The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) in the Chair.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order, order. The National Assembly is in session.
[R] signifies the Member has declared an interest. [W] signifies that the question was tabled in Welsh.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 1 is questions to the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. Question 1, Gwenda Thomas.
Developing the Construction Industry
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the development of the Welsh construction industry? OAQ(4)0672(EST)
Yes. Wales is projected to see an annual average construction output growth of 7.1 per cent over the five years to 2020, the strongest of any of the devolved nations or English regions, which is almost triple the UK rate of 2.5 per cent.
Thank you for that, Minister. Like many other constituencies in Wales, Neath has large areas of conifer woodlands. I note that the Welsh Government and Wood Knowledge Wales are organising a conference to stimulate increased use of home-grown timber in construction. Could you outline what other measures, please, there are to encourage the use of locally procured wood?
The event itself, which is being held in March, will promote the use of timber in construction and show what the timber industry can offer, and it will attract a large number of speakers in the trade and the construction sector. It’s a very important area of employment, actually, the timber. The increasing use of Welsh timber provides not only environmental benefits, but also social, economic and growth opportunities, and adding value to the supply chains, ensuring that there’s work being undertaken by Peter Davies, who has been looking at this—he was the former Commissioner for Sustainable Futures—and they are looking at some of the issues and the barriers that occur to using timber in construction.
The Construction Industry Training Board Cymru has identified a lack of appropriately skilled construction workers as a barrier to workforce planning and the greatest barrier to reaping the opportunities presented for the sector in Wales over successive years. How, therefore, do you respond to the call in their 2016 manifesto for support and growth in productivity in construction through skills and training reform?
Well, I know my colleague, the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, has all these matters in hand, regarding the concerns of the industry for future skills.
As you said, Minister, the construction sector in Wales is going to be one of the fastest in the UK in terms of growth and will probably create around 30,000 job opportunities in Wales. Are you able to outline, Minister, how the Welsh Government’s investment in twenty-first century schools has benefited, and will benefit, the Welsh construction industry?
Well, I think, as set out in the programme on twenty-first century schools, the infrastructure plans indicated will boost employment, supporting up to 300 jobs in the design and build of new schools in our communities right across Wales, with a total of £23 million allocated to the twenty-first century schools and education programme 2015-16. So, that will be greater investment again and will certainly help job opportunities across the piece.
Minister, small construction companies operating in my constituency believe that the policy pursued by the Brecon Beacons National Park with regard to commuted sums is making small-scale development uneconomic and not deliverable, and, potentially, that has a huge impact on the number of jobs created by those small construction companies. What assessment have you made of the impact of policies such as that on smaller construction companies—those that aren’t interested in developing huge housing developments, but actually interested in small, individual, one-, two-, three-, four-unit projects, which, at the moment, are not coming forward because of that policy?
Well, I have to say, I think it’s so important that we look at the development of projects around villages. A handful of houses can make a tremendous difference in terms of rural housing, et cetera. It is obviously not my area, but it is one of the issues that has been raised by the builders with me, and it is one of the issues that I will continue to raise with the national parks. I’ve had meetings with the national parks about other issues that impact on economic development, and I’d certainly be happy to take this up.
One of the most brilliant made-in-Wales inventions is the SOLCER house in Bridgend, and it’s attracted an awful lot of interest because of its ability to generate more power than any household would use. I wondered what assessment the Government has made of the construction skills required to build new homes to the SOLCER house standard on an industrial scale.
Well, due to our close working relationship with the Construction Industry Training Board, they are aware of the skills that will be required for what is a first-class project, and, hopefully, further developments of it in the future.
The National Transport Infrastructure
2. What discussions has the Minister had with Ministerial colleagues regarding the national transport infrastructure? OAQ(4)0674(EST)
Well, I have regular discussions with Cabinet colleagues regarding infrastructure across Wales.
Minister, local authorities are making decisions on new housing developments, but little or no consideration is given to the impact these will have on the trunk road network. What assessment has your Government made of the impact local planning decisions will have on the national transport infrastructure and what can you do to limit such impact?
Well, we have regular discussions with our colleagues in local government regarding development. They make their views known to us if they think we can help and assist with any developments on roads, and that is an ongoing dialogue.
Minister, a constituent raised with me on Sunday the potential for using freight lines in the Neath valley to bring passenger transport into Swansea. What is the potential for extending the metro project further west and taking on board new lines like that to improve transport into the Swansea area?
The city region itself has to now focus on some of the transport issues within the Swansea city region, and this is one of the areas that I would expect them to consider.
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I will now call the party spokespeople, starting this week with the Conservative spokesperson, William Graham.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, I wonder if I might ask you for assurances this time on Velothon Wales. You will know that the letters have already gone out to those parties that are likely to be affected. Last year was not a great success in terms of the interruption to so many businesses and people. The event itself was a great success. Could we have your assurance that, this time, every opportunity will be taken to avoid any of those dreadful problems for individuals?
Well, I think as a result of the concerns that were expressed across the Chamber about the adverse impact it had on individuals, even though we applauded the success of the major event itself, there have been detailed discussions between us and the local authorities involved and what is quite clear is, in terms of 2016 route—the detailed route—there will be interactive maps, there will be telephone enquiry lines and all that’s going to be dealt with in due course. But, also as well, in the planning of the event a more open and transparent dialogue with businesses and communities will have to take place. So, you have my assurance on that. But it is important to recognise that we have to take the community with us, because it does inconvenience the community even though, of course, it’s good news for Wales in terms of the event.
May I also ask you—? You will have seen the report from the Enterprise and Business Committee particularly about Cardiff general station and the reservations with regard to its capacity. I appreciate that that Minister will be well aware of the large sums that will be involved to make a detailed improvement of that, let alone the problems with Network Rail. Could I ask the Minister whether she envisages that this will be a priority for her party if they form the Government?
Well, I think it should be a priority for all of us in terms of the Cardiff station improvements. Of course, we had a brief discussion in committee about these issues this morning, because the station must have capacity to manage the large increases we’re expecting to see from passengers, whether they’re making daily regular journeys to and from the railway station and, also as well, there’s a real issue, I think, about what we need to do in terms of investment. Will the investment funds be available for Network Rail to undertake the work that we require? I have written to Sir Peter Hendy, advising of the Welsh Government’s preference to see any future funding approved by Network Rail focus on improving train and passenger movement capacity. Areas such as those narrow staircases—can issues like that be addressed? We’ve got the queuing and crowd management issues that are there. So, there are particular issues that we are obviously lobbying for in terms of Network Rail and will continue to do so because I think it’s important that the Welsh capital has a proper hub in terms of its capacity.
Could I ask just a final question, if I may, with regard to Erasmus? There seems to be—. How do you encourage students throughout Wales to bid for more involvement in this very important and necessary programme?
Well, yes, now that you’ve raised this with me, I’ll certainly have a word with my officials and see how we can help and assist with the query that you have raised.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And now the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhun ap Iorwerth.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. In a recent freedom of information request submitted by Plaid Cymru, we requested information regarding how much Welsh-made steel has been used in public projects that the Welsh Government has overseen over the past five years. The Minister may or may not know that we were informed that this information has not been recorded. Given the Welsh Government’s overall record of local procurement, and is still the worse of all governments in the UK on this measure, will the Minister comment on how exactly the Government aims to support the Welsh steel industry in the future through procurement processes if this Government can’t even measure the current rate of Welsh steel procurement?
Of course, we recognise that there is an enormous amount of contracts and we do look at the issues within contracts. One of the issues that has been raised about steel is that we are looking to see what steel can be produced in Wales, from what sites, and what we can then do with the industry. We will have to look at how we start to record information within this area.
I’m pleased that this is an area where the Minister agrees there has been a failing on the part of the Government. Another area: the European Union and the European Commission rightly are seen as a key component of putting rules and practices in place to protect the Welsh steel industry. Another freedom of information request submitted by Plaid Cymru has revealed that, over a four-year period, Welsh Government raised issues over the steel industry in just one single letter to the European Commission’s vice-president for jobs, growth, investment and competitiveness. Now, all parties hopefully agree that we need to work closer with the European Union on this matter.
Just this week, Bethan Jenkins, Assembly Member for South Wales West, and Jill Evans, Plaid Cymru MEP, led a delegation to Brussels in order to hold two days of talks with senior European Commission officials to discuss its response to the ongoing steel crisis that has recently, of course, led to so many job losses. It is easy now, of course, for the Minister perhaps again to accept that the Government failed to be proactive enough in the past in its dealings with EU officials, but how will the Minister now, and in the future, address the issue of EU-level contact and lobbying by Welsh Government to promote the interests of the Welsh steel industry?
I think I need to make things absolutely clear: some of these claims are totally untrue about what we are and are not doing. At the end of the day, we have been one of the most proactive administrations in dealing with the steel industry. We have a close relationship with the steel industry—both the steel unions and the companies. We’ve been raising real concerns since 2011. Tata, of course, is an anchor company. We’ve had high-level meetings with them and we’ve done everything that we can.
When you talk about what’s happening in procurement, nobody else is doing this in terms of measuring what steel is in public contracts. We have effectively signed up to the charter in terms of procurement before anybody else, and we’re doing the work.
As regards lobbying and who we are talking to, it’s not just a letter; we have an office in Brussels and we have regular dialogue across the piece. We all know that lobbying isn’t just about a piece of paper and a letter, but about what you do. We also need to remember of course that the UK is the member state.
But doubts still remain about activities in the past in terms of contact and lobbying of Welsh Government, and we sincerely hope that the lessons of the past will be learnt when it comes to the need for higher level engagement between Welsh Government and EU officials.
There are, of course, limitations to what the Welsh Government itself can do, based on the current devolution settlement, to help the Welsh steel industry, but the Minister has previously mentioned, as part of the steel taskforce, which of course we welcome and support, that Welsh Government could look at the possibilities open through business rate relief schemes, for example. The Scottish Government is currently leading the way and showing what can be done in Wales to support the steel industry by cutting business rates in Scotland for one year. This is exactly the kind of urgency I think that we need from the Welsh Labour Government. The Minister, I think, must now admit that action, even though we recognise that the Government is trying to move in a particular direction, is still rather slow coming. Will the Minister provide an update, then, on what is being done in terms of providing business rate relief to steel plants across Wales?
I’m afraid that I’m not prepared to admit that we’re not doing anything and that we’re too slow, because actually we’re doing a tremendous amount of work that has been well respected by the industry and understood by the industry.
With regard to some of the issues on business rates, business rates are extremely complicated, as anybody who has ever spoken to the European Commission would understand in terms of what state aid is. There are limits to what you can do and the Scottish Government has chosen to take a particular tack, but let’s not think that what they’ve done is going to massage the real problems in the steel industry and the support that is required. I don’t accept your analysis of this. We’re in total line with the industry about how we’re trying to help. They support what we’re doing and they always say that, as a Government, we’ve been extremely proactive in all the evidence that they’ve given to everybody.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
And now the Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Eluned Parrott.
Diolch, Ddirprwy Lywydd. Minister, I welcome the announcement from the First Minister over the weekend that this Government is planning to create a north Wales metro, but, to date, there’s been no detail as to what that might look like. Now, clearly, north Wales does not have the same network of Valleys lines that south-east Wales does, so I wonder if you can tell us what that means in terms of routes and services for the people of north Wales.
Yes. We are currently looking at the issues around a metro for north-west Wales—you are quite correct. It will focus very much on the integration of not just rail but, of course, bus services and what further work we can undertake. There is currently ongoing work, which I will make available in due course.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Clearly, a metro for north Wales and a metro for south-east Wales are very important, but people in mid Wales will wonder what it is that they can expect and what you are doing to make sure that people who live, for example, in Powys or in Ceredigion are not forgotten about in this drive for metro systems, and still get the investment in routes and services that are vital in supporting rural communities and market towns.
Can I say this? I think our record speaks for ourselves in terms of the investment that we’ve undertaken with mid and west Wales. We’ve had additional routes put on, and I’ve been particularly committed, as you know, to looking at the reopening of the Carmarthen and Aberystwyth line and even looking now about whether there are freight possibilities on that line. It will, of course, be a question of resource, but we are committed to that area. Of course, I think we need to carry on work, because we must make sure that just because you haven’t got the population base, that you can’t get the transport. The best thing that we could ever have, of course, is that if we could regulate buses, we could certainly ensure then that they are linked in to the rail hubs, et cetera, which I think will be essential for the future.
Indeed, thank you for that. If the Deputy Presiding Officer will indulge me, I think I have the honour of asking you the last of the spokespeople’s questions that you will face as a Minister in this place, and I wanted to put on record my best wishes for your future. I’m sure the other opposition spokespeople will agree that you have been a formidable opponent as well as a formidable figure in this Assembly, and we wish you well in the future. [Applause.]
However, I still have a question, which is around Swansea and the Swansea valleys, as Peter Black has just referred to, and their inclusion in the south Wales metro map is simply an arrow over Bridgend. That is not really adequate to take into account the kind of problems that we still have in Swansea and the Swansea valleys in terms of transport poverty and in terms of the dreadful congestion we saw on the road network this morning. I heard your answer with interest regarding the city region and what they might do for Swansea’s transport network, but the question I have for you really is this: what funding is going to be made available to that city region so that they can develop a proper feasibility study for interventions that could really transform the western part of the south Wales corridor?
Professor Cole is currently working with the city region board within that area to look at the development of the policy agenda and what could actually be achieved. He’s actually started to look at what routes we can do in terms of active travel and what would be the best way of integrating. That work is carrying on and it will, in due course, have to get some support from the Welsh Government.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on support for manufacturing in Torfaen? OAQ(4)0679(EST)
We recognise the importance of the manufacturing industry to Torfaen and the priority remains to develop and strengthen the manufacturing base in Torfaen.
Thank you, Minister. Of course, historically, the sector has been the base of the Welsh economy, particularly in the Valleys, and I welcome your acknowledgment of the importance in Torfaen. Even today in Wales, it generates more than half of Wales’s exports, even though it accounts for only one in 10 jobs. I particularly welcome that advanced materials and manufacturing is a key sector that you recognise. I wanted to ask about the Trades Union Congress’s Better Jobs, Closer to Home campaign, which I’ve been delighted to see the Welsh Government embracing. I realise that the Minister for finance has led on those discussions, but I would like to ask whether you can update us today on what discussions you’ve had with the Minister and trade union colleagues on making sure that this campaign has a big impact within the manufacturing sector.
Yes, you are quite right: my colleague Jane Hutt has led on this campaign, but we work closely together, and trade unions have made their individual representations to me about the importance of this campaign. When we talk about new transport systems, they’re not to get people out from places all the time, they’re also to get people into work. So, it’s a two-way process in the Valleys, not just a one-way process down to the coast.
Minister, according to the House of Commons’ library, the number of manufacturing jobs rose by 7 per cent in Scotland in the last year, but there has been a 3 per cent decline in employment in manufacturing in Wales for the same period. What reasons can the Minister give for this decline and what additional measures will she take to support manufacturing in Torfaen and other parts of Wales?
Well, we have a clear policy in supporting manufacturing. When there were the dips in the national economy, we actually put money into the system to ensure that we could help and assist businesses. Also, in terms of our training programme, they are very adept at actually coming in and helping companies when they’ve got particular training needs. Of course, announcements like the good announcement today will certainly enhance the prospect of further manufacturing in Wales.
Transport Priorities for West Wales
4. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s transport priorities for west Wales? OAQ(4)0676(EST)
Our transport priorities are set out in the national transport finance plan.
Minister, in a statement last year, you made it clear that the dualling of the A40 could provide positive returns in the longer term and you committed to further options to improve transport links along the A40. In light of your statement, could you update Members on what steps the Welsh Government has specifically taken since your statement on the A40 last year, and can you confirm that you and the Government are now supportive of dualling the A40 in Pembrokeshire?
We appointed an employer’s agent in September last year and have begun the process of procuring a contractor to design and build the Llanddewi Velfrey part of this project. The current programme shows construction of this scheme starting at the end of 2017, subject to completion of the statutory process. The employer’s agent will also look into the feasibility of an additional package of measures to improve the A40 between St Clears and Haverfordwest, using the 2+1 layout that has worked well, as you know, on the other A40 improvements. The key priority of the Haven Waterway enterprise zone is to ensure that we have the necessary infrastructure in place in terms of roads.
Minister, I’m very pleased to hear the answer that you have just given to Paul Davies. As somebody who drives that road at least twice a week, I know the advantages that the investment has already made on that section of the road. You did say that you’ve employed an agent and that work will be starting on the Llanddewi Velfrey to Penblewin scheme pretty soon, Minister. Would you agree with me that this is the real value of the investment that has been made in the enterprise zone, so that we are able to work with businesses in that area to deliver the change that they need?
Yes. I think it’s very important that we work with businesses and understand what their needs are. It’s very important that we have a good road network in order to facilitate businesses to export out from that area and also to encourage jobs into that area.
Minister, you’ve been very supportive to date of looking into the possibility of reopening the rail line between Aberystwyth and Carmarthen. I’m given to understand that there have been some positive discussions ongoing between your officials and the Traws Link Cymru campaign group. The next step, of course, will be to commission a full feasibility study for this railway. When would you anticipate that either your Government or the next Government would be in a position to take a decision on commissioning a full feasibility study on reopening this important line?
Obviously, I’ve had the independent scoping study and my officials have also had a peer group review workshop to look at all the issues. I’m now going to be having advice and considering the next steps with them, because I think it is important that we continue to take this project forward.
As the Minister is well aware, Swansea is the gateway to west Wales. Transport infrastructure is important along the Fishguard to Swansea corridor, the Pembroke to Swansea corridor and the Aberaeron to Swansea corridor. What proposals are there to further improve these routes?
I think we’ve already got proposals to improve the routes, and I think there needs to be further work done in the context of discussions within the city region about them prioritising what further work needs to be done in the region to ensure that we can get economic prosperity across the whole region.
Minister, staying with the theme of rail that was raised earlier, I’m sure that you will join me in hailing the positive news a few weeks ago that engineers within Ceredigion County Council have been working on the design for a Bow Street park and ride and a new station development. In this context, I think that would bring great benefits both to the north of Ceredigion, but also to alleviate traffic snarl-ups and parking within Aberystwyth itself. If the planning permission is forthcoming within Ceredigion, what assurance, Minister, can you give that there will be support forthcoming to take this exciting project forward to completion?
I had the opportunity of visiting Bow Street station with the Assembly Member Elin Jones, and meeting some of the campaigners about the importance of Bow Street in terms of what we should be doing with stations. I have also raised the matter with Network Rail, because I think it is quite important, and some of the rail groups that are involved, which also think it’s very important we have that undertaken. Obviously, these decisions might come outside my time of office here, but I think we are very committed to what we think is an extremely viable scheme in terms of improvements in Bow Street.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
A key part of the rail infrastructure of Wales, of course, is the Cambrian lines from Shrewsbury to Aberystwyth and from Machynlleth to Pwllheli. What is the Minister’s response to the incredible figures that showed an increase of over 40 per cent in the use of the line to Aberystwyth and an increase of almost 90 per cent in the use of the Cambrian Coast line? Is the Minister assured that, following her excellent spell as transport Minister, there will be continued investment and development of these services?
Well, I very much hope there will be continued development of this service, because I think the figures speak for themselves. It’s important to recognise that if we are a devolved nation, we need to have the infrastructure that suits all the people who live within Wales.
Improving the Economy of West Wales
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to improve the economy of west Wales? OAQ(4)0675(EST)
We’re taking forward a wide range of issues, including support for new and existing businesses, infrastructure improvements, business rates for small businesses, promoting Wales as a tourism destination and, of course, specifically within your area, the Haven Waterway enterprise zone.
Minister, last year, you announced that the Welsh Government was exploring an option to deliver a floating pontoon to allow large cruise ships to berth at Fishguard port from 2016 onwards. This, of course, would help in improving the local economy. Can you update us on the work that has been done on this specific project, as well as how the Welsh Government works with the port and other external partners to ensure that the commercial opportunities are actually maximised for the local area?
Yes. A new pontoon will be used by cruise liners in Fishguard this year. It’s a Stena Line pontoon project, funded through the tourism investment support scheme. It will allow vessels to anchor out of the harbour and bring passengers in by tender. We think this is enormously important, but it’s also nice to know that some of the cruise ships really delight in coming into Fishguard, and it’s very important that we continue to have that business in.
Minister, you will know that many of the companies in the Milford Haven enterprise zone are keen to contract with a potential barrage—a tidal lagoon, I should say—in Swansea bay, and that that is of great interest to west Wales because of the marine engineering and the very good transport links by sea, if necessary, that we have there. I am declaring an interest as a community shareholder in the proposal, as are many thousands and hundreds of local people, in the tidal barrage. What further talks have you had since the Government has decided to re-commission a completely new look at tidal energy, when we know the potential for tidal energy, both in terms of energy generation but in terms of job creation as well? Are you—the Welsh Government—part of this assessment, and what are you doing to try and influence the direction it takes?
Yes, I had a discussion with Amber Rudd, once the decision was made that they were going to appoint independent chairs, who are even going to be independent of them, so we understand. I also continued discussions with Lord Bourne earlier this week to make the views of the Assembly quite clear across the piece: that we were broadly in favour, in principle, of the tidal lagoon and wished for the project to go forward. We’ve also indicated to them that if there’s an independent assessment and an independent chair, we’d obviously like access with any information that we can bear to help with the independent chair. I think that the appointment of that independent chair will be quite important in terms of the direction of travel of that particular commission.
6. Will the Minister provide an update on improvement works to the A55? OAQ(4)0673(EST)
Well, I think we’ve got a number of projects under way to improve the safety and resilience of this key route. I think it’s very important that we continue our investment in this route. The current works on the Conwy tunnel are part of a £42 million investment in the infrastructure of north Wales.
Thank you. The millions of pounds that the Government is investing in improving the A55 are, of course, welcome but you will know, Minister, that improvement works have to be carried out, and they often cause disruption. Can I ask that, once all these works are ongoing, they stick to a strict timetable, accepting that weather and other problems can intervene, and that the public are fully informed and disruption of what is the vital major traffic artery for north Wales is kept to a minimum?
Well, I totally concur, and I think it is important that information is always available beforehand on the Traffic Wales website and roadside signs. Issues have been raised with me that that hasn’t necessarily always been the case. I understand how disruptive it can be, but it is about safety and the reliability of the network, which is my major and primary concern. Officials do work hard to try and keep disruption to a minimum. It is important that we recognise that, even though there is disruption, it is actually for the good of the travelling public in the future.
Minister, you’ll be aware that, over a year ago, at a cost of £4 million to the taxpayer, emergency cross-over points to facilitate traffic, especially during delays and congestion, were installed on the A55. Yet, during all the very many weeks that we had problematic roadworks there, these barriers were not used. I have to say that a lot of motorists and residents in Aberconwy are furious about this. Minister, will you confirm, please, and tell the Chamber why they were not used, when they have actually been put in there? And can you give us assurances that, during any more problematic roadworks there, these will be used at all times?
Can we please not use the words ‘problematic roadworks’? These roadworks have been undertaken for the safety and reliability of the network and for the safety and reliability of the people who are travelling on it. My primary concern when I do these roadworks is to ensure human life at the end of the day, because that is my principal concern. I appreciate how difficult some of this will be, and my officials try as hard as they can to mitigate it. I will certainly draw attention to your comments to my officials who help to run the network.
Minister, the Government has, of course, committed to upgrading the A55 between Abergwyngregyn and Tai’r Meibion. Can you confirm when you anticipate that work will start and when you anticipate it will be completed?
Well, I’m not quite sure on the actual start date, and therefore I wouldn’t know the completion date. So, in all honesty, I will check these figures rather than rely on my memory.
Minister, when you announced the investment of £42 million in the Conwy tunnels to upgrade the A55, on 24 June last year, you stated that there was a full review of what other improvements were required on the A55. Has that review been commissioned and are you in a position to tell us when it will be published?
There’s ongoing work on that, and I would very much hope that some of this work will be completed in time for me to advise Assembly Members before we go into recess.
7. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s priorities for supporting increased investment in Torfaen? OAQ(4)0678(EST)
It’s a priority across the whole of Wales. We have a variety of programmes, including the provision of business support through Business Wales and transport and ICT infrastructure projects.
Thank you, Minister. I was delighted that you could join me on Monday to visit the Parkway Hotel in Cwmbran. As you know, the hotel, which is owned by the de Savary family, has benefited from a lot of investment to improve facilities. I hope that, like me, you were incredibly impressed by the new rooms and facilities that they have there. Going forward, how best can we ensure that marketing packages to local businesses and further afield make clear all the excellent facilities we have available in Torfaen, so that we can maximise future investment?
I think it’s very important that, when the city region group there looks at the opportunities for encouraging business in, particularly in the tourism agenda, they take the benefit of all facilities that are available in this region and try to market them appropriately.
Minister, what assessment have you made of the proposed—or hopefully proposed—improvements to the M4 relief road, which will enable greater investment in places like Torfaen?
The indications, when we were looking at these issues, and the views that are coming from business, are that it’ll make a dramatic difference for accessibility for business; it’ll be seen to be more on the map. There won’t be the overcrowding on the roads. This is something that we’ve really got to sell. You note, I think, by the support from the Confederation of British Industry, that they feel the same as we do about this.
Inward Investment into West Wales
8. Will the Minister make a statement on inward investment into west Wales? OAQ(4)0677(EST)
Yes; 2014-15 was an exceptional year for attracting inward investment into Wales, both from overseas and elsewhere in the UK.
Thank you, Minister. I read with interest this morning the report of the Swansea bay city region’s intention to create an internet coast in south-west Wales. Apparently, a fibre-optic transatlantic cable will be a game-changer in the provision of ultra-fast broadband. Minister, will this improve the woeful broadband coverage experienced by so many of my constituents and their businesses in Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? If it does, how will it improve that woeful broadband coverage? I’m beginning to fear that, like the Llanddewi Velfrey bypass, comprehensive broadband deployment in my constituency appears to be nothing more than a chimera.
I’m very pleased with the plans that have been put forward for the city deal, which you’re obviously referring to. I think they’re very innovative across the piece and they have the agreement of the four local authorities, and they’ve worked well collaboratively together.
In terms of broadband, there are people in my constituency who say ‘woeful’, and there are others who say ‘wonderful’. In terms of the project, it is on track to deliver. It might take a bit longer in some areas, but we are trying to ensure that we keep to our commitment. We have already done so, in terms of the broad figures of our commitment, but there is more to do in certain areas, and improvements in mobile coverage will help some of your constituents as well, because we’ve got to look at other technologies to be able to deliver on.
Minister, I’m not called Charlotte, and I’m no longer in my 30s, and I’m not cool, but I welcome Aston Martin coming to Wales. I’m particularly interested, however, that the technology that they’re using is electric, because, as Professor Garel Rhys has noted, this could be the second coming of car manufacturing in Wales, using electric vehicles. I’m particularly interested in the supply chain now down to the west, because in places like Llanelli, for example, we still have an automotive supply chain, which is at the moment limited to the traditional car market, but this opens up new possibilities for new technologies. Can you say a little more—I understand there might be an urgent question later, but can you say a little more about how you’re going to build the supply chain, particularly in places in west Wales, where we already have the skills to contribute to this wonderful investment?
Yes, and part of Aston Martin’s decision to come to Wales was the good news in terms of the skills of the workforce that would be available, and issues around the supply chain. So, we will be working with them on the supply chain to maximise the amount that comes in from all part of Wales into Aston Martin. But I think that was a vote of confidence in the fact that we were able to deliver as a nation across all aspects of what they required. It is certainly very exciting, as they will move eventually to electric vehicles.
The Wales Microbusiness Loan Fund
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the progress of the Wales microbusiness loan fund? OAQ(4)0680(EST)
Yes. The successful £6 million fund was launched in 2013 and is now nearly fully invested and will receive a £6 million boost to support this important business sector.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. What opportunities will become available to the people of Islwyn with the creation and safeguarding of 1,000 jobs plus in Wales following the Welsh Government’s boost of the £6 million to the Welsh microbusiness loan fund?
Well, the fund can support start-up businesses across Wales and of course in your constituency, and, as well as the microbusiness fund, we’ve also launched a £5 million repayable fund for small and medium-sized enterprises and a new £10 million Wales technology venture investment fund. I think that is good news as well for businesses within your area.
Minister, we welcome the news that Welsh SMEs will now be able to make use of the two-day application process for loans of between £1,000 and £5,000. There are clear benefits to companies not having to wait 10 days. However, it’s still extremely important that applications are fully risk checked and considered. There are lots of examples, Minister, as you’ll be aware, where the Welsh Government has provided funds and that has been followed by the business closing and the taxpayer losing out, such as Ideoba in Bridgend. How will you make sure that Finance Wales remains satisfied that they are making a sound investment when processing applications in two days rather than 10?
When you use the phrase ‘lots of businesses’, that implies the majority of businesses haven’t been helped or something’s gone wrong. Well, that is far from the case. It is a minority and very small numbers that haven’t been successful. We carry out all the necessary due diligence, but there will always be failures. That’s the nature of the market.
The microbusiness loans are, I think, a very good move forward, as is the Government’s investment generally, in particular in the bioscience industry. Is the Minister aware of potential job losses at GE Healthcare? As I understand it, there is a possibility of some of the manufacturing jobs in the paper conversion work that’s done there being relocated to China. Does she have any more information to tell the Senedd today?
Yes, we are aware of the issues surrounding GE. My officials are liaising with the company, and I will issue a letter to Members updating them in due course when I have substantive information.
Minister, will you publish statistics that show the pattern of distribution of these grants to microbusinesses on a constituency or county basis in Wales?
Yes. If we are able to do that easily and quickly, I will do so.
Promoting Tourism (South Wales East)
10. What action is the Welsh Government taking to promote tourism in South Wales East? OAQ(4)0670(EST)
Our tourism strategy sets out our priorities to support the tourism industry and marketing and promotional activities, including capital and development funding.
Thank you, Minister. South Wales East has many venues that attract tourists on day trips, such as Caerphilly castle, Tintern abbey, Big Pit in Blaenavon and the transporter bridge in Newport. The Great Britain day visits survey has revealed that the number of day trips to Wales from other parts of the UK fell by nearly a fifth in 2015 compared to the same period in the previous year. What action will you take to promote visitor attractions in south-east Wales and elsewhere to the rest of the United Kingdom to reverse this decline in day trips?
It’s interesting the Member is very selective in the choice of statistics that he quotes. The fact of the matter is that overnight visits are rising fast because people are translating day visits into holidays, which is precisely what we want, and then you have the corresponding increase in tourist spending in Wales. Surely, that’s something that the Member in south-east Wales should welcome. The fact is that spending by visitors, both day visitors and holiday visitors, is now £2 billion in the economy of the south-east of Wales—rising fast under this Welsh Labour Government.
Minister, the tourism industry and experts all agree that to achieve substantial growth in this sector and in south-east Wales and beyond, we must focus more on overseas marketing. Do you think that the £4 million allocated for the 2016 Year of Adventure marketing is enough to compete with marketing from other parts of Europe and will it include, please, all regions of Wales, in particular the south-east?
Yes, it will indeed. Actually, the Member raises a very important point, which is that the themed year, the Year of Adventure, has been an incredible success; £4 million is proving to be sufficient. It’s not just the direct advertising that contributes to this initiative, it’s the advertising equivalent. We saw at the start of this year, because we’ve themed Wales the Year of Adventure in 2016, that we attracted unprecedented features in publications such as the ‘Rough Guide’ and the ‘Lonely Planet’. The biggest challenge that we face—the biggest threat that we face—in the tourism sector is from the possibility of the UK leaving the EU. ‘The Daily Telegraph’, which is not exactly a cheerleader for our continued EU membership, published a story earlier this month that highlighted not just one but 10 reasons why we’d suffer in terms of the tourism sector if we left the EU.
Savings Delivery Plans (Trunk Road Agents)
11. Will the Minister provide an update on the savings delivery plans that are due to be prepared by trunk road agents? OAQ(4)0681(EST)[W]
Working in collaboration with my officials, the two trunk road agents have identified savings of £6.9 million for 2016-17 and £1.24 million for 2017-18. Beyond these costed proposals, I’ve tasked them with delivering and additional £6 million of efficiency savings over the review period.
Minister, can I ask whether you’re satisfied that those efficiency savings are not at the cost of front-line services? There’s clearly an increase in back-room functions, certainly within the north Wales agency, where they’ve introduced rather bureaucratic systems with regard to works to be undertaken to the trunk roads, which had previously been undertaken by the counties and then invoiced. There now has to be a period of some months where those have to be authorised. Are you satisfied, therefore, that those savings are not being achieved by cutting back on real expenditure?
I would have normally answered a straight forward ‘yes’ to that, in view of what I’ve been told. But, in light of the way you’ve raised this issue, it strikes me there’s probably an underlying issue that you might be aware of. So, I will speak to my officials and report back to Plenary to ensure that what I’ve indicated to you is the case.
Bus and Rail Services (Mid Wales)
12. Will the Minister make a statement on the co-ordination of bus and rail services in mid Wales? OAQ(4)0671(EST)
Responsibility for bus regulation and rail services in Wales is currently not devolved. However, I have established a not-for-dividend, wholly owned subsidiary transport company of the Welsh Government, which is a key part of our approach to delivering a more effective integrated transport system in Wales.
Thank you, Minister, for your response. I have previously raised the issue of a lack of joined-up thinking on timetables between bus and train services. I have certainly been trying to get Arriva Trains Wales and Powys County Council to link their timetables to see if adjustments can be made. But, following the recommendations of the Welsh Government’s bus policy advisory group, which recommends that network partnerships should be established, would you be willing to convene an overarching group looking at co-ordinating both bus and rail timetables?
I have to say that, in some areas, they are actually doing quite a good job on some of these issues. Where we have responsibility for TrawsCymru T1 and T5 services, we’ve got connections that are very good into rail services in Aberystwyth. We also do give local authorities money to do some of this co-ordinating work as well. So I don’t know if it’d be necessarily helpful to have an overarching group. What we need is the practical application on the ground through existing arrangements.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
No questions have been tabled to the Counsel General, so—[Interruption.] We’ll move quickly over item 2.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have accepted an urgent question under Standing Order 12.66, and I call Andrew R.T. Davies to ask the question.
Will the Minister make a statement on the ground-breaking news of the Aston Martin factory being secured for Wales? EAQ(4)0682(EST)
Well, I’m sure the whole Chamber joins me in saying, ‘Isn’t it good news for us today in Wales?’ and ‘Isn’t it good news for the site in St Athan?’ Can I pay tribute particularly for the hard work of my officials and others who, over the last two years, have been diligent in their approach with Aston Martin? We have an excellent relationship with the company. We’re talking about 750 highly skilled jobs, and we’re talking about the supply chain. So, this is indeed good news.
Thank you, Minister, for that response. I agree entirely with you what good news this is. All too often, we do have urgent questions that focus on some pretty depressing and negative news; this is very positive news for south Wales and the Vale of Glamorgan. It shows, when the UK Government and the Welsh Government work together with local partners, that these deals can be secured, without a shadow of a doubt. I would be interested to hear how the Minister’s department will now continue to engage with the company to secure the skills that will be required for an area that hasn’t historically had this type of production facility in the immediate area, and also what type of changes might come into effect, because, obviously, St Athan was designated as an aviation enterprise zone and thus this might have repercussions for other facilities that are on site and other businesses that use the same area. But, I do congratulate the department and I do congratulate the UK Government on working collaboratively to secure this vital inward investment for Wales. With the Deputy Presiding Officer’s indulgence, I would like to commend the Minister in her final ministerial question session for ending on such a positive note in securing this development.
Well, thank you very much indeed. It is important to recognise that, of course, as you will be aware, we’ve had our difficulties with the Ministry of Defence over the years in relation to St Athan, which, of course, I’ve articulated within this Chamber. It is good that those difficulties have been removed. I have constant discussions with my colleague, Jane Hutt, about the MOD and what’s happening in St Athan, so we’ve actually made a move forward there.
I think the important thing about the Aston Martin development is that this is coming to Wales and it’s staying in the UK. This is a very important company to stay in the UK in terms of manufacturing, and that’s why we’re delighted to have it. One of the reasons they’ve decided to come here is actually the fact that they will be able to get the trained personnel, they will have help and assistance with training, and there are people there. We think of the excellent skills from those ex-military who are around, who have been fitters and who have done work. Those are exactly the type of people who they might want to look to recruit. So, we know we’ve got the necessary pool of talent to actually get individuals into that industry.
Also, one of the things Aston Martin said in their press conference, quite openly, was what a business-friendly Government we were in terms of their dealings with us. So, this is a good news story. I don’t think there’s anything negative within this story at all, even though people will probably try. This is good news for Wales, and it’s excellent to see such an iconic name in terms of Aston Martin.
Minister, I join the leader of the opposition in congratulating the Welsh Government on getting this project to St Athan. The Vale of Glamorgan is an ideal place to get this type of scheme up and running. But, the leader of the opposition also mentioned skills, and you’ve highlighted the skills that currently exist in St Athan, but would you be looking to use the skills of the taskforce and staff in Port Talbot Works, and at the supply chain aspects, because there’s a clear opportunity here to actually retrain and redevelop some individuals who are well placed to actually gain those skills and move on? When Ford in Bridgend actually opened up, many workers from the steelworks went to Ford. So, there’s a historical precedent where that has happened.
I think it’s important to look at the total skill base across the area, about those who would be available to work in Aston Martin. Aston Martin would like to get onto the site as quickly as possible to start to undertake some work in that particular area and then, of course, we can turn to what their requirements are in terms of skills. I think we all recognise there are skills in the workforce in Wales that are of high quality, and now we’re having some high-quality jobs to ensure continued employment for some individuals.
I also welcome this announcement. No doubt, we can expect future announcements on the presumption of local procurement when it comes to the Goverment’s own vehicle fleet in light of this development by Aston Martin. I’ll also use this opportunity to wish the Minister well after her last question session today. One of the issues that I’ve been hopefully putting pressure on the Minister on is over enterprise zones. No doubt this news will help with the Government’s key performance indicators on enterprise zones, but I wonder if the Minister could tell us what role the enterprise zone status played when it came to attracting Aston Martin to St Athan. And in addition to an earlier question by Simon Thomas on the development of supply chains in general, in addition to automotive supply chains, I wonder if the Minister’s able to tell us what ambitions the Government has in terms of developing supply chains, specifically in battery technology and not only in automotive, given that this will be a major development in terms of battery-powered cars.
Yes, we will obviously look at all issues around all supply chains, because they are a priority. If there’s a new industry emerging, we need to be on the ground running in terms of encouraging supply chains, whatever industrial developments are. In terms of the enterprise zone, they knew that the enterprise zone would be subject to other improvements. We’re obviously looking at the transport infrastructure into the enterprise zone. We are putting a new road in that will benefit not only Aston Martin but the rest of the enterprise zone, and I think these areas need to be taken into account. I think it was enormously helpful that Professor Garel Rhys was actually chair of the enterprise zone in St Athan with his history with the car industry.
Minister, I’m absolutely delighted by this announcement, which I really do hope will benefit local people and enable them to access work. But, clearly, this is also an opportunity for us to invest in training, retraining and reskilling the existing workforce in the area who, as you say, already have a lot of transferrable skills. However, we deliver a lot of our skills and investment in training through European programmes, and I wonder if you can tell me what threat there might be to delivering things along those lines if we weren’t to have access to things like structural funds in the future.
Well, of course, when we look at the European funds, they’re actually crucial to the development of some of the programmes and projects that we’ve got in Wales, and I think it’s important to recognise that we need to be able to do that. And obviously, the skills agenda is key to attracting companies like Aston Martin and other people that we’re talking to, and it would be a shame if we couldn’t fund the necessary training programmes to get that level of investment in.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
There are no questions tabled to the Assembly Commission.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We move to item 4, which is a debate on the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s report on its inquiry into Welsh in education strategic plans. I call on the Chair of committee to move the motion—Ann Jones.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Children, Young People and Education Committee on the inquiry into Welsh in Education Strategic Plans (WESPs), which was laid in the Table Office on 9 December 2015.
May I open this debate by thanking the Members of the committee and the witnesses who came before the committee? I hope that the National Assembly will vote in favour of this report.
I’d like to start by—perhaps I should translate that in case they didn’t understand my Welsh there, but I won’t. I want to start my speech now by thanking the Minister publicly for the constructive way in which he’s worked with the Children, Young People and Education Committee, and I hope that that will continue after I’ve delivered my speech today; I hope we can still be smiling at the end of it.
Welsh in education strategic plans have the potential to deliver a significant increase in the numbers of children and young people being taught, acquiring skills and achieving qualifications through the medium of Welsh. Many stakeholders were very enthusiastic about this potential when WESPs were introduced, but a growing number of them have been left disappointed. They believe there’s been a lack of impact, that the potential has not been realised and that WESPs have so far proven to be a missed opportunity.
But in defence of the WESP system, it is still very young and it’s still developing. And it’s clear from the evidence the committee received that there is still a lot to do to make sure these plans help deliver the Welsh Government’s ambition.
If I could turn to the key findings of the inquiry, the committee’s key conclusions relate to better partnership working between Welsh Government and local authorities. WESPs are central to the Welsh Government’s ability to deliver its Welsh-medium education strategy, and the Minister has already acknowledged that the Welsh Government is unlikely to meet its 2020 target without improved planning and action at a local authority level. That is one of the fundamental challenges of the WESP system. Its success is dependent on co-operation between Welsh Government and local authorities, and a shared commitment to achieving the Welsh Government’s vision. The committee heard nothing during the inquiry, nor is there is anything in the Minister’s response to this committee’s report, to explain how Welsh Government intends to support local authorities to deliver the improved planning and the action necessary to meet the 2020 targets.
If I could turn to some specific recommendations, the committee identified a number of other areas where improvements are needed and made 17 recommendations in total. The Minister has rejected five of these recommendations, and I hope to use the time in this debate to focus on those five recommendations.
Recommendation 5 calls on the Minister to review the process for a school’s linguistic categorisation, with the aim of simplifying it. In the Government’s response, the Minister states that the relevant legislation is monitored to assess whether it is working and that there’s been no indication that the process needs to be simplified. Minister, the complexity of the current system was raised initially with the committee in a joint written submission from ERW regional consortium and Carmarthenshire’s local education authority. In that submission, they were asked to select one key priority that, in their opinion, needed to be addressed by the Welsh Government. That was the issue they chose and they subsequently reiterated that concern publicly during oral evidence to the committee. I have some concerns that a regional consortium and a local authority are telling the committee that the time it takes to change a school’s linguistic category is too long and hampers their efforts to deliver the Welsh Government’s ambition for Welsh-medium education. Minister, would you consider whether you could have a discussion, together with your officials, ERW regional consortium and Carmarthenshire local education authority, if only to confirm that the rationale for rejecting the committee’s recommendation is correct?
On recommendation 6, we called upon the Welsh Government to discuss with local authorities arrangements for publishing annual reports on the progress of WESPs. Welsh Government rejected this recommendation on the basis that they believe the evidence to support this recommendation only came from one local authority. The Welsh Government goes on to add that they’re not aware that all local authorities hold the same view. Those are the important words, I believe, in this, and this is why I raise it today—that you are ‘not aware’ whether they have the capacity or hold the same views, and yet the recommendation has been dismissed. We believe that this is about transparency, and we believe that stakeholders, parents and elected representatives should have access to all this information. I’d be grateful, Minister, if you would give a commitment that your officials will discuss this matter with local authorities. If local authorities confirm that that this would place an unreasonable burden on them, at least we would all be aware that that was the case.
Recommendation 7 calls upon the Welsh Government to publish a report on an annual basis, including details of its response to each local authority’s WESP and, where appropriate, the reasons why a WESP was referred back to a local authority for modification. Again, this recommendation is about transparency. Many contributors told the committee that the current system does not give stakeholders, including parents, clear enough information. The Government’s response suggests that stakeholders and parents who want to identify how WESPs have changed over time should compare the original version with the revised version of the WESP. Well, that won’t tell them why the changes were made, and nor will it tell them what they were intended to achieve or the role the Welsh Government played in that process. Minister, your response to this recommendation was disappointing. You say that you do not believe it’s appropriate to publish this information because it is of limited, if any, public interest. Minister, stakeholders called for this information to be made public when giving evidence to the committee, and the committee felt there was sufficient interest in this subject to put a recommendation into the report. We don’t believe the recommendation would introduce an additional burden. The information the committee is asking to be published already exists, so we believe there would be no additional burden.
The committee was given a detailed explanation in public of the reasons why WESPs have been referred back in the past. So, again, there’s no question of sensitivity. This is also about accountability. When Ministers are requiring local authorities to modify their WESPs, information about those ministerial decisions should be made available to the public and to Assembly Members. Minister, again, I would ask you, in the light of today’s debate and the strong feelings of stakeholders on this matter, to reconsider your refusal of that recommendation.
Recommendation 14 relates to the availability of Welsh-medium Flying Start childcare places for two and three-year-olds and the impact the current levels of this provision may have on the Welsh Government’s target that 25 per cent of seven-year-olds will be taught through the medium of Welsh. I know this is an issue colleagues on the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee have taken an active interest in. And, Minister, in your response, you state that the increases in parental preference and resultant Welsh-medium Flying Start provision would not significantly affect the Welsh Government’s ability to reach its targets for 25 per cent of seven-year olds being educated through the medium of Welsh. The First Minister made the same statement recently in a letter to the Communities, Local Government and Equalities Committee, and yet there’s been no explanation given as to how this conclusion has been reached. Could I ask you why you think the availability of Welsh-medium Flying Start provision will not have a significant impact? I would also be grateful if you could point the committee, and the Assembly, to any evidence that supports the statements made by both you and the First Minister.
On recommendation 17, we called on the Welsh Government to reconsider its Welsh-medium education strategies, with a view to ensuring the importance of post-16 education is reflected in them, and then, in turn, within local authorities. The committee heard evidence that more of an emphasis is needed on post-16 education, to create a Welsh-medium education system, from early years through to further education provision. This would also support the development of a bilingual workforce. Now, the Welsh Language Commissioner went as far as saying that post-16 education was the part of the jigsaw that was entirely missing. Minister, are you satisfied that your current strategies address the concerns heard by the committee?
So, as I said, I’m grateful that the Minister accepted 12 of the committee’s recommendations. And, as I said at the start of my speech, you have always been constructive in your dealings with this committee, and I hope that by outlining what we see as constructive criticism to assist you, you will be able to respond positively to some of the responses that we have made to the Welsh Government’s response to our five recommendations that you have rejected. I’d be grateful if you would consider taking on board some of the points that have been made in this opening speech.
Finally, Presiding Officer, I’d like to thank everybody who gave evidence to the committee, to the members of the committee, but more importantly to the staff of the committee who have helped to produce this report. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Peter Black took the Chair.
Thank you. In accordance with Standing Order 12.23 (iii), the Deputy Presiding Officer has not selected the amendment tabled to the motion. I therefore call Simon Thomas.
Thank you, temporary Deputy Presiding Officer. Ann Jones, the committee Chair, has set out very clearly what the committee’s concerns are about the provision for these Welsh in education strategic plans, and I would now like to add to that by outlining some of the things that I think could improve the situation.
I think it’s important that we bear in mind the context of all of this. There is a strategy for Welsh in education—a national strategy that was provided by a previous Government, when Plaid Cymru was part of the coalition, at that time, and implementing that strategy at a local authority level is now provided for by the WESPs, something that was provided for through legislation brought forward by Leighton Andrews, the predecessor Minister, during this Assembly.
The committee’s concern, and the concern expressed by witnesses to the committee, was that the WESPs at a local level didn’t provide the kind of progress that would meet the target that the Government had set on a national level. I just want to outline a few of the specific points that I think would make a difference in improving our attainment under the strategy and would also improve the efficiency of the WESPs.
We start, of course, with children at the early age—with Flying Start. It’s true that we need to co-ordinate policies for these early years with the national strategy and the provision within the WESPs. It’s also important, as a child goes through school, that the transport provision supports the parents and the pupils’ choice, and that is something that’s becoming more and more problematic, particularly given the changes that we see in post-16 Welsh-medium education. I believe that, at those two ends, the Government at a national level needs to tackle that issue, rather than what tends to happen now—and I do understand why it happens—namely that the problem is pushed down to the local authority level and the Government washes its hands at a national level.
Ann Jones mentioned one other issue, which is the difficulty in changing the school category. It’s true to say that not all parts of Wales use categorisation, of course, but it’s also true to say that there is a lack of awareness nationally on the benefits of Welsh-medium education. It’s important to emphasise that Welsh-medium education does provide a very thorough Welsh-medium education, but of course it also provides education through the medium of English. It provides excellent English language skills also, and the evidence is quite clear in that regard. This Government did have a national campaign to promote the benefits of Welsh-medium education, but, unfortunately, that campaign seems to have been kicked into the long grass and there isn’t much sign of this being implemented, as far as I can see. It’s important, therefore, that we take up again this national task of, if you like, convincing people, but also, in the first place, of providing information to people on the benefits of Welsh-medium education and the way in which Welsh-medium education leads to children and young people who are fluent both in Welsh and English. Underpinning that, of course, is the fact that the Welsh language belongs to everyone in Wales.
Therefore, for Plaid Cymru it’s important that every child has Welsh-medium education in the foundation phase and that those early years are years where the Welsh language is introduced to all children in Wales, starting, of course, in those areas where we need to support the language as a community language. I think it’s also important, in looking at Donaldson and the way in which we’re rolling out the new curriculum, that we see the Welsh language as a language and medium for teaching, rather than as a subject that is taught to people. We all know how deficient the teaching of Welsh as a second language is in turning our young people into fluent Welsh speakers, and I happen to be one of those people. I think it’s therefore important that we underline just how important it is that the new curriculum does go hand in hand with the WESPs in order to make the Welsh language the medium for tuition for all children at some point during their time at school.
The final point that I’d like to make here in terms of the committee report is that Plaid Cymru is of the view that we do need to strengthen the powers that the Minister has in statute to ensure that the WESPs are implemented. The powers aren’t clear enough, in my view, in the current legislation. Although the committee did receive legal advice to demonstrate that the Minister did have some powers in this area, I would like to see something very specific to ensure that local authorities, in planning for Welsh-medium education, stick to those plans and do provide and reach their targets.
I’m also very pleased that this report is before us today, because as one who has been fighting for Welsh-medium education for many years, when the WESPs were introduced, I thought that it was one of the best things to have happened for many years. The words of the motion today are very significant indeed. After 15 years and more of devolution, we aren’t now discussing the principle of Welsh-medium education; we’re all agreed on the principle. We are all eager to see Wales as a bilingual nation, and that’s why we’re talking about a strategy rather than a principle here. The truth is, we are now trying to strive towards the aim and we’re looking for the best way forward. In other words, we are looking to the future, rather than looking to the past.
How can we make this process a success? For some time, we’ve been discussing how best we can deliver the Welsh language in making the move from primary to secondary education. Because of the success of Flying Start, and the pledge to provide childcare to all children between three and four years old, the National Assembly has created a new problem to be resolved: how do we develop the use of the Welsh language from the Flying Start programme and the new pledge in terms of the primary curriculum? So, the question that we have to answer in looking at all of the committee’s recommendations is: just how successful will the recommendations be and how can we measure success and will that rely on practical steps, namely the amount of Welsh used both orally and on paper, for example in looking at Welsh as a second language, and abolishing it as it currently exists, as Professor Sioned Davies and Professor Donaldson have recommended? That’s not an issue of political correctness or an issue of practically, but, rather, the practically of the way forward.
As the Welsh Government response notes, the Welsh Government is now working jointly with three local authorities where the demand for Welsh-medium education is currently low. The response of the Welsh Government names Llanelli, Blaenau Gwent and Flintshire. Things are better than what is suggested by the bare words included. In Llanelli, for example, there’s been huge growth in Welsh-medium education in the primary sector, with a new school, Ysgol Gymraeg Ffwrnes, seeing between 400 and 500 children enrolling, and there is talk that, because of the growth of Ysgol y Strade, there may be a need for a second secondary Welsh-medium school in the town.
On the other hand, it’s sensible to note Flintshire and Blaenau Gwent. That’s the ‘talcen called, as they would say in the former mining villages around Llanelli—those are the areas that are difficult for the Welsh-medium sector. And even in Blaenau Gwent and Flintshire, until relatively recently, the Welsh language was heard in chapels and in the homes of grandparents—it’s easier, then, to rekindle the fire in those areas, as they say. There are a number of areas in Wales where we are reintroducing a culture that had become lost. We’re not actually pushing something that is alien on these children. Rather, they are rediscovering their heritage.
Without doubt, goodwill alone is not enough and a number of issues arise from the report. For example, we must give status to the fora—the community groups that are seeking Welsh-medium education. In fairness to the local authorities, the Welsh Government says that a local authority should discuss with the fora. If so, that must be made statutory, rather than base it simply on goodwill.
We must also give statutory rights to parents who want to see their children receiving Welsh-medium education. That right would be given a priority when transport considerations arise, as Simon mentioned earlier. I’m concerned about the fact that it’s the local authority that decides what the appropriate school is for the learner, rather than some other body.
Finally, the authorities have had three years to develop their strategic plans, but ensuring that there is some way to go to ensure that they are more effective. They haven’t worked hard enough, in my view, on these schemes. I’m pleased to see that the Government is considering holding a series of meetings targeted at certain local authorities in 2016 and beyond, because, as things currently stand, they are not sufficient. Thank you.
May I just endorse the words of our Chair—and I congratulate you on your use of the Welsh language—and also the words of Simon and Keith, because what we have here is the fact that we are thanking the Minister for accepting six of our recommendations, and also an additional six in principle, but I believe that we are disappointed that the other five—? Because, as a committee, what we’re trying to do is to build on the work already done, but demonstrate our frustrations, to some extent, on what is actually happening on the ground because—. Keith referred earlier to Flintshire. Flintshire was the first county in Wales to have both a primary and secondary Welsh-medium school. A native of Rhosllannerchrugog was the director of education for the county at the time. However, since then, the county is considering the closure of a small primary school in the north of the county, which is in the most traditionally Welsh-speaking area within the county, which is a disgrace, when we look at the strategy of the Welsh Government.
We are also in a position where the adjacent county, Denbighshire, is considering changing the status of Ysgol Pentrecelyn, which is a Welsh-medium school. They are saying that the new school will be located in Llanfair and placed in the second category. So, it’s easy for us to say here that things are happening and that progress is happening, but, on the ground, that isn’t the truth. And it’s high time that we said that some of these strategies aren’t working, and if they’re not working, it’s high time that we took action, because, ultimately, the Welsh Government has to admit that its strategy, from the point of view of increasing the number of seven-year-olds who are able to speak Welsh or receive their education through the medium of Welsh, is failing. And the Minister himself, within the annual report on the Welsh-medium education strategy has admitted that they will not meet the target by 2020.
So, we must ask the question: what is going wrong? I think that what is here is a lack of strategic leadership from the authorities and the fact that we as a committee, as our Chair said, reflected the evidence received from the authorities themselves. They stated that there was frustration with the legislation, to some extent. I support what our Chair said. If there is a misunderstanding as regards the interpretation of legislation on a local government level, then there’s an opportunity for the Minister to say that today this afternoon. One county told us that if they responded to an increase in demand for Welsh-medium education in the county and that they wanted to change the language category of a school, they had to go through the formal process of closing that school and then reopening it. If that is incorrect, please could you tell us so this afternoon?
I also think there is a lack of planning. I support the increase in provision of Flying Start, but that does have an impact, in some areas, on the numbers that are then admitted into the nursery groups. So, there is a disconnect, to some extent, between one policy and another. That is why I asked for some sort of linkage between Flying Start and the target from the point of view of 7-year-olds.
So, I do feel that, as a committee, we have come to a conclusion that a problem does exist with the WESPs. May I say, in Wrexham, for example, you said that there was no need for us to receive the data that would be burdensome for the council and so on? In Wrexham, there is no pattern as regards access to the education fora. In Wrexham, a group of parents were kicked out of a meeting because they had gone to the meeting to see why the council wasn’t responding to the demand for Welsh-medium education. I will say to the Minister, if he believes that this system is working, then there’s a need for some of his officials to go out into these authorities to see exactly what parents are saying, because they’re not happy with the situation, and it is our place, as Assembly Members, to tell the Government that we are also dissatisfied, as committee members.
I call on the Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Can I begin by thanking the committee for its report into Welsh in education strategic plans? This is a welcome and timely contribution to the development of WESPs for two reasons. First, we are in the process of approving the third and final version of the first generation of the full three-year plans. Over the coming months, Welsh Government will be considering what changes in terms of focus, emphasis, form and content might be made for the three years from 2017 to 2020.
Secondly, the Government has already commissioned an evaluation of the Welsh-medium education strategy, which will look, among other things, at the role and effect of WESPs, particularly in terms of the planning and delivery of Welsh-medium provision. I’m not in a position, as yet, to go into detail about the findings of the evaluation report, but I expect it to be published next month, at which point I will make a statement about the way forward.
The Welsh Government has accepted 12 of the 17 recommendations of the committee in full or in principle and I hope that that suggests—at least, it suggests to me—that there is a broad basis of agreement about the WESP process. However, it is important for all of us to understand that WESPs cannot override or bypass local decision making or local strategic planning. They can only improve transparency and provide an ongoing forum for local public input and also, of course, they do provide purchase for the Welsh Government at a national level in terms of what is going on in each of the 22 local authorities. They cannot be a panacea for all ills and cannot solve all those problems that might arise locally, however frustrating they may be.
But, let me take the recommendations stressed by the Chair, one by one. I think that would be helpful as a response. Recommendation 5: on this, the process for changing a school’s linguistic categorisation, the steps to take are clearly outlined in the school organisation code. The Welsh Government consulted on this process back in 2012. This invariably requires the publication of a statutory notice as well as a proper period of consultation. This is to ensure that all interested parties have an opportunity to put forward their views within a given period of time. I am sure that the committee would want reassurance that any fundamental change to the education system does need to be considered carefully. We’ve monitored the general implementation of the School Standards and Organisation (Wales) Act 2013 and it is apparent that a number of local authorities have conducted efficient processes for school organisation proposals and have complied with the timetables set out in the legislation. If any local authority adopts processes that go beyond the requirements of the legislation, that is, of course, a matter for them.
On recommendation 6, as I said in my response to the committee, the possibility of requiring local authorities to produce and publish annual reports was considered during the drafting of the Welsh in Education Strategic Plans and Assessing Demand for Welsh Medium Education (Wales) Regulations 2013. It was rejected because it would impose another burden on local authorities as they already review their plans annually as well as consulting on the revised versions and publishing, of course, the approved plan. The written evidence submitted by the Welsh Local Government Association and the Association of Directors of Education in Wales indicated that they were content with the existing reporting arrangements. However, it’s not about the capacity of local authorities to produce these reports; it’s whether the view expressed by one witness—which, I believe was Carmarthen—represents the view of the other 21 local authorities. However, I am happy to agree to my officials going forward now to discuss this with local authorities so that we may agree a consensus on this point.
On recommendation 7, I’m still not convinced that much will be gained by identifying who has initiated changes to any given plan—the Government or the local authority. Similarly, publishing exchanges with local authorities about modifications would add very little to the process, in my view. There is ample opportunity through the annual consultation process for interested parties to influence the content of a plan. That is, in large part, the usefulness of the WESPs in the first place. The important thing is for the statutory approval process to be completed so that an authority has an approved plan, and, more importantly, of course, that it gets on with implementing it.
On recommendation 14, the Welsh-medium education strategy target of 25 per cent of seven-year-olds taught through the medium of Welsh was set by reference to what might be reasonable to aim for from the percentage of seven-year-olds taught through the medium of Welsh, and that was 21 per cent at the time, in the base year of 2009. It wasn’t made with reference to the number or percentage of Welsh-medium Flying Start places, for which no national target has been set.
On recommendation 17, the statutory duty to prepare a WESP is placed on local authorities and, of course, local authorities do not have responsibility for further education provision. Enabling young people to continue their education through the medium of Welsh is key to strengthen linguistic choice and the use of Welsh language, of course, but, notwithstanding that, I cannot include FE provision within WESPs. It should be noted that further education institutions have their own plans and how they develop Welsh-medium provision is a matter for them. However, there is an expectation that the Welsh language, of course, will be a key feature when developing courses and when marketing their offer to pre-16 learners.
I do want to thank the committee for their work and for Members’ insightful and instructive comments here this afternoon. I do not doubt, actually, that the whole subject of Welsh in education strategic plans is an evolving area in terms of Government policy and in terms of the nature and substance of the plans themselves. It is worth pausing to consider that we do now, in Wales, have a public annual opportunity for all those concerned with Welsh in education to have oversight and input into important local decision making in that area. That, I think, by the very nature of opening up an ongoing, evolving debate around the subject, will lead us in the right direction.
Thank you, Minister. I call on Ann Jones to reply to the debate.
Thanks very much. Can I first of all say thank you, Minister? At least, I think, one out of five’s not bad—to get you to agree to go and meet with ERW and with the local education authority. It’s about trying to find that there is a consistent message, and I think what we wanted to see was that where there is good practice, that is disseminated throughout Wales and that people don’t play this game, which they often do, of, ‘Well, that doesn’t happen in my patch, but it happens over here.’ So, that’s what I think we were after—consistency. So, I’ll take the one hit there as something that you’ve conceded.
It’s about just saying that we are very passionate about, actually, Welsh-medium education, and it was an area that is growing, we feel, and we want to help it grow and we want people to understand that it’s not a part of the education system that is exclusive to just one set of people or in one community. That’s why we requested for all the information to be out there for people to look at, in the hope that people won’t be frightened about Welsh-medium education.
I thank Aled now. I suppose I’ve let the cat out of the bag now. You won’t be able to speak in Welsh with me now because you will now know that I understand it, even if I don’t speak it. So, I probably have let my own guard down there, but, nevertheless, I thought it was important to say, as somebody who actually has had Welsh taught to her in school, albeit a long time ago, that it’s taken me another channel to put that Welsh-medium education into use and that’s what I don’t want to see and why I think that Simon made the point about starting off in Flying Start and moving it through, so it becomes a natural thing. That’s what I’m hoping that my grandchildren will be able to do; they will interchange between Welsh and English, which then, as Keith said, puts in that very bilingual nature of our country that we’re all striving to—. So, I thank you for that. I’m going to take a victory. Those of you who know I like football—I would love just one goal for my team at the moment; yes, like one goal for my team at the moment. So, I’ll take that as a goal and I’ll take that as a victory.
But can I say thank you on behalf of the committee, as I said before, for the way in which you have engaged with our committee? I’d like to say, again, thank you to all the committee members for the way in which we’ve all worked, I think, consensually, across to support you delivering a good education system for the future generations of Wales. Diolch yn fawr iawn.
Thank you. The proposal is to note the Children, Young People and Education Committee’s report. Does any Member object? The motion is therefore agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendment has been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Aled Roberts.
The next item is the debate on the report to the National Assembly for Wales on the activities of the Welsh representatives on the EU Committee of the Regions. I call on Mick Antoniw to move the motion.
Motion NDM5925 Mick Antoniw
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the Committee of the Regions’ report to the National Assembly for Wales, laid in the Table Office on 15 January 2016.
Thank you for that. I have great pleasure in presenting this first ever report on the work that my colleague Rhodri Glyn Thomas and I, as representatives of Wales and of the National Assembly for Wales, and also the representatives of Welsh local government have carried out in Brussels in the Committee of the Regions. It is our joint report, and it’s presented today in recognition of the increasing role that Wales is playing in the European Union, the advantages that our membership creates for Wales and the opportunities it delivers for Wales as part of one of the largest and richest trading blocs in the world, one of the greatest economic dynamos for research and innovation, and, equally importantly, one of the greatest stabilising partnerships for economic, social and cultural co-operation across nations that, for past generations, have a history of either fighting one another or fearing one another.
This is, by coincidence, a most timely report in the light of recent events, and I hope today’s debate will set the scene for a progressive and forward-looking discussion on the role of this Assembly in Wales, within the UK and within Europe, now and in the future. I’ve had the great honour for just over two years of representing Wales on the Committee of the Regions. This is the body that was set up under the Maastricht treaty to give voice to local and regional government, a body of representatives of cities and regions of Europe coming together to share experiences, to develop partnerships, to create jobs and training opportunities, and to foster social and cultural hegemony, partnerships and work experience and opportunities across borders. We contribute our experience as a small and bilingual nation, and we share those of others. Wales is punching above its weight in Europe, and countries across Europe are following our lead in the way that we have protected and proactively created job opportunities. Through ReAct and ProAct we lead the way. In environmental measures, Europe is now following our lead in areas such as plastic bag levies and closely observing the groundbreaking Well-being of Future Generations (Wales) Act 2015.
Through an opinion I recently presented on standards of remuneration across the European Union, we are engaging with the European Commission, the European Parliament and European communities on developing the concept of the living wage as part of a social Europe.
My colleague on the Committee of the Regions, Rhodri Glyn, has, through his considerable activity, raised the level of regional understanding and co-operation on the potential of ocean energy, in which Wales is increasingly seen as a European leader, as well as his rapporteurships on the use of local and regional finance in conjunction with European funding opportunities and the European Investment Bank to create economic and social opportunities—work that is invaluable as we proceed with major projects such as the south Wales metro.
Councillors Bob Bright and Ronnie Hughes have contributed their considerable knowledge and experience to developing the role of local government in vocational education and in training strategies. This leadership helps to further raise Wales’s profile in Europe, which is growing as a result of our reputation for hosting great sporting events, our pioneering research and being recognised as offering a fantastic visitor experience.
From the European side, we are benefiting so much now from a better understanding of how we can develop renewable energy, but also community ownership of energy, smart cities, digital inclusion and, for us in Wales, integrated transport and the development of city regions and metro transport systems. All these innovative ideas, and often transformational projects, have emerged from years of work in co-operation across borders from which we benefit and from which our European partners in the cities and regions of Europe benefit.
Of course, we are all aware of the financial benefits to our membership and engagement with the European Union. We are all aware of the social and business development projects that would not have happened but for the trigger of European funding, and which are unlikely to continue if we were to decide to leave the European Union, such as Finance Wales, Jobs Growth Wales, our apprenticeship programmes and many, many others.
I can look around my own constituency and try to imagine what it would look like without the European-funded-and-supported Church Village bypass; without the Ilan Rhydyfelin flood defence scheme, which has prevented the community there from being flooded on probably three occasions in the last couple of years; or Pontypridd without its recent pedestrianisation and the beautifully restored Pontypridd lido in Ynysangharad Park—to mention but a few; and, for the future, no metro. Because, if we leave the European Union, I do not believe we will ever see, in south-east Wales or indeed in north Wales, the sort of transformational economic and social projects of the type we so desperately need and are pursuing.
But, it is also not just about money. There are far greater reasons, which take us back to the founding principles and reasons for the creation of the European partnership—reasons that resonate with me, personally. My father was a refugee from Ukraine after the war—a country that lost 12 million lives in that terrible war. My father’s village became part of the front line in the war three times. Had my father not been given refuge here, he would almost certainly have been deported alongside most of the rest of my family to the labour camps of Siberia. The country has recently had a revolution to enable it to become part of the European project and join the many other countries that were also once part of the Stalinist dictatorship. We sometimes forget that being part of Europe is about economic stability and prosperity certainly, but it is also about the development of democracy and peace. It is a recognition in our global community that no country can survive as an island, and that our best hope for peace and prosperity is working together in co-operation and with common objectives. There is much change I would like to see in Europe. I want to see a more social Europe, decent wages, jobs, health, education and a shared responsibility for our environment. We can only achieve this by being part of Europe and not sitting on the sidelines, letting other countries set the agenda and the rules that we will then have no say over.
Through the Committee of the Regions, having worked alongside those from other countries who pulled down an iron curtain to become part of Europe, and having seen how, through the European Union, they have begun to transform their societies, I reject the backward-looking arguments put forward by those who would, by leaving Europe, sever the ties and relationships that have taken generations to develop, and will create a new political, social and cultural iron curtain in Europe—only this time, the iron curtain would be around Britain and would be of our own making.
The Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) took the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, David Melding.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and can I welcome this debate and the report of the National Assembly for Wales’s representatives on the EU Committee of the Regions? I would like to remind the Assembly that it was in March 2014 that the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee published its report on Wales’s role in the EU decision-making process. In that report, we made 13 recommendations, most of them, of course, for the Welsh Government. However, one of the recommendations that we did make related to the Committee of the Regions and its representatives. We thought, perhaps, that the work wasn’t highlighted enough in the actual Assembly. The evidence we took was that there was some excellent work going on—highly innovative work, actually, we heard in the evidence, that was taking place—but we were not getting the full benefit of that in terms of hearing it in our deliberations. We did recommend that a written statement be laid before the Assembly, but I do think that a report and a debate is an even better idea, and perhaps it’s a chance also for the Assembly to annually discuss other matters relating to the European Union. Of course, I say that without prejudice as to what is going to happen in the referendum. But, should our membership continue, then I think this type of liaison is very important and we should make the most of our representation on the Committee of the Regions.
It has, indeed, provided a very effective platform. We did find that, since its establishment under the Maastricht treaty, we have seen growth in the influence of the European Parliament. This, to some extent, has overshadowed the Committee of the Regions. But, where it has taken on specific pieces of work, such as the future of minority languages in the community, for instance, we are in a position to do some really important work to help in the examination of those important matters. There is, I think, a niche for the Committee of the Regions because the role of sub-state institutions and Governments within the EU is one that is going to have growing emphasis. We sometimes think that devolution in the United Kingdom is very much a process that just affects us, but it is actually part of a trend in world governance. You’ve seen it around Europe, with France and Italy moving to much more decentralised constitutions. So, putting resources into the work of the Committee of the Regions, we think, is valuable—and also to connect that, perhaps, to the work that is going on in the European Parliament. Liaising with our MEPs is another important way of raising important issues.
Can I take this opportunity to inform the Assembly of the other work that the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee has undertaken on European issues? We’re about to issue a very short report on the EU reform agenda in the context of the EU referendum. We started this in the autumn. We went out to Brussels and we discussed with officials the likely lines of the renegotiation that would take place, and I have to say that the evidence we received was quite prescient. There’s a very close comparison, I think, to be made between that evidence and what’s actually occurred in terms of what the UK Government has now negotiated. We think it’s very important that the Welsh dimension in all this is not forgotten, so we will be issuing a short report on that.
I’ve already referred to the important report, I think, that we made on Wales’s role in EU decision making. Our other activities have concerned the role of sub-member states in EU governance. We have written letters to the EU presidency and Commission emphasising the importance of this work. We also responded to the UK Government’s consultation on subsidiarity in the context of the balance of competences review that was undertaken.
As a committee, we have the prime responsibility for subsidiarity and its monitoring. We’ve looked at a whole range of issues, from proposals for European regulation on genetically modified organisms to proposals to ban the use of drift nets in EU waters, public procurement, tobacco products and a range of other things. Finally, I’ve taken part in the EC-UK forum, meeting other chairs of similar committees in Westminster, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
So, I think this is a very important occasion and I do hope that, if we remain a member of the European Union, we will see this embedded as an annual debate in the Assembly. Thank you.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
It’s a pleasure to participate in the first-ever debate on a report of this kind, as my colleague Mick Antoniw mentioned. It’s particularly gratifying to follow the Deputy Presiding Officer who, like you, Dame Presiding Officer, has participated in the activities of the European Union and particularly in the regional dimension of those activities.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
One of the things that concerns me in seeing how the public debate on Wales and the UK’s relationship with the European Union is developing is that much of the valuable work that already happens isn’t being given due attention, and these arguments circulate around some claims and some ambiguous future that we can’t be sure of. So, I think it is very important that we make it clear here that each and every one of us who has had the opportunity to represent the National Assembly in my case, as in the case of Dame Presiding Officer and the Deputy Presiding Officer, as part of CALRE, which is a stable conference of chairs and presiding officers within the European Union members that are also legislative regions—. That was very clear that they did have to be legislative regions in order to be represented on CALRE. We, as Wales and a National Assembly, were there from the very outset, because we did have legislative powers even though they were limited at that time. But, in that work, we are not only representing our institutions, but contributing towards an understanding of Europe.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I would like to refer not only to the work of my fellow Member in this group, Rhodri Glyn Thomas, but also to the work of my fellow resident of Conwy, Ronnie Hughes, the deputy leader of Conwy council, who, like Councillor Bob Bright from Newport, has contributed a great deal to the activities in this area. I welcome, as I said, the contribution of Rhodri Glyn because he has chosen to specialise in issues of great importance to Wales, particularly his recent opinion, which was passed in the plenary of October 2015, and was a document on the development of ocean energy. This work is certainly work that should continue, and this is the question that I want to raise today for us to think about. I can’t imagine that this National Assembly and the Welsh Government wouldn’t wish to continue to contribute to the development of Europe as a continent and as a political force, whatever the decision taken through the referendum. Even if the UK were not formally a member state of the European Union, I cannot believe that it wouldn’t be appropriate for Wales to have a direct relationship, or with similar legislative regions, or to have a relationship with some other body that could be created, in order to ensure that we as legislative regions could meet and discuss—particularly because the issues that are so important to us, environmental issues in particular, are issues that are dealt with on a continental level.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
And it’s not just legislative issues: there’s one other area that has given me great pleasure for a number of years now—and I should declare an interest, I’m sure, as I am married to one of the people who carries out the accredited interpretation work in the European institutions—and that, of course, is the use of the Welsh language as an official language within the European institutions, in the Council of Ministers, as Alun Ffred Jones will attest to, when he was Minister, and Rhodri Glyn Thomas, of course, has had the privilege of moving his opinions through the medium of Welsh in the Committee of the Regions. It is surprising to me, as one who is a Member of the Parliament in Westminster, that I can’t speak Welsh there, but I can do so properly within the European institutions.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I was rather forward just now. I should have called William Powell to move the amendment, which is tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. So, William, would you move that now, please.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Believes that Wales and the UK should remain members of the EU and resolves to build a stronger dialogue with European institutions such as the Committee of the Regions.
Water under the bridge, Presiding Officer.
I’m very pleased indeed to be taking part in this debate today. Not least because it serves as a timely reminder of the reasons why, as our amendment states very clearly, we on these benches believe that Wales, as a nation within the member state of the UK, should remain within a reformed European Union. In doing so, we should resolve to build a stronger dialogue with the European institutions, such as the Committee of the Regions. I also welcome the fact that a report of this kind has been brought forward for the first time before the Assembly following recommendations, as the Chair has already outlined, from the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee that the Committee of the Regions should periodically report back on its work to the Assembly in this way.
I speak today as a member of the all-party European movement, which was founded by Sir Winston Churchill back in 1948 to foster Great Britain’s membership of the wider European family, and that’s a movement, of course, of which the late Charles Kennedy was president until his untimely death.
The report before us today clearly outlines the effectiveness of our Committee of the Regions members and the impact that their work has had in the heart of Europe. The report rightly highlights the work that’s been undertaken by Rhodri Glyn Thomas, who I understand is in Brussels today taking forward some of these important matters. I was particularly struck by the relevance and timeliness of his work on the European Investment Bank, and the way in which the European Investment Bank has been engaging recently with the Welsh Government has clearly drawn strength from this work. The potential for the EIB to be a source of innovative funding is enormous and there is certainly more that Wales can do in this regard. Objective commentators confirm the significance of Rhodri Glyn’s contribution in that area. I also hope that the next Welsh Government will continue to build on these excellent foundations.
Recommendations 2 and 3 of the report on the need for a review of priorities and revised EU strategy will be important if this is to enhance and strengthen further the Welsh voice in Brussels. It is also right that the report highlights the work undertaken by Mick Antoniw, who introduced this debate so eloquently earlier on. His lead with regard to the Ukrainian crisis is of great importance. His own personal insight and understanding of the country enabled Mick to play a valuable role as the official spokesman on the Ukrainian crisis within the progressive alliance of European socialists, the PES group, visiting Ukraine at the height of the violence and, indeed, being in personally quite dangerous circumstances on occasions at that time, contributing to a number of debates and attending a number of high-level meetings, including with the Deputy Prime Minister of the Ukrainian Government back in 2014. I was also struck by the moving words that he used earlier on and, indeed, by the interview that he’s given today on his own heritage in the ‘Western Mail’. This is all very relevant to today’s topic.
To me, it is exactly this kind of diplomacy that shows European partnership and negotiation at its very best. Without our membership of the European Union, without having representatives within institutions such as the Committee of the Regions, surely our right and ability to influence, as Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas has outlined, would be radically diminished. Recommendation 1 of this report suggests that the Assembly adopt a resolution before the end of this Assembly stating its support for continued membership of the EU, and I’m fully supportive of that objective.
There are, of course, the economic reasons why we should stay: the support of structural funds to our post-industrial communities, support for our farming industry and the wider rural economy. But, as I’ve said before, to me, the European Union is about far more than money, and far more, even, than jobs. With all its imperfections, it still embodies some of the very best aspects of humankind working together. It is by no means perfect, but it is a work in progress and it is, as such, the envy of the world in terms of cradling democracy. Together, the EU has created the world’s largest free trade area, delivered peace, and continues to give the British people the opportunity to live, work and travel freely. Britain is better off in Europe, and Europe is better off with Britain, with Wales, at its heart. The work of the Committee of the Regions gives valuable testimony to that fact.
Like others, I very much welcome the report that we are discussing this afternoon, and welcome the way in which it was introduced by my colleague, Mick Antoniw. I think it does outline very well not only the work that has been done by the four members that we have on the Committee of the Regions, but how they are able to influence and shape decisions and policies in Brussels and in the European Union’s institutions.
I think it also demonstrates the importance of our vision of a Europe of peoples, a Europe of the people, and not simply a Europe of states, where people are represented, where assemblies and local authorities are represented, and where they’re able to shape the policies and the work of the Commission and the decisions of both the Parliament and the Council. This must be an absolute affront to some of the right-wing isolationists we’ve heard in the media in recent days. It’s little wonder that they want to pull out of an institution that pays such attention to what the people say and what the people think.
I hope that the debate that we will have this afternoon will enrich the overall debate that we have on the European Union, in the same way as our membership of the European Union enriches our own debates on our own domestic issues. I know that the work that has been carried out by both Mick and Rhodri on structural funds, on social policy, the environment, energy and rural development has had a real influence over the years, and I know that Mick’s replacement, Joyce Watson, will also continue doing that work. We know that there has been a real influence on the budget process and on public employment as a consequence of the work that has been carried out here, and we also know that the impact on the work of the Commission has been similar to the impact on the work of the Welsh Government, and the European Investment Bank and the work that they have done in order to shape the way in which we can invest in our economy is testament to the work of the Committee of the Regions.
I support fully, like others in this debate, the recommendations that are made in this report. I agree strongly that the voice of this National Assembly should be heard in this national debate. It is important that this Assembly speaks and leads the debate in Wales to speak loudly about what the European Union means to us, both as individuals and political parties, but, perhaps more importantly, as people who live in this country and people who are bringing up our families in this country: that the European Union is an essential part of our identity and, as Europeans, we wish to remain a part of this union, but also that we want the institutions in Wales to broaden, deepen and widen their relationship and their work with the institutions of the European Union. It’s right and proper that we review Welsh engagement with the European Union on a regular basis. I hope that we’ll be able to do that.
I also want to look at and review the strategy of the Welsh Government and its engagement with the institutions of the European Union. This is a matter that’s been reflected in the work of the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee. I hope that the new Assembly will take on this work but, certainly, we must as a National Assembly take a view on the way in which the Welsh Government engages with the institutions of the European Union, and also a real focus on the direction and objectives of that work.
I hope that we will, over the coming weeks and months, be able to contribute to an enriched debate on our membership of the European Union. I don’t think the people of this country will thank us for a debate that essentially ends up being a discussion between two accountants over the price of a balance sheet. I hope that our membership of the European Union is a part of the sort of country that we want this country to become in the future. I hope it speaks to us of who we are, our cultural values, our civilisation and it speaks to us of the sort of Wales we want to create. We cannot simply create the sort of Wales that I want to see in the future by putting up barriers and borders, by pointing fingers at people and making policy on the basis of difference.
I hope that as we debate and discuss the issues around the Committee of the Regions this afternoon we can also begin to debate seriously the relationship that we have with the European Union, and I hope, as a consequence of that debate, we will recognise the importance of the European Union to us, not simply in financial or transactional terms, but to who we are as a community, as a country, as a people and as a nation.
I’m very pleased to be able to contribute to the debate. Rhodri Glyn Thomas, as you have heard, is in Brussels today, reporting to one of the union’s committees, and this will be his final meeting before his membership of the Committee of the Regions ends, and he extends his apologies for absence from here.
May I endorse everything that Mick Antoniw said, who has set this debate in a very broad context, which we need to consider in full as we face what’s ahead of us as regards the future of Britain within the European Union? This is an extremely significant year, and Plaid Cymru is of the view that, in order to secure the long-term economic interests of Wales and for other reasons, we must continue to be a member of the European Union.
The Committee of the Regions in an important medium in order to ensure that the regional members of the European Union have their say, and also as a very important form of influencing the European Union itself, and, as we’ve heard, Rhodri Glyn Thomas has led on the environment and on energy and he’s spoken regularly during the plenary meetings of the Committee of the Regions on a number of subjects, including the union’s budget, the reform agenda for the union, employment, and the refugee crisis, adding a Welsh perspective to these issues.
It’s also obvious from the report that the delegation from Wales on the Committee of the Regions has an excellent working relationship with the MEPs from Wales, and they meet regularly at European Union events back here in Wales, and the MEPs have had an opportunity to contribute their views in preparing the draft opinions for the Committee of the Regions. So, this all demonstrates that we have a mature attitude towards the institutions within the union.
Dafydd Elis-Thomas has alluded to the use of the Welsh language in Brussels, and Rhodri Glyn has presented each of his four opinions through the medium of Welsh in the plenary meetings, making use of an agreement that was signed between the UK Government and the Committee of the Regions in November 2008, which enables the Welsh language to be used officially.
Mae ‘rapporteuriaeth’, rwy’n credu, yw’r term, ac mae’n un o’r ffyrdd mwyaf effeithiol o ddylanwadu ar bolisi’r Undeb Ewropeaidd. Mae Rhodri Glyn wedi siarad yn gyson ar egni morol, ac fel y dywedwyd eisoes, mae o wedi cyflwyno barn ar ddatblygu potensial ynni’r môr ym mis Mawrth 2015, ac fe fabwysiadwyd yr adroddiad hwnnw yn y cyfarfod llawn ym mis Hydref 2015. Ac mae ynni morol, wrth gwrs, yn berthnasol iawn, iawn i ni yma yng Nghymru. Mae o’n cynnig potensial enfawr i fynd i’r afael â heriau mawr ynglŷn â newid hinsawdd, a hefyd datblygu ynni adnewyddadwy sydd â photensial i greu nifer o swyddi a thwf economaidd.
There is an estimate that up to 0.5 million jobs could be created within the European Union by 2050, and 26,000 directly by 2020, by developing this resource in the future. A number of projects throughout the European Union are seeking means of taking advantage of and developing this form of energy. There are four of those in Wales, and Scotland, of course, has a community grid turbine scheme, the first ocean energy scheme of the UK, and that’s located in Shetland.
Of course, the member states aren’t always as enthusiastic as the regions have been in developing renewable energy, but the Committee of Regions has enabled this opinion and these views to be heard widely. So, the Committee of Regions is vital to ensure that the voice of the regions can be heard on such important issues, particularly when there might be a difference between the member state and the regions.
So, may I welcome the report and this opportunity to contribute to a constructive debate that attempts to place Wales in the European context, as it should be? We are also supportive of the Liberals’ amendment for the reasons that already been stated. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Mick Antoniw to reply to the debate.
Can I first of all thank everyone who has participated, because I think this has been a debate of quality, because it has been about vision, rather than, as one speaker referred to, about a balance sheet? Can I particularly, though, thank David Melding for his comments? Because the Constitutional Affairs Committee has been the most consistent and the most thorough body that has been evaluating some of the developments within Europe, and also our role with it, our engagement, and the constitutional nature of those particular ties. And, in fact, it’s partly a product of that that we are at the stage today where we are, for the first time ever since the Assembly was established, talking about the role of some of these important functions.
We are under no illusions about what the actual role of the Committee of the Regions is, and where it stands in relation to—whether it be the European Parliament or other institutions. But what it is is a voice for Wales in Europe. It is an opportunity to access the Commission. It is an opportunity to engage with many other parts of Europe with very similar issues, very similar problems, where we can share what we are doing, and they can. It’s that ability to engage that is so fundamentally important. And it is that engagement that has been so important to the development, for example, of the newer democracies within Europe, which have many challenges ahead of them, but which have transformed from being countries of dictatorship into, now, countries of democracy.
Dafydd Elis, you raised a series of comments about the importance of partnership—and I think all the speakers did, from William Powell to Alun Davies and Alun Ffred—that we actually see this being about what our role is, what Wales’s role is, as part of a larger world, and how we engage. And I think, for everyone, we can talk, we can say, ‘Well, of course, yes, Wales is £836 million per annum better off being in Europe’, and so on. But there is a far bigger vision to that, and that is going to be the future.
This is about the future of Wales, the future of the United Kingdom and, in fact, the future of Europe, and the world, because what happens in different parts of Europe—we cannot avoid the consequences. Instability, tension and conflict that occur in one part of the world, or in one part of Europe, affect us. And we can either, as a country, be part of the coming together, to achieve solutions to build prosperity and peace, or we can hide, we can pull back, we can look backwards to the pre-1948 period, with all the consequences. So, when I said—this wasn’t just a sort of soundbite—when I said I thought there was a danger of the creation of a new iron curtain within Europe, there is. We are, in the whole debate, talking about potentially re-establishing a new iron curtain that divides us from other people with whom we have common interests and objectives.
I thank everyone for their contributions. I certainly hope that any future debate over these issues is going to have the same quality and the same vision and the same forward look for our younger generation and for all the people of Wales and the UK that I think, so far, have been sadly missing from much of the discussion. I think our involvement in the Committee of the Regions and the involvement of the four Members—Christine Chapman was before me. I think it is right to recognise the considerable work that has gone on and how we now need to actually tie that within our structure and our engagement within Europe for the future, which I hope will very much continue for many years to come. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree amendment 1. Does any Member object? [Objection]. Object. I move all voting then until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Elin Jones, and amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
We now move to item 6, which is the Welsh Conservatives debate. I call on Janet Finch-Saunders to move the motion.
Motion NDM5976 Paul Davies
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the importance of empowering individuals and community groups to tackle issues of local significance;
2. Welcomes the campaign to trigger a referendum for the introduction of a directly elected mayor for Cardiff and notes the role that a similar position could play across Wales in enhancing local democracy, accountability and decision-making;
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to take steps to foster a nation of active, informed, involved and engaged citizens by:
(a) introducing referenda on proposed council mergers and local authority council tax rises above a certain threshold so that individuals have more of a say over decision-making in their area;
(b) introducing new powers to better involve individuals in key local resolutions, such as the community right to bid and the community right to challenge, all under a community rights agenda; and
(c) lowering the petition threshold to trigger a referendum on directly elected mayors in a locality.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I move the motion today in the name of Paul Davies AM.
I am very pleased indeed to lead on this debate, one which is largely centred on the true meaning of devolution, and by that I mean the devolution of real power to our communities and our local people. Welsh Conservatives have frequently called on Ministers to show more confidence, more respect and to give more empowerment to our communities and their people across Wales—and no more so than in my own constituency of Aberconwy. We are blessed with many hard-working and earnest individuals and groups, working day in, day out in all weathers just to make that bit of difference to their local community. It may be on a particular project to raise money for a charity or it may be that this army of volunteers is working within one of our many charitable bodies to support them in their aims, again, to make a difference to the lives of those living within our communities. These people are the unsung heroes in our towns and villages and, quite often, go without any recognition whatsoever. Well, today, Members, I would like to put on record my heartfelt thanks to all those community champions across Wales beavering away quietly and without making any fuss but making such a difference. I salute them all.
Welsh Conservatives believe strongly in our communities and in these community heroes. But, we believe too that they should be empowered to rise up to any challenge that presents and that might come their way. It might be to mount a campaign to save a local pub, a community library or a public building. Often, these include the need to raise money in the long term, but setting up a constitution to include specifically named positions such as chairman and treasurer, and holding AGMs et cetera, can appear very daunting at first. We believe that this is when such professional support and guidance is required and we also feel that there should be such support and guidance. Bodies such as the Wales Council for Voluntary Action and local authorities could be further empowered to help these groups. The biggest obstacle for us, however, in Wales, of course, is not always knowing who owns a particular building of interest—hence why it is vital that there is a local and national register of community assets and that it is published locally for all to see and available online.
Under Labour here, we have seen a blatant refusal to give new powers to our people to challenge and shape decision making with local authorities still not currently obliged to undertake community asset transfers. Instead, we have seen a top-down centralised agenda. The forcing through of the forthcoming local authority merger plans without community engagement, the yearly exorbitant council tax rises and the dictatorial nature of the Well-being and Future Generations Act 2015 are all fine examples of this. I, and my colleagues, have regularly called in the strongest terms for this Government to adopt many of the articles in the Localism Act 2011, an Act that is already making a significant and positive impact on the lives of numerous community groups and individuals across the country.
The Welsh Government’s own consultation on protection of community assets received a hugely favourable response for precisely what we are calling for today. But, this has gone largely ignored by this Government, with 59 per cent of respondents to the national survey for Wales disagreeing or strongly disagreeing that they felt they could influence local decisions. Since its introduction in 2012, uptake of the community right to bid has increased year on year. More than 2,600 much-loved assets are now listed across the country, including nearly 900 pubs, and 150 assets have been transferred into community ownership.
Recently, when I raised the question here, the Minister was unable to respond and when asked how many such community assets have been retained by local individuals or groups, she said that she would come back to me. I am still waiting for that answer.
Following her consultation on assets of community value, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty said:
‘Legislative action on community assets will need to be considered by a future Government.’
Well, I tell you, a Welsh Conservative Government will devolve significant powers more locally, as we believe our local and community champions know best. Whilst communities in England were given the right to bid four years ago, here in Wales, we are still waiting for the commencement of Chapter 3, Part 5 of the Localism Act 2011. This is despite the Minister’s own admission, in her December statement, that there is
‘popular support for establishing a Welsh scheme’
along the lines of the right to bid—totally ignored.
Labour has made it increasingly difficult for local people to have a say over issues that impact upon the delivery of vital local services. The campaign to trigger a local referendum for a directly elected mayor in Cardiff is very welcome news, and much supported here on these benches. The 10 per cent support required, however, to trigger such a referendum, is double the 5 per cent required in England.
Why such a negative approach by this Government, one could ask? Is the Welsh Labour Government frightened by the possibility that the community and the people of Cardiff know better what they want, and how they want to get it? We are calling now today for there to be a level playing field with other parts of the United Kingdom when calling for a directly elected mayor referendum.
The Welsh Conservatives in Government would also introduce new community powers to challenge the way local authorities carry out their duties under a community rights agenda, allowing local people the ability to influence planning within their communities, to run services themselves, and the ability to make an offer or a bid for a building or area that they feel is a local amenity and is of significant interest. We do not shy away either from calling for referenda in the event of excessive council tax rises, providing the opportunity to veto or approve such important decisions.
Of course, Welsh Conservatives also believe very strongly that our residents and council tax payers have the right—and know best how they want this money to be spent, and also that, when given a consequential to freeze council tax, putting that cash back into their pockets is significantly better than seeing it frittered away here by Government departments on other initiatives without any practical or meaningful outcomes. Furthermore, many local authorities have moneys set aside for community engagement, yet how many of our constituents even know this?
Conservative-led Monmouthshire—leading the way, the authority—one of the very first authorities to hold very regular consultation events, allowing residents to have a say on how their money should be spent and on what. And whilst this idea is catching on elsewhere, other authorities forge ahead with their own plans to cut vital services when looking for efficiency savings.
Conwy County Borough Council—very recently reducing bin collections to four-weekly. I thank, and I’ve worked with, my colleague Darren Millar on this, and our online petitions have drawn in much support from hundreds of constituents. Extending parking charges to all free car parks and popular tourism destinations and withdrawing the number 19 bus service—a vital lifeline to our more rural parts. All this without any consultation whatsoever with those it affects.
The proposals put today by the Welsh Conservatives will give back respect, trust and power to our communities and to our local people. I urge you all to support these aims.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the three amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. I call on Simon Thomas to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Delete points 2 and 3 and replace with:
Believes that Plaid Cymru’s proposals for local engagement, set out in the public services reform paper, provide a positive basis to achieve the aim of empowering individuals in the next Assembly.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and I move amendment 1. As we can tell from the amendment, we agree with the Conservatives on the first point of this motion and on very little else, certainly very little else that was spoken about by the Conservative spokesperson.
I think it’s quite a surprising thing to talk about accountability in local government without recognising that the accountability of local government comes primarily from elections and that what we should be doing in strengthening accountability is strengthening the responsibility of local councillors to their wards by the introduction of the single transferable vote or a more fair voting system. We should be supporting it through the increase in representation of our councillors—more women, more young people, more people with disabilities being able to take part in council debates and stand for elections. That’s the real issue here, not some narrow-minded approach to individual decision making by communities that the Conservative spokesperson set out. I’m afraid she did.
Will the Member take an intervention?
Oh, go on then.
Are you saying, then, as a Member, that you don’t agree with putting power back into the hands of our local communities and the people we serve?
No, I’m not saying that. That’s why I said that we agree with the first point of your motion, but I’m setting out, I think in our amendment, our alternative proposals. I’m saying that strength and responsibility and accountability really come from democratic elections and consultation after that, yes, but not, I’m afraid, consultation—for example, referenda on the individual proposals for mergers, which is actually just a figleaf for the embarrassment of your not having a national policy or national vision or any national idea of how local government should work in collaboration with national government or regional government in Wales. Local referenda are just a figleaf for an absence of a policy in that context.
I think it is also ironic that you’ve chosen to debate today elected mayors at the very time when your party’s being ripped apart by an elected mayor taking on your Prime Minister and disagreeing with the Government proposals. Elected mayors are very often just an alternative source of power to challenge the other body that may actually be charged in a more widely representative role.
Will you take an intervention?
From the leave campaign, I certainly will.
Yes, and a proud campaigner as well. What I’m a little confused about here is that your No. 2 on the south Wales regional list, Neil McEvoy, is fully supportive of the establishment of a directly elected mayor here in Cardiff, he has been at the launch of the campaign, and yet you’re contradicting him. What is Plaid’s position on this?
I’m not contradicting Neil McEvoy at all. Plaid’s position is very clear. If the people of Cardiff want to have an elected mayor, they can have a referendum and they can have an elected mayor. I have to tell Andrew R.T Davies that I’m a veteran of an elected mayor campaign. Ceredigion is the only part of Wales that’s gone through this in the past under the current legislation, and Elin Jones and I are veterans of that. I couldn’t say whether it was right or not that the people of Ceredigion rejected an elected mayor. All I remember is this: the number on the petition calling for the referendum was higher than the people who actually took part and voted for the mayor at the end of the day. So, sometimes, referenda and petitions for elected mayors are more about the lack of leadership in the local authority and the lack of leadership by the local, maybe, Labour Party than they are about the merits of elected mayors or not—[Interruption.] Well, Ceredigion wasn’t led by Plaid Cymru, I can tell you, at that time. It was led by a bunch of conservative independents—let’s put it that way.
So, when we are looking at the future of local government, we have to have a coherent approach that is nationally available to all parts of Wales, not something that builds on the basis of one individual area of Wales saying, ‘We can’t collaborate with another area because we had a referendum on a turnout of 12 per cent’, which was the Ceredigion turnout, for example. So, we have to be careful, I think, that we have to have a sense of national strategy, national purpose, national vision and, therefore, national delivery together with partners in local government. That’s why our amendment refers very simply to our proposals for local government reform. You may not agree with them; I accept that. But there is an election coming in May when the people of Wales will decide the nature of local government in Wales because they will choose the Government that will deliver that. I think one thing we can agree on here—but I sadly regret the Conservative Party doesn’t seem to agree on this—is that local government, following the establishment of national government in Wales, does need reform, does need reorganisation and does need to be relooked at. I am waiting still for the vision of the Conservative Party as regards to that.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Peter Black to move amendments 2 and 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. Peter Black
Delete point 3(a) and insert:
introducing STV for local government elections in order to ensure that councillors are more accountable to their constituents.
Amendments 2 and 3 moved.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Can I move amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts and start by saying I agree with slightly more of this motion than Simon Thomas, but that doesn’t mean to say I agree with all of it, which is why we’ve tabled these amendments? In particular, I agree, as did Simon Thomas, that the importance of empowering individuals and community groups to tackle issues of local significance is important.
I agree with Simon that accountability comes through local elections, but I’d also add that we need to have meaningful consultation and empowerment as part of that, which is why we’re happy to support 3(b) in this particular motion, because I think the rights that were introduced in England, which have not been taken up here in Wales, are long overdue for many Welsh councils. I think that involving individuals in key local resolutions and having the community right to bid and the community right to challenge and a community rights agenda would help transform the way local government is run in Wales. Certainly, we’re prepared to support that particular aspect of this motion.
I think, in terms of the rest of the motion, there are some other issues that need to be addressed. Clearly, in terms of the referendum for a directly elected mayor in Cardiff, I’m not in a position to pass judgment on that because I don’t represent Cardiff, and I think it’s important that I don’t stand here and say what is right and what is wrong for Cardiff—that’s a matter for people in Cardiff themselves. What I would say is I’ve talked to my party in Cardiff and they are not supportive of this referendum at this time, and the reason they’ve given for that, which I think is a very valid reason, is because, with the possible reorganisation of local government, it is the wrong time to have this referendum. If you’re going to have a referendum, let’s have a settled structure and settled boundaries for the Cardiff area around which you would have this referendum, so that we know exactly who this mayor would be representing and which areas this mayor would be representing. I think, in that sense, this particular clause of this motion is premature. I also think it’s not appropriate that this Assembly passes judgment on having a referendum. Again, that’s a matter for the people of Cardiff and I wouldn’t want to support anything that seeks to pre-empt what the people of Cardiff want to do.
As it happens, I’m fairly open to the idea of elected mayors. I’ve been thinking about this for a long, long time. I know, in the case of Swansea—and I need to declare an interest as a member of the City and County of Swansea, Presiding Officer—where I am still a councillor, I happen to think that having an elected mayor for Swansea might actually change the dynamic, if you like, in terms of helping Swansea be heard better within Wales and elsewhere. But again, that’s a matter for the people of Swansea and that’s a view that I have personally, which I need to persuade my party of and I need to persuade the people of Swansea of. So, this is an issue that needs to be decided, I think, in a democratic way and it isn’t for this Assembly to make that decision on the part of Cardiff, or even Swansea, or any other part of Wales.
In terms of the other amendments that we’ve put in, I’m not particularly keen on referenda on proposed council mergers and local authority council tax rises. We have a representative democracy. We have councillors elected to make those decisions. They can be made accountable, particularly if you have a more meaningful electoral system, as Simon Thomas has outlined—single transferable voting, which means that the councillors who are elected are more representative of the people who are voting. The outcome of those elections reflects the way that people have voted, and that makes them more representative. Because they’re more representative, they are more accountable and it makes for better decision making and more transparent decision making. I think if you have that system in place, you don’t need to have these constant referenda. What you can do, however, is you can have better consultation processes, you can have better empowerment and I think that would certainly improve things. Mike.
Also with STV, you have very large wards where councillors are very distant from the members. Isn’t that true?
Well, Mike, it seems to work very well in Scotland, which has large rural areas, and also in Northern Ireland as well. Of course, in the area that you and I represent, we have large wards as well with large populations. So, STV does work in these multimember wards, even in rural areas, as has been demonstrated in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, and, of course, in the Republic of Ireland as well. I don’t think that’s a particular barrier to having a single transferrable vote system, which, I think, would create more representative local governments. I think I’ve made clear as well that if we are going to have a reorganisation of local government—and I don’t support the current proposals—then, you need to have a single transferrable vote system, a proportional system of electing councillors for those larger authorities, otherwise, it’s just going to become very difficult to hold them to account. It seems to me that that’s an important aspect of that.
So, I think, Presiding Officer, in conclusion, although there are a number of elements in this motion that we can support, it would be massively improved by passing our amendments, and I would hope that the Assembly will support them.
Asset-based community development is a large and growing movement that considers people as the primary building blocks of sustainable community development. Put another way, this is about giving voice, choice, control and real power to the people in our communities. Building on the skills of local residents, the power of local associations and the support of local institutions, this is about drawing upon existing community strengths to build stronger communities for the future. This is, of course, anathema to Welsh Labour’s state organisation of society and top-down control over persons and activities within their jurisdiction, apparently, as we’ve heard, supported by Plaid Cymru.
Since the UK Localism Act 2011, we have campaigned for its community empowering provisions to be enacted in Wales. However, we had to wait until 2015 for the Welsh Labour Government to set out its plans for community ownership, a watered-down version of the opportunities available in England, leaving communities in Wales with a far smaller voice than their English counterparts. Welsh Labour has now put off proposals for community groups to become involved in the delivery of local services until after the 2016 Assembly elections, proposals that still exclude a statutory right for communities to challenge council services or bid for local authority property.
The Localism Act 2011 introduced neighbourhood development plans that allow local people to get the right type of development for their community, which must still meet the needs for the wider area and take into account the local council’s assessment of housing and other development needs. Detailed or general plans identify what local people want, where new homes and offices should be built, what they should look like, but this is denied to people in Wales. Welsh Conservatives would introduce neighbourhood planning, including a community right to build and neighbourhood development plans, allowing communities to bring forward small-scale community-led developments, such as shops, services or affordable housing, and allowing communities to show where they would like a new development to happen and what it should look like.
By April 2014, 1,000 communities in England had taken the first formal steps for development plans, 80 had been sent out to consultation and 13 had been passed at local referenda. These new powers in Wales would engage communities at a local level, giving them a voice to shape the future of local authority services, assets and planning in their neighbourhoods.
Consider the private rented sector. Quoting the National Landlord Association, a committee report at the end of the last Assembly stated that there should be Wales-wide private rented sector access agencies for vulnerable people, like Cefni Lettings, a partnership of trust between the private sector and local authorities, with landlords and third sector implementing and delivering more for less rather than replicating for higher cost. They told me that this required a new way of working, true partnership with the public sector and a period of transition for the supply of housing to equalise. Instead, this Welsh Government introduced anti-business regulation for all landlords, hitting investment and supply, rather than targeted enforcement against bad and criminal landlords and support for the worst-affected tenants.
As the Centre for Social Justice housing report states, we need to redirect spending on temporary accommodation to a new breed of social letting agencies, providing long-term security and support for vulnerable renters, while also increasing the number of landlords willing to rent to those on benefits. The auditor general states that councils need to consider alternative models of delivery, but found that, although some councils are managing to provide key services with less money, many councils are too slow in reviewing alternative methods of delivery and missing out on opportunities to reduce expenditure. For example, he found that 18 of the 22 Welsh councils reduced expenditure on supporting leisure services, with the greatest savings where councils had transferred leisure facilities to community trusts. However, Flintshire had the second largest increase in expenditure and yet one of the biggest reductions in people visiting leisure centres, when 14 councils had seen an increase.
In response to big Welsh Government cuts to homelessness prevention and local voluntary council funding, community-based organisations state that this is a false economy that will devastate their ability to support more user-led, preventative and cost-effective services. Is it any wonder that Wales has the lowest prosperity, greatest child poverty and highest worklessness in the UK after 17 years of this? It’s time to turn the power thing upside down, design the system backwards and set the people free.
I have to say I agree with absolutely everything that Mark Isherwood has said, but I don’t think I’ve got time to unpick all of that. I think it’s very difficult to disagree with the first point of your motion:
‘Recognises the importance of empowering individuals and community groups to tackle issues of local significance’.
I think we’d all agree with that. I can’t think of a single individual in this Chamber, unless they’re on the Tory benches, who would disagree with that.
So, I think that the fact that the Conservatives are now joining up with a few dissident Labour councillors and Neil McEvoy in an attempt to get a mayor for Cardiff is very interesting. We need to remember, as I do on the doorstep, that an earlier attempt to produce a mayor and cabinet in Cardiff by the back door led to absolutely visceral hostility to the individual involved and, more than a decade later, there’s still a good deal of suspicion about the idea of such concentrated power in a single individual’s hands.
We need to remember that it was UK Government policy under the New Labour Government that introduced this idea of elected mayors in 2000, and it’s interesting to note that the vast majority of elected mayors are and have been Labour mayors. The Conservative Party were late converts to this idea. It isn’t until 2009 that we find you promoting this concept, and then the Lib Dems got bundled into it as part of the coalition agreement of 2010. It’s interesting to note that the Lib Dems are now proposing the deletion of point 2.
I think that the main reservation about elected mayors is the concentration of too much power in the hands of one individual. In fact, this is more perception than reality. Elected mayors, under the Local Government (Wales) Measure 2011, have no more powers than the leader of a council working with a cabinet. An elected mayor has to work with a cabinet of elected councillors in the same way that an elected leader does. The difference is they would have been elected directly by the residents, rather than by their peers on the council. It’s hugely down to the leadership skills of the individual who is chosen to take on that role.
Bristol, for example, decided to elect a mayor in 2015, and this was on the wave of an anti-politics mood that swept an independent, George Ferguson, to power. Research by Professor Hambleton of the University of the West of England and Dr Sweeting of the University of Bristol does indeed show that there’s been a perceived improvement in leadership and a clearer vision for the city of Bristol. Cardiff council certainly found him a good person to do business with as part of Cardiff’s work to develop a western powerhouse alliance between Bristol, Cardiff and Newport.
But elected mayors, we have to remember, have not always been such a resounding success, starting with H’Angus the Monkey who was first elected in Hartlepool in 2002, whose third term ended with dismal rejection by the people of Hartlepool, who resoundingly decided to go back to the leader and cabinet model. We’ve also, more recently, had the Lutfur Rahman experience in Tower Hamlets—another supposed independent who was thrown out by the courts, which declared his election invalid.
My own view is that government for the people, rather than with them, is not a model that works in the new world of austerity politics. The old model of carrot and stick to obtain compliance for the ruling group is simply not possible in today’s local government. As ‘A Picture of Public Services’ makes clear, there are huge challenges facing local government, and simply managing services better or doing less is unlikely to be sufficient. Doing things differently requires the engagement and permission of the local population, which, in my view, is difficult to do in the shape of one individual.
After a hesitant start, the current leadership of Cardiff council is both engaging with its citizens on the difficult choices ahead of them, faced as a result of the Tory austerity economic policy, and, where possible, coming up with co-operative solutions. I note that the future generations Act puts the strength of communities and sustainable development at the heart of everything that public services will need to deliver on in the future. In my view, that is better done by elected leaders with elected cabinets.
Localism is true devolution in action. To put it simply, it is about transferring power from central government to local authorities. It is about empowering communities so that they have a bigger say in the issues that matter to them. It is disappointing to note, therefore, that the Welsh Government has failed to implement the community rights agenda in Wales. The Localism Act 2011 sets out a series of measures with the potential to achieve a substantial shift of power to our local people.
Two of these rights were the community right to challenge and the community right to bid. First, the community right to challenge: this still has not commenced in Wales. Local authorities in Wales face a budgetary constraint and they may attempt to relieve the pressure by letting go of assets such as leisure centres. Without the community right to challenge, allowing communities to take over the running of services, these assets could be lost permanently. The best councils in Wales are constantly on the lookout for new and better ways to design and deliver local services. Many recognise the potential of social enterprises and community groups to provide higher quality services and good value. They should work together to deliver these services, but councils in Wales do not have to keep a register of assets of community value.
Last year, the Welsh Government launched a consultation on protecting community assets. The majority of respondents supported community rights for Wales, and an overwhelming majority wanted to initiate transfers from public bodies, emphasising the support in Wales for a community right to bid. Every community is home to buildings or amenities that play a vital role in local life. These include community centres, libraries, swimming pools, village shops, markets and pubs. It is a matter of concern that 26 public libraries closed in Wales between 2010 and 2015—many in spite of local opposition. The closure of these assets can present a real loss to the community. Community groups often need more time to organise a bid to raise money than the private enterprises that may be bidding against them. This is why we need a list of assets of community value, nominated by the local communities themselves. Should these listed assets then come up for sale or change of ownership, community groups will then have the time to develop a bid and raise the funds required to keep these assets as part of the local life. I believe that these rights should be extended to Wales to enhance the existing community asset transfer and community facilities and activities programmes.
Allowing communities to challenge these local authorities over the services they provide or to build their own will greatly enhance community involvement and engagement. Presiding Officer, the community rights agenda has benefited England for the last five years. In contrast, the Welsh Government has been tinkering around the edges of community rights for far too long. Their approach to this subject clearly indicates a tired Government that has run out of ideas, run out of steam, and is running out of time. As a result, Welsh communities are being disadvantaged. I call on the Minister to embrace the community rights agenda and to implement the Localism Act in full in Wales. I support this motion. Thank you.
I wanted to speak on the part of the motion that welcomes the campaign for the introduction of a directly elected mayor in Cardiff.
First of all, I wanted to say a bit about Cardiff. I think Cardiff is a fantastic place to live and work in, and it’s obviously topped many polls and surveys as being one of the best places to live in the UK. In a survey of residents of Europe’s top cities in 2014, Cardiff came out as the best place to live in the UK. It’s a top UK city for quality of life: 92 per cent of residents said they liked living here and 93 per cent said they’re happy with the city’s cultural attractions—more than the number in Paris and more than the number in Berlin. It’s also one of the greenest cities in the UK. The Green Alliance said this month that it’s the fourth greenest city in England and the UK, as 16 per cent of its electricity consumption comes from renewable energy. That, of course, is going to increase once the Radyr weir hydroelectric scheme opens up and comes into operation, and Cardiff will be even greener. It’s recognised as a green city and, of course, it’s one of the fastest growing cities in the UK. Cardiff has achieved all these great things without, of course, the benefit of a city mayor.
I do believe it’s important to have as much local democracy as possible. I think encouraging and engaging people in the democratic process is one of the things that can make a real difference to a city, which, of course, has been done in Cardiff, with extensive consultation in this very difficult round of budget setting. There has been intensive consultation in all parts of Cardiff. The other way, of course, of making democracy more real is to have councillors who widely represent the communities they come from. Labour is going in to the next local authority elections with a pledge of having half their councillors as women. I think those sorts of initiatives are the sorts of things that will make councils more accountable.
But, rather than enhancing local democracy, I actually think having an elected mayor would be a diversion from the issues that have to be tackled in local government at the present time—the most important of which, of course, is tackling the reduction in local authority funding caused by the major cuts in funding to the Assembly by the Conservative Government in Westminster. That’s what local government is tackling. Cardiff council and councils all over Wales are trying to think of imaginative ways of preserving the jewels in the crown of the city—like the New Theatre, like St David’s Hall and like the libraries—and trying to find ways of keeping these wonderful cultural organisations going. So, why on earth would we want to have a distraction like a campaign to trigger a referendum? I can’t imagine why the Conservatives think that this is such an important thing. I think it’s an absolute distraction from the real issues.
It’s also being done at a very inappropriate time. Local government reorganisation has already been mentioned. There’s also a debate ongoing about securing a city deal for Cardiff, which, of course, involves 10 local authorities working together. We’re talking now in terms of the regional. In local government reorganisation, one of the proposals is that Cardiff might go in with the Vale, so a vote that only includes people in Cardiff would be pretty meaningless. So, why on earth do we want to have another layer of government in these difficult, cash-strapped times? The cost of the referendum would be nearly £0.5 million. Are the Conservatives seriously proposing that this £0.5 million should, in these times, go towards a referendum? Should it be successful, an election would be another £0.5 million.
I’m grateful to Julie Morgan for giving way. You say that this is a needless distraction, and ask why we should have another layer of government. But the point that we’ve made is that it will be the people in those areas who will decide if they want that extra layer of government. I don’t understand why you’re so afraid of giving the people the right to choose the sort of structure that they want.
I certainly think it’s completely wrong to have the distraction of a referendum campaign, and all the expense of paying for a referendum. I just think it is a complete distraction. I also think, as Jenny Rathbone has said, that this would be a move to a much more centralised system, and too much power in one person. A council leader can be removed by a vote of his or her colleagues, but it is very difficult to remove an elected mayor before their time of office elapses. Most efforts to have elected mayors have been defeated by local votes. George Osborne’s proposal for the Northern Powerhouse brings with it the obligation to have an elected mayor, even though those cities that are mainly involved have actually voted against having elected mayors in those northern towns and cities. So, I think this is an issue that should not be pursued.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to this debate today, and I’d like to maybe confine my comments to the directly elected mayor part of the motion, and also town and community councils, and the important role I believe many of the town and community councils do have to play as the bedrock, really, of our democracy.
Certainly, the first part of the motion does recognise the empowering of individuals and community groups to tackle issues of local significance. We have over 700 town and community councils the length and breadth of Wales, and I have pressed the Minister on many occasions in this Chamber as to what level of engagement the Government has and what role, going forward, he believes many of those town and community councils can have in being, as I said, the bedrock of our democracy. For many people, that is the volunteer approach: that many people give their time up to go and represent their community and start in politics, albeit that many town and community councils are non-political because, obviously, that’s the make-up they choose. I do believe they are an under-utilised asset, and I do believe that, especially when you look at some of the bigger town councils, such as Barry in my own elected area—which I believe is the biggest town council in Wales, but, equally, many other areas of Wales have significant councils with significant responsibilities placed on them, and they could be far more involved in the planning process to address many of the concerns that many people face in the planning system, where they do believe that their voice has been excluded in the consultation process that the larger county authority has taken supposedly on their behalf, but yet they do not feel that they’ve been engaged in that process.
But, moving to the directly elected mayor, I do believe that this is a great opportunity for areas, in particular Cardiff, which is in my own electoral area of South Wales Central, to actually start to compete, especially economically, with Bristol on our doorstep, which does have a directly elected mayor. And, if you go into north Wales, where you’ve got Liverpool and Manchester right on the doorstep, many of the economic challenges that north Wales faces are because people are going to Liverpool and Manchester because of the incentives and because of the decisions around the Northern Powerhouse. It is vital that north Wales does not get left behind, and there is the opportunity to be able, from this place, to devolve responsibility and power out, especially on economic issues. I notice the CBI are very keen for that decision making to be localised in north Wales, and what better way to do it than via a directly elected mayor, who would be accountable for that particular area on a four- or five-year cycle?
It’s interesting to note as well, when you take Bristol as an example—which is a major economic challenge for south-east Wales—that the Avon area is also looking at the ‘metro mayor’ concept to consolidate many of the aspects of economic development into the hands of a metro mayor who, ultimately, would speak for a far wider area than just the Bristol area.
I did listen to Julie and what she said about Manchester and the Northern Powerhouse. Many if not all the Labour authorities in that particular area have embraced the idea of this devolution of power and responsibility out from the centre, from Whitehall to the great northern city of Manchester. I’ll gladly take the intervention, Julie.
Would Andrew R.T. Davies not agree that, in fact, they all voted against having a directly elected mayor?
There was a referendum on this particular issue, but the actual deal that has been put in place for the responsibility of over £6 billion of health and social care budgets, and for police and crime commissioners, obviously, which were introduced in the last Parliament—to actually consolidate that responsibility into directly elected officials at a city level has energised that part of the north of England. When you look at participation rates and understanding of what roles the mayors undertake, there has been a dramatic improvement. If you take Bristol, for example, where the figures of public participation and understanding—[Interruption.] I have taken one intervention. I’ve only got 50 seconds left, Julie.
I do believe that it is a concept worth exploring. I do believe that the motion that is before the electorate at the moment to instigate the referendum by getting, I think, 26,000 signatures in the city of Cardiff does warrant the support of the people of Cardiff because I do believe that it would create a really dynamic and competitive edge to this part of Wales, the part of Wales that I’m very proud to represent in this Assembly. But I do take issue with the point that the Plaid Cymru local government spokesperson said, because you can’t have people on the ground, like Neil McEvoy, supporting that campaign as Plaid—as he came out and said—and then be contradicted in this Chamber. You’re either supporting the concept or you’re not, and, ultimately, it is vital that everyone gets the opportunity to have the chance to support this motion and it would actually transform the democratic engagement of people in the city of Cardiff if it did get through the 26,000 threshold. When you look at the success in other parts of the United Kingdom, a directly elected mayor has driven that economic development, has driven that public participation, and, importantly, driven local accountability. On all counts, the arguments are won, and I do hope this afternoon the argument on this motion will be won in this Chamber.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Minister for Public Services to speak on behalf of the Government—Leighton Andrews.
Llywydd, the Conservative spokesperson started by mentioning her constituency of Aberconwy. Many of my colleagues and I were in her constituency at the weekend. Indeed, I got a standing ovation in her constituency. [Laughter.] She wasn’t there at the time, obviously.
In the draft local government Bill—. [Interruption.] There were councillors as well giving me a standing ovation. That’s not often seen, I accept, but there we are.
In the draft local government Bill, I set out our plans for empowering local people. I believe in activist councils, as we said in the White Paper, providing high-quality services, sharing power with local people. We’ve been scrutinised as a Government extensively on the proposals that we’ve put forward to make this happen. We agree with the general argument for local empowerment, but we disagree fundamentally with the approach offered by the opposition. Localism is a term that the Conservatives are abusing to disguise their real intentions to slash the budgets of public services and make sure that local government takes the blame for service cuts.
I’d like to reiterate the comments I made a few weeks ago on what’s happening to local government across the border. Authorities in England have seen far more serious cuts in spending. Since 2010-11, spending on local services in England has decreased by around 10 per cent in cash terms, while in Wales it has increased by 2.5 per cent.
The Local Government Association in England made it clear this week that the additional 2 per cent rise allowed on council tax does not equate to proper funding of social care and that councils in England are dangerously close to a social care crisis. We’re all well aware of David Cameron’s letter to his own local authority complaining about the cuts being imposed in his own back yard, and his mum doesn’t like them either. So, these cuts, of course—[Interruption.] Nor his aunty, quite right.
These were, of course, a direct result of his own Government’s policies. Perhaps the leader of the opposition here today disagrees with David Cameron about the cuts in local government in England as well. He’s disagreed with him on at least one major policy issue this week. Perhaps we’ll hear—[Laughter.]
The one thing that unites the Conservative Party and has delivered the Conservative Party over the Labour Party is economic competence, and that has given us a solid, growing economy—[Interruption.]—a solid, growing economy that has allowed us to invest in that economy, create a record number of jobs and make record amounts of money available to protect public services.
I think it’s something of an irony that you make a statement like that on the day that we have delivered Aston Martin in Wales, and I pay tribute to my colleague, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport. I think the leader of the opposition today—perhaps it’s apt—. He’s rather more Blofeld than Boris today.
On council tax, of course, we can all agree that local people, businesses, partners and workforces must have a say in how public money is spent. But council tax revenues—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
[Continues.]—only make up a small part of a council’s total budget. We encourage authorities to engage with their communities on their whole budget to gain the information they need to allocate resources and make decisions. It also helps to raise public awareness of financial challenges. Most councils in Wales engage on the budget-setting process and a handful do this comprehensively. But we recognise there is more to do. That is why the draft Bill will place a new duty to consult communities and partners in the setting of spending priorities for each financial year, before budgets are agreed by the council.
This is a better way for councils and local people to work together than through divisive and confrontational referendums on arbitrary limits. It’s also important to mention here that, of course, the English council tax freeze is rapidly becoming something of a national joke. For 2016-17, the Local Government Association in England expects to see average council tax rises of around 3.7 per cent for councils with social care responsibilities.
On the issue of empowering local communities, the draft Bill empowers elected members, individuals and communities through the public participation duty, improvement requests, community area committees and extensive reforms relating to empowered community councils, and I can agree with the leader of the opposition on the important role of town and community councils. The provisions in our draft Bill give individuals and communities extensive rights to have their say over council decisions, to set local priorities and get involved in the improvement of services, and this includes the transfer of assets from local authorities to local groups, which, of course, is already taking place across Wales at the present time, and we have published additional guidance on alternative delivery models and, indeed, on community asset transfer.
This, however, is different from the market-oriented approach set out in the Localism Act 2011. For example, the right to challenge enables local groups or council staff to bid to run a service, but it does this by exposing them to an open market procurement exercise. This, of course, means more services in the hands of private companies, whose focus is profit, not necessarily the wellbeing of vulnerable people. It means fair terms and conditions replaced by zero-hours contracts and low pay. It means quality care services replaced by 15-minute tick-box exercises. That does not amount to empowerment in my book.
On the issue of elected mayors, I remind this Chamber that it was a Labour Government that first gave people the opportunity to hold referendums for elected mayors through the Local Government Act 2000, but our position has not changed: it’s for local people to decide if they can demonstrate that there is sufficient local support. We set the threshold at 10 per cent, which is a realistic measure of support to trigger a referendum. Compare this with the thresholds in the UK Government’s Trade Union Bill, where, for a vote to carry, there must be a 50 per cent turnout and at least 40 per cent of those must vote in favour—a punishingly high barrier that makes a mockery of democracy. A lower threshold than 10 per cent runs the risk of frivolous referendums, and, in the current financial circumstances imposed by the Chancellor, this can’t be justified as a good use of public money. The current system is fair and democratic, in contrast with the position in England. There, the UK Government is forcing elected mayors on combined authorities in an undemocratic way, as my colleague, the Member for Cardiff North said, disregarding the views of local people.
We will not be supporting the motion or any of the amendments. We have supported local democracy in Wales, and we will strengthen local democracy in Wales and strengthen local government in the next Assembly.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Nick Ramsay to reply to the debate. Nick Ramsay.
Thank you, Presiding Officer, and can I thank the Minister for his remarks? I’ve heard the leader of the opposition described as many things over the years in this Chamber, but I think Blofeld is a new one. I imagine, if there were a white cat in here, it would probably be more comfortable on the Labour front bench, but that’s probably another discussion.
Can I thank everyone who has contributed to this afternoon’s debate, recognising the importance of empowering individuals and community groups to deal with local issues? As Janet Finch-Saunders said in opening this debate this afternoon, this is basically a discussion about real devolution, belief in our communities, how you construct and how you deliver that real devolution that so many of us talk about so much. Yes, this is often about money, but it’s about more than money, it’s also about the right support and guidance, as Janet Finch-Saunders said, and about issues such as having an available register of community assets and, indeed, community asset transfer, which was referred to by a number of Members.
All of our calls today have been made against the backdrop of the enormous uncertainties that are being created by the Welsh Government’s local government reorganisation plans—uncertainties that have reverberated around council chambers out there, and which many of us AMs have been involved in, some more than others. Meanwhile, where is a Welsh right to bid in the current Welsh Government approach? Where is Government support for the locally elected mayors that so many Members have referred to this afternoon? Where is support for enhancing our democracy? Directly elected mayors have massive potential to develop local democracy and, whether you are for them or whether you are against them, to simply brush aside the notion that they could play an important role in developing cities such as Cardiff, such as Swansea, and other cities, is not really facing up to the importance of this discussion.
Simon Thomas supported—well, you did at the end of your speech, anyway, Simon—the enhancement of democracy in name. You did refer to our proposals as narrow-minded. Well, I think you’ve made that comment about our proposals in the past, so there was no surprise there. But you have to acknowledge that what we are trying to do here is move this debate about local democracy onwards. I think you do seem to have a level of support for Cardiff’s choice to have a mayor, or indeed other cities and communities in Wales to have a mayor, if that is their wish. So, I think there was a level of agreement between us there.
Peter Black, again, was a lot closer to the view on the Conservative benches than first appeared. And Peter, we are not imposing elected mayors on communities; we want to give communities the opportunity to have one if they want. And I do quite agree with you, Peter Black, that Swansea may well benefit from this sort of role; I understand you have to have that discussion with your own group, and that discussion has to be had with the public as well. But I think there’s no doubt at all that Swansea could reap massive benefits from having an elected-mayor-type structure.
Mark Isherwood said in his comments—right at the end of your contribution, Mark—that we need to design the system backwards, I think you said, and set the people free. Well, who would disagree with that huge gesture?
And I have to say I do agree completely with Jenny Rathbone; there is a perception that moving to an elected-mayor structure would create a role that is too powerful, too centralist; there definitely is that perception—you aren’t wrong there. What we have to decide is how much of that is the perception and how much of that is actually the truth on the ground. And I’m sure, for one thing, that, actually, they wouldn’t be too powerful—that you could construct that role in such a way that a mayor could actually have more benefits than disadvantages. But you’re quite right, that would have to be got right at the outset. Mike Hedges.
Under the current legislation, if you get an elected mayor, they have full executive responsibility.
Yes, and I think that the point is that, yes, full executive responsibility would be what the current legislation would provide. The point is, though, that you’d still be transferring powers you’ve got at the moment in another structure. As we know full well from your front benches, the current structure is not overly popular.
Can I also quash this idea that this is the wrong time to have this discussion because of local government reorganisation plans? The fact is that the public, as of yet, have not had a chance to comment on the Welsh Government’s plans for local government reorganisation. I know that they will shortly—don’t worry, Minister; I can see you were going to say that—but this is one way that you could engage the public and could get their view on how we could be constructing local democracy.
The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.
So, when are you going to call for a directly elected mayor in Monmouthshire, then?
Like Peter, I will be having that discussion with my own colleagues back in Monmouthshire, but I think that in Monmouthshire a directly elected mayor could be a very powerful asset, and I suspect that it would be much more popular than your proposal for Monmouthshire, which is simply to wipe it off the face of the map, against all the views of local people in Monmouthshire. So, yes, I’d certainly choose a mayor above that.
I think the big fear, Deputy Presiding Officer, behind this debate is that, unlike across the border in England, and indeed in Scotland, the localism agenda is getting lost here in Wales; it’s not being adequately pushed forward. I certainly detect a fear on the Labour benches of the sort of democracy that elected mayors and these other innovations represent. And I can understand to a certain extent why there are fears like that, but I think it’s time for all of us to face up to the fact that we need, overall for our democracy, to do it in a way which is attractive and acceptable to the people of Wales, and what better way than giving them the right to be involved?
As Andrew Davies said, there is an economic dimension here, and we have many discussions about the city region project in this Chamber. This could be a vital aspect of the city region project; why are we seeing it in isolation to that? It’s a way of enhancing local identity, it’s a way of involving the people and it’s a way of pushing forward economic regional development. And above all, Deputy Presiding Officer, it’s about local accountability.
I urge Members to support this motion today. It has been brought forward as a way of opening and continuing a debate on the value of local democracy. As Mark Isherwood said, ‘Let the people decide, set the people free.’
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? [Objection.] I’ll defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Voting time now follows. Before I conduct the first vote, are there three Members who wish for the bell to be rung? There are not, so we’ll vote first on the Committee of the Regions report. I call for a vote on amendment 1, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. Open the vote. Close the vote. Voted in favour 43, voted against four, there was one abstention. Therefore, amendment 1 is agreed.
Amendment agreed: For 43, Against 4, Abstain 1.
Result of the vote on motion amendment 1 to motion NDM5925.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I now call for a vote on the motion as amended.
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the Committee of the Regions’ report to the National Assembly for Wales, laid in the Table Office on 15 January 2016.
2. Believes that Wales and the UK should remain members of the EU and resolves to build a stronger dialogue with European institutions such as the Committee of the Regions.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Open the vote. Close the vote. Voted in favour 43, voted against four, there was one abstention. Therefore, the motion as amended is agreed.
Motion NDM5925 as amended agreed: For 43, Against 4, Abstain 1.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5925 as amended.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We’ll now vote on the Welsh Conservatives debate. I call for a vote on the motion tabled in the name of Paul Davies. If the proposal is not agreed, we will vote on the amendments tabled to the motion. Open the vote. Close the vote. Voted in favour 11, voted against 37. Therefore, the motion without amendment is not agreed.
Motion not agreed: For 11, Against 37, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5976.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
We’ll now vote on the amendments. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendments 2 and 3 will be deselected. I call for a vote on amendment 1, tabled in the name of Elin Jones. Open the vote. Close the vote. Voted in favour eight, voted against 40. Therefore, amendment 1 is not agreed.
Amendment not agreed: For 8, Against 40, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5976.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call for a vote on amendment 2, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. Open the vote. Close the vote. Voted in favour five, voted against 35, there were eight abstentions. Therefore, amendment 2 is not agreed.
Amendment not agreed: For 5, Against 35, Abstain 8.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5976.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call for a vote on amendment 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts. Open the vote. Close the vote. Voted in favour 13, voted against 35. Therefore, amendment 3 is not agreed, and nothing is agreed under that motion.
Amendment not agreed: For 13, Against 35, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5976.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I would ask all Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Item 8 is the short debate, and I call on Russell George to speak on the topic he has chosen.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am pleased to be able to introduce this short debate on why universal mobile coverage is needed to transform the mid Wales economy. I’m pleased to give a minute of my time to Kirsty Williams and Elin Jones.
Not so long ago, the lack of mobile coverage in parts of mid and west Wales was applauded by Visit Wales as a reason to escape the intrusions of modern life. In its advert, it celebrated Wales as the land of notoriously bad mobile coverage. Today, a decade on from this now infamous advert, efforts to improve mobile coverage have now taken a step forward, but there are still swathes of mid Wales that suffer from no mobile coverage at all, leaving people unable to make calls or send texts, an essential element of modern life. This is clearly having a detrimental effect on rural Wales and we can no longer celebrate the lack of mobile coverage as a reason to visit or live in Wales. In fact, the opposite is true. Mobile phones have become an essential part of people’s lives and investment in world-class mobile infrastructure is fundamental for Wales to compete on the world stage.
Ofcom research has identified a number of wide-ranging consequences of poor coverage, including the day-to-day inconvenience on personal and business arrangements, the effect on the social connectedness of communities and issues surrounding the potential impact to health and safety.
The mobile phone is now considered an indispensable business tool and the relative lack of mobile coverage in rural Wales compared to towns and cities is forcing some businesses to consider relocation as the only way in which they can compete in the modern economy that is so dependent on mobile connectivity. Some people also fear coverage issues may impact on tourism, putting people off visiting mid and west Wales for a second or third time if their previous experience has been marred by poor mobile coverage.
In 2011, in an effort to end the mobile notspots, the UK Government launched the mobile infrastructure project, which was designed to improve mobile connectivity in remote rural areas through the construction of 600 masts across the UK, which would help create local jobs and contribute to economic growth in rural communities.
Powys was due to be prioritised in phase 1 of this project. However, progress has been slow and I understand that only one site in Powys has started. It is fully expected that the project, which provided much hope to thousands of residents in Powys, will be shelved in March due to the number of unexpected challenges. I have to say that’s very disappointing news. However, there are a number of ways in which Government can assist the improvement of mobile coverage and I would like to see the Welsh Government—or I should say a future Welsh Government—play its part in making this a reality for Welsh residents.
Last year, I was pleased to be able to welcome all four mobile network operators to my Montgomeryshire constituency, so that they could hear directly from community leaders about the day-to-day difficulties that residents experience when trying to make simple phone calls or send a text message. Back in November and December of last year, I had hundreds of complaints about poor customer service and service deteriorating in coverage in the Newtown area as a result of the decommissioning of mobile masts, following a mast-sharing agreement between EE and Three.
In recent years, we have heard a lot of talk about the launch of new 4G services and new network sharing arrangements between the operators, which were supposed to have improved coverage and speeds. But the reality, I’m afraid, in some rural areas, is that mobile coverage has actually got worse. In other areas of Montgomeryshire, there have been issues of no coverage at all from any operator in areas, for example, like Staylittle, and I’m pleased that operators have provided assurances that there are plans afoot to improve coverage in some rural areas of Montgomeryshire, such as Llanfyllin and Abermule, in the near future.
At the meeting in November, all four operators confirmed that determined action from Government and the regulator, Ofcom, was needed to tackle the barriers to infrastructure investment if coverage is to improve. First, reform of the electronic communications code—the ECC—governs the rights of operators to access, upgrade and maintain sites, and has been under review since 2011. The code is over 30 years old and needs reform to enable investment in the mobile network infrastructure in rural areas. Once reformed, I think the code will provide a modern regulatory system for mobile infrastructure that delivers the very best deal for UK customers.
The proposed reforms would, I think, also ensure that they are better able to build new sites through a more competitive site rental regime, especially in more rural areas and would clear the way for operators to share sites in more areas. It will also help to ensure that fairer rents are paid on rural sites through the introduction of a rental regime similar to that in the energy market. And, while this is predominantly a matter for the UK Government, which, I have to say, I have lobbied hard on this, the Welsh Government can also play a part in facilitating this reform by urging the UK Government also to undertake reform without further delay.
Another way in which mobile coverage could be improved is to mandate mobile roaming. I know that the UK Government has previously brought forward proposals to allow phones to search for another network when their own network is unavailable and compel mobile operators to share their infrastructure. I know that mobile phone operators were vehemently against roaming, but I still think that sharing mobile infrastructure could be a practical solution to solving partial notspots, and that progress on making this a reality could make a significant difference to the people living and working in rural areas of mid Wales. It surely can’t be right that somebody from France with a French SIM card working or holidaying in Wales has the ability to roam between service operators, ensuring unbroken connectivity, when someone resident here does not.
I understand that experts on Ofcom’s advisory committee for Wales are also not convinced that market forces will alone encourage operators to solve remaining notspots. Furthermore, mobile must be genuinely mobile. How can it be right that a service provider is obliged to achieve static targets for mobile coverage on individual houses or businesses, yet, when you drive five minutes up the road, that signal is lost, although that particular area is covered by another operator?
Finally, there are measures that the Welsh Government can take to review its planning framework to facilitate the roll-out of mobile infrastructure. All mobile network operators have expressed the view that, if the necessary mobile infrastructure is to be rolled out across rural areas of Wales, they must be permitted to do so by local planning authorities through more flexible planning regulation. Where there is demand and local agreement from the community, planning policies should be sufficiently flexible to allow this to occur. I would, therefore, be grateful for a commitment from the Welsh Government to examine whether the planning framework can be reformed to increase permitted development to a height of 25m and allow a 5m increase in mast height in non-protected areas, which are two changes that mobile operators say will result in a significant improvement in mobile coverage.
In conclusion, Deputy Presiding Officer, through a reform of the electronic communications code, greater co-operation between network operators and reform of the planning regime, Wales will have the best chance to become a land of notoriously good mobile coverage. I call on the next Welsh Government, whoever that may be, to make a commitment to achieving the vision of universal mobile coverage to transform the mid-Wales economy.
Could I thank the Member for tabling this afternoon’s debate? I share with him the disappointment of the decision by the Westminster Government to shelve the investment in the mobile infrastructure project when it has, in fact, delivered so little and the problems remain for many people in parts of Wales. Only today, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Welsh Office was claiming that the 4G auction was going to solve Wales’s mobile phone problems. I am less confident, and I’d be grateful to hear from the Minister whether she feels that the 4G auction will, indeed, solve our issues, and whether the Minister would agree with me that, apart from the economic development case, which has been well articulated here this afternoon by the Member, there are significant issues around safety for people who cannot access a mobile phone signal. There are large stretches of our trunk road networks, some of which are notorious accident black spots, where you cannot alert the emergency services to an accident. So, this is not just about economic development, which is highly important, but also there are significant safety issues for many people, including those living and working in rural areas who cannot alert the emergency services should they need to in the case of an accident, either on the road or in rural communities.
I thank the Member for putting forward this debate. The frustration continues in mid Wales regarding the lack of progress in the improvement of mobile phone signal. Of course, expectations were raised, as has been noted, by the Westminster Government’s intention to introduce the mobile infrastructure project in my constituency. That would have raised eight additional masts, but, truth be told, only one of those will be provided. It’s extremely disappointing that the UK Government has decided to give up on that investment that could have made a genuine difference to mobile phone coverage.
One regular complaint that is made to me now is—not complaints just by those people who receive no mobile phone coverage but those people who see, in some communities, a deterioration in their mobile phone signal. The operators deny that this deterioration is happening, but, certainly, in Ceredigion, there has been a mobile phone signal deterioration by some companies in some areas. Perhaps the Deputy Minister would be willing to raise this matter in terms of the transparency of information available to people about the performance and any deterioration in the mobile phone signal, because, certainly, it is a complaint that has been made regularly to me over the past 18 months to two years.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call the Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology to reply—Julie James.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. I, too, welcome this debate in the Chamber tonight and I just need, of course, to point out to our audience that telecommunications policy is not devolved to Wales, although I know everybody in the Chamber already knows that. Consequently, we’re quite frustrated in our ability to do some things. It’s quite clear that competition has failed in terms of the availability of service for both voice and data coverage across Wales, and we agree that Government intervention is needed to put that right.
We’re very, very disappointed, as is everybody else in the Chamber, with the failure of the mobile network operators’ announcements for Wales. We were expecting up to 88 masts in Wales to be delivered, and now we know that that will actually only deliver a maximum of nine masts. So, that’s very disappointing indeed.
In terms of the 4G licence, we are told that the coverage obligation is for at least 95 per cent of the population of Wales by 2017. We have pushed them to say that they will also cover—well, we’ve asked for 98 per cent coverage of the landmass of Wales and that conversation is an ongoing conversation. We have been told that they’re looking at that and so on. However, even that would still leave areas of Wales with access to only one mobile network and in some places still no mobile network. But we can’t wait for 2017 to see where those notspots are going to be, and I think there are some things we can do to ensure that coverage is as wide as it possibly can be.
The first was pointed out by Russell George in his contribution, which is the changes to the electronic communications code. We welcome the proposal to reform the code. We agree that in its current state it is very, very complex. We are waiting for the UK Government to come forward with two further legislative proposals and there are two key issues that we want to see covered by that. Those are: coverage for areas without or with very poor mobile coverage, but also the need to ensure roaming, as has been discussed, because we have a real problem if we’re only going to have partial coverage right across Wales. It is ironic that if you’ve got a phone registered in France, for example, you can roam between operators, but if you’ve got one registered in Britain, you can’t. That’s a clear nonsense and I know I’m not alone in this Chamber in carrying several phones in my pocket because, quite often, when I’m out and about, one of them works and the other one doesn’t and so on. It’s a complete nonsense to do that.
So, we need a regulatory intervention to yield a sustainable, long-term impact for us, and we have pushed the UK Government to consider that on a geographical basis for all of the reasons that have been pointed out in the Chamber. We’ve also pushed them to allow network operators to access the fibre network to provide a connection back to their networks, which is one of their problems. It’s not just the masts, it’s about the data transfer back to their own networks. There is the opportunity to create a class of price-regulated fibre access for use by the mobile operators, and that case is strengthened by the significant investment in public funds in rolling out the fibre network in the first place. We feel very strongly that the mobile network should be allowed to take advantage of the public investment.
Also, we think that there should be price-regulated access to that to make investment a more attractive proposition for the mobile operators, but we, too, have encountered the mobile operators’ reluctance to share infrastructure across the whole of the markets, and so we think that Ofcom should interfere in that, and we’ve pushed for that quite heavily. We think the price regulation also helps encourage third party wholesale infrastructure providers to invest, in terms of rolling the network out, if they can access more than one operator. So, we think that Ofcom should consider price regulation for rural areas very carefully and also build geographical coverage obligations into future spectrum auctions for obvious reasons to everybody here.
I think the mobile roaming case has been well made, I don’t need to reiterate it, only to say that we absolutely agree with you and we’ve made that point very forcibly in all of the fora that we’ve got access to. We also think that there are benefits and challenges in establishing a supply of neutral wholesale network for mobile infrastructure, in much the same way as you roll out an infrastructure for anything and then allow suppliers to take it up.
Welsh Government officials continue to investigate options to improve mobile coverage, including how mobile services across the rail and road network can be improved, and for exactly the points made by Kirsty Williams and, actually, by Elin about coverage and safety along the trunk road networks, at the very least, and the rail points and so on. So, we’re very actively looking at that.
We’re also, I’d like to say, looking actively at the planning regime and business rates and other factors in terms of viability of the new masts, and I just want to reassure everybody here that officials across the Welsh Government are working very hard with their counterparts in these areas to investigate what, if any, further action can be taken. So, if Members want to propose specific courses of action to us, I would be more than happy to listen to that. Thank you very much.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close. Thank you.
The meeting ended at 16:55.