The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) in the Chair.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. Order. The National Assembly is in session.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 1 is questions to the First Minister. Question 1, Jeff Cuthbert.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on the potential benefits of the south Wales metro? OAQ(4)2631(FM)
Yes. I provided Members with a full update on the potential benefits of the metro last week, after I had formally launched a campaign to raise public awareness of the project at Pontypridd station.
Thank you for that response, First Minister. I have no doubt that the south Wales metro will be a great benefit to my constituents, not least because of the quicker and more regular services back and forth to Cardiff and other major centres of employment, west-east as well as north-south, and, together with electrification of the Rhymney valley line, it’ll improve the quality of journeys. However, First Minister, would you agree with me that another important aspect of a successful metro network will be to make house building on brownfield sites in the Heads of the Valleys region more attractive to private developers, thereby reducing the constant and ever-growing pressure to build new estates on greenfield sites in areas such as the Caerphilly basin?
Yes, I do, because, in the latter stages of the metro project, there is scope for constructing light rail links into new estates, making them easier in terms of access to the rest of the network and in terms of access to jobs. It’s right to say that, where the infrastructure is right, then of course it becomes far more attractive to develop in areas that before that infrastructure is in place are seen as unattractive.
Will the First Minister agree with me that not only will the metro scheme build on existing and future economic development for the area, but will also act as an important stimulus to social cohesion?
Yes, I do. As I’ve said before, this is not a question of putting in place a transport system that just brings people to Cardiff to work, but connects communities with the capital city so that investment can flow away from the capital city as well. I see it very much as a two-way process.
It’s very welcome, the support for the metro. How much does the further development of the metro concept depend on agreement being made about Cardiff and the capital city deal?
Well, obviously, it’s an important part of the city deal. We have made our commitment. Local government has made its commitment, and now, of course, we wait to see the progress of negotiations between local government, whose bid it is, and the UK Government.
First Minister, what assurances can you give that the metro will be focused on greater improvement in connection with the Valleys and other cities within the region and not just on relieving congestion in Cardiff? I appreciate that this city is becoming more and more congested. One Coca-Cola lorry brought it to a halt last week. Well, if this is a regional strategy, we need to make sure that we better connect with other regional centres too.
I can’t promise that, in the plans for the metro, that we have made provision for such unlikely events as a Coca-Cola lorry arriving on spec without any notice at all, but, unfortunately, there are many who would have been inconvenienced by it who may not have been positively influenced by the message it was carrying, if I can put it that way. As part of the metro project, of course, we are looking at cross-valley links as well, particularly, though not exclusively, through bus rapid transit, because we recognise that the metro system, in order for it to be cohesive, has to have cross-valley links as part of it, not simply links that come down to Cardiff.
First Minister, clearly, the metro is a key driver of change for that city deal and it’s vital that the two—the city deal and the metro—work together strategically if we’re going to derive the maximum benefits. But, will the Welsh Government in the long term retain control of the metro project or will it be handed over to the control of the local authorities within the city region as their own governance structures progress and city deal funding is discussed?
No, the metro itself will be organised so that there is one organisation that runs the metro. It’s a Welsh Government project and, certainly, it’s our intention that we retain influence and control over that project. But we want to work with the local authority partners as well. In time, that model may change. What’s absolutely crucial is that there is one body in place that runs the metro as a network.
The Devolution of Business Rates
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the devolution of business rates? OAQ(4)2632(FM)[W]
The devolution of business rates is an important opportunity to focus on developing the right regime for Wales.
Thank you very much. The devolution of non-domestic rates is to be welcomed, of course, although, as far as I know, we don’t have the right to vary the way in which that tax is levied. But another concern, of course, is the methodology for altering the block grant, and the formula favoured by the Treasury will disadvantage Wales. What pressure has the Government placed on the Treasury to ensure fairness for Wales, and what meetings have taken place to discuss this?
The Member is entirely correct on the change that has taken place. It’s not something that benefits Wales. The Minister has raised our concerns about this change to the Barnett formula with the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and she will continue to make the Welsh Government’s case over the next few weeks.
First Minister, what progress is being made to ensure that a no-detriment principle is followed on the devolution of national non-domestic rates, and that the formula does not produce a Barnett-type squeeze?
Well, building on the answer I gave to the Member for Arfon, we are concerned that the new approach is inconsistent with the principles that should be applied when considering the interaction between the block grant and devolved taxes. A recent paper from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the University of Stirling concluded that this type of approach that’s been adopted to block grant adjustments fails the principle that there should be no detriment from the decision to devolve the tax, and that is why we will keep on pressing the UK Government to realise that this is not an appropriate way to conduct affairs with regard to the formula itself.
First Minister, the full devolution of business rates to the Welsh Government does indeed provide an opportunity to better develop a supporting regime for businesses within Wales. Welsh Conservatives have long called for business rates to be reduced, and for business rates up to £12,000 to be removed. Will you look again at our policy, and look at a way to develop the regime within Wales, so that businesses are better supported?
The small business rate relief scheme, of course, has been successful. But, of course, what he must explain is how the loss of revenue will be made up in terms of the Welsh budget. We know that, where we look to reduce revenue, then there is a concomitant reduction in spending as well. We believe that the current scheme has been very successful, and, certainly, I’m sure all parties will be examining the opportunities that business rates offer in terms of their offers to the people of Wales in May.
First Minister, you know that, in England, there are a number of innovations being experimented on around business rates, such as tax increment financing, giving local authorities the power to keep some of the business rates that they might be able to gain, if they attracted additional investment into their area. Is the Welsh Government looking to do similar things in Wales and, if so, when?
Well, this has to be approached with great caution, because it is possible for local authorities to lose out substantially if the balance is not right between what they raise, and their block grant. We know that if business rates were completely self-contained within local authorities, 17 local authorities in Wales would lose out as a result, and some would benefit handsomely. That much is true, but there would be an enormous change. We’re always keen to look at ways to incentivise local authorities to be able to attract business into their communities, but it is important to ensure that local authorities don’t lose out as a result of any changes.
Questions Without Notice from the Party Leaders
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I now call the party leaders to question the First Minister, starting this week with the leader of the opposition, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. First Minister, it’s budget day today. That gives us the opportunity to reflect on maybe some of the budget decisions you’ve made in this Assembly term, because, obviously, today is the last draft budget statement that this current Government will make. In the early years of this Assembly, obviously, the Government put forward budgets that had devastating cuts to the NHS budget, especially year 1 and year 2. In year 1, for example, £225 million was taken out of the NHS budget. Do you now regret those decisions that so savagely took away resources from the Welsh NHS?
Well, let’s be absolutely clear: there’s a 0.6 per cent increase, in real terms, to the Welsh NHS budget, despite the fact there’s been a 10 per cent decrease in the Welsh budget. That shows the priority we give to the Welsh NHS, and we’re proud of the fact that, today, there will be a substantial increase, reflecting, of course, Wales’s position as being ahead of England in the amount we spend per head on health.
It’s quite remarkable that you’re not really defending the positions that you did take in the early part of this Assembly, because you clearly know they were so wrong for the NHS here in Wales. And, in particular, when you look at yesterday’s report from the Royal College of Surgeons of England, ‘The State of Surgery in Wales’, it shows that one in seven people are on a waiting list in Wales—450,000 people are on a waiting list in Wales. That’s nearly double the number, as a percentage, that are on a waiting list in England. We also know that the 26-week wait is up by 70 per cent since 2011. Wales has the lowest number of critical care beds across Europe—not the UK, but across Europe. When you look at that report, nearly all these indicators started to go the wrong way in 2013—the year after your first two budgets that delivered such devastating cuts to the Welsh NHS. How are you actually going to address some of these damning statistics over your management and your Government’s failure to address the shortfalls in the Welsh NHS?
He fails to recognise the inherent weakness in his argument. If he claims that there have been record cuts in the Welsh NHS, then the cuts in England must have been even worse under his party, under his Government. We have seen an increase in Welsh NHS spending over five years. We have seen a real-terms increase. We have done that despite the fact that we’ve seen a real-terms decrease of 10 per cent from his Government in London, and we are today putting more money into the Welsh NHS, while he wants to remove £250 million from the Welsh NHS through what he’s proposing for taxes. He has to show, if he wishes to remove money out of the Welsh budget, where he is going to make those cuts. Perhaps he could be honest with the people of Wales and tell us.
No apology, no remorse for what you’ve done to the NHS here in Wales in the early years of your tenure as First Minister in this Assembly. Those figures aren’t Conservative figures that I quoted to you in my second question; they are the figures put forward by the royal college of surgeons that paint a damning picture of what you have presided over in the Welsh NHS. And time and time again, you keep talking that there’s more money spent on patients in Wales than in England. That clearly is not the case. [Interruption.] If you take the Nuffield figures, we also know that, for the adjusted age and reflecting our increasingly ageing population, £50 per person less is spent on health in Wales per person. That is a fact, First Minister. You know that—
The Treasury’s wrong.
[Continues.]—and you know that, over the term of this Assembly, you have taken £1 billion out of the NHS here in Wales. Will you not show now some remorse for those devastating decisions that have led to such astronomical waiting times here in Wales?
The figures that I’ve quoted are his Government’s figures from the Treasury.
No apology. No apology.
What he’s saying is that Treasury is misleading the people of Britain. The reality is that the public expenditure survey analyses figures the Treasury produce show that we spend more on health per head in Wales than England does. His party’s figures, not mine—or is the Treasury wrong? And, again, he doesn’t give us an answer, does he, in terms of the £250 million-cut that he wants to impose on the Welsh budget? He doesn’t say what he’s going to do about social care, because older people in England are being dumped by the UK Government. We see delayed transfers of care going through the roof in England, as people are stuck in hospital. We see that social care in England is being abandoned by the UK Government—we see it being thrown at local authorities. We in Wales will never be in a position where we leave our old people, our older people, vulnerable in the way that the Tories are doing in England. We will continue to spend more per head on health in Wales than in England. We will continue to spend far more on social care in Wales than the Tories do in England. It just goes to show that you can’t trust the Welsh NHS with the Tories. [Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. Let’s all calm down. Let it go.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Now the leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
Diolch. I’d like to start by saying a big welcome to the pupils of my former primary school who are with us in the public gallery today—the children of Penygraig Junior School—and a big ‘well done’ to them on an excellent Estyn report as well.
First Minister, the UK Government’s statement of funding policy, published at the time of the comprehensive spending review, states that the direct Barnett consequential for Wales from the HS2 project is 0 per cent. The corresponding figure for Scotland and for Northern Ireland is 100 per cent Barnett consequential. Will you confirm that that is the case?
The consequential from HS2 is £755 million for Wales.
First Minister, you are now deliberately confusing two different figures. Wales will see an increased consequential, as a result of an overall increase in the UK Department for Transport’s budget. That’s an overall increase in the transport budget. But Wales is missing out on a much more significant increase, because, as the Treasury confirms, Wales will not receive a direct consequential from the HS2 project. First Minister, why are you taking the Tory line on this, and why are you content that Wales will miss out on millions of pounds again?
Just to explain the way this was done: the HS2 funding was put into the departmental funding line—the DEL—of the Department for Transport, which is why we get a consequential. We would not have had a consequential if there’d been a separate DEL, as they tried to do with the Olympics. Because the funding is going to the Department for Transport budget, we then get a consequential. So, we have had a consequential, as a result of HS2, of £755 million.
That does not explain why Scotland and Northern Ireland are in a different position. Now, the delivery body for HS2 is HS2 Limited, and not Network Rail. Unlike Network Rail, HS2 Limited is not devolved to either Scotland or to Northern Ireland. So, why is the UK Government singling out Wales for disadvantage, and why are you, as Wales’s First Minister, quite happy for that to happen? Now, First Minister, Plaid Cymru warned you a year ago on this. Did you listen to us? No, you did not. Did you act when we spoke out a year ago? No, you did not. Don’t the people of Wales deserve better than a passive First Minister?
What the people of Wales deserve is to be told things as they are. The reality is that, as a result of the representations we made to the UK Government, the HS2 funding was placed in the DEL of the Department for Transport and, as result, we’ve had a consequential. If there’d been a separate DEL, we’d have had nothing at all. And that is the point—we have had a consequential of £755 million over the course of five years because of the increased UK Department for Transport budget as a result of HS2. We have had a consequential because of HS2. [Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order, order. I’m sure we want to show the young people who are visiting us that, on all sides of the Chamber, we listen calmly to both the questions and the answers. Now the leader of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, Kirsty Williams.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. First Minister, this afternoon I eagerly anticipate budget proposals to increase the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ key schools policy of the pupil premium to £1,150 per pupil. Last week, your Government’s evaluation report confirmed that the policy has resulted in significant improvements in literacy, numeracy, behaviour, confidence and self-esteem for our most disadvantaged pupils. What additional improvements do you expect to see for pupils in Welsh schools as a result of the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ decision to prioritise school funding in budget negotiations?
Well, the pupil deprivation grant, of course, is what the Liberal Democrats brought to the table. Increasing school funding was a manifesto commitment made by my party. I’m not going to prejudge what the Minister’s about to say in her draft budget statement, but, of course, we’re aware of the agreement that was reached between the parties with regard to the budget.
Having persuaded you of the merits of one of our policies, I invite you to consider another, First Minister. Parents want teachers to have the time to properly devote to their children. Evidence suggests, and Estyn has told us, that children learn better in smaller class sizes. Isn’t it time to adopt the Welsh Liberal Democrat policy to cap class sizes at 25 pupils?
Well, that’s something I’m sure she can put forward in May. We have made sure that class sizes have been reducing over the years. We’ve improved standards in Welsh schools, and we’re seeing that—the best GCSE results that we’ve ever had. We’re building schools—that’s not happening in England. There are no schools being built in England, and nor are they being refurbished to the extent that they are in Wales. And we know that we spend 4 per cent per head more on education in Wales than the Tory Government does in England.
But the reality here in Wales is that the number of children being taught in classes of 30 and over is increasing. There has been a loss of 775 teachers since 2010. In five years, we’ve lost one teacher for every two pupils that have left the school system. What measures will your Government take to stem the loss of teachers and the increases in class sizes?
Well, there is £106 million more in the education budget than there would have been if the pledge that we put in place in 2011 had not been carried through. That means that there are more teachers in Welsh schools, it means that that there are more schools being built, and it means we’re seeing standards increase. Ultimately, of course, it’s for local authorities and for schools to decide the numbers that they employ. Bear in mind, of course, if we’re talking about teacher numbers, that the Tory plans for cuts in tax would mean 5,000 fewer teachers in Welsh schools. That’s what it amounts to. It would mean 10,000 nurse salaries that wouldn’t be paid. Again, we have a situation where a gimmick is presented to the Welsh electorate and deep cuts in education being proposed by the Tories.
Residential Care Fee Levels
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the impact of fee levels for residential care on the viability of the sector? OAQ(4)2622(FM)
Yes. Local authorities have responsibility for working with providers and negotiating fee levels to ensure the sustainable provision of residential care to meet the needs of people in their local area.
First Minister, you will be aware that many people providing residential care are doing so on the margins of sustainable viability. The proposals by the Westminster Government to introduce a so-called living wage, and whilst nobody would argue that those working in the care sector deserve to be paid decently, without a corresponding rise in fee levels from local authorities who place residents in residential care sectors, some of those care beds could be lost. What is your Government doing to analyse the situation and to work with local authorities to ensure that the fee levels they’re paying to residential care are adequate?
The leader of the Liberal Democrats is absolutely right because these are representations that are being made to me. The UK Government has introduced the national living wage, which she and I would both very much welcome, but the cost of it is being borne by businesses and ultimately, possibly, by the local authorities, but not by the UK Government. It’s another example—we saw it again in the CSR last week—where there’s an abdication of financial responsibility by the UK Government when it comes to social care, so that they can blame other people when things go wrong.
I can say that the national commissioning board is undertaking a detailed market analysis of the care home market across Wales. That analysis will encompass the fee levels paid by health boards and local authorities and will capture information on third-party payments. It will also provide information on the balance between demand and supply for services and that will help, of course, in terms of understanding the challenges that are being placed on the care sector by the UK Government.
First Minister, the care sector is facing a number of challenges in the coming decades with an ageing population and budget constraints. Do you agree that we need to look for innovative solutions? Welsh Conservatives believe that part of the solution is to keep people in their own homes for longer, keeping capacity in residential care for those with complex care needs. What is your Government doing to support and enable older people to remain in their own homes?
The Member seems to suggest that we should have residential care for those who are the most infirm and nothing for anyone else—they should be at home. That clearly can’t be right with extra care facilities particularly, in terms of the facilities that they provide. What we will not do is do what his party have done in England and say, ‘If you want more social care, then put 2 per cent on the council tax’. What that means of course is that those authorities that have the lowest council tax base and probably the greatest demand will find themselves caught twice in a double trap. More affluent areas will be able to afford social care and poorer areas will not. That just sums up the attitude of the Tories in one sentence.
4. Will the First Minister make a statement on the initiatives that the Welsh Government has introduced to support entrepreneurs in Wales? OAQ(4)2623(FM)
Yes. As a Government we are committed to providing the best environment possible to support entrepreneurs to start and grow their businesses in Wales.
Thank you for that answer. First Minister, the latest figures reveal that the number of business enterprises operating in Wales has grown by more than 10 per cent under the current Welsh Government. What can the Welsh Government do to build on this dynamic success?
As a Government, we have delivered wide-ranging actions to support job creation and to improve the business environment across Wales. We placed jobs, growth and tackling poverty at the heart of our programme for government, with a clear alignment between these. We can see that the latest data show that there are now 231,110 business in Wales compared to 207,740 in 2011. We’ve seen an increase in employment as well within those businesses.
First Minister, one way of supporting entrepreneurs is to strengthen the skills foundation and to give young people the chance to develop the skills that are relevant to the local area. This would assist in keeping young entrepreneurs in areas such as Pembrokeshire. Many reports have suggested that more could be done in areas such as Pembrokeshire at the school and college level so that students can be encouraged to establish their own businesses in their home towns. Under these circumstances, what is the Welsh Government doing to encourage the education sector to promote and develop local entrepreneurship so that our young people don’t feel that they have to leave areas such as Pembrokeshire?
I must say, of course, that the aim of his party is to cut the skills budget. They have said so. Of course, we are not going to do that. We have Business Wales, of course, and Business Wales has a one-stop-shop service that has helped so many people, especially young people. Yesterday, the Minister launched a new service to support young people to set up their own businesses over the next five years, and to assist them, of course, in ensuring that the good ideas that they have are turned into businesses that will employ people.
First Minister, Chwarae Teg tell me that, whilst men and women inquire about business start-up grants in approximately equal numbers, far fewer women actually proceed with applications. Now, this implies that we need to have awareness of the particular needs of potential female entrepreneurs. How could the Welsh Government build this into its application process?
Forty-four per cent of individuals accessing the business start-up service are female, but we have the participation fund, which aims to help people overcome any barriers that may prevent individuals from taking advantage of support through Business Wales, including access to childcare. I know that business organisations provide direct support and services for women; they include Chwarae Teg, of course. Business Wales does actively hold events specifically for women, providing networking opportunities for women in business. So, whilst it’s right to say that the number of inquiries as between men and women is—well, it’s not equal, but the divergence is not that great. It’s the next step where support is needed and a number of actions have been taken in order to close that gap.
Entrepreneurs need to know, of course, in considering establishing their own businesses in Wales, that the staff are available to help to develop those businesses, and that the resources are available to develop the skills of their staff. I spoke to one entrepreneur in terms of computer programming this week who told me that, once he had made enquiries, he found that there weren’t any specific apprenticeship schemes available in Wales for developing computer programmers. Now, does the First Minister agree with me that if that is the case, then that is unacceptable, and would he agree to look into the opportunities that do exist in order to develop apprenticeships in this crucial area?
I will write to the Member, of course, regarding that specific point so that he can answer the question posed to him by the individual. But, of course, we have Jobs Growth Wales, for example, which has assisted people in terms of information technology, and that’s been a very successful scheme indeed. But, on the point that he has just raised, I’ll make sure that I write to him.
Improving People’s Wellbeing (North Wales)
5. How is the Welsh Government helping to improve the wellbeing of people in North Wales? OAQ(4)2621(FM)
Our investments support a prosperous and resilient economy in the north, developing important infrastructure and transport opportunities and ensuring the resilience of the natural environment.
When speaking at the Carwyn Connect event in Mold, Theatr Clwyd Cymru, in October, a constituent told you that she was waiting months in pain for pain management treatment, whereas previously she received it in weeks at the Countess of Chester. You replied that you were surprised that she was allowed to go to the Countess, as a cross-border protocol was in place. How will you now respond to that constituent and others like her, who says, ‘After waiting so long in pain, I’m very pleased with my treatment. I went privately. I had to empty my savings account.’
That wasn’t what she said. What she said was that she was being prevented from going to the Countess of Chester Hospital, if I remember rightly, and I expressed surprise at that, because we do—. That’s why I mentioned the cross-border protocols. So, that individual should have received a reply from me anyway, because all people who ask a question get a reply, but, to the best of my recollection, it was about not being able to access services at the Countess of Chester, which was the issue that I couldn’t understand, given the fact that we have those cross-border protocols in place.
Given the review into maternity services in north Wales that is currently ongoing, I have a simple question for you. If you were an expectant parent, would you be content if you lived an hour and a half to two hours away from a consultant-led maternity unit?
Well, the situation no, of course, is that we know that a decision has been made. There will still be three maternity units in Wales because of what we did as a Government. We took Betsi Cadwaladr into special measures, and because of that, and the work done by Ministers, there are staff now who will ensure that that maternity unit will continue. Therefore, the situation will be the same as it used to be.
First Minister, the maternity units will remain in place until the regional unit is opened in Glan Clwyd. The report submitted to the health board today, as they receive the business case for the regional centre, says that they accept a report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in January, and, after that, they will need to go out to further consultation on the situation post 2018. Therefore, in order for us to have some assurance in terms of the centres in Bangor and in Wrexham, do you expect the health board to consult further post January, and before the Assembly elections, on the ongoing situation post 2018?
Well, not post 2018. I would expect them to consult before any changes, naturally, but I don’t see that as a reason for postponing the SuRNICC itself. That will go to Glan Clwyd. Members were supportive of that. The choice was between Glan Clwyd and Arrowe Park. Members didn’t wish to see the babies in greatest need going to Arrowe Park, and that is why, of course, the SuRNICC is going to Glan Clwyd. But we would expect, ultimately, any changes to be consulted upon.
Training for Disabled People
6. Will the First Minister make a statement on the provision of training for disabled people? OAQ(4)2617(FM)
Our key priority remains to progress young people and adults into employment at the earliest opportunity, and all programmes that support unemployed individuals through the Welsh Government are open to everyone, irrespective of their personal circumstances, to ensure equality of opportunity.
Thank you for that, First Minister. Neath Port Talbot council’s pan-disability project, Bspoked Enterprises, held its first Christmas fair recently and sold various festive gifts made by the council’s training and employment project for people with disabilities and mental health issues. The project aims to give people the chance to diversify their skills and attain accredited qualifications, recognising their practical experiences. First Minister, do you agree with me that this excellent example of improving outcomes and lives is worthy of praise?
Yes I do, and I very much congratulate the work the council has done. I think it can be an exemplar for the rest of Wales, and I thank the Member for raising it.
First Minister, statistics suggest the employment rate for people with disabilities in general is 48 per cent, but around 7 per cent for people with learning difficulties and 15 per cent for people with autism. Learning Disability Wales has said that people with learning disabilities and people with autism spectrum disorder are not accessing the skills training provision offered through the Welsh Government. What plan does the Welsh Government have to review the effectiveness of its programmes to support people with learning disabilities and ASD into employment here in Wales?
We look, of course, to ensure that people are aware of the support that’s available. I can say that all work-based learning providers delivering certain programmes can claim additional learning support funding to assist them with the cost of securing the support necessary to make provision accessible to learners with learning difficulties and/or disabilities, and that’s an important route to employment for many, many people.
First Minister, I recently met with a disabled constituent who told me about the difficulties he is experiencing in attempting to find suitable employment opportunities. We know that disabled people have an enormous contribution to make, so how is the Welsh Government engaging with employers to encourage and incentivise them to recruit disabled people?
We are in the process of developing the replacement programme for Work Ready—Skills for Employment Wales. During the consultation phase, for example, we met with a number of representatives from several groups representing disabled people to understand the issues that they raised, in order to make sure that our work-based learning offer is as accessible as possible to the people that they represent. The new programme will aim to address the issues that they raised there, to make it easier.
7. Will the First Minister provide an update on the progress of the initial scoping study on the Aberystwyth-Carmarthen railway? OAQ(4)2620(FM)[W]
We have now received the scoping report, and we are considering the next steps.
Thank you, First Minister. I’m pleased that you’ve received that report. May I therefore ask you to publish that report?
There’s no reason why that shouldn’t happen. The report will now be considered by the Government, but I can’t see any reason in principle why that scoping report cannot be made public.
First Minister, in the scoping document, I wondered if the organisation that undertook it had the opportunity to first of all also look at all the other alternative transport routes, because I’m not sure if you’ll be aware that they’ve now stopped the bus services between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. So, the importance of that line is becoming more and more—. [Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. One person is asking the question. You need to finish. [Interruption.] [Laughter.]
Let me clarify. They are stopping the bus services from my part of Carmarthen to get the ease of Aberystwyth. They are at very inconvenient times. They cannot get to them. That’s the first point.
The second point, First Minister, is that there are a lot of students who need to travel that route, and they are struggling to get to Aberystwyth. So, I wondered if, again, the scoping organisation had had the opportunity to talk to other—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—to the education Minister and other interested organisations. Sorry, I’ve made a mess of that.
I’m not aware that there’s been a change to the TrawsCymru service that runs between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen in terms of between Carmarthen and Aberystwyth. We know there are connections to Carmarthen and Aberystwyth railway stations. We know there are connections to the Bwcabus service at Lampeter, Pencader, Felinfach and Aberaeron as well. But, this scoping study looked particularly at whether the former railway line could be reopened. We do know from the scoping study that about 3 per cent of the track bed has been lost—either built on or where sections are no longer visible at all—and there would need to be, for example, ways that would have to be found around those obstacles were the track to be rebuilt. I think it’s fair to say in advance of the publication of the study that it’s clear that the reinstatement of the line will be a complex operation, and it will take some time to understand exactly what the cost might be. It’s possible to give a fairly global figure, but not a figure with any confidence at this stage, given the fact that more work needs to be done in terms of looking at the detail of the different sections as to how those sections could be reinstated.
Mobile Phone Coverage (Mid and West Wales)
8. Will the First Minister make a statement on mobile phone coverage in Mid and West Wales? OAQ(4)2625(FM)
Telecommunications policy is not a devolved matter, of course, but we are working with the UK Government, the mobile industry and Ofcom to secure improvements in mobile coverage across Wales. I did note that the UK Government announced in 2014 that it had reached a legally binding agreement with the operators so that there would be 90 per cent geographical coverage for 2G, 3G and 4G by 2017.
I’m grateful to the First Minister for that comprehensive response. But, last week an RAC Foundation study revealed that, after the Highlands and Islands, three of the local authority areas within the UK that were least well served actually fall within Mid and West Wales, with hundreds of miles of Welsh roads not even having 2G coverage—an astonishing 437 miles in Powys, Gwynedd with 172 miles and Ceredigion with 156 miles. First Minister, in the context of the impact that that has on public safety, but also in terms of hampering business development, what more can the Welsh Government do to help to persuade the mobile phone industry to commit greater infrastructure investment to actually create a climate that is more positive for business, and which also enhances public safety?
As I said to the Member, coverage is meant to be 90 per cent of Wales by 2017. We will hold the UK Government to its agreement with the network operators. It’s also the case that 98 per cent of Wales will be covered by at least one operator. That is what they tell us will be happening by 2017, and, clearly, we want to see that actually happen.
First Minister, in recent months there has been some deterioration in mobile coverage in my Montgomeryshire constituency. In a recent meeting, I met with the four mobile operators and they said that one of the most significant barriers to investment in mobile infrastructure in Wales is restrictive planning policies. Now, they all suggested that changes to the planning framework are required to increase permitted development to a height of 25m, and to allow a 5m increase in mast height in non-protected areas. Is this something that you would be willing to discuss with colleagues and consider, and bring forward changes to the planning framework?
It’s certainly not an issue that’s been raised with me in terms of masts. I’ve certainly had experience of people objecting to masts being put in place, but I’m not aware of operators having problems with the general permitted development order and the placing of masts around Wales. If there’s evidence of that, of course, we’d be prepared to look at it.
I understand, of course, that this isn’t devolved to you as a Government, but it is a cause of concern for me that there are whole villages in this region that have no mobile phone service at all, from any provider whatsoever. If you take Llanboidy, for example, which is a village of 2,000 people, if you stand in the middle of the square in Llanboidy, outside the market hall, there is no coverage at all, and there are many people there, in a viable community where the Welsh language is still important, for example. If we’re going to retain people in our communities, they have to have a mobile phone service. That’s a minimum that we should expect. So, what can you do to ensure that this 98 per cent actually reaches all of our communities?
Well, we are going to ensure, of course, that the United Kingdom Government delivers on this. Some parts of Wales—some urban areas—don’t have any kind of reception at all. We know, of course, about the situation on Anglesey where it’s relatively flat, but it’s very difficult to get any kind of signal in parts of that island. There is no reason for that—there is no geographical reason for that at all; it’s a question of investing in the network. So, we are continuing to put pressure on the UK Government to ensure that the mobile phone companies do attain the target in 2017.
Job Creation (South Wales Central)
9. What job creation proposals does the Welsh Government have for communities in South Wales Central? OAQ(4)2616(FM)
Well, we’re supporting the creation and retention of jobs across all parts of Wales by helping businesses to start and grow, whether it’s through the small business rate relief scheme, whether it’s through the growth of the metro, whether it’s Jobs Growth Wales, whether it’s the Skills for Employment Wales programme, or whether it’s the investment that’s been brought into Wales as a result of the hard work that’s been done abroad.
Thank you, First Minister, for that answer. The enterprise zone in St Athan had very disappointing job-creation figures recently: only seven jobs created there. As someone who actually supports the concept of what’s going on at St Athan, this was deeply disappointing news. The Welsh Government, in fairness, have put considerable sums of money over a 10-year period into that area of the Vale of Glamorgan, but I hope you will share with me my disappointment in only seven jobs being created. What do you think were the specifics that led to such poor job-creation figures, and what hope can you offer that those figures will be better in the future?
There is great potential for St Athan and a great deal of interest from investors. We have invested in the road, of course, in terms of straightening the road by the Aberthaw cement works. What would really help the enterprise zone in St Athan and Cardiff Airport would be the devolution of long-haul air passenger duty, which he has supported, in fairness to him, and he mentioned that, of course, when he gave evidence to the committee. We know that that would have an enormous effect on the economic development both of Rhoose and of St Athan. We know it would attract long-haul flights in and the maintenance of those flights with it. I’ve heard arguments put forward that we should accept greater fiscal responsibility as a Government. We know that will happen with the devolution or partial devolution of income tax; why on earth then does that not apply to long-haul air passenger duty? It’s something that would make an enormous difference to the enterprise zone.
The Restoration of Opencast Coal Mines
10. What discussions has the First Minister had with the UK Government concerning the restoration of opencast coal mines in Wales? OAQ(4)2618(FM)
Welsh Government has had a robust dialogue with the UK Government concerning the restoration of opencast coal mines in Wales.
First Minister, I’ve heard you and your ministerial colleagues argue that the UK Government should provide funding because of the 10-year restoration holiday allowed by the Coal Industry Act 1994, but isn’t it the case that Celtic Energy was restoring its site during that period right up until it was bought out by the Walters Group, and since then it has failed to restore a single site in its stewardship? And, isn’t it true that this unrealistic appeal for money from Westminster, which your Government has put very little effort behind despite your robust analysis—I’ve seen FOIs and it has come back saying something very different—what is this tough action that you’re taking in this regard? Can your Government take action as opposed to crying crocodile tears to Westminster?
Well, hang on a second, is she saying that Welsh taxpayers should pay for a mess created by the UK Government in 1992? Because I’m not prepared to accept that, I’ll tell you that now. The reality is that much of the problem lies in the fact that the escrow accounts did not contain enough money in 1992 to pay for much of the restoration that’s needed now. I’m not prepared to let the UK Government get away with that. I am not prepared to accept, for example, that in the Wales Bill the licensing of opencast coal mines remains with the UK Government, and land restoration is left with us. As Welsh Government, I’m not prepared to accept that. The reality is that it was the privatisation of coal that left, literally, holes in the ground across Wales and I do not accept that the Welsh taxpayer should pay for the restoration of opencast mining when the problem was caused in Whitehall.
First Minister, I very much welcome the focused review of the MTAN that the Minister for Natural Resources has announced, but this is now a very urgent situation, particularly as there’s a new planning application in to opencast at Varteg Hill, which is identical, almost, to the previous one, which will mean opencast right on top of people’s homes and a local primary school. What further steps can you take to ensure that this review is taken forward with great urgency? And will you discuss this with the Minister for Natural Resources?
I know that the Member has been a doughty campaigner on this issue in our area, and I know that the Minister is fully aware of her views and the views of the local community. I will write to her with further information on the timetable on an issue that I know is of exceptional importance to her.
First Minister, in that review, it’s very important also that proper consideration is given to restoration of the sites. Would you favour some form of insurance guarantee that can keep pace with inflation?
The difficulty is this: the money that’s set aside in, not every escrow account, but many escrow accounts, is nothing like enough to cover the restoration of the site. If the operator then folds or passes ownership on to an organisation registered elsewhere in the world, then, of course, there is literally nobody to enforce the restoration against. That’s the concern that we have. Now, the reason why that situation has arisen is because, in 1992, in order to make opencast mining attractive to privatisation, there were limits placed on the amount of money that should be set to one side. It’s true to say that, in the past, restoration has taken place and land has been used properly, but the great concern that I have—and I know many others share this concern—is that, as we see the price of coal dropping, as we see demand dropping, there is a danger that we will literally be left with holes in the ground and not enough money to restore them. I don’t think it’s fair that the Welsh Government and the Welsh taxpayer should have to pay for the restoration of those sites when it wasn’t the Welsh Government or the Welsh taxpayer that actually created the situation of there being not enough money to restore the sites in the first place.
First Minister, you’ve already pointed out that the 1994 Act has actually given the UK Government a let-off, effectively, on the costings of the restoration of land—of the land site in Parc Slip in particular. I know that the head of the coal liabilities unit recently attended a meeting, which residents in both your constituency and my constituency attended. Will you chase up the promises that were made in that meeting to the residents to actually come back to them with some answers? Will you also have discussions with Neath Port Talbot council to ensure that restoration, if it’s enforced, will take place and that the liabilities will be placed and that Celtic Energy don’t get themselves out of funding the restoration sites?
A complicated web has been woven around that site. I’m not here to give my view in terms of a constituency issue, but I know that most of it lies in his constituency, even though the threat, if I can put it that way, lies to those in my constituency. We do have a situation with Parc Slip where there is no apparent owner with assets against which to take action, and we know that there is roughly a quarter of the sum that’s needed to restore the site in the escrow account, and that is something that greatly concerns his constituents as it does mine. The reality is, in my view, that action needs to be taken, and it’s a matter for the council to consider what action they take. But, ultimately, the great concern that all have in the area is that there will simply be a substantial shortfall in terms of restoring the site if the current owners decide that they are not in a position or are unwilling to restore it.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, First Minister.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have accepted an urgent question under Standing Order 12.66, and I call on Kirsty Williams to ask the urgent question.
Will the Minister make a statement on the decision by the Orchard Media and Events Group to pull out of organising next year’s Brecon Jazz festival? EAQ(4)0654(EST)
Yes. Orchard Media and Events Group is a successful organisation, and has taken the decision that it will no longer be involved in Brecon Jazz due to financial reasons.
Thank you, Minister. As you can imagine, this news has come as a bitter blow to the town of Brecon. Orchard themselves recognise that the jazz festival brings in approximately £1 million-worth of expenditure in that community over the jazz weekend—£1 million that local businesses and organisations cannot afford to lose out on. Minister, what assurances can you give me that you, your officials, the arts council, Powys County Council, and, indeed, the people of Brecon, will work together to ensure that there will be a jazz festival in August 2016 and that there is a viable organisation put in place to run that event?
I think the Member is right to identify the need for more people to work together in order to be able to construct what would need to be a sustainable future for the event. The Member may be aware that £112,000 in public money has been provided by the arts council and major events unit here in Welsh Government and the arts council has rightly said that, in the future, in order for the event to take place, more funding partners would need to be secured, for example, through the sponsors club, which has so far attracted 17 members, but certainly has scope for attracting many more.
One thing that has changed over the 30-plus years with the Brecon festival is that it has grown, and it has grown massively. And, as Kirsty has said, it does bring in £1 million into that local economy. It has grown from a small home-spun gathering to the largest event of its type in Europe, and I think that has significance here today. It also highlights very firmly Welsh culture within that calendar.
Minister, you’ve already alluded to the fact that people need to work together, and it will be, it is fairly obvious, the case that Orchard Media has benefitted enormously from that association with Brecon Jazz and vice versa, and there will be some lessons that will have been drawn out of that in the way that this festival can move forward. So, Minister, can I ask for a commitment from yourself that you will take some interest in that learning and help to promote it with partners, so that a permanent and lasting solution might be found in taking this forward in a more positive way in the future?
Yes. Can I thank Joyce Watson for her question? I know that Joyce, and Kirsty, are huge fans and advocates of the Brecon Jazz festival. It is a huge event, particularly the fringe festival. The problem is that, whilst the fringe element was incredibly successful, not enough tickets were sold for the actual event. In fact, it was down 10 per cent this year. In addition, 97 per cent of ticket sales this year were from repeat visitors. What would have to happen in the future is an increase in ticket sales and an increase in new visitors, which would, of course, be part of any discussions. I can say to Members from mid and west Wales, though, that, for 2016, in the very least, as part of the Year of Adventure, more than £0.25 million of additional money is being provided by Welsh Government for new activities right across the length and breadth of Powys.
Thank you very much for what you’ve already said on this, because I concur with other Members on the importance of Brecon Jazz festival. It’s with a great deal of affection I remember 1984 pulling pints in The Sarah Siddons, when I was there in my wellies and everybody else was there in their silly high heels. So, just personally, I implore you to consider what you can do for this festival.
Orchard Media, of course, says that they’ve effectively been subsidising the festival for the last two years, because of the difficulty of finding commercial partners, finding sponsorship. And you’ve alluded to the fact that major events, of course, is a major plank of Visit Wales’s tourism strategy. If Orchard is right in their claim that it brings £1 million, roughly, to the Brecon area economy, but that music more generally brings £95 million to the Welsh economy, what steps are you taking to ensure that commercial partners can be found to work with Orchard Media or whoever their successors are? Because, without that sponsorship, I think you’re right, the sustainability is a problem. But, of course, the dividends are excellent. So, why aren’t we getting across the message that not only is this a great idea commercially, but it has massive potential in terms of sustainable tourism as well?
Indeed. It’s a very competitive marketplace as well, though, festivals, but a crucial element to the success of a festival is that the right sponsors, the right partners, are found. But, at the end of the day, you have to generate enough tickets to justify being able to hold an event. This year, as I mentioned, we saw a 10 per cent fall in ticket sales. So, what has to happen is that the success of the fringe actually translates into successful ticket selling. Thus far, it’s not happened on a large enough scale for it to become sustainable. If more tickets can be sold to people attending the fringe, but not necessarily buying tickets at present, then it could be a sustainable model.
The Arts Council of Wales is saying that other partners need to be found to provide the level of investment required by the festival to operate. They call this ‘a big challenge’. Meanwhile, the director of Orchard Media claims his company has, effectively, subsidised the event since taking it over from 2012, as Suzy Davies has alluded to already. Can we try and understand just how long the arts council has been warning that further funding needs to be found and, if so, what have the Welsh Government and the arts council, in conjunction, been doing about it? Have you facilitated meetings with potential backers? Have you weighed up the loss of such an event to the area’s economy, and do Ministers know what the absolute baseline is for such an event to operate successfully? Tomorrow, we have a debate on the future of music; I would like to see investment in music as opposed to it being taken away from Wales, to try and inspire our young people to see it as a viable profession here in Wales.
Well, actually, since 2012, Orchard have been aware of the need to increase ticket sales, the need to develop new and existing venues across the town, and to explore means of extending the local accommodation offer during the festival. They’ve been aware of the need to build sponsorship support and encourage local financial support. Now, in some areas, there has been success—certainly in terms of accommodation. In other areas, there has been activity, but having only secured 17 business sponsors so far as part of the sponsors club, I believe, is insufficient. I know that Orchard have been in regular contact as well with the arts council, who are able to give advice on sponsorship and fundraising. But, as we stand here today, the fact of the matter is that insufficient tickets were sold this year and in previous years to justify the expenditure by Orchard, as it stands.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 2 is the business statement and announcement, and I call on the Minister for Finance and Government Business, Jane Hutt.
There has been one change to the business statement for this week’s business. The Minister for Economy, Science and Transport will make a statement on rail electrification. Business for the next three weeks is as shown on the business statement and announcement, which can be found among the agenda papers available to Members electronically.
Leader of the house, is it possible to have two statements, please, the first from the transport Minister—it was alluded to in First Minister’s questions—around what I would call the Coca-Cola display that was at the Asda store in Coryton? Whilst these are part and parcel of promotional activities, it literally caused transport chaos at the end of last week. I don’t think it’s an understatement to say it’s most probably the most important interchange in Wales for road network. The A470 comes into that road network, and the M4 is running east-west, as well as some major roads out of Cardiff. It was interesting, if not disturbing, to hear that, when people put these types of events on, they’re under no obligation to inform either the police or the road network operators—in this case, the Wales trunk road agency, whose headquarters is located just by the Coryton interchange. It does seem a remarkable loophole, I would suggest, that no central planning and co-ordination can be put in place to alleviate the traffic blight that many, many people faced at the end of last week. So, it would be good to hear what the transport Minister, in particular, is going to take forward from the lessons learnt exercise so that these promotions can be undertaken, but don’t cause devastation to people’s working day and the traffic chaos that ensued.
The second statement, if possible, please, is from the health Minister in relation to the neonatal unit that has shut for a second time at University Hospital of Wales today. I appreciate the day-to-day operation of the neonatal unit is the responsibility of Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board, but, ultimately, this is the second time this has happened now within four months. This is a key unit within the university hospital. One to two babies a day use that unit and, obviously, it is an emergency unit, and the loss of its provision is a huge hole in the services that can be provided when people are at their wits’ end and that emergency intervention is required. So, some indication of the supporting role that Welsh Government would be offering the university health board to address the shortcomings in the neonatal unit would be greatly appreciated, and an understanding and assurance that, whilst this is the second one, we will not be having a third one in the coming weeks and months—closures in the coming weeks and months.
I thank Andrew R.T. Davies for those questions. I think we would all wholly concur about the chaos that was caused by the unplanned—with no forewarning, as far as I understand, to transport authorities of the Coca-Cola lorry that was promoting, obviously, its—and attracting a large number of people. We have made our views known as a Government and, indeed, I understand we have had an apology for the chaos that occurred. Of course, this is something, again, which is a very strong message, I think, from the Chamber today, which I’m sure we would all share.
On the second point, as you say this is a matter for the Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board in terms of the neonatal unit and, obviously, that has to be monitored very carefully.
I also have two requests. My first one is: I’d like to request a Government statement on the Swansea tidal lagoon. I know that the strike price will have to be agreed with the Westminster Government but I do not believe it is possible to overestimate the importance of the tidal lagoon to the Swansea economy and how let down the people of Swansea will feel if it does not go ahead.
My second request is that I would like to request an oral statement from the Minister for education on what is being done to educate children on the dangers of so-called legal highs. Whilst I welcome the new law being brought in at Westminster, I also know that making them illegal will not stop their use, although it will stop them being sold on the high street. It is important that children are educated on the dangers of these substances.
I thank Mike Hedges for these questions. I think, again, there’d be strong support for your request for a statement in terms of the Swansea tidal lagoon. Of course, Wales is the current leading location for tidal range project development and tidal lagoon power projects will assist us in meeting our ambition to create a low-carbon future for Wales. But we are working very closely, I can assure the Member and Members in this Chamber, with Tidal Lagoon Power Ltd to ensure Welsh businesses and the local economy gain maximum benefit from the project, working hard to secure, for example, the turbine assembly facilities for Wales. Officials are regularly engaging with both the UK Government and the Crown Estate to ensure we have maximum benefit to Wales from the Swansea bay tidal lagoon project.
On your second question, we do fully recognise the impact that new psychoactive substances can have on children and young people, and prevention is key. We encourage schools to plan and work with specialist providers and organisations, to make sure that children receive relevant learning experiences.
Minister, I was wondering if we could have a statement in Government time on the future of the Cefn Coed Colliery Museum in the Crynant area of my region. I’m asking because there are moves to transfer, potentially, to another organisation or to the friends, and I’m led to believe that it is Welsh Government land that the colliery is set upon. There are grade II listed buildings there and it’s one of the few former pits in the UK that still has twin winding gears. So, there is quite a lot of industrial heritage of importance there and I, for one, would not want to see it close. I wonder whether you can tell us what discussions you’ve had with the local authority and with the friends and whether you could relay that to us as Assembly Members so that we can fully understand before any changes are made what you are doing as a Government to protect that vitally important site.
I will ask the Minister to write to the Member on this matter.
Can I also call for a statement on the gridlock that was caused in Cardiff North by the Coca-Cola lorry with my constituents spending hours in their cars unable to move, including small children? I’ve had lots of reports of quite distressing situations. Asda, I understand, has given a written apology, but I really think we need to look at this in more depth via a statement.
The second issue I wanted to raise was—I’m sure the Minister is aware of the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary that only three out of the 43 police forces in England and Wales are fully ready and prepared to deal with honour-based crimes, which include forced marriage, honour killings and female genital mutilation, which we know are prevalent because in south Wales Bawso had 788 inquiries about female genital mutilation alone from Swansea, Newport and Cardiff between 2014 and 2015. So, would it be possible to have a debate to explore how the partners who work with the police, like health and social services, which are our responsibility, are working to try to prevent honour-based crimes and are fully aware of the signs to recognise and prevent these crimes?
I thank the Member for Cardiff North for adding her voice to the concerns that have been raised in the Chamber this afternoon, indeed raised with the First Minister, in terms of the chaos that caused—the gridlock—by Asda’s so-called ‘promotional activities’. Indeed, of course, this will be followed up and I’m sure a statement will be forthcoming and a response from the Minister.
I think your second point is important. Of course, policing is non-devolved. It’s very disappointing, though, that this report doesn’t help us in terms of how we can address this. But you’ve made some very good points, which we need to address, because of the ways our services can move forward, because we do need to make sure that those police forces in Wales are fully prepared to deal with these honour crimes.
Minister, could I ask for two statements by your Cabinet colleagues? The first is on the latest thinking the Government has with regard to broadband roll-out and the wider role of telecommunications. We’ve heard in questions about frustrations about mobile coverage. Many areas, and many of my constituents, are constantly frustrated by very poor levels of service from BT. Individual households, indeed, whole communities, left without telephone services, often in areas where there is already no mobile coverage to make up for that. Their performance has been woeful, and it’s having a severe impact on many constituents and communities, and their businesses.
Secondly, can I ask for a statement by the Deputy Minister for rural affairs? I know her officials have been working very, very hard to maximise the number of single farm payments that have been made since the window has opened, but there are some cases of extreme hardship, as a result of inflexibility with the banks, and also poor commodity prices this summer. Is there a way in which the Minister could expedite payments to those who can demonstrate serious financial distress? I’ve been contacted by representatives of the rural stress network, who are in touch with a couple of families in my constituency, and they are genuinely worried about the safety of some of those individuals, because of the levels of stress that they are under. And any way in which we could have a way of expediting payments to those with specific needs—I would be very grateful to hear from the Minister how that might happen.
Thank you, Kirsty Williams. I think, on the first point, obviously, the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology has recently made a statement to update on the roll-out of broadband, and those wider telecommunications issues, which, of course, also she was very willing to hear of, in terms of constituency concerns and issues. So, of course, that is a point where we are delivering, across Wales, at a greater rate, in terms of delivery, than the rest of the UK. But, obviously, there are places where it is particularly challenging, and those, often, are in rural areas.
In terms of your second point, in terms of single farm payments, of course, farmers are starting to receive those basic payment scheme part payments from 1 December, and, of course, that’s the first date on which payments could be allowed to be made under the European Commission rules. Also, of course, final part payments and balance payments will be made by the end of April.
Minister, in September, and again in October, I did raise here, in this Chamber, my concerns about the fate of children who were swept up in the refugee crisis. There are now figures available, courtesy of ‘The Observer’ newspaper, which show that the number of children going missing after arriving in Britain as asylum seekers has doubled over the past year. Obviously, our worst fears will turn to trafficking, where those children could become victim to any sort of illegal activity. Could we, then, have a Government statement on what provisions are in place to make sure that our local authorities here in Wales are able to cope with this ongoing and evolving situation? And will you ask the UK Government whether they will now implement the 2013 independent report of the chief inspector of borders and immigration, which did ask for systematic monitoring of those children?
Joyce Watson raises a very important point, which I know the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty is aware of, and of course taking responsibility, in terms of raising the questions with the UK Government, in terms of their responsibilities.
I wonder whether I could request two statements as well. The first, actually, has been covered by Bethan Jenkins, regarding Cefn Coed Colliery Museum. But in view of your response to her about providing a simple letter, I wonder whether you would consider either changing that and arranging for a statement to be made, or at least allowing that letter to be an open letter so that all Assembly Members could read it.
The second point—Mike Hedges has asked for something similar, but mine is a little different. I’m raising once again the issue of the marine licence for the Swansea bay lagoon. I appreciate that you may want to answer by referring to the UK Government’s own difficulties on this, but at least we have some understanding of what the delay there is caused by. When it comes to the marine licence, I think Members are a little bit in the dark about what the delays are with Natural Resources Wales. So, perhaps I could request a statement explaining what the delay is about and perhaps letting us know when we might expect to hear on the date of the marine licence being issued or not, or better still, an announcement that a marine licence is about to be granted. Thank you.
I think, Suzy Davies, on your question about the Cefn Coed museum land and the response to it from the Welsh Government, we will write—the Minister will write to Members to update on this matter.
In terms of tidal lagoons and the progress, I think when it is appropriate, the Minister, obviously, will be able to respond in terms of the marine licence and those powers where we have responsibilities. But clearly, it is the UK Government that we wait for in terms of that all-important strike price.
Can I bring the Government’s attention to, and therefore ask for a statement on, access to GP services in my region? I’ve been in receipt of several complaints from areas such as Pembroke, Pembroke Dock and Tenby over long periods of waiting—a fortnight and more—for access to GP services. When I enquired with the Hywel Dda board, I was referred to a report on Pembrokeshire health services that was discussed on 26 November, which states very clearly that
‘there are higher vacancy rates in General Practice and in GP training posts than elsewhere in Wales’.
Having intended to raise this with you today, quite spontaneously I received two e-mails from elsewhere in my region—one from a constituent in Tywyn today, who says that she can’t get a GP appointment until the end of January, and one from a constituent in Builth Wells who has been told to wait four weeks for a GP appointment. She tells me—her name is Judith Bywater, and she’s happy for me to quote her—that she used to be able to get an appointment after work, but now the last appointment is 5.10 p.m. Well, if you live outside Builth Wells, getting in there for 5.10 p.m. is quite a big ask when you’re engaged in work or any kind of caring responsibilities. There’s clearly an ongoing problem with GP recruitment, with filling posts, and with training posts in many parts of Wales, and particularly in my region. Can we please have a statement setting out what the Government intends to do about this, and how long-term workforce planning is in hand, or not?
Well, in response to Simon Thomas, we are working closely with the general practitioners committee Wales to identify ways in which we can improve access to GP services, particularly improving patient experience in accessing services in core hours and the first point of contact. In fact, there is a GP contract commitment for 2016-17 to consider making it a contractual requirement for GP practices to offer more online GP appointments, using My Health Online. But, in fact, the number of people affected by recent changes to practice contracts and some practice closures represents less than 2 per cent of the population. Of course, overall, GP numbers in Wales have increased by 10.5 per cent between 2004 and 2014. Clearly, we have to then ensure that we move forward to attract doctors and to make sure that GP practices can deliver, in partnership with GPC Wales, in terms of that accessibility.
Further to the Cefn Coed colliery issues that have been raised this afternoon, Minister, will you co-ordinate any response with the Deputy Minister, who is already involved in correspondence on this matter, which is of the utmost importance to my consistency, of course?
Well, I’m grateful that Gwenda Thomas has also raised this in terms of queries and concerns from her constituents. The Deputy Minister will co-ordinate a response to all Members.
I also, Minister, wanted to raise the issue of the closure of the neonatal unit at the University Hospital of Wales today. I understand, having spoken to the health board after the previous closure, that one of the difficulties they experience is that the physical constraints of the unit there don’t allow for the optimal space to be left between cots in that unit. Clearly, providing a space between patients is a way in which infection control can be managed. I wonder if the Minister is minded to make a written statement, perhaps, and whether he could give us a progress report on the building work at the university hospital in terms of when we can expect the new unit to be ready; and secondly, whether the Welsh Government has made any assessment of whether similar problems are anticipated in other units in Wales with regard to the elderly facilities available.
The second issue I wanted to raise: if I might request a statement from the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport regarding hardship provisions in business rates and their use in local authorities in Wales. I’ve had many cases raised over the last year or so, but one this week has really shocked me. The constituent took on a vandalised former school and renovated it to become Wales’s first Welsh-language eco-nursery, sourcing all of its produce from local suppliers, recycling every part of the disposable nappies that the parents are bringing, and trying to provide a service for them so that they can recycle the things that they’re using at home, too. They employ eight people already. After only a year, they’re already looking to expand. Of course, when they were working on their business case, they did approach the local authority for a valuation of what the restored property might be worth, and they were told it would be £2,400 per annum. They’ve just had their valuation for £24,500—more than ten times the council’s original estimate. Clearly, this is not something they could have anticipated within their business projections. But despite their obvious role in creating the issue, and the fact that it’s putting jobs at risk, and despite the fact that the local authority has a statutory duty to ensure childcare allowances, the council haven’t to date agreed to use their discretion in this case. I wonder therefore if the Minister might bring forward a statement on how local authorities are encouraged to use hardship provisions to keep local businesses viable.
Thank you to Eluned Parrott for those two questions. In answer to the first, as I said, this is, as you’ll appreciate, a matter for the Cardiff and Vale university health board. It is regrettable—the circumstances that have emerged—and, in terms of the possible impact of building work, it has to be a matter for the health board, but clearly we need to monitor this very carefully and, indeed, across the whole of Wales.
On your second point, of course, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport is attending the Enterprise and Business Committee tomorrow, and I’m sure that this will provide a full opportunity to raise questions about business rates.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 3 is a statement by the Minister for Finance and Government Business on the draft budget for 2016-17. Before I call the Minister, I have a lot of speakers on this item, as we would expect. I will extend time if necessary, but please help me by keeping your contributions as focused and crisp as possible. I call the Minister, Jane Hutt.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I have today published the Welsh Government’s spending plans for 2016-17. This is a budget for a fairer, better Wales, investing for the future. As a result of the late timing of the UK Government’s spending review, and with a mere four months to go until the beginning of the financial year, we have had to work hard to deliver a responsible, sustainable budget for our partners so that we can continue to deliver services to the people of Wales we serve and represent. On 25 November, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a further round of real-terms cuts to the Welsh budget. Despite a slight lessening of the pace of cuts, the cumulative impact on us is pronounced. Today I am publishing the Government’s spending plans, which set out how the Welsh Government will respond to this latest round of real-terms cuts.
Our budget will be 3.6 per cent lower in real terms by 2019-20 than it is today; 11 per cent lower than it was in 2010-11. Despite some small increases to capital budgets, our capital budget will still be 30 per cent lower in 2020-21 than it was in 2009-10. I do not underestimate what that means for public services in Wales, or the impact that it will have on businesses, communities and individuals the length and breadth of Wales. We will continue to do what we can to lever in additional resources and innovate to mitigate the impact. However, I cannot pretend that the Government can mitigate the overall impact of the UK Government’s decisions and cuts.
In preparing for this difficult settlement, we have been guided by the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015. It goes without saying that we must protect against taking decisions now that will store up problems for the future. The national goals have provided us with a framework in which to understand the interconnected nature of public services and to help us understand fully the impact of potential decisions. The sustainable development principle has helped us to develop a coherent and evidence-based budget for 2016-17.
At the centre of our plans is a significant additional investment in health. Throughout this administration, and in the face of reductions to our budget, we have continued to invest in a sustainable national health service. Today, I am announcing nearly £300 million extra for the NHS in Wales. This builds on the additional £1.1 billion we have announced over the last two years and reflects the scenarios indicated by the Nuffield Trust.
We have always been clear that achieving our goal of a healthier Wales is about more than just the NHS. The NHS is important in improving the health of Wales, but it cannot achieve our goals in isolation. We understand the major role that social services play, and so we have increased this funding through the local government settlement by £21 million. We have also protected the Supporting People programme from any cash reductions and have increased the funding to the intermediate care fund to £50 million to support the integration of health and social services in the delivery of services for older people. With a focus on prevention and early intervention, we are also protecting funding for Flying Start, Supporting People and Communities First from reduction in 2016-17. This can be seen in our prudent healthcare agenda and in our social services spending decisions.
One of the most important things we can do is invest in our young people’s futures. This budget maintains levels of spending for Flying Start, helping some of the most vulnerable children to have the best possible start in life. We are also increasing our investment in schools, with almost £40 million extra for next year. This funding includes provision to continue the Schools Challenge Cymru scheme, which has shown early success in raising educational attainment.
The further education budget is protected from cuts, with a further £5 million to create an additional 2,500 apprenticeships. An extra £10 million will ensure that no Welsh student has to pay more for their degree than if they had been students in 2010-11. This investment in further education is in addition to the £5 million we have committed to apprenticeships this year as part of the budget agreement that we reached with the Liberal Democrats last year. The agreement is fully reflected, including increased investment in the pupil deprivation grant, funding for the childcare pilot in further education and the roll-out of the youth concessionary fares scheme.
Throughout our preparation for this budget, we’ve consulted widely to inform our priorities. I’ve listened carefully to what people and organisations across Wales have told me about what matters to them most. This dialogue has translated into additional funding for schools, for the NHS, for social services for joint working in health and social care, for supporting vulnerable people and for further education. The clear message is that, in a time of austerity, we simply can’t afford not to invest in these services.
We have listened to local government’s concerns. We understand how difficult a prolonged period of austerity is for them; we understand how important the local services they provide are. However, the settlement that we’ve received from the UK Government does not allow us to fund the full range of services on the basis that they are currently delivered. The increased investment in schools and social services is testament to the importance that we place on local public services that people rely on. Wherever possible, we have looked to put the additional resources in through the revenue support grant, rather than perpetuating a system of specific grants. This will help to give local authorities the flexibility that they need to respond to these challenges and will minimise the reductions that local authorities face. Once again, we are providing a greater degree of protection for local authorities in Wales than their counterparts in England. Full details of the provisional settlement will be announced tomorrow by the Minister for Public Services.
Dirprwy Lywydd, the late spending review has presented particular challenges for capital allocations. Since the publication of the Wales infrastructure investment plan, we’ve allocated capital to projects that deliver against our priorities. This will continue to be our approach, and I will be announcing additional capital allocations when I update the pipeline next year.
Today, however, I can confirm that we’re seamlessly entering into phase 2 of the all-Wales Help to Buy-Wales scheme, with an additional £26 million for the next financial year. A further announcement on this scheme will be made by the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty in due course.
Our initial assessment has highlighted the pressures that core capital budgets, which have not increased since 2010, are facing. I’m therefore allocating £150 million to departmental capital budgets, and this will be available for the essential routine maintenance necessary to sustain our roads and buildings across Wales. It will also help to mitigate the revenue reductions in the natural resources and economy, science and transport portfolios, which are more reliant on capital to deliver their objectives than others. The additional capital that I have announced today will support projects across Wales, including flood defence schemes, the Llangefni link road and the northern gateway highway to open up the site to commercial development. Taken together, I’m confident that the revenue and capital allocations proposed today will equip the Government and its partners to deliver our priorities. Based on our principles of social justice and seeking a balanced economic recovery now and in the future, these spending plans lay the foundations for a fairer, better Wales. We are investing in the future.
Can I thank the Minister for her statement today and for the supporting pack that you issued before this Plenary session? I do appreciate that it has been a tighter timescale, Minister, than in previous years due to the Chancellor’s autumn statement and, yes, the Welsh Government is receiving a 3.6 per cent cut to its budget over five years as a result of the UK Government putting public finances back on a surer footing after years of Labour’s mismanagement.
As the Minister indicated, the cut is not as severe as the Welsh Government were expecting. However, I do accept that there are challenges in setting the budget here. I will focus on three areas, Deputy Presiding Officer: the NHS, local government and capital expenditure. You’ve said that you want a fairer, better Wales, Minister. Of course, a better Wales means a properly funded national health service here. I’m pleased that you are putting extra funding into the NHS at long last—not before time. The £260 million that you promised does not make up for the hundreds of millions of pounds that you’ve taken out of the health budget since 2011. Why are you still refusing to protect the budget in the same way that the NHS budget was protected across the border in England? That is what the people of Wales expect and that is what they deserve. Without protection, the amount of money that you’re putting into the budget will not be guaranteed in the longer term.
You need to be focusing the money that you are putting in. How are you ensuring that it will produce a real improvement in front-line services and not simply be absorbed into bureaucracy? There was some confusion last year when health boards weren’t sure whether they were required to make efficiency savings when you promised them a previous amount of money. How will you make sure that doesn’t happen again?
Turning to funding to local government, as you point out, local authorities across Wales are deeply concerned at the effects of poor settlements over a number of years. What discussions have you had with the Welsh Local Government Association prior to this statement about how they can best deal with the poor financial settlement that you are giving to them this year? Part of the solution must be better collaboration between authorities. Wouldn’t it have been better to have pursued the collaboration agenda from the start, rather than your Government’s ill-thought-out reorganisation plans for local government?
Can I welcome the additional £115 million to departmental capital budgets? As you say, these have not increased since 2010, with all the consequences for capital spend and for infrastructure. We welcome the UK Government’s commitment of £900 million to capital budgets, which has, of course, helped you to make an increase in capital funding here. You’ve suggested some of the schemes that you’re going to be funding, so could we have some more detail on the nature of the capital projects? You mentioned flood defence schemes and the Llangefni link road. Too often, north Wales in the past has felt left out when it comes to capital expenditure. So, I hope you’re going to make sure that they don’t feel left out this time round.
Nick Ramsay, I’m very glad you have welcomed my draft budget statement today, and I hope that you will be supporting it when it comes to our draft budget debate in the new year, because, clearly, you recognise the priorities that we have put into those services that mean the most to the people of Wales. I do remind you that our budget, under your Government and the previous Government, over the last five years, has resulted in a real-terms cut—11 per cent lower than it was in 2010-11, and our budget, of course, 3.6 per cent lower in real terms by 2019-20. So, we’ve had austerity for five years; we have five more years, as the IFS has said, of austerity.
Of course, it is important that you recognise that now, in terms of our record expenditure in health, and the latest inflation forecast published by the Office for Budget responsibility, health expenditure in Wales in 2016-17 will be higher in real terms than it was in 2010-11. Building on the recent Treasury PESA publications, taking that wide approach to public service delivery in Wales—health and health services at the centre of our plans—we’re allocating an additional £293 million to the NHS. Let me just say what that includes: that includes £200 million to support core delivery to support our NHS. It’s significantly increasing the funding for the intermediate care fund. You say you welcome the work to join health and social care—that’s what we’re delivering. An extra £30 million to increase funding available for older people and mental health services, an extra £33 million for capital and, of course, that all-important extra £21 million for social services.
Of course, the outcomes of that are very clear. In terms of local government, since 2010 we’ve provided cushioning to local authorities to reduce the impact of your UK Government’s reductions to our budget. Local authorities have consistently received more favourable settlements than councils in England. Let’s just look at this. As a result of our approach—spending on local services in England has decreased by around 9.8 per cent in cash terms over that period, while in Wales it’s increased by 2.5 per cent. We have focused on prevention, early intervention and enabling, of course, that all-important approach to protecting local services in terms of health and social care.
It is important that we look at the capital spend and the importance of that in terms of linking it to our Wales infrastructure investment plan. The full details of that will be announced in due course.
Thank you very much. Thank you for the statement, although we will have to consider the details to see exactly what is happening. After all, it is good news what the Minister is announcing today, but I would also join with her in condemning the cruel strategy of the Conservative Government and George Osborne in particular.
On the face of it, the increase of £260 million in the health revenue budget is to be warmly welcomed. There is £30 million capital as part of that package, too, and that is in the face of increasing pressures from the opposition parties here. I do very much hope that this will enable waiting lists to be substantially reduced in light of the harsh criticism of the Royal College of Surgeons in their statement yesterday.
We in Plaid Cymru have stated that the £950 million Barnett consequential that will come as a result of the expenditure on health in England will be spent on the health service and social services here in Wales. I would like to ask the Minister whether the Welsh Government is going to deliver that same pledge.
We also partially welcome the additional funding allocated to social services. But, essentially, it is only £1 million for each council, and that, in reality, in the context of, for example, Gwynedd Council—which is no different to any other council—which is seeking cuts or savings of £50 million in their annual budget. So, you can see, if there is pressure on other services, then that £21 million isn’t going to go very far, although I am sure it will be welcomed.
We also welcome the fact that the intermediate care fund has increased back to the same level as it was when Plaid Cymru reached a deal with the Government some years ago, and we also welcome the protection for the Supporting People fund.
We are concerned about the cuts to the environment department and the economy department. Would you be willing to state today the scale of those cuts, and the implications of that in the face of the legislation that we have been passing recently on the environment and the additional costs that are bound to follow on from that? I would also ask you to tell us what the settlement is for the arts and sports in Wales.
I note from what I’ve been able to glean from the recently arrived draft budget that there is a 30 per cent cut to higher education. Could you explain that? Is it just the movement of figures from one column to another? It does seem to be a huge cut if it is true, so we would welcome an explanation of that. Some things that you didn’t mention in the budget are that support to mental health policies and legislation is frozen, support to education and training of the NHS workforce is cut, children’s social services are frozen, the Care and Social Services Inspectorate Wales is cut, Estyn is cut, homelessness prevention is cut, tackling poverty is cut and the culture budget has been hammered, employment and skills are cut and the Welsh language is cut. So, it’s not all good news, obviously. [Interruption.] No, it didn’t mention that, I don’t think.
In terms of capital, can you explain how we will fund the £1 billion M4 vanity project across the Gwent levels in the face of a very tight capital budget that you have outlined yourselves? Obviously, the Llangefni link road will be hugely welcomed in Llangefni and the environs—[Laughter.]—but it’s difficult to see how exactly it fits into this statement on a draft budget. But, nevertheless, the people of Llangefni will be ecstatic tonight, no doubt. [Laughter.]
We cannot avoid the issue of HS2. I think transport spending in England, as we know, will increase from £6.1 billion in 2015-16 to over £12 billion in 2020-21. As a consequential, Wales will receive £740 million. This is not due to any action by the Welsh Government; it’s just the way the Barnett formula works. If 100 per cent comparability was given to Wales, then we would receive £71 million extra by 2020-21, but that’s small beer because, really, looking ahead at the huge spending that will occur afterwards on HS2, Wales stands to lose out to the tune of hundreds of millions of pounds, and that is why we have raised this issue and why it’s important in the face of this very tight budget settlement. Diolch yn fawr.
Diolch yn fawr, Alun Ffred Jones. I’m glad, again, that you’re welcoming. There is a lot of consensus on my draft budget statement this afternoon—a warm welcome for the increase in health and social services and the intermediate care fund. I think it is important again to put on record the fact that we spend more per head than England on health—7 per cent more on health and social care combined; £172 more per person on health and social care combined. The NHS budget will be more in real terms—0.6 per cent higher in real terms in 2016-17 than in 2010-11. It is also important that we have not only trialled the intermediate care fund, which was a budget agreement between our Government, Plaid Cymru and the Welsh Liberal Democrats; indeed, we continued with it even though it was only for a one-year agreement. We’ve continued into this year because it has demonstrated benefits, and we are continuing it into the next year. Indeed, local government, when they made representations to us about the budget, said that, if we can invest in social services and in the intermediate care fund, because of their commitment, like ours—and I think we share that preventative approach—that would help relieve the pressure on services.
Of course, there will be plenty of time to go into the detail in terms of how we manage this difficult budget, where it has been about sticking to our priorities and our principles. I would say on one point that you’ve raised that we’ve actually allocated £3 million more for our inspectorates, so I just need to put the record straight on that. Of course, that is something that is very important in terms of the delivery of health and social care.
In terms of some of the other issues you raised, in higher education, yes, we have—. The most important thing, I think, as I said in my statement, is that we are ensuring that students don’t have to pay more than they did in 2009-10. But there have been some changes in the higher education budget expenditure limit, because obviously we’ve had to make sure that we can support the tuition fee grant, and there has had to be an impact on other priorities in terms of higher education.
If we look at the ways in which we have sought to make reductions that have not had a big impact in terms of priorities, for example, in terms of economy, science and transport, we have had a level of savings achieved through efficiencies—re-profiling and a detailed review of activities. Of course, it is capital, as I said, which is all important, particularly to the economy, science and transport portfolio and, indeed, to natural resources in terms of flood protection. I’ve mentioned that. Of course, we’ve only had days in which to respond to the comprehensive spending review, so we will have much more detail in terms of capital spend in the coming weeks, as we move into scrutiny, and, indeed, as we make our announcements.
I obviously welcome the budget statement. The budget is being set against a background of austerity by the Westminster Government. The continuation of real-terms cuts in expenditure is having a serious effect. Difficult decisions are being made. I’m concerned about the effect on local authorities’ services. I know the Conservative candidate in Gower for the National Assembly has called for the removal of all education expenditure by the local authority, or as we know it, free school transport and educational improvement.
The Conservative spokesperson at the Assembly has consistently called for a freezing of council tax, which would lead to the wholesale closure of leisure facilities, parks and other discretionary services.
The simplistic view of the Conservatives that health is just about hospitals needs to be answered. Health is about lifestyle, housing, public health, social care, the effect of loneliness, plus GP and community services; it’s not just hospitals. All additional money for health is welcome. Health has now reached 47 per cent of the Welsh budget; at the current rate, it’ll pass 50 per cent well before the end of the next Assembly. Perhaps we need to look at how wisely it is being spent. Dr Keogh’s report in ‘The Observer’ said that 10 per cent of medical interventions in England do no good for the patient. Others have gone further and said 10 to 15 per cent of interventions in Wales either do no good or actually do harm.
The Nuffield report showed a substantial reduction in the crude productivity of doctors between 1999-2000 and 2012. What discussion has the finance Minister had with the health Minister regarding stopping interventions that either do harm or do no good and improving productivity to the previous level? Also, what discussions has the finance Minister had with the Public Services Minister regarding the effect that local government cuts will have on discretionary services provided by local authorities?
Thank you very much, Mike Hedges. Your comment about the Conservative candidate in Gower takes me back, and so it should, to the Welsh Conservatives’ budget in 2010, where, in fact—. What were they going to do? Cut education, children and lifelong learning by 12 per cent. Can you imagine where we would be here today if that budget had been accepted? Cut social justice and local government by 12.5 per cent; cut economy and transport by 30 per cent; cut environment, sustainability and housing by 25 per cent. I’m not going to let that go—that budget—as we move through the scrutiny of how difficult it has been when we have a 3.6 per cent real-terms cut. We’ve had an 8 per cent real-terms cut over the last five years. We now have a further 3.6 per cent cut. Yet, of course, the call is always for, ‘Spend here, spend there’, and I have to say, of course, we have a commitment to education.
I’m very pleased, Mike Hedges, to just give you some response on how we will spend the extra £200 million to support our hospitals and primary care. I will tell you, this is about productivity; it is about efficiency; it’s about more day cases for surgery; faster access to treatment; more care closer to home; services in your community; investing in primary care; more funding for GPs, practice nurses and paramedics; better and faster access to diagnostic services, often that’s a point that’s made in the Chamber, which will improve waiting times; and investing in new treatments. Those are the ways in which we would invest in new ways of supporting and improving the efficiency and delivery of our health services.
Can I thank the Minister for her statement and welcome the extra money that we’ve agreed with her through the Liberal Democrats’ budget agreement over two years with the Welsh Government? As a result of that agreement, of course, we have an increase in the pupil deprivation grant for next year, which means each school will receive £1,150 for every pupil eligible to receive free school meals, an extension of the pupil premium to £300 per pupil for the under-fives and, of course, a young person’s bus pass for 16 to 18-year-olds worth nearly £15 million.
The Minister has referred in her statement to the agreement we made about the funding for an extra 5,000 new apprenticeships and she also referred, of course, to the intermediate care fund that we helped negotiate a few budgets ago, and which I’m very pleased to see has now been increased back up to the £50 million that we agreed with the Government at that time. I’d be interested if the Minister could outline, in a bit more detail, exactly how that money will now be allocated to ensure that we are able to minimise the impact of any cuts in social services and get much better working between health and social care.
I also welcome the extra £21 million for social services, but I do take on board—and I think Alun Ffred Jones is right in saying—that although that is a doubling of the extra money that was put in last year, it’s a small amount of money compared with the deficits that some local authorities are running, particularly in adult and children’s social services. I think we need to look at how that works through. But, can I welcome the fact that, although local government is facing cuts again next year, the Government has managed to keep those cuts to less than 2 per cent, by my calculation, of the SPA? No doubt we will see, when the settlement is published tomorrow, exactly how that will work through. But, I do think that we do need to make sure that local government is protected as best as possible. I certainly welcome the fact that the sort of cuts that went through last year have not been repeated this year, and the Government has been able to restrict the cuts in that particular budget line.
Minister, in addition to outlining in a bit more detail how the intermediate care fund will be spent, I’d be grateful if, also, you could give us some detail in terms of the extra £260 million for health. There is a concern, of course, that that money is just going to be used to pay for deficits being met by local health boards. I’d be interested in whether or not you have insisted that some of that money is used for service improvement and investment in the health service, rather than just covering those deficits. I think we all expect the health boards to live within their means, difficult as that is, and I do think that any extra money for health needs to see service improvement attached to it. So, I’d be grateful if you could also say what additional work you’ve been doing with the local health boards to ensure that that is actually delivered. No doubt, Minister, we’ll be going through this in much greater detail when we come to scrutinise this and in subsequent debates. Thank you.
Thank you very much, Peter, and, again, I’m glad we are so much in accord with our budget priorities and principles. I do believe there is much that’s shared across this Chamber in terms of the way I’ve brought forward this draft budget in these difficult times, with the real-terms cuts that we face. I have, in terms of the prospects for the spend of our intermediate care fund, already said that because it was so successful in the first year, and as a result of the evidence, we’ve then funded it into this year, into the second year, at a lower level. But, now we are able to increase that to £50 million and, of course, we have examples across Wales as a result of that integrated working between local authorities and the health boards, which is providing the evidence that we’re driving down the unacceptable waits in terms of hospital discharges. We are also helping to avoid hospital admission. It’s facilitating vulnerable people to maintain their own independence and, of course, across Wales, I know all Assembly Members will have seen how the NHS and social services are working much more closely together.
I think one of the important points—I’ve already said in the answer to Mike Hedges the points about how we’re going to invest that £200 million in the health service, so I won’t repeat that. It’s not just about hospitals; it’s about primary care. It’s, as I said, care closer to home and services in the community, but also to make sure that we invest additional capital funding.
Capital has been raised this afternoon. We are going to invest an additional £33.5 million for capital, and that, of course, will help to update diagnostic equipment to make sure that we also build that on top of the £220 million capital programme. I think one of the points about our record in terms of delivering health and social care, and cushioning the local authorities against the impact of UK Government cuts to local council budgets, is that we have lower delayed transfers of care than in England and, of course, the cuts to local government are far less. But it is clear that we have to ensure that, in the way that we deliver on this budget, it has been about ensuring that we, as a Government, take responsibility for funding adult social care. The UK Government, of course, is now passing this on to local authorities, as the First Minister said earlier on, through the council tax precept. We are taking responsibility for delivering adult social care in the delivery of a health and social care service, which, of course, is vindicated in terms of the 7 per cent higher spend per person on health and social care in Wales.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Right. I still have five Members who want to be called. I’m going to give you a minute to put a question. I really will cut you off after a minute. Lynne Neagle.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I give a warm welcome to this budget today, Minister, especially the extra funding that you’ve delivered for health, for social services, for education, and particularly the protection for further education? I do recognise that you’ve managed to do that having been dealt a very tough hand by the UK Government in Westminster.
I just wanted to ask two questions, specifically. I welcome the protection that you’ve referred to for local government. Will you join me today in recognising the hard work that councils across Wales have put in to protect local services in these difficult times; and can you say a bit more about what that protection will look like when the announcement is made tomorrow?
In terms of the intermediate care fund, as I say, that is in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen in England where social care is in a state of near collapse. I welcome what you’ve done to protect resources for social services, but can you say a bit more about the intermediate care fund? In particular, what assurances can you give that it’s not going to be too dominated by health and will also have input from social services?
I thank Lynne Neagle, the Member for Torfaen, for that warm welcome. I also think she’s the first person who has mentioned further education. It’s very important that we have made that decision, based on the evidence and the importance of investing in our young people and the result that that will mean in terms of progression and apprenticeships.
I think, in terms of local government, it is important to recognise that we’ve looked at ways in which we can increase funding flexibilities for local authorities. I mentioned in my statement moving funding out of specific grants and into unhypothecated funding. That’s something, of course, that local government has called for. Over £160 million of grants have been moved into the revenue support grant during the current Assembly term and, of course, we must remember that the Welsh Government has provided £244 million annual funding for the council tax reduction scheme, through the unhypothecated settlement, following the abolition of council tax benefit as part of welfare reform.
We also have to remember that we are protecting schools’ funding by 1 per cent above changes to the Welsh budget overall, and putting the majority of the growth through the RSG—of course, the Minister for Public Services will be making his statement on the provisional RSG tomorrow—and the extra £21 million for social services. Again, I have to say, a much better overall settlement in Wales in 2016 than for local government in England, as it has been year on year, because of the right decisions taken, which were supported on this side of the Chamber five years ago.
How much did you receive in consequence of the UK Government’s increased spending on health in England? How much did you receive in consequence of the UK Government’s announcement of the biggest house building programme by any government since the 1970s, for England? And how much of that additional money will you be allocating to new housing supply in Wales during 2016-17, after the devastating cuts imposed on housing since 1999 in Wales?
Finally, what consideration will you give to rescuing the key services being delivered by third sector bodies across Wales, which have been improving lives and saving millions for statutory services for decades, such as Disability Wales and many others, given that when I wrote to the community and housing Minister on behalf of third sector bodies regarding core funding for the Families First programme, the reply I received was that the late timing of the UK Government’s spending review posed challenges for budget planning?
Sometimes, Mark Isherwood, I do wonder whether you’re in the right party, because you’re always condemning cuts made by your UK Conservative Government, which of course then are passed down to us. The consequential that we received as a result of the spending review, the overall consequential for the whole of our budget was only £110 million. That was what we received and, as a result of my budget, I am making sure that we reprioritise our funding so that we allocate, in fact, around £400 million to portfolios where we believe our priorities are key.
Of course, in terms of capital investment, we are on track to deliver around £3.8 billion of new investment in Wales. But our capital budget, despite capital consequentials, is nearly a third lower—[Interruption.] This is not a debate. This is a statement, and I’m responding. It’s a third lower in real terms than its peak in 2010. Of course, you will see the ways in which we’re allocating over £230 million of new capital investment to support economic and social infrastructure, and that will include housing. I’ve already announced the Help to Buy funding—over £26 million—and the fact that we’re allocating to departmental budgets the use of £150 million to enable them to invest, just in terms of communities and tackling poverty. But I would say that there’s £21.7 million for the increase in supplying choice of affordable housing action—that’s going to go towards the social housing grant, and that’s gone in England. There is no funding for the social housing grant any more in England. In Wales, we believe it’s not just about home ownership; it’s about affordable social housing in Wales. I know that in this Chamber there is strong support for our priorities in terms of social housing.
I very much welcome, Minister, that despite the cuts imposed by the Westminster Government, this draft budget includes further investment in social services and social care. Will you, Minister, give consideration to specifically funding the development of a national delivery strategy for dementia care, based on the principles of the successful integrated family support teams in children’s social services? Such a scheme could identify and develop the best practice from the integrated care fund, and could be implemented through the regulations on partnership agreements under the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014 recently passed by this House. Do you, Minister, agree with me that this would be a positive, statutory and financially efficient way to ensure the integration of health and social care with the involvement of the third and independent sectors, to improve the lives of dementia sufferers and their carers, and to avoid unnecessary hospital admissions and to facilitate discharge?
Well, I do welcome Gwenda Thomas’s questions, because she’s quite right. We have to look beyond the intermediate care fund for ways in which we’re investing in the integration of health and social care as a result of our £21 million into social services. But also, because we’ve got the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act, which of course Gwenda Thomas pioneered, we actually have the means to have that integration. And I would say in terms of extra funding for older people’s health services and mental health services, an extra £30 million over and above the £200 million is going to that sector in terms of older people’s mental health services. So, the prospects for what you’ve described are very real.
Minister, you’re doing a very good job of focusing on those areas of your budget that you’ve been able to safeguard or increase, but could I ask you for one moment to focus on a department facing a substantial cut as far as I see, that is, a cut in the revenue line for higher education of £41 million? That is an in-year cut of 32 per cent, which appears to be very substantial indeed. Can I ask you to confirm that that is an accurate interpretation in terms of that fall in revenue for higher education, and can I ask you therefore why this sector has been designated very specifically to face a cut of this kind? How do you anticipate that any sector, and this sector in particular, can cope with a cut on that scale?
Clearly, we have had to make tough decisions. We have decided to invest and reprioritise in terms of this budget and many of the announcements I’ve made today I know have been welcomed by Members across the Chamber. But it has meant that we have had to look very carefully in terms of, particularly, unprotected areas, and look very carefully at how we can support them. And I think the issues around higher education—as I said, we have had to transfer funding for the tuition fee grant and we’ve had to look at cutting other education priorities. You, of course, will have a chance for scrutiny. But, you know, I would ask you, if you agree with many of the priorities that I’ve expressed today in my draft budget, where would you make the cuts, because cuts have had to be made? And you will have the opportunity in terms of looking carefully at this through scrutiny. But I am sure that you will agree that it has been important that we also prioritise further education and apprenticeships. Indeed, we had a budget agreement around apprenticeships, because we recognised that we should not just be investing in higher education, we should be investing in the progression that we want for our young people, particularly through vocational opportunities, into further education as well.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And finally, Alun Davies.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Like others this afternoon, Minister, I’d like to welcome the statement that you’ve made, particularly welcome the additional investment in health and social services. I think it’s important to note that the cuts that are being made by the United Kingdom Government today are not simply to repay debt but as a direct consequence of their poor management of the economy over the last few years. In making this budget statement today you’ve said that you want to see a balanced economic recovery, a fair Wales and that you want to invest in the future. Local government provides local services, local jobs and provides absolutely key services to people across Wales. Now, we know that we’ve protected local government here from the over 40 per cent of cuts in real terms that they’ve seen on the other side of Offa’s Dyke. But can you, finance Minister, look at how we can further protect and enhance the funding for local government over the next few years? As we move into a period of reorganisation, it is important that we do this whilst ensuring that local government is well funded to provide core services.
I thank Alun Davies and, quite clearly, I am having to present a budget, which I believe is a budget for a fairer, better Wales, investing for the future, as a result of a 3.6 per cent real-terms cut to our budget, and that’s a 4.5 per cent cut to our revenue budget, which, of course, is where the services that you are focusing on in terms of local government are most affected. But we have made the decision to reduce the impact of the cuts on local government. We’ve done that by enabling extra investment in social services and in schools, which will go into the revenue support grant. But I also believe that the other ways in which we can support some of our protected areas mean that we can continue with our capital programme in twenty-first century schools and also that we can target our investment at those protected groups who will be the most vulnerable groups who will be most adversely affected by cuts. So, if you look at our communities, we’ve invested in front-line education and social services delivery through the revenue support grant, used our levers on infrastructure and innovative finance, protected programmes aimed at equality, community regeneration, sustainability and climate change—we believe those are the key services that people value in Wales—as well as investing in our health and social care services.
Sandy Mewies took the Chair.
Thank you, Minister.
Item 4 is the statement by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport on rail electrification, and I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart.
Thank you, acting Presiding Officer. I wanted to update Members today on rail electrification in south Wales, following the publication of the Hendy review of the planned five-year funding programme for Network Rail.
The Hendy review was published on 25 November, following the announcement of the comprehensive spending review. The principal implication for Wales is the confirmation that the timescales for electrifying the Great Western main line have slipped considerably. Electrification of the Great Western main line between London and Cardiff will now be completed in 2019, rather than 2017, as previously announced. There is no firm date given for the completion of the electrification of the line between Cardiff and Swansea. Instead, it’s stated that this is expected to be completed in control period 6, which runs from 2019 to 2024.
Following publication of the review, I wrote to Sir Peter Hendy, outlining our disappointment at the outcome, and seeking his assurance that Network Rail will work openly with the Welsh Government as we develop our plans. Electrification of the main line to Swansea is vital to supporting future passenger demand and economic growth across south Wales. It is of great importance to the Welsh economy, and I am concerned about the potential impact of the delay on west Wales, as well as the implications of delivering the project across two control periods.
I also wrote to Claire Perry MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, again outlining our disappointment and seeking clarification and assurances on the timing of the completion of electrification to Swansea within control period 6, and the introduction of services. Last week, I met the Secretary of State for Transport, Patrick McLoughlin MP, when he visited south Wales. At that meeting, I reiterated that we expect Network Rail, and the UK Government, to clarify the timing of delivery of electrification to Swansea. I also raised the importance of delivering electrification in north Wales, and stressed its importance in driving economic growth in Wales.
Electrification of the main line will be a huge step forward in creating a modern train service that’s capable of meeting future demand and supporting economic growth across Wales. We’ll continue to press the UK Government for the timely delivery of electrification, and I’ve emphasised the importance of providing information in a timely manner to ensure we have the opportunity to consider it as part of our own franchise and infrastructure planning.
I call on William Graham, the Conservative spokesperson.
Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer. May I welcome the statement from the Minister this afternoon? Clearly, it is regrettable that this time slip has occurred. I look forward to the Minister indicating, perhaps in a later statement, when she is able to determine exactly what the eventual—or the likely eventual—cost of the electrification scheme will be. The Minister will know that the Secretary of State for Transport has suggested that the timescale, though slipping, will be met as early as possible within control period 6, with the extension to Swansea. Arising from the Barnett consequentials, which the First Minister mentioned this afternoon, of the HS2 project, an extra £750 million will be coming to Wales, which is clearly to be welcomed, together with the fact that the new intercity express programme trains will be immediately introduced for the Swansea service in 2018.
The Minister will also know that the consequences of HS2 will have significant improvement on the rail link for north Wales. And I note today that the Virgin network hopes to increase the frequency of trains between Shropshire and London—again, an important and useful addition to the travelling public in north Wales.
The Minister has shared, in her statement, some information, but we would welcome further information, as I say, on the cost increases. We’d welcome a full explanation of that in a further statement. It’s noted, of course, that the inquiry the Minister refers to was, in fact, commissioned by the Treasury, rather than the Department for Transport, so we hope, therefore, that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will be able to make available funds as soon as possible for this very important link that the United Kingdom Government has embarked upon, to be completed as soon as possible.
I thank William Graham for his comments. The transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, had said—I think when he was interviewed by the BBC—that he hoped the electrification of the Great Western rail line to Swansea can be completed by 2020 or 2021, and those are the inquiries that we are now currently making. Because I think I made the point quite forcibly that there will be no element of trust unless it was at the start of that control period, because, if it went to the end of the control period, there’d be a feeling that perhaps nothing would happen on these particular matters.
In terms of the cost agenda, the estimated costs of electrifying the line between London and Cardiff rose from £1.6 billion in 2014 to £2.8 billion in 2015. So, we do have to have greater certainty on the figures and the costs, and that brings very neatly into place the role of Network Rail here, in terms of their ability to deliver on cost, and, of course, on time. In terms of the new IEP trains, I’m hoping myself to see some of these trains and go on one, because they are currently there, because apparently they will be a very useful addition to the network.
I think you made an important point in regard to north Wales. We have to take the benefits of anything across our border that can improve travel in north Wales, but we mustn’t take our eye off the ball regarding the case for electrification in north Wales, which must be the goal of all of us across this Chamber in long-term discussions. I will, of course, when I have clarification both from Sir Peter Hendy and the Department for Transport, issue another statement, and, if it is during recess, I will probably issue a written statement so that Members are fully updated.
I very much welcome the statement you’re making, although I think, like others, I don’t welcome the contents of it. Many of us, I think, are very concerned about the Hendy report, which was published last week, and its implications for what we’re debating this afternoon.
Minister, I’m grateful to you for coming to the Chamber so quickly after that report was made public. Do you yet understand, or are able to comment on, the implications for electrification of the Valleys lines? Clearly, my primary concern is the Ebbw valley line and the debates and discussions we’ve had on further development of the Ebbw valley line in this Chamber in the past, but also, of course, the knock-on impact that this might have on the metro in a wider sense. I’d be grateful if you could give us any indication that you might have on the timescale for electrification of the Valleys lines and, in particular, the Ebbw valley line.
Yes, we hope that this will not have a knock-on effect on the delivery of the metro, because the cash is confirmed in terms of the Valleys lines electrification, but, obviously, this will be subject to ongoing discussions. I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of the work that we’ve done on the first phase of the metro with the new Ebbw Vale Town station—you know, the investment, I think, was over £11 million—and the fact that we’ve now got 800,000 people using services in that area, and that’s what we need to aim for. But, as soon as I have further information regarding this, I will share it with Members. It’ll be within the detail, that’s the difficulty—to extract the appropriate information to give the correct information to Members.
I call on the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch, Gadeirydd. I also welcome the statement and the update from the Minister today, and, of course, I also wish to express my disappointment. It is unacceptable, I think we would all agree here, that we will now have to wait up to nine years for the completion of electrification of the line from London through to Swansea. I think we’re probably paying the price now for failing to perhaps get an earlier deal with the UK Government, and also, it’s got to be remembered, the failure of successive earlier Governments of another colour to get south Wales electrification up and running.
I note that the Minister says she’s written to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Claire Perry, asking for clarification on the timing of completion of the electrification within control period 6. I wonder if she has received any assurances that UK Government is willing to prioritise within that control period in order to make sure that electrification from Cardiff through to Swansea takes place early within that control period.
I’m also concerned about the knock-on effects for other electrification projects that the Minister and I agree are very important for Wales; I’m talking about the north Wales electrification project. I wonder if she is able to give us any assurances about the threat of knock-on effects of this decision on north Wales electrification, because the work of putting together a business case is going well, and I appreciate the assistance from the Minister on that particular front.
Finally, Wales can ill afford delays in infrastructure spend or to be underfunded, and it is worth noting HS2 and what we’ve been discussing over the past couple of days here. No doubt the Minister will say again that Plaid Cymru have got it wrong, but it is bitterly disappointing to see the Welsh Government accepting the UK Conservative line that we should simply accept consequential increases in the DfT budget rather than direct consequentials of HS2 funding, as is the case for Scotland and Northern Ireland. It will mean losing out on tens of millions of pounds now—possibly hundreds of millions of pounds in years to come. Will the Minister not agree that, combined with this electrification delay, we have here, with the reality of HS2, another example of UK Government letting Wales down? If not, people will only draw conclusions that Welsh Government is somehow willing to accept second best without putting up a fight.
I’ve never been accused of not putting up a fight with anybody, either in my current role or in previous roles. So, I certainly won’t accept that in terms of my dealings with the Department for Transport. I, like you, am disappointed and I think every Member in the Chamber is disappointed about what’s happening on this electrification. We were very hopeful that 2017 was a reality in terms of things, and we were very hopeful it would be through to Swansea. I think some of the best comments on that have actually been by Sir Terry Mathews, who is chair of the region down there, who said it had created ‘a damaging air of uncertainty’ over efforts to boost the prosperity of Swansea. That is somebody from the private sector who is determined to change things in Swansea and the west, and I think that’s quite a damning indictment of what’s actually happened on these issues.
I’ve not only written to Claire Perry, but I’ve actually spoken to Claire Perry, and said to her about the prioritisation issues. Because, to be frank with you, when I saw that it had gone into the other control period, I was very worried about that project. For me, this is a total project that is taking us from London through to Swansea, and I did make it absolutely clear that we needed certainty: is it the start of that control period? Is it going to be prioritised? This is what I’m hoping for a response from her about. I’ve also emphasised this to the Secretary of State for Transport, who did understand, I think, because there’s real politics around this, and not just the issue about rail and privatisation. I think it’s important that we all continue to press, from anything we might say today on that.
So, we’ve got to look at the knock-on impact on Wales and the lessons from across the border, because we’ve seen when things have changed there what a knock-on impact it has had on other projects. That does worry me about how much longer it will take us to get to the north Wales electrification and any other things. I think we’ve got to continue to press. I think we’ve got to get on with the business case and make it a really solid business case, and almost make it inevitable that you will get an answer of ‘yes’ and you get a timescale in terms of where it is.
In terms of that funding discussion, I think that’s been covered by the First Minister and the finance Minister.
Can I also welcome the statement, and also welcome the statement being brought out so quickly? As the Minister, who represents part of Swansea, is well aware, there was huge disappointment and anger in the area when the date for electrification of the main line was postponed to 2019 to 2024. There’s a fear that electrification will stop at Bristol Parkway or Cardiff, and diesel will then continue to Swansea. This would be hugely unfortunate for the economy of Swansea and south-west Wales. Will the Minister continue to press for electrification of the Great Western main line to Swansea as soon as possible, and continue to use all her best efforts to try and get the UK Government to make the right decision for the people of south-west Wales?
Obviously, the answer to that is ‘yes’, but I think it’s very interesting when you see the level of interest in this in Swansea and the west in the press that it hasn’t got through to Swansea. I think there’s genuine public concern about this, and that they feel absolutely let down. But, I think we all feel let down about the time it’s going to take to Cardiff and Swansea anyway, and the knock-on effects elsewhere. We’ve got to be united about these issues about rail infrastructure if we’re serious about developing the economy.
Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Eluned Parrott.
Diolch, Gadeirydd. Thank you for your statement, Minister. I agree it is hugely disappointing for the people of Swansea to see this decision—all of the communities between Cardiff and Swansea and, indeed, beyond. I remember back when we were lobbying for full electrification all the way to Swansea, each one of these parties made a united statement that it is absolutely unacceptable for Cardiff to become the end of the line. Now, I do recognise that the use of the intercity express programme hybrid trains at least does mean that passengers won’t have to change from one train to another in the middle of Cardiff Central, which would have been catastrophic, frankly, for the image of Swansea. But hybrid trains are a compromise—they are heavier and dirtier than electric trains, and when they’re running on diesel they are slower as well. Clearly, that will have an impact on the timetable that we’re able to deliver and the travel time for passengers travelling beyond Cardiff. I wonder if you’ve had any discussions about the impact on the timetable, Minister, and what that might be.
Can I say that I think it’s wildly naïve to take at face value the assurances that the project will automatically take place in the next funding period—in control period 6—until a firm schedule of projects is agreed? We have been here before; we have had an assurance previously, and clearly that is not now the case. Whilst we still have some flexibility in that control period, I don’t think it’s wise to make any assumptions that any such thing will happen. Clearly, as other Members said, we’ve also been calling for the electrification of the north Wales main line in that control period 6 as well. If too many projects are being shunted out of this particular funding period into the next one, then the clear problem is this: that not only is electrification form Cardiff to Swansea under serious threat unless there is continued and consistent pressure from all parties here, but also, the project to electrify the north Wales main line is similarly even more threatened and even more marginalised than it has been previously. This could be a disaster.
It’s also stupid planning from the UK Government, because HS2—one of their reasons for taking it to Crewe is so that it can fit in with the north Wales main line and provide the people of north Wales with a better service. Well, let’s see that happen; let them put their money where their mouth is and see that in firm writing.
I wonder what discussions the Minister has had with the Secretary of State and Sir Peter Hendy on that north Wales electrification project, given that, as I say, unlike other improvements that have been planned into the Hendy review schedule of works for control period 6 and beyond, north Wales electrification is absent—it’s not mentioned at all.
Then, of course, there’s the impact on Valleys lines electrification. The Member for Blaenau Gwent has talked about the Ebbw Vale line, but clearly the timetable shifting could have been anticipated on the Great Western main line. I wonder, Minister, if you’d also anticipated in your plans the loss of the Cardiff to Swansea electrification project. Way back in July, you published the national transport finance plan, and time and time again since then I’ve asked you why it was that you had dropped all electrification projects west of Cardiff. No Maesteg line, no Vale of Glamorgan line—which is the relief line for the main line—no Penarth line, no Barry Island line either. All of them had vanished without trace and I have not had what I could call a clear answer as to why that had happened. Now, some of those projects are clearly contingent on main line electrification, and the business case, for all of them actually, was contingent on them being done in parallel with one another. So, perhaps I can ask you this now, Minister: when did you find out the electrification from Cardiff to Swansea was going to be cancelled? Because reading back through the Welsh Government’s plans and the sudden loss of all electrification west of Cardiff this summer, it certainly looks like this wasn’t a surprise.
I’ll start off, I think, to say I’ve agreed with most of your comments. Now I’ll deal with your questions on it. In terms of the timetable, that will have to be an ongoing discussion now. We’ll have to get a firm schedule agreed if there’s going to be any element of trust on this. In terms of the north Wales main line, I have raised this with Peter Hendy and with DfT; I’ll be having further discussions with Peter Hendy and further discussions with DfT.
Can I make it absolutely clear? The first I knew about this issue around the Swansea electrification was when all Members received a letter—did they not—from Network Rail. I opened my box as an AM and read the letter. I knew that the Department for Transport wanted to speak to me later in the day, and I knew at the same time as you did. So, I then subsequently spoke to the Minister—who was horrified, because in all fairness the Minister had been trying to speak to me but I had business on here. So, I think I would say that I was shocked, but I wasn’t surprised. I have to say, like you, with the way that these projects have been managed, the way they’ve gone, the delays are very difficult—I think we all knew in our heart of hearts what was going on across our border and that there would be delays here.
But like you, I think all parties have supported this. All parties have supported it to Swansea because the benefits eventually go to west Wales—to north Wales. We have to now carry on with the lobbying. We have to do it sincerely, as collectively, as well, as we can. If we allow this to slip again and don’t get a detailed timetable, Wales will be out of the loop in terms of all the improvements in infrastructure that are happening across the UK. Never mind worrying about northern powerhouses, we won’t have the appropriate links to northern powerhouses to take advantage of it. You know, why are we paying such a heavy price? So, I can honestly assure you, when I do my updates, I will look at all these particular issues and deal with them as things become clearer. But, like everything with rail, there seems to be an air of mist always surrounding it when you’re dealing with the various parties, so I think we’d better start shining some lights in to how Network Rail intend to deliver, however upset we are about the delays.
Thank you, Minister, for the statement and for all the efforts you are making. Most of the points I wanted to make have been covered. The Minister has mentioned the role of Network Rail. There will be a report to UK Government in early 2016 on the issue of the future structure and financing of Network Rail, with fears of privatisation, fears of it being broken up. I wondered whether she had any consultations about this possible proposal and whether she thinks that would have any effect on the electrification.
I don’t think Network Rail currently works very well—not to the benefit of the people of Wales. So, I think we have to think very carefully about what we want to say about the future of Network Rail. My concerns are that they can’t keep to a budget and they can’t keep on time. You know the problems within Cardiff in your own constituency. As far as we’re concerned, we’re having an ongoing dialogue with the new chair of Network Rail and we continue our dialogue with the UK Government. We’ve got to be allowed to challenge Network Rail on its plans, on its costings, and we might have to look for alternatives ourselves for the delivery of the work as we get going on what we want to undertake. I think some of the things were best summed up on Network Rail when I went to Llandaf station with you. We were walking across, and I said, ‘You’re doing a nice job on all of this. You could do with painting the station; it improves things, because people like things that look nice.’ ‘Oh that wouldn’t be an issue.’ But then, when you have the correspondence back, it turned out to be an issue. To be honest with you, we can’t carry on dealing with people who say ‘yes’ one day and ‘no’ the next.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
The Presiding Officer has accepted an urgent question under Standing Order 12.66, and I call on Eluned Parrott to ask the urgent question.
Will the Minister make a statement on the closure of the neonatal unit at the University Hospital of Wales to new admissions because of infection? EAQ(4)0672(HSS)
Cardiff and Vale university health board have taken an operational decision to stop new admissions to the neonatal unit at the University Hospital of Wales as a precautionary measure. A small number of babies have tested positive to an infection. The exact cause of the infection remains under urgent investigation.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Clearly, the University Hospital of Wales is one of the busiest consultant-led maternity units and, therefore, the number of babies who might wish to find a bed in that unit is quite high. What transport arrangements have the health board made available to make sure that babies can be transferred effectively from that unit if they’re born as an emergency case or, alternatively, are born at the appropriate place where a cot might be available?
I thank Eluned Parrott for that question. It’s important to reassure her and others that the unit remains able to deal with urgent emergency cases, should the need arise. In the meantime, the unit, as you will know, is part of a neonatal intensive care network in Wales and arrangements have been agreed with partners in other units to provide support over the next few days. I don’t have details of the transport arrangements that are part of that, but I’m sure that they will have been part of the planning that the health board will have undertaken.
Minister, thank you for your comments so far this afternoon to inform us of the situation as you understand from the Government’s point of view. As I said in the business statement, I fully understand Cardiff and Vale, operationally, are responsible for this unit on a day-to-day basis. This is, however, the second time in about four months, I think I’m correct in saying—. Last time around, 12 babies showed signs of infection. Obviously, more figures will come out now with this second episode. Will you commit today to bringing forward a statement when all the facts are known? Because as I said, this is the second issue, this is an important part of the infrastructure of the university hospital, we’re going into the Christmas recess as well, as Members, and this will be concerning both for parents and clinicians who work within the unit. It is vital that we can get the assurances that the health board are on top of matters when it comes to infection control and that you as the Government have offered what support you might be able to give via the inspectorate to make sure that adequate provision has been put in place to make sure this doesn’t happen for a third time in the new year.
I thank Andrew Davies for that. I’m very happy to make a commitment to bring forward a written statement setting out the details of the most recent outbreak, once those details are known. At that time, I will also make available to Members details of additional capital investment at the unit that I had already agreed prior to this latest outbreak. The details are being finalised but have, as part of their intention, a new layout design, which will help to improve infection prevention and control at the unit.
Minister, as others have said, it is disappointing, isn’t it, that this infection has struck again in this unit—for the second time within a matter of months? As you are aware, this unit serves a huge geographical area. There are babies and mothers going from Ceredigion to this particular department, too. You noted in your response to Eluned Parrott that pro tem arrangements were in place to ensure that there is sufficient capacity to meet requirements. In your answer, you mentioned that that is in place for these next few days. Do you have any idea from the health board how long the closure of this unit is likely to go on for? How confident are you that the capacity will be sufficient if this goes on over the Christmas period, when we know that capacity tends to shrink in any case within the NHS?
Thank you very much, Elin Jones. Of course, the local health board is working very hard to try to reopen the unit. We haven’t seen a new case over the last eight days. The serious incident management group will meet again tomorrow. Given that they don’t know why this has happened again, they cannot give us a timetable yet as to when they will be able to reopen the unit. In the meantime, they are confident that they will be able to deal with things through the network that we have here in Wales.
It is, of course, entirely appropriate to close the unit to new admissions if there is an infection that might endanger a new neonatal baby. Could you just describe to us the support that’s available across the network in terms of telephone advice to neonatal paediatricians in other parts of the network to ensure that they are able to look after neonates who don’t necessarily need the very high level of a tertiary neonatal unit?
Well, Jenny Rathbone’s absolutely right: while there is a risk to other babies, then the closure is a proper and precautionary procedure. Members here will be pleased to know, I’m sure that those babies who have been involved in this outbreak appear all to be responding to treatment. In the meanwhile, the expertise that is available at the University Hospital of Wales is available to other clinicians in the network, where other people find themselves having to respond to the needs of children who otherwise would have been cared for at the university hospital.
Thank you, Minister.
Item 5 is the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Act 2014 (Consequential Modification) Order 2015, and I call on the Deputy Minister for Farming and Food to move the motion—Rebecca Evans.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales; in accordance with Standing Order 27.5:
Approves that the draft The Agricultural Sector (Wales) Act 2014 (Consequential Modification) Order 2015 is made in accordance with the draft laid in the Table Office on 18 November 2015.
Thank you. I laid the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Act 2014 (Consequential Modification) Order 2015 on 18 November and I’m presenting the Order today for debate in the National Assembly.
The Order modifies section 46(4) of the National Minimum Wage Act 1998, by adding a reference to the Agricultural Sector (Wales) Act 2014. The modification will list our 2014 Act amongst the other agricultural wages legislation already listed and will ensure that no person can be prosecuted under both the National Minimum Wage Act and the 2014 Act for an offence arising out of the same conduct. It is advisable that the modification is made prior to new agricultural wages legislation made pursuant to the 2014 Act coming into force.
On 11 November, I announced my intention to introduce a new agricultural wages Order under the 2014 Act that will offer a 6 per cent wage increase to agricultural workers in Wales, which equates to an annual rise of 2 per cent between 2012 and 2015. The proposed Order will preserve the six-grade career structure and all agriculture related allowances currently specified in the agricultural minimum wage regime. This will ensure that the new Order will present minimum disruption to existing arrangements and the functioning of the sector.
This Government is committed to supporting rural communities and ensuring that workers in the agricultural sector receive fair play, which reflects the importance of their contribution to our overall economy, together with the experience and skills that they possess. Our policy is different to the approach taken in England, with the decision to abolish the Agricultural Wages Board. A recent ‘Farmers Guardian’ survey found that 70 per cent of respondents in England regret the dissolution of the board there, that 30 per cent have seen their pay fall and that 30 per cent are considering leaving the industry. The work we have been undertaking in preserving the agricultural minimum wage regime in Wales and implementing the 2014 Act provides benefits for the whole sector and rural economies, and underpins the Welsh Government’s vision of a modern, professional and profitable agriculture industry in Wales.
I have no speakers. Deputy Minister, do you want to add anything?
No, just formally move the motion.
Okay. The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No objections. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36
Item 6 is the debate on the general principles of the Public Health (Wales) Bill. In accordance with Standing Order 12.23(iii), I have not selected the amendment to the motion. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services to move the motion—Mark Drakeford.
Motion NDM5899 Mark Drakeford
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with Standing Order 26.11:
Agrees to the general principles of the Public Health (Wales) Bill.
Thank you very much, Chair. I move the motion.
In opening this debate on the general principles of the Public Health (Wales) Bill, can I begin by expressing my thanks to David Rees, David Melding and Jocelyn Davies, and their respective committees, for their scrutiny of the Bill at Stage 1? I would also like to acknowledge the important contribution from the range of stakeholders who have assisted with the process by providing written and oral evidence.
Chair, only a few years ago, that fine Bangor historian Dr Pamela Michael concluded that:
‘The history of public health in Wales is…a crucial part of our nation’s history.’
The Bill before the National Assembly today continues that 150-year radical tradition into the twenty-first century by turning its legislative sight on important contemporary issues of public health policy. For our children, the Bill provides new protections against the deadly dangers of tobacco, establishing a statutory register of retailers of tobacco and nicotine products and creating a new criminal offence of knowingly handing over tobacco or nicotine products to a person aged 18 years or under. It will prohibit the intimate piercing of children under the age of 16, protecting them from avoidable harm. For our young people in particular, the Bill introduces a new special procedures licensing system, which will make the standards of practice of the best working within the sector become the standards of all.
For our older people, the requirement for local authorities to prepare local strategies for the provision of toilets for use by the public will provide an achievable way of addressing a complex issue that has a disproportionate impact on older citizens and families with young children. For the whole of our communities, but particularly those in more disadvantaged localities, the changes that this Bill introduces to the planning of pharmaceutical services will base the system more closely on local needs and better reflect the crucial public health role of our community pharmacies.
Chair, let me respond briefly to each of the three detailed committee reports produced as a result of Stage 1 scrutiny. The Health and Social Care Committee produced 19 recommendations to be taken forward, either through amendment to the Bill or in a number of other ways. I will write formally to all three committees and in relation to all committee recommendations, but I can say this afternoon that I will reply positively to the great majority of them, including the great majority of the Health and Social Care Committee proposals. I can confirm, for example, in relation to that report, that I intend to bring forward a number of amendments at Stage 2, including those that would add the tongue to the list of body parts where piercings will be prohibited on children aged under 16, and an amendment to increase the fine levels associated with offences under the special procedures and intimate piercing parts of the Bill, both of those things being specific recommendations of the health committee.
The Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee made nine recommendations. In different ways, I intend to make a positive response to all but the last of them. As a result, obligations to consult and the scrutiny of subordinate legislation by the National Assembly will both be strengthened.
The Finance Committee’s seven recommendations included a number that reflect more broadly on approaches taken by the Welsh Government when presenting legislation to the fourth Assembly. These matters are being considered at a Government-wide level as we reflect on this term’s use of our new legislative powers and think ahead to the fifth Assembly. Where recommendations refer specifically to the content of this Bill, I hope to respond positively to them. I have, for example, already written to the Chair of the Finance Committee, setting out the latest position in relation to the Hemming v. Westminster City Council case, now the subject of a reference to the Court of Justice of the European Union and drawing out its relevance to this Bill.
Llywydd, I now turn to the one matter of significant controversy contained within the Bill. As far as e-cigarettes are concerned, my own view remains that the measures contained within the Bill as originally drafted provide the simplest, clearest and most proportionate means of preventing the potential harm that could arise from the proliferation of e-cigarettes, while doing nothing to interfere with their use in harm reduction. Now, the state of evidence here remains contested, but where there is credible risk of harm—and that was the position underlined in oral evidence to the Health and Social Care Committee from the British Medical Association, the directors of public health in Wales, and from our own chief medical officer—then the precautionary principle should prevail. I am not prepared, and I do not believe that this Assembly should be prepared to do nothing in the hope that harm might not occur.
Llywydd, while that remains my personal view, I recognise my responsibility, as a Minister in a Government without a majority, to attempt to craft agreement where differences of view persist. I have read very carefully those paragraphs in the Health and Social Care Committee’s report that advocate an approach that would limit the places where an e-cigarette cannot be used to those where the risk of renormalisation and their potential risk to children would be greatest. I will, accordingly, bring forward Government amendments at both Stages 2 and 3 of the Bill’s consideration, provided that it moves beyond Stage 1 today. Those amendments will define more precisely those enclosed and substantially enclosed public spaces where, in future, the use of an e-cigarette will be prohibited. Initially, at Stage 2, it is my intention to lay such amendments in relation to educational establishments containing students aged 18 and under, places where food is served, and public transport. These amendments will be published shortly after Christmas and in good time, I hope, for those Members who have wished to see the Bill refocused in this way to be able to give them full consideration.
Llywydd, today marks another important milestone in the journey of this Bill. I believe that the scrutiny process so far has been of significant assistance, and I look forward to Members’ contributions to that ongoing process during this debate.
The Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) took the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I now call on the Chair of the Health and Social Care Committee, David Rees.
Thank you, Llywydd. It’s a pleasure to contribute to today’s debate on behalf of the Health and Social Care Committee. The committee’s role was to consider the general principles of the Bill and to present a report on them. Our report has been laid before the Assembly. We hope that the evidence gathered, and the conclusions that we drew, have assisted Assembly Members when preparing for today’s debate. We have given detailed consideration to the evidence submitted, and I’d like to thank everyone who contributed in written form or orally to our Stage 1 scrutiny process.
Firstly, I’d like to welcome the comments made by the Minister this afternoon on the recommendations of the committee’s report, but obviously I’ll await the detail in his response to comment any further on that. Members will see from our report that we have not made a recommendation on whether the Assembly should agree the general principles of the Bill. This is because we did not reach a consensus on one chapter of the Bill: the provisions relating to restricting the use of e-cigarettes in public places in line with tobacco products. However, we did agree on all other aspects of the Bill, and have made 19 recommendations that we believe would strengthen those provisions.
We have been clear throughout our work on the Bill about the importance of ensuring that we gathered evidence on all aspects, not just those of a more controversial nature. We therefore structured our evidence sessions thematically to avoid more prominent aspects of the Bill from dominating our time. Llywydd, I intend to follow a similar structure today and will work through the report effectively in reverse order.
The Assembly has been told many times of the negative impact a lack of toilet facilities can have on people’s lives, especially those who may need frequent access to such facilities. We therefore welcome the provisions in the Bill to require local authorities to prepare and publish local toilet strategies for their areas. We did hear from stakeholders that they believed local authorities should be required to provide toilet facilities, but we do realise the financial burden this would place upon local authorities. We’ve recommended, therefore, that they should publish progress reports to ensure that these strategies are meeting the needs of the communities they serve.
Pharmaceutical services is another issue on which the committee has undertaken several pieces of work. Again, we welcome the provisions in the Bill that seek to change the way health boards make decisions about pharmaceutical services so that they are based on the needs of the local area. We believe that the introduction of pharmaceutical needs and assessments will bring improvements to community pharmacy networks, although we have recommended that the Welsh Government should issue a PNA template in order to avoid the variability that could exist, and has in the system in England.
We also support the proposals to introduce a minimum age restriction for anyone wishing to have an intimate piercing. We were concerned to hear in our evidence gathering of incidents where people as young as 13 had undergone an intimate piercing. So, we do welcome the proposals that will prevent this from happening again. There was overwhelming support from witnesses for this Part of the Bill. We did consider whether the minimum age should be set at 16 or 18. On balance, we did accept the Minister’s rationale for setting it at 16. However, we believe that provisions around seeking proof of age could be strengthened, so we have recommended that the Minister amend the Bill to set out proof of age requirements that mirror those relating to selling alcohol to anyone under the age of 18.
Whilst we support the proposals to introduce a licensing scheme for practitioners of tattooing, body piercing, electrolysis and acupuncture, many witnesses told us that the scheme should be extended to cover other procedures. We have heard of the growing trend in people undergoing an array of body modification procedures, such as tongue splitting, stretching and sub-dermal implants. Maybe some of my colleagues will want to expand upon that later this afternoon. Many of these procedures have the potential to cause harm if not carried out in a hygienic way. Whilst they may not be at the same volume and the same scale as those identified in the Bill, they do have the potential to create harm in individuals and, as such, we’ve recommended that the Minister reconsider the list of special procedures covered in the Bill.
We also support the proposals to establish a national register of retailers who sell tobacco and nicotine products. Although some stakeholders told us that a register wouldn’t necessarily aid the prevention of illegal sales, we believe that, on balance, it could bring opportunities to improve enforcement and compliance, which could reduce underage sales. We welcome the Bill’s creation of an offence of knowingly handing over tobacco or nicotine products to anyone under 18 during their delivery or collection. We believe that this is an important step in preventing underage people from accessing these products online, which is a growing market.
Llywydd, I mentioned previously that the aspects of the Bill on which we were unable to reach a consensus were the proposals to restrict the use of e-cigarettes in the same way as existing restrictions on smoking tobacco cigarettes. This was because the evidence we heard conveyed differing perspectives on the health implications of e-cigarette use. I’m sure some members of the committee will expand upon this in their own contributions this afternoon. Members did not agree about whether it would be appropriate to act now in order to mitigate any potential harms in the future or to await evidence of harm before legislating.
Some Members supported the Bill’s proposals on the basis that many uncertainties remain about the impact of long-term e-cigarette use. This support was largely based on those Members’ belief that a restriction was necessary in order to mitigate the possibility of the use of e-cigarettes in public places causing a renormalisation of smoking behaviour. Other Members opposed the proposal to restrict the use of e-cigarettes. They believe there was insufficient evidence to support the view that the use of e-cigarettes could renormalise smoking, and believe that e-cigarettes offer a safer alternative to smoking tobacco cigarettes and that a restriction on their use would convey the message that e-cigarettes were as harmful as tobacco.
An alternative approach, which has been mentioned by the Minister this afternoon, was agreed by some Members: to treat e-cigarettes and tobacco cigarettes differently by including a list of defined areas where the use of e-cigarettes would be restricted. I welcome the comments from the Minister this afternoon.
There was agreement among witnesses that e-cigarette use is still a relatively new trend. As such, the long-term effects of their use aren’t yet known. There was also a consensus that further research on the long-term impact of their use is needed.
The committee actively considered the Bill in the context of human rights. Of particular importance was the human rights implication that would arise under the Bill where a home was used as a workplace. In that setting, the Bill would restrict what a person could do in his or her home. The committee carefully balanced the weight of that interference with the reasons for that interference. As far as tobacco cigarettes were concerned, the committee was unanimous that the interference with the right to respect for the home was proportionate. However, in relation to e-cigarettes, the committee was once again split as to whether the interference with the right to respect for the home was proportionate. Further details of our considerations are set out in our report.
In my closing remarks, Llywydd, I would like to thank the members of the committee for their hard work and the commitment they’ve shown to this work. While we did not reach consensus on all aspects of the Bill, I believe that we have been thorough in our approach to considering its general principles. I’m grateful also to all who have given their time to contribute to our work, both in written evidence and in verbal evidence. I wish to conclude by expressing my thanks to the clerk and her team, who guided us through our inquiry and our deliberations. Their input, I believe, throughout the latter stages was vital. Diolch yn fawr.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I now call on Alun Ffred Jones to speak on behalf of the Finance Committee. Alun Ffred Jones.
Thank you very much. I’m pleased to contribute to this debate on behalf of the Chair of the Finance Committee, which is responsible for scrutinising the wider financial implications of the Bill. The committee took evidence from the Minister on 15 July 2015, and the session focused on the methodology used to calculate the costs and benefits in the regulatory impact assessment, and the accuracy of the costs presented.
In relation to costs that might fall to businesses and public sector organisations, we were pleased that the Minister has used mid-point values of a wide range of costs and benefits. We feel that this cautious approach will ensure that costs have not been overestimated and will allow sufficient flexibility. We were also pleased to hear from the Minister that money could be saved through collaboration between the people responsible for putting the Bill into practice on training, publicity and communication.
In terms of special procedures licences, section 61 of the Bill makes it a requirement for local authorities to maintain a register that contains the details of all valid licences for special procedures issued by the authority. During evidence, the Minister said that the costs in the explanatory memorandum assumed that local authorities would not be able to charge fees that would cover the cost of the enforcement of the licences. However, the Minister told us that a Supreme Court decision in relation to the enforcement of licences had found that local authorities could include in the registration fee an element to cover the cost of enforcing the register. As a result of this decision, the costs facing local authorities could be lower.
Despite this, the committee was, at the time, of the understanding that the Supreme Court case had not been fully resolved and we recommended that the Minister should clarify whether the judgment in the case would impact on other parts of the Bill where local authorities will be undertaking enforcement activities. The Minister has written to the committee about this case, stating that the Court of Justice of the European Union has not given its verdict on this issue yet. The Minister is considering whether we need an amendment to clarify this point further, and we hope that the issue will be resolved as soon as possible.
In relation to subordinate legislation cost, in terms of subordinate legislation the committee fully appreciates that legislation needs to be futureproofed and this is often provided for by the use of subordinate legislation. But, we firmly believe that all costs should be accounted for. We are disappointed that, for this Bill, there are no estimates for subordinate legislation provided, and we have previously commented on the need for RIAs to contain this information. We recommend that the Welsh Government should develop a more consistent approach to ensure that the cost of subordinate legislation is provided in explanatory memorandums, to enable better scrutiny of the expected costs to be undertaken.
Finally, I would like to move on to the way that the RIA presents the Bill’s financial information. The auditor general has previously said that displaying monetised costs and benefits alongside cash costs can be misleading. This is an issue that he has raised previously, and we strongly recommend that the Welsh Government should work with the auditor general to agree a way forward to better present this information in future Bills.
In conclusion, we believe that the overall costs are reasonable and we hope that the committee’s considerations will be helpful to the Assembly in its continuing scrutiny of this Bill.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I now call on the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, David Melding.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. We reported on this Bill on 30 November. We made nine recommendations suggesting amendments to the Bill, and I will look at a few of those. Before I do so, I would like to discuss the issue of legislative competence, because this was prominent in our consideration.
Presiding Officer, when you issued your statement on legislative competence, it indicated that, in your view, at the time of introduction, five provisions of the Bill were not within competence. This was because the relevant provisions require the consent of the Secretary of State to bring them within competence of the Assembly, and such consent had not been obtained at the time of introduction.
We noted the Minister’s comments regarding the differing interpretations over section 110(2) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, and that provision states
‘The person in charge of a Bill must, on or before the introduction of the Bill, state that, in that person’s view, its provisions would be within the Assembly’s…competence.’
The Secretary of State subsequently provided the consents referred to in the Presiding Officer’s statement of legislative competence towards the end of October, so I’m glad that it was resolved satisfactorily. But, we have some concerns about the interpretation that the Executive has of that particular provision. And we say that because it can have an effect on what we can scrutinise at that particular time, when a statement is made. We will, I think, be looking at this issue as a committee at some point, and particularly as it has assumed greater importance since the publication of the draft Wales Bill, and it’s one that we will also mention, I think, for our legacy work—the whole issue of consents.
Presiding Officer, you also drew our attention to the issues of human rights, noting that under section 108(6)(c) of the Government of Wales Act 2006, a provision of a Bill is outside the Assembly’s competence if it is incompatible with the European convention on human rights. We had a fruitful exchange on this with the Minister.
I now want to turn to the amendments and I wish to highlight a couple and then I will also make a more general point.
Section 6, subsection 1 states that premises in Wales are smoke-free if they are workplaces and section 6, subsection 2 defines a ‘workplace’.
Under section 6, subsection 4 of the Bill,
‘premises are smoke-free only in those areas that are enclosed or substantially enclosed.’
Section 6, subsection 7 allows the Welsh Ministers to specify by means of regulations
‘what “enclosed” and “substantially enclosed” mean.’
We recommend that the Minister should table an amendment to section 6 of the Bill placing the definitions of ‘enclosed’ and ‘substantially enclosed’ on the face of the Bill. We came to this view because we believe that the definitions of ‘enclosed’ and ‘substantially enclosed’ are central to the Bill. It would seem sensible, as a general rule, to us to define terms used the Bill on the face of the Bill and we see no reason why that should not be the case here. We do note that the Minister has indeed used definitions—or says that he would use definitions—that are already in regulations made in an earlier Order.
If the Minister is not persuaded by this approach, we believe that he should table an amendment to the Bill applying the affirmative procedure to the making of regulations under section 6, subsection 7.
Section 51, subsection 1 requires the Welsh Ministers to make regulations that set out the licensing criteria that must be met before a special procedure licence can be granted, and section 52, subsection 1 allows the Welsh Ministers to set out in regulations mandatory licensing conditions that apply to special procedure licences.
We recommend that there would be merit in including on the face of the Bill, in relation to section 51, some basic core licensing criteria, such as, for example, demonstrating specific knowledge in relation to infection control, and, in relation to section 52, some basic core conditions such as, for example, in relation to cleaning and hygiene.
We’ve noted the Minister’s objection in principle to having some criteria and conditions on the face of the Bill and some in regulations. I don’t want to anticipate, but I think he is giving careful consideration to the ability to have an approach that allows both use of the core in the Bill and also use of regulations. Indeed, he did use that dual approach in the Regulation and Inspection of Social Care (Wales) Bill.
And, if, with your permission, I could just finally make the point that we’ve also made recommendations suggesting a duty to consult on the face of the Bill in respect of certain provisions. This, in our view, represents good practice to ensure that future Ministers and administrations are obliged to consult on important matters. I don’t doubt the Minister’s good intentions in this respect but it is important, we believe, to hard-wire these duties to consult into the Bill. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
My Christmas spirit has just been used up, so can I just ask the rest of the speakers—I have a long list of speakers—please stick to your five minutes, otherwise we’re not going to get through everybody. Darren Millar.
Merry Christmas, Presiding Officer.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Yes, thank you.
I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. This has been quite a complicated piece of work for the Health and Social Care Committee. I know that many Members will share my view that, whilst there was lots of consensus on a significant proportion of the Bill, part of the Bill did polarise members of the committee, and, of course, I’ll touch on that part of the Bill in a few moments.
But, if I can just talk for a few seconds regarding the other aspects of the Bill on which there was a lot of consensus, I have to say that my party is very supportive of some of the actions that are being proposed by the Minister in respect of special procedures and their regulation. We heard lots of evidence about the harms that people have come to as a result of some of the special procedures on the list, although I have to say I wasn’t fully persuaded by some of the arguments to regulate acupuncture. I think that some of the voluntary codes that acupuncturists tend to adhere to certainly to me suggest that that is potentially one of those special procedures that ought not to be regulated in the future. The Minister, of course, has said that he does want to bring onto the face of the Bill tongue piercing as one of the activities that will be regulated and I have to say I'm very pleased to hear that, but, as the Chair of the committee alluded to, we did have a rather educational experience, I think, many members of the committee, as we discovered a whole range of procedures that were, frankly, quite frightening, given that they’re not currently regulated, including, I think, tongue splitting—which was a particular one mentioned on a number of occasions—and indeed tashing and subdermal implants. For those Members who are not familiar with those terms, just Google them and have a look at some of the images that come up. You will be amazed that they are not regulated procedures at the moment, and certainly I think that they ought to be.
One of the other things we discussed at length was the need, as the Chair has said, to ensure that there are bans on people receiving tattoos and piercings when they are intoxicated, and I think it is very important that an amendment is brought forward by the Minister to deal with that issue, should this Bill proceed to Stage 2. We’ve all met people who have tattoos that they regret as a result of a boozy night out, and I think that we need to put an end to that, if at all possible. Again, we welcome the provisions on intimate piercings, particularly for those who are under 16, and, indeed, some of the provisions around pharmaceutical services, although I do want to see some amendments, Minister. I would remind you of the committee’s recommendations in relation to the timescales for determining applications to relocate pharmacies and, indeed, to determine new pharmacy applications.
Again, on the provision of toilets, there are some welcome aspects to the Bill, but I do question whether they will deliver the sort of results that the Minister wants to achieve, given that there are no statutory duties for local authorities to actually implement any of their local toilets strategies. Of course, reference is made to some of the other aspects of the strategies that may not be covered by local authorities in terms of the need for provision at nationally important sites and along some of our trunk road network. I also think that there is a missing section from the Bill. The British Medical Association has called for health impact assessments to be incorporated onto the face of the Bill, and I do hope, Minister, that you’ll heed those calls.
But just turning for a few moments to the whole issue of e-cigarettes, it’s very clear from the weight of evidence we received as a committee that there is absolutely no evidence to support the approach that is being taken by the Minister, which he regards as being precautionary on the basis that there may be evidence of harm arising from the use of e-cigarettes in future. In fact, all of the evidence suggested that e-cigarettes were much, much safer for people to use than is the case for smoking tobacco. Public Health England’s piece of work, which collated evidence from a wide range of sources around the world, clearly demonstrated that. And, of course, the committee found that these were very much safer to use than tobacco smoking. The Minister contended that e-cigarettes were a gateway into smoking. All of the evidence suggests, actually, that they’re a gateway out of smoking for many people and certainly are leading to a reduction in the tobacco smoking that is going on in Wales among those who actually use e-cigarettes. That is why there were so many voices, a chorus of voices that we heard, that were against the Minister’s proposals—the Centre for Drug Misuse Research, the Royal College of Physicians, Action on Smoking and Health Cymru, Tenovus Cancer Care, the British Lung Foundation, Cancer Research UK and many others suggesting that it’s a draconian approach like this that actually sends the wrong message about e-cigarettes to those people who are contemplating making the switch in order to improve their health. So I would ask you, Minister, to listen carefully to that chorus of voices—listen to their advice. I acknowledge that you’ve tried to make some concessions this afternoon but, frankly, they don’t go far enough. They still give a message that e-cigarettes are harmful to people’s health. I don’t want to send that message. I believe that it could lead to more public harm than public good for the health of this nation if that way is pursued. So I do—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Time is really up.
[Continues.]—ask you, Minister, to make some further amendments to the Bill and take out any restrictions on the use of e-cigarettes.
You will be pleased to know that I will be brief. I’m grateful for the opportunity to speak today. I welcome many of the provisions in this Bill. In particular, I welcome the proposals to create a mandatory licensing scheme for practitioners and businesses carrying out special procedures in Wales, and I hope that the Minister will look carefully at the recommendations that the committee has made that seek to strengthen this part of the Bill. I also very much welcome the provisions on public toilets and pharmaceutical services and many of the general provisions to restrict the sale of tobacco, particularly to children.
I just wanted to place on record, really, my views on the issue of e-cigarettes. As the Chair of the committee has said, the committee wasn’t able to reach a consensus and we did spend a tremendous amount of time looking at these issues. As far as I am concerned, although we’ve taken a great deal of evidence, I don’t feel that I have heard compelling evidence that supports the case to treat e-cigarettes in the same way as tobacco cigarettes. We’ve heard very compelling evidence from organisations like Cancer Research UK, ASH, those representing the chest physicians—all of whom have told us that e-cigarettes are a really important public health tool that help people to quit cigarettes and are therefore something that will help—
Will you take an intervention?
Go on then.
Can you tell us, if you have those feelings, whether you’ll be voting against the Bill as it stands, therefore?
As I was going to go on to say, because the committee couldn’t reach a consensus, we came up with three options in our report, which are there for Members to read. But the option that I am most in support of is what we’ve discussed in the committee as being a middle road—one that doesn’t treat e-cigarettes in exactly the same way as cigarettes, but recognises that there may be a risk of normalising smoking-type behaviour, especially for young people. So, that is the option that I favour and I very much welcome what the Minister has said today in that he will be looking to bring forward amendments setting out the kinds of places where the use of e-cigarettes will be restricted. I will want to look carefully at those places and I think it’s very important that we get that list right and that we don’t push people using e-cigarettes to quit smoking into situations where they are with other smokers and therefore likely to start smoking again. I think it’s essential that we send a message that we view these products differently. So, that is the option that I am very keen to see progressed and I hope that the Minister will come back with some very well-thought-out proposals in this area. Thank you.
As others have already mentioned, the debate on this legislation in committee has been challenging and very interesting. Many of us have learned a great deal; some of us have learned that our fellow Members have a great deal of information on many aspects that were highlighted during the course of this legislation, and some of us felt very naive in the company of our fellow Members.
But there are some very important elements contained within this legislation. Setting an age limit of 16 on intimate piercing is a very important step and should be legislated on, as is a licensing system for special procedures. It is incredible, to an extent, that a licensing system hasn’t been in place before now.
The section on public toilets is very important too—the availability of public toilets is very important to the public in general and for people of a particular age or who have particular conditions. But meeting this need by just placing a statutory requirement on each local authority for a toilet provision strategy appears to me somewhat inadequate, particularly today, on a day when we are discussing the budget for public services. We all, if we are being honest with ourselves, know that the best and easiest way of providing public toilets is to fund local authorities adequately to deliver them.
But may I move, therefore, at the issue that has already been the most contentious in this debate, and was the most contentious during our committee deliberations, namely the ban on the use of e-cigarettes in public places? From here on in, I will be speaking as Elin Jones, rather than as the Plaid Cymru representative, as Plaid Cymru is to have a free vote this afternoon, and others will also contribute to the debate. I have no doubt that the use of e-cigarettes is a very important tool to reduce or eradicate the use of tobacco. They are increasingly used by people to that end. This is a very important contribution to improving public health and improving the health of individuals who are addicted to tobacco cigarettes. Nothing should therefore be done that would put at risk these important steps that are taken by individuals and society more widely. That’s why, in my view, this legislation shouldn’t be passed in its current form, and that is why tobacco cigarettes shouldn’t be treated in exactly the same way as e-cigarettes. The simplest, most practical way of progressing, therefore, is to withdraw the sections on the use of e-cigarettes from this Bill and for the Government to introduce a separate Bill on e-cigarettes, which would allow further, more detailed consideration of the use of e-cigarettes and would also avoid any risk of the whole Bill falling on the basis of one section which is cause for contention to date.
As the Minister is not willing for this legislation to be split—he has reconfirmed that position this afternoon—then this legislation does have to be fundamentally amended. We have heard from the Minister that he does have an intention to make significant changes to the legislation and to treat tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes very differently, through not introducing a general ban on the use of e-cigarettes in public places, but rather to ban them in defined areas—areas where the public congregate. The Minister has given us some examples of those areas this afternoon, and I’m sure that there will be further examples. Therefore, we could place on the face of the Bill those areas where a ban would be enforced in terms of the use of e-cigarettes.
As Lynne Neagle has said, that has been an issue that the committee has considered. Some of us as Members have been attracted to that compromise as a way of continuing the debate on the ban of e-cigarettes in public places, and to achieve two important things: first of all, to treat tobacco cigarettes and e-cigarettes in different ways, reflecting the different levels of damage to public health, and secondly, not to run the risk of renormalising the activity of smoking, be that tobacco or e-cigarettes, in those areas—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—where the public tend to congregate. I am therefore willing to await the details provided by the Minister as he brings them forward in Stage 2 so that we can discuss those details further as we legislate on this new and important area.
As the Minister opened the debate, I can agree with him when he stated that it is public health measures and public health campaigns that have been crucial in advancing the health and wellbeing of our population. From Chadwick’s ‘The Sanitary Condition of the Labouring Population’ to the first ever Public Health Act, enacted by the Liberal Government of 1848, it has often been measures regarding access to clean water, clean air, decent housing and improved working conditions that have added the most to the life expectancy of people in our countries.
I wouldn’t put this public health Bill up there with that of 1848, but there are important provisions within it and provisions that I support, around pharmacy and intimate piercing. I do support the regulation of special procedures, although I would say there is little rhyme or reason behind the procedures that are currently listed to be regulated. It is regulating tattooing and acupuncture, but not taking a decision to regulate tashing, branding, cupping, scarification, tongue splitting, let alone colonic irrigation or dermal fillers—there doesn’t seem to be, as I said, a very coherent and consistent approach.
The provision on public toilets is welcome, but I would argue we need to go further. It’s all very well asking a local authority to draw up a strategy to deal with the needs of the public in relation to public conveniences, but unless they’re statutorily compelled to enact that strategy, I don’t think we’ll have the effects that we would want to see.
I absolutely support the restriction of traditional tobacco products. That is most welcome. Anything that we can do to stop people from taking up the habit of smoking is to be applauded and supported. However, let’s face it, this Bill, at present, doesn’t have a great deal to say about some of the great public health challenges that we face as a Society—around obesity, our addiction to trans fats, our addiction to sugar and our inability, often, to create access to forms of exercise. Now, I appreciate that the Minister says that he is open to ideas, and one idea I hope he will be open to is that of the inclusion of health impact assessments by both central government and local government.
Can I therefore turn to the issue of e-cigarettes and vaping? The Minister began by defending his stance by invoking the precautionary principle. We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the precautionary principle, but to be precautionary it is necessary to take all effects into account; the effects of over-regulating as well as under-regulating. It is my belief that, before legislating, we need to take the precaution not to lose the undoubted benefits of moving people off traditional tobacco and onto vaping devices. As we heard from Cancer Research UK and eminent chest physicians, we could prevent literally tens of thousands of premature deaths if we could persuade those who are addicted to traditional tobacco products to move on to e-cigarettes. As the British Heart Foundation told the committee,
‘Cigarettes kill one in two of their long-term users. A smoker switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes is moving from a more to a less risky behaviour and it is wrong to seek to discourage this…we believe that these proposals will not improve public health in Wales and may, in fact, have the potential to damage it.’
That was a view that was shared by Tenovus Cancer Care, and only last night the British Lung Foundation e-mailed all Assembly Members to ask them to vote against the provisions of this Bill. None of those organisations could be accused of being apologists for the tobacco industry. They deal day in, day out with the consequences of the tobacco industry, and they see value in keeping a very clear distinction between traditional tobacco and vaping.
Let’s talk about the gateway effects. ASH Cymru’s survey showed that regular use of e-cigarettes by never-smokers was absolutely negligible at 0.16 per cent. There is no evidence—none at all—that these products act as a gateway to traditional tobacco products. They are used practically exclusively to enable those smokers to cut down on their tobacco usage or to quit altogether. I am very fearful—very fearful—that if we treat these products in the same way, the research that has been carried out by other people, that demonstrates that people take the decision not to switch because they equate the two products as being equal, equally dangerous to their health, and therefore there is no value in switching, will be detrimental. A Stage 1 debate, Presiding Officer, has asked us to make a judgment on the principles behind the legislation. This Bill seeks to enhance and promote public health in Wales. As it is currently drafted, the inclusion of the e-cigarettes measure does not do that, and therefore we cannot support it.
It is very good to see the Welsh Government and the Assembly taking forward legislation on public health; and, as other Members have mentioned, I hope very much that we see further legislation improving public health in Wales as we go forward into the next Assembly. It is a major challenge to improve public health in Wales, Llywydd, and a very necessary challenge to grasp, given the huge challenges that the health service faces around an ageing society, complex health conditions and the need to have people taking more responsibility for their own health. Public health measures, I believe, can play a significant part in addressing that very important agenda.
With regard to this particular legislation, I’m very pleased that we will now have a compulsory special procedures licensing system, for example with regard to tattooing and body piercing, particularly because of the fairly recent examples in Newport, where an establishment offering those services resulted in, I think, over 500 people being offered precautionary blood tests as a result of infections arising from the services that were provided. So, there is obviously a need, with that example in mind, to offer greater protection for the public in terms of individuals needing licences, and indeed the premises involved being approved. So, I very much welcome the provisions in that regard.
As others have mentioned as well, Llywydd, I do believe that toilets are a very important public health facility and provision. Obviously, it’s particularly important to the elderly, to families with young children, and to people with particular health conditions. So, placing a duty on local authorities to have a local toilet strategy I think will be a significant step forward. I heard what some Members have said about some of the shortcomings as they see them, but I do believe it will be an important step forward, and there are ways around some of the funding issues. In the past, this Assembly has discussed a way of involving local businesses, for example, and the wider public sector in terms of provision, with advantages for those operations as well as the advantage of providing greater toilet provision. I hope very much that local authorities will find effective ways forward once they have to meet this duty.
As far as smoking in public places is concerned, Llywydd, I would like to see us looking at further restrictions. We’ve seen ideas coming forward around restrictions on outdoor areas of cafes and restaurants, busy tourist beaches during peak season, and there are ideas of extending measures to city and town centres. I do believe that we should be adding to the restrictions to show the social unacceptability of smoking and the effects of passive smoking on other people’s health.
E-cigarettes obviously are very controversial, Llywydd. My own view is that we do need restrictions, and one reason for that is not to undermine that social unacceptability I just mentioned. We’ve made major progress in reducing smoking, partly because of that perception of social unacceptability, and I do believe that we risk renormalising smoking to the detriment of that progress if we do not impose restrictions on the vaping of e-cigarettes in Wales. So, it is a debate that we need to have, we are having, and I’m sure will continue as this legislation proceeds. But I wouldn’t want us to put in jeopardy that hard-won and extremely important progress in reducing smoking in Wales, which has been one of the big public health gains of recent years.
Finally, Llywydd, health impact assessments: as others have mentioned, I do believe that we need to give very careful consideration to including those health impact assessments, and I’m sure the Minister will look at this and whether we could introduce a system through this legislation that would add meaningfully to other measures in place, including those under the Well-being of Future Generations Act.
The key health targets for Wales: alcohol-related illnesses, tobacco cigarette smoking, obesity, children living in poverty, the need to increase immunisation levels, and tackling substance misuse. Add mental illness to this list and you would have the most vital public health issues on which the Welsh Government needs to take action. And what are we talking about? Vaping. I mean, no-one is going to argue against the suggestion that matters covered in this Bill don’t deserve some attention, but please, let’s get our priorities right. Please look more closely at the evidence for and against the banning of the use of e-cigarettes as and when more and better evidence becomes available. Do not jump to hasty conclusions. I believe strongly that the Government’s targeting of e-cigarettes, trying to put them in the same box as tobacco, is ill informed and misunderstands the point of them. I believe it dangerously misunderstands the potential value in helping people to quit tobacco.
I’d like to focus on a number of areas, particularly from the committee stage, which underscores the wrong direction of this Bill when it comes to vaping. In paragraph 110 of the committee report, the work of Public Health England and ASH is noted, which showed a study in which 20 per cent of those questioned now believe that vaping is as bad or worse than tobacco. This is a mistaken view. It’s a view that has taken hold in part because of actions like those the Government want to take. If the position of authorities becomes one where, for all intents and purposes, vaping is treated the same way as tobacco, then it should surprise no-one when people continue to smoke tobacco. This is what I believe will happen. Treating these products with pariah status will lead to many people who want to quit but needed the help of e-cigarrettes being put off their use. How many lives could potentially be lost in this way?
The issue of shared shelters we spoke about. It’s an important point. I believe this will normalise vapers with smokers, and I believe an error has been made by the Minister when he said, and I quote directly:
‘People are making choices here, and nobody is forced to use an e-cigarette or a conventional cigarette or to stand next to anybody else who is using either.’
Now, this view, with the greatest of respect, Minister, because I have respect for you, demonstrates a lack of understanding and, maybe, a lack of empathy on the nature of addiction. Of course, in theory, everybody could stop smoking tomorrow; we could all stop drinking or those people could stop using drugs or even cheese—I wish I’d never said that. [Laughter.] But, the point of addiction is that it’s a habit that becomes a requirement for some people, and simply dismissing the legitimate concerns of those who have fought and battled—battled—to stop using tobacco on their worries of having to be exposed to tobacco smoke when they’re vaping or trying to quit is almost offensive now.
So, look, I’m concluding—I’m good on time—by asking: when did ‘the evidence is not conducive’—another quote—become a rallying call to ban something or regulate something? What there is clear evidence of is that e-cigarettes have helped millions of people to stop smoking tobacco or seriously reduce their intake. People have quit smoking after decades of smoking. They’ve become resigned to a fate of never being able to quit, and now they can. E-cigarettes have brought hope and better health to countless numbers of people. There are people in this very room who have stopped smoking, even, by using these devices. The worst decision we could make now would be to start treating these products the same as tobacco by being overzealous. We cannot allow our anti-smoking prejudice, and the distaste with the behaviour of smoking, to overcome our goals for sound evidence-based public health decisions.
I would like the Government to withdraw the vaping measures from this Bill. Keep the options open to revisit the issue in future, but these measures are the wrong decisions at the wrong time. For that reason, I will be voting against the general principles today, and I urge other Members to do exactly the same and join with me, the Royal College of Physicians, the British Lung Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Action on Smoking and Health, Drug Misuse Research, the Royal College of Midwives, Lloyds Pharmacy, Tenovus, the British Heart Foundation and Public Health England—the list goes on. I rest my case. Thank you.
I think I ought to start by declaring an interest in this debate because I vape myself. I have, in fact, given up smoking several times using various methods, but have recently settled on a vaping device to help me to continue not to smoke tobacco. I want to ensure that the perspective of someone who actually uses a vaping device is heard in this debate today. The Government, I think, has displayed a startling lack of understanding of the behaviour and the motivation of those who smoke and those who have chosen to move towards vaping devices to help them stop or reduce their smoking.
I understand it can seem baffling that smokers repeatedly choose to do something they know is seriously damaging their health, and there is very little rationality to addiction. However, unless we can imagine ourselves in the shoes of the smoker or the vaper and understand their perspective, any policy designed to influence their behaviour will fail.
We must remember that cigarettes are an incredibly reliable delivery device for nicotine to smokers, and any nicotine substitute has to compete with that. Vaping devices are a lifeline for an increasing number of people who smoke, whether using a device to cut down or to give up altogether.
The health benefits of reducing the number of cigarettes smoked is clear. Putting this in the same bracket as tobacco cannot be the right thing to do. The Welsh Government, I think, is in danger of stigmatising a tool that has helped many people reduce the amount they smoke. Making vaping less visible and more difficult to get hold of will not promote public health, and forcing vapers to stand outside with smokers will make it more difficult to give up. Far from the Government’s concerns that vaping devices normalise smoking, from my experience, seeing people vaping normalises the use of an effective tool that has helped many people to give up.
I admit that vaping is new and little is known about it. The long-term impact is not known to us, and I think it’s important to remain sceptical about claims that you can put a numerical value on how much better your health is than if you were smoking. We don’t know yet, and taking chemicals into your lungs must have implications; it must have. But, Minister, there are other things—sugar, perhaps, alcohol, car emissions—that are doing considerable provable public harm right now, but do not face the same attention from you. So, the Minister’s precautionary principle rings rather hollow with me, as it did with Kirsty Williams.
We can safely discount any suggestion at all that vaping serves as some sort of gateway to smoking. The Government is yet to provide any credible evidence of this happening at all, despite, I would imagine, searching very, very, very hard for it. Common sense alone will tell you that the image of vaping is far, far removed from the glamour that once surrounded smoking. However attractive vaping devices appear, vapers look incredibly unglamorous and people will not be attracted to it by how it looks. I would not vape in front of any of you, so there.
There are some very good things in this Bill that I would very much like to support, because the Minister might not know that I also have a keen interest in tattooing and body piercing. [Laughter.] But we’ll come to that, no doubt, at another time and I might have to declare more interests, Presiding Officer. [Laughter.] But I want to respect the experiences of the many people who have turned to vaping to help them stop smoking, and by persisting with introducing a ban on vaping, the Minister is demonstrating a disregard of the evidence, a lack of understanding of people’s lived experiences and, I think, is sending the message that something that might help overcome tobacco addiction is disapproved of by this Government, and I think the Minister is making a huge error and I can’t support him. And I would certainly need to see the detail of his amendments before he could even win my abstention. I will be very much against this Bill.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I now call on the Minister to speak on behalf of the Government—Mark Drakeford.
Diolch yn fawr, Lywydd. Let me begin by just replying to Chairs of committees.
Thank you very much to Alun Ffred Jones for his comments. Just to say—
it’s the Government’s intention, whenever subordinate legislation is brought forward under this Bill, to publish a regulatory impact assessment alongside it. I know that doesn’t answer the question exactly the way he raised it, but I think it comes to the same point in making sure that before subordinate legislation is put in front of the Assembly, then its impact would have been properly assessed.
As far as David Melding’s comments are concerned, on the issue of competence and the difference between the executive and the legislature here, it turns on almost a single word—whether ‘would’ is a conditional that refers to the end of a Bill’s passage through the Assembly, or has to be satisfied at the start. Luckily enough, in this Bill the consent of the Secretary of State had been forthcoming before the end of Stage 1.
In relation to the specific recommendations he mentioned, I certainly am persuaded that I should table an amendment to apply the affirmative procedure to regulation-making powers under section 6(7) of the Bill. And in the meantime, we will think carefully about whether the existing definitions in the Smoke-free Premises etc. (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2015 are adequate to today’s needs. So, there may be some further things we can do there.
Recommendation 5 of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee was also amendment 5 of the health committee, asking that some core subjects be placed on the face of the Bill in relation to the licensing conditions and criteria which will be used under sections 51 and 52 of the Bill. And I’m happy to say this afternoon that I do intend to bring forward such an amendment at Stage 2.
Let me follow David Rees’s example in going through the different aspects of the Bill. The negative impact on people’s lives of the absence of toilets for use by the public was highlighted in one of the very first one-day inquiries that the health committee held when I was still Chair of it. And I’m very glad that this Bill is able to respond to some of those concerns. I understand the points that Members make about wanting to go further and compel local authorities to implement these strategies that they will have to draw up, but we’re not in an era where the Welsh Government can readily provide resource to local authorities to undertake new duties. And in the absence of resource, I am reluctant to do that. I believe that much of the information contained in the committee’s own report shows how creative and imaginative solutions will be created as a result of this Bill, and I’m happy again, Llywydd, to say this afternoon that I intend to accept the committee’s proposal that an amendment be brought forward to require local authorities to publish progress reports on the way that they will discharge their new duty.
As far as pharmaceutical needs assessments are concerned, I’m glad to hear the support around the Chamber for what that will do to improve services in communities. Again, I’m happy to say that I will act on the health committee’s recommendation to issue a template to ensure that there is national consistency in the way that those pharmaceutical needs assessments are carried out.
In relation to intimate cosmetic piercing, as I think Darren Millar said, there’s been overwhelming support for that during the Stage 1 discussion. And I’m happy to bring forward an amendment at Stage 2 to strengthen the proof-of-age requirements, again in line with the committee’s recommendation.
In relation to licensing schemes, we will have further discussions, I am certain, as the Bill proceeds, should it do so. I will think of amendments in relation to intoxication. I’m willing to think about other ways in which we can limit potential harm. There are some tricky legal issues here as to whether or not, in the law, we might legitimise activity that in other places could be the subject of a criminal prosecution for actual bodily harm, and I think that’s something that we would not want to do in relation to some of the activities that Members have mentioned.
As far as tobacco retailers are concerned, I’m grateful for the support that we’ve heard this afternoon and I want positively to answer John Griffiths’s call for a further extension of the places where the prohibition of smoking can be enforced, for example, in hospital grounds and in children’s play areas. A number of Members have mentioned health impact assessments, and I intend to give very careful consideration to what the committee has said in that area as the Bill, should it do so, proceeds.
As far as e-cigarettes are concerned, Llywydd, I don’t intend to repeat the debate we’ve heard this afternoon. The one thing that I do very much disagree with Members who take a different view is—not because they take a different view, because it’s perfectly possible to come to a different view on this matter. I do absolutely think that Members who have said here this afternoon that there is absolutely no evidence to quote, that all the evidence, that there is no evidence at all on the side of the argument that the Government has brought forward—I think they are simply misunderstanding the position. There is ample evidence—you may not agree with it. Of course you may not agree with it, but to say that there is no evidence at all when this is evidence in the top peer review journals that you will see: evidence of a gateway effect published only last week as a result of Scottish research; evidence of the normalisation reported in a random control trial in the leading American journal in this field. I’m not asking you to agree with the evidence; I do think you need to have a greater sense of the fact the evidence is closely balanced here and it is possible to come to different conclusions on it. Nothing that the Government proposes will stop e-cigarettes from being used where they are an important public health tool. It is right, I believe, to act in a precautionary way where the risk is real. I could have spent all my time, as some other Members have done, listing the list of people who agree with the position that I’ve outlined, from the World Health Organisation onwards. And on their evidence, I believe that the precautionary principle should prevail.
I look forward to further debate as we move to Stage 2. I will lay amendments in the way that I have explained earlier this afternoon, and I look forward to working constructively with Members who want to ensure that the many benefits that this Bill provides for the people of Wales can be realised.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] Objection. Therefore, I will defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We’ll discuss the next item, which is the financial resolution of the Public Health (Wales) Bill, but, as the vote on the Bill is being deferred until voting time, I will defer the vote on the financial resolution until voting time as well. Minister. No? Will you move? Minister?
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, for the purposes of any provisions resulting from the Public Health (Wales) Bill, agrees to any increase in expenditure of a kind referred to in Standing Order 26.69, arising in consequence of the Bill.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you. You’ve got to keep up, Minister. You’ve got to keep up, you know.
Sorry, sorry. [Laughter.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I don’t have any speakers on this. I have said we will defer all voting on this until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to item 8, which is the debate on the general principles of the Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Bill. I call on the Minister for Finance and Government Business to move the motion—Jane Hutt.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales in accordance with Standing Order 26.11:
Agrees to the general principles of the Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Bill.
Diolch, Lywydd. I am pleased to open this debate on the general principles of the Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Bill. I’m grateful to the Chair and the members of the Finance Committee and the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee for their thorough scrutiny of the Bill. I’m pleased that the Finance Committee has recommended that the National Assembly agrees the general principles of the Bill. I’d also like to pay tribute to those who have engaged with us and contributed to our thinking as we’ve developed our policy on Welsh taxes. They’ve done so much to bring us to this point. My tax advisory group, the tax forum and the various technical groups collectively involved some 200 individuals who, in turn, represent over 140 organisations and bodies. This engagement has helped us to explain and discuss our thinking on tax policy, which has in turn resulted in some 360 responses being received and positive support for our proposals.
It’s also encouraging that the evidence given to the Finance Committee during scrutiny has shown that stakeholders agree with the principle of this Bill. This is a solid foundation for any legislation. I’m considering the committee’s recommendations very carefully and will look to address those that relate to changes to the Bill through the next stage of the legislative process. I welcome the recommendations that have been made and anticipate accepting the majority of them. I intend writing to the committees following this debate to respond to each of the recommendations, but, before that, I would like to comment on some of the key themes that have been raised.
I wholeheartedly agree with the committee’s view that it is absolutely critical to ensure that taxpayers, the wider public and key professional stakeholders are aware of the new Welsh revenue authority and the collection arrangements for land transaction tax and landfill disposals tax. I’m committed to continued engagement and will publish a treasury paper on Welsh taxes early in the new year. This will help us to further engage on tax devolution, establish a taxpayer culture, and assist in the consideration of a constructive relationship between the new Welsh revenue authority and devolved taxpayers. I intend also to initiate a survey of the current level of awareness of devolved tax and to revisit this over time.
The Bill provides for a charter of standards and values—a taxpayers’ charter. The engagement I propose will consider such a charter and how it can help in the establishment of the relationship between the taxpayer and the WRA and anyone undertaking functions on its behalf. In the light of the Finance Committee’s comments, I’ve considered the wording of the provision for a charter further and will bring forward an amendment at Stage 2. Furthermore, I want to put on record that I expect the WRA to have its charter in place by the time that tax collection gets under way in April 2018.
I’ve just published Welsh Government’s first annual report on the implementation and operation of Part 2, Finance, of the Wales Act 2014, which includes an update on WRA implementation. Future progress towards establishing the WRA will be reported every six months, with the next report being before the summer recess. Reports will include progress towards the committee’s recommendations that I accept. The Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Bill is the essential first step in legislating for our future Welsh taxes and, if passed, will help change the financial face of Wales. Without this Bill, we will not be able to collect any further devolved taxes, the proposed landfill disposals tax, the land transaction tax or any other taxes that might be proposed in the future. Successful passage of the Bill will be a significant milestone for Wales, and it will send a message that Wales remains ambitious and confident to take this next key step in the devolution of taxes.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee, Jocelyn Davies.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I’m pleased to contribute to this debate as Chair of the Finance Committee. The committee welcomes the introduction of the Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Bill. This Bill represents the next step in our fiscal devolution, and we believe it will be vital to ensuring that Wales develops and futureproofs an effective tax regime.
The committee met to consider the Bill over the autumn term and I’d like to thank all those who gave evidence and assisted us in the scrutiny process. We concluded that the Bill is essential to ensure that the legal framework is in place for the future collection and management of devolved taxes. The establishment of the Welsh revenue authority will provide an efficient regime for this. Therefore, the committee recommends that the Assembly supports the general principles of the Bill today.
Part 2 of the Bill establishes the Welsh revenue authority, which will be a corporate body with the status of a non-ministerial department. We recognise that this reflects international best practice. However, we strongly believe that although tax policy is a matter for the Welsh Government, the tax body that undertakes the collection and management should be operationally separate from the Welsh Government. The committee therefore recommends that the Bill should be strengthened to ensure the revenue authority’s independence.
The committee is content with the proposed composition of the Welsh revenue authority’s board. This combined model of executive and non-executive members has been implemented for other bodies in Wales and we recognise the success. However, we do feel that there are sections of the Bill relating to the constitution and status of the revenue authority that need strengthening. We’ve made a number of recommendations to improve the governance arrangements to ensure they are robust and fit for purpose.
The Welsh revenue authority will be responsible for promoting a culture of compliance and we believe that tax avoidance and evasion should be one of its key priorities. The committee took evidence on the general anti-abuse rule, which is part of the UK Government’s approach to managing the risk of tax avoidance. We agreed with the Minister and respondents that the general anti-abuse rule should be included in the specific tax legislation rather than in this initial general Bill, and we urge the Welsh Government to ensure that it is included in future tax Bills.
We also heard that HMRC publishes tax information and impact notes for tax changes as a policy is finalised. The committee recommends that the Welsh revenue authority introduce its own version of these information and impact notes for all significant variations in the devolved taxes.
The Welsh revenue authority may delegate any of its functions to other organisations. In a statement earlier this year, the Minister announced that her preferred partners were HMRC to collect and manage land transaction tax, and Natural Resources Wales to support compliance and enforcement of landfill disposals tax with the revenue authority undertaking most of the collection and management. Some respondents felt such arrangements could well be beneficial in maximising the tax revenue and minimising the cost of collection, as the delegated organisation may already be set up to deal with tax collection, as would be the case if HMRC were to collect land transaction tax. However, as a committee, we firmly believe that tax collection must be a tailored service that responds to Wales’s specific needs, and there is a risk that delegated bodies may not provide this level of service. As such, we recommend that clear lines of accountability are provided, through a publicly available memorandum of understanding or service level agreement between the Welsh revenue authority and their delegated bodies.
The Welsh Ministers may give directions to the revenue authority of a general nature. We heard from the Minister that she will bring forward an amendment at Stage 2 to remove the caveat that Ministers are not required to publish a direction if they consider publication would prejudice the effective exercise of the revenue authority’s functions. We welcome this commitment. However, as I’ve already said, the committee believe that the Bill should go further by preventing the Welsh Government from intervening in the exercise of the revenue authority’s operational functions.
The committee is pleased to see a statutory requirement on the Welsh revenue authority to produce a charter that will set out the rights and responsibilities of both taxpayers and the revenue authority. We believe that the charter should be principle based and should ensure a quality service to the taxpayer, and we’ve made a number of recommendations that we feel will strengthen the charter and ensure its effectiveness by making taxpayers aware of it.
It is important that the Welsh revenue authority should be fully accountable to the Assembly for its performance. Whilst there is a requirement to lay its annual report, annual accounts, corporate plan and tax statements before the Assembly, the committee recommends that there should be a specific requirement to ensure an Assembly committee has been allocated the role of formally scrutinising the revenue authority.
Finally, I’d like to move on to the financial implications of the Bill. Unfortunately, our financial scrutiny role was made difficult due to the lack of financial information available when the Bill was first introduced. However, the Minister has now provided information on the set-up and operational costs of the revenue authority and we urge the Minister to keep the Assembly informed as discussions with her preferred partners continue.
The Bill allows for the Welsh Ministers to fund the operational costs of the Welsh revenue authority. As the revenue authority will be a non-ministerial department, we believe it would be more appropriate for the revenue authority to be an additional ‘relevant person’ in section 124 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. However, we understand that making this change would require the consent of the Secretary of State. If this consent is not obtained, we would recommend that the Welsh revenue authority’s budget is identified separately in the Welsh Government’s annual budget motion. Adding this level of independence to the revenue authority would ensure that it is funded in a similar manner to HMRC.
In conclusion, I would like to thank again all those who have contributed to our inquiry and helped us in our scrutiny work. I would particularly like to thank our expert adviser, Lakshmi Narain, for his advice, guidance and patience throughout the process. The Finance Committee recommends that the Assembly supports the general principles of the Bill today. I hope the Minister will accept the conclusions and recommendations in our report and will consider bringing forward appropriate amendments at Stage 2. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, David Melding.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. We reported on this Bill on 24 November and we are broadly satisfied that the right balance has been struck between primary and secondary legislation. We discussed with the Minister how she had considered the human rights impacts of sections 17, permitted disclosures; 170, appealable decisions; and Part 9, Investigation of Criminal Offences. We are content that the Welsh Government has sought to ensure compliance with the European convention on human rights.
All four of our recommendations relate to the decision of the Welsh Government to use the negative procedure to amend primary legislation. We believe that any changes to primary legislation should be made via the affirmative procedure, even in those cases that the Welsh Government believe are technical or administrative. We believe that this is a subjective decision and that the Welsh Government should accept our clearer principle. This is an important matter for the committee, and we have, therefore, written to the First Minister about it.
In relation to this Bill, we recommend that the Minister table amendments to the Bill to apply the affirmative procedure to the following sections: section 3, membership of the Welsh revenue authority; section 4, disqualification for appointment as non-executive member; section 26, corporate plan; and section 186, power to make consequential provisions. Otherwise, as I said, we are broadly supportive of the Bill as it has been drafted.
I’m pleased to contribute to this important debate today. This is, in many ways, uncharted territory for this Assembly: the devolution of a number of taxes in just a couple of years’ time. It’s clearly vital that we have a robust tax collection regime in place to deal with the new responsibility, and the Welsh revenue authority, along with the new Welsh treasury, is key to that.
Recommendation 2 of the Finance Committee’s report calls for an enhanced awareness-raising campaign. From our stakeholder events, it was clear to us on the committee that many people are still unaware that these changes are happening. Perhaps that’s understandable, and perhaps a number of people don’t really want to be aware of these changes happening, but one thing is clear, that these changes are happening and, within a short space of time, we are going to see a number of key taxes devolved to this Assembly and to the Welsh Government.
The Welsh Conservatives support the establishment of the Welsh revenue authority as a non-ministerial department. The finance Minister has got enough on her plate without having to go through everyone’s tax returns each year, as well.
The Bill needs to fully protect the confidentiality of taxpayer information— that’s clear—and that needs to be done from the outset. We welcome the inclusion of sections 16 and 19 in the Bill, which make it a criminal offence for any WRA employee or member to disclose protected information. That’s clearly what’s happening at the moment at UK level, and that needs to happen here too.
We welcome the proposals to formulate the Welsh revenue authority board with a mixture of executive and non-executive members. This is an effective model in the private sector, and it should operate here as well. However, I am concerned, Minister, by the lack of detail surrounding the mechanism for nominating staff members to the WRA board. This board will shoulder a huge responsibility. We need absolute clarity on the appointment process from the start, and the Bill needs to strengthen the independence of the Welsh revenue authority from the Welsh Government.
The Finance Committee has spent a considerable amount of time looking at issues of tax evasion and tax avoidance. It is clearly of paramount importance that the Welsh revenue authority is able to deal effectively with evasion, and that Wales does not come to be seen as a soft touch in this area. We need as robust a system as we possibly can have here when it comes to dealing with problems of evasion and avoidance.
The general anti-abuse rule, which was mentioned by the Chair of the Finance Committee, is certainly a good place to start. I know that there’s been some discussion and concerns about the appropriateness of the anti-abuse rule to the Welsh situation. Well, if we are not going to use that rule, then we need to have something that is as equally robust.
The Minister was quite right to point out in committee that the impact of tax policy must be carefully assessed. The Assembly has never done this before. Tax impact and information notes should be introduced as standard for all significant variations in the devolved taxes.
Now, the Chair of the Finance Committee has mentioned the proposed charter—a favourite issue of mine during the evidence-gathering by the committee. A charter of standards and values is a good idea as a means of setting out the standard of behaviour and values that the WRA’s members will adhere to. There was a whole discussion during the committee about the difference between ‘adhering to’ and ‘aspiring to’, and exactly what language should go into the Bill. What is clear is that the charter needs to have teeth. There are concerns about the effectiveness of HM Revenue and Customs’ charter. If we get this right, there is a real opportunity to have something not just as good as across the border, but even better. Wouldn’t a groundbreaking charter be an achievement—something that could be held up as a beacon of good practice?
It is clearly necessary, this Bill, Minister. We welcome it; we want to see a seamless transition to the new devolved tax regime. This can, of course, work in one of two ways from this point on. There could be major pitfalls ahead, which will end up causing us to have severe headaches on this side of the border, but, at the same time, there is an opportunity to get it right. I look forward to the next phase of this Bill’s progress where we can hone it and make sure that it is appropriate for the needs of Welsh taxpayers.
Can I say, in closing, that I agree with the Chair of the Finance Committee? I believe it’s vital that the Assembly, as a whole, has a role in scrutinising the new body. It’s not enough simply for the Welsh Government to be looking at it. We need the whole Assembly to look at it, possibly through a committee. I’m not sure what the exact form would take, but that is absolutely essential.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Firstly, I’d like to thank Jocelyn Davies, the Chair of the committee, on the way that the investigation was conducted, and Jane Hutt, the Minister, for her willingness to engage with the committee.
The committee unanimously agreed to recommend that the Assembly agree the general principles of the Bill. What I found most pleasing was the unanimous support for the Bill from the people and organisations that gave their views to the Finance Committee. Many of them discussed how the Minister had consulted them prior to the publication of the Bill. Can I commend this practice? We all want to make good laws, and I believe that the more people who are knowledgeable about the subject that are consulted and talked to early, the better the final legislation.
Despite the general agreement on the Bill, we managed to find 29 recommendations. I want to highlight three areas: independence of the Welsh revenue authority, the role of non-executive members, and accountability. First, the recommendation that the Bill is strengthened to ensure the independence of the Welsh revenue authority from the Welsh Government should be expressly provided for on the face of the Bill: while I have no doubt that the current Minister would not interfere in the running of the Welsh revenue authority, all legislation needs to be futureproofed and be applicable to all future Welsh Government finance Ministers. They may not all be as the current one, and some of them may have a tendency to or wish to interfere from time to time. So, I think that it really is important to futureproof for any Minister at any time.
The recommendations on the election of the non-executive members follow the procedure agreed for the auditor general. I would like to see Government consistency on the election of staff members to the board. I do not believe it makes for good government for different rules to apply to different sets of appointments. Also, that the appointment of non-executive members are for no more than four years, and a person may not be appointed more than twice: I think the danger of people going native and becoming part of the organisation, and losing the difference between executive and non-executive members, really is important. So, we don’t want people there too long. Continuity is nice, but, when it becomes cosy, it perhaps is not of benefit to anybody.
Finally, for the board to be quorate, there should be a majority of non-executive members, and there should be a non-executive member on each committee or sub-committee. What we don’t want to see happening—I’m sure the Minister doesn’t—is little groups of the staff getting together and providing fait accompli to the board, which they then have to nod through.
There is a need for clarity in the Bill to ensure that certain important functions, such as the approval of annual accounts, annual reports, and the corporate plan, are reserved as the responsibility of the Welsh revenue authority and must not be delegated to employees. What it really comes down to is that, once people are appointed to the revenue authority, the non-executive directors have to be in control. What we don’t want is to see them fulfilling the role that, unfortunately, non-executive directors have in some public companies, where they go along, sign in, nod things through, and then, when everything goes wrong, they say, ‘I didn’t know’. If anything goes wrong, I expect the non-executive members to know and to be fully responsible for anything that goes wrong. Also, there’s a need for clear lines of accountability through a publicly available memorandum of understanding or service-level agreement between the Welsh revenue authority and delegated bodies with responsibility for tax collection and management.
Can I just say that this would have been a lot longer if Jocelyn Davies and Nick Ramsay hadn’t spoken before me? But I tend to agree with almost everything they both said. Can I just finish off by saying this Bill is important? It is the first Welsh tax Bill. And more important than that—. And most important it is that we get it right.
I’ll be brief. Plaid Cymru welcomes the establishment of the WRA to organise the collection of devolved taxes. Plaid Cymru also agrees with the findings of the Finance Committee. This is a historic development; it’s a small step, but a significant one on the journey for Wales to take more responsibility for its activities and its governance. We agree with the general principles of the Bill.
Plaid Cymru endorses the Finance Committee’s view that the WRA needs to be independent in its day-to-day activities. We understand that the Government will set the tax rates and tax policy, but the authority will implement that. I hope that the Minister will make a statement that the independence of the authority will be defined on the face of the Bill. We also believe that the WRA should be accountable to being scrutinised by an Assembly committee.
Given that I agree with everything that’s been said previously, the one other element that I would draw attention to, which needs attention, are Welsh language services. We have to ensure that, whoever collects the taxes—and this is as well as the authority itself—the service is available bilingually, and is available bilingually without any problems. The reason I say that is that, for years, many of us who dealt with HMRC through the medium of Welsh have been at a disadvantage. The provision to present your accounts online wasn’t available in Welsh, for example. It was only this September, after years of campaigning, that we got that provision at last. So, I’m not sure whether that needs to be defined in the Bill, but, certainly, we have to ensure full provision bilingually, so that this authority is established on fundamental robust principles at the outset. Thank you.
This is a very important Bill, and it marks an important step forward in devolution and in terms of the extra powers that we, as an Assembly, will hopefully be taking up, particularly in terms of taxation. So, I think it’s absolutely important and crucial that we get it right. As Mike Hedges already referred to, the 29 recommendations in here are not an indication that we have any problems with the Bill, just that the Finance Committee, hopefully, was very, very thorough, and decided that those recommendations are essential to ensure that, when this new body, this Welsh revenue authority, is set up, not only is it transparent, but it also is accountable and also is independent of Welsh Government. That’s one of the reasons why, for example, the issue about non-executives featured a number of times in the recommendations, both in terms of appointing staff and also in terms of the other issues that they have responsibility for in terms of sub-committees. We think it’s absolutely important—crucial—that those non-executive members, for example, make the final appointment decision in terms of the chief executive, but also are involved in all the sub-committees, and I think that is a model that is replicated elsewhere in this sector and also in examples such as Finance Wales and elsewhere. I also think it’s important that this body is also accountable to a Welsh Assembly committee in the same way as other bodies similar to it are as well, and I think that’s something that will need to be discussed further.
I think also the other important aspect of this, in my concern, is that this body has to be fit for purpose, and that means that it has to take account of the circumstances that we have in Wales. It has to, obviously, take account of the Welsh language, and there were concerns raised in evidence about HM Revenue and Customs, in particular, who are the preferred contractor, if you like, for collecting tax. Although this isn’t part of this Bill, there were concerns, and I have concerns, about HMRC being the preferred contractor, because they are centralising their offices in Cardiff, because they are, effectively, closing down the office up in north Wales, which deals with their Welsh-language enquiries, and because of their record in dealing with enquiries both on the telephone and by letter—an absolutely awful record. I am concerned that, if we rely on them—. We have to make sure, both in terms of the charter, but also in terms of the standards that the Welsh revenue authority need to set, that whoever has the responsibility for collecting Welsh taxes does not fall into the pit that HMRC has fallen into in terms of its customer service and in terms of its approach to collecting taxes.
We need to make sure that the Welsh revenue authority is robust and is also delivering on a service that is tailored for Wales, but also takes account of Welsh taxpayers and their needs as part of that. I think it’s absolutely crucial that some of the recommendations go some way towards that, but I think the Minister also needs to take account of the general view of the committee, and the evidence given to us, that those issues still remain open and need to be resolved.
I just want to draw attention to recommendations 28 and 29, in terms of the independence of the Welsh revenue authority, because we were concerned about how that authority is going to be funded. This particular recommendation, 28, in a sense is saying that the Welsh revenue authority should be treated as an additional relevant person in section 124 of the Government of Wales Act 2006, putting it on the same status, if you like, as the Wales Audit Office and also in terms of the ombudsmen, so that they draw down their money independently of the Welsh Government. We said that the Government should seek the Secretary of State’s consent to be able to amend the Bill accordingly. If that is not possible, the committee recommended that:
‘The Welsh Revenue Authority’s budget is identified separately and hypothecated in the Welsh Government’s annual budget motion.’
That’s not because we don’t trust the Ministers here, but we just think that you need to actually have a show of independence in the way that body is funded, as well as the other checks and balances that have been put into place as part of this Bill. I think that is a particularly important one, and I hope that the Minister is going to be able to respond to that and is going to be able to deal with that.
Of course, Nick Ramsay has already referred to the charter. I think HMRC’s charter is best observed in its non-observance than it is in any other way, and I think we have to make sure that, if we have a charter for the Welsh revenue authority, that charter is one that is going to be adhered to, or aspired to—whichever word you want to use, that it’s going to be one that the taxpayers will have confidence that what is being promised in there will be delivered.
So, I think, Presiding Officer, I very much support the principles of this Bill, but it does need some changes in it to make sure we have that independence for that new body.
Like other speakers in this debate this afternoon, I believe this is an important part of the maturing of our democracy here in the National Assembly, but also a critical part of creating the structures for accountable devolved Government. Probably one of the few things, or the only thing, I agree with the current Secretary of State for Wales upon is the fact that a Government has to be accountable for money it raises as well as money it spends; I think that’s an absolutely critical part of our democracy here in Wales, so I do welcome the Bill that the Welsh Government has brought in front of the Chamber this afternoon.
In many ways, how we raise money is as political, at least, as how we spend money. Decisions that we take on how we tax, what we tax, and for what purpose we tax, are the most political decisions that any Government will take, and it’s important that these issues are debated here this afternoon and on other occasions.
I also believe that it’s important that we do not simply wish to establish institutions in Wales that mirror those institutions that exist in either London or elsewhere in the UK. We have had debates already in this Chamber on the treasury papers that the Welsh Government has published, which look to review how taxation policy would work in Wales. The Minister has answered questions from myself on some of these matters. I’ll take issue with one this afternoon, and that is the issue of sustainability, which does not appear in any of the treasury papers as a principle of Government taxation policy. The Minister has said that it is implicit in her policy and her approach, and I would like to ask the Minister this afternoon to make it explicit as part of her approach, but not simply in a paper, but to make it a driver of policy. Likewise, fairness, social justice and promoting sustainable economic activity have to be a key part of how we address taxation policy.
I hope that we will not simply create an institution through this Bill, but create a mechanism of accountability as well as simply a mechanism of collection, because the Government will require an overall taxation policy that does certainly reach out and include the policies that, currently, we are looking at being devolved, but to do so together, to look at how they fit together and impact on the economy together. I would like to see the Government setting out clear objectives for its taxation policy and the relationship between Government and the Welsh revenue authority, which has already been referred to this afternoon.
It’s clearly right and proper that we create the structures that we will need, and do so as part of this Bill. I hope that creating the Welsh revenue authority will also ensure that we will be able to collect and administer future taxes, as well as taxes that are currently earmarked for devolution. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure, certainly, myself, but also the Chamber this afternoon that the Welsh revenue authority will be structured in such a way as to administer further taxation as well as the taxes that that are currently being devolved.
At the same time, I hope that WRA will be able to provide advice on wider taxation issues and to do so in an open and transparent way. Section 11 of the Bill provides for advice to be provided to Ministers. I hope that this will be read and meant in a wider means rather than simply providing private advice to Ministers on a private basis. I would like to see the WRA ensuring that it is able to provide advice on the wider policy of taxation, and, in doing so, I’d like to understand what the relationship will be between the WRA and HMRC. I presume that the income tax that is proposed to be devolved to this place will be collected through HMRC, and I think we do need to understand what the relationship will be between HMRC and the WRA. At the same time, we need to understand how income tax will be devolved to this place. If it is true, as I’ve been given to understand, that the first the Welsh Government heard about this policy was when the Chancellor stood at the despatch box in the House of Commons, then I have to say that is absolutely and completely unacceptable. The devolution of income tax policy, which I agree with—I do not agree that we need a referendum to do so, but we do need a process for that to happen, and that process has to include this place and this Chamber. It is entirely unacceptable for the UK Government to make a move as fundamental as the devolution of income tax policy without reference to this place. So, we do need—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—to know and we do need to understand what the process will be for the trigger for the devolution of that tax policy and how that will relate to the matters we are discussing this afternoon.
I welcome this chance to speak in this debate on tax collection and management. I think this is a very significant step on the road to greater devolution in Wales, and a very welcome one. I support the principles of the Bill, and was very pleased to take part in the Finance Committee’s deliberations and the events arranged around this Bill. We had a very wide-ranging number of responses, and I think that all the stakeholders appreciated the engagement of the Minister and of the Finance Committee. My fellow committee members have covered most of the ground that we addressed, so I’ll just address a few quick issues.
First of all, the issue of tax avoidance and tax evasion. This was certainly an issue that was brought up very strongly in the stakeholder event that we had in the Norwegian church, where people felt very strongly that this should be something that should be central to our legislation. So, I’m pleased that this will be addressed in the individual Bills that address the individual taxes. I think it’s extremely important that we do this, because it is something that people feel very strongly about and it is a very important issue to do with fairness.
The other point I just wanted to cover very briefly was the issue about the taxpayers’ charter, which I know has been a favourite subject of debate in the committee. I think it is absolutely important that we do get a charter that has got some teeth, because the HMRC charter, I think, has no real effect at all. So, I think it’s very good that the Minister has said it will be in place well before we actually begin to take in any taxes. But Peter Black has already raised the issue of the problems with HMRC and the difficulties of using HMRC as a model for tax collection in view of their pretty abysmal record in many fields. HMRC has a target of answering 80 per cent of calls, but in some months, only 65 per cent of calls are answered, and between April 2014 and March 2015, 17.8 million calls were either unanswered or resulted in the busy tone. That, certainly, is not the kind of service that we would want the WRA to offer. I’ve had many constituents complaining about the difficulty of getting through to HMRC, so I think we want to absolutely ensure that we have very good standards with the new body; that we have enough staff to provide a proper service; and that the charter must ensure that we have an exemplary service, because it is a great opportunity—starting afresh with this new body, with the WRA. It gives us a real opportunity to provide a first-class service.
The last point I wanted to cover was: we did have a lot of discussion on the principle of digital first and I feel very strongly that that is the right way to go. But it was raised in the committee on a number of occasions that we must make absolutely sure that there are arrangements in place to make sure that people who aren’t able to access online documentation and forms are not left behind. Obviously, with the first taxes that are devolved to us, we will mainly be dealing with professional groups, so perhaps, at the beginning, it will not be quite so important. But when we move on to income tax, it’s absolutely vital that we ensure that nobody is excluded. So, I think it’s very important that we do support the principle of digital first, but are aware that there may be some people who may be left out.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Finance and Government Business to reply.
Diolch, Lywydd. I would like to thank all the Members today who’ve contributed to this debate. It was very useful. I’ve listened carefully to what Members have said. Clearly, there are points of detail as we progress through the scrutiny process, which we will debate further and I will respond, as I said in my opening remarks, to all the recommendations of the Finance Committee, the vast majority of which I will accept.
Just responding to some of the key themes and points made today, certainly, I note the recommendation of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee regarding the use of negative or affirmative procedure. I note, of course, that the First Minister has written recently to the committee on this broader issue. Members have raised points arising from the report as to the model of tax administration that we’re proposing. There has been a great deal of support for the approach we’re taking, concerning tax devolution. The model of tax administration that is selected is tried and tested elsewhere; it provides for the Welsh revenue authority to be operationally independent from the Welsh Ministers and this is crucial. I wholly agree with the principle that Welsh Ministers must not be involved in the Welsh revenue authority’s day-to-day operational business. The Bill does ensure that that will be the case and I’ve said repeatedly that the Welsh revenue authority should be operationally separate from Welsh Ministers. But of course, Welsh Ministers should rightly be in a position to give strategic direction to the Welsh revenue authority on devolved tax priorities, for example the emphasis that the WRA should place on compliance and anti-avoidance, which Julie Morgan has just mentioned.
The Assembly and the Welsh public will, quite rightly, expect Welsh Ministers to be accountable for the strategic direction of the Welsh revenue authority, and they should and will expect the Welsh revenue authority to be accountable for the efficient and effective collection of devolved taxes within the strategic framework set by Ministers.
Currently, section 14 of the Bill requires Welsh Ministers to publish any directions given to the Welsh revenue authority unless they consider publication would prejudice the effective exercise of the Welsh revenue authority’s functions, and I understand that this caveat not to publish in certain circumstances has been an area of interest and concern. I’m going to bring forward an amendment at Stage 2 to delete the caveat so that all directions given by Welsh Ministers must be published, and that will enable others to scrutinise any directions and the reason why they’re being given. I’ll also bring forward an amendment at Stage 2 to change the wording of the provision for a charter. The Welsh revenue authority will be expected to adhere to standards of behaviour and values when dealing with taxpayers. It is, of course, important—again, it has been said—that we are rigorous as far as this is concerned with the taxpayers’ charter, and this is, of course, the feedback that we’ve got, and the committee’s had, in terms of extensive consultation.
On some of the other points that have been raised today, I think for recommendation 13, in terms of a memorandum of understanding or service-level agreement between the WRA and delegated bodies who may then have responsibility for tax collection and management, I do accept this recommendation; I do believe the Bill provides for it. It’s important, in terms of section 13 of the Bill, that we see delegation of functions, and section 13 states that the WRA must publish information about delegations under this section.
Also, on the point about the high level of expertise, and your recommendation 14 that we need to have this for Welsh taxpayers, particularly concerning Welsh-language provisions, which has been raised by Members this afternoon, to reassure Members, discussions with HMRC and Natural Resources Wales are continuing on the potential functions that they might deliver under delegation, remembering, of course, that Welsh-language provision must meet agreed standards—equally for the Welsh revenue authority or anybody undertaking functions on its behalf.
Also, I think the issue about enabling the Assembly to authorise a committee to scrutinise the Welsh revenue authority is important. Of course, our Standing Orders do require that every area of the Government and associated pubic bodies must be subject to committee scrutiny. Of course, the devolved taxes will be a responsibility of Government and of an associated public body—the Welsh revenue authority—so the Business Committee is under a duty to ensure that this area is subject to the scrutiny of a committee.
I do accept in principle the recommendation about quorum provisions to prescribe a majority of non-executive members on the board, and also accept in principle the recommendation about ensuring members of staff are appointed to the board by a process of chief executive nomination in the first instance, then by staff ballot when future vacancies arise.
So, already, progress is, I hope, being made in terms of the response to points raised today, and I hope Members are assured that this legislation will provide the right powers to enable us to establish effective arrangements for devolved taxes in Wales. I look forward to further debate during Stage 2 scrutiny.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does anyone object? No objections; therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to item 9, which is the debate on the financial resolution of the Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Bill. I call on the Minister to move the motion. Jane Hutt.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales, for the purposes of any provisions resulting from the Tax Collection and Management (Wales) Bill, agrees to any increase in expenditure of a kind referred to in Standing Order 26.69, arising in consequence of the Bill.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Formally move. I have no speakers. So, the proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? No objections; therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
That is the end of formal business. We now move to voting time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The vote we have this afternoon is on the debate on the general principles of the Public Health (Wales) Bill. I call for a vote on the motion, which is tabled in the name of Mark Drakeford. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour 25; one abstention; 21 against. Therefore, the motion is carried.
Motion agreed: For 25, Against 21, Abstain 1.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5899
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I now call for a vote on the financial resolution of the Public Health (Wales) Bill. I call for a vote on the motion, which is tabled in the name of Jane Hutt. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour 24; one abstention; 21 against; therefore, the motion is carried.
Motion agreed: For 24, Against 21, Abstain 1.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5900
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
That brings today’s business to a close. Thank you very much.
The meeting ended at 18:01.