The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Presiding Officer (Dame Rosemary Butler) in the Chair.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Good afternoon. The National Assembly for Wales is now in session.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government’s policy on the exploitation of unconventional gas in Wales? OAQ(4)0169(NRF)
‘Energy Wales: A Low Carbon Transition’ recognises the role of gas in supporting our move to a low-carbon energy system. Given the challenges of energy security, we understand the need to evaluate the potential unconventional gas resource in Wales, but full consideration of all the available evidence relating to its development is required.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. You will know that a number of communities in Wales are growing increasingly concerned about applications for test drilling, particularly around the fracking process and other unconventional gas exploitation. Of course, that will also lead, if that ever transpires into an actual extraction process, to quite a lot of equipment being brought into what are essentially fairly rural areas. Are you looking at regulations around this to try to ensure that communities’ interests are best protected if these applications go ahead, and if unconventional gas starts to be extracted in Wales?
I share the Member’s concern about communities and the feelings that have been expressed on a number of occasions by people who do have some very real concerns about these matters. I will reassure the Member that we will not be pursuing the same policy as the coalition Government in Westminster on these matters, and we will be continuing to follow a precautionary approach, which will ensure that all information that we have access to is placed in the public domain. We will also ensure that the regulations that are put in place are proportionate and that people do have the comfort and the knowledge that the Member requests and requires.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Llyr Gruffydd.
Of course, we do not have many powers in this area in terms of licensing and so on. However, I would like to know whether you are of the opinion that this place does have some relevant powers in terms of planning, which could mean, if the Government so wishes, that, to all intents and purposes, there would be a possible moratorium on such developments?
You are asking me about planning powers. As you are aware, I am not the planning Minister, and therefore I will not step into that area. However, I am sure that we would both agree that there is a need for full powers in this field to ensure that we can develop energy policy that will secure the future of the renewables sector and also the needs of Wales.
It is a shame that you do not feel that you can comment on that because you are always willing to comment on the planning system when it is a barrier to developments—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Can you stick to the question, please?
Will you confirm, therefore, that you are supportive of the principle that any profits or benefits that emerge from developments such as unconventional gas come to the people of Wales?
The Member has been in this place long enough to know which questions he may ask any Minister, but I admire his attempts to tempt me to step into another portfolio. I will say this in answering the question: the Member and other Members will be aware that, on behalf of the Minister, I launched a scheme of community benefits in the field of energy last spring. That is where we are currently; I believe that communities across Wales have welcomed that and the opportunity that that has offered them. I agree that communities should benefit from the developments around them, and I believe that the scheme that we have in place at present assists them in doing that.
2. What steps are being taken by the Minister to reduce the volume of waste going to landfill each year in Wales? OAQ(4)0174(NRF)
Our waste strategy, ‘Towards Zero Waste’, sets a goal to eliminate landfill as far as possible by 2025. A range of actions are in place to achieve this. Wales has sent less waste to landfill each year since 2005. We are on track to meet our goal.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. I understand, from written answers that you have given to me over the last couple of weeks, that the Welsh Government has spent £14.5 million in this particular field setting up regional consortia to enable more food waste not to be taken to landfill and to be recycled. In south Wales—Newport, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan—there is no regional consortia. As I understand, the company that was bidding withdrew from the process. What plans does the Minister have to fill that gap that exists here in south Wales, and does he have a timeline as to when we will have a regional consortium here in south Wales, covering Newport, Cardiff and the Vale of Glamorgan?
I think that there were some real issues behind that. Clearly, the business that did withdraw from that process did so for its own reasons, and I think that we all respect the right of businesses to do that, and the reasoning behind it. That does leave us in the position that the leader of the opposition has described. I can say this to him: I have continued to ensure that we are in a position to go through a procurement process on this matter. Clearly, there are issues there that are covered by commercial confidentiality. However, I will give the Member a very clear undertaking that I will write to him, when I am able to do so, to outline the steps that we will be taking, and I am happy to place that letter in the Library for other Members.
Minister, will you join me in congratulating the Get it Out for Cardiff scheme, which is run by student volunteers, in association with Keep Wales Tidy, to recycle the unwanted goods that students no longer want to take with them? The goods are then sold to other, incoming students, and the proceeds go to the homeless. Going around the student areas of my constituency, I am amazed at the number of landlords who think that it is fine to just dump stuff in front of the houses that they are renting out. I am also amazed that the students sit there for nine months without thinking that one of them could ring up and get a bulky collection. So, what can be done to educate students on their obligations around the recycling of goods, and keeping the general area tidy?
The Member raises a very good and specific point about the Cathays and Roath area of her own constituency and about other parts of Wales as well. Across the whole face of the country, we rely on voluntary participation in recycling, and we rely on householders—whatever their particular background—to deliver on their commitments to recycling. We have seen enormous steps forward over the last few years in Wales, and I think that Wales is clearly ahead of other countries in the United Kingdom in terms of delivering on our targets for this. I very much welcome the Get it Out campaign in Cardiff, and I think that that does provide a very good template that could be used elsewhere, working with organisations such as Keep Wales Tidy and the student population, to ensure that we do not face the problems that the Member has very well described.
General targets for local authorities are an important part of the effort to reduce waste, of course. However, what guidance does the Welsh Government give in terms of ensuring that recycling is a simple a process as possible for the user, in order to encourage the user to play their part?
May I say that I sympathise greatly with what the Member has described? As I have said, the recycling system depends on people volunteering to recycle. I believe that we have a responsibility—local government and Welsh Government—to ensure that that process is as simple as possible. I have emphasised every time I have had the opportunity, when meeting with the Welsh Local Government Association and individual authorities, that I want to see the most simple systems possible to enable people to recycle as easy as possible. That will vary from place to place—and, obviously, local authorities can do things differently, as they choose—but I would like to see a simple system right across the country.
Your strategy also includes a target that 90% of waste from the construction industry should be recycled by 2015. Are you confident that you will attain that target within the next year?
I very much hope that we will.
3. What legislative plans does the Minister have for animal welfare? OAQ(4)0173(NRF)
The National Assembly for Wales has legislative competence in the area of animal welfare. Welsh Ministers have wide executive law-making powers in relation to animal welfare, which is an inherent part of improving standards of animal health in Wales.
Thank you for that, Minister. I hoped that you would have outlined some plans that you have. Specifically, we know that plans in terms of dog breeding regulations are to come before the Assembly soon. One area that you have discussed with me in the past is electronic collars. Although it is positive legislation, there is an impact in certain circumstances when invisible fences are used to keep tame animals from going onto roads and getting killed and so on. Is this something that you should consider during the next stage as an area for amending the law?
I am very happy to consider that. I have already agreed with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that there will be a review of the research and data available in that field and I will be making a decision as to whether the current policy needs to be changed or revisited before the end of the year.
Minister, I wonder whether you had considered whether there is a need to introduce any legislation in response to the Law Commission’s work around current wildlife laws. In particular, would the Welsh Government look to introduce fresh laws to tighten up rules relating to the use of snares, which, as we know, are cruel and indiscriminate?
Yes, I have given some consideration to that matter and I do agree with the points that you have made and the tone of your question. The Law Commission is carrying out its review of wildlife legislation at the moment. It is due to report in the autumn of this year and the decision that I have taken is to wait until we get that review from the Law Commission before taking a decision to move ahead on the use of either snares or any other matter contained in that review. I will give an undertaking to Members today to make a statement on this matter when we have received and considered the report from the Law Commission.
In relation to the Animal Welfare (Breeding of Dogs) (Wales) Regulations 2013, obviously action taken against puppy farming is very welcome, but there is a concern that this will affect working dogs, and I am thinking in particular of the Eryri footpack in my region. Previous regulations published by the Welsh Government carried an exemption and I understand that you had indicated that you were going to give guidance in relation to that exemption for, for example, hunt kennels. I wonder whether or not you can confirm that you are going to give guidance on that matter and when we might see a copy of it.
I have had conversations with the Countryside Alliance and with others on the use of these regulations and the impact of them on hunting packs and other areas. I will say that the opportunity to discuss this matter will be later this month when these regulations are brought in front of this place.
Welsh Government has previously said that it would introduce subordinate legislation were the UK Government to legislate in respect of banning the use of wild animals in circuses. Although this was not in the Queen’s Speech, I understand that there might be plans in DEFRA to introduce legislation. Are you able to shed any light on the situation?
DEFRA can sometimes be a very chaotic place. I was somewhat disappointed that no announcement was made last month on this legislation. I had been led to believe that there would be legislation in this field before the end of this Parliament. I am reassured by officials that DEFRA is looking for a slot to provide for this legislation—a draft Bill has already been published, of course. DEFRA, as I currently understand, does not believe that there is any need for fundamental changes to that draft and is looking for time in the parliamentary schedule. I will write to the relevant DEFRA Minister to reinforce the point that you have made today and on other occasions that I would like to see Wales included in this legislation and that we would like to see it being passed in the UK Parliament before the end of that Parliament next year.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
4. How does the Minister intend to implement his responsibilities for local authorities’ management of municipal waste? OAQ(4)0179(NRF)
The Welsh Government has set statutory targets for local authorities to recycle 70% of municipal waste by 2025. This year, £66 million of revenue support is being provided to local authorities. Additional support is being provided to help to improve local authority performance, including £4 million of capital grants this year.
Yr Arglwydd / Lord Elis-Thomas
I thank the Minister for that response. I welcome the fact that he carried out an inquiry into ways of recycling the four different materials—paper, card, metals and plastics—and that consultation is to close this month. Is he confident that his Government and local government in Wales will be able to meet European Union targets, and, indeed, Welsh regulations, by January next year to implement this? Does he applaud the guidance given in Gwynedd to support the system of sorting waste on the doorstep, ensuring that that forces people to think of their waste as material that can be appropriately recycled?
Sometimes, I am afraid of stepping into any discussions taking place in local government. It is important that local government, wherever it may be—in Gwynedd or Blaenau Gwent—makes decisions that are relevant to its area, and does so by communicating with local people and by ensuring that there is a discussion on the importance of recycling.
The Member asks whether I am confident that local authorities will reach the targets. I am confident that that will happen. Local authorities across Wales have worked very hard to reach targets. We know that there has been a great improvement over the past few years. We also know that local authorities throughout Wales are making investments that will assist them in reaching those targets. I am, therefore, satisfied with where we are at present, and I am confident that we will be able to hit the targets on time.
In relation to waste and Government funding, given the growing constraints that we know about on local authority budgets, may I ask you, Minister, what robust assessments you have made of how local authorities have used grant money to provide value for money?
Clearly, as a local authority member himself, the Member will be aware of the structures that are in place around any grant funding. It is done with agreement on both sides and the grant is delivered according to a series of objectives and targets. I am very happy and confident that the funding that we have made available to local authorities—the £66 million of revenue funding this year, for example—is being well spent and is delivering the sorts of recycling levels that we all wish to see.
‘Green Growth Wales: Investing in the Future’
5. Will the Minister make a statement on Green Growth Wales: Investing in the Future? OAQ(4)0172(NRF)
I launched ‘Green Growth Wales: Investing in the Future’ on 23 June. The prospectus sets out how the sustainable use of our natural resources can deliver economic growth and the actions that we are taking to create a streamlined regulatory approach and provide practical support to businesses and investors.
The Minister will be aware from previous questions that I have a strong constituency interest with businesses in the recycling and renewables field. There are some 40,000 plus jobs in this area in Wales. Does he agree that this is an area where, being a small country able to act quickly and smartly, Wales can be a pioneer?
I am absolutely convinced that, in the same way as Wales led the first industrial revolution, we can lead the next industrial revolution. We have the opportunity to create a modern and joined-up statutory framework to manage our natural resources, and Bills such as the environment Bill and planning Bill will enable us to do that. We now need to ensure that we are able to deliver green growth, jobs and economic activity in a way that is sustainable for today and future generations. I am absolutely confident that we are in a position in Wales to be able to deliver that.
May I ask you, Minister, why there was no mention of community energy in the prospectus?
The prospectus that was launched on 23 June was a prospectus that was targeted at a particular audience in the City of London. I know that the Member is somewhat concerned that we launched it there rather than here. The Member will be aware that I made a written statement and published that prospectus before it was launched in London. I say to the Member that what we are seeking to do here is create a step change in how we deliver economic growth in future. I and my friend, the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, have established a green growth steering group and we are driving this policy forward.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I have constituents who are being hampered in setting up their own community energy projects, and I have mentioned these constraints to you in the Chamber previously. You have said in the past that you want to support local community energy projects, yet there is no mention of that in the prospectus. There is no doubt that there are similar projects in your own constituency, and given that we know that you have broken the ministerial code—that is a matter of public record—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Will you stick to the question, please, Russell George?
My question is how can my constituents have confidence that you are not promoting your own constituency over others? That is a very genuine question.
I could not hear the question, I am afraid, Presiding Officer. I am happy to answer the question, but I could not hear it.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Could you repeat the question without the extraneous pieces in the middle, please?
Thank you, Presiding Officer. There is no doubt that there are similar projects in your own constituency. Given that we know that you have broken the ministerial code, as a matter of public record, the genuine question I ask is how can my constituents have the confidence that you are not promoting projects in your constituency over those of other constituencies?
That is probably the most ludicrous question I have heard so far in three years in Government—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Can you just answer, Minister?
The answer is that we are promoting community energy across the whole of Wales. He has been a Member for three years now and so he should know that if he has issues in his constituency, he can write to me and we will respond to that. However, I do not think that constituents are well served by that sort of question.
I hope that my question will be a little more constructive for you. On 6 June, Germany passed an historic milestone in renewable energy use in the developed world, because, on that day, in a country not known for its long sunny days, Germany generated more than 50% of its electricity needs from solar energy alone, not counting other forms of renewable energy in use that day. How far has Wales got to go, despite us having far more opportunities for renewable energy use than Germany, before we reach a similar milestone?
That is an excellent point to make. Germany has made great strides forward, and the relationship between the federal and the Länder governments has enabled that to happen, and the powers and the funding structures available have enabled that to take place. However, it demonstrates that the key lesson to be learnt from Germany is the way that urban centres are being used to drive that sort of growth in local community energy. We have fantastic lessons to learn from Germany, and I have visited Germany as a committee member in a previous Assembly to look at some of these schemes. We would be well advised to look at some of the larger German cities and what they have achieved there in terms of urban community energy generation.
The Devolution of Energy Policy
6. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government regarding the devolution of energy policy? OAQ(4)0184(NRF)
The Member is aware that it is the First Minister who leads the negotiations on devolution energy consents and that he has raised the issue with the United Kingdom Government on a number of occasions. Wales is being disadvantaged by the current devolution settlement and we will continue to call for the devolution of powers to consent all energy generation methods, with the exception of nuclear energy.
I had hoped that the First Minister would have shared the outcomes of those discussions with you; I am sure you have regular discussions with him these days. The First Minister said yesterday that the Welsh Government has now reviewed its hopes on the devolution of powers and increased the minimum of 50 MW to 300 MW. Do you not feel that the people of Wales would like to see powers over energy devolved wholesale to the Welsh Government and National Assembly for Wales, and that that would be the most transparent and democratic system that the people of Wales would want to see?
The First Minister made a statement on that on Tuesday, and I believe that the response to the Silk report has described in detail how the Welsh Government wishes to proceed in this area, and I believe that the Welsh Government’s views and position on this will be popular throughout the country.
On offshore energy, Wales is equal to every other part of the UK in that the Crown Estate holds all the offshore consenting above 1 MW of energy. Do you agree that it is good that the Welsh Government has been the only devolved part of the United Kingdom to sign a memorandum of understanding with the Crown Estate and that other devolved areas have much to learn from that process?
I am happy to agree with the Member. We have a good relationship with the Crown Estate on a number of different issues. I have met, along with the First Minister, the Crown Estate to discuss this and other issues, and we continue to do so.
As we heard in yesterday’s Silk statement, greater energy consenting powers is a key issue that enjoys cross-party support in this place. I was glad to hear you talk about the importance of green growth for Wales. In terms of those marine consents, which are even smaller than our limited onshore consents at present, will you outline what assessment you have made with the Minister for the economy of the potential benefits greater marine consenting powers could have for the construction and engineering sectors in Wales?
There have been a number of assessments, which contain a number of different assumptions. Let me say this: I hope that we will be able to have and enjoy the powers that enable us to develop an energy policy that is based on and rooted in renewables and a low-carbon economy, and one that creates green jobs, both today and in the future, and will ensure that we have an energy mix that meets the challenges of today and of future generations.
7. What assessment has the Minister made of the current market prices for Welsh beef? OAQ(4)0181(NRF)
Hybu Cig Cymru is undertaking a review to evaluate the current state of the Welsh beef sector, determining where there are opportunities for expansion and improvement together with an appraisal of weaknesses and threats. The review will also look at current production levels both on-farm and within the processing sector.
Minister, are you aware of the practice of some slaughterhouses of paying to a maximum weight regardless of the size of the beast? For instance, one slaughterhouse has recently dropped that from 460 kg to 430 kg. That means that farmers are losing, on average, over £100 per beast. Slaughterhouses are then able to sell all of the meat that they have processed, not just the meat that they have paid for. Are you aware of that practice? Do you condone that practice? If you do not, what action will you take to try to address it?
If the Member is aware of any particular instances regarding the matter to which she is referring, she should write to me and I will be happy to take up those matters.
I endorse the comments of the leader of the Liberal Democrats. That is a practice that is going on at the moment, and it is costing the Welsh agricultural industry a huge sum of money. I would like to ask the Minister what negotiations or discussions he has had with the major retailers. We are all aware of the fall-out from the horsemeat debacle, following which many promises and pledges were made about using home-grown produce to fill supermarket shelves. It seems that, over the last six to eight months, a lot of those fine words have turned to dust and many products that are arriving in supermarkets do not meet the high quality of home-produced beef, and that has put a huge amount of pressure on the domestic market.
I would like to say, in relation to the current issues within the beef sector, that there are two issues at play here at the moment. There is the matter, which I hope will be short term, of a significant reduction in prices and a longer term structural issue within the beef sector. I continue to have conversations with the major retailers in the United Kingdom. I had a conversation with one of the biggest retailers, in fact, last week. I emphasise these points to them on all occasions. However, we need to look hard at the beef sector. We need to take action, and that is why Hybu Cig Cymru announced back at the beginning of May, two months ago, that it would be reviewing issues in the beef sector today, but with a view to addressing some of the deeper structural issues in the beef sector, in which we have seen a decline in the number of animals over a period of years. That is not as a response to low prices this year, but as a response to structural issues within the wider sector, and we need to focus on those issues as well as the short-term issues.
Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014
8. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014 since its implementation? OAQ(4)0175(NRF)
The new powers have already been used to good effect by a small number of local authorities in Wales, with others planning to make use of the legislation shortly. I have given a commitment to fully evaluate the Act within three years of it coming into effect.
Thank you for that answer. Minister, the 2014 Act has made a huge difference in communities across Wales in tackling fly-grazing. Do you agree with me that this is another example where the UK Government could learn a lot if it listened to Wales?
There are a number of places where the UK Government could learn an awful lot from what we are doing here. The Member will be aware of the issues on Manmoel common, which borders both his constituency and mine, where the control of horses legislation is being used at the moment to deal with the issue of horses on that common. We are looking at the moment to work with a number of local authorities, charities and the police to ensure that we are able to deal with this problem and that that legislation is providing and becoming a very useful tool that we can use to do so.
Will you join me in acknowledging Monmouth Comprehensive School’s equine academy initiative, where, in addition to learning skills ranging from basic trotting to jumping and technical riding, pupils undertake tests in the basic skills of horse care and management? Such courses will increase knowledge of caring for horses, ensuring that they are stabled, grazed and exercised correctly so that they do not cause a public nuisance or infringe the Control of Horses (Wales) Act.
I had not heard of the academy at the school to which the Member referred; it sounds exactly like the sort of educational institution that we need more of in Wales. I would be very glad to learn more of the work that is being done in Monmouthshire if the Member is willing to write to me on those matters.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, William Powell.
Minister, as you are aware, Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council was given a £3,500 grant by the First Minister to fund the activities that you have just mentioned on Manmoel common, to meet veterinary removal and disposal costs in association with the Control of Horses (Wales) Act 2014. What assessment have you made of the difference that this targeted grant awarded by the First Minister has made to enforcement in your constituency, and are you in favour of the awarding of similar grants to deal with other hotspots in taking forward this legislation?
I am clearly aware of the issues to which the Member refers; they are partly the issues that I have just referred to in answer to Gwyn Price. The approach that I have tried to take is that we work with local authorities, charities and other agencies to address this issue in a partnership approach. That has been very successful. People refer to the control of horses legislation, and people are right to do so, but that was an element of a wider action plan that involved a lot of different organisations and agencies working together. It is that partnership approach that has been a success. Certainly, I do wish to continue working with local authorities.
Minister, thank you very much for that response. I have had some concerns expressed to me that, because of the nature of the legislation and some of the complexities, certain local authorities are looking to take action under the Animals Act 1971 rather than the recently passed legislation, and that this relates in some measure to the need for the training of local authority officials for the more recent legislation. Are you prepared to address this issue? Do you accept that there is a valid concern around sufficient training for local authority officials?
That particular issue has not been brought to my attention, but I will review the situation with officials after this session this afternoon. We have had the opportunity to work within the new legislative framework for around four or five months. There will be issues in the way that we take this forward. Local authorities have a number of different tools available to them to address different situations at different times. The Animals Act 1971, to which the Member refers, is one of those tools, and it is a perfectly viable tool to be used in dealing with these matters.
9. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government’s policies to combat fuel poverty in Wales? OAQ(4)0170(NRF)
Our fuel poverty strategy sets out the key actions that we are taking to tackle fuel poverty by improving the energy efficiency of the homes of low-income households through demand-led and area-based schemes.
Clearly, a key part of your strategy is the Welsh Government’s Nest scheme, and as Age Cymru has said, the Welsh Government must continue to closely monitor the take-up and impact of Nest and adjust the scheme as required. What monitoring and detailed statistical or other analysis has been undertaken to justify your decision to remove funding from the Energy Saving Trust for call-centre signposting advice as part of the broader Nest scheme, and bring that in-house to Welsh Government? The expertise clearly lies outside, the cost-benefit normally would lie outside, and you are having to train people internally to deliver those services now.
I will be launching the resource efficient Wales programme and project in the autumn, in September of this year. It will provide a far more comprehensive service than is currently being provided by a number of different providers. That is no reflection on those providers—it is a way of taking the service forward and providing very important advice to householders and others on how they can become more resource efficient. I will be launching that in the autumn, as I say.
I am also commissioning an independent evaluation of the Nest scheme. The purpose and focus of the evaluation is to find out and assess whether the scheme has reached the households most in need, whether it has provided value for money, whether the scheme has resulted in energy savings for householders and to understand the customer’s experience of the service throughout the process. I expect the final report to be published before Christmas.
In many cases, people are in fuel poverty because they do not understand what they are signing up to in terms of what any specific company might be offering. Then, they feel that they are not empowered to change the situation themselves. Obviously, people like Martin Lewis give independent advice online, but what discussions have you had with the Minister for Communities and Tackling Poverty and the Minister for Education and Skills in order to look at how people can learn for themselves, in terms of financial education, how can they switch companies if their bills get too onerous, and how they can make their own decisions as to how they pay their bills?
I hold discussions of that kind with Ministers and Deputy Ministers to ensure that the programmes that you have described attain the objectives and targets that we have set for them. The purpose of evaluating these schemes is to see whether we have succeeded or not, and to learn lessons. Also, the purpose of launching the new scheme in the autumn is to invest in reaching people in a broader way than at present. I understand the concern that the Member has expressed this afternoon and I agree with her. I very much hope that we will reach the goal and resolve the concern that you have described.
10. Will Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to support the food industry in west Wales? OAQ(4)0168(NRF)
Support for the food and drink industry in Wales is detailed in ‘Towards Sustainable Growth: An Action Plan for the Welsh Food and Drink Industry 2014-2020’, which I launched last month.
I am grateful, Minister, for that response. You may be aware that Pembrokeshire Fish Week is taking place this week, showcasing a number of excellent producers of local food and drink, and the best that Pembrokeshire has to offer. This event not only brings local communities across Pembrokeshire together, but also attracts a great many visitors from across Wales. Can you tell us, Minister, what the Welsh Government is doing specifically to safeguard and promote such events across Wales?
I agree with the Member’s description of Pembrokeshire Fish Week. I have attended that event, as the Member is aware, in the past. I had hoped to attend last week, but I had to attend events to mark Armed Forces Day in my constituency. If not for that, I would have joined you on the quay at Milford Haven. We fund the week, as the Member is aware. A grant of £75,000 is awarded by the Welsh Government to the event. Pembrokeshire Fish Week is a way of advertising and promoting the excellent foods that come from your county.
I visited the Cnwd food company in Cross Hands this week—a company that produces foods from Wales. What do you recommend in your strategy to promote Wales’s unique food and drink and to ensure that the Welsh language is used in the advertising, as the Irish are doing in Ireland?
The language is part of our identity as a nation and I very much hope that there is scope for the Welsh language in all areas of production—in food and everything else. I am aware of Scott and the work that he has done in establishing Cnwd. I believe that Cnwd is one of the excellent businesses that we have in Wales. I have enjoyed the foods that Scott and his team have produced, and they are foods that I enjoy every Christmas day at home.
Minister, a number of food businesses are located in deep rural areas, and many of them are increasingly using the internet to sell their products directly to customers. Some of them are at a disadvantage in this regard because broadband connections are inadequate. What discussions are you having with the Deputy Minister with responsibility for broadband to ensure, as the various schemes that the Government is undertaking to promote and enhance broadband are happening, that businesses, and food businesses in particular, are prioritised and are given an assurance that the broadband service will improve for them in the near future?
Obviously, I often have discussions with the Deputy Minister about this very issue, and the provision of broadband in rural areas for other reasons, as Members know. It is important that we are able to maintain different ways of supporting the food sector. It is an extremely important sector in rural Wales. It is a sector that we have supported through the rural development plan in the past, and it is a sector for which we will continue to provide support. The Member will have seen, by now, the action plan that I launched a fortnight ago to secure support for the food sector. I believe that that is one of the biggest sector plans that we have seen launched by this Government, and I very much hope that it will secure the provision of support, wherever the business is located, for the food sector.
Farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire
11. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government support available to farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire? OAQ(4)0182(NRF)
Farmers in Brecon and Radnorshire receive similar support to farmers elsewhere in Wales. Direct subsidy and RDP funding for 3,700 farmers in Powys was approximately £79 million in the last year. Online systems, the farm liaison service, Gwlad, our divisional offices and future initiatives, including EID Cymru, add to the considerable support available.
Minister, on 11 March, I asked you whether you had any plans to close field offices in Llandrindod Wells and Brecon and you said to me that
‘this does not imply, in any way, that there is any threat to the offices that you have described at all.’
Two weeks ago, you wrote to me to say that the field office in Brecon will close on 4 July. Obviously, Minister, in order to make such a definitive statement to me in March, there can have been no discussion in your department about the potential for closing the office in Brecon. Given that that is the case, will you publish all documentation, papers, minutes and notes to demonstrate when the decision to close the Brecon office was first discussed and when that decision was finally taken?
Presiding Officer, the one thing that unites parties across this Assembly is that we are very used to the grandstanding of the Liberal Democrats and the misquoting and edited quotations—[Interruption.] I am quite happy to test the—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Can you just answer the question?
[Continues.]—patience of the Presiding Officer by reading out the entirety of the Record of Proceedings from that exchange, if you wish me to do so. Were you to read out the whole of the Record rather than simply quoting—[Interruption.]
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. Order. You are not going to read it all, I trust.
I will not. I will not read it all out. I said that we will ensure
‘that the support that we provide to the farming community is enhanced, and that this is a way of reducing the burden of administration and not simply as a way of reducing that support. I hope that I can give you an absolute copper-bottomed guarantee on that.’
I could carry on reading. What we are doing in the Brecon area is ensuring that we are continuing to provide support. I am looking at how we can increase the amount of outreach support for farmers as we move to an online system. We are going to be ensuring that farm liaison staff are based not in an office but at marts, meeting people on a face-to-face basis, spending more time on-farm talking to people on a face-to-face basis and not expecting people simply to come into offices.
However, let me say this: we are moving to an online system and, at the moment, we are far ahead of what is going on on the other side of the border. We are ensuring that we will deliver a far better and far higher quality service to farmers than is being delivered anywhere else in these islands. We will be doing that from now to 2016 and one of the issues that we need to address, and which I will address before 2016, is the issue of outreach services. That means ensuring that not only do we have the face-to-face relationship with farming customers and the farming community that we require and that we are enhancing in the Brecon area but that they will also have access to all the online systems that they require in order to complete any forms or other administration they need to online, even if they are unable to do so in their own homes.
Minister, there are a number of farmers in Powys who have village sports facilities on their land and, for legal reasons, they charge a peppercorn rent. May I ask what provisions you have made to ensure that such genuinely active farmers are not placed in a position whereby their long-standing commitment to helping the local football, rugby or cricket team means that they have to undertake active farmer tests, the cost of which may make continuing their support for the local sports club unsustainable?
The Member is referring to the written statement I made yesterday afternoon with regard to the final decisions I have taken on pillar 1 payments. I have made an absolute commitment to the farming community in Wales that we will ensure that pillar 1 funding reaches farmers and people who are working and managing the land.
We have the list given to us from the Commission. I am not seeking to add to that list in Wales. I think that it is adequate in terms of the negative list that it provides to describe and define a farming business. Clearly, the Member is referring to individual farm businesses on an individual basis. It would be difficult for me to address all of those different issues here in the Chamber. However, I am sure that individual farmers will be able to address those issues with our farm liaison service and with Rural Payments Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, Minister.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on energy efficiency in social housing? OAQ(4)0417(HR)
I thank the Member for his question. All new social homes built with Welsh Government money must meet code for sustainable homes level 3; 164,000 of our existing social homes—almost three quarters of the stock—now meet SAP 65 or higher.
I know that the Minister is aware of the community energy wardens project of Grŵp Cynefin that used to be funded through Môn a Menai regeneration funding. That funding, of course, has now come to an end. The group has seen great value in being able to provide advisory services from trusted sources, from the point of view of saving money for individuals and tackling fuel poverty, as well as changing people’s behaviour in terms of wasting energy. It is now eager to enhance the scheme, including taking it into more rural areas as well as the Communities First areas. Does the Minister agree that it is important that a scheme such as this is funded in the longer term, if we are to reach targets in terms of tackling fuel poverty and making social housing and other homes as efficient as possible?
I thank the Member for his question. The community energy wardens did an excellent job in his constituency and across Gwynedd. I was delighted to meet them earlier in the year. This is one great example of where we can make real changes in our communities, delivered by local people, and we should celebrate the work that they have done. Let us hope that there will be an opportunity for them to continue in the future.
Melin Homes has developed many estates using renewable energy to warm the homes, which has made a huge difference to residents. With the introduction of the renewable heat initiative that came in during the last couple of months, what incentives can you give to social landlords to look seriously at the renewable energy possibilities of ensuring that new homes have these schemes built in, so that people have low energy bills? There really are lots of ways in which this could be done.
Of course, the Member is right to raise the issue of energy sensitivity around the new building opportunities that will present. Working with my colleague the Minister for the environment, who is responsible for some of this area, we look at the renewable heat incentive scheme for integrated ground heat source pumps for existing homes. The domestic renewable heat incentive was launched in April 2014, as the Member will be aware, and the opportunities for air source heat pumps, ground source heat pumps, solar water heating and biomass heating should be a consideration of new developments. It is something that I know that colleagues across Government are keen to promote at every opportunity.
Minister, of course, there are registered social landlords who place PV solar panels on new social housing as part of their energy efficiency measures. In your conversations with social landlords, have you asked them to consider setting solar panels in common areas of social housing, in current and new provision, such as garages and any separate community areas, so that lower energy bills can be transferred to tenants?
I fully support the principle of that. I have already seen examples of this happening across Wales. In fact, some very positive RSLs are delivering community energy schemes. I visited one recently in a block of flats, where the solar panels were placed on the side of the building, which heated and lit all of the communal areas. So, it is happening. It is about being innovative in the project and not looking to generalise in these schemes, but to make them product-specific for the scheme to enable new opportunities within that area.
2. Will the Minister make a statement on current regeneration projects in Brecon and Radnorshire? OAQ(4)0427(HR)
I thank the Member for Brecon and Radnorshire for her question. Dedicated regeneration managers work with every authority to identify regeneration opportunities such as town centres, partnership funding and the high street campaign, which will be launched later this year.
I thank the Minister for his answer. Would the Minister make his officials available to meet with members of the Presteigne and Norton Town Council to discuss its concerns about the derelict Kayes site in the town of Presteigne? The council believes that it has the potential to provide new employment opportunities and new care facilities, as well as more affordable homes for this rural community, yet it is struggling with a private owner who does not want to engage with it. Would you make your officials available to meet with the town council to discuss the possibilities of supporting this project, which would be of huge benefit to that community?
In the first instance, if the Member and the organisation that she makes reference to would like to write to me with the details, I will give that further consideration as to the request made by the Member today.
Will the Minister let me know how he is supporting high street regeneration in Powys?
Of course, we are keen to ensure that ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’, across communities, is having an impact on our town and community centres. We will be launching the high street campaign later this year. Of course, that will be predominately run on recommendations from local authorities. When a local authority gives us advice on where it wishes to concentrate its efforts, we almost certainly consider that advice seriously and seek to assist the authority in developing the communities that it represents.
Turning back to the same town of Presteigne, one of the schemes there that is trying to regenerate the town is Home Presteigne, which wants to build affordable homes as part of the scheme that Kirtsy Williams has already referred to, to create more opportunities for young people there. As 40% of the people of Brecon and Radnorshire cannot afford homes on the open market, what steps are you taking as Minister to help community groups such as Home Presteigne to work at a local level in their communities to create affordable homes?
I am not aware of the organisation that the Member talks about and the local Member is certainly—. It would be very helpful to join forces to write to me with details. The Help to Buy-Wales scheme is certainly helping to get first-time buyers on the ladder. It is a great opportunity in Wales; we are seeing great progress in this regard. It is about working in partnership across all organisations, and I look forward to receiving the correspondence from both Members at the appropriate time.
Availability of Social Housing
3. Will the Minister make a statement on the availability of social housing? OAQ(4)0426(HR)
I thank the Member for his question. We deliver a range of programmes that support the availability of social housing, with the social housing grant programme at the heart of delivery. In addition, we have tripled our investment in the housing finance grant, which will support 3,000 new affordable homes delivered across Wales.
I am most grateful to the Minister for his answer. He will be aware that, during 2013-14, the number of private sector houses increased by 10%, which, sadly, is the highest number for three years. In contrast, the social sector fell for the third year in a row, falling by 8% compared to the previous year. Minister, although I note what you were saying about social sector grants being made available, this is a disturbing trend, so how can you arrest it?
I am grateful for the Member’s question, actually, because it is a great opportunity to celebrate the work that we are doing in Wales. There are some fundamental processes around house and home developments, including the affordable loans and the grant schemes such as the social housing grant. We are increasing our supply from 7,500 this year to 10,000 as we have reprofiled our target. However, there are many questions around that that we should also consider, including the right-to-buy policy, which I know that the Member is in favour of, although many Members may not be.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Plaid Cymru spokesperson, Rhodri Glyn Thomas.
Minister, would you accept that there is clear evidence now that the bedroom tax means that a number of large houses—four-bedroomed houses, for example—are being left vacant because people are afraid that they will be hit by the bedroom tax if they were to rent those houses?
Indeed, the Member is absolutely right to raise this and to continue to raise this. I share his view that we should abolish the bedroom tax in Wales and in the UK.
I appreciate that statement very much, Minister. Would you make a commitment this afternoon to publish a full analysis of the impact of the bedroom tax, including the number of houses that are lost from the rental market because of this, the opportunities that are lost and the houses that could have been bought into this sector, and also the additional costs to the public sector and local authorities as a result of this tax?
Of course, I will seek to see what data are available. My priority is ensuring that we protect the most vulnerable in our communities, as opposed to creating reams of paper to illustrate how bad it is for them, while we already know that there are direct impacts. I will see what data are available and share those with the Member.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the opposition spokesperson, Mark Isherwood.
Of course, the Welsh Government target relates to affordable housing, not just social housing. However, given that you announced in May 2013—. Yes, they are different, Minister. Given that you announced in May 2013 a £2 million social housing grant for veterans accommodation, and that was recently re-announced, how would you respond to feedback indicating that this money was added simply to the grant moneys received by housing associations and local authorities, and that many of them had not known that they were receiving this money for veterans?
I do not know exactly who the people are that this Member talks to, because the people I talk to, Presiding Officer, are very positive about the schemes that we are bringing in, including the private sector and the RSLs that we support across Wales. Community Housing Cymru and many other bodies congratulate the Welsh Government on working in partnership with them, but the Member never fails to come back with a negative story. I am not quite sure where he gets his data from.
I get my data directly from front-line organisations operating in Wales—
Who are they?
I am not going to tell you. They have asked me not to, because if I tell you, you will come down on them like a ton of bricks. Therefore, will you tell me, Minister, from that £2 million grant, how many units of veterans accommodation have so far been created, and how many veterans have been housed within them?
I am more than happy to write to the Member on that. I have not got the detail in terms of the number of veterans within my briefing today, but I will write to the Member. However, I feel that it is very unfortunate that the Member, while I am Minister for housing, thought that I would come down on somebody like a ton of bricks. That is quite bizarre. The fact is that I would really like to understand the issues that people have, rather than their using Mark Isherwood as a mouthpiece for what they perceive as a negative effect. Why do they not come and tell me about it? I am more than happy to discuss it with them all.
Why do you not?
Because they do not exist.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Have we quite finished? Question 4 will be asked by Suzy Davies.
Houses in Multiple Occupation
4. Will the Minister provide an update on Welsh Government guidance on Houses of Multiple Occupation? OAQ(4)0420(HR)
We intend preparing comprehensive guidance on HMOs. This will be informed by research that we are currently procuring.
Thank you very much, Minister, because you may remember that I raised this issue in the past and would be grateful if you could update us on any discussions that you may have had with HMO landlords in high-density, high-turnover areas such as student areas, often with a number of empty properties, about whether they would consider changing some of those properties into more permanent one and two-bedroomed homes?
I have not had any specific conversations on that particular issue, but the HMO research that we will be producing over the coming months will take many factors into account. Indeed, following a request by Julie James and Mike Hedges, this morning I met with Swansea council to discuss this very issue around HMOs. We will be in a position to give more detail as the research moves forward and I will inform the Member.
Minister, thank you for that answer, and I am very grateful for all of the work that you have been doing, but you will know that we are now approaching the season when student HMOs are largely vacant over the summer months, and this causes a large number of problems in such areas, not least the viability of small businesses, and problems with gardens and rats and all sorts of things that happen when houses are left out of occupation. Minister, I hope that you will include these sorts of problems of high-density occupation followed by periods of very low-density occupation in your deliberations on this research.
The Member is very modest in her question to me today, Presiding Officer, because every week that I see her, she has another list of things that I need to consider on HMOs. It is exactly the right thing to do, namely to pester the life out of me to ensure that we do this, and the Member should be congratulated on the work that she does.
Minister, I know that we are agreed on one thing, that is, that we are not supportive of the bedroom tax. Do you have any evidence from local authorities or registered social landlords that more or fewer people are using HMOs as a result of the bedroom tax? It would be really helpful for us as backbenchers to understand whether there is evidence of that kind in existence.
I do have some detail regarding a small collection of RSLs who have provided data about the effects of the bedroom tax. I will consider the detail of that and I will share it with Members if I find it relevant.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call the Welsh Liberal Democrat spokesperson, Peter Black.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. Minister, may I welcome the research that you are doing into HMOs and very much recognise the picture that Julie James has just painted? Will the outcome of this research be available to you in time to influence the new planning Bill?
Thank you for that answer.
I could have said ‘no’. [Laughter.]
I think that you will recognise that the ability of local authorities to have some flexibility in terms of applying planning guidance to a particular area around HMOs could actually help to reduce the concentration of HMOs over time. For that, you would need to relax some of the conditions with regard to when a HMO is recognised as an HMO for planning reasons. May I ask you, therefore, to have a look at that as part of your consideration of the planning Bill, and, once you have the evidence from your research, if the Bill has already been published, to consider amendments to the Bill along those lines?
I certainly will. I was cagey in my original response to the Member. There are many issues affecting HMOs in Wales; I do not think that it is purely planning. That is why I think that it is about assessing the whole issue around HMOs and what that is, including licensing and how that will develop, through the research programme. What I will do, if changes to legislation are needed, is consider that through the planning process.
Regeneration in Towyn and Kinmel Bay
5. Will the Minister make a statement on Welsh Government action to support regeneration in Towyn and Kinmel Bay? OAQ(4)0415(HR)
I thank the Member for Clwyd West for his question. Both towns have benefited from the north Wales coast regeneration area, including the £10.5 million regeneration of Rhyl harbour. Conwy County Borough Council has now selected Colwyn Bay as a primary focus for regeneration, and, through its ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’ programme, we are supporting Clwyd West very well.
Thank you for that response, Minister, and I am very pleased to see support coming into my constituency for regeneration, particularly in Colwyn Bay. Indeed, the recent developments at the Foryd Harbour have also been welcomed by my constituents. However, there is a need for further investment in Towyn and Kinmel Bay, particularly in the Sandy Cove area, which, as the Minister will know, was hit by flooding in December. Part of the problem on the Sandy Cove estate is that the roads there are unadopted; it is the largest community with unadopted roads in the whole of Wales, I understand, with over 250 homes affected. It has poor drainage and poor street lighting. What action might the Welsh Government be able to take to address those particular issues, perhaps in conjunction with the local authority in Conwy, so that residents on the estate can have the comfort of knowing that their needs are not being forgotten?
The Member has raised this with me under my previous portfolio as Minister for transport. May I be very clear that the provision for the regeneration process is driven by the local authority and its priority needs and priority areas? It has given its priority areas as Colwyn Bay and Rhyl, and that is where we have made significant investments, notwithstanding the issues that the Member raises. I recommend that the Member take this up with the local authority, or, indeed, the Minister for transport, to make the appropriate representation at that level.
May I ask, Minister, what the Government is doing to ensure that these positive benefits and advantages that we are hearing about that come from the regeneration work across the coast are also felt in the more rural areas inland?
Well, the coast is not just for people who live on the coast; the coast is open to all and Wales is open for business in all aspects. Of course, the £16.7 million west Rhyl housing improvement project in Ann Jones’s constituency is very much welcomed by constituents, including me; I often take my dog for a walk down the prom in Rhyl. In Rhyl, there have been cinema improvements and the creation of competition-class cycling facilities at Marsh Tracks. These developments are all very positive, and are welcomed by everybody, including Darren Millar and the Member himself. [Laughter.]
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the progress of affordable housing units in Brecon and Radnorshire? OAQ(4)0428(HR)
I thank the Member for her question. During 2012-13 and 2013-14, we allocated £8.3 million from the social housing grant programme in Powys to support the delivery of affordable homes.
Thank you, Minister. Although there is a desperate need to build more affordable houses in Brecon and Radnorshire, sometimes communities can be anxious, to say the least, about planning developments of that sort. One way to reassure communities is to use section 106 agreements to ensure that those people who are allocated those houses are indeed local people with strong local connections who are looking to stay in their communities or to move back to the areas in which they had grown up and in which they would now like to raise their own families. What assessment have you made of using section 106 agreements in that way, to ensure that we can progress the number of affordable units that we are building?
I think that there are many factors in relation to planning in rural communities and the Member is right to raise just a few of them. Section 106 is one tool that is available. I am concerned about a reliance on section 106 agreements, because there is an issue around viability of programme, and we seem to rely on that heavily now in terms of a financial bias to section 106, which makes the programme just unaffordable. I think that what is extremely positive in the particular areas that the Member raises is the rural housing enabler scheme and how we can engage people in the community to understand better what the profile is and how that will work. It is something that I am keen to invest in. However, certainly, we will seek to embrace section 106 agreements and other areas of the planning system to help and support the communities that the Member raises today.
You are absolutely right—affordable housing viability assessments are essential if, working with local authorities and builders, we are to deliver more affordable housing units. However, what proposals do you have to fill in the gaps in terms of the provision of rural housing enablers, which you have just referred to—in some areas now they do not exist, and the numbers have, overall, reduced—to ensure that populations across Wales have that support mechanism in place to identify need and then work to enable provision with all the relevant agencies?
Of course, it is about ensuring that there is support across communities. I have been very clear about making finance available to local authorities in rural areas, as a share of opportunity, to make sure that we can create rural housing enabler project schemes. Where local authorities fail to take that finance up or move forward on that, I have very little powers to interact with that. However, ultimately, the electorate will make the decision on what the local authority is doing in making the decisions that it does in this process.
Unfortunately, Minister, the target for affordable homes in the development plan is not being achieved at present by the county council, although there is some good work going on by some people there, and, because of that, there are 1,850 households registered on the housing needs register for Powys at present. Is the Minister of the opinion that there is confusion in Brecon and Radnorshire in particular because there are affordable housing targets set by the park authority and the council? Does he see any way of having more collaboration between the two authorities on this? Would he also agree with me that the affordable homes situation, particularly in rural areas, is one of the strongest reasons for voting for that part of the Housing (Wales) Bill last night that gave powers to local authorities to vary council tax on second homes?
I think that the Member raises a very important issue in terms of collaboration—or a lack of collaboration—between two planning authorities that overlap. I think that this is something that we need to address during the planning Bill, moving forward. Indeed, it would be troubling to me if I were to understand that either of the authorities was not being helpful in ensuring that there is an opportunity to develop much-needed affordable homes across the constituency that the Member represents. If the Member has any evidence to support that, I would be delighted to receive that, as an opportunity for the planning Bill moving forward.
Minister, one successful example of local need affordable housing in Brecon and Radnorshire is the Trefecca road development, adjacent to the Gwernyfed Rugby Club, which was built by Melin Homes on a legacy site left over from the A479 Talgarth relief road. It was achieved with the active engagement of local residents and the wider community. Minister, will you join me in congratulating Melin Homes on what it has achieved there on that small but important site? Subject to diary pressure, will you consider accepting an invitation from Melin Homes to attend a small opening ceremony, at your convenience, during the summer recess?
I would of course be delighted to receive the invitation formally from Melin Homes. Again, Melin Homes is just one example of many RSLs across Wales that are doing some really positive work in the development of new homes across Wales. I look forward to potentially meeting the Member and Melin Homes at the appropriate time during the summer.
7. Will the Minister make a statement on house-building targets? OAQ(4)0418(HR)
I thank the Member for the Rhondda for his question. Increasing the supply of housing across Wales is my top priority. I have set a target of delivering 10,000 new affordable homes during this term of Government. We are already well on course to meeting that target.
The increase in the target is obviously welcome not only for those looking for homes, but also for the construction industry and the wider economy of Wales. May I ask the Minister if he will look into the possibility of commissioning work on the contribution of house building to the Welsh economy?
The Member raises an important point and I share his view that there is much more to housing than just bricks and mortar. The effect on the economy is significant. Treasury figures show that for every £1 million we invest in new housing, we create an extra 21 jobs per year. Again, I have listened carefully to the Member’s comments and will look carefully at an economic impact assessment on how we build homes in Wales.
Minister, last month saw statistics released that showed that there had been a 10% drop in the amount of social housing built. As William Graham outlined previously, that is the third year in a row that there has been a fall. While we appreciate the sticking plaster that you have applied over the problem, can you identify what you are doing to address the skills shortage that has been identified by house builders, which may be impacting on people’s ability to construct, although the private sector seems to be able to deliver a 10% increase?
Well, on this side of the Chamber, the glass is still half full. You must have had Mark Isherwood’s contribution at that point. I have spoken to the Minister for skills on many occasions about opportunities to develop. I have met with the sector in relation to what its skills deficit is and we are looking at new skills opportunities through shared apprenticeship schemes, operating across Wales. Again, that is another very positive step, delivered by this Welsh Labour Government.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call Lindsay Whittle.
No, thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call Leanne Wood.
Minister, the issue of local development plans is causing controversy around Wales, with projected demand for housing being questioned on the basis of accuracy. The process has been seen as a heavy-handed and top-down approach from a Welsh Government that has been dismissive on many occasions of local concerns. Now, the LDP process has not been rooted in communities. In many cases, the plans seem to be steam-rollered through without proper local input. Plaid Cymru proposes that housing needs and development plans in general should start and not end at the community level. This would mean communities being given accurate information about future needs and then working on the basis of sustainable development, which would put communities in the driving seat rather than on the periphery of the whole process. What objections, Minister, could you have to these proposals from Plaid Cymru?
Well, I do not have any objections, actually, because that is what we do. The fact of the matter is that we are dealing with the community at the very heart of our LDP processes. I do not recognise the concerns raised by the Member. Indeed, over half of the LDPs in Wales are completed and we are well on target to deliver even more. The problem with planning is that people bring too much politics into it. The Member today seems to be doing that at this point in the Chamber.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 8 is next, from Mohammad Asghar. [Interruption.] Order.
8. Will the Minister provide an update on policies for regeneration that the Welsh Government intends to deliver in the next 12 months? OAQ(4)0413(HR)
I am sorry, Presiding Officer, but I did not catch that question.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Well, it is written on the paper. You should have an answer already prepared. [Laughter.]
Thank you, Presiding Officer. [Laughter.] My priorities are delivery of the £100 million ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’ programme together with wider action to support the regeneration and development of our town centres.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. In March last year, the Welsh Government pledged in its ‘Vibrant and Viable Places’ regeneration framework to launch its campaign to support Welsh high streets in June 2013—within three months. We are now told that the first campaign to support Welsh high streets will be held in September this year. Can the Minister explain why the campaign to provide our high streets with the support that they desperately need has been delayed for so long?
I do not know who told you that it was going to be in September this year, but let me tell you what opportunities we are presenting in the communities that the Member professes to represent. In terms of Vibrant and Viable Places, let me tell you exactly what we have done: in Bridgend we have provided £5.9 million; in Conwy we have provided £12 million; in Flintshire we have provided £6 million; and in Anglesey we have provided £7 million.
What about Newport?
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Order. You represent South Wales East, not just Newport.
In Merthyr Tydfil—[Inaudible.] In Neath Port Talbot we have provided £9 million—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
And Bridgend is not in South Wales East.
Let me remind the Member specifically that in Newport we have provided £14.9 million. That is the largest amount delivered by this Welsh Labour Government to a Labour authority in Newport, delivering for the people he professes to represent.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Gracious me. It is like being at Wimbledon today, going back and forth. I call Keith Davies.
Minister, I am pleased to see the funding that Carmarthenshire County Council has had for bid schemes, through Vibrant and Viable Places, in order to build homes. Do you agree that these will all be of assistance in regenerating the local economy, as the Member for Rhondda mentioned earlier?
I welcome the endorsement of the Member, and I am pleased that the programme will have such benefits across Llanelli and the rest of Wales. Indeed, the Member recognises where input and finances are delivered; however, the Member who asked the original question does not.
Minister, the funding for projects within the new framework for regeneration has, by now, been allocated. Will you, in the first place, acknowledge that the sum of money allocated is smaller than the sum allocated by the previous Minister, Jocelyn Davies, during the period between 2007 and 2011? Secondly, what are you doing to work with local authorities that have not received funding to enable them to regenerate their town centres?
A fund of £100 million is delivered through 11 authorities. We have also announced the £7 million for the tackling poverty fund, and there will be further announcements on the remaining authorities that are not receiving, or have not received, any funding to date. I am very proud of the fact that, despite a £1.8 billion reduction in our funding from the UK Government, we are still investing in our communities across Wales, and we will continue to do so.
Minister, a number of us have had an opportunity as Assembly Members to visit Scotland to see the work undertaken by Scottish Canals. In considering the schemes that are ongoing in Froncysyllte and Cefn-mawr in the north-east, have you had any discussions with Glandŵr Cymru regarding its regeneration plans for canals throughout Wales?
I have not had a discussion with it, but I will make it a point, within my diary, to ensure that I do in the future.
Minister, I was very pleased to note that, under the recent allocation of Vibrant and Viable Places funding, money will be directed to projects in Ynysybwl and Glyncoch in my constituency. As you will know, from discussions that I have had—. The Ynysybwl project relating to the former Lady Windsor colliery site is a long-standing issue, and this regeneration will be of huge benefit to the local community. Minister, are you able to provide us with any further details regarding the next stages of these projects, particularly relating to the time frame for the project?
The Member will know that that particular site has been quite a difficult site to move forward on; however, Rhondda Cynon Taf County Borough Council is in the process of developing a programme for the site, which will update the site development report previously funded by this department. A procurement strategy will also be developed. VVP investment will provide the means for a local authority to engage professional advice and identify any further work that is required for that particular area. The authority has an aspiration to deliver around 300 homes on that site.
The Regeneration of Seaside Towns
9. Will the Minister outline what the Welsh Government is dong to regenerate seaside towns in North Wales? OAQ(4)0421(HR)
I thank the Member for her question. The north wales coast regeneration area has seen investment of over £30 million between 2009 and 2014. Our new Vibrant and Viable Places programme is supporting significant investment in Colwyn Bay, and I have recently been able to announce the allocation of tackling poverty funding for Rhyl.
Thank you for your answer, Minister. I wonder what you are doing to ensure that local councils in north Wales make the most of the UK Government’s coastal communities fund, which runs until 2015-16? What support has your department offered to coastal communities in north Wales to access this fund and to ensure that the allocation of money that has been made available is fully utilised to benefit my constituents in north Wales?
As the Member has alluded, this is a UK Government scheme and you should therefore be asking the relevant Ministers at Westminster.
There is an opportunity, of course, to regenerate the town of Holyhead under the Vibrant and Viable Places programme, but what commitment can you as a Government give that the community itself will have a real input into the process of deciding how that money should be spent?
Of course, local authorities produce the business plans for Vibrant and Viable Places, including for that particular area. That is about engagement and leverage for additionality into the fund. I would be very happy to share the business plan, when completed, with the Member at the appropriate time.
Discretionary Housing Payments
10. What discussions has the Minister had with the UK Government about guidance provided to local authorities on who is eligible for discretionary housing payments? OAQ(4)0416(HR)
I thank the Member for Cardiff Central for her question. I have written to Lord Freud on a number of occasions about the discretionary housing payment guidance because I am concerned that its vagueness means that there is a real risk of inconsistency in applying it across Wales.
I am very concerned at the failure of the UK Government to safeguard the interests of disabled people by allowing local authorities discretion in how the bedroom tax mitigation scheme should be applied. I recently had to support a gentleman in his 50s who has lost his home. He is a disabled gentleman who has a disabled son, and he is now living in a hostel for the homeless because the discretionary housing payment was not applied to him. I did not hear about it until after he had been made homeless. This is absolutely disgraceful, and it really—. I mean, if there is anything more that we can do—. What is happening here is that the UK Government is just creating a mess that we have to pick up. I very much appreciate the efforts that you have made, but I think that if we can do something further, to stop any more people being put into this disgraceful situation—.
I am very concerned about this extremely worrying case that the Member brings to the Chamber today. Of course, this is the very reason we wrote to Lord Freud, asking for clearer, definitive guidance on this very issue. Unfortunately, he has not responded positively on this issue, but I will take this up further with the Minister at Westminster on the Member’s behalf.
Minister, with all but three councils failing to apply for the second tranche of discretionary housing payments, which prioritise those with disabilities, do you think it is credible to criticise UK Government about the effects of the removal of the spare room subsidy when Labour councils answerable to your Government will not apply for and pass on the mitigation funding provided by the UK Government? Will you release any correspondence that you have had with councils exhorting them to apply for the new money, and what correspondence you had with them when it was clear that they were not applying for it?
I am very happy to share the correspondence, if the Member would like to ask me formally for the correspondence with Lord Freud about what we had. We have had much detail from the Minister, who, actually, has little regard for the people of Wales or the UK with regard to the effects of this.
With regard to the amount of DHP responded to by local authorities, it was just too late in the day—two or three months before the end of the process—to expect people to get money through the door, when, actually, our priority is to try to protect these people. Presiding Officer, half the millionaires on that front row do not give a monkey’s about people across Wales, and the fact is that we should get rid of the bedroom tax here in Wales.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Question 11 is from Andrew R.T. Davies, who, I am sure, does not come into that category. [Laughter.]
11. Will the Minister provide an update on progress being made to tackle homelessness in South Wales Central? OAQ(4)0423(HR)
I thank the Member for his question. The figures released last week confirm progress across Wales in reducing homelessness, including in South Wales Central, where there has been a 13% reduction in the number accepted as being homeless during 2013-14, compared with 2012-13.
Thank you, Minister, for that answer. One of the terms used to describe many young people who find themselves homeless is 'sofa surfers'. In particular, this is a long-standing issue and various organisations have failed to get to the root of the problem. In England, Shelter has brought forward a campaign for volunteers to provide educational workshops and support to people who find themselves in this particular situation. Regrettably, that service is not available in Wales. Are you minded to have a discussion with Shelter Cymru to encourage the uptake of such a service so that this particularly stubborn obstacle, if you like, to tackling homelessness can be addressed among young people?
I am very pleased to have a conversation with Shelter in terms of tackling this issue of sofa surfers in Wales, provided that the Member can give me his assurance that he will ring David Cameron up and tell him to scrap the bedroom tax in Wales, which is causing this issue.
12. Will the Minister make a statement on what the Welsh Government is doing to support regeneration projects in Pembrokeshire? OAQ(4)0411(HR)
I thank the Member for his question. Dedicated regeneration managers work with every local authority to identify regeneration opportunities, such as the town-centre partnership fund and the high-street campaign.
As you know, Minister, Fishguard plays a huge role in Pembrokeshire’s economy because of its strategic importance, which, of course, includes the ferry terminal. I understand that the Welsh Government promised regeneration funds to improve the infrastructure in Fishguard some 10 years ago, but I understand that those monies are no longer forthcoming. In the circumstances, can you tell us why those funds are no longer available? What are you doing, as a Government, to support regeneration projects such as the proposed marina in Fishguard?
I am not sure what promises the Member alludes to. I would like to understand that better, if the Member wishes to write to me on that very issue. I am sure that colleagues across the Cabinet would be very interested to understand those proposals.
The Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales
13. Will the Minister make a statement on the Regeneration Investment Fund for Wales? OAQ(4)0412(HR)
I thank the Member for his question. I have already taken action to bring the fund under direct ministerial control. The Wales Audit Office study is continuing.
Thank you for that answer, Minister. Now that you have the funding under direct ministerial control, will you give an indication as to when you will start dispersing the funds?
I believe that I have acted decisively in bringing the fund under the direct control of Welsh Ministers. The uncertainty generated by the WAO investigations will lead me to make further deliberations once I am clear on the outcome.
Minister, you may be aware of the comments by the former Lib Dem leader of Swansea council and former board member of the regeneration investment fund for Wales insisting this week in the ‘South Wales Evening Post’ that the fund had done nothing wrong. Given that the Wales Audit Office report, which has been continually delayed due to additional areas of investigation, has yet to be published, would you agree that his statement was ill-judged and extremely premature?
The Member should be very careful about any assumptions that he makes without seeing the Wales Audit Office report; I have not seen it, either. I am aware of the statement made by the councillor, but I have no further comments to make on that statement.
Physical Adaptations Grants
14. What assessment has the Minister made of the provision of Physical Adaptations Grants? OAQ(4)0425(HR)
A review of the provision of all home adaptations, including physical adaptations grants, is currently under way. A final report detailing findings is expected in the autumn of this year.
I am most grateful to the Minister for his reply, but he will be aware of the discrepancies in the time taken to process adaptation grants across Wales. May I ask the Minister, despite what he was saying earlier, whether he is minded to undertake a proper review of the progression of adaptation grants that includes a potential target time within which they should be processed?
I am not going to prejudice the outcome of the report. I will give that serious consideration if the recommendations come back to suggest that. I think that we have to have a root-and-branch review of the adaptation process. As I said to the Member, the report will come to me in the autumn of this year.
15. Will the Minister outline whether provisions regarding applications for village greens will be included in the proposed Planning Bill? OAQ(4)0419(HR)
I thank the Member for her question. The consultation paper ‘Positive Planning’ sought views on whether limitations should be placed on the town and village greens registration process. The outcome of the consultation exercise is under consideration, and the planning (Wales) Bill will be introduced later this year.
Retaining green spaces within towns is crucial for the benefit of the health of the community surrounding those areas. Maesglas in Cardigan is an example of where a community has been fighting to protect those green spaces that are under threat from housing development, and the legislation on village greens is being used to enable that. Do you agree that it is important that the rights of individuals to protect green spaces within their areas are retained under the legislation that you are bringing forward for the future?
I will give you a general view on this with regard to the general principle, without being site specific. The Penfold review set up in England to identify whether non-planning consents delayed or discouraged investment published its final report in 2010. The review clearly identified that one of the issues was registration being used for town and village green registration. This is something that we seriously need to consider during the planning Bill process, but I am sure that the scrutiny of the Bill will include deliberations as to how this should be best fitted to Wales in the future.
You have already mentioned the consultation exercise, which has now closed. Can you guarantee that the Welsh Government will ensure that the consultation exercise will be meaningful and that you will take the views of local communities into consideration ahead of this Bill?
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have accepted an urgent question under Standing Order 12.66. I call on Simon Thomas to ask the urgent question.
Will the First Minister make a statement on the advice received by the Minister for Natural Resources and Food that he should not comment on matters relating to the Circuit of Wales, which was revealed in the Permanent Secretary’s report that was placed in the library on 1 July? EAQ(4)1776(FM)
This advice did not come from me. The advice is excessive in terms of what it says. It goes beyond the ministerial code, and this is discussed in paragraph 38 of the report of the Permanent Secretary.
The First Minister says that it was not advice from him, but the advice was contained in a report that came directly from the Cabinet office and which was provided in writing to the Minister on 28 March. The advice stated that the Minister:
‘should not comment…even in his AM capacity’.
Will the First Minister, therefore, confirm that his office was copied into this advice, as was common practice under the One Wales Government? If it was copied in and did not think that the advice was appropriate, what further steps did the First Minister take to provide further advice to the Minister? Can the First Minister also confirm—
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Do not ask too many questions; this is not a statement.
I accept the point, but I want the First Minister to confirm that he had seen the correspondence and when he, or his office, saw the correspondence between the Minister and Natural Resources Wales, which commenced on 12 June 2013. In addition, in the light of the publication of the full report by the Permanent Secretary, is the First Minister able to confirm that he still believes in the merits of his Minister?
The first time I had sight of the report in relation to the advice given by the office was in this report. I had not seen it prior to that, and, in my view, it goes much further than what is contained in the ministerial code. As to the question of when I saw this for the first time, it is in this report that I saw the advice for the first time. I do not recall seeing it prior to that. As regards when I had sight of the correspondence between the Member for Blaenau Gwent and NRW, that was during what occurred under the FOI request. That was the first time I saw that correspondence. I had not seen it prior to that. On the question of whether I am in the same position as I was in yesterday, the answer is ‘yes’.
I welcome the opportunity to ask you a question now that Members have had a chance to see the report. The report is quite damning to say the least. In credit to the Minister, he sought out the advice in March 2013. However, can you answer this specific question, First Minister: if you get advice that would suggest that you would prejudice the Government by commenting, for example, on this particular this application, which the evidence points to—and it says here quite clearly that
‘it would be inappropriate of me, as a Minister of the Welsh Government, to comment on the merits of this development’—
do you not think that that shows contempt for the ministerial code, and contempt for the function of Government and the Ministers that sit within that Government? How, therefore, can you have confidence in your Minister going forward?
The advice that was given goes well beyond the ministerial code, as I have already stated. The ministerial code does not impose a ban on Ministers making comments on planning matters; they are able to make comments within certain boundaries and, so, I do not believe that the advice that was given was entirely correct in the first place. It was over-cautious. That said, as the report makes clear, the Minister, on several occasions, did seek advice. In my view, he might have made it clearer that he was acting as an AM not as a Minister; even though the correspondence was sent from his AM mailbox, he might have made it clearer that he was acting on behalf of constituents. He had received correspondence—and that is clear from the report and is mentioned in it—and he might have made that clearer in terms of the correspondence that he sent.
Of course, I take full note of the fact that NRW has said that his comments carried no weight in terms of its final decision. That is borne out, in my mind, by the fact that, one month later, on 16 July, it was still saying that it could not approve, or could not agree with, the position that had been taken with regard to the Circuit of Wales; it was still objecting. It was not until 9 August that it declared itself satisfied with the application and could therefore support it. That does not suggest, of course, that it was influenced in any way by what the AM said, given the fact that it maintained its position even after the meeting took place.
First Minister, the Minister has breached the ministerial code in the context of his relationship with the body that he is responsible for sponsoring, namely Natural Resources Wales. Did you consider at any time during your consideration of the report taking responsibility for Natural Resources Wales away from this particular Minister and giving it to another Minister in your Government?
No. That is not something that I considered nor is it something that I would have done. At the time, I was not aware of the e-mails that had been sent. I became aware of those when the FOI request came through. Therefore, no, there was no discussion at that time in terms of transferring responsibilities because it was not something that I was aware of. However, it is very important, as the code states, that Ministers are careful in terms of how they make their remarks or comments, and I believe that the Member for Blaenau Gwent—because that is what he was in terms of this period—could have made things far more clear in terms of his contact with NRW. However, in saying that, in my view, he did not go too far, bearing in mind that he had no influence on NRW and because the organisation took no notice of the correspondence with Alun Davies.
First Minister, I accept that the advice goes quite a bit further than the ministerial code of conduct, but, of course, the Minister did not take the advice. The report that was published yesterday goes further and states that, had the Minister followed the advice he was given
‘it would have prevented any perception that Mr Davies’s actions were prejudicial to the planning process.’
In considering the fact that a judicial review could be brought against any decision ultimately and the fact that millions of pounds of public money are at risk, are you happy with the decision that you took yesterday?
Yes, I am. I did not make a planning decision on this issue, but may I say, in terms of Natural Resources Wales, it has made it quite clear that no influence had been brought to bear on it as a result of the e-mails and the meeting? That is demonstrated by the fact that it did not change its view in July. It changed its view in August, but a long time had passed by that point. Therefore, I do not see that any legal problem will arise as a result of this.
Well, the legal issues may well be tested in court, First Minister, where, no doubt, cross-examination will be undertaken of Natural Resources Wales. I wonder how certain that outcome would be. You seem to assume that there has been no inappropriate pressure, but the fact is that the Minister asked, and asked in his capacity as Minister, to look at the arrangements. The conclusion of Derek Jones in his report is that he could not have been acting in his capacity as an AM when he met NRW on 18 June—that is quite clear from the report—because an AM would not have had the capacity to seek the arrangements that the Minister was trying to seek. That is quite clear.
You referred to paragraph 38 in the report in relation to the conditions that apply, because it is clear that the Minister did not make it clear that the views expressed were intended to represent the views of the electorate; in fact, they were very clearly expressed as ‘I’ views. He referred to the remit letter, something that an Assembly Member does not issue in relation to Natural Resources Wales, but which a Minister does.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Are you coming to the question, please?
Yes. Where do you say, First Minister, that the comments made by the Minister were made available to other parties prior to the Freedom of Information Act request? Having seen the Freedom of Information Act request, why did you wait for opposition parties to instigate an investigation into the ministerial code, particularly given your e-mail of 2 August, which highlighted your concern at the public comments of the Minister?
They were not public comments; they were comments expressed in a private communication to a body or bodies. First of all, I am not aware of judicial review cases where cross-examination takes place; usually, they are done, to my knowledge and in my experience, through statements. There is no evidence to suggest that the meeting took place with Alun Davies acting as a Minister; it is quite common for all Assembly Members on these benches particularly, whether they are Government Ministers or not, to meet with bodies, whether they are public or private bodies. Perhaps I suppose that is because they ask to do it—I do not know—but it caused a fair bit of consternation on these benches when it was suggested that meetings such as that could not take place.
She is correct to draw attention to the fact that an e-mail was sent on 2 August. That was with regard to public comments that were made, and the Minister was advised at that time that he should seek advice before making any further public comments, which is exactly what happened. He had made comments in public before that, and so it is fair to say that people were aware of his position. Indeed, earlier on in the report, there is specific reference to the fact that he was receiving correspondence from constituents, and that is why he felt that he needed to take matters further in his capacity as a constituency Assembly Member.
It is quite clear to me that due to the fact that he sent communications from his Assembly Member mailbox that that was his intention. It may have been made clearer—it should have been made clearer on his part—that he was acting purely as an Assembly Member, but the fact that the correspondence was sent from the Assembly Member mailbox is a sign that that is the capacity in which he believed himself to be acting. [Interruption.] The Member talks about being disgraceful, but she has offered no evidence at all. She shows complete ignorance of the judicial review procedure and has misread the report. So, I am afraid I cannot answer questions that are misconceived in their origin.
First Minister, will you confirm whether yesterday’s report contains the full extent of correspondence between Alun Davies as Assembly Member and as Minister for Natural Resources and Food with NRW on the Circuit of Wales project? Will you also, in the cause of full transparency, arrange for publication of all correspondence between Mr Davies and Blaenau Gwent County Borough Council on the Circuit of Wales project, and correspondence relating to the Brecon Beacons National Park Authority?
To the best of my knowledge, this is the extent of the communications that took place; I have no reason to believe there were any others. It is perfectly open to Members to ask for copies of any communication that took place between a Minister and Natural Resources Wales. There are other ways of making a request in terms of correspondence between an Assembly Member acting as an Assembly Member with any other public body. That is a matter for the Assembly Member and those public bodies.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
Thank you, First Minister.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the Chair of the committee, Jocelyn Davies, to move the motion.
Motion NDM5544 Jocelyn Davies
The National Assembly for Wales:
Notes the report of the Finance Committee on its inquiry into Higher Education Funding, which was laid in the Table Office on 3 June 2014.
Thank you, Presiding Officer. I move the motion.
In March of last year, the Finance Committee agreed to conduct an inquiry into higher education funding in Wales. The inquiry focused on the funding of higher education institutions, the financial impact of the Welsh Government’s tuition fee grant policy on HEIs and students, and whether the Welsh Government is delivering value for money in this area.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas took the Chair at 15:15.
The inquiry started taking evidence in July, using a range of engagement methods, including a call for evidence and a survey of prospective undergraduate students in years 12 and 13 and first and second year undergraduate students. We also participated in webchats with undergraduate students at HEIs in Wales and in England. During the course of the inquiry, several developments occurred. There was the announcement of the Diamond review into higher education funding and student finance arrangements, there was the publication of the Wales Audit Office report on higher education finances and there was the introduction of the Higher Education (Wales) Bill.
As a committee, we found this inquiry to be particularly interesting. We received a breadth of evidence from various sources including students, bodies representing students and the higher education institutions themselves. We published our report in May this year. Our report made 18 recommendations for the Welsh Government to consider under the following themes: Higher Education Funding Council for Wales funding; HE policies in England; the student loan book; the impact on students and student choices; widening access; part-time study; research and postgraduate funding; funding for expensive subjects; and Welsh-medium provision. One area that was of particular interest to the committee was around the factors that affect a student’s higher education decision. We found that, often, the cost of living impacted on a student’s choice and that some students have to work full-time hours, while studying full time, to fund their education.
Another area that surprised the committee was the amount of money that higher education institutions are spending on attracting overseas students. While Members fully understand the benefits of having overseas students studying at Welsh institutions, we question whether some of this money could be used to attract Welsh students to study at Welsh institutions.
We are pleased that the Minister has announced a review of higher education funding and we hope that his review will address some of the issues raised in this report. I note that the Welsh Government’s response accepted the majority of the recommendations. As a committee, we are pleased with this and we look forward to the outcome of the Diamond review.
However, in relation to specific recommendations, I am disappointed that the Government has not accepted recommendation 4. The committee strongly felt that more could be done by the Welsh Government to support Welsh institutions in competing with institutions across the border. We feel that this is vital if Wales is to become an exceptional provider of higher education. The rejection of recommendation 14 is also disappointing, as evidence was heard that some institutions are undertaking research work but are not entitled to funding due to their size. We believe that this is a major disadvantage to these institutions, and this is a shame. In relation to recommendations 2, 10, 12, 13 and 15, which have been partially accepted, I certainly look forward to returning to these points following the conclusion of the Diamond review.
I understand that some of the students who gave evidence to this inquiry are in the public gallery today. I thank them, and everyone else who participated, on behalf of the committee, for their contribution to the inquiry, including those who gave evidence to us. I will respond to the debate later.
I call Julie Morgan.
Thank you very much for calling me to speak in this debate on the Finance Committee’s report into higher education. As Jocelyn Davies said, this was a very interesting report and we took a wide range of evidence. I am particularly glad that we were able to take the evidence directly from students, to try to find out the exact experience that Welsh students have in attending higher education institutions today. I was also pleased to take part in one of the webchats, with the Chair, which was my first experience of taking part in this way of getting information. I thought that it was very successful. We were certainly able to get information that I do not think we could have got any other way. I was also pleased to meet the students at lunchtime, to have a further talk about their experiences in higher education and, as Jocelyn Davies said, we know that they are here listening to this debate today.
The main thing that struck me about the students we had contact with was that they do actually have a tough time coping. If the students who responded are typical of Welsh students generally, what came across to us was that they have to work so hard as well as study. All the students we spoke to actually had to have jobs as well as studying. One of the students, a Cardiff University dentistry student, was working in the university from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. every day and then going straight to work by 6 p.m. and then working as a barmaid until or 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. So she was absolutely exhausted when she went back the next day. Talking to the other students, they said that, actually, this was very common—that students have jobs during term time as well as in the holidays. Certainly, when I was a student, I always had a job in the holidays but I did not have to have one during term time because at that time, of course, we had full grants. So, I felt that we really did hear about the difficulties of managing, and it does seem to be moving towards the pattern in places like the United States, where most students seem to work as a matter of course unless they are very wealthy.
During the evidence sessions, we also interviewed NUS Wales representatives, who highlighted the financial burden that the cost of living is to students as well as the tuition fees. That was actually a very important point, I think, that came out in the report. The cost of living does bear down very hard on students. Talking to some of the students today, they were saying how, in fact, they could not afford to live in Cardiff, because the prices were so high for staying in Cardiff. So, they had to travel some distance.
The other point that came over clearly in the direct communication with the students was the inconsistency of information available to students about what was available in terms of loans and grants. Certainly, at the last talk that I gave to a sixth form in my constituency, the majority of the students were not aware of the generous settlement that the Welsh Government has given with regard to tuition fees as compared to the Government in Westminster. One of our recommendations was that there should be an early effort to ensure that students in schools do know what is on offer and are realistic then about how much help can be offered, because they certainly did not know about that. So, I think that that is one of the recommendations that should certainly be taken up in the review that the Government is doing.
Since the committee did the work for the report, a lot more information has come out in England about the difficulty that students are having in repaying in England. Outstanding student loans in England, as I think we said in the report, are projected to increase from £46 billion in 2013 to around £200 billion in 2042. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills expects that 35% of new loans will not be repaid and that 50% of borrowers with new student loans will not repay them in full. So, in fact, in England, it really looks as though it will end up not having been worth increasing the fees to £9,000, because the amount of money that they will be getting back will not cover that. So, it seems to me that this information in England is very worrying whereas in Wales the situation is certainly not as bad. The situation is much steadier and more stable. I think that what has happened in England and the difficulties that there obviously are in paying back these loans is really a tribute to the step that the Welsh Government took in ensuring that Welsh students who go to Welsh universities or study in English universities only pay the £3,000 upfront fees. I think that this information is a tribute to that.
I am delighted to take part in this debate this afternoon. As usual, I thank the Chair of the committee for her leadership on this issue and the clerk and her team for their efforts throughout this inquiry.
This is certainly a timely report given that the higher education sector has undergone a period of significant change in recent years across the whole of the UK. We have seen a number of reports being published regarding the sector here in Wales. There was the Wales Audit Office report last November and, of course, there is the Minister’s current cross-party review of higher education and student finance as well as the Higher Education (Wales) Bill launched last month.
I am pleased that, in responding to the committee’s report, the Minister has accepted or partially accepted the majority of the report’s recommendations. I note that the Minister has only partially accepted recommendation 2, which seeks to monitor funding for the higher education sector until the review publishes its first interim report and reports regularly to the National Assembly for Wales as part of the draft budget narrative.
In response to this particular recommendation, the Minister does not intend to introduce a further mechanism for reporting changes to the higher education budget, because he believes that funding issues are already scrutinised annually as part of the draft budget. I have to say that I am disappointed with that, given that the tuition fee policy should be scrutinised independently, to ensure its current sustainability, as recommended in the report. Of course, as the report recognises, there is increased competition from private and overseas providers of higher education, increasing competition from massive open online courses, changing trends in overseas students and the Higher Education (Wales) Bill, which is expected to address the effectiveness of fee plans in securing the Welsh Government’s strategic priorities. Given the volatility of the HE sector and despite overall levels of funding seemingly increasing, there is evidence that the current funding regime has some unintended consequences. Given these consequences, such as the increased competition between Welsh and English universities, which can have an effect on overall HE funding, the committee felt that it would have been appropriate for the Minister to report back to the Assembly on specific HE funding as part of the draft budget narrative. Therefore, introducing a mechanism to scrutinise ongoing funding issues would have been very helpful.
The committee’s inquiry also considered the issue of widening access and how the Welsh Government can best ensure that students from all backgrounds have the opportunity to progress to higher education. Once again, I am pleased that the Minister has accepted recommendation 11 and that Welsh Government officials have asked HEFCW to monitor and report on widening access activities in the academic year 2014-15.
The Minister made it clear to the Finance Committee that he does not have the full picture when it comes to monitoring the value for money of the funding used to support widening access to higher education. It is essential that Government policy is monitored to ensure that real outcomes are delivered in Wales. Perhaps in response to this debate, the Minister can tell us what discussions he has had with the Minister for Finance, who must also play a part in ensuring value for money from Welsh Government policy.
Funding issues were also discussed as part of the inquiry when we looked at postgraduate provision. I think that all Members would agree on the importance of support for postgraduate study and that was certainly the message that we received from bodies like HEFCW. However, it was quite evident from the committee’s discussions with higher education institutions that there were serious concerns that a squeeze could be put on the funds available. The Minister himself referred to postgraduate provision as a ticking time bomb. I understand that the Government has only partially accepted recommendation 15, as postgraduate provision has formed part of the terms of reference of the upcoming Diamond review.
The Minister also mentions in his response to the committee’s report that HEFCW is currently drafting a paper exploring those subjects that are not available in Wales at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. While I accept that work is being done in this area, the Diamond review is not set to report back until after the 2016 Assembly elections. However, the Minister must realise that, in the interim, for academic years 2014-15 and 2015-16, affordability issues for postgraduate study will still be a problem both for institutions and students. That is why it is imperative that this is addressed as soon as possible.
Therefore, in closing, Wales needs a higher education system that is fit for purpose and delivers for both higher education institutions and the students who study at them. I therefore look forward to hearing more about how the Welsh Government will tackle higher education funding issues across Wales. I hope that the Minister will now take on board the committee’s recommendations, notably around value for money, widening access and postgraduate provision.
May I start by endorsing everything that was said by Jocelyn Davies and Julie Morgan?
Like Jocelyn Davies, I am disappointed that the Welsh Government has rejected recommendation 4—the committee recommendation that the Welsh Government reviews how it supports Welsh institutions that are close to the border to compete effectively with English institutions.
The change of name of higher education institutions so that they all ended in ‘university’ did not end the binary divide that existed between universities and those institutions that were previously called institutions of higher education or polytechnics. Those that were previously institutes of higher education tended to, and, as far as I understand it, still do, have a lot more of their students from the local area and a lot more of their students coming in with non-traditional, that is, non-A-level qualifications to enter higher education.
The Government’s response says that Welsh institutions compete UK wide and in the global market for students, and not exclusively with those close to the Wales and England border. That is absolutely true for Swansea University, Cardiff University, Aberystwyth and, I am sure, some others, however, may I just ask the Minister for education whether he is sure that that is also the case for the former institutes of higher education near to the Wales-England border?
I am pleased that the Government has accepted my recommendation to monitor whether the number of students living at home while they are studying is an increasing trend. As part of this investigation, I ask that you also find out whether there is a larger number living at home according to the type of institution, that is, the pre and post-1992 universities; the type of course, that is, science, social science or humanities; and the number of years living at home. I know of some students in Swansea who have lived at home for the first two years and then lived either in the university halls or near the university in their final year. There are also those who live close enough to university but who choose not to live at home. I speak as someone who had my fees paid, a fairly substantial grant and a scholarship. This was a time when a small number of almost exclusively 18-year-olds studied for honours degrees.
I am pleased that the Welsh Government accepted the recommendation to investigate the number of graduates who either do not need to repay their loans because they do not meet the minimum earning threshold to do so, or are failing to repay the loans for other reasons. Student debt is, in my opinion, going to be a continual problem, although much more for English students than for Welsh students due to the much higher fees that they are paying. An unintended consequence of these fees, especially for English students leaving with between £27,000 and £54,000 of debt, will be the number who emigrate and work abroad in order to avoid payment. As some of those who can pay leave the country, and many discover that a university degree, while being enjoyable and educational, is not necessarily a route to highly paid employment, the total student debt may well rise, and rise considerably.
I also welcome the Government’s acceptance of evaluating the progress and value for money of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol. I speak as someone who strongly supports this body. My daughter and her friends have been educated through the medium of Welsh since the age of three. Why should they, in order to gain a degree in Wales, be forced to study through the medium of English? I support the main aim of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol, which is to increase, develop and broaden the range of Welsh-medium study opportunities in universities in Wales. It is important that it extends the range of academic provision and trains a new generation of lecturers for the future in partnership with the universities. Far too often in Wales, you can do Welsh through the medium of Welsh, you can do some humanities through the medium of Welsh, but for sciences it is, ‘Sorry, no’.
The coleg places the Welsh language, Welsh culture and scholarships in Wales at the heart of its operations. The coleg, through its agreement with institutions, ensures that they all have funds allocated through the coleg for Welsh-medium education. It ensures that the funds are used appropriately and that this funding is additional to current institutional spending from their own budgets.
It is really important that we give this opportunity to our young people. We have decided that we are going to provide Welsh-medium education from the age of three to 11, and then from 11 to 18, in different institutions, all of which I support, and many of which, when on Swansea council, I was very pleased to be involved in the opening of. They have had this opportunity and then, at 18, they are told, ‘Sorry’. I do not think that that is acceptable; it is certainly not acceptable in the twenty-first century in Wales. The ability to gain a degree in the same language in which you have been taught from the age of three should be a right, not a privilege for the few, or dependent on some form of serendipity of choosing the right course, in the right place, at the right time. It is important that this opportunity exists for these people. All the children who are in Welsh-medium education now, and who will be going into higher education in future years, must have that opportunity wherever possible. There may well be occasions with a few science subjects where it will not be possible, but the vast majority of courses need to become available through the medium of Welsh. It is only fair.
I start by endorsing everything that Mike Hedges has said about the availability of higher education through the medium of Welsh. He is absolutely right. Pupils who have their education through the medium of Welsh up to the age of 18 should have the opportunity and the right to continue it past that into higher education.
I want to concentrate on just three recommendations in the report from the Finance Committee and, in particular, recommendation 5, which has been accepted by the Welsh Government. The committee recommends that the Welsh Government should commission more detailed modelling of overall student debt and the student loan book to estimate the long-term implications of student debt. I think that it was quite clear from the evidence that the committee received that the level of student debt is an issue that needs further work. I know that we concentrate a great deal on the fee system—and I will refer to that later on as well—in terms of looking at how we fund higher education, and how we assist students through that system. However, of course, for most students—and because the fees are not paid upfront—any repayments of those fees will come later in their lives, once they are earning a wage, and when they have actually hit the wage level that has been set, which I think is set at £21,000 before they have to start to repay, and, of course, there is a time limit as to when that money should be repaid.
For most students, of course, the immediate issue is their living costs, and how they support themselves through university. We have already had contributions from Members who have referred to students who have had to work through their degree—something that I did not have to do as a student, because I had a full-time grant. Many other Members in this Chamber will not have had to do that either, because we had that grant, we had parental support, and we were able to survive without doing that.
So, I think that, clearly, that is an issue that does need to be addressed, and I certainly think that we do need to do more work on that. I am pleased that the Government has said that it is prepared to do more modelling on student debt, and to fully explore that from a Welsh Government perspective. I think that we do need to start looking at that.
Recommendation 8, again, which has been accepted by the Welsh Government, recommends that the Welsh Government should increase awareness of the tuition fee grant at an earlier stage, at the latest in year 9 in students’ education. I think that this is also crucial in terms of dealing with the perception that many students have of the additional cost that they will have to meet in going to university, particularly in terms of their student fees. We have to make students aware that those fees are not upfront, and we have to make them aware that, effectively, it is really a graduate tax, because they are not repaying it until they get to a certain income level, and that that money will not be repaid until they have actually got to that income level, at a time when they are in work.
I think that it is interesting to note, actually, that, where the fees remain at £9,000 in England, they have experienced the highest application rates to university ever, and up to a quarter of the lowest-paid graduates in England will end up paying back less than they would under the previous system. It is also the case that disadvantaged teenagers are 70% more likely to go to university than they were 10 years ago. That does not mean to say that I am endorsing or supporting the tuition fee regime that is in England, but, actually, those statistics are quite interesting in terms of how it is panning out in England, and actually we do not have the same level of success in Wales in terms of attracting students to university and the numbers going there. So, I think that we do need to look at maybe the perceptions that students have, before they actually go on to higher education.
The final recommendation that I wanted to look at is recommendation 10, which the Welsh Government has partially accepted, which is that it should commission more research into whether living costs are more of a concern than tuition fee costs for students. Again, this is very much along the theme that I have just been outlining, in terms of not just the perceptions that students have in going to university, but the actual reality of being a student in the twenty-first century, in a university. It is about the level of debt that students build up to do their course, the fact that they have to work, the impact that that has on their studies, and what we can do, using the resources that we have, to try to alleviate the impact of that.
I think that it has been pointed out again—I think that Paul Davies pointed it out—that the system itself may not be sustainable past 2016. In fact, the Welsh Government has only made a commitment to maintain the present system until 2016. Clearly, we are going to have to review the whole system. We know that there is a review under way, which is not due to report until after the Assembly elections, so I believe that there will be an interim report before those polls. However, I do think that we need to take into account this level of debt and affordability for students, while at university, as part of that. I know that the Minister will have that concern as well, and no doubt the review that he has instigated will look at those issues too.
I too am glad to be able to contribute this afternoon. However, I have to declare an interest, in that I have one son who has just finished his third year of a four-year MEng, and one son who has just finished his A-levels, and might be involved next year. So, having read the report, there are four recommendations that I want to comment on, and a lot of that is from personal experience.
The first two are recommendations 5 and 8, where we are talking about fees and loans. This is the information that I gleaned on this. Students who took out loans from September 1998 onwards are currently charged interest on their loans at a rate of 1.5%. However, students who started their courses from the academic year 2012-13 onwards have much higher interest rates to worry about. While studying, these students will be charged interest on their loans at a level of retail price index plus 3%. For the 2013-14 academic year, this amounted to a staggering 6.3%. This continues until April after graduation when interest rates drop down to just RPI. So, I am glad that the Welsh Government is looking at these two issues on fees and loans over future years.
The second issue that I want to refer to is the one that Peter Black mentioned earlier, and that is the cost of living being more of a concern for students than tuition fees. Again, the Government has partially accepted this and I think that it needs to look at this one. The NUS Wales 2014 ‘Pound in your Pocket’ report found that approximately one third of all students have seriously considered leaving their course, most commonly because of financial difficulties, and that over half the students regularly worry about meeting basic living expenses. Around 48% of undergraduates and 41% of postgraduates surveyed have taken on an overdraft since starting their course; 20% of undergraduates and 13% of postgraduates are taking loans from families or friends or, as other colleagues have said today, and like my son, they are taking on jobs, not only during the holidays, like I had to do, but also during term time. So, there are big issues about the cost of living.
The last recommendation that I want to comment on, which, again, was partially accepted by the Government, is with regard to postgraduate study. On that, many employers expect students to have a postgraduate degree nowadays. The higher number of graduates generally means that many students feel that a postgraduate degree will help to set them apart from others. This common view was supported by students consulted through web chats and they indicated that funding should be made available for postgraduate students. Of course, there is already Government support for postgraduates aiming to go into teaching, social work, medicine, dentistry or healthcare, but the competition for studentships from research council funds is very competitive. Between the two extremes of generous funding to a select few and no or little support for others, perhaps extending student loans to postgraduates is worth some consideration. This is an area in which graduates from a more well-off background have a clear advantage in going on to complete further study and enhancing their career prospects.
My final point is to encourage more universities to offer integrated Master’s courses. That is the one that my son is on now, because when he started his course, he was on a four-year course of an MEng degree. It is a four-year course of study with three years of an undergraduate degree followed by one year of postgraduate level study, but student finance can provide loans for these courses as if they are normal undergraduate degrees, so he is supported for the four years. I want UCAS to look at postgraduate qualifications, because with these postgraduate degrees students are chosen at the end of the third year, if they are not on a four-year Master’s course. Those students may be in a different financial position to those who start on a four-year course. So, I would like the Government to have a look at those postgraduate courses.
I welcome this report. I was a substitute on the Finance Committee and I did participate in some of the evidence-gathering sessions and I am very grateful for this valuable report. Having said that, had I remained on the committee, I think that I would have fought on the basis of the evidence received by the committee for a change in some of the recommendations, particularly some of those surrounding the costs of the student fee grant and the long-term future. However, I accept that the committee is making a contribution to the public debate and we must continue now with the Diamond review in order to establish a regime that will be sustainable in the long term for students and universities in Wales.
I also take advantage of the fact that there is an international conference held by the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol just over the road in the Wales Millennium Centre that celebrates teaching through the medium of Welsh and other minority languages throughout Wales. I attended the conference this morning—the Minister addressed the conference this morning too—and it was extremely interesting, and it also noted that the first full year of the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol has seen an increase in the number of students studying through the medium of Welsh from 4,800 to 5,500. So, some of Mr Hedges’s comments are extremely relevant in that regard and I support them entirely.
One of the things that I learned at the conference this morning is that although teaching through the medium of Welsh in universities in Wales only started after the first world war, teaching through the medium of English was relatively new because Latin was the medium for teaching until the middle of the previous century. So, it is not such a new thing to be learning at college through our indigenous language. So, long live the Coleg Cymraeg Cenedlaethol and that development.
I think the report has placed its finger on the concerns of some universities in dealing with foreign students. The report states that the committee was surprised at the resources invested in this area. The universities would argue that brings them a funding stream, but what we have seen just last week with Glyndŵr University demonstrates the dangers of this strategy. From my understanding, a quarter of the annual income of Glyndŵr University has now been affected by the fact that its right to authorise visas has been suspended for a period, at least, and that highlights just how timely and accurate the conclusions of this report are.
I agree and see that the cost of living for students is as much as a problem as the cost of student fees. Having said that, when I was on committees in Westminster fighting against the introduction of student fees initially, there was no mention by the Liberal Democrats at that time of the cost of living. They made no mention of the cost of living until they trebled fees by betraying their pledge in terms of student tuition fees. All of a sudden, the cost of living is more important than tuition fees. That just demonstrates that you, Peter, have betrayed your political and election pledge. It does not undermine—
I am sorry; I do not have time to give way.
It does not undermine the argument about living costs, but you must put this in its context. The context is that you trebled tuition fees, and you have to begin to learn. You do not have any basis to get on your high horse on these issues. In order to deal with the cost of living, we must support universities in Wales to attract more Welsh students to study closer to home so that they can make some savings. We need to look at things that I have discussed in the past—and I accept that the Conservative party has also discussed this—namely two-year courses and innovating in that context. We must also acknowledge one of the conclusions of this report, namely that the tuition fee grant in Wales is going to increase significantly more than was anticipated, up to £809 million by 2016-17, which underlines why the Diamond report is so important.
The final point that I want to make, which is an important point and this is why I could not give way to Peter Black, is that this report makes specific recommendations on part-time study. This is something that has been neglected by the Government. It has been handed to the Diamond review, but there are specific recommendations relating to a temporary strategy for part-time study for the next two years. I very much hope that the Government will respond positively to that, because part-time students are currently being neglected in terms of public policy.
I am not a member of the Finance Committee, but, nonetheless, I read the report and the Government’s response with interest. I am glad to have an opportunity to contribute to this debate. It is testament to the importance of this issue that so many of us who are not on the committee have taken the opportunity to make a contribution and a response to the report.
Picking up on Simon Thomas’s final point, I know that it was originally the intention of the committee to look only at full-time provision as part of the inquiry, but, as a result of the compelling evidence that the committee received, it decided to open up the scope of it to include part-time higher education funding. I welcome that, and I welcome any contribution to the debate that seeks to slow the decline in the numbers of people accessing part-time HE study in Wales and to prevent the sharp drop in part-time higher education that we have seen across the border in England since the academic year 2010-11. In fact, numbers have been decimated in England: in the academic year 2013-14 the number of people entering part-time HE there was almost half of what it was just two years before, and that is a fall of 120,000 students. So, we have to learn the lessons from England and not go down the same road, which I believe was the message that the committee received very clearly from Higher Education Wales.
The Higher Education Funding Council for England recently published a new report called ‘Pressure from all sides: Economic and policy influences on part-time higher education’. That explored some of the reasons behind the collapse in England. The HEFCE report found that part-time study appears to be more likely than full-time study to suffer during a recession, but this is not inevitable. Comparison across the UK nations shows lower declines in Scotland and Wales compared with England, and Northern Ireland managed to buck the trend and see increasing numbers of part-time students. This is despite the fact that the recession was less severe in England than in the rest of the UK.
So, perhaps the cause of the decline in England lies in public policy changes. Previous research shows that the majority of part-time students work in the public sector and are likely to have been affected by the UK Government’s public policy in this area. Changes to financial support for undergraduate part-time students in 2012-13 also led to increases in undergraduate part-time fees in England, and, at the same time, less than a third of part-time students there are estimated to be eligible for fee loans. All of this has caused something of a perfect storm in England, which we have to avoid here, and I welcome the introduction of tuition fee loans here, which I hope will widen access to part-time learning.
Part-time provision is important because it stands at the forefront of enabling vulnerable and hard-to-reach groups to access education. It also plays a vital role in the economy, increasing the skills and the knowledge of those who are already in employment. NUS Wales has recently published a very helpful report into part-time students and their experiences in Wales, which we should consider in terms of the discussion about the future of financial support for part-time HE study. Its research showed that finance can be a barrier to study, as fees often have to be paid upfront. Many students are using savings and paid work to fund their study, and around one in 10 use debt to fund their study. Its report shows, however, that many people have not even pursued part-time study because of those financial barriers. The report sets out considerations and challenges for the Welsh Government to respond to as it seeks to strengthen part-time provision in Wales.
As the discussion on part-time learning continues, we must be clear that strengthening part-time learning is about more than finance, although that is crucial; it is also about flexible delivery and creating productive links with employers. To conclude, I welcome the committee’s work in this area and the light that it shines on part-time provision in Wales.
This is a welcome holding position report while we wait for the detailed work of the Diamond review, and that position is broadly reflected in the recommendations, which are, in the main, couched in terms of interim strategies, reviewing and monitoring, and some of the other issues raised by Members today. Many relate to worries over income streams, but I think that the report also conveys a sense of the jitters, reflected by the recommendations, which arises out of concerns that people may be deciding that they cannot afford higher education, not just because of the fees, but, increasingly, because of living costs. This is a point that was already explored in some detail by Keith Davies. I think that, when the Government is looking at its acceptance of recommendation 9, it will confirm something that it already suspects, which is that students from poorer backgrounds are still being put off higher education by perceptions of cost. This, again, is something else that the NUS report has covered.
Recommendation 11 draws attention to the money spent on widening access initiatives. This is a principle with which we all associate ourselves, regardless of party, and we want to be reassured that whatever money is spent on that is spent effectively. Those jitters that I mentioned might hint at the suspicion that higher education institutions may be encouraged to spend more and more on accessibility, which, for clarity, in my case, includes language choice, and others have already spoken on that today, so I will not repeat what they have said.
The Children, Young People and Education Committee is currently taking evidence on the Higher Education (Wales) Bill, which seeks to control by law what it has until now been able to control through conditions attached to public funding that goes directly from HEFCW to HEIs. Both our sets of witnesses last week, which included the NUS, came to this issue of widening access from different angles, but prompted consideration of the question of how much money might be lost to the front-line education of students when a limited pot of money is being called upon to improve access as well as teach.
I admit that I need to take a closer look at the impact assessment accompanying the higher education Bill, but I think that I am right in saying that the cost of control in moving from funding condition to statutory control could virtually double, depending on what model is adopted. I am not sure that that is even being entirely realistic about the costs of enforcement. I am not sure whether these figures have been taken into account in the preparation of this committee’s report, which brings me back to the start of this contribution. Our committee is trying to scrutinise potentially costly and still strongly framework legislation that will be passed before Diamond reports and which may become redundant depending on what Diamond says. So, I would be interested to hear from both the Minister and the Chair of the committee on this point.
The need—if that is the right word—for a higher education Bill has only arisen as the result of the tuition fee policy. So, the extra costs directly attributable to that Bill are part of the financial effect of that tuition policy and so are within the remit of your report.
I know that the Finance Committee is looking at committees working together on effective scrutiny of Government spending plans, and, if this is a holding position report, I know that I would value any help in determining whether what looks like being a holding position Bill is likely to be value for money.
I call on the Minister for Education and Skills, Huw Lewis.
I would like to begin by thanking the Finance Committee for its consideration of higher education funding and those who provided evidence on these issues to the committee for their contributions. My response accepted 11 out of the 18 recommendations and partially accepted a further five.
This is the latest in a series of reports and reviews that have looked in detail at the state of finances in higher education since the tuition fee reforms in 2012-13. I am pleased that every single one of those reports has confirmed that our tuition fee policy in Wales is sustainable and costed for the lifetime of this Government, and that income to the sector continues to rise despite the austerity agenda forced upon us by the Westminster Government.
The Wales Audit Office report states that income to the higher education sector in Wales will continue to grow from £1.26 billion in 2011-12 to £1.45 billion in 2015-16. HEFCW’s recent funding circular confirmed that income to the sector will increase by over 11% in 2014-15, following an increase of 13% in 2013-14.
Of course, this is, nevertheless, a period of unrivalled and sustained change and challenge in higher education. The Welsh Government and HEFCW will continue to monitor and assess the implications for Wales of changes to student and institutional behaviour—these things never stand still—and, of course, to policy and funding changes made elsewhere the UK.
My response to the committee’s report explains that a complex and detailed financial model is in place to scrutinise and monitor the impact of acute changes to the financial forecasts for higher education and student finance. In addition to that internal scrutiny, the Welsh Government’s budget proposals and decisions are also subject to full democratic scrutiny through the normal Assembly processes. Given that there have been no reports or reviews that bring into question the sustainability of the HE funding reforms, or the sufficiency of the budgets in place to meet the costs of the tuition fee grant, I do not intend to introduce any further mechanisms for reporting changes to the higher education budget.
As we made clear in our policy statement on higher education, published last year, HE in Wales is fundamentally a success story. The higher education sector makes a substantial contribution to the economy of Wales. Universities in Wales contribute more than £3 billion a year in gross expenditure to the Welsh economy. They employ around 25,000 people and have an annual turnover of £1.3 billion. The sector’s contribution to sustainable economic growth is broad: through knowledge creation, developing a highly skilled workforce, and through engagement with local communities. This success is built on Welsh institutions competing in a UK-wide and global market, and it is important that we do not get too obsessed with the competition between institutions on the border between England and Wales. HEFCW will continue to work with institutions in Wales to encourage a genuine, collaborative approach where it is in the wider interests of Welsh HE or the nation.
I am also keen to ensure that we continue to maintain our performance in research and that we allow our institutions to compete effectively with universities in the rest of the UK for research council grants and other research grants. For this reason, it is imperative that the money made available through HEFCW, which is in short supply—much shorter supply than any of us would like; it is scarce and precious—for research is focused on quality and maximising outstanding research. This is in line with the approach being taken by the research councils and will allow our institutions to develop scale and range, as well as improving quality.
The report also makes a number of recommendations on part-time and postgraduate study here in Wales, and Members have commented, quite rightly, on those issues. I have made it clear during the last year that encouraging part-time study remains a priority for the Welsh Government, and I have also made that clear, of course, to Professor Sir Ian Diamond. I am as keen as anyone here to avoid the significant reduction in part-time study that has been experienced in England. I asked that the funding council maintains appropriate funding levels to institutions. However, I am aware that there is a need to do more in this area, by which I mean making sure that we have security going forward in terms of part-time and postgraduate study. I am aware, as Keith Davies has pointed out, of the potential social injustice in the way in which postgraduate study is going, particularly, again, in England, but we must have a mind to social justice in that regard. So, I am aware that we need to do more, and I have asked Professor Sir Ian Diamond to consider support for part-time and postgraduate study to be an inherent part, a key part, of his review of higher education and student support.
I believe it is vital that we allow Sir Ian and his panel time to consider the issues in detail before they report their initial findings in 2015 and their recommendations in 2016. At the moment, therefore, it is not my intention to make further substantial changes to student support or HE funding before the review reports.
In conclusion, I believe that our reforms to higher education and student finance in Wales have put the Welsh sector in a stronger financial position. The committee’s report offers the same conclusion. In a period of continuing uncertainty and change, not least in relation to policy changes that may be introduced by Governments in other parts of the UK that may have an impact on Wales, I will continue to monitor the health of our HE sector very closely. For the longer term, however, I look forward to receiving the findings and recommendations from Professor Sir Ian Diamond.
I call on the Chair of the Finance Committee to reply to the debate, Jocelyn Davies.
I would like to thank everybody who contributed to the debate. Julie Morgan, I think, got us off to a very good start. We thoroughly enjoyed our webchat, and we were pleased with the quality of the evidence that we received using that method. I agree with Julie's assessment of the impact on students of working long hours to fund studying and, of course, housing costs. The cost of living is a very significant factor in student choices.
Julie also made the important point that pupils at school, very early on in their schooling, must be made aware of Welsh tuition fee policy. We were surprised that the HE institutions here felt that pupils would know the difference between English policy and Welsh policy. Of course, we know that that is not correct; we cannot assume that the public automatically makes that distinction. Adults do not, so I do not see how children can be expected to, and it does affect the decisions that they make very early on in their education careers.
Paul Davies made the important point that funding for this sector should be carefully monitored, as modest changes in trends can make a big impact on resources. I agree with his assessment on the importance of the postgraduate situation, which has a very uncertain future—the impact of which has far-reaching consequences for the wider Welsh economy.
Mike Hedges brings to this debate his own knowledge of the HE sector, and he obviously understands the sector very well. He reminded us of the problem of student debt and its implications, and the implications of the non-repayment of loans. We were pleased to find that this issue in Wales—that is, non-repayment of loans—was not projected to be the huge problem that it is likely to become in England in the long term, although we had some concerns over the Welsh Government’s HERO model to estimate loan repayment. We all shared Mike’s concerns on Welsh-medium education as well.
I would like to remind Peter Black that not everyone in the Chamber had a grant; I am sure that Bethan Jenkins did not get one. Some of us, indeed, did not go to university at age 18, so student loans have been used by some Assembly Members, and I ought to declare an interest there. However, he is quite right that understanding the perceptions of student life and debt is important, and I think that we sometimes fail to do that—that is, seeing it from the students’ point of view. That helps us to understand the choices that they make, and I think that it is important that our policies can reflect those choices.
Keith, I should also declare an interest because I have a daughter in part-time study—of course, there is no financial support available for her—and I have one in full-time study at a Welsh university who is relying on working and a student loan. However, she has to live at home to afford that course, I have to say. I welcome Keith’s comments, because they are based on actual experience. He explained to us that there is a huge burden in studying and working at the same time. Again, postgraduate studies are a concern, and we would not want to see those studies undertaken only by wealthy people or people from wealthy families, would we? That would certainly be a retrograde step, but it might be the long-term result of tuition-fee policy; that is what we might find over the long term.
Simon Thomas made it clear straight out that he would not have agreed with us on all of the recommendations had he remained on the committee. I cannot say that I was disappointed when Simon decided to leave the committee in the middle of this review, because it was perfectly obvious where that was going. [Laughter.] I accept how Simon feels on that, but we felt that, on the whole, having support directed at the student rather than directed just at Welsh universities was the right way to go; otherwise, do not call it student support. That is how we felt.
Of course, Simon is a very strong advocate of Welsh students studying at Welsh universities, and we felt that the resources spent by our universities on attracting foreign students was enormous—millions—compared with what was being invested in the recruitment of Welsh students. We thought that that was a mistake. However, one of the issues in relation to foreign students—. We understand perfectly well why universities want foreign students, because they bring with them something very positive for Wales, and they also bring resources with them, but we thought that this issue of the change of rules on visas at a UK level was really sad, as students can no longer stay for 12 months after they have finished their studies to earn back the money that it cost for them to come here. That is going to mean that we have only wealthy overseas students coming, and I think that that will be a shame and that should be looked at again.
We always welcome comments from people who have not sat on the committee, Rebecca, and we were really pleased to hear from you. Again, you raised concerns around part-time students. You are quite right about the dramatic fall in the numbers in England of part-time students. Part-time study can be very expensive, especially if you are self-funding, you are working and you have rent or a mortgage to pay—perhaps you do not live at home. We found that employers were very reluctant to continue to finance these fees if they were rising. So, I think that access to finance should be considered if we hope to encourage part-time study to continue, because paying upfront is very hard. I do not think that my daughter will mind if I say that she does not live at home—she is independent of us—but we have had to help her with upfront costs, in order that she can—[Interruption.]
Will you take an intervention?
I appreciate that point, but I sat on the Graham review group, which was some years ago now, looking into funding for part-time education, and the overwhelming evidence that we had from part-time students was that they preferred to pay upfront, because they were in different situations and they wanted to see where their money went. I just want to understand, as someone who was not on the committee, whether that has changed over the years, therefore, and whether some sort of financial support would be beneficial now.
They like to know exactly where they are because they might be paying rent, they might have a mortgage or they might be completely self-funded. However, if you have a mortgage to pay and you are working, saving £1,500 or £2,000 to pay in one lump sum is very difficult. Often, they have to borrow and pay that back gradually. However, they like to see exactly where they are, and we have seen a dramatic drop in numbers. For some, that must be a big barrier that should be overcome, and we would like that to be looked at.
Suzy Davies reconfirmed for us that students from poorer backgrounds are being deterred by the cost and the thought of the debt, especially when there is no long-term guarantee now of a well-paid job at the end, because students used to be able, pretty much, to guarantee that they would have a good job at the end of it. However, that is no longer the case today, and we have already heard that you need to have more than one degree now if you hope to be guaranteed that job.
You mentioned this issue of the Bill; we did not take evidence on that. So, I am sorry that, as a committee—. Some of these announcements happened after we started our review, and it certainly did curtail what we intended to do. However, we intend to return to it at a later date.
I am glad that the Minister found our report useful in some respects and in this context of a changing landscape in this policy area. Nobody can deny that it is changing; he would not be having a review otherwise. He must have felt that he needed a review or he would not be having one. I do not think that our inquiry provoked that, but it was obviously something that needed looking at.
There is no doubt that English universities are able to attract Welsh students, because they are devoting some resources to doing so. By doing so, they can claim that they are widening access and, therefore, they meet the criteria for raising their fees. The irony of that situation was certainly not lost on us. So, we are a bit disappointed that the Minister rejected that particular recommendation, but I hope that he can keep that under consideration, because we could see his point of view that he is awaiting the outcome of the review, and changing things when you are having a review does not make entire sense. He pointed out to us that there may be a change in UK Government policy, and change in the English policy hugely impacts on what happens here. However, we will soon see next year.
I would like to thank those who contributed, and, as a committee, we are looking forward to returning to this at a later date.
The proposal is to note the Finance Committee’s report. Does any Member object? There is no objection, therefore the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Elin Jones and amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected.
I call Suzy Davies.
Motion NDM5546 Paul Davies
The National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the importance of tourism to the Welsh economy;
a) the lack of Welsh Government funding for Visit Wales;
b) the Welsh Government’s decision to disband the Regional Tourism Partnerships;
c) the Welsh Government’s narrow ambition for improving overseas visitor numbers to Wales;
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to revisit how it consults and is guided by tourism providers in Wales.
I move the motion.
Members, it will come as no surprise to you today that I will be asking some questions of the Minister, which I hope that she will deal with in her response to this debate.
The first of those questions, Minister is: did you or the First Minister prevent Visit Wales from attending the House of Commons’ Welsh Affairs Committee to give oral evidence in its inquiry into the marketing of Wales as a tourist destination?
The second question is this: will you now release the correspondence relating to that decision? It is most certainly in the public interest to understand why the Welsh Government wants to avoid scrutiny.
The third question that I would like you to respond to is this: why have you refused to give oral evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee? As a Minister of this Government, you may feel entitled to say that you are only accountable to this Assembly. However, through the choice of successive Labour-led Governments, Visit Wales is not a sponsored body and it is not an arm’s-length body. You are in direct control of it because it happens to be a Government department. As the individual in charge of delivery on tourism, not just policy, you must be open to scrutiny from a parliamentary committee that also has responsibility for examining what is best for Wales—in this case via the oversight of VisitBritain and its relationship with Visit Wales.
The fourth question I would like to ask you to address is this: do you understand why the members of the Welsh Association of Visitor Attractions are pushing for a vote of no confidence in you over the size of the Visit Wales marketing budget?
While the Enterprise and Business Committee is still conducting its inquiry into tourism, there are enough questions to ask now about how well the relationship between the industry and Government functions, and how well one influences the other, and to inform a debate one year on from the publication of ‘Partnership for Growth: The Welsh Government Strategy for Tourism 2013-2020’. It is those relationships that are the focus of this debate: the financial support that Visit Wales gets; the gaps in its expert capacity and connectivity; the way that information is acquired and strategy subsequently directed; and opportunities that might be missed due to those factors.
We do not need Plaid’s self-evident amendment, and we cannot support an amendment that transforms the motion into a different debate. If your contributions today centre on the debate that you would have preferred to have had, it might have been wiser to table it yourselves. However, I hope that we can all agree with point 1 of the motion.
Our main difficulty in debating it is quantifying the importance of complex data. For example, Deloitte and the Wales Tourism Alliance figures for 2012 value the contribution of tourism to the Welsh economy at £6 billion or so. ‘Partnership for Growth’ has it at £4.5 billion. Deloitte says that 10% of Wales’s tourism income comes from international visitors, as opposed to domestic visitors, even though it gets only 3% of the UK’s overseas visitors. ‘Partnership for Growth’, on the other hand, agrees more or less on the market share of international visitors, but claims that we are seeing only 2% of the spending. The 2% and 10% figures are measuring different things, but we get no better understanding from the Wales Tourism Alliance figures of a £29 average visitor spend per day, because we do not know whether they are domestic or overseas visitors. The Wales Tourism Alliance says that tourism accounts for 172,000 jobs in direct and indirect employment in Wales; Deloitte gives us anything between 114,000 and 206,000, depending on direct and indirect measuring; and ‘Partnership for Growth’ points to an underwhelming surge in numbers to 97,130, which is disappointing when, only a few pages earlier, we were tantalised by the precise figure of ‘over 100,000’. Deloitte and the Wales Tourism Alliance were in the same ballpark with regard to identifying tourism’s contribution to Wales’s GDP with a figure of between 13% and 14%, while, using GVA, it is only 4.4% or possibly 6%, depending on how you read it, according to ‘Partnership for Growth’.
It reminds me of the leaflets that we all had during the European elections, when UKIP was dragging up figures to show how the UK would have 3 million more jobs if we left the EU and the Lib Dems dragged up a different set of figures to show that we would lose 3 million jobs if we left the EU. I have just given four examples of confusing headline data. There is no shortage of qualitative, quantitative, trend-spotting, extrapolated or definitive research out there, but what help is it to small business that want to thrive, a Government that wants to persuade, and a marketing operation that wants to capture a higher spending and expanding market?
The Liberal Democrats’ amendment 3 reflects an enviable psychic ability to identify what we wanted to talk about under this point, and their admirable amplification of this motion will receive our support, as will amendment 2. You have a wider point to make on broadband, but the amendment also covers the internet relationships between businesses, Visit Wales and VisitBritain.
Only last week, during our rapporteur visit to tourism businesses with the Enterprise and Business Committee, we heard a song that seems to have travelled through time from the days of the Wales Tourist Board: ‘We want useful information that will help us to understand our market and help us to take informed risks; we want it to be easy to find, easy to understand, and available at a time at which it is of practical use for business planning’. It also remains a constant response in an otherwise variable collection of answers to the question that I have been asking the industry as best I can, namely: what are your expectations of Visit Wales? Beyond my asking what they want Visit Wales to do for them, I also ask those in the industry what they see as their own responsibility in helping to grow the tourism economy. There is a feeling among those I speak to, Minister, that ‘Partnership for Growth’ is still less about partnership and still about ‘Minister knows best’. This is not to be disrespectful to the representatives of your advisory panel, Minister—not for a moment. However, their role as the new connections with industry instead of the regional tourism partnerships does need some explaining, as those we spoke to on Thursday last week had no idea what was happening. I wonder whether you still stand by your response to my questions on your statement a fortnight ago. You said that
‘I think that there is clarity in the sector about what this means, but perhaps some in the sector choose not to have clarity about the discussions that they have had with us about what is following on from the regional tourism partnerships.’
The business representatives we met had not had any discussions with you by any means, which speaks directly to point 3 of this motion. I have spoken before in this Chamber about the frustration surrounding the consultation process that informed ‘Partnership for Growth’, but, even now, evidence to the Enterprise and Business Committee speaks to a strong perception that views expressed via consultation are not listened to.
I will finish with three points on overseas visitors and how you work with VisitBritain, which has, after all, a definite objective, freedom to work with commercial partners and a better budget. First of all, I am not here as a cheerleader for VisitBritain, but the swiftness of its mea-culpa response to the criticism of its website has not been matched by any action by you regarding the ‘great’ branding on the Visit Wales website, or indeed the lack of any obvious feed either way to grab the attention of overseas visitors in the UK for reasons other than visiting Wales. So, it is no wonder we get only 3% of them.
Secondly, how do you conclude that the Visit Wales campaign response is 12% higher this year than last year, when we are seeing 40% fewer Irish visitors? Are those new visitors from Germany coming from Dusseldorf, which has a direct connection to Cardiff Airport, or are they coming on coach tours from Bavaria and Baden-Württemberg, which are targeted by VisitBritain? We are back at confusing stats central again, and I have no idea who can claim the credit.
Finally, will you tell us when someone will be seconded from your department to VisitBritain? It is a good year since VisitBritain told me that it was expecting someone ‘soon’, because I can speak to people in VisitBritain and they give me their take on it. However, because Visit Wales remains shut up behind ministerial doors, I am not sure that we will ever get a full picture of the pressures that it is under, and on which I draw your attention back to my opening questions.
I have selected the three amendments to the motion. If amendment 1 is agreed, amendment 2 will be deselected. I call on Rhun ap Iorwerth to move amendment 1, tabled in the name of Elin Jones.
Delete points 2 and 3 and replace with:
Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure that the tourism industry can maximise the potential of our rich heritage and diverse environment as well as capitalising on cultural and sporting events.
I move amendment 1.
Thank you for the opportunity to speak to this motion. We support 100% point 1 of the motion. We hope that we can, through our amendment today, achieve unanimity on that central point as we put pressure on the Government to ensure that we can take Wales’s tourism offer to the next level.
In stark figures, the evidence of the importance of tourism to Wales is quite clear. The latest figures give the value of the sector at some £ 4.2 billion annually, and, although a quarter of that value is generated in Cardiff, we must bear in mind that the value of the industry as a proportion of the local economy is greater in other parts of Wales. Anglesey is a good example. There are 4,000 people working in the industry there, which is worth £0.25 billion per annum. Although the number is less than half the number employed in the industry in Cardiff, the value of tourism to the economy of Anglesey as a proportion is much greater than it is to the capital.
The question we need to ask ourselves is this: are we making the most of what we as a country have to offer? Are we ensuring that the raw material that we have—our natural resources, beauty, heritage, culture, language and so on—is being maximised and turned into a successful industry? You can have the best culinary ingredients in the world in front of you on the table, but, in order to turn those into a tasty meal, you need a chef. The same is true of tourism—there is no point in having all the raw materials that I mentioned unless they are packaged in a way that can be exploited for the utmost economic benefit. This is happening throughout the country in excellent hotels, outdoor activities, restaurants, walking routes and tourism infrastructure more generally, but more needs to be done. We need a definitive and clear strategy as to what we are trying to package as our product. We need to set standards for that product and to ensure that it is delivered.
The brand that we are trying to sell as a nation must be absolutely clear and absolutely consistent, and, although the Government has gone through a process of reassessing that branding, by employing Mike Ashton Associates to do the work, we are still waiting for the outcome; it is now time that this was forthcoming. Having ensured that the product is right, we need marketing. Once again, we have seen global marketing campaigns from Wales over the years that we can be very proud of—on television, in print and online—showing Wales at its best. However, at this point, attention must be given to expenditure levels. It is one thing to ask whether we are doing this properly, but another to ask whether we are doing enough. If I may compare the situation in Wales with the situation in Scotland in order to illustrate the challenge we face given the current expenditure position, in 2013, VisitScotland’s marketing budget was £ 47.5 million, while Visit Wales’s marketing figure for the same period was £ 7 million. We cannot compete in that kind of context.
The third element that I want to cover briefly is the ambition, and this is something that I have mentioned in the past. In getting the product and the branding right, we need to know that the ambition is also right. The aim is to grow the sector by 10% by 2020. I do not think, as I have said before, that that is enough. In the words of one witness who gave evidence to the Enterprise and Business Committee recently, you would expect that to happen without any intervention. If we want to show the importance of the sector now—and, more importantly, how much potential we see in the ability of the sector to contribute to the economy of Wales—I think that we have to review those targets. I was very pleased, following my questions after the recent statement on the tourism strategy, that the Minister stated that she would be willing to review those targets.
In terms of other practical steps that Plaid Cymru has requested—there are a number of them and I have mentioned them in the past—there is a need to enhance the scheme to support investment in tourism, and we are supporting a campaign on a British level to cut value added tax within the sector. Finally— and this issue was raised by Suzy Davies also—I mentioned earlier the latest figures on the value of the tourism industry to Wales, which were published in February. These figures are three years olds and, therefore, I appeal once again today for more investment in economic data. We must be able to assess the present in order to plan for the future.
I call on Eluned Parrott to move amendments 2 and 3, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Insert as new subpoint 2b and renumber accordingly:
that poor broadband and mobile coverage in rural areas hinders the competitiveness and accessibility of businesses within the tourism sector;
Add as new point at end of motion:
Calls on the Welsh Government to improve the collection and monitoring of tourism related data and market intelligence to inform strategic priorities for tourism in Wales.
I move amendments 2 and 3 in the name of Aled Roberts.
I must express my slight concern that we are holding a debate on a topic that is the subject of a live committee inquiry, in that it may mean that important evidence is missed. However, the duty of the opposition is to hold the Government to account on the issues that are important to Wales, and tourism is inarguably important to Wales. I hope and trust that this is a subject that we will return to again in the autumn when more evidence has emerged. In terms of the importance of tourism for Wales, although the data may be arguable, the importance per se is not arguable. Eighteen million visits were made to Welsh attractions last year and at least 100,000 people are employed in the industry—that is 9%, or thereabouts, of the workforce. When you add jobs in retail and the purchasing power of tourism-based business in Wales, the impact is absolutely huge.
However, it is also clear that Wales spends far less on marketing than some of our nearest competitors. In terms of competing in the international markets, this is a serious concern. As Rhun ap Iorwerth mentioned, we spend approximately £7 million a year, against a reported £34 million for Ireland and £47 million for Scotland. Glasgow alone spends as much on one city as we do on the whole nation. This, along with that low target for growth of 10% in the strategy, suggests to me a lack of ambition when it comes to marketing the wonderful assets that Wales has to offer. I accept that marketing has moved on and that huge advertising budgets for TV campaigns are less relevant than perhaps they were in the past, but if we are to overcome the persistent misconceptions about Wales being some kind of depressed post-industrial wasteland, as opposed to the beautiful, vibrant and modern place we know it to be, some advertising spend to show people who we are is necessary in support of the web and social media-based approaches that many individual tourism businesses use very successfully.
Linked to that, we have to recognise that, if we are going to lead on a web-based marketing strategy, ensuring that tourism businesses across Wales have decent internet and mobile access, so that they are able to fully engage, is absolutely crucial. That is why we tabled amendment 2 today, because quick and reliable broadband is an essential tool to enable tourism businesses to compete for their share of that international market. Smaller businesses, particularly, are still being held back by the lack of adequate broadband provision, particularly in rural Wales, but also in some of our cities. Tourism businesses who are not proactively out there promoting their attraction their hotel or their rural B&B not only on websites but via social media are hugely disadvantaged in this kind of marketplace. According to data from Europasat, more than a quarter of Welsh rural residents are unhappy with the standard of broadband they are currently receiving and 19% of the Welsh population as a whole believe that slow broadband effects local businesses and trade in their area negatively.
Then of course we come to mobile phone coverage. Visitors trying to navigate to their holiday destination in rural Wales encounter problems with poor GPS signals affecting their sat nav and lack of mobile phone signals meaning that they cannot access maps, websites or apps supporting tourism in Wales in other ways. While parts of the UK are now able to access 4G—most parts of the UK—many parts of Wales continue to suffer from significant signal black spots where you cannot even make a telephone call let alone download a map to the location you are heading for. Many of the major network customers report significant loss of earnings and general embarrassment from not being able to take important business calls even in the heart of our cities. The majority of Visit Wales’s and VisitBritain’s marketing and communications are now online, and their digital presence and e-communication are the bedrock of their contact with potential travellers. That being the case, lack of access is not only a huge embarrassment to us with our visitors when we are welcoming them to Wales but a real block to tourism businesses that want to be accessing these markets.
I would like to thank Suzy Davies for so carefully outlining my case for amendment 3 in terms of data collection. I do want to call on the Welsh Government to improve the collection and monitoring of tourism-related data, because I strongly believe that, if we are to understand our market and know how to target those limited resources effectively, we have to know who they are, where they are, what interests them, what influences them and what barriers have prevented them from coming here before. There is a real opportunity to work proactively with some of the agencies that already collect data to bring those together so that we can see what the whole picture looks like, identify the gaps and fill them appropriately.
Finally, we need to make sure that, when we do bring visitors to Wales, the experience that they get from us is everything we told them it would be and more. Our tourism industry works incredibly hard to not just satisfy the customer but surprise and delight them as well, and that is wonderful. However, for that reason, I was very disappointed last week to receive a letter from a B&B owner in Cardiff who had received adverse comments from several customers recently complaining about the levels of litter across our capital city. I have written to Cardiff Council to complain about the deterioration in the cleanliness of our streets, but it just serves to underline how important it is for all public bodies in Wales to recognise their responsibilities in terms of showcasing the best of what Wales has to offer.
Tourism offers a huge potential for Wales to market ourselves on a global stage, showcasing all that we have to offer as well as providing a much needed boost to our economy. Sadly, the number of overseas visitors to Wales has fallen by nearly 23% in 10 years. There are 850,000 visits annually, compared with 1.1 million a decade ago. It is contrary to the Welsh Government’s claims of a growing tourism industry. Of course, although Wales seems to be an attractive holiday location for United Kingdom tourists, many would agree that much more needs to be done to attract international business to our country. In that respect, Welsh tourism businesses will cast an envious eye towards London, which has now become the most popular tourism destination in the world, with the number of foreign tourists increasing by 20% last year to a new record. It is estimated that the United Kingdom’s capital city attracted 16 million visitors during 2013, higher even than during the 2012 Olympics year. So, if London can do it, I am sure that Cardiff and Wales can do it equally well in their own way.
Visit Wales spent only £7 million marketing Wales in 2013-14, which the Welsh Government says is on target to exceed 10% tourism growth by 2020. However, we have already noted that VisitScotland spent £47.5 million in the same period. Indeed, it appears that Wales is Britain’s best kept secret abroad. Professor Pritchard, director of the Wales centre for tourism research at Cardiff Metropolitan University, said that spending on marketing Wales as a tourist destination should be at least doubled to improve the chances of attracting overseas visitors. Since 2006, the decline in spending on marketing has coincided with the decline in the number of tourists coming to Wales, particularly in the overseas market, where Wales is much less well known than in the domestic market. This shows the direct correlation between the Welsh Government’s decreasing marketing spend and the decline in tourism numbers. The Welsh tourism industry cannot be expected to flourish when it is clearly and comprehensively outspent by its closest rivals.
I do believe that we have great attractions, landscape, history and culture that are as good as, if not better than, almost anywhere else. More importantly, it would seem that the best independent travel guides agree with me. For example, Wales was voted the top country in the world to visit in 2014 by readers of ‘Rough Guides’, mainly because of its great mountain ranges, lush valleys, rugged coastline and ancient castles. In addition, the unique and world famous bog snorkelling championship in Llanwrtyd Wells was voted by the ‘Lonely Planet’ guidebook as one of its top places to visit this year.
Despite such accolades, Wales is still not getting the number of visitors that we deserve. In fact, there is no reason why a trip to Snowdon should not be as iconic, as a tourist experience, as seeing the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, visiting Shakespeare’s birthplace, or walking down the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. The Welsh Government does not brand Wales enough to far wider markets, but perhaps the Minister might comment on whether she intends to adopt .cymru as an additional marketing aid.
There is enormous potential in long-haul markets across the world. However, the Welsh Government’s narrow branding exercise is making Wales miss out on vast revenue and tourism potential. Wales’s marketing is focused on the domestic market, so it is very difficult to find the overseas message. The worrying thing about the overseas market is that it is declining in Wales.
Millions of tourists fly in to Heathrow every year. If we could only persuade a small proportion of those 16 million visitors to come and see everything that we have to offer here in Wales, I am sure that they would come back, time and again and, more importantly, go back to their own countries as ambassadors for our tourism industry.
I welcome the opportunity to speak, but I also note what Eluned Parrott said earlier, that the committee’s inquiry is still ongoing. I support amendments 1 and 3.
We are very fortunate to own such a varied landscape on our doorstep. Our strategy must be the basis for a mix of sectors and spending levels, as Rural Wales said in its paper this week:
‘Unquestionably our Welsh landscapes are the ‘front cover’ of our nation’s profile and brand image… Collectively they are powerful symbols of a nation whose natural and cultural environments are internationally recognised as second to none… A clear competitive advantage.’
According to last year’s visitor survey, the majority of day visitors return, and 87% of visitors from outside the UK are determined to return, which shows the excellent experience that is available here. To take advantage of this, there are always opportunities to improve availability and convenience of information, with local departments being connected and their literature linking clearly with any local attractions included in higher level marketing campaigns.
Reading the Government’s strategy and our programme for government, the things that stand out are the aim to provide a quality offer, developing markets, extending the traditional season and an emphasis on sustainability, while drawing on hard goals such as infrastructure, financial opportunities and staff training. The brand is key to marketing, and this is the message that we are hearing in the committee—how best to create a brand that encapsulates the whole sector, and feed that into marketing activity.
I look forward to seeing the outcome of the Minister’s research on brand evaluation. I think that there is a wider role for the brand—the food and drink sector and wider again. I asked the Minister for Natural Resources and Food today about Brand Wales. Like Ireland, we could build a Wales Brand of our product, which would, in turn, build into our image in markets in the UK and abroad.
The year 2013 was successful. There was an increase in the number of British visitors and their spending here and an increase in the number of British travellers to Wales, despite there being a reduction in the number travelling to the UK as a whole. It appears that the response to the latest marketing campaign has been positive. Over Easter this year, 44% of tourism businesses reported an enhanced number of visitors as compared to the previous year, and 87% were confident about this summer. Of course, the ‘Have you Packed for Wales?’ campaign is the result of decisions on iconic priorities for a pilot scheme and the industry has warmly welcomed it.
In terms of the three markets designated, Welsh tourism attracts a great many UK visitors and has more influence than expected. On the regional tourism partnerships, I have noticed the consultation and the reasons behind the change. Our success in achieving the target of 10% is reliant on co-operation with the private and public sectors on the ground. The partnerships have been renewed with regional teams within Visit Wales, and it is not yet clear for us to begin to note what kind of role would be played by the teams.
Witnesses before the committee have outlined the importance of continuing to take action in local partnership with the sector. It must be acknowledged that the strategy is a broad strategy for tourism, not just the Government. For example, I have been working with the Heart of Wales Line on train tourism, which would develop local infrastructure. The focus of this year’s tourism week was the link with the local community. The week ended with a royal visit to Llanelly House. Locally, we have attractions that cover all five areas of competitive advantage in Wales.
We know that the sector is worth £355 million in Carmarthenshire, with over 6,000 people employed in it. As with the rest of the country, tourism will be the difference between success and failure of many small businesses in the county. In evidence by Carmarthenshire County Council, we heard that it tried to give communities a unique image so that visitors could identify with the brand. It appears to be working well, especially with Kidwelly celebrating 900 years in 2015 and the Eisteddfod coming to Llanelli this year.
What an interesting topic: tourism. I think that, in the last seven years, we have already contributed more than seven times on this great topic. Tourism is actually a trade, and trade can be the backbone of our economy, and we are much lacking behind. Wales has a unique landscape, history and culture, but we have not promoted them. Visitors to Wales come to enjoy the mountains, countryside and beaches, but we have not promoted them. They come here to visit our castles, medieval churches, historic houses, gardens and industrial heritage, but we have not promoted them. Only 200 years ago, this part of the world gave the world the great industrial revolution, but we have failed to promote it. Our tourism industry is of vital importance to Wales’s economy. It would be wrong to regard tourism as a second-class service sector. Tourism is a fiercely competitive market requiring skills, talents and enterprise, and there is no shortage of such types of intelligent and talented people in Wales, but we still have not promoted them.
Tourism contributes over £3 billion to the Welsh economy, with 140,000 working for the sector, but we are not getting the full potential of our existence in the world. All over the world, small countries succeed. For example, Dubai was a desert 30 to 40 years ago, but now it is one of the most attractive tourist attractions in the world. We have failed here. I will be clear that Wales’s tremendous assets and potential for growing this sector of the economy should be the Government’s highest priority. If the Conservatives were in power, I can assure you that we would do whatever we could to help the people in the industry—by not even paying rates when they are not trading in the winter season. That is when employment finishes and part-time workers go home. Our party would work strongly for full employment for those who are involved in tourism.
The Wales tourist board, which the Government abolished, had a marketing budget of £50 million in 2006. Half of that budget—£25 million—came from the Welsh Assembly Government at the time. Last year, the Wales tourist board’s successor, Visit Wales, spent only £7 million on marketing Wales. What a shame. The greatest industry that we can improve is getting the least funding to develop. That is not on. Wales is trying to compete in an increasingly competitive market with a lower marketing budget than its rivals. It is not fair at all. This decline in spending has coincided with a decline in the number of tourists coming to Wales, particularly from overseas markets, where Wales is much less well-known. Ten years ago, 1.1 million overseas tourists visited Wales annually. This figure has now fallen to 850,000. That is a shame, acting Presiding Officer.
Professor Pritchard, whom my colleague has already mentioned, has already said that Wales is Britain’s best kept secret abroad. She said that Wales has low brand visibility and low product visibility, and that there is a lack of connectivity, so Wales has a very difficult job to make itself heard. The Wales Tourism Alliance said,
‘We still struggle to identify icons as strong as our competitors.’
Wales is suffering from a Labour Government that fails to recognise the importance of tourism, and, as a result, has delivered a confused and ineffective tourism strategy. Our unique landscape, history and culture are not being promoted and marketed in the right way. Acting Presiding Officer, there is a lot to say about this topic—
Not at the moment there is not a lot to say on the topic.
We can deliver, but I can assure you from this side that the Government has not delivered yet.
It may have been mentioned, but I will mention it again: the Enterprise and Business Committee is in the middle of its tourism inquiry. The Tory committee members might have advised their whip to save today’s debate until after that committee had reported and carefully evaluated all the evidence. I think, and I will say it—I said it the last time that we debated something midway through an inquiry—that it shows a complete lack of ability by opposition Members to think outside the box, except for debating those inquiries that are ongoing.
However, having said that, I am more than happy to stand here today and speak about tourism. Last week, I chaired our committee meeting at the Oriel y Parc visitor centre in St Davids, and we took evidence from some of the big players—the national park, the National Trust, Bluestone and Aberglasney—but we also heard from the smaller, local tourism operators like the St Davids-based company Venture Jet and Anna’s zoo near Tenby. We all know, or we ought to know, despite what has just been said, that St Davids has been a destination for travellers down the centuries. Today’s lovespoons, T-shirts and keyrings are the modern equivalents of the medieval souvenirs bought by pilgrims. Today, tourism is a major part of the Welsh economy.
We cannot understate the impact that that sector has on the people of Wales, but while it is an economic strength, it is also a cultural strength. The work of the Welsh Labour Government to support sporting success has been a great accomplishment. Sport is an important part of the Welsh tourism culture, and I am pleased to note the success of the Welsh Rugby Union and the Government in securing key matches of next year’s Rugby World Cup. I should like to take this opportunity to give my best wishes to Aberystwyth Town Football Club as it takes on Derry City Football Club on Thursday in the UEFA Europa League.
Much has been said about the growth of Wales as a film studio of the world, promoting Wales to the world. Shows like ‘Hinterland’, again supported by the Welsh Government, benefit local businesses. They take mid Wales to tv screens in Canada, the United States and Europe.
Cadw helps to maximise the potential of our heritage. It is pleasing to note the use of many of Cadw’s sites in promotional literature used by Visit Wales. This year, the centenary of the outbreak of the first world war, Cadw has hosted events to broaden understanding about some of the most important events in Welsh history.
We must be confident in what we can offer visitors: Wales for all weathers, not just the summer months. You might all know that I am a keen walker, birdwatcher and photographer. We could promote the hugely significant diversity of birds in Wales throughout the year. There are people who come from miles around, from outside this country and outside of Europe, to see what we have. I know because I meet them. We need to promote that, certainly more widely than we do.
The Welsh Government has set a figure for growth in the tourism sector by 10%, which I welcome. It shows a confidence in a growing market. However, in conclusion, we can be and must be proud of what Wales has achieved in its tourism and its continued increasing benefits, both economically and culturally, to the people and nation of Wales, making sure that we ask, ‘Have you packed for Wales?’ Thank you.
I call on the Minister for Economy, Science and Transport, Edwina Hart.
It is, indeed, a pleasure to debate tourism again today, and I am very much looking forward to the report from the committee and the evidence that the committee has taken. According to its Chair, there has certainly been some very interesting evidence before the committee already. There will be an opportunity, when that report is completed, for me to further respond to some of the remarks that have been made in the Chamber today.
We will be supporting Elin Jones’s amendment 1, because Wales’s built heritage is certainly a very valuable asset. Research has identified our castles and historic buildings as one of the key reasons why people visit Wales. We have to recognise that there is excellent work taking place across departments with Cadw, particularly in the interpretation of historic buildings, which is making them come alive for visitors, and, hopefully, people will come from further afield again.
It was interesting to hear Keith Davies mention Llanelly House in his contribution today. That has been a wonderful project. Some of the work that has been undertaken by Carmarthenshire council, as a local authority, in conjunction with its partners, has certainly made a difference to the tourism offer within that area. You see Carmarthenshire now as almost being the garden of Wales—that is the focus of Carmarthenshire—with some exciting developments, hopefully, in Golden Grove and so on in the future.
Hosting major events in Wales is increasingly important in terms of raising Wales’s profile across the world and attracting people to visit and stay in Wales. We only have to look at events like WOMEX, which was an enormous success in terms of branding Wales. There will be other events that we have obviously undertaken, both sporting and otherwise. Working with partners in Wales and in the UK, we have built a strong, effective relationship with event organisers. As a Government, we supported a programme of major sporting and cultural events in 2013-14 and it is estimated that that has generated a direct economic impact of £61 million and supported nearly 1,400 full-time jobs in Wales.
Thank you for taking an intervention, Minister. The success of WOMEX was commented on in a letter from my committee recently, but yesterday we saw the funding announcement that the Welsh Music Foundation will be closing down. It was a key partner in delivering WOMEX. Who will be taking forward the work of supporting the Welsh music industry if there is no Welsh Music Foundation?
I will be making a statement on arrangements for that in due course.
I will now turn to the other amendments. We will also be supporting the third amendment.
Turning now to other issues, I cannot accept the criticisms contained in the Welsh Conservatives’ motion today. First, let me deal with the claims about the lack of funding for Visit Wales. Our marketing budget is only one part of our commitment to help the tourism industry. Including funding for major events and sector development, also including the tourism investment support scheme, the total funding for Visit Wales this year is over £20 million. There is recognition that that is quite substantial in terms of funding. When you add to that, it will be supplemented by larger sums that have been made available for projects such as the Royal Mint’s visitor centre, Zip World and Surf Snowdonia, which come from wider funds within my department. Therefore, I think that we have to look at that as a whole. Figures from previous years and comparisons with other national tourism organisations failed to take into account the proportion of budgets that are from European funding and how each total is made up. I think that the Welsh Conservatives have also failed to account for the fact that we as a Government are having to cope with the impact of cuts in our budget made by the UK Conservative-led coalition. Indeed, Visit Wales itself has experienced budget cuts in recent years.
With regard to the regional tourism partnerships, the decision to cease funding was made after a full consultation with and advice from my tourism advisory board, which reflected a consensus in favour of change. As I think I have made clear on many occasions, this does not mean an end to support for regional tourism. On the contrary, the new regional engagement team in Visit Wales will provide stronger and more direct links between tourism businesses and the Welsh Government and more accountability on regional delivery. It will also simplify the structure of tourism in Wales.
I also reject the claim that our vision for marketing Wales abroad is narrow. A thorough market analysis led us to prioritise three particular overseas markets, taking into account the potential for future growth as well as our current strength. This is prudent to achieve best value for our expenditure. We have also been working very closely with VisitBritain, the travel trade and the media to reach visitors and to influence visitors across a wider range and set of international markets.
Turning to digital marketing, which we have developed strongly in the past year, this also has a global reach. I noted in my statement last week that we would step up investment in international marketing. This work is in hand and resources are being actively prioritised, taking care not to neglect the domestic market, which, we should remember, delivers in excess of 90% of Wales's tourists
The motion calls on the Welsh Government to revisit how it consults with tourism providers, but we have already undertaken a full consultation on our relationship with the industry and with regional stakeholders in Wales. Under new arrangements, officials will engage with individual businesses, local authorities, trade associations and destination partnerships on a one-to-one basis via our regional fora, while, at national level, we will have representatives from each region on my tourism advisory board.
Our engagement programme with industry also includes a wide variety of activities, newsletters, events, roadshows and, of course, we also have the national tourism awards. We are reviewing all these communication channels to ensure that they are focused on the needs of the industry and are delivered in an effective, integrated way.
Our regional engagement will not be limited to the new regional teams; we shall be expanding the remit of the quality assurance team, which is also embedded in the regions. The tourism advisory board will also play a role in engaging with the industry, holding regular meetings around Wales. In tandem with the new approach to regional engagement, we shall also be streamlining the wide range of existing industry fora that we lead. Four strategic groups will focus this autumn on delivering partnership for growth strategic priorities, and these groups will be made up of a small number of experienced and respected individuals from the private and public sectors who will oversee the delivery of the strategic themes.
Finally, I would like to say a few words about VisitBritain. My chosen advisory board has identified a number of areas in which VisitBritain marketing is not effectively providing a strong platform to promote the Wales brand and product, with deficiencies in the VisitBritain web content and campaign content and a poor fit with commercial partnerships. I have raised these matters with the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State at the Wales Office, Baroness Randerson, who has proved very effective in discussing issues with us and, on our behalf, with VisitBritain. We are also in the process of recruiting a representative to work on behalf of Visit Wales within the VisitBritain team in London, providing strategic leadership on projects, ensuring a joined-up approach, and we are also feeding in to the VisitBritain ‘great’ campaigns in terms of which products and experiences Wales has to offer visitors. I believe that the NATO summit will be a real opportunity to showcase Wales within the ‘great’ campaign, and we are working with partners on this.
I also want to emphasise again the importance that the Welsh Government places on tourism. We do see it as a major industry that is able to deliver economic growth in Wales and across Wales. We are also committed to promoting Wales and are working hard to build Wales's reputation as a place to study, visit, host major events and eat good food, a place with a strong heritage and a vibrant culture, and, of course, a place to do business. I will, as I agreed when I announced my tourism strategy last week, identify issues particularly around targets, and that work is already in hand.
I note the comments regarding attendance at the Welsh Affairs Select Committee. I, of course, always courteously attend committees when I am requested to do so within this forum, because it is appropriate that I am scrutinised by this Chamber on matters. I seem to recall that Visit Wales and my civil servants did provide written evidence for that committee.
I call on Antoinette Sandbach to reply to the debate.
Thank you very much, Chair. I note that the Minister considers that she is accountable to this body. Suzy Davies asked you four very specific questions, Minister, which you refused to answer in your reply. First, did you or the First Minister prevent Visit Wales from attending the House of Commons Welsh Affairs Committee to give oral evidence in its inquiry? Secondly, will you release the correspondence relating to that decision? Thirdly, why have you refused to give oral evidence to the Welsh Affairs Select Committee? Given your comments just now, Minister, in relation to the difficulties that you are finding with Visit Wales, it might have been helpful.
The Presiding Officer took the Chair at 17:00/
Bearing in mind that the people of Wales democratically elect Members of Parliament to represent their interests in the UK Parliament, your refusal to allow Visit Wales to attend that committee, and your refusal to attend yourself, shows contempt for the democratic will of the people of Wales.
You were also asked by Suzy Davies whether you understand why members of the Welsh Association of Visitor Attractions are pushing for a vote of no confidence in you over the size of Visit Wales’s marketing budget. None of those questions were answered, Minister.
Finally, in relation to your recruitment of a VisitBritain representative, it is shocking that, despite the announcement of the NATO summit and the opportunity that that presented to showcase Wales, it has taken you over a year to recruit that representative. That is a year in which you have not had your representative in Visit Wales and you have not had that voice promoting Wales, therefore you can hardly complain if you feel that Visit Wales is not delivering what you would like it to deliver.
I was not talking about Visit Wales not delivering; I made a comment about VisitBritain. Can we note that for the purposes of the Record?
Well, sorry, it is your recruitment of your person to VisitBritain. You have not had that person there for a year. Are you surprised that, with no voice in VisitBritain, you feel that it is not delivering?
I am very grateful to all contributors to today’s debate, who have all made valuable contributions. Rhun ap Iorwerth talked about the importance of marketing, and the importance of marketing goes with the importance of branding. It is quite clear that the Minister said:
‘I do not think that I have got the brand of Wales right’.
If you look at the evidence that is in front of the committee, this seems to be echoed by those who are looking at Visit Wales and its impact. When asked whether Wales had a successful brand to attract overseas visitors, Mandy Davies, the chairperson of the Vale Marketing Group just said ‘no’. Adrian Greason-Walker, executive director of the Wales Tourism Alliance said:
‘Scotland and Ireland…have very strong, iconic brands.… Do we have a brand overseas? I do not think so…. We do have a brand, but it is probably a weak one.… In the domestic market, there has been the issue that there is not enough to do in Wales’.
Professor Annette Pritchard, of the Welsh Centre for Tourism Research in Cardiff, said that Wales has very low brand visibility and product visibility and that there is a lack of connectivity so Wales has a very difficult job to make itself heard.
I appreciate that there are some members of the Labour backbenches—Leighton Andrews included—who think that this is talking Wales down. On the contrary: this debate was tabled to highlight the opportunities that there are for the Welsh economy through our ability to deliver with historical environments and the natural environment, and the opportunity that there is to grow the Welsh economy based on its tourism delivery. VisitBritain anticipates that the market could grow by 54%, and yet the Minister’s target is for just 10% growth; that is shameful when you look at how Wales will be missing out.
I was grateful to Joyce Watson for highlighting the sporting tourism figures, but it is clear that the vast majority of visitors who come to visit Britain come for cultural events and not sporting events. In fact, the number coming to visit for cultural events is nearly double that for sporting events. Given that research, one has to ask whether the investment by Welsh Government has been in the right area or whether it should look again at how it delivers in that regard.
Eluned Parrott also made the very important point—I have now lost my notes—about the budget for marketing being about £36 million, I think, in Ireland, £47 million in Scotland and a paltry £7 million in Wales. I think that Jersey has a budget of £6 million, and we are a population with far more to offer than Jersey. Really, Minister, in terms of tourism, you are letting Wales down. You are letting down those businesses and the individuals who work so hard to promote the businesses, as Eluned Parrott and Rhun ap Iorwerth highlighted in their contributions.
Finally, on broadband, broadband is, effectively, the fifth service; it is a vital aspect of our tourism industry. It is essential to develop the industry and it is essential to market it. In north Wales, half of Snowdonia national park, which has over 400,000 visitors a year to Snowdon itself, is not covered by superfast broadband, and that is severely hampering our tourism industry in Wales. We need you to act, and we need you to act fast and act appropriately.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion without amendment. Does any Member object? There is objection. Therefore, I defer all voting on this item until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
The following amendments have been selected: amendment 1 in the name of Lesley Griffiths, amendment 2 in the name of Aled Roberts, and amendments 3, 4 and 5 in the name of Paul Davies.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Leanne Wood to move the motion.
Motion NDM5545 Elin Jones
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery.
2. Notes that the report does not deal comprehensively with public services, particularly the health service, due to the terms of reference set down by the Welsh Government.
3. Believes that there is a need to provide a democratic mandate for a strategic long-term package of public service delivery reform.
4. Further believes that the balance of competencies and delivery of public services between national, regional and community government is best debated and resolved by means of party manifestos during the next Assembly election.
I move the motion in the name of Elin Jones.
Public service reform is one of the crucial issues facing this National Assembly and Welsh democracy as a whole. Many of the structures currently in place in devolved Wales, particularly in local government, have been inherited from the days of direct rule, prior to the creation of this National Assembly.
There are questions around the organisational and financial sustainability of those structures, and the First Minister was right to state yesterday that the agenda around expanding and improving the legislative competence of devolution needed to take place in parallel to the reform of public services.
Plaid Cymru accepts that change is on the way for local government and public services as a whole. This change would be the first substantial package of reform since the advent of devolution. We believe that such a change should require a democratic mandate, and that the change should be in the form of a strategic long-term package of reform.
We also believe that change should not be rushed, should not be piecemeal and should not be done in an ad-hoc manner. Reform, even where it leads to future savings, will be costly and will create instability and uncertainty. Much of this uncertainty is unavoidable, but any changes that we adopt have to be sustainable in the long run, futureproofed and fully thought through, if they are to justify such uncertainty.
In the debate within our party, we have accepted much of the evidence presented to date on the scale and capability of public sector organisations in Wales to deliver what our communities need. Plaid Cymru is now seeking to debate where competencies should lie at the national, regional and community level, and we will be presenting our conclusions ahead of the 2016 elections, and they will be comprehensive.
We are looking at local government, the health service, social care and the emergency services as well as responsibilities such as transport, housing and economic development.
One area where Plaid Cymru believes we need to pay particular attention is the community layer of government, currently undertaken by community and town councils. Any reorganisation of local government that is likely to result in larger local authorities creates both a challenge and an opportunity for community councils. If we are prepared to approach this positively, there could well be a possibility for radical change in the way that local areas and communities can determine some of their own affairs at a local level, improving dramatically the current situation, where some community councils do not function professionally or visibly. This is an area that needs serious development in any future reform and should be seen as central to reorganisation as opposed to just being an afterthought.
Plaid Cymru welcomed the publication of the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery earlier this year as an important step forward in the debate about the future of local government and public service delivery. We do believe, however, that it was also a missed opportunity to have a genuine cross-party commission with party nominations. However, we accept where we are today and that the output of the commission is informative and it confirms that the exact status quo is not an option.
The Williams commission report sets out a significant body of evidence that relates not only to local government, but includes a detailed analysis of the values that need to be embraced across the public sector as a whole, including how performance is managed, how data can be presented more transparently, and how scrutiny and accountability can be enhanced. The Williams agenda, however, has been reduced in public debate to a question of lines on a map. While it is true that the configuration of local authorities is one of the most important and meaningful issues for members of the public, we should not ignore the work that can be started ahead of local government reorganisation, including, but not limited to, the agenda around creating a national leadership and development centre.
The work to embed the principles of scrutiny across the public sector can begin immediately. The argument that scrutiny should be seen as an investment in future improvement in public service governance and delivery should be taken to heart right across the whole of the public sphere.
With all of that said, our motion today notes that Williams does not deal comprehensively with public services, particularly the health service, and that is due to the terms of reference set down by the Welsh Government. Its examination of the health service was indirect, rather than direct. While it identified the need for integration between health and social care and looked to enable integration in the future, it did not really look at the institutional barriers between health and social care. I know that other Plaid Cymru speakers will develop these points further.
The financial situation facing local government is particularly grim. This adds to the case for local government reorganisation after 2016, but it is also the case that the difficult financial settlement cannot be resolved in the next two financial years by voluntary mergers. The root cause of the financial situation facing local government is the size of the block grant and the pursuit of austerity at the UK level, accepting also the fact that we are not funded on the basis of need. If those factors are made permanent, the future of all public services and what can be provided both in Wales and elsewhere, will be seriously at risk, beyond the parameters of any debate around reorganisation.
To conclude, the challenge for Wales is to take responsibility for our own internal governance. If there is to be reform, let us make sure that we carry out a lasting and fundamental reform and that that reform has a mandate from the people who will mostly be affected.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I have selected five amendments to the motion. I call on the First Minister to move amendment 1, which is tabled in the name of Lesley Griffiths.
Amendment 1—Lesley Griffiths
I move amendment 1.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Peter Black to move amendment 2, tabled in the name of Aled Roberts.
Insert as new point 3 and renumber accordingly:
Believes that public services would be improved by the increased accountability provided by a fair voting system.
I move amendment 2 in the name of Aled Roberts.
I will start where Leanne Wood finished in terms of the need for lasting and fundamental reform. We have had two local government reorganisations in just over 40 years; my concern is that the basis on which the current reorganisation is being proposed will leave us having to do it again within the next decade or so. The last thing that we want to do is to keep fiddling with boundaries and with functions, when what we need to do is to find that lasting solution—one that will get some sort of consensus, although I know how difficult that will be, but certainly one that will get some sort of stability into local government and into the delivery of public services. My concern is that we are not taking that forward. One of the reasons why we are in that situation is because the terms of reference, as Leanne Wood has already illustrated, did not properly address the full range of public services in Wales, so we have only looked at part of the issue as part of this commission’s work, and, secondly, because there is no cross-party consensus on this because the commission was set up on the basis of a single party commission without involving the other parties. So, we started from the very beginning from the point of view of not having the other parties involved in this commission and in putting together the solutions to this problem. We are now trying to play catch-up in trying to get the other parties on board to try to build that cross-party consensus.
In terms of the amendments in front of us, I know that many Members possibly feel that fair voting is a peripheral issue. My view is that it is not; my view is that fair voting is absolutely fundamental to ensuring that you have accountable and transparent local authorities. If you have elections that do not reflect the way people voted in their outcome, you have councils that are unrepresentative, you have artificial majorities created and you have poor scrutiny. If you have elections that reflect the way people voted, you have councils that are more representative, you have effective scrutiny and you have much greater accountability and transparency. If you get accountability, transparency and good scrutiny, you get better services. For that reason, we believe that fair voting is absolutely fundamental to any reorganisation that takes place in local government.
I accept that the Williams commission report is about more than boundaries on a map, and there are some very interesting and useful conclusions and recommendations in the report in terms of the way that local authorities should be run and the way that public services should be delivered. However, as Leanne Wood has pointed out, at the end of the day what we are faced with is a map, and what we are deciding here is where the boundaries are going to go, what those councils are going to look like, and who is going to run those councils, effectively. That is a point at which we are going to have major problems.
I have a range of questions about where we currently are in terms of the consideration of the commission’s report. I and other Members posed all of those questions to the Minister for Local Government and Government Business at the committee meeting last week. As I still have questions, we clearly did not have satisfactory answers to them. She made a statement to the Welsh Local Government Association conference, not to this Assembly, which I found discourteous. The statement she made took forward that agenda; she said that there were going to be elections in 2017 based on the current boundaries, and that there would be incentives for councils that wanted to voluntarily merge and that their elections would take place in 2018. However, there was no understanding in the scrutiny session last week as to how the dual set of elections would merge, what the terms would be, what the membership numbers would be, what the timetable was for the elections, what incentives were on offer to those councils, whether there would be shadow councils, what length of term they would meet for, whether we still intend to keep local government elections and Welsh Assembly elections separate, how the funding formula would be addressed as part of that, what the cost of that reorganisation would be and, more importantly, what the payback period for that cost is going to be and how long it is going to take councils to recover that cost in terms of the savings. What happens to existing partnerships and collaborations? How do you deal with council tax, particularly given that merging two authorities will lead to one area losing out and having to pay more council tax? Will there be a dampening mechanism? How is that to be funded? How are you going to ensure that communities are reflected along natural boundaries? Is the boundary commission going to be involved? Actually, we had an answer to that question: the Minister gave an undertaking to involve the boundary commission in looking at the proposals, and I think that that is a step forward.
I think Leanne Wood is absolutely right that community councils need to be addressed, as does the health and social care interface. These are major issues that need to be addressed in more detail, and I certainly think that we need to have a lot more discussion about that.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on Mark Isherwood to move amendments 3, 4 and 5, tabled in the name of Paul Davies.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes that the report calls for an enhancement of the involvement of citizens and communities in the co-production of the development and delivery of services.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Notes that the report states ‘the third sector can provide access to users’ experience of services and can help to ensure the systematic and sustainable engagement of communities as well as the expertise of the sector in diverse policy and service areas’.
Add as new point at end of motion:
Recognises the need for full cost evaluations before any action is taken on structural changes to public services.
I move amendments 3, 4 and 5.
As the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery states, there is scope
‘to enhance the involvement of citizens and communities in the co-production of the development and delivery of services.’
It adds that this means reshaping services based on better community or service user insight and it embraces the co-production of service design, commissioning and delivery. In other words, it is about turning the power thing upside down and designing services backwards, and not just changing things at a small scale, as the Minister for health told an event on co-producing healthy communities in Ely. The WLGA’s ‘In Defence of Localism’ document instead details a new settlement between citizens, communities and the state, engaging all in shared responsibility for achieving better social outcomes. I was on the question time panel at last Friday’s national social services conference. As the accompanying WLGA briefing stated, the conference was also about co-production working across and beyond traditional service and professional boundaries.
Last November, I led a debate here on co-production. Afterwards, I received an e-mail from the director of Co-production Wales stating, having read my speech, that it was great stuff and thanking me for making it happen. Sadly, all other parties voted against it. My speech quoted Co-production Wales, which had told me that the key issues are the genuinely transformative nature of co-production. It stated that it is not just a nice add-on, but a new way of operating for Government, as well as for public service professionals and citizens themselves, making explicit links between health, environment, housing, education and communities. I quoted Western Australia’s mental health commissioner, who had spoken at the then recent Cardiff co-production conference, about how Australia had embraced co-production and local area co-ordination. He said that we have to decide whether we are adding on a programme or reforming the system. I also quoted the founder of Community Links, who told the conference that structures and systems were more complex than they need to be and that they should be building a fence at the top of the cliff rather than providing an ambulance at the bottom. He said that we can either cut to crisis-led services or deliver systemic change. He also highlighted the well-evidenced work of the savings generated by co-production, adding that the fear is that we do not react quickly enough or that we respond with an additional programme rather than changing systems and structures and reforming services. However, the Carnegie UK Trust report, ‘The Enabling State: From Rhetoric to Reality’, stated that the Welsh Government’s effective services for vulnerable groups programme was the most top-down case study in its collection, and that its interviewees repeatedly spoke about the challenges from overcoming bureaucratic hurdles or aligning programmes to fit with someone else’s objectives.
I turn to amendment 4. As the commission’s report states, the third sector can help to ensure the systematic and sustainable engagement of communities, as well as the expertise of the sector in diverse policy and services areas. As the Wales Council for Voluntary Action has said, the Welsh Government currently lacks a clear and future-looking vision or narrative for why it works with the third sector. It has said that there is scope for local authorities, health boards and the third sector to work much more imaginatively to develop better services closer to people, more responsive to needs and adding value by drawing on community resources.
I turn to amendment 5, recognising the need for full cost evaluations before any action is taken on structural changes to public services. As the auditor general told the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee, local government is not an agent of central Government. It has to show that, should it wish to collaborate or merge, there has been a proper cost-benefit analysis. The Welsh Government has repeatedly shown, however, that it does not believe that such responsibility applies to itself. The commission report did not contain any detailed cost analysis, but the First Minister told the Assembly that he accepted its costings. Despite accepting the recommendation in the committee report on local government collaboration that the Welsh Government should undertake further analysis of the cost and benefits of collaboration between local authorities, including non-financial benefits, and publish its findings, and despite the independent analysis of the potential financial implications of restructuring local government, commissioned by the WLGA from the Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy, not being concluded, the Welsh Government is pushing ahead with its council merger proposals. This is the grossly irresponsible action of a disconnected and unfit Government.
I am pleased to support the motion. Having disagreed fiercely with Peter Black in the last debate, I am pleased to say that Peter has put his finger on a number of important questions that need to be answered today. I fear that the Conservative spokesperson did not make much sense of the motion at all. What I do think is important in this context is that we look at the two crucial issues in developing all sorts of public services post-devolution. It was entirely appropriate that the Government, using the Williams commission method, looked at what was happening within our public services, because there has been no sort of review since the creation of a national Government here of the relationship between the national, the regional and the local. Unfortunately, I did not think that the remit and the terms of reference set for the commission were broad-ranging enough or radical enough, and that is one of the reasons why we tabled this motion today. Secondly, the Government’s response since then has not been inclusive enough to ensure that radical reform can happen. We now have a very piecemeal approach by Government to this issue, and I fear that we will see a patchwork approach in various parts of Wales, with some authorities having merged and some not and nothing done in other areas, such as in terms of the fire and rescue services, the health service and the national parks—the whole range of local services that has developed in the absence of a national Government. Now that we have that national Government and we have that national Assembly, we need to review the relationships of all of these bodies.
Peter Black’s amendment on fair voting is one that we can agree with, of course, but it also opens up a more interesting question about the democratisation of some of these institutions. We tend to think of local authorities and talk about the election of councillors, but there is an opportunity, if we are to reform public services, to look at wider democratisation within that—democratising the health service, for example, to make it more accountable for the decisions taken locally. I know that the Minister does not want to be responsible for everything happening in every hospital and surgery the length and breadth of the country, so how can we strengthen that? We can democratise the decisions taken by the fire and rescue services, for example. The need for democratisation within the police service had been recognised—although in the wrong way, in my view—by the appointment of commissioners, but it had been identified by the Government in Westminster. With the devolution of policing, which I am sure will happen eventually in the light of Silk parts 1 and 2, we will need to see how the police also plays its part in that. What is then exciting, if you democratise public services on a regional and local level, is that you can then provide more powers to local authorities or the new regional authorities that may emerge, which, in my view, will be more broad-ranging than the local authorities that we have grown accustomed to. So, then there is an opportunity to provide greater power at a local level with the Welsh Government and the National Assembly devolving internally in Wales. All of these issues are issues that create a sustainable regime in the long term. Unfortunately, they were not in the Williams commission’s terms of reference, and they have not been discussed thoroughly by Williams, which is why I fear, and why Plaid Cymru now fears, that responding solely to Williams will lead to a short-termist approach that will need to be reviewed again in due time.
The second issue here is the Government’s approach to this, and as this relates to issues that are important to people at the local level, it is important that a Government, elected with a manifesto, has a mandate in terms of explaining what the proposals and principles will be and, indeed, what the lines on the map will be, so that people can make the decisions and so that there is a national mandate for what would happen at a regional and local level. We in Wales already have a geographical pattern that is different to that which we inherited in the past, with city regions and economic growth areas being established. We need to ensure that, in making these developments, there is a role for Welsh-speaking communities to develop and strengthen the economy in terms of developing the Welsh language. These are all things that need to be reflected in the approach to these new developments.
We have had lines on the maps for many hundreds of years in Wales that have all reflected the need to divide, not the need to unite us. They were purposely put in place to divide the Welsh nation initially. Although we have made them work, they are not lines on a map that unite us or that work well with national Government. The institutions of the National Assembly and a national Government now give us the opportunity to have regional and local government that work well with national Government.
Well, I can agree on that. We definitely need regional and local government to work well, but I think that we have to not think of excuses for delaying any further than is necessary to get this right. I think that the argument that, in some way, the Williams commission was not cross party is completely bizarre, because, for example, Nerys Evans, who is one of its members, is a former Plaid Cymru Assembly Member. Therefore, I cannot believe that it was a single-party operation at all. There is much that is of merit in the Williams commission report, and it goes into considerable detail on a lot of areas that we need to reflect on. No change is not an option, simply because the money is not there. We currently have 22 local authorities for an area that is smaller than the size of Cornwall in terms of population. So, we clearly have to do something different.
Within the Williams report, you can see how services have a huge range in terms of the cost of similar services, which indicates that there is little evidence that good practice travels well. For example, in Powys, which has the longest road network in Wales, highway maintenance costs £2,559 per kilometre, and in adjacent Ceredigion, which is a very similar area, highway maintenance costs £4,115 per kilometre. If Powys maintained Ceredigion’s highways by TUPE-ing over the relevant workforce, the savings to Ceredigion would be huge. I choose this example in the absolute knowledge that the residents of Ceredigion will not care who maintains their highways, as long as they are maintained efficiently and effectively, minimising disruption and maximising road safety.
Another thing that is touched on in the Williams report and Plaid Cymru Members do not seem to have read, is the analysis of whether or not there is a good case for elections to health bodies. The Scottish pilot schemes of electing board members showed that turnout was low and that those who stood shared similar characteristics to those appointed under the existing system. So, there is not a strong case for electing health bodies. Yes, there is a very strong case for health boards to be more effective, as we have discussed in many other debates, but I am not sure that election to them will work. It also creates confusion as to who really is in charge. We have a Minister for health in charge of our national health service and we do not want little local health services developing that deliver different levels of service that are not of the same standard.
One of the things that is absolutely key in the Williams report is that well-managed mergers will quickly pay for themselves and generate significant long-term savings. Nobody is arguing that we want to do this in a cack-handed manner; we all agree on the need for fundamental and lasting reform. So, it is about how we do it.
One of the things that Williams got wrong was to recommend that the European convergence and cohesion boundaries between west Wales, the Valleys and east Wales should not be breached. I am delighted that the Government has decided that that is not the case, because we do not want short-term views when a long-term solution is required. The pattern of EU funding for the next seven-year programme has already been set—that is up until 2020—so we already know how much money west Wales and the Valleys will get, with lesser amounts for east Wales.
Our aspiration has to be to get ourselves out of being eligible for convergence funding at the end of 2020. It seems to me that we have to have that level of ambition for Wales and, therefore, it should not be a substantive matter in terms of how we should reorganise local authorities. Yes, local authorities will need to take account of what transition funding they might or might not have available to them if they can merge a convergence area with a cohesion area, as well as the implications of changes in the rules on state aid. Ultimately, local authorities and their populations need to reflect very deeply on what is going to be the best fit for their local communities in terms of the benefits. So, I repeat: well-managed mergers will quickly pay for themselves and generate long-term savings, and that has to be our objective.
I do not think that there is any disagreement that the Williams commission report provides a firm foundation for a national debate on the reorganisation of public services. The report also makes a strong case as to why it is necessary for us all to look at reorganisation for the future. However, the Williams commission report and its recommendations do not provide a full template that we can commit to immediately as we continue this debate.
From the outset, Plaid Cymru wanted to see the Williams commission looking at the health service as well as other public services. The Williams commission was given a certain degree of ability to consider the integration of social services and the health service, but it is true to say that the commission did not really have the opportunity to look at this issue in any detail. Indeed, the commission’s hands were tied by the request for it to work within the geographical boundaries of the existing health boards. These geographical boundaries are deficient in some areas in the context of the effective planning of public services.
As a result of the work on the recommendations of the Williams commission, we now need a more comprehensive view of creating a pattern of public service reorganisation that generates a sustainable model for the long term. In that sense, we must also tackle the health service, particularly in the context of integrating social services and health services.
I am not convinced that we need seven health boards in Wales. In fact, the health boards themselves are now organising services across boundaries. We have seen that happening in the south Wales programme of acute hospital services. We also see it in the context of services being organised between hospitals in the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board area and the population of Hywel Dda Local Health Board. Certainly, there is no need for more than three health boards in Wales—in the south-east, the south-west and the north. I could possibly be persuaded that we need only one national health board, particularly for the planning and delivery of specialist and acute service. That health board would be directly accountable to the Minister for Health and Social Services, and I am sure that he would be very pleased to have that direct responsibility and accountability.
With one national plan in terms of acute hospital and specialist services, we would be able to ensure that no-one would be disadvantaged as a result of living in a certain LHB area when, for example, the service needed is provided in a specialist hospital in another health board area. This would, therefore, get rid of the postcode lottery that still operates in our health service today.
Hand in hand with that, we could, as a result of the creation of one or three or fewer health boards, fully integrate social services and primary services with community services, so that there is full integration on the ground, and give responsibility to local government in its new format, or some other integrated model, in order to break down those barriers that we often discuss in this place that interfere with the ability of patients to access a fully integrated service when they need health and social care services.
Of course, I understand the argument that we do not need another structural change within the health service and that we should avoid that at all costs, but the question for us here today, and in thinking ahead, is whether we believe that the health service model that we currently have is sustainable for the long term and ensures consistency of service and performance across Wales. If we do not believe that to be the case, we should take the opportunity, in light of the Williams report, to integrate fully the health service in other public service areas and to make that debate a full one so that we create a template for the provision of public services for the future that is completely integrated, sustainable and affordable to this nation of 3 million people, and to do so for the long term.
There can be no-one in this room who is not concerned about service delivery across the entire public sector. I have been privileged to have been an elected representative on five different levels, for over 39 years, and I have witnessed during my life two local government reorganisations. I have actually lived under five different local authorities, which have cared for me, and I have not moved house yet—and I do not mean that flippantly. The main problem with too many elected politicians is that we sometimes allow civil servants to dictate their agenda, but no-one out there ever voted for a civil servant. They vote for us. We are all naturally tribal in Wales. We all want to protect our own patch, but I am at the stage of my life when I think that it is the quality of the service provided that is important and, after that, you can call it what you like.
We have read the Williams commission report. The report expects the Welsh Government to implement all of its 62 recommendations, many by the end of 2014. This assumes that those who completed the report are not open to any discussion about the content and that they have all the answers. It completely underplays the cost of any form of reorganisation. I think that there is a fleeting mention of £100 million, but it says nothing about the cost and impact on staff in terms of redundancy, and that cost has been disputed by the WLGA—I have a lot of respect for the WLGA—and it demonstrates the need for a much fuller, independent cost-benefit analysis. Fair play to the WLGA—it needs more time, it has limited budgets, and there is more jurisdiction and a greater demand on its services. The impossible it can do, but miracles take longer. It has hundreds of years of combined service in local government, so we should not only listen to it, but respect it, trust it and work with it, and that means councils run by all political parties.
The report makes no reference to previous local government reorganisations in Wales and how those have led to improved services, or otherwise. Please do not do a John Redwood again. We do not need it.
The report refers to needing to develop more preventative services, but it does not explain to us what these would look like. Its remit was not to include the NHS issues, although we believe that it should have, yet it states that all LHBs and trusts must publish information about their performance. On the positive side, it makes the point that the Welsh Government is also part of the public sector and needs to monitor its own performance, and it emphasises the need for proper scrutiny of local government and the importance of setting out clear outcome measures. We can all agree with that.
I agree with the report that setting targets for service delivery is important, but we know from the ambulance service in Wales that this does not in any way guarantee that those targets will be met, and, if they are not met, what options does the Welsh Government have to improve performance? Is it the stick, Minister, or is it the carrot? There is no more money available, so you can forget about the carrot, and to penalise a local authority for not meeting its targets in anything—in waste collection, road improvements or better social services—would have nothing to do with inefficiencies and everything to do with resources. The report talks about benchmarking and comparing the performance of the public sector in Wales with its equivalent in other countries. That is fine up to a point, but it is not always comparing like with like. What the public sector has to do is to be aware of and responsive to the priorities that ordinary citizens place on various services.
What the report does not mention, and what is critical, is that local authorities need to not only engage more with their staff, but treat them with respect, and not impose upon them a pay freeze while making huge increases to senior executives’ pay. That is what has brought us, perhaps, to the mess that we are all in. Efficiency and performance in the public sector will never improve if staff are demoralised.
I have more to say on the importance of town and community councils, which need to be merged, enlarged and made consistent across the country. We need to empower our communities. It would enable many of those councils to function properly, in a professional way, and to have a decent budget. We would like to see full-scale reform of that particular community layer of government. It would then give people a sense of belonging to that particular area. Thank you.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call on the First Minister to speak on behalf of the Government.
Thank you, Llywydd. It has been an interesting debate, and I thank all Members for their contributions. If I could begin by stating the Government’s position on the debate itself, Members will see that there is a Government amendment that removes point 2 of the original motion. I remind Members, of course, that Sir Paul Williams himself said on 27 March that the commission did not feel constrained by the terms of reference. Indeed, he said that the terms of reference were extremely wide. As he said, the commission was aware of the caveat around the boundaries of the health boards, but felt that that was understandable because they are fairly recent in terms of their formation. As has been said on the floor of the Chamber, the structure of health organisations was not part of the terms of reference, because of the recent changes. It was felt that it would be too disruptive.
On the Liberal Democrat amendment, we are never going to agree on this, clearly, in terms of proportional representation. We take the view that people are very attached to their communities. They understand the present system, and there is support for the system as it stands. We saw, of course, a different form of proportional representation rejected overwhelmingly by the Welsh people some years ago as part of that referendum. It is not the same system, I grant you, but nevertheless, it is the same in terms of principle.
We will support amendments 3 and 4 tabled by the Welsh Conservatives, despite the best efforts of Mark Isherwood to persuade us otherwise. We are feeling generous this afternoon and we will support the thrust of those amendments. We will not support amendment 5; it is too vague and, in any case, it is not needed. We will, of course, undertake a full regulatory impact on the cost of any relevant legislation at the appropriate time. I remind Members that we have said quite clearly that we are conducting our own review of what the costs of reorganisation would be. It is important that we do that as a prudent Government. We cannot accept the WLGA’s costings. It is prudent also that we do not accept at face value the costings in the Williams review; it is important that we have our own, which is in hand.
With regard to the leader of Plaid Cymru’s contribution, I agreed with most of it, if not all of it, apart from the bit about health service organisational boundaries. I am grateful to her for stating clearly that Plaid Cymru knows that there is a need for change. I agree with her that change in a piecemeal fashion is not the way forward. I also accept her view that there is a need to get as much cross-party support as possible; that is certainly my hope. While it is right to say that it would not be possible to introduce a Bill, in any event, merging local authorities before 2016, because of the sheer timescale, I would hope that parties could discuss this issue and come to at least a commonality of view before the next election in order for there to be greater certainty for councils in the lead up to that time. I should make one point very clearly: the fact that 2016 is the time for parties to outline their positions with regard to mergers does not mean that nothing should happen in the meantime. There is a need to remove as much uncertainty as possible, as far as local authorities are concerned, and there is a need to make sure that we are not in a situation—as happened in the mid-1990s—where reserves are spent and where contracts are entered into in the long term. It is important that there is a mechanism of ensuring that that happens, as well as a mechanism, under controlled circumstances, of allowing those authorities that wish to merge to do so early.
The Williams commission has provided us with a template on which to hold a debate. Let me state my party’s position very clearly: that Williams template remains. We have asked our party units to come back with views on that template by the end of September. We have asked for there to be worked up views on any alternatives—simply saying, ‘We don’t like them; we want to be with them’, is not good enough; there have to be worked up views. We have said that we would not consider splitting local authorities. There are mergers of whole authorities or nothing. It is also important that we state the point that we would not look favourably at merging local authorities across local health board boundaries unless there were exceptional circumstances. It is worth making that point.
Turning to the issue of community and town councils, it strikes me that, unlike the case with unitary authorities, there are some parts of Wales where there are no community and town councils—the Rhondda being one such area. There are other parts of Wales where community councils are very small—there is one in Monmouthshire, I think, where one in eight of the electorate has to be a member in order for the council to be fully quorate. That, clearly, is not sustainable in the future. So, there is scope, certainly, in terms of mergers of community and town councils. However, I think that we have to accept that they will be of different sizes around Wales. I have, for example, Bridgend Town Council, which is very large and covers 15,000 to 16,000 people, and Merthyr Mawr Community Council, with a handful of people—a few hundred. They are both community councils in my constituency. We have to accept that, even when there are changes in the future, some will be significantly smaller than others, in order to preserve their community focus. In those circumstances, I think that it is worth examining whether there should be asymmetric devolution for different community and town councils according to capabilities and according to their size. That is perhaps a debate for the future.
It is difficult for local government in the present financial situation, and that is true of the Welsh Government as well. As there is a cost to reorganisation, so there is a cost to not reorganising. There are costs when departments fail—social services departments, education departments—and there are costs to unnecessary duplication. I saw this week the suggestion that 20 of the 22 environmental health departments in Wales are facing cuts, missing the point as to why there are 22 environmental health departments in Wales, just as there are 22 trading standards departments. There is plenty of scope there for ensuring that there are greater efficiencies in terms of costs. We live in an age when having a trading standards department that is geographically based in a small area has very limited effect, and we have to make sure that those organisations are bigger to be most effective in the future.
It is right to say that the Williams commission’s report has been characterised in the main as being about lines on a map. Those lines are important—I understand that—but at the end of the day, the Williams commission is about providing better services for our citizens, and that is it. The way in which we go about that over the next few years is important, not just in terms of providing those services, but in providing a sustainable structure for the future. I am sure that no Member would want to come back here—if we are, indeed, all here—in 20 years’ time to start looking at reorganisation once again. The cack-handed way in which it was done in 1994 must not be repeated in the future.
Turning to Peter Black's contribution, I have dealt with the points on PR. Again, he and I will not agree on this. The Minister for Local Government and Government Business has outlined the suggestion that 2017 should be the next year for elections under the current authorities, and 2020 for the new authorities. There are some unresolved questions, with regard to council tax equalisation, and there are unresolved questions in terms of the provision of services. For example, there are some authorities where some services have been outsourced and some services have not, and those matters will have to be addressed in a pragmatic way that would involve convergence over a number of years.
He makes the point about collaboration. Yes, it is important to make sure that collaboration is understood, but collaboration will still be needed after any reorganisation or merger anyway, because the authorities will still need to work with each other, in city regions, in terms of the economy, and in order to make sure that they are most effective. The reason why collaboration has been encouraged is that, for many years, the current structure has failed. That is the reason for it.
I think that the issue is that collaboration projects are not taking off now because of the uncertainty and because councils that would naturally collaborate, such as Bridgend and the Vale of Glamorgan, will not consider collaboration because they may well merge with different councils.
The point I would make is that, regardless of the structure of local government in the future, there still needs to be collaboration. Let us say, for example, that Bridgend and Neath Port Talbot were to merge. They would still need to collaborate with authorities further east, because of the economics. In my local authority, economically, it does look east towards Cardiff. Culturally, it looks west. So, there is still a need to collaborate across local authority boundaries.
I am not going to comment on football. That is something that I, as First Minister, should avoid. [Laughter.]
I am out of time, unfortunately, Llywydd. The points that have been made by other Members are points that will be raised, I am sure, in debates in the future. I hear what Elin Jones said about bigger health authorities, but let us remember that the whole point of having mergers of local authorities and, indeed, the Williams commission's proposals is to make sure that services are delivered better and more efficiently for our citizens, and we should not lose sight of that.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
I call Leanne Wood to reply to the debate.
I would like to thank Members for mostly constructive contributions to this debate. Thanks to Peter Black for confirming the points that I made in my opening remarks about the initial terms of reference and the lack of official party nominations. I would also support the point that he made about fair voting and the link between that and effective scrutiny. I am sure that many Members here who have regular contact with local councillors will concur that scrutiny at local government level can often be found wanting.
Simon Thomas pointed out the missed opportunities in this debate. Instead of the potential for radical reform, we now risk there being a piecemeal and disconnected approach. He also put the case for expanding the powers of local government—internal devolution, if you like. Plaid Cymru is generally of the view that decisions are best taken as closely as possible to the people who are affected by those decisions. He also flagged up the importance of recognising those communities where Welsh is the main spoken language.
Jenny Rathbone’s point about Williams being a cross-party commission deserves a response. Yes, Nerys Evans is a very valued member of Plaid Cymru. She has a wide range of talents and she did an excellent job in her work with the commission. However, she was not nominated by Plaid Cymru; she was chosen. That set-up is very different to the one that has been set up by the Diamond commission looking at higher education, where parties were asked to nominate representatives; that is a proper cross-party approach.
Thanks to Elin Jones for outlining the reasons for considering the health service and how closer collaboration with social services can be facilitated through this process. As things stand, that opportunity is being missed.
Thanks, too, to Lindsay Whittle, who has given us a history of reorganisation and has also emphasised the importance of operating at community level. He also raised the question of cost.
The First Minister said that there is a need for a mechanism to determine how reorganisation takes place. Our view is that it must be done properly. Yes, there is inconsistency in terms of the areas that community councils cover, and the size of their populations, at present. For me, that outlines the case for comprehensive reform of that layer of government.
As well as the points that have been raised by Members this afternoon, reorganisation also offers an opportunity to provide greater democracy and a higher level of public participation. It would also provide us with an opportunity to have more representative local government. More women in local government will do no harm at all.
We have had a constructive debate this afternoon. Plenty of questions have been raised on finance, council tax, how the reform of other public services will fit with this, democracy, participation and many more. I hope that those questions will be answered in full before reorganisation takes place.
Plaid Cymru will ensure that our proposals will be radical, that they will be comprehensive and that they will help to build and strengthen our nation further. We will put those proposals before people to consider ahead of the 2016 election, so that reform can be done properly.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
The proposal is to agree the motion. Does any Member object? I see that there is objection; therefore, I will defer voting until voting time.
Voting deferred until voting time.
Y Llywydd / The Presiding Officer
It was agreed by the Business Committee that voting would take place before the short debate; unless there are any objections, I intend to move straight to voting time. Is everyone content? I see that you are.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5546.
Motion not agreed: For 10, Against 36, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5546.
Amendment agreed: For 32, Against 15, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5546.
Amendment agreed: For 47, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Motion NDM5546 as amended:
The National Assembly for Wales:
1. Recognises the importance of tourism to the Welsh economy;
2. Calls on the Welsh Government to ensure that the tourism industry can maximise the potential of our rich heritage and diverse environment as well as capitalising on cultural and sporting events.
3. Calls on the Welsh Government to improve the collection and monitoring of tourism related data and market intelligence to inform strategic priorities for tourism in Wales.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5546 as amended.
Motion NDM5546 as amended agreed: For 47, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on motion NDM554.
Motion not agreed: For 8, Against 39, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 1 to motion NDM5545.
Amendment agreed: For 24, Against 23, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 2 to motion NDM5545.
Amendment not agreed: For 12, Against 35, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 3 to motion NDM5545.
Amendment agreed: For 47, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 4 to motion NDM5545.
Amendment agreed: For 47, Against 0, Abstain 0.
Result of the vote on amendment 5 to motion NDM5545.
Amendment not agreed: For 23, Against 24, Abstain 0.
Motion NDM5545 as amended:
To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:
1. Notes the report of the Commission on Public Service Governance and Delivery.
2. Believes that there is a need to provide a democratic mandate for a strategic long-term package of public service delivery reform.
3. Further believes that the balance of competencies and delivery of public services between national, regional and community government is best debated and resolved by means of party manifestos during the next Assembly election.
4. Notes that the report calls for an enhancement of the involvement of citizens and communities in the co-production of the development and delivery of services.
5. Notes that the report states ‘the third sector can provide access to users’ experience of services and can help to ensure the systematic and sustainable engagement of communities as well as the expertise of the sector in diverse policy and service areas’.
Result of the vote on motion NDM5545 as amended.
Motion NDM5545 as amended agreed: For 47, Against 0, Abstain 0.
I have agreed that Aled Roberts and Mike Hedges should have a minute of my time to intervene in this debate.
Rhodri Glyn Thomas took the Chair at 18:04.
As was evidenced by the Minister’s oral question time session last week, the problems concerned with the blue badge scheme in Wales are many. I hope to use this debate to highlight some of the issues that have crossed by desk as an Assembly Member, in the hope that the Minister will be able to assist all of us in sorting out the confusion and bureaucracy that surround the issuing of blue badges to disabled and elderly people in Wales.
In summary, the problems include elderly people who do not have access to consultants having no way to provide medical evidence—as the Minister, apparently, has excluded GPs from providing notes—unqualified council officers making assessments and local authorities refusing to carry out occupational therapist assessments on appeal, even though the Welsh Office guidance says that they should do so. One constituent complained that his local council wants to charge him for an OT assessment and the council is insisting that the condition affecting the applicant must be permanent even though the blue badge only lasts three years.
Like many other Assembly Members, I have received a large number of representations from applicants for blue badges and their families who are angry at the way in which the scheme is now being implemented. The situation is made worse by the fact that the toolkit that has been promised by the Minister has still not been issued to councils to help them to administer the new policies.
I am going to refer later in my speech to a number of case histories that illustrate these points, but essentially the problem seems to be that councils are sticking to the letter of the regulations, except when it suits them, but also that, in many instances, the officers concerned clearly do not understand what is required of them or are applying the rules selectively. Welsh Government guidance states that a functional assessment of mobility by an occupational therapist should be offered when a decision is being challenged, but that is not happening in my region. Swansea council told me that it cannot use OTs to assess appeals because the funding received from the Welsh Government for blue badges would not cover the costs associated with offering functional assessments. I have already referred to the fact that Neath Port Talbot council wanted to charge one of my constituents for this assessment.
Staff are not medically trained and so cannot be expected to make reasonable judgments on complex medical conditions, and yet because GPs have been effectively taken out of the process, this responsibility is being placed on council officers. The outcome is that many people who should be issued with a blue badge are being denied that privilege. The guidance lists those health providers that can be a good source of evidence to help the local authority to determine eligibility for a blue badge. These include consultants, hospital specialists, physiotherapists, occupational therapists, pain clinics, district nurses and community psychiatric nurses. It goes on to say that factual evidence from a GP regarding an applicant’s medical condition and treatment may be submitted by an applicant or requested by a local authority in order to support the decision-making process, yet in a letter to me dated 19 March the Minister notes that the move away from GPs was recommended by the Disabled Persons Transport Advisory Committee in 2002, which noted that GPs are advocates for patients and therefore are not a suitably independent provider of information. It is no wonder that local councils are confused. If we are to rely on consultants to provide medical evidence, then this could add further delays into the process. After all, most people end up waiting 12 months or more for an appointment with a consultant, and there are huge waiting lists in orthopaedics in particular. Unfortunately, the outcome of this confusion is that vulnerable and elderly people are being denied the assistance they need.
Another issue is the use of the higher rate of disability living allowance as a qualifying criterion. The Minister will be aware that this benefit is being phased out and that there will be no new DLA awards in Wales, yet there is no reference in the guidelines to the personal independence payment, the successor benefit to DLA. In any case, the criterion for an award of the higher mobility element of PIP is different to that of its predecessor. There is an urgent need to amend the guidance.
The eligibility criteria state that an applicant needs to provide an original HMRC DLA award letter dated within 12 months of the application. However, it is feasible that the date for DLA renewal—now PIP—does not coincide with the date of blue badge renewal, meaning that the applicant cannot possibly be expected to provide this and, as a result, they may miss out. The other problem with this is that PIP and DLA are not available to those aged over 65. People in this age group are at high risk of suffering mobility issues and often struggle to obtain supporting documentation from medical professionals other than their GP. There is effectively a different process in place, therefore, for those under 65 when compared to their seniors. In addition, the backlog in processing PIP and DLA applications means that many of those seeking a blue badge will not have a decision letter to back up their claim.
There are two more issues that I want to illustrate before moving on to some case studies. The first is the requirement that an applicant has to attend the council offices in person. Not yet having a blue badge, the applicant will not be able to utilise disabled parking spaces, and often this visit can involve a long walk that, by definition, many are not capable of doing easily or without some considerable pain.
Secondly, there is the matter of permanence. The guidance states that the applicant’s condition must be permanent: that it has already been present for six months and is expected to persist. One council, when pushed, admitted that it is interpreting this to mean that a condition should last more than three years. The DLA definition of ‘permanent’ is a condition lasting three years and, indeed, the blue badge is issued for three years. Many conditions that require a blue badge can be resolved within a reasonable period of time. A good example of this could be somebody requiring a hip or knee replacement. The question therefore is: why does the guidance not specify that the condition should persist for the period during which the blue badge remains in force?
One of my constituents was receiving physiotherapy after a brain haemorrhage, but was refused a blue badge on the grounds that, as he was receiving that treatment, his condition must be temporary. This was despite the fact that he was in serious pain when walking, had a 50% loss of sight and severe aphasia.
In the case of one constituent, the council told me that the applicant had signed a declaration to state that he could only walk 25m due to severe pain, and stops for 30 seconds before he is able to continue. He walked from the disabled bays, stopping just once, so the council concluded that he was not in need of a blue badge. However, there was no assessment of the length of time it took him to complete that journey or the impact on his wellbeing.
Welsh Government guidance states that a person has considerable difficulty in walking if they are unable to walk very far without experiencing severe difficulty, and that it does not matter whether excessive pain or breathlessness occurs at the time of walking or later. That was not assessed either. The guidance goes on to say that if an applicant is unable to walk 30m in total, their walking ability is not appreciable and they can be deemed as having considerable difficulty in walking. So, regardless of whether my constituent can walk 5m or 25m, he would still be eligible for a blue badge if the effort involved impacted on his health.
My final case study encapsulates a great deal of what is wrong with the way that this scheme is being administered. Mrs X can only walk 11m before stopping. She suffers from osteoporosis of neck, spine and shoulder, which means that she has great difficulty in getting in and out of the car, and needs plenty of space. The council says that the need for a wide space when using a car is not a criterion for a blue badge. This must be news to many wheelchair users. Mrs X also has arthritis in both knees, cannot walk very well and always needs a walking stick. However, the council says that because she uses a walking stick, this means that she does not meet the criteria. It has misinterpreted the guidance, which refers to her walking normally with a walking stick. Given that she needs the walking stick to support her, that she has to stop frequently and that she suffers pain when doing so, this is clearly not walking normally.
The council says that when applicants are rendered unable to walk, the distance to meet the criteria for a blue badge due to excessive pain, this would reflect on the pain relief or attendance at a chronic pain clinic. It says that there is no evidence of any pain management on my constituent’s application. However, it has failed to take account of the fact that Mrs X has diverticulitis and therefore is unable to take pain relief. Mrs X provided a letter from a GP supporting her application. However, the council argues that it is able to discount this because GPs are not recognised in line with Welsh Government guidance. It continues by saying that the Welsh Government has informed them not to use GPs as evidence. This is not just nonsense, but it also goes against all common sense. The Minister will know that the guidance, as I illustrated earlier, does not say that at all.
Our request for an OT assessment for my constituent, as is her right under the guidance, was rejected on the grounds that she is not currently a client of social services, and has not asked them for any adaptations or modifications to help her to cope with her disability. That is frankly irrelevant to the request for an OT assessment. Despite this, the council maintains that it has worked closely with the Welsh Government, that it has been informed that its decision-making process is in line with Welsh Government guidance, and that this ensures that only applicants who meet the strict eligibility criteria receive badges. This begs the question as to whether the officials who advised the council of this understand how the guidance is being applied.
In conclusion, this whole process is a mess, and it is made worse by the fact that there is no effective appeal process. I know that other Members have had similar experiences. The question that I hope the Minister can answer in response to this debate is whether or not she can sort it out.
First of all, I thank Peter Black for the one minute and more importantly, for raising this very important issue.
It is a serious problem in Swansea East. A lot of severely disabled people are being refused a blue badge. It is hardly surprising that we seem to have a catch-22 situation. You go up a very steep drive to get into the civic centre or county hall, as we know it, to get your blue badge form. If you are able to make your way up there, you do not need one. If you cannot make your way up there, you cannot have one. That is the reality of where we are with this. There has been an abuse of blue badges in the past; everybody is aware of it—everyone has seen people who have had blue badges who should not have had them. However, at the moment, too many frail elderly people are being refused, and this is causing severe problems.
May I just go through one case? I have been dealing with the case of a very elderly lady in her 90s who needs a blue badge to be able to park close enough to the hospital in a disabled bay so that her son-in-law can take her into the hospital. Without that blue badge, they cannot park there, but she cannot go into county hall because she cannot get up the drive. This sort of catch-22 situation cannot be allowed to continue.
As I only have a minute, rather than deal with case studies, I want to make the Minister aware of two other issues. A lot of the blue badge administration is now being contracted out in some authorities and there is increasingly a tendency not to provide written reasons for the refusal of a blue badge. Only this week I was informed by a constituent that she had had an application for a blue badge refused. The refusal came over the telephone and, when she asked whether she could be given written reasons for refusal, she was told that she would have to write in and ask, because it was not common practice.
The other issue is with regard to parking restrictions near the residences of blue badge holders. There are powers for local authorities under the Road Traffic Regulation Act 1984 to provide spaces, but, in my region, only Conwy County Borough Council does so. The other five authorities refuse to do so. I think that is another matter that the Government needs to have regard to.
I call on the Minister for the Economy, Science and Transport to reply to the debate.
May I thank the Member very much for bringing this debate to the floor of the Chamber today? I have had considerable correspondence from Members about the operation of the scheme and what improvements can be made. I have to say that it is one of the most difficult areas within my portfolio to ensure fairness and equity. I very much take on board the comments that have been made about what we need to do in terms of regulation and how we need to deal with particular issues. I established the blue badge expert review group in response to concerns that were raised with me. The group’s report contained recommendations on eligibility, assessment and enforcement. Following publication of the group’s report last summer, we undertook a consultation on a number of the recommendations, and we have now completed our review of the responses.
If I may turn to local authorities’ handling of renewal applications, which is an area that I have raised with me a lot in terms of correspondence, I have to say, within my own constituency, I recognise that the decision not to award a blue badge can cause considerable distress, particularly when an individual has previously held a badge. This was one of the key reasons for reviewing the current operation of the scheme and considering what improvements could be made. The eligibility criteria for a blue badge are clear and, I think, quite specific. However, in the past, local authorities have tended to rely on recommendations in a GP report rather than establishing whether an individual actually meets the criteria. In line with Welsh Government guidance, some local authorities have moved away from relying on GP reports, but the transition has been very difficult. This is because, at the point of renewal, some people who have previously held a badge and whose condition has not improved have now been told that they are not eligible. This decision is often correct, but the reasons for it need to be communicated clearly and sensitively. I have asked my blue badge review group to consider the issue of using GP reports as evidence, implications for the individual at the point of renewal, and effective communication of decisions. The group made a clear recommendation confirming that GP reports should not be used to determine eligibility and proposed a mechanism to secure expert medical input when required. It also provided advice on communicating decisions to applicants. Based on its recommendations, we have developed a new toolkit and guidance to support local authorities in making decisions. In addition, I am developing a training package for local authority officers and I am commissioning expert advice to support local authorities in the decision-making process.
Turning to the assessment and the toolkit, we need to ensure that applications for badges are properly assessed. We have developed a verification toolkit to assist local authorities in managing the application and verification process for a badge and when processing discretionary applications. It is intended that the toolkit will ensure a consistent approach to the delivery and will be rolled out over the next few months. It is hoped that this new toolkit will remove the GP from the assessment process, in line with the recommendations of the expert group. The aim is to move to a desktop process that allows local authorities to make decisions on applications. This will be based on information from the applicant or available from other service providers. The toolkit also includes processes to deal with applications from people with cognitive impairments, which will be used once the changes in the regulations are made. This will make the best use of existing evidence. Further independent support and advice for local authorities will be put in place to ensure that the assessment of applications is consistent across Wales. I note the point that Peter Black made to me about costs and the concerns about local authority costs in terms of administration and the ability to undertake this role.
The ambassador’s role is something we have also been looking at, because we think that that is quite important. However, unfortunately, we could not implement the blue badge ambassador’s role as originally envisaged. However, I will be commissioning an expert advisory service that will fulfil the same role, and local authorities will be able to draw on this service to assist them in determining applications. Work is well under way to develop the specification of the service and I aim to have it in place by the end of the year. I will review the effectiveness of this arrangement after its first year and will be keeping the ambassador’s model in mind as an alternative.
Now, if we can turn to GPs, this has been the most difficult area, I think. The blue badge expert group considered this to support applications and it was quite clear in that recommendation to me. It believes that GPs are advocates for their patients and therefore not a suitably independent provider of information. This was also evidenced in an independent review undertaken in 2007, which noted the burden that such reports place on GPs. The toolkit we are developing will help local authority staff to verify the supporting evidence provided by applicants and to do it in a sensitive way. In terms of eligibility, I will be making regulations to enable people to apply for blue badges under discretionary criteria to ensure that those who are unable to plan or follow journeys as a result of a cognitive impairment are able to qualify for a badge. The regulations to introduce this will be made once the toolkit and support arrangements are in place to ensure that they can be implemented effectively. I have also agreed to look at the temporary blue badges, which is also an issue that has been raised with me. This is a real issue, I think. The expert review group gave the scope for issuing badges for temporary conditions some consideration but considered that this might not be appropriate. This is an area where I will undertake further work and report to Members.
In terms of misuse, which Mike Hedges raised, this is also an issue. It was apparent from the responses received and workshop discussions that there is some misunderstanding of the rules governing the scheme that could actually result in the misuse of blue badges somewhat inadvertently. So, the new regulations that are due to come into force this year will put a more rigorous enforcement process in place, which I think will deal with these issues. On the issue of raising awareness, it will be crucial to ensure responsible use of the badge and accessible parking bays, because I think that there is a real issue about the size of parking bays in general. I think that, sometimes, people apply for a blue badge because of the size of the parking bays because they simply cannot get out of their vehicle without properly opening the door. I think there are a lot of issues around that so we have got to do a lot in terms of communication.
I have to say that, in light of comments that have been made to me in the debate today, I will consider whether perhaps I should be hosting some events in the autumn for Members and perhaps representative groups to actually go into some detail about how we intend to take these matters forward. I am always open to suggestions on these particular issues, because these are very difficult areas for local authorities and for us in the centre. They are very difficult, I think, for the individuals. Sometimes, the location of offices that local authorities use to undertake some of the assessment work is not helpful to the individual. I find that, in life, sometimes elderly people with mobility problems are always determined to get to their appointment on time and will park further away and, due to their very nature then, as my constituents have said, they have been penalised for the fact that they have managed to get where they should be at the correct time for their assessment.
That brings today’s proceedings to a close.
The meeting ended at 18:23.