The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The first item this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Natural Resources. Question 1 is from Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Natural Resources Wales and the Crown Estate
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the memorandum of understanding between Natural Resources Wales and the Crown Estate? OAQ(4)0239(NR)
I thank the Member for his question. This is an operational matter between Natural Resources Wales and the Crown Estate.
Thank you. Does the Minister understand the anxiety caused to people in my constituency at present as the Crown Estate register ancient rights on their properties? Does the Minister believe that a memorandum between the Welsh Government and the Crown Estate could be expanded or enhanced in future to protect the interests of the people of Wales in the light of such registrations? Does he believe that the best way of protecting the interests of the people of Wales in future is to devolve responsibility for the assets of the Crown Estate in Wales?
Well, of course, the Crown Estate is a body established in perpetuity under the Crown Estate Act 1961, as a trust estate independent of Government and the monarch, with a public function to invest and manage certain property assets belonging to the monarch. I recognise the issue the Member raises in terms of the relationship between the Crown Estate and his constituents, and it is something that I would encourage the Crown Estate to take very seriously, on engagement and public engagement, and making it clear about what their remit and intention is on the island of Anglesey.
Minister, Natural Resources Wales incorporates the previous Forestry Commission. A few years ago, in Tintern, in the Wye valley, in my constituency, there was a major landslide, where the Forestry Commission actually came in for significant praise for dealing it with very well. That was in the region of the Crown Estate around Tintern abbey. Can you give us an assurance that, if a similar crisis to that happens to a village such as Tintern in future, Natural Resources Wales will take its obligations to those communities as seriously as the Forestry Commission did at that point, in providing the necessary remedial work as soon as they can?
I’m very grateful for the Member’s question. It is important to ensure that NRW work as effectively as they possibly can. I meet with them on a regular basis, and the resilience of their organisation is critical to making sure that communities feel safe, in both a preventative way and a proactive way, working with the communities. It is something that I would expect NRW, and the Forestry Commission merged in that, working with the Crown Estate, to work actively on should that activity happen again.
Visual Impact Provision Project
2. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding the visual impact provision project? OAQ(4)0254(NR)
I thank the Member for her question. I have had no meetings with the UK Government on the visual impact project. Wales is, however, represented on the stakeholder advisory group established by National Grid to advise them on identifying and mitigating the impact of existing power lines on designated landscapes in both Wales and England.
I thank you for that answer, Minister. But the initial areas prioritised for use of the VIP include the Brecon Beacons and Snowdonia national parks. How, Minister, will the Welsh Government support park authorities to help secure a fair share of that funding in Wales?
I thank the Member for her supplementary question. Two of the 12 shortlisted projects are in national parks in Wales. Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority intends to submit proposals for a £25 million-bid for soft landscaping funding, when that becomes available. Welsh Government does provide financial support to the national park authorities in Wales to deliver on their first purpose of conserving and enhancing these special landscapes.
Minister, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that it’s important to help reduce the impact of existing transmission lines in all rural areas, not just in Welsh areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks. Given the circumstances, what support can the Welsh Government offer to rural areas of significant interest that aren’t eligible for funding from the visual impact provision project, to help mitigate the visual impact of transmission lines?
Well, of course, this is a matter for National Grid in these proposals, in terms of how they allocate and input. But it is something that the policy for major infrastructure, including electricity transmission lines, as the Member knows, which now rests with the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport.
The National Grid has recommended that the new electric lines for Wylfa B on Anglesey will be placed under the Menai straits, which is, of course, an area of outstanding natural beauty. On the Arfon side of the Menai, there are only a few miles to the substation at Pentir, and some of that is National Trust land. Will you join with me to bring pressure to bear on the National Grid to underground these lines from the Menai straits to Pentir?
Well, as the Member will be aware, many of these applications are non-devolved, to decisions taken by Welsh Ministers. The Member makes his views well known and is consistent in that process.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople. First this afternoon is the opposition spokesperson, Russell George.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Deputy Minister, I welcome your work consulting with farmers, and indeed with me, on the current situation with the CAP basic payment scheme, but I have to say that this represents a serious failure on behalf of the Welsh Government to instigate early modelling work, which has caused massive uncertainty and confusion for farmers. So, following this fiasco—and that’s what it is, I’m afraid—what lessons have the Welsh Government learned from this, and will the Deputy Minister confirm that the Welsh Government must accept responsibility for this failure?
Well, I have to say that contrary to what some spokespeople have been saying, there has been no u-turn or a change of heart on the part of the Welsh Government. The original proposals do represent the best possible result for the industry in Wales as a whole. The policy intent from the start was sound; proposals were designed to cause the least disruption to the industry as a whole and to reflect the productivity of the land. So, as far as possible, those remain my aims going forward, although the reduced timescales available, and the risk of further legal challenge, will also feature large in any decision that I make.
The Welsh Government’s decisions and our proposals thus far were actually the result of a huge amount of modelling work that went on in partnership with the industry. There were many public meetings and much close stakeholder working. The industry, with a few exceptions, accepted that those proposals were reasonable and acceptable as a means of moving to the new area-based system.
I think that part of the issue, Deputy Minister, is that you only withdrew from a legal challenge at the eleventh hour, and there were three months where you could have received legal advice, which could have given you more time to deal with the issues that you’re facing now. But, it is imperative that, although the process for a new payment scheme needs to be undertaken swiftly, we ensure that this is a rigorous and thorough process to ensure that past mistakes, which have heaped untold pressure on Welsh farmers, aren’t repeated. It is coming up now to one of the busiest periods of the year in the farming calendar, so it is vital that farmers can respond and consult and be consulted accordingly on the new proposals that the Welsh Government brings forward. Can I ask the Deputy Minister what assurances you can give that the process will be undertaken speedily, but with a comprehensive process, to ensure that farmers’ voices are heard strongly in future consultation?
I am more than happy to give you those reassurances, and I will say that the legal advice that we had when the claim was received was that the Welsh Government had a good defence. There are plenty of lawyers in this Chamber to know that it’s only really when you see the skeleton case before you that you can really take a view as to what the outcome might be. Work has already begun, you will be pleased to know, on the alternative options and these are being considered already by the CAP data modelling group. That meeting took place last Friday, and that modelling group involves stakeholders right across the farming industry and beyond. So, that work is already ongoing. They will be meeting again shortly, and I expect them to agree what the possible options are for the way forward, because we must consider what’s possible within the reduced timescales that are available to us and, again, what’s safe against a future legal challenge.
As we know, farmers are unsure over what payments they will receive for December. Therefore, it’s difficult for farmers to plan and invest in their businesses, and it is clear that the quicker the proposals are sent off to the European Commission, the more likely it is that farmers will receive some form of payment in December. So, when does the Deputy Minister hope to send the new proposals to the Commission, and can she state today whether or not farmers will receive the December payments, whether in part or in full?
The Commission is fully aware of our situation and they’re awaiting our new proposals. You talk about the importance of business planning for farmers, but that was what was behind our original proposals in a sense, in terms of not creating a great amount of disruption to the industry so that farmers could take that long-term view. We’ve been clear throughout that all payment rates have been indicative only, although I know that this is clearly going to be of concern to the farmers of Wales, because the pot is only so large in terms of the euros that we have to distribute, and, inevitably now, there will be some movement of money.
There’s likely to be some knock-on effect in terms of our ability to make payments, but that does depend on the model that we decide to take forward in terms of the area-based system. Some of the proposed models that the data-modelling group are looking at are more simple to administer than others, so this will all factor into our decision. I hope to be able to go out to public consultation in the coming weeks—end of February or, at the latest, early March.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, William Powell.
Diolch yn fawr, Lywydd. Deputy Minister, recent research has shown that some 3% of calves die within the first three hours of life, and almost 15% fail to reach first lactation. What is the Welsh Government doing to assist in driving down calf mortality and promoting resilience in cattle husbandry in Wales?
I’m more than happy to take the question, Presiding Officer, although I wasn’t aware that I was having questions from the Liberal Democrat spokesperson today. Our approach to animal health and welfare is clearly set out through our animal health and welfare framework, and we have a framework group that backs up that particular piece of work. On that, we have vets and so on who do offer particular advice in terms of the health and welfare of cattle in Wales. I’m more than happy to ask our welfare group to look at this particular issue and report back to you.
Thank you very much, Deputy Minister. I apologise for any misunderstanding on that front. I’m also grateful for that response.
As young calves can ingest a large number of harmful pathogens, such as salmonella and E.coli, before enjoying the vital benefits of colostrum from their mother’s milk, early protection from disease is clearly vital. Given this and the need to promote only the responsible use of antibiotics within Welsh agriculture, what is the Government doing in partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to explore the potential benefits of probiotics as a safer and more effective alternative?
I’m familiar with the article to which you’re referring, which demonstrated how important it is for calves to receive this within the first few hours of birth. I’m more than happy, again, to explore with the framework group what we can do in order to help farmers understand this better themselves, if you like. Perhaps we can look at how we can use our ‘Gwlad’ online newsletter and so on to share this information with farmers. But, as I say, I will come back to you on this general issue when I’ve had a chance to explore it in further detail.
Again, Deputy Minister, thank you very much for that response. Given the importance of diversification in Welsh farming, will you join with me in welcoming the success of Shann and Rich Jones of Ceredigion in developing a prize-winning probiotics enterprise, Chuckling Goat, on their traditional family farm in southern Ceredigion, and, subject to diary pressure, Deputy Minister, will you consider the possibility of visiting their premises to assess the benefits that could accrue at first hand and to explore the potential for growth and roll-out of good practice?
Presiding Officer, I’m always keen to hear about good practice and innovation wherever that exists, so I’d be more than happy to see whether we can accommodate a visit with you to that particular farm. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We know move to Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Thank You, Presiding Officer. Minister, you have confirmed to the Assembly in the past that you support the call to devolve responsibility for fracking licensing to Wales. May I ask what negotiations you have had with the Westminster Government in order to press for the devolution of that responsibility?
This is something that the First Minister and I and my department have many conversations on across departments, including the Department of Energy and Climate Change, in Westminster.
Well, it is interesting that you say that, because the Westminster Government clearly is not aware of those discussions, because the energy Minister, Matt Hancock, confirmed to the Plaid Cymru Member of Parliament, Jonathan Edwards, recently that there had been no discussions with the Welsh Government on devolution of these powers to us here. You say on the one hand that you want the responsibility, but it is clear that the truth is that you are not doing enough about it. Does that, therefore, suggest, perhaps, that you are, in reality, quite relaxed about the UK Government’s policy of encouraging and facilitating fracking in Wales?
I think what’s really important, Presiding Officer, is that we, again, don’t make fracking a political objective, as the Member seeks to do. I think what’s really important is making sure we protect our communities, at all costs, from things that may be, potentially, harmful. We operate a very clear procedure on the aspect of fracking, and our position has been very clear and public in this Chamber.
Well, one way of defending the communities of Wales, of course, is to secure an exemption similar to Soctland’s to the Infrastructure Bill, which will speed up the process of seeking shale gas and, of course, allow drilling under people’s homes here in Wales. Scotland has an exemption, and I would argue that if your rationale on the Government’s stance here holds, then you too would argue for an exemption for Wales. But does the fact that the Welsh Labour Govermment, and Welsh Labour Members of Parliament, did not insist on such an exemption for Wales in terms of the Infrastructure Bill suggest that, in reality, you are content to see drilling under people’s homes in Wales without their permission?
Well, it is rather presumptuous of the Member to suggest what he may think I’m thinking. Currently, oil and gas licensing is a matter for the UK Government. I’ve been very clear about the precautionary approach to fracking that the Welsh Government takes on all applications.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move back to questions on the paper.
Small-scale Renewable Energy Projects
3. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding small-scale renewable energy projects? OAQ(4)0249(NR)
I thank the Member for his question. I regularly engage with the UK Government on this matter. For example, I met Baroness Randerson on 17 November, and wrote to her last week on this very issue.
I hope, Minister, that you have also had discussions with the Westminster energy Minister, Greg Barker. How do you respond to what he said, as reported in ‘The Clitheroe Advertiser and Times’:
‘We put certain projects in the wrong place... Some planners have been too insensitive to the impact on the landscape… There’s enough wind projects in the system now so we don’t need to see any more on-shore expansion’?
Do you also feel that planners are too insensitive to local communities, and, therefore, would you support communities in Anglesey and Carmarthenshire that want to see power cables laid underground? Would you support communities that want to see local authorities prepare carefully for how many schemes they permit within their counties?
I think the generic term the Member uses about planners being insensitive to local communities is unfortunate; I do not agree with him. Planners are professional, running on guidance issued to planning authorities. I believe, in most cases, they operate in a very professional manner.
In discussions that you have, Minister, with regard to local and community benefit from renewable energy schemes, will you work with local authorities so that they explore the possibilities of using schools and leisure centres, for example, for solar energy, which would deliver that local benefit, and, also, perhaps, with employers in terms of their social responsibilities, and whether any expansive roof space that they have might be made available for local community schemes?
I think the Member is right to raise this issue. We’ve got many public assets across Wales. It is something that I will have further conversations about with the Minister for Public Services and the Minister for finance.
Minister, as you know, I’ve spoken many times in support of small-scale renewable energy projects, but one of the big barriers to take-up is the cost of connection, often in the below-10 MW or between 5 MW and 10 MW projects, to the grid, particularly the costs of the district network operators. It’s not only connection for renewable projects, but, for example, businesses in rural areas experience high costs in getting that DNO connection. I’ve raised it with you a number of times; have you approached Scottish Power and Wales & West Utilities to discuss with them the DNO costs that are being imposed in various communities across Wales?
I share the Member’s concern in terms of cost, but also access points. I have raised this with Ofgem to see what the ability is to look at the licensing regime and whether there is any opportunity for released capacity already in the licensing sector that hasn’t been used that we can offset to schemes that may be able to join on the basis of the ability of the threshold number within the licensing system. I accept, and agree with the Member, that there are many things and many advantages that we could work on to get a better offer for Wales.
Minister, there are many small-scale hydro schemes being developed in north Wales currently. There are proposals, however, from Natural Resources Wales to increase the fee for abstraction from £135 to £1,500. What assessment has the Welsh Government undertaken of the impact of such fees on the attractiveness of small hydro schemes, going into the future?
I met with the group that represents the hydro schemes across the UK only this week to talk about these very issues. I think NRW have worked with them proactively in understanding the fee structures and the consultation around that. I have asked them to review the service in terms of whether that would be scaleable to the size of the hydro scheme in referring to the licensing schemes that are applicable to them.
4. What support is the Welsh Government giving to help food and drink producers in Wales to promote their produce? OAQ(4)0244(NR)
‘Towards Sustainable Growth: An Action Plan for the Food and Drink Industry 2014-2020’ reinforces our robust system of support to the food and drink industry, based on specific producer needs, supporting business growth and enabling producers to further promote their produce, delivering growth of 30% in the sector by 2020.
Deputy Minister, you and I, and others had the pleasure yesterday, in the Great Taste Awards Wales in the Pierhead, of tasting many fine examples of food and drink that are produced here in Wales, which were representative of many others. So, first of all, will you join me in congratulating two companies from my Delyn constituency, Simply Relish and Bim’s Kitchen, on winning awards, but can I ask what further things you think you could do to promote produce, not just in this country, but abroad?
Thank you very much for that question. I was also very proud yesterday at the event to showcase some of our Welsh winners of the Great Taste Awards. Wales won an incredible 120 awards altogether, and I certainly join you in congratulating Bim’s Kitchen and Simply Relish on their successes. I would also particularly like to pass on my congratulations to the Patchwork Traditional Food Company, the Coconut Kitchen and Dawn Meats, all of which won three gold-star awards. So, I think that is a significant achievement that we should be recognising.
Supporting the food and drink industry in Wales to promote their products internationally is a key part of our approach to supporting the industry, and that includes helping them to attend organised trade events, both in the UK but also overseas, to develop new contacts, enhance their profile and maximise their potential market sales. We have a comprehensive programme of support to fully prepare companies to take the best advantage of those opportunities.
Deputy Minister, your predecessor launched the food and drink strategy for Wales in June last year, and part of the strategy was to create a website to support brand identity. I am sure you’re aware of the importance of websites for promotion for international sales abroad, where producers, for example those that have been successful in achieving those Great Taste Awards, can advertise the fact that they have done so. In response to a Freedom of Information Act 2000 request, which was published this month, it was indicated that the website that was proposed to be set up still hadn’t been set up yet, and that it was due to be set up in early 2015. What does ‘early 2015’ mean? Given the importance of that brand identity and that web presence, when can we see the launch of that site?
You’ll see the launch of that site in early 2015. I would join you, really, in recognising the importance of the Welsh food and drink brand identity, because when we sell our food and drink, we also sell Wales. We have our wonderful Welsh landscape, our culture, our heritage, our language, and all of that comes together to sell something quite special to the rest of the world, I think. That action plan set out 48 different actions that the Welsh Government would take in order to develop our food and drink industry, growing the sector to £7 billion by 2020. Other key actions in that include setting up a food and drink industry board. We have an excellent interim chair in Robin Jones of the Village Bakery, and I’ll be making an announcement very shortly on the other members of that board as well.
The Plaid Cymru-run Gwynedd Council has to be commended for procuring 100% of their school meals from within the local area. Contrast that with neighbouring Ynys Môn council, which spends 100% of its school meals budget in companies in Reading. What is your Government doing to ensure that more councils follow Plaid Cymru policies and Gwynedd Council’s good practice on procurement, so that more food and drink can benefit producers and suppliers within Wales, and that they can benefit from public sector contracts?
The Welsh Government recognises the importance of public procurement to the industry in Wales, and I think there is certainly more that we can do. The recent survey of public sector food purchasing estimated that 63% of purchases were from Welsh companies, including processors and distributors, so there’s certainly room in which we can grow that. That’s actually part of our action plan as well, because there are specific actions in there relating to that.
One thing that we’re doing specifically is the development of a national procurement service, which will open up opportunities for Welsh producers, large and small, to supply to the public sector in Wales.
The Safety of Man-made Bodies of Water
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the safety of large man-made bodies of water? OAQ(4)0252(NR)
The Reservoirs Act 1975 provides the current legal framework for the safety of large raised reservoirs in Wales.
Thank you for that, Minister. As you are well aware, there is a proposal for the restoration of the East Pit site in my constituency that involves the construction of a large artificial lake from the voids created by decades of coaling. I would not expect you to comment on a live planning application; I would, however, like to ask a more general question about the monitoring of the safety of these sorts of man-made lakes. Since the Reservoirs Act 1975 that you mentioned, there has fortunately been no loss of life caused by reservoir failure, but the precautionary evacuation of Pennal in 2012 reminds us of the potentially catastrophic consequences of reservoir flooding. Last summer, the then Minister consulted on the commencement of Schedule 4 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which would update the regulatory scheme for large raised reservoirs. Minister, what action do you intend to take following this consultation, and will you be looking at man-made lakes that, as they may not be raised, do not fall under this Act but nonetheless may contain tens of thousands of cubic metres of water?
I thank the Member for her question, and again I will be non-specific regarding any application if I may, Presiding Officer, in a general context. The Member is right; the amendment to the Reservoirs Act 1975, amended by Schedule 4 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, only does cover large raised reservoirs as defined in the Act, and this doesn’t include mine or quarry lagoon. The Member is right to raise this anomaly. Under the Act, a raised reservoir is one that is built and designed to hold or be capable of holding water above the natural level to any part of the surrounding land. Following on from the consultation, it is something that I’ve asked my team to look at. Ultimately, the responsibility that falls outside of this Act will be a matter for the landowner, and it’s something that will be covered by varying pieces of legislation, including that of the Health and Safety Executive and managed also by Natural Resources Wales.
Minister, concern has been expressed by Severn Trent Water about Schedule 4 to the Flood and Water Management Act 2010, which you just mentioned, and the Welsh Government consultation document makes reference to certain reservoirs as being at ‘high risk’. They believe this terminology is misleading and could potentially alarm the public, given that the probability of failure of our reservoirs is exceedingly low. Will the Minister consider replacing the term ‘high risk reservoirs’ with ‘regulated reservoirs’, as recommended by Severn Trent Water?
I met with Severn Trent Water around about 11:00 this morning; they did not raise this with me. That makes it quite interesting. But I will take the Member’s question very seriously and raise that with them.
Minister, as my colleague the Member for Neath has already identified, the restoration of East Pit is critical. Whereas East Pit is proposed to be a man-made lake, Parc Slip currently is a man-made lake, because I understand the depth is almost 52m of water there , and health and safety are major issues. So, what action can NRW take now to ensure the health and safety of people? It’s clear in this particular case. What onus can you put upon the landowners to ensure that it’s made safe? And, in future, will you look at guidance to ensure that any opencast planning application has a restoration plan that ensures their safety, and the avoidance of these man-made lakes being filled?
My comments from earlier apply to this question too; however, I recognise the issue the Member raises in a more general context. I think he’s absolutely right in terms of ensuring that long-term restoration has to be built into the planning application upfront. But, it is the current situation where the landowner does have responsibility at this moment in time, and this is also supported by health and safety regulation. If the Member wishes to write to me specifically on the issue, then I would be more than happy to write to him with a formal response.
6. What actions has the Welsh Government taken to reduce food waste? OAQ(4)0242(NR)
Reducing food waste is a priority for the Welsh Government. We fund food waste reduction initiatives, such as the Love Food Hate Waste campaign, the hospitality and food service agreement, and the Courtauld commitment. We have also provided funding to FareShare for the redistribution of surplus edible food.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As you rightly acknowledge, Wales has the most comprehensive food waste recycling service in the UK. According to figures released by Waste Awareness Wales, approximately 47.4% of food waste was captured in Wales in 2013-14. What action has the Welsh Government taken to raise awareness of the importance of recycling food waste and encourage Welsh households to use the local council food waste recycling facilities?
Thank you for the question. It’s another important factor in terms of reducing our impact on the environment. The Welsh Government has funded Waste Awareness Wales to deliver food waste behaviour change campaigns collaboratively with local authorities, and at least 11 authorities in Wales have been supported. I was recently with Councillor Mike Priestley in Conwy, looking at the very successful campaign that they’ve organised there in terms of changing the way attitudes work in their constituency areas. Again, I look forward to working with the Member in his constituency on how we can encourage people to recycle more.
Further to my colleague’s question, according to WRAP Cymru, Minister, household food waste in Wales reduced, between 2007 and 2012, by some 65,000 tonnes, or 15% of the total. What is the Minister doing to increase public awareness—in hospitality, in catering and in other households—of the cost and the environmental impact of food waste in order to reduce this figure even further?
Well, I think the Member’s right to raise the issue about recycling rates and the amount—. Actually, what we’re trying to do is encourage people not to create waste in the first place, so a reduction at the other end is also a positive step, and making sure people don’t have that waste, and that’s why we have these projects in train. We work with WRAP programmes, the hospitality and food service voluntary agreement—it aims to reduce food waste and ensure that waste food is recycled for the catering sector—and, of course, the Courtauld commitment voluntary agreement to deliver the issue around UK grocery supply chains and how that operates too. On the impact of the output in terms of recycling, we aim to look to reduce by virtue of not having the input in the first place, and it’s something that I know Members in this Chamber are all committed to.
Given your answers, Minister, you’ll be very disappointed to learn that there’ve been no food waste recycling bags available at Cardiff County Hall yet this year, and they have run out in leisure centres, libraries and shops across the city as well. The situation is made worse because if people do actually want to recycle their food waste and they go to one of the recycling centres, they won’t accept food waste either, they instruct people to throw it in the general household waste bins. Now, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that this shambles is going to do nothing to improve Cardiff’s worsening food recycling rates, and that if people find it impossible to recycle in the short term, they’re going to get out of the habit of doing it in the long term. What action can you take to get Cardiff back on track, because this simply isn’t acceptable?
I think there is no excuse not to recycle just because you haven’t got recycling bags. The issue is the ability for people to recycle in many other ways. I am not aware of the issue, particularly, that the Member raises, but I will ask my officials to look at that.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 7, OAQ(4)0250(NR), is withdrawn. Question 8, Paul Davies.
8. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to tackle flooding problems in west Wales? OAQ(4)0238(NR)
I thank the Member for his question. Flood and coastal erosion risk management remain a priority across Wales and we are continuing to invest in this area. Over the lifetime of this Government, we will invest over £245 million in flood and coastal risk management to build resilience to flooding in communities right across the country.
Minister, I'm sure you are aware that the people of lower town Fishguard in my constituency have faced some seriously challenging flooding conditions in recent times, which have had a serious impact on local homes and on local businesses. Unfortunately, the community is prone to flooding, given the position of that part of the town. In the circumstances, will you commit to looking at the specific problems facing my constituents, and can I invite you to visit the area with me to see for yourself some of the challenges facing the local community?
I think this is a partnership approach to resolving issues that affect communities like the Member’s. I am very familiar with Fishguard and the community that the Member represents, but I will ask my officials to look at this with NRW and the local authority to see what actions possibly could be taken in future.
Minister, the First Minister joined me in Stebonheath Primary School at the beginning of the year to see the work of Welsh Water Dŵr Cymru to reduce flooding in Llanelli. The investment of Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water in the area was partially through the European Investment Bank. Does the Minister agree with me that the ability to invest in infrastructure of this sort, for the benefit of our communities, is something that we shouldn’t turn our backs on as a benefit of being members of the European Union?
Indeed. As the Member does, I fully support being a member of the European Union. I welcome your support for investment for programmes like RainScape, which is now a Welsh solution that is gaining much momentum across the UK and the globe in terms of opportunities that are being brought about by working together. Dŵr Cymru’s investment in your community is having a major effect in terms of dealing with flooding and pollution and reducing the risk to the community.
Minister, certain properties in west Wales have become difficult to insure due to flood risk. Now, as you know, there's been an agreement between UK Government and insurance companies to guarantee affordable insurance for residential properties, but not it seems for business properties, and there are businesses in my constituency that cannot get insurance cover for flood risk and may need to relocate as a result of this. Will you raise with the UK Government the importance of ensuring affordable insurance also for business premises?
I think the Member raises an important point. I think we have to look at issues of retrospective planning and where businesses are placed now and how the effects of flooding impact on business. It is something I will raise with the Minister in Westminster. We haven't quite resolved the issue regarding flood relief and its application in Wales, but it’s something that I'm confident that we can do. I will also raise the issue that the Member raised with me today.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
9. How is the Minister meeting his cross-cutting responsibility for sustainable development across the Welsh Government? OAQ(4)0247(NR)
I thank the Member for his question. Since becoming Minister for Natural Resources, I have led on the Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Bill. This provides a strong basis for sustainable development across all of Government and the wider public service in Wales.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I thank the Minister for his response, but without discussing that particular Bill now, would the Minister explain to me exactly how this cross-cutting approach is provided by various departments within Government? Is there a cross-cutting team serving him or accountable to him? Are there individual officials who take responsibility for cross-cutting issues? Because it’s crucial, I would have thought, in order to achieve the statutory responsibilities of the Welsh Government and this Assembly for sustainable development, that that overview is in place.
The principle of sustainable development is at the heart of the finance budget of the Welsh Government and it’s something that is considered by all Ministers and the First Minister as we move forward, integral to our planning processes for policy, and it is something that will be strengthened indeed by evidencing through the future generations Bill and an appointed commissioner to test the Welsh Government on those proposals.
In a similar vein, Minister, Natural Resources Wales has a duty to ensure that any development is sustainable, but also to protect our natural landscapes. You meet Natural Resources Wales regularly, so what questions do you ask them to satisfy yourself that they are getting the right balance between protecting our natural heritage and meeting your renewable energy targets?
I think it’s incumbent on all public bodies to consider their impact on our communities, both in the planning stages or any policy development, and I am confident that NRW take their responsibilities very seriously. I meet them on a regular basis, as the Member is aware. But, if there is any specific questioning behind her question today that she would like to make me aware of, I’d be happy to receive a letter from her.
Farming in Brecon and Radnorshire
10. Will the Minister make a statement regarding the Welsh Government’s priorities for the farming industry in Brecon and Radnorshire? OAQ(4)0251(NR)
Our priority is to ensure that the farming industry in Brecon and Radnorshire—and across the rest of Wales—is profitable, sustainable, resilient and professionally managed.
Deputy Minister, you’ll be aware that there is much relief in farming communities in the Elan valley in my constituency regarding the Government’s change of heart with regard to payments for farming above the moorland line. However, there is great bemusement that it took those farmers and others in Wales to point out to the Welsh Government that its plans simply were not compatible with EU regulations. What’s important now, of course, is that we move forward and secure a future for those families, many of whom are tenanted farmers, not rich landowners—a future for them and their families in the uplands. Could you outline to me, in your new negotiations and discussions of support for farming in the uplands, what you will be doing to ensure the survival of those family farms in what are very environmentally sensitive parts of Wales?
In case I wasn’t clear enough in my response to Russell George earlier, there hasn’t been a u-turn or a change of heart, and the original proposals were the best result for the industry as a whole.
In terms of how we can support farmers who will be affected by the new area-based system that we will move to, I would imagine that our approach to the RDP will be a particular way in which we can support those farmers in terms of bringing investment onto their farms, both capital investment and also investment through Farming Connect, in terms of supporting those farms to become more resilient, more profitable and to develop their knowledge and innovation.
Minister, the RDP aims to improve the competitiveness of agriculture, as well as ensuring the management of our natural resources. But, can I ask how the Welsh Government will implement, monitor and evaluate the process to ensure that every pound of the RDP is properly invested and generates the maximum benefit for our rural economies?
I completely share your concern that the RDP should deliver for every single penny of it in terms of driving forward our ambition—I think it’s our shared ambition across the Chamber—for a resilient industry that’s profitable in the future and less reliant on public subsidies, because we know that, in future, we will not have the same level of pillar 1 subsidies, particularly, available to our farmers. The programme monitoring committee, of course, plays an absolutely crucial role in terms of holding to account our spending of European programme money, and I would expect them to continue that excellent work.
There are specific difficulties at the moment within the dairy industry and with dairy farmers in Wales, such as those in Brecon and Radnorshire particularly. In that context, a number of suggestions have been made that the supermarkets ombudsman should have more power and greater remit to look into milk contracts, particularly this new trend of not renewing contracts at all, leaving dairy farmers to be dependent on the spot market, or sending a shiver of uncertainty throughout the whole industry. What steps is the Government taking, therefore, to put pressure on the Westminster Government to improve the work of the ombudsman in this area, and to improve the milk industry in general?
I share your concerns on this issue. It’s been our position, as a Welsh Government, for some time that the adjudicator should be given the powers that she needs to ensure fairness right across the business supply chain in dairy. The Welsh Government originally pressed for the Groceries Code Adjudicator to have the power to fine from the outset, to hear complaints anonymously and to ensure the widest possible access to her services, and those services should include indirect suppliers, as well as farmers and trade organisations.
The role has been in place now for two years, so I think that now is an opportune time for the UK Government to reassess those powers and to ensure that she has the power that she needs. The previous Minister met with the adjudicator and it’s my intention to do so too. I’ll be seeing Liz Truss, Secretary of State, on Monday, and we’ll be in Brussels at the Council of Ministers meeting, which has the Russian trade ban on the agenda. Within that, obviously, discussion on dairy will be key. So, I’ll take that opportunity to raise those issues precisely with her.
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the requirement for small-scale solar parks to provide community benefits? OAQ(4)0241(NR)
I thank the Member for Monmouth for his question. There is currently no requirement for small-scale solar parks to provide community benefits. However, I’m very keen to see renewable energy developers working with local communities to maximise all the potential of social and economic benefits these developments can create.
Thank you, Minister. The Minister will be aware that there’s a proposal to extend the register of economic and community benefits from onshore wind to solar farms. I asked the question, Minister, because residents of the village of Llanvapley, between Abergavenny and Monmouth, in my constituency, fought a long battle against a solar farm, which has since been granted permission. They accept that decision, but they had hoped to negotiate some community benefits in retrospect; however, those have not been forthcoming. Can you look at this area and make sure that, if communities are going to have developments like this, then the least they can expect is that there will be a retrospective requirement for negotiations with the community to try and get some benefits?
Again, non-specific to any application, I think it’s a valid point the Member raises about where community generation can have positive benefits in communities. It is something that I will give further consideration to, but it is a matter for the local planning authority in the first instance.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to item 2, which is questions to the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty. Question 1 is from Joyce Watson.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on food poverty? OAQ(4)0282(CTP)
Thank you. The Welsh Government is taking action across a number of departments to address the growing problem of food poverty. My officials are leading work to bring strands together and ensure maximum impact. The revised child poverty strategy identifies food poverty as an area where we will take further action.
I am pleased, Minister, by your answer, because it is the case that food poverty was missing from the first child poverty strategy, so I welcome that. But there is an anomaly: whereas charities that rely on cash donations can take advantage of schemes like Gift Aid to get tax rebates, food banks, which mostly rely on donations of food, miss out. So, would you explore with Cabinet colleagues—and make the case to Westminster—options for tax rebate designed especially for food banks based on the value of goods given?
Yes, thank you. As I said, food poverty is a growing problem, and I do accept that, you know, it wasn't in the 2011 strategy. I think that shows it’s much more of an acute problem now, and I think it’s absolutely right that we do take action now to address it. I’m certainly very happy to—. I’ll write to the relevant Minister in Westminster regarding the issue around Gift Aid that you raise.
Minister, I find myself in complete agreement with Joyce Watson, for once, on this issue. [Interruption.] Good question, Joyce. According to Save the Children, one third of children in Wales are affected by poverty; I’m sure you’re aware of the statistics. Joyce Watson mentioned food banks. In Monmouth, one food bank has handed out more than 2,000 meals since it was launched almost a year ago, feeding 145 adults and 89 children. Now, whatever people’s opinions on food banks and the position we’re in with regard to them, there are many hard-working volunteers in communities across Wales putting a lot of effort into those food banks. Can you do what you can to support them and also carry forward Joyce Watson’s suggestion on tax rebates?
Yes, I will certainly write to the Minister, as I said. I think you’re absolutely right: the food banks are run by, you know, an army of volunteers here in Wales, and we’re very grateful to them. Certainly, having had discussions with the Trussell Trust, it’s very clear that the majority of people who approach the Trussell Trust for help are doing so because of the changes in welfare reform, so perhaps you could lobby your own Government in Westminster around that.
Minister, the increase in the use of food banks in Wales is nothing short of an absolute scandal, in my view. When I first became aware of the food bank network in 2010 and helped to raise awareness of their work, the network fed just 4,000 people in that particular financial year in Wales. In the last financial year, that number has risen to 79,000, and nearly 28,000 of those are children. The politics of austerity has a lot to answer for. Were you, therefore, undermined as Minister for communities and embarrassed as a Labour party member when your colleagues signed up, en masse, last week to the Tory austerity charter in Westminster, and, Minister, if you were, would you have voted differently?
Well, I'm not a Member of Parliament, so I think it's a bit of a hypothetical question to ask how I would've voted. For me, as Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty, it's absolutely vital we do something in the here and now in relation to food poverty. As I said, it wasn't in the child poverty strategy; it wasn’t in our tackling poverty action plan. For the reasons I’ve outlined, it's become much more of an acute problem. I think it's really important that, as I take the annual report of the tackling poverty action plan forward—we’ll be refreshing that in July—we ensure that this issue is addressed then.
Children from Disadvantaged Homes
2. What measures are being taken to tackle poverty to help children from disadvantaged homes? OAQ(4)0269(CTP)
Diolch. Significant investment in the early years and action to improve educational outcomes, through programmes such as Flying Start and the pupil deprivation grant, will all contribute to supporting children from low-income households. Our revised child poverty strategy and tackling poverty action plan set out our overall approach to tackling poverty.
Thank you very much. You’ve alluded to the pupil deprivation grant, of course, which is given to children from disadvantaged homes to improve their educational attainment, but this grant, of course, is dependent on the child being in receipt of free school meals. In a school in my constituency, 40% of the children come from some of the most disadvantaged backgrounds, but only half of those are in receipt of free school meals. So, half of these disadvantaged children are missing out and the school is missing out. What will the Government do to secure the deserved support for these children?
Well, it’s something that I'll be very happy to discuss with my colleague the Minister for Education and Skills. You will be aware he's made closing the attainment gap his absolutely top priority and the pupil deprivation grant is very important to him in coming to that achievement. So, I will have discussions with my colleague, the Minister.
Minister, as we’re talking about the pupil deprivation grant, I'm sure you, like me, are very grateful that schools in our constituencies are receiving this additional grant. More importantly now, for three-year-olds going in for the first time, the pupil deprivation grant will be applied. How are you ensuring that schools and education authorities will be working alongside your other colleagues in Welsh Government to make sure that they do actually tackle the issues of educational disadvantage among those children from poorer backgrounds, and that we can do the best? That means not cutting the school library services and not cutting uniform grants as part of an overall education authority’s strategy to save money.
Thank you. It is very important that—. You know, whilst I've got tackling poverty, obviously, in my title, it is absolutely vital that we work across Government. One of the things we do is that I chair the tackling poverty implementation board, which is made up of senior officials from right across Government who are accountable for the targets and milestones that we have in the tackling poverty action plan. So, for instance, the Minister for Public Services will have his officials there, and that's the message that they’ll be able to take back to local authorities.
One of the things I've done since I came into portfolio is that I’ve restructured that board, because I think it's very important that we focus, perhaps, on one topic per board. The Minister comes along to that board, and I think that will send out a very important message to everyone that it is absolutely a priority for this Government.
Minister, a good education is a crucial weapon against poverty and a great motivator for social mobility. Given Estyn's concerns that the education system is failing bright young people from poor backgrounds, what conversations have you had with the education Minister to ensure that leaders in schools with a large cohort of children with free school meals believe that his Oxbridge hub is for them just as much as schools in affluent areas, and that they are expected to use it?
I haven't had specific discussions on that topic, although it is something—. The Minister for Education and Skills and I co-chair the early years partnership board and it’s something that we can look at within that board.
Minister, I understand that the wording of the pupil deprivation grant is such that it is available to those who are eligible for a free school meal, not in receipt of a free school meal. I understand that it is possible for local authorities to assess those individuals who are eligible and passport the money straight across without those individuals having to actually receive the said free school meal. Could you write to the local authorities in Wales and ask them how many of them are automatically passporting the money across, how many of them are requiring schools to chase after pupils and find out those who are eligible, and, if they are not currently doing that, to please share best practice so that money is getting to those children who need it most?
Yes, I think you raise a very important point, and I will be very happy to get that information and share it with Members.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to questions from the party spokespeople, and, first this afternoon, opposition spokesperson Mohammad Asghar.
Thank you, madam Presiding Officer. Minister, it was deeply moving to see the support offered from around the world, including from Wales, to the French people following the horrific events in Paris a couple of weeks ago. The danger of radicalisation of some sections of society is all too apparent, and we in Wales have seen the effect on communities of individuals being influenced by this extremism. What plans does the Minister have to improve engagement with our minority communities to root out extremism and promote a peaceful and tolerant society, which is in everybody’s interests in Wales?
Thank you very much for that question. I think you’re right—the peace vigil here in Cardiff bay, outside the Senedd, certainly demonstrated, I think, the very strong feeling of unity from our communities throughout Wales. I am absolutely committed to working across faith communities, and all communities, to promote messages of mutual understanding and respect across Wales. We have several fora—there is the race forum, which I met with, I think, last week or the week before; we have the faith forum, which the First Minister chairs, and, obviously, my colleague, the Minister for Public Services, takes the lead regarding extremism for the Government.
Thank you for that reply, Minister. Fourteen years after the launch of Communities First, Wales has the second-highest child poverty rate of the United Kingdom nations and regions. In Wales today, almost three quarters of children eligible for free school meals fail to achieve five good GCSEs, higher than, again, in any English region. What guarantee can the Minister give that the nearly £32 million of funding allocated for Communities First in 2015-16 will target the deep-rooted causes of poverty in Wales, and not just the symptoms?
I think you raise a very important point. The Communities First programme is—. The evaluation that is coming out now is showing us that we are targeting the right areas, and we are looking at the priorities. I think that educational attainment is absolutely critical. It’s the early years of a child’s life that then will show us what their future chances are. So, the funding that goes into Communities First, the evaluation that we have—and I’m going to publish the next—. The next evaluation will be published next month, and I will be publishing that, the national performance data for the programme, during the next month. It will show that the Communities First programme has made some very significant impacts and improvements, particularly around those young people who were not in education, employment or training. So, I think we do need to look at the earlier years, and that will be something—. Once I have those data through we can look to ensure that our strategy is correct and that those targets are correct also.
Thank you, Minister. According to Stonewall Cymru, 87% of secondary school teachers say homophobic bullying happens in their schools. Eighty-five per cent of school staff have not received specific training on how to tackle homophobic bullying. What discussion has the Minister had with the Minister for Education and Skills on how to tackle homophobic bullying in our schools in Wales?
That is an issue for the Minister for Education and Skills. I haven’t had any specific discussions since I’ve been in post, but I will be very happy to support him whichever way I can.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to Plaid Cymru spokesperson Rhodri Glyn Thomas.
Minister, last Monday the Carmarthenshire branch of UNISON sent a letter to the leader of Carmarthenshire County Council, and I’ll quote directly from the letter:
The stark consequences of Carmarthenshire’s Labour-led council passively implementing ConDem cuts meekly passed on by a Labour Welsh Assembly Government will soon become apparent to the people of Carmarthenshire, in particular, young people and the dedicated professionals who work with them. If the council is successful in implementing the cuts, senior management implementing on behalf of elected members a slash and burn policy of council services, and, as a result, this will inevitably lead to less services, poorer services, outsourcing services, or no services where they currently exist. There is no hiding the fact that this will be the case. It is a fallacy to claim, as some councils do, that you can do more with less.
Do you agree, Minister, with the views of the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison, and that these cuts will have an impact on the most vulnerable people in our communities?
Well, those decisions that are taken by Carmarthenshire County Council are for them, to say what they think is best for the local population. I know that local authorities right across Wales have had an extremely difficult financial settlement this time. You’ll be aware that the Welsh Government’s budget has been cut in real terms by £1.5 billion over this term. We can only give the money we’ve got to local authorities, and it’s up to the local council to decide on the way they spend on their services, for the local population.
I take it, therefore, Minister, that you do not agree with the views of the Carmarthenshire branch of Unison. The point they are making is that it is the most vulnerable people in our communities who will suffer as a result of this, that many of these people, in fact, are in employment, but on very low wages. The point that Alun Ffred Jones made earlier is absolutely right: most of your policies to tackle poverty appertain to people on allowances. What are you doing about people who are on low pay, but who are really suffering because of these cuts?
In-work poverty is certainly becoming a real issue in Wales. You know, we’ve only got so many levers; we can only deal with issues that we have the levers for, and we can’t plug the gaps on the funding cuts from Westminster. You know, one area where I think we can really help is advice services. Whilst we’ve put approximately, I think, about £4 million additional funding into advice services, to try and help people from getting into debt in the first place, and, for those who are in debt, who are hard-working families but find themselves in debt, it’s very difficult to plug all those gaps that are coming from Westminster. If you look at legal aid, for instance, our advice services are having an increased number of people who are looking for, you know, assistance from a legal point of view. So, I think we have to be very pragmatic, and very realistic, work within the levers we have, and do all we can to protect the most vulnerable in our deprived areas.
Are you telling us this afternoon, Minister, that the only people you can support and assist are those people on allowances, and that people who are on low incomes in Wales, therefore, will receive no support from the Welsh Government, because you do not have the resources to do anything about them?
No, that’s not what I said at all. I said, for a lot of people who find themselves in work poverty—you know, hard-working families—we are doing what we can, with advice services, for instance, to support them, and, also with our other programmes.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ spokesperson, Peter Black.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, almost a year ago today, your predecessor wrote to the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, in response to their inquiry into barriers to home building in Wales. In relation to the issue that had been highlighted to that committee, around the cost of utility connections, your predecessor said that he was keen to see Welsh Water and other utility companies support development with appropriate infrastructure investment, and was going to take that forward with his ministerial colleagues. Could you give us an update on that, please?
I am aware that, following the committee’s recommendations, some research was undertaken in conjunction with Welsh Water, housing associations, registered social landlords, and Community Housing Cymru. I think that work has progressed; certainly, the meeting I had last month with the Home Builders Federation did assure me that turnaround times, and costs, have improved over the last year.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I’d be interested in a comparison of costs. A constituent came to see me only last week to complain that, when he was building five properties, the connection cost for those five properties was £4,615—just under £1,000 for each property—with Welsh Water, when he and his company had, effectively, done all the work of digging the trenches. All they had to do was to put the piping and the water meters in. I’d be grateful if you could give us an indication as to whether, in conversations with Welsh Water, there is any attempt by them to reduce the costs, so as to encourage the house building that we do need in our communities.
I think this issue lies with my colleague, the Minister for Natural Resources, but I’d be very happy to find that information and write to the Member.
Again, I’d be very grateful for that answer, Minister. The issue that I think has been highlighted to me in terms of trying to encourage new build around Wales is that some of the costs, which the small local builders in particular are having to meet, are quite extortionate and are making their profit margins very small. As a result, they’re not able to build as many houses as we need. Given the issues we have with house building, can I ask you to revisit the recommendations of the committee, and the response of your predecessor, to see what else can be done to help those small house builders in terms of trying to reduce the costs that they face, and trying to encourage more affordable homes to be built?
Yes, absolutely. If we’re going to reach our target of 10,000 affordable homes over the lifetime of this Government, we need the support of the small companies to which you refer, so I’d be very happy to revisit the recommendations from the committee.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move back to the questions on the paper, and question 3 is from Peter Black.
3. Will the Minister provide an assessment of the performance of Communities First areas? OAQ(4)0266(CTP)
Thank you. The Communities First outcomes framework enables each cluster to demonstrate the contribution its work is making to the three main themes of prosperous communities, healthier communities, and learning communities. I’ve previously undertaken to publish national performance data in February.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Can you give us an indication as to what this national performance data is going to be based on? As you will know, the indicators that have so far been published give some assessment of the impact of Communities First, but if you were to look for instance at the Marmot indicators and how they apply to the various communities, it’s very difficult to see how the tens of millions of pounds that have been spent are having an impact. Will you be basing that performance assessment on those Marmot indicators?
The key performance indicators measure the main outcome or the contribution that the programme makes, or aims to make, in the priority areas, such as someone entering employment, improving school attendance or increasing their physical activity. We’ve also got the healthier aspects of the programme as well. So, what I want to see is a sort of consistent set of performance indicators for all the clusters within the programme, because I think that will help me ensure, as I said in my answer before to Mohammad Asghar, that we are getting the strategy right and we are getting the targeting right.
In Swansea East, Communities First is working to improve the health of people via a healthy lifestyle, including exercise, improved diet and smoking cessation, to improve the educational attainment of the young and the old, to reduce family outgoings, as well as helping to get people into work. Can I ask the Minister to visit one of the Communities First clusters in Swansea East?
Yes, I’d be very happy to meet one of the clusters in Swansea East. I know there are five Communities First clusters across Swansea. They’ve had £7 million awarded to them. I think it is really important that I get out there and see what’s happening within the Communities First programme, so yes, I’d be very happy to visit with the Member.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Presiding Officer. No—sorry, it’s the wrong—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
No? John Griffiths.
Minister, it’s very important that allocated resource is used to the full for Communities First areas. Where clusters such as in Newport are using their resource to the full, will it be possible to allocate underspends elsewhere to those particular areas?
I think you raise a very important point. It’s absolutely vital that every penny is spent in the Communities First areas, and, since I came into portfolio, I’ve been asking my officials to monitor the financial returns and compare them with what the planned spend was, compare them to previous spend history, and also have a look at the performance against the outcome framework, so I can then make decisions about whether any funding could be transferred to ensure that any projected underspend can be deployed in the most appropriate manner.
Tackling Poverty in North Wales
4. Will the Minister outline her priorities for tackling poverty in North Wales over the next 12 months? OAQ(4)0280(CTP)
Thank you. Reducing the number of workless households, increasing skills and reducing inequalities in health and educational outcomes are critical to tackling poverty. A range of programmes, including Flying Start, Communities First, Lift and Families First, are making an important contribution to tackling poverty in north Wales.
Minister, I was interested in your reference to Flying Start in that answer, because the most recent evaluation indicated that the analysis showed no difference between parents in Flying Start areas and parents in comparison areas on parenting, self-confidence, mental health or home environment measures. Similarly, there was no statistically significant difference between Flying Start and non-Flying Start areas, in terms of child cognitive and language skills, their social and emotional development and their independence or self-regulation. Given that, and the fact that 49% of rural Welsh communities don’t have access to out-of-school groups, and the majority of communities in rural Wales with populations of below 1,000 have no access to nursery provision, should you not be looking at tackling the areas where there is a complete absence of provision in terms of any underspends, or, indeed, in terms of the programme that you’re developing now?
Perhaps, Presiding Officer, I should’ve taken Antoinette Sandbach with me on Monday to the inaugural Flying Start awards, where I just came across the most fantastic work being undertaken by very dedicated and committed Flying Start teams in all our settings, right across Wales. If you have a look in Pembrokeshire, for instance, where the first cohort of Flying Start children are now reaching high school, I think it’s very clear to see that Flying Start is an excellent programme, and I’m very pleased that we’re well on target to delivering our commitment to double the number of children benefitting from Flying Start from 18,000 to 36,000 during this term.
Minister, last week, I spoke to the Trussell Trust north Wales conference on food banks, and I know your support for the food bank in the Wrexham area was very much appreciated when it was mentioned. It’s a sad fact that we know that so many of the working families, particularly in our constituencies, are having to use the emergency food parcels from food banks. Do you not believe it’s time for some of the opposition Tory Members here to be going back to their colleagues to stop them saying things like, ‘The only people who use food banks are those who are too thick to manage their own money’, or, ‘They are drug addicts who have to be helped’, which is what has been said by many of the Conservative MPs in the House of Commons? Do we—[Interruption.] Alun Cairns did say it. So, I think what we have to do is we have to make sure that we support all those people who do have to use food banks, but we do also have to tell them that one of the reasons is the pernicious cuts from the Tory Government led by Conservatives in London?
Absolutely. Ann Jones raises a very important point, and, as I said before in my answer to Rhodri Glyn Thomas, we know in-work poverty is on the increase, and it is hard-working families who now, sadly, are having to use food banks. I absolutely recognise the invaluable role that food banks do play, but—yes, you’re right—I do often think that one way of tackling poverty certainly would be for our Tory colleagues to go back to their Government in London and tell them of the damage their welfare reform is doing.
Minister, you’ve alluded to the evaluation that will be available next month on Communities First. You’ve also suggested that there is very close monitoring taking place of these schemes. I’m looking at the situation at the Caia estate in Wrexham, within your constituency, where Queensway, of course, has gone down from being ninth of the poorest wards in Wales to being the third poorest ward. A high percentage of Communities First funding is being spent in that area on play schemes, so are you satisfied with the fact that the situation in some of these areas is deteriorating rather than improving?
No, I think that’s rather a silly rhetorical question. Of course I’m not happy. However, you know, there are certainly very stubborn areas of poverty. Someone is always going to be the worst when you have that relative measure; somebody is always going to be top. You will have heard me saying—sorry, no, you’re not on that committee. Last week, in committee, when I was giving evidence, in the ward that came top this time in the Welsh index of multiple deprivation, a lot of people were very indignant that they were the top—the most deprived ward in Wales—but you’re always going to have somebody top, and it is very unfortunate when you see these stubborn areas. I think that is why evaluation is so important, and I think the evaluation that we’re going to have next month will help me have a look at why there are these very stubborn areas and what we can do to assist.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
What proportion of the departmental budget for voluntary organisations is directly allocated to them rather than to mediatory bodies such as the Wales Council for Voluntary Action?
Sorry. The Member’s asking his tabled question further on.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I’ve got Dafydd Elis-Thomas down as asking a supplementary question on whether the Minister would outline the priorities of tackling poverty.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I must apologise for that error, then, in that case.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Okay, we’ll move on, then, to question 5 from Mohammad Asghar.
5. What action will the Welsh Government take to promote credit unions in Wales in 2015? OAQ(4)0267(CTP)
We will be refreshing our financial inclusion strategy and, as part of this, we will be looking at what needs to be taken forward to strengthen our support for credit unions. In addition, I am currently considering holding a credit union conference to build on the successful one last year.
Thank you, Minister. The chair of the North Wales Credit Union recently raised concerns that credit unions found it impossible to compete with the marketing budgets of pay-day lenders. What action will the Minister take to build awareness among communities of credit unions as an alternative to pay-day lenders?
Yes, he also raised it with me, and I think it’s a very important point, and certainly we are doing all we can to support credit unions and to promote credit unions. You’ll be aware that my predecessor, Jeff Cuthbert, committed almost £1.9 million to supporting credit unions over the next three years to do just that. That built on the previous good work that the credit unions did. It’s important, as Ministers—and, certainly, all my ministerial colleagues do this—that we promote it within our own portfolios, within the public sector, to make sure that people are aware of this, because they are in a different position to pay-day lenders.
Minister, the credit union movement, of course, has a long history in Wales, with roots in the co-operative and mutual movement. They, as you’ve outlined, provide a much more affordable and socially conscious alternative to pay-day lenders. Now, last year, we did indeed launch an advertising and awareness-raising campaign, led by the North Wales Credit Union, to help boost membership of credit unions. Recent figures show a decline in numbers, so there’s still work to be done, but I agree that this is more to do with the closure of dormant accounts and not, as some have claimed, a sign of public money going down the drain. I am a member of the Smart Money Cymru Credit Union, based in Caerphilly, and I am sure you would join with me in urging colleagues and people in all walks of life to join their local credit union, to support the invaluable work that they do.
Yes, absolutely; I share your sentiment. I’m a member, a long-standing member, of the North Wales Credit Union. I think, in fact, that probably most Members in the Chamber are members of credit unions, but I think it is important that we all go out there in our communities and encourage people to become members of credit unions, and I certainly want to do all I can to encourage membership and to promote the work of credit unions, particularly, as I said in my original answer, to the public sector workforce.
I declare an interest as a member of a credit union in Anglesey, which is run by Môn CF under the auspices of the North Wales Credit Union. As part of the work of promoting credit unions, does the Minister agree that there is a need to promote them to the widest range of people as possible, because, in order for credit unions to be able to offer services to the most vulnerable, you also need savers and those who take low-risk loans? So, you have to hit the whole of society in promoting credit unions.
Yes, absolutely. I think a lot of people aren’t aware that they can approach their credit union for such a loan, and certainly that they save millions of pounds in interest when they do have loans from credit unions. I think that there are a few difficulties that we need to look at, such as the one that Mohammad Asghar raised, but also something that I’ve picked up is that, for instance, I know that—and I am just about to write to the Westminster Government on this—the Ministry of Defence, I am told, has put out a tender for payroll, and credit unions cannot tender for this because their assets are below £10 million. So, again, they’re in a disadvantaged position. So, I think there are lots of things that we can all do to help, support and promote credit unions.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the promotion of community cohesion? OAQ(4)0276(CTP)
Welsh Government published a national community cohesion delivery plan in June 2014. Delivery of the plan across Wales is supported by eight regional community cohesion co-ordinators. I will be reporting on progress against the delivery plan this summer.
Thank you very much for your answer, Minister. You will know that, in August 2014, the Wales Migration Partnership published a second briefing indicating that more than two thirds from ethnic minority backgrounds report experiences of racism in Wales, and around three quarters of all hate crimes are race hate-related. Minister, you will know that this is a rather sensitive time for this issue, and I would ask what your Government is doing to reduce the amount of race hate crimes in Wales.
Thank you. Last October, we had our Hate Crime Awareness Week, which I think was very successful; each day, we focused on a different type of hate crime, and it’s work that I’ve continued to take forward. Last week, I mentioned I had met with the Wales race forum, and certainly they are very keen to continue the excellent work that was undertaken that week, taking it forward. I met with the co-ordinators recently to hear about what work they were doing in each of their regions, and I think it’s certainly something that we can be very proud of in Wales.
Does the Minister agree that it’s very important that British Muslims should not have to go out of their way to prove their loyalty to the UK, and that we should no more ask Muslims to go about explaining and demonstrating how faith and Islam can be part of British identity than we should ask Christians, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus or indeed atheists to explain and demonstrate how their beliefs fit in with being British? Surely, being British means that we should treat everyone equally and fairly and not make unfounded assumptions about any community?
What I think has been very helpful is the way Muslims in Wales sent out a very clear message condemning the actions of extremists, and I really welcome that very spontaneous and willing expression of our shared horror at recent events.
Does the Minister agree that much of the debate in Wales regarding cohesion and integration, particularly regarding ethnic and religious minorities, is fuelled by a media that is completely unrepresentative of the situation here in Wales, causing a dangerous level of distance between public perceptions relating to ethnic minorities and the reality here in our country as opposed to England? Do you agree that this is another argument in favour of the full devolution of broadcasting here to Wales?
I think the media certainly have a role to play; I think they need to be very respectful and they need to be very honest with their readers. But, I think certainly they do have a very clear role to play.
Minister, last week, in the wake of the ‘Charlie Hebdo’ rally, I raised with the First Minister the Mosaic programme that has been developed by national parks in Wales. The programme engages with some of Wales’s most hard-to-reach groups, including BME communities in our cities, introducing them to the splendid expanse of our protected landscapes as well as giving them valuable insights into where their food comes from. Minister, in that context, will you commit to discussing with your Cabinet colleague, the Deputy Minister for culture, the potential for extending this scheme, which has evident benefits both in terms of building community cohesion as well as encouraging inclusion and the active lifestyles agenda?
Thank you. My colleague, the Deputy Minister for culture and sport is in the Chamber and has heard your question. Certainly, I’d be very happy to have that discussion.
Minister, would you join me in congratulating the Muslim communities in Newport who were featured in the ‘South Wales Argus’ this week for their very good work in helping to educate their communities to guard against the dangers of extremism, and work with a range of agencies in Newport to take forward policy that is of benefit to the whole community?
Thank you. I am aware of the work being undertaken in Newport and I think it is very important, as I mentioned in my answer to Julie Morgan, that they came forward with that very clear message. Certainly, it’s something that we can take forward in the faith forum too.
The Voluntary Sector in Rural Areas
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the contribution of the voluntary sector in rural areas? OAQ(4)0279(CTP)
Thank you. The Welsh Government is committed to supporting community organisations making a vital contribution in rural areas. Across Wales, £3.9 million is committed in 2014-15 to support county voluntary councils and volunteer centres across Wales, which includes those in rural areas.
One of the key bodies in those rural areas is young farmers’ clubs, and I’m sure that you will be aware of the serious financial challenges facing that organisation at a national level in the ensuing financial year. Will you therefore commit to work closely with the Deputy Minister for the environment to ensure that no stone is left unturned in order to ensure that there is a prosperous and secure future for that organisation at a national level in the coming year?
I know that all voluntary organisations are facing difficult times, and that particular organisation hasn’t been identified to me as one of them. But, yes, I’m very happy to work with my colleague, the Deputy Minister.
Could I endorse the sentiments that Llyr Huws Gruffydd expressed about the young farmers movement? It is a movement that obviously embraces all social aspects of rural Wales and, in particular, it goes beyond the misconception that people are involved solely in agriculture in the young farmers movement—it reaches out to all young people in the rural communities of Wales. That’s why I think it’s very important that the Welsh Government do work nationally with the young farmers movement here in Wales to support it in its endeavours to create greater social cohesion. Have you met with the young farmers movement since you’ve been appointed as Minister, and, if you haven’t, will you commit to doing that, Minister, to see where your department might be able to meet some of its goals through the channels that the young farmers have across Wales?
Well, as I mentioned in my answer to Llyr Gruffydd, that hasn’t been raised with me—that organisation—at all, so, no, I haven’t met with them. But, I will have a discussion with my colleague, the Deputy Minister, and, if they want to meet with me, I’d be very happy to do so.
Minister, one of the stated goals of your Government is to ensure that there is equality of opportunity for young people across Wales. Would you acknowledge that statutory services, such as youth services provided by local authorities, simply would not be able, or be in a position, to provide services for young people across rural communities in some of our deep rural and small communities in the way that the young farmers’ clubs movement do? There are 26 individual young farmer clubs in Brecon and Radnorshire providing services for over 1,000 young people—and I declare an interest, with my two eldest daughters being two of them. The club provides training, international travel, builds capacity within young people. It’s run by young people on behalf of other young people, and supported by lots and lots of adult volunteers. In having those discussions with the Deputy Minister, will you look again at ensuring that young people, wherever they live in Wales, have opportunities to learn and develop themselves via youth service movements?
Yes, I’d certainly be very happy to do that.
An Assets-of-community-value Model for Wales
8. Will the Minister make a statement on progress towards configuring an assets of community value model for Wales? OAQ(4)0270(CTP)
Thank you. Since my statement about community assets last October, my officials have held meetings with a number of stakeholders, including local government, the third sector and representatives of sports clubs and pubs. I am considering a range of options and will make a further statement before Easter.
Minister, I very much welcome that statement, because, at the time, there were those of us who thought, well, perhaps it was being put on the back burner, but very clearly it isn’t. For those of us who are particularly keen on the sporting Supporters Direct model, and on the community assets and the greater public engagement and ownership of assets, this is a very important step forward. Are you able to give any further information about the potential timescale or the nature of the reforms that are being considered?
Thank you. I declare that I’m a Member of the Wrexham Supporters Trust, so I absolutely share your sentiments, and I do want to reassure Members that it hasn’t been put on the back burner. In fact, the discussions that my officials have been having on my behalf—. You know, many of the stakeholders that we have engaged with have actually said that the model in England is not working, so I think it’s absolutely right that we find something that’s right for Wales. On the timescale, whilst I recognise there is an element of urgency around this, I think we have to be pragmatic. I don’t want to generate unrealistic expectations either; I think that’s very important. As I said, I will make a statement before Easter.
Minister, the National Lottery currently has a second round of funding open to deliver a community asset transfer programme in Wales, totalling around £9 million. What support is your department offering to ensure that projects in north Wales gain a fair share of that funding and also have the capacity, and are in a position to know how to access it?
Yes, I was aware of the launch here in the Senedd yesterday, and I think it’s absolutely vital that we harness other sources of support, such as the new Community Asset Transfer 2 programme. That’s obviously, as I say, only just been launched, yesterday, but working with my colleague, the Deputy Minister for culture and sport, we will ensure that that programme is used as much as possible. It’s for, obviously, communities to come forward. As I mentioned in my answer to Mick Antoniw, I think it’s really important that we don’t generate unrealistic expectations. I think we need to be very clear about the challenges that are involved where people are taking over community assets.
Can I welcome what you said today, Minister, and say that I think the Government does need a national model and something that works for Wales? It’s not just for local community assets; it’s also assets held by Welsh Government that could be used better by local communities. If I can give you an example, land was freed up with the new bypass in Pembrokeshire around Red Roses. The community there, the Eglwyscummin community and the community in Red Roses, wanted to use some of that land as a community asset to go with the community asset they already had, which was a village hall and a very successful village hall indeed. Now, there was difficulty, I have to say, with the other Minister, the transport Minister, to get this on the agenda. I now understand there is some good news coming to that community and things have moved on, which is excellent, but, if you could look at that example and others like it, Minister, because I didn’t get the impression that officials were necessarily up to speed, shall we say, with the principle of transferring national assets into community assets and sweating those assets, in a way, better, because I think, very often, local communities will make better use of things that may be held by national Government. They would make better use of them and have better ideas to do it. So, if that does come off, I hope you will take the opportunity to look at it and visit it, but, in the meantime, please look at examples like that as ways of improving a national model for this.
Yes. I think Simon Thomas raises a very important point. It's not just me who needs to do this. It needs to be very much across Government. You mentioned the work being undertaken by the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. I know that the Minister for Finance and Government Business looks at the community assets toolkit. The Minister for Public Services is very mindful of this when looking at future models. So, it is very much a cross-Government piece of work.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move on to item 3, which is a debate on the Enterprise and Business Committee's report on tourism, and I call on the Chair of the committee, William Graham, to move the motion.
Motion NDM5670 William Graham
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Enterprise and Business Committee on its Inquiry into Tourism, which was laid in the Table Office on 20 November 2014.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. I am delighted to open today’s debate on the Enterprise and Business Committee’s report into tourism. Tourism is worth £6.9 billion a year to Wales, or 13.2% of our GVA. It supports over 200,000 jobs, and since 2005 has been the fastest growing sector of our economy. Wales has successfully reversed the recent downward trend in tourism. While Britain as a whole has seen a slight decline in visits and spending in the first half of 2014, Wales has seen impressive growth. Wales is an attractive and unique tourism destination. The Welsh Government needs to build on recent successes so that the tourism industry may flourish and make an even greater contribution to the economy.
Sandy Mewies took the Chair at 15:02.
The committee is very grateful to all the people who took the time and effort to contribute to our inquiry. We received 27 written submissions to our inquiry and held nine oral evidence sessions with a range of witnesses, including the Welsh Centre for Tourism Research, VisitBritain and Wales Tourism Alliance. I would like to thank the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism and the then Minister for Culture and Sport for their evidence. I would also like to thank the tourism stakeholders who took part in the three focus group sessions we held—one at the National Museum Cardiff, one at Oriel y Parc in St Davids, and one at the Llechwedd slate caverns in Blaenau Ffestiniog. The first groups at Cardiff and St Davids met simultaneously and key messages were tweeted between the two groups throughout by the Assembly’s outreach and communications teams, to whom we owe a debt of gratitude. The sorts of issues raised with us at these groups included branding of Wales and Cardiff as a tourist destination, transport links, support provided by the Welsh Government and Visit Wales, broadband and mobile phone connectivity and road signage. A number of our recommendations are a direct result of what we heard during these sessions.
Our third session was held at Llechwedd slate caverns, where we heard many of the same messages from stakeholders. We were given a tour of the facilities, which included the slate caverns, Antur Stiniog downhill mountain bike tracks, Zip World Titan and Bounce Below, which to quote their website is
‘the world’s first ever subterranean playground with giant bouncy trampoline like nets to jump around in. Unlike anything seen before.’
And having seen Members and staff participating on that trampoline, I endorse that remark, ‘unlike anything seen before’.
Our report came shortly after the report by the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee on international representation and promotion of Wales by UK bodies, which was published in October. There was some conformity of views between the reports. Like us, they felt that one of the key issues was Wales’s lack of a coherent and distinctive brand that tourism businesses of all sizes can tap into, particularly through the Visit Wales website, which should be the hub of our marketing activity. They too questioned the relationship between VisitBritain and Visit Wales, calling for a coherent strategy for promoting Wales as a first-choice destination for international visitors to the United Kingdom. That said, we did hear lots of positive messages about tourism during the course of our inquiry.
In our report, we made 28 recommendations to the Welsh Government aimed at helping to further develop an industry that is an increasingly important economic driver for Wales. I am grateful to the Deputy Minister for his very positive response to our report, fully accepting 26 of our recommendations, with the other two being accepted in principle.
There are a large number of recommendations, but too many for me to cover this afternoon, so I will limit my comments to six key areas. The marketing and Wales’s tourism brand. One of our key conclusions was the need for a stronger, clearer and more coherent tourism brand to make the most of Wales’s significant tourism potential.
Witnesses told us that the Wales tourism brand is almost non-existent, and tourism businesses are generally dissatisfied with it. It fails to give Wales a clear identity. We also heard that, compared with Britain’s other nations, Wales is the least known internationally. We welcome the recent branding work undertaken by the Ashton Brand Consulting Group for the Welsh Government. Good things are starting to come out of this. The ‘Have you packed for Wales?’ campaign is a positive step forward, but this work now needs to be accelerated.
I welcome the Deputy Minister’s assurance that the key branding principles established as part of this work are being taken forward through marketing campaigns and other tourism and marketing activities.
We were concerned about the lack of connected working between Welsh Government departments in developing a coherent tourism brand. Cultural and heritage tourism make a significant contribution to both the domestic and international markets, so we are pleased that culture and heritage now fall within the economy, science and transport portfolio. We trust that this will result in greater co-ordination between departments that contribute to Wales’s tourism appeal internationally.
Major events. Members will recall that the Welsh Music Foundation was disbanded in July last year, after its three-year core-funding agreement with the Welsh Government expired. Prior to this, the WMF had been instrumental in organising the WOMEX international world music trade expo that was held in Cardiff in October 2013. The economic impact on Wales of hosting WOMEX 2013 was estimated to be some £3 million. The committee held an evidence session with the WMF in January 2014, and concluded that the event had been a great success for Cardiff and Wales. The committee heard during our tourism inquiry that there was
‘substantial unmet demand from potential visitors to Wales for cultural activity’;
this from the Arts Council of Wales.
Recommendation 8 of our report asked the Welsh Government to explain how it will continue the work carried out by the Welsh Music Foundation to promote Wales and Welsh culture internationally following its disbandment. Whilst this recommendation is accepted in principle, there is no detail of how this work will be undertaken. Perhaps the Deputy Minister could provide a more detailed response on this point this afternoon.
Recommendation 13 came as a result of feedback from stakeholders at our focus group events. Industry representatives told us that effective signposting was a key and underrated problem for tourism businesses, and that the application process for a brown and white tourism destination sign is complicated and slow, and the cost prohibitive. The Deputy Minister accepts our recommendation, saying
‘the Welsh Government has introduced revised guidelines that tourism businesses can benefit from in relation to white and brown tourism signage’.
However, the guidance relating to brown and white tourism destination signs available on the Welsh Government website was issued in August 2013, some 14 months prior to the publication of our report. It is hard to see, therefore, how this guidance can address the concerns that were raised with the Committee by stakeholders almost a year ago.
We were concerned about VisitBritain and whether it’s delivering for Wales. We noted that the relationship between Visit Wales and VisitBritain was not sufficiently working to Wales’s advantage. During our inquiry, we heard that the Google summary for VisitBritain stated ‘Official UK tourism and places to visit: England, Scotland and Britain’—no mention of Wales. This was changed after we highlighted the issue, but we heard other evidence that opportunities were being missed by VisitBritain to promote Wales as a distinct destination within the United Kingdom.
Many people told us they thought VisitBritain’s work focused too heavily on London. Indeed, although VisitBritain state that
‘encouraging visits to Wales and promoting regional spread more broadly’
is a key aspect of their strategy, overseas visitors to Wales—and all regions of the United Kingdom outside London—have been declining since 1999.
We heard that VisitBritain’s targets and priorities have changed, and a lot more effort is being put into driving up London tourism, but this is at the expense of elsewhere in the United Kingdom.
We welcome the secondment of a second member of Visit Wales staff to the VisitBritain London office, but believe that further steps are needed to improve the level of knowledge that VisitBritain staff have of Wales and the Welsh tourism offer. We believe the Welsh Government must do more to increase and improve VisitBritain’s promotion of Wales, and work with them to establish challenging growth targets for VisitBritain to increase tourism in Wales. While I welcome the Deputy Minister’s acceptance of our recommendations in this regard, I am not convinced that the activity he describes in his response constitutes the step-change we were calling for.
Finally, I’d like to turn to the Welsh Government’s engagement with the industry. We heard from industry representatives of a lack of clarity around what Visit Wales does and how it spends its money. There was also a feeling that Visit Wales needs to improve its overall communication with the industry. The Welsh Government has recently restructured the support it offers to tourism businesses at a regional level, but we heard there was a lack of clarity around how the new arrangements would work and this was causing obvious concern.
We were also told that the Visit Wales website was hard to navigate, and some witnesses reported difficulties in getting up-to-date information about their businesses onto the website. We made a number of recommendations aimed at improving the relationship between the Welsh Government and the industry, but I note from the Deputy Minister’s response that tourism officials engage with the industry in a variety of ways but there was a very strong view among stakeholders that this was an area for significant improvement. I urge the Deputy Minister to ensure this work is escalated. I look forward to Members’ views and the Deputy Minister’s response to the points I have raised.
I’d like to very much welcome this report, and also to say how enjoyable it was to actually participate and, I think, how much we all actually learnt about what is going on in Wales within tourism and its relevance to, not only Wales, but also to the creation of jobs, and the actual enormous return there is from every £1 that’s invested in tourism.
When the investigation was under way, I rang my son, who lives in Los Angeles, and asked him what the people out there know about Wales, and he said, ‘Well, they know the Princess of Wales’. He said, ‘They know ‘Downton Abbey’, because they think everybody in Wales lives like that, and they also think that Wales is part of England’. And hence, I think that highlights the challenge that we actually face in promoting Wales within the world. I think it is worth putting on record, actually, the considerable progress that has been made.
It was also interesting, during the inquiry, that when we started considering social media and websites and we looked at the VisitBritain website, the main introduction to Wales was that it’s a rather dull, wet, gloomy place but not so bad when you get there. And, of course, listening to the debate, within a matter of days, we were able to have that changed, so there was a more positive—. But I think this also highlights the level of, perhaps, engagement and joined-up thinking in respect of a lot of our tourist activities.
I think the area on the report that I would probably most like to focus on is something that I’ve raised consistently in this Chamber, and that is, around Wales, as well as the major attractions—the castles, the major museums and so on—we have a large number of incredibly important heritage sites run by volunteers, run by communities, but have a diverse range of incredible interests. So, for example, within my constituency alone, we have the only hot spring—the only thermal spring—in the whole of Wales, in Taff’s Well. We also have an incredible former well-established crockery and contributor to ceramics during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, which is still being run by volunteers. We have the oldest steam operated—compression operated now—winding gear in the whole of Britain, going back to, I think, 1873. That is now operating and the site is being restored, again, by volunteers. There’s also very much the sort of support that we’ve had from the Welsh Government for the Llantrisant Trust proposals to completely restore the ancient Guildhall there and tie it in, of course, with the tourism from the visitor centre from the Royal Mint.
The dilemma they’ve faced of course is integrating that within a broader tourist programme and policy, and ensuring that, when people come to visit sites, they’re able also to access and identify where there are the most specialist sites. And that, of course, brings us on to recommendation 13, which relates to signage. There was some discussion of that yesterday, but, for example, there is no signage off the A470 for the Nantgarw pottery. How does anybody know how to get there and where it is? So, we need more consistent and more joined-up thinking, I think, as regards improving our signage and access. I think that also includes the use of websites and social media as well.
The promotion on websites and social media was very interesting because—
Can you give way?
Sorry. Yes, of course.
Thank you, Mick, for giving way. You’ve hit on my favourite subject of brown tourist signage. It’s worse than you say, because, actually, some of those original signs are also in the wrong place and you can miss some of the tourist attractions that you’re looking for. So, I think you’d agree with me that we need a review of those signs, urgently.
Absolutely, and with that one example, which was the Nantgarw trust, it is the one issue that they continually raise, and that is, ‘We’ve got a fantastic heritage facility here, but no-one knows how actually to get here’. Perhaps as equally important, of course, is that the accessibility of this information on websites. So, I think the progress and the focus on the use of the Visit Wales and the VisitBritain websites are things that are extremely important. But, I think it is worth, perhaps just in conclusion, on the few points I’ve made, actually recognising that so much of our tourist heritage and so much of the value part of our tourist business are, and continue to be, run by volunteers. I would only reiterate the point there that we really have to ensure that support for them, as part of our tourist and business strategy, is really at the top of the agenda.
Thank you. Can I just tell Members that there are a long list of speakers, including committee members and others, and if people don’t keep it brief, I will not get everybody in? So, if I can ask you to be succinct, I’d be very grateful. Byron Davies.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer—Chair.
Members, thank you for the opportunity to contribute to this debate today on tourism. As has already been highlighted, we can’t overestimate the importance of the industry to Wales. We often discuss the engine room of the Welsh economy in south Wales and the M4 corridor, but, of course, the tourism industry is what really drives much of the Welsh economy across Wales, whether it is north, south, mid or west Wales, rather than one specific area. I know the huge reliance, as someone born and raised in south Gower—. The beaches there, the wonderful beaches that we have—. We take this sector for granted at our peril. Swansea city council often refers to Gower as the jewel in the crown.
The report is a substantial piece of work, and, like other Members, I’m delighted the recommendations were all accepted by the Government. I do, however, note some caution, as with most reports the Government responses imply that there could be funding implications. Now, this, for me, highlights the notion that I mentioned a moment ago: that taking this sector of our economy for granted would be a grave mistake. We need to invest in our brand Wales, as recommendation 1 says, and we need to finally establish our brand, stick with it and invest heavily. I know reassurances about key branding principles are already established, but I want to see a high-visibility campaign that resonates around the world. It can be done.
Our tourist offer is second to none here, as we’ve already heard from the Member for Pontypridd, in Wales. But, report after report highlight the failure to capitalise on it. If you look at the analysis, it shows visitors are more often day visitors. Our accommodation is, perhaps, substandard in terms of both quality and quantity, and other cities across the UK and Europe are outperforming us. If you look at rural Wales, some of our most treasured castles, beaches, gardens and other cultural centres are undersold, I believe, or worryingly absent from any tourist advertising. We see today the terrific news about the refurbishment of Harlech castle entrance, and I’d like to see visitors landing in Heathrow to see pictures of Harlech, Gower and Pembrokeshire and clear information about how to get there.
On the subject of airports, I just wanted to use this debate to highlight the Government’s, I think, perhaps, failure to tie in aviation strategies—if, indeed, there is one—with tourism. I am just looking at recommendation 4 here, where it says that the Welsh Government,
‘should involve tourism businesses more closely with its advertising campaigns’.
In the response, it accepts that,
‘there were a series of industry road shows in November 2014 which shared our plans’,
with plans for more next year. Perhaps you could tell us what you’ve got planned for Cardiff Airport, because I really do think that we’re focusing on helping people leave this country, here in Wales, rather than focusing on getting visitors into Wales through Cardiff Airport. This is exceptionally clear if you look at the priorities currently at Cardiff Airport. Sadly, there are no more excuses now. You cannot blame others for it, because you operate the site, you own it, so, let’s see some work in that direction, please.
So, if I could just end on the heartened note that the Government has accepted this report in its entirety, I’m just sad that we debate this subject tirelessly and I’m yet to be convinced that brand Wales is coherent enough to convince those in this Chamber, let alone compete in what is becoming a hugely competitive global industry out there. Thank you.
We have a strong tourism industry in Wales already, of course, which is worth almost £7 billion annually. There are recent developments, very exciting developments, that give us confidence for the future. I will take this opportunity to apologise to Suzy Davies for flooring her on Bounce Below with a slap to her jaw, way underground in Blaenau Ffestiniog. But, I hope that you thought that it was worth it to see that fantastic resource, which is a boon to tourism in Wales. Although we do have strength in place already, I’m not the only one here who feels that the tourism industry in Wales isn’t reaching its full potential.
You can have the best product in the world, but unless you market it properly, you are not going to sell it. On the other hand, you can have the finest marketing campaign on earth, but if your product isn’t worthwhile, then word is going to get around quickly that people are wasting their money on that particular product.
Therefore, the recommendations in this report, I believe, strike a very good balance between those two issues: improving the product and improving the marketing. In terms of improving the product, there are a number of recommendations on improving collaboration between various departments within Government. We call for the use of European funding to invest in the industry. We call on Ofcom to ensure that the appropriate mobile phone infrastructure is available to modern tourists, and so on, and so forth.
In terms of marketing, clearly, I think that first of all, despite the current financial limitations, we have to seek ways to invest more in marketing Wales to foreign markets. The Deputy Minister, in giving evidence to the committee, stated that there are alternative ways of marketing Wales without having to spend money—that we could use social media and so on—and, of course, he is entirely right in making that point. But, a few minutes later during that same session, he said that Germany had been identified as a market where we could see growth in visitors to Wales, and, because of that, he was going to provide greater funding to market Wales in that particular market. There is a clear link between expenditure on marketing and what we can expect in return. As a committee, we weren’t at all comfortable in seeing Glasgow, as a city, spending as much on marketing as we do as a nation.
Of course, there are other issues that you can’t put a price on. Mick Antoniw has already referred to our failure, and the Government’s failure, to ensure that Wales has the clout. For example, in terms of VisitBritain, Mick Antoniw said how poor that website was. What we saw, in going on to Google during the inquiry to search for the VisitBritain website, was this description:
‘Official UK tourism and places to visit: England, Scotland and Britain’.
This is the organisation that is supposed to be giving equal coverage to the various nations of these isles. A few phone calls to the right place during the inquiry sorted that out, and that was changed. But, we should have confidence in the Government having the clout to ensure that that sort of fundamental issue doesn’t occur in the first place. If a fundamental, very obvious mistake like that can happen, it doesn’t give people confidence in terms of what’s happening behind the scenes, if you like, that Wales is being treated equally and given its due respect when these isles are promoted abroad.
We have to strengthen the brand. William Graham, as committee Chair, has already referred to one of the things said by a witness:
‘The Wales tourism brand is almost non existent’.
Another said that:
‘Brand Wales is at a tipping point.’
The Welsh Government must give that lead to ensure that we know exactly what the brand is that we’re trying to sell for Wales.
I will conclude with one issue that was discussed widely in committee, and that was the feeling among committee members that the Government isn’t ambitious enough—this target of increasing tourism earnings by 10% by 2020. Perhaps we, as a committee, are the only ones who are optimistic for the future, but we do hope that that will be reviewed, and I think that there has been a pledge made by Government that they will review that 10% figure again.
Chair, this is a vital industry. It's one of our three main employers. It's one of our top exports as a nation, too. We've got to get it right. We've got a package of measures as a party that we'd like to see investing in the tourism industry. But, I certainly commend this report as an important weapon in the fight to make sure that we can make more out of our tourism potential.
The fact that tourism has been categorised as a key sector to the economy by the Government confirms the wider realm of what we know to be at stake. Against a background of squeezed living standards and austerity, it remains all the more important that our focus on a sector so economically crucial remains steadfast. Amongst the facts is that Wales’s tourism generates 13.2% of gross value added and 206,000 jobs, and is one of Wales’s three largest employers—figures that are higher in west Wales. Carmarthenshire’s 2013 report showed just shy of 6,000 full-time equivalent jobs supported and created by the industry, with an economic impact of between £130 million and £360 million since 2007.
I welcome progress made towards the Welsh Labour Government’s target of 10%. Perhaps it should be higher, as Rhun has just said, but even against the background of decreasing visits and spending by tourists in other parts of the UK, we are making progress. However, I do also note the committee’s call for strengthened support partnerships and cross-ministerial working.
Just three points I wish to make: firstly, jobs and training. Issues at stake are the quality of the workers in the industry, ample educational opportunities and the availability of work-based training. In my research, I was pleased to note that University of Wales Trinity St David and Swansea Business School offer five connected Master’s courses—campus or online, full or part time. The course content appears strong, and introduces the vocational element needed through industry engagement and personal employment context.
Secondly, local activity. I know of several organisational bodies and partnerships working collaboratively and strategically, for example, our annual tourist summit that brings stakeholders together with industry leaders and expert panels to discuss strategy, branding and best practice, filtering these ideas to SMEs and microbusinesses for which tourism is the difference between success and failure. I’ve given Kidwelly castle a few more of its almost 3,000 Cadw YouTube hits. We do have a plethora of activities and scenes to offer Wales-wide, yet the best way to promote it is by building up and engaging a technological narrative, which I’m pleased Cadw and the Welsh Government have been doing through Castles and Princes, Castles from the Clouds, and Follow the Romans. The nature of generation Y and its focus on speed and technology inevitably means people want information fast and easily. Historical narratives sell. Not all are within my constituency, so expansion is to be welcomed.
Finally, on branding, I welcome the brand consulting group, commissioned by the Welsh Government. I must emphasise communication of businesses. The offer will vary from north, south, east and west, and that ought to be reflected regionally as well as combined nationally. Use of the ‘Wales: the Brand’ website, other online resources and conferences strike me as particularly good practice for communicating to large businesses, but also, crucially, those rural-based, small microbusinesses that naturally have more difficulties in sending staff to training events. We can learn from the Irish experience of using the Gaelic language for another unique dimension to brand Wales. Figures show success for Welsh-language brands, notably because they create a USP and tap into locally produced or gourmet markets. I’d like to see this maximised, and an ideas workshop within tourism headquarters on how to achieve and promote it.
Finally, I’m very glad that the Government accepts almost all of the recommendations of the committee. Thank you.
The importance of tourism has been well explored by the Members, but with specific reference to Wales, I think its relative value is all the greater, because it can act as a great leveller for us. The peripherality of Wales in terms of Europe as a whole, but also our dispersed population, is a really major challenge for the Welsh economy, and tourism is one of those few industries that can deliver jobs in the remotest places—in fact, actually, where a remote and beautiful location is positively a key selling point. But, the flipside of that is that those jobs can often be temporary, seasonal in nature, low-skilled and very low-paid as well. So, for me, when looking at the tourism industry, it’s not only a question of how many people come, and how much money they spend when they get here, although of course those things are very important; it’s also about how, in the long term, we need to improve the structure of the industry to not only bring those higher value visitors, but also the higher skills and more highly valued jobs, as well.
To do that, I think we need to understand the market a little better. The issue of data and information was one that was raised by the industry in our inquiry. We often have some data, but we haven’t really drilled into those data for useful information that the industry can use. To give you an example, one of the figures quoted in the Welsh Government’s response to the committee was that, year on year, between the first six months of 2013 and 2014, there was a 21% increase in visitors to Wales, which is wonderful news, but there was only a 1% increase in expenditure. It inspires the question: well, why aren’t those figures similar? Why aren’t they tracking the expenditure to the visitor numbers? We have to ask ourselves those deeper questions, you know.
Is it that the overseas visitors are not staying in Wales? Are they just popping over the border as part of a tour that, basically, stays in England and spends most of its value in England for most of the time? And how can we ensure that they come here for longer? If we know that, we can start to formulate plans accordingly. We can start to work with those tour operators who are doing these guided tours and say to them, ‘Actually, the castles of Wales are worth two days of your time here: you need to stay here, you need to spend here, you need to show people the history and the heritage that we have.’
With that more nuanced understanding of what the problem is, in terms of that expenditure, I think we can start thinking about how we can improve the development of those year-round visitors, who we want to attract, and the kind of niche market development that is going to support the higher-value jobs that I’ve been talking about. And also to understand, of course, what training is going to be needed, and what perhaps financial support is going to be needed to encourage entrepreneurs to set up these new, niche businesses. Because we have some wonderful niche businesses all over Wales in the tourism industry. They’re thriving, but we could also, obviously, encourage more.
One way in which we could assist the tourism industry in Wales—and I hope, Deputy Minister, you’ll agree with me—is looking at a VAT cut on accommodation and attractions to 5%. There are calls to look at this; it’s something that many European nations do. Now, clearly, this is not something that’s in the Welsh Government’s control, but I hope that you would join with me in lobbying the UK Government to look at this, because, over a period of 10 years, studies show that it could create 80,000 jobs and generate £2.6 billion extra for the Treasury, and, as I say, it’s not something that’s against European rules.
Finally, on recommendation 10, we focused on last year’s centenary of the birth of Dylan Thomas, and a great success story, in many ways, that was. We are, of course, proud of our famous sons. There is another famous son who I am particularly proud of, representing Cardiff and our local region, and that’s, of course, Roald Dahl. The centenary of his birth is next year, and I hope it’s something that the Welsh Government and Cardiff Council will really work proactively to achieve. Because, you know, Roald Dahl to me, and to many others, is the greatest children’s author of all time. He was born right here in Cardiff, he was christened in the Norwegian Church, right outside this building, and, yes, we’ve named a plaza for him, but how sad it is that we don’t have a way really of reflecting that wicked, irreverent sense of humour that characterises his literature, and that we all engaged with as children. Cardiff has changed, of course, over all of those years. With his home, it’s not so much a case of hiding a light under a bushel, but a blue plaque under a rose bush, and the sweet shop in ‘Boy’ is no longer a sweet shop; sadly, it’s now a chip shop in Llandaff village, but I can assure you, Deputy Minister, it’s still as full of children at lunchtime as I think it ever was.
But isn’t this centenary a wonderful opportunity to celebrate that immense contribution to children’s literature? Let’s have a festival, and let’s see what we can do with that. And, in the long term, let’s work with people like the Heritage Lottery Fund. Why don’t we have a museum dedicated to children’s literature, celebrating Roald Dahl, right here in Cardiff? What a wonderful attraction something like that could be for us here in Wales.
Could I also thank the committee, and its support team, for their work on this inquiry? As well as new evidence, it confirms some of the concerns that I, as opposition spokesperson, have been hearing from within the tourism industry since I became an Assembly Member, and even before that. So, I do welcome the Government’s positive response to the report.
Now, even though I don’t sit on this committee routinely, I was able to do so for some of the evidence sessions this time, and I have to say that going out of this building and meeting with a variety of businesses across Wales was not only bouncy, on one particular occasion, but particularly insightful. There was some very frank evidence given by the more obvious representatives of the industry, but also, in the course of the inquiry, by other witnesses, whose primary purpose may not have seemed, at first glance, to have had much to do with tourism. But it did become clear, in the course of discussion, how important to them the visitor economy was. I mean, the Government’s own figures estimate that over 200,000 jobs rely on tourism, but, with perhaps a broader definition of visitor economy, I suspect it’s more than that. And that’s why strategic decision makers—in this case, the Welsh Government—must consider what it actually means when it says that it consults with industry.
Now, I have made the point in this Chamber before that significant numbers of tourism practitioners were unhappy about the consultation that informed ‘Partnership for Growth’, and, in response, the Welsh Conservatives have launched our Wales-wide consultation with wider industry to allow points of view, including on branding, and dismissed by Government, to be aired and, hopefully, Deputy Minister, acted upon. That survey is available online at www.yourvoiceintheassembly.co.uk. I urge all Members to publicise that survey in constituencies and regions and its findings will, I hope, be of interest to the Deputy Minister, and, indeed, the committee.
I am very pleased to see that the Deputy Minister has accepted the committee’s various recommendations, actually, on data sharing and communicating more effectively with the industry. I think perhaps a gesture of good faith would be to perhaps make the Ashton branding report public, for example. The private sector has very strong views on how it expects further communication to unfold, and, while making no criticism at all of the individuals on the tourism advisory panel, for example, being hand-picked by the Minister rather than nominated by say, tourism councils, it does give rise to the idea that you, Deputy Minister, are being shielded—and it is a perception—from constructive criticism about the role and performance of Visit Wales.
Now, something that has surprised everyone I’ve spoken to about the channels of communication is the fact that they can speak directly to Visit Wales or Cadw officials and I can’t. They find the idea of a potential broker of negotiation and sharer of information not being allowed at the table most baffling. Understandably so when I can speak to, say, Natural Resources Wales, Finance Wales or any other number of Government agencies with which I might be asked to take up an issue on behalf of constituents or, indeed, tourism providers. We are where we are with Visit Wales and Cadw being part of the Executive for now, and, in that environment, I’m pleased that the responsibility for both now is clearly in the hands of one individual—yourself, Deputy Minister—and being viewed through the lens of economic development. So, I’m encouraged by your response to recommendation 5 and recommendations 2, 6, 16, 17 and 18 in particular—a position reinforced by your responses to questions on yesterday’s heritage statement. We will be following your progress on that aim with positive expectations.
Just briefly, on two further points, on the relationship between Visit Wales and VisitBritain, I think there have clearly been weaknesses on both sides, but I was encouraged by VisitBritain’s speedy response to the criticism levelled at it, but I’m still confused as to why it took 18 months for Visit Wales to get a secondment to VisitBritain and also Visit Wales’s failure to take advantage of the GREAT campaign, which is actually referenced in the recommendations, at the time of the London Olympics. I hope that the transfer of immediate responsibility for tourism to you, Deputy Minister, may improve the effectiveness of that relationship.
On the tourism investment support scheme, I do challenge your assertion that the £20 million that you say is spent on tourism primarily supports this scheme. You know that funding to approve projects has halved since 2011-12 to under £1.5 million this year, so it’s hardly a majority of the budget. A Government statement on its future—and I hope you will commit to that today—would be very helpful, and, in view of some of the very generous six-figure support for some businesses, I would be grateful if you’d report on the recuperation of part of those grants, and where the recovered moneys go, along with the details of business achievements as measured against the approved business case. Thank you very much.
I remember at the time of the foot and mouth crisis, and it was indeed a terrible time, coming to understand just how much tourism means to mid and west Wales. Suddenly, the knock-on effects and the connections between every corner of the local economy became crystal clear. It’s a lesson I’ve not forgotten. In mid and west Wales especially, tourism is about survival, not just branding. It’s also about confidence. Tourism campaigns are, like a job interview, where you’ve really got to sell yourself. As a country, we’ve grown in confidence and that has translated to greater confidence in selling Wales to the rest of Britain and the rest of the world. The report does reflect that, and I’m pleased that the Government has responded so positively and constructively to the committee’s 28 recommendations.
Looking ahead, the report signposts where we can further develop our pitch to a new and emerging tourism market, for example, activity and wildlife tourism.
‘Infinite riches in a little room’—now, that’s a good description of what Wales has to offer the world. Yesterday, the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism outlined new plans to protect our past with a law to better care for our historic environment. That is significant; our historic sites are one of Wales’s biggest draws. But if Wales is the overarching brand, we must also continue to strengthen the regional brands below that, and tap into the trend for, if you like, tailored tourism. We live in an atomised age, and, by that, I mean people will pursue their own special interests. The tourism industry must not get left behind in that respect.
Our domestic market remains the most important, and the news here is good. Overnight stays by British residents went up nearly 5% between 2013 and 2014, and spending was up 4%. In terms of overseas visitors, I was very interested to learn from the Government’s response to the report that figures from the Office for National Statistics’ international passenger survey for the first half of last year did show a 21% increase compared with the same period in 2013. So, the graph here is heading in the right direction. As we would expect, there is room for improvement. There was broad support throughout our evidence session for the support of Government and the management of Visit Wales.
Turning briefly to the recommendations, 16 to 18 include the challenge for every organisation to communicate better. I am pleased that Visit Wales and the tourism industry recognise the need for better lines of communication. Visit Wales and other tourist organisations should always be in partnership and never competition. The website ought to be a means of resource, not simply an end in itself. The Minister has urged acceptance of these recommendations, and has accepted that communications can be improved. In that way, we promote partnership and co-operation, and that way success lies.
I remember the initial discussions around whether to transfer the tourism brief to the Enterprise and Business Committee in the review of committees. It seemed a logical decision at the time, given the ministerial responsibility—now deputy ministerial responsibility. I do think that this report has justified that decision and provided some interesting pointers for the future direction of tourism policy.
Recommendation 1 highlights the need, as many Members—all Members—have said, for a strong, cohesive Welsh tourism brand. I don’t propose to say much on this, because other Members have covered this effectively, other than to agree, once again, with Joyce Watson—I don’t know what’s going on today there; I should be worried, maybe. You were the only Member to mention tailored tourism, which my ears pricked up at; I agree with you on that, and, you know, what is a Welsh brand? I agree with what you said, Joyce, in that a Welsh brand, if it’s going to really work properly, should build on smaller brand blocks, if you like, that exist across Wales and you would expect in a diverse country; there isn’t really one size that fits all.
It was interesting reading some of the criticisms in the bulk of the report on Visit Wales’s current advertising approach, including the ‘Have you packed for Wales?’ campaign. One criticism that I read was that the tv ads are not promoting Wales’s uniqueness—other areas are just as good for things like mountain biking, dolphins and ruined castles. Well, okay, on biking and dolphin watching, if that takes your fancy, you probably can do that in many other places in the UK, but I do take issue with the second part, and agree with Mick Antoniw, Keith Davies and Eluned Parrott, that Wales’s castles are a fantastic asset, not just in terms of their architecture but what they demonstrate about the Welsh character, as well, that required so many fortifications by different invaders to try to subdue us.
My own area of Monmouthshire is particularly blessed in this regard—not with invaders; I mean, with an estimated 26 castle sites, and a number of Roman fortress sites as well. Monmouthshire’s emblem is, in fact, a castellated M, a sign of the importance of castles as part of the identity of my county and a selling point to tourists. The Welsh Government’s branding should certainly take advantage of the best practice in different parts of Wales and build on that branding.
Data—I think, again, Joyce Watson mentioned data. Only this morning in Finance Committee, we heard of the ongoing problems with data collection in the area of complaints to the Public Services Ombudsman for Wales. Insufficient data affects many areas and this area before us today, too, so I was pleased to see recommendation 26 calling on the Welsh Government to improve the transparency of information. It is very difficult currently to see how funding here compares with funding across the border.
Can I say, on the issue of the border, I think there is an opportunity, not just to advertise Wales to the world, but also, as other Members have said, to the people living closer to home? The Minister often tells us she’s very conscious of her ‘porous border’ with England. That lengthy border, relative to the size of Wales, does provide an opportunity for border tourism, where we can do more to attract the large number of people living in close proximity to the border to hop over it to another country with a lot to offer and come here and visit us.
I’d like to make a few points on tourism. I think most people would agree that we are very fortunate in Wales in terms of the beauty of the country and the wonderful outdoors that we have, and that rightly features in the committee report. It’s a great strength for our tourism offer and, indeed, I think tourism is doing quite well in Wales, but obviously there’s always more to be done, and we always have to build on progress made.
One way in which I think we could further enhance our great outdoors is by achieving better access, and I think there are issues in terms of widening access to land and, indeed, water in Wales. I think these are issues that we cannot shy away from, and we should continue to consider and, hopefully, beneficially address. I certainly would like to see that great strength of the quality of the Welsh outdoors better used for tourism advantage and, indeed, for people living within Wales, for their own recreational, leisure and quality-of-life purposes. So, I hope we can make progress on that matter.
One other matter I’d like to mention is the Wales coastal path, which, again, as part of that outdoor offer, is an amazing strength for Wales and our tourism offer. It was launched with a fantastic amount of international publicity across the world: ‘The New York Times’ and ‘The Washington Post’. The Lonely Planet said that Wales was the place to visit during the year of the opening of the coast path because of its creation. So, we need to continue to realise those opportunities in terms of marketing and enhancing our tourism offer around the Wales coast path, and I think part of that is building an anniversary event—the anniversary of the opening of the Wales coast path. We could have the whole length of the path walked on every anniversary month, we could have different groups, schools, et cetera, perhaps a relay event involving the passing of a baton. There are many things that could be done, but we certainly need to have a very strong anniversary event every year, and that would be very beneficial, I believe, to our tourism offer.
The other matter I’d like to mention, Cadeirydd, is major events, because again I think this has been a considerable strength for Wales. We have quite a track record now in terms of holding major events in Wales, and doing it very successfully. There’s quite a slick process in operation in Wales around major events that works very well and involves all the necessary components. So, in terms of using that experience in the future, we obviously have to look out for other major events that we could attract to Wales that would continue that success. Every new major event adds to our reputation and takes forward that aspect of tourism in Wales.
One possible future event I’d like to see us look at very seriously—and I know that Welsh Government has—is hosting the Commonwealth Games. We’ve just had the experience of the Glasgow games, which was very successful in many ways, I believe, and I know that Welsh Government was in Glasgow and will be looking at the lessons to be learned in the evaluation to take place, but I see very many benefits in terms of tourism but more widely as well in terms of our sport, physical activity and recreational offer. If we were to host a future Commonwealth Games in Wales, then it would also involve new facilities that would be of longstanding and continuing benefit.
So, those are the matters that I wanted to mention, Cadeirydd. I believe we do have a very good rate of progress in terms of our tourism offer in Wales, which is so important to us, but obviously we must look at ways of building on that and strengthening our offer.
Of course, tourism is one of our biggest export industries, contributing £6.9 billion a year to the Welsh economy, which is 13.2% of GVA, supporting 206,000 jobs. As the committee report has noted, whilst this has been our fastest-growing industry since 2005, much more needs to be done.
In my own constituency, Aberconwy, tourism accounts for 10,820 full-time jobs, equating to £559 million annually. It is actually a quarter of the industry in Wales. Though already successful, many of the hospitality businesses are run by the private sector, and on many occasions are microbusinesses and sole traders. We are very diverse as a constituency: we have waterfalls, we have the rural beauty, we have fabulous beaches, Conway castle—a UNESCO world heritage site and, of course, Snowdonia national park, again, contributing £134 million to our economy in 2012. I was really pleased to visit there last week. It has fantastic facilities. We have the Ogwen walking centre, and in Betws y Coed visitor centre, for those of you who don’t want to climb Snowdon, you can actually see the 360 degree vista.
Thirty five per cent of visits to Wales are made to take part in outdoor activities, and the total estimated spend of just the outdoor activity alone is £172 million. We’ve seen good news today: passenger numbers on ferries to and from Holyhead are set to increase by 40% this year. I’m really proud to announce that TripAdvisor’s 2015 Travellers’ Choice award for the best bargain accommodation in the world was this week named as Lawton Court in Llandudno. You know, these people in this industry should be applauded for the work they do, for the quality service, excellent Welsh food and produce, and the fantastic job in just keeping up appearances—you know, the facades of many of our hotels.
But I believe that those in the tourist industry need a break themselves: a break from bureaucracy, a break from red tape and a break from rising business rates. I know of one hotelier paying £52,000, another one £38,000 and another local hotelier in my constituency paying £112,000 a year annually in business rates. It doesn’t matter if I say it quickly—it doesn’t lessen the blow to that particular business.
I am pleased to note that progress is being made towards the Welsh Government’s 2013 target to achieve a 10% real-terms growth by 2020, but we’ve a lot to do. The recommendations put forward by the committee give clear guidance to the Welsh Government as to how the potential for economic growth through tourism must be maximised, and, as highlighted by the report, the Welsh Government itself must do more to engage with the industry by involving businesses more closely with advertising campaigns. Visit Wales—fantastic. I absolutely love watching those adverts on TV, but how is there any co-ordination with any campaigns with those running their own hospitality businesses?
There also need to be steps taken to make life for those who work or want to work in the tourist industry less challenging. Now, I talk about terms of broadband and mobile phone coverage in rural tourism areas. I welcome the response to recommendation 15, stating that the UK Government have invested £150 million in mobile infrastructure to address the so-called ‘notspots’, but there is still confusion remaining, and many questions—I’m inundated—as to who’s going to have or have not in terms of business support. Dialogue with Superfast Cymru indicates it is not an exact science, so the 96% target may not even be reached. There are no guarantees.
The recent Visit Wales—oh, I’ve mentioned that, about Visit Wales, and the advertising campaign. ‘Have you packed for Wales?’ it was called. Excellent.
Now, according to Professor Annette Pritchard:
‘Brand Wales is at a tipping point. It needs greater clarity, stakeholder buy-in and consumer and media resonance.’
One area that requires significant improvement is how Wales is marketed to potential overseas tourists. Last year, a Welsh Affairs Committee report warned that Wales still has a low profile overseas compared with other parts of the UK, and despite the apparent growth in the industry, it found that the number of international tourists visiting Wales has slumped from 1.14 million in 2006 to 854,000 in 2012.
Minister, accepting the recommendations of this report to unlock further potential is one thing, but delivery is the key.
I call on the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism to speak, Ken Skates.
Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer. I’d like to thank the Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee and its members for their work on this report. I do think that it is a well-balanced report and a fair report, which acknowledges the substantial progress being made towards the tourism strategy’s target of a 10% growth in earnings by 2020, with current figures for 2014 showing an increase in both visits and spending by tourists. For example, holiday and leisure visits to Wales by British residents in the 2014 January to August period were up 4.8% and well ahead—well ahead—of results for Britain as a whole, where visits were 4.3% down. Expenditure during these visits was more than £1 billion pounds and represents an enormous 9.5% increase, while, for GB as a whole, spending on holiday and leisure trips was simply on a par with 2013. Thirdly, in terms of overseas visitors to Wales, as Joyce Watson rightly stated, figures for the first half of 2014 show that Wales had an increase of 21% in the volume of visitors from abroad, compared with the first half of 2013. Clearly, we await the end-year figures, but this is a particularly encouraging picture, given that it seems that Britain overall has seen a decrease in both visits and spend over this period.
Of the 28 recommendations in the report, we accept 26, and accept two in principle, and I’d like to respond to some of the queries and points raised by Members. William Graham rightly identified that, traditionally, Wales has been the least known of the British nations, and that’s why major events are so critically important. They potentially reach hundreds of millions of television viewers globally, often portraying their host nations and host cities in the best possible light. That’s why I was so pleased with the success of DT100, and why it was so valuable, and why I’m especially excited about the Roald Dahl celebrations. Can I assure Eluned Parrot that my plans for 2016 are far more ambitious and adventurous than hers may suggest? In terms of major events coming up in future months and years, we also have the world half marathon, the Volvo Ocean Race and the Rugby World Cup. Last year, it’s worth just reminding ourselves that major events contributed £61 million to the Welsh economy and supported more than 1,400 full-time jobs.
A number of Members raised the relationship of the Welsh Government and Visit Wales with that of VisitBritain. I think some of the criticism was fair, which is why I’m very pleased that a secondee from the Welsh Government tourism marketing team now works within VisitBritain to support closer co-operation. We are feeding into the VisitBritain Great campaign, in terms of what products and experiences Wales has to offer visitors, and discussions are ongoing with other ‘visit’ bodies on how VisitBritain can improve its strategic support for destinations within the UK, and, most certainly, outside of London.
Digital technology is essential in promoting our visitor economy, as identified by Keith Davies and Janet Finch-Saunders, which is why I was particularly pleased to accept recommendations 14, 15 and 17, and why I’m also very proud that this Government is making Wales one of the most digitally connected countries anywhere on the planet.
In response to Byron Davies’s points about Cardiff Airport, I was actually there on Monday, and I was delighted to experience, for the first time, the new arrivals area. Indeed, I walked through the Wales coastal path, which John Griffiths rightly identified as being one of Wales’s unique selling points. I climbed through a re-creation of one of our iconic castles and passed video screens showing some of the best beaches we have in our country, and I also travelled from one level of the airport to another in a Big Pit lift. My view is that Cardiff now has the best arrival experience of any airport in the world.
Several Members spoke about marketing, regional engagement and capital support. In terms of capital support, we’ve provided over £2 million to businesses in 2013-14. During this period, 119 jobs—[Interruption.]
Excuse me, Minister. Can I ask people to give the courtesy to the Minister of listening to what he has to say? It is extremely interesting and valuable.
I’m sorry, the leader of the opposition was too busy doing down Cardiff Airport. [Interruption.] During this period 119 jobs were created and 98 safeguarded, and figures for 2014-15 to the end of December already exceed this at 248 jobs. We’ve already heard about Zip World and Bounce Below and how they are challenging perceptions of Wales. Indeed, these are schemes that have been supported by the Welsh Government, and I look forward this summer to seeing the opening of a world first in Wales in the form of the new inland water-based activity attraction Surf Snowdonia. With regard to regional engagement, Suzy Davies raised this very issue, and I am aware of the Conservative party’s survey online, which offers as a prize for filling it in a four-star luxury caravan holiday, which I’m sure the National Caravan Council and the Caravan Club, both of which do fantastic work here in Wales, will be most pleased with. I think it’s worth saying that the restructuring of our regional engagement work has largely been completed with teams now in place and with the tourism advisory board also now having regional representation. Its regional structure will be supported by a new tourism forum, looking at a range of specific tourism sectors and markets, which will report to the tourism advisory board and on to me, as appropriate, ensuring that I am most certainly not shielded from constructive criticism.
The Visit Wales UK and Ireland autumn marketing campaign had a strong focus on food and was the second phase of the £4 million marketing campaign, ‘Have you packed for Wales?’, and I am pleased to be able to report to Members today that responses to the campaign have exceeded targets. This week, we saw the launch of the 2015 Visit Wales spring campaign, with the release of the new ‘Have you packed for Wales?’ advert. I’d like to end by thanking members of the committee for their valuable report and by presenting our latest television advertisement, which is certainly helping Wales pack a very heavy punch as the best tourism destination on the planet.
A DVD was shown. The transcription in quotation marks below is a transcription of the oral contributions on the DVD. The presentation can be accessed by following this link:
‘A ydych chi wedi pacio ar gyfer Cymru? Ewch i visitwales.com. ‘
Popcorn now? Thank you. I call on the Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee, William Graham, to reply to the debate.
Thank you very much, acting Deputy Presiding Officer. Our report, I’m very pleased to say, has generated so much interest; we’ve had 10 speakers this afternoon. I won’t attempt to do justice to their remarks. I’d like to concentrate, if I may, on the Deputy Minister’s reply particularly. I think that, in time now, we’ll see whether your ambition that you outlined this afternoon really comes to fruition. I will assure you of the committee’s support and continuing scrutiny of your efforts in that respect. Clearly, you outlined correct and very necessary bright prospects for Wales, and the prospect of more major events, as you describe, clearly is of interest to us all, remarking, as you did, that a £61 million-contribution and 1,400 jobs are most significant on one event alone, and we look for very many more of those. Your ambition certainly is to be encouraged.
In terms of our tourism survey, may I assure the Deputy Minister that he has every chance of winning if he just completes and returns? [Laughter.] There will be no favouritism shown whatsoever. We are also grateful for his outlining the way in which now there will be constructive criticism offered to him directly as Minister. Hopefully, that will mean that you’ll be able to act on those criticisms directly and quickly. One thing that the committee found in its inquiry was that, so often, there were good ideas, particularly from people in the tourism industry but, by the time they got to somebody to take that forward, we were a long time in between. So, we’re very grateful to the Minister for his encouragement in that particular aspect.
Of those things that were mentioned, I think what one must mention, which is not in our report, is what John Griffiths said about the coastal path that will be vitally important, and the idea of an annual event certainly must be something that must be taken forward.
Clearly, you know, the industry is of major importance to Wales. Members have outlined extremely well the almost unique asset—or, in combination—that we have in Wales, with relatively short distances between one and another, particularly west Wales, of course, which is very well known for family holidays. And, in the north, also, we were struck, when we were there, that, within the last two years, there’s been major investment in all sorts of holiday activities that simply did not exist a very short time ago—excellent for Wales and excellent for when we do our marketing campaign to show exactly what we have in all aspects of tourism and all parts of Wales. It’s entirely appropriate for the committee to be reporting at this time.
We discussed this morning what we’re going to do, as it were, as a legacy report for our committee, and I think I can assure the Assembly that one of those legacy aspects will be this particular report, and we’ll try to offer more constructive criticism of the Minister over the next remaining period of the Assembly, so that we can really see that this vitally important industry is on a roll, with new events and new strategies—and you kindly demonstrated to us one of the interesting packages on television. Many of us will remember, not so long ago—well, a few years ago—you couldn’t go to America without seeing the huge adverts for the Welsh Development Agency. Well, let us hope, in the future, that the adverts your department are preparing will be equally important, equally interesting and on every flight out of Wales.
Thank you for that. The proposal is to note the Enterprise and Business Committee’s report. Does any Member object? No. The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The motion was agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
We move on now to the debate by individual Members under Standing Order 11.21(iv). I call on Mark Isherwood to move the motion.
Motion NNDM5639 Mark Isherwood
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Welcomes the achievement of the Welsh Government’s autistic spectrum disorder strategic action plan.
2. Notes that more needs to be done to meet the needs of children and adults with autism in Wales.
3. Believes that placing specific duties on local authorities and health boards would lead to greater clarity on the care and support that people with autism can expect.
4. Calls upon the Welsh Government to introduce an Autism Act for Wales.
Diolch. Autism is a developmental condition affecting some 30,000 children and adults in Wales, each in a different and unique way, plus, of course, their families and carers. The achievement of the Welsh Government’s autistic spectrum disorder strategic action plan was and is welcome, but more needs to be done to meet the needs of children and adults with autism in Wales.
Placing specific duties on local authorities and health boards would lead to greater clarity on the care and support that people with autism can expect, and this motion therefore calls upon the Welsh Government to introduce an autism Act for Wales. It is, of course, recognised that this cannot be accommodated within this Assembly’s remaining legislative timetable to 2016 and I therefore call on all parties to commit to an autism Act for Wales within their 2016 manifestos and to champion a refreshed autism strategy with teeth in the meantime.
At last week’s meeting of the cross-party autism group, which I chair, Mark Lever, National Autistic Society—or NAS—chief executive highlighted that, although the autism spectrum disorder strategic action plan for Wales was a world first, autism didn’t have a statutory identity in Wales, which means people are often not able to access effective support unless they have associated mental health problems or learning disabilities. Mark said that the NAS is happy to assist the Welsh Government where it can as it refreshes its autism strategy, but that it has serious concerns over the removal of ring-fenced funding, and about whether a refreshed strategy will be robust enough to make the changes we all want to see without being backed by legislation.
Mark added that, for Wales to reassert itself at the vanguard of autism, there needs to be an autism Act in Wales, giving people with autism the confidence that they will receive the support they need. NAS Cymru has asked for continuance of ring-fenced funding to bring certainty for people with autism and allowing local authorities to plan over the longer term. When I raised this issue with the health Minister, he assured me that his expectation was that local authorities should continue to commit their money to autism, and Members have been copied on his letter to each local authority stating this. Some local authorities have also agreed, in principle, to voluntarily ring-fence their money to spend on autism. However, this voluntary agreement is not universal, nor enforceable, and is only in place for the 2015-16 period. It is noted that money for mental health remains ring-fenced and understood that this is also the case with money for the Families First disability programme.
Wales was in the vanguard, but, since the launch of the April 2008 autism strategy for Wales, England has introduced a cross-cutting adult autism Act and statutory strategy; Northern Ireland has introduced an autism Act and statutory strategy; and Scotland has introduced an autism strategy with around £12 million to deliver it over four years, which is expected to pave the way for an autism Act there. The NAS’s experience in England is that there’s been a real step change in how the NHS and local authorities view autism and plan local services since the Act there became law. The NAS work on helping draw up the Act in England means that they would be a useful resource to identify how a Welsh Act would differ, learning from their experiences in England as well as in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
People with autism in Wales still face significant challenges and barriers, and they regularly express concerns to NAS and to the cross-partly autism group, such as the family last week referred to for having waited seven years for a child assessment. Three years after the strategy was introduced, NAS Cymru’s report, ‘The life we choose’ reported that 53% of respondents said the process of diagnosis was painful; only a third of parents felt they had enough support when choosing their child’s educational placement; and 51% of parents felt no processes were in place for employment and social care. The Wales Autism Research Centre report on children’s autistic spectrum disorder diagnostic services in Wales identified concerns, including a postcode lottery, failure to consistently commission services and the lack of understanding by senior commissioning management.
Short-term exclusions for pupils in the special educational needs category doubled in 10 years to 2012, and the 2013 report on children and young people educated outside the school setting, commissioned by the Welsh Government, found that 90% of children excluded or taught outside a school setting had special educational needs. Recent casework correspondence from Denbighshire social services stated that a child with autism would only be eligible for a service from the department if he or she experienced an additional physical or learning disability.
But ASD is a condition in its own right, and the autism strategy states
‘formal diagnosis...should be neither a pre-requisite for a full assessment of each person’s wider needs nor should it be a reason for not intervening in a timely manner.’
At last September’s north Wales meeting of the cross-party autism group, concerns were raised from the audience over support in Flintshire, particularly for families where multiple individuals have different needs. We were also told that adults were struggling to get appropriate diagnosis in the first instance. Positively, this has generated a proposed meeting with Flintshire County Council.
Concerns were raised with me that, in breach of the autism strategy, Wrexham no longer had an ASD strategy group, early last year. After I intervened, I was told a new lead had been appointed and meetings would recommence. At last November’s meeting of the cross-party autism group, an Ystradgynlais branch member representative told us that, while the strategy has had some success, on the whole, people are let down and angry that they have to fight so hard to get the support they need. She added that it’s important that people with autism are no longer invisible to services and that she would wholeheartedly support an autism Act. Tydfil autism support group outlined the lack of provision in Merthyr, saying that autism shouldn’t the postcode lottery and stated that it’s essential the Welsh Government measure any benefits of the autism strategy by canvassing the views of those it was specifically meant to help and to respond by introducing legislation to ensure that autism services are delivered as intended.
A Blaenau Gwent representative said that autism services in the area are still very limited, that adult services are basically non-existent, that it’s very frustrating as a parent to have to fight tooth and nail for your child to receive the services they so desperately need, and that it’s time to make ASD a priority again.Asperger’s pioneer David Malins called for consistency in support and said that people with autism deserve equal care and we need an autism Act for Wales. NAS Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire branches said that the strategy promised to deliver so much, but people are being pushed into further crisis, and that they are calling for an autism Act. The meeting voted unanimously in favour of calling for an autism Act.
At last week's cross-party autism group, Gwynedd and Anglesey Asperger/autism support group told us diagnosis is improving, but post-diagnosis support isn't available, and that an autism Act is needed to safeguard and strengthen services and ensure consistency and support. A Bridgend parent told us about the hope that followed the autism strategy, but how it hasn't achieved what it could have and that there is concern amongst local stakeholder groups in Bridgend about exactly where autism fitted in. Another parent has highlighted adults on the autistic spectrum, particularly those with high-functioning autism and Asperger's, wanting to work but denied employment due to bullying and lack of concern. He highlighted two German companies that only employ people diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome because, he said, they do not waste time, they're accurate, they’re diligent and they get the job done.
Autism is neither a mental health nor a learning difficulty, but falls between stools as there’s often nowhere else to go. An autism Act for Wales has to engage with the autistic community and needs to cross boundaries between health, social services, education, housing and the voluntary sector. Multidisciplinary autism teams are, therefore, needed. An autism Act needs to include diagnostic services, post-diagnostic support, awareness and training for professionals and design and delivery, getting the fundamentals in place first. As with the Autism Act 2009 in England, the duties imposed must be fixed, but a strategy as part of the Act should provide flexibility. People on the spectrum and their families are not convinced that things have changed significantly since the autism strategy was launched. An autism Act is therefore needed to bring about the changes needed and to put those changes on a statutory basis. After all, we can't ask children or adults to stop being autistic until services are in place for them.
Today is my birthday, and Assembly support for this motion would be the best present I could receive. Diolch. Thank you.
Can I put on the record that I am patron of the Blaenau Gwent autism group?
When the autism strategy was published in 2008, I think there was very great satisfaction, and I think there was great optimism and hope that a strategy had been put in place that not only placed Wales in a leading position, but would also ensure that people up and down the country would receive the support and services that they need and require. We know that the strategy itself was a good strategy. It's a strategy that was drawn up in conjunction with different groups of people who worked with those with autism, and it was something that had broad support across the country. But, we also know that the fault, if there is a fault, isn't necessarily with the strategy, but with the delivery of that strategy. As Mark has outlined, we are aware that, whilst we have a plan in place, delivery on that plan is at best patchy and at worst seriously deficient. We understand that there are people up and down the country who have to struggle and fight to get a statement and then struggle and fight again to receive services and support that should be theirs as a right. We cannot simply stand back and allow that situation to occur.
Mark has already quoted people from Blaenau Gwent, and I spoke earlier today to Nicola Williams, who is the branch officer for NAS Cymru in Blaenau Gwent, and she was very clear—absolutely clear—that, whilst in Blaenau Gwent the strategy has led to an improvement over the last four years particularly, there are, and continue to be, very serious issues, both with children’s services and with adult services. We have been waiting for the local authority for over two years to update its strategic action plan, and we are waiting, time and time again, for services to be provided. This is causing real difficulties and real problems for families in Blaenau Gwent and elsewhere.
Now, it is not sufficient, and it is not acceptable, and it is not an adequate response, to simply say that this is the responsibility or the fault of a local authority, and therefore the local authority has to do better—‘It’s nothing to do with us’. We have a responsibility in this place. We have an absolute responsibility to ensure that the strategy and the strategic actions that we foresaw as a part of that strategy are actually delivered for families in reality. That means that we cannot walk away from it and say that it is simply ‘a matter for local government—it is not a matter for us’. That means that we do need to take responsibility, and we do need to act, and we do, I believe, need to ensure that an autism Act appears on the legislative programme of the next Government, and we do need to ensure that that legislation has teeth and delivers for people and families across Wales. It’s easy, and perhaps all too often we talk in terms of a statistical analysis of what we see in front of us, but it is too true to understand that people at the moment, in different parts of Wales—and I know from my own experience in Blaenau Gwent—are simply not receiving the services. Where they do receive services, it is a result, usually, because a parent has struggled for year after year after year to get access to those services. We cannot allow people to be in that position. We must not allow people to be in that position.
I would like to see an autism Act that does provide not only the responsibility for local authorities to deliver these services, but also provides the right of people to receive these services. So, I hope that we will be able—and I hope that the Minister, in responding to the debate—to give an undertaking that, certainly, on this side of the Chamber, we will ensure that an autism Act forms a part of our manifesto commitment. We need to ensure in the future that children and adults with autism can get a diagnosis and a timely diagnosis, without having to struggle and wait for year after year after year, but receiving the diagnosis that they require; that they have understanding amongst key professionals, whether in the school environment or elsewhere; and that local authorities do have additional duties—local authorities and health boards, I should say—to take the appropriate action to ensure that children and adults with autism get the support that they require. And then we need to ensure that that is funded. I know there are some issues at the moment around the funding of the strategy, and I know that that has led to difficulties for local authorities up and down the country. But we need to ensure that we deliver the duties and the rights.
It may not surprise Members that I also rise to support this individual Member’s motion led by Mark Isherwood. I have long supported the need for a more timely diagnosis for people with autism in Wales. Indeed, while I accept that there are some examples of good practice of diagnosis in Wales, experiences in my own constituency have been particularly difficult. Sadly, some children in Pembrokeshire, as Mark Isherwood said, are waiting up to seven years for a diagnosis, which is simply unacceptable. And because of that, there has been a huge impact on families across the county. For some small children in Pembrokeshire, this means that they can be approaching 11 years of age, and beginning secondary school, without having received an appropriate diagnosis. The NAS Pembrokeshire branch have also informed me that the local ASD team are only diagnosing two children a month, and have calculated that, if the team continues to diagnose at this rate, then the waiting list will soon be eight to nine years long, and that is simply unacceptable.
Early intervention is, therefore, crucial in order to provide the appropriate support and to avoid long-term problems in the future. Indeed, as NAS Cymru tell us, early intervention for children with autism is crucial for their educational, emotional and social development, and for their long-term health.
I’m sure all Members will agree that diagnosing autism can be very complex, and that it will of course involve multi-agency and specialist assessments that must be carried out by experts in their field of work. Unfortunately, autism is a spectrum condition, which means that, while all people with autism share certain areas of difficulty, no two people with autism are exactly the same. So, I can very much appreciate that diagnosing autism, particularly in small children, is no easy task, but a seven-year wait is just unacceptable.
Now, when the Welsh Government launched its ASD action plan in 2008 it was first among the UK nations to have an autism-specific strategy, but as I have said before in this Chamber, being first isn’t the same as being first rate. Clearly, the implementation of that plan differs greatly across local authorities in Wales, and now the Welsh Government is removing the ring-fenced money that each local authority receives. As a result, there is a real danger that the gap in equity of services across Wales will be even wider than it currently is. I, therefore, support the calls for an autism Act for Wales, which would see duties placed on local authorities to make sure that every council is taking the right steps to give children and adults in Wales the care and support they deserve. Indeed, one of the objectives of this autism Act would be to improve understanding of autism among key professionals—something that I am particularly supportive of.
As autism doesn’t affect someone’s physical appearance, the signs of whether a child has autism are shown in a pattern of behaviour that requires careful observation, particularly in a school setting. Figures show that more than one in 100 children are on the autism spectrum, so all schools should expect to teach some children with autism. It’s, therefore, essential that the Welsh Government works closely with local schools to ensure that teachers and school staff have sufficient training so that they can recognise the signs of ASD amongst children. Perhaps, in responding to this debate this afternoon, the Minister could elaborate on how the Welsh Government is supporting education professionals in recognising the signs and symptoms of children with autism in the classroom.
Finally, acting Deputy Presiding Officer, I’d like to touch on one of the issues that was under the spotlight during the last Assembly, which was addressing the need to close the gap between strategy and policy for young people with autism in further education. I was privileged to be part of the Enterprise and Learning Committee when this issue was being scrutinised, and one of the issues that was touched upon was the role of Careers Wales, which plays an important role in the post-16 provision, providing counselling and support for all young people, especially those who have autism. Indeed, much of the evidence that was received highlighted that many people felt that Careers Wales advisers did not have sufficient knowledge to undertake their roles effectively. Given that it’s been almost five years since that report, I would hope that the landscape for young people with autism in further education has changed, and, perhaps, in response to this debate, the Minister will specify exactly what implementation there has been of that committee’s recommendations.
Across Wales, there is evidence, right the way through the education system, of a lack of support for children and young people with autism. Given the high prevalence of autism, that has got to change. Diagnosis delays of up to seven years are simply unacceptable in this day and age, and I sincerely hope the Minister will commit to an autism Act for Wales, which will ensure that adults and children living with autism in all parts of Wales receive the care and support that they deserve. Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer.
I’m in support of the motion—excuse my voice, by the way. I’m in support of the motion before us, but I want to make three particular points that I think may have been overlooked. First of all, there doesn’t seem to be any monitoring by the Welsh Government of how local authorities are supporting people with autism. Services across Wales, as we’ve heard, are patchy, and the system of annual funding does not allow local authorities to plan services on a long-term basis. We need consistency across Wales, so that people who suffer with autism are not subject to a postcode lottery.
The second point I want to make is as a result of a letter I’ve received, actually, from the parent of an autistic child attending a school in Caerphilly. On the face of it, it looks as though this particular pupil’s disorder is not being treated sympathetically by the school, so this raises the question of how well teachers are trained to deal professionally with each autistic pupil’s individual and unique needs.
The third issue I want to raise concerns older people with ASD—autism spectrum disorder. People with autism don’t eventually grow out of it. It remains with them into old age, and, with an increasingly ageing population in Wales, this is destined to become a serious challenge to the health and social care services. Yet I’m told by the National Autistic Society in Wales there is very little recognition of the services available for older people with autism, nor the skills and knowledge amongst health professionals to adequately support them. What services are in place to help older people with autism when parents are no longer with them or are unable to cope? We do need to include, in an autism Act, a duty on local authorities to collect the data on people over 65 with autism and use these figures to plan services.
I know that some research has been carried out into the prevalence of autism in older people in Wales, but we surely need a much wider survey so that the extent of the situation is known, so that local authorities and the health boards can plan accordingly. Whilst we, of course, rightly focus our attention on the services available for children with autism, we do ignore at our peril the needs of the older people, and it is time for the Welsh Government to recognise their ongoing needs and to make sure that local authorities and health boards plan services for adults and particularly older people who will continue to suffer from autism.
It’s a great privilege to take part in this important debate today, initiated by our colleague, Mark Isherwood, chair of the cross-party autism group. Under his chairmanship, I think it’s fair to say that CPAG is one of the more dynamic of the cross-party groups. It meets here at the Assembly and, indeed, as we’ve heard, across Wales, providing a valuable forum for individuals and families across the country that are touched by autism. The attendance at last week’s CPAG meeting, where the Minister for health and indeed, as we’ve heard, the chief executive of NAS at a UK level, Mark Lever, spoke is also a reflection of this, as well as the sterling efforts of NAS Cymru, which provides the secretariat for its activities.
I know from my postbag, my e-mail inbox and, indeed, also the attendance at my surgeries across Mid and West Wales, that there are serious shortcomings in the current provision for those with autistic spectrum disorder—from Haverfordwest to Carmarthen and, as we’ve heard, from Ystradgynlais to Newtown. These shortcomings in the implementation of the ASD strategy are feeding the clamour for an autism Act that could afford greater protection for autism services and for those who rely upon them.
As Paul Davies has already stated, this is a particular issue in Pembrokeshire, and the NAS Cymru Pembrokeshire branch recently submitted a petition to the Petitions Committee over concerns about the waiting times for the diagnosis of autism, particularly in children in Pembrokeshire, and their unacceptable length. The committee has been in extensive correspondence with the former Deputy Minister for Social Services, Gwenda Thomas, and I would like at this point to acknowledge the energy that she committed to addressing the petitioners’ concerns. We have, more recently, written to the Minister for health requesting an update on waiting times in the Hywel Dda health board area and, as committee Chair, I look forward to receiving a response shortly.
I also know the extent of alarm across Wales that has been triggered by the Welsh Government’s decision to remove the protection around ring-fenced funding for autism services delivered by our local authorities. The Minister may say that this is in line with the Welsh Government’s policy of removing ring fencing for specific grants after a certain period of time, but it is a source of huge concern to parents that, without these protected funds, local autism service provision may be lost amongst other conflicting priorities. I am pleased to say that I’ve secured a personal undertaking from the leader of Powys County Council, Barry Thomas, to continue voluntarily to ring-fence its autism budget in 2015-16, and this is very much to be welcomed and commended. I shall be writing to other council leaders in Mid and West Wales, seeking their response to my call for such a voluntary ring-fencing. I would also be interested to hear from the Minister as to any feedback from other local authorities across Wales with regard to this.
It is widely accepted that one of the weaknesses of the ASD strategy action plan was that last-minute funding announcements have often made it difficult for local authorities to make long-term service provision and plans. What consideration is the Welsh Government currently giving to the funding of autism services post 2016? Dirprwy Lywydd dros dro, families and individuals across Wales show enormous resilience in the face of the challenges that come with ASD. They’re also, however, amongst the most vulnerable groups in our society, and I would contend that they deserve their entitlements to be enshrined in statute. I would urge colleagues across the Chamber to reflect positively on the case for an autism Act and to support this motion today.
I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate today, particularly as I am now a member of the Assembly’s cross-party group on autism, which the Member for North Wales chairs and which met last week. I recall from the meeting, as has been mentioned, that Mark Lever praised the development of the Welsh Government’s autistic spectrum disorder strategic plan, and pointed out that Wales was the first country in the world to have such a plan in place. Nonetheless, despite the good work that has been done, I agree that there is more that we must do in terms of supporting people with autism in Wales and their families.
I’ve mentioned in this Chamber before that I firmly believe that one of the most important things that we can do is recognise, promote and support the work of parents of children with autism and other voluntary groups that do excellent work on the ground. On 2 April this year, World Autism Awareness Day, I will help to launch the Autism Heroes Awards in the Senedd. These awards were set up by my constituent Jo Salmon and her daughter Holly who has Asperger’s syndrome. They recognise excellence achieved in the world of autism in Wales. Nominations closed on 31 December and this year’s nominees will be announced at the Senedd launch event. The winners will be announced at Holly’s Ball, a hugely successful annual event to be held in June and which will raise funds to support people with autism and their families.
My point here, acting Llywydd, is that the efforts of volunteers and fundraisers in helping to raise awareness of autism needs to be recognised, and that the Welsh Government must complement this excellent work by people like my constituent Jo Salmon by engaging with them and working together to help address the needs of people with autism and their families.
That said, however, the work of voluntary groups cannot replace the obligations of statutory bodies; it can only complement them. The ring-fenced funding provided by the Welsh Government to local authorities as part of the ASD strategic action plan was very valuable, and I know that organisations such as the National Autistic Society have been in discussions with the Welsh Government about the latter’s review of the strategic action plan.
I’m pleased that my own local authority, Labour-controlled Caerphilly County Borough Council, has committed to voluntarily ring-fencing funding for autism service provision through the 2015-16 financial year. Because the money is now based on a population formula, they actually have more money to spend on autism services. I hope that the Welsh Government will work with partner organisations to ensure that such arrangements are made permanent in the future.
I would like to conclude, Llywydd, by welcoming this debate and the opportunity to take part. We have done a lot of good work on autism in Wales, but there is still more to be done. I think we can all agree on that. On the question of an autism Act, I’m not opposed to one as such, but I would need to be persuaded of the benefits of such legislation before deciding whether or not to support any proposals. The key question for me would be: how would such an Act improve the lives of people with autism and their families? Right now, I believe that the best way that we can do this is for the Welsh Government to work with local authorities, health boards and voluntary organisations to ensure that the ASD strategic action plan is improved upon and delivered, thus building on the good work that we have done already.
Thank you to Mark Isherwood for bringing forward this motion today, and I’m delighted to be able to support it.
Minister, the autistic spectrum disorder strategic action plan has been very useful in enabling stakeholders to benchmark the responses of Government, health boards and educational and social services. In a significant number of cases and places, it has focused minds, it has concentrated resources and it has delivered results.
However—and there’s always a ‘however’—in far too many cases it has not been of help at all. Ninety six per cent of adults talk of a lack of services. Ninety six per cent of adults talk of a lack of professional understanding, inflexible systems and a lack of knowledge on how to access support. Almost a third of all adults who are diagnosed with autistic spectrum disorder have never had their needs assessed in terms of ongoing care and support by social services, or by a community health team.
Children and young people appear to have an even rougher ride. People have bandied about quite a few examples, but I’m just going to give three additional ones. For example, in Pembrokeshire, there are 150 children waiting for a diagnosis; in Carmarthenshire, the waiting list is also some 200-odd long; and, in Ceredigion, there are 60 children at present waiting for a diagnosis. At the rate that Hywel Dda health board is able to match this need, these children are seven to eight years, as my colleague Paul Davies has already said, away from getting that definitive diagnosis.
In another case that’s come across my desk, in Carmarthen, a mother requested from the education department a different support worker because her child has got an interim autistic spectrum disorder diagnosis. That child, suffering as that child obviously does, wrote some very tough letters in childish language about their social worker and how much they hated them. Instead of getting support and follow through, she got a call from the police and the child is now under watch. Only two days ago, I had another mother who brought their child to my surgery to say that their child has had an interim diagnosis in Pembrokeshire. The child is six; the child now has to wait another year to have that finalised. Those are years ticking off of these very, very young lives.
I’m very keen to understand why we have such a disparity in the dynamics between schools and health boards, in terms of helping children who might have autism. When a school suspects the condition, we have a very slow response from health and social services to back this up. In Hywel Dda health board, we have to boilerplate it—we have to have paediatrics and paediatricians involved—which may well be clinical practice, but a lot of other organisations, or a lot of other areas, don’t do that, and they can move forward and help people. So, there’s a lack of consistency in how this is all delivered.
These examples translate across Wales. Only 34% of parents felt they had enough support when choosing their child’s correct educational placement, and only 31% of parents with children aged 14 to 17 said that they had real help, because there were no processes in place to aid transition for their children from one phase of education to another. But, the most telling example, for me, is that only 16% of parents were satisfied with transition processes relating to social care. I know I’ve talked quite a bit about education, Minister, but I would be very keen to understand why we have this gulf between health and social care and education, on how we can help children and young people and adults with autism.
But, how to move forward? Minister, may I suggest to you a couple of very, very quick points? I would like you to consider prioritising the review of the current strategy. It began in late 2012; it’s still ongoing. Local authorities have been let off the hook, and adults, parents and children are in limbo. Minister, I’d like you to consider no more annual funding decisions, but give organisations the chance to plan and implement on a funding cycle that is longer than one year. Minister, I’d like you to consider placing specific duties on local authorities and local health boards. I believe that this would lead to greater clarity on the care and support of people with autism, in terms of assessment and diagnosis, data collection and service provision. I’d like you to consider introducing an autism Act, and look to England and Northern Ireland, which have done so, and learn lessons and improve on what they’ve already put in place. Finally, Minister, I’d ask you to look at cross read, to things like the additional learning needs Bill that’s coming through, to ensure—
Wind up, please.
[Continues.]—that that and the CAMHS strategy all knit together to provide these services. Thank you.
I’m sure that all of us now are willing to admit that the situation is not satisfactory. I remember when I was first elected here that we were proud of the fact that Wales was the first country to have a strategy in terms of autism. And yet, when I started attending the cross-party group, it became clear that most parents weren’t satisfied with the situation, and were saying, in all honesty, that there was no moving forward at all. I remember asking Gwenda Thomas, when she was a member, to come to Wrexham to meet parents, where they were saying that the bureaucracy and so on were in place, but they were not seeing any improvements in terms of the services that were being provided at the grass-roots level. The figures in the NAS survey are quite frightening, to tell you the truth, because even in the last two years, only 10% of those who’ve had a diagnosis have had the diagnosis within two years, and only 21% of the people of Wales in the survey are satisfied with the level of services they receive. Therefore, I accept paragraphs 1 and 2 of this motion this afternoon. We have to accept that the situation isn’t satisfactory, but, again, I think I’m in the same group as Jeff Cuthbert really, because I think we have to look across the border to see whether an autism Act in itself is sufficient to improve the situation.
If you look at the 2009 Act in England, there were only two aims to the Act: the first one was to write a strategy, and that you reviewed that strategy on a regular basis, and, after that, that the Government in England accepted and wrote statutory guidance in order to ensure that the strategy was implemented at a grass-roots level. Therefore, if that is the only aim of the Act that would be introduced here in Wales, what is there to delay us in the meantime? That’s the point. There is a danger, if we’re saying it’s not possible to legislate further before 2017, for example, that we’re losing a further two years. I don’t accept, really—. I think that there is a need for us to keep these councils in their place and to ask them questions, because, ultimately, you don’t have to have a special fund for this, that and the other: there is a responsibility on these councils.
I got a fright when I asked councils in north Wales how exactly they were spending this £40,000 in the first place. Some of the councils are taking £6,000 or £7,000 off the top for their own bureaucracy, for managing the grant. So, only £32,000 or £33,000, in some of these councils, was going into grants in any case. One council is taking £7,000 to implement the grant, but yet only six grants were paid out, including grants of, I think, about £10,000 and £6,000 to one of their own schools. Therefore, we need to ask whether the Welsh Government has been monitoring the way this strategy is being implemented on the ground. I think we have to ask NAS, ‘If you say that the only way we can improve the situation is by legislating, what exactly has happened in England since 2009?’ because they have been running a campaign in England, ‘Push for Action’, which says that, even under the Act there, the situation creates some doubts over services.
So, I’m quite willing to fight with NAS in terms of improving the situation of autistic people in Wales—we have to, because there are 25,000 of them who’ve been registered, about one in every 10 of our children and young people, and, if you count all the families that are involved with this, there are probably over 100,000 that come under the auspices of this strategy. Therefore, we have to ask, if it’s the responsibility of the Government to say—. It’s right to publish a strategy, it’s right for a strategy to be on the shelf, but, really, if the strategy doesn’t improve the situation of ordinary people, we should be questioning the strategy, and asking the Government to do exactly what the Act in England ask for, which is to review the strategy in the first place and also publish new statutory guidelines for these services.
I welcome the fact that Mark Isherwood’s motion begins with the word ‘welcomes’, and I’m pleased to support his recommendation, but, in the meantime, as almost all speakers have said already, good services now, and for the future, are crucially important. Without a shadow of a doubt, and I speak as a member of the Assembly’s cross-party group on autism, raising awareness isn’t the greatest issue facing us. It’s not awareness but strategy that is at the heart of the debate on a county council and a national level in terms of autism services. And, as ever, it ultimately comes down to the funding. This year, for the first time, the funds provided to county councils for autism services will not be ring-fenced on a statutory basis. But, as Bill Powell mentioned, as did Jeff Cuthbert, Powys and Caerphilly have already announced that they are to allocate the funding provided on paper, if not statutorily, on a voluntary basis for autism services. In Carmarthenshire, they are currently discussing this issue. This is the exact issue that we are discussing today, namely the strategy rather than the principle. In other words, we are discussing how we can best reach our goals rather than questioning the validity of those goals themselves. In my view, in an ideal world, we should proceed without legislation, but, as each of us would be willing to admit, we don’t live in an ideal world.
The crucial question is: are partnership and collaboration enough to ensure the future of our autism services? Recently, I have been in discussions in Carmarthenshire with NAS Cymru. The main concern of the organisation is discussing the many individuals and organisations within an area and ensuring consistent services across Wales. The Welsh Government’s plans to bring all of these agencies and individuals together on a local basis, therefore, were applauded by the society.
In my experience, collaboration between council services is crucially important. We have 22 authorities in Wales and, without doubt, this is one way in which collaboration between authorities can benefit everyone, certainly in the year to come. Thank you for the opportunity to contribute. I look forward to hearing the rest of the debate and to hearing the Minister’s response to the demand for legislation so that authorities can collaborate.
I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Mark Drakeford.
Thank you very much, Chair, and I would like to thank Mark Isherwood and others who’ve supported this motion for the opportunity to speak on autism. I am also grateful to every Member for their contributions today.
I would start, as Keith Davies said, with the motion itself, by concentrating on recent successes in this area. It is almost seven years since the launch of ground-breaking autistic spectrum disorder strategic action plan for Wales, and, certainly, as we have heard during this debate, this was the first proposal of its kind within the UK, if not further afield.
Our national ASD action plan notes how the Welsh Government is seeking to meet the needs of people with autism and their families and carers. It sets a clear direction for improving the commissioning and provision of services. In support of these plans, over £12 million of new money has been allocated to improve the lives of people with autism in Wales. As a result, each of our 22 local authorities now has an ASD lead officer, a local ASD action plan, and an ASD stakeholder group, and a national ASD co-ordinator has been appointed to support regional and national networks for the sharing of information and good practice.
Diagnostic services have been developed for adults the length and breadth of Wales, as well as counselling services before and after diagnosis. We also fund regional assistance schemes for adults with Asperger’s syndrome and adults with high-functioning autism.
But, of course, Chair, as many Members have said, although real strides have been made since the launch of the strategy in 2008, there is always more to be done. We are presently working with a stakeholder group to refresh the ASD strategic action plan. Now, this was due to be completed in January of this year, but, at its last meeting before Christmas, the group advised me that they wished to develop a greater understanding of how the legislative changes in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act 2014, and the additional needs reform that the Government will bring forward, will impact on its work. The interplay between the various parts of the jigsaw has been referred to by Paul Davies in his very thoughtful contribution, and by Angela Burns as well. For those reasons, I have agreed that the work of the stakeholder group should continue into this year, but, because there is a pressing need for action in some areas now, including diagnostic waiting times, transitions into adulthood and opportunities for training and employment, I don’t intend to wait for the full work to be done. As Aled Roberts has said, there are very important things to get on with now, in advance of both a full refresh and any potential Act, to address those immediate issues, and I therefore still intend to publish an interim delivery plan before the end of March. That will—
Minister, will you take an intervention?
I’m very grateful to the Minister for taking the intervention and I really appreciate your comment about the cross-read across all the different pieces of legislation. But, at present, you’re already consulting on the regulations that will underpin the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act, and yet those regulations make absolutely no mention of autism. So, how will that tie in with the ASD strategy, going forward?
Well, I need to remind Members that the regulations that we are consulting upon will come in two tranches. This is the first of two; there will be a further tranche later this year. There is also statutory guidance that will sit alongside that. If there are things that Members feel we ought to attend to as part of the consultation, then, of course, we’d be very keen to hear that too.
In the interim delivery plan—
Minister, will you take another intervention?
I’m so sorry.
Thank you, Minister.
Do you agree with me that it’s very important that we repeat this afternoon what has often been said in this Chamber? I agree absolutely with what has been said about delayed diagnosis; it is unacceptable. But we must send a clear message that the provision and delivery of service is not dependent on a diagnosis. Where it is established that there’s a need for care and support, then either a child or adult must receive that support, whether there is a diagnosis or not, and the social services Act states that very clearly.
Well, Chair, I’ve heard Gwenda Thomas give that message many times and very directly to local authorities and others who provide services for people with autism. Of course, it is unacceptable to me, as it was to Gwenda when she was the Deputy Minister, and as Paul Davies has said, when waiting times for diagnosis are unacceptably long. We’re establishing a rapid reporting autism diagnostic task and finish group to bear down on long waits, but a service does not depend upon that being achieved. And for young people—for very young children, in particular—there are inevitably ways in which a diagnosis has to respond to their own developmental needs and it’s never something that stays fixed at a point in time.
Through the work of that group, we will respond to the second strand in today’s motion. The third component focuses on the actions of local authorities and health boards. The refreshed ASD action plan will sit side-by-side with the duty set out in the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Act to put citizens at the heart of decisions made about the services they receive, giving citizens a voice and helping them to improve their own lives, supporting people to achieve their own wellbeing, and working alongside the enormous efforts made by families and others celebrated this afternoon by Jeff Cuthbert.
Now, the Act places responsibilities on health boards and local authorities to establish regional leadership partnerships and jointly to assess the needs of their local populations. The first tranche of regulations and codes of practice underpinning the Act, as you’ve heard, is out for consultation. These, and the second tranche to follow later in the year, do indeed place specific duties on local authorities and health boards in both the planning and provision of care and support. And, as Gwenda Thomas has regularly reminded us, the Act is a people’s Act. It quite certainly applies to both children and adults with autism and it tackles the issue of transition that Angela Burns quite rightly highlighted.
Let me say, just for a moment, Chair, if I could, something about transferring the ASD infrastructure grant into the revenue support grant. I know it’s caused anxiety about the future commitment to the ASD action plan, but it does move us away from the annual funding issues that Members have mentioned. It is there; it is permanently in the RSG. My discussions with local authorities bear out what others have already said: they recognise the need for this money to go on doing the good work it has done already and, in my letter to them, I made it clear that my officials will be monitoring the way they use that money very carefully over the year ahead.
Finally, can I mention something about the Autism Act 2009, because it’s been raised here by many Members? It was raised at last week’s cross-party group meeting that I attended. I said to that group, as Mark Isherwood noted in opening, that there are issues of timing here. There’s no practical possibility that a Bill could be taken through this Assembly in the time left before April 2016. Instead, the idea is one for all political parties here to investigate and to include, or otherwise, in their manifestos for 2016.
I’m interested to hear from stakeholders, including, of course, NAS Cymru, about the benefits they believe an Act could bring, about how we learn from experience elsewhere in Wales how an Act could add value to the support already in place for the delivery of the ASD strategic action plan, and in underlining the shared ambition we all have to respond positively and personally to the needs of people with autism and their families here in Wales.
Thank you. Rhodri Glyn Thomas to reply.
Thank you very much, Chair. Time is scarce for me to close this debate, but may I refer very briefly to the contributions? Mark Isherwood opened the debate by placing the challenge before us as Members of the Assembly and asked the question: is the strategy, without legislation behind it, robust enough? If we didn’t think so, it’s important that we try to ensure that the call for legislation, an Act, is contained in every political party’s manifesto? He also referred to the situation that exists throughout Wales, which is inconsistent, and he suggested that the situation in other countries in the United Kingdom is stronger than it is in Wales.
Alun Davies, quite rightly, noted that there was a warm welcome for the strategy in the first place, but perhaps it’s now time to question whether the way in which the strategy is being implemented is sufficient, and to consider whether an Act is the answer to that.
Paul Davies referred to the situation in Pembrokeshire and in his constituency, and referred to situations where there are deficiencies in terms of diagnosis and in receiving the services. That was something echoed by the majority of contributors, all noting from our own experiences, from the people who come to see us, that these services are inconsistent and inadequate.
May I add to that, as well, that the situation is even worse for those people trying to seek services through the medium of Welsh? For children in our schools, quite often, the service is far less substantial for Welsh speakers, because there are fewer of them. But, while there are fewer Welsh speakers, the rights of those individuals, as children and adults, are the same, and I would ask the Minister, with his ministerial colleagues, to look in detail at that situation.
Lindsay Whittle raised three important questions: the question of monitoring, in the first place, and the Minister has responded to that. We hope, Minister, that you’ll be able to feed back to us what your officers will be doing in terms of monitoring what is happening on the ground in Wales. He raised another vital question in terms of training — training for teachers to be able to identify symptoms of people who are on the spectrum. But, in reality, that need is more than just for teachers. There is a general need for such training, quite often, even, in doctors ‘ surgeries. That expertise doesn’t exist to identify symptoms of this spectrum, and more than one person, of course, has indicated that each case is unique, and there is no way of generalising with this disorder.
Jeff Cuthbert, again referring to what happens within his constituency, emphasised the vital contribution of volunteers who fundraise and he recognised what is being achieved. He also said that he remained to be convinced about the need for an Act, and that the important thing was to focus on implementing the strategy.
William Powell mentioned the situation that arises in terms of this money that was given specifically for services within the strategy to local authorities. I was very pleased to hear that in Pembrokeshire, in Caerphilly and in other counties, according to the Minister, the intention is to make this voluntarily. Of course, the Minister raised an important point: in moving to a system where the money is part of the overall settlement, that get us out of the position raised by Angela Burns about funding from year to year.
Perhaps there is a need to consider that and to see also that there is a possibility that there are advantages to this, although we need to be vigilant. Angela Burns also mentioned a number of things that could be done to move forward in order to ensure that the strategy is implemented, and was echoing, in fact, what Aled Roberts said: we do not need to wait for legislation; we need to implement the strategy. There is always a danger that we stand back and say, ‘Everything will be fine when we get an Act’. Well, people said, ‘Everything will be fine when we have a strategy’. The Minister, and Gwenda Thomas also, the former Deputy Minister, made the point that there is the means for these services to be introduced without a diagnosis, and perhaps there are artificial barriers being put up.
Chair, I think it has been an extremely good debate. It is great that there has been cross-party support for this call to look in detail at the strategy, with the stakeholder group that the Minister has established. It’s good to hear, too, that he intends to publish an interim plan. He is not going to wait for the report, but there is a challenge here for each one of us to ensure that these people, children, young people and adults alike, get the services that they deserve in the language that they wish to have them.
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I defer voting under this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendments have been selected: amendments 1 and 2 in the name of Aled Roberts, and amendment 3 in the name of Paul Davies.
Item 5 is the Plaid Cymru debate on the farming industry, and I call on Llyr Gruffydd to move the motion.
Motion NDM5671 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
a) the importance of the farming industry to the economy, environment and communities of Wales;
b) the crisis in the dairy industry that has stemmed from a reduction in the milk prices that are paid to farmers and instability in the dairy chain;
c) the uncertainty regarding the basic payments that has resulted from repealing the Common Agricultural Policy Basic Payment Scheme (Provisional Payment Region Classification) (Wales) Regulations 2014 following a judicial challenge;
d) the vote in the European Parliament to give member states the power to authorise GM crops to member states, and the fact that the Welsh Government will be responsible for taking the decision in Wales.
2. Calls on the Welsh Government to:
a) work with the dairy chain and the UK Government to take specific action to ensure the viable sustainability of milk producers;
b) ensure that there are sufficient resources and an achievable timescale to ensure that the basic payment is paid on 1 December 2015; and
c) calls on the Welsh Government to restate its intention to keep Wales GM-free.
Thank you very much, acting Deputy Presiding Officer. It’s a pleasure to move this motion in the name of Plaid Cymru. As with all good sermons, there are three issues that I’d like to cover on this motion before us this afternoon: first of all, the situation in which the dairy sector finds itself; secondly, the situation in terms of the basic payments that will be made under the reformed common agricultural policy; and thirdly, the significant developments in Europe last week, which will have implications for Wales’s GM-free status.
Now, hardly a week goes by, or one feels as though hardly a week goes by, without our hearing that yet another company is cutting the price that they pay their milk producers. During the past year, we have seen the price falling, from around 34p per litre at the start of 2014 to the situation we find ourselves in today, where some processors are barely paying as much as 20p per litre, which is, of course, significantly lower than the cost of production.
Since last spring, the global commodity price of milk, of course, has fallen sharply, partially as a result of milk supply increasing significantly on a global level, and partially as the most important markets in the world are slowing down, particularly in China, and also the prohibition in Russia, of course, on imports from the European Union, which is having a significant impact within Europe.
Now, I have no doubt that there is a prosperous future for the dairy sector in the longer term. Certainly, demand will increase on a global level for the coming years. Indeed, the demand for milk and cheese within the United Kingdom is continuing to increase, with the level of increase higher in Wales, as it happens, than is the case in the rest of the United Kingdom. The percentage of the milk from the United Kingdom that is produced in Wales is also increasing. More new dairy farms are coming online in Wales than is the case in other parts of the United Kingdom—some of whom are neighbours of mine, who have made the decision to move into the dairy sector, because they see the more long-term benefits, but, of course, there is a very significant concern about the state of the sector at present. The more unpredictable nature of the industry is going to be something that we will have to cope with now, I think, over the next few years. But, in the short term, of course, for many dairy farmers, survival is the priority, and surviving won’t be not easy, because no business can continue to produce at a loss for very long.
While the price being paid for milk has reduced, as we know, the costs, of course, going out continue to have to be paid, and very often are increasing. If you add to that, then, your cheque payment being deferred for two weeks, as First Milk did, of course, along with receiving your tax bill last year, as a number of farmers will be doing over the coming period, and those cash flow problems, which are already serious, are only set to get worse. We also know that milk quotas will be coming to an end over the next few months, which is likely lead to greater milk production across Europe, at the very time that there will be more milk coming on the market anyway, in the spring—more oversupply, which will mean that the current difficulties are set to continue, and may even intensify. Rabobank and others have predicted that the market will not turn the corner until at least the second half of this year, but of course when that happens, it is crucially important that that price increase is then passed on to the producers immediately.
Although global markets and global factors are mainly responsible for the fall in prices paid to farmers, the highly competitive market that the supermarkets, of course, and the major retailers are working within also plays its part. That is why now, of course, you can buy four pints of milk in many supermarkets for just 89p—a situation that is entirely unsustainable, in my opinion, but one that reflects the state of the supply chain, and also the influence of the supermarkets. But that influence is not only on the direct price of milk, but also on creating a wider perception among the public of the real value of milk. If you get used to seeing milk for sale that cheaply in the supermarkets, you expect it to be cheap everywhere, so what they are doing is devaluing the product, and that has implications then, of course, for the primary producers.
If the supermarkets insist on acting in this way, then they must, of course, shoulder the cut in price from their own profit margin. Many say that they are already doing that, but we’re still seeing some retailers who don’t have transparent pricing structures, which actually makes that accountability a difficult one for us to be able to identify.
Last year, the Rt Hon Alex Ferguson MSP reviewed the voluntary code of practice on the supply of milk, the dairy code, with a view to ensuring that it continues to enhance the fairness of contracts, and provides more transparency between farmers and processors in the dairy industry. Now, Plaid Cymru has been consistent in our demands for a strengthening of the code, and I would endorse that again here today. The code is not the solution, but it certainly has an important part to play. Although Alex Ferguson’s report received a mixed response, on the whole, there are several important recommendation that I believe should be implemented. One of those is the recommendation on exclusivity. If a farmer wants to expand milk production, then that farmer should be allowed to sell the additional produce to another buyer, if the curent buyer does not want to take it on the same terms and conditions.
I would like to hear the Deputy Minister’s response to some of the main recommendations of that report. Does the Welsh Government support them and does it want to see them implemented? If so, what work will you do with those who are in a situation to implement those recommendations in order to see real change happening?
LIkewise, the First Minister’s response yesterday to my bid for to him to write to DEFRA encouraging them to accept major recommendations of the EFRA committee report on milk prices was disappointing. When the groceries code adjudictor was established, Plaid Cymru called then for a broader role for this ombudsman, to ensure that the role had adequate powers to make a real difference to all levels of the supply chain. The report we saw published yesterday, of course, now makes it clear that Plaid Cymru was entirely right in that demand, and that is now also the view of the relevant parliamentary committee at Westminster. Now, the First Minister told us that the Deputy Minister was in regular discussions on this issues, so I would ask you today: will you write to DEFRA to encourage them to implement the main recommendations of the report, in order to enhance the role of the groceries code adjudicator, and also, of course, to make sure that she has the powers to ensure that change happens? We know that drinking milk gives you stronger teeth; well, give the groceries code adjudicator responsibility for milk and her role will have a better bite, also.
Many of the factors that affect the sector, of course, are beyond the competence and responsibilities of the Welsh Government. Clearly, it is crucial that the Government does what it can in this area. I note the fact that the Deputy Minister, of course, has commissioned a review of the dairy sector in Wales, and also the fact that she recently had met with Sir Jim Paice, the chair of First Milk, to discuss the situation of the company. It is also important to note of course, although First Milk purchases some 8.4% of the milk volume in Britain, in reality it is responsible for a quarter of the milk volume in Wales. Therefore, in reality, it is far more significant as a company in Wales, in terms of the sector here.
We must continue to encourage, of course, more local processing of Welsh milk. Many of us have raised in the past, of course, the fact that, in many respects, it makes no sense whatsoever that almost half the milk produced in Wales goes out of Wales to be processed: millions of gallons of milk leave one of Europe’s largest milk fields to be processed, and millions of tonnes of dairy produce, very often, of dairy produce then coming back over the border, and that additional value and those additional jobs being lost to the Welsh economy. Plaid Cymru has also been clear on its ambition to ensure local procurement. We must leave no stone unturned in ensuring that more Welsh milk finds its way into the public sector, for example, in Wales.
A regular gripe from some of the farmers that I speak to is the lack of marketing of milk. They often see Hybu Cig Cymru doing excellent work in terms of the red meat sector and are therefore eager to see similar efforts in terms of the dairy sector and dairy produce from Wales. I understand that the situation and the context are different in many ways, but there is no doubt, in my view, that more could be done to encourage people, and the people of Wales in particular, to drink more milk and to buy more dairy produce.
There is a consistent demand from others for dairy farmers to become more efficient, and that is a challenge that the sector accepts with open arms, but that often requires significant capital investment—something that many farmers have done, and are doing, but, for others, of course, particularly under the current price conditions, it is something that is virtually impossible in the current financial climate. That, of course, is where the rural development plan could assist and where there is an opportunity for us to see, perhaps, some of that 15% that has been transferred from pillar 1 to pillar 2 being returned to the industry, but, of course, it must be available as soon as possible and directly at farm level—so it must be accessible to farmers and communicated clearly and effectively.
Of course, these aren’t solutions to the short-term financial problems facing the industry. I understand, in response to that, that DairyCo have just started to offer half a day’s advisory service to assist farmers with cash flow problems, and that, of course, is something that we welcome.
The second part of our motion mentions the new system of basic payments under the revised common agricultural policy, and, in reality, what I want to hear is the Government explaining exactly how it found itself in such a difficult situation. We understand how the judicial challenge has thrown all the arrangements for the basic payment into the air, and there are fundamental questions that need to be answered: how could the Welsh Government have developed a plan of this sort, which, in reality, was unlawful? How could it have gone so far before realising that the distribution and the 400m zone was flawed? How will the Deputy Minister now ensure that the basic payment, which, according to the Government, wasn’t going to be paid in full in December this year anyway, will at least be as significant a payment as possible?
Finally, there was a vote in the European Parliament last week on GMOs, which means, of course, that decisions will be taken by individual member states on the use of GM crops. DEFRA confirmed in July that it will be a matter for the Welsh Government to decide what happens here in Wales. We are eager to take the opportunity that the Government will have in this debate today to endorse the Government’s commitment and the Assembly’s commitment to a GM-free Wales. So, I look forward to everyone’s contribution, and, of course, I will respond and comment on the amendments in my closing speech.
Thank you. There have been three amendments to the motion selected. I call on William Powell to move amendments 1 and 2 tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Add as new sub-point at end of point 1:
the central role of food production in Welsh farming given the urgent need to safeguard food security.
Add as new sub-point at end of point 2:
implement proactive measures to facilitate succession planning in the farming sector, given the age profile of farmers in Wales and the need to provide access to the land.
Amendments 1 and 2 moved.
Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer.
I very much welcome this debate this afternoon and rise to move amendments 1 and 2, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
We believe that both the safeguarding of food security in Wales and the need to implement proactive measures to facilitate succession planning within the farming industry are of vital importance to protecting the Welsh farming sector. As we know, farming in Wales remains an almost exclusively inherited occupation. I had the pleasure of leading a short debate before Christmas on this topic, which explored the opportunities available for encouraging mobility within the sector and making the industry, as a whole, more accessible.
Share farming is one such opportunity, and I was delighted, in December, that the Deputy Minister termed this ‘An area of common ground between us’. By providing a middle ground, whereby a farmer mature in years, who cannot afford to retire, can start to wind down without having to worry about making ends meet, share farming could, indeed, be one way in which Welsh agriculture can encourage mobility within the industry and give hope to those who are not following a family tradition of farming, but who, nevertheless, yearn for access to the land.
I would also like to take this opportunity, once again, to urge the Welsh Government to do more that lies within its power to explore the potential for developing share farming, which could offer hope for the future of the industry. Whilst I appreciate that the Welsh Government’s rural development plan, which has already been referred to, aims to go some way to addressing the issue of the accessibility of farming, it is important to maintain a focus on how we use the funds of the RDP to secure things for the next generation. As has been called for by the FUW, it is critical that resources under the RDP are made available to all farmers as soon as possible and that funding is available and accessible to farmers. Indeed, those sentiments were echoed just last week by Dai Davies of Hybu Cig Cymru/Meat Promotion Wales, who appealed particularly for investment under the RDP to be concentrated on those measures where there are concrete outcomes that can be achieved, and I think that’s an objective that we share. It’s particularly important here in Wales, given the rurality of our country and the integral part that farming plays in the wider Welsh economy; such judicious use of RDP moneys is especially important, given the Welsh Government’s decision, which is still a matter of bitter regret in many quarters, to cease dedicated support for those farmers who seek to make their living in Wales’s most challenging and disadvantaged terrain.
In terms of the Conservative amendment, we are happy to support amendment 3. It is vital that we engage with all stakeholders on the new payment scheme and that the long-term viability of food production in Wales is secured. This is very much in line with our sentiments as a Welsh Liberal Democrat group.
One aspect that will contribute greatly to the future viability and the thriving of Welsh farming is a greater understanding of how central farming is to our national life, and that understanding needs to be extended also to our great cities as well as to the rural hinterland. In this context, I’d like to refer briefly to a number of initiatives that help to embed such an understanding. The success over the years of Open Farm Sunday and, more recently, the advent of ‘Lambing Live’ is most welcome in this connection, and the popularity of both bears testimony to the readiness of people across this country to embrace and understand the importance of the industry for us all. Indeed, recently, the Petitions Committee received a call from Radnorshire farmer, David Hardwick, on the Welsh Government to acknowledge the prime importance, the central importance, of global food security in our formulation of agricultural policy. He even called for the creation of a food security commissioner to safeguard that for the time to come.
Finally, I would like to commend the Cows on Tour initiative, which has been supported by young farmers in Glamorganshire today. Supported by former YFC national chair and now NFU group secretary, Kate Miles, it involves young farmers from this region undertaking school visits today in London to tell young people the farming story, based on their own experience. This will help, in turn, to further bridge the urban-rural divide that we know so much about. All of these initiatives are most welcome, but we need to see, in conclusion, a genuine commitment from the Welsh Government, reflected in policy, to take this industry forward. I commend this motion and our amendments.
Russell George, to move amendment 3, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Add as new sub-points at end of point 2:
engage and consult sufficiently with stakeholders on the new payment system following the repealing of the Common Agricultural Policy Basic Payment Scheme (Provisional Payment Region Classification) (Wales) Regulations 2014; and
engage and work with stakeholders to ensure the long-term viability of food production and producers in Wales.
Thank you, acting Presiding Officer. I’m pleased to take part in this debate this afternoon—the third debate on farming in the space of just less than three months. That very fact alone, I think, illustrates the tough situation that confronts the farming industry in Wales and the need for the Welsh Government to take swift and meaningful action to support our farmers. This afternoon, I would like to focus my remarks on the common agricultural policy basic payments scheme and the dairy industry.
So, first, and in moving the amendment in the name of Paul Davies, it’s essential, given the fact that the CAP basic payments scheme regulations have been repealed, that the Welsh Government engages and consults sufficiently with the industry on a new payment system. I have to say that I do believe the Deputy Minister has been doing that since the repeal in December. I should like to place on record my thanks to the Deputy Minister for arranging to speak with the spokespeople from each party straight after her statement in December, and I appreciate the time we had to speak with her officials and with her, and to question her at that time.
I had some exchanges this afternoon with the Deputy Minister on this issue, and I have to say again that the Welsh Government has failed, I think, to instigate modelling work at a much earlier stage, which led to a position where neighbouring farmers with similar land would have been paid different rates. I think today’s debate allows us—me, in any case—to perhaps flesh out some of the questions that I asked this morning.
As I understand it, the judicial review of the moorlands area was launched by the Fairness for the Uplands group in September last year, but the Welsh Government only received legal advice advising them that the Welsh Government was unlikely to be successful in court just days before the case was due to be heard on 12 December. So, this means it took around three months for the Welsh Government to receive the advice that led them to pulling out of the court case at the eleventh hour.
The Deputy Minister has already stated that this now means that it’s likely to impact on her ability to make payments in December, and that is just weeks after her statement saying the opposite. So, is this not directly attributable to the Welsh Government’s failure to insist on being given detailed legal advice in September, rather than just days before the court case—meaning the loss of three months of crucial time during which alternative payment models could have been considered? And is it not the case that if the correct legal opinion in September had been presented, all the additional expenditure on the 100 stage 2 moorland appeals would not have been necessary?
This is the only time, so far, that we’ve had a significant amount of time to question the Deputy Minister on this, and maybe the Deputy Minister has got some explanation behind this. But, I think it would be helpful if she could address these points to help move this forward.
In the short time I’ve got left to talk about the dairy industry and the huge concerns that I think we’re all aware of, I would agree with most if not all of what the Plaid spokesperson said in this regard. At this point as well, I should thank the Deputy Minister again for her visit with me to Meifod on Thursday to visit a dairy farm in my constituency. We had a tour and sat around the kitchen table and talked to a handful of dairy farmers, and I think that those are often the most productive meetings to have. Yes, of course, we discussed the farm-gate price and supermarkets, but the key issue for me that came out of that meeting was that farmers are not able to invest as they would like to to make their businesses more profitable. They want to make their businesses more profitable and I’m sure the Deputy Minister wants to see that as well, but they’re hanging on to receive their single farm payments in order to pay the bills, and that just keeps their heads above water. I hope the Deputy Minister took away the same message as I did.
I also met a dairy farmer, as it happens, this afternoon, who also provided me with the same experiences himself, except that what he did add was that he doesn’t feel confident in the Welsh Government due to some of the decisions that they’ve made, largely being the decision to modulate pillar 1 payments at 15%, putting, as he believes, and as I do, Welsh farmers at a competitive disadvantage in the UK and across Europe.
I’m sorry I’ve run out of time, but I would hope that all Members can support our amendment today, which I think is fairly non-contentious.
I call on Elin Jones, but before you do speak, I must point that there are a great number of speakers again for this debate, and so I would recommend that Members are brief.
Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer. With the exception of an animal health crisis, I don’t think that the start of 2015 could have been much worse for Welsh farmers—uncertainty about agriculture payments and about market prices coinciding, and uncertainty in the dairy industry—not of your making, Deputy Minister, but the uncertainty about the agriculture payments are most definitely of your making. Famers are often accused for shouting that the situation is at crisis point, but I don’t remember such uncertainty and such nervousness in the dairy sector as exists at the moment. Not only are prices low, but some farmers are being told by their processors that their milk contracts will not be renewed, and possibly as early as this spring. This is an entirely new development in the dairy sector. There is a need for a European response to this particular crisis. I heard what you said earlier, that you, Deputy Minister, are going to be going to the Council of Ministers at the beginning of next week. I hope we will hear from you in a statement, following that, about some of the results of the important discussions there. Perhaps, this afternoon, you can outline first what your requirements and your expectations are of the Westminster Government and the Council of Ministers, as they meet next week.
The Presiding Officer took the Chair at 17:30.
One comment, also, if I may, on your letter to us yesterday afternoon about your meeting with Jim Paice, First Milk. In the letter, you mentioned that you have asked business advisers and consultants to work with dairy farmers to discuss their cash-flow problems and their business plans. Possibly, this will be useful to some, but I can imagine many dairy farmers choking on their cornflakes hearing about this—either on Dei Tomos’s morning programme or on ‘Farming Today’: that consultants are going to get extra work, and additional money, to give advice to farmers on how bad their cash-flow and profit forecast situation is at the moment, given, in the first place, that the consultants are paid mainly and partly from the modulation pot, which stems originally from money available directly to farmers.
I want to move on to the basic payment, and I hope you will take the opportunity this afternoon, Deputy Minister, to outline for us why you believe that the basic payment regulations were defeated and repealed by a High Court judge following a judicial challenge. We have already heard the Deputy Minister this afternoon confirm that the Government continues to support the policy, although it is obviously unfair to farmers over 400m, and that it has failed the tests of proportionality and equality in front of a High Court judge. The Government had plenty of warnings last year from Assembly Members here about the unfairness of the 400m line, especially once the Government had also decided not to have an ANC direct payment under pillar 2. There are some very persuasive farmers in my constituency, and the Minister at the time met with a group of farmers in Cwmystwyth, touch you, Deputy Minister, met with a group of them in the Cardigan show last year to discuss the unfairness of the 400m line. You ignored that discussion, and the farmers went to court and to judicial challenge and won, and they also won their costs. So, there is a huge risk now to the payments system, and for that to be fair and on time for Welsh farmers, however much the First Minister made hopeful promises yesterday.
There is too much to lose now to leave this, in my opinion, for the Government only, and the Assembly as a whole has a responsibility now to scrutinise every consultation, every decision and every piece of legislation by the Deputy Minister on agricultural payments during this year. We cannot leave this to the Government alone to make mistakes again this year, and I hope that the relevant committee—the Environment and Sustainability Committee—will allocate enough time, and the Assembly, to scrutinise the Deputy Minister’s decisions this year. Because there is nothing more important now for the Deputy Minister or the Assembly than to get the basic payment system sorted out and paid within the next 11 months. The clock is ticking, Deputy Minister.
Milk and its by-products—milk powder, cream, butter and cheese—are now traded in the global marketplace, so as Llyr Gruffydd has already pointed out, if China fails to increase its imports by the 25% forecast a year ago, you don’t need to be a pointy-headed economist to realise it has an impact on prices in Wales, the rest of the UK and Europe. Equally, the Russian ban on imports of dairy products in response to the ban on Russian oil and other products has that negative impact, as well a rush of highly subsidised US cheddar cheese production into Europe. So, without some form of quota system, farmers are at the mercy of the market and cushioned only by the CAP subsidies, which help them to stay in business. We have to, obviously, endeavour to support the wellbeing of Welsh farmers, but we cannot protect farmers from the vagaries of the market. The Welsh Government is only one small player in this world market. Worldwide production has gone up by 5%, whereas demand is only up by 2%. These are the basics, which make it inevitable that small-scale producers in Wales get stuffed, unless we have some mechanism to manage the market.
What responsibility do the farming organisations have for advising their members to grab the opportunities and take the bonuses that wholesalers and processors were offering? Did they not realise that such uncontrolled expansion would inevitably lead to a crash, just as certainly as the binge in bank lending to the third world, the housing market and, indeed, the South Sea bubble have had or will have an inevitable outcome? What goes up comes down. So, what is to be done? We don’t want to go back to the milk lakes and the butter mountains, and, indeed, the trend is in the opposite direction. The impending abolition of EU milk quotas is likely to make the competition from Germany and Ireland worse, not better.
Now, I was interested in what Leanne Wood told us earlier during questions to the environment Minister—that Gwynedd Council now sources all the ingredients for its school meals from local producers. If other local authorities had the commitment of Gwynedd, shortening the food miles and making the provenance and quality assurance easier to track, what impact could that have on prices for producers in Wales? Of course, another option for us in support of the milk producers in Wales is to back the name-and-shame campaign against supermarkets that are paying a mere 17p per litre as part of their market price war. The decision by other supermarkets—M&S, Waitrose, Tesco and Sainsbury’s et cetera—to continue to pay UK farmers and processors at least enough to cover their costs is undoubtedly a good business decision, backed by the Women’s Institute, a powerful organisation, which is indeed urging people to only buy milk with the red tractor logo. But I appreciate that that is not an option for the very poorest members of our community, who have to go for price.
Why is it not possible for farmers, who are only being offered 17p per litre by their wholesalers, instead to consider selling their milk locally? What are the barriers to them doing so? There’s certainly an appetite for locally produced products; it’s the basis of The 25 Mile restaurant in Cardigan et cetera. This is something I hope the Welsh Government will back as part of a suite of actions for growing the food and drink industry to a £7 billion business.
It appears to me that we tend in this place to discuss agriculture every time a problem arises or appears on the horizon, and very often the problem is too far developed and has developed into something that is a threat to dairy producers and meat producers in Wales. I agree entirely with Elin Jones’s comments that the situation facing us at the beginning of 2015 is perhaps the greatest threat that has ever faced the dairy industry in Wales.
The National Assembly for Wales and the Welsh Government have to decide whether they want to see Wales continuing to produce milk. Do we want to see Wales continuing to produce meat? If so, we must ensure that the conditions are in place to ensure that that can happen. Jenny Rathbone is entirely right in saying that we can’t allow Welsh farmers to be dependent upon the international market. We are a small country; we don’t have many powers within that market. But there is a risk, I think, that we tend to react to situations rather than being proactive. That is, why are we responding to recommendations made by the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee in Westminster? Shouldn’t there be recommendations arising from this place? Why are we trying to bring pressure to bear on Ministers in London to take action? Shouldn’t we have clear plans in place here in terms of what we want to see happening, and shouldn’t we put those recommendations to the Government in Westminster? The dairy industry is a crucially important industry for rural Wales, not only in terms of the milk producers, but also in the way that that industry feeds in to the rural economy. And if there are dairy farmers leaving the industry, you will also see other jobs disappearing everywhere as a result of that.
I think, Deputy Minister, that this Government needs to be far more determined and far more creative in the way they respond to this. We had this situation two years ago, when—and I am grateful—the former Minister came to Carmarthenshire to speak to a hall full of farmers there. Some 300 dairy farmers had come together. But, this is the risk: we hold these meetings and we have these debates when the problem already exists, rather than looking to the future.
I want to touch on one other issue in the time available to me, namely what is being discussed and decided upon within the European Union on GM crops. Llyr Gruffydd referred to this at the beginning. If we are going to see a situation where the UK, as a member state, allows GM crops, that is a huge threat to the farming industry in Wales, because the only way that the agriculture industry in Wales can succeed is by emphasising the fact that we produce food of the highest quality and that the rules on hygeine and safety in Wales are far more rigorous than they are elsewhere. And once you start to introduce GM crops, you undermine the very features that make Welsh produce so attractive—that we can say that the produce is developed in a country that is green and clean. You don’t need to be an expert on marketing to understand how powerful it is to be able to make that argument.
So, Deputy Minister, if the Westminster Government has given the Welsh Government the ability to decide what happens in Wales, take that offer up with both hands, grasp that and say very, very clearly to the Westminster Government that we don’t want to see GM crops in Wales. We cannot, unfortunately, control what happens beyond Wales’s borders or even on the borders—that is another threat—but at least we can ensure that Wales, which has a very honourable history in this, as one of the first members of the network of GM-free regions, continues with that, enabling us to market our produce on a global level.
As Rhodri Glyn Thomas has just said, the dairy industry is a vital part of the rural economy in Wales and links into a whole host of other areas of the economy and rural life.
There can be little doubt that supermarket milk price wars, coupled with the problem of red tape and the implications that have arisen following the latest round of CAP reforms, are crippling the dairy industry in Wales. A global increase in the production of milk, at the same time as there has been a drop in demand from countries such as China, and a ban on food imports in other countries such as Russia, is further impacting on our dairy farming communities.
Farmers in my constituency of Monmouthshire are incredibly concerned that they will, ultimately, be driven out of business if they continue to receive unsustainably low prices. Let’s face it: no business can survive at a loss for very long. It really is that simple a situation.
Now, as other speakers have said, milk prices are at their lowest level since 2007, and much of this is due to a number of large supermarket chains charging consumers very little for their milk, which, in turn, means that dairy farms are being more and more tightly squeezed. It’s claimed that the minimum price a farmer can survive on is 30p a litre. However, as we’ve heard, according to the National Farmers Union, some of their farmers have witnessed a drop of 10p per litre for their milk over the last year. Worryingly, latest figures reveal that some dairy farmers are being paid for their milk as low as 20p per litre, and 17p per litre, as we’ve heard today.
It cannot be right that supermarkets operating in Wales are apparently using milk as a loss leader in order to entice customers into their stores. So, what do we do now? I heard what you said, Rhodri Glyn, and you’re probably right that it’s a shame we only ever discuss these situations when they reach a crisis level, and it’s a shame we hadn’t dealt with this before, but we are where we are. The important thing now is to do what we can from here on to try to make the situation better. What is important is that we actively encourage the public to buy milk that is sustainable. I heard what Jenny Rathbone said about some of the poorer people in society not having that money, but we are talking here about pennies rather than anything more major than that. When you look at what people are prepared to pay for a bottle of water and then you look at the price of milk, you think there is something seriously wrong with the way the market is working. Now, I understand that there are farmers in contracts with stores such as Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Waitrose, which have agreed to pay farmers around 30p per litre. For other farmers, who are not fortunate enough to be supplying similar stores, it is not unknown to be paid less than 20p, as we’ve heard.
However, as well as the slump in milk prices, I’ve also mentioned the problems dairy farmers are encountering with red tape and the implications that have arisen from the latest round of CAP reforms. As you will know, last year, the Welsh Government issued guidance on how the new regime of CAP reforms would be implemented in Wales. Part of the system includes a greening element. Unfortunately for dairy farmers in my constituency, this is proving difficult to comply with in practical terms. The NFU Cymru Monmouthshire county chairman Nigel Bowyer has stated,
‘In a county such as Monmouthshire, the greening element is causing significant problems as farmers attempt to meet the two or three crop rulings’.
There can be no doubt that CAP rules have broadly increased unnecessary bureaucracy to farming businesses, both in my constituency and across Wales. At a time when milk prices are in free fall, the added burden of agricultural reforms has not been welcomed, and these concerns need to be addressed.
I would, therefore, agree with the majority of speakers—the overwhelming majority—that this Welsh Government must work with the dairy chain, with the suppliers and, of course, with the UK Government to take specific action to ensure the viable sustainability of milk producers. That’s what this is about: not a short-term fix, but a fix that is sustainable in the long term. Furthermore, the Welsh Government needs to engage with the wider farming communities regarding the latest CAP reforms. I appreciate the ball is not totally in your court with this one—there are non-devolved issues here—and dealing with supermarkets is no mean feat, but we’ve got to start somewhere, and the Welsh Government does have a voice and can have a powerful voice in this area. Farmers in my constituency and across Wales have many questions and many concerns, some of which have been mentioned in this debate today and some of which have not, but we urge the Welsh Government to get on with the job of making sure that the dairy industry in Wales is sustainable over the medium and long term.
Can I begin by drawing Members’ attention to my entry in the register of interests that my husband is a partner in a farming business? Before moving on to my main contribution, I would like to echo the words of William Powell with regard to the petition submitted by my constituent Mr Hardwick of Lower Cantel with regard to food security. I remember once attending a lecture in Breconshire about the history of the county during the second world war, and a great deal of attention was paid to the fact that it was our ability to feed ourselves during that conflict that was absolutely crucial to the success of this nation in surviving: the fact that we could feed ourselves and were not reliant on food imports. I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to remember how important a facility that is: the ability to feed your own people.
I’d like to focus on 1(c) and 2(b) of the motion as tabled. Now, CAP reform has never been easy, but each time change has come along, the farmers of Brecon and Radnorshire have done their best to respond to what Governments have asked of them. Key to that ability to respond has been to plan, on an individual farm-by-farm basis, for the changes that are about to hit. The situation we now find ourselves in today has made that planning all the more difficult, as if the reform wasn’t going to be difficult anyway, because of the previous Minister’s decision to move the maximum amount of money available from pillar 1 to pillar 2. It was already going to be challenging, but the decision, then, to create a moorland rate was positively devastating for some farmers in my constituency. Of course, it now turns out that the Welsh Government could not justify that particular policy announcement, even though, as Elin Jones has said earlier, they were warned in this Chamber that it was not fair, and, more importantly of all, they were warned by people in the industry that it was not fair. For those who did stick their heads above the parapet, I think they deserved better than to have public dressing downs in public meetings and to be told they should simply get off the land. It was not good enough.
Now, the reality is, a year later, we find ourselves back at the very beginning of this process, and I'd like to know from the Welsh Government how much money has been spent over the last year pursuing a policy that they could not and would not defend in front of a judge. Papers released and sent to us by the Deputy Minister today demonstrate that, in the end, faced with the evidence, Welsh Government could not defend their position. They could not claim that their decision had been proportionate and fair. How much money has been wasted over the last year in pursuing that policy decision and now the failure to be able to defend it?
Perhaps most importantly to my constituents, papers e-mailed today confirm that the Deputy Minister is not in a position to be able to tell them when payments will be made in the new window. She is simply not able to do that at present, despite the fact that the First Minister, on numerous occasions over the last fortnight, has said it’ll be paid when the window opens. Papers released by Government officials today say that is not the case. The First Minister cannot make those claims. Welsh Government officials say they cannot predict when payments will be made. I'm grateful that the Deputy Minister has forwarded information today, but I would ask her when the figures for the ‘tunnelling’ option will be made available for Members to see, because some of the figures we see about big losers within the industry are frankly scary under the other two options, and I think it's important that we have access to the third option.
Can I turn to the issue of the young farmers movement, Presiding Officer? Following recent funding decisions by a number of funding bodies, there is a question mark over the funding for that national organisation. I know that the Deputy Minister has gone out of her way to make officials available to discuss the situation with officials from the YFC movement, and I am grateful to her for doing so, and I know that they are grateful to her for doing so, and they are positive with the approaches and the response that they have had. I wonder whether she would be in a position to update this Chamber on how she feels she can help that movement sustain its work across Wales, often providing services for young people in parts of rural communities that would not be covered, for instance, by youth services provided for by county councils. Much of the effort is delivered by volunteers and it’s an organisation that really puts young people's decision making at the forefront. It's not adults who plan the activities or organise the activities; it really is young people working on behalf of young people. I'd be grateful for an update from the Deputy Minister.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
The dairy sector, as we have heard, is crucial to the agricultural economy in Wales, producing some 30% or more in terms of value. That sector exists within a global market, as we have heard again this afternoon, but we must be able to develop a policy scenario and encouragement for Welsh industry that respond to our own conditions, and that, simultaneously, can cope within an international commodities market that, at different times, suffers because of trends that cannot be anticipated and uncertainty. And so, the fact that you cannot anticipate the market, or how it is going to behave, is not a sufficient excuse to say, ‘Oh, yes, the market has failed’, or, ‘We don’t understand that market’. It is part of the duty of agricultural economists and, indeed, politicians with an interest in agriculture, in agricultural produce, to try to ensure that the food market is as well understood as possible, and that it can be developed in a way that is appropriate.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I do think that there are clear pathways forward for us in the UK, and in Wales particularly, in the dairy sector at present. We haven’t emphasised adding value nearly enough. We continue to turn most of our milk into liquid milk—unlike most other nations within the European Union, where much more milk goes to the production of cheese—and there are parts of the United Kingdom, of course, where the pattern is very different. Northern Ireland exports 80% of its dairy products, and we must develop that side of things, particularly in areas that are reliant for employment on the dairy industry.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
It is a particular privilege of mine to represent South Caernarfon Creameries, near Chwilog, which since 1938 has been a co-operative unit and has developed and succeeded in marketing its products successfully. I do not need to advertise Dragon butter and cheese: it is available in this Assembly, and everywhere else in Wales. But, what is important is that the Welsh Government demonstrated its support for this company recently, by encouraging investment, and providing investment, of almost £3 million for a new cheese production area. Therefore, it is important that we continue to ensure that conditions are in place where companies such as this can secure employment in rural Wales.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
As we face a scenario where the cap will be removed from milk quotas, I recall only too well the negotiations in the 1970s and 1980s when milk quotas were first put in place. So, we must face the fact that there will be further shifts within the market that may be unreasonable in terms of overproduction in the short term, and that we are then ready and willing to tell people that it is worth while developing the kinds of milk systems that work for Wales on an environmental level. This is the most important point: we, in Wales, have the finest landscape, the best weather conditions, the best rain and the best pasture, and there are areas close to where I live in the Conwy valley that are exemplars of the quality of the kind of sustainable dairy industry with low inputs that works particularly well for us. So, let’s make sure that we develop within this complex international market the type—
Thank you very much. Although I entirely agree with the sentiment you express, without reservation, the concern with the end of milk quotas in April is that increased production is likely in both the Netherlands and Ireland, which will continue, and make the problem even more difficult for our farmers in Wales. Would you agree that we look for a solution from the Minister?
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
Well, my argument is precisely that we need to beat the Irish and the Germans and the Danes at their own game—and I’m up for it. [Laughter.]
Absolutely. [Laughter.] And the reality is that we’ve been doing it. Rhodri Glyn Thomas was absolutely right: we come here every time there is a crisis in agriculture and then we say how bad agriculture is. That’s my experience of being a Member here for the last seven years; that’s my experience of being a Minister here. The reality is that the dairy industry has actually been enormously successful. On average over the last 10 years, the average dairy farm has seen an increase in its income of 16.5%. Last year, it saw an increase in its income of 70%—in a year. How many other sectors, how many other industries, how many other businesses, in the teeth of the greatest recession that we’ve seen in our lifetimes, can say, ‘We’ve had a 16.5% increase in profitability year on year on year on year’? How many other industries can say that ‘We’ve seen a reduction’—possibly, depending on how you take it—‘almost halving the number of producers, but we actually produce more of that raw material’? There is more milk produced today than 10 years ago with far fewer producers.
That speaks of an industry that is reforming itself, that is more profitable, that is more efficient, and we should be enjoying that success, and we should be building on that success, not listening to the sort of debate we’ve had this afternoon. We should be working with that industry to look at how we can build that industry to be stronger than it is today in the future. That is exactly why we’ve built the biggest RDP in history: in order to achieve that, to work with investments in the future; in order to ensure, Rhodri Glyn, that we won’t be having the same debate in two years as we had two years ago. We need to be able to do that, but you don’t do that by willing the ends and voting against the means. That’s the hard reality of it.
So, we’ve seen a very successful industry developing in dairy over the last few years, and we should be supporting that. What we cannot do is to buck the market and ensure that what happens in Russia and China never affects us. Sir Jim Paice—I agreed with every word he said to the NFU this week. I agreed with him very often in office as well. What he was able to say was that it is not simply a matter of blaming supermarkets every time you see a price cut. All too often, that’s a knee-jerk reaction here in this Chamber. So we need to be a bit more intelligent—
I can’t give way at the moment, I’m afraid.
[Continues.]—a bit more intelligent in the way we do that. We do need a groceries adjudicator that works. I regret the fact that the UK coalition Government has not given it the powers that the previous Labour Government wanted to give it and then enacted the powers it does have. It does require the powers to be there. It might well be that the dairy code does need the power of statute. I threatened to do that, if you remember, two years ago, and perhaps we do need to do that in the future, but not at the moment.
On the issue of moorland, the policy over the reform of CAP had two main objectives. The first objective was to minimise disruption; the second objective was to minimise the administrative burden. The farming unions wanted us to introduce four payment regions—four payment regions. I remember being attacked by the NFU a year ago when we introduced only three. Had we introduced four, you can guarantee there would have been a judicial review long before the one which we saw before Christmas. Had we introduced four, we would have seen greater and bigger bureaucracy and a greater administrative burden. We introduced three because that minimised disruption. I came to this Chamber and said very clearly that there are 93 farm businesses in Wales, out of 18,000 claimants—18,000 claimants—who are affected badly by this. Of those, fewer than 20 were significantly affected by the changes. All of those farms happened to be in the Elan Valley—
Antoinette Sandbach rose—
I’m not going to give way.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
No more interventions. We haven’t got time.
[Continues.]—and in Cwmystwyth, for some geographical reason I never really understood. The reality is that, for 18,000 farmers, this reform would’ve guaranteed their future and would not have had the impact on their businesses. The reality is now that many thousands of farmers, whatever the Minister does, are going to see a reduction in payments, and many hundreds of farm businesses do not have the certainty that they would’ve had previously, and that is not a good result for Welsh agriculture. When I look at the situation we’re in today, I fear that we’re not able now to deliver on our first objective, which was to minimise disruption to farming businesses. So, we should prioritise our second objective, which was to minimise the administrative burden. What I would say to you, Minister, is that this is now the time to introduce a single payment region for the whole of Wales—a single payment for every farm wherever they happen to be in Wales—and to focus on pillar 2, which, as we go back to what Dafydd Elis-Thomas and Rhodri Glyn Thomas said—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—will actually secure the future of Welsh agriculture.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
And very briefly, and finally, Antoinette Sandbach.
Well, I do agree that we need to give the adjudicator more teeth, because it is absolutely clear that there is a loophole that the dairy contracts—. The contracts with the processors have created a loophole, and we need more teeth. But I do say indirectly to Alun Davies, but to the Deputy Minister, that, if that was the position, as he sought to argue it in this Chamber today, why was it then that Welsh Government were not prepared to go into the doors of the court and defend their position? And the reality is that they did not defend their position. It wasn’t even a case of them losing in terms of the basic payment. It was a case of Welsh Government capitulating. So, clearly, there was either a major flaw in the legal advice that had been received up until that point or they realised—. That can be the only explanation. That can be the only explanation. The reality is that we know that there have been months of work on a computer payments system—a whole IT system put into place to deal with these new payments. All of that: gone. Farmers who are trying to do their business planning, because tenancies have been negotiated, bank loans have been negotiated, all on the basis of the payment rate that had been announced—gone out of the window. They are going into a financial year not knowing where they stand. Even worse, the livestock sector, which has suffered significantly from price volatility over the last 12 months and has not been in the position that the dairy sector has been in in terms of increasing profits, is going to be in the middle of lambing during the consultation that is going to be announced in March. They are going to be up to their eyeballs in their lambing sheds and will not be able to get to the NFU meetings or elsewhere. They are not going to be able to respond.
That is the concern, Minister, around the contingency planning, about the failure to listen in September when this judicial review was first launched. So, either there was a very, very serious flaw in your legal advice—. But it is farmers who are going to pay the price for that. And that is that, you know, it affects their finance, it affects their business, and, I’m sorry, I don’t care how strong your RDP is, those investment decisions are better made by farmers on their farm, and I think you should seriously look at your modulation rate in the light of the chaos that this basic payment scheme is causing. You should relook at the 15% modulation and see if you should have a graduated scheme instead, because of the impact this complete farce will have on a major Welsh industry. Thank you, Presiding Officer.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Deputy Minister for Farming and Food, Rebecca Evans, to speak on behalf of the Government.
Thank you, and I’d like to thank Plaid Cymru for tabling this motion today, because it provides me with a timely opportunity to remind Members of the breadth of work this Government is doing to take forward, support, and further strengthen the agricultural industry in Wales.
As I explained in my recent written statement, we hope to receive informal approval for our new RDP in the coming weeks, and it will be the largest and most ambitious in our history, and it’ll support vibrant and successful rural businesses and communities, and a thriving natural environment. The RDP has been designed with growth and competitiveness as the defining principles, but with interventions that, in turn, impact positively on sustainability and social inclusion. This includes, for example, our support for newcomers to the industry, where the current young entrants support scheme has been a real success. We now need to take it to the next level through the RDP, and focus on entry into and exit from the industry will be critical to its success. I’ve therefore published an action plan to address the recommendations in Malcolm Thomas’s independent review, ‘The Next Generation into Farming’. Evidence suggests that mobility is a key driver in building an innovative, market-focused and profitable farming industry. That’s why, of all of Malcolm Thomas’s recommendations, arguably the joint opportunities platform will be viewed as the most important of all. That’s why I’ve asked my officials to pursue implementation of that as speedily as possible.
The Country Land and Business Association, the Farmers Union of Wales and National Farmers Union Cymru have all carried out work in this area recently, and they’ve looked at different models of joint ventures. I’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of these excellent examples myself, to see just how young people can enter the industry without the huge capital outlay associated with purchasing land. Continued partnership with the industry is key. The continued success of the Agri Academy initiative is another excellent example of collaborative working. It’s inspired the next generation of rural leaders and entrepreneurs, providing young people with the information and knowledge to help them develop successful and profitable businesses for the future.
The Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology and I will soon be responding to Professor Wyn Jones’s report on the provision of learning delivered in further education colleges, and the relevance of that to farm businesses. Alongside this, we’re already implementing ‘Towards Sustainable Growth’, our action plan for the food and drink industry 2014 to 2020. Our vision is one of green growth, where businesses are the custodians of our natural resources, and these businesses are both environmentally and socially responsible. We must produce food that is safe and that secures improvements in the health and vitality of the people of Wales.
Internationally, Wales is now outperforming the UK on food exports: up 10.7%, compared to 0.8% for the UK. Our ambition to grow sales in the food and drink sector by 30% to £7 billion by 2020 is ambitious, but, I believe, achievable. Securing food supplies for our nation will have to be done in the face of changing patterns of consumption, the impact of climate change, fluctuation in fuel prices and currency rates, because food is increasingly traded in global commodity markets, as we’ve already heard. Wales is well-suited to provide an increasing variety of food products, which can reduce UK dependence on imports. A balance must be found between feeding our own population alongside our export ambitions, or within environmental limits.
I am, of course, all too aware of the problems facing the dairy sector, including the significant downward pressure on milk prices paid to dairy farmers over recent months and the First Milk payment delays. Members know that I met with the chairman of First Milk, Sir Jim Paice, last Thursday, to better understand how the cooperative had found itself in this position, and to satisfy myself that the suite of actions taken by First Milk will be enough to put them on a sound footing. Sir Jim assured me that he’d spoken to the banks in the light of their decision and had found them to be sympathetic to farmers’ situations.
Farming Connect, our support and advice service for Welsh farmers, is working closely with DairyCo in Wales to provide a complementary package of support to our dairy farmers during this critical period. However, price cuts have now created a situation on many dairy farms where the cost of production is greater than the price obtained for the product, and this can only partially be addressed through further reducing costs of production on-farm. Rhodri Glyn Thomas can be assured that this Government has been, and continues to be, fully committed to the long-term success of the Welsh dairy industry and there are a number of ways in which we are pursuing this.
In 2012, the Welsh Government established a dairy taskforce for Wales in response to the plan for milk recommendations. The taskforce continues to advise me on all matters relating to dairy. I’ve announced a review of the dairy sector in Wales, which is being led by Andy Richardson, and it will provide a strategic direction for the sector and, most importantly, its associated supply chain. The review is timely as the industry is entering another period of considerable change, with milk supply and the demand for dairy products rebalancing. The review is part of the Government’s commitment to review progress on the plan for milk and the operation of the voluntary code in Wales. I can reassure Llyr Huws Gruffydd as well that I found the select committee’s report a helpful addition to the debate. I’ve studied it, looked at the recommendations, and there’s nothing in that report that I would take issue with. I responded to a question from your colleague Simon Thomas this morning, when I informed him that I’d be meeting with Liz Truss on Monday, so I’d certainly take forward these issues with her then. And that includes obviously the support for strengthening the role of the groceries code adjudicator to give it the teeth it needs to support our dairy industry in Wales.
Elsewhere, as I explained earlier, work has already begun on the alternative options for the basic payment scheme. I have to say that the EC was happy with our proposals from the start. The CAP data modelling group has already met, and will meet again, to be followed by a discussion at the CAP high-level group and the Wales biodiversity partnership steering group. The implications for making basic payment scheme payments in 2015 will be clearer after the modelling work is completed on the new options and they will be presented for consultation. As always, we aim to pay farmers as early in the payment window as possible, traditionally on 1 December, but how quickly we can do that will depend on which of the options I decide to take forward.
Stakeholders agree that, as far as possible, the twin guiding principles of minimising disruption through the move to area-based payments, and recognising the character of land through those payment rates, should continue to inform the development of the new BPS arrangements. And I believe that we’re all united in wanting to take forward a pragmatic approach, working towards the best possible outcome for the Welsh farming industry as a whole.
On GM crops, the European Parliament vote last week will provide Wales with the necessary tools to maintain our precautionary and restrictive approach towards GM crops by allowing us to control their future cultivation in Wales. This change in the law will allow the Welsh Government to demand that a GM applicant limits the geographical scope of an EU GM crop authorisation to exclude Wales. Should this demand not be granted, then we can adopt further measures restricting or prohibiting the GM crop cultivation. These further measures may include such things as environment or agriculture policy, socioeconomic impact, public policy or the avoidance of GM contamination in other products. We have campaigned for several years to have socioeconomic issues included as important factors in the consideration of GM crop approvals; I am pleased now that these are finally recognised.
In the coming weeks, my officials will be working with the other UK administrations to establish the details of this proposal and how it will be administered in the UK and the EU. One important aspect will be establishing cross-border arrangements with England to ensure that Welsh farmers are protected from any possible contamination should GM crops be grown across the border. So, in summing up, Presiding Officer, I’m supporting today’s motion because, while agriculture in Wales continues to face a number of challenges, the industry is ready and able to face them with the full support of this Government. By working together, strengthening our plans and building long-term resilience, we are supporting an industry that is ready to take on these challenges and is open to embrace the future and the opportunities it will bring.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Llyr Huws Gruffydd to reply to the debate.
May I thank everyone who’s contributed to this very constructive debate this afternoon, despite what some people may say about such debates? Certainly, it is an opportunity to air some of those issues that have been of great concern to our constituents and, certainly, that’s an important part of the role that we, as Members, play.
May I thank the Deputy Minister for her response to the debate? It’s encouraging that you do want to raise the issue of the groceries code adjudicator. That’s certainly something we welcome, because it’s something that Plaid Cymru has been arguing for for more than two years. You’ve also confirmed that you will recognise the character of the land—I think those were your words—when it comes to looking at a new model of payments. I assume that that means that you won’t be taking the advice of the former Minister to create one region for payments in Wales.
But, Alun Davies was, perhaps, right in reminding us that we are now facing a market that is far more volatile than, perhaps, has been the case in the past in the dairy sector here in Wales. Because of the internal nature of the market, perhaps, within Britain, we have been protected from that, to a certain extent, and there is a need to be able to cope with the crosswinds that are affecting us now, in relation to the sector. But, of course, that doesn’t make the storm currently being experienced any easier to deal with, in terms of surviving these cash flow problems and so on.
I want to thank Dafydd Elis-Thomas for reminding us, of course, that the landscape and the weather that we have here are the finest possible for a sustainable dairy industry, and low inputs, and that is a very strong foundation on which we can continue to build a successful sector.
From the point of view of the amendments tabled, we will be supporting the three amendments. Certainly, from the point of view of food security, it’s a matter of days that we have in terms of food security in this country at present, compared with, of course, weeks, if not a lot longer the further back you go. I do think we need some kind of food revolution in this country, where we do reconnect people with the source of their food, and we need to do far more to encourage people to grow their own food and to take responsibility for the food that they consume.
From the point of view of the second amendment, of course, succession is an important issue, and in terms of succession planning, we have lessons to learn from Ireland, in that regard, where facilitators visit farms to discuss issues of succession, which can, of course, be a very sensitive and difficult issue to discuss among farming families, very often. There’s a great deal we can learn from Ireland in that regard, as well as looking at the positions in terms of taxation and so on, which can be practical barriers in many contexts.
In terms of the third amendment, well, we would expect no less, of course, than full and adequate engagement as part of any process of looking at new payment systems. But, the point made on doing that during the lambing period is a very valid one indeed, I think, and it doesn’t reflect well on the Government that it finds itself in such a situation.
So, may I thank you all for your contributions? I welcome the suggestion that Members will support this motion this afternoon, and I do hope, in looking forward to seeing the publication of the review of the dairy sector, that we will also see, along with that, the publication of an action plan, which will be supported by resources also. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does anyone object? [Objection.]. Object. I move this to voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
It was agreed that voting would take place at the end of business, but before the short debate. So, I intend to move straight into the votes. Does anyone object to that? No. Fine.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The first set of votes, then, is the debate by individual Members under Standing Order 11.21. I call for a vote on the motion, tabled in the name of Mark Isherwood. Open the vote. Close the vote. In favour 29, 21 abstentions, none against. Therefore, the motion is carried.
Motion agreed: For 29, Against 0, Abstain 21.
Result of the vote on motion NNDM5639.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to vote on the Plaid Cymru debate on the farming industry. I call for a vote on the motion, tabled in the name of Elin Jones. Now, if the proposal is not agreed, we’ll vote on the amendments to the motion. So, open the vote. Close the vote. In favour, 33, no abstentions, 17 against. Therefore, the motion is carried.
Motion agreed: For 33, Against 17, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5671.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you very much. We now move on to the short debate.
Angela Burns took the Chair at 18:20.
May I ask you to leave the Chamber with courtesy for the Members staying for the short debate?
I’d like to call on Antoinette Sandbach to speak on the topic of her choice. Antoinette Sandbach.
I’m grateful to have secured this short debate on giving the Circuit of Wales the red flag. I have chosen this subject in response to communication regarding the environmental impact of the track, the public funding that it has received and might receive in the future, and the apparent lack of transparency around the project. I have agreed to give Rhun ap Iorwerth and William Powell AM a minute of my time.
I recognise in this debate the wonderful picture painted by William Graham AM previously in a debate on this subject, and I realise that the revitalisation of the south Wales valleys is important. I’m keen to see jobs created in Wales, but they must be sustainable, long-term and not have a detrimental effect on the environment.
One of the main concerns is the loss of common land at the site and what the arrangements for replacements would be. The proposed site builds upon over 521 acres of moorland. The developers describe this land as poor-quality upland moor. This is a questionable analysis of this area, which consists of a mosaic of blanket bog, a variety of heathland and several varieties of grass pasture. It’s not only the flora that will be destroyed by the land, but the site is also a site of importance for nature conservation and a key site for dragonflies. It helps preserve a broad, healthy range of wildlife and supports red grouse, three types of owl and a variety of other flora and fauna, whose habitats would be lost if the project goes ahead.
This land will be freed up by deregistering the land as common land and re-designating common land elsewhere. A number of organisations have made representations objecting to this decision. The land that has been proposed as a replacement is of an entirely different nature, much more developed, with pre-existing pathways, and is woodland in the main, as opposed to the open wild moorland that it is replacing.
One large piece of the common land is being replaced with seven sites. Six are owned by Blaenau Gwent council, and one, which is more than a third of the total exchange land, is leased by the Welsh Government through NRW and is part of Wentwood forest in Monmouthshire, which is more than 30 miles away from the site. All those sites already have public access and therefore no new public access is being created by this deregistration and these new proposals.
E-mails released under a Freedom of Information Act request in January of this year have highlighted that the developers have paid NRW £25,000 for management of Wentwood forest, although they manage it, again, already. This, surely, must be considered a conflict of interest from the statutory consultee who initially opposed this development and then did a u-turn in circumstances where there’d been a meeting with the then-Minister and the developer, which had been undocumented and for which there were no minutes.
Given NRW’s dramatic u–turn, I would question whether it is appropriate for a body of this sort to receive payment of funds in that way. There is an argument that the land swap proposed is not fair compensation for the land being lost, because it’s already subject to public access. It’s also some distance—over 30 miles away in some cases—from those that currently enjoy the common land on foot, but they’ll lose the right on horseback to do it, and the Welsh Government, which is the leaseholder of part of the exchange land is the decision maker on many of the issues in this development and it cannot, therefore, demonstrate the independence that it should do. It has a clear conflict of interest.
The Countryside Council for Wales recommended that nobody should live more than 400m from a natural accessible green space. Only 65% of people within Blaenau Gwent live within that 400m of accessible natural green space. Just earlier, we heard John Griffiths calling for open access land and yet, here, we have the Welsh Government agreeing to a land swap that will actually reduce the amount of public access to land.
The then-Minister for the environment, Alun Davies, said two years ago: it’s one of my highest priorities to improve the local environment for our most disadvantaged citizens. It’s clear from an environmental view that this race circuit will not achieve this priority.
The other issues also highlighted as a concern relate to the national park. The impact on the bordering Brecon Beacons National Park in terms of noise, light, traffic, ecological and visual impact, which in the view of Gwent Wildlife Trust, will negatively affect the park’s special qualities and the purpose for which it was designated. During the construction phase, Gwent Wildlife Trust have estimated a total of 842 lorry movements per day will occur, adding considerably to the air pollution, noise and light impact. In 2013, the Brecon Beacons National Park was designated as an international dark-sky reserve, an internationally recognised award that pledges to preserve clear skies and eliminate light pollution. This project could have a severe impact on this designation, and harm that designation for the Brecon Beacons National Park. So, when there’s talk about jobs, it’s at a cost, potentially, of jobs elsewhere.
The whole development is not in keeping with the character of the area and could create a precedent for developments in areas bordering on other parts of the national parks. I feel this quote from the Brecon Beacons National Park to the Minister responsible for planning sums up their views very well. It said that it is a controversial scheme, it will irreparably affect sites of scientific, nature, conservation and historic/archaeological interest and is directly adjacent to a designated area of landscape importance.
There are other environmental concerns: the loss of peat soils. The Welsh Government have recently been advocating the protection of such areas, and I know that the then-Minister, Alun Davies, talked endlessly about the restoration of blanket bogs, but, in this case, it appears that that doesn’t apply. Evidence provided to a board meeting in NRW in September 2013 stated that the construction would result in the disturbance or loss of over 700,000 cu m of peat and peaty soils. This loss has implications for carbon sequestration and releases of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. The proposed carbon payback time of the carbon mitigation measures is up to 89 years. Gwent Wildlife Trust believe that carbon emissions arising from the development have been underestimated and, although the emissions arising from peat loss, extraction and removal from the site have been estimated in the planning application, none of the other sources of greenhouse gas emissions arising from construction and operation of the development have been taken into account. These include the commuting of employees, building materials, construction vehicles and running the events themselves.
The third concern I have is the cost to the public purse and value for money. I know that the Deputy Minister stated in response to William Graham before Christmas that the Circuit of Wales aims to attract 750,000 visitors per year within three to five years of start-up. I would question how this figure has been arrived at and whether or not it will ever happen. The 6,000 jobs proposed have already been pooh-poohed, as I would put it, or had scorn poured on them by Professor Garel Rees, the chair of the Welsh Automotive Forum, who told BBC Wales’s ‘Week In, Week Out’ programme that the prediction of new jobs created by this investment was overly optimistic, and it would create no more than 1,000 jobs.
The project has so far received a £2 million grant from Welsh Government, but the detail of this has been shrouded in secrecy. The total cost of the project as of August last year is said to be £315 million. This is already up from the initial £280 million. The development company, in August 2014, were still in the market for £200 million of investment, and said that in publicly available documents. They have also said in publicly available documents that they would like to raise 10% of the investment, so £30 million, from Welsh Government grants, and that they have applied for those grants. The Welsh Government issued a statement yesterday that futher public money would be conditional on all the public sector financing being in place, but Welsh Government have not outlined the risk of that financing, because it is quite clear that the MotoGP championship and Dorna have said to the Circuit of Wales that, if they are not able to run the race in 2016, then they will withdraw the rights from Circuit of Wales and the future options will no longer be valid. Now, given that there is a planning inquiry in March and Circuit of Wales themselves have estimated that they were due to start work in December or January, and that it would be a minimum 18-month build for the project, it casts severe doubt on whether or not they’re going to be able to run the race in 2016. If they don’t run the race in 2016, they lose all the options and the rights, and this circuit doesn’t go ahead. So, Minister, I want an assurance from you that you think it’s worth the upfront environmental cost and damage, because one delay, one problem with the project on site, one difficulty with the construction puts the whole project at risk, and I don’t think that is worth the price.
At the moment, the £2 million provided by Welsh Government appears to have resulted in the 2015 MotoGP world championship being held in Donington Park. Great news for Donington Park, but Welsh Government money is being used to subsidise an event at an English racetrack, and it seems to me that this is a questionable use of public funds—and why there is that need for transparency, why the business case should be out in the public domain, and the due diligence should be in the public domain, and not only that, but the terms of Dorna’s contract with the Circuit of Wales and confirmation as to whether or not—. I want to see what due diligence Welsh Government has done around running the race in 2016 and the ability on the current timetable to construct a circuit that will need to pass all the race tests before it can be raced on by 2016.
The current contract offered for the race, for the world championship, is for five years with the further option of five, but that option presumably lies with Dorna rather than with Circuit of Wales. One of the premier racing circuits of the world, Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps realised a €700 million loss for the grand prix weekend in 2014, despite attracting an 80,000-crowd for the race day alone. This circuit receives considerable financial support from the regional Walloon government. If a top class well-attended event like this makes such a loss, what hope is there for a smaller, lesser established circuit such as the proposed track at Ebbw Vale.
The whole project has been dogged by a lack of transparency, and I would like to pay tribute to the work that Friends of the Earth Cymru, the Open Spaces Society and Gwent Wildlife Trust has done over the last twelve months to bring some of the issues to wider attention. I’m not against the project in principle. I know motor sport is loved by millions, and to have a venue hosting international events anywhere in Wales would be welcome, but not at the cost of £30 million and not at the environmental cost of this project, and I hand over to my colleagues.
I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Thank you, Chair. I don’t necessarily want a red flag, and I don’t want to be seen to red flag any economic development project. I don’t consider it my place perhaps as a representative of a constituency the other side of Wales. I don’t see it as my role as shadow economy Minister wishing to see economic growth in Wales to try to pull the rug under a potentially lucrative and successful project, but I will sound a note of caution. This is an area in which there is considerable competition within the UK as it is, and motor sport is exhilarating and it offers real economic growth potential, but there’s only so much to go around. So, I ask for assurances that Government takes steps to protect investment it has already made in motor sport in Wales. The Anglesey Circuit has already secured Government investment. It’s a circuit without match in terms of the mix of views and facilities. I look forward hopefully to welcoming the Deputy Minister there very soon to see the facilities for himself and to talk about the exciting possibility of bringing part of the Wales Rally GB there. But, if there is to be added competition within Wales, I would suggest that there would have to be mitigating measures taken to protect our current motor sports assets in Wales, so I’d ask for the assurance of that from the Deputy Minister.
Thank you. William Powell—a very fast one minute.
Diolch yn fawr. I’m grateful to Antoinette Sandbach for bringing forward this short debate today. In the light of her remarks, I suppose I need to declare an interest in the matter in that I’m a former member of the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority, and recently became chair of the project board of the Dark Skies project.
However, I share the views that Rhun ap Iorwerth has expressed. I don’t wish to be the bearer of a red flag here, but I think it’s really important that we have a greater understanding of the viability of this project before major additional public funds are committed. Also, I think it’s really important that we have the active involvement of the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority in issues around the environmental impact and any mitigation, and that we have due regard to the needs of the graziers who are potentially adversely affected by this proposal.
Thank you. I call upon the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism to reply to the debate—Ken Skates.
Thank you. I do think that it’s a shame that this short debate has been tabled today with a negative view of the Circuit of Wales, following what was a very positive debate that we had on the subject shortly before Christmas, in which the Circuit of Wales was celebrated as the most significant investment in automotive infrastructure in the UK in the last 50 years. So, let me begin by addressing the concerns and the issues that have been raised both here today and previously with the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport.
The Heads of the Valleys Development Company Ltd have submitted their section 16 application to the Planning Inspectorate for the deregistration of common land. The application is currently being processed by the Planning Inspectorate and a public inquiry is expected to be held in March. With regard to funding for the project, we have awarded the Heads of the Valleys Development Company £2 million of grant support to date. Any further Welsh Government support is conditional on the company securing all of the necessary private sector investment. Details of that offer remain commercial in confidence.
As William Graham AM outlined in the previous debate, we acknowledge there are concerns about the site with regard to its impact upon the environment. The development will comply with the Welsh Government’s nature recovery plan and will include a series of mitigation programmes, most notably the creation of enhanced habitats, priority species and improved grazing to promote the biodiversity of the area.
In addition to solar generation, the site design includes onsite wind and hydro energy generation. Water will be pumped to high-point reservoirs allowing it to be released for hydro-generated energy. Environmental designing will provide a renewable energy scheme that will deliver a fixed-price energy solution.
We’ve been able to provide the Heads of the Valleys Development Company Limited with financial support towards the cost of achieving planning consent and progressing the project to financial close, as there are huge benefits to be realised by the Circuit for Wales.
Will the Minister give way?
Thank you for giving way. I hear what you’re saying, Minister, but, at the same time, you have to recognise you’re talking about between 500,000 and 700,000 tonnes of peat being removed. And, as Antoinette Sandbach mentioned, a period of 89 years is predicted for you to get those carbon dioxide emissions back. Eighty-nine years is a long time to expect Members of this Chamber to wait around to see whether your policies are successful, do you not think?
Thank you. The £280 million capital investment programme will build a world-class international motor sports racing track, with an adjacent automotive and high-technology cluster, and aims to achieve significant and wide economic benefits for Wales and the deprived region of Ebbw Vale in particular.
The innovative scheme will transform 830 acres of land in Blaenau Gwent into high-quality motor sport activity, commerce and entertainment, regenerating the area by providing significant opportunities in job creation, tourism, and research and development. It aims to attract 750,000 visitors per year within three to five years of start-up. The development will be a major addition amongst Europe’s front-ranking motor sport facilities, and will be designed to host international events such as MotoGP, the Superbike World Championship, the Motocross World Championship and the World Touring Car Championship. Through their training—
Will you take an intervention?
Will you be taking any interventions?
No. Through their training and recruitment programme, the Circuit of Wales is also working closely with colleges and have actively engaged other graduates and student organisations such as the Swansea committee of the Institution of Civil Engineers Wales, who have recently delivered an evening lecture outlining the current construction proposals for the Circuit of Wales.
As Deputy Minister with responsibility for culture, sport and tourism, I will continue to support the construction of such an exceptional project in Wales.
Thank you, and that bring today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 18:39.