The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the provision of health services in Brecon and Radnorshire? OAQ(4)1846(FM)
Our priority is to ensure that all people in Brecon and Radnorshire, as elsewhere in Wales, receive safe, sustainable, high-quality healthcare, that is delivered as close to patients’ homes as possible.
I have recently been contacted by a clinician who looks after my constituents. He stated that on a recent ward round, of the 12 patients in his beds, five were suffering from delayed transfers of care and five more were nearing that position. He put that down to the inability of the local social services department to provide timely packages of care at home. I have also been contacted by constituents who are desperate to get their relatives out of nearby district general hospitals back to community facilities, but they cannot because there is a lack of beds. What can the Welsh Government do to ensure that healthcare and social services are more in alignment and that patients do not have to suffer because of the inability to source packages of home care?
The leader of the Liberal Democrats will know that this forms an important part of the work of the Williams commission. I can say that, generally in Wales, delayed transfers of care were down in July. Nevertheless, it is important that local authorities look very carefully at the packages that they provide in order that people can go home. Ultimately, of course, we want to make sure, as I said earlier, that people do not spend more time in hospital than they need to, and we would expect Powys, as well as every other local authority in Wales, to be able to deliver the service that people would expect. However, again, we know that there are issues that will need to be resolved as part of the Williams process to improve the service for local people.
I welcomed, as did many of my constituents, the Minister for Health and Social Services’ decision earlier this year to commission a special review of healthcare in Wales. I understand that the Welsh Institute for Health and Social Care, which carried out that review, is due to report in the autumn—if not, indeed, this month. Are you able to provide an update on the study, First Minister, and are you able to indicate a timetable for your response, and also the health board’s response, to its findings?
Yes. The timetable has not changed, to my knowledge. It is an important study and we look forward to studying in depth its findings and then acting on the recommendations.
The people of Brecon and Radnorshire have their health provided by the Powys Teaching Local Health Board, which had an overspend of almost £20 million in the last financial year as a result of your Labour Government’s NHS cuts. What assurances can you give the people of Brecon and Radnorshire and, indeed, the wider country of Wales, that the resources available to the NHS are sufficient to meet their needs, especially when we see an ambulance service in crisis, waiting lists spiralling out of control, and cancer patients not able to access the drugs that they need?
Well, that was an ironic speech, given the announcement yesterday with regard to one cancer drug. The Member seems to have forgotten that one. If you look at the figures for Powys, in July of this year, we see that referral-to-treatment times show a 98.6% performance against a 95% target, with no patient waiting in excess of 36 weeks. That is one among many items of data that show that the people of Powys have healthcare that is provided well for them, both by English providers—that is true—and by Welsh providers. We want to make sure, of course, as we look toward the budget, that money in Wales, in terms of health spending, continues to grow, and that we will be in a position where health spend in Wales per head remains above that in England, as it has always been.
To return to real services for constituents in Powys, in Brecon and Radnorshire, one problem resulting from the lack of a district general hospital in the county is the reliance on community services. As we consider the report that you are to receive from Professor Marcus Longley, how can you ensure that the Government’s response confirms and grows community services? In general in west Wales, the complaint heard is that it is one thing to deal with some of the cuts and changes in hospitals, but that community services are a must in order to provide cover. Such services are not currntly available in all parts of Powys, nor more generally in west Wales.
Well, of course, the report has been welcomed by all who work in the sector in mid Wales. We look forward to seeing what the study shows. We expect it to be completed by the end of this month. Once the results are available, the Minister will consider what the study had to say.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on his priorities for transport in west Wales over the next 12 months? OAQ(4)1834(FM)
We are taking forward a range of actions to improve transport. For example, we continue to provide support for bus services, including support for Bwcabus. Also, in April we officially opened the A477 St Clears to Red Roses road, which is crucial for the local population.
First Minister, I recently met with constituents in Fishguard who are calling for a bypass to alleviate some of the traffic problems on the approach to the town from Cardigan. Your predecessor recognised, some years ago, how difficult it is to drive in this part of Fishguard. Therefore, would you, as a Government, be willing to commit to looking at solutions to these problems, including the construction of a bypass in the area, given that we will soon be receiving another round of European funding?
I know the road, of course; there is a difficult corner on it as you turn up the hill near the harbour. I would have thought, knowing the area, that building a bypass would be a huge project—I might as well say that. However, having said that, I will ask the Minister to consider demand for a bypass in that part of Fishguard, to build upon, of course, what we have already done in Fishguard, securing the future of the train service to the harbour, the town and the east.
First Minister, what is the Welsh Government’s policy on roundabouts on dual carriageways? Questions have arisen on access to the new road that you just mentioned between St Clears and Red Roses from the direction of Llanddowror. There is concern, as people pull out there, that cars may be travelling at great speed on that road and that it could cause accidents.
It is usual, of course, to have roundabouts on all roads with the exception of motorways. As regards that road in particular, I will ask the Minister to write to you diractly with an answer to that point.
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
First this afternoon, we have the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
First Minister, events in Scotland, and the response of the UK parties, have created a new context for debate on the constitution in these islands. Is it your view that the time has now come to go further on tax powers for this National Assembly, and do you agree that a referendum on income tax powers is now not necessary?
No, I think that the referendum will still be necessary, but I do agree that the current suggestion in the Wales Bill is now consigned to history. I do not find anybody looking to defend the lockstep, for example. I do think that there is great scope now to look once again at the tax-varying arrangements of the devolved administrations, as a whole, and to go beyond what the Wales Bill actually says.
Thank you for your answer there. It is interesting that you want to keep the referendum in place, so that is one area of no change. I have listened very carefully to what you have had to say in recent days on the question of home rule for Wales. Now, it is important to establish how your suggestion of home rule differs from the current arrangements, or from the Silk proposals for further devolution. Could you tell us whether, for example, you support the devolution of the criminal justice system to this National Assembly—in the near rather than the distant future—or whether you support, for example, the removal of the upper limit on energy powers? What exactly does home rule look like to you, First Minister?
First of all, we must separate powers from structure. To my mind, the issue of powers must be dealt with separately. That means that the Wales Bill must progress through Parliament. I would like to see the whole of Part 1 implemented, beyond the Wales Bill, the whole of Part 2 implemented, and, of course, Wales’s underfunding dealt with; those are fundamentals.
With regard to the convention, I would envisage it looking at the structure of devolution within the UK, to create what I have described as home rule in the UK. That would mean that there would need to be, initially, a meeting of all four administrations, a way forward would need to be agreed, and the final constitutional arrangement would need to be agreed by all four Governments. It is not sufficient for the whole thing to be done in Westminster, without proper input from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The leader of Plaid Cymru is absolutely right to say that things have changed. I have to say to Members that, I suspect, if I had said three months ago that I was in favour of home rule, I would have received a great deal of criticism from elsewhere, but that is the way that things have changed now. I have not been silent in terms of my view of what the future should hold.
I welcome the indications that you have given today, First Minister, of a possible change in pace, and the fact that you want to go beyond the Silk recommendations in terms of powers for Wales. In that spirit, would you be prepared to work with me and the other party leaders in this institution, to agree a joint Wales position on securing meaningful new powers from the UK Government, by or during the next Assembly term?
Yes. I am prepared to work with all parties to do that. We have a good record of doing that; we did it, of course, before the 2011 referendum. I am aware of the leader of Plaid Cymru’s view; I am aware of the leader of the Liberal Democrats’ view; I do not know yet what the view of the leader of the Welsh Conservatives is on this issue. As a bare minimum, we need to see Part 1 plus Part 2 of Silk, plus underfunding, addressed. We need to see the structure of the UK’s constitution changed. The idea of all sovereignty coming from Westminster is now outdated. The idea that the Secretary of State for Wales should be able to veto any Bill from this Chamber is wrong. The idea, for example, that Wales should not have control of its own energy resources is also wrong, to my mind. It is also wrong—even if this is a theoretical possibility, rather than a practical issue—that it is possible in law for the UK Parliament to abolish this place without reference to the people of Wales. That cannot be right in the twenty-first century, and it shows why there needs to be change.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.
First Minister, 18 months ago, I challenged you on figures that showed that some patients were waiting up to five and a half hours in the back of ambulances outside accident and emergency departments. You said then that you were
‘assessing the need in terms of what must be done’.
Last week, we saw the tragic consequences of such delays. Could you outline to the Chamber what you have done in the last 18 months to resolve this situation?
First of all, I would urge Members not to pre-empt the inquiry that will take place into the events of last week. My condolences go, of course, to the family. It is not quite as straightforward as it seems, but I will leave the inquiry to make its findings. I am pleased with the fact that we have seen improvement in ambulance response times, and I expect that improvement to continue.
The most recent figures show that you are further away than you were a year ago in meeting your A&E targets, and it is clear that many A&E departments are struggling to cope, with some honourable exceptions, I must say, in Cwm Taf. Do you anticipate that the Welsh NHS will ever meet your A&E targets while you are the First Minister?
Yes, I do. Those targets are testing, I have to admit, and sometimes there are reasons why those targets are not met. For example, one of the things that is sometimes believed when we talk about A&E waiting times is that they are the times that people have to wait before treatment; they are not. They are the times that people wait in A&E from the time they arrive to the time they leave or are admitted to hospital. That is the first thing we have to remember. On that basis, of course, there will be occasions—practitioners have said this to me—when they have to keep people there to wait for tests; better that than admitting them to hospital. There will be occasions when people are waiting longer than 12 hours because the alternative is to admit them, perhaps for three days in hospital. So, yes, it is important that people do not have to spend an inordinate amount of time in A&E—90% of people are in and out within four hours—but there will always be those people who will need to spend more time in A&E waiting for results and, of course, to avoid being admitted to hospital.
Despite assurances from you and the Minister for health that delayed transfers of care would be tackled with a new sense of urgency, the reality is that delayed transfers of care are up on what they were last year. That means that there are fewer beds for people who need to be in them for clinical reasons. That can lead to longer waiting times in A&E departments and, subsequently, more ambulances queuing outside A&E, waiting to discharge their patients. When would you anticipate that we will see the dramatic improvements in delayed transfers of care that we need to see?
She is right to point out that, compared with this time last year, the figures are up, but they are down from the previous month. Two things: first of all, the community and hospital interface national task and finish group has identified a number of actions at local and national level that will need to be taken forward. Also, because of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, there are ways now to ensure more collaborative working between health and social services in order to reduce the number of delayed transfers of care, and we expect, as that Act is rolled out, to see that number decreasing even further.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Finally, I call on the leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. First Minister, last January, you said,
‘We want a sustainable health service that is based on the guidance that doctors themselves give.’
Last week, many of us would have seen the British Medical Association’s report, which stated that it faces imminent meltdown. Its key recommendation was,
‘The Welsh Government should commission an urgent and full-scale independent Wales-wide inquiry into all NHS health services throughout Wales.’
Doctors have given their advice. When will the Government act?
The difficulty, of course, is that the BMA, not doctors, is not consistent in the messages that it gives. For example, back in March, it said,
‘This data demonstrates clearly that the claim that Welsh hospitals deliver worse outcomes than English ones is a wicked slander’.
In March, Dr Banfield, who said that the Welsh NHS was in meltdown, said, ‘Don’t bring in a Keogh-style inquiry’. Dr Mark Porter, the chair of the BMA council said that your party, the UK Government, was being ‘fundamentally dishonest’ about the funding of the NHS.
The difficulty, is it not, when you have such inconsistent statements, is which ones do you believe? I have to say that his comments are not supported by others who work within the NHS.
First Minister, I think that that emphasises how important the report that it has brought forward is. Very often, when it has wanted to criticise us as an opposition, it has criticised us. It does not take a political position in this; it listens to its members and it acts. The BMA goes on to say in this report that the NHS in Wales has ‘a non-listening culture’ that
‘is a widespread problem across NHS institutions and poses a significant threat to patient safety…. The current arrangements for raising concerns do little to reassure doctors that they can voice a concern without reproach’.
First Minister, when is your Government going to create a culture within the NHS where doctors’ concerns can be listened to and can be acted on, and patient safety and clinical excellence are at the forefront of thinking, rather than taking sanctions against people who highlight these problems?
They are. When I came to live in Cardiff, I lived in a house with six medical students and I knew a lot of medical students then, which means that I know a lot of consultants and GPs now. I spoke to a few of them over the weekend, and not one of them agreed with the comment that was made. Not one. I am impressed by an organisation that calls for an inquiry into its own members, which is exactly what the BMA has done, but I think that it is important that the BMA does two things: first of all, it should be consistent in what it says and, secondly, where it has concerns, it might want to address those concerns to the Government first, rather than putting them in the media.
It is the usual flippancy and arrogance that we see from this First Minister. Here is a comprehensive report that is looking at the NHS in its entirety. As I said, it is an organisation that, when it felt the need to criticise us as a party or any of the other parties in this institution, has criticised and offered the view that it saw fit for the Welsh NHS. It has brought forward a review that says that an independent inquiry is required to look into all aspects of the Welsh NHS. It has highlighted that the Welsh NHS faces imminent meltdown. It has highlighted how doctors feel that sanctions will be taken against them when they raise concerns. Perhaps that is part of the problem in the Princess of Wales Hospital in your constituency and why it is facing so many problems. When, First Minister, will you bring forward such an independent inquiry? As I said in my opening remarks, you are prepared to listen to some clinical advice, but when it does not suit you, you are not prepared to listen to what is good for the NHS in Wales.
If the leader of the opposition has evidence of doctors in my own hospital being suppressed in some way, let him bring it forward without making cheap political points and allegations that are not based, in any way, in evidence.
Are we in court at the moment?
There is no point in shouting. He shouts a lot and says very little. That is the way that he is. [Laughter.] The reality of the situation is this: his party has been described as fundamentally dishonest by the BMA. Why should we disbelieve it in that regard? Let us not be naive about this: there are pay discussions taking place at the moment. The BMA says that it wants to be listened to. Why, then, has it not appeared at any of the pay negotiations on behalf of its members at any time? Not a single meeting. It has have been invited to discuss the pay and terms and conditions of its members, but it has not on one occasion turned up to discuss those terms and conditions and pay. We are prepared to listen to the BMA, but we would prefer it if it were consistent, that it turned up to talk to us rather than using the media as a megaphone.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move back to the questions on the agenda. Question 3 is from Antoinette Sandbach.
3. Will the First Minister provide an update on Welsh Government plans to tackle bowel cancer in Wales? OAQ(4)1839(FM)
Our plans to tackle all forms of cancer are set out in the cancer delivery plan. With bowel cancer, early diagnosis is essential, which is why we have a proactive screening programme.
According to information from Bowel Cancer UK, only three health boards in Wales have undergone accreditation for their endoscopy units by the joint advisory group for gastroenterology. My local health board, Betsi Cadwaladr University Local Health Board, is not among this number. As this accreditation aims to assess units on clinical quality and patient experience, do you share my concerns that over half of the health boards in Wales have not gained this accreditation? What encouragement will your Government be placing on Betsi and fellow health boards to become accredited at the earliest possible opportunity?
Across our nation, I know that the Minister announced in March an additional £4 million to reduce waiting times for diagnostic tests. That was made. On 1 August, Betsi Cadwaladr was allocated £448,000 to be used to accelerate the reduction in waiting times in other diagnostic tests and endoscopies to a maximum of eight weeks, to improve its position. That improvement is expected by the end of March next year, at the latest. I can assure the Member that progress is being monitored on a monthly basis.
Public Transport (Cynon Valley)
4. What action is the Welsh Government taking to improve public transport services in the Cynon Valley? OAQ(4)1836(FM)
We are committed to improving public transport accessibility in all of the Valleys. Some actions include, for example, the A470 bus corridor improvements being developed under the metro phase 1 funding programme, but also in the negotiations on the new franchise.
Over recent months, I have continued to be contacted by constituents who are unhappy with the Valley Lines rail services between Cynon Valley and Cardiff. Quite often trains are late, they are still very cramped and sometimes they are in poor condition. This is totally unacceptable. I know that, last week, there was some discussion during your question time on the future rail franchise arrangements. What impact do you think these poor experiences will have on the awarding of any future rail franchise in Wales? In addition, what work will be done as part of the south Wales metro project, which you mentioned, to make sure that we get the travelling conditions for passengers right?
The Member raises a perfectly valid point. The reality is that we are stuck with the franchise arrangements that were made under a previous arrangement. They have not consistently served the people of Wales well. We want to ensure, in the next franchise, that there are frequent services, that the rolling stock is of sufficient quality, and that there are more frequent services. You will have heard the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport’s enthusiasm for the south Wales metro project. Moving that forward will mean that people from the Cynon Valley and from Aberdare—and all our Valleys communities—should see better, cleaner, faster and more frequent transport.
First Minister, the metro project, on which you just closed your answer to that question, is a vitally important part of the transport infrastructure for the future in south Wales. There have been intense discussions between you and the Welsh office. What is your take at the moment as to how those discussions are progressing, and what can we look forward to in the future?
There have been no discussions with the Welsh office—I can promise him that. It is the Wales Office. Secondly, I can say that the discussions have proceeded with the Department for Transport. They do not go via an intermediary with the Welsh office—Wales Office. I have done it myself now. There we are; it is one all. The issue is this: I have noticed a difference in tone with the new occupant of the Wales Office, the Secretary of State, and I welcome that. He has said that he is looking to see a solution, which we all want to see—a solution that is fair and that delivers—and it is the hope of all involved, now that we are close to a solution, that we will see the project delivered.
If I can echo the comments made previously, people in the Valleys must see day-to-day improvements from any investment in rail. First Minister, in 2011 Ieuan Wyn Jones, as Deputy Minister for transport in the previous Welsh Government, announced plans to reopen the rail passenger line between Aberdare and Hirwaun. This service was closed 50 years ago and the closure has meant the loss of an important transport link for people in the Cynon Valley. While preparatory steps were taken by Ieuan Wyn Jones, his office term came to an end shortly after that. There appears to have been very little development in progressing this passenger service in the three years that have passed since then. Can you offer any hope to the people of the Cynon Valley that this service will be reinstated or is it deemed not to be a priority for your Government now?
I think that Ieuan was Deputy First Minister, rather than Deputy Minister for transport, in fairness to him. But, the point is a fair one. It has been right to say that we have seen progress on the railways. We saw the opening of the Fishguard and Goodwick station and the extension of services there. We are seeing, of course, improvements in the line between Wrexham and Saltney junction and we will, of course, continue to review further reopenings in the future. The line is still there, of course, because it was serving Tower colliery. This is something that we will keep under review because we have a good record of reopening railway lines, whether it is the Vale of Glamorgan line or the Ebbw valley line. Many Members who have been here since 1999 will remember that it was almost impossible to travel north-south by train in Wales without a long layover in Shrewsbury, but now we have a two-hourly service. We want to see the quality—I know what people are going to say—of the rolling stock improved in the future—that much is true—and greater consistency within the service. So, we have a good record in reopening railway lines and we will always look to open up new lines—
Presiding Officer, this was on the Cynon Valley.
[Continues.]—where that is possible, particularly examining the line between Aberdare and Hirwaun.
Returning to the Aberdare to Cardiff line, First Minister, a number of stations on that line had their platforms extended back in 2008 to accommodate six-car trains, as part of a £13 million investment, which you described as ‘futureproofing’ the network. Can you tell us, now that we are six years into the future, when we can anticipate seeing some of those six-car trains on that very overcrowded service?
I would like to see that start in 2018 when the new franchise begins. From our point of view, we would prefer to see the devolution of the necessary powers, with a fair and equitable funding settlement from the UK Government, so that we are able to specify and procure the next franchise. We cannot do that at the moment acting on our own. We would like to see more than £4 million put in for additional peak Valley carriages, including, of course, Aberdare services. However, it would certainly be helpful if the franchising arrangements were wholly devolved, together with the funding. That is not the case at the moment.
5. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact that the UK Government's universal credit scheme is having on people in Wales? OAQ(4)1848(FM)
In July, we published the latest research by the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which suggests that universal credit will lead to an annual loss of income in Wales of at least £40 million. We are also monitoring statistics on the numbers affected by universal credit.
Thank you, First Minister. I am sure that you are aware of the Wales TUC Saving our Safety Net campaign on the five-week benefits wait facing newly unemployed workers under universal credit. I am sure you would agree with me that this is too long a wait for someone who has lost their job and who is struggling. We know that this will hit 15,000 people in Wales every month, including some 500 of my constituents, and we should also be mindful of Trussell Trust figures showing that a third of people using food banks already cite benefit delays as the reason for their referral. First Minister, will you join the growing chorus of opposition to this move by personally lobbying in the UK Government to reverse its decision on the five-week wait? Will you also join me in encouraging Welsh people to support the TUC petition against this very unfair policy?
I will give my full support to that. I can assure the Member that the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty is now considering the detail of this change. Of course, it will be our position, as a Government, to fight anything that leads to unfairness, particularly for those on the lowest incomes in our society.
On the subject of welfare, will the First Minister advise if any study has been made of the potential impact on Wales of Labour plans to cut the value of child benefit should they win the next election?
There are no plans to cut the value of child benefit.
Part of the changes to the benefits system is the bedroom tax, which is such a burden for so many people. Has the Government undertaken a study to see how many people have been affected by having to move house because of this tax, and what is the cost and the loss to Wales because of this tax?
I have no specific figures on that, but, considering what I see in my constituency, I see people having to pay more, because it is not that easy for them to move. There is an assumption in London that that is an easy thing to do, but it is not. Of course, I am very pleased that my own party at the UK level has made it clear that we will abolish this tax.
6. Will the First Minister outline the Welsh Government's policy in relation to the treatment of child cancers? OAQ(4)1838(FM)
Our ‘National Standards for Children with Cancer aged 0 to 15 years’ provides a foundation for NHS Wales to plan and deliver effective high-quality services for children.
As you are probably aware, this month is national childhood cancer awareness month, which is why many of us across the Chamber are wearing gold ribbons, hoping that these ribbons will become synonymous with child cancer. In that context, how do you respond to the recently bereaved parents in Mold who wrote to me stating that there is so much that needs to be done to raise awareness of childhood cancer but there is very little funding that goes towards the research of childhood cancer?
I cannot begin to imagine what they are going through, first of all. I am sure I speak for all in this Chamber when I offer our deepest feelings to them. I am pleased at the fact that, in Wales, all children are seen within the target time. In terms of awareness, I think the Member has a point, in the sense that most parents would not think that their child would get cancer, and, as a result, would tend to look for other reasons why a child is ill. That is why it is important to raise awareness, and I thank the Member for doing that today, so that parents do seek medical help where that is needed. We know that, with lots of cancers, and leukaemia is one example—acute lymphoblastic leukaemia is one example where the cure rate has increased immensely over the past 20 years. However, as with all leukaemias, early discovery is vital because leukaemia is an illness that weakens people and weakens children. The more robust children are to be able to have the treatment for leukaemia, the better their prospects. I look forward to—as he has mentioned, this month is a month of awareness—seeing awareness being raised, if I can put it that way, for what is a very important issue.
7. Will the First Minister make a statement on the implementation of the Andrews report? OAQ(4)1833(FM)
Yes. A ‘Trusted to Care’ steering group has been established to oversee and drive implementation of all the recommendations within the report. Work is under way to ensure the quality and safety of care provided to our frail elderly population, and to ensure that that is what, indeed, they receive, wherever they are in Wales.
Thank you for that answer, First Minister. You will know that around 15 nurses, I think, have now been suspended from the Princess of Wales Hospital as a result of actions leading from that report and other reasons. The Andrews report makes it quite clear that other professionals, including management, were responsible for some of the shortcomings identified in that report. Can you tell me why it is only nurses that are being singled out in this way? What action is being taken against other people who have been identified as causing this problem?
As the Member will be aware, the management has changed since those difficult days that nobody can defend, quite frankly. I am certainly sure about the fact that, for example, when it comes to complaints, they are now being dealt with in a proper fashion. Whereas, to put it bluntly, in the past, they were not being dealt with in sufficient time or at all, and that was one of the findings that was made. However, what I can say is that we have established a steering group, which had its first meeting on 29 July, and, of course, spot checks have been carried out; some 70 wards in 20 hospitals across Wales were visited between 15 June and 30 July. The steering group will now, of course, take the report forward.
First Minister, recommendation 3 of the Andrews report highlighted the need for the board to:
‘identify clear steps to generate a culture of care built on more creative public involvement in the setting and monitoring of standards’.
Instead of introducing the concerns clinics as suggested, the board went with establishing an internal professional standards taskforce, which would tie in with the whistleblowing policy. Given the British Medical Association’s recent concerns regarding the whistleblowing policy, saying that the NHS does not welcome criticisms or complaints as it stands, will you look at this professional standards taskforce within Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, and look to see whether it is encouraging whistleblowing and generating a culture of care built on public involvement, or, as I fear, achieving quite the opposite and ensuring that whistleblowing is perhaps kept to a minimum?
I think that the Member raises an important point. I will ask the Minister to write to him in answer to that question to provide him with the reassurance that he requires.
First Minister, back in June, your colleague, the Minister for health, told me that his officials have regular quality and delivery meetings with each NHS organisation in order to monitor performance, and that they are supplemented by six-monthly joint executive team meetings between the Welsh Government and NHS organisation executives. He added that quality and safety are key features of these meetings. Are you satisfied that, at the moment, Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board understands when exactly your Government expects it to deliver the necessary changes? Can you give me an example here today of what the consequences will be if it does not deliver on those changes that are exemplified in the report?
It will be expected to deliver; the Minister for health has made that clear to it. If there is no delivery—this is true of any local health board—or insufficient delivery, then there are consequences as far as personnel, as far as that board is concerned. However, I do not expect things to get to that position. I would expect the board, having considered very carefully, I know, what the Andrews report has said, to take the action that is required.
A Disability Commissioner for Wales
8. What assessment has the First Minister made of the need to establish the office of a disability commissioner for Wales? OAQ(4)1840(FM)
Well, this is a question, I know, that the Member has raised on more than one occasion here in the past. May I say that the appointment of a commissioner was not seen as a priority by those who attended our consultation events on the framework for action on independent living? They wanted, rather, to see a strong focus on strengthening the voice of disabled people themselves so that they could have greater choice and control over the services that they receive. So, the emphasis is on ensuring that they have a stronger voice, rather than, at this stage, the creation of the post of commissioner.
Thank you for that answer. I keep getting different answers to this question. One of your former Cabinet members has recently stated that there was no demand for such an appointment; he is not there now. However, I can inform him that, of the 12 leading organisations that I have contacted that support the needs of persons with disabilities, 11 have expressed their support in writing for a disability commissioner. I do not believe that you are saying that they are wrong; I do not believe that you are saying that they do not know what they are talking about. What do I believe is that you need to rethink your stance. Please stand up for disabled people in Wales and act now.
I am not saying that they are wrong, and I am not saying that they do not know what they are talking about. The point that I make is that this was not something that featured strongly in the consultation that took place. I think that the first thing that we need to do is to make sure that people have their voices strengthened as individuals; I think that that is where the focus has to be at this moment in time. Of course, if a strong case is made for a commissioner, it is something that we will always take into consideration.
I would like to put on record my support for the post of a disability commissioner. I think that it is something that Wales could do and innovate with. However, will you accept that that commissioner’s role would not just be in providing a voice for disabled people, but could also encourage better working between health and social services, where there are many barriers that, unfortunately, have consequences for disabled people?
If there were to be such a post created in future, then, of course, there would be a debate as to what the powers and responsibilities of that commissioner would be. I think that all of us accept that the interface between health and social care has been a difficult one for many, many years and we know that there are proposals that have been put forward as to how to deal with that. However, for the time being, as I said to the Member on the Plaid benches, the priority is to strengthen the voice of individual disabled people, and, then, once that is done to a satisfactory level, perhaps other things can be considered after that.
Representing Welsh Interests
9. How does the Welsh Government ensure that Welsh interests are fully represented in UK-wide and international bodies? OAQ(4)1842 (FM)
Wales is represented at ministerial or official level on a number of UK-wide and international bodies, and our aim, of course, is to ensure that Welsh interests are promoted and protected.
First Minister, a number of us visited the OECD in Paris recently as part of the work of the Children and Young People Committee, and a number of us were disappointed that there was not any representation from Wales on specialist panels within the OECD. Also, because it is the United Kingdom delegation that does the work on behalf of the UK, there was not any information about or understanding of policy in Wales, but rather a reflection of English policies only. So, are you willing to look at this situation in considering all the changes and discussions that are taking place regarding the constitution of the UK?
I think that is a fair point. However, may I also say that meetings have taken place between Ministers and officials from the OECD? The Minister for health, for example, met with the deputy secretary of the OECD in April and the former for Minister for Natural Resources and Food had been part of the OECD forum in May. So, we in Wales are playing our part, but, of course, as part of the negotiations on the new constitution and the new union we will have to consider what the role of the devolved Governments is on international bodies.
First Minister, now that every UK political leader has accepted your long-standing call for a constitutional convention, is it the Welsh Government’s intention to consider perhaps preparing a paper on what the parameters of that constitutional convention should be? Possibly, it could be a paper on the Welsh Government’s view on what the nature of or the options for that sort of UK-wide reform should be.
Yes, it is something that we are giving consideration to. As I said to Members earlier on, it is essential that a constitutional convention is seen as representing all of our four nations. I have noticed that we now are four nations—a family of nations, as the terminology has it—and, because we are a family of four nations, it would make no sense if the discussion on the convention was not inclusive of all four nations. So, my hope is that we will see the convention process move forward and that the four Governments can sit together and agree a way forward, because, to put it bluntly, what has been happening over 15 years is that devolution has been seen in isolation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland; there have conversations in three different rooms. Now the time has come to have the conversation in one room in order to provide Wales with the strong identity it needs as an equal partner within a strong UK.
In terms of international bodies, First Minister, could you outline how your administration collaborates with UK Trade and Investment, the global entrepreneur programme and the SIRIUS programme?
We have very good links with the UKTI now. I think that it is fair to say that they have grown dramatically since 2011. Whenever I have travelled to other countries, UKTI has been immensely helpful, in terms of the contacts that it has created. There are parts of the world where we need our own representation, because they are major investors in Wales, but our representatives work with UKTI in any event, as I am sure the Member would expect. However, I am satisfied that the working relationship is good, and it is certainly of advantage to us to be able to draw on the expertise of the UKTI in markets where historically we have had little presence.
Welfare Reform (Vale of Clwyd)
10. Will the First Minister make a statement on the impact of the UK Government's welfare reform programme on communities in the Vale of Clwyd? OAQ(4)1843(FM)
I am deeply concerned about the Vale of Clwyd and Denbighshire. Our research suggests that Denbighshire is the eighth hardest hit local authority area in Wales, with an average loss higher than the Wales average.
Thank you for that, First Minister. To echo what my colleague Lynne Neagle said about the delayed benefits that are occurring and the TUC’s campaign, may I say that I fully support that? Many people in my constituency—as you say, we are the eighth hardest hit—will now be amazed that Denbighshire County Council is looking to close its welfare rights unit as part of its financial management, due to what it perceives to be the worst settlement that it has had from the Welsh Government. It fails to recognise that every £1 that a welfare rights unit fetches back into the person’s pocket generates more income locally and will therefore be of benefit to it. Will you as a Government look to see what you can do to ensure that welfare advice services and services like that are maintained within the structures, so that people can access some advice to mitigate the loss of those services?
I understand that Denbighshire has taken the decision to cut funding to its welfare rights unit. That is, of course, a matter for it. However, I will say that, at a time when people are in greatest need of help and support, it is important that any level of government prioritises the needs of those people. That is something that we would certainly do as a Government, and we would encourage others to do the same.
Earlier this month, I chaired a meeting of the cross-party group on disability in north Wales, at which one of the speakers was Denbighshire’s corporate equalities officer. We also heard about a wide range of employment services from both the Department for Work and Pensions and Remploy in Wales. What action are you and the Welsh Government taking to work with agencies such as those that I mentioned to remove the barriers to employment that restrict life choices for disabled people so that they, too, can be independent and equal in society?
The Member will know, of course, that the employment support grant was put in place after the decision was made to close the Remploy factories around Wales, and that has helped an immense number of people to get into work. Certainly, they would not be in that position were it not for the support that has been provided to them by us as a Government.
In your response to the Member for Dyffryn Clwyd, you said that everyone has to make the maximum effort to support those people who need support in the current climate. Why has your party therefore announced that you are to cap child benefit payments?
I am proud of the fact that we will be increasing the minimum wage, that we will be abolishing the bedroom tax, or whatever you wish to call it, and that we will ensure that people feel that any recovery in the economy is something that is relevant to them. People do not think that at the moment, and I am proud that my party has made those pledges in order to help those people who require that help.
11. What information does the Welsh Government receive from the UK Government about the impact of welfare reform? OAQ(4)1849(FM)
In general, the analytical information that we receive is published on the DWP website. That includes assessments, statistics and research reports.
First Minister, I had a very serious case in my constituency recently, where a constituent who was being transferred from one benefit to another had had absolutely no benefit whatsoever since July and had had to pawn their jewellery in order to survive. Such cases, I fear, are not isolated, and I wondered what response you might be able to get from the Secretary of State on this matter, because my letters go unanswered.
I would be more than happy, of course, for the Member to write to me, and I would then be more than happy to bring the concerns of her constituent to the attention of the Secretary of State and to await his response.
First Minister, universal credit was brought in so as to reduce administration costs, and it is very sad indeed if certain issues like that outlined by Jenny Rathbone are indeed happening. Will you undertake to work with the UK Government—with the Secretary of State—but also, importantly, with local authorities, which, as Ann Jones so eloquently said earlier, are not being given the right support from your Government to support people to receive the benefits they need?
I do wonder whether I entered a parallel universe there for a second, because, as perhaps the Member will be aware, it is his Government in London that has introduced this, and not us. He may also be aware—indeed, he seems to accept—that hardship is being caused, and I welcome the refreshing honesty. I think that the comments about fundamental dishonesty do not apply to him, certainly not today. I welcome that.
I am intrigued by his comment that the whole purpose of universal credit is to cut the costs of administration. The whole point of universal credit, I was told, was to help people. Apparently, that is no longer the case. We have that admission on record this afternoon. However, I can assure the Member for Monmouth that we will do all that we can in order to help those people whose lives are being slowly destroyed by the party that he represents.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have accepted an urgent question under Standing Order 12.66. I call on Suzy Davies to ask the urgent question.
Will the Minister make a statement on bed blocking and emergency department overcrowding, following the tragic death of a woman while waiting in an ambulance outside Morriston Hospital? EAQ(4)0482(HSS)
Bedblocking is not a term in use within the Welsh NHS. Across Wales, delayed transfers of care have fallen steadily over the last 10 years. A formal joint investigation is being conducted by Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board and the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust into the circumstances surrounding the death of Mrs Sonia Powell last week, the results of which will be made public and shared with the family. I echo the condolences expressed to them by the First Minister earlier this afternoon.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, and I am sure that the whole Assembly would wish to express our condolences to the family of Sonia Powell. It is hard enough to lose a loved one, but the circumstances of her death have excited great anger and confusion at a time when any family would be seeking peace and time to grieve. There are questions to be answered about whether Mrs Powell should have been moved from Baglan hospital, which I hope that the LHB ambulance inquiry will deal with. Beyond that, you are faced yet again, Minister, with a question about bedblocking—and it is a term that we all understand in this Chamber—and ambulance queues. Mike Collins, the Welsh Ambulance Services NHS Trust’s director of service delivery, said that delays of patient transfers from ambulances to accident and emergency departments were the trust’s biggest concern. Can you tell me, Minister, why the relationship between health boards and social services is still not functioning well enough to make significant progress on this, and why would you still resist a review of the NHS in Wales, as supported by the British Medical Association and called for by this party, when such a review could really help to illuminate progress on this?
There are questions to be asked and those will be resolved as part of the formal joint investigation. Bedblocking is not a term used in the Welsh NHS because it is a derogatory term. It implies that patients are to blame for being in a hospital bed when they do not need to be, and I will not use it and neither should the Member. As far as the relationships between the social services departments and local health boards are concerned, I met last week with all local authorities that operate within the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg area. I was assured and reassured to hear of the close working relationships that have developed within the western bay partnership, relationships which have been assisted by the extra investment in intermediate care facilities. That is a result of investment made by this Government.
I would also like to offer my sincere condolences to the family of my constituent, Mrs Sonia Powell, and to reflect on what I understand to be the concerns expressed by some members of the family over the amount of media coverage received. Will you agree with me, Minister, that the most important thing here is that a thorough and in-depth investigation is undertaken into all of the circumstances of this matter, and while this must not be rushed, I am sure that the family will want to know the facts of the matter at the earliest possible opportunity? Has the health board given you any indication of a timescale, please?
I entirely agree with Mrs Thomas on the importance of the investigation and its importance to the family. I thank her as the local Member for having shared some of those family concerns with me, and I know that she is attending very carefully to what she can do to help them to meet those needs. There is no timetable as yet for the conclusion of the investigation, but, as soon as it is complete, it will be shared with the family as well as with the public more widely.
I, too, would like to show sympathy to the family of Mrs Powell. However, the accounts given by the family and the chief executive and chair of ABMU appear to be at odds. The family says that there was no need to move Mrs Powell from Neath Port Talbot Hospital, and claim that, upon arrival at Morriston, a doctor told three relatives that there was no more that they could have done for her there than at Neath Port Talbot. This is a hospital, as you will know, Minister, that was built under the private finance initiative at a huge cost, and we have seen services downgraded there. What comes across loud and clear to me, Minister, is that we need to make sure that services are held at that hospital. Why did Mrs Powell need to be transferred, Minister? Are you satisfied that it was done for the right reasons?
Well, the issues that the Member raises illustrate exactly why it is important to have a full, formal and joint investigation in which the legitimate issues she raises will get the consideration they need and the proper answers that they require.
May I just start by associating myself with the condolences offered to the family of Mrs Sonia Powell? This is a terrible time for them and, clearly, the publicity cannot be helping them. Minister, I do not want to go into the details of that particular case because, clearly, we need to see the outcome of the inquiry into it. However, I am concerned by reports in the local press about the pressure that Morriston’s emergency department is under. Reports are that, in August, only 77% of patients were seen within the target time of four hours and that more than 100 patients had to wait more than 12 hours to receive the appropriate care. May I ask what assurances you have had from ABMU about how these particular issues are being addressed and how it is responding to the need to meet the targets that have been set for it?
Peter Black is absolutely right that Morriston Hospital A&E department is a major department, and it is always very busy, with a considerable flow of patients to it. Across Wales, half the patients who attend a major A&E department in Wales are seen, treated and discharged in less than two hours. As the First Minister said in answering earlier questions, there are examples—and Morriston is a good example of this—where patients are held for longer than that in an A&E department so that extra tests can be carried out, so that an assessment of someone’s needs can be carried out by a senior clinician, always with the aim of seeing whether that person can be returned home rather than be admitted. Performance at the hospital has improved over the past 12 months, and there is a real focus by those responsible both for its management and for the clinical care that people get, to ensure that that improvement continues.
I, too, would like to associate myself with the sympathy that has been expressed to this lady’s family. Minister, unfortunately, we have a situation in Wales where our unscheduled care services are under immense pressure. Regrettably, ambulances are queuing regularly outside many accident and emergency departments, not just in south Wales but in every single part of the country. What action are you taking to improve the unscheduled care system and, in the short term, while community services are extended and improved, to increase the capacity within our hospitals to deal with the demands that appear at hospital front doors?
The Member is quite wrong in his assertion that ambulances are queuing regularly outside hospitals in every part of the country. That is simply factually untrue. There are places—[Interruption.] There are specific examples, that is absolutely true, but that is not the assertion that he made. He made the assertion that ambulances were queuing regularly—and that is the phrase he used, ‘queuing regularly’—in all parts of Wales. That is not true. It is simply not the case. In Morriston, for example, handovers of more than an hour have fallen by 82%, compared with March 2013. There was a 50% reduction in the number of patients waiting for over an hour between August last year and August this year, and 70% of patients coming to Morriston are handed over within 15 minutes. Now, we do need to do more because the performance of the ambulance service clearly does depend upon its ability to discharge patients that it brings to a hospital to an A&E department. The A&E department needs, where appropriate, to be able to discharge patients into the rest of the hospital. It is a whole-system issue, and we need to get flow across it all. Over the last winter, the performance of the system here in Wales improved on every single measure that we make of it compared with the year before. There is more that we need to do. We have to build on those achievements, and that is what we are determined to do.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. We now move to the business statement and I call on the Minister, Jane Hutt.
Llywydd, I have two changes to report to this week’s business. The Business Committee has agreed to schedule motions to elect Members to committees after this business statement and announcement, and, later today, the Minister for Public Services will make a statement on reforming local government. Business for the next three weeks is as shown on the business statement and announcement, which can be found among the agenda papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, is it possible to have a statement from the Minister for health in respect of the management of Abertawe Bro Morgannwg hospital? In remarks that the First Minister made in his response to questions, he said that now that there was a new management team, we were in a new era and that the old issues had been consigned to the past with the removal of the management team that was in place at that time. We are all aware that the two previous directors general of the Welsh NHS came from ABMU, and I think that it is important that we understand exactly the thinking of the Welsh Government. Does it place the blame and fault on the previous management at ABMU, or is it a wider issue and that we, therefore, should be guided by the principles of Professor Andrews’s report and, ultimately, an independent inquiry into the health service here in Wales?
Clearly, the Minister for health is taking forward and monitoring very carefully the implementation of the Andrews report. I, in fact, visited the Princess of Wales Hospital, and we are talking about that hospital in this respect in terms of management issues. I visited it myself only last week and met with the staff and the multidisciplinary teams who are now changing practice in that hospital as a result of the Andrews report. That is where the action has been taken in terms of management.
ITV Wales is today reporting that the cost of the trial closure of junction 41 in Port Talbot has exceeded £800,000—a figure that it obtained through a freedom of information request. A local Labour councillor has already tweeted me today saying that this decision should be scrapped. Can we have an updated statement from the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport on whether this is necessary and whether this plan can be axed, as local people are suffering from the consequences of the junction closure?
Clearly, this is being monitored very carefully and we have had some very good responses in terms of the impact. I am sure that local people and local businesses want to hear not only that, but that we are also making full use of that crucial stretch of the M4.
On 12 August, I wrote to the then Minister for natural resources to receive an update on the implementation of sections 19 and 22 of the Commons Act 2006. On 18 August, I wrote to the then Minister for local government on a separate matter. Five weeks later, I have yet to receive a reply. I would be grateful if you could facilitate a response and comment on whether you are aware of any delay in the process of providing replies to correspondence.
I know that the Minister is here today and will hear this point. I ask Russell George to update me, as Minister for government business, so that I can share this with the Minister.
I call for two statements, with the first on rheumatoid arthritis. We understand that there are 30,000 rheumatoid arthritis sufferers across Wales. This is a disease that responds well to early diagnosis, where intervention within a 12-week window of opportunity will enable people to stay in work and be productive. However, we understand, from a ‘meet the patient’ event that was held just before recess, that there is nothing on the Welsh Government website regarding musculoskeletal conditions. We need a more consistent approach across Wales with clear and measurable targets.
Secondly, and finally, I call for a statement following last week’s launch of the ASH Wales report on illegal tobacco in Wales, which found that Wales has one of the largest illegal tobacco markets compared with each of the English regions; that a quarter of Welsh smokers buy illegal tobacco; and that almost 60% of them buy at least once a month. We saw examples of good practice where similar problems have been identified in north-east England, which has significantly reduced the use of illegal tobacco. A statement would be welcomed, indicating how the Welsh Government, having now discovered this unfortunate news, may build on the good practice elsewhere to address this.
I know that Mark Isherwood is aware of the clear clinical pathways in terms of treatment and support for those people suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. Of course, he has the opportunity to raise these issues with the Minister, in terms of his response to oral questions.
I think that your point on legal highs does take us to the substance misuse delivery plan for 2013-15, which includes—as I am sure you know, Mark Isherwood—a number of specific actions about raising awareness, as well as about improving our ability to respond to these new substances, which we know of as ‘legal highs’. However, it is a challenging and a fast-moving area, as you are aware, and we remain committed to tackling the issue.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Unless there are any objections, I propose that the motions are grouped for debate and voted on together. I call on a member of the Business Committee to move the motions.
Motion NDM5575 Rosemary Butler
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects John Griffiths (Labour) as a member of the Children, Young People and Education Committee in place of Rebecca Evans (Labour).
Motion NDM5576 Rosemary Butler
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects:
(i) Alun Davies (Labour) as a member of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee in place of Leighton Andrews (Labour);
(ii) Gwenda Thomas (Labour) as a member of the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee in place of Jenny Rathbone (Labour).
Motion NDM5577 Rosemary Butler
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects Alun Davies (Labour) as a member of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee in place of Julie James (Labour).
Motion NDM5578 Rosemary Butler
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects:
(i) Jeff Cuthbert (Labour) as a member of the Enterprise and Business Committee in place of David Rees (Labour);
(ii) Gwenda Thomas (Labour) as a member of the Enterprise and Business Committee in place of Julie James (Labour).
Motion NDM5579 Rosemary Butler
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects:
(i) Jeff Cuthbert (Labour) as a member of the Environment and Sustainability Committee in place of Gwyn Price (Labour);
(ii) Jenny Rathbone (Labour) as a member of the Environment and Sustainability Committee in place of Julie James (Labour).
Motion NDM5580 Rosemary Butler
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 17.14, elects:
(i) Alun Davies (Labour) as a member of the Health and Social Care Committee in place of Leighton Andrews (Labour);
(ii) John Griffiths (Labour) as a member of the Health and Social Care Committee in place of Rebecca Evans (Labour).
I move the motions.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motions. Does any Member object? There are no objections; therefore, the motions are agreed, in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motions agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the First Minister.
Thank you, Llywydd. I would like to take this opportunity to update Members on developments since last Thursday, when the people of Scotland affirmed their wish to remain part of the United Kingdom. There is time, of course, to debate these matters fully tomorrow, so my statement today is brief.
I spoke to the Prime Minister on Friday, and I told him how much I, along with most Members of this Assembly, welcomed the positive choice that the people of Scotland had made to remain part of the United Kingdom. However, it is fair to say that the status quo has gone; events in Scotland have swept it away, and there can be no going back to the way things were.
I made clear to the Prime Minister, once again, how vital it was that the future of the UK is developed through a process involving all members of the UK family. That does not mean that we cannot move forward on devolution proposals for the different countries. However, we must move on from short-term, sticking-plaster solutions to whatever may be the controversy of the day. There must now be a wider process to draw up a settlement reflecting the aspirations of all of the UK’s constituent nations. It is time for our constitution to be put on a coherent footing.
I can do no better than echo the words of Lord Nick Bourne, in that we have to look at all parts of the United Kingdom, because change in one affects the position in all the others. Wales’s position in all this has been clear and consistent. We have a platform for reform, founded on an all-party consensus. Full implementation of Silk 1, including fair funding for Wales and the removal of the lockstep, would do a great deal to pave the way for further reform. We then want to see swift implementation of Silk 2, and, as we said in our response on Silk 2, we stand ready to consider other proposals that may be on the table for Scotland, because they must be offered to Wales too, in line with the presumption of devolution where practicable. That is our starting point. We can then consider whether they are right for Wales.
The Prime Minister said on Friday that he wants a balanced settlement, which is fair to people in Scotland, as well as to everyone in Wales, in England and in Northern Ireland. He said that he wants Wales to be at the heart of that debate. Llywydd, I will hold him to that promise.
I do thank the First Minister for his very, very brief statement this afternoon. It does just talk in generality, and I think that he is looking towards tomorrow’s debate to flesh out other proposals. That debate has been tabled by one of the opposition parties; it is quite ironic, really, that the Government could not come forward with a fuller statement. However, I am sure that I will read more in the press, when the First Minister gives his briefings, although he does choose not to enter into a debate with the other leaders when the opportunity does arise, as we have seen in the last three debates that were put on last week.
I agree entirely with the sentiment that the First Minister has put forward, and also with the credit that he pays to Nick Bourne for his analysis of the situation, in that you have to look at it in the whole, and not just in isolation, as has been the historical precedent when it comes to looking at devolution in these islands—looking at Scotland in isolation, looking at Wales, looking at Northern Ireland, and, ultimately, leaving out the largest part in these islands, which is, obviously, England.
I would like to put some questions to the First Minister. I would be grateful to hear how he sees the Welsh Government going on to inform the process that was set in motion by the Prime Minister last Friday. Obviously, there is a Cabinet committee, under the chairmanship of William Hague, and I would be grateful to know whether he has had any discussions about how the Welsh Government will have an input into that process.
I would also like to know whether he agrees—I think I have heard him say this—that there is no automatic read-over; that what goes up to Scotland is necessarily essential for Wales, because, obviously, we are quite different in that the economy is far more interlinked with our relationships across Offa’s Dyke. On public services in particular, there is a huge dependency, especially for people in mid Wales regarding district general hospital use. So, while it might well be welcome to consider the proposals that are on offer to Scotland, there is no automatic read-over—just because Scotland is getting it, Wales should automatically see that as the ultimate solution to some of the issues that we want to address here.
Does the First Minister also believe that there does need to be a rebalancing of the MP representation and role if there is to be this collective change that is talked about among the leaders in Westminster and political parties across the United Kingdom, whether they are in Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales? There does seem to be this collective will now to address this issue. Therefore, is it the First Minister’s opinion that there will inevitably be a rebalancing of the role of MPs from Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland in whatever parliament emerges in Westminster?
Could I also commend the work that Stephen Crabb has done so far on this particular issue? He has led from the front in making sure that Wales’s voice is heard in all of these negotiations. I commend his initiative to pull together the parliamentary leaders in Westminster from the Welsh parties’ representation bodies there and, ultimately, have a meeting to see where there is common ground. I did put that proposition to the First Minister last week during First Minister’s questions and he very kindly threw it straight back in my face. It is regrettable that there is not such a will to work across party divides in this institution, but I stand ready to work across those party divides because, ultimately, if we can find common ground and work on common principles—and there will be areas where we disagree—ultimately, our voice will be that much louder in the discussions and negotiations that take place in the next six, seven or eight months.
I do not think that the offer had been made by the Secretary of State last week; I certainly was not aware of it. In that respect, he is ahead of his own Prime Minister. That much I am prepared to concede.
May I say that what has been proposed thus far—
I made the offer. Are you deaf or something?
I am not deaf. I can hear what you are saying, even from here. You do not need a microphone. [Laugher.]
What I can say is that the response of the UK Government and the Prime Minister has been woefully inadequate. Setting up a Cabinet sub-committee: what kind of a response is that? It is a constitutional convention that we want, not a sub-committee set up in Westminster where we are all supplicants called upon to give evidence to that committee. That is precisely what almost lost Scotland and that is why the Prime Minister must learn. I believe that he is capable of doing that, and that is why the Prime Minister must learn. It is no good having a Cabinet sub-committee of the Westminster Cabinet to look at constitutional arrangements for the whole of the UK at the drop of a hat. It has to be done properly, and that has been the problem over the past 15 years—it has not been done properly.
There needs to be a proper convention and it needs proper representation from all of the Governments, not just from one. It has to look at all of the issues and the issue of MPs and their distribution. I concede that to him, but this has to be done over time, as it cannot be done overnight. Also, it is not simply a case of saying, ‘Well, let us has English votes for English laws’. That does not work. I have used the example where, if a Bill were taken through the House of Commons that had the effect of privatising large parts of the English NHS, it would not mention Wales at all. Nevertheless, if there were to be a reduction in Department of Health spending as a result, it would have an effect on Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Does that mean then that it is, in effect, an English Bill? Clearly not. It is not quite as easy as that, to simply say, ‘English votes for English laws’. That is simply a throwaway line.
I will ask the Prime Minister to look at this properly. If we are going to rebalance the UK constitution, it cannot be done by a sub-committee and it cannot be done in a week or in a few months; it has to be done properly. I welcome what the Secretary of State for Wales has said and I welcome his initiative in terms of drawing together those from different parties. I stand ready to work with different parties in this Chamber. I invite the leader of the opposition to state his views tomorrow. Where does he stand on all of this? He will have the chance tomorrow, so I think it is fair to give him advance warning of this now. Where does he stand? Does he support the convention? [Interruption.] He can have a chance tomorrow. Will he work with other parties? What is his view on the Cabinet sub-committee that is being set up? Does he support the principle of equality of the four nations within the UK? Does he accept the principle of further devolution in Wales? Yes, he is right to say that powers need not be absolutely identical, but the method of devolution, the structure of devolution and the offer have to be identical. He is right to say that we are different, but we are not second best. I invite him to lay that ghost to rest in the debate tomorrow.
We are on the verge of times that we have not seen before. There is a general acceptance that the UK cannot stay as it is, because Scotland showed that last week. It was by a whisker—it was not an unequivocal vote; far from it. It was by a whisker that Scotland stayed within the union. If action is not taken to rebalance the union, to create a new union, Scotland will leave in time, and that is something that those of us on these benches would greatly regret.
The First Minister proposed a constitutional convention, I think, over two years ago. He has restated today that it is essential that changes to the constitution are not taken in isolation and that every part of the UK should be part of this, and that every part of the UK should have an equal voice. Could he give us his views about how we will ensure that, even if we are at the table, we will have an equal voice?
The second question is: does he think that this constitutional convention would include reform of the House of Lords? I have been involved in several unsuccessful attempts to reform the House of Lords. The nearest one was under Robin Cook, where we lost by a couple of votes. I know that the Prime Minister is expressing concern about Welsh MPs voting on English matters, but we have, in the House of Lords, people who are not elected at all voting on issues that are very important to us. Does he see the constitutional convention embracing the House of Lords?
Finally, the issue of the voting age came up in the Scottish referendum. Would he see a decision on a future voting age also being debated in the constitutional convention and the convention reaching a conclusion?
I thank the Member for her comments. What is needed is a sensible and calm way forward, with no more knee-jerk reactions, no more examples of Prime Ministers swearing at their own party—[Laughter.]—but there it is, and no more examples of vows given in haste to Scotland. Those vows, in my view, have to be kept to regardless, because they have been given, and that is that. No conditions can be attached to them subsequently.
I have sympathy with what the Member has said about the House of Lords. She will know that I have, in times past, suggested that the House of Lords, at the very least—it might, perhaps, be an elected upper chamber—could be territorialised, so that there is proper representation from Wales there. That would be similar, but not exactly the same, as the American Senate, which tries to balance out the population differences within states with geographical representation in an upper house.
She is a long-standing supporter of votes for 16-year-olds. I think that the time has come for that now. I was, I must confess, sceptical about it, but we have seen it work in Scotland. I think that, now that it has happened in Scotland, there is no logical argument that it should not happen across the UK in every election. Therefore, my view on that, I confess, has changed; I suspect that I now take the same position as her.
The Prime Minister has said that he wants to see Wales at the heart of the debate, but he is yet to elaborate on that point. It is also the case that, although we have had his statement today, we are yet to see specific details on the First Minister’s vision, or, at least, any vision that goes beyond the structure of devolution that is broadly agreed in this Chamber. It would be helpful if the Prime Minister were to issue a statement of intent as soon as possible regarding the UK Government’s position on the Wales Bill, in light of recent developments. That Bill, I would argue, is too weak in this new context—second class, even—and I wonder if the First Minister agrees with that point.
I also seek clarity on one of the answers that the First Minister gave earlier regarding a possible joint position by the parties in this Assembly. Is it his intention to seek an agreed cross-party position here before entering into joint negotiations with the UK Government, or is he of the view that each party should pursue unilateral positions? For information, Plaid Cymru has today published detailed proposals as to what can be done to improve our settlement straight away, before the UK general election, and I would invite you, First Minister, to consider those proposals and to indicate whether or not you intend to publish proposals of your own. If you do, Plaid Cymru is ready and prepared to give our commitment to trying to work to find areas of common agreement between us.
The First Minister says that he wants the swift implementation of Silk 2. I would be grateful for clarification as to which elements he is referring to and what exactly he means by ‘swift’. Specifically, does his definition of ‘swift’ mean by or during the next Assembly term?
It would be helpful for clarification on some points of principle. Does the First Minister support the devolution of criminal justice to Wales? Does he believe that now is the time to seek powers over corporation tax, particularly if and when that lever is made available to Scotland? Does he believe that the electoral arrangements for the National Assembly should be a matter for the National Assembly alone? What is the First Minister’s idea of a balanced settlement for the UK as a whole? Does fair funding amount to £150 million per year, or should it be more? If it is more than that, can the First Minister tell us how much per year it would amount to for him to consider our funding settlement to be fair? Finally, does the First Minister acknowledge the risk of Wales being on par with the devolved English regions if new arrangements do not more closely resemble a new settlement for Scotland?
There were a number of questions there. I cannot speak for the Prime Minister, of course. I do not think that anyone now defends the lockstep, in any event. The Secretary of State for Wales does not defend it either. That is bound to go, I would suggest, from the Wales Bill.
The leader of Plaid Cymru asked what scope there might be for a common position. I hope that we could reach a common position. She asked me what my view was in terms of the way forward. I will repeat to her what I said earlier: implementation of Part 1 of Silk, beyond the Wales Bill—in other words, the full implementation—and the implementation of Part 2 of Silk, which would take us beyond the next general election; that much is true. I am not a fan of cherry picking. I think that there should be full implementation within the timescales identified, of course, in Silk Part 2. Also, there is the need to address Wales’s underfunding. The Holtham commission said £300 million. It may have changed a little since then, but I would not expect it to have changed a lot. So, £300 million is the ballpark figure that we will be talking about, not £150 million.
In terms of other issues of devolution, on criminal justice, the answer is ‘yes, in principle’. A timetable is outlined for that in Part 2 of Silk. Corporation tax is not a recommendation of Silk, but I do take the view that what is on offer to Scotland should be offered to Wales. We need to look at the tax system as a whole. For example, the key will be to see flexibility in the tax system for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, while at the same time maintaining a redistributive element of the tax. It will mean, for example, that we have a standard level of income tax across the whole of the UK—a solidarity tax, in effect—that is redistributable. Then, of course, it is for each administration to decide how much it wants to add on top, what the bands might be, and what tax credits might be made available. All these things now come into play. They go beyond Silk—I accept that—but if we are going to have a proper, cohesive, holistic approach, these are all things that need to be examined.
I agree entirely that the electoral arrangements of this place should be in the hands of this place. I have said that. I would prefer to see, for example, a two-thirds majority needed for fundamental changes. I would not want to see wholesale changes in the electoral system or in constituencies carried through this Chamber by a majority of one. I do not think that that would be right, in terms of the future. On a balanced settlement, we will not know that until we see what the conclusions of the convention might be. It would mean, for example, at the very least, guaranteeing the place of this body in the UK constitution, removing the ability of Westminster to abolish it without its own consent, removing the veto that the Secretary of State has over Bills, and having greater balance within the different Governments within the UK.
She asked about the English regions. I could not anticipate the English regions having the same powers as us. For example, I just cannot see a situation where they would want to have primary law-making powers. I think that that is probably unlikely in the English regions, although there is no doubt that there is a call—stronger in some parts than others—for greater control of regional issues; I have sympathy with that. I think that the leader of the opposition is right when he says that the issue with England is unresolved. It is not an issue that is easy to resolve either, but that is why, of course, we need to have a convention process where these matters can be addressed by all four administrations, to get to a conclusion that will last, and not something that has to be revisited year after year, with conversations that take place in three different rooms.
I begin by thanking the First Minister for his statement this afternoon, and by saying that it is quite clear—perhaps it was clear even before the result, with the publication of the now-famous vow—that the status quo was never going to be an option.
Would the First Minister agree that any changes to the devolution settlement in Wales must offer greater clarity, greater stability and greater accountability than we have previously enjoyed? Would he also agree that the Silk commission, Part 1 and Part 2, that included representation from across the political spectrum and, importantly, representation from people outside the political spectrum, is the blueprint on which we can base any negotiations with the Westminster Government?
In saying that you are looking for the swift implementation of Silk Part 2, what discussions have you had, as First Minister, with the Prime Minister, regarding the establishment of a joint UK Government and Welsh Government implementation group, as recommended in Silk Part 2? Silk said that it should be established by November of this year, to begin to lay the ground for transfers of power. If you have not done so to date, will you be pursuing the establishment of that joint committee? Do you consider that there are parts of Silk Part 2 that could be included in the Wales Bill currently before the UK Parliament? If you do, what are they? You said that you were willing to look at powers beyond Silk Part 2 and, in answer to the leader of Plaid Cymru, you have begun to outline what some of those are. However, you have said that, just because they are offered to you, that does not mean that you want them. How will you assess whether they are in Wales’s interest, as you state in your statement? Is that a matter just for you, as First Minister? Is that a matter for the Welsh Labour Party? Or is it your intention that there should be some wider debate about whether those powers are fit for Wales or not?
Finally, would you acknowledge that, for some in Wales, Government from Cardiff is no more dear to them or near to them than Government from Westminster previously was? What opportunity is there now to look at devolution beyond Cardiff, to the different parts of Wales that would often think that Cardiff is remote from them and does not necessarily reflect their unique cultures and ways of life?
I entirely agree with the comments made by the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats about the need for greater clarity and accountability. Clarity is something that the present settlement does not give us, and that must be addressed. In terms of Silk Part 2, the difficulty is, of course, that the UK Government has not yet formally committed to any part of Silk Part 2. It is said that this is a matter that must be resolved after the general election, but she did mention areas that might be taken forward earlier. My view, for example, is that the reserved powers model, which is uncontroversial, as far as I can see, might be taken forward as part of the current Wales Bill, rather than as part of Part 2. It will take some work, but the template is there with regard to Scotland; it is not something that is unknown to the legal draughters.
It is not a matter for me personally to decide, of course, what powers are appropriate for Wales; it is a matter for the Government to consider and for the Assembly to debate. That much is true. However, where there are examples of powers being offered without sufficient financial cover, clearly it is an area of which we have to be weary. Members will have heard me say many times in this Chamber that I would not want to see income tax powers devolved unless underfunding was addressed, for the simple reason that my suspicion would be that, if we were to return to the issue of our underfunding and we had tax-varying powers, the answer would be, ‘Raise your own money’. So, the base has to be firm before it can be built on, and that has to be dealt with. Further devolution—absolutely true. Williams provides the opportunity for us to do that. I have said in the Chamber that I would want to see further powers devolved to local authorities that are able to implement those powers. I think that what is proposed, and there are a number of proposals at the moment for the merger or reorganisation of local government, will give us the opportunity to consider the devolution of powers more locally, as part of the process of reshaping local government in Wales.
First Minister, the most important aspect of the discussions, the debates and the constitutional convention is that what ultimately develops must not be a party stitch-up—an agreement by the parties for their convenience—but has to be something that actually engages with the people. If people do not feel ownership of a new system, then they will not respect it and we will have the same disengagement process that we have had with Westminster. Do you have any views as to what sort of process should take place and how that process could seek to engage and harness some of the momentum that we have seen, particularly among some of the young people—the 16-year-olds—who were so vocal during the recent Scottish referendum?
First of all, I do not believe that the issue of powers and the issue of structure need to be intertwined. What the convention should do is look at the structure of the constitution, and the powers should run parallel. I would be very wary of part 2 being wrapped up in a constitutional convention, because I think that that would delay the implementation of part 2, and I am sure that that is something that Members would not want to see.
With regard to how the process is taken forward, the first thing that is essential is that there is a meeting or series of meetings between the four Governments. It is not good enough for Westminster to be doing something and for everyone else having to feed in their views. Those days are gone. That is the old union; we are talking about the new union now. Then, there will need to be put in place a standing executive and a convention will need to be established along with its membership. That convention will then need to go out, take views as widely as possible, including those of all age groups, and come back with recommendations for the four Governments to agree—with support, I would hope, from the four institutions, this Assembly included. Simply saying ‘Westminster will decide’ and ‘Westminster will impose’ is not good enough. If we are going to have a lasting settlement—and those of us who want to see the union stay together want to see that lasting settlement—it has to be agreed by all the nations of the UK.
May I tell the First Minister, whatever the stance you took on the Scottish referendum last week, any democratic event that involved 85% of the population voting—more than 5.3 million people, and young people at 16 and 17 years of age voting for the very first time—shows clearly that this is an issue that people are concerned about and are interested in? It was a success and we should congratulate the Scottish Government as well as the UK Government, for allowing such an open and democratic process to take place peacefully. That does not happen in all parts of the world. The decision has now been taken, and the greatest irony is that what is being proposed now for Scotland is a solution that was not on the ballot paper, namely devo max. That is what is being proposed, or should be proposed at least, for Wales. I agree with the First Minister that we have to have that same offer, although we will not necessarily deal with powers in exactly the same way.
I ask him to expand upon what he has described as ‘home rule’, or ‘ymreolaeth’ in the old terminology of Plaid Cymru. Of course, when home rule was first discussed a century ago in Keir Hardie’s first election address, for example, what it meant was to have a parliament for Scotland, a parliament for Wales, a parliament for Ireland, a parliament for England, a parliament for Canada, and a parliament for South Africa, with Westminster becoming an imperial parliament for the whole of the empire. Members from England had no role in voting on issues relating to England and Wales, or issues relating to the UK. So, the long-term solution to this is either to have a parliament for England, or to have regional devolution for England. It is not good enough for Members of Parliament in England to exclude Scottish or Welsh people from voting on these issues and then retain the right for themselves to vote on issues relating to Wales. You yourself have talked about what is happening in the health service.
Do you also believe that home rule means that we have now gone beyond Silk? The leader of the Liberal Democrats has described Silk parts 1 and 2 as a blueprint. To me, Silk should now be a done deal. We should accept what is happening in terms of Silk—that is the foundation for the new constitution that we are to build. In that context, will you reconsider your commitment to a referendum on one part of Silk only, namely the issue of tax raising or tax varying powers? I would prefer, if there is to be a referendum at all, to offer a comprehensive referendum to the people of Wales on these issues of home rule. It would be far more exciting to take it all comprehensively than to actually look at one aspect of further devolution.
The final question that I would like to ask you, which is a question for the whole of the UK, is: if we are to undertake this process, and if we are to reform the relationship between the various nations making up the United Kingdom, is it not important that that is all written down in a written constitution?
It would be easier to write it down, that is true. If we must do that—. There is an advantage in having a non-written constitution, so that it can adapt and cope with swift changes in the world. We have seen that there are pros and cons in America of having a written constitution, but it is something to consider.
As regards taxation, the situation has changed completely. There recommendations are in Silk 1, but we now know that Scotland will have a much better offer than people imagined they would get even a month ago. We must reconsider what that means for Wales according to the promises that have been made. It is important to move forward with the Bill to eliminate the lockstep. But, I come back to the point that it is important to consider taxation powers across the United Kingdom as a whole, instead of saying, ‘Scotland can have this and Wales can have that’. No. We might as well sit down and ask, ‘Right, what is the taxation structure of the United Kingdom?’ Are we going to have one tax that everyone will pay and which will go to the point of need, and then powers in addition to that? That must be considered. Or, are we to have a totally distinct system in each part of the United Kingdom? I do not believe that that makes much sense in the long term.
What, therefore, does home rule mean? To me, it is a guarantee of devolution; ensuring that this place is a permanent structure; ensuring that we understand that the powers of Wales are under the control of the people of Wales and that the people of Wales choose to be part of the United Kingdom; and ensuring that the United Kingdom will control some things, such as defence, the border, and so on, instead of Wales trying to do it entirely on its own—that is something that would be part of an independence model, and I am not in favour of that. The message it should convey is that we are all partners in the United Kingdom and that not every power under the sun should reside at Westminster—the people of England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland should have powers that cannot be taken from them. That is one definition of home rule. It is something that Keir Hardie was very fond of—he was also very fond of promoting the temperance movement, but I do not think that that will be part of our manifesto at the general election. We come back to where we were in the nineteenth century and we have to ensure that the debate moves forward in order to strengthen the relationship between the four nations of the United Kingdom and, to me, in order to strengthen the United Kingdom also.
I welcome the statement by the First Minister. I agree with the First Minister that we need a constitutional convention. Like many others, I am glad that lots of other people have now caught up. I, like many others in this Chamber, have called consistently for a change to the reserved powers model and for the full implementation of Silk parts 1 and 2, which I hope will now occur.
I have three questions. Does the First Minister agree that we cannot continue with asymmetric devolution based upon the original Spanish-type model; that we need to involve everyone in a conversation regarding how devolution should work; and that the English question cannot be ignored, but it also cannot be solved by creating first and second-class Members of the Westminster Parliament?
In terms of asymmetry, I am not convinced that there should be no asymmetry at all in terms of powers, but there should be no asymmetry in terms of structure. That is the important thing. Therefore, it follows that the model for home rule or devolution should be the same across the four nations.
I also believe that it is important that we are able to keep our United Kingdom together while, at the same time, recognising the strong identities of the nations that are within the UK; I think that the convention will enable us to do that. However, as I have said, it is exceptionally important that the convention itself is seen as representative of all four nations.
First Minister, the debate around the Scottish referendum has galvanised Scotland as a country. I think that it has also reinvigorated the debate in Wales and across the UK. Post the ‘no’ vote, people in Wales want to know what will change here.
You rightly state the way forward with regard to new powers for Wales, the Wales Bill, Silk and beyond, and that fair funding must now be delivered. However, do you also agree that the debate around the Scottish referendum was also very much about economic and social reform, equality across the UK, the distribution of UK Government jobs and UK Government agency jobs, help for infrastructure projects, help with inward investment and help to grow companies in Wales and across the UK? In short, First Minister, do you agree that what we now need is a fundamental and speedy redistribution of power and wealth to Wales and across the UK?
I thank the Member for those comments. I noticed that the second part of the pledge that was given on the front page of the ‘Daily Record’ talked about an equitable distribution of resources across the UK; that is something that I support. It would mean, of course, that Wales would get the Holtham share—if I can put it that way—of funding that many in the Chamber, across the parties, have called for.
We should bear in mind that we benefit in Wales from UK institutions that are based here—the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency being one of the most obvious and the Office for National Statistics in Newport. However, it is important that power and wealth are devolved. There is a perception that too much is concentrated in London, and that is as true of parts of England as it is of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. We see it expressed in votes for parties that are able to gather the votes of people who feel disaffected, and that is a lesson for all of us in the Chamber.
That is why it is so important that not only do we see the strengthening of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in terms of powers, but that we see that devolution of power away from London into regions of England that feel distant from London, and have felt, I suspect, slightly isolated from a debate that has taken place solely, it has appeared to them, with regard to Scotland. It comes back to the point that, in order to deal with their concerns, and to get a holistic solution, we need that constitutional convention.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, First Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Finance and Government Business, Jane Hutt.
Earlier this year, we announced that the Welsh Government would bring forward a legislative programme for tax devolution. The programme would include specific Bills for replacement stamp duty and landfill taxes in Wales to be introduced after the next Assembly elections. In the short term, however, it would introduce legislation to establish the administrative arrangements for tax collection and management in Wales. I am, therefore, today publishing a White Paper on proposals for the collection and management of devolved Welsh taxes.
This will be the first Welsh tax legislation in modern times and it is both historic and significant for Wales. Uniquely for the Welsh Government and National Assembly, we will have the ability to develop taxes that are shaped to the needs, circumstances and priorities of Wales.
This historic change has, of course, come about as a result of the work of the Holtham commission and, subsequently, the findings of the first report of the Silk commission on fiscal powers, which were endorsed by all parties in the Assembly. The UK Government has agreed to most of the recommendations for financial reform.
The Wales Bill, currently before the Westminster Parliament, sets out new fiscal powers for Wales, including powers to borrow for capital investment and powers in relation to taxation. Alongside the borrowing powers and wider tax-raising powers, the Wales Bill provides for the introduction of new Welsh taxes to replace UK stamp duty land tax and UK landfill tax.
In developing legislative proposals for new Welsh taxes, I am keen to hear from stakeholders and seek a wide range of views, starting with this White Paper. The tax collection and management powers should rightly be understood in the context of the specific taxes that they will be used to collect. So, in the spring of 2015, we will consult further on the key options for specific Welsh taxes to replace stamp duty land tax and landfill tax.
The new taxes we develop will be grounded in the tax principles I have set out previously. They will be fair to businesses and individuals who pay them. They will be simple, with clear rules that seek to minimise compliance and administration costs. They will support growth and jobs, and that, in turn, will help to tackle poverty. They will provide stability and certainty for taxpayers.
Alongside this consultation, I am working closely with my tax advisory group, which includes tax experts, business representatives, social partners and other key organisations, such as the Bevan Foundation. In the course of developing our tax collection and management policy, we have looked at other approaches in the UK and sources from internationally recognised specialists in this field. We have concluded that we will seek change where it would make collection more efficient, effective and responsive to Welsh needs.
The legislation on tax collection and management will need to provide a clear and strong governance framework for the administration of our taxes. It should set out the arrangements for collecting and managing taxes and the arrangements for taxpayer appeals and the administration of justice. In this White Paper, I am setting out our proposals.
In establishing a tax administrative function fit for Wales, we have given specific consideration to the need for holding and protecting individual taxpayers’ information, and ensuring that the collection and management of taxes should be operationally separate from Government Ministers—an approach that is consistent with international best practice. We therefore propose establishing a new corporate body, the Welsh revenue authority. The powers for tax collection and management will be vested in the new body. The authority will be legally responsible for the efficient and effective collection and management of Welsh taxes, have the appropriate separation on operational matters from Welsh Ministers, and be accountable for its performance to this Assembly. In this White Paper, we propose establishing processes and procedures to protect Welsh taxpayers and their rights in the full and proper payment of taxes.
Although the Welsh revenue authority will have the responsibility for tax collection and management, it will not necessarily undertake all aspects of tax administration itself. I am considering a range of options for how this important function could be undertaken, and responses to this consultation will help inform future decision making.
The payment of tax is essential to the funding of our public services. We will make the payment of devolved Welsh taxes as easy as possible and assist people to voluntarily pay any taxes that are due. We will also establish a taxpayers’ charter to clarify the expectations of the revenue authority and the Welsh taxpayer and provide the basis of a constructive relationship. The charter will be borne out of consultation with stakeholders and the people of Wales, and it will be reviewed and reported on regularly.
A minority of people attempt to evade paying tax, which is illegal, and there are those who seek to avoid paying tax. Tax evasion and avoidance can give people an unfair advantage over those who pay their taxes. Furthermore, it reduces the amount of money available to fund public services. That is unacceptable, and we will establish robust arrangements to prevent that from happening.
Our consultation seeks views on actions that might be taken to promote and encourage tax compliance and tackle non-compliance. Options include whether to adopt a wide approach to anti-avoidance, similar to that to be undertaken in Scotland, or a narrow approach focused on anti-abuse, similar to the existing UK approach. We are also seeking views on a proposed approach to criminal enforcement.
The consultation also seeks a steer from stakeholders on the value of a pay-first principle and the conditions under which that might be appropriate. Views expressed will help inform further consideration of whether this issue is dealt with in the proposed collection and management legislation or is dealt with in the tax-specific legislation that will follow.
I am actively encouraging people and organisations alike to offer their views and engage with us to help shape the regime for future Welsh taxes. I want to hear views on how our tax regime can be fair, simple and clear and provide stability and certainty for taxpayers, while ensuring the prompt and appropriate payment of taxes to the benefit of all those in Wales, and how the arrangements we establish now can also retain flexibilities to enable us to respond to future needs and opportunities.
Finally, I wanted to make the point that we can learn much from our own tax history, and I am grateful to the Law School at Bangor University for unearthing details of ancient Welsh taxes. In the thirteenth century, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd imposed a tax of 3 pence ‘on each great beast’, which particularly troubled the people of Arfon—especially because he did so without consulting the people or securing their consent. My approach to developing Welsh taxes in the twenty-first century will, I hope, not raise such grievances and will ensure the people of Arfon are not troubled once more.
Minister, we in the Welsh Conservatives fully support you in not wanting to tax the great beasts of Arfon, Gwent, or any of the other historic kingdoms of Wales. I thank the Minister for her statement launching this White Paper on the collection and management of devolved taxes, certain of which, as you have said—stamp duty and landfill tax—will be with us very shortly, in the wake of the Silk commission.
You have argued today that a Revenue Scotland-type model is the best way to proceed. I have to say, Minister, that I agree with you that this does look like the best solution. It is certainly a better option than the Minister delving directly into individuals’ tax affairs across Wales. I am sure that you do not have either the time or the inclination to do that. So, a Revenue Scotland-type model is probably the best way ahead. On that basis, how will you ensure that the new authority is as efficient as possible and delivers maximum value for money for the taxpayer? How will you make sure that the new body conforms to the Nolan principles of transparency in public life? Specifically, how will the embryonic board of the new body be chosen in the first instance, ensuring adequate breadth of experience?
As I understand it, it will be up to the new WRA how it collects tax—whether it uses HM Revenue and Customs, delegates to local authorities, or sets up something entirely new. I think that that is the right approach, by the way, given that ability, but it is clearly a large responsibility for a brand-new body, so how will you make sure that we see a smooth transition to the new arrangement and how will you monitor it so that any problems in the tax-collection system can be dealt with straight away? I am sure that you would agree with me that the worst outcome would be a loss of face in the new office in the early days and doubts over its integrity. So, there will be problems, we all accept that—that is a natural part of the course—but how will you make sure that these problems are effectively dealt with?
This is clearly uncharted territory for the Assembly. We have very little experience beyond local authorities when it comes to the challenges of collecting taxes, but, as you mentioned—and ‘Scotland’ has been the buzzword this week—Scotland is clearly some way ahead of us in this area, with a number of new taxes coming in next year. Have you held discussions with the Scottish Executive and are you staying in close contact with your opposite numbers in Scotland to make sure that we use its best practice and that we avoid some of the pitfalls that it will undoubtedly have experienced? This is a very tight timescale, First Minister—finance Minister, rather; I elevated you there—2018 is not far away. Are you confident that this can be met, and not just met, but that the system that we will have in place by 2018 will be robust and effective? If you will pardon the pun, we really cannot afford to get this wrong, as I am sure you are aware.
Very finally, but importantly—perhaps most importantly—you touched on tax evasion and tax avoidance. You rightly pointed out that evasion is illegal and avoidance is highly undesirable. We clearly need to have robust arrangements to deal with this. What type of mechanisms do you envisage will achieve a tight and robust tax evasion and avoidance policy? We must avoid any suggestion down the line that a new body here in Wales could come to be seen as a soft touch: yes light touch and yes transparent, but soft touch definitely not. Scotland's key priority has been ensuring the robustness of its tax policy and I am sure that you would agree with us in the Welsh Conservatives that you need to make sure that the system here is equally as robust as, if not better than, what we have at the moment.
I thank Nick Ramsay, the finance spokesperson for the Welsh Conservatives, both for his welcoming comments and for asking key questions in terms of the role and place of the Welsh revenue authority. It will be a new legally constituted public body. It will be established as a non-ministerial department and it will be accountable to the Assembly for its performance, which is a key point to reflect on today, and, of course, the powers of tax collection and management will be vested in the Welsh revenue authority. Clearly, this ensures that we will be embracing transparency in terms of the Nolan principles, as Nick Ramsay has pointed out.
If you look at the model, it is consistent with international best practice and it matches existing HMRC practice and that proposed for Scotland. It is important that we recognise that there has to be a relationship between Ministers and the Welsh revenue authority and a relationship between the Welsh revenue authority and the Assembly. It will be accountable to the Assembly, and, of course, the Welsh revenue authority will be audited by the Auditor General for Wales and the Wales Audit Office. It is very important that we look at the question of who collects and manages devolved taxes, and that we use this opportunity for consultation over the coming weeks and months, because we have not decided—this is the point of the consultation—how the new Welsh taxes will be collected. We are consulting on a number of approaches. We might have different collectors and different collection methods appropriate for each tax. The priority is that we have to have a system that is fair, effective and efficient. Through the Wales Bill, we can enter into agreement with HMRC to collect and administer devolved taxes. We are exploring possible arrangements in terms of collection and management options, but we are looking very closely at what has happened in Scotland. Indeed, I have to thank the Minister for finance for Scotland, John Swinney, and his officials. Over the months leading up to the point when the Wales Bill was introduced, we have been paving the way and preparing the way for these important new opportunities.
I am sure that people will want to look at the ways in which Revenue Scotland is taking forward its responsibilities for tax administration. It is delegating its tax collection to other Scottish public bodies. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency, for example, will collect the Scottish landfill tax. So, I can assure Nick Ramsay of our close engagement, and I hope that Members, and I am sure that the Finance Committee, will be interested in following this up as well.
You raised the point about tax avoidance, and I think that we need to look at this in terms of learning the lessons and consulting openly on possible approaches to tax avoidance. This provides us with an opportunity to look at whether we want to have an anti-avoidance rule or a general anti-abuse rule. We obviously have a lot of evidence, and the experts bring us the evidence about options, but I think that we need to make this as open and transparent as possible to enable people to contribute to this, and consulting widely on the possible approach to tax avoidance is part of that. For example, that could include a disclosure of tax avoidance schemes, which is known as the DOTAS rule. However, I think that we can take this forward in light of responses to this consultation.
Finally, I am confident in our timescale. I am confident in our preparations. I am confident that now, with this consultation launch today, we can move forward so that I can introduce legislation next July.
May I very much welcome the statement? A universally true statement is that all change costs money, at least in the short term. We need to minimise the cost of collection of any taxes devolved to the Welsh Government. For the collection of taxes such as landfill tax and stamp duty land tax, local authorities with a successful record of collecting council tax would appear to be the best option, and I would urge the Minister to give serious thought to that. With any other devolved tax, the cheapest and most efficient way of collecting it must be the one chosen. Does the Minister agree that we need to maximise the percentage of each tax that we collect, but also minimise the cost of collection, and that that must be our priority?
I thank Mike Hedges for that question. I think the issue about costs in terms of tax collection and management is very relevant and pertinent, because we have to make sure that our Welsh revenue authority is effective, efficient and authoritative as an organisation. For example, one of the issues that we are looking at the moment with the UK Government is who is going to pay for the costs of establishing and running a new Welsh devolved collection and management regime. That is something for which we are estimating costs at the moment. What is absolutely clear is that we have to maximise the revenue from our new and what will be reformed taxes, I am sure, as we move into consultation next spring, in terms of options for reforming stamp duty land tax and landfill tax. The importance of the revenue stream is key in terms of building our economy and prospects for growth and jobs.
I welcome the statement today by the Minister. The talk from the Government originally was that its intention was to create a treasury for Wales. By now, today's statement talks about a much less influential body, namely the Welsh revenue authority, but it is still a totally vital body. The taxes that are to be devolved to date—the landfill tax and the land tax—will not be a panacea for all of Wales’s financial weaknesses, of course. This is a very small step but an important one. When we do gain greater financial powers and responsibilities as a country, we will have to establish a real treasury, or a similar body that can give guidance to the Government, the Assembly and to the people of Wales on the fiscal position and the impact of Government policies on it. That is where we need to be if we are to be responsible, in a meaningful way, for developing our economy and our country. In the interim, we are taking this small but important step. Scotland is in the process of establishing its own body, Revenue Scotland, and so I ask you which lessons you have learned from Scotland, as we know that you have been in contact with Government officials there.
May I also refer to the situation that will exist after the establishment of the body? Some taxpayers in Wales will possibly have two bodies responsible for collecting their taxes or part of their taxes. How, therefore, will you ensure that taxpayers are aware of the existence of the Welsh revenue authority, and do you anticipate any problems arising from having two such bodies responsible for tax collection? Will some people have to complete two forms? Those are some of my questions.
You referred to Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Llywelyn the Great, who was an astute politician from Arfon, of course. I do not know whether the taxes that he levied were fair or relevant to us, but certainly his firm and fearless political leadership is something that we in Wales could certainly learn from. I can assure you that a number of great beasts are roaming the hills of Arfon still. [Laughter.] I thank the law school at Bangor University for its pioneering work in the field of the law and in this direction, too.
Diolch yn fawr, Alun Ffred Jones. I am sure that I have encountered some of those great beasts in Arfon as well. It is very important that we look to the history and engage. In fact, I know that the law school in Bangor University wants to engage with us. We want to have consultation to try to bring about the kind of interest that we should stimulate on this important development. I am sure that this is something on which we can engage young people as well, through education in schools, and indeed into further and higher education.
One of the points that is important from Alun Ffred Jones’s question as Plaid Cymru’s finance spokesperson is the question of how this fits in with the whole spectrum of development of a Welsh treasury. This is about a body that is going to be responsible for one part of our new functions and powers operationally: tax collection and management. We need that, and we have to have that, I would say, as part of the developing Welsh treasury function, as the Treasury in Whitehall has Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to collect its taxes and manage them. It is very important, as I have already said in response to questions, that this is a non-ministerial department. It will sit alongside the wider developments—which, of course, I will be reporting to—in terms of the treasury role, as well as the role of Government, as opposed to the role of the Assembly, and the role of whichever Government is in power, in terms of the policies around taxation and the reform of the taxes that are going to be devolved to us. So, this is a very operational part of the development of implementing our new powers.
Now, as I have said already, I have taken a great deal of evidence and have worked closely with my colleagues in Scotland. In fact, officials from the Scottish Government came to see us only very recently. In fact, I met the head of Revenue Scotland, and she was able to comment on where they are, and on how they are progressing, as well as to give us some of their views about who should collect taxes, and what opportunities there were for them in terms of the way forward. I have already given some indication of the different public bodies. For example, Registers of Scotland will collect the new land and building transactions tax, which is the reformed stamp duty land tax. We do not have the same bodies or arrangements, so we need to look at this in terms of our opportunities.
So, I do believe that this is a vital part of the machinery, if you like, of a newly strengthened Government, in terms of our devolved fiscal powers, and we have got to get it right. I very much welcome the strong support for the consultation that is being launched today. I think that we will, of course, learn from those great leaders who had those responsibilities, even though perhaps they were not very popular at the time, in terms of the tax on the great beast.
Can I also welcome this consultation, Minister? I think that this is a very important and historic step forward in terms of the National Assembly, and the role that we have within Welsh politics. Can I also agree with you that I would not want to see us taxing the great beasts of Arfon? Nor would I want you to follow the example of Peter the Great of Russia, who imposed a tax on beards, in the hope of encouraging his subjects to be more westward-looking in their outlook.
I have just a couple of questions on the statement, Minister. Can you give us an idea about the timetable in terms of introducing the Bill on this particular issue, once the consultation has come to the end? In terms of the appointments to the board, can you tell us what sort of expertise you are envisaging would be required by applicants for that, and where do you envisage finding the people to sit on this board? What process will be undertaken in terms of the appointment of the board, once this is under way?
I thank Peter Black, the Welsh Liberal Democrat finance spokesperson, for his questions. I think that Peter the Great came to mind in terms of his history books. A tax on beards—yes, I can see that there are a few beards around the Chamber. However, I think that, in many ways, these are quite important historical points, where we can perhaps engage the public, and, I am sure, engage those who have a particular interest in terms of the future of this, in this discussion.
You ask important questions. As I think I have already said, this is a White Paper so I aim to bring the legislation forward in July of next year. In terms of the chair and board members, of course they will be public appointments, subject to the Nolan principles. Members will be subject to maximum terms of office, as we do with other non-executive directors. Appointments will be made by the Welsh Government. We have stuck to the board model, rather than have commissioners, because the board model is the model that is widely used in Wales for Welsh public bodies, and it does represent good practice. However, of course, the non-executive directors, as board members, will be able to hold the executive to account. I am sure that there will be responses to the consultation on this, in terms of the governance.
I think that it is important to recognise that we secured a change from the draft Wales Bill to the Bill that was introduced in Parliament, a change that enables us to make provision for our Welsh revenue authority to be staffed by civil servants. I think that this, of course, is going to help to enable us to move forward in terms of appointments and to establish the importance of the status and expertise of this Welsh revenue authority.
Like others on all sides of the Chamber, Minister, I would like to welcome the statement that you have made this afternoon and also the proposals that you are making in the White Paper. I think that there will be widespread welcome for the establishment of a revenue body in the way that you describe. However, may I seek your assurance and your reassurance, perhaps, Minister, that we are not simply going to approach the design and creation of a tax function within Government as an administrative function? From my point of view, I think that it is important that we see it as a political function as well, and that we see this as an opportunity to drive further social, economic and environmental change in Wales.
I notice with regard to the tax principles that you have set out in the statement and in the White Paper that you do not refer to sustainability. I hope that we will be able to develop new and different forms of taxation—and certainly, the field of taxation that is being devolved at the moment gives us significant scope to do this—that will drive behavioural change and further sustainability within the tax system. I hope also that we will look at other regional and sub-national Governments across the world for examples of where this is happening. I held a meeting last year with the Government of Québec, which has introduced a whole suite of new environmental taxes and is changing the way it collects taxes in order to meet its climate change responsibilities and in order to meet its desire to see that province of Canada become a more sustainable place to be. So, I hope that we will see this as a way that we can develop new policy and new ways of creating a fair taxation system and a taxation system that drives further change across our society.
I thank Alun Davies for that question and for making the point and recognising that this is a very operational part of the process, and of the progress that we are making in terms of devolution and transferring these powers to Wales. They are powers for a purpose. They are powers in order to make sure that we have taxes that are relevant and appropriate to the needs of Wales. It is interesting that, in Scotland, they did it a slightly different way around. They started with a consultation on the replacement and reform of stamp duty, land tax and landfill tax, and they are now moving onto this tax collection and management part. I think that, arguably, we need to get the operational side right. It might sound less interesting on the street corner than what we are going to do about something that will not just improve housing policy and access but our environmental policies and taxes that respond to that. So, this is something where I think the consultation will bring out those points about sustainable development and the opportunities with a reformed landfill tax. I know that there will be clear opportunities and a strong response from the public and environmental agencies as well as Assembly Members on these points.
Minister, in your written statement in June, I think it was, you were very, very specific about the date that the White Paper would be published. In fact, I think that you said 16 September. It took us all by surprise that you would be so specific. I wonder whether you would tell us whether there was a reason for the delay because, of course, things have changed rapidly in this last week and it seems that all these things may be up for reconsideration and there may be other more substantial taxes given to us. So, are you mindful of the changing landscape, and will your proposal be flexible enough in the event of greater and more appropriate tax powers being transferred, bearing in mind that the First Minister said earlier that he is pushing for equal treatment with any offer that is made to Scotland?
My other question relates to the costs of setting up a separate body for Wales. Normally, of course, where matters are devolved, there are resources to accompany the functions that are transferred. So, can you give us any detail on what resources are being made available with the devolution of these functions?
I thank Jocelyn Davies for those questions. Indeed, yes, we did have a target time of 16 September. Of course, a very important event was happening on 18 September. That was a factor that influenced our decision to move it forward to today, 23 September, in order for us to take stock and to not in any way get in the way of the events of last week. I think that that was an appropriate decision.
It is very important, as I said in my statement, leading up to the publication of the White Paper, that we need to ensure—and this will come through the consultation, I know—that we retain flexibilities to enable us to respond to future needs and opportunities. It is important that we are tested on that in terms of the scope for those flexibilities for future prospects. So, on the resourcing issue, I have responded in brief to that in terms of the costs. We do not have an estimate of costs at this stage, but I do believe—I have raised this with the chief secretary—that with the transfer of powers, there should be a transfer of resources to assist with administration costs. Some of the costs will depend on how people respond to this White Paper on tax collection and management. It will, possibly, be more costly in terms of which direction we take on anti-avoidance work and other issues, such as the appeals and tribunals process, and issues around cost will come from the decisions we take about who collects and manages Welsh taxes. So, I would hope that I could get to the point where, in the spring next year, we will be able to publish full details on cost at the appropriate time. However, in terms of the timing, this regime needs to be up and running by April 2018.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Public Services, Leighton Andrews.
Llywydd, in the White Paper, ‘Reforming Local Government’, which we published in July, my predecessor set out our overall approach to taking forward the recommendations of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery in respect of the merger of local authorities. The White Paper explained how we planned to implement the commission’s proposals in respect of voluntary mergers, with a Bill to be introduced into the Assembly in January 2015, giving Ministers the powers to merge authorities who wished to join together voluntarily.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 15:47.
Our objective is to see new voluntary merged authorities in place by April 2018. Those authorities who agree to merge voluntarily would not face elections in May 2017 but would have the terms of existing councillors extended until May 2018. Shadow authorities would be established by October 2017.
We said in the White Paper that authorities wishing to merge voluntarily should submit expressions of interest by November. Last week, I wrote to local authority leaders with our invitation to principal local authorities in Wales to submit proposals for voluntary merger, otherwise known as the prospectus. In the voluntary merger prospectus, I confirmed that we want those expressions of interest by 28 November. Fully developed cases for merger would then be submitted by June 2015.
The Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery said that we should incentivise those mergers and, as a Government, we have agreed. After the provisional local government settlement for 2015-16 is announced, I hope to say more about the funds available to assist with voluntary mergers.
We are offering a unique opportunity to the willing. They get a chance to determine their own future as well as to form the building blocks for a new form of local government that will be created through collective ambition and practical action. Local authorities who wish to end uncertainty for their staff and the wider public will be urgently considering how best they can come together with neighbouring authorities to deliver services on a more strategic and sustainable basis. The status quo is not an option.
We recognise the value of front-line local authority services, and today I want to thank the many thousands of public service workers who deliver those front-line services. Later this year, I will be bringing forward proposals for a non-statutory public service staff commission to assist in the transition process, as I discussed with the Wales TUC and leading unions representing public sector workers last week. I expect all local authorities proposing voluntary mergers to hold formal discussions with their recognised trade unions.
As colleagues will be aware, the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery set out an analysis of our public services that made sobering reading. The commission said that there was poor and patchy performance in a number of areas of service delivery and wide variations in efficiency. The case for change was detailed and compelling. This Government accepted that case.
Local government cannot continue to operate as it has done. Neither is the current configuration of 22 local authorities sustainable. There will be change, voluntary or not. We know that existing problems facing local government in Wales are likely to be compounded by the worsening financial situation and increased demand for certain services.
In Wales, we have protected local government from the worst of the spending cuts. Over the past five years, spending per head on local services in England has decreased by around 7% in cash terms, while in Wales it has increased by 3%. Our analysis indicates that spending by local government in Wales per head of population is approximately £327 higher in 2014-15 than in England. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimated that the local government settlement in England, after adjusting for rates retention, reduced by 9.5% in real terms over the period of 2010-11 to 2013-14. This was around twice the reduction in Wales. Yet the average band D council tax bill for Wales in 2014-15 is £193 lower than in England.
I do not underestimate the scale of the challenge facing us or suggest we can deal with it overnight. Our task is significant, but will be progressed at pace and with vigour. I come to this portfolio with an absolute commitment to deliver the change we need and to make sure that that change is profound and sustainable.
These are not easy times for local government. Continuing to provide services in the current configuration, salami-slicing more efficiencies and cutting services in isolation is not sustainable. However, this is also a time of great opportunity to make fundamental and lasting change that will create modern and effective local government, and we will seize that. We have been clear about the need for reform and are putting in place the measures to support that. I will be driving this agenda forward vigorously and look forward to a constructive, willing and engaged response from local government.
First of all, may I congratulate Leighton Andrews AM on his new portfolio role for public services? I think that it is fair to say that you are now the third Minister in the three years that I have been elected as an Assembly Member to take on the mantle of local government. I think that it is also fair to say that, as I stand here today, local government in Wales is in rather chaotic disarray.
How do we sort the problems that we have? You have mentioned how we actually spend considerably more on local government in Wales than we do in England, but you, in your own statement, make mention of where we have seen significant failings: in efficiency, transparency and accountability. Quite frankly, there has been a feeling across Wales that there has been very poor leadership from the Welsh Government in terms of leading local government at these very difficult times. So, one thing that I hope is that you bring a strength of purpose to this role, a really radical approach and strength of leadership and delivery, because we have not only elected members, but thousands of very hard-working front-line staff across Wales, who, since the Williams commission report was published at the beginning of the year, have felt very let down by this Welsh Government.
As I move through your statement, you talk about how
‘authorities wishing to merge voluntarily should submit expressions of interest by November.’
Strangely enough, in February of this year, Conwy County Borough Council and Denbighshire County Council were quite emphatic about not wanting to merge. Here we are now, in September, and it seems that discussions are now taking place with an amber light to go ahead to consider discussions. I am not aware whether other authorities are so far advanced, but let me just talk about Conwy County Borough Council. You talk about the prospectus that you have sent out. Having looked at the agenda for last Thursday, when this was discussed, I cannot see any mention of this prospectus as part of the actual discussions. You are expecting local authorities to merge, but it is almost a case of they go now or be pushed into it. There is this sort of fear now among local authorities. Do you actually believe, Minister, that local authorities can actually make a statement of intent and certainly make the feeling known in November with a view to having the business plans drawn up in 2015? I would also mention that there has been a lack of transparency, certainly in my own local authority, on fairly routine sort of delivery projects. At what stage do our actual residents and electors become engaged in this process, and how can you ensure that transparency and openness is actually driven through this process? I would certainly expect any local authority seeking to merge with another authority to have a fully costed out benefit appraisal and evaluation. Is that conceivable by November? I do not think so.
You then talk about setting up a public service staff commission to assist in the transition process. Clearly, that has had the thumbs-up from the Wales TUC and leading unions representing public sector workers, but I am more concerned about the workers themselves. How have you decided who is going to be on this commission?
To actually reduce the number of councillors, you will have to work, obviously, with the boundary commission. Again, it will have to slice up and change wards around by this time in 2015. I will just give you a quote from some of the talks that are going on with Conwy County Borough Council. It states here, about some of the advantages:
‘There would be more opportunities for the councils to control their own destiny…One fewer set of elections would give more time and greater stability to plan the merger’.
It then goes on to discuss some of the disadvantages:
‘The proposed Shadow Authority, established in October 2017, would have over 100 councillors, with a Cabinet of no more than 10…. Managing this would be a real challenge…. If Denbighshire and Conwy managed to fall out during the process the reputational damage would be enormous and the culture of the new council, established in April…would get off to a very bad start, not to mention the wasted effort and money up to that point’.
It then goes on to say,
‘The Welsh Government’s financial planning can appear chaotic, so there must be a risk that any promises of funding and support, offered to encourage voluntary merger, would not be honoured’.
Minister, clearly you have quite a few obstacles to overcome, but it would help here today if you would actually respond to some of the queries that I raise genuinely on behalf of our hard-working council tax payers, our residents and our hard-working front-line staff across all of our authorities in Wales.
I start by thanking the Conservative spokesperson for her kind remarks at the beginning. She said that local government in Wales was in chaotic disarray, but the structure of local government in Wales was determined by her party some 20 years ago.
The issue, I think, for leadership in local government at the present time lies with the leaders of the local authorities. They have the opportunity in front of them now to lead by example. I hope that authorities, such as Conwy and Denbighshire, will bring forward proposals for voluntary merger. They have a timescale, as I have said—28 November—for the submission of the expressions of interest, and then final proposals to us in June next year. I think that that gives considerable time for transparency, public scrutiny, debate locally, discussion with the workforce and with trades unions, and every opportunity there to tease out the issues that may be of concern to them.
In respect of the staff commission, as I said, I will bring forward further proposals in relation to that. We have not, at this stage, determined who should sit on that. We have ideas as to the kind of skill sets we need, but we will bring those proposals forward in due course.
The Member asks me to be radical; I am very happy to be radical. [Laughter.]
Minister, may I congratulate you on your return to Government, to the Cabinet, and on your elevation to this particular role? I can assure you that there is very little doubt in this Chamber that you will be radical and that you will be determined.
May I first ask you a question on the timetable that you have set out? You have set out some sort of timetable for those councils that will decide to merge voluntarily. What about those councils that will not do so voluntarily? Do you have an estimate of the kind of timescale that will face those councils, and some sort of target on when we will get to a position where local government will have been reformed in its entirety in Wales? In that context, do you have any concerns about the fact that some councils will move in accordance with one timetable and that others will adopt an alternative timetable?
In terms of the money that will be available to assist in this process, although it could be argued ultimately that reforming local government in Wales will lead to savings, there will have to be financial investment in the first place, of course, to ensure that this proceeds. You did say that there will be money available, but you did not refer to any particular sum of money. Are you entirely confident that funding will be available in your budget? You recently expressed some concern about forecasts of cuts to local authority budgets, and you supported a petition that called on the Government to ensure that that budget was safeguarded and opposed the proposed cut of 4.5%. Do you still hold that view and are you determined to ensure that there is no cut in the budget available to local government in Wales?
Minister, what concerns many people, if we are to move to a two-track system—with some councils merging voluntarily and others, as you say, if they do not do so voluntarily, being required to do so; or at least you said that they will merge, voluntarily or otherwise—is that that will mean, in reality, that we will be left for a lengthy period of time with a system that is imbalanced in Wales, and that that will lead to further problems.
We welcome what we have heard from you this afternoon, but we look forward to hearing far more detail that will give us the whole picture as to how exactly we can ensure that the most effective and most efficient services are in place for the people of Wales.
I begin by thanking him for his kind words.
I look forward to engaging with him on these issues over the next few months.
The issue that he raises about the twin track, as he put it, for mergers has been very clear since the beginning of this process, since the original publication of the Williams commission report, and was confirmed in the White Paper published by my predecessor in the summer. I think that it is very clear that there is an opportunity here for local authorities, with leadership, to move forward on the basis of voluntary merger. We know that some are in active discussions on that and that some have chosen to rule that out, and the consultation on the White Paper is still under way. There are discussions going on within different political parties as to the future structure of local government in Wales. I am not sure that there are many in this Chamber who really think that the current configuration of 22 local authorities in Wales is the perfect one for which they would strive. In the longer term, we will of course be looking to a new map for local government in Wales. There is a map set out with a number of different proposals by the Williams commission.
Our timescale for subsequent mergers, if I can put it like that, will depend on further legislation. We have said in the White Paper and explained that our plan would be to publish a further Bill in due course for discussion—a draft—and for any fundamental legislation to be followed through after the 2016 election. There is a clear timescale here, but there are clear advantages for those authorities that would wish to pursue the voluntary route. In respect of the funding that is available—I am not at all clear what he was referring to in respect of a petition; perhaps he would like to tell me more about that outside the Chamber—yes, I am confident that there will be funding available to assist the process of voluntary mergers. As I said in the statement just now, I hope to be able to say rather more about that once we have published the provisional local government settlement.
I formally congratulate you on your return to the ministerial office, Minister. I would welcome a voluntary merger. It would be a great example of what exactly happens. The commission on public service governance believes that the only cost of reorganisation would be the redundancy cost of senior staff, and that that would be paid back within two to three years. My experience of the last local government reorganisation was of huge ICT costs, due to incompatibility and some of the servers not being big enough. I also had experience of staff relocation costs, where staff were moved from one office to another. We have also had job evaluation since then. It is probably true to say that, in most neighbouring authorities, staff doing the same job are paid at different rates. That would also have to be addressed.
In England, job losses at Birmingham council are now expected to exceed the losses from the closure of Longbridge. What is happening in England is an almost complete destruction of local government. I feel very sad for people in England that great services and great councils like Birmingham—. It became a great council under the Conservative administration of the great Joe Chamberlain, who was one of the foremost local government figures of the nineteenth century; he brought about municipal development in Birmingham to make it one of the foremost cities in Britain. The current Conservative Government is in the process of destroying it.
I have three questions for you, Minister. Do you recognise the costs that occurred last time and do you believe they can be ignored or will not exist this time? Secondly, many of the commission’s proposals do not require legislation. I think that there are 64 of them and I counted 54 that did not require any legislation at all; I may be wrong. Are you going to publish a programme for how those that do not require legislation are going to be implemented? The third question is: if a merged council exists, will it have exactly the same band D council tax or will it keep the council tax from its predecessor authorities?
Again, I thank my colleague the Member for Swansea East for his kind remarks. He has, throughout this process, been a critical friend of the proposals from the Government. I am well aware of his knowledge of the previous local government reorganisation and his observations on that.
I think that he would accept, with me, that there are many things that have changed in the world of information and communications technology in the last 20 years, not least the cloud-based systems that allow storage to operate at a much lower cost than was true then. There will, I am sure, be some issues of incompatibility, but some of those issues are not quite the same as they were. Indeed, one of the advantages of new technologies is that they make it easier for local authorities to reduce the need for certain kinds of buildings, to reduce their overall estate costs—as I saw in Monmouthshire yesterday—and the use of technology creatively will, I hope, be a means of reducing some of those costs. Nevertheless, there will be costs, and we need to work through what those are, and he fairly makes the point about job evaluations as well.
He rightly commented on the alarming situation in parts of England in respect of local government. I illustrated in my opening statement how, in Wales, we have sought to protect local government against the worst of the cuts, and have done better, of course, here in Wales than in England. I was interested in his historical exploration of the development of local government in Birmingham. One of the things that I have been looking for in these last 10 days is a useful one-volume history of the development of local government in Wales, but various academics in Cardiff University whom I have consulted tell me that there is no such volume, so this may have to be developed in future. No doubt, we will introduce a new area of academic study as a result of this exercise.
He asked about the commission’s proposals that do not depend on legislation. Obviously, the First Minister made a statement overall on the Williams commission proposals in the summer. We are working through, at the moment, those recommendations on a detailed basis, and he is absolutely right to identify that there are a number of proposals within the report—a number of recommendations—that do not require legislation, and I will bring forward, I suspect, a further statement on that in due course. In respect of the impact on council tax, that, of course, is one of the issues that we will need to consider in the context of any incentivisation of voluntary mergers.
May I also welcome you, Minister, on your return to front-line politics? [Interruption.] Well, your return to the Cabinet, then. It is not yet clear whether your remit for public services involves saving Cardiff City Football Club, but I am sure that you will embrace that if you put your mind to it.
I have a number of questions on your statement, Minister, in particular around the financial incentive, to which you have referred, and on which you indicated that you will provide more detail once the draft local government settlement has been published. On the source of funding for that financial incentive, is it your intention to top-slice the local government funding settlement revenue support grant, or is there new money available that can be applied to that particular incentive, in terms of encouraging councils to go forward with these voluntary mergers? In particular—I am thinking of Swansea, Powys and Carmarthenshire here, none of which will be able to apply for this incentive because, of course, it is the Government’s intention that they do not merge with another authority—will they end up effectively funding the incentive for other councils to merge, or will they have an incentive for carrying on as usual? I think that that is quite an important question, particularly for those three authorities.
In terms of the document that you have published, the ‘Invitation to Principal Local Authorities in Wales to Submit Proposals for Voluntary Merger’, I am a bit puzzled, in a sense, by the hoops through which these authorities have to jump. As I understand it, the councils applying for voluntary merger will need to effectively put together a business case to the Welsh Government to proceed with that voluntary merger. Given that the mergers that they are being asked to proceed with are ones that have already been set out in the Williams commission report, which the Welsh Government is intending to press ahead with anyway, as part of legislation, presumably in the next Assembly, why is it that the councils then have to make a case to do what you want them to do anyway? If they do not meet the criteria that you set out for voluntary merger, and you reject that case, how do they then get to a state of readiness for the mandatory merger that they will then be required to make after the next Assembly elections? When you come to bring your mandatory mergers forward for those councils that are left, will you carry out a process similar to this for each merger that you will be imposing, to ensure that the same sort of scrutiny being applied to these councils will apply to the Welsh Government proposals after the next Assembly elections?
Again, I thank the Liberal Democrat spokesperson for his kind remarks. I had not considered that the future of Cardiff City Football Club lay within my portfolio, but I have to say that it is currently under the excellent management capability of Daniel Gabbidon and my constituent, Scott Young, of the Rhondda. I look forward to progress under their leadership.
I start by referring to what the Member asked about—any possible funding for voluntary mergers. He asked whether there would be a top-slice of the local government settlement. It will not surprise him to hear that I will be making no further comments on the funding available to local government until we publish the provisional local government settlement in due course.
He asked about the kind of powers that would be necessary to—. Actually, I thought that I had misheard him at one point; I thought that he had said ‘the Swansea powers over Carmarthen’, but he said ‘Swansea, Powys and Carmarthen’. I think that there are a number of issues that we have to work through in respect of a number of different authorities; I do not want to get into the detail of those at this present time.
He says that he is surprised that we are placing what he called hoops in the way of authorities that wish to come forward with voluntary merger proposals. I think that we, of course, have a responsibility to the public in those authorities, and to the staff of those local authorities, to ensure that any merger proposals that are brought forward are viable and that sensible planning has been undertaken.
Of course, as he will appreciate, we are proposing to bring forward legislation in the new year to facilitate the voluntary mergers. The legislation post-election would be in respect of other mergers within local government subsequent to that—what he called mandatory mergers. Clearly, there would need to be proper scrutiny of any proposals that are brought forward. However, at this stage, what I am seeking to do is encourage the leadership of local government to look at the potential that voluntary mergers might have for their authorities and their public.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We have taken the designated time on this, but I am keen to give everyone a chance. There is just one minute now if I call you to put your question. I call on Alun Davies.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer, for that welcome. Like others, I congratulate the Minister on his appointment, and I wish him well with his new responsibilities; I am sure that he will be moving forward with due speed.
May I press him a little further on the financial package that he has described in terms of incentivising voluntary mergers? Speaking to my own local authority in Blaenau Gwent, I know that it is exploring different options at the moment. However, it needs more certainty about what the financial situation will be and the sort of help and support that the Welsh Government is able to provide for it. It is thinking in terms of anything from redundancy payments through to the equalisation of council tax levels, to ensure that we are able to move forward as speedily as possible with agreed mergers with the minimum of disruption, to enable us to see those savings and the improvement in services that we all want to see. It will be a partnership between individual local authorities and the Welsh Government, and I hope that the Welsh Government will see itself as a positive part of that partnership—providing practical help and support, but also the financial measures that I have outlined.
Again, I thank my colleague the Member for Blaenau Gwent for his kind remarks at the outset. I say to him that I met a number of local government leaders in meetings last week and one of those that I met was the leader of his local authority. I understand very well what he says in respect of some of the challenges that leaderships of local authorities will want to see addressed with regard to the incentivisation packages. He has raised a number of challenges that are in our minds, and I would hope to have more to say about that, as I say, after the provisional local government settlement.
Minister, could you enlighten me as to the number of councillors that you intend to have in these new councils? In Conwy and Denbighshire alone, you are going to have over 100. If you have three, will you have a council of 150 members?
I would think that that was unlikely. Certainly, we have given some consideration to this, as you may recall, in the White Paper. We are currently collating the responses to that White Paper and this may be one of the things that we will have more to say about in due course.
Eight years ago, we were told that the proposed police merger would generate savings that would go straight to front-line services. A sub-committee of this Assembly found that, contrary to that, it would have run up significant deficits up to 2012. We know that the WLGA commissioned an independent cost-evaluation of merger and we know that the First Minister announced before recess that the Welsh Government would be carrying out a cost-evaluation of the cost of merger. Therefore, what cost-evaluations have been undertaken, prior to pushing ahead with voluntary or mandatory mergers, given the precedent and given the absence to date of any effective and independent cost-evaluation to establish whether this would generate savings, at a time when we need them, rather than additional costs, when local authorities, as you indicate, are already facing significant cuts?
As proposals come forward for voluntary merger, costs will be a factor that we will be looking at, and we will need to have regard to the overall financial envelope available to us as we process any further developments on merger, subsequently.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, Lesley Griffiths.
This statement is to update Members on how we are alleviating the effects of welfare reform on individuals and families in Wales through independent and not-for-profit advice services.
In his statement to this Assembly in July, the then Deputy Minister for Tackling Poverty stated that welfare reform is the biggest barrier to tackling poverty here in Wales. I could not agree more. However, my focus today is not on barriers, but on what we do to overcome these challenges.
In the ‘Tackling Poverty Action Plan 2012-2016’, we talk about the different levers we can use as a Government to help people out of poverty. Advice services are one of those levers, offering a lifeline to so many of our most vulnerable people. As we all know very well, the people most affected by welfare reform are those who were already vulnerable, already stretched and already struggling to make ends meet.
Through the ministerial task and finish group on welfare reform, we commissioned research to better understand how the changes being imposed by Westminster are affecting people here in Wales. Let us remind ourselves of some of the headline findings of this research. The average annual loss per working-age adult in Wales is estimated to be around £500 in 2015-16 alone. Combined with the impact of other changes, losses could be even higher for some people. There is evidence to suggest that such cutbacks in support are making some people, those both in and out of work, more vulnerable to debt and eviction. Other knock-on effects may include shortage of necessities, such as food, heating and electricity, and worsening health problems.
As a Government, we are committed to supporting free and independent advice services to support these people, as their need for information and advice can only increase. Last week, I issued a written statement announcing a further £2 million to support front-line advice services on some of the very issues that are becoming more common as a result of welfare reform. Advice providers are reporting a spike in demand for advice relating to disability living allowance, personal independence payments and benefit sanctions, for example. We have to ensure that our advice services are in a position to help individuals on all of these issues. It is important that we invest in these services because they can play an important preventative role. Not only are they there to offer support to people when they run into serious difficulty, it is also important that people feel they can turn to these services before things spiral out of control. They are there to empower individuals with the knowledge and information they need to stop situations from reaching breaking point, to make the right decisions for themselves and their families, and to act now with the support of others who will not judge them.
We have learned from Welsh Government commissioned research that the groups more likely to bear the brunt of the changes in the benefits system include people with protected characteristics. Those around the poverty line, non-working lone parents and workless couples with children are also likely to be affected. This view is strongly echoed by the independent advice providers forum and in other reports, for example, the recently published Citizens Advice Cymru report on the impact of welfare reform in Wales.
We need to understand what impact these services are having on people. We are measuring a number of things, including benefit take-up. Raising household income is important as part of our wider efforts to tackle poverty in Wales. A key element of the Better Advice: Better Lives scheme, delivered through Citizens Advice, is to support families with disabled children. In 2013-14, this service helped to support 2,159 families with disabled children, with over £2.9 million in confirmed benefit gains.
In these times of shrinking budgets and severe cuts in funding for advice services, our focus on outcomes must intensify. The Welsh Government has announced a new grant scheme for front-line services this year, aimed at tackling poverty and mitigating the impact of welfare reform and on measuring the difference these services will make in this respect. Through our delivery partners, we will not only know how many people have been helped by these services, we will also have a clearer sense of how these services have increased people’s income, the amount of personal debt reduced by these interventions, and the percentage of homelessness cases prevented by these services.
As well as the ‘what’, we need to be mindful of the ‘how’, because how these services are delivered matters a great deal when we are trying to reach out to people with disabilities and people with particular access needs. A multichannel approach is, therefore, essential, so we are supporting face-to-face advice, telephone advice and home visiting, where required, so that no-one feels excluded from using these services. We are investing significantly in face-to-face advice this financial year because we know that, in this way, we can be more effective in reaching socially and financially excluded people, people with protected characteristics and people with mental health issues. As far as is possible, we will cater for every eventuality and scenario.
Much of what I have talked about relates to the front-line services that we as a Government are committed to supporting, with the aim of offering practical support to people in the face of welfare reform. There is also work afoot to bring about longer term improvements in advice services, stemming from the advice services review and relating to our longer term strategy and vision for advice services in Wales. We need to rethink the way in which these services are planned and delivered in Wales, and we plan to do this by bringing together key players and stakeholders in the form of a national advice network.
Instead of advice delivered in a piecemeal fashion, I am keen to see an advice network develop in Wales that can respond to people’s individual needs in an integrated way and guide them towards longer term solutions. This can be achieved through stronger and more effective referral systems and through greater clarity across the sector about quality standards. Sometimes, there will be a role for credit unions as part of the longer term solution, and it is important that we nurture and develop the link between advice providers and credit unions as we go forward. If we can strengthen the connections between different providers and relevant partners in this way, we can enhance the experience of service users and respond quickly to address the underlying and root causes of poverty and financial exclusion.
The Welsh Government is doing all it can to ensure that help is at hand for people who need support with their benefit entitlements, with managing and repaying their debt, or in situations where they may be at risk of losing their home. Our support for advice services is one clear example of how Government can make a real difference to people’s lives, at a very practical and personal level.
Thanks for your statement. Rather than trade statistics, which I could do, over the impact on people’s incomes and livelihoods delivered by different Governments, I will focus on the core of the statement. You referred to the written statement that you issued last week, announcing funding to support front-line advice services, and particularly £1.3 million for Citizens Advice Cymru and Shelter Cymru to deliver specialist advice on welfare benefits, housing and debt. Clearly, these are both excellent organisations with a wide reach, reaching into virtually every community in Wales and beyond.
You also said that, instead of advice delivered in a piecemeal fashion, you are keen to see an advice network develop in Wales that can respond to people’s individual needs in an integrated way. What discussions, therefore, have you had with AdviceUK, the UK’s largest support network for free, independent advice centres, which has 24 member organisations in Wales? I declare that two of my daughters work for one of those social enterprises. It says that it has worked with the Welsh Government on proposals arising from the recommendations in the Welsh Government’s advice services review, but none of the members is listed as having received any funding in this statement, despite the fact that many of them are highly efficient and are very quick to provide a very person-centred service in terms of debt and welfare advice, especially in an emergency when someone may be facing court proceedings or other desperate timelines. The bodies that you have commissioned may have long waiting lists that prevent that sort of immediacy in delivery.
One of the key issues, as you know, relating to welfare and unemployment is disability. The Access to Work scheme provides practical help for disabled people in employment. It is a UK Government scheme under past and present Governments, so this is not a party political point. What engagement has the Welsh Government had with the current Department for Work and Pensions’ internal review of Access to Work? It says that it is speaking to stakeholders and has held focus meetings in London, Sheffield and Wales. It is also contributing to the Work and Pensions Committee’s inquiry into Access to Work, which has been running in parallel, and which is partly in response. Again, I declare that one of my daughters has made a submission to the inquiry, which has been accepted, and, I believe, has been published, because of her reliance on Access to Work to enable her to pursue her professional career.
Reference was made earlier today to universal credit, the new welfare scheme that is being rolled out in Shotton in Wales. As yet, we do not have much data on it on which to base people’s subjective opinions. I have a meeting with them, together with the Your Benefits Are Changing campaign, Community Housing Cymru, housing association representatives and the DWP, to discuss what has happened since the implementation of universal credit on a pilot basis, to see whether people are better off, how many people are being helped, and so on. What engagement is the Welsh Government having to ensure that its position on this is dictated entirely by the facts, rather than by people’s perceptions, and, perhaps in some cases, your own dogmas?
As a final related point, again on disability, I chaired, as I mentioned earlier in questions, a meeting of the Assembly cross-party group on disability in north Wales earlier this month. Speakers included the DWP partnership manager Wales, a district manager for north and mid Wales and the Remploy employment services director for Wales, as well as Denbighshire County Council’s corporate equalities officer. This was not a political gathering; it involved disabled people and organisations representing them, and organisations delivering services. They detailed a range of disability employment services available through them, and that Remploy helped 3,800 people back into work in Wales last year through its 15 branches. Given that these schemes are in place in Wales already, partly using devolved agencies and resources and partly using non-devolved agencies and resources, could you tell us how, in order to tackle the welfare agenda, you are working with these schemes so that we may be better advised as to the basis on which you are making your decisions about them?
I thank Mark Isherwood for his questions. You referred to any discussions that I had had with AdviceUK, and, from your question, I assumed that it had applied for funding from the specific grant that we are referring to today. Clearly, it is my second week in this job, and I have not had specific discussions with AdviceUK, if it did apply for the grant funding; obviously, as I have picked up this portfolio, I am aware of the organisations that have received the grant funding. It was a pot of money that my predecessor brought forward of £2 million. There were very strict eligibility and appraisal criteria published. I know that the applications put in for the grant were more than double what the fund was; they were more than £4.5 million. There were, I think, 36 applications, of which five were successful. So, if AdviceUK did apply for funding and it was not successful, it will have been done based on very strict criteria and, obviously, not everybody who applied could have the funding.
You asked about what work is being undertaken and what discussions there have been with the DWP. My officials obviously work very closely with the DWP and one thing that we did as a Welsh Government to mitigate as best we could the impact of welfare reform, and in order that we as Ministers could learn about it, was to set up the ministerial task and finish group on welfare reform, which Jeff Cuthbert, my predecessor, chaired. There were six Ministers attending those meetings so you can see that it was extremely high level, and it is very important for us as Ministers to understand the impact that welfare reform is having on individuals in Wales. You then referred to the pilot scheme that is being carried out in Carl Sargeant’s constituency in Shotton. We are having regular reports regarding this at that meeting. I am not quite sure of the date of the next meeting, but, certainly, we are going to continue that because I think that it is very important that we discuss what is going on. You referred to my dogma; well, I would refer to your and your party’s ideology on that subject.
In relation to your cross-party group, as you say, it is very good to bring people together, including, obviously, people such as disabled people who have those protected characteristics. It is very important that they are able to access our advice services. The grants that have been given out have looked very carefully at what support we can give to people, such as disabled people, with protected characteristics. I know that there is a specific element within the Better Advice Better Lives scheme I mentioned, which is aimed at supporting families with disabled children, for instance. At the other end of the age range, we support Age Cymru in this respect also.
Minister, may I start by wishing you well as you undertake your new duties within the Government? May I welcome also the statement this afternoon? We all know that there are individuals and families in Wales who are going to be facing situations that are uncertain and very worrying, and emergency situations in the case of some, and it is good that there are agencies available to ensure that they receive the best advice in these situations. May I ask you two questions? You mention on one hand that partners will be providing these services, and, on the other hand, talk about an integrated service. Can you guarantee that a service provided through partners will be integrated, and how exactly are you going to ensure that? You have referred to some of these partners—people such as Citizens Advice and Shelter Cymru—and we know that these are agencies that have wide experience in the fields in which they offer advice, and we can be sure that they are providing the best advice. However, in the past, there have been cases where the advice that people facing difficult situations have had has not been the best advice, and that can lead to a situation where people’s circumstances get worse rather than improve. What assurances can you give that all of these partners you are going to use will be checked correctly in order to ensure that they can provide the correct information, that they have the people with the experience and training to ensure that, and that, if an occasion were to arise where they had misled people, those people could have redress if they had been led astray by poor advice from some of these partners who provide these services on behalf of the Welsh Government? I do welcome this statement and I would like to have more assurances about how exactly you are going to ensure the kind of provision that is essential and that it is of the highest standard.
Diolch, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, and thank you for your kind words at the beginning. I think that you raise a very important point about ensuring that, when somebody goes for advice, they get the very best possible advice that they can. It is important that people who give that advice are trained in that particular situation. Part of the criteria, looking at the grants that were being awarded from this pot of money, was aimed at that also.
Clearly, from the advice service review that my predecessor set up, one of the recommendations was that we have this national advice network. I think what that will do is set a direction for implementing some of the longer term change that, I think, is required.
One of the things that I think we need to do is look at where there are gaps in provision. I am sure that, if you look, you will see that we have tried with the grants to have a geographical spread to make sure that it is not just urban areas that got funding, but that rural areas got it too, but we need to look to see whether there are any gaps. Sharing good practice, I think, is really important—that we are able to look at where good practice is and that we can roll that out across Wales. I think we need to look at opportunities to see whether we can access new funding for streamlined services and for looking at further ideas of bringing forward preventative approaches. As I said in my opening statement, I think it is really important that people can go to these advice services before there is a crisis. I think it is important that we can use it as a preventative approach.
I am taking steps to appoint an independent chair to help steer the work of the network. That is in the very early stages at the moment, but I think they will be able to evaluate the effectiveness of the advice being provided through these services and also see what value is being added, because I think it is important that we know that too.
I thank the Minister for her statement. I am sure, Minister, you will agree with me that there is nothing to do with dogma in any of the policies or programmes that the Welsh Government is leading on. They are based on cold, hard facts. We know from our own constituents how many of them are being affected in a very cold and hard way. Indeed, this has been reinforced by the recent report from Sheffield Hallam University, and the earlier one from the Institute for Fiscal Studies, which showed that the impact on families across Wales in total will exceed £900 million per annum. That, of course, will have a knock-on effect on the Welsh economy as people’s spending power is reduced and, undoubtedly, could well lead to job losses in the private sector, thereby increasing the very problem that we are trying to mitigate.
So, do you agree with me, Minister, that all of these studies show that the priorities of the UK Government are wrong? They are attacking some of the most vulnerable people and it is really important that we in Wales do all that we can to mitigate the worst effects by continuing to support independent advice services. As you say, these will be enhanced by a national network and quality standards to ensure that there is equal provision across Wales and support for the absolute safety net of the discretionary assistance fund and the work that that is doing at the moment, and indeed, welcome the advice services provided by credit unions, as you have said.
Finally, do you agree with me that, in this digital age, it is very important that we make sure that we do all that we can to reduce digital exclusion so that people are able to access advice and services over the internet? That is why the work of Communities 2.0 is particularly important.
Yes. I thank Jeff Cuthbert for those questions and I pay tribute to the work that Jeff has done in this area previously.
You are quite right: if Welsh Government dogma means helping our most vulnerable people, then are we not proud to be part of that Government and that party? We are doing all that we can to mitigate the impact of welfare reform. We are not just providing advice services. We have provided £20 million in funding to support the building of one and two-bedroomed affordable homes, for instance, across Wales, because we know that the UK Government has just carried on regardless of the difficulties with the awful bedroom tax.
The point that you make about credit unions is very pertinent. We are coming up to international credit union day and we cannot underestimate the good work that credit unions do.
The digital exclusion question is also very important. That is why, again, it is vital that advice services are provided in a variety of ways: we can work face to face, or via the internet for those people who are digitally included, and you can have telephone conversations, or house visits. I think that, as you can see, more of our public, or local government, services are going digital now, and it is very important that we do all we can. Certainly, I am keen to pursue the Communities 2.0 programme as we go forward.
May I welcome the statement, Minister? I think that the advice services that are in place are absolutely vital, particularly given the commitment in the Labour conference this week that Labour will continue with welfare reform, with the exception, of course, of the bedroom tax. Therefore, the impact of a lot of the reforms that are in place will continue past the next general election, irrespective of who wins it.
Minister, in relation to the national advice network, I am very intrigued by this concept and very pleased to see that this sort of co-ordination is being put in place. Can I ask you for some more details in terms of the sort of programme of work that this network is going to have, its membership and the sort of timetable that it will be working to? Will you be looking to streamline, co-ordinate or better organise advice services across Wales? You have already talked about ensuring that there is a diverse offering of advice services, so how does that fit into the idea of a network that is going to bring those advice services together? How will you ensure that this network will create those diverse services without having any overlap in terms of the provision? What sort of funding will the advice network have to deliver the sort of work that you envisage it doing?
Thank you, Peter Black, for those questions. I mentioned in my previous answer that I envisage the network looking at the direction of the implementation of some of the longer-term changes that I think are required. I am looking at the membership and at setting up an independent chair who will help to steer this work. I think that once that person is in post we can have a look at how we take the network forward, how we shape it and, as I said, that will also need to be evaluated to see what that can bring forward.
One of the recommendations of the advice services review was that we have regional advice networks. I am not particularly sure about that at the moment, so I am not going to propose that we ask local authorities to support new regional or local advice networks at this time. I think that it is really important that we do not duplicate things, and there is some good practice out there. Certainly, Carmarthenshire has very good practice, and it would be better to have a look at what Carmarthenshire is doing to see whether we can roll that out across Wales, rather than set up a completely new vehicle, if you like.
I think that it would be important for the national advice network to set out a broader set of guidelines and principles that can be aspired to, and I would want the national advice network to work very closely with the Welsh Local Government Association and its other contacts specifically in local authorities so that it can build up a picture of what advice services we have across Wales and see whether we have any gaps.
In relation to funding, as you can imagine, I am currently in budget discussions and having a look at my MEG, or main expenditure group. If we set it up, obviously, we will have to fund it, but I cannot answer that question, particularly at the moment.
First of all, I want to put on the record that my daughter works for Shelter Cymru, which provides specialist housing advice and has been part of some of the bids to the Welsh Government.
The first point that I want to make is that we just have to reiterate that welfare reform and the cuts to legal aid, and the problems caused by them are clearly the responsibility of the Westminster Government, and they are disproportionately affecting vulnerable people. I think that it is very important to put that clearly on the record and to say where the blame lies.
I am very concerned about the advice that my constituents in Cardiff will be able to have in the future, and I am particularly concerned that there has been no Government funding for two agencies, Riverside Advice centre and Adamsdown law centre, both of which are possibly facing closure. Neither of these organisations is in my constituency, but they have been heavily used by my constituents for many years. In fact, they have been pillars in terms of giving general advice and advice on the law in the city of Cardiff for 40 years. They have been developed by the local community and are specialists and experts in their own field. Can the Minister see whether there is anything else that can be done to ensure that my vulnerable constituents, and others throughout Cardiff can have access to organisations that are geared up for their specific needs, which are specialist organisations? Eighty per cent of the referrals to Riverside Advice come from other organisations where people have been first before they are sent on to Riverside. Also, in terms of their language expertise, there is a need to communicate in the language of the person who is seeking help. Both these organisations are experts in this field, so I am dismayed that they have not received any funding from the Welsh Government. I am asking the Minister whether there is anything that she can do to try to help those two organisations to continue to provide the excellent service that they do at the moment.
I thank Julie Morgan for raising this. Jenny Rathbone has also raised this issue with me, about this specific organisation. As I mentioned, it is a limited pot of money. It is £2 million. We did have 36 applications amounting to £4.5 million. Obviously, you are going to have to disappoint some organisations that we, of course, recognise have done excellent work. I will ask my advice services and my equality officials perhaps to go to meet with the organisations to see whether we can discuss the wider picture to see what the specific issues were. Jenny Rathbone has written to me, and I have responded to her, saying that I think that it is important for these organisations that are not successful with their funding to be offered feedback, so I am happy for my officials to give feedback to the organisations.
On the point that you started with, about the UK Government, one thing that I think we have made very clear as a Welsh Government is that we will not plug gaps. We cannot plug gaps. We will do all that we can to assist and help, and I mentioned not just advice services but also the funding that we have provided to build affordable homes, to try to help mitigate the effects of the bedroom tax, but we will not just plug gaps. We cannot afford to do so. We are under difficult budgetary conditions also, but I think that you are absolutely right to point out where the fault is with this system.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I will call one more Member. You have just one minute to put your question, please. I call Jenny Rathbone.
I just want to add to what Julie Morgan has said. My concern is about the fact that these two organisations were actually encouraged by the Government to apply, and indeed to increase the amount that they were asking for. It was therefore very surprising that they then received nothing. When I raised with the First Minister the issue of the lady who had had no benefits whatsoever, it was a good illustration of why these services need to be there. She was ringing all the time to say, ‘I haven’t had any answers to my question as to why I’ve not had any benefits’, and they were just saying, ‘Don’t call us; we’ll call you’. So, it clearly requires other people to intervene where public services are not meeting their objectives. It was all down to a glitch in their IT systems, unbelievably. Particularly where people do not have access to computers and do not have English as their first language—or even if they speak that language it is very difficult to combat authority if you do not have advanced English language skills—they need services that are physically present that they are able to walk into and say, ‘I need help’. I ask you to look again at this, backing up your need for a network.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. You must finish.
However, we do need the physical presence in these deprived communities.
Yes, thank you. I will not reiterate my answer to Julie Morgan, but I think that that is one reason why we need to have integrated advice services. However, it is important that the protected characteristics are represented in the services, and I appreciate what you are saying about providing languages other than English in the organisations. However, as I said, I will ask officials to engage with the two organisations, to have a look at the wider picture.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources, Carl Sargeant, to move the motion.
Motion NDM5533 Alun Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the Infrastructure Bill, relating to the eradication and control of invasive non-native species through species control agreements and orders, in so far as they fall within the legislative competence of the National Assembly for Wales, should be considered by the UK Parliament.
I move the motion.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I now call Llyr Gruffydd.
Plaid Cymru has no intention of opposing this legislative consent motion, but in the course of the Environment and Sustainability Committee’s consideration of this issue, two points were raised that have caused me some concern. I would be grateful to you, Minister, if you could give us more clarity on those two issues specifically.
In the first place, in the evidence that we received from NFU Cymru, concerns were expressed in relation to the need to ensure that landowners and holders who find themselves with invasive non-native species on their land without being to blame at all for that will not have to meet the possible costs of controlling those species. What assurance can you give that they will be protected from having to pay those costs in such situations?
Secondly, and perhaps more notably, evidence from Natural Resources Wales questioned the feasibility of applying these powers in Wales because of the financial limitations. Therefore, perhaps you could take this opportunity to explain whether you will be releasing further resources to NRW to fulfil its responsibilities under these new powers, or whether you will allow it to cease some aspects of its current activity in order to allow it to enforce these new powers.
I would be grateful if you could give us some further clarity on those two issues.
I thank the Member for his contribution. I can give the Member an assurance as regards third-party activity, provided that the activity of the member in question has not made them the perpetrator by planting such invasive species. Therefore, I hope that that gives confidence to the Member.
On the second point in terms of the finances, this is about a precautionary measure in terms of the ability to legislate in the context of the UK. Invasive species do not recognise political boundaries and therefore we have to be a part of that principled approach to ensuring that we have control over future aspects of invasive non-native species. Therefore, that is why the Bill is being introduced. There is no further provision in terms of finances for NRW for the delivery of this mechanism, but it does provide the tool to activate such legislation, should there be an invasive species somewhere in Wales that we are aware of.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 2 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources, Carl Sargeant, to move the motion.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the progress made on promoting sustainable development in 2013-14, as set out in the Welsh Government's Annual Report of the Sustainable Development Scheme, which was laid before the National Assembly for Wales on 23 June 2014.
I move the motion.
I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this debate on this year's sustainable development annual report, the first in my new role as Minister for Natural Resources. Taking over this portfolio at this important time in the evolution of sustainable development in Wales is an exciting prospect. Sustainable development provides a framework to help us to meet the challenges that Wales faces and to improve the wellbeing of our citizens, doing things better to create a Wales we want. This is what the report sets out through a selection of positive actions across Government.
Deputy Presiding Officer, before beginning, I would like to pass on my gratitude to the previous Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, who played an important role in driving our sustainable development policy through, notably through the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill, which I know Members will have the opportunity to scrutinise closely over the coming months.
Later this week, I will be appearing before the Environment and Sustainability Committee as part of the first phase of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill, and although I understand Members’ interests, I do not think it fair to make comments about changing the Bill before the committee has finished its consideration of the general principles. For that reason, today, I will be rejecting, not supporting, the first two amendments tabled by the Liberal Democrats.
The summer break, I hope, provided an opportunity to read our account of the Welsh Government’s work over the last financial year and the range of measures taken to promote sustainable development as our organising principle.
A key difference to how we have reported this year is by integrating more closely together sustainable development as a core organising principle with the programme for government, the principal plan of this Government. The previous Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty outlined in December our intention to take this approach, and I am pleased that we are starting to see the fruits of the work of that in this year's report. This gives us a better foundation for future years and should send out a signal of the need to change in the context of the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill. The report allows us to take a different perspective of the programme for government’s actions, by seeing them through a sustainable development lens, providing the fuller picture of our efforts to mainstream sustainable development across the core actions of this Government.
We continue to improve how we report, as we should for such an important mechanism, on explaining the differences we have made. These improvements are intended to give a clearer picture of the positive action and contribution the Welsh Government is making to realise our shared vision for a sustainable Wales. A unique aspect of the sustainable development annual report is the commentary provided by Peter Davies, the non-statutory Commissioner for Sustainable Futures. I met with Peter only this week, one week into post. I hope that Members, in their contributions to the debate today, will acknowledge, as I do, the value that this adds to the report. I welcome the praise he offers by acknowledging the alignment that has been made in the programme for government, as well as examples such as Flying Start and Families First, which show that we are taking early, preventative action to improve the lives of families and communities right across Wales.
Peter’s commentary has also drawn attention to fuel poverty and the need to tackle this as a collective effort. The tackling poverty external advisory group had a clear remit to address fuel poverty as part of the wider Government role. Given the good work that they are doing, I would be reluctant to attempt to reinstate the fuel poverty advisory group, in case it causes unnecessary duplication while at the same time creating a narrower focus. For that reason, I will be objecting to amendment 3 also. Peter quite rightly draws out the issue of developing better indicators to show the progress that Wales is making towards becoming a sustainable nation. We will be looking at these soon as part of the work tied to the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill.
The next phase of the national conversation for ‘The Wales We Want’ is to look at measures that matter to people. I will welcome the input of Members and others when we begin this exercise. Peter also makes two recommendations for us to take forward. The first is to formally incorporate and respond to his commentary. On that, we have always attempted to respond positively to his contribution, so I am happy to commit to doing that more explicitly in the future. Given the rigour and challenge provided by Peter’s input in improving our work, I hope that Members will welcome that approach.
On the second of Peter’s recommendations, I am happy for the Welsh Government to explore, with the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, how integrated reporting can be applied through our reporting arrangements. This approach looks promising. I hope, over the coming year, we will be able to work with other bodies to develop a framework that is right for us and our partners. This year’s annual report sets out a positive picture of how the Welsh Government has fulfilled its duties to promote sustainable development over the past year. There is always more to do and this is a challenge that I look forward to in my new role. I will do so by following the same consensual path of my predecessors, by taking and making sustainable development central to the work of Welsh Government. I hope to work with Members and stakeholders across Wales to achieve this. I welcome the comments of Members on the report today. Diolch yn fawr.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the three amendments to the motion. I call on William Powell to move amendments 1, 2 and 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Believes that the Future Generations Commissioner proposed in the Well-being of Future Generations Bill should be fully independent of Welsh Government, appointed by the National Assembly and in control of sustainable development indicators.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the Sustainable Futures Commissioner's comment on ‘frustrations in the efforts to increase community scale renewable energy production’ and calls on the Welsh Government to include targets for community scale renewable energy in reporting for the Well-being of Future Generations Bill.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the Sustainable Futures Commissioner's comment that there is no reference to ‘addressing fuel poverty to improve health and educational achievement’ and calls on the Welsh Government to reinstate the Fuel Poverty Advisory Group with an appropriate remit and the ability to make policy recommendations to the Government in order to ensure a more integrated approach to tackling fuel poverty.
Diolch yn fawr, Ddirprwy Lywydd. I move amendments 1, 2 and 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
I would also like to congratulate the new Minister for Natural Resources on his expanded role, which now includes both sustainable development and, critically, the emerging Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill.
Sustainable development continues to be of vital importance to the future of this nation. As I have said in previous debates on the issue, it remains absolutely critical that all sides within this Chamber work together to ensure that the concept becomes embedded through the way in which families plan, companies operate and this legislature governs. Further to this, we must also bring about a fundamental change in the way in which we interact with our environment and in how we behave towards each other. However, unlike previous SD reports, this one is to be the last before we had the summer to get to grips with the long anticipated future generations Bill. As such, it has a notably different focus and must be considered in relation to that Bill’s introduction. I would associate myself with the remarks that the Minister has made in terms of how useful the commentary by Peter Davies, the commissioner, is. I quote from that commentary, where Peter Davies says that we should
‘introduce a much more structured approach to integrated reporting across the public sector’.
This should also:
‘include greater clarity as to how the policies and programmes being developed against a clear governance framework’.
Such an approach will undoubtedly be welcomed around the Chamber. This is especially true given the clear frustrations that have been felt by the present commissioner, detailed in the report’s commentary, given his need to repeat the concerns that have already been stated in previous years and also to point out the lack of a formal Government acknowledgement regarding actions that have previously been recommendations of the commissioner.
Such comments only serve to highlight the need to guarantee that the forthcoming future generations commissioner should have much sharper teeth in the future generations Act to hold the Government to account, but also to ensure that each of the public bodies within the remit of that Act are working effectively towards the goals that we share.
Looking at the Bill, as drafted, it remains clear to many of us that such powers are not yet in the hands of the future commissioner. It places a duty on all of us to ensure that appropriate changes are made before the Bill becomes an Act and that the commissioner is in a much more independent and robust position to act.
Linked to this, of course, is the need to end what the report continues to refer to as a ‘silo approach’ to sustainable development in the Welsh Government. Once again, there are criticisms that we have gone over time and again in previous years, with the Government remarkably slow to act in some respects. With the Bill now upon us, I would argue that the threat of silo thinking towards the public bodies will get even greater as each of the 30 or so public bodies are, effectively, given a free rein to meet whichever combinations of goals that they see fit. We need to tighten up some of these vague definitions and the apple-pie aspirations that are described, so far, on the face of this Bill.
Again, were the commissioner to be fully independent of the Welsh Government, as many of us have argued, and in possession of a more robust set of powers to influence directly the actions of these public bodies, we would have a far greater opportunity to end this culture of silo thinking and move to a more meaningful shift in the way that Wales looks after its future generations.
Over the past two years, I have consistently called, in ministerial questions and other opportunities, for the need to review the education for sustainable development and global citizenship programme. Before the summer, the Minister’s predecessor gave a commitment to me, in the Chamber, to discuss the findings with Estyn as a matter of urgency. As such, I would be grateful if the new Minister would use his reply to this debate to outline, among other things, what discussions he plans to have in this area, because that is vital for the embedding of sustainable development in this country.
Minister, I, too, start by welcoming you to your new job. I hope to be able to develop a good working relationship with you over the next few months to take forward the prospects of sustainable development in Wales. I would also like to pay tribute to the previous Minister for his work in this field.
The scope of this report is quite wide, so I will aim to focus my contributions on a couple of the main issues that it raises. I agree with the Minister’s comments about the importance of the commentary from the Commissioner for Sustainable Futures in the report. It makes for interesting reading, Minister, and he picks out a number of issues where the actions of the Welsh Government deserve greater scrutiny. I think that such a contribution from a critical friend is an important addition to a Government report.
So, I am now going to focus on some of the issues that the commissioner has raised in his commentary. A recurrent complaint, not just in this report, but over previous years, is that the report focuses on input but contains little on outcomes. In particular, there are no benchmark points that can relate performance to indicators. He highlights the need to tie in the contents of the report to key performance targets. It is interesting to note that the commissioner states:
‘I feel the report still falls a long way short in this respect with significant gaps on material issues, notably energy, where the national conversation is highlighting frustrations in the efforts to increase community scalerenewable energy production and the need for a more coherent focus on energy efficiency.’
With that particular criticism, Minister, I am concerned that you are not looking at reinstating the fuel poverty action group. It made an important contribution to Government business, and I urge you to respond to this criticism and reconsider that decision. Also, perhaps you could tell us what targets and measures you are putting in place to correct these two issues around energy production and to focus on energy efficiency over the next 12 months? In the short time that I have held the energy brief, I have heard from a number of people about the frustration at the barriers that are in place to enable more effective and more efficient community renewable energy programmes.
The commissioner also highlights the focus on early preventative action, which initiatives such as Flying Start, Families First and various health campaigns are in place to address. However, again, he raises the need to track outcomes across the range of interventions due to the tendency to focus on strategy developed and investment made, rather than outcomes achieved. I appreciate the importance of having a strategy, Minister, but if you do not know what bang you are getting for your buck, it is hard for you or us to assess how effective your spending programmes are at tackling the problems. Therefore, again, what will you do to address the concern raised by the commissioner?
The commissioner also highlights the report that the Wales Audit Office has done on European structural funds. While the Wales Audit Office acknowledges that those programmes are on track to meet their key performance targets, they are likely to fall short of most of their environmental sustainability and equal opportunities targets. Equal opportunity is a key area in which Wales is failing. There is a 16.5% gender pay gap, and 91% of the jobs in skilled trades are held by men. Last year, the previous Minister committed to integrate sustainable development in all aspects of European programmes, with the intention that sustainable development, equal opportunities and social inclusion would be the central guiding principle of the 2014 programmes. That has clearly failed for the first half of 2014.
Will you outline what efforts you will make to include regular measures in the future structural fund programmes to ensure that those targets are assessed throughout the life of the structural fund programme and to allow corrections to be made to ensure that environmental and equality targets are met?
I am somewhat confused as to why Antoinette Sandbach says that we do not have any targets, because we have some very clear targets. The sustainable development indicators are pretty clear for me to read—there is either a tick, an amber colour or a red colour. I can understand them. They may need some refining, but they certainly give some indication of how we will measure how well we are doing.
One of the things the commissioner highlights is the insufficient lack of progress on energy generation. In my view, we remain a country that is far too dependent on the price of oil and we need to futureproof our communities and our businesses from the hikes in oil, which, inevitably, feed forward into increased petrol prices and energy bills. We have a huge range of natural resources that we could tap into if we set our minds to it. It is unfortunate that there has been such an amount of hot air expended on resisting some very high profile wind turbine investments, which has put off investors who might otherwise have wanted to come to Wales. That is why, in my view, we hugely lag behind Scotland with regard to the amount of energy generated by renewables.
One of the reasons for this resistance is the lack of perception that renewable energy schemes could benefit the communities in which they are located rather than the external investors coming in to create something. That is something that was picked up by the commissioner: we need to increase the number of community-scale renewable investment production, which benefits the communities in which they are located as well as the investors. That would, I think, completely change the conversation and overcome the current restrictions with regard to being unable to tap into the grid in many parts of Wales. Once those schemes got going, I think that you would find that the grid would soon follow. If we became experts in locally generated and locally consumed electricity that benefits the communities where those resources are located, it would also enable us to develop the businesses that would be relevant to third-world communities that definitely are not living near the grid.
We have huge resources from the rivers and streams, the land under the school playgrounds, the former coalfield communities, where the hot water coming out of these mines is allowed to run off into the Dŵr Cymru drainage system, it is pumped back into homes and then heated up again. That is not a sustainable way of doing things.
Of these 44 sustainable development indicators, I am particularly keen to ensure that we continue to focus on the percentage of households where the time taken to reach a GP surgery and a shopping centre, including a grocer, is 15 minutes on foot or by public transport. This only gets the orange light, meaning that there has been little or no change. This is something that I feel we will need to focus on in the future. The majority of people do not have a car, and even if they do, as people get older or become disabled, they may no longer be able to drive a car, even if they could afford to do so. Clearly, this is a major challenge for us in terms of the provision of public transport in rural areas. However, in the context of reducing the amount of money available to invest in public services, another key indicator for me is active community participation—volunteering on a formal or informal basis. This, too, only gets the orange light, meaning little or no change. Therefore, there is much more that we need to do there.
The weekend before last, I observed the community in action painting a mural on a wall near a railway line that had previously been subject to constant graffiti. This was inspired by a 90-year-old man who lives opposite the mural, who still walks his dog every day, as well as picking up the litter left by neighbours and passers-by, who are 50 to 70 years younger than him. I am glad to say that this heroic individual and his dog are both immortalised in the mural, which is on Cranbrook Street in Cathays, if you want to go to see it. The volunteers were brought together as a result of the co-ordinating and networking activities of the Cynefin co-ordinator—a single individual with no budget, other than his salary, which is provided by the Government, who got people working together, which is the key to sustainability in everything we do.
‘One Wales: One Planet' outlines a definition of sustainable development that includes the aspiration for Wales to become a one planet nation, using no more than its fair share of global resources, within a single generation. This is an ambitious aspiration, of course, but it is one that Plaid Cymru believes is realistic and, indeed, necessary for the future of our nation and our planet.
One of the objectives of the Welsh Government’s annual report on sustainable development should, in my view, be to monitor the Government's progress in achieving that vision. One of the main criticisms made in the annual report every year is that there is no monitoring of the general impact of various policies on Wales’s ecological footprint. One hopes, of course, that the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill—which will, according to the Government, lead the world in this area—will give us the opportunity to make a firm commitment to working towards being a one planet nation. However, unfortunately, the goal in the Bill of becoming a prosperous Wales, for example, which makes more efficient and proportionate use of resources, is nothing like the unequivocal commitment to becoming a one planet nation, using, as I say, no more than our fair share of global resources. It says that we should make more efficient use; one would accept that. It also says that we should make more proportionate use, but it does not say proportionate to what.
The Bill is also deficient in that it does not contain a commitment to tackling climate change as it should, despite the fact that that is the greatest threat facing future generations, certainly according to ‘The Wales We Want’ discussion that we had recently. However, this has been ignored in the Bill. I accept that legislation alone cannot achieve sustainable development without a more fundamental culture shift and a change in mindset in terms of how we all live our lives. However, it does provide an opportunity to demonstrate leadership and provides the potential for helping to drive that change.
We should see this annual report in the same light. It is not an opportunity to list a range of projects that, undoubtedly, contribute positively to a number of Government objectives, with some sort of gloss that puts them in the best possible light. It should be far more objective, and far more honest. It should highlight failings as well as successes—what has worked, what has not worked, why it did not work, the lessons learned, what the Government will do differently next time and the milestones that will allow us to see where the positive and the less positive aspects are. The commissioner's comments offer some of that objectivity, and I would add my voice to the thanks to him for his contribution, but that objectivity should run through the report, in order to provide a much more honest assessment that can then play its own part in changing attitudes and mindsets, rather than, as can happen, being a box-ticking exercise.
It is interesting that the report only lists the sectors that have reduced their carbon emissions; an example, perhaps, of being selective in order to put a positive spin rather than giving a more honest picture. There is no need to be fearful of acknowledging that certain targets are not being met, but at the same time we have a duty to explain why that is and what the Government will do differently to ensure that they are met in future. Where is the recognition, for example, that the target of cutting carbon emissions by 40% by 2020 is unlikely to be achieved on the current trajectory? That is widely acknowledged. Where is the explanation about what the Government is doing to intensify efforts, particularly as the easy wins in terms of reducing carbon emissions have been achieved, as far as I know, in the early stages, and that the next six years are going to mean a serious intensification in efforts if we are serious about reaching that target?
It is ironic, in my view, that the annual report recognises the importance of our international role with regard to sustainable development and that our actions in Wales have implications and an impact on sustainable development beyond our borders, but that is entirely missing from the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill as it currently stands. It has already been said that the Bill will change the way in which the Government reports on sustainable development in the future. We can only hope, therefore, that in the future it will be far more robust, far more objective and far more honest.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate today. As we all know, the report that we are debating is the sixth since the Welsh Government’s sustainable development scheme, ‘One Wales: One Planet’, was first published. The Welsh Government is now bound by law to report its progress on sustainable development each year. This was a key feature of the Government of Wales Act 2006, and it seems a natural progression from the original Government of Wales Act 1998, which enshrined a commitment to sustainable development throughout the work of the National Assembly for Wales. We in Wales are genuine pioneers in this sense, and the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill, which I introduced to the Assembly as the then Minister, seeks to further embed this progress. It is this issue that I will focus the majority of my contribution on today.
Last year, as the then Minister, I asked Peter Davies, the Commissioner for Sustainable Futures, to lead a pilot national conversation. I firmly believe that having a Wales-wide national conversation can only be a good thing. That is why we published the Welsh Government’s ‘The Wales We Want’ paper, to ensure that it becomes a permanent feature of the role of the new commissioner, to be established under the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill. Peter has acknowledged his progress in his introduction to the report, where he says that it is
‘An important stepping stone in the process of sustainable development which has been a central feature of the devolution process’.
Later this year, the United Nations is expected to publish its sustainable development goals, following a timeline agreed at the Rio+20 summit in June 2012. I know that the Welsh Government is working to develop its Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill with this ongoing process in mind, and for this reason, the Bill has, rightly in my view, adopted a six-goal model for sustainable development. These six goals are broad and all-encompassing, seeking to build a Wales that is prosperous, resilient, healthier, more equal, has cohesive communities, as well as a vibrant culture and thriving Welsh language. These are ambitious, but achievable, and the role of the commissioner will be crucial in both advising and holding future Welsh Governments to account when it comes to delivering on these long-term commitments.
The wellbeing goal that I am most interested in today is the first one: a prosperous Wales. As you would expect, this goal aims to build an innovative and productive low-carbon emission economy that provides employment and opportunities for a skilled and well-educated population. At the end of the day, for me, that is what lies at the core of prosperity, jobs and economic growth. Crucial to this will be ensuring that such growth is sustainable, and that the jobs required to engineer this growth can draw on a pool of talent, from a labour market that is skilled in green technologies. Indeed, chapter 2 of the report focuses on the issue of growth and sustainable jobs, and it addresses those areas that I have just mentioned.
Now, some may argue that a growing economy is incompatible with environmental protection; I beg to differ. A strong economy is important for sustainable development. We have to make this clear: when times are tough, jobs are low paid and/or insecure, and if living costs are rising, people worry about their wellbeing and that of their children. People want a secure future economically and environmentally. The goal of a prosperous Wales seeks to reinforce this by demonstrating that we can match our skills and growth and ambitions to lower carbon emissions and resource efficiency, and go for green growth and jobs. This is just one of the many facets of sustainable development that the future generations Bill seeks to address, and this report recognises it. Indeed, in his introduction to the report, Peter Davies expresses his hope that the Bill will introduce
‘a much more structured approach to integrated reporting across the public sector’.
This is a bold initiative and I am proud to have played my part in introducing this Bill. Both the Assembly and the new sustainable futures commissioner will have a crucial role in ensuring that the Bill achieves what it has set out to do, and we all owe that to the people of Wales.
I am pleased to contribute to this debate on the sustainable development annual report this afternoon; before I do, may I also welcome the Minister to his new role. Having yet another Minister leading for the Government on natural resources and environmental issues is one thing, but I think that the fact that now that the strategic lead for sustainable development has moved to his remit highlights one of the problems that this Government has had with implementing and managing its SD policies. It leads me to repeat again the clear solution, I think, to this problem, which I raised when responding to the report last year, and the fact that SD is supposed to be the central organising principle of how the Welsh Government operates. It is surely obvious and sensible that the First Minister should now have strategic oversight of SD policy. The First Minister will then draw down the necessary expertise from each given Minister, which I believe would not only strengthen the SD monitoring and reporting mechanism, but provide a more effective base for driving action in each department. The fact is that this report should be, for all intents and purposes, a scorecard for the programme for government with respect to its contributions to SD outcomes—something that the Commissioner for Sustainable Futures also highlights in the last paragraph of his commentary. However, it is clearly not doing that.
With regard to the commentary, may I also put on record my thanks to Peter Davies, not only for his commentary, but for all he has done in championing both climate change and sustainable development agendas here in Wales? He has been an important critical friend of both Government and environmental governance in this country, and I think that his commentary has been very helpful in highlighting a number of important key points, which, unfortunately, in a number of instances, have continued to repeat themselves. The commentary has once again drawn out a continued lack of integration across some areas of Government—a weakness that has been raised in previous reports. He also highlights the cherry-picking of activity, rather than having activity that has been materially tested, and draws attention to the problem of silo working again. He also stresses the need for outcome-driven actions that can be properly benchmarked to clearly show progress in achieving longer term SD goals. There are repeated themes, and I am sure that the new Minister will say in his response that the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill will make everything all right. I hope that it will, but I do not think that we know what the future reporting mechanisms will be or what the reporting cycle will be. So, it is very difficult to properly scrutinise Government delivery.
One of the aspects that the Lib Dems rightly raised is the issue of the commissioner’s independence. While I am still sceptical about the creation of the new role and whether it is justified, I do think that if a commissioner is to be appointed, it should not be done by Welsh Ministers. There are models in other parts of the world, like Canada, which has a very robust and independent structure for the selection of SD commissioners, which is very arm’s-length and free from Government. I hope that the new Minister will look at this issue with an open mind as he starts to guide the Bill through this place.
I thought that Jenny Rathbone was doing very well in her contribution with regard to community energy projects until she spoiled it by talking about large-scale infrastructure wind projects, which are very often imposed on communities and do nothing for supporting the renewable agenda that we want to see.
I will finish my contribution by asking the Minister two key questions as he comes to this policy agenda with fresh eyes. In your opinion, which areas of Government or which strategies are not doing enough to reduce our ecological footprint? Which policy areas give the most cause for concern?
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Minister to reply to the debate.
I would like to thank Members for the positive and helpful discussion around this debate on the report today, on how we have promoted sustainable development and reporting arrangements for sustainable development and what the next steps are for this here in Wales. I look forward to building on the practical recommendations that have been suggested by many Members in the process of bringing the future generations Bill forward.
Our approach to putting sustainable development at the heart of what we do is improving year on year, and we are working hard to embed this principle across the activities of this Government. If I may, Deputy Presiding Officer, I will respond to some of the points made by Members. I do not recognise the points made by Russell George when he suggests that the future generations Bill should be with the First Minister. Respectfully, I think the Member is lacking an understanding of how Government operates. We actually do work across portfolios and do not have a silo mentality as the Member may suggest. We actually talk across the departments about how sustainable development can be introduced across all Bills in this Government. So, what the Member refers to is not a fact; it is just not correct. We work very carefully on bridging the gaps between Bills and how they are managed, moving forward.
I also listened carefully to the Member’s contribution on renewable energy. The Member has an interesting view that it seems fine to have major infrastructure as long as it is somewhere else, in terms of wind power. I support Jenny Rathbone’s principle of community energy projects; it is something that we are working very hard to do in Wales and we will continue to do so, but we must do more and I welcome the contribution made by the Member.
Will you take an intervention?
In a second, if I may.
I have listened to contributions from colleagues across the Chamber, and I welcome, certainly, the contribution made by Peter Davies, the commissioner, which did not have as much doom and gloom as some Members’ points on this annual report. We should be very proud of what we are doing in Wales in terms of our sustainable development and the approach that we take. Sustainable development is at the heart of the Welsh Government; it is about promoting growth and sustainable jobs and producing a positive effect on the health and wellbeing of people. Educational attainment is included in this too: supporting children, families and vulnerable communities is something that we believe is socially just and part of the sustainable development policy that we will continue to drive through. I will now take an intervention from the Member.
Thank you, Minister. I welcome what you were talking about on community generation of electricity, in particular, small-scale generation. One of the big problems is obviously grid connection and the inability of the grid to facilitate such community projects. Have you had, or do you intend to have, discussions with grid operators to try to see what their programming is? Above all, is the Welsh Government able to facilitate any assistance with that?
Of course, the Member raises a really important point, actually. It is about access as well. We have to remember the way that the devolution settlement affects energy. Some of the large-scale programmes that Russell George talks about are affected by DECC and planning permissions relating to the UK industry and the UK Government. There are issues that affect us in terms of planning. I will take the Member’s point further in terms of discussions with the sector and how we can develop an opportunity there.
May I pick up some of the points that other Members made too? Bill Powell, I thank you for your warm welcome, as I do other Members as well. I am very grateful for the positive opportunities that we have to take work forward over the coming months. I listened to your contribution, but during my opening remarks, I mentioned that I think that the amendments to the Bill that you laid are premature. Actually, we are starting a process of scrutiny of the future generations Bill and, therefore, the right place to raise some of the points that you have raised is in committee. However, I will take them forward and listen very carefully, particularly around opportunities with the commissioning rights and roles of that. We have to listen to the evidence provided by a broader sector on that.
The Bill that many Members referred to today is not just about the environment. May I remind Members that this is about economic, social and environmental aspects of social and sustainable development? Therefore, we have to have a broader context of what the Bill is and is not. For the people who are trying to push this into the environmental scope, there is, of course, the environment Bill, which will shortly be running alongside this, and I would urge Members to concentrate their focus on the environment on that, specifically. This is a much wider ranging Bill in terms of future generations and wellbeing.
Antoinette Sandbach raised some issues around managing natural resources and dealing with climate change. Again, I accept that there are improvements to make in terms of not just measuring the inputs, but the outputs as well. The Member will be aware of the sustainable development charter indications and the indicators for Wales. They can be better. I think the future generations Bill will indicate that in a much more understanding way of how that impacts in our communities. It is an important point that the Member raises and I look forward to working with her in that process.
Jenny Rathbone’s point on the project in her constituency, where the wall that was painted makes a difference to her community and the community around there, is a very important one. It is about the power of wellbeing and I think that that is what we have to consider about all of our actions in that process.
Llyr, ‘The Wales We Want’ is something that I am really passionate about. The conversation that Peter Davies and others have lent their time to in terms of being able to have opportunities to change the shape of Wales is something that I will work with you on. As I mentioned earlier, the environment Bill, the future generations Bill and the planning Bill are all within my department now and I think that they have great synergies in developing an opportunity for that Wales that we certainly want.
Deputy Presiding Officer, for the record, I think that a Member said that this is the sixth report and the last report. This is not the last report; another annual report will be delivered next year, alongside the development of the wellbeing of future generations Bill, which I look forward to taking forward with my colleagues. This is a great opportunity for Wales. We need to do more, but, certainly, we should not be shy about celebrating the work that we have already had success in, and it is something that is well-documented in the report and acknowledged by the sustainability commissioner Peter Davies.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The question is that amendment 1 be agreed. Does any Member object? There is objection, therefore, I will defer all votes on this item until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I conduct the vote, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are not.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5568
Amendment not agreed: For 26, Against 26, Abstain 0.
As required by Standing Order 6.20, the Deputy Presiding Officer exercised his casting vote by voting against the amendment.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5568
Amendment not agreed: For 26, Against 26 Abstain 0.
As required by Standing Order 6.20, the Deputy Presiding Officer exercised his casting vote by voting against the amendment.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5568
Amendment not agreed: For 26, Against 26 Abstain 0.
As required by Standing Order 6.20, the Deputy Presiding Officer exercised his casting vote by voting against the amendment.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5568
Motion agreed: For 52, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
That concludes today’s proceedings.
The meeting ended at 17:42.