higher council tax where there is high housing need but second homes are being purchased; empty home strategies; and modest but necessary building up of villages. Now, it's one thing to have a pretty, pretty village, but it's not very pretty for the local young people if they cannot afford to live there and raise families. So, appropriate development, just like our ancestors have done for generations, should be required.

I completely agree with you. We're not opposing that in any way. It is just about making sure that we get the right houses in the right places for the right people. But we must also guard against unintended consequences. I don't know if you are aware, but St Ives recently had the experience where they restricted the building of homes for out-of-town buyers and that resulted in no houses being built at all because it simply wasn't feasible. So, you have unintended consequences of that. That's not what they wanted, but that's what they got. So, what we're very keen to do is to find the right levers to do that, to allow the village envelope to increase slightly with the right kind of houses and all the rest of it.

I just emphasise as well that, of course, because of our set of planning rules, the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015 and the Welsh language planning Act all interacting, the Welsh language is a very big part of this as well. So, we do want to preserve our Welsh-speaking communities and make sure that they aren't currently inundated with large numbers of people who wouldn't be able to learn the language in an appropriate timescale for the local school and so on. So, large numbers of considerations are expected to be applied by local planning authorities in Wales when they are looking at this. I'm very happy to work with groups of AMs and with our rural enabler people and so on to look at any ideas at all that can encourage the building of the right kind of houses in the right kind of places.

As David Melding rightly says, we don't have the kinds of problems they have in Spain and Portugal in some areas, but in little bits of Wales, like Gwynedd and some of the Pembrokeshire coast, we really do have a problem that is accelerating.

Single-use Plastics

5. Will the Minister provide an update on the Welsh Government’s proposals to tackle single-use plastics? OAQ54986

I recently launched our circular economy strategy, 'Beyond Recycling', which includes the headline action to phase out single-use plastic. Alongside this, we are working on game-changing reforms such as extended producer responsibility for packaging, a deposit-return scheme and a ban on certain single-use plastics.  

That's really good news to hear. The Minister must be as frustrated as I am when we go to the supermarkets that proclaim all the good work that they're doing on reducing plastics and we still see fruit and veg aisles lined with plastic-wrapped fruit and veg. It's quite interesting today that I've just spotted an organisation called Plastic Expiry, which is taking peaceful direct action by putting stickers on those plastic products labelling them, 'plastic expiry by 24 January 2499'. Consumers are leading the way in peaceful protest.

But we had a great debate here last October, cross-party support, a motion that was passed by the House—pushing, encouraging and working with the Minister to say, 'Let's become that nation that becomes a global leader in sustainable consumption and in reducing plastic waste and single-use plastics in particular'. Could I ask her: are all tools on the table, including things such as appropriate tax and levies, bans on appropriate and specific single-use plastics? And will she continue to work with all those campaigning organisations, including the Marine Conservation Society, Keep Wales Tidy and Friends of the Earth—thank you for meeting with us the other day—but also those others out there who want to make this change because we know that the tide of plastic pollution is rising and we've got to stop it?

I think the short answer is 'absolutely yes'. I'm incredibly proud of our role and our record as a global leader and the recognition we've received of that previously from places as far afield as Australia. But we've outlined our ambition that we actually want to step up that and take that further, and to actually drive the change in the future.

And you mentioned some of the individuals and organisations that are taking matters into their own hands, and just about the labelling, I think that is very creative. And in my own constituency, there have been Maximum Wraps, where people have done their shopping, and there's a team of volunteers there getting rid of all the excess plastic that isn't necessary there. You're absolutely right about this consumer willpower and this energy in our communities to do something, and we really need to harness that as a Government and across our communities as well.

So, that's why one of the key elements for me in this consultation, which I much prefer to call a conversation, because I think that's what it should be, is actually about how we both enable businesses to be part of that but importantly, that we empower communities too. So, as part of that, I'm actually going around every region of Wales, talking to businesses, talking to community groups, as well as officials doing it, to actually make sure they're part of that as well and actually influence the change. Because we know they want it, and there are things that we can do as a Government in terms of legislation and policy, but we need that cultural change as well, and I think people need to be part of that. So, absolutely, I'm very keen to continue that and continue the conversation with everybody who wants to be part of it.

15:05

Deputy Minister, earlier this week, I met with pupils from St Aidan's Church in Wales School in Wiston just outside Haverfordwest in my constituency, which has set up a petition to ban single-use plastic milk bottles in schools across Wales. I'm sure you'll agree with me that it's great to see children and young people engaging with our petitions process and taking action on some of our biggest issues. In the circumstances, what support can the Welsh Government offer to the pupils of St Aidan's Church in Wales School, and what discussions have you had specifically with local authorities about banning single-use plastic milk bottles in schools across Wales?

Thank you. You're obviously referring to that role that young people are playing, particularly in schools, in driving this change, and the power of pester power as well because I think there's no loyalty to the grown-ups or to the parents when we're not doing it probably. I remember in one school, we were talking about what you recycled and why, and where it went, and one little girl put her hand up and said, 'My mummy doesn't do that.' So, I think we need to make sure that we support them in that.

You won't be surprised to hear that other schools have been in touch with the same concerns around the plastic milk bottles and around plastic straws. I know there have been some pilots across some schools in local authority areas to see what they can do to drive that forward. And I'm keen, if you want to ask the school to write to me about what they're doing, I'd be very happy to engage with them.

And also, as part of when we announced the 'Beyond Recycling' consultation, we also announced a new £6.5 million circular economy fund. It's not the same one as before, even though it sounds the same, it's actually for local authorities and other public bodies, so schools and other organisations can be part of that, if they want to. Because what we've done before, we've seen young people, actually, who are driving campaigns for change, but, actually, there's not the infrastructure there within where they are to actually drive that practical change and resolutions. So, to actually look at ways we can best enable and empower that. But if you want to write to me on behalf of the school, or invite the children to write to me, then I'll be more than happy to engage with them.

Thank you, Deputy Minister and Minister for replying to those questions. So—[Interruption.]

Yes. Point of order, Mandy Jones.

Thank you. I did try to raise this with your office earlier, so thank you for taking this for me.

Your office informed my office of an intention to raise a point of order a few minutes before I left to come down to the Chamber. I haven't had the opportunity to review that as yet, and I intend to tell you, once you have raised your point of order here very quickly, then, that I will review it subsequently to this. I'm sitting here with my mobile phone, I'm unable to actually look at any proceedings of last week's events.

Okay, but thank you for taking this, Llywydd.

Could you please make a ruling on Standing Orders 13.94 and 13.95 on whether Alun Davies's behaviour last week in the Chamber was discourteous and distracted from the dignity of this place? Alun shouted across the Chamber, 'You are a racist'. Now, on the Record of Proceedings, this comment actually follows my name being called by you, and I wasn't even in that conversation at that time. This is unacceptable to me. Members here should be able to make their point without being subjected to bullying and name calling, and I would like this comment, please, of Alun's to be removed from the Record and I would like to know where we all stand in terms of this kind of name calling.

15:10

Thank you for the point of order, and yes, I'll make a ruling on it once I've reviewed the Record of Proceedings in last week's proceedings. So, if you allow me to do that—. As I said earlier, I'm not able to review it on my mobile phone in the Chamber, even though I do make quite a bit of use, sometimes, as some of you who send me texts know, of my mobile phone, but not to review last week's proceedings. So, I will consider that at a later stage.

3. Topical Questions

Topical questions.

The first topical question is to be asked to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the question is from Caroline Jones.

Protecting the Public from Coronavirus

1. Will the Minister outline the steps being taken by Public Health Wales and NHS Wales to protect the public from Coronavirus? 387

Yes. NHS Wales has plans in place to protect the health of the public. Specific guidance on the identification, isolation and testing for this virus has been communicated to all of our front-line staff. UK health Ministers, chief medical officers and public health agencies across the four nations are co-ordinating action together.

Thank you, Minister. The threat we face from this new strain of coronavirus is of grave concern, and I am grateful that you have outlined the action your Government are taking to keep us safe. It is concerning that upwards of 5 million people are believed to have left Wuhan before the quarantine was put in place. Sadly, in the following weeks, we have seen this coronavirus outbreak spread, and the director of Public Health England has said that it is likely this deadly virus is already in the UK. We have to do all that we can to limit its impact on our already overstretched NHS. Minister, although we have no direct flights from China to Cardiff, both KLM and Qatar airlines offer flights. What assurances have you from the Dutch and Qatari Governments that they will screen all transit passengers?

Unfortunately, this coronavirus has a long incubation period, so the real scale of the threat will become more apparent in the coming weeks. Minister, will you commit to giving this Chamber and, by extension, the wider public, regular oral updates as the situation develops? Thank you.

On the last point, I'm happy to confirm that, of course, regular updates will be provided, where necessary by me, but there'll be regular updates through the chief medical officer's department about steps that are being taken.

I think, in terms of people entering the United Kingdom, those are matters that are outside the control of this Government. You will have seen that there are direct flights that the Foreign and Commonwealth Office are arranging for British nationals to come back into London and that those people will be—a dreadful, old-fashioned word—quarantined; there'll be a period of them being held to see if they are symptomatic. And we're looking to identify with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office how many Welsh nationals are going to be on that flight.

On the broader points about ports of entry, again, the actions have been agreed, through previous Cabinet Office Briefing Room engagement that has been taken by the UK Government, on ports of entry.

But I just want to deal with your first point, and that is about the coronavirus in the first place. There's obviously understandable concern. However, I think we should all take care in how we describe this particular virus; it is less severe than the previous outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, and there were lots of concerns about the potential mortality for that. That's our current understanding. The risk to the UK is currently assessed as low. But the steps that are being taken are anticipatory to try to provide reassurance for our staff, but also for the wider public. I certainly don't want to add to the impression that a more significant health risk is on its way than is likely.

It's worth reflecting, for example, that we know that the flu makes people severely unwell and kills people every year, and yet, we still can't persuade people who are in a category where they can receive a free NHS vaccine, to take that up in the numbers we'd want them to. So, let's have some perspective on it. We'll be measured, we certainly won't be complacent, and the engagement between health Ministers across the four UK Governments will continue in the way that you would all expect it to, just as the regular contact between our four chief medical officers will continue as well.

Thank you very much indeed, Minister. To be honest, you've answered most of the questions I was going to ask. I met the Secretary of State last week and he was very clear that there was big joint working going on and that it was going very well. My only question would be: does Wales have any emergency treatment centre planning in place, in case we get to a situation where this does develop further? And I would join you in urging people not to overly panic about this because we do not want to start a scare.

15:15

Yes, in terms of most of the treatment, that's part of a network of work across the UK, both within Wales and outside, where people would be treated should they test positive. It's also worth pointing out that every single person tested in the United Kingdom to date has tested negative. So, we don't have a confirmed case anywhere within the United Kingdom, but I think in terms of the assurance, yes, we have got arrangements in place for treatment should there be a positive test regardless of where that person is within the UK, and Wales is absolutely part of those arrangements. In fact, that's part of the conversation that our chief medical officer has had and part of the conversation that UK Ministers wanted to be assured about in the last COBRA call that I took part in last week.

I do welcome your appeal for everyone to have some perspective on this issue. Of course we need to take it seriously, but we also need to be realistic as to the level of the risk. I will ask this: is it a good time now to remind people and perhaps provide some resource into general aspects of personal hygiene and infection control? And not only in hospitals, but also in other institutions, and not just as preparation in case coronavirus affects us, but in general it's good practice. After all, the common cold is transferred in a similar manner and can lead to grave complications on occasion.

There is a link between Wuhan and Wales as well, of course. It's around 150 years since the missionary Griffith John went to Wuhan and established the Wuhan Union Hospital there, which is one of the largest in China, with 5,000 beds treating over 3 million people annually. And that does mean, of course, that there is traffic to Swansea, the city where Griffith John originated from. So, there is traffic from China to Swansea because of that direct link to Wuhan. Therefore, I do welcome what you've said about the need to work across Britain in order to put the appropriate steps in place in our airports.

In terms of our ports, the question that's been raised with me by the BMA—and I will pass it on to you—they are asking whether there may be some implications that need to be taken into account because of our exit from the EU, that there could be changes to expectations in terms of border control, and possible changes to what's expected of the Welsh Government under the new regime as we leave the European Union, in terms of ensuring that public health is safeguarded in Wales. Is that something that the Government has given any consideration to?

I think that completes my questions for the time being, but, as I say, it's important to keep this in perspective while also preparing in the background, of course, in case things do become more serious than we think they will currently.

Thank you for the comments and questions. The ability to communicate between European countries on public health matters is something that was talked about during the last three years or so and we'll still need to work through how we'll maintain the best possible public protection system. There are challenges in place around that.

I think that today, though, and for the current position, it is a matter of fact that we're still able to have that co-operation and information sharing in a way that benefits us. I think the point about the fact that there is some traffic between Wales and Wuhan, that’s acknowledged. In fact, we've seen some media reports of Welsh citizens who actually are there and are looking to be taken out on the flight that I previously mentioned.

But the advice that goes across not just Wales, but the UK, is that anyone who has returned from Wuhan in the last 14 days should stay indoors and avoid contact with other people, as you would with other flu viruses; to contact NHS Direct or 111 Wales, if available in your area—111 Wales is available in Hywel Dda, Powys, Aneurin Bevan and Swansea Bay—to inform them of your recent travel; and to please follow that advice even if you don’t currently have symptoms, and, again, if anyone does develop a fever, difficulty breathing or a cough, to continue to follow that advice and not to leave their home until they have had advice to do so by a clinician.

So, we're taking a properly precautionary approach. That shows we are taking it seriously, but not to want to move into a panic that isn't warranted by the position as it is, and to give that assurance that there will be information provided. In fact, the chief medical officer for England is regularly publishing each day information on behalf of all four chief medical officers on the current position. I think that it's important that the Governments of the UK are being as open as possible about the current position, so that people don't worry in a vacuum, which often leads to an unfortunate reaction from the public.

15:20

I am very concerned, as are some of my constituents, about the coronavirus. The death toll has climbed to 106, and the number of infections is now more than 4,500, and the virus has spread across China and to at least 16 countries. Now, I understand the feeling about no panic, but the one thing that I need to be sure of is that we have got contingency plans in place. I know that during the last swine flu concerns and that epidemic, there were some concerns where the Welsh Government had to very much rely on heavy support from the UK Government. In fact, I wouldn't downplay, really, the risk of the SARS virus, where I personally know of people who died with that virus and who nearly died with that virus. So, it's pretty serious stuff that we are actually discussing here today.

This is almost a global emergency. There are 47 confirmed cases outside China, three of these being in France. Last week, when I became very concerned midweek, I submitted a written Assembly question to you—and I would like to thank Caroline Jones for bringing this up today because, as an institution, we should be discussing and debating this—asking what steps the Welsh Government is taking in response to the spread of coronavirus. I haven't received a response yet. I know that Rhun has mentioned about airports. I know that the primary and secondary care settings have been mentioned—

You don't need to provide a précis of what's been asked already, Janet Finch-Saunders. Please just ask your questions.

My concerns, Minister, are that the virus seems to be spreading like a normal flu during its incubation period and before any symptoms appear. So, how do you think that we can help medical professionals and the public to become aware of this at the earliest symptoms? If and when a first case in the UK is confirmed, it will be announced as soon as possible by the chief medical officer of the affected country, and that will be followed by a statement from England's chief medical officer. So, I would like to hear again that you personally are actually in very frequent dialogue with the UK Government on this. 

Finally, you might be aware that the Chinese new year event in Swansea was cancelled over coronavirus fears. So, will you join with me in extending a message of support to the people of China and the Chinese people in Wales, and China, globally, on behalf of the National Assembly for Wales, if not the Welsh Government?

Well, I think that it's important to maintain a sense of perspective. We are taking this seriously, we're not being complacent, but we don't want to have a reaction that sends people into a wave of panic. We've taken specific measures together across the four Governments of the United Kingdom. As I said, there's no party political side to this. These are the four Governments acting as responsibly as we should do for the public that we serve.

So, we've proactively provided information in international airports and major ports. There's a suite of information on posters, for example, that are going up at higher education institutions. Lots of the traffic that we have comes from students and staff in the higher education sector. So, we're specifically looking at areas to have the maximum impact without worrying the public in a way that is out of proportion with the risk. There is real risk, and I'm not suggesting there isn't. There is real risk, but let's not react in a way that will add more fuel to the fire and unnecessary concern.

As I said in response to Rhun ap Iorwerth, the advice has been given about how people should behave: avoiding contact if they have returned form Wuhan in the last 14 days, and to make contact with NHS Direct Wales or 111. To follow that advice, even if they don't have symptoms, is really important. It's not just a matter for Chinese nationals who are resident in Wales. It is a matter for all of us, in terms of the contact that we have. The NHS in Wales will continue to do what it should do, and the Government will continue to act in concert with the other three Governments across the UK to do all that we could and should do for people here in Wales and beyond.

15:25

Thank you to the Minister for replying to that topical question.

And the second topical question, again to the same Minister, will be asked by Leanne Wood.

Accident and Emergency Services at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital

2. How does the Welsh Government intend to meet demand for accident and emergency services in the Rhondda and beyond if 24-hour A&E services are reduced at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital? 386

Thank you for the question. As you know, the health board is responsible for the provision of safe and sustainable healthcare for its local population, including timely access to emergency care services for those who need it.

Last week we received the news that the dreaded south Wales programme is being resurrected after six years, in terms of accident and emergency configuration. This means consultant-led services are recommended for removal from the Royal Glamorgan Hospital in Llantrisant. During the same briefing, we were told that the Royal Glamorgan has the busiest A&E of the three district general hospitals under Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board.

The A&E department will lose its last consultant at the end of March; then it will be entirely reliant on locum consultants. In contrast, the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend has eight consultants in A&E, and the Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr has the equivalent of four and a half consultants in A&E. Many people are questioning how and why this disparity has been allowed to develop. People are also questioning whether they will be able to get to hospital in time in an emergency. I've heard from people this week who say they would have died, or even worse—that their child would have died—had they been forced to travel further afield than the Royal Glamorgan Hospital.

A survey from a few years ago found that fewer than half of people questioned in Wales knew that health is devolved. Therefore, many people do not know that Labour runs the NHS in Wales, and has done so since the beginning of devolution in 1999. As you have responsibility for health in Wales, and you are a member of the political party that has run health in Wales for decades, what can you say to the people in the Rhondda who believe that this decision will cost lives? Will you take responsibility for it, and how do you justify making people travel further in a life-threatening situation?

Well, I think it's important to set out that the safety of the service is the first priority for the people who work in, run and deliver, and have responsibility for the service—from myself to the chief executive, to the medical director, to front-line staff. And the paper that the board will be considering tomorrow, in the name of the medical director, sets out the risks that exist, and that, actually, the risk is that there is much greater risk in terms of safety and the quality of the service in continuing to try to run a service without any substantive consultants in place.

And in terms of the numbers of consultants and where they currently are—people make choices about where they work, and we can't actually force people to move between one department or the other. It's not a question of the health board refusing to try to recruit to the Royal Glamorgan. It's not a question of there being plenty of doctors who are prepared to work. Actually, the challenge is about the number of staff we have, and the emergency department consultants themselves have the ability to move jobs in different parts of Wales and beyond, and, as we've seen in other parts of the UK, people do make those active choices. The challenge is: are we prepared to run our health service on the basis that safety and quality are the primary considerations, or do we place a different premium on the locality of services?

And in terms of the examples you gave where people would say that their lives could be lost—that's the sort of language that people understandably use when people are concerned, but I don't think it necessarily leads to a rational debate, because if someone is really at risk of losing their life, then they should be under blue-light conditions to go into the most appropriate point for their care, however near or far that is, and whether that's in a helicopter or on the ground.

Our challenge is how we have a regular pattern of services that is sustainable, genuinely safe and will last into the future and will recruit staff into it. And in the four options that are in the public domain in the executive medical director's report, it sets out two options that the medical director says are not viable and not sustainable. It sets out the challenges that existed at the time the south Wales programme was agreed—[Inaudible.]—got worse, and it sets out two options that they recommend that the board considers to properly engage with the public and wider stakeholders, including elected representatives. That's my expectation for the health board: to take seriously their responsibilities, not to duck the challenges that have a real impact on patient safety, to engage properly with the public and wider stakeholders about what each of those things mean, and what you will actually get in terms of where services are, and the quality that each one of us would expect for ourselves and our own families.

15:30

I appreciate there are challenges across the health board but, in particular, around staffing. But what is really important here is, obviously, that the decisions that have been taken on A&E at the Royal Glamorgan are predicated on the south Wales programme. The Royal Glamorgan is located in an area of high density population, with a growing population and growing demand. Now, I take it that the health board have the day-to-day function to run health services within its area, but you, as Minister, and your officials in Cathays Park, obviously set the strategy and direction of the health service here in Wales. Predicated on the south Wales programme, no consultant would have gone to the Royal Glamorgan on the basis that the service was going to be downgraded. 

Can I ask you, Minister, to intervene personally, as Minister who has responsibility for the strategic direction of the health service here in Wales, and insist that the health board re-evaluate their proposals and retain accident and emergency 24-hour provision at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, because every indicator shows that that is a growing demand area for that service, and a withdrawal of such a service will be devastating to the area it serves? You have the ability to do it, Minister. If you choose not to, I respect that, but you will be turning your back on the communities which live in that area and depend on the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. And it is now time that the health board in that particular area re-evaluated the options available to it, and, in particular, the decisions it took around the south Wales programme, which I would suggest, taken some six years ago, are out of date today. 

Well, thank you for the questions, but the truth is, if you've read through the paper from the executive medical director about the challenges they face, he sets out that, if anything, the reasons and the rationale behind the programme have grown in number as opposed to receded. And I just don't accept that every indicator suggests that changing the footprint of services at this hospital will have the dire consequences that you've set out—far from it. The executive medical director sets out the need and the rationale to address the issue. 

Now, we're not talking about your view or my view as a politician. We're talking about the executive medical director with direct responsibility on the ground, and the ability for him and the whole team within that health board to do the right thing and to make choices based on the right service, and to provide the right quality and the safety of that service. And I think that, for politicians here, whether in my seat or any other, to try to demand that the health board continues running a service, where they are very clear that the safety of that service will be compromised if they don't make changes, is exactly the wrong thing to do. 

Minister, during the south Wales programme, I and other Assembly Members and Members of Parliament campaigned together to successfully retain accident and emergency in the Royal Glamorgan Hospital. So, six years on, I again share the widespread concern at these new proposals to consider a number of options, including the possibility of downgrading or removal of A&E services. 

Now, short-term modifications to health service delivery to keep patients safe can, of course, be necessary and right, but I believe, in this case, it is vital that the Royal Glamorgan continues to offer a robust accident and emergency service well into the future. Now, whilst it's important to note that this review is driven by clinicians, and it's not about money, it is now six years since the south Wales programme, which was the starting point for the health board's review, and much has changed since then. There are now a complex number of factors in play, which need to be fully understood, including the challenge of recruiting consultants, the increased demand on blue-light services and the substantially increased demand on A&E, and the massive housing and growth of population in the immediate area around.

So, I'm going to again ask the Minister to urgently intervene in this issue to commit to support a full review of the south Wales programme before any changes to A&E provision are considered. 

I recognise the point that Members across parties are making, and I reiterate that the challenge here is to understand how we have a genuinely safe service that is available for constituents across the country, and what that means in terms of either trying to change a service model, where people regularly say that they're concerned about the safety of changing that model, but, equally, the challenge of trying to maintain a service model if you can't staff it and run it safely. And, in the changes since then, the executive medical director's report that the board will consider it tomorrow sets out a range of the factors that you referred to about the changing context in which healthcare has been delivered, about the changes in the way that the health board delivered certain services, and in the four options that are set out in that paper for the board to consider.

Now, again, it's not for me as a politician in this position to set out to change the operational evidence and understanding of what's happening, and it must be a proper engagement with the wider public and stakeholders, including yourselves and other elected representatives, about the differing factors that you will want to see the health board address. That includes the ability to recruit and retain staff on any of the proposed models, including the ability to try and retain that on the current model—the health board themselves say they don't think they can do—what that means to people, how people access care, and what care will be in place and still available on the Royal Glamorgan site. Those are all matters I expect the health board to set out in its consultation, and to set out transparently how it proposes to make those choices when it has to come back, given that the last substantive consultant will be leaving their post at the end of March. There is a real urgency to this, and this is not something that could or should be put off; I expect the health board to do its job properly, with the public and its staff, in providing an answer for the future.

15:35

Minister, this is an issue that is of great concern to my constituents. Those who live in Cilfynydd, Glyncoch and Ynysybwl depend directly upon the A&E facilities at the Royal Glamorgan, whilst the rest of my constituents, who depend upon A&E provision at Prince Charles Hospital, are rightly concerned about the additional pressures that could be placed upon facilities there if A&E at the Royal Glamorgan is removed or downgraded. At a meeting of Assembly Members, MPs and council leaders last Friday, the health board talked us through very candidly the problems that they are facing with the sustainability of services at the Royal Glamorgan, with A&E there being run, as you've said, by one permanent consultant and three locums, and that one consultant now bringing forward his retirement, thus leaving the service in a potentially unsustainable condition.

The health board assured us that they'd been engaged in a continuous open recruitment process for several years, but, despite that, had been unable to recruit any other consultant. What assistance could you as health Minister provide to Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board to help bolster their recruitment drive and encourage consultants to take up these vacant positions at the hospital? What resources could be provided to both Prince Charles Hospital in Merthyr, and the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend, to help ensure that their A&E departments are able to support the additional demand that would be placed upon them if A&E at Royal Glamorgan is removed or downgraded?

And, finally, we all know that some people who arrive at A&E could be better dealt with at a minor injuries unit, which can do so much more than treating minor injuries—such as dealing with broken bones, for example. But the closure of minor injuries units, or the reduction of hours that we have seen at some, such as Ysbyty Cwm Cynon, in my constituency, leaves patients with little choice but to go to A&E. So, as part of these proposals for the Royal Glamorgan, will you, Minister, commit to working with Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board to explore the possibility of strengthening minor injuries units in community hospitals such as Ysbyty Cwm Cynon and Ysbyty Cwm Rhondda, thus bringing health services closer to the people and relieving pressure on A&E?

Thank you for those questions. I think there is a challenge about the service model the health board propose and that they will actively consider with stakeholders. Because one of the possible options that they set out is about reduced consultant cover, but having minor injuries provision instead. And there's a challenge about the public understanding the range of minor injuries services that are available—in my recent visit to Neath Port Talbot Hospital with David Rees, seeing an excellent nurse-led service, led by a consultant nurse, and a wide range of activity that, not that long ago, you would have expected to have been provided in a doctor-led emergency department.

So, there's a challenge about public understanding, but equally about how the health service helps people to get to the right place. And if you're in the back of an ambulance, you don't need to worry about where you're being taken, because it's the job of the service to take you to the right place for the care that you require. And it's then about how we help the public to make their own choices, if they're going to get to a hospital site themselves. But the driver for this is the change in staff and what that means for the service. And I come back again—in the medical director's paper, he points out that it is becoming increasingly unsustainable, and safe services cannot be sustained beyond the immediate short term without unacceptable risks to patient safety. And I just don't think that any politician, in any party—in or outside the Government—can ignore the direct warning that's being provided by the medical director who's got oversight of the medical provision through the health board. So, the challenge is how they take into account the points that you make now about the different questions, about the services that are provided, where they're provided and how they're provided, and, if there is to be a change on the Royal Glamorgan site, then what that means not just for the two hospitals within the same health board in Bridgend and Merthyr, but also what that means potentially in the flow down to Cardiff as well.

So, there's a challenge that is a reasonable one that is not just about the health board, and I expect them to set that out openly and transparently. And I think the engagement with staff, as well as the public, will be really important within that, because staff will have very clear views about the safety and sustainability of their service, and that often drives helpfully the way that service change should and shouldn't take place. It's not about money, it's not about political will to maintain the current services—it's actually what is the right service to be provided and how do you provide the sort of care that I want for my family and all of us want for ours and our constituents. 

15:40

Diolch, Llywydd. The Royal Glamorgan Hospital serves my constituents from Llanharan and Gilfach Goch and Evanstown areas, though the Princess of Wales Hospital in Bridgend, which also now falls within the Cwm Taf Morgannwg University Health Board footprint, is also of vital importance to those and other constituents. So, whilst none of us, as responsible Members of the Senedd, can ignore the implications of the imminent retirement, earlier than expected, of the sole permanent consultant at the Royal Glam, and the subsequent reliance on locums, my constituents do have questions, which require some frank answers. 

How did we arrive at a situation where there is only one permanent consultant at the Royal Glam? And why has the health board been unable to recruit additional consultants over a lengthy period? This has not come out of the blue. The implications for the Royal Glam are significant and immediate, as it seems untenable to run a fully functioning A&E with the appropriate degree and depth of expertise on locum-only provision. Locums are a vital part of A&E, but the depth and breadth of expertise required in modern A&E requires numbers of full-time specialist consultants. So, can I ask, for my constituents, whether attempts have been made to source additional A&E consultants across the wider health board footprint, or even in neighbouring health boards, to sustain the service there temporarily, while further efforts at recruitment continue?

And, of course, lurking in the background is the original south Wales programme for A&E, which goes back some years now, and it was never put into place. So, can I ask whether this is, through accident or design, an attempt to belatedly put into place the south Wales programme, and, if that is so, whether the proposals in that plan are up to date to take account of the current pressures in the system and future pressures, including the development of thousands—thousands—of new homes in the east of my constituency, as well as thousands more in the Pontypridd area, west of Cardiff? Is that programme in any way part of this, and, if so, isn't it the case that some of those calculations will, indeed, be out of date? And, on that basis, what assessment has been made of the impact of the fresh proposals not just on Royal Glam, but on the Princess of Wales in Bridgend and the Prince Charles in Merthyr Tydfil, which have their own A&Es, which are under, of course, intense pressure at the moment?

And, finally, Minister, can you urge to the health board that they have to continue their engagement—frank, honest engagement, open engagement—with the public, not only with elected leaders, to get through this? It may be that they've now found themselves in an invidious position, but the only way through this is to be honest and open and constantly engaged with constituents, who genuinely have fears over what may come. 

I certainly recognise the last point you made. There are people who are genuinely fearful about change being proposed of this kind, and it is important that the health board are entirely open and honest about what they're proposing and why, and that people involved in the delivery of the service are actively part of that conversation with each other, with their health board leaders and managers, and the public as well.

And I think we come back to points that are set out in the paper, and, again, the medical director, who wasn't around at the time of the south Wales programme, but has looked at what the south Wales programme said, in his paper, he sets out that the situation described by the south Wales programme had since become more urgent, taking into account the challenges in service pressure. But also, in that paper, he also takes account of the fact that there is already residential development that has taken place and is taking place now—so, about the population and the nature of the demographics.

And I think it's fair to say that, if there had been an attempt to address this matter proactively earlier and make changes, there would always have been very real concerns and ones that we hear today. And yet I think it's likely that, if this issue had been grasped sooner rather than later, we would be in a different position. Because, actually, part of the challenge in having staff coming into a service is the point of having a longer-term model that people agree with, are prepared to sign up to, and want to see their careers being part of.

But in terms of sustaining the model, the health board, not only within its current staff—I understand they're already talking to partners about sustaining a service whilst they come to a new model of operation. But to try to prevail upon the consultants, who currently work in Merthyr and the Princess of Wales in Bridgend, to sustain consultant cover on the current model in the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, I think, would not be sensible.

And I think that, if you look at patterns in recruitment and consultant behaviour and where consultants have gone to, that is exactly the sort of challenge that, if presented or required, would lead to those people seeking employment elsewhere. Emergency department consultants can get employment pretty much anywhere around the country. They are a band of people who are much sought after.

It's about protecting the group that we currently have, making sure that they stay within our system, and having a model of care that will work for the local population and will work for the health service in a sustained way. And to do that, to come back to your final point, the health board must be open and transparent about what they're doing and why, and how they are taking account of the messages they are getting from members of the public, electoral representatives and their own staff, including addressing the very real concerns that I recognise members of the public do have.

15:45
4. 90-second Statements

The next item is the 90-second statements, and the first statement today comes from Lynne Neagle.

Thank you, Llywydd. The Inspire! tutor awards are organised by Learning and Work Cymru and celebrate the work of dedicated tutors and mentors, who have encouraged people from all backgrounds and ages to achieve their potential. Behind every successful adult learner, there is an inspirational tutor or mentor.

Daniel Dyboski-Bryant of Grŵp Llandrillo Menai has been teaching refugees and migrants, pioneering the use of virtual reality. Mary Murray has been on a mission to inspire adults in Torfaen to learn maths, her classes are always full and many have passed GCSE. Laura Wheeler in Cardiff delivers learning and support for young people in Llamau's Learning 4 Life programme, she has created a space where they feel safe and can tackle the issues affecting their lives. Philippa Gibson learnt Welsh as an adult, and has developed her skills to become a talented Welsh tutor in Cardigan and south Ceredigion. Rameh O'Sullivan at Cardiff Met is described as having the gift of awesomeness, many of her students are refugees and asylum seekers suffering from trauma, Rameh gives them hope to progress. And Suzanne McCabe delivers training and support for adults with autism in south Wales, and to businesses to support employees and customers with autism.

This is our chance to say congratulations to all award winners and tutors throughout Wales, who continue to change lives. Thank you.

Llongyfarchiadau mawr to Treorchy on winning the title of the UK's best high street. It's great that the hard work in this Rhondda town has been recognised, and I'm glad to be able to recognise it here in the Senedd too.

Local traders have banded together with local councillors and other community figures to make things happen for themselves. The local chamber of commerce is thriving in a town where 80 per cent of the businesses are independent. Treorchy people have put their faith in the old Welsh maxim, 'Mewn undod mae nerth/In unity there is strength', the town centre is very well supported. People from all over the Rhondda and beyond use the town centre for shopping and for leisure, enabling Treorchy to become the thriving hub of commerce that it is.

The absence of the dominance of big chains has been a major contributor to the success of the town. It's hard to deny the adverse impact that large chain stores can have on small businesses and town centres. Treorchy has shown what is possible for struggling town centres across Wales. I very much hope that other towns in the Rhondda and further afield can learn those lessons and thrive just as Treorchy is. Diolch yn fawr.