The Assembly met at 1.30 p.m. with the Deputy Presiding Officer (David Melding) in the Chair.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The National Assembly is in session.
National Procurement Service
1. Will the Minister provide an update on the number of public sector organisations that have signed up for the national procurement service? OAQ(4)0259(FIN)
Seventy-six organisations have agreed to join the national procurement service, including all local authorities, local health boards, universities, colleges and now all emergency services authorities.
Thank you for that, Minister; that is very good news indeed. As you know, I very much welcome the development of the national procurement service, and I hope, Minister, that as part of the standardised contractual arrangements that secure the supply chain for small and medium-sized enterprises hopefully here in Wales, we can ensure that businesses are paid in a timely manner, as this can often mean the difference between a small and medium-sized enterprise carrying on or not carrying on. This could be part of the guidelines that we put in place. Could you reassure me that you propose to put a prompt payment service into those arrangements?
I thank Julie James for that question and assure her that we will ensure that fair payment terms throughout the supply chain enables that vital cash flow to move quickly to support business growth and prosperity. Also, the Welsh Government has, through the construction procurement steering group, issued a fair payment charter for Wales, which will strengthen the approach. The national procurement service will fully adopt the Wales procurement policy statement, and principle 6 covers prompt payment of all correct invoices.
In terms of procurement and the use of Welsh Government funds, Minister, the return of Wales Rally GB to north Wales has promised to bring much welcomed funds to the region. To accommodate the opening stage, a block booking of a prominent hotel in Llandudno was placed. This booking has subsequently been cancelled to instead book hotels in Chester over the border. Minister, £1.5 million of Welsh Government money has gone into this event. What safeguards are in place to ensure that money spent on events such as this benefits Welsh organisations, and will you also write to Wales Rally GB about how it has been prioritising the use of this £1.5 million?
I am sure that Janet Finch-Saunders, like Assembly Members across this Chamber, will very much welcome the exciting news that the event is moving to north Wales. It is exciting news for Wales Rally GB and for the area, and I know that the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport will maximise the economic impact in north Wales. It is one of our flagship events, and, of course, we are committed to working with Wales Rally GB to ensure that it has significant links in terms of tourism and economic impact.
We very much hope that the national procurement services will bring benefits to companies from Wales. However, there are a number of public bodies that are already successful in laying contracts with local companies. Will you join me, Minister, in congratulating Gwynedd Council, which succeeds in laying 66%—two thirds—of its contracts with companies from Wales? If every county council and every public body were to achieve the same level, that would make a world of difference to Welsh companies and to the Welsh workforce.
I am very pleased to join Alun Ffred Jones in congratulating Gwynedd Council. I know that the Member will welcome the letter that I circulated to Members this week detailing the beneficiaries of the communities benefit measurements tool, which includes a number of local authorities, including Gwynedd Council, particularly in relation to schools buildings and the Welsh housing quality standard repairs programme, levering in those community benefits. Indeed, all local authorities have joined the national procurement service.
European Structural Funds
2. Will the Minister make a statement on how the Welsh Government is using European structural funds to benefit the Cynon Valley? OAQ(4)0260(FIN)
Communities across Wales, including the Cynon Valley, are benefiting significantly from European structural funds, creating jobs, supporting businesses, helping people into work and improving their skills.
The future model of delivery for structural funds should maximise the benefits for the Welsh economy and really give us a chance again to tackle some deep-rooted problems. How will the Welsh Government work to maximise grass-roots involvement and participation in the Cynon Valley and across Wales in the 2014-20 phase of structural funds, so that we do not miss out on some positive ideas and input?
As the Member for Cynon Valley says, grass-roots involvement and community engagement is vital in terms of the impact that we want the next phase of structural funds to have on our communities, individuals, and businesses. Partnership is at the heart of the development of delivery in future European structural funds, and the third sector plays a key role in that. I am pleased, for example, in terms of the Cynon Valley, to see an exciting pupil project, which I will visit shortly and which is led by Cynon Valley Crime Prevention Association. This project is engaging young people who are at risk of social exclusion.
Minister, what actions are you taking as a Government to hold a lessons-learned exercise? Previous tranches of European money have failed to deliver on their objectives, and given that we are to expect to have a third tranche now, areas such as the Cynon Valley cannot afford a third round of failure by the Welsh Labour Government. Therefore, what hard-and-fast examples of failure can you point to that you will not be repeating in the third tranche of funding for areas such as the Cynon Valley?
I believe that the leader of the opposition was in the Chamber last week—indeed, I hope that he was—to hear my statement in response to Grahame Guilford’s important review on how we can take forward the next phase of structural funds. However, I wish to remind the leader of the opposition that EU funds have benefited Rhondda Cynon Taf, which is in his region. In the Cynon Valley, for example, that includes helping over 17,000 people to gain qualifications; helping 4,000 people into further learning; and helping over 17,000 people into work—that is in this phase. EU projects—and it is important for the Member to hear this—have created 320 enterprises, and over 1,200 gross jobs in Rhondda Cynon Taf.
Minister, over the last month, Plaid Cymru has been working in the European Parliament to secure a £5 billion-scheme to tackle high levels of youth unemployment in the EU. This scheme would be of particular benefit to the Cynon Valley, where a staggering 49.7% of 16 to 24-year-olds are without a job. Therefore, the picture is not as rosy as the one that you may be prepared to paint. Do you therefore regret that such schemes are threatened by the political point scoring and posturing of Members of your party—and others—in Westminster and in Europe over the future of the EU budget?
I am surprised that the leader of Plaid Cymru does not recognise and applaud the success of those EU projects that are delivering benefits in Rhondda Cynon Taf. She should recognise what has been done in terms of skills and training, regenerating our communities, and ensuring that our people have the right skills via employment projects. She should also recognise, in terms of helping young people, another EU project in Christine Chapman’s constituency—and indeed throughout Rhondda Cynon Taf—namely Building the Future Together. This projects works to improve the educational outcomes of young people who are at risk of underachieving because of a lack of skills, confidence and engagement. This is about all parties, across the Chamber, recognising the beneficial impact of European structural funds, and standing up for the next phase in terms of ensuring that we get our fair share in the EU budget, which has yet to be agreed by the European Parliament. I know that Labour Member of the European Parliament, Derek Vaughan, is working hard to achieve that.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the number of meetings she has held with European counterparts to discuss structural funds? OAQ(4)0257(FIN)
I have met with Welsh MEPs and European Commission officials to discuss European structural funds in Wales. I will be meeting with European Commissioners and senior officials in Brussels in June, as well as attending the joint ministerial council for Europe in London.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Following on from your previous points, the Prime Minister failed to protect structural funds when he made the agreement on the proposed EU budget with the European Council of Ministers back in February. There will be an estimated cut to structural funds in Wales of, possibly, £400 million. I am aware of the work that has already been done by the Welsh Government, as well as Derek Vaughan and other MEPs, which may result in that deficit being reduced. What further action will you, along with your UK and European counterparts, to minimise the impact of reduced structural funds on areas such as west Wales and the valleys?
Thank you, David Rees. I think we must again take the opportunity to say that being part of Europe and the European Union investment funds are vital for growth and jobs in Wales, particularly for vulnerable regions such as west Wales and the valleys. Of course, as David Rees acknowledges, the work of MEPs like Derek Vaughan has been proactive in minimising the impact of a potential reduction of £400 million. We worked with MEPs to ensure that we minimised that impact. I would say that the Prime Minister listened to our arguments here, as he has sought to deliver a fairer and more equitable arrangement than the one originally proposed. Parts of the UK will now take a 5% cut in their structural funds budget settlement. That still represents a reduction of about £60 million for our Welsh budget. I endorse Derek Vaughan’s efforts and those of the European Parliament to increase the flexibility cap to 4%, thus making sure that there is more flexibility to redirect resources to the poorest regions. I will be meeting with all MEPs over the next two weeks, so I will be able to engage with them on this important and, I think, united call to get the maximum flexibility in Wales for our funds from Europe.
Minister, on the issue of structural funds, during your meetings and discussions, did you discuss investing in the M4 in order to ease congestion and to enhance economic development in south Wales?
Clearly, infrastructure is important in terms of the way forward for financing important transport developments like the M4. We are presently negotiating very constructively with the UK Government about accessing our borrowing powers in order to strengthen and enhance the M4 improvements that all of us in this Chamber wish to take forward.
Minister, I am very pleased that you are to meet Members of the European Parliament over the next few weeks. You will discover at that time, I am sure, that Derek Vaughan abstained on the budget in terms of the cuts that would have a direct impact on Wales, that Kay Swinburne and John Bufton voted in favour of the cuts, and that the only Welsh MEP who voted against the budget was Plaid Cymru’s Jill Evans. I am grateful to you for the meeting that we had to discuss the possibilities in terms of making the most of these structural funds. I am sure that you would agree that the options made available by the European Investment Bank offer real opportunities for Wales to make the most of the funds.
I thank Rhodri Glyn Thomas for the meeting that we had last week. I was able to learn from his informed opinions that he has put forward as a result of his role in the Committee of the Regions. I very much welcome the opportunities to follow that up in our contacts with the European Investment Bank. I also look forward, as I will with all our MEPs, to meeting Jill Evans in due course.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on what sanctions are available to her in dealing with organisations which she has concerns with over their whistleblowing practice? OAQ(4)0263(FIN)
Although employment policy is not devolved, organisations are responsible for establishing and following their own robust whistleblowing policies. The Welsh Government is encouraging the highest standards in public service organisations by leading as an exemplar and by promoting the sharing of best practice.
Thank you for that. I appreciate your statement of 17 April on this very topic. I note the Government’s intention and desire, that remits have been widened, that you have secondees from the Wales Audit Office involved, that more training is going on, and that you have many undertakings from chief executives of local health boards and NHS trusts. I also accept that it is not your responsibility to be the conduit for all whistleblowing activity in Wales, but I have concerns that there are still some organisations out there—and I will name and shame them. The police are at the top; people are having real issues and they cannot get justice or a fair hearing. I wonder what sanctions you could possibly impose to encourage those organisations—we saw what happened recently at the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust—to ensure that they follow the very clear principles that I know that this Government laid out in the statement on 17 April.
I thank Angela Burns for that question. The Welsh Government has sought assurances from the chief executives of our local health boards and NHS trust that they have whistleblowing policies in place. Also, I have written to the UK Government’s Minister for employment relations to ensure that Wales is consulted as part of its recently announced review of whistleblowing legislation, and asking that it protects those who speak out. Police is a non-devolved matter, but the importance of our leadership on this issue is clear.
Minister, we know that there are still incidents in social services in Wales of totally unacceptable and unprofessional treatment of vulnerable people. What measures have you put in place to ensure that all local authorities in Wales are actively encouraging staff to report examples of neglect or ill treatment, and are you monitoring those measures?
As I said, the Welsh Government is providing leadership in terms of our powers on whistleblowing in Wales. We are ensuring that we are an exemplar of the whistleblowing process and that the bodies for which we have direct accountability have those proper processes in place. Local government is part of that partnership. Also, we are continuing to work with the Wales Audit Office and others to promote the sharing of good practice, which, as Lindsay Whittle identified, is key to this point.
Minister, your statement of 17 April says that a panel has been established and that you are extending its membership. How often does that panel meet? Are the panel’s minutes publicly available, given the concerns that are currently before the Public Accounts Committee on a number of cases?
I would be happy to bring back a written statement to update Members on this matter.
Public Procurement Contracts
5. What action is the Welsh Government taking to ensure public procurement contracts are awarded to companies with high ethical and moral standards? OAQ(4)0256(FIN)
Welsh Government is committed to ethical sourcing and expects public bodies to do business with like-minded suppliers. The Wales procurement policy statement supports the delivery of economic, environmental and social benefits.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. We have heard of the scandal of unacceptable behaviour by some companies through the using of blacklisting practices, which have denied workers the opportunity to gain employment. To date, the Welsh Government has effectively used social clauses in public procurement contracts to create improved employment opportunities for local people while awarding contracts. Will you now consider using a similar clause to ensure that publicly funded contracts are only awarded to companies that undertake best practices in employment and not to those who have applied scandalous practices, such as blacklisting?
I thank the Member for Aberavon for that question. The use of blacklists is wholly unacceptable. We fully sympathise with the individuals and their families who have suffered terrible injustice. In fact, the existing legislative framework prohibits the use of blacklists. We expect businesses to comply with this law when delivering public contracts in Wales. We are developing a procurement advice note advising how best to address blacklisting for all construction procurement staff across the Welsh public sector.
Minister, what work are you doing on public procurement to ensure that the social return on contracts can also be recognised and properly weighted as part of the decision-making process? There are social enterprises in my constituency that are concerned that, if the social return on the contracts that might be placed by local authorities and other public bodies are not properly recognised, there might be opportunities that are overlooked, which will not only have an economic benefit in constituencies such as mine, but also an impact on local communities.
Darren Millar will be interested and pleased to hear that I met with the third sector on Monday as part of my ministerial meetings, and these issues were discussed. The third sector is fully engaged with us in ensuring that our procurement statement is delivered, to ensure that those organisations that can provide a social return have an opportunity to do so in terms of our public procurement.
I would like to pick up from where David Rees left off. I thank you, Minister, for meeting with me and the GMB union regarding the issue of blacklisting in the construction industry. In your discussions with the UK Government, have you been able to ascertain whether Vince Cable has changed his position on the need for a public inquiry into the issue of blacklisting in the construction industry, particularly in light of the fact that the Information Commissioner acknowledges that the 3,000-plus names that we know exist on the blacklist only represent around 5% of the organisation’s data?
I very much welcomed the opportunity to meet with members of the GMB as a result of approaches from Vaughan Gething, and to discuss those concerns. In fact, you will probably find that the Wales TUC, even today—certainly this week—is discussing a motion calling for action on blacklisting. I have written to Vince Cable. I requested an update following his meeting with the Information Commissioner last month on the points that Vaughan Gething raises.
What consideration has the Welsh Government given to making it a requirement for parties that are awarded public procurement contracts to hold a social audit of their activity, which would capture much of the information that has been mentioned? Very often, we only hear about the economic impact, whereas, in your original response, you said that we also need to recognise the environmental and social impacts. The social audit is an instrument that would allow that information to be captured.
This is reflected in my procurement policy statement. It supports the delivery of economic, environmental and social benefits. In terms of the implementation, it should ensure that we are delivering in terms of the social value. It takes up the point that Darren Millar also made. The proof will be in the delivery, and I know that Members will be interested in the correspondence that I had with them this week in terms of identifying community benefits as a result of the procurement policies that we are now delivering in Wales.
6. Will the Minister provide an update on her discussions with the UK Treasury about the Barnett Formula? OAQ(4)0270(FIN)
Last October we secured a new mechanism to address the problem of convergence in Welsh relative funding. That mechanism will operate for the first time as part of the UK Government’s forthcoming spending round. I remain committed to full reform of Barnett as a longer-term goal.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Does she agree that it is very important that the unfairness and adverse effect on Wales of the present Barnett formula in its entirety is resolved before the recommendations of the Silk commission are implemented? Does she have a timescale on that decision?
There was an important recommendation—recommendation 18—in the first report of the Silk commission, which states:
‘We recommend that the transfer of income tax powers to the Welsh Government should be conditional upon resolving the issue of fair funding in a way that is agreed by both the Welsh and UK Governments.’
Fair funding is an important element of the financial reform agenda, which is why I was pleased that we agreed that in our inter-governmental talks, and the statement that I made in October, with the UK Government.
The Silk commission has suggested that the Assembly could have borrowing powers on the basis of the current Barnett formula without necessarily needing tax receipts. I know that there are different views about this issue, but if that is the case, this would clearly speed up the ability of the Assembly to gain borrowing powers, which I think that we all believe would be a good thing. Have you had any discussions with the UK Treasury about this? Do you think that that is something that it would be open to?
Extensive discussions have taken place with the UK Government, the Treasury, and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. Since not only our response to the Silk commission but also our inter-governmental talks, we have been looking at early access to borrowing powers, particularly in relation to the enhancement of the M4. I am looking forward to the UK Government’s response to the Silk commission, as well as progress in delivering the agreement that we sought and delivered in October.
I return to the exact question asked by Julie Morgan, namely what exactly you mean by reforming Barnett as a basis for obtaining income tax powers for the Government. Are you saying that we need full reform, so that we have a needs-based formula, or are you saying that having a floor for the formula would be sufficient at present? A floor would prevent further convergence. Will you give us a clear answer on that question, please?
As Ieuan Wyn Jones and other Members will recall, the first step was for us to agree a process aimed at resolving the problem of convergence in our relative funding over the medium term. That was the aim and objective of our inter-governmental talks, and this was then reflected in the response of the Silk commission. We felt very clearly, as did the Silk commission, that we had to ensure that we addressed the issue of convergence in the medium term, and have a mechanism to do that. The mechanism that we have secured is important in achieving recognition that fair funding is vital before we move forward to any other reforms related to the Silk commission. We have achieved that. I have spoken to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and he has agreed that we will instigate that process in advance of the next spending review, and we have talked specifically about that, though in respect of the reducing budgets, we are not going to see convergence in relation to the next spending review.
I believe that we have some clarity, therefore, that the floor is the first step, and that that would be enough to enable us to move forward on the first recommendations of the Silk report. However, I would like to go a step further. Setting a floor, in itself, is not enough, as the Minister knows. We must move to a fairer, needs-based formula. If securing the floor is the first step, and if that is going to happen fairly swiftly, it would be good to know what kind of timetable the Government foresees for the second step of Barnett reform. That step will be just as important as the first.
I made clear in my initial answer to the question from Julie Morgan that full reform of the Barnett formula remains the Welsh Government’s aim. The formula is well past its sell-by date. That has been demonstrated clearly by the Holtham commission, by us in the Assembly, by the House of Lords and by numerous academic studies. We also recognise that we need a resource allocation mechanism that properly reflects needs. The funding floor is the first step. It must be the minimum first step, and that is what we have secured. However, we recognise that there are major obstacles, in terms of the kind of fundamental reform that we all agree in this Chamber will have to come.
As the Minister said earlier in relation to borrowing powers, we do not need any legislation. We just need the Treasury to change its rules. Have any Treasury Ministers explained why they are not prepared to change their rules in order to allow borrowing powers for Wales?
We are not there yet. We very much look forward to the response from the UK Government to the Silk commission, and we look forward to perhaps hearing some very imminent news as far as that is concerned. We have an agreement on early access to borrowing powers, and that is what is driving our very constructive discussions at the moment.
Minister, I very much welcome the Barnett floor that you have negotiated with the Treasury. In your talks with the Treasury on Silk and in subsequent talks on the Barnett formula, do you understand that Treasury officials appreciate the significance of reforming the Barnett formula, in association with getting additional borrowing powers, as laid out in the Silk report? Also, has there been any indication that, in the Government’s consideration of the stage 1 Silk report, it is looking at that particular aspect as well?
I have very constructive discussions with the Treasury. This is a report on fiscal powers and fiscal devolution. I am very hopeful, and those issues have certainly been part of our discussions.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I now move on to another part of that negotiation, namely the housing revenue account subsidy system. Is that issue being considered as part of these talks, and what progress has been made on it?
That is not part of Silk, of course, but it is very much part of our inter-governmental discussions. I hope that the Minister for Housing and Regeneration and I will be able to come back to this Chamber very shortly with a positive outcome.
7. Will the Minister provide an update on capital investment in the Mid and West Wales region? OAQ(4)0265(FIN)
The Welsh Government is committed to using infrastructure investment to stimulate economic growth, create jobs and reduce poverty across Wales. On 7 May, I announced an additional £76.5 million capital investment, including projects in Mid and West Wales.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I particularly welcome the £1 million investment in my region for extra flood defences in Borth. It is especially welcome given the terrible, wet year that we have just had. That, of course, comes on top of the £13 million delivered last year for major construction works on the coast there. Could you tell me, Minister, whether you know how that extra £1 million will be spent and whether it is for further construction work or for domestic barriers?
I am very happy to respond to Joyce Watson's question. The further allocation of £1 million to Borth will facilitate further works to reduce the risk of coastal erosion and flooding to that coastal community. It will also benefit 330 homes and businesses and the Cambrian Coast railway, and it will protect the internationally important Borth bog environment site.
Minister, I am pleased that the Welsh Government has recognised the strategic importance of my constituency to the UK's energy sector. However, many areas of my constituency are still suffering from a poor transport infrastructure, which can have a detrimental effect on the level of inward investment, with transport being one of the significant decision-making criteria for companies that are looking to locate. Can you therefore tell us, Minister, what additional capital investment will be rolled out to Pembrokeshire to support the new Haven waterway enterprise zone and to support the economic health of Pembrokeshire and west Wales in general?
Clearly, infrastructure is a key priority in our Wales infrastructure investment plan, and of course all future allocations of our capital funding programme will abide by those priorities in terms of bids and proposals from all parts of Wales, including your constituency.
I am grateful, Minister, for that answer. You will know that the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Select Committee, in its inquiry into inward investment in Wales, has called on the UK Government and the Welsh Government to look creatively to fund infrastructure projects in Wales. Can you therefore tell us what work the Welsh Government is doing in this area, so that investment in capital projects in areas such as Pembrokeshire and across the whole of Wales can go ahead?
Clearly, the Wales infrastructure investment plan, which I published last year, has delivered additional investment of around £1.2 billion and, of course, the impact on economic growth, inward investment and jobs is key. Also, I have announced a recent package of investment of £76.5 million, which demonstrates our commitment to economic growth and creating jobs, and I will indeed be coming back to the Chamber with an update on our infrastructure investment plan next month.
Minister, this week, Aber Cycle Fest is being celebrated in Aberystwyth, and cycling is becoming more and more important to Aberystwyth and mid Wales as something that develops tourism and the economy of the area. There is an exciting scheme to have a new running and cycling track in Aberystwyth, with the full support of the local authority, and the support of Ministers here. Will you outline how central Government funding—capital investment from central Government—can run hand in hand with funds from the local authority and lottery funding so that a scheme such as this, which needs to be funded from several sources, can be achieved?
Of course, this Welsh Labour Government has invested heavily in cycle paths and in promoting cycling, and that very much forms part of the underpinning of the Active Travel (Wales) Bill that is now being taken forward by John Griffiths. However, it is, as you say, an opportunity for innovation in terms of different funding streams, and, certainly, I know that the Minister is looking at these.
Minister, some capital investment that would be most welcome would be £5 million to modernise Llandrindod Wells hospital, which would allow more patients to be treated locally. It would also help Powys Teaching Local Health Board to save money. Could you outline what discussions you have had with the Minister for health about capital allocations to improve healthcare facilities? Also, would you and the Minister for health care to visit Llandrindod Wells hospital, so that you could see at first hand to what good effect that capital investment could be used?
I have certainly visited Llandrindod Wells hospital when I was the Minister for health. There is a health and social services capital programme and you will see the update that is in the pipeline in the updated Wales infrastructure investment plan. It will be for health boards to put forward their proposals.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on any work the Welsh Government is doing to develop Wales-only statistics? OAQ(4)0264(FIN)
Welsh Government statisticians publish a wide range of Wales-only statistics. Last year, this included around 500 statistical outputs about Wales, the publication of the first results of the national survey for Wales and a relaunch of the StatsWales website.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. There is a conundrum for people in South Wales West. We recently had a very positive report from Cardiff University that estimated that the Swans have brought a £50 million benefit to Swansea since being promoted to the premiership. However, the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, for the first year since the coalition Government took office in Westminster, show that for every job shed in the public sector in Swansea, four are being lost in the private sector. Does the Welsh Government find it difficult to react with any kind of confidence to economic conditions when we really do not have the data to show us what is happening in the economy at present?
Welsh Government analysts publish Wales-only statistics on almost all of our policy areas. They are fundamental, as Bethan Jenkins indicates, to decision making, resource allocation and planning across Wales. We now need to ensure that the StatsWales service delivers the detailed information that is required.
Minister, the integrity and independence of statistics is vital if Welsh taxpayers are to have confidence in the figures produced for Wales. Would you agree that setting up a Welsh office for budget responsibility would be an excellent way to improve your Government’s accountability to the Welsh public?
Antoinette Sandbach is clearly in favour of devolution, which is very welcome in terms of ensuring that we do have the tools for the job. We have to ensure that we provide the statistics and the information as appropriate and as I have described. We have a code of practice that we are taking forwards in terms of delivering on Welsh statistics.
Communities and Tackling Poverty Portfolio
9. Will the Minister make a statement on the overall budget allocated to the Communities and Tackling Poverty portfolio? OAQ(4)0255(FIN)
I will publish information about restructured budgets in line with new ministerial portfolios in the first supplementary budget.
I thank the Minister very much for her response. In response to a written question from me last week, the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty outlined his own reliance on the outcome of work that is going on within your own portfolio with regard to the national procurement service, particularly in terms of his ability to address sustainability issues that were flagged up by the Commissioner for Sustainable Futures in his commentary on the 2011-12 sustainable development annual report. To that end, would you please detail any discussions that you have had with your Cabinet colleague and any specific areas of concern that have arisen with regard to that portfolio area?
I have had very close discussions with the Minister. This is an important part of his new portfolio and we need to ensure that the national procurement service delivers on the sustainability issues and the responsibilities in his portfolio.
Housing is key to community regeneration and tackling poverty. Figures by the National House-Building Council for the first quarter of this year show that new-home building in Wales is still lagging behind the rest of the UK. How do you respond to concerns that Welsh Government regulatory proposals go against economic stimulus, being developed in isolation from what the house-building sector needs?
I think that Mark Isherwood would welcome the additional £20 million for the social housing grant that I announced as part of the £76.5 million capital round of investments. That is targeting investment at providing housing. I have met with house builders who are pleased that it is a Government that is boosting jobs and growth in the construction industry and that there is £10 million to expand the pilot of the Houses into Homes initiative. Consultation is ongoing with house builders, led by the Minister for Housing and Regeneration, to ensure that they have that opportunity, particularly in relation to procurement.
The Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty has said that he is exploring ways to make up the loss of the £3 million for free advice services such as those provided by Citizens Advice. What discussions have you had with him on this matter, and how much funding are you prepared to allocate to it?
There is a very useful report that will be on the website—it might already be on the website—in terms of the review of advice services that is being undertaken. The value of the not-for-profit advice sector is key. I have provided additional one-off funding to support front-line advice services, and I will certainly ask the Minister to clarify the status of the report, and indeed the allocation of funding for advice services.
10. Will the Minister make a statement on the additional capital resources made available from the UK Government? OAQ(4)0268(FIN)
Additional capital made available by the UK Government is allocated in line with Wales infrastructure investment plan priorities.
By my reckoning, the UK Government has provided an additional £858 million of capital investment into Wales. What specific discussions have you had with your fellow Ministers to ensure that this money is used for major infrastructure projects, such as the M4 relief road?
The figure of £858 million that you mentioned in your opposition debate last week is not accurate in terms of the allocations that we have made. We have switched from revenue to capital to boost the resources available for investment, so it is not additional funding. To put the record straight, the actual figure for additional capital provided over the spending review period is £647 million. It is welcome, and it is still more than a 30% real terms cut to our capital budget by 2014-15.
Economy, Science and Transport Portfolio
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the overall budget allocated to the Economy, Science and Transport portfolio? OAQ(4)0267(FIN)
13. Will the Minister outline what discussions she has had in regard to the overall budget allocation to the Economy, Science and Transport portfolio? OAQ(4)0253(FIN)
I understand, Deputy Presiding Officer, that you have given your permission to group questions 11 and 13.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I will publish information about the restructured budgets in line with the new ministerial portfolios in the first supplementary budget.
Minister, a number of town-centre businesses receive no reduction in their business rates under the current regime and this places significant financial burdens on them. The Minister for the economy has told us that she is looking at further support for businesses to meet business rate demands. Will you work with the Minister for the economy to ensure that there are adequate funds available to support these independent businesses and shops in our town centres?
I am certainly working closely on this matter not only with the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, but also the Minister for Housing and Regeneration.
Minister, the Welsh Government and BT are working together in rolling out the commercial business of superfast broadband to around 95% or 96% of homes and businesses across Wales. However, for the remaining 4% to 5% of properties that are hard to reach the only alternative may be satellite broadband systems. What budgetary provision is the Welsh Government making to ensure that those areas not covered by the programme for 2016 roll-out targets will be covered by other means?
We are working very closely in partnership with BT on the Superfast Cymru programme, and that is for a nationwide superfast broadband infrastructure. In terms of the 4% of households and businesses that you identify, the Minister has recently extended the broadband support scheme for a further six months to the end of September, and an additional £2 million has been allocated. Therefore, approximately 2,000 individuals or businesses could have access to basic broadband.
Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan
12. Will the Minister give an update on the Wales Infrastructure Investment Plan? OAQ(4)0261(FIN)
The Wales infrastructure investment plan, which I published in May last year, sets out how we will invest around £15 billion in infrastructure over the next decade to boost growth and jobs and improve public services. I will be publishing an update in June.
Will you join me in welcoming the approach of Carmarthenshire County Council, which, in agreeing a new school in Dinefwr, has also ensured that the site will go on to offer wider community and leisure benefits? Do you join me in recognising the importance of maximising community benefits through capital projects?
I do. I am grateful to Rebecca Evans for that question. In fact, I visited some of the projects in Carmarthenshire, and I draw Members’ attention to the letter that I circulated this week, identifying all of the projects where community benefits have delivered local jobs, apprenticeships, co-location and the development of other services alongside the capital projects.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on efforts to increase collaboration between local authorities? OAQ(4)0276(LG)
9. Will the Minister outline what the Welsh Government is doing to improve local authority collaboration across Wales? OAQ(4)0270(LG)
Collaboration is a critical part of our reform agenda. The partnership council and my public service leadership group provide national leadership for collaboration, driving the pace of improvement. The regional collaboration fund is aimed at bringing about real and significant change at a regional level.
Minister, I am sure you would agree that local government collaboration is patchy at best and the proposed merger of social services between Caerphilly and Blaenau Gwent now appears to have been abandoned. What discussions have you have about that merger? Why has it failed to materialise?
I have not had any specific discussions about it. I am aware that this was being considered. It is really important that proper analysis of the business case is done and that there is due diligence. However, it is important that people’s expectations are not raised. I know that my officials are discussing with the Deputy Minister for Social Services’ officials and the two councils what lessons we can learn.
Minister, reports suggest that the UK coalition Government is planning an even bigger cut to public services in next month’s spending review, with some reports suggesting that the Welsh Government could have £80 million less to spend on services by 2014-15. Despite the poor budget the Welsh Government has received in recent years, the settlement to councils in Wales has been better than expected, and certainly more generous than that experienced in England. In these challenging times, what work is the Welsh Government doing to ensure that Welsh councils put themselves in the best position to face future challenges by investing in regional collaboration?
The point the Member raised about our budget is very true, and it is an issue that I discuss as I go around Wales meeting chief executives and leaders with regard to the harsh and unprecedented financial times ahead. As part of the wider programme to encourage public sector collaboration reform, I am working with local government so that it can use the regional collaboration fund, which was set up by my predecessor, to secure real change. You are absolutely right that local government in Wales has received better settlements than local government in England over the past few years. I read the other day that one council in England had had its budget cut by 66%. So, I think that there are lessons that Welsh local government can learn from looking at how English councils have dealt with their cuts.
Minister, there is no doubt that collaboration can result in savings for council tax payers, and it is something that my party very much supports. However, do you recognise that there may be opportunities for collaboration between local authorities on either side of the England and Wales border? What work are you doing with your officials to promote good work on collaboration between local authorities in Wales and those in England, where that is appropriate?
You just heard me mention that I think that there are lessons that we can learn from looking over the border to England, and I expect discussions to go ahead about the services that are being looked at in England. In relation to specific collaboration, I have not had any such discussions, but it is something that I have raised with my officials and something that we can look at.
In a public meeting in Neath recently, a member of Neath council said that there was insufficient collaboration between the council and social services to cope with what will happen as a result of the closure of the hospital. It is important not only for councils to collaborate but for councils to collaborate with basic services such as social services. Therefore, what work have you done with the leaders of councils to ensure that they are required to work the health service and other councils to ensure that this happens successfully?
You have raised a very important point. Collaboration is not just about collaboration in local government, it is about collaboration right across public services. As I have been going around Wales for my introductory meetings with chief executives and leaders, one of the main questions that I have been asking is what the authority’s relationship and collaboration are like with the health board, for instance. As I said, you have raised a very important point. It is not just about local government collaboration, but about public service.
Minister, last week, I attended the opening of Monmouthshire County Council’s new county hall, just outside Usk in the centre of my constituency. I am sure that you are aware that the building is innovative, and the county council has been able to do this because of innovative ways of working. Jocelyn Davies said that collaboration is patchy, but will you agree to stick to the collaboration agenda? I know that there has been talk on the sidelines about the reorganisation of local government. Would you agree that, if you go down that road at the moment, you are threatening to chuck out the best practice baby with the reorganisation bathwater, and that is not something that we should be doing at this time in local government in Wales?
I am pleased to take the opportunity to say that I have no plans to reorganise local government. You are right that, as Jocelyn Davies said, collaboration has been patchy, but I have seen some excellent examples of collaboration as I have been going around Wales. You mentioned your own council, Monmouthshire. It is one of the most innovative councils I have met, and it certainly has some good ideas. I want to see best practice rolled out. It might come to a point where it will be a case of ‘adopt or justify’, because we must ask why these examples of best practice are not being duplicated across Wales.
Regional Collaboration Fund
2. Will the Minister give an update on the Regional Collaboration Fund? OAQ(4)0278(LG)
I have allocated £6.37 million of funding to 15 projects under the regional collaboration fund so far. A further tranche of projects has been submitted for consideration. I hope to make a further announcement on successful projects shortly.
Thank you for that, Minister. You have announced further funding for additional collaborative working, so how are local authorities and public services responding to the initiative to improve service delivery? Do you have any plans to further extend collaborative working?
I have been encouraged by applications to the regional collaboration fund, particularly where there are collaborative projects across public services, not just within local government. I have seen some very good bids and some bids approved have been to better integrate health and social care, which is an incredibly important area. I see collaboration as vital to providing integrated public services around the people of Wales’s needs. I have made it very clear to all chief executives and leaders as I have been going around—I have now visited 18 of the 22 local authorities—that I expect to see further collaboration. It has to be faster and it has to be deeper.
Minister, the Finance Committee recommended in its invest-to-save inquiry that the regional collaboration fund must also generate efficiency and savings in order to demonstrate that it is providing value for money. What action have you taken that you can report on this recommendation?
Invest-to-save and the regional collaboration fund are two very different schemes. I do not expect to see collaboration just for efficiencies; I expect to see collaboration because we want to see public services delivered in a more focused way. So, they are two very different schemes. I am encouraging local government to use the invest-to-save scheme also, because I do not think that local government has made the best of it compared to the health sector, in particular, which has really led the way on that scheme.
Minister, one of the first schemes to be funded through this fund was a scheme for a regional learning partnership in my region. Could you explain two things? First, why is funding required upfront to promote such collaboration? What sort of things would such a scheme have funded? Secondly—and this is pertinent to what we have been discussing—how do you expect a scheme such as this one to raise standards? There is no purpose in investing this funding unless learning standards are raised in my area.
I disagree with the Member. One of the things that we want to see is that this is not just about efficiencies; this is about being innovative as well. I am very keen on local government being innovative. Do not knock it. Let us see what happens. I will be monitoring the way this regional collaboration fund money has been spent as we go through the second and third years.
Minister, I welcome the regional collaboration fund and a number of the projects, including ones that affect my constituency in Cardiff and the Vale that have been signed off and agreed. However, I am interested, Minister, in whether, when you review the effectiveness of the collaboration fund, you would be prepared to consider whether the sums of money in there are sufficient or whether further incentives and a larger collaboration fund should be produced to further incentivise local authorities to work together more effectively.
Yes, obviously, it is a very new scheme. It is really in its infancy. It is very important that we monitor it very carefully and that we see that collaboration is working and that specific scheme is working before we make any more decisions.
Minister, not every scheme is new. Some £805,000 has been spent in north Wales over the past three years on a cross-region closed circuit television scheme. It appears that those discussions have failed because Flintshire County Council would have to pay more than it pays currently. Will that money be repaid to the Welsh Government?
That is something that my officals and I are working closely on with people in north Wales at the moment. I mentioned in my answer to Jocelyn Davies that it is very important that proper analysis is undertaken, and that there is due diligence and a business case. I know that there have been concerns and we must learn those lessons.
3. Will the Minister provide an update on the progress of the Welsh Government’s proposed legislation to end violence against women and domestic abuse in Wales? OAQ(4)0285(LG)
A White Paper consultation setting out the policy and legislative proposals was published on 26 November 2012 and ran until 22 February 2013. The Government is now considering the responses to the consultation and will publish a summary report outlining next steps in due course.
I applaud the Welsh Government’s continuing commitment to this agenda. Although I recognise that men can be victims of domestic violence too, organisations such as Women’s Aid are right to argue that men do not experience domestic abuse and sexual violence on any way near the same scale as women, who are far more likely to be murdered as a result of domestic abuse and who are at far greater risk of sexual assault. Would you agree that unless we are clear in the forthcoming Bill about a gender focus on domestic abuse there is a real danger of inappropriate services being offered, which, as well as deterring vulnerable women from seeking support, might actually put them in danger from the very men who they are trying to escape?
Yes, you have raised an important point. The Welsh Government remains committed to supporting all victims of violence against women, both domestic and sexual violence. We in Wales, like the rest of the world, recognise that women and girls are disproportionately affected by all forms of that type of violence. It is important, however, that we recognise that domestic and sexual violence are not experienced by women exclusively and that men in Wales are also affected. Therefore, it is right that we get appropriate and specific services for both genders correct.
One of the problems in tackling violent domestic abuse in the past has been a reluctance on the part of victims to report incidents to police. Will the Minister confirm that the Bill will include measures to ensure that police and crime commissioners take action to increase awareness of domestic abuse in their areas and to encourage victims to report such incidents?
You will have heard me say in answer to Lynne Neagle that we are currently considering responses to the consultation. That is something that we can look at as we bring the legislation forward through the Assembly.
Minister, the Welsh Government rightly acknowledges that voluntary organisations do most of the work in helping women who are victims of violence. However, those voluntary organisations’ funding is usually short term. What steps will you be taking to ensure that organisations such as Welsh Women’s Aid and Hafan Cymru will have secure longer term funding to carry out their valuable work? I am looking at three to five-year budgets so that people can be assured that at least their jobs are secure.
The sustainability of their funding is an issue for a lot of voluntary organisations. I have commissioned an independent review of all violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence services and this will report to me in the autumn. That can help us to assess the existing evidence base that we have, map the current service provision, estimate the prevalence of different forms of violence and make recommendations. So, not only will it help with the Bill, it will also help as we look, particularly in the very difficult current financial times, at how we give that funding out.
Joint Negotiating Committee for Chief Executives of Local Authorities
4. Will the Minister confirm what role, if any, the Joint Negotiating Committee for Chief Executives of Local Authorities plays in setting the pay of chief executives of local authorities in Wales? OAQ(4)0277(LG)
The joint negotiating committee is the national negotiating body between the local authorities and the trade union on the pay and conditions of chief executives. However, the setting of local authority pay is the responsibility of the leadership of each authority and, as such, they are accountable for their decisions.
I thank the Minister for that response. Figures for unitary authorities of between 100 and 249,999 people are between £137,000 and £140,000. Will the Minister write to those local authorities who are paying above that to their chief executives asking if they can give a reason?
I remain of the view that it is not appropriate for me to intervene in what is a matter for each authority. The most important thing—and this is the message that I have been giving to everyone who listens—is that decisions on pay are fair, transparent and open to public scrutiny, so that the local electorate know exactly how those decisions are being taken. We are in very constrained budget times, as we are all aware, and it is reasonable to expect chief executives and chief officers to be subject to the same limits on pay awards that apply to the vast majority of their staff.
I am pleased to see that there is a split on this in Welsh Labour because this is growing in momentum in terms of the concerns that are raised. Minister, recent headlines from the ‘Western Mail’ show that there are some 56 senior officers in Wales taking home salaries of over £100,000. Is your Labour Government’s recent talk of fairness and accountability in chief executives’ pay not merely lip service?
I am not sure what you mean by ‘your Labour Government’; I have just given you the Welsh Government’s view.
Minister, Members on this side, other parties within this Chamber, and now even some members of your own party, have repeatedly called for establishing protocol so that chief executives’ pay and senior officers’ pay above a certain figure needs to be justified before either Welsh Ministers or an independent panel. What discussions have you had with local authorities with regard to improving transparency, in the first instance, in the setting of senior officers’ pay?
I just said that I think it is very important that decisions on pay are fair, transparent and open to public scrutiny and I have repeated that message to everybody I have spoken to on my visits to local government, including the reform delivery group and the political leadership of the Welsh Local Government Association. However, I repeat that I remain of the view that it is not appropriate for me to intervene in what is a matter for each local authority.
Minister, you say that you are in favour of ensuring equity and transparency in these matters, but you are not willing to do anything. You have an opportunity with the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Bill to ensure that an independent remuneration board decides what remuneration chief executives and senior officials in local authorities should receive.
I do not think that the local democracy Bill is the place. You have my views on it in answers to previous Members. Each local authority is required to publish a pay policy statement, setting out its policies on a range of issues relating to the pay of its workforce, particularly its senior staff, for each financial year. It is very important that any decision taken is open and transparent, and is open to public scrutiny so that the local electorate understand how those levels of pay have been reached.
Minister, you say that you do not feel that the local democracy Bill is the way forward here. I will be moving an amendment at Stage 3 on this matter. If you do not believe that the local democracy Bill is the way forward on this matter, how do you intend to do so? There is no point in you coming before this Assembly with fine words, saying that you believe in transparency, fairness and so on, and not doing anything. Unless you are going to accept our amendment and do something through this Bill, what are you going to do as Minister?
I have just answered your question—
No, you have not. What are you doing?
Each local authority is required to publish a pay policy statement, setting out its policy, so that safeguard is there. Local authorities are aware of my strong views on the need for transparency. However, ultimately, it is a decision for each local authority.
Minister, I agree with you that it is not your job to interfere in local government. However, every other employee of local government has a pay structure, which they work within, which provides some level of uniformity across Wales. Why should chief executives be any different?
Absolutely—it is about different jobs. You know how local government works probably better than any other Assembly Member. I will repeat my answers to previous questions—I believe that it is a decision for each local authority.
Thank you for that answer, Minister, but it does not answer my question. My question was this: why should chief executives and senior officers be any different to other employees? Local councillors have their remuneration determined by an independent board—and I declare an interest as a local councillor. Therefore, why should chief executives and senior officers not be in the same position, so that you do not have to get involved, but so that there is some understanding, transparency and accountability as to how their pay is set?
There are several issues that have to be taken into account when these pay salaries are being set. I appreciate what you say about councillors—they have the panel. Maybe it is something that we can look at, but I cannot intervene, and I believe that it is the right thing for local authorities to make these decisions.
5. What is the Welsh Government doing to raise awareness of domestic abuse in Wales? OAQ(4)0273(LG)
We have run publicity campaigns, including a television and social media campaign over Christmas, focusing on how domestic abuse impacts on children and families. We also ran a campaign around the RBS 6 Nations championship, which was aimed at tackling increased levels of domestic abuse at that time. We continually challenge the acceptability of such behaviour, through our website and our use of social media.
I welcome any campaign that helps in this regard. However, with figures from the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children showing that one in three teenage girls have experienced unwanted sexual acts while in a relationship, and one in four have experienced physical violence, I welcome the priority that is given to how domestic abuse affects young people by the Welsh Government. Do you agree that this is not just about alerting young girls to this issue, and discussing it with them, but is also about educating young boys and men to understand the key concepts of a healthy relationship—respect, fairness and consent?
Yes, I agree. I met a few weeks ago with a group of high school girls and young women, who stressed the importance of focusing on educating boys and young men about healthy relationships. You will appreciate that the proposals in the White Paper on ending violence against women, domestic abuse and sexual violence are cross-cutting. I am having discussions with the Minister for Health and Social Services, and the Minister for Education and Skills, because, as you may be aware, the White Paper proposes to ensure that education on healthy relationships is delivered in all our schools. That is an important discussion that is taking place at present. It also proposes a regional champion to promote a whole-school approach, which should be identified by each local authority.
Building on Christine Chapman’s question, it is more than fair to say that the police have had a torrid time in the last few weeks. First, there was the Thames Valley Police report on the abuse of young women in that cartel, and then there was the report this week into the abuse of Maria Stubbings, who lost her life thanks to the inaction of Essex Police. Minister, what are you and your colleagues around the table doing to ensure that our police forces are really understanding of what domestic abuse and sexual abuse are about, so that they elevate women and children to a place where they can be protected and cherished, and not just dismissed out of hand, as those two police forces in England so patently did?
You raise a very important point, which I will discuss with the chief constables and the police and crime commissioners. They play an important part in ensuring that our Bill, as it goes through the Assembly, is the best legislation that we can have to protect young girls and women.
The Police and Crime Commissioner for Dyfed-Powys has lamented the use of cautions for serious crime, including domestic violence, and claims that this is a result of the target culture. Domestic violence is being trivialised by Dyed-Powys Police. Minister, I know that this is a non-devolved matter, but will you please take this matter up, for the sake of everyone living in the Dyfed-Powys Police area?
I will certainly raise it with him when I meet all the chief constables and commissioners in due course.
Minister, do you share my concern that the single monthly payment of the universal credit to a single family member could have a serious and detrimental effect on victims of domestic violence by giving the abuser financial control, therefore making it even harder for people to leave abusive relationships?
We continue to be concerned about a number of the design features of the UK Government’s welfare reforms. We have consistently raised concerns about the impact of the reforms with the UK Government. You may be aware that we have commissioned a ministerial task and finish group to undertake some research into this issue. Stage 3 of the research, which is currently under way, will include an assessment of the impact of welfare reform in Wales on those with protected characteristics, including gender. A report summarising the findings of this element of the stage 3 research is expected to be published this summer.
Senior Management and Officers Pay
Minister, I think that I know the answer to this question, as a result of the answer to question 5—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Just ask it, please.
I was just about to.
6. Will the Minister confirm if she has any plans to bring forward legislation in relation to senior management and officers pay in local government in Wales? OAQ(4)0283(LG)
I have no plans to bring forward legislation in relation to senior management or senior officers’ pay.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. We are aware of the recent example, not just of chief executives but of 21 senior officers in a certain local authority—Caerphilly County Borough Council—who received a substantial increase for several months. Although, due to public outcry, that increase was reduced, it was still an increase while other staff were on a pay freeze. It is not acceptable. When I led Caerphilly, we did not think that it was morally right to do so. In committee, an amendment to the Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Bill submitted by Rhodri Glyn to legislate to move senior officers’ pay to an all-Wales panel was rejected by Labour. If you do not intend to support legislation, what are you going to do about this issue, which is rightly causing such outrage among people all over Wales? If it was not for 700 members of staff walking out in Caerphilly, Caerphilly would have done nothing. Minister, you have to legislate for the good of local government.
There is very little that I can add to what I said in my previous answers. I welcome the decision by Caerphilly councillors to reduce the pay increases previously awarded to senior staff at the council. I reiterate that it is very important that whatever decisions are taken by local authorities—which are the right places to do it—in relation to senior officers’ pay, it must be done in an open and transparent way.
Minister, transparency and democratic accountability should be the fundamental cornerstones of all public bodies, including each and every one of our 22 local authorities in Wales. Under the Localism Act 2011, as you have just mentioned, local authorities are required to publish senior pay policy statements. Minister, what measures are in place to ensure that local authorities fulfil this commitment? How many of these policy statements have you or your Welsh Government officials seen?
I cannot give you a specific answer on how many pay policies have been seen by me and my officials. I will write to you with that information.
Minister, I am not only concerned about the high levels of pay for council chief executives and senior staff, but also about how they get their jobs in the first place. Do you agree that it is unacceptable that chief executives or senior managers get their job without open, fair and transparent competition, and that no-one should be appointed to a position of that kind without there being a public advertisement for that post, and an open and transparent recruitment policy?
I certainly would agree with you; I do not think that anyone should be appointed unless they have gone through that very public process that you have just referred to.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on the current challenges facing local government? OAQ(4)0280(LG)
The next UK spending review will further reduce the Welsh Government’s budget. We will not be able to protect local authority budgets as we have done in recent years, so the financial reductions experienced by local government in England signal the future reality for Wales. Local authorities need immediate and radical short-term financial and service planning to align public services to the lower levels of resources that will be available in the future.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. As I see it, there are several other challenges. Reorganisation is one, economic development is another and the issue of procurement is also a concern. With these in mind, what are you doing to bring forward specific joint ventures between the Welsh Government and local authorities to ease congestion in our towns and cities with infrastructure projects?
There are challenges other from the one I mentioned, but I think that the financial challenge is the biggest challenge facing not just the Welsh Government, but local government. Certainly, I am having discussions about national projects. You mentioned procurement; I am pleased that local authorities have signed up to this. Economic development is obviously important for the future of everybody in Wales and it is something that officials are discussing with local authorities on a regular basis.
As I am sure the Minister is aware, the Isle of Anglesey County Council has faced more than its share of challenges over the past few years. Tomorrow, the Minister will be going to speak the county council. What message will she be taking to the new coalition that will politically control the council following the local elections? What message will she convey to them in terms of the continuation or ceasing of the activity of the commissioners appointed by her predecessor? Can the Minister tell us today what message she will convey?
I cannot say today, but I will be issuing a written statement in the very near future and before I speak in Ynys Môn tomorrow.
Minister, one aspect of local government that has not been aired so far in today’s session is the importance of town and community councils across Wales. Indeed, there was consternation in the Republic of Ireland last autumn when your opposite number, Phil Hogan, announced the abolition of town and community councils across the Republic. Will you reassure the more nervous among the town and community councillors in Wales that you have a continued commitment to that important tier of local government? Also, will you outline your vision for the future of town and community councils in Wales?
I have no plans to abolish town and community councils. I have not done much work around that area this early in my portfolio, but it is something to look at. I was at Ceredigion County Council last week and I was surprised to hear that there are 80 town and community councils in that one local authority area. So, it is something that I need to look at. I also hope that the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery will look at their role, because I think that they play a vital role at a local level.
The Local Government Boundary Commission
8. Will the Minister make a statement on the future of the Local Government Boundary Commission? OAQ(4)0287(LG)W
The Local Government (Democracy) (Wales) Bill sets out my vision for the future structure and functions of the Local Government Boundary Commission.
Why is the Welsh Government not willing to ensure, through the democracy Bill, that at lease one member of the boundary commission is a Welsh speaker, even though the Welsh Language Commissioner, the commission itself and the Electoral Reform Society are in favour of that?
This was a piece that I looked at very closely in the legislation. The appointment, as you know, will be subject to the public appointments scheme, which is covered in the Welsh Government’s Welsh language scheme. I think that it is difficult to defend a reserved place for a Welsh speaker when there is no similar provision for any other characteristic, such as gender or ethnicity. The ability to speak Welsh can still be made a desirable quality in the recruitment process. As the numbers are so small—there are only three commissioners—that was my view.
Minister, when the Bill was introduced, it indicated that the Welsh Ministers would direct the commission to review the membership of certain public bodies, the number of members and the required attributes and skills. Have you published that list of bodies? If not, will you do so?
If I have not, I certainly will.
Collaboration between the UK Government and Welsh Local Authorities
10. Will the Minister make a statement on collaboration between the UK Government and Welsh local authorities? OAQ(4)0284(LG)
This is a matter for the UK Government. It is for it to take the lead on non-devolved issues.
I thank the Minister for that reply. Bearing in mind that, since 2010, in Llanishen in my constituency of Cardiff North, the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency has closed its customer service office, and while the future of Llanishen police station and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs tax enquiry office in Llanishen are both uncertain, does the Minister agree that the coalition Government must do more to ensure that the UK Government departments talk to each other, with the Welsh Government and with local authorities, before cutting local services, so that options such as co-location and collaboration can be considered before withdrawing local face-to-face, publicly funded services?
Yes. It is regrettable that the UK Government cuts imposed on Wales are threatening local jobs and services. UK Government departments should be open and transparent in keeping all stakeholders informed of any planned changes to locally based services. I will raise this point with my counterparts in the UK Government, wherever possible. I also work closely with the WLGA to ensure that local authorities in Wales engage strongly with UK Government departments over any future decisions about locally based public services in Wales.
Given that good-practice guidance on discretionary housing payments was issued to local authorities in March 2011 and that further guidance was issued in July last year that detailed exemptions and priority groups for greater assistance, will you establish why many local authorities in Wales failed to take action and identify those groups until the changes were almost upon us and, therefore, no doubt, affecting many people who might have otherwise been protected?
I will look into that and write to the Member more fully.
The Minister was right to say in her response that any non-devolved issues are a matter for the Westminster Government, but the reality is that the impact of those decisions will be significant for Welsh local authorities, for example. What assessment has the Welsh Government carried out of the impact of some of those decisions around the reform of the welfare system and their effect on local authorities in Wales?
It is something that we are looking at across Government; many Ministers will be affected by this. It is clearly an important piece of work that we are currently looking at.
Performance and Accountability
11. Will the Minister make a statement on the performance and accountability of local authorities in Wales? OAQ(4)0275(LG)
Local authorities are responsible for the performance of the front-line services that people rely on every day. They are accountable for these services to their elected members, citizens and stakeholders.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I am dealing with a number of cases in my constituency where the performance of the local authority is falling well short of what the public could rightfully expect. These cases include a failure to adhere to stated guidance and procedure; inconsistent approaches taken by authority officers, particularly planning officers, in implementing policies; and failures by senior managers to address underperformance. I am sure that these issues are problems not just in my local authority, but will be present in other local authorities across Wales. What steps are you taking, alongside the WLGA, to drive up performance standards so that accountability is enhanced and that governance standards are improved?
You raise an important point. Local authorities have a great deal of performance data collected and published annually. I also publish a report each year on local authority service performance, so that can assist the accountability and scrutiny of services. Scrutiny is an area where we can do better. We had quite a large intake of new councillors last year across Wales, and it is important that they are well supported. The Welsh Government is investing £660,000 over three years via the scrutiny development fund and the Centre for Public Scrutiny. If local authorities can then strengthen their scrutiny, that will only help performance.
Minister, you will be aware that Cardiff Council, over the last two weeks, has been plunged into a leadership crisis, with rebel backbenchers challenging for leader, deputy leader and chief whip positions, and of the sad news that the chief executive will leave the authority. Do you agree that it is important, particularly in cabinet-based local authorities, that cabinet positions are allocated on a fair, transparent and democratic basis that is open and accountable to the public?
Yes, and I think that that is what happens now. It is up to the leader of the local authority to appoint his cabinet, and I would want to see an open and transparent competition to replace the chief executive at Cardiff Council.
Safeguarding Playing Fields
12. Will the Minister outline how the Welsh Government is safeguarding playing fields in Wales? OAQ(4)0288(LG)
There is a robust legislative and policy framework in place to protect existing recreational open space, including playing fields, and to promote new open space as an integral part of new development.
Some guidance has been the subject of discussion within the Welsh Government for some time now. Are you able to give any indication as to when that guidance will be available for local authorities?
As far as I am aware, the planning policy and technical advice is up to date and reflects our commitment to improving opportunities. However, I will look into it and, if it is any different, I will write to the Member.
Between 1999 and 2009, the UK Labour Government sold off more than 200 playing fields in England and Wales. Do you agree with the coalition Government that the sale of school playing fields should only take place if the sports and curriculum needs of schools can continue to be met and that the sale proceeds are used to improve sports or education facilities?
I am not here to defend any decisions taken by the UK Government. However, I believe that any discussions regarding the provision of facilities and/or investment in relation to playing fields are a matter for individual local authorities.
13. What action is the Welsh Government taking to support pensioners in paying council tax? OAQ(4)0282(LG)
Around 140,000 pensioner households receive support through our main council tax reduction scheme. In addition, we provide a £4 million grant, which gives extra support to pensioners who are only eligible to receive a partial reduction in their council tax liability under the main scheme.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. I want to talk about the second part of your answer. The funding that you provide to support pensioners to pay their council tax comes from that £4 million. In previous years, it has been given to local authorities, which have established their own criteria for allocating that money and, therefore, the criteria may be different across different authorities. Will the Welsh Government provide a pan-Wales set of criteria for the allocation of funding so that pensioners across one authority are treated equally fairly as the pensioners in a neighbouring authority?
In line with our national approach to council tax reduction schemes, the pensioner grant scheme for 2013-14 was reviewed in collaboration with local government to develop a national set of terms and conditions. This will replace the individual arrangements that local authorities operated in 2012-13, and will ensure that we have that consistent level of support across Wales. This was supported by a number of representative groups for older people. I have just approved the terms and conditions for the grant, so local authorities will shortly be notifying eligible pensioners.
For the last three years, Minister, consequentials have been given to the Welsh Government because of the council tax freeze in England. Are you likely to make representations to the Minister for Finance to make sure that, if there are Barnett consequentials this year, those moneys can be used to alleviate the record-breaking council tax increases that many Labour councils are inflicting on ratepayers across the whole of Wales? Surely, a council tax freeze would be the best way to alleviate council tax payers’ suffering.
I do not recognise these record-breaking council tax increases that you have just referred to. I have many discussions with the Minister for Finance. We have many discussions across the whole of the Government because the record-breaking reduction in our budget from the UK Government obviously has a significant impact on the way that we protect the most vulnerable in our society.
14. Will the Minister make a statement on improving the delivery of public services in Wales? OAQ(4)0274(LG)
Our programme for government sets out our approach to supporting the delivery of efficient and effective services that meet the needs of the people of Wales. This means strong local democracy and accountability, services that we are always seeking to improve, using funding effectively, and public services that work effectively together.
Thank you for your answer. I believe that the strive to achieve greater financial efficiencies in delivering public services in Wales particularly comes within Welsh local government, and should be a priority in terms of changing the hearts, minds and culture of current public service provision. With this opportunity to do things differently and to develop relationships with other partners and other sectors, to ultimately improve public services, what support can you give to local authorities that are seeking to find innovative solutions to this financial challenge?
You will have heard me mention in previous answers that I think that it is right that we support local authorities that want to be innovative. I do not think that it is about doing things differently; I think that it is about doing different things, which is what I am encouraging. As I mentioned before, I want to see best practice rolled out, and I want to know why it is not being shared if it is not being shared. I am happy to support local authorities to develop innovative ideas.
Transparency and Accountability
15. How is the Welsh Government promoting transparency and accountability in local government? OAQ(4)0279(LG)
The Welsh Government is promoting transparency and accountability in local government, both as values and through practical actions, such as providing funding for the broadcasting of council meetings and our support for improving scrutiny.
Thanks for that answer. Although the Welsh Government’s access to information procedure rules say that, if a local government officer thinks fit, the council may exclude access by the public to reports, Welsh Government guidance in 2006 on openness and access to information set out a presumption of openness that councils should take account of when applying the rules on access to information. How will you, therefore, address concern about this and ensure that that presumption takes priority in circumstances such as the current investigation by auditors in Flintshire into the council’s AD Waste? It has been reported in the media that officers have been suspended, following a pattern established in the middle of the last decade, when several senior and middle-ranking officers were removed after an independent inquiry and an inquiry by PricewaterhouseCoopers, and the vindication of the council’s auditor over a decade ago.
I do not want to comment on something as specific as the issue raised by Mark Isherwood. I want to promote openness and transparency. I mentioned the funding given by my predecessor—£1.25 million—to county and county borough councils, so that they can take the broadcasting of council meetings forward. Carmarthenshire County Council is the latest council to start broadcasting meetings. It did this for the first time last week, and it had 500 hits. That is to be welcomed.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have accepted an urgent question under Standing Order No. 12.66. I call on Leanne Wood to ask the urgent question.
Will the Minister make a statement on the south Wales hospital reorganisation programme? EAQ(4)0285(HSS)
The south Wales programme will formally launch its public consultation tomorrow. Assembly Members were invited to a briefing that took place in the Senedd earlier today. As Members know, I am unable to comment on the plans, as I may have a role in determining referrals from community health councils later in the process.
Minister, Plaid Cymru wants to see NHS services delivered by well-trained and well-qualified clinicians at locations close to people’s homes. Health boards in south Wales have today announced that, due to an inability to recruit sufficient staff, they cannot continue to do this. However, Plaid Cymru has found that only three of the seven health boards in Wales have attempted to address these recruitment problems from within the European Union. Minister, could you tell us who takes responsibility for these recruitment failures in Wales? Is it the health boards or the various Labour Ministers for health who have been in post over the last 14 years?
I thank the leader of Plaid Cymru for sharing her views on Plaid Cymru policy with us this afternoon. The matters that she raises will be addressed within the plan, and they are the responsibility of those putting the plan forward.
Minister, we were also very concerned to see the plans to downgrade some hospitals in south Wales, especially given the previous commitments that you and all other Labour Assembly Members made in your manifesto for the last election that no hospitals would be downgraded. I am very concerned, Minister, that there are no references to the ambulance service, to primary care services—in any detail—or to public transport services in this rather flimsy document that will be sent out to households in south Wales. What discussions will you have to ensure that those are issues that are fully considered as part of the decision-making process? The programme board, as you will understand, is heavily reliant on the delivery of a specialist critical care unit near Cwmbran. We understand that the cost of this will be around £300 million. What assurances can you give to the programme board that that critical part of its critical care plan in south Wales will be delivered? Do you accept the evidence that is out there in the public domain around the higher risks and worse outcomes that are associated with people having to travel further to receive accident and emergency services? Finally, will you condemn fellow Labour politicians who are shroud-waving about the closure of accident and emergency services at the Royal Glamorgan Hospital, including a fellow member of the Cabinet? What will you do to address that misinformation—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. Thank you. [Interruption.] Order. When I tell a Member to stop speaking, they are to stop speaking.
No doubt, the Member will wish to take up the concerns that he has outlined with those who are responsible for the consultation. Indeed, I encourage anyone who has views to get involved in this important consultation to ensure that we have services that are organised on the best of clinical evidence, to ensure that patients receive safe and sustainable care.
In relation to the specialist and critical care centre, the position was set out in a letter from the chief executive of the NHS to the chief executive of Aneurin Bevan Local Health Board recently, and I made reference to it in answering a question from his colleague William Graham only last week.
I welcome the question and the renewed interest of Plaid Cymru in the reconfiguration of health in south Wales. I was not sure whether the concern was mainly to do with the Rhondda area or with the broader south Wales area, but we will no doubt be told in due course.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. This is an important—[Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. I am speaking to the Assembly and trying to calm people down. We have allowed this urgent question because it is such an important subject. I want to hear the question and then the answer.
Minister, I appreciate the limitations on what you can say, but one thing that was mentioned concerned the speed of implementation post-consultation and the importance of strengthening the ambulance service. Is there anything that you can tell us about that particular aspect during the coming months?
Thank you for that question. I made it clear in the Assembly very recently that ambulance services are integral to the reconfiguration plans across Wales, and I expect them to be fully integrated into the south Wales plan. I simply say to the Member what I have said whenever I have answered questions in relation to reconfiguration matters: if issues in relation to the south Wales plan end up on my desk for determination, I will consider them carefully and thoroughly, but I will not unduly delay making necessary decisions.
Minister, what confidence can Assembly Members and the public have that hospitals—which will undoubtedly receive more patients to their A&E departments if these plans go ahead—will have the capacity to respond? Can you clearly state today that the hospital on which these plans are based, and which is yet to be built, will indeed be built, and can you outline more clearly what your role in this process will be? What you are saying to Assembly Members this afternoon about your role is in stark contrast to what was said by the previous Minister for health while dealing with the Betsi Cadwaladr and Hywel Dda local health board plans.
My role in the process is, I think, very clear. This is a pan-south-Wales plan, drawn up by local health boards and now out for consultation with their local populations. When those plans are concluded in the consultation phase, it will be for community health councils, with local health boards, to see how much of these proposals can be agreed locally. The more that is agreed locally, I think, the better it will be. If community health councils are not able to agree to service changes, they are able to refer matters for determination to the Minister. That is quite a way down this process, which is yet to be formally launched for consultation—that will take place tomorrow.
Minister, can you understand the genuine concern in communities, when they see failing ambulance response times and a lack of community-based services, that your Government, in collaboration with the local health boards, is seeking to bring this programme forward? From our benches, we believe that if the health budget had been protected, many of these cuts would not be happening today. However, can you commit today that, unless you have the community services and the ambulance service working to a level that is acceptable to communities, none of these cutbacks will be allowed in our district general hospitals?
Of course I recognise the anxiety that change creates whenever change is brought about in local health services, because those health services are so warmly regarded by their local populations. Underpinning any plans that are laid for reconfiguration has to be the best clinical organisation of services, and that is what I expect in the south Wales plan, as in any other.
It is a shame that two of the parties in the Chamber were committed to opposing the south Wales plan before it was published and before the options were made available. [Interruption.] At the briefing this morning, Members had an opportunity to ask a series of questions but they did not take all the opportunities available. However, there was a very clear message that no change means a very real risk that services will collapse, as we have already seen across parts of south Wales, and that we will see change on the basis of crisis management. Minister, can you confirm that, if any decision comes to you for determination, you will take account of the sustainability of the service and have in your mind as a foremost consideration that any decision must be built on clinical evidence of best practice and the very best outcomes possible for patients—our constituents?
I am very happy to confirm the points made by the Member. Let me be clear, as I have tried to be clear in the past in this Chamber: as far as the future of health services in Wales is concerned, there is no choice but change. Change is coming in the NHS in Wales, as it is in every other part of the United Kingdom. The choice that we face is this: we either have unplanned change that responds sporadically to events, in which patients will not know how services are to be sustained for the future, or we attempt to develop a plan that is clinically determined and clinically led, which allows us to be in charge of change, rather than simply on the receiving end of it. Within that, the specifics of change must always be—as the Member said—determined by the best clinical outcomes for patients.
Minister, you will be well aware that ambulance waiting times in Rhondda Cynon Taf are consistently among the worst in Wales. Two out of the three hospital A&E departments in Wales with the longest waiting times are in the reconfiguration zone and may have to take even more patients. What kind of modelling will you expect the local health boards to do to demonstrate that the changes that they propose in the best-fit plan will not have a detrimental impact on those two critical issues for patients’ experience and safety?
The Member is quite right to point to the fact that it is for local health boards within the south Wales programme to demonstrate that they have modelled the impact of any proposals on ambulances, and that ambulance services are an integral part of their plan. That modelling can be tested as part of the consultation process. Once again, I urge anybody in the Chamber who has a serious interest in these substantial matters to engage in the consultation process, to ask proper question and to test the plan where it needs to be tested, so that the consultation process can do its job.
Would the Minister agree that these plans have already received the rigorous scrutiny of nearly 300 clinicians? What they have come up with is their best option, based on the needs of the community, including the areas of deprivation. Therefore, we should listen very carefully to the plans that have been proposed. As you have already acknowledged, Minister, no change is not an option.
I believe that the preparation of the plan has engaged the local clinical community to an unprecedented extent and that its involvement will be reflected in the plan on which consultation will take place.
Minister, can you give us a guarantee on implementation? It seems to me that, having regard to other consultations for other health boards, it is a little like rapid assessment in A&E: it is not rapid and the assessment rarely takes place. You will know that this booklet says that, if you need to go further for treatment, you will be taken home or to your local hospital. In my region, ambulance response times are consistently almost totally unreliable. What guarantees can you give us?
I have acknowledged on a series of occasions this afternoon the importance of ambulance services in delivering the plan. I do not think that there is anything further that I need to add to what I have already said on that point.
1. Will the Commissioner make a statement on access for people with limited mobility on the Assembly estate? OAQ(4)0072(AC)
I assure the Member for the Vale of Clwyd that the estate is consistently subject to specialist external auditors who conduct periodic access audits. One has just been completed. An audit of the public spaces on the whole Assembly estate has been looked at, and officials are reviewing the audit findings to ensure that any findings found are used to further enhance the accessibility of our estate.
Recently I hosted the Royal British Legion’s Not Just November reception here in the Senedd, at which a stage or platform was used for speakers. This stage had no ramp or handrail to the step to access the stage, making access difficult. I actually conducted my part of the proceedings from the floor. However, an elderly veteran who clearly had mobility problems found it extremely difficult to get on to the platform to share with us his valuable experiences. He had to be helped on and off the stage by a number of Members.
I hope that Members across the Chamber will agree that it is vital that anyone, with any disability, feels that they are able to fully participate in Assembly events, including those sponsored by Members. Would you look into the accessibility of platforms and/or stages that we use for events on our estate? Will you give serious consideration to procuring handrails for both sides of the steps and a ramp to allow those in wheelchairs to use the stage, or stop the use of platforms and stages altogether?
Thank you for that. I am very sorry to hear about that, and I am sure that all commissioners will be. I thank you for bringing this matter to our attention. We will certainly act on that feedback and make modifications to the staging and take steps to improve access for those with limited mobility. The audit that I just told you about actually threw up a difficulty regarding the Tŷ Hywel ramp and steps, which you may have noticed yourself. That is something that will be looked at as a result of that audit, as well as other problems that came to light.
I am really pleased that Ann Jones has raised this issue, and I know that most Assembly Members will at some point, when we have visitors to the estate, benefit from being able to book visitors into the car park at the back of Ty Hywel. That is clearly particularly important for disabled users, if they can use it. Can you tell me, Commissioner, what is being done to improve access in the car park for blue badge holders? I am thinking particularly of severely disabled people who really do need extra special assistance.
Physical access is always considered, and where we find problems we try to improve them. Disabled service users were also consulted to ensure that the buildings were accessible, and are contacted prior to specific events to ensure that requirements are met. For Senedd access, we have 12 disabled parking spaces next to the Senedd and, on top of that, we have other facilities that make it easier for people with disabilities to get in. The Pierhead building has had a full refurbishment that involved disabled users and, again, the best facilities possible at this time have been looked at. If you have specific questions, I would ask you to submit them to me, or to any member of the Commission, and we can look at them to see, first, whether that issue came up in the recent audit, or whether it is something that should be looked at now as a matter of urgency.
2. What recent contact has the Assembly Commission had with Funky Dragon? OAQ(4)0073(AC)
Thank you for that. The Presiding Officer met with the chief executive of Funky Dragon in May 2012, and officials have remained in contact with representatives from Funky Dragon since then. Members of the Assembly’s education service also have occasional contact with Funky Dragon.
Thank you for that response. What is the Commission doing to further engage young people in Wales via Funky Dragon?
The Member will be aware that Funky Dragon is funded by the Welsh Government, and is not an Assembly Commission initiative. However, this month the Assembly Commission met to discuss our future strategy for youth engagement and we agreed that our priority should be to build on our education programme, which I think that all Members will agree is very well developed and is welcomed by everyone who attends it.
We already engage thousands of young people from across Wales in the work of the legislature, and that is highly regarded. We want the service to evolve so that we get more young people from throughout Wales to participate in Assembly business. As one part of this, we will explore options for a youth parliament with some very exciting possibilities. There is one that I am sure that you would be interested in, which is virtual participation. We will be keeping Members updated, and we want to make wider use of the educational material that we use by making it openly available to teachers and schools.
I understand that the Commission is considering the establishment of a youth Senedd here in the bay, and, of course, I welcome ideas that help young people to understand and to participate in the democratic process, but are you able to say how the idea might be measurably different from the similar offer in Funky Dragon’s programme?
You will have heard the observations that I just made about Funky Dragon being a Government initiative and not a Commission initiative. We will be looking to make sure that any new initiative taken forward by the Commission will complement and not compete with activities that might be undertaken by other organisations. We will be consulting widely with young people to ensure that they have a say in the development of anything that goes forward. I am sure that Assembly Members will hear about the proposals, and other organisations will be widely consulted to see how this can best be taken forward by the Commission.
One of Funky Dragon’s successes is that it reaches out to a wide range of children and young people of all abilities. I wonder if the Commissioner could tell us what efforts are made in the Commission to reach out in particular to young people who may have less ability. We need to reach out to them. Could you tell us about anything that the Commission is doing in that respect?
You probably know about the educational outreach service where we have members of staff who go into schools, and I understand that there are materials available to be accessed by young people with disabilities. As I just said, for the future, we are looking at the education materials that we have already to see how they can be extended, updated and made available, so that they are not only available here or to members of staff, but are available to teachers and other staff in schools.
I am pleased to hear that the Commission has taken up a campaign idea that I initiated years ago for a youth parliament. In fact, I made sure that it was in the Plaid Cymru manifesto and it was the topic of one of the first meetings I had with the Commission when I was elected in 2007 to make sure that this actually happened. I want to understand how you will engage with young people who are not only in school, but who are in work and further education colleges. Those are the people who are not currently being engaged, in my view, by organisations such as Funky Dragon. I believe that we need a youth parliament for Wales that is not connected to the Welsh Government and that is entirely separate, which we can include in the debates that we have here in the National Assembly for Wales—much like what is happening in Scotland. I urge you to take forward this work with haste.
I thank Bethan Jenkins for her comments. I do not think that we are very far apart in what we are talking about. The Commission has only just started this development and, at the meeting that we had this month, all these ideas were put forward. Certainly, I think that it was the Commissioner from your party who may have made the suggestion that we need to take into account older people as well as people in school. This has got quite a way to travel. We have all suggested organisations and individuals with whom the Commission could consult, and I am sure that the Commission would welcome any suggestions that Members might make. However, you can be assured that this will be taken forward carefully and we will look at all the options, because we are very keen to ensure that young people, however old they are and whatever their level is, are involved fully in what we do here in their National Assembly.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on a Member of the Business Committee to move the motion.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Elin Jones, amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the name of Aled Roberts, and amendments 8, 9 and 10 in the name of William Graham.
Cynnig NDM5245 Rosemary Butler
The National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the content of the UK Government’s legislative programme 2013/2014.
I move the motion.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
It is my pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State for Wales to the Assembly, and I now invite him to speak.
I would wish to begin by saying how great a pleasure it is for me to be here today to discuss the third Government session at my first appearance in the Assembly as Secretary of State for Wales. It is a particular pleasure for me because I was once a Member of this Assembly, and that experience has been exceptionally important to me in my work as Secretary of State.
Deputy Presiding Officer, thank you for your introduction. I would like to begin by saying what a pleasure it is to be here today to discuss the Government’s third legislative programme at my first appearance in the Assembly as Secretary of State for Wales. Indeed, it is a particular pleasure for me, given that I was once myself a member of this Assembly. I believe that the insight I gained from that experience has stood me in good stead in my work as Secretary of State.
I made it clear on my appointment, and I wish to restate it, that I am committed to working closely with the Welsh Government, with this Assembly and with businesses across Wales to deliver the infrastructure investment, the jobs and the growth that we need to get the Welsh economy back on track. Wales is in a global race for economic success and it is a race in which we cannot afford to be mere spectators. I believe that that co-operation is already beginning to bear fruit. I worked with a number of prospective bidders for the Horizon nuclear project and Hitachi’s purchase of Horizon—something that I was committed to securing from day one—will help to secure the future for new nuclear on Anglesey. I was delighted by the support that I received, and continue to receive, from Edwina Hart. Wylfa is crucial to the future of not just Ynys Môn, but all north Wales and we must continue to work together to ensure its success.
My predecessor, Cheryl Gillan, and I worked hard across Government to secure the commitment to electrify the Great Western main line to Swansea, and, of course, the Cardiff Valleys lines. We were grateful for the invaluable support that we received from the Welsh Government.
The joint statement on funding reform that was made by Danny Alexander, Jane Hutt and me, here in Cardiff in October, delivered a new agreement between the United Kingdom and Welsh Governments to review the issue of potential funding convergence and our agreement in principle to the Welsh Government having access to borrowing powers, subject to an independent revenue stream being in place. The Silk commission has published its recommendations on fiscal devolution, which we are now carefully considering, and upon which an announcement will shortly be made. The commission is now getting on with the job of reviewing the devolution boundary. I know that I can rely upon the Welsh Government and this Assembly to engage positively in the Silk process.
Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition was formed three years ago to govern in the national interest, not just to tackle the enormous deficit that we inherited, but also to bring back competitiveness to Britain’s economy, to fire up our private sector and create the jobs that people need, and to reform our tax and benefits system properly in order to reward hard work. We are delivering on that promise: cutting the deficit by a third; cutting income tax for 24 million people across the United Kingdom, 1.1 million of them here in Wales; and taking 2 million out of tax altogether, 130,000 of them in Wales. We are making long-overdue changes to the welfare system to help many to escape a life on benefits, while ensuring that support is there for those who need it. Our zeal for reform is undiminished. We are committed to making Britain a better place, to building a free, fair and responsible society for every part of our country, including Wales.
We based our programme for government on these key principles and our third legislative programme has been developed with them at its very heart. The programme outlined in the Gracious Speech is all about supporting people who work hard and who want to get on in life, creating the economic conditions to back them every step of the way. Our resolve to turn our country around is stronger than ever.
The Bills that her Majesty announced as part of the programme will make a positive difference to people’s lives, the length and breadth of the UK, including Wales. They will do that in three main ways. Firstly, and crucially, the legislative programme continues to deliver on our commitment to reduce the deficit left to us by the last Labour Government and to rejuvenate the economy through sustainable private sector growth. We want to fire up our private sector and build on the 35,000 private sector jobs that have already been created in Wales since the start of 2010. We will continue to reduce the regulatory burden on businesses and individuals through the deregulation Bill. The reforms that we have already made to business regulation are saving the private sector across the UK over £211 million per annum, but we are determined to do more. We also want to reduce costs to businesses even further, particularly the cost of employing staff. The national insurance contributions Bill will entitle every business and charity to a £2,000 employment allowance, reducing their national insurance costs each year from next April. Many small and medium sized enterprises in Wales, Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, will be relieved entirely of employers’ national insurance contributions as a consequence of this measure.
The Intellectual Property Bill will strengthen design protection for our hugely important design sector, something that will benefit innovators across the UK, including the many cutting-edge design businesses located here in Wales. We will also take forward enabling legislation for the high-speed rail network—one of the most ambitious rail infrastructure projects ever planned—which will create thousands of jobs across the country. Secondly, we will bring forward legislation to take forward key social reforms. The Pensions Bill will modernise the pensions system, implementing a simple flat-rate pension from 2016, providing a firmer foundation for saving and rewarding people in retirement for the contributions that they have made throughout their working lives.
The immigration Bill will further reform Britain’s immigration system, strengthening enforcement powers and taking action to protect our public services from abuse. We will also do more to keep our neighbourhoods safe and secure through measures in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. In addition, the Offender Rehabilitation Bill will transform the way in which we deal with offenders when they leave prison in order to tackle persistent reoffending.
Thirdly, in line with the principles of freedom and responsibility that underpin our programme for government, we are legislating to improve the rights of the hardworking people of this country. The draft consumer rights Bill will give consumers clearer rights in law and make sure that these rights keep pace with technological advances. We are reforming the water industry. The water Bill will implement reforms to increase choice for business customers and make the water sector more resilient in the face of natural hazards such as droughts and floods. We are also ensuring that sufferers of mesothelioma receive payments even when no liable employer or insurer can be traced.
Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, this legislative programme delivers real and direct benefits to the people of Wales. The new flat-rate pension that I have referred to, set above the basic means test to replace the current two-tier system, is excellent news for pensioners in Wales. Wales has proportionally more pensioners than the UK as a whole, and, by 2035, there will be around 140,000 more. That is why we are acting now to put in place a more generous pension system that will be sustainable for the longer term. Businesses in Wales will benefit from less regulation as we cut the red tape that can be such a barrier to business expansion and growth. Our red tape challenge has already considered around 3,500 regulations, earmarking about half of them for abolition or reform. I would encourage the Welsh Government similarly to take a good look at the devolved regulatory regime, and cut a swathe through those regulations that are holding business back.
All four Welsh police forces, led by the new democratically-elected police and crime commissioners, are delivering falling crime rates, but we want to give them the right tools to do even more. The wide-ranging crime and policing reforms that will replace the existing system of anti-social behaviour orders, introduce new measures for the control of dogs, and bring in new measures to tackle forced marriage, will make communities across Wales safer. The programme also includes a draft Wales Bill, implementing measures relating to the election of this Assembly on which the Government consulted last year. The Bill will make important changes, moving the Assembly permanently to five-year terms, removing the ban on dual candidacy and preventing Assembly Members from also sitting as Members of Parliament and vice versa. While the focus of the draft Bill is on this Assembly’s electoral arrangements, it could also include provision arising from the Government’s response to part 1 of the Silk commission, if we decide to legislate in this Parliament on any recommendations that we do accept.
Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, the Prime Minister set out his commitment to respecting devolution when he came to this Assembly three years ago, and our commitment remains firm. I want the United Kingdom Government to continue to work closely with the Welsh Government on aspects of the legislative programme that touch on devolved matters. We have made a good start to implementing the programme, having introduced 10 Bills so far, and discussions are already well under way on many important issues.
On the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill, I am pleased by the Welsh Government’s recent commitment to work with us to take forward provisions on the control of dogs on an England-and-Wales basis. We are working to ensure that those provisions meet the policy objectives of both the United Kingdom and the Welsh Government. We are also working with the Welsh Government on the Care Bill to ensure effective, reciprocal cross-border arrangements in relation to care homes, and to ensure that arrangements are in place to ensure that the new health research authority, which will be established by the Bill, works effectively with the devolved institutions in Wales.
The important provisions of the water Bill are particularly complex in regard to the devolution settlement. Both Governments are in detailed discussions to ensure that the Bill’s provisions work effectively to reform the water industry on both sides of the border.
Finally, the consumer rights Bill will affect the work of trading standards officers in Wales, and will, among other things, consolidate powers to investigate breaches in consumer law.
There will be a need to seek the Assembly’s approval for certain provisions in the programme through legislative consent motions, and we will work closely with the Welsh Government to secure its support.
To conclude, I believe strongly in the union of the United Kingdom. This programme clearly demonstrates the benefits to Wales of being part of a strong United Kingdom. From the time that I took office, I have said that getting the Welsh economy back on its feet is my No. 1 priority. The mutual dependence of the four nations of the union provides a firm foundation for growth, jobs, and prosperity. Our legislative programme continues our focus on strengthening the economy so that the UK can compete and succeed in the global race. I am proud that Wales makes such an important contribution to the UK. Our programme, I believe, demonstrates how Wales benefits from being part of the UK. This legislative programme delivers for Wales, and it delivers for the United Kingdom as a whole. I commend it to the Assembly.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you, Secretary of State. I call the Minister for Local Government and Government Business, Lesley Griffiths.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. On behalf of the Welsh Government, I welcome the Secretary of State for Wales to the Assembly today, and thank him for his opening speech, setting out the UK Government’s legislative programme for the third session of Parliament.
For us as the Welsh Government, our main focus has to be our own legislative priorities. On 12 July 2011, the First Minister announced our legislative programme for the next five years, a programme that was endorsed by the people of Wales two months previously. It set out our plans to address issues that the people of Wales care about—building a strong economy, improving our public services, tackling under-performing schools, reforming social services, action to address homelessness, and improving food safety. Today, I believe that we should celebrate the Acts that have already been passed here.
With our own programme under way, Members will appreciate that the Queen’s Speech is of less significance to us, given that we now have primary legislative powers in Wales. However, the UK Government’s programme includes important provisions that will affect Wales. Therefore, it is appropriate for the Assembly to make its views known to the UK Government through the Secretary of State. As Members will have seen, I have written to the Presiding Officer to give our initial assessment of the likely need for legislative consent motions as a consequence of the Bills that have been announced by the UK Government. Therefore, I will not repeat that assessment today.
I turn to the amendments to the motion. I will address each one, making clear the Welsh Government’s view. Ten amendments have been tabled to the motion. Amendments 1, 2 and 9 all refer to the draft Wales Bill. We support amendment 1, as we have called for legislation in the lifetime of the current UK Parliament to give effect to the Silk commission’s proposals on financial reform. The Welsh Government has accepted the Silk commission’s recommendations, and they also have cross-party support in the Assembly. We believe that they should now be implemented without delay.
We oppose amendment 2, because we do not agree with all the electoral provisions that are proposed to be included in the draft Bill. We support amendment 9, which does not refer specifically to the content of the draft Bill, as we are, of course, in favour of the principle of a draft Bill for Wales. The issue for us is the provisions that draft Bill should contain.
Amendments 3, 4, 5 and 6 refer to four Bills that were announced in the Queen’s Speech, namely the national insurance contributions Bill, the Pensions Bill, the deregulation Bill, and the draft consumer rights Bill. We oppose these amendments. Three of these Bills have not yet been published, and the Pensions Bill was only recently introduced to Parliament. Therefore, we are not in a position to assess the implications of any of these Bills in full, so it would be unreasonable to expect us to offer support today for these amendments without knowing the implications of what is being proposed.
We oppose amendments 7 and 10, both of which refer to the Care Bill. The Deputy Minister for Social Services issued a written statement on 22 April to update Members on our position on the reform of paying for social care. She expressed reservations about whether she would want to introduce the type of reforms planned for England from 2016 and said that she would want to be clear about the costs, benefits and implications for consequential funding for Wales. However, the good news, as far as the people of Wales are concerned, is that our own Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill contains provisions to allow us flexibility to introduce whichever model of reformed charging arrangements we consider appropriate when we have developed our own proposals.
Finally, we oppose amendment 8 as, in our view, the UK Government’s legislative programme does not do enough to reward those who need it and it does not fully consider the needs of those who require support.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I have selected the 10 amendments to the motion and I call on Leanne Wood to move amendment 1 tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Regrets that a Government of Wales Bill implementing the recommendations of the Silk Commission on Devolution in Wales was not included in the legislative programme.
I move amendment 1 in the name of Elin Jones.
Before I address the substantive points in the UK Government’s legislative programme, I would like to start by making a constitutional point, one that has been touched upon by the Minister for Local Government and Government Business. While it is, of course, essential that we take time in the Senedd to consider the full implications of the UK Government’s legislative programme, I am unable to understand why this has to be done in the way that we do it. It may have been desirable previously to have the Secretary of State present, but that was before the Assembly was granted full law-making powers following the referendum in 2011. However, now that we have those powers, do we really need the Secretary of State’s involvement? There is no equivalent procedure in Scotland, possibly because it has always had a law-making parliament. Now that we have those full powers, albeit limited to just 20 fields, perhaps we should question whether or not we should revise our Standing Orders so that we can have this debate in our own right. Perhaps, Dirprwy Lywydd, party leaders here should consider this before next year’s debate.
I will now address the substantive legislative programme. Plaid Cymru’s top priority is the Welsh economy—both now and in the future. Last week, I announced our Plan C—‘C’ for Cymru—to tackle some of the problems that the economy is facing right now. There are measures that we could introduce now, but, if we are to improve the Welsh economy, it is pretty obvious that we must have additional powers in order to do so. Part 1 of the Silk commission recommends the sharing of income tax powers between the National Assembly and Westminster, as well as the transfer of lesser taxation powers. The purpose of sharing income tax powers is not about the rates themselves, but about the responsibility for raising money spent by the Government. With these powers, the Welsh Government could grow the Welsh tax base by getting more people into work and increasing the value of jobs here.
The Silk commission has set out a timetable for how this should be achieved. Plaid Cymru was deeply disappointed that no Bill to transfer these powers was included in the legislative programme. That is why Plaid Cymru, here and in Westminster, has tabled amendments to the legislative programme to include a commitment to implement the recommendations of the Silk commission in full. In Westminster, Plaid Cymru received the support of the Labour Party. I hope that our amendment today will receive cross-party support to reflect the commitment of the whole Assembly to making the Silk process work.
It is true that we are to have a draft Wales Bill in order to deal with some of the constitutional issues, but is this not a missed opportunity? What we need is a new government of Wales Act to sort out these overhanging constitutional anomalies, as well as dealing with the implementation of the Silk commission’s recommendations. That said, Plaid Cymru believes that the power to change the National Assembly’s constitutional arrangements should be located here and not in Westminster. That is why we seek to make amendments to the Bill to transfer those powers to the National Assembly. Depending on progress made with both parts of Silk, we will also use this constitutional Bill as a further opportunity to raise the reserved powers model for this Assembly. We hope that that will be recommended in the second Silk report.
In our submission to the second part of Silk, we have argued that all aspects of the criminal justice system should be transferred to Wales. In our alternative legislative programme at Westminster, we included a justice and policing Bill. In recent years, we have seen closures of local magistrates’ courts and major cuts to policing budgets. We still do not have a prison in north Wales, or a women’s prison, and there are not enough places for young people, many of whom are sent far away from their families, which, of course, hinders the rehabilitation process. Legal aid changes are doing great damage. Plans to privatise the probation service will further undermine the criminal justice system. The National Assembly for Wales is the only devolved legislature in the UK that has no control over the justice system operating within its territory. This is clearly wrong. The recent example of transferring powers to the north of Ireland shows that there is no good practical reason why we cannot have these powers in Wales, too.
Earlier, I referred to the need for a reserved powers model for this National Assembly. Why? The reason for that is because it remains unclear, even to experts, where powers lie, which legislation impacts upon Wales and which does not.
I am grateful to you for giving way, Leanne. I appreciate that Plaid Cymru has a certain agenda with regard to independence and that you have to focus on constitutional issues. However, do you not think that, at this juncture, we should be focusing on the serious economic issues affecting Wales and putting right the situation that we are in at the moment and not focusing on the blue-sky thinking about some rosy future?
If you had been listening to what I said earlier and what I have said over the last year, you would have heard that the economy is Plaid Cymru’s No. 1 priority. This is the legislative programme of the UK Government and there are few measures in it that will help the Welsh economy.
It is not just about whether legislation operates in one country here; the other issue is about funding and how the funding formula is used. There are substantial questions over the financial impact of the Care Bill for Wales, for example. The high speed 2 hybrid Bill provides for large amounts of funding in England, with peripheral impacts on Wales. Whether Wales should receive a Barnett formula allocation from the high speed 2 expenditure has not yet been decided. However, if Crossrail delivered a Barnett allocation to Wales, the same should apply to HS2. The recent investment in Welsh railways is welcomed, but we are still playing catch-up on electrification. A metro system should be created in the south-east of this country, linking up the Valleys with the cities. A comprehensive turn-up-and-go public rail system, linking 1.4 million people, would provide a major and much-needed economic boost. Of course, we also want to see further electrification west of Swansea and across the north Wales line. Plaid Cymru does not think that it is too much to expect for a Welsh public transport system that is fit for the twenty-first century.
I will now briefly address the amendments tabled. The majority of amendments in front of us today from the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are the usual self-congratulatory statements. Both want to claim the credit for any crumbs thrown to Wales from Westminster. Did anyone spot that they are interested in welcoming specific Bills but not the legislative programme as a whole. Does that mean that the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats in the Assembly are not supportive of the immigration Bill? Do they not support the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill? In many of these Bills, we still await answers to questions of detail. The draft consumer rights Bill is surely well-meaning, but how will that fit with cuts to legal aid? What will the deregulation Bill involve? Is that going to cut back on health and safety in the workplace? The Pensions Bill has been published and includes bringing forward the pension age to 67 by eight years. It includes a single-tier pension that we think is a positive step, but Plaid Cymru’s living pension was to start with those over 80 years of age and those most likely to be in pensioner poverty.
My colleagues will discuss the Care Bill and the national insurance contributions Bill in greater detail later on.
Plaid Cymru notes this legislative speech, but like our colleagues in Westminster, we very much regret that it does not include a specific government of Wales Bill to implement the recommendations of the Silk commission. The majority of Welsh MPs supported an amendment along those lines in Westminster, and I sincerely hope that all National Assembly Members support this here this afternoon.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I politely remind Members that this debate is required under the Government of Wales Act 2006.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the Draft Wales Bill, which will reform elections to the National Assembly and could provide a platform for the UK Government to implement any recommendations of the Silk Commission (Part I).
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the National Insurance Contributions Bill, which will mean that from April 2014 every charity and business will be entitled to a £2,000 Employment Allowance, helping over 35,000 businesses in Wales to hire their first employee or expand their workforce.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the Pensions Bill, which will introduce a single tier state pension, bringing significant and much needed reform that will support people to save for retirement.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the Deregulation Bill, which will help reduce the burden of excessive and unnecessary regulation on businesses, organisations and individuals, to help growth and save money for the taxpayer.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the Draft Consumer Rights Bill, which will simplify and consolidate core consumer rights, ensuring that consumers have clearer rights in law and businesses treat their customers fairly.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the Care Bill, which will reform care and support funding in England ensuring that people are protected from the high costs of their social care, and calls on the Welsh Government to outline the key principles that will underpin a new care funding system in Wales.
I move amendments 2, 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7 in the name of Aled Roberts on behalf of the Welsh Liberal Democrat group.
I join the Minister in welcoming the Secretary of State to the Chamber today. The Queen’s Speech includes many of the long-term reforms that my party has campaigned for. Obviously, it is not a Liberal Democrat Queen’s Speech, and there are many more Bills that I would have liked to have seen in it. However, if the Conservatives had formed a minority Government back in 2010, we would not be here today talking about Silk, with its possibilities of devolving taxation powers and borrowing powers to the National Assembly for Wales—powers that I believe will create a stronger Welsh economy and more accountability in the Welsh Government. If the Conservatives had won a majority in Government in 2010, I very much doubt that the policies outlined in this year’s Queen Speech that will make our society a fairer place would have been high on their agenda. We only need to look at the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill this week in the House of Commons to prove the point.
Moving specifically to the contents of this year’s Queen Speech, I welcome the introduction of a draft Wales Bill, which I believe is a significant step forward for this Assembly, and which will bring a number of changes to the way in which the Chamber is elected. It will move the Assembly from four to five-year fixed terms, ending the likelihood of an Assembly election coinciding with a parliamentary election, something that I am sure that we can all agree is a positive move. It will also ensure that Assembly Members cannot also be Members of the House of Commons at the same time, so that they can devote their time to a single legislature. I am also pleased that the draft Bill will end what I regard as the unfair ban on dual candidacy.
However, perhaps even more importantly, the draft Wales Bill can also act as a platform for the Treasury to implement any recommendations of the Silk commission, once the UK Government has considered its response to those recommendations. Danny Alexander, my colleague in the Treasury is working tirelessly with Jane Hutt, the Minister for Finance here, on giving Wales tax and borrowing powers. Just last month here in Cardiff, he said that because of the consensus over Silk and borrowing powers that had been formed among the political parties of the Chamber, it would now be his job to ensure that that happens in the UK Government. The Deputy Prime Minister is also very keen to see Silk move forward. I only hope that there will not be much resistance in the UK Cabinet to undermine the work of that cross-party commission and the settled will of the Chamber.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats’ vision for devolution has always included ensuring that the National Assembly has the best range of powers available to improve the lives of the people of Wales. The idea that the National Assembly can make laws and spend money but cannot control aspects of taxation and borrowing money is an anomaly. We need those powers, not just for power’s sake, but for what they can allow us to do on behalf of the people of Wales. We can use those borrowing powers to invest in vital infrastructure to make Wales a stronger economy. We can use those tax-raising powers to ensure that we have policy initiatives that make a real difference to the lives of our constituents and inject more accountability to the Welsh Government. Ultimately, we need a fair funding settlement to ensure that we have a funding regime that reflects the needs of our nation.
I am very pleased that the Queen’s Speech contains a number of other provisions that I believe will make a difference to the lives of our constituents in Wales, helping to create a fairer society. The draft consumer rights Bill will ensure that businesses treat their customers fairly. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will introduce wide-ranging reforms, replacing the existing system of anti-social behaviour orders and an Offender Rehabilitation Bill will help tackle persistent reoffending and break the cycle of crime.
Another way in which I believe the Queen’s Speech will deliver a fairer society is by the introduction of a Pensions Bill, which will see the delivery of a single-tier pension in 2016, ending the confusing system that we have and building upon the triple-lock guarantee already implemented by the coalition Government.
Another important and fair Queen’s Speech Bill, spearheaded by my colleagues in the Liberal Democrats, is the Care Bill, which will bring historic reform that gives people in England certainty and peace of mind over the cost of old age and will end the unfairness and fear caused by unlimited care costs. For 13 years, Labour in Westminster kicked that can down the road, but never achieved any meaningful progress. The Liberal Democrats have fought hard to ensure that this does not get kicked into the long grass once again. Just three years after the coalition entered office, we have commissioned the Dilnot report, accepted its principles and outlined how these will be implemented and paid for. This is about fairness. None of us knows whether we will be the one person in 10 who is hit with catastrophic costs of long-term care. The cap will protect everyone against that risk. What we need now is the fairness for people in Wales. As Graeme Francis of Age Cymru recently said:
‘The legislation announced today in the Queen’s Speech—if mirrored in Wales, has the potential to transform our crumbling, unfair social care system for current and future generations of older people.’
Instead, we have a social services Bill with no idea to whom it will apply or how much it will cost, and a social care funding system that will still see older people having to sell their homes to pay for care. We need clarity from the Deputy Minister here in Wales on the key principles that will underpin a new care funding system in Wales. I urge the Deputy Minister to look over the border at the action being taken by the Westminster coalition to modernise more than 60 years of fragmented care and support law.
As well as creating a fairer society, the Bills included in the Queen’s Speech will help to create a stronger economy. On top of the electrification of the Great Western main line and other capital infrastrucutre projects that the UK Governemnt has already comitted to Wales, I am pleased that the Queen’s Speech will introduce a national insurance contributions Bill, which will support over 35,000 business in Wales to hire their first employees or to expand their workforce. In these difficult times, it is vital that we help small business to hire more people and get the economy moving. In Wales, small businesses represent a higher proportion of private sector employment than in any other part of the UK, so the impact of that Bill on those businesses is particularly important in Wales. Giving our small businesses more help with national insurance contributions will cut just one of the barriers that prevent them from taking on new staff, creating jobs for people across our country. I look forward to working with these businesses to ensure that they can get the most out of this excellent announcement. One of the many complaints that I and my colleagues hear from small and medium-sized enterprises is that red tape and bureaucracy is stifling their attempts to grow their business. That is why I am pleased that the UK coalition is determined to reduce the burden of red tape facing businesses through its deregulation Bill.
The key themes of this Queen’s Speech, I believe, are growth, deficit reduction, social reform and fairness. I am proud that my colleagues in the Liberal Democrats in Westminster are playing their part in delivering it.
Amendment 3—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the UK Government’s continued commitment, as outlined in the UK Government’s legislative programme, to building an economy where people who work hard are properly rewarded.
Amendment 9—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Welcomes the UK Government commitment to the Draft Wales Bill.
Amendment 10—William Graham
Add as new point at end of motion:
Acknowledges the UK Government commitment to a Care Bill and calls on the Welsh Government to bring forward similar proposals to ensure the cost of care in Wales is addressed.
I move amendments 8, 9 and 10 in the name of William Graham.
I also extend a very warm welcome to the Secretary of State on his first visit to the Assembly—the first of many visits, I hope. I, unlike the leader of the separatist party, do not believe that the Secretary of State has no role in Wales. I believe that it is an important link between Westminster and strengthening the union that so benefits Wales. As can be seen by this Queen’s Speech and previous Queen’s Speeches, the benefit of that union is to strengthen the economy and services in Wales in the devolved era that we live in today. The measures that the UK Government has taken since 2010 to strengthen that devolved settlement are to its credit, with the establishment of the Silk commission and the investment in electrification, which is the biggest inward investment that has been made by any Government for over 100 years. I will gladly take the intervention.
I am grateful to the leader of the Conservatives for taking an intervention. If he is so keen to not dance to the tune of the separatists, as the Secretary of State put it, why is his party so busy dancing to the tune of the English UKIP separatists at the moment?
That is probably one of the worst questions that will be asked today—[Interruption.] Ultimately, what the coalition Government is delivering in Westminster is growth, stability and, above all, security for the people of this country. If we look at what has been achieved since 2010, we see that 24 million people across the UK have enjoyed a tax cut, 1.1 million of those people are here in Wales and 130,000 of them have been taken out of paying tax altogether. Across the United Kingdom, 1.2 million new jobs have been created, 35,000 of which are in Wales. We have also had a third of the deficit reduced, we have enjoyed record rates of low interest rates, because the markets have confidence in the financial capability of the coalition Government, and, above all, we are making benefits sustainable and work pay. That is something that has been neglected by successive Governments for generation after generation.
One of the Bills that I am pleased to see in this speech is the Pensions Bill, because this coalition Government in Westminster has a positive record when it comes to pensions, with the record increases that it has delivered year on year, as compared with the awful record of the previous Labour Government. Many of us can remember the 75p a week increase that Gordon Brown delivered to pensioners across the country.
We must also remember that there has been a 10% reduction in crime across the United Kingdom, despite the rhetoric from the Government benches here. I will take the intervention from the Member.
I would like you to answer whether you are proud of the fact that the first cut that your Government made was to the winter fuel allowance for the over-80s.
What I am proud of is that our Government has delivered financial capabilities for this country, whereas if it had taken the road that Gordon Brown had left behind, it would have dramatically devastated the welfare state, devastated the economy and increased the deficit that this country would have had. Interest rates would have rocketed and house repossessions would have gone through the roof. That is the recipe that we would have had if Gordon Brown had won the general election in 2010.
Another Bill that shows the critical difference between the coalition Government in Westminster and the recipe of the Labour Party in 2010 is the national insurance contributions Bill. Many of us will remember the increases that the Labour Party wanted to drive through in national insurance. This Bill will deliver a cut in national insurance contributions. It will take at least 30% of businesses out of the position of having to worry about national insurance and, ultimately, it will deliver an environment that will create and sustain jobs. Surely anyone who has the economy at heart will welcome the introduction of such a Bill in this Queen’s Speech.
It is important to recognise that the coalition Government since 2010 has had a full legislative programme. What was set out in the first Queen’s Speech in 2010 lasted some two years, the previous Queen’s Speech in 2012 had 20 Bills, and this Queen’s Speech presents 19 Bills for consideration by Parliament. Many of the Bills have cross-border significance. Other speakers have touched today on the Care Bill, which will come before the Westminster Parliament. I implore the Welsh Government to bring forward its own proposals on this challenging issue. I believe or I hope that there can be cross-party consensus on this. There has been an inability in Westminster, on some issues, to reach cross-party consensus, but we have all had examples in our postbags of the challenges that people face of house repossessions and the huge increase that care costs place on families. With an ageing population and, in particular, with today’s medical interventions, people can live more able and fulfilling lives despite many constraining health issues that they might be presented with.
I also welcome the Local Audit and Accountability Bill that will be presented because this, in England, will show an example of what happens when serious increases in local precepts are put forward that would be made the subject of referenda. When I think of how the new police and crime commissioner for south Wales, for example, rammed through a 7% increase in the police precept, I believe that we can learn a lot from that ability to allow local people to have a say on such massive increases in their local taxation levels.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas took the Chair at 4.05 p.m.
I also welcome the water Bill that will be brought forward, and I hope that the Welsh Government will engage fully with the UK Government on that particular issue, as it is important that we have cross-border consensus in the progression of that Bill.
The other Bill that is worthy of serious consideration, and one that I commend to the Assembly today, is the immigration Bill, which has wide-ranging issues that can attach significant importance to new regulations that will welcome people who can contribute to our economy and make a real difference to the British way of life, but ultimately not have the porous borders that were seen under the previous Labour Government. That must be welcomed.
I have touched on the Pensions Bill. The Offender Rehabilitation Bill is another Bill that has to be welcomed on the basis that this will try to tackle one of the perennial issues that the criminal justice system has faced time and again, which is the horrendously high reoffending rates that have occurred in many instances where people find themselves on the merry-go-round of the criminal justice system. That is turning your back on people and not offering solutions. I believe that that Bill will offer real solutions to the perennial problem of reoffending rates.
The deregulation Bill has to be welcomed on the basis that, time and again, business talks about the burden of red tape and bureaucracy. Ultimately, anything that will bring forward a Bill that can lighten the load on business, job creation and wealth creation has to be welcomed. It is worth noting that over £200 million-worth of bureaucracy has already been taken out of the system by the coalition Government since its formation in 2010.
All of these measures in the Queen’s Speech offer wide-ranging solutions to the real challenges that this country faces, on a UK level and particularly on a Wales level. Where consensus can be found, I hope that the Welsh Government and the UK Government will work constructively so that people on both sides of Offa’s Dyke can benefit from these Bills being introduced. Ultimately, we can build on the strong financial footings that have been put down by the coalition Government that has reduced the deficit by a third, created 1.2 million jobs, and is ultimately developing a welfare system that will achieve a sustainable model of welfare while offering a genuine route back into work. I commend this Queen’s Speech to the Chamber this afternoon.
This is a very thin speech marked by its omissions, particularly the plain packaging of cigarettes and minimum alcohol pricing. We know how important those public health measures would be for the people of Wales, and I think that it is a huge failure that these are not in this programme, particularly when you remember how the Prime Minister heralded the fact that he was going to attack the minimum pricing of alcohol.
It is marked by omissions, as it is marked by discord in the Conservative party over the omission of a Bill with a commitment to a referendum on Europe. We now have the amazing situation of a private Member’s Bill drafted by the Government, which is being supported by the Conservatives as part of the Queen’s Speech. It has been followed up by further discord since the Queen’s Speech over equal marriage.
The Secretary of State said that he wanted to help those who want to work and strive to get on. I cannot remember his exact words, but I think that those were the sentiments that he was trying to convey. I think that we would all agree with that. We all want to help those who work and strive to get on, because we all want to do the same, but what about those who cannot work and those who are struggling to get on in life? When the Secretary of State made his speech, did he consider the effect of his welfare reforms on those people? This Queen’s Speech is taking place against a background of despair for many people in Wales. We all know from what we are seeing in our surgeries about the people who are in utter despair. There has been no reference by the Secretary of State to this background, against which he is giving the Queen’s Speech.
Julie, could you please move your lectern back a bit? You are hitting your microphone with the lectern as you are making what I am sure are very important points.
Is that better? I see that it is.
We are all having people coming through our surgeries who are having letters through their doors that bring them bad news all of the time, about having to move from places where they have lived for many years. Independent assessments, particularly by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, have said that the welfare reforms that this Government has brought in have hit women, children and families hardest. This is the background to the Queen’s Speech, and I cannot see anything in the Queen’s Speech that is going to help those people in despair whom we see daily.
I wanted to speak quickly about one of the Bills announced in the Queen’s Speech, and that is the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill. My interest in this arose from the fact that it is the vehicle through which the coalition Government has chosen to respond to demands for the reform of the law relating to dangerous and menacing dogs. I have been involved in this issue ever since the son of a constituent, Dilwar Ali, was attacked by a neighbour’s dog. It was a terribly traumatic incident, and, since then, I have campaigned with him for a Welsh dogs law. I am aware that the Home Office claims primacy on all aspects of anti-social behaviour, even though animal health and welfare and the prevention of injury are devolved areas. I am also disappointed that, at this stage, there is no Welsh dogs Bill. However, I hope that it will be possible to work with Westminster to see what can be moved forward. I hope that the Westminster Government will devolve, via an enabling clause, the ability for Wales to have its own dogs Bill. I have no ideological objection to the Bill being done in Westminster, providing that it delivers exactly what we want in Wales. There was a very strong campaign in Wales to have a specific dogs Bill, which had the support of all of the animal welfare organisations in Wales, many people who were victims of dog attacks, the police and nearly all of the politicians in the Assembly. This is an opportunity where we can work with the Westminster Government to ensure that Wales eventually has the sort of Bill that we have campaigned for and that we want.
I know that the anti-social behaviour Bill also deals with many other issues that are devolved to Wales. I know that there is an issue relating to housing. Yesterday, the Welsh Government published very ambitious proposals for the reform of the law on renting homes in the White Paper ‘Renting Homes—a better way for Wales’. These are excellent proposals, and I wonder how they will fit in with some of the proposals in the anti-social behaviour Bill. I would be interested in the Secretary of State’s comments on that.
This Queen’s Speech reveals the ambition of the UK coalition Government to support hardworking people and to fix the appalling legacy and financial deficit that Labour left behind. Two parties came together in the national interest—a coalition of national interest—to fix the appalling legacy left by Labour. It is great to see the national insurance contributions Bill, which will be such a huge boost to the Welsh economy. It will introduce a new employment allowance from April 2014 that will be worth up to £2,000. Some 35,000 Welsh businesses will benefit from it by a total of £50 million—that is £50 million coming back to the Welsh economy, delivered by the coalition Government. Furthermore, 20,000 Welsh businesses will be taken out of the national insurance tax altogether. Welsh businesses with fewer than 10 employees will see their employer national insurance bill cut by 80%. It will mean that small businesses—which are what we mainly have in Wales—can hire one person for £22,000, or up to four people on the minimum wage, without paying any jobs tax. It is a huge opportunity for growth, to boost employment in Wales.
Thank you, Antoinette, for taking an intervention. Would you agree that another way of growing the small businesses that you have just outlined need help would be a reduction in the rate of VAT for repairs and maintenance down to 5%?
No, I do not.
Good; I have that on record.
We know that that would cost the UK economy a huge amount of money. I appreciate that Labour wanted a tax on jobs by increasing the cost of national insurance, and I also appreciate that Labour wants to borrow more in Westminster, but I think that, here in Wales, where we mainly have small businesses that need to grow, this sends out a massive signal that they can employ people, and do so confident in the fact that it will not cost them more in national insurance contributions. I think that that will be a huge boost to the economy of Wales. It demonstrates the commitment of the UK Government to growing the economy and to giving the private sector the freedom to create more jobs.
I would also like to comment on the Pensions Bill, which, as we have heard, will introduce the single-tier pension. That benefits most working people, and it puts the state pension on a sustainable, long-term footing for the future. However, in particular, it will benefit women. Having been self-employed in the past—
Will you take an intervention?
I will just finish this point. It means a better state pension for the self-employed. As someone who paid national insurance contributions for many years as a self-employed worker, I am delighted to see that women who have been self-employed will now have measures in this Bill that will recognise the contribution that they have made.
Thank you for allowing me to make an intervention. I have heard you and Andrew R.T. Davies talk about pensions, but do you realise that, potentially, the Bill could create the deregulation of pensions, so that businesses will not have to put in so much for their pensions, which would create another scenario like the one that Visteon pensioners are facing at the moment? Do you agree with that?
I do not agree with that. I know that there are plenty of opportunities to look at the provisions. I think that the ambition in the Bill is one that should be welcomed. It will mean more of a state pension for carers who have been low earners or who have had gaps in their employment, and it will mean more of a state pension for women. It is clear that the majority of people currently in the Welsh workforce will benefit under the single-tier reforms. I particularly want to emphasise the benefits for Welsh women who will have taken time out of work to raise a family or who are self-employed. This UK Government is addressing the inequality that women face under the current system of state pensions.
The final thing is the Offender Rehabilitation Bill. The north Wales probation service has been piloting some of the schemes in this Bill, and I would like to pay tribute to the work that those people have done in contributing to the success and in highlighting the need for change. Reoffending rates have barely changed in a decade, and reoffending rates undermine public confidence in the criminal justice system. By extending supervision to at least 12 months, probation providers will have the ability to deal with the root causes of reoffending. Also, for sentences served in the community, there will be a greater freedom for probation providers to work in the most effective and innovative ways that are paid for by results. I think that all sections of Welsh communities stand to benefit from this Queen’s Speech and I, too, commend it to the Assembly.
I have one comment on the attendance of the Secretary of State here today. In the past, every Secretary of State has been given a courteous hearing by this place. Whatever our opinion about the Queen’s Speech or any particular Secretary of State, I think that we should maintain that practice or cease holding this session at all.
Turning to the speech, I want to comment on just two of the Bills—one that was contained within the Queen’s Speech and one that should have been contained within it and that was proposed by Plaid Cymru Members of Parliament. First, I turn to the one that was not included in the Queen’s Speech, namely an economic fairness Bill that was proposed as an amendment by Plaid Cymru Members of Parliament.
The UK, whatever else you think about it, is a totally inequitable state, with extremes of poverty and wealth among the worst in western nations. It has developed that way since the end of the 1970s, under both Labour and Conservative Governments. It is disgraceful that GVA or GDP in areas of London and the south-east are 10 times the level of GDP in some of the south Wales Valleys. It is worth while looking at the income tax map of the UK that was published by the ONS recently to see the truly disastrous state of affairs. When you talk about ‘prosperity’, as I heard mentioned in the speech given by the leader of the Conservatives here, that prosperity certainly has not reached Wales, or certainly large parts of Wales. There is a duty therefore on the British state to ensure that that prosperity reaches all parts, as is happening in many of the successful companies, such as Germany—despite the problems that were facing that state in reuniting east and west—and the Scandinavian nations. They are successful countries, but they do not have these extremes of wealth and poverty as you have here in Britain.
I am grateful to the Member for taking an intervention. The difference is that Germany and the Scandinavian countries did what the UK did not do: they put aside money in good times to save for bad times. That is the difference. We had reckless spending, instead of saving up in the good times ready for the bad times.
It is true that Norway set aside some of its oil revenue, but that is not true of Germany. Germany and the Scandinavian countries have retained their manufacturing sectors and diverse economies that are not overly dependent, as is the British economy, on the financial sector. That has been of great benefit to some people in London and the south-east of England, but it does very little for other parts of Britain. The British state should therefore ensure that there is an investment fund to support the work of European Union funds and it should also prioritise infrastructure schemes for the poorest areas—not only in Wales, but areas of England too.
Thanks for giving way. As you are well aware, Ffred, Wales receives more money from the south-east of England than it would make here if it was independent, so the financial sector in the south-east of England and London is pretty important to us in this place.
Treasury figures demonstrate that the area that benefits most from public expenditure is London, as was proven on ‘Newsnight’ in that now infamous interview by Paxman of Eurfyl ap Gwilym. What we are saying is that there should be a Bill to ensure the equitable distribution of wealth around the British state, while it still exists.
The Bill that is contained within the speech is the national insurance contributions Bill. We, in Plaid Cymru, welcome it. That Bill provides a holiday from national insurance contributions for companies. A similar Bill has been in existence since 2010. The most recent figures suggest that the system has not been as successful as it should have been. On the figures for Wales since 2010, if my understanding is correct, the Treasury said that the Bill would bring benefits to over 27,000 businesses, but the figure that was heard earlier was 35,000 businesses. In reality, only 1,300 businesses in Wales have actually benefited from the proposals to date over the past three years. So, there is huge work to be done by the Government to ensure that far more businesses in Wales benefit from this proposal, which certainly does have potential to be very beneficial. That is why we in Plaid Cymru have called for the rolling out of the business rate relief scheme up to a rateable value of £15,000. That would ensure direct benefits to businesses at grass roots in Wales.
As other speakers have done, I welcome in particular the Pensions Bill, which will benefit thousands of Welsh pensioners by introducing the single flat-rate pension. That will bring an end to the confusing and complex state pension system that we have inherited after 70 years of tinkering by successive Conservative and Labour Governments. The current two-tier system promotes inequality. The amount of state pension paid out to pensioners can differ by more than £200 a week, or £10,000 a year. The average woman retiring over the next decade will receive £40 less per week in basic state pension than a man, so this reform is particularly important.
In 2011, the relevant Minister, Steve Webb, said:
‘It’s clear that the pensions system has become so complicated, that even a financial adviser would struggle to calculate what they will expect in retirement. In future we want to be in a position where we can send people information that is clear about a state pension that they understand’.
In Government, that is what Liberal Democrats are delivering: a single-tier pension that will provide a modern pension system fit for the twenty-first century, reflecting the lives and contributions of today’s workers, and enabling everyone to work towards a decent income in retirement.
I will take your intervention, Angela.
I thank Peter Black for giving way. I agree that the coalition Government has delivered something here that is fundamentally important, for other reasons: we are now valuing stay-at-home parents and carers who serve society. We are saying that we value their contribution, and that they are no longer second-class citizens.
I will just scrap the next bit of my speech; that was exactly the point that I was going to make. [Interruption.] The single-tier pension will be worth the equivalent of £144 in 2013 prices, or £155 when it is introduced in 2017. As you say, Angela, it will particularly help those who want to take a break from employment—for example, women who have brought up children, those who are low earners, and the self-employed. It will also help the 30% of people who qualify for pension credit but do not claim it. It will value unpaid caring work just as much as a high-flying City job, and, for the first time, we will bring the self-employed fully into the state pension system. Under the new system, loads of people will be better off in their retirement, and that is something that my party has been campaigning to deliver for decades. I am pleased that the coalition is able to deliver those radical plans today, so that workers can retire on a single, simple, decent pension.
This reform comes in addition to the triple lock that we brought in when we came into Government in 2010. That has ensured a record rise in the state pension of £12.50 a week since 2010. Due to that policy and the policy on a single tier, pensioners will receive an estimated £12,000 more over the course of their retirement than they would have done under Labour. The basic state pension will represent a higher share of average earnings than at any time since 1992. In 2012, pensioners benefitted from the biggest ever cash increase in the basic state pension, as it went up £5.30 a week. We have already had reference to the 75p rise in the state pension under Gordon Brown. That pension reform is one of the most important things that this coalition has done in terms of introducing fairness into our society.
As I come to the end of my speech, I will turn to the amendments. The Welsh Liberal Democrats will support the Conservative amendments, which reiterate the UK Government’s commitment to delivering a stronger economy in a fairer society. We will not be supporting the Plaid Cymru amendment that fails to recognise the progress that has been made since the Silk commission was established in 2011. [Interruption.] Simon, do you want to come in? I see not.
The Liberal Democrats have long supported the devolution of further powers for Wales, and that is why the commission was established—so that we can have a proper debate on a new vision for Welsh devolution. The UK Government needs to carefully consider its response to the commission’s recommendations, and clearly cannot confirm whether it will legislate until that response is published. In a sense, the Plaid Cymru amendment is putting the cart before the horse.
I thank the Member for giving way. Can he guarantee that the deregulation Bill, which he embraces wholeheartedly, will not impede or impair the rights of workers in Wales and the UK?
That is a question that Ken Skates needs to direct to the Secretary of State for Wales. I have not actually seen that Bill. I would certainly hope that it does not. [Interruption.] I can assure him, from the Welsh Liberal Democrat perspective that, if that is indicated, we will try to respond to that. Deregulation is crucial in terms of removing red tape and helping businesses.
I will conclude with the amendment. The draft Wales Bill, announced in the Queen’s Speech, focuses on the electoral arrangements for the National Assembly for Wales and could act as a platform for any provision arising from the Government’s response to Silk part 1, if it decides to legislate in this parliament. For that reason, I think that the Plaid Cymru amendment is premature, and I hope that we are able to do something as part of that draft Wales Bill.
To say that we are disappointed at the lack of content, imagination and ambition in the Queen’s Speech is an understatement. For Wales, the incomprehensible decision to propose a Wales Bill with virtually no content is unforgivable. The we-will-fill-this-space-later approach to legislation is an insult to the people of Wales. [Interruption.]
I am not taking interventions because I only have a limited amount of time and there is a lot that I want to say.
This year, housing completions are currently at the lowest level in the UK since the 1920s, and 89,000 construction workers have lost their jobs. The Wales Office’s sole function appears to be to attack the Welsh Government for introducing important legislation, such as the sprinkler legislation, which will save people’s lives. I would like to remind the Secretary of State for Wales that the last second-quarter growth statistics showed that UK production has dropped by 1%, and yet, in Wales, production grew by 2.7%. Also, in the third quarter, construction in the UK fell by 2.6% and, in Wales, construction increased by 8.9%.
Turning now to the issue of borrowing powers: these could enable us to significantly increase house building and to develop major infrastructure projects. Over 28,000 people in Wales are being hit by the ludicrous bedroom tax, supported by the Lib Dems. In my constituency of Pontypridd, 929 people will be, on average, £624 a year worse off, unless they move to smaller houses that do not exist and that we cannot build because we do not have borrowing powers. If that was not enough, the welfare reforms, supported by the Lib Dems, are taking an estimated £1 billion out of the Welsh economy, and benefit and tax-credit cuts will hit Wales even harder than the UK because of our higher levels of welfare dependency.
What is the big, brave, imaginative idea that the coalition comes up with? It comes up with water supply competition: a drains, pipes and sewers competition Bill that actually makes no commercial sense whatsoever, and we all know that half the Tories over there do not agree with it, but they will not say so because they are scared.
If not content with attacking the most vulnerable people in Wales, the coalition Government now intends to attack workers through deregulation.
Thank you for taking a Conservative intervention. [Interruption.]
I prefer sensible questions.
I want to put on record, Mick, that I am not scared, and I agree with it.
Thank you for that, Nick; I will not refer to earlier conversations.
The Secretary of State for Wales, which I can now see is supported by Lib Dems, claimed that the deregulation Bill will cut red tape to help Welsh businesses grow. The deregulation Bill, supported strongly by the Lib Dems, is about one thing: it is about an attack on workers’ rights. It is exactly the same as the coalition obsession with Europe, which is about the social chapter. If you want an example of what they are up to, look at this: sections 61 and 62 of the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act 2013 mean that employers who commit criminal offences by breaching health and safety laws are now given civil immunity for those criminal offences. That is yet another attack on working people in favour of unscrupulous businesses and the insurance industry.
We need a Secretary of State who will stand up for Wales. Instead, what we get is the invisible man. The Queen’s Speech has no Bill for jobs and no proposals for growth and the creation of real jobs. Instead, we have a coalition Government that, through its deregulatory policies, is creating a minimum wage, no terms, no conditions and no rights workforce. Zero-hour contracts have doubled since 2008.
In the last 12 years of European membership, we have had £3.9 billion of investment in Wales, yet the sole activity of the Tory Government seems to be to try to pull us out of Europe. The European referendum debacle is damaging for jobs growth and future investment in Wales. The Queen’s Speech brings back the focus on a Government that is riven with division, back biting and a lack of ideas, and which is more concerned with rigging our electoral system through the lucky loser Bills than it is with regenerating the economy, bolstered only by the collaboration and collusion of the Liberal Democrats. Secretary of State, I do support a referendum, but the only referendum that I want is one of the people and that is a general election that will throw your party out of Government.
I call Nick Ramsay.
Thank you for calling me to speak in this debate. It is always a great pleasure to follow on from one of Mick Antoniw’s streams of consciousness. You were even starting to make Lynne Neagle look pro-Tory the way that you were going on, Mick, and that is not easy. [Laughter.]
I will focus on some of the economic issues that have been raised and that feature in the Queen’s Speech. As the Secretary of State said in his opening remarks, key to the future of Wales in economic development terms is infrastructure. That is why we welcome the electrification of the Great Western railway line to Swansea and the spur to Heathrow. Let us not forget that not a single inch of that line was electrified under the previous UK Government. That was a bit of an oversight, was it not? The coalition Government has also committed to spending on increasing broadband speeds. Once again, this is vital for the future of the Welsh economy—a modern, sustainable, progressive economy. There are currently too many notspots, and these have to be dealt with if we are going to move the Welsh economy on.
In terms of the Queen’s Speech and the commitment to a national insurance contributions Bill, this is certainly to be welcomed by everyone in the Chamber, even if some Members on the Government benches will not admit it publicly. As Antoinette Sandbach said very eloquently in her contribution, the national insurance changes will have a huge impact on businesses in Wales, taking up to 20,000 businesses out of the rates that they have been paying to date and allowing them to employ more people. What an enormous advantage for the Welsh economy. Is it not strange that we hear so much from the Welsh Government benches when cuts are being made—sad but necessary cuts from the UK Government in all sorts of areas—but when it comes to something like this, which will support Welsh businesses and UK businesses, the mothership megaphone goes strangely silent, does it not? We have just had that long—I was going to say eloquent, but perhaps not—diatribe from Mick, which I did enjoy Mick, so I do not mean to be too mean to you there, and yet there was not a single word—I wonder why—about the positive things that are being done that will benefit Wales.
With regard to the deregulation Bill, I cannot believe that you do not believe that businesses are suffering due to red tape at the moment. It is within the gift of the UK Government to try to release the hands, which have been tied, of businesses in the UK and Wales. That must surely be welcomed. Of course, we need to keep an eye on it and ensure that there are not issues relating to workers’ rights, but none of us will say that we should not be supporting business at this very difficult time economically.
I will turn briefly to fiscal matters and the Silk commission, which a number of Members have mentioned. This was a commission brought forward by a Conservative Secretary of State in a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition. That did not happen before, did it? I agree with previous speakers who have said that it is anomalous that this place does not have borrowing powers. That is tying the hands of the Minister for Finance here unnecessarily. Local authorities have borrowing powers, as obviously does the UK Government and other institutions. It is a strange situation that led to us not having them. Therefore, we speak with one voice there. When you look at other aspects of the Silk commission, you see that this is clearly one of the least controversial elements. Some people have raised concerns with me about borrowing, but as long as that borrowing is for investment, infrastructure and means to improve the future of the Welsh economy, then that is certainly something on which we will support the Welsh Government in working with the UK Government to bring forward.
As the Secretary of State is very fond of saying, Wales has two Governments. I have nicked that line from you, if you do not mind, Secretary of State; I like it, so I use it as much as I can as well. The only real future, Plaid Cymru, lies in co-operation. We in Wales are not going to swim off to some little corner of the UK. You can turn your back on it, but it will still be there.
How do you feel about co-operating with the rest of Europe, then?
I feel fine about it, but co-operation starts at home, Leanne. It starts here. It is all very well for Members here to talk about the need for local authorities to collaborate and to fully support the Minister for local government in trying to support that—and I had a very reasonable answer to my question on that earlier—but for goodness’ sake, let us also make sure that we are co-operating here with the UK Government. In certain ways, that is happening, and I am pleased that the Minister for Finance is having regular meetings, but too often in here I think that we resort to childish ranting that does not move Wales forward. If you really think that you are resonating with people out there by saying that we do not need to work as part of the UK, you are in cloud-cuckoo-land. I commend this Queen’s Speech to the Assembly Chamber, and this side of the house fully appreciates the efforts that the UK coalition Government and this Secretary of State are making to try to make the lives of people in Wales a little bit better.
I really do not like to break with tradition, but I do not understand why we call it the Queen’s Speech, because, of course, it is the Government of the day’s speech in reality. I have to preface my remarks by stating how sorry I am that, following so much democratic devolution in Wales, we are still tied to an overrated and expensive exhibition of pomp and ceremony called the ‘Queen’s Speech’, particularly during these austere times when in centres throughout Wales today they are making up food parcels.
I am going to focus on that part of the speech that deals with the proposed Care Bill since, of course, this Welsh Government is in the process of finalising the contents of the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill and there is little in the Queen’s Speech that has any bearing on what will be happening in Wales on this issue. The English Bill covers extending the means test threshold for financial assistance, enshrines the rights of carers to support, and refers to the portability of care and support and to the entitlement to direct payments. These are all very familiar discussions in Wales about the Welsh Government’s Bill. Therefore, so much for the irrelevance of Her Majesty’s speech in Wales, which I thought she read beautifully, by the way. I really feel sorry for the Queen, having to go to Parliament every session to read someone else’s speech. This gives me, at least, an opportunity to put forward Plaid Cymru’s vision— you always ask us, ‘What would you do?’—as to how we would manage and deliver social care in Wales when we form the next Government here in Wales.
On Monday of this week, my colleague Elin Jones expressed her concern that this Government has failed to bring forward a plan for integrated care. Only a few weeks ago, a member of the public told me of how health and social services in Cardiff and Caerphilly were arguing about who should be providing care for his very elderly 92-year-old mother who had been in hospital for 16 weeks and who could not leave because she did not have the right level of care due to arguments. That cannot be right. We in Plaid Cymru, as you know, want social care to be free at the point of delivery. We need pooled budgets. What we need in Wales is a national health and social care service. Health and wellbeing are part of a continuum and for that reason health and social services should be free at the point of delivery. We can make Wales a beacon in the United Kingdom for health and social care. We want a strong advocacy service for all vulnerable people. We want to eliminate delayed transfers of care. We would introduce a set of national terms and conditions for social workers and develop consultant social worker grades. We want to establish the post, as I have said in this Chamber many times, of a disability commissioner.
In short, we in Plaid Cymru do not need to look over the border for advice or inspiration from a tired, old Parliament that is past its sell-by date and is becoming increasingly irrelevant. If I had my way, it would be totally irrelevant. That is why we will abstain on voting on amendment 7. I will give way as long as the comment is constructive.
I am grateful to you for taking the intervention. Can you tell me how many people support your view of an independent Wales?
I can tell you that it is a growing number.
It is 12%, is it not?
It is shrinking.
No, it is not; trust me, it is not. Time will tell whether we will be proved right. I was just explaining why we will be abstaining from voting. I thought that you were going to make a constructive point. I was explaining why we will be abstaining from voting on amendment 7 in the name of Aled Roberts and voting against amendment 10 in the name of William Graham, because English Bills are for English Members of Parliament to decide upon, not the Welsh Assembly. We should not be welcoming, adding to or acknowledging what the English Parliament is deciding—it is for it to decide.
The Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill is not perfect, and we on this side will be tabling some amendments to it. However, I will tell you something for nothing: it is our Bill—it is the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill, and that is what we will decide upon. It will be decided in this Chamber by these democratically-elected AMs, not in London. We have no need, therefore, to tug our forelock to the Tory-Lib Dem coalition, or even to the Queen’s Speech, with respect. I put on record that I feel desperately sorry for that lady who has to go to the House of Commons every single time to deliver a speech that should be delivered by the Prime Minister of the day.
Despite the supine amendments tabled by Welsh Tories and Lib Dems today, this legislative programme will be remembered for all the wrong reasons. It provides no answers to the economic woes facing this country, and no answers to the Tory backbenchers and activists who are increasingly baying for the blood of the Prime Minister.
Far from presenting a coherent vision of where they want to take the country, of a Government with bold ambitions to build a better Britain, instead they present us with a paltry hotch-potch of Bills, bereft of anything ground-breaking or truly radical. Make no mistake about it, this was a speech with two main aims: to satisfy the right-wing press and to court those disillusioned Tory voters who are increasingly turning to UKIP in their droves.
There was a smattering of measures to be welcomed, such as some of the proposals in the draft consumer rights Bill, some of the criminal justice reforms and, of course, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill, which just this week Labour MPs rescued from the jaws of defeat.
However, it seems to be the modus operandi of this coalition that, when it gives with one hand, it always takes away far more with the other. So, however laudable its efforts to clarify consumer rights may be, they come on the back of its clumsy decision to abolish Consumer Focus at a time when trading standards teams across the country are being stretched to breaking point because of cuts imposed by Westminster, and when it has singularly failed to tackle rip-off rail fares and sky-rocketing energy prices. So, too, with its initiatives to tackle crime and anti-social behaviour: those efforts will be hampered by the draconian cuts that it has imposed on police forces across the country.
Even more worryingly, despite the Institute for Fiscal Studies’ recent report that gravely predicted that more than 1 million children will be pushed into poverty by 2020 as a direct result of the coalition’s policies, there was absolutely nothing in this Queen’s Speech that sought to tackle that scourge, which is a sure sign that this UK Government has abandoned the pledge to abolish child poverty by 2020. There were no answers on child poverty and no answers for Wales, whatever the Secretary of State may say.
This was a Queen’s Speech of a Government totally detached from the everyday concerns of households up and down this country. It provides no solutions for the families and individuals whose living standards are being squeezed, who are being hammered, Angela Burns, by welfare reform, who are facing pressure just to put food on the table and pay for the energy to heat their homes. Instead of action to help hard-up households in Wales, all we get is a grubby measure to restore a clear injustice that will see candidates rejected at the ballot box gain entry to this Assembly’s Chamber via the back door.
There is no doubt that the draft Wales Bill—this loser’s charter—will be welcomed by the opposition parties in Wales, which have failed to strengthen their network of candidates and party activists despite nearly a decade and a half of devolution.
Will you take an intervention?
Go on, then.
I was just wondering whether there are any Members on your own benches who also welcome the so-called ‘loser’s charter’?
As you know, we abolished that policy. It will be interesting to see where you end up standing, Eluned Parrott, in the next Assembly elections. I will put some money on it personally—
Will you take an intervention?
Go on, then.
Does the Member join me in regretting the failure of the UK Government to stop people from double-jobbing as councillors and Assembly Members?
Absolutely. It is a job half done, as usual. It smacks of the kind of gerrymandering that we saw from the coalition when it tried to stitch up constituency boundaries. Is it not telling that the Tories are so wedded to Thatcherite ideology that they are pushing forward proposals to impose competition in the water market in the very Queen’s Speech that does nothing to sort out the mess that they created with our other privatised utilities, which are delivering huge profits for shareholders without delivering tangible benefits for consumers? I applaud the Welsh Government for so quickly rejecting an approach that would jeopardise our Welsh mutual model for water supply, which is serving Welsh consumers well.
The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair at 4.50 p.m.
To top it off, we are forced to witness another flashback from 20 years ago, which we could, frankly, all do without, and that is the unedifying spectacle of the Tory party again tearing itself apart on Europe because its leadership is as disjointed from its members and activists as it is from the population at large. I will avoid restating all those economic arguments as to why Britain, and Wales in particular, should remain part of the European Union, but does it not just show the recklessness of the Tory party that it is obsessed with leaving the EU at a time when our energy should be focused on preserving a union far closer to home?
Look back at those speeches from the early years of the last Labour Government and what it delivered: Bank of England independence, a national minimum wage, the banning of handguns, the Freedom of Information Act 2000, the abolition of hereditary peers, and devolution for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Conclude now, please.
I did take some interventions.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I know, and you have been allowed time.
David Cameron once described himself as the heir to Blair, but this Queen’s Speech puts the final nail in the coffin of that empty claim—
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Thank you. I am keen to call Ann Jones.
Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I am pleased to take a few minutes to contribute to this debate. A lot of what I was going to say has already been covered by my colleagues on these benches, so I want to address my contribution directly to the Secretary of State. I hope that the Secretary of State will pay me the courtesy of listening, as I listened to him. Obviously not. There you go.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Order. That is no way to speak to a guest who is here for a very specific and important debate. I can assure you that the Secretary of State is listening and he will be called to reply.
Okay, thank you.
The last Labour Government brought in the Government of Wales Act 2006. I know full well the shortcomings of the legislative competence Order process, but that change allowed the first Welsh laws to be made and sought to develop the Assembly so that we could change laws and make good laws for our constituents. So, I think that it is fair that we should be able to ask what the current UK Government’s priorities are for Wales. I believe that its objectives are not aimed at strengthening this institution. Rather, the draft Wales Bill is a cynical Bill, aimed at gerrymandering an electoral process and making very minor changes to the electoral cycle. Perhaps the most bewildering proposal, as has already been mentioned, is that which would see candidates who are firmly rejected by voters allowed a back-door entry into this Chamber through the regional list.
Thank you for giving way. Are you saying that Joyce Watson AM has come into the Assembly through the back door?
No, because Joyce Watson stood on the list and took her seat as a list Member. You know full well what I am talking about; I am talking about what happened in Clwyd West, the Secretary of State’s Westminster constituency, where the Labour Member won and then all the other main party candidates who stood against him appeared here as lucky losers. [Interruption.] That was the case in Delyn too, I am told; yes, that is good. It is clear that the Wales Office has no grand plan to further or strengthen devolution. It is much more interested in making small changes to our electoral system, which is hardly the stuff of dreams and high aspirations.
Will you take an intervention?
No, I am sorry, because I want to get on to the main points about what the Secretary of State does not do, or does well.
Secretary of State, your comments over the past few weeks have ranged from the fanciful to the ludicrous. Your comments around the Domestic Fire Safety (Wales) Measure 2011 are particularly dangerous and incorrect. You and your Cabinet colleague Pickles have spoken about the burden of regulation on house builders in Wales. At your political conference—I am pleased that you managed to hold one this year, because it would have looked totally embarrassing to have cancelled two on the trot—you described the sprinklers law as ‘generally derided’. Secretary of State, let me tell you: during that process all the Members from your party here never once voted against this law. They see the benefits of this Measure. I only wish that they could convince you of its benefits.
I did not vote for it.
Nor did I.
No, you did not, because you were not here, but your party did. I know that some Members of your party feel highly embarrassed by the comments made by the Secretary of State.
I now publicly challenge you, Secretary of State, because I have written to you privately, asking you to meet, and you will not. So, in the Chamber of the Senedd, I publicly challenge you to tell me that those figures are the right figures. I want to know where you have had them from and why you have not had the decency to reply to me so that I can talk to you about the benefits of domestic fire sprinklers.
Do you have a power shower in your home? I do not hear builders talking about not putting power showers in, but a power shower will cost the same as a life-saving sprinkler. Are you going to tell me that perhaps I should have a power shower installed in my new home and run and jump into it when there is a fire in my building? I hope that you are not going to say that.
I believe that you have got your job description wrong. Your job is to represent Wales in the UK Government cabinet. You are a former Member of this Assembly and, therefore, you should understand devolution. The devolution settlement allowed this Assembly to unanimously pass the fire sprinkler law. It is not in your gift to interfere, and if you have nothing but untruths and fanciful words to say about sprinklers, you should do the decent thing and keep quiet.
Wales in Britain is in a global race to succeed. We have to change to ensure not just our prosperity, but also our public services on which we depend, and even our way of life. Regrettably, the post-imperialists of the left believe that the world owes them a living as the world leaves them behind. They seek to fix the blame; we seek to fix the problem. Brown, Balls and Miliband broke the economic cycle by increasing borrowing in the good times. As everyone who has tried it knows, if you have high debts and try to borrow more, the lenders will either set punishing terms or say ‘no’. The UK coalition Government inherited the biggest peacetime budget deficit in a century—larger even than that of Greece and the largest of any major economy. However, public debt as a percentage of GDP is now higher in the high-debt nations that continued to increase their deficits—the policy that they advocate—until the inevitable bust, bail-out and pain.
UK Treasury policy has kept us off the economic rocks and established firm foundations for recovery. Defying the doomsayers, UK GDP increased more than expected in the first quarter of 2013. Revised Office of National Statistics growth estimates are now even casting doubt on whether the UK had a double-dip recession last year. The outgoing Bank of England governor has now announced a ‘welcome change in the economic outlook’ and predicted stronger growth than forecast.
Contrast this with the situation in France, which, a year ago, elected a socialist President who promised to replace austerity with growth. France is now back in recession, its second in four years. Greece has overturned a constitutional guarantee of civil servant jobs for life, which will lead to huge civil service job cuts. Unemployment is at 7.8% in the UK and 8.2% in Wales, whereas Greece and Spain are suffering unemployment rates over three times higher. Youth unemployment rates in Greece and Spain are reaching 50%, more than twice the rates here. Listen Wales, because these are the policies that they advocate that we follow, and this is what those policies deliver. One in three working-age people in Wales were workless under Welsh and UK Labour Governments prior to the last UK general election, double the UK average, but the number has fallen by 50,000 since the change of UK Government.
I thank the Member for giving way. I am glad that he raised the issue of France, because it recently signed into law equal marriage. Do you agree with the French and your Prime Minister David Cameron on this issue or do you agree with your Secretary of State?
I believe that churches, as the legislation suggests, should have the freedom to opt in, rather than to opt out.
The Queen’s Speech is all about backing people who want to get on in life. The UK spends a higher proportion of its national output on disability benefits than France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the US, Japan or any other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development country, apart from Norway or Iceland. This UK Government has already made income tax fairer, as we have heard, and understood the need for economic stimulus developed with the house-building sector rather than in isolation from it, as in Wales. NHBC figures confirm that new home building this year in Wales is lagging behind the UK, and from a lower base. Crime is down by 9% in Wales, and this is all being done by cutting a third of Labour’s deficit.
The national insurance contributions Bill will help small businesses and help to create jobs. The Energy Bill will enable consumers, via Ofgem, to get on the best energy tariff and provide clearer and simpler information on Bills. The deregulation Bill will remove burdens on business, civil society, public bodies and individuals to boost growth. It is regrettable that we have not seen comparable action by this Welsh Labour Government.
The draft consumer rights Bill will enhance consumer protection. Is Citizens Advice not doing a great job in taking over the previous functions of Consumer Focus? [Assembly Members: ‘Yes’.]
The Care Bill will protect pensioners and carers in England from catastrophic bills, capping care costs and extending the threshold for financial assistance. Age Cymru has called on the Welsh Government to bring forward details of equivalent reforms in Wales at the earliest opportunity, but the Welsh Government has only indicated that it will develop proposals over the next 12 months. When I questioned the First Minister over this last week, he only said that the Welsh Government
‘will keep a close eye on the Care Bill in England.’
Once again, Wales is being left behind.
The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill will ensure an effective response to anti-social behaviour, empower victims, encourage responsible dog ownership, tackle illegal firearms and protect victims of forced marriage. The Offender Rehabilitation Bill will tackle persistent reoffending by dealing with its causes. Under Labour, approximately three-quarters of prisoners under 25, and two-thirds of adult prisoners were reconvicted within two years of release. This revolving-door system of justice must be addressed. Is it too much to hope that the two socialist parties here will, at last, stop putting their knee-jerk political protests against everything that the UK coalition Government does before the interests of the people of Wales? [Assembly Members: ‘Hear, hear’.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I invite the Secretary of State for Wales to respond.
Thank you, Mr Deputy Presiding Officer. I thoroughly enjoyed the debate. For me, it is a return to a time, 10 years ago, when I was a Member of this Assembly, albeit in the far less salubrious surroundings of Tŷ Hywel, just at the back of this impressive Assembly Chamber.
I was very pleased that all of the principal contributors to the debate—the principal spokespeople for their respective parties—acknowledged that the priority of Government, both here and in Westminster, must be to address the economic crisis that has now been raging since 2007. I was very pleased indeed to hear that, particularly from the Minister for Local Government and Government Business. I was also pleased to see her acknowledge that we are in an internationally significant global race. To that extent, it is good to see that the Welsh Government and the United Kingdom Government are singing from the same hymn sheet. I am sure that she would agree that she and her colleagues in the Welsh Government are anxious to work closely with us to ensure that Wales achieves that degree of economic prosperity that I know that all of us in the Chamber want.
The leader of Plaid Cymru also acknowledged the importance of the economy. She asked a question, which I was not sure was philosophical or not, which was why I am here. I am here, of course, because section 33 of the Government of Wales Act 2006 requires that I should be here. It is a great pleasure to be here and I look forward to making many more visits in the future.
I was particularly pleased with one point that she raised, which I would like to touch upon, namely the importance of a prison in north Wales. She is absolutely right; it is a scandal that there is no accommodation for prisoners in the whole of north Wales. The Wales Office is actively working on this, alongside the Ministry of Justice, and I hope that we will see a prison for Welsh prisoners in north Wales in the relatively near future.
She mentioned an issue that was mentioned by other speakers, namely the absence of what she called a ‘government of Wales’ Bill. Well, of course, there is a draft Wales Bill that will be appearing in this session. As she rightly says, that is primarily there to cover certain narrow points relating to the devolution settlement as we have it at the moment. However, let me be absolutely clear: that Bill can be added to, should the recommendations of part 1 of the Silk commission be accepted by the United Kingdom Government. In that regard, I repeat that an announcement will be made in the very near future.
The leader of the Liberal Democrats again supported the notion that the economy is at the top of the agenda. I was pleased to see the general welcome for the measures that her colleagues at Westminster—and we—are bringing forward under this Queen’s Speech. Although she speculates about what discussions went on in Cabinet, I am afraid that I am unable to divulge that here today, any more than I would expect Danny Alexander to divulge those matters either. She also referred to the issue of borrowing powers, and this was an announcement that Jane Hutt, Danny Alexander and I made back in October. It is important that the Welsh Government should have borrowing powers, and I am glad to say that that announcement confirmed that, subject to there being an appropriate income stream. There may well be further announcements on that in due course.
I was very pleased to receive a supportive speech from my friend Andrew Davies, the leader of the opposition. It was good to see again that he welcomed, in particular, the Pensions Bill. He is absolutely right: it is this coalition Government in Westminster that is delivering decent pensions for pensioners throughout the whole of the United Kingdom, Wales included. He also mentioned the immigration Bill, which is a very important measure. There will be aspects of that that will require the active assistance of the Welsh Government, and I have no doubt that we can rely upon it to assist. It is, of course, absolutely unacceptable that immigrants should come to this country and expect to abuse our public services, and we intend to put a stop to that.
I was pleased to see Julie Morgan, whom I last saw across the floor of the House of Commons. She mentioned the provisions in the Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill relating to dogs. I am glad to say that the Westminster Government is working closely with the Welsh Government in this regard. I think that she will also welcome the presence of a senior Welsh police officer, Gareth Pritchard, on the working group that will be studying the whole issue of dog provisions in that Bill. Antoinette Sandbach made a very feisty contribution. She mentioned the Pensions Bill. It is good to see that pensioners can, under this Government, expect a pension of something in the region of £144 per week—a decent pension for all pensioners across Wales.
I enjoyed the contribution from Mr Alun Ffred Jones. I was sorry to see him announce his retirement after his many years of distinguished public service in Wales. He mentioned the over-reliance of the UK economy on the financial services sector. To a certain extent, he is right. However, we must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The financial services sector makes an important contribution to the economy of this country. I know that the Welsh Government is encouraging it to be established more firmly in Cardiff, and I hope that he would support that.
Peter Black, again an old friend of mine from my Assembly days, made a very good contribution [Interruption.]when he talked about the importance of the deregulation Bill. There was a very interesting contribution from Mick Antoniw. One thing that I have discovered here is that you have these wonderful computer screens. He made his entire speech with his arms folded. I wondered what that meant, so I looked it up online. It says here that:
‘As children we learn to protect ourselves by hiding behind barriers like furniture or mother's skirt if we felt “threatened”. Gradually, instead of hiding behind objects, we learn to fold our arms tightly across our chests, whenever we feel in danger, uncomfortable or nervous.’
Clearly, actions speak louder than words.
Nick Ramsay made a very spirited contribution to the debate. Again, he referred to the importance of borrowing powers. I would like to refer specifically to Ann Jones. I know that Ann Jones feels very strongly, and is very sincere, about the issue of sprinklers. I agree fully that this is a devolved competence, and that is something that I respect. All that I can say to her is this: every single house builder I have spoken to in Wales thinks that the sprinkler Measure is a retrograde measure that will damage the house-building industry. Frankly, I think that she ought to understand that there are differences of opinion, and those differences of opinion have to be respected.
Will you take an intervention on that point?
No. I have listened to you, and I hope that you have listened to me. [Interruption.]
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
Ann, please. [Interruption.] Ann, sit down.
Finally, Mr Deputy Presiding Officer, there was an excellent contribution from Mark Isherwood, who brought the proceedings to an end. It has been a great pleasure to appear here today; I look forward to appearing before the Assembly again, and I wish the Assembly every success in its workings in the future.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
I call on the First Minister to reply to the debate.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer.
It has been a very useful and lively debate this afternoon. Of course, it is important to note what was in the Queen’s Speech and what was not in it. I share Leanne Wood’s view that this is an incongruous process, in that the Secretary of State comes here. This is not aimed at the Secretary of State and his party; I think that it would be incongruous if it were to be a Labour Secretary of State. It does not happen in Scotland. If the argument is that it gives an opportunity for Assembly Members to scrutinise what is happening at Westminster, well, two hours a year is not a good way of doing it. I do not believe, as the leader of the opposition put it, that it is essential for the union; otherwise it would take place in Scotland as well. However, we are where we are as a result of the Government of Wales Act as it is presently drafted.
We have worked together, it is true, with the UK Government, particularly in terms of Wylfa B and the immense opportunities for job creation that exist there, and we will continue to do so. We have worked with UK Government when it comes to electrification, not just of the south Wales main line to Swansea, but also of the south Wales Valleys network in its entirety. One word of caution that I would have to add is that it is absolutely essential that the rolling stock that operates on the Valleys metro is not elderly rolling stock that is sent to Wales from elsewhere; that would be the wrong message. Nor would it be right, for example, for the new high-speed trains coming down the electrified track not to have any catering facilities. These are issues that need to be examined carefully to ensure that we get the maximum benefit from the metro and from the south Wales main line.
I listened carefully to what the Secretary of State and others had to say about some of the Bills that are particularly mentioned in the Liberal Democrat amendments. We are not in a position to support them today—not because they do not have merit, potentially, but because the detail is not yet there. It may well be that the national insurance contributions Bill is of great merit, but the detail needs to be there. While it may well be welcome on the part of businesses, of course, increasing VAT was not welcomed by them, and businesses will not thrive until there is a significant upturn in the economy, because they will not have a sufficient customer base to be successful in the future.
I cannot agree with what the leader of the opposition said when, basically, he implied that things have never been so good in Wales. It is right to say that our construction figures are significantly better in 2012 than those of the UK as a whole, and the same applies for production, and I believe that that is because of the interventions of the Welsh Government showing the way for the rest of the UK.
There are still some difficulties that we face as a society. One particular concern of mine is the destruction of legal aid—I cannot put it more highly than that. It will see the end of many family law firms in Wales. Without question, they will not be able to compete for the new contracts; it will be larger companies that will do that. It is inevitable that, as costs are cut, we will see people who are in court for very serious offences being represented by very junior lawyers, taking us to a position in which some of the southern states of America are at the moment. Alternatively, they will represent themselves, and I know from experience that where that happens, trials last three to four times longer. As a result of that, there is no saving in terms of legal aid.
I listened carefully to what was said by the opposition speakers. I heard Nick Ramsay make a plea not to have childish ranting without any hint of irony with regard to the conduct of some of its own Members, though not him. I listened carefully to Mark Isherwood, as I always do, because he is worth listening to. He accused us on these benches of being post-imperialists of the left. I plead guilty to that. That might mean, of course, that he is an imperialist of the right, and no doubt he is regretting the fact, privately, that there is no provision to repeal the Government of India Act 1935, to send the British Raj back to India. That would be the logical conclusion of the position that he took.
With regard to the deregulation Bill, it sounds fine—they are fine words. However, this Government would not support any Bill that would interfere with or undermine the minimum wage. We would not support any Bill that would seek to reduce the amount of protection that workers receive when they go to work in the morning. Every year, I attend workers’ memorial day and every year there are people who have lost members of their family or who have seen members of their family injured through doing nothing more than going to work. That is under the current system. Anything that interferes with that will lead to more injuries and, sadly, more deaths.
I will turn to specific examples in the Queen’s Speech and today’s debate. One issue that is very current is that of Europe. I found it very strange that a Government’s legislative programme was produced to the House of Commons, and that Ministers were allowed to vote not to oppose an amendment that the Government itself opposed. The issue of Europe is important to all of us, not least we in Wales, who benefit so well financially from our membership of the European Union. We will be in the middle of another round of structural programmes from 2014 onwards and we do not know whether the money will be there when the programmes end. That will mean, inevitably, that there may be programmes that are put in place as a result of European money that could not be completed if there were to be a vote—though I do not believe that this will happen—to take the UK out of the EU. That would have a substantial knock-on effect on Welsh finances. I do not believe that it is consistent to argue on the one hand that Wales should remain part of the United Kingdom and yet leave the European Union. The two unions are important to Wales in my view. I do not believe that Wales should disappear off as an island of its own, as was suggested, nor do I believe that the UK should do that either by leaving the European Union.
Let us look at some of the legislation where there is some scope for practical co-operation. The Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Bill is one example of that, as it spans devolved and non-devolved matters. It is an example of the circumstances mentioned in my letter to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee in 2011. It enables a joined-up approach to a complex set of problems, including the control of dogs. As the Minister said in his written statement, we are committed to ensuring that out-of-control and dangerous dogs are dealt with effectively. We want to see a statutory framework that will make it unlawful for dogs to be dangerously out of control, including on private premises. We also want proper protection for assistance dogs. It is important that those laws are put in place to ensure the protection of the public and to ensure the welfare of animals. That is why we want to see responsible dog ownership that is good for the animals and the public at large.
There is also the water Bill. We are negotiating with the UK Government to bring forward some provisions that will benefit Wales in this Bill. The concern that we have is that there is no issue that is more emotive in Welsh politics and history than water. It should be a matter of principle—and it is a principle that this Government holds—that the control of resources, particularly water, within the borders of Wales should rest with the Welsh Government and, ultimately, with the National Assembly for Wales. It is not right—and I can see the logic of this argument—that we, as a Government, should have residual powers over English towns, as we do at the moment because of the current water border. However, I do not see that that equates with us having to lose control of areas of Wales, or not gain control of water in areas of Wales that are not currently within the control of the Welsh Government. The geographical border should be the border and nothing else.
I draw Members’ attention to the immigration Bill. Even though immigration is not devolved, the Bill’s provisions could have significant implications for devolved areas. We do not know exactly what the proposals are yet but we can guess that they will involve restricting access to various services. When it comes to restricting access to the NHS, that is a devolved matter. There may well be some debate over that but it is the view of this Government that that is a devolved matter, clearly. There would need to be agreement if that particular proposal, as part of the Bill, should be taken forward. We will look at the proposals affecting devolved matters very carefully in order to decide whether they should apply here. The same is true of the Care Bill: we have the Social Services and Well-being (Wales) Bill that can act as a vehicle for that and the Deputy Minister has already outlined through a statement what her views are as regards taking forward care provision in Wales. We are ahead of the game when it comes to that particular issue.
I will give way to Simon Thomas.
I am grateful to the First Minister. Specifically on the Care Bill, in England the proposal is to fund that through inheritance tax, yet that is not a devolved issue; it is UK-wide taxation. Have you had any discussions with the Secretary of State and the UK Government about how that resource will be made available in Wales?
Not as yet, but it clearly would be wrong for a UK-wide tax to be applied solely for a provision in England. That cannot be right in principle.
We then have the draft Wales Bill. We welcome the fact that there is a draft Bill in place, as it means that there is an opportunity to amend it and add provisions before it takes its final form for introduction in Parliament. However, it has to be reiterated that doing nothing is not an option. This Assembly has made its views absolutely clear in terms of the direction it believes Wales should take with regard to part 1 of the Silk commission. It is a view that is shared by the Treasury, and in fairness to the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, he has made his views absolutely clear. It is important also for those of us who believe passionately in Scotland’s membership of the UK that we can say to the people of Scotland, ‘You do not need independence; devolution can be developed within the framework of the UK’. A substantial package needs to be delivered in order for that argument to be made and bolstered. If it is not delivered, it undermines the argument not just for Wales, but particularly for Scotland.
I listened carefully to the heated debate that took place in terms of the sprinklers legislation. I can only say that it was supported by all parties in this Chamber. It is not possible for the Government to ignore a law that has been passed by the Assembly anymore than it would be right for me to call on a Government Minister in London to ignore a law passed in Parliament; it just cannot be done. We can have different views, of course, with regard to the sprinklers legislation. I understand that, and they have been aired within this Chamber. However, to ignore a law that has been passed is simply impossible.
First Minister, you will know that I have asked you to raise this issue with the Secretary of State. I have publicly challenged the Secretary of State this afternoon to meet me, along with anyone else he wants to bring to that meeting. I am not frightened of the opposition from some of the house builders, but there are house builders in England who are embracing this. If he will not meet me, will you undertake to meet him on my behalf to discuss sprinklers? Perhaps he does not want to meet me, and I do not mind.
I am sceptical of the figures produced by one set of builders, particularly, in terms of the sprinklers legislation. As we know, that legislation will save lives. The one thing we have to remember is that we have set in train a consultation process where we see the devolution of stamp duty; we believe that we can put in place a system of stamp duty in Wales that would more than compensate for any extra cost that builders might have to meet as a result of the sprinklers legislation.
I cannot promise to bring the Secretary of State to you. The devolved powers of the Welsh Government do not yet extend that far, and we have no current plans—I am sure the Secretary of State will be relieved to know—to seek that power under part 2 of the Silk commission. [Interruption.] ‘No current plans’ is what I said.
In terms of what the Bill itself says, it is a matter of principle for us as a Government—and, indeed, this is a principle supported by two other parties in this Chamber, including the Conservative party—that the electoral system of the National Assembly should be determined here in Wales. That is a fundamental issue of democracy. That position has not changed.
In relation to the proposals that have been put forward, we agree with the need for fixed terms. If there is a five-year Parliament there should be a five-year Assembly. That is a sensible way forward. We do not see the need to change the present legislation with regard to dual candidacy. With regard to the ban on Assembly Members being Members of Parliament, if someone became one or the other during the course of serving a term as another kind of representative, would they have to resign there and then, or at the subsequent election? There is little logic, in my view, for saying that there should be a ban on AMs being MPs, but not MSPs, MEPs or councillors—or even peers, for that matter. If there is a logical argument, it is said, for banning dual mandates for AMs and MPs, then it would extend, logically, to all positions that are held in any legislature. I can feel the daggers being thrown at me from the benches opposite, from the one Member of the Upper House who would be affected—although there are others who are elected in other roles who would also be affected. Surely, if it is right for one, it is right for all. That, surely, is the logical position.
We know that there is much to do to improve the UK’s position in the world—we acknowledge that as a Government—and to improve Wales’s economy and Wales’s public services. We need to make sure that we have the tools for the job, and that involves the implementation of a substantial package of Silk part 1.
On the Queen’s Speech, it is a legislative programme where we see some merit in some of the Bills; on others, we need more detail, and, on others still, we do not support their fundamental thrust. Where we can work with the UK Government, we will do so. There will be occasions when that is simply not possible because of a difference of opinion. However, as far as we are concerned, our aim in Wales is, quite simply to create a society and an economy based on the principles of fairness, social justice, equality of opportunity and of growth. On that, the Welsh Government will not be found failing.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
In accordance with Standing Order No. 11.15, the Business Committee decided that any vote necessary would take place at the end of this debate.
Y Dirprwy Lywydd / The Deputy Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree amendment 1 to NDM5245. Does any Member object? I see that there are objections, therefore we will take recorded votes.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment agreed: For 39, Against 18, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 27, Against 29, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 29, Against 29. Abstain 0.
As there was an equality of votes, the Deputy Presiding Officer used his casting vote in accordance with Standing Order No. 6.20(ii).
Result of the vote on amendment 4 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 18, Against 29, Abstain 10.
Result of the vote on amendment 5 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 18, Against 29, Abstain 9.
Result of the vote on amendment 6 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 18, Against 29, Abstain 10.
Result of the vote on amendment 7 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 18, Against 29, Abstain 11.
Result of the vote on amendment 8 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 18, Against 40, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 9 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment agreed: For 58, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 10 to motion NDM5245.
Amendment not agreed: For 18, Against 40, Abstain 0.
Cynnig NDM5245 as amended:
The National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the content of the UK Government’s legislative programme 2013/2014.
Regrets that a Government of Wales Bill implementing the recommendations of the Silk Commission on Devolution in Wales was not included in the legislative programme.
Welcomes the UK Government commitment to the Draft Wales Bill.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5245 as amended.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5245 as amended.
Motion agreed: For 40, Against 0, Abstain 18.
Motion NDM5240 Jocelyn Davies
Notes the Finance Committee’s report on Invest-to-Save which was laid in the Table Office on 26 March 2013.
I move the motion.
Invest to save has been a theme running through the Finance Committee’s work for most of this year. It came up repeatedly during our scrutiny of the budget last autumn and, as a result, we decided to take a closer look at the scheme. I would like to thank all of those who supported the inquiry and gave evidence, particularly those who hosted visits from members of the committee.
Members of the committee visited half a dozen projects across Wales to see, on the ground, the impact that these projects can have. There is no doubt that the concept of spending a little today to save a lot tomorrow is one that appeals to all Members in all parties. Wales’s Barnett funding is unlikely to rise sharply in the short term, so making the best of the money that we have must be a priority.
From our inquiry, we have learned that invest to save works. We have heard and seen how services have been transformed and how the savings generated have allowed the initial loans to be repaid and recycled. In fact, the Minister for Finance told us on several occasions that this is the only scheme of its type in the UK. If so, we need to promote it more—not just within Wales, but beyond, too. However, for all of these good points, it is not a panacea, nor is the process perfect, and we make nine recommendations that we believe can make a good scheme even better.
We made a couple of recommendations to ensure that no good project is rejected because it is too small or because it does not fit the scheme. Some of the biggest money-savers have required relatively small investments; for example, the National Botanic Garden of Wales. We believe that projects should be judged on their merit and their potential to save money. Therefore, we have rejected the idea of themed bidding rounds and have called for the minimum threshold to be halved back to £100,000. We also recommend that only projects that promise real, measurable savings should receive such funding and that the Minister should ensure that, if more good bids start rolling in, more money is found to back them.
Invest-to-save projects all go before an assessment panel, known as ‘the dragon’s den’. We heard examples where bidders had to explain complex ideas to lay people. As a result, we recommend that all of the assessment panels should include at least one person with a high level of expertise, particularly where it applies to projects that may be technical in nature.
Promoting the scheme is an important issue. While the NHS has embraced it enthusiastically, other parts of the public sector have been slower in the uptake. We recommend that the Welsh Government continues to promote the scheme actively, particularly to organisations beyond the NHS.
Finally, Ministers have been clear that invest to save and the regional collaboration funds for local government are separate schemes. We hope that the regional collaboration fund does not just become the invest-to-save funding that you do not pay back. We will be watching how the Minister for Local Government and Government Business takes that forward. In summary, the invest-to-save fund is a made in Wales success story, generating real savings and recycling money in the public sector. We hope that our inquiry and recommendations will make it even better for future rounds.
First, I want to put on record my appreciation of the way the investigation was carried out and ably chaired by Jocelyn Davies and the willingness of the Minister to engage with us to aid the production of this report. I am heartened by the Minister’s comments to Jocelyn Davies, the committee Chair, when she said:
‘I welcome this report of your inquiry into the Invest-to-Save Fund, which I consider to be helpful, pertinent and will assist us in our thinking to further improve the way the Fund operates.’
Rhodri Glyn Thomas took the Chair at 5.35 p.m.
This is a good news story. In Welsh Government terms, a relatively small sum of money, recycled each year, producing real savings—not accountancy savings or cost reallocation, but real savings—for the organisations concerned. As someone who introduced invest to save at the City and County of Swansea Council in the late 1990s, I am pleased to see it is being used at the National Assembly. I was also pleased with the methodology used when we collected evidence, as I understand it—provable fact as opposed to a standard Assembly definition of the views of a series of invited individuals.
I intend to discuss some of the projects, which will be unusual in that the Gwent frailty project will not be one of them. Wrexham energy efficiency and carbon reduction: £930,000 invested; £1.25 million in savings since 2009-10. The savings are ongoing. So this is investment that is being spent early on but where the savings will come in over a long period of time. The NHS e-expenses scheme: £186,000 invested; projected savings of £370,000 a year. Bridgend County Borough Council had the ‘improving your space’ scheme. There is a reason why local authorities in general do not use it, because they, unlike the health service, have reserves; they use invest to save but borrow from within their own council reserves rather than applying for money. However, Bridgend used £1.4 million for investment, which produced recurrent annual savings of £446,000. This was an opportunity to rationalise the estate and save substantial sums of money. Cardiff and Vale University Local Health Board enhanced rapid discharge scheme: £430,000 invested, and £58,000 a year saved, which was considered to be a disappointing return, because it will take about eight years to pay it back. This really is making substantial progress—money spent up front that is benefitting the community, benefitting the organisation and saving money without having any effect on services whatsoever. This is building in efficiencies. One of the things that we often talk about is cuts, but if we can build efficiencies in to the system, which invest to save gives us an opportunity to do, that is the best of all worlds. Merthyr Tydfil County Borough Council spent a £217,000 investment on introducing an e-procurement scheme and is projecting £15 million savings over five years. I think that that is probably exceptionally optimistic, but it will certainly gain back more than the amount of money that it has invested.
There are a lot of other worthy projects, some of which have a direct relationship that is more difficult to see. However, it is important that we take this forward and support it. A tremendous amount of work has been done by the Minister, but there has also been work done by the health service, local authorities and others.
I want to talk now about the National Botanic Garden of Wales. That was a really simple scheme, in the sense that we knew exactly what it was doing. It was putting in solar panels and it was saving a substantial amount of money over a period of time. We knew that it was going to work and the garden knew that it was going to work. Unfortunately, the amount of money that it needed was substantially under the £200,000. That is why, as the Chair, Jocelyn Davies said, that it is really important that no bid is turned down for being too small. For some organisations, like the botanic garden, saving £40,000, £50,000 or £100,000 a year is a substantial amount of money.
There are many small organisations that can benefit from this. The danger is that, if we go only to big organisations, it is going to be another health fund, which I do not think is really the aim of it. It really is the key to ensure that all organisations can bid for it. Themed bids may deter good projects that do not fit into the theme. People may lack confidence and ask whether it is worth putting a project forward if the fund is all themed, or think that they may have to wait for a couple of years or find another method of funding. It is important that we have a situation where all good projects get supported.
The money is being recycled and it is working. The invest-to-save scheme has worked excellently for the people of Wales, and I commend the Minister for bringing it in. I believe that it will continue to work well for the people of Wales, and that it will continue to save money and improve our public services in what, currently, are very difficult times.
I am pleased to be able to contribute to this debate this afternoon. I also thank the Chair of the committee for her leadership on this issue, and the clerk and his team for their efforts throughout this inquiry.
Invest to save has provided more than £66 million to 56 projects from rounds one to six, so given the impact that this scheme has had on delivering savings for public bodies, it was appropriate for us as a committee to conduct this inquiry.
I accept that the main objective of the scheme is to deliver significant cash-releasing efficiency gains. However, it is important to ensure that funding is spread fairly across projects in Wales. While it is up to public service bodies to apply for funding, it is important that the Welsh Government does all that it can to strategically invest in funds that will deliver for communities the length and breadth of Wales.
We all accept that there is a need to look at how public services are delivered, and while invest to save has demonstrated some good results and has delivered some very real outcomes, there is always room for improvement. I am, therefore, pleased that the Minister has accepted almost all of the report’s recommendations, and that serious consideration is being given to recommendation 9.
In turning to the recommendations, recommendation 2 argues that the thresholds should be returned to £100,000. I have previously raised this issue with the Minister in the Chamber, who has talked about flexibility in relation to smaller projects. I am given to understand that £90,000 has been allocated from the fund to establish collaborative local government farm estate services. This move is very much to be welcomed, as we heard evidence that the £200,000 threshold is a potential barrier to achieving savings in smaller projects. Given that £90,000 has been allocated from the fund, perhaps the Minister, in her response to this debate, would be kind enough to confirm that, even though the threshold will be returned to £100,000, flexibility is already built into the system and that each project will be considered on its own merit, even for projects under £100,000.
As the Chair of the committee said, the evidence that we received certainly favoured flexibility. Indeed, David Sutherland, head of technology, property and customer services at Bridgend County Borough Council, said that the fund should concentrate on the proportion of savings that it can achieve in relation to a particular project.
I am also pleased that the Welsh Government is taking positive steps to promote the invest-to-save fund and to encourage awareness of it among smaller organisations. Therefore, I wish to draw attention to recommendation 7, which calls on the Welsh Government to promote case studies, encourage institutions to emulate successful schemes and champion invest to save through the public sector leadership group.
We heard a great deal of evidence throughout the inquiry about the success of invest to save, and it was pleasing to see that invest-to-save money has been recycled to fund new projects, as demonstrated in the supplementary budget for 2012-13. I think that all Members would share the view that the Welsh Government should ensure that best practice is shared across potential projects so that they can be successful in applying for funding in future rounds. This view has been shared by the Auditor General for Wales and the National Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee. I note that the Minister has taken this on board, and that she and her officials are actively promoting the scheme.
I also want to look at how effectively projects are managed. The committee recommended that all projects in receipt of invest-to-save funding should receive a visit six to 12 months after the initial award, or when repayments begin. This recommendation follows the case of Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, where funding was used to introduce lean systems into its children’s services. However, problems arose during the second phase of the scheme, and it was abandoned. I accept that this case was very different to the evidence that we received throughout the inquiry, and that there was no evidence to suggest that the invest-to-save scheme contributed to its failure. That said, I am pleased that, when questioned about whether the monitoring was focused on financial repayments at the expense of impact, the Minister said that lessons have been learned as a result of this project and as a result of the evaluation.
It is important that the Welsh Government effectively monitors not only the financial repayments, but that it seriously monitors the actual impact on service delivery. I also think that the Minister should monitor how the invest-to-save fund works within the Welsh Government’s overall efficiency funding. Perhaps she could tell us this afternoon how the fund has worked in conjunction, for example, with the efficiency and innovation board, to save money where possible and to deliver good-quality public services across Wales. Finally, I once again thank the Chair, the clerk and his team for their work on this inquiry. I look forward to hearing more about invest-to-save as these recommendations are implemented.
I call on Ken Skates.
I am grateful to you for allowing me to speak today in this important debate. I begin by thanking the Chair and the committee for their excellent report. What is absolutely clear in the report is that invest-to-save works, not just on a theoretical level, but on a practical level. In this vein, I very much welcome the recent announcement that a further £11 million of improvement projects will be funded to help to transform service delivery.
One of the most important local examples of where invest-to-save has worked in north-east Wales is the fantastic work done in helping to reduce energy use and therefore carbon emissions in Wrexham County Borough Council. By using £930,000 of Welsh Government invest-to-save funding, it has helped to deliver a range of projects that have helped to reduce energy consumption. I believe that the result has been that the council has achieved a greater than 30% reduction in its carbon emissions since 2005 and avoided a total estimated cost increase of just under £1.4 million for energy over the same period. Importantly, what has made the project such as success there has been the political and administrative leadership on the council. This strong leadership has meant that the council is now chasing down a 50% carbon reduction target across all council activities by 2016, meaning that invest-to-save has become a cultural change in the organisation and not just an innovative funding scheme. I do believe that without strong leadership and commitment at a strategic level, the impact of invest-to-save to bring real change in our public services will be truncated.
As the report demonstrates, there has been only one successful application from higher education institutions to date. So, I look forward to seeing how the Welsh Government can work with the sector to ensure that more bids come forward from both further education and higher education in future years.
I make my final point by highlighting the one area where I feel the invest-to-save principle can make its most important contribution; that area is social care. Having worked with the Deputy Minister for Social Services on the development of the When I am Ready scheme for care leavers, the invest-to-save principle has been in my mind as a much better model that we could adopt to support local authorities and other service deliverers to reshape important areas of social care in times of financial restraint. The latest statistics show that the number of children in care has risen by 6% this year and by 24% in the past five years. Of course, this brings with it significant public service funding pressures in forthcoming years, because of the poorer outcomes associated with young people being in care.
The obvious difficulty—again, the report hints at this—is how, if you apply an outcomes-based approach in areas of policy such as this, you can clearly define and quantifiably measure successful outcomes. As a way of providing up-front funding for prevention and early intervention services, I hope that the Welsh Government will push forward with the good early signs of support that it has given on this issue and carry out exploratory work into areas like child and adult social care, where invest-to-save can make a transformative difference.
I applaud the Finance Committee’s report and look forward to its central themes being taken forward in the next few years.
I too welcome this opportunity to contribute to the discussion today and I thank the Chair and the staff of the committee for their work in driving these discussions forward.
The invest-to-save fund was established by the previous Government, the One Wales Government. So, perhaps we would be expected to be supportive of the principle, even though the record of the fund is one that we can all be proud of—so far, anyway. We all understand the increasing pressure that is on the public sector and the third sector following the financial crisis and we see the need to assist those sectors, therefore, to invest in projects and schemes that will create savings.
We had a great deal of discussion on the intention to ensure a repayment of the funding. It is possible that the Minister will remember those discussions. I was personally in favour of that, especially remembering that that was the scheme that we adopted in the economic renewal programme a year later. Despite that, I know that not every organisation welcomes the need to repay and it is difficult, if not impossible, for some of them to do so. It is not a scheme for everyone and I saw that during our inquiry, where some groups felt that they had perhaps gone to the wrong fund, namely the invest-to-save fund, and felt that they should rather have gone to another fund. However, for the appropriate schemes, it is an excellent fund.
Of course, the £66 million that Paul Davies talked about only represents 5% of the capital funding spent by the Government. The disappointment, which we have heard about already, is the fact that such a high percentage of the funding has gone to health bodies—56% of the funding—and 31% to local government, and that there is a lack of applications from the education sector. We must remember that there is a great deal of pressure on the health service and that there is nothing wrong with the health boards trying to ensure savings. However, I think that we would all agree that the Government does need to seek a wider range of bodies over the next few years. That is why, as we have heard from several Members this afternoon, the committee recommended that the threshold should not be raised to £200,000, but that it should be returned to £100,000, and we welcomed the flexibility that I hope that the Minister will envisage as being possible within the fund. In addition to that, raising the threshold would create an unnecessary barrier for some bodies, such as the botanical garden—we have heard about that as well.
With such an innovative scheme as this one, we need to ensure that there is consistent monitoring and regular evaluation to ensure that the fund achieves its aims. We do get the impression, even though it is not true of all bodies, that they felt that the fact that the funding had been repaid was sufficient to show that there had been savings. While that is a factor, the true savings are likely to be mid or long-term savings, and even though working more effectively is a factor that, in and of itself, is not sufficient. As far as I see it, it will not be possible to make a detailed evaluation of the success of the fund for a few years yet. That is, in some cases we will need to wait a few years before seeing that savings have been achieved in some bodies. We also need to see that those savings are maintained over a period of time.
On the whole, therefore, the fund has been relatively successful so far and I am sure that we would all recommend continuing with it, remembering that less funding is likely to come from Government coffers over the next few years. So, my final suggestion would be that we need to keep an eye on two things, namely ensuring that a wider range of bodies take part and that there is regular monitoring and evaluation in order to ensure that the fund reaches the right objectives.
I am pleased to speak briefly in this debate. This was an excellent report, and I must admit that I thoroughly enjoyed it in a way that you do not always enjoy reports. First, I thank the Chair for her leadership and I am thankful for the help from the clerks. Most of the points have been made by fellow members of the committee and the others who have contributed, so I do not want to repeat them, except to say that it is a popular scheme. We have to try to get it out of just the local authorities and health boards, and get more of it in education. We have to broadcast it more.
I want to talk briefly about my experience of undertaking an individual visit as part of the inquiry. I went to the Welsh analytical prescribing support unit at Llandough hospital. I found this to be a stimulating visit because it showed how good practice could be implemented at the same time as money was being saved. To me, that was the key issue.
The project looked at specific prescribing practices across the NHS, looking at over-prescribing and under-prescribing for some drugs. It resulted in a saving of £5.83 million, which was much more than anticipated. It had been anticipated that £4.68 million would be saved, but this was a much higher amount. The project was done by working locally, working closely with the health boards, putting on workshops, giving information and doing surveys. The project also looked at the particular issues related to GPs in terms of prescribing. I think that its success was due to the detailed discussion at the local level. Obviously, there are particular issues facing GPs in terms of prescribing, and these were all addressed.
Therefore, I thought that that was a really good example of how invest-to-save improved clinical practice, as well as saving money. I felt that there is a huge opportunity to do more of this where we can improve services and practice at the same time as bringing in more money.
I also pass on my thanks to the Chair for the leadership that she showed in producing this report, and of course to the officials who supported us greatly in terms of putting it together.
I am pleased that the Minister has accepted the vast majority of the report’s recommendations in total or in principle. That is very important and it shows the contribution that the committee can make to improve such a scheme. Some of the issues that came up will certainly help to ensure some clarification in terms of how the scheme is applied in future. I noticed—and I think that this point has already been made by Mike Hedges, and an explanation given—that the poor take-up by local government in respect of this is largely due to the fact—as Mike said—that they have reserves, unlike the health bodies, which seem to be using it more. However, we did think that there was an issue about smaller public sector bodies not accessing this fund as they should be, and that it should be promoted to them to ensure that it was not just monopolised by the health boards and so that other bodies were enabled to make use of it.
However, there were certainly some very good examples of local authorities making use of this fund. Again, they have been referred to, particularly the one in Wrexham where—as Ken Skates said—leadership is very important, as was the leadership of my colleague, Aled Roberts, who was then leader of that council. It was a particularly effective scheme that not only led to a greener way of producing energy through solar panels, but also reduced bills for tenants thus helping to tackle fuel poverty. Again, there are clear benefits coming out of that scheme. We have also heard of a similar scheme in terms of the gardens in Carmarthenshire, which are also benefiting tremendously from that scheme.
There were also some pretty poor examples of how the scheme is being used. The report makes reference to the committee’s concern about National Resources Wales’s general use of this fund. The report states,
‘it is not clear to us that this was an invest-to-save project.’
As someone who has some responsibility for computers in the Commission, when someone comes to me and says, ‘I am going to make us save lots of money by investing in a computer project’, I always do a double-take and start to ask questions. Experience has shown me that that does not always happen.
There is also an interesting case study in the report in relation to the lean systems review of children and young people services in Neath Port Talbot. It received invest-to-save funding of nearly £334,000, which is being re-paid by Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council. I am not clear that there were any savings to Neath Port Talbot council from that, but the implementation of that system is certainly cited in various reviews of the children services in Neath and Port Talbot as a particular cause of some of the problems that they encountered as a result of it. I think that we make the case in the report about how important it is that projects are monitored once that investment is made so that we are clear that we are getting the benefits from those projects that we hoped that we would get when we put the money into them. Again, that underlines the need, when you make the assessment of the project, to ensure that everyone is very clear as to what the actual cash benefits are from that invest-to-save project, that the body concerned will be getting money back, and that that money is clearly demonstrated in the case that is put forward. I think that that was a failing in relation to the assessment of the Neath Port Talbot scheme. Although it was an innovative scheme, it certainly caused a lot of problems.
My final point is in relation to the regional collaboration fund. Again, a number of us were confused as to the purpose of this fund when it was introduced. At one stage, it was being touted as an invest-to-save fund, and clearly it is not. However, there are a number of collaboration projects that are looked upon as invest-to-save projects. We have to have a clear distinction here between whether you are funding collaboration, in which case you need to use the regional collaboration fund, or whether you are funding an invest-to-save project, in which case the invest-to-save fund is the way to go. I would hope that, when the Minister for Local Government and Government Business and the Minister for Finance get together to discuss this report, we can have some clarity about how the two funds are being used. We need to ensure that there is no overlap, as some of us suspected that there was, in how they are being utilised.
I welcome this report on the Finance Committee’s inquiry into the invest-to-save fund, which I consider helpful and pertinent, as Mike Hedges said. It will assist us in improving our thinking about how the fund operates. I also put on record my appreciation of the hard work of the Finance Committee in collecting evidence and presenting its findings. I also welcome the positive contributions from across the Chamber in the debate this afternoon.
Furthering the efficiency and effectiveness of our public services in Wales is a high priority for the Welsh Government, as is the need to make optimum use of the resources that we have available at our disposal. This is about making the best of the money that we have, as the chair of the Finance Committee said in her opening remarks to this debate. The necessity to find different ways to deliver services that are more cost-effective but, at the same time, maintain or improve on quality, has never been so great. The Welsh Government’s invest-to-save fund is supporting innovation in public service delivery and helping to bring about real benefits through service transformation. Julie Morgan described that very vividly in relation to the project that she visited at Llandough Hospital. Savings of £5.83 million have been made in the prescribing practices scheme, which has improved clinical practice and saved money, as the Member said. Investments from the fund started in 2010. Seven funding rounds later, over £75 million has been invested and 65 projects supported. I am heartened that the committee’s overall conclusion from its inquiry is that invest-to-save is an excellent scheme that improves services to the public and generates real savings for the public purse. I also accept the committee’s findings that there are areas where the fund might be developed further to make it even more effective. I am happy to accept its recommendations for improvements.
I would like to draw attention to some of the key points that I have made in response to this important inquiry. The invest-to-save approach clearly works. The provision of short-term transitional funding can help bridge the gap between project implementation and the delivery of financial and longer-term benefits. All bids for invest-to-save need to demonstrate that they will ultimately lead to financial savings. The need to repay invest-to-save funding instils an additional discipline in project delivery. We are seeing a change of mindset and a maturity from project promoters, with greater recognition that the continued provision of non-returnable grant for improvement programmes that generate cash savings is no longer sustainable, and that the future lies with investing to save. The outcomes focus, as Ken Skates described, is part of a new discipline also in preventative spend and service transformation.
There has been a 100% take-up of available invest-to-save funding over the past three years. This included £17.6 million arising from repayments, which has been collected and reinvested in-year to support new improvement initiatives. The fund supports those delivering public services in Wales, and it has been—as Members have acknowledged and as the Finance Committee inquiry recognised—extensively used by the NHS. Local government has also made use of it in the ways that have been described—there is the Wrexham scheme in particular. I visited that scheme, and Aled Roberts may have shown me around the combined heat and power project. That is a project that has been taken forward. We will promote the scheme more widely through networks and events that public service bodies attend. We need to make sure that education institutions are further engaged, particularly higher education institutions, as has been identified, and to open up the opportunities to other bodies.
I share the committee’s view that the best practice in allocating funding is to continue with the existing approach of supporting the best bids available, irrespective of theme. That was an important part of the scrutiny that is helpful to me as the Minister for Finance. There are initiatives and areas of activity that are proven to bring about improvements. Consequently, I have strengthened the alignment of the fund to the public service leadership group, chaired by the Minister for local government. Funding also targets high-priority initiatives that have been identified by public sector partners. Good examples include the £5.9 million investment to help to establish the national procurement service and support for the public service leadership group’s national assets working group work programme, which led, as Paul Davies mentioned, to the £90,000 towards establishing the collaborative local government farm estate shared services. That came about as a result of the national assets working group programme.
That leads me to the threshold of the invest-to-save scheme, which has generated much discussion. There is consensus as to its purpose in assisting the targeting of strategic projects that have to be additional and represent good value for money. It can also help to contain the fund’s administrative overhead for applicants and the Welsh Government alike. The issues to be addressed concern the limit at which the threshold is set and how the threshold is applied. I have kept this aspect of the fund under close review. Prompted by your inquiry, I recognise that more needs to be done to explain how the threshold is applied and I will address this in revised guidance in readiness for the next funding round. At this time, I will also consider project bids of £100,000 and above from the smaller public sector bodies, such as those sponsored by the Welsh Government, and build flexibility into the system and the guidance, as Paul Davies has advised.
Learning from the experience of adopting new approaches to public service delivery and capturing and cascading this knowledge is essential. Again, the committee’s endorsement of our approach to this through published reports, case studies, and the link to the public service leadership group, is welcome. We have case studies prepared for 19 projects, all of which have been published and circulated via the Welsh Government’s website and other channels. We are looking for emerging good practice from projects to be shared across the public sector, and progress on this has been good. Another local authority example is Flintshire County Council’s Flintshire Connects project. It sought advice from the invest-to-save-backed One Newport Information Station. [Interruption.] A Conservative authority at the time—Newport, that is—which is now Labour.
It is essential that the opportunities presented by this positive engagement are taken up fully by the wider public service. I am going to take this forward by identifying the key points of success in each strand of service change and innovation for national transfer across Wales. It is about learning from the projects, receiving reports, and establishing evaluation arrangements—Ieuan Wyn Jones mentioned evaluation. Of course, this is critical in learning the lessons, which we have done, as Peter Black said, from the Neath Port Talbot project. We also have universities engaging with this—there is a knowledge transfer partnership between the Welsh Government and Swansea University’s centre for innovative ageing, which has been developing an impact assessment toolkit to look at the quality and cost of integrated health and social care delivery services for older people. That is for the models of integrated services that are now being funded through invest-to-save across Wales.
Finally, I would like to say that not only have we recently announced £11 million of new investments, but, today, I am announcing a further investment of £2.5 million, including £1.9 million for a project to provide high-quality services to elderly and frail people in north Wales, the Betsi Cadwaladr enhanced care project. I am also investing in Hywel Dda’s digital dictation project, which is also a project that is sponsored by the public service leadership group’s national assets working group. There is also Powys County Council’s project to develop a funding model to regenerate Brecon town centre, which, again, is a very different project. So, it is an innovative scheme, and it works. It supports public service organisations to meet the challenge of delivering quality services within reducing budgets, and it is a practical example of such support. I welcome the Finance Committee’s engagement in scrutiny of this fund.
I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee, Jocelyn Davies, to respond to the debate.
I thank Members for their contributions to this debate; I think that it was slightly better tempered than the previous debate this afternoon. We got off to a good start with Mike Hedges, who is a very active Member of the committee. This inquiry was of great interest to him. In his contribution, he demonstrated why he had been giving his support for invest-to-save money going back many years. We are very fortunate in our committee in being able to call on his long experience in local government. I thank him for putting on record impressive examples of investing to save. He also offered us a possible explanation as to why local authorities are not taking this fund up—they are able to borrow internally so perhaps do not need to access this. I also thank him for elaborating on the botanic garden project and the need, which is mentioned in our recommendations, for support for smaller projects of less than £200,000, which is the current threshold.
In our report, we mention a number of such projects, apart from that of the botanic garden. There was the introduction of an integrated electronic NHS web expenses system, which, for an investment of £125,000, saved over £400,000 a year. So, you can see the scale of savings that can be obtained even from quite small investments. Wrexham came up in the report again, as Aled Roberts will be delighted to hear—an investment of £106,000 saved £1.2 million over three years on the wraparound care provision. So, there are examples of quite impressive savings as a result of small sums being invested.
Paul Davies told us that he wanted to see even more spread across the public sector. He also supported the lower threshold, but wanted flexibility within that and I would agree with him. I think that Paul would acknowledge, though, that the NHS wanted the threshold to be at £200,000, but, as it is the biggest recipient of the fund, I can hardly blame it for that. Paul made a very good point about best practice—it should be shared and we are certainly not getting that message across at the moment in the way that we should. He also told us about the need for monitoring and proper evaluation. The Neath project is probably a good example of why evaluation is needed.
I am glad that Ken Skates made a contribution today, because it is good to see a non-committee member contribute to the debate. You gave us some good examples from north Wales—Wrexham again. The project that you mentioned was not just about invest-to-save, but tackled climate change. It seems that Wrexham is a bit of a repeat offender in accessing this fund, and why not? Your point was about strong leadership. I agree with that, and there are some examples in the report. I also agree with Ken’s assessment that it is disappointing that higher education has not made more use of this, because, after all, this is an interest-free loan, so you would think that more organisations would want to access it. In its evidence to us, the National Botanic Garden of Wales told us that it had accidentally stumbled across the scheme. Therefore, perhaps we ought to be focusing upon the promotion of the scheme.
Ieuan Wyn Jones reminded us of the importance of this fund’s focusing on schemes that genuinely save money. He is quite right that other funds are available for other purposes. Perhaps we ought to pay tribute to Andrew Davies, who created this fund when he was Minister for finance under the One Wales Government; I am sure that he would be delighted that Jane Hutt has continued with it. The reason, of course, why Jane Hutt can continue with it is that repayments are recycled, which is a very good point to make. Ieuan also said that he wanted to see a wider range of bodies accessing this or the potential of the fund will not be realised, and I agree with that.
Julie Morgan, I am glad that you enjoyed this inquiry. Perhaps our asset management inquiry will not be quite as exciting as this one. We all benefited from your visit to Llandough hospital, because you brought back the news of fabulous savings—£5.83 million was saved by the project, which is very impressive indeed. However, it was not just a matter of the realisation of savings; the improvement to the service was just as important.
I would like to thank Peter Black for thanking our officials. We sometimes forget them, and they did work very hard on this. Peter also mentioned the poor take-up of this fund by local government. Again, it is interest-free, so you wonder why the take-up was poor. We did not really discover that from local authorities, although I acknowledge that Mike Hedges has offered an explanation to us. They do not really find this attractive, and I wonder whether they prefer grants, and are more used to grants than to repaying loans. Perhaps, with the leadership of Wrexham, more of this will happen. Wrexham seems to be getting its fair share of mentions this afternoon in relation to this fund, and we can be pleased about that.
The National Resources Wales body was also mentioned by Peter. Was it an invest-to-save project? I do not think the committee was really convinced that it was, although we acknowledged that the Minister was entitled to do as he pleases. However, we were not convinced that the savings, which have to be demonstrated in order to access funds, will actually be realised. Peter also mentioned Neath and the lean systems approach, and a full evaluation of that did not expect savings to be made for some time. The Neath project was supported and encouraged by several departments and enjoyed financial support, but, of course, that is no guarantee of success.
I thank the Minister for her contribution and her appreciation of our efforts in this. It is nice when we can say that we have looked at something that is really good, but which can be improved. I hope that our recommendations and conclusions prove to be helpful to the Minister and the Government. I am also pleased that she acknowledges that the criticisms that we made, even though they were quite small, were constructive. She acknowledges that the scheme needs to be promoted more widely, and that best practice should be shared. We very much welcome the assistance of the public service leadership group in this respect.
So, to sum up, I thank everyone for their contributions today, and the contributions to the report. We hope that our report adds something to the collective wisdom on investing now to save later.
The proposal is to note the Finance Committee’s report. Is there any objection? I see that there are no objections, therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order No. 12.36.
The motion has been agreed, Bethan Jenkins. The other votes have been taken earlier in the meeting—there is no voting time allocated for today.
Thank you for the opportunity to bring this debate to the Chamber.
I also thank Members and the Minister for staying today.
The Assembly rightly takes its public health responsibilities seriously. Members have expressed concern about the growth in the number of people with type 2 diabetes and other conditions barely known to previous generations, whose levels of fitness were generally better than our own. It is easy to understand the desire of the Welsh Government to bring forward legislation intended to encourage physical activity as an everyday part of our lives. We will have our chance to debate whether the Active Travel (Wales) Bill as drafted will be effective, but there is no arguing with the intention behind it.
The preliminary scrutiny of the Bill has already established one important point: while people might be well-disposed to walk, cycle and travel by non-motorised transport generally, that will not happen unless they feel safe. Despite a number of initiatives and statutory schemes to encourage walking and cycling, only limited progress has been made. The explanatory memorandum to the Active Travel (Wales) Bill identifies that safety concerns, specifically including concerns for personal safety, remain a barrier to walking and cycling. The Bill as it stands makes no reference to safety. Nevertheless, in his evidence to the Constitutional and Legislative Affairs Committee, the Minister for Culture and Sport stated that safety was crucial to the success of the Bill.
It is already clear that a walking or cycling route identified by a local authority will have to be safe before the Welsh Government will sign it off as compliant with what will become the active travel Act. Whether through adherence to the face of the Bill, secondary legislation or guidance, we know that local authorities will have to demonstrate some sort of minimum standard of safety before they can publish a route as being suitable for walking and cycling. As non-leisure routes, walking and cycling routes to school will be covered by the Active Travel (Wales) Bill. They are currently dealt with by the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008. The requirement for available walking routes to school to be safe is on the face of that Measure, but the means of assessing what is safe is left to guidance produced, or, as it happens in this case, approved, by Welsh Ministers.
Welsh Government directed local authorities that, in assessing the safety of a walking route to school, they could rely on guidelines published, I think, in 2002, which they had already been using for some time. Those guidelines were updated only last year, by, what is now, Road Safety Great Britain, under the title ‘Assessment of Walked Routes to School’, which is a document that has never been scrutinised by this Assembly. For the purposes of this debate, the new guidelines contain no material difference from the previous ones.
My preliminary argument is that these guidelines are already inadequate for advising councils on how to assess the meaning of ‘safe’, under section 3(8) of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure. My main argument is that they cannot be adequate to advise them on the meaning of ‘safe’ under the Active Travel (Wales) Bill and why it is important to address that now.
I am happy to give Nick Ramsay and Eluned Parrott the opportunity to contribute to the debate.
Under the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure, school children must make their own way to school if they live less than 2 miles away, in the case of primary schools, or less than 3 miles away, in the case of secondary schools. Under section 3, those distances are to be measured by the shortest available route. Also under section 3, a route is considered available if it is safe for a child without a disability or learning difficulty to walk that route alone or if it is safe for such a child to walk the route with an escort, if the age of the child calls for the provision of an escort. In short, to be available, such a route must be safe, and assessing what is safe is done in accordance with the guidelines that I have just mentioned.
In 2012, when those guidelines were revised, the RSGB was not even aware of the existence of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure, despite it having been on the Welsh statute book for over three years. It has confirmed that to me. Those guidelines were refreshed without any consideration for the particular provision for section 3(8) of the Measure, which simply provides that non-school-transport routes need to be safe for a child without a disability or learning difficulty to walk alone, or, if the child is young, with an escort. Instead, the RSGB guidelines state that case law has found that assessments of safety
‘must look at the relationship between pedestrians and traffic only. Personal safety issues of children travelling alone are not considered. Local authorities are not legally obliged to provide free transport just because parents perceive the route to be unsafe on the grounds of personal safety and security’.
That is a direct quotation from those guidelines.
I am not concerned about whether a child is entitled to a bus or not. I am concerned that these guidelines permit councils to examine the question of a child’s safety purely through the prism of a relationship between pedestrians and traffic. That case law that it refers to goes back to the 1950s and the 1980s. Should we be content for this Assembly’s record on child protection to rest on case law that is older than nearly everybody in the Chamber today? These guidelines do not oblige councils to look at whether an available route takes a lone child across rough waste ground, down isolated hidden paths or through underpasses known to be frequented by adults about whom any local authority should be concerned when it comes to a child’s safety, yet this was a prospect faced by an 11-year-old schoolboy walking on his own to a secondary school in my region. His parents, the police and his elected representatives are horrified. Everyone, it seems, except the council, who hid behind the RSGB guidelines, worried more about whether it had to provide transport than whether this child would have reached his school in one piece.
Minister, I do not expect you to comment on an individual case, but I ask you to comment on this: a local authority, in assessing the safety of a child’s walking route to school, does not have to take any aspect of safety into account, except for traffic implications. The wording on the face of the Measure does not indicate any intention that safety should only be measured by reference to traffic issues. If the RSGB did not even know about the broader requirements of section 3 of the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure when it updated its guidelines, how can you, or we, be sure that those guidelines, based on 60-year-old case law, meet the requirement of a Measure of 2008.
In any event, the forthcoming Active Travel (Wales) Bill has inevitable implications for the continuing use of these guidelines. It is not acceptable to say that we do not know what the final Bill will look like when it comes to this particular issue, because we already have the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 to point us firmly in one direction. The Welsh Government and the Assembly are already committed to giving due regard to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, both in policy and legislation and, before too long, for all activities in this place. Your predecessor accepted this fully when he pledged in Plenary last November that he would put child protection at the heart of safe routes to school.
Minister, in his Active Travel (Wales) Bill consultation response, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales made it plain that he did not think that the RSGB guidance even touched the sides when it came to complying with the UNCRC. It does not have to, of course, as the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure predates the 2011 commitment to give it due regard, but the Active Travel (Wales) Bill is different; due regard must be given.
The children’s rights impact assessment has already been carried out. The children’s commissioner, while commending the general quality of it, observed that a key convention issue had been omitted, namely the issue of personal safety. Ideally, it should be on the face of the new Bill that a reasonable level of personal safety should be a material consideration in deciding whether a route can be signed off by Welsh Ministers under the new Bill. At the very least, that needs to be reflected in new fit-for-purpose guidelines. The RSGB guidelines expressly state that personal safety issues of children travelling alone are not considered when assessing the safety of a route, so there is no way that they will satisfy a UNCRC compliance test of safety under the Active Travel (Wales) Bill.
Why am I raising this with you now, Minister, when you do not have conduct over this new Bill? Why not just wait? There are two reasons, and the first is the most important reason. Children, now, are being asked to undertake journeys that are not in accordance with their rights under the UNCRC. My inquiries of the Minister for Local Government and Government Business have led me to understand that responsibility for those journeys lies with you, Minister. While local authorities have no obligation to consider the convention, are you as the Minister satisfied when children’s rights are being ignored in this way?
Secondly, local authorities, by continuing to rely on the RSGB guidelines, are heading for a huge financial fall once the Active Travel (Wales) Bill becomes law. Under that legislation, they will have to publish their existing safe walking and cycling routes, and they will be submitting their existing safe walking and cycling routes to school to the Welsh Government, confident that these routes are safe because they have relied on Government-approved guidelines to assess what is safe. Despite the expense of preparing all of that evidence, many of them will be turned down, because the active travel Act, whether on the face of the Act, through regulation, or through guidelines, will have to introduce a standard of safety that reflects due regard to the UNCRC.
If certain routes are suddenly deemed to be unsafe because of this Act, what are the implications for schools denying transport to children under the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure? New statute trumps old case law. Whereas the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure itself might not be incompatible with the new standards of safety that will come in as a result of the Active Travel (Wales) Bill, the direction to follow the RSGB guidelines undoubtedly will be. New statute also trumps old guidelines.
Minister, you have a power under section 6 of the Rights of Children and Young Persons (Wales) Measure 2011 to amend existing legislation to give further and better effect to part 1 of the UNCRC. I do not think that you need to go that far with the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure, but you need to look at the RSGB guidelines. Local authorities need to be aware now that the goalposts will be changing and that their walking routes to school have to take more than traffic into account before they will be fit for purpose under the Active Travel (Wales) Bill. They need to review their existing routes now. That is especially important for plans under the twenty-first century schools programme, which includes new school routes assessed under the old guidelines. Such plans are being approved even now, and this is not the time for expensive mistakes.
Last November, in Plenary, your predecessor undertook to look at both the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure and the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child to see whether the RSGB guidelines took them into account. I hope that you will follow up on that undertaking.
I thank Suzy for allowing me to make a brief contribution to this short debate. I am pleased that you have brought this to the Assembly. I wanted to contribute to your debate in terms of your discussion of the Active Travel (Wales) Bill and the impact that has on issues relating to safety. I am the Chair of the Enterprise and Business Committee—and I can see a couple of the members of the committee in the Chamber—and, in terms of the Active Travel (Wales) Bill and the evidence that we have taken, we have had some misgivings about the way that, nowadays, there is a tendency to have guidelines rather than detail on the face of the Bill. This does not apply only to the Active Travel (Wales) Bill, it applies to a number of Bills; it is just that the Active Travel (Wales) Bill has brought this to the fore. This is a case, not for the Minister as such, because she is working within the mechanisms that are there, but for the Assembly, as we need to look more closely at how we legislate and scrutinise legislation. If we are going to have guidelines on the face of a Bill such as the one on active travel, there needs to be a mechanism later on for us to revisit it and make sure that those guidelines are working. You have been asking whether guidelines from the past are fit for purpose. We cannot even decide in committee whether the guidelines that will be in place are fit for purpose, because we will not have them until we have agreed the terms of the Bill.
I, too, would like to thank Suzy Davies for bringing this debate today. Obviously, you raise some real concerns that would be difficult issues for us to resolve, first without the guidance for us to scrutinise, and secondly because the issue of safety is both relative and subjective. It is relative because, frankly, nothing is ever completely safe in life. It is subjective because what our parents found acceptable in terms of the way in which we walked to school when we were children, we would not do now as parents ourselves in the modern world. We do not allow our children to play outside as we did ourselves, even though statistics would say that things such as child mortality are lower now than they have ever been in history. There is a balance to be struck. It is going to be something that is a challenge to us as we take forward the scrutiny of that guidance.
I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart, to respond to the debate.
It is a pleasure to contribute to this short debate today because I take a common-sense view that travel arrangements are not suitable if they are not safe. That is the starting point for the way I intend to deal with these issues within my portfolio. We can all agree in this Chamber that few things are more important than children’s safety and safety in general. The provisions of the Active Travel (Wales) Bill supplement existing legislative provisions and recommendations relating to safe walking and cycling routes. When enacted, the Active Travel (Wales) Bill will require local authorities to continuously improve routes for pedestrians, walkers and cyclists; prepare maps identifying current and potential future routes; and require them to consider at the design stage the needs of pedestrians and cyclists when designing new road schemes, including road improvement schemes. These provisions are in addition to existing measures designed to ensure, as far as practicable, the safety of learners who walk or cycle to school.
The Safety on Learner Transport (Wales) Measure 2011 introduced provisions for the safety of learners in response to several incidents, one which, of course, had a tragic outcome. One provision of the Measure was the requirement that, from 2014, local authorities and school governing bodies ensure that seat belts are fitted in all dedicated home-to-school transport. I am currently exploring whether this should be extended to all daytime learner transport, for example as used on visits to educational sports facilities, to promote further safety. The Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 set out statutory requirements for home-to-school transport. Learner travel operational guidance has been provided to local authorities to help them put in place the provisions of this Measure. Under the Measure, the route is considered to be available and safe if it is safe for a child without a disability or learning difficulty to walk the route alone or with an escort if the child is of an age that calls for such an escort. Should a route not be safe, a child cannot be expected to walk to school. However, as Suzy Davies indicated in her contribution, this was not about the use of school buses; it was about the safety of children being able to walk or cycle to school.
The learner travel operational guidance recommends that local authorities, when assessing the comparative safety of a route, should carry out an assessment of the risks. Therefore, they will look at canals, rivers, ditches, street lighting, pavements and the speed of traffic across roads. There is also a requirement for the local authority to carry out a risk assessment using the Road Safety GB guidance, which you have spoken eloquently about. I recognise that there are disparities between the Road Safety GB guidance on the assessment of walked routes to school and both the Learner Travel (Wales) Measure 2008 and our learner travel operational guidance 2009. The Road Safety GB guidance does not consider personal safety issues of travelling alone. I can see from Suzy Davies’s contribution today that this is a matter that aggrieves her. Instinctively, if anybody in this room is a parent, or in thinking of their constituents, then that is an issue that would concern them. As I have indicated, travel arrangements are a common-sense issue, therefore I have ordered a review of the disparities between the Road Safety GB guidance and the guidance that we issue to operators. This has been undertaken as part of the review of the learner transport operational guidance for local authorities, and it will include learners’ views.
Another important provision of the Measure is the travel behaviour code, and I think that we all accept that you must behave responsibly when you are travelling, and the Measure places a duty in that regard. However, the safety of a child is not limited to transport. It is important to ensure that a child is safe while travelling, but it can also promote their health and wellbeing. So, it is important that we look at safety in its broadest sense.
I am also currently reviewing the work of developing the risk assessment policy. For example, the Children’s Commissioner for Wales in his response to the consultation on the Active Travel (Wales) Bill set out that he would like to see children and young people being asked to express a view on whether or not home-to-school routes are safe. For instance, some of the issues that were not looked at included whether the routes should be lit, and whether social dangers are taken into account. These are issues that have been well articulated in terms of some of the considerations that we should be looking at. It is also important to recognise that you may not feel safe in yourself in doing something, because although it might be very nice to walk along the route at 12 noon in the height of summer, it is totally different when you are walking back at 3.30 p.m. in December in the howling wind and rain along an unlit route. Therefore, I am currently reviewing some of the work on these particular areas, so I am very pleased that this issue was raised with me.
I hope that I will be in a position to further respond to the discussions in this debate before the summer recess, with regard to the progress that my officials are making to deal with some of the disparities that you raised.
Thank you very much, Minister. That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 6.36 p.m.