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3. Topical Questions

May 10, 2017

18 speeches by…

  • Elin Jones
  • Simon Thomas
  • Jane Hutt
  • Lee Waters
  • Suzy Davies
  • Llyr Huws Gruffydd
  • Kirsty Williams
  • Huw Irranca-Davies

Elin Jones

The next item on our agenda is the topical questions, and the first question comes from Simon Thomas.

Simon Thomas

What assessment has the Welsh Government made of the European Court of Justice’s ruling on the breach of clean water rules in Wales, including at Burry Inlet near Llanelli? TAQ(5)0134(ERA)[W]

Jane Hutt

We acknowledge the ruling. We will continue to work with Natural Resources Wales and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water on our £130 million programme for Llanelli and Gowerton to reduce the number of spills, improve water quality and reduce the risk of local flooding by 2020.

Simon Thomas

I thank the Minister for stepping into the breach once again and responding on behalf of the Cabinet Secretary for environment. I think the best response to this decision of the European Court of Justice may be, ‘How dare the EU tell us we can’t bathe in our own sewage’, because that’s what it boils down to. It’s taken a EU Court of Justice to tell the UK Government that the 3,000 overflow pipes that we have in Wales still today, which can discharge sewage directly into our water when we have heavy rain—and heavy rain does happen in Wales, although it might not have happened quite recently, but it does happen in Wales—and the 14 overflow pipes specifically at Burry inlet do break EU law and are actually polluting our bathing water and the habitat as well for tens of thousands of wild birds, for example, around the salt marshes at Burry Port. The cockling industry particularly has always felt that the pollution at Burry inlet is affecting cockle death. That’s not been proven, but there’s a strong correlation between these events and the dearth of that industry and the economic effect and traditional effect on lifestyles on parts of the inlet and the estuary. Specifically, I’ve seen Welsh Water’s RainScape project in Llanelli and Burry Port—there are improvements going on there and I’ve welcomed very much what they’re trying to do, but the UK argument, which it lost in the European Court of Justice, was that these improvements were good enough for the year 2020. So, I want to know: does the Welsh Government also think that it’s good enough to improve by 2020, because the European Court of Justice thinks we should do it more quickly, and since the European Court of Justice does think we should do it more quickly, what specifically now is the Welsh Government doing to ensure that we don’t have dirty bathing water and dirty habitat water anymore in Wales?

Jane Hutt

I thank Simon Thomas for the question. In response to those specific points, the Welsh Government has been working with Natural Resources Wales and Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water to develop and implement a programme of work to reduce the number of spills, to further improve water quality and to reduce the risk of local flooding by the end of 2020. I’ve obviously mentioned the £130 million investment. It is important to report again today how close engagement with local residents and local businesses, as well as elected representatives, has been in the area, working hard to minimise disruption to residents, which, of course, will, as a result of the investment of the funding—. But, of course, the age of the current infrastructure system in the local area clearly has to be addressed. I think it is important to recognise that the urban waste water treatment directive was adopted back in 1991 and was vital in terms of the steer towards assessing quality. It’s implemented and enforced principally now through devolved matters and those concerns were raised by representatives of the cocklers and local councillors and various parties in Llanelli and Gower about water quality. Therefore, clearly on this ruling, in terms of the court on 4 May, there has to be a very clear and robust response.

Lee Waters

Minister, it’s now been 12 years since the cocklers of the Bury inlet have reported significant die-offs of shellfish and we still don’t know the cause of these deaths. We do know, however, of its economic impact: an export industry has been devastated and local cocklers are now struggling to make even a basic living. Six years ago, courts found against Welsh Water and now they found again against the UK Government. Would the Government look again at this and consider helping this devastated local industry, as it has helped other industries?

Jane Hutt

I thank Lee Waters for that question, and clearly, the importance of understanding and identifying the reasons why there has been that increased cockle mortality is vital. In fact, Welsh Government commissioned research into this. As you will be aware, findings did show water quality in the area was unlikely to be the cause of problems experienced by the cockle industry, but engagement with the cockle industry, the cocklers themselves, and their representatives and, as I said, local elected representatives and businesses, have been vital in addressing this and making sure that action is taken. I think it's also important to recognise that Dŵr Cymru Welsh Water undertook monitoring and developed a programme of works to reduce the number of spills. I've already mentioned this. For example, at the wastewater treatment storm tank assets in Llanelli and Gowerton, which you will be aware of, spills occurred much more frequently, and, whilst they conform to current UK urban waste water treatment directive implementation, they were in excess of what the Commission would consider to be acceptable. So, I think, again, I hope that the evidence of engagement locally, the action taken, the investment by 2020 in RainScape, of course, are ensuring that this can be addressed and will reassure those in the community and the businesses, in particular in terms of the cocklers, and enable, of course, the water quality to be improved and the risk of flooding to be reduced.

Suzy Davies

Well, I agree that it's very disappointing that these breaches have taken place and that there’s been a second court ruling now on exactly the same issue. Natural Resources Wales may well be right that the resolution of the problem is difficult, but, bearing in mind it's not just breaches of the law that we’re talking about, but serious changes to the ecology of this area, I don't think that it's particularly appropriate to pin all the blame on NRW and Welsh Water in this. Now, Welsh Water, of course, does insist that the breach isn't the cause of the cockle deaths that have already been raised here. It may well be the case, but it has been five years since that parasitology report that you’ve referred to obliquely, leader of the house, and that report didn’t talk necessarily straightforwardly about water quality, but said that parasites weren’t the sole reason for any mortalities. So, we’re talking about five years ago and, since that time, NRW kept what it’s called ‘an overview’ of the science. There’s a plethora of research initiatives either at application or final bid stage. So, in short, it strikes me that, since 2012, it doesn’t seem there’s been an awful lot of intervention in trying to maintain what is, potentially, still a profitable local industry and, obviously, one of local cultural significance as well. Would it be fair for me to say that, perhaps, the focus on infrastructure that you've referred to in some of your answers today has being at the expense of scientific research that could have solved the problem regarding the cockles? Thank you.

Jane Hutt

I think, in terms of looking not only at the outcome of the research but then that which had an impact on the works that would be undertaken—the £113 million investment—I would say that this consists largely of environmentally friendly sustainable drainage techniques that improve the quality of the local environment and reduce the risk of flooding locally in terms of those works. Also, despite the ruling by the court on 4 May, the quality of shellfish water in the area has consistently met statutory standards since 2000. I think the importance of the response now, in terms of addressing this issue as laid down by the court is a priority not only to Welsh Water, but also to the Welsh Government, and NRW will be monitoring that.

Llyr Huws Gruffydd

What is the Welsh Government’s assessment of the effect of possible redundancies at Aberystwyth University? TAQ(5)0130(EDU)[W]

Kirsty Williams

Diolch, Llyr. Universities in Wales are autonomous bodies. As such, responsibility for staffing matters rests solely with Aberystwyth University. The Welsh Government has no locus in this matter. But, of course, I understand that the university is in discussions with members of staff and the trade unions about proposals for a review of its staffing structures.

Llyr Huws Gruffydd

Well, thank you for that response. The university, of course, has referred to the competition for students, with a reduction of 8 per cent in the applications to study in Wales, and with Brexit and other factors influencing the situation that they find themselves in. But the important point for me here is that we don’t have a single case here, but we’ve heard over the past few weeks, the University of South Wales talking about staffing reductions from 4.6 per cent, the University of Wales Trinity Saint David talking about cuts of some 10 per cent, and they too referred to many of the same factors. Now, Unison representatives have said that the Government has to consider a package of measures to intervene in this situation in order to protect front-line workers’ jobs. Can I ask whether the Cabinet Secretary for Education therefore admits that we do have a crisis in the HE sector in terms of funding and staffing, and, although the Diamond reforms are ongoing, that the Government needs to intervene as a matter of urgency before the situation deteriorates further?

Kirsty Williams

Thank you, Llyr. As I’ve said, all universities, including Aberystwyth and the other institutions that you have mentioned, are autonomous bodies and, therefore, we do not have, as I have said previous, locus in this area. I am aware that the higher education sector in Wales is facing a number of challenges, not least in some institutions a failure to meet their recruitment targets for students. And, of course, you mentioned Brexit, which is posing a significant challenge to the HE sector. As a Government, we moved very quickly to try and reassure international students, both from within the European Union and out of the European Union, that they are very welcome to study here in Wales. We continue to make swift decisions about the availability of financial packages for European students to be able to study here in Wales. I have set up a working group that looks specifically at what we can do to support the HE sector as we move through Brexit negotiations, and the HE sector is also represented on the First Minister’s group. I continue to make representations to the previous Westminster Government about a range of measures it could take to assist us in this area. It is a disgrace that neither Wales nor Scotland’s administrations were consulted with regard to the issue of a pilot post-study work visa scheme. We would have benefited from that in Wales, as would colleagues in Scotland. I would be very keen for the UK Government to look again at that issue. It’s also very clear to me that we need to exclude foreign students as part of the Government’s continued obsession with immigration figures. We have a higher education sector here in Wales that is strong enough and good enough to sell to the world. It is a beacon of excellence and we need an immigration regime developed by the UK Government that does not make it harder for international students to avail themselves of the opportunities that we have in our universities and colleges here in Wales. I understand that the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales, as the sponsoring and funding body for higher education, continues to be in close touch with Aberystwyth University and, indeed, all our universities.

Huw Irranca-Davies

Diolch, Llywydd, and I thank Llyr for raising this under topical questions. Part of the issue around this was discussed at our cross-party group on universities back on 1 February and that’s what I want to focus on for the moment, because the Cabinet Secretary is right that we do have a world-class offer here but something is going wrong, and I just want to touch on this briefly. We know that, in Wales, our education exports to international students is worth around £530 million, which is 4 per cent of Welsh exports in their entirety. Our international students currently—currently—are supporting over 7,500 jobs at Welsh universities, and also around Wales, not just in the universities themselves. But we have had a drop of 26 per cent in non-EU students at Welsh universities since the 2013-14 intake, and this is compared to a 4 per cent decrease in the UK overall and the Russell Group and Scotland universities. So, we have a particular issue, and this is despite a world-class offer in Welsh universities and despite the fact that the cost of living and tuition fees here in Wales is much more affordable. But we do know, and the Cabinet Secretary is right, that international studies now are showing that the UK is now regarded as the least affordable place to study for undergraduates and graduates when compared to New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the USA. We’ve got to do a lot more in marketing. So, can I ask the Cabinet Secretary: what can we do to market the Welsh university sector better, to have a more welcoming immigration and visa policy offer, and to boost the recruitment of international students? It’s not the sole way we turn this round, but it’s an important way that we meet those challenges, turn this round and boost our number of international students.

Kirsty Williams

Thank you, Huw. As you say, it’s not the only issue that we need to consider, but it is an important one. Just prior to Christmas, I hosted a quadrilateral meeting of UK Ministers who have responsibility in this area, and I repeated all the points I’ve just made to Llyr Gruffydd to Jo Johnson, the then Minister with responsibility for higher education. Who knows whether he will retain that position after the elections in June? I believe that Jo Johnson understands exactly the kind of immigration system that the UK Government needs to be put in place to support the higher education sector, both in Wales and beyond Wales. Unfortunately, he is battling with a Home Office that doesn’t share that understanding and share that ambition. But you’re right—we cannot simply wring our hands and blame it on other people; we must get up off our knees and do what we can to support the sector ourselves. That’s why I’m very keen to discuss with my Cabinet colleague, the Minister for the economy, for instance, when his department are on trade missions across the world, that education should be a part of that. As you quite rightly said, we have a strong offer here in many areas, but we shouldn’t just be talking to foreign countries about our manufacturing offer or, indeed, our airport, but we should also be talking to them about our strong HE base that we have here, and I’m sure that we can make progress on this area.

Simon Thomas

Of course, the Cabinet Secretary is right—she is not responsible for staffing matters. However, she is primarily responsible for the fiscal framework in which Welsh universities operate. Her party was responsible for trebling tuition fees five years ago. That had a real effect in Aberystwyth University; significantly fewer English students now attend Aberystwyth University, not because the university has got any worse, but because the English universities and the trebling of tuition fees are now chasing themselves for students, particularly the ones from more deprived backgrounds, and there are attractive incentives for them to study in England with the money in the English education system. She has a proposal, of course, in the Diamond review to try and, I hope, repatriate some of the money that we currently send over our border back into the university system, but that would not come on stream for at least two years, and even in full in about five years, and Aberystwyth University are proposing cuts over the next two years. It’s this actual gap between where we are today and where we could be under Diamond that is the problem for a university like Aberystwyth and the other universities that have announced similar cuts over the last few weeks. She complains about the visas and she’s right to complain about them. We’ve all complained about them, but, again, her party in Government for five years—Vince Cable and Clegg—did not change the visa regime in those five years. So, I think there’s a lot of hand wringing going on here this afternoon, but there’s a real university facing real problems and over 100 people facing possible redundancies. What’s needed from the Welsh Government is a clear signal of sustainability going forward. We have Diamond coming on stream, but it’s not in effect yet. What are you going to do over the next two years to ensure there’s sustainability in the HE sector in Wales, and specifically whether there’s support for Aberystwyth University to ensure it does not slip down the rankings or does not lose its ability to compete in the HE market?

Kirsty Williams

Could I inform the Member that the latest forecasts show that, in 2015-16, £50 million more funding came into the Welsh HE system that went in tuition fee grants to institutions outside of Wales? Now, our Diamond reforms will help secure the future stability and the sustainability of the sector here in Wales, and my remit letter to HEFCW confirmed that I fully expect future financial settlements for HEFCW to increase in each financial year for the lifetime of this Government. I’m surprised that Simon Thomas has taken this very serious situation for the people working in Aberystwyth and to turn it into political points scoring. I would remind the Member that there are people’s livelihoods at risk here, which is very serious, and, if we are to make it political, I would remind the Member that he on many occasions sits there in his seat and urges the Welsh Government to disinvest in HE and invest in FE itself. I have never heard this Member ask in his budget negotiations for more money for the HE sector.