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.
Funding Emergency Repairs
1. Will the Minister provide the latest information on the requests received from local authorities to fund emergency repairs to coastal defences? OAQ(4)0116(NRF)
Local authorities and Natural Resources Wales are working hard to carry out emergency repairs to damaged coastal defences. Officials have been in close contact with affected authorities to obtain initial reports of damage to coastal defence infrastructure and other coastal assets and associated costs.
Thank you for that response. Your written statement on 21 January states that some £2 million has been allocated for urgent work. I acknowledge that some £9 million is to be spent on planned works. However, Conwy County Borough Council now estimates that some £5 million-worth of urgent work needs to be undertaken. Do you have the additional funding in reserve or will there be some impact on the work that has already been planned for the flood defences over the next year?
I am certainly aware of the estimates that Conwy council has made for damage to its coastal defences and other assets over the past two months. I am meeting representatives of Conwy council tomorrow to discuss some of these matters that are specific to that particular authority. However, we are seeking to make harder assessments of what some of these costs are. Some of these costs do relate to damage to actual coastal defences, but other costs relate to other costs that have been caused by the storms, to other assets that are not in themselves coastal defences. Therefore, there are a number of different issues there that we are trying to understand, and when we are in a position to understand that more fully, I will report the situation fully to Members.
Minister, I appreciate the work that has been undertaken in the review of recent storms and floods, and the funds that you have made available. Specifically in Llanelli, Burry Port and Cefn Sidan have been badly affected. Mark James, the chief executive of Carmarthenshire County Council, has taken advice, and has said that nature will repair itself. [Interruption.] However, having been myself to Burry Port, and the old Pembrey harbour, where gaps have been left in sand dune defences, it is hard to see how this will happen. Sand dune cliffs have also formed in Cefn Sidan, with warning signs set up. During phase 2 of your broader review, will you be considering places such as Burry Port and Cefn Sidan, should a mixture of strong winds and high tides return again?
We know that strong winds and high tides will return again. One impact of climate change, of course, is that we will see more and more of these impacts and severe weather episodes. As Members are aware, I have already reported that we have commissioned two reports from NRW—one on the immediate damage caused to coastal defences, and the other on longer term issues. The issues that the Member has raised in relation to habitats and to coastal defences will be considered as part of the second part of this review, and, again, I will report these matters fully to Members where appropriate.
Minister, many in this Chamber were surprised to see the statement last week by your Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, which made it quite clear that £1.6 million was going to be available from her budget in order to support tidal defence improvements—or coastal defence improvements—in some of those areas in which tourism was important. Of course, in those communities that were listed in the statement—or in the aftermath of the statement—as going to be beneficiaries, Conwy was not one of them, despite the fact that many of the parts of the coast that have been hit have been tourism hotspots in the county. Can you tell us what discussions you had with the Minister, prior to the allocations being made, regarding your priorities for coastal defence, and how they might be supported, rather than undermined, by the Minister for economy?
I think that the Member needs to understand better that which he is describing before he asks some of these questions. The funds that have been announced by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport are, as pointed out by colleagues, from a tourism budget to help repair damage to tourism assets that has occurred in the past few months. Clearly, there are ministerial conversations taking place about such things on an ongoing basis. The funds that I have available to me are for coastal defences, so I think the Member has confused two different concepts there, which is something he may wish to reflect upon.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Can the Minister give me an assurance that the emphasis on protecting our coastal areas will focus on our natural defences as well as the concept of defence against these kinds of storms? We must understand that these storms are going to be occurrences that are regular, frequent and difficult.
Presiding Officer, this is not the first time that the Member has offered me temptations to go further, perhaps, than I should. The kind of discussion that you have described in terms of how we manage the coastline is a discussion that we must have. It is neither reasonable nor possible for us to build walls along every kilometre of the Welsh coastline, but, as climate change has the greatest impact, we must have a discussion about how we will manage the coastline for the future. This is something that I hope NRW will discuss in its second report to us.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the promotion of Welsh food? OAQ(4)0107(NRF)
6. Will the Minister provide an update on his plans to promote food and drink from Wales? OAQ(4)0102(NRF)
In December, I issued a written statement to the Assembly as I launched a consultation on the plan for food and drink from Wales. The plan will be delivered in partnership with the industry to ensure that we build a sustainable and profitable industry for the future.
Thank you for that response. In order to promote produce from Wales, we have to prove to the markets that we can provide the amount of produce that they need as well as the type of produce that they need. What work can you do, with the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, to ensure that there is investment in appropriate premises for food production so that small, ambitious companies, such as Hooton’s in Anglesey, can be given support to expand?
That is exactly the kind of support that is available at present through the current RDP. The Member will be aware of the marketing grants process that has been available for some years now and which has led to investment in food production businesses. This will form part of the next RDP and it is something on which the Minister for economy and I are working jointly in order to ensure that businesses have the kind of support that they need so that they can invest in their future.
In July last year, you announced that a Welsh food and drink trade event would be held in January or February of this year. Will you advise the Assembly when this event is likely to take place and whether any additional funding will be forthcoming this year to support activities to promote Welsh food and drink?
I am constantly surprised by the Conservative Members who come to this Chamber demanding more money for everything, every time they ask a question. I will say this: I launched a very comprehensive food and drink action plan in December. If the Member takes time to read that action plan, he will see that there are a number of different activities and a number of different events outlined in it, which are designed to support the Welsh food and drinks industry and which are led by the industry. We have already this year held two consultation events on that plan, which has received widespread support from throughout the food and drinks industry.
Of course, Minister, good food has to be accompanied by good drink. [Laughter.] Monty’s Brewery in my constituency certainly offers excellent Welsh ale. It has grown considerably over the past five years. The leader of the opposition has also sampled it, I understand. Its new building plant, built last year, has allowed it to increase its exports into China. It has also increased its export market into the House of Commons, where it has introduced its new Sunshine beer. Will the Minister join me in congratulating Monty’s Brewery on its achievements, as it has been a fantastic success story for Wales? Will he also agree to join me to sample one of Monty’s Brewery’s ales when he is next in Montgomeryshire?
I would very much enjoy that and I look forward to the opportunity to visit Monty’s Brewery again, as I have visited the brewery already. I have sampled its products and have enjoyed doing so. It is important that we support growing businesses like Monty’s. We have, on a number of occasions, provided a platform for breweries and other drinks manufacturers who wish to export. I was with a number of those exporters in Cologne in the autumn supporting them in their sales drives. If the Member believes that Monty’s requires any further support from this Government, I would be more than happy to meet him and to visit again the brewery.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s common land policy? OAQ(4)0113(NRF)
The Welsh Government is seeking to achieve sustainably managed common land across Wales. Glastir is making a significant contribution, with over 50% of common land in Wales now in the scheme. I am also committed to implementing the Commons Act 2006, and work on doing so is well under way.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I have concerns about a piece of common land in South Wales West at the top of Gower, which is under threat from the construction of a windfarm. My specific question—because I know that you cannot comment on the planning application—is about the developer, who, on this occasion has offered replacement land, and my fear is that it is not accessible and manageable from a common grazing point of view. Could you outline to me what criteria you look at in accepting exchanged land?
I am aware of the issue to which the Member is referring. The Member will also be aware that this is an active matter that is under consideration and may well become an issue for this Government. He will also, therefore, understand my reticence in answering that question at this time.
A fair bit of common land in my constituency is in the uplands and, because of its nature, it is open ground with no hedges or fences. Does the Government have any plans to not only control stock on this kind of land, but to improve circumstances for residents of villages adjacent to this land in order to improve the quality of life for those people?
I would hope that the next RDP, for which we will launch the consultation next week, will have something to say about that. I acknowledge the point raised by the Member, and I would be very happy to meet him and perhaps visit some of those villages to have a discussion about how we can continue to improve the kind of support that we offer to communities and villages of that kind. I want to see in the next RDP a balance between managing the land and the social side where we also invest in our communities. I hope that the Member will become aware of that balance when he sees the next RDP next week. However, I would be very happy to continue that discussion with him.
What assessment, Minster, has your Government carried out with regard to stocking levels and the potential for de-stocking on common land as a result of your CAP announcements?
The Member asked a similar question last week. I suggested at that time that she takes time to read the Glastir consultation document that I published two weeks ago. Had she read that document, she would have seen the answers containted in it.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government action to improve farming in west Wales? OAQ(4)0105(NRF)
The Welsh Government is committed to achieving a sustainable, modernised and profitable agricultural industry in Wales, and, through a well-funded rural development programme, we will achieve this objective for farm businesses throughout the whole of Wales.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Reporting cattle movements the British cattle movement service within the required three-day period is a significant challenge for some farmers in my constituency who cannot access broadband. Therefore, they are dependent upon slower means of reporting those movements. What discussions have you had with your colleague the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport on broadband, and what steps is the Welsh Government taking to support farmers in this situation?
Clearly, broadband is something that we have been discussing for quite a while, in terms of how we can ensure access to broadband and to a mobile phone signal in rural areas. I want to ensure that we can resolve this before we move to a fully digital, online environment for all kinds of reports in agricultural control systems.
Minister, last week we saw the publication of the report on resilience in farming. I understand that you have accepted the recommendations of that report. In one section, it states specifically that further decline in the socioeconomic structure of the uplands and moorlands can lead to a significant reduction in the number of Welsh speakers there. The report goes on to ask you to work with the Welsh Language Commissioner to develop policy for the future in this area. In the context of the new rural development plan that is in the pipeline, can you ensure that that plan takes full account of the need to retain the language in these areas and to work with Welsh-speaking communities to keep farming viable and to keep communities viable in those areas?
I hope that I can give you that assurance. I would welcome any recommendations that you have, if you do not think that the draft RDP is sufficient to reflect what you have described. I agree with you. It is vital, as I said in my answer to Alun Ffred Jones, that we must have a balance between managing the land, economic development and the social side of things. We have to ensure that we can sustain communities that can be very vulnerable in the uplands.
5. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to promote the future of upland farming? OAQ(4)0101(NRF)
The Member might have already heard this, but the Welsh Government continues to secure upland farming in Wales. It will be ensuring, through the next rural development plan, that measures are in place to secure support for those areas.
Some upland farmers, particularly those on moorlands above 400m, face losing up to 80% of their single payment following your agricultural policy decisions. Vast parts of these areas are also sites of special scientific interest, so the ability of these farmers to farm in different ways is very limited. I am the former Minister who abolished Tir Mynydd—before you remind me of that—but that was a payment for 80% of the surface area of Wales. Specifically, following your decisions on pillar 1, and in the context of very specific economic circumstances, do you believe that it is now time to look at the new RDP, pillar 2, and direct payments for those farmers who farm in targeted areas on the moorlands, in order to enable them to continue to farm following the changes to pillar 1?
I am happy to continue this discussion. I believe that there has been a misunderstanding and that people have not read documents together. I made a statement on pillar 1, as you suggested, at the start of January, setting out indicative figures for the moorlands at €20 per hectare. When you look at what we said about Glastir as well, where we are ensuring access to Glastir Advanced for people on the moorlands, you will see that payments for Glastir plus pillar 1 can go up to over €100 per hectare. So, the situation is not exactly as you described it. However, I do acknowledge that there are some problems with SSSIs and section 15 agreements. That is something that we have to deal with. I had a discussion in your constituency, as you know, last week, and I will continue to hold such discussions.
Minister, 12% of Welsh farms are above the proposed moorland line at 400m. Your common agricultural policy plans, as announced, will see a reduction in payments—I think that you have modelled it—to approximately 3,000 farmers. This is at a time when average farm business incomes in Wales fell by 30%. Will you commit to an area-of-natural-constraint scheme in pillar 2 of CAP that will specifically address those farms that are above or on the moorland line?
The Member gets her numbers wrong again. It is not that 12% of Welsh farms are above the moorland line; 12% of Welsh land area is above the 400m line; 297 farms actually have land holdings that fall within that contour line.
The Member also misunderstands some of the other numbers in terms of how the CAP reforms will affect individual farm businesses. Eighty four per cent of farm businesses will not be affected in the way that she describes. That number goes up to over 90% when you exclude some of the highest and lowest per-hectare payments. The farms that probably fall within the category that the Member describes as losing a considerable amount were probably receiving extraordinarily high hectarage payments in the first place. Some were achieving hectarage payments of €400 per hectare, whereas others were having €6.
Minister, you have not answered my question, which is whether you will commit to an ANC scheme that deals with those farms—12% of the land area, if you like, and I understand that it was 279 farms—that fall above the moorland line. There is considerable uncertainty for those farmers who straddle the moorland line. However, given that you have drawn a moorland line, will you commit to an ANC scheme that looks at those 279 or 297 farms—whichever figure you choose to apply? Will you commit to a scheme for those farms that are above or within that moorland area?
Sorry; I probably spent too much time correcting the assumptions on which her question was framed. I will not make that commitment today, because we are starting a consultation process next week. I do not start a consultation process by fixing the end and the outcome.
Minister, if the economic difficulties faced by farmers are exacerbated by your recent decisions, as many fear, and that that should lead to the widespread abandonment of the uplands in terms of farming, what plans do you have in place to deal with the inevitable rise in invasive non-native species such as rhododendron, which has been such a scourge in Snowdonia? Do you feel that either Glastir or the upcoming RDP could be a vehicle for addressing such a danger?
Certainly, Glastir could be used to address such matters. However, I really must say to the Member that I do not accept the basis of his question. There is no history of land abandonment in Wales. There is no evidence that that is taking place at the moment. As the owner of agricultural land himself, he is only too aware of the good prices currently being achieved for agricultural land in Wales.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the importance of responsible natural resources management in Wales? OAQ(4)0110(NRF)
I made a statement in the autumn on my department’s priorities. The management of our natural resources is of vital importance to our economic success, the resilience of our communities and the environment on which we all depend.
I am sure that you will agree that professional expertise and retaining that expertise are a critical part of responsible resource management. Given this, would you also agree that it would be inappropriate for Natural Resources Wales, as part of its organisation-wide pay-harmonisation review, to award backpay only to those in very senior positions and not to those throughout the rest of the organisation?
The Member is well aware that it is not my practice to comment on the management decisions of NRW.
Minister, the important thing about environment schemes in complementing the work of environment agencies is making sure that the whole of Wales benefits from the produce that you bring forward. How are you going to make sure that the lowlands can play their part in working with Natural Resources Wales to meet the Government’s environmental objectives, in particular the schemes that you will be funding out of pillar 2 in the revised rural development plan that will come in for the next seven years?
Clearly, as a lowland farmer yourself, you are very familiar with the work that has gone on with Natural Resources Wales and its predecessor bodies. I know that there has been some concern from the lowlands over recent weeks that too much attention is being paid to the uplands—perhaps it was ever thus—but I will say that it is incumbent on all of us to take a national approach to these issues, to ensure that we achieve a balance in protecting and enhancing the environment of the whole of our country.
Woodland Trust has today published a report called ‘Holding back the waters—Woodland Creation and Flood Mitigation’. It has also presented a petition calling for the planting of 10 million trees over the next five years, targeted at locations that are most appropriate for reducing the risk of flooding. The Government has been talking about this sort of approach for a long time. There are a number of case studies in this document, but when will we see a targeted national programme for this sort of approach?
We will look forward to that announcement; I am very pleased to hear that. Also, a number of farmers—I have raised this with you in the past—have told me that the work of clearing river beds and banks that used to be done in the past by the Environment Agency does not happen anymore. They are very aware, of course, of the pilot scheme undertaken by the Environment Agency in England, working with environmental groups, landowners, farmers and so on to empower farmers to tackle some of these issues themselves. They are ready to do that; when will we see a similar scheme in Wales?
I hope that we manage rivers in Wales in a better way than in England. I know that the Conservatives suggested a couple of weeks ago that we should follow the example of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs; I had not heard that for a while. NRW is aware of the EA scheme and there have been discussions between the two bodies. I am happy to see what the outcomes are of the EA pilot scheme, and I would be happy to run that kind of project in Wales.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on the role Natural Resources Wales plays in protecting the natural heritage of Wales? OAQ(4)0115(NRF)
The role of Natural Resources Wales is to ensure that the environment and natural resources of Wales are sustainably maintained, sustainably enhanced and sustainably used.
I wonder if I might invite you to come to visit Penllergare valley woods trust in my region? It is an excellent example of horticultural and natural woodland heritage, managed expertly by committed volunteers. I am sure that the Government would be interested in this natural playground for children from one of the most deprived areas in Swansea, but you particularly might be interested to see the water turbine and the variety of larches. Mindful of the health of those larches, Minister, will you tell me whether the statutory plant notices requiring the felling of phytophthera-infected trees in south Wales are due to be withdrawn? If so, why?
There are a number of questions there. Members are being very kind with their invitations to me this aftenoon. I will accept that; I always accept an invitation to visit Penllergaer. I would very much like to see the ways in which we are reconnecting communities with the local natural environment, as I think that it is absolutely essential that we do that. One of the things that I hope NRW will be able to develop as it moves forward is to ensure that we have that connection and that we create and manage more access to countryside and to green areas for people in communities up and down Wales. I will take up the Member’s very kind invitation to visit Penllergaer.
Minister, you will not get an invitation from me—well, not this Saturday anyway. [Laughter.] One of the most important areas of our natural heritage is the Gwent levels—an area of Europe-wide importance for bird life and natural coastal wetland habitats. What discussions have you had with Natural Resources Wales regarding the devastating impact that an M4 relief road, driven straight through the levels south of Newport, will have on the wildlife, wetlands, scenery and character of the area if some of the routes are accepted? May I put a bid in for the blue route proposed by Professor Stuart Cole?
I am sure that that will be a subject of great discussion in O'Donoghues on Saturday.
There is a strategy for the treatment of larch trees being published by NRW, and I point Members in the direction of that if they require further information.
The points that you make on the M4 in south Wales are fully known and understood, and you will be aware that my colleague the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport is leading on that matter.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the flood prevention measures being taken against the River Tawe in Swansea East? OAQ(4)0103(NRF)
Natural Resources Wales is leading on a £7 million flood defence project to reduce flood risk to residential and commercial properties of Swansea vale and Swansea enterprise park. The project, which is due for completion by the end of April this year, has received £3.5 million from the European regional development fund.
I thank the Minister for that response. He is very welcome to come and have a look at it if he wants to. It has been very successful so far. We have avoided flooding outside the designated floodplain this year. Are you planning such schemes for other rivers in Wales?
I would also be delighted to visit Swansea. The sorts of schemes that we design and deliver for individual areas and communities are very much rooted in the hydrology of that particular area and in the needs of the community. The solution that has been found in the lower Tawe valley is unique to that area, in that we are able to use land to flood when necessary. That would not be appropriate in all places. We are looking at developing appropriate flood and water management schemes in different parts of Wales, and the scheme in Llanelli is another example of how we are doing this in new and different ways.
Minister, I think that you addressed my question in your comprehensive answer, but I will further ask what assurances you can give that the current flood defence schemes are futureproofed for the river Tawe.
Clearly, we are now designing flood defence schemes with a greater resilience factor than we would have done some years ago. We are looking, as we discussed in an earlier question, at experiencing far greater episodes of severe weather in the future as a consequence of climate change. That means that we are designing flood defences now that are more robust, in terms of what we expect to see in the future, than we would have done in the past, and I certainly would expect that the Tawe scheme is an example of one that is significantly futureproofed.
There have been some interesting pieces in the press recently, notwithstanding the piece from George Monbiot in ‘The Guardian’ arguing that more effort needs to be made for the upstream of rivers to regulate run-off, such has been mentioned earlier, in terms of additional planting of trees. We had a landslide in the area of Godre’r Graig a couple of years ago, and run-off into the Tawe was considered a key issue then. Now, there are plans to mine in an area riddled with flooded old workings, and given the potential addition of large quantities of water to the Tawe that may affect areas such as Swansea east, does the Welsh Government take this into consideration when the council is putting in such applications?
I am sure that George Monbiot would be very grateful for the support of Plaid Cymru in relation to his views on management of the uplands. [Interruption.] He will be surprised and delighted. I say to the Member on that specific issue that, clearly, flooding and the impact on the hydrology of an area are significant issues for all local authorities to take into account whenever they are planning any developments of any sort.
As you know, Swansea vale has been earmarked by the City and County of Swansea council for significant development, and the area forms a large part of the floodplain of the river Tawe. Do Natural Resources Wales’s officials work with local councils in the development of unitary development plans so that when these issues come forward as part of the future plans of the authority, they have advance notice and advance plans put in place in terms of flood prevention?
The Member will have the opportunity over the next two years to debate and discuss the environment Bill, which will be putting in place exactly those processes to unify the work of NRW with other elements of the public sector and the public estate in Wales to achieve exactly the end that the Member has described.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is working to tackle fuel poverty? OAQ(4)0108(NRF)
We are providing support to households in fuel poverty through our energy efficiency programmes that include Nest and Arbed.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, the Arbed scheme has helped residents across the Caerphilly borough to reduce their bills. Do you agree with me that this is a great example of working jointly with the EU and that it shows that joint working can benefit all people in Wales?
I do agree with the Member’s observations. I was in Caerphilly borough not so long ago, in Fochriw, to see for myself the impact of these schemes on individual people, families and communities. Everybody recognises the importance of these individual schemes in alleviating fuel poverty, but also the important role that the European Union has in enabling these schemes to take place at all. Any of those people arguing to change our relationship with the European Union are in fact arguing to make these schemes more difficult for some of the poorest people in this country.
Although schemes such as Flintshire’s affordable warmth scheme and Denbighshire’s fuel poverty action plan are welcomed—and both are newly launched, as I am sure you are aware—we heard at this lunch time’s meeting of the cross-party group on older people and ageing, chaired by your colleague Mike Hedges, that older people are still unaware often of the help available and lack support in key areas, where Arbed and Nest will only ever reach 1% to 2% of fuel poor households in Wales annually. How, therefore, do you respond to the calls that were made at that meeting today for the restoration of the fuel poverty ministerial advisory group in Wales, alongside those elsewhere, and for the Welsh Government to raise its fuel poverty game beyond Arbed and Nest, welcome though they are?
I will say to the Member that you do not solve people’s problems by forming groups on every occasion. The group that he has referred to has not been disbanded, but has been folded into a much wider group of people who are looking at tackling poverty in its totality. We believe that that holistic approach is the best one to take. However, I take seriously the point that he made about access to these schemes. As we redesign these schemes to fit in with the new round of European programming, that is exactly one of the issues that I feel that we need to address to ensure that people who can benefit from these schemes are able to do so, and have the knowledge of the schemes and information about those schemes to enable them to take full advantage of their access to those programmes.
Minister, as you know, the LivingWise Cardiff pilot project was set up to change the energy and water consumption habits of households there. Are you able to report yet on any progress, and are there any plans to set up schemes such as that in my region?
I am unaware of any plans to establish any similar schemes in the South Wales East electoral region. If I am wrong on this fact, I will write to Members.
The New EU Emissions Targets
11. What impact will the new EU emissions targets have on Wales’s role in combating climate change? OAQ(4)0117(NRF)
The new European emissions target provides further long-term certainty for all sectors in Wales around decarbonisation and underlines the need to build on our progress and realise the opportunities presented by climate change.
If the EU is to increase its target for renewables to 27% across the EU, what does that mean for the renewables sector in Wales? Is this a business opportunity for us, or are we not going to be able to make a bigger contribution to that? I note that, even if all of the 70-odd applications that are pending are approved, it will still only enable us to generate 10% of our 2025 target.
The Member is aware, of course, that there are no specific targets for member states in the new set of European targets that have been established. However, I can say that this Government is very ambitious with regard to renewables. We have debated and discussed on a number of occasions—as we did, I think, last week—the way in which we wish to see growth being driven in renewable energy generation in Wales. I gave Members an undertaking last week that we will be publishing the delivery plan for ‘Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition’ before the end of this term, and I can repeat that commitment this afternoon. As part of that delivery plan, Members will understand how this Government is driving forward the potential for renewables in Wales.
Minister, there has always been a concern when discussing climate change in Wales that there are limited data sets for moinitoring and assessing Wales’s emissions. Further information on climate change targets and progress against those targets has finally been published today, but we are still missing vital baseline data, which is very clear from the technical annex that you published today. As an example, the Nest and Arbed programmes, which promote energy-efficient home improvements, have no measurement of the carbon emissions of the buildings before the energy efficiency measures were put in place. So, there was no baseline assessment of the policy impact. Given the importance of—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you coming to the question?
Minister, will you ensure that data published are policy relevant, and that the data and information available are effective? Where you do not have baseline data, will you get those?
I published information for Members before Christmas following a question from Jocelyn Davies last November on some of the matters that the Member has raised. I will say this in terms of Nest and Arbed: these are schemes that are carried out not in public buildings, but in people’s homes. Therefore, we need to be aware of the intrusion into people’s homes that some of these surveys can demand. Therefore, we are very careful about ensuring that we have the data that are available and that are necessary, but we do so in a less intrusive manner. If the Member reads the documentation published before Christmas, she will see a considerable dataset there on the impact of Nest and Arbed.
Experiments using Live Animals
12. Will the Welsh Government provide an update on its discussions with the Home Office regarding the use of live animals in experiments? OAQ(4)0112(NRF)
This is not a devolved issue, but nevertheless I have been kept informed. I welcome the UK Government’s commitment to work to reduce the use of animals in scientific research, to replace these animals with alternatives where possible and to refine experiments to minimise suffering.
In 2012, the number of live animals used in experiments increased by 8% on the previous year, which was, in turn, a 14% increase on 2010. We know that many of these experiments are simply unnecessary and raise significant animal welfare issues. I have raised this in the Chamber before, but I would welcome a renewed commitment from the Welsh Government to press the Home Office to change the guidelines to eliminate the unnecessary suffering that these horrific procedures cause. Minister, can you provide that assurance?
I hope that I can wherever possible. As the Member is aware, these are not devolved matters. My predecessor wrote to the Home Secretary about animal experimentation, and the Home Secretary has kept us informed of the proposals that the Home Office is making. The proposals centre on reducing, refining and replacing animals in experiments, and we fully support the Home Office in those endeavours.
13. Will the Minister update the Assembly on what progress is being made with the evaluation and implementation of the Nature Fund? OAQ(4)0109(NRF)
We have completed a call for ideas, supported by a series of workshops and meetings across Wales, to inform the development of the fund. We received over 460 ideas from a wide range of interests and which we are now analysing. We will soon begin allocating funds.
Thank you for that. Minister, I would be grateful if you could give an indication of timescales as I have been approached by a number of organisations that have put forward ideas. We understand that it is not a bidding concept, but a lot of organisations came up with brand new proposals that they felt would enhance the work that they currently undertake. With the new financial year looming, they are wondering whether or not they will be able to push the ‘go’ button and perhaps take on people, or even retain people and move them into new projects.
I sympathise greatly with people in the situation that the Member has described. I will make a statement on this matter next month to update Members on how we will be taking this fund forward. It is a very new and innovative way of working. It was announced last summer and we have tried to expediate the process while ensuring that we are able to maintain a good audit trail for the use of public funds, but, at the same time, trusting people to know their land better than we know their land. It is also about trusting people to work to deliver the biodiversity objectives and other sustainable land management objectives that we wish to see. I recognise that people want us to move forward with this. I have discussed this with officials today, as it happens, and we have agreed that we will make a statement on how we will progress these matters next month.
14. What discussions has the Minister held regarding the support of hydro-electric plans in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)0111(NRF)
I regularly meet with members of the British Hydropower Association when we discuss issues around promoting more hydropower development in Wales, and in particular, working to remove barriers to development. I last met with BHA in October and am due to meet it again in April.
Thank you for that response, Minister. You know that I and other Members have raised this issue on a number of occasions in the past, and, last week, I visited Brecon and spoke to many people who still feel very frustrated that it is not sufficiently easy to establish micro-hydro generation on our streams and rivers flowing from the uplands. Whatever we do before the water arrives downstream, there is certainly power in those streams that can be turned into electricity. Are you now content that the systems are in place with Natural Resources Wales to make this as easy as possible?
I would have said ‘yes’ before the Member asked the question. If people and other Members have the same kind of experience that you have just described, I would be grateful if you could write to me, describing exactly the kind of barriers that people face. I agree with you entirely: we need to resolve these problems that people are facing. This is going to be a key part of how I see the RDP moving forward in terms of the next RDP, and I would like to ensure that people can do this and that they do not face problem after problem in doing that.
15. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of farming in the moorlands of Brecon and Radnorshire? OAQ(4)0118(NRF)
Farming in the uplands and moorlands continues to be a priority for the economic, environmental and social fabric of Wales. The review of the resilience of Welsh farming has made a number of recommendations for support, which I will deliver.
The Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) took the Chair at 14:16.
I know that the secretary of the Elan Valley Trust tenants’ association has written to the Minister on behalf of the 28 farms in the Elan valley, outlining their concerns about how your decision on CAP pillar 1 and pillar 2 payments will affect their businesses. To date, you have said that the answer to their problems is Glastir, but, of course, Glastir is not an alternative to pillar 1 payments. It replaced the old Tir Gofal scheme, which many of them were in. Is it your intention that any plans announced under the RDP and pillar 2 consultation next week will match the gap in funding that has been created by your decisions over pillar 1?
Gaps in funding are not simply a function of public support. They are a function of the businesses affected, and the Member will know, living on a farm herself, that farms are very different and will face different elements of profitability, shall we say? We know that, for upland sheep and cattle farms, there is a 42% difference between the average of the best performing farms in terms of agricultural output and the average for the sector as a whole. Our plans are designed to bridge that gap and to make those farms resilient businesses, and we will continue to do that. I am more than happy to meet the Member’s constituents.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
1. What progress is being made by local authorities across Wales in producing their Local Development Plans? OAQ(4)0349(HR)
I thank the Member for Aberavon for his question. There are currently 13 adopted LDPs in Wales, 54% of the 24 expected.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I have written to you previously seeking clarity on the balance regarding the involvement of the LDPs with the urban and Valleys or rural communities within them. In light of the Williams commission report, is the Welsh Government reviewing its guidance on LDP development to local authorities, particularly those who have not yet submitted theirs, such as my own, to ensure that they are complementary to each other in that balance but also that they are sustainable, post-Williams, if any changes occur to local authorities?
The guidance on the LDP process was issued in 2005. I think that it was futureproofed in its process. I do not think that Williams has any bearing at all on the LDP process, and I would expect local authorities to continue to pursue that with vigour to have them delivered as soon as possible.
Minister, you talk about the proposals being futureproofed, but here we are, a number of years down the line from the guidance being issued, and, as David Rees has alluded to, we still do not have LDPs in, I think, around half of the authorities in Wales—it is certainly a large number of them. There is uncertainty at the moment about the structure of local government. There is also the suggestion that regional partnerships in planning will be included as part of the Government’s planning Bill. How are you going to ensure that there is a real incentive for those local authorities that have not adopted LDPs to get on with the job and do it as quickly as possible?
I thank the Member for his question. As I said, 54% have completed their LDP processes. Gwynedd and Anglesey councils are currently preparing their joint plan; Monmouthshire council is in the advanced stages of delivery and two are subject to further public examination. We are well in advance of delivering LDPs. I do share the Member’s frustration about progress and I am urging them to continue this as soon as possible. However, I do not believe that the Williams report is a smokescreen for not delivering any LDP in the future.
One of the issues that has been holding back many of the local development plans is the whole issue of the housing projections, which we have raised and discussed with you previously. I was wondering, Minister, whether you could give us an indication as to whether the Government would be open to perhaps revisiting how those projections are currently arrived at?
Well, of course, we are in the middle of launching the new planning Bill. I want a planning system that is fit for the future. If the Member has any further ideas that he wishes to share with me on that particular issue, I would welcome his approach via a letter or a meeting in the future.
Minister, the difference between those housing need projections and the population projections seems to be causing problems in some local authorities. You will be aware that, in the Vale of Glamorgan, this means that the local authority has planned for 9,950 new homes for just 6,000 new residents. Despite the fact that this is 1.65 homes per new resident, you have written to the Vale of Glamorgan council to say that that it is not enough according to your unpublished 2011 housing need projections. Will you publish those 2011 projections, so that we can all see why you believe this to be the case?
The projections for authorities are available and, as you will be aware, I am not able to comment on specific proposals by local authorities. It is a matter for the local authority to develop an LDP, on which I will be making a judgment at a future point.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s affordable housing policy? OAQ(4)0350(HR)
I thank the Member for Rhondda for his question. We supply and support a wide range of affordable housing that helps address different housing needs across Wales. This includes social rent for those in greatest need of housing, as well as intermediate rent and low-cost home ownership.
Does the Minister recall that, in the autumn, one volume house builder claimed that it would no longer be building properties north of Pontypridd? Is the Minister aware that, after I wrote to that volume house builder to ask how many properties it had built in the previous 10 years in the Rhondda postcode areas, it replied, ‘From internal discussion, output in the specific postcodes that you mentioned does not appear to be high’?
Does this not suggest that media organisations, policy makers, and, indeed, the Secretary of State for Wales, should not take the claims of volume house builders at face value?
I am very grateful for the Member’s comments this afternoon, and I will perhaps take that up further with the developer when I next see it.
Minister, I asked you last Assembly term about help to buy—Wales, which, as we know, is a scheme designed to help people to get on to the housing ladder. I pointed out that people are eligible only if they buy new-build homes, and that this would have an adverse impact in rural areas, where there is much less new-build housing available. You said at the time that you would give it further consideration. Have you had an opportunity to consider extending the scheme into rural areas to allow non-new-build housing to be included?
I thank the Member for her question. It is a very reasonable question. I have considered that further and I am unable to make further discretion in terms of that process, but that does not prohibit us from having other innovative ideas on making and ensuring that people can access market housing, whether they are in urban or rural economies.
I also agree that we need an urgent announcement on the possibility of extending the help to buy scheme outside of new build, and we have already heard from the Member for Rhondda that building is not happening in some parts of Wales where that scheme may be useful. Will the Minister agree that one good reason to extend the help to buy scheme is in order to recognise that it is important that people should be allowed to live locally and to stay within their own communities?
I agree with the Member that we should work with all parties to try to give people access to property wherever they live in Wales, whether that is an urban or rural environment. However, I am not convinced by the argument that the help to buy scheme should be extended. I have explained that this is a very positive step that we have introduced as a Welsh Government scheme in Wales. Therefore, already, we have had 150 positive interventions in terms of helping people to access the market. I think that this is a positive scheme and that we should not look to weaken it by any further interventions elsewhere.
Monitoring of Housing Bodies
3. What monitoring mechanisms are in place to ensure that housing bodies fulfil guidance issued by your department? OAQ(4)0352(HR)
Thank you for your question. There are a number of ways in which housing bodies are monitored. These include ongoing monitoring processes through professional and practitioner networks, working through groups with specific interests and using tools such as the regulatory framework.
Thank you for that. Minister, there is a huge gap that many constituents fall foul of where you have very strongly defined policies in areas such as housing, planning, enforcement or whatever it may be, and yet local authorities are not implementing them, because they are only guidance. I have asked you this question before, and it seems to fall on the Minister for local government, but I wonder whether, going forward, you could do something to join up and fill in this gap, because constituents, not just in my constituency, I am sure, but all over Wales, are really struggling to come to terms with how to fight issues that arise because they cannot get local authorities to do what your guidance says that they should.
That is from a party that believes in removing red tape, and I share the ambition of removing some of the burdens around organisations to make sure that the economy can grow. I would welcome the Member’s comments, if there is anything specific that she thinks would help in doing this, while making sure that there are still checks and balances. The balance in terms of burden versus regulation is something that I know that both I and the Minister for local government have a constant view on.
Minister, as you mentioned, you are, in fact, the regulator for housing bodies and, of course, fulfilling guidance is a desired outcome within that regime. You will know that the interim evaluation of the Welsh Government’s regulatory function was very disappointing in that the shift from co-regulation was undermining key elements of the framework. What have you done to reverse this very worrying trend?
We have had discussions with registered social landlords and local authorities about risk-based regulation and seeing how we can best monitor the progression of opportunities for RSLs. The Member will be aware from her previous role as Deputy Minister for housing that this is always a challenging process, but it is something that we continue to strive to make better.
Yes, it was a challenge; that is why we set up a new regime. The interim report also found that there was very little evidence that best practice was being shared across the sector through you as the regulator. Will you tell us why there has been a failure within the Welsh Government to get the best out of this sector?
Well, the Member might have been able to answer that when she was the Deputy Minister for housing. The fact of the matter is that we are working with the sector to develop better ways of operation. However, you are absolutely right, best practice does not travel well, whether in Wales or elsewhere in the UK. We have to make sure that, where we are doing things well, we share that, and we have bodies around the department that will look at making sure that we can share opportunities when they come to light.
Regeneration in West Wales
4. Will the Minister make a statement on regeneration efforts in west Wales? OAQ(4)0342(HR)
Thank you for your question. We are supporting each local authority across Wales to bring forward its regeneration priorities. Our efforts are continuing in both the western Valleys and Aberystwyth regeneration areas.
Minister, as I am sure that you will appreciate, town centres across Pembrokeshire are very much in need of support. Given that the Enterprise and Business Committee’s report on town-centre regeneration was published over two years ago, in which the committee made 21 recommendations, can you tell us which recommendations have now been fully implemented by the Government and what direct effects can be seen on high streets in my constituency?
We are seeing a progression of regeneration across the whole length and breadth of Wales in terms of the opportunities that we have been involved in with local authorities. I am happy to write to the Member with details in answer to the question that he put, but what I am very keen to do is ensure that we get best value. Unfortunately, the area that the Member represents was not successful in obtaining Vibrant and Viable Places funding, but that was down the strength of its bid.
Houses in Multiple Occupation
5. What plans does the Minister have to control the spread of letting signs in areas of high density HMOs? OAQ(4)0344(HR)
The Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations 1992 already make provision for the control of estate agents’ boards on residential properties.
Thank you, Minister. I receive a large number of complaints from constituents who live in areas of high-density HMOs, as they are called, regarding letting agents who have ‘To let’ signs—or much worse signs than that—up on their properties all year round. This causes a serious lack of amenity in the local area for other residents. Will the Minister welcome the move by the City and County of Swansea in introducing a voluntary code of practice concerning the display of these signs, which limits their number, size and position on the property, as well as the amount of time for which they can be displayed? Would he further consider giving the council the statutory powers to enforce such a scheme?
First of all, I welcome the code of practice that has been introduced by that local authority. I travelled yesterday through Roath, in Cardiff, which also has similar issues with ‘To let’ signs, which are haphazardly placed around the area. I recognise that that causes issues for local Members, and the community. I will give that further consideration in terms of enforcement powers in the near future.
Minister, further to that answer, I share Julie James’s concerns about areas with houses in multiple occupation. Have you considered looking at the planning enforcement powers that are available to local authorities, and at introducing some form of fast-track process, so that local authorities, where there are nuisances such as this, do not have to go through the usual 42 days, plus 42 days for the serving of notices before local authorities are able to take on and deal with these particular issues?
We are due to have a review of the advertising directions, and I will give that further consideration in that proposal.
Thank you for that. Further to that answer, and in relation to areas with a high-density of houses in multiple occupation, you will be aware that all your predecessors as the Minister for planning have so far rejected changing the planning status of houses in multiple occupation to enable local authorities to better control them within communities. Will you be looking at this particular issue as part of your planning Bill, and will you consider representations in terms of reducing the number that need to be in a HMO before needing planning permission?
I am sure that previous Ministers for planning have had very good reason to refuse to change that process. As I said to you earlier, it is something that I will consider further when we look at the regulations around this.
Minister, following on from that question, and the previous one, the lack of restriction and the unplanned growth of houses in multiple occupancy, particularly in areas around universities and colleges, has had a major impact on some of the communities there. The issue is the unplanned nature of that development. Can you perhaps outline what work your department may be undertaking at the moment in order to consider issues around giving local authorities the power to regulate and plan the number of HMOs in any particular area affected?
Thank you for your question. Again, many Members have raised this issue with me. On the basis of that, I have started to set up a working group, which will start its operation in the new year, to look at the issues around planning, HMOs and enforcement, particularly around the areas that the Member raises with me, such as university towns and cities.
I certainly recognise the situation that has been outlined by Julie James; it affects my own ward in particular. Enforcement is certainly part of the problem, but I think that the density of HMOs, and the high turnover of occupancy, is also a problem. I think that you could make a direct difference, Minister, if you were able to speak to the landlords who own these kinds of properties, in such density, to see whether they are capable of meeting a different housing need, and to see whether they could offer one and two-bedroomed houses, which are in short supply at the moment, as more permanent residences.
Conditions are already in place in terms of planning and licensing. As I said to Mick Antoniw just a moment ago, I have got a working group that is being set up to look at the implications of that. I have to look across my whole division in terms of what legislation tools are available to me—the housing Bill will be only one of them—that will add advantage in terms of licensing and so on. How HMOs may or may not fit into that process is something that we are considering.
Going back to the letting boards, one of my constituents in Cardiff North discovered that out of the 14 boards that were outside a block of flats, not one of them was actually advertising any flat to let or to sell, and they had actually been up for over 12 months. Is there anything further that the Minister can do about incidents such as this?
The advertising regulations are clear that the agent must remove the board after 14 days of the sale being placed. However, we know that, in practice, this is not happening. I will give the commitment to the Member to write to local authorities to remind them of their duty.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on his priorities for regeneration projects? OAQ(4)357(HR)
I thank the Member for Llanelli for his question. My priorities are to deliver on the £100 million Vibrant and Viable Places programme, together with wider action to rejuvenate our town centres.
I was very pleased to hear of the Welsh Labour Government funding for the business improvement district in Llanelli. It is important that we support local businesses and it is very important that there is collaboration in Llanelli for the benefit of the town centre. I am sure that there will be a full consultation with local businesses to draw up a business plan. Do you agree with me that creating a BID is a very real way of regenerating the town centre of Llanelli and responds to the Enterprise and Business Committee’s work on the regeneration of town centres in Wales, as mentioned by Paul Davies earlier?
I made the announcement only last week around the business improvement districts and Vibrant and Viable Places. I think that it was welcomed across parties in the Chamber. We are looking to ensure that communities can help themselves in the process of redevelopment and redefining what their business is in places such as Llanelli, which the Member represents.
You recently extended the Vibrant and Viable Places funding to £100 million over three years. Each of the 11 local authorities invited to submit detailed bids will receive funding of up to £15 million. Can you outline how this funding through local authorities will support job creation, and in particular growth in the private sector as the EU funding programmes now expect?
Part of the Vibrant and Viable Places proposals at the bidding stage—there were many criteria involved in that—was around housing provision. That was a priority within the bidding process, but it was also about leverage. European funding, local authority money and private sector funding was also part of that process. So, while we are investing £100 million, there may be more going into the pot from other opportunity funds, whether from the private sector or the public sector.
I recently visited the Mumbles pier refurbishment and development project and was provided with an excellent briefing on this fantastic regeneration opportunity in Gower. The project requires a form of interim finance of approximately £3 million as it is underpinned by a housing developer. You mention increasing housing supply as your No. 1 priority within the Vibrant and Viable Places funding. Your Government seems intent on keeping investment in the public sector organisations despite the risk of refusing to support private sector bids, even if they are low risk. Will you commit to explore schemes like the Mumbles pier refurbishment and development project in other schemes that have financial underpinning by housing developers, which, in my mind, makes them low-risk investments that could, in many cases, see a return to the public purse?
The Vibrant and Viable Places strategy sounds excellent, but how will it help places like the Maelfa shopping centre in Llanedeyrn in my constituency, which desperately needs rebuilding? If and when the developer ever gets around to singing the contract, it could lead to there being no fresh food outlets at all on the site. The commercial rent is set so high that only betting shops would be available to afford them. How will Vibrant and Viable Places ensure that they are just that?
As the Member is aware, Vibrant and Viable Places’ was a bidding scheme led by local authorities across Wales. There have been some successful bids in that process. I know that the scheme that the Member talks about is not in that process, but the Member raises an important point about local development and what the implications are for that community of missed opportunities in development. It is something that planning departments should take into consideration when granting planning permission, namely the impact on their local communities.
With the regeneration strategy focusing on specific areas throughout our country, how will progress on breathing life back into underinvested areas fit in with the development of city regions?
The Member is right to raise the issue of ‘What about everybody else?’, in effect, in terms of the ones who were not successful in terms of Vibrant and Viable Places. I have to make a decision on whether we spread the funding so thinly that it has very little impact on communities, or whether we should make some big impacts in certain areas. We have done with that with Vibrant and Viable Places, but it does not prohibit new opportunities for other towns and communities across the length and breadth of Wales, the accessing of funds by local authorities, or indeed other pots of money, such as those to which I made reference to Byron Davies earlier, namely European funding, private sector funding or other public purses, which can make a real difference in communities.
Thank you, Minister, for your recent update on the former Lady Windsor site in Ynysybwl. I was disappointed that a bid for the regeneration of the site was unsuccessful in the latest round of Vibrant and Viable Places awards. Minister, what do you suggest are the next steps in how we can move this forward and bring about this much-needed and long-standing regeneration project in my constituency?
Of course, I recognise the Member’s concern about that specific project, but many Members have raised similar issues and concerns with me about projects in the areas that they represent that were not included in the awards. However, we should never forget the fact that last week we announced £180 million investment in Wales, which was Welsh Government funding to change and transform the communities that we live in. I would be happy to meet with the Member if she would like that to discuss further opportunities for the site that she makes reference to.
7. What steps is the Welsh Government taking to help South Wales Central residents get on the property ladder? OAQ(4)0346(HR)
I thank the Member for his question. On 2 January, I launched Help to Buy—Wales, a new shared equity scheme that will help first-time buyers in South Wales Central get onto the property ladder.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. What is desperately required are coherent local development plans to get housing stock onto the market. I have heard what you have said in answers to previous questions today, but if you take my South Wales Central region, you will see that it is envisaged that two of the three authorities could merge under the plans. Both authorities are currently developing local development plans. Both authorities have large housing requirements in their plans. I really cannot believe that you would think that there are no issues for them to consider should these mergers go forward, because these plans cover a 15-year period, Minister, and I believe that your department needs to issue guidance on this. Therefore, will your department be bringing forward guidance so that these LDPs can be relevant?
As I said earlier, I would hate to think that using the Williams argument, although the Member did not mention it, is a smokescreen in terms of developing LDP processes. The fact is that local authorities have a duty to provide an LDP. I recognise the two authorities that the Member refers to and I believe that both have local needs to consider, while taking into consideration the needs of other authorities around them. Therefore, I do not see that Williams, or any other element of restructuring, would change the way the LDP process works. However, to give the Member some safeguards, the LDP is a long-term document of 15 years, but it is updated every year. It is a process where there has to be a review of need on a yearly basis.
Minister, I am sure that you share my concerns about high rents in the private sector; in effect, the state is subsidising high rents in the private sector to the tune of £35 billion a year. One way to alleviate the pressures on people within the private rented sector would be to build more houses. Do you agree with me that the current house building target needs to be raised?
8. Will the Minister provide an update on the work of rural housing enablers in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)0351(HR)
I thank the Member for Mid and West Wales. The report that we commissioned to evaluate the rural housing enabler projects in Wales has now been published. The report sets out the positive contribution the projects have made to the delivery of affordable housing in rural Wales.
Thank you for that, Minister. According to that completed evaluation project, rural housing enablers offer good value for money and they are particularly effective where they have been in post for some time. The report suggests that the schemes are now fully up to speed and that the pace of progress is quickening with the results getting ever better. With all of that in mind, can you confirm whether or not you are looking at ways to extend funding for the RHEs beyond next month, when the current round of funding comes to an end?
I am, and I have said this in the Chamber in the past, very keen on how rural housing enablers operate. I am very keen that they continue to operate in the future and my support for them would continue beyond the time frame that the Member mentioned. However, this is a partnership and I hope that other interested bodies that are involved in that process recognise the support that is required. I would ask the Member to lobby those organisations as well as lobbying me.
In terms of site supply, major supermarkets such as Tesco, for example, are radically altering their policies on land banking. How much previously acquired supermarket land are we seeing coming back into the market in mid Wales? If that is something that you do not know the answer to, is that something that you could examine?
Yes. I do not have the figures to hand in terms of the specific question that the Member raises about new supermarket opportunity or redeveloped opportunity, but it is something that I am concerned about in terms of land banking. I have asked my team to look at whether that is in terms of supermarkets or any other sector with regard to the land that they own and how that has an impact in terms of the planning process.
Minister, I met last week with the Brecon Beacons National Park in the region, which acts as a planning authority and has an interesting affordable housing contribution planning policy. Of course, it is not a housing authority and has to then interact with the rural housing enablers and others to deliver this affordable housing contribution. Does the Williams report give an opportunity to streamline things a little more here, particularly with regard to national parks? Without any housing functions, they have to work in a rather middleman kind of way and there are opportunities here perhaps to make it a bit more effective.
As the Member is aware, I have the planning Bill out to consultation at the moment, until 26 February. I would welcome the Member’s comments during the consultation regarding the effectiveness of working with the national park in terms of determination. I have met with my colleague, John Griffiths, who has overall responsibility for national parks, but I have said at conferences recently in terms of planning that I believe that 25 planning authorities are far too many for Wales and that national parks should play a part in the family of planning authorities. In the future, perhaps they will be part of that or perhaps they will not, but that also applies to local authorities in their planning terms.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the enforcement of building regulations? OAQ(4)0343(HR)
Local authorities have a general duty to enforce the building regulations in their area. The building control function can be carried out by a local authority or a private approved inspector.
There are two major changes, namely the need for qualified supervisors to oversee electrical work and the number of short five-day courses to train new electricians, that run the risk of not being implemented by councils in Wales in their roles as planning authorities. Can you outline, as the Minister with responsibility for this particular area, how you are communicating with local authorities on these issues to ensure that they do progress?
I am not sure that I share the same approach that local authorities are not enforcing, or will not enforce regulations. It is something that they should be very aware of. The Member has already made reference and written to me regarding electrical inspection, but I would be happy to understand better if she has any specific areas of concern regarding a particular local planning authority.
Will the Minister outline any discussions that he has held with the Home Builders Federation on proposed and current building regulations?
I have had lots of discussions with the HBF and many other bodies in terms of proposals. With regard to building regulations, we will shortly host two events—one in north Wales and another in south Wales—around areas such as Part L changes and building regulations changes, which are already heavily subscribed and welcomed by the industry.
Minister, I previously raised with your predecessor the question of acoustics in schools being part of building regulations. At that time, he indicated that discussions were ongoing with the UK Government as regards a change to building bulletin 93. I understand that that change is to be completed by March. In the circumstances, is the Welsh Government now in a position to outline the steps that it will be taking with regard to amending building regulations in Wales to that purpose?
I will write to the Member with the detail.
Continual Professional Development
10. Will the Minister make a statement on continual professional development for town planners in Wales? OAQ(4)0354(HR)
Thank you for your question. Planning professionals are subject to the continuing professional development requirements of their relevant professional institution.
I am grateful to the Minister for that response. Last week, in the Environment and Sustainability Committee we took evidence from Community Energy Wales, which identified significant shortfalls in terms of a knowledge base among planning officers, particularly with regard to emerging technologies such as anaerobic digestion. I wonder, Minister, whether you share my concern at hearing that news, and what are you prepared to see the Welsh Government, in partnership with other authorities, doing to address this?
I thank the Member for his question and the committee for the work that it is doing on this. Part of the planning Bill is about not only providing the structure of change but also changing the ethos of how a resilient planning service will work across the whole of Wales. We know that planning departments across Wales are under pressure because of finances and, therefore, the knowledge base in some areas is being stripped, but that does not mean that we do not hold the knowledge within Wales. That is why I am encouraging authorities to work more closely together to build a stronger, resilient service. Part of the professional development is about ensuring that you are competent in that process and have many hours of operational work to hold your accreditation. That is something that I hope the planning Bill will aid.
The discussion has touched on the Williams report today and what that might mean for the future. However, I do not think that we should wait for the outcome of Williams. There are opportunities with the planning Bill to change the way that planning systems operate and that can start now.
Given the challenges of climate change, how can you ensure that town planners understand the environmental standards required for twenty-first century buildings, including energy efficiency maximisation, south-facing properties and the dangers of building on floodplains?
I am confident that planning officials understand that process, but it is also a function of building control teams that operate under Part L building regulations and technical advice note 22. Therefore, there is a lot of guidance to support their work, but it is a matter of making sure that that is joined up across the organisation. As I mentioned with the planning Bill, this is about changing the structure relating to how we operate the planning system to make better, more effective use of that in the future.
I am grateful to William Powell for raising this question. We all know about the increasing importance of town planners, but also about how the knowledge base for town planning changes over time, which the Minister has alluded to. There is also a consistency issue, Minister. Can you ensure that when this professional development is happening across Wales, there is consistency between local authorities and that the sort of best practice that is employed in one authority will be best practice in another corner of Wales?
That is the very reason we are introducing a planning support service, which will be in operation from April of this year. To support that process, we are looking at streamlining the 25 individual planning authorities to have some coherent working, so that when a decision is made, it is a fair decision wherever you are in Wales. I share the Member’s concern about consistency, and it is something that I will strive to ensure that we get right.
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the effect of the proposed Planning Bill on the Welsh language? OAQ(4)0345(HR)
The Bill will have a positive effect on the Welsh language by providing a modern legislative framework for the preparation of development plans and decisions on planning applications. This will support the delivery of affordable homes and jobs.
One of the main message of the First Minister’s ‘cynhadledd fawr’ on the Welsh language was that population movements—in-migration and out-migration—are a central consideration when it comes to protecting those areas where Welsh is still the language of the community. Why is the Welsh Government not using this Bill to respond to these risks that have been identified?
I thank the Member for his question, but I think that we are taking the Welsh language very seriously in planning terms. I am aware of the First Minister’s discussions through the summer and those of other Ministers, too. We all have a responsibility to give new opportunities for the Welsh language, and the draft planning Bill and the planning Bill will do so. We issued technical advice note 20, and guidance will follow shortly, ensuring that we have a balance between economic growth and the obvious need of the Welsh language in our communities across Wales.
Rwy’n gweld yn natganiad y Prif Weinidog yr wythnos hon fod canllawiau yn cael eu datblygu i helpu awdurdodau cynllunio i asesu effaith ceisiadau ar yr iaith Gymraeg. Pam ydych chi’n hyderus fod hyn yn ddigonol i ddiogelu a hyrwyddo defnydd y Gymraeg yn ein cymunedau?
We went through a consultation process in terms of developing TAN 20, which we launched a few weeks ago. We committed to providing some guidance to run alongside that. Local authorities already have a raft of guidance across a raft of different programmes, whether that be in relation to the Welsh language or the environment. They should act on that, and act on that appropriately. It would be wrong to infer that they may not act appropriately on one specific element, whether that be the Welsh language or otherwise. If the Member has evidence to support that, I would be interested to understand it better, but I believe that technical advice note 20 and the following guidance will help to secure the Welsh language in our communities.
Energy Performance of Buildings
12. Will the Minister make statement regarding improving the energy performance of buildings in Wales? OAQ(4)0355(HR)
My oral statement of 14 January sets out forthcoming changes to building regulations to increase energy performance of all new and many existing buildings in Wales.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. One of the key aspects of the Part L consultation document was a need to adopt a recipe approach across building design and building services, as well as energy technologies and fuel types. The Government highlights the benefits of such an approach, and I believe that that was the right approach to take. However, there seems to be no mention in your statement, in setting out the way forward, as to whether you are still going to adopt that approach. Can you therefore confirm that you intend to proceed with the recipe approach and how that would be implemented?
The Member is right to raise that. We have to have a mix of opportunity to meet the requirements of energy consumption and conservation. We are working on the principles of the fabric-first process, but, then again, we are looking at what other opportunities that may present in terms of technologies to meet those targets. It is something that the construction industry has certainly welcomed in the statement and is working with us to deliver.
13. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to improve the quality of Welsh housing stock? OAQ(4)0347(HR)
Improving the quality of homes in Wales is vital. The Welsh housing quality standard, the Houses into Homes programme and measuring the outcome of the Housing (Wales) Bill will be all-important in the Government’s priorities going forward.
Thank you for that answer. I was pleased to meet with representatives of Caerphilly council to hear how it is progressing towards meeting the housing quality standard there. Do you agree with me that this standard should be applied across the housing sector in Wales?
The housing health-and-safety rating system and associated enforcement powers ensure safety standards that can be monitored by local authorities. Certainly, I congratulate Caerphilly on its move towards better housing conditions. That is something that other authorities and RSLs may wish to consider in their drive forward.
Minister, one way to improve the quality of the Welsh housing stock is to increase the availability of new private rented homes. The UK Government has introduced a build-to-rent fund to support the development of new, purpose-built, privately rented homes. What is the Minister doing to increase the supply of new private homes for rent in Wales?
We are working with the industry to ensure that we have new opportunities. The Member will note from recent press statements by many of the housebuilders across Wales that they welcome the intervention made by this Welsh Labour Government, and, of course, I hope that the Member also welcomes that.
Disabled Facilities Grant
14. Will the Minister provide an update on the implementation of the Disabled Facilities Grant? OAQ(4)0348(HR)
The administration and delivery of DFGs is a matter for local authorities. The latest figures, which measure delivery times, show that a steady improvement in waiting times across Wales has been achieved. I expect this trend to continue.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Actually, some of the councils have worsened in their delivery times, quite considerably. I think 12 months seems rather a long time anyway to deliver on the payment, but Care and Repair has certainly expressed its concern that the time for payment is taking too long generally. What steps are you taking to alleviate Care and Repair’s concerns?
We have had umpteen debates in this Chamber about DFGs and how services are provided. I was very clear in my statement last time that I expect this to get better. I have a review in process to look at how we deliver these schemes. There are three or four different ways of delivery for adaptations in premises, and that is far too confusing for the consumer. So, I am looking at that very carefully and I hope to be able to bring something to the Chamber shortly.
New Affordable Homes in Wales
15. Will the Minister provide an update on his plans to provide new affordable homes in Wales? OAQ(4)0340(HR)
The delivery of affordable homes continues to be a top priority for me. I want to see more affordable homes across a range of tenures, both rental and part-ownership, offering choice for the many in Wales.
Thank you, Minister, for the reply. The Conservative-led UK Government has announced a programme to build up to 165,000 homes—new, affordable homes—over the next three years, which is the fastest affordable housebuilding programme for 20 years. Will the Minister follow the example being set by the UK Government and commit to working with the private sector on ways to deliver more affordable homes for the people of Wales?
I thank the Member for his question and his Conservative press release. Let me give you some real facts on what the Conservative Government is doing in Westminster. The coalition Government in Westminster has all but abandoned providing new social housing replacing its affordable housing. Let me tell you what the affordable housing policy really is—[Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. You opened this door; you will listen to the answer. [Laughter.]
I am very grateful for your intervention there, Deputy Presiding Officer.
Affordable housing policy means housing rents of up to 80% of market value; that is what affordable housing means to the Conservative Government. In London, where market rents are around £2,000 for a rental property, 80% of that is the rental value; is that what you call affordable? I do not see that happening in Wales, and we are not going to follow, along any lines, what the Conservative Government is doing in England.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
1. Will the Counsel General make a statement regarding how the draft Wales Bill promotes public debate regarding achieving a separate jurisdiction for Wales? OAQ(4)0056(CG)
Good afternoon, everyone. There are aspects of the draft Bill that enhance Wales’s position within the joint jurisdiction of England and Wales, such as the provision in clause 21 in the draft Bill relating to the Law Commission, which was included at our request.
I thank the Counsel General for his answer. Can I give you one scenario, Counsel General? Today, again—as yesterday—we are debating a legislative consent motion that will mean having to suspend our Standing Orders, that there is no public consultation in Wales on the legislation and that there is no time for committee scrutiny either on the legislative consent motions, because we choose to legislate through Westminster rather than through this place. I believe that a clearly set out separate jurisdiction for Wales would be of assistance to us in making better legislation. Are you entirely content with the current situation?
It would be foolish to suggest that there are not some difficulties associated with the current legislative consent motion procedures, mostly to do with the timings of what is done in Westminster and the ability of the Assembly to respond to it. However, that really is not something that I am in a position to comment on further. As to the draft Wales Bill itself, it simply does not deal with the matter, does it?
Counsel General, just following on from those points about the constitution and the judicial system as it affects Wales, you will, of course, be aware that the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Bill is now to be heard this month before seven Supreme Court judges. One of those is a Welsh judge who has been brought in. Have you considered making any representations about the fact that there is no permanent representation on the Supreme Court by a Welsh judge, bearing in mind the number of Welsh constitution-related issues that appear to be keeping the Supreme Court busy these days?
We have regularly made representations to that effect. The argument between us is that the Supreme Court interprets the Constitutional Reform Act 2005, where it says that the panel of Supreme Court justices shall be representative of every part of the United Kingdom, as a reference to what are currently strictly legal jurisdictions; therefore, England and Wales is considered to be a ‘part’. We have not agreed with that proposition. In circumstances where there is a sitting Northern Irish member of the panel, Lord Kerr, and there are, by convention, two panel members who are Scots, we think that, particularly in relation to Wales’s leading part—I think that that is a fair way to put it—in the development of constitutional law in the United Kingdom at the moment, it is wrong in principle for there not to be a sitting member of the panel who is Welsh and is available to sit on such cases.
Of course, we are fortunate that the new incumbent in the role of Lord Chief Justice is a good Welshman, if I may call him that, and that he will be sitting on the panel that hears the agricultural sector case a week on Monday, to which I look forward very much.
2. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Law Commission with regards to the draft Wales Bill? OAQ(4)0057(CG)
I have had no such discussions myself with the Law Commission, but there has been dialogue between Welsh Government officials and other interested parties.
In answering the previous question, you said that clause 21 had been placed in the draft Bill at the request of the Welsh Government. This clause, of course, allows further collaboration between the Welsh Government and the Law Commission, but the provision is not as robust as the situation in Scotland. I noticed particularly that the Presiding Officer, in her evidence to the select committee, stated specifically that she would like to strengthen the current draft Bill by placing a duty on the commission to draw up a work programme specifically for Wales, to reform Welsh law. Do you and the Welsh Government agree with the Presiding Officer’s view?
Absolutely. The deal that was agreed in relation to clause 21 is not ideal. We very much wanted to have the relevant provisions in the Law Commission Act 1965 amended as soon as possible, so as to give Welsh Ministers equal access—if I may put it that way—to the Law Commission. The problem is that, in relation to the overall programme of the Law Commission, it is and will remain the Lord Chancellor who has the purse strings and the overall control. We accept that that is not ideal. Nevertheless, we do see clause 21 as a major step forward. It was brokered at the behest of the commission itself, which, as Members will know, has a good Welshman at its head now—not that I think that that was directly important. I think that all of the commissioners understand that, with the growth of the institutions of governance in Cardiff for Wales, it is absolutely vital that there is proper access to a law commission serving Wales and its proposed legal development as much as England.
Counsel General, I would like to follow on from that. Have you identified any areas of constitutional concern within the draft Wales Bill that would cause you to make any representations or give cause for further thought and discussion?
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
In his discussions with other persons on the draft Bill, will the Counsel General be having discussions with lawyers advising the Secretary of State? The Secretary of State said in a meeting in Westminster recently that clause 4 of this Bill was a minor detail, which calls the Welsh Government what I have been calling it from the very beginning, namely the Welsh Government. Will the Counsel General ensure that clause 4 is implemented appropriately and fully, as a clear sign of our proper constitutional status as a nation?
I am not sure that it is for me to ensure the implementation of a UK Act of Parliament, but I certainly adopt the underlying sentiments behind the question. I think that I have said in the Chamber before that it remains a surprise to me how little understanding there is, even within Wales, that we do now have a fully competent legislature and a full executive—and, for that matter, a judiciary, albeit shared with England. We have all three parts of the classical division for governance. That is not well understood in some quarters and it is not helped by calling the Government ‘Welsh Assembly Government’. Therefore, I certainly consider, and I know that the Government considers, the formal change of name to ‘Welsh Government’ an important step, because words do matter—I would say that, I am a lawyer. Presentation matters as well, which is why the Government took the step of the rebranding exercise—if you want to call it that—at the beginning of this Assembly to drop the name ‘Assembly’ wherever possible, with all due respect to this Chamber.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Counsel General.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have accepted an urgent question under Standing Order 12.66. I call on Simon Thomas to ask the urgent question.
Will the Minister make a statement regarding the salaries and pensions of senior council officers in light of Wales Audit Office reports? EAQ(4)0374(LG)
My statement issued yesterday outlines the strong framework that I am putting in place to ensure that locally elected members take open and transparent decisions regarding senior officers’ remuneration.
I thank the Minister for her reply. Her written statement yesterday was, indeed, very welcome. It said clearly that the governance and scrutiny of senior officers’ remuneration is central to the public having trust in their public servants, and it goes on to say that scrutiny committees and auditors must review these reports and ensure that the spirit as well as the letter of the law has been followed. In light of that written statement yesterday, will you now tell the Chamber, Minister, that the statement referring to remuneration also applies to all the other creative accounting methods that chief officers have used to fill their boots over the years, such as deferred pension arrangements, car leasing and other perks? Will you also confirm, in light of the Wales Audit Office’s report specifically on what happened in Pembrokeshire and Carmarthenshire and the unlawful payments made there, that the suspension of the chief officers there, pending a full-council investigation, would be supported by, and called for, by you?
I cannot comment on the particular circumstances in Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire while the police are liaising with the Crown Prosecution Service. I welcome the publication of the public-interest reports, and I think that they make a good contribution to good governance and sound financial management in the public sector. I urge both councils to seriously consider the recommendations that they make—I think that they should make the necessary improvements to their decision-making process—and both local authorities now have 30 days to respond.
During the passing of the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Act 2013, the Welsh Conservatives led calls for all senior pay to be set by an independent remuneration board. Sadly, you and Plaid Cymru voted that down, in favour of your own amendment allowing local authorities to only have regard to any panel recommendations, for chief executives only. In the aftermath of the Wales Audit Office findings regarding Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, do you not regret taking that decision? Would you consider reviewing that situation so that we can now see transparent, accountable controls in place for all levels of senior pay across our local authorities?
No, I do not and will not. I think that it is absolutely right that locally elected members—they are the ones who are put there by the local electorate—take firm responsibility for and ownership of decisions concerning the remuneration of their senior officers. It is those local councillors’ responsibility to ensure that proper governance is practised, and they should be mindful of ensuring the correct and appropriate spending of public funds.
I was disturbed to read, in relation to Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, that the response from the Wales Audit Office was to indicate that it was outside its remit to investigate these matters of the remuneration of the chief executives. Can you make it clear to all bodies that are in receipt of funds voted by this Assembly that it is indeed the Wales Audit Office’s duty to investigate the way in which those funds are used?
I do see that as a role of the Wales Audit Office.
I also welcome your statement on the provisions of the local government Act. In terms of the remuneration panel’s remit in scrutinising chief executives’ pay, does it cover the sort of things that Simon Thomas outlined, to which you did not respond, in terms of pension payments and other abnormal payments that they might gain as a result of these sorts of practices going on in Caerphilly, Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire?
No. The policy on, and the regulation of, local government pension schemes is not devolved to the National Assembly for Wales.
Residents in my community expect transparency at every level of government, and, more importantly, at local government. One of the issues that I have with the Wales Audit Office report is that local members have been told, I think, in both authorities, but certainly in one, that the payments did not cost the county council anything at all. Therefore, some of the members said, ‘We can let it go.’ However, my concern is that those payments actually did affect the Dyfed superannuation fund, which covers everybody who works in the Dyfed area, and I was disappointed that the audit office’s report did not mention that whatsoever.
As I say, it is now for both of the local authorities to which you refer to have a look at the reports that have come from the Wales Audit Office. They need to seriously consider the recommendations it makes. There are obviously improvements that they need to make to their decision-making processes. However, ultimately, these are employment matters for each authority; the Welsh Government has no powers to intervene in decisions about remuneration packages for individuals.
The findings of these latest WAO reports have indeed been very disturbing, particularly for local rate payers and the staff in the local authorities, many of whom, of course, have had their pay frozen for a number of years. It appears that a number of local authorities—albeit a small number—need to make significant improvements to their governance arrangements. You do have powers, Minister, to be able to issue guidance in respect of governance to Welsh local authorities. Why do you not use your influence in respect of guidance in relation to governance arrangements to solve this problem once and for all, so that we do not have situations where local rate payers are picking up a bill for barmy decisions by some local authorities?
I think that I said yesterday in my business statement that I will be publishing updated guidance to authorities on this matter later this month, which will come into force in April.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move the motion—Mark Drakeford.
Motion NNDM5428 Mark Drakeford
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Orders 33.6 and 33.8:
Suspends Standing Order 12.20(i) and that part of Standing Order 11.16 that requires the weekly announcement under Standing Order 11.11 to constitute the timetable for business in Plenary for the following week, to allow NNDM5427 to be considered in Plenary on Wednesday 5 February 2014.
I move the motion.
I ask Assembly Members to agree to suspend the relevant Standing Orders today so that we can debate an important legislative consent motion resulting from a further late amendment to the UK Children and Families Bill.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have no speakers for this item. The proposal is to agree the motion to suspend Standing Orders. Does any Member object? There are no objections, therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move the motion—Mark Drakeford.
Motion NNDM5427 Mark Drakeford
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, in accordance with Standing Order 29.6, agrees that provisions in the Children and Families Bill relating to smoking in private vehicles carrying a person or persons under the age of 18, 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.
Once again, despite the very real concerns about the process that we must follow, I am pleased to bring forward this legislative consent motion because it provides us with a great opportunity to proceed in taking steps to protect children from the effects of tobacco use.
Members will be aware of the vote in the House of Lords on 29 January and an opposition party amendment to the Children and Families Bill on smoking in vehicles carrying children. Following this, there was a public commitment to a free vote in the House of Commons on this particular issue. Then, we were informed by the UK Government on 30 January about the possibility of a further Government amendment to that Bill with regard to smoking in private vehicles carrying children.
On Monday of this week, 3 February, the UK Government confirmed that an amendment would be tabled on 4 February, to be debated at the Third Reading in the House of Lords on 5 February, which is this afternoon. This would amend current smoke-free legislation to give the Secretary of State a specific regulation-making power to enable him to prohibit smoking in private vehicles carrying people under the age of 18.
The LCM in front of the Assembly this afternoon would put Welsh Ministers in the same position as the Secretary of State, allowing them to bring forward regulations for Wales. Certain vehicles, such as taxis, are already required to be smoke-free under the Smoke-free Premises etc. (Wales) Regulations 2007. The regulation-making powers in this amendment would enable us to require private vehicles that are not covered by the existing smoke-free premises regulations to be smoke-free, but only at times or in circumstances where there is a person aged under 18 present in the vehicle.
Moreover, the amendment that will be put before the House of Lords later today will also put our existing regulation-making powers on a stronger footing, in strengthening the enforcement options that are available to both the Welsh Ministers and the Secretary of State to include enforcement by the police. Because those regulation-making powers, if this LCM is passed, will in future be exercised here—by Welsh Ministers in this Assembly—they would be subject to a full Plenary debate and vote.
These late amendments have presented us with another timing difficulty. The Children and Families Bill is expected to have its final consideration in the House of Commons next week. In order for the amendment tabled to include Wales, it was necessary to move to agree a legislative consent motion more quickly than this Assembly has ever done before.
I much regret that, once again, it has not been possible for the LCM to have full scrutiny of an Assembly committee.
Of course, I heard what Simon Thomas said to the Counsel General earlier this afternoon.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I am grateful to you for agreeing to a motion to allow the relevant Standing Orders to be suspended so that we could debate this LCM today. I am grateful to Members for supporting that. I would also like to express my gratitude to members of the Business Committee for their recognition of the pressures that we have been working under.
Dirprwy Lywydd, if I may, I would like to take the opportunity to put on record my thanks to what is a very small band of officials, who have worked very hard and very quickly over recent weeks to secure the different opportunities that rapidly and unexpectedly have come our way in strengthening public health protections in Wales. Both policy and legal officials have liaised with their counterparts in the Department of Health on the amendment that has been tabled, and have produced an LCM to a very tight timetable in order to enable Members to consider it this afternoon.
I believe that it provides an important opportunity that should not be lost. I hope that Members will agree that these are powers that should be taken for Welsh Ministers, and exercised here in the National Assembly.
I thank the Minister for bringing this legislative consent motion before the Assembly today. As has been the theme of these recent LCMs, there is obviously a timing problem in terms of the availability of time for the National Assembly to scrutinise these motions in more detail. However, it is important that we grasp this opportunity at this time to provide an opportunity in the UK Parliament’s work programme for Welsh Ministers to have the same regulation-making powers as will be available to the Secretary of State in England, which could be used to deliver a ban on smoking in cars with children.
This is a matter on which there are various opinions as to whether or not a ban ought to be introduced. I have made it quite clear that my personal opinion is very much in support of introducing a ban. It would be helpful, Minister, if you can tell us in your response to the debate whether you intend to use these powers, if they are given to you as a result of the legislative consent motion, so that you can introduce a ban and use the other enforcement opportunities present, particularly in terms of police enforcement in the future.
We know that the dangers of second-hand smoke are well established; nobody needs to provide more evidence on that. We know that smoke circulating in an enclosed, confined space within a car is five times more damaging than it is in a larger room. Young children whose lungs are developing are more susceptible to the damage that can be caused by the inhalation of second-hand smoke. So, I am very keen to see regulations made here in Wales as soon as possible, and it would be useful, Minister, to hear from you about the possible timescales you might be able to work to, should these powers be devolved.
I appreciate that a piece of work, an evaluation, is being done at present on the publicity campaign, which the Welsh Government has quite rightly undertaken. However, I am not convinced from the discussions I have had with my own constituents or the charities that have lobbied me on this issue, that that campaign has been as effective as it ought to have been in bringing down the rates of smoking in cars with children. We know that around half of Welsh smokers smoke in their vehicles and that around one in five Welsh smokers admits to smoking in a car with children. If one in five is admitting and confessing to that—and I will use this word; it may be unpleasant for some—sin of smoking in a car with children, given the damaging impact on children’s health, I think that, probably, the rates are much higher than that. So, perhaps Minister, in response, you would be able to give an indication of whether you intend to use these powers and the timescale by which you would intend to use them.
Once again, I am very pleased to speak in support of this legislative consent motion. It does seem as if Westminster has finally woken up to the public health danger of smoking, and that has meant that we have had all these very short-notice debates, but about very important issues such as e-cigarettes yesterday, plain packaging and now this today. I know that the Minister said that this was going to be debated this afternoon, I believe, in the House of Lords, where it is likely to pass because it is a Government motion, and that it will then be going to the House of Commons on Monday, where I understand all parties will have a free vote. If we pass this LCM today and then, by some chance, the motion is defeated in a free vote in Westminster—although, personally, I think that is extremely unlikely because there is a great public mood for this to be done, so I cannot imagine that it would be defeated—what would our position be in the Assembly? What if we had already passed this and then nothing happened in Westminster? That was one of the issues that I wanted to ask about.
If the legislation does go through, I would also like to ask about how that would link in with the research that is being done here and the campaigns that are being done here. Really, I would like to express my hope that, if it was passed, the powers would be passed down to us so that we could do it as soon as we possibly could, because the evidence is so overwhelming and I think that it is just an absolutely natural step to take. Thinking of the health of the children in cars, really, we ought to be doing it as soon as we possibly can.
I will be speaking on behalf of the Plaid Cymru group and we are going to support this LCM today, despite the fact that we are very unhappy generally about these methods of legislating. That is to do with broader questions about exporting our legislation to Westminster rather than dealing with legislation in a much more balanced way here, where appropriate scrutiny can be given to what we are doing. In that context, I do not think that there is fundamental disagreement on this policy, so people are willing to collaborate. However, in a different context, it could be very different and, generally, we are not happy with this approach of setting aside Standing Orders, coming to a very quick decision and not giving full consideration to such matters. Having said that, this issue has been a subject of public debate for so long and has had plenty of consideration, so we are willing to agree with this today. The point has already been made about the health of children, and I think that protecting children’s health is what we are doing here today, and we want to support that.
I just want to say one additional thing about this idea that the car is somehow a private space that the Government should not interfere in. I think that we interfere in the car all the time by saying that people cannot speak on their mobile phones in their cars and that people have to wear seat belts. Every step we have taken has broken this inaccurate perception that the car is a private thing that is not to do with public space. The car is a very dangerous thing, in truth, and there is a duty on all of us to manage these vehicles in the most responsible way possible. Smoking in cars poses a danger to children in cars and it also poses a danger to people outside the car, perhaps, depending upon how you drive. However, that is not an issue for this legislation.
I want to ask some questions on the way ahead. The Welsh Government has been set itself on a path on this issue that meant waiting until the end of this Assembly before looking at legislating, as I understood it. There is a possibility now, if this comes through Westminster, that the Westminster Government—the Government of England in this context—will move to legislate and have regulations. So, are we going to adopt the English regulations, or is the Minister going to stick to the route that he has taken thus far for Wales? I would urge him to do that, and also to review the timetable to ensure that we are not in a position where England moves ahead and we are left behind. I do think that the evidence, as Julie Morgan said, is sufficiently robust now for us to make a decision on this issue.
The final point that I want to make, as we are legislating so swiftly here, is to ask the Minister to commit to looking at the regulations to ensure that the regime that we put in place—for example, the superaffirmative procedure or something similar—ensures that there is proper and detailed scrutiny of these regulations, given that we do not have time to look at the principles in passing the LCM today.
Once again, the process that we have had to undergo today is far from what any of us would have wanted. However, given the amendment to the legislation in London, it is perfectly appropriate for the Welsh Government to have brought forward the LCM today.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats will support the LCM on the basis that we believe that it is proper and correct for Welsh Ministers to have powers to act in this particular area. If the Minister does come forward with regulations at a later date, then the group will have a free vote. However, it is right that the Welsh Ministers should have powers to bring forward those regulations for decision here at the National Assembly.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister to reply.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate.
I think that Darren Millar began by making the key point that we need to grasp the opportunity that this late amendment provides for Wales. He powerfully made the case for legislative action. Julie Morgan asked a particular question about what the position would be were the amendment to be defeated in the House of Commons. The answer is that we would simply return to the position that we are in now, still able to take forward legislation within the competence of the Assembly, but without the additional benefit of being able to have any legislation—were it to be introduced here—enforced through the police. We would have to rely on local authority enforcement powers in that case.
I thought that Simon Thomas made some important points about the private nature of car space, and the way in which, progressively, Governments have sought to regulate the conduct of people when in cars, for wider public purposes. I give him an assurance that, if the Welsh Government brings forward regulations, they will be designed to meet the Welsh circumstances, and, quite certainly, we would bring them forward under the affirmative procedure, with a proper opportunity for this Assembly to scrutinise those regulations.
The general question that has been raised across the Chamber is one of timing. I think that the best that I can say on that is that my understanding is that, if the amendment goes through both the House of Lords and the House of Commons, there will need to be a period of consultation by the UK Government on the enforcement side of the new powers that it will have taken. That will broadly run into the period in which our own research findings on the campaign that we have run will become available. What I want to say to the Assembly is that I would not want us to be in a position where children in England were afforded a higher level of protection from second-hand smoke than children in Wales. Therefore, there seems to me to be inevitably a sense in which the timing of any regulations here—although not their content—would have to be run with a clear eye on any timetable that was being introduced at the Department of Health.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? There is objection. Therefore, I will defer voting under this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the Petitions Committee, William Powell, to move the motion.
Motion NDM5420 William Powell
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Petitions Committee on the establishment of an Academi Heddwch Cymru / Wales Peace Institute, which was laid in the Table Office on 24 October 2013.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I move the motion. I am very pleased today to open this debate on the Petitions Committee’s report on establishing Academi Heddwch Cymru/the Welsh Peace Institute.
The Petitions Committee’s role is to respond to issues raised by members of the public across Wales—to act as a facilitator and advocate for petitioners and to ensure that their concerns are both listened to and heard here at the heart of Government. Petitioners tell us that, even if the issues they raise are not always fully resolved by the petitions process, they value our ability to get decision-makers to at least consider their views, to get them listened to, and, indeed, receive a fair hearing. For the most part, petitions are on matters of everyday Government decision-making. However, on occasion, the petitions we receive are on broader themes, where it is clear that we are unlikely to be able to resolve the matter fully as a committee.
The petition we are debating today is one that raises these sorts of broader issues. One of the Petitions Committee’s roles is to provide opportunities for such issues, which might not otherwise receive wide consideration, to be debated in the Assembly itself. The petition called for the establishment of an Academi Heddwch Cymru or a Wales Peace Institute and was signed by 1,525 people. It was organised jointly by the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, Cynefin y Werin, Cymdeithas y Cymod and CND Cymru. It was submitted to our predecessor committee back in September 2009 and that committee took a range of oral evidence on the petition. The current committee built on this evidence with a consultation and further consideration of the petition. The previous committee took oral evidence from the petitioners, the Flemish Peace Institute, and the International Catalan Institute for Peace. Additionally, the committee also considered written evidence submitted from the Peace Research Institute in Frankfurt, Allemagne. Building on this, we conducted a public written consultation, with 56 individuals and organisations taking the time and trouble to respond. That is the largest response to a Petitions Committee consultation to date.
So, what were the petitioners trying to achieve through the establishment of a peace institute? As much as anything, they wanted a broader debate about what the potential role and function of a peace institute might be and they emphasised that an institute would need to promote peace in all aspects of our society and in the broadest sense. This view was supported by the peace institutes from which we took oral evidence and also by the written evidence submitted to us and to our predecessor committee. Among the key principles identified by the petitioners that should underpin any institute were the following: first, a relationship with the National Assembly, with non-governmental organisations, and, indeed, with other organisations that contribute to knowledge and activity about the promotion of peace; secondly, the ability to examine the impact on Wales of UK defence and foreign policy decisions; thirdly, a resource for people and organisations providing information about peace issues; fourthly, academic freedom and consultation status in respect of the national curriculum in Wales; and, finally, freedom to seek independent financing through commissioned research and to utilise funds and resources in the area of peace building.
However, the petitioners were reluctant to provide more detail on what they saw as the role, function and detailed activities of such an institute. Their priority was to seek support in principle for the establishment of a peace institute. Throughout the process, the petitioners have been clear that they are not seeking funding at this stage, or even a commitment to proceed with the establishment of a peace institute, but they do want further investigation into the practicalities of how such an institute could be established.
The Presiding Officer took the Chair at 15:40.
This has made it somewhat difficult for us, and, indeed, for our predecessor committee, to come to a clear view on the petition itself. Some consultation responses also highlighted that the proposal raises as many questions as it does answers and that more detail of how the institute would work in practice is required. We agree with this assertion and, while understanding that the motivation behind the petition was to generate support for the concept, we think that this petition may have progressed more quickly had more detail been forthcoming at an earlier stage from the petitioners. They did, however, clarify that they have in mind something that is broader than a purely academic approach, and that it would have a co-ordinating function across Welsh society and internationally. It is clear that, if the basic principle is accepted, further work is required to consider better what sort of role and function such an institute could have.
As I mentioned earlier, the previous committee took evidence from three European peace institutes. These institutions are all different, but they all illustrated some key themes that they had in common. These included, first, political independence. It is clear that, if a peace institute is established, that must be done on the basis of real independence from those who would establish it and that funding sources should not impact on that independence. Secondly, on funding, each of the institutes stressed the importance of structural funding. However, it is difficult to assess, without a greater understanding of the role and function of a peace institute, how much it would cost and where funding for it might come from. It is clear from the Welsh Government’s response to our report that it would not be in a position to provide such funding in the current climate.
With regard to the merit of regional parliaments establishing peace institutes, all three of the institutes that we took evidence from were established by regional legislatures, which are not responsible for the armed forces or military spending of their countries. Whether this provides a template for Wales, where powers over the military and defence remain the responsibility of Westminster, is a matter for us to consider.
The public written consultation that we carried out sought views on whether a peace institute should be established, how it might be constituted, and what its functions could be. Most responses came from individuals and peace and religious groups, who were, in the main, broadly supportive of the proposal, although few gave us detail on what they would like to see such an institute doing in practice. The Welsh Refugee Council, in particular, felt that a peace institute would help to provide an
‘independent and authoritative source of information about refugees and asylum seekers in Wales.’
It pointed out that, while international treaties are beyond the remit of the National Assembly for Wales, some of the international obligations touch on issues of social justice and equality, which are of concern to everyone in Wales. Higher Education Wales was one of the only respondents that told us that it did not feel that such an institute should be established at this time. It said that it understood that the petitioners were keen on the research elements and academic freedom of such an institution and that
‘both of these themes are already embedded and held in high regard within universities in Wales.’
While the committee has taken a range of evidence on this issue—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you taking an intervention?
I thank the Member for taking an intervention. I am sympathetic to this idea. However, I wondered whether you could tell us, with regard to the evidence given by the Welsh Refugee Council, whether it thought that such an institute would help fight against some of the prejudice and misinformation that exists about asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants generally.
I am grateful for that intervention. I think, from my reading of what the Welsh Refugee Council said, it is clear that it felt such a peace institute would contribute in broad, educational terms to promoting greater understanding and tolerance. It is also the case that, in all three settings where peace institutes already exist they have, within living memory, experienced the oppression of fascist dictatorship and therefore they speak with some authority on these matters. So, I am very grateful for your intervention.
However, having considered the evidence, we are supportive of the principle of a peace institute being established in Wales. We feel that such a body could add value to both the Assembly’s work, and to wider civic society.
We agree with the petitioners that peace should be considered in the broadest terms, and that while the Assembly does not have direct powers in relation to this, peace should be considered in the widest sense. Having seen how it can work in those places where there is no devolved responsibility for the military and defence, we feel that there is a strong argument for Wales to be at the forefront of these matters by having some form of peace institute that could consider issues relating to peace in that wider context. While there is a lot of work currently being undertaken in Wales on peace, there is a need for this work to be brought together, for it to be disseminated out to the widest audience, and for a broader engagement with civil society groups.
For these reasons, we believe that there is a case for further exploratory work to be undertaken on this issue. However, we acknowledge that in the current economic climate, there are unlikely to be funds available for detailed scoping work to be undertaken by the Welsh Government. We have, therefore, recommended to the Welsh Government that it simply facilitates further discussions with the interested parties, particularly between the academic community and civic society, to help drive forward development of proposals for a Welsh peace institute.
Llywydd, before I conclude, I would like to mention one of the lead petitioners in this whole drive for a peace institute, Dr John Cox, who has been a doughty campaigner on this and a range of other matters. Dr Cox, unfortunately, suffered the loss of his wife before Christmas. He is somebody to whom I feel that I must pay tribute.
May I thank Bill Powell and the Petitions Committee for its report? For the record, I was one of the Assembly Members who originally tabled a cross-party statement some years ago on the potential for a peace institute. I was also the previous Chair of the Petitions Committee and, as Bill said, we took much evidence on this. I am also co-chair with Bethan Jenkins of the cross-party group on human rights and peace.
I do not think that anybody would disagree with the sentiment of a vehicle that provides the notion of peace, or non-conflict, across the world or in our communities. However, I appreciate that there is a view that peace issues are not a devolved matter, given the Assembly’s non-role in defence matters. That said, I believe that there is scope for the Assembly and the Welsh Government to get involved. As the report suggests, there could be scope, for example, for an educational provision in respect of peace studies, conflict resolution through non-violence, the awareness of human rights, building into national relations through cultural contact and co-operative deals, for example. So, there is a lot of scope there.
All of these things matter. There is a precedent on the part of the Welsh Government. Some years ago, John Griffiths AM initiated the international development programme, which we now know it as the Wales for Africal programme. That has been a huge success. It was not the obvious thing that the Welsh Government, or the Assembly should do, but it has been a success and has cut across a number of portfolios. It has influenced civil society and associated groups. This was helped along initially, I believe, by a secondee from Oxfam. So, I think that there is a precedent for such an initiative.
As previous Chair of the Petitions Committee, I had discussions with some of the peace institutes. While it is useful to see how they operate, and, obviously, we can learn from them, I do not think that we necessarily have to replicate exactly what they do. As the Chair has said, funding is extremely tight, but to borrow a well-worn phrase, if you think that promoting peace is expensive, then just take a moment to consider the cost of conflict. That said, like the example of the international development programme, also the thematic approaches that the Welsh Government has made to, for example, the co-operatives and developing sustainability, there is scope for some exploratory work to be undertaken on non-conflict strategies.
In the main, I agree with the Petitions Committee’s report, because it raises many questions, and I do think that further work could be undertaken. Also, as a starting point, I do welcome the First Minister’s offer for Welsh Government officials to take part in discussions.
In my contribution today, I wish to also put on record my support for the establishment of a Wales peace institute and, in doing so, I would just like to pay tribute to the two very valuable contributions that we have had, and to William Powell in particular for opening up the debate. A Wales peace institute would seek to raise awareness and allow the ability to provide extremely valuable research, the transferring of knowledge and dissemination of peace awareness, as well as intervention in the field, in support of the 1,525 people who signed the petition urging for the principle and establishment of a Wales peace institute.
I believe that it would be most fitting to support this initiative as we commemorate the centenary of the beginning of the first world war, supposedly the war to end all wars, and yet, it was one of the bloodiest and costliest wars of all time. Historically, Wales is known as a peaceful nation, but during times of need and heroism, Wales has been there with support. Between the years of 1914 and 1918, 272,924 Welsh men and boys were recruited with, sadly, many paying the ultimate sacrifice, defending their country and our freedom. A legacy, catastrophic loss of life and devastation such as this should never be forgotten. A Wales peace institute, through education, would seek to inform people of the sacrifice and of the destruction of war and would, hopefully, promote and encourage a culture of peace. A peace institute in Wales would explore, in detail, the root causes of war and crimes against humanity, allowing high-quality research and collaboration across many associated groups in order to, one day, promote world peace.
Conway county peace group has very eloquently put the case forward as regards the importance of a peace institution in Wales. It says this:
‘As a constituent country/state of the United Kingdom, which has its own law making powers, we feel that Wales as an entity is analogous to Flanders in Belgium and to Catalonia in Spain, both of whom have their own Peace Institutes supported by their state governments.’
The Flanders and Catalonia peace institutions have stressed that it is crucial that a Welsh peace institution is to remain independent, although a strong bond with the National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government should exist. This institution should be independent from but supported by the Assembly and the Welsh Government. In this respect, the constitution will be similar to that of the Flemish Peace Institute vis-à-vis the state Government of Flanders.
There should be the facilitation of more discussions between interested parties, such as the academic community and civic society, to enable further scoping work to be undertaken for the Wales peace institute. We boast some of the best facilities in Europe with regard to academic research. Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea universities would be able to assist in research and would help the institute. However, this will be much broader than pure academic study. There is a Welsh goldmine of opportunity to take advantage of the knowledge and experience established within our universities.
As William Powell has said, the petition is not directly asking for funding from the National Assembly or the Welsh Government. This is about the principle of forming a Welsh peace institute. This institute would be cost-effective, because it would be performing a unique and valuable function in relation to the National Assembly’s decisions on policy. As well as many other advantages, it would seek to examine the impact on Wales of UK defence and foreign policy decisions; it would have consultation status in respect of the national curriculum of Wales; it would make use of well-established academic facilities to provide extensive research into conflict and peace; and it would provide enhanced representation of Wales on the international stage as a respectful and peace-loving nation. The peace institute would look at much more than war and peace; as a body it would promote peace in all aspects of our society through a transformative education on peace, and through the examination of theory and practice. I support the calls for the establishment of the Wales peace institute.
I am pleased to be able to speak in this debate, as has been mentioned earlier, in my capacity as co-chair of the cross-party group on peace and human rights, and also as a member of the Petitions Committee, which I think has seen through all of the debate on the peace institute, taking evidence from various bodies and being part of the consultation process. I always find it odd when we talk about peace not being devolved because, for me, peace is fundamental to how we live as human beings. That might sound leftish and hippyish, but, to me, it is about how we enact as human beings and how we want to see how we want to communicate with different people. I think that that is how I would like to see the peace institute progress in terms of how we can permeate the messages of peace throughout all of our interactions, all of our institutions and all of our educational bodies.
I think that the reference to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child is good here, so that we do make sure that it comes within every part of our legislation. When we are enacting policies and putting forward new pieces of legislation, should we not think more honestly about how that will affect people in their everyday lives? For example, when we are looking procurement policies, what does that mean? If we are signing up to work with a certain company as a Welsh Government, do we know the effect that that is having on Palestinians who are fighting for their lives at the moment? Do we know whether some of those companies are violating human rights on an international level? Therefore, we have to stand back and think, even though peace or militarisation is not devolved to Wales, how the policies and the powers that we do have in the here and now will affect people’s lives across the whole of the world.
We can talk about peace as much as we want here today, but, unfortunately, we live in a militarised society. Hundreds and thousands of pounds are given from the UK Government to fund military opportunities in wars across the world. For me, many of those wars are futile. Look at what we are doing now in Afghanistan: we are sending young men and women to die, but for what reason? We are pulling back troops from those countries because we know that it is futile. We know that it is leading to no good. We have to think again about how we go into schools in Wales. We have had a petition about recruiting in schools. Plaid Cymru has been vociferous against the fact that many young people in our deprived areas have been recruited without even knowing what they are going into, and the dangers that they are being put into. I have many friends in the military, therefore I am not against the military, but they tell me that they might not have joined the military had they known what they were being sent to do. Many of them feel that they cannot have an opinion while in the military; they cannot join a trades union, for example, to have the same rights as other people, and they would like to be able to have that voice.
We hosted a meeting a few weeks ago about Trident and its threat. Given the debate on the changing nature of the United Kingdom in particular, what would happen if Scotland were independent and there needed to be a change in how that was administered? We have to have that conversation here in Wales. I believe that a peace institute would be a place where we could have those types of conversations. I do not think that we are having enough of them here today.
Many other people have said why the concept is a good one and why we should have it as an independent organisation. I think that that is something that would, of course, be expected of an institute of that nature, because it also needs to be critical of Government and the policies that a Government takes forward. If it is aligned in any way to Government, I do not think that it would be able to do its job properly.
When we are looking to develop this type of institution, we should not apologise for it being something that is not in the mainstream. We should say to the people of Wales, ‘Yes, we have a chance now to discuss international issues that we do not usually have the chance to discuss at an Assembly level, and make sure that we can discuss them in the future’. I know that when Edwina Hart was the Minister for health, for example, we sent doctors to Palestine to help in that particular cause. We can think of creative ways as to how Wales can influence the international community, despite the fact that we do not have the political levers at the moment to make a difference.
I will make clear at the start of my brief contribution today that I do not support the establishment of a Welsh peace institute. Do not worry—I can see Bethan looking at me worriedly—I am not going to say anything incredibly negative about it because I think that it is a discussion to be had. There is no doubt at all that the people who signed the petition and who have followed through the process that the Assembly allows care deeply about it. I also listened to Janet Finch-Saunders’s eloquent statement about how important peace is and how an institute could potentially help to support that. I am also aware of the infectious enthusiasm of Dr John Cox—with whom I have had a friendship for a number of years. I was also very appreciative of the way that, in his initial attempts to get this discussion going, he wanted all parties to be involved. He believed that peace was not the domain of any single party, faction or fringe, but that it should be in the mainstream.
If we did have a peace institute now, it would probably be called a peace commission with a peace commissioner, because commissions have tended to replace the old idea of institutes and boards. It is a reasonable discussion to have and if, at some point in the future, there was some sort of institute or commission that dealt with these issues, I would hope that it would be done on a broad basis. Yes, it would be critical of government and of some of those groups that sometimes proclaim that they believe in peace but do not always do the best that they can to make sure that peace happens in practice. Let us have the discussion. I think that everyone here has spoken in a well-meaning way today. I do not support this at this point but I am more than happy to follow the discussions with interest, and any discussion about peace is a good one to have in the long term.
I am pleased to contribute to today’s debate, and specifically to support the petitioners and the petition and the concept of a Wales peace institute, but also to acknowledge that there is a lack of a clear vision being reflected here and a lack of detail. Far more work needs to be done before we can progress with this. I speak as one who is not a pacifist himself, although I do respect the pacifist tradition in Wales, from Keir Hardie through to Gwynfor Evans. I acknowledge that, at times, we do need to use force to keep the peace on an international level and to safeguard the interests of the nation. In that context, I feel that any sort of peace academy would have to look at peace studies, and at the reasons for war, and for alternative ways of dealing with war.
We have discussed that this is not devolved to Wales and, therefore, is not applicable to the Assembly or to Wales. However, peace and Wales’s role in the international processes has been an issue for politicians from Wales for many centuries. It is not something new that has come in the wake of devolution. Henry Richard, a man from Tregaron who became a Member of Parliament for Merthyr Tydfil, was the first to place in an international treaty, the Paris treaty of 1856, the need for arbitration. That was the first time that an international treaty had mentioned arbitration between nations, as a result of direct pressure from a Welsh politician, Henry Richard. Since Henry Richard, of course, we have had David Davies—the second David Davies, Lord of Llandinam—who established the Temple of Peace, which is behind the petition, in a way. He donated to Aberystwyth university to establish a number of courses there, and, specifically, the David Davies institute that specialises in international studies. David Davies himself was no pacifist. He believed in joint security and he did feel that force needed to be used. He wrote a book entitled ‘Force’, which is one of his best-known works. He believed that force should be used to keep the peace on an international level rather than to promote the interests of individual states.
That ideal is reflected, although quite poorly, in the United Nations to this day. So, in my opinion, some sort of peace institute can be established in Wales. We can move forward but there is a lot more work to be done to gain agreement between the various parties. I was disappointed that Higher Education Wales had not been so positive, because I think that this kind of development is in place in the universities already, and that there is a way for them to work together on a federal level throughout Wales. We do not have the University of Wales to do this job now, and so we have to collaborate to do this work, based on what is already happening at Aberystwyth University, which is a shoot from which these studies can grow, I believe. Then, other people, such as the Welsh Centre for International Affairs and so on, can be part of the process of expanding this beyond those boundaries. It is also true that the petitioners—and I know many of them very well myself—will have to surrender some of their vision and ownership over this just to ensure that everyone can buy into it. This should not just be an issue for pacifism, but something that truly looks at how we can keep the peace between different nations.
The final point I wanted to make on this, Presiding Officer, is that there could be no better way of creating a fine memorial to what happened in the first world war, in the centenary that we are remembering and thinking about now—certainly not celebrating— in thinking about the lessons of that war, in particular the first truly mechanised killing on a huge scale, and so many of our young people, and young men in particular, were lost in that war, almost a whole generation. We have memorials to the dead in every village. This could be a truly fitting monument for peace and the living, and I would urge the Assembly to support this today so that we can move along with building on Wales’s previous, fantastic work on building peace on the shoulders of giants: Keir Hardie, Henry Richard, David Davies, Gwynfor Evans. Let us build this kind of institute to remember them and those who lost their lives in war in the past.
A hundred years ago, the terrible first world war was about to start.
However, today, peace is something that we all strive for. We all want to live in a world free from political and social unrest in a society which promotes our liberty and provides protection. Of course, I fully support the promotion of peace within our society, and I appreciate the extensive work and gathering of evidence already undertaken by the committee. However, in relation to the institute, we do need more information. The Welsh Government would be unable to give any consideration to the creation of a peace institute in Wales until we are certain what the role, functions and activities of such an institute would be, and what benefits it would bring for the people of Wales. I therefore agree with the committee’s recognition that further exploratory work should be undertaken.
I do not, however, accept the recommendation that this work should be undertaken by the Welsh Government. I believe that this investigative work would be best undertaken by an independent body. The body should also have expertise that can focus on what such an institution would look like, what functions it would have, the cost of such an establishment, and an accurate assessment of the tangible benefits that it would deliver. Indeed, in reviewing the correspondence to the Petitions Committee, it is clear that a number of the supporters of the projects also believe that more work on the role and structure needs to be undertaken before it gets anywhere near Government. CND Cymru, for example, would like the work on fleshing out the proposals to be carried out by an informal working group entirely independent of Government.
Without information about its role and structure, it is difficult to envisage in concrete terms what a peace institute would provide for citizens in Wales. Most matters, as has been mentioned by a number of speakers, relating to national security and defence, remain non-devolved and sit within the remit of the UK Government. Regulation in this area is determined at a European and international level.
While we do not have any devolved responsibility for defence, or the deployment of our armed forces, we do have responsibility in some areas of the armed services’ wellbeing—for example, for veterans transitioning from the forces to civilian life, and for the families of those serving, we have made clear our commitment to supporting these groups. Whatever stance individual Assembly Members take about our servicemen and women being involved in conflicts across the world, I am sure that you will agree that they do an incredible job on our behalf, both at home and overseas, protecting our country now and for the future. Their dedication, commitment and bravery deserve to be honoured and recognised.
I also want to acknowledge the work of the Welsh Centre for International Affairs, based in the Temple of Peace and Health built by Lord Davies of Llandinam to commemorate the waste of life in the first world war. The WCIA, building on the legacy of the League of Nations Union, provides an independent non-partisan forum for human rights, peace and justice, sustainability and international development. I know that it has been successful in getting through the first round of a funding bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a Wales for Peace project. I look forward to hearing about the outcome.
Rejecting the committee’s recommendation does not mean that the Welsh Government does not take action to promote peace and strive for a harmonious environment. In our quest for peace, we must focus on where we can most effectively target our resources to tackle the root cause of conflict in society. We cannot underestimate the need to continue working with our communities to build tolerance, understanding and resilience. It is important that communities are able to work together, regardless of their background, race, faith or beliefs. I was pleased recently to announce further funding for nine regional community cohesion co-ordinators across Wales for a two-year period. These roles will help to aid further engagement within our communities, and to explore how we can all work together to celebrate and recognise diversity and differences.
Extremist attitudes are damaging and corrosive to community cohesion. Such messages can spread division and hatred. The links between community cohesion and the UK Government’s Prevent strategy are essential in Wales, where we want to work with all communities and individuals to tackle extremist messages. I am pleased to have met with Muslim communities in south and north Wales, and it is clear that there are positive stories where communities are coming together to ensure that Wales is a peaceful country that will not tolerate extremism of any form.
The Welsh Government works hard to promote and protect an individual’s human rights; the rights that are inherent to each and every individual. Hence we must ensure protection and security for everyone in every instance, including in the home. On 26 November, my colleague the Minister for Local Government and Government Business made an oral statement on the publication of the third annual report on our ‘The Right to be Safe’ strategy. Our continued progress demonstrates our commitment to tackling violence against women and domestic abuse. This will be supported further in the forthcoming ending violence against women and domestic abuse Bill.
I will be launching ‘Tackling Hate Crimes and Incidents: A Framework for Action’ this spring. This framework has been extended to include far-right hate crime. It is important that we can continue to ensure that we tackle prejudice and hostility to ensure that Wales is a place that is intolerant of any forms of hate and conflict.
These actions are supported and informed through our continued engagement with people in Wales. Listening to them has given us a good understanding of their needs. We are committed to taking these views into account and reflecting them in our policies. The many fora and working groups established across the organisation, including the Wales race forum and the faith communities forum within my own portfolio area, provide the Welsh Government with expert support and advice. The Welsh Government is committed to working hard to develop long-term positive change to eliminate unlawful racial discrimination, and to promote race equality and good race relations.
In conclusion, I note this report and support the promotion of peace within our society. The centenary year of the first world war brings the need to strive for peace into sharp focus. The commemoration of the first world war marks an important opportunity for us to remember those who were involved and the impact of this terrible war in shaping modern Wales. Conflict resolution and reconciliation will, quite rightly, be key aspects of the centenary commemoration. It will be an opportunity for everyone who wishes to contribute to get involved in activities at a local, community and national level.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on William Powell, Chair of the Petitions Committee to reply to the debate.
I am very grateful for the range of contributions that this debate has attracted today. I would first like to thank Chris Chapman, the previous Chair of the committee, who kick-started the consideration of this petition. She indicated broad support for its aims and stressed the importance of an institute in the wider promotion of humanitarian values. She paid tribute to John Griffiths for instituting what then became, in the fullness of time, the Wales for Africa programme. She also quoted the First Minister’s readiness to support a degree of facilitation from the Welsh Government in taking forward these proposals.
Thanks also to Janet Finch-Saunders for her strong endorsement of the principles behind the creation of a peace institute. She referred, as did other Members later, to the appropriateness of setting the consideration of this in the context of the commemoration of the first world war and its start in 1914. She also paid tribute to the work of the Conwy peace group in her own area, which has done so much to take forward this agenda.
I am particularly grateful to Bethan Jenkins for her contribution, because she represents continuity within the consideration of this petition, having served in the Petitions Committee in the third Assembly and in the current line-up. She spoke of the importance of promoting peace in the context of fundamental human values. She referred to the importance of ethical procurement and of a cross-cutting approach to these matters in Welsh Government. She also spoke with passion about the futility of war and the relevance of the changing shape of the United Kingdom in terms of emerging defence policy. She paid tribute to the work of the former Minister for health, Edwina Hart, in making doctors available to address the particular situation in Palestine.
Nick Ramsay outed himself as something of a sceptic in terms of a peace institute, but I sense that he is still ready to be convinced of the merits of such an institution. He joined me in paying tribute to one of the lead petitioners in this matter, Dr John Cox.
Simon Thomas, in his contribution, was supportive of the broad themes of a peace institute, but from a non-pacifist perspective, and I think that that is also important. He also set in context the work of many great Welshmen in this matter, particularly Henry Richards, David Davies and others. Clearly, people of both genders across Wales have contributed to this over time; that is important for us to recall. He also referred—and we need to remember this—to the fact that it is the centenary of the start of the first world war. I think that he and I might be happier if there were a greater emphasis on commemorating and celebrating the end of that war, rather than its beginning.
I am very grateful to the Minister for a comprehensive response, supportive in principle of the aims of a peace institute and very much drawing across the policies of Welsh Government in those areas where they are promoting community cohesion. He gave a number of examples that cannot have been lost on us. In particular, he made reference—and I would associate myself with that—to the importance of dealing with and celebrating the work that is done across this country to alleviate the suffering of veterans who have served this country well.
Finally, I think that it would be appropriate for us to recall the words of that last fighting Tommy, Harry Patch, who made it clear that war is not a glorious thing, but organised murder. It is very much in that context that we should be taking forward these matters, in tribute to those who fell in the first world war and in subsequent conflicts. Diolch yn fawr.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to note the Petitions Committee report. Does any Member object? There are no objections. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Peter Black took the Chair at 16:20.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 4 and 5 in the name of Aled Roberts, and amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Elin Jones.
Motion NDM5421 William Graham
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Calls on the Welsh Government to prioritise improving connectivity throughout rural Wales to ensure effective access to services.
I move the motion.
We are accepting all the amendments to the motion.
I would like to open with a comment on rural-proofing and the action, or lack of it, by the Welsh Government. The Welsh Government had stated that an independent review of the current rural-proofing activity was planned for completion in December 2013, and the Welsh Government programme for government website states that the review is due for publication in September 2013. Once again, when it comes to considering the impact on rural areas of Welsh Government policy, we see confusion, delay and a lack of action.
There have been no published reports or conclusions and no proper evidence of rural-proofing in Welsh Government policy making. It shows that rural Wales is not given the priority that it should be given by the Welsh Government. Similarly, there are reports from the Wales Rural Observatory that we have not had a rural household, rural services or rural business survey since 2010. There has, therefore, been no chance to see what impact for the good, or for the bad, the current Welsh Government policy has had on these sectors. Prior to 2010, these reports were issued in 2004 and 2007, and they should have been issued in 2013. Again, they have not been released or approved by the Welsh Government, despite the fact that the rural observatory has passed a number of reports to it; they have, presumably, been sat on. I can only, therefore, presume that they contain information that Welsh Government does not want to come into the public domain, or, perhaps, as the delay of rural-proofing assessments might indicate, that rural issues are given little, or no, priority.
Today’s debate will touch on many issues across rural health, education, the economy and housing. Three of the shadow Ministers will be speaking, and they will show that there is a continuing theme that is the main barrier for rural communities and economies, and that is of access to services. Services are those provisions that offer direct benefit to the general public in Wales; they are those things that people require in order to go about their daily lives. That is what we all pay our taxes for, to ensure that we get access to health services, education, housing and a properly functioning economy. It is unreasonable, unfair and unjust that priority should be afforded to urban communities with much less regard given to those in rural regions.
The Welsh Government is now creating the impression that the only priority it has for rural areas is that of a playground or park for their urban constituents. The strength of feeling from the public on these issues is clear. We see regular news stories highlighting the troubles that rural communities are facing, with local schools and community hospitals closing and services increasingly being moved further away.
Access to services in rural areas is an issue that I care deeply about, as do many in this Chamber, so I have been involved with a number of campaigns, as have many others: on transport issues, such as bus services, and on the decision to, potentially, cut those services, including the Arriva-X94 service, and in rural housing, trying to get the help-to-buy scheme extended to rural housing areas. The Minister slammed the door shut on that today, meaning that those who would like to live in their local communities, and get that support to buy the house that they need in order to do that, have been denied that today.
The ‘Daily Post’ is currently highlighting north Wales issues around rural broadband and mobile notspots. Many of you may remember the case of Angela Delaney, whose business was on the brink of being destroyed, due to the lack of broadband access. I am grateful to Ken Skates for releasing his open-market review statement today, shortly before we rose to speak in this debate, but the reality is that those living in rural areas do not know whether they are going to be covered by the superfast broadband roll-out and they do not know whether the mobile infrastructure project to tackle mobile notspots, to which the UK Government has allocated £100 million, will apply in their areas.
The Superfast Cymru update letter, which was coincidentally dropped in to my office yesterday, shows that no interviews have been held anywhere in the north Wales region for jobs available as a result of the Superfast Cymru roll-out. Much of Snowdonia national park, one of north Wales’s most important tourist attractions, falls within Conwy, yet Conwy is not due to be included in the roll-out of superfast broadband until 2015, undermining a key local employment sector.
I do not want to go into too much detail on the specific strands on issues relating to rural service provision, which will be highlighted by my colleagues who will speak in this debate, but I feel that I cannot close my contribution without reference to the threat to rural communities in terms of access to health services. We all know that the state of our NHS targets, such as ambulance response times, have been shameful on the part of Welsh Government, but I accept that rural regions are harder to access in these emergency situations, with narrow roads, longer distances to travel and fewer direct routes. Generally, people living in rural communities are further from their nearest hospital and ambulance stations, but they get a raw deal—or the toughest deal of a difficult situation. Ambulance services have been described as being stretched to the brink in rural Gwynedd, with examples such as an incident last year that required a Pwllheli-based ambulance to attend an incident in Tywyn, taking an hour and 40 minutes.
We need to have an integrated approach to the rural parts of Wales. It is clear that there is a lack of rural-proofing, both in the legislation that the Welsh Government is bringing forward and the way in which that impacts access to services in local communities, and in terms of the delivery of services to people in those areas. It is quite clear that, when it comes to access to services, counties like Ceredigion, Powys and Gwynedd are in the most deprived areas, as measured in the Welsh index of multiple deprivation. In contrast, that index of multiple deprivation highlights that the Valleys regions do not suffer that same deprivation.
Will you take an intervention?
No, I am sorry. [Interruption.] No, not on access to services.
In short, I urge the Welsh Government to take far greater account of its people in rural regions, to take action to produce its rural-proofing review, to release the Wales Rural Observatory reports and to make sure that the voices of those living and working in the 85% of Wales that is rural are listened to.
Insert as new point at beginning of motion:
Recognises the importance of mobile and broadband connectivity to economic and social development in rural areas and calls on the Welsh Government to examine the planning system to ensure that planning rules support the development of digital infrastructure.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Recognises the particular barriers young people in rural areas face in accessing education, employment and training and calls on the Welsh Government to assess ways to improve rural transport connectivity to widen opportunities for apprenticeships.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Recognises that poor broadband connectivity limits access to online banking in rural areas, and calls on the Welsh Government to include the examination of a community bank structure within the terms of reference for the further review into a development bank for Wales, to sustain the presence of local banks in rural communities.
I move amendments 1, 4 and 5.
In response to the Member’s last point in opening this debate, I would say that what we need to be talking about is not competition between one part of Wales and another; it is about making sure that access to services is equitable across Wales so that all communities feel that they have that kind of access. In terms of, for example, ambulance services, you may have heard me raise in the Chamber yesterday the fact that Rhondda Cynon Taf has some of the worst access, yet it is one of these Valleys communities that you believe to be connected up. We need to look at the whole of Wales and make sure that we are making services as equally delivered as possible.
In terms of rural communities, rural connectivity is a broad issue, but there is the double-edged challenge of digital exclusion and, on top of that, poor-quality, unreliable and high-cost transport infrastructure, which does present particular challenges to individuals and businesses in terms of accessing the services and facilities that are made available to them. A study undertaken some time ago by the Commission for Rural Communities highlighted that the untapped economic potential of rural areas in England could be about £347 billion a year. The principal reason found for this was that businesses in rural areas are often unable to turn aspiration into practice, and that entrepreneurial spirit cannot fully reach its potential in wealth creation. This assessment was in relation to England, but many of those problems are the same, and potentially more acute, in Wales. Poor broadband and mobile connectivity, and a lack of integrated and reliable transport networks, are key barriers to unlocking the potential that we have in our rural communities. We need to think about how we can best modernise those rural communities if we are to give them the sustainable future that we all want to see.
Turning to our amendment 1 on the importance of broadband and mobile connectivity to economic and social development in rural areas, I too would like to thank the Deputy Minister for his, shall we call it, extremely timely statement today concerning superfast broadband roll-out? Many communities across Wales are still waiting to be released into the programme, so I welcome this update and look forward to the results of that review when they become available. These days, quick and reliable broadband and mobile signals are not a luxury—they are an essential utility. Despite this, we still see a stark urban-rural divide in Wales. According to the infrastructure report published by Ofcom in 2012, superfast broadband availability across Wales ranges from 88% in urban areas to just 6% in rural areas. Geographic coverage of mobile networks in Wales is also weak: 14.3% have no 2G signal from any operator, myself included; and, 22.1% have no 3G signal from any operator. It is not just an inconvenience; it is stifling the ability of our businesses to reach out to the widest possible markets and to harness the technologies that many other people take for granted.
In our Welsh Liberal Democrat debate on broadband and mobile connectivity last year, we called on the Welsh Government not only to address the issue that today’s statement raised, but also to investigate ways in which the planning system could potentially be used to enable the development of digital infrastructure in Wales. We suggested classifying broadband as a utility for planning purposes, so that all new developments in Wales are designed to accommodate future broadband provision. Road construction or improvements, for example, would include provision for fibres, so that they would not need to be dug up for a second time and incur those extra costs, extra difficulties and extra delays that are so damaging. The removal of prior approval requirements for certain broadband infrastructure would also help to streamline the planning process. Last year, the Welsh Government consulted on proposed additional permitted development rights to help facilitate broadband roll-out across Wales, and we would welcome an update on the action taken following this.
Amendment 4 focuses on the particular barriers that young people in rural areas face in accessing education, employment and training, in particular our concerns about access in rural areas to high-quality apprenticeships. There has been a decline in the number of apprenticeships available to young people interested in things like agriculture and manufacturing in those rural areas specifically. We also see a decline in the number of young people choosing to study agriculture at university. We have to make sure that we provide our traditional economies in Wales with the opportunity to develop skills and also to develop their own economies.
Finally, my colleague Bill Powell has often raised the issue of a community bank structure. As amendment 5 highlights, with limited access to online services, access to a local bank in rural areas is vital to ensure that businesses and individuals can manage their finances. We would encourage the Minister to look at ways of incorporating this in the review of a development bank that has been agreed. However, I understand that the terms of reference are still open, and we would like to see that being included.
I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to move amendments 2 and 3, tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the benefits of superfast broadband connectivity to the rural economy and further notes the negative economic impacts of broadband ‘not-spots’ and delays in the rollout of high-speed broadband to rural areas.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure a national plan is put in place for the rollout of 4G mobile signal to all parts of Wales.
I move amendments 2 and 3.
We in Plaid Cymru certainly agree on the importance of digital connectivity in rural Wales, and in that regard we are very happy to support the Conservative motion. However, I will expand on why that connectivity is so important, how crucial it is that there are no delays in introducing this sort of infrastructure that is so necessary in rural areas, and that that infrastructure is of the highest possible quality and is as swift as possible. That is not only to facilitate the lives of individuals and ensure that everyone, wherever they live in Wales, has the same opportunities to benefit from the digital revolution in their daily lives, but also so that businesses, as we have already heard, can exist and prosper in rural Wales, using digital connectivity to replace to a great extent what would have been important in the olden days, namely the physical connections that existed. We do live in a very different world these days where we should be able to encourage growth in areas where that would not have been possible in the past, and it is clear that there is a great deal of work left to be done in that regard. At the moment, almost half of the surface area of Wales falls into Ofcom’s category 5, which is the weakest in terms of broadband performance. Ten of the 22 local authorities fall into that category, and most of those areas, of course, are rural areas.
If we are serious about disseminating wealth around Wales—as well as increasing wealth levels throughout Wales—we have to take seriously the benefits of the digital revolution. In a digital world, running a business without a strong broadband connection, never mind trying to do that without any broadband connection whatsoever, becomes something that is virtually impossible. I know from my own experience in broadcasting that trying to send sound or video files and failing, or taking all day to do so, is a huge disadvantage to the possible development of such businesses in rural areas. Without digital connectivity, local markets are very often the only ones that are viable, and businesses will clearly be held back when their competitors that are located in urban areas can look at the world as their markets. For some businesses, of course, their whole business model is based on strong connectivity—I can mention a business on Anglesey that has been doing IT work for General Motors in the USA, working from Anglesey. As it happens, it is working from an area where there is strong connectivity. We have been speaking recently to a business owner in Merthyr Tydfil, working in online auctions. He has 40 members of staff, but poor connectivity and he is now considering moving to another area, and that is Merthyr. Just to highlight Eluned Parrott’s point, it is not just rural areas; it is a challenge facing many parts of the country that are urban in nature.
It is not just companies that are here now that we are seeking to help. We mentioned this just a week ago on attracting inward investment. How can we expect international companies to come here—the kinds of companies that we need to increase Wales’s GVA—without offering them twenty-first-century technology? I will briefly also mention the next-generation mobile signal—4G. In some areas, mobile signal is more reliable than the broadband connection. We must look at 4G as a priority as well. What better message to send to the world than to say, ‘Well, if you come to Wales, you will have next-generation broadband available to you over fibre-optic cable as well as a next-generation mobile data network in all parts of the country’?
I have moved our two amendments in the name of Elin Jones, and I would ask you to support them for the reasons I have already outlined. We will support amendments 1 and 4, tabled by the Liberal Democrats, because there is a role for the planning regime and, of course, despite the emphasis on the digital this afternoon, transport connectivity remains very important. On amendment 5, we will not vote against it because we have been in the vanguard in calling for an investment bank for Wales of the kind mentioned in the motion, but I fear that the purpose of that bank could be made ambiguous under the proposals put forward by Aled Roberts in his amendment. However, of course, we are very keen on maintaining banking networks in rural Wales.
To conclude, Wales must try to be in the vanguard of the digital revolution. Rural Wales must play its full part in that digital revolution. There is good work currently being done in certain areas, we acknowledge that, but we must achieve targets and surpass them, for example, we must ensure that the connection is the fastest possible in all parts of the country, and that is for the sake of our communities, to ensure that we tackle depopulation, and for the benefit of our economy.
Rural housing is key to an effective, connected and sustainable Wales. In 2008, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on rural housing in Wales, to which I gave evidence, found that the current and projected supply of new and affordable housing was not sufficient and that a ‘seismic upward shift in provision’ was required to meet the need, and that the limited supply of housing and the difficulty of getting onto the property ladder was threatening the social and cultural sustainability of communities in rural Wales.
Housing forum Cymru had stated that housing was creating a more divided Wales and that the consequences for social cohesion were enormous. Both the Confederation of British Industry and Business in the Community stated that new housing was a key factor in attracting investment into Wales and in retaining the workforce. However, the supply of new housing for affordable rent or low-cost ownership had been slashed, as waiting lists and overcrowding had ballooned.
Jump forward to the 2013 Country Land and Business Association report, ‘Tackling the Housing Crisis in Wales’. This states that we need more homes for rural economy workers to keep communities in the countryside viable; more retirement homes so that older people can pass on farm holdings to a younger generation; and new homes for first-time buyers and owner-occupiers wanting to downsize. However, CLA Wales’s briefing on the Welsh Government’s Housing (Wales) Bill, expresses concern that co-operative housing is the only tool identified to extend housing supply, and believes that the proposals within the Bill will not assist in the delivery of new housing supply. It hopes that the draft planning Bill will promote both the allocation of new-build sites and culture change within planning departments, so that housing supply can be extended through new-build activity.
The Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee report on the provision of affordable housing in Wales quoted evidence from a rural housing enabler that there was a need for the Welsh Government to take forward the release of Government-owned land for affordable housing developments. Rural housing enablers are employed by a local authority or housing association to assist rural communities in meeting their housing needs. However, the Welsh Government’s 2014 ‘Evaluation of Rural Housing Enablers (RHE) in Wales’ report found that rural housing enablers had helped deliver just 186 affordable homes over 10 years since 2004, with just 240 more in the pipeline. Only six areas had provided data, and 89% of completions were in just three areas—Gwynedd, Monmouthshire and Powys south. The report referred to ‘strategic barriers’ that had been highlighted as challenges through numerous reports dating back to the Joseph Rowntree Foundation inquiry into rural affordable housing in 2008, adding that,
‘Their continuation is a concern and the reluctance of the RHE Steering Groups to venture into taking a strategic role is perhaps a reflection of this situation.’
Although the report found that the role of rural housing enablers is still seen as essential to delivering rural affordable housing and that engaging communities in meeting their housing needs remained the ‘golden thread’, there had been a change in activity away from raising community awareness of rural housing need and measuring it. At a local level, the report recommended the adoption of a delivery team approach and strong strategic leadership. At Welsh Government level, it recommended targeted funding for rural delivery and amended planning policy to allow cross-subsidy on rural exception sites.
Flintshire’s former rural housing enabler moved to an English local authority, frustrated that local housing need assessments and delivery faced repeated opposition. There had also been a failure to link prices to local first-time buyer incomes and to deliver so-called ‘occupancy cascades’ that prioritised housing for local people.
A few weeks ago, I received correspondence from Flintshire council confirming that it no longer had a rural housing enabler in post. We must deliver a network of rural housing enablers across Wales and empower them to identify housing need at local affordable prices, and to identify problems and deliver solutions. As in England, open market housing on rural exception sites should be allowed to cross-subsidise affordable housing, and a build for rent scheme should be introduced to stimulate new private rented housing supply. Further, rent Act tenancies in the countryside need to be included in Welsh Government tenancy reform proposals to tackle unfairness and to prioritise local affordable housing need over succession rights. We need nothing less than an emergency housing supply programme for the whole of Wales—urban and rural—with all sectors working together. Diolch.
Thank you. I call Joyce Watson.
Diolch—I do not know your title, actually. However, thank you for calling me. Like everyone else in this Chamber, I support better broadband connections in rural Wales. Judging from the motion and most of the amendments, I think that that is what ‘connectivity’ is taken to mean by most politicians in this room. However, there is a gap between the high-flying rhetoric of some Conservative politicians and the day-to-day reality. When bus passes were first introduced, tackling rural isolation and lack of mobility among the elderly were generally seen as significant problems. I have since heard Conservatives complain that buses contain too high a proportion of older people. Instead of seeing it as a successfully targeted piece of legislation, some Conservatives see bus passes as a waste of public expenditure. [Interruption.] Check the records and you will find that.
Let us get one thing straight. Connectivity means people communicating with one another. In today’s world, broadband is an increasingly important means of communication. We do not want to see people in rural areas of Wales at a disadvantage when it comes to broadband communication. However, neither do we want to see people in rural areas in Wales at a disadvantage when it comes to communication that depends on the private car, the cost of fuel, or travel by bus and train. Nowhere in this motion or in the attached amendments is there a mention of the Heart of Wales line or the Cambrian coast railway. The Heart of Wales line is one of the major ways in which people from otherwise isolated areas can get about in reasonable comfort to comparatively distant destinations.
I had a recent conversation with a colleague in possession of a senior railcard, who wanted to go to mid Wales from Llanelli and then back to Cardiff. He decided that a return ticket was inappropriate, because the points of departure and arrival were not the same. Being IT literate, my colleague attempted to organise his journey through the online booking facility, but that experience led him to believe that what he wanted to do was impossible. He was told by friends to go to a railway station and to talk face to face with a railway employee about whether he could indeed go from Llanelli to Shrewsbury one day and return to Cardiff the next. He did that. He had a single booking and the total trip cost him £17. The point here is the availability of the rail link and the ease of taking advantage of that link, even though I have to say that it is not very easy to do that.
I am acutely aware of the need for better e-mail and broadband connections in Mid and West Wales, and I am also acutely aware of the need for regular, comfortable and reasonably priced road and rail links. The recent discussions about the reorganisation of health services in Wales focused on the important aspect of connectivity. The time that it takes to get from home to hospital is often a crucial consideration. Connectivity must not be treated as a new example of contemporary jargon. It is a fundamental issue of the greatest importance in the areas of rural Wales that I represent. At the moment, in north-west Wales, there is huge disruption along the Cambrian coast, both by rail and by road. We have to be fair: that has indeed been caused by record-breaking levels of flooding and extremely high winds, but the people, all the same, need to remain connected. I ask the Minister today to keep us updated regularly on the progress that is being made to connect those people in north-west Wales to the rest of Wales.
How do you follow a contribution like that from Joyce Watson? With some ease.
Joyce, what a thing to say. Conservatives do not believe that there is too high a proportion of older people on buses in Wales. Have any of you ever said that? I have never heard anyone say that. I do not know about the content of buses, but I think that this Chamber is way too full of the usual unjustified, anti-Tory propaganda that gets rural areas and the people in this country absolutely nowhere, Joyce.
I want to focus my contribution on the rural economy and how poor transport infrastructure and broadband connection can hinder the growth of businesses outside our main centres of population. A Wales Rural Observatory report in 2009 stated that rural businesses are automatically at a competitive disadvantage due to transportation and connectivity issues. This report was published nearly five years ago, but we do not seem to have made much progress in addressing the issues that it raised. The rural economy has a greater dependence, as we know, on small businesses than other areas. Considering that such businesses are often the first to suffer when the economy is struggling, it is vital that they have all of the tools available to them to be able to compete with their competitors. This is a good time to raise a good Welsh Conservative policy to abolish business rates for all businesses with a rateable value of under £12,000 per annum, and taper rates for those with values up to £15,000. If you have not got our message yet on that, you must be living on Mars. With non-domestic rates being such a burden for rural businesses, adopting this policy would really benefit the smaller rural business community.
The Federation of Small Businesses has produced a worrying statistic that shows that less than 30% of family-owned businesses make it to the third generation of owners. There will be a number of reasons for this, with younger people leaving their local communities to attend university or to find a job, but it does mean that for communities in rural Wales that, in previous generations, saw businesses pass from parent to child, building a strong reputation and local identity, that is no longer the norm.
You cannot talk about the rural economy without talking about agriculture. The two are symbiotic. Without looking at the statistics released last month, this debate would be lacking a key aspect of the rural economy. The statistics released last month showed that average farm business income in Wales fell by a whopping 30% to £28,400. This fall was described by the National Farmers’ Union as alarming and came on the back of common agricultural policy pillar transfer, which has left Welsh farmers at a competitive disadvantage compared to farmers in other European countries.
One of the barriers holding rural businesses back is, of course, the appalling broadband coverage that many parts of Wales continue to experience. We do criticise a lot, where it is necessary, but I will say that I was also pleased to see the written statement that came from the Deputy Minister, who will be responding later on rural broadband. I think that I saw it three minutes before I was due to contribute to the debate. However, it is better late than never, Deputy Minister. We will support you every step of the way to ensure that what you say in that statement does actually transpire and does actually happen. That would be a really welcome development.
I regularly receive e-mail from constituents about this. My constituency, Monmouthshire, is a rural area, and I know that Assembly Members from across rural areas all receive the same complaints. Of course, the goalposts are moving here. There are bigger expectations of broadband now than in the past. In a way, the more areas that have broadband, and the better the broadband service, the more complaints and requirements you are going to get. So, we do understand those issues. However, that is not to say that those constituents’ concerns could not be addressed a little better than they are being addressed at the moment. An Ofcom report in 2012 showed that the number of rural premises with access to next generation broadband in Wales was just 6%, compared to 91% in Northern Ireland and 17% in England. We do not have to be lagging behind in Wales. We know that, in terms of the economic indicators, too often we are lagging behind. This is one area where, given the right policies, given the right incentives, and given the right push by the Welsh Government, we could get ahead of the game. Other parts of the United Kingdom have made strides. Let us try to do it here as well.
I said that it is easy to demonstrate the importance of a good-quality rural broadband network, whatever you look at, be it business, homes or tourism. Many hotels and many businesses in rural areas rely on the internet and broadband to market Wales abroad. We have been talking a lot about the Welsh brand in recent months, and saying how it is not really up to scratch. If you get broadband right, Deputy Minister, many other things will follow. You have to start somewhere. We support you in starting here and we think that you should support our debate because it has given you a little chivvy along.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate today. Before I started, I was just trying to review some of my thoughts and language on rural communities. Given that we have just had a debate about whether or not we ought to put into place a peace initiative, I do not particularly want to go down the road of using such words as ‘wasteland’, ‘empty’ and ‘desolate’, because it speaks too much of huge things that have happened elsewhere. However, I think we have to be very clear that, when we go into an awful lot of our rural communities today, they are just that. You get villages with houses that are shut up and locked up. You get villages with houses to which people might eventually return at 7 p.m. or 8 p.m. You get a complete absence of children in those villages, because their schools are so far away. You do not get a huge number of business opportunities in some of these villages. You find that there are elderly people who are shut up behind doors—they would love to have the opportunity to get on a bus going anywhere and to meet other people, but they cannot because there is no connectivity; they have the phone and that is about it. Some villages have such poor levels of broadband access that people cannot do much with it. Some villages have absolutely no access to transport, unless you have your own car. That is incredibly socially and life-limiting in so many ways. A great many villages are unable to sustain any form of life within them.
To be frank, I am so old that I can remember a proper village. I was lucky: I grew up in towns, cities and villages. My parents were itinerant and we moved a lot. I can remember that the villages that I lived in had shops, pubs, houses, garages, the doctor and the church. There was a sense of community, of belonging and of place. That is what we are slowly losing from our rural communities throughout some parts of Wales—not every part of Wales; there are some villages that have really fought back, and some villages that have taken things into their own hands. I would like to mention Lawrenny in Pembrokeshire, in particular: it cannot get broadband and does not have a bus service, but what the village did was to bully the Post Office to the point that it agreed to go there for a couple of hours every week. It went to a neighbouring landowner on the other side of the Cleddau river and asked whether it could stick a microwave antenna on the side of the landowner’s building to beam microwaves into the village so that villagers could get onto the internet. The village has developed a thriving community there, with 33 small, private, independent, home-run businesses, ranging from someone who makes dyes for such things as the Bayeux tapestry, ensuring that it is renovated to the right quality, all the way through to people who are accountants and marketing agents and even a high-tech media company. That is why it is so important: in order to bring together village life. We do not want our countryside to be emptied of people. We do not want people just to live in towns and cities; we need that broad spectrum.
One of my biggest concerns is what is happening to education in rural communities. I appreciate that the Deputy Minister for Skills will be responding to this debate, and this may not be entirely within his portfolio, but our schoolchildren are very isolated in a great many of our villages. We have deprivation—and he sits next to the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty—and this is really interesting, because poverty is about deprivation and a great many of our children in these communities cannot access good things after they finish school. They go home and they cannot get back out to Brownies or Guides, to join the local football club, to go out with their mates, or just to get that social cohesion that young people need. They find that the cost of transport is just too much, their parents find that the cost of transport is too much, and they have no safe places in which to play close to their homes, which is really important. Also, because they do not have local small schools that they can get to, they have no locus in the way that they grow up. They go to schools that are a 20, 30, 40, 50 or 60-minute bus ride away. The friends that they make at that school are dumped in various other villages, and a sense of community and cohesion is disappearing from our countryside, and I merely want to remind you all about it, because it is not just about superfast fibre broadband or all of these technical things we talk about; it is about people.
I call on the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, Ken Skates.
I welcome this debate today and the opportunity to highlight the excellent progress that we are making in improving connectivity across Wales—not just in urban areas, but in rural areas, too. In my capacity as Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, and given time constraints, I will focus on digital connectivity, and I am pleased to agree to the Conservative motion. However, I have to say that, listening to Antoinette Sandbach makes me wonder whether she has spoken recently to her former boss and friend the Secretary of State about broadband; I will come to that shortly.
To recap on the Welsh Government’s ambitions for the roll-out of superfast broadband, our Superfast Cymru programme is the largest partnership of its kind in the UK. Starting from a low base, we aim to reach 96% of properties by 2016, with speeds of 30 mbps. England and Scotland will reach just 90% and 85% respectively, later than Wales, and they have defined the minimum superfast speed as just 24 mbps. Further afield, Japan will trail behind Wales with a reach of 94%, as will the United States of America at 85%, as will Germany and France.
I am delighted to report that the programme is proceeding well, not just on schedule, but ahead of schedule. In January we reached a major milestone: thanks to Superfast Cymru, 100,000 premises have been given access to fast fibre broadband. This will rise to over 250,000 during the summer, and to almost 500,000 by March 2015. Members will be interested to know that, across the whole of the UK, more than a third of all properties that have benefitted from all intervention programmes are based here in Wales. That is because the Welsh Government got moving faster and earlier, whereas programmes in England and Scotland are still in their infancy. These are indisputable facts that even the Welsh Government’s political opponents recognise. Indeed, just last week the UK Government issued a wonderful press release generously congratulating us for leading the way on broadband roll-out. Welsh Secretary David Jones spoke gushingly about how the Welsh Government is leading the way in delivering broadband. It is reassuring that, despite our political differences, Tories in Parliament are able to recognise this enormous success by the Welsh Labour Government. I am still wondering, as many are—[Interruption.]. I will give way, but is this your opinion or the Welsh Secretary’s?
I am grateful to the Deputy Minister for taking an intervention. I note that he has not got his silk hanky today, so he is not quite dressed for the occasion. I am sure that he would like to congratulate the Prime Minister on coming here and specifying that the UK Government was going to give £57 million to the Welsh Government to catch up with the rest of the United Kingdom. I am sure that he would like to welcome the Prime Minister’s intervention.
You are talking about the consequential, which is our money. As many are, I am still wondering who speaks for the Tories in Wales: you or the Welsh Secretary? [Interruption.] On broadband, it is the Welsh Secretary, not you.
Actually, the Welsh Secretary also acknowledges that we are not shying away from hard-to-reach premises. Crucially, there is provision in our agreement with BT to ensure that these premises are specifically addressed.
Just last month, I was pleased to join businesses in rural Gwynedd that have benefitted from Superfast Cymru. The event, hosted by Dafydd Iwan, recognised the astonishing progress of Superfast Cymru, the competitive edge it offers employers, and the enormous progress that has been made, particularly in rural areas. Of course, despite our ambitious plans, a small proportion of premises will not be covered by superfast broadband, but that proportion is smaller than in England, Scotland or Northern Ireland. Nonetheless, we are addressing this, and I have approved an open market review of Superfast broadband to establish a comprehensive picture of superfast in locations outside our intervention area, now that the commercial roll-out has largely been concluded. I was very pleased to be able to bring forward publication of the statement relating to this today. The findings will inform possible future interventions and ensure that we focus resources on providing fast fibre broadband in areas that would otherwise be left behind.
In terms of mobile connectivity in rural areas, a key focus is the UK Government’s mobile infrastructure project, a £150 million investment to address notspots. We are working jointly to identify suitable locations in Wales.
Roll-out of fourth generation is, of course, a matter for the Office of Communications and mobile operators, with whom we are working following the 4G spectrum auction. The licence awarded to Telefonica O2 carries a coverage obligation of at least 95% of the population of Wales by 2017. In addition, we are investigating other options to improve mobile coverage, for example on the rail network.
Education in rural areas will also benefit from Welsh Government interventions through the learning in digital Wales project. By July this year, primary and special schools in Wales will enjoy internet connectivity speeds of 10 Mbps and all secondary schools will have 100 Mbps. Our aspiration is that, by 2020, all primary and special schools will receive 100 Mbps and all secondary schools 1 Gbps. Again, this puts Wales well ahead of the majority of Europe.
We are working to reform the planning system in Wales, and proposals relate to both fixed-line broadband and mobile broadband infrastructure. Results of the consultation on the proposals are now being assessed, and the Minister for Housing and Regeneration will consider the recommendations in due course.
I was very pleased to listen to the Member for Ynys Môn talk about the benefits of superfast broadband, not least given that his constituency will be the first to be completed under the intervention programme. However, I cannot support amendment 2. The indisputable fact is that our intervention programme hit the target for March 2014 late last year. We are ahead of England, ahead of Scotland and ahead of schedule.
Turning to amendment 4, I applaud the value being placed on apprenticeships. Superfast Cymru itself will see apprenticeship opportunities created in BT for 100 young people, many in rural areas. I was delighted this week to note that overall apprenticeship start numbers in Wales have reached a record high. Provisional figures show an astonishing increase of 45%. Whereas opposition parties have criticised the Welsh Government in the past when the numbers fell after the 2008 financial crash, I will not be so vulgar as to ask them to offer their congratulations to us today on this unprecedented increase. Indeed, I will wait until the spring for their congratulations, when the figures are formalised.
In conclusion, I can confirm that Wales remains on course to be one of the most connected countries in the world by 2016, that the Welsh Government will continue to go further, faster and quicker in delivering this ambition, and that the Welsh Secretary will be able to go on applauding this Welsh Labour Government.
I call on Suzy Davies to reply to the debate.
I thank everyone who has contributed to the debate today. However, before I address the points that have been raised, there is one particular aspect that I would like to pick up on, if you do not mind, and that is where the quality of both physical and digital connectivity can be a matter of life and death.
I know that we have spoken at length about the decision to downgrade maternity services at Withybush, and I prefer to believe that no consultant would deliberately give advice that they believe would endanger a patient. However, when you are talking about hospital admission, the view of the patient should be at least as powerful as that of the obstetrician or the anaesthetist, and you will find that expectant mothers have a view on how they get to hospital.
My friend had her babies in Glangwili. She said that the 30-mile journey from Pumsaint to Carmarthen was worse than the births because of the nature of the road. I know that road well and I firmly believe that it should be relocated to Oakwood and people should be charged for the privilege of enjoying the thrill of it. However, my own experience was a little less amusing—a 30-mile dash along an A road in rural Wales in an ambulance to my nearest district hospital, which ended in an emergency caesarean delivery of my son. I wonder how safe and afraid I would have felt had that hospital been downgraded and I would have had to travel another 75 miles on rural A roads to Carmarthen. How ill would I or my baby have been? Would a consultant sitting in a Government Minister’s office be able to tell me, hand on heart?
However true it is that paramedics are more skilled and ambulances better equipped, there is no getting around the fact that poor roads and long distances matter when it comes to equitable access to health services, to use Eluned Parrott’s words. If the plans for Withybush do go ahead, Deputy Minister, will you be supporting Paul Davies’s campaign to dual the A40 so that anxious mothers can get to Carmarthen more swiftly and more safely than they can now?
Deputy Minister, the Government knows that equitable access to rural health services needs addressing and we, as Welsh Conservatives, recognise that it not easy. The 2009 rural health plan acknowledged that doing nothing is not an option. While we in the Chamber rightly take the Government to task on hospital downgrades and the demoralised ambulance service, five years on rural communities are still struggling with the basics because of Welsh Government inertia.
Areas without regular GPs, the closure of rural surgeries, a dearth of dentists, families who can see Cardigan bay from their homes getting their out-of-hours coverage from England. North Wales in particular is experiencing a real shortage of GPs. The Minister for health acknowledged only last month that action needed to be taken. Part of your constituency, Deputy Minister, is rural, so will you join us in keeping pressure upon the Minister for health for that action?
After finally listening to the Welsh Conservatives, the Government is bringing £500 million back into the NHS—hurrah—much of it for primary care. My constituents in South Wales West will be pleased, as that sounds like a green light for more services finally being delivered in the community and less time in hospital. I hope so, but Swansea and Port Talbot are not Ceredigion or Gwynedd or Powys, even though poverty is experienced in all of those places. How much of that money will find its way to the far more difficult task of improving primary and outpatient care in rural Wales?
When I ring my local GP in Swansea and ask for an appointment, I am told that I can have an appointment at some time in the distant future or I can come to that day’s open surgery first thing in the morning. So, that is what I will do; I will walk there before I leave for work. How does somebody living miles from their nearest surgery do that? Some of us in this Cardiff bay bubble struggle to imagine the prospect of a 30 mile trip to hospital, so how will they get their heads around someone in Pwllheli travelling 55 miles to see a GP?
Telemedicine has a role to play and I have seen for myself that that can be useful technology, but I will come back to that in a minute. We have heard from Eluned Parrott, Rhun ap Iorwerth and Nick Ramsay today how poor digital connection has a negative effect on the economy. In the particular case of farmers, the icing on an already toxic cake is that so much of the work that they are asked to submit has to be submitted online now, which is very difficult if they do not have a broadband connection. We have also heard that it affects access to cash. It is great that we are all talking about community banking, apart from the Government perhaps, but perhaps we should recognise that community banking of whatever description will also need a firm broadband connection.
We have heard about the effect that it has on housing choices. Mark Isherwood told us that we do need more homes in rural Wales, but, in that case, we also need better roads, better broadband connection and the better services of which those new residents can take advantage.
We have heard that it has an effect on education; Angela Burns touched on that. To be honest, I think that it is absolutely crazy that my son has a 52-mile round trip from one school to another, on a road that closes routinely in the winter, just in order that he can follow a particular A-level course. I also think that it is nonsense that pupils are still expected to use dial-up internet connection in order to do their homework. I really do not see how they are able to do that these days.
I do thank the Deputy Minister for his statement today. Hopefully, the timetable is not too severely affected and that we will have some certainty from the roll-out so that both Governments get value for money for Welsh residents. In terms of health services, if you are relying on digital connectivity for your medical treatment because your road connectivity makes direct treatment unavailable, you need to know that digital connectivity is rock solid. If you are travelling on the roads of rural Wales—the land that phone boxes and toilets forgot—you need to know that if a mobile signal is what stands between you and connection with the rest of the world, that digital connectivity is rock solid. It is not that you will see many buses on those roads, Joyce Watson. For some older people in the areas that Angela Burns was describing, the bus pass is just a pretty piece of paper with no useful function whatsoever. I am only pleased that pregnant women do not rely on bus passes to get to hospitals. Like water and electricity, broadband, affordable housing and a vibrant economy are essential for sustainable rural communities.
I am pleased to respond to this debate, because in my life I have lived in the Valleys, the city and in rural Wales, in town and country. It has given me perspective to see that loss of public services in rural Wales eventually leads to loss of services and migration into more populated parts of Wales. It alerts me to troubles ahead for my region, such as cuts to bus services, and the south-Wales programme introducing the kinds of accessibility problems that rural communities already face.
I will finish where Antoinette began, with the Welsh Government’s indolence on rural-proofing. It occurs to me that Labour Cabinet Ministers are pretty much urban based, not exclusively, but mainly, and while that continues, rural Wales’s greatest connectivity weakness will be the one it has with Government.
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection. Therefore, I will defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The Presiding Officer took the Chair at 17:16.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 in the name of William Graham, and amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts.
Motion NDM5422 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Recognises the significant potential of Wales’ natural resources and believes that full control over their use should be devolved to the National Assembly.
I move the motion.
It is a pleasure to open this debate in the name of Plaid Cymru, which proposes that the Assembly should recognise the significant potential of Wales’s natural resources, and which believes that full control over their use should be devolved to the National Assembly.
Plaid Cymru published a discussion paper of substance back in the autumn on energy policy in Wales and, this week, we published another paper specifically on how a Plaid Cymru government in 2016 would use the additional powers, should energy be devolved in full—as we called for in our evidence to the Silk commission—in order to develop renewable energy here in Wales.
There are five core principles that form the basis of Plaid Cymru’s response to the second part of the Silk commission, and they are very pertinent as we discuss devolving responsibility for natural resources to Wales. The first is the principle of responsibility: we want to see Wales taking more responsibility and a stronger Wales that would be more self-sufficient in terms of democracy and the economy. The second principle is accountability: more devolution would bring the decision-making process closer to the people of Wales, and that would improve democratic accountability. The third principle is transparency: the current separation of powers between the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster is often ambiguous and confused, and we need to create greater clarity in order to facilitate greater, more effective scrutiny. The fourth principle is robustness: the revised devolution settlement should be designed in a way that ensures that it works effectively and efficiently, while the National Assembly for Wales must have the ability to enforce all of its powers. The final principle is fairness: the separation of powers between the National Assembly for Wales and Westminster is currently less favourable in terms of natural resources than is the case in some of the other devolved nations of the United Kingdom.
Many people look at Wales and see a poor country, but when I look at Wales I see a prosperous, rich country—a country that is rich in terms of its natural resources. In a nation of just 3 million people, the fact that we are rich in natural resources provides us with great potential and opportunity, but, without the necessary powers, we cannot realise fully that potential.
There are inconsistencies in the devolved powers within the United Kingdom at present. Only yesterday, the First Minister reminded us of how Scotland and Northern Ireland can offer greater incentives to attract investment in renewable energy. The irony, of course, is that it was the Labour Party that created this separation in terms of devolved powers in the Government of Wales Act 2006. Nonetheless, the reality is that, over the eight years between 2003 and 2011, there has been a more than sixfold increase in the capacity of solar, wind and tidal energy in England as compared with Wales. The increase is Scotland and Northern Ireland has been four times greater than that of Wales. That is not acceptable. Equality in terms of devolved powers within the UK would certainly be of assistance, but if we are serious about taking full advantage of our natural resources for the benefit of the people of Wales, then we need full responsibility in this area.
We already know that we in Wales produce far more electricity than we use. We produce almost twice the 16,000 GWh used in Wales every year. How, then, can it be fair that a nation that produces more electricity per capita than any other part of the United Kingdom pays more for that electricity than is the case in any other part of Britain? On average, bills in Wales are £461, compared with £455 in Scotland and £439 in England. Therefore, although we create more electricity than we need, our bills in Wales are higher than anyone else’s. How can a country that is so wealthy in this regard suffer some of the worst levels of fuel poverty, for example, in the United Kingdom and also some of the greatest levels of excess winter deaths?
There has been much discussion recently about the increase in energy prices, and the big six energy companies blame that increase on the wholesale prices and green taxes, but we have only to look at the accounts of some of these companies to see what is happening in reality. The reality is that the profits of the big six increased by 77% in 2012 to £1.2 billion. Ofgem anticipates that that will increase once again to over £2 billion during 2013. The profit that these companies make from every home has increased more than threefold in only a year, from £30 per home in 2011 to £105 in 2012. It is obvious that the large companies are pocketing considerable profit while many of their customers, as we are all aware, have to choose between heating their homes or eating.
That is one of the reasons, of course, why Plaid Cymru has called for the establishment of a national public energy company for Wales. This model of working is not new, of course. There are examples across the world of nations using energy companies to harness their natural resources in order to provide energy for their populations—from Vattenfall in Sweden to Statkraft in Norway. There are also examples of public companies that operate internationally. The most recognisable for us in Wales, I am sure, is EDF, which benefits from international customers, but the French Government owns 85% of the company.
Our policy, ynni Cymru, would use any profit either to reduce the bills of Welsh customers or to invest by improving the infrastructure in Wales. Reinvesting profits, for example, could contribute to capital work, such as connecting north Wales, where too much energy is produced, with south Wales, where there is a shortage of electricity, thereby creating a truly Welsh grid that will help to bring prices down in the long term and create a more self-sustainable Wales for the future in relation to energy. Research was commissioned by Ofgem back in January 2011 to look at the feasibility of an under-sea connection between the north and south along the coast of Wales, but we are still waiting for any conclusions or outcomes from that research. The importance of connecting Wales is apparent, so I encourage the Government—as I have done in the past—to ensure that this research is published as soon as possible.
The wealth of Wales’s natural resources is not limited only to energy, of course; we are also rich in terms of water. However, as with energy, although we have plenty of water, we find ourselves paying more for it than others who also use water from Wales. And what about food? Over 80% of the surface area of Wales is dedicated to the production of food, but, once again, tens of thousands of people in Wales depend on food banks to sustain them. Experts recently warned in the ‘British Medical Journal’ that the next public health crisis will be nutrition deficiency among children.
We saw the way in which the United Kingdom Government entered the negotiations on the common agricultural policy with the aim of cutting the budget—something that clearly militates against the interests of Welsh farmers. Wales is a country that is rich in natural resources, but the current devolution settlement lets us down. It is only by taking full responsibility for our natural resources that we can ensure that this changes, and it is only by having powers over these areas that we can ensure that they work to benefit the people of Wales.
I will summarise Plaid Cymru’s responses to the amendments that have been tabled when I close the debate, but I look forward to hearing all contributions to the debate. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have selected the 10 amendments to the motion, and I call on Russell George to move amendments 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10, tabled in the name of William Graham.
Amendment 1—William Graham
Delete all after ‘natural resources’.
Amendment 4—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Believe that the Welsh Government has yet to develop the expertise and capacity to administer large scale energy projects.
Amendment 5—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on Welsh Government to:
a) hold an inquiry into how community energy benefits can be developed;
b) conduct a review of consenting and licensing of small scale renewables; and
c) work with the UK Government to look into the issue of water boundaries.
Amendment 6—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to allow for greater localism in the use of natural resources within communities, giving Welsh people the same rights as those communities in England currently have under the Localism Act 2011.
Amendment 7—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Regrets that the Welsh Government’s mismanagement of the natural timber resources of the Welsh Forestry estate has:
a) allowed large areas of larch and other tree species to remain infected with phytopthora ramorum; and
b) contributed to huge stands of infected larch remaining unfelled with a 2 year backlog in the felling programme.
Amendment 8—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the barriers to promoting and protecting Wales’s natural resources created by the current planning system.
Amendment 9—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes that decisions over CAP payments has placed Welsh farmers at a competitive disadvantage to the other devolved nations of the United Kingdom when managing their natural resources.
Amendment 10—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes that the mismanagement of Wales’s natural resources contributes to the spread of Bovine TB and impacts on wildlife and agricultural production in Wales.
I move amendments 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and 10 on behalf of the Welsh Conservative Group, in the name of William Graham.
As you can appreciate, we have tabled a number of amendments so I will do my very best in the time that we have to get through them.
In terms of amendment 4, I have stated on a number of previous occasions in this Chamber that the Government’s case for further devolution on energy powers is not robust enough. I heard what the Minister last week about the Government wanting these powers so that it can have a fully joined-up approach across Government. However, a statement on its own is not good enough; it is not good enough for us as Assembly Members to scrutinise your policy ambitions, it is not good enough for the Welsh public who wants to know what you intend to do with the powers, and it is not good enough for UK Ministers. Ministers of various political colours in government in Wales have been making requests well before 2010.
We want to support a coherent case to the UK Government for the further devolution of powers. The Minister will know that our parties had similar Assembly manifesto policies in respect of renewable energy planning consents of up to 100 MW. We want to be absolutely sure that the capacity and expertise is here so that we can deal with and administrate those powers correctly. The Environment and Sustainability Committee’s report on energy and planning identified the shortcomings in terms of capacity and expertise at local planning authority level, particularly in planning authorities where the burden of large multiple applications falls most heavily, such as Powys, which hosts strategic search areas. The Government’s response was that there is no capacity crisis hampering the delivery of its renewable energy policy, yet the First Minister acknowledged last week during the debate on the Williams commission report that there are resource and capacity issues at local government level that are hampering any further devolution of powers from Welsh Government to local government.
Our party truly believes in local democracy and local self-determination. That has been demonstrated in England where communities have been given more say about whether large-scale energy projects should be sited in their communities, and that those local views should carry more weight than Government policy. However, slowly but surely, I fear that we are seeing a centralisation of planning powers to the Welsh Government in a bid to fast-track and force through renewable energy planning applications. If you want further powers from Westminster to control them centrally in order to push more onshore wind applications through against the wishes of local communities, you should just come out and say that.
I understand what you are saying there, but would you apply the same criteria to the proposals for shale gas exploitation in England coming from Cameron?
Yes, I would fully agree with that.
Amendment 5 is, I think, non-controversial, and I hope that the Government can support it. Community energy schemes are the way forward, and the Government should be doing everything that it can to enable communities across Wales to become more energy self-sufficient. However, a mid-term review has highlighted barriers to success that need to be urgently dealt with.
Water boundaries is also an issue that has some consensus across the Chamber. It makes sense, particularly in relation to democratic accountability—my constituency is served by Severn Trent Water, which is also accountable to UK Government Ministers, yet parts of Hereford are served by Welsh Water, which is ultimately accountable to Welsh Minister. This anomaly needs to be rectified, and I and my group will do what we can to persuade the UK Government to address that particular issue.
I may have time to talk quickly to amendment 6. It is too early to judge the success of the Localism Act 2011. However, that legislation clearly demonstrates a positive signal of intent—more freedoms and flexibilities for local government, more rights and powers for communities and individuals, and reform to the planning system to ensure that it is more democratic and effective. It is all about putting communities more in control of their own destiny and more in control of the environment and resources that are around them. I certainly hope—certainly, my opinion is—that there has never been a better time, with Welsh public sector reform and legislative changes in the pipeline, for Welsh Government Ministers to truly embrace that local community empowerment and ensure that it is properly wired into this process of change.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on William Powell to move amendments 2 and 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Believes that Welsh natural resources should be utilised in an environmentally and economically sustainable fashion for the long term benefit of the people of Wales.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes the importance of community energy schemes to harnessing our natural resources in Wales, and calls on the Welsh Government to outline the action it will take to improve the Ynni’r Fro programme following the raft of recommendations within the Ynni’r Fro Mid-term Evaluation report.
I move amendments 2 and 3.
I would like to thank Plaid Cymru for bringing forward this important debate today. We have spoken many times in this Chamber about the importance of our natural resources and, consistent with the motion, I have also advocated on many occasions the devolution of greater control over them to this Assembly. Until recently, I had the impression also that there was full cross-party support for this position, as indicated throughout Silk part 2. These days, however, I am disappointed to see that the party opposite appears to be drawing back from that position, which is made explicit in amendment 1.
That said, it is also important to recognise that our natural resources are far broader than our energy and minerals policy alone and, in fairness, I should also give credit to the Conservatives, with regard to some of their amendments, for stressing that point. While it is all too easy for us to focus on those resources that have a direct economic value—resources such as energy, food, timber and aggregates—we need also to remember those natural resources that, instead, have perhaps only an indirect or less obvious economic value, such as the quality of our waters and soil or the very beauty of our landscapes throughout Wales. That is why, in our first amendment, amendment 2, we have sought only to make a simple point and to bring our use of this resource potential into line with our ambitions to be a more sustainable nation. While the contents of the environment White Paper and the general direction of the emerging future generations Bill make this point several times, I think that, given the increasing push to exploit natural resources such as shale gas that is coming from another place, it remains important to make this point again and again. That is why we must always try to take the long view when discussing our resources and ensure that we are not sacrificing long-term improvements for short-term economic or, indeed, political gain. However, as with everything, this is always going to be something of a balancing act. After all, it does nobody any good to nurture something with one hand only then to thwart it with the other, a point that I think amendment 9 highlights adequately.
Returning now to the issue of energy, it is abundantly clear that we still have a lot of work in front of us before we can make maximum sustainable use of the abundant natural resources at our disposal, be it wave, tidal, river, stream, solar radiation, fossilised, or even wind power in the appropriate setting. This is true regardless of the state of the devolution settlement. As we take this agenda forward, it is particularly important that we are both flexible and better informed about which natural resource has the greatest potential to benefit us in a particular given location across Wales. We must also seek to open up the way in which these resources are owned and managed, so that they can become more community-oriented, where the desire exists, and more nationally targeted, where applicable. I think that it is fair to say that, despite its shortcomings, Ynni’r Fro has done a lot of good initial work. This, indeed, has to be commended, but we can and must continue to push this further forward with a greater emphasis on a wider range of schemes so that the right expertise can be drawn upon and so that we can see things through to their completion. Naturally, this will also fit in with the proposed reforms to the planning system that were discussed in questions earlier and in earlier contributions. These are reforms that I hope will make it easier to take such schemes forward, and perhaps even to provide for a presumption in favour of community-based proposals in certain settings, which would have the potential to deliver real benefits for communities across Wales. However, we are still some way from being in that position.
However, if a broad agreement emerges on these issues, I suspect that that position and that objective might not be as far away as some currently fear.
Apart from our people, our nation’s greatest asset, of course, is its natural resources, as Llyr Gruffydd said. This year, 30 years after the miners’ strike, it is appropriate that we should reflect upon the value and cost of being a resource-rich nation. Thirty years ago, our communities faced a Government that was following an economic programme that destroyed not only any hope of employment, but that ripped the soul from towns and villages throughout Wales. That Government—as we should never forget—had no mandate here in Wales.
At that time, Wales was without hope in the face of the enemy, but that is not how things stand today, with devolution. Despite the fact that we have some measure of devolution today, we all know that our ability to govern ourselves is restricted when it comes to our natural resources and our energy policy. It is little surprise that the current Welsh Government is unwilling to set firm and ambitious targets. I think that this is a combination of a lack of ambition on its behalf and the result of the limited powers that the Welsh Government has, to which the First Minister regularly alludes.
Will you take an intervention on that point?
In a moment.
It is also disappointing that the few targets that the Welsh Government did set for itself have been missed—by a country mile. I sincerely hope that we see the arbitrary cap of 50 MW being increased in the very near future.
I am grateful. I think that you just touched on the point that I wanted to make, which is that it is not the setting of the targets that has failed; it is the delivery of community energy schemes that has failed to achieve what the Welsh Government has hoped.
For once, I would certainly agree. There were targets, but the Government has not attained those targets; it has seriously failed to reach them on renewable energy. That is partially due to the failure in developing community schemes, but also because of the slowness and confusion regarding the vision for larger schemes.
The cap restricts Welsh Government ability to ensure that large-scale projects, as a matter of course, bring community benefit. Plaid Cymru has been calling for some time for the inclusion of community-benefit clauses in planning permissions. A Plaid Cymru Government would include such clauses in all schemes—large and small.
The Tories, in their amendment, ask the Government to investigate this field. The truth of the matter, if you look at Denmark, for example, is that most energy schemes bring direct benefits to the community or local council. It happens right across Europe; it is not very difficult to achieve.
Full devolution of energy would release us to not only achieve our own targets as a nation, but to set ambitious targets. Plaid Cymru would aim at making Wales self-sufficient in renewable electricity by 2035, and set a clear route-map to that end.
More autonomy in energy would give us the opportunity to innovate. We would combine our heritage in energy and in the co-operative movement, thereby empowering communities. We would want to see communities taking responsibility for their own futures and for the production of electricity through renewable energy schemes—working from the bottom up.
In my opening remarks, I referred to the legacy that has been left as we have been exploited as a nation for our resources, with little regard to the human or social cost. I believe that Wales, even with a modicum of self-government, could again face such a situation. A lot of attention has been paid to the financial potential of fracking, but it appears to me that we should call for a moratorium on every proposed fracking scheme until a full assessment can be carried out of the real concerns for safety and environmental impact.
Unlocking our potential as a nation is Plaid Cymru’s raison d’etre; in our hands, we could ensure that the economic and social benefits of our natural resources were seen in every part of our country. In doing so, we could set the highest possible environmental protection standards.
In starting, I am grateful for the early comments from Alun Ffred with regard to the miners’ strike, because we should not forget that some 37% or 38% of our electricity is still produced by burning coal. Of course, that is coal—which we used to produce—that is now, essentially , imported. We still suffer from the consequences of the loss of jobs and skills that went with that to this very day.
There is certainly confusion and uncertainty over energy projects and, alongside planning delays, that has undoubtedly led to a loss of investment and a consequential loss of green jobs in Wales. The lack of adequate devolved responsibility for energy creates further problems. Renewable energy companies have made it clear on numerous occasions to us that what is more important than who has governmental responsibility for energy projects is that the process is transparent, consistent and speedy. Much evidence that was received by the Environment and Sustainability Committee during its recent energy inquiry confirmed this and also made the point that a major concern with regard to delay was at the local authority planning level. I do question whether major renewable energy projects are best dealt with at that level; this is one of the issues to be considered as part of the planning Bill.
I particularly wanted to look at the issue of the current dash for energy, which is the issue of shale gas exploitation, because I think that it raises many of the important issues of ownership and responsibility that are at the heart of this motion and this particular debate. The Crown owns everything below ground, the UK Government licenses mineral exploitation, and our interest, mainly at local level, is planning and environmental considerations. The impact of any shale gas exploitation in Wales would be borne by local communities, whereas the financial benefit would go to the UK Government and to private corporations.
Shale gas exploitation is undoubtedly controversial. There are those for it, who I think are a minority, and many against, who remain to be convinced of the safety of fracking. Despite inquiries by the Welsh Affairs Committee in Westminster and also by our environment committee, many questions remain unanswered. Issues around the cocktail of chemicals that would be used to extract the gas and the contamination of water, underground and overground, remain. Safety concerns have not been answered with clarity or transparency, increasing the fear and anxiety over this new fuel. I very much appreciate the comments made by Russell George, because I think that he probably shares my views in terms of how this is being pushed. This is probably where I will make some harder points, because it is very clear to me that the major energy moguls and interests, including many within the Conservative Party, who have virtually unlimited Government access, press on with plans—
Will you take an intervention on this point? Is it not right that, particularly in relation to shale gas, there is a very specific commitment for local communities to directly benefit, rather than everything going back to the coffers of central Government, as you allege?
I think that what has happened is that there is a UK Government bribe to local authorities to push it through with a lower tax rate in order to ensure that the Conservative Party’s friends in the energy industry can maximise their profits out of the exploitation of this particular energy. There is a lot of money to be made, which may explain the interest in fracking of Lynton Crosby, Conservative Party strategist, who represents major corporate energy interests and also has access to the Tory Government at the highest level. Yet, in Wales, in this process, we have limited decision-making power, but substantial environmental responsibility, and we certainly do not stand to benefit in any way from the extraction of shale gas, even if we were to support it.
Desperate suggestions by the Prime Minister that fracking could lead to a cut in energy prices were swiftly countered by the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change, Ed Davey, who said that, in fact, this was not true. I think that what the fracking issue raises for us is that there is a clear democratic deficit as far as energy production is concerned. With the exception of nuclear, it is essential that further devolution of responsibility for energy takes place. We are committed, as an Assembly, to creating green jobs, to protecting the environment and to reducing carbon emissions. The current devolution arrangement, in the current energy climate, makes no sense whatsoever, and we need the proper tools in order to do the job that has been put upon us with regard to the environment and our communities.
It is quite clear that our natural resources are hugely valuable. It is often used against us that we are a small nation, but in many ways it can be an advantage. Our low population means that our wealth of resources can not only provide security for our own people, but could also be used to generate revenue for a Welsh treasury. We are already net exporters of electricity—as we have heard—generating almost twice as much as we need, and that is from a relatively low renewables base. As we work to increase that considerably, we owe it to the Welsh people to ensure that they benefit fully from that.
There are not many countries in the world that would be so kind as to give away their resources for free, effectively. This is happening, of course, at a time when individuals and communities across Wales are facing grave difficulties because of the pressure to save money for the public purse. Not only do we give our resources away, but we also act as a port for the rest of the UK’s imports, with few benefits to the general population of Wales. Over 30% of the UK’s gas imports come through Milford Haven and are then sent through a pipeline to Gloucestershire. For jobs, obviously at Milford Haven, there is great value to that, but if Wales received the same kind of fee as other countries would for this kind of energy transfer task, we would receive some £100 million in transit fees every year. We do not even get cheaper gas. £100 million is a significant figure and would mean significant investment in Welsh health or education.
Will you take an intervention?
Have you actually looked at the evidence to the Silk commission that says that if there was devolution on this scale, they would not be present in Wales?
I am not sure what point you are making there, but the point is that we need to look at every way possible to bring in the benefit to Wales of the use of our resources and transfer.
I will go on. We are facing a similar situation with electricity transfer, of course, at the moment. I know that Antoinette Sandbach will agree with me on this, but in the near future 10% of all of the UK’s electricity will be generated in, or will pass through, north Wales. Not only should we be able to benefit from that transfer, but we should also be in a position to reject over-ground cabling on pylons. We need to look after Wales’s finances as well as look after our interests socially.
Reports for RenewableUK Cymru, produced by Cardiff Business School and Regeneris Consulting, estimated that existing and planned onshore wind projects could generate £2.3 billion towards GVA. Another report by Cardiff Business School, this time commissioned by the Welsh Government, estimated that if 1 GW of marine energy is developed over the next two decades, it could support a total of £840 million of GVA during construction and installation. We need to be at the vanguard of developing this technology—research and development and manufacturing, these are the things that will bring real long-term wealth to Wales.
I would also like to address the issue of shale gas and the potential value of our shale gas reserves. Plaid Cymru—as Alun Ffred Jones has said—has called for a moratorium on fracking until it is proven to be safe. I think that that is the responsible thing to do. However, with reserves estimated by some to be as much as £70 billion, it is vital that we do everything that we can to stand up for the people of Wales and make sure that Wales truly benefits if the safety case is proven, and if the people of Wales believe that it is in their interests to exploit those reserves.
My colleagues have already mentioned the importance of putting decisions in the hands of the people of Wales, which includes our proposal to set up a national energy company. While taking profits for shareholders out of the equation means lower bills for householders, it also means lower bills for industry. We have spoken recently here about the need to increase inward investment; energy costs is a major factor in investment decisions, especially for energy-intensive industries and manufacturing. Therefore, Plaid Cymru’s long-term sustainable solution to lower energy bills will give Wales a competitive edge over other countries when it comes to attracting investment. It will also reduce the operating costs of indigenous businesses, allowing those businesses to free up cash flow. It is vital that we take control of what is undoubtedly one of our country’s most valuable assets. I urge Members to back our motion today.
I would like to inject a note of reality into today’s debate. [Laughter.] Plaid Cymru was in Government with Labour in the last Assembly. The energy network strategy group has been meeting throughout that time. During that time, you had plenty of opportunity to stand up for Wales and to argue that Wales should be treated as a country and that with our west-east lines into England, we should have been treated as a single unit. It is the failure to achieve that that means that people here in Wales pay higher electricity prices.
I do not take any lectures from Labour either. In the energy network strategy group meetings, it was decided that a new substation was going to be built in Deeside and that facility is what is preventing the sub-sea cable running from Anglesey into Deeside, because that has been reserved for Scottish wind power. It will be transporting energy generated in Scotland into Deeside. The National Grid ran an undergrounding consultation in 2011 and I would be very interested in seeing Plaid Cymru’s submission to that consultation. Mine is online and is available for anybody to see. It is clear that there are issues around security of supply, but what you could have achieved in Government and failed to do have to be looked at. It is very interesting rhetoric, but the reality is this: where were the serious attempts to get Wales treated as a nation when you had an opportunity to deliver that? That is one of the reasons why we have a problem with higher prices.
I agree with William Powell that natural resources are far wider than just energy. If we look at the Welsh Government’s management of our other natural resources, such as our forestry estate, you will see a forestry estate that is being decimated by Phytophthora ramorum, where statutory plant notices that have been served, requiring the felling and restocking of that estate, are being withdrawn, and where people living in the southern part of Wales are going to see dead and dying forestry for years to come. If that is the kind of sustainable land management that is being delivered, I think that there are very real concerns.
You only have to look at the figures. If you go onto the Ofgem site and look at the figures that are present for renewable energy projects delivered—both when Plaid Cymru was part of the One Wales Government and, indeed, under this Government—you will see that Wales has not been able deliver in the below 50 MW category, where there is complete devolution of consenting powers to the Government here. The reality is in looking at the report—I think that Mick Antoniw summed it up well—our committee did an inquiry into energy and the developers were not worried about who had the devolved powers, but about the speed of the process. That is what has held us up here, particularly with the smaller projects. You can see that with Natural Resources Wales and, in particular, with hydropower. If you contrast the development of hydro in Wales with the development in Scotland, you will see the impact that the flow-splitting policy has had in Wales in discouraging the development of hydro.
In relation to the common agricultural policy, there was an agreement of all the EU states—every single EU state—to cut the CAP budget. We are a small nation of 3 million people. We do contribute to the UK economy £4.85 billion in taxes, but we should not forget that we get £15 billion back—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Your time is up.
[Continues.]—plus £9 billion in welfare payments. It is like the position—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Your time is up.
[Continues.]—with BP in Scotland: there are times and there are some strategic energy—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Your time is up.
[Continues.]—issues that need to be looked at in the round and that is the—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call Dafydd Elis-Thomas.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Dame Presiding Officer, it is strange that we are holding a debate on natural resources that has not yet focused on nature. So, I will emphasise in the few minutes that I have the importance of discussing natural resources from an economic point of view and especially from the point of view of nature and ecosystems. We realised, towards the middle and the end of the last decade, that we are consuming world resources and that we are destroying biodiversity and ecosystems at an unsustainable rate. Yet, we have failed to work to find the economic tools to deal with that. That is the message that we should be concentrating on today.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Nations generally and institutions must share the best practice that we have internationally, in order to deal with this situation, ensuring that we do not miss the opportunity to stop the destruction of biodiversity that we failed to do in 2010 before getting to 2020.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
In the United Kingdom, we have had detailed work on national ecosystem assessments, and the Welsh Government has been contributing to that. We will be using some of that work in the committee as we look at our key inquiry into sustainable land management. In looking at the true economic value of biosystems and our natural environment, we see in that report on the value of Wales’s natural resources, according to our size of population and the quantum of our resources, that there is a contribution of £6 billion to the Welsh economy from the natural environment; that one in six Welsh jobs is directly dependent on that environment; that expenditure of more than £800 million on tourism is a part of that; and that 15% of the goods and services produced in Wales are totally dependent on the existence of the ecosystems.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
We now have a body called Natural Resources Wales, and it is important that this body works hard on its method of evaluating the ecosystems of Wales so that we can properly pay the people living on the land, caring for the land, and caring for those ecosystems. That links directly to the situation that we find ourselves in now with flooding in coastal areas and on the land. This is what I am asking for specifically from the Minister this afternoon: a pledge that we will adopt a firm ecosystemic method with a long-term view to resolve the problem of the impact of the dangers of flooding in coastal areas and on the land on Wales’s landscape, because every study demonstrates that it is possible to use natural methods that are more cost-effective in the long term—when I say ‘long term’ I mean 20, 30, 50 years hence—so that we can ensure that there is a coastline in Ceredigion for the future, and that there will be a golf course in Harlech, and that the twelfth green will be renewed—well, I hope that it will be renewed before then.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Certainly, we must look at these impacts in this practical way. The challenges that are before us are key. The most important thing perhaps is that we must start thinking in the long term and talking long term, because if we are looking solely at the kinds of rather short-term political arguments that we have heard this afternoon, we are not going to resolve the situation. We must also learn to look internationally.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
While I am speaking, please go to the website www.teebweb.org and you will see what I am talking about. It is important that we participate as Welsh people, as Assembly Members and as a Government, in the process of ecosystem and biodiversity economics, which includes an international knowledge bank in these fields. That is where we should be debating; that is where we should be thinking. It is part of our duty, as politicians, not to use complex words such as ‘ecosystems’ but to explain to people simply what it means. I will give you a very quick example: ‘ecosystems’ is a neighbour of mine—a young man—closing the ditches that were opened up by his grandfather so that the peat bog can collect water.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
That was very interesting, that last piece; thank you. [Laughter.]
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I thought that you might like that.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Natural Resources and Food, Alun Davies, to speak on behalf of the Government.
Thank you very much, and amen to that; I agree completely with the contribution made by Dafydd Elis-Thomas to the debate. I think that it sat well with the introduction to the debate from Llyr Gruffydd, because, if we are to achieve the ambitions that we have for Wales, we need to think about our natural resources not as a commodity to be used today and disposed of tomorrow, but focus on the sustainability of our natural resources and ensure that we leave a heritage for future generations of which we can be proud. I will say to Dafydd Elis-Thomas, taking up the challenge that he made in his contribution, that the future generations Bill and the environment Bill will transfer these ambitions from the speeches of Ministers to the statute book that will guide the decisions of future Governments and public bodies across the whole of Wales. So, we will have the opportunity here not simply to make speeches and issue press releases, but to enact in statute our ambitions for the future.
We believe that the sustainable use of our natural resources is essential not only to our success in economic terms, but also to the wellbeing of our community and society. It is paramount that we manage our natural resources with care, with that focus on the long term. I will say right at the beginning of my contribution this afternoon that the Government will be supporting the original motion in this debate. We will also be supporting both of the Liberal Democrat amendments to the motion, if only because of the sheer pleasure that we experienced on all sides of the Chamber in hearing the Liberal Democrats say that they are not simply talking about short-term political gain. [Laughter.] If we have learned anything this afternoon, I think that we will all enjoy that.
We cannot support the amendments tabled by the Conservatives. The lack of ambition is striking; it is shocking, in fact. I will let Members into a secret of mine this afternoon: I actually quite like Russell George. [Laughter.] I have to say, Russell, that, while that might be the death knell of your political career and perhaps mine, you are far better when you are speaking up for the people of Montgomeryshire than when making excuses for the UK Government. Let me say this: the Conservative party has joined, in the past, a consensus on all sides of the Chamber about the future structures and powers of this place. I think that it is a tragedy for all of us that you are unable to escape the straitjacket of the Secretary of State. I hope that you will take time to reflect on the views that you have expressed this week and last week, and allow your thinking to develop a little further in a happier direction in future.
We reject the Conservative amendments on various matters that they have tried to debate here this afternoon, in terms of planning and in terms of some energy developments in amendment 5. Much of the ambitions or the demands that you make there have actually already been delivered. In terms of community benefits, that is a matter that we discussed last week, I think. Certainly, the declaration of community benefits from onshore wind and the forthcoming register of community and economic benefits will demonstrate the reality of that.
I also have to say that, on water boundaries, we have, via the Silk commission, requested the removal of the Secretary of State’s unilateral intervention power, which is wholly inappropriate, and we wish to see it removed immediately. We have also sought the full devolution of all matters regarding water and sewerage, including the licensing, appointment and regulation of water-and-sewerage undertakers.
On the final amendments from the Conservative party, I will say this to them: you have the opportunity most Wednesdays, or every Wednesday, to table a debate on agriculture, and you have not sought to do that and have not taken up that opportunity. So, it seems somewhat bizarre to attempt to amend this motion this afternoon on matters that you simply do not regard as important enough to warrant a debate in your own time.
In terms of energy consents, Members will be aware that we, as a Government, will continue to present and argue the case for the devolution of executive functions regarding the consenting of large-scale energy generation and related infrastructure. I enjoyed the contribution from Alun Ffred Jones. I will say, Alun, that the reason we do not establish targets for some of these matters is not because of a lack of ambition; it is a fact that we do not have the powers to deliver on those targets. It would be an entirely sterile act to establish targets that we do not have the powers to deliver. If we had the powers, we would have the targets, and I certainly give you that assurance this afternoon.
We have had a good debate and a long discussion on the need to focus on renewable energy generation. I believe that excellent work has been achieved, and is being achieved, on small-scale community-based schemes that will create a new network of distributed energy generation. I agree with people who have said that this is an important part of our future energy mix. The Ynni’r Fro scheme has been successful in supporting 99 projects. It is true that we have had lessons to learn from Ynni’r Fro, but that is what happens when you pioneer new ways of working. You cannot on the one hand say, ‘We want a new way of working and we want to pioneer an entirely new way of developing distributed generation’ and then say, ‘There are no lessons to learn’ two years after you have started that. Of course there will be lessons to be learned. The key thing is that we learn those lessons and that we move forward with a renewed commitment to distributed community-scale generation in the future.
Simon Thomas has left the Chamber, but I recognise the points that have been made about the permitting and consenting processes available to us. Members will be aware that I have made that a key part of my relationship with NRW and a test for NRW, if you like, that it is able to respond more quickly and more generously to community-based schemes to see that we can deliver on our ambitions for energy generation in the future. I hope to see a significant programme, based on the successes of Ynni’r Fro, taking us forward into the future.
Through the sustainable use of our natural resources, we have a potential to drive growth and exploit new markets, to increase efficiency and improve the resilience, safety and the prosperity of our communities, our economy and our environment. Further control over our natural resources will help us to realise more easily the potential that we all have to create a prosperous and resilient future for Wales. We will use the legislative powers available to us, and the powers available to us in terms of our ambitions and the European programmes, to deliver on an energy policy and a policy of managing our natural resources sustainably for the future that will deliver for future generations the prosperity and also the sustainability that they deserve and demand and that we have a responsibility to deliver.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call Llyr Gruffydd to reply to the debate.
I thank everyone for their contributions to the debate. I will just run through where we stand on some of these amendments. It will not surprise the Conservatives that Plaid Cymru will not support amendment 1. Recognising potential is of no value at all unless you are able to do something to realise that potential, and that is the problem in a nutshell, in terms of a lack of devolution in this area.
We will support amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts, and my fellow Members have already explained our views on community energy. We will oppose amendment 4, because it is not an issue of individuals’ ability, but a constitutional issue. Electing people is an issue for democracy. If people in Blaenau Gwent feel that their Member is not sufficiently able to be a Minister, then they can do something about that in 2016. It is not something for you to correct in an amendment, if you ask me.
With regard to amendment 5, we agree with much of what has been said and we will support that amendment. We also support amendments 7, 8, 9 and 10 in the name of William Graham. The planning system obviously needs to be reformed, as we have heard over a number of years now in the environment committee and, of course, the planning Bill is in the pipeline, and we look forward to playing a full part in the discussion on that.
I will not pick up on all of the contributions that have been made and I certainly will not repeat some of the points that have been made, but I would agree with the Minister that the Welsh Conservatives really do need to release themselves from the straitjacket—as he described it—of the Secretary of State for Wales. However, I would also remind the Minister that he needs to release himself from the straitjacket of Labour MPs at Westminster. Wales is a nation, as we have heard many times over the last hour or so, that is rich in electricity, but we pay more for our own electricity. The Minister and the Labour Government here tell us that they want it to be devolved, but Labour MPs in Westminster voted against devolving energy. What a statement of intent and what a vote of confidence that they would rather that the Tories and the Lib Dems in Westminster retained control of our energy than pass it to their own party here in Cardiff.
We are rich in water, yet we pay more for our water than others do. The Labour Minister tells us that the Welsh Government wants water to be devolved, but Labour MPs in Westminster voted against that opportunity very recently. We are rich, as we know, in food, but, then again, many of our people suffer from food poverty and depend on food banks. The Labour Government tells us here, of course, that it is disgraceful that the Westminster Government went to Brussels with the intention of reducing the CAP budget, but we know that Labour MPs’ record on that is very much the same. So, who do we believe? How much influence, really, does the First Minister have within his own party on a UK level? Well, maybe we will find out when the UK Labour Party publishes its manifesto for the 2015 Westminster election.
It is about time that we had the powers in Wales to manage our own natural resources for the benefit of the people of Wales—that is why we want those powers to be devolved. I would be very pleased if we had those powers, because, from what we hear here, we could make full use of them. However, until we see movement at a UK level, we will be waiting. I could point the finger at the Conservatives—and I am doing that now—but we also need to point the finger at the Labour Party, because without a commitment from the Labour Party, the task will be far more difficult.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection. Therefore, I will defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
It has been agreed that voting time will take place before the short debate, and we are now at that point.
Result of the vote on motion NNDM5427
Motion agreed: For 41, Against 4, Abstain 3.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5421
Motion agreed: For 37, Against 11, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5422
Motion agreed: For 32, Against 16, Abstain 0.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the short debate. If you are leaving the Chamber, could you please leave quickly and quietly?
I have received requests from my co-conspirator Ann Jones, the inimitable Mike Hedges, fellow north Walian Aled Roberts, the fashionable Lindsay Whittle and the benevolent Mark Isherwood to participate in this debate, and I have agreed to give them each a minute of my time.
Every year in Wales, thousands of consumers fall victim to scams. Many of these are sent by post, e-mail, text message, the telephone or the internet. It is estimated that bogus lotteries, deceptive prize draws and sweepstakes, fake psychics and miracle health cures cost the British public more than £3.5 billion per year.
Around 50% of the population receives some form of scam through the post, e-mail or telephone on an annual basis. The truth is that anyone can fall victim to a scam, but it is the elderly who are often hit the hardest. It has been reported that older victims are likely to lose nearly twice as much per scam as other people. Victims are often socially isolated, over-trusting or afflicted by illnesses such as dementia.
Once they have fallen victim, some will be added to so-called ‘suckers lists’ and their details passed on to more criminals, so that they can be repeatedly targeted by scammers. Age Cymru has known of cases of individuals on such lists receiving up to 70 letters per day in Cardiff. Evidence suggests that older victims of reported scams lose an average of £1,200 each, but some, of course, have lost much more, with many losing their life savings, suffering depression and ill health as a result.
There is some hope in respect of postal scams. The Royal Mail is working closely with Operation Sterling, which seeks to intercept scam mail from outside of the UK and prevent it from hitting doormats. However, more needs to be done to prevent UK-based scam mail from hitting doormats too, which is why I have been a big supporter of the calls from Age Cymru for Royal Mail to stop delivering mail with financial inducements on the outside of envelopes and help to identify victims.
In terms of telephone scams, I am very encouraged that my good friend Alun Cairns MP has been afforded an opportunity to make progress with a Bill in the UK Parliament to address nuisance telephone calls. Many scammers can use nuisance telephone calls to badger older people and cheat them out of their money with bogus investment opportunities, fake payment protection insurance recovery offers and the like. Simple changes such as caller display of incoming numbers being standard and the banning of computer-generated calls, which result in disconcerting silence to the listener, would also help.
Perhaps the most distressing type of scam is the one that arrives in person, usually smiling, at the home of its victims. Doorstep crime is still prolific, with rogue traders conning homeowners into having unnecessary work done and demanding staggering amounts upfront for often shoddy work or no work at all. The cross-party group on older people and ageing, ably chaired by Mike Hedges, discussed these issues at a meeting last year, where we received a very interesting presentation from the Scambusters Wales team, which was established in 2009 by the heads of trading standards across Wales.
Andrew Bertie from the team shared some case study examples with the group. They included the story of Anne Cornock, mother of BBC correspondent David Cornock, who was conned out of her life savings. She lost more than £270,000 in a scam that started with a cold caller suggesting that the drive of her modest two-bedroomed bungalow outside Cardiff needed repaving. The work was done and she paid for it, but then the workman came back to demand more and more. Every penny she had saved and earned went. She did not speak to anyone about it because she felt too ashamed to have fallen for such a scam. We also heard of the story of an elderly blind gentleman who, living alone with some social services support, was called by rogue traders 12 months after a previous cold call. The scammers told the man that he needed some work on the tiles on his roof and that they could repair it. They took him to his local bank and stood over him intimidatingly while he made a cash withdrawal to fund the repairs. He was then taken by the arm back home and, when they arrived back, fortunately for the man, his social worker had arrived and confronted the men as clearly no work at all was required on the roof of his property. The scammers were then reported to the local trading standards team and the matter was investigated by Scambusters. Fortunately, the good news is that the offenders were traced and arrested. When he appeared in court, one of the offenders was sentenced to 14 months in prison.
However, regrettably, such prosecutions are scarce. Most scammers get away with their spoils and escape justice. Of the thousands of victims of scams each year in Wales, barely a score see the perpetrator prosecuted. Age Cymru revealed that more than 2,500 scams were reported to trading standards departments in Wales between February 2012 and February 2013, and yet this figure could just be the tip of the iceberg because studies have shown that such incidents are hugely underreported, mainly due to the sort of embarrassment that Anne Cornock felt as a victim. The Office of Fair Trading has suggested that only 5% of scams are ever reported. That means that about 50,000 people could be the victims or targets of scams each year in Wales.
We know that, here in Wales, we have a higher proportion of older people than any other country in the UK. My own constituency, of course, is the oldest in Wales in terms of its demographics. That is why I have been very keen to endorse the work—and I am pleased that other Assembly Members have, too—of Age Cymru and the efforts it is making with its Scams and Swindles campaign. The key part of the campaign revolves around the need for more no-cold-calling zones across Wales. These zones are areas designated as places where unsolicited cold callers, such as traders and salespeople, are prevented from knocking on residents’ doors. The zones can be set up following consultation between local authority trading standards officers and residents, but only after problems have been reported with cold callers, complaints have been made and these things have been recorded by the authorities. Trading standards officers say that the zones substantially reduce the number of complaints about unwanted cold callers, but they also have the additional benefit of substantially increasing resident confidence in dealing with those people who are a nuisance turning up on their doorsteps.
Some Welsh local authorities, including those in my own constituency, have established a number of zones, but others are yet to use the opportunity to establish a single zone in their area. As a result, we have a postcode lottery across the country. I am keen to see more zones established, and I know that the Welsh Government is, too. That is why the Welsh Government is to set money aside to support the establishment of new zones. However, that money could go much further if the Welsh Government streamlined the process for the establishment of new zones and supported the development of consistent literature for circulation when new no-cold-calling zones are proposed and literature and packs for distribution across those zone areas once a zone has been established. Trading standards officers tell us that the biggest barrier to them establishing new zones is the labour-intensive resource required in order to undertake the work to establish them. So, making the taxpayers’ money that the Welsh Government provides go further is one way in which we could tackle this problem.
Another problem with the current zones is that nobody is committing a criminal offence when they call within them. There is ambiguity about who is responsible for upholding the zones. The police in some areas are reluctant to become involved because people knocking on doors in no-cold-calling zones are not actually breaking the law, unless of course they are persistent offenders, an offence is being committed, there is harassment or somebody is breaking into a property while someone else is distracting the person on the doorstep. So, this lack of clarity on who is enforcing the zones is not helpful. However, this, of course, could also be addressed by the National Assembly for Wales through legislation to make cold calling in no-cold-calling zones a criminal offence. Therefore, I wonder whether the Welsh Government has considered taking such a step, and, if it has not, whether it will in the future.
Yesterday, we had a debate in the Assembly, in which a requirement to have due regard to the UN principles for older persons was endorsed by the National Assembly. I was very pleased to see that vote pass, albeit very narrowly. One of the UN principles is the ability of older people to live in dignity and security. No-cold-call zones give older people some dignity and give them the security that they need. Therefore, I call upon the Welsh Government to do more to promote their development across Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on co-conspirator, Ann Jones.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. If I had known he was going to call me that, I might have said, ‘Forget it’. [Laughter.] No, no.
I think that Darren has outlined all of the issues that many of us face in opening our postbags, particularly his and my constituency postbags, given that we have the highest numbers of pensioners, or older people, living on their own. They are, therefore, more susceptible to doorstep crime and distraction crime. Darren went into those very heart-rending cases that he had heard about, most of which we know about.
However, other Members here might have constituents who might just have lost £25, but that is as vital as their life savings of quite a lot. It is about the shame that those people fear and face when they have been taken in. It is easy to be taken in by scams. You wonder what else people will think to come up with next, but for every person we have out there—and Denbighshire has done a wonderful job in dealing with cold calling and working in partnership with agencies to alert people to the scams that are out there—trying to tell people that there is somebody out there scamming, there are people who are sitting somewhere thinking about the next scam. So, Darren is right that we have a duty to all of our constituents to tell them what is going on. I am grateful that he has brought forward the debate today, and I am pleased to see that the Welsh Government is looking to do things with that. It is together that we will make sure that, as we get older, we will not fall susceptible to scams.
I thank Darren Millar for giving me a minute in this debate. I want to raise two issues. First, in four council areas, there are no-cold-calling zones and in others, only a tiny fraction of homes are covered. Meanwhile, other authorities have zones that cover as many as 8,000 homes.
The danger of small zones is that they are almost like having a sign that says, ‘Old and vulnerable people live here’. That is something that causes concern. I would urge the Minister to consider supporting the banning of cold-calling zones throughout the whole of Wales. Otherwise, if we just pick some areas where there are lots of old people, the likelihood is that we will see it having the opposite effect to what we want to see.
I also want to mention the growth in e-mail scams that is likely to affect older people as the number of silver surfers increases. This week, I have been offered money-making opportunities; I have been contacted by a woman who—this you might like—liked my looks having seen—[Laughter.] That is the exact response that I had at home as well. I have also been offered pharmaceutical products and body enhancements. There are a whole range of these scams that are likely to become more and more serious, and I think that we need to deal with these on a UK level.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Lindsay Whittle.
Follow that. [Laughter.]
He said the ‘fashionable Lindsay Whittle’; I am glad that I wore my Italian suit.
I thank Darren Millar for giving me a minute to speak in this debate. Loneliness and social isolation is a serious contributing factor to people becoming victims of scams. For vulnerable older people living in areas not covered by a no-cold-calling zone, the absence of regular day-to-day company and interaction can lead to many falling foul of these horrible cold callers—people who belong in the gutter.
People need social interaction. People who do not see anybody on a regular basis, or perhaps those without any close confidante, may lack the advice and support that others can find, meaning that they could more easily reject offers from cold callers. People should not hand money or bank details over and they should reject entirely a knock at the front door from somebody who is cold calling. I know that Bethan Jenkins my colleague has been looking at making it easier for local authorities to establish no-cold-calling zones as part of her private Member’s Bill. Minister, more needs to be done to look at these social factors as well as expanding no-cold-calling zones to protect more vulnerable people. I am delighted that, today in Cardiff court, a man called Kamal Hussein was sent to prison for two and a half years for defrauding two pensioners aged 88 and 78 out of their hard-earned and saved money. He got what he deserved.
May I also thank Darren Millar, although I was a bit upset that the only good thing that he could say about me was that I was from north Wales as well? [Laughter.] May I say that I think that Ann Jones made a valid point? Although Anne Cornock’s case is very much at the extreme, the reality is that, probably, many of us have elderly relatives who have succumbed to instances where somebody has charged them £100 or £200 for cutting a tree or replacing a few slates. It is very much more widespread than some of us might imagine. It is not a party political issue—I am sure that we are all sickened by what happens—but I do think that the Government ought to take the opportunity, given the campaign that has been announced, to look at the bureaucratic needs as far as the setting-up of the zones are concerned, because the reality is that when local authorities are facing cutbacks, it is unlikely that they will go to the cost of proactively setting up these zones. I also think that, at the UK level, the Government ought to look at the criminal sanctions that are available once these people are caught, because, clearly, the numbers who are currently being prosecuted in no way reflect the scale of the problem.
Gwynedd’s zero no-cold-calling zones, although it has one pilot scheme, contrasts with the situation in Monmouthshire, which has zones covering 8,000 houses—21% of the total. In Denbighshire, which Ann referred to, 12.3% of homes are covered. In Wrexham, it is 2.41%, and in Flintshire, it is 1.04%. So, there is a huge range of need. When I recently raised this with the First Minister in the Chamber, I referred to Age Cymru’s call for no-cold-calling zones and for the Welsh Government to intervene to tackle the inconsistent provision and enforcement of these zones across Wales to protect older people. He replied that his programme for government sets out plans to extend no-cold-calling zones. However, programmes and plans are no substitutes for action. If done properly, no-cold-calling zones are cheaper than painting yellow lines on the road and far cheaper than dealing with the consequences of scams and swindles. Therefore, let us tackle the postcode lottery and, perhaps, consider an opt-out scheme across Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Local Government and Government Business to reply to the debate; Lesley Griffiths.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I am very pleased to have the opportunity to respond on behalf of the Government to this very important subject, and I thank Darren Millar for bringing it forward. I should say at the outset that I think that it is really important to remember that financial scams and consumer protection are not devolved matters. However, no-cold-calling zones are very much within my portfolio, so I will be focusing on them, but it is important to look at the whole area of work that we are doing as a Government.
We, of course, recognise that feeling safe and secure in your community is absolutely fundamental to people right across Wales. However, I think that I should point out that Welsh police forces have been dealt a 20% funding cut in real terms over the current spending review period, which has slashed the number of police in Wales, resulting in a reduction of over 1,000 police officers and staff over the last three years. We, as a Welsh Government, on the other hand, have maintained our solid commitment to building communities where people are safer and feel safer. In our programme for government, we made a commitment to support the extension of no-cold-caller zones to warn rogue traders and cold callers that their activity is not acceptable, and it is a commitment that I have taken forward since I came into this portfolio. Last summer, I visited residents in a no-cold-caller zone. They were very reassured that, should they receive a cold call, they could report it to their local trading standards department, which would immediately take follow-up action.
It is an offence for any trader calling at someone’s door to sell goods or services to refuse to leave when asked. Recent surveys have shown that 96% of people simply do not want cold callers and that nobody really welcomes them. My officials have been working with colleagues in local authorities’ trading standards departments, and with the police, to gather information about existing zones and to explore ways of promoting new ones. An important part of this for me—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you prepared to take an intervention, Minister? It is unusual.
Thank you, Minister, for taking an intervention. In Ceredigion, the housing association actively promotes a safe-to-use service of handymen—or handy people—so that those vulnerable people that we are talking about know that there is a safe service without advertising that they are vulnerable. Would you commend that as a way forward?
Yes, I certainly think that it is, and I think that someone raised this issue. I think that it was Lindsay Whittle who said that, when someone comes to the house, sometimes that is the only person that they see and they just take that opportunity. Therefore, certainly I would.
When I came to the post I thought that it was really important to look at the barriers that seem to be stopping some local authorities from setting up the schemes. To start to address the inconsistency and the variance, which does exist across Wales, I have written to the Welsh Local Government Association to seek its views on how we can further promote the schemes. One of the things that I was determined should not be a barrier was finance, which is why I allocated funding for work relating to no-cold-caller zones and doorstep scams. A portion of the funding was earmarked to support local authorities that wanted to set up new zones. They were invited to bid for this funding last November. I am pleased to say that 12 authorities submitted bids for funding, all of which were assessed and approved. Obviously, that means that 10 did not apply. When the authorities have delivered on those commitments, the new zones will cover over 10,000 homes, which is in addition to the 38,500 homes for which zones are already in place. Therefore, that is an increase of around 25%. However, I think that we still need to see wider coverage of the zones, and I want to learn more about why some local authorities did not choose to take up the funding. I know that Mike Hedges referred to the fact that there is patchy provision.
I will say that there is no such thing as coincidence in politics—as this was actually in my diary for quite a while—but I met with Age Cymru yesterday, and I had no idea, obviously, that this short debate was coming up. It shared figures with me, having done a freedom of information request on all local authorities in December to look at how many houses and zones there were. There was some inconsistency, but I hope that we have managed to put those figures right. I also collate figures directly from local authorities. Our latest data was published in March of last year. Therefore, that is why there could have been some discrepancies. I will have the data updated in April and I will certainly share that with Members.
If funding is not the problem, what is the problem? That was something that I discussed with Age Cymru yesterday because I really do want to get to the bottom of what is stopping some local authorities from setting up zones. Aled Roberts spoke about bureaucracy. In my conversation yesterday with Age Cymru, one of the things that we thought could be a problem is the UK Government giving out the guidance from the Trading Standards Institute in how a no-cold-calling zone is set up. It made clear that the first step should be to have a residents’ survey. That refers to what Darren said about labour-intensive power. Obviously, that is not a devolved issue, and I am awaiting clarification on that, and I will take it up with the UK Government if I think that that could be a barrier to local authorities setting up these zones.
As the Minister with portfolio responsibility for the extension of no-cold-caller zones, in line with our programme for government commitment, this is absolutely a priority for me, and I want to assure Members of that. However, I also want the scope of the work broadened a little, and I wanted to take into account rogue traders and scams, particularly those targeting older people. Again, I think that there should be a focus on awareness raising. Ann Jones talked about how easy it is sometimes for us to be taken in by scams. It is nothing to be ashamed of, but, again, perhaps we could raise awareness about it.
As I have said, I am supporting Age Cymru’s wider work to raise awareness of financial scams. It has a pilot project, funded mainly through Comic Relief, which aims to raise awareness of scams with older people, particularly older people with dementia and carers of people with dementia. I am supporting South Wales Police to develop a scams awareness-raising DVD, which will be shared with all police forces and trading standards departments. We expect that to be available in April of this year.
That is just a small part of our work to make vulnerable older people feel safer. The national survey for Wales showed that people over 65 generally reported feeling less safe than younger adults do—whether that is in their home, their local area, their town, in city centres or on public transport at any time, but particularly after dark. One of the proposed outcomes of the strategy for older people is to create age-friendly communities so that older people find public places welcoming, safe and accessible and that they are able to participate and contribute in their communities much more fully, which would then promote their independence.
Another programme for government commitment was to fund an additional 500 community support officers across Wales to deal with local issues. We know from our feedback that people feel much safer having CSOs in their communities. We achieved that back in September, just halfway through this Assembly term.
To conclude, a lot of what we have discussed are not devolved issues, so there is only so much action that we can take, but I hope that I have reassured Members of the work that we are doing in these areas. I am determined to do everything that we can to raise awareness of the dangers of financial scams.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 18:41.