Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

04/12/2019

The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Deputy Presiding Officer (Ann Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the Minister for Economy and Transport

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Minister for Economy and Transport. Question 1, Hefin David. 

The Provision of Rolling Stock

1. Will the Minister make a statement on the provision of rolling stock on the Rhymney to Cardiff rail line? OAQ54785

Yes, of course. In the short term, Transport for Wales is proposing to utilise class 769 rolling stock on the Rhymney line until new rolling stock starts to be introduced in 2023, and this will then enable it to increase the service frequency further, as part of the metro transformation.

Following discussions with constituents about the use of the line and following the debate we had two weeks ago, I met with Transport for Wales officials last week to talk about some of the overcrowding issues and some of the problems with services. And we also talked about derogation from the Disability Discrimination Act 1995, and as a result of that, because Parliament isn't currently sitting, I've written to Grant Shapps—this letter here—to ask for fast derogation from the Act. Could the Minister provide us with an update on how that is going, but also can we get a definitive explanation now of how many more trains will be on the line next year and how capacity will be enhanced in the next two years? I think it's important we put that absolutely on the record and for clarity. 

Absolutely, and the Member is very right. I think his constituents deserve to know how many additional trains will be on that important railway line in the coming months and years. But, if I can just pick up on the very important point of the request for derogation on the persons of reduced mobility legislation requirements, it should be noted, Dirprwy Lywydd, that we are not alone. We understand that many other train operating companies, including Scot Rail, Great Western Railway, Northern, and East Midlands Trains are in a similar position, and they are understood to be seeking a dispensation to operate significant numbers of non-PRM-compliant trains into 2020. I am pleased to be able to inform Members that, as far as I'm concerned, all work has been completed satisfactorily by officials here and in London, and we now await the Secretary of State's approval as soon as the general election has been concluded, whoever that Secretary of State might be. I have to say though, Diprwy Lywydd, that it is our view that the decision needn't have been pushed back beyond 12 December and could have been made during the election period.

Turning to services on the Rhymney line, I am aware, so too are TfW, about concerns regarding capacity. I can inform the Member that Pacer trains will be focused as four-carriage trains on the majority of Rhymney line services from the 15 December timetable change, with the class 37 loco-hauled trains continuing to operate as the larger and, it has to be said, far more modern class 769s are introduced in 2020. Transport for Wales will be introducing nine class 769 units, which will be dedicated to the Rhymney line. These will each have four carriages and will therefore have a capacity of 558 per train. That compares to the total capacity of four Pacer carriages of 422 and to the total capacity of the loco-hauled trains of around 320.

Of course, in 2023, those new Stadler tri-mode fast, light inter-city and regional trains will be introduced on the network and on the Rhymney line. I can assure the Member that TfW are always reviewing projections for the number of customers utilising services, and they can act flexibly to ensure that capacity can be increased if demand requires it. 

Further to Hefin's question, news that the provision of rolling stock to boost the capacity of Valleys lines has been delayed has left passengers frustrated and dismayed in the south Wales Valleys. Overcrowding is a serious problem, and passenger numbers on the Valleys lines are increasing 7 per cent year on year. Minister, can you update the Assembly when you expect Transport for Wales to put the new rolling stock? You've just mentioned additional ones by next year and 2023. I think it's getting too late for this sort of thing to improve, but what is the hindrance there of getting the rolling stock into service, and can you advise what discussion you have had with TfW with regard to easing the overcrowding that already exists in the south-east Wales Valleys lines and other parts? Thank you. 

Mohammad Asghar raises a point that has been regularly discussed in this Chamber, and it concerns the lack of action that was taken under the previous franchise agreement, which was agreed on the basis of zero passenger growth, and therefore there was a lack of trains available when we inherited the franchise—over which period, in the past 15 years, we've seen a considerable increase in passenger numbers. We were aware of the need to ensure that, when we took over the franchise, additional rolling stock was available, and that's why we placed an order for the class 769 units, which were due for introduction in May 2018. And as a result of the company's failure to deliver the 769s, we've had to seek that derogation from UK Government concerning PRM. I'm pleased to say that TfW has been working tirelessly to identify where it can get new rolling stock from—and replacement rolling stock—in order to ease capacity. And as I said to Hefin David, there will be a significant increase in capacity on the Rhymney line from next year. And as we move through to the introduction of those brand-new trains in 2023, we will see further increases in capacity across the network. From December of this year, we'll also see a significant increase, of more than 60 per cent, in the number of seats and services available on Sundays. This is a huge, huge step forward and ensures that the franchise is a true seven-day week service.

13:35

Minister, passengers on the Rhymney line have been promised the 769s and increased capacity since May 2018, and they're still waiting. Now, I take your point about what you've said to Hefin David—that, when the 769s are introduced, there will be an increase in capacity. But you said that TfW are going to be acting flexibly about looking at the capacity of the new trains when they are replacing the 769s in 2023. Can you just confirm that the increased capacity that we'll see in 2023 is just an increased capacity from now, isn't it, and it's not an increased capacity—as things stand, from the 769s, there will be a decrease in capacity in 2023?

I think there was some research carried out by a very able rail enthusiast. However, I'm not convinced that the data that was utilised was fully accurate. And I met just today, actually, with TfW to discuss this very issue again, and we agreed that there is an absolute need not just to increase capacity in the short term—in the next two years—but to then maintain that capacity, and, if necessary, to increase it still further, if passengers demand it. If there is a further increase in passenger demand, then TfW will be acting flexibly to meet the demand from constituents in that part of Wales.

Grant Funding

2. Will the Minister make a statement on grant funding for local businesses in Aberconwy? OAQ54790

Yes, of course. We offer a wide range of funding options to all types of businesses across Wales. As an example of recent funding in Aberconwy, we've supported 16 businesses with their research and development projects through SMARTCymru, with a total value of £1.1 million, over half of which was grant funding.

Thank you. With Wales celebrating Small Business Saturday this weekend, it is essential that the Welsh Government, and you as Minister, are doing everything you can to support business development, and Aberconwy certainly does have a fantastic range of small businesses. Now, according to the Welsh local shop report 2020, 73 per cent of independently owned convenience stores fund investments in their own businesses from their reserves. So, so many—in fact, the majority—are going without any financial support. So I suppose it then makes us want to scrutinise the grants that you do provide, to make sure that these have been given wisely.

Now, in 2016, the Welsh Government provided £400,000 to G.M. Jones to build the most fantastic bespoke suite of offices. Now, you know I've raised several written Assembly questions on this, because the property has laid empty for more years than I can remember, and it was only occupied for a few months before the business, sadly, went into demise. I'm approached on a frequent basis about smaller businesses wanting to perhaps use these offices. I've phoned myself and spoken to Business Wales, and I've tried against all odds to see new life breathed into these properties, because, at the end of the day, it's had £400,000 of taxpayers' money and now there is no business there at all. It's in the rural part of my constituency. So, I'm very keen to see this business occupied and fully utilised so that we can't say that there's been a waste of taxpayers' money. What actions are you taking or could you be taking to work with our local authority and other stakeholders to see how we can bring a resolution to this issue going forward, because I can tell you that other business owners in Conwy and, indeed residents are furious to see this wonderful suite of offices just falling into decline through non-occupation?

13:40

Well, there's certainly demand for business units, for office space, and for industrial units as well across north Wales, and in particular in the area that the Member represents. I will ask my chief regional officer in north Wales to liaise with Business Wales and with Conwy County Borough Council to assess the demand that is currently in existence for business units of this type and to ensure that they are matching that demand with the operators of the particular units so that we can get jobs created in that area.

It has to be said that Business Wales have done an excellent job across north Wales since 2015 in assisting the creation of more than 740 new enterprises, which, in turn, have created more than 2,780 jobs. I'll make sure that our regional team works closely with the local authority and with Business Wales to realise the potential of this particular facility.

Thank you for that answer, Ken—for Conwy. That's absolutely brilliant. I really appreciate it.

Minister, micro- and small businesses are the backbone of our economy. I am pleased that my party recognises this and is committed to levelling the playing field. We pledge to review the business rates regime and give local businesses and our high street the shot in the arm they need. What are your plans to support local businesses in my and your region?

Well, there are a huge range of initiatives that are offered by Welsh Government and our partners, including local authorities. We've provided an additional £2.4 million to local authorities to provide additional discretionary rates relief for local businesses, allowing them to respond to specific local needs. In 2019-20, something in the region of £9.5 million in rate relief will be offered to Conwy County Borough Council, of which £6.4 million will be through our small business rates relief scheme.

However, we'll also offer support through Business Wales, through the Development Bank of Wales, and through direct support from Welsh Government, and I will ensure that, as part of the development of the regional economic framework in north Wales, small businesses across the region are taken into full account when they develop future initiatives.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Thank you. We now turn to spokespersons' questions and the first this afternoon is the Conservative spokesperson, Russell George.

Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, according to the latest UK economic outlook from PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Welsh economy will grow by just 1 per cent this year and fall back slightly in 2020 with a small growth rate of just 0.8 per cent. Are you happy with the PwC analysis that the Welsh economy will grow at one of the slowest rates of any part of the UK next year? And in response to this research, what specific steps is your Government taking to address low productivity?

Well, no, I'm not happy, and it's quite clear that Brexit continues to suppress growth, particularly here in Wales, where 60 per cent of our exports are reliant on the 500 million customers within the European Union. In order to drive up productivity, we, through the economic action plan, are focusing our grants, our loans—our business support in all forms—on those businesses of the future: those businesses that are going to be futureproofed in terms of artificial intelligence and digitalisation.

A great example of how we are using our resources strategically in this regard came last Thursday when we opened the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre in north Wales—a centre that will lead to the securing of the Wing of Tomorrow programme and which will inject £4 billion in gross value added to the regional economy. That's a perfect example of how we are using our resources to drive up productivity.

It's worth saying that, since devolution, Wales has had the fifth highest increase in GVA per head compared to the 12 UK countries and English regions. But there is no doubt whatsoever that the growth of the economy is being suppressed by the disaster that is Brexit.

Well, Minister, devolution was intended to significantly improve the economic performance of Wales, and yet when it comes to re-energising the Welsh economy, instead of taking that opportunity to proactively boost the economy, I would suggest that the Government has failed to create the right conditions to attract inward investment.

In your response, Minister, you talked about offering grants to various businesses, but I would say, instead, the Welsh Government's business policy has very much focused on throwing money at businesses like Kancoat, Mainport Engineering and Griffin Place Communications—all received Government funding and all are failed projects. I would absolutely accept that the Government does need to take risks. I accept that. But you have to also take into account that balance between risk and benefit, and I do believe that that balance is wrong. And the auditor general accepts this himself, saying that

'The Welsh Government has not yet implemented an approach to balancing potential risks and benefits'.

So, can I ask, Minister, with such a list of poor investments, how can the people of Wales be confident that the Welsh Government can make responsible decisions when it comes to Welsh businesses and managing the Welsh economy effectively?

13:45

For every list of so-called poor investments, we can produce a list of successful investments, investments in businesses like Aston Martin Lagonda, who are choosing to make Wales their home of electrification; of businesses like INEOS Automotive, who we've secured very recently in the face of fierce competition from around the world; businesses like Airbus, who we are helping to secure the future of the Wing of Tomorrow programme for. I think it's important to say that we're often accused of being risk averse in Welsh Government. We are equally accused of having too high a risk appetite. Having the balance right is incredibly difficult to achieve in the eyes and minds of every single person.

Many of the investments that the Member has outlined and could outline are investments in the past that predate the economic action plan, and specifically the economic contract, which must be signed by businesses seeking our financial resource. And within the economic contract, they have to clearly demonstrate how they have growth potential, not just themselves but also for the supply chain; how they're promoting fair work; how they're leading to decarbonise Wales and their own footprint; and also how they're contributing to the improvements in health and mental health within the workforce. This is an important development over the past 18 months, which is intended not just to drive productivity, but also to drive inclusive growth, and that is something that we're incredibly proud of.

In addition, all evidence now shows that support for businesses from Business Wales has led to higher survival rates than amongst businesses that do not have Business Wales support, and, as a consequence of years of strategic investment, we now have near-record-high employment rates, record-low inactivity rates, more businesses in existence than ever before in Wales, a higher birth rate here in Wales than the UK average, and crucially important, we now have opportunities emerging right across Wales for businesses to start up through that support that Business Wales offers. 

Thank you for the answer, Minister. I do appreciate it's a difficult job getting that risk right between risk and getting that balance right between the two, but, of course, the auditor general has said that 

'The Welsh Government has not yet implemented an approach to balancing potential risks and benefits'.

Of course, one area that we do need to focus on is in relation to our small and medium-sized businesses because they do face a very uncertain time at the moment with competition from online companies and also we're seeing reduced footfall that is greater, unfortunately, in Wales, on our Welsh high streets, than in other parts of the UK. So, over the past week, I've been promoting—I know other Members around this Chamber have been promoting—Small Business Saturday, a campaign promoting people to shop locally, particularly this weekend.

I was also pleased to attend the launch of the Association of Convenience Stores' report yesterday, hosted by my colleague Janet Finch-Saunders. Some of the issues that they raise in their report are absolutely devolved to the Welsh Government, issues like business rates, extending the high street rate relief beyond March 2020, scrapping business rates altogether, planning, also protecting retail centres and ensuring that the planning system enables retailers to diversify more easily. Some of these areas are being done in other parts of the UK that are not being done in Wales.

So, I would say, Minister, with Small Business Saturday coming up this weekend, can you tell us what the Welsh Government is doing specifically to support Welsh businesses? And can you also tell us what new actions your Government will now take to create the right conditions for growth for small, medium-sized and independent businesses here in Wales?

13:50

Can I thank Russell George for that question and echo his support for Small Business Saturday? I do hope that all Members will support that initiative and will encourage their constituents to do so as well.

There are many, many areas of support that the Welsh Government offers that contribute to the vibrancy of town centres as they face an incredibly challenging period, not least because of consumer behaviours leading to more orders going online and less on our high streets. But one new particular initiative that I think the Member will be interested in is one that is being developed by my colleague Hannah Blythyn, and that concerns a 'town centre first' approach, not just in terms of retail, but also in terms of where the public sector choose to invest in offices and facilities. I think it's vitally important that we look at the example in Pontypridd over how Transport for Wales has chosen to invest within the town centre there, which, in turn, is leading to further investment by other businesses. This is the sort of model that we now wish to see rolled out right across the length and breadth of Wales. And, of course, the finance Minister is very aware of the need to ensure that the business rates regime benefits those businesses that are facing an uncertain future.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. Minister, we know that delays on trains and overcrowding on trains can have a direct impact on the economy and productivity in Wales. A number of workers in Wales have to decide to leave home earlier in order to get on a train or to get to work on time; others arrive at their workplace late. Has the Government made an assessment of how much delay and overcrowding of trains cost the economy, including hours lost in the workplace?

We are able to, on a periodic basis, calculate the amount of time lost and then, setting that against average earnings, we are able to assess the sort of loss to the economy as a whole. Clearly, we do not wish to see any time lost for passengers and we don't wish to see a penny lost for the economy, and that's why we're investing £5 billion in this franchise period in the new franchise agreement, including £800 million for new rolling stock and almost £200 million for improved stations.

We're also integrating public transport better through legislation, including the buses (Wales) Bill and further reforms on bus services; the introduction of better infrastructure for active travel and for bus rapid transport, so that people can choose to leave their car at home in full knowledge that they'll be able to get to work by public transport in just as little time as they would by their own car, if not in less time than that.

Overcrowding can make it an unpleasant experience on a train. I heard from a member of Plaid Cymru's team here in the Assembly earlier, as it happens, about trying to travel down on the train from Maesteg to the Barbarians' game over the weekend, and passengers couldn't get on the train because trains were full. My own daughter was telling me of a journey across the north Wales line in the last few weeks where people were standing in the toilet because the train was overcrowded. It's not acceptable.

We know we have a lack of capacity now and, of course, you talk of your ambition to increase capacity, which is good, but it is concerning to note that the capacity for the new trains, the new FLIRT trains, coming in in 2023, and the capacity quoted by Transport for Wales for standing passengers is higher than the figure quoted on the manufacturer's data sheet. The manufacturer's figures are based on providing 0.3 sq m per person, while Transport for Wales use 0.25 sq m. It's the lowest in the UK, I think, as most operators use 0.45 sq m. Even London overground have moved to using 0.35 since 2017.

You keep on telling us about your plans to increase capacity, but it sounds to me as if what you're planning to do is just stack them high, and that won't make for a good passenger experience.

No, not at all, not with the order book amounting to £800 million and state-of-the-art trains coming into being from 2023. TfW use industry guidance and industry standards when it comes to calculating capacity, and I'm pleased to say that on the Maesteg line we will see class 170 trains introduced. They'll be among the 12 class 170s that will be rolled out from December this year, in the short term ensuring that capacity issues are addressed while we await the new rolling stock from 2023.

13:55

We're talking about overcrowding now, and a lack of capacity now, at a time, of course, when we want more people to use trains in the future. One thing that's done to try to persuade more older people to use the train is to allow them to use concessionary bus passes for various discounts. Some lines allow free travel.

A rail user from the north contacted me, though, after hearing about what was on offer to passengers in other parts of Wales. There is a third off tickets to travel on the Cardiff and Valleys network off peak—which is good, of course—but there is no equivalent discount for travellers in the north. Now, I find that unacceptable. We need to treat rail users equally, wherever they are. I'm grateful for a letter that I've received from you, saying that you will introduce a 10 per cent discount across the north. Why a third off in one part of Wales and 10 per cent off in another?

I've been scribbling here too, comparing two similar journeys, one of them in the Cardiff and Valleys area. Treherbert to Cardiff is 25 miles and a train ticket costs £6.10. That sounds about right to me. With a third off, that's down to £4. Holyhead to Bangor is 25 miles again—the same distance. That's over £10 a journey. With 10 per cent off, that brings it down to £9. How come you can pay £4 for a journey in one part of Wales, and over £9—more than double that—in another part of Wales? It sounds to me, and it will sound to a lot of people, with figures like that and a lack of equality for passengers that Labour's railway is not a railway that treats passengers equally wherever they are in Wales. 

I should just remind Members from the outset that some fares are regulated fares, regulated by the UK Government, and others are in our control. Where they are in our control, we've seen an average—as has been publicly recognised recently—decrease of 1 per cent in fares. In some parts of Wales, there will be very considerable decreases in fares, including in north Wales. Rhun ap Iorwerth is right to point to the 10 per cent reduction there. Across the network, there has been a 34 per cent discount in off-peak fares set by TfW for annual season ticket holders, for themselves and up to one accompanying person within defined geographic boundaries. Now, that's important.

So, too, is concessionary off-peak travel for under-11s. We're moving towards a far fairer fare regime for young people. We are offering concessionary off-peak travel for under-16s, and the student railcard will be more beneficial as well, and the saver railcard. Wherever we can, we are introducing a fairer fare regime for passengers. I'm pleased that whether it be in north Wales, where we're seeing a 10 per cent decrease in those fares, or whether it be on the Rhymney line, where—as was talked about earlier—anytime day return tickets will reduce by 9.52 per cent, we are introducing a strong degree of social justice to the public transport fare regime.

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. Following the announcement in June this year that the automotive company TVR had selected a west Wales company to furnish their factory unit on the Ebbw Vale automotive technology site, which was a very welcome announcement in itself—that they had chosen a Welsh company to do that—can the Minister give us an update on the progress made so far with regard to the refurbishment of that unit? And, can he give us any indication as to the actual commencement of car production by TVR? 

Of course. Discussions are ongoing with the company, and we are awaiting their confirmation that they have raised the requisite investment.

Well, I thank the Minister for his answer. My question really was made more in hope than in expectation, given that, obviously, the actual dates for commencement would be with the TVR company itself.

Turning to the development of the park itself, can you give us any details as to other companies that have expressed an interest in coming to Ebbw Vale, and could you confirm reports that the Williams Advanced Engineering Ltd company, part of the Williams Formula 1 team, are still interested in developing a presence on the site? This, after all, is a vital project if we are ever to revitalise an area that has been in the economic doldrums since the closure of the steelworks some 17 years ago.

14:00

I'm delighted to be able to say that I'll be with Williams tomorrow, at the automotive summit that we've convened, and at the dinner tomorrow evening for the Wales automotive forum. I'm sure they wouldn't be present in Wales tomorrow if they weren't interested in a presence in Wales for the longer term. I'll be discussing it with them, and, of course, if we can attract such a prestigious company, then Welsh Government will be fully supportive.

Supporting the Economy in South Wales Central

3. What steps will the Welsh Government take to support the economy in South Wales Central over the next 12 months? OAQ54789

We'll continue to support the economy through the economic action plan, and in the case of South Wales Central businesses, via the south-east Wales chief regional officer.

Thanks. Now, a crucial part of the economy is transport, and we've been hearing a lot already this afternoon about the problem of overcrowding on the rail services. We've heard about it in the Rhymney valley and we've heard about it on the Maesteg line, but, of course, it is a feature of nearly all our railway lines that there is massive overcrowding. Now, you have spoken about increasing the capacity, but, of course, we are all waiting, as we've been waiting for a long time, to see an improvement. I note that in Labour's general election manifesto, you're promising to cut the price of a season ticket by a third. Well, we all realise that Corbyn's promising the earth in an attempt to bribe the electorate, but back in the real world, how on earth is Transport for Wales going to be able to cope with the likely spike in demand when you're already struggling to provide a decent service?

Well, unlike during the period when the previous franchise agreement was being devised, when we were working on the current franchise arrangements we ensured that various passenger modelling was taken into account so that the operator and development partner was in no doubt whatsoever of what tasks would have to be undertaken to meet passenger demand. So, as a consequence, there are serious and significant opportunities to be able to increase capacity at certain points within the contract, as and when it is needed. Unlike under the previous agreement, TfW are able to operate in a flexible manner under this agreement and, as I said earlier, we'll be investing £5 billion into the rail network over the coming 15 years.

Minister, since 2012 the economic activity rate in Rhondda Cynon Taf has increased from 69 per cent to 75 per cent—much of this, I think, through behind-the-scenes, anyway, active co-operation between the UK Government and the Welsh Government, and I commend you for that work. It seems to me that skills and training are particularly important in achieving these improved figures, and as you are emphasising the foundational economy, it seems to me that this approach is now bearing fruit in some of our most deprived areas.

Absolutely. I couldn't agree more with David Melding, and in terms of the foundational economy challenge fund, I'm pleased that Rhondda Housing Association have been successful in securing £100,000 to regenerate Tonypandy town centre with creative new approaches to using local skills and ensuring that there is a sustainable and long-term future for the town centre.

Improving the Economy of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire

4. What initiatives does the Welsh Government have in place to improve the economy of Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire? OAQ54788

I'm pleased to say that we have a number of initiatives for improving the economy of the whole of Wales, including, of course, Carmarthen West and South Pembrokeshire. These are set out in the economic action plan and include investing in people, in places and businesses, through skills, infrastructure and direct business support.

Thank you for that, but I would like to know how that really translates into action. Last weekend was the Pembroke castle Christmas fair, and it was a great event. Loads of people came into Pembroke to go to the Christmas fair, but as I walked back to my car, which was the other end of Pembroke high street, it really brought home to me yet again the death of that high street. When I first moved to Pembrokeshire some 15 years ago it was a vibrant, busy high street, it had a supermarket there right in the centre of the town, it had lots and lots of individual shops—it had the butcher and practically the baker and the candlestick maker. But now it's just—what do you call those people who do racing bets? Betting shops, that's it—[Interruption.] Bookies. Thank you. I didn't want to mention their name—I can only think of their name. [Laughter.] I wasn't trying to advertise them. [Laughter.] [Interruption.] Thank you. No, don't.

So, it's bookies, it's charity shops, and everything is pretty much boarded up, and I do wonder what we can actually do to bring the kind of life back into that type of high street, because if it's not Pembroke, it's Pembroke Dock, and it's becoming Narberth, which has been a jewel in the Pembrokeshire crown for a long time. Whitland—dead on its feet. St Clears—going the same way. The traditional shops are closing down, but I don't see how these policies of yours can be translated. And I know that the Conservative manifesto is planning to establish a market town fund to help improve the local economy, and I notice that you did mention an initiative to my colleague Russell George, but I just wonder if you could expend on that, because it's desperately sad to see these great towns wither away on the vine.

14:05

Absolutely, and this is not a problem that is confined to the Member's constituency. We can point to town centres right across the UK and beyond, where there are struggles because of changing consumer behaviours. And it's absolutely right now that we focus not just on retail as a process of an exchange of goods and money, but retail as an experience, and some of the most successful town centres and high streets are ones where there is a vibrant atmosphere, where there are activities taking place on a very regular basis, where we don't just have retail, but a very strong mix in terms of the businesses that operate there.

The 'town centre first' initiative that I mentioned in answer to Russell George is being led by Hannah Blythyn, who is here right now. I will ask Hannah to provide more detail to Members regarding this particular initiative.FootnoteLink It does include the development of more business improvement districts, because I think it's absolutely vital that businesses own responsibility as well for improving the vibrancy of the high street. What I've been able to appreciate is that those towns that are most resilient in the face of on-line purchasing are those that offer a good number of activities like Christmas fairs and so forth, and in my own constituency, those town centres and village centres as well that are thriving in the face of challenge are those that bring people in for various activities on a week-by-week basis.

I think it's also important to say that whilst we all wish to support Small Business Saturday this Saturday, the principles that underpin Small Business Saturday should apply to every day of the week and every week of the year, and it is important that we as Members encourage our constituents to support town centres. It's all too easy sometimes for us ourselves to end up, just for the sake of convenience, popping to a supermarket rather than to go into a town centre. We do need to lead by example. That's something that I will commit to doing myself, not just on this Saturday, but thereafter. But I do think that the 'town centre first' initiative and the encouragement of more business improvement districts, which are a proven intervention, will lead to a greater degree of vibrancy in our town centres.

Public Transport within the Northern Valleys

5. Will the Minister outline the Welsh Government's priorities for improving public transport within the northern valleys? OAQ54802

Yes, of course. We are moving forward with our ambitious vision to reshape public transport infrastructure and services across Wales, including local bus services, rail services, active travel, the metro projects and, of course, the buses (Wales) Bill.

Thank you, Minister, for that overarching answer. Now, this wasn't the supplementary I planned to ask, but recent disruption to rail services within my community has changed my focus today. I must say, I've had a good relationship with Transport for Wales since they've taken over the services, but the events last week were nothing short of chaotic—trains cancelled, passengers turfed off at random stations, some people's round journey to work taking over four and a half hours there and back, and being dropped off at stations nowhere near their home, with resultant impacts on childcare and all sorts of other pressures. This is simply not acceptable. I appreciate that some issues, like line-side disruption, are beyond Transport for Wales's control, but there needs to be a plan B. Problems accessing replacement buses during rush hour when they're out doing the school run should be anticipated, and there should a fallback plan for that. Much is made of the 15 December timetable changes, but to many of my constituents, disappointment has bred distrust. How is the Welsh Government working with Transport for Wales to get this right? What measures will be put in place to minimise the risk of the problems seen in recent weeks, so that my constituents don't experience such poor services again?

14:10

I'd like to thank Vikki Howells for the question, and for raising this matter previously with me directly. I was able to speak again to Transport for Wales this morning, where I impressed upon them the absolute and urgent need to ensure that there are contingency plans in place.

As the Member rightly identifies, on the afternoon of Wednesday, 27 November, there was disruption to TfW services on the Aberdare line due to a signalling problem, which, of course, is managed by Network Rail. The problem was compounded by the difficulty in sourcing replacement buses, because local buses were at that time booked for school transport. There was also a further disruption later that evening when a bus hit a railway bridge, and then Network Rail, rightly so, had to carry out safety inspections to make sure that trains were safe to cross it. TfW did manage to source replacement buses and the line was reopened at 8 o'clock in the evening, but I recognise that many, many of my colleague's constituents were infuriated by the lack of timely service on that particular occasion.

Although these incidents are outside of TfW's control, TfW have assured me that they are urgently reviewing how replacement buses are procured, because they too feel that it's right for passengers to be able to expect services to commence as soon as possible after an incident occurs. I will be writing to Members soon with details of that urgent work and the outcomes from it.

Many people have been interested in the potential for train services to be extended north in the Rhondda valley, and Plaid Cymru have campaigned on this for many years, and I really do hope that it can be brought to fruition by this Government and Transport for Wales. The difference that a new station in Tynewydd could make at the top of the Rhondda would be huge. It would make public transport much more accessible for some of the most isolated communities in my constituency. There's no train line in the Rhondda Fach. There used to be a rail bus link over from Maerdy over the hill to Penrhys to Ystrad station.

What is the latest position on extending the train line into the Rhondda Fawr to Tynewydd? And can you tell us what is the possibility of improving links to the Rhondda Fach in terms of rail? And people in the Rhondda have also been affected by the recent overcrowding problems, and they've had enough of listening to excuses. So, what assurances can you provide that there will be enough capacity for the people in the Rhondda, whether these improvements that I've asked you about this afternoon come to fruition or not?

I can assure people of the Rhondda that we are doing all we can to address capacity issues on the rail network. Importantly, though, we can't view rail service in isolation from other public transport services. I think it's absolutely right that people should expect an integrated bus and rail service, and that's why next year we'll be introducing legislation to this Chamber concerning the planning and delivery of local bus services, so that we can reintroduce franchising, so that we can allow municipal bus companies to be formed, so that we can integrate ticketing and timetabling and so that we do have that sort of integrated service that existed. I think it was the Rhondda Fach rail and bus link service that I think people in the Rhondda valued. We wish to see more of those type of integrated public transport services rolled out across Wales.

In terms of the extendability of the metro, this is one of the most exciting pieces of work that has been undertaken at the moment—the future phases of the metro—the framework is being completed by Welsh Government. We're already delivering five new stations under the franchise agreement with the operator and development partner. And in the future, as part of the south Wales metro vision, we will see more stations opened, more old railway lines reopened, and new railway lines introduced.

Can I tell the Minister that people on every single station stop from Maesteg to Cardiff are really looking forward to the introduction of the refurbished 170 carriages, and the Sunday service from the middle of this month? It's going to be a real shot in the arm for that line and for frequency of services, particularly on a Sunday. And I thank him for his written reply that I've had today on my next campaign, which is later trains out of Cardiff to every stop along the lines to Maesteg.

But can I just say, three of my valleys—and I repeatedly say this—the Garw, the Ogmore and the Gilfach valleys, are entirely served by bus transport. Now, for example, in the Upper Garw valley, without—. There are nearly 30 per cent of people in the Upper Garw without access to private transport, and 15 per cent more than the national average classified as semi-skilled, unskilled manual or lower grade occupations, or unemployed, trying to access work. The community is classified by the Office for National Statistics as 100 per cent rural and we rely entirely on buses. Fifty per cent of the population there travel to work between 10km and 30km, and they rely on buses. So, could I ask him: what hope can I give to those constituents that, as we take these reforms forward, particularly in terms of undoing the disastrous bus deregulation of those decades ago, we can have a bus service that is designed locally and regionally, that goes to the places where people want to go, at the time they want to go, with affordable ticket prices that they can afford to pay for, that is for the people and not for the benefit of shareholders?

14:15

Well, the Member is absolutely right: we will be designing, through legislation and further reforms, a transport system for buses and for other transport forms that meet passenger interests over profit motive. And, whether it be through the creation of municipal bus companies, through the reintroduction of franchising, through other reforms, we will deliver improved bus transport that is integrated with rail. 

Now, the Member raises the important point of the timetabling of services to ensure that people who work out of hours are able to get to and from employment. A good example of how Welsh Government is intervening in this area right now comes with the Valleys to work transport pilot, which has been developed with the Department for Work and Pensions, and we've been able to announce an out-of-hours minibus pilot to take people into employment. I think that is a great example of how, working in a sub-regional way, with all partners, we are able to provide opportunities for people to get to and from work on public transport at inconvenient hours. 

Improving the Trunk Road Network in Monmouthshire

7. Will the Minister provide an update on plans to improve the trunk road network in Monmouthshire? OAQ54782

Yes, of course. Transport links are vital to our economy and we are committed to ensuring a robust and well-maintained road network. Our priorities for improving the network are outlined in our national transport finance plan, which was updated in May of this year.

Thank you, Minister. When I last raised the issue of the A4042 flooding problem at Llanellen with your colleague, the Deputy Minister, a few weeks ago he pointed out, rightly, that the problems are well-known and difficult to deal with and if I had any solutions to let you know. Well, it seemed to me, thinking about this afterwards, that there is one obvious, although costly, solution, which would be a bypass for the village, avoiding this particularly problematic section altogether and also avoiding the bridge, which has problems as well. Plans for a Llanellen bypass and a bypass further south at Penperlleni go back decades but have remained pipe dreams because of the cost issue. Now that the new Grange University Hospital is well under way and will be opening, I believe, next year, I wonder if we could revisit again the possibility of a bypass at this problematic section of the A4042 because, at some point in the future, patients' lives could depend on it and commuters would certainly like to see improvements. 

Well, through the new Wales transport strategy, which will be published next year, we'll be able to take a view of all opportunities to improve the resilience of the road network, and not just the resilience of the road network, but other means of being able to get people from A to B. You've seen, for example, bus services, active travel and rail services. Now, I think it's fair to say that, following discussions with the landowner and the tenant farmer, the farmer did extraordinary work in clearing ditches within his land back in 2018, 2019. I am very grateful for that work to help with the flooding on the A4042. We keep it well monitored and we will consider all means to address any further flooding that takes place. 

2. Questions to the Counsel General and Brexit Minister (in respect of his Brexit Minister responsibilities)

Item 2 on the agenda is questions to the Council General and Brexit Minister in respect of his Brexit Minister responsibilities. Question 1 is from Suzy Davies. 

Education post Brexit

1. What discussions has the Counsel General had with the Minister for Education regarding the provision of education post-Brexit? OAQ54800

Good afternoon. I regularly discuss post-Brexit issues with the Minister for Education, including through the Cabinet sub-committee on EU transition and main Cabinet meetings, and I have also met with her separately to discuss this on numerous occasions.

I'm pleased to hear that, Minister. In March, you told me that, and I quote, a significant piece of work was necessary around the qualifications that Welsh Government will accept from teachers coming here to work from EU countries, the countries in which they qualified. When I called for an update about this work from the Trefnydd in June, unfortunately she wasn't able to help me, but, since then, from September this year, all new teachers will need qualifications approved by the Education Workforce Council. It's now been nine months since you said that this significant piece of work would be necessary. How have you and the education Minister worked together to ensure that EU nationals can continue or even begin to teach here as of exit day? Thank you.

14:20

Well, the Member will be aware that the Assembly has had regulations that, effectively, in a 'no deal' scenario, for example, provide on a unilateral basis the recognition of existing qualifications for EU nationals working in all kinds of regulated professions in Wales, and that includes the teaching profession. There are arrangements that that set of regulations provides for existing employees, and also to seek to validate or recognise qualifications for those whose applications are currently in the system and, indeed, for those entering the system after exit. But there is an ongoing risk to UK citizens working in the European Union because, in those circumstances, if we were to leave without a deal—we don't, obviously, know on what basis, if at all, we will be leaving at this point—those relationships will not have the benefit of the reciprocal arrangements that currently exist across the European Union. And so those employees working in different parts of the European Union will depend upon the regulatory regime in each individual member state for recognition of their particular qualifications going into the future. 

Cross-border Co-operation within Britain post Brexit

2. What provision is the Welsh Government making for cross-border co-operation within Britain post-Brexit? OAQ54780

The Welsh Government already encourages cross-border working, for example through the Mersey-Dee Alliance, and we will continue to support cross-border co-operation post Brexit. We strongly believe in nurturing existing economic links within and beyond Britain, and regret the way in which the outgoing UK Government has put ideology before Wales's economic interests.   

You can't resist it, can you? As you know, the UK European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, which secured legislative consent from this Chamber, is developing frameworks to ensure that, whatever happens post Brexit, there is a UK single market so we don't have internal barriers between the nations of the UK. Clearly, framework negotiations are paused at the moment until the outcome of the general election is known and we have a new UK Government in place, but what proposals, if we reach that position, does the Welsh Government have for a body to have oversight and, if necessary, enforcement, where the framework for environment, animal safety, food standards and so on is breached? 

Thank you very much for that question, and he highlights, and I'm grateful to him for doing so, the important work that has been going on between Governments in the UK in relation to common frameworks on policy areas that touch upon the internal market if we leave the European Union. There is a subset of that that is specifically about the internal market, which deals with the sorts of issues that are currently dealt with on a regulatory basis as part of the EU single market. The priorities of the Welsh Government in relation to those arrangements are to ensure that Welsh businesses can continue to trade with businesses across the UK, which is a very, very significant market, as he obviously understands, for Welsh businesses, and to ensure that in doing so we are able to maintain the high standards that we would wish to see here for labour rights, social and environmental rights, for example, and also to ensure that the devolution settlement is absolutely protected in those arrangements.

As part of the common frameworks work overall, I have asked officials to look at whether statements by the UK Government that suggest a much, much more deregulatory approach than I'm sure any of us here would be comfortable with are capable of being managed within those existing and planned common frameworks.

On the question of a regulatory body, which his question asks me directly about, it isn't clear at this point whether that is going to be necessary. He will know that our preference has been to ensure that there are inter-governmental relationships, leading ultimately to a council of Ministers across the UK, which are able to manage relationships between the UK Governments, enabling policy divergence to be done on a managed basis. So, that is where the discussion is at this point in time. Obviously, I plan to update the Senedd on developments in this area over the coming weeks and months.

14:25

One of the key areas of cross-border co-operation post Brexit, but actually post general election, is going to be the extent of engagement between Welsh Government, Wales Office Ministers and also Whitehall departments on the issue of funding streams that have a Wales and UK bite. Now, of course, we have scant details at the moment on the UK shared prosperity fund and, during the course of the election and before, it seems to have gone into hiding in some ways, but the results of the issue of investment in research and innovation that comes from a UK level and also previously from an EU level as well—there is the future of Erasmus and Horizon 2020, there is Whitehall department from business, from energy, from infrastructure that flows and could be flowing into Wales.

So, I'd like to ask the Minister: after the general election is out of the way, will he be immediately knocking on the doors not only of the Wales Office just down the road here, but also in Whitehall departments, to get certainty, and not least, I have to say, over the £370 million per annum that is at risk from the loss of the EU fund at the moment, which we're told will be in the UK shared prosperity funding, but, as the Government has said quite clearly, it's not only the question of making sure that money is available to Wales, but that it's given to Wales and that decisions will be made in Wales in line with the policy framework that we have? But that and other aspects need to be bolted down, because this continuing uncertainty—. Whilst the group that I'm chairing is trying to develop this framework on a national and regional level of future funding within Wales, we really need clarity from the UK Government about what they bring to the table. 

Well, I'll thank the Member, if I may, for that question and also for his work chairing the group to which he referred in his question, which is doing very innovative and creative work, I think, in identifying, not least on the basis of international best practice, how we can best deploy regional investment funds into the future. He talks about relationships between the Welsh Government and various departments of the UK Government. It is my experience that, in relation to the areas that he has specified in his question, those discussions have been—to the extent they've been productive at all—more productive in direct discussions with the relevant departments concerned.

He talks about research and innovation, and he will know, I know, how dependent, for example, our higher education sector is on funds from Horizon 2020. It is absolutely the case that we have insisted at every opportunity with the UK Government that we must have full replacement for the funds that we will lose if we leave the European Union. He will, perhaps, have seen observations in the Conservative manifesto that, whilst repeating the broad assertion that we've heard routinely from the UK Government without any substance to date, also implies within it that control of those funds could operate on a UK-wide level. And I know that he shares with me and with most Members in this Chamber an absolute aversion to that way of dealing into the future. It is essential, both from democratic and a devolution point of view, but also from the point of view of effective investment in priorities across Wales, that those decisions in relation to how that funding is spent are done by the Welsh Government, based upon the sort of advice that I know will emerge from the work that his committee is doing.

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

We'll now turn to spokespeople's questions, and the party spokesperson this afternoon for Plaid Cymru, Delyth Jewell. 

Diolch, Dirprwy Lywydd. The Tory mantra for this election is 'Get Brexit done'. We know that's a lie, and what's more, it's now clear that the threat of 'no deal' at the end of 2020 is even greater. Minister, did Boris Johnson or Michael Gove consult with the Welsh Government before telling the press that they have no intention of extending the transition period?

I'm not conscious that that happened and I think she will know that one of our strong concerns about the terms of the deal that the Prime Minister put to Parliament—which I know that she shares—is the fact that there is, as she says in her question, absolutely no prospect in reality of arrangements being put in place by the end of the transition period that we would regard as even remotely acceptable in the context of leaving the European Union. 

14:30

Yes, a very dismaying situation indeed. Minister, you'll know that this afternoon, our Senedd will debate a Plaid Cymru motion on NHS privatisation. In your Government amendments to the motion, you have not deleted clauses that point out that a future post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and the US could well be a disaster for the Welsh NHS. So, I take it that the Government agrees on that point, but it doesn't look like you'll be supporting our solution, which will be, in part, to repeal section 82 of the Government of Wales Act 2006. Now, that section allows the UK Government to essentially ignore devolution when it comes to trade deals. I realise that trade isn't in your portfolio, but you have spoken, in the past, about how section 82 needs to be looked at again, as it was drafted before Brexit. Why wouldn't you support repealing it?

I know that the Member will be familiar with the work of the Institute for Government and its thorough review of the arrangements made by a number of constitutions, a number of states, even those with federal written constitutions, into how they deal with questions of the impact of international agreements on what we would describe here as devolved competence. I will be absolutely clear that she's right to say that I have significant concerns in relation to what we know has emerged from the dossier that has been put into the public domain recently and the mandate that the US Government published in relation to its aspirations from a trade agreement with the UK. It is absolutely clear from that that the UK Government's intention is to seek access to the NHS, and to commercialise it, marketise it and use it to drive up the costs of medicines for the benefit of its own pharmaceutical companies. So, I absolutely share with her the strong anxiety and concern about what appears to be under contemplation.

But, the sort of arrangement that she and the Plaid Cymru motion advocate is, essentially, a veto on international agreements, and our view—and it's articulated, I think, comprehensively, most recently in the document that the First Minister published about the reform of the constitution at large—is that, in common with, I think, all other federal constitutions, not that I claim that ours is federal, apart from the constitution of Belgium, the appropriate mechanism for dealing with that is to provide an embedded mechanism for states that are not the equivalent of the federal state in those constitutions to genuinely influence the mandate and the negotiation of those agreements. And I think that is the better way for us to proceed in relation to this question. 

Thank you for that explanation, Minister. I'm not surprised that you share our concern about the situation, and I would urge you, please, to reconsider supporting our solution as well to this in the debate this afternoon. But, you've mentioned already that another part of the proposals that we put forward in our motion relates to us having a veto on trade deals, and you've also referred to the fact that there is a precedent for this in Wallonia in Belgium. That is a region of Belgium. Minister, if I could put it to you: if the region of Wallonia in Belgium has a right to protect its citizens by having a veto on trade deals, and they've only used it once; it's not some kind of glib measure that they use all the time, but if the region of Belgium has that right, why, Minister, do you not think that the nation of Wales should have the same?

Because I don't regard the constitutional arrangements of Belgium has remotely comparable to the constitution of the United Kingdom. And the position that she's advocating is consistent with the question of independence, and that's where the question starts and ends, and she knows that these benches to not support that constitutional objective.

I will just point out to her that the example that is most often held up as an exemplar of the involvement of, as they are often described, sub-state Governments in the negotiation of arrangements with the European Union, is the Canadian example, where some of the provinces of Canada were effectively directly involved in those negotiations. Canada's constitution, as I understand it, does not reflect the principles that she is advocating, and Plaid Cymru are advocating in their motion today, and yet, the provinces in that example were involved in those discussions. And those are the sorts of arrangements that we think are substantively effective, and that is what we should focus on. We have repeatedly called on the UK Government to put in place a pragmatic and sensible set of arrangements that would allow us significant involvement in agreeing the mandate. 

And I will also say that, from the point of view of our European Union partners, they recognise very well that there are implications as to how the contents of relationships in the future are implemented and given reality within the devolved constitution of the United Kingdom. So, our argument is, it's in the interest of the UK Government, and its credibility in those discussions, for our Government to have a voice in settling those mandates and negotiations.

14:35

Diolch, Llywydd. The Minister might recall, I think correctly, that both he and I actually discussed that last matter with the Flemish Government in Brussels.

A week ahead of the UK general election, it's understandable that you would refer disparagingly, as you did a few moments ago, to the UK Conservative manifesto. But nonetheless, will you at least cautiously welcome the statement within it, that the UK shared prosperity fund will be used to bind together the whole of the United Kingdom, and that, in Wales, there will be no loss of equivalent funding?

The UK Government has been long on statements and short on action. And we have been repeatedly clear that what we want is not broad blandishments, but delivery. And the UK Government operates under the misapprehension, in relation to the shared prosperity fund, that what it has been doing to date (a) properly engages the Welsh Government and Welsh interests in the design of that, and (b) is remotely respecting the devolution settlement. So, whilst I read the line in the manifesto, I gave it no more credibility than the numerous other occasions on which it's been used, with no consequence.

Well, I'll tell you what the Conservative Party has given details on: we will guarantee that Wales does not miss out on a penny of funding; we will match funding for agriculture throughout the next UK Parliament; and most importantly, we will actually deliver on the Brexit that the people of Wales voted for and continue to support.

Your UK manifesto tells us how you don't want funding to be allocated, but doesn't give us any idea on how you would allocate funding—Labour muddying the waters in the hope that the people of Wales don't notice that you're betraying Brexit because you don't want to deliver it. So, if you wouldn't mind providing detail, from your perspective, what proposals do you and your party have to replace the way that funding is allocated after the UK leaves the EU?

Well, I'll refer him to the contents of the document we published at the end of 2017, which describes our vision for the future of regional funding in Wales and the work of the steering group that Huw Irranca-Davies chairs, which was the subject of our previous exchange and which has led to very interesting, I think, interim proposals. We've been really clear about what the priorities are that we wish to see, as a Government, out of future regional investment in Wales—it's to support sustainable communities, productive businesses, a zero-carbon economy, and to promote equalities throughout Wales, and to do that on a basis where the national, the regional, and the local work together to deliver this most effectively on the ground.

I will say, I hear repeatedly examples from the UK Government of how regional policy has worked effectively in England. I fear if that is the model that the UK Government has in mind across the UK, because it has repeatedly been found—not least by the Public Accounts Committee in Parliament—that the way the local enterprise companies, for example, across England have approached the question of regional investment has been woefully inadequate. And I fear that is what the Conservatives have in mind for Wales.

Well, I was referring to your UK party manifesto, which does not give any idea on how they would allocate the funding. So, it would appear that they either haven't read your document or don't agree with it.

But you stated, quite rightly, that Wales must not lose any equivalent funding as a result of leaving the EU and that all decisions regarding this funding must continue to be taken in Wales, as at present. However, at present, it's a requirement of all European funding awards that projects are able to provide full evidence to support all of their expenditure and project activity. Therefore, the Welsh European Funding Office needs to collate and analyse the information and statistics gathered from individual projects, because that European funding is public money, and all projects are subject to a level of audit and verification to ensure both eligibility of expenditure and activities, with checks against programme guidance and individual grant and contract awards, and even the possibility that money could be reclaimed.

So, when we leave the EU, what proposals do you have in place, to ensure that a replacement system is ready to go, with a Welsh UK funding office able to provide full evidence to support all of this expenditure and project activity in accordance with UK single market rules that, by then, hopefully, the four Governments will have agreed to?

14:40

Well, I commend the Member for engaging with the detail of this in a way in which his parliamentary colleagues in Westminster have seemed to refuse to do with the Welsh Government. 

I will just point him to the two strands of work that we've discussed in this Chamber on a number of occasions. One is the work, again, which is the work of the steering group that Huw Irranca-Davies is chairing, which has representations from across all sectors in Wales. And the second piece of work that is germane to this is the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's review that the First Minister commissioned when he was Finance Minister, which is intended to inform, using best practice from other parts of the world, how we develop and deploy regional funds into the future.

We are absolutely committed to, as his question challenges us, deliver a system that is responsive, flexible, integrateable and also attaches the right weight to the question of audit and transparency, which his question identifies. And we hope that that work will lead us to be able to consult in the new year in greater detail in relation to those. But there is a very, very advanced set of work streams, dealing with exactly the sort of questions that he is raising in his own question, and all I would say is I would repeat the request that I've made to the UK Government to engage with us on this. We are really very advanced in our considerations here and we wish that they would engage with us properly on this question rather than continue to give us the promises that they have failed to deliver on so far.

'No Deal' Brexit

3. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding planning for a no-deal Brexit? OAQ54791

The Welsh Government has engaged regularly with the UK Government at ministerial and at official level to ensure that Wales is as prepared as possible for a potentially catastrophic 'no deal' Brexit. We have always been clear that we do not support a 'no deal' outcome, but have a responsibility to prepare.

Well, there is no such thing, of course, as a good 'no deal' Brexit. It would be disastrous for Wales. We know that it would do enormous harm to the industries that rely on trade deals with the EU, that our precious NHS is probably up for sale, and that our security and the environment and workers' rights will all be negatively impacted. Yet, the Tory Government will not rule it out; they leave a 'no deal' firmly on the table. 

On the other hand, the UK Labour Government is the only party that does offer the people of Wales and the whole of the UK a democratic way out of this mess by removing the threat of a 'no deal' Brexit, negotiating a better deal and giving that back to the people in a choice to either accept that deal or to remain in the EU. And Welsh Labour would campaign to remain in the event of that referendum. So, do you agree with me that the people of Wales must have the final say on Brexit?

I do agree with that, and I agree with the Member that a Labour Government in Westminster would be taking a 'no deal' Brexit off the table, because I agree with her that there is no such thing as a good 'no deal' Brexit. But I think she and I also agree that there is no such thing as a good Brexit, and therefore, in that situation, if we had the opportunity of a referendum, I know that she and I will be campaigning together, as will all Members on these benches, to remain in the European Union.

The Impact of Holding Another Referendum on Brexit on the Welsh Economy

4. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the impact that holding another referendum on Brexit will have on the Welsh economy? OAQ54796

The threat of Brexit has stunted the growth of the economy and removing that threat would undoubtedly provide an economic stimulus. In 'A brighter future for Wales’, we set out the evidence of why Wales’s best interests are protected by remaining in the European Union.

Thank you for that answer, Minister. It's a shame for Wales that you and your Government and your brethren across the border want to continue the uncertainty that's afflicting Welsh businesses because you and your remainer allies in the Liberal Democrats and Plaid didn't get your own way in 2016. Labour have said that you would campaign to stay in if there were another referendum. You want the choice to be between Brexit in name only and remain—that's just a referendum rigged for remain.

All the scaremongering didn't work on the electorate, so now you've been forced to be blatant about your disregard for the democratic will of the British people and the Welsh people. So, with your aim being not just to delay Brexit but to reverse Brexit, do you think that voters will understand that voting Labour is exactly the same as voting for the Lib Dems or Plaid?

14:45

I find it astonishing that the Member, who represents a part of Wales that has benefited so much from membership of the European Union and which continues to rely on employment opportunities that are supported by membership of the European Union, takes such a cavalier approach in relation to this fundamental economic question. And she invites us to look at a world where the cause of uncertainty is our policy here, where we absolutely know that the kind of hard or 'no deal' Brexit that she advocates would just mean that we'd be having conversations about Brexit in this Chamber for the next decade and beyond.

The notion that the kind of Brexit she wants to see draws to an end uncertainty rather than ushering in decades of continuing uncertainty is completely fictitious. The only way of drawing a line under this is to put this matter back to the public and to campaign and succeed in the campaign to remain.

I think Michelle Brown saying there, 'How do you know what kind of Brexit I want?' shows quite clearly that there's uncertainty even amongst the benches of those who are here because of Brexit. They don't know what they're after.

But the truth of the matter is—I'm sure you'd agree with me, Minister—that at least a referendum allows the people of Wales to look at the evidence that we have now that we didn't have in 2016 in order to make a judgment on what's best for us. And, yes, of course, there are different assessments of what Brexit could do to the economy, and would you as a Minister agree with me that what we have in those different assessments is that it could be bad, very bad, or terribly bad?

Yes. I think the Member hits the nail on the head—the opportunity of putting the question back to the public allows people to evaluate the evidence as it now sits before us. And we are no longer talking about the speculative consequences of seeking to leave the European Union; we are already talking about the real-life consequences and we haven't actually left yet. So, we know that the economy is 2.5 per cent smaller than it otherwise would be. We had analysis recently that supports that. We know that business investment is about 26 per cent under trend, and that isn't numbers on a page; that is jobs, livelihoods and money in people's pockets.

And he is right to say that even on the UK Government's own analysis, even its best version of its deal, has a significant adverse impact on the economy. It is extraordinary to me that a UK Government could advocate a course of action that, on its own figures, causes damage to the economy of the UK.

The Status of EU Foreign Nationals

5. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with the UK Government regarding the status of EU foreign nationals residing in Cardiff Central, in the event of the UK leaving the EU in the next couple of months? OAQ54795

We have regular communication at ministerial and official level with the UK Government about the EU settled status scheme and the status of EU nationals resident here. While the scheme is not the kind of arrangement we would ideally wish to see in place, we are doing everything we can to ensure that EU citizens in Cardiff and elsewhere are applying for settled status.

Thank you. This week, I spoke to a family—one of them is Welsh, the other is Polish—both of them are working in the national health service as well as looking after two small children. They're worried that they could be split up if Brexit happens, obviously bearing in mind what had happened with the Windrush residents. I understand why they are so anxious about this, and they're not the only constituents who have such concerns.

I appreciate that the Welsh Government has got some good information online about how people should be applying for settled status, including a video taking people through the process, which is obviously very useful. But how do we ensure that all EU citizens are able and are aware of ensuring that they know how to apply for the settled status and are supported to ensure that they get it? Because I have other constituents whose literacy levels are not very good. They are not necessarily working, but they may have lived here for a very, very long time, and to send them back to some country that they might have been born in seems unbelievably inappropriate. So, I just wondered what conversations you've had, or what assurances you've had, from this outgoing Conservative Government that we won't see happening to European citizens what happened to Windrush victims, who were turfed out of this country and sent abroad, never to see their children or grandchildren again because they were too poor to come back?

14:50

Well, I thank the Member for highlighting that particular situation for us, and I think that she describes circumstances that—. I'm sure most of us will have had constituents coming to us with this level of anxiety and concern in their own different personal circumstances. She will know that we have, as a Government, although this is a reserved matter, and a matter for the Home Office to promote, been putting Welsh Government resources into seeking to make sure that people understand, and are supported in applying for, the EU settled status scheme.

She mentions the video that I've retweeted through my Government Twitter feed today, which explains on a very basic basis to people how they can apply online. I would also refer her and other Members to the eusswales.com website, which brings together all of the resources and sources of support and advice that EU citizens living in Wales can seek in order to support them in applying for settled status.

But I think that, implicit in her question, is a concern that says, 'Well, not everyone lives their life online, perhaps, or will have identified the need to take this action.' And I think that that's absolutely a very real concern. In order to try and address that cohort of people, which could be quite significant, we have sought to distribute posters and leaflets through a range of channels. Some of the work that EYST, and Settled, which were previously called the3million, have been doing as part of that EUSS Wales co-ordination group has been seeking to identify informal networks of different EU citizens' communities. So, looking at where information can be made available in food shops, in cafes, in churches and other social groups, to try and use those fora to raise awareness.

I think you said that one of your constituents worked in the NHS, and there has been an effort to raise awareness among the NHS workforce—obviously, a material number of those are EU citizens—so that they understand what support is available to them from the Welsh Government.     

The Implications of Brexit for the Welsh NHS

6. What assessment has the Counsel General made of the implications of Brexit for the Welsh NHS? OAQ54797

Brexit has a range of implications for health and social care services, both in the short and long term. At all times, the overriding priority of the Welsh Government will be to safeguard and protect the interests of the Welsh NHS, its patients and the wider public.

Thank you, Minister. You referred in your earlier answer to Delyth Jewell to the dossier that was uncovered last week by the Labour Party. That dossier laid bare the fact that our NHS is very much up for sale in any UK-US trade talks. Do you share my concern that if Brexit goes ahead under a Tory Government, we will very much risk the commercialisation and marketisation of our NHS, and would you agree with me that the only way to prevent that is by remaining in the European Union and kicking this Tory Government out?

Absolutely. I would endorse 100 per cent what the Member has just said. An incoming Conservative Government would put the NHS on the table in trade talks with Donald Trump. I'm absolutely not assured, as I know that she won't be either, by the attempts by the US President to throw us off that particular scent, which I think is obvious to all of us.

The dossier, as I understand it, relates to conversations between UK and US officials that predated the publication of the US negotiating mandate. So, that mandate, if you have read it, absolutely says nowhere that health services are taken off the table, as the UK Government now seems to be seeking to persuade us. It goes out of its way to talk about access for pharmaceutical markets to the UK. That can only mean one thing in the context of the UK healthcare system. So, I absolutely agree with her. Either the UK Government has not taken this off the table, or it has not done half enough to make the US Government clearly understand that there is no way that the NHS is going to be up for negotiation, and absolutely I agree with her that we must make sure there is no incoming Conservative Government that would put the NHS up for sale. 

14:55

Thank you. Question 7 [OAQ54794] has been withdrawn and question 8 [OAQ54801] has been withdrawn. Therefore, question 9, Vikki Howells.

The Shared Prosperity Fund

9. Will the Counsel General provide an update on discussions regarding the future working of the shared prosperity fund? OAQ54783

We are deeply concerned that Conservative Party proposals for this fund threaten to undermine devolution and the work under way in Wales. When a new UK Government is formed, we will reinforce our positions for funding in full and for the Welsh Government to retain autonomy on how to spend it.

Thank you, Counsel General. A successor scheme to European structural funding is absolutely crucial to the Welsh economy, and this was underlined again just two weeks ago in a joint statement by Universities Wales, CollegesWales, the National Union of Students Wales, the Learning and Work Institute, the Federation of Small Businesses, the South Wales Chamber of Commerce, the University and College Union and the Wales Council for Voluntary Action. All of these signatories agree and build a strong case that Welsh prosperity is vitally underpinned by this funding. They also strongly argue that any spending decisions on the successor programme must be made in Wales. Do you agree with me that this is fundamental if the devolved settlement is to be respected?

I do agree with you on that, and I think the list that you have read out of organisations and bodies in Wales who are concerned about the prospect of the failure of the UK Government to live up to the broad promises that it has made in this area shows, I think, the breadth and depth and unity of perspective across Wales in relation to this question. This is not a minority view. It is a very widely held concern in all sectors across Wales, and it's important, I think, that we continue to speak with one voice in relation to this question. I wrote to the UK Government a few weeks ago, making it absolutely clear I did not regard the way that they were approaching discussions around the shared prosperity fund as in any way respecting the devolution settlement, and making it clear that if they wish to proceed with consultation on the prosperity fund it should be done on a wholly devolved basis, so they would consult in England and we would consult as a Welsh Government in relation to arrangements here in Wales. I've made that request a number of times and I have not had an answer that confirms that is what they will do, and I think if that is the means by which the UK Government seeks to take this forward, that will fundamentally not be in Welsh interests and it will be a breach of the promise they've made repeatedly.

3. Topical Questions

Item 3 on the agenda is topical questions. There are two this afternoon. The first is to be answered by the Minister for Economy and Transport. David Rees.

Tata Steel

1. Will the Minister provide an update following the announcement by Tata Steel of 1,000 job losses in the UK? 372

Yes, of course. This announcement is extremely disappointing news and this will be a very worrying time for Tata Steel employees and their families. I'm continuing to engage with the company and with trade unions to understand what this means for the business in Wales and the many thousands of loyal people employed across its sites.

I thank the Minister for that answer. Only three weeks ago we heard the news from Tata that they were announcing 3,000 job losses across Europe, and I very much appreciated your written statement on 18 November and your oral statement on 19 November. We're three weeks on and we now get another statement that is as vague, in one sense, as the first statement. In the oral statement on 19 November you actually said the company would work over the next few months, where they would be identifying the job functions, and yet three weeks later we have this announcement that 1,000 will be in the UK. I just wondered whether you were aware of what made them change their minds as to make a further announcement in such a short space of time.

I make no apologies today, Minister, for repeating many of the things we said two, three weeks ago, because they are important issues that Members in this Chamber want answers to, and, more importantly, steelworkers and their families want answers to. As you say, there's uncertainty for steelworkers. In 2016, just after Christmas, we saw announcements from Tata that put steelworkers under threat. Just before Christmas now, in 2019, we see similar announcements, putting steelworkers and their families in uncertainty, with possibilities of job losses in months to come. Do you agree with me that this is a poor way of actually behaving to the workers—as you identified, loyal workers who have been dedicated and given commitment to that industry to ensure that it remains a sustainable, viable industry as best they can?

You've indicated again that you've talked to the trade unions. Have you had a commitment from Tata that the memorandum of understanding that they signed with the trade unions will be honoured so that no compulsory redundancies will be given to workers, because they gave up a commitment in their pension schemes to allow that agreement to be in place?

Have you any more detail as to where those job losses might be? A thousand in the UK. There are 8,000 approximately in Tata UK. The bulk of those, if not nearly all of them, are in Wales. So, this is clearly going to have an implication for Welsh steel jobs. And therefore, it is important that you look at the question as to where these jobs lie and the areas you need to work to to help those communities.

Again, we talked about supply chains, because if jobs go in Tata there's a likelihood that supply chains or contractors and those coming in to do the other jobs are going to be impacted upon. Have you done an analysis and had discussions with Tata about what impact there will be upon its supply chains?

Minister, you also highlighted the fact that there were four areas they picked on in that original letter earlier in November. Employment costs was just one of them. Have you had discussions on the other three, as to how they intend to look at producing a better product mix? How do they intend to reduce procurement costs? What optimisation or production processes will be involved? And will they be looking for help in those areas? Have those discussions yet started?

And do you remain assured that, actually, these job losses will not take place until March 2021, considering that two weeks after the original one we get an update of 1,000 job losses in the UK? When will we have an update as to where those job losses will be? Port Talbot has over half the employees of Tata UK. I cannot see how a large proportion of that 1,000 jobs will not be in Port Talbot. They are constituents of mine, they are friends of mine, they are family of mine.

We need to understand what this means for the community and those workers and their families. Time is going on, they're coming out with these glib comments and large notices of large job losses, but not detail. No-one's telling us where they will lie, no-one's telling us what job functions, what areas, other than 'two-third white collar, one-third blue collar'. That means nothing to many workers. It could be anybody in the works. It is important that we get this detail and it's important now that they communicate with their workforce so they can reassure them as to where it lands.

15:00

Can I thank Dai Rees for this topical question? Much of what he's impressed upon us today has been echoed by the European Works Council and the trade unions who are stating very clearly that they wish to have a meaningful consultation with Tata over the coming weeks and months, and that in order to have that meaningful consultation, they need access to as much detail as possible as soon as possible.

Dirprwy Lywydd, after the announcement, there were some comments that I kept hearing about, 'Well, there's a silver lining to this in that two thirds of the jobs are going to be white collar, they're going to be office based.' Look, these are jobs, these are people. Regardless of whether they're working on the shop floor or in an office, these people face losing their livelihoods. And regardless of whether they are white collar or blue collar, we are sympathetic to the position that they're in, and we will stand by them in helping them in whatever way, shape or form we can.

It will be an extremely difficult period for many, many people who will be questioning whether they'll have a job come March 2021 in Tata. The latest announcement adds little more to the announcement from 18 November. Essentially, it confirms the speculation that was taking place back in the middle of November, when the company announced that there would be up to 3,000 job losses across Europe. And at that point, there was a lot of speculation emerging that around 1,600 could be in the Netherlands and a further 350 elsewhere. So, people were then assuming that it would be around about 1,000 here in the UK. The announcement, essentially, confirms that, but it adds no more detail about the jobs or the location of the jobs that could be affected. We have been told again that the work that will take place between now and the new year will be on a role-by-role basis so that by February of next year, we will know not just what jobs face being lost, but also the location of those jobs.

We are keeping open the option of a taskforce to assist. If there is a concentration of jobs lost at any one site, then certainly a taskforce would be a sensible means of supporting those affected workers, and so we are going to keep that as a live option.

In terms of supply chain implications, we're working through this right now. I've previously informed Members that there will be a special manufacturing summit taking place in the new year. The supply chain for the steel industry will of course be a key concern at that summit. By the time of the summit taking place, we hope to have been able to conduct a thorough analysis of the implications of this particular announcement for those locations in and around the existing Tata sites in Wales. I have spoken briefly to Tata steel regarding the other areas where they are seeking to achieve cost savings, including the development of a better product mix and the reduction in procurement costs and the costs of goods and services through more effective and efficient procurement regimes.

I should just say that the date of March 2021 is the end date by which the implementation of this transformation programme concerning employees will have been completed. My concern in 2020 will be in ensuring that there is a seamless transition for anybody who could be out of work by 2021 into other high-quality well-paid employment in the region.

And I'd finally, Dirprwy Lywydd, congratulate Dai Rees on representing the steel sector, and in particular those workers at Port Talbot, with such energy over many years. We have had numerous conversations, we have stood side by side on many occasions in demanding a better deal for the steel sector in Wales, and it's only right that we now once again call on the UK Government to do so and to agree to a steel sector deal that could be transformational for the sector, and to ensure that it deals, once and for all, with making sure that those uncompetitive energy prices are resolved.

15:05

Thank you for those answers, Minister. I wonder if I can just sort of push you a little bit further on some of the questions you had from David Rees. I just want to start with your last comments though, about March 2021 being the end date for this transformation programme. It's very convenient, isn't it, that that's basically at the end of the five-year guarantee on jobs that we've been given by Tata, and potentially the end of the taskforce and the £60 million offer that you've made to Tata as well? I'm wondering whether you've had any indication from Tata themselves that one of the reasons perhaps they're not doing this more quickly is because of the offer that Welsh Government has made to them over the years, or whether it's something slightly more cynical than that, that they're getting the best out of us that they can before they actually just cut and run.

I'd be grateful as well if you could give us some indication of exactly how much you've known and at what times during the last three weeks or so. As you know, I've written to you a few times and been told, 'Well, you know, the information is coming, but we don't know what.' I think, to be fair, I've had something from you today that says that further information will be available in February 2020 from Tata. 

But, I'll go back to David Rees's questions about where the analysis of what types of jobs are going and where is in all this, because it's easy enough to make these announcements, but without telling us how they concluded which types of jobs are to go, then we should be asking why you're making these announcements at all. Because if you're talking about—. I think you said employment costs were the reason for the announcement being made. We should have some idea which jobs they're actually talking about. And I'm very conscious of course that, back in 2016, some of the jobs that went in the big set of losses there were themselves white-collar workers. There probably aren't that many left in Port Talbot Tata. 

Then finally, I just wanted to ask you, it's not so long ago you told us that you were going to meet Tata about your climate emergency announcement. Have you had any indication from Tata at all whether that has influenced what is likely to be some bad news for Wales? And if they have given you an indication of whether that was a factor, what have you done in order to reassure Tata that that shouldn't be something that they take into account in their commitment to Wales in the future? Thank you.

Can I thank Suzy Davies for her questions? The declaration of a climate emergency has not been a factor in their decision making. Tata themselves recognise that they need to respond to the climate emergency, that they need to make savings in terms of energy costs, and that they need to ensure that they're decarbonising their footprint. We've been working with them, as the Member is aware, on the offer of £8 million of investment in Port Talbot's power plant and also on £666,000 for research and development into new product development. Now, we were making very good progress in these talks in terms of making sure that the conditions were adequate, particularly those concerning the protection of jobs. We were, in turn, very close to reaching an agreement on conditions earlier this year. But, since then, we know what's happened.

There have been a number of announcements, including the collapse of the proposed joint venture with Thyssenkrupp; there's the proposed closure of Orb and now the latest announcement. That has held up the finalisation of an agreement on conditions, but we will not release that money until we are confident that it offers value for money, that investment, and that it will lead to jobs being protected for a good number of years. We are absolutely determined to use our financial resource to guarantee jobs are protected and that investment is protected in Welsh sites.

The Member asks about the time frame for analysing the functions that could be lost as a consequence of the announcement. The detail that we have from Tata is simply that they will be looking at two thirds of the jobs coming from management and office-based roles. We will be meeting with them again very soon, and officials are in very regular contact, in an effort to get a better assessment of precisely what roles could be lost, so that we can begin the process of building support systems for the people most likely to lose their employment.

In terms of the long-term future of Tata, it's been repeatedly said to me by Tata that these measures, the transformation programme, are designed to ensure the long-term survivability of the steel sector, or rather the Tata operations within the steel sector in the UK, and that it will release investment for those sites in Wales and across the border as well. I have no reason not to believe that this is absolutely true. I believe that Tata are acting in good faith when they assure me that this is about investing in the future of those facilities. Nonetheless, I would urge Tata to ensure that they consult meaningfully and engage properly with trade unions in ensuring that every bit of support that can be offered to employees is provided. 

15:10

I know that many of the questions have been asked but I know, from my perspective, I don't appreciate the drip, drip of information that is coming about in this way, especially in the lead-up to Christmas. It's not progressive of the company to do this and it's also eroding the confidence of the workforce. As I said last time, it's all been pretty secretive. Many of the people talking to me are not getting any clear information about what is happening. I e-mailed Tata when they sent the press release out to us, asking for the breakdown for Wales. Surely, if they've made a breakdown for the UK, which has emanated from the European job-loss breakdown, they can come up with some form of figure for Wales so that we can actually put heads together and try to understand how this will impact Wales. So, while they may have put a lot of resource into the local area—and without a doubt, they have—I think the trust in the company will erode if they're going to continue to act in this manner. 

I just wanted to say, from the last time, I think you misconstrued my question a tiny bit with regard to the investment. I wasn't saying we shouldn't invest but I'm saying, as has been reflected by what Suzy Davies said, if we are putting investment in, we need to be 100 per cent clear that plans are going to go ahead, as you've said, Minister, for the future retention of those plants here in Wales. So, my question is: how confident are you that we can get to those agreements so that we can ensure that agreements we've made between Plaid Cymru and the Labour Party, in terms of the power plant and investment that we need, can go ahead in this very precarious environment? Not only are we in the dark, but the people who work there are in the dark as well, and we are not in a good situation to be able to scrutinise effectively in those particular predicaments.

I think most of the questions have been asked already, but I would urge you, with whoever is in existence in the UK Government, whether it's officials or the Prime Minister, to look at how we can reconvene the steel workforce planning on a UK level, so that we can work together on this and make sure that the future of the steel industry is alive and kicking in Wales, as opposed to being eroded time and time again. 

15:15

The Member is absolutely right, this is a UK-wide problem. There are many factors that are global, which are, to an extent, out of the UK Government's control, but where the UK Government can have an influence, it must influence the conditions that would provide a more certain future for steel making in the UK. I am not waiting for the end of the general election period to liaise with UK Government. I wrote on 25 November to the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy asking her to urgently reconvene the cancelled UK Steel roundtable that the Member rightly mentioned. It's my view that talks are necessary right now. We can't wait until the new year for discussions to talk place, because the ground that we are standing on is shifting on a daily basis, with announcements such as this creating more and more uncertainty for people employed in the sector.

The announcement was very broad; it was very much a headline figure of up to 3,000, with no detail added to it. And as a consequence, the up to 3,000 jobs demonstrates that that figure of 3,000 is not fixed, and that's why I believe that consultation has to take place in a meaningful and urgent way with trade unions to ascertain whether there are ways of reducing that figure and, in particular, whether we can reduce the figure announced for the UK and specifically here in Wales.

Thank you very much. Thank you, Minister. The second topical question this afternoon will be answered by the Deputy Minister and the Chief Whip. Leanne Wood.

The Terror Attack in London

2. What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the threat to Welsh citizens following the terror attack in London last Friday? 373

Welsh Government has received no intelligence to suggest a direct threat to Welsh citizens, but the UK threat level remains substantial. We're continuing to work closely with the police, UK Government departments and other services that are responding to the tragic events of last Friday.

I want to start by paying tribute to the two young people murdered on London Bridge last week, Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt, and to the values that they stood for. The courageous words of Jack Merritt's father were, in the circumstances, inspirational. And I'm sure that I speak for all Members here and others throughout Wales when I say that we feel for the family and close friends, and that all of us will want to do what we can to reduce the likelihood of a tragedy like this repeating itself.

I've a number of questions for our Government. The first is a matter that falls within the devolution settlement, and that's education. Can you tell us what initiatives are in place to combat far-right extremism in all its forms, especially where violence is a risk? How is supremacist ideology, which puts people above those that they 'other', whether that's in terms of skin colour, nationality, religion or anything else, being challenged within our education system? How are teachers and youth workers trained to ensure that this sensitive and difficult work is done? How are these supremacist ideologies being challenged within the prison education system, for both those people serving terror-related offences within Welsh prisons and for those Welsh prisoners serving their sentences in England?

I'd also like to know what representations are being made to your counterparts in Westminster about the cuts to the National Probation Service and the failures in assessment and monitoring of former inmates released on licence that this latest terror incident has exposed. Are these failures related to austerity and privatisation?

I very much hope that you are already asking these questions and that you are doing all that you can to realise the ongoing demand for the criminal justice system to be devolved to Wales as quickly as possible, so that we can create a system focused on preventing these horrific, violent and ideology-driven incidents, and in keeping people in all of our communities safe.

I thank Leanne Wood very much for that question, and can I also join her and extend our deepest sympathies to the families of Saskia Jones and Jack Merritt? You're absolutely right, and I'm sure that it's shared across this Chamber. It is about the fact that we feel, as you say so powerfully, for the family and close friends. And also, they were killed on Friday in the attack in the Fishmongers' Hall in London, but also we recognise the huge courage, extraordinary courage, and bravery of members of the public. It was Jack Merritt, we understood, who went out—a young man who was working with offenders. He was at an event—the Learning Together programme. The fact that he went out, and that ex-offenders were also involved in trying to protect the public people working in Fishmongers' Hall—astonishing courage that we saw at this appalling incident. But it is very important that we do learn from this incident, and I'm very grateful for the question today because I think your first point, about education, is absolutely crucial and I'm glad the education Minister is in the Chamber.

Interestingly, last week I met the commissioner for countering extremism to discuss the findings from her report—Sara Khan—'Challenging Hateful Extremism'. It's a report I'll share with the Chamber that they very recently published. We have been working alongside the Welsh Local Government Association to develop a £350,000 hate crime in schools project. This is about building children's critical thinking skills, recognising and challenging hate speech online or offline. Good practice has been recognised in 2018 by the hate crime inspection report. Regional community cohesion is also extremely important. As you'll be aware—Members are aware that we've invested additional funding through the EU transition fund to support our community cohesion regions.

I will follow up your question about the prison education system. I'm shortly going to be visiting both Swansea and Cardiff. I've also visited the prisons HMP Eastwood Park and Styal—women's prisons—but I'm visiting the prisons in Wales and I will be asking questions and have asked questions about the prison education system there. We have to be responsible in terms of our devolved responsibilities in terms of those services, and, again, that's something in terms of working with the education Minister, but also recognising the important report that was recently published about prison education and recognising the recommendations that we've got to now follow through.

Making representations to Westminster in terms of the cuts to our services, the impact of austerity, and, of course, that's very clear in terms of the damage to Wales, including the justice system—. I have to say, again, as you will be clearly aware, that the cuts to legal aid as well as the crisis in our criminal justice system have left our communities less safe, victims less supported and people less able to defend their rights, and that's why our justice commission is so important, the Thomas commission. And I think, importantly, the issues about the probation service and the fact that we have fought hard to reunify the probation service—that is now happening. We do have an opportunity to help shape the future direction of the probation services and that reunification is taking place sooner in Wales than it is in England, and I will certainly want to report back on that because that is taking place. And I, of course, am meeting regularly with UK justice Ministers and clarifying the transition and the impact of that transition following the UK general election.

15:20
4. 90-second Statements

Item 4 on the agenda are the 90-second statements. We have two this week. The first one—Helen Mary Jones. 

Thank you, Dirprwy Lywydd. This year sees the tenth anniversary of the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel, a coalition of 35 organisations across Wales who work with the sub-Saharan and African diaspora communities. The organisations do a wide range of work. Some of them support new citizens who've arrived here in Wales. Some of them work raising funds and resources and providing support to communities in the countries from which their family has come.

We welcome today their Welsh-African Diaspora Development Day to our National Assembly, to our Senedd, and I've been delighted to be asked to host this event. Ten of the organisations will have stalls here and will have an opportunity to show their work to their representatives. There'll performances, guest speakers, and I'm particularly grateful that the Minister for overseas matters has agreed to speak at what will be a very important event.

The Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel will be launching their report today of their work over the last 10 years and looking forward and looking ahead to the next 10 years of their important work here in Wales. I'm delighted that they're able to do so here in the home of our democracy, and it's a great opportunity for us, here in our Senedd, to reconfirm to the over 17,000 citizens of Wales with African roots who live in our nation how much we value their contribution to the vibrant, inclusive, outward-looking nation that we are working together to build.

15:25

As we approach Christmas, the busiest time of year for shopping, I want to salute the Welsh high street. There are fantastic examples out there of how a town centre can draw people in and lock money into a local economy. Treorchy high street is a great example. Its vibrancy and attractiveness has been recognised in a competition to find the best high street in the UK. The shortlisters for this competition were impressed by the fact that 80 per cent of its businesses in Treorchy are independent boutique stores and that 10 new businesses have opened on the high street over the past two years, and people want to support them. Voting has now closed and the winner will be announced in the new year. I wish the Treorchy bid all the very best, and if we win, it'll be richly deserved. In the future, I would like to have help given to all of our high streets in the Rhondda so that they can follow the successful model that has been laid out by Treorchy.

Will people give pause for thought about where they buy their Christmas food and presents this year? Now, I know that there are some things that can't be bought in a small town, but there is plenty that can. Many small businesses live and die by their performance over Christmas, so please, everyone, consider this year how much you can think global and shop local.

5. Debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee Report: Community and District Nursing Services

Item 5 on our agenda this afternoon is the debate on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee's report: community and district nursing services. And I call on the Chair of the committee to move that motion—Dai Lloyd.

Motion NDM7210 Dai Lloyd

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

Notes the report of the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee: Community and district nursing services, which was laid in the Table Office on 21 August 2019.

Motion moved.

Thank you very much, Deputy Presiding Officer. I'm pleased to open the debate today on the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee's report on community and district nursing services This is the fourth in the series of spotlight inquiries recently undertaken by the committee.

The committee undertook a one-day inquiry into the activity of district nurse-led community nursing teams and the quality of nursing care provided to people in their own homes. At this point, I'd like to acknowledge the cross-party group on nursing and midwifery, as it was through their work that this inquiry came to fruition, and to acknowledge the leadership of David Rees.

The changing nature of healthcare provision and the move to provide more care outside the hospital setting means that the role of community nurses has become increasingly demanding. There is an acknowledgement that these community nursing teams can contribute to healthcare in the future, but the information about that is very scarce. There is no accurate picture of the number and skill mix of nursing teams. We don't know how many people are receiving care in their own homes or the level of care they need. It's also not clear how community nursing teams' activity is measured and reported, or how the quality and safety of services is monitored. Indeed, we were alarmed to hear community nurses describe themselves as the 'invisible service'.

The Royal College of Nursing told us that two thirds of its members work in the community, meeting the needs of elderly, disabled, and vulnerable patients who may otherwise struggle to visit a hospital. The move towards ever-greater delivery of health services in the community has increased people’s expectations of being able to access treatment in this way, and advances in medicine have made this a reality. Witnesses told us that people already expect to be able to receive extremely complex treatment in their own homes. Demand is likely to increase as a result of earlier discharge from hospital, keeping people at home to avoid unnecessary hospital admissions, and more people having complex and multiple conditions.

Community nursing teams act as a valuable link between acute services and primary care and promote independent living. It is therefore worrying to hear that nurses are finding it increasingly difficult to meet these increasing demands on them. The Welsh Government must therefore ensure that the crucial role of community nursing in the future delivery of healthcare is properly recognised in its workforce planning, nurse recruitment and training, and that's recommendation 1.

Turning to children's community nurses: the message from witnesses is that there must be an increase in the number of children's community nurses. According to the Royal College of Nursing, an average-sized district with a child population of 50,000 needs at least 20 full-time equivalent community children's nurses to provide a holistic children's community nursing service. This is partly due to the growing number of children with complex needs being cared for at home. It is worrying, therefore, to hear that we have no clear picture of the number of children's nurses currently working in the community. Further, it is extremely concerning to hear that children are less likely to be cared for at home at the end of life than adults because of shortages in appropriately skilled community nurses.

And, moving to palliative and end-of-life care, despite the crucial role community nurses play in enabling patients with palliative care needs to remain at home, we heard that the palliative and end-of-life care delivery plan makes little reference to them. Without a better understanding of who is being cared for where, and by whom, it is impossible to accurately determine the level of unmet need for palliative care. We believe that the Welsh Government must now publish an update on progress made in developing this action plan—that's recommendation 3—and I invite the Minister to update us on this point today.

Turning to district nursing staffing, the Welsh Government has said that it remains committed to extending the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016 to additional settings. However, for district nursing, an appropriate workforce planning tool, required by the Act to calculate the nurse staffing level needed, is not likely to be ready for some years. We therefore recommended that the Welsh Government must produce and publish a strategy for extending the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016 to all settings, including community and district nursing services, and that's recommendation 4.

And, turning to staff morale, some of the most stark evidence we received in committee came from nurses working in the community, who told us, and I quote:

'I left district nursing after 18 years as I could not cope any longer with the stress. The job workload increased more demand on paper work, and under staffed, and patients could not have the care they deserved.'

And another quote:

'The past five years has seen diminishing resources in front-line services. Nurses leaving and recruitment issues. We do not always look after our staff very well, we expect more and more from them.'

The RCN told us that morale is quite low, particularly at senior levels, because of the tremendous pressure community nurses have been under for a long time. Interestingly, this was not a picture that the health board representatives we spoke to recognised in their areas, and it was concerning to hear such conflicting views.

Finally, I'd like to turn to ICT infrastructure and technology, as one of the main issues raised by nurses working in the community was their inability to access the most appropriate technology to enable them to undertake their roles effectively. Half of the district and community nurses who were asked about their experiences of IT support reported using a variety of equipment, including laptops and Blackberries. The other half reported that they didn't have access to a mobile device at all. One witness told us:

'We have no computerised system for documentation. It's all paper.'

Another issue raised by the nurses was their inability to access office calendar and e-mails. The lack of appropriate technology is not only affecting nurses, but also patients who are trying to contact their community and district nursing services. If we are not providing nurses with the most up-to-date technology, how can we possibly expect them to communicate with and provide the best possible support to their patients?

15:30

Suzy Davies took the Chair.

It is unacceptable that nurses working in the community have limited access to patient information, appointments or e-mails via handheld devices and are instead reliant on paper-based systems and outdated technology. I will wait to hear other comments in this debate. Thank you.

I'm very grateful to take part in this debate on the committee report. And the first thing, actually, I'd like to do is pay an enormous tribute to all of the district nurses and community nurses out there in Wales. I speak from personal experience when I say that, after the arrival of No. 1 daughter, it was the district nurse that helped me keep my sanity, because I certainly had no idea what I was supposed to do once I arrived home. They are the unsung heroes, and, in fact, our report describes them as 'the invisible service'. And I think it's worth us all remembering that there's no accurate picture, at national level, of the number and skill mix of nursing teams, nor the numbers in our teams, the acuity levels of the patients that they're having to deal with. And this, of course, impacts on workforce planning, on recruitment and retention. And I think that the Chair of the committee has very, very clearly laid out, actually, the stress levels that district and community nurses face, and how this is driving people out of a profession that we so desperately need, particularly, Minister, if you are going to carry on a direction of travel that we all support, which is about treating people at home, in the community, in their homes, rather than sending them off to hospitals or to other facilities.

And I do find—. And I want to particularly speak to recommendations 6, 7 and 8. Six is about data, 7 and 8 are about training and recruitment. Because I find that the availability of data on nursing services is beyond poor. I recognise that health boards understand that, but not knowing for sure how many nurses in the community are district nurses, or not knowing how many district nurses are nurse practitioners, must seriously hamper the planning and delivery of services. And acknowledging that there are significant challenges in terms of data and the future development of the ICT infrastructure is a step forward. But I have to point out that this is a step that the Welsh Government and the health boards have been standing on for years. So, I'd like to know when will we see the roll-out of the Welsh community care information system. It's only in one health board, and that's Powys, at the moment.

And I just want to read out a couple of little highlighted segments from this report. This is what the people who work in our community services have to cope with—and you think about all the technology that we're surrounded with here to help us do our job—

'We have mobile phones without access to diary or email though colleagues in local authority have both and a functioning electronic system for health records.'

But district nurses, community nurses, don't.

'We have very little IT to support integration and CRT working. District Nurses are on paper; some therapy staff are on therapy manager; social care colleagues on WCCIS.'

'Most of the team have blackberry's, years old, that don't work sufficiently.... We have no computerised system for documentation—it’s all paper.'

And one of the concerns I have—and it runs, actually, across a wide variety of the health service—is I very often write to you, Minister, to ask for data on a range of topics, and you come back, in your written answer, and you say, 'No data held centrally'. Okay, I get that. I will then do an FOI on every single health board, following your answer, and guess what they come back and say? 'No data held centrally. No data recorded. This data isn't known; it's not cut, sliced and diced in this way.' If we don't have this essential data, how can we do workforce planning and management, how can we really target recruitment and retention? Are we not setting up Health Education and Improvement Wales to fail, because, if we can't access the data, and the Minister's obviously not got the data, I don't suppose for one moment HEIW have got the data either.

I would also like to know who will be evaluating the success of the Malinko software pilot at Cwm Taf. I'd be interested to know who's going to be evaluating it, when you expect the evaluation to happen. Because, as I understand it, if it does all that it says it does, then it would be a very good thing to roll out across all of our health boards. But I would like it independently evaluated, given Cwm Taf's current situation.

And my last and final point that I want to make, which is slightly in this report but it is an adjunct to it—we all know that primary care is based on the multidisciplinary team model. However, it is hampered at times by lines of reporting, and that does apply to district and community nurses, because, of course, most of them report back to health boards, rather than clusters or GP practices. Now, I've had a couple of cases where we've had seriously ill constituents—terminal cancer, GP has gone out, they need the support of a district nurse. But because there hasn't been a 13-page form filled in, their doctor, who says, 'This person must be nursed and looked at by a district nurse in their home', hasn't been able to do it, because they've got to go back to the health board and then follow a very convoluted way of being able to provide that service. So, can we just look at that and tightening it up? Because they're an integral part of the primary care team, and they need to be under the auspices of those who lead the primary care function.

15:35

I'd like to add my voice to what other speakers have already said—our gratitude to all those who contributed to the inquiry. I'd like to pay tribute to our Chair. I think these one-day, short, sharp inquiries are a really useful model and enable us to get to the heart of issues really quickly. I'm particularly grateful to the nursing staff who provided evidence.

The thing that was left in my head after this inquiry was the term 'the invisible service', and that's already been mentioned by others—the extent to which the work that these nurses do largely goes unseen unless it is not done or unless it goes wrong—and also the evidence that they gave about the level of responsibility of a nurse on her or his own in a family home, in a nursing home, perhaps, where they don't have the whole support network of nursing staff that's available to nursing staff who are working in hospital settings.

Now, like many others, I'm sure, I was very glad to see the Minister accept nine out of the 10 recommendations, until I read in detail what he was saying in response to those recommendations. And I'm afraid that what he was telling us was that much of what we were asking for, what the nursing staff were asking for, was already happening. Well, as Dai Lloyd has said, it's difficult sometimes when you have conflicting evidence, but, when I have nurses before me and I have senior managers before me, I am inclined to believe the front-line staff, who may know better what's going on on the ground.

I was particularly concerned that the Minister's response only highlights additional resourcing, or possible additional resourcing, for one of the recommendations that he accepts. Because if we are to meet his aspiration—an aspiration, I think, shared across this Chamber and across Wales—of moving more services into the community, we will have to have a larger, better supported, better resourced workforce, and that doesn't come for nothing.

I want to turn briefly to the recommendation that the Minister decided to reject, and that is recommendation 4, which is that the Welsh Government should produce and publish a strategy for extending the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016 to all settings, including community and district nursing. Now, while I appreciate it's more difficult to do that—. It's relatively straightforward to know how many nurses at what level of skill are needed to support a particular set of patients in a particular ward because it's relatively easy to work out what their level of need is—the patients' level of need. And it's been difficult to do that, and this, of course, feeds into the points that Angela Burns has already made about the issues with information.

But if we are serious about treating community services with the same level of respect as we treat services that are provided in hospitals, if we are serious about providing community nursing staff with the same level of respect and the same level of support, then surely we must move to make those assessments, to work out the acuity, the sickness, of the patients that they're dealing with and the skills that they need and the time that they need, and, therefore, the level of community and district nursing that is safe for that particular population. And it is beyond me to understand why the Minister does not agree. I would have been perfectly happy to see him say that this will take a longer time, perhaps, than we as a committee were asking for, but simply to suggest that it's not necessary is a real matter of concern.

I want to highlight one particular aspect that I think the Minister may be taking moves towards addressing, and that is issues around terms and conditions for nurses employed by GP practices rather than directly by the health boards. It's very clear to me that the terms and conditions for some of those nurses have not kept pace with the terms of those nurses who are directly employed. A particular concern that's been raised with me by individual nurses in my own region is that they often don't have time for learning. Now we know that's a problem across the whole sector, but, if you're perhaps one nurse on your own, employed by a rural GP practice, it can be incredibly difficult for you to be released to increase your skills. I think the work the Minister highlighted the other day in terms of making sure that GP practices are reporting what levels of staffing they've got now may help with that, but I think it's really, really important that we protect the terms and conditions of that very important group of nursing staff.

I think there's an element of agreement about the issues that face us. The question now has to be how quickly and how effectively we can move to address those issues. It's a word I find myself using again and again, and not one that I particularly want to use, but I'm afraid that there are elements of the Government's response to this report that do appear complacent to me and, more seriously, appear complacent to the nursing workforce. Our nursing workforce staff deserve better than that. Our community nursing workforce deserve better than that from us all, and, very importantly, so do their patients.

I am sure that we all agree with the Minister that we need to grow our community services, but unless we properly resource and respect our community nursing workforce we won't be able to do that.

15:45

I thank the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee for their report into community and district nursing services. Community nursing is an essential service that helps keep patients out of hospital and remain in their own homes. As our demography changes, as we all live longer with increasingly complex chronic illness, the services provided by district and community nurses become more essential. 

Over the past two decades, we have lost over 5,000 NHS hospital beds, despite our population increasing by over 200,000. Without district and community nurses, our NHS would be overwhelmed. Despite this, the service continues to be undervalued. Giving evidence to the committee, community nurses described themselves as 'the invisible service', and this is very sad to hear. I therefore welcome the committee's recommendations, which are aimed at improving provision but, more importantly, recognise the absolutely vital role that our district and community nurses play in delivering health and social care in Wales. 

I am pleased that the Welsh Government have accepted nine out of 10 of the recommendations. What I don't understand is the Minister's rationale for rejecting recommendation 4. Extending the nurse staffing levels Act to all settings is the right thing to do. I accept that it won't be easy or doable overnight, but that is not a reason to reject the recommendation out of hand. Welsh Government should accept, at least in principle, that work needs to commence on achieving safe staffing levels now, not at some unspecified future date. 

The Welsh Government have to accept all 10 recommendations and act upon them swiftly if we are to ensure the future of the service. Morale is at an all-time low, yet we, as a nation, are becoming more reliant upon the services provided by our hardworking, dedicated district and community nurses. We have to demonstrate that we value our community nurses; accepting and implementing all 10 of those recommendations would be a good start. Thank you.  

Thank you very much. I call on the Minister for Health and Social Services, Vaughan Gething.   

Thank you, acting Deputy Presiding Officer. I want to thank the committee for their inquiry and report into community and district nursing services in Wales. I'm pleased to say that the recommendations do broadly reflect Welsh Government policy, as articulated in our 'A Healthier Wales' vision of more care being delivered closer to home. We know that, as part of a multidisciplinary approach to delivering this aim, registered nurses will continue to play a pivotal role. 

The majority of the recommendations relate directly to the community workforce in terms of planning, recruitment and training. Significant work has already been undertaken to increase the nursing workforce here in Wales with positive results. However, we are never complacent and recognise that there are challenges around the recruitment and retention of nurses in a number of settings. That is why I have again increased health education funding by 13 per cent for the next year, compared to the one that we are in. We went through the figures yesterday on the significant increases in nurse education and training here in Wales over the last six years. 

With the establishment of Health Education and Improvement Wales, we are now in a better position—a better position than ever—to ensure a national strategic approach to understanding our workforce and producing a sustainable supply of nursing staff for the future. The Welsh Government director of workforce and organisational development is liaising closely with Health Inspectorate Wales, as they develop their future workforce strategy, and that will ensure that recommendations 1 to 3 and 6 to 8 factor into that work. 

I recognise, of course, the crucial role that technology plays in community nursing, which was referred to by a number of Members in the debate. That is why the Welsh Government is working with all health boards in supporting investment in modern devices. I meet district nurses in my own constituency and around the country and they do describe some of the frustrations that some Members have referred to. It's again part of the challenge I regularly describe about catching up with what normal life is now like and our ability to do things on mobile devices. This does include the work that I've described within the Government—the prioritisation of mobile devices for community nurses and others who are not based in a hospital setting. We committed in 'A Healthier Wales' to significantly increase investment in digital as a key enabler of change, and that is supported by an increasing emphasis on common national standards across digital devices and applications.

Members will recall that I endorsed the chief nursing officer principles for district nursing in 2017. These are an essential step in the preparation for the further roll-out of the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act 2016. The intelligence provided from that, and the monitoring that my officials from the chief nurse's office regularly undertake, are an important step, and I understand that progress is being made on the ground.

In terms of further work on what the model should look like, we are undertaking an evaluation of the neighbourhood district nursing model. Subject to that being a successful evaluation, I will then consider options for commencing the roll-out of that right across Wales over the next financial year as part of our response to the forthcoming budget round.

I am sorry that I couldn't accept all of the committee's recommendations, and I understand that Members have referred in particular to the one that I didn't. That was specifically recommendation 4, which relates to the extension of the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act. Section 25A of the Nurse Staffing Levels (Wales) Act already applies to all settings where nursing care is either provided or commissioned. This duty sets out the overarching responsibility of health boards to ensure that there are sufficient nurses to care for patients sensitively, and health boards are committed to meeting that responsibility.

Regarding the extension of section 25B, C and E of the Act to all settings, the honest truth is that it wouldn't be possible at this time to articulate a strategic vision with any detail that could be considered valuable and worthwhile. There are significant and fundamental differences to the various settings in which nurses provide care, and it is too early to begin to understand the complexity around the variability across all settings.

A substantial piece of mapping will need to be undertaken by the all-Wales nurse staffing programme before a national strategy can be contemplated, but the programme manager has begun the early stages of that work. That's underscored by the reality of the work that is already ongoing that has underpinned the initial stage of roll-out, the pieces of work that are already in train at present, and, of course, the work that took place before my written statement today, where I confirmed that I had commenced the legislative process to extend the Act to paediatric inpatient wards, with the intention that the practical extension will be in place by April 2021. I will, of course, write to the committee setting out current progress across all nurse staffing programme workstreams.

There's a final point that I think is worth mentioning in terms of the debate, and that is that the publication of the committee's report was in August. The Nursing and Midwifery Council, the professional regulator, then announced that it intended to conduct a full review of post-registration recordable qualifications, and has explicitly identified specialist practice qualifications. That could potentially have significant ramifications for community-based roles and the way in which they are defined. Such roles include, specifically, general practice nurses, community children's nurses and, especially, district nurses. I will, though, keep the Assembly—through the committee—appraised of the outcome of that review and the ways that that might affect the practical implementation of Welsh Government policy.      

15:50

Thank you very much. In the few minutes that remain to me, I will summarise this debate by thanking everyone for their comments. Angela Burns told us about the challenges with regard to IT, technology and the lack of data. And Caroline Jones and Helen Mary Jones told us about the need to extend the staffing levels legislation to community nurses, and I heard the response from the Minister to that. But to summarise, it’s vital that the role and value of community nursing is acknowledged fully and that our community nurses and our district nurses do receive the support that they need to provide a service of the highest quality to our patients here in Wales today. Thank you.

The Deputy Presiding Officer took the Chair.

Diolch. The question is to note the committee's report. Does any Member object? No. Therefore, the motion is agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

Motion agreed in accordance with Standing Order 12.36.

6. Debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee Report: Empty Properties

Item 6 on the agenda is a debate on the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee's report on empty properties. I call on the Chair of the committee to move the motion—John Griffiths.

Motion NDM7212 John Griffiths

To propose that the National Assembly for Wales:

Notes the report of the Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee, 'Empty Properties', which was laid in the Table Office on 10 October 2019.

Motion moved.

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lywydd. I'm very pleased to open today's debate on Equality, Local Government and Communities Committee report on empty properties, and I would like to start by thanking all those who contributed to our inquiry. Empty properties is a real issue that impacts upon all of our communities. There are around 27,000 long-term empty properties across Wales, so swift action is needed to address the problem. We made 13 recommendations in our report, 12 of which have been accepted fully or in principle by the Welsh Government.

During our inquiry, we heard about initiatives that have had some success in bringing properties back into use, but progress has stagnated. We believe that a strategic approach is needed for significant change to happen. We would like to see the Welsh Government take the lead on this, engaging with local authorities to prioritise the issue and understand the support it can provide.

I'm pleased that recommendation 1 has been accepted. This is a key recommendation relating to the Welsh Government working with local authorities to develop a national action plan for tackling these empty properties, which should include setting priorities and targets. We recommended that the action plan be published by October next year. This will be an important step forward in setting national priorities and giving local authorities the strategic direction they need to prioritise tackling this issue.

Of course, having the right level of resource in place is absolutely key if local authorities are to be fully equipped to tackle these matters. Having a dedicated empty property officer in post can make a significant difference; it can bring more focus to the authority's work and co-ordinate the various activities being undertaken across departments. Of course, we all know resources are tight, but the long-term impact that empty properties can have, both economically and socially, justifies identifying this as a priority area. We heard expert advice that a dedicated officer should pay for themselves multiple times over, so it does represent good value for money.

I'm pleased that the Welsh Government has committed to ensuring that local authorities have a support package that's necessary for their needs and to provide an update on the resources needed by September of next year.

We were concerned by evidence we heard around the usefulness of data used in measuring progress in dealing with empty properties. In particular, that the data only includes properties on the council tax list, meaning it excludes derelict buildings and non-residential properties—the source, of course, of many empty property-related complaints.

We also heard that properties empty for over 12 months were more problematic and more likely to have a negative impact on neighbours and communities. Those empty for shorter periods often came back into use without any intervention from the local authority. We therefore recommended that, going forward, a 12-month time frame is used to define empty properties rather than the current six months, and that relevant performance indicators are updated to reflect this.

I'm pleased that our recommendations 5 and 6 around data have been accepted. These changes should ensure that the data collected is more useful and accurately reflects local authorities' work to tackle this problem. Local authorities already have a range of enforcement options available to them, but we heard that using those powers isn't straightforward. Some of the powers are rarely used, often due to their complexity, which has led to a situation where officers haven't developed sufficient expertise to be confident in exercising them. We recommended that a regional or national source of expertise be developed, which would be available for empty property teams to access when it is required. This has been accepted, as has our recommendation that training for local authority officers and members on the enforcement options be rolled out. I look forward to the update we've requested from the Deputy Minister on progress in delivering these sessions by Easter of next year.

We heard some examples of good work being done by social landlords, particularly the United Welsh housing association, which has taken a proactive approach to bringing empty homes back into use. We would like to see Welsh Government working with the housing association sector to understand the schemes it has in place, how good practice can be shared and effective schemes rolled out across Wales. I welcome the Deputy Minister’s commitment to collaborate with the sector to achieve this.

Another option available to local authorities is to implement a council tax premium of up to 100 per cent on long-term empty properties. This is discretionary and some authorities have opted to introduce a premium.

When the policy was introduced in 2014, the explanatory memorandum accompanying the Housing (Wales) Bill noted the Welsh Government’s hope that local authorities would use the additional powers available to them and the revenue collected to help meet local housing needs. We heard that Gwynedd Council has decided to allocate its additional revenue for housing purposes, but we're concerned that there is little evidence elsewhere of funds being directed in such a way.

We are therefore disappointed that our recommendation that the Welsh Government explores whether it would be possible to ring-fence the revenue has been rejected, particularly as the Deputy Minister expressed a desire to research such options in her evidence paper to us. Whist we realise that revenue collected through council tax is unhypothecated, it seems that not using the money for housing purposes goes against the aims of the original legislation. So, I would ask the Deputy Minister to give further consideration to how the Welsh Government can work with local authorities to ensure that this resource is used to alleviate housing problems.

We also heard anecdotal evidence of people trying to avoid the premium by applying to change the category of their empty property, either by claiming that it is being used as self-catering accommodation or that a family member has moved in. We would like more information gathered on this in order to get a better sense of the extent of such practices. I note that local authorities have been invited to bring forward examples they have, and I look forward to an update on this work in due course.

There has been a lack of progress in bringing the number of empty properties back into use over recent years, but I believe our work will contribute to making this important issue a priority area. We welcome the establishment of a dedicated team within Welsh Government and the Deputy Minister’s acceptance of almost all of our recommendations. I hope these actions will bring renewed focus and result in real change. We will continue to monitor this issue as a committee, including the effectiveness of the approach, and we very much look forward to the updates the Deputy Minister has committed to providing so that we may further assess the effectiveness of new policies, new teams and new thinking.

16:00

As our report states, around 27,000 private sector homes in Wales have been empty for more than six months. Many owners, we said,

'do not wish to see their properties lying idle and should be supported to bring them back into use. When attempts to tackle the problem informally fail, local authorities have powers to deal with empty properties; but this isn't straightforward.'

The Welsh Government accepts, as we heard, 10 of our lucky 13 recommendations. Having a national action plan in place, adopting genuinely community-based approaches, accountability measures and establishing a source of legal expertise for empty property teams to access will be critical. As we stated, this should include work to understand the impacts that having a specific officer with responsibility for empty properties can make, and training for local authority officers and members on the enforcement options available will be essential, as will the provision of flexible funding solutions that are sensitive to local needs and assist property owners.

As a former housing association voluntary board member, I welcome the Welsh Government’s recognition that housing associations play a key part in bringing empty properties back into use, but we'll need to see evidence that they have been genuinely involved by both Welsh Government and local authorities.

Although the Welsh Government rejects ring-fencing for housing purposes of revenue collected by local authorities through the council tax premium on empty homes, we must see evidence that local authorities have been encouraged to use the funding to address local housing supply needs.

It is deeply regrettable that the Welsh Government have only agreed in principle to our recommendation that they undertake a review with the Welsh Local Government Association of the current statutory enforcement powers available to local authorities to tackle empty properties in order to simplify them and make them more effective.

It's also concerning that they've only agreed in principle to our recommendation that they and the Welsh Local Government Association undertake an exercise to assess whether second home owners are avoiding payment of the council tax premium by falsely registering their property as a self-catering business or claiming that a family member has moved in. Serious allegations about this were made to us and we need the facts, especially where this could involve fraudulent activity.

However, as I stated when we were debating Stage 3 of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014, there is the danger that second home owners who have put their life savings into realising their dreams will be hit hardest by the council tax premium, and therefore rent out their second homes rather than lose them, when the people that can afford it will shrug this off. Responding to me in committee, Gwynedd Council's representative stated:

'this idea that a lot of our empty properties are owned by people from outwith Gwynedd isn't...complete, because many people within Gwynedd own these vacant homes'.

He added that over 1,000 properties had transferred. And as I said here in October:

'working with the valuation office, the Welsh Government must therefore give attention to this perhaps inevitable consequence of its legislation...they must penalise neither the contribution made by...self-catering businesses to our tourism economy, nor...second home owners...forced to generate extra income on affordability grounds...who are playing by the rules.'

We heard from witnesses in committee that, in England, multiple authorities will adopt a regional partnership model, appointing an officer between them to share the cost and resources; that having an empty homes officer is critical and that a corporate strategic approach helps tackle huge delays and barriers; that six community-based projects in England pulled in £3 million for empty homes refurbishment and created 65 homes for local people over three years; that longer term funding is needed if the Houses into Homes scheme is to stack up; that, in England, the new homes bonus was bringing long-term empty homes back into use; that, in Scotland, probate and bereavement are a specific exemption from the council tax premium; that Wales was behind the curve in the context of the simplified fitness housing standard adopted in Scotland; and that effective community-led approaches play a key part because people feel involved and have a real say in how homes are renovated.

As I said here in 2011, quoting Denbighshire's empty homes officer at that time, who was funded by north Wales housing associations, every empty home has a different story, the key is to understand why it is empty and to work closely with the owner to bring it back into use. Diolch yn fawr. 

16:05

There's no need to rerehearse the central argument in detail here, with around 27,000 empty homes in Wales, bringing these back into use could make a substantial difference to our housing supply, particularly if we could enable social housing providers to buy them, refurbish them, and use them to house low-income families. While houses remain empty in communities, they potentially represent a blight on those communities. And these arguments have been pretty much accepted throughout the Chamber, and they've been accepted for quite a few years now.

So, why then has the problem of empty homes not been sorted? Well, partly this is because the homes that are empty today are not the same homes that were empty a year ago. Just as one gets brought back into use, another one becomes vacant. But it's also because the various layers of Government are not using the powers that they have to make a serious dent in the problem. Some local authorities are not using their powers to impose punitive council tax rates on the owners of empty properties. For this financial year, a staggering 14 local authorities are still giving a discount to owners of empty homes, and there are loopholes in the law that mean that those local authorities who want to charge extra for empty homes have been frustrated.

There is also some confusion. One Plaid Cymru councillor reported to me that, in a council debate on removing this discount, officers in that particular local authority, which I'm not going to name, seemed unaware that local authorities had the power not only to remove the discount but also to impose a punitive rate. And this shows that there is a clear communication problem between Welsh Government and local authorities.

Furthermore, we know that not all local authorities have dedicated empty homes officers, which our committee evidence demonstrated is pretty essential on this. When empty homes officers are in place, not all of them are then able to access legal support and, sometimes, using enforcement powers can carry uncertain risk.

Other barriers highlighted by our report relate to the difficulties within local authorities of sharing data, as well as the resources that are taken up by investigating attempts to avoid the council tax premiums. There are a number of recommendations made here to address these barriers, although we could argue that a crucial one is missing, and that is that continued austerity for local government is incompatible with many of the objectives on this agenda that most of us want to see.

I hope that this is a useful debate for the Minister, if only to establish that some more basic infrastructure is needed to deliver on the policies that we've all supported and that we all want to see actioned. 

16:10

Although I'm not a member of this committee, I would like to commend them for what I think is a really important piece of work. We'll have all seen the shocking findings from Shelter that, across Britain, the highest number of children for 12 years will be in temporary housing this Christmas. Now, Welsh rates are lower than elsewhere in the UK but are still up over a quarter over the last four years. Austerity and savage welfare changes have much to answer for. But one solution to this is to turn empty properties into homes and it's really good to see that this report gives us a chance to focus on this concept today. For my contribution, I wanted to focus on what my local authority, Rhondda Cynon Taf, is doing to deal with empty homes, and their empty homes strategy has been mentioned in the report, so I thought it would be useful if I explored it in the Chamber in greater detail. 

The council developed the policy because they recognised that the empty homes in the borough presented an opportunity to provide much-needed affordable housing for residents, and also recognised the problems caused by deserted homes. They can cause harm to community well-being, distress to residents affected by their unsightly appearance, and act as magnets for crime and for antisocial behaviour. So, over the last few years, RCT council has developed a range of different tools and approaches to encourage empty homes to be brought back into use. And I'll just run through some key elements of their strategy.

The first is housing enforcement activity; secondly, the provision of Houses into Homes loans, utilising Welsh Government repayable funding; the third is the provision of grants, utilising the council's own funding, and that came to over £4 million in the years 2016-17 alone; fourthly, affordable housing schemes that bring empty homes back into use; five, advice and assistance to potential home owners; the sixth strand of it is the provision of homes above retail premises in town centres, and that's been a particular success in Aberdare, bringing historic empty buildings back into use; seventh is removing the 50 per cent council tax reduction for empty homes, and key to this has been the council's discretionary empty homes grant, and that supports the delivery of the council and Welsh Government's investment priority of returning empty properties to use.

It offers suitable accommodation for local people, but also helps to regenerate wider communities too. Robust eligibility criteria are also put in place to ensure the sustainability of the scheme. So, crucially, for example, applicants must be potential owner-occupiers, not landlords, who plan to live in the property as their main residence for a period of at least five years. The property must have remained unoccupied for a period of six months prior to purchase and at the time of the grant application, it must meet the housing needs of the applicants' family who intend to occupy the property, and applicants are required to make a 15 per cent maximum contribution to the total cost of grant-eligible work. That grant can be anywhere from £1,000 to £20,000, and is then used to make the property safe and secure.

The initiative has been an overwhelming success. Since 2016 it has been used directly to bring 165 empty homes back into use, and, overall, the council's approach to tackling empty homes is having a significant impact on the number of empty homes across the borough. So, if you look at council tax records, for example, they show that between 2017-18 and 2018-19, the period that the empty homes strategy was actually implemented, the number of empty homes across the borough has reduced by 671 properties. I think that's a really outstanding figure. Furthermore, in the last financial year, RCT brought a total of 213 empty homes back into use directly from council intervention. At 7.4 per cent, this is an increase on the previous year and nearly 3 per cent above the Welsh average.

RCT's approach to tackling empty homes is bold and forward-looking. I'm really glad that the Welsh Government have recognised their practice as sector-leading. In particular, it's excellent news that the Deputy Minister for Economy and Transport, as chair of the Valleys taskforce, has agreed to provide funding of £10 million to roll out RCT's empty homes grant across all Valleys taskforce authorities. RCT will act as the lead body and co-ordinate the delivery of the grant. This successful investment will further support and accelerate the number of empty homes being brought back into use across the whole of the Valleys. I was very pleased to join the Deputy Minister, the Minister for housing, councillors and officers from RCT for the announcement of this roll-out in Ynysybwl, and I look forward to following the future progress of the policy.

16:15

I would like to put on record my thanks to the committee clerks and all those who took part in our inquiry into empty properties. I was not on the committee at the beginning of the inquiry and did not get the opportunity to question the majority of the witnesses, but I am grateful to all those who took time to inform us.

We have a housing crisis in Wales, with over 60,000 households on a waiting list, yet only a handful of new social housing is being built each year. Shelter Cymru yesterday unveiled shocking figures that show that around 1,600 children will spend Christmas in temporary accommodation due to homelessness, which has risen by almost half in four years. Data uncovered by ITV Cymru last month showed that there were just over 43,000 empty properties in Wales, and as our committee discovered, there are around 27,000 private properties that have been empty for more than six months.

With so many families in desperate need of housing, it is awful to see empty homes in such huge numbers, and it can often be a blight on the landscape, encouraging vandalism. However, we also have to be mindful that there can be a multitude of reasons for a property to be empty. The property could be in probate, which can take many years to resolve. Once out of probate, the new owners may struggle to sell and be unable to foot the inheritance tax bill. Landlords can often struggle to find tenants, meaning that their properties can lay empty for months. Properties can be left derelict because the owner simply can't afford the repair bill to make the property habitable. And I accept that there can be an issue with holiday homes, but these are a smaller part of the whole picture, and with advances such as Airbnb, these properties have become less empty.

The largest numbers of empty properties are in Rhondda Cynon Taf and not on the beach, so there are so many causes to empty properties that we can't take a one-size-fits-all approach. We also have to use the carrot more than the stick, and Governments often talk about enforcement action and penalising the owner of empty properties via stringent property taxes, and this approach doesn't help those struggling with property they cannot use or cannot sell and the lack of legal support regarding enforcement does make the enforcement officer's life more difficult. This is why I support the committee's third recommendation: a specific officer with responsibility for empty properties can get in touch with the owner of a property and establish the reasons as to why it is empty. Together, they can work out solutions, whether that is assistance to make the property habitable or allowing a council or registered social landlord to purchase the property to use as social rent. Council discretion on empty homes varies from council to council, which causes uncertainty to both owner and council employee, but the knee-jerk reaction is often to say that these properties will solve our housing crisis, and it would be wonderful if it would, but being realistic, it will help address the housing need if we can bring these properties into use, but that does not absolve successive governments from their abject failure to provide sufficient affordable housing.

The committee's recommendations will go some way to address the problem of empty homes. No-one wants to see empty properties, least of all the owners of those properties. I urge Members to support the committee's recommendations. Thank you.

16:20

I speak as someone who's not a member of the committee, but I do have the privilege of speaking on housing for the Welsh Conservative group, so I've taken a great interest in this report. Now, it's true that despite a number of good initiatives implemented over the years by the Welsh Government, such as the empty homes good practice guidance, which, I think, was 2010, and the introduction of the Houses into Homes scheme, we still don't seem to have solved the problem, and, indeed, progress may have stalled a bit. So, I think it's very appropriate that we're looking at this issue again.

We've heard the figures: around about 27,000 private sector homes that are empty. Now, it's inevitable that a certain number of homes would be empty at any one time, but this level, surely, is well above that sort of frictional element that you would expect in a housing market. So, it is something that really needs to be sorted. When we compare it to the Welsh Government's target for the whole five years of this Assembly to build 20,000 affordable homes, it puts it in perspective, just the scale of the challenge and the number of empty properties that are out there. I certainly think that some of the schemes that have been suggested, making it easier when people do inherit property that may not be in a very good condition or they don't have the wherewithal, really, to deal with it anyway, and if a housing association, for instance, or the council could offer a reasonable deal to that homeowner to sell the property and then that becomes available as a social home, that's a very attractive, I think, and imaginative way of helping to solve this problem and then also reduce the danger of homelessness or—. The other thing we have—and Caroline mentioned the wider housing crisis—we have an awful lot of embedded households. These are households that have not been able to form because there isn't any appropriate housing for them to go to. So, they're in inappropriate housing, often with their parents, and this, I think, has been a real blight on this current generation, and one that most of us—certainly those of my age, anyway—didn't face when we were in our 20s. So, the supply of housing does need to increase markedly, and this is part of the solution.

Earlier this year, the Welsh Conservatives published their housing strategy, 'Housing a Nation', and we revealed statistics that showed about 4,000 empty social homes were currently in Wales. Now, I note in this report it says 1,400, and there is an issue about how you count empty homes—what's the threshold at which they should be categorised as such? But I do think there's a general problem about our data collection, and improving the statistics would help us a lot. And I welcome, in particular, recommendation 5 of this report as a result. So, I think that needs to be looked at, and having a strategy—I think that's really key. I think the Government should have firm targets and we shouldn't have the drift that we've had since, say, 2010—the last determined effort to move us forward on this particular issue. And I do think that the Government should aim, for instance, to bring all empty social homes back into use; they shouldn't be left vacant for very long, and certainly not for over six months. So, that's something I would really like to see as soon as possible.

I also think that using the council tax database for a lot of the data collection itself has problems, because—and I think Caroline, again, mentioned this—it doesn't tell you much about why a property is empty, and that's really what we need to get to. And I do commend the organisation Action on Empty Homes for their work in this area, where they've outlined the many reasons why a property may be empty, and it is carrot rather than stick that's going to really improve the situation. So, there are a variety of reasons, then, why properties become empty, and I certainly think the state and local authorities have a role to play here.

I finish just by commending the committee for its report. It's very useful, and I do hope that we will see greater implementation of the sort of policies that we need—many of them have been accepted now for 10 years or more, with party consensus, as Leanne indicated earlier. So, we really need to get on and do this.

16:25

Can I begin just by thanking my fellow members of the committee and also the Chair for, as always, his excellent stewardship of this? It was great that the Chair and the committee decided to return to this, rather than park previous reports and leave them sit, but to actually come back with the intention of encouraging, assisting, showing the Government where we still need to make progress. And I think it's worthwhile committees doing that as a matter of practice—revisiting work that they've done. I'd also like to thank all the witnesses who did come in front of us and gave so much of their time and expertise as well.

Vikki, my colleague—we share a local authority in Rhondda Cynon Taf—went through the good practice that has been carried out there and the fact that Rhondda Cynon Taf now is seen as an exemplar by Welsh Government. And, in fact, the work that it's done will be rolled out now across the south Wales Valleys taskforce area. In fact, it's probably slightly ahead of the curve here. A lot of the things are referred to in the report about that expert-led approach, the community engagement, including with, I have to say, elements such as co-operative and community-led housing initiatives as well. They've gone ahead of us here, and they do point the way very well. So, we know it can be done, and they've used every tool at their disposal, not simply enforcement powers, not simply grant funding and other financial mechanisms, but actually working with the owners of the properties and the occupiers as well to say, 'Right, how do we use this, not only to regenerate homes but to regenerate communities on a much wider scale?'

I really do welcome the report and the positive response from the Government to this as well—all but one recommendation have been accepted. One has been rejected, which I'll come back to in a moment, and a couple accepted on principle. But the first basic one, this call for a national action plan—I very much welcome the fact you've agreed to bring that forward, and to bring it forward by what I think and—we had some discussion in committee—we thought was a challenging date. We pinned it down to October next year and we thought, 'Can the Government do this?' Now, you've agreed to bring forward the draft by then, which I think we can probably live with. And then, two months later, by December—October, November, December—two months later, actually bringing forward the final one. That's quite ambitious, but I think we're content with that, and particularly the fact that you've agreed to do it.

On these community-based approaches, can I recommend to the Minister, as she seeks to both respond to what the committee has said and look forward—? There was an excellent presentation here in the Senedd buildings the other day, which was organised, in fact, by my colleague, in her role as chair in the co-operatives and mutuals organisation of the Tai Fechan housing initiative in the Gellideg estate. That's the ultimate, actually, in community engagement there, because those people are not simply involved in the regeneration of their homes, they are managing the regeneration of their homes in concert with the local authority, and have set themselves up as a collective. Now, there is much more potential in this, so I would be interested in hearing from the Minister, in line with our support for the co-operative movement and also community-led housing initiatives, how much more we could do on this.

We have got 137 co-operative homes in six different local authorities in Wales. It seems to me that this could be a significant part of the solution in communities where properties have lain empty for not just months, but years and years and years—empowering them to step up and actually take control over the regeneration of homes and affordable homes in their areas.

I want to turn to the issue of the expertise that resides within an authority. This is a common theme that we picked up, and that's why we brought forward recommendations to actually have an officer with an authority. Now, I think that the Minister in the Government's response has accepted that, of course, but I'm not sure that they've pinned down that there should be an officer within each local authority, that all the tools should be available. So, I'd be interested in the Minister's thoughts on that: if not an officer, how do we make sure that the good practice that we've heard about is happening in every single local authority?

The legal expertise is a critical recommendation. We heard repeatedly that, in some local authorities, there was a concern that their officers were not able to draw upon in-house sufficient legal expertise when they were using some of the more stringent enforcement powers, and I'm glad that the Welsh Government has accepted that recommendation. I'm also glad that we've not turned down the idea of exploring further the compulsory sales orders that they're trying in Scotland. I'm intrigued by the Government's response:

'We are content to review the Compulsory Sales Order in consultation with our planning colleagues and ascertain if the implementation in Wales is feasible.'

I know, Minister, that you've got to look at whether it works effectively in Scotland, but we were told that this has real potential, because it strips out the bureaucracy and the costs and the risks to local authorities of going down compulsory purchase order lines.

My final question to the Minister is: how does this lead us as well to deal with commercial non-residential properties—those equally eyesores within communities that are commercial properties that have been left empty for year after year after year, often on the gateways to communities, and they really do drag it down. Are there lessons to be learned from this that we can apply to those as well?

16:30
Member (w)
Hannah Blythyn 16:32:59
Y Dirprwy Weinidog Tai a Llywodraeth Leol