105 speeches by……and 15 more speakers
The first item of business this afternoon is questions to the First Minister, and the first question is from Janet Finch-Saunders.
1. Will the First Minister make a statement on sepsis prevention? OAQ(5)0300(FM)
Tackling sepsis continues to be a top patient safety priority in Wales. Early recognition and diagnosis is crucial to preventing the condition getting worse and to the provision of appropriate and timely treatment. Wales has been recognised at a global level for its work in sepsis awareness and education.
Thank you. Research published by Dr Tamas Szakmany this week has found that over 7,500 people were admitted to hospitals in Wales with sepsis, resulting in more than 1,500 deaths. That is more than breast and prostate cancer combined. He also highlights a degree of variation in how clinical teams respond to sepsis, as of 290 patients showing signs of sepsis, just 12 per cent were initially screened and treated in line with best practice. Many of those affected describe the sinister effects arising from such a dangerous and life-threatening disease, including amputations and many life-changing consequences—that’s if you survive. A common theme is the blatant lack of awareness, particularly within a health setting, and the saddest part of this is that the majority of cases could be prevented or treated with antibiotics if caught early enough, especially following on—
Can you get to a question please?
England have launched a public health campaign ‘Could it be Sepsis?’. Northern Ireland ‘Just say Sepsis’—
The question needs to be asked.
How do you, as First Minister, intend to address the shortfalls and inconsistencies that are evident here in Wales and how immediately do you intend to do this?
Well, we already have in place the national early warning score system in every hospital. The Global Sepsis Alliance recognised the work of NHS Wales for its sepsis awareness and education initiatives at the 2016 Global Sepsis Awards, something, of course, which we very much welcome. But, of course, it is still the case that many are not diagnosed in time as it’s a difficult condition to diagnose—that is recognised. But it is hugely important that we have consistency across our hospitals in terms of how sepsis is identified early, and that system is something that is in place and is widely used across the Welsh NHS.
First Minister, the national confidential inquiry, as has just been mentioned, into patient outcome and death, published in November 2015, says that sepsis kills more people than breast, bowel and prostate cancer combined in the UK. The report recommends more doctors and nurses use early warning systems and screening checklists to prompt them to check for signs of sepsis. The health Cabinet Secretary says he is open-minded about considering whether to make hospitals screen patients with symptoms in the same way. So, will the First Minister outline how the Welsh Government can ensure the Welsh national health service ensure a universal and consistent approach to screening for sepsis?
Yes. The national early warning score system is part of that consistent approach. Every hospital uses it. It is a simple system that enables staff to assess whether patients are developing sepsis, and, also, ambulance service paramedics are using that system to develop systems for screening patients for sepsis prior to arrival at hospital. Also, staff are using a standard sepsis screening to identify sepsis and instigate rapid action, called the ‘Sepsis Six bundle’. And, so, we are continuing to develop the work that’s already been put in place over the last four years to ensure that more people are diagnosed early with sepsis and fewer people lose their lives because of it.
First Minister, with nearly 2,000 deaths in Wales each year, many of them preventable, sepsis is one of the biggest killers most people aren’t aware of. While educating the public to recognise the signs, and ensuring steps are taken in the NHS to prevent the onset of sepsis are vital, so too is ensuring that our healthcare professionals recognise the signs. Many sepsis survivors owe their lives to a GP who recognised the early onset of sepsis. Therefore, First Minister, what steps is the Government taking to ensure that every GP in Wales receives training to recognise the signs of sepsis as well as how to prevent it?
Building on what I’ve already mentioned, I mentioned the Sepsis Six bundle. That consists of three quick tests for sepsis, three simple treatments that are proven to combat it and can help to detect and treat the illness at its earliest stages. But, of course, it is hugely important that all health professionals are aware of sepsis, and, indeed, they are, and, indeed, look for the earliest signs, although it can be difficult to diagnose and treat, particularly in the early stages.
2. Will the First Minister make a statement on the business rates system? OAQ(5)0290(FM)
Yes. The non-domestic rates system in Wales contributes more than £1 billion towards the funding of local services in Wales.
I thank the First Minister for his answer. Looking ahead to proposals for new business rates arrangements post 2018, is the First Minister able to give an indication of his thinking regarding community sports clubs? I understand that, at the moment, there’s a threshold where 70 per cent of members of such clubs have to be actively participating in that club’s activities to qualify for relief. It seems a very high threshold, considering wider plans and strategies for greater physical activity promotion, especially among younger people. So, I’d appreciate it if the First Minister could give an indication on his thoughts on that matter.
Yes, we are aware of the point that the Member makes, and it does form part of our thinking as we develop a permanent system from 2018 onwards.
First Minister, on many occasions in this Chamber we have heard about the question of relief on plant and machinery in business rates, particularly in areas such as Tata Steel, where we had the blast furnace. Has your Government actually given any further consideration to looking at relief for plant and machinery in the business rates, to ensure that investment can come in to industries, such as the steel industry, and that they will not be penalised as a consequence?
It is something that we looked at with the Valuation Office Agency. It is a highly complicated area. What we have done instead, of course, is to put on the table a more generous package for Tata than business rate relief would offer. So, I would argue that what we have on the table goes well beyond what business rate relief on plant and machinery would be able to offer in the first place, especially given the complexities and the time it would take to put such a system in place.
In light of your answer to me last week, First Minister, saying that you would be able to give full consideration, after the autumn statement, to increasing funding for support to small businesses, how will your Government use the budget consequentials from the Chancellor’s announcement that he will extend rural rate relief to 100 per cent, giving small businesses in England a tax break of up to £2,900?
Well, the revenue consequential is very small—some £35 million, of which £20 million has already been announced. So, we have not been showered with largesse from the UK Government when it comes to revenue funding. Nevertheless, we will look to see how that money can be best used for the good of the people of Wales.
First Minister, I’ve had countless constituents write to me about business rates—small business holders, people running independent shops—and they’re all telling me that your Government’s business rates are threatening their businesses, may lead them to close or, certainly, lay people off. Why are you hurting small businesses in my region?
Well, I think the Member has to remember that the last time there was a revaluation was when his party was in Government. I heard no complaints at that point. It’s right to say that, in some parts of Wales, there are particular issues that will need to be addressed, but this is revenue neutral. This is not a way of the Government getting more money. This is a way of rebalancing the business rates system without there being a net gain to Government. That said, of course, we recognise that there will be some parts of Wales where things are difficult, and that’s why we’ve already announced a transitional relief scheme of £10 million, and we will look to see what else we can do in order to smooth the transition process.
Questions now from the party leaders. The leader of the UKIP group, Neil Hamilton.
Diolch, Lywydd. The Government will be represented at the Supreme Court hearing next week on the case involving article 50, and it’s perfectly reasonable that the Welsh Government’s views should be presented to the court. But what instructions will be given to counsel for the Welsh Government? Will he, or she, be supporting the Government of the United Kingdom, or will he or she be supporting the claimant against the Government of the United Kingdom—i.e. will he be helping to facilitate the wishes of the British people, as expressed in the referendum on 23 June, or the opposite?
Neither. The Welsh Government will be representing itself, and the instructions to counsel will be given on the basis of representing the Welsh Government’s position. This is not to do with preventing Brexit; it is to do with making sure that constitutional law is observed.
There is an argument, of course, as to what the constitutional law requires in this particular incident. So, what I’m trying to elicit from the First Minister is on whose side he is going to be—on the view that is held by the United Kingdom Government or the view held by counsel for Mrs Miller, who is the applicant in this case. There are sound legal arguments for saying that an explicit vote in the House of Commons is not required before triggering article 50. In 2008 and in 2011, an Act of Parliament was passed to amend UK legislation to require explicitly a vote in Parliament if there were to be any specific changes to EU law in some areas like common defence policy, the appointment of a European prosecutor, whether Britain should join the euro, whether Britain should join the Schengen agreement, whether we should replace the voting by unanimity by qualified majority voting, and a whole range of incidents. In all those instances, there would be direct effects upon the British people as a consequence of the decision. That’s the essence of the High Court’s decision—that it’s because of those direct effects upon people that an explicit vote in Parliament is required. But as article 50 was not one of the many instances that were set down in an Act of Parliament, then there is certainly no basis for saying that, in this case, there is an implied requirement for the House of Commons or the House of Lords to support a vote in favour of article 50 before the Government is enabled to fulfil the wishes of the British people.
If the leader of UKIP is pitching to act as counsel in the Supreme Court, he’s doing a reasonable job for himself. He understands the constitutional issue that has to be resolved in court. We will all have our different positions. The question for us is: can the royal prerogative be used to start what would be an unstoppable process towards changing the constitution of Wales. There are serious legal arguments that need to be explored in the Supreme Court. He has recognised that, and I welcome that. Unfortunately, there are some in his party who see this as some kind of conspiracy to stop Brexit. That is not what this is about. This is about ensuring that if an important constitutional legal principle is examined and judgment given on that, and not just for Brexit, of course, this could be used in the future for other issues as well.
Indeed. So, what I’m trying to elicit from the First Minister, and which he still has not given an answer to, is: what will the counsel for the Welsh Government actually be saying in the course of these proceedings? Because the counsel for the Government said nothing in the High Court at all. Is it intended that counsel for the Welsh Government will say something in the Supreme Court hearing, and, if so, will he be arguing against the case of the United Kingdom Government that we should go ahead and trigger article 50 as soon as possible without complicating matters by having further votes in Parliament?
Well, he’s perfectly welcome to read the grounds, which are public, and he will see the case that we make. We represent ourselves. We are not there to back one side or the other but to put the case on behalf of the people of Wales in terms of what constitutional principles should be followed. It just so happens that Brexit is the issue, but it could be any other issue where this constitutional principle would need to be examined. So, it’s important that it’s examined now.
The leader of Plaid Cymru, Leanne Wood.
Diolch, Lywydd. First Minister, a ban on letting agents fees was announced in the recent autumn statement announcement, with England now joining Scotland. When it comes to Wales, your finance Secretary told the BBC that he wanted to wait and see how the ban in Scotland worked first. Do you know which year they banned letting agent fees in Scotland?
Yes. The position in Scotland is this: that the Rent (Scotland) Act 1984 makes the payment of any premium in respect of granting, renewal or continuance of a protected tenancy an offence. That definition has been in place since 30 November 2012. So, practically, since 2012, that has been in place. I can say, however, that we are looking again at this issue. Our fear was that if fees were abolished, then that would be loaded onto rents. The evidence from Scotland is interesting in that regard. I know this is an issue that my colleague, Jenny Rathbone, has been particularly concerned about, given the effect on her constituency.
I’m glad you raised that point about Scotland, because the banning of letting fees there has shown, according to the ONS, that rents in Scotland and Wales rose at a substantially lower rate than in England over the past six years, with rents in Scotland actually falling over the past year. So, it shows that this ban on letting fees doesn’t actually increase rents. Now, you’re right—Scotland banned these fees in 2012. So, how much longer do tenants in Wales have to wait, then? I would have thought that four years was long enough. The fact is that you've been even slower on this vitally important social justice question than even the Tories in Westminster. Now, First Minister, home ownership is becoming a crucial issue for this generation of young people; it's becoming almost impossible to get on the property ladder. Getting their rent paid is now the top priority, and, in the rented sector, moving home can bring about a set of unjustified fees, with Shelter Cymru’s mystery-shopping exercise a few years ago suggesting that it can cost up to £1,000 extra. Unless action is taken, it will only be Wales that will have these letting fees. I would welcome a firm commitment from you this afternoon, First Minister, explaining to us how you are going to ban these letting agent fees. Will you give us that commitment today?
I can say this is something that is actively under consideration. I understand the point that she makes; it would look strange for Wales to have letting agent fees while England and Scotland didn't. There is some evidence now from Scotland that the effect in terms of rental increases was not as great as was feared, and that is something that will play in very strongly to the action we will take over the next few months.
First Minister, last year, Plaid Cymru tabled amendments to the Renting Homes (Wales) Bill, but you declined at that point to take up the opportunity to ban excessive letting fees, apparently against the wishes of your own backbenchers. And banning excessive letting agency fees is not the only issue on which your backbenchers have wanted to vote with Plaid Cymru amendments to improve legislation; we wanted to ban zero-hours contracts in social care. But there always seems to be an excuse, First Minister: either you don't have the power, or the amendment wasn't drafted correctly, or, my favourite, ‘We haven't consulted on the issue’, even after 17 years of being in power. Why is it, First Minister, that when Plaid Cymru tries to implement policies that help those on the lowest incomes to get out of poverty, your Government votes against us?
Well, I do remember that her party was in Government for four years, which is often conveniently forgotten. And there will be issues—the issue of zero-hours contracts attached to the social services Bill, if I remember rightly, was an issue. The fear was the entire Bill would be referred to the Supreme Court. It’s not an issue of disagreement on principle, not in the slightest—far from it; we’re at the same place when it comes to zero-hours contracts. In the same way, we will revisit the issue of letting agents fees in the light of the evidence that is there from Scotland, through Shelter, and it is right to say that it would look unusual for Wales to have letting agents fees with England and Scotland not. The concern that we have, that this would simply be added to rents, appears from the evidence in Scotland now to be less of a concern than before.
The leader of the Welsh Conservatives, Andrew R.T. Davies.
Thank you very much, Presiding Officer. First Minister, if I could return to the first question today, on sepsis, I'd like to commend my colleague, Angela Burns, who now chairs the all-party group on this particular issue—after going through some pretty horrendous experiences herself she is able to bring those personal experiences to the table. This is an issue that, obviously, through recent media coverage, really has come to the forefront of people's thinking, but has been quietly lurking in the background in health professionals’ minds for quite some time. And, in fairness to the Welsh Government, they've brought forward a strategy to try and tackle some of the areas that people do face when they present and want to be assessed in hospital. But it is a fact that only one in 10 people is receiving the right treatment and the right assessments in hospitals. What type of target can we aim for this time next year? Because I hear the warm words and, rightly, the words that people want to hear, but they actually want hear progress on this particular issue. So, what progress can we specifically hold you to on screening and treatment in 12 months’ time, First Minister?
Well, it’s part of the 1000 Lives programme that we have to make sure that more people are given the chance to survive and given the chance to have the right level of treatment for the illness itself. He asks are there any particular figures in terms of a target. The answer to that is ‘no’; there's no particular figure, but what I can say is we want to see more people diagnosed early to give them the opportunity of surviving. We have already in place, as I said, the early warning score system, the Sepsis Six analysis scheme as well. We believe that all these things, taken together, will increase awareness of sepsis, particularly awareness amongst medics, so that they are able to diagnose more quickly and, therefore, more people are diagnosed and therefore will survive.
Thank you for that, First Minister. I was specifically looking for a target from yourself, as the First Minister and the Government. I appreciate there might not be hard and fast figures there at the moment, but the figure I did put to you is that, at the moment, only one in 10 patients are actually receiving that screening and that support that most probably would help and actually save their lives. Now, that’s a figure none of us want to leave at. We want to push that on, and you have the ability as a Government to push on from that figure. When you actually think that 15 times more people are killed by sepsis in Wales, or die from sepsis in Wales, than in road accidents—we’ve had a huge programme, a successful programme, of road traffic safety and road traffic information—this is an area that the Welsh Government need to be at the forefront of, and delivering tangible results within our health service. Pockets of good practice are just not good enough, as was identified in the recent report. So, I’ll use my second question of three, if I may, to try and push you to try and get a hard figure out of you of where we will be this time next year when it comes to hospital screening for sepsis and actually being able to deliver the treatments that are required.
Well, there is already a consistent approach through the national early warning score system. That is in place across all hospitals in Wales. It’s widely used by staff in community hospitals and in residential homes for the elderly and indeed in mental health services. I mentioned earlier that the ambulance service is developing systems for screening patients for sepsis prior to arrival. Velindre uses the system across all its clinical areas and out-patient chemotherapy units, ensuring that it meets the needs of cancer patients, and then of course I mentioned the Sepsis Six bundle. What does that mean in terms of numbers? Well, we work with the UK Sepsis Trust; there’s a very good working relationship. We want to see that figure of one out of 10 improve in the future so that more people have a chance of survival, and we’re confident that will happen.
I appreciate I don’t seem to be able to get a figure out of you today, First Minister. I have paid tribute to the actions the Government have taken so far, but it is quite clearly identified that there are only pockets of good practice, regrettably, in the Welsh NHS. I’ve given you the figure of one in 10 and I’ve given you the figure that 15 times more people die of sepsis than of road accidents, so I would hope that maybe the Cabinet Secretary could make a written statement to indicate where the Government wants to be in 12 months’ time, so that we can see how open his mind is to actually bringing forward real progress in this area. But one area where real progress can be made is in the recruitment and retention of doctors and medical staff. I appreciate again this is a UK-wide issue, this is, and in certain disciplines it’s more pronounced in other parts of the United Kingdom than maybe here in Wales. But, regrettably, the Royal College of Surgeons have pointed out that 40 per cent of consultant posts are vacant here in Wales, and many of them do not actually attract—vacant positions I’m talking about, not actually staff positions—40 per cent of vacancies do not receive any reply to the adverts put out there. What progress will the Welsh Government be doing and undertaking over the next 12 months to actually attract and retain clinicians to our NHS so that, when it comes to sepsis and other conditions, we have the expertise at the coalface to actually deliver those diagnoses to improve treatments for patients entering the NHS here in Wales?
I’m not quite sure where he gets the 40 per cent figure from. The vacancy figure is around 4 per cent in the Welsh NHS. We continue to be proactive in our recruitment. We’ve been in London and Harrogate at events recently in order to present Wales as a good place to be a doctor. We’ve had, at the last count, 280 very hard and solid responses and enquiries to our campaign—it’s a very good campaign. We are confident that we will be able to attract the physicians at all levels, and surgeons at all levels, into the Welsh NHS to make sure that enough people get the service they require.
3. Will the First Minister make a statement on the Welsh Government's role in the formation of local development plans? OAQ(5)0295(FM)
Yes. The Government proactively engages with local planning authorities to ensure national planning policy as set out in ‘Planning Policy Wales’ and associated technical advice notes is appropriately reflected in local development plans.
Thank you for your answer, First Minister. You will be aware that the Welsh Government publish letters to chief planning officers that supplement Welsh planning policy in Wales. Can you confirm whether or not these letters constitute Welsh Government planning policy, which local authorities are obliged to follow, or whether they are merely guidance and advice, which can be accepted or rejected in the formation of LDPs? Also, I would be grateful if you could set out what pressure the Welsh Government has exerted on Powys County Council in directing them to include local search areas for renewable energy schemes over and above existing strategic search areas across the county?
We have not directed Powys council to amend their LDP. Government officials have engaged with Powys County Council to provide advice and guidance on national policy, including renewable energy, and including responding at formal consultation stages. Local authorities do have to bear in mind the guidance that comes from Welsh Government, because of course that guidance will be taken into account when the LDP is examined by the inspector, who, of course, has the final say as to whether an LDP is accepted or not.
First Minister, your Government’s role in Cardiff’s LDP is the plan to dump thousands of dwellings on our countryside. Cardiff Plaid will make sure that Cardiff council passes a motion to demand that the Assembly revokes Cardiff’s local destruction plan. Will you support that motion to save Cardiff’s green fields?
It’s a legal nonsense, as well he knows. He doesn’t like incomers much, does he? It’s one of the things that we do notice about him. He doesn’t like people coming to live in Cardiff. Perhaps he wants to consider which party he should be a member of, but that’s a matter for him. The reality is that it’s for the local authorities to adopt their LDPs, it’s for the local authorities to decide what to do with their LDP. The Assembly has no legal role or power to rescind the LDP of a local authority, nor can there ever be a vote on the floor of this Chamber to rescind an LDP. It’s a matter of local democracy that a local council can produce its LDP, taking into account national planning policy, and taking into account what the inspector says as part of that LDP process. That’s exactly what Cardiff council has done.
Question 4, David Rowlands.
Diolch, Lywydd. First Minister, given that a large proportion of all Irish exports, both to the UK—
You need to ask the—
[Continues.]—and to the EU pass along the M4 motorway.
You need to ask the question on the order paper.
I’m sorry. Well, I just missed two of the words or something out of it. If I have, I apologise to the First Minister—
Just ask the question again.
[Continues.]—but the whole ethos of the thing—. Right, I’ll start again, First Minister. 4. Will the First Minister explore the possibility of part of the cost for the M4 improvement scheme being borne by the Irish Government, given that three quarters of all Irish exports to the EU and UK pass along that road? OAQ(5)0301(FM)
No, it’s for the Welsh Government to maintain the trunk roads and motorways of Wales.
I thank the First Minister for the answer, but this is a serious proposition, as I understand Ireland may be able to access funds from the trans-European highways fund. [Interruption.] Very ironic, you say. And here I quote—[Interruption.] And here—[Interruption.]
I am interested in hearing the question.
And here I quote fund allocation principles: ‘Although we have been investing a lot in improving transport infrastructure, there is under investment in many smaller cross-border sections’—
I can’t hear the question, and I don’t think the First Minister can. Can everybody quieten down, please? Can you ask the question again? I don’t think—[Interruption.] And I’d like it to be—I want you to be heard in quiet.
Llywydd, I’m glad they realise what they’re saying, and that we now can get funds from the EU, post Brexit, of course. I shall start again, First Minister. I thank the First Minister for his answer, but this is a serious proposition, as I understand Ireland may be able to access funds from the trans-European highways fund. Here I quote fund allocation principles—[Interruption.]
I have asked for this question to be heard quietly. Can everybody allow this question to be heard? I want to get to the end of this question.
And so do I, Llywydd. Thank you very much. ‘There is under investment in many smaller cross-border sections, and bottlenecks’. I trust the First Minister would agree that the M4 at Brynglas would certainly qualify for the description ‘bottleneck’.
Well, the Member seems to be urging on me that I should urge the Irish Government to apply for European funding to pay for Welsh roads. He has been a member of a party and indeed campaigned in June to end European funding for Welsh roads. He cannot, I suggest, now go to an EU member state and ask them to make up the shortfall that he himself campaigned to engineer in the first place. There’s a second point as well. We must be very careful here in the sense that England could turn around and say that the M4 goes across the Severn bridge, all the traffic that goes across the Severn bridge goes to Wales, much of the M4 is used by Welsh traffic and, therefore, there should be a Welsh contribution to the M4 east of the Severn bridge. The French authorities could say that the vast majority of freight that comes from the UK goes through Calais, so the UK Government should pay for port infrastructure in Calais and the roads that lead from Calais. Where is the argument then? No; we have to be responsible for the maintenance and upkeep of our own roads in our own countries.
This is a surreal question, even by the standards of this year. But I must say, Mr Rowlands’s question is reminiscent of a chap who once had a plan to build a wall around his country and bill his next-door neighbours for the work. I’m not sure what happened to that gentleman. In terms of future co-operation between Wales and Ireland on infrastructure projects, there is a potential scope for a formal arrangement, a bilateral arrangement, between Wales and Ireland, through the Belfast agreement where two or more members can enter into bilateral agreements together. Will the First Minister consider a formal arrangement with the Irish state so that we can have future joint working on infrastructure projects, even tapping in—dare I say—to European funding so that we can formalise it into a Celtic sea alliance that gives some hope to our western regions and the eastern regions of the Irish state?
Yes, the Celtic sea alliance is based on, I think, the co-operation between Norway and Sweden as a model as to how that would work. It is likely that we will lose INTERREG funding as far as Wales is concerned, which will have an effect particularly on our ferry ports. I’m keen to explore new relationships around the Irish sea, whether it’s with the republic, Northern Ireland or with the Isle of Man, to see how we can help to ensure that there is minimal disruption when the UK leaves the European Union. Of course, the British-Irish Council is a useful body in terms of exploring some of these issues with those countries that border the Irish sea.
Question 5—Jenny Rathbone.
The leader of Plaid Cymru has already stolen my question, but I’ll ask it for the record anyway. In light of the measures announced in the autumn statement, will the Welsh Government consider joining England—
Sorry, questions are not stolen in this place. Somebody has asked your question before you got to it. So, just ask the question on the order paper.
5. In light of the measures announced in the Autumn Statement, will the Welsh Government consider joining England and Scotland in banning letting agency fees? OAQ(5)0306(FM)
It’s a matter of where questions are asked, of course, when these things arise, but I give the Member the same answer I gave to the leader of Plaid Cymru, which is: we are studying the impact of the ban in Scotland and, together with the final details of proposals in England, that will inform any action that we take. And as I mentioned earlier on, I thank the Member for the advocacy she has shown to so many tenants in her constituency, where they have been exploited over some years. This is a matter I know she has been very active in combating.
Just to put some details on the bones of that issue, I’ve got information that Citizens Advice says the average tenancy fee is £337, Shelter says that 15 per cent of renters are using an agency where they’ve had to pay up £500 or more, and tenants in Cardiff have said that fees are around £450. Too many agents, certainly operating in my constituency, are charging exploitative levels of fees, frequently far in excess of the actual cost, and also putting on hidden fees, often on people who are very young and are tentatively working their way through what are their rights. You can charge £60 or more for a credit check—a check that the firm will be doing for as little as £5. The renewal fee for staying in the same property can be as high as £300, when it amounts to little more than printing off a contract to sign. So, too many unscrupulous agents have got away with excessive fees and double-charging landlords. I just want to refer the First Minister to a report from Shelter. Shelter’s research shows—it isn’t just the ONS—that landlords in Scotland were no more likely to have increased rent since 2012 than landlords elsewhere in the UK. So, can you confirm that the Welsh Government has not ruled out action to prevent letting agents charging exorbitant and hidden fees?
Yes, I can confirm that. The Member, of course, makes a strong case for the abolition of such fees. I know that the Minister is actively looking at how this can be taken forward in the future and examining the emerging evidence from Scotland.
First Minister, there seems to have been some confusion at the time—when we debated this previously, in the previous Assembly—over whether you had the powers, or not. And I understand that you were able to give backbench Labour Assembly Members advice to suggest that it wasn’t, in fact, legal for you to do so, something that wasn’t shared with the rest of us as part of that particular debate. I would like to ask here today, First Minister, if you’re minded to bring forward any future debate or any future legislation, if you could put forward that advice to the Assembly, so that we can analyse it independently so that we can assess the way forward, because we seem to be hearing one thing from backbenchers and another from Government.
Well, the Member’s not a member of the group on this side of the Chamber, and how she is aware of what was and wasn’t said is a matter for her, but what I can say is that anything is potentially open to challenge, because of the inadequate nature of our devolution settlement, which is why, even though the opportunity hasn’t been grasped properly by the UK Government, we need to make sure there is greater clarity. We will look to proceed on the basis that we will do for the people of Wales what is proposed in England and in Scotland. The fact that the Government, the UK Government in England, I would argue, has already conceded in any event that they believe this is devolved, because they’ve only talked about England in this regard, is something that is, of course, helpful to any future potential reference to the Supreme Court.
First Minister, these fees are something of a horror. There aren’t many goods and services where we actually get charged for the process of purchase, and there’s clear support all around the house for action to be taken on this. These fees do distort the market. They’re a disincentive to the mobility of labour, and the clear experience in Scotland is that the charges would be absorbed by those offering homes to rent, which is where they’ve traditionally been.
I don’t argue against what the Member has said; that evidence that Shelter has produced in terms of Scotland is useful and strong evidence that will inform the way forward as far as Wales is concerned.
6. What discussions has the Welsh Government had with rail authorities about delays to services caused by compacted leaves on the line? OAQ(5)0305(FM)
Well, this isn’t, of course, a devolved issue, but underperformance by Network Rail in providing quality public services is not acceptable. We will continue to call for the devolution of rail powers so we can have greater accountability for railway services provided in Wales.
Thanks for that, First Minister. Yes, I’m aware it’s a problem that is essentially dealt with by Network Rail. Are there regular channels of communication between the Welsh Government and Network Rail?
Yes, there are. I’ve met with Network Rail, but the more regular channel of communication will be between officials and Network Rail. It is not acceptable that services should be curtailed in this way. The problem is that, if there are compacted leaves on the line—and it’s an old joke, but the reality is, what happens is, if a train skids, it can actually damage the wheels to the extent that the wheels have to be re-ground. So actually it takes the entire locomotive out of action and, potentially, carriages as well, because of that effect. I would not want to think that Network Rail are not spending as much money as they should be doing on trackside maintenance, thus causing more leaves to fall. That is something that we will need to talk to Network Rail about in order to rule out that possibility.
The First Minister will be aware of comments by the UK transport Secretary a few weeks ago that pressing for the electrification of the rail line from Cardiff to Swansea was jumping the gun and, most recently, comments by the chair of Network Rail that it was not a done deal. He’ll appreciate that my constituents in Neath and, I dare say, those of colleagues west of Cardiff will hear that as a rowing back on previous commitments by the UK Government. I wonder if you can outline what steps the Welsh Government can take to press the UK Government to hold its commitments.
Well, these are promises that were given, that there would be electrification. Originally, of course, the promise was electrification as far as Cardiff, and then from Bridgend to Swansea; I wondered what I’d done to the UK Government that there should be a gap between my constituency and Cardiff. In reality, it was because they failed to realise there are actually two railway lines between the two settlements. That promise was given, and I expect that promise to be kept. On top of that, it is quite clear that Cardiff Central railway station needs a significant revamp in order for it to be fit for the future, and I expect to see—I would want to see—the UK Government making the right level of contribution to Network Rail’s plans for that station as well. It is not good enough, on the one hand, to say the railways cannot be devolved, and on the other hand not spend enough money on Welsh railways. The UK Government cannot have it both ways.
Naturally, I would support the comments of Jeremy Miles on the dire need to electrify the main line to Swansea. Some of us have been making that case for a decade and more. But the original question here is on leaves on the line. Naturally, autumn comes round every year and the leaves fall annually. I understand the point that this system is not devolved, but I don’t know if anyone’s told the leaves that. But I think there is scope here to innovate in negotiations in order to ensure that we come up with solutions that eradicate this problem once and for all.
Well, that’s perfectly true, of course, but the important point is that Network Rail ensures that sufficient work is undertaken in order to ensure that trees are cut back in order to stop the leaves falling on the line in the first place. Because at present, what is not clear is whether they are doing enough to ensure that the problem is reduced, bearing in mind that we do know that the leaves fall each year in this country—from the majority of trees.
I contacted Arriva Trains Wales after disruption to services on the Wrexham-to-Bidston line at the end of October caused by leaf fall and weather conditions. They replied that they’d been trying to overcome the issue for a number of years, and were working in partnership with colleagues on the line to try and reduce the effect on their customers. They produced a paper in March of this year, supported by local user groups and bodies on the line, but unfortunately it wasn’t supported by the Welsh Government. Why was that, First Minister?
That’s not correct. What he is suggesting—well, he points out, actually, that there’s a weakness in the system; that is, that the rail track operator and owner is divorced from the actual train company, but that is a system his own party put in place. It would be a far better system, to my mind, where the train operating company and the rail track operator and owner were one and the same body, so one can’t blame the other if there are any disruptions to services. But that is a system his party put in place and want to preserve.
7. How does the First Minister plan to utilise additional funding for Wales resulting from the Autumn Statement? OAQ(5)0296(FM)
Our focus will be on restoring in part the previous cuts to our capital budget imposed by the UK Government and delivering our investment priorities as set out in ‘Taking Wales Forward’.
Thank you. First Minister, the autumn statement will deliver over £400 million over the next five years for infrastructure—good news. Will you make sure that all areas of Wales benefit from this extra funding, including rural areas like Monmouthshire, my constituency, which receives one of the lowest local government settlements but which would really benefit from additional investment in infrastructure projects and projects like the Cardiff city deal and the south Wales metro?
Monmouthshire is part of both projects, of course. Monmouthshire is an active part of the Cardiff capital region deal, and certainly the leader of Monmouthshire has been somebody who’s been very proactive in moving that deal forward, and also the metro. There are opportunities for Monmouthshire to benefit from the metro, particularly as we look to improved bus services and possibly light rail services into his constituency in the future.
The Government’s autumn statement demonstrated a very blasé attitude by the Tories towards an impending care crisis, and their failure to provide for our increasingly aging population means that there will be huge pressures now on the NHS. Will the First Minister make a commitment to work very closely with the Welsh Local Government Association to make sure that such a crisis does not occur in Wales?
Yes, absolutely. We already spend 6 per cent more per head on health and social services in Wales than is the case in England. We never saw the sense of taking money from social services in order to plug gaps in health funding, which is what England did. You can’t divorce one from the other, and we will continue to ensure that there is sufficient funding for both.
Some of the autumn statement money in England is going to be used to build hyperfast broadband capability through fibre to the premises. Isn’t there an opportunity here for us in Wales, as we begin to think beyond Superfast Cymru, instead of investing in a privately owned monopoly, which is highly problematical, as Ofcom’s decision today demonstrated, to create a publicly owned digital infrastructure network for Wales, something that his party leader at the UK level has recently called for for the UK?
I think that’s certainly worth exploring. The immediate objective is making sure that the current Superfast Cymru scheme is extended and completed in the middle of next year. Beyond that, of course, it’s right to say that we can’t sit back and say, ‘Well, that’s it. The technology will stay as it is for the next five years, 10 years or the next two years.’ So, yes, it is hugely important to continue to invest in greater bandwidth and greater speeds, of course, as far as broadband is concerned and we’ll continue to consider that.
8. Will the First Minister make a statement on water services in Wales? OAQ(5)0302(FM)[W]
Our water strategy for Wales states our policy for Water services in Wales. The Cabinet Secretary for Environment and Rural Affairs meets regularly with the Welsh water industry to discuss all aspects of water and sewage services.
Will the First Minister join with me in supporting calls for a phase 2 investigation by the Competition and Markets Authority into the proposed purchase of Dee Valley Water by Severn Trent Water? Clearly, there are huge implications for customers and for jobs, especially in north-east Wales, as well as wider implications for the water industry here in Wales. Will you also support the appeal for existing shareholders to do what they can to retain those jobs in north-east Wales and to ensure that Welsh Water is run in future from Wales and not from Coventry?
I would not support any change that would result in the loss of Welsh jobs. The Competition and Markets Authority have launched an investigation into the deal. Comments are invited by 1 December, so we will be looking to provide comments, as I’m sure other Members will as well.
First Minister, our natural environment, including our water environment, can provide a number of benefits to improve the quality of our lives, so it’s crucial that we do everything we can to enhance access to our natural resources. You may be aware of proposals to change the Llys-y-frân reservoir, in my constituency, into a water park in order to attract more visitors to the area. Now, in light of these proposals, what additional support can your Government give to projects such as this one, which, of course, do promote our natural environment and bring benefits to our rural areas?
Well, in knowing that area quite well, I believe that this would probably be of benefit to the area itself. In the usual manner, of course, any scheme would have to request financial support and we would then, of course, have to consider whether that support would be forthcoming. Therefore, I would tell them to consider all types of financial support in order to ensure that the project can proceed.
I thank the First Minister.