79 speeches by……and 13 more speakers
The first item on our agenda this afternoon is questions to the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government, and I call question 1, Rhianon Passmore.
1. Will the Minister make a statement on the current progress of the Cardiff Capital Region deal? OAQ(5)0060(FLG)
The Cardiff capital deal demonstrates the benefits that can come from collaborative working across 10 local authorities. Progress remains in line with the timescales experienced by other, similar, large-scale city regions across the United Kingdom. Ratification of necessary governance and assurance arrangements is expected by February 2017.
For the people of Islwyn, the Cardiff capital region deal encompassing 10 local authorities, including our Caerphilly County Borough Council, is a true game changer. The deal’s top priority is the proposed south Wales metro. The Minister will be aware of the frustrations felt by my constituents daily as they seek to commute to the two major cities of Cardiff and Newport. On the highly popular Ebbw Vale to Cardiff railway line, commuters have been faced with Arriva Trains Wales using trains that are 40 years old. The carriages are overcrowded, with little possibility of additional diesel trains being acquired, as there are few anachronistic diesel trains on the market. The recent problems have been exacerbated by trains being taken off the tracks because repairs are needed as fallen leaves have damaged the train wheels. Will the Minister outline a timetable for when the Cardiff capital region deal, worth over £1 billion over 20 years, will begin to transform south Wales’s public transport infrastructure, including for my constituents, a train service directly into Newport?
I thank the Member for that question. She’s absolutely right, of course, that the south-east Wales metro is a key feature of the city deal, and at its heart, it has the aim of creating a first-class public transport system across the whole region, to keep moving us forward for generations to come. Procurement of the operator and development partner for the next Wales and borders franchise and the metro is already well advanced. There are four bidders shortlisted to progress to the next stage. We expect to be able to award a contract in 2017, and see metro services operating from 2023.
Minister, obviously, we’ve had the autumn statement today. We know the city deal is in place. As I understand it from the autumn statement today, the Welsh Government will be getting an additional £400 million, and it’s going to be vital, combining the city deal with the additional resources that have been made available today, that the productivity of the Cardiff city deal area is increased, so that we increase the overall prosperity of that area. Will you commit to using the additional funds in a Cardiff sense to drive up the productivity of the Cardiff economy and the surrounding areas, so that there are better job opportunities, but above all, that the wealth of the area is increased?
I recognise the points that the leader of the Conservative Party is making. The Chancellor was still on his feet when I came down to answer questions this afternoon, so I will wait to see the final details of the autumn statement before committing to any particular spending plans. But the point that he makes about investment in order to carry forward our economy is one that, quite certainly, is shared by this Government.
There’s a huge contradiction between what you say about the regional approach and the reality, because local authorities just plan ahead with developments as if the city region project isn’t happening. So, why are you allowing Labour-run City of Cardiff Council to destroy the greenfields in your own constituency, rather than allocating them around the region as they would do with the regional approach?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, the Member’s contribution is the usual mixture of malevolence and fantasy. He’s had his answer to this question many times and I have nothing to add to what he already knows.
2. What discussions has the Minister had about budget allocations to the health, well-being and sport portfolio? OAQ(5)0050(FLG)
I meet regularly with a range of stakeholders and colleagues to discuss financial issues, including priorities and allocations within the health, well-being and sport portfolio.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his answer. Wales has no specialist mother and baby unit and a constituent has recently shared with me the experience of her daughter who, on becoming a mother, suffered with postpartum psychosis but had to go to London to receive specialist treatment. Many mothers in similar situations will be separated from their babies whilst they’re treated in non-specialist hospitals. How much of the health budget allocation for the next financial year will be put towards caring for mothers with postpartum psychosis and other perinatal mental health issues?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I’ll draw the Member’s specific question to the attention of my colleague the Cabinet member for health, of course. I do know that at the very end of the last Assembly term additional funding specifically for perinatal mental health was made available, and I am confident that the extra services that will be provided as a result of that investment will be making a difference across Wales.
Last month, the City and County of Swansea council settled a claim brought by 11 of its occupational therapists that they were being paid less than their equivalents in the NHS. Unison said that occupational therapists right across Welsh local government, not only in Swansea, suffer lower pay and poorer access to professional development opportunities than their colleagues in the health service. I’m sure you agree with the point of equal pay for equal work, but have you discussed with local authorities whether they would be expected to meet any extra costs of similar claims from their own Welsh budget allocation, or bearing in mind that we’re talking about providers of health services, whether there’s an argument that they might actually go to the health budget in order to help them meet those costs?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, I’m well aware of the general issue that the Member raises because occupational therapists are one of those groups that are employed both by local authorities for their purposes and by the health service. That does mean that there are different terms and conditions that apply to those different workplaces and, as the Member says, that sometimes means that different training opportunities are available depending on the sector you are employed in. Ultimately, these are matters for employers to resolve, but I am certain that they are well aware of the issue that the Member has raised.
May I ask the Cabinet Secretary about the allocations to community pharmacy? I have in mind the statement by the health Secretary about his aspiration to increase the role of community pharmacy, to decrease the pressure on primary care and to integrate IT between hospitals, GPs and community pharmacies. Of course, it also offers the opportunity of relieving pressure on secondary care in terms of the delayed discharge if the integration of community pharmacies and hospital records can be completed. Could he comment on the allocations to community pharmacy in that context?
Well, the Member makes an important point in the financial context because, historically, investment in community pharmacy has been maintained on a par and in a parallel between the English and the Welsh NHS. Then on 28 October, last month, the UK Government announced that it was going ahead with proposals to cut the funding available to community pharmacies in England—a reduction of 4 per cent in this year and over 7 per cent in the next financial year. This inevitably breaks the link between the way that we do things in Wales and the way that community pharmacy is going to be funded in England. I’ve discussed this matter with my colleague the Cabinet member for health. This Government and, indeed, this Chamber has long emphasised the advantages to be obtained from a thriving community pharmacy sector in Wales. The intention of my colleague is to maintain funding in Wales without cuts, but then to discuss with the community pharmacy sector the additional contribution that they can make in recognition of the extra investment that will now be made in Wales compared to the destabilising cuts that will take place across our border.
Cabinet Secretary, the UK Government have today announced additional moneys for the Welsh block grant as a result of the autumn statement. Given the challenges outlined in the Welsh Government’s cancer delivery plan, namely the equipment shortages that are holding back earlier cancer diagnoses and consequently survival rates, will you please give a commitment to spend a large proportion of the additional moneys on improving diagnostic services in Wales?
I thank the Member for the question. As I say, the Chancellor had not completed his statement when I came down. We’ve long learnt in this Chamber to look at the small print of what he says in these statements to see where money is being taken away, which the Chancellor tends not to emphasise, as well as where money is being provided. As I understood it when I left, there was not a single penny piece of additional funding for the health service being offered in the autumn statement, despite the enormous pressures that are there in the English NHS. The Member will know that, as a result of our budget agreement with Plaid Cymru, we are already committed to significant extra capital investment in diagnostic equipment for the Welsh NHS next year.
We now turn to spokespeople’s questions, and I call on party spokespeople to question the Cabinet Secretary for Finance and Local Government. First up today is Gareth Bennett.
Thank you, Deputy Presiding Officer. Could you put your hat as local government Minister on for a second? Hopefully, that’s not my first question. [Laughter.] Cardiff council has managed to raise £4.5 million in the past two years in bus lane fines. Do you think this may be an excessive amount, which could indicate that motorists in the city are being targeted by the council as cash cows? Can the Welsh Government intervene in any way to stop councils from taking overly punitive action against drivers?
Dirprwy Lywydd, bus lanes are a very important part of the way in which we are able to encourage people to use public transport rather than car transport—that is the policy of this administration. Provided Cardiff council operate within the law, which I’m sure they do, then their actions are not to be criticised. The real solution to the problem the Member raises is in the hands of car drivers: if they keep to the rules of the road, they will not be at risk of being fined.
Yes, thank you, Minister. As a non-driver, I do appreciate your regard for public transport, which I share. In an ideal world, your answer would be correct, but, unfortunately, given Cardiff’s traffic problems, sometimes drivers do inadvertently find themselves in bus lanes. To continue with the theme, Cardiff probably does have the worst traffic problems in Wales, and the council has also raised £3.5 million in parking fines since 2014 as well as £110,000 in yellow-box fines. This last is, perhaps, the most pernicious charge, as drivers caught up in the city’s endless traffic jams simply cannot gauge when they are going to end up in a yellow box. I really think that Cardiff and any other council engaging in this kind of money making should be forcibly dissuaded from doing so. Can you, as a Minister, issue any guidelines on this?
I thank the Member for what he said about his support for public transport measures. I agree with him that if people find themselves in positions inadvertently, then the law should take a more generous view of any transgressions. I will investigate the final point that he makes about yellow-box infringements in particular to see whether there is wider evidence to bear out the points that he’s made this afternoon.
Thank you for that, Minister. I’ll move on to something else, as you dealt with that one so capably. It’s to do with the Localism Act 2011, which they have in England and which we haven’t adopted in Wales yet. The Campaign for Real Ale have pushed for this as a means of protecting the local pub, which I think is an admirable campaign. Whether or not the Localism Act is the best way of achieving the protection of local pubs I’m not sure, but I know that CAMRA have been in talks with the Welsh Government, so I wondered whether you could give us any update on those talks.
Dirprwy Lywydd, I’ve not been involved directly in those talks myself. I recognise the point that the Member makes about the contribution that a thriving pub can make to a community—a social contribution as well as anything else. I’ll make sure that his points are drawn to the attention of my colleague Carl Sargeant, who I think is responsible for that matter.
Thank you very much. I call on Plaid Cymru’s spokesperson, Adam Price.
I think I’m going to change the aperture a little bit from bus lanes in Cardiff to the world economic outlook. [Laughter.] I was wondering whether the Cabinet Secretary shares a growing global consensus, I think, amongst Governments right across the world that now is the time for infrastructure spending like never before. It may be the only policy lever that we have. One of the few positive by-products of the long recession that we’ve had since the economic crisis is ultra-low or, indeed, negative interest rates. That historic window may not be there forever, as we’ve begun to see in America already mortgage rates rising as a result of speculation over the infrastructure investment that may result as a result of the Trump presidency. Do we need to grasp this opportunity now with a greater sense of urgency, Cabinet Secretary?
I entirely agree with the point the Member makes. As I said, I didn’t get to hear the whole of the Chancellor’s statement, but I did get to see the anaemic growth forecasts that the Office for Budget Responsibility produced for the next five years—I should think very alarming growth forecasts for anybody in charge of the UK economy. The OBR is not forecasting that the UK economy will return to trend growth at any point during the next five years. This doesn’t simply mean that we continue to face the impact of the lost economic activity that we have seen as a result of austerity, but that we’re not even going to return—not even going to return—to where the UK economy has managed to perform for nearly 60 years, from 1945 onwards. That should mean that the Chancellor should grasp this urgent need to invest in the UK economy to generate economic growth. Inflation forecasts surely give us cause for concern about interest rates, which will follow. Now is the time, when interest rates are at a historic low, as Adam Price has said, to take that opportunity and to invest for the future.
One of the policy levers that many Governments are beginning to focus on is the idea of an infrastructure bank, as I raised yesterday with the First Minister. We’ve had one announced this month in Canada by the Prime Minister there. There was the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank last year, and discussion from the former Labour Prime Minister in Australia about doing the same. I agree with him that £400 million over five years is certainly not going to enable us to do anything meaningful in terms of the underinvestment in infrastructure in Wales over many decades. So, surely we should also be exploring this policy lever that many Governments across the world have come to believe is the channel by which we can create the sort of public-private investment mechanism that we need in order to catch up in terms of our infrastructure investment.
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, this Government will aim to make the very most of any additional capital that comes our way as a result of the autumn statement. But £400 million over a five-year period is not going to meet the needs of Wales. It does not even begin to restore the one-third reduction in our capital programme that we have experienced since the year 2010. That is why, as a Government, we have embarked on a series of innovative ways of providing investment in the Welsh economy. My colleague, Jane Hutt, did it by using the borrowing powers of local government and of housing associations. We have further innovative financial arrangements in train to produce the new Velindre and to complete the dualling of the Heads of the Valleys road. The idea that Adam Price has put forward this afternoon was discussed with the First Minister yesterday and I know that my colleague Ken Skates will have heard that discussion and will be interested to take it further forward.
Can I urge him to go a little bit further? We saw, actually, a national infrastructure bank announced by his colleague, the shadow chancellor, in a speech on 27 September. It was repeated three days later by the leader of the Labour Party—it’s good to see some policy alignment happening there. Surely, rather than just expressing constantly our disappointment with Westminster, the point about creating this institution and the Welsh Government is that we don’t just emote, we don’t just deal with emotional spasms of regret, we actually do something. This lever has been announced as a policy by his own party at the UK level—and a network of regional banks. Well, there’s a Government that his party runs in the UK: it’s the Welsh Government. Surely, rather than just issuing statements of regret and press releases about what a future hypothetical Labour Government could do in Westminster, surely we should actually take control of our own destiny and create an infrastructure bank for Wales.
It’s because we have done exactly that that, in Wales, we’ve had the innovative finance arrangements that I’ve already explored. It’s why we have Finance Wales here providing a source of funding to businesses in Wales that otherwise certainly would not have been available to them. That’s why, indeed, we are interested to explore other ideas within our competence and our legislative ability to build even further on that record.
Cabinet Secretary, the recent Health Foundation report, ‘The path to sustainability: Funding projections for the NHS in Wales to 2019/20 and 2030/31’, highlights the need for an increase of around 60 per cent in funding to £10.4 billion by 2030-31 in order to meet the forthcoming predicted demand. They also identify the need for greater efficiency, and we know that smarter ways of working, particularly in the integration of health and social care, are a must. Based on your forthcoming local government reforms, which, of course, are to include a footprint of seven regional consortia, to include health and social care, what plans are you putting in place now to ensure that greater efficiencies could be made through a fully integrated health and social care model?
Well, I share the Member’s belief that closer integration between health and social care brings benefits both to patients and to users, and can help to drive financial efficiencies. It’s why, in next year’s budget, we maintain the £60 million care fund to drive greater integration between health and social care. It’s why we will have pooled budgets operating on the regional social services footprints, and it is why, in the discussions that I am having with local authorities in Wales, the notion of bringing social services together on a regional basis, facing health boards, helps us to make progress, and rapid progress, in that direction.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. The future generations commissioner has warned that public services could fall off a cliff without more being done to prevent people from becoming ill. This includes, obviously, quality housing and leisure services. Further, the Welsh Local Government Association has expressed concerns that NHS budgetary pressures could see non-healthcare services that help people stay healthy losing out. How will you ensure a streamlined approach through local government to promote public health, not just through the NHS, but through all public services provided at local government level, and how will you ensure that, throughout any reform process, this will be a key priority?
Any person with the responsibility of making a budget for the Welsh Government has to face the competing priorities that are there for expenditure. In the budget that I have laid before this Assembly, we seek to do that, with £240 million additional investment in our health service direct, but also, as a result of our budget agreement, are able to provide a no-cash-cuts budget for local authorities as well, with £25 million identified specifically for social services within that. The general point that the Member makes is one that I endorse: the future for the health service depends upon each one of us being willing to take more responsibility for creating the conditions in which we take better care of our own health. So, much of what the health service deals with today are problems that need never have happened had people made different decisions in their own lives. It’s the responsibility of Government to create the conditions in which those decisions can be made, and our local government budgets are key to helping to do that.
Thank you. And, finally, turning to community councils, as part of your local government reform, how do you intend to proceed with a fundamental review of the democratic level of governance that sits at town and community level?
I thank Janet Finch-Saunders for that question. I know she’s got a particular interest in town and community councils. I said in my statement on 4 October that there were a series of immediate things I feel we can do to improve the operation of the system as we have it today, but I also wanted a more root-and-branch and independent look at town and community councils to find the ways in which we can harness the things that they do very well. In many parts of Wales, that sector does some very important things very well, but it doesn’t do it uniformly. There is a democratic deficit in the sector, with over half of town and community council seats uncontested at the last election. I’m grateful to her for the discussions we’ve had on this matter and I look forward to being able to continue with them to design that root-and-branch re-assessment.
Thank you. We now turn back to the questions on the order paper and question 3—Hefin David.
3. Will the Minister make a statement on future collaboration in local government? OAQ(5)0059(FLG)[R]
I thank the Member for that question. I set out my proposals for future collaboration between local authorities on 4 October. The proposals for mandatory and systematic regional collaboration will build on the many collaborative arrangements local authorities already have in place across Wales.
Does the Cabinet Secretary believe that such mandatory collaboration has to lead to a return on investment, whether that be delivering more for less, more for the same, or the same for less, and, if that’s the case, how does he anticipate local authorities being able to justify collaboration, as a mandatory requirement, when the business case for collaboration may not necessarily bring a direct benefit to one or other of the individual local authorities engaging in the collaboration process?
I thank Hefin David for that supplementary question because he puts his finger on exactly why I have said throughout that these arrangements will have to be mandatory as well as systematic. There are too many examples in local authorities in Wales where an individual local authority has invested a great deal of time and effort in trying to bring about a collaborative regional arrangement only to find that, at the last minute, one of the participating authorities moves away from the table because they don’t see how their own narrow interest has been taken forward in what they all agree is a wider pattern of benefit. We cannot have arrangements in Wales where individual local authorities take such a narrow and time-limited view of their own interests and then sacrifice the wider interests of a region where progress could be made. So, the only way to overcome that, as I see it, is by agreeing these arrangements; I’m very keen to continue that conversation. But, once it is agreed, they will be mandatory and everybody will have to play their part in them.
Cabinet Secretary, we’re of the same generation and probably the only two people in this Chamber that remember the 1994 White Paper to establish unitary authorities. I’m sure we’re the only people that would have read it. It said that at the heart of the concept of unitary authorities was that they’d have to collaborate, but a generation later—there have been some partnerships, of course—that sort of culture of collaboration is yet to be established. And that’s as important as what I would welcome—the more coercive measures that may have to be taken to ensure that, at last, we get them to co-operate effectively.
Well, I’m afraid I was a county councillor myself back then, when those reforms were being advanced and discussed. So, I do remember them very well. Dirprwy Lywydd, can I say that, actually, when I go around local authorities in Wales I am often struck by the richness of collaboration that is already there? Every local authority can describe to you places where they are collaborating across their borders for very important purposes. The problem with it so far has been that there is no national pattern here. We’re not good at learning from positive experience in one part of Wales and making it happen elsewhere. That’s why, once we’ve agreed on the new co-operative arrangements there are to be, I am determined that they will have to be systematic—they will be the same across Wales, and they’ll be mandatory. Everybody will be involved in delivering them.
Cabinet Secretary, as well as collaboration within and between local government, there are also important partnerships between local authorities and other partners. One of those has been Powys council and the Powys teaching health board, who have entered into an agreement on health and social care in particular. Can you tell me whether there has been any assessment made of that collaboration and whether the outcomes have been positive?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, Joyce Watson makes a very important point, which is always made to me by local authorities when I am meeting them: that the agenda for local authorities goes much wider than local authorities themselves. They all have really important partners, whether that is the local police service, the national park or, in the Powys case, as she says, the collaboration between Powys teaching health board and Powys council. I met the leader of Powys County Council recently and received an account from him of the work that they are doing. Interestingly, in relation to Suzy Davies’s earlier point, occupational therapy services are one of the very first things that they believe they can provide as a single service across both authorities. They tell me that good progress is being made. We’ve provided grant funding of more than £300,000 to assist the council and the LHB to get that collaboration off the ground, and I look forward to seeing further practical fruits of those endeavours.
4. Will the Minister make a statement on city deals? OAQ(5)0051(FLG)
Thank you for the question. I remain committed to progressing deals in Wales as a tool to encourage further economic growth and collaborative working. The Welsh Government has had extensive discussions on deals with the UK Government to maximise the benefits for Wales.
I thank the Cabinet Secretary for his answer. He’ll be aware, I'm sure, of Mark Lang's recent deep place study of Pontypool, where he highlights not simply the challenges facing that once-thriving community, but also the foundations that could be built upon for future success. Ventures like the Cardiff city region and the city deal provide opportunities for towns like Pontypool, but there are also threats as well. So, will he elaborate on how his Government will deliver a multi-hub, multi-growth whole approach to the Cardiff city deal and the city region plan, so that towns like Pontypool are at the centre of those plans, rather than at their periphery?
Well, the key point that I think Steffan Lewis is making is this, and it's reflected in the work that Mark Lang has been involved in: the Cardiff capital deal is not simply about finding better ways in which people can be attracted to the centre, to Cardiff itself, but a way of spreading prosperity across the whole of that region, and where connectivity means that we can more easily persuade businesses and economic activity to take place right across the region. It's encouraging to see the mechanisms that the deal is putting in place to make sure that projects right across the region are assessed for that impact, and I know that, amongst the 10 leaders of councils who come together to form the leadership of the deal, we see a determination to make sure that its fruits are genuinely provided across the whole of those 10 authorities.
One component of the Cardiff city deal is the creation of the Cardiff capital region skills and employment board. One of the jobs in its hands is to ensure that the skills and employment provision is responsive to the needs of local businesses and communities. Can the Cabinet Secretary update the Assembly on Welsh Government financial support for skills and employment provision in the Cardiff city region and how this will deliver benefits to south-east Wales, please?
Well, I thank Mohammad Asghar for the question. He’s right to point to the creation of that board, and I was encouraged to see that the board contained not simply the local authorities themselves, but education representatives, employer representatives and third sector representatives as well. The £1.3 billion deal that we are providing for the Cardiff capital region is a combination of local authorities’ own funding, funding that will come from the UK Government and funding that will come from the European Union, but the bulk of the funding—the largest contributor—comes from the Welsh Government itself, and it is exactly aligned with those purposes to make sure that, as well as physical connectivity, we have a skills base amongst the local population that means that this is an attractive place for employers to come and create economic opportunity.
How does the Cabinet Secretary see the future governance of the Cardiff city region developing? It’s very exciting that the 10 leaders have come together in the way that they have. How does he see this developing in the future?
Well, Dirprwy Lywydd, it is a very important development that those 10 leaders are committed to make happen, but it is very important indeed that they are able to deliver according to the timescale that they themselves have made a commitment to deliver. Because the model, which is the Cabinet model where all 10 leaders will form the cabinet of the Cardiff capital city deal, is yet to be ratified by the constituent authorities. Every leader is committed to making sure that that arrangement has been ratified by their council before the end of February of next year. My message to them, which I’ve conveyed regularly in meetings to them, is that it is absolutely vital that they deliver on that timetable so that we remain on track in governance terms to draw down the money that is available for the deal.
5. Will the Minister make a statement on the application of section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972 relating to the powers of local authorities to incur expenditure? OAQ(5)0056(FLG)
I thank Russell George for the question. This section 137 power allows a community or town council to incur a limited amount of expenditure for purposes for which it has no other specific power or duty, and which will bring direct benefit to their area or any part of it.
Cabinet Secretary, Llanfair Caereinion Town Council have been in correspondence with me on this issue for some time. The town council are keen to take on the running of the town library from county council control. If this doesn’t happen then it’s fearful the town library is likely to close. Now, legal advice provided to the town council actively prohibits them from funding the library under section 137 of the Local Government Act 1972. However, the local authority has received opposing legal advice. I’m grateful to you for writing to me on this matter today in quite some detail—I appreciate that, Cabinet Secretary. Would you agree to provide clarity on the application of section 137 in this regard?
I’m grateful to Russell George for drawing this to my attention and providing copies of the correspondence from Llanfair Caereinion and Powys County Council, which illustrates the point that he is making. My officials have already provided advice to other town and community councils in Powys, and in general, our advice is that the financial restriction set out in section 137(4) continues to apply in circumstances where a town or community council seeks to exercise the well-being power contained in the Local Government Act 2000 to support the required expenditure. However, you do have to apply that general principle in every particular set of circumstances, and that’s the debate that is currently taking place between some town and community councils and Powys County Council itself. What I will say to the Member is this: I intend to bring forward proposals as part of any consultation on local government reform to clarify the law in relation to the power and capabilities of town and community councils in taking on services and assets. So, even if there is some ambiguity or difference of view at present, I want to support town and community councils in the important efforts they are making to sustain services in local communities. We’ll take advantage of any consultation we bring forward to try and do just that.
Historically, in the pre-poll-tax days, local authorities were able to use the equivalent of the product of the penny rate to carry out activity for the benefit of their local area. Does that Cabinet Secretary agree with me that what is needed, and what local authorities have asked for for as long as I can remember, is a power of general competence for local authorities, so that if it’s for the benefit of their area, it’s what the council votes for, it’s what constituents want, then they can spend money on it.
Mike Hedges is absolutely right and he reminds us that, in the draft Bill on local government that the previous Minister brought forward, there was exactly that proposal: to provide a general power of competence to principle authorities and, indeed, a power of competence to town and community councils that were able to reach a certain threshold of competence in their own affairs. While we’ve not been able, up until now, to reach an agreement on some important parts of reform of local government, that was an aspect that was generally welcomed, and I definitely intend to take it forward if I have an opportunity to do so.
6. Will the Minister make a statement on the overall budget allocation to the education portfolio? OAQ(5)0065(FLG)
As set out in the draft budget published last month, the budget allocation for the education main expenditure group next year is £1.99 billion.
Cabinet Secretary, a big part of the job of Government is to decide on priorities, and for me there is no higher priority than education. I believe a well-educated population benefits all aspects of life and life chances in communities. In addition to that, the recent report by Gerry Holtham and Brian Morgan looked at economic development policy across the world and found the strongest correlation between spending on schools and economic success. So, I very much welcome the recent new allocation, but I wonder if, going forward, together with the First Minister and your cabinet colleagues, you will continue to consider very carefully whether additional resources can be made available to our schools in Wales.
I thank John Griffiths for that. He makes a point that others have made this afternoon: that investment in human capital is one of the most powerful ways in which we can continue to sustain our economy and our economic prosperity into the future. Figures published last week by the Treasury showed that expenditure on education in Wales continues to be 4 per cent higher than in England. The draft budget that I published has, by itself, more than £90 million extra to the baseline to be able to make the pupil deprivation grant a permanent part of our funding in Wales; £20 million above that to raise school standards; and £0.5 billion going primarily to the twenty-first century schools programme, of which £28 million is there for Newport. I hope the Member will be assured from that that, even when tough priorities have to be set, the requirement to go on investing in education is one that is much in our minds.
7. What discussions has the Minister had with the Board of the National Procurement Services on the readiness of local authorities to share procurement practice? OAQ(5)0052(FLG)
Those discussions do take place and they have focused on the results of the first round of procurement fitness checks, which my colleague Jane Hutt sponsored in the last Assembly. The results are available to assist those local authorities who may need support with specific aspects of their procurement practice.
Thank you. At the last meeting of the board of the National Procurement Service, it was revealed that only three local authorities have been willing to share data on how they lease vehicles. What can the Cabinet Secretary do to require data sharing, and once that data is with the NPS, what can he do to make sure the focus isn’t just on cost savings, but on capturing the value to local economies?
It’s an interesting question that the Member raises and, actually, car leasing turns out to be a more complex subject than I first realised when I was originally briefed some time ago by the National Procurement Service on this topic. There is a Wales-wide National Procurement Service framework for car hire that all local authorities participate in, but that’s only for cars that are being hired for up to a week. If you want to hire a vehicle for more than a week, you have two choices in Wales: you can become part of the Crown Commercial Service system, and three local authorities in Wales have chosen to be a part of that, but it doesn’t suit all local authorities in Wales, particularly those from rural areas. They prefer to enter into long-term hire arrangements, most often with those companies that they use from the car-hire framework. The car-hire framework provides eight or nine different companies that you can choose to hire from. Local authorities in Wales do not choose the cheapest supplier. Why is that? It’s because they make a conscious decision to hire from local suppliers because of the effect that that has on jobs and other economic prosperity in their localities. So, the point that the Member makes is an important one and I think the data suggest that it is actively in the minds of local authorities when they make these decisions.
8. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact that the apprenticeship levy will have on the block grant? OAQ(5)0058(FLG)
The apprenticeship levy is a UK Government employment tax that directly conflicts with areas of devolved competence. It does not provide significant new money for Wales. Any positive consequentials as a result of it are largely offset by negative consequentials and the additional costs to public sector providers.
Thank you for that answer, Cabinet Secretary. It is worrying to see that, in fact, what we are getting from the UK central Government is being taken away in another part, but also we are funding our public bodies and they have to put that money back to the Treasury under the apprenticeship levy. Can you give guarantees that the money will be used for apprenticeships? There are many bodies I’ve met with that happen to pay this levy and therefore feel that they’re being penalised for actually trying to take on apprentices but are not getting anything back. In England I know there’s a voucher system, but here we seem to have nothing.
Let me provide the figures for Members to see. It takes me back to almost the very first question I was asked by Andrew R.T. Davies when I said that the small print in all of this is important. So, in the spending review settlement, the Treasury announced that there was to be £114 million added to the Welsh block grant as a result of the apprenticeship levy. Had you read further down the page into the small print, you would have discovered that, at the same time, £90 million was being taken out of the block grant because of a reduction in English apprenticeship programmes. If you had read further down the page again, you would have discovered that Welsh public sector bodies were being required to pay in £30 million to the apprenticeship levy scheme. So, we were being given £114 million and £120 million was being taken away. That’s why, on days like today, it’s important to wait to see the whole story before making any spending commitments. As a result of combined pressure from all devolved administrations, the Treasury announced within the last week or so a change to the basis of calculation of the apprenticeship levy, which will provide and extra £13.7 million for Wales next year. I will be in discussions with Cabinet colleagues as to how that money can be invested. But any idea that there are millions and millions of pounds coming to Wales through the apprenticeship levy is simply a fiction.
9. Will the Minister make a statement on how EU structural funds are assisting businesses and employment in north Wales? OAQ(5)0064(FLG)
Since 2007, Dirprwy Lywydd, EU projects in north Wales have helped 9,300 people into work, created 2,340 apprenticeships and 7,660 jobs.
Thank you, Cabinet Secretary. EU funds have helped enable innovation in north Wales, assisting the likes of ADC Biotechnology based in OpTIC in St Asaph, as well as ESF funding supporting the provision of intensive support and a range of bespoke interventions to help get people closer to the labour market through the North Wales Economic Ambition board’s OPUS programme and, of course, Jobs Growth Wales. This is just a snapshot of what EU funds have helped make happen in north Wales. Cabinet Secretary, can our organisations and communities in north Wales count on the Welsh Government’s continued support to draw down EU funding to support business and jobs in the region?
I’m grateful to the Member for the opportunity to restate the Welsh Government’s position, which is, for as long as we remain in membership of the European Union, we will try and draw down the maximum possible investment for the benefit of communities across Wales. By the end of this month, as a result of accelerating the programme in the conditions we now face, we will have agreements in place covering 60 per cent of the £1.9 billion-worth of EU structural fund allocations. We will continue to make approvals beyond that and those approvals will apply to north Wales as much as to any other part of our nation.
Thank you very much, Cabinet Secretary.