Y Cyfarfod Llawn - Y Bumed Senedd

Plenary - Fifth Senedd

11/07/2018

The Assembly met at 13:30 with the Llywydd (Elin Jones) in the Chair.

1. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs

The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs, and the first question, Joyce Watson.

Summer Hedgerow Management

1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on summer hedgerow management? OAQ52485

We recognise the agricultural, wildlife and landscape value of hedgerows. Birds mostly nest between March and August, and hedges should be checked before cutting, to avoid harm to nests. Recipients of common agricultural policy payments must adhere to cross-compliance rules, under which hedgerows cannot be cut between March and August.

Thank you for that, but every summer I'm alarmed by the number of hedges that are being trimmed during peak nesting season. They do provide an important food source for all types of animals, and vital nesting habitat for birds, particularly in the spring and summer months. And this year, travelling the roads, I've already witnessed unnecessary hedge cutting on several occasions across my constituency, and it's unnecessary because the hedge was under a tree canopy, and several metres away from the road. As you said, farmers and landowners are obliged by legislation not to trim between 1 March and 31 August, and that's fantastic. But with local authorities, and private householders, and golf courses, it's down to best practice—it's not compulsory. Nesting birds are protected under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but it doesn't protect them if we rely on hedgerows being adequately maintained during peak season. So, can I ask that the Welsh Government considers looking at introducing legislation that would make it compulsory for local authorities, private households and golf courses, and the like, not to trim their hedges between March and August and to bring those in line with the farmers and the landowners?

Can I thank the Member for the question? You raise a really important point in terms of the value of hedgerows in providing food sources and vital habitats for birds and animals, and to enhance and protect biodiversity. Under the Environment (Wales) Act 2016, there was a public duty on all public authorities to seek and maintain biodiversity, and doing so to increase ecosystem resilience, which also provides additional protection for hedgerows and the associated biodiversity, including pollinators. It is my plan to go and meet with local authorities in terms of actually how they are enacting the biodiversity duty in the environment Act and actually emphasise that that can form part of the value of hedgerows as part of that. You referenced the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. It does serve as a statutory mechanism to prevent the disturbance of nesting birds, from March to October, through hedge cutting. Although hedge cutting during these periods is not unlawful, all hedge owners must ensure no nesting birds are present before doing so.

Minister, I've received representations from constituents who have concerns over the over-zealous cutting of roadside verges, especially on the A40 from Fishguard to Haverfordwest road, which is destroying local flora and has knock-on effects on local wildlife. I understand that the Welsh Government is introducing a new green corridor initiative for roadside verges. But can you tell us what specific action the Welsh Government can take to protect the verges and ensure that their maintenance is appropriate and actually protects local wildlife?

I thank the Member for his question. You raise very similar points in terms of the importance of hedgerows in terms of protecting and enhancing habitats and biodiversity. And whilst the primary functions of hedgerows are often seen as just for the purpose of stock management and to mark land boundaries, there is a wider, broader value to them too, and a purpose for us. You mentioned the green corridors; they're often called wildlife corridors as well—biodiversity corridors. We brought before this place just recently the updated woodland strategy, and that incorporates looking at how hedgerows are part of that, in terms of creating green coverage, which is one of the avenues that will be taking this forward.

Marine Energy in North Wales

2. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on marine energy in north Wales? OAQ52492

Member
Lesley Griffiths AM 13:34:37
Cabinet Secretary for Energy, Planning and Rural Affairs

We recognise the potential of marine energy in creating low-carbon energy and providing economic and social benefits to our coastal communities. Welsh Government policies have supported the deployment of a range of marine energy technologies, and we will continue to work to realise the opportunities associated with this sector.

Thank you very much. Perhaps the question should have been reworded to ask about marine energy off the north Wales coast, to be precise. However, there is a large amount of energy available offshore and Anglesey is one of those areas where there is very innovative work being done to try and harvest that energy. Of course, the Morlais and Minesto Deep Green projects are two of the most prominent, and it was good to visit both with Simon Thomas just a week or two ago.

Now, in terms of the Morlais project, that project is reaching a key point now. We need to move on to Morlais B to make that electrical connection, and over £20 million of European funding will be required and, hopefully, will be made available for that. Now, given the funding that had been allocated by your Government for the Swansea bay tidal lagoon—a project that I do hope can proceed with Welsh support—if London isn’t interested, then would the Government, likewise, be prepared to consider an investment in the Morlais project as match funding that could help, alongside private equity, to release that crucial European funding?

13:35

Diolch. Anglesey is really becoming a hub, I think, now for tidal stream development, certainly, and I think, again, looking at tidal development, we need to make sure that we've got support from the UK Government, and I've written again to Greg Clark on the back of the very disappointing announcement in relation to the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. 

In answer to your very specific question about the funding that we had put aside—the £200 million—I have had some early discussions around the potential of being able to use that funding for other renewable energy projects. You'll be aware that we are going to bring forward a marine energy summit later on in the year, so I think the two will go hand in hand, but it's something I'm very happy to look at. I too have visited Morlais, so I'm very aware of the project and the significant benefits it could bring. 

I'm very pleased to hear that alternative ways of spending that £200 million are being considered by the Welsh Government, Cabinet Secretary. You'll be aware that there are companies who are interested in developing a tidal lagoon off the north Wales coast, using different technology than has been proposed in the south, and some seed funding in order to do some scoping work with Bangor University and others is being sought by that company and some other partners. I wonder whether you can consider making some of that £200 million available in order to do some of that scoping work, so that that can be open research that anybody can access if they want to further explore those wonderful opportunities that there might be for energy generation off the north Wales coast, which would bring other benefits, such as flood protection benefits and, indeed, agriculture and tourism benefits too. 

Thank you. Certainly, I'm aware of the proposal for a tidal lagoon in north Wales, and, as you say, it is a different technology. I think one of the areas that I am concerned about around tidal lagoons is that if the UK Government don't have a strategy, the impact that that will have. And I'll certainly be happy to look at the value-for-money report that they have now commissioned and is now on its way to us.

In relation to the question around seed funding being sought, I think perhaps the best thing would be if you or they wrote to me and I could have discussions with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance. 

Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

We now move to questions from the party spokespeople. The Conservative spokesperson, Andrew R.T. Davies.

Thank you, Presiding Officer; I've had my reincarnation as rural affairs spokesperson. [Laughter.]

I'd like to ask you, Cabinet Secretary, in light of the consultation that you launched yesterday—the very important consultation that you launched yesterday—what is your definition of a 'land manager'? One of the five principles that you've underlined is that, under any new schemes that might be coming forward from the Welsh Government, they need to be accessible to all. So, it's important to understand what the criteria would be to make that accessible. So, what is a land manager in your eyes?

I'd like to welcome Andrew R.T. Davies to his new position. I very much look forward to you shadowing me. You always describe yourself as 19 stone of prime Welsh beef, so I'm sure we'll have some fun alongside that too. So, welcome to your portfolio. 

How do I define a land manager? I would say farmers and foresters, but, of course, the majority of our land managers in Wales are farmers. 

I'm grateful for that interpretation, although, certainly, reading the consultation and reading some press speculation, it did seem as if the definition was slightly wider than that, and the interpretation could be given that large companies, for example, that might have land holdings—Tata Steel for example, or local authorities that might be looking to look after parklands or verges or whatever—that meet the environmental goals might well be able to access some of this funding that historically, under the common agricultural policy, has always been available to someone with a holding number or customer reference number. So, I'd be grateful if you could enlarge on that interpretation of who you think is a land manager. Would such public bodies, as I've just outlined, or private companies be eligible for a slice of this money that the Welsh Government would be making available, because, if so, that would be a complete change in direction from what the common agricultural policy historically has delivered back to Welsh agriculture? 

13:40

Well, perhaps, I can give you a little piece of advice as you start your new role, and that's not to believe everything you read in the press. I think that's the first thing to say.

In relation to the definition of a land manager, as I say, the majority of our land managers in Wales are farmers and have always been. I don't think it's a huge change of direction. You'll be aware of the two schemes that we're bringing forward: the economic resilience scheme and the public goods scheme. Now, what we're consulting on is the make-up of those schemes and how those schemes can ensure that we deliver our objectives in relation to the five principles that I set back in February for our sector. So, the consultation is there. I've heard in the press that we'll be funding allotments. We won't be funding allotments. So, I think it is important that we have clarification around the consultation, and I would again urge as many people as possible to bring forward their views. 

I'm grateful for that explanation, and maybe I can give a bit of advice back to the Cabinet Secretary: actually, I took it from a one-on-one interview that was in Wales Farmer yesterday, in which you gave a series of answers, so they were your answers that I was deducing my questions from. Clearly, they did leave the door open to interpretation of what a land manager was and actually who would be eligible for this funding. I appreciate the consultation is out there and there's much work to be done on that consultation, but there are some grey areas. You've clarified it to a point, about allotments, for example, and I presume that that would feed through into public bodies or private companies as well, as I cited, that wouldn't be eligible.

But one thing that, obviously, the consultation doesn't touch on is volatility in the marketplace. It talks of public goods and it talks about the environment, it does. As we're going through a heatwave at the moment, if you've got a farmer producing crops and producing livestock from the land in Wales, that volatility in the weather and the conditions is something that you can't mitigate. Any business plan you draw up cannot take that into account. What weight will you be giving to the volatility, to the very delicate environment that farmers and land managers work in, that no business plan can take account of? Is this an omission from the consultation and you'll be looking at it during further opportunities, or, under the two headings you've got, you've got volatility in there and it's just difficult at the moment to find it? 

In relation to volatility, obviously we work very closely with the UK Government and the other devolved administrations around that. I think you make a very pertinent point—we haven't seen this sort of weather for over 30, 40 years. So, I think it is important to make sure that we help businesses in relation to their business plans around volatility.

Just going back to the previous question on the public goods scheme, I recognise that so many of our farmers bring forward public goods at the moment that they don't get paid for and I think that's wrong. We put a huge amount of value on our public goods in Wales and I want to make sure that that is recognised, going forward with the schemes. 

Diolch, Llywydd. Cabinet Secretary, Jeremy Corbyn believes that a basic income is a very good idea. Can you explain why you don't think it's a good idea for Welsh farmers? 

I presume you're referring to the basic payments scheme and direct payments. I don't believe the common agricultural policy has delivered the outcomes that we think we can get more out of and that are of such huge importance here in Wales. 

Well, I thank you for that reply, and you're right that I am referring to the break of the link between what you could describe as a basic income and a move—significant shift—to outcomes based on public goods, as you've just described it, which is Treasury language to justify some of this. I understand that, and I think there's a lot in your consultation paper that is to be worked with and the grain of which I accept. But in breaking the link between the land that a farmer is responsible for, and the family farm in particular in Wales, you are also breaking the link between wholesome, sustainable food production and the ongoing support of payments. And I wonder whether you still believe such food production is in itself a public good or merely the associated environmental benefits, which you've just described. 

Food production is vitally important and I refer to the five principles and about delivering on the objectives of the five principles, and food production is one of them, and I was absolutely determined that it would be one of them, but it's not a public good. Food is not a public good. It has a market and so it cannot be a public good. So, what I suppose we're doing is creating a market, if you like, for public goods, but food is not a public good.

13:45

I think that the way you produce food is a public good and I think that sustainable and wholesome food is something that we should be trying to achieve for the wider benefit of the environment, our public health and everything else, so I would certainly want and urge people to respond to your consultation in making that strong link.

What we don't want to see, and I'm sure you'd agree, is the end of the family farm in Wales, the end of farmers who are responsible and stewards of the land that they either own or have tenanted—because it's increasingly also a tenanted landscape that we see. And we wouldn't want the end of that and then the replacement of family farms by employed land managers or people who are wardens or anything else. The key to maintaining your safe environment is that long-term investment, that long-term resilience, and a family farm and a farmer, himself or herself, at the heart of it.

But, as you have suggested that a greater number of people will be able to fish in this declining pond, can you also reply as to how we will ensure that this will be a long-term and sustainable construct under your consultation? At the moment, the common agricultural policy is seven years; though there are changes, they are often gradual, and farmers, particularly if we're moving towards public goods, will need to demonstrate things like carbon capture or flood prevention not over one year or two years, but over a long period of time. So, are you taking fully into account the need for multi-annual frameworks and investment in your land management policies?

I want to start by saying that I don't want to see the loss of any small family farms—I don't want to see the loss of one farm. However, we have to recognise that Brexit brings immense challenges for the sector and that's why we need to do all we can to support them. They are custodians of our land and that's the message that—. Funnily enough, I've just done an interview now, ahead of the Royal Welsh Show, and I was asked if my perceptions had changed and I said that the one thing I hadn't realised was how much farmers take pride in their land and making sure that they just look after it for the period of time that they do and to make sure it's there for future generations. When I was out in New Zealand in April, the one lesson I came back with, after what happened to them back in 1984 with that cliff edge, was that they lost so many small farms, and I'm determined that that won't happen post Brexit here in Wales.

This is part of the consultation—you're quite right that they are a long-term sector and they need that multi-year security. And that will form part of the consultation around the two schemes that we've got, and also I've made it very clear—and I hope that's come out in the consultation launch—that we will have this transition period, because basic payments will continue in 2018 and 2019 and then, from 2020, we will start the new scheme. But there has to be a multi-year transition period: you can't expect to go from basic payment straight to the new scheme. So, I'll use Rural Payments Wales, which you'll know is very successful—we're the best in the UK—and I will use that group to make sure that we get the scheme correct from the beginning.

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. I've had a great deal of contact recently with animal welfare campaigners who are concerned about pre-stunning of animals and ritual slaughter, in particular. And they've pointed out to me that non-stun slaughter has now been banned in Denmark, Iceland, Sweden and New Zealand, that the British Veterinary Association have said that pre-stunning is superior from a welfare point of view, and that recent methodological developments in electroencephalograms allow the experience of pain to be assessed more directly than ever before, and, in relation to calves that are slaughtered by ventral neck incision, it's apparently now quite clear that this could be perceived as painful in the period between the incision and the loss of consciousness. So, in these circumstances, will the Cabinet Secretary look again—in line with the BVA's viewpoint and the RSPCA's, and many other organisations involved in animal welfare, that the only way to adhere to the highest standards of animal welfare in Welsh slaughterhouses is to ensure that all animals are stunned before slaughter for whatever reason?

This is certainly a discussion I had with the British Veterinary Association just a couple of weeks ago, and I've asked officials to look at the information they've brought forward for me in detail.

13:50

Good. Well, I'm grateful for that reply, which I regard as very positive. In the event that the Cabinet Secretary decides not to change the law in this respect, will she consider an alternative proposition, which also comes from the BVA? They say that they recognise that, whilst pre-stunning is superior from a welfare point of view, should non-stun slaughter continue to be permitted, post-cut stunning offers a valid means of reducing the suffering of animals at slaughter. And post-cut stunning, I think, would meet most of the objections from religious groups.

Well, as I say, I'm waiting for officials to come back with advice for me following the initial discussion I've had with the BVA, so, you know, I'm not going to make policy up on the hoof now, but it's obviously an ongoing process for me.

Making policy on the hoof would not be appropriate, even for an agriculture spokesman, I'm sure. As the Cabinet Secretary will know, there has been a huge increase in the growth of the halal meat market in particular. Much of this food is not being consumed by Muslims, and it's gone into mainstream takeaways and fast food outlets as well. A lot of people have objections for whatever reason on animal welfare grounds to eating such food. Would she agree with me that it is important that people should know what they're eating and that those who are concerned about the animal welfare considerations that I've mentioned ought therefore to be able to make an informed choice in such circumstances? Will she commit to prioritising greater consumer awareness on religious slaughter and non-stun slaughter, not just through labelling products in supermarkets but also in restaurants and takeaways?

I absolutely agree—it's very important that people know what they're eating, and I think that, certainly amongst restaurants, that consumer awareness is not out there. I was in a restaurant where I noticed, when I came out, that there was a very small sign at the bottom of the door that said that all meat was halal. Now, I think that should be far more visible, in the way that we've done with food hygiene standards, for instance. So, I absolutely agree that it's very important that people know what they're eating.

Fuel Poverty

3. What progress is being made in reducing fuel poverty across South Wales West? OAQ52504

Thank you. Our Warm Homes programme is making good progress, reducing fuel poverty households by six percentage points across Wales between 2012 and 2016. Since 2012, we've invested over £25 million installing energy efficiency improvements in low-income households in Bridgend, Neath Port Talbot, Rhondda Cynon Taf, Swansea and the Vale of Glamorgan.

Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. It's important that we do recognise the good work that's been going on in reducing fuel poverty and the action being taken to insulate properties in particular. But, of course, there is a problem with that. Many of my constituents have faced the challenges of cavity wall insulation. They've gone through those programmes, supported by Welsh Government, with businesses coming in, selling their product, basically getting the work done, and then they find they have problems down the line. And, of course, these problems should all be protected against by CIGA, the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency. Whether you're living in Briton Ferry, Port Talbot, Cymmer, Croeserw, Gwynfi—no matter where it is, there are problems with CIGA. I've brought this to your attention before. What's the Welsh Government doing to ensure that CIGA lives up to its actual obligations and delivers guarantees for those people?

Well, the Member will be aware—as you say, you've raised it with me several times in correspondence and we had a very good debate in the Chamber, I think it was at the tail end of last year, around this issue—that the Cavity Insulation Guarantee Agency is an independent body. It provides 25-year guarantees for cavity wall insulation fitted by registered installers in the UK and the Channel Islands. You'll be aware that all the installers are assessed for competence and they have to follow technical guidance for the material used and the best practice guidance. I've had discussions with the UK Government, because I'm aware that there have been concerns, and it is really important that people are able to access the very best advice and hold them to account, and I will continue to do that.

Cabinet Secretary, back in May, I asked you if schemes like Arbed and Nest had contributed to the number of ground- and air-source heat pumps installed in Wales, and can I thank you for writing to me with a bit more information on that? I was a bit surprised to see from your letter, though, that just nine air-source heat pumps were installed through Nest in the six years leading up to 2017 in my region. So, that's over six years—just nine. And the letter goes on to say that ground-source heat pumps have never been an agreed measure for homes under Nest or Arbed. If you're really going to make a difference to Welsh families and, obviously, to cutting carbon emissions, shouldn't these figures be a bit higher by now?

13:55

I think we certainly need to look at new technologies and new innovations going forward, and we've just procured for the next stage of our Warm Homes programmes. I was in front of the environment committee last week, alongside my colleague Rebecca Evans, around work in this area, and I do think it would be good if we could see an increase in these numbers. I will certainly keep Members updated on the way forward.

I wanted to ask a question about what discussions you’ve had with the housing Minister about trying to make social housing and council homes more energy efficient and better in this regard. Do you believe that councils need to be told that they need to do a certain level of work to make their homes more sustainable before they receive further grant funding from you as a Government? I know that there are examples throughout Wales of councils that are carrying out good work in this area, which can then have a positive impact on the bills of the tenants, ultimately—they would have to spend less money on their bills as a result. So, what progressive work are you doing in this area?

Thank you. I have had discussions with the Minister for Housing and Regeneration on this issue, particularly in relation to our decarbonisation targets, because, obviously, this is one area that will help us to reach our targets. You're quite right; there are some councils that have real best practice in this area. As to whether we should be making them do things that make houses more sustainable before we give them grants, I don't think we've had specific discussions about that, but it's something I'm very happy to look at with her.

Protecting Companion Animals

4. Will the Cabinet Secretary outline the Welsh Government's plans to improve the protection of companion animals? OAQ52499

Thank you. The Wales animal health and welfare framework implementation plan sets out the framework group and Welsh Government priorities for animal health and welfare. I set out my plans to maintain and improve companion animal welfare in Wales in my oral statement last month.

Thank you, and it's because of your oral statement that I'm asking this question. You will know that, in that statement, you've indicated that you're not minded to introduce an animal abuse register for Wales, based on the fact that there isn't enough UK evidence. Well, the whole point of you initiating this was to create an evidence base in this country. We know that there's international evidence to support an animal abuse register, looking at examples from the United States of America. Is this a block on ambition from the Government, or is there something else that I'm not aware of? It's very, very hard for us to make an assessment on your statement without having that report in front of us. The time is ticking for the report that you've said you would give to us by the end of term. I'd really like to be able to see that, to understand your logic, because I do feel that, if you don't put this forward, it is a missed opportunity, and we could have been leaders in this field.

I mentioned that I'd just had the report when I made the statement in the Chamber last month. I've now had the opportunity to consider it in great detail. As I say, they make it very clear that the development of a register is not really recommended at this time. There are many other actions that I think are worthy of further work, but I have asked officials—you know, I've raised several questions on the report, and I've asked officials to look at it, and I will, as promised, make sure that I share it before the end of term, which gives me a week.

In that statement, you said that people should think through very carefully the responsibilities they're undertaking when they're thinking of having a pet. But I'm glad to hear you say also that you recognise that people's circumstances can change quite suddenly and through no fault of their own. Cats Protection is reporting a rise in the number of cats coming to them because landlords, some of them, are reluctant to accept cats, and, similarly, residential homes as well, and in both these cases it's quite often older cats that are either, sadly, abandoned or taken to a shelter and, of course, are more difficult to re-home. We know that pets contribute to both mental and physical well-being, so what kind of conversations are you having with landlords and the care home sector to see whether pets and their people can be kept together? Thank you.

I haven't had any specific discussions with either of those sectors, but I think you raise an important point. When you say about older animals, obviously, if somebody is going into residential care, it's probably likely that they will have had their pet for a considerable number of years. So, it can be incredibly upsetting for both parties. So, I think it is something that we do need to look at. I will make sure that I do start to have those conversations and will write to the Member in due course.

14:00
Energy Production Schemes

5. Following the UK Government's decision not to back the Swansea bay tidal lagoon, what action is the Welsh Government taking to encourage and support energy production schemes in Wales? OAQ52490

Wales has the potential to create significant new low-carbon generation, which could provide economic and social benefits. Welsh Government policies and support mechanisms have created a positive environment for developing new energy generation. Our focus now is on ensuring Wales benefits over the long term from any further development.

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. We now know that the UK Government based their decision upon inaccurate figures, understating the true benefit and cost of the Swansea bay tidal lagoon. An audit undertaken by the Centre for Economics and Business Research shows that the six proposed lagoons would only be slightly more expensive than Hinkley C. Cabinet Secretary, in light of this revelation, will you be demanding that the UK Government re-evaluate the proposal for Swansea bay?

I know the UK Government has now published a summary of its value-for-money assessment, and as I mentioned in an earlier answer, we're now reviewing that, and I think it depends what conclusions we come to from that as to what action we take. It did suggest the proposed tidal lagoon at Swansea bay would have a capital cost of more than three times as much per unit of electricity as the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. So, I think these are figures that we need to look in depth at, and I'm sure we will have a view, and then we can decide on what action we want to take.

The Westminster Government seems to have an energy policy based upon offshore wind and nuclear power. As prototypes are by their very nature more expensive, and the future storage costs of nuclear are capped—we would never have had a nuclear power station built if they weren't capped—it is not a level playing field. Did the Westminster Government explain why the price for nuclear—which, as we all know, is an over-60-year-old technology—was acceptable, but the same price, which was the final offer of the same strike price for the tidal lagoon as for Hinkley, was not acceptable? Have the Westminster Government explained why one is acceptable and one isn't, when one's a prototype and one's a 60-year-old technology with a capped final cost?

No, and I think that's a very important point that you raise. I've just mentioned in my answer to Caroline Jones that we are looking at that summary value-for-money assessment now. I think you're right; their policy does seem to focus on just offshore and nuclear power. Of course, nuclear power, whilst being low carbon, is certainly not renewable energy. I've had discussions with Claire Perry, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, around this, and about the need to encourage further onshore wind, and certainly solar power, too. I've also written to Greg Clark following the decision around the importance of making sure that we engage and support other renewable energy technologies.

Both Caroline Jones and Mike Hedges have made some very valid and important points when it comes to the Swansea tidal lagoon, and Welsh Conservatives have been clear that we hope that there can be a way forward found for that project. I appreciate that this is a setback, but the Welsh Government certainly have our support in finding alternative ways in the future to progress the project.

Of course, there are smaller scale schemes as well across Wales that are going ahead. You may be aware of Prosiect Gwyrdd in my constituency—I hope I pronounced that right—which is actually a collaboration between the five councils in south-east Wales, including Monmouthshire, that seeks the most cost-effective and environmentally friendly way to deal with residual waste that cannot be recycled or composted, but that can be burnt to produce steam and provide energy. Would you agree with me that this is a great example of collaboration between local authorities, Cabinet Secretary, and also a great way to deal with waste that cannot be dealt with in an otherwise environmentally friendly way? What are you doing to extend these types of projects, and to roll them out across the rest of Wales?

Yes, I would agree with you. It's good to see collaboration at that scale between the five local authorities. It's really important that we get a mix of energy, and certainly community energy projects. I've seen some fantastic ones right across Wales. You'll also be aware—I think it's in your constituency; it's certainly Monmouthshire council—of the big solar farm that they've got there. We loaned, I think, about £4 million from Welsh Government. So, I think it is really good to see local authorities collaborating, coming up with innovative technologies to help us, again, make sure we reach our carbon targets. 

14:05
Subordinate Legislation

6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the Welsh Government's consultation on the proposal to consolidate and review subordinate legislation on use classes and general permitted development? OAQ52507

Diolch. The consultation, informed by research, proposes updating the use classes Order, particularly for retail uses. It includes complementary changes to permitted development rights and proposes new rights to support the roll-out of electric car charging, next generation telecommunications networks and renewable energy development, without the need for a planning application.

You will be aware that Gwynedd is the area with the largest number of second homes in Wales, some 5,000 in total. As a result, local people are priced out of the housing market, causing a crisis in many communities. As the Welsh Government is currently consulting on reforming subordinate legislation in planning, which includes the rules in terms of use classes and the requirement for change of use, would you be willing to look at the issue of using the planning system to try and control the second home market? In drawing up the draft proposals, did you consider the possibility of introducing a requirement that you would need planning permission before residences could be used or transferred into second homes? And will you commit to look at this and to take action in drawing up your final proposals as a means of managing prices within the housing market?

Thank you. I think the Welsh Government has provided an alternative means of addressing the issues associated with second homes. You'll be aware of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. We've provided local authorities in Wales with discretionary powers around council tax premiums, for instance. We also need to be very mindful—bearing in mind your question—we need to be very mindful, I think, of unintended financial consequences of introducing a new use class. I would not want to increase the value of existing second homes and then reduce the value of homes that aren't second homes, because I think that would be an unintended consequence.

Cabinet Secretary, can I welcome that part of the consultation that proposes the restructuring of the use class system to provide further protection for pubs in a manner similar to that in England? We've lost something like 17 per cent of our pubs since the year 2000. In England, there's a further protection in the planning system whereby a pause is placed on the disposal of assets that are of value to the community, a scheme known more commonly as the community right to buy. Do you think a similar sort of system ought to be introduced to Wales as part of this scheme?

David Melding points out that the consultation proposes legislative changes to help prevent the change of use or demolition of a pub without first obtaining planning permission. Certainly, once the consultation is finished—I've extended the consultation by about five weeks, I think—we can see if those sorts of proposals have come forward.

Supporting Farmers

7. What steps will the Welsh Government take in the next 12 months to support farmers in west Wales? OAQ52476

Thank you. The 'Brexit and our land' consultation is live until 30 October. It contains proposals to enable farmers and other land managers to adapt from current to future arrangements, for the next 12 months and beyond. I urge everyone who depends on rural Wales for their business or well-being to get involved.

Cabinet Secretary, I've recently met with farmers in my constituency who continue to feel frustrated and indeed angry that, despite being under more measures and restrictions than ever before, the Welsh Government have yet to seriously tackle bovine TB in a holistic way. In light of their concerns, can you confirm that the Welsh Government will be focusing its efforts in the next 12 months on tackling this disease in the wildlife reservoir as well as in cattle? Can you also confirm that the Welsh Government has provided sufficient resources to this area for this work to be carried out?

Yes, I can certainly say that there are sufficient resources for this work to be carried out. We're now nine months into our refreshed TB eradication programme. I launched it back in October last year. I think we are making progress, but we want to make sure we've got the most meaningful disease statistics so that I can provide a complete picture in relation to the disease. I'm going to make a statement on the progress of that programme. I want to have a complete year. I said I would do an annual statement, and I want to have a complete year, so I'm going to use January to December this year as the complete year. So, I will be doing a statement early next year in relation to that. But I do think it is important to recognise that we are making significant progress.

14:10

It’s obvious, going around rural Wales, how dry the ground is; things are very much affected by the weather. Now, you’ve already said that you will relax some of the Glastir requirements to assist farmers to deal with this weather. Should this weather continue—and this is the final opportunity to ask you before summer recess—if this weather does continue, and there is a lack of rain, are there any other steps or actions that you can take to ensure that no bureaucratic rules stop farmers from doing the right thing for the ground, and also for their stock? And can you be as flexible as possible, given that we may have a particularly dry summer?

You're quite right; we have relaxed regulations. I thought it was very important. I've also asked officials this week to have a look at what protocol we have in place in relation to water. I certainly will be as flexible as I possibly can be, because we just don't know for how much longer—although it looked very black before, and I know a lot of people are praying for rain—but, certainly, my intention is to be as flexible as I possibly can be.

Energy Production

8. What recent discussions has the Cabinet Secretary had regarding alternative proposals for energy production in Wales? OAQ52489

Thank you. I and my colleague the Cabinet Secretary for Economy and Transport frequently meet with UK and other Ministers, developers and regulators to discuss energy opportunities. Most recently, I attended the British-Irish Council ministerial meeting on energy in Edinburgh, where I had positive discussions with Ministers from all eight administrations.

Cabinet Secretary, Wales needs a true mix of energy production if we are to combat climate change and ensure energy security. One of the biggest challenges for renewables is the unpredictability of production. Over the last few weeks, we have produced far more solar energy than needed, and as a result it has been wasted. We need to find better ways to store energy. So, Cabinet Secretary, what is your Government doing to encourage more research into energy capture and storage, and have you considered working with companies such as Tesla, who are leading the field in this type of research?

I'm not sure how it's being wasted; I'd be very interested in having information as to why Caroline Jones thinks it's being wasted. Certainly, capture and storage is very important, and we're doing significant work around research in this area, because you're quite right; we do need to have a true mix of all types of renewable energy, and storage in particular is becoming very important going forward. 

A few weeks ago, Cabinet Secretary, you did announce interim targets in the first two carbon budgets for Wales, and you said you'd consult on an action plan to achieve them in July. Can you say any more about this action plan, and the role of renewable energy in achieving it? 

Yes, certainly. The consultation will be launched tomorrow. I will be issuing a written statement to Assembly Members, and it includes action up to 2030 to allow stakeholders to be involved in the development of our actions. And certainly, if we are going to achieve our 2050 target, we do need to take some very long-term actions. Renewable energy has a very important role in meeting our decarbonisation target, and that's why I did set those very ambitious targets for energy generation. However, we need to take action in all sectors, and given the importance of decarbonisation and the scale of the challenge that we face, yesterday Cabinet agreed that we would add decarbonisation as a sixth priority area in 'Prosperity for All' cross-Government working.

Cabinet Secretary, perhaps I can take you back to lagoons as part of that mix. I asked the First Minister yesterday whether that £200 million we've all been talking about is definitely earmarked for lagoon and marine energy. He didn't answer. I'm picking up from your answers today that there is £200 million there. Bearing in mind that you've already indicated that some of that could be going elsewhere, can you tell me how much you would be prepared to commit to for Swansea, bearing in mind that we've already got the planning permission, the public support and, of course, a whole set of ancillary benefits, many of which are devolved competence, and therefore should be paid for by Welsh Government, or are you asking about whether—? Can I ask you whether there is additional money to expand the whole idea of a mix of renewable energy production?

14:15

I suppose the short answer is: there's always money for really good projects. The £200 million I mentioned in an earlier answer to a colleague—I am having discussions, very early discussions, about with the Cabinet Secretary for Finance. I of course made a case for that—you would expect me to, sitting around the Cabinet table. But we are having this energy summit later on in the year and, I think, probably, when we look at what technologies are coming forward there and what projects are coming forward there, that's when the decisions will be taken and, again, I stress: I think, unless the UK Government have a strategy around tidal lagoons, it's incredibly difficult to see how we can take that forward. I know there have been calls for Welsh Government to take it—we just can't. The UK Government have really, I think, badly let us down in this area.

Air Pollution in Port Talbot

9. What progress has been made in tackling air pollution in Port Talbot within the Aberavon constituency? OAQ52493

The Welsh Government's action plan on clean air for Port Talbot reaffirms our commitment to practically tackling poor air quality in the region. I have commissioned a peer review of progress against this plan, our approach, and the evidence that underpins it, to ensure it remains fit for purpose. I'll meet Tata Steel, Natural Resources Wales and Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council soon to support this process. 

I thank you for that answer, Minister, and I'm not going to talk about the 50 mph extension, which is causing chaos, but I will talk about Tata Steel and the issues relating to that. We all understand that heavy industry has a consequence of some form of pollution, but many, many, many constituents have expressed huge concern over the levels of fallout that we've had in Port Talbot over the last few months. I appreciate that the warm weather is a contributing factor, we understand that, but this has gone beyond that, before that happened. And what is it doing? Because Natural Resources Wales have responsibility for monitoring and taking action to ensure that the air quality from the works is improved. Can you assure me that they are actually doing that job because residents are going out, not daily, but basically hourly to clean their tables and cars and their windowsills because of the fallout from the works?

I thank the Member for his question and his regular commitment to this issue for his constituency. You said about how there's instances lately in terms of with the dry, warm weather of large amounts of dust impacting on local residents. I completely understand the anxiety and the frustration that that would cause for local residents. I understand that—. You're right that Natural Resources Wales remain responsible for regulating this. I understand they're meeting Tata today to discuss the recent issues, and I've asked my officials to liaise with them to ensure that it's fed back promptly to me in terms of the outcome of these discussions.

I'm going to work with NRW and all the other stakeholders to review current operations, dust—[Inaudible.]—and the impact on the local community. I share the Member's concerns, and I've been clear that my goal is to bring down levels of air pollution, but as you and others recognise, it is a very complex, complicated and unique situation, which brings with it many challenges, but doesn't mean we can't rise to those challenges. It's important to make sure we strike that balance between recognising the role the steelworks plays in terms of being an economic anchor within the local community but also making sure we are getting the right results for the health and well-being of local residents as well.

2. Questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services

The next questions are for the Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services, and the first question is from David Melding. 

Public Services Grants

1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the grants provided by local government to deliver public services? OAQ52498

Member
Alun Davies AM 14:19:08
Cabinet Secretary for Local Government and Public Services

Local authorities deliver a range of grants schemes to provide support and services locally. 

Cabinet Secretary, thank you for that very concise answer. The Welsh Government's proposals to amalgamate several grant-funded streams into a single grant—the early intervention, prevention and support grant—will remove the ring-fenced protection for several streams such as Supporting People, the Flying Start revenue grant and Families First. Now, in my region, this could have a detrimental impact on an initiative called the Teulu partnership, which is extremely popular, and has provided vital support for children at very difficult times. Some constituents have informed me that if it wasn't for the help and support that the Teulu partnership has given them they would have had no way of getting through some extremely difficult experiences. Now, I understand that Welsh Government officials have made some enquiries into the future of this grant, and that Cardiff council has confirmed that any new arrangements will ensure that the services provided by the Teulu partnership will continue.

Do you think it's really important that successful schemes are taken forward in any new funding arrangement, and that we maintain best practice? We don't need to reinvent the wheel constantly, and, certainly, when our constituents tell you something works, it should be maintained.

14:20

Can I say in answering the question, Presiding Officer, that if any Members have particular issues about particular funding streams and particular groups in their constituencies or regions, then we're always happy to take up those particular issues and those specific issues, both ourselves and the local authorities concerned?

In terms of the new integrated grant, I will say to the Member that it will still be ring-fenced to focus on the most vulnerable groups in society. We are considering how we further develop our approach to monitoring outcomes to ensure that we do not see the outcomes that the Member has described, and which the Member quite rightly fears; I accept that there is concern about that. But it is also important—and I hope Members also consider this—that we are integrating grants that all have in common a need to intervene early and support individuals and households to live independently and achieve their potential.

I think Members across the whole Chamber will agree that people's lives and the challenges that they face do not fit neatly into the structures that we can sometimes build around grant schemes, and therefore I believe that integration is the correct way forward. But, clearly, we have to do that whilst maintaining services to vulnerable groups in society. The purpose of this is to improve things, not to cause the difficulties that he describes.

The heat of summer can be just as dangerous as the cold of winter for homeless people. Heat exhaustion, dehydration, sunburn and sanitation all become serious issues for the growing number of people in Wales stuck on the street.

Cabinet Secretary, Luke's story came to my attention over the weekend. So desperate was he for water, Luke was reduced to drinking from toilets. On our streets, in our country, under your Government, desperate people are forced into inhuman indignity. Today, the charity, the Wallich, has called for urgent action. Central Government must now work with local authorities and the third sector to take immediate action to help these desperate people.

Water and sunblock are a particular priority for homeless people in these conditions, so can the Cabinet Secretary please tell me what urgent measures he plans to implement to ensure that homeless people can cope in the current weather conditions?

Can I say, Presiding Officer, I saw some of those reports myself, and my conclusion isn't dissimilar to yours? I think it is an appalling thing that people in this day and age have to resort to those measures in order to sustain themselves. I think everybody will agree with your conclusions on that and will wish to agree with you in terms of your approach to that. I read the same report today as you have, and it fills me full of horror that people in this country are living in that way.

The Minister for housing is in her place for this question session. She has heard what you've had to say and she will respond to you. But let me say this: this Government is wholly and completely committed to resolving the issues of homelessness—as you say, in the summer and in the winter—across the whole of this country, and our resources will always be prioritised to meet the needs of those people who are most vulnerable in our society, and the Minister is as committed to that as I am.

Homeless People

2. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on support provided by local authorities to homeless people in Mid and West Wales? OAQ52495

The five local authorities in Mid and West Wales have successfully ended homelessness for 2,907 households and successfully prevented homelessness for 2,421 households since commencement of the Housing (Wales) Act 2014. We have provided over £900,000 directly to these local authorities last year for homelessness services in addition to the revenue support grant.

I thank the Minister for that informative reply. Unfortunately, homelessness in Wales has been rising in recent times. In 2016-17 the average for Wales as a whole was 82 people per 10,000 households. That's up from 52 in the previous year, although part of that increase may be explained by improved data collection. But nevertheless, it's still a worrying trend, and we all heard what the Cabinet Secretary said a moment ago, and I thought it was quite a moving response to the leader of Plaid Cymru. Carmarthenshire's figures are much higher than the national average—well over 100 in 10,000 designated homeless people.

I'm concerned to ask today about one aspect of this, which is that proportion of homeless people who are ex-armed forces veterans. A Northern Ireland veteran and chief executive of Veterans Association UK says there are 13,000 homeless veterans at a UK level, but the figure could be higher. We don't know what the figures might be for Wales, but it's fair to assume that there will be quite a number of veterans, ex-armed forces people who are sleeping rough and are homeless.

Carl Sargeant was a great friend to veterans and was responsible for significant improvements in provision for homeless veterans in particular, and I was wondering, therefore, whether the new Cabinet Secretary, who I know shares Carl's concerns, and you in particular, Minister, would consider going further than the code of guidance that was issued in 2016 and give social housing priority to ex-servicemen and women and those returning from active service as a step to ensuring that armed services personnel get the aftercare service they deserve.

14:25

I thank you very much for that question, and I completely agree with you about the worrying trend in terms of homelessness, particularly rough-sleeping. But I think we can be proud of the record that we do have in terms of prevention. I gave you some of the figures of the thousands of people who've had homelessness prevented and relieved in your region, and the figure now across Wales is 14,000 families, which I think is something to be celebrated. I know that other countries are looking at our legislation really carefully to see what they can learn from us. But, nonetheless, as long as there is homelessness, and as long as there is rough-sleeping, then clearly we need to be doing more work in partnership with those local authorities and our other partners.

In terms of support for people who are leaving the armed forces and for veterans, I know that the housing pathway has been in place and has had some success, but I've also been having some discussions recently with representatives of the Royal British Legion in terms of what more we can do to be supporting people who are veterans and also people leaving the armed forces, and also their families as well, because often they find themselves in difficult positions regarding housing, and potentially facing homelessness when divorces happen and so on. So, it is a complex picture, but one that we are very much engaged with and we are keen to see what more we can do to support veterans.

Minister, I would be keen to get a greater understanding of how local authorities measure and collate the reasons for homelessness. As you know, in my constituency, we have a case of a significant number of park home residents who, through the changes in law made by Welsh Government, are under threat of becoming homeless. Now, in response to a letter of mine, you said that you'd already had your officials to be in touch with Pembrokeshire County Council to talk about their potential needs if they become homeless. But I would like to make the point that these are very elderly people, they are very vulnerable, they've sunk all their life savings into buying their park home, and for them to face this at their time of life is really just a complete abrogation of duty all round. 

I wonder what further action you can take on this. I know you make the point, in your letter to me, that they have until 2019, the park home owners, to start making small adjustments, but some of these park homes are very, very finely balanced. Pembrokeshire may be the first place where this issue has raised its head, but I am concerned that, throughout Wales, there may be other park homes where they are on a knife edge in terms of their ability to carry on going. And if we're not careful, we will suddenly find a very vulnerable section of our society made homeless at a time of their lives when they are going to find it very, very difficult to manage that. I do think that we need to have a more proactive response to how we're going to handle the unintended consequences to the legislation that Welsh Government put in place.

I thank you very much for raising this issue. Of course, the legislation is not yet in place; it will be subject to a vote of the whole Assembly in the early part of next year. Of course, the approach I tried to take was a pragmatic approach, trying to be fair to both the park home owners and also the park home residents. I know that the Conservative Party was very much pressing the approach of completely abolishing the park home fees, which would've had a very different impact, I think, on park homes.

I'm quite limited in terms of what I'm able to say on this particular issue now, because I understand that there's potentially the intention to issue some court proceedings. So, I'll probably leave it there for today, and if I am able to say more, I'll write to you.

14:30
Questions Without Notice from Party Spokespeople

Questions now from the party spokespeople. The UKIP spokesperson, Gareth Bennett.

Diolch, Llywydd. There have been a number of successful planning applications recently for student accommodation in Cardiff. Some people have observed that virtually every major housing block granted planning permission for central Cardiff in the past 18 months has been for student accommodation. At the same time, we have a second so-called student block considering applying for change of use so that it can let its rooms to non-students, due to lack of demand from the student population. We also have a large block in Newport that is no longer being used exclusively for students. If there is a lack of demand for the blocks that have already been built, why are more student blocks being built, I wonder. Is the Welsh Government aware of this issue, and what are you doing to regulate this area?

Thank you for the question. I'm certainly aware of the issue, in terms of there being a large number of student accommodations within Cardiff that aren't being occupied by students. There's a particular difficulty in terms of changing those accommodations into non-student accommodations, of course, because my understanding is that the regulations surrounding the different types of accommodation are different, so there is an issue there in terms of space, and so on. I know this is an issue that the Minister with responsibility for planning is also very much alive to. But my advice to local authorities, certainly, would be to look very closely at their local housing needs analysis, and to be organising their planning and decision making around planning in accordance with those local housing needs.

Thanks for that response. I'm glad you are aware of the issue. I think there may be a need for perhaps closer involvement at Welsh Government level in this area, because the local authorities—certainly in Cardiff and Newport—may not be doing enough about it. I think that we may be heading for over-supply of student accommodation. Certainly we know that the expansion of higher education cannot go on forever; there will not be an endless supply of more student numbers in Cardiff, Newport, or probably anywhere else in Wales. I think what we may have here is something of a scam. It may be that the universities are deliberately creating an over-supply of flats for the student market, so that they can change their use by the back door, and use them subsequently to let out commercially. We know that there are less stringent rules applied to student flats than to commercial developments, for instance, which you alluded to in your answer. Are you aware that the universities could be duping the local councils into allowing these developments of student blocks, which the university chiefs know full well may be used subsequently for commercial letting?

I think there's an onus on universities and on the local authorities to be having some serious discussions together in terms of their projections of local needs for both students and the non-student population, and to be planning their new builds and what's available in terms of accommodation locally in that way. I'm not sure that there's a role for Welsh Government in terms of stipulating the number of student accommodations that should be available, but those decisions should be taken on an evidence base and a needs-based approach.

Yes. You cite the need for an evidence-based approach, and I'm sure you're right in that. But there may be implications for your ambitions for affordable housing in Wales, which you were telling us about in the Assembly this week. Certainly, we agreed that we have a shortage of affordable housing here.

Commercial developers, when they build new housing estates, have a certain legal obligation to provide an element of affordable housing. Developers building so-called student blocks are under no such obligation. Unless the Welsh Government becomes more aware of what the universities may be doing, and investigates the practice, then there is a danger that you are allowing the universities, and their partners in the construction business, to undermine your ambitions for affordable housing. So, are you aware of this threat? And I would ask you again: do you intend to do anything about it?

Well, the Minister with responsibility for planning has already said that she intends to issue a wide-ranging review of housing and planning rules over the course of the summer. So, I'm sure that this will be one of the issues that are drawn to the fore and drawn to attention within the course of that consultation, and it will be an opportunity to consider whether there need to be changes in that regard.

14:35

Okay. I'm going to talk about drug issues, so I don't know if that's—. I wasn't asked if it was Rebecca—.

It's Vaughan Gething, but I'm happy to take the question. 

Yes, well, okay, we'll see if there's cross-Government work then. [Laughter.]

My first question is with regard to drug use and misuse in some places, which have reached scarily high levels, and a report earlier this year highlighted that, since 1993, deaths as a result of heroin use have increased significantly. As well as this, there has been a worrying rise in county line drug crime, with drug dealers and gangs increasingly targeting smaller communities and moving out of large cities in England to come here. I know in South Wales West we've heard of stories in Swansea and in Neath. It's within the top-10 places in England and Wales where deaths have risen, and other drug uses, such as spice, are also on the rise. I understand you are working with the police in relation to this, but I just wanted to understand how you're working with them so that we can tackle this issue head on. 

Oh, it's you. Okay.

You haven't heard the answer yet. [Laughter.]

I am grateful to the Member for the question. We are working closely with the four police forces in Wales on this matter. I've met with the officers dealing with serious and organised crime in Wales to discuss the matters that she does raise. They are very serious matters, of course, and affect all of our forces across this country. So, we are working with them. I hope over the summer to put in place structures whereby we can formalise the work that we do with the police forces at the moment. Members are aware, of course, that these are not devolved matters—neither drug policy nor policing is devolved. So, we are working in areas where we do not have control of the policy agenda, but we do clearly have a great influence, I hope, in the way in which policing can be delivered. So, we are aware of the issue. I'm particularly aware of the issues that you describe in Neath, and I hope that we will be able to work with police forces to deliver the sort of response that you've described. 

This next one is both to do with this issue and housing, so I'll see if you can both stand up, potentially. 

No, no. This isn't a kind of throw the question out there and—

I wasn't asked this time, to be honest, which Minister I was directing it to, as usual, so I think that's why the confusion has happened. 

This question is to who? Make it clear now, and I'll ask the Minister or the Cabinet Secretary to respond. Which one do you—? No, the Cabinet Secretary will be responding and don't put me in this position again. 

This is why this is an issue that may be confusing for the Government in terms of who responds to what, because of the fact that there is that issue with regard to the link between deprivation and drugs, and the issue with regard to housing, and I think that's something that the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs has confirmed in relation to this issue.

Wales Online last year said that one heroin addict told Wales Online that he wanted to go back to prison where there was more support available, and this person was homeless, a man who had no realistic access to housing for his particular condition. But that means that we need the right type of housing. And we know of instances in Valleys communities, where, for example, there may be a row of flats, or there may be a row of houses, where people in that particular flat may all have drug abuse issues, and if they are put into that same experience, then they will not be able to get over that addiction.

So, my question was with regard to the housing first pilot and how we could ensure that if you're going to make those pilots work, how those who are struggling with drug abuse problems are able to overcome those if they are put in a position where they feel they may not be able to, if they are put in a housing situation that may not suit them.

I'll say very gently to the Member: it's not the Government that are confused on this matter. The issues that have been described though are clearly important issues and affect a great number of people. I've met with prison governors in Wales to discuss some of the issues that she raises in terms of the impact of substance misuse on those who are detained on the secure estate in Wales, and the treatment that they receive, both within that estate and when they leave. I believe that there are good examples across Wales where there are being put in place some excellent opportunities for health boards particularly to intervene, to provide support for people who do suffer from substance misuse on the secure estate and then to ensure that they have the treatment available to them when they are released. I accept completely that there is a long way to go on this, and I don't believe that the policy environment that's been created by the Home Office is always very helpful in helping us to achieve our ambitions. But it is something that we are actively debating and discussing with our police forces and our prison facilities and the prison service in Wales, but also with the third sector and other support services providing services to people who are in this situation. 

14:40

Well, I'm glad you've said there's a long way to go, because I've had particular communication with Swansea council homelessness working group, chaired by former AM, Peter Black, who recently wrote to Councillor Andrea Lewis, the cabinet member responsible, with a pretty damning outline as to how the city deals with the problem, particularly those with complex needs. The working group noted that within Swansea any client who wishes to be scripted must first self-refer to the Abertawe Alcohol and Drug Assessment Service, on either a Monday or Tuesday morning, and these referral hours need to be made more flexible and dramatically extended as clients who don't make it on a Monday or Tuesday must then wait a week for another opportunity. Once referred, it will take as much as six months on a waiting list to be scripted and then there is another 12-month waiting list to go into rehab. Surely this response isn't good enough to what is a rising problem.

I've seen the work that the working group has done in Swansea, and nobody seems to want to take responsibility—Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Local Health Board, the council or health. So, if we're going to be ensuring that those people get the support that they need, how can we do so when the system seems to be moving so slowly? 

Can I say that I do recognise the difficulties the Member describes? And I think there are issues where we have a settlement that is jagged and broken, and I've made that case on a number of occasions. The way in which policing particularly and penal services are administered at the moment does not provide the best solution to enable us to provide the services, as she's describing, to people across Wales. I accept that, and I hope that the Home Office, the Ministry of Justice and other parts of the United Kingdom Government will listen to that case. 

In terms of the services provided in the Swansea area, clearly, I'm not familiar with the issues she's raised this afternoon. But if she's willing to write to me, I will take up those issues and ensure that there is a response in the comprehensive and holistic way that she quite rightly expects to see, because I agree with that. I believe we do need a far more comprehensive approach to substance misuse in terms of treating people, maintaining people in accommodation, where necessary ensuring that they have the means in order to be treated and treated properly to remove that misuse, to enable them to go on and live their lives. That is our ambition and that is what we're working towards. 

Diolch yn fawr, Llywydd. Following on from yesterday's debate on affordable housing in Wales, I would like to touch upon some important broader concerns that weren't raised in the debate. My concerns particularly regard the futureproofing of the increased supply of housing that we need and how we can build homes at volume that meet the needs and demands of future generations, particularly regarding energy efficiency. We are currently experiencing the struggle of modernising homes that weren't futureproofed when they were built originally, or indeed with any sense of adaptability in mind, and, ideally, we need to learn from history and not repeat this mistake. So, what support is being given to the sector so that they can build at volume the houses that we need to the standards that are going to be sustainable in the twenty-first century? 

Thank you for the question. Of course, our innovative housing programme is certainly at the heart of our response to this serious challenge that's facing us in terms of creating homes that are low carbon—carbon zero ideally—and we've got some excellent projects coming forward now and being built and we're learning from them already from our last year's stream of projects. But, this time, we're very keen to build on some of those projects from last year, but also to look for projects where we are scaling up. So, we've invited projects for this second year, and the applications close this week for projects on a grander scale really, so that we can start scaling up some of the exciting work that's already being undertaken through the innovative housing programme. 

Also, we know that although we're doing a huge amount of work to try and support SMEs back into the sector, we do need to ensure that the volume builders are working in this way as well. So, we've done some work with our home builder engagement programme in terms of what we can be doing in future, looking potentially at the future of Help to Buy. That's been extremely popular, as you can imagine, amongst the volume builders, but it is an important lever that we do have, so we need to be considering how we use it to achieve our broader aims across Government.

14:45

Thank you for that, which is in part encouraging. As you know, the Climate Change, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee has been looking at this whole issue of energy efficiency in housing. Our evidence has suggested that there is a significant number of barriers to delivering transformative change in house building in Wales at the moment. The Home Builders Federation expressed concern that transformative change will result in fewer houses being built, and other organisations, including Caerphilly County Borough Council and the Federation of Master Builders Cymru, echoed concerns that there are already a number of challenges to building the number of affordable homes needed, particularly if housing targets are to be met.

This doesn't sound like the sector are prepared for the challenges ahead, and I think that we've really got to push them because we need much more response from them, and ambition. For instance, we've seen this week that the UK Government has released its ambitious Road to Zero strategy, which includes a proposal for all new homes in suburban England to be fitted with electronic car charging points. This is the type of integrated policy that we need, and I do hope that—. The innovation fund is a great idea, but it needs to lead quickly to mainstreaming those great developments that we know are going to work, such as charging points built into new homes as standard. I do hope that you will challenge the sector, particularly the private house builders, to improve their practice.

Thank you, and I certainly think that this is the time now to be having that challenging discussion with the volume house builders, particularly because I was quite disappointed to read some of the evidence that the committee has received, which almost suggested that everything's fine, 'Let's not change anything'. But everything's not fine, and we do need to change things. We are currently building houses, but I suspect that, in years to come, we will be coming back to retrofit as well, and that's an expense that the homeowners don't want and it's an expense that the Government doesn't want. So, we do need to be changing the way we build houses. I do feel that the innovative housing programme that we have here in Wales, alongside all of the great practice that we're watching evolve in other parts of the world as well, is pulling us to a point where we are at the point of a revolution in the way in which we build houses. I would love to see the volume house builders be part of that revolution.

Traditionally, it has been the small builders who have been able to or have been willing to take the risks in terms of building homes in a different way, and we're absolutely supporting that. So, the innovative housing programme this time is now open to private businesses to take those exciting steps, but it is for the large builders to be stepping up to the plate in terms of changing the way that they build things. We're absolutely committed to working with the sector, but we're not afraid to be pushing the sector where we need to as well.

Minister, we in the Welsh Conservatives recently released an urban strategy that will create, we hope, cities that are fit for the twenty-first century and I'm glad my colleagues, at least, have read the paper.

I've set an exam, don't worry.

This includes some elements of housing policy and we will be producing a further document specifically on housing in the autumn. But one area that we did look at in that strategy was green roofing. There are housing developments now throughout England—one example being in Barking in London—where developers are exploring the use of green roofs on housing because of the positive impact they have on thermal insulation, stormwater attenuation, improved air quality, improved water quality, creating habitats for pollinators and improving one's sense of well-being and the number of green spaces around us. I think that the Welsh Government's innovative housing programme could be an obvious way of exploring this type of innovation in Wales, and I do hope that we will see some pilots coming forward now in terms of green roofing, because some UK cities now clearly see this as a very good way of developing effective housing in the twenty-first century.

Yes, I agree, and I've certainly read your document, and I look forward to the housing document coming forward in the autumn as well.

I share your excitement about green roofs and we've seen some really good examples already. The Down to Earth project in my own constituency, in Gower, has built buildings with green roofs and they've found it to be not only good in terms of the structure of a building, but actually good for the soul in terms of the people who are working there. It seems to be something that creates the kind of environment that certainly contributes to good well-being, alongside the important role that it plays in terms of decarbonisation and so on. So, there are plenty of opportunities there, but it's not only within the housing portfolio or the housing part of my work that I'm keen to explore this. I was at a recent meeting of the hub that has started to work in Ammanford and Cross Hands. They're looking at regeneration projects in the Carmarthenshire area. One of the pieces of work that they are doing in terms of preparing the buildings that they're going to be introducing, to increase jobs and so on, they're including green roofs there. So, I think that green roofs should be thought of as part of our regeneration ambitions, as well as how we see the building of houses particularly.

14:50
Electoral Reform in Local Government

3. What plans does the Cabinet Secretary have to promote electoral reform in local government? OAQ52500

Following the consultation held last year, I made an oral statement on these matters in January. I will include electoral reform provisions within a local government Bill we expect next year. I will work closely with local government and others in order to raise public knowledge of the reforms that are planned for the 2022 local government elections.

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response. Has the Cabinet Secretary had any indications from local authorities that they would consider moving to a proportional representation system for local elections? And would he agree that such a system would be a fairer system and may help increase interest and participation in local elections?

I have to say to the Member that I have not received any indication of those matters from any part of local government, but I have to say that I do agree with her. Like herself, I agree with the single transferable vote system, and that is my preferred system as well. I guess we will both be arguing for that formulation during the consultation in the Welsh Labour Party over the coming months. The Welsh Government has a clear policy on this matter. We have an agreement to introduce an optional move to the STV system, which local government can choose if they so wish to do. Personally, I would encourage all local authorities to do so. I believe that the single transferable vote system does deliver a fairer system. It delivers greater diversity and greater democratic accountability. So, I hope, alongside the Member for Cardiff North, that local government will embrace a move to proportionality over the coming years.

Cabinet Secretary, you may have heard my question to the First Minister yesterday in regard to an ex-Montgomeryshire person who feels disenfranchised by the electoral system, as an overseas voter—[Interruption.] I'm not sure which way this particular constituent does cast their vote. I'm not sure whether the First Minister quite understood the intention of my question, so I wanted to raise it with you. From my understanding, this person is allowed to vote in the general elections but is barred from voting in Welsh Assembly or local government elections because they are considered so-called second-order elections. The issue here is that if a Welsh resident moves overseas, they can vote in Welsh elections. If a Welsh resident moves to an English or Scottish address, and then moves overseas, they can't decide which nation to place them in if they live overseas. Is there anything that can be done to ensure that Welsh nationals who wish to do so can take part in Welsh Assembly elections or local government elections in Wales?

Presiding Officer, I'm not sure where to start. The result in Montgomeryshire last year has clearly worried my good friend from that part of the world. I will say to him very gently that I'm afraid that the First Minister understood exactly and precisely the question that he was asking yesterday, and the First Minister's response is one that I'm afraid I will repeat this afternoon.

A former employee of Cardiff council has recently been to see me regarding a serious employment issue. He fell foul of an outdated provision in the Local Government Act 1972, which meant that, after his term as an elected councillor came to an end, he was barred from working for that council for 12 months. It was only after he had worked for the council for six months did they realise that they had fallen foul of this provision. Despite no performance issues, and with complete indignity, they sacked him on the spot. He received no support from the council. They failed to accommodate any alternative employment options and, after 13 months, they appointed someone else to the role, despite that individual reapplying for their own job back. The council has refused a dialogue and failed to respond to a subject access request, and now faces a tribunal as a result. Will the Cabinet Secretary agree to look into this case and the issue in general to ensure a fair outcome for this individual and others who could fall foul of this outdated rule in the future? I would be more than happy to write to you with more detail if necessary.

14:55

I'm grateful for the Member's offer of correspondence on this matter. It does seem to me a better way of dealing with employment matters than raising them on the floor of the house. 

New Voting Methods

4. How does the Cabinet Secretary intend to work with local authorities to pilot new voting methods? OAQ52487

My officials are already working with the Association of Electoral Administrators, the Wales electoral co-ordination board, the electoral reform programme board, as well as holding workshops across Wales with local authorities to discuss these and other electoral changes.

Diolch, Gweinidog—or Cabinet Secretary, I should say. My question is nowhere near as exciting or interesting as Russ George's was regarding voting rights abroad. You've said—and forgive me, because I do have this on my phone—. If I can just quote the figures, first of all, for the last set of local council elections in Wales in May 2017, I think the voting turnout was 42 per cent, compared with 68.6 per cent for the general election, and 45.5 per cent for the 2016 Assembly election. You've said that local democracy is all about participation, and you want to increase the franchise to 16-year-olds and to those in prison, to name but a few.

While this side of the Chamber accepts that increasing the franchise, in certain areas at least, is certainly not a bad thing, would you accept that there is a concern that, by doing that, you could be masking a problem by avoiding from this point on a like-for-like comparison with general elections and with the Assembly elections as well? I probably haven't explained that too well myself either, Russ. So, while increasing the franchise in some areas is to be welcomed as a good thing—and certainly in terms of 16-year-olds, I would agree with that increase—at the same time we won't be able to look at these figures in future and say, 'The council election votes are worse than others.' Shouldn't you be addressing the basic problem, which is that people already registered to vote are not voting enough in council elections? 

Presiding Officer, the Plaid Cymru Member for Mid and West Wales has answered the question as comprehensively from his seat as I could from here. You are, of course, comparing a percentage of the electorate whatever the electorate happens to be in that election. So, it continues to be absolutely and completely comparable. I don't know if my good friend from another part of Monmouthshire is seeking to argue against changes in this way. I hope he isn't, because that is singularly the worst argument that I've heard put in many years. I'll say to the Member for Montgomeryshire, or Monmouthshire—[Laughter.] We're all worried about the election result for Montgomeryshire now.

I'll say to my friend from Monmouthshire that we are seeking to put in place a number of changes, and the purpose of those changes is to persuade more people to take part in local elections, to increase the number of people able to take part in elections and to enable greater democratic accountability locally. All of these are very positive things, and I hope that we will have support on all sides of the Chamber. 

The first thing any voting system needs to be is secure. We should have a system that does not allow either multivoting or the harvesting of votes. We do, however, need to make it easier to vote. Has the Welsh Government considered supporting two simple innovations: allowing early voting at a central voting centre, and, secondly, allowing voting at any polling station in a constituency?

Presiding Officer, we are very happy to consider both of those suggestions. I would look towards electronic voting, voting on different days, such as the weekend, mobile polling stations, electronic voting, and electronic counting as well. The point that the Member for Swansea East makes about the security of the ballot is well made and accepted. We are working closely with an expert strategic group—the electoral reform programme board—upon which there are a number of representatives who are looking at ensuring that we have the security of a ballot as a prerequisite but then looking creatively at how we move forward, enabling more people to take part in local democracy. That is our objective and that is what we seek to achieve.

15:00
Maintaining Post Offices

5. What provision has the Cabinet Secretary made for maintaining post offices? OAQ52506

Post Office matters are non-devolved, as you know. I am, though, very conscious of the valuable services post offices often provide to local communities. Their role is particularly important in the context of the recent programme of bank closures in Wales.

Thank you for that response. Of course, it is non-devolved, but the Welsh Government in the past has had a number of programmes to support post offices. A recent change in the way that the Post Office pays branches from what they call the 'core tier' payment to a per-transaction payment is having an impact on some post offices, particularly in rural areas. Yes, there are new possibilities from time to time in terms of banking, but, broadly speaking, these are fundamental payments for customers to pay for electricity and gas, for example. There is a small charge for doing that, but it's not even enough to cover the cost of paying staff and maintaining desk services and so on.

Over the next week, I will be visiting Y Ffôr near Pwllheli, where there is a post office facing this particular difficulty. Are you having any discussions with the Post Office in terms of changes to these payments? And are you in a position to look at what further could be done to ensure that we don't lose this important resource? As you say, we are already losing our banks, and this is something that we need to retain, particularly in our villages and small towns.

I am aware that the Member has written to me on this issue, and I have responded to him. It is possible, of course, for post offices to benefit from business rate relief, and I hope that post offices will apply for that and ensure that they get that. On top of that, £1.3 million has been given to local authorities for their own use if they see that a resource, in the way that he has described, is in danger of being lost. They can offer some additional support on that. However, I am aware that the Member is raising internal issues within the Post Office's system, and, if he would be willing to meet with me, I will be very happy to discuss that with the Post Office centrally.

Cabinet Secretary, the decision by the Royal Bank of Scotland to close 162 branches in England and Wales has highlighted the importance of post offices in providing banking services, particularly in our rural areas. Given that 12 per cent of post offices are now run by part-time outreach services, such as mobile vans, and in premises like village halls, what is the Cabinet Secretary doing to ensure that communities that have lost their bank at least have access to banking services through post office outreach facilities in Wales? Thank you.

I have replied to the earlier question that these matters are not devolved matters, but clearly these are matters that the Welsh Government take great interest in. We do ensure that, as I have already said, we have business relief and business support to enable small businesses to receive the support of the Welsh Government and local authorities in ensuring their sustainability. But I also think that the United Kingdom Government has a very significant responsibility here, and I would very gently suggest to the Conservative Member for South Wales East that he writes to his Conservative colleagues in London and explains to them very, very carefully that the taxpayer spent a great deal of money keeping the banking system afloat and it is high time that the taxpayer received some of that resource back in terms of the regulation of banks to ensure that communities are not put in this situation. So, I would very gently say to the Member: write to your colleagues in London and tell them to pull their fingers out.

Local Government Funding

6. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on local government funding? OAQ52502

In addition to income raised locally, local authorities received £4.2 billion of general funding to spend on services in 2018-19. This continues our commitment to protect local government in Wales from the worst of the UK Government’s spending restrictions.

15:05

I've received many representations from schools in the Rhondda regarding the funding crisis that they face in this financial year and, of course, for the foreseeable future. Treorchy Comprehensive School alone has lost nearly £0.25 million in this financial year, with no corresponding drop in pupil numbers.

Then we have the state of some school buildings. One I visited recently posed a clear danger to the safety of pupils as a lump of concrete fell from a dilapidated roof in a classroom. Teachers are demotivated, schools dilapidated, and pupils in danger. How will you ensure that local authorities receive sufficient money to ensure that school lessons are delivered in a suitable and safe environment and that classrooms are adequately staffed?

The Member is aware of the situation facing the Welsh Government in terms of the UK Government's austerity programme. Had we received a similar funding basis this year as we received in 2010, then we would have received an additional, I think—I'm looking at the finance Minister, who I'm delighted has walked back into the Chamber at this point—an additional £4 billion—

—£4.1 billion in order to sustain and support the public services that she's described. I'm not going to stand here and defend for one moment the failed UK austerity programme, but what I will say to her is that I have not met a single councillor of any political stripe who has said to me, 'What we want to see is more Conservative policy and less Labour policy.' What I've heard from every councillor across the whole of Wales is gratitude for protecting local government from the worst of the UK austerity programme.

The Ministry of Justice

7. Will the Cabinet Secretary provide an update on his latest meeting with the Ministry of Justice? OAQ52503

I am meeting with Edward Argar MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice, and Rory Stewart MP, Minister of State for Prisons, next Monday, 16 July.

I thank the Cabinet Secretary for that response. Will he be pressing for a women's residential centre in Wales after the UK Government announced a new female offender strategy on 27 June? As I understand it, the five prisons that were planned to be built for women will be abandoned. Instead, there will be five residential centres for women, which I think is entirely in line with the change in justice policy for women that many of us have pressed for for a long time. So, would he be pressing for one of those centres to be built in Wales?

Yes, I will be. I've made the case on a number of occasions, but I believe we do need a significant investment in the secure estate in Wales. I think anybody looking at the estate as it is today would understand that it is not designed for Wales's needs and is not fit for purpose to meet our needs today and in the future.

In terms of female offending, I am very, very anxious to ensure that we have a facility in Wales—a women's centre along the lines that the Member describes—to provide support for women and, of course, to reduce the number of women in the criminal justice system. We want Welsh women to have safe and secure facilities to enable their effective care and rehabilitation. We also want to ensure that we are able to reduce the number of women in the system. To that end, we will be supporting a women's pathfinder project, which is designed to deliver a women-specific, whole-system, integrated approach to service provision for women who come into contact with the criminal justice system in Wales. So, we want to see a holistic, comprehensive approach to policy in Wales that puts the woman at the centre of that policy and doesn't simply seek to build a women's prison that doesn't meet our needs today or in the future.

3. Topical Questions

The next item is the topical questions, and the first question is to be asked to the Cabinet Secretary for Health and Social Services, and it's a question from Jack Sargeant.

NHS Mesh Operations

2. Does the Welsh Government intend to stop NHS mesh operations, in light of the announcement of an immediate stop to these operations in England? 201

Thank you for the question. I'm happy to have the opportunity to respond. I have written to Baroness Cumberlege to confirm that, in Wales, the use of mesh will be restricted on a similar basis as in England until additional safeguards are in place. The Chief Medical Officer for Wales has written to all medical directors in Wales to advise them of this advice. Officials will continue to work on details with relevant bodies across the UK.

Thank you, Cabinet Secretary, for that response on this very important topical question. On that issue, this issue impacts women from across the UK, and I want to pay particular tribute to Maxine Cooper, a constituent of mine, who has been working with the Sling the Mesh campaign for many years after a procedure she underwent in 2010. I know that Maxine was working closely with my dad on this issue, and I will, too, do all I can to support her. Like so many others, especially those women who have campaigned with courage and commitment, like Maxine, I was very pleased when NHS England made this announcement yesterday that it is putting an immediate curb on mesh operations after safety concerns. I know many colleagues from across the Chamber have been working on this issue, too, and that my colleague Jane Hutt held a meeting just last week with the Welsh mesh survivors group. The report of the Welsh task and finish group on this issue made some very important recommendations and included a list of what women have asked for, and, to no surprise, a ban on the use of surgical mesh was amongst that list.

Now, I have a few points to ask the Cabinet Secretary. Firstly, is he confident that the health boards have in place sufficient levels of clinical governance, consents, audit and research to ensure that all women can be confident that the appropriate safeguards are in place? Just yesterday, the leader of the house made reference to the evidence of a significant reduction in the number of vaginal mesh procedures in Wales. Does the Cabinet Secretary think that this will continue to be the case until the requirements for increased safeguards can be met? Finally, could you update us on the implementation group that will oversee specific areas of women's health requiring urgent attention and improvement? As you rightly say, Cabinet Secretary, we need to ensure that there is early access to specialist support for those treatment complications to prevent the worst outcomes for women and men alike. Diolch.

15:10

Thank you for the question. I recognise the conversations that your father had with me about his constituent Maxine Cooper, and the continuing interest he had shown, and that you do too, on this issue. Obviously the statement that I made earlier this year indicated what we would do in response to the expert panel that we'd instituted here in Wales, and the group that you mentioned at the end, the women's health implementation group, will be meeting in August to take forward further measures on the recommendations that have been made. Now, I think it's really important to recognise that it sometimes does take time to make sure everything is in place as we wish it to be. But that is going to meet this summer. There is money to help them in terms of taking forward their recommendations, but my expectation is that we should already be in the position that England have announced. So, that's really important to be able to give that clarification and that assurance to people, because the points you make about consent, audit and safeguards really do matter. Because for some people this is still potentially a treatment of last resort, but it has to be a properly informed choice.

Given the widespread publicity and the stories of where mesh has gone wrong, you could understand that lots of people will not want to give consent to an operative procedure, but some women may choose to do so, and, as long as that consent is real and informed, then there is not a total ban in Wales, just as in England there is not a total ban. I think it's more accurate to say there is a curb on the use of mesh, rather than a total ban. That's very clear from the letter from the chief medical officer in England. What is also worth pointing out to Members is that what I think has changed now is the fact that not only has Baroness Cumberlege made this recommendation, but also the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the regulator, have become rather more involved in the conversation on what to do next. Unfortunately, up until this point, that has not been the case. Because politicians do have limits on their powers, and sensibly so, but the regulators' agreement that the curb in place now in England, Wales, and, I believe, in Scotland too, is the right thing to do—. You should be confident that there won't be any less vigilance in Wales than in other countries of the United Kingdom, and I fully expect to be questioned on this issue in this Chamber and beyond as well.

Fourteen months ago I called for a statement here on the issue of mesh implants after a constituent in north Wales had told me of the suffering she had from left hip pain, left thigh pain, pelvic pain and intimate pain, and she told me of thousands of other women in the UK suffering in a similar way. I was then told that health boards should ensure they report any complications, and women who had the procedure were encouraged to self-report problems. Last December, I raised this in the Chamber after you wrote to me stating that you still believed that the benefits outweighed the risks. We know that in May you made your statement, following the report of the Welsh task and finish group to review the use of vaginal synthetic mesh, announcing the implementation group, which Jack Sargeant just referred to, to oversee specific areas of women's health requiring urgent attention and improvement. 

On Monday, I had an e-mail, via my colleague Angela Burns, from a constituent in north Wales that said, 'Mesh is to be suspended in England. I know you understand how important it is that Wales must follow suit.' Attached to it was the press release issued yesterday saying that Baroness Cumberlege's review had called for the immediate suspension of the use of surgical mesh, and it quoted Owen Smith MP, chair of the all-party parliamentary group in Westminster, saying this is wonderful news and long overdue. 

Today, you've told us that you're now going to follow the decision by NHS England to immediately stop mesh operations, but with a view to potentially continuing them in certain circumstances or after certain conditions are met. Human biology is the same both sides of the border. How, therefore, will you be going forward when Baroness Cumberlege recommended a suspension that can only be lifted if certain conditions, including keeping a register of every procedure and of all complications, are met? Are you going to require the same as Baroness Cumberlege is calling for? If not, what, if any, conditions would you be applying before lifting any suspension here?

15:15

I think it's important to reiterate the recognition of the significant harm that has been caused where mesh procedures have gone wrong. I've met people in that position directly themselves and all of us have been affected by the very real testimony they provided. The situation here in Wales is that we have had a more vigilant approach since the report that was published and the statement that I made in May to this place, and we need to make sure that similar vigilance is continued. It is important—I don't want to get lost in redescribing what's happening in England or trying to say there is more or less vigilance, but I think there is similar vigilance across the nations of the United Kingdom on this issue. If you refer back to what Baroness Cumberlege herself has said, she said,

'At this stage in our review we are not recommending a ban'.

In the response from the Chief Medical Officer for England, in her correspondence to Baroness Cumberlege, she also referred to a conversation with Baroness Cumberlege where she said, 'It would be wrong to impose a blanket ban. I would emphasise we should remain mindful that, for some patients, this can be a last treatment option for a debilitating condition.'

So, that's the challenge. It's not for the politicians to decide, 'Here is a list of operations where you may use mesh and others where you may not'; this is about the advice and the guidance that is being given to medical professionals about the care they have with and for their patients, and for genuinely informed consent about the risks that exist as well. So, this really should be an area where politicians hesitate to say, 'I have decided for you what is appropriate treatment', including if it's a genuinely last-resort treatment, which is the position that we'd already reached in Wales with the expert review that we had.

We will continue to work on a non-partisan basis between the Governments of the United Kingdom, but crucially with the regulator and with NICE, and also with the clinical community and, crucially, with the individual citizens themselves who have either been harmed through mesh use in the past, but equally for those people where this could be a last-resort treatment. That is the point—that it's genuinely a last-resort treatment and there's action we will be taking in Wales about other treatment options, more conservative treatment options, in advance of any potential decision for a surgical procedure to be undertaken. 

So, I hope that gives genuine reassurance to Members, who I know, in different parties, are concerned about this issue. The approach we're taking in Wales is no less vigilant than any of the other United Kingdom countries. It's in all of our interests to see further action taken on improving care in this area, which is why we have an expert group that is due to carry on and take forward this issue, meeting for the first time, as I said in answer to Jack Sargeant, at the start of August.

Having met a large group of mesh survivors here with Jane Hutt on Monday, both women and men, it's clear to me that the issue of informed consent is quite a major one, because people were not informed about potential complications and it's disappointing that it's taken the medical profession so many years to really listen to their patients and understand the level of suffering that people have undergone. I heard directly from people who said that they'd undergone a major investigative procedure under general anaesthetic, and then awoke to be told that mesh had been inserted without, obviously, any prior discussion about the pros and cons of such a procedure. So, would you agree with me that the lesson from this very sorry saga is that the medical profession has got to be much better at clearly seeking and obtaining informed consent when new procedures are being trialed, so that patients can make decisions themselves about what is best for them?  

15:20

I think that's a really important point to make. It was part of the terms of reference for the expert group and review we had here in Wales, and it's really important not to undersell the importance of informed consent, because different people faced with the same information will make different choices about the risks they're prepared to take in treatment and, indeed, on the condition they currently have and the impact that that has upon their lives. It, of course, has been incredibly not just disappointing but really upsetting to hear people describe mesh procedures that have been undertaken and they say they have not consented to them, or they've consented but they do not believe it was informed consent. And all of that matters; we shouldn't try and brush that away. But the point about all forms of medical intervention is that it is about it being a genuine conversation and decision that the patient makes, as opposed to the clinician making it for them, and understanding, 'What matters to me as the person who is potentially undergoing that treatment.'

When you look at the expert report that we have had undertaken in Wales, it is genuinely reflective on past practice, and part of their recommendations are about making sure there is genuine and informed consent for any procedures that take place, as well as making sure that in the pathway to a potential operation, all other treatment options are provided first so that it is a genuine last resort, if it is used at all. And, in fact, what should give people comfort about that is that in Wales, there's been a significant reduction in mesh procedures, as our clinical community have recognised some of the challenges that have existed. That will continue to be the case, as we work through with colleagues across the United Kingdom on what could and should happen in the future. It is, of course, possible still that the regulator will decide to take a different step and to withdraw this as a treatment option, but that is a matter for the regulator, not for an elected politician.     

I thank the Cabinet Secretary. 

The next question is also to you, and it's to be asked by Joyce Watson. 

Medical Education and Training in North Wales

1. Will the Cabinet Secretary make a statement on the expansion of medical education and training in north Wales, following the announcement made earlier this week? 203

Thank you for the question. Earlier this week, I was happy to announce an immediate increase in medical school places in Wales. These 40 additional places will bring benefits to the whole of Wales, including west and north Wales, with 20 places in Swansea medical school and 20 places in Cardiff medical school, to be delivered in collaboration with Bangor University in north Wales. Cardiff and Bangor universities are collaborating on plans that will allow students to undertake all of their medical education in north Wales in the near future.  

I find this a really useful announcement, because in Wales we're facing the same challenges as the rest of the UK to train and recruit medical practitioners, and I'm pleased that this scheme will help to deliver and to promote that. I understand that there's lots of work and detail that will follow, and I look forward to the updates. I support a pragmatic approach to delivering maximum benefit from a restricted budget, and the fact that not all of the money will be spent on a capital investment.  

Increasing the numbers in Swansea and also Aberystwyth University will, I believe and I hope, give wider and more diverse opportunities to the people who live in those areas. We all know, and it's well documented, that west Wales in particular faces major recruitment challenges, and I look forward to this increase, or any other increase for that matter, delivering for the people of west Wales, who need, quite clearly, to gain from medical practitioners in an ever-changing environment.  

Thank you. It's important to note that this is keeping the pledge that we made to come back with a decision, and the indication that I gave that we thought we'd be able to do something on expanding them—expanding opportunities in different parts of Wales—in previous questions. I've always been keen to talk about the fact that this is good news both for north Wales but also west Wales, because, as you correctly point out, there are recruitment challenges in west Wales as well as the north. There is a small amount of capital that we'll need to deploy to make this happen, but doing this this way, in collaboration between four universities, will mean that we're able to make faster progress on increasing numbers and increasing opportunities in different parts of Wales, because there's lots of evidence we're more likely to have people stay in west Wales and north Wales if they undertake large amounts of their training there.

It does come on the back of an agreement we reached on how we use some money with Plaid Cymru in the budget, but that two-year amount won't be enough to train someone over the course of a whole medical degree. So, we've made the choice within Government to support this whole programme of study and to have a permanent increase in the additional numbers of medical training places. So, it goes beyond the agreement we reached about exploring this issue with Plaid Cymru. It is a permanent addition, and I look forward to understanding more about not just when people can undertake all of their study in north and west Wales, but also our ability to then see what more we can do to have the right sort of medical and fellow health and care professionals here in the service in Wales.

15:25

I do welcome the expansion of medical school places, although I do regret that you didn't choose to announce that expansion here when this has been a topic that has exercised so many of us on so many occasions. We do have a shortage of doctors, as you're well aware, in certain disciplines such as general practice, paediatrics and rheumatology. Are you able, through these places, to seek to massage the workforce planning going forward and to ensure that we have people who might then be able to follow those kinds of specialisms? And given the shortage of doctors, I would be very interested to know how you evaluated that 40 additional places is what we need. Do we need more? Was that all the money you had available, or do you think that 40 is it, and that will suffice going forward?

I noted in your written statement that you published earlier this week the intent that trainees will be able to undertake the totality of their medical training in north Wales, and their postgraduate training. Whilst further collaboration between Cardiff and Bangor is absolutely key in making that happen, what discussions, if any, have taken place with providers in the north-west of England, especially the hospitals that may be able to produce or to allow rotational work to be undertaken as part of that postgrad training? I'd be really interested to know whether or not you believe that we can do all of our postgrad training within north Wales itself, because we heard in our previous inquiry to the health and social care committee about some of the difficulties of producing or of being able to do some of that training, because we don't have all of those specialisms within our current structure up there in north Wales. Thank you.

Thank you for the questions. I think it's a useful point about distinguishing between the medical degree and then speciality training post medical degree. Of course, there are ongoing conversations with colleagues in the north-west deanery in England about how we might arrange different courses of study, as well as what we can do within Wales as well. I want there to be a practical conversation that is led by actually making a difference for the quality of training and the scope of training that can be provided, as opposed to an England-versus-Wales conversation. There will, of course, be times when politicians disagree, but this is actually about training doctors to give them a career within our national health service, serving our communities.

On the point on the medical degree and the practical choice about places and mone, they are practical choices about our ability to expand, if we want to fund that expansion, because, as I say, you can't do that on a limited agreement over two or three years, because the degree takes longer and it would be a pretty unusual thing if we decided to expand a degree course of study for one cohort and then at the end of that we would withdraw the funding. There would be no way to plan and properly expand the numbers we would want to see within our medical workforce. It won't take away our need to continue to recruit from within the nations of the UK as well as outside the UK, in Europe and further afield, but this is us making a practical choice with the resource we have to make a difference in the area that we can make with our current two medical schools, to deliver against some of the challenges in different parts of the country.

That will also be the case for speciality training as well, because, every year, we look at our speciality training numbers and we need to understand how and where we fill those places. So, actually, that is even more important in terms of the links with the rest of Wales and, indeed, the deanery across our border where different training places are available for those speciality places. So, we have some of the same challenges as the rest of the United Kingdom and some rather more unique ones. This is part of the answer, as opposed to a silver bullet for all the challenges that you and I will continue to discuss now and in the future.

15:30

In May of last year, this report was published by the Member of Parliament for Arfon, Hywel Williams, and me, setting out the case for a medical school for north Wales. Your announcement on expanding medical education in north Wales is a significant and important step in the right direction, and is the result of a strong local campaign in Arfon.

In your statement you say this:

'these new arrangements will provide more opportunities for Welsh speakers to undertake their studies in Welsh.'

Can you expand upon that and how exactly that will happen?

Thank you for the question. It is important that we see opportunities for people to utilise the skills they have to be doctors, including the ability to use the Welsh language. Part of our challenge, and I've made this point several times over in the past, is that Welsh language needs are not preferences, they are genuine care needs in a range of our communities and with individuals and their families. Part of our challenge has been how we have enough health and care professionals to be able to deliver against that, and I'd still like to see us be able to make more successful efforts to attract people back to Wales who have undertaken part of their medical or other healthcare professional training within England. That requires us to have an attractive offer for them to work here in Wales, as opposed to simply saying that they have a sense of national responsibility to return to make their careers anew.

But I do fully expect that in the programmes of study that exist already, that will be real and possible. We're making deliberate efforts to try and encourage people who speak Welsh to come into medical education as a potential career for them. I spoke, for example, on a programme of study we have to look to get a number of 16 to 18-year-olds in Valleys communities and other parts of Wales to come and consider a career in medicine. So, we are deliberately going out to look to try and make sure that it's an attractive career for different people to come into, as well as the place of study itself, as—[Inaudible.]—course of study, and the medium of the language that that is delivered in.

I'm pleased to reiterate that this decision that I have made is a result of us keeping our word about the decision that we would consider, the timescale we'd make it in, and our ambition to expand opportunities to undertake more medical education and training, and our ambition to make sure people come and undertake their whole period of study within Wales as well. 

I've supported the concept of a Bangor medical school since the previous vice-chancellor, Merfyn Jones, first raised it with me a decade or more ago, and this, of course, has been raised in previous Assemblies also. But given that the north Wales local medical committee—many of whom themselves studied at Liverpool medical school, or Manchester medical school, some of whom came from north Wales, some who chose to build their lives and careers in north Wales—have called for this model to incorporate and restore direct connections with Liverpool, and possibly Manchester medical school, not just beyond, across the border, but specifically there, given the historic links, how do you respond to that call by the north Wales local medical committee, made up of local general practitioners, and what dialogue have you had with them regarding that?

I've made an announcement that is building on our two medical schools and provision and partnership with universities in different parts of Wales. I don't think it would be at all helpful for me to try and interrupt that, having just announced it within a week, and to then say that I expect them to remake different links with different medical schools. We of course want opportunities for people to study medicine and to be able to acquire skills to deliver the full programme of study to become doctors and actually to keep them here in Wales. I will always look for opportunities for our health and care system here in Wales to attract people to come here, and to keep people here, and to work with other partners across our border to do so as well. That will be the focus. It will be about making the partnerships that we've agreed, to make them work, and the partnership and collaboration that has real investment and time for people in both Swansea and Cardiff medical schools, and I'm really pleased to say, within Aberystwyth and Bangor universities too. 

Thank you very much, Llywydd. May I welcome this statement today, which has taken far too long to come, of course? I am thinking back to a very early meeting I had, after I was elected, with Professor Dean Williams, from Bangor University and Ysbyty Gwynedd, who seeded this idea, and the realisation I very quickly had that it was obvious that we needed to move ahead with medical education in Bangor, as people like Dr Dai Lloyd realised the need for the introduction of medical education in Swansea University, and there is a now a full medical school in Swansea. I am thinking of all those doctors and those who would wish to be doctors, young people and parents, former doctors and nurses—people who see the benefit of developing medical education in Bangor, and I thank them today for supporting those of us who have campaigned so hard for this, in order to turn this into a reality.

Let us remember why this is taking place. This has to take place because of a lack of doctors in parts of west Wales and north Wales. This will be a help, I believe, in recruiting and filling the gaps. It is happening because there are too few doctors being trained in Wales, and too few of those coming from Wales. So, this opens the door, I hope, to a greater number of our young people being able to undertake a career in medicine.

To the Conservatives, if I may say: on a day when we are celebrating having a medical college, to all intents and purposes, in Wales, you decide to concentrate on asking about the linkages with north-west England. Well, listen: of course those linkages are important, but let us also today concentrate on what we can do here in Wales in order to increase the capacity of medical education for ourselves.

To you, Cabinet Secretary, I have simple questions to ask: can you confirm that this is only the beginning of a growth in medical education in Wales, and can you also confirm that you will share my desire to see this new medical college in Bangor developing to be a centre of excellence, not only in teaching